Disclaimer: I don't own them, or the show they rode in on. I wrote this for fun, and no profit is made from it.
Archive: Starwinder's, You Want Fries With That?, and The All-Ezra FanFic Archive --- all others, please ask.
Summary: Here's my take on how things might have gone behind the scenes of Working Girls and beyond them…
Warnings: Same sex lovin' …some violence…and strong language abounds
Author's Note: Winner of 2002 Gold Ezzie for Old West Slash Fiction - Long Category
Category: Slash - nothing too blatant (sorry)
Completed: 28 October 2001
Feedback: email@example.com welcomes comments
"Come on, Buck, let's ride," JD said as they turned away from Wickes' body, twice shot by Lydia and now, with casual deadliness, by Buck Wilmington. Ezra, standing in the shadows of the tented entry to the bar area, had watched the final gun fight with a six-shooter in hand, one he'd lifted off an unconscious man by his feet. He'd already raised his borrowed gun to cover their retreating backs when Buck had swung around and picked off the half-dead old man as he lifted his own weapon to try once more to kill at least one of Larabee's men. With barely an acknowledgement of the final gunshot, the rest of the seven were already heading toward their horses.
Chris Larabee was anxious to get Mary Travis home, get her out of this place. He could see how shaken she was, her and Lydia both. The working girl, no, woman, was looking devastated at what she'd done. Back shot Wickes twice, nearly killing the bastard, while freeing herself and all the rest of the women from his cruel yoke. And saving Chris and Mary in the process. Larabee leaned over toward Vin, speaking across Mary's head. "Get the carriage, the one Ezra came in on."
Vin nodded once and split off from the group. JD, coming up behind them, asked, "But what about Ezra?"
Larabee, arms full trying to comfort the pale newswoman, glared up at the youngest of the group. Before he could reply, Nathan, sticking his gun in his belt, answered for him. "Ezra can ride out, there's plenty of horses, hell, he can take Wickes' horse, that man don't need it no more."
"But - but - he's a la... uh, that is, he's got on a dr-"
Nathan interrupted impatiently, "He kin ride."
Larabee, though, was beginning to wonder where their seventh was. He thought he'd seen a bit of purple in the entry to the bar tent, just after Buck shot Wickes a final time. "Buck. You wanna go find Ezra, make sure he's still standin' - two of you ride out together?"
Wilmington, still standing back with his weight on one heel, hips tilted forward, his face blank from the heart shot he'd just made, swung his head to look at Chris. After a moment, he seemed to reach inside and bring the old Buck back out, the deadly shootist retreating until needed again. "Sure, pard, me and ole'Ez'll cover each other's backs." Holstering his pistol, he started back towards the tents.
Chris called after him, still supporting Mary in his arms, "Buck, you two be careful. You don't show up in an hour, we'll be riding back out here for you and I ain't much in the mood for that."
Buck flashed an impudent grin over his shoulder, "Aw, pard, and here I thought me and Ez could jest hep a couple them nice young ladies here for a spell."
"Not today, Buck, might still be some of Wickes men around who'd want to make trouble." Chris' sharp tone ended the conversation. Vin was drawing the small covered buckboard up beside the man in black and trying to keep the horse from dancing away. Larabee reached out a hand to help Vin gentle the carriage horse and prevent it from knocking into Lydia and Mary, both standing there looking lost. Turning his attention to the two women, the gunslinger said, "Mary, you and Lydia get in the buggy."
Silently, head bowed, the blonde woman gave a stiff nod and began to climb into the single bench seat of the small vehicle. Larabee turned to help Lydia follow her up on to the bench as Vin, sliding out the other side, held on to one of Mary's arms to steady her, then handed up the reins to her. They all respected the gutsy newswoman, she'd be able to drive the small carriage back to town. Beside her, Lydia, the dark-haired prostitute, looked considerably less tough at the moment than the wide-eyed widow. "You can handle this?" Chris asked quietly, making eye contact with Mary.
She looked over at Lydia at her side, then back at the gunslinger. "Yes."
He tipped his black hat at her, then moved away, tossing back, "We'll ride with you."
At that moment, Josiah rode up with Larabee's horse in tow. He reached out for the bridle, turned his black gelding so he could mount. Chris, having swung himself up onto his horse, now turned its head and faced his old friend. He called after Wilmington, already nearly at the biggest tent, "You and Standish be ok?"
Buck dipped his head to look back, nodded and touched his hat.
"Chris, Buck and Ezra'll get home fine." Nathan settled into his saddle and straightened. Josiah hesitated beside him, gazing back toward the half collapsed tent town, where a confusion of working girls and cowmen were milling about, a few half-hearted fistfights still going on. But Nathan was right, Buck could handle it and Ezra probably was embarrassed enough without them making a fuss over him while he was still in women's clothing. The boy always seemed to land on his feet, Josiah knew he wouldn't appreciate them drawing undue attention to him just now. He reined his horse over to follow Nathan who'd already kicked his own animal into motion.
A quick track of his narrowed eyes checking on his people, and Larabee, too, said, "Let's ride."
Chris and Vin flanked the carriage as Mary slapped the ends of the reins on the harnessed horse's back. JD took a running jump on to his own horse and dashed out ahead of them.
Buck strode toward the last place he knew that Ezra had been, the bar tent. A moving flash of purple in the deeper shadows, within the tented opening, caught his eye.
Ezra had listened to only the first part of the short discussion as his fellow riders organized themselves to ride out. When he heard Nathan's sharp comment, he decided he was on his own and turned away. He noted JD's question and read the boy's thoughts as if spoken aloud. It's all right, Mr. Dunne, I'll make do, he thought, I always do. Turning away, he lifted his skirts and looked around the chaotic room behind him. The few bits of furniture were mostly broken firewood now, the barkeep rapidly crating the few unbroken bottles. Likely so as to abscond with the goods now, Ezra decided without concern. He began to pick his way across the ground littered with the unconscious and semi-conscious bodies of men.
His delicate high-button shoes looked tiny as he stepped over some broken glass and a crushed hat, someone's jacket-clad arm lying there amongst the rubble, extended from a pile of three men, hard to tell who belonged to it in the canopied shade. The rustle of his silk dress seemed loud to him as he released one hand to touch his wig. The feathered hat had come loose in the brawl, and he wasn't prepared to lose the rest of his disguise while still so attired. It seemed to be still securely anchored where Mrs. Potter had so tightly pinned it to his scalp. He winced at the memory of the painful scraping of those pins as she'd dug down through the fake hair to fasten it to his own shorter hair. Time to leave, indeed.
A figure a few feet in front of him began to push up off the sawdust tarp covered flooring. One of the men who'd been leering and jibbing at his performance as a chanteuse. Biting on his still heavily rouged lower lip, Ezra focused on avoiding the rising man, and continuing his progress out of the tented bar. With a crease of concentration between his now plucked and shaped eyebrows, he walked carefully because balance on the heeled shoes was precarious at best no matter how graceful he might be. He didn't notice the man stagger erect and start toward him.
Buck Wilmington walked on, but he was torn. He wanted to ride out with his friends, see to it that Mary and Lydia were safe. He figured most of the other women left here would be all right, they could leave now, there were still several wagons near the corralled horses. But Chris was right, need to find Ez and make sure he wasn't in any trouble. Hell, the gambler wasn't exactly dressed for any confrontations with the remnants of Wickes' Town. Someone had to cover his back and Buck didn't mind. He neared the open bar, where he thought he'd seen Ezra in the shadows. Make sure he was all right and then the two o'them could be heading out after the others. After all, the man had done something none of the rest of them woulda done, dressin' up like a woman, to cause the needed distraction without raising alarms. The tall, lanky ladies man continued, his back to his departing friends, the clatter of their horses and the carriage wheels already fading as he entered the scene of the recent bar fight.
Ezra's eyes went wide as a rough hand caught at his shoulder, dragging him about to face the angry, lewd gaze of one of the bar patrons. This was one of the ones who had tried to manhandle him earlier. He'd pushed the fellow away, shoved him really, but he seemed determined for more. The man's free hand knocked the borrowed gun from the gambler's fist before he had a chance to bring it all the way up to use. So Ezra pulled back his other arm for a punch but was caught at the waist and jerked half-off his feet as the larger man pulled him up against him with one arm, the other catching his beginning roundhouse and deflecting it down, then Erza's wrist was trapped in his fist, hauling the arm up behind the smaller man's back.
Hanging over his prize, the man grinned foolishly and half-fell backwards before catching his balance again. "The singer!" He put his face right into Ezra's, breathing foul air at the repulsed con man. "Let's you and me go make some music together, little songbird…"
Ezra leaned back away from the oppressive man, face pursed in disgust, then cried out as the other tightened his hold and jerked up on the imprisoned arm. The pain was more of a surprise than anything, but Ezra, legs restricted by his gown, arms bare of his derringer and his other guns uselessly stored back in his room in town, was feeling trapped. At that moment, he knew what it was to be a woman, he thought with rising fear. So much smaller than his opponent and without any ready defense, Ezra had a bad feeling about where this was going.
"Hang on, there, pard," Buck's pseudo-jovial voice behind him was heard with intense relief. Ezra closed his eyes and waited.
The still drunken town man clutched Ezra closer still and swung around to face the new threat, whirling Ezra off his feet in the process. Buck's eyes narrowed still further at the rough treatment his friend was receiving, looking almost like a rag doll in the other man's arms. "That - is no way to treat a lady."
"Buck-" Ezra's comment was cut short by his captor's sudden squeeze, nearly blacking him out when his already tightly corseted body was subjected to the increased pressure, losing all air from his lungs.
At Ezra's gasp, Buck grabbed hold of the drunk's closest arm and shook. The man dropped Ezra and tried to grapple with this tall interfering cowboy. The gowned gambler tumbled to the ground, one of his small shoes caught up in the flouncing of his petticoats. Buck took hold tighter and shook vigorously, pulling his long-barreled gun and shoving the muzzle up under the other's jaw. "Is today the day you die, pard?"
Faced with the loaded weapon and the big stranger, who was looking very dangerous just now, the drunk shook his head and squeaked. "Just havin' fun, mister! That's what they pay these whores for -"
"Whores?" Buck's hiss was furious and he shoved his face forward. "Mister, I wuz you, I'd be glad to still be breathing and I'd go find somewhere's else to do it... by - your - self."
"Yesss, yess - sir!" Almost slurring his words, the other's head bobbed in agreement. Buck sneered and let go, watching without expression as the man collapsed in a heap at his feet. He leaned over and pulled the man's gun free and tossed it across the room before turning to see how Ezra was doing.
Ezra was not doing all that well. He was still trying to take in a breath but the damn corset wouldn't let him fully expand his lungs and a tunneling blackness was starting to pall his vision at the edges. He had himself braced half-up with one straight, shaking arm, his other hand pressed against his upper chest, yanking at the confining lace bodice as he gasped. He wasn't too sure that he was going to be getting out of this one in one piece anymore. His normal self-reliance did not extend well to these circumstances. He felt utterly helpless.
Then a warm voice near his ear spoke calmly, "Take smaller breaths, pard, little itty-bitty ones." Two large arms came around him from behind, but were gentle and enfolding not clutching. They supported him and easily raised him to his wobbly feet. He leaned back onto the comfort of Buck's chest, he'll hold me up. Ezra closed his eyes and swallowed, following Wilmington's advice he began to take smaller inhalations, no longer trying to drag large quantities of air into his restricted lung cage. The blackness receded.
Buck was supporting most of Ezra's weight as the gambler struggled to breathe. He knew what was wrong, been around ladies all his life, knew the dangers to their corseted frames. The most remarkable feeling washed over him as he stood in that wrecked bar, surrounded by unconscious or groaning men, his arms full of a soft, sweet body clothed in lace and satin, a lavender scent wafting in the air. Automatically, he went with his feelings and nuzzled down beside the slender neck, resting his roughly shaven face against the smooth cheek of his ... friend…? He pulled back and started to release the gambler but the smaller man nearly fell. Catching Ezra back to him, he sighed. He KNEW it was Ezra but it FELT like a woman in his arms. They definitely needed to get out of here and Ezra didn't seem to be able to even keep to his feet just now.
Buck threw one long arm against and under the skirted man's thighs, lifting up into the air. "Let's get you outta here, Ez." When he got no protest, he looked down to see two wide green eyes looking back at him with fear and amazement. "Easy does it, pard, just gonna get us free of this place. Then we kin see to giving you a bit more breathing room." He hoisted the smaller man up higher against his chest and smiled. Damn, Ez felt like Molly in his arms, near the same size and weight and all. Damn near prettier than her, too.
He took large steps over slow-moving bodies, and was out of the tent and in the wide area between it and several more, the sun baking down on them. Ezra was squinting up at him now, having snaked one lace-covered arm around his neck to help center his weight in Buck's arms. The fact that he wasn't protesting or fighting this was a strangeness that Buck decided to think about later. Right now, there were only the two of them left out of the seven. They were still in this nomadic 'town' and surrounded by patrons who might not be too happy with them once order was restored. They needed to get out now.
He could see his saddled gray between two tents and whistled to his mount. The old man perked up and trotted to him. Might not be the trained performer that Ez' had for a ride, but his Gray was a good'un. "Can you ride, pard?" He looked down at his friend. Ezra coughed and tried to speak, chest still heaving with the effort.
"Never mind, Ez. It can wait 'til we get away." Buck didn't like not being able to go for his gun just now, but with Ezra in his arms, there was no way to reach it without dropping his friend. And Ezra was quite obviously unarmed. He grunted as he tossed the con man up on to his saddle. With that dress, there was no way for the man to straddle the horse, short of pulling the skirts up to his hips and it never occurred to Buck to suggest that. He put one foot in a stirrup and straightened up into the saddle behind Ezra who sat sideways, almost sliding back off in his efforts to sit up. Buck grabbed hold and pulled the man half into his lap as he settled fully into his saddle, lean thighs moving under the other man's rump. Gathering Ezra to him with one arm, Buck grabbed the reins and snapped them, causing the gray to give a small jump and then move quickly into a fast canter, the smooth gate rocking the gambler back up against his chest. Ezra's hands snared Buck's loose brown shirt, holding tightly, as the two men rode double out of Wickes Town.
Buck could barely make out the dust of their friends ahead of them on the trail. He glanced back over his shoulder and saw no pursuit from the tumble down tent city he was leaving behind. He looked down. Ezra was drawn up against him, looking very much a delicate young lady at the moment. With a sense of unreality, Buck realized that his own body was responding to appearances and felt himself start to harden and grow. Those wide green eyes that had locked with his earlier turned up now to meet his dark gaze and they were even wider if possible, nearly showing whites all around, uncertainty in their depths. "Buck?" It came out as a question and a warning all at once.
"Easy, darlin,'" Buck broke off, reddening at his use of the endearment with the con man. The men looking askance at each other. "Uh, sorry, Ez. It's just the clothes and all…"
By this time, Ezra was breathing almost normally, though it was still not done easily. He was taking small inhalations and exhalations, finding he could get more oxygen this way and not be choked by the strangulating pressure against his ribs and waist from the corset. Now that he had time to think about it, he couldn't believe he'd let Vin and Chris talk him into this foolhardy venture. Dress up as a woman, a loose woman at that. And now, he was being held in the arms of one of his fellow lawmen, a ladies man who was showing definite signs of wanting to treat him like a... lady. Oh, god, it was really too much. Unconsciously, Ezra closed his eyes and rested his head against the strong shoulder right there conveniently available.
Buck took a deep breath in surprise when Ezra's eyes closed and he relaxed against Buck's shoulder. The ladies man looked ahead at the dusty road and almost without thought, planted a light kiss in the soft hair below his chin. Course, it's not his real hair. Wonder how that feels? Buck closed his eyes at his wayward thoughts then blinked them open wide and kicked the gray's sides with determination. The canter moved into a ground-eating lope.
By the time they'd made town, Ezra was sitting up in Buck's lap, trying without much luck, to look regal. Buck had him bracketed with two long muscular arms, his thighs bracing the smaller man in his temporary seat. Ezra and Buck were both studiously ignoring Buck's body's betrayal, straining at his groin. Both were straight faced and silent.
Nothing I can say to all this. It is NOT my fault, Ezra thought morosely, wondering if he'd ever live this down, or be able to look into the eyes of Buck Wilmington again.
Damn fine woman you could be, Ez, Buck thought silently. Weren't no point going there, but it was an interestingly novel thought, nonetheless. Ever respectful of his ladies, Buck had no difficulty with this version of Ezra. He knew how to treat a woman properly, and that didn't mean grappling with her or pawin' at her. He cast a tender eye downward. Even knowing that what he saw was an illusion didn't seem to stop his sudden desire to strip Ezra down and bed him. Now where the HELL had that come from? Buck frowned heavily and squeezed at the horse between his legs.
By the time Buck drew rein in front of the saloon, the others were already out of their saddles and Chris and Vin were helping Mary and Lydia out of the carriage. Nathan was standing by, ready to help if either woman needed it. Josiah was gathering the reins of several of the horses, as was JD, both seemed content with letting the other men deal with the shaken women.
JD noticed the late arrivals first. "Hey, Buck! Hey, Ezra!"
"JD." Buck nodded as he kneed his horse closer.
Josiah, seeing his predicament, stepped up. "Here, let me help you, brothers." He held up his arms and eased Ezra free of Buck's lap, drawing him to the ground and setting the smaller man on his feet. Buck kicked a leg up over the front of the saddle and slipped to the ground behind them, just in time to catch Ezra as he stumbled backwards, knees watery from the unusual position he'd ridden in for the last half-hour.
"Easy, Ez," Buck breathed into the nearest ear, supporting and straightening the slender figure he held carefully by the waist. A very fashionably narrow waist. "Just catch your breath and your balance, pard."
Ezra didn't answer but did nod and stand still within the circle of big hands at his waist. It was the strangest sensation. He felt safe, even though he was not in control - of himself or the situation, a most astonishing feeling. He decided not to examine it at this time. Right now, what he needed most was to disrobe and find his own attire, return to his own persona. And away from these very strange, disturbing feelings.
Josiah was standing in front of the two men, hands on his hips, a grin cracking his face. "You make a lovely couple."
JD laughed in the background and turned away, pulling at his horse, Vin's and Chris', leading them toward the livery. Josiah pulled at his lips and said, "Brother Buck, I'll take care of your horse. I think Ezra's going to need a little assistance…"
Nathan, leading his own horse and Josiah's, behind him, snorted as he walked by. He didn't bother making any comment, all this silliness with the gambler would be over soon enough. Looking toward the livery he tried not to think what might have happened if Standish hadn't agreed to don the women's clothing and go into the lion's den. Woulda been a shoot out, a blood bath, he knew it and knew he'd a been elbow deep in other men's gore, trying to save lives, if it had come to that. With an honesty that he'd learned was a responsible part of his freedom, Nathan stopped and turned back to look at where Buck was carefully guiding Ezra's smaller form up the steps to the boardwalk in front of the saloon. "Ezra?" He called sharply. Both men turned his way, Standish looking a bit reluctant. "You done good." That said, the healer gave a respectful tip of his head, and looked away, pulling the two horses he led after him.
Josiah stood amazed, his heart warming at the truth so bluntly put by the healer. Men never cease to amaze me, Lord. He had to agree, too, the young gambler had done well, had gambled his life, his body, to save Mrs. Travis. Josiah was proud of him. He turned back to tell the young man this but didn't speak when he saw Ezra sway on the boardwalk and then swoon into Buck's arms. Instead of a quiet word of commendation to Ezra, Josiah was bellowing, "NATHAN!" and striding toward the two men sinking to the boards of the saloon's porch.
Buck looked up helplessly at Josiah as he eased Ezra down. He knew what had happened but didn't think anyone would believe him. Nathan's words had caused the con man to draw in a deep surprised breath. The choking of the corset, on top of the poor breathing he'd been able to do, cramped up in Buck's lap atop of the gray, it had all been too much. The man had blacked out.
Seeing Josiah rushing toward them, Buck suddenly felt protective of the gambler. He knew that Ezra didn't like the way folks hovered over him when he was hurt. The con man wasn't ready for more of that now and Buck figured he wasn't in any real difficulty, just needed the damn corset off. Right now, defenseless, he was about to be subjected to Josiah's and Nathan's sometimes smothering care. Buck thought, not today. I got ya, pard, I got ya. He flexed his knees and forced himself back up to his feet, lifting Ezra's unconscious body with him. By now Josiah was right there, reaching out, but Buck forestalled him by holding the lax form tightly in his arms. "I got him, Josiah."
Nathan had dropped the reins to the horses and run back. He stepped up beside them. Tried to reach out to Ezra's face, intent on lifting an eyelid to check for any sign of a concussion that might be causing this. Buck shifted away from the healer's hand, too, swinging Ezra's body away. "Leave him be, Nate. He'll be fine soon's I get tha' damn corset offa him."
Jackson's eyes went round in dawning comprehension. "Yeah, that'd be right, Buck. Get it off of him and stretch him out. If he don't come to soon after that, call for me."
Buck nodded gratefully. "Will do."
Josiah stood beside Nathan, the two big men watched as Buck shouldered through the swinging doors of the saloon, heading back for the stairs to Ezra's room. "Guess they don't need us, Brother Nathan," Josiah spoke quietly, his thoughts his own. If he noticed Buck's protective attitude or almost possessive handling of the gambler, he gave no outward sign. Might not mean anything anyway. He clamped a hand on his friend's shoulder and steered him away and down toward the abandoned horses.
Chris and Vin had watched the small scene play out over the back of the carriage horse, each with a woman being tendered and supported with careful hands. Lydia smiled up at Vin. "I'm fine now."
Vin smiled down at her. "Always were." He looked over towards the boarding house. "Mind if I walk you to your place?"
"I'd like that." She closed her eyes for a moment in pained recollection of what had just happened. A gentle fist pushed her chin up.
"No regrets, Lydia, you did good." Vin's blue eyes smiled at her and she smiled back.
Mary Travis wanted to stand up, stand tall, move away from Chris Larabee's support, but she was just too tired, exhausted from tension and fear. And Chris would never hurt her. She knew this. His arm around her shoulder asked nothing, he tipped his head down to hers now. "Mary, let's get you home. Mrs. Potter has Billy for now, you need to get settled."
"Yes, yes, Chris. Thank you." Her expressive pale eyes met the gunslinger's matching light green ones and she smiled lopsidedly.
Buck swept through the mid-day deserted saloon heading for the stairs at the back of the open room. Over his shoulder he called to the bartender, "Keith, bring up a bottle of redeye to Ezra's room."
The bartender waved and ducked behind the bar to retrieve one of Mr. Standish's own brand. He wasn't sure what Buck Wilmington and his lady friend were going to do upstairs in Mr. Standish's room, but he knew the southerner would be upset if anything other than what he considered acceptable liquor were to enter his 'chambers.' Dusting the bottle and wiping his hands, the man quickly followed the tall cowboy who was already at the top of the stairs and starting down the hallway.
By the time Buck reached Ezra's room, the bartender was there and opening the door. If Buck was surprised that it was unlocked, he gave no sign, simply nodded to the bureau against one wall where Keith placed the bottle and two glasses that he'd brought up and then backed out, closing the door behind him. Buck stood over Ezra's big feather bed and lowered his burden to the mattress. He squinted at his friend's pale face, feeling oddly protective still. Swiftly he pushed the southerner over to the side and began undoing the long row of buttons at the rear of the dress with deft, practiced fingers. Separating the two segments of the dress back, he slid his hands up under the fine satin and lace fabric to move it off Erza's shoulders. The only way to get that corset unlaced and off was to get the damn dress off first.
Buck licked his lips in concentration as he carefully pulled the long sleeves of lace free of first one, then the other, smoothly muscled arm. Skin as soft as a baby's. Smelled so fine, too. Lavender water. That was Ez's signature scent, they all knew about his special pale lavender herbed body soap. Buck knew his colognes and perfumes, been around the horse barn a few times, he had. He knew from experience that the same scent smelled different on whoever was wearin' it, had something to do with their own natural smells mixing with it, he figured. He'd smelled Lavender before on the ladies - even on some gents, but on Ezra it had an intoxicatingly spicy undertone, an edge that spoke of muskiness. Funny he'd not noticed that before.
A groan and half-strangled cough from the gambler brought him back to the task at hand. Buck tugged the bodice free now that Ezra's arms were not in the lacy sleeves, then eased it down over the frilly corset and petticoats beneath. There were at least four petticoats of fine sheer muslin tied to the con man's constricted waist. Buck made short work of unknotting them, a smile growing as he thought that Ezra'd have had to ask for help or cut them off, seein' as how bad he was with knots. "Easy, pard, almost got it." He patted one bare shoulder, knowing that the con man was conscious but groggy from lack of enough oxygen and the discomfort of trying to breath within the confinement of the corset.
When he looked back down at the corset straps lacing Ezra's back, he nearly let loose with a curse then decided to bite his tongue. Too late to do anything about it now. What had Mrs. Potter been thinkin'? She'd got the damn thing laced, then reinforced the lacings with thin wire. No give at all. And, how the hell wuz he supposed to get it off the man? He swallowed hard. Well, ta be convincin' they'd had to force an hourglass shape on a man's body. A shape that was natural if unexaggerated in a woman, but not for a man. Someone'd also forced some muslin bags of what looked like buckwheat tightly under the side edges of the corset, producing a suggestion of more feminine hips on the little frame. Dang, the man is small, smaller than old JD, Buck thought, fingers having no luck with the tautly twisted fine wire. Felt like a fine weight of baling wire. Knife might cut that, might not. Shit, just cut off the cloth itself. Not like they needed to be savin' that corset for other occasions.
Decision made, Buck pulled his boot knife and went to work. Slow, careful work so that the blade didn't mar that milky white skin. About halfway up, the cloth started to tear away. Short jabs with the knife, where the layers met, helped it along. He ran it up between two of the pieces of solid whalebone that bowed in tightly at Ezra's waist. Another minute and the thing came free, curling and slapping at the con man's skin. Beneath it, Ezra had modestly been covered in a pair of cutaway silk undergarments, the shirt's sleeves and collar cut out to render it nearly invisible beneath the corset. The pants left as full drawers that ended mid-thigh, just about meeting two rather plain garters. Guess no one wuz supposed ta see this far in, he thought with a faint smile.
The minute the corset came free, Ezra was rolling and coughing, nearly choking as his lungs expanded and rib cage flexed. Buck sat heavily beside the cramping man and pulled him up to a sitting position on the edge of the bed. "Not too fast, pard, catch your breath and hold it for a minute or two, then let it out slow-like. Ya need to ease back inta your normal breathin' after that, Ez."
Gradually the shaking shoulders under his arm slowed and Ezra sat up more completely, back straightening. With a strange regret, Buck released Ezra's shoulders. He stood up and crossed to the chest where he picked up the bottle he'd ordered and two glasses. Filling them both, he left the bottle and returned to the gambler's side, handing him one, then Buck settled himself on the floor beside the bed where he could look up into the gambler's down-turned face. Both sipped their drinks.
"Feelin' better yet?"
Ezra took a cautiously deeper breath and released it with evident pleasure. With a dimpling smile, he met Buck's dark eyes. "Yes, Mr. Wilmington, much better." He stretched and cast a glance of irritation at the awkward pile of corseting now heaped on the floor nearby. "Thank you for your assistance with that infernal contraption."
"'s awright, Ez." Buck set his empty glass down on the floor at his side and leaned forward, careful not to startle his friend. He picked up one daintily shod foot and lifted it on to his leg.
Alarmed, Ezra looked down to see his fellow lawman casually taking his foot - HIS foot - and putting it on the man's leg. Wild panic flared. "Buck! What - "
"Calm down, Ez, jest gonna get these booties offa ya. Figure it's gonna be awhile before you can bend over this far." Not looking up, Buck skillfully unbuttoned the ladies' high top shoe pulling it free of a no longer surprisingly delicate foot. Ez is just small all over. How come I never noticed that before? He smoothed the silk stocking covering the ankle and rising up the slender leg to a garter. Um, um. Very nice. Shit! Buck blinked and hastily set aside the first foot, nearly unbalancing Ezra above him when he dropped it to the floor. The second bootie came free just as easily and then Buck looked up consideringly at the long stocking-clad legs and their twin garters just above his head. "There, now, you want help gettin' off these here stockings?" His hand lingered on the shapely ankle, fingers lightly smoothing out the silk. For some reason he felt hopeful.
The foot in question jerked back free from his hands and he looked up into Ezra's face. Alright, we need ta get back ta normal here. And, man deserves some thanks for what he done. Speaking quietly, he said, "You done right good, like Nathan said."
A quiet, hushed, "Thank you," was the only response. The southerner's complexion was already flushing bright pink in the close room. Buck noted with unexpected pleasure that Ezra did full body blushes, least ways, far as he could see, which at the moment was quite a bit. A twitch in his own basement had him realizing it was time to be gone from here and back to his more natural ladies. As opposed to what? He found himself whispering in his head. No, pard, don't go there.
With a quick shake of that head, the tall man sprang to his feet, dancing to balanced stance, then giving Ezra a sweeping bow, hat in hand. "Been my pleasure, Ez," Buck grinned and he backed to the door. "You need anythin' else?"
Ezra, sitting on the side of the bed nearly in the buff, shook his head in bemusement and waved a hand in dismissal. "Go, go, mah friend. I am in your debt and I shan't forget."
Buck flashed a toothy smile as he edged out the door, "Hold you to that at tonight's poker game, pard!" And he was gone, door shutting quietly and firmly behind him.
Ezra stared silently at the closed door. Turned his head and stared down at the heaps of petticoats, the destroyed corset, the purple satin and lace confection, the forlorn looking ladies' high button shoes and shook his head. With a sudden curse, he reached up and felt the wig, still firmly in place. Oh, lord. What must Buck have been thinkin'! Quick fingers plucked out hairpins and yanked the now unwanted hairpiece from his head. He dropped the pelt-like thing to the floor to join the rest of the discarded disguise. Then he leaned over and released first one garter, then the other. Never thought I'd be doing this on mahself. He rolled the silk stockings down below his knees, then used his feet to shove them off the rest of the way. A bath, he desperately needed a bath to wash away the memories of this less than stellar day. But before Ah go out in the public view, Ah shall have to do something about this rouge, he thought, touching his lips. And wondered why he was suddenly wishing for Buck's touch again.
A few days later the ladies gathered their parcels and began to clamber into their makeshift wagon home. Buck Wilmington and Vin Tanner, both on horseback, waited patiently to escort the ladies down the trail. The entire group wanted to move on to San Francisco in hopes of a fresh start. Mary Travis and Lydia had made their peace and she stood there to wave them off, wishing them well. Ezra arrived, startled to find them ready to depart. He had finally recruited three potential husbands and felt confident he could aid three of the ladies into mutually profitable matrimonials as the result.
His hopes dashed with their laughing response, he turned to try to make amends to his customers only to have a passing pedestrian suddenly peer up into his face with puzzlement and seem to recognize his female alter ego. The all too perceptive question about whether or not he sang was enough to have him raising eyebrows and closing his mouth. But it was Buck's joking laugh and demand for Ezra to give them a song that had everyone else grinning - and Ezra pursing his lips in dismay. That's all it meant to you, isn't it Mr. Wilmington? he thought with a sad internal sigh. Then the wagon pulled out with Buck and Vin following and everyone else turning away. Except for Ezra and his three marks.
"You ain't…? Naw, ain't possible, is it?" The incredulous tone of the departing passerby to his right had Ezra gritting his teeth.
"I do not know what you mean, good sir," he muttered and turning his back dismissively, he addressed his clients, "now if you three gentlemen would care to further discuss the potential of mail-order brides -"
"As fur as I kin see, our 'brides' jest left." One of the others pointed out.
A second chimed in again with a repeated demand for their money back. At this moment, with Josiah crossing behind him, humming Red River Valley softly, Ezra had had enough. Fine, all right, enough. "Here you are, gentlemen." His calm, even tones hiding the surge of anger within. He fished a roll of bills from his inside jacket pocket and quickly counted out each man's money without further protest. Let this be an end to the whole sorry episode, he thought.
"Better this way," Nathan's voice at his shoulder had Ezra stiffen and close his eyes momentarily. I will NOT respond, he thought to himself beginning to think his remarkable restraint, with regards to the healer's sometimes moralistic comments, was wearing thin. Finishing his business with the three unwed bridegrooms, he ignored the healer and started across the street for the saloon. His haven. Nathan's voice followed him, "No one should barter with another person's destiny."
When the con man didn't respond or even turn to look at him, Jackson shrugged and continued on to the clinic. He had two range riders waiting for him, both had had unhappy encounters with some cactus. Maybe some day Ezra would finally figure out he didn't always need to be after the main chance.
JD Dunne stood by, the reins to his ride in his fist. He watched the one-sided exchanges and shook his head. The guys had a tendency to rag the gambler. Nathan's blunt honesty sometimes had a kill or cure quality to it, that Nathan didn't seem to realize. But, he thought, Josiah's little musical 'comment' was perhaps even more sharply felt. JD couldn't understand. Seemed like a nice thing to do - get those ladies some husbands. He wasn't sure where the harm was in that but he knew he wasn't going to ask Nate or Josiah about it 'cause they'd be sure to tell him in much too much detail. He waved at Chris Larabee who was settling in a chair in front of the jail, then mounted his horse and headed out down the other end of town on patrol.
Chris Larabee leaned back in his chair and contemplated this latest little squall among his men. Buck's comment had surprised him, amused him in a way, but still, surprised him. Buck usually was more sensitive to the rest. That had been an unkind remark. Mebbe he'd check on the gambler later, especially since Josiah and Nate had both tossed a bit more shit on the man's head. 'Course, Chris knew that Josiah was just seeing the funny side of things and throwing out a tease. And Nathan? Well, he was a straight shooter, but could be a bit pompous when he had some strong feelings. Chris lit a thin cigar he'd tugged from his shirt pocket and looked out across the street at the now still doors of the saloon. He could picture Ezra inside, sittin' down at his regular table, starting a game of solitaire. He'd be fine. And if he wasn't, hell, they'd probably never know. Chris sighed and pulled in lungful of harsh smoke. Damn con man. He made for a slickery friend. Yep, he'd check on him in a bit.
"Little rough on him there, weren't you, Bucklin?" Vin's dry tone brought Buck out of his dark thoughts. Just what he'd been thinking? Damn fool mouth of his had a tendency to blab out just any ole thing without his brain engaging.
"Yeah, figure you're right, Vin." He sighed and slouched in the saddle, riding comfortably along side the tracker. "Guess I'll be apologizing to Ez when we get back."
Vin nodded. Buck did joke around some but he had a kind heart. He'd fix it when they got back, no fear.
Once through the swinging doors of the saloon, Ezra headed directly for the bar, nodding to Keith, he leaned over and pulled up his regular bottle. Accepting a glass from the barkeeper, he poured and downed a shot of the whiskey before refilling the glass and sipping more slowly from the second one. He handed his bottle back to Keith and walked quietly over to his regular table, his deck of cards emerging in his hand with his normal smoothness. Solitaire seemed like the perfect recreation at the moment. Suited his mood. Solitary.
Things returned to normal in Four Corners, or, as normal as things ever got in the rough frontier edge town. Rowdy cowpokes periodically tried to ride inside the saloon on their mounts, rustlers kept the ranchers complaining, a stagecoach robbery two towns away had the telegraph lines humming, and drifters kept the seven peacekeepers alert to possible trouble. Aside from drunk and disorderly charges, though, the jail had no customers. Which suited everyone just fine. Chris finally rode out to his shack, saying he'd be gone a few days. Soon after, Vin got a telegram from the soldiers up at Fort Laramie, they wanted his help with tracking a herd of mustangs for remounts. He left in the company of Nathan and Josiah who decided on a visit to the Seminole village and would ride part way with Vin. That left JD, Ezra and Buck to watch the town but all agreed that that should be plenty, and Chris' shack and the Indian village were less than a day's ride away if help was needed.
Buck and Ezra acted quite normally around each other, at least on the face of it. JD, though, had caught them each giving the other some really weird stares when they thought themselves unobserved. Thing was, when JD didn't want to be noticed, all he had to do was shut up and no one seemed to realize he was anywhere around. Lately, it was almost like a game, watching his two friends watch each other. Both seemed mighty nervous about something. If one of the others were still in town, he might have asked them about it, but he wasn't too sure it would be a good idea to ask the gambler or the rogue. Either one of them, who usually treated him well, might just do something really strange, least that's what those looks made JD think. He figured as long as it was only looks and not lead that they were throwing at each other, he'd leave'em to it.
Buck hadn't seen anyone out behind the dry goods store when he slipped back there with Ms. Annabelle Jenkins. She was sure a giggling armful of petticoats and fluff. And, she really wanted it, too. To dally with the Seven's ladies' man. Not that anything serious would come of it, but Buck did love the feel of soft, smooth skin, the scent of fresh linen and a faint trace of some floral fragrance. Now she smelled of roses, not lavender, but that was still fine. He refused to think where THAT thought had come from. The delicate lines of her throat and her eager hands more than made up for the fact that they'd never do more than pet and kiss.
Neither of them could have been more surprised when, in mid-playful-wrestle, someone, and not one of them, cleared his throat noisily. Ms. Annabelle didn't wait to find out who, her father was in town with the wagon and if he knew she was actin' loose and all... well it just wouldn't do. Buck slowly slid down the shingled wall, broad shoulders back to brace himself as he let his feet push through the dirt, until he was sitting there, legs straight out and hat squashed back on his head, looking up at the intruder, sounds of Ms. Annabelle's sudden flight echoing in his mind. With a deep, resigned sigh, he asked, "Why? Why here and why now?"
"Mr. Wilmington, I might ask the same of you…" Ezra purposefully kept the tone light, even drunk, he knew better than to let down his shields.
Grabbing his hat off in frustration, Buck slapped the ground beside him and stared down at his booted feet, tips pointing to the narrow bit of sky between the store and the saloon. "Ezra... oh, don't matter." His voice, that had started off angry ended in a tone of resignation. It was gettin' harder and harder to ignore his uncomfortable new feelings for the gambler. Tryin' to work up an interest in some gal was just not gonna solve his problem, especially if his real interest kept showin' up unexpectedly like this.
"No doubt the virtue of the lovely young Ms. Jenkins was quite safe with you, but-" Ezra doggedly disregarded his heart's ache.
Before the gambler could continue from his perch on one of several empty wooden crates behind the saloon, the ladies man interrupted him. "Of course, her virtue was safe with me! I would never, never have…" at this point, words failed him and he leaned back, eyes closed and mouth drooping. He shrugged and relaxed. "So, tell me, Ez, what brings you to the back of this here alley?"
"Um, just takin' a moment of private m- m- meditation, my friend."
There was something, Buck didn't know, maybe nervous, about the tone of Standish's voice. Well, 'course, he HAD interrupted them. Maybe he was simply repentant. Ezra? Repentant? No, those two thoughts didn't seem to keep company well.
Buck blinked open his eyes and stared at the man seated across and above him. The gambler was in his shirtsleeves, his derringer harness still strapped to his right arm. No sign of his jacket however, or his hat for that matter. His hands were full. One held a nearly empty bottle of what had to be the saloon's worst rotgut, the other a shot glass, which was nearly full though tipped so far to one side that it was in serious danger of losing some of its contents.
Buck sat up a bit straighter. "What's wrong, Ez?" The answer to that question was much more important to Buck than Ms. Annabelle's feelings.
"Nothing, mah dear sir, nothing at all. Just a moment of…" Here Standish stopped to refresh himself with a sip from the glass. His hand was trembling ever so slightly. He swallowed, making a face and giving his head a slight jerk and toss in reaction to the harsh liquor. "Just a moment of... refect... reflesh... thought." He nodded seriously, which was a mistake because the forward tipping of his head lost him his precarious balance on the stack of crates and he toppled artlessly forward.
Buck shot to his feet, arms out. He dove forward and caught the tumbling gambler just as he was about to land face first in the dirt. "Whooeee, Ez, you're full of 'thoughts - or somethin,' for sure.'" Buck staggered to his feet, kicking aside the bottle that was leaking into the alley beside them. He looked down at the semi-conscious man in his arms and shook his head. "Pard, I got a gut feelin' that there's somethin' serious wrong. This ain't like you, a-tall." Buck frowned. "And," he continued softly, "Ah got a real good idea what it might be." Something had happened between the two of them. Neither was admitting it, but Buck watched the gambler now, almost possessively, and Ezra had been watching him, slick as he was, Buck knew it, instinctively. The tall lawman grimaced. He was just as confused as Ez evidently. Each of them trying to lose the feeling in his own way, he with the ladies, Ez with drink.
With his usual loose-limbed grace, Buck Wilmington picked his way through the littered backstreet to its far end. There, at the back of the building, outside stairs led to the upper story of the saloon. Carefully holding the smaller man to one side, he made his way up the stairs watching where he put his booted feet. Wouldn't do to drop the conman, since he'd just saved him from a bruise or three. 'This getting' ta be a habit, Ez?' he asked silently, holding the small man close against his chest. Sure did feel right, him there in Buck's arms.
Upstairs, he had no trouble getting Ezra's room door open, it already stood ajar. Once inside, he spotted the abandoned red jacket and black hat on the rocker by the window. There was an empty bottle of the same hard liquor on the floor there. He sighed and dropped his friend onto the big bed. Ezra bounced bonelessly, arms flung out, one leg ending up half off the bed.
"All right, pard, let's get you ta' bed, you're gonna need to sleep this off for a bit." Buck worked at the derringer rig, plucking the buckles loose and unstrapping it from the gambler's arm. He looked around and settled for putting the rig and gun on top of the big bureau. From there he picked up Ezra's Remington and placed it within easy reach of the con man on his bedside table. You never left a man unarmed out here, wasn't done.
Standing at the foot of the bed, Buck studied the unconscious man in the bed. Tousled chestnut hair hung over his forehead and deep shadows circled his eyes. There was a certain concavity to the skin under the cheekbones, made him think Ezra might have been losing some weight again. Man seemed to shrink on them periodically, like his depressions that would dim his light every once in a while. Two went hand in hand. That meant Ezra had been in a depression for a spell to be showing weight loss. Is this my fault, pard? Funny, Buck hadn't noticed mood or weight loss and he'd been keepin' an eye on the southerner, ever since Wickes' Town. Not sure why, just knew he needed to. 'Course ole Ez, he could hide things better'n a dog with a bone, but still. Buck dismissed his wandering thoughts, trying to decide what to do.
Not a good idea to leave the man in this condition. Not like this. With another deep sigh of resignation, Buck sat down on the bed beside his friend, lifting the errant leg up to lay it by it's companion. For a moment, he simply rested his hand on the man's stomach. Felt the warmth of the man beneath it. Buck felt some urges that he repressed along with a soundless growl. Useless feelings! This is a man here, dammit. Ez'd have his head on a platter, iffn he knew what Buck was wantin.' Buck twisted slightly so he could fully face Ezra and began undoing the still neatly done up vest.
By the time Buck had the vest and shirt open and was working on the belt buckle, Ezra started to come around. With a soft snort and grunt, the gambler tried to sit up, one hand on his head. "Jest lie back down there, pard." Buck pressed firmly on the bared chest, trying not to think about the smooth warm skin beneath his hand.
Ezra subsided onto the bedding and looked warily up at the tall lawman. "Buck?" He licked his lips nervously. "You still here?"
"Ain't been here all that long, pard, just tryin' to make you a bit more comfortable afore I leave. 'Pears you been drinkin' some."
Buck waited. When nothing more was forthcoming, he looked down and started again to work at the belt. He'd already removed the gun belt and was trying to loosen Ezra's trousers. He concentrated on the action of his fingers, not letting himself think about what he was doing. Or what lay beneath.
"Mah good man, this is unnecessary. Truly. Ah can manage." Erza gulped and blushed, though Buck was staring down at his waistband and didn't notice, which Ezra was grateful for. He wanted to break free from this touch, couldn't move. Oh, god, this was simply too much on top of his body's unwell signals. Ezra lost his fresh color as a wave of nausea swept over him.
Buck stole a look upwards to see Ezra's face going very pale and his wonderful green eyes close. He leaned forward over the gambler to look more closely at the nearly white face. "Ez? You want to tell me what's wrong?"
Buck's warm moist breath on his face was nearly Ezra's undoing. He swallowed and frowned. There was nothing he could say. How did you tell your associate that you had been having unnatural dreams about him? Ever since Wickes' Town, Ezra had been plagued by the most unusual dreams. Dreams of Buck Wilmington, in his bed, in his bedroll, riding on Chaucer's back holding him close, their pelvises in perfect sync as they rocked on the gelding's saddle. Dreams of... at this point, Ezra wisely decided to stop thinking about those strange dreams. He swallowed again.
He could still feel Buck's breath whispering across his cheek. How damn close was the man anyway? He opened his eyes to find two deep dark blue ones only inches from his. The warm speaking eyes burned with something that Ezra simply refused to identify. He watched the corners of the eyes crinkle up. Buck must be smiling. But he was so close, Ezra could only see his eyes. Kind, caring, concerned eyes. If there was something else there, anything deviant from a friend's normal attention, Ezra couldn't read it. He closed his own eyes again. Better not to look.
Buck waited. Ezra was in there but not answerin' the door. Maybe? Buck knew what he wanted to do and might be that now was the time and place. He smiled tentatively and lowered himself down slowly on top of the collapsed form. As his body weight increased pressure on the smaller man, Ezra's eyes popped back open and stared into his, looking panicked now. "Mr. Wilmington, what are you doin,' sir?"
The big brunette didn't answer right away, he was studying the con man's lips. Never noticed how sweet the curve o'them wuz before this, he thought. Wonder how they'd taste? With the smoothness that had made life a rich sensual stew for the former Texas Ranger, Buck licked his own lips and then place them, wet and warm, over Ezra's. Ezra drew in a quick breath in surprise, pulling Buck's breath in with it. Buck just naturally let his tongue follow the draft on in to Ezra's mouth where he rubbed the back of Ezra's teeth with it. He'd been crawling up Ezra's body now all during the prolonged kiss, finally planting his elbows beside the gambler's ears. Cradling Ezra's head in his curled over arms, Buck deepened the kiss still more, lost in the tactile sensations, the wafting aroma of hard liquor mingling with the light scent of lavender and only adding to his enjoyment.
Ezra lay trapped beneath Wilmington's big body, unable to move. His head was spinning from all the redeye he'd chosen to imbibe. A choice for deliverance from the recurring fantasies that were no longer staying in his nighttime dreams but now invading his daytime musings, distressingly so. Buck was invading his mouth, covering his head with those long, limber arms and wonderfully big hands. The mustache scratched but only added to the sensations of complete surrender. Wavering between total panic and alcoholic oblivion, Ezra was finding breathing impossible due to Buck's current activity. If this wasn't enough, in the process of rubbing his body up the gambler's, Buck's gun belt, complete with a row of hard, bumpy cartridges, had reached the level of Ezra's lower abdomen and as Buck's kiss grew more aggressive, his hips began to grind as well, forcing the metal casings uncomfortably deep into Ezra's stomach.
Buck felt Ezra moan under him, only, it wasn't like the moans his women made, this one seemed almost painful. He hesitated and pulled back enough to look down into a face of pure misery. Ezra looked thoroughly upset, unhappy enough to be grimacing, his eyes watering, and his face... well, no two ways about it, his face was definitely turning green. Hurt that his advances were producing such a poor affect, Buck placed a hand on one side of Ezra's face and tried to make eye contact. "Ez, what? That weren't that bad, wuz it? Ez?"
At this point, even though he'd finally gotten some air, the pressure on his stomach full of redeye was too much. Ezra gave a kind of mumbling bubbly groan and with near desperation strength, heaved Buck up away from him enough to twist his head to one side and hang it over the edge of the bed. Where he proceeded to empty his stomach, repeatedly and wretchedly.
Recovering from the shock of Ezra's sudden sickness, Buck sprang into action. 'Course none of his ladies had ever, ever reacted this way ta one of his kisses, but Ezra wuzn't one of his ladies. And he had drunk nearly two whole bottles of hooch. He rolled free of his friend and then helped drag his head and shoulders further out over the floor, supporting him with his arms. When Ezra finally came to a choking, coughing halt, Buck shook his head woefully over the mess and settled the con man on to his back, using his neckerchief to wipe the man's mouth and chin clear.
"Jest stay put, Ez, I'll git you cleaned up in no time." He patted one pale cheek and headed for the washbasin and pitcher on their own stand by the bureau. He found some handkerchiefs in the top drawer of the bureau that he brought, together with the basin, back to the bed. By the time he got there, Ezra was sound asleep. "Aw, Ez." Buck shook his head again. Fondly, he wiped his friend's face clean, even forcing the lips back to clear the mouth a bit, then dripped a small amount of fresh water in. He watched Ezra's throat convulse then swallow the moisture, easing the burn he knew was there, even if his friend wasn't awake to know.
Peering over the side of the bed, the lawman decided he'd best clean the floor too. Regretfully tucking the gambler into his feather bed, Buck headed for the door. Need something bigger than a handkerchief to clean that lot up with.
Trudging up and down the stairs, dealing with the mess, thinking about the kiss, Buck came to a not really surprising conclusion about his recently acquired secret desire. Yeah, he wanted Ezra Standish alright, the same way he usually wanted some woman, some lady. And more. He wanted the conman with a fierceness that belied his usual yearnings for a new conquest. His dalliance with the rancher's daughter had been in the nature of a final defense of his way of life, but now he knew what he wanted. He wanted Ezra. Had wanted him for a while now, admitting the truth to himself. Like a damn bursting, he felt himself awash in hot need. He wanted to see Ezra naked, he wanted to touch him all over, snuggle down in bed with him, he wanted to undress the fastidious man and bath him, wash his hair and even shave him. He wanted to feed him, delivering the morsels of food to that lush mouth, one bite at a time, maybe even using his own lips as the delivery system. By this time, Buck had a painful hard-on and no hope of rousing the deeply sleeping gambler. Since he'd never had these feelings for another man before, it gave Buck pause. And not just any man, one of his fellow lawmen, one of his friends. And Ezra? Wonder what he wants? And, could he ever want me?
He stood in Ezra's open doorway, wiping his hands on a final damp towel from the pile he'd gotten from Keith. He tipped his head to the side to better observe the sleeping man in the deep four-poster bed. The loose chestnut curls that were normally brushed back, now tangled and drooped over the smooth, young face. Ezra really isn't very old, Buck decided, he jest acts that way. Figure he's already packed a lot of living into his short life. Wiping his face now, two-handed with the cloth, Buck slouched, resting his butt on the doorframe, bracing one straight arm across the doorway.
With a yelp of surprise, Wilmington let go of the door and fell to the floor with a thump. JD's unexpected shout in his ear nearly cost him his own life, his heart pounding at double speed as adrenaline kicked in.
"Oh, gee, Buck, are you alright? What's wrong with Ezra? Did you do something to him? I looked all over town for you two! There's some new men just rode in, I don't like their looks. Can you come? Should we -"
Buck closed his eyes and sat there, stunned, for a moment. Thank god the boy didn't show up a while back, when I was busy going mouth ta mouth with ol'Ez. Jerking his head back and grabbing hold of JD's belt buckle, Buck yanked hard. That had JD down on the floor with him. He changed his grasp to JD's collar and jerked the kid close to his own face. "Shut up. Jest shut up." When the boy snapped his mouth shut, Buck continued, "Ezra got drunk and then got pukin' sick. I put him ta bed and been cleaning up the mess. He jest needs ta sleep it off. Now, what's this 'bout some men?"
That started JD all over again, which was fine with Buck who used the boy as a ladder to climb up to his feet. He then pulled the kid up beside him and with a final intense look at the sleeping gambler, closed the door quietly, taking JD with him.
Ezra woke in the morning feeling ghastly. His heat throbbed unmercifully, his throat was dry and scratchy and his teeth felt like they were wearing furry little suits. A hangover. Oh, lord. Vague recollections of another fantasy, so real that it was terrifying, stirred in his waking mind. Buck kissing him, damn near swallowing his tongue. Buck lying atop him, rubbing against him, stroking his head, his face, mustache scratching and bristling against the skin below his nose. Ezra bolted up right in the bed and with shaking hands touched his face. Nothing. He groaned and collapsed back on to his pillows, the room spinning merrily around him and sliding sideways as well. So much for plan A. Drinking was not going to stop the fantasies. It appeared that, if anything, it only enhanced them. He was going to need a plan B. And something to drink. To take the edge off this god-awful aftermath to his evening's indulgence. He reached for the extra flask he kept in the drawer of the bedside stand and stared bleakly at the drawn curtains of his front window. Another miserable day.
Buck smiled at Ms. Sally, one of the saloon's working girls who doubled as waitress in the morning hours, as she delivered his pot of coffee and a plate of eggs and bacon. "JD, a man's stomach is the measure of his health. Now, take mine, I could down twice this much and just feel a mite peckish agin by lunchtime."
"Aw, Buck, you're talking through your hat!" The young sheriff shrugged him off, digging into his own similar plate. Through a mouthful of egg, he mumbled, "You think those boys from last night gonna cause any more trouble?"
"JD," Buck leaned over the table, drawing out the name with a tone of exasperation, "We whupped the tar outta them fellers, they were headed for the hills with no thought to anything but makin' tracks."
Dunne shrugged reluctantly, "Suppose so, only they sure were angry…"
"Don't matter none, iffn they want their butts whupped again, we can sure accommodate them." Buck sat back, loose-limbed and comfortable in his chair, taking a long swallow of the hot coffee.
"Well, you want first or second watch at the jail? I figure Ezra's gonna be sleepin' in and sleepin' it off," JD smiled secretively at this, ducking down over his breakfast plate to watch from beneath his brows for Buck's reaction. He wasn't disappointed.
Wilmington's careless pose ended abruptly as he craned his neck to look back up the stairs toward the second floor of the saloon, as if he expected to see Standish appear just then. A frown settled on his good-natured face and Buck took another long drink from his mug. "Yeah, he's gonna need to sleep for a spell. Tell you what," Buck sat up, face clearing a bit, "I'll take first watch." Gonna want ta be around when Ez finally gets ready to show hiz face down here.
Ezra cautiously walked down the short hall to the balcony and head of the stairs down to the large saloon below. He stood there for a moment, taking in the sight of JD and Buck sitting at one table eating breakfast. JD must have heard something for at that moment he looked up and met Ezra's eyes, and grinned. "Hey, Ez! How you doin'?"
Ezra ducked his head and then looked back up with a small smile on his face. "Quite well, young Mr. Dunne, for such an ungodly hour in the morning."
With a sly smile at his seated, silent friend, JD continued, "Ya want some breakfast? Before Buck goes on watch over at the jail?"
Ezra, now half-way down the stairs, shuddered politely. "Thank you, no, coffee with a little enhancement from the bar will be all that I care to partake of at this time."
Buck watched in fascination as the con man walked so easily, gracefully, down the stairs. He hadn't ever really paid attention before to how the man moved. Like to move with him, even dance with him, something slow, so we could be real close. Lost in thoughts of such pleasure, Buck still hadn't said a word. He thought of last night's kiss and burned anew for the slow moving man. The conversation between JD and Ezra, such as it was, played out in the background of this consciousness. A sudden flick of awareness, he sat up straight, nearly dropping his coffee mug. SHIT. I jest told JD I'd take first watch!
JD waited. He'd seen the look on Buck's face when Ezra appeared and then the dreamy look that blanked his eyes, like some moonstruck schoolgirl. Now, he could see that Buck had finally started paying attention to what he and Ez were sayin'. He knew that Buck was payin' attention from the way the man sat up with a look of clear dismay on his mobile face. Buck just realized he had to leave. JD smirked, making sure to hide his smile behind his raised coffee mug.
Ezra walked over to the bar. Even as hung over as he was, he could detect the strange atmosphere in the bar, the other two men seemed to be bursting with unspoken words. JD seemed to be playing a game with an artlessly dropped hint, so unlike him that Ezra's antenna went up to alert, even as his foggy brain tried to fight free of the painful lassitude of the hangover. Coffee. Once he'd drunk some, with a little touch of medicinal whiskey to strengthen his wits, he would deal with young Dunne. And Wilmington? Ezra winced, glad he was now facing the bar and that the two men were seated at the wrong angle to see his face in the bar's mirror. That kiss last night in his alcohol induced fantasy, that kiss had been so real. He licked his lower lip in remembrance and then bit it lightly. Snap out of it Standish! You can't afford to indulge in such fantasies and still stay a member of this group. The men would throw him out without further thought if they knew. Buck would probably kill him. Ezra took the mug he'd half-filled with coffee and reached over the bar to his bottle of morning whiskey, which worked in perfect harmony with coffee. Then, with a cup full to the brim, he squared his shoulders and cleared his face, turning with a pleasant, non-committal look, to rejoin the other two at their table.
Buck flung a look of pure irritation at JD. The kid knew what was going on he realized with chagrin. Damn kid has more savvy than any of them gave him credit for. And now he was playin' ole Buck, making' him squirm. He tossed a look of appeal to his younger friend and then a quick speaking look toward the gambler's still turned back. JD flashed a grin of pure impudence but must have relented because when he spoke again, Buck felt relief pour through his veins.
"'s'okay, Buck, I feel like stretching and getting some sun anyway, I'll go ahead and take the first watch." Standing just as Ezra was carefully making his way to the table, coffee cup balanced so as not to slosh, JD grabbed his plate and headed for the bar, past the arriving con man. "See ya, Ez. Buck, don't forget to relieve me 'bout noon?"
"Sure, kid." Neither JD nor Buck missed the gratitude in the rangy lawman's response. Ezra just looked between them in faint confusion as he joined Wilmington at the table.
The other two men watched Dunne hasten out of the saloon, already adjusting his gun belt with its twin gun holsters with one hand, the other on his bowler. The boy never seemed to just walk anywhere when getting there a bit faster was possible. Buck took a large swallow of his coffee, eyeing Ezra over the edge of the mug.
Ezra slowly dragged a chair back from the table, his small signs of discomfort nearly hidden. But Buck had been watching the man like a hawk for nearly two weeks now. He could tell from the way Ezra moved with a tiny bit slower, more precise action, that he was in pain. Probably got a king-sized hangover, Buck thought with sympathy. That was one hell of a bout he had last night. "Hey, Ez, you need some of Nate's willow bark tea?" He spoke softly, concern and affection coloring his tone.
Ezra, who by now was carefully easing himself down into the chair, abruptly dropped the rest of the way in surprise at Buck's question. Surprised at both what was asked and the tone of voice that was doing the asking. What is happening here? He flicked a nervous glance at Wilmington. Man is looking at me with those great big midnight blue eyes of his. One could get lost in those night sky eyes. In fact, Ezra realized he nearly had… he had not answered the other man's query, and Buck was starting to look even more concerned. This would not do at all.
"I shall be fine, Mr. Wilmington, once I have finished imbibing this restorative." He sipped at his laced coffee, careful not to look back up into those mesmerizing eyes.
Buck relaxed. He was all right. Just hungover and getting a bit of the dog that bit him. The tall brunette leaned back in his chair, stretching out his long legs beneath the table and rolling his shoulders. Letting his boots come to rest against Ezra's on the floor, he smiled happily and hunched forward his upper body. With elbows now resting on the table, he held the coffee mug in front of his lips and licked the rim with delicately sensual intent, never letting his eyes leave the other man's face.
Ezra, who'd been stunned into immobility by the touch of Buck's boots to his own, glanced up with trepidation. What he found nearly had him jumping out of his seat and running. Buck was using his tongue on the edge of his mug. Ezra gulped some hot coffee, unable to peel his eyes away from Buck's tongue. He was no longer certain he was really awake, or, if awake, if he was really seeing what was happening in front of him. This fit more into his fantasies than into life in Four Corners. "Um, Buck?" Gone was all pretense at "mister."
Buck pulled the mug back slightly, then like some rakish tomcat, licked his lips and the ends of his mustache where it dropped down over the corners of his mouth. "Yeah, Ez?"
"Last night…" No, no, he couldn't ask about that. It was definitely part of his dreaming.
"Hoped you'd remember that."
Remember? Oh, my god, it really HAD happened then? Or, was Buck referring to something else? "I'm not sure I recall exactly what…" here Ezra hesitated, uncertain what to say.
Buck leaned forward and spoke with intense fervor. "I never, Ez, never done kissed a man before. But with you, it sure felt right."
Oh. Oh my. Oh my god. So it HAD happened. He hadn't dreamt it. Ezra shut his eyes and his body began to shake in reaction. Fear burnt through him. Chris will kill me. He'll kick me out of town, drive me away, and THEN he'll kill me. Then he'll kill Buck. At that last thought, Ezra went into a fast decline into pure panic. Shooting to his feet, mug splashily abandoned on the tabletop, he faced down the man across from him. "I do NOT know what you are talking about. And, if I did, well then, I would be working very hard to forget I ever knew it. AND, Mr. Wilmington, I strongly suggest that you do the same!" With that said, all in a clear and passionless voice, Ezra raised his chin in defiance and lifted hat to head. "Good day to you, sir." And he left.
Buck sat watching Ezra go, his mouth hung open in stunned disappointment. Dang. That didn't go over too well. He closed his mouth and ran a hand over his face, sheer frustrated affection for the man warred with a hunger that was growing more profound with each passing moment. He didn't just want a dalliance with the petite gambler, he realized, he wanted much more. He wanted to see those green eyes glow for only him. He wanted the man to want him back. Didn't look like that was gonna happen this morning. Buck's shoulders sagged as he sat back, cradling the coffee mug. He thought back to the War. Need me a strategy to win my friend Ez over. He wants it, I could see that in his eyes when he first sat down. Now all I gotta do is convince him that it's all right to want it and we kin go from there. Baffled how he'd create this strategy to win someone so very different from his female companions of the past - and it was the past now, he realized with fatalistic certainty - he decided he needed help. He needed a strategist. Trouble was, the best one he knew was named Ezra Standish. Well, he thought, considering that from different angles, maybe he should go to his expert for advice. With a grin, he picked up the coffee mug and took a long sip with satisfaction. Oh, yeah.
While Buck and Ezra had been talking in the saloon, JD was striding over toward the jail, his steps leaving puffs of dust in the dry street. He mulled over the way Buck was taking a shine to Ezra. And, he could swear that Ez was lookin' at Buck different too. JD wasn't jealous. He loved Buck as a big brother, friend, even confidant, but he did not feel for him what he suspected Ezra now felt for him. Funny. They hadn't used to be that way around each other. Only since... since Wickes' Town. A sudden feeling of enlightenment clarified his puzzled thoughts. When Ezra Standish put on a dress. And Buck had rescued him, brought him back riding double in the saddle. With a new understanding, JD nearly choked on his recollection of Josiah's comment. No doubt he'd meant it humorously when he'd said they made a 'lovely couple.' With a shrug, the young man lengthened his stride and dropped that line of thought. Wuz their business, not his.
Busy with his thoughts, JD didn't notice the two men leading their horses down the main street toward him. Both men were scowling. Rusty Hayes and Ben Stinson were coming back into town, with strict instructions from their boss, to stay out of trouble and to spend time studying the town bank. Their boss, Frank Fontaine, had a large gang of rough riding men, whom he had led in a series of daring and successful raids across Texas and now into the Territories. Fontaine's secret contacts had let him know that the Four Corners' bank, the First Federal, would be housing money destined for a mining town on down the trail. The money was due to arrive within the next few days by armed guard from Fort Laramie. Soldiers were lending their protection as far as Four Corners.
Hayes and Stinson had actually arrived the night before, but had a run in with a kid and some damn interfering cowpoke. There'd been a brawl and Hayes and Stinson had ended up riding back out of town, sporting more bruises than their opponents, and vowing vengeance. Now, thoroughly berated by Fontaine who threatened to kill them if they returned empty-handed again, they were stolidly plodding down the main street. Both stopped in surprise at the sight of the kid from the night before. There was no sign of the big cowboy, though. The kid didn't look too fierce all alone and in the daylight.
Before either could stop the other, without any thought to Fontaine's instructions, the two men drew their weapons and aimed at the still unaware kid. "Hey, you! Kid!" Hayes yelled, not having it in him to gun a man down without warning.
Stinson grinned at the young kid, soon to be a dead kid. He cocked his gun and deliberately aimed at the kid's chest.
JD looked up and into death. Aiming at him out of the mouths of two large pistols. Even as he went for his gun, he heard Ezra's shout. "JD, get down!"
Stinson swiveled to face this new threat, shooting as his gun came to bear. Hayes let off a round at the kid. The sounds of their shots blended with the answering fire from the kid and the fancy-dressed gambler, who'd just stepped out of the saloon.
Chris Larabee rode back into Four Corners after spending a few nights at his cabin. He could have stayed longer but found himself missing the other men's company. Now that was something he'd never thought he'd be feeling. Watching the trail ahead, he saw the two men, strangers, slowly walking down the center of the main street, leading their horses. He could make out JD walking diagonally across the street, looked like he was heading for the jail, probably just finished breakfast in the saloon. He saw a flash of red, that was Ezra pushing open the doors of the saloon. Wonder what has him up so early in the morning?
He witnessed the two men stop abruptly and draw their guns. For no discernable reason, both were drawing down on JD. Too far to hear anything that might have been said up 'til then, he did hear Ezra's shouted warning. Drawing his own gun, Larabee kicked his black gelding into a gallop. Four shots went off almost simultaneously. Shit! Yelling, "NO!" angrily, Chris shot as he rode and winged the stranger still standing, the other had fallen to either JD or Standish, no way to know yet. Chris' target spun and fell into the dust, holding his arm with one hand, his wounded arm tight over his gut. Someone else must have plugged him too.
With both men down, Chris dragged his reins, pulling his horse to a sliding halt. He threw himself off and half-ran, half-stumbled to the downed strangers. One was dead, bullet between the eyes. That had to have been the gambler's shot. The other looked back at him with scared eyes. Behind him, he could hear Buck swearing loudly, calling for Mrs. Potter. Chris kicked away the man's guns and his dead partner's, then stood and looked over at where Buck knelt on one knee, hunched over Standish. He swung his glance aside to see JD walking towards him, clutching at his shoulder. "JD, you okay?"
The kid nodded even though his bloody hand was mute testimony to a bullet's passage through his shoulder. He swayed slightly, then found his footing with a frown. Chris let him stand as long as he was able, got to give a man his pride. "What happened?"
JD looked down at their opponents. He nudged the dead one with one foot. "They musta come back looking for Buck and me. We run them outta town last night. They'd been acting up in the saloon, then tried to take us on when we told them to leave."
Chris nodded. Not a new story. Heard it before, lived it before. He turned toward the saloon porch. "Buck? How's Ezra?" He and JD both walked over.
Buck looked up, his gaze going apologetically to JD. He was pressing fiercely at a seeping wound in Standish's side. Ignoring Chris' question, he asked, "You all right, JD?"
Dunne could hear the guilt in his friend's voice. "I'm fine, Buck, just winged me. It was them two men from last night." He stood peering down at the gambler. "How about Ezra?"
"Got a graze on his side. Bleeding, but don't look too bad." Buck's terror at the sound of Ezra's shout followed so quickly by gunfire was still numbing. He saw that the con man should be fine, just as he could see that JD's wound was minor as well. He could have lost them both. A perfectly ordinary morning. And he could have lost them both. He had been strides too late to interfere, to stop it, to protect either of his friends. He pressed down even more firmly.
Ezra lay silent, staring up at Buck's so readable face. The look convinced him as no words could. Buck loved him. More, even, than he did JD. It shook the gambler to his very core. His dreams of sexual pleasure gave way to something far more complex and infinitely more intense. The pain from his gunshot was still minimal, his body's shock keeping the full impact at bay. He tried to slide out from under Buck's hands, but the man had him pinned to the boards, like some botanical specimen.
Chris stood, now bracing a swaying JD with one stiff arm, and saw with relief that Mrs. Potter had heard Buck's cry and was hurrying towards them. Must be Nathan is out of town. Gloria Potter stepped over to the kid first, her maternal instincts kicking in. She got JD to show her his wound. She nodded and Chris heard her tell the boy to go up to Nathan's clinic and she'd be there in a moment. Then she turned toward the small tableau on the porch of the saloon.
"Mr. Wilmington? May I take a look?" She gently touched the tall man's shoulder where he knelt over Standish's body.
Buck's white face burned up at her, his eyes like liquid coals. "I don't think it's too bad, ma'am." Buck released his hold and Ezra immediately started struggling to sit up. "Whoa, pard, you jest stay put." Buck's restraining hand forced the con man to subside with a muttered oath, then an apologetic look at Gloria Potter.
She had ignored the by-play between the two men, competently lifting free the handkerchief that Buck had pressed on Ezra's bleeding wound. "It looks as if it just scraped his rib, not too deep in the flesh at all." Her quiet assurance was enough to get Buck up and reaching down to bring Ezra to his feet. Ezra was studying Buck's face with wonderment, ignoring both Chris and Mrs. Potter.
"Buck?" It came out a soft whisper. Ezra felt as if his world had been shaken and he was no longer sure of anything. The caring in Buck's expression was so speaking that Ezra warmed all over. He wanted only to have time to talk with Buck, discover what it was that had changed them because he knew that he, too, was different. What has happened to us? Ezra wondered, why do I feel so lost?
Buck looked up at Chris uncomfortably, then over at Gloria Potter. They seemed to be staring at him, seeing straight through him. He shook off the sense of exposure and forced himself to back off from his feelings. Now was not the time, and not in front of others. He'd need private time with Ezra to talk but that couldn't happen now. He braced Ezra with a firm hand to his arm, and muttered. "Easy does it, pard. Let's get you up with JD, so Mrs. P. can put in a few stitches."
Ezra stared up into the dark blue gaze, his own green eyes now looking totally confused. Now what had happened? Was Buck ashamed of his feelings, afraid to show his concern? When Buck resolutely faced toward the clinic, refusing to maintain eye contact, Ezra's look changed. From confusion to disappointment and finally an anger that he closed away, leaving only a bland face to the world. Why is he turning away from me now? Ezra felt betrayed. With a set expression, he moved as independently as he could within Buck's hold.
Gloria was walking fast, already catching up with JD Dunne and offering her shoulder in support as he approached the stairs to Nathan's clinic. She knew that shock could render him shaky on his feet. Buck Wilmington had Mr. Standish, so she helped Mr. Dunne.
Chris stared after his men. Something really strange going on between Buck and Ezra. He looked thoughtfully at the men as they climbed the stairs to the clinic. Then, deciding to ask Buck later, he walked back to the wounded criminal still laying, only semi-conscious, on the dirt ruts of the main street and helped the man to stand. Looked like both wounds were minor, one bullet, his, had gone through the muscle of an upper arm, the other had nipped at the saddle of muscle and fat just above a hip. He had to get him to the jail. Put some rough bandages on him, then find out what had been happening, where everyone else was. He wasn't sure that Mrs. Potter was up to helping his prisoner, too. Need to find out where the hell Nathan is. Chris impatiently escorted the man to the jail, casting returning glances over at the now silent clinic. This could be trouble for the seven. Need to talk to Buck.
Buck was resolutely NOT looking at Ezra as he helped the smaller man up the stairs of the clinic. All his wonderful ideas for getting Ezra to notice him, to respond to him, all of a sudden they seemed petty and small. He realized that he'd been acting toward the man like he was another conquest, like one of his lady friends. Sure, he wanted to make it last, maybe even forever, but he hadn't really, really thought about what he was getting into - or what it might do to Ezra or any of his friends, most especially to JD.
When the sound of gunfire had propelled him out of the saloon, his heart in this throat, his first, no, his ONLY thought had been of Ezra. His little brother and special friend, JD, had been a slow after-thought. What kind of a man was he, anyway? Dumping his young friend in favor of a lover? And not really a lover even, for though he'd had the want and one kiss… he hadn't had a chance to make it really happen yet. And now, maybe he shouldn't. Look what it was doing to Ezra, who after all, was his friend first, his soon to be lover second. Buck could feel the stiffness in the man's posture, trying not to lean on him, even though he was hurting, bleeding.
Buck eyed Ezra's wound as he led this friend up the stairs, pressing hard at the seeping wound for a moment to see the bleeding slow again. Probably a bit dizzy, light-headed. He needs takin' care of. And JD? The kid had sensed what was happening between him and Ezra, was even teasing him about it in his own juvenile way. But that didn't mean he deserved to be ignored when he was hurt too. Shit. Buck, troubled and unhappy, helped Ezra up toward the clinic door, worrying about the fine tremor to the smaller man's body. Buck was torn, he loved his 'kid brother' JD and wanted, no needed to be with him. He peered anxiously ahead into the dark interior of the clinic. But Ezra was his friend and he was worried about him too. His friend? Hell, he'd been trying to get the man to see him as a lover only minutes ago. Now this. As they reached the landing, Buck stood tall and the gambler straightened away from him, stiffening. "Ez?"
Standish didn't answer, just trudged ahead. Buck grabbed on tight to Ezra's closest arm with one hand, his other arm insistently over the smaller man's shoulders. He cast a concerned look down at the gambler. Just want you to be alright, pard, he thought. That's all. We'll figure out the rest later. He started to speak, then looked up and realized they were at the open door of the clinic. Buck's glance shifted quickly back and forth from Ezra to where JD must be and back to Ezra. Ez seem'd to be fine, it was just a flesh wound. He pressed hard over the conman's hand, making sure there was a steady pressure.
Coming into the clinic with a silent Ezra in tow, Buck saw that Gloria Potter was cleaning JD's shoulder wound with some water and getting the kid to press the front of the wound while she cleaned the back. JD sat on the edge of the clinic's bed by the far wall. The tall lawman could see she'd need hot water, so he settled the quiet gambler on the neighboring cot, again making sure that Ezra had a hand over his wound and was maintaining pressure. JD or Ezra? Did he have to choose? Oh, god, Buck seemed to shrivel inside, his own painful guilt at ignoring Dunne and half-formed attachment for Standish causing him to reel in confusion. Buck still couldn't let himself meet Ezra's eyes, not ready to deal with all these heady emotions battling in his own system. Damn, I might say something wrong, and with Ez, onct you done that, you were a goner. So he turned to help Mrs. Potter, lighting a fire in the stove, moving the ever-present kettle over the flame. She nodded her appreciation to him, and then began to direct his efforts.
Ezra sat hunched over on the spare cot. He pressed at the wound across the side of his ribcage, his fingers still tingling from the touch of Buck's on top of them, guiding them to the wound site and pressing down. The blood was welling up at an almost alarming rate and his pants and vest-covered shirt were soaked. Yet, he hesitated to speak. Somehow, his life just didn't have that kind of importance to him, and clearly, not to Buck either. Buck had seen the wound, he must have felt the blood flowing thickly, even if it wasn't easy to see, a darker stain on black trousers and dark maroon vest. But Buck had turned away. Had left him. Was acting like Ezra wasn't even in the room. Ezra bent over a bit more, no longer caring about maintaining pressure. It really didn't matter anyway. Nothing did anymore. His momentary confusion, his strange dreams that seemed to be answered in life, none of it mattered anymore.
He wondered, with a dim, removed thought, if Buck had simply been playing some game, some prank. Swallowing with difficulty as his mouth began to dry, he closed his eyes to hide his drift of sadness at that rumination. It would, perhaps, be better if he simply wasn't here anymore. His life had been a long series of painful events and useless wanderings. What he'd thought he had here... what he had hoped he had here apparently wasn't real. He let his hand fall free of the wound. Time to go... let go. It would be best if he left and this would be the easiest way in the end. The easiest way to end it. Just let go. Mentally, he said goodbye to his almost-brothers, to his almost-lover. The seeping blood, warm and slick, ran unstaunched now between his consciously relaxed fingers, continued to thicken in his dark trousers, making them stiff and heavy, the flow now drenching the thin brown blanket and the cot, crawling steadily down his trouser leg and beginning to fill his boot. Cold. Ezra shook with a chill and his chin fell to his chest. Tired. Darkness came softly.
Buck stared at the water-filled kettle, willing it to boil, his mind now frozen and numb, too overwhelmed with unfamiliar emotions to cope. He was so focused on the gently rising steam that the room around him seemed to fade to darkness at the edges of his vision. He heard JD's weak cry and that brought him back to the present with a start.
JD bit back a curse as Mrs. Potter pushed a poultice of milk and pine tar, mashed with dried moss, into his wounds, both front and back. She paused to pat him on the other shoulder and murmur some motherly comfort. He was reassured, feeling as safe as when his mother used to take care of small childhood cuts, the caring as important as the medicine. Buck was there now, helping her wrap the shoulder with pads and then strips of long bandage to hold the pads and poultices in place. He looked up into Buck's worried eyes and smiled bravely. "I'm gonna be fine, Buck, ain't that right, ma'am?"
Gloria patted his shoulder yet again, reassuringly. "Oh, yes, Mr. Dunne, this will be right as rain in no time at all. We just need to change the poultice regularly and make sure you keep it clean." Mrs. Potter draped JD's jacket over his shoulders now and smiled at him.
Buck stood back up and cocked his head, smiling down at him as well. "Pard, I'm sorry I didn't get to you sooner…"
Something in the way he spoke spooked JD. That doesn't sound right. How come he looks so guilty? And where's Ez? JD blanched and cast a frantic look to the side, to where the silent gambler had been left. "Oh, god, Buck!"
JD knew why Buck had gone to Ezra first, and he hadn't resented it, not at all, but it looked like Buck was feeling guilty. His words, though, caused JD to realize no one had done anything about Ezra since they'd gotten into the clinic. One look was enough to nearly stop his heart. Their con man had evidently been seated on the edge of the other cot and now was toppled over to one side, a hunched bundle with feet still on the floor, one shoulder and head resting on the mattress. His eyes were closed and his blank face was a pasty white.
Buck stood perfectly still, only turning his head to see what had scared JD so badly. He felt frozen with fear. Mrs. Potter had sucked in a quick breath and was already moving rapidly to the small collapsed man. Shaking her head, she scooped up a handful of folded bandages as she reached Ezra's side. Then Buck was there, lifting the man's legs up onto the cot, realigning his body and bringing away his hand to stare at the thickened blood that adhered to it. He didn't remember moving and now, staring at the blood on his hand, he shuttered. What have I done?
Gloria touched the sodden fabric and realized the man had not been keeping the needed pressure on the wound, a wound simple enough if treated properly, but left to itself, deadly as the life blood drained out through it. Grimly, she packed the gash with the cloths and pushed hard. That was all she could do now. Try to stop the bleeding, prevent any more of the precious blood from leaking out of Mr. Standish's already badly depleted body. How had this happened? She thought he'd be all right while she dealt with Mr. Dunne's wound. Biting at her lip, she pressed still more fiercely, tears beginning to blind her. Then other hands were there, bigger, masculine hands, and she was being gently pulled back.
"It's okay, Mrs. Potter, Chris will do it now." JD led her to Nathan's rocking chair and helped her seat herself. He stayed beside her, even though he was feeling a bit groggy now and wishing the pain that bit into his shoulder would ease off. He didn't look over at Buck, afraid of what he might say. Nothing about any of this was funny anymore. He would have to talk to Chris. Later. Alone.
Buck withdrew into himself as he began to realize just how much blood Ezra had lost while he was trying his damnedest to not think about the gambler, as he had tried to make it up to JD for nearly ignoring him earlier. Bloody hand still half raised in the air, Buck was in shock. He watched as if from a great distance as Chris swept by him and took over from Mrs. Potter. His old friend was silent, just like the gambler. Not even a curse or a growl.
Chris Larabee walked into the clinic, expecting to find his men being patched up and ready to answer a few questions. Like what those two strangers had against JD, why they'd opened fire on him, and on Ezra. Only, when Chris stepped inside Nathan's small infirmary, it was to see JD and Buck staring in horror at Gloria Potter who was valiantly attempting to stay what looked like a river of blood coming from Standish. The small man was so pale that he already looked dead.
Chris strode over to the bed and gently pushed the frantic woman aside. He could handle brute force and right now, he needed to be doing something like this. So he flattened the heels of his hands against the Ezra's ribcage and focused on the still figure. "Damn you, Standish, don't you dare give up on us! Fight, man, fight!" He gritted out the words while his thoughts darkened to match his hands, now deep red with the small man's blood. Jesus, how much blood could a man lose and still live? He could see, up close, how much had soaked into the dark trousers and even trace the flow down the near leg to mid-calf where it seemed to disappear. Into his boot, he thought with growing despair.
Buck shook himself and started to back up toward the door. Ezra was dying and it was his fault. He knew it. JD knew it. Even Gloria Potter knew it. Chris would figure it out soon if he hadn't already. Yet... none of that mattered. Not who knew, not who blamed him, only the horrible truth that Ezra was dying in front of him. He felt himself slipping into an empty place, dark and full of nameless terror. Ezra was dying. He couldn't seem to get his mind to wrap around this thought and move past it. Everything was slowing down, the world was stopping, dulling into a daguerreotype of sepia tones, movement didn't exist anymore, sounds ceased. He could hear his heart beating. Beating in time to the pumping out of Ezra's red, red blood. Life would leave both their bodies at the same moment. He knew it. He knew it so deeply, so surely, that he welcomed it, welcomed death because he'd still be with Ezra then. And, he knew in the dark place that was his soul, that that was all that mattered.
In the silence of the room, Chris' grunts and soft demands of his man on the cot seemed louder than they really were. No one interrupted. There was nothing else anyone there could do. Except wait and watch. Gloria clung to JD's good hand now, both their white knuckled hands trembling with tension and imminent grief. The tall man in black had one knee on the cot, his dark duster like a shroud over him and over the unmoving gambler.
Into the silence came the thunder of heavy feet on the outside stairs. Then running on the porch. Nathan, followed by Josiah, burst into the small room and the silence, like an artificial bubble, burst as well.
"NATHAN! I need you here!" Chris' cry was half plea, half demand. Relief was foremost in the ringing cry.
Both the healer and the preacher came. Shoving past the cowering Buck and worried woman and boy-sheriff. Nathan was crouching down to better see without removing Chris' hands from their life-saving positions. Josiah, who'd come around the back of the cot, was mouthing soundless prayers as he gently tugged Standish's body into the center of the cot, without letting Chris' pressure diminish. In horror, the older man looked down at his bloody hands, realizing the gambler's clothing was heavy and full with the stuff. Moving to crouch at the foot of the cot, Josiah carefully removed Ezra's boots, mute with further horror as the one boot tipped down and a small fall of still liquid blood spilled to the floor and puddled there. "Oh, good Lord, no."
Nathan didn't say anything at first, just studied the problem. No point in askin' how it had gotten this bad. Knowing the gambler, he probably had been saying he was fine until it was damn near too late. By god, he wasn't about to let that arrogant son of a southern belle bitch get away with it, no, by god, he wasn't. "You're NOT gonna die on me, Ezra! You hear that! You ain't gonna die today!" With that, Jackson stood back up and rushed to his cabinets and shelves, already planning what he needed. All questions would be for later, after he fixed this mess.
Chris grinned tightly, sparing a quick look at the earnest healer, before returning his attention to the man beneath his hands. He had a lot of faith in Jackson, especially when the man was aggravated like he clearly was now. Good, that made at least two of them. And anger could be a hell of a lot more productive than fear or grief. He'd learned that long ago. He flicked a look up at the gambler's face. Damn if he wasn't coming around, green eyes slowly opening and meeting his own. He stared into those empty emerald depths and hid his fear, letting his anger show instead. "You stay with me now, Ez, dammit. I'll kick your ass to Eagle Bend and back if you don't start behavin'!"
Expression lightening slightly, a small smile ghosted on the pale man's face. A tiny glimmer of amusement flamed in those shining eyes. Ezra was back! Chris grinned openly now. And waited. If the con man had only one breath left in his body, he'd still find a way to deliver a comeback and Chris knew that the man's spirit was still feisty as the whispery words drifted up to him. "Ah don't believe Ah know how to behave, Mr. Larabee, Ah doan think it's in me."
"Well, you sure must be full of something, Ez, 'cause it ain't blood at the moment. Maybe just piss and vinegar, huh?"
A dimple was his only answer before the eyes closed again and the body beneath his hands relaxed, sinking further still into the thin mattress. Chris panicked. "Christ! Nathan!"
Jackson was back at his side instantly, hand to the gambler's throat. "Still got a pulse, Chris. That much blood loss, his body's makin' him sleep. He's got to make a lot of new blood to replace all that."
The reassuring tones of the healer caused everyone still in the room to sag back into themselves in relief. JD was the first to notice that Buck was gone. He didn't say anything. Right now was for getting Ezra back to the land of the living.
Buck slumped outside the clinic. He'd slipped out when it was clear that Nathan thought that he could save Ezra. Now Wilmington, pulled from his spiraling fugue, was left restless and anxious. Energy was tripping through his system, he figured he was reacting to all that had just happened, but it was just all too much. Scared, as never before in his life, stirred to the black depths of his soul, he had no idea what to do.
With a calm that seemed to leaden his feet, Buck sank onto the top step of the clinic stairs and held on to the edge of the step, chest pressed down on his thighs, head resting on his knees. His face settled into lines of bleakness. He felt the morning sun heating his back and stayed still, willing life to return to some order that he could deal with. Something that made sense and kept him from going crazy. He heard, then felt another presence beside him. Then a hand came to rest on his back, rubbing up his spine, and stopping at his neck. Strong fingers kneaded at the tense muscles there. Chris. Only man he'd ever let get that close to him. Ever. A sick feeling of self-disgust drove out any pride or courage. Ezra. He'd never let Ezra get this close, not yet anyway. Wanted him, even needed him. But close? No, not the closeness of a friend like his old saddle pard, Chris. "My fault."
"So, what you gonna do about it?" The hand never stopped its soothing action on his neck.
"I don't know." Buck straightened up but didn't look over at his friend. Staring ahead, Buck took in a deep breath and held it. "Chris, I ain't never felt this way before, all torn up inside."
Larabee waited. For Buck, he would wait. This had something to do with Ezra. Maybe with JD, too. He'd seen the look JD gave him before he followed Buck outside. Kid wants to tell me something but he's not gonna push now. So, Chris waited. He had time to do that now. Hell, they all did now. Thank god for Nathan Jackson, he thought fervently.
Vin Tanner moved so closely with the shifting sliding muscles of Peso's gait that the two looked like a single being in motion. His slouch hat and slumped posture in the buffalo hide jacket helped blur their combined profile, lending further credence to the myth of centaurs as a living race. He'd left Fort Laramie ahead of the bank shipment and its contingent of soldiers, having no desire to ride with any more of the bluecoats. He'd helped'em out, as promised, tracking and trapping a small herd of mustangs that were getting green-broke even as he'd ridden out of the compound. The commandant had paid him and offered a bonus if he'd ride with the bullion, but he'd refused. He needed some time alone after being so close to so many strangers, time to pull himself together again before returning to Four Corners and his friends, fellow lawmen.
Reaching the crest of a hill, he looked down at a campsite in turmoil. A rough looking crew of men were standing around, one of them gesturing angrily. He could see a sweaty mount with drooping head near another of the men, musta just rode in. Since Tanner had not been on any regular path, he pulled Peso back and faded into the shade of a clump of trees nearby. These men were just off one of the major trails into Four Corners. It would pay to keep an eye on them for a bit before riding on. He dropped from his horse and leaned against a tree trunk, eyeglass up as he watched the activity below play out.
Frank Fontaine was furious. He hadn't really trusted Hayes and Stinson after last night's trouble in Four Corners. A simple job and they had tripped over their own mouths. Damn fools. So, he'd sent Charlie Karke in to shadow his two men. Karke had arrived back at their campsite only minutes ago, horse lathered and the man himself shaking. He'd reported seeing Hayes and Stinson start shooting at some kid in the street and some red-coated gambler as well. Before he could lend a hand or stop it, a gunslinger riding into town had jumped into the firefight and winged the already wounded Hayes. Stinson was dead, shot outright by the gambler. The kid had likely gut shot Hayes from what he'd been able to see, hiding in a side alley across from the saloon. Now Hayes was in a cell and the kid and the gambler were in some darky's clinic, the gunslinger had been the one to drag off Hayes to jail.
Karke had stayed long enough to learn that the town had seven hired gunmen who acted as the law there. The kid, gambler, and gunslinger were all part of the Seven. Seemed Hayes and Stinson couldn't do anything right. Fontaine had cursed and stomped around the campsite, his remaining men edging away from the angry outlaw leader.
As far as he was concerned, Hayes could rot in that damn jail, but the money was still gonna come through the town's bank in a few days and since two of the seven were now wounded, the odds were better than ever. Finally calming down, he called his men to him. Sitting on a saddle by the central campfire, he waited until the ten men still with him were seated.
"Charlie's going back into town this afternoon and I want Johns and Carritoff to go with him." The three men nodded. "Hang out at the saloon, keep yore eyes open and come back here by midnight. If it looks or sounds like Hayes has been talkin' - take care of him."
Fontaine turned to a scruffy looking hunter. "Sarp, you and Treggor are gonna hit some ranches. I want them fellers hollering for help. Take a few head, run'em off a cliff or drop'em in a canyon, just make sure the ranchers know that they've lost head, a lotta head."
The two rough plainsmen grinned and nodded, one asking, "Alright iffn we butcher a couple? Some steaks'd be mighty nice."
"Yeah, sure, so long as you get back here and no one can track you."
Fontaine then turned to his remaining men. "We'll leave Luke here to keep the camp and the rest of us are gonna go scout out the trail the soldiers will use to bring the bullion and cash in from Fort Laramie. If we find a likely spot, we might not need to hit the town at all."
Plans made, the outlaws all saddled up, leaving Luke Morgan in the now deserted camp.
He'd watched the rest of the gang split and ride off in three directions. Draining his coffee mug, he leaned over the fire to test the pot, see if there was any brew left. A soft Texas drawl behind him stopped his reach in mid-move.
"Got any extra for a traveler?"
Turning slowly and cautiously Luke Morgan, a steady hand but not a fast one, looked up at the mounted man at the edge of the camp. What he saw was reassuring. A saddle tramp, maybe a hunter from the looks of the Sharps in the rifle sheath and the buffalo coat. Morgan didn't have to force a smile. "Howdy. Sounds like home, listenin' to you, mister. You a Texas boy?"
"Reckon so," Tanner answered, allowing his soft accent to strengthen, hands crossing at rest on his saddle's pommel.
"Well, hell, Texas, come on in. If there ain't enough coffee, figger I kin make some more."
Vin nodded, slipping from the saddle with a smile. "Name's Tanner, Vin Tanner."
"Morgan, Luke Morgan." The other man hunkered back down by the fire to produce another tin mug and pour some black coffee into it for the new rider. He paused in thought, a frown forming. "Tanner? I heard o' you, I think. Tascosa?" He looked up into the twin barrels of a sawed off shotgun that had been strapped to the man's leg.
Vin snarled. "Reckon you might jest have to forgit you seen me... er remembered me, huh pard?" He cocked the gun with a double click.
Morgan had dropped to the ground on his rump in fear and surprise at the man's reaction to his casual comment. With a flash of memory, he realized that what he'd vaguely remembered was only part of the tale he'd heard. Tanner - Tanner was a wanted man.
"Easy, easy man! You're with friends. This here is the campsite of the Fontaine gang. You heered of us? Frank Fontaine? Outta Amarillo? We're on the other side of the law, just like you."
Vin assumed a doubtful glare. Have to thank Chris for 'that look' he thought to himself. "How do I know that?"
"Well, I ain't going no where, so if you want to camp here today, you kin meet the boss and the others when they get back, they all should be here by late this afternoon." Morgan pasted a tentative smile back on his face. "'til then, I'll jest drop my guns over here," he said, carefully removing and dropping his weapons to the side.
Vin cocked his head and studied his victim. He had heard of the Fontaine gang, Frank Fontaine was a killer and the men that rode with him were no better. If the gang had left Texas and was here, then trouble would be coming to Four Corners. If he could stay with them, get them to believe he was like them, maybe he could stop it, or at least help when the time came. He lowered his own weapon, releasing the twin triggers.
Buck made his way slowly back into the small clinic and stood in the doorway without speaking. Chris had left him to go question their prisoner, asking Buck to send Nathan when he could. Nathan had JD lying on the bed now, looked like the boy was sleeping. Musta given him one of those sleeping teas. With a sigh, Buck glanced with fear and hesitation to his right, to where he knew Ezra would be resting. An invisible hand squeezed his heart as he studied the bleached out face of the gambler. Even though the cot he rested on was small, he looked smaller still, a slight figure barely raising the blanket's shape that covered him.
Nathan was standing at the stove, stirring some ungodly mixture, looking thoughtful. He looked up and met Buck's eyes. "They'll be alright," he commented quietly. "Just need time to heal now." His dark brown eyes were serious as he watched the lanky ladies man. "Buck, is there something I should know? 'Bout why Ezra bled so much?"
Wilmington hung his head, dropping his eyes from the healer's. "I was the one that brought him up, Nate. I thought he was pressing down on that hole, I really did. Went to help Miz Potter with JD. I didn't mean to leave him in trouble, thought he was alright."
Nathan nodded and his eyes went to the still form of their con man. "He lost more blood than he should've. He'll be alright, though. Just needs to rest and drink lots of liquids." Jackson wiped his hands on his pant legs, then rolled his shoulders with fatigue. He'd just ridden in with Josiah, just back from the Seminole village. They'd worked hard, helping some young ones who'd caught a fever, hadn't slept much at all. Then, to ride in only to have Mary Travis run up to their stirrups and say that JD and Ezra were hurt and up in the clinic with Mrs. Potter. He remembered his surge of energy, worry. He remembered dashing up the stairs with Josiah on his heels. The need to help overwhelming with the added burden of trying to save his friends once more. This time it would be all right, but there always seemed to be a next time. This time, though, there was more going on than just bullet holes, but he was too tired to figure it out, just knew things weren't right. Especially with Buck. And Ezra.
Jackson wiped his face with both hands. He shifted one of the cast iron stove top covers over part of the flame, reducing the heat under the tea he'd concocted. "Buck? You want to stay here and watch'em? I'll go over to the jail and help Chris, then I need to get some sleep."
Buck's eyes flashed back up to meet Nathan's. Jackson could swear he read fear and guilt in the deep blue eyes. Buck seemed to gather himself and nodded. "Sure, ok, Nate. I can do that." Quietly, the man walked further into the room and arranged a chair between the two beds where he could sit and see both his friends. "You go ahead. I'll be here."
Nathan nodded and left.
JD opened his eyes and yawned. He grimaced at the sharp pain in his shoulder. Casting his eyes about he saw Buck next him, sitting staring over at the other cot, at Ezra who seemed to be sleeping there. "Buck?" Instantly his friend was leaning over, smiling warmly.
"Hey, JD. How ya feelin'?" Buck laid a large hand on his young friend's forehead. No fever, cool and dry. Buck smiled more widely still. Relief colored his eyes brightly.
JD wasn't ready to be quite so happy, though. He looked past Buck at the quiet form of the gambler. "Buck, is Ez gonna be ok?"
"Yeah, you heard Nate before you went to sleep. He'll be fine, just needs to sleep. Get himself healthy again."
JD shifted slightly so that his injured shoulder wasn't pressing so hard on the pillow behind him. Restlessly, he plucked at the coverlet with his fingers. "What happened, Buck?" he asked quietly.
"Happened?" Buck flushed and tried to look away. "I should be asking you and Ezra that. I was still inside the saloon when all the shooting started."
"Buck," JD's voice was dry with irritation, "You know what I mean. Why did you leave Ezra over on the cot and let him bleed like that?"
Buck sighed and met JD's eyes. "I thought he was keeping the pressure on by himself. Seemed fine. I wanted to help Gloria, you."
JD stared hard. His brown eyes seemed to cut into Buck. "You left him." JD shook his head. "I may have been playin' some this morning, but Buck, I got eyes. I seen the way you and him been eyein' each other. You got it bad for him. So, why'd you go do that?"
Buck shook his head now. "JD, it's not like that. You don't understand."
"So explain it to me." JD's voice was hard.
With a ragged breath, Buck nodded. "It was just... when I saw you'd been hit, I felt so bad. I hadn't even gone to check on you. What kinda o'friend does that make me? I was so smitten with Ez that I couldn't seem to remember anything else. Anyone else."
The young sheriff sat up with difficulty, reaching out to grab hold of his friend's arm. "Buck, no shit now. Ezra damn near bled himself out. I got a bad feeling about that. I think maybe he decided to let that happen, to leave us, you." The perceptive young man turned his head away and then back, staring hotly at Buck. "You deserted him after makin' him think he was special to ya." JD closed his eyes but didn't release his grasp on his friend. "You got a lot of work to do now, make him see you still care. That is, if you do?"
Buck's misery was clear. He pulled down on his mustache with one hand, pursing his lips and touching JD's leg with the other hand. "Yeah, I do. I care. But, JD, I care about you, too."
"The same way?" JD asked skeptically.
Buck blushed. "Naw. You know you're like a little brother to me."
JD nodded. "Yeah, 'big brother,' and that's not the same as what you and Ez could have. Now, Buck, you got to decide. No foolin' with Ez. If you're really serious, if you really want him like I think you do, then you got to reach out and take hold and hold on real tight. Don't matter so much what you say, matters what you do."
The tall lawman had listened with careful attention to his young friend. "You know, JD, you're one hellava smart feller." Buck twisted to look over at the gambler. "JD, I think I'm falling in love with Ezra." It came out as a whisper.
"Good. He deserves someone real and honest and special, like you."
"Good? JD, where'd you get to be so wise? You ain't no kid, you're an old man in a kid-suit." Buck smiled and leaned in to place a brotherly kiss on his friend's forehead. "Thanks, kid. Now all I gotta do is convince Ez."
Ezra kept very still. Ah shall need a lot of convincin,' Mr. Wilmington, he thought raggedly. Yoah actions, sirah, speak loudah than words. Ezra was miserable. He lived. He'd wanted to die. Now? Finding Chris Larabee hanging over him, dragging him back to the land of the living, had been a distraction, but it hadn't lasted. When Nathan had finished tending to him and Chris had departed, Ezra's spirit sunk again into despair. His exit from life denied, his troubled thoughts had tumbled about, then frozen as Buck's voice and JD's had cut through his private torments. Listening, he'd felt himself slide further into his well of melancholy. Love? What a strange word to use in conjunction with him. He did not believe in it. No, not for him.
Josiah walked across to the jail with Chris. He'd already escorted Gloria Potter back to her store, easing her worries while hiding his own. On his return, he'd heard Buck's confession to Chris. But this only confused him since inside the clinic JD had told him and Nathan that it was two vengeful trail hands who had shot the boy and the gambler. The big preacher was still upset about the way he'd found Ezra, nearly bled dry in the clinic, but there seemed to be a lot more to the story than anyone was telling him so far. He'd bide his time and listen. When he wanted to exert it, Josiah had a saint's own patience. Meanwhile, he would help Chris to check the wounds on the jailed shooter and, perhaps 'convince' the errant soul to confess - his sins and anything else that might be useful to his brethren, the lawmen of Four Corners.
Chris flicked a glance at the older man at his side. Good thing Josiah didn't lose it in the clinic, he thought, man has a tendency to act first and ask later when it came to the gambler getting hurt. This time though, he had been too busy helping first and later? Well, Chris had seen him standing at the foot of the stairs, when he'd stood up from his brief talk with Buck. Buck blamed himself for it all, but it had to be something more than Chris was seein' 'cause Buck hadn't been anywhere near during the shooting. Shaking his head at his men's self-inflicted burdens of guilt, Larabee led Josiah into the shady interior of the jail. Time to talk with the jailbait.
Bear Treggor grinned at his partner as the two men hauled their horses to a skidding stop at the verge of the cliff. Below, the hapless cattle had piled in a mangled mass, dead as they struck the rocky ravine below. Sarp's gap toothed smile in return was full of self-satisfaction. They'd run off about thirty head from one of the big ranches. Left a telling trail to the cliff. Now the two former mountain men and trackers would vanish, their trail dead-ending with the cattle. Oh, the ranchers were gonna be sending up a howl alright. The two had made sure it was clear that this had been done by man, not nature. But they would not be tracked from here, both knew how to guarantee that.
"Let's get back to the young'un we left tied up, I fancy some tender beef steaks tonight," Keenon Sarp chuckled. Treggor ducked his head in agreement and the two started back.
Fontaine looked at Johnny Ben, his best tracker. Ben had signaled that they should all dismount to do the approach to this high overlook of the Fort Laramie trail. It did look promising, he had to admit. Still, being a city man himself, he held out hope that Karke and the others would see a way for them to get the money at the bank rather than out here on the trail. He growled at himself for letting his mind drift and bellied down beside Johnny.
Harrison crawled up beside them, shaking his head. "No good, boss." At Johnny Ben's raised eyebrows he continued. "I rode on up trail and spotted the sojers. They's smarter than we thought. Got two outridin' scouts, taking the high trails to watch fer ambushers."
Hastily and with anger, Fontaine led Ben and Harrison back away from their prominence. "Let's ride for the camp, can't do anything more out here then," he admitted with gruff frustration.
Chris glanced over his shoulder as Nathan entered the jail. He looks tired, Chris thought, remembering what Josiah had told him of the men's time in the Seminole village the last few days. He nodded silently in greeting and Jackson blinked in response, his own eyes sliding over to the first cell where Josiah was checking over Chris' simple first aid on their prisoner.
"Want me to help out?" Jackson leaned against the desk where Larabee rested his crossed ankles, stretched back out in the office chair.
Chris cocked an eyebrow at their resident preacher. "Josiah?"
"No, Brother Nathan, this poor sinner has only simple wounds of the flesh. Not worth your time. Go get some rest. I'm nearly done." Sanchez was tying off a wide swath of white cloth around the wounded prisoner's middle as he spoke. A pained grunt from the other man made it clear that there was no tenderness in the touch.
Nathan ignored the sounds from the cell and nodded once to Chris, calling back to Sanchez, "You decide you need me, you wake me, Josiah, hear?"
"Yes, sir, Nathan, not to worry." There was humor in the deep voice but it faded as the giant turned back to face his quarry. "Now, son, you're all fixed up good and proper. Won't likely bleed to death or anything. Unless, of course, I were to do this…" At which point, the older man's heavy hand squeezed firmly on the sore upper arm where the second bullet had passed through. A tiny spot of red appeared on the spotless bandage there.
"Ah, no! Please!" Hayes was scared. First that damn gunslinger, looking like some undertaker all in black, now this weird preacher-man who made him feel like he was in a revival meeting from hell. The black man hadn't lingered. He musta been the healer that Stinson and he had heard of, now he was going and leaving Hayes to the mercies of these two angry men. Oh, gawd, he had ta get outta here. Hopelessly he stared wide-eyed up at the huge man towering over him.
Josiah grinned toothily, but there was no mirth in it. "Brother, you need to confess your sins and cleanse your soul. Tell me why you shot at our young sheriff and what brought you and your departed friend to our fair hamlet."
Jeez, Josiah, Chris thought with amusement, you're beginning to sound like Ezra. That brought back his thoughts to his old friend Buck and the gambler. What was going on? Why was Buck blaming himself for what happened? And, what exactly was Buck blaming himself for anyway? Chris shook his head. They needed to talk once Buck was settled a bit more, which meant, from what he could tell, when Ezra was doing a sight better. That might take a spell. The conman had not looked good when he left him with Nathan earlier, even though Nate said he'd be alright with sleep and time. Dropping his spurred boots to the wooden floor with a sharp jangle, Larabee stood and stalked over to the door of the jail cell.
Hayes, already scared, trembled as Larabee joined Sanchez inside the cell. The two grim men looked like death to Hayes and he wasn't ready for that. Tell them, tell them anything or die. The thought burrowed into his conscious thoughts with lightning speed. He cowered and cringed on the narrow bunk, clutching at his wounds. "Don't... don't hurt me no more, please. I'll tell ya about the bank robbery."
Both tall men in front of him stilled and seemed to look even more intensely down at their rat prisoner. They said nothing, just waited, though Larabee's hand wandered to the handle of his pistol, fingering the trigger.
Tensely Rusty Hayes began to talk. About Texas, about the Territories, about the Fontaine Gang, and about the bullion due in from Fort Laramie.
Johns, Carritoff and Karke all sat around a table in the saloon, drinking beers slowly and watching the slow afternoon crowd begin to grow with the approach of evening. The bar keep had kept them supplied with beer and they had started a simple poker game hoping to attract some locals who they could milk for information. So far, everyone was too busy sharing gossip at the bar and other tables, which was fine since they were all excited and talking loudly. Seems the local kid sheriff and the lawman-gambler had been shot in a shoot out on the main street that morning. Luckily, seems the others of the seven lawmen had returned so it weren't only the ex-Texas Ranger anymore keeping the peace. There appeared to be a gunslinger, a healer, and a preacher as well. Some one asked about their 'tracker' but didn't name him. Someone answered that the tracker was up at Fort Laramie still, hunting mustangs for the cavalry.
About mid-evening, the black-clad gunslinger entered. The room's noise softened but didn't stop. A wide pathway opened for the man, leading directly to a table adjacent to the Fontaine gang member's spot. The man seemed oblivious to the townsmen's courtesy, simply walked stolidly to the empty table, followed closely by an older, even bigger man. Without saying anything, Karke and the others knew they were seeing Larabee and Sanchez. The barkeep quickly set beers down in front of the two men, conferred low-voiced with them, then went away to return with a beer pitcher and more mugs which he left at the table.
Silently the three outlaws waited and watched.
A stir in the crowd and then a tall, rangy cowpoke strolled in. He went directly to the Seven's table and dropped into a chair, rather like an old bag of feed grain. With a nod to the others, he filled a mug with beer and leaned back to survey the room. His mustache drooped and his shoulders slumped. So, Wilmington had arrived.
It was a change in the posture of the three lawmen that had the outlaws looking carefully toward the batwing doors again. Standing just inside the doors was a young, dark-haired man, his arm in a white sling, with a tall, broad shouldered Negro beside him. The two newcomers walked over to the Seven's table and sat. Wilmington looked ready to say something, but at a look of withering distain from the youth, he subsided, burying his nose in his beer. That made it Dunne and Jackson. Just left Standish and 'the tracker' unaccounted for.
Karke figured Standish must have been hurt worse than the kid sheriff and he already knew that the tracker was out of town still. They didn't really look all that tough.
Except maybe for Larabee who looked like walking death, danger came off him in waves.
And, maybe Sanchez who was so big and raw lookin', with an angry look in his eyes, kinda wild even, as he tossed back his beer and poured another.
And, then that there Wilmington sure looked morose, sour-pussed even. But with those big hands of his tense on the beer mug and the way his shoulders kept tensin' up every time someone came in, he'd be alert to anything happening... and he HAD been a Texas Ranger. And the Fontaine gang knew all about the Rangers - was why they'd left Texas to start with.
Now, the black feller, he was supposed to be a healer. Well, now, healers don't hurt folks, only, he had the damnedest set of knives harnessed to his back that Karke had ever seen. They hadn't been visible until he'd passed the outlaws table, and now, sitting to the side, they were out of sight again. But they hadn't been no doctor's healin' tools. No, sir, those looked like Bowie knives or throwin' knives. Damn.
That just left the kid sheriff. How'd anyone that young get to be sheriff anyway? He had a face on him as tough as the others, mouth turned down. Had twin Colts, too, like some Billy the Kid copycat. Damn, if those others let him sit with them and work with them, he was probably just as fast as old Billy had been.
They watched as a man came in with a telegraph. He seemed to hesitate, then marched over to Larabee. The gunslinger read it aloud to the other men at the table.
So, the bullion would arrive tomorrow. Karke shook his head. Time to leave. He had plenty to tell Fontaine. He nodded to Johns, nudged the drowsing Carritoff with displeasure. Together the three left quietly.
Tanner sat still as a statue, cold coffee in one hand, other hand resting lightly on his sawed off shotgun. He reflected on the evening. First to arrive had been two rough looking mountain men, kindred spirits - almost. Only, they had a meanness to them that set them apart from the ex-Texan. They were cheerful, dragging in the hind leg and part of a set of ribs from some calf. Must a butchered it just now. That meant unhappy ranchers somewhere close by no doubt. As he nodded in greeting and listened to the others, Morgan looking more relaxed as his gang began to filter in, Vin settled for looking dangerous and silent. Not a hard fit.
With the meat sizzling and crackling over a couple of spits on the fire, the men settled in to wait for the rest. Fontaine, Bill Harrison, and Johnny Ben came in next. Ben looking suspiciously at Tanner's outfit. Clearly, he recognized a kindred tracker. Nothing was said though. And Frank Fontaine, like Luke Morgan, had heard of Tanner - not only his wanted poster for Tascosa, but also some of his bounty hunter career. When it was clear that Vin wasn't trying to collect bounty, everyone relaxed. After all, what bounty hunter would set up camp inside a circle of outlaws and let himself get outnumbered if he was going to try to bring them in?
When Karke and the rest arrived from Four Corners, Tanner was already an accepted fixture at the campfire. Charlie Karke sat down with a thump next to his boss and began to fill him in, low-voiced. But Fontaine was sitting next to Tanner so it was no stretch for the ex-bounty hunter to overhear the man's report.
Now, he sat grimly, waiting for the others to bed down. He could outwait them, of that he had no doubts. Not even the mountain men, Sarpe and Treggor, or the other tracker, Johnny Ben, had his Indian training or endurance. He watched, seemingly lax, actually tense and worried. He let his mind gnaw at the information he'd over heard. Chris was back in town. That was good news. Ezra and JD had been shot, not good news. JD was up already and drinking with the others at the saloon. So that weren't too bad. And Nathan had joined them, while all the rest were there - except for Ez. Seemed like Ez must be gonna be alright or some o' them woulda been up at the clinic, Nate leastways. So, Standish was hurt, but not that bad.
No way he could leave and warn them. Only thing to do was ride in with the gang and hope to disrupt things. Try to ride drag, so he didn't have to watch his back. Vin shrugged mentally. They'd faced worse odds. Likely his friends already were on the lookout for something even if they didn't know what. Being as how two of the gang had been in a shootout with 'em already. He sighted on some stars in the freckled canopy of night overhead. Be awhile still afore dawn. He took another sip of the cold coffee, cold comfort, and waited.
All five of the lawmen breathed out a sigh of relief when the three outlaws at the neighboring table stood and left. Larabee leaned forward and let loose a tight grin as he cupped his beer mug with two hands. "Well, reckon they got an eyeful and an earful. That was a nice touch, Nate, wearin' your knife rig tonight."
Jackson grinned. "Yup, figgered it wouldn't hurt none to let'em know they was in for some trouble."
Sanchez sat tall and stretched his arms mightily. His own grin was fierce. "And the Lord saith…" he paused, cocking his head to one side. "Damn. Can't think a what he'd a said about this'un, but likely be inspirin'." He burped. Ok, so he'd had a bit too much to drink, he'd stop now, be ready by morning, maybe with a little edge left on his anger. That would not be a bad thing.
JD shrugged out of his sling. "I think I can use this arm, Nate, honest."
Jackson shook his head. "JD, put that back on. You kin shoot two-fisted most of the time, so tomorrow, you just use one, that's all. You'll still be in on it."
Wilmington, who dragged another long swallow as the others relaxed in triumph over their little charade, grunted softly. "JD, you be careful tomorrow." Before the kid could answer, Buck turned to his oldest friend. "Chris, think I'll spend the night up with Ez." He looked over at Jackson. "You get some more rest, sounded like you and Josiah been a mite busy lately. I'll watch Standish."
Jackson stared at the rangy lawman and studied the worn looking face. "Sure, Buck, you do that. I appreciate it. Know he'll be fine, just needs to rest some more, build up his strength again."
"Buck." JD didn't look up from his mug of beer. Voice flat and serious, he continued, "You take it easy on him."
Wilmington, already standing, nodded, then answered when he saw that JD wasn't looking up at him, "I will. Thanks, JD."
The exchange was so different from what usually went on between the two that the other men were riveted. In silence, they watched Buck stroll out, the picture of relaxed nonchalance. All eyes, as one, swiveled back to JD Dunne. It was Chris who spoke. "Alright, JD, out with it. What's going on between Buck and Ezra?"
Ezra tried to roll onto his side and instantly regretted it as agonizing pain seared up from the newly stitched gunshot wound. Try as he might, he could not convince himself that it was merely an inconvenience, not yet at any rate. He desperately wanted OUT of the clinic and away from the chance of seeing Buck again. He swallowed, grimacing at the dryness of his mouth. There was a glass of water beside his bed but it might as well have been in the next county. To reach it, he had to stretch, to stretch meant pain. Not something he could deal with quite yet. So, he was thirsty... and awake... and alone. The last was puzzling. He knew that the others, well most of them anyway, were back in town. He wasn't too sure about Vin. Hadn't seen him or heard anyone talk about him. He sighed and rolled his head to face the rough wood planks of the wall beside his temporary bed.
Buck quietly opened the clinic door. It had been left slightly ajar to make entry soundless. With careful steps he moved to the side of Ezra's bed and sank into the chair placed there. Then nearly jumped to his feet in surprise as Ezra turned his head from the wall to look up at him. Buck leaned over the pale man.
"Hey, pard. Glad to see you awake." The quiet green eyes slipped away and looked toward the bedside table. Buck followed their aim and saw the water glass. "Thirsty?" He lifted the Southerner's head gently, lovingly and brought the glass to those tempting lips.
When Standish had drunk all the water, Buck eased him back onto the pillows. Shifting from chair to the side of the bed and settling there, Buck looked deeply into his friend's eyes. "Ezra?"
Ezra didn't want to do this. Not now. Not ever. He closed his eyes. Maybe he'll go away if he thinks I'm sleeping.
"Ezra?" Buck's voice was coaxing, soft. "Please, pard, I know you're in there. Talk to me, Ez?"
Standish opened his eyes warily. Still there. Damn.
"Ez," Wilmington picked up the nearer small hand and held it between his two larger ones, feeling the thin, fine bones and slender fingers. He was careful not to tighten his grip enough to hurt, but held on when Standish tried to pull free. "I gotta talk to you, Ez." He waited and when the green eyes continued to hide behind a veil of blandness, he continued, "JD thinks you did it on purpose."
That got his attention, Buck thought with sad satisfaction.
"Did what?" the hoarse scratchy tone wasn't much like his love's usually musical voice. Yes, his love. Buck's eyes began to dampen.
"JD thinks you let go of that wound, let yourself bleed out on purpose. Ez, he thinks you tried to commit suicide." There it was out.
Ezra swallowed harshly, wanting to deny it, wanting to rush out of the room, wanted to punch Buck Wilmington in the face. Want to... oh, what the hell? Dropping his eyes, he replied guardedly, "And if I did?"
His hand was released and his shoulders gripped with iron strength, hands jerking him upright in bed, ignoring his inadvertent cry of pain. "Damn you, Ezra Standish!"
Then he was pulled tightly against Buck's chest, face buried in the lawman's shirt as two long arms wrapped around him and held on tightly, as if trying to pull him into the other's body. He couldn't struggle, it was too much. He simply lay against Buck and let his tears come. Silently they fell, slowly dampening the shirt that blotted them up into a widening circle of moisture.
If his shoulders shook, he didn't know. If hands gentled and began to stroke his back, he didn't feel it. If someone began to murmur in his ear, some soft lullaby, he didn't hear it. If another began to cry as well, he didn't see it. He cried, in pain and in fear, in despair and in hope. Ezra cried silently, he learned how to do that at the early age of three, to save himself from beatings. Now it was the only way he knew to cry, though he'd not cried in years. He cried.
The world spun crazily and his eyes saw only sparkles of color bursting against the blackness of his wet, closed eyelids. His hands, his fingers, dug into the material beneath them, clenched in anguish for love he couldn't understand, hadn't asked for, wasn't at all sure he wanted, was afraid would tear his world apart.
Buck felt his heart break. He'd often heard women say theirs had, but he'd never really known what that meant before. Now, ask him, he knew. Somehow, he'd hurt this precious man in his arms, hurt him beyond comprehension. Driven him to want to take his own life. Oh, dear God, how could he fix this? He wasn't wise like Josiah, he didn't have instincts like Vin, or healing powers like Nate. He couldn't cut to the quick of things like Chris, or peel away layers of sophistication like JD's naivety could. He was just plain old Buck. He could be loyal, he could shoot straight and ride hard. He could bed a dozen women in a dozen nights, but he couldn't find a way to show this man that he loved him. Couldn't convince him that it was right. Damn, hadn't really even had a chance to try.
Buck cried because Ezra cried. He cried because he'd hurt this man that he only recently found he loved. He cried because his heart hurt in the breaking. He cried because he was so wound up with feelings so strange and terrifying that if he didn't cry, he'd likely go and do something really stupid. Like try to kill himself? Suddenly the tears dried up and a light seemed to break through inside of him. Yeah.
"Ezra, you old mule, I love you." He said this clearly and firmly into the closest pearl ear. Then he kissed that ear, licked it and kissed it some more. Then he spoke again. "I love you, Ezra." He kissed down the slender neck and onto one bare shoulder, feeling himself go hard like a bolt of lightning'd hit him. He ignored his swollen, throbbing flesh. "Ezra, I love you so much." He ducked down under the smaller man's tucked in chin and forced the reddened, wet face off his chest so that he could lick and kiss the tender throat, run his tongue slickly over the protruding Adam's apple, let his wet muscle squirm down the smooth chest to tickle one quick-hardening nipple. He suckled momentarily, enjoying the new feel of this flat surface so unlike a woman's. "Ezra," he whispered against the nub that caught gently at his teeth, "I love you."
Ezra's silent tears continued to fall, but he was beginning to panic at this unlooked for attack on his flesh. His body reacted unkindly, hiccups catching at his swelling throat, the nervous fluttering of his larynx encouraging this embarrassing reaction. Hiccupping with a vicious pain now, tears like streams running down his face, he tried, feebly to be sure, he tried to push back Buck's advances.
Buck ignored his attempts at separating them further, but did pay attention to the panic attack that was setting in. Tenderly he gathered his friend back against his chest, bending down to capture the trembling lips and suck the gasps of pain from them. The hiccups stuttered to a halt and the tears began to slow. Buck tilted his head to get a better connection and deepened the kiss. He pulled back and licked the now swollen lips. "I love you, Ezra P. Standish. My heart is breaking, I love you so much. Don't leave me, please, Ezra, don't ever leave me."
Finally vibrant green eyes, awash in salty tears, blinked open. Eye lashes lay in thick wet clumps below and stuck up in ragged lines above the emerald lights. Red, flush skin surrounded the whole. Never had he seen such a lovely sight, Buck sighed, damn, I am in love. He smiled tentatively at his watching silent captive. "I do love you. I need you so bad, Ez, I love you so much. It hurts, how much I love you." He shrugged. "Don't ask me what happened, I just don't know. Only know, after Wickes' Town, I just couldn't ever look at you the same. It was like I really looked at you, true and honest, for the first time. And, Ez, I loved what I saw and I knew, right then and there, that this was it fer me. This was my life forever. If you'll have me?"
The Southerner was sitting up, shaking his head and blinking back a new rush of tears. "B-b-b-buck." He gulped and tried again, "Buck, I don't know how…" He choked on the tears that fell. A gentle hand, long fingers barely touching, wiped away the latest tears and lingered on one cheek, stroking it encouragingly. Ezra tried again, terrified and brave at the same time in the face of Buck's love. This was no trick, no prank, this was real. His conman's soul tasted truth and sang in triumph, celebrated with a joyful cry of freedom from chicanery, from larceny and from stealth. His eyes caught Buck's dark blue ones, searing his own truth as he spoke again. "Buck, I don't know how but I love you, too."
"Oh, god, Ezra!" Buck dragged his love close again, holding on for dear life. A pained squeak finally brought him back to the reality of the moment. "Oh, shit, Ezra!" He pushed the wounded man from him and eased him ever so carefully down onto the bed. "Are you alright?"
Ezra lay there, looking up at the anxious face of his future and smiled. The tattered remnants of his brooding dreams seemed to dissolve in the heat of this man's true love. And I thought this only happened in fairy tales, he mused with a new contented self-confidence. Languidly, he raised one hand to trace the man's jaw line, then tickle his way up the unshaven chin to a wide, generous mouth that sucked it in. "Yes, I'm alright, Buck. What's a bullet hole between good friends?" He hesitated, then added shyly, "Or lovers?"
Buck nearly choked on the finger he'd pulled into his mouth a moment before. With tender touch, he pulled the hand away, seeing quick doubt grow in those liquid green eyes. Before it could take up residence, he leaned in to kiss his treasure deeply. The doubt fled and he watched a glow of happiness grow in its place. He ended the kiss with a playful nip and then cupped the dear face below him in his two hands. "Ez, soon's this is over, we're gonna go on a long trail ride and set us up right as permanent pardners. When we come back here, we'll tell the others." He grinned at the astonished face of his gambler, "JD, he already knows. Maybe Chris and Nathan, too."
Ezra snuggled his shoulders down into the pillows below him and smiled. "Good, it will save time and energy." He reached up and pulled Buck down by his mustache. The 'ouch!' this caused was ignored as they jointly devoured each other's mouths again. Breaking away to breath, Ezra spoke again huskily, "I want to spend all my time and energy loving you."
"Oh, my god, Ezra, you are the sweetest thing in my life!" Buck slid down onto the bed and curled around his smaller friend, enveloping him in a gentle bear hug from behind. He sniffed the man's skin, lavender scented. It would be forever linked for him with Ezra. Spooned together, they lay there, letting their surging emotions settle into new patterns. "Ezra, promise me, you won't ever even think on that agin." Both knew what Buck meant.
"Buck, I can't-"
"Ez, no, never again. You are my life now."
"Buck, if I ever lost you," Ezra stopped. Buck was clutching at him. "No, Buck, no, I know you won't leave me, I know it here." He took one of Buck's larger hands and placed it against his own heart because, amazingly, he DID know this. "What I mean is, if you should die first…"
"Never. I'll never leave you!"
Ezra nodded and said no more. No one could make such promises and keep them, but he was loved like he'd never been loved before and he loved in return. It was so incredible that who knew? Maybe their love was a miracle that could make other miracles. All he knew, all he needed to know, was the man with him now wanted to stay with him forever. That was enough. More than enough.
Ezra smiled sweetly as he tilted his head back to let Buck have better access. He felt the tickle of Buck's mustache as the man kissed his throat again, evidently already a favorite spot - for both of them. Ezra's smile seemed destined to stay pasted on his face forever.
Tanner reluctantly mounted Peso and sat waiting as the gang of men at the campsite straggled to their own horses and pulled into their saddles. Fontaine grinned around at his men, including Tanner in that circle of hunger. Unknowingly echoing another's man's call of only weeks before, he cried out, "Let's ride!" Vin frowned at the echo and held Peso back. The Indian pony danced in place, eager to run.
Vin held firm. When the last of the other men moved out, he fell in behind with a discontented Peso twitching his tail menacingly, producing small half-bucks of rebellion until Vin's knees locked down, sending a message that the horse knew better than to ignore.
Stubborn horse was gettin' as particular as old Chaucer, Ezra's cranky mount. Vin smiled. He was looking forward to getting home, to his friends - his own family of six brothers.
"…soon as this is over…" Ezra was suddenly wide-awake. Stiff in Buck's arms, his memory replayed those words again. As soon as WHAT was over? Something was going on and none of the others had told him. Suspicious now of JD's absence, which he thought was simply to give them privacy, Ezra now thought again. His mind was racing with possibilities. No one else had been up since Buck had come back. Giving them time alone? Or busy doing something? The only things his confreres did was keep the law. So, what had happened? Or, what was going to happen? He purposefully relaxed, a dangerous glint in his eyes as he narrowed them. Buck might have been fully honest about his love. No, not might, he HAD been, that Ezra knew with rock certainty. So, what had Buck NOT been honest about? Or, more like some amateur con, what had he left out? The unspoken truths. Convinced now that the others were in trouble, he pondered his next move. Either the trouble wasn't too bad, or hadn't gotten here yet. Else-wise, Buck would be with them, helping. Unless he was here to protect Standish? No, already Ezra knew that Buck would never be successful keeping any important secrets from him. This had been an omission, but he suspected that unless he asked, he'd not be told.
The light outside the window was brightening with dawn. Buck stirred behind him. Held him warmly, hugged him gently, kissed him tenderly, then began to rise, apparently thinking he could slip from the bed while Ezra, always the late riser, slept on. Not this morning, my love, Ezra thought grimly, not even noticing the new way he thought of his friend. "Buck."
"Ah, mornin', Ez." Hesitant. Yes, something was indubitably up.
"Buck, tell me."
"What is happening? Where are the others?"
Buck Wilmington was torn. He needed to get out, take up his agreed upon position, but Ezra was demanding answers. They had decided not to tell him anything. He was still weak with blood loss. Could endanger himself, others. Buck bit his lip, eyeing his friend. "Well, pard, it's like this…"|
"Buck, spin me no tale."
Dark blue eyes met vivid green ones as Buck swung around the bed to face his new life partner. Promises crossed the distance between them silently, on wings of love, they'd have a chance to consummate it soon, each promised the other. But a threat crossed that distance, too. "Buck." The warning tone set off alarms in the tall man.
"Well, Ez," he shifted uncomfortably and sank back into the bedside chair. "The men who came in yesterday morning, shot you and JD, they were scouts for a big gang o' outlaws that want a bullion shipment that the Army's bringing in."
"Chris got word by telegraph last night, it's due in today."
"But the scouts are dead?"
"Well, one you shot is. T'other one's still kicking, despite two pieces of lead, from JD and from Chris." Buck smiled wolfishly. "Josiah managed to convince him to tell us all he knew. So we recognized some others that drifted in last night. We gave them a little show, made sure they heard about the telegraph just afore they left. So, we figger they's gonna come in this morning, try to take the town and ambush the horse soldiers when they ride in."
"You're going out to join the others now." It wasn't a question.
Buck nodded. And waited, trust this man to figure it all out. He didn't have to wait for long.
"Give me my guns."
"Now Ez, you ain't gonna go out there."
"Buck. This is not about us, this is about being part of the law here."
"Ez, yore wounded and blood-weak."
"I don't have to run and jump, just shoot straight, and, Buck, my dear love, I can do that better than anybody except - maybe - Vin Tanner. And I'm faster than him."
Buck shook his head, Ezra was right of course, but he never bragged, never. 'Course he wasn't really braggin' now, just stating the truth. A smile stole over the tall man's face, his eyes smiling down as well as he took up one tense hand of his love's.
"Ez, we all know you're the best, but you need ta sit this one out. We'll be okay." With that, Wilmington leaned down and kissed the damp forehead, frowning slightly at the low fever he felt at the touch. He brushed back the disarray of chestnut curls and kissed the forehead again, with finality. "I'll be back. I love you, Ezra."
Frustrated, Ezra thumped at the mattress with both fists as Wilmington strode toward the door, but he spoke out clearly. "Buck," then waited until the man turned at the door. "I love you, Buck Wilmington. Be safe. Come back to me."
Buck nodded, face already settling into firm lines of determination. "I will."
He walked out into the morning sunshine. Oh, god, not out of my life, please, Ezra thought. As soon as the sound of the lawman's boots on the stairs ended, Ezra was sitting up. He sagged, feeling light-headed. Disregarding this, he forced his legs over the side of the bed and bent nearly double with faintness. Grimly, he inhaled deeply and brought his world back to order. Then he climbed gingerly to his feet. He could see his clothing, folded on top of one of Nathan's chests. His guns nearby. Clearly no one thought he could make it out of bed to reach them. Even after all this time, they really don't know me, what I am capable of doing when I want to. His tiny smile grew as he made it across the room and sank to the chest beside his clothing.
Fontaine had already instructed his men on the plan of attack. Nothing fancy, just ride in and shoot anyone moving. Only, the town was disturbingly empty. Not even a horse, a dog in sight. For a moment, he thought they had made a mistake, ridden into one of the countless ghost towns that littered the plains. But no, Karke, beside him, seemed to read his mind because he commented across the clatter of hooves, "This IS Four Corners, Frank. Don't know what's going on, was lively enough last night."
Vin hid his smirk as he rode up behind the gang. Could see that the town had been warned. Made his job easier. He and Peso slipped out of the formation and off behind the livery, where Peso snorted a greeting to a widely grinning Josiah who stood up from behind a rain barrel in the alley beside the stables. "Welcome to the party, Vin."
"Thanks, Josiah, everyone ready?"
"How's JD and Ez? Heard they took some lead."
"JD's up and with us, Brother Ezra will be soon."
Vin nodded, grounding Peso's reins near the corral fence. "I best be making for high ground, then." He gave Josiah a short, two-fingered salute and began to climb up the livery barn's ladder.
Chris watched from within the darkened saloon. He'd give them time to get all the way into the center of town. He knew that JD was restless over at the jail, but it was a safe bunker for the kid, and he could still take shots from there. He pictured Nathan hunkered down in the bank's lobby and Buck, behind the watering trough by Potter's Store. Yeah, they were ready. He pulled his six-shooter and edged closer to the swinging doors, his black clothing dark shadow within the shadows. Invisible.
Gunshots rang out. It was impossible to say who shot first, each followed so closely on the other. Chris smiled around his cheroot as Vin's Sharps bit the air from high up in the livery. Good to have him back, Larabee thought with satisfaction, not questioning his sudden arrival. Tanner was like that. Just THERE when you needed him.
It was the bark of Ezra's Remington that had the gunslinger pulling up short and cursing. The crazy man was still supposed to be in a sick bed, and there he was taking shots from the clinic balcony! Damn that stubborn Southern fool. One of the gang fell dead near his feet right after the Remington spoke. Damn fool, damn good shot. It was good to have him up and working with them, he was a good man to have on your side.
JD's Colt and Sanchez's rifle were firing almost in unison, setting up a deadly crossfire that Buck and Chris were punctuating with peppering shots, everyone trying for accuracy. It was the sharpshooter and the gambler that were racking up the count highest. Within five short minutes, the gang had been decimated. Lifeless, the Fontaine Gang lay in dark heaps strewn across the rutted main street, some of their horses run off, others standing over the dead, like four-footed sentinels.
In the distance, in the new silence, the seven lawmen could here the sound of a cavalry trumpet sounding a call. Vin swiveled to bring his eyeglass up and studied the horizon. Yep, here they come, some o' Fort Laramie's finest with the bullion wagon. He waved an all clear to Chris who was standing now in the street, looking up at him. Chris gave a single nod and turned to finish checking the dead along with Josiah and Nathan. JD stood on the boardwalk by the jail, guns in hands, his sling discarded, watching their backs as they checked the fallen outlaws.
Buck had surged to his feet as the last man fell, intent on getting to Ezra who leaned casually over the clinic's balcony railing, for all the world a sightseer enjoying the view. "Ezra!" His angered tone had the other men carefully hiding smiles, pretending not to notice as the lanky former-ladies-man stormed across the street heedless of them.
Standish straightened and dimpled at Buck, casually beginning to holster his Remington. Then in the blink of an eye, he had it out, arm straight, and was aiming directly at his friend. "BUCK!" His cry was a warning even as he fired.
Wilmington had slowed in surprise at the hostile move and jumped at the shot. He felt the heat of the bullet's close passage and staggered to the side, stunned. Behind him, Bear Treggor subsided, now certainly dead from a single bullet to the brain, entering through one golden eye. The large caliber revolver lay in the dirt by his claw-like hand, loosed only after the bullet's path was complete. Buck swallowed as Chris stormed over and kicked the dead man angrily. Both looked up at the now weakly smiling con man. "I feared for you life." Ezra said quietly as his legs folded beneath him and he disappeared from view.
"Ezra!" Buck's cry was nearly lost in the sound of his running feet. The others, now having secured the field, followed anxiously. They found the big lawman sitting on the porch floor, their gambler cradled in his arms, pulled across his lap. He looked up and called out. "Nathan! Please…"
Jackson pushed through the other and squatted at the side of the two men. He felt for a pulse. Nodded assurance, then checked for injuries. Shook his head. "Looks like he just overdone it, Buck, he'll be fine." Nathan looked back over his shoulder, "Chris, Josiah, you two think you kin get Ezra back into bed?"
Chris and Josiah stepped forward and lifted the Southerner free of Buck's lap, then carried him back into the clinic. Nathan offered Buck his hand and helped him to his feet. Vin and JD, trailing up behind the others followed them into the clinic. Buck sat down directly on the bed and drew Ezra into his arms. The smaller man was already rousing from his blackout. Pushing at the containing arms indignantly, Ezra scolded, "Buck!"
"Don't you 'Buck' me, young man," the rangy mustached man answered firmly, "You just lie still. This is where you were supposed to stay, remember?"
"Ezra?" JD knelt down on one knee beside the bed to be at eyelevel with his friend. "You alright?"
Standish blushed and met Dunne's eyes. "Yes, JD. I'm fine." He wriggled experimentally causing Buck to groan softly and tighten his hold from behind. Grinning at JD, then up at the others, his dimples and gold tooth showing, he added, "I've never been better."
Chris stood back and smiled. "Good." He raised his eyes to meet his old friend's, "Buck, you take real good care of him now. He's one of us, you know."
Vin Tanner came to stand at Larabee's side and nodded. "Ez, you and old Buck?"
Ezra's smile got bigger, if that were possible and he leaned back to rest his head on Buck's shoulder, without speaking. Vin's eyes went wide and then warmed. His nod was almost imperceptible but powerful in its blessing.
Sanchez and Jackson stood shoulder to shoulder at the foot of the bed. "Brother Nathan, I think we are witnessing a blessed event."
Jackson's sly smile cracked from one corner then the other, his mouth curving upward. "Josiah, you said a mouthful." He turned his smile on the bedded men. "'bout time."
Indignant again, Ezra's shoulders started to stiffen but Buck felt the change and was already soothing him, kissing his temple and humming. Sagging back in languorous confusion, Ezra simply nodded to all.
Below, the clattering sounds of the arriving troop and bullion wagon, the sharp sound of orders as they discovered all the bodies in the street, broke the spell in the small clinic room. "Buck, you stay with Ezra," Chris ordered, knowing full well that any other order would be ignored, "The rest of you come with me, we still got the army to deal with."
The lawmen walked out with many a backwards glance, all full of smiles for their brothers. Ezra snuck a look up at Buck's face. "Buck, you will follow Chris' orders, won't you?"
"Hm? You mean - to stay with you?" At the gambler's nod, Wilmington's face grew serious. "Ezra, I mean to stay with you through this lifetime and any others that come along. Yep, Ez, I'm staying with you."
The Southerner reached up to lay a hand along side Buck's face where it hovered above and behind him. "Me too."
"Ez? Where's all yore big words?"
For an answer, Ezra twisted around in Buck's arms and pressed his lips against the other man's. The scent of lavender filled Buck's senses, like a balm of loving peace. Clenched in a kiss of commitment and love, they stayed that way for quite some time. When Ezra sank down slightly, breathlessly, Buck smirked down at him. "Oh."
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