M7FFA Entry


No Greater Love

by LauraH

Ratings: PG-13 to R for violence and a little language

Notes:This story is the sequel to my first one, "Ezra 7:6-7". Mainly a Ezra and Chris fic, but the others play a pretty good part. Definitely a "hurt fic", with a touch of comfort at the end.

The moral and title for this one comes from the Bible, the book of John 15: 13.

Ezra sat out on the boardwalk in front of the saloon, a small smile covering his face as he enjoyed the feel of the afternoon sun. Nathan had finally pronounced him well enough to leave his bed and venture outside. It had been almost four days since the failed bank robbery in which Ezra had been shot. His shoulder still itched terribly, but Ezra welcomed the sensation since he knew that meant the wound was almost healed. The sound of boots on the wood of the boardwalk brought Ezra's attention back to the present.

Chris and Vin walked up towards the saloon, both of them feeling a sense of relief as they recognized Ezra's form stretched out in the chair. Without realizing it, they had both missed his quiet presence greatly, along with the soft shuffling noise of his cards in the saloon. The gambler returned their smiles as they stopped beside his seat.

"Ah, Mr. Larabee, Mr. Tanner. A pleasure to see you." He nodded to each, straightening up in his chair.

"Same to you, Ezra. I didn't think Nathan was *ever* gonna let you out." Chris' eyes twinkled at his statement. The healer had insisted that he stay the night to make sure no other damage was caused by the cut he had received on his forehead. Ezra had been awake the next morning, and Chris would never forget the envious look in the green eyes as Chris effectively pushed himself past Nathan and left the room.

"Yes, well, Mr. Jackson does seem to enjoy his physicianal duties, doesn't he?" Both men chuckled, quickly changing to slight coughs as Nathan appeared around the corner.

"You two gettin' sick?" the black man asked, doing his best to frown and not smile. Chris quickly cleared his throat and shook his head. Ezra had a harder time getting control of himself though.

"I, ah, I assure you Mr. Jackson, my health is coming back just fine." A soft snort escaped the smaller man and he reached up to cover his mouth with his hand.

"I don't know, Ezra," Nathan said. He'd heard their conversation as he walked up. Now was his chance to have a little fun with them. "You lost quite a bit of blood and your immune system might not be up to fightin' off any infections that come along. I think you'd better come back to the clinic for a few days." Chris and Vin broke out into laughter and Nathan finally allowed his face to carry a smile as a panicked look crossed Ezra's face.

"Nathan! I swear that I am in no need of such drastic measures!" Realizing the quiet healer's joke, Ezra grumbled good-naturedly, rising from his chair slowly. Sudden movements still caused him pain in his shoulder. With a lavish gesture, Ezra motioned the men into the building, following them inside.

Ezra emerged a few hours later, whistling softly to himself. After a moment of indecision, he turned towards the stable. He knew that Chaucer would be restless after the longevity of his absence. Ezra smiled happily as he walked, the time spent with his friends more healing than any concoction Nathan could ever put together. Ezra realized now how important these men were to him, and while he found that frightening to his mind, his heart and soul embraced the thought.

As Ezra entered the stable, Chaucer nickered in recognition. The gambler walked over, running a hand over the soft, velvety nose.

"Hello there," Ezra chuckled. "Did you miss me?" He froze, his green eyes darting to the left as a form stepped out from the shadows.

"Actually, we did." The unmistakable sound of a gun hammer being pulled back echoed throughout Ezra's brain. "I thought you'd never get here."

Ezra kept his hands up away from his waist, but angled his arm so that the derringer could be brought out and fired quickly. A second gun was cocked behind him.

"I'd rethink that idea, if I were you. Be an awful quick way to get one killed, don't you think, James?" James nodded as he walked out of the shadows. He was tall, a good five inches taller than Ezra, and thickly built. His shoulders were broad, as was his chest, his upper body seeming ready to burst from the faded buckskin shirt he wore. His legs were columns of muscle that met at a slim waist. An evil glint lit his dark brown eyes as he walked closer to the gambler.

"Yep, I reckon it would. And we wouldn't want that, now would we, Kirk?" Ezra was caught off-guard as James' empty hand came up to crack against his jaw, sending him spinning back and down to the ground. Kirk laughed as he holstered his gun and reached down to relieve Ezra of his, making sure to grab the derringer as well. He was by no means as imposing a figure as James, but his lantern-jawed face had something evil in it that only increased the meanness coming from his deep, blue eyes.

Ezra lay stunned, the sudden impact with the ground causing his shoulder to ache. He flicked his tongue out to the corner of his mouth, the bitter taste there telling him of the spot of blood that had sprung from the split lip. After removing his weapons, Kirk leaned over and grabbed the lapels of Ezra's jacket, jerking him up. Ezra winced in combination of the dull pain as well as being brought into contact with Kirk's foul breath. Releasing his jacket, Kirk spun him around, wrapping an arm around Ezra's throat.

"Easy, Kirk," James said, grinning like a cat as he walked up in front of the two. "He can't tell us nothin' if he's blacked out, now can he?" Kirk lessened the pressure on his throat, and Ezra gratefully inhaled a deep breath, eyeing his captor with a mixture of confusion and repugnance.

"What...exactly...can I help...you gentlemen...with?" he managed to squeeze out. James reached out and pushed Ezra's coat from his shoulders and pulled it down his arms until it fell. He could just barely make out the bandage on Ezra's shoulder under the white fabric of his shirt.

"Why, we just need you to verify some information for us. Mainly, is Chris Larabee around here?" Ezra kept his emotions in check as the man brought his hand up to hover menacingly close to his wounded shoulder.

"Larabee?" he asked, screwing his face into a mask of blankness as if he were trying to remember if he'd ever heard the name. Kirk brought his other hand up and laid it over Ezra's mouth as James squeezed his shoulder, hard. Ezra tensed, but it hadn't hurt like he had thought it would. There was a dull ache coming from his shoulder, but no fiery pain.

James' face contorted into one of anger and he reached down, ripping Ezra's shirt open. The gambler winced as he heard the buttons fly away with an audible *snap*. Once that was done, James pulled the bandage from the wound, cursing as he saw the healing flesh.

"Dammit! Kirk, I thought you said he was shot only four days ago?!" Ezra shrugged, speaking up before he could stop himself.

"Guess I'm just a quick healer." James looked into his eyes, the brown orbs sending a promise into those emerald eyes that he would regret that statement.

"Really? I guess we'll just have to find out for ourselves, won't we?" Reaching back, he slammed his fists into Ezra's middle four times, grinning once again as he saw Ezra blanch at the force of the blows. The gambler desperately wanted to bend over to catch his breath, but Kirk's arm around his throat kept him upright, his chest straining to regain the air he'd lost. James reached down and pulled a long skinning knife from his boot and held it up close to Ezra's face, dragging the tip down his cheek.

"Now, about Larabee...." James was cut short as a surprised gasp came from the door. All three men turned to see a small boy standing just within the stables. Ezra groaned as he recognized Billy Travis in the dim light. James motioned for Billy to come over, pressing the knife against Ezra's throat when he didn't comply.

"Get over here now or you're gonna see a dead man real quick!" he growled. Billy scurried over, staying carefully out of range of James' grasp. Ezra smiled weakly at the boy, trying to put him at ease. Before either of them could react, James lunged, grabbing Billy and throwing him to the ground. After tieing the boy's arms and legs, he rolled him over so that he was sitting against one of the stable doors, looking directly at Ezra.

"Now," James said, looking from one prisoner to the other, "We should get some answers."

Chris smoked his cheroot slowly, enjoying the flavor of it. He hadn't felt this relaxed in quite awhile. He downed the glass of whiskey before him and nodded his thanks at Vin as the tracker refilled both their glasses. Both men had been sitting quietly in the saloon since Ezra had left, talking to Nathan until he also had departed, leaving the two alone in the saloon. Even the bar keep had stepped out for a moment. Now they just sat, holding a friendly conversation without saying a word.

The calm of the saloon was shattered, however, as somebody crashed through the doors. Both men looked up, but had to drop the level of their gaze as they realized that a child had come in. Chris tensed immediately as he saw Billy running towards their table, his face streaked with tears and a dark bruise forming on his cheek. The man in black was out of his chair and kneeling in the path of the running child in seconds.

"What's wrong?" he asked, struggling to keep his voice calm, knowing that he had to settle Billy down before they could get anywhere. "Is it your mother?" he asked, holding his breath in the silent hope that it wasn't. He released the air from his lungs in a grateful sigh as Billy shook his head. "Then what is it?" For a moment, Chris allowed himself to believe that it was something trivial like a fight between children, but brought himself back to reality as Billy held out a piece of paper to him, his fingers stained slightly with blood.

Without another word, Chris grabbed the paper, stuffing it in his pocket before picking up Billy and racing towards Nathan's clinic, praying that the healer would be there. He knew Vin wasn't far behind, so he didn't even stop to tell him where he was going. He reached the place in record time, calling out for Nathan as he entered. The healer took Billy from his arms quickly, setting the boy down on the table. Nathan questioned him, finding no other marks beside the large bruise.

"Where'd the blood come from, Billy?" Nathan asked.

"Ezra," Billy whispered, wrapping his arms about himself and rocking back and forth. Chris, Nathan, and Vin exchanged looks and Chris suddenly remembered the note Billy had given him. Pulling it out, he walked to the other side of the room, his face growing cold with rage as he read it.

Well, how nice to finally be in your acquaintance again. We never did get to finish our little soiree did we? Of course, you were rather pre-occupied, weren't you? Such a shame to hear about your family. I told him it was rash to do that with your wife and child at home, but he still insists it a perfectly good idea. If that isn't enough to pique your curiosity into coming to see me, I have something else. The boy will be able to tell you everything, but in case you need more proof, maybe this will suffice. Ride due East until met. If anyone accompanies you, I will leave your friend, piece by piece, in a trail for you to follow.

Chris looked at the blood smeared card that was with the note. He recognized it as one from Ezra's personal deck, the Ace of Spades. His memory came rushing towards him like a locomotive with the name Waters. James Waters. Just after he and Buck had returned from Mexico to find his family dead, Chris had taken off, running reckless. In a little town he had long since forgotten the name of, he came across a man who was taking a quirt to a small boy because the boy had tried to pet his horse.

Chris, being drunk at the time, intervened, beating Waters senseless with his fists. Waters had called him out the next day, but Chris had agreed to see the boy and his mother safely into the next territory. The blonde gunman hadn't thought of Waters again until now. Until once again, his family was being threatened.

Dropping the note, Chris walked over to Billy and placed his hands on his shoulders. Just then, Buck and Mary came into the room at a run, Buck having seen Chris running with Billy towards the clinic. Nathan grabbed Mary and assured her that Billy was fine. Chris didn't look away but continued to look at Billy.

"Do they have Ezra, Billy?" he said, his voice an icy whisper of rage. Billy nodded. Chris drew a firm rein on his anger. "What'd they do with him, Billy? How many of them were there? I need to know anything you can give me, son." Billy drew in a deep breath, forcing himself to be calmer. The others needed his help.

"I walked in to go give Chaucer some sugar cubes like I been doing since Ezra got hurt. But there was two men inside, and Ezra was there. One was holding Ezra by the throat while the other had a knife. They made me come over or they was gonna kill Ezra. Then...then they started asking questions." Billy broke off, closing his eyes as he saw in his mind the pain on Ezra's face with each punch the other man threw, each slice of the knife, shallow and painful, cutting into his reserve.

Mary went over, brushing Billy's hair from his forehead and laying a gentle kiss on it. Chris let him go and stepped back, waiting with what little patience he had left for Billy to continue.

"What kind of questions did they ask, Billy?" Buck queried, unsure of what was going on.

"They wanted to know about Chr..Mr. Larabee," Billy replied, looking at the black clad gunman. "I didn't want to tell them, honest! But they was hittin' and kickin' and cuttin' him!" Chris immediately went back in front of the boy and raised his head so they could see eye to eye.

"I know, Billy. It's okay. We'll get Ezra back." Billy quieted at the confidence that came from Chris' voice and nodded in agreement. Chris turned to Nathan. "Alright. Find out what they did to Ezra from Billy so you'll know what to have ready." Then, he turned to Buck and Vin. "Buck, go get JD and Josiah. Tell 'em to meet us here. Vin," The tracker was already heading towards the door.

"I'll find out which way they went." Looking back, Chris saw Nathan talking to Billy and Mary standing to the side, her hand over her mouth. She turned and walked towards him.

"Oh God," she whispered. Chris laid his hand on her shoulder, hoping to steady her, but she noticed how his body was trembling. Cold, merciless rage was building up inside him and Chris was fighting against letting it free. Yet another life had been endangered, hurt, and broken because of him.

Nathan finished his discussion with Billy, nodding to Mary that she could take him home. As she left, Mary touched Chris' shoulder briefly, offering all the hope and confidence she had to give. Chris nodded his thanks and then turned back to Nathan. The healer appeared to be deep in thought.

"From what I can tell, Ezra may have about ten different cuts, all superficial, but dangerous none-the-less if not treated; bruised, cracked or even broken ribs, several bruises, and possibly a concussion. Billy said that the one who gave him the note used the butt of his gun to knock Ezra out and get him up on a horse in front of the other one." Chris shook his head and Nathan left to prepare both a travel kit with what he might need, as well as to set out the items he would need upon return to Four Corners.

Buck, JD, and Josiah slid into the room, looking around expectantly. Chris filled them in, noticing the look of comprehension that crossed Buck's face. Buck had met up with Chris not long after the encounter with Waters and had learned all about it. Chris stopped talking as Vin quietly entered the room, his mare's leg in the crook of his arm.

"They rode off North, Northeast." Chris nodded. Just as he'd suspected. They would keep Ezra far enough away that Chris couldn't do anything from where he was met. The note had said go East until met. If there was any way of doing things Chris liked best, it was the direct one.

"Alright. Here's how it's gonna go then. I want you five to go after Ezra while I go to meet Waters." Chris knew Buck wasn't going to like that plan, and he wasn't disappointed in the explosion that came from the man.

"Dammit, Chris! At least take one of us with you." Chris just shook his head and walked out towards the stables.

"Buck, Waters is mine. I don't want anybody else out there. The only one I want to have to worry about is Waters. Ya'll take care of Ezra." Buck knew Chris had a point. If they got Ezra away, Chris didn't have as many worries. But that still didn't mean he had to like the idea.

"We leave at first light," Chris' voice drifted from the boardwalk. The others nodded and went off to prepare themselves to help save their friend.

Ezra came to slowly, his head bobbing on his chest with the motion of the horse. The first sensation to hit his mind was pain. Deep lines of fire coursed through his body from the injuries that had been inflicted upon him. After the third time, Ezra had lost count of how many times the one called James had sliced along his skin with the knife. He never went deep enough to cause serious damage, but the cuts were long and painful.

The second feeling Ezra got was heat. His body felt so hot. He wished that he could find some shade from the sun. Opening his eyes, Ezra gave a small start. It was night, the moon almost overhead. A shiver tore through his body and Ezra grimly realized that the heat he felt was from the fever that was threatening to consume him.

Kirk felt the man who shared his saddle move and knew he was awake. Just to make sure, he tightened his arm around Ezra's middle, pressing against the man's ribs. Ezra bit back a scream, snapping his head up against the pain. Kirk smiled with pleasure as he felt the bones under his fingers grinding against one another.

"The boss sure did a number on you, didn't he?" Kirk chuckled evilly into Ezra's ear. The gambler made no response, his body still trying to cope with the shock to ribs. Kirk continued, baiting the smaller man. "Too bad you couldn't stay awake a little longer back at the stables. I'm sure you would have enjoyed what we did to the boy."

Ezra's rage overcame all other feelings in his brain and body. Billy?! He remembered Waters writing and then handing the boy a note. And then, he had turned back around, his gun in his hand. After that, blackness until he woke up a few moments ago. Gathering every ounce of strength available to him, Ezra slammed his elbow back into the other man's stomach, grunting with effort and pain. Kirk laughed, moving with the blow and using Ezra's off-balance to push the gambler from the horse.

Ezra landed hard on his right shoulder, pain flaring throughout his whole body. Darkness threatened to close in on him again, but he refused to let it, breathing deeply until the flashing lights at the edge of his vision faded. Kirk sat in the saddle, his arms resting on the horn as Waters rode back from where he had been scouting up front.

"What happened?" he asked, his eyes on Ezra but the question was clearly aimed at Kirk. His partner smirked and sat back up, shrugging his shoulders nonchalantly.

"Why, he came-to a fighting and a swearing. I tried to keep him still, but he just lost his balance." Waters smiled back, biting back a chuckle. Kirk was completely different from Waters in many ways, but they did share one common sentiment. If you were their enemy, you would pay in blood, and they would enjoy watching each drop of it pour from your body.

Hearing the sound of hoof beats coming up behind them, Waters spun his horse and drew his gun, only to re-holster it as the six men of his gang rode up. He nodded to Ezra and then pointed to the extra horse they brought.

"Tie him to the saddle if you have to, but get him up there, make sure he stays there, and let's get going."

The ropes chafed his wrists terribly and Ezra did his best to ignore them as they rubbed the skin raw. He had done his best to resist the men that had tied him to the horse, but his troubles had only resulted in yet more blows to his body, one of them causing a cut above his left eye. The blood from it still seeped from the wound.

Ezra kept his eyes closed, the morning sun glaring painfully into his green orbs. They had ridden all night and showed no signs of stopping now. The gambler had caught snatches of sleep during the night, not having to worry about staying in the saddle. Bracing himself, Ezra forced his eyes open, noticing the sun was just a little off to his right. That meant they were going Northeast.

Ezra racked his brain for a memory as to what lay in that direction from Four Corners that would take this long to reach. A vague thought about an old, abandoned homestead came to him and he was sure that was their destination. It would provide shelter, cover, and was so far off the beaten path that almost nobody knew of it. And, if he was correct, at the pace they had kept, they should be reaching it right about...

"Hello the house!" Waters shouted, stopping on top of a small rise looking out over a little house, barn, and corral. Receiving an answering yell, Waters raised his arm and waved before turning around to the group of men.

"Kirk, you and Johnny'll come with me to get Larabee. The rest of you, take our guest and make him comfortable. I don't care what you do with him, but make sure he stays alive! Matt's in charge till I get back, ya hear?" The men nodded their heads, an occasional "yes sir" running through the air.

Wheeling their horses, the three men set off to make it to the meeting place ahead of their prey, leaving the others to make their way down to the house. Ezra gnawed at his lip with worry. He knew that Chris would be going to meet Waters, if not for him then at least to exact his revenge for roughing up Billy. That meant that Buck and Vin would be trailing Chris (because the stubborn gunslinger would request them to stay behind, a request they would definitely ignore), and the others would follow.

Ezra did not try to hope the others would come for him. He had to do something to help himself, just like always. He just couldn't believe that the others would willingly take a bullet for him. /It's not like you would do it for them, either, now would you?/ he asked himself. His brain smugly agreed that it would not, and was then shocked into silence. His heart, without any hesitation, had said yes, he would. And they would do the same for him. Ignoring the sputtering voice in his head that sounded suspiciously like his mother, Ezra allowed a small smile to light his face. The others *would* come for him.

But that didn't mean he couldn't help them out a little.

As soon as Vin was able to see well enough to pick up the tracks, he and the others were on their way to the livery. A surprise to them though, came from the fact that a good deal of the townspeople were up and on the boardwalk. Thanks to Mary's printing press, the whole town knew of the situation the men faced, and this was their way of showing their support.

When they reached the stable, another surprise awaited them. Their horses were out, saddled, and their saddlebags full of provisions. Several people followed, some offering words of hope, some just nodding. The men smiled slightly as they mounted up, a slight blush creeping up Vin Tanner's face. The town had finally accepted them into their lives. They belonged. And now, with one of their own threatened, the town was willing to do anything to get him back.

A path cleared in the crowd as Chris Larabee came to the stable. His face showed no surprise what so ever at the turnout. Billy held the reins to his horse, passing them over as Chris neared him. The swelling on his face had gone down considerably, but a large, dark bruise still remained. Chris touseled the boy's hair, smiling slightly at him. Swinging up into the saddle, Chris turned to face the other men. Vin looked past him, though, a deeper blush covering his face.

Chris turned as Nettie Wells and Casey walked up to them. Each carried in their arms a long wrapped bundle. Mary helped undo the paper, revealing six new Winchester rifles, complete with a box of cartridges each. They were passed out to the men, each taking it with a shy smile of gratitude. Chris opened his mouth to argue, but closed it, instead nodding his thanks as Mary handed the rifle to him. He turned to the others again, placing the rifle on his lap.

"Let's ride!" he ordered, spurring his black into action as the other men did the same. The townspeople waited before slowly going back to their homes, not relishing the chore they had left to do.

They had to wait.

They rode out along the line of tracks that led to Ezra. Chris called a halt and re-stated his orders, his eyes laying on Buck. The usually jolly cowboy just nodded, making no promises. Chris noticed this, but let it go. They sat their horses in a line, each keenly aware of the empty space at the end usually filled by the small, southern gambler.

Chris nodded to them, and then kicked his horse to go meet Waters. Vin picked up the tracks and nudged his horse into a gallop. Buck watched the figure in black recede into nothingness before following the tracker.

Vin paid close attention to the ground, trusting the others to watch their surroundings. Apparently, Waters had been in no hurry because the tracks indicated that the horses had gone no faster than a walk, and one of them was extra heavy. That would be the one with Ezra. Every now and then, beside the heavy track, he would find a dried spot of blood.

The others reined in their horses as Vin called a stop, swinging down to the ground. He squatted down, studying the story the tracks gave him. Somebody, probably Ezra had been thrown on the ground. He shifted through the sand, finding some of it still wet with Ezra's blood. Their quick pace had gained them some time. They weren't that far ahead. There wasn't enough blood to cause any panic, so Vin made no mention of it.

What did worry him, however, so much that he gave voice to it, was the tracks of seven other horses that had come in. One left heavier than it came in. He noticed the scuffle marks on the ground. Ezra had at least been conscious enough to fight them as they put him on the horse, he noticed. They had left at the same leisurely pace. Vin mounted up, kicking his horse into a fast gallop, feeling the excitement in him grow as he realized they were closing in on them.

Waters settled back against the rock he had chosen for cover. Kirk was just off to his left behind another rock, and Johnny was over in the scattered brush to his right. That was the only cover in the small stretch of land he had chosen to meet Larabee at. He heard a short whistle from Johnny's direction and looked down into the road. The figure in black was riding up, looking around cautiously.

Waters smiled, his eyes twinkling evilly as he lifted his rifle to his shoulder.

Chris had kept his horse to an easy gallop, his steely gaze constantly sweeping the countryside around him. As he rode, he felt his gut growing tighter with apprehension, and he knew something was fixing to bust wide open. He noticed the small grouping of rocks ahead and figured that somebody would be there. There was no other cover anywhere around. And if it was one thing he had learned over the years, it was always trust his gut.

The first bullet tore through the meat of his upper right arm before he heard the sound of the shot. His horse reared and he fought hard to stay in the saddle, his rifle falling from his grip. He felt a second bullet hit his thigh, and yet a third struck his shoulder, knocking him off his horse. The black took off towards Four Corners as Chris lay on the ground, his body screaming at him with white hot agony.

/Damn,/ he thought as he watched a figure come down from the rocks, hearing the hammer of a gun being pulled back. /I hate it when I'm right./

The shot echoed throughout the air as Chris Larabee felt the darkness close over him.

Ezra sat up as straight as he could against the wall. His ribs were throbbing painfully, and his head wasn't far behind. He hadn't really thought anything of Waters last comments, but now realized there was a lot of room to play with and still keep him alive. His face was now a mottled, continuous bruise, and the cut over his eye had reopened, spilling more of his precious blood down his face.

What few, undamaged ribs he had had left, were now just as pained as the rest. One of the men had been intrigued by the cuts on his arms and chest, and had decided to see if he could make parallel ones. The result, a single cut going straight across from his old one, with little branches where the man had not kept a straight course.

He hissed as the ropes cut deeper into his wrists, but there wasn't much he could do to help that. In fact, he was responsible for that pain himself. He pushed his arms apart again, stretching the ropes that held his hands. He almost had it loose enough to slip free.

Ezra pushed again, his mind moving quickly as to what he would do once he escaped. He needed a gun, he knew that much. If all else failed, he had noticed a small room off to the side of the house that had held some very interesting materials. Ezra knew that the additional space had been newly constructed, as the wood wasn't weathered, nor was it painted. It had probably been put up by his captors.

The state or condition of the room wasn't what had caught Ezra's attention, though, as they had dragged him through the house. It was what was inside. Two kegs of black powder and what looked to be like at least five sticks of dynamite sat in the middle of the floor. Enough to effectively destroy the house and all its occupants. The only problem with this plan, was that Ezra was an occupant as well.

Ezra bit his lip as the ropes slipped in his blood, and his hands came free, his arms moving forcibly outward with the momentum of the tugs he had been using against the ropes. At the sudden movement, his ribs screamed out in pain and it was all Ezra could do to not curl up and wrap his arms about himself.

Stretching for a moment to help prepare his body for what was to come, he carefully reached down and set to work on the knot of the ropes at his ankles. Freeing himself at last, Ezra stood, leaning heavily against the wall. His head swirled and he pressed his eyes shut against the whirling room, trying to identify each pain and ignore it.

The cuts on his arms, chest, and shoulders were a flaming red in color and the flesh around them burned. Each time he breathed, his ribs creaked and groaned in protest. But breathe he did, and with a sense of renewed determination. Creeping over to the one window of the room, Ezra peered out, keeping his head low so as not to draw attention.

With Waters, Kirk, and Johnny gone, that had left five men in the party that had taken Ezra to the house. Inside the structure had been four more, not counting the temporary boss, Matt. That made a total of ten men against the idea of Ezra leaving; thirteen if the other three came back too soon.

That thought sent a shiver down Ezra's spine. Three men, waiting in ambush, while Larabee rode out to meet them. The gambler had no doubts towards Chris' ability with his guns, or his mind, for that matter. But three to one odds, especially stacked in such a manner, didn't leave room for much hope. Ezra spotted two guards from his vantage point. A third one walked into view from around a corner.

Ezra smiled, ignoring the pain from his battered face, his green eyes lighting up with ironic humor. The odds were not in the house's favor, he had nothing to bluff with, and Ezra was betting against a full house.

Vin put down his spy-glass, crawling back from the bluff down to the others. The tracks went over the bluff and down to the homestead. Except for three horses that went off in the direction Chris was heading. Two of the sets of tracks were those that they had originally trailed out of Four Corners. Vin had no doubts as to what those three men were going that way for. His anger was cold, and it flashed through his blue eyes with a vengeance. He slid the last few feet down and stood, brushing the dirt from his clothes. His eyes swept the the other four men as he spoke.

"House down there. Barn, corral, house. Doesn't look like anybody's been there for quite a while now. Tracks head straight for it. I spotted three men making a patrol of the house, with five more down at the corral. There was also some movement from one of the windows, but I don't know how many are in there. Didn't see Ezra anywheres." The others mounted up and turned to Vin when he didn't.

"They're gonna see us coming, no matter where we come from. We need a plan. And," Vin swung his eyes to Buck, his gaze holding the man steady, "Three of 'em rode off to where Chris was headed. The two we tracked a third." Buck swore and stared hard at the ground in front of his horse.

His heart was torn in two different directions by the same motivation. Ezra was hurt, bleeding, and surrounded by almost nine men. And yet, Chris was facing three ambushers, alone. His friendship for the two waged a war inside him, trying to make him choose. Chris' words came back to him. He knew that Chris would rather see Ezra safely back than killed because he had needed help. He sighed heavily and turned his thoughts back to the men who were waiting for the desicion they knew he was making.

"Alright," he said, "How's this for a plan...."

Chris Larabee was ready to kill someone. The only problem was, if he had his choice, it would be himself. The sweat was dripping from his face and running cruelly over his open wounds. When he had woke up, his hands had been tied tightly together, a rope running from them to the saddle horn of a horse a few feet away. Waters had sat there, smiling with evil pleasure as he watched the bleeding gunman shiver with pain.

"Well, well...the infamous Mr. Chris Larabee. So nice to see you again." Chris hadn't had the energy to argue with a milk-sot kitten and had lain still on the ground, assessing his body's reserves. The wound on his arm was but a scratch, the bullet having passed clean through the meat of it. His hip was another problem entirely. The bullet was still inside him, but from what Chris could tell, was not too far under the skin. If he'd had his hands free, one quick slice of a knife over the top of it would have fixed the problem.

With a sense of dread, Chris concentrated on his shoulder. He only felt the firey pain on the front side of his body. That told the blonde all he needed to know. The bullet was deep in the flesh, possibly having lodged in the bone. Closing his eyes, Chris replayed the events in his mind. Wait...there had been a last shot at the end. He quickly checked the rest of his body, but could find no additional injuries. Where had that last shot gone? Chris turned his head at the sound of two more horses approaching.

"Nobody else was around, James. He came alone." Waters nodded at Kirk and then his smile grew wider.

"Good. Now, I believe it's time we set off for a little reunion, don't you. It's a shame your horse ran off without you, Larabee. I guess you'll just have to walk." As they had started out, Chris had noticed where he had lain on the ground, indicated by the large spots of blood on the ground. About three inches from where his head would have been, a deep bullet furrow gouged into the Earth. Whether the shot had been missed on purpose, or because of a last minute interference, Chris wasn't certain. But, at least he was alive, and damn happy to be so.

Now, Chris was aching for them to shoot him, but did his best not to let that be known. He would not give Waters the satisfaction of breaking his reserve. Every step sent white agony up from his hip to join with that seeping down from his shoulder. Even though the bullet in his hip was not in a deadly position, it was far enough under the skin to grate against his hip bone every time his leg moved. Chris marched on as best he could, limping painfully and trying to keep up the pace so that Waters would not jerk him with the rope again.

His mind fought against the blurring effects of the blood loss and pain. He had collapsed under the weight of the sensations once, unable to keep walking. Waters had only looked back and then kicked his horse into a jog, dragging the gunslinger's body roughly over the rocks for about ten yards before slowling to a walk again. Chris had valiantly pulled himself up again, staggering as a new spot of pain came to his senses. Raising his bound hands, Chris rubbed them against his forehead, hissing as they came in contact with yet more of his blood as it ran from his body. After that, Chris had done whatever it took to keep from being dragged through the rocks again.

Suddenly, a loud explosion was heard from in front of them and a plume of smoke rose from over the next hill. The horses threatened to bolt, and the riders fought against them. Chris dodged about as best he could in his weakened state, praying that the horse he was tied to would not run off.

Waters finally got the animal under control about the same time that Kirk and Johnny did, pulling sharply on the rope Larabee was tied with. Chris cried out, no longer caring if Waters saw his pain.

"What the hell?" Waters muttered as the three dismounted, pulling Chris' rapidly weakening form up to the ridge.

Ezra had waited until the three sentries had resumed their walk around the building, making sure they were out of sight before pushing upwards on the window. The wooden frame creaked loudly in protest, and the gambler froze, expecting the three men to come running up and cut him in half with their bullets.

After almost a full minute had passed, Ezra released the breath he hadn't realized he was holding, and looked at his work. The window was open almost a foot, maybe a little more. His green eyes carefully gaged the width and then he ran his hands over his chest, stomach and hips, wincing as his fingers grazed his many wounds. He could fit, but just barely, and it was going to hurt, alot. Looking around the room, Ezra spotted the remains of a rung-back chair. Picking up what used to be a small, pipe-like rung, the gambler placed it between his teeth to help fight off the cries of pain.

Carefully putting his head and shoulders under the window, Ezra did a quick last check to see if the men had returned. When he found the coast clear, he squeezed through until his stomach was holding his weight on the window sill. Ezra stopped for a moment to gather his strength. His ribs and head were about to bust with throbbing pain. Silently, Ezra thanked anyone who would listen for his small frame as he pulled himself outside completely.

Working his way slowly around the house, Ezra paused to sneak a look around a corner. By chance, he had gone in the direction of the small explosives room. Ezra blew a kiss upwards to Lady Luck as he saw that a door was on the outside of it. Then, he almost took the gesture back as a tall, solid man with a black mustache appeared beside it, his rifle held casually in the crook of his arm. Ezra leaned back against the house, his tired mind and body rebelling against the idea of taking the brute down by force. He needed a distraction, but the items he planned to use for a distraction were, at the moment, behind the cause for his need of them.

Suddenly, Ezra ducked as the echoing sound of shots were heard, along with loud yells and shouts. Forgetting about the room, Ezra cautiously made his way as fast as he could back towards the front of the house where the sounds were growing closer. As he peered around the corner, his green eyes grew wide and bright with disbelief.

Nathan was running down the hill, his eyes wide with fear as his legs pumped faster and faster. Directly behind him came four men on horseback, firing at his feet and the dirt around the fleeing man. Ezra immediately recognized Buck's horse, as well as the unconscious way the four men rode, in a line, side by side. Ezra smiled with relief, and then noticed the brutish guard from the explosives room had also come to see what the ruckus was about. With a twinkle in his eye, the gambler quickly made his way back to the room, and slipped in the door. Rubbing his hands together with pleasure at his findings, Ezra picked up two sticks of dynamite and shoved them into a pocket of his worn pants.

"So much for subtlety," he whispered to himself as he wrapped his hand around the stock of an old Sharps. Checking to make sure of the load in it, Ezra stepped outside and ran barrel first into a sudden need for another distraction.

Vin carefully peppered the ground around Nathan's fleeing form, concentrating on watching to see when the healer would move. He saw the men gathering at the front of the house as Nathan neared it. Their was eight that came from outside the house, and Vin watched two more come out the front door. /Ten,/ his brain counted. Scanning the crowd and buildings with his sharp blue eyes, Vin didn't see any sign of Ezra.

As they got closer, Nathan slowly started to veer away from the house. Vin planted a shot right in front of him, causing the healer to fall backwards. Rising in his stirrups, the tracker shouted to the men at the house.

"Catch that darkie!! Don't let the son of a bitch get away!" Several men ran forward, holding Nathan to the ground while the others rode up. Vin swung down off his horse and strode over to the group, yanking Nathan up forcefully. "You know, boy," he sneered, forcing the black man back towards the group, "I was just gonna shoot you, but no, you had to run. Now, you're gonna hang!"

"What seems to be the problem here?" a voice cut through. Vin turned to see the men part for another to come up front. He looked to be around his late twenties, with dark brown eyes that seemed to hold an evilness in them. He casually hooked his thumbs into his gunbelt and walked towards them.

"We heard this darkie doctor was actually trying to set up a practice in Four Corners. Me and the boys don't think that's quite right, so we came down and decided to settle the matter. Only the little bastard up and ran off. But, them trees look mighty inviting. You fellas mind if we just put an end to this foolishness right here?"

Vin forced Nathan's hands up, placing them behind his head and in closer reach to the knives on his back. He scanned the crowd once more and watched a mountain of a man with a dark black mustache light a cigarette and then turn back to go around the house again. The other men all voiced their agreement with Vin's idea, calling out the name of the man in charge. Matt looked around and then nodded his assent.

The tracker and the others whooped in excitement as they led the way over to the trees, Matt's men following closely. Stopping under a low hanging branch, the five gunmen turned to face their enemies, playing up their parts to the hilt. Vin reached over his saddle as if to retrieve his rope. Instead, his hand came up filled with his new rifle. The others, who had never put their guns away after "chasing" Nathan down to the homestead, trained them on the crowd. A sickening realization came over the outlaws that soon turned to rage at being tricked.

"We want Standish," Vin said, no longer wasting time on words to play a part. Matt shook with anger. He spat on the ground, a sardonic smile covering his face.

"Why don't I show you his body, and *then* you can decide if you still want him." Vin's eyes snapped with anger, but concern also fought its way through. Before he could reply, however, Buck's voice, cold with fury cut through the air, shattering the confidence of the man before them.

"For your sake, I sure hope your lying. 'Cause if you're not, you're gonna wish that the only thing I did was kill you."

"Go to hell!" Matt yelled, drawing his gun with lighting speed as he pulled the man beside him in front as cover, pushing the body away as it took a bullet from Buck's rifle. Swearing, the five comrades made for cover in the trees, firing to put their enemies down if they could. The others, realizing that their only cover was behind them at the house, took off running, stopping to turn and fire every so often. Five of them reached the house, while three more lay on the ground clutching at bleeding knees and shoulders.

Vin and the others crouched low as the men returned fire with a vengeance from their new cover. A soft cry was heard off to his left, and Vin turned to see Buck pulling JD down against the ground, grasping at his now limp arm. Nathan carefully and quickly made his way over, nodding to Vin that the boy would be okay. Vin cringed as another shot struck the wood beside his head, sending splinters over his body.

They had taken out three of them, four if you count Matt's now dead human shield. They were no closer to Ezra and were now short one more gun. Vin swore softly to himself before turning to defend himself.

And was promptly thrown ten feet back as the house before them blew sky high.

Ezra stood very still, his finger poised over the trigger as he stared at a thickly muscled chest. Raising his eyes, the gambler once again saw the face of the man who had been guarding the door.

A cigarette hung limply from his lips as he stared at the smaller man in shock. But slowly, that shock was replaced by a malicious grin. The guard, Jake was what he went by this time, hadn't expected the little man to be conscious after earlier, much less walking. Then, Jake noticed the slight flush of fever on Ezra's face. He chuckled as the gambler pressed the barrel of his gun deeper into his middle.

"Go ahead, little man. Pull the trigger. Ol' Jake may go down, but everyone else will hear that shot." Ezra hesitated, knowing that the statement was not a threat, but a fact. He licked his cracked lips, wondering why they were suddenly so dry. His vision was blurring around the edges, and he shook his head to clear it. Ezra took a step back, keeping the old Sharps trained on the guard's middle, and leaned heavily against the wall.

Jake just smiled wider as he watched the smaller man's body shut down. To tell the truth, he was quite impressed with the determination of the one before him. Jake had personally taken a hand in Ezra's earlier beating, making sure he drew three more dark bruises from the gambler's ribs before turning him over to the next in line. To see Ezra standing, hell, to see him coherent was more than Jake had thought possible.

Ezra was finding it harder and harder to focus on the mountainous form before him. He heard Jake chuckle, and fury as well as fever made his body shake. He had come this far only to pass out in the arms of his captors? Ezra blinked rapidly, his eyes moistening at the thought of failing his friends.

Suddenly, all hell broke loose from the front of the house. It seemed as if all the guns in the world had gone off at once, the noise setting off a frantic hammering in Ezra's brain. Jake whipped his head around in that direction and then turned back to the gambler with a sickening realization. Ezra allowed himself a small smile as he pressed the gun deeper into the other man and pulled the trigger. The close proximity of the barrel and the body muffled the loud roar as Jake fell back, his stomach almost completely gone.

Ezra felt himself shoved back by the kick of the Sharps, and then fell to his knees, clutching his stomach to keep from retching at the site before him. Forcing himself up off the ground, Ezra staggered away from the grisly scene, moving towards the end of the house. Peering around the edge of the corner, Ezra watched as his friends were held down by the thunderous rain of bullets coming from the house.

The gambler did a quick count, noting that his five comrades were all in the trees, while the other desperados had made their cover in the house. He knew he didn't have much time as they would surely try and use him to keep his friends from firing. Once they found him gone....

Hoping the trees would give the others enough protection, Ezra ran back to Jake's oozing corpse, pushing his disgust aside as he searched the ground beside it. Finally, the gambler found the object of his search, reaching down beside the gaping mouth of the dead man to pull the still burning cigarette from the ground. Picking it up, Ezra turned and looked inside the explosives room. Taking Jake's rifle with him, Ezra walked inside and used it to break open the powder kegs and spread the powder and remaining dynamite around the room.

Ezra leaned against the outside wall once more, pulling what was left of his will power, strength and self discipline together for the run he was going to have to make to get away from the house. Taking the cigarette from his lips, Ezra stepped away from the wall, pulling out the two sticks of dynamite from his pocket. A surge of adrenalin shot through him as he touched the glowing tip to the fuses, watching the spark to life. Ezra threw one against the wall he had been leaning against, took five steps and threw the other one into the room itself.

Turning, the gambler ran for all he was worth, gasping as his lungs drug in breath after breath of air, his body throbbing with every step. Ezra spotted an old stock tank to his right and veered in that direction, smiling as he thought he would make the cover.

Ezra's body flew through the air as the dynamite finally exploded, sending the house and all within it in a million different directions. The gambler looked down into the tank as he dropped towards it, noticing thankfully that there was water in it. His thanks were quickly turned to curses, however, as there was only about an inch of liquid covering the bottom. Ezra grimaced as he fell, bracing himself.

The small man landed on his right side, crying out as his shoulder gave off a sickening pop before sending up a flare of agony to every nerve throughout his body. Ezra gratefully welcomed the painless darkness as it washed over him, his body lying in a crumpled, smoking heap against the edge of the tank.

Nathan, Buck, and JD had all been huddled behind the tree as Nathan worked on JD's arm. When the explosion came, they had been knocked to the ground, but not thrown. Nathan quickly took in the destroyed house and then looked over to check on Vin and Josiah. The preacher had been in the same position as they were, so Josiah merely had to pick himself up off the ground, putting his hands to his ears to quiet the ringing there. That left Vin. Nathan looked to where the man had last been, but instead, had to look backwards to where the tracker lay stretched out along the ground.

Moving quickly, knowing the others would keep watch for anyone left alive to shoot, Nathan moved back to where the other man lay. The healer was quick to notice that Vin's eyes were open and he seemed alert, but the man was not moving. Fighting back the quiet and scary possibility of why that might be, Nathan began checking Vin over, looking at his eyes for a concussion and running his hands over Vin's body, checking for broken bones. The tracker made no response other than to watch Nathan as he moved. Finally, he tried to speak.

"Nothing...wrong....Nathan. Ju-just had the...wind knocked...ou-outta me," he managed to squeeze out. The healer breathed a sigh of relief as Vin's lungs filled back up and the tracker struggled to a sitting position. Josiah backed over, keeping his eyes focused on where their enemies had just been. Leaning down, the giant man hoisted his arm around Vin and helped him up. The three men made their way over to Buck and JD, all happy to see that the youngest member of them was sitting up with his gun in his good hand.

"Now what the hell was that?" Buck asked, nodding his head towards the remains of the house. Vin straightened up and walked towards the smoldering ruins. Josiah and Nathan followed. Buck helped JD up as they went after the others. "I guess we'll find out."

The five men carefully sifted through the ashes and rubble, counting as they located each of the men that had been firing at them. Vin came upon one that wasn't too badly burned, and recognized Matt's face. There were a total of nine bodies, the three that had been wounded between the house and the trees included, killed by the falling debris. No sign of Ezra was found, and for that, for once, the men were grateful. But, that left them one short. Vin immediately swung his eyes around, trying to locate the missing man.

Nathan turned to see JD standing away from the group, his face ashen. The healer called out to Buck. "Why don't you and JD see if there's anything around back that might help us out a little." Vin called out his warning about the missing outlaw and the others dropped back into look-out mode.

The two men skirted what was standing of the walls of the house, coming around to the back and laying their eyes on what had to have been the blast point. A deep, gouging hole lay at the back of the house. Buck and JD both walked towards it, their eyes roaming the area around them. Feeling his foot catch at something, JD looked down and almost lost his stomach. The large man was charred and unrecognizable, but what tore at JD's insides the most was the fact that there was only *half* a man there.

Buck pulled the kid away from the remains, tripping over the other half as they backed away. "Well, I guess that takes care of our missing man," Buck choked out, keeping JD turned in the opposite direction.

Buck whipped around as JD gave out a cry of excitement, turning to follow the boy's gaze towards an old stock tank. His own eyes widened as his brain recognized what he saw. He gave a loud whoop and took off running towards it, not far behind JD as they both watched Ezra climb over the wall of the tank and sink to the ground beside it.

Ezra came back to wakefulness slowly, not wanting to come back to this land of pain he had been in for...how long was it? Could it have only been last night that he was taken? The gambler shifted and sat up. Or rather, he tried to sit up. Ezra moved his right arm to push himself up, but fell back on it as the pain took his breath away, causing his stomach to rumble with the sickening agony of it.

Once the flashes were gone from the edge of his vision, Ezra used his left arm to turn himself over and push up, leaning against the edge of the tank. He gingerly felt of his right shoulder, his fingers running softly over the unnatural shape of it. What had Nathan called it back at the village that first time.../Dislocated,/ his brain replied. At least it was a different shoulder than last time.

Using only his left arm, Ezra removed the smoking, blood soaked tatters of his once white shirt from his body, wrapping them around and tying them up in a sling which he carefully eased his right arm into. Deciding to save his strength for getting over the three foot wall of the tank, Ezra crawled to the opposite side, his body shaking with a vengeance. Panting for breath, Ezra got to his knees, using his left hand to wipe the blood from the newly-opened cut above his eye and sweat from his eyes.

A familiar voice came to him through his blanket of pain, and Ezra forced himself to raise his head and look out. Buck and JD were looking at the back of, or rather, what used to be the back of the house. Ezra tried to call out, but his throat constricted and refused to let anything come out besides a muffled croak. He watched as the two moved away from what was left of Jake, and saw JD turn towards him. Knowing he had to make his presence known, Ezra pushed himself up, trying to throw his leg over the side of the tank. It took him three tries, but the gambler finally managed to move himself out of the tank. He sank down to the ground as JD and Buck both ran towards him.

Buck reached Ezra's side only a few seconds after JD, both appalled at the amount of injuries apparent on the gambler's body. Reaching down to check his friend, Buck felt the raging heat that was beginning to come off Ezra's skin and knew they had to get him back, and fast. Gently, he gathered Ezra into his arms, noticing the pain in the green eyes as Ezra watched his every move.

"Go tell Nathan we got him. Tell him he's bad hurt!" Buck added to JD's back as the boy ran off to get the healer. As gently as he could, Buck stood up, cradling Ezra's body to him. Ezra moved his left arm around Buck's shoulders to try and help hold some of his wait up, but doing so only pulled on his battered rib cage. A small groan escaped his lips as his eyes fluttered against the coming darkness.

"Sorry, Ezra," Buck whispered, thinking he had caused the gambler more pain. Ezra leaned weakly against the strength of his friend, allowing himself to slip into the darkness once more.

Waters and the others stared in disbelief at the smoldering remains of their base of operations. Watching, they saw three men pulling body after body out of the wreckage to lay them down in the dirt. Waters looked back at Larabee with renewed hatred, reaching to grab the wounded gunslingers neck and pulling him up to where he could see. A snatch of a smile crossed Chris' face as he recognized Josiah's big form.

"They belong to you, Larabee?" Waters hissed, squeezing harder on the man's neck as Chris just looked at him, the smile on his face easily recognizable this time. Chris' eyes slid closed as he fought for breath, finding himself thrown to the ground as Waters vented his anger. Walking back to the horses, Waters grabbed his rifle, as well as Larabee's guns. The others followed suit, and soon, the four men were making their way up behind the others.

Vin did not care for his current job of pulling the bodies out away from the ruins, but they had to make sure that Ezra was not amongst the rubble. He and Josiah were moving the last one out to lay in a line while Nathan checked to make sure they were all dead. Vin looked up, wiping his brow with the back of his hand, as JD came skidding up to them, Buck not far behind.

"Nathan! Guys, we found Ezra!" The others left off their tasks and came to stand beside the boy as he bent to catch his breath. Nathan went and retrieved his medical bags, waiting for JD to either point him in the right direction or Buck to come on through. JD threw his thumb behind him.

"Buck's bringing him," he said, just as the man himself stepped through, Ezra's limp form seeming small against the bigger man's chest.

"He's hurt pretty bad, Nathan," Buck said before all of them froze. Ezra looked up as the voice that had began it all hit his ears, followed by that same deadly sound as the hammer of a gun was pulled back.

"That's the best news I've had all day."

"Good Lord," Ezra groaned, staring at Waters as he placed the cocked gun against Chris' head.

Buck almost dropped his friend at the site that greeted him. Chris was barely able to stand, most of his weight being held up by Waters' iron grip on his upper arm. Dried blood from a gash on his forehead covered most of his pale face, and Buck could see the sweat that poured from the gunslinger's body making it red liquid again. His usually black clothes were blacker still and stiff with the dried blood from several bullet wounds. Buck unconsciously tightened his grip on the gambler in his arms, causing the smaller man to groan in pain.

Nathan's eyes had been busy as well, flicking back and forth between Ezra and Chris. The latter began to shiver and Nathan gritted his teeth as Waters shook the man to make him hold still, only making the motions of the wounded gunman worse.

"Drop the guns or I drop your friend," Waters hissed, keeping his gun to Chris' head as he knocked the other man to his knees, grinning at the hiss of pain that passed Chris' lips. The others looked at each other undecidedly. Waters sighed dramatically and motioned to one of the men that stood with him.

"Johnny, bring that Arkansas Toothpick of yours over here. Appears we need a little demonstration." Johnny moved over, reaching to pull a long knife from his boot. Between the two of them, they pulled Chris to his feet. Johnny ripped open the gunman's shirt, reaching up to slap Chris' face when he jerked away from the rough handling. Making sure the blonde could see the blade as it descended to his body, Johnny smiled, making a quick, shallow slice across Larabee's stomach.

Chris jerked back, trying to free himself from the pain these men seemed determined to inflict on him. Johnny stepped to the side, grasping his other arm just above the bullet hole there, causing Chris to release the cry of pain that had been building up inside him. The other men flinched as they heard their leader, their cold anger consuming them.

"Now, I don't believe Mr. Larabee would enjoy it if you refused to do as I say. Drop the guns!" Vin threw his rifle down first, followed by his belt and holster. The rest of the men followed suit, except for Buck who still held Ezra in his arms. Waters motioned and JD walked over, carefully relieving Buck of his guns. The other man rode out to look at the line or corpses, stopping at one and blanching before turning back to Waters.

"James," he started, his face neutral as he knew his boss would explode. "This one's Matt. He's dead." Waters, nodding to Johnny as the man tightened his grip and shoved the knife against Larabee's throat, moved slowly towards the body that Kirk indicated. Matt's body was burned and twisted, the face frozen in death, the eyes that were an exact echo of his own, closed forever. Waters turned to face his prisoners, those eyes burning with crazed rage.

"Which one of you bastards did this?! Which one of you killed my son?!!"

"The pleasure...was all..mine," Ezra whispered out, the sound like a shout in the tension heavy air. Waters pushed his way to the wounded man, dragging him out of Buck's grasp and throwing him to the ground. Buck desperately wanted to go to his friend but a flash in the corner of his eye held him still as Johnny pressed the knife into the tender skin of Chris' neck a little harder.

Waters walked up to Ezra's inert form, drew his foot back and kicked him hard in the ribs. Ezra's cry of pain was weak as his body began to shut down.

"Leave him alone!" Chris' shout caused Waters to whip his head around. Pulling out his gun, Waters leveled it at Ezra and nodded to Johnny. The other man released his hold and, without his captor's support, Chris weaved and fell to his knees. He stood carefully and surprised Waters by walking towards him. Waters moved his gun to cover Larabee, stopping the gunman in his tracks.

"You keep on coming and I'll fill you so full of lead you'll sink," Waters warned the bloody figure in black. Chris just grinned, his blue eyes burning with the icy fire of anger.

"You touch him again and there aren't enough bullets in the world to stop me from killing you." Chris' soft statement carried more power behind it than the loudest shout. Waters blanched, indecision covering his face for a moment before a confident smile took it's place.

"In that case," he said, going over to Kirk and reaching in his saddle bags to pull out Ezra's gun, and pulling Chris' own pistol from his belt, he emptied both of them but for one bullet. "I'll let you do it."

Chris blinked, confusion written across his face as Waters hoisted Ezra off the ground, calling Johnny over to help him. Kirk kept his rifle trained on the other five prisoners, herding them into a group by the line of corpses. They had to fight hard against the need to go help their friends, Josiah going so far as to physically restrain Buck and Vin with his large arms.

Waters and Johnny put Chris and Ezra back to back, leaning them against each other. Johnny then backed away to stand about ten feet in front of Chris.

"Here is the deal, gentleman. A duel." A smile covered Waters face and Chris had no doubts that the man had been pushed beyond the edge of sanity. "You each have one bullet. You will take the customary ten paces, turn and fire. Now, before you get any noble ideas of throwing down your guns for your friend's life, let me explain the stakes. With your bullet, Mr. Larabee, you have the opportunity of saving your friend from an agonizing death for killing my son. Plus, I will release two men of your choice from your friends to go free."

Waters watched with pleasure as Chris listened, his pale face going even whiter as his mind took in his words. He had heard alot about Larabee during his search for him, and one thing that always seemed prominent was his desire to protect his friends. Waters knew that Chris would do whatever he could to keep his friends from pain, but the weight of death and the choice of which of his friends survived would burden down his conscious and slowly drive the man insane. Waters turned to Ezra.

"And you, Mr. Standish. Your decision will save Larabee from having to live with the fact that he killed you, as well as three of his other friends. Plus, I will promise you that these other men will have a quick, and merciful death. Of course, yours will not be that easy. The choice is yours, gentlemen. On my count." Waters turned and walked away, leaving the two men to support each other and to wrestle with their choices. Kirk turned his horse so that he was facing Ezra, a little off of his left. Waters moved out to stand to the side and then smiled.

"One." he called out and watched as the two men moved hesitantly forward. Chris stared at the ground, his eyes cloudy with thought as he fought against the feverish pains to come up with a plan. He knew he would kill Ezra before allowing Waters to get hold of him again. And, knowing Waters, Chris himself would not live long enough for the guilt to hang over his head. A small smile tugged at his lips. /After all,/he thought, /Waters didn't say I could go with the two I chose./ The smile fell from his face at that. Choose only two? How did you choose two men to survive out of five that had risked all they had, even their own lives, for you time and time again? Choose only two out of five of the best men you had ever known in your entire life? Chris screwed his eyes shut as tears of anger and frustration threatened to consume him.

"Two." Waters voice called out again, jerking Chris and Ezra forward once more. The smaller man did his best to stand upright, not wanting to fall and set off a chain of events that could get them all killed. Could he, Ezra, do what was asked? Could he kill the Chris? The gambler had been honored that Chris had trusted him with joining the small group of men. They were all honorable, but Chris was solid in a way that provided Ezra with the strength he needed to break away from his old life of cons. Buck had told him once, after receiving a solemn oath to never breathe a word of it to anyone, about Chris' family. The gambler had known bits and pieces ever since their hunt for Fowler, but what Buck had given him went beyond simple grief. Chris had almost gone insane with their deaths, and Ezra knew what would happen if Chris killed him now. Ezra drew a deep breath to steady his nerves as he fought to decide what was the right thing to do.

"Three." The call rang out clear, causing JD to jump in his boots. His arm from where he had been shot earlier was throbbing fiercely, but the young man ignored it, his mind and body tense with the deadly situation unfolding before him. Mentally, he berated himself for rushing back to the others without scouting the area first. The 'if-onlys' ran through his head at a rate faster than he could keep up with. Finally, with a small shake of his head, JD stopped the flow altogether and instead turned his mind towards figuring a way out. The others had finally accepted him on equal terms into their group, and now he would prove their trust by taking his mistakes and moving on.

"Four." Josiah vaguely heard the voice as he continued to mumble his prayers, sending them out to every God he'd ever heard of or studied. His eyes were fixed on the two bleeding figures as they staggered away from each other a step at a time. He tightened his hold on the two men beside him, knowing that their fury could very well get them killed. He closed his pale blue eyes and put everything he had into his prayers.

"Five." Nathan clenched his fists by his side, his right arm dipping into the medical bag that hung there. Kirk had even removed his knives, leaving the healer with a feeling of naked helplessness. His watchful eyes had taken in every detail of injury to the two men and knew that any more physical or emotional strain would break them in half. Nathan released, and then re-clenched his fists, wincing as he felt a biting pain in his right hand. Carefully, he pulled it out, noticing the blood that dripped from his hand and the blade of the scalpel. Nathan looked from the instrument to their captors. It was used for saving lives, but now, it might just help to take one as well.

"Six." Buck ground his teeth in anger, his usual jovial face contorted with rage at the situation he found himself in. He had known Chris for over twelve years, and despite the many times they had locked horns over one thing or another, the love for his friend had always rung true in his heart. He would never desert this man, not for anything. Ever since Sarah and Adam's deaths, Buck had felt a keen responsibility and need to bring the gunman back to the man he had once been. His thoughts shifted to Ezra. Buck hadn't much cared for him after their first encounter, but that had gradually changed after time. Buck enjoyed the easy going manner of Ezra's nature. Now, as he was forced to see them both beaten down to mere shells of themselves, it was all the man could do to keep from ripping out his enemies throats. Buck knew that, whoever came out on top, he would lose two friends that day.

"Seven." Vin was jerked out of state of semi-shock by Waters' voice. /Seven,/ he thought. /Seven men, seven friends, seven brothers./He had not even taken the time to berate himself for allowing Waters to come so close and take control. Instead, his mind had been focused on the bodies of Chris and Ezra, his usually well hidden temper surging to the front as he took in their condition. Vin had felt a connection to the two ever since he had first met them. Chris, his figure so solemn and imposing that day in the street, and yet, Vin had immediately known he could trust this man with his life. And Ezra. Vin had sensed the man's character after their first meeting in the saloon. He had wanted the smaller man to join them, only knowing that he had found a connection, just as he had in Chris. That had been the main reason for his offer of Ezra "needing to get out of town anyways." Ezra's agreement had started a quiet game of verbal jabs and jokes between the two, and yet, the southerner had never topped Vin's ruse to get them into Wickes' place. Vin was thankful for, and at the same time, resentful of Josiah's restraining arm which held him back from rushing to the two most important people in his life as the count neared it's end.

"Eight." Kirk sat his horse easily, his rifle pointed at the group of men as his eyes watched the two duelers. He enjoyed the mental torment he knew each of them had to be going through. Kirk didn't believe for an instant that Waters' would actually allow any of the men to leave this place alive, especially after losing his son. He watched as Larabee stumbled a bit, his free hand reaching over to his hip. The move had dropped him out of line a little with Ezra and Johnny, but Kirk thought nothing of it.

"Nine." Johnny watched with satisfaction as Larabee had trouble keeping himself upright. He had desperately wanted to kill him back on the flat, but Waters' warning shout had made him adjust his aim at the last moment, hitting the ground by his head instead. Johnny hadn't been to thrilled with keeping the gunman alive, but now, watching the others squirm in their helplessness, he decided that this game was quite fun.

"Ten." Waters watched as his two pawns took the last step, but did not turn. He nodded to Kirk, who raised his rifle at the group. Silently, he hoped Larabee would win. He wanted to let the man pick his two, watch the faces of the unlucky three as they were killed, and then feel the joy as the hope of the chosen ones was dashed under a bullet, taking Larabee's sanity with it. He waited for them to turn and fire, watching their chests rise and fall with labored breathing.

"FIRE!" he shouted, jerking his own gun out and aiming at the group as well. Both men turned, bringing their guns to bear. Waters' watched as their eyes met, exchanging volumes without speaking a single word.

"I said FI," Waters began to scream again, only to be cut off as the two men reached a decision and pulled their triggers.

Everyone held their breaths as the count of ten was reached and Waters yelled at the two friends to fire. Chris and Ezra locked eyes as they faced one another, sending out messages that no one else could understand. Coming to the same decision, they shifted their guns slightly away from center.

Waters waited to see which one would fall as the echoes of the shots faded away. To his surprised, both of them wobbled unsteadily, the pistols falling from their fingertips. But, neither of them went down. Instead, Kirk fell from his horse, the bullet from Chris' gun having pierced his heart. Johnny fell to the ground behind Chris, clutching at his stomach.

Breaking free of the shock that held them for a few seconds, Vin yanked the rifle from Kirk's hands as the others dove for the pile of guns on the ground. Waters stood, unable to believe the turn of events that had just occurred. Vin trained the rifle on him as he watched Chris and Ezra stagger back to the point from which they had began their walk.

The others, having regained their weapons, began to move towards them, hurrying as they saw both men threaten to sink to the ground. Upon meeting the other, Chris simply stuck his hand out in front of him.

"Ezra," he said, wincing as it pulled on the many tears in his body. Ezra did the same, reaching out to grasp it with his left hand.

"Chris," he replied, the gunman smiling slightly at the use of his first name. Ezra returned the smile as best he could. Using each other for support, the two men turned towards the others as they hurried over. The gunman heard a shout just as he caught a spot of movement out of the corner of his weary eyes. Ezra tried to ask what was wrong, but the only thing to escape his lips was a gasp of pain as Chris roughly pushed him down, turning his own body full to cover him just as the shot exploded. The blonde felt the bullet's heat enter his body low and on his right side.

Ezra did his best to catch Chris as the gunman fell against him, his eyes widening at the grisly sight before him. Johnny was on his knees, one hand clutching his stomach, dark and wet with his blood, while the other held his smoking pistol. A flash of something bright and shiny crossed Ezra's vision, and he watched as Johnny dropped the gun to grab at his neck, falling to the ground.

Nathan walked over, checking to make sure the man was dead before pulling the scalpel that he had thrown out of the body. By taking a life, the instrument had saved at least two more. Two more lives that would not be wasted on evil, but would have the chance to stop its reign. Nathan felt no remorse as he left the corpse behind.

Ezra sank to his knees, Chris already in that position, leaning heavily against the gambler's weak body. Ezra supported his friend as best he could, ignoring the shivering from both the body he held as well as his own.

Waters watched as Johnny took Larabee down, getting some of his satisfaction back. But, that southerner still lived, and he had killed his son. Watching the others, Waters noticed that they were paying him no mind. He hadn't noticed Vin with the rifle in his deadly hands. Quickly, Waters shucked his gun and brought it up. Pulling the trigger, he heard the shot go off, followed closely by a second. The outlaw didn't even see if his bullet had hit his target, dead before he hit the ground, Vin's bullet of vengeance lodged inside his brain.

Ezra had seen Waters raise his gun and knew that Chris' body was in the direct path of the shot. The gambler released his friend, allowing him to slip further as he heard two shots fired in rapid succession. Ezra fell back, a flare of agonizing pain coming from his right shoulder as the bullet pierced it, making the dislocated joint jerk with its force. Landing hard on the ground, Ezra felt Chris' weight on top of him and brought his good hand up to rest on his head as the blonde struggled to keep breathing.

The other members of the Seven watched in horror as Ezra fell back, looking immediately to where the shot had come from only to see Waters' body on the ground, and Vin's form walking towards them, the smoking rifle in his hand a testament as to whether or not the man who had started all this still lived. Josiah made the sign of a small cross for the man's black soul, mumbling to himself as he turned towards his injured friends, "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down."

Nathan reached the two friends first, stopping for a moment at the scene before him. Both men were bleeding heavily, the combined flows pooling on each other and the ground below them. Chris lay with his head on Ezra's middle, and Ezra's hand covered the already bloody forehead of the gunman. A snippet of verse ran through his head, "...and bloody brothers, side by side...."

Shaking off the chills he felt, Nathan gently pulled the men apart, cursing silently that the house had been destroyed. Looking over, the healer saw that the barn was still in fair condition and decided that was his best, if only, option. Motioning for Buck and Josiah to take Chris, he grabbed Ezra's top while Vin took his legs.

"Let's get 'em into the barn. Quick now!" The others followed at a rapid rate, not giving the dead outlaws a second glance or thought as they followed their friends. Followed to see if they would return to town as a group, a family...or as the sad procession for the lives of two men gone from their hearts.

Mary left the clinic quietly, balancing the tray of barely touched meals on one hand as she softly closed the door. Her heart was threatening to rip right down the middle. The men had hardly set foot outside the room since their return to Four Corners three days ago, and the whole town was feeling their tension.

Ever since that first day when they had ridden out, Mary and the others had been forced to sit by and wait for news of their protectors. When Chris' horse had come in, lathered with sweat and splattered with blood, it had taken all of Mary's faith to keep hoping the gunman was still alive. Then, the next morning, a great rush had gone through the town as the Seven returned. Or rather, they came back, cradling their two wounded in the back of a wagon found in the barn of where their confrontation had taken place.

Mary had been aghast at the injuries both Chris and Ezra had received. Neither man had moved during the entire process of moving them from the wagon into Nathan's clinic, only mumbling to themselves in their delirium. Since then, the two men had never been alone, Nathan and the others only leaving when necessary, and Mary and the townsfolk covering for them when they did go. The blonde woman sighed, sending out what seemed to be a continuation of an un-ending prayer that lifted from the hearts of all in the town.

Nathan struggled to stay awake in the chair as he watched his two friends, turned patients. The rising and falling of their chests was sometimes the only indication of the life that still existed in their bodies, their pale complexions nothing to judge by. Thankfully, their fevers had finally broken that morning, but they weren't out of the woods yet. For almost four days now, both men had been experiencing extreme shocks to their bodies, as well as their minds. Coupled with a fever for about the same length of time, and Nathan knew that their chances were slim.

It had taken over fifty stitches to sew Ezra's body back together. Hopefully, the wounds would leave either no scars, or only faint lines on his flesh when healed. Luckily, Waters' shot had gone straight through, hitting nothing vital in its violent path through Ezra's body. His shoulder had been put back in place and it was only a matter of waiting to see when the man would wake up.

The gambler had fought against them almost the whole trip back, trying desperately to get out of the wagon. His mumbling had turned to violent shouts at times, ranging from "Let me go!" to quieter, more desperate tones of, "Chris...gotta get to Chris....Waters..three men...." The others had done their best to keep him still, but the only thing that seemed to work was placing the man as close as possible to Chris, allowing the green eyes to see for himself that the gunman was there. Ezra had quieted down into a rough slumber, but still, the easiest since his rescue as Nathan told him they were entering Four Corners. Now, after doing all he could in his little clinic, Nathan sat and watched, waiting to see if his work had been in time.

Chris, on the other hand, had been deathly still through the entire ordeal. He had not thrashed about as Ezra had, but his mumbling and delirium induced shouts were just as frequent. Buck had silently hid his tears as Chris mumbled about his lost wife and child. But what had plagued the men most were his cryptic remarks after speaking their names. "Ezra...not him too...I can't lose them too...."

The gash across Chris' middle had taken ten stitches all on it's own. Three for the cut on his forehead, and then the ones to stitch up the holes created by the bullets. Nathan didn't believe any damage had been caused to the gunman's hip or joint from the bullet, and had removed it easily. He cleaned and bandaged the one on his arm before they started out. Not having the materials he needed, he had been forced to leave the bullets inside the blonde's body until they reached Four Corners.

Once there, Josiah and Buck had laid him out on a table, belly down. Nathan had worked for almost two hours before finally finding the jagged metal deep inside the body from Johnny's last shot. It didn't appear to have hit anything vital and for that Nathan had been grateful. The one in his shoulder was found just a hair above the bone. The healer quickly removed it and then bandaged the gunman completely, laying him back in a bed across from Ezra.

Nathan looked around the room, tearing his eyes from the inert forms. He didn't have to look far to find Buck. Or Vin, for that matter. Both had come to a silent agreement, taking their seats on the floor, against the wall that separated the two friends. They had hardly moved since their return and Nathan was hard pressed to remember the last time he had seen Vin stay inside so long. JD perched on the window-sill, his arm carefully, yet grudgingly, held in the sling Nathan had fashioned for him on their return. That left Josiah.

Nathan turned his eyes to a corner of the room, watching Josiah as the man kept his head bent in prayer. He too had hardly moved from that position ever since the two men were laid in their beds. A soft motion shook the giant frame, and Nathan realized that the ex-preacher was not praying, but had finally drifted off to sleep. The healer felt a small smile cross his face as he walked over, gently laying the man back against the wall before covering him with a blanket. Returning to his seat, Nathan watched each of the others lose their battle against sleep as it caught their weary bodies in its claws. Each time, Nathan would prop them up, taking care of his family.

After placing the final blanket over Vin's form as it leaned against Buck, Nathan moved quietly to check on the other two. With the fevers gone, they had finally slipped into an easy sleep. Nathan checked their bandages before returning to his chair, feeling the master of sleep calling his name as well. He closed his eyes, /just to rest them for a moment,/ he thought, feeling the tension ease from his shoulders as his breathing evened out.

The Seven were back in Four Corners, their family once again complete. And Nathan knew that the other men beside him would not let these two members be taken away with any amount of ease. Not even by Death himself.

Ezra woke with a start, but kept his eyes closed, unsure of his surroundings. His mind played out the last few coherent thoughts from his memory, his shoulder beginning to throb as he remembered the shot. Had Waters gotten Chris after that? Ezra's heart sped up in panic for a moment, but then calmed as he remembered more and more. Nathan's soothing voice, a hell-filled journey in the back of a wagon, the cool touch of Mary's hands on his face, the comforting grasp of hands and arms as he thrashed about in pain.

Feeling capable now, Ezra slowly opened his eyes, the green orbs rebelling against the sudden presence of light. It seemed like his whole body trembled, just on the edge of fiery pain. At least he wasn't shivering anymore. The shudders that had racked his body had been pure un-adulterated hell.

Not trusting himself to move without moaning at the pain of it, Ezra only turned his head, letting his eyes sweep the room. A sense of comfort fell over him as he locate the other men in the room, sleeping in several different places and positions. Finally, he found the one he searched for in the bed across from him.

Chris looked almost peaceful, his face relaxed with the sleep, taking away the years that pain had added to his features. He had never told them his age, but Ezra now took about seven years off his original guess. The gambler just gazed at the pale face that stuck out above the covers, both arms on top of the covers. Ezra almost couldn't make out where the bandages stopped and Chris started. It never once registered in his mind that he was wrapped up in the same fashion.

/Look what he went through because of me,/ the southerner thought, berating himself for things he had had no control over. He remembered those ice-blue eyes, torn with indecision as to what to do as he stared at Ezra over the barrel of his gun. With one flick of his eyes in Kirk's direction, Ezra had understood, moving to take his part. After saving his life there, Chris had pushed him down and away from Johnny's bullet.

Ezra couldn't quite figure out why Chris had done it, and wasn't entirely positive that he really wanted too. The others had come for him, just as his heart said they would, and for once, Ezra was willing, wanting to believe his heart and not his head. To just throw common sense out the window and believe in something on faith. Believe in the concept of love and friendship. The gambler was still watching Chris' sleeping form when the gunman began to stir.

Chris came-to slowly, his mind fuzzy, telling him that he had something important to do. One of the men....one of his friends... As his thinking cleared, Chris' eyes flew open, trying to orient himself with where he was. He recognized Nathan's clinic. They had all been inside it enough to know it by now. His whole body ached and he tried to remember all that had happened after pushing Ezra aside and taking the last bullet. Buck's arms around him, holding him as Nathan did his work, the frantic form of Ezra that quieted at his side, the cool hands on his brow as Mary's voice eased him into sleep.

Chris remembered little other than Ezra's thrashing about the trip back home. Except for his nightmares. Those stayed fresh in his mind. Those burning images that seared the half-healed scars on his heart, and then placed a soothing balm on the same wounds. They had begun like always, two distinct forms against a wall of flames. Chris called out for his family, reaching for them, but they always disappeared behind the fire.

But, instead of the dream ending there, six new shapes appeared. Each stood, facing him, waiting. But Chris didn't know what for. He knew those six forms, knew each one in his heart. They turned and looked at the fire, and Chris screamed out to them. He'd just lost Sarah and Adam to the curtain of fire, he couldn't lose them too. He called out to the man on the end, yelling Ezra's name, calling the others back. He couldn't lose them. Suddenly, the men turned and started to him, beginning to fill an empty and dark place in his heart.

Chris didn't know what to make of the dream, but knew that the warm feeling in his soul had carried over from the dream. He didn't want to question it. Just accept it as it was and go from there. Chris wanted to look around the room, but wasn't sure of the wiseness of that action. /At least I got control of my body again!/ the gunman thought, wincing at the remembered pain as his body had spasmed with the fever, the pain tearing through his muscles.

Finally, gritting his teeth against the stiffness, Chris moved his head and looked around, feeling a little of his stress leave him as he spotted the others. Feeling someone watching him, Chris turned to the bed across the room, his steely gaze meeting Ezra's straight on.

/Look what he went through because of me,/ the gunman thought, anger threatening to well up inside of him. Chris remembered the utter sense of loss he felt as he heard the second and third shots, feeling Ezra move him aside and take the bullet. He had lain his head on the gambler's stomach, feeling the ragged breathing there as Ezra placed his hand on Chris' head. Chris had tried to stay conscious to help his friend, but both had been drawn down.

Now, looking into the face of a very alive Ezra, Chris felt a strange mixture of guilt and completeness. Guilt for being the cause of Ezra's abduction in the first place, and completeness because now, once again, his family was together, a whole. Chris took a deep breath, hissing quietly as it pulled on his body, while Ezra flicked his tongue out along his lips, both preparing to speak.

"Ezra, I'm sorry," Chris began.

"Chris, I'm sorry," Ezra started. Both looked at each other and suppressed a chuckle, not wanting to wake the others or go through the pain the simple expression of happiness would cause them. Once again, their eyes spoke for them, offering, accepting, moving past apologies. Something new passed between them as well, and both men knew that they would never doubt the other ever again. They lay back down, watching the other until both fell back into the painless land of sleep, feeling the comfort of the others' presence as they sank deeper into oblivion.

Josiah smiled from where he was relaxed in the corner. He had woken with the feeling of someone else in the room and looked up to confirm it. In a way, he had been right. He had been overjoyed to see the two men awake. The big man had bit his lip to keep from laughing as the two apologized simultaneously, both realizing it was not needed. Then, as they fell asleep, both feeling the safety of offering their souls to one another in ultimate trust.

Looking around at the others, Josiah nodded at the understanding that had been found by Chris and Ezra. They had accepted it without question, just as they should have. The others, well, Josiah knew they would catch it in time. But now, even if they didn't realize it, they all lived by the one idea that would keep the Seven together, trusting each member of itself, as a family for eternity. For no greater love hath mortal man, than to give his life for a friend.

The End

John 15:13 -- "For no greater love hath mortal man, than he who gives his life for a friend."

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