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Hitting the ground with an audible whump, Ezra rolled to his back and tried to gather his wits. His attacker kicked him savagely in the ribs before jerking him to his feet. The gambler was dragged across the rocky cairn and tossed unceremoniously to the ground again. The moon was just coming up, casting an unearthly glow on the southerner's white shirt and pale skin.
"You think you're so slick. It's about time someone taught you a lesson about cheating an honest man out of his hard earned money!" The man snarled, "I'm going to teach you a lesson so's you never forget!"
Ezra's stomach rolled as the multiple implications of the threat blossomed in his mind. It wasn't the first time he'd been accused of cheating at cards. "Sir, you may have all of your money back if it will ameliorate your anger," he offered.
"It's gone way beyond money now. You've been swindling people for too long. I'm going to teach you the lesson your momma should have taught you while you were still in short pants!" the man explained as he pulled his saddlebags off his horse and ground tied both animals. Chaucer snorted and tried to nip the man when he got too close.
Laying on the ground and clutching his aching ribs, Ezra watched in horror as the man pulled out several iron stakes and began to drive them into the ground with a short handled maul. Chains were tossed on the ground, causing the gambler to flinch and look for an escape. He began to pray that the others would come looking for him soon, if for no other reason than to bury him. The idea of his body being left staked out for wild animals to violate left him feeling sick.
"Time for your lesson, gambler," the man warned as he jerked Ezra up and shoved him across the rocky surface. He winced as the knees of his pants were shredded when he landed harshly on the ground. Before he could catch his breath, the man kicked him in the side hard enough to flip him over. His attacker pounced, slashing through the rough hemp rope binding his wrists and forcing his hands into the shackles.
The man, Gordon Swift, stood for a moment to catch his breath. He glared down at the card sharp, reveling in the look of fear in Ezra's face as he tested his bonds. After kicking the gambler in the ribs again, he secured his ankles.
"Now, your friends will come looking for you, won't they? Up here, all alone on this rock, it may take a while. If they do find you, I still want you to remember not to swindle people, so I'm gonna give you another lesson," Swift said.
Ezra renewed his struggles as he saw the man take up the maul again. Straining against the shackles, he watched as Swift circled him, menacing him by slapping the maul against his open hand. When the man moved to where the southerner couldn't see him, Ezra began to plead for his life.
"Sir, I... beg of you, don't do this. You have my word... as a gentleman... that I will cease my aberrant behavior with all due haste."
"It's too late for that! I'm going to fix it for you permanently," Gordon warned as he swung the maul and connected solidly with Ezra's right wrist.
The gambler screamed in agony as the bones in his wrist shattered. By reflex, he pulled against the chains, prolonging the pain. Swift kicked him in the ribs and then stomped on his groin. Mercifully, Ezra blacked out.
The sun was just peeking over the horizon when Chaucer cantered into town. The gelding was lathered from his run. Swift had tried to force the intelligent steed to go with him but he was having no part of it. Rearing and lashing out with his hooves, he forced the strange man to release his reins and he wheeled for home.
JD was grooming his gelding for his early morning rounds. He glanced up just as Chaucer arrived. The horse was blowing and wide eyed as he pranced nervously. Carefully, the young sheriff approached the horse. He checked for Ezra before stripping off the saddle and blanket. He eased the animal into his stall and ran to find the others. Ten minutes later, all six men headed out to look for the southerner. Vin followed Chaucer's trail, back tracking a few times when the trail crossed an old track.
The early summer sun beat down mercilessly on the helpless, bound gambler. Ezra had regained consciousness a couple of hours after the assault. The pain in his arm was so severe that it hurt when he breathed. His side hurt low and near his back, as he had tried to turn when Swift kicked him. He didn't even think about the pain in his groin.
A bird circled and Ezra followed it with his eyes. There wasn't a cloud in the late afternoon, azure sky to provide shade. Thirst quickly set in and the southerner knew he was in dire straights.
Vin was so intent on the hoof prints in the loose, dry soil that he didn't se the circling birds. JD pulled his bowler hat off and swiped his face with his bandana. When he looked up toward the low rising hills, he saw them. Kicking his horse in the sides, he raced away, leaving the others to wonder for a moment what had set him off. As soon as the tracker looked in the direction the younger man was headed, he quickly rode after him.
JD was already on the ground when Vin and Buck reached the site. The young sheriff ripped the bandana from his pocket. He grabbed his canteen from the pommel and raced to the prone form of his friend. Pouring the tepid water on the cloth, he began to gently wipe Ezra's face. Nathan dropped to his knees and checked to see what JD was doing before he began to assess the injuries.
A gentle, cooling touch roused Ezra and he moaned softly and turned his head. Fighting off the lethargy, he tried to speak but found that his tongue was swollen and unresponsive. JD immediately tipped the half empty canteen and allowed a few drops of water to drip on the dry, chapped lips.
"Not too much, JD," Nathan cautioned. The healer was searching for the source of the blood soaking into the rocky surface. He unbuttoned Ezra's shirt and tugged the tails out of his pants. The southerner moaned and scrabbled against the ground with his heels. Nathan pulled the blood-stiffened material away as gently as possible, revealing an inch-long tear in the skin along Ezra's lowest rib on his back. "We need to get him loose so I can check him," he told the others.
Eager to help, Josiah took hold of the metal spike attached to Ezra's left wrist. Buck attacked one of the ankle bonds and Chris and Vin the other. Because JD was kneeling near Ezra's right arm, he continued to trickle drops of water into the southerner's mouth. When Ezra snaked his tongue out to lick his lips, JD rocked back and capped the canteen. Josiah ripped the metal spike out of the rock and unthreaded the chain from the spike. Buck had also freed his stake and was examining the lock on the shackle. JD took hold of the ugly, rusty metal spike and prepared to give it a tug.
The little bit of water revived Ezra enough for him to try to open his swollen eyes. Seeing JD reach for the stake attached to his right hand, he reacted. A startled cry of pain drew every eye as Ezra rolled to his side and reached for the stake. Nathan became frustrated, as the action allowed dirt into the wound he had been checking.
"Don't touch it!" Ezra cried as he wrapped his left hand around the spike.
Looking to Josiah for help, Nathan tried to pry Ezra's hand away from the spike so he could turn him to his back again. The southerner drew into a fetal ball, protecting his arm and the spike. Josiah and Buck took hold of the gambler and pulled him away so the healer could see what had him so distraught.
"Don't! Please... don't," Ezra pleaded.
"We're trying to help you, son," Josiah said as he pinned Ezra's left hand.
"Don't let him! Please don't let him do it!"
During the exchange, Nathan noticed that Ezra hadn't moved his right arm from the elbow down. Nudging JD aside, he took his knife and cut the material of the southerner's shirtsleeve.
It was his worst nightmare come to life! Nathan was kneeling over him and the others were holding him down so the healer could amputate his arm. Writhing and screaming incoherently, Ezra finally went limp.
"Damn," Nathan cursed as he ripped the material to Ezra's elbow. Just below the middle of his forearm was a dark, ugly bruise. The swelling couldn't disguise the slightly wrong angle of the limb.
"What is it?" Chris asked as he peered over Nathan's shoulder.
"His arm's broke, bad. Gotta be hurting like all hell. We gotta get the spike out without jostling him. Vin, I need some long, smooth sticks to bind up his arm. We need a wagon to get him back to town," Nathan issued orders without thinking about it. He just naturally took command of the situation when one of them was hurt. JD jumped up and sprinted for his horse, eager to be doing something. Chris nodded, knowing the young man was up to the task.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" the blond gunslinger asked.
"Take that cloth and start wiping him down. He's about got heat stroke," Nathan replied as he gently probed the damaged arm.
Chris knelt and began to pour water from the canteen to wipe the southerner's face and neck. Buck and Josiah were carefully wobbling the stake, trying to loosen it from its death grip on the rock. Nathan kept hold of the heavy metal shackle to prevent Ezra's arm from moving. Finally, the stake came free and was gently lifted from the rock. The chain was unthreaded and the stake flung away by an angry Josiah. Vin returned a moment later with several lengths of green tree limbs and rapidly stripped them of bark and rough edges.
Nathan carefully placed the sticks along Ezra's arm and checked the length. Buck opened the healer's saddlebags and withdrew several rolls of linen cloth. The strips were slowly maneuvered under the sticks and carefully worked into position. The southerner moaned softly and squirmed under the restraining hands. The cloth strips were slowly tightened, holding the damaged limb straight.
The wagon bounced around as JD drove the team of horses as hard as he dared. Yosemite had promised to give his mount a thorough cool down so that the young gelding didn't become ill. As he stared at the ground ahead of the horses, he kept seeing Ezra's sun burned and swollen face. His hands tightened on the thick, rough leather reins as he quashed the urge to drive them harder.
Vin studied the ground around the rocky outcrop to see if he could spot the hoof prints of whoever had injured the southerner. He easily spotted where Chaucer had won his freedom. The print of the other horse was unique and the tracker followed it several hundred yards before he heard the thundering approach of the wagon. JD's jaw was set in a grim line as he steered the horses toward the others.
"I'm gonna follow and see if I can get a look at the guy who did this," Vin told Chris as he returned.
"Take Buck with you," the gunslinger replied evenly.
The two men exchanged a look before the tracker nodded and went to gather his horse. Buck joined him with a bag of provisions. Vin raised an eyebrow in question.
"While Yosemite was hitching up the wagon, the kid got some sandwiches and some more water."
"He's learning," Vin complimented as he swung up into the saddle. He nudged Peso away from the other horses and started toward the trail of the man who had injured Ezra.
With Nathan holding the splinted arm securely, Josiah gathered Ezra into his arms and carried him to the wagon. Chris took the unconscious man into his arms until Josiah could get up into the wagon bed and take him back. Once all the men were situated, Josiah cradling the southerner like a child, JD climbed into the seat and took up the reins.
"Nice and easy, JD. He don't need to be jostled," Nathan cautioned. Chris gathered the other horses to lead them back.
During the long, slow ride back to town, Nathan and Josiah continued to coax water into Ezra. They also continued to bathe his face and neck with the wet bandana. Just as they reached the outskirts of town, the southerner began to stir. Rejuvenated somewhat by the water, he immediately became combative. Josiah tried to gently calm him without success.
Being held curled as he was awoke another pain in Ezra. Every time he tried to move, Josiah or Nathan firmly settled him back in the same position. The pain in his arm had become almost familiar and accepted but the other pain was not. Ezra turned, pressing his chest more firmly against Josiah while shifting his right leg out over the older man's This took some of the pressure off his groin and allowed him to relax slightly. Straightening his left leg between Josiah's brought so much relief that it was almost like taking away the pain. Peripherally, he felt the hands passing the wet cloth over his sunburned face, but it was the rumbling of the bass voice in his ear that soothed him most. Josiah wouldn't let Swift hurt him again.
As soon as the wagon came to a halt, Nathan vaulted over the side and let down the end gate. Chris dismounted and handed the horses off to Yosemite, who had hurried out as soon as he heard the wagon. Ezra groaned and tried to resist when he was gathered up in the blond man's arms.
"Be still now, Ezra! You're home and Nathan's going to fix you right up," Chris growled. The gambler went still and didn't even twitch as he was handed off to Josiah. Once in the clinic, Josiah and Nathan went about stripping the shirt off Ezra so they could attend to his injuries.
"You better get Chris up here, I'll need you to hold him while I set his arm," Nathan said as he gathered what he would need. As he carefully prodded the deep bruises on the southerner's ribs, Ezra moved his hand to push the prodding hands away. The healer moved the hand back to the mattress and Ezra tried to turn to his side, curling up protectively. "I need you to lay still, Ezra. I'll try not to hurt ya but I gotta see where you're hurt," Nathan said as he urged the injured man onto his back. Josiah and Chris returned just then and moved to help.
Out on the trail, Vin rode in a steamy silence. No one deserved to be treated the way Ezra had been. In the two years since they had come together to save the Indian village, he had become fond of the green-eyed gambler. After Mary Travis taught him the basics of reading, it was Ezra who fed his voracious appetite. The tracker would often find a book tucked into his saddlebags before he had to go out to deliver or pick up a prisoner. Books on history and adventure stories were his favorites, but every so often he would find a book of poetry for his consideration.
"Vin?" Buck called a little louder. He had spoken several times without getting a response. He wanted to stop and water the horses at the spring-fed pond up ahead.
"Huh?" Vin asked as he lifted his head. The radiating ache in his neck and shoulders told him that he'd been staring at the ground for a good, long time.
"I said, do you want to water the horses up ahead?" Buck repeated.
"Yeah, but keep your eyes open, we're closing on him. He musta stopped somewhere to sleep for a few hours. We passed his horse's droppings a way back and they were still pretty fresh," Vin explained.
The two men dismounted and Buck took the horses to the water. Vin walked around the water's edge until he found where the man had stopped to water his horse. He picked up the chewed, soggy stump of a cigar lying next to the impression of the man's boots. His blue eyes narrowed angrily as he let his mind drift again to the frightened, pain filled cries Ezra had made. Hearing the horses snorting and blowing drew him away from his thoughts and he stood, throwing down the cigar butt.
"You ready?" Vin asked.
"I guess," Buck answered as he swung up into the saddle.
In the clinic, Nathan was not happy. With Josiah and Chris helping, he had tried to set Ezra's arm. Shaking his head and rolling his shoulder up to wipe away the sweat from his brow, he probed the break again. Ezra groaned and tossed his head as he dug his heels into the mattress.
"What is it, Nate?" Chris asked.
Dragging his fingers over his short hair before cocking his hands on his hips, the healer pursed his lips and stared down at the southerner. "It ain't jus' broke, it shattered," he replied.
"Can you fix it?"
"If I could put all the pieces back together, they might knit up jus' fine. As it is, I don't even know how to put all the pieces together. If it ain't right, he'll never have good use of that hand. I may have to amputate it. Might be kinder than to put him through the pain of settin' it and it bein' useless," Nathan said.
"NO!" Josiah insisted, "You take off his hand and it will kill him!"
"Josiah," Chris began.
"NO! Can't you operate? If you could see the bones, couldn't you put them together?" the older man asked.
"I'm not a doctor!" Nathan hissed. "I could end up doin' him more harm than good."
"Try," Josiah insisted.
On the trail, Vin pulled Peso to a stop and whipped out his spyglass. After scouring the trail ahead, he put the glass away and drew closer to Buck.
"He's just nearing the top of the next ridge. If I swing around, I can get ahead of him and cut him off," the tracker said softly.
"Just keep in mind, we don't know for sure that he did that to Ezra. Let's try not to get in a shootout with the man, all right?" Buck asked as his eyes drilled into the younger man. He'd been watching Vin all morning. The tracker was coiled like a rattlesnake waiting to strike.
"So I shoot to disable him," Vin returned.
The two men parted, Buck continuing up the trail after the man while Vin pulled out and tried to get in front of him. Several minutes later, the man turned in the saddle at the sound of another horse coming over the hill.
"Afternoon," Buck called cheerfully as he moved up closer.
"Afternoon," the man returned.
"Headed for Purgatory?"
"Don't see as it's any of your business," the man hedged.
"It is if you're the one who left a man chained to a rock with a busted arm," Vin called testily.
Gordon Swift looked quickly for the other speaker as his hand went for his gun. The sound of another gun clearing leather stopped him and he held his arm stiffly away from his side.
"I don't know what you're talking about, mister. I haven't bothered anybody."
A quick search of the man's saddlebags revealed the silver flask Ezra carried in his coat pocket. They also found more chains and stakes. A murderous glare scorched the air as Vin struggled to rein in his anger. Buck made good use of the chains and used them to secure the man to his saddle horn. He forced Vin back to his mount and steered their prisoner away from him.
Nathan glanced around the room once again. They had moved Ezra to Chris's room at the boarding house. The light was better. The healer had gathered all the supplies he thought he would need. Chris and Josiah prepared the gambler. Ezra was stripped to the waist and his injured arm was placed on a wide board covered in sterile, boiled cloth.
"I just want to remind y'all, he could still lose that hand. I'm not a doctor and damned sure not a surgeon," Nathan said with as much vehemence as he could manage.
"He trusts you, Nathan," Josiah gently reminded the healer.
"You both know what you're doing?" Nathan asked. Seeing both nod, he handed Josiah the ether and cloth.
After a couple of deep breaths to center his mind, Nathan took up the scalpel. Starting below the broken bones, he made his incision. Blood welled up in the trough opening behind the sharp blade. Stopping just beyond the uppermost end of the break, he put he scalpel aside and took up a clean cloth to blot away the blood. After studying the grain of the muscle, he made another smaller incision, carefully avoiding the veins and arteries. Using his fingertips, he carefully parted the muscle. As soon as he withdrew his fingers, the muscle closed again.
"Gonna need to hold the muscle back so I can work. Hand me the needle and thread," Nathan said. Glancing up when he felt Chris put the needle against his fingers, he carefully decided where to put the thread to do the most good. Passing the needle through the edge of the muscle, he caught the other end and pulled gently. Almost reading his mind, Josiah reached across and took the ends of the thread. Nathan clipped the needle free and dropped it back on the small tray. Chris already held the other needle in case he needed it. Deciding that he could draw back the other side of the incision and have a better view of the bone, he pierced another spot and drew it back.
"Amazing!" the healer breathed as he gingerly touched the shard of bone and guided it back into position. He could see a small sliver and picked up the tweezers to remove it. Josiah's hand cramped and he shifted his grip on the loops of thread. In response to the tension, Ezra's fingers twitched.
"Can you do it?" Chris asked.
"I can guide them back into place but I don't know how to hold them there until they bind," Nathan replied.
"Couldn't you tie them, like stitches?" the blond suggested.
"How would I get it out?"
"Could you leave it in him?" Josiah suggested.
"And run the risk of infection?"
"What can you use that won't get infected?" Chris asked.
"We need something like a screw or nail. Something that won't get infected if it stays inside him," Nathan puzzled aloud.
"Gold?" Chris asked.
"It's a soft metal. And not all of it is pure," Josiah challenged.
"Only needs to hold them still until the bone starts to mend," Nathan said as he visualized what he needed. "If I made a couple of small holes in the bone and tapped a small piece..."
"Like pegging a piece of wood together?" Chris asked.
"How quick can we do something like that? I don't want to keep this wound open."
"What about your needles?" Josiah suggested. "You could break it off and smooth over the end."
"You know, it might work. These needles are special made. Fella I got 'em from said they wouldn't rust. Something about the way the metal was forged," Nathan thought out loud. "Could give it a try. If it seems like it's getting infected, I can pull them out after a few days. They only need to stay until the bone starts to mend." Nathan looked to the other two for guidance. Both of them were looking to him to make a decision.
"What ever you think is best," Josiah finally said.
An hour later, several pieces of the needles had been driven into the broken pieces of bone. The alignment was perfect. If they knit together without becoming infected, there was hope that Ezra would retain the use of his hand. Removing the threads holding the muscle open, Nathan carefully placed a couple of stitches through the muscle and skin. To minimize the scarring, he closed the rest of the incision with a row of tiny, neat stitches with his smallest needle and finest silk. When he was finished, he carefully splinted the arm on L-shaped boards to keep Ezra from trying to turn his wrist and jarring the shattered bones apart. After treating the small bleeding wound on his side, they dressed the southerner in an undershirt and bound his broken arm to his chest.
Upon arriving in town, Buck took the prisoner to the jail and Vin took the horses to the livery. JD had been pacing in the jail since he was put out of the boarding house before the surgery. The young sheriff scowled almost as good as Chris when he locked Swift in a cell.
"I'll wire for the judge. Can you get him some water?" Buck asked before leaving the jail. "And keep Vin away from him. He's likely to go Native on the man if he gets the chance."
"If Josiah doesn't go Old Testament on him first," JD returned with a good-natured smile. Alone with the man who injured Ezra and left him chained helplessly to a rock, the young sheriff seethed with rage. He filled the pewter pitcher and then sat on the corner of the desk, glaring balefully at Swift. "How could you do something like that? What's he done that you would leave him alone and defenseless out there?"
Swift wisely chose not to answer, choosing instead to direct his attention to watching the door.
Chris came to the jail later in the evening to relieve JD so he could eat and go by the boarding house to see Ezra. The blond gunslinger ignored the prisoner in the cell, knowing that he would hurt the man if he laid hands on him.
Slipping quietly into Chris's room, JD nodded to Vin and Nathan. Josiah was dozing in the rocker in the corner of the room. The young sheriff stopped at the foot of the bed and looked down at Ezra. The gambler looked so young and defenseless as he slept.
"How is he?"
"He stirred slightly a couple of hours ago," Nathan replied.
"What about his arm?"
"We won't know for a while, JD. We'll just have to wait and see."
It was a long night for everyone. Vin was kept from the jail for fear that he would do something to the prisoner. The others, except for Nathan, took turns sitting at the jail. Near daylight, Ezra began to stir. Nathan perched on the edge of the bed to try to keep him from moving. The healer was afraid that he would be ill as soon as he started waking up. Vin crept up to the other side of the bed to try to comfort Ezra.
Nathan placed one hand lightly on the southerner's shoulder and called to him. "Ezra, can you open your eyes? I need to talk to ya now."
Green eyes, glassy from the laudanum, struggled to focus on the face above him. He frowned in confusion at Nathan before turning to the other face leaning close. A relieved smile pulled at the sides of his face before he drifted back to sleep.
"He'll probably sleep for a while longer," Nathan said.
"I'll stay with him if you want to go and get some breakfast," Vin offered. He wanted the healer to leave so he could be alone with the gambler.
"I'll bring you back a tray," Nathan said as he got up to leave.
The others were already gathered at the restaurant when he arrived. Buck was sitting with the prisoner. Expectant faces turned up to greet the healer as he pulled out a chair.
"How is he?" Josiah asked.
"He stirred again and looked around a little," Nathan replied around a yawn.
In the clinic, Vin carded his fingers through the dark curls at Ezra's forehead. He picked up the gambler's hand and rubbed the back of it gently. It was something he dared not do with anyone else around. Leaning closer, he pressed a light kiss to the chestnut curls. Easing off the bed, he sat close to the headboard and leaned his head against the wall. His hand rested lightly on Ezra's shoulder as he dropped off to sleep.
From deep in a place of darkness and no pain, Ezra floated up toward the light and pain of consciousness. He wanted to cling to the darkness but an urgent need was pushing him to awaken. Someone was touching him, calling him to them. It hurt to draw a deeper breath but he needed to begin to assess his injuries. He tried to flex his fingers and moaned in pain.
"Ezra? It's all right. Come on, wake up for me," Vin said as he startled awake at the cry of pain.
"Vin? Hurts... arm... what?" Ezra mumbled thickly as he tensed up. His action stirred the other pain and he tried to turn on his side. Vin immediately moved to hold him still.
"Ez? Lay still for me. I'll go get Nate," Vin urged as he held the smaller man on the bed.
"Up, let me up, please," Ezra begged. The pain in his groin was making him feel sick and he knew he was about to lose control. "Please, Vin! I need to... to..."
The tracker realized that it had been almost 24 hours since Ezra had been able to relieve his bladder and he began to try to help him to sit up. Pulling the small form toward him, he gathered Ezra's legs over his arm and pulled him into a sitting position. Ezra was instantly drenched in sweat as pain swept over him. Instinctively, he reached for Vin and realized that his right arm was imprisoned by bandages against his chest.
Vin pulled Ezra's good arm across his shoulder and helped him to his feet. Chris had brought the chamber pot from the clinic and set it in the corner near the closet.
Being upright caused Ezra's stomach to react violently and he began to struggle toward the pot he could see in the corner. Bracing his hand on the edge, he groaned through dry heaves. The convulsions of his stomach muscles intensified the pain in his groin and he swayed as his vision grayed at the edges. Nathan opened the door and stepped in with the tray for Vin. Seeing the commotion in the corner, he hurriedly put the tray on the dresser and rushed to help the tracker with Ezra.
Humiliation washed over Ezra as he realized that he had wet himself. On top of the pain of having Vin holding him up while he heaved over the chamber pot, he wanted to curl into a ball and die. Nathan's strong hands took hold of him, supporting his weight as his knees folded.
"Let's get him back to the bed," Nathan said as he tried to maneuver his hands so that he wouldn't jostle Ezra's arm. "Go ahead and pull his pants off so we can clean him up." Ezra, already ashamed of his accident, resisted as Vin's hands went for his pants. The tracker was faster than the southerner and managed to unbutton the fly and tug the wet material away in spite of the hand that tried to stop him.
"Nathan! Oh my God!" Vin whispered, shocked at the bruising over Ezra's groin. He grabbed the gambler's ankles and the two men carried him back to bed. Nathan immediately began soaking a towel in the cool water of the washbasin while Vin dealt with calming Ezra.
"Just lay still and we'll take care of ya, Ez. It's gonna be all right. Just calm down."
With the last of his consciousness, Ezra fought to cover himself. With his hand clenched in the quilt, he pulled as Vin imprisoned his wrist. When Nathan draped the cool, wet towel across his hips, Ezra's eyes rolled back and he slumped bonelessly to the mattress. Vin drew back and watched as the healer gently wiped the urine from Ezra's body.
"Is he gonna be all right?" Vin asked as Nathan rinsed the towel and returned to the bed. Both men could see the horrible bruising and swelling of the tender flesh.
"I'll do all I can for him. I seen this a time or two on the plantation. Masters did it to shame the slaves, almost like castratin' 'em."
The next time that Ezra awakened, he was more comfortable. Vin and Nathan had raised his feet on a couple of rolled quilts, taking the strain off his stomach muscles. He felt a light touch massaging his groin and a pleasant, penetrating warmth. Moaning, he tried to thrust into the hand caressing him so intimately.
If it were possible for Nathan to blush any brighter, Vin would not have imagined it. The healer drew his hand away and stood up. Grinning knowingly, the tracker held out his hand to receive the jar of balm Nathan had been using.
"You might want to go grab some lunch. I'll take care of this for you," he said as he dipped his long fingers into the jar. As soon as he reached under the blanket, Nathan jerked the door open and bolted. Vin gently stroked the bruised and swollen shaft, carefully avoiding getting the balm in the sensitive opening. Ezra moaned and curled his hips into the firmer touch. "Yeah, you like that. I told Nathan to let me take care of this for you," Vin whispered.
Ezra moaned again as Vin's fingers lightly touched his balls. It hurt but it felt so good at the same time. He tried to thrust again and groaned in pain.
"No, no, you just lay still and let me take care of you." Vin continued to rub in the balm, feeling the warmth under his fingertips. With his free hand, Ezra caught hold of Vin's wrist and stopped him.
"Please, something's wrong!" Ezra pulled the blanket back and struggled to lift his head enough to see the source of his discomfort. "Holy Mother of God!"
"Relax, I'm trying to help. Nathan said this would help with the bruising. The swelling will go away in time," he soothed.
"Oh God! Oh God!" Ezra whimpered as his eyes filled with tears.
Ezra and Vin had only recently begun to experiment with their mutual attraction. After two years of shy smiles and long glances, they had finally worked up the courage to confront their emotions. The southerner was shy and inexperienced where the tracker was knowledgeable with only a limited experience from his time among the Indians. After a couple of times of mutual hand jobs, they had graduated to grinding their pelvises together to achieve relief. Vin was just as concerned about Ezra's ability as the gambler himself.
"Calm down. You're alive and you'll get better. I'll be right here for you," Vin soothed.
"My arm? I can't feel my hand at all," Ezra said, his eyes going wild with his panic.
"Your hand is fine. Nathan operated and..."
"He took off my hand! I thought I was dreaming! Oh God!" Ezra cried as he tried to roll to his side again.
"Ezra? You need to calm down. Lay back," Nathan urged after rushing back into the room. When the southerner continued to resist, the healer reached for the chloroform and cloth he kept near the bed. It took him a little bit of a struggle to capture Ezra's nose. After a couple of panic driven breaths, the green eyes went unfocused as the southerner fought. "Just take another deep breath, Ezra," Nathan urged.
After Ezra went limp against the mattress, Vin straightened the blanket and settled the gambler's free arm along his side. Nathan monitored his patient's breathing for a moment before sitting back. "What happened?"
"He said something was wrong and then he started to panic. He thinks you cut off his hand," Vin explained as he brushed his fingertips across Ezra's forehead. Nathan immediately began to check Ezra's fingers. They were warm and he could detect a pulse in the fingertips. The healer began to loosen the bandages around his wrist.
The next time he awoke, Ezra was completely passive. He accepted Nathan's explanation about his hand and scoffed over the comforts offered about the injury to his groin. The only thing that got a reaction from him was when Chris came and asked him to identify the man in the jail. With barely concealed fury, the southerner allowed Nathan to help him to dress and sit in the wheelchair they had left from when JD was shot. He seemed to draw in on himself as they pushed the chair down the boardwalk. Ezra was deeply ashamed of his disheveled appearance and pulled the blanket around his shoulders down around him. When they reached the jail, he was visibly trembling.
"How are you doing, Ezra?" Judge Travis asked, startling the southerner.
"Judge... Travis... I wasn't... expecting you to be here," Ezra stammered. He tried to come to his feet and Nathan pressed him back to the wheelchair.
"I wanted to be here for the identification and to take your statement. I'll be trying Mr. Swift tomorrow," Orin explained.
"Very well... let's get on with it." The green eyes flicked to the man in the cell and he began to squeeze and tug on his splinted hand. "That's him, the man who did this to me," Ezra said without meeting Travis's eyes.
"Don't do that, Ezra. Leave that alone," Nathan scolded as he stopped the gambler from pulling on his hand.
After giving his statement, Ezra pleaded to be allowed to return to his room above the saloon. Nathan objected but Vin insisted that he would recover faster if he rested comfortably and he wouldn't rest comfortably until he could return to his own quarters. Nathan relented, providing that someone stayed with him at all times. Ezra objected. He said he was not a child to be coddled. JD came to the rescue by suggesting that they rig a bell with a pull he could reach from his bed. That way, he could be alone but could summon help if he needed it.
Judge Travis sentenced Gordon Swift to hang for attempted murder. He hoped that the knowledge would be of comfort to the southerner. The only time Vin left Ezra for more than a few minutes was to see the man hang.
For the next couple of weeks, Ezra lived the life of a complete recluse. Except for Vin, he didn't want the others near him. He never asked for help even when he was desperate for it. Any time the others tried to visit with him, he would complain that he was tired and ask them to leave. After the first few days, he began to get loud, screaming at them to leave him alone.
The only other person who could get close to the cantankerous southerner was Inez. She brought him his meals and took away the trays. She won his heart when she brought him a shirt that he could put on to disguise the splint on his arm. The lovely Mexican woman took one of his shirts and altered it so that he could dress himself. She opened the seam on the right side and the sleeve and put in a row of buttons. Once dressed, Ezra felt more like his old self and always had a smile for Inez.
Vin was about as miserable as he could be. He desperately wanted to be with Ezra but, after Gordon Swift was hanged, the gambler sent him away angrily. The tracker pleaded each evening to stay the night, to hold him. Several days later, Ezra somehow produced his derringer and threatened to shoot him for the bounty. Hurt and upset, Vin took off on Peso. Chris stormed into Ezra's room and told him that if anything happened to the Texan, that he would come back and break his other arm. He took the gun with him when he left the room.
That night, after the saloon closed, Ezra made his way down the stairs to the bar. He grabbed a pair of bottles and headed for his room. Unable to carry them and hold the banister, he grabbed a burlap sack to put them in for the long trek back to his room.
It was well after dark when a tired Peso was eased into his stall. Vin removed the tack and brushed the animal in long, even strokes. When the horse was dozing, the tracker stood staring up at the soft light in Ezra's window. He decided that if Ezra wouldn't let him in, he would sit on the roof outside of the window, just to be near.
By the time he made it back to his room, Ezra was whipped. He hid the bottles in his closet before collapsing across his bed. The long, lonely hours of the night were the worst for him. The silence gave him time to think. The longer he thought about the future, the more upset he became. The realization that he might never be able to make love to Vin, or anyone else for that matter, hurt him deeply. He drifted into a troubled sleep.
"Vin... please... don't go! Need you..." Ezra murmured as he thrashed in his bed.
Out on the roof, Vin's sensitive ears picked up the sounds. He carefully raised the sash and listened more closely. He heard Ezra calling for him and slipped through the open window. Padding stealthily across the floor, he approached the bed. Ezra was rocking on his right side, pulling at the quilt and whimpering. Vin slipped out of his boots and coat and lit gingerly on the side of the bed. The soft pleas made his heart ache.
"Shh, I'm here Ezra. I won't leave you," he whispered and reached out to stroke the taut shoulder. When Ezra didn't awaken, he slowly inched closer until he could spoon around the smaller body. He molded his body to Ezra's and laced his fingers into Ezra's left hand. "It's going to be okay. I've got you," he whispered.
When Ezra awakened in the morning, he was strangely calm and relaxed. A soothing warmth was pressed along his back. An easy, steady breath fell on his neck. For a moment, he thought the past few weeks were a bad dream of some kind. When he tried to wiggle the fingers of his right hand, it all came crashing down on him again.
Ezra's quickening breath woke Vin and he lay still. When he felt Ezra's body shuddering, he tightened his arm around the southerner's body. "Shh, I've got you," he murmured against the nape of his neck. "Just let me hold you." When he felt Ezra relax and nod, Vin began to nuzzle and kiss the bare skin of Ezra's neck and his ear lobe.
Gradually, Ezra turned to his back and Vin shifted his oral attack to the southerner's lips. Ezra clung with his uninjured arm, his body tingling with his need. Vin worked his hand under Ezra's shirt and rubbed his stomach, swirling his index finger around Ezra's navel. After a couple of minutes, his hand ventured to undo the buttons of Ezra's trousers.
Lost in the sensation of holding Ezra again, Vin pressed his aching erection against Ezra's thigh and rocked. A few minutes later, the southerner tensed up and began to push him away. Vin trapped the resisting hand and drew back to study Ezra's eyes.
"Just let me hold ya, please?"
"It's no good. It's never going to be the same. I can't... I'll never... Oh, Hell, being half a man, it's worse than being some kind of eunuch! Just go on! Find someone else! Perhaps Mr. Larabee," Ezra suggested.
Seeing the hurt and disappointment in Ezra's eyes broke Vin's heart. He shook his head, his gaze turning dark and hard. "I don't want Chris, I want you. Just let me be with you!"
"I'm hideous! I'm a gelding! May as well cut the damned thing off for all the good it is," Ezra hissed, his hand working furiously at the buttons of his trousers. Vin pushed the hand away and tried to resume his gentle touching.
"Give it some time. There are other things we can do," Vin argued. Seeing the resigned, angry look on Ezra's face, he sighed and withdrew his hand. "You're getting better, give it some time." He brushed a light kiss on the southerner's cheek before rolling off the bed. Stepping into his boots, he tugged his clothes straight and left the room. What he didn't see was the gentle stroking Ezra took up, trying to awaken the seemingly lifeless organ, or the tears that fell when he failed.
Chris looked up from the table as Vin came down the stairs from Ezra's room. He would have taken it as a sign of improvement if it were not for the dejected slump of the tracker's shoulders. He waited until Vin was seated before speaking.
"How's Ezra this morning?"
"What's a eunuch?" Vin asked.
Chris raised his eyebrows in surprise at the question. "Why do you ask?"
"B'cause that's what he says he is now."
After Chris explained the word to Vin, he had to discourage him from charging right back up the stairs. Lowering his voice and leaning closer, he asked the question that had been bouncing around in his mind ever since Ezra was injured. "Is there something physical between you and Ezra?"
"Not much, really. We just kinda started gettin' together before he was hurt," Vin admitted while blushing. "Neither of us have much in the way of experience, ya know?"
"Just be careful, Vin. People are quick to judge things that are different," Chris warned.
Another month went by. Ezra recovered slowly. Nathan encouraged him to get out of his room and get some sun. He had removed the heavier part of the splint and replaced it with lighter wood, to allow Ezra to begin using his hand and arm. The guys got together and invited him to play cards with them. The southerner reluctantly agreed after a lot of pleading, wheedling and cajoling. He took his usual place at 'his' table but declined to shuffle the cards. Josiah took the deck and dealt the hand. Vin's eyes never left Ezra's hands as he painstakingly picked up each card with his left hand and transferred it to his right. Ezra winced as he tried to fan the cards with his right hand.
"Are you doin' them exercises I gave ya to do?" Nathan asked as he picked up his cards.
"For all the good they're doing, yes, I have been doing them," Ezra replied acidly. From the way he refused to meet the healer's eyes, Vin knew he was lying.
"It takes a long time to build back up after that kind of injury. Ya need anything for pain?"
"No, I don't think I'm in need of any of your noxious brews to alleviate my discomfort," Ezra said as he tried to pull two cards from his hand. The rest of the cards slipped from the fragile hold he'd had on them and landed on the table for all to see. A deeply disgusted sigh issued from Ezra as he shook his head, "I fold."
"It's okay, Ezra. You got me beat already. Pick 'em up and see what else you get," JD urged. Ezra met the young man's eyes for a moment before he stood and excused himself from the table.
"I'm sorry. I guess I should have kept my mouth shut," JD said.
"S'not your fault, kid. He's still hurtin' deep inside," Vin said as he folded his cards.
Alone in his room, Ezra glared at the 'exercises' Nathan had brought him. One was a handful of small pebbles and a cup. He was to pour out the pebbles and pick them up one by one with his right hand and drop them back in the cup. Another was a pencil that had a string with a small weight at the end. He was supposed to roll the pencil to raise and lower the weight. The last was a new deck of cards. The healer had sent off for the cards hoping that the draw of breaking in a new deck would encourage him to use his hand. So far, Ezra had not done any of the exercises, believing that his hand would never work again. Just like another damaged part of his anatomy.
Back at the table in the saloon, Nathan voiced his concern. "If he don't start usin' that hand, the muscles will freeze up. He needs to be flexin' and stretchin' his fingers and usin' that wrist 'fore the joint locks up completely."
"Will you show me what he's supposed to do and what I can do for him?" Vin asked.
"I'll do ya one better, come on," Nathan said as he got up from the table.
In the clinic, the healer had Vin sit across the table from him. He brought out a bottle of a lotion he'd made and demonstrated how to massage Ezra's wrist and hand. He finished by showing Vin how to do the range of motion exercises and explained about the other things he'd given Ezra to work with. By the time the tracker left the clinic, he had a plan of action laid out in his mind.
As Inez was cleaning up for the night, she kept glancing at Chris. Finally, the blond wondered what was bothering her and started across the saloon.
"Something on your mind, Inez?"
"Yes, I don't know who else to tell. I don't know that it's any of my business but you should know that Ezra is drinking heavily. He sneaks down here after it is quiet and takes a bottle to his room. He always leaves money to cover what he takes but I'm worried about him. Sometimes... I hear him... crying in the night."
"You're right to tell me. Ezra's having a hard time getting over this. I'll keep an eye on things here tonight," Chris said as he handed her his empty mug.
After it was dark and quiet, Ezra opened his door and slowly descended the stairs. Depositing a coin on the counter, he reached behind the bar and grasped one of the bottles of unopened whiskey. Uncorking the bottle with his teeth, he gripped the bottle in his right hand and pocketed the cork with his left. Taking the bottle in his left hand, he tipped it up and took several swallows.
"Somehow I don't think that's one of the exercises Nathan recommended but I'm glad to see you using that hand for something," Chris said, startling the southerner so badly that he almost dropped the bottle.
"I rathuh think of it as compensation for mah othuh losses," Ezra drawled. "It just shows how far I have fallen that you can lie in wait for me without fear of mah former skill with mah gun."
"What about Vin?"
"What about him? He is able to go on with his life while mine stagnates in this miserable little, pimple on the ass of the world, town. There isn't anything wrong with him, as I can well attest."
"He cares about you," Chris said as he plucked the bottle from Ezra's hand.
"I'm worthless to him, a burden. Why should he want a eunuch, half a man, when he could have a whole specimen such as yourself?"
"Because I don't love him," Vin said, stepping from the dark doorway where he had been watching the whole exchange. "I do love you, Ezra. I don't care if you can't, I told you that. There's other things we can do together."
The southerner seemed to shrink in on himself as he backed toward the stairs. Vin reached for him and he flinched.
"I - I - I'm really tired. I think I shall retire to mah - mah bed and..." Ezra mumbled as he turned and headed up the stairs. Vin stared at the retreating southerner for a few minutes before sighing aloud. He nodded to Chris and mounted the stairs behind Ezra.
The southerner had climbed into bed fully dressed after kicking off his boots. He glared balefully at Vin as the tracker closed the door and locked it behind him. "You are assuming that I welcome your intrusion into mah domicile. Please turn around and see yourself out."
"I'm not going. I'm gonna stay right here and keep an eye on you. And you better get a good night's sleep because I'm taking you to Chris's shack in the morning."
"Why would you assume that I would give up the comforts of mah feathah bed for the lack of amenities at Mr. Larabee's humble abode?"
"B'cause I'll have Buck and Josiah help me hog tie ya and haul ya out there if I have to. I'm gonna make sure you do your exercises and I'm gonna massage your hand so it doesn't freeze up on ya," Vin said as he settled in the comfortable chair and pulled his hat down over his eyes.
The next morning, Ezra scowled angrily as Vin picked out clothes to take with them to Chris's. The southerner folded his arms across his chest and refused to move from his room. In the saloon below, Nathan glanced questioningly up the stairs.
"I'm not so sure this is such a good idea," he said to the others.
"Vin can handle him," Chris assured them. The door opened and Vin stepped out onto the landing. He looked down on his friends and then glanced back into the room.
"Buck, Josiah..." Vin started, "I won't be needing your help after all." Ezra huffed and scowled at the tracker as he stepped out of his room. He didn't see it but Buck dug into his pocket and flipped a coin at JD. The young sheriff had bet that Vin could get Ezra to go along with his plan and Buck had bet that he would have to carry the southerner down from his room.
"Gentlemen, it seems that I am to take my leave of you. Mr. Tanner is determined to drag me, kicking and screaming if necessary, to Mr. Larabee's shack," Ezra said to the group in general.
"It's a cabin," Chris said with heavy emphasis on the word cabin.
Ezra made his way to the boardwalk and scoffed at the small buckboard wagon waiting out front. He turned and pinned the tracker with a green glare. "Where is my horse?"
"I didn't want to take the horses. Buck and Josiah are gonna drive us out and they'll drive the wagon back to town. This way we don't have to take care of the horses," Vin explained, refusing to get into an argument with Ezra.
The rest of the men looked around nervously, not wanting to get drawn into the fray. Vin simply shifted into a relaxed pose against the porch post and waited. Ezra continued to glare at him for a couple of minutes before he exhaled in disgust and started toward the wagon. Vin let slip a small grin as he followed the southerner to the tailgate. He helped Ezra up into the wagon and climbed up and took a seat on one of the crates. Buck raised his eyebrows and Josiah shrugged in answer before both men climbed up onto the bench seat. Neither man in the back said anything on the long, slow drive to the cabin.
After all the supplies were unloaded, Buck and Josiah beat a hasty retreat. Ezra's scowl had deepened until the tension radiating off him was almost palpable. The former preacher pulled Vin aside and draped a worried arm around his shoulders.
"Are you sure about this, son? He can be a handful on a good day and he hasn't had a good day in two months."
"I'd say he's past due then, wouldn't you?"
Alone with Ezra was another story. While Vin put away the supplies they'd brought along, Ezra stood in the front of the cabin with his arms folded across his chest. Vin started a pot of coffee and stuck his head out the door.
"Are you coming in or do you plan on standing out there all day?"
Ezra sighed and started for the cabin. Inside, he looked around and then cast a doubtful look at the tracker. Pulling his handkerchief from his pocket, he dusted off the rocking chair and sat down. Vin smiled and went to check on the coffee.
That evening, Vin stirred a pot of rabbit stew. He had spent most of the day cleaning the cabin, even to washing the windowpanes. He made small talk with Ezra as he worked. So far, the gambler had done little more than rearrange the things on the shelves. While they were waiting for the stew to finish cooking, Vin turned to Ezra.
"Why don't we try those exercises?"
"I am not in the mood to exercise," Ezra returned sourly.
"You need to do them or your hand won't get better!"
"It's not going to get any better! Don't you understand? Nothing is going to get better! I'm going to be like this forever! Half a man, one handed, what good am I?" Ezra shouted as he came to his feet.
Anger surged in Vin and he stormed out of the cabin. Walking angrily across the yard, he entered the small lean-to that served as a shelter for the horses. Grabbing up a small bundle of rope, he returned to the cabin and slammed the door behind him. He flung the rope on the table and spun one of the tall, straight-backed chairs away from the table. Even as Ezra backed away, he crossed the small room and grabbed him by the upper arms. Propelling the smaller man into the chair, he grabbed the rope and began to pass it around Ezra, binding him to the chair.
"Mr. - M - Vin? What are you doing?" Ezra stammered as he watched the tracker. Vin passed the rope around the chair and captured the southerner's left arm, securing it to the chair. His splinted right arm was not bound. Vin didn't speak until he ran out of rope, tying the end to one of the other strands.
"You're doing the exercises! Now! Tonight! Starting with the massage Nathan showed me," Vin said as he took hold of the splint and began undoing the wrapping. Ezra tried to pull away, his heart pounding in his throat but Vin continued his relentless attack, unwrapping the splint and revealing the healing limb inside. The bruising was gone, only a thin line of a scar remained. The muscles of his arm had wasted somewhat and the skin was scaly from being trapped in the splint for so long. Ezra averted his eyes and refused to look as Vin tenderly stroked his arm. He flinched as the cool lotion touched his skin. A whimper escaped his lips as the tracker carefully flexed Ezra's hand and rotated the joint carefully.
For the better part of an hour, Vin massaged and manipulated Ezra's wrist and hand. He bent each finger and gently straightened it again. He dug his thumbs into the palm of the southerner's hand and felt the muscles twitch and move under the skin. It bothered him that Ezra's fingernails were so rough and he realized that Ezra couldn't tend to them as he normally did. Finally, he let Ezra's hand rest in his lap while he got up to stir the stew.
While Vin's back was turned, Ezra glanced down at his right arm. With his palm down on his leg, it didn't look so bad. For the past two months, he had studiously avoided looking at the injury. Even when he bathed, he let the arm hang over the side of the tub and looked away when he dried it off. Carefully, slowly, he turned his hand and looked at the underside, where Nathan had made the incision. The skin was still red but he knew that would fade in time. Even the marks where the stitches had been were nearly invisible. As he stared at his hand, he willed the unresponsive digits to move. That was his greatest fear, that his hand would remain frozen and useless.
Vin placed two plates on the table and went back for the silverware and drinks. When he had everything on the table, he moved around behind Ezra and nudged his chair into position at the table. The southerner looked down at the table and then at the tracker with a puzzled expression.
"Are you not planning to untie me so that I might partake of this sustenance you have so graciously provided?"
"Naw, plannin' on lettin' ya use that injured hand a little. Nathan said you should be able to feed yourself with it," Vin answered as he generously buttered a warm biscuit and placed it on Ezra's plate.
"You... you cannot be... serious! I can't even pick up the fork, much less carry it to my mouth with any degree of accuracy. Take these ropes off me!"
"Try," Vin said succinctly as he began eating with gusto. Ezra lifted his right hand and let it rest on the table for a moment, glaring angrily at the tracker. Finding himself ignored, he tried to pick up his fork. Pain coursed up his arm as he tried to close his hand over the end of the fork. After several tries, he shifted his attention to the biscuit. He managed to get hold of the biscuit and lifted it from the table. After taking a bite, he dipped it in the rabbit stew. He managed to get one bite into his mouth and decided that he could at least get enough to keep body and soul together in this way. The next time he dipped the biscuit, the bread crumbled before he got it to his mouth, landing in his lap. A surge of anger flared and he slammed his hand on the edge of the plate, flipping it and sending the food flying. Vin jumped to his feet and grabbed the towel. He caught the flying hand and firmly held it as he wiped the food from Ezra's hand and wrist.
"Leave it and leave me! Don't you see? I can't even feed myself like this!" Ezra shouted as he fought to pull his hand from Vin's grasp.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry. It was too much to ask. I'm sorry," Vin said as he sank to his knees and buried his face in Ezra's chest.
Ezra looked down at Vin's head. He loved to card his fingers through the long, silken tresses. He raised his hand hesitantly and managed to touch the side of Vin's head. The tracker turned his face to nuzzle into Ezra's palm. After a minute, Ezra let his hand down to Vin's shoulder.
"Apology accepted. I'm sorry for behaving in such an ungentlemanly manner. You have worked all afternoon to provide me with a sumptuous repast and I have..." Ezra's voice trailed off as he looked at the mess he'd made on the table.
Vin loosened the rope and unwound it from Ezra's chest, freeing his left arm. He got up and cleared the mess off the table, bringing another plate of food for both of them. Moving his chair closer, he sat down and began to feed the gambler. Their eyes met across the plate. Vin's eyes were shining with emotion as he watched the fork disappear into Ezra's mouth. A hot flush swept over his skin as he watched Ezra's tongue slip out and lick his lips.
After supper, Vin cleared away the leftovers and cleaned up around the cabin. Ezra had moved back to the rocking chair and was very nearly asleep.
"I want to hold you all night," Vin whispered into the dark hair as he leaned over the high-backed rocker.
Vin drew Ezra to his feet and began to remove his clothes. There was no resistance until he attempted to remove the southerner's boxer shorts.
"Please don't," Ezra asked as he pushed Vin's fingers away.
"I want to hold you and I don't want anything between us," Vin insisted as he dropped the silky shorts to the floor. He didn't touch Ezra, as much as he wanted to. The tracker stepped back slightly and started to remove his clothes. As soon as he toed off his boots and shrugged out of his coat, Ezra stepped forward and held out a hesitant hand to touch Vin's chest, right over his heart.
Finally naked, both men slid into bed. Vin waited for Ezra to get settled before he wiggled close and spooned his body in tightly behind him. He felt a flinch when his hand splayed against Ezra's stomach. Nuzzling in the dark, curly hair, he sighed contentedly and went to sleep.
In the morning, Vin awoke early and lay quietly watching Ezra sleep. The southerner had been so tired the night before that he didn't realize that he didn't have the splint on his arm. He had moaned softly in his sleep a couple of times and Vin comforted him with a light touch.
After breakfast, Vin suggested that they try the exercises again. Ezra opened his mouth to protest and then closed it again. He rolled his eyes as Vin got the cup and pebbles and went to the table. Sitting down in the chair, he looked at the tracker and sighed.
"For each pebble you get in the cup, I will give you a reward," Vin offered.
"What kind of reward?"
"You'll see," Vin said with a smile.
For several long, pain filled minutes, Ezra struggled to pick up the small, smooth pebbles. His arm trembled and his forehead broke out in sweat as he concentrated. Finally, he sighed in disgust and let his arm fall to the tabletop.
"I can't!" he said angrily.
"Try again," Vin urged soothingly. Ezra tried again and some five minutes passed before he managed to drop one of the pebbles into the pewter cup. Vin smiled broadly and leaned forward to capture the southerner's lips for a gentle kiss. When Ezra opened his mouth to deepen the kiss, Vin pulled away. Ezra whimpered softly in protest. "Try again."
For an hour, Ezra carefully picked up the pebbles and collected kisses that increased in passion as they went along. Several times, he'd reached with his left hand for Vin to try and hold him close, only to have his hand gently and firmly returned to his lap. When the last pebble was in the cup, Vin pushed back from the table and took the cup to put back on the mantle.
"I think Nathan didn't give you the right incentive to exercise," Vin said smugly. When Ezra reacted in surprise at the choice of words, Vin smiled.
That night, Vin placed the silverware on the table and Ezra looked puzzled at his fork. Vin had wrapped the handle with cloth so that it would be larger and easier for him to manage. After he'd gotten several bites into his mouth, he switched to his left hand to finish his meal. Vin nodded his agreement with the change.
For the next couple of days, Ezra performed his exercises faithfully, always earning searing kisses and heated touches as his reward. At night, they slept naked and pressed tightly together. One of the guys stopped by each day to see how they were doing. On the third day, Nathan rode out to check on his patient. Ezra willingly demonstrated that he could manipulate the pebbles. He still didn't have much strength in his grip but he was steadily improving. The healer was well pleased and returned to town with a bright smile.
That night, as they were getting ready for bed, Ezra stood quite close to Vin and looked up into his eyes. "I think I figured out another exercise I'd like to try."
"What would that be?" Vin asked in a husky voice.
"Put this on," Ezra said as he held out one of his shirts. Vin looked puzzled but complied. He fumbled with the row of buttons until he had all except the one at his neck buttoned. He turned around and flashed a warm smile at the southerner.
Ezra placed his left hand on Vin's hip to steady himself as he reached up with his right hand and began to unbutton each of the buttons Vin had so carefully buttoned. His arm ached and he rested when he had half of the buttons open. Running his hand over the warm flesh, he leaned in for a kiss. Vin wrapped both arms around the smaller man and delved deeply into his mouth. He moaned as Ezra's hand tightened over his nipple. Pulling back slightly, Ezra lowered his head to lick the pert little button that had firmed up under his touch.
"Ez? Ya need to get this shirt offa me b'fore I take it off myself," Vin said as he cradled the back of the southerner's head. Ezra immediately returned to the task of opening the buttons. When he had finished, he tackled the button on the tracker's tan pants.
Clothing was shed and bare skin stroked as the two men made their way across the small room to the bed. Vin ran his hands up the strong back before guiding Ezra to the bed. They lay side by side, kissing and touching. A light sheen of sweat covered both bodies as their passion ignited. Vin squirmed against Ezra's hip as his erection throbbed. He slid one hand down the side of Ezra's body and smiled. Pushing back from the passionate embrace, he began to work his way down the writhing body.
Under the onslaught of kissed and touches, Ezra closed his eyes. He clenched his right hand in Vin's hair as the tracker nipped and licked the ticklish places on his ribs and stomach. Incoherent whimpers broke free as Vin tongued his navel. He felt as if his body was on fire and Vin was stoking the flames.
Vin balanced his weight on his elbows as he looked up Ezra's body. He knew that the southerner was unaware of what was happening. Licking his lips in anticipation, he took Ezra's shaft into his mouth. A startled cry rent the air as the southerner leapt under his touch. Vin held Ezra down as he licked and sucked the heated, throbbing flesh. Barely a moment later, Ezra climaxed, a wild yell tearing from his throat as his fluids were swallowed eagerly. Vin continued to suck and nibble until Ezra went completely still under him. He made his way back up to the slack jaw and cupped his cheek. Green eyes fluttered and struggled to focus.
"Guess what else is healed?" Vin asked before kissing Ezra on the end of his nose.
The next day, JD came out to visit Chris's shack. He was pleased to find the men sitting on the porch playing Gin. The young sheriff was thrilled to see the southerner looking happy and content. He eagerly carried back the message that Ezra and Vin were ready to return to town.
After a thorough examination, Nathan announced that it would still take a while for Ezra to rebuild his strength and dexterity in the injured arm but he was overall pleased with how well he had recovered. As they were leaving the clinic, the healer remarked that it wouldn't be long before they would all be losing their money to him again.
That evening, as Vin and Ezra were sharing a quiet meal at the saloon, Chris sat down at their table. His smile was guarded but both men could tell that he was pleased to see them back in town.
"I just wanted both of you to know that if you ever need to get away, my cabin is yours. Just be careful that you aren't both seen coming and going together."
"I would not have thought you to be in support of a relationship such as the one we are sharing," Ezra said as he stared hard into the gunslinger's eyes.
"As long as you're both happy and take care of each other. True love comes around once in your life if you're lucky and you should grab it with both hands," Chris said. As he stood, Vin offered his hand and they exchanged the forearm grip that only they shared.
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