"Put yer gun away, Ezra."

"Ah am afraid Ah cannot do that, Vin. You should direct that demand toward our fearless leader."

"Ah, hell, Ez. You know he ain't right in the head right now."

"Yes, Mistah Wilmington. That is precisely why Ah shall keep mah weapon at the ready."

"Ezra, Chris is faster than you."

"On any normal day Ah would agree with you, Mistah Tanner. But today, he is attemptin' to apprehend you and remand you to the authorities in Tascosa. He has hinted that he will do this 'dead or alive', just as the wanted poster in his pocket says. As well, he has all of you to worry about, save Buck, who he remembers but is refusin' to listen to. Ah am trusting that Mistah Jackson is correct, and that Mistah Larabee is sufferin' a very bad concussion and that his head is, as Mistah Wilmington might say, ready to split at the seams. Ah am hopin', as no doubt all of you are, that these circumstances combine to cause Chris to miss his mark, for as you can see by looking at him, he is not in any way preparin' to stand down."

"Damn straight I ain't."

It had been one helluva day in Four Corners, New Mexico Territory. It had come to this, but the day hadn't started any better.

It had started thusly nearly two hours before, as was less frequently the case these days, but still a painfully familiar sight when it did happen: Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish in a fight. Ezra was still more in it to see just how far he could push the leader of their group, though that wasn't the reason for this day's confrontation. Normally, these days, he was happy to just let the things that Chris said and did that annoyed him slide. But Chris? Well, if he had been completely sober there was always the chance that he could be talked down from his desire to throttle the gambler. Josiah Sanchez could come forward and use his tempered, pastoral demeanor to remind Chris that he was talking about killing a friend. Buck Wilmington would use a long series of well-practiced maneuvers and his easy-going manner to calm the beast in the man who he had known a very long time and beside whom he had battled more than once against those demons that lurked so near in the former gunslinger's psyche but had, of late, been kept at bay more often than not.

But it was Vin Tanner's quiet calm that worked best on Chris. Unfortunately for them all, this day it was not just the drink and the demons that made him into the crazy man holding the gun.

Ezra had been up early, no one knew why, except that it was the fourth or fifth day in a row. Something had been bothering him greatly to result in his being seen at such an ungodly hour of the day, Ezra himself would be the first to admit. And Chris had been up all night … that was painfully clear; three empty bottles of rotgut told that tale, as did the slight smell of vomit, the sickening sweet tang of cheap, regurgitated liquor – and remnants of it – on the man's black shirt. Words need not have been spoken between the two, the expressions on their faces said all that needed saying about facing each other that morning. Alas, saying nothing would have been so far out of character for Ezra that he would have had the healer Nathan Jackson all over him, checking for fever or injury, if he had been present.

"Mah, mah. Might Ah surmise that you are headin' some place to sleep it off?" Ezra waved his hand in front of his nose as he dramatically feigned clearing the drunken stench from his breathing space.

"Shuddup, Ezr'," Chris slurred.

"Mistah Larabee, Ah truly must insist that you remove yourself from this establishment. Some of us would like to partake in our morning meal. The smell emanating from your person is enough to put one off one's feed."

Chris stood, swaying dangerously on the raised section of the saloon as he towered over the empty bottles on the table before him.

"You son'v'bitch," Chris yelled, bringing his other friends, who were already heading over for breakfast, rushing in to the drinking and occasional eating establishment. "I tol' you ta shuddup." The tall blond took a step around the table and promptly fell down – hard – landing mostly under the table, his long legs tangled in among the wooden chair legs.

"What in tarnation?" Buck called from the doorway. Vin stood behind him, his eyes roving about the room, sizing up what was going on.

"Hell," the tracker said as he moved ahead of the ladies' man.

Moving toward Chris faster than Buck or Vin was Inez Rocillos, the barkeep, manager and cook here in what had been, ever so briefly, The Standish Tavern. She was also the on again, off again paramour of the professional poker player. Though their relationship had taken several cruel hits of late, Ezra and Inez still cared for one another even though their status would currently be classified as off again. Again.

Chris made his way up to his knees as Inez approached, having sent an unhappy look toward Ezra, wondering why he wasn't moving to help his friend. Ezra called, "Inez, don't," just as she reached the man on the floor and started to offer assistance.

"Señor Chris, allow me to help y … ." The rest of the pretty Mexican's entreaty was cut off by a withering blow to the face from the intoxicated man. Inez' head whipped sharply to the right and her body flew back into the railing that surrounded the raised section of the saloon. She fell through the spindles and landed hard on the table behind her. It was upon hitting the edge of the table that Ezra reached her, enveloping her in his arms as she slipped to the floor in pain and confusion, the gambler gentling her way down.

Nathan and Josiah entered the building just as Chris had struck the unsuspecting beauty. The healer and the preacher reached Inez at the same moment that Ezra did. The distraught man looked up and all who saw the look on his face knew what was coming next. He left Inez with the two men he knew had her best interests at heart and stormed over to the tall, stunned man who had just hit her.

Vin, who knew what Ezra's intent was, and couldn't deny that he felt like doing the same thing as his southern friend, managed to insert himself into Ezra's path toward Chris. Maybe he thought he could take Ezra, and in a fair fight he might have had a chance. But hate and adrenalin and the need to avenge his woman were more than Vin was prepared to handle. He wasn't expecting the punch, thinking he might be able to talk Ezra down. He'd only gotten, "Now, Ezra" out, and then found himself on the floor.

Buck was still a couple of steps behind, the chivalrous side of him wanting a piece of his old friend as much as Ezra did. He'd been shocked by what he'd witnessed, never expecting that even in his most drunken state that Chris would ever hit a woman like that, which gave Ezra all the time that he needed to get to the listless, unknowing gunman.

"You son-of-a-bitch!" Those were the only words Ezra would speak to the man. It was a time for action for Ezra Standish. The smaller man punched Chris once in the face, then twice. A third time seemed to bring no satisfaction, and had little effect on his obviously still numbed-from-alcohol opponent. Chris remained standing, absorbing the significant pummeling. Ezra could fight, they had all seen it, and he never pulled a punch. As Buck finally approached, he saw the hate in Ezra's eyes and knew that if the con man got in just the right punch he might well kill Chris. Ezra pulled back for another swing. Buck tried to grab the arm, but chairs and the table and distance all conspired against him, allowing him just the briefest pull on a sleeve. It was a glancing touch, at best, but it was enough to slow the velocity of Ezra's punch. It still landed hard, and finally did what Ezra had been hoping: it knocked the lean man off his feet. Chris slammed back into the wall, full force. His eyes rolled to the back of his head as the leader of The Magnificent Seven dropped instantly to the floor.

Ezra wasn't done … except that he was, but not because he wanted to be. Vin was up again, and this time he grabbed Ezra's arm and twisted it up into the small of the man's back, eliciting a pained, growled groan from the irate gambler.

"That's enough, Ez," Vin ground out.

"Ah … think … not," Ezra panted as he tried to slip out of Vin's grasp.

"I'll tear it outta its socket, Ez. Now calm down. Ya knocked 'im out. It's done."

Ezra grunted and squirmed, but finally recognized that Vin was not kidding about injuring his shoulder. He breathed in, and then out, and then looked over toward where he'd left Inez. He started for her, but Vin kept him in check.

"Nate, when yer done, I need ya over here," Buck called as he kneeled beside his oldest friend.

"Let me go, Vin," Ezra demanded.

"Ya knocked him out."

"Ah could not care what has become of … him. Ah need to go to Inez." Vin held tight. "Let. Me. Go."

"Don't go fer Chris again, Ez," the former bounty hunter warned. Ezra returned a glare, his green eyes that usually danced with mirth or satisfaction, shone bright with worry – or love – were filled with a fury that Vin Tanner had never witnessed before in the gentleman gambler. Vin let him go. Ezra headed directly to Inez.

"Nathan?" Ezra arrived beside the healer quickly, easily skirting the chairs that had been displaced by the beautiful woman's fall, and by Nathan and Josiah moving more of them out of the way in order to see to the injured woman.

"Ezra," Josiah started. The card sharp pushed his way passed the large man, kneeled heavily on the floor, and took the delicate hand nearest his.

"She got hit hard," the healer started.

"She has not regained consciousness?" Ezra asked softly, his voice full of worry, all signs of his anger from earlier gone as his sole focus was on the woman he cared for so much.

"No. She might not, not for a while. Depends on how hard … " Just as Nathan began to explain why Inez might take some time to come to, the Mexican beauty began to moan.

"Inez, dear. Wake up. It's Ezra." Her eyes moved under her lids, one of which would be marred by bruising for many days. "That's right. Come now, wake up." Ezra's hands gently massaged the small, soft hand.

From a distance, people assumed things. They assumed that because Ezra was a gambler, shiftless and lazy, that his hands were unblemished. The southerner did take care of his hands, but if one got close, which few did, they would see that beyond the elegant, dexterous fingers were callouses as severe as those of any of his fellow lawmen, from years of guns held in regular position to protect the citizens of his adopted home town and its surrounding territory, and from years before that, a lone soul, protecting himself.

"What … " she said, then blinked rapidly, becoming more conscious. "Oh … what," she said as her eyes moved under closed lids. Ezra looked down as she grasped his hand tightly. He returned the touch, realizing only just then how he might have been holding so tight as to hurt her. He held her hand gently with only one of his, more conscious of his actions as hurting her was the last thing he would ever, ever do.

"Don't move, Inez," Nathan said. "But listen to Ezra. Do as he says. Open your eyes."

She tried a couple of times, but finally, with a definite wrinkle of her brow, she opened her eyes and asked, more lucidly than anyone expected, "Did Señor Chris punch me?" Her question dripped of disbelief, anger, disappointment. She turned to the man holding her hand, her head swimming, Ezra's face a blur before her, and asked, "Did you hit him?"

"He did. And yes, Ah did," Ezra admitted plainly.

"Muchas gracias," Inez said first, squeezing Ezra's hand tightly. And then she spoke with even more clarity, "Stupido!"

Ezra blinked, frowned as he looked around, re-running in his head what had just gone on here and said, incredulously, "Me?" taking his free hand and placing it on his chest innocently.

She started to rise, found the contents of the saloon swirling about her, and headed right back down to the floor as Ezra, Nathan and Josiah all reached to ease her descent. She grabbed for her back with the hand not held by the gambler, but Nathan took it and placed it beside her on the floor.

"Let's talk about how stupid Ezra is later," Josiah suggested, a humorous twinkle in his eyes. Ezra gave him a worried grin right back, though the preacher saw the gambler suppress the grin right quick. There really was nothing funny going on before them.

"I know you hit that table hard at your hip, Inez," Nathan said.

"I am fine. It is not so bad."

"No you ain't. Hard to believe, but you sound just like Ezra when you talk like that." The con man did smile at that when Inez scowled back at the healer. "You got yourself a serious enough of a concussion from … "

"From where Chris punched her," Ezra continued for the former slave as he saw him struggle to find a way to say what happened without mentioning the man laying prone on the other side of the table.

"I need to keep an eye on you, least for today. And I need to get a look at your hip and back, see how bad the bruising's gonna be, make sure there ain't nothin' hurt inside."

"I am fine," Inez insisted.

Ezra smiled. It was her feistiness as much as her beauty that he'd been drawn to, that he found so tantalizing. "Inez, you must listen to Nathan," he said.

"But the saloon … "

"Ah will take care of things while you recuperate," Ezra said. He knew how she would react and he knew that, ultimately, she would agree.

"You? All by yourself?" she asked with a knowing grin. They had met nearly three years before, when Ezra still owned The Standish Tavern, when he needed to hire someone to help as it was impossible for him to run the business on his own. The wise woman with the knowing grin would win him over, in more ways than one, over the years. He smiled back, but her grin had suddenly been wiped from her face. She paled quickly and closed her eyes, fighting the dizziness and the nausea.

"Of course Ah could never replace you, or manage the facility as well," Ezra replied as he tried to distract her from the wretched way she was feeling. "But rest assured, Ah and your new hire will make sure that the place will still be standing and serving customers upon your return."

The pretty Mexican had broken into a cold sweat as the true implications of being hit so hard by a six foot tall man set in. Tears leaked from Inez' still closed eyes as the pain, the dizziness, the sick feeling all increased into a crescendo of misery. She blinked her eyes, tears falling steadily now. She opened her eyes, looking first to Nathan, and then to Ezra, fear and embarrassment evident.

It nearly broke Ezra's heart. It made him want to beat Chris to a pulp.

"I think I am going to be sick," she admitted, mortified that this would be happening in front of so many. If Ezra hadn't been so focused on doing whatever he could to help this special woman, neither Vin nor Buck could have stopped him from storming over to Chris and kicking him where he lay for making her feel this way.

"Josiah, third shelf, just past the column," Ezra ordered urgently. The preacher stood quickly, found the large bowl behind the bar, and swiftly handed it to the card sharp just as Nathan moved Inez into her side. She vomited. She cried and she vomited some more. Ezra was there, holding her hair back, speaking to her softly. Nathan held her in position. The former slave knew he had to go see to Chris, but he couldn't leave Inez just yet.

Once she finished being sick, Josiah handed Ezra a wet cloth to help clean her face. Nathan said, "Ezra, can you and Josiah get Inez over to the clinic?"

"Of course, brother," Josiah responded. Ezra did not reply; it simply went without saying.

The two men eased her up, holding her the entire time as she had no strength left to do it herself after her bout with sickness, and then the big preacher picked her up. She was light as a feather to a man of Josiah's size and might. Ezra led the way, making sure that nothing got in their way in their urgency to take the ailing woman to the clinic.

In the saloon, Nathan made his way over to Chris. "That last punch from Ez … Chris landed hard, his head hit the wall. He ain't come to," Buck said worriedly.

"Not too surprised. Ezra knows how to fight," Nathan said as he felt the small lump on the back of the gunslinger's head. "No blood," he said. He felt down Chris' back. "He hit his head, but I think his back took the brunt of it."

"So it's good that there's no blood?" Buck asked. Vin continued to stand guard. He had been ready to intercept Ezra in case he came after their leader once more. He had no intention of hurting the card sharp. In fact, Ezra going after any man who had punched a woman was the first instinct of all seven of the regulators of the small town, even of the one who had actually done the punching this day.

"Not necessarily," the healer replied. Nathan took a good ten minutes to check Chris over. He wanted to discount infected bites, cuts or other similar injury. "Let's get him up to the clinic."

"Is that such a good idea?" Josiah asked. He had returned from helping to get Inez settled. "Ezra's with Inez. So is Mary. We saw her on the way over."

"Did ya tell her what happened?" Vin asked.

"I didn't. Don't know what Ezra's plan is."

"I need him where I can observe him. Let's get him up to my room," Nathan ordered. The four men each grabbed a leg or a shoulder and carried a still unconscious Chris Larabee to Nathan's clinic above the livery. When they opened the door, Ezra seemed prepared to receive them. And more.

"Ah will take Inez back to her room. Ah will wake her as frequently as you suggest, Mistah Jackson, but Ah will not force her to remain ensconced in a room with the man who caused her injuries."

Mary Travis looked from Ezra and Inez to the other men who had just entered and crowded the room. She watched as they had laid Chris down on the floor temporarily. Then she turned back to her friend. "Inez, is that true?"

"Mrs. Travis, we don't want things to be taken out of context," Josiah said.

"Taken out of context?" she asked as anger filled her being. "He either did what Ezra said or he didn't."

"He wasn't exactly in his right mind, Mrs. Travis," Buck explained.

"He was inebriated?" she asked. "At eight o'clock in the morning? And you believe that his … condition in any way justifies hitting Inez?"

No one knew exactly how to answer that. The truth of Mary's words appeared self-evident. Though she had never seen Chris drunk, she had heard tell that he would drink himself into a stupor, or partake in activities that were not discussed in polite company. It surprised everyone present when Ezra spoke next.

"It was an accident," he started, "in as much as a man clobberin' a woman can be an accident. But yes, indeed, Mistah Larabee was not in full control of his faculties and did not know who he was lashin' out against." Ezra caught Vin looking at him, a puzzled look on his face. The gambler gave him the slightest shrug of the shoulder, telling the observant tracker that there was something else the equally observant gamester thought might be at play here other than the drink.

"Like Ezra said, it was an accident," Buck added, but he saw that he'd said something wrong by the looks on Ezra and Mary's faces. The ladies' man's mistake was to infer something from what Ezra said that the genteel southerner had categorically not intended. "Chris would never have … " he started in an attempt to explain his meaning.

"Mistah Wilmington!" Ezra interrupted. "The level of insobriety of the abuser, a level that is easily discerned from the three empty bottles of cheap whiskey left on his table, does not disabuse Chris of fault in what transpired here today. Indeed, what happened here must nevah repeat itself. You might not believe this, but Mistah Larabee layin' only unconscious on this floor is entirely due to mah self-restraint. If it had been a stranger who had attacked so viciously an innocent woman, the perpetrator would likely be dead."

No one among them doubted that truth. All of the men present, including the unconscious one, would agree with the sentiment, even though they would all hope that Ezra's wiser nature would kick in and stop him from killing, except in self-defense, or due to imminent threat to others. But Buck knew that he wasn't sure if he could stop himself from going too far after such a brutal assault on one of his special ladies. And what about Nathan if the victim had been Rain? Or J.D. if it was Casey? And indeed, Chris Larabee if it had been Mary Travis? It was hard enough for Ezra and his brethren to manage Chris' anger on a good day. Someone hitting Mary that hard would result in a bad day for them all.

Ezra's response brought quiet to the room, save for Nathan's efforts to bring the former gunslinger to consciousness, and Inez, whose attempts to breathe through her pain had not diminished at all in the eyes of the ever sharp-eyed gambler.

"Nathan, Ah am returning Inez to her room." The extent of Ezra's stress was clear as he called the healer by his given name. He did it, in private, but it was highly unusual and out of character for him to address the former stretcher bearer during the war in that way in front of anyone other than his law enforcement fellows.

"Nah-uh. Not just yet. I need to get a look at her back," Nathan reminded his fellow southerner.

"No, suh. You will have to come to perform your examination of the lady in her room."

"Ezra, we can do it here," Inez said quietly.

"Mah dear, Ah think it best … "

"The sooner it is done … " the ailing woman interrupted, but that was all that she managed to say. The pretty barkeep lowered her head, and then covered her face with her hands, only barely muffling the sob. Mary took her friend into her arms as she remained sitting with the injured woman on the bed.

"Mistah Jackson," Ezra said, now back in better control of his emotions, "can you assure Miss Rocillos' privacy and security to complete your examination expeditiously?"

"I don't know. Once some of you folks leave, the privacy concern might be all right."

"But should Mistah Larabee wake and persist in his abusive manner?"

"Well, that is the tricky part. I would need one or two of you to help."

"Let me take Inez with me," Mary suggested. "She won't be working today, even if her back is not a concern."

"Finish looking at Chris, Brother Nathan," Josiah said. "Then head over to check Inez at Mary's. Buck and I will watch him while you're gone. Vin, you wanna help Ezra get Inez over ta Mary's?"

"You shur yer all right? It ain't like him … even …." The tracker looked to the gambler, trying to convince him silently, with his eyes and with his heart, that what happened today, what Chris had done, should be looked at clearly, objectively. It was not right. Something was very wrong.

"We'll be fine," Buck said as he went to sit nearby his oldest friend.

"Someone should check the liquor bottles from last night," Ezra said, knowing that the only someone who had heard him was Vin. The quiet of the directive had been purposeful.

"All right," Vin replied, not at all sure that those two words would be true for some time to come.

"Don't cry, darlin'," Ezra said as he held her during this bout of sickness. The move to Mary's had been too much for the injured woman, the continued dizziness from the hard blow to her face that had rattled her brain but good causing a persistent nausea that finally won out over her will. Nathan and Mary stood back as they watched Ezra take the wet cloth that he'd been handed and gently clean the pretty Mexican's face. The action seemed so much more intimate with the knowledge that Ezra and Inez had been together romantically. They were not together now, but the care that Ezra showed the sick woman told Mary and Nathan that the circumstances of their break-up were more cordial than they all might have thought.

Even more than the gentle ministrations, though, the healer and the newspaper publisher were surprised by what happened next. They watched and listened as the southerner broke out in song, softy, quietly. Though they could both hear the song being sung, Mary and Nathan knew that Ezra was singing as though only one other person was in the room:

Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh hard times come again no more.

Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more.

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more.

Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more.

There's a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away,
With a worn heart whose better days are o'er:
Though her voice would be merry, 'tis sighing all the day,
Oh hard times come again no more.

Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more.

Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh hard times come again no more.

Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more.

As Inez calmed down, Ezra spoke to her gently. "Mah dear, Nathan needs to examine you. Mary will stay with you. Ah shall return … shortly." He turned to find his two friends staring at him.

"What?" he asked. Inez appeared calm and less ill, breathing as though sleep was near. Ezra trusted that their fine healer would keep an eye on how much she did sleep, for at least the next day or so.

"I had heard that you'd sung, at Wickstown," the blond said. She also knew that the distraction Ezra had supplied, dressed as a woman, was the primary reason she had been saved from that hateful man.

"That hardly qualified as singing, dear lady," he countered quietly so as not to disturb Inez as she rested. "Feigning a woman's voice? Deplorable. But Ah can sing. After all, a good con is nothing more than the machinations of a good actor."

"Well, that may be so," Mary agreed. "But there was no con going on just now," alluding to far more than just the singing. "And Ezra, that was beautiful."

Ezra thumbed his lower lip and nodded his head, acknowledging that he'd been caught. "When Ah chose to remove mahself from 'the game', Mother said that Ah was wastin' mah 'God given gifts'." He looked to the woman in the bed. "Inez has tried to reacquaint me with a god that she truly believes in." He looked out the window, then down at the floor, and then back to Mary. "It is the one true disagreement between us. Ah am afraid it may be a chasm across which we shall never find our way, together. Ah do not necessarily agree with mah mother, that any god would bother to waste his own talents in the doling out of such 'gifts', but Ah have seen enough … dreadfulness in this world to doubt that such a higher being really does exist."

Ezra stood and allowed Mary to take his place beside Inez. It seemed like the card sharp was going to say more, but he turned and headed for the door.

"Where are you goin'?" Nathan asked, suspicion tainting the question, distaste obvious in what Ezra had just admitted.

"Ah need to seek out Mistah Tanner. After giving this incident due consideration, Ah tend to believe that this behavior is decidedly not the norm for Mistah Larabee." The healer's eyes grew wide with surprise. "Ah am not sayin' that he would not lash out at a woman if he had imbibed three bottles of whiskey, but I think we are all cognizant that there really is only one woman who has earned such a place in the coldest portion of Chris' heart, as well all of ours." Ezra looked to Mary, knowing that she would understand immediately that Ezra was speaking of Ella Gaines. "Missus Travis, if it makes you feel any bettah, though Ah do not doubt that Chris did some drinking last night, Ah doubt that he drank all three of the bottles Ah found on his table at the saloon."

"What are you saying?" the pretty blonde asked.

"Ah will know more once Ah have spoken with Mistah Tanner."

"I believe he was heading to the saloon," Mary offered, not realizing that Ezra already held that knowledge.

"Ah shall return as quickly as Ah am able." Ezra leaned in front of Mary, bent over Inez and said, "Mistah Jackson will take good care of you." He kissed her hand, and then rushed from the room.

Ezra trotted to the drinking establishment and pushed the doors in with force. He saw Tom behind the bar, and Vin standing before it with several whiskey bottles lined up. As he approached he could see that some of the bottles were empty, empties from the night before. Even though the rotgut would kill any germs that made their way onto or into the bottles, Inez had insisted that all bottles be cleaned before their re-use, even the ones that never left the bar. On a busy night, that sterilization process always took place the next day.

"You agree that the whiskey was tainted?" Ezra asked, softly so that the bartender could not hear.

"Yeah. Unfortunately, none of these bottles so far is givin' off any strange smells."

"Tom, do you have more bottles in the back?" the gambler asked the bartender.

"There're a few more back there. I'll get 'em. You done with these?" the gangly man asked.

"Leave them for now," Ezra said. The part-time worker went back to the kitchen. Ezra and Vin nodded at one another, then Vin followed Tom. After three years of working together and nurturing a deep friendship, the two had learned to communication almost as well with just a look as Vin and Chris.

Ezra scanned the saloon. He saw chairs still askew, and noticed that the table Chris had fallen under had not gotten away without damage. It sat crookedly with some chairs set up to it as though a game of cards could still be played on it.

The con man's attention was taken away from the damage inside to familiar voices yelling outside. He could hear loud footfall on the hard-packed boulevard, and knew from the tempo of the sounds made just who belonged to that long stride. He drew his Colt from its holster, just to be ready, because he knew that nothing good could be coming his way so soon after he had punched the approaching gunslinger to unconsciousness.

"God damn it, Chris!" Buck yelled.

"Nathan!" the well-dressed man inside heard Josiah bellow toward the newspaper office.

Chris shoved the doors hard enough for one half of the batwing doors to fall off of one hinge, teetering crookedly. It would likely not make it through the day still in place.

"Have you not caused enough damage to this enterprise today, Mistah Larabee?"

Chris saw the gun pointed his way. "If yer gonna shoot me, Standish, ya better do it soon, 'cause I'm aimin' ta kill you," he said. Ezra could tell that Chris was as far gone as he could be. His eyes were unfocused and flitting to and fro in the barroom, even though there was nothing in the room that would interest the gunslinger but Ezra. And because Chris was not himself, it made the man twice as dangerous. The con man felt especially vulnerable. It had been more than two years since Chris had called him 'Standish'. That was a time when Chris Larabee had not yet come to the conclusion that he could trust the con man, a time when the leader of The Seven had not yet realized how much Ezra Standish looked up to him, how much the well-armed dandy admired the man who had led their misfit band and turned them into a law enforcement team unrivaled in The West. Right now, where Chris Larabee's head seemed to be, was back even before that time, a period during their acquaintance when Ezra still felt it likely that Chris would follow through on his threat to shoot the gambler.

"It is not mah intent or mah desire to shoot you, Mistah Larabee," Ezra answered. He saw Buck enter the saloon over Chris' shoulder. "Mistah Wilmington, come to join the festivities?"

"Buck," Chris growled, hardly the greeting the town Lothario expected.

"Right here, old pard."

"If you ain't plannin' to shoot me, then get outta my way so I can get Tanner," Chris said to Ezra.

"Get Tanner?" Ezra questioned, his brow wrinkling at the directive.

"Five hundred bucks," the leader of Four Corners' lawmen said as he pulled out a nearly unrecognizable wanted poster, one that had obviously been balled up, followed by a poor attempt to flatten it out. "I don't need to tell you of all people that five hundred dollars is a lot of money. Tanner's hide, dead or alive, will get it for me."

Buck looked toward Ezra, trying to decide if he could safely tackle the unstable gunman before he could pull his weapon and shoot the gambler. A slight shake of the head from Ezra told him to hold his position.

"Vin Tanner is our compatriot." Ezra could see Chris strain at understanding the word. "Our cohort, or as Mistah Sanchez might say, our brother." The observant card sharp watched Chris blink his eyes lazily and lean against the nearest table.

"Like hell. You're a liar and a cheat. Don't know who this Sanchez is, but Vin Tanner is a wanted man, and I aim to bring 'im in." Selective memory loss, just one more thing to attest to the fact that something other than the drink was at work here.

"Put yer gun away, Ezra."

"Ah am afraid Ah cannot do that, Vin. You should direct that demand toward our fearless leader."

"Ah, hell, Ez. You know he ain't right in the head right now."

"Yes, Mistah Wilmington. That is precisely why Ah shall keep mah weapon at the ready."

"Ezra, Chris is faster than you."

"On any normal day Ah would agree with you, Mistah Tanner. But today, he is attemptin' to apprehend you and remand you to the authorities in Tascosa. He has hinted that he will do this 'dead or alive', just as the wanted poster in his pocket says. As well, he has all of you to worry about, save Buck, who he remembers but is refusin' to listen to. Ah am trusting that Mistah Jackson is correct, and that Mistah Larabee is sufferin' a very bad concussion and that his head is, as Mistah Wilmington might say, ready to split at the seams. Ah am hopin', as no doubt all of you are, that these circumstances combine to cause Chris to miss his mark, for as you can see by looking at him, he is not in any way preparin' to stand down."

"Damn straight I ain't."

Vin looked to the window to Chris' right. Chris, not aiming to be caught off guard, turned in the same direction, but that movement started the room spinning for the former gunslinger. He pulled his weapon from its holster, aimed to the dark image through the window, and fired. Vin saw Nathan go down in time to avoid being hit. Chris spun back toward the center of the room, raised his weapon at Ezra once more, but Ezra was armed and waiting: he threw a liquor bottle directly at Chris' gun hand. The bottle shattered as it hit the Colt. The pistol fell to the floor and skittered to a stop between the two men, pieces of the bottle now embedded in the renowned gunman's hand. Though the hand now bled, Chris Larabee was in no manner aware of that. His eyes rolled to the back of his head.

"Aw, hell," Ezra said as he predicted what was coming next. He was the closest to the potentially drugged and maybe concussed and still likely drunken man and could tell that Chris was headed for a hard fall. The quick gamester moved lightning fast, and then dove for the spot where he estimated that Chris was likely to land. He put his hands out to ensure that the man didn't take another blow to the head. The leader of The Seven landed hard, Ezra's hands doing the job of catching the blond head as though it were a ball being caught in play. What everyone else saw that Ezra didn't was that, though Chris Larabee was going down, he was clearly not completely out as he pulled his fist back and followed through with a right cross to the gambler's jaw. And still, Ezra did not drop the ball. Once they were both completely down on the saloon floor, Ezra grunted in pain, followed by, "That son-of-a-bitch hit me."

Nathan knelt down to look at Chris. "Good catch, Ezra," he noted. "You can set his head down now." Ezra did as directed, gladly, and with little concern now for whether the man's head hit the hard floor or not, figuring that was now Nathan's concern. The gambler's body had taken a hard hit as a result of the leap to make sure his compatriot did not get hurt. Ezra rolled from his stomach to his side, and then to his back, rubbing his chest as he did so.

"Y'all right, Ezra?" Vin asked as he reached his hand down to help the poker player up.

"Peachy," Ezra replied snidely as he accepted the assistance. He groaned and continued to rub his chest. He nearly twisted his ankle on Chris' gun, which he'd apparently landed on and was causing the pain in his chest. He kicked the gun down the hallway angrily.

"You were right," Vin said.

"About which?"


"Of course Ah was. So where is he?"

"Tied him to the stove. Figured he wouldn't squirm too much to get free with the threat of catchin' fire," Vin explained.

"What are ya talkin' about?" Buck asked. He stood back as he watched Josiah assist Nathan with Chris.

"Tom Fender, the bartender Inez hired a couple o' weeks ago … he put some loco weed in Chris' whiskey," the Texan said.

"Why?" J.D. asked. He'd just come in as Buck had asked his question.

"Have we yet ascertained the answer to that question?"

"Not yet," Vin replied.

"Loco weed explains a lot more 'bout how he was actin'," Nathan said. "Chris' been drunk before but he ain't never acted this crazy before."

"Ain't it dangerous to mix liquor and the weed?" Buck asked worriedly as he watched Chris so still on the floor.

"Highly," Ezra answered, still rubbing his chest, as the healer offered, "Very."

"He's gonna be all right, though, ain't he, Nate?" J.D. asked.

"I think so. Musta got a good amount, though. May have to tie him down. Buck and Josiah couldn't keep him in the clinic." Buck's left eye was red and promised to be black and blue in no time.

"It has been hours since Chris last ingested the tainted whiskey," Ezra pointed out. "Certainly … " he continued, but stopped as he felt a sharp pain in his chest. "Ah should think … " Again Ezra stopped talking, and now rather than rubbing his chest he just held his hand to the spot that pained him.

"Ez?" Buck asked.

"Ah b'lieve Ah must sit," he said as he moved to the nearest chair and practically fell into it.

"Nate?" Vin called as he stepped close to the southerner and kneeled in front of him. "What's wrong, Ezra?"

Nathan turned to look at what was going on with the former con man. "Josiah and Buck, can you see to getting Chris back up to the clinic? Ezra's right, enough time has probably passed now that he'll likely just be sleeping it off for a good, long time. Ezra, you wanna answer Vin's question?" the healer asked.

"Ah do b'lieve you gentlemen … saw what happened. After … Chris punched me, Ah landed … quite resoundingly hard … on the unforgiving floor … yet still managed to save Mistah Larabee … from further injury."

"That's good, Ezra, 'cause you caused him all o' his injuries earlier," Vin said with a grin. The tracker was relieved to know that Chris would recover. They still needed to find out why Fender did what he did. That would be where Vin would be heading next, enlisting J.D. in that endeavor; it looked like Ezra was out of the investigation.

"The most serious injury … to Mistah Larabee," Ezra started as Nathan began to remove first the gambler's jacket, then his fancy vest, and finally started in on the fine buttons of his shirt, all without protest from the card sharp, "is the one resultin' in his … near fatal poisoning." Ezra took a deep breath in order to continue talking, but he leaned forward, his hand still clutching his chest, and groaned, "Nathan, am Ah havin' … a heart attack?"

The healer pulled Ezra's shirt open. He saw what appeared to resemble the grip and the cylinder of a handgun. He looked around on the floor. Vin saw Nathan's eyes shooting around the room.

"It's down the hall. Yer lookin' for Chris' gun, right?" he asked.

"Go fetch it for me, will ya, Vin?" Nathan asked. The former bounty hunter stood and retrieved the gun. Nathan held it up against the faint shape on Ezra's chest. "Yeah, that's it." The black man felt the area more closely. Ezra flinched at the feel of bone rubbing together. "You tastin' any blood, Ezra?"


"All right. Josiah, help me get him up to his room. I think he might've broken a rib when he fell. Seems like a he mighta punctured a lung."

"Ah did not puncture anythin'," Ezra complained.

"Ya got a punctured lung, Ezra!" Nathan said with irritated concern.

"Good lord," Ezra exclaimed breathily. "That will … teach me … not to … intervene … "

"No, Ezra, it probably won't," Josiah said, contradicting the man he had grown so close to over the years.

"Ah, hell," Ezra said next. For the next hour, and for several hours to come, Ezra said no more as he passed out on the move to his feather bed, where Nathan performed a procedure that saved his life.

"He still out?" Chris asked as he sat at their table in the saloon. He looked drawn and pale twenty-four hours after he punched Ezra on the front end of passing out. How else did Chris Larabee look? Embarrassed. Remorseful.

"Nate says it's the best thing for him," Buck replied.

"Boy needs to stay still and quiet," Josiah added as Nathan came down the stairs from Ezra's room.

"Why're you here?" the former slave asked. "Thought I told you to rest through today."

"I'm fine. How's Ezra?"

"He's doin' good. Was awake for about five minutes, long enough to give him some tea for the pain and some water. Says the pain is less than yesterday, but there ain't no point in sufferin' at all. He's real tired, should sleep most of the day away," Nathan reported.

"Shame he won't know he's doin' that. Ezra likes to sleep," J.D. said.

"Ezra likes to make sure we know he likes to sleep," Buck said with an affectionate smile.

"That's the truth. Vin's gonna stay with him while I go check on Inez," the black man said.

"H … How is she?" Chris asked hesitantly.

"She's fine. Has a headache still. Black eye." Chris grimaced at the reality that he had hurt such a nice person … a woman … so seriously. Nathan caught the change in his friend. "She really is all right. She understands what happened, even joked about it."

Buck slapped his leg. "She's a spitfire, that girl," Buck said. His expression changed from admiration for the feisty beauty to a decided wistfulness at what might have been. Chris smiled sadly, what he had done to this woman still at the forefront of his thoughts, but also sad that Buck would never have a chance with her. Chris knew that, with all the ladies Buck had been with in his life, even that woman from the territorial governor's visit who Buck had fallen hard for, none of them really held a candle to Inez Rocillos.

"What'd she say?" the former gunslinger asked.

"Said she'd make Ezra serve you from now on at the saloon, and then he still needed a smack for not realizing there was something wrong with you sooner." Chris smiled. He had heard from Mary that Inez didn't hold any ill will where he was concerned. He wasn't so sure about where he stood with Mary, as she delivered the information coldly and seemingly only because her friend had insisted.

"I ain't gonna do Inez's dirty work where Ezra's concerned. Anyway, seems to me he needs a smack more for a completely different reason."

"Amen to that," Buck and Josiah said at the same time.

"She won't be comin' back to work until tomorrow," Nathan advised his friends.

Chris looked around. "Then who … " he started, planning to ask who was running the saloon in her absence. He knew that Ezra usually took care of things when she had to be gone, for whatever reason, but he was currently out of commission. As he took a closer look around, Chris smiled at what he saw, a big, satisfied grin. He had gotten lucky to have chosen this town to stop in. So many people in Four Corners now seemed like family, like people he would not want to lose from his life. Behind the bar was Nettie Wells, and her niece Casey helping at the tables. He saw pies behind the bar, obviously offerings from Gloria Potter. And in the kitchen? Mary Travis. The leader of The Seven knew that he owed her a conversation, a talk that she had not wanted to have earlier this day. But until that time, it eased his heart when their eyes locked … and Mary sent him the warmest smile. He was very lucky indeed.

Chris downed the rest of his coffee, stood, and said, "I'm gonna go relieve Vin."

"You sure?" Nathan asked.

"I'm all right. Just tired. And it seems I owe Ezra an awful lot after what happened. Think I'd like to be there when he wakes up again."

"Remember I said that he'll likely sleep all day," Nathan reminded his friend.

"And if I could place a bet I'd say he'll wake up well before then. Best if someone's with him." Chris smiled and added, "'Sides, you wanted me to rest. That rocker's mighty comfortable."

"Sounds like a plan, Nate," Buck said.

"I don't disagree. Have someone come fetch me if he has any breathing trouble. And make sure he don't toss no pillows off the bed. He needs to stay sittin' up for another day or two. And take it easy on him. He's supposed to rest and not get agitated." Chris acknowledged the directives with a silent nod and then headed up the staircase.

"Mistah Larabee," Ezra called. Chris didn't reply. He appeared deeply asleep, but in the throes of a dream, a dream that was quickly transforming to a nightmare. "Mistah Larabee!" he called, trying to speak louder but knowing that his lack of strength to project was impacting his ability to bring the man out of his disturbed sleep. Ezra looked around him. A book sat on the nightstand. He reached for it. "Shit," he said, as it was slightly, just slightly out of reach. He scooted a little closer to the edge of the bed, and found himself woefully out of breath. He reached again, feeling the pain in his chest spike. "Fuck," he added, just as he was able to grab the book. He knew that the binding might hurt, but it wouldn't hurt nearly as bad as the punch Ezra had taken or the fall on top of the gunslinger's Colt. He aimed carefully, knowing that he only had one shot at this. He threw the book, moaning at the added ache in his chest. It landed high on Chris' chest, knocking him in the chin … and waking him up.

"What the … " he started, but realizing that he had a book on his chest where there had been no book when he'd made himself comfortable in the comfortable chair, he looked up and then over to Ezra, who was panting faintly. He jumped from his seat and asked, "What's wrong?"

"Nothin'," the gambler replied.

"Bullshit. I'm gonna get Nathan."

Ezra grabbed Chris' wrist. "Don't." He took a careful breath and said, "You … nightmare." His breathing was easing quickly as Ezra added, "Hit you with … Dickens." Following a good, less strained breath, Ezra finished, "Satisfying." He smiled.

"You are something else," Chris said as he re-positioned his friend back toward the center of the bed, making sure the pillows were plumped and that the con man was sitting well up against the headboard. He then grabbed the rocking chair and brought it closer to the bed.

"Thank you," Ezra answered, sounding near to normal.

"Why do you think that was a compliment?"

"Ah know it was."

"Well, you're right." Chris looked out the window, shook his head slightly and said, "Damn it, Ezra. I am so sorry … "

"Mistah Larabee," Ezra said, followed quickly by, "Chris. You ingested loco weed."

"God damned Faulkner."

"He warned you," Ezra said easily. From where Chris sat, the card sharp was doing pretty well.

"And none of us took it seriously."

Ezra shrugged his shoulder. "He came off, how shall Ah say, a little too crazy and not at all capable of pulling off such a scheme."

Chris looked at his friend. "I remembered Buck, I should have remembered we were friends, too."

"You didn't remember Josiah at all, Chris. You are very lucky that you are not dead, either from ingesting what Nathan believes was a substantial amount of that poisonous weed, or from someone shooting you while you were debilitated."

"I … Christ, Ezra, I assaulted a woman. Your woman."

Ezra laughed lightly, knowing that he was not supposed to while he was recovering, but unable to help himself. "Inez would not be pleased to be referred to as 'mah woman'. You would do well to refrain from saying such things in the lady's presence."

"You're changing the subject."

"The subject is that you were poisoned, you were out of your mind, you had no conception of what you were doing. Ah am sure Inez understands that, or will soon enough. She is an exceptional woman."

"I know that, Ez. But you … it still bothers me that I would treat you the way I did. Shit, the last thing I wanted to do before I passed out was punch you."

"Who told you?" Ezra asked.

"Buck couldn't wait."

"Yes, well, Mistah Wilmington should himself spend some time thinking about what transpired. Ah'd wager it was just his good fortune that you chose to forget the more recent of your friends. The next time he might not be so lucky, being at the other end of that spectrum."

"Next time? Hell, Ezra, next time I hope you know well enough to knock me unconscious and chain me to the bed."

"Ah do," the southerner said with a shrewd and some might say delighted smile.


"Mistah Larabee … "

"Damn it, Ezra. Can you please call me Chris?"

"Mah apologies," Ezra said as he settled heavily into the pillows that propped him up.

"What do you need, Ezra?"

"Chris, Ah was wonderin' … are you familiar with the songs of Stephen Foster?"

"You should sing that song to Señor Larabee," Inez said as she rested her head on Ezra's chest. The pretty Mexican was released from Nathan's care earlier in the day, but her friends insisted that she rest up, that the saloon would survive one more day without her. She chose to rest in Ezra's room. He had dressed earlier in the day, the first time he had been dressed in something other than his nightshirt in four days. Chris had helped him with his ablutions; he would not be allowed a real bath for another couple of days. Inez wore a pretty flowery skirt with a matching robin's egg blue blouse. 'God but she was beautiful,' Ezra thought. They had been either sick or injured enough from Chris's poisoning and its aftermath that it had been four days since they'd seen one another, and even though they were no longer a couple, that still seemed an unbearably long separation to them both.

"Ah am not singin' that song to Mistah Larabee."

"Why not? I think he would benefit from hearing the words. He needs to know that things are better for him, that he has friends who love and care for him. He needs to hear from his friends that his hard times are behind him."

"Ah will not be singin' that song to Mistah Larabee."

"Oh! What is wrong with you men?" She wanted to hit him, but she knew he was still healing and that he was supposed to remain quiet and calm in order for his lung to heal properly. He had been hurt far worse than she had, and there had been moments in these last days when she wished … well, she didn't wish to be dead because she knew that she had friends and she knew that her hard times were gone forever.

"We are what we are, mah dear. Nothin' is likely to change that." He felt Inez sigh and then snuggle in closer to him on the edge of his bed, his left arm wrapped around her. He could tell that she was trying to be gentle with him; he would not tell her that she was light as a feather and couldn't hurt him even if she tried. He cherished his life.

"I know," she said. Ezra knew that she was speaking of much more than her frustration with 'you men'.

Chris read through the song once more. The handwriting was Ezra's. The sentiment, special. He nodded as he read some lines, shook his head knowingly at others. He finished reading the lyrics, a faint grin coming to his face. He folded the paper up, placed it in the left inside pocket of his black jacket, and headed to the restaurant to meet everyone for supper. It would be their first meal together since that fateful day. It would be fine, he knew that it would be. It might be hard, but with his partners in crime and his friends, so many of whom were closer to him than any blood family, he knew that he could put those hard times behind. He would do it for Mary, who deserved a man who didn't need to run to the bottle every time some memory knocked him on his ass. He would do it for his good friends, men who would stand beside him, through the easy and the hard times in life. And he would do it for the town that he had sworn to protect. He would do so with, as President Lincoln had said, increased devotion to those who looked to him for help, for protection and as a role model. The last he had failed to provide any number of times over these last couple of years. But the text of Foster's song, as well as Ezra's obvious belief that the former gunslinger had it in him, convinced him that his future was brighter than he'd ever believed. And so Chris Larabee walked up the step to the restaurant, head held high.

The End.

Author's Note: Hard Times, Come Again No More was written by Stephen Foster in 1854. Find the Thomas Hampson version on the internet. It is sublime.