"Why in the hell are we still havin' this argument?"

Chris back-heels the door of the jail shut with a bang. He doesn't need raised voices heard by anyone on the street.

"And quit your everlasting yap!"

It's the first time they've been in the same orbit for some days. Rumors abound in Four Corners that the Seven are inseparable -- but really, that just doesn't make sense. Whether engaged in keeping the peace or whiling away their unemployed hours, they don't always do it together. There'd be blood on the streets if they did, personalities being what they are. So, there are days when they hardly see hide nor hair of one another, but then there are other days when they draw together like homing pigeons returning to the roost.

Today, Larabee has sent out a summons. He has business to settle, and while social gatherings take place at the saloon, business always takes place at the jail. He's the last one in the door and already someone has said "Chicago" and the same old free-for-all has broken out. It sparked off soon as Ezra walked in all dapper and unsuspecting. He's been keeping the lowest profile of late and, whether he understands it or not, that's part of the problem. At anyrate, Chris knows how much he hates being confronted by all of them at once. God knows he knows.

As far as the rest are concerned, it's pretty simple.

Ezra has an appointment to keep. There's an actual letter, addressed to Nathan, offering a consultation. It's from a surgeon who inconveniently lives on the other side of the country. Man's famous, according to Nathan, a war hero whose pioneering work on head wounds has saved lives and brought him notoriety. Nathan met him on the field of battle without knowing who he was and later remembered -- like Nathan tends to do when it comes to such things. If he can't be a doctor himself, he figures he should at least keep up with medical progress. This Dr Freiber, he's hopeful, might be able to improve Ezra's apparently fragile life expectancy.

To Ezra's mind, the journey-doctor-treatment discussion is one that should have been over before it had even begun.

"It would be best for you," is what Chris says. He uses a measured tone, trying to cut through all the jabber and emotion. The words are meant as kindly as is possible considering he's not a man given to kind words, and he really doesn't think it's his fault it comes out so challenging.

"L-let me get this straight." Ezra is stuttering with either anger or nerves, Chris isn't sure which. "Are you now telling me it is a condition of my remaining?"

"He's not sayin' that." Vin is soothing but totally unconvincing.

Buck's soothing, too, but a little over-anxious. "We've pooled the money, Ezra. There's enough and we all agree. But, hell, if we're gonna use it for that, we better do it quick, it's burnin' a hole in ..." Buck twinkles slyly. "Well, maybe you don't need to know exactly where."

Ezra turns to him with exaggerated calm. "That is such an old story, Mr Wilmington."

Buck gives a satisfied nod. "Old but good."

"I just don't get why you're so against this." JD is far too earnest and Chris wishes he wouldn't be.

The reason is pretty straightforward for a man finding it a burden being caught between gratitude and resentment. He explains it to them as if they're all imbeciles. "It's too ... much ... trouble."

"No trouble, Ezra."

That's not strictly true, of course. Chris is well aware of that. The Plan, hatched while Ezra lay unconscious yet again following a headlong collapse in the street, has stretched them to their economic limit. They've pondered the hopes and pitfalls, just want to do something rather than nothing.

Nathan's desperate to go, starting to get more mad than frustrated with the constant evasions and refusals. He's desperate to go, even though he thinks traveling to Chicago and back with Ezra might possibly drive him insane. "Man's invited us, he knows your whole history. All we got to do is board the train."

Not that it's that easy. First they have to reach Denver and beyond, and that's a journey that can suck the life out of the most robust. Then there's the small matter of nine hundred miles and an uncertain railroad schedule to negotiate.

"He does not know my whole history."

"Your medical history." Nathan is pacifying.

"He does not know my whole medical history."

"All right. All right. But he knows as much as I know, what happened, how you've been. That's what he needs to know. Anythin' else you can explain when you see him."

"Well I'm sure I could, but unfortunately I won't be seeing him."

"Ezra ...."

"I repeat again, Mr Larabee. Are you telling me a ... a peregrination of two thousand miles ... at a cost you gentlemen can ill afford, I might add ... is an actual condition of my continuing status?"

Chris is disturbed to find that six pairs of eyes are suddenly trained on him, and that despite Ezra's best efforts, they all seem to have followed his meaning for a change.

"And if it was?"

Ezra screws up his face as if he's just been slapped. He starts to speak and then stops. A half thought goes through Chris's mind that Ezra is finding it much too hard to be his usual irritatingly expressive self these days, and he wonders if ... but he pushes it away because for Pete's sake they have enough troubles already.

He's actually pained when Ezra finally gets out his reply, because all of a sudden the man with more come-back than india-rubber sounds so tired.

"It will be a long and wearisome journey for no great reward. However eminent this physician is in his field of expertise, he will find nothing to tell me that I don't know already."

"You ain't a doctor, Ezra."

"And neither are you, Mr Jackson."

"Why won't you even at least consider the possibility that he may be able to help you?"

"Because I know!" Ezra suddenly snaps out. "I know in my guts that he can't. And spending weeks in transit will ..." He seems to bite back his words, screws up one fist in abject frustration.

"Will what?" JD asks, sincerely confused.

"Kill me most likely!" Ezra blurts. "And I thought you bunch of meddling do-gooders were hoping for the opposite."

"Hell, Ezra." Vin scratches his head. "We ain't tryin' to murder ya, if that's what you think."

"Nathan will be with you. You'll travel easy. That's what the money's for, so you don't hafta go all that way in a bone-rattler."

"You payin' for luxury accommodation too?"

"Why? Does that make it seem more interesting?"

"It's not interesting in any way, Mr Larabee." The fleeting, pent-up emotions are gone now and Ezra's voice is under control. Still tired, though. "It's a heart-breaking waste of money and time."

Something else entirely is heartbreaking, Chris decides, but he doesn't say so. "I don't want to hafta force you on to that stage, Ezra." He kinda wishes they weren't surrounding him like a lynch mob. He's sure it doesn't help.

Ezra tries another tack. He's a spirited sonofabitch when he's backed into a corner, Chris has to hand it to him. Even when he's worn down and out-numbered and he's getting that pinched look about his eyes that tells Chris the source of the whole damn problem is beginning to make itself known.

"But why ... why would you insist on this when ah am practically back to normal?" Ezra is bluffing a bit, but at bottom he really doesn't understand. Chris wonders if he ever will.

"Shit, Ezra, where you boys are concerned there ain't no such thing as normal."

Ezra drops his head for a second or two, rubs the pad of his thumb from the bridge of his nose round to his temple. It could be the action of a man considering his next words, but all six of them know that in Ezra's case it's not. They know the signs all too well. They've witnessed Ezra's pain enough by now and it reminds Chris why they're all standing here in this uncomfortable group in the first place.

"Do I not do mah job?" Ezra drops his thumb away, looks up suspiciously.

"You do it."

"Do I not do mah job to your satisfaction?"

"Mostly."

"Well when I don't, you can tell me."

"An' then what'll you do?"

Ezra almost breaks into a smile. They see the dimples form, the gleam nearly brightening his eyes. But somehow it becomes a small frown of discomfort and his jaw tightens.

"Find a better job," he says.

----------

They've estimated that there are still at least six Palmers on the loose in the territory. More if they've kept their entourage together.

Two days after the gun battle in Four Corners, Burton Palmer collected the caskets containing his brother Milton and nephew Kyle which had been left at the roadside sign a mile from town. Nothing's been heard of them since then, but Chris is under no illusions that they're beaten. He's pretty sure they're just licking their wounds somewhere, stockpiling vengeance. It's another reason he really wants Ezra on that stage. He was the one that took out Kyle Palmer, after all. And made the shot that seems to have left Kyle's brother Ring crippled in one arm. All in all, Ezra's made impressive inroads into the structure and self-esteem of the Palmer family and Chris doesn't doubt that they hate him for it.

Nathan's not stupid. He knows it will take a weight off Chris's shoulders to have Ezra out of the picture for a while.

"I think you're wearing him down," he observes. "I think he might pack his bag and agree to go - just to get you off his back."

"Whatever works."

Ezra's not stupid, either. Much as he's come to suspect that his happiness rests somewhere amongst this oddball grouping, that his deepest desires are far more altruistic than his mother expects of him and that his talents are far closer to those of Mr Larabee and Mr Tanner than he would ever have believed, he knows their tenure in Four Corners is not indefinite. The town will rise, in which case some more orthodox method of law will be established, or it will fall, in which case they will disperse. In the latter case, he assumes he will then continue what he fears might be a doomed attempt to become rich and respected.

For the immediate future, Orrin Travis wants them to stay.

Which suits Ezra far more than he can say.

Damn it all to kingdom come, then, that he's ended up clinging to his position by his fingernails. While not exactly a reformed character, Ezra's learned a thing or two since he blithely rode in to con the populace. Not the least of which is that, apparently, he has the potential to be invaluable, and that, for these men, he wants to be.

Gabe Palmer managed to wreck that. He wrecked it with a single, accurate and crushing blow which has nearly undone Ezra. It's about shredded his self-confidence, crowded him in unimaginable pain and left him constantly on the back foot.

Any day that doesn't end in disaster now seems like a victory.

And a brilliant head-doctor in Illinois, far from being a potential savior, looks to him like disaster writ large.

When he finally holds up his hands and admits defeat, he privately thinks he might not be coming back.

-------------

Chris clasps Nathan's hand in farewell when they leave, risks a touch to the back of Ezra's shoulder.

"Goin' back to civilization, hoss," Buck tells him. "Don' tell me you're not pleased about that."

"Yeah, Ezra, Chicago will suit you real well and there's some tall gaming on the railroads. You'll find yourself a table on the Union Pacific and you'll come back a rich man." There's a whiff of envy in JD's words.

"And with your head on straight," Buck jests, although he's actually shot through with fear that maybe Ezra won't survive a two-thousand mile trip. That Gabe Palmer's grievous battery will bring him down when he's far from their watchful care.

"I'll write," Nathan tells them, accepting the small gift of a book from Josiah's meaty hand. "We'll do just fine."

"Play nice." Vin's advice is delivered with a twinkle but hard truth underpins his words. "You're gonna be cooped up together one hell of a long time."

Ezra and Nathan look at one another. If either could have chosen a traveling companion from among the seven, they each would have been the other's last choice. Something in that has almost begun to amuse them.

"I trust you will all stay in one piece," Ezra says solemnly before he turns to climb inside the stage. Chris isn't sure, thinks he might have stuttered once again.

"We aim to," he says.

When the stage rolls out, JD takes off his hat, worries his hair, puts his hat back on.

"Dang, sure hope they get on all right."

"Never mind get on all right, sure hope they don't kill each other."

"This is the only thing to do ain't it, Buck? I mean, we all agreed. It's the best thing."

"We all agreed, kid. It's the best thing. Ole Ezra's gonna come back like new. Sharper than ever and ready for anything. Just you wait."

Chris and Vin are already wandering off, Josiah is frowning at the retreating cloud of dust. JD has just let out an almighty sigh.

Well hell.

Buck shakes himself. He feels off-balance already.

----

In the stage, Ezra makes friends.

Nathan can only sit and gape. When they stop to change the team in Gallup, drink hot coffee and get some refreshment, a card game has started up before he can intervene. There's another whole coach-load journeying in the opposite direction and in no time five or six hopefuls are rolling up their sleeves and gathering round Ezra like he's a magician in a traveling sideshow.

It causes the first falling-out, which takes place during a debate about sleeping arrangements.

"You think we can do better than sleep any damn place it's not wet?" Nathan demands after the third or fourth inarticulate grumble of disgust has drifted across from the other side of the way-station where they are trying to catch some sleep.

"Well I was trying to arrange something with clean sheets instead of a sack filled with straw, yes."

"Oh so that's what your gambling was all about?"

"Indeed it was, Mr Jackson, and if you, in all your wisdom hadn't interfered then I would have secured it."

"And that Gibson feller would have been without accommodation?"

"No, he'd've been here, instead of us, laying his head down in this delightful shack."

"We ain't got much money over, Ezra."

"So let me do something about it."

"Not by cheatin' people."

"I can't help it if stupid people risk stupid odds can I?"

"Yes you can, Ezra, you can help it, and traveling with me you're gonna have to."

It's a circular argument that they will be able to have in their sleep before many more days are through.

----

Nathan has never been on a railroad train before.

The whole thing is a little daunting, a touch exotic. Because he doesn't want to be here, Ezra has sunk into a state of torpidity which makes him uninterested in everything, including the whole business of purchasing tickets and carrying bags. That means Nathan has to look like he knows what he's doing, and then it doesn't take long before he's aware that some of the other passengers have decided he has no business looking like he knows what he's doing.

"Ignore them," Ezra advises.

That would be a whole lot easier, Nathan thinks, if he weren't loading three bags on to the train while Ezra leans out the window smoking.

"They think I'm your manservant," he says when he's stowed the bags. "Why do you suppose they think that?"

"Because you look like you're my manservant?"

Nathan wonders which is worse - Ezra not seeing it, or Ezra pretending not to see it.

For an hour or two, he enjoys the novelty of the journey. There's more room than on the stage, and more privacy, but it's not the smooth and impressive ride he was expecting. The car seems to lurch about continually, it's noisy, and everything smells of coal. Ezra appears interested in the other passengers in the car for a while. He manages a few entertaining suppositions as to their motives and character and then he begins to stare out of the window.

Seeing as how railroad travel gives you the opportunity to move about, Nathan decides to take a walk up and down the train. It's about three-quarters full. Apart from an employee of the railroad company carrying buckets of water to the driver's car before they set off, it's full of white folks. Nathan gets a little air out back of the far car, watches the tracks winding away from them under the dispersing smoke trail. When he comes back, Ezra has his eyes closed. His elbow is leaning on the shelf and one eye is resting on a pillow of fingers. Nathan slips into the seat opposite, jostles his knee. Ezra's head lifts and he looks up, evidently aiming for as little movement as possible.

Damn. It's come on fast. Sometimes Nathan forgets.

"Bad?" he asks, casual as he can.

That Ezra doesn't speak, just shrugs unwillingly, tells Nathan all he needs to know.

"Like I said, we can get off the dang thing anytime. Rest up. Wait for another one. You don't need to suffer though this, it's not why we came."

Ezra lifts his head a little more. "I can manage."

"Don't look like it."

"Looks can be deceiving."

Nathan shakes his head. "Buck and Vin might nod and smile and feed you whisky just 'cause you say it'll help, but I'm not about to. If you're in pain, you gotta just damn well admit it. You can't cheat me, Ezra. I'll throw your sorry white ass out at the next station if you can't be honest with me."

Ezra looks a little perturbed but attempts to bluster. "Good Lord, is this the kind of hectoring I have to look forward to all the way to Chicago?"

Nathan just stares him down.

"The motion bother you?" he demands.

"Perhaps."

Whatever it is, a couple more hours after they pull out of Cheyenne, Ezra's still keeping a white-knuckle grip on the window-shelf and has covered both eyes with his other hand. Nathan takes the decision to do something long before the slowing train begins to rattle and shudder its way to its next halt.

It's dusk and unprepossessing in North Platte. Nathan throws the bags in a heap from the steps and guides a weaving Ezra down to solid ground.

"Tell me what's happening," Nathan demands when he gets them into a hotel room that smells of coal-dust and has a dead mouse in the closet. Ezra rolls up on the bed in the dark, beyond speech. It's the first of several times on the journey that Nathan thinks he might just be dying. They have to stay where they are all next day because Ezra sleeps and there isn't another train to Omaha until the following midday.

The couple running the hotel are more than suspicious. They hate that there's a black man in charge of a white man. It all seems wrong and dangerous to them. Nathan half expects to be arrested in the night. And it's not as if he doesn't have some sympathy for their point of view. Black, white or yellow, it sure must look strange that the companion he hauls up the stairs looks to have a serious hop habit, and that he doesn't re-appear for thirty-six hours.

Ezra's back on an even keel when they board the train for Omaha. He spreads the Travelers' Own Map out on the seat, seems enthusiastic for the first time that they're on the move.

"I intend to be responsible for our next night's sleep, Mr Jackson," he says. "Because my impression is that you cannot be trusted."

"You're welcome, Ezra."

Ezra's finger follows the line of the track and he taps it at some destination Nathan can't read upside down. "There's a game on this train, Nathan. I can smell it."

Nathan tips his hat down over his eyes, hunching into the corner as he feels the first pull of departure, hears the whistle screaming. He decides that if he has to make a choice between Ezra misbehaving or being insensible, he'll opt for the former.

Far as Omaha, anyhow.

---

It's quiet in Four Corners.

Josiah's being quite the regular preacher, has thrown himself into plans to raise funds for church repair which seem to involve fruit, a whole lot of cake, and ladies squabbling. Buck and JD are subdued. There was a dust storm that ripped the canvas off one side of Vin's wagon, left him with a bed full of grit. He's spent the last two nights sleeping on Ezra's down pillow. Enjoyed the comfort and the sight of Ezra's plum tailcoat on its hook far more than he's likely to admit.

Quiet is all well and good, Vin thinks. It means they spend time hoping no idiot citizen breaks their neck and needs to be transported to the doctor at Eagle Bend. Or else hanging around the telegraph office waiting for news.

Bored and twitchy, Vin rides out looking for trouble, and then goes to find Chris at his place.

Discovers him sanding the porch and looking at home.

When it comes to home, Larabee can't decide - whether he wants to build it up or let it fall. Obviously having a building day today. That's good. Means the black dog isn't snapping at his heels. The man's moods worry Vin - can still see Chris letting that damn dog nose him over the edge. Buck says his old friend's different now. Has found himself something to reach for, when before he had nothing.

Vin hopes that's true.

"Vin?" Chris doesn't get up when he sees Tanner arrive, but he seems pleased.

"Lookin' kinda relaxed, cowboy."

"It's a pretty day."

"Well I'm real sorry to come botherin' you."

"Get off your damn horse, Vin and stop apologizin'."

Vin dismounts. Stretches out his gimpy leg, comes and sits on the smooth, swept top step.

"I made a brew," Chris says.

Vin looks impressed. "Settlin' in?"

"Not exactly. Just doesn't do to work all day dry." Chris goes inside, comes out with a cup.

Vin sips, looks across at the half-broken corral. There are some pieces of metal post on the ground and his face twists. Nothing more likely to fill his belly with fire than a reminder of Gabe Palmer's weapon of choice.

"What's the problem?" Chris obviously isn't too relaxed to be astute. "You got something ta tell me?"

Vin half wishes he'd never gone out looking for trouble. "Got word the Palmer brothers've turned up."

"Turned up?" Chris says carefully.

"They're in Purgatorio."

"Suits 'em." Larabee stays on his feet, thinking. "'d be good to deal with Gabe Palmer before they get back."

"Still a free man, Chris."

"I ain't proposin' to cut him down in the street. Not until he deserves it."

Vin pokes at his leg. He has his own opinion of what the Palmers deserve and why. Not all of it is to do with Ezra's bent skull either.

"What you thinkin'?" He tries not to sound too interested.

"Just talkin' to 'em. Only the three, you reckon?"

"Ludo, Ring and Gabe, so I heard."

"No Burton?"

"Nope. Burton and Abner ain't with them. Milt's boy neither. Maybe they split, you know what they're like. But, hell ... remember what happened last time we went out and warned 'em off."

Chris remembers. He doesn't know quite how they all got out of that one. It can still wake him up in a cold sweat.

"I'll be reasonable," he says.

"Well you won't be reasonable all by yaself."

"Town still quiet?"

"Like you wouldn't believe."

Chris looks around. "Go fetch up the boys," he says. "Guess they ain't busy."

Vin laughs, stretches out the leg, winces a little. He has half a mind to stick with Ezra's bed again tonight. "Josiah's had enough plum jam for a lifetime, I reckon," he says. "An' Buck and the kid are itching to get into a mess."

"Well, figure I'm about done playing house for today." Chris reaches a hand down to help get Vin on his feet. "I'll wait for ya at the ridge, head of Long Canyon."

------

There's going to be a delay in Omaha. Some problems on the Chicago and North Western. Broken track, apparently. And they seem to be dangerously low on funds. Too low to waste their ticket money by purchasing passage on a stage.

"You ain't been using our money for gaming, have you?" Nathan asks suspiciously, when he's watched Ezra counting out the notes once again and they still don't amount to as much as he'd hoped. "I mean, you ain't creamed a little off the top of the pot and gone and lost it at some table, have you?"

Ezra's eyes go wide. Since there's not much left to swear upon that he's not tried to swear upon already he says nothing, just shakes his head in sorrow to be so unfairly maligned. Nathan doesn't buy it for a moment.

"I swear, it's a goddamn disease with you, Ezra. You can't help yaself, can you? It's like opium, you just can't get enough, whatever comes of it."

Whatever the truth, they find they have to bunk down that night without benefit of much of a roof. Ezra doesn't complain and Nathan can't decide if it's because he's beginning to feel bad again or if, in fact, he's actually far more used to living rough than any of them have the imagination to suspect.

Certainly, he seems to have the knowledge to find them somewhere that, while liberally exposed to the elements on two sides, is at least safe from being discovered by any law-enforcement officers who might be on patrol looking for vagrants.

Nathan feels somewhat chilled as night wears on. He dozes, comes awake again. Hears the sounds of shunting in a railroad siding not far away. A mutter and crack of knuckles tells him he's not the only one who can't sleep.

"Not what you were expecting?" Ezra's voice asks, amused.

"I've had a lot worse. Just not for a while."

"Huh." There's a short silence, then Ezra speaks again, wide awake and conversational. "So, tell me, Mr Jackson. Just what is your happiest memory? Your demeanor generally persuades me that even in a life full of privation and persecution there must be one. Aside from the moment of your emancipation, obviously."

Actually, no-one has ever asked Nathan this before. He wonders if Ezra might not be feverish.

"Reckon I was happy when we was all together and had food."

"That must be a long time ago."

"Long time."

"Before your mother's demise?"

"Afore she died, yes."

"Hmmm."

There's a shifting sound and Ezra lies quiet for a while before he speaks again. "You see a table, a shared meal?"

"Something like that. Was never just us. Big table. Lotta people and it might be late and I might fall asleep."

"Weary from your long day."

Ezra's voice is almost dreamy. Nathan wonders again if he's really aware what he's saying. "What is all this?"

"If I'm intruding, I apologize. Unreservedly."

Nathan snorts. "You ain't intruding."

"Well in that case ... more recent events, what of them?"

Nathan frowns into the dark. Damnit, Ezra is serious about this. He adjusts his hands behind his head. "Comin' through at the village," he says. "Not losing any of us."

"Knowing you were good? That you did some good?"

"If you like."

"And your charming young lady? Have you had occasion to accrue any happy memories in that direction?"

"Well if I have I ain't tellin' you about 'em."

Ezra laughs. Although he laughs out loud very frequently, more often than not it's glee at someone's else's expense. Or grim amusement at Fate's attempts to wrong-foot him. This doesn't sound like that.

"Anyhow," Nathan says. "Now you know how goddamn charmed my life is, how about you?" He bites his tongue just before speculating that Ezra's happiest memory is related to double-dealing in some way. And he expects a pause, while his companion rubs his lip and tries to think up something amusing or outrageous.

Instead, the answer comes out of the dark quickly. "Far too many to choose just one."

"Really."

"Of course."

Nathan gets on an elbow and tries to study him through the gloom. "You're lyin'."

"When have you ever known me to lie, Nathan?"

"All right, shut up now, Ezra. Shut up, leave me alone and get some sleep." He flops back on to the hard floor, butts the bag serving as a pillow with his head a few times and then tries to relax.

"We are nearly at our destination," Ezra comments after a while.

Nathan knows that voice. "Don't worry none," he says soothingly. "It'll go off fine. Just fine."

A grunt in reply. Then some muttered expletives about the standard of the beds.

"Don't fret," Nathan repeats and thinks he hears just a little hitch of breath before it all goes quiet.

-----

Purgatorio hasn't improved any since they last visited.

"That sultry signorita lookin' at you, ole dog, or is she lookin' at me?" Buck asks as they dismount before the cantina.

Chris can hardly credit how Buck notices such things when the rest of them are more intent on several stray dogs who are eyeing them as if they're raw steaks and the man with a long-barreled shotgun who's leaning on a water-pump and looking very drunk and very mean.

"Well if you can't tell, Bucklin, reckon it don't matter much either way," Vin states.

Luckily there's not so much to the dead-end town that it'll take them long to find what they're looking for.

Josiah, JD and Buck take one route, Chris and Vin the other. They're all back in the cantina after half an hour.

"Anythin'?"

Josiah wags his grizzled head. "No signs of them. Nobody talkin'."

Vin breaks out of the group and wanders to the shadowier reaches of the room. They see him sit at a table opposite a man and woman sitting with their heads bent close together.

Chris looks around. He can just imagine the Palmers in here. In fact, he can imagine them taking charge in here. After a minute or two, Vin wanders back.

"They've bin seen," he says casually. Chris's brows hike up.

"Who says?"

"Those two," Vin replies, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at the table in the corner. "Three men, they said, one with a bad arm, been comin' in at night to eat and drink. Sounds like them all right. " He grins. "I said Chris Larabee, lawman of Four Corners, is out lookin' for 'em."

"You said that?"

"I did."

Chris thinks for a second. "You doin' my job for me now?"

"Ezra calls it delegatin' don't he?"

"You delegatin' for me now, Vin?"

"Reckon I might be. Reckon I might need a raise."

"We stayin' for a beer?" Buck asks hopefully.

"You know we'd only be buyin' trouble," Chris tells him. "Iffen ya thirsty, you can take a drink from the pump."

"We leaving?" JD asks, unsure.

"You boys." Chris shakes his head. "You just don't appreciate a quiet life. If we're gonna fight 'em, or arrest 'em, or whatever the hell else, better to do it on home territory. Can't tell who their friends are here. Can't tell how much trouble we'd meet." He pauses and very nearly smiles. "'Course we're ain't leavin'."

"I swear," Buck says. "You just always know how ta say the right thing."

----

For Nathan, the worst time comes the first night in Chicago.

It's before they've even orientated themselves, before they've looked at a map, thought about contacting the great doctor. Before they've hardly adjusted to being in a city at all.

Omaha to Chicago has been tough. Lot of stopping and starting, no sleep for the last couple of days. The crowds at the terminus are like nothing Nathan has ever seen. They all seem to know exactly what they're doing and where they're going. It's Ezra who manages to track down a boarding-house that won't break the bank. He seems weary but interested in the movement of people and the general bustle on the main streets.

They eat ribs in a crowded diner and are walking through the pitchy mud of an un-laid backstreet when Ezra nearly loses his footing. He immediately claims he tripped on an obstacle in his way but not three yards further on he suddenly folds. It's that sickening downward plunge that Nathan's come to dread. He grabs wildly at the collapsing man, nearly gets dragged to his knees.

And Nathan feels very alone all of a sudden. He suddenly misses Four Corners and the familiarity of his friends so much that it's painful. There's no Buck crashing about and bellowing at Ezra to quit this crap right now. There's no Josiah with a soft voice, JD running for a cool cloth, no Chris with his hand on Ezra's hair or Vin bending down and tapping his face patiently with two fingers until the dazed eyes roll open.

Just him in the dark of an unknown street in an unknown town, a body hanging limp in his arms and the possibility that if anyone comes upon them right now, far from rushing to help, they're going to think Nathan's robbing him or something.

Ezra comes round quick, thankfully, but he's in bad shape. There's a damn stiletto stuck in the side of his head judging by the way he's alternately pounding and pulling at his ear.

"Come on now," Nathan mutters. "Don't go doing this to me 'fore Freiber's even gotten a look at ya. He can't do much if you've up and died on him, Ezra. Tell me what's happening, this same as usual?"

Seems to be, for, true to form, Ezra loses his supper messily and then hits out at any attempt to remove his hand from his head.

"Lord save us, now look, we ain't stayin' here all night. Payin for the goddamn bed, might as well use it. Come on, Ezra, you gotta help me get you back. I can do something for ya there, I can't do nothin' while we're ... ah shit ... well that's .... shit ..."

Two men are walking up the street towards them. Their steps don't alter as they draw near, except that they make a pointed detour, keeping well into the wall on the other side. Nathan can't help tighten his hold on Ezra even though it's that very action that causes the men to slow right down, staring in open hostility.

They've realized what they're seeing now. A well-dressed white man sick, or injured, on the ground. A plainly-dressed black man pulling at the white man's hands.

"This ain't what it looks like," Nathan says. "My friend's sick. I need help gettin' him to our room."

"Now you just better take your hands off him, boy," one of the men says, although he doesn't seem brave enough to approach.

"He's a friend of mine," Nathan says through gritted teeth. "And he's sick."

Nathan doesn't know if folk walk about the streets of Chicago with weapons. Further out of the west they've come, the less he's seen firearms, that's all he knows. Ezra won't part with the Derringer rig but stashed the shoulder holster in the luggage far back as Cheyenne, and while Nathan has two knives secreted on his person, he didn't travel with any guns at all. These men don't look armed. They look suspicious and righteous, as if they won't be persuaded of the truth of the situation, but they don't look armed.

"I'm going to fetch an officer of the law," one of the men says firmly. "Don't like the look of this at all."

Both of them disappear up the street. Nathan has no doubt they'll be back. He's grateful they didn't have the courage to try and separate him from Ezra, but he does regret that they couldn't bring themselves to help.

"Come on, Ez. We need to get the hell outa here or I'm gonna be arrested."

"Why?" mutters a thick voice. "What you done?"

"Can ya help me? Not sure I'm up ta carryin' your sorry hide."

Ezra doesn't answer but he attempts to bear his own weight and somehow they get upright. They must both look drunk as skunks tottering up the boarding-house stairs. Nathan is mighty relieved when the door shuts behind them.

But then he has Ezra to deal with. And Ezra's in agony.

It lasts a few hours. Nathan runs through his whole arsenal. Ice-cool poultices. Tea with feverfew. Smelling herbs. Pressure-points on the sole of the foot. And then, finally, when it all makes little difference, just sitting quiet while Ezra hangs on in desperate silence and Nathan's fingers gradually go numb.

As dawn trickles in through the dingy drape, Nathan comes out of a doze and realizes he's been released. There's blood tingling through his fingers again. Ezra is on the edge of the bed where's been all along, but now he's listed to one side against the pillows, and is looking at Nathan through half-open eyes.

"I do apologize," he says stiffly, "for having mis-treated your hand so abominably."

"You're welcome to my hand, Ezra."

Ezra attempts a smile but fails. He looks terrible, like all the fight and spirit's been siphoned right out of him. For a man who's made a living as a confidence-trickster he sure doesn't seem to have much confidence right now.

"Today we see the great man." Nathan pats his shoulder, trying to encourage. He stands up from his chair and hoists Ezra's legs on to the bed.

"The great man," Ezra agrees. Far from encouraged, he sounds full of gloom.

"Aw now come on, this is why we're here. Anything Freiber can do or say's gotta be better than this, right? Gotta be better than what you just suffered?"

"It's not better that I'm afraid of."

"You're in the best place you could be," Nathan tells him firmly. He hates that Ezra's afraid. Medicine and fear shouldn't go together, he feels. The very idea of Dr Freiber and his knowledge fills Nathan with hope and excitement. He rolls his neck, stifles a yawn. "Can I get some rest now?"

But Ezra's eyelids have dropped. Nathan climbs carefully on to the bed beside him.

----

The first news of Gabe Palmer is that he's behind bars in Eagle Bend.

Ludo and Ring come back to Purgatorio without him, find Chris Larabee and four of his men sitting outside the cantina looking surprisingly alert considering the empty bottle of tequila rolling around on the floor at their feet.

"Afternoon, boys," Larabee says. "Heard you were in town."

Ludo, eldest of the brothers, stays right where he is on his horse.

"Now listen to me, Larabee. Silas Gawtrey said if you came anywhere near, made any goddamn threats against us, then we was to get word to him right away."

Ring doesn't dismount either, starts looking along the street in both directions like he's mislaid something. Or someone.

"What, he gonna come ridin' in ta save you?" Vin asks, doubting the slick and worldly prosecuting lawyer would be capable of approaching a horse, let alone mounting one.

"No, but he knows lawmen who would."

"Lawmen?" Chris is unimpressed. "Tellin' us you got lawmen on your side now?"

"Fellers with guns, maybe," Buck states. "And soup for brains."

"You can't touch us, Larabee."

"So you keep sayin'. Where's your brother?"

"None of your damn business."

Ring looks around one more time. "Where's the reb?"

Ludo suddenly seems aware that the full force of Larabee's group is not present.

"He drop dead?" A grin creeps over his face and Chris suddenly remembers the Palmers' endless capacity for riling him.

"Well now," Josiah's deep and thoughtful voice says. "If he had, that would mean we came to arrest your brother for murder."

There's just a flicker of doubt in Ludo's expression. He glances at Ring.

"Nah," Ring says. "He ain't dead. I don't believe it."

Still neither of them seem inclined to dismount.

"Shit. If we're talkin' murder, Larabee, then we're talkin' Kyle and my uncle." Ring rubs his arm fiercely. "And malicious woundin'."

"That why you've pitched up here? You come for revenge?"

Ludo shifts on his saddle, moves one hand near his gun-belt as if to verify that it's still there.

"Oh we'll do that all right. One way or another. And don't think you can chase us out of this town. You ain't the law around here."

"True." Chris leans forward in his seat, crosses his elbows on his knees. The casual position makes both of the brothers more wary than ever. "But, seein' as how nobody's the law around here, or else, everybody is ... well, figure we could probably do more or less as we like."

"Hell, I've forgotten," JD suddenly says. "Where'd you say Gabe was?"

"I didn't," Ring says through his teeth. He takes his horse back a few steps when Chris rises slowly to his feet.

"Kinda disappointin not to see him." Chris shrugs. "But, you can pass on the message. Tell him we are the law in our town, and your Mr Gawtrey can go to hell if he thinks we won't put all of you behind bars if you come visitin'."

"Fer what? Comin' to town?"

"Nope. For robbery. The murder of George Dunnett. The attempted murder of one of Judge Orrin Travis' regulators."

"So he is alive, then, the reb?"

Last we heard, thinks Chris.

"Well, I guess it's all about who gets to who first then," Ludo says. He looks from one to another of them.

Buck's on his feet now, too. He indicates the open curtain of the cantina. "You boys comin' in?"

Ludo doesn't move.

"Shit," Ring says. "Let's go back to Eagle Bend and wait on Gabe. He'll be out in a day or two."

Ludo's face says that Ring is a goddamn blabbermouth. Chris almost grins.

"He in trouble?"

"Misunderstanding." Ludo looks regretfully at the cantina. Then he moves to turn his horse. Chris takes one more step forward.

"Well, be seein' you boys."

"You'll be seein' us all right."

When they've ridden out again, Vin comes up to Chris' shoulder. "What do you think, cowboy?"

"I think they're afraid of us," JD puts in.

Chris concedes that's possibly true although he gives JD a slight frown. "Ain't too worried if there's just the two of 'em or even the three of 'em. Don't reckon they'll take us on. Reckon they might be waiting for Burton to get some guns rounded up though. That'd be more ... troublin'."

"We're paid for troublin'," Buck says, cheerful.

"Not enough," Chris tells him, following Vin's gaze out of town. He looks around at the four of them, makes sure he brings them back to earth. "Never enough."

----

"You really shouldn't take it so hard," Ezra says. "I wasn't expecting anything different."

Nathan is crushed. He hates Chicago.

All of a sudden he's full of unpleasant doubts about science. He just couldn't see himself walking among the patients at the large hospital Erich Freiber escorted him around. Didn't feel comfortable with any of the medical students who followed Freiber along the echoing corridors like a school of open-mouthed fish. Had not prepared himself in any way at all for what Freiber eventually said after seeing Ezra two days in a row.

He utterly doesn't know what to do with himself.

"Come on, Nathan. My friend. Don't be downhearted."

Ezra's anxiety on his behalf is palpable, and that makes Nathan feel even worse.

"I'm sorry," he says. "Ezra, I'm so sorry."

"Now, now. N-no need for that. A drink, perhaps? I always find brandy helpful after a shock."

"I don't want a drink."

The breeze coming off the water is cool.

"You shouldn't ... there isn't any ... Nathan, it really is quite all right."

"No, Ezra, it's really not quite all right. It's shit." He digs his hands in his pockets. "Do you mind if ... can I go for a walk, leave you here?"

"By all means. If that's what you want."

"You gunna be all right?"

Ezra tugs at his cuff. "Don't I look all right?"

"Yes," Nathan says looking at him sadly, "at the moment, you do."

----

The letter from Chicago beats Ezra and Nathan back to Four Corners by nearly a week.

"Musta wrote it in the dark," JD observes when the single sheet is laid on the table. Nathan normally has a neat and serviceable hand, with letters thoughtfully transcribed in the manner of a man to whom the skill is hard-won and precious. This missive is an uneven scrawl and covered in smudges.

By the time it's been passed around and Buck finishes off by laying it in a puddle of beer, it's barely legible.

"Well Josiah says it ain't such good news." Buck fingers the sodden sheet.

"Ain't such? What ain't such?" Vin's getting somewhere with clear black print but handwriting still unsettles him, makes him bad-tempered.

Buck reads it out loud for his benefit.

"We seen Freiber twice. Done a lot of talking. Ezra put up with tests ... think there may be somethin' Nathan's not tellin' us here? Like how he had to tie him up and lock him in the doctor's office? ... so .. that and that ... and then it says ... seems he's more or less lucky to still be alive. Freiber can't reckon on him gettin' much better than he is now, not ever ... hell, that's not what they went there to hear ... he could stay the same, else he could get worse .. well shit ... and save cuttin' into his brain ... damn, don't need to know, Nathan ... there's nothing to be done. Truth is ..." Buck pauses again, looks doubtfully at Vin who waves him on. "Uh ... truth is ... Ezra could live to be a hundred or he could be dead within a week ... There's more. But it ain't such."

There's quiet while Vin picks at the peeling edge of the baize.

"Huh. And they went all that way to hear that?"

"Yep."

Vin picks some more. "Maybe cuttin' into his brain could take away whatever it is that pains him so bad. Could maybe help."

Buck pulls at an end of mustache. "Can you see Ezra layin' down quiet on a table and lettin' some doctor at him with a knife?"

Vin takes off a whole strip, looks at it guiltily. "Huh. See what you mean."

"Naw, I think he's just lookin' to live with the hand he's been dealt."

"Peculiar way of doin' it."

"Peculiar cuss altogether."

"Right."

"There's that part at the end," JD pipes up, "where Nathan says he'll tell us more when they get back. Maybe there's something else. He's not gonna write lots of fancy science in a letter. Maybe there's ... something else."

"Well I can tell you something else." Chris is acid. "Ezra will come back and be a pain in my ass about it."

He isn't wrong.

But that isn't the thing that strikes any of them the most when the weeks have past and Nathan and Ezra finally alight from the Denver stage and stand looking around them with the dazed expressions of long-distance travelers who have had too little rest and sustenance for too many uncomfortable hours.

They both look tired, certainly. But what strikes all of them in a swift and breathtaking moment, is that Ezra looks as worn and wasted as if he'd only just climbed from his sickbed. He's unaccountably neat and tidy, of course, but the rings under his eyes are etched deep, he looks like he's lived on nothing but smoke and air for a month.

Josiah takes a deep breath. "Damn that," he says but strides from the seat under the Butterfields tree and embraces Nathan without a second thought.

Buck kind of wants to do the same to Ezra but two things stop him. First off, Ezra ain't the type to submit to bear-hugs with good grace. Second of all, he looks like he might break. So Buck has to make do with a vigorous handshake and back pat instead.

"Good to see ya, hoss."

"Yeah, Ezra, it's real good to have you back." JD is grinning like a fool.

Ezra does that uncertain squint at them, like he can't afford to show them how pleased he is to hear this, and that he doesn't quite believe it anyhow.

"It has been many a long and dry evening, gentlemen. Mr Jackson has kept me on a short leash."

"You missed us then?"

"Indeed I did, Mr Wilmington, most assuredly I did."

"Hell but you look kinda beat."

"Nothing that fine Malt and hot water won't cure."

"And didja like Chicago?"

They've started walking along the street towards the saloon, like something is pulling them there. Vin and Josiah have picked up the bags. Ezra seems to be used to having his bag carried for him, but Nathan frowns and doesn't like it. He gets waved away.

"I liked everything about Chicago, JD," Ezra says thoughtfully, then shakes his head. "Well, except for Nathan's Dr Freiber, the least optimistic and most charmless individual it has ever been my misfortune to meet."

"Yeah, we heard he said he couldn't cure ya."

Ezra smiles faintly. ""Well as I have frequently attempted to inform you gentlemen, there is very little to be done. What you see before you is the best we can aspire to."

"Huh. Was kinda hoping you wouldn't come back lookin' worse," Buck comments.

"Now I am back, I am sure I will do just fine."

"Yeah, now you're home."

Buck nods, pleased. He's always had the hope that he can defeat this unseen enemy, long as he keeps a close enough watch.

-----

"Town get along all right?"

Nathan is nervous. Both that he hasn't been missed and that someone who may have needed him had to do without.

"We didn't lose anyone you coulda saved," Chris says diplomatically.

"And the Palmers?"

"They're in Purgatorio. The brothers. We heard Burton Palmer sent 'em to get Ezra. They ain't too pleased with me and Vin either, far as I know."

"Shit."

"Told 'em we're ready if they decide to come and cause trouble. They'll try something, sometime." Chris flicks his eyes across the saloon to where Ezra has bellied up next to Vin at the bar. A small group of folk have gathered round to see him and that gives Chris an unexpected jolt of pleasure. "So how is he? Looks like hell."

Nathan follows the glance. "Was rough on him, specially comin' back. And now he knows what he knows, for sure and certain like, well ... kinda lost a bit of grit."

"Think he'll find it again?"

"Not if we let the Palmers get at him."

"I aim not to. And I guess he ain't any happier with being fussed over?"

"Worse," Nathan says. There's bitter knowledge in his voice, but a kind of warmth, too. "He might not think he belongs here, but he's kind of gettin' the message he sure don't belong anywhere else."

"What did this Freiber feller find out?" Josiah asks. "He have anything useful to say?"

Nathan looks cautiously over the room again. "There was damage all right. To the bone, the brain tissue, the nerves. And that all don't heal up too quick. Whatever got banged up in there is what's making him fall down, givin' him these pains in the head." He steeples his fingers together. "Freiber picked up some other things ... memory things. Speech things."

"Speech things?" Chris echoes.

"Time to time Ezra's started talking like his tongue's tied in knots."

They can only guess at how cranky that's likely to make him.

"Heaven help us," Josiah murmurs.

"Sitting quiet in a chair all damn day ain't enough to make it all stop either. Freiber thinks it's good as it's gunna get, just gotta hope it don't get no worse. He gave me some books, some ideas for what to do when Ezra takes bad. But he said ..."

"He said?"

"He said Ezra prolly oughta live a sober and sedentary life."

"A what-ary what?" JD demands.

"Quiet and sitting down, JD. Man said he shouldn't be runnin' around getting into scraps and risking injury."

"Makes sense."

"Shouldn't drink, shouldn't ride rough country, shouldn't fight."

JD's mouth hung open. "So that's it then? Ezra'll have to go?"

"That's up to Chris. And the Judge. Point is, he could sit in a goddamn chair drinking tea the rest of his life and it might make no difference anyhow."

"Shit, we already know what the Judge thinks," Buck says.

Nathan looks uneasy. "Well, of course there might be a ... cure. It's possible."

"Go on." Chris is deadly quiet.

"Like I said in the letter, Freiber offered to operate. Man's a surgeon, got magic hands. Says he's been cutting into heads so much lately he figures he knows how it works now, could maybe find the damage, relieve some pressure. It's worked for some. He showed me. Awful risky though, pokin' about inside folks' brains."

"Riskier than hanging around with us?"

That makes Nathan smile. The first one since they returned. "Maybe not."

"And I guess Ezra won't hear of it."

"Even if we could raise the money, he says no. In fact, he says he'd rather blow his brains out."

"Huh. What about Maude?"

"What about her?" Nathan sounds harsh. "I ain't seen her rushin to help so far. He told me hisself he didn't want her interferin'."

"He told you?" Chris looks like he's trying to imagine the two of them sitting on the train idly passing the hours in conversation.

"Told me lots of things."

"Well ain't you a lucky duck."

"It wasn't so bad," Nathan says. There's a flicker of the defensive on his face. And more he wants to say, too. "I kept him outa trouble. He backed me up when folk spoke out of turn."

Chris weighs it up. So, Nathan and Ezra have bonded.

He nods. Just as well.

Palmer brothers will be on the move sooner or later.

Then he frowns. Vin and Ezra are coming over.

"You going to inform the Judge of all this bad news?" Ezra asks with an expressive wave of one hand. He always knows when they've been talking behind his back. A look passes between him and Nathan. It's warm, suggests they've already been through this between themselves.

As for the Judge, Chris really doesn't know. Travis will enquire, that's for sure. He shrugs but Ezra won't let him get away with that.

"What I am endeavoring to ... to ascertain, Mr Larabee, is whether I may now continue to pursue my ... my chosen career? Since it seems that my uh ... cattle-ranching days are over."

Chris laughs at him. "It chose you, Ezra, not the other way about. But I reckon if this thing in your head's gonna kill ya, it'll kill ya whatever you do. Cause wherever you are, you sure ain't gonna be quiet and well-behaved."

"I see. So we're just going to continue as before until this thing in my head kills me?" Ezra is so dry it makes Chris cringe a little.

"Well ... let's hope it don't come to it. In the meantime, same as the rest of us, when you fall down we'll likely pick y'up again."

"And you won't make me trail around the country in search of the impossible anymore?"

"We had to give it a try."

Ezra has that vaguely puzzled look on his face again. "Well," he says. "I'm grateful to you I'm sure. In fact, it is on mah mind that I must see to the business of adequately ... re-repayin' you good sa-samaritans."

Don't stutter, Chris thinks. God's sake, don't do that. I can't stand it.

"Repay us by not getting yaself killed. Else we'll just think we wasted our goddamn money after all."

"That would be tragic." Ezra reaches inside his jacket, pats his hand around and then withdraws a large wad of notes. He lays them on the table. They watch him in silence. Then he bends down and removes another wad from inside his boot, drops that casually down as well. "It's all there, gentlemen. And almost every cent was honestly acquired."

"What the hell?" Nathan says.

"I kept telling you, Mr Jackson. There really are an alarmin' number of stupid people out there."

"When the hell?" Nathan says.

"Well it was you who stated we should spend time apart so as to avoid fratricide. Um, Gallup was rich pickings. And Omaha. Cedar Rapids on the return ... um, journey. A few more occasions. Here and there." Ezra clears his throat. "So to speak."

Chris watches as Ezra doles out the money, a smile plastered across his face that could only fairly be described as smug. He bets Ezra never stopped thinking about getting the money back for a single goddamn minute he was away. He wonders if he made any profit. Kinda hopes he did.

"Gawdammit, Ezra. Did I tell you how awful good it is to see ya?" Buck says, fingering his share with reverence.

"I believe you did, Mr Wilmington."

"Ain't it though, Chris? Ain't it just too goddamn good for words?"

Chris catches Vin looking at him, waiting, that sparkle in his eye, for Larabee to crack a smile.

"I don't mind it," Chris says.

Ezra is still looking smug. But he does sit down all of a sudden. And he does brush a thumb across his temple.

A spiteful twinge in the lining of his gut tells Chris they'd better make the goddamn most of him.

But then again, come to think of it, that's always been true.

--ends--