This Rough Magic
(Old West AU)

by DoggyJ

Type: Gen, OW/AU Ezra, Vin
Warnings: I think this is suitable for older teens and up; contains one or two swear words and violence.
Birthday Fic: To Lisa Young, who wanted an AU featuring Ezra and Vin, I hope this fits the bill!
Author's Notes: I want to thank Lisa for this opportunity. Iíve had this particular notion running around in my head for quite some time. What if magic existed in the world as we know it? But it had to be controlled? I tried writing an original story, I tried writing this in other fandoms, but it just didnít work. Then came Lisaís request, and I went, Ah Ha! I think I can make this work! This story is basically a retelling of the pilot episode Ghosts Of The Confederacy, and thus the storyline and much of the dialogue, especially during the first half of the story, is lifted straight from the show. But with a slight twist, so hang in there! Of course, the original concept, characters, even much of the dialogue belongs to Those Who Must Not Be Named. They know who they are and what they did. Actually, legally, I think they must be named, but Iím still mad at them for canceling the show so Iím pouting. So sue me. Really. I have two teenage daughters, like I have any money?
Special Thanks: to Tonny van Oosten - who worked tirelessly to help me perfect and polish the end product. Without her hard work, and attention to misplaced commas, this would not be half the story it is. Literally! Thanks, Tonny!


Ezra Standish lingered in the alley as he watched the Healer being dragged toward the cemetery. He felt bad for the man but didnít dare interfere. None of his business. The Guardian emerged from the general store, drawn by the commotion. Ezra shrank back in the alley, fearing discovery. The Guardian looked up and down the street, but his attention was caught by a man in black standing in the doorway of the saloon.

By his bearing and the way he wore his gun, Ezra figured the man for a gunslinger, probably a former soldier. He and the Guardian joined up in the middle of the street and headed after the Healer. Ezra decided to take the opportunity to get some quick cash. He had spent the last of his money the night before on a cheap hotel room and needed to replenish his funds. Quickly, he slipped into the crowded, noisy saloon.

Setting up the con took longer than he had anticipated. Suddenly he felt the presence of both the Guardian and Healer enter the premises, overshadowed by something else; something radiating a strong magical current. A faint pressure started to build behind his eyes. Risking a quick look around, he spotted the two men. The gunslinger was with them. Somewhere they seemed to have acquired another ex-soldier as well, a tall man with a full mustache. Ezra groaned inwardly. He needed to get his money and get out, fast.

The trick worked as well as could be expected. But there was always one in every crowd. An old man challenged him, leading to an unpleasant scene involving a very large knife. Ezra noticed the Guardian and the man in black clearing their weapons, preparing to jump in. He needed to end this.

A few well-practiced moves soon had him in the clear, although the bar was somewhat worse for wear. Taking a chance, needing to know about the Guardian for sure, Ezra stumbled to the bar and downed a quick whisky. "Sorry for the mess," he told the bartender.

The old man wouldnít stay down, though. In the mirror behind the bar Ezra saw him, still bent on inflicting bodily harm. A quick jerk of his arm exposed the derringer and Ezra took the risky shot, shooting behind himself. The man went down, injured but not dead. More work for the Healer. Ezra grabbed his money and edged around the bar. The magical field was stronger around these four men.

"You only got one shot left in that popgun," the man challenged.

"Well, then, you best discuss amongst yourselves which one of you is going to die." It was a line Ezra had used before with good results. Together, as a mob, they would have rushed him and no doubt injured, if not killed, him. But individually, not one of them had lost enough worth dying over. Predictably, the other men in the saloon backed off.

"Nice shot, pard," the Guardian drawled.

A sick feeling of dread settled in Ezraís stomach. He knows. Aloud, he said, "Dreadful. I was aiming to kill him but the mirror was cracked."

I did not use magic. No magic here. Nothing to interest a Guardian. Keeping his gun trained on the others in the bar, he stepped away from the young man in the rough clothes, closer to the soldier in black. The field increased, along with the pressure in his head.

That man eyed him appraisingly. "The first shot was louder than the other five," he said softly.

Desperation began to take hold of Ezra. Although he had not used magic, he still might be exposed as a con. He couldnít risk capture, not after all he had been through. He needed to know the soldierís intentions. "What are you attempting to suggest?" he asked warily.

"First bullet was real. The rest were blanks," the man continued.

Good, then. It was just the con he was threatened with, and not being a rogue Mage. That, he could handle. He couldnít help a small flush of pride. The first bullet, placed directly in the center of the ace of spades tacked up on the saloon wall, had indeed been real. And with his left hand, too. There were advantages to being ambidextrous. No magic had been required for that stunt.

"Well, sir," he said with a grin, "I abhor gambling and as such leave nothing to chance."

"Weíre looking for guns to protect an Indian village. You interested?" the soldier asked.

"Whatís so valuable in this village that it needs outside protection?" Ezra asked, intrigued in spite of himself.

"Nothing," the man said. "But thatís not what the Ghosts of the Confederacy think."

"Ghosts of the Confederacy?" Ezra asked. "Who the hell are they?"

"Men living in the past. Men who think they can just take whatever they want," the man replied.

"Whoís financing?" Ezra countered.

"The village," was the soldierís answer. "Five dollars a man." He held out a gold talisman.

The shock of having the object exposed almost sent Ezra to the floor. He had to throw up a hasty barrier and hope the Guardian didnít sense it. It took him a moment to catch his breath, and then he forced a laugh.

"Five dollars wouldnít even pay for my bullets." He felt a tendril of interest from the Healer. Sparing the dark man a glance, Ezra asked, "Would he be riding with you?"

At the soldierís nod, Ezra said, "Not interested."

"Reckon you should be leaving town anyway," the Guardian suggested. Ezra wondered if that was the manís subtle way of telling him to show up or else.

He couldnít help but look at the talisman in the soldierís hand once more. Dear gods, couldnít they feel the power from the thing? How had the village elders been able to part with it? They must be desperate. He eyed the hostile faces in the saloon. One way or the other, he would have to leave town now.

"Iíll sleep on it," was all he would say. But now he had to get out of the bar, alive.

"Meet us at the livery at dawn," the soldier said with a slight grin. "If you live that long."

Ezra shot the man a dirty glance then started for the door. He waved his gun back and forth as he let a small trace of magic seep out from behind his barriers, pushing the men back, holding them away from him, causing them to believe that any one of them could be killed by the lone bullet left in his derringer. It was a chance he had to take. But the Guardian didnít try to stop him or follow him.

Ezra stumbled out of the smoky saloon, squinting at the bright sunlight outside. Ignoring the ache building at the base of his skull he headed for the hotel and what passed for the only restaurant in this dusty, backwater town. And he was being generous in his assessment. His stomach cramped painfully, reminding him that his last full meal had been two days ago. He hoped the headache was just a byproduct of his hunger, but knew better deep down inside.

After a few bites, he realized that if he ate any more the steadily worsening pain in his head would cause him to lose what little he had manage to choke down. Resignedly he pushed back from the table and laid a few coins beside his plate.

"Something wrong with the food?" the heavyset cook-waitress inquired.

"Not at all, my dear woman," Ezra replied as smoothly as possible. "Just the dust. I fear I have a headache coming on and so find it prudent to limit my intake." The woman grunted suspiciously, swept the coins into the pocket of her dirty apron, and started grabbing the dishes off the table. Ezra quickly made his way upstairs to the small room.

He had used only a small bit of energy to ensure his aim and hold those men off in the bar, not trusting to the one bullet he had left in the derringer. However that small expenditure was now taking its toll. At least the hotel provided a washbasin, water, and somewhat threadbare rag. He wet the rag, wrung it out, and lay down on the bed, putting the folded cloth over his eyes.

As he waited for the pain to either get better or worse, he thought back over the events of the afternoon. All he had really wanted to do was win some money, get something to eat, and somehow avoid the Guardian and the Healer he had felt the moment he entered the town. Now he had come to the attention of both, not to mention the two soldiers.

And he had actually been invited to join them on some hare-brained mission to save a village from... from what? The soldier had never told him what the actual threat was. But it involved the talisman, of that he was sure. He was also sure that he would have to be totally, completely, and irrevocably mad to join those men.

*******

Eyes narrowed, Vin watched the man leave the saloon. He had sensed the Mage this morning, but had been drawn away by the disturbance before he could investigate. Funny, the man was relying on tricks to win the bet and not magic. But then again, without a Guardian, the man would be a fool to try.

Nathan, the Healer they had rescued, watched the man also. "Why would we want to use a cheater?"

"Might need one," Chris answered.

"Heís a Mage," Vin said softly. Chris and Buck stiffened.

Nathan turned to look at him with a slight frown. "You sure?"

"Yeah, Iím sure," Vin said, taking another drink.

Chris stared at him. "Youíre a Guardian," he said. It was not a question.

"Was once. Was a lot of things." Vin turned his eyes away. He wasnít going to explain himself to these men, not if he could help it. What he had been was in the past and he wasnít eager to repeat his mistakes.

"Shit!" Buck hissed. "Whatís a Mage doing out here? On his own?"

"Same thing youíre doing, I expect," Chris said.

"Running away," Vin said softly, too low for anyone to hear him.

"Knew there was something wrong about him," Nathan said. Vin gave the Healer a sharp look. He wasnít the Mageís Guardian, wouldnít be a Guardian ever again, but the impulse to protect a Mage was still strong. He would have to keep an eye on those two. There had been an immediate sense of enmity between them.

"Hey, Healer!" the old man who had threatened the conman called. "What about my hand?"

"What about it?" Nathan shot back.

"Itís shot, thatís what," the man complained.

"Come here," Nathan said wearily.

The man approached him cautiously. "You ainít gonna kill me like that other feller, are you?" he asked.

"That other feller was too far gone before they ever brought him in," Nathan answered. "Iím a Healer, not a Mage," he added, shooting a glance at Vin.

Vin watched as Nathan took the manís bloody hand in his and closed his eyes, drawing on the manís own energy to start the healing process. The bleeding stopped and the wound closed, not even leaving a scar behind. The Healer was good, Vin had to give him that.

"Itís going to be sore for a few days," Nathan warned him. "Donít go punching nobody with it or itíll break open again."

The man flexed his fingers. "How much I owe you?" he asked grudgingly.

Nathan just waved him away. "Go on, get out of here. And donít take no more sucker bets!"

"What are we going to do if he shows up in the morning?" Buck asked, bringing the subject back to the Mage. Chris looked at Vin, who just shrugged and looked away.

"Itís a free country out here," the Guardian said. "Heís no concern of mine." He fervently wished it would stay that way.

*******

Ezra lay very still in the bed until well after dark, waiting for the dull ache behind his eyes to abate. Finally the pain faded away, leaving him able to think once again. He had been colossally stupid to continue with his little charade after the Guardian entered the saloon. Worse still, he had actually used magic in the manís presence. He might as well have hung a sign around his neck stating ĎRogue Mage Seeks Guardianí.

He knew that out here on the frontier the laws of the Union were held in slightly less regard than back east, but Mages still evoked images of magic run wild, uncontrolled and uncontrollable. The Indians, of course, had their shamans and medicine men, but their powers seemed to be of a different order than Mages of European descent.

Perhaps they just used their powers differently. In any case, the Indians didnít seem to see the need for Guardians to control their men of power. Or perhaps they had found other ways of harnessing that power, such as using talismans like the one the gunslinger so blithely waved around.

As Ezra drifted off to sleep, his mind kept returning to the gold talisman. He had a fairly good idea of its worth for the gold alone, but what price might such an object fetch for its magical properties? He had never trafficked in artifacts, finding them too uncomfortable in close proximity. Perhaps there was more gold to be found in this little village the gunslinger had mentioned. Or even more talismans. But he had no intention of getting involved with those men or their confrontation. He slept and dreamed of gold and pain and power and a desperate yearning for something he never even came close to obtaining.

Waking in the pre-dawn stillness after a restless night, Ezra decided he needed to get out of the small, rough town and far away from the men who gathered there. He especially needed to get as far away from the Guardian as possible. Since he planned to ride long and hard, he ordered the large breakfast platter and coffee. As he was eating, the cook passed by and tossed a newspaper on the table.

Ezra glanced at the front page and began to read, more for something to occupy his mind than any real interest in the paper itself. An article caught his eye and soon had his mind racing again. ĎNotorious gunslinger Chris Larabeeí it said. So that was the man in black.

Leaning back in his chair, Ezra re-evaluated his situation. A notorious gunslinger, a Guardian, a Healer, and a magical talisman: what were the odds of such a combination coming together right at the same time? Right when he, a Mage, albeit a fairly useless one, happened to be in town? No, there was more to this than met the eye. And the best way for him to find out what was from the inside.

So, he would join this little band of Ďprotectorsí, ride with them to the Indian village. Then he would see what they were up to. And, just maybe, find out where the gold came from, and whether or not there was any more that just happened to be lying around.

Making his way to the livery, Ezra reasoned that the four men had already made him for a conman, so that was what he would be. He would play down any questions of his abilities as a Mage that were sure to arise with a Guardian in the group. For once in his life, he wouldnít even have to lie. Plastering a smile on his face, preparing his persona, he rode around the corner to where he heard the voices of the men from the saloon. He carried the newspaper from breakfast with him.

He joined them in the open corral, but before he could properly introduce himself a young man jumped his horse over the fence and rode right in the middle of them. Trying to control his nervous horse, the kid brazenly declared, "I hear you fellas are headed for a fight. My name is JD Dunne, and I can ride. Whoa," he said to the restless animal.

Throwing his leg across the front of his saddle - and incidentally, in Ezraís opinion, his wits to the wind - he stated, "And I can shoot." He fired his gun past the horseís head, startling the animal and finding himself deposited unceremoniously in the dirt.

As the other men began to laugh, Ezra joined in. "And he can fly," he said. But his laughter was forced as he watched the young man pick himself up. He remembered all too well what it felt like to be different, to be the outsider.

As a boy, he had been shuffled from one relative to another most of his life while his mother was Ďbusyí following more lucrative pursuits than raising a child. His abilities had begun to manifest when he was about twelve and he was sent to train as a Mage. Once his training was through, his mother again took custody of him, only to sell him off to the highest bidder. A Guardian who had a well-trained, fairly powerful Mage could command large sums of money for the Mageís abilities and his mother had made sure she showed him at his best.

Ezraís attention was brought back to the present when he heard a loud splash, followed by a louder yell. The horse had run past the kid and knocked him into the water trough. "And he can swim!" whooped the mustached soldier. Or gunfighter, Ezra hadnít decided which yet.

Sputtering, JD Dunne climbed out of the water trough and ran after his horse. Ezra watched him go and silently wished him the best of luck. But there was a job to be done and a role to play and Ezra decided heíd best get to it. He rode forward, closer to the four men.

The man in the black hat and black coat looked at him. "You made it," he said, not sounding the least bit surprised.

Ezra assumed his most ingratiating smile and obsequious manner. "Hell, I couldnít stay away once I saw Iíd be riding with a genuine celebrity." He shook out the newspaper theatrically and began to read. "ĎThe streets ran red with the blood of twenty men as new resident and notorious gunslinger Chris Larabee turned our quiet town into a shooting gallery.í"

Larabee grabbed the paper out of his hand and with a dark look turned his horse toward the main street of the town. Ezra watched him go, then edged his horse over near the Guardian.

"Are you here for me?" he asked quietly.

"Should I be?" the man returned.

Ezra regarded him warily. "Then you have no interest in a bonding?"

The Guardian looked away. "This ainít the Union, and I ainít interested in a bonding."

His statement made Ezra sigh a breath of relief. "I wouldnít be much use to you anyway," he said. "I can no longer access magic without great cost to myself."

"You used it yesterday," the man pointed out.

"Yes, but just a trickle. And I paid for it throughout the rest of the evening," Ezra answered.

"Like I said, none of my concern." The man turned to look at him, letting him read the truth in world-weary blue eyes.

"Ezra Standish, at your service," Ezra said, holding out his hand.

"Vin Tanner," the Guardian answered after a pause, taking it.

The truce established, Ezra moved his horse away. He introduced himself to the other ex-soldier, learning his name was Buck Wilmington. The Healer he avoided.

Chris soon rejoined the group and they rode out. Ezra found the Healer riding by his side. "You all right?" the man asked him.

Ezra looked over in surprise. "Quite fine, sir."

"You seemed - off, yesterday," the man said.

Looking away, Ezra made sure his barriers were strong and steady. It would not do to have this man probing him. "A slight headache," he admitted. "But itís completely gone now."

"You get those headaches often?" the man persisted.

Ezra could feel the first tentative probe. "Only when I havenít eaten for a couple of days," he replied with an easy grin, gently rebuffing the inquiring mental touch.

"Thatíll do it." The man withdrew his energy. "Nameís Nathan Jackson."

"Ezra Standish, and I do hope you donít take offense at what I said back in the saloon. I have an aversion to Healers, Iím afraid. Nothing to do with you personally." Ezra desperately hoped the man would ride on and leave him alone.

"Vin says youíre a Mage," Nathan continued.

"Well, not much of one. I can no longer access magic in great quantity, nor use it to any degree." The sooner Ezra convinced them all that, though he might be a Mage, he was of no use to anyone in that capacity, the better. Then they might leave him alone, let him live his life without the fear of entrapment.

The War was over. The South had lost. The slaves had all been freed. All except for the Mages, who, in the victorious Union, would by law be kept under the strict control of Guardians. Many Mages and their Guardians had fled out west to the territories; some in protest of the strict laws now governing Mages, some to make their fortunes. Some, who had lost their Guardians in the conflict and did not want to be forcibly bonded to another, simply fled, as had Ezra.

He knew his brief explanation would be accepted. Magic was wildly unpredictable, even to those who were trained to use it. Guardians were immune to magic, but, when bonded to a Mage, could help control and contain the forces involved. A Mage without a Guardian was almost certainly doomed to destroy himself if he continued to use magic. Many a Mage in the war had ended up burned out when their Guardian was injured or killed and unable to stabilize them. To these men, Ezra would be just another casualty of his own abilities.

Somehow Ezra found himself in the forefront of the small group of riders as they approached the ruins of a mission. An older man, still powerful looking despite his graying hair, waited for them. The Healer rode forward and addressed him.

"Whyíd you change your mind?" he asked.

"Crows," the man replied.

"What crows?" Nathan stared at the empty sky.

"A sign," the man answered.

Oh, good Gods. A priest. Ezra stared at the man.

"What does that mean?" Nathan asked in exasperation. Obviously these two men knew each other well.

"Death," the man responded cryptically, mounting his horse.

"Whose?" the Healer demanded.

"Probably mine," he said with a grin.

Ezra sighed inwardly. Not a priest, a mystic. Just what this little band of misfits needs. "Well, well," he said with a wry grin. "A sense of humor. I look forward to many lively conversations." He tipped his hat to the man, who responded in kind.

Nathan and the man continued to banter back and forth, then the man looked over at Ezra and introduced himself as Josiah Sanchez. The small group moved out and Ezra mixed freely with them, exchanging small talk, getting the feel of each one of them. They all seemed to be seasoned frontiersmen, well used to life on the edge of civilization. Ezra was content to rely on their powers of observation and keep his own powers to himself.

*******

Vin kept an eye on the land around them, alert to any danger. He knew the kid from town, JD Dunne, was following them. But he was harmless, just a young man searching for adventure in the wild, untamed west. Searching for his death, more likely, if he had the sense to know it. He saw Buck turn around in his saddle more than once and exchange nods with Chris. Buck would take care of JD.

He watched the Mage as he mixed easily with the others. The man was a con, slick as they came. But he wasnít using any magic. As a Guardian, Vin could sense magic, could even control and direct it, much like riding a horse. Riding a horse didnít make you one, just like focusing magic didnít make him a Mage.

Guardians were immune to magic; could not be hurt by a magical attack. In the old days, their original purpose had been to protect Mages. During a battle, for example, Mages might be concentrating so much on what they were doing that they were vulnerable to an arrow or a well-placed spear. Guardians stood by the Magesí sides to defend them from ordinary weapons. A bond would be formed between the two that allowed them to protect each other.

Where it all had changed, Vin had no idea. How Guardians came to be in control of Mages instead of defending them was mired in history and politics. He knew of others who were more like partners and friends, as he had once been. But these days the vast majority of Guardians seemed to see Mages as little better than slaves, or tools to be used however the Guardian saw fit.

Vin shook his head. He missed the closeness he had shared, but knew he couldnít go through such a loss again. And certainly not with someone like this fast talking conman. No, the Mage wanted nothing from him, and he was content to keep it that way. He did wonder why the man had joined them, though. It certainly wasnít for the money. He suspected it had something to do with the gold talisman.

The piece held some power; that he did know, even if he hadnít shared the knowledge with the others. All in all, Vin didnít know his companions that well, although he had felt an instant understanding between himself and the gunslinger. Still, he wasnít quite ready to share all his secrets with them.

If Chris hadnít pegged him as a Guardian he wouldnít even have told them that much. He did know that sometime, probably sooner rather than later, Chris would want to know what kind of man he was. When that time came, he would tell him. But not before.

As they approached the village, Vin caught a look from Buck, who then said something quietly to Chris before splitting off from the group. As the rest of them rode on, he could feel a slight vibration of power around the village, old power from the earth herself. There was probably enough to draw on to protect the village from wild animals and ensure sufficient water, but not enough to repel an all out invasion.

He would have liked to ask Ezra if the Mage could draw on that power to their advantage, but the other man had made it clear he could not use his abilities. From what Vin had felt in the saloon, he suspected the conman had been telling the truth. There was something blocking the Mage, more than just the usual barriers used to keep unwanted power out and unintended consequences in.

Vin glanced back at Ezra, who had fallen behind in the group. The Mage was frowning, as if he had a headache, and looking carefully around the village. Probably searching for a medicine man, as Vin was, but he couldnít detect the presence of one. He wondered if part of the Indianís problem was that they had no one to harness the power of the earth.

Most of the people in the village seemed to be men, both Indians and a large number of black men, probably freed slaves. The women had more than likely been sent into the hills and bluffs for safety. Riding close behind Chris, they were met by the two older men, one Indian, one black, who had approached them in town.

Tastanagi, the Indian elder, spoke first. "Welcome. We greet you with hostility."

Chris turned to Vin. "I think he means hospitality."

Vin looked around at the faces of the men in the village. "No, I think he means hostility," he said.

Tastanagi looked at Vin and Chris. "Some of our people find it impossible to trust white men," he said.

"And you?" Chris asked.

"Not impossible. Just difficult," Tastanagi admitted.

Vin looked carefully around the village, noting the damage to some of the buildings. "Magic?" he asked.

"Cannon," the old Indian replied.

"You never told us they had a cannon," Vin said. What in the world had they gotten themselves into?

"You didnít ask," the man replied.

Before the situation could become tense, Buck rode into the village leading JD by a rope tied around his wrists. "Hey, boys! Look what I found. Come on."

"I was covering you, making sure you weren't walking into an ambush," the young man cried indignantly.

"How'd you get here ahead of us?" Chris asked.

"I told you, I can ride. I cut around the canyon rim," JD said defiantly.

Vin was impressed. The kid was obviously new to the west, yet had trailed them successfully through some pretty rough country. Not only trailed them, but found his way up the canyon ahead of them. He was about to suggest that they let the boy stay, but Chris cut him off.

"Well, I suggest you ride back the same way," the gunslinger snapped.

Vin heard an undertone to the manís words that made him hold his tongue. Chris was a natural leader, assuming command of their little band from the start. If he didnít want the boy to fight with them, he probably had his reasons.

"I can help. If you give me a chance I am ready to fight," JD promised, all bravado and no sense.

Buck stepped up to JD. "You think you're ready, boy? Let me guess," he circled the kid like a drill sergeant sizing up a young recruit. "You learned to ride in prep school, then you read some... dime-store novel about Kit Carson, got you all fired up. Figured you'd come out west and try your hand as a gunfighter. Is that about right?" he summed up, tossing JDís rifle back to him. The kid caught it easily, one-handed.

"Go home. You're not the type," Chris said, dismissing him. He turned back to his horse.

JD strode angrily after the gunslinger. The kid had guts, Vin had to give him that. He knew what Chris meant by Ďthe typeí. He had seen it in countless men, some of whom he had killed. He saw it in Chris and Buck, in himself, certainly, and in Ezra judging by what he had seen in the saloon. Josiah seemed to be no stranger to a fight, and Nathan, by virtue of his heritage, had probably witnessed more violence than the rest of them put together.

"A man comes to you because he respects you, because he'd be proud to work with you. This is how you treat him?" JD asked.

"Go home, kid," Chris said again. But this time there was a note almost of pleading in his voice.

Vin heard what Chris did not say. ĎGo home before I have to watch you die. Go home before I have to hold myself responsible for yet another death under my command. Go home before that brash spirit is drowned with too much blood.í

Angry, disappointed, JD turned away. Better angry than dead, Vin thought. Better disappointed than burdened by guilt and regret. But he didnít fool himself for one minute thinking the kid would really leave. No, theyíd find him hiding up in those canyons before too long. Heíd either force his way into this fight or find himself another victim of the men threatening the village. Not my problem. Heís old enough to have a gun, then heís old enough to take care of himself. Not my problem, him or the Mage.

"He is young and proud," Tastanagi said as he walked over to Chris.

"You could carve that on his tombstone," Chris replied.

Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra joined them. "I'm an expert at prayers for the dying," Josiah offered.

Ezra laughed, but to Vin it sounded forced, false. "Oh, I like this guy," Ezra said. "Lord help me, I like him. I'm in this for the laughs, if nothing else." No, not for the laughs, Vin knew, or the money. Something else. The talisman? But could the Mage even use it? For gold, maybe? Heíd have to keep an eye on that one.

"Let's get started. We got four days," Chris reminded them.

"Less," said Tastanagi. "Anderson, their leader, is an old warrior. He will come early, to surprise us."

Vin naturally found himself following Chris as he sat down with Tastanagi to discuss strategy. He wasnít surprised when Josiah, the priest, joined them. It only confirmed his earlier opinion of the man. Tastanagi outlined the first attack.

"Heís a trained soldier," Josiah observed.

Vin nodded. "He got a Mage with him?" he asked.

Tastanagi shook his head. "I do not know, but they used no magic in the first attack."

Vin glanced at Ezra, then looked back, only to find Chris watching him closely. With a minute shake of his head, he turned his attention to the diagram the elder was drawing in the dirt.

They agreed on a plan of action, the only one possible given their circumstances. As they rose, Tastanagi said, "We may not have guns, but we have our ways of fighting."

"Anderson will provide the guns," Chris said.

"And Iíll show you what to do with Ďem," Vin promised.

*******

Ezra had stayed back somewhat when they entered the village, looking around carefully. Smoke and dust hung in the hot, dry air, coming from one of the rough homes that had been left to smolder after the first attack. Several men were building some type of low barricade at the entrance to a small canyon behind the houses. The low undercurrent of magic about the place had increased as they approached, probably tied in with the talisman. These people must have been desperate to allow the powerful object to leave.

A slight headache warned him to pull back and barricade himself fully. Any use of magic in this place with its power, though not overly strong, would leave him completely at the mercy of these men. And that he was not prepared to do any time soon, if ever at all.

Chris had given them what sketchy information he had during the ride; about Anderson, the Ghosts and the gold they thought they could find here. But no matter how Ezra scrutinized everything around him, he couldnít find any evidence of gold at all. The mud brick houses and simple dress of the occupants spoke clearly of their poverty. A profound sense of disappointment filled him. He had ridden all this way, with men he didnít know, in the presence of both a Guardian and a Healer, and for what?

But if the villagers had been threatened recently, it would make sense for them to hide any wealth they might have. He would just have to be quiet and keep his eyes and ears open. He considered the various groups working around the area and discarded them as possible sources of information. A cluster of boys and girls caught his interest. Children always knew secrets. There was his target.

He headed in the direction of the children who were watching the new arrivals curiously. As he walked toward them, he saw the two elders settling down to talk with Chris and Vin. Josiah joined them, and from the way they moved, he could tell that Josiah was very involved in the discussion. The older man seemed to have quite a bit of experience for a priest and mystic, and Ezra resolved to watch him more closely.

"Good day, ladies and gentlemen," Ezra addressed the children, rubbing his hands together. "What tasks occupy you this fine day?" They just stared at him. Ezra cleared his throat. "What are you doing?" he tried again.

Two of the boys looked at each other, then one of them spoke up. "Weíre getting big sticks and rocks. We can fight too," he said defiantly.

"Indeed you can, indeed you can," Ezra said, staring around at the various activities in the village. The defenses the occupants were building were woefully inadequate in the face of a well-trained, well-armed force. They could never hope to protect the village alone, which explained their willingness to part with the talisman.

Ezra considered various ruses designed to make the enemy think there were more defenders in the village. He might not have full access to magic, but he knew more than a few tricks. And it would give him a chance to gain the confidence of the children.

"I think we can put your efforts into more constructive pursuits," he told them. "In fact, I have an idea."

At first the children were suspicious of this unknown white man. But as Ezra outlined his ideas, he put every ounce of kindness and sincerity into his voice that he could. Soon he had the boys and girls joining in enthusiastically, especially after he promised to show them tricks that would Ďamaze and delight even the most discriminating intellectsí. The children werenít quite sure what Ďdiscriminating intellectsí were, but Ezra assured them that the term applied to them.

After sending them off on their new tasks, he slipped behind one of the houses into the shade. Leaning back against the rough bricks, he closed his eyes. Lord, he needed a drink.

Pulling his silver flask from his inside coat pocket, Ezra shook it gently, testing its weight. He sincerely hoped that someone, somewhere in this godforsaken wilderness, would have more whiskey. Taking a healthy swallow, he sighed as the liquor burned its way down his throat. He could feel the tension easing already. As he took a second sip, he heard the children coming back. Quickly he capped the flask and stepped out to greet them.

"Ezra, look!" one of the boys cried as he carried an armload of straw into the area Ezra had claimed as his.

"Well done, my little craftsmen, but there is plenty more to do," he said with a smile.

He pulled a deck of cards from his pocket. "A dealís a deal, and I did say, if you worked, Iíd show you tricks." He shuffled the cards faster than the eye could follow and started with letting some of them disappear and reappear. The smiles and laughter his simple tricks elicited brought him a bittersweet joy. It took so little to make them happy and gain their trust; not like the adults they would someday be. He dared to think that even the Healer, as a child, would have laughed at his simple stunts.

As the children worked diligently under his direction, Ezra surveyed the preparations taking place around the rest of the camp. The priest, who seemed to have some fixation on stonework, was leading a team of men building a wall to discourage the attackers on horseback from charging straight into the village.

The sound of gunfire from the dry hills just behind the village only exacerbated his headache. Vin was attempting to teach the men to shoot, even though they had no guns of their own. The idea was, presumably, that Andersonís dead and dying soldiers would provide them with guns.

The Healer was gathering wood for fires, preparing to boil water for cleaning wounds and bandages. Ezra knew enough about healing to know that most of the healing power would come from those healed themselves. But if a wound was too great, Nathan would have to draw on his own strength. And one man would not be able to heal the whole village. There would be a fair amount of just general doctoring going on, unfortunately.

Ezra pulled his attention back to the children. "All right, children!" He clapped his hands together. "Letís see what we have wrought." They held up the clothes stuffed with straw that would be used as decoys, designed to cause Andersonís men some confusion and have them waste quite a bit of ammunition, if all worked according to plan.

"Spectacular," Ezra declared. "You've all earned another trick."

"Gather 'round gather 'round," he called out with the barkerís singsong voice he used when working a crowd. "If my lovely assistant would pass me my blindfold, please. Thank you very much. This one is called ĎAces Highí. Prepare to be amazed."

He tied the blindfold around his eyes. "To find the mystical ace of spades," he began, showing them the cards once again, "one must become sensitized to its vibration." He shuffled the cards quickly.

"Now, of course, I will expect you to applaud as I have taught you," he warned them, then continued his spiel. "For, when one is sensitized one can better ascertain its location." And with a flourish he held the Ďmysticalí ace. Suddenly his magic flared, diverting an unseen danger from him. The card in his hand jerked. To the sounds of enthusiastic applause, Ezra pulled up the blindfold to find a neat bullet hole in the middle of the card.

Maintaining his broad smile, Ezra thanked the children. "Nothing at all, I assure you." His smile faded as the familiar pain stabbed through his head. The bullet had been a ricochet, not intended for him at all, but without the reflexive use of magic, it would have struck him just the same. He quickly sent the children off on another errand. He needed another drink, desperately, and about twelve hours in a dark room. Unfortunately the whiskey was the only likely relief heíd get for some time.

*******

Vin looked up sharply. The sound of the ricochet faded, as did the sense of magic being used nearby. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to filter out the deliberate magic from the background of power that surrounded the village. Too close to be anyone from Andersonís group, and not powerful enough to have done much. Must have been Ezra. Vin sighed. He was very much afraid that he would have to do something about the Mage before this was all over.

He turned his attention back to the men he was teaching how to shoot. Eban wanted to keep trying until he knocked at least one of the cans over that Vin was using as targets. Vin shook his head regretfully.

"Gotta save the ammunition," he explained as he beckoned the next man forward. After they had used all the ammunition he thought they could spare, Vin let them hold several different weapons and dry shoot just to get the feel.

Most of the men had wandered away when Vin heard a commotion coming from the village. Ebanís voice reached him clearly.

"What yíall doing down here? Didnít I tell yíall to stay hid?" the old man was yelling.

A female voice, much younger than the older women who had stayed in the village, matched his in volume. "Is this not our village, too? Why should we hide like rabbits while our grandfathers defend us?"

The men remaining with Vin hurried quickly toward the voices. Resting his rifle over his shoulders and draping his arms over it casually Vin followed.

He was just in time to hear Buck drawl, "I say we let Ďem stay."

"You touch my daughter, I promise Iíll kill you," Eban growled.

"W-which one is your daughter?" Buck asked, a cautious tone in his voice.

Luckily Chris stepped forward to diffuse the tension. "No harm will come to your women," he promised. Buck nodded and moved steadily back until he was well out of Ebanís sight.

Vin looked at the group of young women. He had known they were back in the canyon, but had left them alone. If the elders wanted to protect their women by sending them away, that was their business. As far as Vin was concerned, he was simply taking orders. He wasnít planning on getting any more involved, with anyone, than necessary. It only led to heartache.

He took the guns they had used for practice to a quiet, out of the way spot and began to clean them. After a while, the simple chore set his mind free to wander. If he died here, all anyone would know of him was that he was an outlaw. That was not how he wanted his life to end.

He needed to go back and clear his name. But if he couldnít, he needed someone to know the truth. Of all his newfound companions, the only one he felt he could share his story with was Chris Larabee. He spent some time with the horses, trying to work up the courage to approach the other man, whom he barely knew. He had just made up his mind to seek Larabee out when there was another disturbance in the village.

Buck, looking dusty and rumpled, was walking into the village from the winding canyons, leading an Indian man whose wrists were tied tightly with rope. Behind him, looking equally disheveled, was none other than JD Dunne. Vin shook his head in wry amusement. Chris should have let the kid stay the first time.

"Imala! Imala!" several of the villagers cried.

"Buck, let him go," Chris ordered.

Tastanagi rushed over to the warrior. "Imala! I thought you were dead!"

"I escaped from the white manís prison," Imala said bitterly, looking around at all the people gathered.

"Do you know why I was in prison?" he continued, his voice getting louder. "For the crime of not being white. And what do I find when I return? These white men." He practically spat the last few words.

Buck threw down the rope he was holding in disgust. "Thatís it! Now, what in the blue blazes we doing here, then, risking our lives for a chunk of gold that wouldnít even fill a tooth?" He walked up to Imala and said right in his face, "And why would I die for you?"

Vin moved closer, not liking the hostility radiating from the warrior. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Ezra also taking up a defensive position. The man was in his shirtsleeves, shaving lather on his face. He held his holster in his hands, his pistol within easy reach. The man might be a conman and burnt-out Mage, but he appeared to be a capable fighter. Vin turned his attention back to the confrontation between Buck and Imala.

Before Imala could answer, a woman holding an infant ran from one of the adobe houses. "Imala! Your son." She held out the baby for his father to see. With one last angry, distrustful look over his shoulder, Imala walked back to the house with his wife and son.

JD took that opportunity to step forward. "Heíd be dead right now if it werenít for me," he declared angrily, pointing at Buck.

"You damn near shot my ear off!" Buck retorted.

"But I didnít, did I? I saved your life. Twice!" JD glared at Buck, then stared defiantly at Chris.

"You think I couldnít handle him?" Buck demanded. He snatched the pistol out of the holster slung around JDís hips.

"And donít ever use the butt of your gun as a weapon. You keep smacking it around, before long, itís going to misfire," he lectured the young man. "And another thing. Get rid of this damn, stupid hat!" Buck yanked the kidís bowler hat off his head and threw it on the ground, kicking dust on it.

Their antics brought a welcome respite from the tension of a moment before. In the face of the threat from Andersonís men, it felt good to laugh for a moment. Chris almost smiled. Ezra, who had joined them, chuckled. Vin glanced at him, thinking that this was the first honest smile he had seen on the conman.

Vin spoke up. "What Buck means is thanks, kid."

JD snatched his hat up and marched to Chris. "I just want to prove to you that I can..." he began earnestly.

Chris cut him off. "If you want to die young, stay." He turned and walked away.

"Yes!" JD swelled with pride. He stuck his hand out to Vin. Knowing that the kid would probably not last through the first fight and still determined not to get involved with any of these men, he simply nodded.

Turning to the Mage, JD kept his hand out, hoping to be accepted by someone, anyone, in their group. A strange expression crossed Ezraís face, but he shook the boyís hand.

JD settled the hat firmly on his head and ran back to Buck, charging the other man. As they went at it again, Ezra stepped away.

"Ezra," Vin called.

Ezra stopped, but didnít turn around. "Yes?"

"You all right?" the Guardian asked.

Now Ezra did turn. "Perfectly fine, I assure you. Why?" His voice was wary.

"Just checking." Vin turned the opposite way and headed through the village.

*******

"Vin!"

Turning at the sound of his name, Vin saw Chris sitting on his horse at the edge of the village. "Gonna take a look around. Want to come with me?" the other man asked.

Only he wasnít asking. He was telling. Vin nodded and went to get his own horse. A few minutes later they were riding up the winding trail to the top of the canyon that gave a clear view of the approach to the village. They dismounted and found a comfortable place to settle in.

Side by side they sat on the edge of the escarpment, watching the approach to the village as the sun began to sink low in the sky. Vin pulled out his telescope and searched the terrain laid out below them.

"You were a Guardian?" Chris asked, phrasing his question a little differently than before.

Vin nodded as he kept looking though his telescope at the surrounding countryside. He had known this conversation would come up. Chris was the kind of man that needed to know exactly who, and what, he was riding with.

"What happened?" Chris asked.

Vin sighed and lowered his Ďscope. "He got shot. Died."

"In the war?" Chris pressed.

Instead of answering directly, Vin looked at Chris. "There's a little backwater town up in the Texas panhandle. Tascosa. Flatter than a felt-covered poker table. You know it?"

"Heard of it," Chris answered.

"If I wind up getting killed, take my body back there. You'll get five hundred for it." Vin turned to look off into the distance.

He felt Chris shift beside him. Going for his gun? "How come you're so valuable?" the other man asked.

Vin took a deep breath, held it for a moment, and then let it out. "Gil - my Mage, Gilbert - he was a finder. Found water, horses, whatever people wanted and could pay for. We worked as buffalo hunters for a while, Ďtil they run out, got soís even he couldnít find them. So, we became bounty hunters. We were going after Eli Joe, a bandit whoíd shot up a few banks. Thatís when Gil got shot. Took him three days to die."

After a pause, Vin continued, his voice flat and distant, the pain of that separation an old ache now. "Two hundred dollars. Thatís what Eli Joe was worth. Thatís what Gil died for. Anyway, I guess I went a little crazy after Gil died. Eli Joe was wanted dead or alive, and I preferred dead. I went after him. Found him, already dead. I was so pissed... Anyway, I took the body in."

Vin was grateful for Chrisí silence. That was the only way he would be able to finish his story. It wasnít easy to tell, digging into wounds that might never heal for him. He glanced at Chris and let a small, bitter smile cross his face.

"íCept it wasnít him," he continued. "Old Eli framed me up for murder. Since I didn't do it, I decided not to stick around for the hanging. Wound up with a hefty bounty on my own head. So, I figure if a friend collects I get the last laugh."

Chris just smiled, acknowledging the irony in the situation. Vin turned away, raising the telescope back to his eye. He couldnít look at the other man with his easy acceptance, not right now.

*******

Ezra ambled over to the fire. He pretty much had the other men pegged by now. Chris and Buck were former soldiers, probably did a little stint here or there as lawmen or gunfighters. Or perhaps both, not uncommon for these times. Vin was a former Guardian, having lost his Mage somewhere along the way, and apparently not interested in acquiring another. Nathan was a Healer and a former slave, not entirely free of his past; Ezra was still not sure of his attitude toward Mages. JD was a kid, out looking for adventure; sure he had found it with this little band of misfits. But Josiah, the mystic and warrior, still had Ezra puzzled.

For a few minutes he tested the spring loaded rig on his right arm, making sure no dust had gotten into the mechanism that would cause it to malfunction at an inopportune moment. He watched the older man as he continued to work on the stone wall.

"Why'd you sign on, Josiah? What is it you expect to gain?" Ezra finally asked. It was a fair question. In his experience, nobody did anything unless they expected to gain something in return. He just needed to identify what it was the preacher wanted, and whether there might be any advantage to him.

"I saw the birds of darkness in a dream," Josiah answered cryptically, turning away from the wall. He grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders, coming over to the fire. "When I woke up, a crow was sitting on my windowsill, staring at me like the devil himself."

"Why come here?" Ezra pressed.

"If death's coming, I'd just as soon meet it head on," Josiah answered.

"And get your reward in the hereafter?" Ezra tried to keep the bitterness from his voice.

When he first began showing signs of being a Mage, he was staying with a man who his mother told him was his uncle. Ezra had his doubts. The man had been a preacher, strict and unyielding. His version of Deuteronomy 18:10 had involved beating Ezra until he was black and blue, once his abilities began to show, and demanding that his mother take Ďthis abominationí from his house. Ezra was not deeply enamored of religion.

Josiah seemed almost embarrassed when he answered. "No. No, I was, uh... I was a priest once, but, uh... had a little trouble turning the other cheek," he finished with a grin. The smile did not reach his eyes.

So, a failed priest, prone more to fighting than saving souls. Ezra didnít look at him as he offered a bit of his own history, designed both to forge a common thread between them and further establish himself as a harmless conman. "I did a turn preaching the word myself."

"Is that right?" Josiah said, a hint of laughter in his voice.

"The best swindle I ever knew. Just stand up there under that tent," Ezra looked up, raising his hand in a dramatic gesture, "terrify the congregation with a vision of hellfire and pass the collection plate."

"Yeah." Josiahís smile faded as Ezra finished. Ezra wasnít sure if it was the thought of taking money under the guise of religion or some other memory that caused Josiah to look so pensive again.

He decided to push a little further, see what kind of reaction he would get. "Did fine, too, until I attempted to save the soul of the mayor's daughter."

Josiah stared off into the distance as he answered, "Yup. Saving souls has its hazards."

And Ezra had his answer. It was something in the priestís own past that haunted him, not condemnation for Ezra or his actions. This was a man who was not likely to pass judgment on others, probably feeling he had sinned too much in his own life to cast any stones. Ezra would be safe from him.

*******

The next morning everyone woke tense and on edge. There was a feeling in the air that danger was close, and it had nothing to do with magic. The men gathered around for a quick bite to eat, while they once again went over their plans. As they were breaking up, Vin caught Ezraís eye and motioned him to one side.

"You sure you canít do anything?" the Guardian asked. "I can help you if you need me, no strings attached."

Ezra knew full well what Vin was asking. He shook his head. "I told you, using the least bit of magic makes me quite ill. Even with your help I would not be able to make any significant contributions. No, Iím of much more use up there with a rifle, believe me."

Vin nodded and walked back to Chris, who was watching them. He said something briefly to the other man, then they both moved off. Ezra sighed. There were just too many people who knew his little secret for his peace of mind. Once this was over, he would need to leave, and leave quickly. Maybe even before it was over.

The sound of a wild birdís cry brought an instant of stillness to every person in the village. "Timeís up," Chris called. "Everybody take your positions!"

Ezra was a Mage and a gambler. He didnít believe in luck. Nevertheless he was wearing his favorite - not his lucky, his favorite - red coat as he climbed to a position high on the canyonís wall. He stared in disbelief at the group that rode into the village below. He had thought there would be twenty men, at most. This looked more like forty. Quietly he cursed his inability to use magic and checked his ammunition.

Words were exchanged below him. One by one each of the men hired to protect the village stepped out to show themselves. In for a penny... Ezra stepped out last. After a few more words the village erupted with gunfire.

Ezra waited until the initial volley was over, then whistled loudly, his signal for the first ruse. From their hiding places, well behind sheltering rocks and walls, the children pulled thick ropes attached to the straw figures they had made.

To the men in Andersonís company it looked like Indians sprang up from the very ground to attack them. Figures appeared on both sides and in the windows of the mud brick homes, holding what appeared to be rifles. The attacking soldiers turned in dismay, wasting their ammunition and attention on the figures. Meanwhile, those defenders armed with rifles kept their focus right where it needed to be, making every shot count.

Ezra popped out from behind his covering rock to fire off one shot, than another. Someone down below made his position and began firing back. Ezra turned to reposition himself, only to be tripped up by a loose stone. He fell heavily against the rocks behind him.

The fiery pain that tore through his left shoulder surprised a cry from him. His arm went instantly numb down to his fingertips. He dropped the rifle, cradling the injured limb close to this body.

The gunfire continued as Ezra struggled to find his rifle and secure his arm. Finally, finally, the sweet sounds of someone blowing retreat reached his ears and the shots from the village faded away. He had managed to use a belt to improvise a sling and slowly, painfully, made his way back toward the village.

*******

Vin watched the retreat of the remainder of Andersonís men. "Ride on, Colonel, ride on." It was both a hope and a prayer. He stared down at the village where the women were emerging to help the wounded over to Nathanís makeshift infirmary, then toward Ezraís position. He hadnít heard the Mageís Remington since the first of the shooting began. Not that he cared, not really, but he didnít like the thought of any of Ďtheirí men getting hurt.

Carefully, he made his was back down to the floor of the valley. He kept a sharp eye out, taking note of where the others were. He fell in behind Chris as they met in the center, nodding to Nathan who was heading straight for the wounded.

"We whupped Ďem good, old pard," Buck declared as he joined them. Chris looked less than convinced.

"What do you think?" Vin asked of their de facto leader.

"Maybe," Chris conceded. "Buck, get up on that ridge, keep a lookout."

"Hell, they ainít gonna stop running Ďtil they hit the Rio Grande," Buck protested.

"Iíll take first watch," Vin offered. He was too keyed up to sit back and relax just yet.

"All right," Chris agreed. JD came up to them. "You all right?" Chris asked him, eyeing the blood on his clothes.

Vin stared around as JD answered. He hadnít seen any sign of Josiah yet. And still nothing from the Mage. Not my problem. Not my problem. He headed back up the ridge.

*******

Ezra reached the village without passing out, a feat he had thought near impossible. He looked briefly toward the area where Nathan was tending the injured, then turned away.

"Hey, Ezra, help me!" JD was struggling with a young black man on the verge of fainting.

Ezra hesitated for a moment. Then, with a soft curse, he tucked the rifle under his injured arm and lent his good shoulder to the task. He supported the man while JD steered them both. The youngest member of their little team seemed not to notice the improvised sling around Ezraís arm.

The same could not be said of Nathan. Ezra was unable to block the tentative probe from the Healer. He needed all his strength just to stay on his feet and not fall in the dust right in front of the man. He gasped as he pulled the rifle free, using it to steady himself before turning to leave.

"Let me see that arm," Nathan said.

"Itís fine, I just bruised it when I fell," Ezra replied, still breathing hard.

"No, no, no," Nathan objected. "That ainít no bruise, now. Let me see."

"I said itís fine," Ezra growled angrily. He stared at the other man, pushing the Healerís probe away.

Nathan must have read something in the look and the rebuff, because he threw his hands up in defeat. "Suit yourself," he said.

Ezra should have known better, should have known that it would not be so easy, but he was befuddled by the appalling ache in his shoulder when he turned away. Before he knew what was happening, Nathan lunged forward and grabbed his arm, twisting and pulling on it simultaneously.

Ezra cried out at the sharp burst of agony, then whirled to attack the man who had ambushed him. As his fist reached the Healer he stopped, amazed. His shoulder, while still sore, no longer burned with the agony of just a few seconds ago. And he had felt no Healing energy invading him, sucking his own strength away.

"Just like I thought, you dislocated it," Nathan said with a grin. "Now come on over here and let me heal you proper."

"Youíve done quite enough, Healer," Ezra snapped, turning away. He took a step and paused, then turned back. "Thank you," he added in a low voice.

Nathan didnít push. "Might be sore for a little while, but at least you have two hands to cheat at cards with."

Ezra almost flinched at the familiar pat Nathan gave his good arm. Disconcerted, he rotated his left arm again, relieved to find the pain was manageable. He ignored the troubled look on Nathanís face as the Healer watched him leave.

*******

Ezra found a relatively dark and quiet place to lie down for a few hours. Several healthy swallows from his flask soon had him drowsing, until sounds from the village woke him up. As the sun set, the women prepared food for the warriors. There was music, laughter and tears as the dayís events were discussed. Ezra emerged from his hiding place and mingled freely, finally settling off to the side where the children had gathered.

He praised them for their good work during the fight and rewarded them with readings from his ever-present deck of cards. This took no magic on his part since he made it all up. Predicting future events had never been his talent. His abilities had been used for other purposes.

Cutting the deck one-handed, Ezra looked at the boys sitting in front of them. "Your fate is in the cards, gentlemen. Remember that." He laid out several cards on a flat rock in front of him.

"Whatís my fate?" one of the boys asked.

Ezra pulled the king of spades. Regardless of his lack of talent, that was always a strong card. Beckoning the boy closer with his finger, Ezra leaned forward. "You shall grow to be a great warrior. Big, strong and fearless." He had no doubt his prediction would come true.

"Like you." The boyís immediate and heartfelt response caught him off guard.

Drawing a deep breath, Ezra decided to do something he did very rarely lately. He told the truth. "There are two kinds of people in this life, my friend: those who seek battle and seem not to fear death, like them." All the boys turned to see Chris and Buck walking through the village.

"And those who avoid battle, but will stand and fight to the death if their loved ones are threatened," he continued. "Like them." He directed the boysí attention to their own fathers and uncles. "That is true courage." He wisely did not include himself in either group. Children were easy to entertain, but much harder to lie to, he had found out.

Shaking off the black mood that tried to grip him, Ezra got down to the business closer to his heart. "Now, you have lost to me at poker and I have read the cards for you. The time has come to pay. You see," he seized the boy whose future he had told and set him on his knee. "I've heard tell of a gold mine in these parts."

He looked at the children expectantly. After all, they were friends, were they not? And friends did not keep secrets from one another.

"Weíre not to speak of it," the boy said.

"Well, good. Then it is a valuable secret," Ezra said, agreeing with the boy. "One such secret could wipe out all your debts. So," he seized another boy and brought him to sit beside him. "Letís talk about this mine, shall we?"

*******

The morning sun found Ezra on the other side of the ridge from the village, staring down at the entrance to the old mine. "El Dorado," he said softly. The amount of gold he could carry wouldnít save him from his fate if discovered as a rogue Mage, but would get him far enough away from any and all who knew his secret. He could start a new life, one that didnít involve scraping by on nickel and dime cons.

He dismounted and pulled a torch from his saddle he had prepared the night before, long after the children had gone to sleep. Earlier that morning, after a night spent tossing and turning, he replaced Buck on watch, who had replaced Vin sometime around midnight. Ezra was glad it wasnít the Guardian he faced. He wasnít sure if he could have deceived Vin.

Striking a match on the support beam overhead, Ezra lit the torch and faced his future. He hadnít gone far when he found his future crumbled, buried by tons of rock, dirt, and debris. His hopes faded as he surveyed the wreckage. "This must have caved in years ago," he muttered.

No wonder the elders had used their most valuable possession, the talisman, to draw the seven men out here. They had nothing else left. Bitterness and disappointment flooded through him.

Suddenly the ground shook and dust rained down on him as a distant roar reverberated off the hills. That sounded like a - cannon. Ezra whirled and ran, dropping the torch in his wake. Topping the ridge, he could see the villagers and his former companions running for cover. Anderson and his men had gained the high ground, placing their cannon on the opposite side of the escarpment. They had a clear shot below.

Ezra ran back to his horse. The sound of the cannon echoed through his soul again, and again. Favoring his still sore left arm, Ezra pulled himself into the saddle. Down below, people were dying. The children he had played and worked with might be dying. But he was just one man, and not much of one at that. A failed Mage, a conman and a cheat. Not a warrior, not a hero. Not a fool.

He drank deeply of the flask he had refilled last night. Looking back, he could see the smoke rising from the devastation. Disgust filled his belly. "And then thereís the third kind," he said with loathing. He headed his horse away from the village.

*******

Vin sat on his horse in the village beside Chris, with Buck on the other side. The morning sun shone bright and clear. He listened to the friendly banter as Chris teased Josiah about breakfast. They planned to ride out to make sure Anderson and his men had completely cleared the area.

"Whoís on watch?" Chris asked.

"Ezra," Buck replied. "Replaced me a couple of hours ago."

"All right," Chris said.

Vin frowned. He hadnít felt the Mageís presence when he woke up after his few hours of sleep. But then again, if Ezra was far enough away, he might not feel a Mage that he wasnít bonded to. Not my problem, he reminded himself.

"All right, weíll take a wider arc across the canyon, make sure the Ghosts are really gone," Chris said.

A voice echoed from above.

"What the hell is that?" Vin asked, turning around. Distant figures could be seen on top of the escarpment.

"Itís the cannon," Chris said. The men dismounted, hitting the horses to shoo them away and make less of a target.

"Fire!"

Vin turned to see smoke erupt from the mouth of the cannon, just before the shot hit the far wall of the canyon. He flinched and ran for cover. He huddled under an overhang with Chris, staring upwards.

"Another couple of rounds and heíll have the range," Vin said, cursing to himself. Where was that damned Mage? Why hadnít he warned them? Was he already dead?

"Come on," Chris called, racing into the heart of the village.

Vin put aside thoughts of a Mage he had no business being concerned about and ran to help one of the fallen villagers. He began herding the others away from the center of the village.

"Everybody into the bluffs! That cannon will tear these adobes apart!" he heard Chris shout. Vin lost track of Chris and the others as the cannon fired again. He pushed screaming women and children ahead of him, turned back the warriors yelling defiance at their attackers. There would be time for that later, he hoped.

Chris scrambled into a shelter nestled on the edge of the village by the bluffs, followed by several others. "Come on. Come on! Down, down! Everybody down!"

"What the hell happened to Ezra?" Vin called.

"I donít know," Chris yelled. The cannon fired again, and again, and again. Smoke rose high above the village into the early morning sky.

Chris looked around grimly. "We got two options: we can ride up after that gun..." he started.

Vin looked at the men, women and children around him. He felt a great weight of responsibility settle on his shoulders. Regardless of what the others decided, he had made up his mind to fight. Now it just remained to see how many would be fighting with him.

"That's no option. That's suicide," Buck interrupted Chris.

"Or? What's the other option?" JD asked.

"We could raise a white flag," Chris said flatly, looking around at the women and children huddled in the meager shelter.

"Or three, we could mount up and we could ride the hell out of here!" Buck gestured angrily with his useless handgun.

Vin turned as Rain, one of the women Nathan had found in the canyon, spoke up. She had been flirting with the Healer earlier, but had just seen her father get killed by one of the cannon shots.

"Go, then! With my last breath I will fight these men," she declared.

Watching Nathan, Vin could almost see the thoughts that went through the former slaveís mind. Rainís father had also been a slave, with the scars on his back to prove it. Rain had more than likely spent her younger years in slavery as well. Vin could see the shadow of old hatreds that filled the Healerís heart.

"Them's rebs up there. That makes it my fight," Nathan said.

"I'm not going anywhere. I haven't shot anyone yet," JD added.

Vin knew this was what Chris had been afraid of when the young man had asked to join their group. The boy probably knew the odds were bad, but his mind was filled with visions of a glorious gun battle, no doubt ending victoriously in their favor, justice having prevailed or some such. The end of the day would most likely find him watching his lifeís blood seep into the dry, dusty ground.

Buck flailed his arms around in frustration. "They'll see us before we get five paces, and that gun will cut us to pieces!" he objected, ducking as another cannon shot hit the village.

Vin could see the frustration mounting in Chris, too. He doubted this man had ever walked away from a fight, much less surrendered. "Thereís got to be another way up there!"

Imala, the Indian Buck had brought back to the village, who had been so angry about the white men in his home, spoke up. "There is. We can climb."

*******

The rope snaked up the side of the mountain, the loop on the end catching on a rock protruding from the side of the low cliff near the top. Vin stared at the steep slope. "You remember why weíre doing this?" he ground out as he began to climb. He was thinking of the original offer of five dollars a man, which seemed to have been made a lifetime ago.

"Does it make any difference?" Chris asked.

"Guess not," Vin answered, taking his meaning. Whatever had been their original reason for coming to this village, they were now fighting for their lives. He listened as JD and Buck exchanged teasing words. He knew that everyone dealt with fear and stress in their own way. If joking around made it possible for JD and Buck to reach the top, then more power to them.

They reached the end of the rope, and a mostly level area where they could walk without assistance. Imala rushed ahead, while Vin turned to give Buck a hand. A gunshot threw Imala backwards. They all looked up, startled, to see an array of guns pointed straight at them. They had climbed right into a trap.

One of the men stepped forward. "Surrender, or die where you stand," he ordered.

"Iíll take that five dollars now," Vin said softly to Chris.

*******

With each step his horse took away from the village, Ezraís despair grew. He couldnít go back. It was suicide. What could he do, anyway? One man against so many? They probably didnít even need him. The fading sounds of the cannon beat against his ears.

ĎFor want of a nail...í Damn the man who had said those words. To think such a small detail could really topple a kingdom was ludicrous. Besides, if he went back they would know, they would all know, that he had abandoned his post, had left them vulnerable to attack. And for what? A caved in, worthless mine? What would they think of him? What would the Guardian think of him? And why did he care, at all, what anyone thought?

The faces of the children rose before him. "Like you - like you - like you." The words echoed in his soul. With a curse Ezra wrenched his horse around and headed back.

*******

Vin lounged against the ground on his elbow, staring at his captors with guarded interest. Colonel Anderson came out of his tent, walking stiffly. The leader of their attackers stared at them where they had been pushed to the ground.

"One battle donít win the war, boys," he said, turning to one of his soldiers. "Chain them up, Sergeant Darcy."

"Make them nice and tight," Darcy ordered.

Several men approached them to carry out Darcyís orders. Insolently, Vin remained stretched out, seeming totally at ease. His attitude irritated one of the men, who kicked him sharply in the leg.

Vin pulled back slightly, then stretched his legs out again. Heíd be damned if he let them see one ounce of fear in him. He clasped his hands loosely in front of him, his face expressionless. He didnít exactly cooperate when it came his turn to be shackled, but he didnít fight, either. Hopefully, there would be time for that later.

He could hear Anderson raving about battles fought in the recent war, obviously caught in some madness born of the past. Vin ignored him and let his senses range out, seeking some sign of the Mage, but not finding any. His attention snapped back to the present when he heard Andersonís orders.

"Weíre going to raise our flag over the village. I want that to be the last thing these boys ever see," Anderson said. "You men, get the cannon in position! When our flag reaches the top of the staff, execute these prisoners."

The sergeant nodded, overseeing the moving of the cannon. Vin thought being executed by cannon was probably a little extreme, but dead was dead. Now he would never get the chance to clear his name. He wanted to curse someone: Ezra, for leaving them vulnerable; Anderson, for being such a crazy son of a bitch; or even Chris, for dragging him into this mess in the first place. Not that it would do any good, but it might make him feel better in his last few moments.

Anderson led the majority of the men down into the village with the torn and stained Rebel flag. Without a miracle, they would soon be dead. But miracles didnít really happen, did they?

Beside him Chris was working on the shackles, spitting on his wrists in an attempt to lubricate his skin enough to work the metal bands over his hands. Vin leaned forward, screening him from their enemies. Suddenly he felt the presence of the Mage once again. He looked around carefully, but didnít spot the man. Damn him, where had he been and what was he planning? There was no way one man, especially a Mage without any powers, could take on the number of men on the canyonís rim.

*******

Ezra crept as close to the enemy as he could. He was dismayed to find all six of his original companions shackled on the ground in front of the cannon. Of all the times he had cursed his abilities as a Mage, he now cursed his inability to summon sufficient power to just blow the enemy to hell and back.

Maybe with Vinís help... but no. Even with a Guardian to focus and control his energy, the pain would send him into unconsciousness before he had a chance to do anything of any consequence. The mere thought of bonding with a Guardian again made him feel ill. Bonding? Getting enslaved would be a much more truthful term. He would never let anyone have that strict a control over everything he did ever again. Not being allowed to do anything unless told to, having to be quiet unless called upon. He would rather die.

No, he would have to rely on his other skills: cheating, trickery and deceit. All skills he had been able to hone after he had gained his freedom. Men usually saw what they wanted to see. He had learned that early on in life, sitting quietly in his corner while his Guardian called the shots. An opportunity would arise; he simply had to wait for one.

Soon his patience paid off as one of the men left the others to take care of the call of nature. Ezra scrambled quietly into position. He dropped the ace of spades right at the soldierís feet. As he had expected, the man bent down to pick up the unusual object that had no place appearing out in the wild like that.

While the man was looking down, Ezra slipped around the rock to confront him. Instead of attacking right away, which would have trigged the soldierís no doubt well trained fighting instincts, Ezra simply stepped on the card. The man looked up, but still Ezra didnít attack. He put his finger to his mouth in the familiar Ďshhí position. Puzzled, the man stared at him. Thatís when Ezra hit him.

Dressed in the soldierís coat and hat, presenting what the others would expect to see, Ezra walked straight into the midst of the enemy. He was hunched over as if still buttoning up his pants.

"About time. Theyíll be raising the flag soon," the leader of the group growled.

"I wouldn't want to miss this." Ezra straightened suddenly, bringing his rifle up to bear on the leader. "Nobody move, or he's dead." He glanced over at the men seated on the ground. "I leave you boys alone for five minutes and look what happens."

"You'll only get one shot off before we take you," the leader warned him.

"Then you best discuss amongst yourselves which one of you is going to die," Ezra said. He held the rifle one-handed, his left shoulder aching from the morningís activity. The rifle moved from man to man, coming back to the spokesman of the group.

The line had worked so well in the past, with men that had their own interests at heart, that he wasnít prepared for the response he got. These men didnít live for individual gain; they were part of a well-trained group. Having faced death numerous times, it no longer frightened them. Each of them was prepared to give his life for their cause; no matter how misguided it might seem to outsiders.

The man just laughed at him. "Pick 'em yourself. The rest of us will tear you apart," he promised.

A cold feeling of dread settled in Ezraís stomach. He spied a keg of powder sitting beneath the cannon. "Well, I guess I'll just have to take all of us." He shifted his aim to point toward the keg. He could be noble; he could be the hero and save the village, if not himself. But then again, the men might just decide they wanted to live after all and give up. It could happen. But it didnít.

"Why, that powder keg's empty, mister," the man told him.

Desperate, Ezra released a small tendril of energy and probed the keg, testing its weight. The man was right. First one man, then all of them, pulled their guns and pointed them right at Ezra.

"Drop it," the man said.

He had failed, again. He dropped the rifle and raised his hands in the air, still holding on to the magical energy he had tapped. Just a trickle, but he might be able to do something before becoming incapacitated. He would wait, and see what happened next.

The sound of drums rose in the still air. "Big mistake, sonny boy. You shouldn't have tried that," the leader said.

Keep him talking, Ezra thought. He let a slightly puzzled look cross his face. "I know. I can't imagine what came over me." Shaking his head, he slowly lowered his arms.

The soldier started laughing at him. Laughing, like that man who had held his life in his hands so many years ago, his Guardian. This man, at least, would laugh at him no longer. With a twist of his wrist he felt the derringer pop into his hand. Quickly, he raised the small gun and shot.

He was unprepared when Chris suddenly sprang into action from behind the men and grabbed one of them, but recovered quickly. With his other shot he got another soldier. Chris was also firing, throwing the small band left above the canyon into disarray. Then Vin grabbed a rifle that had been dropped, and, though still shackled, managed to bring down another of the enemy.

Ezra had hit the dirt, fumbling for his other gun. The man next to him stirred. "Uh-uh," Ezra cautioned him, pointing his revolver right at the manís face. The fight was over.

Chris had found the keys and unlocked the rest of them. Ezra gathered their gun belts and began handing them out. He soon found himself face to face with the leader of their little band. The manís eyes were hard and cold.

"Donít ever run out on me again," he warned the Mage. Ezra had met few men in his life that radiated natural authority and the respect that went with it. Chris was one of those men. Without making any excuses for his behavior, Ezra simply touched his hat in acknowledgement and moved back a step.

Chris stared at him for a long minute, gauging his sincerity. "Letís finish this," he finally growled. The others had re-armed themselves. They gathered around Chris and Ezra to formulate a strategy.

"I know a little something about cannons," Ezra offered. Again, that intense gaze was turned on him.

"Please. Let me do this," Ezra said softly. "I wonít let you down." After a moment, Chris nodded.

The Guardian stepped up to him. "You need any help?" he asked.

"No magic needed for this," Ezra replied. "But I canít move it by myself."

Vin, Buck, and JD helped him reposition the heavy artillery. Then the six men gathered up some of the rebelís horses and mounted up. Ezra felt strangely bereft as he watched them go.

Peering over the canyonís rim, Ezra could see the flag that had been raised over the village. Vin had told him that was to be the signal for them to be executed. Anderson was clearly visible below, staring first at the flag and then up toward the rim. When four men broke away from the group and headed for the trail up the canyon Ezra ran to his hiding place.

It wasnít long before the men entered Andersonís camp. They saw the dead men laying on the ground, then one who was still alive but chained up behind a log.

"Drop your guns," Ezra said from behind them, "or join your friends." He enjoyed the looks of surprise on their faces as they turned. He had both guns drawn, fully loaded. Twelve shots in all and the perfect position to take them down. Besides, they had no way of knowing who might be hiding, waiting to come to his aid. They threw their guns down.

"Much obliged," Ezra drawled. He made the men lock the shackles around their own wrists, then went over to the cannon, which had been loaded before the others left. Watching carefully, he waited for the signal from Chris.

He hoped he had the position and elevation right. It had been a long time since he had been this close to a cannon, and then he had only watched as others moved the heavy artillery into place. His job had been to direct the cannon ballís flight, making it fly further and more accurately with his magic.

The signal came and Ezra acknowledged it with a jaunty wave. He had found a cigar in Andersonís tent and puffed at it, getting it nice and hot. Touching the burning end to the fuse he covered his ears and waited. Thunder battered his bones, shaking him with sound and memories. Nevertheless, he stepped forward to see the results. He hadnít been quite as precise as he could have been with magic, but the effect was still all he could have hoped for.

*******

Vin marveled at the cloud of dust rising over the village. He knew Ezra had tried to target Anderson, but for him to have hit the flag was almost as good. During the short period of shock that set in after the shot, he and the others walked boldly into the village.

The fighting was hot and heavy. Vin and Chris broke to one side of the village, while the others took up positions around the perimeter. "Get Anderson! No matter what, get Anderson!" Chris yelled. Vin covered him as he ran to a location closer to the center of the village, then followed as Chris covered him.

The Indians came out of their hiding places to join the fray, pulling Andersonís men from their horses and killing them quickly. Dimly, through the noise and confusion, Vin could hear the others shout.

Anderson moved in and out of their sight, always shifting, always just out of position somehow, as if he really was a ghost. "I canít get him," Chris yelled in frustration.

Vin took a deep steadying breath and let it out. He put away the six-shooter that was just about useless and pulled out his cut-down Winchester. Sighting carefully, he waited - waited - and fired. Anderson reeled as Vinís shot hit him square in the shoulder. His expression turned to one of dismay as Anderson righted himself in the saddle and pointed his gun straight at Vin.

Ducking just in time, Vin raised his head to see Anderson hit again. Again, the man turned and fired back at his assailant. Anderson was hit for a third time by a shot from Chrisí gun. Vin felt a cold shiver crawl down his spine. Anderson seemed to be unstoppable. He fired back at Chris.

"You can't kill me. I'm a Ghost of the Confederacy and I will not die," Anderson proclaimed. Vin almost believed him until he saw the man raise the bottle of laudanum to his lips. So, that was the manís secret, and his madness. He was so full of the drug that he had ceased to be human.

*******

From his perch high above the fighting, Ezra watched in dismay as Anderson was obviously hit time and time again, but did not go down. He stared in shock when JD broke cover and ran out into the midst of the fighting, firing both guns until they were empty. He saw Buck rush to save the boy, only to be cut down by a saber slash across his chest. When Josiah, who had run to cover Buck, also fell, Ezra knew his time had come.

There was no way he could ready the cannon again by himself, and no powder left to fire it. Ezra took a deep breath, preparing himself for the ordeal to come. He stared back down into the village. Nathan had run up to Anderson, stabbing him in the leg and pulling him from his horse. The fighting seemed to stop as all eyes turned to the fallen colonel.

Ezra hoped fervently that the man would stay down, but amazingly, Anderson forced himself to his feet. He picked up his saber and approached the Healer, who seemed rooted to the spot. Ezra darted to the powder keg and tipped it over. A scant handful of powder poured into his hand. It would be enough.

Using the least possible amount of magical energy he could, Ezra gathered the powder into a compact ball. He held the cigar to it, containing the energy in a tight magical field and went back to the canyonís edge. Anderson had almost reached Nathan.

As Anderson raised the blade, Ezra struck.

*******

Vin flinched as a silent scream echoed through his mind.

A ball of fire lanced through the air from the top of the cliff, throwing Anderson back and away from Nathan. His body hit the ground, smoking from the charred remains of his chest. All eyes turned to the cliff.

The magician stood at the top, his arm still outstretched. Then suddenly he bent over, hands going to his head. He swayed and staggered, his knees buckling.

"Ezra! NO!" Vin cried, racing for the rocks. The Mage tumbled down the steep rocky slope, finally coming to a rest at the base of the cliff.

In the sudden silence Vin could hear JD pleading with Buck as he knelt by the still figure, and Chris as he called out to the remnants of Andersonís forces. "The war is over! Go back to your families." But his attention was all on the crumpled body at the foot of the cliff.

The magician was unconscious, his breathing shallow and strained. "Nathan!" Vin called. He looked around frantically. The Healer was bending over Buck, directing JD to press a cloth over the awful wound, trying to stop the bleeding.

"Nathan!" he screamed again. It seemed an eternity before Nathan ran over to him. Vin was kneeling by Ezraís broken body when Nathan skidded up to them.

"Let me at him," he said, dropping to his knees. Taking a deep breath, Nathan pulled aside the bloody shirt and laid his hands on Ezra chest.

"Itís bad," the healer sighed.

"Can you heal him?" Vin asked.

Nathan shook his head and sat back. "Heís all busted up inside. With all the other Healing Iíve already done, I donít have the strength. If I draw it from him, that alone will kill him. All I can do is take the pain away, let him pass. Unless - " Nathan stopped, glancing at Vin and then away.

"Unless what?" Vin prodded. Nathan looked up and met the Guardianís eyes. "No, I canít," Vin whispered.

"Then heíll die," Nathan said flatly.

"He canít make that choice!" Vin hissed vehemently. "And I wonít."

"All right," Nathan said quietly. He reached out for the injured man.

Vin grabbed his arm. "What would you do? If you had to decide? Slavery or death?"

Nathan jerked his arm away from Vin. "I already made my choice, and it ainít the same! Mages need Guardians to protect them, to take care of them. Look what heís done to himself, without a Guardian."

"That was his choice. He likely knew what would happen." Vin lowered his gaze in despair. Every instinct he possessed as a Guardian was screaming out to him to Bond the Mage, to lend his strength to heal the man.

"What happened?" Chris demanded, coming up to them.

"He said he couldnít use his magic, he told us," Vin said, swearing. "Then the damned fool went ahead and did it anyway."

"Heís dying," Nathan said. "Nothing I can do. Not by myself."

"What does that mean?" Chris looked from one man to the other.

"Nathan wants me to Bond him," Vin said shortly.

"What would that do?" Chris turned to Nathan.

"If theyíre bonded, I can draw on the Guardianís strength to heal him," Nathan explained.

"But?" Chris prodded.

"Once weíre bonded, weíre bonded. Only the death of one or the other can break a bond," Vin explained. "Itís worse than slavery," he added, shooting a dark look at Nathan.

"Thatís natureís way," Nathan tried to explain. "Unbonded Mages overuse their abilities, burn themselves out, get lost in the magic and forget to eat, to breath. They just canít take care of themselves. Thatís why there are Guardians."

"Seems I heard a few white men say something like that about Negroes," Vin said snidely, "and Indians."

"Itís not the same," Nathan burst out. "Guardianís protect the Mages, they donít use them. They donít hurt them."

"That what you think?" Vin sneered at him. "I could tell you plenty."

"Meanwhile, heís dying," Chris said quietly, touching Ezraís shoulder. A shuddering moan came from the Mageís bloodstained lips.

Vin took a deep breath. In a voice devoid of emotion, he said, "Hell, he can hate me later, when heís alive." He laid one hand over the Mageís heart and one on his head. He closed his eyes, holding very still for a long moment.

"Oh, God," he moaned. His breath caught, his face closed tight in pain.

"Whatís wrong?" Chris demanded beside him, sounding alarmed.

Vin gritted his teeth, unable to answer. The terrible damage inflicted on the Mage was all too apparent to the Guardian. He searched desperately for the elusive spirit of the man.

Dimly, he heard Nathan answer Chris. "He can feel Ezraís pain. Guardians always know when their Mage is sick or injured."

Nathanís hands closed over his, the Healing energy flowing through him and into Ezra. Vin knew that to Chris, it would seem that nothing was happening. But deep within the Mage, Vin caught hold of the fading energy and held tight as Nathan began his work.

He moaned and shuddered while Nathan gasped and grunted in effort. Sweat ran from both the Healer and the Guardian as gradually, the man beneath their hands began to breathe more easily, the gray pallor fading from his face.

Nathan fell back, breathing hard. As the Healer broke contact, Vin swayed, at the end of his own strength. Chris grabbed him and eased him to the ground before he could topple over on the injured man.

"Thatís all I can do for now," Nathan gasped. "We got the worst of it fixed up, and heíll live. Heís still got some healing to do, but he can do that later."

Vin lay on the ground next to his Mage, his mind still throbbing with Ezraís pain. A moment later Chris lifted him up again, holding a canteen to his mouth. He drank greedily, and then pushed himself up to a sitting position. Chris passed the canteen over to Nathan, who also drank deeply.

Ezra moaned, his eyes fluttering open. Vin leaned over him.

"What have you done?" Ezra whispered. "What have you done to me?" The look in his green eyes was full of despair. Then they closed once more.

*******

Ezraís existence was defined by pain. His body screamed with every breath he took and his mind felt scraped raw. An unwelcome presence intruded into his consciousness, a heavy weight that crushed his thoughts. From time to time, he could feel Healing energy forcing its way into his body, moving around deep inside him. He tried to fight it off, to barricade himself against it, but something was preventing him from protecting himself. No, someone. Some Guardian.

A groan forced its way past his lips. A Guardian, no, it couldnít be. He was dead; James Throckmorton was dead. Ezra knew this because Ezra had killed him, killed the Guardian that bought him from his mother so many years ago.

*******

ĎEzra, pay attention!í A sharp slap stung his cheek. Sullenly, the fifteen-year-old Mage stared at the tall, heavyset man. Not that Throckmorton was fat, far from it. He was just big, his body thick with muscle. The Guardian narrowed his eyes. Ezra could feel the pressure inside his head building as the man ruthlessly forced his way into the boyís mind.

Finally, ĎStop!í Ezra cried out. He was almost doubled over in pain, gasping, his hands clutching his head.

ĎNow, are you ready to get to work?í the man asked.

ĎYes,í Ezra mumbled.

ĎYes, what?í The pressure began to build again.

ĎYes, sir,í Ezra ground out.

He turned toward the mountain. Throckmorton came up behind him and put his large meaty hands on Ezraís thin shoulders. ĎConcentrate,í the Guardian ordered.

Magic flowed through Ezra, out toward the mountain. Throckmorton directed the flow, containing and focusing the energy.

ĎReady when you are, Mr. Hammel,í Ezra heard him say.

ĎFire in the hole!í the foreman called out.

The face of the mountain blasted outward. Ezraís magic pushed at the falling rocks, making sure they didnít bury the equipment waiting to clear the tunnel for the railroad. It seemed that he fought the weight of the earth forever. Only when the dust had cleared was his magic released, leaving him utterly drained and spent.

Contemptuously, Throckmorton laughed as he let Ezra crumple to the ground. ĎThatís more like it,í the Guardian spat.

Tears of exhaustion forced their way past his tightly closed eyelids. He hated his Guardian.

*******

"How is he?" Chris asked Vin, entering the shelter where Ezra and Buck were recovering. Vin gratefully accepted the cup of coffee Chris brought him.

"Heís alive," Vin allowed. "Still hurting an awful lot, though."

"How are you doing?" Chris peered at the Guardian.

Vin knew he looked tired and drawn. "Iíll live too, I reckon," he said with a small grin.

"What do you think heíll do when he wakes up?" Chris asked.

"What can he do?" Vin replied bitterly. "Heís trapped now, tied to a man with a bounty on his head."

He was glad Chris kept silent. They had been through this before, right after Vin had bonded Ezra. Even though Vin knew it had been the only way to save the Mageís life, he still felt guilty for forcing an obviously unwanted bond on the injured man.

Ezra groaned, shifting slightly on the pallet. "Easy, pard," Vin murmured, not really believing that his words brought any comfort. Nevertheless he reached out and laid his hand lightly on Ezraís arm. To his surprise, Ezra stilled and seemed to slip back into sleep.

Chris moved across the room to talk to Buck, who was also still recovering. Nathan had been able to start the healing process, but neither he nor Buck had been strong enough at the time to complete a full healing. Nathan still had other patients out in the village to tend to, as well. Vin sighed and returned to his vigil over his Mage.

Josiah was the only other member of their group who had been injured, but he refused Healing. He had allowed Nathan to clean and bandage his wounds, but that was all. The ex-preacher insisted on getting up to say prayers over the dead, each time returning to their shelter after just a few hours, exhausted and hurting.

Vin shook his head. Buck and Josiah were not his problem. Ezra was, now and for the rest of their lives. Each time he came to, Vin was there, sitting beside him. Ezra would look at him - at his Guardian - and turn away. Vin wished he knew what the Mage was thinking.

*******

Ezra was a powerful Mage. Therefore, Throckmorton was a powerful Guardian. He used that power against Ezra when they werenít actively working; relishing the control he had over the young man.

ĎI wasnít cheating,í Ezra declared.

Throckmorton backhanded the twenty-one year old man, sending him to the floor. ĎI donít care if you were or not,í he growled. ĎYou had no business playing cards with those men.í

ĎIt was just a friendly game,í Ezra protested weakly, holding his hand to his bruised cheek. Not that anyone else would ever see the bruises.

The terrible pressure began at once. Ezra moaned, knowing what was in store. ĎWhen will you ever learn?í Throckmortonís voice was fading behind the haze of pain that filled his mind. Ezra blacked out.

When he came to he was out in the stable, his wrists tied to a rough beam overhead. His shirt had been stripped away, leaving his back bare. ĎNo, please,í he begged.

ĎIím sorry, Ezra, but you brought this on yourself.í Throckmortonís voice sounded anything but sorry. In fact, he sounded very pleased with himself. ĎWhen will you ever learn your place?í

Ezra tried to hold back his cries of pain as the whip bit into the skin of his back, knowing they only inflamed Throckmortonís anger. By the seventh lash, however, his resolve was gone, eroded by the flash of pain as the bullwhip touched him again. He cried out, tears streaming from his eyes as the blood streamed down his back. The Guardianís cruel laughter echoed in his ears.

The young Mage lost count after that, knowing only the all-encompassing agony seemed to last forever. Too tired to cry out any longer, Ezra hung limply from wrists rubbed raw and bleeding, simply enduring. After an eternity he was finally lowered to the dirty straw on the floor of the stable. He must have passed out, because when he came to there was another man with Throckmorton.

ĎGood Lord,í the man muttered.

ĎGet to it,í Throckmorton snarled. ĎNo scars, you hear me?í

A strong smell of alcohol reached Ezra before the Healer ever touched him. One trembling hand rested on his head, the other on his arm.

ĎWell, what are you waiting for?í the Guardian snapped.

ĎHe - heís weak. Arenít you gonna help?í The Healerís voice was slurred and quavered like an old manís.

ĎJust do what you can,í Throckmorton replied, disgust dripping from his voice. ĎRemember, no scars!í

The Healerís touch was crude and foul, like the manís breath. Ezra felt even more sick and dizzy as his remaining strength was sucked away. When it was over, his back still ached, deep within the muscles.

Throckmorton hauled him to his feet. Ezra had a quick glimpse of an older man; clothes dirty, hair in wild disarray, as the Guardian tossed a bag of coins to him. ĎDonít drink it all in one place.í Throckmorton laughed nastily. Painfully, his back and wrists aching, the Mage was dragged back to the house. The last thing he remembered was being thrown roughly to the floor of his small room.

*******

"I know youíre awake," Vin said, several days later.

"You would," Ezra retorted in a weak voice.

"I ainít sorry I did it," Vin said flatly. "But I wonít interfere with you."

"Yes, you will," Ezra said resignedly. "You canít help it."

"Youíd be dead if it werenít for him," Nathan snapped. "Iíd think a little gratitude would be in order."

"Nathan," Vin cautioned.

"Oh, yes, indeed. Iím quite sorry, Master. Thank you ever so much for enslaving me, Master," Ezra said acidly.

"It ainít slavery!" Nathan burst out.

"You would know, wouldnít you?" Ezra shot back.

"Both of you stop it!" Vin yelled. "Ezra, Iím sorry you didnít get to make a choice. But I couldnít just sit there and watch you die. Not when I could do something about it."

"It would have been much kinder if you had," Ezra said, defeated. He closed his eyes once more, shutting them out.

Vin glared at Nathan, who stalked out of the shelter. He knew that Nathan believed they had done what was best for Ezra, but would Ezra ever see it that way? Who was it had said Ďgive me liberty or give me deathí? Heíd have to ask Josiah about that. Seemed like something the older man would know.

He had known several ex- and runaway slaves, and knew that most of them felt death was preferable to slavery. Apparently Ezra equated bonding with slavery. Frustrated, Vin wished he knew more about the Mageís past, especially about his Guardian and how he had died. He felt very strongly that the key to Ezraís attitude lay in his past relationship with his Guardian.

*******

ĎFire!í Throckmortonís hands tightened on Ezraís shoulders. The cannonball flew straight and true, thanks to Ezraís magic. It also landed about fifty yards further into the enemyís lines than would have been possible using black powder alone. Across the field Ezra could hear the screams of the injured and dying.

ĎReload! Fire!í The cannon thundered again. The smell of the burning powder nearly overwhelmed him, but Throckmorton gave him a rough shake. Again, the ball flew straight to its target. The sound was deafening, threatening to shake him apart.

ĎReload!í Suddenly, Ezra had had enough. He was through with the killing and the pain and the war. He was through with Throckmorton. He was through with life. Something had caught his Guardianís attention, distracting him for a fraction of a second. It was all he needed.

ĎFire!í Instead of using his magic to direct the flight of the cannon ball, Ezra held it securely in the barrel as the powder was lit. He had only an instant to hear Throckmorton gasp before the cannon exploded. Something hot and heavy slammed into his head, sending him spiraling down into darkness.

Sometime later, Ezra blinked against the dim light in the tent. His head pounded unmercifully, and he couldnít seem to focus on the form bending over him. The sounds around him were muted, as if he had cotton stuck in his ears. The invasive probe of a Healer touched him briefly, then withdrew.

ĎHis Guardian is dead?í Ezra heard, as if from far away. ĎThen thereís nothing I can do for this one.í Pain pulled him back down into its dark depths once again.

*******

Nathan returned, bringing Vin a plate of biscuits and honey, along with a cup of coffee. "Howís he doing?" he asked.

"Thanks. Heís sleeping," Vin answered. After a moment he looked up at Nathan, then back to the sleeping man. "Can I ask you something?"

"Sure," Nathan replied.

"When he used magic, it hurt him. Thatís why he fell. Why does it hurt him so much to use magic?" Vin asked.

"I donít know for sure, but thereís an old injury to his head, here." Nathan guided Vinís hand to the side of Ezraís head, just above the ear. "You feel that?" Vin pressed his fingers lightly along the indentation that ran for about an inch just within the hairline.

"Nothing I can do about old injuries. Once theyíve healed, theyíve healed. Like that scar on your arm. I canít take that away, itís already over and done with."

Nathan paused. "In fact," he mused, "he seems to have lots of scars, especially on his back, only under the skin. Like someone took care of the surface and left the rest to heal on its own. Like heíd been whipped. I donít know, Vin," Nathan sighed. "Maybe... maybe I was wrong. Maybe this bond wasnít such a good thing."

"No help for it now," Vin said, resigned.

Nathan ran his fingers along the old head injury again. "Donít know how that happened," he continued, "but my guess is sometime in the past he got hurt, real bad, and there wasnít a Healer around to help him."

"Oh, there was one around," Ezra murmured. He opened his eyes and stared at Nathan. "He didnít think I was worth the trouble."

*******

Ezra sighed as Nathan finished washing him off. He felt humiliated to be tended to in such an intimate manner. At least Buck was well enough to sit outside during the procedure. But he had to admit that the Healer had never once complained or berated him for soiling himself. As he was still much too weak to get up and take his business outside, neither of them had much of a choice in the matter.

Actually, Nathan did have a choice. He probably could have found some village women to help with the chore. It was only Ezra who was without choices, helpless, once again.

"Ezra," Nathan began. Ezra closed his eyes, hoping Nathan would believe he had fallen asleep.

"I know youíre awake," Nathan persisted. Sighing, Ezra opened his eyes and looked at the other man.

"I want you to understand," Nathan said. "Iím a Healer. I save people, if I can. Thatís what I do, who I am."

"And Mages?" Ezra asked. "Do you consider them people, or just cattle, to be herded wherever their Guardian sees fit?"

"Of course theyíre - youíre - people." Nathan paused, and Ezra could see him gathering his thoughts. He almost felt sorry for the Healer, who seemed to be trying sincerely to explain himself. Almost, but not quite. This man had saved his life only to have it given in bondage to another Guardian.

"I was a stretcher bearer for the Union army, thatís where I started my Healing." Nathan said. "I saw things that no one should ever have to see. There was this Mage..." He paused, shuddering. "His Guardian had been killed. He went crazy, turned on the men around him. He - he tore them up, just ripped them into pieces. I was there, I saw it all."

Nathanís eyes were distant and tears began to run down his cheeks. "I tried to pick them up, those pieces. I thought, I thought maybe I could put them back together. But I couldnít. And he just kept tearing people up, but he never even touched them. Finally someone shot him, shot him right in the head. I was nineteen. Iíve been, well, I guess Iíve been scared of Mages ever since," he admitted. "If his Guardian hadnít died, none of that would have happened. It just all went out of control."

Ezra considered the Healerís story. "I assure you, I, better than anyone, appreciate the dangers of uncontrolled magic. But I told you, time and time again, that I couldnít use magic without harming myself."

"I know," Nathan said. "And you were right. But then you killed Anderson, and all I could see was it happening over and over again."

"Then why did you coerce Vin into bonding me? Into forcing me to live?" Ezra asked, despair lacing his voice. "If I had been given a choice, I would have preferred death to being bonded again."

"Thereís been enough death, Ezra," Nathan said softly. "Vin is a good man. Give him a chance. I donít know what all happened to you in the past, but I know that Vin would never hurt you."

"You canít know that," Ezra whispered.

"I do," Nathan insisted. "And in time, you will, too."

Ezra turned away from the Healer, unwilling to allow any hope to enter his heart. After a while, he slept.

*******

Ezra woke with a start to find both Vin and Nathan kneeling down next to his pallet. He shrank back in fear as they reached for him, confused for a moment about where and when he was.

Vin pulled his hands back immediately. "We ainít gonna hurt you, Ez," he said in his soft drawl.

"N - no, of course not," Ezra stammered, desperately trying to gather his wits.

"This is your last Healing session," Nathan said. "After this, you just got to rest and get your strength back. Iíve done all I can do."

This would be the first time Ezra had been awake and aware for a Healing. All the previous times, he had been too weak and ill to do more than endure the invasion. A shiver crept over him as he thought of himself, helpless, completely at the mercy of these men he barely knew.

He couldnít help but shudder as Vin placed one hand on his head and the other on his chest, then Nathan put his hands over Vinís. Ezra closed his eyes and struggled against the panic rising in his mind.

"Easy, Ezra. No oneís gonna hurt you here," Vin repeated.

As the first Healing probe touched him, Ezra stiffened, automatically trying to push the intrusion away. But his effort was caught and held, almost gently, as the Guardian asserted his will. A moan reached his ears, and Ezra was appalled to realize he had made the pitiful sound.

"Youíre all right, Ezra," Vin was saying. "Weíve got you." Precisely what Ezra was afraid of.

He braced himself, waiting for the sick feeling he always had before when the old drunk Throckmorton had hired Healed him. Instead, he felt a sort of warmth spreading through him, easing aches that had become almost familiar. His eyes flew open in surprise. "What is that?" he asked.

Nathan frowned. "Thatís Healing," he answered. "I know youíve been Healed before."

"It was never like this." Ezra felt ashamed of the admission, as if he had been doing something wrong all those years.

Nathan sighed and sat back, breaking contact. "Ezra, I donít know what happened in your past. But as a Healer, I will never do anything to you that causes you harm."

Ezra looked away. He wanted to scream at the man, ĎYou already have! You forced me to live, to be bonded again.í Instead, he said, "I know that you think you did the right thing, both of you."

He looked straight at Nathan. "And no, you donít know what happened to me, and believe me, you donít want to. But know this; I consider bonding to be worse than slavery. At least slaves have some hope of freedom. Iíve had a taste of a freedom Iíll never have again. Try to imagine how cruel that is."

Switching his gaze to Vin, he continued. "I donít know anything about you, and you donít know anything about me. By your actions, however, we are bonded for life. I killed my last Guardian. Thatís not a threat, just a fact. I will not allow myself to be abused again."

Vin stared back at him, a steely look in his eyes. Ezra understood he had offended the man, but right now, he didnít give a ratís ass. He sighed, suddenly very tired. "Itís done. Iím alive. I suppose in time Iíll be grateful for that. I am bonded, once again. Thereís nothing I can do to change that. I shall endeavor, Mr. Tanner, to make peace with my situation and not to cause you any distress."

As he slipped into a healing sleep, Ezra thought he heard the two men leave.

*******

Vin stepped out of the shelter, troubled. He stared at the village where the process of rebuilding was well underway. Nathan followed him.

"Heíll come around," the dark man said.

Vin shook his head. "Told you heíd hate me," he said with a deep sigh. He still felt he had done the right thing, but how long would Ezra continue to resent him? And how could he be an effective Guardian to a Mage who despised him? It had been so simple with Gil, so natural. Now, more than ever, Vin missed his friend.

He saddled his horse and grabbed his rifle. On his way out of the canyon he heard Chris calling him.

"Where you going?" Chris asked.

"Thought Iíd ride out a little, see about hunting some meat," he replied.

"Want some company?" Chris asked.

Vin shook his head. He needed to be alone, needed to think about the responsibility he had taken on. Chris just nodded thoughtfully as Vin rode out.

He let his horse pick the way through the rough, dry country. He wondered about Gil, if he had ever felt restrained by their bond. Vin had never asked Gil to do anything he didnít want to do, and Gil had never indicated, either by word or deed, that he was anything but Vinís friend. The two men had ridden together for years, making their decisions together and seldom arguing. Somehow Vin couldnít see the same type of relationship forming with Ezra.

Ezra obviously didnít want a Guardian. As that thought kept circling in his head, Vin formed a plan. Ezra didnít want a Guardian. Well, then, he wouldnít get one. Vin couldnít undo the bonding, but he didnít have to chain himself to the Mageís side, either.

A Guardianís real purpose was to help the Mage control and focus his energy, not to be in control of every aspect of the Mageís life. Although plenty of Guardians Vin had known did exactly that. And it seemed that Ezraís late Guardian had been worse than most. Vin was still troubled by Ezraís remark about being abused.

So, if Ezra wanted to use magic, then Vin would be there to help. That is, if Ezra could use magic now that he was bonded. They hadnít tried yet and Vin hadnít asked. But otherwise, he would leave the Mage alone.

They would have to stay in the same general vicinity, which might pose some problems. Vin had planned to return to Tascosa to try to clear his name eventually. But with Ezra bonded to him, it meant the Mage would have to come with him. And Ezra might not be willing to do that. Vin wasnít sure how far apart they could be, because he and Gil had always stayed within several miles of each other. He rather doubted the bond would allow them to be half a country apart.

He would have to put those plans on hold for a while. Let Ezra get better, let them settle into the bond, then he would see what happened. For all he knew, if Ezra knew of the bounty on his head, the man would turn him in himself. After all, Vinís death would free him from the bond. He would need to watch his step around the Mage.

Several hours later Vin felt ready to return to the village. He hadnít found any large game, but did have a couple of fat rabbits and some desert quail.

*******

Vin lingered in the shadows, watching the shelter. Ezra had started getting up and walking around a bit, regaining his strength. Since the day Nathan had done his last healing on the man and Vin had taken his lone ride, he had not gone to see the Mage at all.

He had to smile as he watched the Mage. Ezra stood outside the shelter he had been recuperating in and looked around the village uncertainly. Vin knew Ezra was looking for him, clearly confused by his Guardianís behavior and distance. Several children ran up to Ezra and led him over to a table where some food was still left from breakfast.

For some reason the children seemed to love Ezra. Vin didnít take such signs lightly; he knew that children and animals often saw more quickly to the heart of a person than adults. He continued his observations as Ezra finished his breakfast and pulled out his cards, spreading them on the table.

Vin strolled toward him. "Morning, Ezra," he said, as he continued past. The Mage stiffened at first, not looking at him. But as he kept walking, he could feel Ezraís gaze following him.

"Mr. Tanner," Ezra called.

Vin stopped and turned, allowing only a mild expression of curiosity on his face. "Yeah?" he asked.

Ezra had stood, as if to follow him, then hesitated, clearly searching for a safe topic of conversation. "I was wondering if anyone has seen to my horse lately?" he finally asked.

"Yeah, JDís been tending him. Kidís real good with horses," Vin answered, turning away. He heard Ezra start after him, still limping slightly. Taking pity on him, Vin stopped and turned back.

Ezra slowly approached him, regarding him warily. "Mr. - Vin," he started, "I - we - where have you been?" he finally blurted.

"Been doing some hunting, scouting around a little," Vin answered matter-of-factly. "Want to make sure none of them ghosts are hanging around."

"Oh, I see. Well, I, uh, I was just wondering why you hadnít been around much." Ezraís voice held just a hint of uncertainty.

Vin shrugged. "Nathanís all done with his healing," he said. "Didnít need me there."

"But," Ezra started, clearly frustrated, "youíre my Guardian now."

"Yeah," Vin said, waiting for Ezra to continue. He was beginning to enjoy this more and more.

"Well, what do you intend to do about it?" Ezra demanded.

"Do? I ainít gonna do anything. You need me, you holler." Vin clapped Ezra on the arm, turned, and walked away quickly.

*******

Ezra stared after the retreating figure of his Guardian. Frustrated, he could only watch as Vin walked away from him. What the hell was he supposed to do? Run after the man? Wait to be summoned? And what would his new Guardian do with a useless Mage? He rubbed his hand across the back of his neck.

He had yet to attempt any magic, with or without Vinís help. Although Nathan had assured him that he was well on his way to recovery, he was still weak and sore. He didnít want to risk any further pain by trying to use magic just yet. No, the memory of the searing agony that had exploded in his brain when he attacked Anderson was still fresh in his mind. He wasnít sure if the persistent headache he had was a result of his injuries or a memory of that pain.

Confused and angry he went back to the table and sat down. The children had been called away to help with the daily chores of village life and he was alone. Ezra didnít like the uncertainty of his situation. Throckmorton, as bad as he was, had always let Ezra know just where he stood. If he only knew what Vin Tanner wanted from him, he could either give it to him or find a way around it, preferable the latter.

Ezra pulled out his cards and shuffled them. He flexed his left hand, which had been broken in the fall, amazed at how well Nathan had repaired the damage. The hand was stiff and weak, but fully functional. Idly, he practiced his shuffling and dealing, building back the muscles in his hand. When he had been at the academy, he had often played cards with his fellow student Mages. His mother had taught him several cards tricks and techniques in the little time they spent together, and he had become a very good player.

Throckmorton, of course, had allowed him very few pleasures, but did sometimes let him play for money. It amused the Guardian that Ezra could beat most of his opponents without any use of magic. Of course, any money he won during those games was immediately turned over to the other man. He still cringed at the memory of the awful beating he had received after an illicit card game. Since freeing himself from Throckmorton, he had mostly lived by his wits and his dexterity at cards.

He still had no idea what Vin expected of him. Soon, he supposed, they would have to find out if he could use magic at all, with the Guardianís help. If Vin couldnít sell the services of his Mage, Ezra would have to find some other way to make himself useful.

Shuddering, he considered the manís clothing and his likely occupations. If Vin expected him to live out in the wilds, hunting or tracking or some such nonsense, he would be sorely disappointed. Much better to convince his new Ďkeeperí that he would be more valuable in town, playing poker and winning money for them to live on.

"Ezra." Looking up, Ezra saw Nathan coming toward him. He gathered his cards and slipped them back into his pocket.

The Healer stopped, hesitating for a moment. "Mind if I sit down?" he asked.

"Be my guest," Ezra said in a neutral tone of voice. The Healing was done, what did Nathan want with him now?

Nathan sat, staring at his hands, a frown on his face. "Ezra, I just want you to know, I donít hate Mages," he finally began. "Itís just - Iíve seen so much damage that magic can do."

"Then you should blame the Guardian, not the Mage," Ezra answered. "After all, a Guardian can be as unscrupulous as anyone else."

Nathan nodded, clearly unhappy with that thought. "Is that what happened to you? You got a bad Guardian?"

Ezra didnít answer, not willing to trust this man with his past. Instead, he asked, "Was there something in particular you wanted, Mr. Jackson?"

Nathan sat back, accepting the rebuff. "You know," he said, in a thoughtful tone of voice, "I donít believe Iíve ever known any Mages personally."

ĎKeep you friends close, and your enemies closer.í The phrase ran through Ezraís mind as he studied the Healer. While the men he rode with were not enemies, precisely, he certainly didnít consider them friends, either. But for better or worse, it looked like he would be spending considerable time in their company. So, better to get to know them, ingratiate himself to them as was his original plan, than to alienate them.

Ezra held out his right hand. "Ezra Standish, Mage, at your service."

A slow smile spread across Nathanís face. He reached out and grasped the offered hand. "Nathan Jackson, Healer. Nice to meet you."

*******

Vin watched Ezra sitting at the table in his shirtsleeves, his coat draped over the bench beside him. The conman was teaching the children how to count cards. He couldnít help but laugh when a particularly smart kid caught Ezra palming the king of hearts. "Looks like heís got you dead to rights," he noted, walking up to the group.

"Hardly," Ezra remarked dryly. "I showed him that move earlier." The Mage softened his tone and grinned at the boy. "And a very apt pupil he is, too. Now, children, that is all the lessons for today. Youíd better run along and help your elders before they send out a search party."

The children grumbled, but dutifully got up and headed for their homes. Vin noticed the wary look that crept into Ezraís eyes, replacing the genuine joy of just a moment before. He sat down across from the Mage.

"Chris says weíre pulling out tomorrow, gonna head back to town," he said.

Ezra kept his head down, his eyes on the cards he was shuffling. "You up to the ride?" Vin asked.

"Mr. Jackson has pronounced me fit," Ezra replied shortly.

"But how do you feel?" Vin leaned forward, allowing his senses to read the Mage for the first time since the last Healing. Although Ezra seemed to have a headache, Vin couldnít detect any serious pain from the other man.

Ezra flinched at the mental contact, but didnít try to push Vin away. "A little tired still, but Nathan said that was to be expected."

Vin considered his next words very carefully. "And what about your magic? I havenít felt a thing from you since we - since I bonded you. Even in town I could feel when you were using it."

Ezra briefly looked up at the Guardian, and then looked away. "I wouldnít try anything without your permission. You should know that," he said bitterly.

Nodding, Vin said, "I know. I wasnít accusing you of anything." He wondered if the Mage would ever trust him. "I guess what I really wanted to know was, do you want to try? See if being bonded makes it any better?"

For a moment, it seemed that Ezra had forgotten how to breathe. Vin saw a quick flash of fear cross the other manís face. "You donít have to if you donít want to," he added softly.

He waited for Ezra to answer. Finally the Mage looked at him. "No, I suppose we had better find out now. Better to know than to be surprised later."

"Just what is it exactly you do?" Vin asked.

"I move things," Ezra said. "Cannon balls, rocks, flaming spheres," he added with a wry twist to his lips. Vin looked significantly at the cards on the table.

"No, not those," Ezra said quietly. "Those are mine, not the magicís."

Vin had a feeling he had just been handed a large piece of the puzzle that was Ezra Standish. He let the comment go. "No cannon balls," he said dryly. "Maybe we ought to start with something a little smaller."

Ezra looked at a clay pitcher of water sitting on the table. "That should be light enough."

Vin stood and walked around the table. Laying his hand lightly on Ezraís shoulder, he couldnít miss the trembling muscles beneath the fabric of the shirt. "Just relax. I wonít let anything happen to you."

The Guardian thought he heard a faint snort of derision at his words but ignored it. He reached out through the bond, waiting patiently for Ezra to quit fighting the contact.

"Iím sorry," Ezra said softly. "I am trying."

"I know," Vin assured him, his voice quiet and steady. "We got time."

A tendril of magic crept toward the pitcher. Vin felt the pulsing of Ezraís heartbeat mirrored by the throbbing at the base of the other manís skull. As the pitcher was seized and lifted, Vin felt a surge of energy striving to break free. The Guardian gasped, stunned by the sheer power of magic contained in the Mage.

The pitcher flew threw the air and shattered against the ground. Ezra cried out, clutching his head. Vin quickly quelled the surge of magic and let it flow harmlessly through him. He grabbed Ezraís shoulders, holding tightly onto him, while the Mage gasped for breath.

"Iím sorry, Ezra, Iím sorry," Vin said earnestly. "I wasnít prepared for that." Mentally he soothed away the remnants of magical energy. Limp, still breathing hard, Ezra leaned against the Guardian. His head was tipped back and Vin could see his eyes closed tight against the pain. He held on until Ezra took a deep shuddering breath and pulled himself away. Keeping one hand still on Ezraís shoulder, he sat down beside his Mage.

"You sure do pack a wallop," he finally said, ruefully.

Ezraís eyes popped open as he stared at Vin. Then, for no reason Vin could see, he started to laugh.

*******

Ezra was packed and ready to go. He just had one last detail to see to. Searching through the village, he finally found whom he had been seeking. The boy was hiding behind one of the houses that had been used for the decoys to draw fire from Andersonís men. His face was streaked with tears.

"Come now," Ezra said, taking the boyís hand and leading him out into the sun. "None of that. Weíre still friends."

"I donít want you to go, Ezra," the boy sniffled.

"I have much work that needs to be done," Ezra said. He wasnít exactly lying; he was sure his new Guardian would find some way to use him, even if the magic was still not an option.

As they headed toward the center of the village, Ezra saw Josiah ride up to the others. Nathan, still on the ground, stepped forward.

"Where you going?" he chided the older man. "Get down off that horse. You lost too much blood. You'll die out there!"

"If that's what's meant to be," Josiah answered cryptically.

Nathan shook his head in frustration. "The damn birds will get you soon enough. You don't have to go chasing after them."

Instead of answering, Josiah simply said, "Youíre a good man, Nathan."

Ezra led the young Indian boy into the center of the people gathered to watch them go. The boyís words had given him the strength to return when he had been ready to abandon them all. Now he hoped he had strength enough to face his future.

"Ezra, can I come?" the boy asked.

"A brave warrior like you? Youíve got to stay here and protect the village. You remember what I taught you?" Ezra asked as he handed the boy a deck of cards.

"Never draw to an inside straight," the boy declared.

Ezra chuckled. His face sobered as he looked up and saw that Chris, Buck, Josiah and JD were already mounted up and waiting. Off to one side, Vin, also on horseback, watched him closely. His headache had begun to fade, but he knew Vin could feel the slight pressure that never seemed to quite leave him. Ezra climbed carefully into the saddle and rode over next to the - his - Guardian.

He looked at Nathan, still standing with the villagers and Rain. If he and the Healer had not precisely made their peace, they had at least come to a mutual understanding of one another.

"What about you, Mr. Jackson?" he asked, more for something to say than anything else. "You willing to ride with... an old Southern boy?" He was going to say ĎMageí, but didnít know what the attitude of the people in the village was. They hadnít mentioned anything, although they must have seen the bolt of energy that felled Anderson.

Chris had returned their talisman, and Ezra could feel the slight increase in the power of the place. This time, possibly due to the fact that he was now bonded, the energy didnít cause the distress it had earlier.

Rain gave Nathan a little push. "Go. Iíll wait for you."

The others headed out of the village. Ezra could hear Nathanís horse coming up behind them. "Ezra, how you feeling?" the Healer asked as he drew abreast of the Mage and the Guardian.

"Just fine, Mr. Jackson," Ezra lied.

"Vin, for real, how is he?" Nathan said, deciding against probing the Mage, knowing of his dislike for Healers in general now.

Vin grinned at the - his - Mage. "Just fine, Mr. Jackson," he replied. And for the first time since the bonding, Ezra smiled back.

"You two are gonna be trouble, I can tell that already," Nathan said, shaking his head. "Hey, wait up there, Josiah. How you feeling, really?"

They rode along in silence for a while, each man lost in his own thoughts about the recent events. Finally, Ezra cleared his throat.

"Well, Mr. Tanner, where are we headed?" he asked.

"Was gonna go to Tascosa," Vin said. "But now..."

Ezra reined in the flash of anger that flared up. "Donít want a Mage tagging along after you? You should have thought of that earlier." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Ezra froze. Throckmorton would have had him writing in agony over his Ďattitudeí.

"No, itís not that at all," Vin replied in an even voice. "Iím wanted back there. Five hundred dollars."

Ezra just stared at him, speechless. Not only had the Guardian let his display of anger pass unpunished, but he had also revealed a very important piece of information. "Whatever for?" he finally asked.

Quietly, Vin told his story. Ezra listened without interrupting. For some reason, being bonded to a man wanted for murder made him feel slightly better about the situation. Like him, Vin was a man on the run. He was not likely to head back to more civilized territory in order to exploit his new Mage.

"So, what will you - we - do?" he finally asked.

"Donít rightly know," Vin said. "Go back to town and ponder on it some."

*******

JD was riding toward the front of the little group with Chris and Buck. He glanced back at the other riders.

"He really a Mage?" he asked.

"Guess he is," Chris replied.

"But he canít do any magic, right? Except that one time." JD thought for a moment. "What good is a Mage that canít do magic? Whyíd you hire him?" he asked Chris.

"Didnít hire a Mage," Chris said quietly. "I hired a gun." He stared at the young man.

"Oh, I see," JD said nervously. He dropped back to ride with Nathan and Josiah for a while.

*******

They eventually arrived back in town and got their horses settled in the livery, then parted ways to go to their own accommodations. Ezra hesitated, waiting for Vin. When the Guardian appeared, he seemed startled to find the Mage waiting.

"Need something, Ez?" he asked.

Ezra frowned at the diminution of his name, but only asked, "Where do you want me to go?"

Vin just stared at him. "Come on," he finally said, leading the way to the saloon. Tired and sore, Ezra followed.

Once they had their drinks, Vin said, "I meant what I said, Ezra. I ainít gonna make you do anything. You do whatever you want, stay wherever you want. Iím only here if you need me."

"Only, I canít leave," Ezra amended. "And, if you decide to leave, Iíll have to accompany you."

"There is that," Vin conceded. "Gil and me, we grew up together. We were friends. I didnít order him around and he didnít give in to me or nothing like that. We agreed on what we were gonna do, then we did it. About the most he needed from me was that he got lost sometimes when he was looking for something. Iíd have to bring him back, thatís all."

Vin paused for a moment. "I know what I did was wrong, and Iím sorry about the way it happened. But I meant what I said. I donít want to control you or anything like that. If you need me, Iím here. Otherwise, Iíll leave you alone."

"Until you decide to leave," Ezra said, again.

"Or you do," Vin shot back. "Look, I donít think we can just be friends, not the way things are. But maybe we can be... " he paused searching for the word he wanted. "You know, just work together."

"Colleagues?" Ezra said. Vin nodded.

"Colleagues," Ezra said again, musing on the sound of the word. "Partners, as it were. Associates." A gleam came into his eyes that made Vin somewhat nervous. "Partners. Yes, I think I can live with that. And, in fact, I have some ideas that we can perhaps explore."

Vin drained his glass in a hurry and stood. "Yeah, that sounds good. Weíll, um, go over those real soon." He practically ran out of the saloon. What had he gotten himself into?

"Partners," Ezra said softly to himself. "I like the sound of that."

THE END

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