Chris dreamed he was lying in the street bleeding to death. The gunfight was over and he was watching his blood pool in the dirt. Shadows cast by the passing townsfolk reached over him but no one stopped to help. He could hear them whispering, feel them shy around him, but none came too close. His body was going numb. Soon nothing would hurt anymore....
He awoke with a start, shivering against the cold desert ground and the nip of the morning air. For a few rapid heartbeats, he thought he really was lying on that street. But then he felt the warmth of a campfire on his back, heard the others moving around, talking quietly if none too happily.
Rubbing at his aching neck muscles, Chris rolled over and sat up. The other six were already awake and drinking coffee. Josiah was lying propped up on one elbow while Vin was lying propped up against an old stump. Everyone else was sitting up; well, everyone except Ezra who'd contrived a position somewhere in between with the help of his saddle.
Chris was just nodding thanks to JD for a cup of coffee, when Buck erupted with the question that had probably been preying on his mind all night.
"I still don't know how in the blue blazes you're expecting to pull this one off, Chris." He threw the dregs of his coffee into the fire so it hissed in punctuation. "You think an old shootist like Patience Kincaid is going to give up his gun just because you stroll into town? First you and Vin try to ride off together. Then you tell us the judge wants Kincaid alive. Is there anything else you've forgot to mention?"
Chris sipped his coffee before replying. "No one asked you along. Nothing's keeping you here."
"But we can't just let you and Vin ride in there alone," JD objected. "Everyone's heard of Patience Kincaid, Chris. He was the fastest gun around these parts before you. And he's up on a murder charge so there's no telling what he'll do."
Josiah nodded. "Old dogs may not have as many teeth but they know where to bite when their backs are against the wall."
"Damn right," Buck agreed.
Vin shifted against the tree stump but didn't comment.
"When it comes down to it," Nathan said, "ain't none of us going to sit by and watch you and Vin try and do this alone. You need us watching your back."
When Chris still didn't respond, Buck started getting suspicious. "Chris," he began low, "tell me you don't have a past with Kincaid?"
"Never laid eyes on the man."
"That didn't answer my question."
Chris sipped his coffee in silence.
Buck sighed, exasperated. "So why are you so all-fired up to take him in alone?"
"Professional courtesy, Mr Wilmington," Ezra answered over his coffee cup, seemingly indifferent to Chris' scowl. "Mr Larabee is, after all, the gunfighter's gunfighter."
"Is that it?" Buck stared at Chris disbelievingly. "You think you've got some kind of brotherhood of the gun thing going here? You think that's going to stop him shooting you in the back?"
"He won't to shoot me in the back," Chris returned, narrowing his gaze and targeting Buck's anger. "In twenty years time, when they come to take me in for a killing I don't remember, will you be there?"
The remainder of the ride to arrest Patience Kincaid at the town of Dead Dog was both easy and uneasy. While the trail held no challenge, Chris' bad mood hung over them like an invisible pall. Ezra was almost glad to see the sun-bleached buildings of the town come into view. Almost.
They rode into Dead Dog like a funeral procession, which was quite apt given the town's name and their purpose. Ezra didn't want to think about the other permutations he'd been pushing from his mind all day, permutations which had stopped him even looking in Chris' direction.
When Chris separated off to ride over and hitch his horse outside Dead Dog's only saloon, Ezra didn't look over. However, he could see the others watching Chris' progress even as they hitched their own horses across the street.
The last to dismount, Ezra tied his own horse's reins tight to the rail and tried not to watch Chris' back disappear through the batwings doors into the saloon's smoky gloom. It didn't work. Even after Chris' hard silhouette had faded from view, he still found himself squinting into the saloon's darkness.
"All right," Vin said in soft command, "I'm going in. Give me a long count then come in easy."
The others nodded and Vin crossed the street.
As soon as Vin disappeared into the saloon, time seemed to stand still. JD started to fidget and Josiah put a calming hand on his shoulder.
They stood in silence, waiting.
"I'm sure Chris has everything under control," Ezra said, as much for his own benefit as to break the ominous quiet. "I doubt our services will be required."
"That's the plan," Buck said as he started across the street. "Come on, boys, nice and easy."
They all fell in behind with Ezra bringing up the rear. Before entering the saloon, he took one last glance up and down the street. All seemed quiet.
If the street was sleepy, the saloon was positively soporific. Ezra noted that none of the usual patrons lacked a grey hair -- or sixty. "I've heard of dens of iniquity but never one of antiquity," he said low while taking a seat at Vin's table with the others.
Vin nodded as the saloon regulars glared at them. "I was just setting here thinkin' that Josiah should have been lookout on this trip. He blends right in."
Josiah cocked his head at Vin's smile. "I'll take that as the compliment it was intended."
"How they doing?" Buck asked, making Ezra glance surreptitiously over to where Chris and another man stood at the bar.
"Talkin'," Vin replied easily. "Been hunched over together like that since I come in."
"Is that good?" JD frowned.
Nathan shrugged. "Way I look at it, if no one's bleeding, it can't be bad."
"Amen to that," Josiah said and they all settled in for an easier wait.
While the others conversed lightly, Ezra watched Chris and the older gunfighter via the handily placed, highly polished brass plaque above Vin's head. The irony of the plaque commemorating the longest running poker game in town history wasn't lost on him.
Comparing Chris to the other gunfighter was a natural impulse; they were of the same breed, after all. Both moved economically, their strength sheathed in a dark, imposing presence that belied their average statures. They were dangerous men, predators in a way Ezra would never be. Saloon smoke, charm and five-card draw were his weapons of choice; Chris and Patience Kincaid dealt in gun smoke, fear and the deadliest draw of all. There was no comparison.
"Could I interest you gentleman in a game of chance?" Ezra asked his compatriots with an engaging smile.
"Hell, why not," Buck responded, looking over at Chris. "Looks like we're going to be here for a while. It'll give us something else to complain about."
As the others agreed, Ezra slipped his deck of cards out of his inside pocket and prepared to deal.
"Strange bunch of fellers you travel with, Larabee," Kincaid said as they watched Ezra deal the cards. "A kid, a gentleman of colour and a tinhorn gambler."
Chris took the measure of Kincaid's calculating grey eyes before replying. "They're all good men in a fight."
"Of that I have no doubt." Kincaid's finely sculpted, salt and pepper moustache twitched in amusement. "What else did Travis say? He planning on stopping all those young bucks gunning for my hide or is that your job?"
"We'll take care of it."
"Does that we include that prettily dressed gambler watching us in the shine of that brass?"
"Ezra's all right," Chris immediately returned.
Kincaid's moustache twitched again. "So what if I do go along with you, Larabee, but what if I don't travel without my gun at my side?"
Chris shrugged. "As long as I have your word there'll be no trouble, you'll have mine on a fair trial."
"And you'll be watching it all," Kincaid said softly. "Watching it all and thinking on the future."
"Do I have your word?"
Kincaid nodded. "You have it. You and your boys have nothing to fear from me. I'll go with you and you'll see a glimpse of the future."
The ride back along the trail was uneventful. By the time they made camp for the night, everyone's demeanour had slipped from quietly contemplative to downright morose. Kincaid hadn't said a word to any of them since they had set out, so Ezra was surprised when the old gunfighter smiled at him and set his bedroll down close by at the campfire.
"Seems to me you found the best piece of ground, Mr Standish," Kincaid said so softly that Ezra had no doubt the words were meant for him alone. "If you don't mind me saying, I can't help but notice an ill feeling between yourself and Mr Larabee."
Ezra frowned, trying to read Kincaid's expression by the flickering firelight. "What ever led you to that assumption, Mr Kincaid?"
"You don't so much as look at each other if you can help it," the old gunfighter replied simply, his hooded gaze hidden by the shadows. "Doesn't take a shaman to see you've had trouble of a sort."
"No trouble, sir." Ezra tried not to shift under Kincaid's scrutiny; the idea that every gunfighter of the breed could read his feelings for Chris so easily was a terrifying thought. "Mr Larabee and I are on as cordial terms as the rest of our group, I assure you."
"Well, that's good to hear." Kincaid smiled. "The day's gonna come when Larabee'll need his friends. They're what counts at the end of the day. Sometimes a man forgets that."
As Kincaid lay down to sleep, Ezra stayed up waiting for his watch. Chris didn't settle down either and they spent an uncomfortable time trying to ignore each other. When Buck returned from his watch, Ezra wasted no time in picking up his rifle and heading out to the large rock by the trail that had been designated the main watch point. He wasn't surprised when he heard someone following him up from camp a short time later.
"You're early," Ezra said lightly, not looking around from his sitting place on the rock. He didn't flinch when Chris' hands slipped over his shoulders to embrace him under the cover of night.
"Maybe I thought you could do with some relief," Chris whispered by his ear.
Ezra leaned away from the following kiss. "That, I believe, is Josiah's task tonight."
Chris withdrew to stand away. "I didn't ask you along because I could handle Kincaid on my own."
"And you were quite correct in your assumption. Congratulations."
There was a long pause before Chris asked very low, "What did Kincaid say to you?"
Cradling his rifle closer to his body, Ezra glanced up at the starless sky. "What makes you conclude Mr Kincaid and I spoke?"
"Are you going to answer every question with a question?"
"I don't know. Are you going to keep asking questions?"
"What do you want me to say, Ezra?"
"What do you want to say?"
Chris growled a sigh and crouched down by Ezra's feet, shuffling the stones there.
The sudden, unexpected warmth of body heat brushing against his leg sent blood pumping to other parts of Ezra's anatomy he cared not to mention. He kept his mouth firmly closed as Chris took a weary breath to speak.
"I didn't need your help. I guess it didn't occur to me that you might want to come along."
"No surprise there, then," Ezra's mouth said while other parts of his anatomy screamed at it to shut up and get kissing.
Chris stood up abruptly. "What do you want from me?"
The angry hurt and confusion in Chris' voice was more than Ezra could bear. Without weighing his actions, he moved up to Chris and, placing one hand gently but firmly under his chin, kissed him softly on the mouth. Their lips had no sooner met than Chris was returning the kiss with a driving passion. Then kissing wasn't enough and they were pulling each other closer, harder, into the kind of desperate embrace that could only end in one way.
But then Chris was easing away. "I better get back," he said, leaving Ezra blinking against the mocking desert breeze. "You all right?" he turned back to ask at the last possible moment, briefly brushing Ezra's cheek with the back of his hand.
"Never better." Ezra tried a weak smile Chris couldn't see and learned to breathe again as he walked away.
Ezra was acting strangely again and it was beginning to wear Chris down. Yesterday it was irritation and avoidance; today it was silence and, well, silence. Ezra only usually acted this way after a run-in with Maude. It didn't bode well and Chris had enough to occupy his mind with the preparations for Kincaid's trial. Ezra's odd behaviour would just have to wait, he told himself as he rode down main street with a nod to Judge Travis who was waiting for them outside the jail.
"Chris," Orrin Travis greeted him and nodded to the others as they dismounted. "I see you've brought in Mr Kincaid."
"How could I refuse such an invitation?" Kincaid responded ruefully as he dismounted. "I'm all yours judge." He stepped up to hand Chris his gun -- and all hell broke loose.
It was an odd sensation to feel the hairs on the back of your neck prickle while looking into the eyes of a man who was experiencing exactly the same thing. Patience Kincaid undoubtedly felt the same tingle of danger Chris did; they were both crouching to return fire even before the first bullets sounded, a split second before anyone else reacted.
While returning a shot at the gunman on the roof of the feed store, Chris shoved Judge Travis into the open jail doorway before flipping up the table outside the jail window for cover. Picking out the other two gunmen, one on top of the old boarding house and the other shooting from behind the hotel's high sign, Chris returned fire but soon realised the rest of his group weren't as fortunate.
Ezra, Josiah and JD were still mounted when the shooting began, with JD just taking Vin's horse's reins as he dismounted. When the first shots rang out, Vin's horse reared violently as if a bullet had grazed it. While Vin was knocked hard to the ground, JD was nearly pulled from his own horse, which was already trying to bolt. JD, too busy trying to stay on his own horse to even think fast enough to let go of Vin's horse, would have been open season for the gunmen if Josiah hadn't ridden in and pulled him over to the shadow of the gunmen's buildings.
As Vin lay disorientated in the street, Buck and Nathan returned fire as best they could while helping a heavily bleeding Kincaid into the safety of the jail.
Chris' anger bit hard.
Barely waiting for Buck to give him proper covering fire, he strode out into the street for kill shots on the last two gunmen. JD came to stand with him as Josiah helped Vin to safety -- and then the shooting stopped.
An eerie silence permeated the buildings as Chris and JD backed up to the jail. "Everyone all right?" Chris shouted over the ringing in his ears.
"My head feels like it's been done kicked in," Vin answered painfully from where he sat on the boardwalk beside Josiah. "But I reckon I'm better off than Kincaid."
"Nathan?" Chris called into the jail but still kept an eye on the street.
"He's hurt bad, Chris," came the urgent response. "I need some help in here."
"I'll go." Josiah left Vin with a pat on his shoulder and Chris turned his full attention back to the street.
"Anyone see where Ezra went?"
As soon as the shooting started, Ezra took his horse's advice and bolted down an alley around to the back of the gunmen's buildings. After dismounting and securing his horse, he climbed up a pile of crates to the telegraph office's low roof and hoped the nasty splinter he got in the process would be worth his effort.
While running across the old bank's rickety roof was not a balancing act he would care to repeat, it did enable him to outflank his enemy. Pausing briefly to consider the unique vindictiveness of splinters, he shook his stinging wrist once more before silently stalking up on his first target.
If it wasn't for the ricocheting shot that made them both duck down and catch each other's eye, Ezra would have caught his miscreant with ease. As it was, he had to roll and return fire, shooting the man through the mouth before his aim improved.
Leaving the dead man's body where it fell, he wasted no time in moving on to the next gunman. The following roof run was no more inviting than the last but he managed to reach his goal without mishap. However, just as he was approaching his next man, the fool stood up to run away and got caught in the head by a bullet being fired up from the street.
That was the last shot in the gunfight.
Not about to follow the example set by the very dead gentleman at his feet, Ezra kept his head down while checking the erstwhile gunman's pockets.
"Well, well, well. What have we here?" he murmured, pulling a very finely made leather wallet from the dead man's inside coat pocket. Opening the wallet, he whistled upon finding no less than a thousand dollars in crisp, clean notes. "Well, as incompetent as you may have been, my friend," he told the corpse conversationally, "you certainly knew how to extort your price."
Tucking the wallet into his own inside pocket, he went on searching the gunman's clothes until he found three $25 gold gaming tokens in the last pocket. However, his mood of optimistic avarice was ruined upon reading the name of the redeeming gambling hall. "Hell." He scowled at the betraying letters then checked all the tokens again just to make sure. They all declared the same thing: 'The Double Deuce Sporting House, Fort Bannerman Flats, Messrs Everett Williams and John P. Williams Proprietors'. "Hell!" he repeated.
A few moments later, he was lost in thought supposing that a timely but long overdue incarceration of Everett's psychotic little brother Johnny was probably more than he could hope for, when a familiar voice called his name. Straightening up from the corpse, he looked to where Chris and Buck stood a few rooftops over.
"You all right?" Chris continued.
"Safe and sound," Ezra called back before tucking the gambling tokens into his vest pocket and making his way over to Chris' position. Again, roof travel left much to be desired. "I take it everyone survived unscathed?" he asked as he joined Chris and Buck over the body of the third gunmen.
"Kincaid was hit bad," Buck answered quietly as they watched Chris go through the dead man's pockets. "Vin was knocked around a little but he's all right. It could have been a hell of a lot worse."
As Ezra nodded, Chris stood away from the corpse, fanning out a crisp handful of money. "They were hired guns all right," he concluded bitterly, handing the wad of dollars over to Buck.
Ezra frowned down at the dead man. "Did you find anything else?"
Chris shook his head before his gaze narrowed. "What did you find on the other one?"
"The same." Ezra shrugged, pulling out the wallet from his inside pocket and handing it over. But his apparent compliance didn't alleviate Chris' suspicion. While Buck checked through the money, Ezra tried to ignore the increasing weight of Chris' scrutiny. As much as he wanted to stop Chris looking at him like that, The Double Deuce represented a particularly hellish interlude he cared not to revisit. Ever. Especially with Chris in proximity. "It seems our would-be murderers were well rewarded for their services," he commented, just to be saying something.
"Not well enough," Buck said with a nod to the corpse at his feet.
Chris and the dead man kept their opinions to themselves.
Trying not to dwell on the feeling that Ezra was hiding something from him, Chris left the gunmen's corpses to the others and went back to check on Kincaid. As he returned to the jail Nathan had turned into a makeshift surgery, he found Vin sitting outside, still looking sickly.
"I take it them fellers are still dead and Ezra's pulled another fast one?" Vin asked as he approached.
Nodding, Chris sat on the chair beside him. "They were all paid guns. We found a thousand dollars on each of them."
Vin whistled softly. "That's a lot of money for an old gunfighter."
"You think they were after Kincaid?" Chris met Vin's gaze.
"Had to be." Vin shrugged. "He's the only one that got shot and ain't none of us worth three thousand dead or alive."
Chris nodded, his thoughts running along much the same lines.
"It don't look good for Kincaid," Vin said quietly. "Nathan's doing the best he can but..."
"I saw." Chris stood to go into the jail. He'd hardly gone a step when Vin took a light hold of his forearm.
"It ain't nobody's fault, Chris. They knew we were coming, were layin' in wait."
Chris didn't reply. When Vin let go, he walked into the jail to watch Patience Kincaid die.
As tired as he was, Ezra couldn't sleep. His skin felt itchy, his muscles restless. As comfortable as it was to lie naked beneath the sheets on such a warm night, he remained ill at ease. No soothing imagery chased away the mental picture of Chris keeping the night watch over Kincaid's doubtful recovery. Trying to sleep was a fruitless pursuit but his eyes refused to open and he was loath to leave his featherbed.
Rolling onto his side, he snuggled down into the mattress and tried to lose himself in the twists and turns of his mind. Predictably, after veering away from Chris, his thoughts rolled around to estimating the amount of money Everett Williams must have accumulated in order to make minting his own $25 tokens a viable exercise. The end figure made the pit of his stomach ache. The fact that he could have accumulated at least half of that wealth for himself made him want to weep.
What on Earth possessed him to turn Everett down? The man was intelligent, handsome, charming and obviously a very shrewd businessman. Of course, there was the slight problem of the psychotic younger brother but what relationship didn't have its ups and downs?
However, instead of living in the lap of luxury with a charming, like-minded friend, he'd doomed himself to poverty in a dusty backwater with the company of a surly gunslinger and a band of nonconformists. He couldn't even form an attachment to an even-tempered, rich gunslinger. No, he had to be inexplicably attracted to an ill-tempered, penniless one. His mother was right: he was insane. It probably ran in the family.
With an irritated sigh, he rolled onto his back and opened his eyes to consider the darkness above him. It had a depth to it, a warmth that reminded him vaguely of Chris. Before he realised what he was doing, his hands were teasing light patterns over his skin in an addictively accurate imitation of Chris' deft touch. He should have stopped there, would if he could, but his hands were already moving to encourage his growing arousal.
While one set of fingers caressed his upper body, alternately pinching and soothing his nipples, the other stroked lazy circles over his stomach before moving down to tease his hardening shaft. The movements stayed slow, almost languid at first, but soon picked up speed as his body tensed with need. The rhythmic, foreign touch of the linen sheet against the damp head of his shaft was the perfect counterpoint to that knowing touch. His muscles tensed, his back arched and-- There was a knock at the door.
He froze, heart pounding in his mouth.
Was it really a knock or maybe just a wood panel buckling out?
The knock came again, somehow softer but more insistent at the same time.
"Hell," he cursed under his breath, ill prepared for what lay ahead.
He wasn't surprised when Chris' voice sounded hushed and annoyed against the wood, "Ezra, open the door."
He didn't respond. He didn't even move. He was pretty sure that Chris couldn't hear him. Any moment now, he'd be left alone once more. He just needed to wait another few seconds and--
"Give me a minute," he sighed back across the room then rolled to the edge of the bed. Trying to ignore the achingly hard erection bouncing hopefully against his thigh, he sat up to light the bedside lamp. The match caught first time and a wisp of smoke later he was squinting away from a tired yellow flame.
Reflecting sourly upon his inexcusable attachment to a certain surly gunslinger, he wrapped the blanket from the foot of the bed around himself and went over to the door. Predictably, the only dissenting opinion on Chris' ill-timed appearance came from the eager heat between his thighs. "I'd be grateful if you'd keep your comments to yourself," he hissed at his opinionated anatomy before letting Chris in.
Chris didn't know what he expected to see when Ezra finally opened the door but that temptingly tousled, almost naked look wasn't it. Wincing against the thought that Ezra could drive a saint to sodomy, he slipped into the room with a bad tempered growl. "Took your damn time."
"And a pleasure it is to see you too," Ezra returned dryly while relocking the door. "Now, if you'd be so kind as to tell me what you're doing here?"
Chris waited until Ezra met his gaze before saying low, "Kincaid's dead. Nathan couldn't help him."
Ezra frowned then looked away. "I see." He turned to go back to bed. "I'm sorry to hear that." Avoiding Chris' gaze, he climbed between the sheets -- slipping out of his blanket far too carefully.
Scowling at this uncharacteristic bout of body shyness, Chris followed Ezra across to the bed and leaned over where he lay. "What are you hiding?"
Ezra shifted uncomfortably beneath the sheet. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
"You found something else on that gunman."
"Isn't this conversation rather moot?" Ezra frowned. "After all, Mr Kincaid is dead and so are his murderers."
"Not all of them."
"There's no proof, Chris."
"What did you find?"
Ezra didn't respond.
Looking into those perfect green eyes, Chris felt the situation slipping away from him. He became acutely aware of his looming stance and sat on the edge of the bed instead. "I told Kincaid he'd get a fair trial," he said softly, stroking the tips of his fingers down the side of Ezra's neck.
Closing his eyes for a moment, Ezra sighed. "I hate you, Larabee. You are aware of that, I trust?"
Smiling, Chris continued his fingertip exploration of Ezra's warm skin even as Ezra's own fingers caressed and guided his hand in return. "That why you took so long opening the door?"
"I was otherwise engaged." Ezra set Chris' fingers to work more diligently on an already hardening nipple.
"I bet you were." Chris gave Ezra's tense flesh one more roll between thumb and forefinger before moving his hand lower. As his fingers brushed over flushed skin and tightening stomach muscles, Ezra's fingers continued caressing his hand in return. Even when he slipped his hand beneath the covers, Ezra's fingers were still there, stroking him. Ezra's hand only moved up to rest on his wrist when he laid his hand flat on Ezra's groin to rub down to the base of Ezra's already hard cock, splitting his fingers to caress each side.
Enjoying the warmth from Ezra's hand seeping through his sleeve, he continued to rub at the base of Ezra's cock, feeling it grow with the friction. However, as soon as Ezra was lulled by the steady rhythm, he changed tack. Instead of rubbing his hand away from Ezra's cock, he wrapped his fingers around it, creating a tight tunnel of flesh.
Ezra's eyes immediately snapped shut, his body arching into the touch. "Chris," he hissed breathlessly, "I suggest you get undressed. Now."
Already addicted to watching Ezra's body tremble beneath this new, devastating rhythm, Chris paid the words no heed. He only saw the error of his ways when Ezra captured his busy hand to kiss and gently suck each fingertip. Watching that clever tongue dart out against his sensitive skin, Chris suddenly found his clothes very restrictive.
Taking off his hat, he threw it on a nearby chair before slipping his free hand out of his coat sleeve. Ezra, however, didn't seem to want to give up the hand in his grasp. When Chris tried to ease it away, Ezra held on with both hands, splaying the fingers to lick between them then kiss the palm.
As Ezra met his gaze like some self-satisfied cat, Chris' cock began to ache in its confines. Retaliation was his only course of action. Instead of pulling his captured hand away, he regained control to touch Ezra's lips, circling the edges of his mouth before slipping a finger inside for a deeper suck.
When Ezra obliged, drawing the finger hard into his mouth, Chris bent down to kiss his shoulder. As Ezra went on to suck on each of Chris' fingers in turn, Chris kissed and licked a torturously slow path up the side of his neck. Just as Chris settled down to nip and suck along Ezra's jaw, Ezra finally buckled. Abandoning the fingers at last, he wrapped his hands around Chris' neck and pulled him into a deep kiss.
Ignoring his flapping coat and the rest of his clothes for the hot need of Ezra's mouth, Chris moved onto the bed to straddle Ezra's hips. Ezra immediately pressed up into his embrace, sealing their bodies together despite the layers of material between them. When Chris pushed his own hardness against Ezra's answering arousal, Ezra pressed up more strongly, arching back and exposing his throat. Chris couldn't resist moving in for a kiss, feeling Ezra swallow against his lips. Then he moved his mouth down Ezra's body, kissing and tasting the sweet skin that moved so greedily into his touch.
Chris was feasting on the shivering flesh of Ezra's stomach when Ezra lost his temper with the flapping coat -- and the rest of Chris' clothes. One moment Chris was teasing smooth, sensitive skin, the next he was being yanked halfway across the bed as Ezra got rid of his coat then set about pulling his vest and shirt free.
Stealing kisses where and when he could, Chris began unbuckling his gun belt then peeling off his jeans. He had just managed to wriggle his jeans past his hips when Ezra finished stripping his upper body and pinned him to the mattress to view his handiwork.
"Oh, you'll do, Mr Larabee." He panted then grinned at Chris' growl.
"I'll show you 'do'." Chris wrestled Ezra over and pinned him in turn. His prize was a kiss but lack of balance while toeing and shaking off his boots cost him the upper hand.
"Well, lookee here." Ezra grinned down at him again. "It would appear I went and caught myself a genuine gunslinger. Wonder how much they go for around these parts?"
Content to watch the high colour on Ezra's cheeks brighten the mischievous spark in his eyes, Chris didn't try to gain control even after kicking off his jeans. It didn't take long before the humour in Ezra's gaze gave way to desire once more.
Ezra's kiss was demanding at first, his soft lips and clever tongue devouring Chris' mouth. However, as soon as Chris pulled Ezra tight against him, pressing their mouths harder together, Ezra gentled the kiss and eased away to brush his lips down Chris' throat.
As Ezra rained warm kisses over his chest and shoulders, Chris stroked Ezra's neck and back in return. An accidental touch against one of Ezra's impossibly neat ears left Chris with an insatiable urge to taste it. His immediate goal narrowing to kissing that little curve, he pulled Ezra's body forcefully up his own. As Chris' lips touched Ezra's ear, Ezra lost his balance, collapsing on Chris and bringing their hard cocks clashing together.
Chris lost his breath, eyes snapping shut at the sudden rush of heat. He only opened them again when he heard Ezra mutter, "I think I'll just try that again..."
"Wait." Chris stopped any hasty movements with a kiss before reaching down to arrange their cocks in a better position on his belly. "Now."
"Whatever you say," Ezra murmured into another kiss just before their bodies moved together and they lost their breaths again.
It didn't take long to find their perfect rhythm. The tempo increased until their breathing grew ragged and kissing became impossible. Letting his head drop back on the mattress, Chris arched his body up while pulling Ezra harder and faster against him. Just as he thought his heart was going to pound out of his ears, Ezra tensed and shuddered above him. The tremors of Ezra's orgasm, the feel of liquid heat spilling onto his stomach and cock, were enough to trigger his own climax. The tide of pleasure broke over his body to the accompaniment of Ezra's hair tickling his cheek.
As Chris' body relaxed sated beneath his own, Ezra tried to move off with a soft kiss of apology. He didn't get far. As soon as he started to ease away, Chris' arms wrapped around him to pull him into a series of long, lazy kisses -- to which Ezra immediately surrendered. Arranging himself more comfortably over Chris' accommodating length, he settled in to enjoy the post-coital tenderness.
His consciousness consumed by the taste and feel of unconditional warmth, Ezra forgot the rest of the world existed until Chris was content to let the kisses tail off. It was only when he settled his head down on Chris' shoulder that the thought of those thrice-damned tokens came stealing back to haunt him.
As if picking up on his ill ease, Chris shifted a little in silent enquiry. Entreating his body to relax into Chris', Ezra pretended to go to sleep. Chris stilled beneath him, probably figuring a grilling over breakfast would do just as well. And there was the rub. As much as Ezra wanted to drift off with Chris caressing his back like that, he had to think, not sleep. Convincing Chris that those tokens were not a clue worth following up would be a feat of persuasion indeed. Faced with Chris' single-minded determination or the everlasting fires of hell, he knew which one would burn the longer. His only choice was to get to Everett first and prove his point. Not even surly gunslingers could argue with the facts, after all.
Damn, if Chris wasn't far too good at those whispering, figure eight caresses! *Go to sleep* became Ezra's mental mantra for what seemed like eternity. But, eventually, the figure eights on his shoulder slowed, stuttered a few false stops then ceased altogether.
A peaceful stillness descended over them.
He listened to Chris' deep breathing and steady heartbeat. After a moment, he moved, just a little, as if in sleep.
Chris slept on, oblivious.
A few rapid heartbeats later, he moved again.
Again, Chris paid no heed.
So far, so good.
Holding his breath for much of the time, he started easing out of Chris' embrace as slowly and carefully as possible. Inching free was a laborious task made worse by the fact that he'd really rather have stayed. However, the thought of what would ensue if Chris even met Everett, never mind actually faced up to Johnny Williams and his pack of disaffected psychopaths, left him bereft of options.
Chris half awoke with a growl at the morning sun and rolled over to settle back to sleep. As half remembered images from the night before trickled into his mind, he reached out blindly across the mattress for the warm, slumbering body he thought would be there. He found nothing but cold sheet.
"Ezra?" He squinted across the pillows then elbowed up to blink around him.
There was no one else there. Nothing moved in the room except the streak of sunlight stalking him slowly across the bed.
In a drawer of Ezra's dresser, a pocket watch ticked away the seconds.
"Hell!" He launched himself out of bed towards his clothes, which someone had piled neatly on the nearby chair.
He was almost dressed and striding for the door when a flash of gold caught his eye. Frowning, he turned back towards the bed where something glittered between the sheets. He wasn't surprised when it turned out to be a gambling hall token. However, twenty-five dollars was a lot of money to leave lying around and Ezra wasn't the kind to let any kind of cash slip through his fingers lightly.
"'The Double Deuce, Fort Bannerman Flats,'" Chris read, suspicion creeping over him. Then he was winging out the door and down the stairs, cursing all the way.
By the time he hit the main street a few seconds later, he'd worked himself into a fine lather and didn't even notice Buck's approach until they almost collided.
"Not now," Chris cut off his long time friend's greeting and dodged around him without missing a step.
"Well, good morning to you too." Buck chased him down the boardwalk. "Where you off to in such a hurry? It's too warm a morning and you're too old to be rushing around like a snorty colt." When Chris didn't reply, Buck persisted. "All right, don't tell me. I'll just tag along and find out for myself."
"It's none of your concern." Chris strode on. "Leave it be."
"Can't do that, Chris," Buck said regretfully, dropping into stride. "It's this friendship thing we've got going here. Means I've got to put up with all your ornery ways while you get the benefits of my delightful company." When Chris was unimpressed with his grin, Buck went on, "Tell me this has nothing to do with Kincaid's murder and I'll let you be."
Chris didn't say anything. They had almost reached the livery stable and he had already decided to let Buck come along.
"Well all right then," Buck concluded smugly. Then they turned into the stable to find Vin saddling his horse. "Bit early for a ride, ain't it? Someone kick you out of bed, Vin?"
"Mornin', boys." Vin frowned back at them. "Ain't nobody sleeping in these days?"
"You callin' us lazy?" Buck said lightly while Chris walked through to check Ezra's horse was gone then ready his own.
"You ain't got a chicken thieving coyote to track, Bucklin," Vin returned.
"I know it ain't much but I could use the two dollars the widow Foster offered me for its hide. Where you headed off to?"
"Don't know," Buck said as he went to his own horse. "I'm following the man with the bee in his britches."
"This anything to do with Ezra litting out so early?"
"You saw him go?" Chris looked over to see Vin shake his head.
"Nope. Just saw his horse was gone. First I figured someone had done rode off with it. But I reckon they wouldn't have left the others if they were that way of thinkin'."
Buck gave Chris an amused look. "We're going Ezra huntin'?"
"He's chasing down a lead on the Kincaid murder," Chris responded while cinching up his saddle.
"Alone?" Buck frowned.
"Where'd he go off to so early?" Vin asked.
"Cedar Springs," Chris replied flatly. "He'll be catching the train to Fort Bannerman."
"He's going to the Flats?" Buck said then looked at Vin. "How about trading in that coyote hunt for a little Ezra trackin'?"
"Well," Vin returned with a smile, "I reckon Ezra's a mite more slippery."
The little sleep Ezra had caught on the train was not serving him well. While he'd managed to freshen up before making his way over to The Double Deuce, he still felt ill equipped for the task at hand. While he knew the odds of finding out what he needed to know without approaching Everett were slim, that didn't stop him standing in the doorway of the teeming gambling hall trying to spot an 'in'.
When nothing became apparent after a few seconds, he slipped through the cheering and cursing crowds to the relative quiet of the bar.
"Good evening." He smiled at the portly, moustached barman.
"Good for some." The barman nodded back. "What can I get you?"
"Coffee." Ezra sighed as though his heart was breaking. "As strong as you've got."
"That's pretty strong."
"I hope so."
The barman bent to fiddle around under the bar. "Any added extras?"
"Seems to me a customer in your state of depreciation usually appreciates a little taste of something with his brew." The barman smiled, not unkindly, as he placed Ezra's coffee on the bar top.
"Ah." Ezra nodded dully. "Perhaps that would be for best."
"I haven't seen you around for a while, but you're one of Mr Williams' friends, aren't you?" the barman asked while pouring a nip of surprisingly good whisky into Ezra's cup. "Thought you'd try your luck again?"
"There's no such thing as luck," Ezra almost growled into his coffee cup before taking a sip. It was good. "Thank you." He smiled at the barman with genuine appreciation. "How much do I owe you?"
The barman shook his head. "First drink's always on the house."
"Well, how very civilised." Ezra grinned. "In that case, could I trouble you for another spot of that whisky?"
The barman obliged and Ezra nodded his thanks before drinking his coffee and moving away from the bar into the crowd. He hadn't gone far when he felt a persistent presence at his back. He didn't feel anything else but that was enough.
"Excuse me." He turned to take the elbow of the well-dressed young man behind him who was already starting to move away in the opposite direction. "Could I trouble you to return my belongings?" he asked. Then, without waiting for any stuttered denials, he reached into the thief's inside pocket and retrieved his wallet and the two gold gaming tokens. "Thank you."
The pickpocket's gaze widened before darting around the room then settling nervously back on Ezra's face. "Don't turn me in, sir, please. I have--"
"A sick mother?" Ezra broke in with a smirk. "Or is it the darling little brothers and sisters who are feeling poorly this week?"
"Look, I don't do this all the time. This was just a one-off and I--"
"No, I don't suppose a thief of your undoubted skills gets caught in the act too often, but perhaps you should reconsider your choice of marks in the future."
The young man stared at Ezra for a few seconds before his expression narrowed. "Mister, there are already four of us working this place. If you're--"
"Oh, please." Ezra handed the pickpocket back the three wallets he had liberated from his person while his attention had wandered. "As much as I believe in the right to employ whatever talents the Good Lord bestowed in His wisdom, I usually draw the line at petty larceny."
"Usually?" The pickpocket frowned through his surprise.
"Quite," Ezra replied. "Now, I'd appreciate it if you'd be so kind as to inform your compatriots that I would rather not be inconvenienced by having them return my possessions also."
"Then... you're not going to say anything?"
"What is there to say? Good evening." Ezra tipped his hat and moved on towards the poker tables.
On his way, he thought he spotted another two well-dressed young men working the crowd, but the next hand to slip around his person didn't have larceny in mind.
"Why, Mr Standish," a familiarly soft, cultured voice said by his ear, "I do hope you're not planning on wasting your talents on such inferior company?"
"Why, Mr Williams," Ezra responded without looking around, "are you attempting to suggest there are bigger games to be had?"
Using the cover of the pressing crowd to pull their bodies closer, Everett said low, "Follow me and you'll soon find out." He stepped back.
"Now, that sounds like an offer I'd be ill-advised to refuse." Ezra grinned, turning to follow Everett through the crowd -- only Everett had barely moved. In fact, if it wasn't for the brim of Ezra's hat, they would have been close enough to kiss.
Everett's head cocked to the side, knocking a few waves of curly brown hair out of amused hazel eyes. "Don't you recognise an opportune moment to remove your hat, sir?"
"Apparently not," Ezra conceded ruefully.
Everett smirked and then turned to lead the way through the crowd.
Keeping up close behind, Ezra couldn't help but notice the way Everett's fine, dark coat defined his broad shoulders just as attractively from the back as it did the front. He was making a mental note to ask about the tailor when Everett looked back before calling to him over the noise of the crowd.
"How do you like the place? It's come on a little since you were last here."
"It has indeed." Ezra nodded. "What ever are they putting in the water supply?"
Grinning, Everett led on and they were soon walking down a quiet corridor that led to a mahogany door and the velvet decadence of Everett's office.
"Like it?" Everett asked, leaving Ezra to study the hallmarks on his silver desk set while he went over to pour them each a large whisky from a very finely cut decanter.
"I do believe you are trying to make me green with jealousy," Ezra replied, covering the silver with his hat as he sat on the edge of the desk.
"Not at all." Everett moved to Ezra's side to put the drinks on the desk. "Even if green does suit you so beautifully." He fingered the lapel of Ezra's scarlet coat. "As does red, of course." He leaned in for a kiss.
Ezra returned the kiss briefly before easing out of Everett's embrace and picking up a glass of whisky for a stroll around the plush office.
Trying to hide his surprise, Everett picked up the remaining glass of whisky and sat on the edge of the desk as nonchalantly as possible. "Gambling fever has hit this burg bad, Ezra. You've seen how busy this place is and it's like that every day, including Sunday."
"Sunday, Mr Williams?" Ezra replied in mock horror. "For shame, sir!"
Everett grinned. "Think of it as a salute to the day we met."
Ezra took a deep drink of whisky. It was even smoother than the one at the bar and the glass was a very good crystal. Something inside him ached.
"My offer still stands," Everett began quietly, making Ezra's heart sink. "I still need someone to help me run this place."
"Indeed?" Ezra finished the rest of his whisky in one gulp. "Johnny hasn't learned the ropes yet?" he asked on his way over to the decanter to refill his glass. "Or has he been busy honing his abysmal shooting and his already impressively foul vocabulary in anticipation of my return?"
"How many times do I have to apologise for that?" Everett sighed, standing up to finish his own whisky then join Ezra at the decanter. "I honestly thought he was out of town."
"Obviously," Ezra said into his glass before drinking it dry once more. "You know, this is very good." He squinted at the crystal. "French?"
Everett nodded then held up the decanter. "More?"
It was Ezra's turn to nod. "Thank you."
"So why are you here if not for my delightful company?" Everett asked while pouring the whisky. "Don't tell me it's to do with those lawmen you've fallen in with?"
"You heard about that?"
"From a friend of your mother."
Ezra grimaced. "I see."
"It's dangerous work."
"You can't imagine the half of it." Ezra took a deep drink and found his glass was empty again. Damn, but that whisky was smooth. Fortunately, Everett was doing a wonderful job of refilling both their glasses.
"It's to do with Patience Kincaid, hasn't it?" Everett asked as he put down the decanter. "Let me guess, he turned up dead?"
Ezra watched Everett consider the whisky in his glass. "How did you know about that?"
"I can put two and two together." Everett met his gaze dryly. "Johnny's the idiot of the family."
At the harsh mention of that name, Ezra again felt the sting of that impossible humiliation and his glass was empty again. "You knew Mr Kincaid?"
Everett finished doling out more whisky then shrugged. "He was staying in one of the rooms upstairs. I usually keep them for high-rollers but at the rate he agreed to pay, I didn't argue. He stayed here for two days, betting a little and winning a little before dropping ten thousand in one night to a gentleman whose business wasn't exactly, shall we say, of a humanitarian nature."
"Ten thousand?" Ezra blinked.
Everett nodded. "Watched it all myself."
Ezra emptied his glass again and he held it out for a refill. "Let me guess, Kincaid showed no indication of that level of ineptitude prior to this gentleman's arrival?"
"My dear man," Everett drawled, "no one is that inept."
"Hell." Ezra drank down his whisky. He didn't even want to think about how Chris was going to take this. "Who was the man Kincaid lost to?"
Shaking his head, Everett refilled their glasses in silence.
"You don't know?"
"Of course, I know." Everett scowled. "But I'm not telling you so you can ride off and get shot. The gentlemen in question's business and main pleasure is assassination for hire and I like you just fine without perforations."
"Too late," Ezra observed into another drink of whisky.
Everett frowned at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Ezra refilled his glass and let Everett work it out for himself.
"Aw, you didn't?" Everett said when the light dawned. "See, that's what happens when you run off and try to be respectable."
"Respectable? Hah!" Ezra returned bitterly. "I'd invite you to look at my bank balance but since that's an impossibility with the naked eye...." He shrugged and helped himself to more whisky. The content of the decanter was getting depressingly low. He frowned, trying to remember how it looked originally. It was only then he realised that his thought processes were more than a little foggy. "Ehm... Everett, how much whisky originally resided in that decanter?"
"Oh," Everett sighed, "a couple of pints. I think. But I've got more." He turned around and bent down to pick up a full decanter from the floor behind him. Then, without missing a beat, he filled both their glasses.
Ezra looked into his glass dubiously. "I don't think that was my point."
"Really?" Everett blinked back at him. "Well, this is my point." He moved in close for coaxing kiss that tasted of fine whisky and sweet promise. "Stay with me and I'll share it all."
"Does that 'all' include Johnny?" Ezra avoided Everett's second kiss by drinking down more whisky.
"Johnny's hardly ever here anymore," Everett said low before drinking his own whisky then refilling their glasses. "Anyway, if the little shit wanted to make a habit out of creeping into other people's bedrooms unannounced, he shouldn't have been surprised to get an eyeful sooner or later."
"I'd rather it was later and the eyeful wasn't me," Ezra retorted against a wave of dizziness. "Lord, I'd better sit down."
"Hmm, me too," Everett agreed and they made their way over to the sumptuous couch on the opposite side of the room.
It wasn't until they sat down that Ezra realised Everett had brought the decanter over with him. But he wasn't surprised. They drank and refilled their glasses once more.
"Let me see it," Everett suddenly said.
"See what?" Ezra frowned.
"Oh, that." Ezra leaned onto his side and pulled out his shirt to show the little, puckered scar at the bottom of his ribcage. "It's not really that interesting," he said, but Everett was already putting down the whisky to gently touch the bullet mark. Then the light fingered caress was moving across his stomach and up his ribs, and Everett's hot mouth was softly kissing, sucking and teasing the scar. "Oh, Lord. Stop it." Ezra pushed his friend away. "Everett!" he ended up growling, shoving hard before he lost the inclination to do so.
"Hell!" Everett cursed as he nearly fell off the couch.
"Sorry." Ezra tucked himself in then went to drink more whisky, changing his mind twice before deciding it was the last one. Then he looked at Everett sitting glumly beside him and poured another glass for each of them. "Now, now, don't take it to heart."
Everett shrugged as he took the offered glass. "At least Johnny didn't walk in on us this time."
"No, he would have waited until we were naked and in a much more compromising position."
"See!" Everett scowled. "You do still blame me."
"I believe your bedroom door did have something known as a lock."
"Yeah, and you knew how to use it too."
"It was your room."
"Your hands were down under my waistband at the time--"
"Making my locking the door an impossibility, thank you."
"Don't blame it all on me," Everett returned hotly. "I'm paranoid about locking doors now."
"Well, I certainly noticed you locking that door." Ezra stood up with a nod towards the office door.
"I left the key in the lock!" Everett broke in defensively but Ezra continued regardless.
"And while we're on the subject of assumptions, what possessed you to let Johnny assume my P?"
"John P. Williams," Ezra snapped back at Everett's confusion. "Since when did Johnny have a P?" When Everett continued to look at him blankly, Ezra frowned at his own accusation before turning to the desk to collect his hat. "I better go sleep this off."
"Me too," Everett sighed, but he was pouring out more whisky as he said it. "One more for the road?" he asked with a becomingly rumpled smile.
"One more and I'll be facedown on the road," Ezra returned but still made his way back to the couch and sat down.
Too many 'one mores' later, and Ezra had a sneaking suspicion that he was supposed to be doing something -- something other than rolling around the floor with Everett Williams. But he couldn't remember what on Earth it was... though it might have had something to do with kissing. His mind swirled in a confusion of alcohol, warm skin and hot kisses. Or maybe not 'kissing' but... 'not kissing'? That seemed absurd. And yet... all became clear when he suddenly experienced a disturbingly vivid vision of that terrible night when Johnny Williams strode in and found him in flagrante delicto with Everett -- only it wasn't Johnny but Chris standing in the doorway watching it all.
"Hell!" Ezra rolled clumsily out of Everett's embrace and just avoided braining himself on the corner of the desk.
"What's wrong?" Everett blinked confusedly then stood up to help Ezra with his clothes -- only he was pulling out while Ezra was tucking in.
"I do not require assistance, thank you." Ezra slapped the extra hands away and Everett sat back down on the floor in the huff.
His senses spinning, Ezra swallowed the unsettlingly nauseous feeling creeping up his throat and finished fixing his clothes before striding determinedly for the door. However, since he found moving too many limbs at once tended to make him forget where he put them, he soon gave up striding for stepping carefully instead.
After successfully negotiating the office door, walking up the short corridor was child's play -- if he happened to be a one-year-old taking his first unsteady steps. By the time he hit the bustling crowd, he was long overdue for his nap. He was being buoyed around by the gambling crowd like the baby Moses on the Nile, when his consciousness decided it had taken enough abuse for one day and retired for the duration. He was only dimly aware of being manhandled and a vaguely familiar voice saying, "Well, who have we here?" before the lights went out.
The Double Deuce wasn't the biggest gambling hall Chris had ever seen but it was certainly the busiest. Even with the sun rising to blaze between its heavy drapes, the hall was packed solid with people, smoke and noise. Chris found himself pushing hard through the crowd to check the poker tables then pushing even harder just to get to the bar with Vin and Buck.
"What can I get you, gentlemen?" a tired barman asked without really looking them.
"We're looking for a friend," Chris began. "A little shorter than me, kind of fair, fancy clothes, Southern accent."
"Smiles a lot," Vin added.
"Talks like a couple of real thick books," Buck finished, slouching against the bar.
The barman looked unimpressed. "Mister," he said to Chris, "I've been on for fourteen hours straight. If the Queen of England herself ordered a beer and a shot I wouldn't remember it."
Chris leaned menacingly close. "Why don't you try?"
"And we'd appreciate it." Buck eased Chris back from the bar. "How about you pour us some coffee while you think on it?"
While the barman grudgingly complied, Chris turned his attention to the mass of people milling around the gaming tables. Trying to find Ezra in a packed gambling hall was like trying to find a particular grain of sand in the desert. And if he didn't want to be found....
Just as Chris was about to suggest asking some questions about the hired gunmen, Vin elbowed him and nodded towards the outside doorway.
"That look familiar to you?"
Chris' gaze narrowed on the flash of scarlet disappearing out the door. While bright red coats weren't exactly like hen's teeth, he hadn't seen anyone else wearing such a colour in town and it was the closest thing they had to a lead. Chris immediately ploughed through the crowd to give chase.
"Damn!" Buck complained when they reached the boardwalk and the man in the scarlet coat had gone. "Where'd he get to so fast?"
"Split up and find him," Chris said, moving off down the street without looking back.
If Buck or Vin replied, Chris was moving too fast to hear it. Either that or his heart was hammering too loud in his ears. The hammering only got louder when he caught a glimpse of scarlet disappearing around the bottom corner of a vacant lot. He gave chase and was on the man a few seconds later.
Even before he touched the coat, Chris knew it was Ezra's -- just as surely as he knew the man wearing it was an impostor. He wasn't surprised when he whirled the scarlet dressed figure around and was greeted by a shocked, pockmarked face he didn't know.
"Where'd you get that coat?" Chris slammed the impostor against the wall, pinning him there in a chokehold.
The man coughed and struggled, trying to shake his head.
Chris tightened his hold and slammed the man harder. "You better pray my friend is able complain about your blood on his coat."
"I bought it off a fella, fair and square. I swear." The impostor wheezed. "He said he won it in a poker game but it didn't suit him."
"The Clam House," came the quick reply. "It's a boarding house up on main street."
Chris glared into his captive's frightened eyes. "Did you see a man wearing the coat there?"
"I swear I didn't, mister. You can have the coat. I don't want it." The man struggled, this time in his haste to take off Ezra's coat.
Chris loosened his grip then stepped back. "Show me this boarding house," he said as he took the coat.
Nodding, the man led the way.
As soon as they turned back onto the main street, Vin came up to join them. "Looks like you found him."
"Coat's Ezra's." Chris nodded, shoving the pockmarked man ahead of them. "We're heading over to where he says he got it. Where'd Buck get to?"
"Damned if I know. When the search done run out, he reckoned he got an idea and took off."
"That's it there." The pockmarked man nodded across the street towards a worn-looking building bedecked in peeling, dark green paint. "Fella who sold me the coat's stayin' there," he told Chris before adding nervously, "Can I go now?"
Chris just pushed the man into Vin's grip before striding across the street. He heard Vin ask the frightened man for his name but the rest of the conversation was lost in the warm morning breeze. Chris mounted the boardwalk and entered the boarding house without looking back.
The old man sitting behind the tiny table at the foot of the stairs looked up from his card game reluctantly as Chris walked in. "Full up," he muttered from under his long, white moustache.
"Don't want a room," Chris returned. "You seen the man who wore this coat?"
The old man peered at Ezra's coat then whistled between his teeth in amusement. "Sure I seen him. Drunk as a skunk he was. His friends took him upstairs last night. They left about a half hour ago." The old man scowled. "Woulda made them pay what they owe but he's still up there sleeping it off."
"Which room?" Chris demanded.
"Four," the old man returned bad temperedly then shouted, "You gonna pay for their board, mister?" as Chris bolted up the stairs.
Upon bursting open the door of room number four, Chris found Ezra sprawled across the bed on his stomach, as naked as the day he was born.
"Ezra?" Chris stalked up to the bed, throwing the scarlet coat on a chair as he went. "Ezra?" he repeated softly, leaning in to feel warm skin and a steady pulse. Even while relief flooded through him, he frowned down Ezra's length, unable to see a bruise or a scratch or anything that signified a fight or struggle. When he lifted up Ezra's left eyelid, Ezra let out a pained groan and tried to move away. Sitting down on the edge of the bed, he rolled Ezra into his embrace.
Startling, Ezra almost punched him in the face before blinking dopily. "Chris? What are you doing here?" He squinted painfully around him. "Where is here?"
Chris thumbed Ezra's cheek, trying to read the confusion in his eyes. "You all right?"
"Of course I'm not all right." Ezra pushed out of Chris' embrace to sit up woozily, cradling his head. "I think some miscreant has been using my skull as a battering ram."
Chris rubbed the shivering skin across Ezra's shoulders. "The old man downstairs said you were carried in here drunk last night."
"Really? How embarrassing." Ezra frowned as if the expression took a lot of effort. "Can't say I recall it, though."
"Where's your clothes?"
"I'm not wearing clothes?" Ezra blinked down at his nakedness. "Congratulations, Chris, you win the observation award for the day."
Shaking his head, Chris stood up to let Ezra draw a quilt over himself just before Vin walked in the room.
"Ezra." Vin nodded in greeting. "Glad to see you're in one piece."
"Thank you, Mr Tanner." Ezra winced in response. "But I believe my completeness is yet to be fully ascertained."
Smirking, Vin turned to Chris. "The old feller downstairs was about ready to get the sheriff and the cavalry when I come in but I told him you'd pay for the damages."
Chris nodded, watching Ezra rubbing at his head distractedly. "How about seeing if that old man's got a bottle of something down there, Vin?"
"If he ain't, I'll go across to the saloon." Vin nodded and left the room.
Even though Vin closed the door softly, it still felt like canon fire going off inside Ezra's head. To make matters worse, he could physically feel the weight of Chris' censorious gaze taking his measure.
After giving up hope of the mattress swallowing him whole, he finally looked Chris in the eye. "I can hold my liquor tolerably well as a matter of fact."
"Then how'd you end up passed out on the bed?"
Chris' gaze narrowed. "Who took your clothes?"
Ezra frowned through his fogged memory, steered widely around the kissing incidents and was rewarded by a sliver of useful thought. "I believe that would have been the pickpockets."
"Pickpockets?" Chris scowled. "What did you get yourself into?"
"Well..." Ezra began with a sigh -- which turned into an agonised groan when he remembered the hundred dollars he had kept in his now long departed right boot.
Languishing in his own personal hell of mental recriminations, he forgot anyone else was even in the room until he felt a comforting hand on his shoulder. "You all right?" Chris crouched down to meet his gaze with one of those soul searing looks that made brick walls feel transparent.
"I..." Ezra tried to answer but the words choked in his throat. His pettiness exposed, he muttered something vaguely appeasing then turned away from Chris' concern.
But Chris didn't let him off that easily. The firm yet gentle hand on his cheek was only the prelude to the compelling kiss that followed. Ezra's aching brain was addled. He felt vaguely outmanoeuvred. He couldn't remember Chris' question; he could barely remember his own name.
That was it. "Yes, Chris?"
"Look at me."
Feeling foolish, he opened his eyes to find Chris' face bare inches from his own. "Tell me, Mr Larabee, have you ever considered registering your mouth as a lethal weapon?"
Chris smirked. "Only when I cuss."
"Either way, you should keep it away from those unable to defend themselves."
"Seemed like you were defending yourself just fine to me." Chris smiled but moved a little way down the bed to sit.
"My head hurts," Ezra sighed.
Chris' nod wasn't entirely sympathetic. "Happens. You gonna tell me what you found out?"
"My head hurts."
"You said that already."
"It bears repeating. I really will have to curb this highly deplorable yet inexplicable tendency to run off and save the day."
"I ain't arguin' with that."
"I never believed for a moment you would," Ezra replied then realised he'd run out of small talk. It was time to get on with it. "Kincaid didn't have a chance at a fair trial, Chris," he began quietly. "Far be it for me to be a judge of moral fibre, but the fact that he didn't even remember the killings sufficiently to deny them is testimony enough for most jurors." He paused before adding, "And Kincaid knew that too."
Chris' gaze narrowed but he waited for Ezra to go on.
"A gentleman I know was kind enough to relate to me a tale about a certain gunfighter whose past was catching up with him, a man who didn't want to end his days at the end of a noose. This gentleman, whom I know rather well, is not in the business of fabrication, so when he told me that he himself witnessed the transaction between this certain gunslinger and a third party whose business is the delicate field of assassination for hire, I was inclined to believe him."
Chris scowled. "You're saying Kincaid hired those men?"
"Through a third party, yes."
"Who is this 'third party'?"
"I don't know."
"This friend of yours, what's his name?"
Ezra rubbed at his pounding head. "Leave it be, Chris. Kincaid died the way he wanted and my head hurts."
"What's his name?"
"It doesn't matter," Ezra snapped, making his head ache all the more. At this point, he was willing to say anything to make Chris shut up and go away. He played his last card of the hand. "His name is his own. As for his word, it can be trusted as much as my own."
Chris studied Ezra for an uncomfortably long moment before growling, "What the hell is that supposed to mean? I don't know that prick."
Ezra blinked in disbelief. This wasn't going as planned. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time anything went as planned. He glared into Chris' hard look. "You admit you don't know him and yet you see fit to call him names?"
"I don't see him lying stripped on a bed."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"I ain't got no friends that steal my clothes."
"I already said that was the pickpockets," Ezra ground out. "If you're not willing to pay attention, I suggest you leave."
Chris shook his head a little before saying softly, "I ain't leavin'." He was about to speak again when there was a knock at the door.
"You decent in there?" Buck called through the wood and Chris let his gun drop back into its holster.
"Where'd you get to?" Chris asked, opening the door.
"Why, I think that's obvious, stud." Buck grinned, striding into the room with an armful of Ezra's clothes. "Saving Ezra's blushes, of course." He winked and dumped his burden at the foot of the mattress. "I've heard of losing your shirt, Ezra, but everything else? Again?"
"Much obliged, Buck," Ezra returned in pleasant surprise before shuffling down the bed to check through his things. "However, I must assure you, I did no such thing. The circumstances were entirely unforeseen."
"Ah-huh." Buck nodded, unconvinced. "The rest of your stuff is still at the pawnbroker's. He only let me take the clothes, your boots and your watch."
Ezra was about to thank Buck again, when the watch in question fell out of his vest onto the bed. It looked and sounded suspiciously tinny. It felt light and cheap in his hand. He flipped open the face. He didn't need to read the inscription to know it wasn't his. "Mr Wilmington, to my knowledge, I have not and never will be acquainted with someone who refers to themselves as my 'Darling Chickadee'."
Frowning, Buck stepped forward to squint at the inscription. "It looked like your watch." He shrugged and tried to look innocent -- it didn't work. "It was the only one they had, Ezra."
"I'm sure," Ezra returned dryly just before Vin knocked and came into the room with a bottle of whisky and an apologetic smile. "Ah, Mr Tanner," Ezra greeted him brightly, "your timing is as impeccable as always."
"Sorry it took so long," Vin said, handing Ezra the whisky. "That pockmarked feller nearly landed me in jail."
"Your efforts have not gone without appreciation." Ezra saluted Vin with the bottle before uncorking it and taking a deep drink. He hadn't quite finished swallowing when Buck spoke up.
"Speaking of timing, Ezra, you'll have to pay that pawnbroker before we leave town."
Ezra choked and coughed. "Pay the pawnbroker?" He wheezed while Vin patted his back.
"Yeah, you owe him--"
"Don't tell me!" Ezra put up a belaying hand, suddenly feeling very ill indeed.
Chris stood on the boardwalk just outside The Clam Boarding House's doorway, leaning against a post, watching the town of Bannerman Flats ease into a new day. He didn't pay attention to the way the good folks shied around him; no one stared too long.
When the boarding house door opened and closed behind him, Chris recognised the light tread that moved across the boards towards him. However, he wasn't prepared for the warm brush of bodies as Ezra came to stand close by.
"Looks like another warm morning," Ezra began conversationally. "Another hot day in the desert, what a surprise."
"Could be worse." Chris shrugged. "You ain't going to get sunburn with your clothes on."
"True," Ezra conceded with a grin.
In the companionable silence that followed, Chris noticed the townsfolk had stopped shying around him, a few even nodded politely as they passed close by.
"Forgive me for belabouring the obvious," Ezra said softly, "but Patience Kincaid had this game rigged from soda to hock, Chris. We were never supposed to win. The only winner was Kincaid himself."
"You think?" Chris met Ezra's gaze. "The man was caught in his own snare. That's not any kind of winning."
Ezra tilted his head a little to the side in consideration. "A snare perhaps, but one of his own choosing."
"Weren't no choices there." Chris turned his attention back to the street.
"Perhaps." Ezra eased a fraction closer. "But Kincaid painted himself into that corner with the decisions he made along the way. They were his choices to make. No one held a gun to his head, Chris, and you're not Kincaid."
"I know that," Chris returned, watching Buck come out of the sheriff's office and cross the street towards them. "We're heading back to town. I gave Vin the money for the pawnbroker. He's collecting the rest of your stuff."
"Really?" Ezra grinned delightedly.
"You owe me." Chris smiled. "And I intend to collect."
Ezra smirked. "Why, of course you will."
If you enjoyed this story, we're sure that Cyc would love to hear from you.
HOME | CYC'S FIC | TITLES | AUTHORS | UNIVERSES
This website is maintained by Donna and Barb
with corrections and additions