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On a tranquil afternoon in early May, with a breeze from the hills carrying the freshness of spring growth into Four Corners' dusty streets, Chris Larabee lost his life.

In retrospect, that day up until the destroying moment would stick in Ezra's mind as a perfect time frozen in a bubble. The town was placid and orderly, townsfolk going about their business with sociable equanimity under a robin's-egg blue sky. The jail was empty and had been since the last trail herd passed through on its way to the railhead two weeks before. The last gunplay had occurred a month ago and was, in the end, a minor incident. The town was full of bustle and growth rather than havoc on that day more than four years after the seven of them had become its peacekeepers, and Chris, with a slide of sleepy-lidded eyes toward Ezra, had talked the evening before of going to Landen for a visit. Instead, less than a day later, like a crevasse suddenly splitting the earth under their feet and tearing life as they knew it asunder, all plans, intentions, hopes, and dreams ended forever.

And the damned aching pity of the whole matter was that Chris didn't die.

That thought would stumble through Ezra's mind untold times in the following days. He tried to block it out, tried to shut it into a tiny locked room, the madwoman in the attic of his brain, but it wouldn't stay hidden. Each time it flittered into his thoughts, he was rocked anew with despair, and, like a devil riding his tail, horror followed that he could wish, with however small a particle of his being, that Chris had died. Then came the anger, because Chris didn't die: a maelstrom of rage that Chris had been denied death on that sweet and pretty afternoon. And when the emotional torrent receded once more, he was left back where he began, in a numb state like a somnambulist.

He was playing poker in the saloon that fair afternoon while Chris sat alone at a table on the other side of the room with his back to him. Chris had been quiet all day, but that was his normal demeanor; he'd perhaps frowned rather more than usual, and had drunk steadily, not budging from the saloon in hours, but nothing about his behavior seemed amiss.

Involved in a game that took only a scant part of his attention, Ezra glanced over at Chris at intervals for no reason but to enjoy the square set of Chris's shoulders and the sense of leashed power emanating from his straight back. When the sun, slanting in the uncurtained upper windows, washed over Chris for a period in its travels, Ezra derived aesthetic pleasure from the contrast between Chris's black duster and fair hair. He thought of Landen and the two of them alone together in a shared hotel room, commonplace and aboveboard arrangement for travelers, and smiled to himself--then smiled anew, with more malicious pleasure, when his fellow players shot him nervous looks.

The sun had moved on, leaving Chris a shadowed figure, when Ezra's attention was caught by the way he was sitting. Chris was slumped slightly to the right side, his right shoulder dipped and rounded as though it had fallen in on itself and his head angled awkwardly over it. The difference from Chris's customary posture would probably escape any casual viewer, but an icy finger walked its way up Ezra's spine.

He excused himself from the game and crossed the room. He stopped beside Chris and bent over to speak to him. Chris turned to him with a dazed look and features that looked somehow blurred. Ezra drew a sharp breath and leaned closer.

"Chris? Is something wrong?"

"Hurts." Chris kept blinking, his eyes narrowed as though the light were paining him. "H-head."

Ezra fought down panic at Chris's weak stutter and kept his voice steady. "All right. I'll send for Nathan."

He looked around and spotted JD at the bar. He hailed him, and beckoned when JD turned to him.

"N-no."

Chris's voice was so low Ezra had to bend down closer to hear. As he did, he noticed the sour smell of urine and saw a darker area at Chris's crotch, not immediately visible on the black denim, but unmistakable. Ezra straightened, his mind a whirligig, just as JD arrived. Ezra closed a hand on Chris's shoulder and moved to screen him from view as he mentally changed direction.

"JD, would you by chance know where Buck is?"

"Yeah, I think he's still upstairs with Miss Mabel."

"Would you fetch him, please? Tell him Chris wants him. Without delay."

JD looked curiously at Chris, but he wouldn't be able to see the slouched right side of Chris's body past Ezra. JD bobbed his head and said, "Sure," in his usual affable way and left. Ezra turned back to Chris, aware his grip on his shoulder was possibly so tight it was uncomfortable. He loosened his fingers while retaining his hold and bent over Chris again.

"Buck is coming. We'll get you to the clinic. Nathan'll know what to do."

He spoke with conviction in an attempt to reassure himself as well as Chris, and clung to his belief everything would be fine.

"Nnn.... Not...b-boy." Sweat sprang out on Chris's face as he forced out the words in a weak, strained voice.

Ezra swallowed painfully. "No. I'll send JD away. Buck will help."

Buck would help and Nathan would help and everything would be all right because Chris was indestructible. Everyone in the entire benighted world knew that for a fucking fact. Nothing else was comprehensible. Whatever was wrong with Chris would prove to be a minor incident, a transitory indisposition Nathan's concoctions would put right.

He noticed strands of hair clinging damply to Chris's forehead. With a gargantuan effort of his own, he injected a light note into his voice. "Didn't I warn you about eating Mrs. Harnstimple's griddle cakes?"

He didn't think Chris was going to react, perhaps hadn't heard him over whatever pounding was in his head, but then Chris's mouth twisted into a kind of smile, though only the left side of his face moved. Ezra closed his hand on Chris's shoulder again, desperately needing the contact. He spared a moment as he checked their route to the door to be glad Chris had taken a table near the south wall, away from the crowds that tended to congregate at the bar, the roulette wheel, and the poker tables, and that it was nearing suppertime, so the place was moderately empty. The back door would provide the closest means of egress and the least chance of...

He looked down at Chris's pasty face, at the lines of pain, at the slackness in his ordinarily taut features.

...anyone getting a good look at Chris and suspecting he might not be himself. When Chris was well again, he could do without whispers of incontinence and incapacity attaching to him.

Buck barreled down the stairs with JD behind him. Buck was dressed, but was buttoning his leather vest as he walked. As soon as he came into view, he launched into speech from across the room.

"Damn, Chris, what's the all-fired hurry? The delicious Miss Mabel was in the middle of showing me this move she learned when she was with a traveling circus--"

Ezra spoke as soon as the pair reached the table, pitching his voice low. "JD, would you find Nathan and ask him to meet us at the clinic."

"What's the matter?" JD asked.

He didn't know what his face showed, but when he looked at him, JD froze, abruptly wide-eyed and serious.

"Now, if you please."

JD nodded and left in a rush.

"Chris?" Buck leaned over Chris. "What the hell's--"

"We'll take him out the back door, then along the back way to the clinic." Ezra was about to take Chris's arm when he paused. "Wait."

He leaned over and did up the buttons on Chris's duster, closing it across his body.

"What's going on? Chris?"

Chris took a deep breath and managed to say, "H-head."

Ezra said, impatient of the delay, "His head hurts. Let's go."

They lifted Chris to his feet and discovered he could barely stand.

"Whoa there, old dog, we gotcha," Buck murmured.

They kept him from falling, adjusting their grips on his arms until they had their collective balance. All the while, Ezra's heart was thumping so loudly he couldn't hear anything but the rush of his blood in his ears. As they set off for the back door, the ludicrous idea of a three-legged walk entered his mind.

Buck lifted his voice to a loud, cheery boom directed at the few patrons who had turned to look at them. "Good thing I'm used to hauling your ass out of saloons when you're corned, Larabee, because let me tell you, stud, you ain't no featherweight."

The observers turned back to their drinks and games, uninterested in the routine sight of a drunk being escorted away. That it was Chris wasn't usual, but it wasn't rare enough to cause speculation; not, at any rate, to men who saw inebriation as a manly condition.

And why it seemed important, at such a pass, to safeguard Chris's dignity, Ezra could never have explained, even to himself, but he was glad Buck felt the same, thereby saving him the effort of enforcing Chris's mute desire.

They made it past the first alley to the main street before Chris's right leg, which had been dragging, buckled and they stopped perforce to keep him from slamming face-first into the dirt. Buck whispered, "Sorry, pard," and swung Chris up over his shoulder. Ezra strode ahead until they reached the steep stairs up to the clinic. He helped Buck shift Chris down so they could carry him between them. Ezra went cautiously up the stairs backwards at a difficult angle, half-facing down, half-turned to watch his step, acutely aware of the weight of Chris's head lolling against his chest. A stray tendril of comfort came with the thought that, should he trip despite all care, he'd at least be able to cushion Chris's head in the fall.

The door to the clinic was open. Nathan was washing his hands as they entered and laid Chris on the bed. JD wasn't in sight. Nathan bent over Chris, unbuttoning the duster, his eyes studying Chris's face as he asked questions. Chris didn't manage to do more than slur out a couple of hard-won words. Ezra tersely filled in Nathan with what he knew.

Nathan straightened. "All right. I'm going to look him over, then I'll let you know." He jerked his head at the door.

Nathan rarely asked anyone to leave the clinic. The anxiety racing in Ezra's veins beat an even heavier drum as he moved outside with Buck onto the porch and listened to the door being shut behind them, the snick of the lock loud in the silence. Buck went to lean on the railing, staring over the town, but his eyes were unfocused. Ezra wanted to pace, but knew if he started, he'd only fan his agitation higher. He sat down on the bench and took out his deck of cards. With his eyes set on the same unseen rooftops as Buck, he shuffled and fanned and reshuffled.

By the time Nathan emerged, JD had arrived with Josiah and Vin in tow. The lowering sun gilded the bell in the church steeple across the street and reflected rays toward the clinic's porch bright enough to dazzle. Nathan came out of his room, drying his hands on a towel, and closed the door. He looked at each of them in turn, then slumped down onto the bench Ezra vacated. Nathan scrubbed the towel over his face, emerging from it looking raw and bleak as the plains in winter.

Ezra thought Nathan must have looked like this when he was young and learning about battlefield wounds in the frenzy of war.

"What's going on with Chris, Nathan?" Vin's tight voice sounded even raspier than usual.

"He's had an apoplectic seizure." Nathan shrugged and looked up at them, standing in a semi-circle in front of him. "At least, I'm pretty sure that's what happened. I need to read up some more, and I'm gonna send out some telegrams describing his symptoms, but I'm--" He broke off, looking down with a wince, then sighed and looked up again with grim steadiness. "I reckon that's what happened."

JD pulled off his hat and ran a hand through his hair. "So, what are you going to do to get him better? There's medicine or something, right?"

Ezra bit back a bark of laughter and turned away to grab hold of himself before he lost all control. As he stood with his back to the others, he became aware of pressure in his hand and saw he'd closed his fist on the deck of cards, bending it in two. The shaved edges of the pasteboards were cutting into the pads of his fingers. Nathan's quiet voice sounded behind him.

"There ain't no cure for this, JD. He's got some paralysis all down his right side. It ain't possible to say how bad it'll end up being, but right now, he can't grasp my hand or hold a cup or push himself up without help."

"Is he going to die?" Buck's voice was hushed.

"It don't seem like it, though I can't say for sure. But since it didn't kill him right off, and his heart's still beating strong, I figure he could have years left. Probably won't see eighty, but--" his voice hitched momentarily "--could have years."

"Well, that's good." JD's words echoed in the stillness for a long, frozen spell. When he spoke again, valiant optimism infused his voice. "Well, it is, isn't it?"

"It's affected his brain, too," Nathan went on, somehow managing to sound collected, as though he were merely relating facts from a report. "He's having trouble talking. I think he can understand most words--simple ones, anyways--but it's a problem in his brain that makes him unable to say the words he wants."

The roof of the church was glowing burnished orange as the sun sank toward the horizon. Ezra's head dropped like a marionette with broken strings.

"He can get better, though, with practice? Learn to talk, the way babies do. We can all help him." A trace of fear underlay JD's insistence.

"Babies don't have damaged brains, JD. But exercises might help the apoplexy, might give him back some use of his hand and leg. They ain't completely paralyzed, but they're real weak. I've read about how working the muscles helps sometimes. I'm gonna do more reading, see what I can find out."

In the following silence, as even JD fell quiet, the distant trill of a dusk owl sounded faintly on the evening air, and hung there, unanswered.

:::::::

Ezra sat on the side of Chris's bed in the boardinghouse room they'd procured for him when Chris had left the clinic three weeks before. He lifted a cloth from the bowl of warm water on the bedside table, wrung it out, and wiped it down the center of Chris's chest. He wrung it out again and wiped down the left side of Chris's chest, then repeated the action on the right. He washed Chris's right arm next, holding the cloth in a circling grip around the outer part of the limb and wiping from shoulder to wrist. He lifted Chris's arm to lie across his lap and held it there. He wrung out the cloth one-handed, turned the arm to face outward with a light clasp on Chris's hand, and washed the underside.

The weight and warmth of Chris's arm on his thigh was the locus of all the pain and all the joy in his life.

Chris's left arm, his good one, was curled on the pillow above his head. He looked open and vulnerable, lying with his eyes closed; not asleep, but resting. He was always drained by this time of the evening, after another harrowing day spent fighting fate, nature, and his own body--as well as anyone who got in his way--with every iota of the ardor, determination, and obstinacy this recalcitrant man comprised.

Ezra wrung out the cloth, paid special attention to cleansing the sweat-clumped hair in Chris's underarm, then drew the cloth down Chris's side, over the stark staves of his ribs to his hip. Chris's fingers were lax in Ezra's hand, but they'd curled enough to close on his. Ezra rubbed his thumb back and forth over the bony ridge of Chris's large knuckles.

He talked, as he did every evening during this ritual he'd established. He told Chris--who might or might not be listening; who might comprehend most of it or might make sense only of bits--about the poker he'd played that day; the men he'd played against; the doings of the townsfolk or any newcomers to the environs; the antics of their friends; the weather; his mother's latest news from Saint Louis if he'd received a letter. He tried not to repeat himself from night to night just in case Chris actually took it in and remembered, but he'd never had a problem spinning twaddle. A gift for inventive tales was a prerequisite for a con man, and four years of retirement acting in the outlandish capacity of a lawkeeper hadn't entirely eroded his skills.

Night after night, for the first time in his life, he regretted the creative facility he'd once prized. The ease with which his tongue moved left his mind too little occupation.

He kept his voice to a leisurely drawl and colored it with amusement or sardonic wit or wryness or exasperation as appropriate to the subject. He suspected the benefit for Chris lay in the comfort he found in listening to his voice rather than in anything specific he might have to impart. He was sure Chris derived similar reassurance from the familiarity of the others' voices. Buck spun his own brand of tales, most of them lewd and farfetched, but his voice was like a deep, warm embrace. Vin, who tended to speak less than most of them, sat with Chris every morning during the first of the rests Chris's body forced him to take throughout the day, and read the Clarion News to him. Since Vin ignored any words too foreign or complex for his rudimentary reading skills to manage, simply jumping over them and ferreting out the sense of the text for himself in a more accessible form, it was an apt way for Chris to hear about events at a level he could easily assimilate--if he had any inherent interest in the news at this time, which Ezra doubted. When Chris, leaning back in a chair on the boardwalk or in the jail or the saloon, however far he'd managed to get before the weakness overtook him, listened to Vin stumble through the paper, Ezra thought Chris likely absorbed only the familiar tones of the gravelly voice, and took from them the reassurance of Vin's being close by his side.

All six of them took turns spending time with Chris every day, each of them having established his own routine. They dogged Chris's steps despite his attempts to rebuff them, staying close enough to spring forward and catch him if he faltered. Chris took enough falls regardless in his single-minded efforts to force his body to obey his commands.

Still holding Chris's curled fingers in one hand, Ezra leaned across the bed and wiped the cloth down Chris's other side to a hip mottled with a large fading bruise. That one had come from Chris's lurching against the rail on the boardwalk when he'd pulled away from Buck's attempt to support him and Chris's weak leg had given way. Buck had at least been able to save Chris from further injury that time. Ezra wrung out the cloth and washed Chris's left underarm as he injected lightness into his voice while recounting the activities of a greenhorn dandy who had lately arrived in town and inadvertently set about entertaining the denizens.

He also spent time with Chris through the day, usually accompanying him for lunch in the saloon where he could seat Chris in a quiet corner and cut up his food for him without attracting too much attention, and where the patrons, focused on drinking or cards, were used to Chris's presence. Chris was generally too fatigued to eat supper in public and too angry at the end of another stressful day to withstand even minimal staring and whispering with any degree of equanimity. Josiah usually spent the supper hour with him in Chris's rented room, taking two plates of food and eating with him. Nathan took him his breakfast, helping Chris with the difficult business of dressing and making his first gargantuan effort to get to his feet and walk. JD fetched and carried tirelessly, and tended to hover rather than settle with Chris. The disaster that had mown down this friend he'd seemed to view as larger than life had disconcerted JD, but he took his stints shadowing Chris in his forays around town and had done his share of buffering Chris in falls. They all attempted to guard Chris from damaging himself further in his relentless determination to free himself from infirmity.

Ezra reserved the evenings for himself. All six of them seemed to exist in a state of perpetual weariness alongside Chris, as though Chris's impassioned fight to get back his life exhausted them, by the end of each day, as much as it did Chris. Once Vin or Buck settled Chris in his room for the night, taking him to the outhouse and getting him extricated from his clothes and shaving him, the rest of them left Chris alone while they tried to salvage some shred of normal life of their own from the ruins.

It was then that Ezra made his way to Chris's room to fight for his own remnant of normality.

Ezra lifted Chris's right hand and kissed the knuckles he'd been stroking, then laid it on the mattress beside Chris and stood and folded the blankets down to the bottom of the bed. He undid the three pearl buttons at the waist of Chris's wool longhandles and peeled them off. Staying on his feet, he bent over to wring out the cloth in the cooling water and washed Chris's legs while he related, in a humorous tone, the havoc young Billy Travis's kitten had wreaked in Mary's kitchen while giving chase to an errant mouse. Ezra wiped the cloth down Chris's long legs, both of them still looking elegant and sinewy, seemingly a matched pair with no outward sign that only one had its proper strength. The right leg's weakness was apparent only when Chris tried to use it, tried to command it to obey his will.

Chris bent the knee of his good leg to the side, pulling his leg up and revealing the pale skin of his inner thigh. Ezra flashed a smile up at him, but Chris's eyes were still closed. Ezra's own eyes slid shut for an instant as he drew in a deep breath; when he had collected himself, he went on with his story while he washed up the insides of Chris's legs, and washed Chris's quiescent genitals and his long, slim feet.

He rounded off his final story as he completed bathing Chris. Sometimes when he stopped talking and nothing but a featureless silence filled the void, he felt a momentary fear he'd never be able to bear hearing his own voice again and they'd both be condemned to the same eternal lot. Chris had never been a chatty man, but he'd always responded somehow, in some measure, if not with his voice, then with a dancing light in his eyes or a quirk of his mouth or a snort or shrug or laugh or frown.

Such responses now took energy Chris often didn't have to spare, even if he fully absorbed what he'd been hearing. Their initial fears that Chris's native comprehension had been snuffed out with the mangling of his language abilities had been allayed, but his mental acuity fluctuated with his physical state. When he wasn't exhausted, Chris understood complex concepts if rendered in simple language; when he was tired, however, his thoughts seemed to blur and they were never sure how much he actually took in.

Ezra dropped the cloth into the bowl. He paused to run his eyes in a fierce, devouring indulgence over Chris's body from head to toe, taking into the hurting place inside him one more memory of Chris's scarred, rugged beauty to comfort and torment himself with later. Chris had lost much of his tan and his pale skin and fair body hair reflected the lamp's muted glow, lighting him like the centerpiece of a daguerreotype with the rest of the room bleeding into shadow around him. A portrait of the soft underbelly of a battered, middle-aged man divested of his outer shell, yet still exuding the daunting toughness with which Chris bulled his way through life.

He shook himself out of his reverie and put the longhandles back on Chris, drawing them up one leg that lay static and heavy and the other that had tension in the muscles and lifted to help. He tenderly tucked away Chris's cock and fastened the buttons, then pulled the blankets up. He smoothed them around Chris's shoulders before arranging the quilt. The early June evening was balmy, but Chris chilled easily now. Nathan had warned them Chris could suffer another apoplectic seizure at any time, which, if it again spared him, might leave him with increased infirmity. Nathan hadn't been able to learn of any method to prevent a recurrence, but they all took what care of Chris they could without having told Chris of the possibility.

He stood at the head of the bed and studied Chris's face. The left side was as it had always been, marked with the lines of forty-three years of hard living and tragedy, but handsome, firm, and exuding an aura of vitality even when Chris was at rest with his eyes shut. The right side had a subtly different quality, though possibly his mind exaggerated it. At rest, the lessened mobility of Chris's cheek and mouth on the right wasn't immediately obvious. It was when Chris tried to smile or speak or open his right eyelid fully that the partial paralysis was unmistakable. Ezra touched Chris's wheaten hair, which he'd washed for him the night before. In the lamplight, it glimmered like fool's gold.

Chris's eyes opened; one fully, the other partway. Ezra smiled down at him and Chris managed a tired half-smile with the good side of his face. Chris lifted his bad arm and groped for his hand. Ezra caught it and settled their hands together with practiced dexterity into a grip Chris could manage.

"Ez...zha. Ez...."

Chris pressed his lips together, the new lines frustration was carving day-by-day into his face deepening. Ezra tightened his hand, pity and anger and diffuse hate at the entire fucking universe making bile rise in his throat. Chris's nostrils flared as he drew in a breath, rallying his strength for one more fight at the end of a day of battles. His mouth opened and shut several times as he concentrated on articulating what he might hear clearly as he ever had in his head, yet could transfer from his brain to his mouth only with extreme effort.

Ezra clamped his own lips shut. He knew what Chris was striving to express. The ease with which he could say it and end Chris's struggle was a potent temptation, but he knew even more forcibly Chris's adamant desire was not to be helped to the easiest course. What mattered to Chris still was the essential need he'd spent his life protecting: having the right he'd always reserved to himself to fight the battles he chose, when and how he chose them, even when he was exhausted, even if his chances of victory were nil and yet he wouldn't give up trying no matter if it ended him. Ezra waited, willing determination and support into Chris through his hold on the hand gripping his with all its small store of strength, and watched the ripple of Chris's facial and throat muscles as he bent the entirety of his formidable, undiminished will on completing the Herculean task.

"S-stay."

Ezra let go a pent breath as the day's final skirmish was won. At last, they could rest for a few hours. He lay down and helped Chris shift onto his bad side facing him. Ezra settled them close together on the narrow bed, compensating for Chris's weakness and making sure the blankets fully covered Chris's bare back and shoulders.

Chris crooked his good leg over Ezra's, anchoring them together. Chris's good arm banded across his back, his large hand holding the back of Ezra's neck with the imperious firmness evocative of the old Chris. Ezra closed his eyes and embraced the fantasy that all was as it had always been even as the arrowhead piercing his heart moved another fraction of an inch deeper.

:::::::

Ezra looked at the chaos in Chris's shack. Chris had managed to smash one chair and tip over two others along with the table and the crate beside his bed; break a lantern, a lamp, and various bottles; and strew most of his belongings and supplies in the wreckage on the floor. Chris stood in the midst of the carnage, his chest heaving, his clothes streaked with oil, food stuffs, and filth.

"My, my, your decorating skills leave something to desire, I must say. Perhaps you should borrow a copy of Godey's Lady's Book. I'm sure Mary would be willing to loan you hers in such a good cause."

"Shuh...'p!"

"And charming as ever, as well. What more could we ask for?"

Ezra stepped over a knocked-over bucket and the pool of water spreading around it, avoided an empty--and miraculously unbroken--whiskey bottle, a tin mug and an upside-down pot of stew, and was skirting the obstacle of the overturned table when Chris flung his cane at him. Ezra ducked as it shot past his head and looked at Chris warily.

"G-guh--" Chris gritted his teeth. His left hand curled into a fist; the fingers on the right curled into a loose parody of a fist. If Chris had a scrap of energy, vigor, or balance left to draw on, Ezra knew he'd be battering something else to smithereens.

He turned away to hide his face, going to pick up the cane from where it had bounced off the wall. He closed his fingers on the smooth wood, fancying he could feel through his pores the love with which it had been fashioned. Vin had disappeared one day into the hills and returned with a juniper branch from a dead tree tied behind his saddle. He spent hours working on it, stripping and sanding the wood, shaping and attaching a handle on top to make it easier for Chris to grasp, and finishing it so it was as attractive as it was functional. He'd presented it to Chris when Chris had regained enough use of his right leg to insist on venturing out, no matter that Chris's leg wouldn't support him every other step. The cane was a clumsy support since Chris's right hand was too weak to hold it properly and he had to hold it with his left, but it was instrumental in giving him back the mobility he passionately wanted and needed.

Ezra composed himself and turned to face Chris, catching a whiff of the linseed oil finish on the cane as he lifted it.

"I'm not getting out." He moved close enough to hold the cane out to Chris. "Here."

Chris stared at him, mouth working, a muscle jumping in his jaw and both hands still clenched. His face was sweaty and his hair fell into his eyes in lank dirty strands. That he wanted to say something was obvious; that he couldn't at the moment form the words, couldn't make them travel from his brain to his mouth, was equally apparent. His facility with language worsened when he was worn out, but it had also generally deteriorated, along with his reserves of strength, after he'd suffered another seizure a week after he'd moved out here. Josiah had been the one to find him that afternoon, lying captive in his bed, his face blurred to vagueness.

"Two steps forward and ten back." Buck's bitter words had encapsulated the gall of their collective grief.

They'd cared for him at his shack that time, nursing him while he needed it, helping him work his muscles to regain what he could of the hard-won strength obliterated in moments. They got him back on his feet, and he insisted on staying at his own place, so they shaped their lives accordingly. Buck and Vin were daily, often twice or three times daily, visitors, and Nathan kept a continual check on Chris. Josiah came less often, but still several times a week. JD usually came only with one of the others. Shocked witness of the devastation wrought on a man he'd possibly secretly considered unconquerable, JD seemed unsure in his feelings, vacillating between attempts at optimism and frightened despair. But he did everything asked of him to help Chris, and everything he could think of on his own, with eager devotion. JD, more regularly than any of the rest of them, tended Chris's stock and did the ranch chores.

"H-huh-hate." Chris finally managed to spit out the word he'd been struggling for.

"Yes, I know you hate me." He continued to regard Chris steadily as he held out the cane.

Hate me and hate yourself. Hate life and God and the world and fate. Hate the past, the future, today and tomorrow. Hate every morning that dawns, every minute that ticks by, every evening that draws in.

Chris, blinking rapidly, met his eyes for a long moment, then shut his own. Ezra waited, not moving, giving Chris the time he needed to rally whatever strength remained to him. When Chris opened his eyes, he reached for the cane, but rather than taking hold of it above or below Ezra's hand, he closed his fingers gently over Ezra's on the wood. The touch of Chris's hand, still marked with the distinctive pattern of calluses from years of handling a gun and horse tackle, gave him the fleeting illusion of having back the vital, whole man Chris was meant to be. Ezra took a shaky breath, wishing with the ardent intensity of a child the moment would never end, that they could go on standing here together for all time with their hands clasped in this semblance of immutable strength.

Chris stroked his thumb over Ezra's knuckles, then slid his hand up and closed it around the cane. Ezra let it go with a pang of new loss. He turned precipitately away and took several breaths to force order onto himself, then surveyed the room to assess what order he needed to make in it. Glancing back at Chris leaning heavily on the cane, he knew the bed was the only priority.

The heavy bedstead hadn't been budged from its place, but the blankets lay in a tangled heap on the floor while the quilt trailed over the footboard. Ezra retrieved a pillow from under Chris's lamp-oil streaked duster and made the bed with rapid efficiency. Chris had swiveled around on his good leg with the cane's help and stood watching him with hooded eyes. Ezra took his weak arm. Chris made no protest and trusted much of his weight to him in their halting progress around the litter on the floor. The uneven stamp of their boots on the floor, the ring of Chris's spurs, the tap of the cane, and Chris's labored breathing provided a discordant accompaniment to their slow progress. Ezra thought perhaps he should speak, should use his voice to fill the spaces, but the ready tongue he'd always depended on seemed as worn down lately as the rest of him.

Chris was unlikely to hear anything, anyway, over his own breathing and with all his energy funneled into keeping on his feet and shuffling forward.

Chris exhaled on a long, deep sigh as Ezra carefully lowered him to a seat on the bed. Ezra bent over and unfastened the buttons on Chris's shirt while Chris lifted the cane and laid it behind him on the bed. Chris's fingertips stroked back and forth along the satiny wood as had become habitual with him, as though, in touching it, Chris took into himself Vin's essence molded into the cane, and found in it solace.

At least, Chris seemed to find comfort in the cane and what it represented when he wasn't in a blind fury of protest at what had been done to him, at what he'd been made into, and flung the cane and everything else he could away from himself.

Hate everybody who loves you and sees you like this.

Ezra supported Chris's weight as he helped him lie back. Chris's eyes slid shut as he stretched out; his fingers were still lightly curled around the cane. Ezra finished removing the rest of Chris's clothes and spread a blanket over him, smoothing it across his chest, then gently lifted the cane away. Chris let it go, his pliant fingers sliding over the surface and falling onto the bed. Ezra leaned the cane against the wall and turned back to find Chris's half-lidded eyes watching him. Ezra undressed under that regard, moving rapidly and gracelessly without flaunting, his purpose simply to disrobe so he, too, could snatch a few hours rest, a few hours alone with Chris, on this hot afternoon before getting up to deal with the remainder of the day. He hung his clothes on the hooks on the wall and turned around to study the lean planes of Chris's face, feeling the familiar rush of panic at the thought of losing him.

He banished the thought with a shard of his own anger, and hid his turmoil under a smile he hoped looked less forced than it felt. He took the final step to the bed and was reaching for the covers when Chris forestalled him, throwing the corner of the blanket off himself. He lifted his good hand into the air in a sweeping gesture encompassing his naked body from chest to groin, slid his legs apart, and looked challengingly up at Ezra.

"W-wan...fuh-fuck...me?"

Ezra flinched at the belligerence in the slurred words Chris had probably been lying there rehearsing. He grabbed hold of his temper before it could slip from his control, binding it tight with barbed-wire strands until he felt confident enough to allow tendrils of his anger to rebound back at Chris. He reached for the blanket as he lay down, pushing Chris bodily to shift his leg over and make room for him, and pulled the cover up over both of them.

"No. I want you to hold me. You can do that, can't you? Or is that--to borrow one of your own delightful turns of phrase--too bitching much to ask?"

He turned on his side to face Chris and arranged himself on the pillow; the bed was too narrow to accommodate both of them lying on their backs. He closed his eyes and settled himself as best he could with tension coursing an acid stream along his nerves. When Chris's good arm finally shoved beneath him and cinched across his back, palm cupping his shoulder in a firm grip, relief made Ezra go limp, exhaustion flooding over him as the last dike of his anger fell. He pressed his body lengthwise against Chris's spare form and laid his cheek against the rounded bone of Chris's shoulder. Chris stank: of dirt and sweat, of the aftermath of rage, of kerosene and gun oil and stew. But his skin was warm with life; and he was Chris.

Chris's muscles were even more knotted with tension than his. Ezra slid his hand under the blanket and tried to stroke easefulness into Chris's long frame so he'd be better able to sleep. In minutes, driven by his own need as much as the desire to help Chris relax, he pushed the blanket down and curved his body on the bed to rest his head on Chris's thigh. He closed his eyes, feeling the hair on Chris's leg under his cheek like the delicate tickle of a feather. He gathered Chris's flaccid penis into his hand and stroked the tender skin. Running his thumb over the head, he squeezed the soft, wrinkled length, encouraging the foreskin to retract a little, tentative as a flower bud's first opening of its heart to the light. He positioned himself comfortably and drew the tip into his mouth.

Chris rarely got fully hard these days--weariness as well as his physical problems taking their toll on his libido--and even more rarely came. Ezra sucked lightly, not trying to encourage Chris to harden, but offering, rather, an undemanding, encompassing pleasure. They could still gift each other with this fundamental connection, he to Chris and Chris to him, complete in and of itself, complete together.

Yet he couldn't inhibit--and emphatically didn't wish to deny--the effect on himself as he nuzzled into Chris's groin and cradled his balls. Ezra drew his top leg up to hide his awakening flesh, on the off chance Chris might see, and ran his hand down his own smooth chest, over his trembling belly, to close around his cock. For a few moments, he stroked his cock while holding Chris's, savoring the sense of being a conduit between the roots of their pleasure. He imagined Chris's hand on his ass, pretended he could feel its warm roughness against his skin as Chris stroked a saliva-slick finger down his cleft, over his entrance, down and around to fondle his balls....

But only for moments did he allow himself the indulgence of memory. Then, with a ruthlessness he'd never apply to Chris's flesh, he snapped a finger against the head of his cock. As pain killed his incipient erection, he filled his senses instead with the weight and taste of Chris's cock in his mouth and Chris's balls in his hand, Chris's smell prickling his nose and Chris's breathing in his ears.

Chris, all the while, stroked his good hand over Ezra's head and along his shoulders in a continuous motion, rhythmic and soothing in its intimacy and possessiveness. The movements gradually slowed until they stopped altogether and Chris's large hand rested on the center of Ezra's back with the heaviness of sleep.

Hate everybody you love who sees you like this.

Ezra laid Chris's damp cock on his thigh with a final caress and shifted up on the bed to settle as close against Chris as he could.

:::::::

The sun was well past its zenith on a fine mid-September afternoon when Chris made one of his infrequent visits to town. Josiah drove him in a rented buckboard with Vin riding alongside. Since Josiah had elected to take the wagon out the day before and stay the night at Chris's, taking care of the stock today and giving Chris a hand in getting ready, Ezra had remained in town last night. He'd arranged for a room at the boardinghouse for Chris, then sunk his mind into a series of poker games until he was weary enough to sleep immediately upon retiring. He'd spent the day in similar mindless pursuit. As rested as he ever managed when he didn't have Chris nearby and the assurance he was safe, he waited now beside the church to greet Chris.

Being transported in a wagon wasn't Chris's favored mode of travel, but he had little choice. He'd spent hours practicing riding after moving out to his property, determined against all entreaty to recapture his mobility. While he'd learned to compensate to a degree for his weak right side in the saddle, he tired far too quickly to journey any distance on horseback with safety. His non-verbal communication skills with the horse he'd owned for going on ten years were an asset, but the inconsistent signals his body telegraphed to the animal, despite Chris's will, made it occasionally skittish; an unexpected side step Chris would barely have noticed when in health could now unseat his precariously balanced body. No matter how much he worked his left hand and leg to make up for the lack of strength on his right side, Chris couldn't quite make a whole man of himself even with the aid of his mount.

He initially had almost as much difficulty getting seated. He could balance briefly on his right leg while holding onto the saddle horn and putting his left boot into the stirrup, and he could lift himself upright in the stirrup by using all his strength, but, even if his right leg didn't buckle, he had to battle to drag the partially paralyzed limb up and over the cantle. His right arm was too weak to pull his leg up and he couldn't let go of the saddle horn with his left hand. More often than not, he wasn't able to make it. His horse, as stolid and patient as any animal could be, sometimes shied away from the constant abortive dragging on one side, unaccustomed in all the years it'd been Chris's mount to such treatment. Chris's frustration and the animal's worked in tandem to scuttle Chris's efforts further until he gave up trying and used a support to raise himself or accepted a boost up. Ezra had felt guilty relief he suspected the others shared at no longer having to witness Chris's painful efforts, but, for Chris, it was one more curtailment of his freedom.

After the second seizure left him more debilitated, Chris's attempts to ride were even less successful. He could still make it into the saddle with help. Nothing, however, not all the assistance and good will they could offer, let him overcome the weakness that sapped his strength after a relatively short distance.

Josiah stopped the buckboard behind the church and held the horses as Vin helped Chris down from the wagon. The large building concealed Chris's awkwardness from prying eyes. Chris held onto the wagon seat with his good hand while Vin shouldered his weight on Chris's weak side so his leg wouldn't give way and dump him in the dirt, and Chris half-slid down. He clung to Vin when his feet touched the ground, trusting himself entirely to Vin's strength in a way Chris had been forced to learn to do over the past four-and-a-half months, having no choice but to rely on others for the first time in his life.

He leaned on Vin only long enough to stabilize himself, then pulled away. Vin handed Chris the cane from the wagon bed and Chris set off toward the street with slow but firm steps. Pride and pleasure welled in Ezra as he watched Chris's straight-backed figure approaching him. Ezra left the shadowed side of the building and joined him; Vin nodded at him and turned away to take care of his horse and help Josiah with the wagon team. Chris would be staying in town for at least a couple of nights; more, if they could convince him to stay longer.

Ezra sought out Chris's eyes under the wide hat brim. Chris met his gaze with a look that flushed him with warmth, and the left corner of Chris's mouth turned up. He was relieved to see Chris looked rested; he hadn't had a bad night, then. Ezra fell in beside him, shortening his stride to match Chris's careful steps, and offered a slanderous commentary on the changes and doings in town since Chris's last visit. Chris leaned on his cane and paced slowly but steadily beside him with back and shoulders squared: Chris Larabee to the core. Turning his head regularly to check on him, Ezra saw a smile tugging at Chris's lips; he might look as though he were ignoring Ezra's chatter, but at least some of it was entertaining him.

Or it might be the sound alone of Ezra's voice Chris was enjoying. He'd decided years before the seizures occurred that Chris for some reason liked listening to him speak in equal measure to the enjoyment Chris found in Vin's silences, as though these two discrete parts of his life complemented each other. Of course, in his fancy, he'd liked to pretend Chris truly listened to what he was saying--at least occasionally--and found in the confections Ezra built with words in the air some merit Chris communicated to him only with his touch in private. Now, however, Ezra's voice and Vin's silence might be dual sources of strength for Chris in and of themselves.

Nathan was sitting on the balcony of the clinic and came down the stairs to join them.

"Chris." Nathan's smile was as welcoming as his voice; he waited for Chris to acknowledge him, then fell in on Chris's other side. Ezra drew Nathan into the conversation, threading his deeper voice into the tapestry of familiarity he wove around Chris. When they were partway up the street, JD called from outside the jail and hurried to meet them, shaking his thick hair back and grinning. Buck exited the saloon with a coffee mug in hand and waited on the boardwalk, smiling warmly, as they made their slow approach.

Ezra blanked out the rest of the people in the street, townsfolk and visitors alike, who paused to watch. He wished them all transported to Hades, but kept his voice light even as he increased the causticity of his comments. Mrs. Potter had the decency to bob her head when she caught sight of them as she was arranging some display goods, then turn and go into her mercantile. If she watched from the window, no one could tell. Mr. Conklin, on the other hand, deliberately stepped out of his store to plant himself on the boardwalk and stare, puffing on his cigar and scowling like a spectator in a hippodrome wondering when he'd get the value of the entrance fee.

Chris ignored them all with the indifference he'd always accorded people who didn't directly call his attention to themselves. That the ogling and gossiping affected him, however, Ezra had no doubt. Even if he'd been less than certain, the white-knuckled grip Chris had on the cane and the effort he expended keeping himself balanced and walking as naturally as possible would have been tells enough.

Buck crossed the street with long, relaxed strides, joining them as they approached the restaurant. The four of them surrounded Chris, a seemingly casual group with Chris in the middle, screening him from onlookers and alert for the danger of a stumble as he clumped his awkward way up the stairs to the boardwalk. Nathan pushed open the double glass doors, laughing at a lively remark of JD's and looking back at Chris, whose face, impassive under the shadow of his hat, had a sheen of sweat; Nathan held the door as they all trooped inside past him. Ezra had reserved a large table at the back, away from the door; a quiet haven. They all remained standing, their bodies again shields wielded with an air of easy naturalness, until Chris seated himself with his back to the wall. Then they noisily slid into chairs, laughing and jostling as they sparked a festive atmosphere. Chris wouldn't agree to come to town often. When he did, the rest of them made the most of the time, the town's near-legendary lawkeepers supping together as they had countless times over the past years as though nothing had changed. Josiah and Vin joined them within minutes, and they were complete.

And with completion came the beguiling sense of their being damned near invincible; the heady feeling of being able to handle anything with Chris at the helm and the rest of them backing him up. It wasn't a feeling that could last. Yet, cynical men though most of them were, they pretended for precious intervals it could. They snatched a chimera out of the ether, fabricated an air castle and willfully transported themselves en masse back five months to what seemed now to have been an idyll, a place out of time they realized only in hindsight they'd half-believed would never end.

Or, at the very least, that it wouldn't end like this. A bullet during a confrontation, a stick of dynamite exploding too close at hand, a cannonball: a quick death. None of them were fools, not to have been aware of the possibility, for themselves or for a friend, each time they fought. But who could conceivably have envisaged the potential destroyer wouldn't be a bullet or an explosive, but something invisible, some sneaking foe within Chris himself? They had no actual enemy they could fight because the enemy here was Chris's own cherished body.

When they looked back to their lost idyll, even being gut shot--with the prolonged and agonizing death such a wound delivered--seemed in contrast as though it might have been a kind of mercy.

And yet, most crucial element in their passage from idyll to reality, they still had Chris. For that bounty, they were each fiercely grateful. And along with the gratitude came a determined protectiveness in each of them. They were protective of Chris's being alive and with them, avid for his company and to see and hear and touch him. But they were equally protective of him as part of their collective and their group being unbroken. They were still seven. Just by virtue of being together, they generated an exhilarating sense of wholeness and unassailable strength.

Separate, they were merely disparate entities, Democritus's atoms adrift in space without the conventions of color or sweetness or bitterness. Together, however, they comprised a body entire, all seven fundamental parts present: head, trunk, two arms, two legs, and spirit.

They held Chris to them, keeping him within their circle, defensive and needy at once; greedy as children with gum drops.

The mood at this rare supper together was celebratory, verging at times on giddy. Gaiety suffused each of them as they devoted themselves to entertaining Chris, watching his face for minute responses as they took turns regaling him with stories and jokes and anecdotes. Ezra cut up Chris's steak with practiced lack of fuss, his action shielded from the room by the large bodies seated between Chris and would-be spectators as Buck, Josiah, and Nathan all sat up straight and squared their broad shoulders as soon as Ezra reached to Chris's plate, and made it look natural. Chris's mouth tightened, but he ignored Ezra, which was Chris's version of gracious accommodation to a disagreeable situation.

Chris's knee touched his when Ezra had turned back to his own meal. It might have been an accident at the crowded table; but Chris didn't move his leg away.

JD and Nathan were good-naturedly arguing about what kind of pie they hoped was available for dessert when it all went to hell. A stentorian voice calling from the street shattered the early-evening peace.

"Chris Larabee! I'm calling you out, Chris Larabee!"

The restaurant stilled as though a bell jar had been upended over it and the air pumped out. Ezra felt a spasm in Chris's leg where it touched his, but Chris was inexpressive as he put down the fork he was holding in his left hand and wiped his mouth on his napkin with deliberate, unhurried movements.

"I know you're in there, Chris Larabee! I ain't moving till you come out and meet me!"

"Oh, for Christ's sake." Buck pulled his napkin out of the front of his shirt, flung it on the table, and flowed to his feet like a long-legged avenger. JD rose more uncertainly at his side, glancing at Chris, then back to Buck. Nathan leaned across the table to pull aside the lace curtain on the window and peer out.

"Looks like there's five or six of them. The loud-mouthed one's in front with the others backing him."

Chris was pushing himself up with a hand on the table.

"Chris, we'll run 'em off." Buck looked at him as Chris gained his feet and faced him across the table. "Just don't worry about it. We'll take care of it same as we did the others."

Chris's eyes narrowed, but Buck was turning away and heading for the door. Ezra rose, cold washing over him as Chris's face hardened. They hadn't told Chris about the other two men who had arrived during the summer hoping to piggyback fame for themselves on Chris's infirmity. Rumors of what had happened to Chris Larabee had spread in the territory and attracted jackals eager to feast on the carcass. Buck and Vin, backed up wholeheartedly by the rest of them, had evicted the other two would-be opponents from town before word could reach Chris.

Damned bad timing, this time around. Or perhaps this fellow had been lingering in the area, watching and waiting for the opportunity to confront Chris directly.

Vin had bent over and retrieved Chris's cane from the floor. He held it out, but when Chris put his hand on it, Vin didn't let go. Fervency roughened Vin's low voice: "Let us handle it, Chris. This ain't nothing to do with you; he's just a blowhard looking for an easy ride."

Chris's jaw was set. He didn't take his hand from the cane and he didn't speak; he just stared at Vin. Vin looked back at him for several seconds, then his face twitched and he nodded and let go of the cane. Chris took it and turned in Ezra's direction to make his way out of the tangle of chairs. Ezra balked for a moment, thinking wildly of refusing to move and making Chris try to dislodge him; or maybe he could pretend to trip and block the way as though by accident. The thoughts passed in a flash; idiocy, to try to hamper Chris. Chris would go over him, if he had to, or through him or by him; he'd go through all of them and anyone else who got in his way once set on his course.

Ezra pushed his chair back from the table, and Josiah's next to it, clearing the way. Chris would go willy-nilly, so best at least to make his passage as easy as possible.

Chris crossed the room in his slow, purposeful way, the tap of his cane on the floorboards acquiring a sonorous quality in the hush. He ignored the other patrons; some were still seated while others had gathered at the windows, but all turned to watch him. The world that had seemed like a verdant dell out of time only minutes before was abruptly again the gray and thorny desert it actually was. Ezra followed Chris, aware of Vin falling into step behind him. Chris bumped the etched glass door open with his shoulder and stepped onto the boardwalk.

"This ain't your fight, mister, it ain't nothing to do with you!" A belligerent voice greeted them as they stepped into the cool evening air.

Twilight was approaching and the street fires had been set. Smoke curled up from the small piles of wood and blended into the graying light. Chris paused behind the bulk of Buck and the others, and Ezra and Vin flanked him. Ezra stayed close to Chris, but leaned so he could look between Nathan and JD into the street. A dirty fellow with a wide red sash tied around his midriff stood with his legs apart and his coat tucked back to display a walnut-gripped revolver Ezra thought might be a Model 3 American. However disreputable his attire, the gun looked well-maintained and the holster and belt were broken-in. Four men stood with him, two with their hands hovering near their guns, two holding rifles, all four of them casting continual looks around the street in between watching Buck and the others.

Ezra straightened as Buck spoke in a carrying voice. "You got one minute to skedaddle and take your boys with you. You get out of town now, and you don't come back, or we will arrest all of you."

"Chris Larabee, you hiding behind your mama's skirts in there? Come out here and face me like a man!" The yell made Ezra's fingers twitch; he forced calm over himself and relaxation into his hands, flexing his fingers to keep them ready. He was aware of Chris's body beside him like a pillar of fire.

Buck took a step forward to the edge of the boardwalk. "I ain't telling you again! You got no business with Chris Larabee--"

"B-Buck." The slurred word was pitched low, but Chris's voice was hard, spoken right behind him, and Buck jumped. His head whipped around, eyes wide and pupils dilated; with fear, Ezra thought hazily, as much as from the dim light.

Buck's voice was also low, but it was urgent and pleading. "Chris, get inside. Let us deal with it." Buck looked at Vin, who gave him a flat look back. Buck shot a glance at Ezra, but immediately shifted his gaze back to Chris. By then, however, the man in the street had glimpsed Chris, distinctive in his black duster, his straight hair pushed back from his forehead but its fairness catching the last of the light.

"Chris Larabee, I'm calling you out! You gonna meet me like a man or skulk in your kennel like a dog?"

Chris moved up beside Buck, who stayed obstinately half-turned toward Chris, but didn't impede him. Tension rolled off all of them like heat waves across the desert. Ezra took a half-step forward to try to keep close to Chris, but Buck was in his way. Vin fared better by simply insinuating himself between Chris and Josiah; Josiah gave way to him and Vin took his place at Chris's right hand. Ezra positioned himself where he could see Chris's face and the activity in the street, but was partly behind Chris and would be able to keep him on his feet if they had to hustle him away.

"I'm Charlie Picketts. I'm waiting on you, Larabee." He took a step forward from his men, set his feet apart, and positioned his hand in the air a few inches from the butt of his gun.

Chris stared down at him evenly for long seconds that spun unease from the air. Nothing in the street stirred, as though the entire town were inside that giant bell jar with sound damped; only a far-off nightjar's calls broke the silence.

Chris was leaning on his cane, held in his left hand, but it was hidden from view behind the long flap of his duster and by Buck's stance close beside and a little in front of him. Chris eventually lifted his right hand in a slow, fluid motion and took hold of the front of his coat. Picketts tensed, his fingers twitching toward his gun before he stilled them. A smile lifted the corner of Chris's mouth as he looked down on his challenger with the serene, amused arrogance he was as famous for as his shootist's ability. Picketts grimaced, but he didn't shift his intent focus from each of Chris's movements.

Chris pulled his duster aside far enough to allow a glimpse of his gunbelt, then paused, his gaze on Picketts still that of a lion toying with its prey. Chris cocked his head and raised his eyes to the sky, darkening in the waning of the brief dusk. Picketts' eyes followed his before snapping back to Chris's; chagrin again crossed Picketts' features.

"Dawn." Chris spoke the simple word with an easy manner that entirely masked from strangers the effort the smooth delivery required.

"No. Dammit, Chris--"

Chris speared Buck with a look that stopped him short. Chris turned back to Picketts and raised his eyebrows.

"Dawn. I'll be here." Picketts presumably meant it to sound threatening. He and his men backed away into the alley behind them and disappeared from sight; the sounds of leather creaking and horses snorting was followed by hoofbeats that quickly dimmed in volume.

"Chris, for God's sake, you didn't need to get involved."

Chris turned and Buck broke off as their eyes met. Chris shook his head, then lifted his hat off his back and settled it on his head. He turned and made his way down the boardwalk.

"Dammit, Chris, you're not meeting him!" Buck kept his voice low, but it throbbed with passion.

"Are we gonna go after 'em? Make sure they don't come back?" JD asked hesitantly.

Chris stopped and pivoted awkwardly on his left foot and the cane to face them, looking as forbidding as he ever had. "N-no."

Chris waited until JD's eyes dropped, Buck looked away, and Nathan and Josiah each gave a terse nod, then turned and continued on his way. Ezra fell in at his side and Vin walked behind Chris. Bystanders melted away at their approach and they moved through empty stillness with a pool of silence spreading at their backs. Chris turned in at the boardinghouse where Ezra had reserved him his usual room. He would have preferred to get Chris a room on the ground floor at one of the hotels, but Chris was stubborn in this matter as in everything else he could manage. Even so, he paused at the bottom of the steep, narrow staircase and took a breath before making his arduous way up it with his weak hand holding the banister. He progressed like a toddler, stepping up, with the cane's support, onto each tread with his left foot and pulling his weak one up. His shadow played on the wall, an elongated, slow-moving giant in the light from the lamp burning on the hall table inside the door.

Ezra stopped at the bottom of the stairs and stepped aside to let Vin pass him. Vin paused to study him. Ezra managed a nod, then turned and went into the adjoining parlor. It was thankfully unoccupied, with not even a light burning. He sank down onto the sofa and put his head back, staring up into the dimness. Vin would help Chris get settled for the night; and Vin would have his say. Buck would be along shortly, and, no doubt, Josiah and Nathan as well, either together or separately. The upcoming hours would see a great deal of talking and wrangling, likely some yelling, possibly some throwing of small objects, and little sleep for any of them.

He hauled himself to his feet and headed for the saloon. He needed several drinks. Even the finest malt wasn't going to ease or even numb what was ahead of them all, but imbibing it would, at the least, help to pass a few hours. As he stepped outside and saw the sun's final glory on the western skyline, fury rose in his throat and stole his breath.

:::::::

Three hours later, when Buck entered the saloon, Ezra was nursing a bottle of Highland rye. He'd sat in on a poker game for an hour, but, while the play wasn't taxing, it proved beyond his abilities to concentrate and he'd excused himself and moved to an empty table. Men avoided his company, but sent long looks his way as they whispered together. Hark to the news of the day: which centered on, yet again, Chris. He could almost hear the wheels turning in the conglomerate of brains that made up the town, calculating odds, wondering if there'd be a show for them to watch from a safe vantage point, speculating on how the other six of them would deal with the matter. Chris hadn't known about the previous challengers who had come looking for him, but everyone else in town did.

Buck's clothes shed the scent of night chill into the smoky room as he passed Ezra's table in a beeline to the bar. Buck downed a shot of whiskey, then the refill the keep gave him before moving away. Buck placed his hands on the bar, widespread to either side of himself in perhaps unconscious delimitation, and leaned on them. His head was down and the wide brim of his plainsman shadowed his face.

Ezra debated with himself, then bowed to the impossibility of evading the issue and joined Buck. He put his bottle down and leaned his back against the bar beside one of Buck's outstretched hands. He scanned the room, noting the way men's eyes kept moving toward them, but slid away from him as soon as he looked at them. Apostates and carrion-eaters, the lot of them.

Buck eventually sighed and pulled his lanky body upright, stepping close enough to him in the process that Ezra could smell his sweat. Buck poured himself a drink from Ezra's bottle, gulped it and set the glass down with a clunk that sounded loud in the unnaturally quiet room. Buck spoke in a low voice without turning around, his eyes still staring down at the bar.

"Josiah, Nathan, and JD couldn't find no sign of that bastard or his men anywhere in town. A couple of people think they might've seen some of 'em in town once or twice the last few days, but they ain't been staying here, far as we can tell. Reckon they just rode in occasionally to keep a lookout till they could get to Chris. Their camp might be anywhere; no point trying to find it in the dark."

Ezra wondered if stating the obvious was Buck's way of trying to make peace with himself about his enforced idleness.

"How's Chris?"

Buck snorted and poured himself another drink. "How do you think? Same as he always is."

Ezra tried to smile, but ended up swallowing instead at a lump.

"Stubborner than ten jackasses and meaner than a mess of rattlers." Buck tipped his head back and threw the shot down his throat. "I've done with my talking; never did do a bit of good trying to change his mind about nothing, anyway. You'd think I'd've learned that lesson by now."

Buck turned and faced him. Feeling his gaze, Ezra met his eyes, noting dispassionately that Buck looked older than usual. The lines on Buck's face had deepened over the past four-and-a-half months, but stress and tiredness tonight seemed to have blotted out the light that usually animated his features.

Buck's velvety voice was a somber murmur pitched for Ezra's hearing alone. "We'll take care of them yahoos in the morning. Should be able to corral 'em when they come into town. If we can just keep Chris out of it long enough, it'll be over before he can get down them stairs by himself."

Ezra looked past the batwing doors into the dark street as coldness spread in his gut. Whatever happened the next day, it would leave more scars on them all; and, Lord knew, on Chris most of all. The resentment Ezra had seethed with toward bitch fate during the first weeks after Chris's seizure spiked once more.

He turned and picked up the bottle, noting with clinical detachment a tremor in his hand as he filled his glass. When he put the bottle down, he didn't touch the glass and he didn't look at Buck. He looked instead down at his fingers as he twisted his ring on his left hand.

"You do realize, Buck, that Chris will not forgive us for interfering."

"Yeah, well, at least he'll be alive to bitch at us." Brittle quiet encased them until Buck added, with an undertone of desperation, "If you've got a better idea, I'm all ears, Ezra."

After a full minute of silence, Buck straightened. "Well, I'm done for tonight." His eyes roamed over the saloon. "I'm gonna find myself a bed and something to do that'll use up a few hours and don't require no thinking."

"Who's with Chris?"

"Nathan, last I saw. Wanted to try what he calls 'reasoned arguments.' Like the old dog ever listened to a reasoned argument in his life." Buck swiped a hand over his face and sighed. "Dammit," he whispered, his hand dropping to curl into a fist on the bar. "Why'd this have to happen today of all days? This was supposed to be a good day for all of us."

Ezra laughed, a thin sound in his own ears that elicited a frown from Buck. Ezra sobered and shook his head with a placatory gesture, not up to delving into the absurdity of expecting either a jot of benevolence from fate or blaming it for its innate capriciousness; or, most astounding of all, believing evil might be easier to accept on one day than any other. That Buck might have retained faith in the possibility of flawless happiness for them--even if that happiness spanned mere hours--struck him as unbearably sad.

"All right." Buck pushed away from the bar. "We'll meet up before dawn." Buck waited until Ezra nodded, then headed across the room in the direction of a bargirl.

Ezra picked up the glass he'd filled. He stared into the amber liquid, shiny as a jewel under the wheel of lights overhead. Chris must be exhausted by now. He had little stamina to draw on, and today had been taxing both physically and emotionally, with the worst, perhaps, being all of them pushing and pulling at him with their wants and needs. Ezra put the glass down, turned on his heel, and left the saloon.

He welcomed the fresh night air on his face as he paused a few steps down the boardwalk, away from the lights of the saloon, to let his eyes adjust. He looked up at the stars, aglow with a chill beauty remote from the shambles of earthly emotion and sensation. He flicked his eyes away, feeling an intolerant anger, and kept them fixed on his path as he walked to the boardinghouse.

Vin was sitting at the bottom of the narrow staircase facing the door when Ezra entered. The house was lit still by only the one lamp on the hallway table and the building was quiet, without the murmur of voices or even creaks to indicate presence. Ezra shut the door and stood with his back to it, looking across the small foyer at Vin, who looked up at him. Vin was holding his hat between his hands, his arms resting on the knees of his wide-set legs, turning the hat round and round with a restlessness unlike himself. His hair lay in limp spirals on his buckskin-clad shoulders and his eyes looked bruised in the diffuse light. Ezra blinked his gaze away from them, glancing into the dark parlor and along the corridor to the kitchen at the back of the house.

"Mrs. Beeton ain't here; she's gone to stay the night with some friends. Josiah told her there wouldn't be no shooting in her house, but--" Vin shrugged as he kept turning his hat "--I reckon she feels safer spending the night somewheres else. Buck and Chris were going at it pretty loud earlier."

Ezra licked his dry lips. "Is Nathan still with Chris?"

Vin shook his head. "JD's the only one here and he's in his room. Josiah and Nathan done had their say at Chris, and Buck said he's finished for the night. I don't reckon he's planning on coming back. JD, he didn't even bother trying to talk to Chris; just said he was going to bed and went on up."

They might all go to bed this night, but it was doubtful any of them would sleep.

"Figure we ain't got no choice but to deal with it tomorrow without Chris." Vin looked up at him squarely.

He nodded. "I saw Buck. We meet before sunup."

Vin shook his hair back and donned his hat. When he stood and walked toward the door, his movements were stiff, as though his muscles or his back ached. When Ezra didn't step aside for him, Vin stopped and tilted his head. Up close, Vin's face looked like it was carved of weathered maple, pale and hard and pitted, the stubble on his angular jaw spiky golden in the lamplight. Ezra lowered his eyes and stepped aside.

Vin reached for the doorknob, but his fingers slid off the porcelain handle without turning it and his hand fell to his side. He stared out the door's lace-curtained window into the inky darkness. It was doubtful he could distinguish much in the street, or, if he could, that there'd be anything worth looking at. Ezra waited. He resented the palpable waves of desolation and worry that rolled off Vin and touched his own emotions like flash paper, throwing them into relief. He had enough damned feelings of his own to handle; he didn't need them compounded five times over. He didn't want to think of anything but what he wanted and what he needed right this minute.

But Vin rarely asked for anything; and he wouldn't ask outright, not about this. That Vin might be asking now was a scream along his nerves that knew how Vin felt. The claims each of them had on Chris sometimes overlapped, but they took care to respect each other's places. Josiah had wanted to be with Chris last night for a long visit rather than a snatched one, and that was before matters escalated. Tonight there was a tangle of wants and needs, his and Vin's and Chris's, and no clear way to sort them from each other. He didn't want to think about Vin's need maybe equaling his own, didn't want to care, but with Vin's bleak profile like a mirror in front of him....

Dammit.

"Did you--" His throat closed up. He cleared it, kept his eyes on Vin's set profile. "Did you want to stay with him tonight?"

His heart pounded as Vin didn't move a muscle or answer for an interval that seemed long. When Vin finally spoke, still staring out the window, his husky voice was a murmur, as though he were speaking to himself.

"I reckon he's more used to you being there."

Relief and gratitude weakened his knees as Vin slanted an oblique glance in his direction, then opened the door and strode out, pulling the door shut behind himself. The tread of his boots on the boardwalk and the clink of his spurs faded as he moved rapidly away. In moments, Ezra could hear nothing but stillness. He looked up the stairs to the dark hall above. He wondered if Vin would return later to use the room the town paid for his use here as part of his wages, or if he'd find whatever rest he could elsewhere; but it didn't matter.

He took the lamp and went upstairs. All four doors along the short hall were shut. He passed Vin's and JD's rooms, opposite each other, and stopped outside Chris's, next to Vin's. He didn't knock in case Chris was sleeping; just turned the handle and went inside.

Chris was lying in bed with his left arm across his eyes. Not asleep, then. Ezra shut the door and put the lamp on the dresser. He dropped his hat next to it and turned around to find Chris's eyes on him, watching him from under his arm. Ezra moved to the bed as though pulled by an invisible line. He touched Chris's hand where it lay palm up against his temple. Chris didn't move, just watched him.

Too many of them in here talking at Chris, one after another, and no point to it in the first place. Shouldn't love lead to knowledge? Shouldn't such love as each of them felt for Chris invest them with some understanding of what to do, how to proceed, what was best? The exhaustion in Chris's face rattled him. What point in saving Chris's life if they managed to chivy him into another seizure while doing it?

He laced his fingers with Chris's; not forcing anything, just offering.

"What do you need?"

Chris gripped his hand and pushed himself up in the bed with his other hand. Ezra leaned over and got an arm under him, catching him just before his weak arm gave out, and helped him to sit up. Ezra pulled the pillow up against the iron bedstead and Chris leaned back against it. Chris nodded and let go of his hand, but Ezra retained it long enough to bring it to his lips. Chris closed his fingers in a gentle squeeze and Ezra released him; Chris ran his freed hand over his head, pushing back his hair. He was naked from the waist up. Ezra did a quick survey and couldn't see any new bruises, so at least whatever shouting and stomping about had happened earlier hadn't resulted in any damaging falls.

He pulled off his coat and hung it in the closet. He turned around and unbuckled his gunbelt, watching the ripple of Chris's chest muscles as he reached for the glass of water on the bedside table. Chris was skinnier than he'd been before the seizure, but the sight of him still drew Ezra with a powerful desire to touch. He dropped his gunbelt on the dresser and went back to the bed, reaching toward Chris's arm, his shoulder, his cheek....

Chris caught his wrist in midair and tugged, nodding to the bed beside him. Ezra sat and pulled off his boots, then swung his legs up and settled himself against the headboard. He could feel the warmth of Chris's shoulder against his where they touched. Chris took his hand and held it between both of his, the weak one cupping it on the bottom, the fingers of the other stroking Ezra's palm. Ezra watched Chris's hand, mesmerized by its rough-hewn beauty, and a twinge of mingled pleasure and loss shivered through him as he felt its retained strength. Chris's thumb moved under the cuff of his sleeve to caress the inside of his wrist and Ezra tore his eyes away to look at Chris's face.

To find Chris watching him with a somber, steady regard that made his back prickle with goose flesh. For a craven moment, he wished he'd blown out the lamp and mantled them in darkness, then he pushed the futile desire for avoidance aside with his multitudinous other impossible wishes. Even so, it was seconds before he managed to make his voice work, and it came out a wisp of sound.

"What do you need, Chris?"

A sliver of his mind thought the way Chris's face collapsed and his eyes closed must be similar to the look Vin would have seen on his face downstairs. He and Chris were alike in so little on the surface, yet curiously alike in unexpected ways under the skin.

And for all the hurt and all the pain, he judged his connection with Chris the primary grace life had rendered him, or was ever likely to.

Chris opened his eyes. His mouth moved silently. Ezra waited, giving Chris time to find in his brain the words he needed and to force his mouth to form them. He wasn't in any hurry to hear; if it took Chris all night, the next day, and months to come, it would be an unlooked-for blessing he'd fiercely accept.

But blessings, of course, were no more in the cards this night than they'd been for the past four months.

Chris's face was as stark as the word he uttered with harsh clarity: "Gun."

Words momentarily failed Ezra. He looked at Chris's implacable expression, saw the mulish determination, as Buck would term it, unequivocal in every line on Chris's face. But, despite himself, he couldn't help but also see the desperation lurking beneath Chris's resolute exterior.

"Chris," he whispered. He drew a hard breath past the constriction in his throat. "Chris, you can't possibly fight that man. You know it can't-- You know you don't have the strength or the speed to match him." He studied the unyielding lines of the face that was the most beloved to him in the world and steeled himself as he met Chris's demanding gaze. His voice was a croak, as though he shared Chris's affliction with language: "Chris, you can't win."

"Ez...zra."

Chris loosened his fingers and put his hand to Ezra's nape, pulling his head down gently until his face rested against Chris's throat. The pulse in the side of Chris's neck vibrated against his cheek.

Chris pronounced each word he spoke with the care a man gives to a task on which his life depends: "Don't...w-want--" he paused and took several rasping breaths "--die...in b-bed."

And there it was, what he'd dreaded for weeks given substance at last: the quintessence of Chris Larabee bound into words so its truth couldn't be denied or ignored any longer. He wrapped an arm around Chris's neck and banded the other across Chris's back, clinging to Chris's thin, hard body with a neediness he knew was as much a burden on Chris as Buck's love and Vin's and the others'.

Chris held him while he got his breathing under control as though nothing mattered except Ezra's need.

He kissed the hollow at the base of Chris's throat as he pulled back. Chris let his arm fall away and looked at him with the same unwavering regard. A hammer dropped down on another sore spot inside him with the stinging reminder of Chris's dependency. Chris, as he always had, knew what he wanted and what he needed, but he was no longer able to act alone. All Ezra had to do to stop Chris was to say no, as each of the others, each in his own way, had said no.

No, we won't lose you. No, we won't let you go. No, we won't stop hoping you'll get better. No, you can't ask this of us.

"Chris."

No, I can't bear to think of life without you.

And still Chris looked at him, and waited. Chris was leaning back against the pillow, his exhaustion apparent. His right arm and leg were limp, almost useless appendages and the right corner of his mouth and right eye drooped from paralysis. His chest, scarred with trophies from victories past, was a pale and flimsy shield for the indomitable spirit within.

Ezra dropped his head. He swung his legs off the bed and stood up, aware of Chris's eyes following him. Ezra blinked his own eyes clear as he looked around the small room. Chris's gunbelt always hung over the bedpost, but it wasn't there. It wasn't on the bedside table or on top of the dresser; only his own gun lay there. He scanned the floor, into the corners, the lone chair and the hooks on the wall. He'd have seen it in the closet if it were hanging there.

"Where is it?"

Chris licked his lips and visibly summoned energy. "B-buh--"

"Buck took it?"

Chris nodded.

"Buck is sleeping elsewhere. He probably won't be back until morning and I can't see him taking--" He frowned as he thought back to seeing Buck in the saloon. "He didn't have it with him."

He cursed his muddled thoughts. Of course Buck wouldn't go trailing around town with Chris's gunbelt over his shoulder, which meant it was likely stashed in Buck's room.

He didn't put his boots on. The hall was as quiet as it had been earlier. He paused to listen, but heard nothing from JD's room. He curved his hand around the lamp's chimney to shield the light so JD, if he were awake, wouldn't see it under his door and investigate, then blocked it with his body as he picked the lock on Buck's door, opposite Chris's room. Inside, he pushed the door to without letting the latch click home and put the lamp on the dresser next to Chris's gunbelt. He picked up the heavy leather belt in both hands and turned it so the conchas caught the light. The thick black leather of the belt itself was supple from years of wear and the oil Chris worked into it regularly, but the holster was new. When it became clear Chris was going to go on wearing his gun and use it if necessary, Vin had gotten a left-hand holster made and exchanged it for the right-hand one Chris had used, intending Chris to have as much advantage as possible. The holster matched the old one and the belt, and Chris had worked the stiffness out of the new leather with the doggedness he applied to everything he did, but it lacked the patina of age.

He ran his thumb over the mark on the Colt's bone grip. Chris Larabee's gun. He pulled it out and hefted it on his palm, watching the glint of light on the long barrel. Without warning, his hand shook. He slid the Colt back into the holster and leaned his hand against the top of the dresser, bent over it, trying to calm his racing heart and hitching breath.

Chris had taught himself to shoot left-handed years ago when he'd first strapped on a gun; only a fool or a crazy man would take up gunfighting as a living without being able to protect himself if his stronger hand were put out of commission. Chris did just that when he took a bullet in his right arm and switched his gun to his left while guarding young Billy Travis from Frank Elliott and his men four years ago, when they were new to their peacekeeping roles. Chris had proven his prowess with his left hand innumerable times over the years since coming to Four Corners, and in the years before which had given rise to his reputation.

Since moving out to his shack in the summer after the initial seizure, he'd practiced shooting as he had riding, making himself work around his disabilities. He was still an accurate shot, superior to ordinary men, even with his left hand; not as good as he'd been, but adequate to give him a chance of defending himself if the need arose. The rest of them had tacitly taken it as their jobs to make sure the need never arose.

But while Chris could shoot, he couldn't withstand the recoil. He performed admirably, by any standard, if he could shoot from a chair--for all the practical use that was. In an hypothetical situation in which he could shoot, perhaps, from a wagon bed, he might well offer a good defense of himself. He might even manage if he could prop himself against a wall or fence, or, better yet, could wedge into a corner or small space; he might similarly have a chance if he were lying on the ground behind some cover. In an actual fight, however, the chances of his being able to get to an advantageous spot from which to shoot weren't odds Ezra would ever accept.

And that wasn't the situation looming here. On his feet to face an opponent, Chris had little balance without his cane to lean on, but the cane was useless in his right hand. Without the cane, all his weight had to be on his left leg, skewing his center of balance. Drawing his gun, particularly at speed, made him, at best, sway; at worst, stagger. He'd taken countless falls into the dirt while trying to discover a way to compensate for his right-side weakness that would allow him to draw and shoot with controlled accuracy.

Chris practiced still, almost daily, and still fell with unnerving frequency.

On the instances when he managed to keep his balance while drawing and shooting, so his shot reached his target with a modicum of accuracy, he invariably staggered with the recoil. He ended up every time in the dirt, down on a knee or on both knees or flat on his ass.

Ezra pushed himself upright, holding the gunbelt, awkward and large and heavy, bundled against his chest. He knew why Buck took it from Chris, knew why Buck left it in his room, close to Chris but out of his reach. Chris might have suspected it was there and could have tried to break the lock or the door itself; he might even, with enough time, have succeeded: but time to accomplish what had once been second-nature was one of the myriad things Chris no longer possessed. He wouldn't have time during a melee to find a position that gave him a chance to defend himself. He wouldn't have had time to assault Buck's door before one of his friends heard and came and stopped him. Chris would know they wouldn't leave him alone tonight, that somebody would be within earshot, within reach. To guard him, to protect him. To keep him safe.

Pain like a thorn pierced him at the thought of Chris having lain in his bed yet one more time suffused with the bitter knowledge of his helplessness. It hurt almost more than anything else knowing Chris wasn't able to do even this simple task for himself, and that Chris knew it and lived with this truth every hour of every day.

A concha on the belt dug into his palm and the Colt was pressing against his heart. A passionate desire to drop it down the privy rather than take it to Chris swept over him with devastating force and stole his breath. He understood why Buck locked the gun away and why Vin didn't intervene, nor Nathan nor Josiah. He understood why JD hadn't even been able to face Chris tonight.

He'd never thought it was possible to love somebody too much until he met Chris.

He blew out the lamp to return to Chris's room, not needing its light to shut Buck's door and slip through Chris's, his bootless feet silent on the hall floor. Chris was still sitting upright with the blankets around his waist, but his eyes were closed. When Ezra turned from relighting the lamp, he found Chris staring at him with the blank, half-focused look he always had upon waking until his damaged brain sorted out what was happening.

Ezra flinched, looking down at the gunbelt hanging over his arm. He pulled the Colt and sat on the bed facing Chris and checked the gun with meticulous care, aware of Chris's sharpening gaze. The gun was clean, oiled, and loaded. He nodded to Chris and held it out on his palm, feeling its cold weight like a stone crushing his chest. Chris took it and checked it himself, a much slower task done mostly one-handed, and nodded to him when he was finished and held it out. Ezra fit it into the holster and hung the belt over the bedpost.

He stood beside the bed swamped with memories of three years of closeness that began as casual mutual easing of each other's needs and grew in force and directions it was never meant to go until he'd accepted his place in the world was with Chris Larabee. Nothing he'd done in his life had ever felt as right as all the different ways he lived with Chris: from fighting mutual enemies beside him to struggling to help as Chris dealt with the private demons of his past to sharing laughter, anger, impatience, desire. And touch, as often as possible.

He shed his clothes and helped Chris lie down flat in the bed, pummeling the pillow into shape and placing it under Chris's head. He blew out the lamp and climbed into bed and turned to gather Chris to him in the dark, only to be pulled close himself instead by a strong hand. Chris curved his left arm under Ezra's shoulders and held the back of his neck and found his mouth in the dark. For a long, sweet interval, it was as though the clock had been turned back five months and nothing in the world mattered except his tongue moving against Chris's and Chris's warm hand splayed against his back.

Chris fell asleep and Ezra held him through all the hours of the night and listened to him breathe.

:::::::

He extricated himself from Chris while it was still full dark, a half an hour or so before the eastern horizon would show the approach of day. He took care of his morning needs and dressed by feel, not lighting the lamp to show like a beacon around the edges of the window shades or under the bottom of the door, and his mind raced as he pulled on clothes and fastened buttons. He couldn't see Chris, but he could feel his silence. He wanted nothing more but to sneak away and hope Chris was asleep and wouldn't wake up in time and wouldn't be able to manage on his own; to join the others and corral Charlie Picketts and run him out of town; to pretend they could go on from this point as though yesterday had never happened. For a few seconds, he almost convinced himself he'd be able to meet Chris's eyes when it was over.

He drew a shuddery breath and turned and stood over the bed. He could see the gleam of Chris's eyes in the dark. Without speaking, he lifted the covers off Chris and reached his hands to help him up. In dark and silence, he helped Chris into his clothes and sat him on the bed. As the first grays of dawn lightened the room, he knelt on the floor and drew Chris's worn black boots into his hands. He fingered the dusty, creased surfaces, waiting, his head cocked toward the door.

Chris ran a hand over his hair and rested his palm against his cheek. Ezra closed his eyes and leaned into the touch and they stayed like that until the sounds Ezra was waiting for came: the opening of JD's door and his muted footsteps into the hallway. The steps paused after JD's door softly closed; Ezra could feel Chris's tension through the hand on his face. Then JD moved to the stairs and they could hear his carefully quiet descent. Straining, Ezra heard the front door open and as quietly shut.

Neither Vin nor Buck had returned during the long night. He doubted Vin had gone to bed at all, and he hadn't expected Buck to return. None of them would come here now; they'd take no chance of waking Chris, of having to deal with him. Chris wasn't to be a part of what they had to do.

He put Chris's boots onto his feet, pushing them into place with brisk care and no worry now about the clink of the spurs being heard, and pulled Chris's pants down over them. Chris's hand slid to his shoulder and stayed there as Ezra stood; he took Chris's arm and got him upright. He helped him to the pot in the corner and stood behind him, hands on Chris's hips to steady him as Chris unbuttoned his fly one-handed and pulled out his cock to piss. Ezra laid his cheek against the hard plane of Chris's shoulder blade and listened to the homey sound of the liquid hitting the enameled pot.

He closed his eyes and let Chris's familiarity flood each of his senses.

It was still dusky, but the twilight was waning when they left Chris's room and exited the door at the end of the upstairs hall to the outside stairs at the back of the building.

"Outhouse?" he murmured, when they paused at the bottom of the stairs for Chris to catch his breath.

Chris shook his head, so Ezra left him leaning on the wall and went up the nearest alley to check the main street. The light was sufficient for him to spot Nathan and JD hovering near Watson's Hardware halfway down, next to the alley Picketts had emerged from last time. The others weren't in sight, but he knew they'd be in the vicinity, waiting for Picketts to arrive so they could force him out of town--or do whatever was necessary to stop him.

He returned to Chris and they moved, at Chris's slow pace, south behind the buildings to the alley nearest the restaurant. Picketts would expect to meet Chris in this general area; all he and Chris could do was wait. If Picketts had any brains at all, he wouldn't come into town by the route he'd used last time, but since Vin, Buck and the others far outmatched the intelligence of Picketts and his ilk, chances were good the man would be caught before he made his appearance.

He slipped his hand into Chris's right one, hungry for touch. Chris's fingers closed on his, warm despite the dawn chill. Chris's right hand, like that entire side of his body, had dulled sensation and was weak with the apoplexy, but Chris held him as firmly as he was able. Ezra squeezed and felt Chris's return pressure and allowed himself to hope, fiercely, selfishly, that Buck and Vin and the others would find Picketts before Picketts made it this far.

He had barely five minutes of holding onto Chris before he heard the sounds of horses galloping into town from the south. Chris tensed and pulled away from him. He followed Chris to the mouth of the alley intersecting the main street and saw Picketts and his men pull up in front of the restaurant, two buildings down from where they stood. All five men rode in with gun or rifle in hand. They settled in a loose cluster from which they could cover much of the street and ward each other's backs. Picketts, the red sash around his midriff lurid as a courtesan's painted mouth, didn't dismount, but positioned himself facing the restaurant.

Chris started to go into the street, but Ezra grabbed his arm, suddenly awash with panic. Chris glanced back at him, then pivoted around to face him fully. Chris leaned his weight on his left foot, tucked his cane under his arm, and took Ezra's face between both his hands. Ezra stared at him helplessly. He wanted to beg Chris not to go into the street, not to meet Picketts: but how could he plead for his own life when it would mean condemning Chris?

Buck's voice sounded from the boardwalk in front of the restaurant, around the corner from them. "You ain't meeting Larabee, Picketts. You and your boys just turn around and ride out now and there won't be no trouble."

Chris's left thumb stroked his cheek, rough pad and silken touch the embodiment of Chris. Ezra closed his hands around Chris's wrists. The only warmth in the world was Chris's hands cupping his face.

Picketts said, "I heard me a gutful about the great Chris Larabee, but I ain't never heard he was a lowdown, stinking coward." He shouted, "You hear me, Chris Larabee? I'm waiting on you! Call your dog off and come out and face me like a man!"

Chris, patient and calm, ignored Picketts and continued to watch Ezra, his head tilted. Ezra tried to swallow his misery, not letting go of Chris's eyes, not wanting to let go of Chris at all, but he managed to nod while he pried his fingers from around Chris's wrists and dropped his hands to his sides. Chris's mouth worked, but he didn't speak. As though at a great remove, Ezra heard Buck say something, but the words were indistinguishable. Chris leaned forward and, for moments, his lips pressed on Ezra's, brusque and soft at once, then Chris pulled back and let go of him and cold rushed into his veins. Chris's eyes roamed over his face, the Adam's apple moving in Chris's pale throat above his dark shirt. Then Chris gave a curt nod of his own, lifted his hat from where it was hanging down his back on the stampede string, and placed it on his head. He took the cane in his left hand, arranged his weight and balance, and turned away.

Picketts was the first to see Chris, his attention snapping to him as soon as Chris emerged from the alley. Picketts dismounted; with his eyes pinned on Chris, he handed off his reins to one of his men and stepped into the middle of the street.

"Chris!"

From the corner of his eye, Ezra saw Buck start down the steps from the boardwalk. Chris paused in his measured advance to send him a sharp, uncompromising look that halted Buck in his tracks. Buck stepped back up to the boardwalk while Chris continued his walk into the street.

"Dammit, dammit, fucking goddamned...." Buck strode to Ezra's side. "How the hell could you let him do this? What the fuck is the matter with you?" His voice was raw with anguish and fear and his eyes never swerved from Chris.

Movement across the street drew Ezra's eyes from Chris up to the roof of the saloon opposite. Vin, rifle in hand, was rising to his feet, an appalled look on his face evident even at a distance. For a searing instant, Vin's eyes meshed with his, then Ezra blinked his gaze back to Chris, who was turning to face Picketts with the same deliberation he'd displayed while walking.

JD ran up the alley behind them and skidded to a stop, gasping in an urgent, scared whisper, "What do we do?"

"Nothing we can do now." The grimness in Buck's voice matched the crawling in Ezra's stomach.

"Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God."

JD's frantic, low-voiced litany faded in Ezra's awareness as he watched Chris subtly shift his weight to his left foot and adjust his balance. Chris canted his right hip and dropped the cane to the ground with an offhand air as though it were a mere affectation. Chris swept his duster behind his holster. Picketts stood alone facing him, his men and the horses strung behind him at the side of the street. Ezra spared a glance upward and saw Vin was down on one knee on the roof, sighting down his rifle.

Chris had positioned himself a few degrees east of the center of the street with his back to the rising sun. The low rays slanting between the buildings hit Picketts in the face. Chris had a lupine look, half-smile, half-snarl, as Picketts registered the disadvantage he'd been placed at.

Ezra allowed himself a tendril of hope Picketts would back down as the man studied Chris with more attentiveness than he'd previously shown. Picketts was a poltroon, a scavenger that stalked wounded prey, and such creatures had no backbones. If he thought Chris wouldn't be the easy kill he'd expected, he might--

Picketts squared his shoulders, pulled his hat down to shade his eyes, and faced Chris with his hand curled near his gun. JD had fallen silent and the bell jar seemed to descend again, freezing them in stasis.

The tableau shattered as Picketts went for his gun. Chris cleared leather and got off the first shot, hitting Picketts in his right side. Picketts went down, but Chris staggered with his gun's recoil, tottering for balance. The momentum and the weight of the gun dragged Chris's arm down even as he fought to bring it to bear again on Picketts.

Picketts shot from the ground. The first bullet took Chris's weak leg out from under him, blood fountaining into the dust, even as the leg was already buckling. The second bullet thudded into Chris's chest. The third bullet missed, but wasn't needed. Chris fell in a sprawl on his side, his duster spread over him like an untidy black shroud. The Colt in his nerveless hand shone like silver in a patch of sunlight.

Sound and air rushed in to fill the vacuum as Ezra gasped a breath that felt like ground glass and dropped his hand from the butt of his gun. A cacophony of men shouting, horses snorting, and feet pounding was on the periphery of his awareness as Buck and JD raced past him into the street. With a preternatural clarity to his vision, he saw Josiah and Nathan run to join them, watched Nathan drop down beside Chris as the other three formed a wall in front of Chris and Nathan, facing Picketts. He heard at a remove Buck ordering Picketts to get on his horse and leave, his wound be damned. His eyes fixed on the crumpled figure in the dust, Ezra supposed Picketts and his men must have obeyed when Buck and the others relaxed their protective stances and turned to gather around Chris.

As Buck approached, Nathan rose, rubbing his hands on his pants. He gave way to Buck and went to stand shoulder to shoulder with Josiah. Vin joined them, striding out of the alley beside the saloon with his rifle in hand. JD gave way at Chris's head and Vin dropped to his knees. Townsfolk crept out of their homes to look their fill at an event that would be talked about far beyond Four Corners, but they kept a wary distance.

Vin and Buck knelt on either side of Chris; sentinels still. Vin's head was bowed and his hat and long hair obscured his face. He'd dropped his rifle in the dirt, but he was clutching Chris's cane. His other hand, resting on Chris's chest, was lost in the dark folds of duster and shirt. Buck's hat was thrown on the ground and his face was open for all to see. He held Chris's hand between both of his own large ones and his cheeks were wet.

Vin and Buck and the others would take care of Chris. They'd sit vigil until he was buried, watching his back as they'd done for years. They'd provide a grave marker so Chris wouldn't lie in the stony ground forgotten. Or maybe Buck would want to take Chris to Eagle Bend and bury him beside his wife and boy, completing the circle of Chris's life. Whatever they decided, it would be right, just as they'd know, deep down, Chris's choice had been right for him if never for any of them.

Vin and Buck would take care of Charlie Picketts, too, one day, when they'd done everything here they needed to for Chris. He knew it as he knew his own name. If Picketts survived Chris's bullet, they'd make sure he didn't ride to notoriety on Chris's coattails. Or perhaps he'd take care of Picketts sometime himself, if he reached Picketts before they did: but not here and not today.

Ezra turned his blurred vision upwards to a smooth canopy marred only by a few wispy cirrus horsetails the sun would soon burn away. It was going to be a beautiful day. It would take him less than an hour to pack the essentials he needed for travel and he could be on the trail; the rest of what he had left was dispensable.

Today was a good day for moving on.