Nathan's up most of the night digging shrapnel out of his friends and mopping up blood.

He's resigned to it, knows these limbs and this blood only too well. Watching them coming in wounded, one by one as if they had a pack of devils on their tail, makes him spit. Chris had all but promised he didn't intend to spark any trouble.

Doesn't take Nathan and Josiah long to figure out there's been an ambush.

JD has a hole in his hand, Buck's missing a chunk from one shoulder and Chris is carrying lead in his forearm. All of them are over-fired with nervous energy, none of them intending to rest. They just want to be cleaned and stitched and bound up tight as they can handle. Nathan's stashed them all in the jail, away from prying eyes. Not that they have to worry. Whoever was pursuing them peeled away several miles back but Chris is keeping the whole town in lock-down.

Josiah and Vin are still out on watch, even though Vin can hardly stand, and there's no-one else to help out except Ezra.

Ezra's doing fine, though. Nathan has to concede that much. He's taking a few too many damn slugs of whisky, but he's done all that's been required and then some. Doesn't seem bothered by the blood and mess involved in poking around gunshot wounds and takes all the abuse flung at him in good part. Has a soothing way about him, too, keeps his voice low, sees what he can do before he's told to do it. Insists he can deal with Buck and does.

Nathan would never have guessed.

The wounded are another thing altogether.

Bitchin' unhelpful, wearing Nathan's temper down to the bone. Won't sit still, keep yammering on about who ran faster than who and how far it was. Nathan prefers a calm sickroom, and not to have to chase his patients around waving pairs of scissors.

"They're playin' with us," Chris says, giving his bandaged arm a dispassionate glance. "I've fuckin' had enough."

"Stay sittin' down."

"I'm done, Nathan."

"You're not done until I say you're done." Nathan runs his fingers over the dressing, slides a palm against Chris's. "Can you grip?"

"'Course I can grip." Chris flexes his hand, winces, tries to squeeze hard against Nathan.

"That's not gripping."

"What?" Chris grits his teeth, tries again. "That's not gripping?"

"Okay, easy. Stop now. Don't want to do more damage. Just tryin' to show you is all. You're gonna have trouble with your gun, Chris. And you're not the only one."

"I can shoot," Buck grumbles from across the room where Ezra's standing back admiring his handiwork as if he's a sculptor.

"You're gonna have trouble."

Chris pulls his hand away. "Just say it, Nathan."

"Looks me to like we're down three guns, at least."

"This isn't my shooting hand," JD insists from inside one the cells, waving a white paw.

"You shoot with both, I seen you," Nathan replies. "You gonna shoot twice as fast with the good one?"

"If I have to."

Nathan shakes his head. "You're not invincible," he says. "None of you."

Chris gives Nathan a resentful glare and then takes his hand-gun from its holster, tests the weight in his hand, a grimace of pain on his face all the while.

"Nathan," he says. "You need to look at Vin's leg."

"You get him in here, I'll look at his leg."

"Buck, how're you doin'?"

"Feel like some idiot's been jabbin' me with a needle. But I'm fixed up, Ezra here's done a real purty job on me. Anyone ever tell you you got healin' hands?"

"Healing?" Ezra's dry as a bone. "Not exactly." He's leaning rather precariously on the desk, boots crossed at the ankle, flask poised at his lips.

"JD?"

"Fine," JD answers, sounding tired.

Nathan looks from to one to another. He hates to see them like this, drained and hurting and not about to give into it. Makes him feel like this job - if it is indeed a job, rather than a random way of life that has them all trapped in its jaws - is going to crush them, one by one, however many times he patches them up.

"You boys need rest." He says it even though he knows Chris will disagree.

"We don't have time to lie around and heal nice, Nathan. They're not gonna surprise us again. I won't let that happen."

Nathan folds his arms. "They're not here yet."

"They will be."

"Well until they are."

Could be five minutes, Nathan thinks. Could be five days. He can see Chris nearly buckling under the weight. Buck and JD's heads have begun to droop, the false energy that escape and flight lent them trickling away with each passing minute. There's the sound of Ezra spinning the lid of his whisky flask. He gets to his feet.

"I will bring you Mr Tanner," he says. "Even if I have to drag him here by his hair. And I will join Josiah on a stroll about town."

"Shoot, Ezra, you need to rest too."

"Doubtless. But since I alone ran fast enough to avoid getting myself punctured I think the next watch falls to me."

"You," mutters Buck.

Nathan watches Ezra as he walks stiffly to the door, shirtsleeves rolled to the elbow, bloodstains on his vest. His hair is standing on end, full of dust. His face, like the others', is streaked with silvery dirt, spotted with small cuts from the exploding granite. Every movement speaks of pulled muscles and bruises.

Chris eases himself down on one of the cell cots with a groan.

Nathan feels a little line of tension running up the back of his neck and he rubs at it.

Fine bunch of damn heroes, he thinks.

-----

Horizon stays empty and shimmering to the east all next day.

Nothing moving in the trees to the west.

Post stage comes in and out. Denver stage arrives and leaves next day. There's a bit of movement around town but not much. It's like Sunday all day, but quieter.

Josiah sits on the church steps and considers the omens, doesn't mention that he saw a snake in the scrub when he got up at first light to take a piss. Seems no point.

He raises a hand of acknowledgment to whoever passes him on the way to skirt round town a few times. Chris has ambush on his mind, doesn't want anyone jumped too far out. He still can't grip his gun properly.

JD's hand has turned nasty. He's spiked a fever, is weak as a kitten.

Josiah doesn't want Four Corners shot to pieces and the people who sit in his church threatened. He's not sure at what point he began to feel like that about the town, but he knows Nathan feels the same and he's pretty sure Chris does, too. It's been a long time since Josiah's felt an identification with any place at all. It didn't appeal to him at first, with its wide, wind-blown streets and history of murder, but there's something that's keeping him here. Never came across a town before so happy to tolerate a doctor who isn't a doctor, a preacher who's been de-frocked, and a bunch of lawmen with no badges.

To Josiah's mind, he, Nathan and Chris are different from the others in this respect. Buck and JD would probably be happy any place, long as certain things remained equal. Ezra works hard at not belonging, just as he's been taught, but Josiah reckons it goes against his true nature though he'd die rather than admit it. Vin's the opposite. He was taught where he belonged but, thinking on it, has decided to be alone. He's bound tight to the rest of them, though, Josiah knows that. Still limping like an old man, and scratchy with it.

They're all scratchy, and that preys on Josiah. He was standing there in the morning sunshine relieving himself and thinking just that very thought when he saw the snake. A bad enough omen to remind him that, at times, the ties that bind are gossamer-thin. Nothing can be taken for granted.

The pall of expectation that hangs over the town is heavy. Makes Josiah's shoulders thrum.

From his prone position he watches Chris Larabee cross towards the saloon. It's a familiar prowl, laced with a mite more tension than usual.

Must be looking for Ezra.

Josiah gets up from the steps and begins down towards the jail. Sure enough, after a minute, Chris emerges through the batwings and begins to lope across the street. Josiah picks up pace a little, enters the door on his heels.

"No Ezra?" he hears Chris bark as soon as he's inside.

"Not yet."

"Damn."

Josiah assesses the room. JD's sitting up on the edge of the cot in one cell looking peaked, picking at something in a bowl. Nathan's watching him. Vin's leaning against the window, looking out. Always looking out. Buck's on the desk, sling still neat and tidy. Chris's entrance has sent a crackle through them all.

"I'll go," Vin says. "My watch anyhow. Think maybe he's down?"

"He's bin fine. Hasn't he bin fine? Darn sight better than most of us."

"Yeah."

There's a little silence. Every one of them is imagining Ezra down.

"Thing is ..." begins JD a bit feebly and Josiah wonders why Buck's yelped a sharp "Hey!" at him.

"Thing is?"

JD clears his throat. He looks over at Buck uneasily. Buck's got a warning look on his face, stern, like all bets are suddenly off.

"Thing is?" Chris repeats loudly. "JD, what is the thing?"

JD puts down his bowl and moves to get up. Nathan won't let him.

"Damnit, Buck! I'm sorry but ... we don't know if ... "

Chris is beginning to seethe. "If there's something you need to tell me about Ezra, I suggest you do it right away, kid. I told you all ... an' I told him. None of this crap works - none of it - if you numbskulls don't tell me what the hell's going on. Now, what the fuck is the thing?"

"Other night ... when the stage was attacked ... he went missing ... Buck and me, we found him ... and damn but he was in bad shape, couldn't hardly stand the pain in his head, didn't know what the hell ... we looked after him best we could but see ... if it's happened again, he'd be ... he'd be going crazy with it somewhere, bangin' his head about and gettin' sick."

"I don't believe this," Nathan says. He's risen to his feet, walks right out of the cell and across the room to Buck. "Bangin' his head about? You mean to tell me, you saw him like this and you didn't come to me? What the hell am I doing here, slicing bullets out of you and taking all your crap, if you're not goin' to come tell me when there's something important I need to know?" He's right in Buck's face, is getting more furious by the second as the implications sink in. Josiah thinks he's chosen Buck because Buck, unlike JD, doesn't look a bit sorry.

"We promised him," Buck says, and he's on his feet now, too, nearly nose to nose with Nathan.

"Stupid promise, Buck." Chris sounds disgusted. "Stupid and puts us all in the shit."

"A promise is a promise." Buck looks past Nathan, straight at JD.

"I told you," Chris repeats, voice cold as stone. "And I told Ezra. We can't afford to carry him when we're in trouble like this. Stupid, Buck."

"Yeah, I heard you. And nex' time you're whinin' how you don't know if we c'n trust him, be sure to remind him he can't trust us either."

Chris stares at him, long and hard.

"Fair point, Chris," Vin says quietly.

Et tu, Brute?

That's what Chris's face says, although he doesn't react directly to Vin, which is probably a bad sign. Josiah whistles. He means it to be inaudible but Chris swings round to him at once.

"You think it's a fair point, Josiah?"

"Whether we can trust Ezra is not the problem," Nathan interrupts angrily. "If he's sick you got no right to keep it to yourselves. No damn right. You say it was bad, JD?"

"It was awful," JD says. He's kind of slumped back down, like he won't be getting up after all, hasn't got the legs.

"Damnit, JD!" Buck's furious enough to be using a tone with JD that Josiah's never heard before. "Not your secret to tell. I thought we agreed!"

"He could be in trouble," JD says miserably.

"Damn right he could," Vin says. "But just 'cause a man fights by your side don't mean you need to know all his secrets." He picks up his rifle and shoves past Chris on the way out the door. It bangs shut.

Chris looks at the floor for a long second and then up at Josiah. He never forgets when he's asked a question and hasn't had an answer.

"Well?"

Josiah needs to choose his words carefully, because he realizes that they have, at this moment, split into two halves as easily as a cracker, and that makes his shoulders thrum more than ever. Before he's able to formulate the appropriate response, the door springs open again and in walks Ezra large as life.

"Damnit, JD!" Buck says even more forcefully.

"Where the hell have you been?" demands Chris. "Are you all right?"

A small line appears between Ezra's brows. He sniffs the challenge and responds in kind. "Don't I look all right?"

Josiah could have wished for a less inflammatory tone of voice.

"No, you secretive sonofabitch, you look like hell. You always look like hell. And you won't be fuckin' honest with us and I'm tired of it, Ezra!"

Ezra takes a look around. The line deepens.

"Well what have we here? Mr Tanner walking away in high dudgeon. Accusations of dishonesty. Do I detect infamy in the air?"

Buck just slouches, worries the ends of bandaging under one arm.

"Yes." Ezra's eyes stray towards JD. "Yes, I think I do."

Josiah figures three against three, with Ezra in the middle, will make for a very poor outcome. So he decides to tell them all that.

"You know, brothers," he says, "I saw a snake this morning."

----

The disharmony lasts for a while. Long enough to tire them all out.

And God knows, Ezra's weary enough.

He's weary to the core, with waiting, with looking at the world at a slant. The fractures in his memory make him wonder if he's not going a little crazy. Even though his goddamn head can hardly take the smell of it anymore, whisky seems even more wildly attractive than usual. That doesn't make sense and he knows it. His weaknesses of mind and body are too numerous, the art of covering them up too difficult.

Ezra's ready, as he has often been, to give up.

So his bag is open on the bed.

It's a carpet bag with stiff, worn sides. Maude would probably call it a portmanteau, would claim its construction to be of genuine Brussels carpet. Ezra's had it for years. Whenever he gets it out it means he's on the move. Maude made sure to bring it for him on her last visit. She knows him better than he would like.

Not a big bag. Just large enough for the few things that Ezra counts as personal or faintly precious. The cuff-link box in navy-blue leather that may or may not have belonged to his father, whoever he was. Some papers relating to a gambling hall in New York City in which he may or may not have a stake, depending on who's holding the gun. The pins and rings that Ezra particularly likes, some of which may even be genuine. A handful of books, all with other people's names inscribed on the front pages. A horse-hair lint brush and silver-handled razor, the only remaining items from a set which he won off a man in Savannah when he was sixteen and supposed to be somewhere else entirely.

It's not much, and it fits neatly amongst the favorite items of clothing he still counts as respectable. He wishes Maude had never brought the bag to Four Corners. The ritual it represents is too familiar and inevitable. Ezra thinks he might prefer to stuff the faintly precious items into a saddle-bag and just ride out in what he's wearing. If he has to ride out at all. And he's convinced himself he does.

Hot air moves the drawn drapes. Ezra goes to the window, parts them with his Colt, looks down the street.

The town could be uninhabited, abandoned. It's the middle of the day and there's no movement anywhere. Ezra knows exactly where each of his companions is and he's aware that he's not supposed to be up here. He's supposed to be in position.

High summer and the bees are buzzing.

When Ezra rubs his thumb knuckle along the ridge of his eye socket, he realizes he's sweating.

An arc of reflected light flashes high above the Hardware.

He needs to go.

Riders coming in.

Ezra's only got as far as the bar when they reach the outskirts of town. He can't actually remember having come down the stairs, suddenly doesn't know how long it's been since he turned away from his window.

-----

The riders are at a slow walk, coming into view at the very top of the street.

They're casual, moving in no particular formation, sometimes led by a man in a white hat. As they pass the church, this man turns slightly in his saddle, looks up, scanning rooftops.

Vin rises to his feet, rifle leveled. The man watches him for a while, until he has to turn his head. Then he faces front again. The slow pace doesn't quicken.

Chris knows Burton Palmer when he sees him. His son Abner's with him and two of the nephews. They're taking a chance riding in alone like this, gambling on some code of honor they're proud not to claim for themselves, the one that dictates Larabee and his men won't cut them down. They know they're being watched, too, and they're interested in that but apparently not very worried.

When they get as far down as the saloon where Chris is standing, coatless, gun on full display, they come to a lazy halt.

"Saloon open?" Abner asks.

Chris shakes his head.

"Anywhere open?"

"Nope."

Burton's looking all round, weighing up whether to dismount or not. "Nice town," he says. "Bet that saloon is real pleasant. What we got to do to open it?"

"Long as I'm here, it won't be open for you," Chris says.

"That so?" Burton smiles. "How many of us do you reckon it'll take, Larabee?"

"How many of your family you prepared to lose?"

Burton shifts in the saddle again, looks up, takes in JD in the upstairs window of the Mercantile.

"Ludo?" he says to one of the nephews, who just grins. At Ludo's side sits Gabe Palmer, idiot smile plastered from ear to ear. Chris can practically feel Vin's finger itching over the trigger. From the corner of his eye he sees Ezra emerging from the batwings and something grasps his gut hard.

Ezra's not supposed to be there.

What the hell is he playing at?

"Weeeell!" hoots Gabe suddenly. "It's the dandy gunslinger. Well fuck me back to front!"

"I'll decline," Ezra can't help saying.

"You'll hooey what?" Gabe's humor disappears as soon as it came. "Yeh, well we ain't forgettin' you put a bullet in our brother and his arm ain't worked right since."

Ezra's been told he shot Ring Palmer but Chris knows he has no memory of it, finds the notion highly disturbing. Chris supposes it must be as if he doesn't know what he might do next. One batwing opens and Ezra comes right out, stands next to him.

Chris wants to tell Ezra to back off but he's not going to do that in front of these men.

"Nice town," Burton says again. "I think all the boys will like it fine." He adjusts his hat slightly, looks along the street, eyes searching rapidly high and low. "We'll be back to get things open real soon. Can't say exactly when. But real soon."

"Town's not yours to open, Palmer."

"Yeah? Well it sure as hell ain't yours to close, Larabee, guns or no guns. And we'll be seein' ya."

Gabe's the last to move off, can't stop staring at Ezra. When he finally does move, he pushes his horse into a fast trot. Seems the Palmers are going out a tad faster than they came in. Vin stays standing, rifle sighted until they're out of range.

"Somethin' you want to tell me?" Chris says over his shoulder. But Ezra just walks past him, down the steps, begins across to the jail.

His steps weave a little, like he's drunk but not too drunk to hide it.

Chris hears the bolt on the door of the Clarion office.

Shit.

More explaining.

-----

Chris thinks they'll be back before nightfall and he's right.

He and Nathan move from building to building, making sure people understand they can't start living their lives again yet. Then Nathan checks dressings. None of it looks very good. JD's nearly as shaky as Ezra, so Chris tells him to stay close to Buck. Chris's own wound won't stop seeping because he won't stop gripping.

Josiah thinks things have come to a pretty pass when he and Nathan are going to be the ones to play sharpshooter. Nathan takes JD's place at the Mercantile and Chris tells Ezra he'd better damn well stay where he's told. Vin isn't going to bother coming down off the roof yet. Hurts too much. Josiah throws him up a full canteen.

He hasn't seen anymore omens but in Josiah's experience that doesn't mean much. Doesn't need a flock of crows circling the town. Could be as simple as that damn, early-morning snake.

His guns are primed and his position is set. Nothing to do now except wait.

The waiting always takes up more time than the shooting.

From where he's hunkered down, Josiah has a perfect view of Milton Palmer when he arrives. He heads up the rearguard which blazes into town from behind the Hotel, just as Chris predicted, shooting up a storm.

Four Corners churns under a cloud of dust.

It's still swirling by sundown, a mess of red and yellow drifting slowly across the street.

Josiah has prayers for the dead. One of them's Milt Palmer, killed by the first shot out of Larabee's gun. Burton's lost his nephew Kyle, too. Shot through the heart as he aimed at something moving in his eye-line deep within the shadows of an upstairs window. It was Ezra that killed him, moments before he dropped his own gun and toppled, unmarked, from the outside steps of what'll one day be a nice house.

The sound of a fire-fight is hellish.

It doesn't stop clanging in your ears for the longest time after it's finished. Faces don't stop flashing into your mind, either.

Josiah feels as if he doesn't blink for hours. His guns are hot, the metal stressed. He's moved from one position to another, like they all have. All except Vin, still picking out the stragglers from high on the Hardware, dragging himself from edge to edge.

When the last bullets being fired are traveling away from you, the sound of hooves has retreated far enough, and you start to peer through the hovering gun-smoke to locate your fellow fighters, it's likely some of them will be down. Maybe all of them. At a certain moment, in order to push an advantage, you have to stray from your cover.

It's the moment when you would most expect to lose friends.

Josiah keeps himself calm, checks the places he hopes to find them.

Buck is moving. JD, too, although he's bleeding again. Nathan's sitting up, head back, eyes closed. He's bleeding as well but Josiah can see the rise and fall of his chest.

"God damn this," he hears Chris say from somewhere. There are footsteps and then a hand reaching down to help pull him to his feet.

"You all right, Josiah?"

Josiah waves him to those more in need.

"Is it over?" he wonders out loud.

"Fuckin' better be, we got nothin' left."

Josiah leans against a wall at his back. He shades his eyes and can make out Vin clinging tight hold to the edge of the roof. Chris has bent down by Nathan and he isn't shouting, which seems a hopeful sign. Buck's reached JD now. Or maybe JD's reached Buck.

Ezra's still lying sprawled on the ground at the bottom of the steps.

-----

Four Corners re-animates over a period of several hours.

Those who've stayed, emerge blinking as if from hibernation. Others drift back in from outlying properties once they get word it looks safe.

The saloon opens for business, as does the undertaker's.

Nothing's ever sure, Chris tells Mary Travis. If Burton Palmer's got any fight left in him, he won't leave his brother and son to be buried by their killers.

Mary asks if it will ever stop.

Chris doesn't know.

"You had to carry two of your men off the street, Mr Larabee. The rest of you are barely standing."

"You askin' me if it's worth it, Mary?"

She's not asking that.

"Judge thinks it is. He's coming to tell you so."

"I look forward to it."

"And Nathan?"

"Doing better."

"Mr Standish?"

Chris brings his wounded arm into his chest.

"Mr Standish is a stubborn pain in the ass."

-----

It's not like Ezra doesn't try to wake up.

But the first few times he gets near are so shocking he lets his senses break up again, disperse in flimsy layers of noise and light.

It's time now, Ezra ... come on back ... shouldn't he be wakin' up by now? ... for God's sake.

Much of what he hears is unintelligible anyhow.

Yeah, he just passed right out on the steps ... one second he was standing there, next second he was over ... damn but he's never been out this long ... don't look good.

Voices come and go and he doesn't understand any of it.

He still breathin'? ... this clever brain doctor of yours, Nathan ... he can do something, right? ... something to make him better?

Hours of the room swaying backwards and forwards. The pain in his head is brutal; he does nothing but fight against hands that hold him down.

Don't you dare, Ezra. Don't you fuckin' dare.

And all he has to look forward to when he does drag himself back to awareness is Josiah presiding over the gut-rattling nausea and then Judge Travis coming to tell him he's decided to let him go.

Let me go.

Ezra would laugh but it's too delicate a job just to stay awake.

By a stroke of good fortune, of course, his bag is already packed.

When twenty-four hours of hell with a cold compress and a rusty bucket has passed, he gets on his feet and politely informs everyone of his departure. They, less politely, inform him that Nathan, who's evidently been a worse patient than all of them put together, has come up with a real humdinger of a plan.

According to him, there's an eminent doctor in Chicago, an ologist of some kind. Knows all about busted skulls. And they all agree that Nathan should accompany Ezra to see him.

As if that would make any difference to anything except someone's bank balance.

"Heard the plan?" Buck says.

It's a breezy morning and the stage stands across the street from Butterfields, ready to leave. Ezra has reached the seat under the tree by the office and has to sit down it. The others have begun to converge on the spot and Ezra would really like to go before his resolve does. His head swims so persistently that the Judge takes the bag out of his hand and throws it on the roof himself. Now Travis is standing by the open door, impatient to be on his way.

"Yeah, Ezra, heard what we're gonna do?"

Buck and JD have an aura of optimism about them that could be very catching.

"I've heard what you think you're going to do."

"It's a good plan, son," Josiah says, "and we like it."

"Well I'm sorry to hear that, gentlemen, because it can't be facilitated."

"Why's that? You think we'll let you go on like this? You reckon we think so little of you?" Nathan's voice is heading up half an octave or more.

That's easy. Can't even stay on my feet when you need me.

"I believe you think more of me than you should." He struggles to standing. "And I believe I think more of you gentlemen than is ever goin' to be good for me."

That shuts them up, for a whole ten seconds.

"So what, Ezra? What the hell?"

Chris, it seems, will be angry no matter what.

"I'm leavin'."

"Leavin' to where?"

"It hardly matters. My bag is on the stage and it's not traveling without me."

Chris just looks at him.

Don't you ever run out on me again.

Ezra is chilled despite the heat.

"I am no use to you, Mr Larabee. Look at me. This is what I am now."

"For the love of God, Ezra ... I know what you are and I'm not cuttin' ya loose, is that clear? You belong right here."

"Mr Larabee, Judge Travis is not inclined to keep me anymore. I am no longer in his employ. You are now the famous six peacekeepers of Four Corners unless and until you ..." He pauses, swallows. These are among the hardest words he's ever had to utter and it seems he's no more able to convince them of his superior grasp of any given situation than he's ever been, "... until you recruit some other misguided individual."

"C'mon, hoss, we'll sub you," Buck says. "You never held on to your wages longer'n two seconds anyhow. For someone who likes to hoard money you sure manage to let it slip through ya fingers mighty quick." He's just started to sound anxious. JD is looking from one to another of them, trying to gage what's going to happen.

"So damn well go then if ya goin'."

Chris's tone is brittle, disengaged.

Does more to infuse Ezra with a dizzying desire for mischief than Mr Larabee will ever appreciate.

Over at the stage, Judge Travis seems to detect a change in the prevailing wind.

"This will undo you, Mr Standish," he says when Ezra comes over. "It could undo every man jack of you. And for all the fine words he spoke in your favor, Mr Larabee will certainly find cause to consider that."

"Ah have no doubt Mr Larabee will consider it on a daily basis," Ezra replies dryly.

Travis leans nearer. "No, Ezra, I mean this will be your final undoing, if you stay here. It will kill you or get you killed. St Louis would be safer. Would prolong your life by a stretch."

There's dust blowing round their ankles. It whips up suddenly, makes the back of Ezra's coat-tails flap, makes the Judge close his eyes against the grit.

"There's nothin' I desire in St Louis, Judge."

"Really." Travis gets a hand to the side of the stage. "And if I was to offer you an incentive?"

Ezra can feel his eyes gleaming. The words are undeniably delicious. "You payin' me to go away?"

"I'm thinking of your associates."

Something in that makes Ezra mad. As if the Judge could possibly think more of his associates than he does himself. Why, hasn't he just been stupid enough to tell them so?

"Well I can't say it's not very tempting, sir. Very tempting indeed." He nods his head, smiles into the wind. Making lightning quick decisions is what Ezra is all about. "Perhaps at some later date. For the moment, I think we will try to muddle through."

"Ezra," says Judge Travis gravely, "I don't think you will have a later date." He signals to the driver to throw down Ezra's bag, and then he climbs up into the stage, sits down heavily.

Ezra slams the door shut. "Very likely. But que sera sera, my good sir. And bon voyage."

There's a shout, a crack and then the stage gives an almighty rattle before it begins to move.

Ezra picks up his bag and begins to walk while earth is kicked up at his back.

When he gets as far as the Butterfields' tree, he is astonished to find that they are all still standing there underneath it. All six of them. They are, in fact, waiting for him.

"What he say?" Vin asks, as if it's the most natural thing in the world that Ezra has just apparently changed his mind.

"That he expects I will die here in this dust-blown hellhole, Mr Tanner."

"Not if we have any damn say in it you won't ... gimme that!" Chris wrestles the bag out of his grasp so vigorously that Vin reaches out an instinctive hand to stop Ezra from stumbling backwards. Chris sees that, doesn't react. He just turns and begins to stride in a long diagonal across the street towards the Saloon.

"Now what's the matter with him?" Ezra asks plaintively. He feels the bolt of steel lock tight through his skull and his hand goes up before he can stop it.

Vin's fingers close round his shoulder, press him down into the seat.

"Don't pay him no mind, Ez," Vin says, eyes following Larabee across the street and in through the batwings. He pats Ezra's shoulder, keeps the hand where it is, warm and solid. "He's just pleased."

And the rest of them say nothing.

They watch the stage pull out, and stay standing close, right where they are.

-ENDS-