NINETEEN

Jackson stooped low to move past one of the low eves in Mary Travisís store. He hesitated, as he saw the blond woman writing furiously at her desk. He didnít want to interrupt her at a time when she was obviously busy. Nathan stepped back, unobtrusively observing the ink that had dried on her forehead. He smiled, his white teeth gleaming. Mary was right for Chris, they were both so strong and opinionated that they suited each other well. He rubbed his forehead as he quietly backed away, he still wasnít sure why he had come in here. The creak of the floorboards made him flinch sheepishly as Maryís head snapped up her ice blue eyes widening in surprise, then narrowing as she observed the now taciturn man in front of her.

"Nathan! What a nice surprise," she smiled, moving out from behind the desk. "What can I do for you?"

"Well ah.," he paused, his brow lowering as he gazed at her seriously. "I donít rightly know.. I shouldnít of come here," he finished quickly turning to walk out. Maryís voice halted him as he reached the door frame.

"Nathan, whatís wrong? Ezra? Buck?" Her voice held such fear that Nathan walked quickly back to reassure her that they were fine. "Then what is it? Nathan, please tell me whatís wrong." Mary looked up at the taller man, her blond hair cascaded down and blew wildly about with a sudden gust of wind. She ignored it, her attention focused on Nathan.

Nathan breathed out deeply. "I am thinking of leaving."

"Oh Nathan you canít!" Mary exclaimed placing a hand on his arm imploringly.

Nathan regarded her for a moment, then moved away seating himself on a chair that she had next to her desk. "Ezra.. well he-" He paused and Mary smiled sympathetically. "He ainít gettiní no better with me around. Itís me that keeps reminding him of all that has gone on. I donít think heíll ever forget that it was me. Neither will I, Mary-"

"Stop it! You men are all the same. You make a mistake and then the world is on your shoulders." Mary said furious, these good-hearted men were tearing each other apart with all the guilt they were carrying. "Yes Nathan, what you did was horrible. But I have done some horrible things in my time as well. And like you Mr Jackson, I am not proud of it. But have I left, have I run away? No!"

"But, Mrs Travis."

"Donít But me Nathan Jackson! How well do you think those men would survived without you?" She saw Nathan shrug and she nodded, "Thatís right, they wouldnít. Ezra needs you here, Buck needs you. The town needs you. I wonít have you leaving Nathan, you are an honourable man and what I think you need to do is go to Ezra and tell him what you are feeling." She held up a hand as she saw Nathan begin to protest that the Southerner would not want to see him. "Then, write him a letter, tell him exactly what made you do what you did, for if you donít it will eat you up inside, Nathan. Iíve seen it happen."

Nathan rubbed his eyes wearily and saw that the irate woman would not take no for answer and deep down he knew she was right. He needed to tell Ezra why, he just wasnít sure if the Southerner would read the letter, then again Nathan couldnít blame Ezra, he did have every right. "Ya got a pen and paper, Mrs Travis?"

The smile that he received reassured Nathan that he was doing the right thing. As the pen scratched across the parchment, Nathan felt a weight lift from his shoulders. He hadnít noticed the tears that had fallen as he had written, until Mary silently handed him a handkerchief. Nathan smiled a thanks and grabbing his hat he folded the letter and handed it to Mrs Travis. "Would you give it to him, Mary?" He noted the look and shrugged. "I know heís not ready to see me yet. Best if you do."

Mary inclined her head, and grabbing her shawl, she took the letter from the tall black man. Impulsively she reached and rubbed his back reassuringly. "You did the right thing." Then she was gone, her petite frame striding down the boardwalk to the Saloon.

TWENTY

Vin sighed quietly, remembering that day in the Chapel, Maude had lied to them then, she cared for Ezra a great deal, more than any of the men had ever considered before. He caught Ezra and JDís curious and worried expressions and he smirked. Amazing how so much could change in less than a few hours. Although Tanner knew without a doubt that Ezra was still thinking about his mother and perhaps in so doing he would be able to use his skills to read the situation. "Am I right in assuming Mr Tanner, that you believe Maude was indeed lying in our quaint church the other day, that she has perhaps something else that she wishes to remain a secret other than the fact that I am not a product of her womb?" Standish drawled, cocking an eyebrow at the buckskin clad man.

Who stared silently at him for a second as he muddled his way through what the Southerner had said. "Yeah I reckon I do, she lied about that alright , she ainít your mother thatís the truth but there is more to the story I think, pard" he saw the slight flinch at the referral that the gambler wasnít her son, and her harsh words in the church.

"Maybe you're right, Vin" Ezra sighed, the flowery language faded as he stared at his friend. "Maybe you're right, but at this point I donít know if I have the strength to talk to her again, but soon I must know the truth one way or the other" he said softly, honest pain crossing his clean cut features.

Dunne nodded as he clasped the tightly clenched hands in front of him. "Only when youíre ready, Ezra" he said softly.

Sparkling green eyes looked at the two men then "Maybe some time, I donít think I can deal with it all just yet" he whispered honestly.

Vin nodded "well, weíre here whenever youíre ready to find her and face the truth" he said as he also rested his hand on the manís cold ones.

"We wonít let her lie again" Dunne said, seeing the flicker of pain that crossed the handsome manís features, who nodded his head, as he swallowed hard clearing the sudden lump around his throat.

"All for one and one for all is it?" Standish said, gesturing to their clasped hands.

"Reckon it is, pard" Vin said, raising an eyebrow at Dunne, it was clear that the Southerner was referring to something.

Dunne raised his eyebrows shaking his head as he asked "That some important quote, Ezra?"

The gambler laughed, his eyes lighting up "Only the best one gentlemen, and one that I think fits our family".

The two men nodded also grinning "Yeah" JD said as he poured himself another drink.

"Poker?" Ezra asked as he pulled his trusty deck from his vest pocket. The other men smiled, nodding.

"I ainít losing my shirt this time though?" Vin said ducking the light jab that Standish through at him.

"He cheated, I told you he cheated" Ezra said seriously but his mischievous smirk made the two other men burst out laughing, as Ezra gave them his dimpled smile.

Dunne nodded to himself, it was good to see some of the old Standish coming back. Now all they had to do was wait till Chris, Josiah and Buck returned from his cabin.

TWENTY-ONE

Buck wasnít sure if all cabinís were this small or whether it was just his imagination. He groaned as his head protested his movement. He tried to speak, but felt with a sudden bolt of fear the gag that had been placed in his mouth. "Mmph!"

"Easy there, Buck." Chris said, walking past the small table to wear Buck lay on the only cot in his cabin. "Yer safe." Buckís blearily angry expression as he slowly became more aware of his present situation, nearly made the lanky man laugh. Chris instead frowned as Buck began to struggle a little weakly at his bonds. "Weíre going to have a chat.."

Buck shut his eyes briefly, then he tried to kick at his best friend with his feet, who stepped back quickly out of range. Indicating clearly what he thought of Chrisís ways of having a chat. Buck cursed himself mentally, he shouldíve been more careful. He was aware that his memory of getting here was foggy and Buck could only wonder what had happened. He grimaced, probably one of Nathanís concoctions. How? It was then he remembered the Mexican woman placing a coffee in front of him, he sighed. His memory of what happened next was blank and Buck knew it wouldnít return, Nathanís mixtures were potent to say the least.

"Buck?" Chris said quietly, "Weíre just here to have a little talk, now you be a good boy and Iíll take that gag out soon. If not, well." His tone became menacing and Buck flinched. Chris flashed a smile at his friend and slowly eased himself down into his chair. "Now did I tell you about the time..." He began, his smile widening wickedly at Buckís expression.

+ + + + + + +

Mary Travis stood in the doorway of the saloon, she hadnít expected to find the gambler there, she had only been hoping that he would be there. So she was surprised to see the man sitting playing cards with Vin and JD. Both were holding a lively discussion while Standish sat shuffling his cards chuckling.

Mary instinctively knew the Southerner had sensed her presence when he froze looking around the room, his eyes finally landing on her in the doorway. Tanner was also gazing straight at her. Suddenly feeling self - conscious as she made her way towards the men. The saloon was a different place at night, she tried not to show how much it bothered her, but she must have failed for Vin was standing beside her with JD in tow. Standish however stood slightly back, a guarded expression upon his features.

"it's good to see you well, Mr Standish," she greeted softly flipping her blond hair back over her shoulder. The con man nodded in reply, raising an eyebrow, there was more to come. "Mr Jackson asked that I might give this to you," she said quietly, handing the folded letter to the man, nodding at the three men, she made to go.

"Iíll walk you home," the tracker declared guiding her out of the rowdy saloon, knowing that Chris would split heads if he knew she had been left to walk home alone.

"Not necessary, Mr Tanner." Mary murmured gratefully accepting his arm as he pushed his way out the door.

"Reckon it is, Mary," he drawled as he walked her back to her home. She knew what he wasnít asking.

"Itís a letter explaining Nathanís actions, he canít tell Mr Standish himself so I suggested a letter might be appropriate" Mary said as they reached her home.

"Maybe." Vin agreed quietly, tipping his hat at her, he walked back towards the saloon. She paused wondering if it had indeed been the right time to give the letter to the gambler.

Ezra stared at the letter in his hand. He knew he should read it , sinking down in the free chair he slipped it into his pocket. JD looked at him questioningly. "Not yet, Mr Dunne," he murmured as he dealt the cards, nodding at Vin as he sat back down. They would play cards, for now.

+ + + + + + +

It was midnight and Chris voice was becoming husky from overuse, he had talked to his friend about nothing. Chris knew it was frustrating for the lothario, but he was also aware that it was a way of easing the taut tension he had seen in his friend a few hours earlier. Glancing over he saw that Buck had drifted off to sleep. Watching him in repose Chris noted the lines of tension around his eyes and the way he shifted uncomfortably in his dreams. Josiah moved over from his position in the doorway and bending down he removed the gag from Buckís mouth, he let it hang around his neck, neither man could be sure how Buck would be in the morning.

TWENTY-TWO

Ezra hadnít slept yet, the sun was peeking over the horizon and he still couldnít bring himself to sleep. He couldnít, not that he was afraid of his dreams, no he was more afraid that if he slept than the peace which had settled over him, would go. He would wake up and this would all still be a dream. He knew that it was childish, but that thought had little meaning at the moment.

He stared at the letter that lay on the sheriffís table in front of him. He knew he should read it, but fear was stopping it. The fear of what the healer would say, the judgment or condemnation he would read in the large scrawl of the man. He had received many scathing accounts on his character from many people during his time. He just wasnít sure he could cope with another.

His mind felt raw, and he just couldnít stop the fear as he recalled the many times that the healer had angrily remarked upon his character.

Standish sighed rubbing at his eyes tiredly, he could still hear the angry words of the healer and preacher on that fateful day when his world had changed.

He knew he could move on and forgive them, he would just never be able to forget those words. With a shaking hand he reached over to open the letter just opening seemed to be too much of an effort. He heard the soft sound of the door to the sheriffís office open, and he looked into the weary eyes of the tracker.

"Been looking for you" Vin drawled softly as he sank down on the chair.

Standish looked up at the bounty hunter, he looked downright worried "Couldnít sleep" he stated softly in response to the unasked question. Ezra studied the other man.

"Want to talk about it?" he found himself asking the tracker. A smile played on the other manís lips.

"Isnít that my line?" Vin drawled leaning back in his chair resting his head so his face was partly hidden under his hat.

"This about what you found when you went after Buck?" Standish inquired pushing the letter aside, grateful for the distraction.

"Maybe" grunted the other man. Ezra sighed feeling guilty in his part in Wilmingtonís own personal nightmare.

"Ainít your fault Ezra, he was already in a bad place" Tanner said shifting his legs slightly.

The Southerner cocked an eyebrow at the other man. "Yes, well..," he murmured unable to let go of the guilt just yet.

"Itís a bad image to have in your head... man trying to kill himself. He couldnít do it though," Vin paused as he cracked his knuckles. "Couldnít take that chance so I hit him on the head and brought him back" Tanner finished looking at the other man then, noticing the letter on the table. It hadnít been read yet, he could tell by the way Standish was acting. Skittish. Not a word he normally associated with the man, but then again things had been changing awfully quickly round here.

"No Mr Wilmington I believe does not have it in him to go through with it" Standish murmured, there was a strange quality to the southern drawl which made Vin look sharply at the other man.

"You think about doing it?" Tanner asked bluntly, his eyes intent on the gamblers face.

Ezra shrugged, closing his eyes. "I did, there were times in my life when things have been bad- no worse than lately, but yes I have thought about it. Then I considered that the world would be worse off with out my charm." He said opening his eyes to look at the bounty hunter.

Vin lowered his head relieved at the words "Iíve thought about it when I was younger, but life is too important," he stated.

They both sat silent the sounds of the town waking up wafting in through the door.

"You gonna read that letter" Vin said, raising his head to look at the man. The gambler flinched his hand trembling as he gently traced the outside of the letter.

"Yes," He paused licking his lips as he looked up at the tracker his eyes filled with a desperate need for reassurance. "You will stay, I donít think I can do it alone," He whispered.

"We both will" JD drawled from the doorway, neither man had heard him come in, a testimony to the two menís exhaustion. Ezra nodded his head as he smoothed out the paper and began to read.

TWENTY-THREE

Buck watched Josiah and Chris move about the small stove each helping the other man fix the breakfast. He shifted uncomfortably his back was killing him, he didnít know how Chris slept on this dang bed, it felt like it was made of rocks.

He felt trapped here, not just physically, but also mentally. He hated the feeling, shuddering as he remembered just how useless he had been when he had tried to fire the gunÖ Hell he couldnít even do that. Useless, thatís what he was. He pulled unconsciously at the ropes that bound him to the bed. "Damn you, Chris Larabee." Buck muttered darkly.


Chris smiled jovially at Buck, "Now Buck is that anyway to greet your old friend?"

Josiah laughed as he poured himself some of the thick coffee.

"You know I swear to god if you tell me another frigginí story Chris, just shoot me now." Buck hissed his normally clear eyes cloudy with a myriad of emotions.

Chris was stationary at Buckís words, his hands on his cup of coffee, then his head snapped up and he looked at Buck. "Thought you tried that already." He replied softly.

Buckís head rocked back and his eyes flickered showing his pain like a beacon to the two men, before it was hidden again. "You donít know what youíre talking about! What, youíre gonna trust that damn fool word of Vin over me? Now I thought you knew me better than that. Youíve known me twelve years Chris, I wouldnít do somethingí like that."

"Thought I did." Chris answered. "Then again I couldíve been wrong. Man I know wouldnít try such a thing. The man I know cares too much about others to do that."

"Yeah well you were wrong." Buck retorted morosely. "Ainít ever been good for anybody - ya shoulda known that by now." Buck closed his eyes, Ďuseless, thatís what I am, god what a useless bastard I am.í

Josiahís deep voice interrupted his thoughts. "Buck," he rumbled.

"You gonna talk to me, preacher man? Can I trust you with my secrets?" Buck bit out suddenly furious.

The large man winced at the words as he shared a look with Chris. Wilmingtonís moods were swinging widely.

"Iíll head back to town," Josiah said as the silence hung heavy in the small room. Chris nodded his head looking after the preacher as he gently pulled the door closed.

Buck watched him go his eyes sad as he looked at the door. ĎYeah, I am a bastard,í He thought, having seen the pain in Josiahís face.

"So why ainít you no good?" Chris queried conversationally, taking a sip of his coffee, it was thick and strong just the way he liked. He turned waiting for a response.

Buck stared at his old friend, in his mind he could see Chris standing there with Sarah by his side, and Adam tugging on her skirt. The image was so vivid that he moaned aloud his eyes glistening as he looked away.

"I ainít no good Chris, you should have learnt that three years ago," he whispered, closing his eyes as he heard the gasp of pain from the other man.

It was a while before Chris spoke, but when he did his voice was filled with anguish.

"You didnít keep me there Buck, it happened, you werenít to blame." Chris looked at the tense pose of the other man as he swung to look at him.

"How can you say that!" Buck retorted angrily "I ainít no good Chris, I got them killed I kept you there, I hurt Ezra, I couldnít help them... Iíve always be no good, I ainít ever gonna make good, shoulda have listened to them years ago, I ruin everything." His voice tapering off as his anger waned, replaced by an utter desolation that crept over his expression in a tide.

"You believe that?" Chris snapped furiously his eyes flashing with anger.

Buck didnít respond looking away from his friend, away from the anger, grief and hurt that he had caused.

"God Buck! I wouldnít have kept living with out you. Hell! I reckon I owe you more than I can ever know!" Reaching forward he gripped Buckís chin with his hand, forcing the other man to look at him. Chris could see the anguish on Buckís face and knew it was reflected on his own, but he also knew that anger at Buck was outweighing his own pain. God, damn it he was furious with him. Furious that Buck could even consider for a moment that he wasnít any good, that he had almost taken his own life. He was incensed at that because it meant that maybe he didnít know the man in front of him at all, and that scared him.

"What about Ezra huh? I ainít been no good to him" Buck said jerking his head away, as he changed his subject.

"What about him?" Chris returned frustrated as he stared at the ladies man.

"I ainít been any help with him" Buck declared, his eyes pinning the older manís.

"You think? Hell that ainít got nothing to do with you, Maude told him she lied to him for years, used him for a practice for her cons." Chris divulged, seeing the eyes widen as he looked at the blond man.

"She said that?" Buck asked wondering suddenly how the man had then travelled all the way out to find him at Purgatory.

"Yeah." Chris drawled softly as he thought about the talk that Vin and JD were supposed to be having with the gambler.

"Awl hell, Chris I told you that I ainít no good" Buck uttered sadly, his eyes darkening.

"Why do you keep saying that? " Chris asked softly, reading the torment in the manís eyes.

"Why? Why? Well because itís the truth, CHRIS!" Buck hissed angrily struggling against the ropes. "I ainít ever had any friends till I left my hometown, even then it was a struggle. Why? Because I was the bastard son of a whore! You gonna tell me you understand, Larabee? You gonna tell me you know what it's like when yer five years old and no one wants to play with ya! Gonna tell me whatís it's like getting beat up for no reason other than who yer mama is?" Buck ranted irate, finally falling back as he realized that the ropes that bound him to the bed wouldnít budge.

Chris paused, weighing his words. "I donít mean to compare my childhood to yours, mine was hard, but that ainít the point. I reckon Ezra knows all about that, he suffered being the bastard son of a con woman in the south." Chris saw the other man flinch.

"I know Ezra knows a little." Buck agreed looking away from the other man.

"Yeah maybe he does! That started it all didnít it? Ezra telling you that he suffered the same sort of childhood as you?" Chris questioned heartlessly, he saw the telltale sign of Buckís clenched jaw and he knew that he had hit the truth.

"Ezra suffered all that and found out he had no family, he needs your support Buck, he canít lose another family member." Chris said, continuing as he saw the man wasnít going to speak.

Buck breathed out deeply, closing his eyes. His mind shutting down as the flood of memories poured in. Of the day when the other local boys beat him up, he had been twelve. He shuddered, sometimes at night he still heard their voices taunting him. "Bastard. No good son of a whore," he whispered, unaware that he was speaking aloud.

Chris stood staring down at his friend whose face was contorted with pain, he felt for his friend. But sympathy wasnít going to pull Buck out of his depression. Right now? Now he needed to shock his friend, to show him how much he had scared the shit of all the other men.

"But that wasnít it was it Buck? Nah, You couldnít believe that Ezra suffered worse than you and that got you angry didnít it? You know Ezra ainít aware of what you did Buck, He doesnít know that you tried to kill yourself because of what he said to you. But maybe I should tell him.." Chris fumed, pacing back and forth, glancing at Buck who was staring at him wide eyed. "But you being a bastard well maybe someone like you would let him carry that guilt... causeí you know heís gonna think it was him that started it all donít ya?" Slapping his hand on the table for emphasis.

"Maybe he deserved it though, I mean this gambler, he ran out once wouldnít be surprised if he ran again. It was his fault wasnít it, Buck?" Chris continued callously

"No it wasnít his fault, I pushed him! It's all my fault. It ainít got anything to do with him, itís all me!" Wilmington snapped biting his lip, as tears welled up in his eyes. Tears that he didnít want to shed. Chris halted, seating himself on the edge of the table. It was working, he saw Buck was coming back. He just hated seeing him so helpless, swallowing he looked away from the figure on the bed.

"You think you ruined Ezraís life? Gotta tell you Buck, Nathanís already got a monopoly on that one." Larabee announced, shaking his head. "You think JD would be able to survive knowing you killed yourself? That man looks up to you Buck, youíre his older brother.." Buck cut him off with a despondent look.

"Shut up Chris, you donít know what youíre talking about."

"I donít, huh? Thatís rich." Chris pronounced, his green eyes suddenly cold. "Iíve been there Buck. Iíve wanted to die so many times and so many days I just wanted the pain to end, but I canít," he stopped, correcting himself. "I wonít."

Buck sighed heavily, "I told you Chris, I ainít no good, I ruin everything, I destroyed your life. If I just hadnít of made you stay, I ruin everything, theyíre right."

"You ainít ever ruined anything, you didnít kill Sarah and Adam that was me. My own mistakes my own past that did..." Chris halted, as he fought to keep his emotions in check. Taking a cheroot from the table, Chris lit it up, his mind on Sarah waving goodbye that last time.

"Chris, it ainít your fault you didnít know Ella hired Fowler. It ainít your fault, Chris." Buck implored not liking the guilt that suddenly shone in the gunslingerís eyes. He banged his head against the backboard. ĎStupid, remind Chris of his family. Oh thatís real smart. Stupid.í He chastised himself silently.

"No" Chris whispered "It is my fault, and I have to live with that, everyday Buck. Everyday." He ducked his head, placing his hat on his head as he exited the cabin. The sound of the door closing behind him resounded heavily around the cramped quarters.

CONTINUE

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