The following story is a work of fanfiction, and is not intended to infringe on the copyright of CBS, MGM, Trilogy, or any other PTB. The characters, setting, and concept are not mine, but the story, such as it is, is mine. No money was made or expected to be made, and given that circumstance, suing would be totally pointless.

That being said, let me just add that there is no point to this story except hurt and some minor comfort. If you're expecting anything more, you'll be disappointed. I do appreciate feedback of any constructive type; just use the link at the bottom of the story. Rated PG-ish for minor language and violence

by Katie

It was a hard, desperate ride. Vin was trying to lead them on a winding course that would be difficult to follow, but he was hampered by the need to keep one eye on Ezra to make sure he stayed in the saddle. The gambler had long since slumped over his saddle horn, but he still clung to the back of his horse with a grim tenacity that Vin would have admired if he'd had time. Making the trail difficult for their pursuers wasn't doing Ezra any good, either, but neither would letting him get shot again, so Vin kept going and hoped the smaller man's stubbornness would be enough to pull him through.

He'd been trying to angle them toward Four Corners without being to obvious about it.  He didn't know if the men chasing them knew where they were from, but he didn't want them to circle around and get ahead. That meant taking a detour through the hill country--good, given the cover the trees that forested the area would give them, but not so good when he considered how the rocky terrain would affect Ezra's still-bleeding wound.

He spared Ezra another quick glance. If anything, the gambler looked worse.  His face, which had been pale when they'd started this nightmare ride, was a strange, pasty grey, and blood still dripped down the side of his horse. That was their biggest problem. There was no way they could lose their pursuers as long as the men following them had a blood trail to track. Vin's only hope was that they'd be able to stay ahead, but given Ezra's condition, that didn't look likely for much longer.

They almost passed it before he realized what he was seeing: a small cabin tucked back into the trees.  Abandoned, by the look of it, but with a well nearby. That was probably as good as it was going to get. Without the ability to lose the men following them or outrun them, the only other option was to find a place to hole up and, if necessary, fight. He slowed to let Ezra's horse catch up, then grabbed its reins and pulled both mounts to a halt.

"What . . .?" Ezra mumbled, trying to straighten. Vin dropped the reins and grabbed the gambler to keep him from tumbling off.

"Whoa, easy. We got a place to stop here. I'm gonna get you inside and go hide the horses, all right?"

"Whatever . . . you say . . ." Ezra's eyes were glassy and he clutched at his bloody coat front as if he was trying to hold himself together by sheer will.

Vin let go of him cautiously, keeping his hand hovering near until he was sure Ezra wasn't going to take a header off the back of the horse. "Just wait there and I'll help you off."

Ezra shot him an indignant look that would have been much more effective if he'd been able to focus. "I . . . assure you . . . sir . . . I am quite . . . capable . . ."

"Sure you are," Vin said soothingly, starting to swing his leg over the back of the horse. "But it won't hurt--damn it, Ezra!"

The smaller man had maneuvered himself out of the saddle, slid down to hit the ground and kept going, landing in a heap at his horse's feet. With another curse, Vin shoved the horses aside and knelt beside him, turning him carefully so that he could see how badly he was hurt. Ezra's eyes were closed, but they drifted slowly open as Vin slapped him lightly on the cheek.

"You are the stubbornest cuss I've ever seen," Vin said quietly. "Are you tryin' to make this worse?"

Ezra blinked at him. "I feel . . . decidedly odd, Mr. . . . Tanner. I fear . . . I have imbibed . . . too much."

"Somethin' like that." Vin pulled the gambler up enough to get his shoulder under the smaller man's arm and then stood, lifting him in one smooth, if apparently quite painful, movement. Ezra gasped, and Vin was afraid for a second that he was going to pass out, but somehow he got his feet underneath himself and even managed to take some of his own weight.

Knowing they didn't have much time left before their pursuers caught up to them, Vin hustled Ezra inside a lot faster than was probably good for him, propped him in a corner, and ran outside to get a bucket of water from the well and to lead the horses up into the trees behind the cabin. He didn't dare take the time to hide them as well as he should.  If their pursuers got to the cabin before he got back, Ezra would have no way to defend himself.

Grabbing the saddlebags off the horses, he all but ran through the trees to the cabin, barely pausing to scout the area before slipping inside. Ezra was still in the corner where Vin had left him, but was now slumped over at an uncomfortable angle. The front of his tan coat and the top of his trousers were soaked in blood, a bright contrast to the pallor of his face. Vin crossed over to him swiftly, kneeling down and putting a hand over his nose to see if he was still breathing, then sat back on his heels with a sigh of relief. He was still alive, at least for now.  For a moment, Vin hadn't been able to tell.

A hurried glance out the window showed no signs of the men following them. Vin looked around the cabin, which contained nothing but the water bucket he'd brought in from the well earlier and the saddlebags he'd dropped on the floor when he came in the last time, and sighed. Not much to help hold off a group of extremely pissed gunslingers.

Well, if he couldn't do anything at the moment to prepare for their defense, he could at least patch Ezra up a bit and give him a chance to survive all this.  Moving slowly and carefully, Vin pulled Ezra's legs out straight and lowered him onto his back, wincing for him when the gambler didn't react. Vin got the bucket of water and a shirt from his saddlebags that would serve as a bandage, then carefully unbuttoned Ezra's blood-soaked jacket. As gently as he could, he pulled the fabric back. Ezra moaned as it stuck, then his eyes flew open and he grabbed Vin's hand as the bigger man continued to pull. The gambler didn't seem to understand what was happening to him.  His reaction was pure instinct. He wasn't even able, really, to focus on Vin; he just stared wildly around as if searching for the source of his pain.

Vin paused, reaching over to pat Ezra's hand gently. "Easy now, easy. I gotta see how bad you're hurt. Just hold on, it'll be over soon."

Ezra's eyes slowly slid shut--as much out of weakness as out of any indication that he'd heard Vin's words, Vin was pretty sure. Vin started pulling the jacket open again, taking even more care to do it gently. He hissed in dismay at the injuries he found. The gunshot wound, he'd known about, but he hadn't realized that Ezra had been stabbed at some point before that.

The bullet had gone in his right shoulder and come out lower on his chest.  If it'd been the other side, he would have been dead already, but as it was, if the bullet had missed his lungs and he survived the blood loss, it was a wound he could recover from. The knife wound was the worst of the two. Someone had slashed across his belly from under his left arm to his right hip. Luckily, Ezra's ribs had protected him somewhat, as had the heavy material of his coat.  The wound, while bad, wasn't as deep as it could have been. The primary problem was blood loss and the possibility that either wound could go bad, particularly out here where there was no way to treat them.

Shooting another glance out the window--had they really been this far ahead? or could he have lost them?--he quickly moved to fill both his canteen and Ezra's with water from the bucket, then set about the task of cleaning and bandaging Ezra's wounds. It was a pity about the coat, it being one of the few Ezra owned that didn't hurt the eyes, but the blood had probably ruined it anyway, so Vin sliced it ruthlessly down the seams and eased the pieces off the smaller man. Ezra might fuss when he felt better, but it was saving him some pain and jostling that he didn't need right now. A sudden memory and quick inspection yielded Ezra's flask of whiskey.  That could come in handy if the gambler woke up while Vin was still cleaning his wounds.

The wound-cleaning process wasn't an easy one for either of them. Vin didn't even notice he was murmuring the same steady stream of reassurances he used to keep an injured horse calm until Ezra's vague, almost frightened mutterings slowed and then stopped. If it worked as well on a human as it did on an animal, though, he was willing to keep it up for as long as it took. The worst part was the bandaging, because he had to have Ezra's help for that. There was no way he could keep the gambler upright and wrap and tie the bandages at the same time.

"Ezra? C'mon, time to wake up," he called softly, patting Ezra's cheek. Ezra stirred, muttered something, then finally awoke, blinking dazedly at the man bending over him.

"Vin? Have we arrived at Four Corners yet?"

"Not quite," Vin answered. "I need you to do somethin' for me, all right? I gotta get these holes you're wearin' patched up, and I'm gonna need you to sit up for me to do it."

Ezra licked his lips. "Could I possibly trouble you for a glass of water first?"

Vin grinned faintly. Ezra sounded weaker than a hour-old calf, but as long as he was using ten words where two would do, he couldn't be that bad off. "Let's get you sittin' up first so you don't choke, all right?"

Ezra gave a faint nod of assent. Vin took one of the cleaner pieces of the jacket and pressed it against the angry, still seeping wounds, then slid a hand under Ezra's shoulder to boost him up. Ezra grabbed a handful of Vin's buckskin shirt and clung to it as he tried to help the tracker pull him up. Vin, who was occupied with trying to keep the pressure on the wounds and getting Ezra more-or-less upright, wasn't prepared for the gambler's sudden, softly whispered, "Oh . . ." and his slump sideways, the hand that had clutched Vin's shirt falling limply to the floor.

With a jerk that couldn't have helped any, Vin pulled Ezra over so that the smaller man was at least slumping on him, rather than the floor, then scooted him back so that he was leaning against the wall.

"Damn it, Ezra . . ." Vin sighed, then grasped Ezra's chin with the hand that wasn't trying to hold his blood inside his body. "I need you awake, son. I can't do this without your help."

The fact that Ezra didn't protest Vin calling him "son" was more than a little worrisome, but the gambler did open his eyes and say in a whispery voice, "Dear Lord . . ."

"Yeah," Vin agreed, then held up his canteen. "How 'bout that water now?"

Ezra nodded, but was only able to take a few swallows before he was too exhausted to continue. Vin waited patiently until he was sure Ezra was done, then set the canteen on the floor and wiped the water off his chin. "All right, now, here comes the hard part."

Ezra blinked at him, but didn't bother to comment.

"I'm gonna sit you up, and I need you to stay put till I'm done. You ready?"

Ezra nodded sharply, closing his eyes and bracing himself as Vin slid his arm back under the other man's shoulders and lifted. Vin worked as quickly as he could, but by the time he was tying the strips of cloth off, Ezra's face was beaded with sweat and tiny tremors were shivering through his body. Somehow, probably by sheer will power, the gambler managed to stay upright until Vin was finished and could wrap an arm around him to ease him back.

"Okay, you did great. Just relax and breathe now; you did just fine," Vin said softly as Ezra slumped against him. He was gaining a new respect for the smaller man. He'd have thought, given Ezra's appearance, that he'd do little but whine and complain about his injuries, but Ezra seemed determined not to let show how much he hurt. The only indicators Vin had were the things Ezra couldn't control--the cold, clammy, pale skin, the involuntary cries when he was unconscious, the shudders that shook him even now.

Vin thought briefly about taking off his shirt and using it to try to keep Ezra warm, but the gambler seemed as comfortable as was possible under the circumstances,leaning against Vin's shoulder, and it just didn’t seem worth it to move him again so soon. Vin had just resigned himself to being stuck there for awhile when the sound he'd been dreading intruded into the stillness.

The approaching hoofbeats were coming fast, as if the riders were trying to make up for lost time. Vin wondered briefly if they'd gotten lost on the way or if they just had slow horses, but then decided that it really didn't matter. They were still outside, he and Ezra were still inside, and the odds of this turning out in his and Ezra's favor weren't ones Ezra would most likely bet on. He listened to them enter the clearing and dismount, their rough voices not quite loud enough to be heard clearly inside the cabin.

Vin shifted cautiously, trying to reach for his mare's-leg without disturbing Ezra, but the gambler made a soft sound and then asked clearly, "Are they here?"

"Yeah." Vin slid himself free, making sure Ezra was safely propped against the wall, and grabbed his gun. He moved over to the window, keeping himself low so that he didn't present much of a target, and squinted against the setting sun, trying to see what he was up against. Ezra looked around fretfully, his fingers fumbling at the hide-away sling he wore on his arm.

"Where's my gun?" he asked slowly.

"Whatcha plannin' on doin', shootin' the ceilin'?" Vin grinned wryly. "Listen, we're probably gonna have to make a break for it before this is over, and I need you rested so you can move when the time comes. Just sit back and get your strength and let me handle this, all right?"

"Mr. Tanner, I assure you . . ."

"Mr. Standish, if you don't sit back and relax, I'm gonna have to tie you down. I can handle this here, and I want you ready when I do need you. Understood?"

Ezra glared at him for a moment, then nodded. After a second, his eyes drifted shut again, and his body slowly relaxed. Vin frowned slightly. Ezra seemed terribly weak.  Not surprising, maybe, given the amount of blood he'd lost on their long ride, but worrisome nevertheless. Vin couldn't think of anything more he could be doing for the man to help him, aside from getting him out of this little predicament they'd found themselves in, but he didn't much like the helpless, useless feeling that gave him. He was accustomed to being able to help his friends when they needed it.

The riders outside were milling around the clearing, apparently trying to decide whether or not they should approach the cabin. This was Vin's first real look at them; the only other glimpse he'd caught was a brief look over Ezra's shoulder as the gambler had stumbled out of the saloon and run straight into him. In fact, Vin wasn't really sure why they were running. He'd simply seen that Ezra was hurt and in trouble and set about getting him to safety. Questions could come later, but he was mighty curious as to why these men were so angry with his friend.

There were five of them. They were dressed more like ranchhands than like gunslingers, and Vin's best guess was that the oldest one, a man probably in his fifties, with slightly more paunch than was good for him and gun-metal gray hair, was most likely the leader. The others were closer to Vin and Ezra's age--although one of them looked closer to J. D.'s--and none of them had the hardened, mean look that professional killers adopted after they'd been in the profession even a short time.

Vin couldn't help but wonder what Ezra could have possibly done in the hour or so that they were separated to piss these men off so badly that they were determined to kill him. The question hadn't really been all that pressing before.  He'd seen Ezra burst out of the saloon doors with blood on his clothes and a group of angry, gun-waving men following him and had simply grabbed the gambler and taken off running. "Why" hadn't been nearly as important at the time as "how do we get away," but that situation was rapidly changing. The only thing he could think of that would warrant that much dedication as these men were showing was if Ezra had shot someone, and Vin thought he knew Ezra well enough to trust that, if he had shot someone, he had a good reason. Ezra was not given to random violence. Random conning or cheating, yes, but not shooting a man who didn't deserve it and who hadn't done more than enough to provoke it.

The riders finally sorted themselves out, the one Vin had figured for the leader pushing his horse to the front and raised himself up on his stirrups. "Hello, the cabin," he yelled. "You got a man in there we're after. We want to make a deal. You send him out, we let you go free."

Vin sighed. Did they think he was stupid or something? "No deal!" he yelled back.

Ezra shifted at the noise, groaning softly when the movement pulled on his injuries, but didn't wake up. Vin spared him a quick glance, making sure that he was all right, then turned his attention back to the men outside. They'd huddled up their horses to confer again, one of them remaining slightly distanced from the others to keep an eye on the cabin. Vin had a sudden urge to simply start shooting and see how many he could pick off, but he had a vague hope that he might be able to talk--or maybe buy, if necessary--their way out of this, and that was certainly preferable to taking on five men by himself. Chris Larabee never would have considered that option or any other that he viewed as dishonorable, but Vin had decided long ago that the honorable solution didn't always have to be the most difficult and dangerous. There was a lot to be said for staying alive.

The leader raised up on his stirrups and yelled again, "He's nothing but a lying, cheating cardshark. What's it matter to you? Send him out, and you're free to go."

Ezra stirred and mumbled something that sounded distinctly like, "I do not cheat."

Vin grinned. Ezra always insisted that he didn't cheat, although you couldn't prove it by the people who he'd relieved of their money. Vin tended to believe him, though.  He'd seen enough evidence of the gambler's skill to convince him that Ezra had no need to cheat.

"I'm not leavin' without him. Whatcha want with him, anyway?"

"He cheated me, then shot one of my men when he tried to get my money back. We're taking him back to the sheriff."

Vin snorted. If they'd had any interest in justice, the sheriff would be with them now. They had no intention of taking Ezra to the sheriff.  In fact, he'd be lucky to get out of the cabin alive if Vin left now. "Well, you're outa luck, 'cause he's not goin' anywhere with you. Tell me how much money it was, and I'll pay it. We'll end this peacefully."

"It ain't about the money now. He shot one of my men. We'll have justice."

"This ain't justice, it's revenge, and you ain't gettin' him as long as I'm here. Take the money and go."

"Mr. Tanner."

The softly gasped words made him turn away from the window to see Ezra glaring at him with what strength he had.

"You're being . . . terribly . . . free with . . . my money."

"I'm tryin' to be careful with your life, my friend, so just shut up and let me handle this."

Vin returned his attention to the men outside, cursing as he saw that they had dismounted and were obviously positioned for battle. "Damn. Looks like we ain't gonna get to do this the easy way."

"When do we ever?" Ezra gasped, then forced himself into a more upright position. "Where's my gun?"

"We had this conversation once already. Just sit back and let me handle this."

Their argument was abruptly halted when a shot crashed through the window and buried itself in the far wall. Vin ducked hurriedly, but still felt the rush of air as the bullet passed him. Someone out there was either very good or very lucky.

He lunged up to return fire, shooting from memory at the men's last positions, and grinned again when he heard someone yelp. He ducked quickly back against the wall, feeling the rough texture of the wood against his arms and face as he watched the return fire thud into the opposite wall. Tiny sprays of splinters burst from the holes made by the impact and littered the dirt floor, stirring up the dust.

Ezra had gone silent again, but his eyes were open and he seemed to be tracking what was happening. Vin hooked his saddlebags with one foot and dragged it over, then opened it and took out a box of bullets. "Think you're up to keepin' my gun loaded?"

"Of course." Ezra sounded a little indignant that Vin would think he couldn't, but his hand shook violently as he took the box.

The problem with standoffs was that, when the shooting wasn't going on, they tended to be rather boring. Particularly in cases like this one, where both sides had a finite number of bullets and a distinct awareness that it would soon be too dark to see what they were shooting at. Vin contented himself with letting the others use up their bullets and only firing occasionally, when he felt they needed reminding of why they were out there. Ezra managed to stay conscious the entire time, filling the various guns Vin was using when necessary, but there were times when Vin was sure he was doing it more on instinct than from actual awareness of what he was doing.

Vin used the lulls in the gun battle to make sure Ezra's wound wasn't bleeding through the bandages and to give the gambler the small drinks of water that were all he had the strength for. Ezra talked to him, sometimes making more sense than others, but the weakness in his voice did nothing to reassure the ex-bounty hunter even when he was coherent.

Vin wasn't real sure how he was going to get them out of there. He was likely to run out of bullets before their attackers did, and Ezra couldn't exactly move quickly or quietly, so sneaking out the back of the cabin and up to the horses was out of the question. Maybe the men outside would get tired and give up, but Vin thought it more likely that they'd get angrier and more determined as the night wore on.

Finally, dusk settled in, making it too dark to make the gun battle worthwhile. The men outside left off shooting, so Vin thought it was safe enough to put his own weapons aside and get some rest. The only food he had was the beef jerky he always carried with him, but it was enough to keep him going. Ezra gave the stuff one nauseated look and refused to look at it again, though, merely asking for another drink of water. Vin gave it to him, then washed his own mouth out with a sip. He was trying to be careful with the water, knowing that they only had the two canteens worth, and Ezra had the thirst that seemed to come on all wounded men.

They had more to worry about than just water, though. With nightfall came cold, and Ezra had been shivering slightly before the sun even went down. Vin had seen it before in other men who'd been hurt--sometimes the cold came on them right after they were hurt; other times it was later, after the warmth had seeped out of them with their blood. Either way, it was a dangerous thing, sapping their strength and killing strong men who otherwise might have healed from their wounds. Add to that the cold of the weather, and Ezra was in for a long night. They couldn't build a fire and risk letting their attackers see into the cabin even if they'd had what it took to build one. Vin had used everything that he could have turned into a blanket already as a bandage--his extra shirt and what hadn't already been ruined of Ezra's coat were currently attempting to hold the gambler's blood on the inside of his body. Vin had left the light shirt that Ezra wore under his coat on him, even though the front was covered in blood.  It didn't provide much in the way of warmth, but it made Ezra less uncomfortable, so it was doing more good than harm.

The only thing he had left was his own buckskin shirt which he wore over a lighter cotton one.  It wasn't much, but it was better than nothing. The heavy material would provide some warmth, at least, so he stripped it off and tucked it around the gambler as gently as he could, not wanting to disturb the light doze Ezra had slipped into while Vin was eating. It didn’t work.  Glazed eyes drifted open to see what he was doing.

"Go back to sleep," Vin said quietly. "You need to get some rest."

Ezra blinked slowly, licking his lips as if his mouth was too dry to speak, then asked hoarsely, "Are they still out there?"

"Yeah." Vin settled down against the wall beside him, checking quickly to make sure all of his weapons were within reach.

Ezra was silent for a long moment, then continued, "You should leave . . . while it's . . . too dark . . . for them . . . to see you."

Vin simply shook his head. "I ain't never left a friend that needed my help, and I ain't startin' now."

Ezra's eyes widened, and Vin took the opportunity to peer out the window at the dark shadows that were their attackers. For him, it was a simple enough concept: when friends needed you, you were there, end of story. He had a feeling, though, that Ezra wasn't all that familiar with the idea, from either end of it, and he probably needed some time to adjust.

Vin filled the silence by checking his weapons again.  There was no point in being unprepared. Ezra didn't say anything for a long while, but finally he whispered, "Thank you."

Vin glanced at him and gave him a slight nod. "You'd do the same." This time he didn't look away.  He met Ezra's doubtful look with a steady one of his own, confident in his assessment of the man.

Ezra leaned back against the rough logs of the cabin wall, the exhaustion that seemed to be constantly hovering around him claiming its due again. It was very frustrating not to be able to keep his eyes open for more than a few minutes at a time. He wanted to think about what Vin had said, to analyze it and figure out what kind of angle the ex-bounty hunter was working, but he couldn't keep his mind that focused in the first place, and wasn't totally convinced that Vin was working an angle in the second. Vin Tanner had a lot of hidden places that Ezra hadn't quite figured out yet, but nothing Ezra had seen so far gave him any reason to doubt what the man said.

He shifted uncomfortably, trying to ease some of the pull on the gash that crossed his stomach without setting off his shoulder again. At least the pain had eased somewhat, even if it had been replaced by a terrible, bone-deep cold. He was trying desperately to control the shivers that wanted to tear through his body.  He couldn't even imagine how much that would hurt, but he was sure that it would be a thousand times worse than the ride up here, and that had been unadulterated hell. From time to time, though, his concentration would slip and he'd start shaking, and the agony would flare up again.

It was at the end of one such time that he found himself warmer than before. It took a bit to penetrate, but then he slowly realized that he was leaning against something far more comfortable than the wall had been. And safer. Definitely much, much safer. The instincts that he relied on were telling him he was all right where he was, but--fuzzy as his thoughts were--he couldn't let it rest at that. He tried to ask what was happening, but his mouth didn't seem to be working right. Something must have come out, however, because a quiet, familiar voice told him to relax and go back to sleep. While he wasn't totally sure who the voice belonged to, it was one that, at some point, he had decided he could trust, so he did what it said.

The moon had almost reached its peak. It was full--both a blessing and a curse, under the circumstances. As the night had worn on, Ezra had gotten worse, the cold settling into him with a vengeance. He needed a fire and several blankets, but the best Vin had to offer was body heat. He sat as close as he could and still have an easy path to his weapons, letting the smaller man lean against him. That quieted some of Ezra's mumblings and shiverings, but it was a long way from a solution to their problem.

As far as Vin could tell, there was one thing going for them: from their appearances, none of the men outside had the woodsman skills he had. If it weren't for the fact that Ezra could barely stay conscious, much less walk, he could get them out the back of the cabin and to their horses. Of course, if it wasn't for Ezra's condition, they could have outrun their pursuers in the first place.

Still, Vin could slip out on his own and create some havoc without anyone being the wiser. He'd been waiting until the men outside settled down to sleep; it sounded like they'd brought some whiskey with them and were having a good time out there earlier, which was to his advantage. A slow smile curved his lips as he thought about their reactions if they woke up in the morning to find, say, their horses gone, or maybe their saddlebags slung up in a tree. He'd played those kinds of games when he'd lived in the Indian village and been pretty damn good at them, too. What had been a way to train the young warriors had been a competition between the older ones, and Vin had been a natural.

When it had been quiet outside for awhile, Vin gently slid himself out from under Ezra, not wanting to jostle the man any more than he could avoid. The gambler's eyes slid partially open, and he asked slowly, his voice hoarse and a little slurred, ""You leavin'?"

Vin pulled aside the shirt he'd draped over the other man and checked his bandages briefly. The blood had begun to seep through, but he was out of bandage material even if he'd been willing to put Ezra through the ordeal of changing them again. "Just scoutin' around. You want some water?"

Ezra blinked, slowly processing the answer and the question, then nodded faintly. "Please."

Vin held the canteen for him, letting him take in as much of the water as he wanted before putting it down and wiping the excess of his chin. Vin could feel the heat radiating off him. He grabbed a scrap of excess cloth, wet it, and ran it across Ezra's forehead and down his cheeks. The gambler didn't object to the personal touch.  In fact, he hadn't been objecting all night, a testament to how bad off he was. Ezra wasn't normally a man who allowed that much intimacy.

Not that Vin was one to instigate it, either, but he was a practical man. If a friend needed help, you helped them the way they needed it, not the way that made you comfortable. If it took holding the man against the chill, hell, if it took carrying him out of here like a baby, that's what Vin would do.

Ezra's eyes had drifted shut again. Vin carefully covered him back up with his shirt, saying quietly, "I plan on us bein' out of here come mornin'. You think you'll be up to it?"

Ezra nodded again.

"Good. Seems like Nathan's been a little bored lately.  He'll be excited to have someone to patch up."

Ezra smiled faintly, but didn't try to answer. Vin sighed, then looked around for Ezra's hideaway gun. Finding it, he placed it beside the gambler and put his cold hand on it. "Anyone but me comes through that door . . . " he said quietly. Ezra nodded and tightened his fingers around the gun. Satisfied, Vin stood. "I won't be long."

With that, he took up his mare's leg and Ezra's other gun and stepped out into the night.

Ezra listened to him go, tightening his hand around the gun Vin had left him. Sleep was pulling at him again, but he didn't dare give in as long as Vin was gone. Oddly enough, he had no doubt that the man would be back. He'd felt a strange jolt when he thought Vin was leaving and an even stranger warmth when Vin had said he wasn't--neither emotion one he felt up to analyzing at the moment, when his brain felt wrapped in cotton--but his usual instinct to believe when he saw the proof hadn't kicked in.

The night had been a long, confusing jumble of images from past and present that mixed together in a crazy montage. His mother would be there, laughing as she rode away with--or in search of--her latest conquest. Seconds later, it was Chris Larabee, threatening to kill him if he ever betrayed him again. Then, he was laughing with Buck, Nathan was grabbing his arm and yanking his shoulder back in place with a burning, sickening pain that matched the one there now, he was facing down an irate businessman on a Mississippi riverboat, growing a bit irate himself because the man insisted he'd drawn a card from the bottom of the deck . . . and then, a quiet voice was speaking words he couldn't always understand, but that promised him everything was all right for the time, and that he knew wouldn't lie to him.

The silence in the cabin now was almost oppressive. Ezra tried to listen for anything from outside that could give him a clue what was going on, but there was nothing. It didn't help that reality was fading in and out and he had no idea how long Vin had been gone. It could have been minutes or hours.

The sudden, sharp crack of a pistol broke the silence, followed by the deeper roar Ezra recognized as Vin's mare's-leg. He stiffened, lifting up his hideaway and straining his ears to hear anything else. There was only silence. He briefly contemplated getting up to investigate, but one abortive move in that direction convinced him to wait.

As the silence dragged on, the tension in the pit of his belly grew. He tried to imagine explaining to Chris why he'd come back alive and Vin hadn't--although, if Vin didn't survive, his chances weren't all that great, either--but his mind refused to even form the mental picture. Just the thought of Vin dead didn't really make sense.  The man had a vitality to him that seemed to deny even the possibility of death. With a frustrated moan, Ezra braced himself to try to stand. He couldn't leave Vin out there on his own, not with the debt he already owed the man.

He was saved from what would have undoubtedly been an unwise move by the cabin door opening. With a start, he sighted his pistol on the man who walked through, but then hesitated. It was one of the men he'd gambled with, yes, but he had no gun and his hands were raised . . . and a moment later, he was followed by another and another. All three were just the lackeys of Mr. Horach, the man he'd defeated in the poker game, and they looked a little lost without their employer. Ezra relaxed slightly, but didn't lower his gun until he saw Vin follow them in with his mare's-leg pointed at their backs.

"Over there," Vin said briefly, gesturing at the far corner of the cabin with barrel of the gun. He glanced at Ezra, nodded slightly when he noticed the gambler was awake, then turned back to the men in the corner. He'd brought in a coil of rope, and he swiftly tied them up before walking back to where Ezra was resting.

As he got near enough for Ezra's slightly bleary eyes to focus, the gambler noticed that he looked more than a bit pale. There was a growing patch of red on the left sleeve of his shirt, and he favored the arm as he squatted down beside Ezra at an angle where he could see the prisoners.

"I got the other two," he said softly, "but those three surrendered. I set their horses loose, so when they get free of those ropes, they're gonna have a long walk back home. Should give us enough time to get where we're goin', anyway."

"Your arm?" Ezra asked, keeping it simple because talking took more energy and concentration than he wanted to expend at the moment.

"It's nothin'. Had worse from a mosquito bite down in Texas." Vin grinned wryly. "Think you can give me a hand tyin' it up, though?"

"Of course." After a brief moment's thought, Ezra realized that he needed to set down the gun, then took the cloth Vin was holding out in fingers that seemed five times their normal size and carefully tied it around Vin's arm, wincing in sympathy as Vin sucked in a sharp breath. That simple chore, and the vicarious excitement of the gun battle, left him exhausted, but he struggled to keep his mind on what Vin was saying.

"I got our horses up behind the cabin, but I don't wanna leave you in here with them." The ex-bounty hunter glanced over at the three prisoners, who were huddled together looking miserable. They were little more than boys, really, roped into a bad situation by their boss and left to deal with the consequences, but Ezra was in too much pain at the moment to feel very sympathetic. "How 'bout we get you outside, and you wait there while I fetch the horses?"

Ezra contemplated the distance to the door doubtfully, but nodded. Vin slid the buckskin shirt off him, and carefully leaned him forward enough that he could slide his arms into the sleeves. Under normal circumstances, Ezra wouldn't have been caught dead in such a garment, and particularly not one that fit so poorly, but at the moment, he was simply grateful for its warmth. Vin gathered up their saddlebags and canteens, then stooped to pull Ezra up. Ezra put his good arm around Vin's shoulders and tried to help, but it was more a matter of not passing out as waves of red agony washed over him. The next thing he was truly aware of was being held upright by Vin's arm around his waist, the tracker's harsh, pain-filled breathing matching his own as he tried to make his legs take his weight.

"He don't look like he's gonna make it, does he?" one of the prisoners asked scornfully.

Ezra silently agreed with the assessment, but Vin answered sharply, "He's doin' just fine.  Better than you at this point. He's leavin'."

The trip to the door was one long blur of agony, but it was nothing compared to the pain when the cold night air set him to shivering again. He felt Vin lower him down to sit on the steps, leaning him against the porch rail before patting him on the shoulder and saying softly, "Hang in there, son.  I'm gettin' the horses now, and then we'll be headin' home."

Home sounded good, so good that he didn't even object to Vin calling him "son," even though the concept struck him as funny. He just couldn't picture Maude and Vin Tanner going out on the town, dressed like society people . . . Vaguely it occurred to him that he wasn't thinking very clearly, but he just didn't have the energy to care anymore.

Shivering, he sat staring blankly at the night sky, the bright stars mesmerizing him and the blackness beckoning. He blinked in surprise when the view was suddenly replaced with Vin's handsome, pain-lined face.

"It's time to get movin' again. You still with me?" he asked softly, and Ezra nodded slowly, the best he could manage at the moment. The corner of Vin's mouth turned up slightly in that wry grin he had as he continued, "It's gonna be a long trip, Ezra. All you gotta do is stay with me, and Nathan'll fix you right up when we get home. Sound good?"

Ezra nodded again, and Vin slapped him lightly on his good shoulder before pulling his arm up around his neck. With a grunt, he levered the smaller man up, and Ezra tried once again to keep his mind focused and his knees locked so that Vin wouldn't be forced to take his full weight on that wounded arm. Vin hissed softly, then started them forward to the horses.

Ezra wasn't real clear on how he got in the saddle, except for a very firm conviction that he never wanted to repeat the stunt. He could hear Vin saying something and felt him tying something--rope?--around him.  He thought about protesting, but then the horse took its first step, and he sank into oblivion.

Familiar landmarks started appearing shortly after the sun cleared the horizon. Vin felt a surge of relief as he recognized the first one.  He wasn't sure how much further he could go and had long since realized that he wasn't thinking too well. He'd tied Ezra to the saddle, knowing that if the gambler started to fall, he'd never be able to hold him on and guide both horses with a bullet hole in his arm. After several hours, he'd begun to think that he should have tied himself down, too. His arm had started bleeding again when he'd lifted Ezra into the saddle, and hadn't really stopped since.

His mind had gotten progressively fuzzier, and he'd started to be afraid that he might be leading them in the entirely opposite direction from where they wanted to go. His horse was as familiar with this part of the country outside Four Corners as he was, though, and had apparently recognized that home and food weren't too far away. The mare picked up her pace and Ezra's horse followed suit, and Vin let them have their heads.

He glanced back at Ezra, blinking hard to make the gambler come into focus. Ezra hadn't really woken up since they left the cabin.  Even the soft, fever-inspired mumblings Vin had gotten used to throughout the night had stopped a few hours back, and now he just slumped against his horse's neck, looking more than half dead. Vin swallowed heavily. They'd come so far, and he'd done his best to get his friend home, but he wasn't sure if it was going to be enough.

"Just hang in there, son. Stick with me," he said softly. "We're almost home."

Some time later, he abruptly became aware that the dust and scrub bushes of the countryside were gone, and that the odd noises he was hearing were the sounds of someone--no, several someones--shouting. He blinked, forcing his eyes to focus, and recognized the huge grey blur in front of him as Mrs. Potter's general store. With a start, he remembered that he had to get Ezra to Nathan.

He slid down off his horse, and would have kept sliding if strong hands hadn't caught him as a familiar, amused voice said, "Easy there, cowboy."

Vin felt as if a burden had been lifted off his shoulders as he looked up into Chris's concerned eyes. Finally, someone who'd take care of things. "Ezra . . ."

"S'ok, Josiah and Nathan have him. Looks like you've got quite a story to tell."

Vin thought, somewhat fuzzily, that Chris was probably right, but the relief of being able to entrust their safety to someone else was too much, and he surrendered to it peacefully, letting the darkness wash all thought away.

When reality intruded again, it came accompanied by a bright light and a distinctly creaky surface. Further investigation revealed that the light was the sun pouring through the windows in Nathan's room, and the creaking came from the army cot he was lying on. Normally, it was what Nathan slept on when a patient was occupying his bed, but with Ezra already there, it had been drafted into temporary hospital duty.

Vin shifted carefully, waiting for his body to protest, but aside from a slightly lightheaded feeling and an ache in his arm, he didn't feel all that bad. He was thinking about getting up when Chris stepped into view and squatted down beside him.

"'Bout time you woke up," he said lightly. "How's the arm?"

"Been better, but been worse, too. How's Ezra?" Vin asked. He could see the gambler lying very still in the bed, but couldn't tell if he looked better or worse.

"Nathan said he's gonna make it.  Just has to rest a bit to build up all that blood he lost. Nathan went to get some food.  He said you'd be wakin' up soon and be hungry."

Vin grinned. "Man knows his medicine."

Chris's mouth curved up in response, but his eyes were still serious. "You want to tell me what the hell happened out there?"

Vin shrugged, wincing slightly as the movement pulled on his arm. "Some rancher with more money than skill said Ezra was cheatin' him at cards. First thing I hear of it, Ezra's runnin' out of the saloon with blood pourin' out of him and we're bein' chased by five men with more bullets than we got. We holed up in a cabin, held them off till it got dark, then I snuck out and set their horses loose." He glanced down at his arm, then back at Chris. "Only problem, one of them woke up and took objection. I killed two of them, left the other three tied up in the cabin, and we came home."

"You think any more trouble's gonna come out of it?" Chris asked quietly.

"Don't know. Don't think anyone there knew who we were, so maybe not." Vin was silent for a second, then continued, "Might be best to be prepared, though."

"Isn't it always?" Chris sighed. He shifted his weight, looking over at Ezra. "Man gets in more trouble with those cards of his."

Vin shrugged again, only using his good shoulder this time. "He did good, though. Didn't complain once and backed me up the whole way."

Chris gave him a surprised look, then turned to stare at the gambler assessingly.

Vin shifted, trying to get comfortable as his shoulder began to throb in earnest. He had a sudden urge for a bottle of whiskey, but a distraction would do. "So, anything interesting happen while we were gone?"

Chris got a sudden gleam in his eye and a wicked smile on his face. "Hate to tell you this, cowboy, but you missed quite a show . . ."

Ezra drifted in a twilight world, the pain temporarily held at bay. Somewhere close by, he could hear the quiet voice that told him everything was all right, and so he sank contentedly into sleep.