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?, The All-Ezra FanFic Archive, and the archives for AGL and EBOS lists --- all others, please ask.
Summary: Chris tricks Ezra into revealing his affections, but then has to convince the man that Chris returns them. All seven get involved as the town is threatened, then Buck and Ezra are kidnapped.
Warnings: violence, language, slash.
Author's Note: The first scene was written originally as a short story answer for Cowboy Dreams' Birch '04 challenge "a first time" story.
Completed: 15 April 2004
Feedback: email@example.com welcomes comments
Ezra squeezed his eyes shut tightly as the bedsprings squeaked. This was going to be an excruciating night, he decided grimly, tucking his small compact body in closer to his side of the bed.
"Ezra? You still awake?" Chris Larabee's whiskey roughened voice was low.
No. I am not awake. I am deeply asleep, sir. Ezra gripped the thin worn edge of mattress with his right hand, keeping his body still and set. The confounded bedsprings on this bed were so old that there was a tendency to roll toward the center where the springs were the weakest. He fought that with his grip. Keeping silent, he listened as the gunfighter moved slowly on the other edge of the bed. He could tell that Larabee was removing his gun belt from the creak of the leather and small click of the belt buckle as the man lowered it to the floor, close at hand.
A few more rustling sounds, likely shirt and pants. Oh Lord! Ezra grit his teeth and blinked, his eyes popping open of their own accord. The dim gaslight from the far side of the bed barely lit the wall he faced. Larabee's shadow was large upon it. The sharp outline of that head and shoulders caused him to swallow hard and shut his eyes again, warning himself that this had better be a sleepless night because he could not afford to let his subconscious loose.
Through his eyelids, Ezra could tell that Chris had turned out the light, dropping the room into deep shadows, only the moon and starlight graying things a bit through the flimsy curtains on the one street-facing window of their hotel room. The last room to be had in Bell City. It was share a room, and a bed, or sleep in the stable. Ezra would have volunteered for the hayloft if he thought Larabee would have agreed but he knew the man would have wondered. Ezra could not afford to have Chris Larabee wondering. Not about anything like that.
He heard Larabee let out a short gust of air, a sigh, then the bed was moving again, springs moaning as Larabee rolled down onto the mattress. "Night, Ez," was softly uttered, clearly not expecting a response. Safest not to give one, Ezra decided in mute agreement.
Time passed slowly. Ezra tried to regulate his breathing. He listened as Larabee's own breathing began to deepen, not into snores, just slower and deeper. Movement had ceased. Ezra dared to relax his grip on the edge of the mattress. Pins and needles in his hand attested to the fierceness of his long, hard hold. He flexed the hand and carefully loosened the muscles in his back and shoulders, letting his body slump down a bit into the bedding. The adrenaline was seeping out as it became clear that Chris was sleeping soundly.
Their short trip up the Gate River to Bell City was only to meet with Travis, testify at a hearing for a miscreant who'd been caught here, but who they both witnessed attempting to rob the Four Corners bank. Unfortunately, only Ezra and Chris had seen the man's face clearly. So they went.
The trip had been quiet, Ezra had seen to that. No small talk to irritate the man who held his heart without knowing it. He wondered if he'd ever learn to breath naturally again after this trip of constant breathless moments.
His mind drew up the image of Chris bathing that second morning on the trail, he'd waded thigh deep into the slow moving river and scoured himself thoroughly. Had even invited a surprised gambler to join him. Ezra had pointed out that it was wiser to have one on watch and declined, heart in throat, eyes averted after one clear look. Temptation sorely tried him, but he not only loved the man, he respected him and would not even now take any advantage.
Oh, unhappy thought! Ezra mentally cringed as his body reacted to the image of Chris' lean narrow form, slick with river water, glistening in the sunlight. He wriggled experimentally, trying to subdue the heat at his groin.
And then Chris turned over, his far arm coming across and falling on Ezra's chest, trapping an arm as well.
"Chris?" he made the question soft, a breath of air, in case Chris was truly still asleep. No answer. Asleep and moving. Ezra's nightmare come to life. Trapped on a bed with Larabee and unable to respond. Oh Lord.
With a snuffle, Chris rolled further over, until he was neatly plastered against Ezra's side, his arm now firmly holding the smaller man to his own body. Ezra dared not move, nor speak for fear of waking the gunman. A most embarrassing pass that would be. He could imagine the grim look from those sharp hazel eyes. There would be the question, had Ezra somehow invited this? No, no, he had NOT. But he would not be believed. Ezra ground his teeth, biting in a groan of despair.
Hours passed or so it seemed. Then Chris nuzzled Ezra's neck, his breath hot and moist under Ezra's jaw. The hand that held him so firmly began to explore. With trepidation, Ezra felt the strong blunt fingers begin to stroke along his rib cage, until they encountered his left nipple. By now, Ezra was feverish and exhausted from fighting his own body. He felt his nipple tighten and tingle in response to the lazy fingers that toyed with it.
Chris grunted, then inhaled sharply - nearly a snore on the exhale, and fitted his face down into the pillow and against the joining of Ezra's neck and shoulder. Did the man do this with Buck or Vin or any warm body in similar circumstances? Holy mother of... Ezra suppressed a tremor as his traitorous body responded to the heat of Larabee, the touches. With a wince, Ezra bit his lower lip to stifle a cry, as Chris bit down on Ezra's shoulder, snorted softly, then bit again.
He lay stiffly, hell if one part of him was any stiffer, you could raise a sail and shove him out to sea. He wondered what would happen if Chris woke now. Perhaps he should firmly disentangle himself, be loud and offended? Push the man away. No, god, no, he couldn't do that. This was what he'd always dreamed of, snuggling in bed with the blond. But of course, with a willing, knowing partner, not a sleeping, unknowing bedmate. He swallowed saliva that had inexplicably gathered in his mouth, leaving it dry and wanting.
Ezra dared to turn his head slightly, eyes mere slits of green, desperately wanting a single look at the man pressed against him. What could it hurt? One look. Something to remember, warm his cold heart on lonely nights. The moon's silver light washed the blond hair nearly white, darkening already sun burnt skin beneath. Chris' face was buried, Ezra had to be satisfied with the view of a shoulder and an ear, a long arm that circled over him and held him. Sinews stood out, even in sleep, in that lean muscled arm, furred with silvery blond hair, exquisite. To touch and remember... would be to die. Not the tiny death, but a real one. For Chris Larabee loved no man. He was a widower, a man's man. He would surely shoot first and ask later.
Ezra memorized the feel of the man, the heat, the texture, he studied the length of him, the lines and form. Then Ezra closed his eyes and mentally locked the image into his inner most private spaces to be pulled out again when alone, gloated over. He shifted slightly, not thinking for a moment as he dallied over the image. Then froze as Chris tucked Ezra's body tighter to his and pressed a dry kiss to the spot he'd bitten earlier. And Ezra came. He felt the heat flood up and gush, pulsing out against the limp linens and scratchy blanket. With a near soundless sob, he carefully twisted away within Larabee's hold, so that none of the cum would dampen Chris, alert him, wake him. Goosebumps flared along his arms and legs, his face burned with the shattered feel of his own body's incredibly fiery betrayal. And then a deep, welling calmness overtook him. Sleep caught the weary man and pulled him under.
Chris slowly opened his greenly glowing hazel eyes and lifted his head cautiously. Ezra's breathing had finally eased into sleep. He gently pet the man. If he'd had any worries about Ezra's feelings, this night they'd been allayed. Ezra had responded to his touches beyond anything he'd anticipated. The man had actually cum while frozen like a rabbit under a stooping hawk's eye. Poor Ez. Chris leaned down and pressed a loving kiss on the alabaster shoulder that rose away from him.
Next time, we'll do it with our eyes open. Chris smiled and lay back, easing the sleeping southerner's body over on top of his own and cuddling the man close within his arms' circle. Yep, next time should be real good... too.
Lips nibbling softly on his forehead woke Ezra. Warm arms surrounded him. The rise and fall of his resting place informed him of the body beneath him, firm, long, warm. Chris. Ezra blinked lazily and shifted as he snuggled closer to his dream Chris, a sleep smile gracing his own lips. Then his mind caught up with his waking body.
Oh my god. Chris? Ezra caught his breath and tried to edge off the other man's body. The arms circling his body tightened prohibitively. Swallowing hard, Ezra opened his mouth to speak.
Thud. Thud. THUD. The hotel room door shook with the last, hardest pound of someone's fist. "Larabee! You in there, Pard?" Buck Wilmington's sharp call galvanized Ezra.
Chris Larabee had been feeling very good about life for these past few happy hours. The inconvenient testimony in Bell City had turned into his golden opportunity. For weeks now, he'd racked his brain, trying to come up with a way to approach Ezra. The gambler of their group had become very dear to the gunslinger, as he'd gotten to know the private man. Funny, it was hard to think of Ezra as a 'private man' and yet impossible to think of him any other way.
Ezra sighed in his sleep and one hand came up to brush the bridge of his nose. Chris captured the hand gently and pressed a kiss to the knuckles of the finely boned digits. He tucked the errant hand back down under Ezra's chin and rested his own head against Ezra's loosely tumbled chestnut locks. He breathed the scent of Ezra and smiled, still thinking. Remembering.
When the man first appeared in Chris' life, Ezra'd been in the middle of a very dangerous confidence game, stakes as low as a few bills and as high as the man's life. Larabee had recognized desperation and courage in the cocky man. Good qualities for his recruitment into the team that Chris was forming to help the Seminole villagers back then.
Of the courage, Larabee was never in any doubt, but it was hard to read Ezra Standish, the man put out a cheerful, money-hungry image that outsiders took on face value. Their small group had survived their battle with Anderson because of the man's courage. That he'd carelessly gone in search of that Indian goldmine and left them all unprotected, easy prey for the crazy-ass Confederate colonel and his raggedy boys, that was a fact that Ezra didn't deny. But Standish had heard the canon fire, the shooting and returned to save them and to face possible harsh retaliation for deserting his post.
Ezra's breathing changed, became more agitated and he moaned quietly. Chris flattened one hand on the man's back, soothingly rubbing up and down the spine. The tenseness eased. Chris wondered what dream Ezra was living.
Larabee wasn't quite the uncompromising figure that most folks assumed and he'd seen the grays in the Seminole village situation. He had given Ezra another chance with him and never regretted it.
Gradually, as the first thirty days of the group's existence drew to a close, Chris had come to realize the hidden man in Ezra. A sweet and generous soul buried beneath the sly, articulate exterior of the conman from the unrepentant South. Chris, whose own spirit was finally beginning to heal its savaged grief, recognized and was drawn to the inner Ezra while secretly delighting in the mischievous and worldly outward facing Ezra.
A fleeting grin flashed on Larabee's gruffly blunt face, the white teeth revealed against the sandy tan. Images of an outraged Nathan, a confused Josiah, a conspiratorial Vin, an excited JD, and a guffawing Buck rose to his mind's eye as he saw some of Ezra's many schemes and antics, caustic comments and shy flashes of eye contact fly through his memories of the past few months. He hugged Ezra briefly, then eased up as the sleeper squeaked unconsciously.
Chris wondered how much time he had until daybreak and Ezra's waking. He mentally shrugged, savoring this first time holding Ezra. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the feel of Ezra.
Knowing himself to be the 'bad element' as Mary Travis labeled his sort, Larabee had grown into his role unawares as he staggered wrathfully through life. Blind to his bitter and deadly impact on others, he'd sought oblivion or at least surcease from the agonizing hole where once his wife and child had dwelt. Now his soul craved the love of another once more. He was ready. And, for mysterious reasons, his heart chose the gambler. The little bad boy in a man's clothing. Well, maybe not that mysterious, he realized as he thought back over his musings.
Once he had recognized the direction his affections had grown, Chris Larabee was all for taking what he wanted. But he was also smart enough to realize that this time it would be neither easy, nor necessarily welcomed. Ezra, his many masks worn in quick succession, could dance through any situation, without giving anything of himself away. Chris had no idea of Ezra's feelings in the heart's country. Land he was navigating himself afresh now, with caution.
So it was with hope that he'd saddled up for the trip to Bell City, a journey of several days with only Ezra at his side. Surely an opportunity would occur, a time when he could pry Ezra out of his layered protections and discover if the man returned his attraction.
But Ezra, that irritatingly suave and smooth surface persona in place, had traveled silently by Chris' side, or, when possible, in his wake. Chris, never a very talkative sort, was frustrated at every turn. He'd even tried to inveigle Ezra into the river on the pretence of bathing. But the damn man insisted on standing watch - the other way. Chilled to the bone in the cold river water, Chris had not been in a good mood when they finally got to Bell City.
The news that the place was overflowing and only one room was to be had, gave him new hope. This could be his chance, maybe his only one. So he had taken it. And Ezra had shown his colors. Chris grinned ferally in remembrance of the way Ezra had actually cum with a few caressing touches as Chris pretended to accidentally fondle the man as they slept. It had been desperation and inspiration. He hadn't yet figured out how to ask Ezra outright, cautious with the fear that he'd drive the private man even deeper within his protective shell, even if Chris guessed right. And then there was the fear of what might happen if he'd guessed wrong. Would he be given the chance to woo the man in that case? Or, would Ezra flee from Chris, leaving him heartbroken?
Then, when he'd found Ezra already in the bed tonight, his course of action had sprung fully formed in his thoughts. The simple ruse had worked and he knew Ezra must care. The response had been incredible.
And, oh, there was the feel of Ezra's skin, the texture of the nipple as it hardened, wrinkling tight and tall under his touch, the smell of him exotic and spicy, the taste of him - oh, the taste. Chris had been unable to resist. His body rubbed tightly against his desire, the exposed neck and shoulder, so firm and delicate too, it had been too great a temptation for Larabee. He'd bit down, not hard, but enough to mark his possession. Ezra belonged to him. That was definite. The man might not know it yet, but he was Chris' now.
Chris licked his lips in memory of that taste of salt and soap and linen, smoky spices and flesh. Ezra. His Ezra. Unable to resist, knowing that when Ezra woke, they'd have to talk. Knowing that now that he'd confirmed Ezra's response to him, he could open up to Ezra and encourage the man to do the same. Knowing that soon they would be seeing each other with open eyes, and he hoped, open hearts, Chris indulged in another taste. He nibbled Ezra's forehead, lips moist from licking moved gently over the furrowed brow.
And then Buck shouted at him through the door.
One moment Chris was holding Ezra close to his heart, cuddled on his chest; the next moment, the man was scrambling off in a burst of elbows and knees, the normally graceful man an explosion of hard bony points and shifting weight. With an 'oof' that would do a horse proud, Chris jack-knifed in the middle of the old mattress as Ezra used Larabee's body as a spring board for a leap to the far side of the room.
Chris gasped for breath, hand to his now sore sternum and tried to speak. Facing him in baleful outrage stood the gambler, short knee-cut silk under drawers his only cover. The man's body was shaking, his normally green eyes were black holes, his face paled to a nearly transparent white blanch.
Before Chris could manage to capture enough breath for a word, Buck had put a shoulder to the door and burst it open. Larabee saw Ezra's eyes open impossibly wider and then Chris had to turn his head to face Wilmington, promising himself that he'd get rid of his inconvenient friend fast.
"Hey! Chris, Ez! Sorry to wake you up but we got trouble back in town."
Chris gulped in much needed air. Shoving stiff fingers through his dirty blond hair, he kicked his legs free of the bed coverings and squinted at Buck Wilmington. Buck hung in the burst open room door, hands clenched on the door's frame, as he leaned in from the hallway.
"Buck, what the hell are you talkin' about? What trouble?" Chris' sharp tone cut across the room; he was uncomfortably aware of the silence behind him.
Wilmington pushed his old battered hat back out of his eyes with one hand and cocked a hip against the doorway. "Not sure, Pard. Found a telegraph waiting for me from Josiah when I got to Bade's Junction."
Larabee nodded distractedly. Buck had been sent north over a week ago to meet up with a prison wagon, deliver Taylor Bent to the wagon, bound for Yuma prison by way of several other towns. The plan had been for Buck to meet up with Chris and Ezra for the return trip from Bell City.
The nerves in Chris' neck crawled. What was Ezra doing? Why hadn't he said anything yet? Chris stared at Buck and fought to keep from turning around to check on Ezra.
Oh Lord. How did this happen? Damnation, I must have been sleep walking! Shaking badly, Ezra stumbled to a halt and spun to face Chris Larabee. The pounding of the door stopped. Chris looked right at him, his face as unreadable as Ezra hoped his own was. The door crashed open and there was Buck Wilmington, half inside and already speaking.
Ezra sagged down on the wooden chair by the window as Larabee's attention was forced away and over to their intruder. A quick glance down had a red blush streaking up his neck and flushing his face. The stain of his indiscretion was plain on the thin silk drawers. With a swift movement, as his two colleagues engaged in an exchange of information, Ezra pulled on his shirt from the night before, the tails covering him. Then a tug and the drawers dropped though he had to peel the front away from the dried stickiness. Back to the room, Ezra quickly dampened an edge of the fabric and wiped himself clean, using the water from the ewer and bowl set that had been left in the room.
With short, savage moves, Ezra managed to drag on fresh under drawers, trousers, jab shirttails within, button hook his suspenders and thrust on his vest before turning to face the room again. Buck was still talking.
"Josiah's message just says that Vin's gone, they got a pack of renegade 'pache and outlaws raiding the small ranches, and the Garson Brothers showed up at the saloon last night."
"Why didn't he send word here?" Larabee's question was muffled by cloth as he dragged his shirt on over his head, not bothering with buttons.
Buck crossed his arms and shook his head, "Lines are down here."
Larabee stood, grabbing his jeans and pulling them up, fumbling with the buttons and dropping his head as Ezra finally spoke.
"Mr. Wilmington, did Mr. Sanchez explain Mr. Tanner's absence?"
Voice sounds steady enough, Chris thought and finally turned his head enough to look at Ezra. The man was nearly completely dressed, working on his derringer rig. No sign of the panic Chris had felt when Ezra dove out of the bed moments ago. Shit. Now he and Ezra'd have to wait to come to an understanding. No way to do it in Buck's company and they had to ride. "You ready?" He asked his gambler.
Ezra's head came up and shuttered green eyes stared back with no expression. "Of course, sir. Let us depart."
Buck nodded from the doorway, face still grim. "I got your horses from the livery, see you down on the street."
Chris rose, feeling a reprieve in the few minutes that Wilmington had unknowingly granted them. "Ezra," he searched the bland countenance, unable to see sign of the passion he'd uncovered during the night, "Last night-"
"Mr. Larabee, we should be packing." Standish's sharp interruption was so unexpected that Chris blinked in surprise, his mouth still open around unsaid words.
Taking a deep breath, Chris strode over to where Ezra had swung away and was stuffing saddlebags with unusual carelessness. He leaned over and captured one of Ezra's hands. "Ezra."
Snatching back his hand, the shorter man backed away with a quick step and looked up into Larabee's face. "Mr. Larabee?"
"We've got to talk-"
Shots sounded out on the street and Chris stopped. Buck was out there somewhere. He took a long step over to the window, brushing up against Ezra who was turning to look out the casement. They could see two cowboys laughing and swinging whiskey bottles in the air. One had clearly shot off a few rounds into the air from the pistol he was waving about.
Both men relaxed slightly, and then Chris turned around toward the room and found himself face to face with Ezra. He inhaled the scent of the man, learning it again. Last night already seemed a lifetime ago. He leaned forward, intent on the half-parted lips so close.
Ezra had thought he'd covered himself well. Cleaning up and dressing in a nonce, he'd managed to make things look remarkably normal as Buck nattered on about Josiah's incomplete telegraph. He'd watched in disappointment as Chris Larabee's skin was covered with a shirt and swallowed hard, pushing such thoughts fiercely down and away. Bad enough that his body had betrayed him last night, he would not invite derision and enmity in the daylight.
And then Buck was gone again and Chris was coming towards him. Wanting to talk. Ezra panicked when Chris took one of his hands, the touch burning him. He pulled away quickly stepping back as well. But Chris followed. Only the gunshots from those wretches in the street saved him from the further embarrassment of a full confrontation. Maybe by the time they'd returned home, things would be back to normal. And he could continue his fruitless yearnings at the safety of a discreet distance.
Ezra flicked another glance out the window, sighing in relief that the shots had not involved Buck, then he looked up, and directly into hazel eyes. Chris had turned back from the window and was too close, his eyes intent, a look on his face that commanded, demanded. Ezra watched as Chris leaned in and his lips approached. Surely not. Surely he didn't intend to-? Ezra shook his head and ducked away, not wanting to reveal how much he wanted his cockeyed view to be reality. Certain he was reading this all wrong.
Chris clenched air. Slippery little weasel. He stifled a groan. How the hell did I fall in love with you? he thought as he shook his head. It would be funny if he wasn't so sure, so needy. But clearly Ezra wasn't yet convinced of Larabee's gentler intent.
No time to get things straightened out now, Chris thought grimly. He strode from the room, swinging his saddlebags onto his shoulder and removing a cheroot from his inner coat pocket. With a lift of his jaw, he signaled Standish to follow, confident in his man, even if they hadn't got to the rest of it yet. Standish, already moving, likewise encumbered with bags, touched his hat brim in silent acknowledgement of the order. Chris bit the cheroot tip off and spat it on the stairs as they clumped down them. Damn fool will follow me into blazing guns, certain death, but shies from a blasted kiss.
By the time they'd reached the street, Buck was there on his gray, their horses saddled and ready at the hitching rail. Larabee sighed and looked up at the brightening blue sky. "Let's ride."
Ezra inhaled sharply, enjoying the tang of fresh grass-sweet air as he rode following along behind Chris and Buck, traveling back along the trail to Four Corners. He tried not to think back on the night before. Even not thinking of it led to heat in his belly and a thickening below, uncomfortable in the saddle. He pulled his shoulders back even more, his seat as always, correct and proud as he was taught.
Ezra could not imagine how slumping in the saddle could be comfortable, despite the fact that all his cohorts seemed to do so. Of course, Vin, who probably spent more time horseback than the rest had back problems, of that he was certain. Man always slouched, leaned, sprawled. With a quirky smile, Ezra realized his meandering thoughts had eased his heat, relaxed his body's frustrations.
He wondered how long they'd keep up the ground-eating canter. They were two days out of Four Corners, no matter how hard they pushed. His gaze returned to the dark shoulders rising and falling ahead of him. Chris. He licked his lips and raised one hand, thumb rubbing against his lower lip pensively.
Larabee wanted to scratch the itch between his shoulder blades. With a hidden smirk, he figured Ezra must be staring a hole there. Now that he knew for certain that Ezra had feelings for him, Chris realized that he had become sensitized to the gambler's moods and thoughts. Kinda like with Vin, only more a sense of what Ezra was feeling than just signals in a gunfight or parts of a plan that seemed obvious to the two of them, him and Vin. Seemed like he and Vin just plain thought alike.
Chris paused in his ruminations. No way. Ain't no way that Vin feels like that too. For Ezra. Chris felt a surge of black anger and jealousy, near to hate for the quiet Texan. Then common sense reared up and he shook his head at himself. No, if Vin had wanted Ezra, he was sneaky enough that he'd a'thought of a way to get to Ezra by now - and woulda done it. Nope. Ezra was safely his. Chris firmed his lips around the short butt of cheroot, nearly scowling. All he had to do was figure out a way to let Ezra know that.
Buck Wilmington rocked in the gray's saddle, at one with his horse. Like when he rode Miss Molly. He grinned and raised his head, sniffing in the fresh smells of the countryside. Sure beat the hell out of towns. Ladies were in those towns, though, and always smelling pretty, tasting mighty nice, and feeling oh, so good. Buck's face rounded in a smile of dreamy contentment, the ends of his mustache rising in a bow.
Chris thundered along just behind him and Ezra behind Chris. Wonder how they got along on the trip out? The smile slowly faded. Damn, hope they weren't getting too much on each other's nerves, those two never seemed at ease together. Not a question of meanness or anything, just seemed to rub each other wrong. Always a sharp word from Chris, a tart response from Ez. Click, clack, like flint on pyrite. Sparks flew. Might be wise to keep 'em apart on the trip back, so every one would be ready for whatever nastiness might be waitin' on them. Mind set, Buck nodded to himself. Yep, he'd see that they kept the peace. He could be their fence, keep 'em in their own paddocks like two bulls waiting for the heifers.
That got Buck on to another thought. Wonder if I can move that along any? Get Chris to spendin' more time with Mary? Do him good. Know he finds his way out to places, like that Wickes Town was, to ladies like Lydia, but the man is a family man at heart. Needs another Sarah. Needs to settle down. Figure Mary might just be right for him, smart, sassy, stand up to him and get him thinking. He shook his head, sounded just like old Ez. He chuckled that thought away and then looked sharply to his left as a pheasant took wing from some low brush. The bird was favoring a wing and flying low.
Mama out to decoy us away from her nest. Buck shrugged. He didn't think they needed game for the night's meal, not enough to steal a mama from her young. He clucked at the gray, moving the slowing animal back up to the pace they'd set, and wiped his face with the back of one hand. Was getting a bit warm, now that the sun was rising.
The men continued doggedly throughout the morning, pacing their horses, walking, trotting, short canters, then back to walking. It would be a long ride. Although nothing was said, none of them felt in any danger yet. Two days out of Four Corners was likely too far out from the troubles. But, come tomorrow, closer to the town, they'd all be more alert.
Chris decided they'd need to set up a watch for the night on the trail, no sense being bushwhacked so close to town when they already knew there was trouble in the area. He'd been watching the horizon, letting Buck pick the trail and lead. Waiting to see sign of smoke, a sure signal that the band of raiders of Josiah's message had struck again. So far, the sky was clear.
Ezra was irritated by his mood swings. He'd hoped that back on the trail, especially with Buck along, that he'd feel more himself. Each time he let his guard down, though, flashes of last night would return, scaring him with the intensity with which he felt them.
Chris risked a look to the rear, raising up in his saddle and turning, resting a hand on the cantle. Ezra was staring right at him from the back of his smooth-gaited chestnut. Chris smiled and nodded, tickled when Ezra's eyes widened, then glazed into that bland self-protective mask. Ezra touched his hat brim in acknowledgement and Chris winked. He couldn't help himself. Standish's bland look became a glare of suspicion. Chris turned back to face front again, suddenly not sure that he should have succumbed to that temptation. The hole between his shoulder blades began to grow. Nope, that wasn't too smart. Gotta stop teasing the man and put him out of his misery. With a gusty sigh, Chris vowed to himself that somehow, tonight he'd manage time with Ezra, maybe while Buck slept. Got to clear the air soon. He twitched in his seat, feeling the tightness again down there. Yeah, very soon.
Now what in the world was *that* all about? Ezra stared blackly at Larabee's back. He WINKED at me. He doesn't wink at me. He doesn't wink at anyone. Chris Larabee doesn't wink. Maybe he got something in his eye just then? Perhaps it was just an automatic closing of the eye in response to a particle of dust. It looked like a wink. Ezra growled low in his throat. Chaucer threw up his head in startled surprise and Ezra had to pat the arched neck and murmur calming words. When the horse settled, Ezra returned to his thoughts. He didn't know if he should be insulted or curious, ignore the provocation or demand an explanation. He bit his lower lip and began to worry it with his teeth. Was there some significance to that wink? Did he wake during the night? Did he know that I lost control? Ezra paled at the very thought. Would he now think that fodder for jest? Over the fire tonight, will he relay the episode, with much chuckling and elbow ribbing to Buck? Whilst I sit, forlorn, an object of mirth, on the far side of the fire? He WINKED at me. Stunned, Ezra's mind reeled about, grasping for reasons for the uncharacteristic expression, and none of the reasons were good. I shall keep my distance tonight, give him no further grist for his humor mill. He and Buck can enjoy themselves at my expense, but I shall overlook it. Calm, yes, serene, uncaring, that shall be my tack. Oh Lord. He winked.
A very frustrated, downright exasperated Chris Larabee remounted his horse. The black's coat shivered in empathy with his rider's disgruntlement. The noon break had proved to be like some weird childhood game of musical chairs.
Every time he tried to sit down next to Ezra or get near him, something happened. First Buck damn near tripped over his own feet, almost landed in their small cook fire, and ended up sprawled nearly in Ezra's lap. Chris had hauled the man up but Ezra had already shifted away from the debacle and was settling across from them. Chris had crossed back toward Ezra's spot after making sure Buck was alright. Buck had laughed good heartedly at his own foolishness and suggested coffee to go with their hardtack. Since he was rubbing one shin as he said this, Chris found himself detouring to the saddle bags to retrieve his battered coffee pot and some ground beans in a sack.
Once he'd gotten the pot going on the fire, he turned back toward Ezra, ready to sit down next to the gambler. Gone. The weasel had wriggled away again. Flashing a look of irritation around the camp, he started to rise to his feet.
"Call of nature, Pard." Buck was stirring the fire now with a peeled stick, pushing the hotter embers towards the pot.
"What?" The question squirted out before Larabee could control himself.
"Ezra. Figured you were looking for him. He headed off into the trees while you were setting up the pot here."
Chris sighed and sat down on a crumbling log beside the folded bedroll that Standish had left behind. He'll come back to sit here, Chris decided smugly.
The two men sat in comfortable silence, waiting for the coffee to heat, Buck gnawing on a piece of hardtack. The small sounds of crushed dry leaves, a snapped twig, and a crunched snail shell foretold Standish's return. Chris stared straight into the fire, don't want to scare him off. Especially after that look he gave me while we were riding.
Tidy trousers with buffed boots appeared to the side and strolled lazily across the edge of Larabee's vision. He figured it was safe to glance over. Dammit. Ezra was leaning against a tree, clearly with no intentions of coming to sit by the fire. He was drying his hands on a handkerchief.
"Ez? You want some coffee?" Buck's casual manner crashed through Larabee's concentration. He realized he'd been staring. With a flush, he lowered his eyes.
"That would be most welcome, Mr. Wilmington," the southern sounds licked across Chris' belly, making it twist.
"How 'bout you, Pard?"
Larabee nodded and thrust out his tin mug. With savage satisfaction, he realized Ezra had left his own mug on the blanket roll. Now he'll have to come over-
"Toss me Ezra's mug, will ya, Chris?" Buck had a feeling that his old friend had been laying in wait for Standish, and to judge by the gambler's cautious distance, so did Ezra. Buck would be a buffer, be safer for all concerned.
Larabee nearly growled as he hefted the mug across the fire to Buck. If he didn't know better, he'd think the two of them had planned this. Chris stood abruptly and stalked over to his horse, drinking down the hot liquid in one punishing, long swallow, then shoving the mug back into his saddle bag. "We should be going."
Blue and green eyes both swung toward him in surprise. But, no one spoke. Standish leaned over and caught up the pot, refilling Wilmington's mug and his own, then pouring out the rest of the coffee on the fire. He shook it and then set it down to cool.
Chris abandoned all pretense and stared as Ezra picked up his unused blanket and, still sipping coffee, walked over to Chaucer's place on the tether. Man walks with uncommon grace. Chris burned to touch him again.
Buck watched Larabee. Okay, gotta derail this train soon before we have us an explosion. "Hey Chris? Can you take your pot?" He managed a fairly convincing grimace, "My leg still smarts something-"
"Sure, Buck." Chris Larabee's voice grated. Both Standish and Wilmington took note, the gunman was not happy.
Chris reined over his black, waiting impatiently for Ezra and Buck to catch up. They had a long ride still before night camp, and then they'd only be halfway back to Four Corners. He had a feeling that tonight wasn't going to go well for his plans with Ezra. Well, he could just grab the man and shake him senseless, then knock some real sense into him. So they could share a bedroll. He didn't think he'd last the night if he couldn't touch Ezra, not now, not after last night. Somehow, deciding to force the issue seemed to ease his tension and he actually had a smile for the other two men when they finally rode up and joined him on the trail.
Buck and Ezra exchanged looks of confusion. Chris was smiling at them almost cheerfully. On Larabee, that expression looked downright dangerous. He nodded at them and turned his horse back to the trail, gigging it into motion. They followed, Buck a bit bewildered by Larabee's changeable moods, Ezra with the stirrings of an idea.
It couldn't be that-? In his mind's eye, Ezra reconstructed Chris' behavior at the noon camp. Maybe it could.
Ezra mulled over his new perspective. Larabee had tried to get near him repeatedly during the stop. Between Buck and his own actions, Ezra had managed to keep them apart. Now he began to wonder exactly what Chris' intentions had been. If he'd only wanted to mock Ezra, he could have just talked with Buck, rather like Ezra had originally imagined. Instead, he'd seemed determined to approach Ezra again. That smile promised something. Ezra wondered. He began to foolishly hope, unable to quash the feelings that were rising inside, warm and tender.
As dusk began to hide the trail, Chris cut off and into a group of trees where a brook sparkled with lights from the setting sun. It was a good camp spot, an old circle of hearthstones, blackened from multiple uses, testified to that. The others followed easily, all dismounting together and leading their horses to the stream to drink.
Setting up night camp was a more elaborate procedure than nooning. A watch had to be set, too. Chris would take first watch, then Ezra, then Buck. A simple stew and more coffee were supper.
They'd had a long ride today, Buck figured with the tiredness and having watches, he had no need to try to keep his pards apart. Didn't seem like they was busting to get at each other's throats anyway. With a grunt, he flipped open his bedroll and dropped down on to it, barely hearing the answers to his, "G'night."
Ezra had watched his ally desert him for the arms of Morpheus. He turned to see Larabee standing by the fire, smoking a cheroot, he seemed to be stargazing. Well. Ezra smoothed out a spot across from Buck on the other side of the campfire. He carefully unrolled his sleeping blankets, folding back the layers to let them warm a bit by the fire.
With a dusty plop, another bedroll landed beside him. Startled, he looked up to find Chris looming over him looking determined.
"Before you hightail it for the brush, let me just say a few words."
The strain in Larabee's voice froze Ezra where he knelt beside his blankets. Flashing a look over at Buck - still sleeping - he swung his hips over on to the blankets and pulled his legs in, crossing them closely. He tried for an attentive expression as he sat and watched the blond gunman sink down on top of the other, unrolled, set of blankets.
Once settled facing Ezra, Chris bit his lips. Hell, this wasn't going the way he planned at all. He snuck a look over at Buck - asleep - and crossed his arms tightly across his chest. He tried to look nonviolent but wasn't too sure of his success, Ezra's face for once was easy to read and what he read was fear.
"Ezra-" All right, that was a beginning. Chris frowned. Ezra flinched. Chris nearly shot forward to grab him but instead simply fisted his hands and tucked his crossed arms in tighter. "Ezra." Dammit. Why was this so hard?
"That is my name, Mr. Larabee." Ezra was leaning back a bit now, not budging from his seated position exactly, just ensuring a spot of safety. Mr. Larabee looked unhappy which did not bode well for this rather stilted conversation. With trepidation, Ezra decided to try to make this a bit easier, assuming, of course, that he was correct in his earlier guesses. "I feel I must tender an apology for last night."
"YOU?" Chris started, his arm muscles bulged inside the dark shirt, stretching the fabric as he strained against his own pose. Chris was a blunt man. Time for some home truths. "No, you don't owe me any apology Ezra. But I owe you one." He paused and dropped his eyes, then brought them up again to meet Ezra's. "I wasn't asleep."
Oh dear. So his first supposition had been right. Chris had awakened to see, hear, hell, probably even smell his embarrassing lack of control. Ezra blushed. His tongue came out, just the tip, between his parted lips, moistening them in his nervousness.
Oh god. I can't stand too much more of this. Larabee lurched forward, only to rock back when Standish raised a hand defensively. Shit. "Ezra, I don't know what you think you know, but I never went to sleep."
Ezra's mind, whirling at high speed, came to a clanking, clattering halt. "Never?"
"No. I-" Chris breathed deeply, "I've been in love with you for a while now-"
"-in love-" Ezra stared.
"Yes. Only, I couldn't tell what you were thinking about me. I mean, I could," Chris shrugged, "Figured you didn't like me much."
"-didn't like you-" Ezra's mouth fell open.
"But I thought, maybe, underneath, since I cared so much for you," Chris paused wondering why he was shaking so bad, then plowed ahead anyway, "that you might, that is, that you could care - you know, for me too." Hazel eyes looked hopefully into glazed green ones.
"-me too-" Ezra felt like a stunned parrot.
Suddenly angry at the lack of progress they were making, Chris let his arms - now boneless - drop to his sides. "Can you please say something? Besides repeating me?"
Ezra worked his mouth but only a puff of air came out. He shrugged and shook his head. Overwhelmed, I am simply undone. He didn't know if he should be outraged or charmed. Resentment at Larabee's manipulation warred with relief that they both felt the same way and that Chris had taken the initiative to find that out. What Ezra felt most, was confused. Alright, yes, and irritated, resentful, um, and, oh the hell with it, I'm in love.
Chris sighed. He reached out one tentative hand and caught one of Ezra's, folding his fingers in between the gambler's graceful ones. "Ezra, last night, you responded to me. I know you did. I figure that means you care about me. Think you could say it?"
Ezra tipped his head to the side, staring deep into clear hazel eyes, eyes that burned for him. For ME. Tendrils of warmth unfurled within his chest. "You care about me."
Chris sighed, again. "Yep. Said that. Now," he edged forward a bit on the blanket roll, "how about you?"
There was another moment of silence. Ezra wanted to say so much, tell Chris that there were other ways he could have tried, to find out if Ezra cared. But somehow, he felt bogged down in his emotions, almost comatose with relief. He still couldn't seem to find any words.
"Fer gawd's sake, Ez, give the man a break and answer him or I'll never get any sleep here!" Buck's frustrated yell from the far side of the fire startled both men.
Ezra twisted around to try to see Buck and his boot tip caught on the blankets beneath him, tumbling him to the side and back. Strong hands caught his shoulders and righted him. Then pulled him back, away from the fire, into warm, strong arms.
"Go back to sleep, Buck." Larabee's voice sounded like a suppressed chuckle of relief.
"You got it, chief." Buck's grin could be heard in his voice.
Ezra found himself cradled closely in those encircling arms as with a nudge of a booted foot and knee, a long leg came out and around him on either side, knees bending up to fence him in. Suddenly, none of it mattered as much as these arms holding him close. "Is this entrapment, Mr. Larabee?"
"If that's what it takes, Mr. Standish." Chris spoke softly now, letting his warm breath blow directly into Ezra's nearest ear. Then he kissed said ear lightly.
Ezra shivered. "Ooh. That was nice." He relaxed back into the firm hold and felt Chris' chest supporting his back. He turned his head to try to see the man but their positions allowed him only a peripheral glimpse.
"Yes, it's true." Ezra P. Standish telling the truth. A truth that could have gotten him killed. Trust Chris. Ezra smiled into the fire and snuggled deeper into Larabee's hard arms. "I have cared for you from the first I saw you, when you discerned my simple ploy-"
"-con in the saloon." Ezra's smile grew and he tipped his head straight back. Chris nuzzled his hair.
"I want to sleep with you again tonight, Ezra."
Chris wrapped his arms tighter around his gambler. "We'll just sit here and watch together until it's Buck's turn."
"And then?" Chris could hear the smile in Ezra's voice.
"And then, we put these two bedrolls together."
"That sounds quite nice, I do believe I'll-"
From the dark came a known voice, "Vin. Coming in!"
"Before you hightail it for the brush, let me just say a few words." Chris. Buck frowned. Shee-it. Maybe I done bowed out too soon. Buck listened, wide-awake again the moment he heard that tone in Chris' voice. Chris was really trying to say something, something that was hard to get out. Buck had been there when Chris was trying his damnedest to woo Sarah, stumbling over his own tongue, needing coaching from Buck to pick the right words.
Buck eavesdropped shamelessly. Chris was nearly strangling himself, trying to express himself to Ezra who wasn't helping at all. Fool seemed to have lost all his fancy words in the face of Larabee's struggle to find some. Buck regrouped mentally. So, not trying to tear each other a new asshole, nope, seems they like each other's just fine as is. Buck grinned to himself in his hump of blankets. Like that is it?
He began to feel a bit impatient though as Ezra choked on words and Chris tripped over them. He could feel the level of frustration rising. When Chris asked for the second or third time, "-how about you?" Buck decided it was time to give the recalcitrant con man a push.
He took a deep breath and bellowed into his bedroll, "Fer gawd's sake, Ez, give the man a break and answer him or I'll never get any sleep here!" He had to stifle the chuckles that wanted to break out at the silence that followed *that* little announcement.
"Go back to sleep, Buck." Buck could hear the relief and amusement in Chris' voice.
"You got it, chief." Now, maybe they'd settle down and he could get some sleep. He closed his eyes tighter and eased one arm up over his head, over his skyward ear, muffling anything more that might happen on the far side of the fire. Not what he'd expected, but if that's what the boys wanted, least he could do was step out of the way. He wriggled into a more comfortable position, a beatific smile etched across his face.
The quiet murmurings across the way had a lulling sound, so when Vin Tanner's voice called in, "Vin, coming in," rough, grating, and carrying, Buck shot up, wide awake yet again. Fuck. Buck rolled up to a sitting position, one hand full of 45, the other scratching at his head as he turned over to face the fire.
Tanner emerged from the shadows at the fire's edge, hands open and free of any weapon. Meant that whatever was going on, nothing was happening right now. Buck relaxed and spared a look over at his trail mates. Chris was sitting up, with Ezra's back against his chest, nesting the smaller man against him, cuddled up sweet as could be. Buck's mouth stretched into another half-smile. They got guts.
Tanner had swung wide of the encampment of raiders and slipped through the broken growth toward the trail from Bell City. Figured Chris, Ezra, and Buck were likely to be headed back soon, hoped to catch up with them. He'd smelled the fire before he spotted it through the screen of brush and scattering of trees. He knew this trail stop, had used it himself before. Good shelter, water.
Moving like a ghost, Vin Tanner was the embodiment of oneness with the land. Josiah might talk all spiritual about rocks and trees, but Vin could be one. He floated closer, could see the sleeping form, hear the muted sound of low voices, saw Chris sitting there. Holding Ezra. Vin worried for a moment that Ezra might be sick or hurt, but Chris' face was funny. If Vin were pressed to describe it, he'd a' said, tender. Vin, at the edge of the camp now, blinked. Readjusted his thinking, and took a deep breath. Better now than in a few minutes, if I read this right.
He moved into the light, calling out a warning. "Vin, coming in." Made sure his voice was loud and easy to recognize. No point gettin' shot.
As it was, Tanner faced three guns when he came to a stop in front of low flames of the campfire. Chris uncocked his first, reholstering it as the Buck and Ezra lowered their guns. Looking down the bores of three pistols wasn't something Vin enjoyed. He gave them a moment to see him and then squatted on his haunches in the circle of light.
"Tanner, you could lose your cajones that way." Buck was gruff. Vin showing up like this meant the trouble was closer.
"Buck." Chris' one word warned off his old friend. They all knew what Vin was like. His appearance was typical of the man, emerging from the dark of night like a wraith.
"Mr. Tanner, your timing, as I have so often had cause to state, is impeccable." This time though, they all heard not admiration but regret in Standish's voice.
Ezra made no effort to move from Larabee's embrace. At the first sound of Vin's voice, Chris had shot an arm down over his shoulder, and chest in an obviously instinctive and protective move. Ezra rather liked that. At his comment to Vin, Ezra felt Chris' fingers dig into his ribs for a moment, but the man didn't remove his arm. Ezra relaxed and let his weight lean into Larabee as he holstered his Remington.
"Vin?" Chris stared at his best friend and waited.
Tanner was quick to see that Larabee wasn't the least uncomfortable with the way he'd been found, in fact, he seemed to have wrapped himself pretty thoroughly around Standish who looked mighty pleased in a quiet, cat ate the bird sort a way. Figure that's them now. Vin shrugged ever so slightly. Okay with me, Cowboy. Then he picked up a peeled thin branch that had been discarded near the circle of firestones. "Found the camp of the fellers been raiding outside a' town." He drew a few lines in the dirt. "Just northeast of us here."
Chris leaned forward over Ezra's shoulder, chin ending up resting on it as he studied Vin's quick sketch. "How many?"
"Maybe thirty. Hard to tell. Keep riding off in huntin' parties, then coming back."
"All Apache?" Buck asked. He was sitting up now, his long barrel resting across his lap as his fingers played with the trigger casually.
"No. Some renegade 'pache, no real leaders, and about as many whites. Real nasty though, not just stealin', they been leaving a trail of dead behind 'em."
"It would seem we have a vile group of filth to remove from our little corner of the world, gentlemen." Ezra felt - relaxed, at ease, *right*, in Chris' arms, surrounded by him. That Vin and Buck were both there and not saying a word was fascinating. Neither looked shocked nor outraged. Just business-like. And - ridding the world of such demonic citizens was their business.
It amazed Ezra that the world was changing for him in such a short time, he'd gone from panicked morbidity to comfortable coziness in just a few words, a few moments, a few touches. They still hadn't even kissed, yet here they were, acting like old lovers, casually intimate in front of their friends, and planning a campaign against marauders. Ezra grinned. Ain't life grand? He held tightly to the thought.
No one slept that night as Vin slowly drew out further details of the camp of marauders and the character of the men, describing the individuals closely as he recalled them, sometimes even names that he'd heard in exchanges amongst them. Buck had made more coffee and then some beans and biscuits for Vin.
Ezra remained within the circle of Chris' arms for sometime, growing more uncomfortable with the sideways stares of Tanner and Wilmington as the men settled in at the campfire. It wasn't that either man had made any comment or even given him pause with a look, but Ezra felt the scrutiny.
Every time Ezra shifted, Chris moved with him, stroking him, petting his chest as if gentling an untamed creature. Listening to Chris' voice with the warm air of his breath against Ezra's ear was proving his undoing. If I do not escape soon, I may very well go insane.
Larabee tried to listen to Vin. Really. He knew they needed to get these raiders contained, stopped and soon. But Chris was growing afraid. Not of the damn raiders. He was becoming worried about his newly established footing with Ezra.
Chris could tell from the stiffness in Ezra's posture, that he was unhappy to be seen like this, but if Chris let him go, he wasn't sure if he'd be able to recapture him. Damn it, Ezra isn't some wild animal that I have to keep caged. But he couldn't seem to shrug off the fear that Ezra would manage to ignore their new footing and try to pretend nothing had happened. Damn near nothing HAS happened, Chris thought with disgruntlement, eyeing Buck and Vin across the fire with impatience. All he'd needed was a bit more time. Just a few more hours in that hotel room before Buck showed up, or even here in camp before Vin showed up. Unconsciously, tightening his grip in irritation at fate and friends, he heard Ezra's quiet grunt. Shit. Chris loosed his hold, this isn't working.
Ezra was uncertain of how to deal with this new situation. Dream and reality were not close, not by a mile. Yet, he was in Chris' arms. Something he'd dreamed of at night and fantasized by day. Chris had declared himself, demanded Ezra do likewise. But love should be a private thing, surely? Sitting here on display for their associates was ill conceived, perhaps mad. Neither Buck nor Vin had voiced objections but tolerance did know bounds, of that Ezra was certain. Experience told him that this was all going much too easily.
He couldn't prevent a surprised grunt when Chris hugged him hard. The arms eased up almost the instant he reacted, but he'd felt trapped in that moment. Maybe wanting and getting were not the same. Maybe dreaming of Chris and having the man return his affections were not the same. Maybe this was a very bad idea.
Time to put some distance here, normalize things for everyone. "Mr. Larabee, I beg leave. Nature calls and I must answer, sir." When Larabee did not respond, nor release him, Ezra blushed slightly and corrected himself with a certain formality in tone, "Chris." He did not attempt to turn and look up into the blond's face, instead Ezra stared straight into the fire. He waited and the arm across his chest was slowly withdrawn.
Ezra rose to his feet and nearly stumbled as numb legs, too long crossed were slow to respond. Before he could fall, Chris was up and behind him, steadying him with hands on his arms.
"Don't stray too far, mio," Chris murmured in the nearest small ear.
Ezra shivered, feeling goose bumps rise along his arms and he nodded with a quick jerk, nearly wrenching himself free of Chris' embrace in his haste.
Vin and Buck apparently both needed deep sips of coffee suddenly, their hat brims dipping as they drank. Ezra's color rose and he hurriedly brushed his jacket sleeves down and smooth, then straightened his cravat and vest with trembling fingers.
"Ez?" Chris' hoarse voice was tender and concerned. He gently touched Ezra's shoulders and tugged him around so that they could face each other. Chris had eyes only for the smaller man standing stiffly in front of him and he could tell that Ezra wasn't happy anymore, even though he'd responded at first. Now Chris sensed fear, maybe even pain, in the man's voice and stance. This wasn't going the way he hoped and Ezra looked likely to be running out on him. Chris was ready to mount up, with his gambler, and leave the boys behind rather than hurt Ezra. To hell with those damn raiders.
The southerner licked dry lips. Larabee seemed intent on mortifying him in front of the others. Taking a deep breath, Ezra stepped away from and around Chris, and away from the direct light of the campfire. "I'm fine, Chris, just a momentary stiffness of muscles." He sent a penetrating glare toward the other two men who still hadn't looked up. "Gentlemen, you will excuse me, I'm sure." And he was gone. Walking quickly into the darkness of the nearby trees.
Buck raised his head and took in the new tension. Damn, these boys need some time to figure this all out. Too bad they ain't gonna get it any time soon. He took another draught of coffee and pursed his lips as Ezra, without waiting for a response, turned away and slipped into the shadows.
Vin, quiet at best around the others, leaned back slowly on one elbow and finally met Chris' eyes. "You okay, cowboy?"
The blond was more frustrated than upset, but both his friends could obviously read his unhappiness. He shoved a hand through his hair and squatted back down to reach out for his abandoned cup of coffee. "Yeah." He cast a glance out into the night, in the direction Ezra had disappeared. "Yeah," he repeated, thinking that Ezra was right about timing.
With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Chris figured that there was no way Ezra would return to his arms tonight. He was right. When the southerner returned, he headed for the coffee pot and, upon filling a cup, took himself to a nearby log, midway between Larabee and the other men.
Chris, Buck and Vin had completed their plans while Ezra was gone and Buck, sensing the building anger across the fire, turned to the gambler and explained their strategy. Start out now and try to intercept the raiders, maybe even catch them between a ranch and themselves.
Ezra listened without comment, sipping his coffee with a blank face. His shoulders were hunched, a 'tell' that he was cold, but he made no move toward the folded blankets at Larabee's side. Chris felt his heart begin to sink. Shit.
Vin leaned in and added some more wood to the fire, as if reading the situation and in his own way trying to help. By now, both Vin and Buck were deeply sorry for interfering with the new lovers' night. Trouble had a way of finding all of them and it didn't wait for a good time to show. Vin picked up his empty plate and wandered off to clean up. It seemed to be the unspoken signal. Buck and Chris both rose to their feet and started gathering their blankets, breaking camp.
Ezra finished his coffee and stood, instantly on guard as Larabee came over. No, not now! Please. Ezra's green eyes deepened in his tension. He watched Chris carefully but the man simply handed him his tied bedroll and took the empty cup from his hands without a word. Hugging the rolled blankets to him, Ezra walked over to where the horses were picketed, put down his bundle and began to saddle up. I can do this, I can pick up the pieces and rebuild myself after all I am a superb confidence man.
Even though dawn was still a ways off, with Vin along, they all agreed it was time to hit the trail. Everyone began to get their mounts ready.
Cinching his gear, Ezra looked over Chaucer's back at the now empty campsite. Even the fire was out, someone had kicked dirt over it. What just happened here? He stole a glance in Larabee's direction. Concerned hazel eyes met his and his insides began quiver. He licked his lower lip and turned his head. And wondered what Chris really wanted from him.
Marcus Yarrow was getting tired of Charro and his raggedy bunch of desert warriors. The Apache had added firepower at a good time during Yarrow's ambush of a stage run, then took the horses from the traces of the stagecoach as reward, his men calling out in high-pitched screams of triumph as they ran them in a circle around the disabled vehicle. Yarrow's cousins, Calvin and Jacob, had staggered up from behind their rock shelters with jaws agape whilst Yarrow had charged in on his buckskin along with the other eight members of their gang.
The moment of confrontation between the outlaw gang and the renegade Indians had been a long drawn-out silence. Then as his warriors sat back on their ponies, shaking ancient rifles, their leader, in a faded red union suit and yellow leather breeches, had ridden forward and sat staring at Yarrow whose cold demeanor demanded a certain respect.
The men had recognized something in each other and a partnership was born. With growing numbers of both outlaws and renegades joining their original group, Yarrow and Charro's unholy bond had grown less comfortable with time. Each kept a close count on the members that formed allegiance to them but neither had a clear advantage and so they continued their work in concert. Now close to thirty men, their band was attacking isolated ranch houses and small settlements, raiding for anything of value. Charro's braves kept the livestock stolen, while Yarrow's men took everything else from cash to valuables, women upon occasion as well.
Marcus Yarrow kept hoping for a big catch, enough to get him out of this alliance and away from the Indians that were beginning to make him nervous. His cousins, like two peas in a dark haired pod, grumbled between themselves and no longer confided in Yarrow. The tall, thin man with the hatchet face and squinting black eyes stared with lingering intensity at their latest target, a small homestead with outbuildings, and a tall windmill with watering trough near a paddock full of prime cattle.
If Charro's group took those beef, he'd be left once more with the slim pickings of the homesteader's household. Not very satisfactory. Marcus scratched his unshaven jaw and contemplated the place. Charro and his men weren't waiting and with yips of battle cry, the whole bunch surged over the hill where they'd gathered and charged.
Yarrow held his riders back, their horses dancing in excitement. His group would be the second wave of the attack. The outlaws had quickly found that keeping apart was safer and easier for both them and the renegade Indian warriors. Yarrow held them at the tree line on the top of the hill, still hidden. He swung his eyes over the circle of horizon and spotted four men riding in from the north, breaking over the hillcrest behind the ranch and coming to a halt four abreast. The lead rider, all in black, on a big black gelding, drew his attention. Larabee!
With a sigh of frustration, Yarrow knew he should call off the raid. No point losing men when reinforcements like this arrived unexpectedly for the rancher.
"Hold!" Yarrow hollered, yanking back on his horse's bridle. He had no desire for a bloodbath where some of the blood might be his. His arm went up in command. Hauling at reins and dragging mounts into skittish circles, with grunts and cries of alarm, the men bound to Yarrow pulled back, still within the protection of the tree line. "We ain't fighting no lawmen and one of them new men is Chris Larabee."
Several other men nodded, one spitting in disgust at the ground. They recognized the name of the shootist who was now out of Four Corners as a peacekeeper. Turning aside, Yarrow led his part of the marauder band through the trees and down to a creek bed that had been at their backs, away from the barking sound of gunfire.
If Larabee and three of his men were here, then Four Corners, with its plump bank and fattening storekeepers, was his. Yarrow's narrow face creased into a nasty grin and he kicked his mount's flanks, his men streaming after him.
The Four Corners peacekeepers had been riding for several hours at a quick trot. Two abreast in the dim light of near dawn, Vin and Chris leading, Buck beside Ezra, they rode cautiously, careful of the footing for their horses. It had been decided to swing by the Gardner spread. It was not far off their track back towards Four Corners and it fit the description of the type of isolated ranch or homestead that was falling to the renegade marauders' attacks.
They topped a hill overlooking the spread. Even as their horses blew and stomped up the crest, the sounds of a firefight had them searching out the scene below. Vin was the first to spot the renegades but the rest of them quickly drew rein as the cries of Apache war screams came from their right. The lawmen could hear the sounds of rifle fire from the ranch house and bunkhouse, and they could see small figures scurrying for cover with small puffs of white smoke appearing from doors and windows, testifying to the resistance that the rancher, his family, and hired hands were ready to make.
Up on the crest of the hill, Chris Larabee stood tall in his stirrups for a moment before meeting Vin Tanner's blue eyes with firm hazel intent. A nod between them was enough, but Larabee swung over to look at his old friend Buck who was already checking the load on his Sharps. Buck glanced up, controlling his Gray with his knees, keeping the experienced gelding easily in check. Buck flashed a grin of wolfish intensity. Chris let a slash of a grin cross his own face before worry suddenly flooded his system and he turned to the fourth member of the group. Ezra Standish was looking straight ahead, chin high, one hand grasping his long rifle stock, the other close-reining his chestnut gelding, who arched its neck, ears pricked forward, hide trembling with restrained excitement. "Ezra?" Chris' questioning call was terse.
The bright green eyes that flashed his way were full of determination and high-flying excitement. "Ready, sir!" and the tip of the rifle's barrel touched the low black gambler's hat in salute. It felt good to be back on an even footing with the rest of his friends, no one looking at him sideways to see how Chris and he were getting on. Just fellow men, ready to fight. And, he was one of them. Ezra confidently flashed a golden glinting grin, his dimples creasing his cheeks, adding a certain cockiness.
Chris swallowed any foolish words he might utter. Damn, they'd fought side by side before. This was no different. But it felt different, knowing that Ezra was his now. Not having had time to do more than declare his intent, not even get a damn kiss yet. He grunted and swung to face the on-going battle and blotted out fearful thoughts of Ezra's satin smooth skin pierced by a bullet. "Let's get'em, boys!" he gritted out and slashed his rowels into the black's flanks, causing the animal to leap forward with a squeal, bugling.
Below, the attackers were already losing enthusiasm for their raid, the resistance from the isolated ranch was greater than anticipated. Usually by now the white outlaws would have joined in, adding more firepower. Not this time. Charro gathered in his pony as he circled away from yet another charge at the bigger building, his sharp hearing picking up the high-pitched scream of a horse. Looking up the steep hillside beyond the smaller buildings, he saw four white men - not his white men - pitching down the incline at an impossible speed, firing rifles. He spun to his left to see two of his warriors fall from their ponies, then as the crackling sounds grew louder, his brother's son, close by, was punched back off his pony's hind quarters into the dirt to lie still.
Furious, Charro raised his feather-decked long gun and shook it while crying out to his remaining fighters. The others turned away from their fruitless attack and bravely faced the new threat. But the men riding down on them did not slow or falter, their horses nearly squatting at the near-cliff they skidded down, each rider was standing in his stirrups, rifle raised, coolly firing off telling shots.
And Charro raised his rifle and squinted along the barrel. One rider had broken free of the others, his white-faced black skidding down the incline with the look of an Indian pony. Charro sent a curse and prayer up to the spirits and squeezed the trigger, yipping with savage joy as his target fell back and off the charging gelding. The man, likely a hunter or trapper by his buffalo hide coat and slouch hat, somersaulted down the rest of the cliff-like hill ending in a sprawl at its base.
Charro jerked as he felt a harsh pain on his right arm, numbing it, his own rifle falling away now to the trampled dirt at his pinto's feet. He drew his hunting knife in his left hand, tossing lance to his now empty right hand and led his seven remaining men directly into the path of their new enemy. His target was the man he'd shot, a scalp waiting for his belt.
Chris swore as he saw Vin hit and fall. Yanking his mount to the side, he avoided trampling his friend's body as he reached the bottom of the steep hillside and drove forward. He felt guilt rip his heart as he led Buck and Ezra on against the braves arrayed against them, leaving one of his partners, his best friend behind. He hastily dropped his rifle into the saddle sheath and his pistol leaped to his hand in blinding speed. The sharper, more biting sounds of Buck's gun told him without looking that his old friend had done the same as the distance closed with the renegades. A wild Rebel yell let him know that Ezra was still with them. He dragged Cap to a stop, and held his pistol high, arm straight as he picked off another brave.
Ezra schooled Chaucer closer to Larabee's flank, firing methodically and with good effect at the wild-eyed young men riding with effortless grace and great savagery towards them. He grunted as a streak of fire pulled at his ribs, then ignored it. Beneath him, Chaucer's head was down, ears back, and Ezra could hear his beast's snorts as the animal practically danced in position, still obedient to his leg's nearly subconscious commands.
Buck, already turning away from Chris, with Ezra at his side, was facing off the extended edge of the renegades' charge. A shocked and mournful cry brought him around to see the red-shirted leader arch up on his pony, a darker spot already blossoming on his shirt. Weapons falling to the ground, the man toppled off his ride. The freed pony ran straight on, shouldering between Chaucer and Cap.
In the confusion that followed, a barrage of shots from the remaining Four Corners' lawmen demolished the few remaining attackers. Sitting stiffly on their panting mounts, sweat streaming off the men's faces and the horses lathered sides, the three horsemen drew rein. Chris spun Cap about and took off for Tanner's still form, while Buck and Ezra, sparing worried glances over their shoulders, canted this way and that, leaning widely over saddle pommels to check on the new dead.
Dropping off his horse before it even came to a stop, Chris sunk to his knees next to Vin, a prayer on his lips. Vin looked like a toss of old clothes, laundry day at the Seminole village, Chris thought with creeping fear. "Vin!" His cry was harsh and carrying. Back to the drama, Ezra, still on Chaucer stiffened and his face fell into lines of regret and sadness.
Chris pulled Tanner up and onto his lap, cradling young man's shoulders with trembling hands. "Tanner, you damn well better be alive!"
Blue eyes cracked open painfully and squinted up at Larabee. A small smile quirked dry lips. "No fear, Cowboy," he whispered.
The blond closed his eyes in thanksgiving. Then ducked his head to look into those talking eyes. "Where're you hit?"
Vin coughed softly. "Right side, low." He tried to rise but couldn't fight Larabee's grip or his own lightheadedness. "Mighta broke some ribs too on the fall." He coughed again and one hand automatically gripped at his friend's dark shirtfront.
That's how Ezra and Buck found them a few moments later.
A shot from Buck's heavy pistol had them all swiveling to look, seeing one last attacker subside to the ground, a lance dropping from a now forever limp hand. Chris helped Vin up on to Cap and mounted behind him, then reined the black horse over and led the way at a slow walk toward the ranch house, knowing that the other two had their backs.
The front door of the small house was thrown open and a weeping woman, Emily Gardner, wife of the rancher, tottered out, three small children's heads peering from the edges of the door frame, but not one of the youngsters came out.
A cry of "Emily!" from the direction of the horse barn was followed by the running feet of Herb Gardner, the rancher, who ignored their rescuers as he ran for his wife. Chris Larabee drew rein and waited on black Cap, supporting Vin who was sitting taller now. Together they watched the frantic reunion, Vin with a small smile, Chris impassively.
Ezra walked Chaucer back away from the little scene before turning his gelding to watch the yard, observing the hesitant ranch hands emerging from the bunkhouse and barns. He pressed hard on the now painful bullet track on his ribs, seeing the men cautiously begin checking the dead Apache that lay scattered in the wide-open yard and near the paddocks. The warriors' ponies stood in small groups, huddled near their dead riders.
Buck dismounted near the ranch house porch, slapping his dusty trail hat on one long leg, his face blank. His dark blue eyes rose to meet the sky blue ones of Vin Tanner who, stared down vaguely.
"Mr. Larabee, thank you." Gardner, arm tightly holding his Emily close, now had time to look up at the tall gunman on the black horse. "You and your men made the difference." He hugged his wife, then asked, "Can we help with your man there?" nodding toward Tanner who was still seated in front of Chris on Cap's saddle.
Chris tipped his head with reserve, "Glad we got here in time. Thanks for the offer, think Tanner here could use some cleaning up." He stepped down from Cap and kept a hand on Vin's thigh. "Vin? Get on down."
Helping Vin slide from the tall black, Chris looked bleakly out at the yard. "Your men take care of this?"
Gardner nodded as he scanned the dead. "Yeah."
"I'd take the rigs off those ponies and let 'em go," Tanner spoke up, from Larabee's side. His voice was husky but already sounding a bit stronger. "Less chance of trouble later."
Squinting at the nervous animals now being caught by his men, Gardner nodded again. "We'll do that." He patted Emily again and then, releasing his wife, he tipped his hat at the lawmen and walked to where his own men were standing, holding the reins of the Indian ponies.
"Mr. Larabee?" Chris swung his eyes back to see Emily Gardner wringing her hands in her apron, standing at the edge of the porch. "Can you bring in your friend? We can clean him up inside, see what needs doing."
"Thank you, ma'am." Chris started to guide Vin up the steps but the tracker's hold on consciousness took that moment to slip away. Eyes rolling up in his head, Vin Tanner's knees folded and he began to collapse. "Damn!" Chris caught up the man and rose with a stagger, Vin a deadweight in his arms. It hadn't looked that bad, but Vin took a bad fall off of Peso - Chris worried. Buck was suddenly there, offering his strength to help Larabee carry Vin indoors.
Ezra watched from a safe distance, nearly leaping from the saddle at the sight of his friend, Vin, collapsing at the porch steps. But Chris had been there, then Buck, and together they had things well in hand. With a sigh, feeling a bit abandoned even knowing that he had no cause to feel that way, Ezra rode over to where Gardner and his men were removing halters and gear from the Indian ponies. He neatly cut Peso out of the nervous herd and reached out with a grunt to snatch up the lead reins of the white-faced horse. The stretch hadn't helped his own minor injury. He turned away, leading Peso. Best get Peso secured and then seek some assistance as well.
The several yells from the ranch hands, followed by the multiple thuds of the stampeding ponies, echoed behind Ezra as he rode toward the now silent ranch house. He could hear Gardner issuing orders to his riders. He guessed a mass grave would be started soon. Reaching the front hitching rail by the ranch porch, he dropped from Chaucer, slapping Cap's rump to move the big horse over a bit. He could see Buck's Gray beyond. The amiable animals stomped and blew lightly, greeting Peso and Chaucer as Ezra tied up the two geldings. The herd animals welcomed each other's proximity.
One foot on the bottom step of the ranch house, Ezra paused. A voice, halfway between shout and cry came from within. Vin's, if I'm not mistaken. The murmur of what could only be Chris' tense voice followed. Rubbing at the back of his neck, Ezra decided not to intrude. Not that he'd likely be noticed anyway. Vin was rightly the center of attention. Ezra swung around and saw that Herb Gardner was approaching.
"Mr. Gardner?" Ezra tipped his hat genteelly. "Might I trouble one of your hands for some assistance?"
"Sure." The rancher nodded agreeably, looking the fancy dressed man up and down. He'd been riding with the others, part of Larabee's group. Funny kind of man to be with that gunslinger and his crowd. Looks like a gambler. Like a fish out of water here. Gardner started up the steps, expecting the other man to come along.
Ezra remained where he was and called to the retreating rancher. "Mr. Gardner, if you could simply direct me to someone who could render some treatment to a very minor injury?"
Gardner turned back at his front door, puzzled. "You hurt?" Without waiting for an answer, he gestured within. "Come on in, the missus will be able to help out."
"No, no, thank you, kind sir. I do not wish to remove her attention from the more seriously wounded Mr. Tanner." Ezra lifted his jacket away from his shirt and vest. A small dark spot was beginning to seep out there. "Just someone to help me clean and wrap this?"
The rancher nodded, made sense not to take his wife away from tending the hurt rider inside already. "Cummings can get that for you. He doubles as cook."
Ezra's lips quirked up and he nodded his gratitude. A cook was often also the 'doctor' for trail herds, so why not for a ranch. He listened as the rancher hollered for this Mr. Cummings to come forth. No point in letting Chris know. He has enough on his mind right now. Ezra ignored the small spike of sadness that he savagely labeled jealousy and repressed with strict self-abnegation. Ezra swallowed hard at a lump in his throat and turned back from the ranch house, walking toward a broad, squat, bald man who was answering his boss' summons.
Three small children, who'd fled their house with the arrival of the large men dragging in a wounded man, emerged from around the back of the ranch house. Their mama had shooed them away. While they avoided the dead men being dragged out of the yard by the ranch hands, young Peter, Laura, and Wesley had a new interest - the bright red jacketed man who was following Mr. Cummings toward the front of the cookhouse.
Inside the ranch house, Vin had awakened as Emily Gardner began cleaning the wound in his side. Unable to repress a cry at the unexpected return of sharp pain, he lurched up from where they'd settled him on a bed in one of the back rooms. Chris and Buck were both there, Buck holding his legs down, Larabee bracing his shoulders back and holding on to his arm above the bullet hole. "Easy, Vin. Mrs. Gardner's just cleaning you up."
Nodding and blinking, more fully alert, Tanner offered a simple smile to the busy woman beside him. "Ma'am." He gasped as she pressed hard on both the front and back holes in his side.
"You'll be fine, Mr. Tanner," she answered with a smile, her care-worn features warm. "The bullet went through, close enough to your side that I don't think anything inside was damaged. You just need some rest to let this heal."
Chris leaned over and looked down on the man in his arms. "That means you can't just start in riding again, cowboy."
Buck, at the foot of the bed, chimed in. "They're right, Pard, you need to stay off your feet for a spell." He patted one booted foot and stood back, arching his back with a sigh, then looking around and away from their injured friend for the first time. "Hey, where's Ezra?"
Gardner arrived in the doorway of the back room, wiping his hands on his pants, just as the tall mustached rider asked about someone named Ezra. Realizing that must be the red coated man still outside, the only remaining member of Larabee's crew, he spoke up. "That fancy looking feller?"
Buck spun on his heel to face the rancher and grinned, "Guess you could call Ez a fancy feller, yep." He snuck a sly glance over at Chris rising from the far side of Vin's bed. Tanner had pushed himself up stiffly, his bruised, not broken, ribs tightly banded. He began buttoning his shirt, absently nodding his thanks to Mrs. Gardner. Both men turned to stare at the rancher.
"He's out with Cummings, getting fixed up."
"'Getting fixed up?'" Larabee's question had an ominous tone.
Suddenly, unaccountably, nervous, Herb Gardner nodded quickly. "Said it was only a 'minor injury,' just needed some help getting it fixed. I got my cook, Ed Cummings, lookin' at him now."
Larabee was already striding straight at Gardner, or more probably through him for the door, thought Buck, as the blond's forward motion brushed the rancher to one side. Guess I better see to Vin, Buck thought with a small hidden grin.
Ezra sat gingerly on a narrow simple bench at the rear of the cookhouse. Mr. Cummings, 'most folks just call me 'Ed',' was working the pump handle of a close-by well, filling a bucket with fresh water. While waiting for the man's tender mercies, Ezra picked at the small mother of pearl buttons on one of his simpler white shirts. White no longer, he thought, tugging out the tails and examining the dark stain where the shirt had rested against his left side. He looked beneath the shirt and vest that he'd already pulled back and could see that the bleeding had stopped. It really was only a scrape. Surely within the expertise of 'Ed.'
Sitting carefully erect, Ezra waited as Cummings poured off some water into a kettle and disappeared inside the back door of the cookhouse. This might take a bit, apparently there was no hot water ready. He risked leaning back against the rough board wall behind him. That's when he sensed that he was being watched.
Laura was the boldest of the three children, a middle child and the only girl, she was seven. She leaned way out around the corner of the cookhouse to stare at the pretty stranger. It did not occur to her that 'pretty' was not a word you used for a man. Peter, her older brother by two years, hissed at her to come back where he and their younger brother, Wesley, still hid. She stuck out her tongue and turned back to watch the quiet man. He was just sitting there, eyes closed, leaning against the cookhouse wall.
"Are you hurt?" Her curiosity could not be contained. Behind her, she heard Peter moan softly. She saw no reason to hide though.
Ezra opened his eyes wide and looked over at the bright young lady standing in a simple cotton pinafore and loose sagging wool jacket. He watched her appearance through carefully slitted eyes, not wanting to startle the child who evidently had cohorts since she was shooting glares, nearly Larabee-strength, off to the side of the shack where he sat. "Yes, but it is nothing of consequence." Nothing like what Vin was suffering through. It would have been nice, though, very nice to have had Chris by HIS side now. Looking out for him. Watching his back. Not that he needed it. And it was a very small scrape. Of no consequence at all. Still, it would have been nice.
The young girl's light brown head tipped to the side, pale blue eyes studying him. "You fought along with those other men."
"Again, correct, m'dear." Ezra tipped his hat courteously. "I am Ezra Standish, my lady. May I be so bold as to enquire - who might you be?" He cast a sly glance to the side and smiled, dimples appearing as if to share a secret joke as he added, "And perhaps you might also introduce your companions?" By now he'd spotted two other small heads poking around the shack's corner.
"I'm Laura." She smiled and Ezra caught his breath. The child became a vision of future beauty, sunshine in her small round face wreathed in a curiously charming smile. She waved imperiously to the side. Two boys came forward into view, one slightly taller than her, one slightly smaller. "These are my brothers, Peter and Wesley."
"I am honored to meet y'all." Ezra's soft southern accent deepened, a trick he'd long ago learned was less threatening to children for some reason. He sketched a slight bow, still seated.
Laura's smile grew and the two boys edged closer, the older one eyeing his weaponry, the shoulder holster loosed for medical attention, should it ever reappear.
"Saw you shooting." Peter's voice was clear and high, confidently the eldest son of the rancher. Now that his initial shyness was past, he was ready to ask questions, lots of questions.
"Yes." Ezra acknowledged the comment. "My companions and I were fortuitous in our timely arrival, driving those savages from your doors."
"Ya killed 'em all." Wesley had to remove two fingers from his mouth to pronounce this, his nearly white-blond hair hanging low over his eyes.
"I fear they have all gone to their maker, some with my assistance," Ezra's smile became sad.
"Thank you." Peter nodded. By now, all three children were directly in front of Ezra, in a small row. Diverted by his unusual clothing from the earlier horrid events, they stared hungrily at him. It wasn't often such a person came to visit.
Ezra smiled back and answered softly, "You are welcome."
Chris stormed across the wide ranch yard, head swiveling from side to side, unable to see Ezra in plain sight. Chaucer and Peso were tied up with Cap and Gray at the ranch house. So, where's Ezra gone off to? Chris felt like strangling the little weasel, again. You'd have thought he'd know to follow us inside. Mouth in a thin, grim line, Larabee came to a vibrating halt at the door to the cookhouse. Just as he was about to march inside, he heard a child's giggle, then a second one. Sounded to be around back. The tightness in his shoulders abruptly eased and he felt relief flood his body. Where there's kids, there's Ezra. If there was one golden rule for the seven, that was it. He altered his course for the rear of the cook shack, veering around the wide veranda out front for the humbler working set up at the back.
Sure enough, there was Ezra. Chris caught his breath at the sight of this man. Burnished chestnut locks gleamed in the sunshine. Milk white skin was exposed to the day, shirt and vest pulled away from that smooth, firm chest. Chris sucked in a lungful of air and clenched his fists to hold himself back. All he really wanted to do was snatch that damn fool up in his arms and kiss him silly.
But there was a rather large man leaning down beside Ezra, tying off a small bandage near his waist on the left. Ezra was leaning over to the side, left arm raised to give the man room to work. Three children, the ones he remembered peeking out the front of the ranch house behind Mrs. Gardner, stood close by, watching and giggling as Ezra made outrageous faces at them, adding a stream of outlandish noises as well. He seemed to be exaggerating his pain for their amusement.
Chris shook his head and moved closer. There was a milking stool to the side, nearly behind the big man who must be Cummings the cook. Ezra was so busy with his little pantomime that Chris was able to quietly seat himself on the stool, half-hidden behind the cook.
"Ow! Ow! My good man, no need to take an axe to that! I do not intend to offer part of my hide for the dinner menu!" Ezra's huffing complaints had the children grinning more widely, giggles rippling.
Then little girl laughed and clapped her hands, calling out, "Oh, I bet you taste good, Mr. Ezra!"
Chris couldn't agree more.
The cook, balding and heavy-set, chuckled and turned partway around to shake a finger at the little miss. "That ain't nice, Miss Laura." He didn't sound very upset though, a laugh in his voice.
Chris grinned, then blinked as the smallest boy, about Billy's size, looked over his shoulder as if knowing someone else was there. The boy's tiny face was already stretched into a happy smile. He raised his arms to Chris, saying quietly, "You helped too!"
Before he knew it, Larabee had a lapful of tiny boy and looking over the tyke's head, met green eyes. The dancing good humor, that he'd seen in those beautiful jade green eyes when he arrived back here, faded now - a look of hesitation, dammit, fear, replacing it. Deciding he probably looked a lot less intimidating with the boy in his lap, Chris adjusted his hold, automatically fitting the child to him as he'd once held Adam. The thought didn't even give him pause, just warm memories now. He let his small smile grow, trying to coax a similar response from Ezra.
Here he is! I didn't even see him arrive and here he is! Ezra distractedly nodded his thanks as Ed patted the knots he'd tied in the small bandage. The other two children were crowding close now, leaning on his knees, making escape impossible. Ezra swallowed and tried to return a smile to his face. Chris is sitting here, a child in his lap. He's smiling at me. He's not angry. Ezra's head dipped slightly to the side, peering more closely. At least, I don't think he is.
The youngsters at Ezra's knees turned as one to see what was causing their younger brother to scream suddenly in laughter. Wesley was squirming and laughing in the tall stranger's lap, catching at tickling fingers. The man, dressed in black, was smiling widely at the little boy, ignoring the rest of them.
Laura and Peter instantly gravitated to the fun that young Wesley was having. "Me too!" Laura called out gaily, charging at the seated man who was tickling her little brother.
Chris, trying hard not to look at Ezra, trying to just show Ezra that he wasn't always a hard-assed gunman, concentrated on little Wesley. He didn't see the look of chagrin cross Ezra's face as he rose slowly from the bench. Chris didn't see the cook step away and turn to watch the tumbling children now converging on him. Chris didn't see Ezra tidily refasten his shirt, tuck it in smoothly, and then button his vest, all the time walking away with a sedate, dignified gait. He didn't see the bland, blank look that set on Ezra's beautifully expressive face. He didn't see Ezra tip his hat to the cook or look one last time at Chris who had been pushed to the ground off his stool by the happily playful children now piling atop him.
Gasping for breath as three sets of tiny hands tickled him without mercy, Chris finally pushed himself up to a seated position next to the overturned stool. He cast a look full of shared amusement over at Ezra's bench. But the eyes that met his were dark brown, not green. The cook sat there, chuffing with good humor at the children's antics, folding some unused white bandages.
Carefully parting the children who continued to wrestle and tickle each other oblivious to his departure as he emerged from their tangle, Chris looked all around. Dammit. No Ezra.
Ezra breathed deeply as he rounded the cookhouse. He moved quickly to assist Buck with Vin when he saw the tall former ranger helping Tanner down the steps of the front porch of the ranch house. A light bead of sweat quickly appeared on the tracker's face.
"Mr. Tanner? Are you certain you should be up?"
"I tried to tell him, Ez, but the damn fool is too stubborn by half." Buck shook his head while steadying Tanner with a hand to one arm.
Standish came up beside the wobbling tracker to hold his other arm. "Perhaps you should still be in bed?" Ezra's own confusion over Chris Larabee's appearance behind the cookhouse faded as he watched Vin straighten.
"I can ride." Vin's voice was hoarse and his two friends could feel the tremble in his muscles.
Emily Gardner came to the door, having followed her patient out of the ranch house. Her husband stepped up behind her, hands resting lightly on her shoulders. She crossed her arms and frowned. "Mr. Tanner, I know the ribs aren't broken but that bullet wound could become serious if you don't rest and take time to heal."
Vin turned to face her slowly. Ezra and Buck stood at his sides ready to catch the recalcitrant man if he faltered. "Ma'am, I'm grateful for your help."
"That means he ain't gonna listen." Buck interjected.
Shooting a disgusted glance at the mustached man at his side, Tanner tried to steady his balance and look ready for the trail. "We have to ride. The rest of that band of raiders might be heading for our town."
"IS heading for it." Larabee strode up and joined the men, coming to a stop directly behind Ezra Standish. Chris continued, "Took a look from the barn roof," he nodded up at the tallest building on the property, "and I can see a dust cloud bound for Four Corners."
"Then we better get going." Vin shrugged away the tentative grips of Buck and Ezra and started toward Peso.
"Don't think so, cowboy." Chris, who hadn't moved, looked over at his oldest friend. "Buck." His eyes and head motion were enough.
Wilmington grinned and patted Tanner on the back, "Let's go, Pard," he pressed one hand down on Vin's shoulder and pushed him back toward the porch. "We'll tell you all about it later."
"Chris!" Vin tried to appeal to Larabee over his shoulder, digging his heels into the dirt to the obvious amusement of Wilmington.
"Not this time, Vin." Chris shook his head. "You wouldn't last in the saddle and we won't have time to tend you. Don't want to lose someone else through having to leave them with you when you fall off."
With a sigh, Vin's shoulders slumped and he allowed Buck to help him back up the steps to the porch. Mrs. Gardner, smiling now, stood back to let the men re-enter the house. Her husband stomped down to the yard, passing the men.
"We're glad to keep him for you until he can travel." Gardner looked around the yard slowly. "You think they might come back this way?"
"Not likely," Chris looked out toward the low, rolling prairie. "Nope, this wasn't the whole band. Figure some of the whites might have recognized us coming in. They must figure that with us here, the town is fair game."
Ezra stood frozen in place. Chris had come up directly behind him, and now stood there, pressed so close that Ezra could feel the man's breath on his neck. When Gardner turned away to answer one of the ranch hands across the yard, Ezra felt a warm, firm touch at his shoulder, pressing deeply. "You have to stop running, Ezra."
Anger flaring, Ezra whirled, freeing himself and set his feet to confront Larabee. He faced a mild expression of patience and clear love in the hazel eyes watching him. What does this man want from me? Ezra grit his teeth. "I am not running out on you, sir."
Chris lowered his voice, never losing eye contact. "Looks like it from where I stand." He moved to close the distance between them again.
Panicking at Larabee's move, Ezra backed up, bumping directly into Peso. The big black gelding turned a white-blazed face toward him and nickered almost questioningly. Ezra quickly ducked under the animal's reins and began to untie Chaucer's leathers with shaking fingers. "I - am - not - " Ezra ripped the leather straps free of the rail, "running - out - on - " Ezra caught a hand to Chaucer's face and pressed, causing the gelding to drop his head and begin to back out of the narrow space between Peso and Cap at the hitching rail, "you." He stood up into the stirrups and sat down into the saddle, to finish backing Chaucer clear of the other horses.
Chris stared up at the agitated man. I'd be dead right now, if looks could kill you. He folded his arms and stared back at Standish. Stubborn, irritating fool. He yearned to drag the beautiful man off the horse and go find some quiet place to have a heart to heart. Now was not going to be that time.
Buck, who'd tried to give the two men time, realized it wasn't working and came back out on to the porch. "Got Vin settled."
"Then let's go." Larabee broke eye contact with Standish and headed for his mount. Soon he and Buck were ready, and with a final tipping of his hat toward Mrs. Gardner who'd emerged once more from the ranch house, Chris gigged Cap into a slow trot.
It wasn't until they were out of the hollow and a hill beyond that Chris called a halt and dismounted. He waited as Buck joined him looking out over the succession of low hills between them and Four Corners. When Ezra didn't immediately dismount, Larabee looked back, speaking sharply, worry showing, and then started walking back. "Ezra?"
Standish let Chaucer walk slowly the rest of the way to his waiting friends and then half tumbled, half slid from the saddle, startled to find himself falling into Chris' waiting arms.
"Shit! Thought you weren't hurt bad!" The alarm in Larabee's voice had Buck springing forward to help him ease Ezra to the ground. Chris held on tightly to Ezra's shoulders, kneeling to look directly into the man's flushing face. Ezra looked at the ground, face darkening even redder.
"Not too bad, really." Ezra muttered, embarrassed to be the center of attention under such circumstances. "I just had a momentary lapse of balance." He was not about to admit that the tension with Chris had left him light-headed from inability to eat or drink. And he knew the injury was minor but it hurt like the very devil from where the primitive bandage was chaffing the new scraped flesh of his side.
Buck, peering over his old friend's shoulder, realized that the wound wasn't any danger to their gambler. From the nervous look to those shimmering green eyes, Buck figured it was likely more shock and a bit of pain, plus a hovering lover. Buck suppressed a smile and eased back on his heels as he squatted beside the two huddled men, then spared a glance out toward the hills beyond. Buck dusted his hands on his pants and stood. He quirked a look down at Larabee. "He'll be fine, we ain't losing old Ez today." Buck bared teeth in a humorless smile as he began to survey their surroundings.
Chris heard his friend but concentrated on the feel of Ezra beneath his hands. "Scared me."
Ezra was confused, his own emotions mixing with his pain and leaving him anxious. Somehow he ended up answering truthfully, to his utter mortification. "I was scared too. Not about this," he gestured toward the small bandage at his ribs, then looked back up. "I feared for your health."
"It'll be harder now." Chris was no longer talking about the fight just past. He willed Ezra to understand him.
"I - yes, perhaps. Yes." Ezra's hesitancy and short replies let Chris know that Ezra was still uncertain. Chris realized that he had a ways to go still with his friend. Hadn't been any easier with Sarah, she'd fought him off at first, until he finally convinced her of his love. Looking back now, he thought that maybe she'd been sure all along, just wanting to make sure that he knew it, felt it, too. Got to find a way to convince Ezra.
Buck pulled Vin's spyglass out of his saddlebags and standing hipshot against Gray's patient form, he stared out over the landscape, over to the horizon, eyes towards their town. He rubbed at the back of his neck, adrenaline flash dissipating with the easing of tension.
Larabee stood up, then reached down, grabbing hold of Ezra's hand and pulling him to his feet. Chris looked past him to Buck, meeting his old friend's dark blue eyes. The tension that stiffened the tall man had Chris feel alarm flood his system again. This time, though, not for Ezra, but for their small town. He turned back to meet Ezra's green gaze, hardening with purpose, tempting lips so close that he bit his own in regret. He sent a silent vow, a promise to Ezra, then turned away. "Buck?"
"Think you're right, that's the outlaw half of the pack up ahead. They're riding fast. Kicking up quite a cloud. I can see trail dust of a fair number of riders."
"That would be them."
Chris met Ezra's eyes with a question. Standish nodded and then turned, breaking away again from that fierce gaze. He picked up his hat and moved toward his horse. Larabee watched for moment, feeling the urgent need to be touching Ezra again. He flexed his fingers and strode over to Cap, mounting in one fluid motion. "Come on!"
Ezra rubbed his arms. He began to wish for another shoot out, anything was better than this cat and mouse game that Chris seemed to be playing with him. He climbed on Chaucer. Once he and Buck were up on their horses, the three men rode on at a fast lope, anxious to get back to their town in time to help.
The trail from Gardner's ranch led through rough scrub and open prairie, over low, rolling and wind-swept hills. The delay with the attack at the ranch had cost them daylight and now the evening sky was coloring to a brilliant display of oranges and pinks, deepening to scarlets and reds, making the remaining blue washed out in contrast. As evening stars began to appear, Chris reluctantly called a halt. They had been riding single file on the narrow path, but at a wider spot, he pulled Cap to an easy halt, Buck and Ezra drawing rein and coming closer to hear him.
"We need to make a camp for the night."
"Likely those fellers ahead are gonna have to do the same," Buck nodded in agreement, nonetheless casting a look over toward the horizon. The dust cloud that had betrayed the raiders' party on the trail ahead of them had slowly dissipated as the two groups left the drier ground for lower, soil rich lands.
Chris stood up in his stirrups, finally gesturing to a rise up on the right. "We can make a cold camp up there, keep watch tonight."
Ezra bowed his head. He'd known, they'd all known, that the ride back from Bell City was going to be at least two days on the trail. The delay, with the attack at Gardner's ranch, meant part of a third day on the trail. And meant rising early with the dawn. He slapped at the dust that had accumulated on his trail jacket. Thank goodness he'd had the good sense to pack away his red one earlier. Then his eyes widened. Oh, dear. Another night on the trail and only Buck between him and Chris Larabee's persistent attentions. And last night Buck hadn't been very helpful. Jaw jutting in irritation at the night ahead, Ezra gigged Chaucer up the small rise.
Chris stared after Ezra in surprise, then saw the grin cracking on Buck's face as his old friend held back on Gray's reins. "What are you grinning at?"
Buck laughed quietly. "Old Ez ain't too happy with you, Pard. What'd you do this time?"
Chris shook his head and glared at Buck, then kicked his big black into motion, following Ezra up the rise, hearing Buck behind him, still chuckling.
Marcus Yarrow watched as his men set up camp for the night. He had already decided to send some scouts ahead to check out the town. He figured that Larabee and his men might not be far behind, so this raid would have to be done quickly but he couldn't risk the horses being ridden in the dark. He was sending his cousin Calvin with O'Rourke, a steady man. The two would slide into town and get the layout of the place, locate the bank and any other likely targets.
Jacob, his other cousin, was supervising the set up of the remuda line and the men were dropping bedrolls near where a campfire was already lit. Jacob, short and swarthy, appeared suddenly at Yarrow's elbow. "Horses are all set, thought I'd go hunting. Mebbe head back trail, see if your Larabee feller is there."
Marcus frowned and scratched his chin, looking like a vulture with his thin neck rising above his collar. He nodded slowly. "Make sure you're not spotted."
His cousin grinned, yellow teeth exposed as his thin lips drew back. "Won't even smell me." He slunk away, settling his hunting gear on his shoulder.
Yarrow watched him leave and wondered what had ever possessed his uncle, Clem, to marry into the local Indian tribe back in Tennessee. Now he was stuck with breed cousins that were only ever any good on the trail. He cast a thought on Calvin who was slightly less aggressively native, looking more like a Mexican cowpoke. At least Cal would be able to fit in with Terrence O'Rourke, when they rode into Four Corners. Might not speak too well, but he fit the part.
Seeking a cup of coffee from a pot that someone had put up at the campfire, Marcus sank down on his heels and sipped. They'd ride before dawn, trusting to their scouts to lead them until daybreak. By then, they should be hitting the bank in that little town. He wiped one hand across his face, smearing grease and coffee grinds from his teeth across one unshaven cheek. Spat into the fire and stood up. He gazed blindly out into the dark. Somewhere out there, Chris Larabee was hunkered down. Probably a cold camp. Marcus grinned. His boys outnumbered the gunfighter's small team. His boys would sleep warm tonight. And tomorrow, some of Larabee's boys... would die.
Ezra sat sideways on the saddle hull, perched on his rump, feet on the ground. He had not removed his tan work coat. With the prospect of a chill night, no fire to ward off the cold, he had no intention of removing any layers. He had not spread out his bedroll yet, having no intention of doing that until after Chris Larabee was situated. I shall avoid any confrontations --- or temptations. He watched Chris, from the corner of his eyes, as Larabee stood poised at the edge of camp, staring out into the gloom of night. Even he could see the spark of a not too distant campfire. Ezra chewed on his lip. Whatever Chris' game, he suspected it would not be played tonight.
Buck dropped down on his open bedroll, shoulders back against his saddle. The high rack, of curved, smooth, rich warm leather, supported him comfortably. He tried to point his toes in his boots without too much success. Not taking them off tonight, he thought. Too much chance we run up against some of those outlaws drifting back our way. He spun the cartridge once on his pistol, making sure all the chambers were loaded with good bullets. Then, he dropped his head back, letting his eyes wander among the stars, while listening attentively for any strange sounds. None of them would get much sleep tonight.
Chris Larabee rested one hand on the butt of his six-gun, standing hip-shot on the perimeter of their camp. He tried to pierce the darkness with his gaze, having spotted the campfire less than a mile ahead. They'd been closer than he expected. Might be sending out scouts. His fingers hooked, like claws, in anticipation. Behind him, he heard Buck checking his weapon. Ezra was silent. Ezra was always silent before action. It was one of the more interesting characteristics of his friend. Chris smiled. I will convince him of my friendship and more. He's gonna learn that I don't go away. He shifted his weight bearing from one leg to the other, the movement subtle.
I do wish he'd left on his duster, Ezra thought, gritting his teeth and pressing his knees together with a silent hiss. Damn and blast. He could not remove his eyes from Larabee's slim silhouette. When the man moved slightly, Ezra felt a definite throb between his legs, the rounded buttocks of the gunman looked ripe and ready to his hungry eyes, clearly outlined by tight black pants and cut-away black jacket. Does he have any idea of what he is doing to me? Ezra pushed a fist down his stomach and below, applying unkind pressure between his thighs to try to discourage his too active member.
Lord. He looked aside only with great effort. The starry heavens ran down to the earth, the stunted bushy growths sticking out in hard relief against the twinkling lights on black velvet. There. Ezra's eyes narrowed and his momentary lapse dissolved in a heart-stopping flick of awareness. Someone was out there. Low, hard to see, but there and moving closer. He stared, muscles tensing as he tipped forwards onto the balls of his feet. No! He dove forward and directly into the backs of Larabee's knees where the gunman stood some distance across the simple camp.
Ezra and Chris crashed down onto the rocky ground, Chris instinctively twisting to tackle his unknown attacker. He grabbed at the assailant and shoved hard, forcing the man onto his back, covering him and pressing a forearm tight against an exposed neck. The THUNK of a Bowie knife and sing of vibration caught his attention - right in front of his nose in the dirt. Point deep in the ground, handle shaking with the impact. And he looked down at his unmoving opponent. Ezra. With a deep, much put-upon, sigh, Chris started to roll off the southerner. Shit. What the hell! Chris rolled back on top and grinned tightly down into the pale, wide-eyed face below his own. With a quick motion, he pecked a kiss on those sweet lips, barely tasting before throwing himself to the side to face the knife-thrower.
Buck heard the scuffle of Ezra's boots and the crash as the man barreled into Chris. He heard the sound of the thrown knife whistling softly through the air to hit and sink into the ground. Someone was out there. His gun filled his hand as he crouched and duck-walked out to the side, into the brush and away from his friends. There! He could see the figure already crab-walking backwards away from them. Two could play this game. He yanked his boot knife free and threw it in one fluid motion. A grunt told him he'd had luck and he half-crawled, half-ran to the collapsing figure.
Ezra lay staring up at the stars again. He licked his lips and closed his eyes. Chris had kissed him. On the lips. Dazed, he quite lost track of current events and simply existed.
Chris, a tight grin still plastered on his face, despite the danger, flicked his head back, and cautiously looked around the edge of the camp. He spotted Buck speeding from the circle of bedrolls and saddles, saw him pull and throw a knife and heard the blade hit home. Earns his keep now and then, he thought with a nod of satisfaction and good humor. Very good humor. He'd finally gotten to kiss Ezra. Somehow that seemed much more important than some damn sneak getting snuffed. Have to share that thought with Ezra, he looked over his shoulder to where Ezra lay spread-eagle in the camp, facing the night sky with a rather stunned look. Hum. Chris' grin widened in a flash of white teeth before he turned away. With great self-will, Chris forced himself from Ezra and crept out into the brush to Buck. Gotta watch his back in case the shit out there wasn't alone.
He found Wilmington wiping his knife blade on the carcass of the outlaw that had tried to take a lucky throw at Chris. Buck nodded at him. With hand signals, they agreed to circle wide to make sure the man was alone.
By the time they'd decided their dead attacker had been acting alone, Buck and Chris had decided they needed to move on and away from their position. If one man found them, others could. It was still several hours 'til dawn, but they could walk and lead their horses, move south a bit and then parallel the trail. Ezra must have had the same thoughts for by the time they'd returned to him, he had all three horses re-saddled and was tying bedrolls on them. This would be their second night with almost no sleep.
His stomach went up and down. His thoughts went round and round. His body swayed back and forth. Ezra was beginning to feel unwell as he guided Chaucer, following in the wake of Chris and Buck. Buck was leading them back along a faint game trail that seemed to be running toward town, near to the main trail. The lightening of the sky to the east had finally let them climb into their saddles. They'd been leading their mounts for hours in the starlit darkness, the silence broken only by the faint chinks of rowels, the clicks of bridle bits, the pings of iron horse shoes hitting rocks, and shushing sounds of cloth rubbing cloth. He'd been glad enough to be horseback again, but the lack of conversation and the sameness of the terrain were beginning to wear on him. He bit back bile that seemed to wash up and down his throat. He knew he was tense, upset. His body was reacting to it all. Too much time to think, to feel.
Chris resisted turning in his saddle to check on Ezra. He could hear just enough from Chaucer to know that the southerner was following. Chris was in a comfortable spot in his life and he knew it. He was surrounded by men who had grown into good friends. He was in love with a wonderful man. He arched his back a bit to stretch. A smart man, too, most of the time, though he sure was being dumb about them right now. Chris knew a bit of Ezra's past from the tiny pieces that had been shared with the seven, many of the bits unintentional. Still, he figured he'd have a lifetime to learn Ezra once they finally stopped dancing around each other. One hand went to his lips, fingertip touching the curve of his small smile. More kissing would be a good place to start.
Buck kept sharp eyes on the breaking ground ahead of him, the light was still tricky and they needed to keep their mounts whole. A misstep now could make it difficult to get back to town in time and he was beginning to think ahead to their town now. Town and their friends. JD, Josiah and Nathan were back there without the rest of them. Vin holed up out at Gardner's ranch, hurt but healing. He felt out of balance. Come to depend on everyone too much, can't find my middle anymore. He shrugged slightly, didn't matter. Having good friends was better than being on your own. He knew he could always have a good time, even with someone who'd been a stranger only minutes before. But the growing sense of family he got from these six men was something he'd only had twice before. Once with his ma and the other ladies, when he was a tadpole. Once with Chris, Sarah, and Adam.
Thinking of Chris, Buck felt only relief that the man was finally looking outward again. It was about time. The grim, black-clad gunslinger image wasn't the Chris he'd first known or become best friends with. That Chris was coming back to him now, he was sure of it, as he watched his friend wooing Ezra Standish. Not a bad choice, all things considered. He knew that Chris would probably shoot him for even thinking that, but he had to suppress a chuckle anyway. Life sure was going to be different once those two sparks got together. Be a mighty big bonfire, for sure.
Yarrow was irritated when Jacob didn't return, then anxious and finally grim. Rather than send more men after him, he had the gang of riders break camp even though dawn was hours away. Just as they'd kicked over the campfire and mounted, Calvin and O'Rourke rode into the clearing. Both men looked pleased with themselves.
Yarrow pushed his sorrel through the milling riders and faced his cousin and the Irishman. "So what did you find out?"
"The bank is fat and ready," O'Rourke smiled easily, his face well covered in brown freckles. "We had some drinks at the saloon nearest the jail. Figured we'd hear more there about the lawmen too. Even saw one, some old man the bartender said was a preacher."
"Didn't look to be a problem." Calvin grunted his words, still hiding his surprise to see the gang on the move already. He looked around. "Where's Jacob?"
"He went scouting our back trail. Never came back." Marcus hadn't ever been that fond of his cousins but they were damn close to each other. He knew there'd be trouble now.
"Ain't back?" Calvin's look darkened. "You send anyone after him."
Yarrow shook his narrow head, sitting up taller in the saddle. "He was the one was trail savvy. Ain't like I got anyone else to send after him." He met the dark, smoldering eyes of his breed cousin. "You want to go after him, do it. Likely too late." He kicked his horse's flanks lightly, causing the animal to break forward between the scouts' horses. Over his shoulder he added, "Probably be better to just kill a few more up ahead, to remember him by." With that, he tugged down the brim of his big brown Stetson and waved a long arm, signaling his men to follow. Breaking out into a quick trot behind O'Rourke who'd spun his own mount around, the outlaws headed out of the low hills towards what they were sure was an unsuspecting town below.
Cal Yarrow sat still, horse held in check, watching his stuck up cousin lead off the rest of the gang. Jake was back up the trail, maybe in trouble. Cal wasn't about to desert his brother. He turned his mount around and headed in the opposite direction from the camp, eyes narrowed as he stared at the ground, looking for sign. Light was starting, he knew he'd probably spot something soon. One hand held tight to his Sharps.
Buck pulled up and waited for Chris and Ezra to ride up to him. As the horses gathered, blowing softly, he tipped his head toward the town ahead and waited. After a moment, Chris nodded.
"I hear 'em." He shifted in the saddle, unconsciously leaning towards their third.
Ezra cocked his head to the side, listening as well. Now he too heard the sounds of many riders somewhere ahead and to the side of them. "Riding hard." He didn't bother to expand upon the comment.
Buck pulled back a bit, letting Gray find better footing in the uneven clearing. "Don't think we've got time to play this on the sly, Chris."
Larabee nodded. "Break over to the main trail?"
Before Ezra could object, Buck was shaking his head and answering, "Naw, don't think that'd be too wise." He waved down their faint trail ahead. "This opens up ahead, you can see the brush thinning. We know where we are now, what I figure is just ride hell for leather and beat'em to town."
Chris flashed his high wattage, devil-take-hindmost grin at his oldest friend. He nodded once. It was like shedding years to see the answering wild smile broaden on Buck's face. Both men turned their reckless grins on Ezra Standish who sat staring at them in confusion. This only seemed to hike up their morbid humor and both men laughed aloud, almost gaily. Buck spoke first. "Let's do it."
Reining over, the three men kicked deeply into their horses' flanks and flew down the trail and spread out to ride side by side as the land opened up for them below. The race for Four Corners was on!
Ezra easily guided Chaucer over the rough ground, keeping pace with his fellow lawmen. The crazy smiles and laughter of the other two had first confused him, then amused him. His associates could be foolishly brave and carefree in the face of deadly danger, this being no exception. He could feel the thrill of riding with them now, the ground flashing beneath him, the staccato beats of Chaucer's hooves striking the ground in a rhythmic stride. He sat straight up and then leaned forward from his hips, savoring the oneness with Chris and Buck's wildness and the thrill of their mission to stop those outlaws from hurting their friends or pillaging their town. Their home. His home. His smile grew until he knew it matched his taller friends' - savage and intent, hungry for the kill. Heart beating wildly now, Ezra pulled his rifle free of the saddle scabbard, as they thundered up towards the south side of town, behind the main street buildings, behind the bank.
Somewhere up ahead, the outlaws were also reaching town, driving down the main street on their charging horses, and already firing off rounds in front of the bank. It was time to put a stop to them. They dropped from their saddles and ground tied the horses. Buck and Chris swiftly split and ran up the sides of the bank. Ezra hesitated for just a moment, realizing nothing had been said to him. It was as if he hadn't existed. There had been something almost juvenile about the way Wilmington and Larabee had reacted to each other there when they started their wild ride into town. Something old and familiar between the two men, like a lapsed friendship renewed. Ezra hadn't been a part of that and now it seemed in their spirited charge, he'd been forgotten once again. He worked the action on his rifle and decided that if he had to choose, he'd follow Chris.
Calvin Yarrow, half Cherokee, pulled up behind the three riders he'd finally caught up with, his face set in grim lines of retribution. He'd found his brother Jake's body, knifed and abandoned at their cold camp and then tracked them back to this same town he'd just rode from very early this morning. His brother was dead. Jacob Yarrow would know revenge. Cal's fingers whitened their grip on the reins as he kept position in some trees near the top of a low hill overlooking the town. He could hear shots being fired now. Must be Marcus and the rest hitting the bank. More shots. The lawmen - fighting back. He scowled. They had to pay for Jake. He raised his Sharps, taking aim at the only one still in sight, the shortest of the three, who was creeping up along the near side of the bank, rifle in hand. He peered down the sights of his Sharps. It would only take one well-aimed shot to smudge the life out of the man down there. He inhaled slowly, held his breath and let his finger caress the trigger.
Ezra slowed as he sidled up to the entrance to the alley beside the bank. Chris had charged blindly up ahead there and he felt he had to be more cautious, so he could watch his friend's back. A look around the empty back lots, nothing. He looked up and into the smiling eyes of Josiah, who waved to him briefly before turning away and taking up firing down at the miscreants on the main street. Josiah was positioned on the roof of the neighboring building, off to the side of the bank, and far enough from the edge of the shingles to see both Ezra's back lot and a wide angle of the main street in front of the bank. So, it seems that our friends are not unprepared. Ezra smiled tightly in turn and flattened himself against the bank wall, preparatory to edging along it's rough siding to the alley and Chris beyond.
Yarrow grinned, sucking on his teeth. Whoever that was, the man had just turned and now was spread out like a Sunday dinner for him on the side of the building. He began to squeeze the Sharps' trigger.
Ezra could hear the quick, loud firecracker quality of the shooting ahead and now that he was against the bank, the rising sun was no longer a factor and he could see Chris Larabee's shape crouched ahead of him at the far end of the alley, where it opened to the street. Chris was leaning forward, arm and gun hand extended in a straight line, firing and re-setting as his hand would kick up slightly with each shot. His flat brim black hat was like a slice of darker night against the dry white dust of the street beyond him. There, Ezra could see milling horses, their coats shiny and bright, chestnut, black, buckskin, gray, brown, sorrel. Riders in nondescript clothing, hats low, guns firing, smoke rising from the deadly barrage. As he watched, a rider pitched up and back off the rear of his horse, a dark splotch already forming on his chest.
Ezra swung his rifle up.
Yarrow began to press on the trigger, a smile of hate on his face.
In his ear. A sound right there. Calvin Yarrow jerked as he pressed home the trigger, the Sharps' barrel rising slightly in reflex to the nervous reaction. A blast of noise, so close that it was like an explosion, was the last sound he heard.
Ezra jerked back in shock. The split wood shingle siding of the bank exploded outward in a spray of splinters just beside his head. With a cry he couldn't suppress, he dropped his rifle and grabbed at his face. Oh god! White pain deadened all sound as he sank to his knees.
Vin wiped his hand on his face, complexion paling as he saw his friend falter, then fall. Had he been too late? He kicked viciously at the body of the outlaw on the ground, then grabbed up the Sharps that lay beside the man and climbed to his feet slowly. The pull at his bruised ribs and the bandages over the tears of his earlier wound all clamored for his attention. He ignored them and walked stiffly back to where Peso was waiting, near a ground-tied mustang. He'd have to send someone back for the other horse later. His friend was in trouble, likely his other friends as well, but first he'd have to get to Ezra.
Ezra rolled onto his back, hands cupped over his face, the pain excruciating. He could hear the gunfight continuing just beyond him but he had left that for a private world of pain. His skin, hell, his eyes, it all hurt. It hurt! He'd been silent after that first cry of surprise and now little moans leaked out. Oh, please, someone, stop the pain!
Vin neck reined Peso over to follow a zigzag course down the hillside, riding recklessly fast, hunched over the saddle horn in his hurry to get to the downed gambler. My fault! I should'a just shot that bastard without givin' him warning. Damn, damn, damn. Guilt was sucking up his body's pain, so his misery was all emotional at the moment. The pain of abused flesh might surface later, but for now all he could feel was crushing guilt. My fault!
Chris picked off another rider, the damn fools didn't even have enough sense to seek cover. He could see Buck's arm extended from the far side of the bank. Now where's Ezra? Another ping at his side had him ducking and shooting again. He'd spotted JD firing from the front of the jail, down behind a water trough. He was popping up with both pistols blazing, then dropping back down, a grin plastered across his face. Despite the danger, Chris couldn't suppress an answering grin. Nathan was there at the end of the dry goods store, behind a couple of barrels.
Not a bad plan, Chris reflected. If we hadn't made it back, our boys would have had them in a crossfire anyway. He flicked a look up at where he could just make out Josiah taking aim with a long rifle up on the roof of the chemist's. Made sense, he thought as he aimed and shot another would-be robber. Josiah was a good shot with a long gun and their best choice without Vin or Buck around. The boys had known this was coming, of course, since Josiah had sent that telegraph several days ago, likely they'd been alert all this time. He looked over his shoulder into the darker alley behind him. Where was Ezra?
Buck risked a look out into the street, leaning his long body around the corner of the bank, down low to the ground. He could see Chris barely, could see JD and Nate. Somewhere a high gun was taking out some of the riders. Must be Josiah. He sat back in and down on his heels, reloading his six-gun rapidly, one eye cocked at the action on the street. Only four men still sat on horses.
Marcus Yarrow was furious! His men had dropped around him, so fast that he'd had no time to get them to cover. Sitting well into the center of the pack, he'd not been hurt yet, but his gang had dwindled to a handful of men. He did not intend to die today. With a strained yell, he called to the riders still up. "Go! Now!" And then heeled his horse over, driving the sharp metal of his gun sight into the animal's side. The horse grunted and leapt ahead, leading the dash out of town, only three men at his back. Only three, he had time to think grimly, as he led them out of the ambush. For that's what it was. Somehow, the town had been warned.
As the last of the outlaws took flight, the lawmen rose slowly and cautiously to their feet. JD moved around the water trough and began to check the bodies closest to him. Nathan stepped down into the street from the boardwalk, patting one of the barrels that had been his cover as he came out into the street too. Buck kicked aside two of the dead men and strode over to JD. Buck's blood was still singing and he needed to scream, dance, shout, something. He knocked Dunne's hat off.
Chris stood up. Felt like every joint was creaking. He rubbed at his back with one hand, the other still full of gun as he surveyed the bloody street. With a swift move, his gun was up and firing, the single shot loud in the street as a wounded outlaw, aiming at Buck's back, became another dead outlaw.
Buck spun and saw what had happened. His grin faded but he nodded to Chris and then turned to look more closely at the remaining bodies, hearing Chris's, "Buck, you're smarter than that! Watch yourself!" in his ears.
Josiah raised up from where he'd been lying on the roof and brought his rifle up with him, still aimed and held to his cheek and shoulder. He hadn't seen the one move that Chris had shot just then. He should have. He watched closely for any more sign of movement.
Chris twisted around to look down the alley at his back as he heard the thunder of a hard ridden horse. In the early morning gloom, he couldn't see much but he caught sight of a big horse with rider pull to a rough stop at the end of the alley. Then as the rider jumped off his horse and half stumbled on knees that weren't working too well, Chris recognized the shape of that capote and slouch hat. Vin! Dammit, didn't he think they could handle this without him? Dammit! Tanner could be making his injuries worse. Larabee walked quickly back up the alley.
Vin jumped from the saddle, unwisely. His knees gave out and he had to stumble to catch his balance, one hand going to his ribs and the wound at his side that he could now feel was wet again. Must have pulled the bandages loose. The thought was fleeting because his bright blue eyes, anxious and narrowed, were locked on the rocking body in the dirt. Ezra was there, hands to his face, unable to keep still. Close now, Vin could hear the tiny moans coming from the man. Ezra tried to be silent when injured, seemed to be a matter of stupid pride, Vin had always figured. So if he was sounding like this, things must be bad.
The shooting further in town had stopped. Hoping that everyone else was alright, Vin went to his knees beside Ezra, grabbing on to the man's forearms. "Ez! Take it easy! Let me see where you're hurt." He pulled back as Standish sagged to the ground and groaned.
Chris reached Vin just as the tracker dropped down beside someone. Beside Ezra. Oh, god, Ezra! Larabee circled the men and crouched down by Ezra's head. No, no, no, no, no! Heard Vin's words and nodded, grabbing the gambler's shoulders. "Ezra! Let us see."
Vin yanked back, pulling the gambler's hands from his face.
Chris and Vin stared at the mass of blood, it was impossible to see where it was all coming from, Ezra's face was awash in it. As one voice, the two men yelled, "NATHAN!"
JD took a swing at his best friend and mentor. Missed as the rascal danced away. Dang blast it! Come out of nowhere, shoot a bunch of outlaws and he thinks he's got the right to knock off my hat again! "Buck, darn it!"
Wilmington grinned expansively and then ducked and shivered as a shot sounded behind him. Spinning, grin vanished, he saw smoke rise from Chris' gun, a scowl on his friend's face. Heard Chris yell, "Buck, you're smarter than that! Watch yourself!" With a nod, ignoring JD now, Buck began to walk back across the street, checking the bodies, pushing away at the few rider-less horses still wandering loose. Most of those had taken off after the fleeing outlaws, the ones that hadn't been shot.
JD half-skipped over to Wilmington's side, giving him a broad shove against one arm. "Yeah, Buck! You watch yourself!" Before Buck could retaliate, Dunne had taken a wide step to the side, an upward curl to his lips as he started in another direction, also checking bodies. It was good to have Buck and Chris back. He wondered where Ezra was and if Vin had ended up with them. Figure I'll hear it all soon enough. He carefully squatted next to another body, turning it over cautiously, one hand still gripping one of his six-guns just in case.
Nathan saw Buck and Chris during the shoot out and had been mighty grateful that they'd showed when they had. Not that he and Josiah and young JD couldn't have managed, but it was easier with more guns. They'd been in position since before dawn. Josiah had reported what he'd seen and what Sam, the bartender, had told him after those two rough looking strangers had left the saloon. Looked like scouts for trouble. They had made a plan late that night and gotten ready early.
Jackson wiped at his face with a pocket-handkerchief. Was still early but he'd taken last watch before the dawn preparations and he was tired. Drained by the fight and the lack of sleep. Nathan began catching at the reins of the loose horses. Once he had a couple sets of leathers in his hands, the rest seemed to herd to him, were easier to catch. Chris' shot had spooked the few he'd caught but they settled down fast and he kept his gun handy and eyes open as he continued gathering the horses.
Josiah, staring down at the disarray in the street, shook his head minutely. He kept his rifle steady and eyed the slow progress of JD, Nathan, and Buck with care. He didn't want Chris to have to save the day again, not when he was here to do the job. Where was Ezra? If Buck and Chris were here, why hadn't Ezra come out of the alley? He'd seen him earlier, just as things were hotting up. He itched to turn and look but until Buck and JD gave an all clear, he dasn't. A bead of sweat worked its way down between his shoulder blades and he shrugged it away. He heard the sound of a fast pony coming up behind him somewhere but left that to Chris, who he knew was just below him.
Jackson had just caught the final horse still wandering the main street when he froze at the cry of his name.
That was Chris and --- Vin?
Nate dragged his bunch of horses to JD and threw the leathers into the boy's hands. "Here!" Then he dug in and ran, following Buck Wilmington, who'd also stopped suddenly at the cry, in the very act of turning over a final corpse. Buck seemed to know where to go and was diving into the alley beside the bank. Jackson veered around the fallen and headed into the darker shade of the alley.
Josiah's blood ran cold at that cry. He half-rose and looked back and down, still clutching his rifle. He could make out Vin and Chris kneeling beside someone writhing on the ground. Could only be Ezra! He swung around to look out at the main street. JD was standing there holding the reins on at least six horses, and looking worriedly back toward the bank and beyond. Josiah scanned the bodies on the street. Damn. Can't go down yet, not until I know that JD is safe too. He resumed his watch to the front, but listened for more sounds from his rear. Worry held him in an aching grasp.
Vin held on to Ezra's forearms, straining to keep the man from returning claw-like hands to his bloody face. He looked up to meet Chris Larabee's eyes, eyes full of fear. "Hold'em, Cowboy, don't want him to hurt himself no worse." His voice sounded hoarse to his own ears.
Chris held on tight to Ezra's shoulders as Ezra twisted and rocked beneath his hands, gasping out tiny moans of pain, muttering in a tight voice, "Make it stop, please, just make it stop!"
"Ezra! Listen to me," Chris leaned in close and spoke into the man's ear, "You gotta be still, Nathan's coming, he'll help. I got you, now, I got you, I won't let you go."
"Chris?" Ezra's body sagged slightly, then tensed again as fresh waves of agony kept him from seeing anything except white pain. He felt hands on his person but all he could do was struggle to escape the shocking pain, writhe and turn. He arched off the ground and his head knocked against something firm. "Chris?"
"Yeah, Ez, I'm here. Easy there, Ez, easy."
Chris was crying now and didn't even know it, Vin realized, looking up and taking in the sight of one bloody friend held tightly in the arms of another. He held on to Ezra's wrists, fighting to keep fingers from touching the mess of the man's face. He cricked his neck over to see Buck, then Nathan running pell-mell down the alley towards them. "Nate! Here!" He realized even as he yelled that it was pointless, Jackson could see them just fine.
Buck cringed back against the side of the bank, staring at his friends in horror. How had Ezra been hurt like this? What happened?
"Holy mother of god!" Jackson skidded to a stop and sank down on his haunches beside them, craning to see Standish's face as the man rolled his head back and forth across one of Larabee's thighs where the kneeling man held and supported him. He saw the tear tracks on Chris' face but had no time to figure that out.
Buck wanted to help but stayed back, seeing that Vin and Chris already had a good hold on Ezra and that Nathan was here now as well and needed room to look, maybe, please god, to fix their friend. Oh, god, no, oh, not Ezra! His heart hurt knowing how Chris must be feeling too. He waited helplessly.
Nathan paused. Taking in the nature of the injury, the clear pain and panic of his friend, and the way Vin was struggling to hold Ezra's hands back from the injuries, Nathan's mind raced. He climbed part way to his feet and whipped his brown leather belt off, dragging the buckle open and pulling the strap out through the loops quickly. "Here." He held on to the belt while placing one firm hand on Ezra's belly and pushing. Standish bent over the new pressure, causing Chris to loosen his grip a bit. "Vin, push his arms back behind him." Nathan's firm tones were an order and the tracker obeyed with a startled look at the healer.
Jackson didn't have time for explanations; he could hear Ezra's panting moans and breathless chant. The minute the gambler's hands were behind him, Nathan had his belt over and around the wrists and wrapped the leather strap fast and tight, pulling it through the buckle and half knotting it into itself. "There."
Buck watched, heart breaking.
Breathing hard, Nathan sat back on his heels, one hand again on Standish's stomach. Before anyone could protest, he said, "That will stop him from hurting himself until we can get him up to my place and I can see what's wrong."
Vin dropped his hands to his knees and stared in awful guilt and sorrow as his friend was tied up. Oh god, all my fault.
"Ezra, I'm still here. You just let me hold you. Trust me, Ezra. Trust me. I'll keep you safe." Chris kept up the murmurs, unable to stop himself from shooting a look of anger at Jackson when the man tied off Ezra's hands. Makes sense, don't be stupid, he told himself, while slipping his hands down from the tops of Ezra's shoulders to under them. He wiped at his face by rubbing it against one of his own shoulders, then looked down at his gambler again. "I got you, Ez."
Nathan nodded as Chris moved to a new grip, ready to lift Standish. "Vin? Can you take his legs?" Jackson stood up, watching Ezra carefully, not seeing the grimace on Vin's face as he maneuvered to lift Ezra. "Bring him up to the clinic, I'll go ahead, get ready."
The other two men nodded silently now. Ezra was still fighting them, gasping now like a landed fish, body jumping about like one too, Vin thought as he turned and grabbed the man's booted ankles tightly and lifted. He staggered slightly to one side as Ezra tried to kick out, damn this's gonna hurt some, Vin thought as he stifled a cry of his own as his bruised ribs reacted to this new mistreatment. No time to bother, got to get Ezra to help. Behind him, he could hear Chris' continuous stream of soft murmurs, no longer able to make out the words, but clearly hearing the worry and love in that voice. Ezra better make it through this or Chris will be in a bad way.
"Pard, put him down." Buck stood in front of Vin, blocking his forward movement.
Vin realized he hadn't even noticed Buck's arrival. "Ain't got the time, Ez's hurt."
"Make the time, Vin. Put him down now. I'll get him." Wilmington didn't budge. He spoke clearly and firmly despite the horror he faced. He'd seen as bad and worse during the Great War, but this still made his skin crawl.
Tanner listed to the side and dropped Standish's legs. "Have it your own way." He didn't try to hide his anger, but felt Buck's large hand momentarily on his shoulder.
"You aren't healed yet, Pard, Ezra would never forgive himself if you got hurt worse helping him." Buck was hastily stepping in between Standish's legs, facing the clinic and grabbing, lifting, as he spoke. With a quick nod to Vin, "Go help JD on the street," Buck then glanced over his shoulder at Chris who was waiting anxiously behind Ezra's shoulders. He nodded to Chris, silently cursing as he saw the drying tear tracks and fresh tears still dripping down his friend's face. "Don't you go giving up on old Ez, here, Chris! We'll get him up to Nate and he'll do him up just fine."
Then they were off at a quick dogtrot out the alley and across the street. They didn't even pause at the steps up to the clinic. Chris only had eyes for Ezra, trusting Buck to get them to help. He nearly tripped on the first step up, then adjusted and was climbing them two at a time. Ezra's head and shoulder's rested heavily on his chest, he took the balance of the smaller man's weight as they carried him up the stairs.
All Ezra could see was white light, all he could do was relive the bombardment of those cutting shards into his face, his eyes burned, his hands were somehow cut off and he wrenched wretchedly at his bonds. His shoulders strained with panicked jerks and then he was lifted up into the air. He fought it, twisted, tried to kick out, stop the new pain. That was all he could think. Stop the pain! Then the hands on him became hot, the only warm spots on his body and he felt icy shivers of shock rip through him. Warm air brushed against one ear, Chris' voice rattled tightly into him, he could sense a roil of emotions from Chris but his own agony precluded his deciphering of them. Oh, god, make it stop!
Buck nearly tripped over the door rise as he rushed into Nathan's small clinic, shuffling his feet to try to keep Ezra's body from any unnecessary bumping. Chris, coming up behind him and holding Ezra by the shoulders was also hurrying and his forward motion was propelling Wilmington into the tiny room. "Where do you want him, Nate?" Buck had to rush the words out as well, his air mostly expended with the dash up the steep stairs to the clinic.
Jackson stood just inside his clinic, holding the door wide. "Set him on that straight back chair in the middle of the room." He pointed to a chair he'd specially set out. On his run ahead, he had been rapidly thinking over what he needed to do and how he'd do it. During the war, he'd often seen similar injuries from soldiers hurt in enemy bombardments. Shrapnel and debris were dangerous, exploding from buildings and buttress works. They cut unprotected flesh to bloody ribbons. He needed to flush the injured area to see exactly what he was dealing with.
Chris eyed the simple chair and his anger rose another notch. Not even on the bed? What was Nathan thinking? "Nate!" Seeing the healer look up at him, he demanded, "What about on the bed?"
"Chris, I need to work on his face, can't do that well if he's lying down." Nathan had a hand on Buck's shoulder now, guiding Wilmington in a short circle so that Ezra's legs could be placed astride the chair seat, seating him backwards, chest against the chair back.
Larabee's anger subsided again, seeing the reason in Jackson's edict. But all he really wanted to do was hold Ezra, comfort him. Ezra was whimpering now, non-stop. No longer making sensible words, just soft noises of pain. He was trembling so badly that it felt like Chris was holding onto a vibrating railroad train carriage. "Easy, Ezra, it'll be alright." He continued his soft encouragements as he guided Ezra's upper body into position with Nathan's help. Unable to leave Ezra so vulnerable, arms tied behind and legs splayed open against the chair, Chris slid onto the seat behind the smaller man and wrapped his arms around Ezra to grip the top rung of the chair back.
Jackson ignored Larabee's positioning, instead watching as Ezra kicked out again now that Buck had released his ankles and retreated. "We got to do something about his legs too." He looked up at Buck and saw the reluctant comprehension there. Wilmington nodded and picked up some long strips of bandaging.
Nathan, seeing that Buck understood, turned back to his stove and removed a now steaming kettle. It had been warming earlier and hadn't taken long to reheat. Despite his urgency, he worked methodically, carefully pouring some off into a bowl, putting more in a cup with some herbs. Then he dragged up another chair to face his injured friend, before returning with the cup in one hand and the bowl in the circle of his other arm. Buck pulled over a small table and set it up beside Nathan who nodded his thanks, placing the bowl and cup there.
"We have to clean his face now. It's going to hurt plenty." He didn't bother looking at Ezra who was still making small noises, instead Nathan met Chris Larabee's wide hazel eyes. He could see the fear and anger there. "I'm going to give him some tea that may help some with the pain, but someone has to hold his head."
Chris began to shake his own, no, damn it, this was torture, not treatment. Then Buck was leaning up against his back, hands warm and secure on his shoulders, rubbing them lightly. "Take it easy, Big Dog, you jest hold on to our Ez. I'll keep his head still for Nate." Somehow, the soft, kind tones in his old friend's voice melted his resistance and with a sigh, Larabee nodded.
Buck looked up at Jackson who sat waiting, one hand dipping a bit of flannel into the clear warm water of the bowl at his elbow. "Go ahead, Nathan." Then he had a thought. "Think we should give him something first, some laudanum maybe?"
Nate shook his head. "He's in shock, Buck, I don't want to make it worse. I used up the last of my laudanum on Old Jeb Bryers, got some on order but it ain't here yet. Best I can do is some herbs in this tea." With that, Nathan dropped the wet cloth and picked up the small cup of steeping herbs. He leaned forward and tipped the cup against Ezra's lower lip, careful of a splinter he could see even there.
Standish drank down most of the dark mixture with a bit of coaxing from Chris and Nathan, though some did dribble down his chin. Nathan carefully wiped that away with gentle pats of a clean cloth.
"Now I got to start," Nathan stated to the others, regret in his tone. "Can't wait too long, infection sets in mighty quick." He dampened another cloth with warm clean water from the bowl by his side and drizzled the water over Ezra's face, starting at the hairline. Ezra jerked back against Chris, crying out again. The sound was like the helpless mewling of a tiny kitten, Chris thought in despair, holding on and continuing to soothe his Ezra with soft-spoken words of comfort, "I'm here, Ezra, just hold on. I got you. Won't ever let you go. Never let you go."
The water, turning reddish, dripped down from Standish's face to form a puddle on the floor. Jackson looked down in surprise, realizing he'd been so anxious about his patient that he hadn't even taken simple precautions. With a soft curse, he rose and snatched up a wide pan from under the stove and set it on the floor beneath the chair so that it would catch run-off.
Set now, Nathan repeated his gentle bathing of Ezra's face. The man's eyes were closed, lids fluttering. His jaw was so tense, teeth gritted, that his face was distorted with the strained muscles. Ezra gave a tiny cry with each repeat of the fall of water over his face. Chris was speaking softly into one of Ezra's ears, so quietly that although Nathan could hear the sound, he couldn't make out the words.
Buck was cursing. A monotone string of profanity that repeated endlessly, not too loud, just another background sound as Nathan concentrated on looking closely at Ezra's skin. He'd discovered splinters of wood piercing the face in an irregular pattern mostly on the right side. None had actually struck the eyes, from what he could see, but some were large as needles, others, small as flecks. There was a rash forming on the skin, like it had been peppered and was reddening around the tiny dark spots. Nothing life threatening, but painful as hell, Jackson decided.
Nathan sat back once he'd cleaned up the skin surface; he kept one large, gentle hand on one of Ezra's thighs. Touching a patient, he'd discovered, often was enough to ease pain. He looked up at Buck and Chris. "He's gonna be fine, just in a lot of pain right now." Nathan wiped his face with a wet hand, then continued, "I'm going to have to pick out all those splinters. Then check his eyes. Since he can close his lids, ain't no big pieces there, but probably some grit."
Chris, voice hard, despite tears that refused to stop sliding down his grim face, ordered, "Nathan, talk to Ezra."
With a sense of shock, Jackson realized he'd been ignoring Standish as a person, just treating him as a thing, living maybe, but a thing, even if he had been trying the healing touch on him. He frowned an apology at Larabee and refocused his attention to their gambler directly in front of him. "Ezra?"
Ezra had given up trying to suppress the noises that seemed to independently make their way out of his body. He could hear himself whimpering, crying out in small sounds of pain as Mr. Jackson treated his face. The white pain of earlier had given way to generalized nerve twisting agony, but of more natural proportions. He'd felt this pain before when shot. Just more localized. Having Chris wrapped around him, tight up against his back, feeling Buck's large hands gently but firmly supporting his head, he felt an overwhelming sense of safety, despite the pain. There was even the touch of another hand on his leg, a hand that he decided must be Nathan's, and it too felt reassuring. Chris was speaking to him, saying that he would stay with him, keep him safe and make sure all was well. The litany was healing him in places he hadn't realized he was hurt. He was actually beginning to think again.
When Chris' gentle voice turned into a louder growl at the healer, Ezra would have smiled if he hadn't figured out it would have hurt far too much. Trust Chris. Yes, he could do that - he'd always been able to do that, and now it was as comfortable as breathing to think that trusting Chris was part of his life. He even understood both Nathan and Chris in this instance, understood what Chris was demanding and Nathan giving. Carefully, because his lip had been pierced at least once, Ezra answered.
"Yes, Mr. Jackson. I hear you."
That produced a moment of stunned silence.
Buck stopped cursing and looked down in shock. He'd figured Ezra was out of his mind in pain.
Chris hugged tighter, a smile stealing across his face. That was his Ezra coming back!
Nathan jerked his chin back in surprise. He really hadn't expected Ezra to answer, had just addressed him to appease Larabee. Adjusting quickly, he smiled at the trembling form in front of him. "Ezra, I have to pull out the splinters in your face. It's gonna hurt powerfully."
"I see. I assume, since you offer nothing more for the pain, that I am to endure this without any additional medicinal help?" Ezra was proud of himself for pushing down the groan that wanted to escape. He couldn't regulate his voice though, it sounded raspy and dry.
"Sorry, Ezra. That tea's all I got. I'll do this as fast as I can." Taking up tweezers that he'd gotten ready as soon as he'd made it to the clinic earlier, Nathan began to work.
The next hour did not really go very fast at all.
Josiah stood on the balcony of the clinic, staring out at the midday activities of the small town below. He leaned heavily on the rail on his forearms, shirtsleeves rolled up and brawny arms tanned and muscular in the sunshine. The street was bare of the dead from that early morning fight. The abandoned and orphaned horses were now stripped of gear and calm in a corral behind the livery. Usual procedure was to sell them and use the proceeds to repair any damages to the town caused by animals' prior owners.
He'd been inside the clinic earlier, nothing could have kept him away. When he'd arrived, Nathan was painstakingly removing splinters from Ezra's face. Josiah shuddered and closed his eyes. That had not been pretty. He had wanted to stay to lend support, once he knew that Ezra wasn't facing a death-threatening wound, but he sensed he would simply be an extra voice.
Ezra's eyes were going to be fine according to Nathan who'd looked closely after flushing them. But for now Nathan had bound them to let them rest. When Nathan poured the water into those blood red eyes, Josiah had nearly passed out, just watching. He paled at the memory of Ezra's hitching breath, Chris' white face just behind Ezra's, Buck's fierce hold on Ezra's head, the tall man hunched over the doubled bodies of Larabee and Standish, sandwiched into that straight-backed chair.
But even all of that he could have stood and stayed for - all but what his discriminating ears had finally heard. Chris Larabee's stream of soft comments meant for Ezra's ears alone. Josiah frowned in remembrance. Just hadn't sounded quite right.
Not that Chris had said anything wrong, just something about the tone, the desperation and, dare he say it? Love, in the words. Buck had been standing right there over them, must have heard it all and didn't turn a hair. Nathan was so close against Ezra's face, picking at those splinters that he had to have heard too. Of course, he'd been intent on what he was doing, might not have really heard it all, or understood, if he had. Josiah lowered his head and shoulders to rest his chin meditatively on his crossed forearms. Street was clear, everything looked normal for a noon in Four Corners. His back muscles twitched. Well, except for the town's lawmen.
Vin Tanner came out of the livery with JD Dunne, the two immediately looking up and waving to Josiah. He nodded moodily in return. Vin was another matter, too. The boy had shown up right on Josiah's heels. Claimed to be his fault that Ezra was hurt. Took some sharp words from Chris and Buck to settle him down. Nate had given Ezra a rest part way through the splinter removals so he could check on Vin's injuries. Josiah chuckled involuntarily in memory of Vin's look of betrayal when Larabee told Nate about the bullet hole and banged up ribs. Fortunately, Nathan pronounced Vin healing nicely, said that Mrs. Gardner did a fine job closing the wounds and binding the ribs. All Vin had to do was take it easy for a bit. Nathan had dismissed the man with a wave, and turned back to Ezra.
Josiah had watched the shadowed look on Tanner's face as the man backed out of the clinic. Not all settled there yet. He watched now as Vin and JD moved on. JD had a hand on Vin's shoulder, and was talking to him with a look of concentration. Neither seemed to be paying much attention to the rest of the world around them, but they continued over to the undertakers. Likely going to look over those bodies, see if any faces look familiar. Sanchez paused in his ruminations. Some had got away. Four. Four had ridden out of town, and none had been hurt from what he'd been able to see from his perch on the roof. One had been the leader, too. They'd have to be careful now. Man had been turned away in his greed and bloodlust. Might be back.
Sanchez glanced over to the darkened doorway to the saloon. Then there were the Garson brothers. Those two had ridden into town nearly a week ago, taken up a room at the boarding house, and were loitering around the saloon most days and nights. Everyone knew they were carrying family feelings against Larabee who'd shot down their daddy in a street shootout. It happened when Garson went crazy one night on too much bad booze down at Digger Dan's and begun trying to shoot out the lights of folk's bedrooms. Chris had tried to subdue him but Frank Garson on a tear was not someone who went anywhere quietly. He'd called out Larabee and drew before Chris had even turned to face the man. Only a first misfire had saved Larabee from a shot in the back. Garson's second shot was met by Larabee's lead. Chris had shot straight. Garson missed. And died.
JD knew about Lemuel and Boll, had seen the brothers and told Josiah the story behind their scowling faces. He and JD had kept an eye on the men but those two had been perfect citizens. Just mouthy, with bitter eyes. Death stalked Four Corners while they stayed in town. Josiah felt goose bumps on his arms as he contemplated how differently things could have turned out if those two had jumped into the firefight this morning. As it was, he wasn't too sure why they hadn't. Watching JD and Vin disappear into the funeral parlor, Josiah realized he'd stopped brooding about Chris Larabee's actions in the clinic.
Buck crouched down at Ezra's feet, unbinding the strips of white cloth that had tied the gambler's legs to the chair legs. Chris waited, hands holding onto Ezra's upper arms as the man swayed in the chair where he'd been held so tightly. Nathan was stretching and arching his back, grunting at the stiffness of having hunched over for more than an hour, picking at those bits of wood stuck all over Ezra Standish's face like pins in a cushion.
"Alright, Chris, he's free." Buck's voice was subdued, tired. He just wanted to go off somewhere and sleep, only he wanted to make sure that his friends were all set first. He glanced over at Nathan, man looked wiped out. "Nate? Why don't you bunk out now. Chris can take Ezra over to his room, stay with him there."
Chris' head came up in surprise and then appreciation. Buck surely knew that he wanted Ezra to himself for a while. Not like we're going to be doing anything just yet, but I'd like him to rest, with me. Maybe we can finally do some talking. Or not, he thought as he caught again at Ezra as the man once more swayed to the side. Shit. He's off balance cause of his hands. Larabee carefully slid back and off the chair, maintaining his hold on his southerner as he guided the man up and off the chair as well. "That's right, Ezra, just slow and easy." He steadied Ezra and called to Nathan, "Nathan, can you get this belt off him now?" He really wasn't ready for Jackson's reply.
"Not sure that's wise. He's still hurting. Might dig at his face, get it all infected when I just got it cleaned out." Nathan knew sometimes you had to be hard to be kind.
Chris felt his anger rise again but before he could speak, Buck was leaning in with busy fingers between him and Ezra, and then pulling free Nathan's belt. "Chris'll make sure he don't do himself anymore harm, Nate." Buck's voice left no room for argument.
Nathan frowned and then shrugged. He might not say anything, but he'd heard enough from Larabee's comments to Ezra to know that they had something going on between them. Chris wouldn't be leaving Ezra alone anytime soon and he, Nathan, was damn tired. "Fine. Chris you watch him close." Nathan didn't let the humor he felt at that superfluous order surface. Huh. Ezra'd be amazed at the words Nathan could use when he so wished. Eyes blurring with fatigue, he waved them out. "I'll just lie down for a spell."
Buck patted the man on the shoulder as the healer crossed the room and sank onto the still pristine bed. Wilmington followed, letting Chris handle Ezra, while he made sure Nathan was gonna be alright. He'd done some mighty fancy work just now, treating Ezra right delicately. Man had talent, healing talent, for sure. Buck nodded to himself as Nathan Jackson dropped onto his back, legs sagging off the edge of the bed. Even as Buck lifted them up, Jackson was already snoring softly. Buck took an extra moment to shake out a folded blanket from the foot of the bed and lay it across Nathan's chest. "Sleep well, Pard, you earned it." He gave the sleeping healer a light pat on the shoulder and then turned to see how Chris and Ezra were managing.
Ezra just wanted to go home, home to his very own room. Lie down and let the world go on without him. His entire face throbbed, burned. His eyes were dry and searing. His body ached from fighting against the restraints as he was treated to Mr. Jackson's tender mercies. He licked at his lower lip, tasting blood there. Nathan had talked once in a while as he worked, saying at one point, that he really couldn't do any stitches since it was mostly holes, not tears in Ezra's skin. Instead he'd patted on some obnoxious mixture of herbs, calling it a tincture of something or other. Stung like the very devil, leaving some numbness in its wake.
If it weren't for Chris' presence, Ezra might just curl up and cry. But Chris was here, holding him, hugging him, whispering to him promises of forever. That had such a nice sound, forever. Ezra let himself be guided slowly, in a cautious shuffle, across the floor and outside. Even with the blindfold, he could tell from the way they'd moved and the change in the air that they'd left the clinic. Chris was telling him where to place his feet with each step. Then Buck was talking there beside them, resting one warm hand on Ezra's neck, which had managed to remain free of the flack.
"Ezra? Any better yet?" Buck's concern was easy to read, his friendship secure.
"Yes. Thank you, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra spoke through stiffened lips, his words slurred with his caution, afraid to tear open again the cut in his lip, one of the spots that a splinter had managed to tear rather than simply puncture. He felt Buck's hand tighten for a moment then leave. Instantly, Ezra missed his friend but feeling Chris' continuing and comforting presence, said nothing.
Larabee spoke with his eyes, warm gratitude shining there for Wilmington. I owe Buck more now than ever. Man is as wise as they come and as good a friend as god ever made. He eased Ezra forward, nodded to Buck, and began to carefully describe to Ezra the steps he should take so that they'd have no mishaps going over to Ezra's room. For a moment, his eyes lidded in heat. Damn, keep a cork in it, Larabee. Ezra isn't ready for anything yet. We got to get him well first. "Slowly, Ez, just edge on over to your right now." He waved with his chin as Buck gave him a nod and slipped out down the stairs ahead of them.
"You need any help there, Brother?" Josiah's rich, soft voice was normally a balm to Ezra's ears but when it came unexpectedly out of the void, it startled him badly.
Chris caught hold tighter on Ezra's arms as he jerked in surprise, apparently at the sound of Josiah's voice. Damn, forgot he can't see. Should have warned him. Larabee spoke easily, hands doing the calming now. "We're fine Josiah, and Nathan's gone to sleep. Ezra's just going over to his own bed to sleep for a while."
"Chris? When you can, we need to talk." Josiah's voice deepened, hesitation clear. Chris detected something else. Discomfort maybe, unhappiness? Josiah was continuing though. "The Garson brothers-"
"Yeah. What's that all about? Buck told me you mentioned them in the telegraph you sent him." Chris slowed their progress so he could question Josiah. Ezra stopped and waited, clearly listening too.
Josiah folded his arms on his chest. Chris seems to be suffering from a short memory. "You shot their father."
"Frank?" Chris nodded, feeling Ezra tense up. He flexed his fingers, squeezing Ezra's arms reassuringly. "He tried to kill me, didn't have any choice."
"I know it." Josiah nodded. "Seems like, from what they been saying, they don't."
"I'm not gonna go borrow trouble, Josiah." Chris shifted his weight and grimaced. "If they want to talk to me, I'll listen. Right now, I got better things to do." Nodding to show he was finished talking on this, Larabee slid one arm around Ezra's shoulders. "Think this might be easier for going down the stairs, Ez." He twisted his head back to throw over his shoulder to Sanchez, "Keep on eye on things, Josiah."
"That I will, Brother Chris." Josiah studied the departing men. "You get better, Ezra."
"Thank you, Mr. Sanchez," wavered back up from the top step to his ears. Josiah sighed. If Chris hurts that boy, there will be trouble.
Ezra inhaled sharply as his boot toe struck the first step going up to the boardwalk in front of the saloon. Chris had been very good about guiding him, warning him, but apparently he either forgot or got distracted. "Chris?"
Larabee, one foot on the first step up, had felt the jar to Ezra's frame and cursed internally. He had only glanced over to check on Buck who was heading out on patrol. It had been long enough to miss what he should be watching for. "Sorry, Ezra." He shook his head. "We're at the boardwalk in front of the saloon."
"So I gathered." Ezra hated being dependent on anyone and that it was Chris seemed a thousand times worse. Silently he waited.
Chris' lips drew down automatically, but only to chasten himself. "Was watching Buck leave on patrol. Step up, ah, two more." He slipped his hand down from arm to elbow to help boost Ezra upwards.
With the unexpected push, Ezra nearly took flight up the step and had to gulp as his foot came down with a thump on a step. How could he ever have assumed that climbing steps was an easy undertaking? With dismay, he contemplated the full staircase within that awaited him before he could escape to his room. Balustrade! Of course! With a firmer tread, and a bit of resistance to Chris' forceful lift, Ezra managed the rest of the steps up to the boardwalk. He bit his tongue to keep from snapping at his 'helper', if Chris was any more helpful, he would not need stairs to get to the second floor. "Thank you, sir." Nodding in Larabee's direction, Ezra tried to break free. He knew this turf well, surely he could manage on his own.
"Ezra." Chris dragged the man to a stop. What got into him now? He peered down into Ezra's bland face. Oh, oh. Got his hidin' face on. "Ezra, I'm just helping you get to your room."
"And you have done a marvelous, no, dare I say it? Magnificent job, Mr. Larabee. Yes, truly." Ezra turned toward his invisible assistant and sketched a bow. "Once again, thank you. And now, if you will excuse me?" He tugged his lapels into to proper alignment or at least what he hoped was so and raised one hand to his hat. He'd have to remember to thank Buck later, for recovering it from the alley.
"Ezra, what the hell do you think you're doing?" At this point, Chris was losing patience. Ezra might be his heart's delight, but he could still try his soul.
"I am bidding you adieu and heading into the saloon, from whence I shall mount those pleasant stairs to my private domicile." Ezra smiled, having spoken firmly and with what he hoped was a certain level of inevitability.
Chris stared, opened his mouth to speak, closed it again, then finally spit out, "Like hell!" He reached out and grabbed hold of the wily gamester's arm and whirled the smaller man around toward the door, stepping up beside him and tightening his grip. "WE are going into the saloon together, and I am going to walk you to your room."
"Mr. Larabee," Ezra caught himself in a mid-stride stumble and had to pull himself up to keep up with the mad man dragging him through the swing doors. He knew they'd broached the doors because one pushed against his chest as he was nearly dragged along at what seemed, in his darkened state, breakneck speed. Planting his feet and leaning back on his boot heels, Ezra managed to stop their procession at what he estimated was about half-way through the big room. "MISTER Larabee."
"Hell, Ezra, what is it now?" Chris contemplated breaking Ezra's neck, just a little bit. Not so it would interfere with anything important, just enough to shut him up and move him along. He flexed his hand on Standish's coat sleeve causing the man to flinch and grimace for just a moment, enough for Chris to loosen his grasp again shamefacedly.
"I can manage the stairs, Chris." Ezra tried reason. "There's a rail," he pointed out with as placid a tone as he could manage.
"I know there's a damn rail, Ezra," Chris squinted down at the frowning lips wishing he could see Ezra's eyes, not that it would make that much difference. When Ezra wanted to hide, his eyes were closed doors. He leaned in, nose to nose with the obstinate man. "I want to do this." He took a deep breath. "Please?" There, that should settle it. He turned toward the stairs and pulled. It was like trying to move a tree.
"No." Ezra was shaking his head negatively now. "No, sir." He refused to budge until this was settled. "Mr. Larabee, I shall make you an offer."
"An offer?" Chris was suspicious. What was the little weasel up to now? Hell, one kiss was NOT going to be enough to see him through until tomorrow. How could Ezra act this way? Chris replayed that bedroom scene in Bell City. He wants me. Hell, he even admitted he loves me. Well, said he cares, that counts. So what is happening here?
"Yes, an offer. You may escort me to the foot of the stairs," Ezra felt he was being quite generous here. He nodded, mouth straightening and easing into what he hoped would look like a friendly smile. "Once my hand is on the rail, you may relinquish any obligation you may have felt you-"
"Obligation?" Chris' voice went down an octave, sounding decidedly dangerous to Ezra.
He added more power to his smile. "Yes. I shall be fine from there."
"Ezra, it isn't an obligation that has me here beside you."
"No." Chris leaned closer, ignoring the scattering of cowboys eating lunch at saloon tables around the room. He leaned into Ezra so that their chests met. He tipped his head down enough to push against Ezra's forehead with his own. "No. I want to be with you." Though god only knows why at the moment, you contrary mule.
"Oh." Ezra considered this. And Chris' proximity. He could feel a burn along his nerves transmitting itself from their skin-to-skin touch at heads all the way to where his toes were starting to curl up. He shivered and pulled his head back. This would never do, and who knew who all was witnessing this little scene. "Enough. Chris," he hissed in a whisper, "Stop this foolery. I need some time alone." Time to put some pressure on the blond. "Please?" He let his desperation bleed into that final word.
Chris melted. Shit. God-damned heartbreaker! With a deep, windy sigh, Larabee bowed to the self-possessed man in front of him. "Alright, Ezra, if that's what you want." Where the hell was the quiescent man he'd cuddled and comforted over at the clinic?
Ezra didn't answer, simply turned and offered his arm. Chris shook his head in reluctant admiration and slid his hand into place to guide the southerner to the foot of the stairs at the back of the room. A distance they covered in complete silence.
"Alright, Ezra. One more step and you'll feel the first stair-step with your toe. Rail's on your right." Chris stepped back.
Ezra nodded and with concentration slid one foot forward. Tap. He reached out, only to find a calloused hand capture his and guide it gently to the rail. "You have been most helpful, sir, once more I thank you."
Chris slowly released his hold on that delicate, long fingered hand. Feel like cursing or weeping. He watched closely as Ezra began to slowly climb the stairs. "Rest easy, Ezra. We'll be by to check on you later."
"By all means, Mr. Larabee." Ezra stopped after another step. "Chris?" he called softly, in case the man had already departed.
"Right here, Ez." Chris had every intention of following Ezra up the stairs. Might not be holding on, but I'm not letting go either.
"Nathan, did say this bandage could come off tomorrow morning?"
"Yeah. Just wants you to let those eyes rest for a day, that's all."
"Very well." Ezra nodded. He tried to hide his relief, but suspected that if Chris was looking he could see it. Ah well.
Chris saw the easing of tension in Ezra's body. Sometimes the man just plain hides too much. Glad he asked. We're making some progress, I guess. He waited at the foot of the stairs until Ezra had climbed five steps, then he started in below, being careful not to make the steps creak.
They continued that way until Ezra reached the top step and hesitated, moving his foot forward to tap for another step. No step. Very well, just turn, reach out for the wall, and walk down the hall, to my room. Third door on the left.
Larabee knew that Inez had silently watched their fight on the floor and his own capitulation to that stubborn Reb. She was probably laughing up her sleeve right now, he thought, as he slowly reached the top step himself and peered around the corner and down the hall. He risked a quick look downstairs. Nope. She was serving some ranch hand at the bar, her back to him. With relief, he stepped into the hall and out of sight from the floor below. Ezra was nearly to his door now, hand lightly gliding along the wall. He's counting doors. Chris walked down the hall until he was behind Ezra and watched as the man produced a key from a trouser pocket and unlocked the door in front of them.
"Mr. Larabee." Ezra turned, pocketing his key, back to his still closed door. "You will come no further this day."
"Ezra, look, I-" Chris was getting irritated, even if he felt a bit embarrassed for being found out following Ezra.
"Chris." Ezra actually looked upset. "I want to meet you on equal footing when we next share time." He cleared his throat. "Tomorrow. When I can see again, Chris." He dropped his head for a moment, then raised it to face Larabee blindly. "I want to see your eyes when we ---" he slowed to a halt, unsure and therefore, unable to finish.
Chris smiled, how could he not? He carefully cupped the badly bruised and perforated face in front of him. "I can wait. Long as I know that you care." He let his thumb rub lightly over the pouty lower lip, avoiding the single stitched tear there. "Know that I care, Ez."
Ezra nodded without speaking, puckering his lips to place a feather-light kiss on Chris' thumb before stepping back and into his room, having quietly twisted the knob behind his back as they stood there.
"Tomorrow, Chris." Ezra smiled at the space in front of him and then closed the door.
"Tomorrow." Larabee whispered as he stood in the hallway, staring at the closed room door. He should feel frustrated, angry. Instead, he felt ten feet tall.
Vin fled to the horses. Something he knew confidently and right now he needed that comfort. Everyone else thought he was being foolish, feeling guilty for Ezra getting hurt. But they hadn't been there. He'd crept up behind that outlaw hidden at the tree line, seen him aiming for the town below. Was right behind him. Vin shuddered as the scene came back clear as day, he slowed to a stop and leaned against the big doorframe of the livery, closed his eyes. He could see down into Four Corners over the shooter's shoulders. Could see Ezra down there, edging along the side of the bank, saw him turn with his back to the bank, like he was dodging a bullet or something, then look up and nod to someone on the roof.
Vin had brought his mare's leg up, right behind the man's ear just as the outlaw took aim at Ezra below. I should have shot him, clubbed him, something. Before he shot. Vin swallowed, remembering his sense of power over the other man, letting the trigger on his cut-off sound loud in the man's ear. Supposed to be a warning. We don't shoot folks in the back. But the feller had pulled his own trigger, only jerking up a bit. Only reason Ezra was still breathing. Vin had reacted instantly, killing the bastard. But Ezra was down. Vin opened his eyes and stared out at the main street, dusty and sunlit, folks moving about like it was a regular day. He swallowed bile now, remembering the look of Ezra's face when he and Chris had him turned over and he'd pulled Ezra's hands away from his face. With a gagging sound, Vin twisted to the side of the livery and lost everything in his stomach. Again. Not much left now, he'd already done this twice. He spat viciously at the small puddle of stomach spew. Yanked an already dirty bandana from his coat and wiped at his mouth.
Deeper in the livery, he heard JD's voice, talking with Yosemite. He turned away from the sunlight and went inside.
JD saw Vin Tanner walk in to the livery, from where he'd just shook hands with Yosemite. They'd worked out the regular deal on selling off the horses and gear to pay for town damages. The blacksmith would get a small percentage. Ezra'd coached him well on that, JD thought with a small smile as the big man retreated to his forge. Dunne turned his thoughts to Tanner. By now, he'd heard enough from Vin and Josiah to know that somehow Vin was involved in Ezra getting hurt. Wouldn't have been anything Tanner did, JD knew, just the man's way of carrying things on his shoulders.
"Hey Vin!" He forced his cheerful tone, something that took all his will at times in this little backwater town. The others all thought he was dumb probably, the way he'd prattle on, tell stupid jokes, grin when others were down and angry. Not stupid, just smarter than they know, he thought with a push to get those feelings away. I am what they need, even if they don't know it most of the time. I can play the innocent and crack open my hard case friends. He loved them all, dearly. Thought of them as his big brothers, but they were all tough, sad men, too worldly and hardened by life. He owed it to them to make things look a bit brighter. Often, he felt like he was dragging them kicking and screaming into the daylight. Good thing Buck still has some foolish left in him, he thought with a grin as he walked up to Vin Tanner who was standing there looking forlorn. He shook his head, playing the clown with Buck was easy. Eased his big, knowledgeable friend when the man was down or too serious. Helped the rest, just to smile at them when they 'played.' JD came to a stop in front of Vin. Now, Vin was another matter altogether. He could play too, but when he hurt, it showed and he got angry. Was smart enough and stubborn enough to stay that way.
"How about checking the horses with me, see if we need to keep any out of the lot." JD came to a stop right in front of Vin, knowing that an appeal to his knowledge wouldn't be easily turned down. Man had a sense of duty, most of the time. He was right, Vin was nodding slowly and they turned and heading out through the back of the livery. When the reached the corral of loose horses, both came to a stop. JD put his boot on the bottom rail of the board fencing and leaned on the top one. Studied the animals slowly moving about inside. He waited until Vin had joined him. "What happened out there, Vin?"
Vin slid a look over at their young sheriff, saw the boy was staring out at the horses. He shrugged, intending only to say that Ezra'd got hurt. But his eyes were drawn to the animals in front of him and he felt some measure of peace. He opened his mouth to say what he'd intended and surprised himself, telling JD everything he saw, over and over, every time he paused for breath, all morning. His friend never even looked his way, just stood still and quiet, listening. When Vin finished, he waited. Figure he'll either tell me it wasn't my fault, or curse me out for getting Ezra hurt.
JD turned away from the fence and leaned back, propping his elbows on the rail. He swiveled his head so that he could look directly at Tanner there at his side. "So, what you thinking now, Vin?"
Vin looked up, met dark brown eyes full of confidence and friendship. No anger or blame shone out at him. He pushed his hat back so the sun could warm his face. "Figure I could have saved Ezra, if I acted quicker."
"Maybe." JD nodded, then broke eye contact and stared at the sky. "So, how you going to go back and change things?"
"I cain't, JD, you know that." Vin sounded disgusted, angry even. He knew what JD meant but that didn't change anything either.
"Nope, guess not." JD looked over again. "Just have to live with it. Bad stuff happens. None of us are so great that it don't sometimes happen to us." He looked back up at the clear blue sky. "Live with it, Vin, and be glad that Ezra will be okay."
Tanner straightened and gripped the rail. "It's just that I-"
JD reached over and patted one shoulder. "You're a good man, Vin, I look up to you. That hasn't changed any. Don't worship you, though. That'd be downright foolish."
Vin blinked in surprise. "Ya don't, huh?"
JD grinned. "Nope." He pushed away from the corral rail. "Come on. Someone's got to check out them dead men, guess that would be me. I could use the company." He grimaced in distaste.
Feeling a lot lighter somehow, like the heaviness of guilt had slid right off his shoulders, Vin stood away from the rail, too. "Reckon I can look at dead men."
Together, they walked back through the livery, nodding to Yosemite and moving out into the street. Both looked up to see Josiah standing on the clinic balcony. They waved and he nodded, looking moody. JD decided he'd have to find time to speak to Josiah later. He and Vin walked toward the undertakers.
JD put a hand on Vin's shoulder, figuring the worst was over and the tracker might let him closer now. He spoke seriously, "Ezra won't blame you, he'll thank you. We all know he'd be dead if you hadn't been there." He pulled back enough to look the man up and down, "And from what I hear, you got hurt out at Granger's ranch. Shouldn't have even come back yet. So, Ezra's owes you for that too."
Tanner shrugged but listened. JD decided he'd done enough for now. They continued on and just as they reached the porch, Vin said, "After this, think I'll do a swing out on patrol."
JD was about to protest when another voice interrupted. "Vin, you ain't going out no where, Pard, so jest set your hat on that." Buck was suddenly there, bigger than life as always, one hand on each of the younger men's shoulders, pushing them on up the steps to the undertakers. "I'll do it." He squeezed JD's shoulder hard, let the boy know that he'd heard enough. Let him know he'd done good again. Like he always did. Smart boy. Buck smiled and leaned in close to Vin's ear. "After you check out those bad guys, go sit a spell with Chris. I got a feeling that he won't get the time he wants with Ezra right now and he'll need someone to sit with him." Now Buck squeezed Vin's shoulder, telling him silently that Vin was the best one for that job.
The two young men turned to face Wilmington. JD shook his head in mock despair, "Buck, you are so full of it. Chris don't need nobody."
But Vin was nodding. JD didn't know about Chris and Ezra yet. "Yeah, kid, he does." He tipped his hat back on his head and gave Buck a look of gratitude. "Thanks, Buck, you ride smart."
Buck's genial look smoothed away, and the dangerous lawman beneath it surfaced, fangs exposed. His smile was feral. "You bet, Pard. Aim to take a look-see what direction those murderin' raiders took off in, the ones that got away." He turned to eye JD. "Understand the Garson brothers are out from under their rock somewheres."
"They were at the saloon yesterday, haven't seen 'em yet today," JD said, one foot resting on the step up to the board walk in front of the undertakers. "That's where they been sitting for the past few days."
"Then maybe you and Vin ought to git over there when you finish up. Chris is taking Ez back to his room there." Buck knew they'd read the order in the suggestion. He nodded once more and turned back toward the livery. He'd stopped in for a second to ask one of the stable boys to saddle up another horse for him; his gray was tired from the ride in this morning. He'd just make sure them few outlaws weren't sitting outside town. Keep on going, boys, best thing for all concerned.
Chris and Ezra had just reached the bottom of the clinic steps when Buck nodded his goodbye to Vin and JD. He decided to let Chris know his intentions and stepped smartly across the street on his long legs. Mostly he didn't stretch himself out, most folks didn't realize just how big Buck Wilmington was. He shook his head and called out softy, "Hey there, Ez, Chris." No point in scarin' their skiddish gambler while he couldn't see, them bandages keeping him blind for the day.
The men stopped, Chris watching, Ezra simply standing there, lines of exhaustion on his face, Buck saw. He didn't try to touch Ezra again, something he'd normally do. To touch a blind man without warning was not a good idea. "Jest talked with JD and Vin, they're going to check out the dead bodies." He nodded toward the undertakers. "See if they can find out anything." He looked back and met Larabee's silent appraisal. "Thought I'd take a ride around town, out a bit, make sure the rest of those scallywags are really gone." He flashed a smile, wide as the world at Chris. Weren't asking permission, Chris'd know that. He looked down at Ezra solicitously, "Feeling any better there, Ez?"
Standish lifted his face toward Buck's voice, "Yes, thank you, Mr. Wilmington, now that our good Mr. Jackson has finished removing the side of the bank from my face, I feel decidedly improved." Ezra raised his unencumbered hand to delicately finger the bandage over his eyes. "Once this is removed, I shall be better yet."
"Not yet, Ezra." Chris held tight to Ezra's closest arm. "Nate said to let those eyes rest and heal." He didn't wait for the southerner to answer, instead speaking directly to Buck. "Watch your back. Don't try to take them alone if you find them."
Wilmington nodded, this was old ground between them. "I ain't the fool in this outfit, don't you worry, Old Dog." He set his hat back on his dark hair and turned away. He could see young Eddy waiting at the livery door with a saddle horse, one of their regular remounts.
He smiled to himself as he heard a quiet Ezra say querulously, "Shouldn't you go with him, Mr. Larabee?"
And Chris answer, "If there's one man out here I trust to do right and keep smart out there alone, it's Buck. Now let's get you across the street."
Buck couldn't help it, he felt his chest expand some and shoulders lift, shedding his tiredness with a pleased, grateful smile. Yep.
Boll threw the shot of whiskey back down his throat, then hissed at the burn. His brother Lemuel hadn't stopped staring at the empty top of the stairs yet. But then Lemuel needed more time to ride out his temper than Boll. Boll smirked, his gray eyes near closing up behind the unnaturally puffy cheeks, both swollen some from where he'd been slapped by that sassy Mex barmaid. He rolled his eyes now, so he could look over at her. She wasn't much, size-wise, but sure packed a wallop. She slapped him hard when he tried to fondle her ass. When he didn't give up soon enough she'd whacked him a second time on the other side of the face. So now he had matching handprints. Bitch would get some back soon as he and Lemuel finished their business with Larabee, the daddy killer.
Lemuel chewed on his tobacco wad, filling one cheek as he waited. Still no sign of Larabee since he'd disappeared up the stairs with that pretty boy gambler. Way the man had been fondling that feller, Larabee must like boys. Lemuel spat in disgust on the floor.
He didn't see Inez curl a lip at him and his brother. She would have done something about those two scum before now, but there'd always been at least one of the lawmen in here, and the Garsons had behaved around them. She smacked her newly polished glass on the table and took up another one, working it viciously. When Senor Larabee and Senor Standish had come in earlier, she'd held her breath, certain those foul cretinish brothers would call out Senor Larabee, but they hadn't. Instead they'd just stared, mesmerized, at her friends.
She had to admit, Senor Standish had looked rough, his face reddened and cut, that white bandage, tinged pink at the edges with blood from the tiny wounds all over his face, had covered his beautiful green eyes. What had her marveling though, had been how Senor Chris had been treating him. She'd seen that possessive look in a man's eyes before. This time it was softened with affection, but still. It wasn't often she saw a man give it to another man. She thought regretfully about those soft green eyes with their dark fringes of lash, not to be. Inez looked up sharply at the sound of two chairs scraping loudly across the floor. The Garsons were getting to their feet, both men fingering their pistols. She looked toward the top of the stairs. Chris Larabee stood there, staring back over his shoulder down the hall beyond him. Then he turned and began to slowly come down the stairs, not really noticing anything, she thought in a panic.
"Not today, boys." Vin's hoarse growl had Boll and Lemuel lifting their hands quickly to waist height and Inez sighing in relief. The brothers had heard the sound of a big gun's trigger being drawn back with a loud click. "Think maybe you've finished yore meal?"
Both men nodded and snatched up their hats. They froze again and eyed each other sideways. "Out." Tanner's order got immediate results. The two men scuttled from the room.
Vin cast a glance up at Chris and sighed. Larabee appeared not to have even seen, he was still walking down the stairs at a slow glide, eyes seemingly lost in a middle distance. "Cowboy, you might want to wake up a bit there," Vin raised his voice, knowing Chris would recognize it and respond.
Chris smothered a smile that wanted to break out. He was enjoying the sensation he was creating. Inez was openly staring, mouth ready to catch flies. Vin had driven off the Garson boys and was looking a bit better. Don't think he knows I saw it all. Chris nearly laughed but that would have been like pulling Tanner's tail and he wouldn't do that. He hit the floor and strolled over to where Vin was now subsiding slowly into a chair at their regular table. None of the others were around. "I'm awake," he finally answered, once he'd dropped into a chair and leaned back, waving a hand at Inez.
Chris pushed his hat back off, letting the chinstrap catch it on to his back. He smiled up at Inez when she brought him a bottle and two glasses, "Thanks, Inez."
She hesitated. Then plunged in, "Senor, how is Senor Ezra? He did not look well."
Chris' smile softened. "He's going to be fine, just needs to rest up a bit, let things heal." He added, to head off more questions, "His eyes are okay, just took some grit that Nathan cleaned out, and Nate has them covered until tomorrow so they heal up properly."
Inez nodded. She'd seen enough. Senor Chris and Senor Ezra. Ah well.
Vin watched their friend walk away, her skirts flaring. His mind was on Chris and the Garson brothers - and his promise to Buck. "Them boys are a couple of rattlesnakes fresh outta the bag."
Chris' lips quirked in acknowledgement and he raised the now filled glass to his lips. Vin realized there wasn't going to be any more said on it and settled in. Long as he kept his back to the wall and his mare's leg ready, he could see to it that his friend made it through the day. Hell, it was only just past noon now.
Out in the street, Lemuel spun around and stared daggers at the doors to the saloon. Boll, though, was unhitching his horse. Lem turned to stare at his younger brother. "What the hell you doing, Boll?"
"Riding out." Boll had climbed on and now sat back in the saddle and folded his hands on the horn.
"Our daddy's killer is in there. Don't that mean nothing to you no more?" Lemuel's anger was tightening his voice now.
Boll dipped his head, then spoke to his brother, gray eyes meeting gray eyes. "Figure he's got help. We need to get us some."
Lemuel stared at his brother, then smiled wickedly as he realized what Boll was talking about. He went to his own horse and untied it, swinging into the saddle quickly. "Let's go."
They'd heard enough to know that the would-be robbers had ridden out heading east down the end of the main street. Lemuel, liking Boll's reasoning, led the way out of town at a nice, ground eating canter.
Buck had headed due east on leaving town. The fools from this morning, those left, had run out in a hurry, their horses churning up a pretty trail, easy to follow the four men. Buck kept back and rode slowly. No telling if any of them had gotten a good look at him. He rocked easily in the saddle, eyes shifting from the ground to his surroundings and back again. He kept one hand on the butt of his pistol, the other on his mount's leathers.
Where the trail split, one direction toward a stage station way up the rough track, the other toward Parson's Gulch, Buck stopped. He smoothed his mustache as he leaned over the saddle to look closer at the torn up earth. The men had headed toward the stage depot. Damn, that meant he'd have to follow. The Gulch had a telegraph and a peacekeeper, but the depot was a lonely horse-team changing way station, only a wrangler and his wife to run it. These men might do them harm and that Buck could not allow. He hi-yupped his horse and headed down the trail at a quickstep, choosing to pull out his rifle now and hold it at the ready.
Lemuel pulled his mount to a halt and looked down the trail into the dry lands. He could see the tracks heading that way, with another set showing a lone rider who must have come after. Might mean nothing, might mean trouble, like his daddy always used to say. He bit back a choke of pain at the thought of his loss. Boll looked over at him and he cursed and stared back at Boll until his baby brother looked away.
Near an hour later, the Garsons slowed down and scrutinized the single man in front of them. He hadn't yet seen them. Boll whispered loudly, "That's one of Larabee's men. Name of Buck Wilmington, I heard it around town."
Lemuel frowned. Looked like Wilmington had beat them to the outlaw camp. Lemuel brightened. Wilmington was all alone.
JD wandered into the saloon in the late afternoon. Josiah had shooed him out of the jail, saying he needed a quiet place to think. JD was going to try to get him to talk, but it was pretty clear that the big man wasn't ready for that yet. So Dunne had tipped his hat and headed for the saloon where he figured some of his friends were likely to be.
Crossing the hot street, Dunne looked up to see that the sun had crested and was sliding down now behind the feed store. Long shadows were reaching across the hot dusty street. Buck had been gone since noon. He usually stopped at the jail after a patrol. He'd looked pretty tired today, maybe he just went to bed when he got back. JD decided to stop in at the livery and check on the horses, see if the one Buck went out on was back.
What he didn't find worried him.
He ran up the street to the saloon, heart pounding. If anything had happened, he and Vin would never forgive themselves. And Vin was already feeling bad enough over Ezra. He shoved back the doors and skidded to a stop next to the team's regular table. Both Vin and Chris were there, silent and looking at him, eyes lidded, hands on guns. He took a deep breath to control his panting and managed to say, "Buck ain't back yet. He rode out at noon and was going to look for those outlaws." He grabbed his bowler off with both hands and held it over his stomach, staring deeply now into hard hazel eyes. "He ain't back yet," JD Dunne whispered again.
Nathan yawned and stretched, his spine curving up off the bed as he arched on heels and shoulders. He and the bed both groaned and that struck him as rather funny. He laughed softly and rolled over on to his stomach, blinking lazily. He could see fading sunlight through the thin curtains in his back room. He fisted his eyes to remove sleep from them and curled up on his side, wanting to return to sleep yet knowing he shouldn't. Vin and Ezra'd been hurt.
His eyes opened again and he cursed. It felt like he hadn't slept in a long time and he knew that however long he'd just had for rest, it wasn't really enough. But, he did feel better. Best get up, go check on those boys. Vin was pretty much healing but never hurt to keep an eye on a bullet wound, those things could turn on you without much warning. Especially if you didn't rest and let them heal. And Vin? He didn't know how to rest, that was a certainty.
Nathan swung his long, muscular legs over the side of the bed and sat up, staring around vaguely, still waking, even though his mind was running already at a goodly speed. Then there was Ezra. Man got hurt in that shoot out. Come home only to get all bloody like that. Nathan shook his head. 'course, he had Chris Larabee leaning on him. Nathan's smile flickered into a grin. Whoa, now that had been a surprise. He rubbed at his face, deciding he didn't need to shave yet. Thought back to the way Chris had held on to Ezra. That wasn't so strange, someone was always having to hold down his patients whilst he treated them. Momentarily distracted, he wished there was a better way to do it. Weren't right, like he was hurting them too. Face it, you are. But, just so's they can get better.
He grimaced and looked down at his large hands. He hoped they were healing hands, but sometimes he wasn't so sure. That got him to thinking about Ezra again, the man knows how to poke me just right and get me all riled up. Make me second-guess myself. Don't like to do that. Need to be sure of myself before I can face anyone else. Just the way I am. With sudden insight, he leaned back against the wall that the bed sided on.
Ezra, now, he ain't sure of himself at all.
Nathan wondered where this thought came from and then remembered what Chris Larabee had been saying to Ezra, real low, just in his ear, while Nate had worked on the man's face, pulling those splinters out. I was so busy doing that that I didn't really listen. But now, it was all playing back in his mind's ear. The coaxing, loving, yep, loving words, promising devotion and trust. Why hadn't he ever seen it before? Face it, Chris don't exactly share his feelings with us, except when he's pissed off, or, Nathan grinned, liquor-pissed. He chuckled and stood up with another huge yawn. Ezra's about to get eaten by a tiger. He grinned. Wonder if the tiger knows about all the indigestion he's gonna have.
Ezra yawned and stretched, his spine curving up off the bed as he arched on heels and shoulders. It was dark. He knew he hadn't slept long, he could feel his body's need to continue his repose, but he fought it off. His face felt stiff, sore. He reached up and gently touched his cheek. With a tiny jerk, he pulled his hand up, then carefully touched the cloth wrapping over his eyes. It kept them pressed shut. Then he remembered. The pain was muted now, just soreness and twitches of needle-like irritation as he flexed his facial muscles experimentally. His eyes didn't seem to be bothering him now, but he remembered the pain of the lids scraping against the eyes when he'd opened and closed them while Nathan was treating him. He would follow the good healer's advice and leave that cloth in place. That pain had been intense.
Remembering the treatment, Nathan plucking bits of bank-siding from his face, had Ezra remembering Chris Larabee. Chris, tightly wrapped around him in that straight-back chair, holding him close, giving him the strength to sit through that slow torture. Telling him how much he was treasured. Treasured. Ezra's heart warmed and he felt a glow building and radiating outward from his middle. Chris had made promises. Said he'd be here, that he'll always be here for me.
A shadow darkened Ezra's face as he remembered sending Chris away, needing time alone. Chris could be overpowering and was well on his way to becoming very possessive. Ezra sat up slowly, pulling himself backward on the bed, pressing at the down-stuffed mattress to push into a seated position. How do I feel about that? Ezra waited silently to see what thoughts would surface. Instead, a sense of happiness, so intense that it seemed to be bubbling out of his skin, welled up inside. His lips quirked in a tiny smile. No deep thoughts on the matter, then, just a feeling. But, a very, very good feeling. He could live with that.
Having never undressed, Ezra simply straightened his clothing tidily, smoothing down any wrinkles he could feel or imagine. Then, he slowly rose to his feet, prepared to move away from his bed cautiously. By extending his arms and envisioning his room, he could navigate the currently unseen interior. He bravely braced his calves against the sideboard of the bed, to better set his course, then ventured out into empty space. He took two careful, shuffling steps and his stretched out hands came in contact with wall. Wide, probing circles brought him to the knob of his closet door. Turning toward where he knew the window was, he guided himself with one had resting against the wall, the other reaching out ahead of him. With care, he eventually found his rocker and came around the front of it to sit down. The air was a bit cooler from his open window. He was grateful for the fresh air, Inez must have been airing the room earlier because he hadn't been in it for days. He rocked slowly and listened to the noises of the street below.
When someone turned the doorknob on his room door, without knocking, he turned his head to listen. "Chris?"
There was no answer, just the sound of rushing, heavy feet, more than one person. Ezra shoved himself up from the chair but had no chance to do more before rough hands were on him. He opened his mouth to cry out and a cloth was forced inside. Gagging, he tried to fight the hands that held on to him, and then someone's fist plowed into his unprotected stomach. Bending over double, trying to get his breath without his mouth to help, Ezra wasn't able to fight off the powerful hands that yanked his own behind his back. He felt rope tying his wrists together tightly, painfully, on top of the chafing already there from fighting Nathan's belt leather earlier. How had he forgotten that? It was his last thought as pain crashed against his head and even thought fled.
Chris and Vin both stood up fast, facing JD. As if they'd practiced it forever, the two men re-holstered their weapons and then pulled their hats up and set them.
"JD, tell Josiah, he stays, watches the town. Vin, get Nathan, then we ride." Chris looked toward the second floor of the saloon, toward the empty balcony there. "I'll go tell Ezra what's happening and I'll meet you at the livery."
JD dashed from the room. He felt better already. They'd find Buck, rescue him if need be. He called out for Josiah as he hopped up the boardwalk to the jail.
Vin looked up at the clinic balcony, Nathan was just coming outside, wiping his hands on a rag. "Nate!" Getting the healer's attention, he yelled, "Buck's gone missing. Get what you need, I'll get your horse saddled, we ride soon as you're ready."
Nathan came to the rail and hung over, looking down at Vin. "I can do that, but Vin, you shouldn't come. Your ribs ain't all the way healed yet, not your wound either."
Vin shook his head impatiently. They would need his tracking skills and he knew it. Besides, no one could keep him from helping out. He should have been the one out on that patrol. "I'm fine, Nate. See you at the livery!"
Vin trotted off, moving easily to Nathan's discerning eye. Guess he's okay, but I'll keep watch. Nathan strode back into his little clinic, already thinking about what he'd pack.
Chris climbed the stairs two at a time, mind leaping ahead to Buck and his foolish bravery. Man could charge into a mob alone and never turn a hair. He'd seen Buck do that very thing during the war and some few times since then. Chris had often been the reluctant hero simply by following his impetuous old friend. What's he gone and done this time? Chris reached the landing and strode down the hall, thoughts switching to Ezra. Best not scare him, he can't see right now, do this carefully. Those thoughts fled when he reached the third door on the left and found it wide open. "Ezra?" He stepped inside. He could see Ezra's rocking chair tipped over on its side by the window. The room was empty.
The first thing that Buck felt was his head that felt like someone split it open, back to front, with a wood axe. He wanted to cry out in pain but was afraid that would only make it hurt worse. Instead, he held his breath and counted slowly until he'd distanced himself some from the pain. Cautiously, he opened his eyes. If it was still the same day as when last he looked, he hadn't been out for long. The sun was lower in the sky but not setting yet.
He shifted slightly. He was seated on the ground, back a ways from a slow burning campfire. He could see several men seated around it, hunkered down on their heels or sitting directly on the ground. Temporary camp then. No bedrolls. Beyond them, he saw a remuda of horses still saddled, tied on a line run between some trees. He raised his head and looked up, to see a leafy sky. So he was sitting up against a tree. His wrists were tied in front of him crossed over each other and snugged with a piece of old rope. And someone was leaning against him heavily.
Moving slowly so that he didn't garner attention, he looked down to his left. Damn. Looked like Ezra. He recognized those pinstripe trousers and the tousled reddish-brown hair. No jacket, but still blindfolded. The gambler was probably unconscious from the way he lay there unmoving, breathing shallowly. What happened?
Buck strained to remember. He'd been on the trail of what was left of that gang of outlaw raiders. Only four riders. He slid his eyes back over toward the campfire without moving his head. More than four men around that fire. He had to concentrate to count them, since he was seeing things waveringly in doubles. If old Nate asked him how many fingers right now, he'd probably have said six to Nate's three. By squinting, things came into focus a bit. Six, there were six men. Damn, wish I could see better right now. He watched and waited. One of the men stood up and stretched, grinning and saying something that caused most of the others to laugh. That sure looked like one of the Garson boys. Oh, hell.
"Nope, didn't ride out on his own." Vin stood in front of a frantic Chris Larabee. He'd never seen Chris look so lost before. Course both Buck and Ezra are missin' right now. Vin ducked his head when Larabee kicked at one of the roof support posts in front of the saloon.
"He's gone, Vin! If he didn't ride out of here on his own power, then what happened?" Chris had to grit his teeth not to scream his question, so instead it came out as a hiss.
"How 'bout I scout out the alley behind the saloon?" Vin offered, edging away now as Josiah and Nathan strode up. He took Larabee's nod as an affirmative and scooted around the side of the saloon. They already knew Ezra hadn't gone out the front. Hell, the two of them had been in the saloon the whole time since Chris left Ezra upstairs in his room. Vin made his way around the back.
Bent over, Tanner began a careful survey of the mucked up dirt. It hadn't rained in a spell and the dusty ground was almost silky to the touch. Silk on iron. Dust on rock hard ground. He was glad there'd been no wind today. Over top of a muddle of prints, the most recent ones stood clear. Two horses. Horses didn't usually get rid behind the saloon. Two biggish men, walked over to the back stairs. Dusty, smudged overstepped prints trickled up the board stairs on the outside of the building, heading for the second floor. Dust wore off before they reached the landing. He went back down. Looking carefully at the direction of pointed toe tips, Vin could see where they'd stepped, going back to the horses. Heels deeper in the dirt, scraping dust clear down to the hard ground. When the horses moved away, one stepped deeper, too. He checked their prints. The deep treading horse had a distinctive bent nail mark on one hoof. They took Ezra. Whoever they were. Not likely he went willingly, since he'd a have to have doubled up with one of them and Ezra didn't like doing that. Would have objected mightily. Yep, they took him. He squatted down near where they'd stepped back off the stairs. A dark spot caught his attention. Nope, Ezra didn't go with them willingly. Vin rocked back on his heels and scrubbed at the back of his neck. Damn.
Yarrow watched from where he sat hunched over his coffee as Boll Garson stood up again. The man was a talker. Marcus frowned. He didn't much care for talkers. Just lost two cousins could talk the shine off a new pair of shoes, don't need to have some new man doing the same. The other men laughed at Boll's description of the capture of Ezra Standish, the fancy man he and Lemuel brought in as part of their deal to join up with Yarrow's gang.
With a grunt of irritation, Marcus stood up to his full, lanky height and stared at Boll. "Couldn't have been all that hard, man was blind-folded and alone." He dumped his coffee near Boll's feet and stomped over to their captives. Behind him, he could hear the men mumbling a bit. He needed to make sure they all knew he was in charge here. He ignored the men at his back and stood looking down at their two prisoners. According to the Garson brothers, the big guy with the mustache was named Buck Wilmington and was a right hand man for Larabee. Looked like he was playing possum, from the way he was breathing and lying so still. The little man next to him was still out cold. Damn fools hit him too hard. He was still bleeding like a stuck pig from a gash at the back of his skull when those two hyenas brought him in across a saddle, laughing and boasting how they snuck him out from under Larabee's nose.
They called him fancy pants. Marcus studied him. He was dressed pretty good there. Yarrow recognized the quality to the trousers and boots. The ruffled shirt and tidy suspenders signaled a gambler to his way of thinking. Fit with what the mean one, Lemuel, had said. Those boys said this Standish was also part of the Larabee gang. Boll had winked broadly and said he thought that Larabee had mighty 'special' feelings for that one. Yarrow could see a handsome young face beneath a barrage of tiny cuts and puncture marks all over the man's face. Not sure what's wrong with his eyes, no one seemed to know, but he was wearing the blindfold of his own free will, according to Boll. The marks on his face, the possible eye injury, it all made him think of a canon blast and the shrapnel marks on wounded from the war. Not sure how this Standish got that way, but looks recent. If I had anything to do with it, good. He kicked the sole of Wilmington's boot.
"Might as well look at me, I can tell you're awake."
For a moment nothing happened, then the big one turned his head and looked up at Yarrow. Dark blue, angry eyes stared into his. Marcus Yarrow suddenly felt cold. We don't let this one loose, no matter what.
Once they knew Ezra had been taken, and that Vin confirmed the kidnappers' trail went out in the same direction as Buck had ridden after the outlaws, it was decided that all the rest of them were going. Actually, Chris privately admitted to himself, he couldn't have stopped them if he wanted to, and he did not want to. He'd dropped in by Mary Travis' newspaper office and told her they were heading out and why. She'd nodded and wiped hands on her apron.
"Who will protect the town while you're gone?"
"I'll leave that to you to organize," Chris had not been patient. By now, there were several men in town who'd spelled them on duty at the jail, or pitched in during festivals and the like. She'd get one or two of them to man the jail, keep a presence on the street. "We'll be back."
He tipped his wide black hat brim at her and turned back, going out into the street where the others were already on horseback and waiting, JD trailing Larabee's black, saddled and ready. Larabee strode straight to his horse and mounted, swinging the beast around in a tight circle before touching his hat brim again to Mary and digging in to his horse's flanks. The big animal moved out smartly, JD, Josiah and Nathan following. Vin rode up beside Chris Larabee for a short time, then something was said and he moved out ahead of the others, leading the way. Mary leaned back against the doorjamb to her office. She hoped Buck and Ezra would be found, but was strangely uncomfortable with the Chris Larabee who'd spoken to her. The sexual tension that she'd sensed in the past was gone as if it had never been. She could tell that his total attention was on the missing men. They'd had troubles before, had to rescue some of their own, but this was the first time she'd felt this sense of --- well, of something different. Frustrated, she pulled off her apron and headed for the undertaker's. She could start by recruiting that man, Phillip Connors. He had helped out before.
They rode in silence, trotting two abreast behind Vin. He sat forward in his saddle, leaning out to the side and studying the well-used trail out of town. They were lucky. The marked hoof was an excellent and easy sign to follow. Chris rode with Josiah, just far enough back so that they didn't interfere with Vin's work. Behind them, JD rode with Nathan. Everyone had checked their weapons as they rode, they'd be ready.
Chris didn't look over at Josiah. He was too focused on Vin and the trail ahead. But, he could sense the simmering anger in the big man at his side. Josiah didn't not take kindly to anyone hurting any of theirs, and both Buck and Ezra were in trouble. Chris had shut down his own anger. He couldn't afford to indulge in it, not when it might cloud his mind when Ezra needed him to be sharp. Ezra and Buck. Chris' lips tightened. God, he had it bad when he couldn't think past Ezra's green eyes, eyes he hadn't even been able to look into when he was with the man last. Thrusting his jaw out in determination, he decided that first he'd kill the bastards who took his men, then he'd tell that crazy southerner that he wasn't sending Chris away. Not ever again. Wasn't going to happen. He'd be real firm on that.
Josiah mused at the trees they passed, contemplated the sky's slight dimming as the sun lowered, caught the flight of a hawk up high among some passing clouds, small and few. Anything to try to find his center again. Not one of his spiritual rituals was working. I'm too damn pissed off. He grinned fiercely, large teeth exposed in a feral grimace. When I get my hands on those men who did this, they shall know redemption will NOT be at hand. Not any time soon, anyway. He couldn't suppress a growl. Larabee didn't seem to notice.
JD fidgeted with his twin Colts. First he'd take out one, check the action, make sure the cylinder was tight. Then he'd re-holster it, take out the other. Lift it to aim along the barrel at some unsuspecting tree. Pretend to kill it. Ker-pow. He sighed and slid the second pistol back in its holster and glanced over at Nathan who rode beside him.
Jackson was mentally reciting what he'd packed in his saddlebags. If Buck were alive, he might be wounded or beat up. Ezra would probably have a concussion from what Vin had said. Might need stitches. There'd been some blood. He ignored JD's playing around, boy was worried, tense. Hell, so was he.
Tanner drew to a halt at the fork for Parson's Gulch. Plenty of traffic heading that way, but none too recent, and the stage wheel tracks were partly covered by the nailed hoof, going down the stage route on the other branch. He pushed his slouch hat back and looked ahead at the low, rolling prairie dry lands ahead. A few stands of trees out that way, some dips in the land, but nothing special until the ten-mile station, where stages changed teams. Andy Crocker and his wife ran the station. Only folks out there. Vin nodded as Chris Larabee drew rein beside him on one side, Josiah Sanchez on the other. Sanchez's big shape was slouched forward as usual, comfortably low in his saddle, a big old poncho-coat hiding much of his size. His sorrel shifted closer to Peso and nickered.
Chris looked out over the road's bending, disappearing and reappearing stripe on the empty landscape. No one was in sight. "Can't be too far out there, can they?"
Vin pulled out his spyglass from one saddlebag pouch. Looked long and hard ahead. When he lowered it, he met Chris' eyes calmly. Can see the disturbance inside you, Vin thought. Ain't the best way to face danger. He kept his thoughts to himself. "Figure Buck came this way. Probably decided to keep going when he saw them heading toward Ten-Mile."
Josiah sighed. "Andy and his missus are out there alone most times."
By now, JD and Nathan had pulled up at the edges of the group. "You think Ezra was taken to meet them others?" JD moved in his saddle, unable to keep all his worry inside.
Vin looked around the circle of faces. "Likely Buck got took. Likely someone knew enough to go back and snatch Ez."
"Likely the Garson brothers." Nathan spoke softly, shaking his head with regret. They should have jailed those two boys, days ago. Could have called it vagrancy.
"You think that Boll and Lemuel know these outlaws?" JD looked shaken. Was it all some plot? Had they missed something? He began to rethink the last week with new, suspicious eyes.
Larabee thought back to earlier in the day. Thought back to the saloon. Ezra. He'd led Ezra into the saloon, back toward the stairs to the southerner's room. Part way, Ezra'd baulked. They'd gone near nose-to-nose there, in the center of the room. At the time, he hadn't given a goddamn who saw them. He tried to remember what was said, done. Just remembered getting real close to Ezra. Shit. Then when he'd come down the stairs, after seeing to Ezra, and being kicked out, he thought of that with momentary irritation, afterwards, Vin had gotten the drop on the Garsons down there in the saloon. Had sent them out, on their way. They'd been ready to draw down on me as I came down those stairs. What did they see earlier? Enough to decide to come back and take Ezra? Yes, Chris decided with a dark, cold feeling of emptiness in his stomach. Likely they had.
Yarrow shifted his stare from Wilmington's bleak eyes to the crumpled man up against Wilmington's side. Probably be easier to handle that one, if they had to take one with them, when they headed back into that town tonight. They'd go in late, he decided, as his eyes studied the limp figure. Rouse this one and take him along as a hostage, in case they were found out. This time, they wouldn't go in shooting. They'd ride in quiet, hit the bank, hotel, maybe the dry goods store. Anyone getting in their way would be dead.
He looked back over at Wilmington. He might be worth keeping just as a hostage for Standish's behavior. Rubbing at his stubbled jaw, Marcus Yarrow decided he had a plan that could work. Now that he had those two Garsons as extra riders, he had enough men to do it. He cast a look over his shoulder at his men sprawled around the campfire. Don't really trust those two. Too loud and not really ever been on the outlaw trail, before their daddy got his at Larabee's gun. He'd heard the whole story. Hard not to, that Boll was a real talker. Don't pay to have a gossip ride the trails with you, not when you ride on the wild side. That settled it, after they finished here, he'd have a word with O'Rourke, then Boll and Lemuel would be pushing up daisies out on the next knoll.
Marcus hadn't realized that he'd been staring at Buck Wilmington the whole time, but now, decision made, his sight sharpened and he realized that Wilmington was watching him hard. Still uncomfortable under the man's intent scrutiny, Yarrow looked back over at Standish. This one was starting to stir now, twitching and making tiny jerks. Boll had tied him up with his hands behind him so he could haul him back belly down on his horse. Man was struggling against the bindings now. Yarrow took a step closer.
Buck watched the tall thin outlaw. This one's the leader. He'd seen the impatience in the man when Boll Garson started bragging over by the fire. This one had been pretty mild so far, just kicked my foot enough to let me know he saw I was awake. Just standing here staring. Don't even seem to see us now. Buck felt a tremor come from Ezra, then another. Small movements. Pard, now would not be a good time to come to. He stilled himself and waited, trying to out-stare the outlaw looking at him blankly. Then the man seemed to come out of his thoughts and looked away from Buck, over at Ezra, who was definitely showing signs of life.
Yarrow took a second step toward the gambler, then stopped in surprise as two long arms dropped down over the man's head to encircle him. Wilmington had twisted and put his own bound hands over the top of Standish's head and now held him, actually dragging the man closer, protective-like. Marcus considered this. So, they are friends. He nodded and smiled slowly at the now glaring Wilmington and turned away. Got plenty of time 'til we need to ride. He went over to the coffee pot and poured himself a new cup, looking back at their prisoners, from over by the campfire.
The other men quieted as Yarrow returned, Lemuel following his line of sight back to where Wilmington and Standish were tied up. Garson chuckled mirthlessly as he realized that Buck Wilmington had pulled Standish into his arms and was holding him close as any lover. Little slut likely gave out to the whole crew. Lemuel shifted and sat back on his buttocks, to give himself room to harden as his trouser front loosed a bit. Oh yeah. He licked his lips.
Cocky little shit, all those times Lemuel and Boll followed their father Frank into town, to have a little fun on Friday nights, there he'd be. That gambling man, sitting up there at the poker table, taking everyone's money. Always had at least one of the other's at his back or nearby. Lemuel remembered a shoot out one time, some trail hand accused the gambler of sleeving a card. Man had ended up looking down the bore of a sleeve gun instead, and that Larabee fellow'd been right behind Standish suddenly, his big gun just over the gambler's shoulder, pointing at that poor trail hand. Man near shit himself just climbing out of his seat, then run out the front of the saloon. They didn't see him again. Thinking of the gambler, Lemuel suddenly had a new thought. Gamblers always had money, lots of money. This one might even have some on him. He raised his head to study the prisoners more closely, ignoring something Boll was saying nearby.
In his boot. He'd actually seen the man slip some folds of money down there one night. Lemuel rose to his feet, focused on the weakly flailing man being held by Wilmington. In his boot.
Buck held on as Ezra began to thrash. "Pard, it's me, it's Buck," he whispered into Ezra's ear, holding him as well as he could in the circle of his own bound arms. Good thing they tied my hands in front of me, he thought. Standish stopped fighting and looked blindly up, eyes still covered by Nathan's now dirty bandage.
"Buck?" It came out hoarse and strained.
"Yeah, Ez, it's me." He leaned in enough to touch his aching head to Ezra's, hoping the additional contact would help.
Ezra was confused. "Why am I tied again? Is Nathan getting ready to treat my wounds?"
Buck winced at the resigned, unhappy tone of Standish's voice. That had been a mistake, he decided. Shouldn't ever have let Nate tie Ezra up, not even for the best of reasons. We could have held him down. He started to shake his head, then realized that Ezra wouldn't see that. "Nope, Pard. We got us in a mite bit of trouble here. Not sure exactly what happened. One minute, I'm on the trail of those last four high-tailing outlaws, out near Ten-Mile. Next thing I know, I wake up here." He paused to look around. "Ain't too sure where 'here' is, there's trees but they're mighty thin, looks like we're just off the trail near where I was when I must have got bushwhacked." He gently hugged his companion. "You was here beside me when I woke up."
Ezra had listened silently, his feeling of wooziness making it difficult to concentrate. He fought off a sense of unease in the stomach region. I must have a concussion. With the thought, came return of his own memories. The attack in his room. "I think I was also caught unawares. The last thing I remember is sitting in my rocking chair, then at least two men grabbing at me." He dropped his head onto Wilmington's chest, too tired and hurting too much to try to maintain any proprieties. "That's all."
Buck looked solemnly out at the campsite. They were in trouble here, but not likely to be alone for long. He'd been gone for a long spell now, too long for a regular patrol. And, sooner or later, someone would be going up to check on Ezra and find him gone. Someone? Who was he fooling? Chris would be up there. Yep, the boys might already be on the way. Oh, Chris was going to be in one helluva nasty temper, that's for sure. Knowing how his old friend felt now about Ezra, Buck actually shivered. Hell, Chris was likely to be the devil himself. These boys really don't know what they've gone and done. They are dead men.
He opened his mouth to tell Ezra this, then shut it again. Lemuel Garson had stood up over by the fire and was heading their way. Buck had never liked the hulking Garson boys or their mean-spirited father Frank. Lemuel was the quieter, older, meaner of the two boys. Boll was the blowhard. Both had now stepped over the line. He could expect only trouble from them. "Ezra," he whispered, head dropping so Lemuel wouldn't see that he was talking to Standish, "Lemuel Garson is heading over here, them boys have joined up with the outlaws. Let me do the talking."
Ezra nodded against Buck's bib-shirt front. He was really not feeling very well at all. Waves of hot and cold were flowing over him, his stomach felt full of uncertain acid, building bile back up his throat. His body ached, arms numb from the restriction of the ropes, wrists burning. His head was one big throb and Buck's last words seemed to echo down a long tunnel before reaching him. He'd just rest here with Buck and let his friend handle things.
Lemuel grinned as he got closer to their prisoners. That little slut was all snuggled up tight against old Wilmington. Looked like he figured right. He drew his old revolver, the long barrel making it a slow draw but a deadly shot. His smile deepened and he came right up next to the men before squatting down at the gambler's side. He grinned into Wilmington's dark eyes and put the round end of the barrel of his gun right in the gambler's ear. He nearly laughed when Standish tried to shake his head to rid himself of the unseen irritant. Lemuel pressed the barrel hard enough to see Standish wince.
"Leave him be." Lemuel spared a glance up at Wilmington's face. Almost backed away at the promise of death he could read in those dark, menacing eyes. He had to remind himself that he had Boll and them others at his back, and that the big man in front of him was tied up and all tangled up with the gambler's body. He smirked into those deadly eyes and pulled back the firing pin on his revolver. The click froze both men in front of him.
"You just sit there, Wilmington, and cuddle your honey," Lemuel spat to the side, not quite missing the big man's pant leg. He looked back at the man. "I ain't interested," he paused to lick his lips again, "right now." He let Wilmington see the lewd light in his eyes, then said, "You and Larabee and the rest of you can keep him. All I want is the little shit's money." With his free hand he patted down Standish's leg to feel the boot under the trousers. Hell, gonna have to take them off, he realized.
Yarrow was standing again, as was Boll. Both watched Lemuel draw on their hostages and say something that had Wilmington rigid and Standish pulled tight back against him. What the hell? Yarrow stomped back over toward the tableau of three men, just as the older Garson rocked on his heels and crab walked a few steps back from the men, gun still at the ready but no longer in Standish's ear.
"Garson?" Marcus didn't want to have to rescue his hostages but dammit all, this was plain ridiculous.
Lemuel looked back at the head outlaw. He poked his gun back in his belt and grabbed Standish's booted foot. With a tremendous yank, he pulled off the boot, nearly pulling the smaller man out of Wilmington's arms in the process.
"What the hell are you doing?" Buck yelled furiously, hitching his joined fists, under Ezra's ribcage and hauling upwards to drag his friend back into his arms, the only safety he could give Ezra.
Ezra gasped in accumulated pain, the new rough treatment simply pushing up it all up a notch. He felt Buck's arms tight around him. Not being able to see was causing him to stiffen, not certain where the next attack upon his person would come from.
Buck snarled and tried to turn his wide shoulders enough to create a screen of protection for Ezra.
Lemuel peered into the empty boot, then looked back consideringly at Standish. By now, Yarrow had come to a stop beside him but just stood there. Must have figured out what I'm doing. Lemuel realized he'd probably have to share. For now. With a massive shrug, he caught hold of Standish's other boot at the ankle and gave another mighty wrench. Standish gave a short cry, then moaned softly and Wilmington cursed again.
Sitting back now on the ground, Lemuel crowed. In one meaty fist, he held up what had to be several hundred dollars in cash.
Buck glared at the men now all circling around Lemuel, none even looking at him or Ezra. Standish was trying to bite back little noises of pain. Blasted snake had likely hurt Ezra pulling off that second boot, Buck had seen the way he'd grabbed it at the ankle and twisted as he yanked. "Easy, Ez." He tucked his chin down on top of his friend's head where the man was trying to bury his face in Buck's shirt front, and smother his noises down there. Buck hugged his friend. Oh, yeah, these were dead men. If Chris don't get them first, then they're mine.
Vin pulled up just below a small hill, little more than a high rise in the stage road. He looked back at the others and waved them off their horses. His friends all led their mounts up to join him.
"What's going on, Vin?" Chris was getting impatient. Ezra and Buck had to have been in those outlaws' hands for hours now. Too many hours. He tried hard to keep himself in the present when all he could do was imagine what might be happening. What might already have happened. His gut twisted and his gloved hands tightened into fists around the leather reins he held.
Tanner waited until he was certain everyone could hear. Chris was working hard at keeping his tension in, but Vin could see the lines of strain around his friend's mouth and eyes. Chris is hurting mighty bad. Josiah was shoulder to shoulder with Chris, his horsy face placid, if one didn't look into murderous pale blue eyes. Nathan looked the most relaxed of the bunch, but he was standing on the balls of his feet, balanced there, like he balanced one of those throwing knives that Tanner knew the healer had strapped on his back right now. JD was looking around sharply as if to see hidden robbers right there, energy coming off him in waves.
Vin took off his hat and swept a hand through his long hair, brushing it back from his face. "They're just up ahead, in that clump of trees off to the left of the trail. I can see the smoke, they must have set up camp."
Everyone turned as one, but before any of them could take more than a step, Tanner continued, holding up a hand. "They'll spot us."
Chris dropped to a crouch, the others following. "Okay, Vin. Tell us."
Josiah Sanchez stretched and pulled at the muscles in his powerful arms, thinking about the men holding two of his friends hostage now. He sat down on the ground by the hunkering men at his side, too old to want to strain his legs that way any more. He slid a glance over at Chris Larabee. Man's oldest friend and his - Josiah cocked his head to the side - his lover? Were in trouble, probably hurting. He studied Larabee's whipcord thin body, outlined tightly in black trousers and dark gray shirt, saddle cut jacket hanging open, those silver studs in his gun rig shining in the late afternoon light. Josiah took a deep breath. He knew how determined and hardheaded the blond could be, loyal too, he'd die rather than let one of us get hurt. Josiah's pale eyes moved on around the group's tense faces, all others' eyes focused on Vin Tanner.
Sanchez knew they'd take those boys out, only a question of details. He'd leave that to Larabee, Tanner, and the others. Just lead me to them, Lord. He pulled his large, gleaming pistol from his holster and toyed with it, breaking it open to look down the bore, checking the seating on the cartridges. His large blunt fingers caressed the sleek metal, the gun oil greasing his fingertips ever so lightly. His heart had hardened to the deeds they'd soon do. He felt a blood lust rising and did nothing to quell it. It was as good a day as any to die.
Vin scraped over the dry sandy earth to make a clear space on the ground in front of him. With a small dry stick that he broke off a scraggling Juniper tree, he began to mark the ground. "Know this ground," he said dryly. "They picked a good spot, got a spring there, some natural cover in those trees, and some height."
"No way to sneak up, huh?" JD crouched close, studying the ground intently, balanced on his booted toes, hands locked on the butts of his twin revolvers.
Before Vin could answer, Nathan rose part way to his feet and sunk back down to eye the rest seriously. "I kin see some kind of ditch or gully over there."
"Yeah." Tanner nodded, scratching it into the dirt in a wide curve passing the spot he'd marked as the outlaw camp. "Comes real close too." He looked up into Chris Larabee's eyes. "Couple of us could get near inside that camp that way."
Chris nodded, knowing that there was more. He pulled a partly smoked cheroot from his inside jacket pocket and bit it between his teeth without lighting it. If I don't shoot someone soon, you might as well shoot me. He ground the twist of tobacco between his teeth at the side of his mouth and sifted his weight from leg to leg, feeling the pull on his hamstrings. Getting too old for this, Josiah's got the right idea, he thought as he watched Sanchez hunch forward where he sat full on the ground. Chris stared bleakly at Vin, and waited for him to continue.
"Figure I can slide in on my belly over here," Vin indicated the backside of the camp, facing away from the stage road that passed by so close to the trees. "And, one of us could circle round and come right on down the road from Ten Mile." He marked the trail. "There's a bend just ahead, drops down into a small valley before it straightens out to run into the station. Even on horseback, won't no one see anything from that way until the riders are right there at the top of the trail."
"I'm going in straight." Chris gritted out. He wasn't looking around at the others, just stating a fact. It was who he was. And what. It was no pride that informed his judgment. He was simply the best gunman amongst them for a face-off, close to the target. He'd be the decoy too. "JD, you and Nate go up the gully. Josiah? You willing to ride in from the east?" That would make Sanchez a big target.
Josiah's grin made JD's skin crawl. Sometimes he lost track of just how dangerous his older companions were. Shit, I'm glad I'll be with Nathan. He glanced over at the healer, only to see a huge, gleaming throwing knife in the man's hands. Nate was examining the blade with one dark thumb running down the edge, not looking up at all. JD swallowed.
"And ya got me to cover yore back from the ground." Vin finished for Chris, dropping the small stick on to the dry ground, then rising and scuffing out the simple marks.
"Josiah, you have the farthest to go." Larabee stood up and faced Sanchez. "Get started. We'll give you thirty minutes, less if something happens." He pulled out a pocket watch and fixed the time in his mind.
Sanchez did the same, nodding briefly and then raising a hand to the gathering. "Our boys will be safe with us again within the hour. Let the spirits be one with you, brothers." He snapped shut his pistol and dropped it into his hip holster, adding as he turned toward his horse, "I'm feeling ready for a wrestle with the devil." He heaved himself into the saddle and grinned down at the others. "And He shall lead us, and we shall triumph." He raised a hand to his hat brim, then reined his heavy dark sorrel away and down toward a fold in the land where he could double back onto the road ahead.
The rest were all standing as well, JD looking after Josiah's retreating form for a moment, until Nathan's big hand came down on his shoulder. "Ready, JD?"
Dunne spun around and nodded jerkily, trying to hide his startlement. "Yeah, I'm good." He reached up with one hand to tug his bowler tight down over his dark bangs, then wiped his hand past the long hair to tuck it behind his ears. His heart was beating awfully fast. We're coming Buck. He hesitated in shame and ducked his head. We're coming Buck, Ez. Two friends were in trouble, not just one. With determination, he turned away. Catching up the reins of his ground tied pony, he followed Nathan's leggy mount as they led their horses further off the trail. He pulled out his pocket watch. Though nothing had been said, he knew that he and Nathan were expected to be in position and ready within the next few minutes.
Chris watched his youngest man follow Nathan Jackson off. JD was good in a fight, if a bit trigger-happy at times. Right now, with Buck in danger, JD was unpredictable. That was why he'd sent the boy with Nathan. Jackson was steady. And, Jackson was deadly with those knives of his when he was in range. Coming up into the trees from that gully, he'd be in range. Chris' thinned lips pulled into a hungry smile.
Vin had taken over Chris' horse as well as his own Peso, and was leading both blacks off into some brush. Hidden there, they'd be available if he or Chris needed to chase after anyone when this was over. He pulled his long rifle from his saddle rig, then set his hat down low over his brow. He hadn't had to belly-crawl up on anything in a while. He walked back over to where Larabee stood, solitary, staring at the ground, one hand up on a cheroot stub still unlit, the other fondling the butt of his holstered pistol.
"You ready?" Vin wondered if there would be anyone left alive in that camp in an hour. He'd seen the anger in the others, even in Nathan and JD. Sanchez and Larabee, though, they were bombs waiting to explode. He rubbed at his neck. He'd never been partial to killing, but had learned to do it long ago. Right now, Buck and Ezra were likely in a bad way. He'd kill. No problem at all.
Chris looked up and met Tanner's sky blue eyes. Damn, the man's really only a big kid, he thought with regret. Those innocent looking eyes have seen a tough life, though. He read the man in front of him, saw the commitment there. "Yeah." He pulled out his watch again. Still a few minutes. He looked up at the sky, it was deepening now, beginning to go lavender and pinky-orange over to the west. The sun's yellow was deepening to gold and it hovered over the horizon now. They had to act soon or tricky twilight would make straight shooting doubtful.
"I'll let Buck and Ez know we're coming in." Vin spoke matter of factly, untying the leather over his mare's leg one-handed, his other still holding his rifle. He briefly patted at the hilt of his big skinning knife, not balanced for throwing like Nate's but real handy up close. He scooted over to the scree of low but steep hillside, the small rocks and loose shale were going to make this crawl an awkward one. He melted down to the ground and let his body relax against the earth. He heard Chris shuffle his boots against the dirt of the trail. He felt the ache of ribs still hurting and the soreness of his healing wound. He set those sensations aside too, like the sounds at his back. Stoic, Vin set his mind to the task in front of him and moved forward by pushing with boot tips, kneecaps and rough palms.
Damn man must be part Injun, Chris thought with admiration, as he watched Vin Tanner flow over the ground. Chris kept watch until Tanner moved over the crest of the rise and disappeared from sight. He gazed down at the face of his old pocket watch and was suddenly transported to a different time and place. The bronze lid, showing plain but shining in the evening light as Sarah wiped it carefully before tucking it into his pocket and patting the spot with her loving, caring hand. 'You take care, now, my love.' Larabee's hand crushed the burnished metal lid closed in his fist. Sarah's face blurred into Ezra's, blue eyes became green. His heart hurt. I am NOT going to lose you too, Ezra, he vowed silently. He looked up. It was time. Buck, you never left me in a fight, I don't aim to leave you now, he promised. Ez, here I come.
Chris Larabee was alone on the road. He set his hat down straight and even, brim flat against the setting sun that was low now behind him. He rolled his shoulders to loosen the muscle tension and wiped his mind clear. You didn't go into a fight angry. Not when there was this much at stake. Not when lives you cared about were in the balance. He pulled the cheroot from between his teeth and tossed it on the ground. Spat out some loose shreds of tobacco and wiped the back of one hand across his mouth. Shoulders back now, one hand relaxed at his side, the other out just a bit, curled above his gun. He'd draw it closer to. He preferred to fill his hand when he was ready to fire. He started walking.
Buck slumped back against the narrow tree trunk behind him. Ezra had stopped moving and wasn't talking. He wasn't sure if the southerner had dropped off to sleep or was just waiting, quiet. They both likely had concussions, though from the way Ezra'd been acting, his was probably pretty bad. Getting his ankle twisted was just added pain the man didn't need. Buck cricked his neck one way, then the other, trying to get the kinks of tension out of it. He kept his arms as relaxed as possible, cradling his friend against his chest. Ezra's head was heavy on him. Yep, probably asleep. Buck knew that Nate always kept waking them up when one of them had a concussion, but it hardly seemed fair to shake Ezra loose from the only relief he was gonna get for a spell. They'd been offered no water yet, or anything else. And once Lemuel had Ezra's boots off and Ezra's money in his hand, the center of interest had moved away from them.
That tall one, one of the others called him Marcus and then Boll had called him Yarrow, that Marcus Yarrow had snatched Ezra's money right out of Lemuel's hand. Buck smiled mildly. The look on Garson's face had been something else. Man had looked astonished and furious in turns. But he was smart too. He'd backed off with the rest of Yarrow's men there. That one freckle-faced man had a bad look to him. Freckle Face drew a gun briefly until Lemuel subsided. Yarrow had taken the money and headed back to the campfire. The rest had followed like they'd been on lead ropes. Didn't take much thinking to know what was going on over there right now. Buck's dark blue eyes rested on the men tightly grouped by the fire. Likely counting those bills, talking about how to split it.
Ezra's light cough alerted Buck that Standish wasn't asleep anymore. "Pard?"
"Buck?" Ezra's voice was indistinct, slurred.
"Yeah, it's still me, Pard," Buck took the opportunity to reset his legs and shoulders, move his arms a bit.
Standish stiffened and began to draw back against Buck's hold. "I must be heavy this way, I'm sorry."
Wilmington looked down at the gambler. One tough bantam. "S'okay, Ez." He flexed his arms and pulled the man back in. "Think we're both safer this way." He raised his eyes to the outlaws across the clearing. "Sorry about your money."
Ezra chuckled softly. "It doesn't matter." He turned in Buck's arms so that he could rest a shoulder there instead of his face, breathed in the cooling air. "Evening is coming?"
"Yeah." Puzzled, Buck eyed Ezra's relaxed form.
Answering the unasked question, Ezra made a show of sniffing. "Air's getting a bit chill. Shade seems cooler now too, I don't feel the sun anymore." He shrugged. "Just thought -"
Buck's look of admiration was lost on the blindfolded gambler. "Woo, doggie, Ez, you're pretty good there." He sat forward suddenly, almost upending the smaller man against him, grabbing on to Ezra's belt in reaction to Standish's near tumble. There. He'd heard it again.
"It's Vin." Ezra's voice was full of satisfaction as he regained his balance against Buck's body.
"Yeah." Buck looked around. He could see nothing, but that owl hoot was too early in the evening. And owls didn't repeat quite like that. He smiled slowly. "Yeah."
Ezra began to tighten with excitement. His nerves tingled. Our friends are here! Vin, who could be a true savage when called upon. And if Vin is here, so are the others. Josiah. Ezra winced. Oh, that would not be pretty. No, an angry Josiah was a very un-pretty sight. He wanted to grin but restrained himself, still conscious of the barely healing scatter of tiny wounds across his face. And, JD. Ezra had to bite his tongue from laughing. Oh, JD wasn't going to be very gentle today. Not with Buck hurt and captured. And JD likes me, too, Ezra decided with a happy little burble in his chest. Oh, JD would be trouble too. Nathan, they wouldn't have left Nathan behind. That man was truly deadly with those wicked knives of his. Ezra nodded wisely to himself. They'd never even know until it was much too late. That just left Chris. Chris Larabee. Ezra's heart began to beat faster, and faster, until it was knocking against the insides of his rib cage and he wanted to gasp out Chris' name. Why was he worried about Chris, of all people? He wasn't worried about the others. They'd be fine, he knew deep inside. They are dangerous and smart. So is Chris. Ezra's heart didn't slow, if anything it seemed likely to burst right out of his chest. He hunched over Buck's arms, biting back on a moan of panic.
Buck's worried voice brought him back to himself a bit. He lifted his chin, licked his lips, and took a deep breath and held it, willing himself to be calmer. "I'm fine, Buck. Just excited, I guess." Chris would come in straight at them. Ezra knew this as he knew the sun rose in the morning. It was destiny. Chris was ultimately a force like none other that Ezra had ever encountered. Today, he'd be like some mad bull. He simply didn't know fear. Ezra suddenly knew fear intimately. Oh, please god, watch over them all, and please, god, keep Chris safe.
Nathan rested his free hand on JD's back. Not quite guiding, not quite restraining, just there. JD could get so excited he might break cover too soon. They'd leave it to Chris to start this thing. Nathan knew, without being told, that Larabee would. Soon. He and JD had half-run, crouched over, all the way around some big rocks to the gully that he and Vin had spotted. From there, it was good cover all the way to the edge of the stand of trees. Once in the shadow of several young trees, they'd crept out of the gully and into the undergrowth of the glade. He was relieved to see Buck, with Ezra in his arms, sitting there at the edge of the camp.
JD nearly shouted his relief at the sight of Buck and Ezra under a tree across from the outlaws and their campfire. He felt the touch of Nate's hand on his back and sank down deeper into the bushes they were using as cover. He parted some leafy branches and studied his friends.
Look alright. No obvious wounds or blood, Nathan thought as he considered their friends. Far enough from the raiders that he and JD could probably pull them down and give them cover 'til the shooting stopped. He leaned over and spoke in a quiet voice, "We got to get as close as we can to them, before things start happening."
Dunne nodded. He understood exactly what Nate meant. Buck and Ezra were sitting ducks like that. He dropped to hands and knees and moved carefully ahead, knowing that Nathan was right behind him.
Josiah reined his horse around and up onto the stagecoach trail. He started out at a walk, pulling his watch out to take a look again. Nearly time. He gigged the big sorrel into a choppy trot, the tails on his poncho-coat flying out behind him and he bounced up and down. He drew his weapon and grinned.
Vin cursed sharp stones and uneven ground. He slithered up closer to the camp, he could damn near count the hairs on Boll Garson's head now. The big man was sitting there sulking, his brother Lemuel leaning in for a refill of coffee from one of the men that Vin didn't know. He squinted toward the west as he slid his rifle out of the way. He'd not been sure which gun he'd need, but now that he was set, he was too close for the rifle. He pulled the mare's leg up and set the sights right there on one of the men facing him. Six altogether, and the fools aren't even keeping a watch. They appeared to be arguing about something. Vin was close enough to catch the word 'money' a few times and 'gambler's' once. Hope Ez is alright. There. He saw movement in front of the setting sun. Like a partial eclipse. Larabee.
"What do you see?"
"Ez, ain't nothing to see yet." Buck spoke through closed lips, quietly so he wouldn't draw the attention of the men near the fire.
"I have to see!"
Buck looked down in alarm as suddenly Ezra was twisting about in his arms, rubbing his face hard against Buck's chest. "Whoa! Ez, Pard! What the hell?" Buck was hard pressed to keep his voice down and found his arms being shoved as far as the ropes binding his wrists would allow.
Ezra was frantic. He knew, just knew, that Chris would be doing something totally outrageous, totally foolish. He HAD to see. With his hands tied behind him, he resorted to dragging his face against Buck's chest to get the blindfold off. His face hurt, burned with the harsh friction of the dry cloth scrubbing against his damaged skin, but he was fiercely determined to get the damn bandages off his eyes. With a gasp, he raised his head, the cloth having loosened enough to drop down below his chin. He blinked and blinked, his eyes watering. The pain from them was less, not the screaming agony of this morning. Only this morning? He shook his head, knocking against Buck again. Slowly, the world began to come into focus, blurry, watery focus.
"Damn, Ez, warn a feller, why don't you?" Buck frowned and pulled Ezra back up against his chest, folding his arms as tight as he could. When the shooting starts, figure I can roll us over into cover. He glanced over toward the close-by underbrush. Bright brown eyes smiled back at him. JD! He looked sharply. Nathan too! He grinned down at Ezra. Opened his mouth to tell him.
"You! In the camp!" Buck snapped his mouth shut. Oh, shit. That was Chris. Buck turned away to look, holding tight as Ezra began to struggle - trying to move towards the sound of Larabee's voice, from what Buck could tell. Felt hands on him, knew it was Nathan or JD, allowed himself to fall back, still clutching at Ezra and be pulled towards cover.
Boll stood up. Lemuel dove over the log he'd been sitting on, pulling his gun. Only to find himself nose to bore with Tanner's mare's leg. He stopped moving.
"Hi-Yup!" Josiah leaned forward and kicked mightily into the flanks of his poor sorrel. The beast responded with a grunt and leap. Josiah, grinning madly, pounded up the curve of the road and roared as he veered in toward the camp where he could see the men rising in confusion, drawing weapons, facing toward the setting sun and the black shadow there. Josiah took aim.
Nathan shoved down on Buck's shoulder with one hand, no time to pull them far enough into the brush, smoothly pulling a knife from his back strapped harness and throwing it with his other hand. The blade turned fiery red, then yellow as it spun through the air, reflecting the light of the setting sun.
JD jumped ahead of his friends, protecting Buck, Ezra and Nathan, with his body. He had both Colts out and coolly found a target.
Yarrow yanked his pistol from his holster and turned toward the sun. Shit. Can't see who it is. Just a tall, dark shape. But someone hostile. He could see the movements of a gun being drawn at lightning fast speed. Damn, it's Larabee!
O'Rourke and the other two men from Yarrow's original gang all rose up, guns drawn. The freckled O'Rourke spun around to face the sound of a charging horse and a loud shout from the rider. His gun arm swung up and he courageously drew bead, unmoving. Behind him, he heard a thunk and gurgle, followed by the sound of a body hitting the ground.
Chris stalked straight in. He knew he had the sun at his back and took advantage of that. Everything seemed to be slowing down. He kept careful focus on the men at the campfire, even though his peripheral vision told him that his boys were off to the side. They were near where JD and Nathan would emerge and that had to be enough for him for now. His heart screamed to run to Ezra, he fought the feeling, knowing he had to finish this first, for all their sakes. He heard Josiah coming, a great bellow of sound punctuated by the pounding of his horse's hooves.
Even with the clamor from Josiah, a hush seemed to hover over the camp, for just a moment. And then, like the opening of a stage play, all the characters sprung to life and sound. The outlaws were all firing off their guns, some towards Josiah's hulking figure as he stormed into the camp, others towards Chris, and then as JD's Colts began to bark, some swiveled to shoot off in that direction, too.
Chris' pistol was in his hand now and firing. He jerked back and to the side as a bullet burned across his gun arm. He ignored it and dipped to one knee, still firing. Taking careful aim with each shot. The men in front of him were dropping.
Vin motioned with his hand.
Lemuel held his gun out to the side and swallowed, moving over as Tanner commanded. The sounds of gunfire around him had the tracker look away for just an instant. It was enough for Lemuel. He tipped his gun back toward Tanner and pulled the trigger.
Vin cursed himself for a fool for being distracted and fired even as Lemuel Garson started to bring his gun to bear. Both weapons fired, Garson's shot going wild. Vin didn't bother to check the now faceless man who crumpled in front of him, instead he climbed to his feet, firing again as one of the other outlaws turned to face him.
Nathan threw a second blade and he shoved his knee down to join his hand in keeping his friends flat out on the ground. Buck and Ezra were fighting each other as much as trying to break free. He wasn't sure what was happening but kept them down, kept them safe. It was an effort. Their bodies bucked and shook beneath him. He could hear Buck's low growling curses alternating with pleas for Ezra to please just calm down.
Ezra's voice was more of a hiss. Jackson heard it but couldn't quite distinguish the words at first. He drew his old pistol and fired, satisfied when another outlaw spun back down. JD was to his right, firing with precision as still another man jerked to the side. At least the boy didn't fan his guns any more, Nathan thought disjointedly as he heard Ezra repeat something again, this time he understood the vehemently hissed, "LET ME UP!"
Chris shot again and the last man, Boll Garson, looking stunned, followed his daddy into an early grave. Larabee clamped a hand over his bleeding arm and stood up. Vin was standing, facing him, but looking down at the bodies at his feet, shoving at one with a foot. Josiah had pulled up and was backing his horse out of the camp, dropping to the ground with a loud shout of anger. Larabee sympathized. It was all over too soon. He wanted, needed to keep fighting. The push of energy pulsing through him was almost beyond his control. He knew he might look calm, but he wished he had it in him to shout like Josiah. He grit his teeth instead and focused. Ezra! Ezra and Buck.
With Josiah now, and Vin, checking the bodies, Chris turned sharply and strode over to where his other four men were. He purposefully blanked his mind. He didn't want to know. Please god. No, he didn't want to know. Let them be alright. He squeezed his arm, feeling slippery blood dripping through his fingers. Please god.
JD stood still, guns pointing at the camp. He watched carefully until Josiah dropped from his horse and joined Vin. Then he spun around, smiling tentatively. "Buck? Ezra?"
Nathan sat back on his heels to give the two men beneath him room now that the danger was passed. He shoved his gun back into his gun belt and stood up stiffly. Buck was still fighting Ezra, had the gambler locked in his arms somehow.
Buck feeling Nate release the pressure on his back, rolled over, giving Ezra some room. He felt like he'd had a wildcat in his arms. Trouble was, with his wrists tied, he couldn't let him go that easily and Ezra was so busy fighting to be free that Buck couldn't get his arms up and off the man. "EZRA!" Panting, Buck forced himself up to a seated position, and tugged the gambler back to his chest again. Ducking his head to speak directly into Standish's ear, he took fists of the man's shirt and held on tight. "Ezra." More quietly now, he spoke. "It's over. Just wait a minute and we'll get Nate to let us loose. Stop fighting me, Pard."
Ezra had panicked. No two ways about it. He'd admit it now to himself, as he breathed heavily, air sawing out of his too tight chest. He coughed hard and flopped his head back. He'd tried to get out from under Buck's sudden body weight, frantic at the sounds of gunfire, terrified that Chris might be hurt. Barely able to see, he squinted at the world around him, suddenly conscious of the blood making his hands sticky. His wrists must be a mess by now, the hemp tearing tender flesh already abraded. Where was Chris? Was he alright? Ezra's hands clenched in helpless fists.
Chris came to an abrupt stop just feet from his men. He stared. JD was stooping down to put a hand on Buck's shoulder, a smile on his face. Nathan was pulling another knife from his harness as he knelt beside their two missing men. Buck was holding Ezra in his arms, but Ezra didn't seem hurt, in fact, he wasn't even wearing his blindfold anymore. Ezra's head was resting on Buck's chest and the big man was leaning down, looked like he was saying something private into Ezra's ear.
Something inside of Chris shriveled up. He closed his eyes. They are safe. Alive. That's all that should matter. Then why did he suddenly feel so stricken? He re-holstered his gun and wiped his brow, then blindly turned away. So he didn't see Nathan slip the knife blade into the nearly invisible ropes deeply grooved into Buck's wrists. He didn't see Ezra choke and half fall over Buck's lap, calling hoarsely for Chris, nor did he hear Ezra demanding to be cut free. Chris walked back the way he'd come.
Nathan dropped down on both knees to catch Ezra as he fell forward out of Buck's arms. Cutting the ropes around Wilmington's wrists had taken away Standish's support. Jackson set his knife down to the side and pushed Ezra back until he was seated on his heels. "Stay put, Ezra." Nathan peered closely into the watering wide green eyes. The uneven pupils told him enough. Concussion. He held on to one shoulder as Ezra tried to twist free again. "Just let me have a look-"
Ezra's "NO!" was overlapped by Buck's "Geezus, Nathan! Cut him free!" Then Buck Wilmington's big body was thrusting Jackson aside and into the dirt, Ezra was half-staggering to his feet in an unbalanced surge, and JD rushed forward to try to help. Buck, frustrated when he realized he couldn't manage to pick up Jackson's knife with his numbed hands, yelled at the kid. "JD! Grab that knife and cut Ezra free, dammit!" Buck could not believe that his friend Nathan Jackson had actually wanted to leave Ezra bound while looking him over. By GOD, that man had something to learn about treating folks with humanity!
Jackson stared wide-eyed at Buck, then shifted to Ezra's struggling form as the man heaved himself unsteadily to his feet. By then, JD was at the man's back, Jackson's own discarded knife in his hand. Nathan pushed up, he didn't know what Buck's problem was but he could see the gash at the back of Standish's head now and he'd somehow lost his blindfold, those eyes were watering badly and the cuts on his face were filthy. If he didn't get Ezra settled down soon, he'd fall over; Nathan had to treat those wounds and clean the cuts. Even if no one else cared, he knew infection could be deadly. He shoved himself up to his feet.
JD grabbed Nathan's knife, he could see the bloody wrist bindings that were holding Ezra. No way one of his friends needed to suffer like that. Even if Buck hadn't hollered at him, he'd have been right there. He caught hold of one of Ezra's forearms through a tattered shirt sleeve and spoke tightly to his friend, "Hold still, Ez, I'm cutting you free." He dug the blade point under the new rope, wincing at how prickly it felt to the touch, knowing how it must have torn at Ezra's skin. He could feel the tremors in Ezra's body.
"JD?" Ezra sagged back a step, off balance and dizzy, pressing against the firm hand on his arm. He bit the inside of his mouth when he felt the knife slice through skin as well as rope, pulled hard at his arms and suddenly was free. The hand fell off him and he nearly tumbled down again, except here was Jackson back in his face. Damn it all, "LET ME BE, NATHAN!" He swung clear and ended up spinning around and landing back on the ground in a heap. Oh, it was all just too much. And where the hell is Christopher Larabee? What of those professions of love? He let himself collapse onto his back and stared up into the concerned, if very blurry, faces of Jackson, Dunne, and Wilmington. "Aw, hell."
Chris ran directly into Josiah's chest. With a silent curse, he attempted to side step the man, only to find himself doing a two-step with him. He looked up, angry and despairing. "Sanchez-"
"Going the wrong way, aren't you, Brother?" Josiah had a fair idea of the burr under Larabee's blanket. He might not know everything that was going on, but Josiah had seen and heard enough this morning to make a guess.
Larabee shook his head and looked beyond the preacher to where Vin Tanner was pulling weapons free from the bodies of the dead and tossing the guns to the side into a heap. Cautious Vin. Smart. He focused on that and tried to shoulder past Sanchez. Without any luck. Then Vin looked up straight at him and then past him toward where Buck and Ezra were. Chris bit back a disgusted groan when Vin looked back at him questioningly.
Buck smiled down at Ezra who lay there looking most put-out. Yep, darn near pouting. He hid a grin and grabbed hold of JD as the world tilted for a moment.
"Buck! You alright?" JD staggered under the sudden weight of his tall friend, turning to try to help hold the man upright.
Buck nodded and caught himself back on one heel. "Yeah. Fine." He wiped at his face and looked around, then down at Ezra again who was now once more trying to sit up. "Look after Ezra for me." He gave JD a light push, leaning closer for just a moment. "Don't let Nate get too pushy. Not what Ez needs right now."
JD patted the hand on his shoulder and moved out from under it, to crouch down beside the gambler. Jackson was leaning in too. JD beat him to it. "Here Ez, let me give you a hand." He thrust one hand under one of Ezra's arms and began to lift.
Buck stepped away and turned to see the back of Chris Larabee. Looked like Josiah was blocking him but it also looked like the man had been trying to move away from them. What the -? He closed the distance to his old friend in a few big steps, grabbing one arm and yanking Larabee around to face him. "Chris!"
Larabee couldn't believe it. All he wanted to do was go away and lick his wounds. First Josiah, then Vin, now Buck of all people. Shit! He turned, bringing up a roundhouse swing with his body's motion, feeling savage satisfaction as his fist connected with Buck's jaw. He would have followed through except that Josiah had clamped down on his shoulders from the back and had a grip like iron. He ground his teeth and clenched his fists, anger coming off like heat as Buck stared up at him from the ground, rubbing his jaw and looking bewildered.
"Why the hell did you do that?" Buck's growl held no forgiveness. He'd been through too many crappy hours, keeping Ezra safe from harm, 'cause Ezra was his friend and 'cause his other friend Chris loved the little gambler. He didn't deserve this.
"Listen!" Josiah's soft command in his ear slowed the beat of Larabee's blood, where it thrummed in his temples. "Look again!"
Josiah shook the taut, lean frame in front of him, willing the man to really see. He tried again. "Think, Chris. Think."
Just then Ezra finally found his feet, with JD's helpful arm and fought off Nathan's hands again, staggering clear of them. "CHRIS!"
Ezra was a mess. His face was oozing blood from several reopened cuts, his hair was spiked up in damp clumps, his eyes were watery and streaming, pupils uneven, the greens foggy, his shirt was stained, pulled out from his trousers in places, and, as he raised his arms, the blood stains at the shirt cuffs were bright red. But he was calling out Chris Larabee's name like it was the most important thing in the world.
Chris tilted his head to the side as if to better see the man weaving towards him unsteadily. He felt Josiah's hands leave him. He took a deep breath, then another one, faster, and was moving. Two firm strides and he and Ezra collided. Ezra pushed his mottled face upwards and stared up into Larabee's face. Chris could read the worry there, the love. What had he been thinking? His arms came up around this man who held his heart. Pulled him close, locking his arms tightly, sheltering his Ezra from further harm. He closed his eyes and let his cheek rest on Ezra's forehead.
Ezra had given up on formality. He'd given up on propriety much earlier today. Now he gave up everything except Chris. His sole intent was to reach the man who said he loved Ezra. The man that Ezra had loved for so long that his heart knew no other roads to take anymore. When Chris' arms encircled him and pulled them together, he went willingly, anxious for the reassurance that Chris was whole, unharmed. He stared up into those greeny hazel eyes and was lost. Happily lost. The world began to gray.
"Shit!" Chris swiftly changed his grip as Ezra sank bonelessly downward inside his arms. With a twist and dip, Larabee stood up, holding a limp Ezra in his arms, ignoring the blood still dripping from his own bullet creased bicep. He lifted his head to call for help but "NATHAN!" came from four other mouths as if he were a multi-voiced ventriloquist. JD, Buck, Josiah, and Vin who'd come up behind him, all shouted at once.
Nathan had given up for the moment. No one wanted his help yet. He could wait. Not long. But he could wait. He sprinted off toward the horses, intent on getting his pack of medical supplies. Soon as everyone calmed down, he'd take a look at Ezra, clean him up. Buck probably needed tending too. And he wasn't sure if all the rest of them came through unscathed. Striding back toward the clearing, he nodded in satisfaction as four voices rose in chorus, calling his name. Coulda told them. He shook his head and broke into a trot.
"You know, Chris, this would be a lot easier to do if you just let him go." Nathan knelt beside the two men where Larabee had lowered Ezra to the ground. Jackson set his leather bag down by them and then looked up at JD who was close beside them, almost hovering. "JD, I need water, can you get me some from the spring. Maybe put some up to boil at that fire, too?" Nathan nodded toward the abandoned campfire where Josiah was heaving bodies up on to the backs of the outlaws' horses while Vin held the lead ropes.
Dunne nodded wordlessly and sped off. Buck Wilmington had picked himself up only to wander over and sink wearily to the ground near Jackson. Nathan peered at the big man. "You hurt too, Buck?"
Wilmington rubbed at his jaw and nodded, admitting, "Think I might be some concussed."
"That fist to the jaw didn't help none either," Jackson shook his head looking back over at Chris Larabee. So far, the gunfighter had ignored his prodding, but at this jab, Larabee looked up from his contemplation of the unconscious man resting against him.
"You take good care of old Ez, and I just might forgive you, Pard." Wilmington grinned ruefully, having figured out what had happened after a few words in his ear from Josiah. 'Course that didn't mean Chris wasn't going to get some Dutch back some time, just not right now. His dark eyes spoke to Larabee with that promise.
Chris sat up a bit straighter, settling Ezra more on to the ground, but resting Ezra's head in his lap. He nodded his understanding. He owed Buck, and his old friend would collect one of these days. That was all right. He could live with that. He had to learn to rein in his temper. His hands momentarily tightened, fingers squeezing Ezra's shoulders. Guess I'll get a lot of practice. He couldn't pick some sweet young thing to fall for, could he? Nope, got me a contrary little weasel, likely to keep me hoppin.'
Ezra groaned. He couldn't believe how miserable he felt. This could not be happening. Could it? He squinted up, only to cringe at the sight of Nathan's face directly above his own, only inches away. Warm hands pressed into his shoulders more gently now. He shifted his gaze to the side and saw that he was being supported by Chris. All the energy he had left fled as he relaxed in Chris' hands. He closed his eyes again and drifted off, content knowing he was safe with Chris.
Nathan spoke sharply, "Ezra?" He reached out to slap the man's face lightly only to find his wrist caught and held. He looked up at Larabee. "Chris, I need to see how he's doing."
Chris Larabee stared at Jackson. He knew that the healer was a good man, honest, blunt, and also a talented medic, but right now he just saw someone who wasn't showing as much care as his Ezra deserved. "He'll do a lot better if you go easy on him."
Nathan pulled away and sat back again. He took a deep breath, ready to fire off his opinion on this sudden protectiveness. But Buck Wilmington calmly interrupted his thoughts before he could speak.
"Nate, I think he might need a few stitches back of his head. Was bleeding pretty bad. Kept falling asleep on me too." Buck put his head down on his bent knees, very weary suddenly. Talking to his knees, he added, "And I think you might want to take a look at Chris' arm."
Jackson's eyes snapped to the left and widened. There was a damp tear in Larabee's black leather short coat, on the outside of the man's right arm. He looked down and saw blood slowly dripping from Larabee's cuff onto the back of his hand where it held Ezra's shoulder. Damn.
Vin stroked the nose of the horse he held, and looked over toward the small group huddled on the ground, then spoke to JD who had just come over with a pan of water to put by the fire. "How's everyone doing, JD?"
Dunne grimaced and looked back over his shoulder to where Nathan was now busily pulling off one sleeve of Chris Larabee's jacket. "Nate's pushing some. Ezra's hurt, but it don't look too bad. Him and Buck both got knocked out." He shook his head. "Chris got shot in the arm, but I don't think the bullet went in, looked like a burn."
Josiah stood back and tapped the hanging leg of the corpse he'd just thrown over the horse Vin was holding. "Should I go have a word with Nate?" He wiped his hands on his pants, sweat dripping down his face.
JD shrugged. "They all need patching. Nate's good at that." He returned his gaze to first Vin, then Josiah. "It's just sometimes, he forgets the people inside the bodies."
Vin nodded once. That was a fact. When Vin'd needed doctorin' in the past, he'd resented the way Nate poked and fussed, him being a private sort of feller. But, Nate was good at what he did. Trade off.
Josiah sighed and bent his head. The nobler the spirit, the more firmly the feet are set in clay. The boys would heal, Nathan would see to it, and time would take care of the rest. He lifted his head again and smiled at Vin and JD. "You know, a drink would go down real well right about now."
Vin brightened. "Bet these boys was packing some."
Several hours later, the Seven rode back into Four Corners, leading a series of horses carrying the bodies of the rest of the Yarrow gang and the two Garson brothers. The few town folk still out for after dinner strolls as the evening darkened, stopped to watch the slow procession. JD Dunne, their sheriff, and Josiah Sanchez, their preacher, peeled off from the line to stop in front of the undertaker's place with the bodies.
Vin Tanner led the rest of the men up the street and directly to the saloon hitching rail. The rumble of noise inside invited and the beckoning lights of the saloon shone out into the street.
"Ezra should probably come on up to the clinic," Nathan began as he stepped down from his saddle.
Four men silently turned to look at him. No one spoke.
Jackson sighed. "All right. All right." He held up his hands good-naturedly. He wasn't dumb, just had his own priorities. He shook his head and smiled that slow building, charming smile that had long since stolen Raine's heart. Still got to warn them. He cautioned, "Just don't drink any alcohol right now, Ezra. You either, Buck, you both got concussed."
Wilmington swung off his tall gray and tied up the horse to the rail. His dizziness and fight with nausea had passed, but he understood his friend's concern. He looked seriously at Nathan and put a hand on his shoulder. "Sure thing, Nathan." He smiled slightly. "Thanks." He turned and looked at the entrance, his face melting into a cheerful grin. "Figure a nice warm bed with a bit of company is all I need for now." Nodding to the others, he rubbed his hands together and winked, then stepped up on to the boardwalk and disappeared inside.
Chris dismounted more slowly. He kept one hand on the smaller man that had ridden into town with him, sharing a saddle. Ezra looked a lot better thanks to Nathan. Face clean and wrists bandaged, his eyes nearly clear now - more focused, even his hair tidied, he looked more like his Ezra. His darling, exasperating, brilliant Ezra. Eyes never leaving the gambler's face, he waited. "Ez?"
Ezra Standish sat and looked down at Chris Larabee. The man looks tired. I am tired. We are tired. He smiled slightly. Slowly he drawled out, in a fair imitation of Wilmington's quietly jovial speech, "Figure a nice warm bed with a bit of company is all I need for now."
Chris Larabee's eyes brightened, the hazel sparkling with green and amber lights. The blond lifted his other arm up and, both arms extended, accepted Ezra's weight and small bulk as the southerner slipped down from the saddle and into his arms, to stand in front of him pressing close. "Figure we can get you some company." He wrapped an arm around Ezra's shoulders, "And a warm bed," and led him inside.
JD and Josiah rode up and dismounted just as Ezra dropped from the saddle into Chris Larabee's embrace. Josiah watched with a slow smile, JD blinked. Vin, who'd been standing behind Nathan, ready to kick the man's ass if need be, grinned at the others and clapped a hand down in friendly fashion on Jackson's shoulder. "Time for another drink, boys."
"A toast might be in order." Josiah clumped up the steps, following Vin who was pushing Nathan inside the saloon.
JD stood for another moment, staring up and down the street, nearly empty at this late hour, street fires burning brightly, then he looked back up at the swinging saloon doors. "What just happened here?" But, being young, he dismissed any mysteries with a shrug and bounded up the steps, following his friends inside.
Chris paced his southerner as they crossed the saloon floor. He saw and nodded to Inez who was serving some ranch hands at the bar. She tossed her mane of black hair back and lifted her chin at him in acknowledgement and welcome, dark eyes flying to Standish in concern. Chris, trying to watch everyone and everywhere at once, caught her eyes on their return to his face. He smiled slightly, knowing that would be enough to reassure the woman. He was grateful for her worry. He knew that she would always look out for Ezra, having met and dealt with his forceful mother.
He spared a glance down and found that Ezra's eyes were locked on the stairs in front of them. Probably barely able to keep to his feet, Chris decided tolerantly, before continuing his survey of their passage. No sign of Buck, which meant that his old friend had probably latched on to one of the working women and headed up stairs immediately. Chris felt his cheeks heat in remembrance of his foolish assumptions earlier. He should know better. Hadn't Buck stepped aside when he fell for Sarah? Buck would never trespass. Chris let his hand slide up and down Ezra's far arm reassuringly, possessively.
The caress distracted Ezra who mis-shuffled his feet and darted a look up at his companion. Chris was shifting his gaze alertly around the room. Ezra looked down. Larabee was toying with the butt of his gun where it thrust up from the holster on those slim hips. Ezra swallowed, licking his lips, and raised his eyes once more to his destination, the stairs.
Nathan nearly fell into the saloon with Vin's forceful push behind him. He rebalanced himself with a rushed step and half-turned to lasso an arm around the energetic tracker and pull him up even. He grinned down at the younger man. "You're in a powerful hurry."
Vin, unrepentant, returned the grin with one of his own. "Could really use that drink after the last few days." He wiped at his mouth with the back of one hand, then looked ahead to where Chris and Ezra had reached the foot of the stairs. Thoughtfully, his grin eased into a knowing smile. Them boys better get some rest first. Seeing that Ez was gonna be alright, he felt better himself. Won't ever be that careless again, he promised himself. Yeah, he was feeling sleepy - now. Just need a drink, maybe two, first. No need for Nate to know why. He turned away toward their regular table, leading now.
Nathan, and Josiah who'd caught up to him by now, joined Tanner, each sinking into a chair with a sigh. Inez appeared at Nathan's elbow with a bottle and a tray of glasses. Josiah reached up and plucked the bottle free. Vin took the tray and set it down on the center of the table.
"Is JD -" Inez's question died on her lips at the young sheriff pushed through the street doors and nearly trotted over to the table. She smiled warmly at him and nodded once to the others, content that all were safely back. She whisked away, already speaking to another patron, taking an order.
Josiah was pouring, and slid a glass over to JD as the boy sat down. For once, JD didn't refuse the offering, mind going back to the dead men they'd just left at the undertaker's.
Each man lifted a brim full glass of whisky and eyes met across and around the table. No one spoke.
Ezra sniffed as he found the door to his room ajar. He looked back the question at Chris Larabee, his large shadow.
Chris reached beyond Ezra and straight-armed the door open wide. "We left in a hurry when you turned up missing. Already getting set to go after Buck, he was mighty late on his patrol." Chris dropped his hand from the door and set it in the small of Ezra's back, giving a slow, steady push.
Ezra stood fighting it for just a moment, then bent his head and walked on in to his room, knowing that Chris wouldn't leave this time, not even if Ezra asked him to. Ezra ignored his bed and walked over to his window, to stand there staring out at the night.
Now what? Chris hesitated, then turned and closed the door, picking up the key that lay in plain sight on the nightstand. He locked the door and left the key in it. Throat clearing warned him that this round was just about to start. Well, hell, he was up for this. And in a sight better condition than Ezra. He figured the scratch to his arm didn't really count. He slowly pivoted on one heel, hearing the scrape of his rowel on the wood floor. He folded his arms and faced his adversary. The weasel.
JD coughed explosively as the whisky seared down his throat. Josiah whacked him on the back and laughed, then lifted his head and signed to Inez at the bar. She tipped her head, eyebrows lowering in a frown, and watched as he pointed to JD's bowed head and still heaving shoulders. With a flash of comprehension, Inez ducked beneath the bar.
Vin and Nathan observed the small scene with mild interest, then Vin topped off all the glasses again. He and Nate both downed their new drinks with only a slight softening of their features to betray the effects of the strong drink.
When Josiah picked up his glass, he found Inez already there again, this time placing a mug in front of JD Dunne. The young man looked up with watering eyes and gasped a brief thank you, not even bothering to look insulted. Josiah patted his back again, this time with approval.
Vin and Nathan eyed Josiah, then JD, then Vin poured another round for the three remaining whisky drinkers and all three men upended their glasses.
"Don't you think you all should slow down some?" JD's voice rasped just slightly, white mustache a faint testimony to his new beverage.
Nathan nodded reluctantly. "Yeah, guess you're right JD. I'm going to call it a night." He shoved himself away from the table and stood, weaving only slightly. "Night," he said to the men still seated and moved off, slowly making his way back out of the saloon.
Josiah sighed heavily, toying with his again empty glass. He really wanted to have another drink, but hell, he knew if he didn't stop soon, there'd be trouble and tonight, he raised his eyes to the landing at the top of the stairs then dropped them back to the empty glass, tonight should be a quiet night. He would make it his gift. He smiled at the thought and spun the glass in his thick fingers, then set it upside down on the table, capping his evening. "See you in the morning." Realizing suddenly that no one was on the night's duty shift, he stood and rubbed his back.
JD smiled up at the big preacher as if he could read the man's thoughts. "I'll take duty tonight."
Vin yawned and sipped his final whisky. "I'll take over at first light."
No one mentioned the fact that Chris Larabee hadn't assigned shifts this evening. JD thought about that as he stood up and nodded to Vin. Both peacekeepers followed Josiah Sanchez out the doors of the saloon, Vin heading for his wagon, Josiah his church, and JD for the jail.
Vin slumped a bit as he leaned against the tailgate of his wagon in the alley. He ached still from yesterday's fall and gunshot, though he hadn't wanted to admit it in front of Nathan, or the others. He yawned again. The whisky was already numbing some of the ache. He crawled into the canvas covered wagon bed and rolled into his blankets without bothering to pull off any clothes. If Ezra is half as tired as I am, Vin thought with a quirking smile, then old Chris is going to be running lone wolf tonight, too. He chuckled, closed his eyes, and his next breath was a snore.
Josiah ambled along beside young JD. The boy was fidgeting, playing with the leather loops that topped his guns, darting glances sideways at Josiah as they walked up the dark street. Josiah sighed. I wonder if it's innocence or if he just missed the signs. He held his counsel, content to let JD speak first if speak he would.
Ezra turned away from the window and leaned back on the sill, facing Chris Larabee. They really should discuss all this first, before doing something irrevocable. He reached up and began to scratch at a healing scab, his whole face had started itching.
Chris didn't waste time, striding directly across the room and into Ezra. He captured the upraised hand and pulled it away from Ezra's face. "You'll get scars." He leaned in and kissed Ezra on the cheek, near where he'd been fussing. With his free hand, he encircled Ezra's waist and tugged him in closer. He brought the culprit hand up to his chest and covered it with his.
Ezra looked up into Chris' bright eyes and yawned. Well, perhaps conversation could wait until morning. He leaned easily against the strong, tall man in front of him, finding it a comfortable support for his tired body. His face was still burning and painful, but in a muted sort of way. Can probably attribute that to the concussion. He suddenly found it amusing that one pain might cancel another. His lips curled up in a smile and he snuggled closer to Larabee's upright, warm body. Very nice this. He slipped his unclaimed hand into the front of Chris' waistband, under the belt and crossing gun belt. Somewhere under all those layers and constrictions, somewhere under there was skin. Ezra burrowed his fingers, tugging partway out the front shirttail and being frustrated by long johns. He gave up. Tomorrow, he promised himself. And closed his eyes.
Chris held his breath when Ezra began to probe at his pant's top edge. He was afraid to pull Ezra any tighter for fear he might squeeze the begeezus out of the man, but it was a struggle to hold back. He lowered his lips to kiss Ezra's ear as the southerner rested his head against Chris' chest. With a lick, he spoke quietly, "Ez? How about we go to bed?"
A mumble of indistinguishable sounds was his only answer. With a tender smile, Larabee swung them around and half-led, half-carried Ezra to the bed. Releasing Ezra gently turned out to be pointless. The man simply flopped down on the mattress. "Ezra?" Chris pressed one knee into the bedding beside Ezra's nearest arm. "Ez?" He touched the back of the small man's neck, rubbing gently. Ezra made a small noise, and burrowed deeper into the down comforter topping the bed.
Well, you got your warm bed. Chris shook his head fondly at Ezra's trust. Man was usually suspicious as hell. Never closed an eye unless sure of his own safety. Tonight he just let me take care of him. Chris lightly stroked one stretched thigh but got no response. Guess it's time to get us both a bit more comfortable, then get some sleep. Gonna make sure we get some time tomorrow, Chris promised himself as he removed Ezra's reclaimed boots, then eased him over and unbuckled his belt.
"Yes, Brother Dunne?" Sanchez could out wait a god masquerading as a dog; and, he could wait for JD to say what was on his mind.
"How come-?" JD cleared his throat. He turned around so he could walk backwards, facing Josiah. "How come Chris went upstairs with Ezra? I figured Nate would do that."
"John Dunne," Josiah slowed his pace but didn't stop, "Do you recall Chris and Ezra at that outlaw camp?" JD nodded, flushing slightly and no longer meeting Josiah's eyes. Ah. "Do you recall Chris and Ezra in the street, in front of the saloon just now?" JD nodded, face becoming red, staring at Sanchez worn boots. "Now do you really need answers, John Dunne?"
JD's heel caught on a wagon rut and he fell backwards onto his rump, only to stare up at Josiah with his mouth open.
"Here, son," Josiah said, offering a hand, then pulling JD back on to his feet. "Any more questions, JD?"
JD shook his head and looked back toward the saloon, his eyes rising to the second story where a window still shone with a yellow glow. While he watched someone passed in front of the light, taller that Ezra's normal silhouette. Whoever it was, came back and pulled Ezra's heavy drapes across the window, blocking the light. Whoever? He heaved a deep sigh and shook his head again, then looked over at Josiah who was also looking back toward the saloon. "Good night, Josiah."
"Good night, John Dunne."
"Good night, Ez."
". . . night, chris . . ."
And Chris curled an arm over Ezra's naked body, drawing the man close up against his own skin. Felt damn good. He smiled into Ezra's shoulder and closed his eyes.
The warmth of another body, pressed tightly against his, woke Ezra. He didn't try to move, just opened his eyes. Rays of sun shafted the room, arrowing through small gaps in the drawn drapes, like sundogs piercing a cloudy day. One beam of light shot across the space above his head, full of dancing motes of dust. The soft down bed was his own and familiar, but he hadn't awakened to the feel of another's flesh against his in a very long time. Contentment washed over him. He knew it was Chris at his back and he lifted one arm over his head so that he could turn over within the other man's arms. He wanted to see Chris.
The blond was soundly asleep, dark circles set deep beneath closed eyes. He was breathing quietly, a soft sush-sush of sound. Ezra could feel the breath against his face now, so close were they. He lowered his arm again and his fingers sought out the face of the man in his heart. Even though Chris had declared his love first, Ezra had doubted.
He tried to examine his feelings now but the intimacy of their repose defeated him. He found himself too caught up in enjoying the touch, the skin on skin textures. He let his finger lightly trace the lines that creased the man's brow, even in sleep. The finger, as if with a mind of its own, continued down one eye socket to cheek bone, then on to jaw, moving against the stubble there to the point of the firm, hard chin. From there it was a simple, compelling journey to Chris' lower lip.
Ezra became fascinated by the shape of Chris' mouth at rest. His undaunted digit sailed slowly, majestically along the crevasse of joined lips to the wonder of the puckish closure, puffing up slightly, making an almost frown at the melding point with lower cheek muscles. From there, the journey traced a deep track up to Chris' nose. Ezra's eyes followed along, dreamy with the convenience of a close-encounter with his dream lover's features. Then Chris' nose twitched. Ezra rubbed the tip experimentally and a large hand came up over his, covering it, capturing it, guiding the errant finger downward. Green eyes flashed up to meet amused hazel ones just as the finger was plunged into a damp, warm orifice.
Spontaneously, Ezra's body arched in response to the wet warmth. He was out of control. His body wanted this even as his mind screamed cautions. His mouth opened in an O of surprise and was caught as well, sealed against Chris' as the man twisted his head and pressed down and in, tongue diving in to claim and play. Ezra wanted to slow down and he wanted to explode, not necessarily in that order.
Chris panted as Ezra gurgled. The southerner was pushing up, rubbing upward, instantly hard and eager. Chris felt the urgency in Ezra's responses, the feral rawness.
Chris smothered a groan and re-wrapped his arms yet more tightly around Ezra. They were both awake, aware, and aroused. He'd found heaven. He didn't bother to smother the second groan that grew inside and leaked out as he stretched himself against Ezra's sturdy, shorter body. The trick would be to keep Ezra on the edge, keep him from thinking too much or he'd try to slide away again. And Chris wasn't going to lose his sweet little weasel for anything. Not even for the man's own contrariness.
Tautly, Ezra strained against the hold that Chris maintained. Thinking already. We need to talk. Oh, god. Ezra twisted his head to the side, his traitorous body squirming to rub savagely harder against Chris' own hardness. He gasped and clawed Larabee's ribs, gripping so hard that he could feel the bones, like ridges between his groping fingers. "Chris!"
"No talking, Ezra." Chris rubbed his unshaven cheek harshly against bare shoulder, knowing he was leaving burn marks.
"But I think-"
"No thinking, Ezra." Chris turned so he could swallow Ezra's mouth with his own, teeth clashing. He hunched over, pulling Ezra into his shelter, his protection. One hand pressed up Ezra's vertebrae, drove through the fine, softly curling nape hairs and anchored the man's head in place. Chris held them as long as he could, feeling Ezra's body slacken, then respond to his. With a lick and a suck, Chris finally pulled back and looked into stunned green eyes.
"That much?" Ezra's voice was soft, nearly soundless. "You want me that much?"
"Want you, yes." Chris laved Ezra's throat from hollow to jaw, then returned to nip and lick at Ezra's parted lips. "Need you, more." Chris pressed his face against the side of Ezra's and whispered into his ear, "Love you, most of all." And then he held on tightly and waited, holding his breath as well.
The cessation of movement and sound created a strange disjointed void for Ezra. He was aghast at his body's surrender. He was confused. He was desperate for more of those demanding touches, kisses that sucked at his soul. Inside, he cried out. Chris!... Chris! I want you so much. I need you so much. I love you so much. Was it so hard to say those things aloud? It meant the end of his freedom, the end of his independence, the end of his safety deep inside his own private, spiritual fortress. "Chris-" it came out as an agonized moan of defeat. He bowed his head onto Larabee's shoulder, one trembling hand coming up to touch Chris' curved spine with the delicacy of a moth's wing to candle flame. Much like that wing, he felt the flame and was burned. ". . . chris . . ." this time it was a sad little murmur.
Instantly alert, Chris Larabee loosened his death grip and moved back enough to be able to bring Ezra's head up from its resting place and look into the man's cloudy eyes. A shadowed soul looked back, sad and lost, scared. Alone. "Aw shit, Ez." Chris gently pulled his conflicted friend back into his arms, this time to offer comfort and careful loving tenderness.
His heart was thudding so fast he was certain it might burst out of his chest to beat between them like a huge drum. Chris took a hitching, sucking breath into his overly sensitized body and demanded it behave. He swiveled his hips away from Ezra's, ignoring Ezra's small cry of bereavement. The man clearly wasn't ready mentally or emotionally, even if his body was.
Chris wanted more than just a warm body, even if it was a most perfect body. One that fit his. Such a beautiful body. Such a beautiful man. Chris wanted and needed all of Ezra, he wanted the man's incredibly sensitive and empathic emotions and his agile, challengingly brilliant mind. All of you. I love all of you. Heart, I want your heart, Ezra. I need your love and your commitment, emotionally and mentally.
Chris hugged Ezra gently and rested his chin on a convenient shoulder. Last time they'd shared a bed, he'd finessed his friend into revealing feelings deeply hidden. Pushed him over the edge. No more tricks.
Ezra was stunned at the way Chris had responded to his plea. The instant acquiescence was so unexpected, and yet, why should it be? Lying there, held close, Ezra shut his eyes and tried to think. Not easy when his rebellious body seemed determined to drag him further into a situation of convenience. No! He knew at some heretofore undiscovered gut level that he was no 'convenience' for Christopher Larabee. That struck him as funny suddenly. With a watery chuckle, he lifted his head and sighed, turning enough to lightly kiss the nearest part of the blond, which happened to be an ear. "Not very convenient, am I?"
That brought an answering chuckle from Chris. With a smile, he lifted Ezra's shoulders and brought them around with minimal fuss, settling the man on his chest and shoulder so that they both faced the mostly shut curtains of the street side window. He pulled himself up a bit, Ezra with him, so that he leaned against the bed's headrest, and Ezra leaned against him. Cuddling the man, he answered, "This isn't about convenient, Ezra."
"No," Ezra smiled, a secretive, small smile. He toyed with the strong, capable hand that rested on his abdomen, enjoying the completeness he felt within himself. He could feel Larabee's love wrapped around him. Freeing something deep inside him. With a new sense of confidence, unexpected and liberating, he answered boldly, "I love you, Chris."
Chris folded his other hand into the first, fingers meshing over Ezra's stomach, thumbs rubbing Ezra's naval, smallest fingers sliding easily into the wiry curls just below. He didn't try to start anything, just savored the touch. Ezra needs me, but he needs time too. In the quiet, understanding and a new beginning grew. Chris settled in. Everything was going to be fine.
Buck strolled down the stairs of the saloon, stroking his mustache and feeling rested, healed. He figured it for just past noon, and sure enough, JD and Nate were sharing some lunch at their table. He grinned and bounded down the rest of the stairs.
"Hey there, Pards!"
JD looked up, dark eyebrows raising like flags. Nate was the one who answered him though. "How you feeling, Buck?"
"I'm feeling great!" He stretched expansively.
"Then you wouldn't mind taking a turn at the jail?" JD leaned back in his seat and cocked his head, a smile growing.
"Sure, kid, soon's I get me some food." He waved an arm at the daytime bar tender who nodded back and disappeared into the kitchen. Buck looked around. "Where's everyone?"
"Vin took over the dawn shift, then he just now went back to his wagon to sleep some more," Nathan said, taking a sip of his coffee. He looked out the front doors of the saloon, then added, "Josiah's taking the afternoon at the jail." He finished up nodding at Dunne, "And JD did the night shift over there."
Buck scratched at his chin, frowning. "And Chris and Ezra?"
JD answered, his voice low, but carrying a newly mature air of amused approval. "Far as we know, they haven't been downstairs yet."
Impressed, Buck turned and stared back up at the second floor landing. "Damn." A slow, happy smile grew. "Damn."
- End of Finessed -
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