A Mind To Murder
Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended, this story is strictly for fun, not profit.
Rating: NC-17 for violence, and hints of non-con.
Author's Notes: My humble thanks to the gals at the RJD list for their help and support, Lumina for her eagle-eye and to my wonderful betas, Sherri and Ra. Any final mistakes are mine.
Summary: Written as part of the Red Jacket Diaries. Premise: A rapacious man who rapes other men.
He knew he shouldn't give in to the allure of this stranger. He should simply ignore the casual flirting, the knowing smile, the intense stare. But after days out on the trail with Chris -- the object of his unrequited love -- and the blond gunslinger now sitting not far from the gaming table, Ezra was powerless to thwart his body's more basic demands. He needed someone to scratch the itch before he did something he would undoubtedly end up regretting.
So, gazing into the amused brown eyes of the player in front of him, Ezra allowed himself to smile back, to return the man's teasing tenfold. He let the tension build, a promise of the carnal pleasure to come. He was in no hurry, enjoying the simmering fire between them, their disport a counterpoint to the poker game taking place at their table. The other players were too engrossed in their hands, and what they stood to lose, to notice the two men's queer behavior.
When the other men finally realized they were no match for Ezra and left, it was well past midnight. Chris had thankfully retired for the night some time earlier, a bottle of whiskey clutched tightly in his hand, a dark cloud hanging over him.
Now that they were alone in the saloon, Ezra gave his admirer his undivided attention. "You took quite a chance, sir," he said, referring to the almost blunt sexual invitation in the man's posture. "It is not wise to be so... careless among such unpredictable company."
The man shrugged. "You weren't exactly discreet yourself. Besides, what's life, if not a gamble?" he stated philosophically with a grin. "Roger O'Bannon."
"Ezra Standish. You reside here, in Cedar Ridge?"
O'Bannon shook his head. "Just passing through. Yourself?"
"The same," Ezra answered easily.
He wasn't about to inform the other man that he and Chris had traveled to Cedar Ridge to deliver a prisoner to Sheriff Pellow. It amused him to no end that most people were friendlier when they learned he was a gambler than if he stated he was a lawman.
"Well, then. How about another drink, Ezra?"
Ezra cocked his head to the side, as if giving it some thought. "I was thinking more along the lines of a nightcap," he hinted, with just the right amount of huskiness in his tone.
"I have a room at the Inn," O'Bannon replied, eyes darkening with arousal.
"So have I," Ezra countered, wanting to meet the other man on familiar ground. He very rarely indulged in his fondness for same sex couplings, but whenever he did, he made sure the liaisons were under his terms.
O'Bannon chuckled, bowing his head slightly in acceptance. "Very well, your room it is. Shall we?" He made to rise.
"I believe it would be prudent if I were to exit this establishment first, by myself. My room is on the second floor, last door to the right."
O'Bannon nodded. "I'll be there shortly."
Ezra touched the brim of his hat in a parting salute, for the whole world appearing as if he was saying his farewell to a worthy adversary, before abandoning the saloon. Minutes later he was back in his room, his red jacket and vest discarded, his holster hung from the bedpost, the derringer hidden beneath his pillow and the rig safely tucked away in a drawer.
He took a deep breath, forcing his heartbeat to slow down, banking in his anticipation. It had been years since he had acted in such a foolish and rash way, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Falling in lust with Chris Larabee was bad enough, but when that craving turned to love, his life had become a nightmare. To have Chris that close, to be the man's friend, to ride with him, patrol with him... Sometimes Ezra thought he would go mad.
A one-night tryst with O'Bannon wouldn't make the feelings go away, but it would make life more bearable. Or at least he hoped it would, if only for a short while.
A soft knocking on his door brought him out of his reverie and he rose to answer, taking his first good look at Roger O'Bannon. Handsome and aware of the fact, tall and solidly built, with curly black hair and almond-shaped eyes, he was everything Ezra could ever wish or dream for. He was dressed casually, in dark pants and a white shirt, and he smelt -- not unpleasantly -- of cologne and cigar smoke.
O'Bannon sauntered into the room, locking the door behind him and coming to stand so close that Ezra could feel his body heat. He forced himself not to react as the man's fierce eyes assessed him hungrily, but was unable to suppress a shiver of delight as O'Bannon's rough thumb trailed languidly across his sensitized bottom lip.
"You'll do fine," the man purred, softly. "Just fine."
Their lips met rapaciously then, embracing the flames that had sparked in the saloon, both on the verge of losing control. Shirts were torn from taut torsos, and Ezra found himself sitting on the bed with O'Bannon by his side. He began to rain down little kisses all over the other man's neck and muscled chest, slowly following the trail of dark hair to his ultimate goal, O'Bannon's crotch.
Taking charge, Ezra spread O'Bannon's legs apart, unbuckled the man's belt and opened his pants. Like everything about the man, O'Bannon's cock was stout -- long and thick -- and so aroused it looked almost painful.
"Suck it," O'Bannon ordered hoarsely.
Ezra frowned at the tone. He didn't mind playing submissive when the mood struck him, but there was something unsettling in the other man's voice. He chose to ignore the demand and began to use his hand instead, pumping the shaft expertly.
"No!" O'Bannon gritted out. "Take it!"
Without giving him time to react, he pushed Ezra's head down forcefully, towards his groin.
Ezra tried to shove him away, but the man was strong and managed to imprison both of his arms in a vise grip, twisting them as he laughed quietly.
"You are going to take my cock into that luscious mouth of yours, boy," he said evenly. "So I can ram myself into your tight body and fuck the shit outta you."
"Let me go!" Ezra snarled, truly frightened and angry now, particularly with himself for falling so easily into such a demeaning and perilous plight.
In a burst of desperation, he butted his head hard into his captor's stomach, the grip on his arms loosening in response. His arms free from their painful hold, he attempted to reach for his holster. O'Bannon was faster, yanking him back violently and throwing him down on the bed, his wrists locked behind him, face buried in the covers. Ezra growled as he tried to kick, but the other man was now sitting on his legs, effectively immobilizing him.
Ezra's boots, pants and undergarments were virtually ripped off, and he cried out as O'Bannon forced a dry finger into his body. He was beginning to feel dizzy, as he couldn't breathe properly, and panic was shutting down logical thinking. He tried to shout, but couldn't get enough air into his lungs. He struggled furiously, but O'Bannon's weight held him down.
Exhausted, he slumped onto the bed, a whimper of distress escaping him before he could censor it. O'Bannon seemed to sense his capitulation, for he chuckled.
"Now, that's better. Why fight the inevitable, Ezra? You know you want it. Bet you like it rough, huh? I'll be more than happy to oblige."
The mocking voice was more than Ezra could stand. He would not remain pliant and helpless while some bastard violated him. With as much strength as he could muster, he bucked his body hard against the one holding him down, succeeding in throwing his attacker off balance.
As the other man released him in an attempt to regain his equilibrium, Ezra twisted around, landing a solid punch to O'Bannon's temple.
O'Bannon recovered swiftly, and tried to imprison him anew. Knowing that if the man succeeded he was lost, Ezra fought more brutally, punching firm flesh again and again as quickly as he could. A hand smacked painfully into his face, but Ezra ignored it. Realizing he was gaining some ground, he jabbed his fist into O'Bannon's Adam's apple, forcing him to move away, hands clutching his throat and coughing.
Scrambling up the bed, Ezra snatched the Remington from its holster and cocked it, aiming it at his assailant. "I want nothing more than to pull the trigger," he rasped, heart racing, the smooth wooden grip slipping in his sweaty palm. "But that would be difficult to explain. I want you to leave. And if I ever see you again, I will end your miserable excuse of a life."
O'Bannon rose slowly from the bed, hands still pressed to his throat. "This isn't over, Ezra," he rasped.
"You're wrong. It ends now." Ezra hated the quiver in his voice, but it couldn't be helped. "Leave."
He stood rigid, ready to strike, as he watched O'Bannon stagger to the door, snatching his torn shirt on the way. Psychotic eyes glared back at him.
"I'll be seeing ya," the man said, walking out of the room and slamming the door behind him.
Ezra made it to the door on shaky legs, locking it securely before he dropped bonelessly to the floor. He remained still for a timeless moment, listening to the throbbing pulse in his head, to his out of control breathing. It came as no surprise that he began to shake, even though he knew the danger was past, that he was safe.
Swallowing thickly, he rose from the wooden floor, checked the door again then dragged himself over to the bed. Removing his flask from the nightstand, he took a sip of bourbon, then another. It burned as it went down, thawing some of the ice inside. Taking another long sip, he emptied it, the liquor searing through his veins, but unable to ease his trembling.
Feeling his face swelling from the slap, and seeing the bruises on his wrists, he merely shook his head dejectedly. Stifling a shudder he crawled under the heavy bedding, curling into himself, motionless except for the shaking. The sky was turning a lighter shade of blue when he finally fell into a fitful sleep.
Chris sat alone within the shadows of the deserted saloon, watching the inhabitants of Cedar Ridge slowly come to life as the morning sun rose higher in the sky. He sipped his coffee leisurely, mind lost in troubled thoughts. And of course, the root of his turmoil of late was always the same: Ezra.
After the gambler had been shot trying to save Mary, Chris had felt like a heel -- for not trusting Ezra, for his callous words, for failing to be a better friend. It pained him to realize he could have lost a man under his command and that he would have felt but a slight twinge of guilt. Because the honest to God truth was that he really didn't know Ezra all that well. There was no close relationship between them, not like what he shared with the others.
So he set about to change that. They patrolled together more often, went out on business to other towns regularly, talked about everything and anything, and Chris even allowed Ezra to win a considerable amount of his wages on a weekly basis. What he hadn't counted on was Ezra winning his heart.
Every moment spent with the gambler had made him question his feelings, his self-image, even his sexuality. Bedding men wasn't something that had even crossed his mind before Ezra, but lately it was all he could think about. They had moved from merely working together, to becoming friends... to something more. Slowly, by giving of themselves, they had created something beautiful, solid and firm. Indestructible.
And Chris ruefully acknowledged he felt... contented. He had gone through the same with Sarah, but after her death never expected to savor it again. To experience what most people kept searching for all of their lives, not once, but twice... And what was even better, he was certain Ezra felt it too. The only thing Chris didn't know was if Ezra was aware they were in the same sinking boat.
He had been sure the answer was yes, until the night before. Now, after seeing Ezra flirt with one of the players at the poker table, after knowing they had most assuredly spent the night together... Chris wasn't so sure. Not to mention that just the thought of Ezra with another man was enough to make him want to storm through the Inn, knock down Ezra's door and, after beating his rival to a pulp, claim Ezra as his own. Chris snorted into his cup at that mental image; Ezra would gladly fill him full of lead if he so much as dared to ponder something so 'uncouth'.
His eyes narrowed in sudden anger as he spotted Ezra walking into the saloon. He waited until the gambler sat at the table, silently taking in the unusual pallor and the troubled stance before asking brusquely, "What the hell happened to you?" He gestured towards Ezra's badly bruised cheek.
Era gave him a forced smile. "What? No 'Good morning, Ezra? How did you sleep? How did you find your room?' Honestly, Chris."
"Ezra," Chris growled, knowing there was enough warning in his tone to prevent Ezra's useless tactics from going any further.
Serious now, Ezra sighed wearily. "I don't suppose you would believe me if I were to say I ran into a door?"
Resisting the urge to shake the other man until his teeth fell out, Chris nevertheless tried to keep his voice steady. "No. Try another one. Better yet, answer me this. Did that bastard do this to you?"
Startled green eyes looked at him." B-bastard?" Ezra stammered weakly. "I'm sure I don't know --"
"Ezra, stop," Chris interjected. "I'm not blind, ya know? I was here at the saloon last night while you were gamblin'. I saw."
Ezra gasped. "Chris --"
Chris raised a hand. "Wait. I ain't askin' for explanations. But as long as we're on the subject, I'd like to know what's wrong with me. Why not me?" He reclined back in his chair, rewarded to see Ezra's mouth hanging open in shock, eyes as wide as saucers.
"I-I-I..." Ezra took a deep breath, obviously trying to regain his balance, then cleared his throat uneasily. "I must have misunderstood you. I could swear --"
Chris chuckled, amused at the other man's reaction. It wasn't everyday that one got to ruffle Ezra P. Standish's feathers. "Oh, but you did. Understand me right, that is. I care 'bout you, Ezra, a lot. More than that, if ya want the truth." Placing his elbows back on the table, he leaned forward, impossibly closer, his eyes piercing Ezra's. "I'm still waitin' for your answer."
Ezra blinked, exhaling slowly and looking more like himself. "To which question?"
"I didn't dare hope you might share my feelings, that's why I never approached you."
Chris nodded. "Fair enough. Just so you know, I feel the same and I'm more than willin' to see this through."
Ezra tilted his head curiously. "Are you certain?"
"Yeah. Now, about the bastard?"
Ezra glanced down at his hands. "It was a mistake. Nothing happened between us, Chris. He... He tried to rape me. It took everything in me to fight him off."
Chris' wrath grew to dangerous levels. "Ya know where he's stayin'?" he spat, ready to mete out retribution.
"At the Inn. But Chris, I don't think --"
Ezra's words were cut off by a blood-curdling scream coming from the saloon's first floor. Fast as lightning they were both on their feet, running up the stairs, following the sound to the corridor. A young woman was pressed against the wall, crying hysterically.
"What happened?" Chris asked. Unable to speak, the girl merely gestured towards the room in front of her, the door standing ajar. "Jesus..." he whispered at the scene before him.
A boy of no more than eighteen was sprawled on top of the bed, limbs skewed, green eyes open. He was naked. Bruises and cuts covered his whole body, and there was dried blood on the sheets and between his spread legs.
"My dear, perhaps it would be more helpful if you were to summon the Sheriff for us," Chris heard Ezra say to the unfortunate witness, noting the waver in the gambler's voice. "This is no fitting locale for a young lady such as yourself."
A sniffled murmur of assent followed Ezra's words, and footsteps moving down the stairs let Chris know the girl had left. He walked fully into the room, feeling Ezra right behind him.
"He was strangled," Chris said, seeing the handprints around the victim's neck. A closer look at the young man's auburn hair and face had him shuddering as a sudden sense of foreboding struck him. "He looks like ya, a bit," he remarked, voice hoarse.
"Yes." Ezra swallowed audibly. "I remember him. He sat at my table last night, although he left early. An excellent poker player for one so young, especially an amateur. Knew when to quit as well. Chris, I realize this is a long shot, but..."
When Ezra hesitated, Chris turned to him. "What?"
"This boy was obviously violated. That man last night... He was very skilled at holding me down -- too skilled. I'm not saying this is his work, but..."
"You don't think it was the first time he tried somethin' like that," Chris nodded, pensive. "Yeah. And this is a very small town. Not very likely we would have two rapists without word gettin' out."
Sheriff Pellow walked in at that moment. "Larabee, Standish, what have ya got for me?" He froze in his tracks as his gaze fell on the bed. "God in heaven! Pauly!"
"Ya know him?" Chris asked.
"Yeah. Paul Delambre. He's the son of a local cattle baron. The only son. What the hell was he doin' here, instead of bein' home?"
"He played a few hands of poker with me last night. After he abandoned the table, I noticed him downing quite a few shots of whiskey. Perhaps he decided to rent a room here, instead of venturing a perilous journey in the moonless dark?"
Pellow exhaled hard, closing his eyes as he pinched the bridge of his nose. "He was sodomized," his voice but a whisper. "Shit, was hoping he wouldn't end up in town."
"'He'?" Chris echoed.
"I've been gettin' some wires from other towns in the area. We have a rapist on the loose. Only attacks men, beats them up, always death by strangulation. We have six known cases so far, but if I had to guess, I'd say there's more. Reckon the... 'delicate' nature of the deaths has prevented some of the more righteous towns from spreadin' the word." His gaze shifted to Ezra, shrewdly. "Want to tell me what happened to you?"
Chris watched Ezra take a step back, startled by the abrupt change in subject. "What?"
"I've known you for quite a while, Ezra," Pellow commented. "Long before you joined Larabee. Never seen you run from a fight, never seen you look for one either. That bruise on your cheek, does it have anythin' to do with this?"
"Why would you assume that?" Ezra countered forcefully.
Pellow gave him a humorless smile. "Because, Ezra, in case you haven't figured it out by lookin' at Pauly there," he gestured towards the bed, "All the dead men had somethin' in common: brown hair, green eyes. Now, I saw you yesterday afternoon and you didn't have that mark on your face then. So?"
Chris and Ezra exchanged quick glances and Chris nodded; better to be honest about the whole thing, and they could trust Pellow. He had done right by them over the years.
"I may..." Ezra began faintly. "I may have met with your rapist last night."
When Ezra hesitated, Pellow shook his head with a lopsided grin. "Not here to pass judgement on ya, Ezra. 'Sides, not all of us," he placed a hand to his chest, "can have the same tastes, can we?"
Chris controlled his surprise with effort. Pellow was taking quite a chance letting them know he bedded men. Then again, it explained his easy acceptance of the mess they were involved in.
Ezra tipped his head in evident acknowledgement of the hidden message in Pellow's words. "Very well. Hypothetically speaking, if I were to say I met someone during the poker game and then decided to invite him to my room... and that what I envisioned didn't exactly come to pass, would that help?"
Pellow chuckled. "Not really."
"Things got out of hand," Ezra continued more honestly. "When I wasn't... agreeable to what he desired of me, he attempted to violate me. I managed to fight him off, but not without some repercussions," he sighed, rubbing his cheek. "The name he gave me was Roger O'Bannon, stated he had a room at the Inn."
"All right. We better check that out then. Come with me?" Pellow asked, already walking out the door, and gesturing to the deputy standing outside to guard the room.
"Wouldn't miss it for the world," Chris replied sarcastically.
"Who was the young woman who found the body?" Ezra questioned softly as they rushed out of the room.
"Laura Anson, the maid. She cleans the rooms every morning. I checked with her before goin' up to meet with you; Pauly was the only guest at the saloon, and neither the owner or the bartender live in the buildin'. She didn't recognize him, but comin' face to face with that macabre scene, can't say I blame her."
They were practically scurrying down the stairs, urgency overtaking them now, exiting the saloon and emerging into a sunbathed, dusty street. On the other side, two doors down, stood the Inn and they made straight for it.
The innkeeper was more than happy to answer their questions, although he didn't know much. All he could tell them was that O'Bannon had left in the middle of the night, giving no indication as to his destination. He had cleared his room, and paid for his bill. Oh, and from the bruises on his face, he had been in one hell of a fight.
"Doesn't mean anything," Ezra stated as they left the Inn. "I struck him a few times myself. The Delambre boy might have been caught by surprise. Which is more than likely, considering it was very late when I expelled O'Bannon from my room."
"He probably had his eye on both of you. When he couldn't win with you, he went after the kid. We might never know," Chris surmised, swallowing his ire at the thought of what Ezra had been through, of what might have happened. Now was not the time to explode; he would leave that for when he caught up with O'Bannon.
"Come to my office for a moment," Pellow asked enigmatically. "I have somethin' to show you."
Once in the small room, he showed them a wanted poster. "Got this three days ago, just after the wires began to arrive. You were already on your way here, so you probably haven't seen it yet. Did O'Bannon look anythin' like this man? Several witnesses saw him talkin' to at least four of the men just before they turned up dead. As far as we know he only attacks once before movin' on to another town, so he's probably long gone, but I'll have my deputies lookin' out for him."
Chris watched Ezra stare at the poster for an endless moment. Then their eyes met and Ezra gave him a barely perceptible nod. It was confirmed; Roger O'Bannon and the rapist were one and the same. Which was a good thing, because now Chris knew whom to hunt for.
There were no traces of O'Bannon in town, so Chris decided it was time for them to leave. Ezra was more than willing to comply with that. He was still feeling out of sorts and although the good denizens in Cedar Ridge were not to blame, he would be glad if he never had to set eyes on that particular burg ever again.
"What now?" he asked, the leisurely gait of their horses carrying them away from the small municipality.
"I wired the others, told 'em to be on the lookout for someone lookin' like O'Bannon. They must've gotten the telegrams and the wanted poster as well, but some extra warnin' won't hurt. Also told them we'll be takin' a few days returnin'."
Ezra raised an eyebrow in query. "Oh?"
"There are a few towns between here and Four Corners. I want ta make sure that bastard isn't in one of them."
Ezra resisted the impulse to object against that course of action. Chris' wrath was almost a living entity between them, had been from the moment Ezra had confessed what had occurred with O'Bannon. While part of him was overjoyed at the thought of someone caring that much about him, another was frightened about what Chris might do. The other man's temper was unpredictable at the best of times, and while Ezra didn't much care what befell to his would-be rapist, he also didn't want Chris to turn into some kind of vigilante. Justice yes, murder no.
"If we do come to encounter O'Bannon, we will apprehend him. Correct?" When Chris didn't answer, Ezra huffed, "Chris?"
The reply was long in coming, and the tone sullen, "All right. Just as long as I get ta see 'im hang."
"You will get no arguments from me on that subject; I would like a front row seat myself." Ezra cleared his throat hesitantly, the words difficult to utter. "Chris, about our conversation in the saloon..."
For the first time since the start of their journey Chris looked directly at him, his whole attitude less tense. "Yeah?"
"Were you serious?"
"About lovin' you? Wantin' to see this through? Yeah. Why? You havin' second thoughts?"
Something in Chris' subdued voice made Ezra smile. He shook his head. "No, no second thoughts. I was just making sure there were no misunderstandings between us."
Chris looked down at the reins in his hands, then back at him. "Talkin' about misunderstandings, what about Pellow?"
Ezra frowned in confusion. "What about him?"
"I thought you knew him as long as we did, ya know? From when we first brought him that thief, O'Shea, last year. That's not what Pellow said. So, what's between you two?"
Ezra blinked in surprise, then crowed at the dark look in Chris' eyes. "You're jealous! Oh, my God, you're jealous!"
Chris glared at him. "No, I ain't. Just curious, that's all."
Ezra grinned happily. "Yes, you are. And to answer your question, there is nothing between us. I had been in this area for sometime before we met, Chris. Cedar Ridge is a quiet hamlet, Pellow is a fair man, so I plied my trade there often. Even helped once or twice when there was trouble at the saloon. That's all. Besides, had I been aware of his sexual... proclivities, he wouldn't have had to reassure us, now would he?" He paused, regarding the other man for a moment, waiting for his words to sink in. "So, no misunderstandings?"
Chris gave him a rare, open smile. "No misunderstandings, Ez. Let me get O'Bannon out of my system and then we'll have a proper talk."
Ezra gasped, feigning shock. "Talk? You are willing to sit down and engage in a full confabulation with me? My Lord, the world as we know it is coming to an end!"
Chris scowled. "Smartass. Yeah, talk. We'll need some rules."
"Yep. We still have to work together, and ya know we have to keep it quiet 'bout this. I don't aim to be tarred and feathered and thrown out of town. And we have ta decide if we tell the others or not." Chris gave him such an intense appraisal, Ezra had to fight the instinct to flush. "This is it for me, Ez. No one else. I want it to work."
Ezra swallowed around the lump in his throat. "Same here," he whispered, allowing his hand to brush Chris' for a second, the touch electric. "All right, we will talk."
A nod from Chris and they continued on their way to the closest town in companionable silence.
The next few days were an absolute trial for Ezra. While on the outside Chris appeared calmer, Ezra wasn't fooled by the collected facade. The gunslinger had driven them from town to town with single minded viciousness, staying only long enough to be certain O'Bannon wasn't there and for a quick rest, and then they were off again.
After days surviving on little sleep and camp food, after enduring the frigid Autumn nights with little more than a blanket between them, and the damp, hard ground as their only mattress, they were finally approaching the last town before heading back home. They reached it without incident, only to find the place bustling with cowhands fresh off the trail and eager to participate in a local festival.
Ezra dismounted, tying his horse to the hitching rail at the front of the saloon, aware of Chris doing the same to his left. They performed their usual routine, searching every public building, strolling through the crowded streets, asking around at the hotels, inns, boarding houses and the saloon. As with all the other towns before, there was no evidence O'Bannon had ever been there.
Watching Chris stride determinedly towards his mount, Ezra gritted his teeth, coming to an abrupt halt. "Oh, no, you don't!"
Chris swirled around at his words. "What?" he snapped with a glare.
"I will not leave for Four Corners today," Ezra protested. "This time we are going to procure a room, partake of a decent meal and allow our poor steeds to enjoy the comfort of a stable, if only for a night."
"We can't afford to waste any time, Ez," Chris argued, stubbornly.
"Our friends have been warned of the impending danger -- if O'Bannon is even heading in that direction. For all we know, he may be miles away from here. We are staying."
"No." Chris growled.
"Yes!" Ezra snarled back.
By nightfall they had stabled the horses, taken a room in the largest hotel, and eaten their fill.
The sheets were freezing as Ezra lay down and he shivered, muttering curses under his breath. He closed his eyes and curled into a ball, in a vain attempt to warm up. If it was this frigid in the autumn, he feared what kind of weather winter might bring.
He could hear Chris puttering about in the room, but fatigue was beginning to make him drowsy, and by the time the other man blew out the lamp and slid into bed he was dozing. Instinct sent him towards the other body, reaching out before he was fully alert. Chris shifted to accommodate him, wrapping him in a fierce embrace, just as Ezra realized what he was doing.
"Chris?" he mumbled sleepily.
"Yeah," came the hushed whisper. "Can't sleep?"
"Cold," Ezra complained, wriggling closer.
During the nights on the trail they had huddled together, forced to do so in order to share body heat or risk freezing to death. But this was different. For one, there were no clothes between them, merely their undergarments, and it was the first time they actually shared a bed, a real bed. It felt... wonderful.
Chris must have been thinking along those lines, for he said, "Feels nice, this."
"Yes," Ezra sighed. He brushed his fingers over Chris' stubbled cheek, wondering what it would be like to kiss him. He moved closer still, sultry hot now, savoring the familiar scent of male sweat and something that was pure 'Chris'.
"What's wrong?" Chris asked quietly.
Ezra studied the other man's dark, concerned eyes and smiled. "Absolutely nothing. In fact, for the first time in days, I can honestly say everything is just... perfect."
And before he could give it another thought, he pressed his lips to Chris'. Awkwardly at first, then more surely, they kissed, bodies suddenly thrumming with desire. Ezra's fingers traveled over the lithe, hard frame molded to his, feeling muscles tensing in anticipation.
Chris' hands came between them and seconds later they were both nude and fully aroused, their skin slick with sweat, their senses heightened to the point of pain. By an unspoken agreement they broke apart, the sheets now thrown aside, feasting their eyes on each other, taking in what was theirs.
And then Chris was all over him, inexperienced but eager, caressing his chest and belly, pinching his nipples, his touch both rough and tender. Ezra wrapped his arms around him, feeling Chris do the same, their mouths meeting once again, bodies moving in tandem.
They settled into a gentle rhythm, and Ezra whimpered his approval, losing himself in their lovemaking until the slow friction speeded into a dual explosion and they came together. For a long time they lay entwined, sated, pleasantly exhausted. Finally Chris opened his eyes and looked down at him, voice rich with sexual languor. "Is it always this good?"
Ezra found himself laughing at the absurdity of Chris Larabee -- whose glare alone was enough to turn the toughest man into a babbling idiot -- asking such an innocent question after mind-blowing lovemaking. "No," he finally managed to gasp. "Usually it's better."
He never saw the pillow coming until it struck him none too gently in the face.
They checked out of the hotel early the next morning, shoulders brushing lightly in silent communication as they stepped on the sidewalk. They were heading to the saloon, intent on having breakfast before departing to Four Corners, when a young cowpoke came to stop before them, cold eyes settling on Chris aggressively.
Ezra regarded him with quizzical suspicion. His gaze darted from Chris to the stranger and back again, a shiver running down his spine at the sense of danger emanating from the man. He watched Chris lift a hand and push his hat back with calculated laziness.
"Do I know you?" Chris drawled slowly.
The man gave him a cocky grin. "Nope. But I sure know you! Chris Larabee, one of the fastest guns in the west." He placed his hands boldly on his holster. "Way I figure it, if I kill ya, I'll be famous. People'll know me, I'll be able ta make a livin' out of this, ask any price I want. It'll sure beat followin' behind a bunch of damned cows for pennies, now won't it?"
"You might want to rethink that, boy," Chris warned bluntly. "Think about havin' the law always on your back, of havin' to be on the run for the rest of your life, of havin' to deal with others like you who always think they're faster until you shoot them down. Until the day you finally meet your match."
The man shook his hand. "Ain't happened to you, won't happen to me either. I'm good, damn good. And I'll be careful." He began to retreat into the dusty street. "What's the matter, Larabee? You chicken or somethin'?"
"Chris --" Ezra began worriedly.
"It's okay, Ez. He's set on makin' a name for himself, nothin' we say'll change his mind."
Ezra watched with bated breath as Chris joined the cowhand, the two men facing off in the middle of the street. His heart was hammering as he waited, the silence surrounding the enfolding drama ominous and oppressive. Everyone in sight had scurried away to safety, and abruptly Ezra felt as if they were the last three people on earth.
For an endless moment there was no movement. Then, swiftly as the wind, both men drew their weapons. The sound of the shots merged into one as they fired at the same instant. They both stood still, almost swaying in place, before Ezra finally saw the blood. It was slowly spreading over the front of the stranger's white shirt, and a second later the man was falling dead or unconscious to the ground.
Chris holstered his gun and walked over to the downed man, kicking him lightly to check for any signs of life, eyes taking in the still chest. Apparently satisfied, he strolled over to Ezra, no evident signs of injury upon him.
Ezra was aware he was beaming like a complete idiot, but he didn't bother to control it.
"Are you all right?" he asked softly.
Chris smiled back. "Fine. You know that we'll be swarmed by the local law and the town's busybodies in a minute or so, right?"
Ezra nodded eagerly. "Yes. Don't care. You're all right," he stated in a rush, as if it explained everything he was feeling.
Perhaps it did, for Chris laughed quietly. "So are you, Ezra. So are you. Come on, let's go to the saloon. They can find us there."
Ezra inclined his head curtly in assent, eyes automatically falling on the figure of Chris' challenger. He was just in time to see the cowhand shift weakly, roll over and claw for his gun.
Ezra's reaction was automatic. Shoving Chris aside with an angry growl, he drew and fired before the other man's fingers even touched his Colt. Chris straightened, sparing a disgusted glance at the dead man before turning amused eyes on him.
"Guess the little bastard was playin' possum," Chris surmised, his eyes focusing on Ezra, a mixture of humor and arousal warring for dominance within. "You always this... feral?"
Ezra shrugged fractionally, refusing to feel abashed by his actions. "I always protect what is mine."
A slow smile graced Chris' face. "I might come to like this new side of you, Ezra," he purred huskily. "Makes me want to go back to the hotel and make last night happen all over again."
Against his will, Ezra felt himself flushing. "That is merely the result of surviving the duel. It will pass."
Chris gave him a meaningful look. "No, it isn't, and no, it won't. And that's just fine by me. Now, coffee."
He stepped through the saloon's swinging doors and Ezra followed behind, hand on his holster and ready to fire at the least provocation. But after the duel no one would even look them in the eye, and they encountered no further problems. A hasty breakfast and a surprisingly affable talk with the sheriff and they were finally on their way back to Four Corners.
They rode into Four Corners a little after noon. Ezra had been looking forward to unsaddling and brushing Rascal, something that always seemed to relax him at times like these. Seeing their friends approaching at a brisk walk, however, he regretfully handed over his mount's reins to one of the livery boys, knowing the animal would still be pampered to its heart's content.
Chris touched his fingers to the brim of his hat in greeting. "Anythin'?"
Buck chuckled. "Ya don't waste any time, do ya? Well, the wires didn't exactly make it easy, ol' dog. Tall, well-built, brown eyes, curly black hair... Could be lots o' folks. And the drawin' on the warrant poster looks down right awful."
"But only three men so far fit the description," Josiah informed them. "Two of them stayed for a night, then left the next mornin'. Probably passin' travelers."
"And the third?" Ezra questioned quietly.
"He's in the saloon," Nathan gestured with his head. "JD's keeping an eye on him. Does this have anythin' to do with that fadin' bruise on your cheek?"
Ezra hesitated, unsure of how much to divulge. Not really wishing to lie to the others, and hoping Chris would remain by his side no matter what occurred, he sighed. "Yes. I will explain later. At the moment --" His next words were cut off by a startled yell and a loud bang coming from the saloon. "JD!"
They rushed into the saloon, guns drawn and ready for action, only to find a semiconscious JD sitting on the floor, and a stranger hovering over him.
"Get away from him!" Vin growled.
The man lifted one hand slowly, the other holding a walking stick for balance, evidently trying to show them he wasn't armed or dangerous. Ezra was dismayed to notice he was well over forty, with graying hair.
"What happened?" Chris snapped.
"He took me by surprise," JD mumbled, swaying slightly as Nathan and Josiah helped him up. "One minute he was keepin' to himself, nursin' a shot o' whiskey, the next he was right in my face, punchin' me. Strong bastard, too," he added, rubbing his jaw. He gave Chris an apologetic look. "Sorry, Chris. I let 'im get away."
"Where did he go?" Buck asked.
"Up the stairs," the stranger replied softly. "I was only trying to help your friend."
Chris nodded absently. "Search the rooms and all the upstairs floor," he ordered to Josiah, Vin and Buck. "Be careful; this guy's as dangerous as they come."
One hour later the Seven were sharing a table in the deserted saloon, their faces grim. The man had escaped, probably by the roof, since they would have seen him otherwise. The livery boys had suffered some cuts and scrapes while trying to stop the man from taking his horse without paying, and to make things worse, Vin had lost his trail not far from town.
"When did he arrive?" Ezra queried into his coffee.
"Three days 'go," Vin answered grimly.
Chris snorted angrily. "Son of a bitch! He's been here for almost as long as we've been searchin' for him." He turned to Ezra, eyes haunted. "Ya knows what this means, don't you?"
Ezra exhaled sharply. "Yes. He has been waiting, for me. He knew my name, obviously he made some inquiries and discovered where to find me."
"Of all the men, you're the only one that got away, Ezra," Chris whispered, voice hoarse. "The bastard's here to finish the job." He clenched his jaw. "I won't let him. You're goin' up to the cabin with me tonight."
"Chris --" Ezra began, annoyed at Chris' over-protectiveness.
"No!" Chris practically shouted. "I will not see you hurt, do you understand?"
Stunned to realize that his lover was on the verge of panic, Ezra acquiesced rapidly. "Very well. I will remain at the cabin, if that is what you wish."
Quiet until then, Buck cleared his throat. "You mind lettin' us know what the hell's goin' on, pards?"
Ezra scrubbed at his face with his hands. "We cannot be certain, of course, but we believe this man to be someone I met in Cedar Ridge: Roger O'Bannon. You received all the information in the telegrams and wanted poster, did you not?"
Josiah's lips tightened. "Yeah. The wanted poster had no name, but from what Chris wired back and from the ones we got from other towns in the area, we figure he murdered at least seven men, all by strangulation."
"Yes," Ezra confirmed. "And as Nathan so shrewdly surmised, he is the one responsible for my bruised cheek."
JD frowned as he studied Ezra's face. "But why did he hit you? Did you try to arrest him in Cedar Ridge?"
It was Vin that replied, his expression grim, "The wires said all the men killed had brown hair and green eyes. Like Ez. But O'Bannon didn't just kill 'em, remember?"
Ezra looked up into Vin's eyes, seeing the knowledge and understanding there. "No," he said in a hushed tone. "That is not all he did. As stated in the telegrams, he... he also roughed them up severely and... sodomized them." He saw realization dawning on the others' faces, right before anger and fear set in.
"Ezra --" Josiah stammered, and Ezra was surprised to hear the quiver in the other man's voice.
"I'm all right, Josiah. I managed to fight him off. Unfortunately, as Chris pointed out, of all his victims -- or would-be victims, as the case may be -- and as far as we know, I'm the only one who got to live. It's highly likely that he is here to see to my demise."
"Not goin' to happen," Buck countered, eyes narrowing dangerously. "We'll make sure you and Chris get to the cabin safely. And then we'll keep searchin' for this mongrel. If he's out to get ya, he won't go far. Sooner or later we'll find him."
Ezra gave him a grateful smile. "Thank you, my friend."
Vin stared at Chris. "Ya sure that's such a good idea, Cowboy? Reckon it'd be better for Ezra ta stay in town. More people 'round and us to watch over 'im. You'll be sittin' ducks in your cabin."
"I'm familiar with the grounds there and I can protect Ezra better if I don't have ta worry about all of you. I want you to keep searchin' for this bastard, so you wouldn't be around much anyways. 'Sides, there's some... stuff Ezra and I need to deal with and I'd rather not do it in Four Corners." Chris stood. "Come on, time to leave. The faster we get to the cabin, the better I'll feel."
JD and Josiah stayed behind to watch over the town, while the others mounted their horses and went on their way. The hairs on the back of his neck told Ezra something was amiss; they were probably being followed. But no matter how hard he tried, no matter how many times the others searched the area, they didn't see anyone.
When they reached the cabin, Chris insisted that the others watch over Ezra while he took care of the horses. He tried to be as fast as possible, knowing he was over-reacting, but unable to stop himself. He would not lose Ezra like he had lost Sarah and Adam; he would not miss this second chance at life. He would fight for what he had found, down and dirty if he had to.
He walked into his home to find the others drinking coffee, Ezra looking more than a little peeved at the hovering. Wanting to be alone with the gambler, so they could finally have the conversation he had promised on the trail, he forced a smile for the others.
"That's it, we're settled in. We'll stay here for a few days while you try to find O'Bannon. Hopefully he won't've gone far."
Clearly hearing the dismissal in Chris' voice, Nathan shook his head. "Not so fast, Chris. There's more to this than you're tellin' us. I know ya two have grown close lately, but there's somethin'... different 'bout you since you came back. So, what's up?"
Chris turned to Ezra, silently asking him what he thought they should do. He saw Ezra nod once, resignation and sadness shining in his eyes. Exhaling tiredly, Chris turned his attention to the other three men. "You're right, there's somethin'... new between us. Ezra and I are together."
"Together?" Buck echoed carefully, regarding them both. "As in lovers?"
"Yes," Ezra answered steadily, and Chris felt a surge of pride as he noticed his lover's posture, the way Ezra was facing up to the others, as if ready to do battle. It seemed he wasn't the only one willing to give his all to see their relationship through.
When their friends remained quiet, Chris turned to Vin. "Cowboy?"
Vin grinned, never moving from his sprawl. "Don't matter to me none. I did live with Indians, Chris," he replied smugly. "Ain't much I haven't seen 'fore."
Satisfied, Chris focused on Nathan. "And you?"
The healer shrugged. "Like Vin, there isn't much I haven't seen. Don't really care where people go for comfort."
"There's more to this than just comfort," Chris admitted, wanting them to know how serious it was.
To his surprise, Nathan chuckled. "Good."
"That leaves you, Buck," Chris said, looking at his oldest friend.
Buck smiled. "I'm with them." He gestured towards Vin and Nathan. "'Sides, there ain't much I haven't tried in my younger years."
Ezra's eyebrows climbed up to his hairline. "You? The consummate ladies man? Why, Mr. Wilmington, I'm shocked!" he quipped, but Chris could clearly hear the relief in his tone.
Buck laughed quietly. "Ya know me, Ez, always ready to try anythin' at least once. Now, far as I see it, JD will be okay with this. The kid's pretty open-minded. Josiah, on the other hand... He may not be a preacher no more, but the beliefs are there. He seemed a little... on edge after you told us 'bout O'Bannon."
"We need supplies," Chris remarked. "Have them both bring some tomorrow mornin'. We'll talk to them then."
"Might go easier if we sort of smooth the way, if ya get my meanin'," Buck suggested. "I could have a talk with JD, and Nathan with Josiah."
Ezra glanced at Chris. "No harm in trying."
"All right, do it," Chris pinched the bridge of his nose, resisting the urge to rush back to town and talk to the other men himself. "Just be careful how you explain it."
Buck rose with the others. "Don't worry, ol' dog, we'll take care of everythin'."
Chris sighed. "That's what I'm afraid of."
Chris stretched luxuriously on his porch as he watched a brand new day dawn. He was feeling strangely relaxed this morning, at ease, in spite of the menace Roger O'Bannon represented for his lover. The men he now thought of as family seemed to approve of his and Ezra's attachment, although there would probably be times when they would both put that acceptance to the test. He was certain there would be some fantastic fights lying in wait for them in the future. Neither he nor Ezra were exactly restrained when it came to making a point, and Chris' temper was more than a match for Ezra's smart mouth.
The night before, he and Ezra had finally talked about how they intended to handle this new side of their lives. It was decided to keep everyone in the dark -- except for their friends, of course. They were also going to try and keep work and their relationship separate. Whatever disagreements they may encounter while on the job would not be allowed to transport into their private lives. Rationally he knew it wouldn't be that easy, but that attempt alone was a good start.
He heard the sound of a wagon approaching and waited until it was in full view, hand resting on his holster as a precaution. It was JD with their supplies. The young man halted the horses in front of Chris' cabin, and nodded in greeting.
"Mornin', JD. Where's Josiah?"
JD flushed slightly. "Hmm... He's in Nathan's clinic," he muttered, loud enough for Chris to hear him.
"What? What happened? Was it O'Bannon? Is he okay?"
JD cleared his throat awkwardly. "Nothin' like that. He... he got drunk last night. Really drunk. Started a fight at the saloon. Buck had to hit him over the head with a chair. It was the only way to stop him."
Chris' eyes narrowed. "Why did he get drunk? I thought he'd decided to quit."
If anything, JD looked even more uncomfortable. "Don't know what happened exactly. But after you all left yesterday... You know, after you told us about O'Bannon? Well, he was actin' a bit strange. Actually, he's been like that for a few days now."
"Strange?" Chris repeated, confused.
"Yeah. In one of his moods. Keeps to himself, very quiet, always lookin' into nothin'. Yesterday, after you were gone, I had patrol, so I left. I was walkin' out the doors when I heard him order a bottle of whiskey from Inez. After the conversation Nathan had with him about you and Ezra, it only got worse. He sort of... went a little crazy. Asked for a second bottle of whiskey and practically downed the whole thing in one gulp. Then he started spouting from the Bible at the top of his lungs about Sodom and Gomorrah. One cowhand took exception to the noise and that's when all hell broke loose."
Chris rubbed his forehead. "Shit," he whispered grimly.
He looked up at JD at the hesitant call. "Yeah?"
"No one understood what set Josiah off, you're safe. And... I'm okay with it. You and Ez, I mean."
Chris managed a weak smile. "Thanks, JD."
He helped JD carry the canned food and the other provisions from the wagon into the cabin, his feelings of contentment having vanished with JD's news. He waved goodbye as their youngest left back to town, wondering if things would ever be the same again among the Seven. He turned to go back inside, only to see Ezra leaning against the side wall.
"Ya heard?" he asked softly.
His only reply was a tight nod before Ezra disappeared within the cabin, shoulders hunched in defeat.
The following days were both a nightmare and a dream for Ezra. A dream because he got to be alone with Chris, talking, making love, becoming as close to the gunslinger as he had ever hoped to be. A nightmare because both O'Bannon and Josiah seemed to have disappeared.
No matter how much the others patrolled, watched over the town, searched the access trails and the surrounding area, they just couldn't find O'Bannon. As for Josiah, he had left Nathan's clinic the day after getting drunk saying he needed to think. No one knew where he was, or even if he was coming back. The mood among the remaining lawmen was somber, to say the least.
Ezra's time of late was spent looking out the window, torn between wanting O'Bannon to show himself once and for all so they could get on with their lives, and wishing never again to come face to face with the rapist.
At that moment there was nothing for him to see outside, for night had long fallen, but it gave him some comfort to witness the solitude and barrenness enveloping the cabin. It matched his current disposition.
"Come have dinner, Ezra," Chris spoke softly from behind him. "Spendin' hours starin' out the window won't change anythin'."
Ezra exhaled tiredly. "I know," he said, turning and slowly walking over to his lover. "I'm afraid I can't help it. I'm feeling somewhat... anxious. I want this to be over, all of it."
Chris pulled him close, molding their bodies together, and kissed him gently. "I know. I want that too, but --"
His next words were cut off by the sound of a twig breaking not far from the cabin. Both men looked cautiously into the darkness but couldn't see anyone.
Chris reached for his gun. "I better check it out. Stay here."
Ezra glared at him, feeling beyond angry at Chris' apparent disregard over his ability to defend himself. "Chris --"
"Wait," Chris interjected in a whisper, fingers touching Ezra's lips to forestall his tirade. "I know you can handle yourself, I've seen it countless times. And I know I'm over-reactin'. But I need you safe. Please?"
Ezra swallowed thickly at the pleading in Chris' voice and eyes, knowing how difficult it was for the proud man to beg for anything. "All right," he said, giving in. "But at the slightest hint of trouble, I am coming after you."
Chris gave him an easy smile. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
Ezra watched Chris leave the cabin, disappearing into the night, his gun cocked and ready to fire. He paced restlessly over the cramped space, eyes locked firmly on the door, heart pounding in his chest as he waited. Time dragged out forever, the absolute quiet now getting to him, driving him mad with worry.
He was about to rush out the door and follow after Chris when he heard it: two shots fired almost simultaneously. Breath catching in his throat, he flew out of the cabin, his lover foremost on his mind.
"Chris!" he called out desperately. "Chris!"
He stumbled through the dark, gun in hand, blindly searching for either Chris or his antagonist. His heart nearly stopped beating as he noticed a man lying motionlessly on the ground. A sob broke through when he realized it was Chris. He was barely aware of hurrying over to his lover, of kneeling by his side, hands trembling as he checked for a pulse.
And he was unaware of the shadow coming up behind him until it was too late. A fierce pain shot through him as something hard connected with his skull and he slumped unconscious across his lover's body.
Ezra came to slowly. Instinctively, he felt that something was very wrong and stayed still as the fog in his mind lifted. He was lying down spread-eagle on a bed, on his back and naked. Cold steel encircling his wrists and ankles, manacles of some sort. The fuzziness faded abruptly and his memory flooded back with painful clarity. His eyes flew open and he looked around, searching frantically for his lover.
Chris was tied to a chair by the bed, senseless still, and in spite of the blood staining his left sleeve, very much alive, as Ezra could see his chest moving with each breath.
"Chris!" His voice sounded hoarse to his ears, but also filled with relief. As long as Chris was alive there was hope.
He inspected the cabin as much as he could from his position on the bed, noting that for the moment at least, they were alone. Panic touched him as he fully recalled what had happened. O'Bannon had to be the one responsible for their capture, and thanks to his own stupidity, Ezra had made it foolishly easy for the other man. He pulled at his bonds but he was firmly secured to the iron-wrought posts of Chris' new bed.
"Chris," he called again, pulling futilely at the chains. They had to escape before O'Bannon returned. It did not bear to think what would occur otherwise. "Chris, wake up! Come on, Larabee!" He was rewarded by a pained groan. "That's it, Chris. Come on, wake up, please."
He watched as Chris made what seemed like an enormous effort to lift his head. "Ezra?" Chris sounded weak and confused.
"Yes, God, yes! Chris, you have to regain consciousness, to free yourself. O'Bannon won't stay away for long."
"What's goin' on?" Chris' voice was clearer now, and his eyes opened, attempting to focus on Ezra. When he saw Ezra's vulnerable condition, he frowned feebly. "Ezra?"
"Do you remember what happened, Chris?"
"Someone... shot me. A man. Was hidin' behind some rocks, saw 'im too late. O'Bannon?"
"I'm not certain, but it must be him. I heard shots, ran after you. When I saw you lying on the ground... I ceased to think. He knocked me unconscious. Can you free yourself? You have to escape, bring help."
Chris attempted to loosen the ropes binding him, to no avail. He exhaled carefully, the gunshot wound clearly giving him some trouble. "Sorry. Seems like I ain't goin' nowhere."
The front door was pushed open with a crash, making both men jump in reaction. Ezra watched as his latest nemesis entered, gun held before him.
"O'Bannon," he swore, struggling harder, pulling fiercely at his chains. He ignored the pain as the skin tore on his wrists, blood trickling down his arms.
"Ezra, stop it! You're only hurtin' yourself," Chris ordered, before glaring at O'Bannon. "What the hell do you want?"
O'Bannon's gaze never shifted from Ezra as he answered, "Justice."
"Justice?" Ezra echoed, chasing away the fear burning inside of him.
"Yes," O'Bannon drawled slowly, eyes raking over Ezra's nude frame. "You deserve what is going to happen, Ezra. They all did. Every single one of you said yes to my advances, to my flirting. You wanted it."
"Those men did not ask to be violated, or murdered," Ezra retorted angrily. "Why are you doing this?"
O'Bannon shrugged faintly. "Justice, like I said. Did you know I was in a prison camp during the war? The commandant there... he looked just like you. Was made of the same ilk as well. You might say he... took me under his wing. I became his favorite pet, his plaything. We had some grand moments together before I finally managed to kill him."
"Christ," Chris whispered. "You've been rapin' men because the same thing happened to you? That's crazy!"
O'Bannon turned fierce eyes on him. "Men like him, like them... They can't be allowed to roam this earth. They're a perversion, contaminating everything and everyone they touch. I watched you two briefly in Cedar Ridge. He is slowly gaining power over you, Larabee. You are already beginning to weaken under his spell. I have spared you so you can see the truth, so you can see what these demons are really like, what they can do to us. I have destroyed all the others..." He stared at Ezra again. "Now it's your turn, Ezra," he said, beginning to remove his coat.
"If you hurt him, I'll find a way to kill you. I promise you that," Chris vowed, voice low and intense.
O'Bannon laughed quietly. "I almost believe you."
"Believe it," Chris growled.
"Maybe that would be for the best," O'Bannon agreed carelessly.
What occurred next would forever be engraved in Ezra's memory. Just as O'Bannon was about to shed his remaining garments, a rifle shot pierced the night, shattering the window and hitting O'Bannon directly in the back. The man looked down at his chest, at the exit wound, watching with a bemused expression as blood spread over his shirt.
He closed his eyes, swaying slightly, a strange smile curling his lips. "Peace..." he whispered, before falling lifeless on the wooden floor.
"What the hell..." Chris rasped.
They listened as heavy steps grew closer, until finally a man stood in the entryway, brows furrowed as he took in the scene inside the cabin.
"J-Josiah!" Ezra stammered, startled.
The older man nodded curtly. "Ezra." He walked over to O'Bannon's body and searched until he found a set of keys. Reaching the bed, he opened the chains that kept Ezra imprisoned. Seeing the blood on Ezra's wrists, he asked, "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, thanks to you. See to Chris while I don my clothes."
He cleaned his wrists and arms thoroughly, relieved to see he was no longer bleeding. Dressing in record time, he watched as Josiah liberated Chris and saw to his wound. Once that was done, the three men stood looking awkwardly at each other.
Chris cleared his throat. "Not that I'm complainin', but what are you doin' here? Last we heard you were gone."
"Thought it was time we had a talk," Josiah replied. "Saw a strange horse in your stable so I decided to check it out."
"Good thing you did too," Chris said, staring at the dead man. "Wonder how he knew about the cabin? And how the hell did the others miss him if he's been around all this time?"
"He most assuredly inquired about me and any associates I might have during his sojourn in town," Ezra ventured. "And he might have been a tracker at some point in his life. Don't forget he managed to flee without a trace. Not even Vin was able to discover his trail."
Chris nodded absently. "I guess we'll never know. Where have you been?" he asked Josiah.
"With Chanu's tribe. Last time I was there Ko-Je helped me come to terms with the past and my father. All this..." he gestured to O'Bannon, "brought some of it back. I needed some... balance before I could face either of you."
They had moved to sit by the table, while Chris made some coffee. O'Bannon wasn't going anywhere and they had important matters to discuss.
Ezra regarded Josiah carefully. "You know about our relationship."
Josiah eyed him frankly. "Yes."
"And?" Chris hedged.
Josiah gave them a lopsided grin, accepting his cup of coffee. When all three were sitting down, he said, "I may have lost faith in man's interpretation of God, but I have never lost faith in the Almighty. And I can't believe He'd condemn love, in whatever form or shape it might present itself."
"Then what the hell was that all about in the saloon the other night?" Chris snapped, annoyed. "JD told me Buck had to knock you unconscious."
Josiah exhaled slowly, looking down at his cup. "Like I said, the past reared its head and I couldn't face it. I'm sorry if I gave the impression I was against you being together."
"You want to talk about it?" Ezra queried gently, sensing the burden on his friend's shoulders.
"You know my parents were missionaries. They had three children; I was the oldest, then there was my sister Hannah, and the youngest, Benjamin. My father always resented Benjamin, because our mother died givin' birth. But Hannah and I... We loved Ben with everythin' in us. He was the sweetest, brightest boy I'd ever seen. Loving too. We traveled a lot during our childhood, goin' from town to town with our father... sometimes sleepin' on the trail, others dependin' on the kindness of folks to lodge us for a night or two. When Ben was sixteen we spent a few nights in a ranch just outside of Red Falls. Our father would go into town to preach every day, sometimes he would take us, others we would stay behind. That day he took Hannah and me, but Benjamin refused to go."
"What happened?" Chris asked in a low-key tone.
"When we returned we found Ben in his room, cryin' silently, his face battered and bruised. He told us one of the cowhands had raped him," Josiah answered faintly. "And instead of supporting him, of easing his pain, of practicing what he preached, father went insane. Accused Ben of provoking his attacker, sayin' he had a demon inside him, possessin' him, that he deserved what had happened. He raved and ranted, and no matter how much Hannah and I tried to interfere, he just wouldn't stop. From that day on he treated Ben as a pariah, with nothin' but disgust and contempt. We tried so hard... so damn hard. But in the end we watched as Ben retreated more and more into himself, the light gone from his eyes, until one day... he hung himself."
"My Lord," Ezra breathed, shocked.
"It didn't end there. Hannah was next. Before that she had been full of life, strong and willful. After Ben's death she rebelled against my father, blamed him for everythin'. And of course, typical of my father he refused to see the truth. Said she was on the road to destruction, tried to rein her in. But the harder he tried, the worse she got. Till it was too late."
"Is she --" Chris began hesitantly.
Josiah shook his head. "No. She's in Vista City, in a convent. She... Her mind's gone. There's nothin' left of my sister."
"The man who raped your brother?"
"He left the ranch that same day. Took me years to find him." Josiah's eyes burned hot, even as he grinned humorlessly. "He's dead. Took him a long time to die too." He stood up abruptly. "Time for me to head out, find the others. I'll take O'Bannon's body with me." He gazed down at them, expression softening. "I'm glad you found each other, brothers."
Ezra gave him a weak smile, hearing the acceptance in the older man's voice, but too worn out to make a greater effort. "Thanks, Josiah. For everything."
He and Chris waited until Josiah had ridden away, content to remain in silence now that their troubles were over. Finally Chris turned to Ezra.
"You okay?" he coaxed gently.
Ezra placed his hand over Chris' on the table, his smile more genuine. "I am now."
They rode into town the next morning, under cloudless skies and surprisingly warm weather. Chris took a deep breath, looking forward to unwinding with the others now that O'Bannon was gone from their lives and the Seven were back together. He glanced at Ezra, only to find a strange expression on the other man's face.
"What?" he asked.
Ezra shrugged slightly. "I was wondering about O'Bannon, if that was even his real name."
"Wonderin' what exactly?"
"He seemed so... collected when we met. Charming, educated... A part of me understands he was a victim as well, that the atrocities he suffered while in the prison camp drove him to become the monster we faced. But shouldn't it have shown somehow?"
"You mean, shouldn't we have noticed that he was sick?" Chris shook his head. "No one knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, Ezra. That's not how it works." Knowing what really had his lover upset, he said softly, "Let it go, Ezra. You couldn't've known O'Bannon was mad. Thanks to Josiah, he won't get to murder anybody else. Let's just go home and enjoy some peace and quiet for a change."
His lover opened his mouth to reply, but Chris never got to hear his words. The sound of gunfight echoed loudly in the deserted streets, closely followed by Buck's voice, "Hey, you in the bank! Give yourselves up or we'll fill ya full o' holes!"
Ezra raised an eyebrow in obvious amusement. "Peace and quiet, huh?"
And with that the two men dismounted and went to join the fray. Everything was back to normal in the not-so peaceful town of Four Corners.
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