Disclaimer: I don't own them, or the show they rode in on. I wrote this for fun, and no profit is made from it.
Archive: Starwinder's, You Want Fries With That?, and The All-Ezra FanFic Archive --- all others, please ask.
Summary: Both Ezra and Chris contemplate stopping their relationship, until bad guy troubles arise.
Warnings: Same sex lovin' …some violence…and strong language abounds
Author's Note: Winner of 2002 Diamond Ezzie for Old West Slash Fiction - Long Category
Category: Slash - mostly action/adventure/romance, just a little NC-17 for spice at the end
Completed: 21 April 2002
Feedback: email@example.com welcomes comments
Chris felt warm and comfortable with Ezra snuggled up against his chest, soft chestnut hair tickling his chin. A smile cracked his lips open and he breathed deeply, inhaling the scent of their recent sex and the humid warmth of their bodies. His hands never stopped moving over the smaller body glued to his, palms gliding over the smooth expanses of lean muscle and elegant bone. Elegant. There was a word for Ezra, none other could better describe the gentleman. Except, maybe, gentle man. Yep. His gentle man. He hazarded a kiss into the jungle of curls and his smile grew.
The crackle of the campfire was a cheerful counterpoint to the velvet darkness beyond. Soft night sounds were notes of safety for the two men, as long as nature chirped and growled and hissed, no man-shaped predators were near. That's all they had to worry about. Vin had duty at the jail tonight and he was the only other danger to their liaison out here in the verge of the desert country. Leaning forward slightly, Chris reached his smoldering cheroot and slipped it between teeth to clench it in his mouth. Hand free again, he returned to stroking his lover.
Ezra stirred slowly, vaguely aware that it was still night and he was with Chris. A smile softened his face as he rubbed his nose against a nearby nipple. It hardened and the body attached to it stiffened quickly.
"Ezra." He was gripped in two firm, large hands and lifted up and away from the haven of Chris' chest.
With an irritable sigh, Ezra struggled weakly to return to his spot but Chris held him away. "Lemme go, Chris, just wanna be close…" the words seemed to drift off as he began to drop back into sleep.
As Ezra's head nodded forward and eyes, never really opened, relaxed back into sleep, Chris eased the man's body back down onto his. Shaking his head affectionately, Chris tugged the blankets back up over them from where they had slipped down to the earth. He enjoyed the closeness but wasn't ready for another round of heavy petting yet. Ezra had been easily subdued, however, and now he nestled the gambler back against him.
How many more times could they do this? Get away with it? Or, maybe more important, could they stop? Not so long ago, he would have said that he could stop anytime he wanted. It was just a safe way to let off some tension, relax. But they'd been doing this now for nigh on three months and it was becoming an addiction for Chris. He found he craved this more than liquor these days. When the world seemed to crash down on his head, all he had to do was take Ezra in his arms and the world righted itself. All was well again.
It really hit home to him on his anniversary. His wife Sarah and son Adam were gone now but that date always brought them back. Oppressive grief smashed his heart anew each time it came around and the only relief, ever, had been to wash it away with liquor. That was, until this year. As the day approached he found himself seeking out his secret lover, seeking solace in the man's arms, in his body. He'd actually made it through that dreaded day and night without touching a drop of drink. 'Course, Buck had been near hysterical with worry when Chris disappeared mid-afternoon. The man had torn the small town of Four Corners nearly apart looking to see where Chris had hid himself until the liveryman had told him that Larabee had ridden out with Ezra Standish on patrol.
Chris puffed out a smoke ring and bared his teeth in a reminiscent grin as he remembered the look on Buck's face the next morning when he and Ez'd come riding back into town. He told Wilmington that they'd done a long swing through the outlying area and camped out for the night. The disbelief, then uncertainty on Buck's face had been priceless. But, he'd had to accept the story and Chris was stone cold sober.
That was the first real sign for Chris that what he had with the gambler was more than just some casual sex. Standish never said anything, just rolled with the punches, sometimes real punches depending on Chris' mood. Ezra never fought back with fists and seldom with words. He'd just kind of shrink a little and become brittle for a while. You had to know him pretty well to even tell that though, Chris thought, letting his head lower to rest on the crown of Ezra's. Rubbing his chin against Ezra's skull, he let his mind and heart wander. So, could they stop anymore? So, could he stop anymore?
Contrary to popular belief, Ezra did not need to sleep for more than eight hours, and in fact, less was usually more than sufficient. He'd long ago learned to supplement nightly repose with timely dozes or naps taken in short, strategic bits. So now, having slept deeply in the afterglow of loving, he woke in the pre-dawn light. Waking was between two breaths, one asleep, then next awake and ready. Only Chris knew this well-kept secret. As far as the rest of the world, including the rest of the seven, was concerned, Ezra was slow to waken and dangerous for that. Not a bad perception, the conman knew.
Now, though, he woke. Chris' warm, strong arms surrounded him in a loose hold. Knowing Larabee, the man had stayed up, keeping watch. Time to let him get some much needed sleep, if he would. Ezra craned his neck and looked up into the quiet face of his lover. Larabee's face was smooth and calm, no signs of the usual tensions that kept a slight squint to the eyes or pressure at the line of the lips during their time in town or with others. I'm good for him, Ezra decided once again. He reassured himself of this often since Chris did not speak much, and never of the things that Ezra's heart yearned to hear. Ezra had to use all his talents as an adept observer to read his lover.
Chris had caught the movement and was looking down at him now, hazel eyes warm and soft. Ezra caught his breath at the sight of those beautiful eyes. "Good morning," he murmured, the last of the words nearly swallowed in the kiss that Chris pressed down on his parted lips. He responded by opening his own mouth and welcoming the probing tongue. Comforted by the feel and touch and taste of Chris, Ezra pushed up even closer to that talented mouth. A growl from Chris had Ezra sagging slightly, relinquishing control again. Letting Chris lead.
The moment was over all too soon as far as Ezra was concerned but he knew better than to argue, besides, he did want Chris to get some sleep. "I'll keep watch?" he offered as Larabee stretched now, arms long lean lines against the not quite ebony sky.
"Umm." Chris nodded and stroked Ezra's face briefly, then sank down into the muddle of blankets, snoring before Ezra had even fought free of the tangle. Trust. Standish felt good. He knew that Larabee would not let go like that for just anyone. Yet, here he was totally vulnerable and exposed, safe in the gambler's watchful protection. With a nod to himself, Ezra knelt up and then out of the blanket cocoon he'd been wrapped in. The cold morning air snapped him to further alertness.
Slipping away from his sleeping friend, he built up the fire and started some coffee. Chris would not sleep for long, just enough to take the edge off the long night. He'd sleep later in town, once he was sure that everything was alright there, had checked in with the other town's protectors. Ezra would have liked to hold Chris as he slept but had learned from experience that the man would only wake again and be unable to sleep. That disturbed the gambler yet he wasn't sure what was the cause of Larabee's restlessness, he only knew that if Chris was to get any sleep, it had to be alone. So, Ezra sat nearby, but not touching, eyes traveling the clearing and beyond, then ending, as always, back on the sleeping form at his side.
Three months. Ezra Standish mused. When Larabee had first approached him one night, on the trail, the gambler had been startled and fearful. The gunslinger was not very clear on what he wanted and it would only be much later that Ezra realized the man had been drunk. Seeking something in his stupor that he would not have sought sober. Comfort, human touch, safety. Since the gambler was not adverse to close male companionship, just hadn't had any in a long time, he'd quietly allowed the clinging man his place beside him. In the morning, Larabee had been sober and wordless. But he'd come back to Ezra's bedroll that next night too. Sober. They hadn't really done anything, just snuggle close. Ezra, accustomed to using words, had been silent, silent and accommodating. It had been just the two of them on a long trail ride to a distant town and back, four nights on the trail each way. It was the first night traveling back that Larabee's liquored state had broken their barrier.
And they hadn't talked about all this yet. Ezra was thoughtful as he eased the coffee pot back from the licking flames, letting it simmer now. Kind of like their standing with each other. Near the flames but not too close. This unlooked for link was quickly becoming an integral part of the conman's well-being. As strange as it was, their times together were now something he lived for. That gave him pause. Larabee had all the control in this simple, lustful partnership. He chose when and where and how much. He was in charge. It had never been discussed but Ezra was sensitive enough to realize that it was the only way it would happen. He kept his mouth shut and watched, answering the unspoken signals better even than their friend Vin could.
Mind still wandering down paths that were unclear, Ezra poked at the fire and tossed in a few sticks. He rolled his shoulders back and looked up into the fading night sky, stars still visible at the apex of the bowl of darkness. Control was important to him. Self-control was vital, drummed into him by his mother at an early age. Control of others was all part of his trade, whether conning others or simply guiding a game of cards. Yet, with this man, this one man, Ezra gave away all control. Well, not all. He still kept himself well in hand, knowing that anything else would be unwelcome.
So, here they were. Another little rendezvous done. If anyone else ever found out, he suspected it would end this tenuous relationship, dead in its tracks. That sent a sharp pain to his chest. Swallowing he wondered when things had come so far that he didn't think he could stop them. Ever. No, if this ever stopped, it wouldn't be him that did the stopping.
Josiah's bushy eyebrows lifted as he noticed the approaching riders. From his vantage on the pole-line of the church's roof, he could see far down the trails into their little town. What was a penance as he repaired the derelict building was also an opportunity to stand look-out as one of the seven protectors of the tiny hamlet of Four Corners. He recognized the dark, lean silhouette of their leader, the gunslinger Chris Larabee. A more stubborn, more brilliant leader he'd never met. By his side rode their odd man out, the gambler and conman, Ezra Standish. Josiah didn't stop to question himself as to why he automatically labeled the smaller man the odd one out. It was just the way it was.
Stopping to wipe the sweat from his forehead with a large calloused hand, Josiah sank back on his haunches and studied the riders. Chris rode as if he and Solon were one, the black shapes a single form melted into movement. Ezra, though, rode in a distinct and quite different fashion. Astride his mount, the temperamental gelding Chaucer, he rode as if posting in an equestrian parade, spine ramrod straight, shoulders wide and set back, chin nearly tucked under that flat black hat of his. The coat tails of his dapper ducktail jacket flipped and fluttered behind as he rose and fell with the rhythm of the gait. Little soldier, Josiah thought with mild admiration for the seat. Wonder where he picked up that style?
Solon was a tall horse, beautiful and strong, he would have suited a knight's ride in distant times, Josiah decided as he settled his hands on the roof shingles, hammer quiet. The black's head was high and steady, tail a waving banner, his hooves thudded down on the dry road bed, leaving little streams of dust behind. He and his rider were a matched pair. Quiet, potent, lethal.
Chaucer, the glossy chestnut, arched his neck proudly, mouthing the bit playfully, occasionally tossing his head with a wicked eye. His tail rose in a high plume just now, his front feet lifting just a bit higher than necessary. Likely done just to show off as they entered the town, not a gait he could sustain, Josiah grinned. If the rider gave any sign of this showy action on the part of his mount, Josiah couldn't detect it. But then again, Josiah had observed the gambler up close when they rode together, and the man had very quiet hands, rode as much with his body and his words, soft commands, often in another tongue, to his mount. Two of a kind, I guess, he thought as he imagined the rider and horse parading through some grand plantation or old city thoroughfare. That horse, makes me think of those Tennessee Walking Horses I saw that time back up near Kansas City in that circus. Now they really were high-steppers.
Josiah chuckled and raised a hand in greeting as the two riders, nearly abreast of his perch, both looked up in a synchronized movement that they could not have perfected if they'd practiced for days. Both men raised hands to hat brims in gestures of acknowledgement and continued on into the main street of the town.
Just as the duo passed his lookout, the riders split, Ezra heading for the stables at the livery, Chris continuing on down the middle of the street, probably headed for the jail and then the saloon. Nodding with satisfaction that all seven were once again safely back, Josiah lifted his hammer and once more struck at the slightly bent nail he was trying to re-use as he fastened weathered shingles onto the roof pole.
Vin observed the approaching riders from his spot outside the small jail, leaning back against the outside wall on a chair that was tilted on its two back legs. His slouch hat was pulled low against the morning sun but his bright blue eyes missed nothing from beneath the leather brim. A tiny smile quirked at his lips as he saw Chris Larabee riding slowly into town. Like he owns the place. With a flash of a grin, Vin thought, well, in a way, he does. Tanner spared a glance at the sight of the gambler splitting away, directing his contrary mount toward the stables. Poor Ez, out early again. Chris does drag his butt out at odd hours, leastways it seems to calm down the big shootist. Vin, eyes sharp on the still visible rider in black, let his mind trace back over that last thought.
Funny, in a way, he realized. Chris always is better after he takes off dragging old Ezra outta town for a while. Shame he takes it all out on the little con man, but better him than the rest o'them. No, that didn't seem jest right somehow. Vin squinted into the sun as Larabee got closer. Whenever Chris gets too riled up, too ornery, he snaps at everyone, starts to drinking and even Buck can't derail that train. Then he'll eye Ezra, who is always doing something wrong. At that Vin chuckled, the man must have more crooked bones in his body than straight ones. And, then --- then Chris'll say something and Ezra, he'll quiet right down, or stop whatever he's doin' and foller Chris out on some usually unnecessary patrol. And the town will be peaceful again. Pondering this, Vin tipped his hat back to look up into Larabee's frown as the man pulled up his mount in front of the jail.
"Nothin' we couldn't handle."
Larabee nodded once, hazel eyes meeting sky blue ones, assurances passing more clearly than the words. "Gonna have a drink and some grub at the saloon."
Vin let his hat fall back down with a slow smile of acknowledgment as Larabee pulled Solon around and they plodded over toward the hitch rail to the saloon. By the time the dark rider had dismounted, a young boy from the stable was at his side, panting. He tossed the reins to the youth with a nod and slowly climbed the boardwalk steps up to the batwing doors of the small saloon.
Vin watched the boy, little Ben, tug Solon toward the stable. Ezra musta sent him, Tanner smiled. Yep, this was Larabee's town alright. And he probably doesn't even know it. Thoughts of Ezra Standish brought him back to his pondering. He settled deeper into the rickety chair and slid his gaze up and down the street once more, lazily thinking about the man who puzzled them the most among the seven. Man can say more o' nothing with bigger words than anyone Tanner had ever met. He'd risk more in a fight than the others, too, almost as if he didn't really care none about his own health. Vin shook his head. Manages to rile up ol'Chris a lot too, between what he says, what he does, and jest plain being him.
Josiah said onct that Ezra'd reminded him of a peacock. Now Josiah'd had to explain what that was to Vin but it had sounded like a real purty bird, showin' off them fancy feathers. He'd seen some on a lady's hat one time, recognized 'em from Josiah's description. Yep, Ezra was like that bird, all fancy and colorful. Cain't miss him in a crowd, might be part o'what bothers Chris. Ain't that safe to be that noticeable, even if he was that way to attract folks to his gamin' table. Kinda like putting bait in a trap, his way of thinking. Vin shrugged. Leastways he wasn't coming back looking bloody or bruised from this trip out with Chris. That was good. With that thought, Vin returned to observing the town.
Buck clumped down the inside saloon stairs with energy, tossing a grin over his shoulder at Miss Millie who was leaning over the balcony rail, slightly disheveled and smiling at him. He touched his hat brim to her, "Thank you, Miss Millie, I'll be seeing you later."
"Sure thing, Buck." The laughter in the working girl's voice was clear.
Buck spun around and continued his bounce down to the upper platform of the saloon. Here he came to a stop at the center table, empty at the moment but filled in his imagination with poker players, Ezra Standish presiding with that wicked sense of humor and cheerful disposition. Wonder how Ez is doing, out with Chris on patrol again? The grin on his face faded a bit as he gently laid hands on the chair's back rung of the gambler's seat. That boy could try the patience of a saint sometimes, and Chris was no saint. Buck was grateful to no longer be the target for his old friend's angry outbursts, but sometimes he cringed a bit inside when Chris got a hair across his ass and tore into the hapless gambler. Naw, Buck grinned, Ezra ain't no helpless babe, that was for sure.
He still remembered that first glimpse they'd had of the conman right here in this saloon, facing off some big angry cowhands. Done it on his own, too. Just like always. Buck sighed, he'd like to think it had changed now but the reb was a stubborn cuss, independent as hell. Still doing it his way, often as not, despite the rest of the seven. Patting the wooden chair rung, he moved on, striding down to the main floor of the saloon, noting the few early patrons and the bar maid, Inez, serving a platter of what looked like eggs and bacon to one knot of dusty looking cowboys.
"Hey, there, senorita! How 'bout getting old Buck here a breakfast like that one?"
The Mexican woman looked up with a flash of a smile at the bantering tone from the ladies man. She tossed her head but nodded silently. Before she could turn away though, a second voice added to the order.
"Make it the same for me, Inez." Inez nodded again and swished away.
Buck's head snapped around and a grin grew big on his face, curving his mustache up in a devilish manner. "Chris! You're back! Everything ok?"
Larabee nodded, his hat dropping a shadow down over his face but not before Buck saw the small smile. Yep, Chris was ok. So, that meant, so was Ezra probably. Buck didn't ask though. He just moved to join the black clad gunman at their regular back table. Both looked down on their young sheriff who sat there wolfing down his breakfast with gusto. As Chris settled to one side and Buck to the other, JD Dunne gulped down his mouthful of food and grinned at them, turning to face first one, then the other of his friends. A ring of milk circled his mouth. "Chris! Buck!"
"JD." Chris sat down and slumped back away from the table, surveying the room from beneath his hat brim.
"Hey there, little brother," Buck shoved the younger man in the nearest shoulder causing his mug of milk, just raised toward his lips to slosh down his shirt front.
"Buck! Cut that out!" JD thumped the mug down, causing further sloshing as he hastily brushed at the mess on his clothing.
"You need to improve your reflexes, kid, otherwise how you ever gonna pull down a gun like Chris here?"
"Indeed," interrupted the cultured voice of their resident gambler, "reflexes are everything in the game of life." He continued his quiet entry into the main saloon, his arrival at the doors of the room having gone unnoticed by Buck and JD, but noted without comment by the dark gunslinger.
"Hey, Ez, old pard, see you and Chris got back in one piece."
"Was there any doubt, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra brushed at his dark burgundy jacket and raised a questioning eyebrow. The twinkle in his eyes was message enough to Buck that all was well.
"Naw, just didn't want Chris here to chew you up and spit you out in itty bitty pieces, pard."
Larabee stirred, leaning forward, his movement stopping the teasing conversation. "That's enough, Buck."
Buck eyed his old friend but refrained from further comment, a thoughtful look on his face. JD looked up with wide eyes, mouth half-open. Then Inez was there, setting platters down in front of Larabee and Wilmington, and posing a question for the gambler. "Senor Standish? Some breakfast?"
"Ah, Senorita Recillios, no, thank you. Some coffee would be most welcome, however." He ignored the grunts from JD and Buck and the silent glare sent his way from their leader. Breakfast was not a meal he partook of, ever.
Pulling out a chair, he sat down, careful as always to have a good angle of the room in the bar's mirror. Chris watched silently before picking up a fork and joining JD and Buck in eating. Standish let his eyes wander the part of the room he could see and check the mirror for the rest of the establishment's patrons, a deck of cards materializing in his hands to dance between them.
JD grinned, wiping his mouth now and shoving away his empty plate. "Ezra, you ever go anywhere without those cards?"
For a moment, the conman looked startled, then smiled slyly and let his eyes drift down to trace the cards' dance for a moment before looking back up at the young sheriff. "Mr. Dunne, they are after all my trade."
"But you're one of us now," the youngster continued earnestly, elbows now crowding the table as his hands circled his sweating mug. "You're a peace-keeper."
Buck nearly choked on his mouthful of hash browns and glinted a look over at his old friend. Chris had a smirk as he raised his coffee cup to his lips. Ezra simply smiled more widely and tipped forward to drop his cards to the table as he accepted his coffee from Inez who had appeared at his elbow. "Thank you, my dear." Raising his cup in a half-toast, the gambler smiled at Dunne. "And, thank you, Mr. Dunne for thinking of me in that light, but a leopard can not change its spots so easily as I'm sure Misters Wilmington and Larabee will confirm. I am a scoundrel first and foremost, a reluctant member of this little band as a distant second."
No one spoke after that. Larabee remained quiet, eating slowly and studying the conman without directly staring. Buck picked up on his old friend's mood and remained quiet except for an occasional tease thrown at their youngest. JD seemed unaware of any undercurrents at the table, just happy to be among his heroes. And Ezra Standish sat in rare silence, simply enjoying the companionship of the others.
Folding his cravat carefully on the dresser, Ezra smoothed away a wrinkle and stared thoughtfully out his room's front window. The street below was dark except for the glows of the street fires that were dying down now. He'd put in a late night at the table, playing poker with some salesmen who'd arrived on the afternoon stage. The men were eager to part with their profits it had seemed. He'd made sure that he did not empty their pockets, though. With a wry look at his own small quarters, he wondered why he'd bothered. But he knew. It was that pair of hazel eyes gleaming in the darkened corner of the saloon. He couldn't fail them. Couldn't disappoint them, not ever again.
Squaring his shoulders, he did an about face and moved toward his closet where he hung up his shirt and trousers and suit jacket. His boots he set upon a small stool, and decided they could wait until the morning for a good buffing. In a nightshirt, he stood to blow out the lamp near the window, nearly missing the movement down below. Cursing his momentary blindness from the light, he squeezed his eyes shut fiercely and groped for his Remington, holster hung over one of the spindle tops of his rocking chair. With pistol in hand, he leaned close over the window ledge and peered out into the dark, toward where memory said an alien movement had been.
Nothing. No movement, no untoward sounds. Ezra hesitated, but no, he had not imagined that. Shifting slightly to retain balance, he stuck a foot out over the window's edge and onto the porch roof. Straddling the ledge, he quickly brought his other leg out to join the first and quietly slid down onto the slippery shingles. Barefoot made it easy to keep his position as he crouched there overlooking the quiet street and neighboring alleyways.
There. Again, and this time he didn't lose sight of the drifting shadow, no shadows. More than one. Heading down the alley across the street. Soundless. Men, though, he could tell by the height and breadth of the shadows. Not his compatriots. They had no reason to sneak about like thieves in the night. Which meant, he thought with a sigh, that these were thieves in the night. Damn. No time to snatch appropriate wearing apparel. If he shouted, he'd only make a very nice target of himself.
With a muttered further curse, he crab-walked to the edge of the porch roof and gripped the gutter with one hand, his other hand full of pistol and nowhere else to put the thing. Very well, time to do it. Gritting his teeth, he sprung clear, using his momentum and his grip to leverage an adequate somersault to the earth. Gasping, he staggered erect and half stumbled toward the alley, following the shapes that were fading as he watched.
"Ezra! What the hell do you think you're doing?" Chris' voice cut through the night air like a knife, low and gruff, angry.
Whirling, relief washing the tension from his stance, Ezra spotted the tall gunman standing poised in shock at the batwings of the dark saloon. Must have just been coming out, he thought. "Men, don't know how many," he answered breathlessly, "down beside the Mercantile, in the alley."
Chris tore his eyes from the nearly naked sight of his lover in the middle of the main street of town and flicked a quick look in the direction of the alley. "Nothing to see now."
"They were there, Chris!" Ezra's voice was pitched low. "That direction will put them behind the bank."
Stepping clear of the doors and onto the boardwalk, Larabee touched his gun briefly, then looked down at Standish. "Ezra, go get Buck, he's at the jail on night shift. Wake Vin, he's in his wagon."
"Chris, there may not be enough time."
"Just do it. You are not going anywhere near those men like that."
Ezra stopped and frowned. "Like what?"
"Half-naked." Chris answered impatiently, already striding past the smaller man, moving silently toward the mouth of the alley, gun now drawn. He didn't spare a glance at his friend or he might have seen the look of shock on the gambler's face.
A look that melted into confusion and, then seeing where Larabee was headed, fear. With quick darting movements, the conman spun about and ran toward the jail, hissing for Buck as loudly as he dared.
Wilmington stood up from his seat in front of the empty jail, seeing the white apparition floating toward him. Damn, looks like a ghost. Then Ezra Standish was there panting in front of him, in nothing but a white nightshirt. "The bank! Chris is after some robbers, they've gone around the back -- he's alone."
"Got it, Pard." Buck took off at a dead run.
Ezra sucked in his wind and reversed course, making it to the side of Vin's wagon in only seconds. "Vin! Vin!" His quiet cry as he nearly collapsed against the tailgate was met with the quiet click of a trigger. "It's me, Ezra!"
"Ez?" The tracker was in long johns and his trousers, peering out over the barrel of his sawed-off rifle.
"Robbers --- bank --- Chris and Buck!" By now breathless, Ezra delivered his message in hurried pants.
Vin nodded and swung over the tailgate, landing on the ground in moccasined-feet and took off down the back of his alley. Ezra tried to follow but found bare feet were not the wisest way to traverse the small town's rutted streets. Shivering in his single long shirt, he trotted after Vin, trying to ignore the increasing pain in his feet.
Ahead of him he saw a flash and then a loud bang followed. Gunshots rang out, snapping and popping. He raised his weapon and continued, Chris was out there, and Vin and Buck.
Larabee was furious with the gambler. He stalked the street, ready to wreck havoc on the bank robbers but wanting to go back and spank the damn man for wandering around the street in nightclothes. Bad enough when he walked down the main street in broad daylight in nothing but a tablecloth, his hat and his boots! And that had been before Larabee had staked his claim. Despite the urgency of the moment, Chris came to a screeching halt. My claim? Then he heard the unmistakable sounds of a door being forced. His mind went blank and then he was focused on the night's darkness ahead of him.
Whispering and the sound of more breaking wood. Then the muffled clatter of the door springing open and hitting back against the outside wall before it was caught. Just as he reached the edge of the building, Buck skidded to a stop at his side. "Howdy, Pard," the ladies man muttered, asking, "How you want to handle this?"
"I'll go high."
Buck nodded. "Got low, then."
The two friends didn't wait, striding forward in tandem, as Chris called out, "You in the bank, come out now."
There was a loud bang and flash of light from within the bank, nearly blinding the two lawmen who ducked down and to the sides as the night erupted in gunfire.
The crack of Vin's rifle was coming from the side and Buck and Chris exchanged wolf-like grins. Moving up, behind cover now, they continued a steady barrage of fire.
Ezra had reached the back of the bank and could see the gun battle blazing. What they needed was a flank attack. He was still unknown to the bandits, so who better to do the attack? Keeping his Remington cocked and ready, he made his way along the side of the bank building and around to the front. There was as yet no one there, though he could see lights now from Nathan's clinic and Josiah's church, the men had heard the shooting and would be making their way here soon. But, he didn't think he should wait. Not while Chris and the others were trapped in a lethal battle.
Taking up a random horseshoe nail from the ground, not hard to find at the moment with his feet still bare and now a bit ragged from pebbles and other small bits of refuse, he made his way to the front door and quickly picked the lock. Small bloody footprints were silent mementoes of his passing. In silence, he crept into the building, gun held ready.
Inside, the bank was a shambles. The robbers had evidently decided to blowup the vault but hadn't realized just how thick the doors to that vault were. The safe stood solid and locked amidst shattered bits of wooden furniture and cabinetry. At least four large men were milling around arguing angrily, while another stood hunched over by the back doorway, shooting randomly into the night.
Ezra straightened and held up his gun, arm out in front. "Gentlemen, and I do use the term loosely, please cease and desist. Lower your weapons, now."
This might have been effective if he hadn't been standing there in his nightshirt. As it was, the men turned and looked at him in stark disbelief for a moment. Grins cracked faces that moments before had been shadowed with angry worry. "Oh, gosh, you think this here is the law, Shelby?" one of the ruffians asked loudly.
"Mighty small fer a lawman, but he shore do dress up pretty." The men were spreading out now, fanning out in front of the gambler who swung his pistol from side to side, backing up slightly.
"No more movement please, or I shall be forced to shoot." Ezra imbued his voice with as much determination and force as he could. It was effective for a moment as the men froze, but then the fates laughed at him. Ezra's shifting foot came down on a ragged splinter in the mess of bombed out wood. Even though he drew in a deep painful breath and tried to keep his hand steady, his balance was thrown and eyes watered.
It was enough to allow the men to rush him. He shot rapidly, knowing he'd hit at least one, maybe two of the miscreants before he was thrown painfully to the floor beneath a heavy body. He felt the rough debris scrape his legs and face, even his hands. His gun was wrested from him and then he was dragged back to his feet, one arm held tightly behind him, forced up his back. With a grunt, he was lifted nearly off his feet as the angry robber behind him shoved him forward.
"Let's go, he'll be our ticket outta here." The hoarse voice behind him was evidently the boss.
"What about the others?" a rough looking bald man asked bluntly.
Half-dragging, half-shoving the small gambler in front of them, the two remaining outlaws reached the side of the younger looking redheaded ruffian who'd been holding off the law with his shooting from the back door. "Alright, Hank, let up," The boss directed and then nearly tossed Ezra into the doorframe. The southerner wobbled on his raw feet, his back arched up in pain from the force of the restraining hold on his arm. He knew he'd been bruised a bit in the fall when they'd grabbed him and that now he had several small cuts on his exposed legs and face. He must look a mess. It was damn embarrassing.
"You out there, we got a hostage. Let us go and we'll free him outside a town. The safe didn't open, we ain't got none of the money. Jest let us go."
There was silence for a moment, then Ezra heard Buck's voice. "Chris, no!"
In the sudden silence as the robbers stopped shooting, both Chris and Buck held their fire as well, waiting to see if the fools had come to their senses and would surrender. Larabee glanced over to the side where Vin had been shooting, saw his brief signal and nodded, more a lifting of the head than anything. It was enough for the tracker who slipped away, heading around the front of the bank, hoping to force his way into the front of the bank and catch the outlaws by surprise.
Chris trusted Vin to do the job and waited stoically for the outlaws' next move. A shock rippled through him when he saw Ezra forcibly shoved into the empty doorway, looking battered and held up by a large ugly man who seemed like a giant behind the small gambler. There was a gun held hard against Ezra's head, pressing his jaw up and to the side. The man holding Ezra shouted.
"You out there, we got a hostage. Let us go and we'll free him outside a town. The safe didn't open, we ain't got none of the money. Jest let us go."
Chris stood up. Gawd DAMN man couldn't follow a simple order if you tacked it to his forehead. He lifted his revolver and straightened his shooting arm, squinting along the barrel of his gun. There was a roaring in his ears now, remotely he realized it was his own blood rushing through his veins, thundering now in his absolute rage. A veil of red seemed to wash across his sight as he paced forward toward the creature that held Ezra. Distantly he heard Buck shout his name but his focus was tightly controlled now, aimed at the center of the creature's face, between the eyes.
He shot. Once. The shot was soundless. Blood blossomed on the man's face, the head exploded outward. Ezra was splattered with blood. Ezra fell with the other. Bloody. Ezra.
Chris ignored Buck who was bellowing some rot in the background now and paced forward, gun still raised, looking for the next target. There was another shot, somewhere inside the bank. He recognized the sound of Vin's weapon. Someone was screaming not to shoot. Chris kept going, his pistol never wavering. He was standing over Ezra now, looking for a new target, but there was no one else in front of him. Vin. Vin was standing to the side, securing a red-haired man who was on his knees behind the door, sobbing brokenly. A bald man lay beyond them, clearly dead. Facing toward the front of the bank. Vin must have come in. Chris shook his head to clear it, the rushing sound gradually diminishing. He lowered his gun.
"Dammit, Chris, you coulda got yore fool self kilt doing that!" Buck scolded as he bounded up beside his old partner. Wilmington didn't seem to notice the trance-like state that Larabee was only now coming out of. Tanner, though, Tanner was staring boldly at his friend, a watchful look in his eyes.
"Ah, gentlemen? If someone could assist me in disentangling myself from this miscreant? It would be most appreciated." There was a tremor in the voice, even though the words were calmly spoken.
Larabee shifted to look down now that he heard Ezra's plaintive voice, still alive. It sang in his blood. Chris leaned against the doorjamb and simply looked down at the gambler who was struggling to free himself from the heavy arm of the dead man beneath him. One side of Ezra's face was covered in gore and he was trying to wipe that away at the same time. As Chris watched, those telling green eyes looked up and met his. The green eyes wide and shocky. And then life started again and Chris was furious.
In an incredibly fast motion, he had holstered his pistol and grabbed the front of the gambler's nightshirt, dragging the man up and onto his feet. Shirt bunched in his fist, he brought Ezra's face up close to his own and started to yell. "You damn fool! I told you to go for help and then STAY OUT OF IT!" He began to shake the man, "Damn it, Standish, when are you going to follow orders? You fuckin' poor excuse for a ---"
"CHRIS!" Buck was there, arm somehow across his throat, pulling him back, restraining him, shouting in his ear. "CHRIS! STOP IT!"
The red faded away. Chris felt himself begin to tremble and knew that shakes would follow if he gave into his body. He shut up and looked, really looked at the man hanging from his fisted grip. Ezra was staring at him, silent. Huge green eyes seemed to fill his face, the face itself smeared with blood. "Ezra?"
Buck's arm left his throat and he felt a strong hand on his shoulder. "Pard, let him down so we can help him."
Chris shook his head and let go. What was he doing?
Unfortunately, Ezra's feet chose that moment to let him know that they were in no condition to support him any longer. Dropped from Larabee's grasp, he landed hard on said feet and the instant agony was enough to nearly black him out. As it was, he cried out in pain and crumbled to the ground. "Ow! Ow! Ow! Shit, damn it all!" Angry at himself, confused at Larabee's anger and still stunned from the impact of a dead man's head exploding against his face, Standish half-sat, half-lay on the ground, muttering curses and clutching his ankles, unable to care any longer about appearances.
Chris blinked and looked down at the gambler, curled up at his feet. He was hurt. "Buck, get Nathan, then help Vin. Vin, take that crap to the jail, lock him up. Get Josiah and JD to help clean up back here." He stooped down beside Ezra, not even bothering to look at the others. "Easy, Ez." He could see the lacerated feet now and realized what was the trouble. In a smooth motion, he slid his arms under Ezra's knees and around his back, lifted.
"Shut up, Ezra."
Swinging about, the smaller man held up in his arms, Larabee stalked toward the alley and main street beyond.
"Do you intend to carry me all the way to Nathan's clinic?"
"Shut UP, Ezra. Yes, I do."
Josiah and Nathan burst into the alley at this point, partially dressed in hastily snatched pants and boots, both held guns at the ready.
"Chris? Is Ezra hurt bad?" Nathan moved close, Josiah pressing behind him.
"His feet, I'm bringing him up to your place."
"Feet?" Nathan circled round to look and grimaced at the sight of the torn flesh. "I'll go ahead and get things ready, lessen you need me here?"
Larabee had not stopped walking, drawing the other two along with him by sheer force of character. "Nope. You go ahead." Turning his head slightly, the blond spoke to Sanchez. "Josiah, Vin could use your help at the back of the bank."
JD appeared at the head of the alley, desperately blinking back sleep, guns in hands. Sanchez intercepted him with a long arm, swinging him clear of Larabee and Nathan. "Come on, JD, you can help too."
As Chris followed Nathan out into the street he could hear JD's bewildered, "Is it over, then?" and a rumble that had to be Sanchez answering him.
Alone now as Nathan disappeared up the stairs of the clinic at a run, Larabee looked back down at his burden. Only to find Ezra quietly staring up at him, head resting on his shoulder, cocked at an angle that was more curiosity than pain.
"Oh, I'm allowed to talk now?"
"Shut up, Ezra."
Chris hitched his armful higher, conscious of the bare skin of thighs beneath his right hand. That somehow irritated him again and his anger began to build, again. "You could have put on some pants at least."
"There was no time."
"It was just a bank, Ez, you coulda made time," he said flatly, reaching the foot of the stairs up to the clinic.
"I didn't know that then, did I?"
With a sigh that Ezra could surely feel, Chris conceded defeat. "Nope, guess not." Then he was climbing the stairs and Nathan was waiting at the top.
"You want help with him, Chris?" Nathan stood ready to assist, but backed away as Larabee kept coming.
"Naw, he's not heavy. Where do you want him?" The blond gripped the smaller man tightly, ignoring a squeak as he sidled through the clinic door.
"Right here on the bed, set him down so his feet hang over." Nathan had pulled back the covers and already had a large basin on the floor. He moved to the stove and started it up, intent on heating water. "Ezra? You okay for a moment?"
The conman had to catch his breath at his sudden change in position as he found himself on the clinic bed, still in Larabee's arms, in Larabee's lap. "Ah, yes." Then quietly, "Chris! He meant to put me on the bed! The mattress, Chris, the mattress!"
Chris simply sat there, holding tight and shifting the man in his arms into a more comfortable position, legs dangling over his own. "I got you."
"Yes, I know, but ---"
"Yes, yes, shut up, I know."
Nathan, who'd been busy at the stove turned now and raised his eyebrows at the sight of the dark gunslinger sitting there holding their fellow peacekeeper in his lap. "Um, that'll work, I guess." He blinked and then shrugged. Not his business. "Now, let's see about cleaning up those feet of yours."
Ezra squirmed again. Chris held tighter, and Ezra squirmed, again. "Dammit, Ezra, sit still."
"Mr. Larabee, you have rather long legs."
Ezra sighed. "So, MINE don't fit over them too well for what Nathan is trying to do. If you could see clear to letting me sit on the bed?"
Chris gripped hard on Ezra's waist, where he had been holding onto the wiggling gambler and finally grimaced in agreement. He obviously knew that it made sense, even if he seemed very reluctant to let go. The fact that Nathan saw him holding Standish like this hadn't even penetrated yet, that was easy for Ezra to see. The conman stole a glance down at Nathan who was kneeling on the floor, bathing his feet. With daring that he hadn't known he possessed, Ezra reached up one hand and stroked along Chris' strong jaw line. Very quietly he murmured, "Chris, it's ok. I really am fine. You need to let me go."
Hazel eyes met green ones and began to clear, then widen. "Oh, shit."
Chris shifted to the side suddenly, sliding Ezra on to the mattress none too gently.
Nathan looked up in surprise as Standish's feet dropped lower into his hands without warning. If he noted that Larabee had finally released the conman, he didn't comment. Instead he held the slim ankles and asked, "Ezra, you holding up ok?"
"Oh, yes, Mr. Jackson, just fine." Ezra found that without the comfort of Chris surrounding him, the pain in his feet was now announcing itself with vicious thoroughness, or maybe it was just the alcohol that Nathan was using to now clean out the raw flesh.
"Got a couple of mean lookin' splinters in there, Ezra, you want to hold on to something while I pull them out?" His big gentle hands continued to pluck the debris from the soles of Standish's feet. Man had no sense at all, running around barefoot in the dark, in those back alleys and then in that bombed out bank. He needed to see better. "How 'bout we get you on your stomach? You can hang your feet off the end of the bed and I can get a better look at what's got to be done."
The gambler nodded amiably and twisted up and around on the bed, watching as Larabee rose to his feet to get out of the way. "Nathan? He gonna be alright?"
Jackson was up now as well, easing Standish's legs into position and guiding his feet off the edge of the bedding. "Oh, yeah, won't be doin' much walking for a bit. Probably not be able to put on boots for a few days. But he'll heal."
Ezra remained silent, already thinking about how he was going to manage with this unexpected handicap. Well, only a few days. He'd do it. Somehow. He always managed.
Chris' hand came down on the back of his neck, warm and large, flexing against the tendons, curling in the nape hairs. "We'll see that you get help, Ezra."
Ezra tensed, not wanting to relinquish himself to others, to depend upon others. He tipped his head to the side to look up at Larabee. Chris had come to squat at his side and met his eyes straight on. He'd felt Ezra's new tension through his hand but hadn't released him. If anything, he was massaging the muscles there now. Ezra opened his mouth to say --- something when a sharp pain ran up one foot, leg, and into the center of his system. Grunting in an effort not to scream, he closed his eyes and grabbed the edges of the mattress, straining. More pain followed, sharp, biting, agonizing. Through it all, a warm hand stayed on his neck, comforting him, a second hand now stroking his hair and quiet words, that he could not understand through the over-worked pitching nerves, washed over him.
"Bottom of the feet can be down right sensitive," Nathan commented as he drew out a two inch splinter that had pierced the heel at an angle. "Nasty." Dropping the wicked bit of wood into the bowl below Ezra's feet, he squeezed more alcohol over the newly cleared puncture. The jerking in the feet had eased to a continuous tremble, too much pain he figured. Seen it before, in bad cases of shrapnel, too much for the body 'n' brain to handle. "There now. That's it, far as I can see."
Chris looked over his shoulder at Nathan, raising one brow in question. Nathan nodded, "Just got to put on some poultices to draw out any infection, then bind them up for a while. I'll change everything in about four, five hours. See if anything's getting mean looking then."
Jackson climbed to his feet wearily. He'd been roused out of bed in the middle of the night and was not really as rested as he needed to be. "Ezra, you just try to get some sleep now. I got some tea I had simmering, will help with the pain, if you like?"
Chris turned his attention back down at Standish, pushing his head gently to the side, drawing one hand up through the tousled hair. "Ez?"
Ezra almost smiled at the touch and sound of the man, but his body was still trembling from reaction to what had seemed like endless torture. "What?"
"How about some of Nate's painkiller tea?"
The gambler's face screwed up in distaste, but he nodded. Chris looked back up at Jackson. "He'll drink some. Just give it to me, then you go get some sleep."
Without looking back toward the clinic's door, Larabee raised his voice slightly. "Ezra's gonna be fine, Nate said so. Just needs some rest. So do the rest of you, now scat."
There was a moment more of silence and then several sounds of relieved laughter. Buck's voice soared over the rest of the men who had quietly gathered just inside the doorway to see how their fallen was faring. "How 'bout you, hoss? You need some rest too. One of us can ---"
He got no further as Larabee interrupted. "Buck, take the rest and clear out. Once Ezra's settled down, I'll get some shut eye here."
There was a bit of murmuring and Chris clearly heard Vin say, "Buck, it's his place to ---" and then the men were shuffling out, JD's higher pitched voice a counterpoint to Josiah's rumble and a drifting laugh from Buck.
Nathan bent down and handed Chris the cup of herbal tea for Ezra. "Try to get him to drink all of it." Standing back up, he stretched his spine and yawned mightily. "Call me if you need anything, I'll be in the next room."
And with that, the healer was gone and Chris and Ezra were alone.
Chris studied Ezra's form sprawled out on the clinic bed, still only covered in his nightshirt. Be hard to swallow Nate's tea like this. Squinting down at the now thoroughly wrapped feet he decided to risk shifting Ezra onto his back and then a sitting position. "Here you go, Ezra, just turn over real slow." With hands at shoulder and hip, he more or less did the moving for the pain-exhausted gambler.
Chris lifted Standish's shoulders now and slid under, so that he could support the southerner as he fed him the tea. The smaller man was still shaking badly, minute tremors that raced through his body, reaction from the agony of Nathan's thorough cleaning of the ruptured flesh. "Easy does it." Chris' arms came up to accustomed positions around his friend and he pulled him slightly closer, rubbing his cheek in the dark auburn hair. So far, the gambler had not spoken but had moved a bit, trying to cooperate with Larabee's manipulations. Chris brought the cup up to Ezra's lips. "Now, drink this, nice and slow."
Ezra took one taste and had second thoughts, turning his head and making a face, then tucking his head into Chris' shoulder. "Ez? Ez, you need to drink this. Now."
The sound of a direct order from Chris Larabee would have many a man shaking in his boots, but Ezra simply sighed and slowly, reluctantly complied. He liked the feel of Chris around him again, it was comforting and unlooked for. They'd never done anything like this in town before. He tried to raise his eyes to see Chris' face but it felt as if someone had put heavy weights on his eyelids and after the barest, blurriest of glimpses, his head dropped down and his eyes fell shut.
"Ezra?" Chris spoke quietly, just to make sure but when there was no answer, he knew that the gambler had fallen asleep. The trembling had stopped. Chris swallowed and wrapped both arms tighter around his armful. Leaning back on the headboard of the bed, he let his hands play over the southerner's compact form. Feeling the chill setting in on the exposed skin, he long-arm reached for a blanket and pulled it up over Ezra. Weren't we just doing this, Ez? He smiled crookedly and relaxed. Just last night out in the desert.
Sitting in the clinic, Chris' thoughts wandered back to the question he'd asked himself out on the desert. Would he stop this? Could he stop this? Somehow, after all that had happened this night, those questions didn't even seem to have any relevance.
In a flash of insight, Chris realized that he would have killed anyone standing between him and Ezra, killed anyone who was hurting Ezra, and done it without compunction. Sure, he'd rescue or protect any of the seven, but not like tonight, not like what he'd done tonight. There'd been no question in his mind, only focus. Even now, he tensed in recollection of that moment when the bank robber had shown at the door of bank with Ezra bloody and hurt in his hands, gun to Ezra's head. All questions were answered then. Nothing, no one else mattered.
Chris Larabee sucked in his breath painfully as the clarity of the thought, the absolute conviction of the thought rang through him. He felt as if his heart was being squeezed it was so painful. Why did it hurt so much? A soft, sleepy groan made him look down and realized he'd been clenching Ezra unconsciously. Carefully relaxing his hands and loosening his hold let the man in his arms slump down against him, with an unintelligible murmur. "Sleep, Ezra, I've got you." He ran fingers stiffly through the errant hair and then stroked it gently into place again, feeling Ezra nuzzle up towards the touch. Smiling, Chris bent down and placed a kiss on the sweaty head.
"Like that, huh, cowboy?" Vin stood in the doorway, slouching against the doorjamb. At the silent glare from the gunslinger across the room, he stepped in silently and stood looking down at the two men on the bed. "He's good for you."
Larabee closed his eyes and fought down momentary panic, then looked up into accepting blue eyes. Suddenly, it didn't matter that what they had wasn't secret anymore. Maybe it really never had, at least not where his friends were concerned. "Yeah. Very good." And saying that made it so, he found. Yes, Ezra was very good for him. Very precious to him.
"He know that?"
"You tell Ez that yet?"
"Hell, Vin, we been together three months now."
Tanner sat down on Nathan's rocker and began to rock slowly, using his scruffy mocs to heel-toe the rock. "You lost it tonight, cowboy."
Larabee didn't try to deny Tanner's statement, it was true. He had lost control, might have really made a mess of things. Even now he could almost hear Buck's cry and later shouted reprimand. Damn, Buck mighta followed him out there, gotten hurt because he wasn't thinking straight. Because of Ezra.
Vin Tanner watched quietly as his friend's face and eyes told him what he was thinking. Saw when Chris looked down at Standish with a look that made Tanner regret his remark. "Larabee, don't go there. It weren't Ezra's fault."
But the dark clad gunslinger had gone past that already and was only blaming himself. My fault for letting him in, for letting him mean something to me. Too much to me, for me to care that much is dangerous. I can't. "No, not his fault. Mine." Chris met Tanner's eyes and Vin saw the guilt and pain.
"You need to figure out what you two want, then settle in. It'll be alright onct you know. Right now, I can tell you're still not hard on this. Not set."
"No. Not set." Chris hugged the smaller man to him again and then worked his way out from under Ezra's limp form. Gently he laid him back down against the pillows, ignoring a muffled mutter of protest. Standing up and staring down at the sleeping form, he mulled over his options. None looked too promising and he really hadn't promised Ezra anything. Ever. Can't afford to get him hurt, nor anyone else either. Better to stop this now. Biting his lip and lowering his chin to his chest, Chris Larabee felt like his newly warmed heart had just frozen and shattered. Stop this now.
"Cowboy?" Vin was worried now. Something in the way Larabee was standing there, back to him, looking down on the sleeping gambler, had him worried.
"Thanks, Vin, for setting me straight." Chris' face was pale as he turned on his heel and started out the door, totally unaware of the tears that were drawing a line through the grit down one cheek. "Watch him 'til Nate gets back, will you?"
And with that, he was gone.
Ezra was slowly going crazy he decided. Confined to Nathan's clinic bed with sore feet, for goodness sake! The trouble was, they really were sore, painfully so. He'd made an effort to try to get out and nearly fainted from the pain. He still could not figure out how he'd managed to walk and run as far as he had that night three days ago. And I didn't even feel anything then. He shook his head at the memory. It changed nothing. His feet were healing and Nathan assured him that he should be able to bear weight on them by tomorrow, if he was careful. Since all he desired at this point was to vacate these premises in favor of his own, and perhaps the poker table, after all one didn't need one's feet to play poker, then he'd be a happy man.
The others had stopped by often, regaling him with tales of their daring-do in various altercations about town or out on patrol. Josiah had regularly spelled Nathan the first two days, changing the poultices on his feet until they were sure there would be no infection. And he was grateful, really, he was. But he felt caged in, under constant observation and there was nothing wrong with the rest of him. Well, nothing important. Scratches, bruises, all minor and healing well. Only a few stitches needed here and there, really nothing at all.
Ezra fingered the thin burlap that made do as a curtain on the window overlooking the main street of town. He could actually see, if he tilted his head and peered just so, the jailhouse. JD was sitting there at the moment and Buck was standing in front of him, gesticulating rather wildly, but grinning, so no doubt relaying some exaggerated tale of manly overachievement. There was Vin, leaning against a post by the saloon, just watching the town folk move about their business.
Ezra dropped the curtain and sat back with a grunt. Josiah had brought over one of Ezra's volumes of poetry so that he could read, pass the time. How to explain that that is not what poetry was for? Ezra shrugged. He picked up the narrow volume and fingered the bit of ribbon he'd inserted, one of the shorter sonnets that he especially enjoyed. He could recite it without looking but there was something so soul-seducing about seeing the printed page sing the words, shape them to life with rich textual delight. He sighed, it was probably an aberration of his to think such flights of fancy, he would never share the notion with any in this hamlet. Mr. Tanner was a talented poet but did not share the love of the printed page that he had. Mrs. Travis, now there was someone who knew about printed pages, but he had a feeling that she viewed print in a very prosaic fashion, just a tool to carry her messages. He separated his hands and let the book fall open to the anticipated page. Drank in the images and words, hearing them with his mind's ear. Lost in the mystery of this effect he did not hear the healer's entrance.
"Ezra? Everything alright?" Nathan hung his hat on a peg by the door and dusted off his hands as he walked over. Standish could see the fatigue in the tall man who seemed to plod with effort.
"All is well here, Mr. Jackson. Did your visit to Mrs. Crosby go well?"
"She'll be better given time enough off her feet," Nathan hesitated, still uncomfortable criticizing white folk in front of the southerner, even though his heart knew he was right, so he plowed on, "only she's not likely to get it, her husband wants her back out in the fields with him, to make the seeding in time."
Ezra noticed and ignored the healer's hesitation, he'd long ago given up understanding the tall man, too many puzzles there. Instead he responded to the plight of the farmer's wife. "Poor woman, her husband should be treasuring her, not working her to death, but you have done what you could Mr. Jackson."
Nathan shrugged, suddenly angry at what he perceived to be Ezra's casual dismissal of the woman and his abilities. Unable to think of a suitable reply, he said the first thing that came to him. "You sure did what you could too, Ezra, driving Chris Larabee right out of town like that." The minute he finished, he knew he shouldn't have spoken so. None of them had told the gambler that Larabee had left for his homestead that night and not yet returned.
"Mr. Larabee left?" Ezra hadn't seen Chris since that night but then in town they didn't go looking for each other, it simply was not what and who they were. He was gone? Because of me? Ezra turned cold. What did I do?
Nathan hung his head and then reached up to scratch his scalp, unwilling to back down but feeling guilty about what he'd said anyway. "Yeah. Guess he needed some time away."
"But you said," Ezra paused, looking sharply at the shamefaced healer, "You said that I was the cause?"
Nathan sat abruptly on the chair across from Ezra, where the man was tucked into the rocker by the window. "He got right riled with you getting yoreself took hostage that night, nearly got himself shot saving your hide. From what I heard, he'd told you to stay away and you didn't."
Ezra flushed. He really hadn't thought about that. I thought I was helping. It did work out, none of us were hurt, well except for me. And I really don't count. How did Chris come to see this as an offense against him? I just don't understand. We do things like this all the time, we're a team, the seven of us. He swallowed hard. Unless. Unless he doesn't want me to be part of that team anymore? Did our private association become too much for him? Did I intrude too much? Ezra wished for nothing more than to flee from the man who sat across from him, flee this place and these men. Oh, god. What did I do?
Nathan watched Ezra's face flush brightly, then pale. Well, man needs to think before he acts, then maybe he won't get hurt and neither will anyone else. Self-righteous in his inner guilt, he rose and headed for his room in the back. I'm not running away, just tired. "Ezra, I'm gonna get some sleep, I'll be in the back if anyone needs me."
"Certainly, Mr. Jackson. Rest well." Ever courteous, the southerner nodded, his eyes not quite meeting the healer's, the bleakness there hidden.
Chris had plenty of time to think out at his place. Vin had come by the second day, clearly wanting to talk but unsure what to say. Finally simply telling Larabee that the gambler was getting better, likely be on his feet again in a couple of days. Larabee had listened, face a still mask, and nodded.
Vin had stayed a while, but neither spoke anymore that time. Then he'd left and Chris had returned to his thoughts.
Ezra Standish was never far from the center of them now. Funny, when they'd been going along day to day, nothing had needed saying. Just was. That was enough. Being with the man had been nice, then relaxing, then --- special. And, finally, necessary. Though he hadn't realized that until faced with losing it, him. Only, what was it they had? Really? Some nights spent together. Some good sex. Some companionable moments, some touches that weren't pure lust, friendship, even comfort. Maybe something more. Dammit, he knew it was more. Walking away from it wasn't the answer. It couldn't be the answer. Stopping it wasn't the answer. No. He'd have to learn some control, a new kind of control, for future confrontations with, as Ezra would say, miscreants. Especially if the gambler continued to be part of the seven. And he would, it was who he was now. And that, too, was part of what Chris loved about him.
Um. Taking a deep breath, the lean shootist bent his head and closed his eyes. Oh, shit, Sarah, I love him.
He and Ezra needed to talk, privately, spend some time together. Vin said the man would be able to walk on those feet of his again in a couple of days. Fine. He could come out here then. And they could talk.
Suddenly, the air smelled a lot sweeter, he could hear the sounds of honeybees among the bluebonnets in the meadow, and the sky turned a cleaner shade of blue. Yep, they'd talk.
Josiah was whistling to himself as he climbed the stairs to the clinic two at a time. The sun was bright, Ezra should be able to stand today, walk. He knew the young man had been unhappy in the clinic, unable to fend for himself. He'd seen the trapped look in Ezra's eyes, despite his simple words of courtesy to Nathan and him. Josiah grinned, looking forward to the delight he anticipated seeing in Ezra's eyes when he was 'liberated' from the clinic. I'll just be there to catch him if he falls first time he starts totterin' around on those tender feet of his. A secretive smile replaced his grin. Almost like a papa watchin' his child take his first steps. Won't ever tell the boy I had that thought, he decided in amusement.
Reaching the clinic porch, Josiah started across the weathered planks just as Nathan appeared at the door, striding out with a disgruntled look on his face. "Nathan? Something wrong?"
Jackson looked up and faced his best friend, feeling his face hot up some in embarrassment. "He's gone."
Josiah slowed to a stop. "He? Who? Ezra? Ezra's gone? Already?" He couldn't help the disappointment that surfaced in his voice. He had really wanted to be there when the boy stood up for the first time. And now, Nathan was looking strange, he could swear the man was blushing, despite his natural pigment's already dark tone.
But Nathan was already recovering and deciding that that fool southerner just couldn't wait until he was told it was time. Just took off in the dead of the night, like the slippery conman he was. "Yeah, he musta left sometime in the night. I come back tired from the Crosby's place late, spoke a bit to him, and then went in to sleep. Must have been more tired than I thought," Nathan paused to wipe at his face with one hand. "Slept right through until now," he admitted, "and when I came out of the back, he was gone."
Josiah stared at his friend. There was much unsaid here. But, knowing Nathan, he'd only get defensive if pushed and he had done a good job of healing Ezra. Likely they had words last night, Josiah shook his head sadly, and then his boy just left as soon as Nathan had retired. With a sigh, Josiah glanced over his shoulder at the saloon. He's probably sound asleep over in his own bed right now and not likely to welcome someone waking him before noon. Ah, well. He's better, well enough to walk himself out of the clinic and that's all that really mattered. Nathan and Ezra never seemed to see eye to eye, that was nothing new, and Nathan's forbearance in the face of Ezra's grumpiness the last few days was probably a Herculean effort anyway. With a shrug of his massive shoulders, the preacher smiled into his kind friend's eyes. "It'll be alright," he clapped a hand on one shoulder, "Now, how about I treat you to some breakfast?"
"Sounds good, sounds right nice in fact," Nathan's whole face lit up and his shoulders rose, shedding the last remnants of guilt. Josiah was right, he and Ezra always tussled, nothin' new there, and it was a lovely day. Breakfast did sound good.
Chaucer was picking his way with care through the rough, rocky canyon floor, the early sunlight barely lighting his way. He swished his tail, vaguely worried about his rider. They never went out in the night and now they had been traveling for a very long time, long enough so that the sky had turned light. It had been several days since he'd seen his friend and was happy to feel that caring hand stroke his neck, always pleased at the sugar cube offering, but even more pleased simply to be able to wuffle close to the man's chest and smell the man's smell. It had been a surprise when the man got him ready for a ride, saddled him but he hadn't objected. He trusted his man. They'd gone slow from the start, moonlight kept them from making a wrong step on the road out of town and sunrise found them still walking slowly away from Chaucer's comfortable stable. The horse chuffed philosophically, he was with his man again, that made everything alright.
Ezra had waited until he was certain Nathan slept, then carefully dressed and with great caution slid his feet into his oldest boots, brought to the clinic for that very reason earlier. They pinched a bit, but he'd suffered worse in the past. With slow, careful movements, he'd actually made it down the stairs, though he'd had to stop and sit on the bottom step for a few minutes to let his feet recover. They stung, almost a burning sensation, but it was tolerable.
He thought longingly of his own room and things, but decided he wasn't ready to climb the saloon stairs to his abode and down again. With a slightly unsteady gait that improved as he continued, he made his way directly to the stable. The pain in his heart hurt much worse than any discomfort in his feet. I don't understand what I did. Why does Chris blame me? What did I do? It had become a litany inside his head since Nathan's startling accusations. Nathan didn't know how to lie so it must be true. Ezra shrank from the feeling that somehow he'd lost Chris in this mess. Just the thought of losing the dark gunslinger made him hunch over and pause in body clenching pain, hand to his chest. Oh, oh. Please, no. Oh, Chris, what did I do? he wailed silently in his head. I've tried so hard to be good. To be what you wanted. With a jerk of his head, he bottled up his desperate feelings and fought for control. I need some time alone and away from everyone. I have to figure this out. Guess I'm not so different from Vin that way. Thinking of the tracker, he knew that he'd be followed if he wasn't careful. Vin had confessed once that even he couldn't track someone over the lava fields near Sandstone Canyon. So, that's where he'd head first.
Ezra's short-ration day kit was always ready in the stable, he saw to that just as the others did their own. Too many times they'd had to ride without preparation after some outlaws that had mistaken their small town for a ripe plum. He checked to make sure the canteen was full and added the bedroll and kit to the back of Chaucer's saddle. "Old friend, we need to depart for a while. I have some thinking to do." Stroking the nodding head, he smiled sadly at the uncomplicated love the two shared. With a wistful sigh, he pulled himself into the saddle, teeth gritted against the pain of having all his weight momentarily on one foot, but then he was seated and although the foot thrummed with new pulsing blood flow through new tissue, he was sure nothing had been truly hurt.
Flicking the reins and kneeing his friend, they had left the stable quietly and then slowly left the town, shadows against the buildings, nearly invisible against the low burning street fires.
Chris rode into town at a steady trot. Decisions made, ready to talk with Ezra and get them on a firmer footing, he was actually in a cheerful mood. From what Vin had said, today Ezra should be able to walk again, use his feet. Which meant they could go off together for a spell. He'd just check in first with the others, make sure that nothing needed his hand. If things had gotten really bad, they would have sent someone for him but he'd heard nothing so he wasn't really expecting any trouble.
Tying Solon to the hitching post by the jail, he walked in to find Buck and JD playing checkers in the coolness of the adobe building. "Hey Chris, welcome back!" JD's enthusiasm always made Chris hesitate, he wasn't used to such exuberance from a man and JD was becoming one, naw, he was one.
"JD." Chris nodded and turned with a raised eyebrow to his oldest friend. "Everything ok, Buck?"
The lanky ladies man smiled and stretched, "Pard, with two such virtuous lawman as us here guardin' this town, couldn't be otherwise."
While JD grinned and shook his head, just glad to see Larabee back again, Chris tipped his head to one side and a sly smile flitted across his face. "So, Buck, since when you become 'virtuous'?"
"Ah, Pard, you wound me!" Wilmington managed a fair imitation of a lady's swoon, then leaned forward and hopped one of his pieces over several of JD's in a zigzag course across the board. "Game!"
"Hey! That's not ---! That can't be ---" JD's dark wings of eyebrow came down in a sharp V as he swiveled back to face the board and tried to figure out what his friend had just done.
Buck was cheerfully picking up the jumped pieces in one hand as he casually remarked to Larabee, "Been quiet, Chris, no trouble."
Larabee nodded, trusting Wilmington to know. "Gonna get a bath," felt his chin, "and a shave, then I'll be stopping by the saloon."
"We'll be there after JD's shift," Buck nodded, then shoved forward suddenly, rattling the board. "You lost, boy, time to try again!"
Chris left to the heckling sounds of the two friends' laughter as they argued good-naturedly about their game.
With a stretch, he headed for the stable trailing Solon behind him. Get his horse set in the stable and then he'd just stop in and see Nate, make sure that everything was ok with Ezra. Then a bath and shave, and he'd convince his --- his friend, no, his lover, that they needed to talk. With a smile at the world, Chris Larabee walked down the dusty street toward the stable.
Vin Tanner let Peso run the last bit into town, their morning patrol over, the horse wanted to stretch his legs. In a dust cloud that trailed behind them like a windstorm in the making, the horse and rider charged down the trail that quickly became the south road into Four Corners. At a distance, Vin could see Chris leading his black, Solon, toward the livery. So, he's back finally. Some of the tracker's worry eased seeing his friend return. Maybe he got his head on right finally and can set things right with Ezra, too. Tanner knew that Ezra'd been doing ok, likely hadn't known that things were wrong with Chris and Vin was too much of a coward to tell him. 'Side which, weren't like there was much they could do until Larabee showed himself again. Now, maybe it would work out. He liked both men and hoped they could find some peace together. Neither of them had found any on their own, he was sure.
The tracker gathered his horse into a more acceptable trot as they entered the town itself, the dust swirling up around them from their earlier fast pace. He could feel Peso settle in better now, run some o' the kinks outta his tail, he thought with a hidden smile, riding up to slow to a walk at Chris Larabee's side.
Larabee slanted a look up at his friend, and gave him a small smile, confident that would be enough for Vin. No words passed between the two as Tanner tipped his hat and slid from his mount to walk next to the black clad gunman. In companionable silence the two led their horses, heads bobbing quietly behind the men.
Just as they reached the large, open door to the livery, Larabee asked, "Patrol?"
The dark shadow of the livery's interior seemed almost cave-like after the bright sunlight and dusty street. Both men paused to let their eyes adjust a bit, savoring the cooler temperatures within the shaded confines of the stables. Too early in the day for stable boys to be about yet, the place was silent. They could see curious horses lift heads over stable gates in a succession of soft nickers as the rest of the seven's mounts greeted their herd mates.
At first, neither man noticed the missing inhabitant of the end box stall. Peso was eager to get to the oats he knew were waiting. Solon was just looking forward to the more comfortable quarters and companionship of the other horses. Each headed, almost of their own volition, toward their own stalls. Solon really hadn't been out long and so Larabee decided to just let him in his stall for a moment as he strode down the rest of the runway to Chaucer's. Was only a horse, but at the moment it was the closest he'd been to Ezra in a bit and Chris felt like he needed some reassurance.
"Gawd damn it!" Larabee whirled about, surprising Vin who was unsaddling Peso in his stall.
Tanner stepped forward to peer over the top of Peso's stall to see what was wrong, Larabee's voice had sounded almost panicked.
Before Vin could ask, Chris was yelling and slamming shut the empty box stall. "He's gone, Vin! What the hell is he doing out now? He should barely be able to walk yet!"
Tanner couldn't help it, he had to grin. "Well, cowboy, don't take much walkin' to ride a horse." He stifled a laugh and continued, "Likely wanted to git far from Nate's hands for a spell, you know Ez."
With a frustrated sigh, Chris nodded his agreement and brushed his hat back from his brow, his agitation still fresh. It had been a blow to see the empty stall. Unsettled his whole world. He'd been planning on seeing Ezra, making sure he was ok, then taking him out to one of their private places, maybe near the desert, or up in the hills. Keep each other company for a while. And talk.
Only Ezra was out on Chaucer, gone and Larabee's plans were so much dust. For a moment, he contemplated following but he wasn't the tracker Vin was and Vin had just come in off patrol. Tanner was probably right, Ez just needed some space after being holed up in the clinic, and took it. Just like the man to decide something and do it, never mind checking in with Chris. Somehow, the fact that Larabee hadn't been around simply didn't occur to the shootist.
Ezra roused himself in the saddle, Chaucer was grazing on a rather poor selection of dried grasses and weeds that had somehow forced their way out between rocks in this desolate canyon. Here, deep in the earth's slash, spring would come late. Almost no shadow, meant it must be close to noon. Without encouragement, the chestnut had simply wandered to a halt and begun to forage.
Pulling up on the reins lightly, Ezra leaned forward and stroked the gelding's silky neck. "Never mind, my friend, we have much better ahead. Come now, let's continue, it's not far."
The horse willingly gave up on the sparse feed and followed his rider's directions. Soon they were climbing out of the rough and tumble canyon on a game trail, abruptly high above the dried water course, they seemed on top of the world. A very different world, green and lush with new growth. A spring-fed pool released a trickle that became a small brook, wending down through open hilly grasslands, a trick of gravity and fate depriving the earlier watercourse of its source. The new run was young and fresh, barely leaving a shallow path of weedy pebbles and muddy pools in its wake. Willows had sprung up about the spot where the spring pushed up from the earth, grown large, their roots a tangle that seemed to mesh with the drooping arms of their boughs. There was the culprit, one root grown large enough to redirect the flow from the water source, deprive the rocky canyon of all moisture.
Although Ezra had been largely raised in cities and among crowds of people, he wasn't as adverse to the open spaces of nature as his associates thought. He simply preferred the comfort of his bed to the uneven and unyielding hardness of the ground. He smiled as Chaucer quickened his pace toward the bright green fresh new grass, undoubtedly tender and moist. "Easy, old friend," the southerner murmured, "let me free you from unnecessary confinement first, then you may feast to your heart's content." Drawing rein, the gambler leaned forward onto his stomach, ignoring the punch of the saddle horn and thus got one leg up over the back of the saddle without pressing too hard down on a single foot. It was a moment's work to let himself slide to the ground now, both feet together to equally bear his weight. Chaucer was already cropping eagerly at the new growth and seemed oblivious to his master's actions, unless one looked to see both ears swiveled back attentively.
With a gasp of reaction to still sore nerve endings in his feet, Ezra steadied himself against his horse and then, once feeling capable, loosed and removed the saddle and gear with a bit of strain and grunting for the added weight on his newly healed soles. It took only another moment to pull the bridle loose, though Chaucer fussed to be tugged away from his feast for even a short time. Contrary beast! Ezra patted one tall shoulder with affection. "Enjoy, my friend, enjoy." There was no point in tethering the gelding, the horse was too smart by half and would work free from any unwanted restraint very quickly. But there was a bond between them, the southerner knew his old friend would not desert him, he'd be near when needed.
Setting up camp didn't take long, even when he was forced to hobble rather than walk normally. It soon got easier he found, though, as he moved about the small campsite among the willows. He used the same ring of stones that he and Chris had found two months ago for a campfire. This was one of their favorite spots when they knew they could stay out over night and were not expected back early. It would let him feel near to the man without fear of rejection. Slipping free of his jacket, he folded it methodically and sat on the temporary pillow it made. Too bad he'd not been able to get back to his room for more clothing, but these were clean, had been waiting ready for his emergence from the clinic. They would do, even if not perhaps the wisest choices for roughing it he thought, as he smoothed down the black satin vest and tapped at the folded dark green jacket.
Bird song from the branches over his head, a gentle breeze and the fresh air of the prairie grasses beyond the low hills that dipped to grazing land --- it was a pleasant aspect. Of course, two strong arms wrapped around him would have made it a perfect aspect. He shivered, his skin goose bumping at the remembered touch.
With his small pot of water bubbling for coffee, Ezra let his gaze skim over the horizon, where the sun was now lowering. He wasn't hungry yet, maybe tomorrow. Right now, coffee would be fine. Chaucer had settled beneath one of the taller willows and seemed to be dozing on his feet, head hung low, eyes closed, tail flicking erratically, perhaps in equine dreams. Leaning back against his saddle, Ezra let himself float without directed thought. Daydreamed of other times here, with Chris. He refused to let the despair that edged his thoughts take over. Not yet. For now, he'd simply enjoy the feeling of closeness he could almost taste here in their little hidden oasis.
"Are you certain he hasn't been here at all?" Chris was confused which made him irritable and abrupt with Inez. The bar manager shrugged again.
"Senor Chris, if Senor Ezra came in today, I did not see him. That, Senor, is all I know." She nodded toward the staircase and upper level balcony. "You can look for yourself." She slapped a spare key down on the bar.
Larabee glared at her and then decided to do just that, taking the key and heading up the stairs in moody silence. He'd gotten Solon taken care of in the stables, gone to the bathhouse to wash off trail dust and met up with Vin there again. They'd soaked in amiable silence, though Chris kept an ear cocked for sounds of Ezra, somehow thinking he might appear for a bath following his ride this morning. But their baths were uninterrupted.
At the barbershop, Larabee lost himself to the heat of the steaming towel that Big Mason wrapped on his face after a close, smooth shave. Drifting in steamy relaxation, images of Ezra, skin bare and smooth like his newly shaved chin, rose uninvited and he felt himself growing hot and not from the towel. As he twitched in new discomfort from suddenly too tight jeans, he flicked the towel off his face and sat up.
Startled, the barber looked up from his other customer. "Mr. Larabee, is everything alright?"
Flushing, Chris nodded, surly at anyone questioning him. "Yeah, just got places to be, Big, we square?"
Mason wiped at the shaving soap he was brushing on his other customer, "Yes, sir, your account still has a balance, Mr. Larabee."
"Fine." With that, Chris lurched free of the tilted chair and grabbed his hat and short black jacket. Time to go find that damn gambler, he'd been gone long enough.
Key in hand, he stomped up the stairs, his spurs clinking with menace. Once in the room, it was clear that Ezra hadn't been back in some time. There was a fine layer of dust over everything and the closet still held his many jackets, shirts, and vests. Chris had even checked under the bed and spotted the travel valise that Ezra had used on a long assignment for the Judge, when he'd traveled by stagecoach. So, he hasn't gone for good. Funny how just knowing that eased some of Chris' tension, even though he'd never really consciously thought that the conman would desert them again. Still, it was good to know this irritating man was still part of the seven.
Two frustrating hours later, Larabee sat at a table in the saloon, drinking his lunch in sullen silence. Chaucer had not returned and the stable boys knew, on fear of disfigurement, that they were to notify Mr. Larabee the moment the seventh reappeared.
JD and Buck came in, Vin trailing behind, for some of Inez' enchiladas for lunch. Josiah was covering the jail and they'd promised to deliver some lunch when they were through. Nathan wandered in while Buck was attempting to flirt with the pretty Mexican, to no avail, as always.
All four men brought beers to their regular table, their cheerful faces faltering slightly at the grim look on their leader's face and the half-empty bottle of whiskey on the table. "Ey, Pard, want I should order some food for you, too?" Wilmington set his beer down at the seat next to his old friend, realizing that something was wrong but not sure what.
"Nope." Larabee brought a shot glass full of amber liquid to his lips and sipped.
Vin slid into the seat on the other side of the blond, and JD and Nathan pulled out chairs across the table. For a moment, no one spoke, everyone sipping the cold beers that Inez kept that way with earthenware jugs half-submerged in the ground in the dirt-floored storeroom. Savoring the cold brews, each man relaxed, the warm spring day and quiet town, good trusted companions near, making them all easy with the day. The only tense note was their dark clad leader brooding over his drink. Not that that was all that unusual, just hadn't happened that much the last few months, Buck thought casually, studying his friend surreptitiously from under his brows.
Food, ready in the back, arrived quickly and the men set to eating and drinking, Buck entertaining them between mouthfuls with a tall tale of his night with Miss Millie. Larabee remained a silent sentinel in their midst, all aware of him, but respecting his space. Drowsy with warm food and cold beer, the four men all sat back and smiled at each other as Inez cleared away the plates. Ignoring the other men, the woman hesitated by Larabee as she turned to take things back to the kitchen behind the bar. "Senor? There has been no sign of him." Message delivered she continued on her way, leaving a pool of deep interest and silent communication behind her.
"Pard? You expectin' someone we should know about?" Buck didn't like surprises, especially Larabee-style ones, which often were young punks eager to make a name against the notorious gunman or dangerous outlaws showing up unannounced.
Chris frowned. Shouldn't they all be worried by now? Why was he the only one concerned? "Seems Ezra's been gone all morning. Thought he was just now gettin' better, Nathan?"
The unasked question, why had Jackson let his patient leave like this, stung. As if I could stop him, even if I'd been there when he snuck out. Nathan's angry defensiveness kicked in again, and Josiah wasn't there to mediate. "He's fine now. Fine enough to sneak out last night, probably upstairs right now, sleeping a fine sleep on his DOWN pillow." The resentment and dark anger of the black healer was clear to the entire group.
Before Chris could answer, Vin spoke up. "Chaucer was gone when me and Chris went in the livery, few hours ago."
"AND," Larabee interrupted before Jackson could respond to that, "He hasn't been up in his room at all. Nothing's moved and it's dusty."
"Musta gone straight out on Chaucer then," Vin said.
"Aw, hell, Nate, what happened?" Buck's sad question sat the healer up, head high.
"Didn't nothin' happen. I came back late last night, from tendin' to Mrs. Crosby. Ezra was in the clinic, we talked for a few minutes and I went back to go lie down for a bit. Was tired," he defended. Eyes on the table now, he continued, "Real tired, I guess, 'cause I didn't wake up 'til little past sunrise this morning." He looked up at the circle of faces, serious now, listening. "He'd left." He swallowed and took up his nearly empty beer mug, drinking down the dregs. "Musta snuck out last night sometime, you know he don't like fussin' and he knew I was gonna let him out today."
"Let him out." Larabee repeated the words between gritted teeth, furious beyond reason and coldly calm. "What did you say to him, Jackson?"
"I didn't ---" the others watched Nathan's face gray as he closed his mouth tightly.
"What? What'd you tell him?" The icy words silenced the group. JD shivered and hunched back in his seat, glad that Buck was between him and the dangerous man in black.
"Chris." Buck's hand on one dark cuffed wrist was flung back angrily.
"No, Buck, I want to hear this."
Vin tried from his side. "Cowboy, you know they don't get along all that well, don't mean Nate here done anything specially."
Hazel eyes locked with brown ones. "What - did - you - tell - him?"
Jaw jutting out, Jackson braced himself. "I told him you'd left the night of the robbery, left town and weren't back yet, that you were likely angry at him for not obeying your orders and then gettin' himself hurt and nearly gettin' you killed along with it." He looked around at the aghast faces of his friends. "What? It's what y'all told me!"
Larabee's glare was glacial as he froze Jackson to his seat, then swung his gaze around at the others. "I speak for myself." No one tried to comment.
Standing, he tossed back the rest of the liquor in his glass. "Vin? You think you can track him?"
"I kin try." Tanner rose and together the two men walked out without a backward glance.
JD looked at the two remaining men in momentary confusion. "But, that's what happened, ain't it? Isn't that what you told me, Buck?"
"Sorta happened like that," Wilmington agreed, watching the healer who had sagged back down and was staring at his empty beer mug morosely now. "Nate? Pard, you really gotta watch your temper around old Ez, I know he kin get you riled up, but he's not as hardnosed as folks think."
Jackson nodded having nothing to say to that.
"That's it." Tanner sat slouched in his saddle, hands crossed, wrists resting on the horn. "Shoulda knowed soons I saw where he left the trail."
Larabee stared out across the lava flats. No one could be tracked across the wasteland of rock, like hardened pudding partially spilled and folded, layers flat and black. A deathscape of black rock. It went on for several miles before breaking up, spread out, it's birthplace a mystery, the field was mute testimony to eons of change for the earth's surface.
The tracker looked ahead to where the sun was slowly lowering toward the mountain skyline in the distance. "Be dark soon. Can't find any new tracks then. Best we can do is start circling, look for where he come off the flats, if he did."
They both knew there were plenty of places within the flats to hide, rocky caverns, almost level with the flattish surface, or rising within scrabbly fingered rock crags. Chris sat there, feeling helpless and angry. He knew there was nothing more that they could do than what Vin suggested. His head pounded with the liquor he'd ingested and the hot spring sun. Twisting his shoulders, then neck-reining Solon, he started slowly moving to the left. Didn't really matter which way, just so they started around. Tanner followed without comment.
The day passed slowly for Ezra, he slept most of the afternoon. As evening fell, he built up the fire and made sure he had enough dry wood and brush from the tree falls to keep the night at bay. Chaucer moved closer to the fire as dusk settled around them.
I should go to Chris. He's at his cabin, I'm sure of that. We could talk. If he's angry, I'll apologize. I thought I did the right thing, but no one else thinks so. I don't care anymore whether I'm right or wrong, so long as I'm with him. Let him forgive me, please, Ezra thought to the first bright twinkling star that broke the night sky. I don't want to lose him. He swallowed hard and closed his eyes.
"Chris, no more." Vin pulled up Peso when the pony stumbled for the second time. "The horses could go lame if they step wrong. It's getting too dark to see."
The dark shape ahead of him came to a halt, a frozen silhouette against the lingering twilight. "You're right." The flat Midwestern drawl was clipped and emotionless. Then Chris dismounted and the two men moved further away from the crumbling edge of the flats, out into brush to make an evening dry camp.
"Shelby, you sure this is a good idea?" Harkness tossed his cold coffee toward their campfire, causing it to briefly flare, lighting the ring of hardened faces around it.
The group's leader laughed, a rough sound. "Harky, we meet up with Tern and the rest of his boys and then sweep the territory. Soft country round here, they ain't got no organized law like Texas has, no rangers."
"Maybe so, but ---"
"No, you wait. We made it through that damn pass, didn't we? You kept saying it was too steep, too much snow, but we're here, ain't we?" He looked around the circle for confirmation but tired eyes didn't look back up at him, the others staring into the fire and ignoring this argument. They'd heard it too often before. As long as they got their share of whatever was going around, the gang of lawless men really didn't care who was leading or who was the most right.
Harkness sat back and closed his mouth, no point until they saw for themselves how things stood. Whether Tern and his men would be at the promised rendezvous as telegrammed three weeks earlier. One more day on the trail, moving down out of the high reaches of the mountains ought to do it. Then they'd be at this hidden spring that Shelby claimed he knew of, he and Tern, from when they were young scouts for the army. Only a day's ride, to hear him tell it, from at least three little towns, all ready for their unexpected visits. Ray Harkness' teeth gleamed in the firelight. Been on the trail too long, time to visit us some town, taste some women and some liquor.
Sparks showered upward again as Tice Shelby stood across from him, dumping his own coffee remnants into the flames. "Turn in, we need to make good time in the morning." No one argued.
Chris and Vin were up before dawn, drinking coffee and cleaning up the camp. They each had double canteens so they weren't worried yet about water, and Vin claimed to know every watering hole in the area. Pre-dawn found them saddling up, Vin leading Peso as he walked along the edge of the lava field, looking for sign. Chris walked behind him, leading Solon. Theirs was a comfortable silence.
Ezra pushed Chaucer's mischievous lips back from his cheek. "Nnnno, Chaucer, no!" He turned his shoulder on his horse, drawing the blanket higher to keep his face covered. The chestnut snorted and backed away from his still grounded master and ambled over to the clear pool of the spring, lapping water with pleasure. Ears twitched and flicked, keeping alert for danger though none seemed likely. He knew this place, though usually he shared it with the big black gelding. It wasn't so much fun alone. With a toss of his head, he clopped over to some new grasses and sweet thistle. Maybe this time it wouldn't have any thorns.
Sometime later, Ezra finally blinked back sleep and sat up, stretching and yawning. The sun was still much too low in the morning sky to be a decent hour but if he wanted to be off today, to go find Chris, he'd best be getting up. Already he felt the warmth of the sun on his face and pushed away the tangled blanket. The pool of fresh water beneath the towering willows looked very inviting. He remembered the last time he and Chris were here. They'd gone skinny-dipping. It was glorious, lying on a spread blanket afterwards, the sun drying their skin and warming them, as they warmed each other. Yes, he had to get Chris to forgive him. He had to make Chris see, they had something very special. He for one did not want to lose that, lose Chris.
With sudden decision, he flung the blanket off the rest of the way and stood. Damn! He'd forgotten his feet. Dropping quickly back down, he sat and massaged the abused members carefully. They stung and burned a bit, but it wasn't as bad as yesterday. If he soaked them in the cold water, it would help, and he'd be clean too. He removed his shirt and added it to the folded pile of other clothing, then his undergarments and socks. Naked as the day he was born, he cautiously picked his way to the fresh-fed pool, grateful for the soft carpet of new spring grass. In one hand he held a sliver of his favorite soap, in the other a small towel and his razor.
Reaching the pool, he crouched down and set out the towel, placing the razor within its folds, then set the soap beside it. First he'd bath, soak out the pains, dirt, and soreness, get rid of the feel of entrapment that came with any lengthy stay at Nathan's clinic.
Gracefully, he rose and moved closer to the edge of the pool. He knew this place and knew the best spot for slipping into the water on a broad bedrock shelf that was sun-dappled and warm and overhung the pool. His slender, slight form was a supple shadow among the saplings nearest to the water's edge. For a moment, he crouched above the pool, looking down into his own moss green eyes in the still water, then, feeling self-conscious he stretched out one leg and lowered himself into the water, the rest of his body barely disturbing the surface as he submerged.
"Whoosh!" He bounced up out of the water and splurted spray, shaking his hair free of his eyes. God this felt good. His feet even felt good, numbed by the chill liquid.
They'd reached the entrance to Sandstone Canyon, on the far side of the flats. Ezra's tracks were plain in the dust there, or Chaucer's really. But Vin knew the tracks of all seven's mounts and these were Chaucer's. No doubt.
Chris looked up the canyon, a small smile building on his face. So this is where he went. "Vin. I can take it from here. I know where he is now."
Tanner raised an eyebrow. "The old willow spring up at the canyon's head?"
Chris turned to face his friend. "Yeah."
"Maybe, if he knows about it ---"
"He knows." Larabee interrupted with certainty.
Tanner sat there and studied his friend, could almost feel the eagerness now. "So." He reined Peso around in the reverse direction, "How long you two gonna stay out here?"
Chris grinned. "However long it takes."
The tracker grinned back but let his unease show as well.
Reading him without effort, Chris shook his head and let his grin become a confident smile. "Not that long, maybe a couple of days. If we're not back by then, you can come looking."
"If you ain't back by then, Cowboy, I'll bring the fellers with me, you'll probably need'em to help carry you back."
Chris actually laughed out loud at that and gave Vin a brief salute of finger to hat brim. Tanner returned it and then kicked Peso into a lope, circling out and wide of the treacherous lava fields, back towards Four Corners.
As soon as Tanner had started out, Chris turned back and he and Solon started into the canyon. Both knew it well and made good time to the game trail at the shadowed end. Impatiently, Larabee leaned forward over Solon's shoulders as the big black pushed up the narrow trail, both coming upright at the top of the bluff and out into the open meadowland. There was Chaucer, grazing at the edge of the stand of willows. So he'd gotten here in time.
The chestnut raised his head and whinnied a welcome to Solon who returned it with a snort. Chris couldn't keep the grin off his face as they loped the remaining yards to the tree line. Swinging out of the saddle he dropped his reins to ground-tie Solon, not that he was worried. The horse would stay here, with Chaucer.
And there, through the trees, by the pond, was Ezra, just rising out of the water. Oh, my god, he looks like the Greek companion to some mythical wood nymph he thought as he caught his breath at the beauty of Ezra's youthful form, small and compact, graceful and firm, muscles smooth and elegant. His elegant gentle man, HIS. Skin sparkling with water droplets, hair shining in a reddish brown cap, he looked newly made there in the sunlight and shadow of the secret pool. Standing there, on their rock, pushing water and hair out of his eyes, smiling at him.
Drawn helplessly to the southerner's side, Chris strode through the shade of the weeping willows and up on to the rock and without stopping gathered the smaller man into his arms, hugging him close, capturing soft lips in a bruising, possessive kiss.
Twisting around on his boot heels, Chris re-wrapped his arms even tighter around Ezra, as if trying to draw the smaller man inside his own body. He was desperately plundering the willing mouth, somehow consuming his partner. Both pulled back a hairs-breath to pant and gasp for breath. "Ezra." Larabee's harsh whisper against the southerner's lips was a heart's cry of pain and loneliness. "Oh, god, don't ever run out on me again. Please."
Big green eyes were moist and relieved, all shutters dissolved as Chris stared into the man's soul. "No. Nevah." The soft dulcet sounds of the south rang sweetly. Chris sighed, inhaling Ezra's breath and then pressing their lips together again, more gently this time, but just as insistently. His hands, a moment ago holding tightly to the slickly wet skin of the other, now began to travel in slow reassuring patterns up and down Ezra's back. Standish had finally managed to slip his arms up around Larabee's neck and was clinging tightly himself.
Parched, like I haven't had a drink of Chris in a very long time. Dully, Ezra was aware of the world around them, of his friend's dark, heavy clothing, leather jacket warm and sticky against his bare skin. Nothing really mattered as long as Chris held him like this. He felt enveloped in the man's love, never spoken but clearly shown now. This was no momentary lust, not this. Smiling tearfully, Ezra broke free as Chris paused in still another man-eating kiss for breath. "Chris, I do believe I love you."
Glowing hazel eyes burned into his lover's as Larabee drew his head back enough to meet Ezra's bright green eyes. "I know I love you." As simple as that, they announced their feelings and things would never be the same. And that was alright, too. And then they were kissing again as if the world might stop if they did.
Finally, as if they'd each reassured the other enough to cling together and simply breathe, Ezra's head came down against Chris' shoulder and Chris' chin found it's place on the top of the southerner's head. It was one of their comfort positions that had evolved over time and now was a natural 'nesting' place for them. Ezra's arms came down and his hands curled around the gunman's narrow waist inside the leather jacket. Smiling, Ezra tugged gently at the tucked in shirt. "Someone around here has too many clothes on."
There was a choked sound of laughter, then the gruff sound of Chris' low, quiet voice. "You think?" His hands had found twin holds at the base of Ezra's spine, cupping the ass cheeks and squeezing them. "I figure I don't need to even open up much to get myself inside you. Maybe just loosen a few buttons," he added teasingly.
Ezra shivered with delight. Here he was completely unclothed and held in this man's arms, a man fully dressed and still wearing his weapons and even his damn hat. It was deliciously baroque somehow, like a rare wet dream come true. Turning his head into Larabee's neck, he licked at the strong tendon exposed to him and felt an answering shiver.
"Jesus, he's got a goddamn catamite!"
Both men froze, unable to believe they'd been so lost in each other that they hadn't heard the approach of anyone else. Chris began to slide one hand down Ezra's hip toward his holstered pistol.
"No, don't think you should do that, mister." The warning was accompanied by several clicks of cocking guns.
Chris stopped moving his hand. His first thought was Ezra. Shit, I've got to protect him somehow. Tilting his head up, dark brim shading his features still, he looked around and felt himself fill with despair. At least six men stood in a half-circle facing them and the pool at their backs. "Just do what I tell you, Ezra." The whisper was barely a breath of air against one perfect ear. He felt the gambler stiffen in his arms but there was nothing more he could do to reassure him yet. Then he heard the firm, low, "No, Chris, we're in this together." And knew his lover was still one of his six men, a fighter.
One of the men stepped forward at some signal from the leader, carefully dragging Larabee's gun out of the holster, but was unable to resist touching the smooth wet skin exposed to them. He smiled as he let his finger trace a line up the curved spine and then shouted inarticulately as the man in black knocked his arm away angrily. "Don't touch!" The two men glared at each other, though the outlaw ducked his head after a second and then stepped back. Tension eased immediately.
Ezra was frozen in outrage. That man's paw had touched him. Disgust sharpened his mind and he realized that Chris had swung them around so that the gunslinger could face and confront their adversaries, and hold Ezra protectively. Damn it. He wanted to face them too, but Larabee's arms were like bands of iron now and he couldn't move. Then Chris was speaking.
"I'm taking off my jacket. Covering him up."
There were several snorts of laughter from the men around them. The apparent leader grinned. "Go ahead. He's your candy, for now." Turning his head, he began to issue orders to his men, getting a camp set up. The man with the trespassing hand stayed there, keeping Larabee and the gambler under his gun sights.
The gunslinger released his hold reluctantly from Ezra and shrugged his jacket free, catching the gambler's shoulders as the other man tried to swing around and face the others. "No. Ez, don't." His tone was low, almost pleading now that he acknowledged that his partner was an equal.
Standish looked up at Chris and stopped fighting him, waited as Chris draped his leather jacket over the smaller man's shoulders. It was his short riding jacket, but their height difference was enough that it hung below Ezra's hips providing some cover and modesty. Chris wanted to simply wrap it around his friend but knew that would be protested, so he helped Ezra thread his arms into the sleeves, then pulled it closed in front and buttoned it, face serious and concentrated as he did one button at a time. Small, fine boned hands came to rest upon his larger, more gnarled ones. Stroked them and then gripped tightly, so that Chris could feel the strength there. "Together, we'll win this together," Ezra whispered.
Ezra was thinking at lightning speed, they were outnumbered and had no weapons. A con was definitely called for, but while Chris had displayed a wicked sense of teasing on more than one occasion, he really didn't seem to have much talent for the con. That was alright, the master was here, he just had to get Chris to trust him on this. That might be difficult in light of the recent revelations. Chris loved him. He'd actually said the words. For a moment, Ezra was giddy with joy, unable to keep his mind on their predicament. Damn, Ezra P. Standish, get a grip on yourself or you will lose this precious man to these ruffians.
That dash of cold reality put things back in perspective. Alright, what do we have to work with? He was naked, covered only in Chris' too-big jacket. The sleeves were so long, only the very tips of his fingers showed beneath the cuffs. No sleight of hand likely when I can barely get my hands free. Something UP the sleeve, perhaps? Unfortunately, he knew from past experience that Larabee's only other personal weapon was his boot knife and the currently staring miscreant was likely to notice him try for that.
Back to the game. What do I have to work with? The tall blond was nearly rocking on his heels in anxiety now, arms back around Ezra in a protective circle. Sneaking a glance upward, higher than normal what with him barefoot and Chris in his boots, I must look like a child next to Chris right now. With sudden bedazzled enlightenment, Ezra smiled shark-like and let his face smooth out. His mother had played on his small size and very young looks for many a con in the past, time to put that experience to good use.
"Chris?" Ezra's whisper was very faint. Larabee spared a look down at his charge, he'd been staring gimlet-eyed at the fuck who'd touched Ezra and now had them covered with a Colt. Ready to swing his eyes back up, he was startled by the feral smile gracing Ezra's face and then a swift wink that had him deeply fearful. Shit. Ezra is up to no good, likely get himself shot if I let him. He squeezed, hard, and felt the whoosh of air leave the smaller body. The greens looking up at him switched from fierce amusement to understanding. "Chris, trust me, let me do this. I can get us out of this."
Even as denial came to his lips, Larabee looked up at the campsite now overrun with lawless rough looking men, one angry one staring back at him over a gun sight. Their only hope might be Ezra's talents. Dear god, forgive me, I'm gonna let him do it. He stiffened and looked back down. He looks so damn young, so small --- so fucking beautiful. Those vivid green eyes were still watching him, cautiously now. Swallowing hard against a sudden lump in his throat, he nodded imperceptibly. "What do you want me to do?"
The eyes closed in relief and then opened in sly confidence, "Just play along --- with your 'catamite.'" And Ezra's smile was a flash of bright white and gleaming gold, dimples sweet and deep. Chris nodded helplessly, fearful and hopeful at the same time. "Now, loosen your arms so I can turn around. Um, and unbutton this jacket for me."
"Unbutton? Ez, you don't want me to do that."
"Yes, Chris, I do."
"HEY! Shut your traps! No talkin' or I'll take your little boy there and have ME a new 'friend'." The angry sour tones were sharp and Chris looked up to throw a glare of fiery proportions at the ugly man only feet away from them. He dropped his arms and found his fingers undoing the buttons on the jacket even as he sighed. He had a very bad feeling about this.
Once the jacket was unfastened, Chris' hands automatically started to go around the smaller body again, but Ezra was already turning beneath them, so that Chris ended up with hands on the backs of Ezra's shoulders. He could just imagine the picture this made, with Ezra looking tiny and beautiful, young and helpless, standing before him, his form lost in the too-big jacket, his eyes so large and green, that skin so pale and the hair shining in unruly reddish gleams of dark brown curls. He grit his teeth, pretty sure he knew what Ezra was intending and not liking it, not one little bit.
Ezra, however, wasn't intending to do anything more --- yet. He was dangling the bait just now. It was too early and too dangerous to try to land the fish yet. Too many other sharks around. He moved just a bit, more a swaying of his hips to adjust his weight on still tender feet than anything else. The stiff black leather that framed his torso swung gently, opening and closing slightly. He watched the man across from them from under hooded lids. He kept his face smooth, knowing he looked very young that way, young and innocent. Well, he could fix the last part easily enough, letting his eyes heat with a sultry look, cocking his head slightly and giving his shoulders a little shake that momentarily loosened Chris' grasp. Those hands returned quickly but the other man, the ruffian, had noticed. His own eyes were rounding now and he began to lick his lips slowly. Hum, two can play with that, Ezra thought smugly, and began to lick his lower lip, letting his tongue emerge pointed and curled, knowing it would look very pink against his Irish-pale skin.
"Shelby, where's Tern? Shouldn't he be here by now?" Harkness was too tired to be really angry, but finding that cowboy and his 'boy' here had been a blow. The place obviously wasn't as secret as Tice and Tern thought.
Shelby had been silently thinking the same thing. He looked over at their prisoners. Not likely to cause much trouble, he shrugged, no reason to kill them yet, they might prove useful, have some information about the local places, especially if Tern didn't show up soon. "He'll be here." He tried to sound confident, but they could see a far distance and there were no riders anywhere in sight. With sudden decision, he looked over his men. "Garvy, you head west one day's ride, Pincer, you head south, and Kelly, you ride east. See where we are, if you find a town, scout it out, listen for word on Tern and his boys. Be back by tomorrow night."
The three men stood and nodded, bundling up their bedrolls again and gear. Ray Harkness approved but didn't speak, he didn't want to do anymore riding just yet. A quick look over at their prisoners made him suddenly feel hot and tight at the sight of the boy standing there covered only partly by the big man's jacket. Don't always have to be a woman that eases me, he thought with growing heat.
"Damn. Chris, one of them is named Shelby." Ezra was speaking out of the side of his mouth now, lips barely moving.
Larabee looked down in confusion, "So?"
Watching the three men mount up and head out, Ezra waited. Then in a calculated move, he turned his profile to the remaining miscreants and tilted his head up at Chris, pulling his shoulders back and shifting his hips forward so that his pelvis pushed beyond the loosely hanging edges of the jacket. "In the bank, the one who caught me, the one you shot, the others called HIM 'Shelby' too. Why do there always have to be brothers?"
Chris heard Ezra's words but only distantly, because the damn man was shoving his 'equipment' out for the world to see, perky and rosy, in a nest of reddish blond hair. "Ezzz-rah!" came out between gritted teeth, as he swung a hand down to cover the soft genitals, cupping them completely and firmly pushing them and the hips back within the shadow of the leather coat. He could feel the wrinkled flesh begin to fill and drop within his palm, making him sweat. Oh, gawd, not now for chrissakes.
Two other sets of eyes followed every move now, both glued on the big hand that was covering the temptingly displayed and now vanished cock and balls of the boy. Two mouths hung open and saliva was starting to gather. Harkness wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked over at Tice who was watching his riders head out and hadn't noticed anything. Parnell, the man guarding their prisoners, licked his lips again, then spit to the side, a small grin starting to form nervously as he fingered the trigger of his pistol, wishing it was somethin' else he had in his hand just now.
Ezra moaned softly, having Chris touch him like this was definitely NOT part of the plan.
Tice Shelby was worried though he didn't want the others to know it. Tern should have been waiting here. The fact that he wasn't was bad, very bad. He trusted his cousin, they'd ridden together since their early teens, only splitting to pursue different interests as they got older and began to each want more control. Leading different gangs had answered that but now, older still, it had seemed like a good idea to team up again, safer with someone at your back that you could trust.
Tice stared into the small campfire in irritation, he didn't like Ray Harkness at all, didn't trust the bastard, but he was very good with his gun, and didn't flinch at the hard stuff. Jutting out his jaw, he stirred the fire with a stick, then let his eyes travel to the two horses that had been here when they arrived. The big black had still been saddled, ground tied, easy to catch and add to their remuda. The chestnut, without even a loose halter on him, might as well be a wild one. He showed too much breeding of course, and there was a saddle, Tice glanced over at it and back to the horse that kept moving in toward the remuda line, then shying back away, almost like he was playing some damn game. Gotta be the boy's horse. Probably only green broke, though why he hadn't been tied up --- unless of course he'd broken free of some rope? Didn't much matter. Shrugging, he decided to worry about the horse later too. Once the others were back it would be only a matter of minutes to rope him. He poked the fire again, waiting for the water to boil in the camp coffee pot.
Ray Harkness was definitely interested now. Rubbing sweaty hands on his pant legs, he stood up from where he'd been sitting across from Tice. Taking a quick breath, he started toward their prisoners. His movement was noticed by Shelby, though, who seemed to be finally reminded of the two men they'd found here.
"Harky, why don't you and Parnell bring our 'guests' over here. We should probably tie up the big guy."
Ray nodded, that fit in very nicely with what he had in mind. "Sure, Tice." Harkness turned and walked over the short distance to where Parnell was standing, practically drooling over that boy, hardly looking at the cowboy at all. He drew his own gun and stood to one side. "Ok, gents, let's move this over here a bit closer to the fire." He motioned with his pistol, Parnell seeming to wake as from a dream and stepping back as well.
Ezra watched the interactions of the three remaining men with close attention, quickly seeing the pecking order. He could probably discount Parnell but the one called Harky was another matter. The man was very large and very interested. Well, size wasn't always an advantage. This Shelby seemed to be rather common sensible which could be dangerous and would need watching. He did however have a few figurative aces up his rather long sleeves, he thought with smugness.
With a simple wiggle, Ezra broke free of Chris' hand but didn't try to force the issue of exposure. He'd made his 'point', he thought with amusement. He stepped forward carefully, fully aware that his bare feet didn't need any extra abrasions.
Chris took a deep breath and held it. He kept his eyes flicking from man to man in front of them, looking for a non-existent opening. If they didn't get a break soon, he had a feeling that things were going to get worse. He still hadn't figured out what the hell Ezra was doing and that made him nervous, tricky little bastard could get himself killed if he tried flirting with these toughs. Killed or worse. He didn't let himself dwell on that thought but found his muscles tensing impossibly tighter, painfully so.
When Ezra began to obey the order to move forward, Chris decided to take back some control, if only a little. He grabbed Ezra's forearms and wrapped them across the gambler's chest, closing the front of the jacket in the process. Ezra turned his head, his eyes seeking out Chris' for a second, one closing again in that damnable wink. But he didn't fight the position and kept his arms in place across his chest as they parted slightly to walk into the camp.
Tice picked up a tin cup and filled it with fresh coffee, wrapping his hands around the pleasant warmth as he studied the two men now approaching. The smaller one really did look more like a boy, though there was something there --- something about the eyes that bespoke more experience, a tougher quality than they'd so far assumed. Maybe he better have BOTH of them tied up after all. He took a sip and looked away to check on the chestnut who was still dancing around the end of the remuda line. Maybe I'll just shoot the damn animal and we can have us some horse steaks for supper.
Parnell grabbed Ezra's arm, just above the elbow and tugged him close, shoving the pistol into his side, turning him slightly so the big man in black could see where the pistol was. Harkness' face darkened, he'd wanted to do that. With bitter anger, he pushed the other man so that he stumbled. Before he could recover, Harkness used a booted foot to kick out and Larabee ended up on his hands and knees beside the fire.
"Sit down or your pretty boy won't stay that way." The sneer in his voice was evidently convincing because the blond sat down, glaring up at Ray. "Put your hands behind your back. Now." Stepping around the man with caution, he drew a piece of rawhide from his waist pocket and quickly squatted, keeping the gun drawn. Parnell and the boy remained in place nearby, the man's gun pressing hard enough to make the younger man bend slightly. The blond kept staring at the pair, ignoring what was happening to his own hands and wrists.
No one seemed to think hobbling Larabee's legs would be necessary for which Ezra was grateful. Chris would be a dirty fighter if pushed to the wall, and they were there now. He tried not to think about what might go wrong now, he had to juggle the actions of three men. He was ready to bet that he could now predict each of their moves in the face of what he was about to do. Since he would be betting Chris' life on this, not just his own, he had to be sure, though. One way was to add a bit more 'color' to the scene.
Ezra dropped his arms to his sides, letting the jacket come open and surged ever so slightly ahead of the one called Parnell, so that the jacket was pulled back and up, it's loose over-sized fit causing it to hitch up higher on his shoulder, exposing more of his torso and his genitals again. By now he was sweating quite a bit, a combination of arousal from Chris' touch, fear, and the heavy black leather jacket that seemed like being in a sweat lodge. Having sweat-slickened skin would also help. The shine alone was an artistic touch he thought, and wriggled ever so slightly, once again.
Larabee sat fuming, hands now tied behind him, watching helplessly as Ezra began some strange movements that ended up damn near making him naked again. It was almost criminal how sexy he looked in that black jacket, his pale rosy skin and darker arousal now shining with a coating of sweat. Chris gulped and drew his legs up, knees against his chest, feet tightly under him. He could rock forward, catch his balance and be on his feet in a heartbeat now. He watched Ezra, whatever the little shit was gonna do, he could tell it would be soon.
"Ray!" Tice Shelby bit out the name in exasperation as Harkness, having secured the blond cowboy moved in rapidly on the boy in Parnell's hands. Tice took another quick sip of coffee but didn't move. Damn man is gonna have his fun no matter what I say. Sometimes you just had to let the men do what they wanted or you could lose control altogether. With an angry frown, he watched his second in command step over the blond, holstering his gun as he moved. Then he was next to Parnell and elbowing the shorter man out of the way.
"Hey!" Parnell yelped and backed up, wanting to keep his prize but too afraid of the hulking Harkness to press his luck. With a frustrated curse, he shoved his own gun back in his holster and stepped out of the way. Maybe he could have a share when Harky was done. He licked his lips again, then spit to the side, smiling broadly when his saliva landed on the blond's shoulder.
Ray could actually taste this now, the little guy was staring up at him with the biggest green eyes he'd ever seen, a smug little smile on his face. Oh, yeah, he wanted this too. This was gonna be fun alright. Ray reached out and took hold of the big man's jacket, gripping one loose front edge and yanking for all he was worth. The boy spun around, coming free of the jacket and staggering for balance. He moaned ever so softly. Ray could feel his erection swelling, harder than it had been in some time. Oh, boy.
Chris couldn't believe his eyes. THIS was the plan? He surged to his feet in blind rage, growling.
Parnell's eyes were glued on the boy, now totally naked again. He hadn't got a real good look at him before now. This was well worth waitin' his turn for he thought in avid anticipation.
Tice Shelby closed his eyes in disgust, the very thought of what was about to happen repulsing him.
Chaucer's head snaked forward again as he danced close to the black gelding, his blunt front teeth gripped and pulled hard one more time. His friend, the big black came free of the line, tossing his head and holding it high to keep the reins off the ground and from under his front feet. The two horses moved rapidly closer to their men. Neither liked the new men or horses that had joined them.
Glistening in the soft afternoon sunlight, Ezra stood proudly, facing Ray Harkness, tilting his head back to meet the huge man eye to eye. Ray was interested in getting some special relief, that was clear and he shook off the challenging eyes with a scoffing laugh. His big hands came out and caught the green-eyed boy by his arms and jerked him forwards, to bring him close. Something happened and the boy was somehow slipping free and stepping back, stance wide and semi-crouched. That just made him look more appetizing as far as Ray was concerned. Unworried about any fight the smaller figure might put up, Harkness lunged forward again, grappling for a hold.
This was just what Ezra had been angling for. He'd learned wrestling in the streets of big cities, and more formally in one academy that Maude had actually paid to have him attend his 13th year. The concept of wrestling, Greek-style, had always intrigued him, naked bodies fighting for holds on slick, muscular skin. He grinned tightly and once more slipped out of Harkness' big hands, hooking a leg and tugging hard. The big man fell with a thud and the sound of Parnell laughing.
From the corner of his vision, Ezra saw that Shelby was standing now, but still held his coffee cup, clearly didn't see any real danger in the confrontation. Chris was standing too, and bent nearly double, trying to force his tied hands under his hips. No one except Ezra saw Chaucer and Solon coming up behind Shelby, both looking less than friendly. Just have to keep this going a bit longer, he thought as he panted and lurched back from a long armed grab at his ankle. If he landed on the ground, he would be in serious trouble, because then the bigger man's weight would be the telling factor. One foot, still frictionless with new skin, slipped from under him on mossy rock at the edge of the pool. Risking a quick look at his footing, he spotted his small toiletry items lying where he'd left them and, just like that, a new plan took shape.
Harkness was red with embarrassment that the kid had managed to keep away from him so far, he was like an eel. Well, by god, they were nearly at the water, he could just push the kid in and that would slow him down. He knew that Parnell and Shelby were watching, judging him, finding him weak and stupid in his actions. Fuckin' wouldn't be good enough for this kid, he's gonna suffer for this. Really suffer. Pushing himself up to his feet again, he lurched ahead, the kid just out of reach, crouching down as if that could save him.
Chris gave up for a moment on his attempt to free his hands. The one called Parnell was totally engaged in watching Ezra fight off the giant. Chris took a fast step forward and kicked out with all his might, the heel of his boot, still spurred, rowled across Parnell's jaw, punching his head back on his neck with a deadly sounding snap, sending the man to the ground in an unmoving heap. The move caused Chris to falter, though, and stumble back down on his knees. With a snort, Chris sank down and wriggled his butt over his wrists, forcing them under his thighs and behind his boots. The spurs caught for a moment on the rawhide, then he was done, hands in front of him though still tied, sitting on the ground wheezing in his efforts. Panic made him look, tossing his head to the side to get his hair out of his eyes. When he could see again, the blond nearly cried out in terror. Ezra was a small curled up shape at the feet of the looming Harkness, on the bank of the pool and Harkness was leaning down over him, arms out and hands extended like two huge claws.
Behind him, Larabee heard a shout and a clatter of hooves and a thump but he couldn't tear his eyes from Ezra. Dragging himself up on stiff knees, thrusting his shoulders forward and bringing up his fists in an agony of helplessness, tears streaming down his cheeks unnoticed, he screamed out his lover's name.
There was a blur of motion as the outlaw leaned more deeply over his victim, and then he just seemed to keep on leaning, finally toppling stiff-legged into the water, over the top of the small conman's body. The outlaw's body bobbed back to the surface, floating face down, half-submerged like some newly fallen log.
Chris staggered back up to his feet unbelieving. "Ez? Ezra!" He shouted hoarsely, all that was left of his voice now, his throat raw from his wrenching scream a moment before. He was blinking away tears and fighting for balance as he half-walked, half-stumbled the remaining distance to where Ezra was rising gracefully to his feet. It wasn't until the two were within touching distance that Chris saw how hard his friend was shaking. "Aw, Ez." Lifting his hands up, he brought the bound hands down around his man and held them close, kissing gently at the sweaty, teary-eyed face. Neither seemed to notice their mingling salt-flavored tears as they nipped and nibbled at each other's face, seeking reassurance that each still lived, was whole.
Then Chris started and swung them around, "Shelby!"
Ezra leaned back against Chris' chest with a trembly laugh, "Ah think our trusty steeds have taken care of Mistah Shelby."
They could see the outlaw flat on the ground beneath Chaucer's prancing feet, a hoof occasionally bumping against the unconscious form. A shout and a gunshot interrupted their moment of relief, riding hard, one of the men that Shelby had sent scouting was riding back already, riding fast and evidently could see something of what had happened.
"Christ, we gotta get outta here! NOW!" Chris yelled hoarsely, lifting his arms to free Ezra and then shoving him towards the horses.
"Chris, mah clothes, your gun!"
"No time, Ez, get up on Chaucer," and Chris was boosting the naked gambler on to the bareback of the chestnut, then clambering awkwardly onto his own Solon, still saddled. No time to try to reach the reins that dangled toward the ground, he kneed his long time mount and they were off, Solon running with head high and to the side to keep those damnable rein straps from catching under his hooves, Chaucer keening a horsey trumpet of sound that somehow seemed like a curse at those who might try to harm his man.
The man behind them pulled in his own mount to check on the gang members still at the campsite, loosing off three more shots that couldn't reach the distance to the fleeing men on horseback, disappearing over the rise of a hill into the grasslands below.
Both horses began to slow of their own accord when their men no longer pressed urgently at their sides, smooth stretching ground eating lopes chopping into trots and then walks. Chris had tried leaning forward several times to snatch the reins but with his hands still bound, each time he leaned forward he risked unseating himself. After those last three shots there'd been no further sign of pursuit and he figured who ever that was that showed up wasn't coming on by himself, so they had some time. A breather anyway.
He stifled a chuckle at the sight of Ezra on Chaucer. That had to hurt, but the little guy hadn't said a word. He was riding forward over the gelding's withers, mainly on his knees and shins, doing some kind of bounce with the movements of his mount, his hands fisted slightly higher up the withers, but not in the mane, just knuckling Chaucer's smooth shoulder muscles, tipped forward evidently for balance. It kept his delicate parts from pressing against the horse's hair and spine. Damn, bet it hurt before he rose up like that, we were traveling at quite a clip there for a while. Chris' grin grew a bit larger, he couldn't help it. Somehow, he would have pictured a nude Ezra bareback on a high-bred horse like Chaucer as a breathtakingly beautiful sight, two magnificent animals moving as one. But knowing what it probably felt like minimized the romantic aspects of the sight. Then there was the rear view. He had the most marvelous view just now of Ezra's twin balls, suspended in his sac, hanging down between taut thighs and swaying deliciously. Made Chris want to reach out and ---
"Don't touch." Ezra's irritable voice was a sharp reprimand and Chris lost his grin. Ezra's next words were addressed to his horse, his voice moderating. "Chaucer, enough, kindly stop here." And, simple as you please, the ornery chestnut came to a quiet, well-mannered halt, standing perfectly still, ears swiveling and eyes rolling at Solon who ambled on for another few steps before stopping since his friend had.
"Now that, Ez, is showin' off."
"No, Chris, that is a well-educated horse." Ezra sat back very, very carefully on to the broader part of his gelding. With a deep breath and clenched teeth, he brought one leg up and over the withers and then slid over Chaucer's curved side, catching himself against his friend.
With a sigh, he looked up at Larabee, still mounted on Solon. "Here," he gathered the elusive leather reins trailing on the ground and fed them up on either side of the patient black's neck, flipping the ends to cross over the pommel. Chris grabbed two-handed at the horn and swung himself free and down to stand beside Ezra. Touching foreheads with the shorter man, he murmured, "Thanks."
"Um," without looking up, Ezra busied himself with the rawhide strips binding Chris' wrists, and they fell away in tatters.
"Ezra? What did you---?" Chris stared in puzzlement at his now free hands, then over at Standish's. His eyes widened. The man was holding a straight-edge shaving razor, with what looked like a thick coat of drying blood on it.
Ezra looked down at his hands and then the razor. Shrugging, he squatted and wiped the blade back and forth in the stiff grasses, then closed the blade against the folding handle. Standing again, but still without looking back up, he said in a very matter of fact way, "I slit the bastard's throat."
Chris gently put one knuckle under the lowered chin and pushed up until those speaking eyes met his. "Good. Woulda done it myself, if there'd been time." He let his hand drop to one broad shoulder and stroked down it. "Think I broke the other bastard's neck."
Ezra squinted up and away from Chris and over toward the two horses, now snatching mouthfuls of grass companionably. "Think they may have done in Mr. Shelby."
"Naw, from what I saw, he was knocked out but not dead."
Chris studied his friend in silence and then opened his arms. "Come here."
Ezra's eyes flew back to Larabee, took in the offered comfort and smiled, stepping inside the circle and lifting his own arms to link fingers behind the blond's neck. His skin shivered lightly as Chris' arms closed around him, drawing him gently closer into a tender hug. They stood like that, just staring into each other's eyes for a bit. Ezra was the first to blink. "Things have changed, haven't they?"
"Yeah. That ok with you?"
"Yes, very much. And you?"
"Yes. Yes, Ezra, very ok."
Ezra looked down at himself and cringed. Not even on a con had he ever had to reduce himself to such a ghastly wardrobe. They'd only had Larabee's saddlebags to work with and his spare set of clothes was a bit too large - everywhere - for the gambler's size. Sleeves rolled up, jean pant legs rolled up, belt tightened an extra notch that Chris had to punch in with his boot knife, their only real weapon now, if you didn't count his razor.
His feet were encased in the real atrocities however. Chris had spare socks, but no footwear. Vin might have had some moccasins but not Chris. Where was that dusty tracker when you needed the man? Larabee had insisted that Ezra couldn't be left in stocking feet so he'd cut off the saddle bag flaps, and created some kind of primitive footwear, rather like an Indian sandal from what Ezra could figure, by cutting slits along the edges of the leather and lacing bits of rawhide through to tie the leather to Standish's feet. Being naked had not been nearly as offensive as appearing in this truly ugly footwear. On the other hand, Chris had labored just to make them for him, to protect his feet. Damn it, even that thought did NOT make them look any more attractive. Ezra sulked. And twitched, uncomfortably.
Perhaps the greatest offense was what he was forced to wear UNDER those black jeans. With a sigh, he knew he couldn't complain. And, it HAD been rather nice while Chris was administering aid to the injured parts of his anatomy. Ezra smirked over at Larabee who was strolling slowly at his side, leading Solon. Chaucer was trailing amiably after Ezra without a lead, occasionally butting him in the back in some misplaced display of equine affection. Chris caught the smirk and raised an eyebrow.
Ezra's smirk became a small tight grin, his dimples flashing. We're getting nearly as good at this as he is with Vin. A pleasant warmth flowed through him and he couldn't help himself, he tossed his head back and laughed out loud. Larabee tipped his head and smiled at his lover, wondering why he was laughing but happy because Ezra was clearly happy. Didn't really need to know any more than that, he thought comfortably.
The gambler came to a stop and stepped closer to the gunman, boldly stealing a kiss on tiptoe. Chris kissed back and reached to hold, only to have his arms batted away. A devilish grin was the only explanation he received but he accepted it with equanimity. He was beginning to get the hang of 'playing' with Ezra and it was fun. Of course, now really wasn't the time to get too engrossed in each other, they were nearly defenseless, Ezra couldn't really ride comfortably now - Chris grimaced at this - and far from help. So far, their luck had held, and he figured that if the rest of that gang did chose to follow them, that they were gonna be a day behind. He hoped.
They had spent some time in a hidden gulch, with a barely trickling watercourse running down the center of the wide flood track. The horses had taken some water and he'd filled both canteens that he'd been carrying in his gear. They really were lucky that he'd not had time to take anything off Solon and no one else had either.
Tending to Ezra's latest injuries had been a real experience. Chris grinned in recollection, trying to subdue his smile without much luck. At the time, of course, he'd been sympathetic and had actually had trouble even looking at the man's genitalia. The skin was dark with abrading from the horsehair and collisions with Chaucer's spine, the color turning purplish blue and deep maroon already. Although raw looking and very sensitive to the touch, there was no blood for which Chris was thankful.
He'd had Ezra lie down on his bedroll, face down with legs spread as he 'doctored' as best he could. The only thing he had was horse liniment and he'd been afraid to use that, so he'd settled for smearing some lard on the skin, then swaddling it in a spare neckerchief. He'd torn up part of his thinner blanket and fashioned a kind of rough breechclout to hold the finer cotton against the injuries. The southerner had been stoically silent throughout the 'treatment' only resorting to taking repeated deep breaths at various times. The jeans they pulled up over all that bagged out a bit with all the cloth underneath, giving Ezra a slightly misleading rotund look. Chris choked on another giggle helplessly.
Ezra, still standing facing Chris, raised both eyebrows at the faraway look in Larabee's hazel eyes and the giggle. His gunslinger NEVER giggled, for god's sake --- unless the godforsaken man was thinking about --- Ezra's eyes narrowed in suspicion and Chris suddenly found that his small moment of good humor was perhaps a bit out of place. Nipping Ezra's nose good-naturedly, and smiling in what he hoped was a beguiling fashion, Larabee stroked Ezra's cheek. Soft and smooth, probably shaved this morning just before I got there, 's why the razor was so handy. That brought back the reality of their situation and the blond sighed.
"I'd like to keep on doing this but we need to put more space between us and them," he looked back over his shoulder briefly. "How about we ride again for a spell?"
When Ezra's face immediately assumed a rather pained air, he caught the man's chin and shook it gently. "You ride with me, I'll keep you from sitting too deeply in the saddle." At the doubtful look, he added, "We can make a pillow out of my bedroll."
They covered several miles more before evening made them begin searching for a concealed camp, settling on another dry gulch, with some low hanging cottonwoods for shade.
Chris insisted that Ezra sit out most of the preparation of the camp, just feed small wood to their fire to coax it into a warm little blaze, hidden deep in the gully, out of sight from the grasslands above.
They still hadn't said much to each other yet, not about anything important, like the rest of their lives, but Chris knew they would have to and this was likely the best time. Sinking down next to the southerner on their single remaining blanket, he quietly encircled the broad shoulders with one long arm, bringing the man closer to his side. Leaning his head down to rest on Ezra's shoulder, he said, "We really should talk."
"We really should talk." Ezra listened to the words repeat in his head. He was still trying to cope with all the changes that had occurred in his life in the last few days. Was it only about four or five days ago that he'd been sitting, keeping watch over a sleeping Larabee, their rendezvous nearly over, thinking about how much the man had grown to mean to him? Then there had been the inconvenient bank robbery attempt by none other than one of the Shelby offspring, Ezra frowned at that. He'd tried to do his part and been caught by the outlaws, held hostage for a few brief, heart-stopping moments, and then rescued by Chris and Vin. Something more had happened while his abused feet were recovering, he was sure of it, but he didn't know what. He only knew that Nathan's harsh words had nearly broken his heart, thinking he'd lost his place among the seven, and his private place at Chris' side. He'd fled the clinic and the town, intent on separating himself from such a painful and confusing situation. Only his instincts, undoubtedly the baser ones, had led him to 'flee' to one of their private spots, even if he really had tried to hide his tracks using the lava fields. Speaking of which---
"The lava fields. How did you---?"
"Vin." Chris felt Ezra stiffen against his side. Now what? "Ezra, I couldn't have tracked you on my own, you have to know that. I didn't tell him anything he hadn't already figured out."
"Which was?" Ezra wasn't at all sure that this was how he wanted their talk to go, but as usual, things seldom went the way he wanted when he was in the blond's company.
Chris pulled at Ezra, turning him to face him and coaxing his legs up and over his own so he sat straddling Chris' lap. Faces only inches apart now, Chris spoke slowly and clearly, know how easily Ezra could misread his words, coloring them with unintended meaning.
"Vin caught me kissing you at Nate's place that night." The green eyes looking into his grew round. "Just said you were good for me." Chris placed a soft kiss on kissable lips and drew back to continue. "I agreed."
Chris leaned in and put another soft kiss on those moist lips that now had a tiny bit of pink tongue sticking out. "We really didn't discuss it any, though he asked me if I'd told you how I felt. Didn't really know myself until that night." This time he drew Ezra's body closer to him, so that their chests were pressed together. He rested his chin on Ezra's left shoulder and slid a hand up behind the southerner's head, fingers settling in the soft curls. "That night, Ez, I thought I was gonna lose you. Went a little crazy." He planted a small kiss under the nearby ear, then licked at the lobe and felt his partner shiver. "Said somethings, right after --- well, didn't mean them, just was upset. Scared. Then, at the clinic, when Vin started talkin' to me." He nuzzled the sweet line of throat and licked the swell of the Adam's apple that bobbed beneath his tongue. Despite the physical distractions and reassurances he was trying to provide, he could tell that Ezra was listening intently, with his whole being.
"He told me we needed to get ourselves sorted out, settled, and that it would all work out." Chris hugged gently. "But I was still panicking. Kept thinking that somehow, it was all my fault, for caring too much." He felt Ezra try to pull back. "No." He held on firmly and kissed the stubborn jaw. "That was me, not thinking." He let his nose scrape along the roughing new beard growth just under the jawbone.
Whispered the next. "Went out to my shack to think. Bein' a great thinker 'n all," he continued with self-depreciating humor in his voice, "took me a few days to figure it out. Figure out that it stopped bein' nice and started being necessary some time ago." He paused again and tucked his chin in to look back up and meet those wide soft green eyes. "To figure out I loved you."
Chris stretched his neck forward and kissed those lips again, this time pushing in with his tongue, finding them parting easily for him as he swept within and laved the cavern, feeling two heart beats between them, echoing in his inner ear, a heavy thudding sound that seemed to deafen him to all thought. He could only feel now, feel Ezra tight against him, Ezra's hands stroking his back, combing through his hair with rough driving strength, forcing them even closer together. It was almost two minutes before they parted, panting for breath.
"I rode back to town yesterday. Vin had come out, the second day, told me you'd be back on your feet soon, so I figured I'd take you back out with me, we could talk and get ourselves settled in our minds before we told the others."
Ezra, who'd been aching he was listening so hard, barely breathing for fear he'd miss a single word from his monosyllabic lover, jerked back, actually breaking Chris' hold on him for a moment before those strong arms wound themselves reassuringly tight back around him. "Tell the others?" He knew he must sound like an inane parrot, but he simply couldn't get past this latest obstacle.
Chris narrowed his eyes and studied the panic he could see in Ezra's. Oh, that went over well. "Vin already knows, Ez." He stopped, started again. "'Course, we need to agree to what we want to do. I'm getting a bit old to keep riding out and sleeping on the ground all the time." Shit, he could see that only confused the gambler. He tried again. "I mean, you got a perfectly good feather bed in town, and I can make a bigger bed out at the shack, for when we want to ---" Lithe, slender fingers came up to press against his lips, cover his mouth. He gripped the wrist and pulled it to one side, puzzled. "Ez?"
"But we can't --- I mean the town won't --- the others --- I love you but ---"
Chris had never heard Ezra stutter like this before. It was downright endearing. He captured that mouth in a word-suppressing kiss and waited. When he felt Ezra begin to relax against him again, he pulled back a bit and smiled into those worried green eyes. "Ezra, there, you just said it. You love me. I already told you. I finally figured it out for me, too. I love you. The rest of the world can damn well go hang."
Chris silenced this newest objection with yet another smothering kiss. "Ez, I don't mean we gotta tell the whole town, I'm not a flamin' idiot, despite any rumors you mighta heard." He grinned, then tempered it into a loving smile. "But the rest of our friends, they got a right to know and I think we can trust them."
"Nathan." There was dread in the tone.
"You let me handle Jackson." Chris didn't mean to snap, but he still held some anger for the way the healer had mishandled the gambler's sensitive soul, with blunt ignorant words. Sighing, he added, "It'll be alright, you'll see."
Ezra sat there, on Chris' lap, in Chris' arms and thought about all that the blond had said. He felt incredibly warm and grateful, with a burrowing sensation that needled with a stinging, bubbling feel along his nerves and that he greatly suspected just might be joy, a feeling he wasn't sure he'd ever experienced before, certainly not like what was happening right now inside of him. His soul seemed to be melting and reforming in the fire of Chris' love. Forged into a new, stronger, more confident shape. Glowing, he let his head sink down onto one of Chris' strong shoulders and murmured into an attentive ear. "Thank you."
Ezra lay on his back staring up at the dimming vibrancy of the sky, trying very hard to ignore Chris. This wasn't all that easy since the blond was gently removing his handiwork of earlier in the day. The temporarily discarded leather footwear and socks were neatly piled to one side, and the black jeans --- did the man own ANY other color? ---were folded beside them.
"Just lift up a bit now." Chris' voice was neutral, quiet.
Ezra shifted his hips higher in the air with a soundless sigh and studied the weeds trimming the rim of the gully. He could feel the light breeze, warm and teasing now.
"Alright, now, spread your knees a bit more."
Taking in and holding a breath, Ezra did as he was told. Amazingly enough, he could not think of one amusing or ironic thing to say about their current activity. He tried to decide if the weeds were the flowering kind or if those were just thistles among them.
Chris pulled the clout free without much trouble, and took a moment to let out a breath he'd been holding. It won't be that bad. With fingers unused to such delicacy, he carefully picked at the dried, wrinkled neckerchief that resided at the place between the southerner's thighs. "Easy, now." He plucked it out, the soft, limp flesh within sticking briefly then pulling free. Ooh, that had to hurt. The penis itself didn't look too bad, just shrunk up tight, like a mushroom cap. It was the balls depending that were a sight. Swollen, and dark.
"Just gonna put some more grease on them, Ez. Hold still, I'll try not to make it hurt."
Ezra grunted and pretended he didn't own the lower portion of his body as Chris tended to his most recent, and embarrassing injury. Wouldn't Buck just have a field day with this! He actually wished for Nathan's competent and impersonal touch, it might be better than Chris --- no, not true. Chris would always be best. He smiled and ignored the soreness he felt as the softened lard was gently applied, his testicles lifted and separated a bit so the grease could be smeared evenly. It wasn't really that painful, more a heavy soreness, tenderness.
Ezra nodded distractedly. That certainly did look like their infamous tracker's head hanging over the rim among the weeds and thistles. Upside down from where he stared upward. He blinked. The image didn't waver or disappear. The flaming colors that were starting to stain the sky lit the tracker's face and his small, amused smile. Mr. Tanner, Ezra thought vaguely, you have a lot to answer for. For one thing, where were you when I needed moccasins? Moccasins? "Moccasins?"
"What was that, Ez?" Chris looked up, surprised. So far the southerner had done almost no talking while he --- well, while he did it. Ezra was staring up over and back over at the top of the gulch, seemed to be looking at something. Sitting back on his heels, the gunslinger followed the line of sight of those raised green eyes.
Staring down at them was Vin Tanner, looking mighty pleased with himself. Then he spoke. "Always carry some."
What the hell did that mean? "Vin?" Chris squinted, hands resting on his own jean-clad thighs.
"Hey, cowboy. Be down in a minute." Then a second head joined Tanner's as Peso's long neck arched over the edge, white blazed horsey snout wrinkling. Tanner turned and muttered something that sounded like, "Back off, you mangy scrub hopper." And both heads disappeared.
Ezra lifted his head a bit to look down at Chris, kneeling between his raised knees. "Now would be an excellent time to finish your ministrations."
"Um, don't know about that, Ez, Vin might have some remedies for helping you."
Ezra was about to answer that he was just sore, for heaven's sake, he wasn't bleeding or anything, when the skitter of pebbles and the clop of Peso's hooves interrupted. Chris put his palms on Ezra's knees and rested them there as he watched Vin step down the rockslide path they'd used earlier, sure-footed and confident.
"Not interruptin' anything?" There was laughter in the tone and Ezra rolled his eyes at the smiling face of the tracker.
"No, Mr. Tanner, nothing of consequence. Mr. Larabee here is simply in the middle of 'having his way' with me." Standish spared a glare for his intimate companion. "Not too successfully at the moment, I might add."
"Rather you didn't, Ez." Chris leaned a bit harder on the knees and grinned. Turning his head to where Tanner was taking his saddle and gear off of Peso, back turned to them politely, he called. "Vin, wanta come take a look?"
Tanner turned, saddle gripped in his sun-darkened hands. "You're offering?" He looked a bit taken aback.
"Ez, be quiet." Chris grinned wider, "Naw, ain't sharing, but Ezra here is a bit on the damaged goods side at the moment, not sure if I'm doing the right thing for him."
Dropping his saddle, the Texan quirked an eyebrow and wandered over to squat down next to Larabee. He directed his gaze to where the blond was once again looking. Ezra had chosen to clamp his lips shut tightly and stare skyward once more.
"Um, buffler balls."
"Oh for god's sake, speak plain English, Mr. Tanner!" came an impatient and clearly disgusted voice from the far end of the blanket.
Enunciating slowly and clearly, Tanner repeated, "Buf-fa-lo Balls."
"And THIS scintillating bit of trivia is supposed to be of assistance?"
"Ezra, shut up." Chris shook his head and then looked back at Tanner at his side. "They do look a might bigger than normal," he admitted.
"Well," the Texan drawled, "You'd know that." He nodded at the greasy fingers that held Ezra's knees firmly apart. "Lard?"
"Yep, only thing I had that I thought might work. Got some horse liniment too?"
"Oh my god."
"Ezra, shut up." Chris waited for Tanner's thoughts.
"Naw, liniment likely burn him a new asshole. Figger all he really needs is the one." Tanner nodded again at the greasy fingers. "Lard is good. Bear grease would be better but ain't got none."
"Really? Not found any 'bahrs' lately, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra's attempt at the Texan's drawl was ignored by both men.
"Just keep doin' what yore doin' --- the swellin' will come down in a few days."
Chris grunted and asked, "Can you wet the cloth for me?"
"Oh, wonderful, now I have two angels of mercy."
"I know, I know. Shut up."
Chris grinned up at Tanner who had moistened the neckerchief and was handing it back to the blond. "He's a bit cranky."
"Yep, I imagine. Saw what you and he did back there."
"Anyone following us?"
"Not yet anyways. Looked like two living, two dead from what I could see, and the living weren't moving all that well, leastwise one of them."
Chris nodded, his hands busy repositioning the soft cloth over the tender, swollen skin, then pulling up the clout and fastening it with the strand of rope.
"Nice job, cowboy." Vin handed over the jeans he spotted folded beside the two men.
Chris took the pants and eased one leg up into the air, slipping a pant leg up to the knee. There was silence from the other end of the blanket. He repeated the process with the other leg. "Ok, Ez, lift up again." As hips rose, he drew up the overlarge pants and fastened them shut. "All done."
Tanner who has quietly observed the actions of his friend and leader, spoke now. "Still got those mocs if you want'em, Ez."
Standish pushed up with his elbows, then hands, to a sitting position facing the other two men and gazed down at the leather flaps that Chris had fashioned. "Yes, please, Mr. Tanner." As Vin rose and walked over to his saddlebags, Ezra looked Chris in the eye. "Thanks, Chris," he said softly.
Larabee leaned in for a kiss, figuring Vin had already seen this and that Ezra probably needed it. "You're welcome," he murmured against the soft lips that were smiling beneath his own.
When they parted, Vin was already smiling knowingly and squatting easily in front of them, a pair of worn looking animal skin moccasins in his hands.
Ezra gratefully took the offered footwear as Chris, without fuss, slipped the extra socks back over his feet. "Still need the socks, Ez, to protect that healing skin."
"Yes, of course." Before Ezra could do more, Chris had reached over and removed the moccasins from the gambler's hands and was fitting them to his feet, lacing them in place.
Tanner and Standish were nearly the same size, Tanner being only slightly taller. The moccasins fit well, only a bit larger than Ezra's small feet. Chris gathered up the leather flaps and rawhide strips that had been his only method of protecting Ezra's feet until now.
"Um, Mr. Larabee? What are you going to do with those?"
The blond flashed a look up at the southerner. "Thought it was 'Chris'? And, you don't need these now, I was just gonna toss'em."
"Chris. I'd --- I'd like to keep them, please." Ezra was bright red suddenly, a flush traveling rapidly up his neckline to color his whole face.
Larabee looked down at the rough-cut leather bits in his hands. He gripped them crushingly tight in his own rough hands and felt his heart grow bigger. He looked up fondly at his conman. "Ezra, I'll just put them with our gear." He stood and smiled down at the southerner who was now watching fixedly as Vin added some beans to a pot by the fire. His smile growing into a grin, he turned away and went over to the mutilated saddlebags by his saddle. If he'd had any doubts, that simple request quelled them. His smile took on shit-eating proportions as he tucked the handcrafted items into a spare space in one saddlebag. He loves me for sure.
Pincer had fished Harkness' body out of the pool with difficulty, swearing as he slipped in himself. Shelby, nursing his head by the fire, ignored the aggravated sounds and continued to dab a damp cloth at the deep colored bruise on his forehead. Those two men had been nothing but grief, he shoulda shot the damn horse, and still no sign of Tern or his men. He had a feeling that if Pincer hadn't turned back at the lava fields he'd found so soon after leaving the camp, that Shelby himself would be joining Parnell's and Harkness' bodies beyond the tree line of the small spring-fed oasis.
Terry Pincer dusted off his hands and stood, arching his back, above the bodies of two men he'd been riding with the last few months. Musta been some ruckus to end up with both of'em dead. He shook his head at the slit throat and broken neck. Rather have a bullet myself.
Shelby and Pincer settled in for the night, neither saying much after Tice had finished describing what had happened earlier. Tomorrow should see the return of Garvey and Kelly, they'd have news. And the group would be large enough to head out. As for the cowboy and the other, well, no point in going after them. Likely as not, that cowboy would not want it nosed around what he'd been doing out here, so there wasn't much danger that they'd bring trouble back with them. 'Course, if he and his men ran into those two again, they'd need to have a little discussion. Shoot the damn horse, too.
"Way I see it, you two been headin' out too far northeast to reach much for a spell, we got to circle south if we're gonna get back to town."
"And the miscreants back at the spring?" Ezra stretched comfortably, not really caring too much now that Vin was here with his rifle and sawed-off sidearm.
Chris took a mouthful of coffee and swallowed it. "Probably just as glad as not to be rid of us. We can telegraph the towns around here once we get home. We'll do doubles on patrols for a while, make sure everyone knows what those fellows look like."
Vin looked up over his own cup of coffee. "That feller Baxter is still in the jail, don't expect the judge 'til the end of the week."
Chris nodded. Hank Baxter was the red-headed would-be bank robber who had survived the attempt at the Four Corner's bank the other night. Even as a new thought occurred, he heard Ezra voice it.
"He's part of the 'other' Shelby's gang." The southerner sat forward now more alertly. "If they had intended to meet up ---" he left the sentence unfinished, clearly the other two men could see the possibilities.
Larabee flexed his gun hand in frustration. He missed the security of his gun at his side. He looked regretfully down at his empty holster. Well, he'd get a replacement tomorrow, until he could get his own back. Likely would, too, the way this was shaping up. "Doesn't really change anything for now. Still gotta be ready."
The fire snapped and threw off a spark into the night. The three horses stood in a row shifting softly, none tied down, just close to their men and the safety that a campfire represented.
Vin tossed his cup down beside the ring of stones of the campfire. "Gonna turn in. Don't think we need a watch here, ain't nobody gonna find us in this gulch tonight."
Chris nodded and stretched out his legs. They'd put together Peso's and Solon's saddle blankets to make rough bedding for him and Ezra, so they could use their remaining blanket for cover. He reached out a hand and hooked the southerner under one arm. "Come on, Ez, let's bed down."
Standish stiffened for a moment, casting a wary glance over at the tracker who was already rolling himself into his bedding with his back to the fire --- and them. Oh, well. Might as well get used to the idea that Vin knows, and doesn't seem to mind. Looking up into his blond's hazel eyes, glowing with fatigue and firelight, he acquiesced, sliding over close and stretching out at the other's side.
Chris was pleased at how Ezra was taking the fact that Vin knew about them. He'd been afraid that the ever so polite conman would back off in front of the tracker, but he wasn't. Larabee turned on his side so that he faced the gambler, then pulled the smaller man close, coaxing him into a curl on his side. Spooning thus together, the two relaxed. Larabee tugged their blanket up and settled one arm over the southerner, snuggling them even closer, and closed his eyes, feeling contented as he hadn't in a very long time.
The ride back to Four Corners was slow, since two rode in one saddle and Vin kept drifting off to scout and check back trail, very aware that while not defenseless, they were not at their best. He'd left his short gun with Larabee and kept the long-range rifle in his scabbard.
They'd stopped twice during the day, switching the saddle and bridle to Chaucer, and later back to Solon, so as not to tire out one horse too much. Chaucer had behaved rather well, considering it wasn't his own gear and he had to put up with the man in black along with his own man. Solon had simply done what was asked.
Vin had rejoined them and was riding along side Chris and Ezra when they rode into town late in the afternoon. Chaucer was once more running free and following, at least until they reached the outskirts of the town at which point he broke free with a simple neigh and half-bucked, half-trotted toward the livery, almost as if he was showing off to Peso and Solon who ignored him nobly.
"Chris, if we could go up the back stairs to the saloon, I could slip in unnoticed and change into my own things."
Larabee looked thoughtfully down at the man in front of him. There had been a hopeful tone to the suggestion. He hated to do it, but he knew that if he let Ezra get into his own things again, he'd never get him anywhere near Nathan. And Chris wanted the healer to check his lover out, make sure that Vin was right and that no lasting damage had been done.
"Sorry, Ez, we're heading for the clinic." He could feel the stiffening of the small body in his arms and smiled a bit. "Vin? Go get Nathan, Ez and me are going up to the clinic. We'll wait for him there."
Tanner ducked his head once in acknowledgement and pulled Peso over toward the saloon to see if he was there.
"Ezra, no arguments." He tilted the dark-haired head up so he could look into those moss-green eyes. "Please."
Ezra pouted but could deny Chris Larabee nothing when he asked like that. "But then, I need my own clothes. And a bath. And something to drink." The green eyes darkened. "By god, those ruffians still have my flask!"
Chris took advantage of their situation to hug Ezra, "We'll be getting it back." Then he was stepping down out of the saddle and helping Ezra dismount from his perch on the bedroll-padded front of the saddle. "Come on, I don't think this'll take too long."
Standish straightened his odd bits of clothing with as much dignity as he could muster and stalked past Larabee toward the foot of the clinic stairs. He had to walk with a slight waddle that didn't help much on the dignity, and made Chris decide to hover rather closer than he'd planned. He knew how important appearances were to the southerner. Maybe, once Nathan was done, he'd go over and bring back some of Ezra's clothes so the man could change before facing the town.
Kelly had arrived back first, riding in on a lathered mare and looking around in surprise. Garvey got back a short time after, but didn't have any news anywhere near as interesting as Kelly's. Kelly had found the small town of Four Corners, just east and south of them. He'd come across a well-used track and followed it into a road that ran into the town. Listening in the saloon that night, he'd heard enough to egg on one of the townies into boasting about the 'seven' and the bank robbery attempt. He'd perked up some at the mention of the name Shelby, one of the dead ones, the name of the gang's leader from what the townie had heard.
"He's dead." Tice frowned and drank from the flask he'd found among the folded clothing of the boy that had been with that cowboy. Likely the 'boy' weren't no boy at all, he figured. Well, might be a man, but he'd be a dead man when Tice found him again. "You say one of the men in Tern's gang is still alive?"
"Yep, name o'Hank Baxter." Kelly spooned up some beans and chewed thoughtfully. Now that he'd delivered the bad news, he continued. "From what I can tell, that town is protected by seven gunmen, but only four were around last night. They didn't look too tough. A preacher, a healer, some big-mouthed cowboy, and a kid-sheriff. We could take'em."
Pincer and Garvey glanced up from their own plates of grub and waited to see what Tice Shelby would say. "Only four there now?" He set down his coffee cup and fingered the silver flask. "They killed Tern. Now they're gonna pay. And we'll get Baxter out, he can help and we'll take the bank's money and then we'll go huntin' for the two that was waitin' here for us." He spat into the fire as if sealing a bargain.
Nathan wiped his hands on a rag and stood with his back to the room. He knew he should say something to Ezra about what had happened the last time they'd been in here together, but the words stuck in his throat. He'd only said what was true as he knew it. Even JD and Buck agreed when they'd heard him later in the saloon. But the way Chris had acted then, and now, well, it seemed he'd spoken out of turn. Still. He rubbed harder on his hands as if the remnants of the poultice paste he'd made were still stuck there. He could hear Ezra rustling around behind him, waiting for Chris to return with the gambler's own clothing.
Blinking and setting his mouth in a firm line, Nathan turned around. And raised both eyebrows in almost comical surprise. "What the hell you doin', Ezra?"
The gambler looked up innocently from where he sat, no, lay under the covers of the clinic's bed. A heap of discarded clothing littered the floor beside him. One white shoulder showed above the edge of the dark blanket that had been pulled up to the gambler's chin.
"Just waiting for my wardrobe to arrive, Mr. Jackson." The false bonhomie in the words grated at Nathan.
"So you just shucked outta them things and left'em lie there on the floor?" The healer shook his head.
"As soon as I am properly attired once more, sir, I shall tidy up here and remove those offending garments," Ezra tried to assure the dark healer, wondering now if he'd presumed too much.
"Whatever." Nathan sat hesitantly on the chair across from the bed and faced Ezra, feeling nine-tenths fool. He opened his mouth to finally speak his apology, clear the air when the door to the clinic burst open and two burly looking men shoved their way in, guns drawn. In utter shock, Jackson stared at the pair, unwilling to believe these unexpected visitors were witless enough to challenge the seven on their home ground.
"You best be putting them guns down now," he said, rising and putting himself between the men and his patient.
The taller of the two just pointed at Jackson and said, "He's the one they call the healer."
The second man, shorter and stockier, but still big, pushed forward and to the side. When Nathan swung to watch him, he saw a flash from the corner of his eye, at the same time he heard Ezra cry out a warning, "Nathan, watch out!" and then there was a sharp pain in his head and he felt nothing more.
Chris strode through the saloon's mid-afternoon shade, nodding to Vin so he'd know that Nate had been found in the clinic, then heading for the bar. "Inez, I need the key to Standish's room."
The dark-haired senorita did not comment, simply reached under the bar and brought up the key, depositing it in the outstretched hand. At Larabee's nod of thanks, she shrugged, "Da nada, senor."
Buck strolled into the saloon behind JD, the two were coming off their double shift at the jail, keeping each other company, now leaving it for Josiah as they came over for, as Buck said, some much needed refreshment. Spotting Vin, they grabbed beers from Inez at the bar, JD continuing directly to Vin's table as Buck paused to flirt with the brunette briefly. He didn't stay long, just keepin' his hand in, so to speak, then hurried over to join the others, anxious to hear what Tanner could tell about Chris and Ezra.
While Vin filled in the listening men, Chris started back down the stairs, his arms full. He had everything he thought Ezra would need. He flushed lightly, damn man wears more clothes than most women. But, he'd tried to make sure he had everything just the same. From boots to vest, from underclothing to dark cinnamon jacket and pinstriped trousers. He was actually looking forward to seeing Ezra in all his finery once more. He noticed Buck and JD sitting with Vin. Likely knew what had gone down now, leastways the general stuff. Enough to be careful and alert.
The back door of the saloon opened with a loud bang as it smashed back against a wall and Larabee, one foot still in the air on the first landing, stared in shock as two men stomped in, both waving around guns. One leapt behind the bar counter and seized Inez as she groped for the bar's shotgun, dragging her clear and keeping a gun to her neck. The other stepped in, bold as brass and let his gun move, snake-like, from face to face of the other patrons. "Out, all of you but you three." He gestured toward Vin's table.
Chris froze. No one had looked up yet. His hands were full, but dropping Ezra's things would only attract attention before he could get to the gun that Nathan had loaned him. He licked his lips and met Inez' eyes as she wiggled furiously in the grip of the first gunman. Something in her eyes flashed and she bit down on the offending arm across her neck. As the outlaw howled, Chris hastily retraced his steps as soundlessly as possible to the upper floor and far enough down the hall to be out of sight. Quietly he lowered the garments in his arms to the floor, then stood up and with back to the hallway wall, shuffled close to the end of the wall and beginning of the balcony. Listening.
"Well, I'll be double damned! It's that little catamite." Pincer grinned up at Kelly and reached down, gripping the blanket and tearing it out of Ezra's hands.
Ezra sat up and looked back grimly at the two leering men who stood over him. He seemed to find himself at a serious disadvantage, clothing-wise, whenever he met up with miscreants these days. Nathan lay unmoving on the floor and he only hoped the healer would be alright.
"You stay right where you are, pretty boy," the one man sneered, nodding to his companion who'd evidently come prepared because he pulled some short pieces of rope from one pocket of his long all-weather jacket and started tying the unconscious healer's hands behind him. As Ezra watched helplessly, Jackson's feet were likewise bound, and he was dragged out the back of the room, toward his own bedroom. In a moment, the second brigand had returned and joined the first, so that both once more towered over Ezra who glared back defiantly.
"So, what are we supposed to do with him?"
"We got the healer taken care of, the others are headed to the saloon. We still gotta get Baxter outta the jail."
"Yeah, so ---?"
"Tie him up. We'll take him with us." Decision made, the first continued to hold his pistol toward Standish.
"Now wait just a minute!" Ezra started to climb up to his knees on the bed, angry and worried. The other man grabbed his arm and yanked it behind him roughly, grabbing for the second arm and starting to tie them together. "At least let me get dressed!"
"Looks to me like you're as dressed as I ever seen you, boy." The smirk on the face of the man facing Ezra was lascivious enough to make the conman shudder. This was likely to get rather unpleasant, rather soon, he decided.
"If you'll simply hear me out ---"
Before he could finish, even though he wasn't altogether sure what it was he was going to say, the man grabbed up some of the balls of bandage from Nathan's cabinet and tossed them to the other. "Gag him."
And then Ezra's mouth was full of cloth and he could say no more.
Buck, Vin and JD were forced to put their guns on the table in front of them as one of the two men who had the drop on them held Inez at gun point. None of the three had looked up as Chris Larabee faded back up the stairs, though all were aware of him.
"Tice? There's more here than we was told." Garvey sounded a bit nervous as he held his gun on the trio at the table.
Tice Shelby, tiring of the feisty senorita's antics, let her drop to the floor and kicked her hard. "Damn woman." He watched her rub her leg and crawl away from him to huddle against the front of the bar. Looking up at the others, he studied their captives. "Figure that one there," he gestured to Tanner, "is one of the ones that wasn't in town when Kelly came through, the other two fit his descriptions."
JD tightened his lips, angry to realize that a spy had been in their midst the night before and targeted the protectors. These must be part of the men that Vin had talked about. He leaned forward to speak but Buck's shoulder hit his and as he glanced over at the tall mustached lawman, Wilmington shook his head minutely. JD sighed angrily but heeded the silent advice and didn't speak.
Tanner was relaxed, sitting back and watching the two men, noticing the dark bruise on the bigger man's forehead. That's him, the one that the horses got from what Ez and Chris said. He had to fight a smirk that wanted to cover his face. Knowing Chris was still armed and near, he waited, eyes flicking between the two gunmen in front of them.
Pincer had their blanket wrapped prisoner slung over one shoulder like a rolled rug as he clumped down the stairs following Kelly from the clinic. At the foot of the stairs, Jack Kelly waited for Pincer to catch his breath. "Ok, keep him still now, and we'll head for the jail."
The body chose that moment to wriggle fiercely and a loud, growling sound came from over Terry Pincer's shoulder. "Jest how am I supposed to do that?" Pincer sounded irritated as he shook his burden vigorously but to no avail.
"Watch." Kelly stepped back and raised his gun, bringing it down hard, butt first on the half-raised lump of blanket hanging down Pincer's back. There was a grunt and the blanket went limp. "Now, come on."
The two men and their burden crept down the back ally by the clinic stairs and Kelly led the way to the back of the jail. Outside the adobe building, he signaled for Pincer to drop their prisoner. Gratefully, the other man did just that, dumping the blanket wrapped burden to the ground against the back of the jail. Two pieces of rope held the blanket wrapped tight around their unconscious prisoner, a discarded old hitching rail prevented the body from rolling back into the alley.
Chris decided a little diversion would help. Reaching down, he picked up one of Ezra's boots and hefted it in his free hand. Going down into a crouch, he turned away from the upstairs wall and eyed the scene below from between balcony struts. Inez was no longer being held so that made it much easier. Vin, Buck, and JD sat at their table still, their guns in front of them on the far side of the table but not impossibly far from their reach. This was almost too easy. He threw the boot.
Shelby and Garvey spun to face the new challenge from the direction of the front of the saloon, unable to see what had made the loud clatter. As if realizing their mistake, both twisted back and started firing. JD ducked beneath the table and leaned out on one side to fire back blindly. Buck rolled away from the table and sprung across the distance to the bar, putting himself over the barmaid to cover her from the gunfire, shooting off a few quick shots as he went. Vin had simply stood and begun firing, barely noticing as one bullet whizzed by his ear and another nipped at the wide collar of his buffalo hide jacket.
Larabee charged down the stairs, shooting to distract their attackers, give his men a chance to find cover. The exchange of shots lasted several more seconds before one of the men fell back and lay still on the sawdust-covered floor. The second man, who Chris recognized as the Shelby from the spring, edged closer to the doors. "Give it up." Chris' voice was flat. "You're all alone now."
"Naw, just looks that way," came the response as the other man took a running leap and dove out the front doors. All four of the protectors cursed and ran forward to follow. JD was first at the door and smacked the top edge of one of the batwings in frustration. The street was empty.
Buck shrugged and went back inside to help Inez to her feet, supporting her in a far more gentlemanly fashion than she had expected. She eyed him speculatively as he helped her stand, his eyes still on his friends who were looking down at the dead man at their feet.
Vin handed JD back his second Colt. He cocked an eyebrow at Larabee, they both had recognized Shelby. Chris nodded agreement. There were still at least two more men that he knew about, so that made likely three on the loose. Then there was the one in jail. "Shit! Josiah!"
Buck came up to the others, looking worried and joined them as Chris said, "He musta heard the shooting. He should be here by now." Then, as if that sparked another thought, "And Nathan, too." The men looked at each other.
"Vin, you and Buck come with me, we'll head for the jail. JD, check on Nathan." The blond fought his instincts to go to the clinic, make sure that Ezra was safe.
"Chris ---" The young sheriff could see another adventure going on without him.
"JD." The tone alone should have been warning enough, Chris was angry and worried and didn't have time to play nursemaid to their youngest.
Knowing Larabee, Wilmington intervened before things got mean, he put a restraining hand on his 'little brother's' shoulder. "JD, Nate and Ez are both up there, we need you to make sure they are alright."
Flushing, Dunne nodded silently and shrugged off the comforting hand. With a quick dodge out the door, he was off and running for the clinic. The others went out the swinging doors right behind him, running low and heading for the jail.
Josiah sat up abruptly. That was gunfire. Muffled, so inside somewhere. He pulled his long gun from his holster and stood, casting a quick look at their subdued prisoner. The redhead sat staring back at him in wide-eyed silence. No trouble here. Sanchez shoved his desk chair back and came around the desk, heading for the door, hearing more shots as he picked up speed.
Kelly and Pincer had left their bundled prisoner behind the jail and were now on either side of the door to the jail, reaching positions just as a huge man came out, holding a gun and looking across the street to where they, too, could hear shooting. Pincer yelled and as Josiah swung to face him, Kelly crashed his gun barrel on the big man's head. Staggering to his knees, Josiah tried to fire, but someone had grabbed his gun hand and was wrestling his weapon away.
"Get inside!" Running toward them was Shelby looking angry. He turned and let off a shot toward the saloon. Shoving the unconscious form of Sanchez to one side the two men bolted for the dark interior of the jail. Shelby, though, paused at the door and looked down at Sanchez with calculation. He dragged the man's body on its side across the doorway and crouched down behind his human barricade, resting his gun barrel on one tall shoulder.
Pincer slid to a stop inside the jail, spotted the key ring hanging from a post and snatched it. "You Hank Baxter?" he asked the man rising to his feet within the nearest cell.
"We're with Tice Shelby, Tern's cousin. Heard about what happened." Pincer was twisting the key in the cell door lock as he spoke, then pulled the door open with a jerk. "You coming?"
Baxter took a deep breath and nodded. If he stayed put, sooner or later his name would be linked to some of the killings Tern's gang had left behind in a path of destruction across the Territories. He had nothing to lose. Coming out of the cell, he ran for the desk and hunted for his gun and holster, finding them in a large lower draw. "What should I call you?" he asked as he buckled his gun belt.
"I'm Pincer, that's Kelly by the window," Terry Pincer nodded and then faced the front of the jail, "and that's Tern's cousin, Tice at the door."
Shelby was backing up on his heels, edging deeper into the building. "There another way out of here?"
Kelly looked back from his post at the window, "I'll check." He ducked in the back and returned quickly, "Yeah, there's a back door. I looked out, it looks clear right now."
"Let's go then," Tice stood and strode over to the locked gun case, smashing the lock with his gun. He pulled a rifle free and returned to the front door, leaning the barrel forward and through the space between Sanchez' torso and upper arm. He made sure it looked like it was aiming across the street. He fired once more toward the saloon, feeling the body jerk beside him at the percussion. Ducking back he ran out, following his men and the new man out the back way.
As Tice appeared at the back door he found the other three hesitating, "What's going on? We gotta get outta here, head for the horses."
Kelly spoke quickly, "Wait. We got us another prisoner." He pointed to the lifeless looking shape trussed in a blanket against the back wall.
"Who the hell is that?" Shelby didn't have time for games.
"That little catamite, found him up in the healer's place. Thought you wanted a word with him." Pincer grinned.
Tice Shelby flashed a look of pure anger at his two bumbling idiots. Of course they didn't know yet that four gunmen would be here any moment and his little tactic at the door was unlikely to keep them back for long. "Fuck." He lifted his gun and shot twice, the sound of the bullets hitting the blanketed form like dull thumps. "Let's go!" The others raced after him without looking back to see red stains begin to grow, darkening the already dark blanket.
With a precision built from experience and trust, the three men split apart the moment they breached the doors of the saloon, ducking low and heading in a fanned out formation for the jail. Chris, by right and choice, drove straight ahead. One of his men was probably in trouble. Buck was off to his right, Vin to his left. Both shadowed his moves without thought. Chris ducked as a wild rifle shot came from the front of the jail and dove to the rutted surface of the street. Buck and Vin, off to the sides sought out cover in building fronts to either side of the adobe building. All three held their fire as they saw Josiah's body lying across the front of the jail door. The barrel of a rifle protruded from under his arm, aimed generally toward the saloon.
Chris studied the rifle. There was no movement. He slowly brought his feet up under him and pushed up to stand, tense, ready to dive again. Two more shots rang out, but they were from behind the jail and if they'd been aimed this way, he couldn't see where they'd hit. To hell with it, he started forward, stalking at first, and when no more shots were fired, his pace picking up rapidly to a dead run until he stood over Sanchez. The rifle was unmanned, just stuck there like a decoy. Cursing, he stepped over the preacher's body, not daring to look down again until he was sure the jail was clear. Peering into the gloom, he saw the jail cell door open and the broken gun rack lock hanging down from the front of the case. With a hop over Josiah, he strode inside the small jail and towards the back, gun up, senses alert. Behind him he could hear Vin and Buck arriving, Buck telling Vin to take care of the preacher, he'd back Chris.
Larabee passed through the empty building. Standing at the rear door, he looked up and down the sides of the building, out toward the empty, dusty landscape that defied vegetation of any cultivated sort. Nothing. No one. Turning, he hurried back in to meet up with Buck at the cells. "Gone." He led the way back to where Vin was easing a waking Josiah to a sitting position.
"How is he?"
"Got a hard head," Tanner answered, touching gently at the bleeding crease on Sanchez skull, over one temple and ear.
Chris squatted down in front of the preacher, could see that the man was having trouble focusing. "Josiah? What happened?"
Sanchez blinked hard, shook his head and clutched at Vin's arm, currently holding up his shirtfront. He swallowed and spoke slowly. "Were two of them. I heard some shots from across the street, maybe the saloon?" He looked up for confirmation and got a nod. "I came out to see if help was needed. Heard something to one side, when I looked," he touched his head gingerly, accepting a handkerchief from Vin with a nod and putting it up to the bloody surface of his skull, "When I looked," he continued, "got hit from the other side, only reason I know there were two. Didn't see'em." He leaned back against the doorjamb. "Sorry."
"Not your fault." Chris stood. Looked over toward the clinic. JD should have been back by now if everything was alright over there. Hadn't heard any shots, but ---
"We can stay here with the preacher until he can make it to his feet," Vin said quietly from his place kneeling beside the big man. "If you want to go look."
Buck looked back and forth between Vin and Chris, puzzled for a moment, then suddenly it hit him that JD hadn't returned yet. "Damn, where is that kid?" He yelled and took a leaping start over the top of Sanchez, by pushing off of Chris' shoulder. Larabee staggered back and then pursed his lips and took a deep, lung-filling breath. All he wanted was to be sure Ezra was alright. It didn't seem fair that he couldn't show the same concern for his lover that Buck showed for their youngest friend. He checked down with Vin who just nodded and said, "Go."
With that, Larabee was off racing after Wilmington. They both slowed as they neared the clinic to see JD shuffling out the door on to the wide porch balcony, with the much taller Nathan Jackson sagging against him. The two men stopped and looked down when JD spotted their friends' approach. "Chris, Nate's ok, just got slugged on the head and tied up in the back."
Ezra? What about Ezra? Chris forced himself not to scream out his fear. Taking a moment to study the two men swaying up there. "Nate? Is Ezra ok?"
Jackson grabbed the balcony railing for support to steady wobbly legs and stared down at Larabee and Wilmington. JD still clung to his arm. "Gone." He cleared his throat and called more loudly, ignoring the pain this brought to his head. "He's gone. He followed or they took him after they hit me. I didn't see."
"JD?" Buck spoke up now, worried for the missing gambler. His friend.
"Sorry, no sign of him, though his clothes seem to be on the floor inside and the bed's messed up some." He didn't realize how intently the other two were hanging on his words as he added, "Didn't see no blood or nothing."
Chris blinked stars away from his eyes, this can't be happening, not again. A wave of sheer panic enveloped him and he felt as helpless as when he'd found the reeking, smoking shell of his ranch house with his wife and child dead and burnt within. Buck grabbed at him as he staggered sideways, losing his balance. "Easy there, Pard, you hit?"
The words and the familiar voice anchored him. Panting, he bent his head to think. "Pard?" Buck's voice again. Oh, right, he hadn't answered him. "Buck, go help JD take Nathan back inside. I'm going to go back and help Vin get Josiah up there too. Then we'll see if Vin can pick up a trail."
Buck watched his long time friend cautiously. Something goin' on here. Not certain what it was, but ain't seen him act this way in a real long time. "Sure, Pard." He waited to make sure that Larabee was steady on his feet before turning back to the clinic and starting up the stairs.
Ezra woke to darkness and pain. He couldn't even cry out, his mouth still stuffed with the gag. He was hurting, not just his head. He tried to move his hands, his arms, but found them tightly bound and the movement nearly did him in. A new agony burst within his chest and another seemed centered on his thigh. Oh, god. What had happened? He tried to breath deeply through his nose, but heard a strange sucking noise below his chin. Felt warm liquid trickle down the side of his ribs. He was lying mostly on his side, his arms pulled painfully tight behind and under him.
He tried moving his legs. Aside from the brief flare of incredible new pain in one leg, he couldn't really move them. His ankles were bound, and his legs as well. His face was covered with what felt like a blanket, in fact as he lay still, trying to extend his senses, it seemed like his whole body was wrapped in a blanket. At that thought, it all came back to him in a horrifying flash. The invaders at the clinic, Nathan hit, bound and dragged off. Then he was caught, tied up, gagged and rolled up in the bed's blanket. The blanket itself roped around him. He remembered being hoisted into the air, struggling against the hold and trying to make noise, attract help. Then, nothing.
Blinking back tears of fresh pain as he clenched in memory of the events just passed, he tried to relax. He wasn't moving, he seemed to be on the ground, judging by the hardness and unevenness of the surface below him. Outside. It was cold beneath him. Must be a shady spot. He couldn't hear anything clearly. Muffled sounds, like a town's life going on, came from a great distance. Gradually, the cold became more intense, numbing him to the bone. The only warm spot seemed to be the trickle on his ribs. He tried to shake the blanket from his face but it was pulled high over him and seemed to be stifling him now. The cotton gauze in his mouth made it feel dry, so dry. He let his head fall back with a tiny sigh. As dark as it was, it seemed to be getting darker, or grayer, or something. He decided he'd just rest. Just for a moment.
"No, no, I can walk." Sanchez shrugged off Tanner's assistance and started walking toward the clinic. Without looking back, he spoke. "You just start finding their tracks, Vin."
Tanner waited another moment, watching as the big preacher walked stolidly down the street, a trifle slow, but not unsteady. Yep, got a real hard head on that one. He looked back up the ally beside the jail consideringly, they got out the back way, best start looking there.
With his easy loping stride, the Texan was at the back end of the jail in moments, scanning the ground in front of him. He hadn't even made it all the way to the end of the sidewall of the jail when he spotted the hurried scuff marks of several booted feet heading away, in the direction of the livery. Moving fast, he trotted beside the tracks finding, as he expected a change from human boot prints to horse tracks came behind the livery stables, where several horses had evidently been tied up. Gone now, the tracks led directly away from town, toward the hills to the north. Naw, they couldn't really be stupid enough to be heading back to the old willow springs, could they? He shook his head and headed around to the front of the livery to locate the rest of the seven.
Chris met Josiah part way back to the jail, seeing that the man was navigating alright, though his face looked pale and he still held Vin's spare bandana to his head. "Josiah? You gonna be ok?"
"Yep. Too old and mean to be put down for long." The preacher gave a vulpine grin of great white teeth scraggling to yellow.
Larabee checked the street. "Vin?"
"Started trackin'," Sanchez patted at his head wound and inspected the cloth, not too much blood. "'Spect he'll show up soon, can't imagine they got far on foot, musta been horses somewhere around."
The gunslinger fingered his gunbelt and gestured toward the Nathan's clinic with his chin. "They knocked out Nathan too. JD and Buck are seeing to him now."
"Ezra?" Josiah squinted down at Larabee in concern.
"No sign of him." Chris kept his voice even. "Nate thinks he either followed them or was taken."
"Taken, then." Sanchez stared at his feet and then looked back up at Chris. "If he'd been following, he'd have helped. We'd a known he was there."
Before the blond could answer, Vin appeared in front of the two men. "Looks like they had horses behind the livery. Gone now, headed north, northwest."
Hazel eyes opened wide and sandy eyebrows quirked up. "You think?"
"Well, they ain't been very bright so far. No reason to think they changed much." Tanner scratched at his chin thoughtfully. "If they did head for the spring, we kin get up and around them. Know some trails."
Chris flicked a look at Sanchez, knowing how the man cared about Ezra. "Josiah here thinks they took Ezra with them. Nate didn't see, but he's gone from the clinic."
Tanner nodded. "Likely recognized him."
Suddenly a cold pit centered in Larabee's stomach. Damn, he hadn't thought of that. They needed to get to Ez fast. He turned to face Sanchez, aware that what he was about to ask would be hard on the older man. "Josiah, I want you to stay here with Nathan. Make sure he's alright. Get some rest yourself and then be at the jail. Vin, get the horses ready. JD, Buck, you and me are heading out."
Tanner didn't bother answering, just took off. Sanchez hesitated a moment. "Brother Chris, I'd really like to go along."
"I know Josiah. But Nate didn't come off this as well as you from what I saw, he'll need tending. And, we can't just pullout and leave the town." He met the washed out blue eyes with his own. "If Ezra is out there, we're gonna get him back. I give you my word."
Sanchez put a hand on Larabee's shoulder. Chris could feel the weight of care in the heavy pressure. "Go with God, Brother."
Larabee nodded and led the way up to the clinic. They found Nathan sitting, leaning tiredly against his desk with a damp cloth to his own head wound. JD and Buck were picking up the room, piling Ezra's discarded clothing in a corner and straightening the bed. A pot on the stove was beginning to steam. "Buck, JD, come on. We're going out with Vin. Find Ez. Take care of these hombres." He turned to look at Jackson. "Josiah is staying, Nathan. He'll give you a hand, then watch over the town."
The healer nodded slowly. Chris was already leaving, JD and Buck crowding the door behind him, nodding to the others as they followed Larabee out.
Dusk came creeping into town slowly, spring days lasting longer than winter ones. Folks started closing up businesses and children, running free, were doing those last things children do before they know they'll be called home for chores and supper. Josiah sat hunched in a chair in front of the jail, watching the street, repeating prayers in his head.
Nathan Jackson lay back where he'd settled on the bed in his own clinic. He and Josiah decided that between the two of them, neither had a concussion, just sore heads. Right now his own was pounding mighty loud, felt like a smithy had taken over and was beating out new horse shoes in there. He'd insisted that Josiah have some of the willow bark tea before he left, they'd sipped some together, neither speaking. Now he just lay there, trying to get past the pain.
Ezra woke again. Nothing had changed except he felt colder. Numbed to any pain. Or so he thought until he tried to move. Oh, god. Won't be doing any moving soon. Where was everyone? Why was he alone? Suddenly terrified, he sucked in a breath and choked in pain, Chris! Had those miscreants gotten to Chris? Was he alright? And the others? Nathan? Were they hurt? Prisoners? Was that why he was alone wherever he was? A tear trickled down his face and he closed his eyes to the dark fabric of the blanket that shrouded him. What was happening?
"No, I got you!"
"No, I was safe!"
"Ok, then that old log by the jail, that's the next safe place, ready?"
The patter of pelting feet came closer and closer, the high piping voices crying out their youthful challenges. There was a thump as one youngster rebounded off the jail wall, then the second dashed in, dodging around his tag-mate and touched the new safe.
Panting. A moment of silence. Then a child was screaming. "Ooh! Blood! I'm bloody! Mama!" The feet raced away.
Ezra was having trouble breathing now. With the gag, he had to be careful of how he breathed and pain made it doubly hard. That darting touch to his person had been like a branding iron. Even closed, white lights flashed in front of his eyes and he felt like he was spinning. Then what senses he had began to fade out again and he was grateful.
"Jeremiah, just show Mr. Sanchez where you found the bloody log. He'll take care of it after that, then you are coming home with me!"
"Yes, Mama." A small group of three moved up the side ally, Josiah Sanchez thoroughly mystified by the 'bloody log,' a trembling Jeremiah, a sprite of little more than 6 years old, and holding the child's hand, his mother, Mrs. Martinsgale, the new seamstress.
"There! There it is!"
Sanchez closed his eyes briefly in pain. Oh lord, no. Voice deep and dry, he said, "Mrs. Martinsgale, thank you, you best take Jeremiah home now. I'll handle things from here."
"But Mr. Sanchez, that's not a log ---"
"I know. I know." He gently steered them around to face back toward the main street and gave the mother and her child small encouraging pushes with the flats of his hands. He waited until the woman, who still stole looks over her shoulder, suddenly decided curiosity was not as important as the security of her child, and hustled her boy back toward home.
Sanchez knelt beside the dark stained bundle and carefully pulled back the ends of the blanket. Ezra. Standish's lax face was waxy white, with a smear of blood over one ear. His mouth was torn at the corners where a gag of white gauze, now rusty looking, pulled at his face. It was hard to tell if he was even breathing.
The four horsemen ran their animals hard, the trail was surprisingly easy to follow. Tanner kept a marginal lead, keeping his eye on the tracks so that there would be no surprises. Several miles north, it was clear to him and Larabee that the outlaws were just as stupid as they'd thought --- they were heading for the spring. He began to slow. Somethin' wasn't right here. Even dumb as bricks, they had seen Larabee in town and had seen him at the spring. They had taken Ezra. They had to know that Larabee would know where their camp was. Vin pulled up his horse, skidding to a halt, drawing the other three men to a stop at his side.
"What's wrong?" Larabee reined in Solon with difficulty. The black was tossing his head, eager to continue his run.
"Don't make sense. Why's they heading back there? You been there and seen them there. They know that, saw you in town in front of the jail. Seems like they'd know we'd follow."
Larabee turned his mount in a tight circle, fighting the gelding's energetic dance. "Got a point."
JD's Toby and Buck's Gray were both crowding close now, the men listening, wondering. Buck interrupted. "They're the same ones, huh? Maybe they think they can lead us into an ambush. Or maybe they think having Ez as a hostage will protect'em."
Hauling back on the reins firmly to settle Solon, Larabee looked up toward the hills ahead of them. "You said you knew some other trails?" He looked back at Vin.
"Let's do this smart." The other men nodded and fell into position behind Tanner as he turned his Indian pony and headed slightly away from the track, going further west. He set a quick paced, ground-eating canter. Chris settled himself into the saddle and tensed his legs, letting his mount know that he needed a controlled pace. The big gelding eased into the gait and moved like a rocking chair. The cold pit in Larabee's stomach kept on growing.
"NATHAN!" Josiah's bellow had Jackson jumping straight up off the clinic bed and running for the door before he even knew what was happening. Josiah never shouted like that --- unless something was really wrong.
Sagging against the opened door, he peered out into the dimming early evening light, "Josiah?" Then he heard the heavy sound of feet on the stairs and stepped further out onto the porch area.
"Nathan," Sanchez was panting heavily and carrying what looked like a rolled up carpet in his arms. "It's Ezra!"
Mouth opened in surprise, Jackson backed out of the way and then swung around to follow his friend into the clinic as the big man rushed by, doing a quick two-step sideways through the doorway. By the time the healer had entered and closed the door, Sanchez was lowering his burden to the bed very carefully.
"He's alive, Nathan, but I'm not sure ---" Josiah's hesitation brought the professional healer to the forefront.
Moving up beside the big preacher, Nathan recognized his blanket and saw the dark stains on the lumpy shape, still roped in place. "Aw, shit." He reached over to his work counter and picked up a knife, then moved close to the form resting so still on the bed.
The two men worked rapidly, cutting away the ropes, unwrapping the dirty, messed blanket, revealing Ezra Standish's cold, stiff body. Cursing, both men cut through the inner ropes, releasing ankles, legs, arms, and wrists. Nathan carefully cut and picked free the gagging bandage. Fishing the inner, balled gag out of Ezra's dry mouth finally produced a reaction from the lifeless conman. Moaning weakly, he tried to turn his head away, but Josiah grasped it's sides in two large hands and nodded to Nathan who dripped some water onto the clump of gauze to soften it and then pulled it out. Dry, choking coughs followed. The two men's eyes met in relief. Ezra was still with them.
"Man's a fighter." Nathan swabbed the inside of the dry as dust mouth with a damp twist of fresh gauze, then dribbled a small bit of water in. Their patient swallowed convulsively, choking again, then lifting his head to follow the source of moisture, still without opening his eyes.
"Easy, son, easy," Josiah cautioned. "Take it slow. Let's let that much settle in you before you take any more." Wiping the flushed face with a damp cloth, he looked down to where Nathan was grimly assessing the two bullet wounds. "How bad?"
Jackson gestured toward the conman's right leg. "Well, the bullet's still in his leg and looks like infection is already setting in. Gotta get that out fast." He shook his head, lifting his eyes to meet Josiah's, "But the man is lucky, the other bullet musta clipped something else first slowin' it down some, maybe the ground, a rock, don't know, but hit him in the ribs at an angle, it's sitting there in plain sight between two ribs."
"The old hitching rail was out back of the jail," Josiah closed his eyes briefly. "They dumped him between the building and the rail. That bullet might have skimmed the wood first."
Nathan just touched the ribcage gently. "Something like that musta happened, likely we'll never know exactly what."
Sanchez peered down in wonder to see the end of the bullet's casing shining dully like a round grommet in the gambler's side. Jackson touched the area softly again. "Still leaking blood, may have cracked one or both o'those ribs there, and pushed 'em apart some, why it's still bleeding."
"Brother, the lord works in mysterious ways." Sanchez smiled, one hand stroking the damp hair on the gambler's head, and thought about small boys and games and bloody logs and the grace of God.
Larabee kept his friend in sight, but kept his horse back, knowing that JD and Buck were doing likewise for him. They all traveled in silence, the dull clop of hooves on the dry winter grasses not yet greened again in this shaded valley, sounding eerily hollow. He bit his lower lip and tried to keep focused. His temper had resurfaced as they rode. The anger finally overcoming the dread and panic. Anger was a tool he could use, he could make anger work for him. He let the rage fire through his veins and keep him concentrated. He was death riding to deliver his coup to those who'd take, those who'd hurt one of his. Who'd dare touch his.
Buck had edged JD to the back, more worried about what was ahead than what might be following. More worried about his older friend than what they might encounter ahead. Chris was going under --- they were losing him, he could tell from posture, from the few words spoken earlier, the tone, and when he turned briefly to look back on a rise, from the expression etched in deep lines of pain on his face. Buck wouldn't admit it even if he was pushed, but he was afraid. This was a Larabee he hadn't seen in a long time. This was the killer who'd risen from the ashes of a lonely burnt out ranch house, where two graves, one very small, were the crucible of his creation. Buck watched. He steeled himself for what might come. It would be bad.
Tanner brought the group to a halt just under the rise of yet another hill. The sameness of the terrain made it difficult to tell where they were, except for the white-edged silhouette of the tall northwestering mountains back lit against the evening sky. The sun had set some time ago, but no one had suggested stopping. Twilight and a full moon were making everything a ghostly blue-gray now.
Dismounting, Vin waited for the others to join him. Larabee came up next to him and just looked. Tanner eyed the other two, then explained. "Spring's just t'other side of this rise. Figure we leave the horses here, go in low." He waited for nods of agreement. "If you can wait a bit, I can scout it out first."
Despite an urgent need to keep going, to face their enemies and kill them, Larabee agreed with a stiff nod. "Do it." Without waiting for Tanner to leave, he squatted down and lowered himself to a seated position on the steep hillside. JD and Buck did the same as Tanner melted into the shadows.
Josiah clamped his hand on Nathan's shoulder. The two stood together, weaving slightly with fatigue and still-recovering headaches from their matching contusions. Jackson was tiredly wiping his hands on a wet, bloody cloth over a basin of equally reddish water. In the murky depths could be seen two misshapen lead slugs. All that remained of the bullets Nathan had wrested free of their friend's body only minutes ago. "You are a talented man, my friend." Josiah's sincerity was reassuring since the dark healer was feeling less than confident at the moment.
He stared down at the quiescent patient. The man was breathing easily now, would have a fever for sometime to come and that would be their next battle. Only he felt so very tired. He lowered his chin to his chest as he stared owlishly at Standish's body.
"Brother Nathan, go and rest. I'll keep watch, keep him cool."
"He's gonna need lots of water. Keep changing the poultices too, to drain away the infections." Nathan looked closely, or as closely as slightly crossed eyes could still focus, at the carefully woven strapping that kept the torso wound clear but still supported and strapped the two cracked ribs in place. The incomplete breaks had been confirmed as he removed the bullet and inspected closer. "Ok, Josiah. He's all yours for now." Jackson looked up and back over his shoulder at the man he considered his closest friend, the man still offering strength and comfort with a hand to his shoulder. "Call me if he worsens or you see any signs that worry you."
"I will." There was strength but also further reassurance in the calm, almost humorous tone to Sanchez' voice. Josiah was feeling light-headed with relief that Ezra still lived and breathed. He'd known with utter and defeated certainty that the man was dead when he turned back that blanket sheath for the first time on the ground behind the jail. Now, hope was a narcotic and he was floating on the feeling of serene benediction this reprieve from his crows had produced. A miracle at the hands of his caring friend, Nathan Jackson. "Go, rest."
"Our prisoner is hunkered down on the far side of the spring, behind a real giant willer, keeping company with one other. The other two are each in a tree, set up in the branches. Good cover. Wouldn't have spotted 'em if I hadn't been looking.'" Tanner started speaking the moment he was over the rise and finished as he slithered to a stop, full length along the ground next to Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington. JD, who had been staying back with the horses, came crawling up rapidly, after checking that the mounts were all tied to a scrubby Joshua tree.
Chris slid further down the slope, below the crest and stood. "I go in alone." He checked his borrowed pistol and then picked up his rifle.
Buck stood and put a hand on one tense arm. "Pard ---"
"I'm going in. You all cover me, flank them when I have their attention." He tossed off his old friend's touch with an angry shrug.
"Helluva way to get their attention," Wilmington objected, not backing down. He looked over at Vin who had not yet commented.
Tanner was watching Larabee. The man in black was barely holding his rage in check. It needed an outlet or would become indiscriminate. He could almost feel the heat of it coming off in waves. "We got your back," he said by way of coming down on Chris' side.
Buck bit back another comment, eyes slitting in anger and fear for his friends. "Alright." He pulled his hat down tight and threw a short look at JD. The young sheriff seemed to know better than to say anything and was watching and listening with wide, worried eyes. "Kid, you stay on my left shoulder. We're on Larabee's right."
Tanner nodded. "Got his left, then."
The blond pulled back his head and lifted his jaw, as if sniffing the wind, if Buck didn't know better, he'd swear the old war dog was smelling the odor of death already. Those men had loosed a killing machine. He almost felt sorry for them.
Larabee's hazel eyes were nearly white on white as he met the eyes of each of his partners. "We go in on three." He paused, took a deep, steadying breath, and grinned, with no humor in the rictus. "Three."
Larabee erupted over the crest of the hill on Solon's back, firing his rifle, pumping the shells free as the bullets flew. The black charger ran at full gallop, a weapon of destruction. The pair attracted the buzzing crossfire of the bandits' guns. Larabee didn't even flinch as one bullet scored his cheekbone, simply shifting his aim higher, seeing a man fall lifelessly from one of the trees.
Tanner pulled the other sniper out of his perch with sudden and unexpected ferociousness. The cry of fear was drowned in blood as he thrust upward with his skinning knife under the ribs in the man's side.
JD hove close to Buck, the two running on foot close to the ground to confuse. They made it to the tree line panting and hoarse but with no time to wait. The younger Dunne surged ahead with an alarmed Wilmington leaping to catch up, holding one side to press against a wind pain, even as he brought his long-barreled pistol to bear on the two men crouched behind an enormous old willow trunk. "Hold on ---"
"Put yer hands up." JD's brashness was nearly his undoing as the men swung to face their new adversaries, already firing. His twin colts barked back as Buck's big gun boomed at his side. The exchange lasted only a fraction of a second or so it seemed. And then gun smoke blued the air and both men lay unmoving at the lawmen's feet.
"Shit!" Wilmington ran, half-limping, still panting harshly, past a stunned Dunne and kicked the dead redhead in frustration. Then the second man moaned and the tall gunman slowed and went down on one knee beside the man, picking up and tossing aside the man's gun, keeping his own aim steady. "JD, go check on Vin and Chris." When there was no answer, he looked up. The youngster was holstering one of his guns, and wiping his mouth with the back of the hand that held the other gun. "JD?"
"Ok," the brunette swallowed and nodded, "OK." He turned and was running as if breaking free of quicksand.
Tanner regretfully wiped his knife on the grassy ground. He hadn't meant to kill, but the damn man had fallen onto the knife as he fell out of the tree, pushing it in further than Vin had intended to go, piercing the man's heart. Ending his life.
Larabee stood over the man he had shot. Watched his life dim from his eyes, knowing secrets went with him. The man had refused to speak as the blond snatched him to his feet and shook him, demanding to know where their hostage was. He'd simply smiled and then gone limp, slipping from Larabee's grip to lie on the ground. Now he'd never speak again. Chris looked up and around the empty willow spring. He could nearly see Ezra's lithe, light golden form rising from the water, a ghostly presence, a dry chuckle in his ear, a moist tongue touching his tender spot behind it, a breath warming the inside of it. "ezra---" he breathed it out in pain.
"Chris, Vin!" JD was running up to them from the other side of the spring, coming out of a thick stand of willows. "Buck's got one still alive." He swung to look around, eyes even wider. "Any sign of Ezra?"
Neither man answered, both taking off, running in the direction the young gunman had just come from.
"Buck?" Larabee slowed to a stop next to the kneeling lawman.
"He's alive," Wilmington spared a glance up at his friend but Larabee could read the bad news. The man wasn't going to last long.
Larabee squatted next to the wounded man's other side, Tanner standing behind him, keeping an eye out for any lurking unknowns. JD came trotting up and stood silent behind Buck. Chris stared down at the man lying on the ground. A gaping, bloody wound in his chest made it clear the man had little time left. "Where is the man you kidnapped from the clinic?"
Tice Shelby frowned, then hit by more pain, gasped, his frown dissolving into a grimace of agony. "Just shoot me now."
Chris grabbed Shelby's collar and twisted it, raising the man's head and shoulders off the ground. "Where is he?"
A sly, mean look filled the dark eyes squinting up into Larabee's. "You mean your catamite?" hissed the dying man.
The blond was ready to shoot, his hand only stayed by his desperate need to know where Ezra was. "Yes," he gritted out, his free hand straying to the handle of his gun as he dropped forward on one knee.
"You killed my cousin Tern. You and yours killed my men and Tern's. Why should I---" Tice began to cough, blood streaming out of the corner of his mouth.
Larabee closed his eyes, fighting his rising fear and rage. Tanner hunkered down beside him, and pulled out a blade. The tip of the blade entered the outlaw's left nostril. "There are lots of ways to die." The quiet Texas drawl was whisper soft.
Snorting and throwing his head back, Shelby never let his eyes leave Larabee's, though Chris could see the new fear there now. "We --- I shot him, killed him, dumped him a ways back." He let a slow smile cross his pain-ridden face. "You ain't ever gonna see that boy again."
Tanner pulled his knife back on a soft sigh of sorrow. Chris reared up on his heels, dragging Shelby up with him, a howl of grief and rage roaring out of his throat as he drew his pistol and shoved it deep in the dying man's belly. With a scream of "You bastard!" he began firing, pumping the bullets directly into the jerking body in front of him, until the gun had clicked on an empty cylinder several times.
With stiff fingers, Larabee released the corpse and dropped his pistol to the ground, turned on his heel and walked away.
Ezra woke to the feel of a rough cloth being wiped across his brow. He instantly knew that he was at Nathan's clinic. Even without opening his eyes, he could identify the feel of the bed, the scent of herbs and brews, the sounds of the busy street just outside, and the creak of the floor boards as a big man stood beside him and the damp cloth was removed from his face. Blinking, he looked up into the smiling face of Josiah Sanchez.
"Ezra, good to see you awake." Sanchez sat back down in the chair beside the bed. He put a hand to the damp brow. "A bit of fever, but Nathan thinks you'll be fine."
Standish didn't try to speak, he was utterly tired. Knowing he was safe, in good hands, he relaxed and let go. Eyes drifting shut over a small, contented smile.
Sanchez looked up as Nathan entered from the back. "He was awake for a moment, didn't speak but he seemed lucid, eyes were clear, he smiled a bit." He couldn't help himself, he was grinning broadly at the healer.
Nathan smiled back, walking over to check the heat on Ezra's skin. "Good signs, Josiah. Still got some fever, but looks like he'll be ok."
He went to the stove and poured some of the heated, distilled herbal mix he'd made earlier into a cup. "If he wakes again, get him to drink some of this. It's for pain and he's gonna be feeling some for a while. The chest ain't too bad, 'cept for those ribs, but the hole in his leg is gonna throb. Stitches'll pull too iffn he don't be careful and stay still for a bit." He shook his head, "And, knowing Ezra, he won't want to stay still none."
The big preacher let his hand come to rest over one of Ezra's, covering the smaller hand easily, wrapping his big fingers quietly around the fine, slender digits. "I'll just stay here then."
Buck stood shakily, watching his old friend walk steadily away from him and the others. Tanner had risen to his feet as well but stood still and silent. JD touched Wilmington on one arm, more for consolation than physical support. There were tears running down the young sheriff's face. The older man sighed and drew back his shoulders. "I'll go."
The two younger men simply nodded, then Vin said, "We'll clean up here." His eyes were shadowed and he was blinking his eyes slowly as if he didn't realize it.
Wilmington nodded in gratitude and followed his long time partner out of the clearing. He found the blond standing beside one of the big old willows, looking down into the pool of the spring. "We came here a few times. Shared a bedroll. This last time, Vin tracked him out of the lava fields. I came on alone. He was just climbing out of here, had taken a bath. You know how clean he likes to be." Larabee smiled. His hazel eyes, though were clouded. "He looked like something out of a Greek legend. He was beautiful." Chris let his eyes trace the bent branches back up toward their trunks and the sky beyond. "Beautiful. And he was mine. He loved me, Buck. He told me so."
Wilmington sat down on a fallen branch the size of a normal tree trunk. Took off his hat and rolled it between his hands, studying the dark, stained crown. "You have something to hold on to then."
"I loved him. Took me a while to figure it out. Told him here, this last time. He was beautiful on the inside too, you know?" Larabee closed his eyes and let the warm air of the daylight touch his face. "Buck, what am I supposed to do now?"
Wilmington's lips tightened and he looked up mournfully. "Time to grieve, Chris. You gotta take time to grieve. He's worth living for."
"And dying for?"
"We'd a'done it, Pard, you know that. All of us for each other." Buck waited and when there was nothing further, continued, "But he don't want you to die for him now."
Then the two simply stopped talking. Buck sat and watched a small wren hop down to the spring's edge to ruffle its feathers in the water, splashing about with abandon, ignoring the human invaders. Chris stood still and let the sounds of nature and memories pervade his being. They were comfortable with each other and Buck's presence was as much comfort as Chris could ever, had ever, taken from another living being.
"Vin?" JD lugged the legs of one of the dead as Tanner lifted and hauled the torso.
"Think you can find Ezra's body?"
Tanner froze for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah. If he was with them, all I got to do is back track. We split off to meet up with'em here. Ain't too much of their back trail we haven't already seen anyway."
JD stood still, thinking. Then as he helped hoist the corpse over the back of one of the outlaws' ponies, he asked, "Do you think that guy might have lied?"
Tanner looked up sharply, thinking back to the mean look, the sly smile, on the dying man's face. "Maybe," he drawled slowly.
This time when he woke, it was pain that brought him out of the darkness. "Here, Ezra, drink some of this." And a cup was pressed against his lips. He could smell the bitter herbs and drank deeply, knowing that despite the odor, this would help him conquer the pain. When the cup was removed, he stirred and opened his eyes.
Nathan sat beside him, smiling. "You didn't even fight that none."
"Know it will help," came the hoarse, dry-sounding reply. Casting an eye around the empty clinic, the southerner returned to the dark healer's face. "You alright?"
Nathan smiled wider. "Got a hard head myself. I'm alright."
"Chris?" There was a bit of tension in the voice now.
"He took Vin, Buck and JD to go after the outlaws and our prisoner." Nathan shrugged. "They got him out somehow." He decided against telling the gambler that their four friends all thought that Ezra had been taken along as a hostage as the outlaws fled town. There was nothing that could be done until their friends returned.
"I'm not going back." Larabee sat up tall in the saddle, facing his men.
"Chris, he mighta lied. I'm gonna follow their back trail. See if Ezra's really there." Vin leaned forward in his saddle, leather creaking, Peso for once staying rock still.
"You mean his body." Larabee neck reined Solon away from the others. "Do what you want."
Wilmington didn't try to stop his friend, despite the looks both Vin and JD were shooting him. He watched sadly. In a few days, he'd follow, he figured he knew where Chris was headed --- Purgatorio, to drown himself for a while. He'd be safe enough. Even drunk as a skunk, the man was absolutely deadly. He sighed. Tried not to think on what Chris had said because he'd be weeping if he did. Yeah, in a few days he'd try to pick up the pieces again. After he'd settled JD in at Four Corners. With Vin, Nate, and Josiah still there, JD would be fine. Buck was needed again and he'd follow, do what he could when Chris was ready. Right now was too soon.
The three men sat and watched as Chris turned away, Solon's walk moving quickly into a canter and then, just as he neared the dip in meadow and valley beyond, they could see the duo's speed increase to a dead run, as if chasing the very hounds of hell.
"How's he doing?" Josiah pushed a full glass of whiskey in front of Nathan who'd just come into the saloon and joined him at the seven's regular table.
"Sleepin' -- and before you worry, Mrs. Potter volunteered to sit with him for a spell." Jackson smiled at his friend. The big man did tend to hover when it was Ezra who was hurt, had a soft place for the little conman.
Sanchez took a sip of his own still nearly full shot glass. He let his eyes drift around the quiet, early hours emptiness of the saloon. Inez stood behind the bar, polishing glasses and looking out into space, a contemplative expression on her mobile face. The soft afternoon light made even the dust motes golden as they danced in the beams shooting through the batwing doors. The gentle clop of hooves made both men look toward the street. Sounded like several riders, coming in slow.
Sanchez and Jackson looked at each other and rose to their feet, pulled to the doorway with hope and curiosity. Hope that their friends had returned, curious as to whom else it might be.
It was a solemn procession that met their gazes. Vin Tanner led the way, looking very weary as he slumped on Peso whose hide was nearly gray with dust. Both hung their heads.
Behind the tracker came the kid. Dunne was ponying another two horses, with bodies strapped on their saddles. JD's face was dirty with tear tracks drying on it, half-heartedly smudged into smears. He stared straight ahead as if he'd been following Tanner forever.
Buck Wilmington came next, leading two more horses, each with another body tied to their backs. His shoulders were bent forward and he cast a look to the side from under his wide-brimmed hat as he came even with the men now on the boardwalk in front of the saloon. The tall mustached ladies man drew rein and hesitated, looking ahead to where Vin was continuing to the livery and JD was heading to the undertakers.
Nathan looked back down the street but saw no sign of Larabee. None of the dead men was their friend and leader, nor was Solon among the horses. Sanchez saw the same thing. Both looked the question to Buck who still sat his horse, facing them now.
"He's gone." Wilmington shrugged massively, as if trying to drop a weight from his shoulders. "We got all of them," he tilted his head back toward the two dead bodies behind him, then continued, "Found out about Ez." He looked down at the street and swallowed hard, fighting a return of grief for both his friends, missing from among them even though one still lived. Looking back up at the waiting Sanchez and Jackson, he said, "Chris took it bad. Headed out for a spell." He didn't elaborate. No need to tell them the rest, was Chris' business. And Ez's. Suddenly in pain from the deep sadness that gripped him, Buck coughed, a retching sound and spit. Nodded to the two men and brought his Gray's head around to continue down, following JD to the undertaker's.
Deeply puzzled, Josiah and Nathan turned to watch Wilmington continue down the street. Something was very wrong but neither man could figure out what it was. If the men had found out about Ezra, then why were they acting so strangely. Unless ---
"They think Ezra's dead." Nathan spoke the revelation aloud, moving even as he said it. He was running then, catching up with Buck in a few steps since the man's horse was merely plodding along.
Josiah, who'd remained standing, watching, saw the healer reach out to grab the gray's near rein and pull the horse to a stop. The tall dark man stood, holding the rein and a stirrup, hand on Buck's booted foot as he looked up into the downcast face. He spoke only a few words, but Buck's head shot up and he straightened in the saddle. A shouted huzzah broke the lazy afternoon stillness.
Down the street, Josiah could see JD and Vin both turn in their saddles to look back. To see Buck now standing in his stirrups waving his hat and yelling wordlessly, joyously. Wilmington dropped the leathers of the two horses he'd been ponying and said something, grinning down at Nate, then spurred his horse to leap forward and dash down the street to the other two team members staring now at him, both with horses reined about to face him. Vin was already gigging Peso to a trot back toward the others, a dust cloud half-enveloping him.
JD looked on in quiet confusion. Staring at a suddenly crazed Buck bearing down on him, whooping in delight.
Josiah stepped down into the street and met up with Nathan who'd bent down to pick up the reins of the abandoned outlaws' ponies. The two smiled as they saw Buck drag his horse to a skidding halt, nearly dropping it to its haunches as he came to JD. From their perspective and distance, the healer and preacher couldn't hear what was said but saw both men turn as Vin arrived at their knot. There was a moment's stillness, then all three were standing in their stirrups yelling and laughing, gripping at each other. JD nearly climbed off his horse and on to Vin's, hugging the slender tracker. Three grinning faces turned toward the other two friends standing watching them from near the saloon. Waving and smiling, all three started back down the street, even the horses bouncing now with lighter hearts, reflecting the new feel of their riders.
It didn't take long to coerce a couple of stray cowhands into delivering the bodies the rest of the way to the undertaker's. None of the three newly returned peacekeepers wanted to delay getting up to the clinic. Nathan hurried ahead, to get Mrs. Potter safely out and make sure that Ezra was ready for this invasion. He'd found his patient sleeping and shooed the kind shopkeeper out the door, having to help her make her way past the boisterous arrival of JD, Buck and Vin. Josiah tipped his hat to her before following the others inside, a benign smile on his face.
Ezra blinked slowly. The sudden sounds of floorboards stomped by multiple booted feet and much male laughter making him cringe and slit his eyes open fearfully. There, peering down at him, were three widely grinning faces. But instead of faces from his new nightmares, he saw three of his friends, all crying and laughing and grinning inanely at him. "What?" he asked hoarsely.
"Why, Pard, yer alive!" Buck sat down on the edge of the bed and despite his enthusiasm, touched the side of Ezra's face with infinite gentleness. Resting his fingers there, feeling the warm, living flesh beneath, Wilmington's lungs filled and his chest grew, too full of happiness to sustain him without outlet. His grin was almost painful it was so big. "Yer alive!" he repeated helplessly.
Tanner squatted down in front of the confused gambler. "We thought you was dead, kilt by them varmints."
JD pressed close, leaning on Buck's shoulder, a wide smile on his face as well. "We all did. One of them told us he shot you. Before he died."
Ezra was beginning to wake up more fully now, still slightly overwhelmed by this sudden drastic rejoicing. They really do seem inordinately pleased to see me still breathing. "Well, someone shot me. Doubtless he told the truth."
Three heads swiveled back to look up at Jackson who stood just behind them. "Nate?" Tanner's question didn't need further explanation.
"He's gonna be fine. Got shot twice, in the leg and side, already took out the bullets and stitched him up." He folded his arms. "Had some fever but it's coming down now." He quirked a smile at his concerned audience and repeated his reassurance, "He'll be fine."
Ezra, who by now was fully awake and feeling better, stared up at the circle of faces that smiled back down at him. Josiah stood beside Nathan, the two tall men towering over the others. Buck still sat on the bed, a hand laid against the side of Ezra's face, warm skin providing a caring touch he'd seldom felt in his life, warming his heart. Vin knelt now at his side and JD clung to Buck's broad shoulders, one arm slung across them as he hung down over Ezra as if he needed to feast his eyes on the sight of their gambler. Ezra let his eyes travel from face to face, all smiling, the care and affection clear in each set of eyes. He gazed back in wonderment. For me. They are happy because I am here. It was the strangest, most peculiar feeling. He smiled tentatively back at his most unusual friends. Only one was missing, the one who carried his heart.
"Buck, what's a catamite?"
Wilmington straightened in the saddle and turned his head slowly, disbelievingly to stare at JD Dunne. The boy was staring back blankly, clearly not understanding either the meaning of the word or the bad timing in asking that question just now. Buck could hear the closeness of the other's horses, Vin and Ezra right behind them, Josiah and Nate bringing up the rear. He took a deep breath.
When Ezra asked about Chris, everyone in the clinic stopped and no one spoke. Alarmed, Standish struggled to sit up, softly crying, "No!"
Instantly Buck was leaning forward to slide an arm around behind the wounded man, supporting him and holding him. "Easy, Ez. Chris is alright, not even hurt." He didn't add 'except for his heart and soul since he thinks YOU'RE dead.' No need, the gambler was quick, had already figured it out from Vin's and JD's comments.
Wet green eyes looked up and locked with tempered dark blue ones. "Where did he go?" Somehow Ezra knew that Buck would know where Chris was now. Would tell him.
"Figure Purgatorio." There was a subtle shifting behind them, but Buck didn't break eye contact with the smaller man, ignoring the others. He hadn't told anyone yet. Hell, he was guessing but his gut told him he was right. He hugged Ezra carefully, grabbing and holding onto one of the man's free hands. "We'll go get him. Tell him the good news." Buck watched determination grow in those emerald chips. He should have known, especially after what Chris had told him by the spring.
"I'm going with you." It was said steadily, with no room for argument. That didn't stop Nathan though.
Stepping closer, the healer spoke firmly, "No, you're not, Ezra. You ain't anywhere near ready to be on horseback yet."
Standish ignored Jackson's words, eyes still locked on Wilmington. "I'll need some clothes."
Feeling hypnotized, as if caught in the mesmerizing gaze of a snake, Buck nodded slowly and spoke. "JD? Go get Ez his clothes. Inez can help you."
"Now wait a minute!" Nathan's voice was angry. This was his patient and the man might pull his stitches, he'd be in pain from those ribs. This was not a good idea.
"Brother," Sanchez interrupted, "It might be best if we all went." He wasn't sure why Buck had agreed so readily but somehow he sensed that Wilmington was agreeing for a hidden reason. An important one. If Ezra had need to go, then he, Josiah, would support him.
Vin stood up and touched Ezra's knee. "I'll get the horses ready, we brought back Chaucer's saddle with us."
Nathan bit back any further comment, if Josiah was agreeing to this insanity, he knew he had no allies. So he'd best make sure he had with him what Ezra would need before this foolish journey was over. Coming to stand over his patient, he nudged Wilmington with his knee. "Move over, Buck. If Ezra's gonna go do this, I need to change his bandages and tighten that wrap on his ribs some."
Buck grinned down at Ezra, winking slyly and hugging him once more, glad to feel the return pressure lightly given and the answering flare in those telling green eyes. He had a feeling that Ezra had figured out more than just that Chris had gone off, he'd figured out that Buck knew about them some how. Just to make sure the man wouldn't worry none, he leaned forward and spoke softly to Ezra's ear alone. "Chris told me 'bout you two, when he thought --- well, he told me. I'm mighty happy for both of you, Ez."
Buck backed away from the bed to give Nathan room, then nodded to Josiah, saying, "Guess I'll go help Vin. We'll need remounts for this."
Sanchez smiled and made way for the tall lanky ladies man, then moved forward to assist Nathan with rewrapping Ezra's ribs. He made no comment about the slight film of moisture that Ezra was blinking away, eyes still on the door that Wilmington had just left through.
Damn, traitorous eyes tearing at such a time. Ezra closed his eyes and swallowed, giving his body over to Nathan and Josiah, letting his mind travel. Oh, Chris, be alright. Please, don't do anything foolish.
Larabee sat slumped in the porch chair in front of the dirty saloon, one of several in Purgatorio, lawless town of lawless men. He was left alone, except when the barmaid came out to sell him a new bottle. The man in black exuded danger and was avoided. He didn't move much. Just drank from the shot glass he refilled periodically and stared out blindly at the sunny street.
Occasionally, his eyes would drop to the saddlebags on the table at his elbow. He'd been through them earlier before he'd gotten to town. When he'd stopped to give Solon a rest. They were Ezra's bags. They'd found his saddle, gear, clothes, and saddlebags at the outlaws' camp, pretty much as Ezra had left them only short days before. He'd taken the bags and Ezra's flask, along with reclaiming his own pistol from one of the dead men. It was when he'd seen Ezra's things that he knew he wasn't going back. At least, not right away. Maybe never. He didn't know.
He'd carefully emptied both bags, sorted through the neatly stashed items. Ezra hadn't packed much inside them, hadn't gone off on a trip just had his short-ration pack, some extra shirts and underwear. Soap, some playing cards. A book, "Tale of Two Cities" by Dickens. Chris turned it over in his hands, he didn't know this one, but from the worn patina on the leather, he figured Ezra enjoyed it. Holding the book to his chest, he'd bowed his head and hugged the slim volume close, tears falling unexpectedly. It had been some time before he'd cried for Sarah and Adam. Since then, he'd learned. Now, he cried quietly in a lonely glade, only Solon for company, and Ezra's spirit, in the few cherished things he'd salvaged.
When he'd reached Purgatorio, he was empty inside, the tears had cleaned him out. The pack of cards was in his shirt pocket, over his heart. The flask was in the side pocket of his long duster, weighing it down slightly, feeling right as it balanced the weight of his gun on his other hip. The book hadn't left his hands.
Sitting now, in the shade, unaware of the curious and fearful glances going his way from pedestrians and riders alike, unknowing that bar patrons stepped wide around his table to enter the hovel behind, he sat and held the book in one hand, the other wrapped around the shot glass of whiskey. He'd already consumed one bottle of the stuff but hadn't managed to fog his memories or darken his thoughts yet. It wasn't working. In sudden anger, he threw the glass into the street, watching the thick glass bounce on the dirt. Leaning back, he tipped his hat forward and opened the book. Inside, on the flyleaf, Ezra had written his name, Ezra P. Standish, in a controlled copperplate flourish. Chris placed one finger on the large scrawl and traced the letters, feeling his throat tighten again. He scowled and his hand tightened into a fist before he forced it open again and gently turned the page. And began to read.
"Buck, what's a catamite?"
Vin pulled back on his ride, hoping Ezra would follow suit. The green-eyed conman shot him a quick, understanding look but didn't slow Chaucer's pace. So Vin kicked the livery hack he was riding to catch back up to Ezra's side. He didn't look back to see whether or not the men following had heard JD's question.
"I might be able to answer that better than our lothario, JD." Ezra's clear voice was even, carrying. Buck's shoulder's slumped in defeat and he shook his head. This really wasn't the place to do this.
Hauling in at his mount, Wilmington turned it to face the rest of his friends who were following. JD reined in as well, his face a picture of confusion.
"Ez?" Wilmington's voice was gentle with reproof.
"It's alright, Buck. I assume that one of the miscreants used that term in front of JD, most probably in reference to me." Ezra sat straight in his saddle, looking relaxed, hiding the pain in his leg and ribs. While he would really rather do this with Chris at his side, it seemed that it was not to be. The question had been posed. The answering would reveal their alliance. Chris had already told him that he intended to tell the rest of the seven, so now it had fallen to Ezra to do it.
"Brothers?" Sanchez and Jackson were now even with their friends. "It seems we have a discussion in the makings? This might be a good time for Nathan to check Ezra's bandages and I for one could use some coffee. These old bones need rest once in a while."
No one laughed at the preacher, though he was tougher than any of them when it came to absorbing work and strain. Vin's and Buck's eyes met, held. Yep, was a good idea if Ezra was gonna talk on this.
Without further word, Vin led the way off the trail into the rough semiarid growth of the dry flat land. He rode a short way until a clearing large enough for them to set up camp appeared. Dismounting he began setting stones into a circle. JD, silent and feeling guilty though he wasn't sure why, immediately started gathering firewood. The rest of the men set the horses to a tether on a line and then Nathan walked into the clearing with Ezra, carrying his medical bag in one hand. The gambler didn't protest, simply waited as Sanchez dropped a couple of their bedrolls down for seating.
No one spoke again until after Nathan tied off the newly bound leg wound and Ezra pulled his trousers back up unselfconsciously. They'd all seen each other under similar circumstances. Josiah was already pouring mugs of coffee for everyone. The men settled back and there was a relaxed air to the group.
Then, Ezra spoke. "A catamite, JD, is a boy who is loved by a man."
Dunne stared at him, dumbfounded. "You mean, like a man loves a woman?"
"Yes, Mr. Dunne. Including," Ezra sighed, then met the young man's eyes with understanding, "the exchange of sexual favors."
"They go to bed? Together?" JD looked pale and shocked. Vin had made sure to seat himself to one side of Ezra and Wilmington had managed to slip in on the other side when Nathan stood up after finishing with the conman's injuries, going to put away his bag of healing things.
Buck spoke now, before Ezra had to answer. "JD, love don't care what the package comes in, what it looks like."
Dunne sat quietly, absorbing this. Still confused though, he asked again, "But, I don't understand why that guy called Ezra one."
Nathan and Josiah had been silent, listening. A growing understanding had made Sanchez inhale sharply. So, his boy and Chris were --- they'd had --- he closed his eyes. Nathan realized the implications at the same time as Sanchez. His immediate thought was --- shit, no wonder Chris was so damn mad at me, back in the saloon the other day. Ezra and Larabee? Well, in a weird way it made sense. Them two were the most ornery of the bunch, the ones most likely to tangle. He'd seen that happen before, two folks at each other's throats one minute, in the blankets, the next, like they started a fire that only they could put out. 'Course, usually it was a man and a woman, but his years of slavery had led him to see many things. Including men loving men.
Ezra let his face smooth out, tugged his collar open and let the tie gape loosely, leaving his face and neck free. He turned to look again at JD, the others seeing too what those outlaws had seen. He looked suddenly like a mere child, younger even than their young sheriff. The transformation was remarkable. All the men present felt unsure of the gambler's age now. He could be a youth of less than twenty, much less.
"Ezra, how old are you?" It was Sanchez who asked.
As fast as it had happened, the child was gone and the wise and witty conman was back, pulling his collar and tie back into place, a wry twist to his features, creasing his cheeks with dimples and giving him age lines. "Old enough, Mr. Sanchez. Older than young JD here, too, if that's what you mean."
JD had finally finished thinking through these new revelations and the shock of seeing Ezra looking like a young boy. "You and Chris?" he asked in a whisper.
Ezra nodded. "Yes." There was no fear in the voice, no pride either, just a warm tone of affection and caring. He felt Vin's hand come up to rest on one of his shoulders. A moment later, Buck's did the same on the other one.
JD backed away from the camp, then stood, staring at the ring of friends. His hero and the gambler were --- he couldn't finish the thought. He didn't notice the preacher rise from the other side of the camp and step back also.
Josiah needed to put some distance between himself and his friends, between himself and Ezra. To his great surprise, what he felt was not shock or rage or even disappointment, it was jealousy. Insidious and mean. He needed to deal with it before he faced his friend, his friends again.
JD wasn't sure he wanted to be with these men anymore. If Chris took Ezra that way, what was to stop one of the others from taking him? He panicked, plain and simple and backed further away, flinching slightly when Buck called to him, "JD?"
Ezra watched sadly as Josiah went to his horse and mounted, tugging the horse back out of the remuda line and turning away, heading back toward Four Corners. JD was standing out in the brush, looking around wildly. Then he, too, walked stiffly over to the horses and mounted his, turning it slowly away and following Josiah back toward town.
Ezra and the others watched until the two riders were lost to sight. He was vaguely surprised that Buck had remained and not gone after JD. The man's hand was still firmly pressed on his shoulder. He looked across the campfire at where Nathan now sat alone, still sipping coffee as if nothing at all had just happened. Now that was the biggest surprise of all. "Nathan?"
Dark brown eyes came up. "Seen a lot in my time. Reckon if you and Chris want each other, long as you don't hurt no one, it's fine with me."
"Thank you, Nathan." Ezra's whispered reply was the last thing said for a while. The men all needed time to deal with the emotional toll that this short talk had taken, the retreat of two of their friends.
It was Vin who stood up first. "Still gotta go get Chris." The others stood then, all helping put out the fire and pick up the temporary camp. Nathan put JD's and Josiah's tin cups in his bag without comment.
Chris sat in the warm sunshine, the shade having shifted in the late afternoon, drowsing. His hat was still pulled low and he'd been reading on and off for some time, oddly comforted by Ezra's book in his hands. The story was of a man whose love was not returned, who was a good for nothing, but who loved nonetheless. Chris felt as if he could identify with at least part of Sidney's plight. Though, Ezra had loved him. He was a good for nothing, that was for sure, especially now, without Ezra to make him feel whole. He licked his lips and looked thoughtfully over at the nearly full bottle of whiskey. No. No more. His tolerance was so high, the first bottle was only making him feel slightly sleepy. God, he missed Ezra. He wasn't sure what made him look up then, but as he did, the book fell from his hands.
Riding up the street, four abreast, were some of his friends. Nathan, Buck, Vin, and --- Ezra? "Ezra?" He whispered the last in despair. Shutting his betraying eyes, seeing what his heart wanted so desperately, he turned away, opening them to see his enemy, the whisky bottle. "Damn drink!" He grabbed the bottle and flung it against the wall behind him, watching it smash and drip down with satisfaction.
Josiah drew rein and waited for JD to come up beside him. Nodded his welcome but didn't speak. The young man returned his silent greeting with a strange look and then both moved their horses on toward the town they'd been calling home.
The return ride was restful and both men were introspective. Dunne had finally calmed down enough to realize that his fears had been groundless and actually quite stupid. If anyone had wanted to take him that way, they'd had plenty of opportunities. No one had. Buck, who had become so close to him, treated him like a little brother. Had even tried to 'help' him with women, taking him to Wickes Town, coaching him with Casey. Teasing him about Inez. Nope, he'd been foolish. Just scared and surprised and uncomfortable. Now, no longer feeling fearful, he could think on this new thing. This Chris and Ezra thing. He tried to imagine them together, tried to picture them kissing or worse. He shook his head, it just wasn't something that made sense to him. But, he thought suddenly enlightened, maybe THAT wasn't so important. It really didn't have to make sense to John Dunne. They were both his friends. They treated him with respect and care. Shouldn't he do the same?
Josiah faced his demon. Jealousy. Now where had that come from? He'd never had those kinds of feelings for Ezra. And, this was about Ezra, he knew that. Ezra was the son he'd never seen grow up. He was the sensitive, intelligent, gentle, and defensive young man who needed a father figure if not a father. Josiah had moved comfortably into the role with barely a ripple on the surface of their friendship. He'd been there when Ezra needed someone to talk with privately. He'd been protective and a staunch friend. So, now, when Ezra truly needed his friends, why was he riding out on him. Riding away. He shut his eyes and tried to grapple with the anger that had risen unbidden. Ezra had turned to Chris, loved Chris. What he felt was rejection, yet Ezra had not really done that. Was this how fathers felt when their children finally found mates, left the nest? As the realization struck him, he actually chuckled aloud. Damn.
"Josiah?" JD's quiet question followed the soft chuckle.
"Just realized something JD." Sanchez leaned back in the saddle and stretched grandly. "I'm not losing a son, I'm gaining another one." He grinned at the confused young man at his side. "Don't worry, boy, it's gonna be alright."
Dunne nodded. "Yeah. Guess I acted kinda crazy back there. Just was so unexpected. I got all scared, wasn't thinking straight." He shifted in his saddle and squared his shoulders, sounding older now. "Should we go back?"
Josiah didn't answer right away. Should they? Well, by now, the rest of the boys had probably reached Purgatorio. If Chris was there, and Buck was usually right when it came to Chris, then Ezra would no doubt be a busy man for a while. Not likely to know who was there or who wasn't. Still, he'd notice eventually. Be best if he and JD were there when he did. "Yep, guess we should."
The two friends pulled their patient horses around and started back down the track to Purgatorio and the rest of the seven.
The men were close enough so that when Chris' bottle smashed on the wall all four sets of eyes found the man in black in the semi-shadows of the bar's overhang. Vin leaned over to touch Ezra on the shoulder. "Go ahead. We'll be right behind ya."
Standish couldn't pull his eyes from the dark clad gunman standing so tall just down the street. He nodded without turning his head and gigged Chaucer into a quick trot.
Buck and Nathan waited with Vin, then the three followed more sedately, all keeping sharp eyes on the soon to be reunion. Buck was praying silently that his friend wasn't too far gone with drink. Ezra didn't need that.
Ezra drew close to the bar front, dropping easily from Chaucer, not even feeling the pain in his leg and side. "Chris?"
Larabee froze, still facing the wall of the bar, then slowly turned to look toward where he'd heard that voice. Ezra stood in front of him in the dirt of the street. Chris closed his eyes hard, then opened them again, but didn't speak. He began to tremble, the tremble becoming a shake, his whole body literally shaking as with the ague. Silently he lowered himself into his chair, scraping the legs back a bit away from the street.
The southerner watched in awe as his lover fought off the sight of him. "Chris, I'm not dead. Really. Those miscreants shot me but I survived. They left me in town." He walked up the steps and on to the bar porch as he spoke. Approaching the man in the chair slowly.
Chris grabbed hold of himself, wrapping his arms tightly around his own chest and setting his teeth hard against the chatter of them. His head was bobbing up and down now with the shakes that enveloped his whole body. He squeezed his eyes shut tight again, tears squirting anyway. Then a hand was tenderly wiping at his face, then two hands were cupping his face, and lips were pressing against his. They felt so real. He opened his eyes, hazel awash in a sea of tears. Met overly-bright green ones. "Ezra, it's really you?" He whispered cautiously.
"Really me," came the soft reply.
"You're not dead?"
"Not dead." Lips pressed his again as eyes so close saw deep into his soul and he saw life and hope and love in theirs.
"Oh, god." And the shakes stilled for a moment as he lurched back to his feet and swept the man in front of him into his arms, lifting him up and close against him. Smothering him in frantic kisses as the shaking returned with a vengeance. He hardly heard himself as he began to chant, "Alive. Alive. Alive."
Buck fingered his gun, then withdrew it from the holster to lay it across his saddle, finger on the trigger. He eyed the Mexican cowboy who was leering at his friends. Cocked his gun without truly aiming it. The dark-eyed bandito's head swiveled toward the sound of the gun. Looked once at the three men sitting on horseback and started backing away. Vin grinned at Wilmington and pulled out his own gun. Nathan shrugged and did the same. The three sat and watched the town, watched the backs of their two friends. Two men currently oblivious to everything except each other.
Chris' urgent reaction to Ezra's reappearance was gradually easing, the hard shakes reduced to a fine tremble, the desperate multiple kisses slowed to a gentle tracing of Ezra's face with his lips and tongue. Arms that had clutched now relaxed and held, letting the smaller man slip down enough to touch the ground with his feet again. Ezra's own hands had crept around his friend and were a steady pressure against his back.
Opening his eyes to look at Chris now that the loving assault had slowed somewhat, Ezra saw the bullet crease on his friend's high cheekbone. He pulled one hand free and raised it to tentatively touch the raw looking scrape, dried blood along the edge of it, a dark red slash on his lover's face. "You're hurt."
Chris paused and pulled his head back enough to meet Ezra's eyes, see and feel the hand exploring the cut on his face. "Not important." He shook his head slightly. Breathed in deeply. "You're here. I thought you were dead, Ezra." He cupped the man's face carefully. "Thought I'd lost you for all time." He pressed a gentle kiss against moist lips. Looked down into those beautiful green eyes. "'Bout died myself."
"I'm here. I'm alive. I'm fine, Chris." Ezra repeated his reassurances, his own heart full at the clear and deep love radiating from Larabee.
"Fine?" The gunslinger seemed to waken to their situation now, staring down into Ezra's face. Those words rang in memories of other times, Ezra always said he was fine. His leg could be half off, his chest stove in and he'd still say he was fine. Larabee's hands found the conman's shoulders and gripped them, pushing back enough that he could inspect the southerner thoroughly now. Saw the rumpled look to the man and the stiffness, the way he stood balanced more on one leg than both, an awkward tilt to the body. "Ezra? Truth."
Standish had the grace to look uncomfortable but then smiled a bit. This was a new life now, he'd start it right. "Two bullet hits. Leg and ribs. Nathan fixed me up." His gaze strayed back over his left shoulder a bit before returning to Larabee's.
Chris followed the direction of Ezra's momentary look. Sitting on their horses in front of the bar were Nathan, Vin and Buck, not one of them looking at him and Ez. In fact, the three had kinda circled about so that Vin actually had his horse's rump toward the saloon and was facing out at the street. Buck and Nate were facing up and down the street, all three clearly posting themselves in a protective circle for their friends. Gently, smiling, Chris pulled Ezra in close against his chest again and rubbed his chin against that soft chestnut hair, then grinned as he spotted Chaucer off to the side, watching them unblinkingly. His grin widened and the horse seemed to realize he'd been spotted for he began to nod his head up and down in an exaggerated fashion, peeling his large, soft lips back in a horsey laugh.
With a rumbling laugh in his own chest, Chris cleared his throat and addressed his men. "You boys want to come inside with me and Ez? Let me buy you a drink?" He waited as the men all swung their mounts around to face him, keeping his hold on Ezra as if it was the most natural thing in the world. And, it was.
"And Nate? I want to know how Ezra is." The last was said in such a normal, flat, Larabee tone, that all three men flashed big smiles and Nathan's grin went even wider as he answered.
"Wouldn't listen to me. I told him he needed to stay in bed more. Probably needs them ribs looked at," he cocked his head and added, "Specially after the way you been squeezin' at'em." This daring joke earned him an official Larabee glare for a moment that melted into a grin.
Buck laughed and slapped Vin's back. "Come on, hoss, let's go get us some free drinks while the old dog's buying. You bet you won't see that happen too often!"
Vin smiled and slid from his saddle, looping the reins of the stable hack over the saloon hitching rail. Buck's livery mount was quickly secured as well. Nathan gave his Bandy an extra pat before dropping his own reins over the rail and pulling his medical sack free of his gear. All three men re-holstered their weapons, almost as afterthoughts.
Tanner, more attuned to the place than the rest, noted the two horseback riders coming in down the far end of the street, even as Nate and Buck began to climb the stairs to the saloon's porch. "JD and Josiah comin' in." He was glad they'd turned back again. Wouldn't have been right without them. Ezra wouldn't have said anything, but Chris would have, once he knew what had gone down. Nope, that would not have been good. He waited until the last of the seven drew rein in front of the bar. Nodded a greeting, reassured by their smiles.
Chris ignored the rest now, shifting to the side to free one hand and shove Ezra's book back in the saddlebags on the table, then lift the bags to his shoulder. Once Ezra figured out what he had, he'd be right pissed if he thought Chris had abandoned his things out here to possible theft when they went in. Already Chris found himself thinking ahead again, thinking of how things might look, or feel to the smaller man. He carefully squeezed the man's shoulders, and guided him inside the saloon, knowing the others would follow.
The dark interior of the decrepit bar was a shock to eyes adjusted to sunlight. It was a moment before the entering men could see clearly. See the inhabitants within. Buck and Nate stepped to the sides of Chris and his charge, hands falling to pistol grips again. Buck spoke in a low, growly voice. "Clear out. This is a private party and you're not invited."
There was a stirring and bar patrons vanished, some out the back, one through a pane-less window, others slithering by the tall strong men that stood against them. No one challenged. In moments, the place was empty except for the barmaid who watched with hooded eyes from behind the bar.
Chris led Ezra to a large center table and settled him in a chair. The southerner had his eyes glued to the big gunman, seemingly not even aware of what was happening around them. Chris sat down beside him and signaled Nathan forward. "Take a look at him, make sure he's ok, Nate."
As the healer set his bag down on the table, Larabee finally lifted his eyes from his gambler to see Vin coming in now, followed by JD and Josiah. He didn't remember seeing them on the street but didn't question it. That made seven. They were all here. Together. He made a gesture to the bar that Buck caught. The ladies man wandered over there to announce loudly that it was beers all around and a bottle of their finest hooch with glasses, too. The galoot in black would be paying.
Once Nathan had checked and approved Ezra's condition, the men settled in for an afternoon's relaxed round of drinking and socializing. JD rose to the occasion with a new joke that had them all groaning good-naturedly. Ezra's chair was pulled up snuggly against Larabee's. The gunman's arm rested casually across the shorter man's shoulders. No one said a word. It was too early in this change of group dynamics for anyone to be comfortable with joking or teasing about it.
Buck and Josiah took turns filling in the blanks in the events of the separate groups over the past day or so. It was JD who blurted out the conversation that Ezra had had with the others on the way to Purgatorio. Chris had shifted closer to Ezra and sat up slightly, crossing his far leg over his knee in an unusual move that Josiah recognized as protective body language. Larabee had created a physical shield around his man. The southerner was too busy trying to reassure their leader that all was well to even notice the subtle moves. Josiah wasn't the only one, however, who absorbed the new configuration among the friends and began to adjust accordingly.
Once Chris realized that the others had not hurt Ezra during his revelations at that temporary camp, he relaxed, his leg coming back down to rest, crossed once more at the ankles, long legs straight out in front of him under the table. The southerner remained upright, despite being held closely against the shoulder of the black clad shootist. Not that he didn't want to melt against his friend, but he retained a sense of decorum that prevented him from being comfortable with overt displays in public, even just among their friends. The wildly aberrant moment out on the porch was simply due to the intensity of that first few seconds of shock. Now, he knew his place was assured but needed to keep his own person's dignity intact.
Chris sensed Ezra's discomfort with cuddling in front of the others, when all he really wanted to do was pull the man into his lap and hold him tightly forever. Guess Ez would have a fit if I tried that here. He smirked at Buck who seemed to be reading the twosome with good-humored awareness. Wilmington cocked his head to the side and nudged Vin who sat beside him, smiling vaguely at the world. "Hey Pard, I think we need to get these two love birds home to a private nest afore they embarrass us."
Tanner studied Chris, then Ezra, eyes returning comfortably to his unique brother. "Yep," he answered Wilmington with a smile in his voice, "Figure you're right."
Josiah nodded and rose, gracing them all with a huge yawn and stretch. "Brothers, Buck and Vin have the way of it. Let us leave this wretched den and return to our own sweet town and tavern."
A rumble of agreement met the suggestion and chairs started scraping across the floor. Chris stood, Ezra beside him. For the moment, contact was broken but both seemed more on an even keel now, able to part if only briefly. Larabee drew some gold dollar coins from his pocket and dropped them on the table. More than enough. Ezra reached out and took back two, tucking them back in the black jeans in an intimately matter of fact fashion before turning to follow JD, Nate and Josiah. Buck grinned at Chris' dumbfounded look. "Just wait, Pard, he's got a mind o' his own, ya know. And ain't afraid to let you know." Buck's mustache twitched in humorous understanding. "Always did. 's why you two been tugging at each other so long. Pard, you got yourself a wildcat by the tail, 'case you didn't know it yet."
Vin handed Larabee his hat and Ezra's saddlebags and patted the silent gunslinger on the back. "Think of it as a sign of things to come," he suggested with sly good humor. The last three men walked out, following their friends, leaving a relieved barmaid in an empty bar.
Seven riders crested the rise out of Purgatorio's low swept valley. They rode tall and easily, rocking with the gaits of their mounts. The thunder of the horses made talking impossible but the men moved without needing words. Falling into loose groups, they rode close together as the trail narrowed and the one in buckskins broke free to lead the way.
It was dusk as the men rode in on tired horses, Four Corners looking like a peaceful oasis after the barren landscape they'd traversed coming back from that small lawless town.
Chris stood beside Ezra as the southerner unlocked his door. Ezra looked up into glowing hazel eyes. Never had he thought this would happen. That Chris would be his here in town, in his own bed. Larabee reached out and smilingly touched fingertips to Ezra's cheek, stroking softly. "We goin' in or just gonna stand here and admire each other?"
Ezra raised his face to the touch, drinking in the feel and proximity of his lover. With a sigh, he turned away and led them inside. Habit took over and he continued to his simple wooden butler, to hang up his jacket and vest, draping his tie over the top. By then hands had come down on his shoulders again, and he was being turned around. "Let me."
Chris watched with amusement as Ezra began to undress on the far side of the room. This was their first time together in town. It was kind of like a honeymoon, he decided. They'd done a sort of exchange of vows that night in the gulch, stayed under the watchful eye of the tracker. He knew how shy Ezra could be. How he'd always let Chris lead. This had to be different but might take some time to get to. For now, he'd push a bit and get Ezra out of defensive habits as fast as he could. He walked over to capture the man and turn him. "Let me."
With concentration, Chris began to unbutton the fine small bits of bone that lined the front of Ezra's white linen shirt. He stroked back the soft ruffles and smoothed the shirt open, pulling it free of the tailored trousers. Pushed it off white shoulders and let it fall to the floor. Ezra wasn't wearing an undershirt and Chris smiled, leaning in to lick and nip one dark areole. The nubbin raised, hard against his teeth. He tasted Ezra's skin with lavish broad strokes of his hungry tongue, feeling the skin shiver beneath. Hands came up to fuss at the buttons on his own shirt and he stood up to make that easier.
Ezra was delighted in Chris' playfulness and assertiveness here. He somehow hadn't expected that, though now that he thought about it, he wasn't sure why not. Chris had always been in charge on the trail, at their private campsites. He relaxed into his role, following his leader and relinquishing control to the man. It was not an onerous task. But, he did want to see Chris' glorious body too, so he began to return the favor of unbuttoning the other's shirt.
As Chris' black shirt fell away, Ezra was once again stunned at the lean, powerful form of the blond beauty in front of him. Oh, god, how did this heavenly archangel come to be mine? His own private Michael, a vanquisher of wrongs, a protector. His protector. Ezra slipped eager hands against Chris' waistband, lower to unbuckle the man's gun belt. Chris' hands were busy doing the same, the weapons fell heavily to the floor, ignored. Pants and boots followed in a rush, then they stood facing each other, naked and throbbing.
"Oh, god, Ezra." With a groan, Chris scooped up the smaller man into his arms and carried him to the bed, lowering him and crawling on top in one motion. Laying there, pinning the smaller man down, Larabee nuzzled the arched neck presented and crooned wordlessly as two small hands came up to stroke and claw gently at his back. This felt so right, so perfect, how had he ever thought he'd want to stop it? He captured smiling lips and drove his tongue deep between them, his hands moving restlessly, one seeking a handhold among dark reddish locks, the other touching and stroking and moving south. Finding the hard flesh long and thick against his thigh, Chris wrapped his hand around the erection and pulled it tight against his own, then caught both in that single fist. Ezra moaned into the tall man's mouth, raising up his hips, his back arching in passion beneath the blond.
Ezra was lost. He was utterly and totally lost to this man who so overwhelmed him. Being loved and loving, it was so new a feeling that he was afraid to somehow break the spell. Fearing he'd wake to find this had all been some whisky induced dream. Then Chris nipped at his juncture of neck and shoulder and the sharp little pain told him he was awake even as the blond laved the spot with a healing lick. Wanting to be part of Chris, Ezra's arms and legs wound leech-like around the narrow body of his lover. "Chris." He found himself speechless, unable to do more than utter the name of his lover. Incoherent, he clung and began to rub his body rhythmically against the bigger man.
Chris stroked the two erections within his fist, once, twice, firmly, feeling pre-ejaculate begin to slick his fingers. He rolled them over so that he was on the bottom, releasing their organs and sliding his slick fingers back toward Ezra's small pucker. "Yes! Oh, Chris, yes! Take me!" The southerner was climbing frantically up the blond's torso, raising his pelvis and waving it above Chris' hard weeping member. "Now! Please!" The begging cry tore at Larabee's heart.
"Ok, Ez, we'll do it." He gripped himself and directed his blunt point to the now slick and slightly opened pucker where moments before his fingers had thrust in and twisted the muscle, loosening it. "Ready?" He looked into glazed green eyes and a wonderfully sweaty, reddened face. At the wordless look of passion there, he lifted his head to recapture Ezra's mouth with his own. As their lips came together, Chris slid inside Ezra's body, home, he was home. The southerner sat down fully on the blond, hunched over so that he could wrap both arms around Chris' head and neck as their kiss evolved, devouring, consuming each other in their hot, instinctive drive to each possess the other.
Grunting and squirming, they moved as a single multi-limbed being, thunder in their ears, flesh melting at the touch. Chris felt himself swell within Ezra as he pounded upward in time with Ezra's insistent downward thrusts of hip and pelvis. Chris grabbed Ezra's swollen hard erection and squeezed, pulling and tugging as he drove himself up into this beloved man's body. Flames seemed to burn him as he came finally, bursting deep inside the smaller man, feeling Ezra loose his own seed over the blond's belly. Both froze in their orgasmic peaks, then collapsed in a silent heap, Chris' limp organ slipping free as Ezra's legs fell to the sides and he lay breathing hard against Larabee's chest.
Chris let his hands travel over the small form lying on top of him, sweat slick and trembling. He tilted his head to find Ezra's and delicately lick love-swollen lips. "You alright?" he asked softly, hands coming to rest on each side of that most beautiful face.
Serene green eyes looked into his. Ezra spoke quietly. "Oh, very alright, Chris." His tongue came out to stroke against Chris'. Then he snuggled down, tucking his head against one strong shoulder as Larabee wrapped warm long arms around him, holding him close. It was quiet then and both men drifted off to sleep, exhausted from their lovemaking and the emotional turmoil of the last few torturous days.
Ezra woke first, feeling the coolness of evening sifting into the dark room. They lay on top of the covers. This wouldn't do, he didn't want Chris to get a chill. He rolled free of the man whose lax arms dropped away. Started to tug back the quilt and blankets, when a hand snaked out and grabbed his arm. "Ez?"
The southerner swiveled about to look down into sleepy, questioning eyes. "Just thought we should be under the covers, Chris. Can you move a bit?"
Encouraged by his very awake friend, Chris sleepily complied, coming up on hands and knees and allowing guiding hands to help him crawl beneath the blankets and soft linen sheets. "You too?" He asked muzzlily, arms raised for Ezra to join him.
The southerner smiled and swallowed at the simple trust in the way Chris was behaving. Oh, god, I love this man. He poked his feet under the sheets and straightened his legs down under, letting Larabee pull him down the rest of the way and over against the man's sleek form. "Now, go back ta sleep." The murmur was affectionate and sleepy still.
"Yes, dear Chris, yes." Hazel eyes opened wide for a moment and met green ones, awareness there and love. Then the exhaustion took over again and Larabee's eyelids drifted down, though his arms did not release the southerner from their close snuggled positions. Chris made a soft sound of contentment and relaxed, his body slipping easily into sleep.
Ezra lay there savoring the feel of Chris Larabee's length against him, sticky and warm. They'd have to go to the bathhouse later. Much later. He let his head rest on Chris' extended arm, the biceps hard and smooth beneath his cheek. Tenderly, he planted a small kiss on the nearest bit of skin. He could feel Chris' soft warm breath on his neck as the taller man shifted slightly in his sleep, moving closer still to Ezra. The conman smiled as tears dripped down his cheeks, slanting across his nose, to dampen the sheets and bath Chris' arm in salty moisture. It was just a week ago now that he and Chris had been camping out at one of their places near the desert. Chris had just turned in, to sleep, leaving Ezra to keep watch. That night, like all the others before it, he'd watched from a distance, knowing that Chris would not sleep if he tried to touch or hold him, that the man needed to be alone to sleep. He sniffled quietly and smiled a brilliant smile in the darkened room, listening to the gentle snores of the man he loved, the man who slept this night wrapped tightly around his person. Things had changed. He rubbed his cheek against the warm skin again, smearing away the tears. There was no stopping them now.
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