TWENTY-FOUR

Ezra stared sightlessly as the words washed over him. He ignored the other man as he stumbled out of the room. He couldnít breathe. Moving into the alley, he braced a hand against the wall as he dry heaved. Heart pounding in his ears, he was unaware of Vin talking to him. Ezra mumbled incoherently "I canítÖ" The words sounded harsh to his own ears. Feeling his knees give way under the surge of emotion, he was barely aware of the tracker grunting as he caught him.

"Stay with me Ezra, you're not alone," Vin muttered, dragging the gambler back into the jail.

Dunne watched with mounting fury as Tanner helped Ezra back into the jail. Pivoting on his heel he stormed over to the Saloon. He hesitated for a second as his eyes searched the room for the source of his ire, he spotted him at the Sevenís usual table, drinking steadily. Jackson looked like a man fighting his own demons. ĎWell, toughí JD thought malevolently.

Anger shrouded him like a dark coat as he made his way over to the healer. He grabbed Nathan by the lapels of his jacket and threw him up against the wall as he hissed angrily, "What did you do!" JD did not wait to hear the response, forcefully he pulled the stunned healer with him towards the Sheriffís office. Throwing him through the door, JD blocked the exit with his arm. His eyes travelled coldly to the taller man. "What did you write, Nathan? Havenít you hurt him enough? Or did you want to have some more fun?" He interrogated harshly, watching the man intently for his reaction.

Nathan shook his head back and forth as he whispered, "What? I didnít know.. I swear, I didnít know"

"What did you write Nathan? You hurt him... again. " JD pressed, noting where Vin sat beside Ezra talking quietly to him. Ezra however was heedless, his head in his hands, rocking back and forth.

"I told himÖ" Nathan swallowed suddenly very conscious of the fury that was emanating from JD. ĎOh God! What have I done... this is only gonna get worse...í He thought, running a hand over the felt of his hat, he tried to collect his thoughts, he already relived his past once today, he wasnít sure if he could do it again. Taking a deep breath, he began. "I told him of how he reminded me of my days as a slave. Of when.. I got whipped for even looking at men like him..I-" Nathan stopped as he felt himself propelled back against the wall again and the breath whooshed out of his lungs.

"You told him that... now!!" JD exclaimed his grip tightening painfully on the healerís arms. "How thoughtless is that!"

Nathan shrugged, helpless against the wall of malevolence coming from this young man.

"It wasnít him, he didnít do that to you. Nathan, how could you do that! What? You donít think heís been through enough.. you wanted to drag him down a little more?!" Dunne snapped as he forced himself to let go of the man, and step back.

Nathan remained where he was, leaning against the wall for support. It felt like a life-line in a world where his friends were slipping away from him. He knew now that it was time for him to move on, despite what Mrs Travis said.

"I uhh," He coughed uncomfortably. " I wrote about how his voice would sometimes take me back to when I was a slave. It ainít his fault, I knows that, but since my father told me about my mother," His words caught in his throat and he swallowed hard, blinking back tears. "My mindís been goiní back, remembering more.. I guess I blacked a lot of it out..." he paused, not noticing the hand that Vin held up to halt JDís comments, Nathan wasnít finished. "There was this one time that I didnít say Ďyes sirí or ĎMr Jacksoní quite right and I got beat for it. My pa- well he just about saved my life and every so often Ezra will say something with that southern accent." Nathan shook his head looking towards the cot where Ezra sat. "It ainít him, heís just a trigger for a memory...sometimes it's the way he does things and all I can see and feel is my master whipping meÖ beating meÖ" Nathan bit his lip drawing blood, as he saw Standish lower his head a bit further at his words.

"I gotta say Nathan, you talk about judging by skin a lot and what it's like being judged that way. But ainít that what youíre doing? Judging him by the way he looks and his mannersÖ" Vin drawled from his place beside Ezra.

"I know that, I know that," the black man repeated softly in his resonant voice, averting his gaze from the three men. "ButÖ I just couldnít help it, and that day, a memory came back that was real bad... and I just wanted to hurt you Ezra, I wanted to hurt you; the way I was hurting. It ainít no excuseÖ" Nathan trailed off shaking his head. Fearful now, that none of these men would ever forgive him. He wondered absently if he should wait to say goodbye to Josiah and the others, or just leave. He was pulled from his thoughts by a melodic voice ringing through the room.

"Mr Jackson, I believe that I owe you a debt of gratitude," Standish stated, licking his lips nervously, he glanced up at the man. "I may never forget that day," he continued looking steadily at the healer. "But, I can forgive you and I do understand, why you did it," Ezra finished, looking away to see JDís face still clenched in anger. He met Tannerís gaze who nodded, indicating it was his lead. "Itís alright," Ezra repeated more firmly and rising to his feet he held out a hand.

Ezraís hand hung there suspended as Nathan looked assessingly at the gambler. Reaching out hesitantly Nathan clasped Ezraís hand with his own, and pulling the slighter man towards him, Nathan enfolded him into a hug.

"Thank you," Ezra whispered. This time Jackson knew Ezra was referring to the honest truth that he had imparted in the letter. Nathan also knew then that it would indeed be alright, for although they would be forever juxtaposed in their beliefs, they were undeniably tied as brothers.

Nathan smiled, leaning back out of the embrace, "Guess I wonít be leaving after all.í He mused silently, aware that the other men were looking at him strangely. "Iím fine," he said softly

"And so am I," Ezra replied, his eyes twinkling as he looked at the healer appraisingly. Nathan could see that Ezra had decided not to tell the other two men what he had also said in the letter - That if Ezra wanted him gone from Four Corners, he would go.

"Now you owe me," Ezra murmured mischievously, slapping Nathan on the back and stepping out of the embrace.

Uncaring of the looks from Tanner and Dunne, Nathan threw back his head and laughed. "I need a drink, anyone up for a game of chance?"

"Why Mr Jackson, I believe thatís my line," Ezra retorted, grabbing his coat and following the black man out the door.

JD watched them go, a frown on his face, "What just happened, Vin?" He asked a little bewildered by the abrupt change in the atmosphere.

"Donít question it, JD. Just accept it," Vin advised, before following the other two men to the Saloon.

TWENTY-FIVE

"Damn it, Chris!" Buck called as he fought against the ropes. If Larabee did something stupid, heíd kill him. He may be a bastard, but he wasnít going to let Chris destroy himself with his demons. Buck looked up abruptly as the door opened, lighting up the room.

The lanky man in black strode into the cabin, but he didnít look at Buck, his eyes sliding away from the man that lay tied on the bed. Placing his hat on the table he moved over to the stove.

Buck scrutinised the back of the lean man in front of him. Buck couldnít leave Chris, he knew that. They had fought too hard and too long to survive, he wouldnít let his past destroy the man that now stood silently stirring the food on the stove. Buck watched him, he recognised the movements of when the man was fighting his memories. Chris turned back struggling openly with recollections. He studied his hands as he began to speak.

"Youíre the best thing in my life, Buck. I donít know how I could begin again if you went. Why canít you see that? Youíve got a family, donít let your demons win. You told me that remember? ĎDonít let them win.í Now I am telling you that," he said, his voice echoing around the small wooden cabin.

The two men were silent for a time, before finally Buck began to speak.

"When I was six, a man came up to me in the street. Told me in no uncertain terms that I was not his son and to tell my ma that if she even hinted at it, then we would be run out of town..," he paused breathing out heavily, shutting his eyes as the memory became clearer. "He wasnít the first, just the first that I can recall. Not too long after that I caught him in my maís room, threatening her, and he laughed in my face when I tried to stand up for her... Ya know, I remember begging my ma to leave that town, she wouldnít though... I think I nearly got beat up everyday," Buck laughed a little self mockingly, "there was this one time I got beat so bad, I had to stay in bed for a week, and even then I could hardly walk. And you know what they said, Chris?" Buck asked, his eyes snapping open to look at his friend, who rolled his shoulders encouragingly. "Told me I was no good. I heard it over and over. Guess it kinda sunk in too... when you hear something long enough you begin to believe that itís true..." His voice broke, "Told me that no one who had a whore as a mother would ever have a family. I used to watch the men in that town Chris, and I..," he stopped unable to finish, as his eyes glistened with tears.

Chris rose and sat down next to Buck. "And tried to figure out who yer pa was," he surmised astutely.

Buck nodded, blinking rapidly as he attempted to suppress the pain of those days. Chris patted his belly reassuringly.

"Well, ya ainít no good. You helped JD. You helped me. I wouldnít be here if it werenít for you, and the others feel the same way. Whether you wanted one or not, you have a family, Buck."

Buck smiled tremulously, "I know Chris, youíre my family too," he said as he moved under the ropes that still held him. Buck knew he would never kill himself, at least never attempt it again. Buck could see the fear and understanding in Chrisís eyes as he looked at him, Chris knew what it was like. That was why Chris had been truly afraid that he mightíve tried to kill himself again, and well Buck couldnít blame him. He had tried once and that scared Buck as well.

"I donít know if I wouldnít have done it. I donít Chris, I was in a real bad place" Wilmington stated honestly.

Chris nodded his head, "I know Buck, Iíve been there. But you're still here now, thatís all that matters, thatís what you always told me," Chris said understandingly.

"Well, we know that I am always right," Buck retorted grinning as he looked at his friend.

"Well..." Chris said raising his eyebrow, a small smile on his lips.

"You gonna untie me?" Wilmington drawled.

He saw the slight smile on his old friendís face. "Aha, youíre paying me back for all that I did back then?" Buck drawled his eyes lighting up.

Larabee shrugged as he smirked "Just so you know that youíve got five other men so hot they were ready to tie you down to work out what was troubling ya" .

Wilmington laughed, maybe Larabee was right, he should take his own advice. "Yeah Chris, I know that, just got a few ghosts that sometimes rear their ugly head" He disclosed as the blond man reached over to untie him.

 

Chris chuckled, "Donít we all?"

Buck smiled, his blue eyes twinkling with laughter. "Yeah, but with family around, I can get through anything."

TWENTY-SIX

Josiah rode slowly through the town, the townsfolk acknowledged his presence with a wave or a nod of the head. He tried to smile a greeting to the kind folk, but his heart felt too heavy. For Wilmington was right, he had been trusted with many secrets but this one he had known and told Jackson a sacred confidence. Destroying the gambler, and any trust that Ezra may have had in him.

The Southerner was too much of a gentlemen too acknowledge how much Josiah had hurt him, but the preacher knew because he could see the pain in the manís eyes. The same pain he saw in Larabeeís .

Wilmington now suffered the same kind of trouble, where as once before the ladies man would have come to him, he had refrained, and ended up in a world of hurt because of it.

Nope, as a preacher he had failed, his shoulders slumped with the realization. He had started it all. It was all because of him.

"Josiah!"

He heard the shout of his name, and saw Nathan and Mary standing together out the front of the Clarion. He gave them a half-hearted wave, he couldnít help but notice the broad grin,that crossed the healerís face. Nathan looked at peace. A peace that he was finding it hard to find.

"Sanchez," he heard the call and looked up to see Tanner, he was leaning against the wall of the sheriffís office. He rode over slowly, sliding off his horse, he tipped his hat off in greeting as he accepted the drink that the man poured for him.

"So howís it going?" Vin inquired, hearing the stirring of the two other men inside the jail, where Ezra had collapsed tiredly earlier after playing only one round of poker in the saloon with the two men. They were going to take him to his room, but Standish had shook his head, his face pleading that he wanted to stay near them. They had relented, and JD had fallen asleep watching the gambler finally relax into a deep slumber.

Sanchez shrugged. "Chris knows what heís doing." He looked at his hands. The two men heard the muffled cry, as Vin pivoted striding quickly into the dark office.

The burly man followed seeing Ezra sitting with his head in his hands. He felt his heart clench. He had caused this man pain, he had caused Buck pain, his sister pain. He saw Vin move over to the gambler, talking quietly as he sank down beside the other man. Ezra replied softly before raising his head and seeing the preacher standing in the doorway.

"Josiah," he drawled shakily, he cast a sideways glance at the man sitting beside him, who shrugged his shoulder lazily, indicating it was his lead.

"Please believe me sir, when I thank you for telling me the truth," Standish said, his normally melodic drawl sounding strained as his green eyes stared intently at the preacher.

The large man looked at him in shock. "Thank me, Ezra... I " he stuttered, before shutting his mouth as he tried to understand the suddenly compassionate gaze of the three men.

"Yes," Standish stated simply, his face suddenly honest and compelling as he studied his older friend.

"You have given me the truth. No matter how heart wrenching in its honesty, it is indeed far better than the lie that I have been living" he raised his hand to the three men who went to speak. "Even if she did lie in the church when she said that she ...," the gambler paused, licking his lips as his eyes flickered as they remembered her terrible words. He looked at his friends and gave a half smile.

"Even if she lied. She still told the truth when she said that I wasnít her son. I have put my skills to use and that is my conclusion. For that Mr Sanchez, I am in debt to you, for you have given me that truth," he finished softly, his hands twisting at the cuffs on his sleeves.

Josiah blinked as if he didnít believe what he had heard. "No problem" he murmured as he rubbed his forehead. He watched as Standish stood and walked over to him holding out his hand. Sanchez took it, his grip tight with gratitude as he saw the truth in the manís sparkling eyes. The con man believed what he said.

Standish looked at him intently for a second before nodding, releasing the manís hand.

Taking his hat and coat he nodded at the two remaining men. JD smiled reassuringly at the man while Vin simply nodded, pleased that the gambler had seen what was troubling the preacher. Then the man was gone, heading over to the hotel and to his room.

JD watched him go before turning to the man who still stood frozen in his spot in the doorway.

"Josiah, Buck doing okay?" he asked worriedly.

The preacher nodded, blinking away the tears in his eyes. The man had thanked him, the man had just shown more honour and integrity than he had ever witnessed. Vowing to himself to find out why the woman had lied to Standish, and had done so for so many years. He would find out why. The man deserved the truth. He saw Tanner give him a tight knowing smile.

"Weíll make her tell him the truth," Vin drawled as he leaned lazily back against the desk.

Josiah nodded in agreement before turning to the concerned young man.

"Chris will take care of Buck, JD," he said confidently, if anyone could get through to the man, it would be the man who had been there. Now all they had to do was wait.

TWENTY-SEVEN

Buck sat staring sightlessly of the rugged dusty plains that surrounded Larabeeís cabin. He hadnít really taken the time to sit and enjoy the peace that the place offered. Content to stick to the town, figuring that when he was needed, Chris would come.

Now, Buck wondered if the reason for staying away from the ranch had a more selfish undertone.

"Itís like your old ranch," Wilmington drawled softly, marvelling that Chris had found a place that looked so similar to the old ranch.

The blond man nodded a pained smile crossing his face as he gazed back at Buck before turning to look out over the dry plains again.

"Yeah, reckon I needed something that would hold them close, but without the pain" Chris agreed quietly.

Wilmington nodded in understanding, "Should of come here sooner, maybe everything wouldnít have got so bad," he murmured leaning back in the chair.

Chris cocked his head as he glanced over at Buck.

"Weíve always been pretty straight with each other. Weíve had a good times and bad," Chris said, his voice wrapping around the last word, seemingly to put all the pain they had suffered together into it.

Buck waited, staring down into the depths of the coffee he held in his hands.

"And I reckon that through it all no matter what happens I know that youíll be there," Chris declared firmly.

Buck relaxed as he heard the words echo strongly in his soul. "Yeah, Chris I reckon thatís true." He grinned as he heard the knowing chuckle from his friend.

"Yep, Iíd say so..." Chris paused his eyes lighting up with memories, "Whatíd Sarah used to say? Two halves of the same wishing well..."

Buck shrugged, "You know I could never figure that out," his eyes dancing with mirth at the same recollection.

The blond manís lips quirked as he agreed ,"I donít reckon it was meant to make sense. I think she said it to confuse us".

Wilmington let out a loud laugh, "See, now why didnít you say so! Thatís stumped me for the longest time!"

Chris laughed, before sobering up slightly as he shook his head, "She also said that she never seen two men who acted like brothers yet werenít of the same blood...,"

Buck saw the raw anguish that his friend still carried, "I know Chris, you were the first man who didnít see a son of a whore," He replied softly, pulling Larabee out of his own well of sadness to regard the man beside him.

Chris frowned, "You were always Buck Wilmington to me," he answered honestly.

Buck smiled softly, feeling his chest tighten with emotion at the words. "Yeah, and thatís what made you different."

The blond gunslinger reached over then, and grasped his friendís shoulder. "No. Thatís what made us the same," Buck nodded, bowing his head slightly to hide the tears that appeared. Chris shifted his hand so it rested lightly on the thick hair, in a reassuring gesture.

They were both silent for a long time, as Wilmington regained control of his emotions.

"..Except now weíve got five other brothers," Larabee ruminated softly, closing his eyes as he felt the weight of responsibility fall heavily on his shoulders for leading these men.

Buck raised his head and gazed over at his friend. "Yeah, but Iím with you pard," Blue eyes met green and each man acknowledged the truth. Neither man would ever give up on the other. Buck stood slowly, turning he began to stride back into the cabin. Chrisís arm stopped him.

"How about next time somethingís eating at you, you come talk to me about it," Chris drawled sardonically as he stood.

"Oh yeah, the way you do?" Buck scoffed shaking his head.

Chris laughed, "Yeah the way I do." Yet his eyes observing the other man seriously, Buck smiled, his eyes dancing mischievously. Chris sighed, things seemed to be okay, and really thatís all that mattered right now.

"Come on, letís cook up something to eat, I am starving.. Donít think ya gave me a bite to eat the entire time you had me tied up... Least ya couldíve done was cook some breakfast," Buck quipped, heading into the cabin.

Chris chuckled at the words following his friend into the cabin. "How Ďbout we head back to town? I know some boys whoíll be right pleased to see ya safe and sound."

Buck stilled for a moment, fear at returning to town bolting through him. ĎWhat must the boys think of me?í He dismissed the thought with a slight shake of his head. ĎHell, they probably need to know Iím okay.í Smiling good-naturedly at Chris, he rolled his shoulders. "Sure."

TWENTY-EIGHT

The doors to the Saloon pushed open with a thud, the smell of liquor, cigar smoke, the sound of music, washed over Buck and Chris as they entered. Both men paused in the doorway, their eyes quickly dancing about the room, before finally spotting five men playing poker at the back of the Saloon.

"Buck!" JD said, standing in surprise.

Four sets of hands stilled at the poker table at the young manís words.

Vin stood, appraising the ladies man, and noting the lack of weaponry on the man. A quick glance at Josiah, Nathan and Ezra, and Vin knew that they also had noticed the lack of holster around Buckís waist. The tracker frowned, was Buck okay?

Wilmington smiled a little self-consciously as he walked over to the poker table. "Afternoon, fellaís. I am gonna get some food from the Hotel.. anyone care to join me?" He asked softly. Chris nodded at Buck, and Wilmington turned and left heading out the swinging doors.

The six men were silent for a moment, before they grabbed their gear. "Reckon I could use a feed. " Vin said softly.

The other men laughed. "ChrisÖ is Buck okay?" JD asked quietly, the men fell silent staring at their leader.

Chris sighed, and gazed down at the rough wooden floor before he looked up at his friends. "Seems to be doing okay.

"Seems to be?" Ezra asked hesitantly, his eyes searching Larabeeís face for hint that he wasnít telling the truth.

"Yeah, Ezra, seems to be," Chris answered, glad to see that the old Ezra was nearly back. He hadnít been sure, when he had left Ezra had been in just as bad shape as Buck, if not worse. Chris sighed, obviously these men had a story to tell.

"He ainít wearing his gun?" Vin observed.

"No, Buck ainít. If ya recall Josiah and I left it here in town.. So Buck wouldnít get..." He coughed uncomfortably, unable to finish the sentence. Vin rubbed his brow distractedly, his mind flying back to the cliff face and hearing the gunshot echo around the canyon. It had scared the hell out of him, he had been afraid that he had lost a friend that day. He only hoped now, that heíd returned whole.

"Letís not tell him about me," Ezra said into the silence that had fallen with Chrisís words.

Josiah nodded in agreement, "Maybe, but what good is hiding the truth from him?"

"Just till weíre certain heís-" Chris began, but he was cut off by Nathan who smiled, his teeth flashing.

"Stable."

"Did you all talk about me like this?" Ezra asked concerned, the other men grinned sheepishly. Ezra smiled, "Well, that puts a new light on things."

The five men laughed following the gambler as he strode out of the Saloon. They were stopped on the porch by the sight of Buck reaching down to lift a young boy in his arms.

"Looks like everythingís back to normal," Chris murmured, his lips curling in relief. Glancing down the street he saw Billy running, with Mary trotting to catch up. A small chuckle escaped his lips, drawing curious stares from the other men. He waved towards Mary and they laughed.

"I donít know where he gets his energy," Josiah rumbled, stepping off the porch to head over towards Buck, who was by now introducing the two boys. JD relieved that Buck was back in town and almost back to normal. He just hadnít realized how much he had relied on Buck for his support and company.

Mary frowned, at the introductions between Billy and that young boy of that, well courtesan was the only polite term she could think of. She moved to intercept Billy from going over, but one look from Mr Wilmington and she knew this was one battle she would not win. Sighing to herself, Mary realized that Billy did need another young boy to play with, there was so few his age in town. After all, it wasnít that young boyís fault what his mother was.

"Billy, this here is Malcolm... Malcolm, this is Billy," Buck said a smile plastered on his face. "Run along now, but donít get into any mischief... or we wonít be going fishing tomorrow with Mr Larabee." He watched them go, a genuine smile on his face at the whoops of laughter that trailed after the boys.

"Iím going fishing tomorrow?" Chris drawled, walking up behind the ladies man.

Buck turned, "Geez, Chris! Ya startled me."

Chris nodded towards Mary who smiled demurely, before leaving the men to their discussion. "Didnít mean to, pard."

Josiah sat down on the porch near the two men. "What about dinner?"

"Yes. What about dinner, Mr Wilmington?" Ezra intoned, his green eyes resting on the tall man before him.

Buck glanced around and saw that all of the men were there. He was quiet for a moment staring past the six men, to where Malcolm sat playing with Billy. He couldnít change his past, he knew that.. but with these men around, well then maybe he could face it a little.

"Buck?" Vin questioned gently, noting the distant look that had come over his face.

JD reached over and touched the ladies man arm gently, drawing his thoughts away from the children playing. "Buck, are you..-" he began his voice full of concern.

"Iím here," Buck muttered quietly. "I ainít going anywhere."

Ezra smiled, his gold tooth flashing. "Pleased to hear it, Buck.." Meeting the manís gaze for the first time since their altercation so long ago in Purgatory. Buck nodded at the unspoken words, and Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Well then...letís eat."

+ + + + + + +

Nathan nodded as the bounty hunter rode out of the sleeping town. His eyes settled on the saloon, before shifting to the porch where it had all begun. He could still see the image of that day so long ago, he wondered if the tracker would be able to find what they were searching for. He hoped that they could, they had each made the gambler a promise. A promise that they each intended to keep.

Fini

Keep smiling, keep writing and keep on loving.

Peta and Leigh