Imitations Of Riches
Ezra knew he should have lied. If being arrested and summarily marched down the streets of Gila Flats wasn't enough to convince him of that fact, being slammed against the sheriff's office wall and forcibly strip-searched certainly was.
"All right, that's enough, boys," Sheriff Stanes finally said when Ezra had been stripped down to his underwear.
"Does this mean you intend sparing me my blushes?" Ezra asked dryly as the two deputies turned him around to face the sheriff.
"Don't push your luck, cardsharp. It's fast running out in this town as it is." Stanes scowled up from poking through Ezra's clothes and belongings. "Now, hand over that ring on your finger there."
Ezra met Stanes' bloodshot blue eyes with a steady glare. "I won that money fai--"
"Take off the ring or we'll break your fingers doing it," the smaller but meaner deputy snarled in Ezra's face.
"Did you send my telegram?" Ezra demanded of Stanes while grudgingly handing over the ring. He had to wait, trying not to shiver against the winter chill, until the sheriff deigned to look up from examining the ring's stone.
"I sent it." Stanes eventually sneered. "Though I don't think your friends are gonna do you much good when they find out you're going to trial for robbery and murder."
"Murder?" Ezra blinked in confusion. "I played a few hands of poker, fairly, I might add, and a few of your good citizens lost their money. No one lost their lives, Sheriff."
"The bank over in Sutton was robbed last month and six people were killed including a woman." Stanes stepped menacingly closer. "Then here you turn up with a ring that fits the description of the one stolen from the murdered bank manager's finger."
Ezra scowled at Stanes' smirk. "As I already informed you, Sheriff, I have been retained as an officer of the law by Judge Orrin Travis for quite some time. As such, I am not in the habit of partaking in any extracurricular bank robbing excursions."
"Yeah, yeah." Stanes signalled his deputies to 'escort' Ezra into the back cell. "Circuit judges always hire fancy-talkin' tinhorns for law work, sure enough."
"I assure you--" Ezra began, only to lose his breath when he was thrown hard into the cell. He just avoided breaking a rib on the edge of the rickety cot. His face was inches away from the rough surface of the stained mattress when a harsh hand slammed it down the rest of the way.
As someone's bodyweight pressed down on his back courtesy of a knee between his shoulder blades, he could do nothing but gasp in the mattress' musty stench while Stanes growled in his ear. "You'd best just lie here and shut up, mister. You start gettin' annoying and the boys are likely to take that as meanin' you want to come out and play with them. These nights are long. You'll be a lot happier lying low and shutting up. Understand?"
At Ezra's reluctant nod, the sheriff moved away. After a moment, the knee was withdrawn from Ezra's back and a rough blanket was thrown over him.
"Stay there if you know what's good for you," Stanes called from across the room as the cell door clanked shut. "The law in this here town always shoots prisoners trying to escape. Sometimes they even bleed to death in their cells after trying to overpower a deputy."
Quickly grasping the sheriff's not so subtle point, Ezra rolled up on the cot to face the wall. The blanket he had been given was thin and scratchy but he pulled it over himself and tried to relax into the mattress.
It didn't work.
He lay glowering at the wall, wondering what had possessed him to tell Stanes his real name and offer his respectable credentials instead of just handing over the customary bribe and leaving town. Now he'd have to wait freezing in this pit of misery until someone came to vouch for him. The fires of angry humiliation burned cold.
He knew he should have lied.
Gila Flats was a full day's ride away but Chris set out as soon as he received Ezra's telegram, riding through the night to get there early morning. After Mary Travis warned him about Sheriff Stanes' record of 'escaping' prisoners, he wasn't about to let an idle second slip by, winter cold snap or no. He just hoped Ezra had the sense to keep his smart mouth shut and do as he was told.
The town was just waking when Chris rode up main street to the sheriff's office. He was travel weary but alert to the ebb and flow of the townsfolk as he secured his horse and extra mount to the hitching rail. Wasting no time on pleasantries, he stalked into the sheriff's office and glared at the bloodshot-eyed man behind the desk.
"You Stanes?" he snapped, noting the huddled form of the prisoner in the only occupied cell.
Flustered, the man stood up from behind the desk and flashed the badge that was under the lapel of his thick wool coat. "I'm Sheriff Stanes. Who the--"
"You've got one of my men here." Chris picked up the bunch of jail keys from the desk and slapped them against Stanes' chest. "Let him out."
"Now wait a damn minute! You can't just--"
"I ain't got a minute." Chris reached around to pull the sheriff out from behind the desk and shove him towards the cell.
Stanes was just about to open the cell door when two men walked in the office and he turned to greet them with a smirk in Chris' direction. "Ah, boys, this is Mr... What was the name?"
"Larabee," Chris growled.
"Mr Larabee come to spring our fancy-talkin' cardsharp. Larabee, these are my deputies, Amos--"
"I don't care who they are," Chris broke in impatiently. "Just open the damn cell and we'll be on our way."
"Can't do that." Stanes shook his head, suddenly finding some grit now he had two armed men in the room. "There's the matter of the charges."
Chris narrowed his gaze. Ezra still hadn't moved beneath the lump of blanket and the whole set up was beginning to stink. "Don't try me with any horseshit, Stanes. He didn't cheat and you can't prove anything."
"Oh yeah?" the larger deputy said, turning to pick up something from behind the desk.
Chris had drawn his gun and had it cocked to cover them all before the deputy could face him again.
While Stanes and the smaller deputy froze with their hands halfway to their holsters, the larger deputy slowly opened his hand to reveal Ezra's ring. "We found this on him," he offered nervously. "We think it was taken from a bank robbery a month back."
"Horseshit," Chris returned. "He's had that ring for as long as I've known him." He holstered his gun pointedly. "Open that cell, Sheriff, or I'll do it myself."
"You ain't the law here, Larabee," the larger deputy objected but Stanes was already opening the door and pushing it wide.
"Ezra, get out here," Chris called.
The figure on the bed didn't even twitch.
"What's wrong with him?" Chris snapped.
"I don't know." Stanes backed up from Chris' scowl. "We never touched him. Amos," he said to the larger deputy, "get Mr Standish up. Paul," he addressed the other, "get his clothes."
"His clothes?" Chris echoed, keeping a wary eye on the deputy sent to rouse Ezra.
"Hampers escape attempts," Stanes said weakly.
Chris was just about to respond when Ezra started moving, cursing under his breath as he sat up on the edge of the bed. "Why, Mr Larabee, how good of you to join us," he said with a miserable shiver. "I trust you have met the redoubtable Sheriff Stanes and his Herculean henchmen?"
"What did you call me?" the smaller deputy demanded before throwing Ezra's clothes at him.
"That's enough!" Stanes stepped in and pushed the deputy back with a nervous glance at Chris.
But Chris was too busy studying the nasty bruise above Ezra's right eye and noting the constant trembling of his fingers as he gathered his clothes to dress. "You all right, Ezra?" he asked, his voice low with suspicion. He was met with a sarcastic green-eyed look.
"Oh, just perfect. I'll give you a thorough account of my delightful stay once I've thawed out a few miles down the trail."
"We treated him the same as any other prisoner," Stanes said defensively. "Same as you treat yours."
"Our prisoners are generally allowed to keep their non-lethal apparel," Ezra commented as he dressed.
"Give him his guns and anything else you took," Chris told Stanes.
The sheriff nodded at the larger deputy to retrieve the missing things and the man handed them over to Ezra just as Ezra stood to tuck in his shirt and button his vest. Although Ezra had been a little withdrawn up to that point, his demeanour quickly changed when he caught sight of the limp wallet the deputy tried to hand him.
"There seems to be some mistake, Sheriff," he said icily. "I believe certain items have gone astray."
"You do?" Stanes feigned surprise badly. "And what items would they be?"
"My money," Ezra almost snarled. "I'm sure you recall the two hundred dollars you confiscated from me." He checked his guns were loaded then strapped them on. "You counted it out on that very desk just yesterday."
"Can't say I remember that."
Ezra worked his jaw before pulling on his coat angrily. "Then why, pray tell, did you arrest me?"
"I guess it was a case of mistaken identity." Stanes shrugged. "Our apologies, Mr Standish."
"Save your apologies, sir, and give me my money," Ezra returned dangerously low.
Shaking his head, Stanes moved to turn his back on Ezra.
Quick as a cat, Ezra pinned the crooked sheriff to the wall, holding him there by the lapels of his wool coat. "Where's my money?" he growled while Chris drew his gun to cover the twitchy deputies.
"It's all right, boys," Stanes called to his men. "Mr Standish and Mr Larabee are just leaving." He met Ezra's gaze with a smirk. "They know that money doesn't exist. If it did, why, we'd have to put Mr Standish back in that cell and then things would just get plain ugly. We are the law round here, after all."
Chris watched Ezra glare at Stanes' smug expression. He was half expecting Ezra to punch that look right off the sheriff's face -- but Ezra just turned on his heel and stormed out the office, pushing the deputies stumbling out of his path.
"Well, well." Stanes smoothed down his lapels and grinned at Chris. "I guess your friend's memory was a little effected by last night's chill. His--"
Chris punched Stanes hard in the mouth. "You best keep that badge as long as you can, Sheriff." He holstered his gun, watching Stanes spitting out blood on the floor. "And don't come anywhere near my town." He stalked out.
They had barely ridden a mile out of Gila Flats when Ezra pulled on his horse's reins, turning the reluctant animal around into the biting breeze. The chill danced around him and through him but he was already too cold to take much notice of its performance. He was watching a heavy cloud drift idly along the horizon behind the town when Chris rode up close to join him.
"It ain't worth anyone's life, Ezra," he said quietly.
Ezra felt a bitter smile twist over his lips.
Their horses stamped impatiently in the frost.
"We should ride," Chris went on. "Don't want to get caught out if that storm finally decides to come today after putting it off all week."
Watching the cloud drift aimlessly along as if it hadn't a care in the world, Ezra got the distinct impression they were being had.
"You all right?" Chris laid a warm hand on Ezra's arm.
"Fine." Ezra turned his back on the cloud. "Let's go if we're going."
The open desert offered little comfort and they stopped only briefly along the trail. However, they still had miles to go when they looked behind them to find the storm brewing in earnest. Chris cursed their luck but Ezra said nothing, knowing Mother Nature for the ultimate con artist she was. By the time they reached the hills near Chris' cabin, pellets of snow were whipping around them, falling thickly with the night.
While Chris rode on as if unaffected by the blinding cascade of white, Ezra slowed down to let his weary horse pick a more careful course over the frozen ground. The snow only got heavier as the wind howled around him. By the time he was approaching the stand of trees on the top of the hill where Chris had his cabin, the landscape around him had been reduced to a few scraps of darkness in the storm. He could barely see as far as his horse's ears but could make out enough to see that the animal was busy navigating the trail towards Chris' corral and the other horses.
He couldn't have been more than a few minutes behind Chris, but when he was riding downhill through the brittle grass towards the corral, he could hear Chris shouting bad-temperedly over the muffling effects of the snowstorm. "What the hell took you so long? I'll see to the horses. You get inside and light the stove."
As Chris took hold of his horse, Ezra dismounted to make for the cabin's vague outline. In the short walk to Chris' porch, a feathery snowflake floated down across his path. He reached out through the storm's pellet melee and caught it. It was almost as big as a $50 slug in his palm -- but didn't last as long as a nickel. It had melted clean away by the time he was opening Chris' cabin door and he had to quickly shutout the rest of the snow that tried to follow him inside.
Unlike the well-behaved lamps in Chris' cabin, the stove didn't light first time... or fifth time, for that matter. Ezra was just about ready to kick some life into its stubborn hide when Chris stamped into the room, a flurry of snow behind him. "Storm's still picking up," he said as he crossed the room to see to the stove. He moved in close as if about to show Ezra how it was done, but Ezra retreated to take a seat at the table.
"In that case, Mr Larabee, it seems we set out at the right time after all."
"Seems like." Chris nodded as the stove's flame caught and flickered high, bathing one side of his face in its warm light. "Want something to eat?"
"No, thank you, but don't let my lack of appetite stop you." Ezra sat back to watch the fire devour its fodder while Chris boiled water for coffee. Nothing seemed particularly real in the cabin except for the weary ache in his bones. Even the chill that had accompanied him all day was leaving him as Chris built up the fire and wedged an old blanket under the door to keep out the persistent squall.
When the coffee was ready, Chris poured two cups and sat down at the table opposite Ezra. While Chris sipped his coffee, Ezra just held the cup he had been given, feeling the heat seeping into his hands. He didn't dare drink it; he'd thawed out too much as it was. Any more, and he feared he might melt clean away like that $50 snowflake in his hand.
"So, you gonna tell me what happened?" Chris asked, his gaze narrowing through the wisps of steam from his coffee cup. "How'd you manage to land yourself in that mess?"
"Talent, I guess." Ezra shrugged.
Chris' frown deepened. He took a sip of coffee before going on. "If you got yourself thrown into jail every time someone thought you were cheating, you wouldn't have lasted this long." He met Ezra's gaze with one of those piercing looks that ripped through any defences more thoroughly than any icy storm.
Ezra's latent anger snapped. "And just what the hell would you know about it, Chris?" he demanded bitterly. "You've never got that knowing look, that sneer, that tilt of the head. No one would dare treat you as if you were a common thief just because they could. They wouldn't steal from you just because they could get away with it. Just one look at you and they know. But when I--" His throat constricted and the words deserted him. He looked away from Chris' frown and swallowed against the tightness. "Let's just say we are both well aware of how we are perceived."
"You're letting a thieving piece of trash like Stanes judge what you are?" Chris returned fiercely.
"Given past events, I'd say the judgement is already in." Ezra stood away from the table. "I'm tired, Chris--"
"And I'm tired of this crap." Chris pushed back his chair and stood up, holding Ezra with a glare. "You ain't like me. I ain't like Nathan. Josiah and JD ain't exactly two peas in a pod either but you know how it works between us. I can't play cards like you or sharp shoot like Vin." He moved around the table to step up close. "You can't judge yourself by anyone else, Ezra. You won't go far wrong just being you." He brought his hand up to the side of Ezra's face. "I sure as hell couldn't pull off what you do."
The warm brush of Chris' fingers against his cheek was Ezra's undoing. In a blink of any eye, he had Chris pinned up against the wall in a desperate kiss, trying to plunge the depths of that sure heat. It wasn't enough. Even with Chris pulling him into a tight embrace, returning the kiss with demanding force, it wasn't enough. Drunk with the need to feel Chris' heat inside him, he started pulling at Chris' clothes, unbuckling, unbuttoning and discarding until he was caressing Chris' naked length, encouraging his rapidly hardening shaft.
With Chris stripping him in return, Ezra toed out of his boots before manoeuvring over to the nearest oil lamp. He barely noticed the lengthening shadows when he spared a breath from their kisses to blow out its light. But he did feel the almost burning intensity of the hot oil on his fingers, felt Chris tense then push into its cooler touch on his shaft.
As Chris' erection reached its prime, Ezra put his own back to the wall, using it as leverage to wriggle up Chris' body and wrap his legs around Chris' waist. He gasped away from a kiss as Chris' oil slick fingers slipped inside him -- only to ease down onto the heat a moment later. It was almost enough. Almost.
When Chris started moving inside him, Ezra pushed down harder, tightening his hold around Chris' waist. As the pace built up breathlessly, Chris mouthed hot kisses down Ezra's throat before suddenly withdrawing his fingers. Before Ezra could protest at their loss, Chris' thick shaft began filling him with its own searing pressure. He dug his fingers into Chris' shoulders, holding on tight until Chris had eased in all the way.
A few rapid heartbeats later, when Chris still hadn't moved, Ezra took matters into his own hands. Adjusting his weight against the wall, he moved his body up the length of Chris' slick shaft before sinking quickly back down. When they'd both regained their breaths, Chris adjusted his stance and took up the pace, moving deep inside Ezra then pulling away, almost to the tip. After a few thrusts, Ezra found his own shaft trapped between their bodies and began working it in rhythm. Each stroke sent tremors of pure pleasure rushing through him, pushing him closer to the edge. It wasn't long before his body tightened and his own heat spilled between them, triggering Chris' climax in turn.
When the world shifted back into focus, Ezra's thighs were cramping and certain parts of his anatomy felt like they were on fire, but he couldn't seem to let go of his hold on Chris. Even after Chris' shaft slipped free and they slid unceremoniously to the floor, he couldn't release his hold. It probably had something to do with the soft kisses raining over his neck and shoulders. His mind drifted back to the snowflake in his hand. He vaguely wondered which one of them was melting into the other. The thought of Chris as a mean, dark-clad snowflake made him giggle light-headedly.
"What's funny?" Chris asked between kisses.
"Nothing." Ezra kissed the palm of Chris' hand. "I suspect I may be a little overtired."
"I suspect you may be right." Chris untangled their limbs, moving back a little to make room to stand up. "And my ass is freezing off."
"Well, that settles it," Ezra sighed, letting Chris pull him to his feet. "To bed we must adjourn before humanity loses one of its chief assets."
Even though it didn't take long for Chris to blow out the lamps and set the stove's fire for the night, he was half-expecting Ezra to be asleep by the time he crawled into bed beside him. But instead of curling up on the cold side of the bed, he was welcomed into Ezra's embrace with a kiss.
"I couldn't sleep without knowing your assets were safely ensconced for the night," Ezra said lightly as they settled down together.
"I bet." Chris closed his eyes. The howl of the storm outside seemed to fade beneath the beat of Ezra's heart. With the warmth of their combined body heat relaxing his aching muscles, he was just drifting off when Ezra fidgeted beside him. "You cold?" he asked sleepily, moving to rub Ezra's back. But Ezra wasn't shivering; he was as tense as hell.
"I'm fine." Ezra tried to shrug it off. "Go to sleep."
Ignoring that response, Chris continued to stroke Ezra's back but his movements eased with their changed intent. "What were you wanting it for?"
"What was I wanting what for?"
Chris heard the defensive edge to Ezra's voice and stayed silent until Ezra went on in his usual drawl.
"Why the sudden interest in my financial affairs, Chris?"
"Something's bothering you." Chris set his fingers to caressing lazy circles over Ezra's shoulder. "I can't sleep with you fidgeting."
"Charmed, I'm sure."
"How much do you need?"
"Is that an offer, Mr Larabee?"
"It's a question."
Ezra sighed. "It's not the loss of the money in particular that's bothering me... Well, obviously the loss of the money does concern me more than somewhat but--"
"He stole from you." Chris cut to the chase.
"Indeed. But I was thinking more along the lines of 'robbed me with all the finesse of the villain in a bawdy comedy'."
Chris couldn't help but grin. "I guess he did at that."
"His talents as a thief were only outshone by his incompetence as a law officer. It pains me to let such a performance go without the accolades it deserves."
"What did you have in mind?"
"The humiliation of being incarcerated in his own jail would be a satisfactory beginning -- after handing back my money, of course. But, unfortunately, the good Judge Travis' investigation into corrupt town officials is still in its infancy and unlikely to come to Gila Flats any time soon."
"Is that a fact?" Chris smirked at a spark of an idea. "That ain't what I heard."
"And just what, pray tell, have you heard?"
"Seems to me the judge would like to get his facts straight before a full investigation."
"Perhaps send in an advance party to determine the exact nature of the corruption?" Ezra quickly returned.
"You looked like an advance party to me."
Ezra lay still for a moment. "It wouldn't work with the judge involved."
"I ain't gonna tell him."
"Convincing the sheriff to return my money could be troublesome."
"That's your end," Chris replied. "Stanes is a coward and none too smart. It shouldn't take much for me and a couple of the others to make sure he turns in his badge before runnin' out of town."
"In that case," Ezra said brightly, "I'm sure I'll come up with something suitably compelling. Speaking of compelling, your--"
Chris caught Ezra's mouth in a gently persuasive, lingering kiss. "Sleep."
"Well, when you put it so eloquently..." Ezra returned the kiss before settling down to sleep. "One word from you and I see the error of my ways."
Chris refrained from commenting. It wasn't long before Ezra's breathing slowed to a steady rhythm.
In the following quiet, Chris listened to the storm ebbing away. With any luck, it would take the cold snap with it. That would make the trip back to Gila Flats go easier on them, if not Stanes, he determined as sleep stole over him.
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