COMMON GROUND By: KellyA

[Thanks to Eleanor T. for all her insight and help. She made a good story great!]

Vin walked into the unusually peaceful saloon, his gaze quickly adjusting to the dimness. He removed his hat, slapping it against his leg and sending up a billow of dust. Chris lounged with his back against the bar, watching JD and Buck play a friendly game of checkers at the table closest to him. Ezra played solitaire at his table in the center of the room, waiting for an opportunity to engage in a game of chance.

"Hey, Cowboy," Vin greeted, slouching against the bar next to Larabee. "Pretty quiet night."

Chris nodded in acknowledgment, wondering how long the peace and quiet would last. Inez stepped up to them, placing a beer next to Vin.

"Gracias, Señorita." He gave the beautiful woman a warm smile then turned his attention to the rambunctious laughter of four ranchhands who strode into the saloon.

The undercurrent of energy grew proportionate with the gathering patrons filling the tables and lining up along the bar. Both lawmen knew it would only take one spark to ignite that energy and so they kept constant vigil looking for that spark.

Chris noticed how most men steered clear of the fancy dressed gambler in the center of the room, hoping to hold on to some of their money. Ezra seemed oblivious to the goings on around him, but Chris knew the cardsharp noticed everyone who entered his realm and probably knew who had money to spend and who didn't.

Ezra's eyes shifted as a middle-aged man walked stiffly through the bat wing doors, his jingling spurs announcing his presence to the whole saloon. 'Good Lord, look at what the cat dragged it!' A rube if the gambler had ever seen one.

The newcomer was dressed in a starched white linen shirt and brown leather vest under a brown duster. He wore brown pants and leather chaps, that were so new they creaked when he walked. If you could call what he did walking; all he seemed able to manage was sort of a constrained waddle. Ezra didn't hide the amused smirk that creased his face as it became apparent that the gentleman was unaccustomed to western clothing and its accompanying accessories. He constantly tugged at his gun belt where a shiny new colt was holstered. The Stetson was also proving a challenge, no matter how hard he tried to mold the brim it would always end up flat and stiff.

The gentleman scanned the rustic interior, his gaze stopping on the object of his search.

Chris nudged Vin in the arm and nodded towards the stranger who was stepping up to Ezra's table. Vin's blue eyes narrowed and he leaned over towards Chris.

"That there's Mr. Winslow; him and his family came in on the afternoon stage from back east," Vin disclosed. "They're here to purchase the old Hawkins ranch south of here."

Mr. Winslow tapped Ezra on the shoulder and straightened as Ezra turned his head, hooking his thumbs into his gunbelt. "Sir, I'm looking for a game."

Ezra smiled and eyed the gentleman. "I'm sorry. I only play for high stakes." He returned to his game of solitaire, missing the astonished, and annoyed expression on Mr. Winslow's face.

"I happen to have been one of the best poker players back in Kaskaskia, Illinois, and I have the winnings to prove it," he boasted, patting his coat pocket.

Buck leaned back from his game of checkers with JD. He whistled as Mr. Winslow pulled out a large wallet and dropped it on the table with a resounding thud.

It never ceased to amaze Buck how people willingly gave the cardsharp their money. Playing poker with Ezra was tantamount to just handing it over to him.

Ezra eyed the heavy looking wallet and took a deep breath. He looked over to the bar to see Chris and Vin observing the proceedings.

"It's your move, Buck," JD began, then stopped as he noticed that his friend wasn't paying attention. He tapped Buck's arm. "Your move," he repeated.

"Wait, this might be better then checkers," Buck replied, motioning towards Ezra's table.

Ezra pushed the heavy wallet back towards Winslow. He knew all about the man: A bank manager from back east, who'd come into some money and had decided to make a life for him and his family on the wild frontier. Ezra had seen his share of dreamers like Winslow hoping to make a better life for themselves, only to find hardship and despair.

"I'm sorry sir, keep your money and go home."

"What? You're a gambler, aren't you? I want to gamble. You too good to take me on?" Winslow paused, a smug smile creasing his face. "Or maybe you're just yellow?"

"Aw hell," Vin murmured, shaking and bowing his head.

Chris closed his eyes and turned his back, not having to see what was going to happen next. JD's mouth fell open as Buck buried his head down on his arms to stop the laughter that wanted to spill out.

Ezra's grin widened to show his gold tooth, and he scooped up the cards. Pushing out the chair opposite him at the table with his foot, the gambler's smile invited Winslow to sit down.

Vin looked up to see the easterner remove his coat and sit down, flexing his fingers as he watched Ezra dexterously shuffle the deck. Winslow appeared confident and relaxed, something Vin knew wouldn't last.

Nathan stepped into the saloon, his height enabling him to quickly scan the crowd. He grinned and made his way over to Buck and JD's table, easily maneuvering past tables and chairs. The smile dropped from his face when he glanced over at Ezra's table.

"Ay, Nathan," JD greeted the tall healer as he sat down.

"What's going on over there? Isn't that Mr. Winslow?" Nathan asked, ignoring JD's greeting.

"Yep," Buck answered.

"Doesn't Ezra know the man has a family?" Nathan snapped, eyeing the two men. He watched as Ezra occasionally nodded to the loquacious Winslow.

JD rose up out of his chair, grabbing his bowler. "Well, he shouldn't be playin' Ezra then. Buck, I'm going over to the jail for a while."

"See ya later, kid," Buck replied, gathering up the checkers. He didn't think Nathan was in the mood to play. He never could understand why Ezra's profession seemed to anger Jackson so much. He knew that his rather enthusiastic behavior with the ladies of the town was a sore spot with JD at times. For some reason Nathan seemed bound and determined to point out Ezra's shortcomings. Buck figured it was Ezra's smart-alec mouth that usually prompted Jackson's aspersions on his character.

Nathan continued to watch Ezra and his victim, not understanding why someone of Mr. Winslow's prominence would even sit at the same table as the conniving conman.

****Part 2

Nathan and Buck pushed their empty plates away, having both enjoyed their steak dinner. The saloon was now packed to capacity, and Buck was searching out his prospects among the young women who were mingling with the patrons. Nathan had barely said two words through the whole meal, more interested on the game that was transpiring two tables away.

"How many cards, Mr. Winslow?" Ezra calmly drawled, his placid demeanor only infuriating the gentleman more. Winslow's earlier arrogance disappeared, and his frustration grew with each losing hand. He slammed down two cards with a growl.

Raising a sandy eyebrow Ezra dealt him two cards.

Mr. Winslow looked at his hand, and a slow smile appeared on his face.

"Sir?" Ezra prompted.

Winslow's grin grew wider, splitting his oval face in two as he lay down two jacks and three queens-a full house. Ezra's expression didn't alter as he lay down his own cards: four eights. Winslow's face and shoulders' fell as he stared at the gambler's hand as Ezra raked in his winnings.

"You cheated me," he murmured under his breath.

Ezra looked up to meet his adversary's enraged brown gaze.

"You cheated me!" Winslow repeated, his voice raising with his anger. "You're nothin' but a low-lyin' swindler! A cheatin' bastard!" Mr. Winslow stood up, throwing his chair behind him and listening to it clatter to the floor. The man's outrage did not go unnoticed by the other lawmen in the saloon. The conversation of the other patrons died and all eyes turned to the unfolding scene.

Ezra's face darkened. "Sir, I take offense at that allegation. I did not cheat."

"You're a liar!" Winslow stabbed his finger at Ezra. "You can't fool me! I know all about your kind, stealing a man's livelihood just so you can buy your fancy clothes."

Ezra remained silent. He had played a fair game -- was it his fault the fool had wagered everything he had on a losing hand? Ezra had been considering giving the inept fool some of his money back, having taught him a sharp lesson about tangling with a professional. From the corner of his eye he could see Chris and Vin's shared grins and shaking heads, and no one in the saloon could miss Nathan's disgusted glare.

Chris was only grateful the irate Winslow had either forgotten he had a gun or was afraid to use it. Chris knew Ezra only cheated other cheaters and was probably teaching Winslow the folly of playing a professional gambler. Standish's gambling did get him and the others in trouble from time to time, but his devious mind and talent for deception had also saved them and pulled them out of difficult situations.

Buck ignored what was happening, he'd seen it all before. He turned his attention instead to the beautiful blonde sitting upon his knee with who he was debating the profound question, "Your place or mine?"

Ezra sat back in his chair, not delighting in being everyone's source of amusement, but he refused to battle with someone who was so obviously out of control of his emotions.

Winslow's face was a bright shade of red. Untangling his coat from his toppled chair, he stormed out of the saloon. Ezra calmly counted his money and gathered up the cards to prepare for another game, the incident already forgotten in his mind.

Unfortunately, this did not hold true for Nathan, who saw this as another one of Ezra's self-serving coups. Ezra felt Nathan's presence before he saw him. He bowed his head for a moment, not in the mood for another lecture from the moralistic healer.

"When will you stop cheatin' people of their hard earned money?"

Ezra clenched his fist, trying to control his growing anger. "Mr. Jackson, I don't see where this is any of your concern and would appreciate it if you would refrain from giving me any of your sanctimonious lectures."

"Whew, that was a mouthful," Vin murmured to Chris, who was watching the whole scene intently.

Larabee was not amused. Nathan and Ezra had been at each other's throats since day one. He was worried about what this continued animosity could do to the team, especially during a gunfight. Something had to be done to get those two to bury the hatchet -- preferably not in each other. Downing the last of his beer, Chris strode over to his two men.

Nathan and Ezra shut up as soon as Chris loomed over them. Chris was silent for a moment and stared down at them. He trusted both men with his life. He harbored some doubt about Ezra's integrity when money was involved, but he also felt that maybe Nathan expected too much from the suave gambler. This was Ezra's life, it was the only way he knew how to survive and it was how he had been raised.

"Nathan, Ezra, I need you both for a job," Chris suddenly announced.

"Excuse me?" Ezra replied, tilting his head up to stare in astonishment at the gunslinger.

"What?" Nathan said at the same time. "Chris, you know I'll do any job, but..."

"But what, Mr. Jackson? Any job that doesn't entail riding with me?" Ezra finished.

Nathan sneered at Ezra. The man could really get under his skin.

Chris knew he had to do something soon or these two men were going to come to blows or gun shots.

"Bank needs money transferred to Oak Ridge. Everyone else is tied up right now, so you two are it."

"And if I refuse?" Ezra countered.

Chris bent down and put his palms down on the table nailing Ezra with an icy cold stare. "You'll be pulling morning guard duty until I shoot you for being late."

"Well, that shouldn't be too long," Nathan murmured under his breath, earning glares from both men.

"Be ready at dawn day after tomorrow," Chris said and returned to the bar.

"You think that's wise, cowboy?" Vin asked as Chris settled in next to him. He watched as Nathan strode out and Ezra ordered a drink.

Chris shrugged. "Either they'll find a way to get along or they'll kill each other." Vin cocked an eyebrow and a faint smile lifted a corner of his mouth.

*****Part 3

Later the next day the whole town had heard how the bank had turned down Mr. Winslow's request for a loan. He had been unable to come up with the down payment for the ranch he'd come to purchase and another buyer had quickly stepped in.

Ezra came upon Mrs. Winslow and her young son, sitting outside the telegraph office. The elegant woman was dressed in a beautiful long green dress, which would have been more apropos within the balcony of some grand theater than on the boardwalk of some dusty little town.

"Mrs. Winslow, I'm Mr. Standish," Ezra greeted her, bowing slightly.

Mrs. Winslow's lips tightened into a firm straight line as her hazel eyes stared up at him.

"Ma, that's the man who cheated pa," the young boy beside her exclaimed.

Ezra stiffened at the remark, but smiled down at the small boy.

Mrs. Winslow passed a coin to the boy. "Tommy, why don't you go to the store and pick out some candy?"

Tommy sneered up at Ezra, but took the coin and ran off.

"You have a good boy there," Ezra said.

Mrs. Winslow smiled as she watched her son cross the street and head for the store. She then turned her attention back to the handsome cardsharp.

"My husband is a good man, and I would be less than honest, Mr. Standish, if I said I was angry that you cheated him," Mrs. Winslow paused a moment, turning to look into the telegraph office where her husband was.

"Harry is trying to get some money, so we can go back east," she continued. "I never wanted to come out here, it was all Harry's idea. To start a new life and have an adventure." Mrs. Winslow took a deep breath. "I was glad we lost the ranch. I was happy back east. I'm just not sure what we're going to do now... It was all the money we had."

Ezra removed an envelope from his jacket and handed it to the charming woman. Her brows came together in confusion as she took the envelope and looked inside. Her eyes went wide at the sight of a large sum of money.

"This is the money your husband lost to me last night," Ezra explained.

"I don't understand?" she asked.

"I suggest you use it to return home."

"How will I explain this to my husband? He does have his pride," Mrs. Winslow asked.

"Tell him I had a stroke of guilty conscience and returned it."

Mrs. Winslow sealed the envelope and looked up at Ezra.

"You didn't cheat him, did you?" she asked.

Ezra smiled, turned and walked away.

Chris was sitting outside the saloon, his legs stretched out before him and his hat pulled down. He had been watching Ezra since he approached Mrs. Winslow, seeing him hand her an envelope. When Ezra left Chris stood and strode across the street towards the telegraph office.

****

The next morning Ezra met Chris and Nathan outside the bank at the appointed, ungodly hour. The gambler had decided to be on time, for the simple pleasure of annoying the hell out of Nathan.

Chris tied the heavy saddlebags onto the back of Nathan's horse. "Just drop the money off and get back here," Chris explained.

"Don't worry, I'm not staying away any longer than I have to," he replied, glancing over at Ezra, who's face was shadowed by the brim of his black Stetson.

Chris shook his head. He hoped that alone on the trail these two might be able to work things out. It was a long lonely ride to Oak Ridge, long enough to give a man time to think. Now as he looked at his two obstinate friends, he wasn't so sure this had been the best idea he'd ever had.

Nathan spurred his horse forward. Ezra tipped his hat to Chris and reluctantly followed Jackson, vowing revenge against the dark-clad gunslinger when he returned.

****Part 4

They had been on the road for over an hour with neither lawman saying a word. The tension and animosity that existed between them simmered beneath their contrasting exteriors. Even their horses felt their owners distrust and displeasure and kept respectful distances from each other.

A cool breeze from the North kept the late summer heat from making the long trip even more miserable. Nathan was trying to enjoy the quiet and relax. He cast a sidelong glance at Ezra, only to see the familiar pompous expression on Ezra's clean-shaven face. He couldn't hold his anger back any longer.

"It wasn't right," Nathan said disapprovingly to the fancy dressed man riding alongside him.

Ezra fastidiously swiped at the dust on his tan jacket, appearing unperturbed by his companion's agitation. Since his game with Winslow, Nathan had been even more vocal about his ethics, never missing a chance to slip in a nasty comment. The other lawmen had ignored the verbal abuse, not realizing how much Nathan's words or their silence hurt Ezra. They had all been working together for a couple months now, and whereas Ezra was starting to feel some camaraderie with the other lawmen, Nathan and him had been unable or unwilling to put aside their differences.

Ezra and Nathan were barely civil to each other, at times, with Nathan always questioning the gambler's motives, and Standish was weary of Nathan's hypocritical indignation. Whenever the two men seemed to be getting along, something would occur that would undermine the slowly building foundation, causing it to crumble to the ground.

"Mr. Jackson, I did not force Mr. Winslow to engage in our little game of chance, he did so of his own volition," Ezra explained for the hundredth time, becoming annoyed at Nathan's constant harping.

Nathan threw a disgruntled glare at the scheming conman as his roan pranced sideways, feeling his owner's agitation and trying to distance itself from its cause.

"You know that was all the money he had," Nathan angrily muttered, jerking his horse back in line. Nathan had talked to Mr. Winslow after the game, which had only made Jackson madder. Winslow truly believed that Ezra had cheated him.

"I left him enough to get back east," Ezra countered, not bothering to tell Nathan that he had returned the money. It wasn't good business for a skilled gambler, such as himself to return money, and anyway, it had nothing to do with the issue of cheating that Nathan accused him of.

He really couldn't understand why Nathan felt the need to reprimand him on his life style. He was a conman and always would be. The others accepted his profession and rarely made any objection to it, except for the occasional roll of the eyes or shake of the head.

Larabee had hired him fully aware of his profession. Hell, the taciturn gunslinger had admitted he thought a conman would come in handy. Vin had later told him that Chris had used the word 'cheat,' which Ezra took exception to. Sometimes Ezra wondered how long that need would remain. Would he be asked to leave if Chris felt his talents were no longer required? For some reason he refused to define why this thought distressed him.

"What about his family?" Nathan demanded. He had grown up watching people being taken advantage of, and he just couldn't abide it now.

"I was doing them a service," Ezra sharply replied.

"How you figure?"

"Women and children should not be subjected to this hostile environment."

Nathan snorted. "You're nothing but a self-serving, money grubbing, bastard." Even Jackson was shocked at the venom in his voice, but there it was, all the cards laid out on the table so to speak. He had tried for months to ignore Ezra's unscrupulous dealings for the sake of the team. Where he tried to help people with what little medical knowledge he had learned, Ezra seemed hell bent on taking the money of everyone who passed through town, or even his fellow peacekeepers, constantly planning or plotting some get-rich quick scheme.

Nathan was taken aback by a fleeting, unfamiliar expression of hurt and anger that flashed across Ezra's face; although, it had only lasted a second and was quickly replaced with his usual mask of indifference, it made an impact on the healer.

'What was that?' Nathan thought, 'an attempt to elicit sympathy'?

Ezra angrily pulled up his horse. Larabee could force him to work with this man, but he would not tolerate being abused in this manner. He was just barely able to keep his voice steady, but his green eyes flashed hell-fire at the dark man.

"Mr. Jackson, we may have to work together, live in the same town and maybe even share an occasional libation for the duration of my employment in Four Corners, but that does not mean I have to stand here and allow you to malign my character."

"Hell, Ezra, you ain't got no character." Nathan didn't know where this anger was coming from, but he was more than willing to release it on the southerner.

He didn't understand why Ezra stayed on at Four Corners after the thirty days that had earned him his pardon. They'd all expected him to leave, but after two months they had all discovered a comfortable partnership. Although, between him and Ezra that partnership was about as comfortable as sitting on a cactus at times. Nathan kept telling himself his dislike of the urbane conman had nothing to do with him being a southerner - he just wasn't sure he believed it anymore.

The first crude structures of Oak Ridge appeared on the horizon and Ezra spurred his horse ahead, not wanting to do or say something he might later regret. He didn't understand why what Nathan said was affecting him so much. Why should he care what this man, this ex-slave thought of him? Since he had become a part of the seven gunslingers, who protected Four Corners, a bothersome streak of conscience had managed to weasel its way into his soul. Ezra was discovering a conscience was something that was not easy for a conman to have.

****Part 5

The two men rode silently and stiffly into the town of Oak Ridge. Nathan noticed the slight slump in Ezra's shoulders and a pang of guilt twisted in his gut; maybe he'd been too hard on the enigmatic gambler.

They pulled up in front of the small bank. Oak Ridge was about the size of Four Corners and was used as the central station for stage lines from Tucson and San Francisco, so the town bustled with newcomers from all over. Ezra smiled at the sight of so many expensively dressed individuals. He leaned over and laid a tan-sleeved arm lazily on top of the pommel of his saddle.

Nathan recognized the glint in the cardsharp's eye and shook his head in resignation. Dropping to the ground he threw the reins over his horse's head and secured him to the railing. He went to untie the saddlebags from the back of his saddle.

"I'll take the money to the bank then get something to eat. Meet you back here in an hour," Nathan said, looking over to watch Ezra smoothly dismount.

Ezra gave Nathan a curt nod, Jackson's earlier words still ringing in his ears. He eyed the leather bags flung over Nathan's wide shoulders. Back at Four Corners he hadn't failed to notice that Chris made sure Nathan handled the money. He knew the others didn't trust him; hell, he didn't trust himself. Maybe Chris thought the temptation would have been too much. Ezra shook the thoughts away as he watched Nathan enter the bank and searched the town for the only place that would give him solace.

****

An hour later and after a good meal Nathan found himself sitting astride his horse waiting for Ezra, his growing impatience showing on his handsome face. He wanted to get back to Four Corners before dark. He didn't look forward to the ride home. He mentally promised himself he would try and initiate a more civil conversation with the gambler.

Nathan knew Chris had sent them together hoping that he and Ezra would find a way to work out their differences. Unfortunately, it only seemed to have widened the chasm between them. How could he find common ground with a man he believed only cared for his own needs and put money over and above anyone or anything else?

Nathan's black gaze traveled over the tightly packed, gray clapboard building fronts until they came to rest on the saloon, the place the gambler considered home. He drew in a calming breath and exhaled, then dismounted and walked across the street trying not to let his anger take over.

Nathan stepped into the dusty saloon, immediately seeing the wayward gambler sitting at a table with three other men, evidently deep into their card game. By the size of the money pile in front of Ezra, it was obvious that lady luck was once again gracing him with her presence. Nathan shook his head. He believed the gambler was cheating and this only heightened his disgust.

Nathan stepped up beside the cardsharp, folding his arms across his chest.

"Ezra, we're leaving."

The observant cardsharp had seen the healer enter the saloon and had felt dread settle over him. He was not looking forward to the trip back. He knew Nathan was as uncomfortable with his company as he was with Jackon's.

The two men just couldn't seem to find common ground on which they both could stand. Their pasts and current life styles couldn't be anymore contradictory. He, a southern gentleman with a penchant for the high-life and not above doing whatever he could to attain that lofty position, and Nathan, an ex-slave, who used his meager skills to help the less fortunate and seemed happy with his more plebeian lot in life.

"I'm not ready to extricate myself from this very lucrative game, Mr. Jackson." Ezra knew this would not be an acceptable answer, but at the moment he didn't care. He would not allow this man to dictate to him. He had his pride, and Chris was a long way away from Oak Ridge.

Nathan dropped his arms to his side and took a deep breath to calm his exasperation.

"Look, I want to get back by sunset, so we have to leave now," Nathan tried to explain in a non-threatening manner. He knew he wouldn't get anywhere with the southerner if they started arguing.

Ezra leaned back in his chair, a smile that didn't light his green eyes caressing his handsome face.

"I will leave when I'm damn good and ready, Mr. Jackson," he snarled through the smile as he discarded two cards, slapping them upon the table's surface. The other three men at the table looked up, sensing the anger that was like a living thing between the two men.

Nathan bent over, laying his fists, knuckles down, upon the table, his gaze returning the same menacing stare as Ezra's.

"Fine. You can explain to Chris why I came back alone." He slapped the table top and abruptly turned to go. His ire came out in the heavy pounding of his feet on the wooden floor as he left the saloon. He wondered if the threat of facing Larabee's anger unnerved the conman at all; he hoped so.

"You'll have to forgive my associate, absolutely no sense of priority." Ezra grinned and took a deep breath. He laid down his cards-full house, aces high. His smile grew at the muffled groans of the other players as he watched them slap down their inferior hands.

"Damn, uppity nigger," one of the other players murmured loud enough for Ezra to hear.

Ezra's smile vanished and he turned his head to the man who spoke.

"Sir, you will refrain from such vulgarity in my presence," he snarled. The dangerous look in the gambler's eyes immediately put the man on the defensive.

"Ay, I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it." The gentleman couldn't get up fast enough and scurried out of the saloon. The two remaining men nervously looked at each other, wondering if they should follow suit.

"If you'll excuse me, Gentlemen." Ezra picked up his money folding it and placing it inside his jacket. "It's been a pleasure, but I have other, more pressing matters to attend to." Ezra stood and tipped his hat. It wasn't that he was afraid of Chris's wrath, he only thought it prudent not to push the intimidating leader's limited patience. He also found himself more than a little concerned about the impulsive healer being out on the road alone.

Ezra left the saloon figuring he could readily catch up with the riled lawman. He would allow Nathan to chastise him, thus returning things to their status quo.

****Part 6

Nathan was still fuming as he brought his horse down to a walk, after leaving the town two miles back. His churning anger prevented him from seeing the three men who suddenly appeared out from behind a small rock outcropping to block the roadway. He instantly got a bad feeling as he pulled up. The three men smiled wolfishly, and Nathan immediately began to feel like a stray calf. He looked over his shoulder in hopes that Ezra was coming up the road. The road was deserted.

"Well, lookey here," the man in the middle sneered. He appeared to be a couple years older than the other two and had the air of being the leader. He rode slumped down in his saddle, a hand resting on his thigh. He nudged his horse closer to Nathan's. "Where do you think you're goin', boy?!"

The slur of the last word said it all. Nathan's eyes narrowed and his heart started to race. He had encountered people like these three men all his life. He had hoped being set free would entitle him to be treated like any other man. He had discovered early on in his freedom that this was far from true.

"I'm not lookin' for any trouble," Nathan replied, trying to keep any challenge or fear out of his voice. He didn't want to provoke these men; the odds were not in his favor. He berated himself for not waiting for Ezra.

"You hear that, Billy, this darkie doesn't want any trouble," the older man mimicked, looking to the youngest of the three. "Well boy, that's too bad, 'cause you found it. You think you have the right to ride down our road just as pretty as you please?" Hate laced every word that came from the man's snarling lips.

"This darkie must think he's free or somethin', huh, Jessie?" Billy replied, causing all three of the men to snicker.

Nathan swallowed the lump that had developed in his throat. Since hooking up with the other six gunslingers, his life had become one that was both fulfilling and secure. He was well liked and well respected in his small corner of the world. He had forgotten what it was like for people like him in the 'real' world, without the protection of friends.

The three men surrounded him with their mounts. "Look, Jake, this Nigger carries a gun, and look at these fancy knives, lord I never thought I'd see the day." Jake shook his head in disgust as he pointed out Nathan's shoulder rig to his brother. He tossed Nathan's Remington over to Jessie.

Nathan bit his tongue, knowing any comment would only escalate the situation.

"I think he needs a reminder about his place in this world," Jessie sneered his face turning ugly as he glared at Nathan. He reached behind his saddle and grabbed his lariat.

At the sight of the rope a cold sweat broke out all over Nathan's body. He couldn't help himself, his heart raced and his tongue couldn't even ease his dry lips. He spurred his horse forward, trying to break away, but the three men were ready.

Jake grabbed the reins and jerked the horse to a stop. The sound of a gun being cocked froze Nathan. Looking back over his shoulder, Jackson saw Jessie pointing his own gun directly at him. Nathan hoped the knot in his gut didn't suddenly travel up this throat. Why hadn't he just waited?

****Part 7

Ezra thought about the young healer as he rode, knowing Nathan's life had not been an easy one. Nathan had managed to pull himself up from the depths of slavery onto the level of a respected healer, lawman and citizen of Four Corners. Ezra had to admit Nathan harbored an indomitable spirit, which really came in handy being a black man in a white man's world. Lesser men would have crumbled and fell a long time ago, but Nathan had triumphed and thrived. He respected Nathan Jackson, even if he didn't always like him.

Ezra thought for a moment about himself. He was arrogant, cocky and perhaps somewhat vain; he possessed a certain charm that attracted women and influenced children. He felt superior to most men, especially the ones he chose to make a living off of. With the six other lawmen he never felt superior, or inferior. Equal was a nice word to describe his position with the others. It suggested harmony and tranquillity,--Well, maybe equal wasn't quite the right word after all. It did speak of friendship and respect though, and friendship and respect were things that had been definitely lacking in Ezra's past life. He wondered if Nathan respected him at all?

Ezra urged his horse into a quicker gait, it had been almost half an hour since Nathan had left town without him and he was starting to get anxious. His green eyes scanned the straight flat road ahead. He could see for perhaps three miles and still no sign of Jackson.

This was the only road he could have taken; unlike Mr. Tanner, Nathan was not one to take short cuts through uncharted wilderness. The thought of entering Four Corners without Jackson gave Ezra a sinking feeling right in the pit of his stomach. The thought of the healer being injured in some way only intensified the feeling.

Ezra's brow furrowed and he halted his horse at the sound of boisterous laughter, rising up from a nearby grove of trees. He lightly heeled his horse off the main road and down an overgrown path towards a copse of aspens.

When he reached the bottom his heart stopped at the sight laid opened to him, a sight he had thought he left behind in the South. Three men, their backs to him, were taunting Nathan, who was sitting upon a horse, a noose wrapped snugly about his neck. The other end was thrown over a lower branch and tied strongly to the base of a tree. The glee in the three men's voices belied their pernicious intent.

The fear in Jackson's eyes was palpable as one of the men threatened to release the horse out from under him.

Ezra harbored his own bigotry, only recently seeing Nathan as something more than just an angry ex-slave. A sudden, protective anger boiled up in Ezra. No human being should have to endure such humiliating treatment by another.

Ezra's shoulders tensed, it felt as if he'd snap every muscle he had if he moved. His face maintained the imperturbable facade he'd been schooled in since birth. It was moments like this where being a conman paid off in more than just monetary gain.

Ezra's quick mind took in the situation and his options. Nathan's arms were tied behind his back, but he was still able to control his horse with his legs. Standish was grateful the healer's horse was not a skittish animal. It seemed to be tolerating the abuse of the churlish man standing next to it. The other two men stood a few feet away, enjoying the repugnant show. Ezra was fairly certain only a slap to the horse's rump would make it bolt. Gun shy horses were of no use to lawmen.

Nathan swallowed convulsively as the rough fiber of the rope bit into the soft flesh of his neck. He couldn't believe this was happening. He glanced down to his left where Jessie stood, a switch in his hand. The man's wide, toothy grin crinkled his eyes to mere slits. Nathan looked over at the other two who seemed equally amused. God, he didn't want to die this way. He closed his eyes trying to quell the panic inside him that wanted to rise up and take control.

"Gentlemen, is this a private party?" Ezra asked, his southern drawl coming out rich and thick as he broke through the brush.

No one was more surprised than Nathan at the gambler's sudden appearance. He tensed when the three brothers simultaneously drew their guns at the intruder.

Ezra reined in his horse and raised his hands in mock surrender.

Nathan held back the chortle at the innocent smile pasted on the gambler's face. The three hooligans grinned at Ezra's colorful attire and southern accent.

"What 'cha want?" Jessie menacingly asked, eyeing the newcomer suspiciously; something about the flamboyant dresser made him nervous.

"Well hell, Jessie, he probably just wants to join in the fun," Billy laughed.

Ezra inwardly cringed. Even though he was counting on these men automatically assuming he'd be party to a lynching simply because he was a southerner, it still cut him deeply.

"Hey Reb, how much would this nigger be worth in the good old days?" Jessie asked, smiling as he lowered his gun. Billy and Jake laughed uproariously and holstered their guns, returning their attention to Nathan.

These men didn't see Ezra as a threat to them, Nathan suddenly realized, they saw him as an ally -- one of them. Ezra was pegged as a bigoted murderer just by opening his mouth. Nathan suddenly understood that if he hadn't known Ezra Standish, he would be thinking the same thing as the three brothers were.

Ezra slowly lowered his hands and smirked. "And why, pray tell, is this man hanging precariously by the neck?" he lazily asked.

"Thought he could ride all high and mighty down our road. We're just goin' to teach him his place," Billy announced proudly.

Ezra cleared his throat. "That place being at the end of a rope?"

"Yeah," Jake giggled.

"We're just teaching this nigger a lesson," Jessie coolly remarked, twirling the switch between his fingers. "You're welcome to join us. I'll even let you do the honors."

Nathan's gaze locked with Ezra's green eyes and an understanding passed between them; a realization that they had more in common with one another than either one cared to admit. Both men finally saw the truth behind the other's posturing, and with this discovery found common ground on which they both could stand together as equals and friends.

Ezra suspected the man the others called Jessie, who stood over by Nathan was the crux of this nasty little trio. The other two seemed to just follow along, although, they too were enjoying themselves far too much. Ezra figured if he took away the third leg of this little band of miscreants, the stool would topple. Nathan watched anxiously as Ezra pulled his jacket away from his gun. He tensed, prepared to hold his horse if gunplay came about.

Ezra shifted in his saddle, his knowing smirk dropping into something very dangerous. He covertly flicked his derringer into his hand "Gentlemen, your amusement has come to an end. You will kindly cut him loose from that demeaning position."

The three men stared slack-jawed at the smooth-talking gambler, not exactly sure what he had just said. It suddenly dawned on Jessie what the stranger was demanding.

"What fer? We're just gettin' ready to have some fun." Outrage and suspicion manipulated the three men's nearly identical faces.

"Well, gentlemen, and I do use the term loosely, this man has every right to ride down that road without being accosted."

Ezra's green gaze narrowed intently at Jessie, who remained near Nathan's horse. He could read the murderous intent in the man's depraved eyes.

"Are you sayin' this Nigger is as good as us?" Jessie laughingly sneered, looking over at his two brothers, who added their grins.

"Heavens no! On the contrary..." Ezra chuckled outright, enjoying the look on Nathan's face, a mixture of anger and bewilderment that almost matched the expression of his captors. A devilish glint sparkled in Ezra's green eyes as he finished,

"He's bettah."

Jessie's eyes widen as he raised his gun. Ezra raised his hand, which held his derringer and without seeming to take aim fired. The bullet tore through Jessie's chest, sending him falling backwards. With whatever life was left in him, Jessie brought the switch down on the horse's flanks, making the animal bolt.

Nathan tensed his neck muscles as he was jerked up and back, he was now dangling from the tightening noose, trying not to flail as he was slowly strangled. Jackson tried to call out to Ezra, but the noose only allowed a raspy spit of sound to escape. His chest started to tighten from lack of oxygen, his vision blurring.

Billy grappled for his holstered gun; with a trembling hand, he brought it up, using both hands to steady it.

Fear inspired adrenaline coursed through Ezra's body as he saw Nathan's eyes roll up into his head and drool run down his chin. Ezra diverted his aim from Billy and fired, severing the rope strangling Jackson at the lower limb. Nathan crumpled to the ground, his body taking a moment before realizing it was free before he began gasping and coughing for air.

Billy fired the moment after Ezra did, the bullet ripping into the gambler's left side, causing him to lose his grip on his derringer. In one fluid motion he drew his colt and shot his assailant in the arm. Billy hissed and grabbed his wound, his gun falling from his grasp. Ezra then took aim at Jake who immediately raised his hands.

Nathan struggled to his knees, taking in great gulps of air. Ezra drew his Remington, a gun now held in each hand.

"Mr. Jackson, are you well?"

Nathan nodded.

"Now, untie him or join your brother," Ezra told Jake, his voice no longer held any of his earlier humor.

Jake slowly made his way over to Nathan, his eyes never wavering from the gun pointed at him. He fumbled with the ropes until they fell away.

Nathan rubbed at his chafed wrists and pulled the noose over his head, dropping it in the dirt, like it was a serpent. He balled his fist and smoothly swung upward, connecting with Jake's jaw and sending the young man sprawling to the ground. Then Nathan strode over and picked up his guns and knives from where they were piled next to the tree, and then grabbed his Remington from beside Jessie's inert body. He retrieved his horse and remounted, drawing his own gun.

Billy had moved to check on his fallen brother. "Mister, you just killed our brother. You're a dead man," he snarled up at Ezra, his hand resting on Jessie's unmoving chest.

"I do apologize, but he left me little choice. You see this man you all were about to hang is a friend of mine." Ezra placed his Remington back into his shoulder holster, keeping his eyes on the two men. He could feel the warm blood running down his side.

"We were only havin' a little fun, you didn't have to kill 'im," Jake spat out, his face red from tears and anger.

"Your choice of entertainment leaves much to be desired," Ezra countered. "And whether you admit it or not, your brother had every intention of killing this man." Ezra could read a person like he could a deck of cards, and he knew that Nathan's life had been meaningless to the man who now lay dead.

"C'mon Ez, let's get out of here," Nathan insisted.

"Gentlemen, on the ground if you please," Ezra instructed, motioning with his gun.

Nathan dug his heels in and his horse surged forward. Ezra guided his horse backward with his legs. He holstered his colt and collected up the reins, jerking his horse around and following after Nathan.

Jake and Billy watched from their positions on the ground as the two men disappeared up the hill, then they looked over at their dead older brother.

"C'mon, let's git Jessie home," Billy sadly told his younger brother.

"Pa ain't going to like this," Jake added.

****Part 8

Nathan pulled up as he crested a slight rise in the road, giving him an unobstructed view of the road behind him. He had begun to grow concerned when Ezra started to lag further behind. He thought the gambler was just staying back to cover their escape, but when he didn't catch up alarm bells started sounding in Nathan's head. He turned in his saddle when Ezra came up over the rise and frowned when he saw the pain etched in the gambler's face.

He immediately dismounted and met up with Ezra, who was doubled over in his saddle. Ezra's face was bathed in sweat and his breaths came out in uneven pants.

"Mr. Jackson, I suggest we keep moving as I believe we will be pursued," Ezra gasped, his hand clenching the saddle horn tighter as a wave of pain and nausea surged through him.

"You're hurt." Nathan pulled Ezra's jacket aside and swore upon seeing the blood covering the lower half of his left side. "Let me tend to your wound."

Nathan quickly checked for an exit hole and didn't find one. He didn't think anything vital had been hit, but there was considerable blood loss and the bouncing around had to be agony. Nathan grabbed some rags and a long strip of cloth out of his saddlebag.

"Let me help you down." Nathan grabbed Ezra's forearm prepared to help him off his horse.

"If I dismount...I don't believe...I'll be able to get back on. We don't have much farther to town," Ezra stubbornly resisted.

Nathan bit his lower lip, knowing Ezra was probably right.

"Can you get out of your jacket?"

Ezra cautiously slipped his arms out of his jacket and lay the coat in front of him. He then undid the buttons of his waistcoat.

Nathan pressed the rag against the wound, causing Ezra to arch his back and hiss as pain lanced through his body.

"Sorry," Jackson murmured as he began to wrap the cloth around Ezra's middle to hold the bandage in place. He stepped back to examine his work. "Well, it should at least get you back to town with some blood left in you."

Ezra managed a grateful grin. "That would be preferable, Mr. Jackson."

Nathan placed a hand on Ezra's leg. "That was some mighty fine shootin', I'm grateful," he forced out.

Ezra smiled and nodded his acceptance of the compliment to his marksmanship as well as the thanks. The two men traveled in silence for half an hour, but it wasn't the hostile silence of earlier. Nathan kept glancing over to his right, seeing the clenched jaw protruding on Ezra's pale face. Knowing the man was in considerable pain, his heart went out to him.

Ezra knew he was being scrutinized, but he could no longer keep up the façade of normality, he just hurt too much. Every beat of the horse's hooves sent daggers of agony through him. It took all his concentration to stay on his horse.

"Why do you do it, Mr. Jackson?" Ezra unexpectedly asked, keeping his glassy eyes straight ahead. He needed something to focus on besides the pain and conversation seemed to be the only option.

"Do what?"

"Use your God-given talents to help people such as those miscreants we just removed from our road?"

"Not everyone is like those men. I've met a lot of fine people in Four Corners."

Ezra chuckled weakly. "Everyone is like those men, just in differing degrees." Ezra could never understand Nathan's uncompromising belief in mankind. Even after everything the healer had experienced in his life the man still managed to maintain a positive attitude. To Ezra, everything came with a price and the price was usually high.

Did Ezra really believe everyone was just a mark? Nathan wondered. Someone not to be trusted? Nathan had to admit he was surprised that Ezra had come to his rescue; hell, he was surprised he came at all. The whole time Nathan sat in that saddle with the noose around his neck he had no doubt that he was going to die. Then lo and behold, a miracle in the guise of Ezra Standish had appeared.

Before Nathan could question Ezra's motivation he saw that Standish was starting to list to one side. Nathan stretched out his hand to help steady the injured man.

The world had started to lose some of its reality for the wounded gambler, and Nathan watched as Ezra fought not to lose consciousness. The flush of fever had risen in his pale face. Ezra's horse suddenly stopped dead in its tracks, not sure of the instructions it was receiving from its incoherent rider.

Nathan reached over and took Ezra's reins without protest from the gambler. "You just hang on."

Ezra nodded, to weak to argue. This only worried Nathan more. They couldn't continue walking all the way back; it would take too long. He hoped Ezra's horse had an even gait as he spurred his horse into a canter.

*****Part 9

Night had just tucked its blanket of darkness over the town. A few folks leisurely strolled the boardwalk, enjoying the warm evening. Two drunken cowboys fell out of the saloon and made their way up the street towards the hotel, singing some off-key and slightly off-colored song about a whore and a farmer.

"CHRIS, JOSIAH!" Nathan shouted, interrupting the drunken cowboy's song and shattering the peace that had fallen over the town.

"I NEED HELP OUT HERE!" Nathan dismounted and went over to Ezra, who was hunched over his horse's neck, barely conscious.

Jackson eased Ezra from the saddle. He was worried about the fresh blood saturating the gambler's bandages.

Chris, Josiah and Vin ran out of the saloon in time to see Nathan struggling to keep a blood soaked Standish from crumpling to the ground. Josiah quickly stepped in swinging an arm around Ezra's waist to help lower him gently to the street.

"We have to get him up to my room now!" Nathan urgently explained to the three men, his voice sharp with concern. He placed a hand on Ezra's fevered brow and swore. The hectic ride had taken its toll of Ezra's strength. He should've taken the chance and taken care of the wound on the road, but fear of being caught and hanging from that rope again allowed him to be dissuaded by Ezra.

Chris heard the fear in Nathan's voice and anxiety filled his soul. He looked down at Ezra's pale features and a surprising sense of dread gripped his heart.

Buck and JD suddenly materialized within the glow of the saloon lights. Chris stared down the street into the darkness, looking for any sign of trouble.

"What happened?" JD asked, his dark eyes going wide at the sight of the injured gambler. Without a word Josiah collected up the smaller man and headed towards the clinic.

"He was shot saving my life," Nathan answered, starting to follow Josiah towards the clinic.

"What?" Chris's head snapped around, and he grabbed Nathan by the arm.

"I'll explain later, but you might want to post a guard," Nat suggested, then raced off to catch up with Sanchez and Ezra, Buck and JD right on his heels.

Chris clenched his jaw and watched as Josiah easily traversed the outer stairs with his injured burden. Ezra looked like a lifeless doll in the bigger man's arms.

"Vin," Chris called out, getting the tracker's attention away from Standish. "Nathan thinks trouble might be comin', take first watch."

"Did he say what kind of trouble?"

"No, but I'm sure we'll know it when we see it."

Vin nodded and jogged off towards the tallest building in town.

Chris again looked down the quiet street and into the surrounding darkness, wondering what was coming and why.

*****Part 10

Josiah kicked open the door to the clinic and turned sideways as he passed through the doorway. He gently placed Ezra on the bed, a soft moan escaping the gambler's lips.

Nathan nudged him aside and knelt down beside the injured man, placing a hand on the pale, sweating brow.

"Ezra, can you hear me?" Jackson forced his head towards him and lifted an unresponsive eyelid. JD hugged the far wall as Buck paced at the foot of the bed, his thumbs hooked into his gun belt.

"I need water, and there are some clean rags over in the saloon's kitchen," Nathan called out. Buck raced out, spinning around Chris to avoid a collision.

"Chris, Josiah, I need you to hold him so I can get the bullet out." The two men moved without question and took hold of their wounded friend.

"Geeze Nat, he doesn't look too good," JD muttered, looking worriedly down at the gambler. His bloodless face looked terrible in the flickering light of the oil lamp. The orange flickering glow of the lamp made the dark bloodstain on his shirt seem to come alive, pulsating in the eerie light.

"He'll look a lot worse if I don't get that bullet out." Nathan grabbed the lantern and thrust it into JD's hands. "I need you to hold this over me."

Josiah positioned himself across Ezra's legs as Chris took hold of an arm pinning it to the bed. Ezra moaned and his eyes slowly opened. He looked over to see Nathan's face staring back at him.

"Awww hell, this can't be good," he managed to croak out.

"Take it easy, Ez. I have to get that bullet out," Nathan explained, laying a caring hand on the southerner's shoulder and squeezing, trying to reassure the pain-ridden man.

"I have the utmost confidence in your ability, Mr. Jackson," Ezra breathed out, bringing astonished grins to both Josiah's and Chris's faces.

"It appears our brothers have traveled the upon the road to understanding," Josiah mused.

Nathan flashed a faint grin at his huge friend. Turning around he grabbed a brown vial off his dresser. "Here Ez, you need to take some laudanum, it'll help with the pain."

"I'm afraid," Ezra gasped. "Laudanum and I have had a difficult relationship in the past."

Nathan stared down at Standish, and then patted his shoulder, realizing the southerner probably had a good reason for not wanting to take the opiate.

Buck returned, juggling a ewer of water and an armful of rags, which he set down next to Nathan. He took hold of Ezra's other arm, stepping sideways to block Standish's view of the coming operation. Buck watched as the healer removed the earlier bandages and ripped open Ezra's blood-soaked shirt. He diverted his eyes, his expression growing sad at the sight of the ragged wound. Buck glanced over to see Chris's blue eyes narrow at the injury. 'Someone is going to pay for this!' was written all over Larabee's face.

"Here, Ez, clamp down on this." Nathan placed a tightly wadded roll of cloth between Ezra's teeth. He looked at each of the men in the room, grateful for the nods of confidence. He picked up the scalpel, hovering it over the injury for a moment before slowly starting to cut into the wound.

The cloth muffled Ezra's screams, but tears ran down his face. Buck, Chris and Josiah strained against the throes of the gambler as he arched and threw his head from side to side trying to shake off the searing pain that was tearing through his side. He clasped onto Buck and Chris's biceps, squeezing so hard it brought tears to their eyes.

"You need to hold him still!" Nathan yelled.

"We're trying!" Buck bit back. They were discovering that underneath Ezra's fancy clothing was a sinewy body with surprising strength.

Sweat soaked Ezra's hair, matting it to his skull. His face had turned a ghastly shade of white, and Chris could feel the heat coming off his body.

"Hurry, Nathan," Chris hissed through clenched teeth.

"Damn!" Nathan swore and paused a moment, removing his blood soaked hands and instrument from Ezra's side.

"What?" Buck angrily yelled out, his own breathing coming out in short pants.

"It's too deep."

Ezra relaxed a little, his labored breaths, whistling past the wad of material. His emerald eyes glowed with the fire of fever behind them.

Josiah's large hand wrapped around Nathan's arm. "Try again."

Nathan took a deep breath and slowly released it, giving Chris and Buck a chance to renew their grips on the sweat-slick man. Nathan once again began to probe the ragged wound, his face a mask of concentration and determination. Ezra's struggles had weakened and his cries had died to mere whimpers.

"I almost got it."

Ezra turned his head and sunk deep into the pillow and emitted one last torturous scream. His eyes rolled up into his head, and he slumped unconscious at the clang of the bullet thrown into the basin.

Nathan quickly placed a folded over cloth on the bleeding wound grabbing Buck's hand and pulling him over into his place. "Hold that."

Nathan placed two bloodied fingers aside the unconscious gambler's neck then opened an eyelid. He then slumped back in his chair, exhausted. His hand shook as he held it in front of his face, and he licked at his dry lips. Looking up, he saw the worry on everyone else's faces. Chris looked down at the pale form and his heart ached. He didn't want to lose anyone else, not another member of his family.

"Is he going to be alright?" Chris whispered.

Nathan heard the concern and was surprised that the voice belonged to Chris. "He lost a lot of blood and the shock...Damn fool wouldn't let me treat him out on the trail. We'll need to try and keep him quiet and in bed." "Geeze Nat, that'll be like keeping Buck here out of bed, it can't be done," JD quipped, trying to lighten the oppressive mood that had blanketed the small room. Buck lightly cuffed his young friend, grateful for the friendly diversion.

Chris raised icy blue eyes to meet Nathan's tired ones. "Now, what the hell happened out there?"

"Let's go downstairs, I need a drink. Someone needs to stay with him for awhile, but he should just sleep."

"I'll stay," Josiah volunteered. This came as no surprise to the four other men, but it would have surprised the reserved gambler. They had all recognized, early on, the fatherly feeling the ex-preacher had cultivated for Ezra.

*****Part 10

The four unassigned lawmen met down in the saloon, its crowd having significantly thinned out from earlier. Nathan took a long swig on the beer that Buck put before him. He unconsciously rubbed at the ghostly feel of the rope around his neck. Once everyone was settled he began, "I'd left town ahead of Ezra."

Chris glared at him, but Nathan only took another swig of beer and returned the glare before continuing.

"Three men, brothers I think, stopped me on the road sayin' I had no right to be there. Next thing I know my neck is in a noose." Fear flickered in Nathan's eyes at the memory and he took another gulp of his beer. Jackson looked at the stunned expressions of his friends.

"Well, Ezra caught up to me and killed one of the men and shot the rope in two to save my life." Nathan bowed his head and stared at the beer that was left in his glass. He then raised his head to meet the expectant looks of his friends. "He musta gone for the rope instead of protecting himself..." Nathan quietly said.

'Ezra put my life over his own!' the healer thought.

"So you think trouble is coming?" Chris asked.

Nathan shook himself from his thoughts and looked over at the blond leader. "The man Ezra killed was a brother to the other two; one of them threatened him."

Buck slumped back into his chair and released a long held breath.

Chris sat with his arms crossed, contemplating what Nathan was telling him. He leaned forward placing his clasped hands on top of the table.

"Okay, I have Vin on first watch. Buck, JD, you take the next shifts, then we'll devise a schedule. I want to know if any strangers come into town." Chris looked at his three friends. "I also don't want Ezra left alone." Everyone nodded in agreement.

****

"NATHAN!" Ezra bolted up in his bed, his eyes darting wildly unable to fix in the darkness. He felt a hand on his chest forcing him down.

"Easy, Ez," a soft Texas drawl came out of the darkness. Someone lit a lantern and Ezra could make out the long brown hair of the tracker. JD came up to the bedside holding the lantern.

"I missed... Oh God, Nathan I'm sorry... I missed..." Ezra ranted, his voice quivering.

"No, Ez, you didn't. Nathan's fine," Vin assured, grabbing a cool cloth and mopping the gambler's brow. Ezra looked up into Vin's face searching for any indication of a lie and found none. The cool cloth felt so good. Vin watched as Ezra's eyes slowly closed. He continued to mop his brow, hoping to lull his injured friend into a soothing slumber.

Ezra slept through the next day, stirring only briefly, enabling Nathan to get some much-needed water down him. The others were a constant procession through the clinic, helping wherever they could. Nathan spent the most time watching over him, mostly because he was the most medically qualified, but also because he felt he owed him. He looked down at the obstinate southerner who had saved his life. He realized there was more to Ezra Standish than mere appearances and attitude portrayed. His indifference was a front, protecting a more fragile and caring soul than Nathan had ever believed existed.

****Part 11

The next morning found Buck lounging outside the jail, his chair tilted back on two legs against the wall. He eased his chair down on all four of its legs as three men slowly rode in.

"JD, git out here!" he called back into the jailhouse.

His young friend stepped out of the doorway on to the jail porch, brushing his dark hair back from his face and setting his bowler on his head.

"Go get Chris, we have company."

JD looked down the street at the three riders and took off across the street as Buck nonchalantly stood, leaning against the post, his eyes never leaving the three men as they rode past. He watched as the three strangers dismounted outside the stables.

Buck saw Chris and Vin exit the saloon and he stepped off the boardwalk to meet them in the center of the street.

The three lawmen intercepted the three strangers as they exited the stables. The six men assessed each other with practiced eyes.

"What can we do fer you?" Chris asked arms folded across his dark shirt.

"Who's asking?" an older gentleman countered. He was a massive man, with a thick neck and heavy arms. Gray hair peeked out from under a wide brimmed hat. He pulled back his coat to threateningly reveal two guns, slung low on his hip: Both had crosses carved into the pearl handles.

Chris's blue eyes narrowed at the burly man, unimpressed with the older man's show of force.

"I'm Chris Larabee and these are my men. We're the law here," Chris answered.

Vin shifted his stance when he saw the two young men standing behind the older man noticeably stiffened. They had heard tales of the dark-clad gunslinger and by the look in Larabee's eyes, the tales were true.

"I'm Frank Mason and these are my boys, Billy and Jake. We're lookin' fer an evil doer, dressed fancy with a southern accent. He gunned down my son and God and me wish to have words with him about it."

Frank Mason had also heard of Larabee, but he wasn't intimidated by the somber gunslinger. He had the lord on his side, and anyway he wasn't looking to get in a gunfight with this man, not that he didn't think he couldn't take the younger man.

Buck and Vin glanced at each other behind Chris' back, both wondering what Mason was trying to pull. It was true they hadn't known Ezra long, but they knew he wouldn't kill anyone in cold blood and they believed Nathan's version of events. Vin was more concerned with the man's 'friendship' with God.

"You see it happen?" Chris asked his face giving nothing away.

"Nah, but my boys did, tell me this slick city fellow just gunned Jessie down without reason."

Chris glared at the older man, seeing that he believed what he said and what his sons had told him. This was going to mean trouble for Ezra.

"Haven't seen anyone like that 'round here," Chris smoothly lied, hoping the three would just move on.

Frank Mason stared at the stone-faced cowboy. "You don't mind if'n we have a look around?" Mason politely asked.

"Nope, it's a free country," Chris stated and locked deadly blue eyes onto the two young men, who shifted nervously under his gaze. "Just make sure your boys remember that."

Mason's black eyes narrowed as he felt the threat that came from the darkly dressed gunslinger. He nodded and headed towards the hotel, his two remaining sons right on his heel.

"Shit, Chris, what are we going to do?" Buck asked, watching the three men enter the hotel.

"Try and keep Ezra out of sight for awhile until we can straighten this out," Chris replied, turning to walk towards the saloon. Vin clapped Buck on the back and followed Chris. Buck paused a moment running his hand down his face. How did Ezra always manage to find trouble? He shook his head and proceeded to follow Vin and Chris into the saloon.

Vin came up alongside Chris. "Mason believes Ezra killed his son in cold blood," Vin said, matching his friend's long strides.

"Well, we'll just have to make him see the truth then," Chris replied. He hadn't completely trusted Ezra at first, but he had proven himself an invaluable asset to the team. Chris doubted Standish knew how the others really felt about him. The gambler was one of them, and as anyone would tell you Chris Larabee protected his own with a ferocity that rivaled a mother lioness.

*****Part 12

Nathan sat quietly in a chair in the corner of his room, thumbing through a large medical tome; his thoughts, though, were elsewhere. Chris had told him that Ezra had returned the money he'd won from Mr. Winslow, enabling the family to return back east. When would Ezra stop surprising him?

His eyes glanced up from the page when Ezra moaned. He closed the book and set it on the chair as he stood and immediately went to Standish's side. "Easy Ez," he soothed as he brought the coverlet back up to this chest.

Ezra winced and opened his green eyes.

"Mr. Jackson," he breathed. "I guess I own you a debt of gratitude."

Nathan checked Ezra's pulse and felt his forehead for fever, relieved that the fever had finally abated. "No more than I owe you. I'd be hangin' from a rope right now if it hadn't been for you."

Ezra's face fell and his eyes shifted away. "I believe you wouldn't have found yourself in such a difficult position if I had accompanied you when you asked me to."

Nathan's face showed his shock at this admission. Was Ezra actually apologizing, believing what had happened was his fault?

"Well, that's debatable, there were three of them," Nathan pointed out, suddenly finding himself trying to defend the contrite gambler. "And anyway, I could have waited a little while."

His brown eyes met appreciative green ones. He turned away, reaching for a cup of water, sitting on the bed table. Nathan wedged an arm behind Ezra's back and helped him to sit up.

"Here, drink this, it'll help with the pain."

Ezra took the cup with a shaky hand and sipped at the noxious medicine. His face scrunched as he choked down the drink.

"And don't tell me how awful it is -- I know," Nathan kindly reprimanded in a tone laced with concern. Ezra's eyes shifted up to see if what he heard in his voice matched what was on his face. A smile tugged at his mouth as he realized they were finally building a bridge over that bottomless chasm that had separated them. Nathan eased Ezra's weakened body back down.

Nathan sat back down in the chair, placing his hands on his knees. "Why didn't you tell me you gave the money back?"

Ezra's eyes narrowed and he shifted in the bed trying to find a more comfortable position that would not aggravate his wound. "Would that have changed your belief that I cheated?"

Nathan dropped his head and looked down at the floorboards for a moment. 'Would it have changed what he believed of the suave gambler?' Nathan wasn't sure. He raised his head.

"It might've," he answered.

"Maybe we both should learn to put our overabundance of pride aside from time to time," Ezra suggested, extending his hand.

Nathan looked at the offered hand and clasped it in his large dark one. Both men looked up as Chris and Buck entered.

"Hey, Ez, you're awake," Buck said, grinning like the Cheshire cat that ate the canary.

Ezra cocked an expressive eyebrow towards the congenial cowboy. "Mr. Wilmington, you have remarkable powers of observation."

Chris chuckled at Buck's feigned look of hurt. Ezra was definitely on the mend, he mused. Chris's expression hardened as he looked at Nathan. "They're here."

Nathan slumped down into the chair. He had hoped the threat made to Ezra had been meaningless. He looked over at Standish who now had his usual impassive façade firmly in place.

"The father of the dead man, a Frank Mason, and his two sons are looking for Ezra," Chris said. "They say he killed their son and brother in cold-blood."

Ezra's face fell and Nathan leapt to his feet. "What? That's not true!" he yelled.

"We know Nathan, but apparently his sons saw it differently," Buck answered. "The man also believes that God is on his side."

"Well, that could be entirely true, he's never been on mine," the gambler quipped. This was always the way. Ezra always found himself blamed for something he had no control over.

"You're not to blame, Ez, you saved Nathan's life," Chris answered the southerner's unspoken thoughts. "And we'll make Mason realize that."

Ezra stared up into Chris's blue eyes, looking for the gunslinger's angle and seeing only concern and respect for a colleague. Swallowing hard, Ezra dropped his gaze to the top of the sheet.

"What are we going to do?" Nathan asked.

"Well, we're going to keep Ezra under wraps for now." Chris glanced over toward Standish expecting an objection. The gunslinger was not disappointed.

"Mr. Larabee, I have no reason to hide. It would only make me appear guilty of the charge," Ezra reasoned.

"You don't have a choice. You're in no shape to face him," Chris explained.

"Ezra, you lost a lot of blood. There is no way I'm letting you out of this bed," Nathan firmly stated.

*****Part 13

After a day of Ezra's incessant demands and complaints to be let out of the clinic, Nathan finally relented, releasing him to his room under the condition that he would remain in bed for a couple more days. Of course, he expected to hold Ezra to his promise with some help from the others. They all knew that Ezra hated to be forced into doing anything, even if it was for his own good.

No sooner had he been remanded to his room Ezra tried to sneak out, figuring he could go down the back stairs. He hadn't planned on finding Josiah's massive form in the hall, fixing a hole that had mysteriously appeared in the wall. "Brother, is there anything I can get you?" Josiah innocently asked, working on keeping the smile from turning into a full out laugh at the perplexed expression on the gambler's face.

Ezra returned the grin and closed the door against Josiah's smile.

On his next attempt, Ezra opened his door only to come face to face with Buck's smiling visage.

"Ay, Ez how about a game." He waved a deck of cards in the cardsharp's annoyed face.

The one that really threw him was Vin, who he found stretched out on the roof right next to his window.

"Mr. Tanner, what are you doing out here?" a flabbergasted Ezra asked as he opened the window.

Vin was laying on his buckskin coat his hands behind his head drinking in the afternoon sunshine.

"Ah...just relaxin' a bit," he easily lied with a twinkle in his blue eyes. He knew he wasn't fooling Ezra, but that wasn't the idea. They were just trying to keep him under wraps for as long as possible. "You should be restin' Ez, doctor's orders." Vin was enjoying this way too much.

Ezra finally succumbed to his inevitable captivity, knowing any attempt to leave his room would be obstructed and at the moment he wasn't strong enough to fight them. He couldn't stop the smile that tugged at the corners of his mouth at this newly found concern, although, it could also be a real pain in the ass.

Nathan made numerous house calls to check on him. Ezra found himself becoming more comfortable with the tall healer; they even played a couple friendly card games together, in the gambler's room of course.

It was during one of these impromptu games that Nathan decided to venture into unknown territory and try and find out what Ezra Standish was really all about.

"What made you leave the saloon and come after me?" Nathan asked, laying down two cards and continuing to stare at his hand.

Ezra tilted his head sideways as he dealt out two cards. "Did you find it astonishing that a dyed-in-the-wool southerner such as myself would come to your rescue?"

Nathan shook his head. Ezra always answered a question with a question and with as many words as could fit in a sentence. "I don't know, it just seemed, well..."

"Out of character," Ezra finished, looking down at the hand he held.

Nathan raised his head to meet Ezra's gaze. He found no animosity shaded in those green eyes, only understanding. "You know, I don't know. I guess it just made me realize how little I know you and how much I just assume," Nathan explained. "I call."

A small smile tugged at the gambler's mouth as he laid down a royal flush and remarked, "The same here, Mr. Jackson."

***** Part 14

Chris and the others knew that Frank Mason suspected they were hiding something. The Mason family had been asking questions around town, but only received conflicting information, thanks to Buck and JD who raced around town asking people to play dumb.

Chris, Nathan, Josiah, and Buck were relaxing in the saloon passing away the long afternoon when Frank Mason and his boys entered.

"Damn it, thought they'd left," Chris muttered.

"Musta doubled back," Buck said, nodding at the scowling Vin who followed the Mason family into the saloon.

"Pa, that's him, that's the nigger friend of the fancy dressin' man," Billy voiced, pointing a finger at Nathan.

As the three men walked towards their table, Chris saw JD slip silently into the saloon and move to the corner of the room prepared for any trouble.

Frank Mason approached the four gunslingers. "You lied to me, Mr. Larabee, you're harboring a killer?!" Mason slurred.

"No. We're keeping you from killing an innocent man," Chris softly replied.

"What?! That strutting peacock killed my son! I want to know where he is?!" Mason demanded.

Josiah placed a friendly, but forceful hand on Nathan's tensed shoulders. Buck's fingers tickled the handle of his gun. Chris raised his eyes and glared dangerously at the older man, who stood only a few feet away. He decided to try and set the angry man straight and hope for the best.

"Your boy was going to hang Nathan; Ezra stopped him," Chris explained.

Mason glanced over at Nathan then back at Chris.

"My boys were just having a little fun with the nigger; that Reb killed my son for no reason."

The four gunslinger's jaws dropped; apparently, Frank Mason knew exactly what his sons had been doing and saw nothing wrong with it.

"Your boys were going to hang me!" Nathan exploded up out of his chair, toppling it over. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. It was like the war had never happened; he was still a slave in this man's eyes.

Buck and Josiah stood up next to their irate friend.

"My son was not going to kill ya," Mason firmly replied.

"Yeah, we weren't going to hurt you none," Jake added, the grin on his face only validating the others disbelief.

"The hell you weren't!" Nathan stepped forward, and Josiah's hand latched onto his shoulder, acting as a tether, holding him back.

"Your brother had every intention of hanging me and Ezra knew it." Jackson's eyes burned with a fire that Chris had never seen before. His usually composed friend looked homicidal.

Mason returned his eyes to Chris, who had remained in his chair, his fingers templed in front of his face. "It makes no difference, the life of this...nigger," Mason spat out, glaring sharply back at Nathan, "was not worth the life of my son. He's no better than one of my cattle and probably not even worth as much."

JD's mouth fell open; Vin shook his head in disgust.

Josiah released his hold on Nathan and took a step forward only stopping when he heard the slow scrape of a chair being pushed back. Chris's tall, sinewy form rose out of his chair. Buck's gaze shot over to see Chris's anger surface like a demon thing rising up. Larabee clenched his fists and took a deep breath. He wanted nothing more than to shove his fist into this man's bigoted face.

"Then let's have the law decide, we'll hold a trial and get the truth. I can have a judge here in two days time," Chris exclaimed through gritted teeth.

"I don't need no judge telling me what's right and wrong. God and I will dispense justice." Mason fingered the cross carved into the handle of one of his guns.

Josiah stepped forwarded. "Sir, I've never known the lord to dispense justice, he left that up to his flock."

Frank Mason stared at the large gunslinger. "You a preacher or something?"

"Once I had a personal relationship with the Almighty, but we've sort of had a falling out and only talk on occasion now."

"You will not blaspheme!" Frank yelled and Josiah saw the fanaticism in the man's dark eyes.

Mason turned and headed towards the door with his two boys right on his heels. He stopped as he reached the swinging doors, a hand on each door holding them apart. "You can't hide him forever," he called over his shoulder.

"And he won't have to, Mr. Mason." The elegantly drawled words floated down from the second story.

Everyone looked up the stairs as Ezra made his way stiffly down the stairs, keeping a hand on the banister to compensate for the balance he was still lacking. His friends could tell he was moving carefully.

Ezra stopped at the bottom of the stairs placing his hand on the round newel. They all could see how pale and out of breath the descent had made him.

"Finally decided to come out of your hole, Reb?" Billy sneered. Frank Mason eyed the smaller, distinctively dressed man and smiled. This would be easier than he thought.

"An unfortunate mishap with one of your sons left me incapacitated for a while," Ezra explained.

"We have something to settle," Mason snarled, stepping towards Ezra, stopping as he noticed the other lawmen laying their hands on their guns.

"Sir, I fired in self-defense when your son violently refused my request to release Mr. Jackson from his noose."

"Jessie was just havin' a little fun," Mason grunted.

"He was murderin' Mr. Jackson, and had planned on having me join him in the hereafter. He gave me no other recourse but to shoot him. Be grateful I only killed one," Ezra sneered. He had overheard enough of the older man's derogatory remarks and was having a hard time holding back his own growing anger.

Chris bowed his head to hide his smirk, and Ezra accused him of having no tact!

"You think the life of that nigger was worth the life of my son?" Mason asked Ezra.

Ezra closed his eyes, his stomach rolling in disgust as much as from the pain in his side. "At this moment, Sir, I believe Mr. Jackson's life is worth more than yours."

Buck hooted out loud and Josiah's face broke into the broadest grin his long face could handle. Nathan stared open mouth as Ezra openly defended him. Mason's face darkened and he inhaled, held the breath, and then slowly released it. He stared directly at Ezra, who met it with steady indifference.

"Justice will prevail and God will guide my hand with righteousness," he declared, raising a hand towards the ceiling. "I'm going to kill you like the cowardly bastard you are. I'm calling you out, tomorrow at noon, man to man, and if you don't show my Lord will strike you down!"

"I accept your challenge, Sir."

Chris bowed his head. Buck threw his hat on the table and ran his fingers through his dark hair. The others stared dumbfounded at Ezra.

Frank and his boys slowly backed out of the saloon feeling the seven deadly gazes upon them.

"Pa, he's really fast," Jake whispered into his father's ear as they left the saloon.

Frank grabbed his son by the shirt and brought his face to within inches of his own.

"You dare doubt the right hand of God Almighty? I will prevail and see justice carried out as the blood drains from the body of your brother's murderer's body." Frank released his son and continued across the street towards the hotel, his two boys regarding each other with fear in their eyes and quickly followed.

Back in the saloon, Ezra swayed, then felt Buck's hand on his elbow, leading him to a chair.

"Ezra, you don't have to do this," Chris exclaimed.

"Sir, my character as well as Mr. Jackson's has been maligned."

"This ain't going to prove anything," Buck added. "The man's crazy, thinks he's god's hired gun or somethin'"

Ezra looked over to see a forlorn Nathan standing a few feet away, not believing what was happening. When Nathan saw that he was being scrutinized he walked over. "Ez, you can't do this--not because of me."

"I believe you are thinking too highly of yourself, Mr. Jackson. Mr. Mason wants retribution for the death of his son, for which I'm responsible."

"Yeah, but you wouldn't have been in that position if not for me," Nat reminded him.

"Ezra, there's no law that says you have to face him," JD pointed out.

"And what would you have me do? Hide in my room for the rest of my life? I have a feeling that as Mr. Wilmington put it, Mr. Mason considers himself the gun hand of God and would take it upon himself to see that I'm struck down eventually. I'd rather face this head on. It's not my usual habit, I'll admit, but a lot has changed of late."

Chris laid a hand on Ezra's shoulder. The gambler looked up, the feeling flooding through him at the expression on Chris's face was exactly how he had always believed it would feel to have a brother. Wiping at his face, Ezra slowly stood. He looked at Nathan.

"I have no regrets, Mr. Jackson, and neither should you. If you'll excuse me gentlemen, I feel I better rest up for tomorrow's duel." The others watched as Ezra slowly made his way up the stairs.

"Does anyone have any idea how fast Ezra is?" Buck asked when Ezra was out of earshot. They all looked at each other questioningly.

"I know he's accurate, but I ain't never seen 'im draw one on one with anyone," Vin replied.

"Chris, there's another consideration," Nathan voiced. "Ezra's lost a lot of blood, he's not up for this no matter what he says."

"What are we going to do? We can't just let this guy gun Ezra down like a dog," JD injected.

Chris rubbed a hand down his tired face as he looked at Nathan. "Can you slip him something so we can buy some more time?"

Nathan raised his eyebrows and nodded. "He won't like it."

"We'll deal with that later, I just want to keep him alive so there is a later," Chris replied.

****Part 15

Nathan found Mr. Mason sitting alone at a table in the restaurant. In three determined strides he was standing before the huge man. He slid down into the chair across from the older man, who had yet to acknowledge his presence.

Mason wiped his mouth with a napkin, eyeing the impertinent darkie. "I didn't give permission for you to sit down," he sneered.

"I didn't ask for any," Nathan countered in the same disgusted tone.

Frank Mason glared at Nathan, then a crooked smile pulled his lips up. "Mr. Larabee and that Reb's friends have already been by to threaten me and my boys; nothing you say is going to stop me from killing the man who killed my son."

"Your son was going to hang me."

Mason picked the napkin from his lap and wiped his mouth, then leaned back in his chair. "What gives a man the right to kill another? Only the good Lord can decide that?"

Nathan cocked his head at the opinionated man. "Ezra was defending my life as well as his own."

"So you say, but you're still alive and my son is dead," Mason paused. "You had nothing to fear from death if you are a righteous man."

Nathan shook his head, not sure he was following the older man's train of thought, and then something struck him. "You're angry because your son died so I might live," Nathan exclaimed.

Frank Mason crossed his arms and rested them on his stomach as he stared at the perceptive healer. His voice was low as he replied, "You're right, is that what you want to hear? Your life was not worth my boy's life. Not so long ago no one would have batted an eye over what my son was doing."

Mason was right; it hadn't been that long ago that he had been a slave, his life worth no more than someone was willing to pay. Nathan clenched his teeth and drew in a quivering breath.

"You're a hypocrite, you hide behind this pretense of doing the lord's work. What god would want one man to kill another, just because he saved the life of a man you feel is unworthy?"

"I use to be a hired gun, until god's divine light shined down on me and showed me my true calling. To make sure that justice was carried out, and I aim not to fail."

Nathan then saw the same madness that had earlier lit Mason's eyes and knew he wouldn't be able to talk this man out of his deadly revenge. Nathan quietly rose, standing over the contemptible man for a moment then turned and left.

Mason chuckled quietly and returned to his meal. He got a sudden uneasy feeling and looked around the restaurant, noticing the stares of disdain directed to him from the other patrons -- all white patrons.

****

Josiah looked up from the pulpit as Frank Mason entered the quiet church and approached.

Mr. Mason came directly up to the altar and smiled. "Sir, you will have to forgive my earlier outburst, a father's grief you know."

Josiah remained quiet, only staring at the deranged man.

"You of all people should understand my position, being a preacher and gunslinger. We are the lord's hired guns, carrying the truth." Mason removed one of his revolvers and placed it on the altar in front of Josiah who stared down at it.

"This can never be an instrument of truth only of death," Josiah quietly remarked, picking up the revolver and handing it back to Mason.

"Justice will prevail and I will be revenged. Vengeance is mine, so sayeth the lord," Mason recited.

"That is the lord's vengeance, not yours, sir," Josiah corrected. "Man must follow the laws put down by man. Ezra did what he had to do."

"No, he didn't have to murder my son!" Mason yelled out. "I will show you all the truth when he faces me under the presence of the Almighty."

"Shooting down an innocent man is not justice and will not bring your son back," Josiah said.

"It will give me immense pleasure, though," Mason snarled and in that moment Josiah knew the man was totally insane. Frank Mason turned and strode out of the church, his maniacal laughter echoing off the hallowed walls.

****Part 16

It was an hour before noon, and the five other lawmen were in the saloon waiting for Ezra to appear. Nathan had mixed a special knockout concoction and hidden it behind the bar. Buck was to give it to Ezra in a drink when he came down. Everyone turned and looked up at the sound of a door opening.

Standish made his way slowly down the stairs, wearing his favorite red jacket. He went to his usual table and sat down. Chris and Nathan came over and stood across the table from the placid gambler. Chris decided to try one more time to talk some sense into the stubborn mule of a man.

"We can take care of this, you don't have to do this alone."

"Mr. Larabee, I believe we've been through this. I do not need to be watching my back waiting for a bullet, or worse have one of you harmed because you were watching my back."

Chris realized Ezra was probably right. Mason could shoot him at any time and even though they probably arrest him if they hadn't already killed him, it wouldn't do Standish any good if he was six feet under.

"I brought this trouble, I will deal with it," Ezra stated firmly.

Chris opened his mouth about to say something, then closed it. Ezra still thought of himself as an outsider, alone. Chris wanted to assure him they would be there to back him up, but how could they help him with this?

"This isn't your fault Ezra," Nathan told the gambler. "You were saving my life."

"Something I have no regret in doing, Mr. Jackson, but apparently Mr. Mason sees it differently."

"Damnit Ezra! Don't do this on my account!" Nathan yelled in frustration.

"Sir, you have fought your whole life for your principles, allow me this one time to fight for mine," Ezra calmly replied.

"This has nothing to do with principles, the man is deranged," Nathan snapped,

"It doesn't change the fact that he believes I killed his son in cold blood," Ezra replied.

Nathan threw up his hands and walked away. Chris nodded towards Buck to go into action. The ladies' man reached behind the bar and grabbed two glasses filled with whiskey. He strode over to Ezra, plopping down in the chair across from him and sliding the double shot glass over to him.

"Here, you probably could use this."

Ezra smiled and touched two fingers to his forehead in a salute of thanks.

Chris looked down at his watch then up at the doors when JD came rushing in. "They're out there," the young gunslinger exclaimed.

"Well, Mr. Mason, will have to wait for the appointed hour to dispense his so called justice," Ezra said, a slight smile playing on his face. His side still bothered him and he knew he was still weak from blood loss. He also didn't understand why he was doing this. Not so long ago he would have just ridden out of town and not looked back; hell, not long ago he would never have found himself in this position at all--Nathan would have hung.

"What are they doin'?" Chris asked the young sheriff. "Just standing out in front of the hotel watching the saloon," JD replied, watching as Ezra rubbed the back of his neck before drawing his colt and checking each chamber.

"Chris, there's got to be something we can do?" Nathan hoarsely whispered, his fear taking away his voice. He glanced over at Ezra, who lifted his drink in a toast with Buck, both men tossing back the fiery liquid.

"There's nothing I can do, Ezra accepted his challenge. It's all completely legal," Chris replied. Duels weren't as common any more, but in the West they were still a legal means of justice, if both parties agreed.

Nathan bowed his head. He knew Ezra was going to be plenty mad when he discovered their deception with the knockout drops. He only hoped the gambler understood they were doing it for his own good. There had to be a way to convince Frank Mason that Ezra was not at fault, but after talking with the man earlier he didn't think so.

"Standish! I'm waiting!" Mason called out from the street. His voice grating on everyone's already frazzled nerves.

Chris looked towards Nathan, mouthing "How long?" Jackson shrugged. Ezra stood and straightened his jacket. He looked towards Josiah, who had stepped up alongside the gambler, expecting at any minute to have to catch Ezra.

"Mr. Sanchez, Mr. Wilmington will require your assistance momentarily," Ezra stated, a knowing smile creasing his lips.

Buck stared up at Ezra then felt his head spin. Rubbing at his eyes Wilmington slowly stood.

"Aww hell, Ez!" Buck muttered as his eyes rolled up into his head and he began to crumble to the floor. Josiah grabbed the collapsing man and gently lowered him to the ground.

Ezra headed for the door only to be blocked by Chris and Vin's imposing forms.

"Gentlemen, please...."

Chris looked over Ezra's shoulder, seeing Nathan checking on Buck. Apparently Ezra's slight of hand was useful at more than just dealing cards. Chris and Vin stepped aside, receiving a curt nod from Standish for their courtesy. Chris turned worried eyes to the four other lawmen, each one's expression showing equal concern.

"Well, let's make sure it's a fair fight," Chris growled, following the stubborn gambler out onto the street.

*****Part 17

Ezra Standish and Frank Mason met in the center of main street, one seeking revenge for a dead son and believing that God was on his side; the other trying to prove his innocence and praying that God was on his side, for once. Chris and the gunslingers watched from the boardwalk for any sign of foul play. Vin only saw the one son and immediately started searching for the other.

Ezra decided to try one more time and reason with the lunatic father. "Mr. Mason, I'm sorry about your son, but Mr. Jackson is just as worthy of life as he was."

Mason spit into the dirt and glared at the smooth-talking gambler. He pushed his coat aside, revealing his twin pearl-handle colts. His fingers flexed over the handles.

Ezra took a breath and pulled the corner of his jacket back, flexing his fingers. He had no idea if he was faster than this man; he had never drawn on a man, one on one, without using his rigged derringer. Ezra kept his poker face in place, giving nothing away. He was playing the biggest game of his life. A duel went to the fastest dealer, and the pot was a person's life.

Mason wiped his lips dry with the back of his hand and glared at the southerner. This man had stolen his oldest son from him, all for the life of a nigger. The thought sickened him as much as the sight of this Reb sickened him. He firmly believed that he could out-draw this gambler pretending to be a lawman. God would guide his hand, and he would not fail. He would spit on this man's grave and show the southerner's six friends that Frank Mason was not a man to be taken lightly.

When Ezra saw the shift in Frank Mason's eyes, he drew. His bullet went through Frank's arm as he was raising it to shoot. The gun jumped from Mason's hand and landed in the dirt. Ezra had had no intention of killing the demented father if he could at all help it.

Frank's dark eyes went wide as he gripped his bleeding arm. He looked up to see Ezra, standing silently, his gun held down at his side. Mason released his bleeding arm and started to bend down to retrieve his gun, stopping when a bullet kicked dirt up at his feet. He turned to see Chris glaring at him, his gun in his hand.

Jake ran out and wrapped a handkerchief around his father's bleeding wound, then looked over at the gambler. The young man nodded to Ezra, grateful that Standish hadn't killed his father.

Ezra slowly holstered his gun. He was suddenly very tired and everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. He didn't even notice Frank Mason reaching for his second gun.

'Enough was enough, this was going to end now!' Chris thought as he again fired at Mason's feet. "The next one'll kill ya!" he warned.

JD pushed his bowler back and whistled. "Lord, I had no idea Ezra was so fast!"

"Well, hell, as fast as he can deal them cards it's no wonder he can shoot as fast," Nathan joked his smile lighting up his face. He was just glad the obstinate southerner was still standing.

"Divine intervention, if you ask me," Josiah laughed.

Chris smirked, wondering if he and Ezra would achieve the rarity of a double-kill if they ever drew on each other. Nathan grinned as Mason stood in the street, blood oozing past his fingers. He didn't think the man would appreciate his help, so he didn't offer it. He just hoped that Frank Mason realized how lucky he was that he was still alive.

Out of the corner of his eye Vin saw the glint of metal from an alleyway, directly across from Ezra. He brought his rifle up.

"Ezra, Down!" he yelled, causing everyone to draw their own weapons as Ezra dropped to the street in answer to Vin's warning. He hissed and his fingers clawed at the dirt as a sharp pain radiated from his side.

Vin fired. Frank and Jake watched in horror as Billy took two steps forward then fell face first onto the boardwalk. They raced to his side already knowing they would be to late.

Nathan rushed to Ezra's side as the gambler struggled to his knees. He knew the man Vin shot would be dead and it was all right for him to stand. If he could manage it...

Nathan got an arm under Ezra's shoulder and helped him up, then he looked under Ezra's jacket. "Easy, you broke open your wound," he said upon seeing the blood already soaking the clean white shirt.

"Aww hell," Ezra murmured, shaking his head. He felt Josiah's hand grasp his other arm to help hold him steady.

Chris stepped up to the distraught Mason, kneeling over his dead son. He tried to feel sympathy towards this man, but failed in the attempt.

"It's over Mr. Mason, go home while you still have one son left," Chris said, regret in his voice. He turned and followed as Josiah and Nathan helped Ezra towards the clinic.

JD and Vin entered the saloon and JD bounced over to where Buck still laid unconscious and snoring. Josiah had stretched Wilmington out on the floor and folded his arms over his chest. The young gunslinger squatted down next to his friend and slapped his cheek, trying to get a reaction.

"Hey, Vin, how long you suppose he'll be out?"

Vin stepped up to stand over JD and looked down at Buck. "I don't know; I've known one of Nathan's concoctions to keep a man out for hours."

"Really?" JD replied, the speculative amusement in his voice bringing a smile to the tracker's scruffy face.

"What'cha have in mind, JD?" Vin asked. Both men had been the victims of numerous pranks perpetrated by the now sleeping cowboy. How could they pass up on an opportunity like this? JD looked up to see the same devilish glint in Vin's eye.

*****

Ezra lounged lazily outside the saloon, Chris and Nathan on either side, like silent watchdogs. Their eyes all went over to the jail across the street at the sound of Buck's enraged bellow.

"AHHHHHHH! I'm gonna kill 'em!" Buck shouted from the jail as he stormed out the door. He stood in the doorway, gun in hand, a blue peasant skirt wrapped around his waist and a light ruffled blouse, trying in vain to cover his barreled chest.

Nathan fell out of his chair, doubling over in laughter. Ezra had to hold his side and try to contain himself. Chris only smiled at the sight of his long time friend dressed as a woman.

Buck charged across the street and came right up to the threesome. "Where are they?"

"Where are who, Miss Wilmington?" Ezra chortled, wincing at the sudden pain in his side. Buck snarled at the smart-ass gambler.

"JD and Vin! I know it was those two who did this."

"Funny thing, Buck -- they volunteered to ride over to Oak Ridge earlier today to pick up a prisoner," Chris explained. He had wondered why the two were so eager to ride out.

Buck was preparing to leave, then stopped. "Nathan, how much longer does Ezra have to convalesce?"

Nathan looked over at the smartly dressed southerner, taking in his still pale face. "Two more days," he answered.

"Good."

"And why the sudden interest in my recovery, Mr. Wilmington?"

Buck leaned over the railing. "Oh, I haven't forgotten your part in all this."

Chris pulled his hat down over his face to hide his smile as Ezra's grin quickly faded away.

Buck stormed into the saloon as two women passed by stifling their chuckles behind their gloved hands.

"Ah, Mr. Jackson, could you see fit to extend my recovery indefinitely?" Ezra asked.

"What, you askin' to stay sick?" Nathan asked incredulously.

"It would be preferable to death."

Chris and Nathan busted out laughing; it was going to be an interesting next few days.

The End