Luck Deals For The House
"Thank you, Lord, for the fools you send my way that are soon parted from their money." Ezra finished counting his winnings at the poker table as the last impoverished cowhand let the saloon doors batter shut against the night. "But next time, I would greatly appreciate it if you would be so kind as to increase their monetary burdens a little more before they sit down?" He glanced up at the saloon ceiling but got no response from the Almighty. "Ah, I can hear your reply now, good sir," he continued lightly, "and you are entirely correct in your assessment. A gentleman must make his own luck in this world because the lady is fickle and she will beat you when she can. A sentiment with which I wholeheartedly concur."
"Must be why you cheat so sweet."
Freezing at the sound of that soft, even tenor, Ezra waited a few rapid heartbeats before letting his gaze drift up the dark clad body of the deadly man standing before him. "Why, Mr Quirrell," he managed to choke around the pounding in his throat upon meeting the cold hazel eyes. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Oh, what makes you think it's a pleasure?" Quirrell casually sat his imposing frame down in the seat opposite Ezra. "Maybe those cowhands hired me to come teach you a lesson."
Ezra's mind had gone numb. He couldn't think of a thing to say; he could barely comprehend the presence of this man here and now, someone who had only haunted his private thoughts for years. But then Quirrell grinned. It wasn't much of a grin, more a twitch of his upper lip, but Ezra recognised it for what it was intended to be.
"Ah, sweet Ezra." Quirrell shook his head. "You take everything so serious and you cheat so sweet."
Dredging up a defensive smile, Ezra darted a quick look around the saloon. Quirrell or no, bandying the 'cheat' word around wasn't good for anyone's business. "Forgive me, Mr Quirrell, but I find it very imprudent to take you anything but..." Ezra mentally skipped the word 'deadly'. "...Very seriously. And I do not take liberties, sir. I merely employ skills held by a few when the occasion dictates it would be wise to do so."
"Yeah, and I bet you still middle deal smoother than a teenage whore's butt."
"Indeed." Ezra glanced around the room again, this time catching Vin Tanner's eye. Vin raised an enquiring eyebrow and Ezra smiled, shaking his head slightly. Quirrell, of course, caught the look.
"Who's your buckskin playmate?" he asked, throwing an appraising gaze over his shoulder at Vin, who frowned then returned to nursing his drink. "He looks rough for a dealer."
"He's nobody." Ezra shrugged.
"Nobody, huh?" Quirrell looked over at Vin again, long and hard. After a moment, Vin turned around and glared back.
"He's just an acquaintance," Ezra spoke quickly, perhaps too quickly judging by Quirrell's pseudo-grin. "If we have business, perhaps we should avail ourselves of the night air and its privacy?" Ezra stood up and went to walk past Quirrell, taking the lead to the doors, when Quirrell grabbed his wrist hard, bruising the flesh and making the joint pop.
"Or perhaps we could go back to your room? You have whiskey there, don't you?"
"Assuredly so," Ezra answered through his grimace then managed a smile and a nod for Vin as Quirrell released his wrist before they left the saloon.
"You got yourself settled pretty here, I see," Quirrell spoke close to Ezra's ear as they mock-strolled along the boardwalk. When Ezra tried to pull away, he found that Quirrell's hand had snuck around his waist to hold him even closer. "You got a scam going here, boy? Something juicy, I bet," Quirrell hissed before suddenly shoving Ezra off the boardwalk into the thick blackness of a vacant lot.
After fetching up hard against the rough wood wall of one of the flanking buildings, Ezra had no sooner turned to face Quirrell than he received a devastating punch to the jaw which had him down on his hands and knees, spitting out a molar.
"You are slow, boy!" Quirrell laughed before kicking Ezra onto his back. "You weren't this slovenly when we rode together."
Ezra blinked up at the cold night stars through the waves of pain and deliberately let his body go limp when Quirrell approached to wrestle him to his feet.
"Up you get now, sweetie. I got work for you," Quirrell said, his voice thick with amusement as he pinned Ezra to the wall for a quick, clumsy grope. Not willing to take a chance with Quirrell's deadly speed even in these close confines, Ezra waited until the rough, questing hands were working up the back of his shirt before popping his Deringer out of his sleeve and holding it to Quirrell's neck. The feel of the gun muzzle against his artery soon put a stop to the brutal kissing and love bites he was inflicting on Ezra's mouth and throat.
"That's the second tooth you've cost me," Ezra growled, low and flat.
"Gold suits you," Quirrell answered lightly. "But enough of the foreplay." He stepped back, ignoring the gun Ezra kept trained on him. "I've got the perfect little bunco play going on in 'Frisco and all I want is a touch of your finesse to close the deal. I'll pay you one thousand for three days work. We'll set out first thing in the morning. Deal?"
Ezra rubbed his swelling jaw then, cradling his aching ribs, blinked at the shadowy figure spouting such nonsense. "No," he spluttered, shaking his head in disbelief.
"All right, two thousand," Quirrell returned in less than a heartbeat. "That must be more than anything you can make in this rat hole."
"Are you hard of hearing?" Ezra snapped. "I'd rather work for the devil himself than touch your blood money."
"Three thousand!" Quirrell barked, startling Ezra before tackling him once more, knocking his breath from his lungs and pinning the Deringer against the wall. "A thousand a day. That's my final offer," Quirrell said over the sound of two guns cocking: Ezra's against Quirrell's stomach and Quirrell's against Ezra's ribs.
"And I--" Ezra began only to be cut off by Vin Tanner shouting, "Put the gun up and back away, mister!" followed by the loud clicks of a rifle cocking.
"Ah, your buckskinned acquaintance," Quirrell said smugly. "Think that boy can see in the dark?"
"I can see you well enough to put a hole clear through your spine," Vin called out. "Back away, arms raised, now!"
"Very well," Quirrell answered, doing as Vin asked. "But it's just a little misunderstanding between old friends. Isn't that right, Ezra?"
"Step onto the boardwalk. Slow," Vin continued steadily as Ezra holstered one gun but kept the Deringer trained on Quirrell until the killer had mounted the boardwalk and Vin had taken his gun.
"I don't know what all the fuss is about," Quirrell protested smoothly as Ezra pushed his Deringer back up his sleeve and tried to tidy up his dishevelled state. He was going to be marked by Quirrell come morning that was for sure.
"Assault's a crime in this town, friend," Vin growled, his muzzle pointing at Quirrell's sternum. "You all right, Ezra?" He squinted into the vacant lot before turning Quirrell around, preparing to march him off to jail.
"Fine." Ezra tidied himself into a reasonable state of decency then climbed up into the weak light of the boardwalk. "Thank you for your kind intentions, Mr Tanner, but, as the gentleman said, we are just old friends having a slight disagreement. I apologise for any inconvenience."
Vin frowned at him. "Ezra, I can see your jaw swellin' from here."
"As I said, it was a slight disagreement," Ezra repeated coldly. "I assure you I am well. Now, if you would be so kind as to release my friend, we'll be on our way."
Vin studied Ezra a moment before shaking his head. "All right, it's your business." He pushed Quirrell away from him. "You can go for now but I'll hold on to your gun. You can pick it up from the jail in the morning on your way out of town." He glared at Quirrell until the man smirked and turned to walk across the street with a shrugging roll of his shoulders. "Not so fast." Vin grabbed Ezra's elbow as he started to walk after Quirrell. "I think it'd be best if you two 'old friends' kept clear of each other, don't you?"
Ezra met Vin's stubborn gaze before inclining his head gracefully. "I bow to your wisdom, Mr Tanner." But when he tried to walk back to the saloon, Vin stopped him again.
"Maybe you should stop by Nathan's and get something for that jaw."
"I assure you, Mr Tanner, I am not and have never been in need of your assistance." Ezra shrugged off Vin's hand. "Thank you for your concern. Good evening." He sidestepped Vin and walked back along the boardwalk to the saloon.
Ezra awoke into a world of pain. His head was pounding as if he had drank too much of something he really should not have. When he tried to move away from the patch of sticky dampness he seemed to be lying in, his tender ribs screamed in protest. When he opened his mouth to curse Quirrell, his jaw lashed a whip of pain around his skull. Perhaps he should have visited Nathan last night instead of over-partaking in the anaesthetic effects of alcohol, he thought dully as he elbowed up carefully to find out what he had spilled on the mattress. He hoped it wasn't... no, that dark reddish-black stuff drying on his sheets was definitely not his good whiskey. There was too much of it for a start. He pulled back the remaining bedcovers from his body and found himself naked in a veritable pool of blood.
Choking on his next breath, Ezra scrambled to get out of bed, away from the grisly bedclothes, only to get them hopelessly tangled between his legs so he tumbled out of bed onto his back. Lying on the floor, trying to catch his breath and bite back the pain, he managed to free his legs from the blankets at last. He then closed his eyes and tried to steady his breathing, calm his reeling thoughts. The blood could wait. It wasn't his and, for the moment, that was all that mattered. Nodding to himself as much as his aching head would allow, he let his head slip to the side so he was facing under the bed when he reopened his eyes... and looked straight into the wide, sightless gaze of a very dead Obadiah Quirrell.
Time froze as Ezra locked eyes with the dead man, just as naked as he was, mirroring his prostrate position on the other side of the bed. He wasn't sure if it was this macabre similarity bringing home the prospect of death that made him promptly jerk to his knees and void his stomach contents onto the hardwood floor, but that's how Nathan Jackson found him when he opened the room door a moment later.
"I told you, I don't know," Ezra repeated for what seemed like the thousandth time as he glared back at Chris Larabee and tried not to shiver into the blanket he was wearing because the other lawmen wouldn't let him get across the room to his clothes. "Are you gentlemen done yet?" he shouted over at Vin, Nathan and Josiah Sanchez who, for all intents and purposes, seemed to be achieving very little by poking around the body and his blood-smeared personal belongings. "I'd like to get washed, shaved and dressed before Mr Dunne and Judge Travis take me off to jail."
"Too late," Buck Wilmington sighed from the doorway just before the judge entered, closely followed by JD Dunne.
"It's your room, Ezra," Chris harped on again. "How could you not know he was here? He sure as hell didn't climb in through the window because you nailed it shut."
"It rattled, and I sure as hell didn't let him through the door!"
"Made himself right at home, though." Josiah picked up the neat pile of clothes Quirrell had left on Ezra's clothes trunk to show them to the judge and JD.
"Well, he certainly thought he was welcome," Judge Travis commented, glancing at the body before settling his gaze upon Ezra. "How well did you know this man, Mr Standish?"
"I..." The lies queued up to come out of Ezra's mouth until he caught Vin's eye, then he closed his jaw with a painful snap before continuing. "I met him in San Francisco a few years ago."
"You used to work together, correct?" the judge asked sharply.
Ezra nodded. "We associated."
"Long enough to know that I didn't want anything more to do with him." Ezra's gaze drifted to the body Nathan was now covering with a bloody sheet. "I'm not exactly distraught by his death, it's true." Ezra suppressed the shudder at having death so close to him while he slept. "Frankly, it was high time he shuffled off this mortal coil and there will be many to celebrate his demise, I assure you. But if I wanted to murder someone, I hope I would have the intelligence not to do the deed in my own room, with my own gun before bedding down next to the corpse."
"That's not how it looks either," Vin called from where he crouched by some bloody smear marks on the floor. "We reckon that by the time the last man came into the room--"
"You, Ezra, judging by the things he touched in ignorance of the blood," Josiah added.
"Thank you," Ezra replied dryly.
"I'd say that Quirrell," Vin continued evenly, "was already gettin' cold."
"That's assuming you went to bed in the dark or that you didn't mind a dead man bleeding all over your room." Josiah smiled and Ezra returned it sarcastically.
"So, you are claiming that you went to bed in the dark with no knowledge of the deceased's presence?" Judge Travis studied Ezra as if he was a slab of meat in a butcher's shop.
"I am claiming nothing of the sort." Ezra articulated with painful clarity. "I remember leaving Mr Tanner and going back to the saloon. It was almost light when I was going up the stairs to my room. I felt a little dizzy before I opened the door but I don't remember going to bed. I don't know if I lit the lamp or not but I think I would have noticed Mr Quirrell in any condition had I seen him."
"And you say you never saw the deceased again until this morning?"
"I am not 'saying'," Ezra growled against his pounding headache, "I give you my word. I never saw him alive again after I parted company with him under Mr Tanner's watchful gaze. How he came to have the deplorable taste to die in my room, I can't tell you," Ezra spoke with finality. "Now, if you gentleman would be so kind as to furnish me with some hot water and clean clothes?"
"Very well." The judge motioned Vin to hand Ezra the pile of clothes he held. "There is fresh water and soap in the room next door. You will be escorted to a cell afterwards as a precautionary matter of course."
"Oh, of course. Thank you, sir." Ezra took the clothes, not bothering to comment on the mismatched shirt and vest as he padded out of his room to the box room next door. Welcome to your prison, he thought as he entered the doorway then stopped mid-step when he saw his reflection in the discoloured dressing table mirror. After a few seconds, he stepped up close, hoping the telltale bruises on his skin were just bloodstains, or smudges on the mirror. He picked up the sponge from the water bowl and rubbed it over his face and neck, paying particular attention to the angry red marks that peppered his throat. No such luck, his stinging skin just looked darker and angrier the harder he rubbed. Taken together, the bruising on his neck, wrist, shoulder and ribs looked exactly that: as if he had been taken. "I'm not going anywhere, Mr Larabee, I assure you." Ezra glowered at Chris' reflection in the mirror, wondering how long his fellow lawman had been standing behind him like a dark pariah. "As you can see, this room has no windows, nailed shut or otherwise."
"I'm not the enemy," Chris said quietly as he dropped Ezra's boots by the bed then shut the door behind him.
"Well, I thank you for that timely piece of information, but may I add that I have no need of your aid either to clothe or dress myself." Ezra turned to face Chris, who had stepped up to within arms reach.
"I know who Quirrell was. By reputation, in any case. Whoever killed him was doing the world a favour."
Ezra tried a smirk. "Ah, then that definitely let's me out. As you are all well aware, philanthropy is not one of my vices."
"No," Chris returned, a slight smile tugging at his lips as he reached out to finger the bruising on Ezra's neck in a feint echo of the scattered intimacies they had shared over the past few weeks. But Ezra recoiled, turning to face the mirror once more and go through the motions of washing his tainted skin.
"I suppose that if you insist upon supervising my ablutions there is nothing I can do to deter you." Ezra dunked the sponge into the water, cursing when it almost splashed his neatly stacked pile of clothes.
Without a word, Chris moved the clothes from the dresser to the small bed and put the whiskey flask he had brought through beside them.
"Thank you," Ezra addressed Chris via the mirror then went about wiping down his arms and chest, ignoring the blanket when it fell to the floor.
"Let me," Chris murmured before taking the sponge from Ezra's grasp to clean his back in long, even strokes that made the muscles tense then ease in accommodation. "How did you know Quirrell?" Chris asked as he rinsed out the sponge then went back to cleaning Ezra's lower back. "From what I hear, he was a stone-cold killer. He won his games through sheer intimidation. He doesn't seem like your type."
"To work with. How did you know him?" Chris repeated, moving the sponge lower, then lower still.
"Oh, I knew him," Ezra finally replied, letting Chris imply the biblical connotation if he wished to do so. "Now, I believe I can finish this myself, Mr Larabee. I'm much obliged for your assistance." He turned to take the sponge from Chris' hand.
However, Chris just shook his head slightly and wiped away an imaginary bloodstain from Ezra's cheek before kissing him softly but firmly on the mouth. "I don't think you killed him. But I wouldn't blame you if you did." Chris began washing Ezra's chest, arms and sides with the same long, rhythmic strokes he had used on his back. "Some men are long over due what's coming to them." He rinsed out the sponge then finished cleaning Ezra's chest to his own satisfaction before crouching to wash the blood-smeared lower body. "This Quirrell was one of those men." Chris edged Ezra's legs apart a little more as he wiped the stained thighs before turning his attention to Ezra's hardening cock.
"And what do men like us deserve?" Ezra asked tensely, but Chris just moved around to clean his hip. Shivering, Ezra closed his eyes and spoke to the warm touch that was finally calming his spinning mind. "A few years back, myself and a Mr Etienne Cross rode into a town called Digby, just after a coach robbery there you may have heard of."
"The government bullion job?" Chris queried without breaking his stroke.
"That's the one." Ezra smiled. "Eighty thousand dollars worth of gold bullion rendered almost useless to the thieves by the official stamps on their shiny posteriors. Well, it didn't take long before Mr Cross and I worked out the perfect plan. While he worked with a mutual friend to secure several bricks of 'special government gold', I ingratiated myself with the key players in town over a few friendly games of cards."
"You swindled bullion robbers?"
"Nothing quite so dashing, I'm afraid. Just a few very greedy town founders who should have known better than to buy stolen gold at a quarter of the price."
"Where does Quirrell come into all this?"
"He doesn't," Ezra replied quietly. "It took our dullard buyers three days to work out that they'd been had but by then, of course, myself and Mr Cross were far away."
"But not as far as you should have been," Chris guessed where the story was heading.
Ezra nodded. "It seemed that the robbers had an inside man in town and that gentleman was more than happy to relate our activities to his co-conspirators. They followed us for the three days, waiting for the best opportunity to claim back what they no doubt thought was rightfully theirs. They attacked us at night, in the middle of the desert. I was lucky to get away in the clothes I slept in. They got the twenty thousand and whatever Mr Cross and I had in our bags. Mr Cross' luck ran out entirely when a bullet entered his skull just above the left ear."
Finishing his work without comment, Chris moved back from Ezra and stood up to drop the sponge into the pink-stained water before rubbing his damp hands on his coat pockets. "Your clean and almost dry. You're best just gettin' dressed now and shaving later at the jail with some clean water."
"Much obliged, Mr Larabee." Ezra smiled slightly, half-raising a hand towards Chris then letting it drop away. "It seems my partners have the unfortunate habit of succumbing at most inopportune times. I must admit, I never thought Mr Quirrell would have such a problem."
"Happens." Chris shrugged. "I'm going to see what Vin and Nathan have found out. Don't take too long dressin' or we'll cart you over there in your britches." He whiplashed a smile before leaving Ezra to himself, his clothes and his whiskey flask.
From one month to the next, the jail cells never changed. Ezra should know, he'd visited them often enough. The mattresses were lumpy and riddled with who knew what kinds of bloodsucking wildlife. Any budding botanist would be thrilled to collect samples of the multi-coloured mould that crawled up the cell walls no matter how many times they were washed, which, Ezra suspected, wasn't as often as they should be. Carefully prodding the raw hole in his gum where yesterday there was a tooth, Ezra had to admit that being in jail, on the whole, sucked hairy mule phallus.
"Grubs up," JD called with false cheer while balancing a tray in one hand and opening the cell door with the other. To Ezra's dismay, he saw that the tray was laden down with a stew of dubious origin, a few lumps of greyish biscuits and an apple, which looked as if it had come from the livery stable floor.
"Ah, I see." Ezra stood to politely receive the tray. "Hoping that enticing aroma was just an industrious soul boiling their linens was obviously too much to wish for."
"None of is think you killed that man, Ezra." JD jingled the cell keys with nervous energy. "We all agree you ain't that dumb."
"Your collective faith warms my heart."
"The others are all out there trying to find the truth," JD insisted. "It won't be long until they find the real murderer."
"Meanwhile, you all agree that incarceration is good for my complexion." Ezra smiled sarcastically as he settled back onto the bunk, resting the tray beside him only to promptly ignore it.
"You've only been here for a couple of hours." JD backed out the cell, scowling. "When are you going to quit complaining?"
"When I'm free. You don't have to lock the door, Mr Dunne," Ezra added as JD did just that.
"Sorry. It's the rules."
"Charmed, I'm sure." Ezra leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes while JD raked through desk drawers.
"Have you seen my handcuffs?" JD asked after a few minutes. "I think Buck took them."
Ezra made no response and actually succeeded in falling asleep at one point, only to wake up to the sound of a scuffle and the clanking of cell doors.
"You're free to go!" JD grinned as he opened Ezra's cell door. "I told you it wouldn't take long for the boys to find him." JD nodded towards Chris and Vin then the man sitting defeated in the next cell.
Studying Quirrell's murderer as he walked out of his jail cell, Ezra barely registered Vin and Chris' account of the apprehension after Vin recounted how the man refused to talk. His attention fixed on discovering the identity of the man who had framed him, Ezra stood on the opposite side of the bars, watching the prisoner stare at the floor between his boots. He didn't recognise this man at all but framing him was such a sweet coincidence that Ezra didn't believe it for a second.
"Do you know me, sir?" Ezra asked of the prisoner as Vin fell silent.
The man brought up his weather-beaten face to look Ezra in the eye and sneer. "Never seen you before in my life, pretty boy." He hawked and spat by Ezra's boot.
"You're a goddamn liar," Ezra growled back. "Who hired you?"
"I ain't no liar and no one hired me." The prisoner turned his gaze back to the scuffed floor.
"Let me in the cell." Ezra turned to JD.
"Can't do that." JD shook his head then glanced back at Chris.
Ezra also looked at Chris and Chris nodded slightly before addressing JD, "Let him in."
"All right." JD opened the cell door and stepped back.
They were all taken by surprise when Ezra suddenly launched himself at the prisoner, punching the man a good shot in the jaw before dragging him to his feet, kneeing him in the crotch and ramming his head into the prison bars. "Remember me now?" He shouted as Chris and Vin wrestled him out of the cell and JD corralled the blood-spitting prisoner in the corner.
"Calm down, Ezra. He ain't gettin' away with nothin'," Vin spoke low by Ezra's ear after he and Chris had ended up pinning Ezra facedown onto a desk for the safety of all.
"Lock that damn door, JD!" Chris hollered before wrenching Ezra's arm up his back and leaning down on Ezra's already bruised ribs. "Calm down," he commanded in a tone that made Ezra want to punch his face in despite the choking pain that made him arch back into Chris' body heat. "You done?" Chris finally asked when Ezra had steadied his breathing against JD's scattered papers. "I can hold you like this all day," Chris warned when Ezra tested him again.
"He's working for someone else. Can't you see that?" Ezra tried to buck Chris off but only succeeded in getting his arm wrenched further up his back. "Goddamn you, Larabee!"
"You done yet?" Chris asked again, flatly, calmly, as if he could indeed hold Ezra down all day.
"Yeah, fine, let me up." Ezra struggled but Chris held him firm. "Let me up, Chris. I'm finished, all right? I surrender." Ezra relaxed against the desk and was finally released.
"If he is working for someone else, we'll find out who," Vin tried to reassure him but Ezra immediately turned around to meet Chris' hard glare.
"Good luck, Mr Tanner," Ezra staccatoed while holding Chris' gaze before sparing a scowl at the bloodied murderer and stalking out of the jail.
Ezra could do many things while blind drunk but guillotining playing cards didn't seem to be one of them. Instead of trimming off the fraying edges, Ezra found himself cutting off pieces of pasteboard a finger's width thick. The trimming had gotten boring, so he was now sitting at the poker table cutting the cards into various shapes. Circles were tricky and squares were not very challenging, but rhombuses and triangles were rather entertaining. He was throwing a triangular two of hearts across the table to join its similarly mutilated brethren, when Chris sat down on the chair beside him.
"You've been drinkin' all night," Chris began in his whispered tones. "You don't get paid to sit in the saloon in the middle of the afternoon gettin' drunk."
Not bothering to look up, Ezra picked up an eight of spades and began cutting it into an isosceles triangle. "Forgive me for saying so, but you, sir, are a hypocritical son of a--" Ezra broke off as Chris pinned his hand on top of the card he was cutting. "Mr Larabee, I do not appreciate the frequent manner in which you manhandle my person." He pulled his hand free.
"I'm not the enemy, Ezra." Chris let his hand fall beneath the table where it rested on Ezra's thigh. "You should know that by now." That's when Ezra made the mistake of looking Chris directly in the eye. Captured by the patient, almost sympathetic look he found there, he was rendered incapable of putting up much of a struggle when Chris 'escorted' him to his room.
"It reeks of death in here, my friend," Ezra said glumly as Chris sat him down on the edge of his bed. "Like Lady Mac Beth, the stains won't come out. I fear I may have to find myself other accommodation," he continued, watching Chris crouch down before him to pull off his boots. "Why, Mr Larabee, a more suspicious person would say that you are trying to get me into bed." Ezra grinned.
"That's the general idea." Chris set Ezra's boots down at the end of the bed but before he could stand away, Ezra snaked an arm around his neck and pulled him in for a long, lazy kiss.
"Glad to hear it." Ezra broke the kiss to stand up and take Chris' hat from his head before pulling his coat down over his arms and beginning to unbutton his shirt. "I used to wonder why you touched me, wondered what you'd do if I touched you back." Ezra kissed Chris lightly on the mouth.
Chris pulled back as if bitten by a rattler. "That's not what I was plannin' on." He shrugged out of his coat, letting it drop to the floor. "You should rest up for tomorrow." He guided Ezra back onto the mattress then stepped away again.
"Why, what's happening tomorrow?" Ezra asked dully while peeling off his jacket. "Don't tell me Judge Travis has decided to hang that scum-sucking son of a bitch already." He unbuckled his shoulder holster and gun belt before laying them on the bedside table. "That'd be quick work even for him." He snapped off his Deringer rig then laid it on top of his other guns.
"No, no one's getting hanged. I've got work for you." Chris watched Ezra remove his watch and then unbutton his vest and shirt.
"How wonderful," Ezra commented flatly. "I'll look forward to greeting the rosy fingers of dawn with eager anticipation." He pulled off his shirt and vest as one then threw them over his shoulder, heedless of where they landed.
Chris scowled at him.
"What now?" Ezra asked, standing to remove his pants and underwear. "I gave you ample opportunity to undress me yourself, but you refused, sir. It's very bad manners to cast aspersions after you have shown no interest in carrying out the deed."
"It's not that I'm not interested," Chris began with a half-smile but that was all Ezra needed to hear. In less than a heartbeat, he had captured Chris' mouth in a hard, unyielding kiss while unbuttoning Chris' shirt. This time he refused to give in until Chris was kissing him back, edging them both towards the bed.
"Now you are getting the idea." Ezra kissed along Chris' shoulders and rubbed himself against Chris' length, revelling in the delicious contrast of smooth skin, fibrous cloth and warm leather.
"Easy, or we're both likely to go off," Chris hoarsed, manoeuvring Ezra onto the mattress then unbuckling his gun belt to hang it over a bedpost before joining him on the bed.
"Move your slovenly hide, Larabee." Ezra rolled onto his stomach beneath Chris then kneed up onto his hands and knees. "As you so astutely pointed out, we haven't got all day." He pressed back, acutely aware of his engorged cock batting needfully against his thighs.
Chris grew still behind him.
A silence fell over the room.
Ezra felt his body shiver. He was about to move away, to crawl away, when a warm hand settled comfortingly at the base of his spine. After a moment, it was joined by another and together they began stoking Ezra's shivering skin, relaxing the muscles that had begun to tense.
"We'll need something," Chris barely whispered.
Ezra nodded jerkily. "At times like these your universal lubricants of blood and spit just won't do. Fortunately, our Mediterranean friends have been exploiting the varying uses of olive oil for millennia." Ezra shuddered as he felt Chris' stubble brush against his hip.
"Is it in the bed table drawer or your trunk?"
"Drawer." Ezra moved his knees impatiently against the mattress as Chris leaned over and retrieved the oil. "It burns cleaner than coal oil," Ezra offered then drew in a sharp breath as Chris' slickened fingers began their slow invasion. "Someone might think you've done this before," Ezra gasped, easing back to ride out the burning sensation. Chris made no reply; he just increased his steady assault until his fingers could move smoothly in and out of Ezra's body and he accidentally struck the sweet spot that made Ezra arch his back and pant a breath.
"You let that bastard Quirrell do this," Chris growled abruptly, withdrawing his touch.
His anger flaring dizzily after such an assault, Ezra whirled around -- only to be caught up in a kiss that was all more devastating for its tenderness.
"I want to see your face." Chris looked Ezra in the eye as he pushed him back onto the mattress. "Don't look away from me."
"I won't." Ezra shook his head then had to fight against closing his eyes when Chris grasped his cock for a few expert strokes while freeing his own erection from his pants.
"Don't stall." Ezra felt himself moving fractionally down the bed, as if he could impale himself onto Chris' thick, slick cock.
"Easy," Chris whispered just before opening Ezra wide and easing himself in, long, slow and perfect.
"You have done his before," Ezra breathed light-headedly but Chris just shook his head, his eyes narrowing but never leaving Ezra's as he pushed forever deeper. Ezra choked a breath when Chris finally eased all the way home but still managed to say, "I do believe you are a natural."
"Quiet." Chris kissed him, biting his bottom lip playfully. "Ready?"
Ezra nodded but wasn't prepared for the swift withdrawal and even faster re-entry of Chris' entire length. "Fuck!" He grabbed Chris tight against him before the manoeuvre could be repeated. "Don't ever do that again," he growled through the burning. "You were doing perfectly well up until then."
Lying still, Chris made no response. After a moment's repose, Ezra felt the muscles along Chris' back tighten so he released the other man and held his breath.
Kissing Ezra apologetically on the lips before moving down to mouth his throat and shoulders, Chris took hold of Ezra's cock and eased himself into a slower rhythm that soon built into a punishing pace. Clawing at the shirt on Chris' back, Ezra felt the aching pressure deep within him build until his senses broke and spiralled away from him under tides of pure, honey-warm pleasure.
When Ezra's sense returned, Chris' pace had become jerky and desperate with his approaching release. Suddenly aware of the inevitable, Ezra shoved Chris off him as hard as he could -- but Chris' seed had already begun spurting hotly inside him.
"Bastard!" Ezra reached for his Deringer as Chris hit the bedrail, making the bed shudder. "Get the fuck out!" he continued, turning the hideout gun on Chris who, even at the tail end of an orgasm, had unholstered his gun to return the compliment.
"What the fuck's wrong with you?" Chris tucked his cock away but held his gun steady. "You wanted it."
"You don't do that without asking first, you dumb horse-herder," Ezra snapped. "Get out. Now."
"Fine." Chris holstered his gun and made to get off the bed then, at the last moment, he grabbed hold of the Deringer and punched Ezra in the stomach.
Wheezing under Chris' new assault, Ezra let go of his gun and brought his head up sharply against Chris' chin. When this brought forth the desired snapping sound and muffled curse, Ezra pushed Chris off the bed. Unfortunately, Chris caught hold of Ezra's neck and they both toppled onto the floor in a kicking, cursing tangle.
The next thing either of them was aware of, apart from half-blocked punches, painful gasps and the other's body heat, was Buck Wilmington kicking in the door and levelling his rifle at them. "All right, ste--" Buck began before his words caught in his throat. "Chris..." He lowered the rifle. "And, hey, Ezra... on the floor, with no..." He shuffled back a step. "All right, I'm just going to leave now." Buck closed the door and made a hasty retreat.
Listening to Buck's fading footsteps, Ezra watched Chris stand up using the support of the bed. As Chris quickly buttoned up his shirt, Ezra moved away to sit up against the opposite wall.
"I didn't know," Chris offered while tucking in his shirt then reaching to put on his gun belt.
"I know you didn't." Ezra made no effort to get up while Chris retrieved his hat and coat. "My head hurts," he sighed. "I fear I am not a mean drunk but a maudlin one." Ezra rubbed his eyes and, when he looked up again, Chris was standing above him, offering a hand up. A smile tugging at his lips, Ezra took the offered hand and let the other man haul him to his feet. "Much obliged." He grinned then frowned at his broken door lock. "But what about Mr Wilmington?"
"I'll speak to Buck. You get some sleep." Chris shrugged on his coat and headed for the door. "I'll expect you in the livery at dawn, if not sooner." He paused in the doorway to scowl at the loosely rattling door handle. "Remember to wedge this door shut."
Ezra was sound asleep. He was pretty sure of that, unless the bathhouse had started filling their tubs with ten dollar gold pieces for their patrons to wade in. It was a lovely dream, hopefully prophetic -- until someone started shooting. Sighing, Ezra rolled over onto his stomach and half pulled a pillow over his head. A little voice in the back of his mind told him that the shooting was real and that he'd better get up and see what was going on. That voice was always stirring up trouble.
"EZRA!" Someone bellowed from outside. Thankfully, it was dull enough to be ignored. Ezra settled more comfortably into his mattress and began to drift off again.
"Ezra, wake up!" Someone was shaking his shoulder. "I swear, Chris, he's dead to the world," Buck stage-whispered. "Slept through me kicking his door in an' all. Think I should shoot a hole his trunk? That'd wake him up lickety-split."
"Yeah," Chris agreed and that was enough for Ezra.
"Don't you dare!" He rocketed up from the bedclothes.
"Told you that'd work." Buck grinned then whistled out the room.
"C'mon, we have to ride." Chris turned to follow Buck out. "Vin's already tracking him."
"Who?" Ezra squinted from the flickering oil lamp to the darkness outside his window. "You said dawn."
"Plan changed." Chris shrugged. "Quirrell's murderer took the bait early."
"Qui-- wait!" Ezra nearly fell out of bed as Chris walked out the room.
"Well, it's now clear to me why Messrs Dunne, Jackson and Sanchez elected to remain in town while we rode hell for leather after the 'escapee'." Ezra turned in his saddle and scowled back at Buck, who snored on while riding his half-asleep horse. "They must have doctored Mr Wilmington's last repast for that unholy din cannot be produced by nature alone." He turned back to face the front, trying not to wince at the pain that came from his head, his shoulder, his ribs, his wrist, his a-- everywhere.
"How about finishing your story, Ezra?" Vin yawned as they rode on together through the early morning desert. "You were just getting to the interestin' part."
"Of course, Mr Tanner. But if you'll excuse me for a moment." Ezra pulled his flask out of his jacket pocket but found it depressingly empty. Then, shaking his head in polite refusal of Vin's water canteen, Ezra addressed Chris. "If you had been kind enough to inform me of your machinations, Mr Larabee, I could have come prepared."
Chris continued to squint at the horizon in silence.
Then Vin responded, "You wanted to find out who hired Quirrell's killer and that's what we're doing, tracking the rat back to his hole."
Watching Chris all but ignore them, Ezra sighed. "What kind of fool would ride into this godforsaken desert in the middle of the night? How could anyone know where they were riding to?"
"I'd know," Vin answered.
"Well that doesn't surprise me in the least." Ezra glanced at the sun. It was going to get hot. Damn hot. "Has it ever occurred to you, Mr Tanner, that if the good Lord wanted us to traverse the deserts he would have provided it with adequate libation?"
"That's what towns are for," Chris commented dryly, making Vin smile.
Ezra watched Chris and Vin exchange a look before drawling, "Touche, Mr Larabee, touche."
"So, what about this story, Ezra?" Vin pressed again.
"Ah, yes, where was I?"
"The whorehouse," Chris said, his gaze back on the horizon. "The guy had just jumped out the window because he couldn't pay."
"Of course." Ezra nodded. "So there our hero is, running along the back lots in his underwear, with Magnificent Mitzy's ropes flying from his wrists and ankles, when it suddenly occurs to him that he has to traverse the main thoroughfare to return to his awaiting steed. Lady luck, however, seems to be smiling on our hero because it's the middle of the day and the majority of the town's populace are indoors partaking of a midday meal. So, deciding that needs must, he resolves to make his dash before the streets liven once more. Steeling his courage, he removes the remaining lipstick from his neck before running into main street -- headlong into the arms of his Temperance Guild Leader brother-in-law."
Ezra paused in his tale as Vin laughed and Chris shook his head, almost breaking a grin.
"How long did it take for his wife to throw him out?" Vin giggled.
"I'll have you know that his good lady wife welcomed that gentleman home with open arms," Ezra replied with a wink. "All our quick thinking hero had to do was drop to his knees at his righteous brother-in-law's feet and shout, 'Thank the Lord, brother! Quick, telegram Mary not to pay the ransom. I just escaped!"
Chris' laugh may have been more of a guffaw but the noise of the combined laughter was enough to wake Buck up from his saddle snoozing.
"What, whew, what's so funny, boys?" Buck trotted his horse up beside them. "Ezra, have you been repeating my tall cathouse tales again?" He squinted a grin at them.
"Why certainly not, Mr Wilmington. I wouldn't presume. I was merely attempting to entertain these fine gentleman on our long ride while you were otherwise engaged."
"Speakin' of long rides." Buck looked around him. "Where in the blue blazes are we?"
"Just a few miles west of the Flat," Vin answered. "Reckon he's headed for Flagstaff, a little town with big ideas a few miles ahead."
"Flagstaff!" Buck all but yelped. "Hey, is the marshal there still an ornery little critter by the name of Joe Radcliffe?"
"Short, squinting grey eyes, looks sorta like a bald rat with his tail on fire?"
"Now that you mention it." Vin laughed.
"I take it you are familiar with the good marshal?" Ezra asked.
"I sure as heck am. We rode together for a few years down east. Good man but absolutely no luck with the ladies." Buck winked. "Owes me a favour or two."
"Good," Chris said, still watching the horizon. "That'll make our work go quicker. That looks like Flagstaff now."
Buck had already jaunted off to see his friend the marshal when Chris, Ezra and Vin split up to check out the town's saloons. Seven saloons meant two each and Ezra, having already inspected his roach farm quota, was making his way to the rendezvous saloon when a familiar figure arrested his attention. The woman was tall, blonde and wearing an exquisitely tailored, dark green travel ensemble -- but it was her regal bearing that made Ezra follow her down a vacant lot to the rear entrance of the photograph gallery.
"Ezra, honey!" Maude Standish turned from where she was packing her horse to greet her son, her smile only wavering slightly at his somewhat battered appearance. "You're looking... a tad under the weather, dear." She kissed him on the unmarked side of his face. "Never mind, I knew those friends of yours would come in useful one day."
Ezra's gaze narrowed. "You know about Quirrell?"
"Why, of course." Maude petted Ezra's shoulder then, discovering it to be rather sandy, began dusting down his jacket with her gloved hands. "You know how I like to keep abreast of these matters."
"You know who did this?" Ezra took hold of his mother's busy hands.
"Don't be so melodramatic." Maude pulled her hands free. "When we heard that Quirrell was looking for a partner, you to be precise, we decided it was high time he paid the piper, as it were."
"Who, may I ask, is we?"
"Does it matter?" Maude tossed her dismissive hand a little too enthusiastically.
"Then why the quick exit?" Ezra looked pointedly at the one small case affixed to her horse's saddle. "Won't your masonry get lonely?"
"Really, Ezra." Maude stamped her feet and pouted in an attempt to hide her growing nervousness. "Haven't I always looked out for you? Even when I couldn't be there for you as a child, I always left you in the best of care."
"Best of care?" Ezra erupted. "Half of them weren't even real relatives!"
"And what does that matter? Devon Coleson was as good a father to you as any man could have been. He absolutely doted upon you. His family were more than happy to look after you when he passed."
"Mr Coleson was a rich old man you charmed into marriage, Mother."
"I gave him the best four years of his life."
"And we both know how that ended."
"You are truly impossible, Ezra." Maude stamped her feet. "That odious man Quirrell finally gets his just deserts and all you can do is complain about a few minor technicalities."
"Minor technicalities? I was framed for murder. I was in jail!"
"Nonsense." Maude looked nervously around before pecking Ezra on the cheek. "Now, I have matters to attend to, son, and I suggest you do the same," she warned before turning to mount her horse.
"Wait a minute." Ezra took hold of her elbow before she could go. "Just who are the partners in this little venture that you are so eager to get away from?"
"Oh, that would be me," came a lilting female voice from behind Ezra that chilled him to the bone.
Watching Maude bite her bottom lip and shake her head slightly before he turned around to face her 'partner', Ezra still hoped he had mistakenly guessed the woman's identity. Unfortunately, the dainty figure dressed in black silks to match her coal black hair and bring out her large, brown, doe eyes, was just as striking as he remembered. Caroline Bradshaw was as innocent looking as a newborn fawn and as deadly as a nest of irate rattlesnakes.
"So nice to meet you again, Mr Standish." She smiled as two men flanked past her, their guns drawn and pointed at Maude and Ezra. "I suggest no sudden movement."
"Of course not, Mrs Bradshaw," Ezra returned as he was relieved of his guns. "I take it you are still Mrs Bradshaw unless you have recently remarried once more?" Ezra ignored the gun muzzle digging into his back while Maude tutted at similar treatment.
"Well, I could never find another husband up to my standards after you and Quirrell set me up," she said in such a way that made Ezra glad of the fact she wasn't carrying a gun on this outing. But then his heart sank when two more of Caroline's ruffians came around the corner, one pushing a disarmed Vin Tanner, the other a disarmed Chris Larabee.
"Shit," Maude hissed low before stepping a little in front of Ezra and addressing her one time partner. "Now come on, Caroline, play fair. You said you wouldn't hurt Ezra. You said you knew he wasn't to blame for Quirrell calling the law on you."
"That was then, this is after you tried to run out on me." Caroline smiled, sickly sweet.
"Don't flannel me, girl," Maude snapped. "You tried to set up my son for murder after telling me you'd let him be. Hell," Maude all but shouted, "I didn't even know you were going to have Quirrell killed."
"No, but I bet you guessed," Caroline purred back. "You know how I operate when someone crosses me. And as for your baby boy, well, the opportunity to let him take the fall was just too poetic, don't you think? But then you had to run off after him," Caroline suddenly snarled, her eyes flashing. "I used to respect you, Maude. You were smart. But now I see that you just don't have what it takes to be a successful woman in a man's world. All men are bastards waiting to happen." Caroline took a moment to check the time on her butterfly-shaped broach watch. "That's why, in thirty seconds, the town's midday gun is going to go off and three men are going to die like the rancid mutts they are. And you are too, my dear Maude." She smiled again.
"Well, isn't that just perfect," Ezra turned on his mother with a growl. "Out of all our old associates, you had to turn to the only one more murderous than Quirrell. I really have to take my hat off to you this time, Mother dear."
"Oh, shut up, Ezra," Maude growled back. "You are such a whiner. Always complaining. You whined as a child too."
"And how would you know? You were never there."
"I had matters that needed my attention. I always left you in the best of care."
"Well, they do say that the best swindle is the one where you don't have to leave town in a hurry." Ezra sneered.
There was a moment's dead silence before Maude slapped Ezra's face so painfully loud that even Caroline winced. Glaring at his mother, Ezra waited a fraction after Maude began to duck before punching out at where she was standing to hit one of Caroline's henchman squarely on the jaw. Then all hell broke loose as Vin and Chris used the distraction to tackle their gunmen and Ezra pulled Maude to the floor while the other two gunmen shot each other in a crossfire just as the midday gun went off. 'Accidentally' pushing Maude's face into the dirt while trying to protect her, Ezra looked up to see Caroline pull Vin's gun from her henchman's belt and bring it around to bear on Maude. Without thinking, Ezra dove forwards to grab Caroline's ankle and yank her off her feet, not seeing Chris knock his gunman to the ground then grab the gun, but hearing the shot. Caroline Bradshaw was dead before she hit the ground, Chris' bullet having entered neatly through her left eye.
"I do declare you did that on purpose, Ezra." Maude was the first one to her feet after Vin had won his tussle and it was clear that the other gunmen were going to do nothing but groan and bleed under Chris' gun. "Look at the state of me." She wiped at her face then tried to dust off her dress.
"I do apolog--" Ezra broke off to hiss as he sat up, cradling his side.
"Baby!" Maude crouched beside him to carefully discover what was wrong. "That oaf didn't shoot you, did he?"
"No, just a bit bruised." Ezra rubbed his stinging cheek. "Did you have to hit me so hard?"
"Now, now." Maude kissed his hot cheek then stood to inspect a tear in her dress. "Appearances are everything, dear, and I fear we're all a little worse for wear for this encounter." She dusted herself down before turning to calm then mount her horse. "Can't be helped, I suppose. But the distressed look can be appealing." She smiled down at Ezra as he stood up. "Farewell, gentlemen."
"The marshal will be here in a moment, ma'm," Vin walked forwards but Maude trotted her horse a few steps away. "He'll have a few questions needing answerin'."
"All of which you fine gentlemen can answer in my stead, I'm sure." Maude displayed her most charming smile. "Now, as much as I hate to love you and leave you, I'm afraid I have a pressing engagement elsewhere." Maude kicked her horse on and had turned around the corner of the next building before the marshal and Buck came swearing onto the scene.
"Despite her, inarguably, comely appearance, Mrs Bradshaw was no lady, I assure you," Ezra told Buck and Vin, as they stood at the bar of one of Flagstaff's better drinking establishments. "She started life as a mail order bride and, four husbands and four highly suspicious graves later, she owned a good many sizable properties."
"But what could make such a pretty little thing turn out so mean?" Buck lamented into his glass again while Vin picked at the loose label on their whiskey bottle.
Ezra shrugged as he turned to watch Chris drink in solitary silence at the corner table. "How do any of us turn out the way we do, Mr Wilmington," he replied before meandering over to Chris' table.
After asking if he could sit and not getting any response, Ezra sat down in the chair next to Chris and spoke quietly, "This may come as a surprise you, Mr Larabee, but it appears that I may have misled you with one of my earlier remarks."
Chris' only response was to drink down the glass in his hand then refill it.
"Regarding the demise of Mr Cross," Ezra went on. "I may have implied that his death was caused by an unlucky bullet entering his skull when, in truth, the bullet was put there very deliberately... by Mr Cross himself."
Chris looked up, his gaze narrowing upon meeting Ezra's. "I'm not that type," he said, barely audibly.
"Neither was Mr Cross." Ezra paused. "I'm as much to blame for her death as you are. If I hadn't tripped her, I'm sure your bullet would have disarmed her as you had intended."
Ezra's heart missed a beat as Chris shook his head. "No. I meant to kill her."
"I see." Ezra swallowed hard then sat back in his chair to watch Chris down another glassful. "Well, Mr Larabee," he began a few rapid heartbeats later. "Can I interest you in a game of chance? Marshal Radcliffe is holding our murderer at our convenience, and I hear that there's a big game starting up just down the street."
"No." Chris sat up in his chair to look Ezra in the eye. "I think I'd be content to watch, though."
Ezra smiled slowly. "Then don't look away from me."
"I won't," Chris replied, a ghost of a smile dancing around his lips.
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