Disclaimer: Don't own 'em or the show they rode in on. No money made from this.
Pairing: Ezra and Chris
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Ezra brushed the back of his hand over his face, the cuff of his coat absorbing the dampness there. He tucked his chin deeper into the woolen scarf that was double-wrapped around his throat and squinted ahead. He would return to their simple room at the hotel by the docks. He could hear the clanging of a ship's bell in the fog.
Picking one's way over cobble-stoned streets required attention or one was likely to end up with a twisted ankle or embarrassing tumble. He trudged through the deepening fog and watched for slippery stones. The latest telegram had been depressingly like those that preceded it. No news. No word from their missing leader. Christopher Larabee had ridden out of Four Corners, in the New Mexico Territories, over two months ago. And never returned.
Two months ago
The remaining men hadn't worried at first, except for Ezra who did it silently. After a week, though, Vin had mentioned that time Chris ended up on the wrong side of prison bars for no good reason. Buck had nodded and offered to ride over to Purgatorio and check on Larabee. That was where everyone figured he was, except for Ezra who silently disagreed. He'd shuffled his cards and waited.
When JD returned from Larabee's shack and small piece of land, he brought word that the place looked abandoned. "Not a speck of food out there. Place was wide open, too, like he was letting folks know it was free for the taking." Dunne had shrugged and sunk into a seat next to Wilmington in the saloon. Buck had just finished reporting that Chris hadn't been seen in Purgatorio in months. Maria had shaken her head and told him it had been a long time.
Vin was the last to ride in. He'd circled the town, the outlying ranches and found nothing. No one who could remember last seeing Larabee more recently than a month ago. Nathan added that several of his patients mentioned missing the man over the past few weeks. Josiah scratched at his lantern jaw and looked up for answers in the rough wood ceiling.
It was Inez who was thumping down beer mugs who summed it up for them. "He's gone."
"Now, Darlin', we don't know that," Buck protested even as he lifted his drink and took a deep draught.
"Mary won't talk to me about him." Josiah spoke quietly, leaning back in toward the center of the table. Ezra flushed but no one was looking at him as he tucked his deck of cards back into a vest pocket. He had no reason to feel guilty. No, no reason, he thought, as he picked at his sleeve near the cuff.
"Why not?" JD rubbed a hand under his nose before picking up his beer. His brows had come together in a frown. Everyone knew Mary and Chris were slowly coming to some personal understanding.
"Don't know," Josiah sighed and hunched over his drink, adding, "but she was cold, very cold."
"Woman's always been cold." Vin sat back, distancing himself from this. He was frustrated. He missed his friend and could not remember anything to make the man ride off without a word to anyone. Vin slowly turned to face their gambler, the sharpest observer in the bunch. "How 'bout you, Ezra? You know anything?"
Standish reacted with a startled twitch, before his poker face slammed down and he shook his head without comment. Vin narrowed his eyes but remained silent.
If anyone else noticed his lack of words, they said nothing. Instead, Nathan placed his hands flat on the table and pushed himself up. "JD, you could send out some telegrams."
JD who had been studying the quiet gambler, lifted his head to meet Vin Tanner's bright blue eyes. Neither man commented, but both looked back at Ezra Standish who was fiddling with his beer mug, still full. "Yeah, I can do that." JD straightened up in his chair and took a last mouthful of beer. Eyes back on Standish, he stood and dropped his bowler back on his head. "Guess I'll go do that now."
That had been weeks ago.
The answers to the telegrams had been negative. No one had seen or heard of Larabee's whereabouts. It was as if the man had fallen off the world. Ezra was slowly disengaging himself from the others, though only Vin and JD seemed to notice at first. Vin finally confronted the gambler one quiet night when the saloon had emptied of all but a few determined drunks. It had now been a month since Chris left.
"What do you know, Ezra?"
"Mister Tanner?" Ezra had stiffened and gathered in the game of solitaire spread out in front of him, but never looked up.
"Ez, don't be playing with me."
Ezra had dropped his head further and remained stubbornly silent. Vin suspected that something had happened but he couldn't figure out why Standish wouldn't tell the rest. If he knew where Chris was, he wasn't saying.
After another week, Vin had sold his wagon to Mrs. Potter and packed up his gear. His farewell to Buck in front of the sheriff's office was brief. "Heading out."
"If you find him, you two come back." Buck had stood tall on the boardwalk, hands at his back, stretching. His eyes were shadowed. "Something happened. He won't never talk about things. Known him to up and leave like this before, but figured he'd settled in here."
"If I find him, I'll send word. Don't promise to bring him back though." Vin settled into his saddle seat, his capote making him look bigger than he was.
Buck nodded. "Good luck."
Across the street, Ezra leaned on a support post for the saloon and watched. When Tanner swung his horse around, Ezra tipped his head in answer to Tanner's slight nod. Ezra kept watch until even the dust of Tanner's passing had settled as far up the trail as they could see from town. Then he'd retreated to his room above the saloon.
Gloomily, he'd sat on his bed and studied his packed saddlebags. He'd already put his other things in storage with Inez, to free up this room. He hadn't needed to explain, not when she kissed him on the cheek and whispered, "Mary never had a chance. Go find him. Bring him home. Make him happy."
Ezra had sucked in a surprised breath, then hugged the small woman to him. Holding her tightly in a grasp she returned, he'd closed his eyes and said nothing. His throat was too tight. Swallowing hard, he'd stepped back and smiled the first honest smile on his face she'd ever seen. He saluted her with two fingers to the brim of his riverboat gambler's hat and strode from the room with his saddlebags over his shoulder.
He still was uncertain and more than a little scared. But it was time to find the man and talk.
Ezra reflected that Josiah had not been surprised when he'd stopped at the church to say goodbye. "I always thought Mary wasn't right for him." Sanchez had walked him back out to his horse and stood there without moving, as Ezra rode off. To San Francisco.
It had been nearly six weeks since Chris Larabee had disappeared.
He hadn't been long on the trail before Tanner appeared beside him from a clump of trees alongside the path. Vin had tipped his hat and brought Peso to a slow trot beside Chaucer. Just as the silence threatened to drive him mad, Vin turned to him and said, "Figure you got an idea where he headed."
Ezra had not answered with words but had bit his lip and nodded, eyes never leaving the trail ahead. Vin, watching closely, saw the man's hands whiten as he gripped the leathers tighter.
"Ezra, what did you do?"
In a moment, the stunned tracker sat back astonished as Standish whirled to face him from his saddle and with gritted teeth, answer, "Why does it have to be what I did?"
Slowly, Vin sat up straighter. "Don't," he said, voice like gravel. He stared consideringly at his companion. "What did Chris do?"
Ezra swung away from Tanner and took a deep breath, eyes once more on the way ahead. "He asked me... he wanted to..." Ezra foundered.
"Ez?" Vin's voice had turned softer, kinder.
Ezra stole a glance at the other man. "I said no."
Vin blinked. Comprehension flooded his eyes and he slumped back in his seat in the saddle. This was a surprise, but then again, he paused to shoot a penetrating look over at the slim man riding next to him. Then again, maybe not.
"So where do you think he went?" Even as he asked, Tanner realized that no one had directly asked the gambler that question before.
"San Francisco." Ezra gigged his horse into a fast trot and Vin had to do likewise to catch back up to the man.
He didn't ask Ezra why. This time he simply accepted it. "Mind if I tag along?"
"It's a free country, so they say." Ezra clipped out the words. He was feeling mixed up by Vin's questions and even his mere presence.
Vin smiled. "Yeah. Then guess I'll stick with you and watch your back."
"Until we find Chris."
"Figure you'll find him. Figure he can watch his own back. Figure you," Vin paused and waited until Ezra turned to look his way, eyes curious, "figure you might need more."
After a few more moments, Ezra nodded and spoke quietly, "Thank you, Mister Tanner."
They'd found faint trace of Larabee along the way. If it was Chris, he'd forgone his black attire. But he'd made no attempt to conceal his blond hair or slender good looks. It took them about two weeks of steady traveling to get to San Francisco.
Ezra had been doing a lot of thinking.
He knew exactly what had caused Chris to leave. Now Vin knew too. He also knew that no one else would believe him. Well, except for maybe JD who seemed to suspect that he, Ezra, knew more than he said. But he didn't think they would truly believe what it was that he knew either. Ezra sent a troubled gaze out at the choppy bay waters, fog rising. He could hear the cry of gulls and once, the roaring honk of a sea lion. The creaking of ships at dock and the low rattle and murmur of the seamen and dockworkers was subdued, as if the fog blanketed noise as well.
There seemed to be more bordellos, saloons, bars, and opium dens along the dockside area than he ever remembered. Not that he had frequented them on previous visits, just that he had been aware of the underbelly of the city. The big gambling casinos had been more his style. He had started with those on the theory that Chris might head for them since Ezra had been in them. But Chris wasn't there. Wasn't anywhere. He and Vin had looked. And looked.
Wharf rats, the human kind, were Ezra's best hope now. He'd spread the word about the gunslinger. Warned the dregs that this was a very private search and flashed some small bits of coin. Why San Francisco? He thought it might be because, once, with a bit too much good whisky in his system, Ezra had mentioned that if he ever left their town, that is where he would go. Chris Larabee had been present at the time, though not participating in the general conversation among the men around the saloon table.
"Ez," was hissed from an alley.
Ezra stopped and stepped to the side, closer to the dark opening without looking directly in at Vin Tanner. "Yes?" he spoke without moving his lips.
"Think I spotted him."
Ezra spared a quick look at his surroundings and stepped into the shadow of the alley. There he found Vin leaning up against the shingled wall of a towering building that sided the alley. "Vin?" Ezra's heart was pressing up against his throat, he was certain. Had Chris Larabee finally been found?
"Looks different, Ez, but I'm sure it's him." Tanner stood up away from the wall. "Come on." He started down deeper into the alley.
Ezra quickly strode closer, reaching out to grab the tracker's nearest arm and pull him around and to a stop. "Wait." Ezra took a deep breath, ignoring the stench of the alley around them. "Tell me about him."
Vin shrugged free of Standish's hold. He knew that Ezra was nervous about actually finding Chris Larabee, confronting him. But he was their friend. A man didn't leave his friend. He ignored the inside voice that muttered something about Chris leaving them. He understood.
"Ezra, I'll show you better'n I can tell you."
They entered the dim room slowly, stepping to the sides of the doorway from habit. Both men scanned the room intently through the smoky haze. It was a seamen's bar, broken and small. Cheap beer, watered whiskey, sad whores. Where Vin had spotted him, the man still sat, slouched in a corner, a bottle of the saloon's rotgut in front of him. Ezra felt a shock of energy run through him.
It was Chris. He wasn't alone, though. Another man, smaller and... frillier, sat beside him. Looking slightly terrified if the bulging eyes and shaking were anything to go by. Larabee had the other man pulled tight beside him with one iron arm across the man's narrow shoulders.
Ezra bit his lower lip. Chris had somehow found and, it looked like coerced, some poor gamester into joining him for a drink... and maybe more. Vin leaned forward to study the shadowy corner and its occupants, then moved over beside Ezra who had drifted to the counter. Together they stood with their backs to the bar, accepting beers from the barkeep without tasting them. Vin nudged Ezra. "Looks like he found your double."
Outraged, Ezra stepped back slightly. "Double? Are you blind, Mr. Tanner? The man is nothing like me." He considered this as Larabee leered at his companion and then tipped his head in closer, forcing the other man to stretch his own neck back as he turned his face away from the clearly unwanted attention. Ezra shook his head and pursed his lips. "Well, maybe superficially," he muttered.
"Super - what?" Vin shook his head and clamped down on Ezra's shoulder. "Go get him."
"Me?" Ezra's language deserted him. He felt claustrophobic suddenly. His clothes were definitely too tight. He could feel his collar choking him.
Vin grinned and shoved the gambler toward the corner. Standish staggered, nearly tripped, then caught himself by grabbing hold of a nearby patron who stared back with glazed eyes.
"Uh, pardon me, sir. A misstep, I assure -"
"Ezra," in a harsh voice interrupted him.
He licked his lower lip and pulled back from the drunk he'd collided with. Somehow, Larabee had spotted them, him, and appeared at his side. Loomed over him. He froze in place. Caught. Turning, he looked up into narrowed hazel eyes framed with ragged blond hair.
"Chris?" it came out like a squeak and Ezra cleared his throat and tried again, "Chris."
"Yeah." Larabee had walked right up to him and was now crowding him back toward the bar and Vin Tanner who stood watching their awkward dance with amusement. Larabee looked away from Ezra for a moment to acknowledge his friend. "Vin." Then his eyes swept back to the gambler.
Behind them, Larabee's earlier companion quickly shuffled passed, darting fearful glances at the man as he scuttled out the door. Tanner chuckled and patted Larabee on one shoulder, drawing his attention again. "Ezra here needs to talk with you."
"Vin!" Ezra tried to step away but was prevented. Chris Larabee was fast, not just with his guns. He moved like lightning to block Standish's escape. The wolf-like smile he graced on Ezra had the man shivering, but suddenly gentle hands touched his face with soft, tentative strokes. They started a fire burning inside the gambler. Ezra looked up into warm hazel eyes and felt that burn become an energizing glow that warmed him and gave him the strength to stand closer to Chris.
"Chris," Ezra murmured breathlessly as the two strong hands slowly wrapped around the lapels of his jacket and dragged him impossibly closer still. He found his own hands sliding down the front of the other man's gray cambric shirt to rest on a narrow waist.
"See you two back at the hotel." Vin tipped his hat at Larabee's back and Ezra's wide eyes beyond, quirking a smile. He'd celebrate his relief at finding Larabee, back at the hotel bar and wait there for his friends. Chris had looked good, a bit skinnier but not bad. He'd seen the spark grow back into his friend's eyes with their meeting. Ezra would do the rest. Vin was confident that this time the man would say yes.
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