Vin limps at dangerous speed from his wagon to the saloon when he hears that Ezra's taken a dive.

The intelligence comes to him more like a whisper, a series of suppositions in his own mind, than a verbatim report. There's movement outside the saloon that doesn't look quite right to him, doesn't look normal. Then a flash of figures unclear yet familiar, hastening through town.

Vin is uncomfortably aware that, what with his damn leg, and now maybe his fellow peacekeeper doing a public swoon, town won't be feeling too confident in their guardians on the eve of Ludo Palmer's trial.

JD is standing outside the batwings like a doorman when he arrives.

"We're all here," the kid says.

On the one hand Vin thinks it's a godsend that the seven of them have this instinct to draw together in moments of crisis. On the other, he can see why folk mutter that they think they're a damn law unto themselves. JD looks relieved to see him. His guns are all polished up ready for what might come.

Vin doesn't even need to ask.

"Buck found him hidin' out, was just walkin' him back... " JD throws up his hands expressively in order to complete the story.

Pushing his way inside Vin makes out that Ezra's sitting. His clothes, from what he can see, appear dusty, probably from a fall. Nathan's perched right by him on a table, holding what looks like a poultice to the back of his neck, one hand on his shoulder. Both Josiah and Buck are resting their backsides on another table. Any other occupants of the saloon have moved away and are continuing their business in low tones, trying to look like they're not watching.

Vin weaves a way round everybody, pushes into the bar next to Chris who hands him a shot.

"How we doin'?"

Vin really does mean that in a collective sense, although he wants specifics, too.

Chris doesn't take his eyes off Nathan. "Went down on the first step. Out for no more'n a minute. Bin scrambled ever since."

"Least he ain't told Nathan to leave him the hell alone," Vin observes, then touches his top lip into the whisky. The heat and bite are welcome and he tips the whole shot down in one, hoping it'll reach his knee about the same time as his stomach.

"Figure he's bin tryin' and it just ain't comin' out right."

Vin frowns at that. Like all of them, he truly hates to hear Ezra trying to be articulate and failing.

"Damn. Just hope ta hell Judge Travis sticks to his word then, and don't call on him ta say nothin'."

Chris shakes his head. "It would show that fuckin' lawyer what they did," he growls.

Vin understands the sentiment but thinks they might be beyond it now. "He'd fuckin' hate it. And he's worse now than he was then."

Larabee sets his glass down on the bar-top. "Damn," he says, "And I thought he was better."

They've all had several drinks, and JD has been for a sweep around town to show that there's nothing more serious for folk to worry about than they were worrying about first thing this morning, by the time Nathan says,

"Right, you gonna let me... you gonna let someone get you up those stairs now?"

Vin's expecting it to be the shaky, vague Ezra who drags himself to his feet. Resentful at having an audience but too tuckered out by misery and confusion to bother expressing it. For a while he'd sat there there fingering one temple, huffing from time to time, beginning sentences that petered out in disarray, not looking up enough to meet anyone's eyes. Over the last ten minutes he's been more or less quiet. Nathan's robust tone indicates he thinks that the worst is over.

Disengaging himself from the healer's cautious hold, Ezra doesn't stand yet but he appears to be sitting strong. He looks the worse for wear, like someone caught out in a storm, but Vin feels a heady relief that he doesn't seem in the least bit vague.

"I'm capable," Ezra says, head held high.

Vin can't help grinning at him.

Chris folds his arms. Vin knows he's relieved to hear real words coming out of Ezra's mouth again but he's not sure it's such a good idea for Larabee to be looking so challenging.

"You gonna make it through the next few days, Ezra?"

"Please continue to rely on me as you always have."

"Looks to me like it might be an idea if you let Nathan..."

Ezra spins in the chair to face him. There's a wash of hot color over the pallid complexion all of a sudden. "Oh no no." He shakes his head hard enough to make Vin cringe at what might be dislodged. "You all got your way before. I endured that damn filthy railroad and submitted to the vilest tortures Mr. Jackson's grand inquisitor could devise. I will not be bullied any further, no suh. I would rather expire right here at this table than... than..."

Vin feels almost exhilarated by the smooth assurance of Ezra's speech all of a sudden.

"All right, Ezra, calm down."

"No, Mr. Larabee, you calm down!" Ezra's on his feet now. He's fixing to defend himself and they know how well he can do that. Even now there's a fine tremor in his right shoulder. The Derringer can be tripped in a blink.

Chris raises his hands, takes a mollifying step backward down the bar. He is not a man to mis-read signs.

"We have terminated this discussion," Ezra says to him quietly. "Is that cleah?"

Chris nods.

When Ezra's boots have finished clomping up the stairs with pointed dignity, Buck lets out a long whistle.

"Hell," Vin says, not able to resist a sharp elbow in Larabee's ribs.

"Reckon rilin' him up might be the way ta go?"

To Ezra's surprise, it's Josiah who comes to find him the day before the trial. Who discovers him disconsolately standing guard at the easternmost end of town, hatless and alone on the ramparts. It's actually the remains of a building, the half walls uneven and providing both cover and a place to sit. Ezra's set his back against the highest section of the ruins, has one heel on the brick, the butt of his rifle pressed into the stony ground. He's been on his mettle the last few days and nobody has broached anything but the most guarded of pleasantries with him since he walked out on them in the saloon.

"You're looking better," Josiah says as he approaches.

"Still heah," Ezra agrees without looking at him. He hates guard duty out in the open at the best of times, finds it hard to concentrate, and he's suspicious that Josiah has been sent to scold him for some perceived dereliction.

"I could take over if you like."

Ezra might hate these mundane hours of vigilance over the unchanging scenery, but he doesn't actually feel he is quite ready for the scrap-heap yet. He drops his heel to the ground, settles his gun-belt more comfortably around his hips, responds to the offer with no grace and little humor.

"You prepared the speech for my damn funeral?"

"I want you to live, son," Josiah tells him gravely after a period of reflection. "Want you to ride right on past this break in the trail. Have a life free from pain and uncertainty." Ezra doesn't react until he feels Josiah move right up close. "But," the preacher carries on, "it's starting to look sometimes like the only way to have that might be... to think about Nathan's way." He lays a quiet palm against the back of Ezra's shoulder and Ezra can feel him staring long and hard at his profile. "But we can see you don't want it."

Ezra is stunned to think that they have been discussing the matter. Stunned, appalled and more than a little furious. He's half afraid to speak, thinks he may make a fool of himself by stuttering nonsense. To his surprise, when he begins, his voice is full of fire.

"Trust me," he says, "I would rather breathe my last right this minute."

"Are we just to watch you fade before our eyes?"

Ezra is taken aback by the idea that this is what's happening. He doesn't often think about the situation from the others' point of view.

It occurs to him then that if he's going to seek the assurance he wants, perhaps he'd better damn well do it now. The trial will take everyone's attention and who knows what will happen next. Josiah is a wise and intelligent man and Ezra suddenly realizes he would do a lot worse than choose him as his second. Relief and apprehension flood him at the decision, sequential waves of hot and cold that steal all the strength from his limbs. He's unable to prevent the stumbles caused by such a rush of emotions.

"If I haven't f-found some other way out, Mr. Sanchez... there m-may come a time..." As he speaks his throat practically closes up in sheer dread. But hell, he's committed now and there's no turning back.

Josiah is rubbing one knuckle back and forth across his chin. He looks as if he wants to turn tail.

"A time," Ezra repeats as smoothly as he can, "when I am unable to articulate my wishes. I just want there to be no doubt." He scrunches his eyes towards the bright horizon, fighting against the tumbril beating ominously in his head. "I need s-someone on my side."

"We're all on your side, Ezra."

Josiah moves the hand down to an elbow, begins to tug his sleeve.

"I beg to differ." Ezra realizes he's sitting down on a sharp edge of wall and is not sure he can remain suitably on his dignity. He plants his feet firmly, sweeps one hand through his hair as if to brush away something he can't touch. "R-really, Josiah. I think not."

Josiah has let go his sleeve and moves back a few paces. Sighing audibly he eases down on the broken chimney breast opposite and one boot scrapes in the loose stones.

"What do you want?" he asks in a reluctant rumble.

Ezra gives him a square look, which is not something he manages with anybody very often. Not when he's being himself, at any rate.

"There will come a day," he begins and then stops again. Josiah clearly feels uncomfortable but he waves him on. The preacher seems to have committed himself as well. Ezra inhales. "Well, when that day co-comes... I need someone... I would like you to make it plain to our good and noble friends that I do not wish to be c-cut open by Mr. Jackson. Much as I admire him. When I cannot say it anymore, when they believe they are deciding for the best, to s-save mah life perhaps. Promise me, Josiah. I need to know someone will try and stop them."

"But, Ezra..." Josiah says, distressed now.

"Damn it, Mr. Sanchez!" Ezra draws himself up where he sits. "Since that memorable day you refused my request for spiritual guidance, have I evah asked any favor from you, any dispensation? Am I to be turned away again?"

"If I did the wrong thing then," Josiah says, clearly not happy at all to have that incident inserted into the conversation, "I may do the wrong thing again."

"Ah, but if you promise me now, I'll know you won't. I'll know that I c-can trust you."

That last phrase alone is enough to upset the preacher. Ezra is guiltily aware how often he has made it plain he doesn't entirely trust any of them, not outside the rigors of their occupation anyhow.

Josiah continues to mumble unhappily. "Hell, Ezra, it's not what the Lord would expect from me. Your life is precious. As sacred as any. He wouldn't appreciate such a life being forfeit."

A weight settles over Ezra. He identifies it as despair and can't hold Josiah's eyes anymore. It's all too inevitable, too damn disappointing.

Of course Josiah wouldn't agree. Nor would any of them.

Ezra can't say anymore, just pushes himself up from the wall, walks away and leaves his post.

There's a surfeit of extra people in town which Chris doesn't appreciate.

He hated the whole brouhaha that attended the first trial in Ridge City. Hated how people were prepared to travel for miles just to revel in others' misfortune. His sensible side tells him he should be pleased that at last something is happening in this whole mess. It tells him the portents are good for a satisfactory result, that at least one of the damn roaches in the swarm will be dealt with before long. His short-tempered side doesn't care for the mutterings of some of the population. Like it's all his fault, somehow, that their town's being overrun with visitors, not all of whom are well-behaved.

"Ain't even got a damn courthouse," he mutters. "Where in hell do these knuckleheads think they're actually gonna sit?"

"Saloon?" Vin suggests.

"What the hell they all troopin' inta town for? Couldn't they jus' sit at home and wait fer someone to tell 'em what happened?"

"Lotta folk took Bill Dunnett's loss to heart."

Vin, of course, always tends to see into the core of things, using some unerring inner spyglass. It's something Chris can't always do, especially not when he's hobbled by irritation and worry.

"Don' see why they can't sit at home and take it ta heart."

"People are strange," Vin admits. He doesn't sound too upset by the notion.

"We could make some money heah," Ezra speculates out loud on the evening before the trial is due to begin.

They're all arranged around a coffee pot on the boardwalk outside the jail. He's not the only one who's thought the same way, of course. The hotel manager is practically salivating at the thought of all the extra custom, although his wife looks flustered. A bunch of people who are normally miserable and inhospitable have somehow transformed into the welcoming owners of boarding houses. There's been enough extra bodies in town in advance of proceedings that it sparked a minor crisis at the Mercantile and JD ended up riding to Eagle Bend for emergency coffee.

"Let 'em all get on with it." That's Nathan's advice to his compatriots. "We're doin' our job and they can just... get the hell on with gawking and gossiping."

Ezra just didn't look sure he could pass over the opportunities that the influx of new people seemed to represent. He's not quite been himself for some days, though, so when Chris tells him to be a damn peacekeeper for a change and not a damn money-grubbing gambler, he doesn't seem to have it in him to argue.

"There's ladies," Buck says about every five minutes.

JD laughs at him. "Chris says you hafta conserve ya energies, Buck. Needs you awake tonight. Reckons them Palmers would love to stage a raid come dark."

They drift away from the coffee-pot after a while, then meet at the Clarion after supper - Travis, Cochrane and Gawtrey too.

The Judge and two lawyers sit either side of Mary's desk looking important while Mary makes more coffee. Larabee and his men drape themselves around the room, patently ill at ease.

"Ten o'clock start," Travis says. "Need one of you on the door to keep the prisoner in and the idiots out."

"Is that really necessary?" Gawtrey asks, rolling his eyes.

Vin's been glaring at him since he came in. Chris knows Tanner's never forgotten his half hour on the witness stand in Ridge City, how the memory can still make his stomach turn right over just thinking of it.

"Security is vital," Travis responds. Cochrane nods in agreement.

"We know what to do," Chris says. He doesn't like being given a list of orders and he's pissed enough to refuse the coffee Mary offers him. This ain't a damn social circle. He wants a proper drink, and he wants there to be space enough in the damn saloon to enjoy it.

The lawyers drink their coffee and Travis sits between them looking like he just wants this thing over and done with. Once all the details are out of the way, Chris sends Josiah and Buck out to the two ends of town, just in case.

It's all peaceful as night falls.

The morning of the trial dawns bright and clear. Josiah strolls from one end of town to the other because he has so many hard thoughts on his mind he's unable to sit still.

None of them will be present at the proceedings in the Grain Exchange unless summoned, except Vin. Tanner's been designated door duty because of his knee and he's tight-lipped as a result although JD keeps repeating that he doesn't have a leg to stand on, a joke which was originally Buck's. Vin doesn't find it even a little funny, no matter who's telling it. Judge Travis is determined that the seven will provide a veritable wall of protection around Four Corners. It's not going to be easy - looks like folk are going to be coming and going all day and they don't aim to scare anyone who doesn't deserve to be scared.

Josiah has done some reading. He's sat and contemplated the open sky. He's hammered loose nails back into floorboards. Nothing has brought him much relief or enlightenment but he realizes he has to make his decision quickly and start concentrating on the very real possibility that armed men will be descending on the town in the next who knew how many hours.

He is unsurprised to find Ezra sitting in the saloon, dressed smart and formally, coffee cup on hand. Half of his pasteboard deck is fanned out and untouched before him on the table. Josiah doesn't sit down with him, just stands at the batwings looking towards the animated groups of people talking in the street.

"Ezra," he says eventually, half turning his head.

"Mistah Sanchez?" Ezra's voice is without life.

"I have been thinking."

"Hmmm?" There's not much interest there and Josiah hears the swish of Ezra's hand swooping down on the cards, rolling them upright, then the soft fall of the deck against the baize.

"About what you asked."

Ezra's hand sweeps again and there is a the sharp tap of the gathered deck on the table. He still says nothing.

"I will take your part," Josiah says quietly. He turns right around, wishes Ezra would look at him. "On one condition."

Ezra lifts his head, eyes narrowed, cards quiet.

"I promise to do as you ask. Just so long... so long as you promise me that you won't give up." Josiah seeks out acknowledgement of his words but can't find it. "Not until the last, Ezra."

The last.

Josiah knows they both understand what he means by that. There has been a distant look in the striking, light-colored eyes for some time now. Standish is not the first person on whom Josiah has sniffed the intention to bring about their own demise. He can sense it now, can feel that the plan is certainly already in place. The horror of it makes him brisk.

"Now," he says, gruff, leaning forward. "You promise me that and I promise to stand against all our brothers for you if it comes to it... whatever the consequence."

Like all of them, Josiah has imagined many scenarios which could bring about the end of their association, some more mundane than others. But never an impasse such as this. The whole thing reeks of betrayal and he's not sure he can bear to be a part of it.

Ezra is silent a long while, and then he fingers his cards once more, moves one up and out of the deck, turns it over with a thumb and lets it slide back, unseen.

"Very well," he says, but Josiah won't accept that, not from Ezra. He shakes his head gravely.

"Say it."

The second, longer silence tells Josiah eloquently how much Ezra does not want anything to do with such a vow. He hopes the depth of it means any falsehood now uttered will, at least, not come easily.

"I promise," Ezra says eventually. It is impossible to gauge his sincerity. Josiah suspects at this point that the more the man's heart feels the less heartfelt he will sound.

Nothing else is necessary to seal the pact. Josiah doesn't want to dwell on the fact that it has even been made, that he is complicit in such a covenant. He wants, instead, to drag Ezra back to the here and now, find something that will engage or irritate him enough to spark some life back into those eyes.

"We have a big day ahead of us," is what he says.

"Indeed."

Ezra drains his cup of coffee, replaces the deck in his vest pocket. He fingers his forearm, testing the lie of the rig, pushes back the chair and rises to standing. It's an easy, steady, confident move.

"So walk with me," Josiah says, pushing at the batwing. Ezra follows him through, hisses at the sunlight and arranges his hat carefully, brim slightly forward, shading his eyes. He stands on the top step, poised. Or frozen.

"Ezra?" Josiah can't help asking in doubt. The one word means many things, is the front for a whole raft of hopeless questions even now twisting a wicked way around Josiah's heart.

"Courage, Mr. Sanchez." Ezra smiles, serene enough to chill. "For there is no more to be done right now."

-end-