"I'm all right."

"Good lord, Vin, you are not all right. You have been perforated by a knife and a bullet. If you truly believe that qualifies as 'all right', Ah must insist that you allow me to make another examination of your head."

"Shut up, Ezra."

"Well that's more like it."

Ezra Standish and Vin Tanner were slowly making their way back to town. The two members of the law enforcement group now well-known as The Magnificent Seven had been sent out together to patrol the outlying areas of the high desert town. Recent criminal activity in the two nearest towns of Eagle Bend and Cisco in the form of theft of livestock, including horses, the personal belongings of the passengers on two different stagecoaches, the robbery of two different people riding into one town and out of the other, the robbery and shooting of a third and fourth person had all of the towns in this part of the territory on edge. It was the most recent action that had people truly frightened: the death of a well-liked whiskey drummer who had worked the territory for going on two years. The man was found dead, shot … in the back. The fact that the last acts included people getting shot or killed had Chris Larabee, the leader of the seven men protecting the town of Four Corners, worried that the escalation to killing placed these perpetrators at the point where they no longer cared that they were wanted or about the charges against them, that the increasingly violent run for the three men most likely meant more of the same, not less. That there were witnesses to most of these crimes meant that there would be a conviction, if they were caught. In light of these facts, there was no way that Chris would allow his men out there patrolling alone, and everyone had been so told. Vin and Ezra were the first to venture out together since Chris' pronouncement. Both men were especially alert for such an attack, and particularly swift and adept with their weapons. The three wanted men were under the mistaken impression, once they'd come upon the two regulators, that they were just surprising a pair of unknowing riders, but Vin's accomplished skills as a tracker had given the two lawmen a heads-up for trouble up the trail. The attack was no surprise, but Peso reacted poorly to the loud report from one of the lawless men's rifles, a big, booming sound similar to the weapon another member of The Seven, Buck Wilmington, fancied. Vin was tossed from his horse and fell to the ground, making him an unfortunate, easy target. Ezra had dispatched the man who shot his partner, a swift and deadly shot to the man's heart with his Remington, but was unable to prevent what happened next.

"Mistah Larabee was especially prescient with his edict," Ezra said as he kept Chaucer's gait slow. Despite Peso's flightiness earlier, he had remained nearby, waiting for his owner. Ezra knew that the horse would keep to the same pace set by his stablemate, especially sensing the injury to his man.

"Would ya speak fuckin' English!" Ezra closed his eyes at the admonishment and kept them moving forward.

Vin was shot by the second of the men who attacked them as he scrambled to make himself a moving target. Ezra shot this one as well, but it wasn't a kill shot. The man and Vin fought each other on the ground. The gangly criminal sliced through Vin's jacket and shirt with his knife, leaving a painful though not-too-deep two inch cut in his left arm. The bullet had skimmed the former buffalo hunter's side and not quite made its way out; Ezra, once he and Vin had let loose deadly shots on the last two men, was able to easily see and feel the bullet as it rested just under the skin, and cut it out. The former con man hoped that the new holes and additional blood stains in the smelly leather coat would convince Vin that it was finally time to retire it for a new one.

"Might Ah suggest," Ezra replied to the harsh demand from his hurting friend, "with both your foul mood, and mah quickly advancing one, that we not talk for the duration of our sojourn?"

"Best idea you've had all day," Vin grumbled, followed by a quiet, 'fuckin' sojourn', though not as quietly as he thought as Ezra heard the unpleasant complaint. The man in the fancy coat sighed as he started Chaucer toward home.

Ezra shook his head and kept to the deliberate pace, making sure, though he and Chaucer maintained said pace, that Vin stayed within easy view should he appear to waiver in his saddle. The southerner had to admit that the tenacity of his friend from Texas was something to admire. The short fuse when Vin was injured? Not quite so much.

Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington watched the slow stride of the two tired horses as the lawmen road into town nearly an hour and a half late. Buck headed over to notify Nathan, who was checking Billy Travis' sprained ankle, while Chris walked over to meet Vin and Ezra as their horses approached the livery. There was little point in stopping them sooner with the healer's rooms housed above the in-town stables.

"What happened?" Chris asked as he grabbed Peso's bridle. Neither man answered. Chris could feel the tension between the two men. He tried again. "What happened?"

Ezra looked to Vin, who appeared pretty done in. He sighed and then answered, "Mistah Tanner and Ah skirmished with the miscreants. Mist … um, Vin has sustained a bullet wound and a knife wound." Chris looked over to Vin; it was obvious the man was hurting.

"You all right?" the tall blond asked. The card sharp snorted. Vin sent him a glare of unqualified annoyance.

"Ezra took care o' the doctorin'," the tracker replied.

"Mistah Jackson needs to better address the cleanin' of the wounds," Ezra noted. "Ah believe Mistah Tanner … "

"I thought we agreed … " Vin said, turning his head back toward the professional poker player but not making the effort to look him in the eye. Ezra cut him off, knowing what would be said next.

"Vin will need an assist down from his horse," Ezra suggested tersely. "The three reprobates are dead. Their bodies are in a small cave out beyond the Barton homestead."

"Coulda helped, and I told ya I'm fine," Vin ground out angrily. Buck showed up just as the tracker spoke.

"That's good to hear, Vin, but ya look like hell."

"Shut up, Buck."

"Join the crowd, Mistah Wilmington."

"Shut up, Ezra."

"All right. That's enough. Let me help you down." Vin said no more and allowed his friend to ease him from his horse. They headed toward the clinic.

"Nate'll be there shortly," Buck called. He then looked up at Ezra, giving him a close inspection. The southerner was still astride his mount, but he wasn't sitting as straight and tall as he normally did. Ezra's training had him always project textbook carriage in a saddle; they all marveled at how he was able to keep that posture even under some of the most difficult of rides. Today he seemed unable to manage it; the man was tired, and he seemed unable to avoid showing it.

"You and Vin have words?"

Ezra's gold tooth shown through a sarcastic grin. It was in no way a smile; there seemed little about the day worth being happy about. "Some of us more than others," he replied softly.

"Look, why don't I buy ya a drink? Vin may look like hell, but you ain't lookin' your best, Hoss."

"Ah don't doubt that," Ezra admitted. "It has been a bit of a day," he added in clear understatement. The former con man dismounted, landing shakily and with a noticeable grunt.

"You okay?" Buck asked, a frown coming to his handsome face.

"Tired and sore, nothing that a strong libation and a hot bath won't cure." Ezra gave Chaucer a fond caress behind his right ear – the devoted equine's favorite spot – then handed the reins to Tiny. "Please treat him to some of the hull-less oats, if you would."

"Of course," the owner of the stables replied. Ezra handed him four bits. "No, that's not necessary, Mr. Standish."

"It's fine. Please take it, for Chaucer and Peso."

"It ain't … "

"Ah know, but it would be mah wish that you take it," Ezra said. He sounded exhausted, and just a little bit contrary.

"Thank you."

"Many thanks to you for your fine care of Chaucer, Tiny." Buck looked at his friend as he spoke with the livery man. It was more than unusual for Ezra to call Tiny by his first name, another indication of how not up to snuff the con man was.

As Buck and Ezra walked toward the saloon, the ladies' man observed a slight weave to the gambler's step. Damn if he didn't look like Vin, crooked gait in place of the smooth glide they were used to from the fancy dressing southern gentleman. Buck reached out, re-directing his friend with a light touch to his back.

"Ah!" Ezra yelped as he quickly stepped away from the touch. The sudden action caused another pained moan from the gambler.

"Shit!" Buck said, pulling his hand back as though he'd been burned. Ezra was now stopped, his breathing labored. "Ez?" the mustachioed man asked, not bothering to reach out again, even though his friend seemed less steady now than just seconds before.

"Ah … Ah seem to have bruised mah back when the last miscreant used his rifle as a croquet mallet." The card sharp was stooped over in an effort to find a way to avoid the pain. "He was aimin' for mah head, but Ah twisted and turned and ducked, and took the hit significantly lower."

"Let's get ya back over to Nate's."

Ezra looked first, longingly, over to the saloon, and then back the way they had come. It seemed the same distance to either place, by the gamester's estimate.

"Ah know Ah should at least have Mistah Jackson confirm that it is simply bruising, possibly some pulled muscles, but Ah must admit that returnin' to Vin's presence is not currently at the top of mah list."

"Well, lookin' at ya, there ain't nothin' simple about how you're hurtin'."

"No," the ailing man agreed.

"Let's just take it slow, let Nate get a look at ya, then get ya back to that nice bed o' yours," Buck suggested, his compassionate nature making itself know in the gentle handling of his friend.

"Very well." They made their way back slowly, very slowly, so slowly that Gloria Potter was easily able to catch up with them as they walked along the street. The lawmen had deemed the boardwalk out of the question, the up and down between buildings not worth the added pain that the gambler would suffer.

"Mr. Standish. Good heavens, dear, what happened?"

"Mistah Tanner and Ah have sent to their final reward the men who have been causing such distress to our communities."

"I am sure we all appreciate that. You gentlemen always have the safety of all of us foremost in your efforts, but I was talking about you. Are you injured?" the widow and, for going on three years now, single mother asked.

"Nothing that will not heal, especially with the good care from our fine healer." It was a subtle hint that he wanted to get moving, but not so subtle that the smart businesswoman didn't catch on.

"Well," she said as she squeezed his arm affectionately, "I'll send over some of that tea you like, I just got some in yesterday, and I made some scones this morning."

"Missus Potter, Ah really am not hungry … "

"Of course not, dear. But you will be. I'll have them wrapped well and Inez can place them in the cool of the cellar." The chill of late January would likely keep them for quite a few days in the cold room in the saloon's basement. "Maybe you will feel up to eating them tomorrow."

Ezra smiled, forced though it was. He ached horribly, the thought of food made him sick to his stomach, as did the thought of Nathan prodding him to confirm something about which Ezra was already certain. And he was most assuredly in no mood to go another round with Vin Tanner.

"You are a kind, thoughtful woman." Ezra reached for Gloria's hand and kissed it. Her blush was near-immediate.

"I hope you feel better soon," the mercantile owner said.

"Thank you."

Buck waited for Ezra to start moving and then said, "That hurt, didn't it? Reaching for her hand?"

"Miserably."

Buck snorted a laugh. "You may not be as obvious about it as me, but you got yourself a fondness for the ladies, and you like to show it as much as I do."

Ezra grunted as he stepped into a puddle, the noise caused by added pain to his back or the muddy wetness marring his fancy boot Buck could not say.

"Ah would nevah be as obvious as you, Buck, but Ah do have a fondness for particular women, that is true."

"You got a thing for Gloria Potter?" Buck questioned slyly.

"Ah do not, but if Ah were ten years older and certain that Ah was ready to settle down, she is precisely the type of woman Ah would hope that Ah would choose. Between her goodness and her need for a fathah for her young children … "

"Or if she was ten years younger."

"Either way."

"Hell, Ez, you're already helpin' her with the fatherin' of her kids. They love ya and would do anything you say."

"Gloria Potter's children are charming examples of smart, amusin', well-raised … ." Ezra paused, thinking about how hard it still was for the busy woman since the murder of her husband. "She has done an amazin' thing, stayin' here to raise her children alone."

"She ain't alone, not anymore. Neither is Mary," Buck noted. "They got a town full o' folk who care about them, help with the kids." Ezra nodded his head, his hat moving faintly as the motion appeared to aggravate his injury. "This town is full of special women."

"It is indeed."

They continued their slow walk when Buck asked, "You and Inez?"

Ezra squinted up at his friend, glanced at him askance, knowing what Buck was fishing at, took his thumb and rubbed his bottom lip, a tell that they had all learned meant that Ezra was considering his next words carefully, and offered in reply, "Inez and Ah … still are."

"All right, then," Buck said, his smile broad. Ezra would like to think that his friends were happy for him, that he had found something special in the fiery Mexican beauty, even if he still wasn't sure where he and his inamorata were headed. And Buck Wilmington? Three years ago he would be worried about the man continuing to try to steal Inez from him. Today, he knew Buck far better and could never see the town Lothario do such a thing to a friend. He felt lucky to call such a man friend.

Chris was still at the clinic when Buck opened the door and held it for the slightly stooped gambler.

"What happened to you?" Chris asked.

"He got hurt out fightin' those idiots," Buck replied.

"No he didn't," Vin said from the bed.

"This was a mistake," Ezra said quietly, so softly only Buck and Chris could have heard it. The former con man turned and headed back for the door.

"Hold on a minute, Ez," Chris said as he reached for the card sharp. He pulled firmly back on Ezra's shoulder, really only enough that it would normally just have stopped the man, but not anywhere near enough to hurt him. Not so this time. The touch caused a gurgle of pain to the man in the aubergine jacket, the sound strange and an obvious attempt to hide just how much agony he was feeling. His knees buckled and he headed down; Buck was fortuitously positioned to catch the downward spiral of his friend and gently cushioned what might have been a mighty crash to the floor.

"God damn it!" Buck said. "Don't touch 'im 'til Nate gets a look at him," the lean gunman said to no one in particular. "Sorry, Ez. Shoulda taken ya to your room and brought Nathan to see ya."

"What's wrong, Ezra?" Nathan asked as he rushed over and knelt on the floor beside the ailing man. As the healer spoke to the poker playing lawman, the most worrisome situation in the room was about to make itself known.

Buck Wilmington was by no means done with what he wanted to say. As he gave Ezra one last affectionate pat on his arm, leaving Nathan with Ezra, now prone on the small corner cot, Buck addressed the other wounded man in the room.

"Vin, I know you're hurt, but that ain't no excuse for this shit. I don't know what exactly is goin' on with you and Ezra. I got me an inkling, but it don't really matter what's got you two at odds. Ezra saved your life today. I would suggest that if you got anything more to say to Ez today other than 'thank you', that you should damn well keep it to yourself."

"Ah, hell!" Nathan said, just as Chris asked, "What the hell is goin' on?"

The answer to that question would have to wait.

Buck wasn't really finished berating the tracker but Nathan's exclamation had him turn back to see what was happening. "What?" he asked worriedly.

"Ezra, your back's spasming, right?" the healer asked.

"Christ," the gambler murmured in tortured reply.

"Try to relax," Nathan said.

"C … Can't."

"Chris, grab that green and gray can up on the top shelf, on the right. Buck, put two o' those rocks on top of the stove." The two friends did as they were instructed. They could hear Ezra's stifled moans as Nathan removed the gambler's jacket, guns, vest, tie and shirt. Finally, the silk undershirt was removed. Though Ezra's cohorts weren't likely to wear the fancy-cuffed dress shirts or the brocade vests or the boldly-colored jackets that typified the southerner's wardrobe, they had all taken to wearing silk undergarments in the winter. Well, all but Vin and Buck, who both seemed determined to stick with what they knew. What they all used to think of as a peculiar peccadillo of the elegant gambler, Chris and Josiah, Nathan and J.D. soon learned was as warm as it was comfortable.

Chris handed Nathan the can. "This that stuff that stinks to high heaven?" the tall blond asked.

"It'll put some heat on the spot quick. Once the rocks warm up, I'll wipe it off him," the healer said as he spread the foul-smelling goop on Ezra's back. "Down here, Ez? This where it hurts most?" The area was taut but pulsed involuntarily.

"It all h … hurts," the card sharp eked out. Ezra started an open-mouthed pant, and they all knew what that meant.

"Buck," Nathan directed as he nodded his head to the nearby bucket. "You might want to move, Chris," the black man suggested.

"S … Sorry," Ezra slurred as the congenial ladies' man set the container in place just in time. Nathan kept the sick man pushed over on his side. Chris went to the far side of the bed and, from behind, placed his hands on either side of Ezra's face, carefully keeping his knee just behind the sick man's back. It was an action that appeared to everyone there a familiar one for a man who years ago had only just begun raising a little boy and who helped his wife through that pregnancy and had been there for Sarah in the difficult early stages of a second one, and now no longer had his wife or his son, but could no longer say that he did not have family.

"Don't got nothin' to be sorry about, Ez," Buck said as he pushed the former con man's damp bangs from his eyes. Ezra's complaints of late had garnered complaints from his friends for going on a week now, the man with the auburn locks persistently moaning about missed opportunities where this part of his grooming was concerned. All of his friends had threatened to cut the bangs while the man slept. Mr. Latham, the town's barber, had three daughters and a large number of grandchildren. They were family that the man visited often, much to Ezra's dismay. His hair had grown long more than once as the professional poker player waited for the barber to return from Santa Fe or Denver or Durango.

As Ezra suffered through the last of the dry heaves, Vin asked, "Why didn't ya say somethin', Ezra?" Buck stopped Vin in his tracks.

"Did you forget what I said? I ain't gonna say it again."

Vin ran his fingers through his long, wavy hair. "I just want … "

"Vin," Chris said, not loudly but as demanding as though he had yelled it. The former bounty hunter turned to his closest friend. "You need to stay quiet. Ez don't need this right now."

Vin whipped his blanket off and started to get up from his place in the big bed. Nathan saw the movement. He'd done what he could for Ezra, for now. Buck and Chris remained close to the sick man, so the former stretcher bearer during the war rose and stood in front of the Texan.

"Lay back down."

"I don't need to stay here."

Nathan shook his head. Such stubborn men he had to deal with. "You're mad at yourself and you're mad at Ezra. You're hurt and tired and you're not thinkin' straight. Lay down," Nathan ordered. Vin glared at the imposing black man, a gentle man, but a man who could be as hard as any of them when pushed. "I ain't against knockin' ya out to keep you in that bed."

Exhausted, hurting and damned angry, at so many things, and drained of all energy, Vin Tanner stood down and lay back on the bed.

"Nate?" Buck asked.

"Yeah." The healer turned to leave Vin to stew for a bit. "Let's get those rocks and wrap 'em and put 'em up against his back. Get that small piece o' blanket on that chair to put between his back and the wrapped up rocks. We'll put a pillow or two behind them, keep them and him in place. That spasm should ease in a while with the balm and the heat of the rocks." Nathan placed two more rocks on the stove, just in case. He poured some water from the tea kettle into a mug and grabbed the familiar receptacle where he kept the combination of herbs for pain. He looked over to Vin again and pulled down a second mug. Chris joined the healer at the stove.

"So, what do you see?"

"He's gotta be hurtin' somethin' awful. Can't hardly believe he got himself back on his horse."

"Shit."

"What?" Nathan asked.

"He moved all three bodies into a cave."

The healer shook his head. "He's got a couple o' cracked ribs, but the bruising is my real worry. And that spasm likely means he's got some damage to a muscle, too. And Chris, that hit was pretty low."

"Hell. Don't tell me."

"It might be all right, but he did get hit just above the kidney. No matter what, he's gonna be on bed rest for at least a week," Nathan summarized for his boss.

Chris looked over at Vin when he asked, "Can we move him to his room?" The tracker looked up alarmingly at the question. Chris' stare never wavered. He wanted Vin to know that what the tracker guessed was right, that they were trying to get Ezra away from him. The change in Vin's expression, from anger to shame, did not go unnoticed by the leader of The Seven.

'Good,' Chris thought.

"I'm gonna have him drink some tea, let him rest here for a while. He should be drowsy enough from what he's goin' through right now," Nathan explained, just the effort of fighting the pain could be exhausting, "that with the tea should keep him asleep until early evening. If he wants to, we'll move him, after I wrap those ribs."

"All right."

"Chris," Vin said. Nathan looked at his boss, shook his head, and then headed over to Ezra, handing one of the mugs to the former gunslinger.

"Let's wait 'til Ezra's asleep. Drink this." Vin did drink the nasty tasting beverage without complaint, knowing that the soothing effects would be worth the momentary bad taste in his mouth. The two men listened to the healer speak to the gambler, two men from the south, so different from one another, but men who had found hard-fought commonality and managed an unlikely, some would say impossible friendship. It said much about their characters that they were able to overcome such difficult shared history.

The healer stepped over to his other patient. He nodded to Buck, who took the silent direction and positioned himself behind the gambler.

"Ezra," Nathan started, so softly that the two men at the large bed struggled to hear. "Need you to drink this." The black man could tell that the nasty-smelling liniment and the warm rocks were doing exactly what he had hoped: allow the gambler to relax enough to counter the rippling spasm, to let it run its course. The hurting man was laying on his side, but he was aware enough to know that he would have to sit more upright to take the leafy brew.

"Ah was … hopin' Ah would not be r … required to move again, unless it … meant returnin' to mah f … featherbed." Again, the words were spoken quietly, as though the two men conversing were the only people in the room.

"Sorry, Ezra. Not yet. Let's see how you feel after restin' up some." Buck took the nod from the former slave as his direction to move the gaming man.

"Ez, I'm gonna just lift yer shoulder some so you can drink Nathan's swill," the former Texas Ranger and de facto nurse said to his friend.

"Very well, though Ah feel c … compelled to warn you, Buck, that b … between the odor emanating from mah back and the flavor of this fine tea, we may all wish to p … prepare for the swill's reappearance." The southerner drank the hot beverage down in its entirety, hopeful that it would begin to soothe as quickly this day as it normally did. The herby plant-based grittiness of the drink was not sitting well on his palate or in his stomach, but Ezra chose to retain that knowledge for himself … and hope for the best.

"Don't tell Inez that I didn't put any honey in it," Nathan teased.

"Ah would not," Ezra noted in a near-whisper. "Ah would not wish her wrath on a p … person Ah rely on so often and so critically. Ah t … trust that you know Ah criticize your healing potions b … because of their abhorrent taste; Ah would n … never wish that you take mah condemnation of them personally."

"I know that. You just rest now."

After Buck and Nathan had Ezra lying comfortably on his side once more, the new bricks replacing the old, the healer leaned over, brushed the long bangs from Ezra's forehead, as Buck had done earlier, and asked, "How're you feelin'?"

Ezra opened weary, dull eyes and said honestly, "Nathan, Ah feel … " he began, but the healer saw in his friend's eyes an unwillingness to go on. The black man knew what was going on. The private gentleman from the south, who had been taught never to show his hand, whether it be in cards or any personal weakness, was aware enough of the fact that he had an audience.

"I'll have Chris and Buck head on out," Nathan assured his patient.

Ever so softly, Ezra asked, "And Vin?" He followed the question with a yawn. "Excuse me. Is your tea workin' m … more swiftly than normal?"

"Probably not. But that spasm you had took a lot out of you. And you were fightin' off the pain for a long time to make sure you got Vin back here." Nathan patted Ezra's exposed arm. "I'll be right back."

"Vin?" Ezra asked again. The healer looked over to the bed. He saw that his other patient was watching, he may even have heard the gambler ask about him. The compassionate black man knew that Ezra couldn't see the tracker in his current position, and his back was not going to allow him to turn to see whether or not Vin was still awake, or even still in the room. Nathan didn't want to lie, and he didn't want to hurt Vin's feelings but, at the moment, Ezra's needs won out.

The former slave leaned in close and said so only Ezra could hear, "He's sleeping. I did give him an extra-strong cup." He hadn't, but neither of the two men needed to know that.

"Tha's good," Ezra slurred. "He cert'nly is hurtin'. Ah d … don' think he would've been s …so orn'ry on th' trail if 'is inj'ries weren't p …painin' 'im so." It didn't seem that Ezra would be awake much longer. Nathan gave his friend's arm another affectionate rub.

"You're a good man, Ezra."

The card sharp fell asleep before Nathan could have the conversation he wanted to have, the conversation Ezra seemed to desperately want to have. The healer stood and turned to the rest of the room.

"He's asleep."

"Did he say anything?" Chris asked.

"No, not really."

"What's that mean?" Buck asked. "You're not Ezra, Nate. You don't normally hedge your bets."

"What I mean," the black man said, his anger impossible to hide, "is that I couldn't get him to tell me how he was feeling before he fell asleep. And I wasn't going to force him to stay awake when he wasn't gonna … " Nathan stopped, not sure he wanted to continue with his train of thought. What would it gain any of them?

"He wasn't gonna what?" Chris asked.

"He didn't want to talk with all of you here. Fell asleep before he had a chance to really say anything," Nathan replied, sending a scowl Buck's way.

"That's not surprising, is it?" the blond gunman asked.

"He was getting ready to tell me, but then he stopped. He didn't want to say anything in front of his friends. His friends," Nathan reiterated. "Once he realized you were still here, Vin especially, he couldn't close his mouth fast enough."

"He's really asleep?" Chris asked.

"Yeah," Nathan answered irritably. The healer was angry. He had questions of his own. Why couldn't Ezra be up front about injury when it struck? What the hell did Vin say to make the gambler so reluctant to be in his company? And why the hell did Chris just question what he'd just damned told him?

"Sorry, Nate. It's been a bad couple o' weeks. Havin' these two come back hurt and not getting along wasn't exactly the outcome I was hoping for." Chris had paired them up and he felt damned guilty about how everything ended up.

"I know," the healer replied. He turned to Vin. "So? What's goin' on with you two? What happened out there?"

Vin looked from Nathan to Chris and then back to Nathan. Then he looked out the window and said, "Nothin'." Chris, Buck and Nathan just stared at the former buffalo hunter.

"Nothin'," Chris said.

"Nope."

Christ. So this was how it was going to be. Damned tracker was going to give one or two word answers and say absolutely nothing as he did it.

"Now Vin, that ain't even at all likely," Buck started. "We know you killed those three wanted men. I know that 'cause ya said so, and once I'm done here I'll be headin' out with J.D. to pick up some dead bodies. That ain't nothin'. And you got shot and knifed, and that ain' nothin'." It seemed that none of the three men interrogating Vin was interested in letting the bullshit answer ride.

"And Ezra cleaned and dressed your wounds," Chris said.

"Did a good job, too," Nathan added.

Chris kept his eyes on his reticent friend. "None of that qualifies as nothin', Vin," Chris noted. The former bounty hunter remained frustratingly mute. "Vin, what happened between you and Ezra?"

"Wouldn't shut up."

"Well hell, Vin. That ain't news," the notorious, territorially-speaking, ladies' man said. Vin let loose a 'pfft', but didn't add more to the story.

"Hold on," Chris said. He looked down at the recumbent gambler. "Are you sayin' that he's the reason you were attacked? Is that why you're so reluctant to say anything?" He hardly gave Vin a chance to respond when he continued, "He was yappin' when you told him to be quiet?" the now-fuming former gunslinger said as he moved toward the small cot. "I don't care if he is hurt, sounds like he brought it on himself, and got you shot and knifed. Damned lucky the shot fired didn't kill ya." The leader of The Seven was ready to rouse the exhausted and injured card sharp, but Buck grabbed his arm to prevent him from getting too close, and Vin and Nathan yelled the same thing.

"No!"

The urgency of the raised voices brought Ezra out of a light snore, but he was so exhausted and out of it that he made the movement that would normally release his Derringer from its mechanism. It brought no results, so he moved to get up from the bed to find a weapon to defend his brethren, but that only resulted in stabbing pain in his back. A loud yelp of pain was followed by the gambler falling back onto the cot. He moaned pitifully at the pain, and then he reached for the side of the bed as his back began seizing once more.

Nathan raced to his patient as he said quietly but full of venom, "I ain't afraid to tell you that I will throw you out of here, bodily if I have to, Chris, if you hurt him physically or verbally any more today. Now get out. Buck, hand me those hot rocks before you get him out of here," the healer ordered. Buck did as he was told, and then escorted Chris to the door.

"I wouldn't hurt him," Chris said. Nobody in the room who had witnessed the threatening movement the man made toward the resting poker player believed him. "All right, when I thought … "

"You didn't think, old pard. You hadn't even finished hearing what Vin had to say before you'd already formed your opinion. The wrong opinion," Buck said, challenging his old friend.

Chris turned back into the room, determined to defend himself. "Maybe I wouldn't be assumin' shit if Vin would just damn well say what the fuck happened!" The raised voice had Ezra moving again, and the healer as near to livid as any of them had ever seen him. "Sorry," Chris said softly.

"I know you know words can hurt just as much as inflicting physical pain," Nathan said. "Even though he's out of it, it don't mean he might not hear some of what's goin' on. Just try to keep it down."

"Yeah," Chris said as he swiped his hair from his forehead. He sighed, looked to the injured tracker, and nearly pleaded, "Vin."

"He … He knows his fancy words get to me."

"Yeah. And?" Buck asked.

"Well, after flyin' off Peso and gettin' shot and stabbed … "

"Did Ezra not do his part in the fight?" Nathan asked. Buck and Chris looked to the former slave. It was a thought that had never once crossed their consciousness since the time the gambler had left them at the Seminole village. They couldn't believe that the black man really thought that, and he showed his true feelings on the subject of Ezra Standish and standing to cover a friend's back with his next utterance. "I know he did, but did you see it differently?"

"No, Ezra did fine. Shot two of 'em."

"Vin, it ain't often I want to punch you, but I'm feelin' awful like doin' just that right now," Chris said, frustration oozing from his very being.

"Look, I was wrong. When he wakes, I'll tell him so."

"I ain't too sure that's good enough, Vin," Buck said. "It wasn't all that long ago where ya took another wrong stance with Ez," the mustachioed man reminded them all.

"Yeah, I know."

"Tell us exactly … " Nathan began, but Vin cut him off.

"I was hurt, and it made me mad. Ezra had to do more to get us out of it, and he got hurt and didn't tell me." He watched as his three friends readied to defend the card sharp. "I know, I didn't know that at the time. Don't matter. He started in with the fancy talk and I didn't need no other reason ta be mad at him. I told him to talk English; he thought it would be best if we didn't talk at all. I told him that was the best idea he had all day. And that was it."

They all looked at the former bounty hunter as he kept his head down. He was obviously pained by what he'd done. That he'd been like this with Ezra twice in less than a month told Chris Larabee that he had a problem, but he'd be damned if as the leader of The Magnificent Seven he knew what to do about it. Nathan moved closer to Ezra again as he moaned and started to move restlessly. Chris looked from Ezra to Vin. For now, it seemed the best thing for Vin was to let him sleep. Maybe with a good night's sleep the Texan would come up with a solution on his own. Chris hoped that was the case, but he knew he had to take some action to prevent another blow-up from the upset man in the bed. The former gunslinger looked over to the healer when he heard him curse.

"N … Nathan," Ezra pleaded, his voice quavering.

"I'm sorry, Ez. Just relax. You just gotta ride it out." Vin watched from the bed, Buck and Chris stood farther away, closer to the door, as he recognized how so much of Ezra's suffering today was all his fault. And it wasn't like this was the only pain he had caused the man in the last month. The tracker remembered that fateful day as clear as if it had just happened. He lowered his head and shook it as he wondered how a man such as himself, a man who placed such faith in words in his poems yet had not done so good of a job of learning to read them, could use them in such a mean-spirited way with a man that he had grown to care for like a brother. He knew that he hadn't lived up to the Tanner name in words and actions this new year; it wasn't just his friends in Four Corners who he had let down of late.


When Chris stopped in the clinic the next morning, he found the same foursome that he had left there the previous night. Ezra was asleep, but now he was in the bed not the cot. Vin and Buck appeared to be on their way out.

"What's goin' on?"

"Vin's wounds are healin' good. He's gonna take Ezra's room for today and tonight and get a good day and night of rest, right Vin?" the healer questioned sharply.

"Yeah," the tracker answered, barely heard.

"You sure?" Chris asked both Nathan and Vin. But Buck snuck in and explained what was going to happen.

"I'm takin' him over. I got the tea in my pocket," he said as he patted his jacket. "We're gonna have breakfast, we're gonna check on Vin's and Ezra's horses, even though I already told Vin that J.D. took good care o' both of 'em, and then Vin is gonna have my sparkling company until he falls asleep, after havin' some o' Nathan's skunk piss, of course."

"All right." Chris saw the shake of the head from Nathan, so he said no more and let Vin and Buck leave. "So?"

"Ez had two more bad bouts of his back seizin' up on him. It's terrible painful when it's happening, it ain't much better once it's over, and he ain't slept good all night. Gave him as strong a dose of laudanum as he would take … "

"He hates that stuff," Chris noted.

"Yeah, but he took it. Josiah was here earlier so we moved him to the more comfortable bed."

"Looks like he's out," Chris observed.

"He is, mostly, but if ya watch carefully, his back spasms pretty often, 'bout every fifteen minutes or so. He took a bad hit, Chris. I talked more with Vin. He's real mad at Ezra for a few things, but two of 'em got nothin' to do with anything Ezra did wrong."

"What'd he say?"

"Said he don't want no one doin' for him if it means they're gonna get hurt, or hurt themselves more. He thinks Ezra hurt himself more while he was tendin' Vin's injuries, took care of the bodies, when he helped him up onto Peso, when he shadowed him back to town."

"Well, didn't he?"

"Probably, but not consciously. You know, just like we all would, he put his own hurt out of his mind. And he might not even have felt the worst of the pain from that hit and the pulled muscles until he got back to town, had a chance to relax, knowin' he got both of them back safe, have the stress and excitement of bein' in danger wear off."

"Shit."

"Yeah."

"And the other?"

"Vin started to learn to read and write with Mrs. Travis."

"I know. A couple o' years ago, not long after we all decided to stay put here."

Nathan nodded. "Ezra offered to help him, back then. I guess they had … words at that time. Ez felt bad, wanted to make amends, but Vin turned him down," Nathan explained.

"It's Vin's choice who he wants to learn from," Chris suggested.

"I don't disagree, but unfortunately, Vin didn't keep up with the lessons."

Chris knew this. As he and Mary Travis grew closer, they had plenty of opportunity to talk to one another, about so many things. The other men who worked with Chris to protect the town were always high on that list. Mary found the men and their relationships endlessly fascinating. Her son Billy took up a lot of their free time, as did Mary's father-in-law … the man who into his senior years continued his work as a judge and acted as the boss to the seven men. Discussions took place about good friends in town and difficult ranchers on the outskirts of it who still, after being shut well down by the lawmen and having the example of Robert Merton to follow in their business dealings, persisted in feeling that all of the land was their own, to use and discard as they saw fit. The schoolmarm was also a difficult topic of discussion, especially considering that they still did not have one.

"Again," Chris said, "that's Vin's decision." He wouldn't mention that he'd encouraged his friend as recently as the Thanksgiving holiday that he might want to consider regular appointments with Mary again.

"He knows that, and that's why he's finding it harder to be around Ezra," Nathan explained. "He sees Ezra, always with a book on his bedside table, one in his saddlebag, a magazine or newspaper always with him as he joins us for meals, reading all about those things that Vin can't ever know. He really regrets not keepin' up with the lessons from Mrs. Travis. He said he'd like to ask Ezra, thinks it would work, but he thinks he's ruined his chances. He thinks Ez wouldn't even consider it, seein' as how Vin's been treatin' him like shit for a while now." Chris looked at the healer. "And that 'treatin' him like shit' part was Vin's words."

Chris shook his head. He knew that his slow acceptance of Ezra had been more the result of his own failures than from anything Ezra had really done. Sure, the gambling still sometimes caused them trouble, but in most every other respect, Ezra Standish was a valuable member of the law of Four Corners, and a good friend. As slow as Chris had been to fully accept the gambler, Vin was shockingly willing and able early on to stand by the card sharp, which was why his recent bad behavior where Ezra was concerned was so perplexing. And apparently, despite the friendship between the two from the outset, Vin still didn't really know the southerner very well.

"There ain't nothin' Ezra would like better than ta have Vin ask him to help him with reading and writing," Chris said.

"Ah don't know, Mistah Larabee. Findin' some peace and quiet, that would be at the top of mah list, and much appreciated."

The lean man in black stepped over to the bed and took a seat in the chair beside it. He smiled, pleased to hear the lilting southern accent. He was even happy to hear the smart-ass attitude.

"You're awake."

"Indeed. Mistah Jackson has given me a different palliative." Chris looked to Nathan for a translation.

"Different combination of herbs and just a little laudanum for the pain," the healer explained.

Ezra offered a smile, something that he hadn't done for real since coming back into town with Vin. "Ah am feelin' much improved." Chris looked to Nathan once more, unable to hide his disbelief at the admission from the man who was in so much pain the previous day and had experienced more back spasms through the night.

"Mighta given 'im too much. He's still got pain," he told Chris, and then to Ezra, "so don't go tryin' to get up. You may be feelin' good now, but that's only 'cause you ain't movin'."

"Nathan … " Ezra started, but the would-be doctor interrupted.

"I know, Ez. One of the herbs I used is supposed to have a special calming effect on muscles," the former slave said.

"The relaxing effect has been notable," Ezra confirmed. He yawned, then blinked, his lids heavy with sleep. "Mah apologies if Ah should nod off. It would have nothing whatsoevah to do with your stellah conv'sat'nal skills."

Chris snorted a laugh. "Nate, is there somethin' in that concoction that's affecting the measurement of Ezra's bullshit?" he asked.

"Nah, he comes by that naturally."

"Ha, ha," the recovering lawman said. He was asleep at his next breaths. Chris stepped away and spoke softly to the healer.

"How is he, really?"

"He'll need a couple more days here. He really shouldn't be up and down stairs for a while. He won't be gettin' that much of the 'palliative' once he's back in his room. Figure he may stay put for another day or so. Sitting is going to be very painful, but he's not likely to listen about that until he's been sittin' a while and then can't get up."

"We'll deal with that when the time comes."


"You and Ezra talk?" The older man sat down next to the tracker, who was quietly nursing a cup of coffee, his breakfast plate sitting empty nearby.

"No."

"You waitin' on an invitation? Ezra ain't likely to extend it." Josiah had been brought up to date on the distance that had developed between the two men. And he was not inclined to let things remain as they were, especially in light of the fact that the tracker owed the gambler an explanation if not a full-on apology.

"I guess I don't know what ta say, 'siah." Ezra hadn't been in much shape for a talk while he recovered in Nathan's clinic. The pain had taken all of his energy, especially once Nathan finally figured out a dosage that stopped putting him in a drugged-but-faux-happy haze. The con man was moved to his room earlier in the morning, a full five days after Vin moved in to Ezra's room to heal. He'd healed well, and not been to see Ezra in all that time.

"I'm gonna suggest that you think on what you want to say to him, because he's not in a great mood, and Chris and me figure that a lot of that has to do with you. Inez is gonna send up a nice meal for each of you. Be in his room at twelve-thirty. You don't want me to hear that you stood him up, and you really don't want Chris to hear it." The big former preacher stood and walked out of the saloon.

Vin sat a while longer, taking an occasional taste of his now cold coffee. He had not seen any other of the lawmen this morning. He wondered if everyone knew he was here and decided to have their breakfast at the restaurant in an effort to avoid the miserable temperament he'd been showing since he and Ezra returned from that fated patrol.

He stood, barely feeling even the slightest twinge from either of his injuries. Nathan said more than once that Ezra's good doctoring had done the former bounty hunter a world of good in how well he had recovered. It was just one more frustration for him, one more thing he owed to Ezra that he had no idea how to deal with. He left the saloon and headed for the livery. Josiah was right, he really didn't need to have either the preacher or Larabee all over him about avoiding Ezra. And he had been avoiding Ezra. Maybe time spent grooming Peso and Chaucer would give him the time to think about what he wanted to say to his friend. It wasn't a fancy word – friend - not fancy the way Ezra would speak, but he really hoped that he chose the right word, that they could still be friends after the renewed troubles this week.

Vin would never be able to say how long he'd really spent grooming first Peso, and then Chaucer. He didn't know what time it was when he left the saloon. And he would admit that he was so into the task at hand – now giving Chaucer a good brushing – that it would have been far too easy for a bounty hunter to grab him, so deep in thought was he as he performed the actions on the horses, by rote.

"You're gonna be late," Buck said as he entered the opposite side of the livery from where his horse was kept.

"Does everyone know my business?" the long-haired man asked irritably.

"You can take it to the bank that we wish we didn't, Vin." Buck hesitated with the brush, just briefly, and then continued. "I don't like bein' like this, Vin, but you ain't been makin' it easy. It's a small man who can't fess up to a wrong, 'specially when he's wronged a friend."

Vin stopped brushing Chaucer, putting aside the brush and grabbing an apple from the pocket of his coat which lay across several stacked bales of hay. He cut it in half and gave Ezra's horse the first half, followed quickly by the second. He petted the horse behind his ear, Chaucer's favorite spot for a good scratch, and then grabbed his coat. He turned to Buck and said, "'s not likely he thinks of me as a friend anymore." He headed for the exit, walking past the ladies' man, but Buck grabbed Vin's arm roughly and forced him back around to face him.

"I'm gonna tell you somethin', Vin," Buck said through gritted teeth.

"You won't be the first," Vin responded angrily.

"I don't doubt that. Seems like no matter what reasonable shit you hear from your friends, you choose to ignore it. But I ain't got nothin' but time today, so I guess it's my turn to waste my breath. Ezra is your friend. You probably don't know it 'cause you've only spent time listening to the bad advice that you're givin' yourself, but Ezra is probably the best friend you got in this town right now. He's the only one who hasn't had to watch you act like an ass. You ain't earned no grudge on this, Vin. So it's 'bout time ya got your head out of your ass."

The two men stared at each other, neither blinking, just waiting. Finally, after far too long, Vin sighed, shook his head and looked down at his boots. Buck remained quiet as he waited for whatever the former buffalo hunter had in mind next. Vin finally looked up and said, "You got anything else ta say?"

"Yeah. You got five minutes to get your butt over to Ezra's room. Chris is pissed, and he ain't gonna go easy on ya, but Josiah? Whatever payback he's got planned, you're gonna get hurt."

Vin nodded and walked to the exit. "Hey, Vin," Buck called.

The tracker stopped. "Yeah?"

"Good luck." Vin nodded and then continued walking. On his way, he saw Mary Travis, who offered an encouraging smile, J.D., who turned away from him. Once he had things squared with Ezra, it looked like he had some work to get back into the kid's good graces. He passed a few other people who obviously knew more about the situation than he would have liked, but Vin also knew that what he'd been doing was more the coward's way out than he'd ever acted in his life. He reached the saloon, saw Inez behind the bar. The look she gave him was one of both disappointment and hope.

"I will be up with your meal shortly." She walked over to the end of the bar, where Vin joined her. "He has been hoping to see you. He wishes to resolve your differences." He nodded his understanding, and then she spoke for herself. "You must fix this, Senor Vin. It is not right and I will not allow him to continue to hurt over something that may not be. You must decide if he is worth the pain you may go through in order to fix this."

Vin raised sorrowful blue eyes to the beautiful woman. "It's worth it. He's worth it. I just don't want to make anything worse," he admitted.

"There is nothing for him that has been worse than thinking that you and he could no longer work together, and enjoy each other's company away from your work. Nada." Her eyes were big and pleading and full of worry. Vin nodded again and then took the stairs up to Ezra's room.

He reached the door and stood at the threshold. He would have to knock and call out his name so as to not worry the gambler that someone other than a friend was entering. He knew that Ezra was still supposed to remain relaxed and resting as much as possible and he didn't want the man to move from his bed on his account. Before he knew it, though, the need for knocking and announcing himself became moot as he heard the poker player's voice from the other side of the door. "Come in, Vin."

"Hell," he whispered to himself. He opened the door, saw Ezra laying on his back, and then closed the door.

"Ah would say that it is good to see you, but you are placed in mah room such that, in mah current position, Ah cannot possibly get a good view of you, Vin." The tracker moved so that they could see each other. Ezra smiled. "Thank you for that, but Ah must ask that you assist me into a sitting position before Inez arrives. She is aware that Ah am not fully recovered, but Ah have successfully, with Mistah Jackson's assistance, hidden from her precisely how much moving still pains me."

"You sher you want me to do that?"

"You are the only one here," the healing man responded.

"All right. What do you want me to do?"

"At the foot of the bed, Nathan has rigged some rope. He has it hidden in the bedding. Pull it out and hand it to me, and then lift mah back until Ah have a hold of the rope sufficient to place the extra pillows behind mah back. Ah am only allowed two positions for now, flat on mah back, a dreadful option, and sitting nearly straight up."

"All right." Vin found the rope and handed it to Ezra, then carefully, placing his hand in the small of the former con man's back, put him in the position so that he held a longer and longer piece of the rope in his lap, keeping himself up as Vin placed the pillows. The tracker looked as he put the last pillow in place to see Ezra struggling, his arms trembling as he kept a hold of the rope. It was obviously paining him to do it. "You can let go now," Vin said. "Sorry it took so long."

"It did not. Ah just have some more healin' to do." The gambler swiped the newly formed sweat from his forehead. "Sit," he added. Vin looked around for a chair farther away, but there was none. "Inez removed the spare chair. She said that Ah was moving so poorly that if Ah fell Ah could hurt mahself on the extra furniture. She removed a trunk from the foot of the bed to the corner of the room as well. Ah tried to explain that fallin' on a hard floor was just as apt to hurt as fallin' into furniture, but she simply rolled her eyes, called me 'estupido', and stormed from the room." He paused for dramatic effect and added, "Ah do believe she loves me."

The former bounty hunter showed no sense that he recognized the humor in Ezra's tale. He took the seat and said, "What does 'apt' mean?"

Ezra looked at his friend with sympathy. He doubted that Vin found anything funny these days. It was a pretty tortured soul sitting before him. "It means tending to do something."

Vin nodded his head and then asked, "What about 'prescient'?"

Ezra frowned, remembering back over the last days to find where he had used the word. As he contemplated it, he realized it was said during the worst of their ride back to town, just before Vin made his desire clear that he should stop speaking.

"It means to have knowledge of something before it happens."

"And 'edict'?"

"It is an order or a command."

Vin nodded. He had been asking his questions with his head lowered, seemingly fascinated as he watched his hands fondle the brim of the hat that he held. He looked up and said, "I know I've been … " he looked away and continued, "I think I … " he turned back and looked down at his hat again. "I wish I …. " This time, when he paused, he did not continue.

"Vin?"

"Yeah?" He looked into the card sharp's eyes. Vin's startlingly blue eyes held so much pain. It was hard to witness. Ezra wondered what life must be like for a man such as Vin Tanner. He had lived a hard life, learned so much. He likely learned things by the age of ten that no ten year old should have to know. Ezra easily empathized. But Vin clearly yearned for so much more, yearned for things that living his life had not taught him. What frustrated the gambler was how what the man didn't know, his inability to read and write, something that was not all that rare in the wilds of the American west, held him back from offering more of his insights on life through his poetry. The southerner wondered how much more they would be gifted with Vin's beautifully written poems if the Texan weren't illiterate. He had no doubt that it would be an impressive set of contemplations on life and nature, love and danger. Ezra would be surprised if, should he ask the man before him to recite some of his recent poems, that they wouldn't be sitting in this room for many, many hours.

"Why did you stop your lessons with Missus Travis?" Vin's head shot up, shock written across his handsome face. The expression changed quickly, from shock to anger. "No one told me. Ah just assumed that your tenor … or, rather, mood, of late, your curious questions just now … and Ah had noticed that after a few months you were back among us rather than busy with your studies."

"Damn it, Ezra. Why didn't ya say nothin'."

Now it was Ezra's turn to be angry. "You made it perfectly clear to me that you did not require nor desire mah assistance. You had preferred Mary's teaching. Ah would not assume to speak with you on the topic again when you made your preference perfectly clear."

Vin uttered a guttural sound, practically a growl as he jumped from his seat and headed to the window. He stood there, oozing a combined frustrated embarrassment at his predicament. He should have been able to find those words in a dictionary by now. But he'd given up learning, quit, because it was so foreign to him. He could not get what Mary was talking about and, though people didn't perceive him like a gentleman the way Ezra thought he was looked at, he wasn't about to let Mary see him deteriorate into frustration that was so upsetting that it could easily have manifested in a violent manner. He wouldn't have hurt her, but it wouldn't have been much better if he'd started tossing her things all over the newspaper office.

"Vin," Ezra called. The former buffalo hunter continued staring out the window. "Vin!" Again, Ezra was ignored. He sighed, needing Vin to listen, but not too sure that he would be able to manage to get him back to the chair without going over to him. He tossed the blanket from his legs, then pushed off the bed with his hands to force his legs over to the side. The pain was unbelievable. He grunted, knowing that he shouldn't move any further. Though he did not wish to upset Vin more than he already was, he knew he had to do something to get the man's attention. "Mistah Tanner!"

"God damn it, Ezra," Vin said as he turned back toward the bed. "I thought I told … " he stopped as he saw Ezra sitting tipped over, his left leg dangling over the side of the bed. "What the hell!" he yelled as he rushed back over and helped to settle Ezra back in his bed.

"Inez will be here shortly. Would you hand me that wash cloth?" Ezra said, his voice trembling in pain. Vin did as asked. "Thank you." The gambler wiped the sweat from his face and then lay back against the thick wall of pillows. He breathed in, trying to relax before the pretty Mexican woman arrived with their noontime meal and saw that there was something wrong with her lover.

"Don't see the point in keepin' this from Inez," Vin noted as he took the cloth and placed it back on the lip of the bowl.

"The point is that Ah shall recover soon enough and there is no need to worry the lady more. She is very busy and already troubled enough." Ezra remained quiet for a few moments, hoping that the accelerated heart rate, the increased degree of breathing and the flushed skin would all dissipate before she arrived, at any minute now, with their food. Inez was late, and maybe that was for the best, as they still had a little ways to go with their conversation.

"You want some water?" Vin asked.

"That would be much appreciated." The tracker filled a glass and Ezra drank a goodly amount. "Thank you."

"Weren't nothin'."

"What is it that Ah can do to help you? You seem particularly upset with me of late. Ah did not think that this incident was related to the last one. But now Ah am not so sure."

Vin cocked his head, shrugged his shoulders and said, "Probably is. Don't know why you can't just talk like this more 'stead o' usin' them big words."

"Vin, Ah might be inclined to change mah ways for a fiancée or a wife. Might be inclined. And Ah have already agreed to one of your stipulations … or rather, conditions … to call you Vin, a request for which Ah do try to comply. Ah do not believe that Ah could change mah desire to utilize mah vocabulary any more than you could stop creating beautiful poetry. It is part of who Ah am."

The tracker nodded. "I know."

Ezra was looking at the top of Vin's head once more. "Have you continued to write poems?"

"Some."

"Have you had anyone write them down for you?"

"You know I ain't." Vin paused and then added, "Can't."

"Well of course you can." The sullen man kept his head down. "Vin?"

"Yeah," Vin said as he raised his head and looked at Ezra.

"It would be my honor to write them down for you. I would also, once again, offer you instruction in reading and writing. Ah believe that since the last time you turned me down, Ah have somewhat of a successful track record in teaching."

"Teachin' kids and teachin' someone like me are pretty different, Ezra." The tracker looked annoyed for some reason. The poker player would bet that he knew why.

"It is true that children are like little sponges when it comes to learnin'. But remember, they are also a captive audience. And though Ah admit that teachin' an adult would be a challenge for both of us, Ah would do mah best to come up with ways to make the learnin' interesting and something that you would want to spend your free time doin'."

Vin shook his head and looked into Ezra's eyes. "Why would you want to help me? I ain't been worth spendin' time with. And I been awful to you."

"Ah believe that one is the direct result of the other. Ah think that once we get you to a better place in regard to your reading and writing, which will allow you to scribe your own poems, you will find that it not only gives you a satisfactory outlet for documentin' your art, but reading will open up such a world to you, Vin. The world is an amazing place, and reading, both stories of real events and those of the great writers of our time and of history who have given us the wonder of short stories, which our Mistah Larabee prefers, and longer novels that Josiah somehow devours in between working on the church and out at the reservation, not to mention poems and plays, allows us to experience this fascinating world in the comfort of our own homes … or jailhouses or on the trail, which is another fortunate aspect of a good book. It's quite portable."

Vin smiled, a true smile. Ezra couldn't help but smile back. "I can see why the kids do so good in your classes. 'Spect if you make learnin' sound that good when yer teachin', makes the kids want to do good in class.

"Is that a yes to allowin' me to help you?" Ezra asked.

The smile left the handsome Texan's face when he said, "Don't know if it's such a good idea. I got so frustrated before that I quit so that I wouldn't damage Mary's stuff."

"Ah am not concerned about that. We will use Mistah Sanchez' sanctuary for our classes."

Vin snorted at the answer. "Sounds like we're on, then." He reached his hand over to Ezra, who took it willingly. Vin took it easy on his friend, knowing that too much movement still bothered the man's back. As they separated, the door to the room opened to reveal Inez with a tray of food, followed by Nathan with a tray that contained a coffee pot, cups, milk and sugar and plates with apple pie.

"My, my," Ezra said. "What a coincidence that you would arrive just as we finished our chat."

"Oh," Inez said.

"Everything all right?" Nathan asked.

"Fine," Ezra said as he observed the nervous movements of his lovely lady friend.

"You feeling all right? You seem a little flushed," Nathan mentioned as he reached his hand over to check the gambler's forehead. Ezra grabbed the hand and prevented the prodding.

"Ah am fine. Hungry, though. We have been waiting."

"Oh. Yeah. Well, then eat," Nathan suggested. "Your talk went all right?" he asked Vin.

"Yep. We're good."

"Good," the healer said with a warm smile.

"It is funny, the timing of your arrival. One would almost say that you must have been eavesdroppin', your timing is so impeccable."

"Estupido," Inez said as she leaned over, gave Ezra a peck on the cheek and then stormed from the room. Nathan followed her out the door, looking back with a smirk on his face.

"Yeah, she loves you, all right," Vin said with a smile as he removed the napkins from the plates of food.


"I wrote you a poem."

"You wrote me a poem?" Ezra queried, a quizzical look on his face.

"Yeah. You want it to be the first one you scribe for me?" Vin asked. The two men made their way to the church, Vin's stride and disposition light as a feather. Ezra still hurt, walking was still not as effortless or pain-free as he hoped, but he was heeding Nathan's advice to move but to take it easy. No running, no riding, no jumping. Ezra asked Nathan if he thought he was talking to a six-year-old. The black man's quick response of 'too damn often' had all of Ezra's friends laughing at how true the sentiment seemed.

"It would be mah pleasure," he said. When they arrived at the church, Josiah was cleaning the last of the pews on the right side of the church.

"Brothers, do you mind if I finish up this pew?"

"Ah think we would be amenable to that." The gambler knew that he would not be getting a question on the definition of that word, knowing that Vin would get the meaning easy enough by the reaction of the preacher if not from the circumstance of the word's use. "We will be writing down Vin's new poem." Ezra realized that he might have overstepped his bounds. "Mah apologies, Vin. Do you mind?"

"No. Poem's yers. You can have anyone you want hear it."

"Well, the poem is actually yours, Vin. You wrote it. Ah am simply the lucky recipient of it for a moment in time."

Vin shrugged and said, "That's a nice way o' puttin' it."

"Very well. Let's go to the table and begin."

And Vin did.

A DESERT MORNING

Pink streaks across the sky

Bringing forth a new day.

The little hound does his thing

As he does each morning.

Nose down, he finds the scrub, hardly grass,

With no interruption this morn by the

Regular breaths of wildlife from the arroyo

That oft' times distract from the business of the day.

The grass glistens.

The morning dew dampens.

Mother Earth takes no heed of location,

Even on an arid day in the high desert.

The dog charges in, unrestrained,

Heedless that in moments, a puddle ahead,

His legs will be soaked.

Happy. Oblivious.

Two children take the same path

Though far more suspect,

Not so happy for the wet and the mud

And what their mother might say.

They look at me. They look at my friend. Why?

I smile, as does he, and they know: Such is life!

They play as though the same species.

A splash here. A shriek there.

The rosy finches don't care

About us as they take turns at the seed,

Kept in abundance by the mother, not nature.

Winter can be harsh.

Their wings' fevered motion echo.

Their flutter competes with

The wild desert winds

In the distance.

Nature and man compete.

The rhythm of life.


Vin finished, and so had Ezra; the room was hushed, save for a slight audible breeze outside, echoing Vin's words. Ezra and Josiah remained silent, soaking up the words and their meaning and the emotion. Both men soon realized that Vin stood there, uncomfortable with the continued quiet.

"That's beautiful," Josiah said.

"You like it?"

"It is beautiful, Vin," the preacher said emphatically.

"Thanks, 'siah."

Vin and Josiah looked to Ezra, who kept his head on the paper. He looked up, his eyes blinking rapidly.

"You wrote a poem about Fred?" he asked, his voice full of emotion.

"No. The poem is about you. And us. And here. And yeah, Fred."

"It's about home," Ezra said.

"Yep."

"Ah … Ah am honored, Vin."

"Well, I didn't write it ta make ya say that. I wrote it 'cause you mean somethin' to me and I never really apologized about what happened."

Ezra seemed speechless, which brought the preacher over to stand above the gambler as he remained seated. He placed his hand on Ezra's shoulder and said, "You have now." He smiled at the tracker and added, "I'll finish that up later." He patted Vin's back and left the church.

"Thank you, Vin."

"It was nothin'."

"Good lord. One of our first lessons will need to be about usin' the proper word in the proper context."

"We doin' that lesson today?" the student asked.

"No. Not today," the teacher replied.

And they got to work.

The End.