The sunlight is too bright, beaming into his eyes from a gap between buildings.

It's completely the wrong time of day for the sun to be doing that, Ezra thinks grumpily.

On opening the jailhouse door he'd been anticipating a gentle dusk, not this damn onslaught. The fading daylight is preternaturally dazzling to his mind, just as the wagon wheels rolling past are impossibly loud and the smell of horse manure at the foot of the steps is overpoweringly strong.

His eyes squint against all of it and he hangs on to the upright beam at the top of the steps for a spell.

"Evenin'," says someone, walking by with a nod.

Ezra jerks to attention, surprised.

It does indeed look as if it will be a pleasant one.

That's what he'd normally say but he manages no more than the suspicion of a hat-tip. He has no idea who's just spoken and for a second experiences a curious blank about the correct response to the greeting. By the time it's come to him the moment has passed.

The dullness of his brain annoys him. It must be a result of the hectic assault on his senses, Ezra thinks. Or perhaps too much concentration. He feels himself relax as he recalls what he's achieved this afternoon.

Fully armed and ready for trouble, he'd ended up spending the allotted hours in the jailhouse building a palatial house of cards while no less than four prisoners remained utterly silent, goggling at him from behind their bars. They didn't complain once, didn't ask for anything. Just nursed their hangovers and watched, entranced. While not exactly what Mr. Larabee might approve, Ezra doesn't think he can be reproached for the way he's carried out his duty.

The pasteboard house remained intact until JD came striding in, the draught from the door sweeping through and collapsing beams, floors and gables in a single breath. The sighs of disappointment from within the cells were audible.

JD hadn't seen the architecture, only the rubble strewn on the desk and floor.

"Buck's ordered ya dinner," he'd said in a tone that brooked no arguments.

That young Mr. Dunne occasionally adopts Larabee's threat-under-pleasantry manner these days is no longer something Ezra will dignify with a response. He yawns and stretches. It's good to be out in the air again. The last of the wagons has rolled past and now he can hear JD clomping about inside the jail, being busy. Across the street the silhouette of Josiah is visible on the roof of the hardware. There's a faint coil of smoke curling into nothing above his head. Ezra licks his lips, imagining tobacco, and then wonders why Vin isn't up there.

He frowns. Something is going on with Vin and now just isn't the time.

They've been on high alert for days, expecting some sign that Burton Palmer's assembled a crowd and is heading towards town to bring down as many of the peacekeepers as he can. Far as they know, the family's been back in their own territory somewhere in Wyoming for a month or more, ever since Burton's nephews had to hightail it out of Purgatorio. There's some kind of home there, so it seems, and even one or two women of the clan. The Palmers never stay put for long, though, and it only needs one vague report that one of them's on the move to make Chris demand more vigilance than usual. The alert has strained relations with much of town, and despite a rousing speech from Josiah to his congregation on the topic of solidarity, it hasn't stopped sections of the local populace from brawling.

Since he's not feeling in tip-top condition this evening, Ezra decides he should perhaps make himself scarce. He's very glad he's done something that might be considered useful and hopes it will preclude him from being obliged to take a night watch. A drink would be very acceptable, however. He focuses on the saloon. Damn but he wishes it wasn't weaving about, feels it unfair it should be doing that to him before he's even crossed the threshold.

"Any trouble?" inquires a familiar voice. Buck is loping down the boardwalk towards him, his easy limbs suggesting they've been suitably relaxed this afternoon. And possibly well taken care of.

"None at all."

"Say again?"

Ezra is sure his words were clear. "None," he repeats. "None. At all."

Buck nods distractedly, gives him a little frown and then indicates the saloon. "Buy me a drink?"

"You're most amusing - I understood dinner was served."

"Always time for a beer." Buck is firm.

"Short on funds?"

"Pay day just never comes around fast enough, Ezra. You know how it is."

Ezra knows how it is. He fingers his vest pocket, heaves his shoulders as he looks once again at the wide open space between the step and the doors of the saloon.

"Oh very well."

They skirt the pile of manure, set off slantwise across the wagon tracks. Ezra is relieved that everything proceeds without incident. Just as they reach the steps of the opposite boardwalk, Buck touches his back lightly as if to guide him up.

"You'll be fine once you get some whisky inside you, hoss."

Ezra decides not to even wonder why Buck is speaking so gently, why on earth the man thinks he isn't already fine.

Down the street above the Livery, things are not looking good.

There is a left knee which is not working properly. No doubt about it.

Shifting the footstool on which he's sitting, Nathan takes hold of the limb very lightly once more, apologizing again for his cool hands. With great care he bends the joint back and forth as if it's a delicate hinge. There's a slight ticking sound.

The healer feels frustrated and not a little guilty - it seems his original diagnosis and treatment was just not up to muster.

"Think maybe they broke it," he says to his patient at last, setting the whole leg gently back on the ground. "That time in Ridge City. Cracked the bone maybe. And it didn't knit up quite right. Trouble is..."

"Trouble is?" Vin is slumped back in the easy chair looking far from resigned.

"Well, ain't gonna heal up perfect after all this time."

"Can't walk on it, Nathan."

"No."

"No? That all you got for me? No?"

"Well, figure it'll calm down like it's done before. But you hafta stay off it for now or you'll be needin' a wooden leg."

Vin hauls himself to upright in the chair. He looks kind of mean. Nathan guesses he's had just about enough of sitting up here with no pants on being told he might end up a goddamn cripple. Someone rattles the door forcefully.

"Be right there," Nathan says over his shoulder. He picks up Vin's pants and hands them over, not surprised when they're snatched from his grasp. It's not the first time one of his fellows has reacted to his ministrations by being pissy. Soon as Vin has managed to get one pant leg over the swollen joint, Nathan kicks the footstool back under the chair and moves to unlock the door.

Chris slides in before it's fully wide. "We got a problem," he announces to the room in general. Then he takes in Vin and the large bottle of liniment and it seems like the wind's taken out of his sails for the moment. He looks to Nathan, draws his brows down. "We got a problem?"

"Damn knee's the size of a watermelon," Vin supplies in disgust.

Nathan agrees that this is somewhat the case and then takes up the refrain. "Problem?"

Chris takes a breath. "Wire just came in from the sheriff in Banner. Ludo Palmer's hangin' around." The name is said with dislike. "Wants us to go pick him up."

"Let the damn law in Banner pick him up!"

Vin's tone is sharp, and Nathan raises his eyebrows at Chris. Tanner must be beyond sore.

"Judge overrules."

"We gonna go all over that shit again?" Vin mutters. "That weasely lawyer and another crooked trial? Them Palmers laughin' their fuckin' backsides off at us?"

"Judge overrules, Vin."

"He gets damn well paid ta overrule. Don't see how it helps."

"Travis says he'll try 'em here this time, for robbery and murder. Reckon he thinks we can keep the peace while he's doin' it."

Nathan feels the creeping dissatisfaction he knows they all have. "For robbery and murder. That's good. But not for Ezra?"

"Nope. Thinks we have a better chance ta nail 'em on the other charges."

"Ow, damnit!" hisses Vin who has already been standing for too long. He resists Nathan's attempt to get him to sit again, shimmying out of reach with a growl. "Jus' get me down ta the saloon and I'll be damn well good as gold."

Chris looks displeased. "How long?" he asks Nathan, nodding at Tanner.

Nathan narrows his eyes at Vin, considers this. "Should be easier in a day or two, if he stays off it. Ain't fit to ride though."

"And Ezra?"

"Hell, he ain't given me no trouble for weeks."

Vin cocks a look at him. "Ain't likely to, is he?"

There's a minute pause and Jackson fingers his collar.

Dr. Freiber's precious gift sits in a locked cupboard. Nobody else but Nathan knows that for sure, but he doesn't suppose the rest of them imagine for one moment the pretty box of tricks has been returned to Chicago. Nathan will only get it out when he's absolutely certain none of the others are anywhere near. The contents are becoming familiar to him now and he polishes the pristine tools sometimes, just to enjoy the feel. He knows much more about them than he did when they first arrived and sometimes dreams vividly of a glinting scalpel readied in his hand. The accompanying book is kept under his bed and the only person who's seen even a fraction of the torrent of questions he needs answered is the town's telegrapher.

"Told you before. We've spoken."

"How come he's still avoidin' you then?" Vin smirks a little, then he tries to move towards the door and fails. He puts both hands round the offending knee, mutters a quiet "damn" and then just reaches out for the support Chris offers.

"Ezra's bein' a baby," Nathan declares, moving round to Vin's other side. "I've never given him a single reason not to trust my word. He just..." His hands flap.

"Just?"

"Ain't thinkin' straight."

The sound of Chris scratching the underside of his chin with three fingers is pointed.

"You gonna help me down these stairs or what?" Vin asks shortly, pinching Chris's forearm.

Nathan sweeps up his hat from a table and comes to duck under one shoulder. He figures some medicinal whisky might be in order right now by the sound of Tanner's voice. It's strung tight with irritation and discomfort and Larabee's arrival seems to have made it worse. Vin will not take being left behind very gracefully, not when he's missing the chance to nail one of the Palmers. It was one hell of a scrimmage back in Ridge City, by all accounts, and it's unlikely the boot to his kneecap was accidental.

And hell, even if it wasn't Ludo Palmer out there, Vin would be kind of twisted up anyhow, Nathan thinks. Because dragging a gimpy leg through the undergrowth is not something any kind of tracker wants.

Unless his quarry's plumb deaf of course.

Down in the saloon, Chris and Nathan deposit Vin without much finesse into a chair opposite Buck, who doesn't emerge from his beer mug, just appraises the situation as he's drinking. He has the air of a man who's full of dinner and now wants to be left in peace.

"Need to be ready ta ride first thing," Chris informs him. "Heard Ludo Palmer's hangin' around in Banner and Judge Travis's lookin' to us ta bring 'em in."

"Only Ludo?" Buck asks after a large swallow.

"You know what they're like... who knows what we'll fuckin' find when we get there."

Ezra is standing at the bar in his shirtsleeves. He doesn't approach the table and Chris figures it's because he and Nathan are not friends at the moment.

"All quiet?" Chris asks him, referring to his stint on guard duty.

"Perfectly."

"Good, well I need ya to do it again tomorrow. You and Nathan between you. I'm takin' the others."

Ezra doesn't look any more pleased than Vin. "You want me to stay heah?"

"Didn't I just say so?"

"Is that s-s-s..." He stops, grits his teeth. "Is that strictly necessary?"

Although an unpleasant flutter catches Chris under the ribs he won't react to it. He knows that's the last thing Ezra needs. "Yes it damn well is."

Ezra attempts to look nonchalant. He turns back to the bar, slouching.

"Gonna be laid up fer long?" Buck asks Vin in sympathy.

"Ain't lookin' good."

"It'll be fine." Nathan is soothing. Chris notices that he slings Ezra's back a regretful look before plumping down in a chair. "Long as you don't run around."

They sit quiet for a while. Chris goes to stand by Ezra at the bar but they don't converse. Giving one long glance into the mirror behind the bottles he feels quite encouraged. Ezra doesn't look too bad. Things go up and down with his damn battered brain so fast it's enough to make your stomach queasy, but even a hard ride out into tough country a week ago hasn't laid him low. The sun and wind on the journey back tanned up his face, have given him a deceptively healthy glow. His eyes are bright enough, although that could be whisky. And he seems poised in that slightly worrying Standish way that possibly means he's contemplating something troublesome. Troublesome is better than unconscious though.

Best of all he hasn't taken a tumble for a good while, although Chris knows they're always waiting for the next one. If it wasn't for the vagueness that creeps over Ezra sometimes, the odd quirks in his speech, Chris might almost start to believe things are improving.

It's grown dark outside.

"I can't jus' sit around doin' nothin'," Vin suddenly says. "Gotta horse to tend to."

Nathan makes a hissing sound at him. "Reckon someone can manage that. Now, you gonna insist on climbing up inta that wagon of yours and lyin' in a draught all night? Or you gonna be sensible and come take a good draught of somethin' to help ya sleep upstairs?"

Chris turns around from the bar, looking faintly amused.

"Well I ain't walkin' him all the way out there, so I reckon that's the answer."

"Ah hell," Vin says and kicks the table leg with his other foot.

Chris, Buck, Josiah and JD leave for Banner in the morning.

"Think they'll bring us back a Palmer?" Vin wonders from his spot outside the jail. He has a sluggish look about him suggesting neither a sleeping draught nor his incapacity have given him good night's rest. The bad knee rests on a second chair. From time to time he jiggles his good one as if to make sure it's still in working order.

"Long as they come back in one piece," Nathan replies at once. "Cuz even if the sheriff in Banner only saw Ludo, don't mean Ludo is all there is."

When it comes to the Palmers they're likely to be pessimistic.

"Still don't know why I had to stay behind," Ezra grumbles. He's sitting at the other side of the jailhouse door from Vin with a wooden bowl between his feet, flicking scraps of nutshell across the boardwalk. Every so often when he picks up a nut and cracks it, Vin leans right over and snags the kernel out of his hand, leaves him with nothing but pieces of husk. So far Ezra is being patient about the thefts, hasn't quite registered what's happening or worked up the energy to retaliate.

"Maybe because at two o'clock this mornin' you were outside Buck's with ya head between ya knees? Perhaps Chris had the crazy idea you didn't feel so good?" Nathan hasn't decided yet whether the incident was significant.

Vin eyes another nut but bides his time.

"I rose with the lark," Ezra says snappily. "I ate breakfast. I would have been at the livery all ready to go if he'd wanted. Enlighten me as to why Mr. Larabee thought that meant I didn't feel so good?" It is true that he looks fresh and flawlessly turned-out. Compared to Vin, at any rate.

"Hell I don't know." Nathan can't be doing with Ezra's pretence that all is normal with him.

"Look on the bright side," Vin suggests. "He knows I'm crocked and Nathan's busy. Mebbe he thinks you're town's best bet."

Ezra cracks another nut loudly. "In that case, what do you wager some outlaw gang picks today to rob the bank?"

They all look at one another and grin.

Vin picks that moment to reach out a hand but this time Ezra is ready. He tosses the kernel into the air like a coin, ducks to catch it in his mouth. Vin overbalances with a crash and Ezra nearly chokes but even Nathan laughs so loud Mary Travis comes out of the Clarion to see what's going on.

Sometimes it's unfortunately true that a cloud lifts when Chris rides out of town.

Ludo Palmer's been picked up by the sheriff in Banner by the time the group from Four Corners arrives.

"All yours," the sheriff says, not bothering to disguise the relief in his voice.

The three of them stand and regard the prisoner from the other side of the jailhouse. Ludo, a Palmer from the top of his shaggy yellow hair down to his big, booted feet, is annoyingly chipper. Even with the prospect that he might be tried alone for the sins of his entire family.

"You go on and take me back," he says when Chris draws nearer. "I'm not complainin'. Cos you know what'll come down on your town if you do."

"I don't think we've had the pleasure," Buck says, stomping over and sticking his face close.

"You'll find out," Ludo states doggedly. "Can set up some chicken-shit trial if ya like but it's you's gonna pay for murderin' my brother."

"That crooked lawyer still on Uncle Burt's payroll?" Chris asks. He feels like he needs as much information as possible and that forewarned is forearmed. They don't know why Ludo was sent on ahead, if he's even allied with the others at all right now. The Palmers have a habit of going their separate ways for months at a time, only reuniting when there's the prospect of violence or profit. Preferably both. The man's presence so close to Four Corners may be coincidental, or it may be the harbinger of one of Burton Palmer's "plans".

Ludo doesn't answer him directly but his self-satisfied expression tells Chris much of what he needs to know.

"We'll be seein' you in the morning then," Buck says, turning away. Ludo looks a little less satisfied.

It's time to seek rest and sustenance.

Banner's a nice enough town. The food is edible and the beds comfortable. They find that Ludo's dressed and washed and cuffed next morning, ready to leave first thing after breakfast. The sheriff evidently knows enough to want the prisoner away as soon as possible, before he has to deal with more than he can handle. Chris sends a wire to Four Corners saying they should be back by tomorrow afternoon. One thing he's learned since he turned peacekeeper is that it pays to keep everyone on the same page. A speedy reply informs them Vin's on his feet again, although it's not clear if this has been agreed by all parties concerned. At any rate, the current crop of prisoners has been bailed and ridden away. Travis will be arriving in a week.

There's no trouble on the way home. Chris can hardly believe that. Ludo's cheerful enough that it suggests he's expecting liberation at any time. But no rescue party accosts them and Ludo grows less and less combative the nearer they draw to Larabee's town.

"They'll come," Ludo says in his best threatening tone when he's arrived at his destination and is sitting in the very cell that once held his younger brothers.

"Let 'em," JD responds with a bravado that Buck hopes won't be misplaced. He steers him from the jail on the heels of Larabee who, unsurprisingly, wants a drink. Right now.

Josiah jangles the keys thoughtfully before he hangs them up. He remembers the day Ring and Gabe Palmer were locked up in Four Corners' jail all too clearly... blood soaking Vin's shirt-cuffs, helplessness in Nathan's voice. The preacher had tried to shut all that out of his mind at the time, made it his job to prevent Buck throttling Ring with his bare hands. Now the preacher grins wolfishly at Ludo through the bars.

"We know they'll come," he says, "why do you think you're here?"

Judge Travis arrives with some fanfare. He's greeted off the stage by Mary and a handful of other town notables. After a short rest in the shade he strolls rather grandly across the street and into the jailhouse.

Ludo's confidence does seem rather punctured by the sight of Justice personified. He's probably the cleverest of the remaining three brothers, but that doesn't actually make him very clever. It doesn't occur to him for a while that his rantings about the infallibility of Silas Gawtrey and how his family will ride into town and kill everyone in sight might enhance the case against him.

"We will welcome Mr. Gawtrey with pleasure," Travis says. He's told Chris that two more witnesses to the post-stage robbery outside Eagle Bend have decided to come forward and testify. "There'll be more," he enlarges, "just so long as you and the boys can guarantee their safety while they're here."

"But we won't have ta speak?" Vin sounds worried.

"I don't know what Gawtrey's planning, but he knows the charges don't include what happened the day you arrested Ring and Gabe. I think Standish is safe, but Cochrane may call on any of you others. All I can do is limit it. And in any case, Cochrane's not interested in the assault."

"Cochrane?"

"Prosecuting lawyer. We're lucky to have him - he doesn't leave Denver very often."

Cochrane arrives three days after Travis. He is the most expensively-dressed man Four Corners has ever seen, possibly the most well-educated man any of them have ever heard speak, and he makes Ezra practically spit with jealousy.

"Looks like a damn undertaker," Buck comforts him. "And he couldn't carry off a frill ta save his life."

The fact that Mr. Cochrane is not interested in the assault, and treats Vin like he's less than human for asking about it, makes Chris dislike the man even more than he dislikes Silas Gawtrey if that's humanly possible.

"I don't know about this trial," Vin says with discontent. "Seems ta me those two're just gonna talk each other to death."

Ezra doesn't say anything about anything.

They think his gloom is to do with Cochrane's immaculate suit of clothes and general air of money, but actually he is beginning to develop a headache.

It's one of those ones that begins in the far distance, a barely-discernible pinprick behind one eye. One of those ones that will sit quiet but determined in the background for a few days before deciding to overwhelm him. One of those ones he has not yet learned to reveal in advance.

Any overt signs of weakness now fill Ezra with a furious panic. Somewhere, he fears, probably up there in Nathan's sickroom, sit the tools of Dr. Freiber's trade, just waiting inside their black leather box to be used against him in some excruciating and fatal piece of butchery. Any inclination he might have been developing to confide in Buck, say, or just agree with Chris from time to time that he feels like shit, rapidly disappeared the moment Nathan unpacked that crate.

The panic generally makes him head for cover, although he's not always quite sure how he gets there.

On this occasion, knowing enough to realize he needs to be lying down in the semi-dark, he's wandering in the general direction of his room when time shifts.

"You all right, sir?" a piping voice enquires and Ezra opens his eyes and finds himself slumped against a wall. The smell of coal and soap tells him he's pitched up somewhere near the bathhouse. He didn't think he was passing anywhere near the bathhouse and the feeling that he no longer knows what he's doing washes over him.

A child, one of the very few friends that Billy Travis finds to play with when he comes to town, is standing a little way away with his hands on his hips.

A polite child, is the first thing Ezra thinks. As he straightens up his main motivation is not to alarm. Since the bees are swarming and he's more or less blind in one eye all of a sudden, he can't guarantee he won't either fall over or begin babbling.

"Quite fine," he thinks he may have got out eventually.

The child disappears, or else Ezra does. He hears a tapping sound once or twice and figures he must be between the bathhouse and the telegraph office. When he next manages to lift his head from the shelter of his hands he's alone again, still propped against the wall. Dropping one hand to feel about him he discovers an upturned box which he guesses might be what he was aiming for in the very first instance.

It's slightly better sitting down. Ezra faces away from the street, shrunk into the shadowy protection of the wall, feeling a knot of splinters against his head. It's damp on the box and underfoot, the ground soft. His plan is to wait until the shadows have deepened before he makes another attempt to get back to his room unseen. He can hear each breath he takes, feel each crashing thump of his heart in his ears. The bees will not retreat. Ezra is grimly determined he won't get up, won't risk a descent into darkness. That void is one he's terrified he won't escape.

"Ah for Pete's sake... bin lookin' for you all... damn it, Ezra."

The voice is disembodied at first, comes at him as if from underwater, and then Ezra feels an unexpected warmth on both knees. He wonders if he hadn't perhaps dozed off because it's very cool now and his one good eye focuses on Buck crouched before him, half hidden in the gloom of early evening.

"We were havin' a parley," Buck tells him. "Looked for ya just about ev..."

The sound fades out. There are some moments of buzzing while Buck's mouth continues to move and then his low-pitched voice drifts in once more.

"... all kinds rollin' into town."

There's silence and then Wilmington makes a disgruntled shushing noise. "I just don't get it. Why won't you ever tell us things are headin' down the crap-chute?"

A large hand molds around the side of Ezra's head, rubs absently. At first they'd never dare touch him but now Ezra can tell who's who even with his eyes shut.

"Ez," Buck says after what seems like another long pause. "Let me know when you c'n stand and I'll get you outa here." There's still one hand on his knee and one on his skull. "I ain't gonna go fer Nathan though I reckon I oughta." Another pause during which Ezra supposes he probably should have said something, if only he could get a grip on the conversation and his place in it. "Shit, you just don't know what the hell, do you?"

Buck could be right, but Ezra thinks he knows one thing at least.

He knows he will find the strength to run like hell if Mr. Jackson is summoned.

Because, for sure, whatever Nathan says, however much he assures them all he has no intention of doing what Ezra has expressly asked him not to, there will be a tipping point. When it's reached, Ezra is pretty sure that the healer will act as his instincts and desires tell him. And since that tipping point will almost certainly involve his being grievously incapacitated in some way he can't yet imagine, Ezra knows he needs a champion. Sooner rather than later. Someone prepared to fight his corner when he can no longer do it himself.

Frustratingly, within a group comprised of part-time heroes, Ezra is downright confused as to who would be a natural choice.

Whenever he's put his mind to it, he comes to the conclusion that the two most likely to listen to his arguments are Buck and JD, who shamelessly enjoy being rebellious once in a while. Only... Buck and JD are able to see nothing but desire for him to be miraculously cured. Their faith in that eventuality is touching, not to mention damnably exasperating.

And, although he would sorely like his advice on the whole matter of what might await him on the other side, as well as half a dozen other things of a more or less provocative nature, Ezra wouldn't dare approach Josiah, because Josiah is Nathan's good friend. The preacher evidently thinks Ezra wrong-headed about most things anyhow.

Vin, then? Because, right from the day Ezra apparently strolled solo through a graveyard to apprehend Ring and Gabe Palmer, airily confident that back-up was only seconds away, Vin's always been the most likely to take his part.

Except... damnit. Ezra thinks far too highly of Vin Tanner to burden him with such a role.

And certainly not Chris. Their leader may well feel obliged to go with the majority opinion when everyone has laid their cards on the table, or risk schism. Ezra has a seldom-expressed respect for the position Chris unwillingly occupies, wouldn't want to make it harder than he suspects it already is.

All things considered, it constitutes a distressingly unfair dilemma he'd hate himself for inflicting upon any of them. More than that, it would be selfish and disloyal, ingrained traits he has worked with varying degrees of success to expunge from his character. Yes, indeed. Damn selfish and disloyal. Especially when he's so dumbstruck half the time at the lengths they will all go to in order to keep him among them.

Perhaps it's wholly appropriate, then, that in the end it will only be him, Ezra P. Standish, dressed to perfection and flailing against the world.