Lamb For Supper
by Sammy Girl
Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: Being a Brit who's never been to a rodeo - them being illegal in the UK - I set my story at the birth of the commercial rodeo, so the rules can be - whatever I choose them to be! I make no apologies for stealing a scene from one of my favourite movies. Betaed by Kerry, with editorial help from Lyndsay.
Feedback: Yes please.
"Ya coming t' watch the rodeo Ez?" Vin asked as he finished his breakfast.
"Indeed I am, there will no doubt be several opportunities for honest men to place a sporting wager."
"Ya mean yer gonna run a book?"
Vin grinned and clapped the gambler on the back. "Hope ya give good odds on me!"
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "You are competing?"
"Sure thing, bronc ridin', JD too, mind you took him sometime t' convince Buck he wasn't gonna kill himself at it." Ezra shook his head, he'd been out of town for the fast few days and missed all the build up. "Mind you, he's got nothing to talk about, seeing as he's entered in the bulldogging."
"What?!" Ezra spluttered.
"Didn't you know? According to Chris, ol' Buck's pretty handy at it, too."
"Bulldogging? Isn't that when one man wrestles the bull to the ground?"
"Sure it is, it's a big man's game, always been a mite skinny for that m' self. Reckon Josiah could have handled it, but he says he's too old t' learn now. Nathan would have been good too, but he says he ain't going looking for hurting."
"Quite." Ezra struggled to regain his composure. "Where is Mr Wilmington now?" He'd been surprised that his lover hadn't been in town to welcome him home.
"Took ol' Beau out to MacLean's ranch for some practice yesterday afternoon. I gotta go. See you at two - right?"
"What? Oh, yes two o'clock."
Mary had started a campaign before Easter, to find a way for the town to celebrate May Day and the coming of spring. A rodeo hadn't been her first choice, or even one of the suggestions put forward in her editorial, but it was the one that the majority of the town seemed to back. The local ranchers and their hands were fully behind the idea and to her credit, once it was clear that the rodeo was going to go ahead, Mary committed the paper to it 100%.
Yosemite had offered one of his larger corrals as an arena and Josiah had organised a gang of volunteers to build the chutes. Inez had taken on the catering. The local ranches would provide the stock and any necessary equipment. As luck would have it the first of May was a Saturday and people had been arriving in town since early that morning. Whatever Mary's reservations had been, she had to admit, it was proving to be a boom for the local traders, who were all doing a roaring trade.
It was almost one before Ezra tracked Buck down to the livery. He was grooming Beau, lavishing attention on the big gentle grey. Ezra stood in silence and watched. Buck had taken off his shirt and was working bare chested, though the barn was generally gloomy, a single shaft of sunlight penetrated the loose floor boards of the hay loft above. Every now and again Buck would pass through or into this light. It highlighted him, picking out every contour of his lean, well muscled body, which glistened with perspiration. He was working Beau's rump, working the coarse brush in alternate directions. The already gleaming coat took on a distinctive pattern of criss-crossing strokes, but as soon he'd created this pattern he began again. It was clear this was as much a massage as a grooming session. Buck was speaking to his horse as he worked, his voice so soft Ezra couldn't make out the actual words, but the tone was clear enough, Ezra had heard it often enough. Buck was telling his horse how much he loved him, how much he admired his courage and speed, how handsome he was and how much confidence he had in him. Words he'd heard often enough, words he had returned in kind.
How in the world did I come to love this man, of all men? Why him? How did he even know how I felt about him? I mean who would have guessed Buck was even receptive to my advances - had I made any. Ezra mused. He'd lusted after Buck for months, with no hope that there was any chance his feelings could be returned, then one day, out of the blue, while they were riding back from a routine trip to Eagle Bend, Buck had smiled at him across the campfire. Buck smiling wasn't unusual, but this smile was different, this was the smile he gave saloon girls just before they came over to him and sat on his lap, then followed him to his room when their shift was over. Ezra had seen it a hundred times.
"Buck?" he'd asked, not sure how to phrase his question.
"Yes Hoss?" Buck responded with feigned innocence.
"Yes? What does that mean?"
"Whatever you were going to ask, whatever you want to ask, the answer is yes."
"You don't know what I was going to ask."
"True, but I've got eyes and I know what I've been seeing every time you look at me. I may not have much education, not like you and Josiah - hell, everyone but Vin's got more book learning than me- but about some subjects I know plenty, and gunfighting's only one of them. You're a fine looking man Ezra, a man'd have to be blind not to see that, a lot finer than a man like me deserves, but you keep looking at me, with them green eyes of yours. Damn, if you knew what those eyes do to me."
Ezra had been more than a little taken a back. "I, that is, what about the women? You can have any number of women, I thought you loved women? I don't understand how…"
"I like steak, doesn't mean I don't like roast lamb, trouble is good lamb's kinda hard to come by, but there's steak everywhere, people expect you to like steak."
"But which is your favourite?" Ezra challenged.
"Well I like them both, but if the lamb is real fine, sweet, tender, succulent, I'd have to say it would definitely be my favourite."
That was how it began and three months on they were still spending most nights in the same bed - usually Buck's. Everyone in town knew Buck had an 'active' social life, so paid no mind to any 'sounds' emanating from his room late at night. Ezra was equally well known for his late nights, so if he was seen returning to his room in the small hours no eyebrows were raised. Needless to say it was still risky, and their more 'passion filled' assignations were limited to trips out of town. If anything so far the only raised eyebrows were over Ezra's sudden enthusiasm for long assignments and willingness to camp out - if Chris or any of the others had noticed this enthusiasm was confined to trips with Buck, they hadn't mentioned it.
Buck had moved to stand in front of Beau, he'd put down the coarse brush, and picked up two soft body brushes. He was using them together, brushing both sides of Beau's neck. The big horse was so relaxed, his eyes were closed as he rested his big head on Buck's bare shoulder. A position Ezra envied. He may even have sighed, because Buck looked up.
"Hey there," he greeted huskily.
Forcing himself to remain calm and not fling himself at his half naked lover and pin him to the stall wall with hungry kisses, Ezra went straight to the point. "Vin says you're entered in this rodeo?"
"Sure am." Buck put both brushes in one hand and patted his horse on the neck as he stepped forward toward Ezra.
"Can I ask why?" Ezra struggled to keep the emotion out of his voice.
Buck grinned and gave a little shrug. "Why not?"
"Why not?" Ezra stepped closer so they could speak without being overheard. "Because it's dangerous, Vin said you're intending to wrestle a steer?"
"Yup, I used to be damn good at it."
"'Used to be', key words there 'used to be'. When was the last time you did this?"
"Yesterday, at MacLean's place.
"That's not what I meant and you know it."
"Two years ago, and I won. Ezra, what we do is dangerous, people shoot at us, sometimes they even hit us, we both have the scars to prove it. What are you so upset about?"
"We get shot at because it's our job, we get paid, we do it in a noble cause…"
"I don't want to watch you get hurt doing something as pointless as bull wrestling."
"Pointless?" There was tone in Buck's voice that made it clear to Ezra he'd made a terrible mistake. "You're happy enough to take bets on it but you think it's pointless? Well I happen to be damn good at it, and people seem to enjoy watchin' and that ain't pointless t' me! I may not have your fancy tastes in entertainment but that don't make what I do pointless!"
"But - I'm sor…"
"What about them bull fighters in Mexico? You know about them?"
"I see it one time, right fancy t'do. All the town came t' watch, fine ladies, rich dons, priest even came and blessed them. It was big event, you saying that's pointless?"
"That's not the…"
"Cowboys been doin' this fer years, then them folk up in Cheyenne had the idea to put on a competition for people to watch, and now we're gonna have one here. This is progress Ezra, I'll lay you odds a few years from now they'll have rodeos in every town, maybe even in the big cities!"
"Oh come on, I can't see the citizens of New York clamouring to see a lot of scruffy cowboys flinging themselves at dumb animals."
"Scruffy cowboys and dumb animals? You sure you got that round the right way, sounds t' me like you think it's the cowboys who are dumb!" With that Buck picked up his shirt and shouldered his way past Ezra and out into the sunlit street.
"Bravo Ezra, brilliantly done!" Ezra berated himself. He walked forward to stroke Beau's gleaming neck. "Why didn't I just wish him luck and leave it at that? Mmmm?" he asked the horse. Beau's response was to nuzzle his pocket, the one were he kept peppermints for Chaucer. "Very well." Ezra pulled one and let him lip it off his outstretched hand. This only produced an indignant snort from Chaucer, who felt the need to remind his master who the mints were really for. "See now I have upset two people I love," Ezra told Beau. "Look after him for me, you're the only one who can." With that he patted the big grey once more, before turning to an impatient Chaucer.
Ezra had never been to a rodeo, so when it became clear there was to be one and that it involved sporting contests, he naturally made it his business to find out more. Though he had some idea what it involved he wasn't too sure how the contest would be judged. The answer turned out to be time. The events were all to be timed. The longer you stayed on the bronco or bull - Ezra for the life of him could see no logical reason to ride a bull - the better. The faster you roped the calf or subdued the bull the better. Judge Travis couldn't be in town that weekend, but the week before had left his fancy watch with Mary, it was the kind that had a second hand you could stop by pressing the knob at the top.
Josiah was in charge of the time keeping, accepted by all as incorruptible but just to be on the safe side Chris was hovering behind him, in case anyone wanted to argue with the results. The ranchers and traders put up the prize money. Every inch of the corral fencing was filled with faces, people were squeezed in three deep, the children watching from the bottom rail. The fist event was the calf roping. Deprived of the chance to weigh up the contestants and work out the odds, Ezra was forced to rely on Vin to give him a rundown on the form, then he'd carefully weighted the odds so that at the very worst he'd come out even.
A lithe cowboy called Jim won the calf roping, he was no more than seventeen and totally fearless. Vin had pointed him out that morning as a likely candidate, while the crowd favoured a flamboyant cowboy from the James spread. Ezra made a killing. Bronc riding was next. JD was one of the first, Ezra could see Buck sitting on top of the chute, one long leg hanging over the side. He was bent forward, no doubt giving JD last minute instructions and encouragement. No one, not even Vin, gave JD much of a chance, after all he'd never worked as a cowboy, never broken horses, what chance did he have. Ezra glanced at his book, Buck had placed $2 on JD at 10-1. He's nothing, if not loyal, I'll give him that... Buck moved back so the chute gate wouldn't trap his leg when it swung back. A second later the gate flew open and JD was bursting out into the arena on the back of an ornery little paint pony, who was bucking and twisting all over the place. And on that paint pony he stayed, three seconds, five, seven, ten - no one had done more than eight so far. Soon it was twelve seconds. Buck was now standing on the top rail of the corral, holding on to the tall gate post and bellowing encouragement at his young friend.
The competition limit had been set at fifteen, if more than one person made it to fifteen seconds, the prize money would be divided. Josiah stopped the watch and started ringing the bell. Two riders shot out and came alongside JD, pulling him to safety. . The crowd went wild!
"Well, shit that's my chances gone," Vin exclaimed.
"You think so?" Ezra asked.
"Hell yes! Who'd a thought the kid was that good?"
Ezra looked down at his book. "Buck, apparently."
JD waved to the crowed as he ducked back under the rails to join Vin. "I tell you, these Mustangs ain't as tough as the race horses I used to break back in Boston," he commented with a dust covered grin.
"Why you little…!" Vin exclaimed. "You never said you used to break horses back east."
"You never asked."
"Mr Dunne, I do declare you are learning," Ezra complimented.
In the end JD won easily, Vin coming third. The third event was the Bulldogging, since the contestants were to ride in alphabetical order, Buck was going to be the penultimate contestant. Ezra watched with growing horror as bulls were wrestled to the ground, some of the cowboys taking part were woefully ill prepared, a few timed their leap from the horse so badly they missed the bull altogether, others moved too slowly when they released the bull. One was knocked down by the enraged creature, another was gouged by a passing horn. Luckily Nathan confirmed it was only a scrape along the ribs.
Finally he saw the flash of white that indicated Beau had entered the arena. Buck looked relaxed but confident.
"What do you think?" Ezra asked Vin.
Vin shrugged. "Don't know, Buck's a lot bigger than most of them cowboys, but he's out of practice, mind you he's got Beau."
"He trusts Buck and he's fast, very fast."
Ezra looked back, hoping - irrationally - that Beau remembered his plea to look after Buck. As he watched the big grey danced on the spot, Buck was having trouble holding him back, clearly he'd spent some time getting the horse warmed up to the point were it was dancing on its toes. Then, almost before Ezra realised, the bull was out and running. Buck seemed to just drop the reins and Beau leapt forward, his long strides eating up the ground. Even to Ezra's untrained eye, he was noticeably quicker than the other horses he'd seen. Then, to Ezra's horror, Buck was leaning out of the saddle long before he was level with the bull's head, his hand practically trailing along the bull's spine. The very second he was level, he was launching himself at those long, wicked looking horns. The crowed roared, out of the corner of his eye Ezra saw the saloon girls cheering wildly. As Buck's full weight landed on its neck and then wrenched his head around, the poor bull lost his footing, stumbling along, making a desperate effort to free himself, but to no avail. He dragged Buck along for a short distance, but his momentum quickly dwindled to nothing.
"One!" the crowd shouted. The rules were that once the bull had stopped the contestant had to keep from moving for five seconds. "Two, three!" Ezra held his breath. "Four, five!"
Buck deftly released the bull and rolled way, coming to his feet in one swift movement as he made it to the safety of the rails.
"Well?" Ezra demanded, looking down at Josiah.
"Give me a minute." Josiah consulted his meticulous lists and the time shown on the Judge's watch. "He's in the lead, by two seconds."
The last rider couldn't even come close to the leader's time, thus Buck was declared the winner.
There was still the bull riding, but Ezra had refused to run a book on that, since no one could give him any indication as to the form of any of the competitors. Vin's assessment of the event was that it was for 'fellers who've had their head stomped on one to many times'. Chris had also told him it was as much about luck as skill, maybe more so. On the far side of the arena Ezra could see Buck receiving the plaudits of the spectators, he saw Blossom and some of the other girls from the saloon smothering him with kisses. Jealousy rose in him as he watched his lover amidst the gaggle of amorous women, then Buck looked up, he sought out Ezra and their eyes met. Buck was smiling already, but it was his general, everyday, happy-go-lucky Buck smile, then, for a second or two he flashed Ezra that seductive, 'come on' smile that had first brought them together, and Ezra knew his jealousy was groundless.
He might not have lost his lover, but Ezra was apparently far from forgiven. Once the rodeo was over and the prizes handed out, the crowd dispersed, families packed up and headed home before it as dark, cowboys, towns folk, visitors and peacekeepers retired to the town's saloons and eateries. Five of the seven settled around their favourite table, at their favourite saloon. Nathan had a string of patients to patch up before he could join them, where Buck was, no one knew. Some three hours later Nathan came into the saloon and dropped into the vacant chair at the table.
"No one's planning to have another rodeo sometime soon - are they?" he asked.
"Not so far as I know," Chris confirmed.
"Good, I'm not complaining about the business, the ranchers pay well, but too many days like this is gonna kill me."
"Anyone badly hurt?" Josiah asked.
"Some busted ribs, young Hank Springer broke his wrist, nothing that's gonna lose anyone their job."
"Reckon we can call it a success then," Josiah commented.
"I enjoyed it," JD commented.
"We know," Vin pointed out, JD had told the story of how he won the bronco riding to anyone who would listen, at least twice.
"Was Buck okay?" Ezra asked, trying to sound casual.
"Don't know, haven't seen him."
Chris looked up from his whisky. "He didn't come and see you?"
Nathan shook his head. "Haven't seen him since the rodeo, was he hurt?"
"We don't know, no one's seen him since," Josiah explained.
"Bucklin 'll turn up when he's hungry," Vin pointed out.
That reminded all of them that by now it was getting late, so they decided to order their supper before Inez ran out. Just as she was serving up six plates of steak and potatoes, Buck ambled in, pulled a chair over and slouched down in it.
"Congratulation Senor Buck," Inez greeted.
"Why thank you darlin'."
"You want something to eat?"
"Now I have to say that steak does look good, but do you have any lamb?"
"Lamb?" JD asked a little too loudly.
"What's wrong with lamb, I like lamb." Buck turned his attention back to Inez. "Well?"
"You are in luck, I happen to have some lamb chops"
Buck grinned. "That sounds mighty fine, I'll have them."
Ezra was staring at Buck and hoping his pants were tight enough to hide his reaction to the whole conversation.
"Lamb?" Ezra asked.
"Sometimes you forget how good it is, doesn't do to forget stuff like that."
Ezra felt a flush rise in his cheeks and ducked his head, apparently concentrating on his food.
Buck had declared he was tired and headed for his room not long after ten. Ezra, after playing a few lacklustre games of poker with drunken cow hands, declared it a night sometime after eleven. He had his customary late night bath and changed his clothes, before slipping out of the back entrance to the saloon. It was nearly midnight by the time he knocked on Buck's door. Two heavy well spaced knocks, a long gap, then a third rap, lighter - Morse code 'ME'. The door opened almost instantly, Buck stepped aside to let Ezra enter, there was no welcome smile, Buck was still dressed, but for his boots and jacket. Ezra closed the door softly and crossed to the bed, were Buck was leaning up against the big brass bedstead.
"I owe you an apology," he began.
"Reckon you do at that," Buck responded evenly.
"I am truly sorry if my remarks caused offence, I had no intention to speak disparagingly of the rodeo, which I admit was somewhat entertaining."
"Very profitable. My only defence for my thoughtless words is that I was concerned for your safety." Ezra looked lustfully at Buck.
"Indeed, I couldn't bear anything to happen to that fine body."
"Why would that be?"
"Because I have designs on it myself, designs that need it to be in prime condition."
We might have a problem there. "Well we'll have to see if we can accommodate you."
"I was thinking I'd be accommodating you." Ezra reached out and trailed a hand up Buck's shirt until he reached the first button.
"Were you indeed?"
"Oh yes." The first two buttons were deftly undone.
"Well we'll have to see about that." Three more buttons were released. "Do you have room?"
"Oh I can make room, it'll be a tight fit, but the snuggest fit is the finest coat." The last button succumbed to Ezra's nimble fingers. Those soft, sensitive fingertips then began to explore the flesh beneath the shirt. The gasp and hiss it produced had nothing to do with seduction.
"What?" Ezra asked, as he pulled back.
Unconvinced, Ezra gently pushed back the soft cotton until the shirt dropped to the bare board floor. A large ragged graze ran across Buck's ribs on the right hand side, the underlying bruise already beginning to colour.
"This is… why didn't you go and see Nathan?" Ezra spluttered.
"Ez, it's just a graze, I've has a bath, it's clean enough."
Ezra frowned at him, now that he looked at it the graze, though large and no doubt painful, was superficial. "Why don't we get more comfortable?"
"Sounds like a plan." Buck moved around and eased himself down on to the bed with another hiss of pain.
"Is there any part of you that is not damaged?" Ezra asked.
Buck thought, then raised his right arm, between the cuts on the heel of his hand and the graze on his elbow was a stretch of unblemished skin. Ezra leaned in slowly and planted the softest of kisses on it.
Buck's thought for a moment, finally he lifted a finger and pointed to a spot on his forehead. Ezra gently pushed back the ever unruly, thick, dark hair, before bestowing a tender kiss.
Buck moved his finger to his cheek. "This isn't too bad?"
Ezra kissed it tenderly.
Buck finally moved his finger to his lips, with a questioning look. Ezra needed no second bidding.
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