Vine '05: Necessity

Ezra focused on reloading. He kept his actions smooth and unhurried, studiously ignoring the shots being fired in his direction. He could hear lead hitting the wall only a few feet away from where he stood.

Improving aim landed the last shot only inches away. Small splinters harmlessly peppered the skin of his hands and face. Ezra ignored those too.

He felt a hand grab his arm, pulling him to the left and off balance. The action no doubt saved his life as the next shot landed where he'd just been. That shot would have done serious damage to him, possibly killing him outright.

Ezra recovered his balance and raised his Remington. He sighted in on his target and fired once, smiling savagely when he heard a cry of pain. Knowing he had a moment to free to breathe and take stock of his surroundings Ezra nodded to his companion.

"Thank you, Buck."

"Any time, Ez."

Buck leaned against the building, and it was probably the only thing keeping him upright at the moment. Dark red blood contrasted sharply with the faded blue of his shirt, a slowly spreading stain that now covered most of his right shoulder. The injury had forced Ezra to move from his own better fortified position to this one, covering Buck while he struggled to regain his feet and his senses.

"Wish to hell I could reload with one hand." Buck commented, blue eyes scanning the area, as he awkwardly took the reloaded colt Ezra offered him with his left hand.

"It is certainly a skill worth acquiring." Ezra's eyes narrowed as he watched for movement. "Being able to hit what you aim at with your left hand would definitely be another."

Buck snorted, a faint smile lurking beneath his mustache. "Well, I'm sure getting a chance to practice, now ain't I?"

Ezra grinned at him, gold pre-molar flashing in the sun. "More's the pity." He patted Buck's arm. "You ready to move?"

"I got a choice?" Buck asked even as he shifted in preparation to find somewhere safer.

"Not really." Ezra popped off a shot to remind the only assailant he could see that keeping his head down was a wise course of action.

He couldn't understand what made these miscreants think there was enough money in the bank that would be worth dying for. Did they not realize that the money in a lending institution simply reflected the wealth of the population which supported it? Probably not, he decided with a scowl, moving closer to help Buck as they worked their way around to the back side of the building.

He sighed softly, eyes still warily searching for more of their would be thieves. If they'd had any sense they would have noticed that most of the people of Four Corners didn't have a pot to piss in, so the bank couldn't have much more than that either. No, the real money to be had in this town was brought in the by the transients; the dreamers and schemers who invariably end up losing much of their wealth at Ezra's table in the saloon or fooling it way in Miss Lydia's whore house.

Ezra heard the distinctive bark of Vin's mare's leg. From the direction and volume, he figured Vin was close by. He grimaced knowing that if Vin was using the sawed off then he had to be near his target. Ezra would have preferred his lover was out of the melee far enough to make a rifle the only practical option, and he was fairly certain Vin felt the same way about him. But it couldn't be helped.

Ezra ducked as another shot slammed into the building close enough for him to feel the heat of its passing. He cursed quietly, shoving Buck through the door some resident had unwittingly left open in his or her haste to flee. Buck stumbled, unable to keep his footing, falling to the dusty floor.

"Damn, Ez." Buck panted, his face a grimace of pain as he clutched his wounded shoulder. "You could have warned me."

"My apologies." Ezra quietly closed the door, before moving past his fallen companion to check the window facing the street. "Necessity is seldom gentle."

The street was understandably deserted, except for the corpse of one desperado who died in the opening seconds of the conflict. Ezra made his way back to Buck. He pulled a silk handkerchief from his pocket, gently removing Buck's hand to work it in under his shirt and pressed it firmly against the bleeding wound.

Buck hissed. "That smarts."

Ezra winced in empathy. He was sure it hurt like hell. But there was nothing to be done. He pulled Buck's hand up to hold the makeshift bandage in place and then removed his flask from the inner pocket of his jacket.

"Would you care for a libation?"

"Hell, yes."

Ezra unscrewed the top and tipped it so Buck could drink. He allowed Buck to take several deep swallows before he pulled it away. Green eyes met blue.

"You ready?'

Buck took a deep breath and nodded once before he removed his hand, long fingers curling into a fist around silk now scarlet in color. Ezra poured the remainder of his scotch into the injury.

Buck's back arched, the tendons in his neck stood out in harsh relief as he reacted to the burn the scotch created as it touched raw flesh. It was a sensation Ezra knew firsthand. He wasn't surprised when Buck's eyes rolled back in their sockets as he lost the battle to stay conscious. Ezra replaced the handkerchief and with one quick jerk deftly tore the right sleeve from Buck's shirt.

Ezra knew his friend wouldn't be overly upset. The shirt was ruined anyway. No way to remove the blood stain and stitching the bullet hole would be lost cause. He looped the sleeve around Buck's shoulder and under his arm, tying it tightly in place.

He looked up when he heard more gunfire. Ezra grimaced. It was unrealistic to hope his companions had dispatched their foes while he had focused on aiding Buck, but he had hoped just the same.

He put both hands under Buck's arms and dragged him closer to the wall, grunting with the effort. He left the colt nearby, ready for Buck to use if he should come to before Ezra made it back. The sooner the miscreants were dispatched the sooner Nathan could turn his attention to medical matters.

Ezra swiftly checked the status of his own personal arsenal again before once more making his way to the front of the building. He eyed the street seeking both his compatriots and adversaries alike. The gunfire seemed to be centered around the bank, hardly surprising given it was apparently the original focus of the attack.

Their mistake had been thinking it was the exclusive focus and that the only bandits in town were the ones they'd seen in the street. It had been a greenhorn mistake and Ezra didn't want it to end up being one they didn't live long enough to learn from.

He cursed Jock Steele and his stupid dime novel. Maintaining law and order was hard enough without having every group in the territory now seeing Four Corners as some sort of proving ground. This merry little band had apparently recruited enough members to make taking on the seven peacekeepers seem like a viable option.

Proving them wrong wasn't just a job requirement, it was a necessity. Ezra had no illusions about how they would fare if they didn't. He wasn't dying in this dusty little excuse for a town, and neither were any of his friends. It was decided. Now it was just a matter of making sure things turned out that way.

He shot one more look at Buck before squaring his shoulders and opening the door. He hugged the wall as he made his way down the street. Ezra made it the length of the boardwalk without incident. He slipped into the shadowed alley, welcoming the cooling shade even as he hated the momentary loss of clear vision. He listened intently for any sound of movement, waiting for his eyes to adjust.

Relieved to find the space unoccupied, Ezra quickly traversed the length of the alley. He cautiously peeked around the corner of the building, crouching to give himself a lower profile. He let out a breath in a soft huff when he spotted JD. The young sheriff had lost his hat at some point during the fray but looked otherwise unharmed.

Ezra pursed his lips and whistled softly, getting JD's attention. JD grinned, clearly delighted to see him. The younger man impulsively moved in his direction, exposing himself in the process. Ezra raised his gun and fired at the bandit who'd likely been waiting for JD to foolishly move into his line of sight.

JD ducked reflexively, raising both colts to track the target Ezra had fired at. Ezra's shot had missed, but JD's position gave him a better vantage. He fired twice, neatly taking out the other man.

By Ezra's count that was at least three down. He had no idea how many the others might have already dealt with nor was he certain how many there were to start with. This group was easily the strongest and smartest they'd had to tackle since the Nichols clan had come to town.

Ezra sprinted to JD, staying close to the building. He didn't want the younger man to risk exposing himself again. Buck would never forgive him if he let JD get his fool head blown off. "Hey, Ez."

"JD." Ezra nodded to him, eyes continuing to warily scan the area. "The others?"

"Chris and Josiah are covering the bank." JD pointed up the street toward the grange building. "Last saw Nate there." He shrugged one shoulder. "No idea where Vin's at."

Ezra clenched his jaw against snapping at JD for his casual relay of that last detail. It wasn't JD's fault he'd lost track of Vin or that he had so much confidence in the tracker's ability to take care of himself. Ezra didn't think JD had fully realized even now after working together for more than a year that they were all fallible and decidedly mortal.

"Where's Buck?"

"A few doors down." Ezra answered, not bothering to tell JD that his mentor was wounded. It wouldn't do any good now, not when JD's attention needed to be focused on keeping himself safe. And Buck had already gotten the best care either of them could provide until Nathan was freed from this melee.

"How many of them are there?"

"I have no idea." Ezra hated admitting his ignorance but he would not lie to JD directly.

"Doesn't matter, I guess." JD sighed, dark eyes hardening. "Long as we get them all."

"Quite." Ezra nodded grimly. "Let us see about aiding Chris and Josiah." So far the bank was the only centralized target, and had been receiving the most attention from the opposition. Once the core was dispatched they could work on systematically removing any other vermin in the town of Four Corners.

Regrouping the peacekeepers was the first order of business. It was the only way to create an effective counter attack instead of continuing this haphazard defensive action. Ezra hoped to find Vin, healthy and whole, along the way. He didn't bother praying; prayer should be reserved for truly hopeless situations, and this one wasn't that bad yet.

Together he and JD made their way cautiously toward the bank. Spotting Chris near Bucklin's store, Ezra studied the open space between them. He bit his bottom lip. It was too exposed for his comfort. He ignored JD's nervous fidgeting as he considered their options.


Ezra held up a hand to silence JD. He mentally calculated distances and odds. He really wished he had the means of increasing their firepower. Pity. Ezra didn't even have the fixings for a good Molotov cocktail, and he rather doubted the good citizens would care to have their town damaged any more than it already was.

So far the bandits hadn't gotten into the bank. And as time wore on they would no doubt give into their frustrations and do something rash or they would abandon their objective. He didn't really expect them to exercise the latter option. The best alternative was to find a way to force them into doing something stupid…more stupid than trying to rob the bank and take on the seven peacekeepers; something that would flush them out into the open where they could be dealt with.

He saw a flicker of movement on the roof of Bucklin Store, and sited in on it as a possible target before he registered what he was seeing. It was Vin. He took a shaky breath and silently thanked the gunnery sergeant who'd drilled into him the habit being sure of what he aimed at before firing. He could still see clearly the grizzled veteran of the Mexican War spitting tobacco juice as he said, "Killin' yer own won't help the cause, son."

Ezra waited until his lover was in position, and scanning the street below. He doffed his hat and waved it once, knowing Vin would see the movement, and with any luck none of the bandits would. He instinctively held his breath when he saw Vin's rifle point in his direction, but wasn't really afraid. Vin was no more likely to fire on an identified target than Ezra was.

Vin nodded to him, grin readily visible. Ezra held up one hand in an open palmed gesture clearly asking for information. Vin touched the brim of his hat and pointed to his left, one finger straight down. That was where Ezra had seen Chris. He nodded his understanding. Vin copied the movement, this time pointing to the right. That would be Josiah, Ezra decided. He couldn't see the big man from his position but Vin certainly could.

Vin shook his head once, signaling he didn't know the whereabouts of the others. Ezra nodded again, letting Vin know he understood the message. He watched Vin point to the bank, and then to several other areas where their attackers were no doubt hiding.

Ezra considered their locations and nodded. He held up two fingers, and then closed it into a fist. Vin repeated the gesture back to him. Perfect. He and JD had two minutes to get into position.

He motioned JD to move back. "We need to get around to the back side of the bank." Ezra kept his voice low out of habit, not because he was worried they'd be overheard. "If we can force the miscreants into the open, toward main street-"

"It'll be like shooting fish in a barrel." JD nodded.

Ezra slapped him on the back, pleased JD understood. Together they made their way carefully to the next street. Ezra spotted two of the bandits. He arched an eyebrow wondering why it looked like they were filling in a hole near the foundation of the bank. His eyes widened as he realized they were burying an explosive charge. Shit. His earlier expectation of them doing something rash had just been confirmed.

Ezra took out the one with a lit cigar held in a pudgy fingered hand. He was otherwise unarmed but holding the ignition source for the fuse ultimately made him the more dangerous of the two. JD took out the other man, shooting him twice in the chest.

Ezra moved forward quickly, digging out the loosely placed dynamite. He grinned. This would do nicely. Yes, indeed, very nice. It would certainly even the scales considerably.

"I hate it when you start playing with that stuff." JD muttered.

"Play?" Ezra snorted, patting the pocket of his vest for a Lucifer. Play was for children. This was deadly serious. That it could be fun was just icing on the cake.

He jerked his head and waved a hand signaling he wanted JD to move. "Other side of the bank, now, if you please." JD shot him a dirty look but went.

Ezra struck the match against the rough planks of the building. The touched the flame to three of the sticks. The robbers were expecting a big boom, and he didn't want to disappoint them. He hoped his comrades were prepared, but they'd worked with him long enough to know he always had a trick or two up his sleeve.

He lobbed them down the alley, aiming for the centerline, giving them as much vertical loft as possible. Without anything to actually contain the sticks and resist the explosion force the blast would minimal. There would be more noise than bonafide destruction.

Ezra ducked, shielding his face from any flying debris. He heard the sharp sound of glass breaking, the musical tinkle identifiable in the din. Ezra shrugged one shoulder. It was less damage than if the sticks had blown up buried near the bank.

He could hear more gunfire and took that to be a good sign. The dynamite had definitely been the right signal to flush some of the desperados into the kill zone. Ezra pocketed the remaining two sticks of dynamite in case he needed them later. His own personal stock had become depleted and he'd yet to find the time or financial means to replenish it.

He stayed close to the wall of the bank, waiting patiently for the dust to settle. He shook his head. A bath would definitely be in order after this.

He suppressed a sneeze, listening intently to the silence. No more shots being fired didn't mean the hostilities were over. Ezra inched his way forward. Spotting two more bodies in the street he upped his mental tally to seven.

Peeking around the corner, he spotted JD doing the same from the other side of the bank. JD held up one finger and moved it across his throat. Total is now eight, Ezra thought with a bitter smile.

Ezra caught sight of Josiah moving carefully into the street. The big man held his left arm tight across his abdomen. Ezra frowned. He couldn't see any blood but that didn't mean Josiah wasn't injured in some fashion.

JD inched forward. It was on the tip of Ezra's tongue to order him back, but he curtailed the impulse. If JD was ever going to learn to make good decisions for himself, he needed to start somewhere.

A shot that kicked up dirt in front of Josiah had JD reflexively ducking back even has he was tracking where the shot came from with both Colts. Good boy, Ezra thought with a touch of pride. JD might just live to see old age.

A sharp crack of Vin's rifle, followed by another had Ezra adding one more tally mark to his mental total. Nine. He continued to study the street and buildings, guardedly seeking any more enemies.

He took a slow, deep breath and stepped into main street. He saw Chris do the same. The gunslinger moved with his usual ease, open duster trailing after him, the ends rising in the faint breeze like dark wings.

It wasn't really a conscious decision to beginning moving down the street. Ezra simply took his side and assumed Chris would take the other. Josiah and JD followed. Ezra glanced up to see Vin shadowing them from the rooftops.

They made it only a few yards before picking up Nathan. A quick grin flashed brightly against his dark skin as he spotted them. Dark eyes roamed over them in an almost physical touch as he looked for injury. He frowned when he reached Josiah, but the big man just shook his head. Whatever Nathan had noticed could wait until this task was finished.

They made it to where the initial moments of the confrontation had taken place. Ezra blinked in surprise when he heard a faint moan from the alley. "It would appear not all our opponents have shuffled off the mortal coil."

"JD, check him." Chris ordered. He didn't have to tell the younger man to be careful.

JD kicked the man's gun away before he rolled the man over. He grimaced. Brown eyes rose to give Chris a bleak glance. "Gut shot."

Chris grunted. He didn't say 'good', but Ezra could hear the sentiment just the same. Chris was a hard man; if there were tears to be shed he'd wait to do that for people he genuinely gave a damn about.

Nathan moved to go see for himself, but Ezra stopped him with a hand on his arm. "We have a wounded comrade of our own to worry about first."

Nathan frowned, glance flickering to Josiah. Ezra shook his head. "Buck."

"How bad?" Chris inquired, blue-gray eyes narrowing as they studied Ezra.

"Not life threatening." Ezra answered honestly. "He was hit in the right shoulder."

JD glared at him. "Why didn't you say something?"

Ezra arched an eyebrow. "I believe I just did."

"I meant before!" JD snapped.

"Before you'd nearly gotten you head blown off?" Ezra's mild expression contrasted sharply with his biting tone.

"Damn it, Ezra--"

"You were needed elsewhere, Sheriff ." Ezra calmly interrupted, adding emphasis to the younger man's title.

"Still could have-"

"Enough, JD." Chris ordered. "He did the right thing."

Ezra was sure Chris understood the dynamics of combat and the choice he had made. The gunslinger had to have made similar choices himself at one time or another. And Chris definitely understood Buck would have preferred JD not putting himself or the town at risk to care for him the middle of a battle.

"Where is he?" Nathan asked, eyes showing concern but no judgment.

Ezra pointed to the building he'd left Buck in, not really surprised to see him standing in the doorway. Or more accurately, Buck was leaning against the door jamb, handgun hanging loosely in his left hand. It didn't look like the stain on his shirt had grown any larger.

Nathan and JD both headed toward Buck. Ezra glanced upward, seeking Vin. He smiled when he saw his nimble lover making his way from the top of one building to the porch roof before neatly swinging his legs over to wrap around one of the support posts and slide to the ground.

"Any more, Cowboy?" Chris asked Vin, nonchalantly lighting his cigar.

"Nope." Vin canted his rifle casually over his shoulder. "Got 'em all."

"The final count?" Ezra asked.


Ezra nodded. His count only covered those bodies he'd seen. He figured there were more.

He sighed. He really wanted a bath and to kiss Vin senseless, not necessarily in that order…but both would have to wait. A clean up detail would need to be organized, although, Ezra had no intention of dealing with the corpses. A dollar a day wasn't sufficient compensation for that. Not even close.

It looked as though JD and Nathan had Buck well in hand, moving him to sit on one of the nearby benches. Ezra looked at Josiah. The big man was still holding his arm tight against his torso.

"Josiah, are you injured?"

Josiah grimaced. "I'm too old to be diving for cover."

"Ah." Ezra nodded. He could understand that. The ground never got any softer.

"Bruised but not broken, ay Josiah?" Vin asked with a quick grin.

"Something like that."

Ezra noticed several townspeople beginning to reappear. He'd decided some time ago they were like prairie dogs, ducking for cover as soon as anything threatened, only appearing again when the coast was clear. On the whole, he'd rather be a coyote.

"Vin, Ezra," Chris blew out a puff of smoke through pursed lips, "see if you can round up enough of the rabbits that live in this town to start dealing with the dead."

Ezra raised two fingers to the brim of his hat. Vin nodded. "Will do, Cowboy."

Ezra sauntered leisurely, pleased when Vin matched his pace. There was no rush. The undertaker, Ben Adams, was a man easily unnerved by violence. Ezra supposed it stood to reason given that the man was clearly more comfortable with the dead. He was also surprisingly capable when it came to organizing people to assist him with his job. All he and Vin really had to do was locate Adams and set him to work.

"Think Adams has crawled out o' wherever he was hiding?"

"Unlikely." Ezra shook his head. "Adams is more cautious than most of the other….ah, 'rabbits'." He snickered to himself, not surprised to know Chris thought of the townspeople much the same way he did.

"Not like there's any rush for him." Vin shrugged. "Dead will wait."

Ezra stepped into an empty alley, and tugged Vin in after him. He smiled, relief suddenly surging through his veins that they didn't fall within that category. His smile turned coy as he leaned against Vin, pinning him against the wall. Unlike the dead outlaws, he didn't have to wait, and he wasn't going to.

"Ez…people could-"

"I don't care." Ezra whispered as he leaned in and captured Vin's mouth in a soft, gentle kiss. He let that simple act convey all his worry, relief and love.

Vin sighed, his mouth opening under the tender onslaught, letting the kiss become deeper and more intense. Ezra slipped his tongue in, moaning softly when Vin's eagerly welcomed the intruder. His tongue remapped it, refreshing his memory of that beloved territory. He lightly caressed the rough surface of the roof of Vin's mouth, loving the soft noise it never failed to produce. His tongue retreated, inviting Vin's to follow and return the favor.

Ezra only pulled back when the need to breathe became irresistible. He gasped for air and would have picked up where he left off if the sound of a door slamming and voices calling out hadn't registered, sharply reminding him of where they were. The alley was empty but with the town coming back to life there was no telling how long it would remain that way. He cursed softly, as he reluctantly stepped away from Vin, good sense once more coming to the fore.

Vin chuckled, a raspy sound that was a blend of amusement and sympathy. Bright blue eyes met green. "Just a little delay, Ez. Ain't like we haven't had ta handle that before."

Ezra grinned. "True."

They'd been maintaining their clandestine romance for almost a year. The constraints were sometimes fun and challenging; Ezra still felt a thrill getting away with stealing kisses and trading heated glances when no one was looking. At other times it was a pain in the ass; he knew his lover hated being constrained by propriety as much as he did because it meant not always being able to act on their feelings, to touch or even speak freely. But Ezra wouldn't trade what he had for anything. It was necessary to him, as vital to his well being as air. He knew Vin felt the same way.

Ezra took a deep breath and let it out slowly, mentally reining his libido and striving for patience. It wouldn't be that long. His hands moved unconsciously to adjust his clothing even though it didn't need it. He grimaced at the dust and dirt he encountered. He hated the way the dry earth permeated every layer of clothing.

"Thinking you need a bath, Ez."

Ezra nodded. "Explosives are dirty business."

"Where'd ya get that stuff anyway?" Vin frowned, narrow-eyed gaze assessing him. "You don't carry that shit around with you…do ya?"

"Generally, no, I don't carry dynamite on my person." Ezra waved a hand lightly in dismissal. He made a mental note to remove the remaining sticks from his pocket and make certain they were safely stored away, ready to be used should they be needed. He'd already removed the fuses so unless jarred excessively or exposed to extreme heat they were now essentially inert.

"As for where it came from," Ezra shrugged, "I simply had to relieve two of our assailants of their supply."

Vin shook his head. "I hate it when you play with that stuff."

"I believe JD expressed the same sentiment." Ezra rolled his eyes. He failed to understand why his comrades couldn't appreciate the value of judiciously utilizing all the firepower at their disposal. And it wasn't as if he was a novice at handling explosives. Not that he'd ever fully detailed just how experienced he was with them to the others.

"Let us commence with locating Mr. Adams." Ezra suggested.

"Sooner we find him, the sooner we can take a bath." Vin gave him a knowing smile, verbalizing what Ezra had been thinking when he'd made his suggestion.

They'd made use of the bathhouse for trysts before. Ezra paid Jacob Simms rather handsomely to ensure he had plenty of clean, hot water and privacy whenever he made use of the bathhouse. He'd even paid for the door and lock that now secured the entrance. It was money well spent.

Ezra nodded, smiling. "If I speak to Jacob after we've located Mr. Adams, he should have sufficient warning to have filled a tub with adequately warmed water by the time we've checked on Buck and Josiah."

Vin grinned. "Sounds like a plan." He pointed toward the undertaker's shop. "Let's start there."

It was as good a place as any. They'd located Mr. Adams hiding in one of the ready made pine coffins before. Ezra shuddered delicately at the thought of anyone considering a coffin to be a sanctuary.

"Buck's shoulder couldn't be too bad for him ta be on his feet." Vin rolled his own shoulder as they left the alley, clearly remembering an experience with a similar injury.

"I'm sure he will make that argument with Nathan." Ezra replied. He traded smiles with Vin. "I'm equally certain that he will not succeed." Buck could whine and cajole all he wanted, he'd be spending the night in the clinic and wearing a sling for several days.

Vin pursed his lips. "Odds on Josiah getting out o' staying in the clinic?"

"No blood on him. Nothing broken." Ezra rubbed his chin thoughtfully, considering the players involved. In full possession of his faculties and totally mobile there was only a slim possibility Josiah would remain at the clinic, but it was possible. "Even money." Ezra stated with conviction.

Vin shook his head. "No point in betting then."

Ezra stifled the urge to beam with pride. For all his lack of formal schooling, Vin had displayed a good grasp of the value of playing the odds. Just watching Ezra run a book or two had he'd picked up when it was worthwhile to bet and when it wasn't.

Ezra knocked on the door of the undertaker's shop, knuckles rapping smartly against the door. "Mr. Adams, are you here?" He waited before calling again. "Mr. Adams, the fighting is over. Your services are needed."

Ezra sighed heavily when there was no response. Vin opened the door and stepped inside. The tracker kicked each coffin, nodding to himself when one did not sound as hollow as it should.

"Adams, get yer ass out here, now." Vin kicked the coffin again. "Don't make me do something that will give you a real reason ta be in there."

Vin's threat must have sounded more real to Adams than it did to Ezra. The undertaker pushed the lid off the coffin he was hiding in, hands shaking slightly. He swallowed nervously, pale blue eyes darting from Vin to Ezra.

"It's over?"

"It's over." Ezra assured him.

"How many?"

"Ten today." Vin scratched his chin. "And one you'll probably get in a day or so."

"Unless the gut shot villain has already expired." Ezra shrugged. "In which case it will be eleven today." It was callous, but like Chris, Ezra reserved concern for those he considered important to him. If this band of outlaws had seriously hurt Vin or one of the others, dying quickly would have been the best they could have hoped for.

Adams' nodded jerkily. "I'll…ah…I'll have to get s-s-some…help."

"Understandable." Ezra tipped his head. Ten or eleven was far more than Mr. Adams normally handled. He thought it a good thing that four corners didn't routinely experience mass deaths. Although, he was certain it did experience more than its fair share of violence.

"You got people you can ask?" Vin's question was rhetorical. They already knew Adams had people he'd ask, but it was part of the ritual. It was one of those things that had to be done to get Adams out of his shell shocked state and into his usual mode of operation.

Adams straightened his vest, and squared his shoulder. "No one wants the dead littering the streets. It's not decent." He humphed delicately. "They might not like helping, but there are always those who will lend a hand."

Because they liked the results of failing to help a lot less, Ezra thought to himself. Dead bodies in this heat bloated and putrefied quickly. Ezra thought it only fitting that the 'prairie dogs' and 'rabbits' they'd just risked their lives for should be forced into cleaning up the aftermath. If they couldn't take an active role in improving their lots, they deserved to be punished.

"We'll leave you to it then, Sir." Ezra raised two fingers to the brim of his hat. Vin tipped his head and they left together.

"You going to the bathhouse?"

Ezra nodded. "I'll make the arrangements and then meet you at the clinic."

Vin patted his shoulder, hand trailing down his arm, fingertips barely brushing his in a discrete promise of more before he stepped away. Ezra forced himself to keep his pace measured and unhurried as he headed for the bathhouse. Like Adams, Jacob had a habit of hiding in his place of business. The copper tubs were probably not bad cover, all things considered, and were a lot less unnerving to Ezra personally than hiding in a coffin.

Jacob already knew what he wanted, no words were really necessary between them. Ezra simply flipped the man a coin large enough to cover his usual request. The largest tub available was more than adequate for him and Vin to use comfortably. To his knowledge, Ezra was one of the few who considered the large tub to be worth the added expense.

"Give me twenty minutes or so, Mr. Standish." Jacob said, the faint brogue he'd inherited from his immigrant Irish mother coloring his speech.

"I'll return in half an hour." Ezra wanted Jacob to have plenty of time. He preferred his bath water to be hot enough to make bathing a relaxed, unhurried affair.

Ezra made his way to the clinic. He was glad he'd picked the opposite side of the street from the Clarion. He had no desire to satisfy Mary Travis' desire for some quote or recounting of the battle to put in the paper. As far as he could ascertain getting his name in the Clarion was of no benefit whatsoever.

Mary would probably attempt to corner JD later. Ezra grinned to himself, already laying odds her success. JD was beginning to see the difference between infamy and fame, and he no longer cared as much to have either.

He took the stairs up to the clinic two at a time. Ezra leaned against the doorjamb, peeking in through the open door. The clinic was hardly spacious on a good day, and seven grown men crowded into it would not improve the situation any.

Buck seemed to be resting comfortably on the bed. Ezra suspected a good dose of laudanum had a lot to do with that. His ruined shirt had been removed and a fresh bandage had been applied to his shoulder. The starkness of the bleached cotton stood out sharply against Buck's skin. Ezra took the cleanliness of the bandage to be a good sign.

That JD hovered near the bed, but didn't seem overly anxious was another good sign. If Buck's life were in jeopardy, JD wouldn't look nearly as calm or collected. Ezra knew his pride in the younger man was misplaced. It was not as if he could take credit exclusively for how far JD come from the greenhorn he'd been, but Ezra felt as though he'd done his bit to see the boy's transition into a man.

Josiah occupied the rocking chair. He looked tired but at ease. The big man would definitely not be staying in the clinic.

Chris stood in the far corner, near the window, puffing quietly on his cigar. He would probably stay in the clinic to keep an eye on Buck. Ezra wondered sometimes at the full depth and range of their devotion to one another. Just how far did it really go, and had they ever managed to span the gulf between good friends to lovers, but he knew better than to ask.

Nathan was busy fussing with something on the small stove. Ezra didn't even want to know what. He was just grateful he didn't need Nathan's services today.

Vin was just inside the door. His lover had a well know aversion to small spaces. If he wasn't injured, he rarely moved more than a few feet into Nathan's domain.

Whether it was the saloon or the clinic, habit had them all gravitating together after each deadly encounter before dispersing once reassured they were still whole. Eyes met and danced away until they'd all made contact at least once. Nothing was said. Nothing needed to be said.

Ezra cleared his throat quietly, and raised two fingers to the brim of his hat. Things were well in hand. He wasn't needed.

Chris tipped his head slightly and waved him off, giving him permission to leave that wasn't really necessary but was welcomed just the same. Blue-gray eyes flicked to Vin. He shooed him out with a look. Ezra didn't know if Chris knew about them or was simply giving his friend the chance to escape the confines of a room he knew made Vin uncomfortable. He decided it didn't matter. The end result was the same.

Vin followed him down the stairs. He lightly patted Ezra's shoulder, before they parted company; Vin going one way, Ezra the other. The only person anyone would see enter the bathhouse was Ezra.

Ezra saw two of the townspeople busy loading bodies into a wagon. It looked like they might be awhile. He smiled to himself. That would give him and Vin plenty of time.

He kept his pace even and unhurried, but also managed to convey he had somewhere to be. He didn't want anyone to try to stop him and talk, or worse yet recruit him for the cleanup detail. That was most definitely not part of his job as a peacekeeper.

Ezra nodded to Jacob, slipping inside the bathhouse. In the poor lighting he couldn't see Vin but he knew his lover was present. He quickly secured the door. It wouldn't do to be caught unaware.

He turned and smiled when Vin leaned into him, pushing him back against the door. Warm air brushed against his neck before Vin placed a kiss in the hollow under his ear. He sighed as Vin moved to delicately nip the lobe.

"About time you got here." Vin whispered.

"I didn't mean to keep you waiting." Ezra apologized, pulling Vin closer.

Vin nuzzled his jaw, placing soft kisses as random intervals until he captured Ezra's mouth. Ezra let Vin control the kiss, allowing himself enjoy the experience. He sucked on Vin's tongue, teasing him as he mimicked a more intimate action. He swallowed Vin's moan, letting it vibrate through him before pulling back.

"We are overdressed." Ezra stated, nimble fingers moving to hastily undo buttons and buckles.

Vin grinned, and stepped back enough to give them both room to maneuver. Clothing was carelessly discarded in their haste, but their guns were treated with the respect and consideration loaded weapons warranted. Vin's mare's leg and his knife were left on a chair that was within easy reach of the tub. Ezra put his shoulder rig and derringer on another chair.

Ezra took a moment to appreciate the physical form of his lover. The smooth play of toned muscle under tanned skin was an endless source of fascination to him. The dim lighting and steam rising from the tub obscured his view slightly making Vin seem almost ethereal, like he was no more substantial than a ghost that had risen from the mist. Ezra wondered briefly if some of the mythological stories of sensual creatures like dryads and nymphs might not have had their origins in people like Vin.

Vin smiled and offered him a hand, the invitation clear. Ezra took it and was delighted when Vin bent to place a soft kiss on his knuckles. The chivalrous gesture quickly become something else as Vin proceeded to work his way up Ezra's arm, leaving a trail of tiny kisses along the way.

Ezra tried not to flinch when Vin found a bruise on his shoulder. Vin raised his head, blue eyes showing concern. "You got hurt?"

Ezra shrugged, his expression rueful. "Josiah's not the only one who finds the ground to be harder than it used to be." He vaguely remembered diving for cover and catching his shoulder on something, but at the time there were more important things to focus on.

Vin hugged Ezra hard. Ezra returned it with equal force, expressing his relief and gratitude they'd survived to fight another day. He took a deep breath, drawing in the scent of Vin, concentrating on the feel of warm skin against his own. He could feel Vin's heart beating strongly and found comfort in that steady, familiar cadence.

Ezra sighed, leaning into Vin. Knowing his lover would support his weight, that he didn't find it a burden to do so, was one of the many aspects about Vin he appreciated. Vin lightly rubbed his back, easing tension Ezra hadn't even been aware was present.

Vin kissed him on the temple. "You okay?"

"Yes." Ezra smiled, knowing that question had nothing to do with his physical well being. "You?"

"Yeah." Vin kissed his temple again. "What do ya say to us makin' use of that tub?"

"I'd say it was an excellent idea."

Vin stepped into the tub, one hand on Ezra's shoulder providing a stabilizing point he really didn't need but clearly wanted just the same. He lowered himself into the hot water with a quiet sigh. Vin leaned his back against the tub before he made a small movement with his fingers, inviting Ezra to join him.

Ezra stepped in and sat between Vin's long legs. The warm water felt wonderful. He relaxed, leaning back into Vin, his head resting on Vin's shoulder.

Vin reached for the bar of soap and wash cloth that had been left on the nearby stool. He dipped the cloth into the water and lathered it. He then began rubbing it lightly up one of Ezra's arms and then the other, his touch deft and sure. He washed Ezra's chest, the rough material teasing his nipples and eliciting a soft sigh. Ezra unconsciously arched his chest, leaning back into Vin, mutely asking for more. He shivered when Vin's soapy hands took over for the wash cloth, fingers lightly pinching and rolling his nipples. He tilted his head to the side when Vin applied his lips and teeth to the side of his neck.

Ezra moaned, turning his head to take Vin's mouth in an awkward and sloppy, yet decidedly passionate kiss. He instinctively rolled his hips, moving his ass suggestively against Vin's groin. They were both panting for breath when the kiss ended.

Ezra shifted, wanting to move to face his lover. Vin wrapped his arms and legs around Ezra holding him firmly in place. Vin nipped at his ear.



"Stay." Vin whispered again. "I wanna do this for you. Jus' like you did for me on that damn train."

Ezra took a shaky breath, nodding his understanding. He felt a flush of warmth at Vin's request. It was made him feel a little selfish to have the focus be exclusively on his pleasure, but it was a heady and rewarding experience just the same.

"You're sure?"

"Positive." Vin's hands had worked their way south. When Vin wrapped one hand around Ezra's cock and the other began playing with his balls, Ezra conceded. He wasn't capable of thinking clearly much less arguing.

The water paradoxically acted as a lubricant while at the same time added friction. Ezra shuddered, hips thrusting into Vin's grip as has hands grasped the slippery sides of the tub. His eyes slid closed, head tipping back to rest on Vin's shoulder again. He moaned when Vin's mouth found that spot where his neck and shoulder met. Vin's teeth nipped him sharply before lips and tongue soothed away that little bit of pain.

Vin hadn't unwound his legs from around Ezra. He rubbed his ankles up and down Ezra's thighs, toes caressing the back of Ezra's knees. That proved to be an erogenous zone he hadn't known anything about. Ezra would have been embarrassed by the whimpering noise that contact drew from him if he weren't desperately trying to get Vin to continue touching him there.

He rocked against Vin, unable to simply be still. Vin continued to stroke his hard member, a little twist with every upward motion. He continued to bite and suck at Ezra's neck, his mouth moving in time with his hand.

Ezra bit his lower lip in an effort to silence himself. The room was secure but he didn't want anyone passing by to get curious about what he was doing. His efforts were foiled when Vin left hand moved from gently squeezing his balls to move up his chest and play with a nipple. He moaned loudly, unable to stifle his reaction.

"God." Ezra breathed out in a hiss, tendons in his neck standing out in harsh relief as he gasped for air. "Please…Vin…don't stop…please."

"I gotcha Ez." Vin's voice was rough, as though speaking was just as hard for him as it was for Ezra. "I gotcha."

The warm air of Vin's breath tickled his ear, and Ezra shivered. He could feel himself getting closer to the edge. So close. Muscles twitched at random as they tightened and flexed.

The tempo of Vin's stroke increased. Ezra's hips would have moved to thrust at a matching pace but Vin was still holding him firmly. The movement of the water provided a strange echo that added to the feeling of complete contact, as though he were entirely immersed in Vin.

Ezra panted, fingers curling into fists as his back bowed. His mouth opened in a silent scream as he clung for a timeless moment to the edge before letting go. Ezra came with a choked cry of Vin's name.

Impossibly tense muscles suddenly went lax, leaving him nearly boneless, as Ezra panted for breath. He was glad Vin was still wrapped around him, grounding him as he recovered from that shattering moment. Vin's hand lightly stroked his chest in a soothing motion.

"You okay?"

"Never…better." Ezra captured Vin's wandering hand and raised it to his mouth to place a soft kiss in Vin's palm.

Ezra stretched, reluctantly pulling away from Vin. He sighed. The water was beginning to cool.

He turned to kiss Vin, taking his time to show his appreciation of his lover's consideration. "Thank you."

Bright blue eyes smiled at him. "Welcome."

A knock at the door had both of them reaching for their weapons, water sloshing out of the tub. Ezra grimaced when he heard Jacob call his name. The young man wouldn't have bothered him without out a good reason.

"Yes, Jacob?" Ezra called out, letting his annoyance bled into his voice.

"Are you 'bout done, Mr. Standish?" He could hear Jacob nervously clearing his throat. "Wouldn't have bothered you but couple of people who were helping Mr. Adams are asking me about using the bathhouse."

"Damn." Ezra cursed quietly. "I thought it would take them longer."

"Me too." Vin mouthed silently.

"I'll be done in a few minutes, Jacob." Ezra glared at the door. "And I'll be expecting a refund since you've cut short my allotted and paid for time."

Ezra had no trouble picturing Jacob shuffling his feet and looking anxious. Jacob knew Ezra was his best customer. And it didn't hurt that Ezra had paid for several of the improvements that now made the establishment far more profitable.

"S-sure thing, Mr. Standish."

Ezra stood up. He stepped out of the tub. He grabbed two clean towels, tossing one to Vin. He knew better than to look at his lover. The way the water clung to his skin, the droplets glistening, inviting him to touch and taste…if he looked, he'd never be able to leave and they'd be discovered in a compromising position when Jacob returned.

Getting dressed took more time than stripping out of their clothes. Just locating things slowed them both down a bit. Vin chuckled, and Ezra had to stifle his own laughter. He pointed a finger in warning and got a sly wink in return.

He rolled his eyes. "You're incorrigible."

"Is that good?"

Ezra grinned. "In your case, yes." He wouldn't change Vin for anything.

Vin leaned in for a quick kiss. "Meet you in yer room?"

"Yes." Ezra grinned. "I believe I have a favor to return."

Vin smiled, one hand rose to cup Ezra's face. "Looking forward to it."

"As am I." Ezra leaned into Vin's caress.

Vin's eyes sparkled. "Don't keep me waitin' this time."

"Wouldn't dream of it," Ezra chuckled. He waved a hand. "Shoo."

Vin grinned, disappearing into the shadows as Ezra unlocked the door. No one had seen Vin enter. No one would see him leave. This was one time when necessity was practical and painless.

Ezra left the bathhouse, and accepted Jacob's apology. He was more interested in the money being returned but he was gracious enough to allow Jacob the chance to ingratiate himself. Had he knocked a few minutes earlier, Ezra would not have been nearly so forgiving.

Ezra made his way down one of the side streets heading for the back door of the saloon. The town was once more fully active and he had no desire to be delayed. He took the stairs up to the second floor two at a time, still managing to keep his steps nearly soundless.

He slipped into his room. Just as he had in the bathhouse, Vin trapped him against the door. Ezra loved the warm smile that Vin reserved for him alone.

"Now then…where were we?"

"Right about here, I think." Ezra leaned in to taste that smile. He nibbled on Vin's lower lip, requesting entrance. He loved that what he asked for was so readily and easily given.

He continued to ravage Vin's mouth as he frog walked him backward. When they bumped into the bed, Ezra shoved Vin with just enough force to unbalance him on to the it. Vin fell with a soft 'umph', the bed creaking faintly. Blue eyes that twinkled with amusement looked up at Ezra.

"You gonna join me?"

"Have I ever not joined you?"

"First time for everything." Vin grinned.

"Not today." Ezra chuckled, shrugging out of his jacket with careless grace.

He stripped out of the remainder of his clothing. It needed laundered anyway, so he didn't bother to hang it up or worry about where it fell. Vin was quick to follow his lead, his clothing forming a small pile on the far side of the bed.

As always, their weaponry was carefully placed within easy reach. Ezra couldn't honestly remember a time when he didn't take such care. He wondered if there would ever be a time that he didn't.

Vin made a 'come here' motion with one hand, his smile as inviting as the gesture. Ezra smiled, and slowly lowered himself full length to cover Vin. He hovered for just a moment, letting the anticipation build as he exhaled and Vin breathed in. With a gentleness that surprised him given the rising intensity, Ezra kissed Vin deeply.

Vin's hands rose to cup his face, holding him in place. Ezra sighed into Vin's mouth when his lover's fingers moved to card through his hair. He understood why cats purred. Ezra shivered when Vin lightly caressed the outer shell of one ear.

It was a little too soon for him to have fully recovered from his earlier orgasm, but he still enjoyed the contact. He found joy in just being close to Vin, touching and being touched in return, continuing to celebrate their survival. He welcomed the chance to keep reveling in this proof of life.

Ezra broke the kiss, smiling down at Vin. "I have a debt to repay."

Vin chuckled. "And jus' what do you plan ta do about that?"

"What would it take to balance the scale?" Ezra countered, giving Vin the option of whatever he wanted.

When they first initiated this game of returning favors Ezra had jokingly suggested assigning a numerical value to various sex acts. He and Vin had laughing made comparisons to the value of similar activities regularly offered for a price in every red light district in cities world wide.

"Ah…I…"Vin's eyes darkened as he clearly considered his options. He swallowed hard. "Two."

"Fellatio it is." Ezra smiled, giving his lover another gentle kiss. It was one of Vin's favorites, but he was always endearingly embarrassed about asking for it.

Ezra slid down Vin's chest, stopping to lavish attention on his lover's sensitive nipples. He loved the little breathless noises Vin would make, the way the nubs would harden and pucker rising eagerly to meet him. Licking, sucking and nipping them had Vin writhing, hard and needy, in no time at all.

Ezra had learned when to back off, not wanting to turn pleasure to pain. He stopped to pay special attention to Vin's navel. It was another hot spot that always elicited such delightful noises from Vin. Ezra had tried to memorize every sound and reaction; he wanted to know where to touch and how.

He kept a firm hold on Vin's hips as he lightly sucked the head of his cock. The first time they'd done this, Vin had caught Ezra unaware and nearly choked him. He suspected that was one of the reasons asking for it now embarrassed Vin.

He could hear Vin babbling something but the language wasn't English. One of Vin's hands lightly stroked Ezra's cheek, offering encouragement and telling him far more than what Vin could ever put into words. Ezra used the tip of his tongue to tease the slit before sucking more of Vin's cock into his mouth.

He leaned more of his weight into Vin, holding him in place. Taking a deep breath and consciously relaxing his throat, Ezra took in more before backing off and setting up a rhythm. He glanced up when he felt Vin's hand leave. He knew his lover had gripped the head board, back arching as he gave himself over to the sensations Ezra knew he was creating. It was intoxicating to know he could reduce his normally capable, laconic lover into a babbling mass of writhing need.

Ezra knew Vin wouldn't last long. The man had been hard as a rock when they were in the bath. He hummed a little, knowing firsthand how delightful the added vibrations were.

Ezra felt small tremors starting. Vin was no longer speaking, but gasping, hips moving against Ezra's hold as he tried instinctively to thrust. Ezra backed off to take a deep breath and relaxed his throat again to take Vin all the way to the base. He worked his throat, daring to release his hold on Vin's hips with one hand long enough for his thumb to locate the sweet spot right behind his lover's balls.

Vin back arched, taut as a drawn bow, muscles flexing tightly. He turned his head to one side, biting his own bicep as he came with a muffled shout of Ezra's name. Ezra swallowed, taking in as much as he could. He licked his lips as he released Vin. He never got tired of the way his lover tasted.

Ezra crawled upward to lay his head on Vin's shoulder. He sighed when his lover wrapped his arms around him. Vin placed a soft kiss in his hair, pulling him in closer, shifting just enough to wrap one long leg around Ezra.

"Love you." Vin murmured, his breathing slowing toward normal.

"I love you, Vin Tanner." Ezra responded in a whisper. He was able to say it with genuine conviction even if he couldn't ever quite bring himself to say it with any volume.

Vin yawned. He rubbed his cheek against Ezra's hair. "Long day."

"Very." Ezra agreed. It had been a short night as well. He managed to catch the quilt at the foot of the bed with his toes, pulling it up to where Vin could grab it and spread it over them.

"You think Buck is doing okay?"

"Yes." Ezra refused to believe otherwise. Ezra's faith in God might be circumspect on a good day, but he believed in Nathan's skills and his word. If Buck's injury had been life threatening, Nathan would have said so.

"We'll check on him in a bit, just to be sure." Ezra said softly. They would have their evening meal together, the seven of them, just like always. It was as much a ritual as them coming together after a battle. Where they met didn't matter nor did what they ate, just as long as everyone was there.

Vin settled more deeply into the mattress. Ezra could almost feel his lover falling asleep. He'd stay awake for awhile, jus taking in the simple comfort being close to Vin never failed to engender.

He made a point of taking the time to appreciate these peaceful moments. They made it possible to ride out the storms of violence like today which seemed to happen so regularly. He'd never make it through them alone…and he was damn glad he didn't have to anymore.

Ezra snuggled in closer. He matched his breathing to Vin's, deep and even. He could feel his heart rate naturally slowing.

He'd told Buck necessity was seldom gentle, but doing what was necessary wasn't always painful. A little nap was all he and Vin needed. And in the aftermath of their latest storm, now was the perfect time to take it.

Ezra smiled to himself. They would be ready for the next band of outlaws, cutthroats and thieves. They would be prepared to protect the 'rabbits'. It was what they were paid to do after all…until Four Corners no longer needed them.