Mirages And Memories
(Old West)

by Angie

Author's Note: This is a kind of pre-slash bit of h/c involving Chris and Ezra.

The sun beat down mercilessly on the man riding slowly along the road. Looking toward the horizon, he saw the shimmer of the heat rolling off of the sand. No animals even dared to venture out in the intense heat. It was still a few hours until sundown. The heat would dissipate and then the desert floor would come alive.

Chris's head lolled slightly in rhythm with the motion of the horse as he walked. It was a week after the anniversary of the deaths of Sarah and Adam. The gunslinger had gone off to Purgatory to drown his sorrows and screw himself into oblivion. Now he had a hangover the size of Texas and was punishing himself with the ride back to Four Corners.

Dusk came and Chris found a small waterhole to camp beside for the night. He unsaddled Pony and hitched him to the only patch of decent grazing in the immediate area. The water looked a little stagnant, so he used the water from his canteen to brew himself a cup of willow bark tea. He chewed on a couple of pieces of jerky and finished off a stale biscuit before dropping to the ground to try to sleep.

The small scorpion was making its way across the sand when it encountered the man sleeping by the waterhole. It would have worked its way around the obstacle except that it moved. The small creature stung by reflex before hurrying away from the danger.

The gunslinger awoke feeling worse than when he lay down. He felt achy all over and his skin felt oddly tight. The throbbing in his head had intensified to the point that death would almost have been a mercy. Disoriented and delirious, he rolled to his hands and knees. As soon as his right knee touched the ground, a bolt of pain shot up and slammed into his already aching head. Carefully, he made his way to his feet and staggered away from the water hole. Pony looked over in confusion as his owner left him.

As the sun rose, so did the temperature. His fever-addled mind reasoned that he would be cooler without as many clothes on and he shucked off his duster. The pain in his leg was getting worse and he was having trouble walking. Sweat soaked his shirt and the waistband of his pants.


Vin stood on the boardwalk and stared up the street. After all the time he had worked with Chris Larabee, he still couldn't get comfortable with the week that he took off around the anniversary of the death of his family. It had started slowly, the tension in the blond gunslinger building until he was ready to explode. All of the others had taken to avoiding the man at all costs.

As the anniversary drew closer, Chris tried to drown his sorrows in a bottle in the saloon. After the third or fourth bottle of rotgut he had consumed, he staggered to the livery and saddled Pony. Vin had tried to follow along, to keep his friend safe, but Buck held him back. A person took their life in their own hands just trying to follow Larabee when he was in that 'mood.'

That had been over a week ago. Vin had fumed at standing in the street watching his friend ride off. His best instinct was to go after him, follow him and watch his back. Buck worked hard to keep the tracker distracted long enough for Chris to get well on his way.

Vin had gone to Nettie's to work on her barn to take his mind off of worrying about his friend. JD had tagged along on the pretense of helping but he ended up spending most of his time sparking with Casey. The tracker didn't mind really, it kept the kid out of his way and his chatter out of his ear.


The shimmering heat deceived the man crawling along the sand. His leg hurt so badly that he was forced to drag it behind him. The mirage showed the town he sought. He stretched out his hand and reached for it before collapsing on his stomach. His hat brim shaded his face as he lay.

An hour later, the flapping of a bird's wings stirred the still air and he roused slightly. Something was touching his leg in a tapping motion. Finally, a hard pinch caused him to respond. That hurt! He glared at the carrion bird picking at his wound. A quick twitch of his leg scared the vulture away and he rolled onto his back. The sun was high in the sky and his horse was nowhere to be seen. He sat up with some difficulty and eased his pant leg up to see what the bird was trying to get.

The spot where the scorpion had stung him was swollen and hot to the touch. The area around the hole was raised and bright red. There was a small amount of blood seeping from the puncture wound. That was what had drawn the vulture, the prospect of an easy meal.

Rolling to his hands and knees, he levered himself to his feet and staggered onward. By the time he recognized that he had lost his hat, he was too far away from it to even think about going back. He continued to weave his way across the sand, heading toward the town he could see just beyond the shimmer on the horizon.


The saloon was quiet as the gambler dealt another game of solitaire. His fellow peacekeepers were scattered here and there around the room. JD was engrossed in the new dime novel that he had gotten at Potter's store. Nathan was sipping a glass of tea as he read the medical journal he had managed to buy in Eagle Bend. Buck was sweet-talking Inez across the bar. Josiah was dozing in the corner after spending the morning working in the church. Vin had just returned to his seat after walking out to stare up the street for the umpteenth time in the past hour. The tracker was working up a lather worrying about Chris.

The slap of the batwing doors drew everyone's attention. Yosemite looked around before he made his announcement. "A man just came in with Pony. He says he found him by a nearly dried up waterhole, alone."

The six lawmen rose immediately and headed for the livery. Yosemite indicated the man who was wiping down his horse in one of the stalls. The man looked up suddenly at the arrival of the motley group of men standing around him. Their expressions made his hackles rise and he stepped back.

"Something I can do for you gentlemen?" he asked hesitantly.

"Tell us exactly where you found the horse," Vin said in a deadly tone of voice.

As soon as the man explained where he had found the horse, the six men took off. They had to take it easy for the sake of the horses. It was still stiflingly hot. Ezra had shed his coat and was riding in his shirtsleeves. JD kept tugging at his collar and mopping his face. Nathan rode up alongside the young sheriff and held out his canteen.

"I got water, Nathan," he protested.

"Take a few swallows of that anyway," the healer demanded. JD took a mouthful of the water from the canteen and made a face before he swallowed it.

"What is that?"

"Got some herbs and a little salt in it," Nathan explained.

"Salt! Won't that just make me more thirsty?"

"No, your body needs a certain amount of salt to help you keep the water you drink."

"If you say so," the kid exclaimed.


The rock wall was cooler than the surrounding air and Chris sank into a shady spot. His leg was still grossly swollen and throbbed in rhythm with his heartbeat. His eyes were swollen almost shut and he had all but stopped sweating. Letting his head fall back against the smooth stone, he lost consciousness.

It was dusk when he awoke next. In spite of the temperature, he was shaking with cold. The fever was burning him up from the inside. He pulled his shirt tighter around his body and drew his knees to his chest. From the shimmering veil on the desert, he saw six horses riding toward him. His heart surged with joy at the sight of them. When the mirage faded in the cooler temperature, he wept.


From the drying water hole, they had split up. In an odd switch, JD went with Ezra and Vin went with Buck. The three pairs of men searched the area around the water hole. Vin leaned over the saddle horn, staring at the ground to see if he could pick up Chris's trail. Nathan and Josiah kept their eyes glued to the horizon, searching for the darkly clothed gunman. JD was, for once, quiet as he rode. He scanned the ground, using the skills he had picked up from Vin.

As the sky darkened and everything lost definition, the shadows merged into muted shades of gray. The pairs of men made the individual decisions to stop for the night. Vin was wound so tightly that he was beyond speech. The two men unsaddled the horses and shared the water in their canteens. Buck gathered a few buffalo chips and a tumbleweed to build a small fire. Although neither of them needed the fire, they made one in the hopes that if Chris were nearby that he would see it and find them.

"We'll find him, Vin," Buck assured the tracker.

"Dead or alive?" came the bitter retort.

Ezra and JD stopped for the night. The gambler had gotten down several times to pick up material to build a fire. Not for the heat, they were plenty warm, but to keep any animals who might be curious from getting too close. After tending to the horses, they collapsed by the fire and shared a tin of stew and some dried fruit that the southerner had in his saddlebags.

"Do you think he could still be alive?" JD asked.

"It my most fervent hope that we will indeed find him alive and well," Ezra replied. The young sheriff was surprised at the strong emotion revealed in the simple statement. They sat for a long time staring into the fire before settling in to sleep.

Nathan and Josiah made camp and sat staring at the fire. Both of them were deeply lost in their own thoughts. The healer had been gathering herbs and things along the way in the hope that they would be of use when they found the missing man. Josiah sat offering up prayers for the safety of the young man who had lost so much. Chris was just beginning to get truly comfortable with this new, wonderful, bizarre family that had been formed of the seven of them. The former preacher felt very strongly that they were being blessed by their union.


Chris sat in the crevasse in the rocks, shaking with the fever that was consuming the little bit of energy he had left. Dreams now came to torment him. He remembered his childhood. Fond memories surfaced briefly, only to be snatched away by the horrors of the war he had witnessed. He remembered the first time he met Buck and the wild times the two of them had shared. Those memories were over shadowed by the loss of his family.

"Oh God, Sarah!" he called hoarsely into the night.

As he sank deeper into unconsciousness, he dreamed about his friends. The new family he had been granted. Buck was back in his life and for that he was truly, honestly, painfully thankful. He loved the mustached man in a way that transcended love between brothers. JD was everyone's little brother. As hard as he had tried to drive the greenhorn away from the Seminole village, the kid had tenaciously clung and bullied his way into the group. The pride he felt for the young sheriff made his heart swell.

The next face that swam into his mind's eye caused him to gasp at the wealth of feeling that burst onto him. He had a connection with the young Texan that was uncanny and even eerie at times. They could communicate more with a glance than most people could in a full-blown conversation. Vin was the other half of his soul, the reason that he could bear to smile and laugh again.

Another face floated to the top and Chris turned his head, pushing the memory and the emotion it evoked away for the time being. A soft smile caused his dry lips to crack as he thought of Josiah. The older man was a calming influence. He could talk to the former preacher about almost anything and receive comfort or logic from him. Nathan's smile was warm as he appeared in the gunslinger's thoughts. He owed the man his life a dozen times over. The healer would say that it was pay back for getting rescued from the lynch mob that fateful day three years ago.

That other face appeared again and Chris whimpered softly. He rode the gambler harder than he did the others. Criticized him for things he forgave in the others. He could still see the hurt in the bright green eyes at the Seminole village when he warned the southerner not to desert him again. Just after the salute, Ezra lowered his head, but the hurt had been there.


Morning came and the three pairs of men started their search again. They were up and moving at the first, pale hint of morning, before the heat of the day became unbearable again. Vin and Buck angled slightly north of the track they had been on and rode separately, just within sight of each other to cover more ground. Josiah and Nathan angled west of the tangent they had been on and followed a similar plan. Ezra and JD stayed together, drawing support from each other.

Ezra had been staring off to the left as JD watched the right. Suddenly, the young sheriff stood in the stirrups for a moment before kicking his horse into a cantor. The startled gambler turned his horse to follow. JD leapt from his saddle and snatched the dark garment from the sand. The southerner's gut tightened at the sight of the black duster. They were on the right trail!


Just before dawn, a particularly vivid apparition appeared before the delirious man. At first, he was relieved to see them. Sarah and Adam stood just out of reach. He stretched out his arm and tried to gather them to his chest. When he couldn't quite touch them, he rolled to his knees and crawled out of the crevasse in the rocks. As he lost his balance and toppled onto the ground, his wife's voice drifted softly into his mind.

"You have to hang on. They're coming for you. You can't give up," she urged.

"I'm tired," he whispered.

"But you have things to do here. You have people who love you and need you here," she replied.

"Adam! Oh God, my son!" Chris groaned and reached for the image of the beautiful child he'd lost.


"Do you see that?" Ezra asked JD.

The young sheriff squinted at the object lying in the sand before dismounting to pick it up. Chris's hat. Despair washed over the pair, as they knew how quickly the heat and sun could kill a man without proper protection. If they were going to find him alive, it would have to be soon.

Ezra looked toward the outcropping of rocks with their promise of shade. Hope surged up as he looked at his riding companion. It was worth a look. He edged Chaucer toward the rocks. If nothing else, they could rest in the shade for a little while before continuing the search.

Movement caught JD's eye. He rose in the stirrups and stared over the southerner's shoulder. Immediately, the thought communicated itself from one mind to the other and they urged their horses into a gallop. The body of their leader lay crumpled on the ground, one arm stretched out beseechingly. Both men leapt from the saddle and dropped to their knees at Chris's side.

"Is he?" JD began, hesitant to give voice to the dread thought. He watched as Ezra reached out to rest his fingers against the pulse point on Chris's neck.

"Alive, just barely. Hand me the canteen," the gambler commanded. He jerked his handkerchief from his pocket and poured some precious water on the cloth. Gently coaxing the blond head onto his lap, he held the dripping cloth over the slack mouth. JD had wet his handkerchief and was wiping the grime from Chris's face.

"We're going to need more water," Ezra announced with a surprising calm.

"I'll pour my canteen into yours and then look for more water," JD offered.

"Okay, and if you see any of those aloe plants, bring them back with you. Bring all you can find. Don't get lost, please?" The southerner's eyes were bright with tears.

"I'll be careful. You keep him alive, Ezra," the young man pleaded.

After JD had ridden away, Ezra eased Chris from his lap and got up to get his bedroll. He spread the blanket in the shade of the rocks and carefully moved the blond man. He spent the next hour dribbling water into the open mouth and trying not to think of what he would do if the man died in his arms.

"Don't you run out on me!" Ezra vehemently whispered. His own exhaustion caught up with him as he leaned his head back against the rocks. Placing the moist cloth on the heated brow, he drifted off to sleep.


JD found a stream of clear, running water and he plunged the empty canteen into it. When the container was full, he drank his fill and allowed his horse a good, long drink. To his delight, there were aloe plants growing along the water's edge. He cut all he could carry; carefully running his finger over the cut ends to seal them so that the precious gel they exuded would not be lost. When his saddlebag was full, he headed for the rock outcrop again.


Nathan and Josiah continued their search. The healer was beginning to doubt that they would find Chris alive but he dared not mention it to his companion. He had heard the fervent prayers rolling from the older man's lips as they searched. They shared jerky and dried fruit in the saddle, slowing to a walk for the sake of the horses.


Buck stared at the unfocused look on Vin's face for a long time before he asked. "What is it?"

"They've found him!" the tracker whispered. He could feel it in his heart. Chris was alive and getting stronger.


JD returned to the outcrop and handed off the canteen. Ezra had moved Chris into the shade and was still trickling water into his mouth. They used the last of the stale water in the canteen to wash the blond before JD took Chaucer to the creek to refill the canteen and get the horse a drink.

While his young companion was gone, Ezra checked Chris for injuries. He carefully rubbed the aloe gel on the red, sunburned skin. When he discovered the swollen, ugly wound on his leg, he was concerned. The skin was bright red and hot to the touch. The center of the wound seeped a bloody fluid.

"I need something to draw out whatever is in there," the gambler said aloud. He remembered that Nathan had once used tobacco to draw a stinger out of JD's arm when the swelling made the tiny barb inaccessible. Searching through the pocket of his jacket, he retrieved the stub of a cigar he had been saving. It was an especially good cigar, he had enjoyed it tremendously. "I guess you're worth it," he teased aloud.

The afternoon passed slowly for the southerner. He carefully peeled away the outer layer of the cigar and crushed the remainder. Taking up the handkerchief JD had left behind, he wet the tobacco and folded it into the cloth. Tying the poultice to the swollen leg, he got a softly indrawn breath and a twitch from Chris.

"That's it. Fight it!" he urged as he slid the blond head back into his lap and began to coax more water into him. He was rewarded by a brief glimpse of hazel eyes. Picking up a bit of the aloe plant, he gently rubbed the gel into the dry, cracked lips. Using the pad of his thumb, he applied the gel a second time.

JD returned with the canteen. He tended to Chaucer as he had his own horse before gathering fire-making materials. When he finally collapsed next to the bedroll, Ezra smiled.

"He opened his eyes briefly," the gambler imparted. His young companion smiled.

The two men spent the afternoon trickling water into Chris's mouth and smoothing the aloe on the sunburned skin. He opened his eyes again and sighed contentedly. JD built a fire and dropped everything he could find on it to create smoke. He wanted to draw the others to his location.

As the sun went down, Chris was more alert. JD had brewed a cup of the herbal tea that Nathan insisted that they all carry in their saddlebags. He coaxed it down the throat of the blond. The temperature cooled and Chris began to shudder as the fever still raged in his body. Ezra tucked JD's bedroll around the shaking body as he continued to urge water into his mouth.

"Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?" Ezra enquired.

"Hold me?" Chris whispered.

The gambler remained rooted in place by the request. He lowered his gaze to the sand between his knees as he nervously licked his upper lip. He heard the startled intake of air from behind him and knew that they were being closely observed. Drawing a deep breath of his own, he raised his eyes to meet Chris's. For a moment, he hoped that the man had passed out again so that he wouldn't have to deal with the surge of feelings the request had brought to life. No such luck as the hazel eyes were still watching him intently.

"You do realize that we are not alone," the southerner finally managed. Chris huffed and pulled at the rough woolen blanket that covered him. Ezra slowly turned his head and sought JD's eyes. They expression on the face of the young sheriff was one of a child having been caught watching something that ought not have been seen.

"Did he just ask you...?" JD began.

"Yes, and he is quite delirious," Ezra answered calmly. Shifting his eyes back to the trembling body of the blond, he sighed again. "And if it comforts him, I am quite willing to accede to his request."

JD watched with a kind of morbid fascination as the southerner moved to gather Larabee into his arms. After several moments of squirming and rearranging of the blankets, Chris settled his head on Ezra's shoulder. The young man continued to stare for several minutes before lowering his gaze to the fire.

"Are you embarrassed, JD?" Ezra asked softly.

From behind the safe veil of his long hair, JD nodded. "A little," he replied.

"Are you telling me that you never sought warmth or comfort with a certain mustached lawman, ever?" Ezra challenged. He was beginning to feel defensive.

"That's different," JD protested.

"How exactly is it different?"

"Buck never 'held' me the way you're holding him," came the defensive response.

"And what is it that you think we are doing right now? Chris is burning up with fever and in pain and he asked me to comfort him. He is resting against my body and I'm talking to you, so what is it that is making you so uncomfortable?"

JD raised his head and looked again at Ezra and Chris. He could see that there was nothing going on between them, it just made him feel creepy somehow. He had been known to throw his bedroll down close to Buck's when it was really cold on the trail. But they always had blankets between them! He knew that there was nothing wrong with what they were doing, he just had trouble accepting it.

"I'm okay. Maybe the heat is getting to me," he finally answered.

"Why don't you try to get some sleep? I'll wake you in a couple of hours and you can take the watch," Ezra decided.

After JD was soundly asleep, Ezra allowed his cheek to come to rest against the sweaty blond head and his eyes closed. He wasn't ashamed of holding Chris in his arms, he was grateful for the acceptance and the trust being placed in him. He just hoped that it didn't come around to embarrass either of them later.


"There, a fire! See it? It has to be them!" Vin declared. They had noticed the small column of smoke an hour ago and were riding toward it. Both men hoping and praying that it was Chris and that he was all right. They had discovered the small stream and gladly filled their canteens and let the horses get a drink. While standing there waiting for the horses, they had spotted the smoke.

Coming over the low rise, they spotted the fire and their three friends. Peso snorted and hurried down to the safety of the fire. Vin and Buck vaulted from the saddles and rushed to the bodies surrounding the makeshift camp. Buck paused to glance at JD before moving to the wall. The tracker had dropped to his knees and reached a tremulous hand out to Chris's neck. The blond was still warm to the touch, but he was alive. Pale blue eyes turned moist with tears as Vin withdrew his hand. Ezra raised his head and smiled.

"I think his fever has come down some," the gambler whispered.

JD opened his eyes and carefully watched the other men's response to finding Chris in Ezra's arms. They didn't seem especially bothered by it and settled around the fire for the night. Vin's only concession to the situation was to throw his bedroll down so that he could see the injured man as he dozed off to sleep.

"You don't happen to have any fresh water, do you?" Ezra asked as Buck knelt and eased the blanket up over Chris's shoulder. "I gave him all the water in my canteen and can't reach the other one."

While the ladies man was bringing the canteen, Ezra rolled his shoulders. Chris tightened his grip and pressed more closely against the warmth that had shifted beneath him. Buck handed over the water and pulled the blanket up again, smoothing it over the black shirt. He watched as the gambler took only a couple of swallows of water before setting the canteen down.

"Can you hand me a piece of that aloe plant?" Ezra pointed to the pile JD had brought back from the creek bed.

Taking the plant in one hand, he squeezed the gel out and caught it on his thumb. He then gently massaged the healing aloe into Chris's chapped lips. The earlier applications had already helped with the worst of the dry, cracked skin around his mouth. He also applied it to the bridge of Larabee's nose and the planes of his cheeks. After setting the aloe plant aside, he tipped the canteen up and coaxed water into the blond man's mouth.

The five men settled in to sleep for the night. Chris didn't stir as the others took turns standing watch.


Nathan and Josiah awoke before daylight and headed out. Both men were exhausted from the long hours in the saddle over the past two days. The healer was also dealing with a seriously heavy heart. He was almost certain that they would not find Chris alive. Unless one of the other pairs of searchers had already found him and started re-hydrating his body, there was no chance that he could survive.

Josiah's heart was also heavy. He had prayed until he dozed off and started again every time he woke during the night. If the blond gunslinger didn't survive, it would rip the heart right out of Vin. The two men had an uncanny bond. Losing Larabee might just drive the tracker away. He was like those wild Indian ponies on the prairies, appearing to be tame while retaining just enough of the wild to be able to slip right back to where he left off.

"Is that smoke over there, Josiah?" Nathan asked as he shaded his eyes with his hand.

"Could be a small fire. You want to head that way and check it out?" The former priest turned his big gelding toward the column of smoke. It was over a mile away and could very well be a homestead but they couldn't afford to take a chance. They had not run across the stream that the others had used and were making due with the small amount of water left in their canteens. Both horses were dangerously close to collapse as they rode.


Vin awoke at first light and moved to check on Chris. His temperature was dangerously high again.

"Ezra! Ezra wake up!" the tracker growled. "He's burning up again. We have to do something!"

"Could we put him in the stream?" JD asked as he came awake.

"Shock could kill him," Vin murmured.

"Shock could but this fever will if we don't bring it down," Ezra insisted. He could feel the heat pouring off of Chris.

"I say we take him to the stream," Buck announced.

They broke camp and put Chris up in the saddle in front of Buck. They rode to the stream as quickly as was safe for the horses. When they reached the water, Ezra and Vin pulled Chris off of the horse and carried him to the water's edge. JD gathered the horses and took them downstream to get a drink. He put out a pick line and left them to drink and graze to their heart's content. They stripped off the blond man's outer clothes while Buck toed off his boots and rolled up his pant legs. He then gathered Chris into his arms and carried him into the water.

The others also removed their shoes and waded in to help. As soon as the cool water touched his fevered skin, Chris seized up. Ezra and Vin helped steady the body while they lowered him the rest of the way into the water. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the gunslinger began to relax. Ezra eased his head into the water and let the current carry away the sweat and the sand. Unknowingly, he was also helping to preserve brain function by cooling his head.

"Okay, let's get him dried off and see if we did any good," Buck suggested.

They carried the dripping wet body to the bedroll JD had laid out by the stream. Easing Chris onto the blanket, they covered him lightly with another blanket. They all gathered around as Vin knelt down and called softly.

"Chris? Come on Cowboy, wake up."

For a long time, nothing happened. Then Chris opened his eyes. He blinked at the light before closing them again. Vin whipped off his hat and used it to shade the blond man's face. He tapped the sunburned cheek and called again.

"Chris, come on. Look at me."

The hazel eyes opened and peered around. A faint smile crossed his face before his eyes closed again.


Josiah and Nathan climbed down from their horses and surveyed what had obviously been a campsite. The burned out remains of the fire were still warm. Remounting, they followed the clear path of the four horses.

The healer spotted the others by the stream and urged his horse into a gallop. He vaulted out of the saddle and slid to a halt at Chris's side. He studied the sunburned face before reaching out to press his hand to the forehead. He was cool to the touch.

"How long has he been out of the water?" he asked of the others.

"Just a few minutes. He opened his eyes and smiled," Vin explained.

"You been givin' him water?"

"He's had most of two canteens since we found him yesterday," Ezra relayed.

"And he hasn't thrown up at all?" Nathan was surprised.

"No, I gave it to him in sips and trickles until sundown," the gambler said. "I've also been putting aloe on his face and lips. He was stung by something on his leg. It's all swollen and festered."

Nathan immediately jerked the blanket back to examine the injured leg. He cut off the wet poultice and studied the suppurating wound. The stinger had been drawn out and the swelling had gone down considerably. Sniffing the handkerchief, he looked up at the gambler with a surprised expression.

"You put this on him?" the healer asked in disbelief.

"You put tobacco on JD's arm to draw out a stinger before," Ezra defended.

"I didn't think you paid a bit of attention to what I used for healing."

"One never knows when the information may prove useful," the southerner answered smugly.

"How soon can we head back to town? We can't stay here all day," Buck asked.

"Can we find anything to make a travois? I hate to put him up double on the horses," Nathan said.

The men spread out and searched until they found a pair of saplings suitable for making a travois. They lashed the tall, pliant poles together and created a lattice of rope to support blankets. They rested Chris on the conveyance and started out after watering all the horses and filling the canteens.

They arrived in town just before sunset, having taken it easy for the sake of the horses. Josiah and Buck lifted Chris and carried him up the stairs to the clinic. He still had a fever and was thrashing in discomfort. Nathan brewed a cup of his pain and fever reducing tea and fed it by the spoonfuls into the resistant mouth. Even deep in the throes of fever, the blond was intimidating. When he opened his hazel eyes to glare at the healer, the cup of tea was set aside and replaced by cool, clear water.

The others came in to check on the gunslinger after tending to their horses and getting cleaned up. Nathan took advantage of their visits to slip away and clean up. Vin and Buck were sitting with Chris when he left. JD passed him on the stairs.

By the time the healer had gotten cleaned up and changed, Josiah was sitting with Chris, coaxing more water into him and wiping him down with cool cloths. He smiled at Nathan as his dark hand rested on the gunslinger's face.

"I think he's cooler. He took some water and the rest of the tea," the older man imparted.

Before the healer could respond, Ezra opened the door and stepped into the room. He was juggling a tray and carrying a bucket of water. Nathan moved to take the tray and set it on the table.

"Smells good," Josiah commented.

"I took the liberty of asking Inez for some broth. I also acquired some of her excellent lemonade, which our illustrious leader has a fondness for. I also stopped to get more fresh water," the gambler explained.

"You seem to have thought of everything," Nathan said as he studied the southerner's face. There was something there, carefully hidden in the emerald depths of the gambler's eyes. He sensed that the man wanted to be alone with Josiah. "I'll stop by the saloon and pick up something to eat. Come get me if he needs anything."

When the sound of the healer's footsteps had faded completely, Josiah posed the question that was bouncing around in his head. He lifted an inquisitive gaze to the man he cared for like his own son.

"Is there something you wanted to discuss?"

A look of fear crossed the green-eyed countenance. Ezra licked his lips and drew a deep breath. His focus never wavered from the man on the bed. He stepped closer and picked up a cloth. After soaking it in the bucket and wringing it out, he placed it on the fevered brow.

"Something happened out there. I seem to be having trouble dealing with some unusual feelings," Ezra began.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Josiah asked softly. He watched as the gambler's hands gently drew a second cool, wet cloth across the sweaty chest.

"I must ask that you give me your promise that you won't breathe a word of this to our compatriots. Young JD knows, and I suspect he will tell the others what he saw but..."

"There's more to the story than what JD saw?"

"When we found him, he was just barely alive. We got water into him and tended to him as best we could. He regained consciousness briefly. His eyes locked on mine..."

Josiah waited patiently for the gambler to go on, not wanting to pressure him into silence.

"I asked him if I could do anything to make him more comfortable... and he asked me... to hold him," Ezra whispered as he plunged the cloth into the bucket again.

"And you did," Josiah stated.

"I was glad to do it. I... I wanted to hold him. It was soothing."

"And it frightens you, the way it made you feel?" the former preached gently inquired.

"We weren't doing anything! He was passed out. All I did was hold him. He was shaking with the fever and I held him, all night."

Ezra's hands began to shake and he leapt from the edge of the bed. He drew his hand through his hair as he strode over to the window. His shoulders rose and fell with each breath.

"You let your guard down and showed that you care for someone and it frightened you?"

"I saw the way JD was looking at me! He's ashamed of me. I made him uncomfortable," Ezra's voice dropped to the barest whisper.

"Talk to him. Tell him what you just told me. JD's a smart young man. When Chris is back on his feet and he sees that nothing has changed, he'll accept it."

"Ezra?" Chris's hoarse voice whispered. The gambler spun smartly on his heel and stared across the room.

"You kept me alive," the blond said, his voice stronger. "You have no reason to be ashamed."

"But what I felt," Ezra protested.

"Was caring concern for a good friend. I would have done the same thing for any of you," the blond man assured him.

It was a couple of days before Ezra was comfortable enough to approach the young sheriff. He waited until JD was alone in the jail before going in to talk to him. Josiah watched the two men enter the building and moved to assure that they were not disturbed.

JD looked up from the stack of wanted posters on the desk. As soon as he saw that it was Ezra who stood before him, he lowered his eyes back to the task at hand.

"May I have a moment of your time, JD?" the gambler asked as he rolled the brim of his hat in his hands.

"Yeah, sure. The coffee's fresh," the young sheriff offered.

Ezra stalled by pouring himself a cup of coffee. He grabbed the extra chair and moved it closer to the desk. An awkward pause descended on the room. The gambler pulled out his cards and began to shuffle them nervously.

"JD, I want to talk to you about what happened between Chris and I," the southerner began.

"You don't have to, Ezra. It isn't any of my business," the young man deflected.

"No, we do have to talk about it. I couldn't help noticing that you have been avoiding me since our return to town. JD, nothing happened! Chris was delirious with fever and in pain and I comforted him. Why are you avoiding me?"

"Because I... I wanted to... I wanted to be the one... you were holding," JD whispered.

"Why? You weren't hurt, you..." Ezra's voice froze in his throat. He studied the tightly clenched fists JD was pressing on the top of the desk. The young man's hair hung down along the sides of his face, effectively concealing the blush that colored the pale features. "JD, have you never been intimate with a woman?"

His eyes went wide as he looked at the southerner. He could feel the shame induced blush warming his cheeks.

"What has that got to do with anything?" the young sheriff asked.

"Because it's only natural to be attracted to the people you're closest to. It doesn't mean you want to be intimate with me. I'm gratified that you're comfortable with me but after you've garnered a little more experience with the fairer sex, I'm sure that you will find those feelings will be gone."

Hope lit JD's eyes for a moment. He saw only sincerity in Ezra's eyes. Unclenching his fists slowly, the young man drew a deep breath and blew it out slowly. Being the youngest and most inexperienced one of the group had its drawbacks. He was relieved that Ezra not only understood what he was feeling, he told him that it was normal to feel that way.

"You really think so?"

"Do you think for a moment that Chris wanted anything more from me than companionship? He wanted to get his sore, aching body up off the ground and I was the one who offered. He has already assured me that he would have done the same for me or any one of you," Ezra assured him as he came to his feet. He offered his hand across the desk.

JD stared at the outstretched hand for a moment before walking around the desk and pulling Ezra to him for a rib-crushing hug. He thumped the gambler on the back a couple of times for good measure before stepping back.

"Thanks, Ezra."

The gambler stepped toward the door, tugging on the brim of his hat before stepping back out onto the boardwalk. Josiah sat in one of the straight-back chairs, his hat pulled low over his face and his long legs resting on the hitching post. He tipped his head back and opened one eye as he looked at the southerner. Ezra gave him a slight nod and a smile that let him know that the situation had been resolved.

Chris recovered enough to be discharged from the clinic and return to his room at the boarding house. The worst of the sunburn had peeled, leaving him looking like a shedding snake but he would be all right. He slipped into the saloon and waited a moment to allow his eyes to adjust to the dimness of the room before he approached Ezra.

"Well, well, I see you have been released from your banishment in Nathan's clinic. I trust you are recovered?" Ezra asked as he poured a drink from the bottle on the floor by the table leg. Nudging the glass across the table, he waited for Chris to pick it up before filling his own glass.

"Yeah, well, Nathan ran out of excuses to keep me up there and I was getting a little cranky so he threw me out," the gunslinger drawled softly as his eyes drifted half closed. The whiskey warmed its way to his gut as he set the empty glass back on the table with a quiet thump. Ezra also set down his glass and resumed the game of solitaire he was playing.

"Josiah said you worked things out with JD?"

"Yes, I spoke with young Mr. Dunne earlier today and assured him that what he was feeling was completely normal and would pass in time," the gambler answered as he moved the ace of hearts to the top row.

"And that's all there is to it?" Chris inquired.

"It is. As long as you and I are working to uphold the law. Besides, I sincerely doubt either of us is really tuned that way. You had, after all, a wife and son and I prefer to keep my preferences to myself. What you felt in the desert was a figment of your fatigued, heat stroked mind and nothing more."

"Sarah came to me. She told me that I had to stay here. She said I had people here who needed me, things I needed to do. I saw Adam. Do you have any idea how much I loved that boy?"

"Not ever having had progeny of my own, I can't say that I do," the southerner replied.

"You should. Get married and settle down, I mean."

"Okay, so you're going to start playing matchmaker?" the gambler asked with a wry smile.

"Nah, I figure I'll let you take care of that on your own," Chris said as he nudged the glass again.

Refilling the glass, Ezra studied the man sitting across the table from him. He knew that Chris could now see in through the cracks in the southerner's armor. The gunslinger knew that the gambler had begun to care for him.

A few weeks later, as the weather began to turn cool, Ezra and Chris sat outside of the saloon watching the people of the town. Casey Wells stepped out of the jail and turned to watch as JD pulled the door closed behind them. The young sheriff slipped his hand into the hand of the young woman as they strolled across the street.

"Looks like some serious sparking going on over there," Chris intoned as he sipped his beer.

"Our young man is growing up," Ezra answered with a smile.


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