I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see. I sought my God, but my God eluded me. I sought my brother and I found all three ~Anon

Nothing was quite like it had been before.

Some things were better, some were worse. And all was impermanent and unknown. Chris didn't mind too much, long as there was less space between them for things to get wedged.

JD had settled right down. Chris suspected he might stay in Four Corners being a damn fine Sheriff long after the rest of them had gotten themselves killed or otherwise occupied. He could see Nathan here as well, doing what he did best, whether some proper doctor came and set up across the street or not. Josiah, too. He hadn't put so much of his heart and soul into that goddamn church just to up and leave it now.

With Buck, you never knew. Eagle Bend wasn't calling him anymore, and neither, seemingly, was Mrs. Taylor's porch. Someone else probably was, though. With Buck, you just never knew.

Vin was here as much as Vin was anywhere. Attached to his wagon and yet not giving a damn. Being about as reliable as anyone could be who might up and disappear over the horizon at any moment. He'd bought himself a fancy new double-rigged saddle. It was still hanging on the wall.

There might have been some apologies owing here and there. Seemed like they were all big enough to hang on until they came, though.

Chris still couldn't decide about the damn farm. Still thought to hell with it more often than not and sat in the saloon until late with Ezra, drinking far too much, both of them. Ezra was getting kind of special at it, though. Whoever was on night-watch made a point of keeping a lookout. They'd find him wandering around town in the early hours with his goddamn useless mess of a hand, swallowing whiskey as fast as he could after some visitation from Matt Bracken and who knew what the hell-all else.

"Whatcha dreamin', pard? Somethin' you can tell us?" That was what Vin would ask, supposing they could find him before he passed out.

He'd tell them, too, if the whiskey had loosened his tongue sufficiently without having robbed him of the ability to speak.

It wasn't easy listening. But if they were going to be any damn help to him at all, they guessed they needed to know what lay in wait once he'd left them sitting uneasily around the saloon table every night while he staggered his way up the stairs and shut the door against them.

There were themes, reminded Chris of the downright terrifying and disturbing scenes that had peppered his own sleep in the wake of the fire. Illogical happenings. People doing things they wouldn't do. For a start, Ezra said he never knew what possessed him to enter the pitchy-black of the church anyhow. Or why Matt Bracken would be waiting for him in there of all places. He just knew that he'd be abject and on his knees in a second.

"Listen, Ezra, I'm sorry, you don't hafta ..."

But he did have to. Chris understood that.

Half past three in the goddamn morning and they were sitting about in the dark and freezing cold of the Livery with Ezra babbling on about how they might not have been there quite in time, but that they'd saved his sorry ass between them and he was damn grateful.

"He's going to be all right," Chris said. He didn't know how he knew, he just did.

"Yup," Vin agreed, extending a hand, squeezing the back of Ezra's neck. It was a move none of them would have contemplated even before Sharpeville. Ezra seemed to accept it, didn't shrink away when Vin left the hand there, warm and easy. Allowed himself to be drawn back from the dark. Maybe that was how Chris knew.

He angled a stare at the bottle cradled in the crook of an elbow. Shirtsleeves rolled up, collar crinkled, vest buttons askew. Still one heck of a lot of work to be done.

"Think you oughta take it easy with this stuff now though. It's not doin' you any good."

"Dunno where mah flask went," Ezra said.

"Iffen ya having trouble sleepin," Vin suggested, "maybe Nathan can give you something? Or -" seeing the disgust forming on Ezra's face, "maybe not."

Chris had already decided something about that. Far as he was concerned, he was going to post someone on the goddamn floor by the bed if necessary. They weren't going to be arriving too damn late anymore.

He reached over and tugged at the nearly-empty bottle. Ezra wouldn't let go at first and Chris was almost glad about that. They had a brief scuffle, which Chris won. "Bob Watson's got no damn business givin' you liquor. And you've got no business drowning in it."

Ezra sighed and put his hand over his face. "Ah ... don't feel so very good."

"Shit, how many weeks you bin drinking ya goddamn breakfast, lunch and dinner? You throwing up's getting to be part of the routine, Ez. Like Buck falling down steps, or Vin getting stepped on by his goddamn horse." Chris flung the bottle over into a pile of straw. Yosemite wouldn't appreciate it but that was too bad.

"No, really." Ezra bent himself in half. "Not so very good at all."

"You air ya goddamn paunch all over my boots, pard, I won't be accountable for my actions." Vin grinned, snaked his hand down the bony back, moved his feet out of the way just in time. "Damn," he said.

"Burns like hellfire comin' up," Ezra puffed.

It was all working itself out.

"He going to be any use to you?"

It had to be the Judge who asked the question. Travis was finally on his way out of town again after a long and thoughtful stay. His intention had been to depart once the Brackens had left, but somehow he'd felt some compulsion to remain longer and he'd been a quiet presence in the background for some two weeks now.

Some of the antics Buck and JD had gotten up to hadn't impressed him much. He'd had some long, quiet talks in private with Vin Tanner and he hadn't missed a single word Josiah had uttered from his pulpit. Once he took a turn out of town to look over Chris's place, and he admitted that he found the lack of a trained doctor in the town troubling. Clearly, though, as had been the case right from the beginning, it was Ezra's place in the whole set-up that concerned him most of all.

Chris, walking him to the stage, slid his eyes across the street.

The whole damn bunch of them were lounging about in the dusty sunshine. Like they were waiting to play hooky once the boss had turned his back.

Larabee defended them to the best of his ability.

"Tanner's still got a price on his head," he admitted. "Never know when the preacher's going to go off the rails. Your Sheriff needs to lose a little of his green I guess. Nathan Jackson's a damn fine healer, but he ain't a lawman. And we ain't never been able to rely on Buck." A slow smile stretched his lips. "Reckon Ezra's about as much use as any of 'em."

"Loyalty is an important quality," the Judge said. "There is always the possibility of being loyal to a fault, however."

It was the only kind Chris knew.

"Well, quite a few folk put in a good word for you round here." Travis was wry. "And I put in a good word for you with Governor Hopewell. He left it up to me."

The Judge gazed across the street, too. "You boys carry on making this town a safe place to call home. I'll carry on worrying about it."

"Seems a fair division of labor."

Travis nodded. He kissed Mary and left them again.

Chris watched the stage pull away but didn't stay standing next to a damp-eyed Mary as it rolled out of sight. His boys were waiting to be rounded up into the saloon like a goddamn herd of sheep and he wouldn't disappoint them.

There was hardly a soul in there this time of day. Ollie saw them coming and had already placed a bottle of Highland Pure and seven glasses in the middle of the table up on the platform. Chris acknowledged this generosity and foresight with a nod as he stumped up the steps and pulled out a chair. The others settled down around him, worryingly expectant.

Once again they were looking to him for the right words. Him, the man who didn't care so very much for words.

Buck filled the glasses carefully.

"Boys," Chris said when it was done, although he knew he already had their attention. He paused then, not able to think. Glancing up he caught Vin's eye, saw the spark.

"Man could expire from desperation," Ezra observed, jiggling his glass optimistically. He swung it quickly out of range as Buck's free hand grabbed for it, dug him in the ribs with an elbow.

"You're a dang overgrown baby," JD announced, although it wasn't clear who he meant.

"Hush." Josiah's voice was admonishing, but quiet.

Nathan was grinning. Actually grinning, from ear to ear.

What in the hell would they have done without Nathan?

Chris looked over at Ezra, neat and groomed and ephemeral somehow, like the goddamn ghost of the fine gentleman he aspired to. That he was sitting there at all was some kind of miracle. Then again, there was something infuriating and miraculous about every last one of them.

Almost imperceptibly Chris raised his glass. "To trails ahead."

They all stared at him.

Irritated, he tried again. "Health and good fortune?"

Clearly not damn well acceptable.

"You c'n do better than that, cowboy," Vin murmured, well amused.

"Oh to hell with it," Chris groused.

Didn't want anymore of this. Worrying and fighting and never giving you any peace. Bitching well bite you soon as look at you.

"Here's to us and those like us," Josiah said firmly.

"Damn few," Buck echoed, "And they're probably dead."


Chris was easy loud enough to drown them out.

Somehow, it sounded about right. They'd made it, after all. Not exactly safe, but near as damnit.

There was no chink of glass on glass. Just a pleasing quiet and seven shots tipped down in concert.

Larabee was quick. To a general blast of laughter around the table he managed to bat Ezra's reaching hand from the bottle.

"Nah ah ah."

Buck crashed both his hands on the table so hard it rocked. "Face it, Ezra. Dang miserable cuss is just a faster draw."

"That I concede." Ezra plucked at his vest pocket with the better of his hands. It shook so hard he had to make a second pass. Chris found himself willing it to find its target. He saw the looks that passed between the others, sensed their apprehension. A shadow of anxiety drifted over Ezra's features but he carried right on. "However, my friends, by a stroke of good fortune, Mr. Larabee is nothin' but a hapless fumblefingers in my arena."

Chris smiled his second smile of the day, one that he wasn't expecting. He suddenly felt nothing but bone-deep satisfaction.

Maybe, although it looked near impossible, although it looked all wrong and there were no instructions, this puzzle of an outfit would about fit together. Long as he wasn't careless enough to lose any of the pieces, it'd make up something good.

Damn. Don't rely on me so much, boys. Not sure I'm anywhere near up to that.

Ezra seemed sure. He sucked in a sharp breath, went for a dimple and just about made it. There was a ripple of relaxation. None of them had anything else they wanted to do, were more than happy to stay home. All eyes rested eager and content on the man in the neat white shirt and sober gray vest. He tipped the pasteboards carefully from their dog-eared box into his waiting palm, shuffled one-handed. Then he slapped the deck down smartly at the head of the table and invited Chris to deal.

-The End-