DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved None whatsoever. This story is is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven" . No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended. T
RATING: PG-13 for Language
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Ezra, and the rest of the guys show up too.
SUMMARY: An acquaintance of an acquaintance of Ezra shows up in town with a plan.
NOTE:  This is one of the first stories that I wrote.  I finished "Ezra's Feast" first, but I started this one before Feast
COMMENTS: Yes, please! Drop me a note, let me know what you think.
DATE:  February 23, 2000

Into the Cold
By NotTasha (who won't give you the cold shoulder)

Ezra Standish shuffled his cards as he looked out across the saloon. Vin and Chris were sitting together at the bar. JD and the others were seated their usual table, laughing. Everybody was going about their regular business. Nobody seemed to even notice he was there. He laid out the cards for yet another game of solitaire and frowned to himself.

He had just spent the past four days at a nondescript, run-down farmhouse, known as 'the old Anderson place', waiting for the Markham gang to make their appearance. A telegram had arrived five days earlier, warning about the gang's impending arrival. They were a cagey group, known for attacking from unexpected locations. Chris and Vin had taken up a position in the south end of town to wait for them. JD and Buck had stationed themselves to the north. Josiah and Nathan had found a position on the west end, and Ezra had been sent east. While the others had all remained in sight of the town and able to make a quick return as soon as the signal was given, Ezra's location had been several miles away.   There was no close cover for the gambler.

The Old Anderson Place boasted a three-story structure with nothing to impede its view of the surrounding area. It made a perfect vantage point to view the countryside. His orders had been to remain at the Old Anderson Place for three days. If he caught sight of anything suspicious, he was to return immediately to town and signal the others. They would come running.

For three days he had stayed at that run-down house, in the near-freezing weather. He had not built a fire in the stove, for fear of the smoke being seen, and had spent most of his time bundled up in a blanket on the uppermost story, glaring out the broken windows at the empty countryside. He had strained his ears to listen for the signal that the Markhams had arrived by another direction. He had waited for the three shots in quick succession, but had heard nothing. He was never fond of 'camp food' and the cold victuals he had brought with him did not whet his appetite. He'd had difficulty getting any sleep, because he had been constantly on the alert and any sound would startle him awake. He had been, in a word, miserable.

As the third day came to an end, he had been more than ready to go. But there had been no signal. Apparently, the Markham gang had not arrived. Of course the gang was never known for its intelligence and could easily have made an error in counting days. So, against his better judgement, Ezra had remained one more day.

Halfway through the fourth day, he'd given up. He'd had enough. Ezra had saddled his horse and returned to Four Corners, expecting to be bawled out by Chris and the others, but he was too damn cold and tired to care. But, instead of a tirade, he'd been met with indifference. The gang had arrived the previous day, and had been easily quelled by the other six without a shot fired. There had been no injuries and only minor damage to the town.

"I didn't hear your signal," Ezra had commented.

"You were probably too far off, Ezra," Buck had said lightly. "Wind must have been comin’ from the wrong direction.  We handled it just fine without you though. Don't worry."

And, after a bath and a change of clothes, Ezra stationed himself at an empty table and glowered at the others. Nobody had bothered to come to that farmhouse to tell him that it was all over. Nobody had even mentioned that he had stayed an extra day (or at least a half-day). They had survived just fine without him. Ezra studied the cards before him for a moment, and then picked them up and reshuffled them without bothering to play.

Suddenly the door burst open and a wild-looking blond man, with a walrus mustache entered the saloon. "I hear you got whiskey!" he bellowed to the bartender as he slapped down his coins. Ezra recognized the man immediately. Merle Tibbet had been an acquaintance in Sacramento, actually an acquaintance of an acquaintance. A boisterous man, known for his penchant for bank-robbery. Tibbet looked around the room, dipping his head to whomever looked his way, and then he turned his eyes on Ezra.

"Ezra?" Tibbet laughed, "Well, I'll be a son of a gun, it is you!" He clomped across the room with the whiskey bottle in his hand and slapped Ezra heavily on the shoulder.

Ezra did his best not to wince from the blow and uttered, "Mr. Tibbet, what finds you in this unusual surrounding?"

"Ha!" Tibbet exclaimed as he sat down beside the gambler. "I was about to ask you the same. What the hell have you been up to, huh?"

Ezra smiled. "I'm endeavoring to find a livelihood."

Tibbet laughed. "Good ol’ Ezra Stanton." Tibbet slapped Ezra on the shoulder again with the same force as before. It was nearly enough to knock Ezra out of his seat, but he did his best to seem unaffected.

“I go by Standish, now,” Ezra started.  “And perhaps you'll answer my previous inquiry.  Why, pray tell, are you doing here?" He really had no desire to talk to Tibbet or anyone at this moment.

"Just passing through," Tibbet said and leaned back.

"Hey, Ezra," JD called as he approached the table. "Ya gonna introduce us ta yer friend?"

The others had turned in his direction. Ezra looked out at them from hooded eyes. He wanted to explain that Tibbet was not exactly a 'friend', but instead said, "Gentleman, this is Mr. Merle Tibbet.  He’s just passing through."

Since it was apparent that Ezra was not going to make introductions, JD did the honors, letting Tibbet know that they were the 'law' in the town. Tibbet stood and shook the hands of each of the men. "Glad to meet cha," he said loudly. "Any friend of Ezra's is a friend of mine."

The six men looked dubious. "You staying long, Tibbet?" Chris asked.

"Just the night," he responded. He smiled at Ezra. "Damn, I never expected to see you here. This is great. We can catch up on old times." He slapped Ezra once again on his already maligned shoulder. Ezra wondered how much of Tibbet's good humor he could take.

Tibbet spoke almost non-stop all night, needing only a word or two from Ezra to keep him going. Ezra continued to play solitaire while the man blathered on. At least, if he concentrated on the cards, he could tune out some of the endless nonsense coming from the man. He looked up as Vin, the last of the six, left the saloon without saying goodbye. Ezra watched him go and turned his gaze back to Tibbet. The saloon was virtually empty now. Only a few drunken patrons still gathered around a far table.

Tibbet suddenly leaned toward him. "Your damn friends sure took their time in goin'," he said in a low voice. "Look, Stanton – ah, Standish, I got a plan and I could use you."

"Oh," Ezra said, "and what is this 'plan'?"

Tibbet smiled tightly. "There's a bank in this town I know."

Ezra shook his head. "It's always a bank isn't it?" The last time Ezra had met him, Tibbet had been talking about breaking into a bank outside of Sacramento. Tibbet had nearly succeeded, but had been caught when he exited with the cash. Tibbet had been jailed for a week or so before he made his escape. After that, Ezra had heard that Tibbet was being held in connection to a bank robbery in Tucson.

"Ah, but it's a sweet bank, Ezra," Tibbet whispered.

"And where is this 'sweet' bank?" Ezra sighed.

"Clarkston. They've got a ton of gold there, ripe for the taking."

Ezra smiled. "Clarkston? Well you should know, Mr. Tibbet, that the bank in Clarkston has a rather well fortified vault and an armed guard. How exactly do you propose to penetrate its defenses?"

Tibbet smiled. "A little miracle called TNT."

"And what of the guards?"

"I got this friend in town. He's gonna be in the bank. He's got this gripe with half the people in there and he's ready to take out the lot of them. But, this is where I could use you. He's pretty good with a gun and he ain't afraid to use it, but you...you my friend, are a much better shot."

"Quite possible," Ezra replied. His expression did not change, but inside Ezra registered alarm. He would have to find out more information and discover a way to stop him. Funny, the gambler thought, that I should be considering that. "Perhaps you can tell me more about this friend?"

Tibbet looked about the nearly empty room, and then said quietly, "Can't get into too much detail here." Tibbet pulled his watch from his pocket. "I'm gonna have to get outta here tomorrow morning.  I gotta make sure I get there before my friend starts getting antsy. You with me?"

Why does every one always have to start so early? Ezra thought, and then said "What's in it for me?"

"I told ya that bank is loaded with gold, my friend. If you help me with the guards and anyone else that comes along, we'll split it three ways. They'll be plenty for the all of us."

"And how do you plan to transport this the gold? It's, amongst other things, rather heavy."

"I got a wagon," Tibbet replied. "It's a good one, too."

"You won't be able to outrun a man on horseback," Ezra responded evenly. "What about the sheriff? Clarkston has a rather unpleasant gentleman protecting it."

"You'll just take him out, too. You see how much I could use you?" Tibbet nodded enthusiastically. "You're just about the luckiest thing that has happened to me." Tibbet grinned widely. "You in?"

Ezra realized that he despised Tibbet. He never cared much for him in Sacramento, was disgusted with him when he heard about Tucson, liked him even less the moment Merle sat down at the table, but at this moment he despised him. The plan was ludicrous. Did Tibbet honestly think that the two of them and this unknown 'friend' could get away with it? How many people would have to die?

He studied Tibbet's features. "What happened in Tucson?" Ezra asked. "I heard you were involved in some excitement there."

Tibbet looked puzzled for a moment and then threw his head back and laughed. "Tucson? You heard about that? Oh, that was nothing. I hadn't even broken in to their damn bank yet. They had me on nothing."

"But they did arrest you."

The blond man smirked. "I couldn't help it. The teller was giving me the once over. He was on to me."

"And," Ezra said leadingly.

"I couldn't have him giving me away." Tibbet shrugged. "They had to let me go. It was self-defense. He deserved what he got."

"Indeed," was all Ezra could say.

"Like I said, I could use you. You coming?"

Ezra knew that Tibbet was a fool, but he also knew he was a dangerous fool and a hot-head. Tibbet and his friend would suffer no pain from killing the guards, the sheriff and anyone else who got in his way. Something would have to be done, and Ezra had the sinking suspicion that he was going to be the one to do it. "For a third of the take, I'd sell my own mother."

Tibbet grinned from ear to ear and grabbed Ezra's hand to shake it. "You don't know how much this is going to help me. You're a good man, Ezra. We're going to be rich."

We're going to be something, Ezra thought, but it isn't rich.

Tibbet left, and Ezra remained at the table for a few minutes, thinking about what had just been revealed to him. He would have to do something about it. He knew better than to get involved in something like this, it would only lead to trouble, but what else could he do?

Ezra headed immediately to his room and wrote out a note, outlining the conversation that he had had with Tibbet.  He signed his name, and folded the letter into an envelope, and carefully wrote a name on the front. He left his room, and headed over to Nathan's. The night was cold and clear and a light layer of frost was building up across the ground. Ezra grimaced; he hated the cold.

He stood for a moment outside Nathan's door, and actually considered knocking, but shoved the letter under the door instead. It was much easier to simply leave the note. He was certain that Nathan would make things difficult for him if he told him of his plan to stop Tibbet. Nathan was an early riser.  He’d find the note.  There was no need to wake the others now.  They would hold a meeting and try to come up with a plan, but Ezra saw no value in that. It was better this way -- no questions. He chose Nathan, mostly because he was nearby, but also because he wasn't Chris.

He returned to his room and slept for a few hours before a banging on his door awakened him. 

"Come on," Tibbet said brusquely from outside, "we gotta get moving." And Tibbet thudded down the stairs before Ezra could comment.

Ezra shaved and dressed, pulled on his red jacket, and then put on his heavy overcoat. It was still dark as he headed down the stairs and into the cold. There was nobody in the saloon or on the street and the weather was getting progressively colder. His breath formed in clouds as he walked toward the livery. He hugged his overcoat close to him, hoping it would be enough to keep him warm.

He saw Tibbet by the livery and walked toward him. Two bleary-eyed livery boys were just finishing harnessing Tibbet's bays to the heavy-looking wagon. The buckboard was loaded with boxes, secured with a tarp. The two bays were beautiful, but nervous. 

"I see you made it down," Tibbet said with a laugh. "I forgot. Ezra doesn't like mornings much, does he? Let's get goin'." The man climbed into his seat, snatching the reins away from the boy.

"Thank you, Mr. Everett and Mr. Tull, for your services," Ezra said, tossing a coin to each boy before he climbed up beside Tibbet. And then the wagon jerked into motion.

"What ya do that for? I paid 'em what was right last night," Tibbet said as they headed out into the frosty morning air.

"I've learned that knowin' when and whom to tip will assure you of a greater standard of service," Ezra commented as he shoved his hands into his pockets. Why did he agree to this? He should be in his nice warm bed right now instead of on this frigid wagon-seat.

Tibbet snorted. "I'll never see them again." Then he turned to Ezra and declared, "And you won't either. Once we pull this job you're gonna want to get out of this territory. Ezra should say goodbye to Four Corners. We're going on to bigger and better things."

Ezra looked at the town through narrow eyes. He had come to consider it his home, and even this unnecessary thought of leaving made him feel uneasy. It was a strange sensation, because he never really considered anyplace as 'home' before this.

Once they were clear of the town Ezra turned around and lifted the tarp. Tibbet laughed again, "Impressive, ain't it?" he exclaimed as Ezra gazed a large box of TNT.

What the hell was he thinking? Ezra thought. There were enough explosives here to blow up the whole town. "Impressive," Ezra echoed, hoping that they weren't blow to bits on the journey.

Tibbet grinned and pounded Ezra again on the back. "I'm just so glad I found you. You're gonna be my ace in the hole."

"What about this friend that you mentioned so briefly," Ezra started.

"Jimmy? Ah hell, he was alright when he was all I had, but now..." Tibbet grinned, "I mean, I hope those friends of yours appreciated having you around as much as I do now."

Ezra didn't reply to this and Tibbet turned to him again.  "What? You mean those folks don't appreciate you?"

"There are various levels of appreciation," Ezra replied. It was a thought that often came to him. Sure, they appreciated him, in their way. They could always use another gun, another set of eyes in sticky situations, but anyone could provide that. But, when it came down to it, he knew they thought of him as untrustworthy. He pulled his collar up over his ears and sunk down in his seat.

They continued in silence for some time before Ezra spoke again. "Now tell me about this plan again. I want to know every detail."

Tibbet was more than happy to comply. Ezra listened in growing fascination at Tibbet's scheme. He seemed to have little more in mind than shooting the guards, shooting the sheriff, blowing up the vault and getting out of town. It would have been laughable if it didn't include the deaths of innocent citizens.

As they continued on the journey, Ezra watched Tibbet whip the horses to keep them at their pace. He didn't like it. "You shouldn't drive them like that," Ezra said. "They'll tire before we reach our destination."

Tibbet snorted. "I'll just replace them at the next town. They'll last."

Ezra sighed, knowing that the animals should have been treated better, but he also needed information and did not press that point. "And what about Jimmy," Ezra started again. "From where do you know this gentleman?"

Tibbet guffawed. "Gentleman? Ezra, you don't know this guy. He ain't no gentleman."

"Tell me about him," Ezra continued. "I want to know who I'm working with."

Tibbet continued to urge the horses onward. "Big guy. He's wanted up in the Oregon Territory for murder. He's about as nasty as a guy can get, but he's all right, ya know."

Wonderful, Ezra thought. "And does he have a name other than simply 'Jimmy'?"

"Wren, Jimmy Wren." Tibbet nodded. "He's gonna be a lot of help." Tibbet giggled, "It's gonna be fun seeing him in action. I ain't never seen a man who enjoys shootin' as much as Jimmy does."

The friend had a name now, and Ezra knew that this Jimmy Wren was a wanted man. There should be a likeness of him available somewhere. This whole business was growing more and more distasteful to him. It was time he ended it.

They were heading into a stand of trees that had grown up around a lake. The bare-branched trees were covered with a layer of frost and the scattering of firs looked as if they had been shrouded in a layer of ice. The lake had frozen over. Ezra glanced back, knowing that the others should be close behind. He wondered briefly if they had actually found the letter.

"Mr. Tibbet," Ezra said, "I want to clarify an item with you."

"Yeah, and what's that."

"You've planned to kill people in order to carry out this heist?" They were riding around the edge of an embankment that dropped off sharply to the lake below.

"Why not?" Tibbet said and laughed again. "It's worth it, Ezra. Think about the money we'll get off with."

"Is there anything I might do to dissuade you from this scheme?"

Tibbet's face suddenly went dark and he turned to the gambler. "What're you gettin' at, Ezra."

The cold air was filled with the rattle of the wagon, the jingle of the harness, the thud of hooves and the breathing of the overworked horses as they rounded the frozen lake.

"What I'm getting at, Mr. Tibbet, is that you are a ignoramus." Ezra snapped his derringer out of his sleeve and pointed it at Tibbet. "And I suggest you give up this insipid idea before anyone has to die."

Tibbet, eyes wide at the appearance of the gun, pulled hard on the reins. The exhausted horses turned sharply toward the edge of the lake. Ezra wished he had stayed in bed. Everything spun out of control.

* * * *

Tibbet jumped as the wagon twisted away. He landed with a thump on the frozen ground, hearing the crash of the wagon and the scream of the horses, as the entire rig plummeted into the lake below.

"Damn him!" Tibbet shouted, jumping to his feet and drawing his gun. That no account conman had drawn on him. He knew Standish was fast, but not that damn fast.

He carefully moved toward the edge of the embankment and looked down at the shattered ice, the panicked horses and the tipped, half-submerged wagon. There was no sign of Standish. He aimed back and forth across the length of the vehicle, thinking, maybe he's dead, maybe he's drowned. He must have been trapped under the vehicle. The horses, still fastened to the front of the wagon, were about to drive him mad with their bellowing. They were lunging about in the shattered ice, trying to escape, but their twisted harnesses and the heavy buckboard made it impossible.

He's drowned, Tibbet thought and smiled, he's drowned. Then, with a gasp, the gambler broke to the icy surface. Tibbet aimed for him, as Standish leaned against the side of the wagon and looked at the thrashing horses. His overcoat was half off, and seemed to be trying to pull him back underwater. Standish moved through the broken ice, toward the horses. Tibbet stifled a laugh as he watched Standish try to free the trapped team. He was wasting time. Tibbet didn't think that Standish could be so stupid.

Standish released the hitch and the horses bolted, throwing the gambler back under the freezing water. The harnessed pair tore away, creating a channel through the ice. They struggled for a moment at the embankment, and then the two horses, still bellowing in panic, tore up the lake side and then out through the stand of trees. Standish emerged from beneath the water and steadied himself again at the wagon. Then, after shucking off the waterlogged coat, followed them up the bank.

Tibbet stood, watching as the gambler slowly climbed the steep bank and onto the level surface. Standish hadn't even looked up yet and when he tried to stand, he collapsed back to the ground. Tibbet smiled, seeing how violently he was shivering.

You get what you deserve, Ezra,’ Tibbet thought.

He kept his gun on the sodden man, thinking that he should have shot him while he was in the water. And he smiled thinking that Standish wouldn't live anyway. Ezra was turning blue before his eyes. Tibbet lowered his gun and hid it behind his thigh.

Ezra, panting with the effort of climbing, and shivering, slowly raised his head and finally saw Tibbet. "Tibbet?" he questioned. "You okay?"

Tibbet almost laughed out loud. Didn't this idiot remember what just happened? "I got off in time," Tibbet replied.

"What happened?'' Ezra asked through chattering teeth.

"The horses bolted," Tibbet said evenly, fingering his gun. He wondered how long Standish would last in this condition. It wouldn't take long. Tibbet had watched a man freeze to death once in the Sierras. Standish would be incoherent and delusional soon.

Tibbet looked around nervously for a moment. He would have to get moving if he planned to make it to Clarkston in time. He doubted that Jimmy would wait for him.

"I'll get help," Tibbet said, figuring that would make his departure easier. He didn't know if Ezra still had that gun.

"Need to build a fire..." Ezra breathed, "I have to ..." He pulled his freezing wet jacket closer to him as if it could provide him with warmth.

"I don't have my matches. They were on the wagon." Tibbet shrugged. "I'll go get help. I'll go find those friends of yours." He remembered the comments made during the trip regarding Ezra's friends. "Do you think they'll come, Ezra?"

"What?" Ezra lifted his head and tried to meet Tibbet's eye.

And Tibbet saw what he was looking for, a look of fear. He had only a passing acquaintance with Standish in Sacramento and he knew that the gambler kept his emotions well hidden. He must be out of it, Tibbet thought, and then he realized he could take advantage of that.

"Do you think they'll bother coming out to look for you? I mean it would take a lot of effort on their part, a lot of bother really, to come out into the cold just to look for you, Ezra."

Ezra blinked. "They'll come," he said softly and somewhat uncertainly.

Tibbet caught the tone of Ezra's response and forged onward, "Do you really think they care?" This was wonderful. He wouldn't shoot the man, he would leave him here with his own thoughts. Let him wonder if anyone was going to bother coming for him while his body shuts itself down.

Tibbet squatted down beside the shuddering man and stated, "I'll find them, tell them what happened. I'll tell them you need help real bad. Do you they'll want to come find you? What do you think they'll say? Don't they know you're a liar and cheat? Why would they want to come for you? Would they say, 'He's not worth the effort. He's useless. Let him freeze. It'll be better for everyone'?"

Tibbet laughed inwardly, seeing the look of pain cross Ezra's face. He continued, "I'll go. I'll try to convince them to come out and help. I don't know though. Maybe they'll be glad you're gone. Maybe they're tired of putting up with you. I don't think they'll bother going out into the cold for Ezra."

Tibbet stood and started walking away. "In any case, I'll tell them. You'll just have to wait to see if they show up." He looked over his shoulder at Ezra and chuckled. He had lost the buckboard and the dynamite. It wasn't going to ruin his plans. He had seen a house and a barn a mile or so back. He could get a horse from there and continue to Clarkston to meet up with Jimmy Wren. They could still pull something off. He turned again, seeing Ezra still where he left him, shivering, with that haunted look on his face.

Merle Tibbet whistled to himself, blowing steam into the air, as he picked up his pace.

* * * *

"Mr. Larabee!" Chris looked up to see one of the livery boys running toward him.

"What's up, Pat," Chris asked the breathless boy.

Pat grabbed him by the arm and said, "Come on! You gotta see this."

Larabee let the boy pull him the short distance to the livery and found the other boy, Eddie, working at removing the harnesses from a pair of bays. The high-strung horses were wet and steaming from a hard run.

"What's going on?" Chris asked.

Pat stepped forward to help the other boy. "Eddie found 'em. They were running wild, harnessed together. They've been in the water."

Chris frowned at the discarded harness. The hitch was sound, not broken. How had they gotten into water? Something was wrong somewhere. "Any idea who they belong to, boys?"

"Yeah," Eddie said quickly, "That Tibbet guy, the guy that Mr. Standish left with this morning."

"Ezra?" Chris questioned sharply.

"I didn't like that Mr. Tibbet," Pat responded, as he carefully rubbed down one of the wet animals. "He's no good to his horses and that's the truth. But Mr. Standish left with him." Pat frowned and then said sullenly, "I'm thinkin' Mr. Standish may be a heap a trouble."

Chris turned sharply and headed toward the saloon. He saw Buck heading in the same direction. "Buck!" Chris shouted to him. "We gotta find Ezra."

Buck stopped. "I haven't seen him all day."

"I know," Chris returned, "And now it looks like he may be in some sort of a fix, could be bad." Buck nodded and followed him.

Chris continued into the saloon and found Vin cleaning his gun at one of the tables. "Ezra's in trouble," Chris said. Without a word, Vin quickly put his gun back together and followed Chris out the door.

The three found Josiah and JD at the church, working repairing a windowsill. "We have t’go," Chris uttered. "Looks like something's happened to Ezra. He could be in danger."

The two dropped their hammers and picked up their coats and gun belts. "What's wrong, Chris?" JD asked quickly.

"Yes, what's happened to our brother?" Josiah voiced.

"I can't say for certain," Chris replied. "But he's missing and it looks like he needs our help."

"And then we shall find our lost sheep," Josiah responded as he pulled on his coat and headed out the door.

The five of them headed to Nathan's room. Chris pounded on the door until the healer answered, half-asleep.

"Sorry," Nathan said and yawned, "Long night. I was at the Thompson's setting a leg." He took note of the looks on their faces and asked, "what's wrong?"

"Ezra's gone off with Tibbet. Can't say for sure yet, but it looks like something's gone wrong," Chris answered.

Nathan nodded sharply. "I'll grab my bag and be right down."

"We'll get the horses saddled," Chris said. But by the time they returned to the livery, they found seven horses saddled and ready for them.

The boys had returned to caring for the weary bays, but they looked up as the others entered the livery. Eddie spoke, "I got Mr. Standish's horse just the way he likes him. I brushed him this morning and everything."

"Thank you, boys," Chris said as he led his and Ezra's horse out of the barn. "He'll appreciate that."

"You'll find him, right?" Pat asked, "He'll be okay, right?"

"That is our prayer," Josiah responded, looking up to see Nathan hurrying toward them with his medicine bag in his hand.

The six were soon mounted and headed out of town. Nathan shoved one hand into his pocket searching for his glove and his hand glanced across the piece of paper that he had found stuck to the bottom of his boot last night. He had been dead tired after returning from taking care of Zeke Thompson's leg, and stumbled into his room without lighting a lamp. The paper had stuck to his boot and he had absently removed it and shoved it into his pocket. Nathan ignored it now and found his glove. There was no time to worry about such things.

Vin easily found wagon tracks on the frosted ground. Hardly anyone had been out today, it was so cold, and the trail was easy to follow. Chris filled the others in on what he knew.

"Why the hell did he take off with that Tibbet?" Buck asked as the rode together.

"Why the hell does Ezra do anything?" Chris returned. "Damn it, he's hardly spoken a word to us since the Markham gang came to town."

"Well," JD started, and then stopped speaking.

"Well, what?" Josiah prompted.

"We did kinda let him down," JD stated.

Chris turned to JD. "What do you mean?"

"He was out at the Anderson place alone."

"He was safe, in a nice warm house, with a perfect view of everything around him," Buck began. "Meanwhile, Vin and I were in a barn, you and Buck were at a corral and Josiah and Nathan were out in the open for three days. And, he got out of risking his neck in the shoot-out. He should be thanking us."

JD shrugged. "Yeah, but he was alone... again. And nobody went out to get him after it was over."

Nathan shook his head. "He knew that he was 'spose to return in three days. We were all kinda busy cleanin' up the place. It's his own stubborn nature that kept him out there one more day. It's is own stubborn nature that makes an issue outta these kinda things."

But JD couldn't help but think that they had let their friend down.

The six continued onward, and entered a stand of trees. Within the stand it was quiet and cold. A frozen lake was to their right, bordered by a sharply sloping bank. Chris squinted at the lake ahead of them, muttered a profanity under his breath, and then spurred his horse onward. The others followed.

JD gasped when he saw the wrecked wagon, half submerged in the frozen lake. "Chris!" he cried. "Do you think..."

"Someone had to unhitch those horses." Chris looked desperately down at the wagon, hoping that he wouldn't find something. "Ezra!" he shouted, his voice ringing through the crisp air. "EZRA!"

Vin pointed to the nearby bank. "Someone climbed out over there," he said as he dismounted. He stood quietly, reading the signs and then lifted his head to fir tree. There was a large pile of windblown leaves beneath it, and he could see that it had been recently disturbed. "Good job, Ezra," he said under his breath as he ran to the tree. The rotting leaves would give off some heat and it would be dry under the fir.

He scooped his hands into the leaves and needles, throwing the rotting folliage behind him, until he saw something red, a jacket sleeve. The others were beside him, digging down through the layers of debris until they exposed their friend.

"Oh no," JD moaned. Ezra's face was still and blue. He grabbed the gambler's hand, but it was cold and lifeless. "Nathan!" He looked ominously to their healer.

Nathan pushed his way past the others and knelt down beside Ezra's still form, feeling for a pulse at his neck. Too cold, Nathan thought as he made contact and tried to find a sign of life. The others stood by in silence, waiting. For a minute the healer could not find a pulse, but then he caught it, weak, but persistent. "Build a fire," he ordered.

"Nathan," Chris said, grabbing the healer by his elbow, his face taut.

"He's alive. We have to get him heated up, fast." Jackson touched the stiff, ice-covered jacket, "And God, we gotta get him outta these clothes."

Vin stood apart as Josiah, JD and Buck set to making a fire. He glanced over as Chris and Nathan carried their stricken friend out from under the tree. "Chris," the tracker said, "he went that way." And he pointed back the way they had come.

"Who?" the gunslinger asked as he carefully helped move the gambler. He could feel no warmth coming from Ezra. How could someone be so cold?

"Tibbet," Vin answered. "I'm goin' after him."

Chris helped Nathan settle Ezra by the newly lit fire and stood to face Vin. "He just left Ezra here?"

"Looks like it," Vin replied.

Chris looked down to Ezra. His skin was so blue, and too cold. He was soaked through, and covered in frost. The gunslinger couldn't believe that anyone would leave a man behind in this condition. He wanted to track down Tibbet and give him a beating he wouldn't forget.

"Chris," Nathan said softly, "Help me. Hold him up so I can get these clothes off of him."

Chris knelt down beside Ezra and carefully sat him up. He was so lifeless, Chris thought, so cold and stiff. "Go, Vin."  If I find him first, he thought, I'll kill that son-of-a-bitch, and then I'll never find out why he left Ezra."

Buck grabbed a blanket off his horse and handed it to Nathan. "I'm going, too." He squatted down for a moment and held Ezra's cold hand. "Ezra," he said softly, "Ezra, can you hear me?"

"Be careful," Nathan said quietly. "Don't squeeze his hand too hard. It could cause damage in his state."

Buck felt a wave of despair as he looked at Ezra's still face. "We'll be back soon, Ezra. I'm expecting to see you awake when we get back, you hear me?"

Vin waited for Buck get to his feet.  When he was clear, Tanner moved in and laid his hand on Ezra's head for a moment, feeling the ice in his hair. He didn't know what else to do. He nodded to Buck and the two of them headed for their horses. "We'll get 'im, Chris," Vin assured them.

"You better," Chris replied. He heard the two horsemen depart, but his attention was on Ezra.

Nathan dropped the blanket over Chris' shoulders and Chris looked at him, questioningly. The healer said, "Try to keep it around the both of you. We gotta get him warm."

Chris nodded as he maneuvered his arms out of his coatsleeves, and then and pulled the gambler closer to him, wrapping the coat around both of them.  Ezra was still like ice. Nathan unhooked Ezra's gunbelt first, and handed it to Josiah. "I'm going to have to cut off the clothes," Nathan said. "It'll be too hard to just take 'em off the way they are right now." Chris maneuvered the blanket over Ezra's right side as Nathan worked on his left. The healer pulled out a knife and cut down the back of Ezra's jacket, vest and shirt. The material crackled as he pulled it away the jacket so that he could unhook his shoulder harness. The vest and shirt came next, exposing the bluish-white skin beneath.  Chris quickly adjusted the blanket to keep it around Ezra.

JD sat on his heels and watched. "He's going to be okay, isn't he? I mean, he's not shivering or anything, so that's good, isn't it."

Nathan said nothing as he switched sides. Again, the jacket layer came off first so that Nathan could get at the derringer rig. The device was frozen tight and took some force to spring open. Once the shirt was removed, he could see the bruising left behind by the tight mechanism. "That's why you gotta be careful with him," Nathan said softly. "He's freezing. You can cause some pretty bad damage without even trying."

The boots and the trousers came next. Nathan threw the frozen clothing into a pile, as Chris pulled the blanket tightly around the two of them.

The fire was growing larger, but Chris shivered from his close contact with Ezra. Josiah found a change of clothing and Nathan dressed Ezra as quickly as possible in the oversized garments. It would have been comical if Ezra wasn't in such a pitiful condition. He looked like a child in Josiah's clothing. He looked so unbelievably young and helpless. JD dried his hair with a piece of cloth.

"Now what?" Chris asked.

Nathan shrugged. "We wait. Let's get you comfortable. Keep him sitting up near the fire. We gotta get him warmed up."

JD shoved a saddle behind Chris' back once Larabee had moved as close to the fire as he dared. The gunslinger stayed wrapped up in the blanket with Ezra throughout it all, laying Ezra's head against his chest, and talking quietly to him. "Hang in there, Ezra. We'll get you through this. We just need you to warm up. Do you hear me?"

But there was no response.

Once fire had been burning for almost twenty minutes, Nathan said, "Get some of those rocks away from the fire." He kicked one of the stones from the edge of the flames and touched to make sure it wasn't too hot. He handed the stone to Chris. "This should help. Get 'em in close to his body to warm him," he said.

JD walked away from the fire in search of more stones while Nathan helped Chris position the heated rocks correctly to do the most good. The boy was selective in his search, trying to find smooth, clean stones. He knew Ezra would appreciate that. He came back with an armload that he dropped at the fire's edge, and then he sat next to Josiah, shivering. Josiah, who had been cleaning Ezra's Remington, set down the weapon to place a protective arm around JD and pulled him closer to the fire. "Come closer brother and feel the warmth," the preacher purred.

"It's stupid that I'm so cold," JD said as he looked across to Ezra, cradled in Chris' arms.

Josiah smiled at the young sheriff. "I’m sure Ezra isn't offended."

"He's gotta be okay, Josiah," JD said quietly. "What if he never wakes up? What if he thinks he died alone?"

Chris frowned at JD's words. He wanted to rub Ezra's arms, or to massage his hands or something to bring life back into him but Nathan had forbid him. At this moment, all Chris could do was hold him and try to force some warmth into him.

"You're going to be okay," he whispered into Ezra's ear. "We're here. You're not alone. You're not alone."

Nathan set a kettle near to the fire to warm up some water, and sent JD to check the saddle-bags for sugar. He would need to get some fluids into Ezra as soon as possible. Warm sugar- water would be best. But there had been no change in him yet. Nathan sat back and shoved his hands into his pocket in frustration. His hand brushed against the paper again and he pulled it out angrily. He was about to toss it into the fire when he realized what it was.

The others at the fire noticed Nathan's expression. "What is it, Nathan?" Josiah asked softly.

The healer quickly showed the envelope to the others. There was a muddy footprint over most of the surface, but beneath the dirt it was easy to read Nathan's name written in that careful and familiar handwriting. He tore it open and stared to read it silently.

"Ah, Ezra," Nathan sighed. The healer read the letter aloud, stumbling over many of the words, but able to perform a fairly accurate imitation of the author. It felt good to hear his words, even out of someone else.

"Dear Mr. Jackson: This letter is to inform you of the current circumstances.

Mr. Merle Tibbet, to whom you were so graciously introduced this evening, is currently under the delusion that he shall  pillage the bank in Clarkston of all its gold and murder innocent citizens.  He also believes that he shall succeed in this misguided endeavor. He has asked for my assistance.

I will travel with the miscreant and attempt to persuade him to alter his before-mentioned plans. I am requesting that you and the rest of our company pursue at a sensible distance and assist in his capture if necessary. Mr. Tibbet, although apparently jocular in nature, is not to be trusted, and should be approached with all due caution.

Mr. Tibbet has engaged a colleague to aid in the contrivance, whom I believe shall be regarded as dangerous. I will do what I can to discover the identity of Mr. Tibbet's associate and will be able to detain him from continuing on this misguided scheme. Wish me luck.

Yours sincerely, Mr. Ezra P. Standish

"Damn fool," Chris whispered to Ezra. "Why didn't you wake someone up? You should'a known you would’ve ended up hurt."

It was starting to get dark. The cold winter air sat heavily at their backs. Chris moved the now cold stones out of the blanket and accepted newly warmed ones from the others. Still Ezra had not stirred. Chris felt miserable. It seemed like nothing would warm their friend.

JD's words haunted him. What if Ezra never woke up? What if Ezra's last thoughts were that he would die alone in the cold? That no one would have gone to look for him? Christ, Ezra should know better. But no, Chris thought again, Ezra probably wouldn't. He was too proud to let people close to him, too well trained in the art of the con to let anyone become his friend. He expected nothing from anyone.

He remembered what JD had said earlier. "I'm sorry, Ezra," Chris said softly to him, "I shouldn't 'ave left you out there alone after we captured the Markhams. I should 'ave come out to get ya."

Chris was startled to hear a soft sound from Ezra. Nathan and the others were suddenly beside him. "Ezra?" Larabee shook the gambler softly. "Ezra, can you wake up?"

Again Ezra spoke, so softly that only Chris could hear. Larabee looked up at the others. "He said, 'When'."

"When?" Josiah replied. He backtracked mentally through Chris' one-sided conversation. "Is he asking 'when will he wake up?' or 'when will you come for him?'"

"'When' what, Ezra?" He listened carefully as Ezra again spoke softly. "Chimney?" Chris looked at Nathan and said, "Chimney?"

"He's hallucinating." Nathan sighed, "Or delirious. It's common when someone gets so cold."

"When...Chimney..." JD said softly, trying to make sense of it. "Chimney...When."

"He's in bad shape, JD," Nathan said to the young sheriff. "He's not gonna make sense. Now prop him up a bit more, Chris. I need to see if we can get some water into him."

JD frowned as again Josiah wrapped one arm over his shoulder. "When...Chimney..." JD said again. "He's trying to tell us something."

Nathan poured warm sugar-water into a tin mug and held it up to Ezra's still blue lips. "Ezra," he said sternly, "Ezra! I need you to drink this. Can you hear me? Ezra!"

Ezra's eyes fluttered for a moment and he opened them partially, fixing them on the cup in front of his face. Nathan slowly brought the mug to his lips and carefully poured only a few drops into his mouth. Seeing that he didn't gag, the healer tried again, slowly and patiently until he was able to get about half of the warm water into the gambler.

Ezra spoke again, softly and closed his eyes and would drink no more. Nathan looked pleased at the progress and turned to Chris. "What did he say?"

Chris smiled. "Ever the gentleman...He said, 'thank you'."

JD looked expectantly at the healer. "He's getting better?"

Nathan nodded, but didn't say anything.

Ezra continued to speak intermittently throughout the night, but he did not open his eyes again. He was shivering now, which Nathan said was a good thing. "His body is trying to heat itself up."

As the night wore on, Chris listened carefully to the softly spoken words. Much of was unintelligible between Ezra's slurred, quiet voice and the chattering of his teeth. He continued to say 'When' and 'Chimney'. Another word constantly evaded Chris' understanding until he finally realized it was 'Tibbet'.

He listened closely to the quiet, almost inaudible voice. Ezra was constantly repeating one strange word, so Chris spoke it slowly to himself. "Clagso?" Chris echoed bewildered. Ezra repeated the word again, slower, as if he was trying to get Chris to understand. "Clarso?" Chris prompted, willing himself to hear the word correctly.  And then it hit him "Clarkston?"

This time he clearly understood the gambler, Ezra said "yes."

"Ezra, listen." Chris saw that the others were up and beside them now. "We have your note. We know about Tibbet."

And again, Ezra seemed to say 'chimney' and 'when'.

"I don't understand what chimney is supposed to mean, Ezra," Chris stated hopelessly.

Again Ezra repeated the word, slowly, carefully, and Chris thought that maybe he heard a 'j' at the beginning. "Jimney?" again it made no sense.

JD suddenly sat up. "Jimmy." He looked between the others. "Jimmy When? no it's Jimmy Wren!" He shot up to his feet. "It's Jimmy Wren. I got a wanted poster for that guy."

Nathan and Chris exchanged looks. The gunslinger commented, "Any bets that he's that man that was going to help Tibbet? He's probably in Clarkston right now."

JD nodded. "I've got to send a telegraph. Wren is bad business."

"Go," Chris ordered.

JD sat down beside Ezra and told him, "You did it Ezra. We understand."

JD waited, hoping that Ezra would respond, but the gambler had become quiet again, still shivering. "I have to get to the telegraph office so they can send the message as soon as the wire opens. I'll be back soon, okay?" Not receiving a response, JD sighed and headed to his horse.

Josiah then stood, stretched and stated, "I'll go with him. It’s a moonlit night, but dark and cold. It would be better if we went together." He also sat next to Ezra. He pulled the gambler's cold hand from beneath the blanket and held it gently. "May the angels watch over you, son," he rumbled, then replaced the hand beneath the blanket and followed JD to the horses.

The sound of the departing horsemen had faded when they heard the sound returning. But -- instead of JD and Josiah --  Buck and Vin burst into the light of the fire.

"Hey!" Buck exclaimed, jumping down from his horse. "We talked to JD and Josiah. They said Ezra was getting better." He frowned, at the still unresponsive, but now shaking conman. He was hoping to find Ezra awake and doing his best to annoy everyone.

"Did you get Tibbet?" Chris asked quickly.

Vin nodded. "He got a horse from the Svoboda place. Didn't get very far."

"We caught up to him about a mile west of there," Buck continued. "He was having some trouble with his horse. Took a shot or two at us, but he gave up pretty fast."

"Did he give you an explanation?" Chris asked.

Vin snorted. "Several! Couldn't make up his mind which story to go with." The two men had moved close to the fire to get warm.

Buck shook his head. "First he started telling us that he didn't even know who Ezra was. I guess he forgot the introductions last night. Then he goes on saying that he thought Ezra had drowned. Then he says that he saved Ezra from drowning and that he had gone for help." Wilmington sighed, "Then, after a bit of prompting, we got him to admit that he just plain left Ezra here, knowin' he was in trouble." Buck rubbed his hands and held them close to the warmth of the fire. "He said he was sorry about what he said to Ezra. I don't know what that was about though."

"Any mention of a bank robbery or Jimmy Wren?" Jackson asked. The two men looked at each other and shook their heads.

"Bank robbery? Who's Jimmy Wren?" Buck asked.

"He's someone that Ezra has been trying awfully hard for us to know about," Nathan explained.

"Where’s Tibbet now?" Chris asked.

"Locked up in our jail," Buck replied. "We came back out as soon as we could."

Buck looked at Chris, with Ezra still propped up against his chest. Buck figured that Chris had not moved all night. "Do you need me to take over?"

Nathan nodded. "It's time you got up for a while, Chris. We'll switch Ezra over to Buck."

Chris, realizing how tired he had become from holding onto Ezra for so long, agreed. With a little difficulty, the two men swapped positions and Chris walked stiffly around the fire.

Nathan and Chris related the contents of the letter to Vin and Buck. Wilmington just shook his head and commented, "He's too damn independent. Doesn't bother to get help when he needs it."

"At least he left a note," Vin added. "That's somethin'."

The cold long night wore on slowly. Ezra had started mumbling to himself, his eyes still closed. Buck held on to him tightly, worried about his chilled friend. As he listened to the incoherent rambling, one word started to become distinct....'alone.'

"Alone? Hell, you're not alone, Ez.  You got us all around you. Can't you tell I'm right here?" Buck asked cheerfully. "I'm about as close as I can get without bein' indecent."

"Chris?" Ezra called weakly.

Chris quickly moved beside Ezra. "I'm right here, pard."

"Where are you?" the gambler whispered.

"I'm here. Right here beside you." Larabee reached into the blanket and withdrew the man's hand. "I'm right here."

"Why won't you come?" Ezra asked feebly, his eyes still shut.

The four men exchanged glances. Nathan moved up beside Ezra, and spoke to the others. "He doesn't know what's going on. He must think that he's alone still, that we haven't found him yet, that he's back under that tree."

As if to confirm Nathan's words, Ezra echoed, "Alone...."

"Ezra," Buck said, "Don't be foolish, we're right here. Can't ya feel me holdin' onto you?"

"Buck?" Ezra said.

"Yeah, it's me."

"JD? Nathan? Where are you? Why won't you come?" His voice was very small and faint. "Josiah? Josiah? Vin? Where are you, Vin?"

Vin placed his hand on Ezra's head again, "Don't you go thinkin' I would leave you," he uttered.

"Cold.. out in the cold." Ezra continued to murmur, "don't go out in the cold."

"Come on, Ezra," Buck said. "We're trying to get you warm now, so just be quiet."

"Don't bother going out in the cold," the gambler said weakly, "Don't bother going out in the cold for Ezra."

"What?" Chris exclaimed and glared at the others. "What the hell?"

"Too cold to look for Ezra," Ezra whispered.

"Who put that into your head?" Buck asked sharply.

"Tibbet," was the reply.

Chris's eyes narrowed, feeling the rage toward Tibbet growing. Buck had said that Tibbet was sorry for what he had said. Was this it?

"I got a bone to pick with you about the company you keep, Ez," Buck grumbled. His face showed the shock that the words produced, but he kept his voice friendly and natural.

"Why would they want to come for Ezra?" the gambler murmured, "He's not worth the effort. He's useless. Let him freeze. It'll be better for everyone." Ezra repeated the words that Tibbet had used on him. When he said his own name the z's came out far too harsh and the a' seemed to slip away, distorting the name strangely.

Chris wanted to pound Tibbet. He could imagine the thief saying the words to a freezing Ezra. Vin and Nathan started to speak but Buck interrupted them.

"Now you stop that right now!" Buck growled to the gambler. "Do you hear me? Nobody talks about my friend like that." The others looked at Buck in disbelief, not understanding how he could yell at Ezra at that moment.

Buck continued, "Anybody who talks about my friend, Ezra, like that is going to get a thrashin'. I swear, I'd knock him clean off his feet and wouldn't stop until I got an apology out of him." He looked down at Ezra and saw finally a change in his slack face. His brow was slightly furrowed, as if he was listening. Buck turned to Chris quickly. "Wouldn't you say that's right, Chris?"

Chris smiled, understanding. "Oh, I don't know, Buck. I think if I heard someone talking about my friend, Ezra, like that I'd have to shoot him." He emphasized the word 'friend', hoping that it would penetrate. "Not to kill him. Make him think about what he had done."

Buck turned to Vin. "So, what would you do, Vin, if you heard someone bad-mouthing Ezra like that?"

"Drag 'im," Vin said without waiting a second. "Tie him to the back of my horse and drag him a spell. It would serve 'im right. I don't like it when people tell lies about Ezra."

Ezra's face was changing again. The corners of his mouth seemed to tug slightly.

"What about you, Nathan?" Buck prodded.

The healer paused, trying to think of something to say, but Buck spoke for him. "You'd knife him, right? Just stick a knife in between his ribs."

"Yeah, knife him," Vin agreed.

"Sure," Nathan said with a shrug, and then spoke very distinctly, "If anyone was so low as to say stuff like that about Ezra, I'd have to knife 'im."

>"See," Buck said, "We don't put up with that from anybody. Not even you."

"JD?" Ezra queried softly.

The other's looked puzzled for a moment, but Chris suddenly understood. "Well now, JD, he likes Ezra quite a bit, looks up to him. I think if he heard anyone say such garbage about his friend, he'd have something special planned for him." He could see a little smile forming on the conman's face. Chris paused, trying to think of the right thing.

"Bear," Vin decided. "He'd string him up and let 'im get eaten by a bear. That's what JD'd do."

Nathan, Buck and Chris all gave the tracker a strange look.

"Okay, yeah, a bear. And it would be a big one, too," Buck complied. "'Cause JD wouldn't like someone talking like that about Ezra."

The group was quiet again for a minute before Ezra quietly spoke again, "What about Josiah?"

"Oh, don't get me started about Josiah," Buck said expansively. "I know for a fact that Josiah is very fond of that boy -- Ezra. Josiah is a very fair and kind man, but if he were to hear anyone say anything as hurtful and wrong like that, about his friend Ezra, well, there'd be trouble to pay. " He could see the smile growing across Ezra's face. "He would grab that fool and squeeze him -- just squeeze him. The idiot would never escape from Josiah's mighty embrace."

It was then that Ezra laughed, just a small laugh, but a laugh none-the-less. Then he said, "I'd like to see that." And then he was quiet again, breathing deeply.

Nathan felt for the gambler's pulse and smiled. "I think he's asleep finally." He stood and declared, "His color is much better now and he's stopped shivering. I think he's holding his own."

"He's gonna be alright?" Buck asked.

Nathan nodded, "He's gonna be fine."

* * * *

It was just getting light when JD and Josiah returned. JD had sent the telegram to Clarkston and received a quick response that the sheriff would be on the lookout for the outlaw Jimmy Wren. Wren certainly wasn't going to get near the bank.

The six lawmen were talking loudly around the fire when they suddenly heard Ezra speak in voice much stronger than he had used all night. "Could somebody please explain to me why Mr. Wilmington is 'hugging' me?"

"Ezra!" Nearly everyone yelled at once, causing the gambler to wince.

Ezra struggled to sit up, and finding he couldn't, weakly threw a stone toward the fire. "And why the rocks?" When he saw the sleeve of his shirt he shuddered, then glared over his shoulder at Buck and the man graciously released him.

"What happened?" Ezra asked.

"You took a damn fool chance and almost got yourself frozen to death," Chris responded.

Ezra rubbed his forehead slowly and then tried to pull the blanket closer to him but realized that Buck was still wrapped up with him. "Were there not enough blankets to go around?" Ezra asked, sounding tired.

"Is he okay?" Buck asked and when Nathan gave him a nod, Buck did his best to disentangle himself from the gambler, the remaining rocks and the blanket. "There ya go, Ez," Buck said as he shoved the saddle 'back-rest' closer to Standish.

Ezra pulled the blanket close.  When he looked up, everyone was staring at him expectantly. "If you want me to provide some sort of entertainment, perhaps you should return my cards."

"Ezra," Chris said, squatting down beside him. "Do you remember what happened?"

Ezra leaned away from the gunslinger, looking suspiciously at him. Ezra closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead again, making Chris think he probably had a pretty bad headache.

"Good Lord!" Ezra said, his eyes snapping open, "Mr. Tibbet!"

"We got him," Vin said.

"He's planning to steal with the gold from..."

"...the Clarkston bank," Buck finished the thought.

Ezra looked puzzled, "And his associate..."

"...Jimmy Wren," JD said with a smile.

Ezra sighed forlornly. "It seems that I'm able to supply nothing but second hand information."

Nathan pulled the note from his pocket. "You've already given us the news, Ezra."

"And you worked mighty hard to supply us the name of Jimmy Wren," Josiah spoke, "Or was it Chimney When?"

Six of the men laughed, and the seventh looked confused.

* * * *

The Seven started toward home in the afternoon. Ezra insisted on riding his own horse. The group rode slowly, everyone keeping an eye on their friend, who made the effort to sit tall in his saddle, even if he was half-smothered in blankets and Josiah's oversized clothing. JD had been quick to note that one of them should have had the foresight to return with a wagon, but Ezra just sighed and said he didn't want anything to do with wagons at that moment.

"You freed the horses," Chris stated as they made their way toward Four Corners.

"The horses, yes, and they were nearly the death of me. Sent me back beneath the ice.  A nearly fatal endeavor."

"You should be glad that you did," Josiah told him.  "They're what let us know you were in trouble."

Ezra kept his eyes forward. "They apparently understood the value of a reciprocating relationship."

"What?" JD asked, speaking for most of them.

"They know how to repay a favor," Ezra drawled.

"You should thank those boys at the livery when you get back," Chris said. "As soon as those bays came toward town, they went looking for us. They figured you were in trouble."

"Ah yes, Mr. Tull and Mr. Everett. I've always said that knowing when and whom to tip will assure you of a greater standard of service."

Buck shook his head. "Maybe they just like you, Ez. You ever thought of that?"

Ezra didn't reply, but rather looked dreamily in front of him.

"I suppose you'll have a thing or two to say to that Tibbet," Vin said.

"I'd prefer to never set eyes upon Mr. Tibbet again," Ezra mumbled. He turned toward the others, an action that almost unseated him, and said, "And I'd certainly expect that you gentlemen won't cause any unnecessary harm to Mr. Tibbet before his scheduled trial. I believe someone in Sacramento would be glad to see him." He smiled and faced forward again.

Nathan leaned toward Chris and said, "He's going to pass out any minute. He's hardly keeping himself upright. Look at him!"

Chris looked at Ezra, but thought that Standish  looked rather happy, rather pleased with himself. The gambler claimed to have remembered nothing beyond the crash of the wagon and the release of the horses, but Chris had a suspicious feeling that Ezra knew at least part of what went on at the fireside. Larabee figured it just made Ezra more comfortable to deny it. Maybe, he knew how the others felt about him, that they would not abandon him to the cold.

THE END - NotTasha -- February 23, 2000

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