In Between
(Old West)

by MAC

Disclaimer: Don't own them or the show they rode in on, no profit made from this.
Pairing: E/C
History: Started on 15 October 2005 - finished 15 January 2008
Feedback: gentlerainfall@yahoo.com


"Stop right now, Ezra!" Chris Larabee's harsh order was ground out between gritted teeth. He closed his eyes briefly, wiping his face with a downward swipe of one large hand.

Ezra had frozen at the words and now looked back at Chris with chilling green eyes. Involuntarily, Chris shivered. Ezra quirked an eyebrow and slowly twisted around fully on their bed. "I am leaving here and you are not going to stop me."

Chris fought back the despair that crept into his heart at the cold words. When Ezra wanted to, he could be cold, heartless even - a reflection of deep pain within. Worried, Chris sat up and shoved his hair back from his forehead in an impatient gesture before propping himself up on stiff arms. He raised his chin and met the glare with his own, patented version. "Yes, I damn well am going to stop you."

Ezra slid free of the bedding and stood defiantly away from their bed. "Good bye, Chris." With that, Ezra Standish gave a simple nod and turned away. He reached for his under things that were neatly folded on top of his clothing on the nearby chair. Chris spun himself out of the bed on the far side and stalked around it, bare feet padding on the wood floor. He caught Ezra's shoulder as the man bent for his silk drawers. "Wait."

Ezra shrugged violently, loosing himself from Larabee's grasp and backed away. "For what? For the next time that Vin is out of town? For the next time that you feel... lonely?" By the time Ezra had finished, his voice had gone from icy to sad.

Larabee flushed but kept his stance strong and his eyes locked with the gambler's. "Vin and I are just good friends, Ezra. Don't make it into something it isn't."

"Something ugly? Like this?" Ezra's head dropped as he swung clear of the shootist. He quickly slipped his thin under drawers up his legs and buttoned them, stopping only when Larabee's hands closed over his.

"Ezra." Chris' voice took on a coaxing quality.

"Chris, let me go."

The pain and sadness in the tones tore at Larabee. He slowly released his grip and stepped back. "Don't go."

"You called out his name." Ezra was efficiently dressing himself, eyes still on the floor. As he tugged his cravat into place, he turned back to face Chris Larabee who stood naked and beautiful in the hotel room's dim lighting. Ezra swallowed hard and leaned over to the side to take up his gun belt and weapons. "I won't come between you." He raised his eyes finally to meet Chris'. "And I can no longer abide his place between us." Blinking back dampness, the southerner stepped close to his frozen lover and raised up on his toes to press a soft kiss to Chris' lips. "Good bye," came out in a choked whisper.

Chris watched as the man he loved walked out of their room and perhaps out of his life. No! With a muttered curse, he broke free of his stunned reflections and snatched up his clothing. He would follow Ezra to the ends of the earth. Somehow, he would prove his love and his fealty. Nothing and no one else mattered as much.

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Ezra nearly tripped as he plunged down the final set of stairs, having increased his speed with each landing he passed. Somewhere above and behind him, he'd left his heart beating out the last of his soul's own blood.

Steadying himself with a hand flung out to splay on the veloured Victorian wallpaper, he paused to let his breathing slow. He could do nothing about the incredibly loud buzzing in his ears, like a river at full flood. He had been delusional to ever think that Chris would care enough about him, that Chris would actually put Ezra first. Chris and Vin were the soul mates. Such a bond, Ezra yearned to have with Chris but now it was clear that he'd never supplant the quiet tracker.

"Mr. Larabee will be down shortly but this should cover the room bill." He swiftly counted out a generous overage to stifle comment.

The hotel clerk nodded silently, pulling the bills across the small secretary desk and discretely counting them. With a smile, he looked up to thank Mr. Standish but found himself alone in the small lobby.

"Where's the telegraph office?"

Nearly jumping off his seat, Hiram Dinty, the clerk, stared wide-eyed at the menace looming over him now. "Mr. Larabee, sir?"

"You heard me."

"Ah, yes," Hiram swallowed hard. "Just down the street on your right, sir."

"How much?"

"Sir?"

"For the room."

Now Hiram felt more comfortable, this was after all his domain. "Why nothing at all, Mr. Larabee. Your Mr. Standish paid in full just moments ago. He said you'd be down later."

The deadly look that was aimed at Hiram Dinty felt as if it could reduce him to dust. Eyes wide in nervous fear, he waited, afraid to say more.

Chris glared at the blameless clerk and wished he could shoot the man, it might actually make him feel better. With a grunt, he turned away, never seeing the clerk slump back in relief. Ezra would be in the livery already. If he chased him into a corner, he'd likely lose him for good. Take care of some business and then follow. I'll figure out something.

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"Hey, Vin! I think this message is for you!" JD trotted into the saloon, waving around a yellow flimsy.

"You think? JD, does it say it's for him or not?" Nathan snapped. He'd had a rough morning and nonsense like this just seemed to irritate.

JD's dark eyes opened in momentary surprise at the sharp comment but he'd learned to let such remarks slide by. "Well, it says to the sheriff, that's me, but then it says, 'Vin', and I figure Chris just didn't' want to advertise Vin's full name."

"It's from Chris?" Tanner sat forward from where he'd been slouched back in his seat at the seven's table next to Nathan Jackson.

JD nodded and slid the thin paper rectangle across the round table, pulling out a chair to sink into at the same time. Without taking any apparent breath, he added, "Yeah, said to meet him in Bacon's Corner soon's you can."

Fingering the telegram, Vin reluctantly turned it over and squinted as if that might help him better decipher the actual words. Nathan, feeling a bit remorseful over his earlier moodiness, gently tugged it free from Vin's hand and cleared his throat. "To Sheriff Dunne, Four Corners. Vin, meet in Bacon's Corner. Waiting. Larabee."

"Not much, huh?" JD waved a wild arm to Inez behind the saloon's long bar. She nodded back and came around the counter with a beer mug for him.

Nathan cocked an eyebrow at their tracker. "You going?"

"Reckon." Vin nodded. He drew another mouthful of his own beer and then rose to his feet with that lean grace that usually had roving female eyes rolling his way.

He settled his leather hat deeper on his head and looked around the room. Only a few early customers yet. "You'll tell Buck and Josiah?" His gaze came to rest on their youngest.

"Sure, Vin." JD wiped his mouth on his sleeve, removing faint traces of beer foam from his first sip. "Say hi to Chris and Ezra for us."

Vin's smile curled a bit wider. "Will do. Take care, boys." With that, he headed out of the saloon, silently wondering why Chris needed him to come to Bacon's Corner. Why it was only signed with Chris' name and what had happened. Chris and Ezra were supposed to be taking sometime out together. At least, that was what Larabee had told him privately before the two men rode out. Sooner I get there, sooner I find out, he told himself as he moved down to his wagon for trail supplies.

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Ezra hadn't been with a carnival in a long time. He dealt another round of cards and grinned as the roustabouts picked up their cards and groaned. The smell of sawdust and wet canvas, animals and sweat, was a sweetly sour mix as familiar as breathing. He'd met up with this troupe only hours after fleeing Chris Larabee and Eagle Bend. It was a pleasure to be amongst such a savvy group. They all knew he wasn't cheating, that he was too good, but they played with him for the fun of it, the entertainment. And they played it up as well. Someone behind him clapped him on the shoulder and rubbed his head hard, disheveling his neatly combed hair.

Only in such a place would Ezra be so relaxed that he'd let his guard down enough for that to happen. He ducked out from under the affectionate attack and laughed. "I am not some pet gorilla to manhandle, Quinn!"

The dark haired ringmaster merely grinned back at him, fists resting comfortably on his lean hips. "No? But you'd make a fine pet, Ezra."

Multiple raspberries sounded from around the cluster of men at the planks braced into a temporary table. Life on the road had to accommodate a lot of making-do. Ezra chose not to answer the provocative remark, though the reddening of his ear tips may have had a few of the men smirking to themselves.

He'd been welcomed as Maudie's boy, when he'd stopped at the encampment far down the road from Eagle's Bend. The troupe was slowly moving through the territories, with the eventual intension of reaching California and tracing its way up the coast. For now, the talented and clever performers were taking a well-earned rest between two towns. SoHo Jack and Maryjane McGillicutty owned the wagons, the animals, and paid the men and women of the small carnival troupe. SoHo Jack had known Ezra as a lad when Maude was less of a lady and more desperate. Ezra had fond memories of Tigerless Lil and the Rubberman and the rest. He'd found his perfect refuge as he licked his wounds from Chris Larabee's betrayal.

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Ezra shivered slightly in the chill of the late evening, gazing up at a night sky so full of stars that it was like staring into the embers of a campfire. Hands came to rest firmly on his shoulders and he trembled in response. But, it wasn't Chris.

"Quinn?"

"Hmm." A chin followed one hand to rest with weight on his left shoulder. "We get up early here, Ezra, you should be in bed."

"Ah yes. I had forgotten the carnie rituals." Ezra twisted away, stepping forward to free himself and face the other man. "Quinn, do not overstep."

"Soho told me that you prefer -"

"Jack talks too much."

"He's worried about you."

"No reason to be." Ezra patted his vest front pockets, locating and withdrawing a long thin cigarillo.

The ringmaster approached again, pulling a tiny bottle of sulfur matches from his trousers. "May I?" He leaned in, his slight height advantage allowing him to create an intimate space between them as he cupped the now lit match to Ezra's stick-like cigar.

They stood together, nearly one, as the end of the small thin cigar glowed to life against the flame. Ezra raised his head and blew a stream of white smoke over Quinn's shoulder. "Thank you." He began to turn away when Quinn once again laid a hand upon him, this time stopping him with a light grip on his arm.

"Ezra? Will you stay with me tonight?"

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Vin's horse trotted swiftly into the outskirts of Bacon's Corner. He'd only been here once before, at the foot of the tall cascading mountains on the edge of the Rocky Mountain range. Like Four Corners, it was a settlement that had grown up from a ranching community and so had a more permanent look than a mining camp or boomtown. He drew rein by the first livery he came to. From the looks of things, this place was big enough to have several.

A shadow emerged from the shadows at the edge of the wide maw that was the stable entrance.

"Chris." Vin spoke with surety.

Breaking free from the building, Larabee took the few steps that brought him to Vin's stirrup. Looking up he smiled, but it was a painful sight. "Vin. Thanks for coming."

Tanner simply smiled slightly, eyes full of seeking questions that reached Larabee without words. Then he raised his head to look around the empty area in front of the stables. "Where's Ezra?"

The black flat hat dropped to cover Larabee's face and telling eyes. From beneath it, Chris spoke to the ground.

"Gone."

"Chris, he's -" Vin's fearful voice was accompanied by a thump as the man threw himself from the saddle to land dustily at Larabee's side. Tanner gripped Chris Larabee's shoulder as if to squeeze an answer from the man.

"Not dead. Just gone."

Taking a breath to steady himself, Vin patiently waited now that he knew Standish was alive at least.

After a moment, Larabee's head came up. "How about a drink? Found a saloon that's quiet."

"Sure, if you're buying." Vin released his hold on his friend, ready to follow. He figured he'd hear the tale when Chris was ready.

The two men stayed together while Vin had Peso stabled in the livery in the stall next to Larabee's horse. The tall black nickered a quiet greeting to his herd mate. Peso flicked his tail and moved to the small offering of grain that Vin left out for him. With a final look at the quiet movements of the animals, Tanner followed Larabee back out into the sunshine of midday.

"Before we get inside any walls," Larabee said, slowing their pace, "you need to know that there's a hunt on for you."

Vin quirked an eyebrow, bright blue eyes shifting sideways to examine his friend as they crossed the nearly still street, packed with dusty wagon wheel ruts.

Chris took off his hat to wipe his brow with one sleeved arm. The dust smeared, joined other streaks on his once black shirt. "Something I overheard a couple of towns back."

"That why Ez isn't with you?"

"Something like that."

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"I've dropped my roll by the main fire, Quinn. That's where it's staying."

The darkly handsome Irishman sighed dramatically. "Ezra, there is no need for that."

"There's every need." Standish moved further away from the other man, drawing in the comforting aroma of Chris' last cheroot, then letting the stream of smoke fill the space between him and Quinn O'Hara. "I like you, Quinn, but I'm not ready to look elsewhere yet."

"Elsewhere?" A lock of midnight black hair fell across Quinn's high forehead as he stooped to pick at the scattered straw littering the ground. Flashing, nearly-black eyes shone up at Ezra. "You are with someone?"

Ezra's lips tightened around the cigarillo before his fine long fingers plucked it free and tossed it to the earth. He ground it, only half-smoked, into the dirt with the heel of his boot. "No. Not any more."

Ezra's face was a study of calm when he looked up, but Quinn O'Hara could see the pain and anger in the smoldering green eyes that met his. They gave him hope. He was smart enough, though, to be patient. Now was clearly not the time to press his suit.

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"I need to get some cigars." Larabee paused at the tobacco shop beside the saloon's swing doors.

Vin nodded and dropped to the spindle-backed wooden bench seat that stood in front of the shop's display window, right next to a roughly carved and rather enthusiastically painted wooden Indian. He raised a curled lip at the garish symbol and then slumped back, drawing his hat down low over his face. No point in advertising his presence if there was a hunt out for him. Must be more than some casual bounty hunter or Larabee wouldn't be so concerned. And Ezra? Vin drew in a deep breath. Wonder what happened? They were getting mighty close, good for both of them from what Chris had said.

Larabee stepped back out onto the boardwalk. It had felt strange to purchase the smokes alone, to carry them without sharing. Damn. We were getting to be like an old married couple. How the hell did things get so wrong? Ezra is the most untrusting son-of-a-bitch I ever met. Takes things too much to heart, too. Chris frowned as he bit off the end of one of the newly purchased cheroots and spat it into the street in front of him. Soon as I get Vin hid, I've got to find Ez. Make things right. Hazel eyes lifted to the majestic mountains rising over the roofs on the far side of the dusty street. God, I miss the man already.

"Chris?"

The quiet drawl pulled Larabee back to the present. He gave a nod to his friend and started over toward the saloon, knowing Vin would be right behind him.

Together they broached the doors of the quiet noontime building. Dust motes drifted on the shafts of light that streamed in around them from the street. The smell of whiskey, beer, and old tobacco juice mixed with stale smoky air and greeted them like long-lost souls. Across the room was the bar, a battered counter now, but clearly once a fine piece of mahogany furniture, complete with brass rail and spittoons. Behind it stood a bored-looking man, short and squat, his hair parted in the middle and a wide once-white apron stretched taut across his large chest and belly.

The two friends crossed the wide-planked floor, ignoring the crunch of bits of broken, unswept glass amidst the strewn sawdust. Leaning on the bar, both turned to survey the largely empty room. Two or three solitary individuals sat in silence at separate tables, each lost in his own drink.

"Whiskey. Two." Chris twisted around to face the barkeep.

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Ezra strolled among the smaller campfires, nodding to the carnies that sat comfortably on the ground or small folding stools and the odd crate. The colorful mix of folk, the friendly faces and laughing murmurs, it all drew the southerner back into his childhood and a wonderful summer spent with Soho Jack's traveling show. Maryjane had mothered him and Jack had taught him to respect himself. Ezra, looking back now, realized just what precious gifts they had bestowed upon him.

Maude had been in a hurry to leave some town in Tennessee and needed to flee unencumbered by child. Ten year old Ezra had been taken to the 'circus' that was in town. It hadn't been quite that grand, but there were a few interesting animals and strange folk. Maude had left him watching a magic show, speaking briefly to the ticket master. Ezra only learned later that she'd offered his services to the man for at least the next six months. It would be only after some time had passed that Jack sat Ezra down to explain that he'd paid Maude fifty dollars cash, not to own the boy, but to rescue him from the woman who clearly didn't care enough about him.

Ezra half laughed, half choked at the memory of the pain he'd felt at that revelation. Maryjane had tugged him close beside her then, hugging him and telling him that it didn't matter, they loved him as the son they'd never had. And that is how they'd treated him.

"You still shoot as straight as I taught you?" Jack's voice emerged from the back of his and Maryjane's tinker wagon, their private sleeping quarters.

Ezra grinned. "Yes, sir." He glanced at the tall wheels of the ornate little camp wagon, many the night he'd slept cozy in a hammock slung below the space those high wood wheels provided. He walked closer to the rear of the wagon to find Jack and Maryjane seated in splendor on their two folding armchairs, side-by-side, obviously just enjoying the night air and each other's company. He folded his legs, dropping down to sit in front of them unselfconsciously. "Thanks for letting me stay tonight."

"Ezra!" Maryjane's voice was sharp with rebuke, then softened as the buxom lady gave him a look of affection, "You are family, my dear. You are always welcome!"

"Never forget that, boy." Jack chastised gently. He leaned over to kiss his wife on one round cheek, his walrus mustache so full and long that he nearly looked like the sea creature himself.

Ezra nodded seriously. "I want to thank you for back then, too."

"Nonsense, boy." Jack's gruff snort ended in a chuckle, "You were a little hellion, you know."

"But sweet, Jack, he was so sweet too." Maryjane smiled reminiscently and then leaned forward to reach out a hand to their friend.

Ezra came up in a crouch, gracefully rising to accept the hand and clasp it easily. She drew him to her side and then down to accept a kiss on her other cheek.

"Bide a while, Ezra, we'd love to have you stay with us again."

Her soft Ohio River Valley tones were light music to Ezra's ears. "I would like that."

"Good!" Jack clapped his hands together. "There are a couple of places in the show that we could use you, too, if you're willing?"

"Jack, I'm not joining the show."

"Ah, boy, not for life, just for now. Some of our folk are tired, a few got a sickness back down the road, and they could use the rest. Getting better but they could really use a bit of time."

His beguilingly persuasive manner made Ezra laugh. "All right, Jack! I certainly owe you."

"Now stop that nonsense! You do this as a favor to us. A favor!" Maryjane shook her plump finger at him. "NOT as repayment for anything. There's nothing to repay."

Ezra looked away from the two wonderful people in front of him, blinking back moisture that had mysteriously formed at the corners of his eyes.

Behind him, the couple's eyes met in silent understanding and sympathy. They could tell that their favorite son was hurting.

Ezra took a deep, silent breath and turned back to his friends. "So, what would you like me to do? Some trick shooting and riding, I presume?"

"Aye, that, and how do you feel about the tigers?"

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Sitting shoulder to shoulder, backs to the wall, Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner sat and drank their shots of whiskey slowly. It was a town neither knew well so they were cautious. In a low voice, barely above a whisper, Chris had laid out what he knew about the hunt for Tanner's bounty. He and Ezra had been in the main saloon of a large hotel, Ezra deep in a poker game, Chris lounging at the nearby bar, keeping an eye on Ezra's back. A group of five or six men had trouped in, snarling at each other impatiently as they shoved aside other drinkers to get to the bar and belly-up. Larabee had been further down the rail and was ignored.

He'd overheard them discussing the split on a bounty they'd just brought in and then the names of three men they were hunting for now. Tanner had been one of them - and they somehow knew he was in Four Corners. Larabee had figured he'd telegraph Vin in the morning, get him out of town and warn him as soon as he could talk to him, not trusting the wires with the details. Only, he'd apparently been more worried about it than he'd realized.

Scratching his jaw line, Chris' eyes lost focus as he stared straight ahead and into the past few nights.

"You didn't tell Ez?"

"The game didn't break up for nearly four more hours. Those men had gone up to rooms in the hotel before then." Chris shook his head.

Tanner took another sip of his whiskey, letting it roll around his tongue before swallowing. "So, you going to tell me what happened?"

Chris finished off his drink and thumped the glass down on the marred tabletop. His hard eyes swung up and with a small gesture he caught the attention of the barman. Two fingers in the air were enough to get a nod and the man heading their way with replacement drinks - and a bottle.

"You want I should leave it?" The hoarse tenor offered as the man gave the table a swipe with a sodden cloth.

"Yeah." Larabee tossed him a coin.

"Chris?"

Larabee took up the fresh glass and swirled the hazy golden liquid as he studied it. After a few moments, he said, "Guess I said your name aloud. Called out to you." He snuck a look at his friend and shrugged. "I think I might have been dreaming. About you getting bushwhacked."

"So you did this in bed?"

"Yep."

"And Ezra?"

"Told me."

"And?"

"Left."

"Shit, Chris, you got to use more than one word in a sentence!"

"Yeah." Larabee sank back and down in his seat sullenly.

"Hell, this is Ezra we're talking about. He needs words like other folks need water and food."

"Took me by surprise," Chris confessed and raised the glass to his lips, taking another small sip of the rotgut.

"So, what you going to do now?"

"Soon as we get you away safe, I'm going after him."

"Might need reinforcements when you find him. Think I'll tag along."

Chris sat up and peered over at two twinkling blue eyes. "Now hold on."

Vin leaned close and nudged him with a shoulder. "No, that's Ez you need to do that with." And he chuckled.

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"You have tigers now?"

"That's right, Jack, Ezra hasn't seen us since Leopold and Leonides passed on." Maryjane pulled Ezra's hand closer and tucked it under one plump arm as she rose to her feet in an impressively dignified manner. "Come, Ezra, you must meet the kitties."

Jack's deep rumbling laughter filled the air as he stood, his soldierly bearing still reflecting another lifetime ago in the British army in India. "These girls will wind right into your heart, boyo." His smile made his chapped red cheeks ball up and he rubbed his hands together as he strolled on Ezra's other side.

The three walked slowly, promenading through the loosely sprawled encampment, with cheery calls and remarks of greeting. The warmth in voices told its own story. This traveling show was a family affair, even if the folk were not related by blood. Ezra's nerves seemed to loosen more with every step, the love in the air giving him that comfortable feeling of belonging that he'd forgotten so long ago. In quiet recognition, he realized that it had been building with six very strong and different men back in Four Corners, but with Chris he had thought he was making something even more. Gloom returned, swamping the feelings of good will of a moment before, and stiffening, he gently withdrew his arm from Maryjane's grasp.

"Ezra?"

"It's nothing, Maryjane, just some trouble now over. A mere thought brought it back for a moment but it will be fine. I will be, I just need a bit of time and space to regain my equilibrium."

"These beauties should do it for you then," Jack said easily, coming to stand beside a large barred wagon. The sides had canvas panels lowered, the canvas painted with garish jungle scenes in bright colors. "Hey, babies, it's Jack." He purred out his final words as he grabbed a crank and rolled up the side panel nearest them, as if it were a curtain.

Ezra came to a stop next to Maryjane and watched with interest as the cloth was raised. Lounging back comfortably within were two large Bengal tigers, their black and orange stripes beautifully bizarre in the American west. The two females' heads and shoulders were raised, intelligent golden eyes blinking lazily at them. The sleek bodies told of plentiful food and exercise.

"They're beautiful," Ezra breathed out, enchanted. He trusted his friends explicitly and so walked right up to the cage bars without fear, knowing that he'd be stopped if it weren't safe. Ezra remembered the two lions they'd had all those years ago, older but still playful, they became his pets, his best friends. "Hello, lovely ladies." Without hesitation, he slowly slid a hand and arm into the cage.

With feline grace undeniable, the two big cats slung their bodies up and padded over to the offered hand. Incredibly loud purrs thrummed deep in their chests as they took turns dipping massive heads beneath his hand to be fondled and scratched. Ezra couldn't help it, he was grinning from ear to ear, his dimples so deeply carved that it looked like someone had cut holes in his cheeks.

Jack flung an affectionate arm around Maryjane's shoulders. Together they stood there and watched their adopted son interacting with their tigers fearlessly. Ezra had always had a way with animals. He'd trained two chimpanzees for them, kept their prissy performing horses in prime form, and had gentled their two old lions into cooperative pussycats. These tigers were gentle, well-trained, but still wild beasts. They could show teeth and snap and growl with great show during their acts, and didn't normally like to have their spaces poked by prying hands or sticks. They, too, had sensed something in Ezra. Jack squeezed Maryjane's shoulders. "Ezra, will you work with them while you're here?"

Glancing back over his shoulder with a brilliant smile, Standish nodded wordlessly, then leaned close to the bars to receive a near-bath from a rough, large tongue to his face.

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Chris' face was a picture of angry frustration as he tightened the cinch on his tall horse. Vin Tanner, already lounging in Peso's saddle, had to suppress a smile. This was the second town they'd searched without finding any sign of their gambler. Ezra seemed to have vanished into thin air.

Vin's slouch hat was pulled low over his face, his stubbled jaw shaded by the brim. Shadowing the grim-faced notorious gunslinger, Chris Larabee, he was less noticed and they both felt he was safer, hiding in plain sight, than lurking in the mountains that were a known haunt for him. There'd been no direct signs of the party of bounty hunters but they heard about them in the last town, where they'd arrived in triumph, toting the dead bodies of two wanted men - the other two names that Larabee had overheard several days earlier. Vin was now their remaining coup to capture.

Chris felt the churning in his belly, the burn just above his heart. He knew he was making himself sick with worry about Ezra but couldn't help himself. The man was all flash and stood out like a sore thumb in any crowd. Yet, they couldn't find him. Not even word of anyone seeing the fancy dressed southerner. Knowing how hurt and angry his friend had been, Chris continually flogged himself for failing to speak up in time to stop the man from fleeing. He'd been so sure that he could track him down that he'd wasted time contacting Vin and drawing him out of Four Corners to safety.

They'd been in contact with the rest of their friends back in town by way of telegrams. Carefully worded, the messages had let them know that Vin was safe and that they were looking for Ezra now. So far there'd been no word on the hunters reaching Four Corners, but that seemed only a question of time. For now, they would head back toward Eagle Bend and try another trail out of the town. Silently, Chris was praying that Ezra hadn't met something he couldn't deal with out in the wilderness between towns.

"He's trail smart, ya know." Vin's low Texas' drawl interrupted Larabee's latest internal plea to the powers that be.

Chris' eyes slid to the side to take in his quiet friend. "Yeah." Wiping at the back of his neck, he resettled himself in his saddle and neck-reined Brazos over as they started their way out of Egg's Hell. He stared up the hill that shouldered above the tiny crossroads, a clear trail heading over it leading to Eagle Bend. "Just worried about him."

"We'll find him." Vin made sure that his words rung with confidence. He'd learned that from Ezra, you had to sound convinced yourself or no one would believe you. He wondered just what had happened to the hurting man who'd walked out on Larabee.

The two men had been keeping company for sometime, from what he'd observed. He liked both men and it seemed to him that the building union would be a good thing for both, and for the seven as well. Each man had seemed more settled, less volatile, since they'd started seeing each other privately. Vin had quietly signaled Larabee with his acceptance of the new twosome; so he had been let in on the partnership enough to know when Chris decided to go away with Ezra for a while, to build a stronger linking. The others had just known that Larabee and Standish were on a job out of town. With a close-mouthed bastard like Chris, that was enough, no questions asked. Vin snorted to himself. If this keeps up, the rest are going to have to know what is going on so they can help. Privacy be damned. Won't let old Ez get hurt, know that Chris will go crazy, too, if we don't find our southerner soon.

Together, Larabee and Tanner walked their horses up the trail, talking finished for now. Reaching the crest of the hill, with open path before them, both men gigged their mounts into ground-covering canters.

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Ezra sat on a crate, wiping at his face as he removed shaving soap, his image in the small travel mirror showed his face pale, and thinner than he'd been in a long time. Despite all the kindnesses he'd been shown this past week, he had fallen into a deep depression. The only times he was truly happy were when he was with the cats or with Chaucer.

His horse loved the attention in the ring and performed flawlessly, flicking his beribboned tail and keeping his neck arched so that the tiny bells and bows worked into his flowing mane seemed to dance and chime with his movements. Ezra's form-fitting black outfit seemed to reduce him to a shadow on the flashy chestnut's back, the tiny saddle a mere postage stamp on the sleek barrel of the horse. The thin cotton trousers ended in straps that kept the bottom cuffs tight against his ankles, his 'boots' in reality little more than black slippers with shafts that clung up to mid-calf. His shirt was of the thinnest silk, snugly contoured to his flat stomach, cut low in a nearly embarrassing display of chest. He'd objected to the costume, but Maryjane had managed to convince him that no one would recognize the normally well-covered and fashionably clad gambler.

Athletic prowess, unrecognized in Four Corners, was making his performance on Chaucer a stunning show for the small backwoods audiences flocking to the traveling show. Jack had told him that if he would stay, he'd get star billing. It wasn't that easy to find a performer who worked on horseback, doing handstands on withers or balancing on one foot while seeming to float above the smooth-gaited horse, arms out like a bird, his other leg raised behind him in graceful parody to the bird's tail. Chaucer's fine looks and showy style only added to the mix.

Later, doing the cat act, he'd exchange his skimpy black shirt for a flowing, billowing white one, with many ruffles, still open at the neck to a plunge down to his midriff. Ezra shook his head at his reflection. It had been a long time since he'd had to earn a living on his looks. With a self-depreciating half-smile, he pulled out his small scissors and began to trim his sideburns, taming back his lustrous light brown hair.

At least, with the cats, he had the advantage of protection from the swarms of humanity that had no fear of horses. Crowding close to the edges of the ring during the equestrian shows, they quickly backed off when the tigers leaped down from their carefully positioned wagon and into the center ring.

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Vin drew rein abruptly.

His horse plodding steadily along behind his friend's, Chris had to react quickly, tugging Brazos off to one side of the narrow trail to avoid Peso now standing stiffly alert. "Vin?"

"Something's wrong." Tanner rose up in his stirrups to better see around them, craning his neck and scrutinizing the shallow pass they were approaching. The sides of the mountains collided here, debris from old landslides eventually settling between the two to form a hollow that was fairly level and much easier to travel through than scaling the steep sides of the higher elevations. The hairs on the back of his neck had risen unaccountably. He sniffed the air, trying to identify what was causing his unease.

Larabee coaxed his horse up beside Vin's. Suspiciously, he eyed the deep pockets of shade in the rough landscape and the clumps of dry, scrubby trees. Just as his horse came even with Tanner's, a shot rang out.

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Ezra stood poised in the center of the ring. The grass had been trodden down by the horse acts, including his trick-riding act with Chaucer. Quinn had just introduced him as Wilhelm, tamer of beasts. He stood with a long thin riding crop in hand, body turned slightly to the side as he waited for Jack to stride to the still curtained wagon at the back edge of the ring. Louis, their musician, produced a staccato drum roll. With another flourish, Jack cranked the curtain up, and revealed the two alert tigers. The sound of that particular drumbeat was their signal too.

The crowd gasped. The trick horsemanship was impressive, even to westerners well-used to the demands of horseback, but this was totally different. This was exotic, a whiff of danger and the unknown. Even the wranglers, who'd laughingly heckled Ezra and the other performing riders, fell silent.

Jack pulled the pin on the center gate of the wagon's barred side and first Clarice, then Sindhaj dropped gracefully to the ground. Ezra quickly moved to them and the three faced off in their now well-practiced routine. One snap of his whip into the air and the ladies paced around him, emitting low growls, lips raised in convincing snarls. Their large bodies slunk past with sinuous power, paws as large as dinner plates padded silently on the horse's circular track.

Two roustabouts rolled in half-barrels, letting them drop to form short platforms near the center of the ring. With smooth, wide-armed motions, Ezra signaled the girls up onto their perches. Obediently, the two black and orange beauties hunched up on the almost too-small drums and roared with open-mouthed fearsomeness. The revealed teeth, sharp and larger than any puma's, drew another loud gasp from the audience, now all edging back from the ring where the two huge tigers bristled. Ezra called out simple commands, putting first Sindhaj, then Clarice through paces well learned. He used German only because it was the language of their regular trainer, currently suffering from an uncomfortable bout of dysentery.

By now, he and the cats had captured the imaginations of the watching throng and periodic cheers and clapping burst out with sincere admiration and a touch of fear. This is what made the price of admission well worth the cost. SoHo Jack, standing on the sidelines with Maryjane, grinned fondly at his foster son's professional performance. The boy was good.

A startled silence fell again as Ezra's finale dropped him to his knees between the two cats who circled tightly, one on either side of him, before sprawling down against him, their big heads resting on his thighs. Ezra let his arms come to rest around their necks, hugging the two to his sides. For a moment, he lowered his face down to bury it in their neck fur, his smile hidden from the crowd as the tigers' twin purrs vibrated against his ribs, nearly shaking his encircling arms. He held the tableau with them for just a short count of seconds, then pulled back and called sharply so that both cats sprung to their feet to dash madly around the ring.

Women screamed and men cursed, everyone stepping back even further. Then with another loud command, Ezra spun on his heel and leapt to the side of the wagon gate. First Clarice, then Sindhaj with a final irrepressible growl, bounded back into their cage and reared up with front paws high on the barred side, white furred bellies exposed. A clank had the barred gate closing and then Ezra bowed to the audience as Jack dropped the curtain on the cats' cage. The applause was loud and enthusiastic. Ezra's flash of teeth was the only true smile that Jack had seen in several days. He rested a large hand on his friend's shoulder for a moment of support before the show moved on to the acrobats and he and Ezra faded off to the side.

"Beautiful job, Ezra!" Maryjane kissed the thin cheek, fussing over the southerner as she tossed a warm cape over his shoulders. The day was brisk here in the foothills of the mountains. Tomorrow they would cross a low pass and move on to a scattering of small towns further west. She wasn't sure that Ezra would travel with them.

"I'll just check on the girls." Ezra smiled softly at Maryjane and Jack, and nodded to Quinn who was waiting at the edge of the ring, ready with the knife-thrower and his lovely assistant. With a final pat to Maryjane's shoulder, Ezra quickly walked away, already uncomfortable with the attention his caring friends gave him. For some reason, today he was feeling anxious and needed the comfort and closeness of a warm, loving body. The tigers were the closest thing to what he really craved --- Chris. With a quick look around to make certain there were no lurking observers, Ezra ducked under the canvas at the back of the tigers' wagon and swung out a small door normally used for feeding the big cats. Slipping inside, he murmured greetings to the two animals who shifted restlessly at his arrival. Both crowded close to him, nearly smothering him as they pressed against him. With soft words and a soothing touch, he settled them easily and then crawled into their warm furry mound to snuggle close. A big, gentle paw came to rest on his stomach. He wrapped his arms around the thickly furred limb and he closed his eyes, imagining something, someone quite different, but no less dangerous.

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"Ah, shit!" Vin Tanner dove off his horse, yanking his rifle free from its sheath as he left the saddle. Chris had been knocked backwards off Brazos by a bullet as best as Vin could tell. His friend now lay unmoving on the stone strewn trail as both horses trod perilously close to Larabee's body. "Git away!" He slapped at Peso's near leg and made a shooing motion at the animals who quickly moved off, reins trailing the ground.

"Chris?" His hissed call went unanswered as he peered around trying to find the source of the single shot. Before he could do more, a volley of shots crashed around him, coming from three different spots. They'd ridden right into an ambush. Likely the bounty hunters, after him. And Larabee took my bullet, damn it, rode too close at the wrong time. With a look of regret and helplessness for his best friend, he flopped on to his belly and took aim at the flash of gunfire showing in the group of trees just above him on the right side of the trail. Taking a slow breath, he squeezed the trigger.

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"Chris!" Vin wriggled closer to his best friend's still form, finally reaching out to grasp one limp arm and shake it. "Larabee!"

There was no response and Vin Tanner feared the worst. He continued edging closer on his belly, one hand firmly holding his Sharps, finger still hooked on the trigger. Nearly on top of the silent gunslinger, he risked a quick look at Larabee.

Blood bloomed from a tear up near the man's right shoulder, his dark gray shirt black with the blood now dripping onto the dry stony earth. While painful and dangerous if untreated, it should not have had the man so still.

Gently, Vin pressed two fingers to his friend's neck. The pulse within was strong and steady. Snatching quick glances away from the silent hillsides surrounding them, Vin slide his fingers up to Larabee's scalp, probing behind the blond's ear. The fingers came away coated in more blood. Damn. Probably hit his head on a rock when he was blasted from the saddle.

Vin rolled onto his back and twisted his neck, first to his right, then left. His movements provoked response as three gunshots sounded at once. Aiming carefully at the spot he'd seen a flare of light among shadow, high in the tree line, Vin fired off one round.

A pained cry came from the wooded spot. With a satisfied smile, Vin raised up slightly to turn and face the other ambushers. He never got completely turned. Another volley of shots was fired and Vin felt a harsh burn on his gun arm, then a second agonizing pain that barely registered against his skull, and day dimmed to darkness.

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Ezra pulled Chaucer down to a slower pace as he came even with Quinn O'Hara. The man, who could be ringmaster, sword swallower, or roustabout, was also the chief scout and trailblazer for the traveling troupe. Ezra was more comfortable with the man since Quinn had stopped pressing his attentions on the southerner.

They'd gone off hunting twice, with several others who were the best shots among the group, pulling down an elk, two mule deer, and several rabbits. The tigers were fed well, along with the hungry performers.

Now Quinn, on his flashy pinto, rode nearly a mile ahead of the wagons, ensuring that the trail was clear and safe. Standish respected the man more and more as he grew to know the Irishman, whose dark good looks were beginning to draw Ezra's eye. Quinn hadn't bothered him with too-intimate touches or invitations since Ezra had warned him off and Ezra appreciated that. The man's warm humor and sharp intelligence were attractive.

Feeling relaxed, plodding along beside Quinn on his Annie, Ezra chuckled at Chaucer's flirting and coy moves toward the pretty mare. Though Chaucer was no longer a full stallion, he seemed to ignore that fact upon occasion. Catching Quinn's eye, Ezra grinned.

Breath catching in his throat, Quinn O'Hara nearly reached for the beautiful man at his side, only firm discipline keeping him in check. Ezra was such a lovely boyo, smart and talented, and so damn pretty. Those dimples and smiling green eyes took O'Hara home to the old country, to the Emerald Isle that was usually so far away. He yearned desperately to sweep Standish into his arms and smother him in kisses, lavish him with caresses and thrust deep within that tender flesh. Fisting his reins and heart, Quinn straightened and breathed deeply, tearing his eyes from his laughing companion and looking ahead to the low pass they were approaching. Something caught his eye.

Ezra saw the sudden change in O'Hara's demeanor, from friendly amusement and suppressed lust, to alert concern. Looking ahead, following Quinn's gaze, Ezra spotted several birds of prey circling over a dark shadow misplaced on the sunlit rocky trail, just at the highest point of the trail's rising path. Exchanging a worried look with Quinn, Ezra and his new friend urged their mounts forward at a fast clip, both drawing weapons without comment.

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"VIN!" Ezra's cry was one of surprise and fear as he slipped from his saddle and dropped to his knees next to the still form on the rocky path. Ignoring the sound of Quinn climbing down and crunching over to his side, he gently touched two fingers to Vin Tanner's exposed neck. He felt the strong pulse beneath his fingers and sighed, sagging back to sit on his heels and draw a deep breath.

"A friend?"

And Quinn was beside him, crouching and offering an open canteen and clean neckerchief. Ezra nodded, accepting the water and cloth, quickly dampening the calico and gently wiping Tanner's dusty face, blotting at dried blood that had streamed down from a harsh bullet crease above his left temple.

"Yes." Ezra didn't waste further time answering Quinn. Beyond that, Vin was a wanted man, it wouldn't do to simply blurt the man's full name out regardless of how much he might trust someone like Quinn.

Together, the two men assessed Tanner's injuries. Ezra was relieved to find only one other minor wound, a graze to Tanner's gun arm. By the time they had cleaned the wounds and wrapped Tanner's head with one of Ezra's white shirts, torn into efficient strips by Ezra's shaking hands, the first wagons of the carnies' were in sight behind them.

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Chris cracked one eye open, fighting a swimming sensation in his head. The bright light of day hurt and he squinted his eyes tightly shut instantly. The swaying movements of a horse beneath him were causing his stomach to clench as well and he realized he was resting on his belly on the back of a saddled horse. Short testing flexes told their own story - he was bound, wrist and foot and secured, most likely by rope, to the saddle. The brief movements also produced shooting fire in his shoulder.

"Hey, Mr. Bockman! Think he's waking up." A rough voice sounded close by.

Larabee gritted his teeth. Clarence Bockman. He had no doubts at all. He'd managed to kill off two of the man's sons in a gunfight up in Abilene several years earlier, back when he was still mostly alone and angry and largely drunk, grieving his lost family. Mostly alone because Buck Wilmington had still hovered nearby in those days, trying to pull Chris from his deep pit of despair.

Had Buck been with him when Bockman got him? He swallowed on a dry, scratchy throat, forcing bile back down with a choked cough. Damn, he couldn't think, couldn't remember. Where had he been? How had he been caught? He could tell that somehow his head had been hurt along with what felt like a gunshot wound to the shoulder but his mind was a blank. He remembered ... Ezra. Ezra, angry and leaving. And nothing more.

But, Ezra wouldn't betray him, hurt him, turn him over to someone like Bockman. No, not his Ezra. Where was Ezra? Chris felt his heart clench in fear.

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Having removed Tanner's leather coat to inspect his arm, Ezra had bundled it under Vin's head. He used Vin's neckerchief to wrap around his friend's head, covering the white strips of his own shirt that bandaged the head wound. Ezra wiped the Texan's face with Quinn's offered bandana. Tanner remained unresponsive. Ezra looked up at Quinn O'Hara, his worry clear in his light green eyes as he assessed the distance back to the now close, approaching lead wagon of the carnies.

"We need help. Quinn, can you get-"

"That one's ours."

The harsh voice came from behind Ezra who was turned to face the on-coming carnie train. Craning his neck around, Ezra was dismayed to discover five rather rank looking individuals mounted on equally scruffy looking horses. The quintet had apparently ridden up, nearly soundless, on the thickly dust-covered trail, while he and Quinn were concentrating on Vin Tanner.

Licking his lower lip, Ezra sat straighter, pulling Vin's supine form close to him. "Sirs?"

"That there is Vin Tanner, a wanted man." The man in the center spat at the ground and Ezra curled a lip in disgust. Before he could answer, the man continued, "We claim bounty on him."

"You, my good man, are mistaken." Ezra put every ounce of firm conviction into his voice, one hand reaching out to press his palm against Vin's face and shadow the handsome features. He looked down at Tanner, a good friend, and, apparently, the man that Chris doted on in his dreams. Enough testimonial for saving the Texan. "He is my cousin, Vender Standish."

The men on horseback looked unconvinced. "Yeah?" the apparent leader scoffed, "then how come he's laying out here all shot up?"

"He is NOT 'shot up' as you so vulgarly say," Ezra gently patted Vin's shoulder and pushed up to his feet so that he could stand and face these adversaries. "He was on point with Mr. O'Hara," here Ezra nodded at his nonplussed companion, still thankfully silent, "and me as we scouted the trail for our traveling show."

The scowling men in front of him stared down unmoved.

"His horse was startled by a serpent," put in Quinn, warming to his part, unsure of Ezra's intentions but ready to help any way he could.

"And his wounds are honorable from meeting the ground roughly," put in Jack who had stomped up to the front when the confrontation was observed by the lead wagoneer.

Ezra flashed bright green eyes at Quinn, then Jack, his gratitude clear as he nodded sharply. He faced off against the bounty hunters once more. "There, you heard my colleagues. Vender is one of us."

"Vender, huh?" The skeptical tone and frown of the leader told Ezra that his ploy was not a complete success yet.

"Ven needs medical treatment and you gentlemen don't appear to have any to offer, so I would suggest you ride on." Ezra let one hand rest on his Remington, still holstered on his hip. He wasn't dressed in his usual garb, instead in simple leather breeches and a light linen shirt, easy and comfortable for the carnival life. Somehow, dressed as he was, he had a feeling that he was more convincing to the strangers who were eyeing the gathering crowd of carnie folk, all similarly attired. The fact that Vin, minus his buffalo hide coat and slouch hat, could pass for one of them helped.

A glance down at his 'cousin' had Ezra dropping back down to his knees. Bright blue eyes were studying him. "Ven? Here, drink this." He offered a sip from his canteen, ignoring his two audiences.

Vin took a few sips as Ezra supported his head, then carefully pushed it away and let his eyes wander to the circle of faces above him, seeing the bounty hunters and the other folk who apparently were Ezra's friends.

"Ez?" Vin's voice was soft.

"Just be still," was the equally soft reply. "I'll take care of this." The unspoken 'I'll take care of you' was easy for Vin to hear. He relaxed, his fuzzy world dimming again, but without fear, safe in a brother's care.

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Chris Larabee grunted as he was dragged off the barrel of the horse he'd been carried on and dropped to the earth. Unforgiving, dusty, stony earth. His quick inhale, after having the air punched out of his lungs on that landing, gave him a lungful of dust and he coughed, retching at the same time as his uneven brain tried to adjust to a concussion and more injuries on top of that. Someone kicked him in the side with a sharp-toed boot, the burst of pain so severe that he curled around his stomach and began to pant.

Clarence Bockman stooped over the bastard who'd killed his two best sons. His weathered face, lines deep as furrows in a new-dug field, creased around a toothy snarl. He used a forearm to push back his battered Stetson and then grabbed a handful of Larabee's hair. Ignoring the choking coughs and quick breathing, he yanked the man's head up and back off the ground, forcing his skull back toward his shoulders as he raised him, exposing a long column of neck that seemed to be convulsing as he stared in anger. With a viciousness that sent chills through his crew who surrounded him, he punched the whoreson in the unprotected throat.

His windpipe was suddenly crushed by massive force and Chris lay bound and helpless as he choked on his own vomit and his lean body thrashed about seeking release and oxygen without success. His head, held painfully up and back by hair that pulled at his scalp, was released and he dropped down, arching his back and trying to breathe past the sore and swelling esophagus. Gasping, open-mouthed, he sagged back to the ground as air finally moved through his abused neck and relieved his foundering lungs. Face a smear of sweat and dust, he blinked his eyes open again and tried to see past the dirt that now thickly stuck to him, caking his skinned face. Slits of ice green, so murky it might be blued moss, sought out his enemy and stared. Bockman. Mind clearing, he knew he was not going to be getting any help soon and grimly set himself to die.

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Reluctantly, the five bounty hunters neck-reined their ill-looking horses to the side of the trail and then trotted them past the long straggling line of carnival wagons and folk. The men were sullen and suspicious as they all eyed the carnies, uncaring that they raised more unwelcome dust clouds to blanket the traveling troupe in their passage.

Jack's people stared and cursed as the five mounted men clattered past, eyeing them in a surly fashion. While no one knew what the passing men were about, word was already spreading that Ezra had had words with them to protect a stranger. A stranger who Ezra said was his cousin. The troupe buzzed with the news and conjecture.

Once the gang moved away, Ezra slumped a bit in relief, kneeling fully on the ground next to Vin Tanner who was unconsciousness once again. Gently, he wiped the drying blood from Vin's face and stared down at the man who owned his lover's heart.

A strong and handsome man, Vin Tanner, with the skills a cowman or hunter needed to survive and conquer wilderness. Ezra had always admired Vin as a most suitable specimen for success in this wild west that was their home. All six of the peacekeepers respected Vin's talents and knowledge, followed his lead in many things and treated him as an honored member of their group.

Ezra had watched Tanner's link to Chris Larabee become a firm bond from the beginning of the group's association. He had admired, and later envied, that bonding. Eventually he'd yearned to have a similar one with Chris. Instead, he'd had the man's body. Much as he enjoyed Chris in his bed or blanket, he wanted more and yet always suspected that Vin already occupied the rest of Chris - his attention, his spirit, his mind, and his love.

A touch at his shoulder broke Ezra's reverie. Looking away from Vin, he met Jack's worried eyes. "Ezra, who is he?"

With a shaky laugh, throwing off his painful thoughts, Ezra shrugged. "You heard, Jack. He's my cousin. He's also a good friend and a good man. Those cretins were mistaken." Ezra made sure that his voice sounded firm and full of conviction. Not even Jack would know the truth, it was too dangerous for Vin. Ezra trusted Jack and liked his people very much, but one wrong word, whispered in the wrong ears or even just overheard, could be a death warrant for Vin. He might be jealous of Tanner, but he also held him a close and true friend and could never betray that friendship in any way. So, for now, and until Vin could heal and leave, he would be Ezra's cousin Ven. A poor and panicked invention, but perhaps sufficient with the carnies' blind support.

Ezra essayed a smile that gradually became easier as he looked over Jack's shoulder to meet the bright eyes of Quinn O'Hara. "Just my cousin."

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Quinn frowned down at the dark muddy spot nearly a full length from where Ezra's cousin still remained unconscious on the ground. Cautiously he touched it with a fingertip and brought the damp grit to his nose. The iron smell of blood, still damp, drew his frown deeper. Glancing over to where Jack stooped above Ezra, he called out, "Ezra? There's blood over here. I don't think it came from your cousin."

Ezra, who had just lowered Vin's shoulders back to the ground, gently easing his bandaged head onto the bundle of buckskin jacket, froze for a moment. Turning to stare at where Quinn O'Hara knelt on one knee on the trail, he eyed the dark patch of earth and then Quinn's raised finger, darkened with the tarry mud. He silently measured the distance from Vin Tanner's form to the other bloody spot. No, not Vin's. Not one of the bounty hunters. They would have crowed that out. He swallowed a sudden lump in his throat. Who would have been riding with Vin? And why was Vin alone when they found him? In frustration, he stared at the muddle of tracks that churned up the trail all around them. Certainly he could not decipher any story from the mess. He looked back over at O'Hara. Unlikely he could either. Not after those bounty hunters' passage.

"Ezra?"

"I don't know, Quinn. Maybe you're right, but until Ven wakes and can speak with us, there isn't any way to know."

Jack looked sharply at his friend. Ezra's voice sounded despairing. He straightened and clapped a hand on Standish's shoulder. "Ezra, let's get your cousin in one of the wagons, we need to move on to the evening campsite."

Quinn stood up and joined Jack and the two men bent together, one taking Tanner's shoulders, the other his legs at the knees. Lifting the limp body, they drew off to the side of the trail with Ezra following, Vin's hat and jacket held tightly to his chest in folded arms.

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Vin slowly fought his way out of the darkness. His brain ached and thinking was difficult. He remembered seeing Ezra. Seeing a circle of faces, some looking friendly, others angry and ugly. Bounty hunters! Vin bolted upright, striking his head on something hard. He cried out softly in surprise and pain, one hand going to his head.

"Vin, calm down." Ezra's soft voice was close by.

Tanner swallowed hard and risked opening one eye. "Ez?" They were inside a wagon, of that he was fairly certain. The movements of the whole structure pretty much confirmed his fuzzy thought. "Where?"

"We are riding in a wagon, in a wagon train of carnival performers." Almost as an afterthought, Ezra added, "My friends."

Since when? Without speaking aloud, Vin wondered at this turn of events. He fingered the swath of bandaging around his head, thick over his brow. Wincing at the pain that pressure provoked, he closed his eyes and tried to remember what had happened. He had been riding to - where? Somewhere. Why? He'd gotten word from Chris about meeting up on the trail. Bacon's Corner. He tried to pin down his hazy thoughts.

"Vin?" Ezra lightly touched Vin's hand where it rested on the makeshift bedding. "We found more blood. Not yours. At the ambush site," Ezra tried to be encouraging even though he could see that his friend was confused.

"Blood?" Vin coughed and found a tin cup of water being pressed into his hand. Gratefully, he grasped it and raised it for several careful sips. Blinking his eyes again, he saw the inside of a modified Conestoga more clearly. The row of gaudy tights and sequined bits of clothing swung in decided jerks beside and above him, hanging from some sort of rack. The bright colors attracted him and he lost focus again.

"Mr. Tanner?" Ezra's hiss brought Vin back to the moment.

"Yeah?" Vin shook his head. Big mistake. The world swung wildly about, unconnected to the wagon's lurch and sway. The combination left him gasping in pain and fighting bile that rose uncomfortably from his stomach. "Oh, god." He bent over, only to feel strong hands catch him and guide him to lean over a wooden bucket. It was enough. He lost everything inside him over the next few minutes. He accepted a wet rag and wiped his mouth, spitting into it to clear the taste of his vomit.

Ezra eased his friend back to a semi-reclining position. "Vin, you have a bad concussion. You will be all right but it will take time. A bullet clipped your head. You are most fortunate to be alive at all, my friend."

Sighing, Vin sagged back on the pillows arranged behind his shoulders and head. "Don't remember much." He didn't try to shake his head again but did pause, trying to recall anything. He felt the bullet burn again just as he was hovering over - "Chris!" He jerked upright once more, then moaned as his body objected.

Ezra paled, biting his lower lip as he tried to support Tanner's now hunched form. "Chris?" His whisper sounded half-strangled even to his own ears.

"Yeah, he fell off his horse." Vin's voice was confused, dry and scratchy and he closed his eyes. "There was a lot of blood on his head, must have hit it when he fell."

Ezra tensed as he watched Tanner struggle to remember more. He wanted to hit something and scream out his fears. Chris was hurt out there somewhere. "Vin, please, try to think. Who did this? Where is Chris now?"

"I don't know, Ez. Never saw who it was. Chris was on the ground beside me when I got hit. That's the last I remember." Vin's voice faded as he slowly turned his head on the scratchy cotton sackcloth covering his pillow. He looked at the gambler. Ezra looked haunted, his face bleached of color, eyes huge in a drawn, too thin face. "Ez? You hurt too?"

"No, Vin. Just worried." Ezra gently patted the concussed man on his uninjured shoulder, then closed his eyes and leaned back against one of the struts that held up the canvas canopy above them. Chris was in trouble, he knew it. Vin was injured and needed protecting. What was he supposed to do? The pain in his heart only confused him more.

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Chris shivered. The icy water ran over his body in rapid sheets as he lay mostly submerged in the bed of a mountain stream, only his face raised enough to keep his nose and mouth above the water. A sure hand held his head high enough so that he wouldn't drown. Chris stared helplessly up at a blue sky through the tops of pole pines, so tall and spindly that they seemed to be mop ends pointed skyward. The rush of cold water soothed his battered body, eased the pain in his side and was finally reducing the swelling of the side of his throat where Bockman had punched him viciously the day before.

Since then, he'd barely been able to breathe and been unable to speak, not that he'd say anything to the son of a bitch. If Bockman had hit his neck straight on, Larabee would have been dead by now and he knew it. For some reason, the old man didn't want Chris dead - yet.

Chris, with nothing to do but breathe and think, let his mind drift back to what had happened after his capture and beating.

When Bockman had realized how bad off Larabee was, he'd told his cook to look after him. Harvey, the cookie for the trail crew, had taken one look at the swelling, reddened tissue and shook his head. "Mr. Bockman, he ain't gonna keep breathing if we don't ice that neck. It'll puff right up and choke him off, just like he's been dancing a jig on the end of a rope."

Several of the men stirred uncomfortably as they stood or sat around the dry camp where their boss had dragged the killer of his sons. While they all sympathized with their trail boss, losing two sons must be tough, the drovers were not used to such violence against strangers and the thought of watching this one die at their feet didn't sit well at all.

Bockman, who'd been pacing, anger still high, had stopped and stared down at the curled up form of the dark-clad gunslinger. Frowning, he'd looked over at his cook. "We don't have any ice."

Possum, one of the scouts, spoke out. "We go up country," he nodded toward the tall mountains surrounding the valley to which they'd retreated from the ambush, "we can find a runoff. Likely be cold enough to feel like ice."

"That do it, Harvey?" Bockman had asked, dropping to crouch by the man whose breathing was a loud sawing sound, eyes squinted shut in pain.

"Yes sir, think it might work, but we'd have to go soon." Harvey had looked doubtfully over at the suffering prisoner. "Better put his hands in front of him, too, might ease the pull on his neck."

"Do it." Bockman pushed back up to his feet and looked around the circle of his men's wary faces. "We'll travel up country a bit. Any of you want to head home before I'm done with my business, go on." He flicked a look over at Possum. "Possum, I'll need you and," he looked consideringly at his crew, "Chandler and Marty." The two toughs were his least reliable men, but they were both mean-spirited and so probably better suited for what he had in mind.

There was a sense of relief, almost a sigh, from a good many of the men. With muttered apologies and farewells, the rest of the trail crew picked up the small items taken out for the dry camp stop and began to pack up. Bockman ignored them. He'd meet up with them later, back at the trailhead. The cattle herd that they had delivered to a rancher down here in the territories was already becoming a distant memory as he stared at the man who'd killed his sons, Ike and Tom.

Chris, twisted and aching on the ground, had been briefly released from the bindings on his wrists, his arms were wrenched painfully to the front where they were quickly retied. Not that he could have done much, between the ache to his head from what was likely a concussion, to the bullet wound, to the beating, it was all he could do to struggle for one more breath.

Blinking away the rapidly flowing water that passed over him now, he thought about it all and gritted his teeth. Too ornery to die yet, he decided.

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Ezra slipped out of the back of the wagon and dropped to the ground. Morning found him stiff and tired. Vin was resting comfortably. Some patented mixture that Maryjane had produced finally let Tanner sleep. Ezra rubbed at his forehead, trying to fight off a headache from the strain of the last fifteen hours or so. Since finding Vin and discovering sign of a second man, Ezra's thoughts had been churning in fear. Although Vin had yet to be fully awake or cognizant, he'd said enough that Ezra was fairly certain the missing man was Chris Larabee. Standing in the dawn light, he bit his lip and began to worry it, gnawing at his troublesome fears and feeling of helplessness.

Quinn O'Hara slowly stood up from where he'd kept vigil through the night. Ezra had come to mean a lot to him. The attraction was strengthening as he admired how the man protected his cousin and then nursed the man so faithfully. Quinn wasn't afraid to go after what he wanted in life, but he'd never really wanted anyone the way he was growing to want the southerner. The man was beautiful, but that wasn't enough to keep O'Hara on the track like this, it had been the man's spirit and intellect that shone through, and now his grace and loyalty. Quinn began to think he might just be falling in love. Quietly, he approached his so far unrequited love.

Ezra straightened abruptly as two hands gripped his shoulders from behind.

"Easy there, Ezra. I just want to help you relax a bit."

Quinn's soft voice helped ease his panic. Nodding slowly, Ezra leaned back into the strong hands that began to massage his shoulders and neck, letting the tight muscles loosen and the strains ease off. Closing his eyes, he let himself drift under the caring hands of his friend.

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"Feel better?" the warm, moist breath on his neck sent frissons of shock up and down Ezra's spine.

Dumbly, he nodded, his tension melting beneath the firm, careful hands on his shoulders, hands that were tracing the tension up his neck and pressing deeply to loosen it there. He wished silently that they were different pair of hands, then quashed his pointless wishing. The thoughts were quickly replaced, however, with fearful images of Chris hurt and alone, out there somewhere. He opened his eyes and stared up at the pale sky where dark silhouettes of birds in a loose cloud formation flew overhead, the faint sound of their cries like a tinkling on the air. Chris. The cry came from his heart but never left his lips.

Inside the wagon, Vin Tanner woke, feeling rested and alert, hearing the morning sounds of the wilderness close by. Swallowing harshly on a dry throat, he slit open his eyes and let his sight traverse the small wagon interior. He had vague memories of the night before, of Ezra hovering over him. Strangers, too, but ones that Ezra seemed to trust. With the silent movements of a survivalist, Tanner curled upward to a seated position and then rolled on up to his knees. Early light leaked through the open tailgate of the wagon and he could make out the shapes of more than one man there. The shorter one turned his head as if following something up in the sky. Ezra! He'd know his friend anywhere. But where was Chris?

Slowly, he crawled forward to the wide rear opening of the wagon, parting his lips to call out a greeting when a stranger's murmur stopped him.

"Ezra? Do you think you might reconsider my offer?"

Vin's eyes narrowed. Something in the tone was suggestive, almost pleading. What kind of offer? He waited.

"Quinn, I can't think right now. I have a cousin injured and a friend missing."

"About this friend," Quinn's voice paused, then continued, "how do you know that the missing man is your friend?"

"Ven and Chris travel together often. They are best friends. It is most likely."

So Chris is missing? Vin's hands formed fists, he frowned.

"Still, is that not Ven's affair?"

"His affair?" There was something in Ezra's voice that made Vin flinch, the pain that cut through the normally mellow southern tones cut so deeply that it sounded almost hoarse. Then Ezra spoke again. "Yes, you are correct. Chris is Ven's." A pause, and Vin could hear Ezra clear his throat softly. "But he is my friend, too. And he may be in serious trouble right now. As soon as Ven can help me, we will have to go and try to help Chris. Find him."

The answer from this 'Quinn' was so low that Vin couldn't make it out. He decided to interrupt. He was ready, they could leave now. He moved closer to the half-drawn cloth boundary of the wagon's gate, lifting a hand to push aside the curtain. What he saw made him hesitate. Ezra wasn't just standing with the other man, he was in the man's arms, or at least held from behind as the man stroked his neck and shoulders in caresses that seemed too damn full of liberty, to Vin. This ain't what Chris would be expecting.

Vin took a deep breath and let out a large, loud yawn, clambering out now with thumpy movements and clumpy sounds. "Aye! Ez? You out there?" By the time he'd stuck his head out the back, Ezra and the other man were standing a respectable distance from each other and Ezra greeted Vin with a relieved smile.

"Ven! You're awake." Standish rushed up to Vin and grabbed his arms, pressing close to whisper quickly, "Remember you are my cousin 'Ven!'" Then he leaned back, still holding on to Tanner and smiled more broadly. "You look much better!" Green eyes flashed to Tanner's head wound, "How do you feel?"

Vin answered bluntly, "Like shit." He broke contact with Standish by twisting so he could swing his legs around and out of the wagon, then he slid forward, and dropped to the ground. The next few moments did not go as planned. The world swung around and the edges of his sight blurred and darkened.

"Ven!" And Ezra was there, catching him and holding him upright. "Here, sit down." Ezra eased Vin onto the flap of wooden tailgate that served as a boost step up into the wagon, and now could do for a perch.

Tanner slumped against the boxy backend of the wagon and sighed, eyes closing as his hand went up to lightly probe his head. "Hurts a might."

"I would think it does." That was that Quinn's voice, only louder and more 'normal.'

Vin's blue eyes snapped open and up to see the man facing him, taller that Standish, about Chris Larabee's height, but with smooth, raven black hair and interested, dark eyes. Ladies would say he was handsome, too, Vin imagined. Tanner grimaced, only partly in pain. This couldn't be good.

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"We keep just out of sight, follow nice and easy and wait." Acorn's words echoed in Jim Hansey's memory. Hansey, Acorn and their three friends, Morse, Upton, and Kendal, had been hunting bounty from the Mississippi to the Colorado. Right here in the Territories, they'd already counted at least six bounties and were nearly ready to head northeast back toward Nebraska.

Only one bounty left that they'd been aiming for, that Vin Tanner feller. Thought they'd found him until the smooth talker in the carnival wagon train claimed the man as a cousin. Mighty fishy. They'd been trailing a bunch of drovers with loud mouths who'd let drop that a man named Chris Larabee was headed toward Eagle Bend through a small pass in the foothills. Their boss had it in for this gunslinger, Larabee, for some reason and the whole bunch were talking ambush. Talking loud and nervous, like no one would give a care that their words might be heard.

John Acorn swore he'd heard that Larabee used Tanner as a tracker in some hick town down this way. So they'd decided to follow behind the old man and his loud-mouthed crew. The drovers were early risers, though, and had gotten ahead of them. By the time Hansey, Acorn and the rest had made it to the pass, all they found was an arriving wagon train and one downed rider. Jim was certain it was Tanner but the carnies at the front of the lead wagons insisted the man was one of theirs.

Hansey switched his chaw from one cheek pocket to the other, ignoring a bit of brown juice that dripped down his lip and burrowed through his badly stained salt and pepper beard. Looked like the waiting might be paying off. The man they figured was really Tanner just popped out of the rear of a wagon and was talking with those two men they'd met yesterday and faced off. With a huff, Jim Hansey pushed up on creaky knees and staggered off, back to the low camp below the ridge they were using as cover. Time to let John know that their bounty was out in the open again.

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Clarence Bockman was feeling his age. With both his best boys gone, it was hard to think of the future. His work as a trail boss was becoming harder each year as his bones felt the cold and wet, as the ache of a full day's ride in the saddle became harder to ignore, and as he gazed at younger and younger men working for him. With Ike and Tom dead, the purpose and energy had left his life. Those boys from his first wife were headstrong and sharp, vying for his approval and attention in all things. A sad smile pulled at his mouth for a brief moment as he stared into space, sipping coffee from a tin mug. Ike was the meaner one, much like his mother had been.

Bockman eased his legs out in front of him as he sat on his saddle in front of the small campfire. Possum was still out scouting for a way back out of the high pines. Now that it looked like Larabee would live, the old trail boss was anxious to track down his remaining son, a stepson really, but still, a son he thought of as his own. If Clarence could get the boy to come back to him, he still had time to start the ranch he'd always dreamed of owning. With a son, it was worthwhile. If his son would help him with Larabee, then the boy could prove his salt and drop his pansy ways. They'd finally be a family.

His gaze shifted over to where his cook, Harvey, had been trying to force some water down Larabee's throat. The man was a shivering mess. Clarence hid a grin behind his mug. Served the bastard right. The high and mighty gunslinger was hunched over on the ground, shaking uncontrollably with cold after being dowsed repeatedly in a freezing, fresh water mountain stream. Bockman's cook said the harsh treatment had worked at bringing down the swelling of a throat so abused that it had threatened to cut off the man's air. Bockman lost his small grin as he thought about his own actions. His fury had nearly lost him an opportunity to bring Larabee to proper justice and bring his last son back to Bockman. Once he'd had a chance to think, he'd calmed down and let the cook help Larabee. Keep the man alive until Clarence's son could be the one to kill him. It was only right.

Chris felt Bockman's calculating eyes on him. He didn't bother looking over at the old man relaxing by the campfire. Right now, he just concentrated on trying to find a spark of warmth within his own body. Despite a larger fire built up in front of him, he couldn't seem to feel it. Of course, the wet clothing he still wore didn't help any. Another involuntary shiver, so violent that it rattled his teeth, ran through his body. His wandering attention, slipping in and out of focus, drifted to his missing lover. Ezra. How could things go so wrong? He regretted the likelihood of never being able to see the man again, speak to him, clear up their troubles and kiss him silly. He nearly smiled for a moment and tried to shake his head to free his hair from dripping down into his eyes, but it was plastered there in wet strands and clumps and defied his efforts. At least he could breathe fairly easily again. Somewhere out there, Ezra was safe from all this. Maybe it was better this way. He didn't bother to test the ropes that bound his hands, the rough hemp had already stripped skin in patches from his wrists and the stickiness of blood was drying on his hands and between his fingers now.

The only thing he couldn't figure out was why he was still alive. Bockman's anger had been elemental, battering at him as he floundered from his concussion and shoulder wound. Now the shoulder was bandaged and his head was finally clearing. He had thought he was dying when the man punched him in the throat. Cautiously, he bent his neck and the spasms that had gripped it did not reappear, only stiffness and ache. He guessed the cold water had done that. But why? Bockman wanted him dead. So, why was he still alive?

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"Ven, you shouldn't have tried to get up so soon," Ezra scolded as he supported the tracker against the back of the wagon.

Vin could see that Standish was worried. "My head's hard, Ez, I'll be all right. Just give me a few minutes here."

"More than that, cousin." Ezra spoke meaningfully as his eyes slid to the side in a silent message.

Vin followed the quiet signal and saw that 'Quinn' was still standing there watching. With an effort, he straightened back to his feet, ignoring Ezra's fussing hands. "Howdy."

Ezra sighed and straightened beside him, clearly giving up. He cleared his throat and spoke softly. "Ven, this is Quinn O'Hara. He works with this carnival. He and I found you on the trail."

Vin nodded slightly, not trying for more since even that produced waves of dizziness and leaned back against the wagon. "Ez, we got to ride. Find Chris, he was shot."

"Shot?" Standish's already pale skin drained to white paste and he seemed to sag, then Quinn was behind him, hands around his waist, providing support.

Vin eyed the intimacy and pursed his lips. Before he could say anything more, Ezra had pushed O'Hara's hands back and away and stepped closer to Tanner. "Ven," the intensity of Standish's tone wiped away the usually melodious southern accent and left a flat, hard sound behind, "where is he?"

"Don't know." In frustration, Vin wiped at his face, then met green eyes that seemed to bore into him. "We were ambushed on the trail." He cast another glance at O'Hara, still hovering behind Ezra. "We were riding out to find you."

Surprise blanked Ezra's eyes for a moment, his normally placid expression gone as if it had never been. "Me?"

"Yeah." Vin stood slowly, testing his balance cautiously. "Chris said you and he'd had a misunderstanding and you took off."

Standish turned away from him now, and paced off toward a small campfire that Vin now noticed for the first time. Watching Ezra move in jerky steps toward that fire and then back, Vin had a few moments to take in the area around the three of them. A loosely arranged camp of wagons and carts, people and horses, mules, and even a team of oxen, populated the scene. Most moving slowly in those morning rituals of waking and starting a day. Wherever he was, it was some big group. Before he could really notice more, Ezra was back standing in front of him, looking serious.

"I don't understand."

Vin sighed. "Maybe we could talk private like?" He looked over at O'Hara. The man had been watching Ezra with concern and now turned to stare at Tanner, mutely suspicious if Vin read him right.

"Yes, yes, of course." Ezra patted Vin's shoulder gently, then still resting one hand on Vin's upper arm, he turned to face the man that Vin was beginning to dislike. "Quinn, I'm sorry, would you mind giving us a bit of privacy?"

O'Hara stepped back, flushing, and Vin's dislike subsided as the man nodded and walked away without a word. Maybe he was just being a friend?

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Buck sat in the saddle impatiently, fingering his horse's reins. Two days with no word from Chris or Vin, and no sign of Ezra, had been enough. When Nathan finally swung up onto his mount, Wilmington grunted approval and swung his eyes over the rest of his friends. JD was sawing the reins on his prancing horse, pulling the little mare back away from the livery entry. Josiah was sitting relaxed and slumped on his horse's back, blue eyes alert. With a nod and tip of his hat to the two livery boys who had helped get the mounts ready, Buck tugged his gray around toward the open street. "Let's ride."

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Nathan shook his head tiredly as he watched JD and Buck trudge out of the local jail. The men had clearly not found any news nor any clue about their missing friends. Josiah, seated on his horse, next to Nathan and his mount, sent a weary glance over at his friend. This was the second town they'd tried. Both were fairly close to the last town, Condon, where a telegram from Chris Larabee had originated. It seemed like Chris and Vin, still traveling together then, had since disappeared off the map while trying to find Ezra.

JD Dunne walked up to his horse and slipped the reins from the hitching post without a word, eyes downcast. Buck looked at their waiting friends and shrugged dispiritedly. Josiah, watching the gloom settling deeper, sat back in his saddle and rolled his shoulders, slumping further back still and from that angle, surveying the dusty little town of Two Step. Two steps likely all it would take to cross it. His eyes stopped their scan at the single saloon. Sometimes the best place for information wasn't the law.

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Soho Jack and Maryjane welcomed Ezra to their morning campfire, nodding curiously at his cousin. No one was quite sure what to make of Ezra's cousin appearing suddenly, injured and possibly in trouble. The man, Ven, walked slowly at Ezra's elbow. The two stopped in front of the carnival boss and his wife.

"So, Ezra, is Ven staying with us?" Jack was willing to extend his hospitality to a relative of his good friend.

Ezra licked his lower lip and eased down on to a handy crate, watching as Vin gingerly perched on another. Ezra sensed Quinn somewhere behind him. He knew that Quinn had shadowed them at a distance, still not sure about Vin. While it was nice that O'Hara was so concerned, Ezra was growing a bit impatient with the man's hovering protectiveness. Dismissing Quinn from his mind, he stifled a sigh and focused on his dear friends Jack and Maryjane.

"No, at least, not for very long." Ezra turned slightly to look at Vin Tanner who gazed back stoically. "These are the people I mentioned, Ven. I trust them." Of course, not with Vin's true name, but he and Vin had already quietly discussed that. The best secret was the one never told.

Vin's clear blue eyes were clearer, more alert now as they panned back to Jack and his wife. He nodded, "Ma'am, sir."

Ezra spoke again before his friends could begin any difficult conversations. "We have a friend in trouble. He was traveling with Ven and is gone. We both believe he may be in serious jeopardy."

Inside, Ezra's stomach clenched. Oh, god, Chris! He had to hold himself stiffly so that he wouldn't rock back and forth in his agony of worry. Vin had explained Chris' determination to seek out Ezra and mend their parting. To Ezra's relief and despair, he'd learned how wrong he'd been about any relationship between the two men. He felt sick at his stupidity. If only he'd let Chris explain! This was all his fault.

Jack sat up a bit and leaned forward but didn't comment, just listened closely, his eyes encouraging.

Ezra licked his lips again, a nervous mannerism that he'd never been able to break completely when among people he trusted or respected. He met Jack's eyes. "As soon as Vin can travel, probably later today, we are going to head out."

"But where?" Maryjane broke in, having heard some of what had gone before from Jack, she looked both concerned and confused.

"We'll track him, ma'am." Vin had both fists on his knees, bracing his balance and fighting off lightheadedness.

"What about that other pack of fellows? The ones who thought Ven here was their bounty?" Jack rubbed his hands together and then picked up his cooling coffee mug, flicking his gaze back and forth between Ezra and his cousin.

"I hope they have departed permanently."

"Ezra!" Maryjane cocked her head to the side in disbelief. "You 'hope'?"

Ezra hesitated. He really didn't want to discuss those bounty hunters but Maryjane was right, and it was the same point he'd tried to make with Vin earlier. They were, just as likely as not, lurking in the area because as cons went, his little veil of words was hardly very convincing to even himself. The men had ridden off because of the large number of persons facing off against them, not because they thought they'd made an error.

He tried to decide what to say now. There were times when the truth was much easier. Mother would roll over in her proverbial grave if she ever knew I even contemplated that for a moment! But, it was true, this was becoming very complicated. All I really want to do is go find Chris.

Ezra dropped his head and rubbed at the back of his neck. But Chris is Vin's friend, too, I can't leave Vin behind. He stole a glance over at Vin, only to meet those bright blue eyes staring back with intensity. He looked away. But, Vin will be in grave danger if he accompanies me. Exposed in the wilderness, I would have trouble defending him from five determined bounty hunters. For some reason, he just couldn't seem to think straight. Bowing his head again, he closed his eyes, then looked up.

"Yes."

What else could he say?

Vin realized that things were not going well and decided to speak up. "I'll be fine. Me and Ez will travel faster alone."

Everyone turned to study the tracker whose pale complexion testified to less than perfect health. Ezra cleared his throat, "So, you see, Jack, I shan't be able to help out anymore. I'm sorry."

Realizing he and Maryjane were being told to stop the interrogation, Jack clapped his hands to his knees and pushed up to his feet. "I'll miss you, Ezra! And not just for all the work, either." He circled the fire to reach Standish as the young man rose to his feet to meet him. Without hesitation, Jack pulled the southerner in for a hug and pat on the back. "You take care of yourself, boy," Jack whispered in one ear. He drew away to arms' length, still gripping Ezra's sturdy shoulders. "And know you always have a place with us."

Ezra smiled shyly at the emotional sentiment and nodded.

All business, Jack released his friend and said, "We should break camp in about a half hour. You'll come with us until Ven feels well enough to sit a horse?"

"Yes, of course." Ezra added, "I'll help get the tigers ready to travel."

"Good, good." Jack caught one of Maryjane's hands and helped her to her feet. He frowned to see his ringmaster, Quinn O'Hara, standing in the shadow of a nearby wagon, clearly listening in. With a shrug, he looked back over his shoulder and said, "We'll be in Two Step by late today. They claim that they have plenty of folk coming in from the surrounds for a one-night performance." He hesitated, then asked, "You sure you can't stay with us until tomorrow?"

Ezra fidgeted, something he hadn't done since he was a child. Somewhere out there Chris was hurt, possibly dead. He shuddered at the thought. If only he knew more! He wanted to scream instead of standing here exchanging pleasantries. "Jack," remonstration clear in his voice.

Jack held up both hands in a placating gesture, his enormous handlebar mustache quivering as he quickly apologized. "Sorry, sorry!"

Maryjane's plump hand reached out and wound around one of his. She turned to Ezra. "You do what you need to do. Tell us if we can help. Anytime. Anyway." She smiled a dimply, double-chinned smile of warmth that included Vin as well as Ezra. Then she led her husband toward the back of their wagon, leaving the two men by the fire.

Vin looked blankly at Ezra. "Tigers?"

Behind them, a shadow faded away.

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Josiah eased his large body into a rather rickety wooden armchair, one of several randomly scattered around a battered table at the back of the small, smoky saloon. No-name saloon in a puddle-jumper town. He quirked a smile as he stretched stiff muscles and waved a long arm at the bartender. Around him, Nathan, Buck, and JD were settling into similar beaten and creaky seats. "Some spirits might warm our own, my friends."

Buck was uncharacteristically silent, simply nodding as he dragged his wide brimmed hat from his head and whacked it on one extended thigh. JD coughed at the dust that produced and leaned away from his friend but didn't comment.

Nathan sat alertly on the edge of his seat, hands clasped in front of him on the scarred table as he rested his weight on forearms and elbows. His wide shoulders were rounded as if he was seeking to keep their counsel private. "Lots of excitement for such a small town."

The others nodded. It had been strange. Even as they'd finished their inquiries at the jail, they'd all noticed the unnatural influx of all sorts of country folk, farmers from the looks of some, others ranchers and hired hands. They all seemed to be converging on tiny Two Step.

A burly man in work clothes tipped his chair over toward the Four Corners lawmen's table. "That's because the carnival is coming in today. Gonna put on a show!" He grinned, revealing crooked, stained teeth.

Before any of them could ask him a question, someone at the fellow's table tapped him on the shoulder and passed him a beer. He turned away with a laugh as he joined in the joking talk at his own table, ignoring the quiet lawmen.

"A carnival?" JD tipped his head to the side and stared around at the gradually filling room. They could all see the smiling faces and hear the expectant, cheerful chatter. "Maybe we should stay a while? Might run into the boys, or hear something about them."

Buck, who'd straightened in his chair and had been surveying the growing crowd, slowly nodded. He was getting more worried as they searched without success for their missing friends. This confab might help them find out more. He reached forward to pick up the whiskey glass that Josiah had just filled for him. Eyes narrowed and face slightly downcast, he let his ears do the work, focused on hearing any stray remarks that might help locate Chris, Vin or Ezra.

Nathan watched Buck. The ex-ranger was their de facto leader now and the change in his personality was intriguing. From carefree to quiet, thoughtless to thoughtful. Nathan had never suspected the 'Buck' beneath the one they all thought they knew. This Buck, well, they'd probably seen glimpses of him in shootouts with outlaws, or on the trail of some, but this Buck disappeared the minute things calmed down again. This Buck was nearly as scary as Chris Larabee could be, and was someone to respect and follow. Nathan felt much more comfortable with this Buck leading them in search of the others. This Buck wouldn't mess up. He craned his neck around as he tried to watch as much of the room as he could, they'd have to be alert to any chance clues.

"Sounds good," Josiah tossed back his short glass of whiskey and then regretfully pushed the empty glass away. Folding his hands on his chest, he leaned back comfortably in his chair, stretching his long legs beneath the table. Chin nearly resting on his chest as well, he eyed the roomful of men around them from beneath his floppy hat brim.

JD stood up. "I'll get us some beer chasers." Then he was slipping through the growing crowd.

Buck instantly sat up further and then casually stood to rest hip-shot against a post behind their corner table. Arms folded, he kept his eyes on JD's bowler bobbing through the room. While he might deny it if confronted, his protective streak was pretty wide when it came to the kid. Hell, to all of his friends. Damn it, Chris, what did you do?

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Caleb Chandler heaved and Marty Fisk pushed. Together they shoved Larabee back up into the saddle, seating him in it this time. The two men muttered curses under their breaths but didn't challenge their boss' orders to nursemaid the man. They weren't any too careful with him, though. Both hid grins as Larabee wheezed and coughed, then tried to suppress a cry as Fisk squeezed hard on the man's bandaged shoulder. This was almost fun.

Bockman waited impatiently until his now smaller crew settled into their saddles, with Harvey holding the reins on Larabee's mount. "We're heading for Two Step."

"Hell, Mr. Bockman, that's a mighty small place, can spit and not see it." Caleb scratched at his shaggy head in puzzlement.

"Someone's due in there that I want to see." It was all he was willing to say. He wasn't prepared to admit to his stepson yet, not to these deadbeat trail hands. And for Larabee, it would be a surprise. He smiled unpleasantly. A nasty surprise if things went well. And I get a son back. Not too bad. He hi-yupped his cowpony and the small group headed out, following their tracker, Possum.

Chris held tightly to the pommel of his saddle with bound hands. He swayed widely, unable to keep his balance with the head injury still making him dizzy and sickish. One of the riders shoved him back toward center as he swayed again. Shit! The bastard made sure to use a fist and aim at his bad shoulder to do it. Chris bit back a curse and sank as deeply as he could into the saddle seat. All he could do for now was endure, but his head was clearing and he would keep watch. There'd come a time to get out of this, all he had to do was watch and wait.

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Lonnie Slater had been volunteer town marshal of Two Step for nearly two years. Nothing much happened in the tiny town. They had no bank, relying on Eagle Bend for that and for more. Two Step had a saloon, a small dry goods and feed store, and a blacksmithy with stables. There was a boarding house beside the saloon and a little building for the stagecoach company office. A few small houses, little more than shacks, and the jail. Lonnie was the town mortician, town barber, 'doctor', postal clerk and stagecoach station master. Mostly, he didn't have much to do.

Today would be different. He'd already 'deputized' every able bodied man in town. That wasn't saying much. But, with the whole surrounds coming in for the carnival, things could get real lively. He'd been surprised at the visit from the Four Corners' sheriff. That was a much bigger town than Two Step. The man, damn near kid, had a big rangy sidekick and two more big men who stayed horseback while the sheriff came in to speak with Lonnie. Now Lonnie was intent on keeping on eye on that gang. They might claim to be the law, but they were a strange looking bunch, strange and dangerous. That set of wicked throwing knives on the Negro's back was enough to raise the hair on his neck. Lonnie stood in the back of the saloon, in the opposite corner from the lawmen, and watched.

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Quinn shook his head and wiped at his face with a damp cloth. He was feeling anything but calm. This stranger that Ezra claimed was a cousin was looking at him with suspicion and Ezra wanted to be with the cousin, had even asked Quinn to leave them be. Quinn was sweating and cold at the same time. His cheeks burned. Anger was simmering just below the surface. He wasn't ready to call it jealousy but he was feeling anxious and irritable. Ezra should be with Quinn. Ezra. Quinn's feelings seemed to coalesce even as he stood frozen, staring into the distance blankly. I love him. Need him. Want him to be with only me. Love him. Maybe I could find those bounty hunters? His sight sharpened as he began to scan the area around the camp more carefully. They didn't look like they believed Ezra's story about his cousin. If they're out there, still hanging around, I could find them. Ven needs to go so that Ezra doesn't fuss over the man anymore. Ven needs to go.

-End of Part 17-

Places in Between - 18 By MAC

Quinn saw Ezra settle his cousin up on one of the wagons before heading for the wheeled tiger cage. That would take him some time. Good. Quinn eased his way slowly forward. The wagons wouldn't roll until all the animals were ready and that included the tigers. He had a chance now to deal with the cousin or whoever the hell the man was.

Vin sat slumped back against the canvas-covered frame of the traveling wagon Ezra had picked. The wagon driver wasn't up on board yet, so he stared out at the road ahead. From what Jack said, it wasn't that far to Two Step. He was startled by a hand on his leg.

"Ven?" Quinn O'Hara looked up at him, face pale and drawn.

"Howdy, Quinn." Vin wasn't very sure of this man. Made his scalp itch. He shifted slightly so that the hand touching him dropped away.

"Wonder if we might have a few words before Ezra joins you?"

The polite request was hard to refuse and Vin thought he might finally learn what was happening here, so he nodded and dropped down to the ground. Once again he was surprised by his unsteadiness, rocking on his feet and caught by the other's strong hands.

"Easy now." Quinn looked into those incredible blue eyes and could see Ezra losing himself there. Quinn stared openly, losing his train of thought.

"Quinn?" Vin shook free of the supporting hands and stepped away, frowning, one hand going to the side of the wagon to brace himself as the ground seemed to dip and toss beneath him. Not as bad as earlier.

Bold dark eyes regained their sharpness and raven wing eyebrows drew together. "Ezra and I, well, we have something going, building here. I want to know how you fit into Ezra's life."

The blunt words were a challenge thrown down at Tanner's feet. He cocked his head and a tiny quirky smile grew. "We's cousins."

"I don't believe it." Quinn was close to growling now and one hand rested uneasily on the holster of his pistol.

Vin shrugged. "Not my worry." He flicked a glance up the trail and then back at this pushy stranger who thought he had some hold on Ezra. Time to bust that up. "Now, Chris, he's another thing altogether. You heard tell of the gunslinger, Chris Larabee?"

O'Hara stiffened and stepped back. "What has Larabee got to do with anything?"

"He and Ezra, they are kinda partners. He's the one who was riding with me, we were coming looking for Ezra." Vin paused and studied the clouds. "Figure now Ezra's likely gonna be looking for him." Vin lowered his cool eyes to the ringmaster's. "Figure they ain't going to be too happy if you try to get between them."

Quinn's mouth was hanging open by now. He shut it with a nearly audible snap and glared at Ezra's cousin. So that's the way it was. I knew Ezra was upset about something and said he was already with another. If this Ven is telling the truth, then it's Larabee. I need to keep Ezra here. If he goes off after Larabee, I'll lose him. Without another thought or word, O'Hara turned away from the other man.

Vin leaned back, relaxing. Looks like I just scared the bejezus out of this feller.

Quinn pulled his gun up out of the holster, bringing it back around in a full arm swing, and pistol-whipping 'cousin Ven' on the temple. The man dropped like a felled steer. Quinn wiped the barrel of his gun against his thigh and slipped it back in the holster, took a quick look around and saw that no one had witnessed his attack. Swiftly, he scuttled around the wagon, never looking back.

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Bockman led the way into the back of the livery. He'd left Harvey and Possum with Larabee, out behind the livery where he wouldn't be seen. The man was tied up tight to a post of the corral fence. Bockman kept Chandler and Fisk with him. They were going to check out the town and find out when the carnival show was due to arrive. It was still only midday.

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Ezra scratched behind Sindhaj's stiff rounded ear, enjoying the way she leaned into his touch, nearly forcing him down on one knee. He pulled away and crooned to the two ladies who were stretching luxuriously now and yawning prodigiously. With a chuckle, he slipped back out of the feeding door and onto the ground. With quick movements, he latched and secured the opening and spoke softly to the tigers that were up now and moving to their morning feast of deer quarters.

Ezra lowered the roll-down canvas and secured that luridly painted covering to the tie downs at the bottom edges of the tigers' caged wagon. That done, he brushed his hands together and strode off to check on Vin. Rounding a wagon, he sucked in a breath in fearful surprise to see Tanner sprawled and unconscious on the ground by the wagon's high wheel.

"Vin!" He dropped to his knees beside the Texan, looking quickly over his shoulder as he realized his mistake. Louder, he called, "VEN!" and carefully touched the man's face, finding traces of blood and rising bruise marks on one cheek. Shaking his head, he eased Vin up onto one thigh as he brushed dirt from the silent man's face. To his relief, Vin cracked open his eyes and looked back in confusion.

"Ez?"

"Yes, I'm here." His heart slowly resuming its normal beat, Ezra pushed one arm under Vin's shoulders and helped him sit up. "What happened? Did you fall off the wagon?" He wasn't sure that was possible, even though Vin had been dizzy, and the mark on the man's face seemed more concentrated than a mere fall would produce. He waited while Vin breathed slowly, eyes blinking. When those blue eyes sharpened and abruptly took on focus, Ezra felt his heart drop. The silent message of anger spoke before Vin opened his mouth.

"It was your 'friend' Quinn that did this," Vin growled, hand touching his own cheek lightly. He began to push himself more upright, adding, "Just took me by surprise, pistol-whipped me."

Ezra licked his lips, choking back a denial. Vin wouldn't lie. But why had Quinn done this? "Are you sure it was Quinn?"

"Yeah." Vin forced himself out of Ezra's supporting arm and up into a crouch. He held out a hand and accepted Ezra's help to rise to his feet. Swaying, he swallowed back bile and continued, "We was just talking. He got kind of contrary and I finally warned him off. Told him that you and Chris were pards."

"Pards?" Ezra didn't know whether to laugh, cry, or curse. That one little word spoke of so much and yet not nearly enough. "And what made you think Quinn needed to know about Chris?" he asked, more curious than concerned. He and Chris were solid, he knew that now, after his earlier conversations with Vin. It was just a question of reuniting and apologizing, abjectly. He tilted his head and searched his thoughts for why Quinn had acted so out of character.

Vin had successfully fought off the sickness of his latest concussion, at least for the moment, and braced himself with one hand gripping Ezra's nearest shoulder. "Ez, the man claimed that you and he, that you two were-"

"Were what?" Ezra asked in bewilderment at Vin's hesitation. Then suddenly, it came to him. Quinn had been pushing for Ezra to be more than just a friend, to share a blanket with him. The southerner licked his lips again and shook his head as Vin answered.

"Ezra, he said you two were 'together.'" It was as close to being explicit as the normally quiet and reserved man could get without feeling outright embarrassed.

"It's not true, Vin," Ezra whispered, letting his forehead rest on the trackers for this private conversation, using the man's true name in his sincerity. "He might want me, but he hasn't had me and he won't. Ever." Raising a hand to stroke against Vin's darkening bruise, Ezra let his bright eyes meet the serious blue ones of his friend. "I belong to Chris Larabee, heart and soul."

Tanner's free hand came up to close over Ezra's reassuring one, cupping it to his cheek gently. "I know, pard, I know." He closed his eyes, then reopened them and met the sure crystal green eyes looking back. He nodded. Vin took Ezra's captured hand and eased it down, then clasped it tightly for a moment before letting go. "Guess we better find old Quinn before he does something really stupid."

"That, my friend, he has already done!" Ezra squeezed Vin's hand back.

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John Acorn listened intently to Jim Hansey's latest report. Hansey had seen one of the men walk up to Tanner and talk to him, then strike him and flee. Looked like it was time to ride in there and snatch them a bounty. About time, for sure.

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The wagons were on the move, efficiently repacked and on their way in much less time than Vin could have imagined. He was back inside the wagon he'd first woke in. Ezra had insisted and he couldn't find the energy to argue. He hurt in more places now. He touched his spectacularly colored cheekbone with a sigh. His head was spinning. He rubbed at his beard that was becoming alarmingly long now. It wasn't just a shadow anymore, but a downright shaggy beginning to a solid beard. Won't be enough to hide me from them bounty hunters, he decided, not liking the feel of it.

Ezra periodically popped his head inside the closed and tied off canvas at the rear of the wagon, checking to make sure Vin was all right. It was kind of silly, but Vin found that he liked the way Ezra was taking this nurse-maiding so seriously. Showed that the man was finally lowering his walls, letting friends into his heart. 'Bout time.

Quinn had disappeared. The wagon train had been searched, but he was nowhere to be found. A horse was discovered missing from the riding remuda.

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"We'll be on the outskirts of Two Step soon, Ezra," Jack commented from his mount. The two men were riding at the point now that Quinn had left. "Your cousin doing better?"

"Yes, he's recovering, though I don't want him on a horse yet. Not after another rap to his head." Ezra eased his seat and twisted to look back at the line of carnival wagons and riders.

"Hum, about that," Jack hesitated, then plunged into the idea that he and Maryjane had bandied about. "Not like you two can ride off yet, is it?"

"No," Ezra looked cautiously out of the corners of his eyes at his old friend, hearing the subtle shades of prodding.

"MJ and I were talking." Jack turned his attention to the first buildings rising up above the crest of the road now. "Got an idea to keep your cousin safe from those bounty hunters."

Ezra stirred in his saddle, Chaucer developed a momentary catch in his gait at his master's discomfort. "But he's not a wanted man." Even to Ezra, his words didn't seem to have a ring of truth. Too much had happened, the shallow con lay between them, ignored.

"I've got eyes," Jack said quietly, still facing forward. "That's his business, and yours. Seems a nice enough fellow. Stay with us tonight. We can keep both of you safe from those men in case Quinn did anything else really foolish."

Straightening in the saddle, Ezra stroked Chaucer's curving neck and stole a look over at Jack. "What do you have in mind?"

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Chris let his head hang down on his chest, ignoring the slow burn in his shoulder and the ache in his skull. Both were subsiding. His throat was dry and sore, his neck felt swollen twice its size, but at least he could breathe. He made no attempt to speak to the two men lounging in the shade near his feet.

Somewhere behind him, he could hear the muffled sounds of a livery's normal business. Horses grunting, huffling, the tack tack of their shoed feet on the planks of the runway between stalls. Someone was tinging at an iron shoe with a hammer, the sound distinctive and carrying.

All he could see was an empty corral, scattered with loose straw and mud and spatters of horse manure, adding pungency to the air. The sun was warming and he was exposed to its full radiance. Felt good for now, his clothing finally drying, but given time, it would dry him out too.

He felt the rough boards of the fence and the knobby post behind his back, his arms strung along the cross boards, straight out at his shoulders. An ache was building between his shoulder blades to match the rest of his hurts.

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"Well, hot damn." Buck drew himself up in his seat, his posture as much as his words alerting his friends as they sat in the single sorry-looking saloon of Two Step. With a low-voiced curse, he brushed his hat off his head onto his chinstrap and knotted his hands into fists.

"Buck?" JD's worried voice broke the tense silence around him.

Buck ignored JD and the rest, his mind reeling back through time to Abilene and a dark part of his and Chris' history. He murmured, more to himself than to the men around him. "Bockman."

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Josiah and Nathan sat forward, Nate placing a calming hand, large and competent, on Wilmington's nearest forearm.

"Buck? Who's Bockman?" Jackson's voice was soft so that it didn't carry, mutely warning Buck to keep his voice down.

Wilmington nodded sharply toward the men who had just strolled into the saloon and were bellying up to the bar. "That tough old bird in the middle."

Josiah had to fight down a smile. That might answer Nathan's immediate question but didn't explain Buck's reaction. He shoved the bottle of whisky over in front of Buck, nodding to JD who promptly poured Wilmington another shot, pushing aside the beer mug that Buck had been nursing.

"And why are you cursing that man?"

Buck finally shifted his gaze from Bockman to look around at his friends, eyes finally settling on Josiah to answer his question. "He runs herds up to the rail heads." Buck paused to gather his thoughts. "A few years back, Chris killed his two sons in a gunfight in Abilene." Buck seemed to suddenly notice the whisky, snatching it up and downing it in a single fiery swallow.

By now, all four lawmen were hunched in close around the small round table, heads together. JD craned his neck to turn his face up to Buck's down-turned one. "You were there?"

"Yeah." Buck dropped the shot glass back down on the table and reached out for the bottle, only to still his hand and then push the whisky away with a slight shake of his head. "I was there. Chris had no choice, it was two to one." He looked up again and shrugged, "I was there, but I wasn't with Chris, just in the same town that day." He twisted around to face the bar and study the three dusty men who were all drinking deeply from thick glass beer mugs. "Back then, I just kept an eye on him. He was hurting pretty bad."

No one commented. By now, the whole group knew Larabee's history, at least the part about the murdered family. They exchanged glances and then looked over with Buck at the trail boss and his companions. No one spoke as Josiah, Nathan, and JD sat silent and considering. Buck had a bad feeling.

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Volunteer Marshall Lonnie Slater had come to attention at the reaction of the tall mustached fellow riding with the Four Corners sheriff. He turned his eyes to the bar, easily picking out the three cowmen who'd just arrived. Something about them had the other four men nearly quivering with concentration. Doesn't look good. He tapped one of his deputized townsmen. "Georgie? Go run get Ralph and Toby. We might be getting some trouble here." His friend gave a brief nod, eyes also flicking between the two groups of strangers, before swiftly dipping through the throng and out the doors to the street.

Lonnie edged closer to the bar rail, keeping everyone in view through the big mirror behind the bar.

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Quinn swung down off his stolen horse. Well, guess you could call it severance pay for his work with the carnival. He didn't really care how they took it, knowing that Jack would never prosecute him. He looked around the tiny town, evaluating the folks moving idly around the boardwalks, all eyes watching the north end of town with anticipation. Waiting for the carnival to arrive. If he was right, he might be lucky and spot some of those bounty hunters here. He hadn't met up with any on the short ride into town. There seemed to be only one saloon. That was the most likely spot to check for the men he'd only glimpsed once, when they'd tried to take Ezra's 'cousin' Ven in for bounty.

Quinn moved easily up onto the boardwalk and stepped up to the bat wing doors of the saloon.

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Chris swiped his sweaty face against his good shoulder, feeling the heat of the rising day as the sun's warming rays began to move past comfort and into burn. He'd heard enough to know that Bockman was hoping to track down a third son. Twisted bastard. Losing two sons wasn't enough for the man, he wanted to make his third son a murderer.

Larabee's movements slowed and his eyelids dropped as he found himself drowsing in the quiet heat, the two men set to watch him merely a murmur of sound as they talked in desultory fashion in the nearby shade, relaxed on bales of hay now. The drone of horse flies seemed louder and he shook his head to shake some off as he realized some had found him.

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"Nope." Vin backed up into a huddle of knees and elbows, eyes squinted down in a combination of pain and grim denial. "Not gonna."

"I did it for Pete's sake!" Ezra's exasperation didn't noticeably sway the retreating figure in the dark interior of the traveling wagon. He turned toward Maryjane who was smiling sweetly.

"Ezra, you just go on. Get in your Wilhelm costume, honey. I'll see to your cousin." Maryjane patted the southerner on the back and urged him back out of the wagon.

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Quinn pushed back the swing doors on the saloon and stood silhouetted in front of the sunlit street for a moment, eyes quickly surveying the full room, moving automatically to the bar and mirror behind it as if drawn there. Dark eyes met his. O'Hara nearly gaped in surprise. His stepfather stared back at him through the silvered glass reflection, the lined face worn further with time, expressionless except for the hot coals of his eyes. Quinn swallowed hard. He hadn't seen the man nor heard from him in years. Not since he'd been found in the blankets with one of the drovers on the man's trail drive.

Jutting his jaw out, Quinn broke eye contact and thrust the doors aside, stepping into the large room. He turned to one side, still seeking out the bounty hunters while silently cursing his bad luck in running into his stepfather. He moved toward the far end of the bar, wondering if the old man would let him be in peace.

Marty Fisk jerked back when Bockman clipped him in the ribs with an elbow. "Hey!" He backed away and looked up fearfully when he realized it was his trail boss. "Mr. Bockman?"

Clarence looked at Fisk in distaste, but the man was there to use. "Go tell my son that I want to talk with him," he muttered into his beer glass, eyes traveling to the end of the bar where Quinn stood with elbows hooked on the bar rail, his back resting on it.

"That guy that just walked in?" Fisk tossed his chin in O'Hara's direction questioningly. "He's your son?"

"Yes. Now go tell him." Bockman's eyes snapped with anger and Fisk moved quickly, stepping back and heading down the bar.

Buck stood up abruptly, eyebrows drawing down like thunderclouds. "He knows something about Chris, dammit. I know he does."

Nathan reluctantly stood, Josiah rising beside him as JD bounced to his feet, hands already seeking the grips of his twin Colts.

Lonnie grimaced. None of his men were back yet but if he didn't act now, it might be too late. He could see the menace in the tall mustached rider. Spitting out a chaw into a nearby spittoon, Slater settled his gun belt on his hips and began to move through the throng, eyes locked on the Four Corners men.

Fisk reached Quinn O'Hara and tapped the man on one shoulder. Quinn jumped and turned quickly, one hand dropping to his pistol. "What?"

"Mr. Bockman wants to talk to you."

"Perhaps, brother Buck, it might be wise to watch and listen?"

"No time, Josiah." Buck's shoulders pulled back and he began to push into the cluster of men blocking his path to the bar. Looking back over his shoulder, he added, "No telling what he might already have done to Chris if he ran into him."

Slater couldn't believe his luck, just as he reached the tall man, the fellow turned to answer someone at his table, his attention distracted. Quickly, before he could think about it, Lonnie yanked the man's gun free from his rig, his own poking into the man's hard stomach. Hoarsely, his nerves evident in his voice, he commanded, "Easy does it, Mister. We're going to walk over to the jail now."

"Hey! What?" An astonished Buck Wilmington looked back and down at the shorter marshal who was looking determined. "I ain't done nothing!"

Lonnie nodded. "Yep, and we're going to keep it that way." He gestured again, pushing his gun barrel harder against the man's flat belly. "Get going."

"You took my gun!" Shock warred with anger in Buck's face. His hands went to his hips and he simply stood there, dumfounded. Around him, men were drawing back, but so far the room in general was unaware of this small confrontation. Behind him, his friends moved in closer.

"Marshal? Buck hasn't done anything." JD spoke levelly, making sure his own star was easy to see, just a reminder to the other man of their status.

"Didn't like the way your friend here was acting. Can't afford for the peace to be disturbed. He's just going to go over to the jail with me to cool off some."

"What are you arresting him for?" Josiah towered over Slater who began to desperately wish his deputized citizens would show up.

"Not arresting him, not yet. Just taking him out of here."

"You can't do that. This is a free country!" Nathan spoke in a low, hard voice, shoving one shoulder in front of Buck protectively.

Suddenly, Buck decided that this wasn't the time or place for this. For now, the marshal was simply a nervous nelly, trying to keep a lid on his town. If he let Nathan and the others have their heads, likely things could get ugly. Damn, I hate ugly. With a gusty sigh, he placed a hand on Nate's shoulder. "Easy, pard. I'll go." He looked over at Josiah. "Need you boys to keep an eye on-" without finishing his sentence, Buck raised his chin toward the bar.

Sanchez gave a single dip of his head in agreement and tugged Jackson back by one arm. JD, watching the interactions alertly, stepped up now. "I'll come along, Marshal."

Lonnie eyed the kid sheriff. "Sure. Just don't expect any special favors."

"No, just justice."

JD's flat response raised color on Slater's cheeks but the man caught one of Wilmington's wrists and pulled him around to lead him out the door. Buck followed meekly enough, dropping his head to keep his face from showing too much. So far their little ruckus hadn't drawn much interest. He planned on keeping it that way.

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Hansey led Acorn and the others up to the crest, all five men had their guns out, ready for a swift raid. Hit hard and cull Tanner from the bunch. The group rode toward the top of the hill at a steady trot, preparing for an all out charge when they reached the top.

The air seemed to turn blue with their curses as they drew rein roughly and their horses sat back on haunches at the sudden change. Five irate bounty hunters sawed and pulled at reins as they yanked their animals up and around, all the while milling close and shouting at each other.

"Hansey!" John Acorn was furious. This wasn't supposed to happen. "Where the hell are they?"

Jim Hansey's cheeks reddened and he ducked his head, eyes still goggling at the site of the flattened meadow, churned up with wagon wheel ruts and the hooves of many beasts of burden. Raising his eyes to Acorn, he answered slowly, "Reckon they left."

"'Reckon they left.'?" John yelled back into the man's face before striking him with the trailing ends of his reins, the leather doing little damage to the worn duster but making Acorn feel better. "Well, hell, even I can see that."

"John, I guess they just picked up and headed out faster than I figured they could." Jim shrugged and added, "Least ways, we know they must have headed for Two Step, it's the only town down the trail from here."

Bald-headed Ed Morse gigged his horse between the two men. "I think there's a short cut over the hills just up ahead." He gestured off to the side of the broad trail. "We can meet them there, maybe even beat them to it."

Acorn squashed his hat down on his head and raised his shoulders high, lifting his reins in fists. "Show us."

Ed tipped a salute and drove his spurs into his tired mount who gave a cough but leaped gamely into a canter down the hill in front of them. Acorn, Hansey, Upton, and Kendal followed, shouting 'hi-yahs' as their mounts drove forward

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Ezra stood watching as the carnies skillfully began to set up their big top and sideshows. Each wagon was carefully positioned, some becoming miniature stages, others pulling up canvas to change into sideshow attractions or games, where much of the money was actually made. Some of the bits were old cons, the shell game, the fortuneteller. The dog-faced boy had been putting on his 'face' in the back of the costume wagon earlier, when Ezra entered to pick up his outfit for the tiger show.

Ezra leaned back against the nearest wagon, watching the town now. He raised his eyes above the clutter of small rooftops and false fronted stores and saw the five bounty hunters on horseback emerge from behind the hills beyond the main street. God, I hope Maryjane was successful, we have no time to hide Vin now. He turned away from the wagon and moved off down the short row of the sideshow, tugging at the overly fussy cuffs on his billowing white shirt.

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Chris felt the change before he saw Bockman's return. Harvey and Possom had shut up finally, the flies seemed to melt away, and there was a stillness in the heavy air. Lifting his head with difficulty, he watched through slitted eyes as Bockman and a stranger walked into view, Bockman's other two men, Caleb Chandler and Marty Fisk came along behind silently, though grinning.

Clarence Bockman was trying to hide his smile. His stepson was willing to hear him out. Rather than explain it all in the bar where anyone could hear, he'd gotten the boy to agree to come back here. Stopping in front of Larabee, he half turned to his stepson. No, 'son' now. He'd seen the nasty turn in the younger man and was convinced that the boy would go along with his plan. "Here he is!"

The stranger stopped in front of Larabee and cocked his head to the side. "And who might 'he' be?"

"The man who killed your brothers, my sons."

"My stepbrothers?"

"Don't argue." Clarence wiped at his face. "You kill him and you can ride beside me."

"Do you have a name?" The stranger addressed himself to Chris.

"Yeah." It came out in a dry whisper. "You?"

With a laugh, dark eyes bright with a hidden joke, the man answered, ignoring Bockman who was beginning to look angrier if that was possible, "Quinn O'Hara." He bowed low, then stood up and arched one eyebrow inquiringly, his Irish charm on full display.

"Chris Larabee."

The change was amazing. The charming rogue's fašade dropped away, leaving a pale and shocked face that twisted into an ugly grimace of calculation. Chris stared in fascination.

"You? You're the great Chris Larabee?" O'Hara's voice had turned nasty, practically spitting out the words, before the man turned to Bockman. "And you? You want me to kill him?" At Bockman's nod, Quinn began to laugh, his guffaws only growing with the frown that deepened on his stepfather's face.

As quickly as the humor had arrived, it vanished and O'Hara stepped up to Chris, crowding him close, until their bellies touched, then he tipped his hips up and against Larabee. "Like it?" Quinn licked his lips and cocked his head to the side, slowly drawing his lips near to Larabee's. He could see the disgust flush the man's face. "Ezra likes it." He watched as the pale greeny hazel eyes narrowed and darkened.

Chris surged forward against his bonds, teeth bared. "You bastard, what the hell do you know?"

Quinn danced back, nearly giggling, his chuckle so flighty. He could not, simply could NOT believe his good luck. Ezra's Chris handed to him on a platter, his stepfather wanting Quinn to kill the man. The man even offered a so far non-existent ranch as the ultimate prize. Would he kill? Oh, yes. Quinn moved in again, smiling coolly as Larabee bared his teeth in rage. "I know that Ezra is mine. He and I-" he paused provocatively, then went on in a nearly sing-song fashion, "WE have been very close lately." He leaned in to hiss, "one blanket!" Spinning on his heels, he laughed to the sky, ignoring the frothing anger of the man behind him, though he could hear Larabee's howl of utter rage and the scuffling of his boots as he struggled against the ropes that held him to the fence.

Bockman stood back and watched silently. His earlier satisfaction collapsing at the sight of his stepson, never son, acting like some freak. Suddenly Larabee seemed a whole lot saner and worthy than the man he'd thought to make his heir. Seemed the two had some history together. Maybe that was it. After all, he'd had his own fit when he first faced the gunman, nearly killing him before he thought things through. Maybe Larabee had done something to Quinn too. Something awful.

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Nathan and Josiah stood at the back door of the saloon, looking up at the empty hillside behind the place. Bockman, his men, and a fourth man had all disappeared out the door only minutes before. But the crowd had defeated the lawmen when they tried to force their way through to follow. By the time they finally reached the doorway, their quarry had vanished.

"Guess we split up and try both ways." Nathan spoke with reluctance, not relishing heading out alone in this strange town.

"We need to stay together," Josiah countered. He stepped out into the debris of the backyard of the saloon. "Safer."

He led the way to the right for no reason that Nathan could determine, but Jackson followed him anyway. They emerged around the back corner of saloon and into a short, empty ally that returned them to the main street, where they spotted Buck and JD stepping out into the afternoon sunshine from the jail.

"Looks like help to me." Sanchez lengthened his stride, knowing Nathan would have no trouble keeping in step.

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Before he could get a look at Vin, Ezra was caught by Jack. "Ezra, the locals want an afternoon performance," Soho waved his arms toward the big tent, "and since they're paying customers-"

"Jack, I was just going to check on my cousin Ven." Ezra felt his resolve to keep on top of everything begin to dissolve. He looked up into the big man's friendly face and, God forgive him, he wanted to punch the man right in the nose. Somewhere out there was Chris and only Vin to help him find the man. He took in a ragged deep breath and forced himself back to a ramrod straight stance, prepared to stubbornly insist upon seeing Vin.

"Nonsense, my boy, Ven's fine, Maryjane has him well in hand. You'll see," Jack was turning them around by the simple expedient of wrapping a large arm around Ezra's stiff shoulders and walking in a half-circle around the frozen man, pivoting him in place. "We'll go take a look as soon as your act is over." He patted the shoulder he held tightly and encouraged, "Come on, now laddie, the show must go on and the audience is waiting!"

His resolve misted away in the face of the coaxing and assurances and he let Jack lead him back toward the tent and the tigers.

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"You ain't never livin' this down, Buck!" JD flashed a grin back over his shoulder, a very self-satisfied grin on his elfin face, bowler hat firmly snugged down to his ears. He ran two fingers along the rolled brim as he tipped his head to a bevy of young ladies who were crossing the street near them. His steps slowed as he realized that his friend's face hadn't lightened into that knowing smile, that his friend was ignoring, in fact, the young ladies' passage, and to be sure, ignoring him as well. Losing his own smile, JD stopped and turned to face Wilmington who was staring across the street with a look somewhere between dismay and anger. "Buck?"

Finally, the tall man who'd paused with one foot on the boardwalk and one on the street seemed to notice his young companion. Dark eyes, deep with what only could be anger, flashed to JD.

"They must have lost him!" Buck bit out his words. Frowning, he stalked across the street, ignoring the curse of a rider who had to pull up his mount suddenly to avoid riding over him.

JD had lost his humor now along with his smile, he'd seen the direction of Buck's gaze and realized what his friend meant when he saw Nathan Jackson and Josiah Sanchez standing at the opening of an alley next to the saloon, just across the street from them. Oh, boy. He broke from his frozen position to hurry after Buck whose long legged stride had practically taken him all the way across the rutted thoroughfare already.

Silently, Buck cursed the local marshal for pulling him out of the saloon, only to force him to sit in the jail and share a cup of weak coffee. While Slater had probably stopped a brawl, Buck really didn't give a damn about that. Released as soon as some of Slater's 'deputies' showed up - and Buck gave his word that he wouldn't start any trouble, 'start' - as Ezra would have said - being the operative word, he and JD had practically dashed out of the jail. And now, here came Josiah and Nate and there was no sign of Bockman or his boys. Damn!

Josiah raised to hands in a calming gesture as he saw Buck bearing down on them with predatory intent. "We lost them, Buck."

"Went out the back door. By the time we could get through that crowd in there, they were gone," Nathan added with a slow shake of his head. He wasn't intimidated by Buck's thunderous look, but he was worried about their missing friends.

"Well, shit!" Buck's flat hand slapped hard at the shingled wall of the store to one side of the alley entrance. Before he could say or do more, JD, who'd spun around to stare up and down the street, piped up.

"I say we go check the carnival." He nodded toward where the local folks were all moving. "That's where everyone else is headed."

As the others broke their collective stares at each other, they all turned to see what Dunne meant. The formerly milling crowds were now moving in a steady, cheerful stream, heading to the east end of town, even the saloon patrons pouring out the doors of the drinking hole and joining the rest to follow.

"Think the boy's got something," Josiah said, giving Nate's and Buck's shoulders a firm push. "Let's go."

All four men swung out into the passing crowds and followed along.

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Ezra didn't need to perform with the horses this time. The regular lead rider was recovered from her illness and already in the simple ring that the roustabouts had created from rope and low pickets. Plank benches had been created for the front row of the audience to sit on, the rest standing rubbernecked behind the lucky few to get seats. As the crowd swelled impressively, so did the laughter and cheers for the pretty young woman with acrobatic skills bobbing atop a lovely Arabian mare. Ezra smiled indulgently at Fanny Mae, known to the audience as "Sheba of Arabia." The fluttering veil that barely covered her face, nose to chin, was more a prop than any disguise. Ezra stood beside the tigers' wheeled cage, waiting for his turn. Get this over and go seek out Vin, make sure he's as safe as Jack thinks. Ezra tapped his foot impatiently as several men yelled out their approval and roared for another trick from the petite rider.

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Jim Hansey's mount was a raw-boned old nag that had a very jolting trot. As he and the other bounty hunters saw the small town ahead, and the carnival wagons, tents, and crowd, they all urged their horses into the trot that had Hansey's teeth clattering until he grit them and slapped at his horse resentfully.

John Acorn surged ahead of his team, mouth drawn back into a snarl. How the hell were they supposed to find Tanner in this mess? He spared a hateful glare at Hansey and then pulled his horse over to one side of the carnival to come to a stop behind some extra wagons that looked like they were part of the baggage train of the show. He dropped to the ground and quickly tied his mount to the rim of a far-side wagon wheel. The other four men did the same and turned to look at him as their finished tying up their horses.

"We can't split up in this crowd," Acorn scowled at the surprising number of people milling through the tented area, "so we stay together and move fast. Everyone keep your eyes open, Tanner's likely to be trying to hide in this somewhere."

"Should we search these wagons first?" Morse was scratching his chin dubiously as he stared at all the strangers moving through the carnival sideshow just past this small clutch of wagons.

Acorn paused, then nodded grudgingly, it was a good idea.

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Sidestepping, the four men from Four Corners eased into the back row of the audience in the biggest tent. Buck, Josiah and Nathan could all see the young woman doing a handstand on her horse as the animal trotted with a smooth gait around a small temporary ring. A fiddle was scratching out a merry little tune in the background. JD Dunne, whose shorter height left him making little hops to try to see over the crowd, finally gave up and headed around the edge of the audience, hoping to find a better spot.

"Hey," Buck tapped Sanchez's bulky shoulder and then nodded at JD's disappearing back. "We better stick with the kid."

Josiah nodded agreement and tugged Jackson after him, breaking the man from his mesmerized stare at the woman in the scanty costume who was now standing atop her moving horse, balancing on only one foot. The crowd cheered again, a scattering of applause rising above the other sounds in the noisy space.

Ezra stepped forward to the front of the tiger cage as Fanny Mae and her Arabian finished their bows and quickly moved out of the ring passed him. Jack was already in the center of the ring, announcing him while a roustabout named JosÚ did Jack's usual job rolling up the canvas over the tigers' cage.

Ezra knew when the tigers could be seen by the sudden silence from the crowd. He had no trouble keeping his amusement from showing, today he was too distracted by his worries to really care what the paying customers thought or did. He walked swiftly to the cage and opened the swing door, calling his cats out into the ring.

JD had finally rounded the ring, nearly to a wagon that was pulled up close on the far side. He turned to look into the center of the performance space and choked. It didn't help that Buck chose that moment to whack him between the shoulder blades and yelp, "Hot damn!"

Josiah bumped right into Nathan, who'd stopped dead in his tracks. Nathan's eyes were wide, his face slack with shock as he slowly turned to meet his good friend Josiah's confused eyes. "Is that-?" He raised an arm and pointed out into the ring, just as the animal trainer gave a double arms up signal to two giant tigers that cooperatively jumped up onto twin half-barrel platforms.

"It is!" Josiah's grinning answer and hand clapping down on Jackson's shoulder was plenty of answer. His grin just kept on growing as he took in the sight of Ezra Standish, standing out there in tightly fitted, sleek black trousers, buttoned down to small shoes, and wearing a simple sash of white, holding in a loose white, ruffled shirt that hid little. Hard to believe that this was the same man normally covered in so many layers of wool and linen that it was impossible to see the smooth body now on blatant display. Josiah began to laugh, part in amusement, part in relief.

All four men stared in various stages of surprise and pleasure at one of their missing friends, standing in front of a large crowd of strangers, patting two enormous striped cats. Tigers!

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"I'm only going to do this if I can get Ezra here to watch!"

Quinn's stubborn insistence was enough to make Clarence Bockman's earlier satisfaction on finding his stepson waver. He was reluctantly following Quinn back toward the carnival that had now arrived and was already set up and open for business. This man 'Ezra' that Quinn wanted made Bockman itch. Apparently his stepson was still playing pansy. Displeased, he began to wonder if he shouldn't just go back to the livery and shoot that son of a bitch, Larabee, and be done with it. Just then, Quinn reached the back of the biggest tent in the chaos of the carnival.

"Wait here."

Before Bockman could latch on to him, O'Hara had slipped inside the tent and disappeared from view. Clarence spat and shifted to sit on an abandoned crate beside the tent flap, cocking his head as he heard what sounded like a mountain lion's roar. Only deeper and louder.

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Coming into the big tent from the rear, where a scantily dressed lady on horseback had just emerged, John Acorn and his bounty hunting team stared at the big crowd. If Tanner was in that mob, they'd never find him. Then Hansey pointed out the man in the ring. It was the fellow who claimed to be Tanner's cousin. Just at that moment, the man turned and saw them.

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Ezra had just settled Sindhaj and Clarice onto their perches at center ring when he raised his eyes and met the eyes of one of the bounty hunters near the cage. Blinking them out of focus and keeping his face blank as only he could do, he threw his whole attention to the cats. He coaxed them into raging snarls with sotto voce prompts and simple hand movements so subtle that the audience never suspected that these ladies were simply 'singing' for him. With bared teeth, each tiger had a fearsome visage. Meanwhile, Ezra's slow-to-burn anger began to flame.

First Clarice, then Sindhaj abruptly bounded off their short mounting barrels and back down into the ring, each narrowly missing Ezra who twirled as if they'd each struck him a body blow in passing. This dance was so precise that he barely felt their fur flash by, but the crowd screamed approval, then gasped as the animals seemed ready to vault into their midst. At the last moment, each turned away and began a pacing run around the now trodden circle, their large striped bodies terrifyingly close to the crowd.

Ezra's mind was whirling as fast as he spun himself, arms wide to urge his beasties on. Vin was hidden but was it enough? He ground his teeth in his forced smile as he suppressed his fury at these hunters of men. Still shocky and dizzy from the latest bout of unconsciousness thanks to Quinn's strike, Vin was in no shape to defend himself. And now the bounty hunters were back, apparently ready to kidnap Vin Tanner regardless of opposition from the carnies.

Ezra ran to the side, bouncing off a pre-arranged plank that rested midway along on a small keg. His supplemented jump tossed him up into the air just as Sindhaj, the bigger of the two females, dropped to her belly beneath him. His descent took him onto her back and she sprang up and away with Ezra astride her, knotting his fists in her thick fur neck. Cheers erupted from the throng but Ezra ignored the wave a sound and was quickly assessing the crowd, trying to devise an escape with time to warn Vin and protect him, when he was startled to spot four of his friends staring back at him from the other side of the ring, opposite the hunters. Lady Luck has not abandoned me completely! He lifted and turned, flipping off the dashing tiger in an unpracticed side-ways move that left him tumbling to the feet of Buck Wilmington.

Climbing up Buck as if he needed help to stand, he held on for a few brief seconds, face to face with his tall friend. Then he was hopping back and facing the tigers again. The two animals had paced into the center of the ring, confused at the change from their carefully rehearsed routine. He quickly got them in hand whilst seeing his friends slip out the back of the tent from the corner of his eye. With a wry smile and his heart racing, he decided to prolong his performance and hope to keep the bounty hunters waiting for him at ringside just a little longer.

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"Did you see that?" Jim Hansey asked the others. Right after the 'cousin' fell into the crowd, the men closest to that spot had vanished.

Only Acorn nodded, brow furrowing in suspicion. "Looks like he gave them some sort of signal." He stared a moment longer at the tigers and the 'cousin' and then turned away, kicking out a flap of the tent behind them. "Come on, let's go!"

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Ezra was frantic. The bounty hunters had disappeared at some point. It had been impossible to keep them in sight and still perform his act. Now he quickly hustled the tigers back up into their cage, swiftly tossing them each a treat. Loud purrs as the cats settled onto haunches and bellies was the response even as JosÚ dropped the canvas roll that was the curtain for the tigers' wagon. Ezra edged out behind JosÚ, ignoring Soho Jack who was introducing a knife-throwing act at the center of the ring.

Coming out into the after light of day, he blinked and started forward, intent on finding Vin and the others. With Buck and the boys to keep Vin safe and Nathan to help his recovery, surely Ezra and they could find and rescue Chris from whatever trouble had already found him. Just the thought of his lover had a flush rising to Ezra's skin, nerves tingling. Oh Chris! He felt nearly sick whenever he thought of all the trouble his lack of patience and his anger had caused. If only I'd asked instead of jumping to conclusions. Lost in the muddle of his thoughts, gazing ahead as he forged through the thin outdoor crowd, he moved toward the midway only to have a strong hand lock on his arm and jerk him around to a halt.

In disbelief, Ezra stared up into Quinn O'Hara's smirking face. "Quinn? What-?"

Yanking Ezra forward into his body, O'Hara grinned down into the southerner's beautifully flushed face. For me. "Ezra." For a moment, it was enough to share a breath and to lose himself in those gorgeous green eyes. Then Ezra was struggling to free himself, fighting Quinn. "Stop it!" He jerked Ezra again, shaking the man's frame.

Ezra pursed his lips in contained anger, capping the earlier anger at the bounty hunters with new anger at this presumptuous fool. "Let me go, Quinn." He stood his ground and tried to pull himself free of the tightening hold.

"I have him, Ezra." Quinn's voice had dropped to a hissing whisper directly into Ezra's nearest ear. "I have your Chris."

"Chris?" Ezra froze then taunted, "Chris who?" He jutted his chin out and glared at Quinn. "What the hell are you nattering about, Quinn?"

"Chris Larabee." O'Hara smiled slowly, watching as Ezra stiffened and then sagged slightly. "Yes, I have the mighty Chris Larabee." Quinn raised the hand not gripping Standish's arm, softly touching Ezra's cheek. He leaned in closer still. "For you."

Ezra's head was awhirl. How did Quinn get to Chris? Why? He thoughts fled to his worry about Vin Tanner but he reassured himself that Buck, Josiah, Nathan and JD could protect Tanner. That left him to get to Chris, through Quinn it seemed. He stared unblinking up at the Irishman as he quickly re-evaluated the situation. Then, with planned artifice, he pressed himself against the other. "For me?" he breathed out with a small smile.

Suspiciously, Quinn shoved Ezra away as suddenly as he'd grabbed him moments before. "No, you don't, Ezra! No tricks!" Flicking his eyes to the side, he nodded.

Ezra followed Quinn's glance and saw an older man rise from a crate against the back wall of the big tent. "Who's this?"

Quinn looked back at Ezra and his smirk grew into a wide, arrogant smile. "My stepfather, Clarence Bockman. He's helping me arrange our little reunion with Chris." Quinn stepped back. "So, Ezra, will you come with me?"

"To see Chris?" Ezra had to ask, he couldn't help himself. He shivered in the sunlight as a cold shadow seemed to cover his soul, these two men before him seemed so dark. How had he ever thought Quinn attractive?

"Yes, of course." Quinn toyed with the Colt strapped to his thigh, pulling the handle part way from the holster, then dropping it back in. He turned away, clearly confident that Ezra would follow. The older man led the way, with Quinn following, and then Ezra trailing behind. In his heart, he promised his lover - if you are not alright, Chris, then these men shall die.

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"JD, will you stop that!" Buck slapped Dunne's hands from their double-fisted grip on his leather jacket lapels, then shrugged his shoulders back in that loose, nearly dance-like way of his. Twisting away from the demanding youth, he jerked with his jaw to the other two men, "Well, don't jest stand there, come on!"

"Buck, darn it!" JD wasn't put off that easily, half-running to catch up to the long strides of his taller friend. "What did Ezra say?"

By now, all four men were well away from the big tent and heading toward the sideshow row that they'd skipped on the way into the carnival show. Nathan and Josiah exchanged looks, but waited to hear Buck's answer.

Over his shoulder, Buck spoke back to all three of his companions, never slowing his pace, "Ez said Vin's in the sideshow and needs help." He added succinctly, "Bounty hunters."

The others speeded up, JD actually passing Buck, asking, "Where in the sideshow?"

Buck's frown was answer enough, but he said, "He didn't have time to say."

"So we just look for Vin?" Nathan finally spoke up, sounding doubtful.

"Likely he's not going to be easy to spot," Josiah commented, nodding to some townsmen as he carefully pushed past the thickening crowd.

"How about those bounty hunters? Do we know who they are?" JD was walking backwards now, facing the others, hands on his gun grips.

Buck fished the boy sheriff to the side to prevent a collision with more gawkers at the ticket master's perch. "No, we don't." His eyes slewed around the folk in motion all about them, then returned to JD. Patting the Dunne's shoulders he finished, "So keep sharp."

By this time, Josiah was at the ticket hawker's elbow. "Friends of Ezra and Vin," he said in quiet careful tones.

"Ezra and Ven?" The tall, skinny man in a bright colored suit nodded knowingly and wave them through the simple archway made of scrim and two poles stuck in small barrels.

The four lawmen paced down the sideshow, passing the dog-faced boy with raised eyebrows, then the rubber man, where Buck was momentarily distracted. "Hell, nobody can do that!" Josiah shoved the ex-Ranger in the shoulder, "Looks like he can, now let's keep going."

Buck flashed a grin and swiveled his head back, still staring as they continued past the bearded lady and the man of a thousand tattoos. Everyone came to a halt at the fire-eater and sword swallower. They were out of options and hadn't seen Vin anywhere.

Nathan grimaced at the sight of a long saber that seemed to disappear down the performer's throat. "It's fake," JD confided, adding, "I've seen that done back east, it's all in the angles of view." He was already scratching his head and pivoting around on one heel. "No sign of Vin, what do we do now?"

Josiah was looking back over his shoulder and on down the sideshow row. "Perhaps we moved too quickly." He stroked his chin pensively as his friends stared back too.

"Hell, Josiah, ain't no one else to see." Buck stood with hands on his hips, frowning.

"Might be Vin's hiding backstage at one of these little shows," Nathan said tipping his head to the side.

JD shook his head, "Nope, all they got is a piece of canvas stretched tight behind each of them." He gestured to where he'd trotted off a moment ago before returning to his friends. "I just looked, ain't nothing there."

Confounded, the four men stood uncertainly, blocking the passage of folks finished with the sideshow and heading to some other attractions. JD turned to follow their movements, "You think he might be in the fortune teller's tent or something?"

"Naw, Ez said IN the sideshow." Buck spoke with certainty.

"Then, Brothers, we must reverse course." Josiah firmly but politely began to wend his way back up the sideshow gallery, eyeing the exhibitors carefully. Buck, JD, and Nathan trailed behind, none noticing the men walking towards then with focused intent.

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Ezra hugged himself to keep his performance shirt closed in the front. Designed for display of skin, it had no buttons. Right now he was too disgusted with Quinn, too angry, to want to give him anything, even a 'look'. He felt his daggers strapped to his wrists, a precaution he'd taken once Vin had joined the carnival. There was no place to wear a pistol, even his derringer wouldn't work with the billowing, thin fabric of this shirt, so he'd devised the simple knife harnesses with the help of the carnival knife thrower. They were all he had at the moment. They would have to do.

He watched alertly as the man that Quinn claimed to be his stepfather trudged back out through the carnival grounds and headed into town on foot. The man's shoulders were rounded now and his head down. Ezra could tell there was no affection between the stepfather and stepson. He didn't care enough to wonder about it, but kept the thought for possible use later. Quinn kept flashing manic grins at Ezra over his shoulder, finally slowing to walk beside him.

Ezra tensed but kept his eyes on Bockman.

"Ezra, after this, we'll need to leave the territory for a while." Quinn spoke quite calmly, conversationally, as if his declarations were common trivialities.

Standish had to fight to keep his shoulders from rising and his face from dropping into a sneer. "I have nothing to say to you, Quinn." He managed to get that out, though the tone was biting and bitter.

Then Bockman was rounding the end of the livery, circling past the front corral and heading around the back. Ezra quickened his pace, swallowing hard. And then ... there was Chris.

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Ezra took in the scene, the lackeys lounging by some hay bales, Chris strung out along a corral fence, arms extended with wrists tied down to the top rail, a rope under his arms and across his chest, securing his body to a center post, head down. A dirty bandage covered one shoulder over the top of a torn and bloodied gray shirt. Guns and hat were gone. Still, he was there and alive. It was more than enough. "CHRIS!"

Ezra's call had Larabee raising his head, blond hair hanging disheveled down over his forehead, brushing his eyes. The vivid discoloration at his throat, traveling up and down the exposed neck and under the side of the jaw shocked Ezra. He sought out Chris' clear eyes and found love, waiting there.

Chris heard his name called, heard Ezra's voice and dreaded that he imagined it but forced himself to look up anyway. And there was Ezra, walking towards him. The world grayed out and all Chris saw was his missing lover coming faster now, right at him. He looked into Ezra's wide green eyes. Love and fear glinted in those beloved eyes. He wanted to answer, to say it would be alright, but he couldn't.

Then Ezra was standing in front of him, gently touching his jaw, smiling just a little, the touch so tender that Chris leaned into it and relaxed, eyes closing.

"Real sweet," one of the men that had been sitting on the hay bale scoffed, before seeing the look from Bockman directed at him and shutting up. Both men hopped to their feet and stood ready, fingering their still holstered guns.

Clarence looked on in disgust at Larabee and his 'friend' and then looked over at his own stepson and his hopes shriveled up to dust. Quinn was half-crouching with two guns drawn, an ugly look on his face, jealousy clear in the dark eyes. This was not a son to build a ranching empire with, no.

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Lonnie had hustled his men over to the end of town, following the flow of townsmen and folk from the country, all moving toward the carnival set up. He was keeping a close eye on those Four Corners men, even though he'd actually taken a shine to Buck and JD over coffee. Still, they were on the prod, looking for missing men and likely to do some hurt to someone. His job was to see it wasn't to any of his people.

He shoved Henry hard when the store clerk lagged, straggling along slowly. "Come on, we got to be there - now!"

The others were moving fast if warily. Lonnie took in the sight of a knot of about five men, dressing in shabby trail clothing but heavily armed and walking with purpose, closing in behind the out-of-town lawmen. Damn, this didn't look good for anyone. Lonnie broke into a half-trot, his men following.

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Josiah led the way back along the sideshow, having to fight against the stream of gawking folk that lined the row. He eyed each exhibitor carefully but was nearly to the other end with Nathan beside him on the outside, and Buck and JD tramping along behind him when he was brushed hard, nearly dropped to the dirt. As he heard the gasps of the others and the sound of - 'cah-chink' - spurs hitting the ground, he spun around and found himself with an armful of silks and satins, a swirl of brownish hair and then he was looking down into great big blue eyes.

"Vin?"

Tanner swallowed against the dizziness that nearly overwhelmed him, but still managed to husk out, "Watch yore back, Josiah!"

To a chorus of disbelieving, "Vin!" "Vin!" "Vin!" from Nate, JD, and Buck, Josiah held on to what could only be Vin Tanner with one arm while craning his neck around to see back further down the sideshow. A group of lethal looking men were moving purposefully toward them, guns being drawn as he watched. Damn.

Josiah pulled Vin close and dropped to the ground, his friends spinning and dropping as well, quickly taking in the danger. Sanchez landed on top of Tanner's silk bustled form, pulling his big pistol and turning to face the danger heading their way. He heard Vin's grunt of pain but ignored it for the moment.

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Lonnie scowled ahead. The second group, the seedy trail hands he'd spotted, were making a steady trek toward the sideshow alley and he could see they weren't looking at the side show freaks. There beyond them he could make out the tall forms of Buck, his Negro friend, and the other tall lawman. Figure young JD is with them, Lonnie thought as he pressed forward faster, his deputies swirling around behind him and closing in fast as well.

Then, to make matters more confusing, the bearded lady stepped out to the edge of her little stage and dropped down practically on top of the Four Corners lawmen. Now what the hell is that all about? Lonnie broke into a trot.

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" 'Siah, git yoreself off a me!" Vin's squashed voice grunted from below the big man. Sanchez ignored his friend, pointing his big handgun directly at the bounty hunters bearing down on them.

Buck had risen back to one knee and had his arm extended, his six-gun held steady at the grim faced men heading their way. He thumbed the cocking mechanism back and watched the men begin to slow in front of him. Nathan had pulled himself up to his feet against the sideshow stage and was holding one arm up, hand behind his back. Buck knew the man was holding the hilt of a big throwing knife, just waiting to see where to deliver it. To Buck's left, JD had rolled over sideways and was coming up with both Colts drawn, eyes steady on the men approaching. They could all hear muffled cursing coming from under Josiah.

And whoosh! A curtain of sateened calico shooshed in front of them. A very largely-endowed, matronly lady stood towering over the lawmen, ample arms akimbo, plump fists planted on generous hips. "You boys just stay right there!" she commanded before flouncing around to face the quintet of men slowing in front of her.

Buck raised both eyebrows and looked over at Nate who shrugged back at him. JD came fully upright, nearly squeaking as he tried to act officially, "Ma'am, you need to step aside before you get hurt."

"JD! Hesh!" Buck whispered, reaching out a long arm to jerk Dunne done by his jacket, effectively overturning the lad on his buttocks.

"Hey!" JD flashed an outraged look at Wilmington, but by then Buck and Nate were both standing and re-holstering their weapons, turning to offer hands to Josiah.

Josiah looked up at his friends and smiled weakly, shifting uncomfortably on top of his charge. He shoved his pistol into his belt, not even bothering with his holster, anxious to get up and off of Vin. He spared a look past the petticoats and skirts of the substantial woman blocking the bounty hunters. She seemed to have them well in hand. His smile became a wide toothy grin and he accepted Buck's and Nathan's hands, allowing himself to be hoisted in a quick tug to his feet. Letting go of the helping hands, he turned around and looked down.

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John Acorn slowed. His men half-stumbled to halting stops behind him as out of nowhere, a large woman charged into their path and turned to confront them. He put his gun away, seeing his men do the same. He was still ready to walk right over this woman to get to his bounty, if the man was there. Trouble was, he still hadn't caught sight of Tanner, only those four men that the carnie had spoken to back in the big tent. And, he only had a suspicion that they would lead him to his prey.

Maryjane was breathing hard. One of the roustabouts had run to get her when he saw all the armed men heading to the sideshow, that never was a good thing. She had rushed over from her spot in the fortune telling tent and saw the confrontation forming, then Ezra's cousin jumping down into the middle of it. She quickly decided the closer four men were friends when she saw the way they were reacting protectively to Ven. Like a mother hen for her chicks, she threw herself between them and the other group who were drawing their weapons and nearly running up the sideshow path. Now that she was between them, she stood tall and waited.

The men came to a stop facing her at a distance of less than ten feet and she was prepared to deck the nearest one when she saw the town marshal and his deputies come half-running up the path behind these men. Smiling widely she folded her arms over her bosom and stared silently.

"You fellows want something?" Lonnie stopped just behind the now bedraggled looking crew.

As one, the men turned to face this newest threat. Acorn pursed his lips in frustration. Damn. He'd spotted the local law back in the saloon but hadn't reported to him, figuring to wait until he had the bounty to claim. Now he might not be believed.

Buck decided it might be a good time to intervene. "Ah, Marshal? My friend Nate here can explain everything." With a wide swing of one long arm, he encircled Jackson's shoulders and practically shoved the healer towards the crowd now gathering, with a smiling nod to the lady who'd stopped the fledgling gunfight. "JD, you best help Nate." Buck gave a simple nod of his head toward the local marshal. JD quickly hopped forward, grabbing Nathan's arm to urge him along, together, their bodies hid Josiah and his now standing - and swaying - companion.

Buck turned away from the groups of men and swept his hat off to bow gracefully to the female form. "Ma'am, after you." He gestured further on down the sideshow as Josiah offered his arm and their charge hooked a hand through it and clung tightly as they started away from the rest of the men. Behind them, the locals and the bounty hunters were silently staring at each other, and JD and Nathan were wading in.

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Ezra didn't waste any time. He brought both arms down together between their bodies as he pressed close to Chris. "Trust me."

Chris rubbed his cheek against Ezra's forehead as Ezra dipped his face downward. Huskily, Chris answered, "Always."

Then Chris looked up, over Ezra's shoulder and tightened his jaw. Bockman was standing mere yards away, staring not at them but at O'Hara. Oh, Jesus. Chris swallowed. "Ezra?" But before he could say more, he felt a body tug and realized that somehow Ezra had a knife and had just cut him free of the center post. And then Ezra was turning, one shoulder shifting and sliding against Chris, both arms moving at incredible speed and a jerk pulled at the rope on Chris' right wrist, pulling it taut then free. He felt a knife hilt being tucked into his hand, his fingers being coaxed to curl around it. Through pins and needles of returning feeling, he clumsily dropped his arm even as Ezra twisted around to face O'Hara, one arm now raised.

Chris flung his right hand, complete with dagger, across his body to attack the rope at his left wrist. He sawed frantically, clumsily at the rope.

Bockman stood tall and shifted the aim of his gun, mouth drawing down into a bleak frown.

Quinn screamed, "NOOOOO!" and began to fire his guns.

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Buck, Josiah, and Vin spun around, eyes wide at the sounds of multiple gunshots in the distance. Between them and the sounds were the two groups of men who all turned as well. Vin cried out, "Ez!" and only the strong arms of his friends stopped his attempt to run back.

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Ezra's mind was working very fast now, desperately evaluating their chances. He had to free Chris fast. Murmuring 'Trust me,' as he pressed close to Larabee to hide his movements, he plucked one dagger from a cuff and slid it beneath the rope holding Chris to a fence post.

In his ear, he heard Chris' answer, 'Always.'

Ezra flushed with guilt, knowing he hadn't treated Chris with the same faith such a short time ago. Jumping to conclusions in the face of sleepy mutterings and a cried name, Ezra had distrusted, Ezra had walked away.

He viciously dragged the sharp blade through the rope, angry at himself. The rope parted and he slid to the side, getting a slight burn from the rope as the strands popped free. He moved as quickly as he could, knowing their time was fleeting, and cut Chris' right wrist free, pressing the dagger into his lover's stiff hand. Then, he was out of time.

He heard Chris quietly call out his name in warning but he knew it was already too late. He'd fight for his lover and his friends though, to the death.

Ezra Standish swung around, keeping his body between Chris Larabee and the men threatening them and heard Quinn O'Hara scream, "Nooooo!"

He didn't feel any pain, just a kind of sharp dig to his arm that pushed him back, then a punch to his hip that shoved him further into Larabee who was turning behind him, struggling and cursing, probably trying to get free of the final binding on his other wrist. Ezra flipped the second dagger into his left hand and raised it to throw as the bullets kept coming, now missing them, thwacking into the livery's wooden back wall behind them. He was focused intently on Quinn but heard the boom of a second gun off to the side as he let fly with the lethal point, feeling intense satisfaction as it buried itself in Quinn O'Hara's center.

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Buck shoved Vin off into Josiah's arms. Hurriedly, a grim look on his face, he ordered, "Hold on to him, he can barely stand up!" Then he took off running, pushing past the snarl of men that had threatened them just moments before. If Vin thought those gunshots meant that Ezra was in trouble, then Buck wasn't going to stand around and wait.

JD scooted into the opening created by Wilmington's passage and dove after him, pulling both Colts out again, ducking his head to bull past men that tried to crowd in around him.

Nathan Jackson swiveled his head around to spot Josiah gathering the bearded lady close to his chest, Sanchez's head was high and he was looking back at Nathan. Jackson gave a brisk nod and clamped one hand onto his head to hold his floppy brimmed hat in place, then pivoted about and took off running, his tall, broad-shouldered form re-opening the wedge of path that Buck and JD had just moved down.

Lonnie stepped back out of the way for the Four Corners lawmen, then shook his head in dismay. "Henry! Edgar! Escort these hooligans to the jail." He waved his pistol at the sullen gunmen. "The rest of you, let's go!" And he dashed after the Negro, who was the last of the lawmen to rush past him.

Vin struggled against Josiah's strength, "Josiah! I gotta help Ez!" he pleaded.

"Easy, Vin." Josiah found no room for humor, despite the fact that he held the 'bearded lady' of the carnival in his arms and discovered his friend, a rough and ready tracker within the fancy lady's dress, hair pinned up with feathers and ribbons. "The boys are on their way. They'll help Ezra. We need to get you hidden."

"Then you best bring Ven into my tent," interrupted the large lady who'd arrived a bit earlier to divert a gun battle. She pointed toward a single tall tent festooned with gauze flags and streamers, a simple banner saying, "fortunes told," at the entry. She smiled at Josiah. "Name's Maryjane. My husband Jack runs this carnival. Ezra's a good friend and we promised to help him protect his cousin Ven here." She nodded at Tanner.

Josiah dipped his knees briefly as Vin began to slip down through his arms, eyes half-closed. "He all right?" Sanchez's pale blue eyes asked the question too.

"Concussion." Maryjane reached in to pull the false beard hook tighter over one of Vin's ears.

"Huh." Sanchez huffed out, then simply swept the tracker's slender form up into his arms, skirts trailing the ground and worn leather trail boots complete with spurs poking out into the air as he settled the man against his chest. "Lead the way, Ma'am." He tipped his head and met Maryjane's eyes with calm reassurance.

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Bockman's men stood flat-footed in surprise. The man that Clarence Bockman had declared was his stepson had just gone crazy in front of them, screaming and shooting off his gun wildly. Each of the four men drew but hesitated, uncertain of whom they should shoot. Bockman seemed to settle that for them by blasting the top of his 'son's' head off.

Their prisoner, Chris Larabee, had gotten free and was crouched on the ground over a stranger who'd been dressed like a carnie performer. The man lay bleeding from at least two wounds, and was being propped up by Larabee. The carnie wasn't even looking at Larabee, just staring at what was left of Bockman's son, a collapsed heap in the middle of the corral.

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Chris lowered Ezra to the ground. He could see that Ezra had been hit at least twice, in his right arm and at his left side, near his hip. Neither wound was bleeding badly yet. Placing a hand flat on Ezra's chest, Chris leaned in close. "Wait for me," he whispered nearly against Ezra's parted lips. Then he surged away and forward, not even bothering to get to his feet. He needed a gun and the closest one was in the hands of a dead man.

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Buck burst out on to the main street of Two Step, JD and Nate just behind him. All three came to panting halts, necks craning as they looked to see where the gunfire had been. Nothing stirred. Slowly, Buck lowered his gun but didn't holster it, JD and Nathan mirroring his actions. Then Wilmington began to pace down the street, eyes shifting from side to side as he watched for some sign of where the danger might be.

JD cocked both Colts and swallowed hard, keeping his guns half-lifted at his sides. His stride was quicker to keep up with the long legs of his companions.

Nathan took a long slow breath in and then released it, feeling his pulse rate slow.

At the sound of running feet, all three men spun about, raising their guns to point back at the way they'd just come. Marshal Lonnie Slater and several other men spilled out into the street, guns drawn, worried expressions on their faces. Lonnie and Buck lowered their guns again at the same time. JD and Nathan immediately swung back around to continue their watch on the empty street. Buck's gaze moved to the men with their marshal. The men shivered at the gunman's cool glance, then lowered their guns as well with sidelong looks at Lonnie.

Buck started to turn back when another exchange of shots rang out.

"That's coming from the back of the livery!" Lonnie shouted, to Buck as much as to his own men. Everyone took off running again, Slater leading his pack of deputies, Buck, JD and Nathan charging to the front of the other men.

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Chris snatched the hot pistol from Quinn O'Hara's dead hand. With luck, there might be one or two bullets left. The man had sprayed fire at Ezra and him. He looked up into Clarence Bockman's frozen face. Bockman's gun was aimed right at Larabee.

"That was my last son." Bockman grimaced, then spat on the ground, right at O'Hara's body. "Stepson," he corrected. Dark eyes returned to Larabee's face, ignoring the gunslinger's quick movements as he reloaded his captured weapon with shells from Quinn's gun belt. "Didn't figure on this." He looked beyond Larabee to where the man Quinn had called 'Ezra' lay on the ground, shakily pushing himself up onto elbows.

Bockman pointed to Ezra with his big pistol, but addressed himself to Larabee, "He and you?"

Chris sat up straight now, gun resting on one thigh, leg folded under him, his other out straight in front of him. He didn't turn, knowing that Bockman meant Ezra. "Yeah. He's with me." His pale hazel eyes held a challenge.

"Then lose what you love." Clarence Bockman raised his gun higher to sight down it at Larabee's 'friend.'

"Like hell."

The sound of both guns firing was loud in the dry air of the empty corral.

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Josiah followed Maryjane into the canopy tent of the fortuneteller. It was smaller inside than he expected, but there was room to lay Vin down on the canvas floor behind a small table shrouded in colorful scarves that drooped to the ground. A folding wood chair sat to one side of the table, a simple stool on the other.

While he knelt over Vin, the woman went to the entrance and stepped outside for a moment, returning with the banner advertising 'fortunes told' and drawing the wings of canvas shut, effectively closing out the world.

"Mr. Sanchez?"

"Josiah, ma'am, please."

"Josiah," Maryjane paused, then went on, "he just needs to rest. I can watch over him now if you want to go find your friends?" She sat in the large chair and tipped her head to study him, waiting for his answer.

Vin stared up at Josiah, his wide blue eyes still held uneven pupils and beneath the powder that had been patted onto his face, Josiah could now see the discoloration of bruising. He gently pulled the false beard away and smiled. "You'll be all right, Vin."

Josiah turned his attention to the carnival woman. "Maryjane, Vin here is very stubborn. Best if I stay here as well. Buck expects it." He laid a large hand on Vin Tanner's chest, pushing down the cotton-stuffed bosom as the tracker tried to rise. "Easy there." Josiah smiled, then returned his conversation to Maryjane, "Yep, he can be a stubborn cuss."

Maryjane nodded with a smile as well, but then raised her head and looked back over her shoulder, worry clouding her face. "I hope-"

The back of the tent canvas parted and a big man with an enormous walrus mustache poked his head in. "Where's Ezra?"

Maryjane shook her head, "I don't know, Jack." Then she noticed that Sanchez had pulled his gun out of his waistband and was staring up at her husband suspiciously. "Josiah, don't shoot! This is Jack, my husband. He's a good friend to Ezra and Ven."

Soho Jack nodded briefly to the stranger, taking in the sight of Ezra's cousin laid out on the ground and Maryjane calmly acting the diplomat. He met his wife's eyes. "No one's seen him since the tiger act. He's gone."

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Harvey dropped his gun in the dirt as he watched his boss fall to the ground, shot by the gunslinger, Larabee. Beside him, Possum carefully returned his to his holster and stepped back, raising both hands. Together they retreated with backward steps into the shadows. Nearby their two proddy mates from the cattle drive were not nearly as smart.

Larabee had rolled to one side as he fired, making sure that Bockman's one shot went wide of Ezra by striking the man's gun hand first. His second shot took Bockman out with a bullet to the heart. This ends now.

Out of the corner of one eye, he caught sight of Bockman's men. Chandler and Fisk were preparing to fire. He came up on his knees, positioned between Ezra and this newest threat, gun raised. "Drop them." His command froze both men for a moment. Then they started shooting.

Chris returned fire, feeling the wind of one bullet as it whizzed by his cheek. His first shot took out Fisk with a bullet between the eyes. Even as he re-aimed for his second target, Chandler collapsed backwards and to the side, blood blossoming on his shirtfront. Chris swiveled on one knee, looking for another target. And pulled up his gun as Buck raced into the corral with JD, Nathan, and a band of strangers at his heels.

About time.

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"Whoo-eee!" Buck strode on up to Chris, kicking the unresponsive bodies of first Bockman, then O'Hara on the way. Before reaching down to offer a grip to his oldest friend, Wilmington looked back to make sure that JD and Nathan were checking out the other dead or passive strangers. He noted the two standing in the shadows by the back wall of the livery and before he could call out, JD Dunne was in front of them, guns pointed, speaking quietly to the two men. Nate was kneeling between the two dead cowboys to the side of the trio of men. He looked up and shook his head at Buck. Goners. Good.

Buck Wilmington was feeling expansive and pleased. He'd put down one of those idiots himself, and all his friends were safe. He pulled Chris to his feet and into a bear hug. "Damn, was getting worried about you, Pard!"

But Chris had no time for the reunion, merely ducking his head at his old friend and then pulling free to drop down beside Ezra Standish who was still half-sitting - half-lying on the ground at the back end of the corral. Buck turned to watch as Chris gently lifted the gambler into the circle of his arms as he knelt there in the dirt. Bending his head down to put his face level with Ezra's, it was clear that he was saying something softly, but not loud enough for Buck to hear. Buck's sense of happiness grew, looked to be that Ez would be all right, too. Things were definitely looking up.

He put his hands on his hips and turned away, only to come face to face with Marshal Lonnie Slater who looked decidedly unhappy. Buck generously whacked the man on one shoulder. "No need for that frown, Marshal, the bad guys are dead and ready to bury." He dimpled, then nodded over to where JD Dunne was getting help from two deputies. "Looks like JD and your boys are handling what's left."

Lonnie rested his hand on his gun butt, shifting to stand with one hip shot out to the side. "Buck, it ain't that easy."

"Sure it is, Pard," Buck sidled up to the man and threw a loose arm over his shoulders, turning him away from where Nathan now knelt next to Chris and Ezra. Walking the marshal back towards the end of the livery, he added, "Easy as pie. Bury the dead. Jail the ones left alive. And let us hit the trail."

"What about that gunslinger and the carnie?" Lonnie tried to twist around to look over his shoulder but Wilmington was taller and stronger and despite his loose-limbed look, was firmly pressing Slater back and away from the cluster of men at the back of the corral.

"What? Who? Chris? Ez?" Buck chuckled and kept them moving. "Why they're part of our team, Lonnie. Chris Larabee's head honcho for us and old Ez is one of the boys, just strayed from the fold for a bit, that's all. They'll be riding out with us, not be bothering you anymore." He patted the shoulder he was still hugging and guided the rest of the volunteer deputies back toward the street.

"Well, what about those men we had to jail already?" Lonnie said doubtfully.

"Them? Waving firearms around in a crowd? Threatening law officers?" At Lonnie's look, Buck added, "You know they were aiming to hurt my boys and me?" he said seriously, voice lower and confidential, coaxing. "Disturbing the peace!" he added, louder, waving his free arm to emphasize his point. "I figure, Lonnie, that they need to cool their hot heads in your jail for - oh, say - another two days." He broke away from Slater now and stopped, watching as JD and the two deputies with him herded the remaining two cowmen out into the street and on towards the jail. "Same for those two, didn't look like they had any real part in the fight."

Lonnie Slater stood indecisively in the middle of his main street, eyeing his latest prisoners, thanks to the Four Corners lawmen and then looking back at Buck Wilmington. It would be easier to just keep the lawbreakers in jail for a few days, until the carnival left town. Then let them loose. No trial, no need to get a judge or jury, or try to figure out what else needed doing. They'd leave, the carnival would be gone, and quiet little Two Step would return to being a quiet little town. He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. Wilmington was smiling brightly at him but fingering his holstered gun with an easy competence that let Lonnie know that thinking the Wilmington way might be for the best. "Yeah, guess you're right." He slumped to a more relaxed stance.

" 'Course I am, Lonnie, old buddy." Buck chuckled. "Now I'm going to go back and check on the rest of my boys, Marshal, and we'll see you before we ride out." He touched the brim of his hat and then waved to Dunne who was stepping back out of the jail. "JD! Come on, let's go check on Chris and Ez."

JD clattered on down from the boardwalk, shoving both guns back into his holsters, then tugged at his hat and trotted over to join Buck as Wilmington swung away from Slater and headed back around the livery.

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Vin sat on the stool and rested his head in his arms folded on the small round table. He felt a bit sick to his stomach but the world had stopped whirling on him and his head didn't hurt as much. Of course, after Maryjane loosened the damn stays in his corset, it did help with his breathing and he didn't feel so light headed. On the other hand, his back had felt right good all snugged up tight like that. Wonder if there was any way he could get her to part with it for good? Wouldn't show under his shirt and hide coat. He knew the boys would never let him live it down, but if Nate said it might help, they'd tease but let him be after a bit. Might be worth trying. He sighed and pushed himself off the table to sit fairly straight with hands braced on his knees.

"Feeling better, brother?" Josiah came over to stand beside him.

Vin looked up, too tired to be embarrassed at his outfit. "Yeah." He glanced over at Maryjane. "Ma'am? Think I could get out of this here dress now?"

The carnival lady sat forward in her chair. "Those men that the marshal arrested?"

"They were the reason you had me hid, ma'am." Vin nodded. He'd seen the bounty hunters bearing down on his friends. That was why he'd hopped off the sideshow stage and damn near fallen over the top of Josiah.

Sanchez nodded. That was unfinished business. But for the moment, Vin was safe. Josiah smacked Tanner on the back and laughed at his grunt of protest. "Maryjane, Vin's back with his friends. We'll think of something to do about those 'miscreants' as a friend of ours would say." He looked thoughtful for a moment, then smiled as he looked Vin up and down, planning on remembering the sight of his young friend decked out in all this frippery finery. With a laugh, he said, "He'll be fine. And," with a sly look at Tanner, Josiah continued, "as fine as he looks in this frock, I think he might be more comfortable out of it."

"You said the plain truth, 'Siah," Vin agreed earnestly.

"If you're sure." Maryjane stood up and moved purposefully around the little table, reaching out to begin the removal of the dress from Ezra's cousin.

"Oh, yeah," Vin nodded decisively, "Real sure."

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"Pretty as a picture!" Buck marveled playfully, describing Vin as the 'bearded lady' to Chris as he helped his friend hold Ezra still for Nathan's ministrations. Jackson had declared both wounds to be minor, the one on Ezra's arm was merely a bullet burn. The one at his hip, more serious since it clipped off a shallow groove of flesh, didn't penetrate within the body so was still a simple injury, just needing stitches.

"Never thought I'd see him in a dress." Chris muttered his comment, one hand busy soothing Ezra's back, then dropping lower, the other holding the man close to his chest as he watched Jackson sew up Ezra's sleek flesh at the hip. Have to see to it that that doesn't leave too much of a scar.

Ezra looked around at his joking friends, at Nathan so serious as he concentrated on his healing work, then up at JD who stood over them all protectively. He missed Josiah and Vin but the others had told him where they were and so he was content. He stole a glance up at Chris, knowing they still had to talk about Ezra's actions from days before. He gasped as Nate dug a bit deeper to force the needle into strong flesh and then pull the skin over to help close the wound at his side. Chris was instantly burying his face against Ezra's neck, planting tiny kisses there. And Ezra decided that Nathan could go on sewing as long as Chris kept on kissing.

He didn't see the look on Nathan's face. Or JD's frown.

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Vin's delighted grin creased his cheeks and made him look both younger and older at the same time. Josiah grinned back, sharing the man's simple pleasure at being out of the clever costume and back in his own comfortable clothing. Sanchez let his wide smile slowly diminish as he thought of their still missing friends. He sent a silent prayer winging their way. Chris Larabee was essential to their group, their leader and their friend. Ezra was a bit more complicated in his fit into the group, but still a friend. Josiah dropped his gaze, thinking that he was once more ignoring the subtleties in favor of the obvious. Ezra was a good friend, just so puzzling at times, or so the former preacher mused as he slowly reeled in the yards of cloth that were the bearded lady's dress.

Maryjane watched the big man lose his jesting countenance and become quietly contemplative. She turned her attention to Ezra's cousin, Ven. He seemed better now, not just happier to be out of the dress, but steadier on his feet. The concussed look was fading. She helped him unpin his hair and pulled free the temporary extra locks of hair that they'd woven into it to give it more body and length before twisting it up into a hasty bun on his head. As Ven groaned in appreciation for the removal of the hated hair pieces and pins, scratching his scalp vigorously, Maryjane was reminded of her own feeling of freedom when she unpinned her hair. She smiled and waited. Her wait turned anxious as Ven slowly straightened, losing all semblance of his humor.

"Ven?"

Looking not at the carnival woman, but at his friend, Tanner dropped his hands and stood. "Josiah?"

"Yeah, Vin?" Sanchez, who'd been lost in thought, looked up curiously at the flat tone in Vin Tanner's voice.

"Those bounty hunters? You boys got them hauled off to the jail, right?" At Sanchez's nod, Vin continued, "But Chris sent me a telegraph to get me out of town. When I met up with him, he told me that they likely knew I was there, partnering him."

Josiah tipped his head to the side in thought. Then his eyes snapped back up to Tanner's. "Letting them go in a few days would just mean it takes them a few days to start after you again, back home." Josiah didn't like the way this was shaping up. Not at all.

Sinking back down onto the stool behind him, Vin frowned, then reluctantly said, "Guess I need to move on."

"No!" Josiah surged to his feet, dominating the small space of the fortune-teller's tent by his size and ferocity. "No, Vin," he repeated more quietly as he noticed Maryjane's wide eyes and startled look, "we'll figure out something. Ezra will!" Yes, Ezra would think of something, Josiah thought confidently. "Until then, we just need to keep you hidden." His eyes slid over toward the folded dress.

Vin sat up stiffly, "Nope. Ain't gonna do that again, Josiah." He glanced around at the inside of the canopied room. "I can stay out of sight 'til the carnival moves on, then just move with it." He flushed and looked over at Maryjane, "That is, ma'am, if you don't mind none?"

Maryjane sighed. Life with Ezra was always challenging. She nodded without need for thought. "Ezra's family, Ven. You're his cousin, so you're family too."

"Ah, about being a cousin, ma'am," Vin murmured, slowly folding his hands together on the scarf-covered table and rolling his eyes up to meet Maryjane's.

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Nathan stiffened and blinked. Then he deliberately turned his eyes back to his work, crafting a tiny, neat row of stitches at Ezra's hip. Chris' gun hand had slipped to just below Nathan's work area, clasping Ezra's lower hip in a firm, cupping hold. A hold that ceased to be quite so innocent in light of the man's current behavior. Not that Nathan had never seen such a thing, such kissing, two men being intimate; just that Chris was his friend, the man he had respected, followed. Nathan was not comfortable with this and began to wonder what Ezra had done to Larabee. He also wondered if he should stop what Chris was doing. Nathan, still undecided and very uncomfortable, finished up, knotting off the fine thread and cutting it with a single swipe from one of his fine blades.

It was only a moment's work to place a clean cloth over the stitches, folded so that it protected the area. It wasn't an easy place to tie a bandage but Ezra's trousers should keep it there once they were pulled back up and fastened. Nathan sat back, ready to give directions. He was relieved to find that Standish and Chris were no longer in a clench, and both pairs of eyes were looking his way with anticipation and question. "Should be fine," Nate nodded. "Once we get you trousers tugged back up, Ezra, they'll keep the bandage in the right place." The others were nodding their understanding. "He'll be fine," Nate added directly to Chris, seeing the concentrated look directed at him now. Then Jackson moved back, walking on his knees until he was at a bit of a distance and could climb to his feet without further touching the two men. Think I need to talk with someone about this. Maybe Buck. He stole a look over at the other man, kneeling to the side, who was sitting back, having just released Standish's legs.

JD watched everything with reserve and a wash of trepidation. Oh, God, didn't Chris have the sense of a nanny goat? Anyone could come by and see him kissing Ezra all over like they were in some private place! I'd know better than that and I'm still just a greenhorn according to Buck. He edged back, worried.

Buck felt like knocking Larabee in the head. God damn it! He'd caught sight of the looks on JD's and Nate's faces. Not good. With a quick prod to Larabee's shoulder, and nod at Nathan's averted face, then at JD's retreat, he wordlessly warned off his old friend.

Chris ground his teeth, lifting his head as he met Buck's dark eyes and warning expression. Ezra grunted as Chris accidentally reacted by squeezing Ezra tighter before realizing what he'd done and easing off. Grow up! - he wanted to yell out at the other men. Hell, Vin knew and understood. Buck likely did now too, but also knew that Jackson and Dunne weren't showing much of that understanding yet. Hell. Chris gently cradled Ezra, pretending his own arms weren't a mass of flaring pain as waves of burning sensations, not unlike fire ant bites, surged up from his prickling hands to his forearms and beyond. He wanted to quietly reassure Ezra, but his throat was still sore and the confrontation with first Bockman and then his son hadn't helped it any. He swallowed painfully. It felt dry and tight, the muscles still aching and sore.

He looked down into soft green eyes that were staring back up at him. With a soft sigh, Chris Larabee gently pushed back the tousled chestnut curls that framed Ezra's dear face. His clumsy fingers lingering at the side of the man's face, Chris gave a half-smile. He dropped his head close to Ezra's and murmured, "Love you," in a hoarse voice so soft that only Ezra could hear it. He saw the warmth grow in his lover's eyes as Chris pulled back away slightly and turned to look over at Jackson.

"Thanks, Nate." Sitting up straighter, still supporting Ezra, he turned to face Buck who had climbed to his feet beside them. "Buck? Can you help Ez up here? We still got some business to finish up, I figure." He looked around the corral, noticing for the first time that only the dead and his own men were in sight.

Buck wiped at his face and took another look at JD who was standing back and looking relieved at the return to normal behavior by his hero, Chris Larabee. "Sure, Pard." He carefully reached down and hooked his hands under Ezra's arms, lifting without too much effort, getting the conman back up and on to his feet.

"Easy there, Ez." Buck caught at the now standing - and swaying - gambler, steadying him with hands on his shoulders. Ezra was having trouble balancing as he tugged his under things and trousers up over his exposed hip.

Nathan reacted to the return to normalcy also. He stepped back close and reached out to make sure that the folded cloth doing duty as a bandage stayed in place, his large dark hand in sharp contrast to the cardsharp's white hip, normally hidden skin. He was carefully helping Ezra button his fly, when he heard JD cry out.

"Chris!" JD flew across the few yards that he'd stepped back from his friends, arms extended to catch and hold Larabee.

Chris had felt his arms empty of Ezra as Buck helped his lover stand up and away from him. Chris knew the loss was only temporary, he'd see to that, but he couldn't believe how much it hurt to lose that sense of rightness he'd felt with Ezra in his arms. With a grimace, he pushed away from the ground on his still partially numbed arms and hands. As he came to his feet, he felt a wave of dizziness, he'd not stood free and on his own in a few days now. Blackness edged at his vision and he staggered. Faintly, he heard JD cry out his name.

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Nathan leaped forward, following JD to the ground as the young shooter supported their collapsing friend. "Keep a tight hold, JD!" he instructed, already evaluating what he could see of Larabee's condition. He shook his head, angry at himself for failing to really look at Chris before as he took care of Ezra. Larabee was a sight. Pale, shaking, his clothing in near tatters. A rough bandage wound around his right shoulder. Under his chin, a dark bruise indicated a profound abrasion, worrying in the spread and depth of color as it darkened most of Larabee's neck. Thank God he was actually talking before, leastways I know he still can. What was left of a second makeshift bandage encircled his head. Tipping Chris forward slightly in Dunne's arms, Nathan could see where a gash was starting to heal without stitches near the base of Larabee's skull. "Ok, JD, you got him good?" Nathan asked as he settled himself on his knees and leaned back to finger his small bundle of supplies.

JD rolled his eyes but snugged his arms tighter beneath Larabee's, hands grasping each other at the front of Chris' torn shirt. "Yeah, I got him."

Before Jackson could make a start, Ezra was there, pushing him aside. The conman had evidently fought free of Buck's grasp and dropped to his knees, literally crawling over the stable yard's dirt corral to reach Larabee's side. "EZRA!" Nate bellowed, shoving aside the man to get back to his patient.

"Easy, Nate," Buck was there too now, crowding Jackson back as he sunk to his haunches next to Standish. Turning to the frantic southerner, he gathered the struggling man into his arms and drew him back, murmuring into Ezra's ears. Jackson shook his head at the interplay but turned back determinedly to Chris.

"Ez, let Nate help him first," Buck whispered, holding tight to the smaller man. "We'll get him all patched up, same as you, then let the two of you rest easy." With a smile, he pressed his lips even closer to the side of Standish's head and added, "Together."

Ezra deflated. Buck was right. Chris needed Nathan Jackson's healing presence much more than any useless comfort that he, Ezra, could provide. Useless. Yes, that's me. Ezra turned his face away from the activity in front of him and buried his face in Buck Wilmington's large chest, seeking to disappear into the man's lavender neckerchief.

Buck frowned at his now passive and shrinking armful of gambler. Something still wasn't quite right with Ezra, Buck could sense that though he wasn't sure just what the problem was, aside from all the damage he, Vin, and Chris had taken in this hoe down. Well, time would help and then he'd see if some of the special Wilmington magic was needed. He turned his attention outward now. Over the top of Ezra's sweaty head, he watched at JD held Chris Larabee with tender care and competence. Reminded him that not that long ago the kid had nursed his dying mother back in Boston. Sad as the thought was, it also comforted Buck to know that if he couldn't be the one holding his old friend, that a man he trusted was doing the job nearly as well. What a mess. Well, he'd done what he could for now with the law of this two-bit town, now it was time to get the boys all back on their feet and out of here. He rested his chin on Ezra's head, thinking as his eyes continued to monitor Nathan's progress with Chris.

Ezra swallowed hard. The retreat into Buck's calming care had actually relaxed him. Knowing that Chris was being cared for was reassuring. For just a few minutes, he'd let his friends take care of all the problems. Just for a few minutes. As his adrenaline seeped away, so did his overused stamina. Heavy eyed, he nodded closer into the sound of Buck's heartbeat, wishing vaguely that it was the thrum of another's.

JD narrowed his eyes as he kept close watch on Nate's actions. After seeing the look on the healer's face as Chris had comforted Ezra a few minutes ago, he had to wonder if Nathan would commit completely to treating their friend. Peering intently, he was reassured by the efficient way that Jackson checked out their leader, large hands skimming over clearly old wounds, seeking any new threats. Finally, Nate sat back on his heels and shook his head tiredly. "Nate?"

Nathan had been lost in his own world of healing work as he'd examined Larabee, JD's simple query breaking his concentration. He looked up to meet the straight gaze of his youngest friend. "He'll be fine with rest. Just plain exhausted from the looks of things." He cupped his hands under Chris' and raised up the torn wrists for JD to see. "This appears to be the only new damage. We need to clean him up somewhere and then we can put new dressings on everything. After that, rest and time to heal, that's all he really needs."

Ezra, nearly drowsing, still listened and absorbed the healer's words. The simple explanation was sufficient to let him sag into sleep, knowing that Chris would be all right. That others he trusted were there to help now.

Buck drew his chin back as he felt the new heaviness of Ezra in his arms. Man's fallen asleep, he thought with a small smile. Must have heard Nate. He looked over at his other comrades and nodded to himself. Time to get things going again. "Boys, how about we move these two old buckaroos back to the carnie wagons?" It seemed to him safer than the hole of a town, especially knowing that Ezra had friends among the wagons. JD caught his eye and nodded approvingly.

Nathan nodded as well and patted the unconscious Chris Larabee on his uninjured shoulder. "Give me a minute, JD, and I'll help you with Chris." He gathered his small supplies up and slung the resulting pack over one shoulder, then climbed to his feet.

It was the work of a few moments to help Dunne hoist the pliant Larabee up and then secure him between them. Nathan looked over his shoulder at Buck. "You manage Ez all right?"

Buck grinned back. He was on his feet by now too, with Standish held easily in his arms, tucked close and snoring faintly. "Yep."

The five lawmen slowly made their way past the dead and out of the dusty corral. They stayed behind the few buildings making up that end of Two Step rather than circle in front of the livery. Less public than parading down the main street, however backwater it might be. With JD and Nate leading Larabee, who'd come to sufficiently to stagger along between them, they headed for the carnival wagon circle and the show tents. Buck followed with Ezra Standish still sleeping in his arms. He had to suppress a smirk at the way his old friend kept peering over one shoulder to check on him and his burden. Old Chris sure had it bad. Buck was actually relieved. Time the man put the past behind him and grabbed life again. Ezra was a pretty damn good choice, too. They'd spark things up for the boys, that was for damn sure.

Nathan was thinking hard. Deep in thoughts of long ago that merged with his present life, he still managed to keep track of his patient and note the tension running through the man, the way he kept checking over his shoulder for those who followed. Buck and Ezra. Ezra, likely. Well, seemed like Ez wasn't doing nothing to get Chris going now, yet the man was near yearning to pull free and get back to his man. Nathan resolved to wait and see. Maybe they really were right for each other. Hard to believe from the way he'd seen them argue in the past. But he had no right to judge. Nathan finally sighed and came to a stop, forcing JD and Chris to drag down to a halt as well.

"Nate?" JD ducked his head to see past Larabee who was craning his own backwards.

Nathan shook his head at JD distractedly before speaking to Larabee. "Chris?" He waited until the man reluctantly turned back to face the healer. "Chris, Ezra's just asleep from what Buck said. I got him patched up. You and him just need some rest. He's already taking his, that's all." Nathan smiled slightly as the eyes fixed on him seemed to blink slowly. "He trusts us to take care of you. 'Bout time you trust us to take care of him, too."

Nate was pleased to see the man's eyes reflect surprise, humor rising, and then agreement. A hoarse voice, so unlike Larabee's usual tenor, answered, "Sorry, Nate. It's just that I - " Chris paused, not sure how much to say.

"That you care about him?" Jackson supplied softly, nodding and then patting his friend with a free hand. "Yeah, that weren't hard to figure out." Nate stood up straighter, drawing Larabee and Dunne up in the process. "Looks like it's a good thing for both of you."

JD blinked back his surprise and pleasure. Nate was coming around. Thank goodness. He stole a moment to sneak a grin back at Buck and met a sly wink. So Buck had been listening. JD, heart lighter, turned back to face forward, his mind already at work on what still needed to be done. He'd only really be happy when they all rejoined Josiah and Vin. Together, the seven of them were 'invincible.' Yeah. Jock Steele's words rang true for JD at the moment. They felt right.

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Soho Jack stood at the edge of the cleared rough ground, at the area the small town had reserved for his carnival to set up. Standing there, his back to the tents, temporary corrals, and wagons, he stared, narrow-eyed, at the rise of shoddy buildings. His boy was in there somewhere, Maryjane and Ven didn't know where exactly, but this other fellow, Josiah who Ven said was friend of Ezra's, said he was likely there, along with a slew of other friends. It wasn't Ezra's style to run out on a show, even if his main acts were both over. Jack tugged at one bushy end of his mustache. The acrobats and clowns were nearly finished and he had to get back inside the big top tent to introduce the dog act which finished the show. He stayed, indecisive and worried, as he waited a few more minutes.

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Vin licked his lips nervously as he faced Ezra's friend, Maryjane. He couldn't sustain a lie, not when Ezra was missing and it was probably all Vin's fault for leading those bounty hunters here. "Not a cousin, ma'am, not really." He met the sharp look with a steady one of his own.

Maryjane was not unfamiliar with Ezra's flimflams. The boy had a gift, came by it naturally from his ma. She rose from her camp chair and tucked her hands into her skirts. "He must think of you that way," she answered easily, seeing the skittish look in the young man's eyes. "He doesn't lie to me or Jack, not when it matters," she dimpled, then, flashing a nearly coquettish look at Josiah as he stood awkwardly to the side of the small tent interior, she added, "but he's been known to color the truth when it suits him and doesn't harm us."

"Ma'am, he got a might colorful then this time." Vin took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "We's just good friends. Ride together. Us and five others."

"Seven?" Maryjane glanced back over at Josiah who tipped his head in agreement. "Well, that's fine then. I'm happy for the boy that he's finally found good friends who'll ride the road with him."

Josiah interrupted, "Missus? Perhaps I could go check on those friends, and Ezra, now? Leave Vin with you?"

"Vin?"

"Ez called me Ven to fool those bounty hunters, ma'am." Tanner shifted uncomfortably. "Like to go with you Josiah," he added hopefully.

"Vin." Maryjane was clearly pleased at this revelation. "I like that better than Ven." She smiled at Vin, stood up and pulled one hand free from her skirts to rest it on his head, "Now, what's this about bounty hunters?"

Slipping out the tent opening as soundlessly as possible, Josiah Sanchez suppressed a chuckle at the sound of Vin's voice, quietly replying.

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The Four Corners men reached the edge of town quickly, Buck shouldering ahead, still holding a drowsing Standish in his arms. He slowed to a hesitant stop at the sight of a row of clowns, armed with large mallets and short axes, standing across the newly trampled path to the carnival activities. To one side stood a rather substantial figure in a tight fitting, dressy evening suit, wearing a top hat and fingering a very respectable mustache. Buck took the time to note that, while bushy and full, it didn't have the ladies-attracting look of his own lip cover. Dragging to a halt, Wilmington grunted as Larabee, supported by Nate and JD, walked straight into his back. A flurry of cursing and scuffling behind him brought an eyebrow up on the ringmaster standing there in front of him. The row of clowns had yet to move and were eyeing him with what looked remarkably like murderous intent, despite their painted smiles. Buck pursed his lips, swallowed hard, and blinked as innocently as he could at the silent blockade.

At that moment Ezra stirred in his arms, snuggling closer and murmuring something in a soft, musical tenor. Buck shifted his hold to lift Ezra higher, ducking his head to whisper soothing words briefly, hoping to quiet the Southerner. Now was not the time to be distracted. Only, when he looked back up, things had changed. Like a candle melting, the colorful array of clowns had unfrozen, dropped their weapons to their sides, and were hurrying closer while the stiff ringmaster had torn off his top hat to smack his thigh with a mighty roar of a laugh. The fellow moved fast, shoving through what seemed like a profusion of giant flowers, but were really just the costumed clowns crowding close, to reach Buck first.

"He's all right, I take it?" there was relief and amusement in the man's voice.

Buck realized that he recognized him from the show he and the boys had watched earlier. "Yeah, just tired."

"Jack Soho." The big man rocked back on his heels and smiled at Wilmington. Around him the doubly grinning clowns, real lips and painted smiles both reflecting new good humor, laughed, slapping each other on shoulders and backs. "These boys are some of my performers."

One of the thinner clowns doffed his soft, pointed hat and then from a standing start flipped over backwards to land lightly on his feet facing them again. The others booed and whistled at the show-off. Buck grinned slowly, shaking his head and then giving Ezra a small shake for good measure. "Hey, Ez, looks like we found some of your friends, you want to wake up here or what?"

Jack and Buck shared a smile and chuckle as a muffled voice from a nearly hidden face said, "or what."

"Friends of Ezra's?" Chris Larabee had finally found his feet and shaken off his supporters firmly. He might ache a bit and be some tired, but until he and Ezra was safely together, and Vin protected, he didn't intend to just slide back and let the boys take over.

"Ez, you better be waking up now," Buck hissed as Chris shoved past him, one hand lingering on Ezra's dangling legs for a moment. Buck was afraid his old friend might just shoot first and ask later. Not an unknown strategy for the man.

Jack lost his laugh as the dangerous looking gunslinger, a bit rough around the edges, pushed forward to confront him. "Yes," he answered the man shortly.

Chris sidestepped in front of Buck and Ezra, the better to face these new men. He ignored the clown outfits and face paint, concentrating on where hands were, and who might be looking threatening.

"Chris!" Ezra was fighting his way out of Buck's arms and to his feet, suddenly alert and frightened. "Jack!"

Buck stepped back and away. This Jack was looking at Ezra's bloody clothing with alarm and clenching his fists. The other men in clown outfits had lost their smiles as well and were lifting their weapons again, looking suspicious. Filling in behind the armed clowns were the townspeople who'd flowed out of the now deserted big top, the show finished, eager to go home to warm dinners and happy memories. Chris Larabee had planted his feet and had his gun hand on the butt of his stolen pistol, still holstered at his hip. His squint and thrust-out jaw were sure signs of Larabee at his most aggravating. Buck suppressed a whimper; nope this was not likely to end well. Ezra broke free from Buck's clinging hands and staggered over to the menacing gunman, bumping into him abruptly.

JD and Nate exchanged looks and faded to the sides, better to see and cover their friends.

Chris nearly toppled over as Ezra crashed into him. He managed to catch and hug Ezra to his side, away from his stolen gun. "Stay put, Ezra."

Ezra couldn't believe it. They'd survived the mess in the corral with little serious damage and now his friends were at each other's throats, seemingly ready to each murder the other. "NO, I shall certainly not!" Reaching around behind Chris, he placed his hand atop Larabee's gun hand and pressed hand and gun firmly downward. Chris didn't take kindly to this and tried to spin around and free himself, only succeeding in spinning both of them in a freewheeling fall that ended with a tangle of limbs and growls.

Jack stared down in amazement as his Ezra grinned unrepentantly back up at him before stealing a breathtaking kiss from the badly disgruntled gunslinger that was twisted around him on the ground. By now, the circle of Four Corners men, carnival clowns, Buck, and Jack hid the grounded men from the view of the homeward bound townspeople who were pushing past in an uncaring stream. Jack folded his arms across his chest and cocked his head to better see, twitched his upper lip to hide his newest grin and looked up to meet the now merry eyes of another mustached fellow, the one who'd been toting Ezra moments ago. In silence, they shared their relief and enjoyment.

Chris was stunned by Ezra's actions, dizzy from the spinning fall, and now lost in Ezra's kiss. To hell with everyone. Ezra still loved him and was prepared to show it. Since no bullets were flying he was just held on tight and kissed his crazy lover back with great satisfaction.

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Chris lay on his back, pounding headache gone and dizziness abated; a layer of blankets padding the ground beneath him, thin canvas blocking the night sky above him. Ezra lay on top of him, slewed slightly to the side, sleeping soundly and snoring so faintly that Chris found himself holding his breath to catch the little burr of sound. It was reassuring to hear Ezra so relaxed, so completely at home - in Chris' arms again. Where he belonged.

They'd spent a long evening together in the carnie camp, quietly righting the misunderstanding that had started their misadventures. The wounded look that Ezra had worn worried Chris until they talked out Chris' dream-talk and call-out of Vin's name in the nighttime only nights ago.

Ezra's quiet comment about his own lack of worth among the friendships of the seven had Chris responding quickly and firmly, laying those doubts to rest with terse but caring words. "Ezra, you are my reason for life. Don't ever doubt it again!" he ignored the rasp in his throat, slowly healing but still an irritant. This was too important and as long as he kept his voice at a near whisper, it didn't stress him too much.

Tenderly, he'd smothered the southerner's response with a persistent kiss, then nibbled the man's lower lip until what appeared to be a doubting pout eased into a reluctant quirk of a smile. Chris encouraged that smile with some simple words. "The others care about you too, you know. You are important to all of us. They all consider you their friend."

"And you?" Ezra muttered into Chris' parted lips lightly touching his.

"Nope." When Ezra tried to pull back, Chris pressed forward, licking and pecking all along the fine lips. "A friend just doesn't begin to cover what you are to me. You are my everything, Ezra. I love you, hell, I even like you!" He grinned a tight flash of teeth against his man's cheek then and felt Ezra's body-sigh in response. "So for me, friend is just the beginning of what you are and, there ain't no ending."

"None?" Ezra's tone was happily teasing.

Finally! Chris relaxed, coaxing another soft kiss. "Never. We're forever, my love, forever."

Ezra's body became loose, stress and tension flowing away as he felt the reassurances and love from Chris flood his system. "I love you, Chris," he offered, needing still more.

"Ezra, I love you so much my heart aches." Chris gathered the man impossibly closer and gently pulled them into a bundle beneath the covers, careful of Ezra's small gunshot burns. Both sets of eyes closed and the two dropped into their first comfortable rest since this all began.

Now wakeful in predawn's creep, Chris reflected on their 'other' problem. Ezra had introduced Chris more formally to Soho Jack and Maryjane, blushing as he cleared up his little deception about his 'cousin' Ven. The couple clearly cared about the southerner because they accepted his explanation and managed to tease him at the same time. It was for Josiah, who'd spoken up for the seemingly speechless Vin Tanner, to point out the dilemma that remained for the group to resolve. Jack and Maryjane agreed to continue the small falsehood of 'Ven' until the current residents of the tiny jail in Two Step could be dealt with and sent on their way without fear of circling back to Four Corners.

Chris rested one hand on Ezra's back burrowed under the man's sleeping shirt, fingers lightly stroking the smooth skin in small circles, as he thought about their problem. Vin was still in danger. A smile stole across Larabee's face as he recalled Buck's description of Vin as the bearded lady of the sideshow. It had been a clever disguise - and not one of the lawmen intended to ever let Vin forget about his day in a dress. A huff of air, a single chuckle, raised Chris' chest, pushing Ezra upward for a moment. Standish grunted in his sleep, a small groan seeping out. Chris settled him with both hands carefully stroking down, then up Ezra's spine. He responded with another, smaller sound, more of contentment this time. Chris lifted his head to place a kiss on Ezra's brow, the man's head resting directly beneath Larabee's chin.

Josiah had declared confidently that Ezra would figure something out. The other four men had looked hopefully over at Standish who'd shrunk back against Chris where they sat together around the campfire early in the evening. Chris had hugged the man closer, leaving his arms protectively around Ezra as he answered for his lover. "We can all sleep on it tonight. Figure something out in the morning." He'd felt Ezra's tension ease then and was glad he'd prevented the others from pressing their concern. Vin was like a brother to Chris and they would deal with it. Just later, tomorrow... today? Chris raised his chin and squinted out of the open flap of the tent, studying the patch of sky he could see. Yep, looked lighter. Dawn. Damn.

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"Tigers?" Chris looked askance at Ezra over morning coffee as they sat around the campfire that the Seven had claimed.

Ezra's bright green eyes sparkled with renewed energy, and love, as he smiled over at his best friend and lover. "Yes." He stood languidly and stretched, a silent smirk stretched across his face.

"It was unbelievable, Chris!" JD sprang to his feet and waved his arms, then proceeded to describe in great detail the performance that he, Buck, Nathan and Josiah had witnessed only the day before. Buck finally kicked out one leg and swung it wide, knocking Dunne behind the knees and, in surprise, to the ground. "HEY!"

"Kid, enough, we were there, remember?"

"But Chris wasn't!" JD snapped back indignantly as he brushed off his pants and settled back down where he'd been sitting earlier.

"Ezra can tell him all about it, give him all the good stuff, later."

"That he can," Josiah smiled wisely and Nathan choked on a mouthful of coffee, spurting some in a spray out to hiss down into the low fire.

"That he does." Chris stood up and leaned against Ezra who promptly leaned back, their shoulders rubbing left to right. They smiled knowingly first at each other, then at the men twinkling up at them.

Vin scratched in the dirt with a stick, not looking up as he frowned and spoke softly, "I'm gonna leave today. Maybe head for Texas."

"Whoa, there son!" Buck reached out and grabbed one of Vin's shoulders and gave it a tug. "We'll get this done, you just settle down."

Ezra sighed and pushed away from Chris, moved to the center of the clearing and faced Vin. "Vin, you simply have to die."

"Oh my god! The tigers?" JD's intuitive leap was accompanied by eyes that had grown into saucers and he stared, first at Ezra, then, in awe, at Vin.

The other men had all stiffened at Ezra's pronouncement, amusement fled, as they waited for more information.

"Yes," Ezra nodded at Dunne, "the tigers."

Seeing the looks of horror mixed with confusion on his friends' faces, Standish smiled back reassuringly. "Those dear ladies will never touch a hair of Vin's head," he turned to wink at Tanner, adding, "no matter how tempting the locks might be."

Chris moved to stand once more behind Ezra and clamped hands down firmly on his lover's shoulders. He dug in, massaging the shoulder muscles and watching tension ease out of Ezra's neck. "So, how do we do it?"

Ezra passed a soft smile back over one shoulder at his blond. Looking then at the others, he answered. "We give the townsfolk, and the bounty hunters something they'd expect to see. Bloody corpse, feeding tigers, and the regrettable remains of Mr. Tanner's wardrobe."

"Wait a minute there, Ezra!" Vin surged to his feet, dumping the last of his tin cup's coffee on the fire. "My hat and coat ain't an option there, pard!"

Ezra scratched under his chin, consideringly as the rest of the men grinned. Buck's eyebrows were raised in amusement and Josiah's mouth was a toothy smile as he leaned back on his saddle and put his hands behind his head, clearly waiting for the rest of the plan.

"Well, it has to appear as if the rags were once Mr. Tanner's fine raiment." He muttered under this breath, just loud enough for Chris to hear - and Nathan and JD who were seated closest to him, "Though losing those tattered bits would not have been a great loss."

Vin straightened, outrage writ large on his face. "I heard that!"

Chris leaned forward, struggling with a smile, while he clenched his fingers more firmly into Ezra's shoulders, forcing a wince from his friend as he said clearly, "Relax, Vin, Ez here will respect what's yours."

Suspiciously, Tanner stepped back, arms folded defensively across his chest, and leather coat, cocking one eyebrow in silent query.

With a put-upon sigh, Ezra shrugged himself free of Chris' near death-like grip on his shoulders, working them and rolling his neck as well. "We shall find some leather scraps of that color among the carnie folks' goods - or seek some out in this tiny hamlet. Either way, with skillful application of needle and thread, blood and meat, the tale will be told of Mr. Tanner's ugly demise."

"How do we rig it so that those bounty hunters see it and believe it?" Nathan asked, interested despite himself.

"As to that," Ezra began, sinking down to his former seat by the fire, Chris dropping directly behind him, "Let me explain... " He tossed a quick smile and assessment toward Larabee, giving the man leave to hover - for now.

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John Acorn and his men lounged in the one bare cell of the tiny jail, silently eyeing the two rough trail hands that had been shoved in with them. The men looked fearful and shocky and had backed into a corner away from the bounty hunters. Acorn figured it had something to do with the shooting he and his boys heard right after they'd been pushed into the jailhouse. Bellying up to the bars of the cell, he gripped two with his hands and forced his face tight between them. "Hey, is the marshal out there?"

Edgar Bennis cocked an eye at Henry Pauley. "Marshall Slater is still outside. You'll just have to wait." The answering growl was enough to convince the volunteer deputies that standing out front on the jail's shallow porch was better than being inside with more prisoners than Two Step had ever had before.

The two men shuffled out the open door, ignoring Acorn's indignant shout of "Hey!"

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"Marshal, really, it's just like Buck says," JD tried earnestly. Buck bobbed his head and pushed the shot glass of whiskey over at Lonnie Slater again.

JD and Buck had cornered Slater in the single saloon, and were trying to share a drink with the reluctant man. That Lonnie was untrusting was no surprise despite Buck's honeyed suggestions out behind the livery at the site of the shootout the day before. But, he and Buck were on a mission now. They had to convince Slater that the cooped up bounty hunters who had disturbed the peace of Two Step were after a man still with the carnival. And that that man was likely to get away today, now that he knew the coast was clear.

Ezra's intricate plan depended upon them getting the men loose now so that when they reached the carnie camp, they would 'discover' Vin's ravaged body with the tigers hovering over the still warm corpse. First, they had to get Slater to let the men go when Buck, only yesterday, had just managed to convince Slater that he should keep them for several days - until Wilmington and his friends had left.

Admitting that they'd spotted Acorn's bounty was tricky but Buck was smooth as silk. JD's sincerity was their trump, according to Ezra. And Lonnie Slater, part time marshal, finally looked halfway trusting. "Why don't you boys just collect the bounty yourselves?"

JD had a ready answer thanks to Ezra's thorough planning. "They'd likely follow us and try to snatch the man. We don't need any more trouble. Just like to make sure nothing comes after us." He blinked his deep brown eyes and looked up square into Slater's. That seemed to be the push the man needed.

Lonnie nodded decisively, looked once more at Buck's encouraging smile. He grabbed the offered drink and downed it quickly, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Alright." He squared his shoulders and turned away from the bar. "I'll let them go, but," he turned back to look at the two lawmen from Four Corners, "you best be ready to back me if there's any trouble over this."

JD and Buck both gave him strong single nods and said in unison, "We will." They watched the marshal walk slowly out of the small saloon and then darted glances at each other. With only eye contact for their mutual accord, the two ducked out the back curtained doorway. Once out in the backyard of the saloon they stepped clear of the path to the privy and dashed off toward the carnie camp to warn the others.

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Vin fiddled with his suspenders, a gift from Maryjane, and sighed. The carnies had produced enough hide to make a matching hat and some sections of what might have once been a capote style jacket. Someone had donated a pair of buckskin breeches that were a close-enough match to his own.

The fact that he wasn't lying there in the tigers' wagon was the only thing that kept Vin quiet and hidden in Soho Jack's gypsy caravan cart. Squinting out behind the gingham curtain, he could see through the tiny side window enough to spot Buck come running into camp, JD hot behind him. Vin watched tensely, one hand on the workings of his mare's leg, as Buck swung around and Chris rose up to meet him next to a nearby campfire. Both were looking back up the path.

JD had kept on to where Soho Jack was standing at the tigers' cage-wagon. The two men turned and spoke to someone inside with the cats. Vin knew it was Ezra. He truly hoped those big cats loved Ezra as much as he claimed. Ez had two patched up spots on him that were bound to give off the scent of blood. His friend was risking life and likely limb for the tracker and Vin knew it. The mule deer carcass, that was the rough remains of Vin's hunting prowess and a noontime feast for the carnival folks, was being handed up through the open cage door by two carnie roustabouts. Using his eyeglass, Vin could see the bits of buckskin, coat and hat, even some old boots tangled up with the carcass.

"Damn!" he whispered as he spotted Ezra accepting the mess and dropping down onto the thick layer of straw bedding. Both cats were pressing closely, looking oddly like barn cats with the curious expressions on their well-fed faces. Good thing we stuffed'em full this morning, likely they'll just sniff and lick. He knew that was also why Ezra remained in the cage with them - to prod them into acting their parts of savagery at the sorry remains of one 'Vin Tanner.'

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Lonnie Slater scratched his head, holding his hat above it as he watched the five bounty hunters quickly sling on their rigs and check their weapons. "Remember now, boys," he warned, "no shooting at those carnival people or the lawmen out of Four Corners." He frowned when their leader, Acorn, turned with a harsh look in his direction. "I mean it. Take your bounty and scat. I see you around here again, I'll have you up in front of judge."

John Acorn's lips tightened but then Jim Hansey's hand was on his arm, urging him silently to move. He gave the small town marshal a nod and followed his men out of the jail and onto the dirt street that was the heart of Two Step. It was cloudy, though it didn't look to be raining. Just a gray day. He took a deep breath of the dusty air and spat to one side. "All right, let's go find Tanner."

Bald Ed Morse, Jim Hansey, Tom Upton, and Frank Kendal followed Acorn up the road on foot. They headed for the baggage train part of the carnival camp. There were horses to retrieve from where they'd tied them yesterday.

If any of the bounty hunters noticed that their mounts looked content, neither hungry nor thirsty, they made no comment. Focused on their quarry, they pulled reins free of the wagon wheels where the horses had been tied the day before and swiftly mounted. Backing and turning, the whole passel of riders headed into the camp, guns in hands. They had barely broached the main camp clearing when several screams and panicked shouts routed all the people in front of them.

In confusion, Acorn yanked hard at his mount's reins and blinked. The carnies, a moment ago slowly working or sitting around the midday bonfires, were gone. He didn't know what was happening but his bounty was nowhere to be seen so he waved his men along and took off after the fleeing crowd.

From their vantage on horseback, the five men could easily see the gather of men and women surrounding one wagon. "Shit, that's the one with the tigers in it!" called Hansey as they drew up. The others saw the markings as well. But it was the sight beyond the cage bars that had everyone staring in horror.

Cursing and screaming hoarsely, Chris Larabee was being restrained near the cage door by Buck Wilmington. Acorn recognized the gunslingers that claimed to be lawmen. He ducked and lowered the brim of his hat but leaned forward to see what it was that had Larabee trying to reach the cage. By the door stood a huge man with a great handlebar mustache, poking inside the cage desperately. His long pole only seemed to irritate the striped cats, not dissuade them from their apparent feast.

The two cats were snarling and roaring, practically fighting over what looked to be all that was left of some poor fool. Acorn could see parts of a hat and jacket, buckskin pants and dark boots and long blondish-brown hair. What the hell? No! He nearly dropped his gun, then shakily settled it back in its holster and put his hands on his saddle horn, leaning up and forward to see better. Sure enough, one of the legs gave a kick. One of the arms seemed to push back at the bloody maw of the larger tiger that crouched over - Tanner! Vin Tanner! The way Larabee was carrying on, who else could it be? There was a gagging scream from the wagon and a triumphant howl from the second tiger that darted forward to snatch some meat - flesh - from under the nose of the first. The two began to tussle over their prize while Tanner jerked and then collapsed limply, unmoving.

The wail of grief from the observers was like a wave washing over the bounty hunters. With grim attention, they watched the man at the gate cry out and sag back.

Then Larabee gave a bellow of denial and dragged Wilmington bodily to the bars of the wagon and tried to reach in, calling out in a scratchy voice, "No! No! Viiiiinnnn!"

Two other men surged out of the crowd to help Wilmington pull Larabee back and to safety. Someone lowered the curtain on the wagon and the man at the gate turned to the crowd. "Too late. We were too late." His voice shook and his face was red, tears streaming down. Several women dropped to their knees with hands covering their faces, men nearby stooping to offer comfort. The man, apparently head of the carnival, stood up and called out, "We'll have to wait until they settle down before we can get the body out."

"What's left of it, you mean, Jack," someone stated in a loud voice.

"Aye, likely won't be enough for a decent funeral," 'Jack' answered with a sad tone, shaking his head. Slowly the crowd parted, moving separately or in small groups away from the tigers' wagon. 'Jack' stood beside it, folding his arms. The Four Corners men had subdued Larabee and were leading him away and around a tinker's wagon to one side of the clearing.

John Acorn stared suspiciously at the tigers' wagon, insides now closed from view. He gigged his horse forward, letting it plod right up to 'Jack.' His men followed without comment, the only sound their horses' hooves meeting the dirt.

"You there." Acorn pulled up. "Jack?"

"That's me, boyo." The man was older than Acorn and stared at him with a bold eye, ignoring his reddened cheeks and tear streaks as he straightened and put his fists on his hips. "And who might you be?"

"John Acorn." Acorn nodded back toward his followers. "My men. We're bounty hunters, trailing a man named Vin Tanner."

"Well, you be too late for Tanner," Jack shrugged and tipped his head toward the hidden tiger cage. "Didn't know he was wanted. He met up with some friends here but must have heard about you. I wondered why anyone would be fool enough to sneak into the tigers' own house." Shaking his head, he lowered it and let his hands fall to his sides. "Don't think there'll be enough left for you boys now." He tapped the curtain beside him. "Stick around and you can take a look when we can get in there to get what's left of him out."

"So it was Tanner?" Acorn snarled and spat again.

"Yes, sir, he was."

Hansey drew up beside Acorn and leaned in. "We had that bounty over in Fremont County to get. Maybe it's time to ride?"

John Acorn stared hard at the man Jack. He turned his head slowly and stared at the painted mural of two snarling tigers that was the curtain blocking his view of the dead man. What a waste of time! Abruptly he nodded to Hansey and backed his horse. "Let's go."

The others reined their mounts and set off at a quick walk to keep up with their leader as he headed across the clearing, ignoring shouts of complaint as his horse trampled several bedrolls and knocked over a tripod-set pot. His men and horses created further chaos behind them as they too rode straight through the camp and out.

JD looked up scowling into understanding blue eyes as Buck Wilmington grabbed his handful of Colt and shoved it skyward, clamping on JD's fingers so that he couldn't fire. "Just let them go, kid. Ez will see it right with these folks." He stared after the bounty hunters, watching them trot up the valley, breaking into gallops as they met the dirt road leading out of the area. "They're gone. That's all that matters."

7777777

Josiah, who had taken over the restraint of Larabee, finally released Chris' arm when Buck waved from the far end of the carnie camp. The bounty hunters had truly left. He turned back to speak to Chris but the man was already trotting over to where Soho Jack and a roustabout were pulling up the tigers' curtain on their wagon. The scene within was gruesome in the extreme. However, no one nearby seemed the least bit upset by it anymore.

Soho Jack was still trying to contain his laughter. He had had to fight to keep a straight face when the bounty hunters were close enough to see. The way Ezra had been rolling around in that mess of deer guts, wig, and half-assed bits of 'clothing' had his laughing so hard he'd gone red in the face and started crying. Lucky for him, the bad men had figured he was simply upset. Lucky, because he could tell that Ezra would have killed him otherwise. Jack looked up and saw Ezra's gunslinger coming so he waved his arm expansively toward the door of the cage now exposed. There was Sindhaj, their larger tiger, rubbing up against the bars and purring deeply, her muzzle still a bit bloody. He gave a heavy slap to the big cat's side and spoke firmly, "Back up, baby!"

The cat turned in a heavy leisurely fashion, revealing a rumpled Ezra Standish still lying in a tangle of buckskin and gore. Ezra cocked an eyebrow and twisted to look up and out of the cage without showing himself. Jack grinned at his foster son and said, "All clear, my boy." He leaned back, massive stomach thrust forward and stroked his mustache with one hand, leaning on the wagon with his other.

Then Chris was there, wrapping his hands around the bars and tugging at the door, shoving Clarice's head back unceremoniously with a deep growl of his own. The cat actually sat down and drew her head back in obvious surprise, then batted at one of Larabee's fists with a huge paw, claws still retracted. Did he want to play?

"Damn it, Ezra! Get yourself out of there now!" Larabee's voice cracked in a combination of fear and stressed vocal cords from his still healing throat.

Both Jack and Ezra straightened at Larabee's distress, Ezra calling out, "All is well, Chris." He pushed himself up onto his knees where he was instantly assaulted from both sides by the cats who rubbed him with their large heads.

Jack reached forward and opened the door, then swung one arm in front of Chris to stop him from climbing inside. "Whoa, there, boyo! Ezra will be out in a moment, just has to reassure the ladies. They don't know you well enough for you to get in with them."

Chris grit his teeth and hung over Soho's arm. "Ezra!" He wanted, no, he needed to have Ezra out of there and beside him, safe. He still couldn't believe he'd agreed to this farce. And pretending to scream for Vin when it was his Ezra who was in danger was something he wasn't sure he'd ever be able to forgive himself for. Oh, god, what a mess he'd gotten them all into. He strained toward Ezra, now hidden again by those two huge tigers. Swallowing hard he gripped Jack's arm with both hands and reminded himself that Ezra had already forgiven him. He barely spared a glance to the side when Vin strolled up with Nathan, both looking pleased about the way the scam had gone.

Josiah arrived, along with Buck and JD just as Ezra managed to resurface from under the living shaggy carpets of orange and black stripes that were covering him. "I'm coming," he muttered standing, wriggling free. Then more loudly, "Clarice! That's my cuff link. Let go!" He yanked a wrist free from the cat's wrinkled nose and extended tongue. Chris was waiting, there was no time for this, even if the girls had been great, playfully menacing at his encouragement earlier. "Clarice, Sindhaj, down." The rest of his command was silent, simply swift hand gestures that had the two big jungle cats reluctantly drawing back and circling away from him toward the far side of their caged wagon.

Ezra stooped to drag the carcass and buckskin pile to the doorway standing open. He could see that Chris was ready to burst but if he left this mess in with the girls, one of them might choke on it. Jim Boots, a roustabout now standing beside Jack, leaned in to help him, pulling everything out and down to the ground. Ezra spared a tight grin for the man, "Thanks, Jimmy."

Dusting his hands, Ezra attempted to brush the debris off from his habiliment. With a sigh of defeat, he wiped his hands on his shirt, cringing at his action as he emerged at the doorway of the wagon. The sight of his friend Jack's still flushed face aggravated him anew. He threw a disgruntled look at Jack. "It's a good thing those tears looked like grief, Jack! If any of those men had realized that you'd nearly collapsed in amusement, our little charade would have failed embarrassingly."

Before he could add more to his irritated complaint, his wrist was circled in an iron grip and he was literally yanked from the wagon to fall into Chris' arms. "Oof!" He grunted and staggered within Chris' hold, steadied by his lover's arms.

"Damn. Ezra." Chris was reduced to hoarse mutters against Standish's neck. Larabee tried to stop shaking but he kept flashing on images of those damn tigers snarling over Ezra's body. Even knowing it was a sham didn't help. He'd felt so helpless and that wasn't a feeling he liked. He crushed Ezra tighter, savoring the feel of that beloved heart beating against his own. He licked the closest bit of skin beneath his mouth and felt Ezra twitch and respond against him. With a sigh, he began to breath more deeply, enjoying the rightness of having this man back in his arms.

Ezra was finally realizing just how upset Larabee had been. He began stroking wherever he could reach, sliding a hand through ragged blond hair, knocking the man's black hat back on its chin strap, murmuring softly, "I'm fine, really I am. It's over now, Vin's safe, and everything's alright."

Behind them, the door to the cage clanged shut and Jack fastened the hasp in place as Jimmy dropped the curtain on the tigers once again. Two other fellows joined him and together they gathered up the messy heap of cloth, leather and remnants of the mule deer. Pausing briefly, Jimmy tossed the now filthy wig to Soho Jack.

"Oh, oh." Jack delicately fingered the long hair that stuck to his fingers with brownish drying blood. "Ezra, you are going to explain this to Maryjane." He was ignored.

Maryjane, who had been watching from a distance, came up beside him and shook her head as he offered the limp swatch of hair to her. "Ezra will owe me for a new one," she said smiling at the couple still lost to themselves, in front everyone. She flicked fingers against the ruined wig and her Jack let it fall to the earth. It would be buried with the rest of 'Vin Tanner.' And that would be good. She had grown to like Ezra's friend and pseudo-cousin.

By now, the rest of the seven had found places to sit, stand or lean as they waited out their friends' clench. Finally, Josiah, who had settled on a bale of hay, scratched at his chin and commented, "Any chance they start growing into each other, Nate?"

Grins, already on all faces, widened. "Ya mean, like them Siamese twins?" Nathan, one arm up with his elbow resting on JD's shoulder, coughed into a fist and looked back with amusement. "More likely to just stick to each other with all that muck on Ezra."

"Think old Ez has figured out how dirty he is yet?" Vin asked the group. He stretched his aching back and wondered if he could ever repay Ezra and Chris and the others for helping him 'die' for the bounty hunters. He smiled and nodded his thanks to Soho Jack and Maryjane who were standing there beaming at them all.

Buck, who was standing beside Vin, stroking his chin in assessment, looked over and tipped the tracker's hat forward into his eyes. "Yep. Don't think he cares right now. But, oh, he will, he will." He laughed and stepped back as Tanner poked him lightly with a fist to his arm. "The bathhouse sure will be busy for a spell."

JD, not to be left out, joked, "Bet Ez won't wait that long." He smiled around at the carnival troupe and the colorful wagons and gear, tents still up for yesterday's show. "But, after all this, I don't guess Ezra will ever run away to the circus again."

Maryjane, who was now arm and arm with her husband, Soho Jack, smiled back at the young charmer Ezra had introduced as their sheriff, JD Dunne. "Child, Ezra never had to run away to the circus. His mama left him there instead."

"Good thing, too," Soho Jack said, turning his wife away and leading her from the group after giving a final nod to the seven men. Over his shoulder, he said, "Still say he's the best performer we ever trained up." He turned back to Maryjane and continued, loudly, "Too bad he's gonna run away from us again, back to a plain old ordinary life as a lawman." Both were smiling broadly as they strolled back toward their tinker wagon.

Stunned, the five listening peacekeepers exchanged puzzled half-smiles until suddenly Josiah and Buck broke into guffaws. The others followed, their hilarity finally doing what the other comments had not, interrupting the lovers in front of them.

Chris raised his head from his shoulder hunch over Ezra. He glared at the others, "What?"

Ezra tucked his chin in and back as he leaned out from Chris to swivel his head and look at their friends, collapsed around them in great spasms of mirth. "I think it might be time to depart," he remarked up to Chris, a twinkle in his soft green eyes.

Larabee met those talking eyes and smirked, then nodded seriously, eyed his men currently rolling in the dirt, slapping each other and squealing, then looked back down at the man in his arms. "Let's go. They can catch up."

Ezra nodded in turn. Separating, though keeping hand fit tightly into hand, they picked their way out of the circle of their friends and towards where all the Seven's horses were hitched and ready, in case a quick get-away was needed. The scam had succeeded, and goodbyes had already been said. Four Corners - home - beckoned them. As they strolled through the camp, behind them their friends were slowly regaining their feet and tripping and laughing still, following them. Home.

THE END

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