In A Mirror Dimly
Main Street was eerily quiet for a weekday afternoon. Riding into town on his gelding, Chris saw more than one or two people he knew scurry indoors at his approach. By the time he had reached the livery and dismounted, the street looked as though it belonged to a ghost town. Its only occupants seemed to be a mangy stray or two -- and that assessment included himself.
Frowning, Chris tied his horse's reins to the bolted livery stable door and made his way cautiously down the street towards the jail. As he walked along the boardwalk, boots thumping and spurs jingling, he caught sight of people cowering down behind shop windows. Without comment, he continued on until he reached the mouth of the alley that ran down the side of the deserted-looking jail. When a cautious look through the nearest, filthy jail window left him none the wiser, he edged his way around the building to the backdoor.
Holding his breath and drawing his pistol, Chris was just about to try the door's lock when he heard a noise like someone scuffing their boot on the alley wall just around the corner. Without trying the door, Chris moved quietly on. Glancing around the corner, he saw the back of a thickset stranger with a shotgun balanced over his shoulder.
Chris leaned back against the wall with a silent curse. A split second later, he was moving decisively around the corner, grabbing the man from behind, pressing his forearm hard against the stranger's windpipe.
"Drop it," he said low, pressing his gun against the man's temple and cocking the hammer. "Now."
Making an odd choking noise, the man nodded and seemed ready to comply. Then the distinct clicks of pistols being cocked echoed up the alleyway from behind them.
"You drop it, Larabee," an all too familiar, slaughterhouse of a voice said in return. The hairs on the back of Chris' neck stood up as the voice went on, "Let him go and turn around slowly. Now."
"Rawlson?" Chris said without turning around. His grip tightened on his captive so the man choked noisily. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"What's it look like? Doing my sworn duty as Sheriff of Wolver County and taking you in."
"For what?" Chris snapped back, almost looking around. "There's no law against not stopping for watered down whisky."
Rawlson made a derisive snorting sound. "We got witnesses. Now drop that gun, Larabee, or my deputies and I will shoot you in the back like the scum you are."
"That's how you'd prefer it," Chris growled. He was already calculating the odds of successfully whirling around and shooting Rawlson and his deputies before they got him. However, just as he was figuring that the shielding of his thickset captive and the element of surprise might give him the edge he needed, his captive got the same idea and head-butted him in the chin.
Even with blood filling his mouth and red sparks dancing before his eyes, Chris' first instinct was retaliation. He fired a couple of shots at Rawlson and his deputies, making them dive back around the corner. He then whacked his slightly stunned, erstwhile captive over the side of the head with the butt of his pistol before taking the shotgun and backing off up the alley.
"Any of you boys dumb enough to poke your head around that corner'll be going back home in a pine box," he called.
"You're the dumb one, Larabee," Rawlson shouted back. "You ain't gettin' away. My warrant's legal and your friends know it!"
Ignoring Rawlson's jibes, Chris left the alley to edge along the front wall of the jail. His heart was hammering in his mouth as he moved over to squint through the cleanest part of the window -- only to scowl at the sight that greeted him. While he had been sneaking around, fearing for their lives, it seemed his fellow lawmen had been having a quiet game of poker.
Chris stood up against the doorjamb and took a steadying breath as he scanned the length of the deserted street. It was only a matter of time before Rawlson got up the nerve to come after him and he still didn't have a clue as to what the hell was going on. His friends must have heard the shots, but there they were, all except Vin, gathered around playing cards regardless. It didn't make any damned sense.
Somewhere in a building up the street, a baby started crying.
Growling a curse under his breath, Chris stepped back then kicked the jail door in. As soon as he entered the room, he felt someone move up behind him.
He almost saw the blow coming. Almost.
Chris awoke slowly into a hazy world of pain in which everything was too dark to see then so bright it hurt his eyes. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear Buck and JD shouting. Every now and again, Nathan would say something that sounded quite close by. When he had finally worked out that he was lying on one of the rickety jail beds with Nathan carefully treated the pounding wound on the side of his head, JD had calmed down a little but Buck was still calling Rawlson for everything.
"Your fool of a deputy damn near took his head off and you expect us to just let you waltz on out of here with him?"
"Now you listen to me," Rawlson retorted. "You boys let Tanner go and--"
"No, you listen to me," Buck returned with a growl. "You can't just handcuff us to our own damn fu--"
"You would have interfered! I did what was necessary to arrest--"
"Yeah, you hate Chris bad, don't you? You've had it in for him ever since your brother watered his drawers trying to throw down on him."
"This ain't about my brother, Wilmington," Rawlson snapped back. "Your friend is a killer. You all know it. He killed those men in cold blood."
"Chris has killed some but he ain't no cold-blooded killer, Sheriff," JD replied with conviction. "I don't know what those witnesses saw but Chris wouldn't have shot those people like that."
"If he's going with you, we're going with him," Buck said low. "No prisoners are getting shot 'trying to escape' on this ride."
"Better agree to that, Sheriff," Josiah added with quiet menace. "You're not the law here and, like you said, Chris is our friend. We have a few questions that need answering."
"I have a legal warrant for Larabee's arrest," Rawlson spluttered angrily. "You've all seen it. Those men had families. Nine people are dead and he's got to hang for it. You can't--"
"Now, you see," Ezra broke in smoothly, "that kind of remark just makes us even more disinclined to trust your commitment to justice. You have heard of the term 'fair trial', I trust?"
"I didn't shoot anyone," Chris said hoarsely, pushing Nathan's restraining hand away to sit up. "Didn't even stop in Wolver," he continued against waves of sickening dizziness.
"The first shootings were on Tuesday night," Nathan told him quietly. "The others on Wednesday."
Chris swallowed back a wrenching attack of nausea and tried to focus on where Ezra was standing in the open cell doorway, leaning casually against the metal frame. "I was camped out over the county line Tuesday."
"You got witnesses to that?" Rawlson's voice came back at Chris from the blur of figures across the room. "What the hell were you doing out there? I've got sworn statements that say you killed two miners up the mountain, four men in Wishart's Rigg then another three in Denton. Those men in Denton might have looked at you funny and hear I those four in Wishart's Rigg spilled your drink. Lord knows what those two poor gold-panning bastards did up at the old Nelson place. You're one mean son of a bitch, Larabee, and this time you're gonna pay."
During the speech, a dark presence, probably Rawlson, had moved up behind Ezra's brightly coloured figure as if trying to enter the jail cell. Ezra, however, had remained a study of nonchalance in the doorway, leaving Rawlson no room to pass.
"I didn't kill anyone," Chris reiterated before another assault of sickening pain drove him back down to the rough pillow.
"Lie still, you hear me?" Nathan said softly while applying a mercifully cool cloth to Chris' head. "You move around now, you'll wish he had knocked your head off."
"He all right to ride?" Rawlson asked then quickly added, "Either way, we're moving out first thing in the morning."
"Your concern for your fellow man truly knows no beginning, Sheriff," Ezra said dryly just before Nathan spoke up angrily.
"You ride in here with your posse and round us up like criminals, show us your legal warrant and swear you'll take Chris in easy. You call this easy?" Nathan stood up off the bed to confront Rawlson. "Your deputy about stove his skull in and now you're fixin' on just dragging him back to Denton come morning no matter what? Well, Sheriff, I got news for you, head injuries can be serious and I'm the only healer you got. Anywhere Chris goes, I go. Now get out of my sickroom and let the man rest."
"You heard Mr Jackson, gentlemen," Ezra announced, easing away from the cell doorway to make shooing gestures that ushered Rawlson back. "His patient needs his rest."
"We're not leaving him in here alone," Rawlson retorted.
"Of course not, sir," Ezra returned reasonably. "Messrs Jackson, Wilmington, Dunne, Sanchez and myself will remain within the building while your good self and the deputies take up positions outside."
"You think I'm going to trust you five to do any law work after that fiasco with Tanner?"
"Who's Tanner?" Chris asked dully.
"A miscreant the good Sheriff heard was in our midst for quite some time while we remained inexplicably unable to apprehend him," Ezra clarified. "I believe the sheriff entertains notions that we are somehow affiliated with this person."
"Look, Rawlson," Buck spoke up, "we're staying with Chris tonight and me and Nathan will be riding with you to Denton in the morning. There ain't no choices here."
Chris' ears started to ring in the long silence that followed. Eventually, Rawlson replied, "All right. You can have it your way but if anything messes up this arrest, even a freak snow storm, I'll have all your sorry hides in jail quicker than you can turn around and not even Orrin Travis will be able to save you."
After a moment's pause in which he was probably trying to stare everyone down, Rawlson strode out of the jail followed by his boot-clumping deputies.
As the door slammed shut behind them, Chris eased up carefully onto his elbows. "How many men does Rawlson have?"
"Twelve in town," Nathan replied, moving back over to hand Chris the cloth to press against his head.
"But he says he's sent another four after Vin," JD added as he came to stand by the cell with Buck and Josiah.
Chris frowned at them. "What the hell happened while I was gone? Why is Rawlson after Vin all of a sudden?"
Josiah shrugged. "There were a couple of trappers moving through town yesterday morning. Vin thought they may have recognised him so he made himself scarce just in case they got any ideas."
"Seems their idea was to pass on their intelligence to an angry posse headed in this direction," Ezra said wryly. "Our Mr Tanner seems to be a very popular fellow in certain circles."
"And so do you, Chris, if you don't mind me sayin'," Buck added gently, draping his arms through the bars. "You didn't get drunk and go treeing any towns while you were gone, did you?"
Chris scowled. "I didn't shoot anyone."
"Now, hold on there, stud, we're not saying you did," Buck returned. "But someone who sure must have looked a hell of a lot like you did and if you were drinking it sure makes it easy for everyone else to think it likely."
"That include you, Buck?"
"C'mon, Chris, we know you didn't shoot those people," JD broke in. "Don't we, fellas?"
No one answered.
"Rawlson's warrant is legal," Buck finally said. "He had us handcuffed to our damn chairs, Chris. What would you expect us to do?"
Nathan nodded in agreement. "He rode in expecting trouble."
"And we can't find out what happened to those poor souls if we're all in jail ourselves," Josiah added.
Buck stood back from the bars. "Rawlson's got an axe to grind with you for sure, Chris, but those men had families that need to see justice done. We thought it best to let Rawlson have his way, leave the way clear for the rest of us to find out what really happened."
Chris turned his attention to Ezra. "So what's the plan?"
"Simplicity itself," Ezra said brightly. "While Buck and Nathan ride along with you, making sure the good Sheriff keeps his zeal for justice under control--"
"Me, Ezra and Josiah will ride hard out to Wishart's Rigg and find out what happened there," JD finished. "If there's trouble with the posse, Buck and Nathan will set up an escape and we'll meet up at that old cabin where those other men were killed."
"We figure Vin will have those posse boys chasing tracks somewhere in Peru by tomorrow," Josiah said lightly. "So hopefully he'll be watching and can lend a hand where need be."
"It seems you need do naught but rest, Mr Larabee," Ezra concluded. "May I suggest you gentlemen go forth and gather whatever supplies we may need for the night ahead while I remain here? I fear that if I get within close proximity of my featherbed before morning I may never return to these less than luxurious climes."
"Amen to that," Buck said, eying the uncomfortable cot in the next cell before moving off with the others.
As the door closed behind them, Ezra meandered into Chris' cell, looking around as if he'd never been inside one before. "How do you feel?"
Chris lay back and closed his eyes. "Been worse."
"Ah, verbose as usual, I see. But, then again, what else would one expect from someone who can make grown men soil their underwear with nothing more than a stray glare?"
Chris opened his eyes just as Ezra crouched down beside him. "What's that supposed to mean?"
His answer came by the way of soft lips pressing insistently against his mouth.
"Hell, Ezra!" He jerked away only to groan against the sharp pain that lanced around his skull. "There's such a thing as windows," he hissed, holding his aching head.
"I apologise," Ezra replied without sounding apologetic in the least. "However, the gentlemen outside would have better luck peering through solid rock than those filthy articles you laughingly refer to as windows." He stroked Chris' cheek with a fingertip caress. "The sheriff has a vindictive streak, that much is obvious, but would he go so far as to falsify evidence?"
"Don't know." Chris shrugged a little. "How well do you really know anyone? You don't know I didn't kill those men."
Ezra frowned but his fingers kept up their light strokes. "Do you know?"
"You're asking if I killed them?"
"No." Ezra shook his head. "I'm asking if you got so drunk you don't remember."
In response, Chris caught Ezra's busy fingers and kissed the palm of his hand. "Watch your back."
"I intend to," Ezra replied hoarsely, his eyes darkening then fluttering shut when Chris first kissed his wrist before sucking lightly at the pulse.
Ezra knew it was a dream. It wasn't the fact that Chris was kissing and rubbing his naked body over every inch of Ezra's own equally naked length that gave it away. No, Ezra had enjoyed that delicious sensation on more than one occasion. It wasn't even the fact that they were taking their pleasure on top of a poker table in the saloon with an admiring crowd looking on, either. No, it wasn't the crowd; it was the money. Ezra knew it was a dream as soon as he looked down at the thousands of dollars littering the poker table, felt them sticking to his damp skin as Chris began to thrust in earnest. There was just no way all that money was real.
However, Chris' attentions felt real enough and after that merciless teasing Chris had given him just before the others had returned with their supplies, Ezra decided to enjoy what he was owed. Unfortunately, his subconscious got other ideas. Just as he took control of the dream and pulled Chris in for a deep kiss, the light scratching sound the dollar bills made as they rubbed against each other turned into the loud hissing of angry snakes. At that same moment, the cool piles of money cushioning his body turned into a cold, squirming mass of green vipers, rearing up and baring their fangs...
"Hell and--" Josiah cursed as Ezra started awake, kicking out in his panic to sit up. "Take it easy, son," Josiah continued, shaking spilled coffee from fingers and clothes. "Dreams don't bite but hot coffee sure does burn," he went on as Ezra sat up to find himself lying on the larger of the two jail desks in a rather uncomfortable, makeshift bed. It was, however, mercifully free of snakes -- green or otherwise.
"Sorry, Josiah," Ezra murmured, his heart still hammering as he blinked around the deserted jail.
"No harm done." Josiah handed Ezra the cup and its remaining contents. "I've had more than my fair share nightmares as well as my fair share of the coffee pot, and now I'm wearing most of yours."
"I, ah, hope you'll forgive me for being a tad obtuse," Ezra began with a frown. "But where is everyone?"
Josiah was just drawing breath to respond when JD came hurtling through the doorway.
"Coast's clear, Josiah!" he gasped. "There's two posse men backtracking but if we head out now they won't see us. I've got the horses out front." As Josiah nodded, JD turned his attention to Ezra. "Finally awake, huh? Well, come on." He grabbed Ezra's coffee cup and threw the contents out the door before setting it back on the desk empty. "Let's ride." He strode purposefully out again.
Ezra treated Josiah to his best long-suffering look.
Josiah smiled and patted him on the shoulder. "You heard the man."
"Boy! I've heard of a one-horse town before but I've never seen anything like this," JD said, twisting around in his saddle to see the full extent of the dilapidated, one-street cesspit called Wishart's Rigg. "Even the buildings look like they'd slit your throat for two bits," he continued as a few of the town's largest and surliest inhabitants came out to glare at them ride past.
"Disillusioned men living a life of broken dreams," Josiah said, nodding politely to the group of men gathered outside the saloon.
"Indeed," Ezra commented with a fixed smile. "If the one horse rode in, they'd probably eat it."
"So, do either of you boys have any ideas about how to go about this fact finding mission?" Josiah asked as they dismounted in front of the dry goods store. There did at least seem to be someone inside its dingy remains buying something.
Ezra's stomach rebelled at the likely myriad of horrors lurking within the store. "Why don't you gentlemen start with the..." He eyed the front of the building but couldn't think up a euphemism that didn't drip of sarcasm. "Stores and I'll start with the saloon and meet you there."
JD gave him a dry look. "I don't think these folks have anything to lose to you at poker, Ezra."
Ezra grinned brightly. "Oh ye of little faith." He then turned to Josiah. "Shall we say an hour?"
"An hour it is." Josiah nodded.
"Gentlemen." Ezra tipped his hat before walking off down to the saloon.
As he approached the faded green of the batwing doors, Ezra caught a whiff of the unsettling stench of body odour and cheap whisky that permeated the darkness within. "Courage, Ezra, courage," he muttered, pausing to straighten his vest before striding into the smoky depths.
It was worse than he had feared. The dead rat lying on top of the keyless piano confirmed it.
Trying not to breathe, he made his way to the plank and barrel bar at the end of the room. "Good day, gentlemen," he smiled at the barman and what he assumed was a group of regulars propping up the bar. "What a fine establishment you have here!"
The barman spat a lump of well-chewed tobacco onto the floor then continued to watch Ezra without expression.
"A tad rough and ready, perhaps--" Ezra patted the shoulder of the nearest regular and got a glare for his trouble. "But just the kind of place where a man can relax after a long ride," he finished, surreptitiously wiping his hand on the handkerchief in his pocket.
"What do you want, mister?" the barman growled.
Ezra's smile was fixed in place. "A bottle of your best and a quiet game, perhaps?"
Without preamble, the barman plunked a bottle of watery whisky down on the bar and nodded to where four seedy-looking miners were hunched over a table. With a gracious nod, Ezra paid for the whisky and declined the offer of a filthy glass before meandering over to the poker game.
"Gentlemen, may I join you?" he asked, leaning in to place the whisky bottle in the centre of the table.
Four pairs of bloodshot eyes blinked up at him owlishly before one man broke into a toothless smile. "Sure friend, grab a seat," he said, shuffling along to make room at the table.
Ezra had no sooner acquired a chair and returned to sit than the down-on-their-luck miners were distributing his bribe amongst their glasses. He was depressed to note that they had somehow managed to come up with a glass for him too and he was now expected to join in.
"Ah, to unexpected pleasures," he toasted -- then didn't drink a drop of the vile concoction while the others finished theirs and refilled.
"Mighty civilised of ya, feller," one of the miners with teeth grinned at him. "Don't often come across someone with real manners."
"Well, thank you, but that might be a thing of the past with the town opening up and all," Ezra said lightly as he picked up the miners' deck and shuffled. The cards were a tad sticky and liberally mottled with suspicious stains. All in all, he didn't want to examine them too closely.
"Town opening up?" the toothless miner echoed while his friends frowned on. "What you meanin', mister?"
"Why the gold of course," Ezra replied as he dealt a hand.
"What gold?" the miner with teeth asked in bewilderment.
Ezra blinked back at the men in studied confusion then grinned. "Oh, come, come now, gentlemen. We all know that four men were tragically shot down in this very establishment just a scant few days ago. In a quiet town such as this, that only happens when there's gold in the air."
All four miners paused to stare at Ezra before bursting out laughing.
"Mister, you sure got some sense of humour," the toothless wonder wheezed, pounding Ezra on the back in his mirth. "Gold! Here!!"
His friends roared with laughter again while Ezra looked at them dubiously. "Gentlemen, I am reliably informed that four men were murdered here. I fail to see the hilarity."
"Oh they were killed all right. Deader than a can of corned beef," the one with teeth giggled. "I saw it all with my own eyes but it weren't about no gold."
"It were that Larabee feller," the toothless one said, pouring another round of drinks as the laughter died down. "Mean son of a whore he is. Killed 'em for spilling his drink."
"His drink?" Ezra scowled. "So what about the gold?"
"No gold. Not an ounce," came the sad response and the miners stared morosely into their drinks, poker game forgotten.
"But why would a gunman like Larabee come to a town like this?" Ezra pondered loudly.
"You calling me a liar, mister?" the one with teeth snarled.
"Not at all, sir." Ezra smiled soothingly. "I just have my doubts as to whether the man you saw really was the infamous Mr Larabee. It is rather dull in here and what with all the commotion..."
"It was him all right," the miner leaned in to give Ezra the full benefit of his unique breath. "Quicker than a rattler and twice as mean. Long, lean feller dressed all in black with a look in his eye to make the devil himself piss his pants. Paul knew him too."
While the other miners nodded, three men approached the table from the bar area. They were slightly better dressed than the other patrons -- but that wasn't saying much.
"Hey fellas," the handsome, cocky leader of the trio said as they came to stand behind the suddenly nervous miners. "You talking about me?"
"No, Mr Paul, we ain't sayin' nothin'," the toothless miner said before the four of them scurried away with what was left of Ezra's bottle.
Ezra gathered up the cards and smiled at the new group. "Gentlemen, may I offer you a game of chance? It seems you have dispersed my erstwhile partakers."
"Sure." The cocky leader, Paul, grinned and all three sat down. "But I'm dealing."
"Of course." Ezra smiled, handing over the deck.
"Stud, nothing wild, two limit," Paul said with a warning glare that was supposed to stop Ezra noticing him palming cards. "Heard you asking about that Larabee business," he went on as he shuffled. "What's it to you?"
Ezra shrugged easily. "Curiosity. I was just speculating as to why a big gun like Larabee would come to this town if there's no gold."
"Men like me and Larabee go where we like, when we like," Paul said, dealing the cards.
Ezra cleared his throat pointedly. "Indeed. You are acquainted with Mr Larabee then?"
"We move in the same circles. He's a fast one all right." Paul gave Ezra a deadly look that implied he could beat Chris to the draw. It was an expression he probably practised in the mirror every morning before breakfast.
"I see," Ezra said against the grin tugging at his mouth before turning his attention to the cards.
It didn't take long before the tales of Paul's dubious exploits were irritating Ezra even more than the man's pathetic skills as a card cheat. When Josiah and JD finally walked into the saloon, Ezra felt like dropping to his knees in gratitude.
"Well, gentlemen..." He smiled as he raked in the last, meagre pot. "As much as it pains me to walk away with my winnings intact, I'm afraid it's time I was moving on."
"Wait a minute," the larger of Paul's bookend henchmen growled and grabbed Ezra's wrist. "You've got to give us a chance to get our money back."
"You had your chance." Ezra shook himself free and tidied the money away. "If you gentlemen will excuse me?" he said, looking Paul hard in the eye.
"By all means." Paul nodded and Ezra stood up to leave.
As he walked past Josiah and JD's table, Ezra pointedly ignored his friends and made straight for the door. He was barely halfway to the dry goods store when he heard boots clumping up the boardwalk behind him. There were three men pursuing him and he didn't need clairvoyance to work out what they were planning.
At the mouth of a likely looking alleyway, he turned on his pursuers, drawing his guns.
Caught out in surprise, the trio tried a comic half-fumble for their own weapons.
Ezra cocked his guns. "I wouldn't."
"Neither would I," Josiah agreed as he and JD came up from behind the men and pushed them into the alley. "Ezra, I do believe these misguided souls had an intention to rob you."
"Didn't your mothers teach you to play nice?" JD asked as he relieved Paul and his men of their guns.
"Are you Larabee's friends?" Paul asked suspiciously.
"What makes you say that?" Josiah returned.
"You're checking up on us. You're good. It doesn't take a Philadelphia lawyer to put two and two together."
"It would never make four the way you deal," Ezra said, holstering one gun to step forward and pull two kings out of Paul's sleeve.
"Hey, I didn't know you were working for Larabee!" Paul protested. "I was just running off nosey pokes like he told me."
"What else did he tell you?" Josiah asked, closing in menacingly. "What did he pay you for besides bandying his name around?"
"Hey, what--" Paul tried to push Josiah back but got slammed against the alley wall for his trouble.
"The Lord does the best he can with the tools he has," Josiah said, "but I'm afraid patience was never my strong suit."
"Hell!" Paul snarled. "You're the ones he warned us about."
"Oh, you're quick." JD grinned. "Can you shoot that fast?"
"Listen, you better not mess with Larabee," Paul continued urgently. "You guys might think you're hot shit but he'll chew you up and spit you out faster than you can blink. The man is crazy. Murderin' crazy."
"Well, thank you for the advice," Ezra replied but then his tone darkened. "However, a friend of ours is in trouble and that doesn't put us in a very good mood. Since your Mr Larabee is miles away and we're here now, I suggest you put aside your fear of him and tell us what we need to know."
While Paul swallowed nervously, Josiah grabbed his shirtfront and lifted him onto his tiptoes. "Now would be a good time to unburden your troubled soul, brother. Before my arm gets tired would be best."
"All right, all right," Paul gave in. "I didn't know he was plannin' on killing more folks, I swear. I met him up the mountain and he told me he'd pay me a hundred dollars if I rode into town with Josh and Dewey's bodies and told everyone I saw him shoot them. Dumb bastards, Josh and Dewey. Everyone knows there ain't no gold left up the mountain but they kept on trying. I never liked them anyway."
"How very discriminating of you," Ezra commented dryly. "What happened next?"
"Nothin'." Paul shrugged. "I waited at the pass with the bodies and rode in at sunset like he told me. It was only then I found out he'd killed those boys in town. I had nothing to do with the killings, honest."
"That's it?" Josiah loomed.
"That's it, I swear," Paul quickly replied and Josiah released him. "But you guys will be writing your own epitaphs if you go up against Larabee. He's death crazy. I saw it in his eyes. He killed three more in Denton the next day and he ain't gonna stop at that neither."
"Yeah, yeah, get lost," JD said, ushering Paul and his two henchmen out the alley.
"You'll get yours!" Paul called back. "Larabee'll be the death of you all."
"Yeah, next time bring all your friends," JD called after him cheerily. "Oh, wait a minute, you did!"
"You know, Josiah," Ezra began, holstering his gun then straightening his shoulder rig. "Something tells me there's more to the apparent haphazard killing of those two gold panners than previously met the eye. Perhaps that mountain cabin merits closer inspection."
"You know, Ezra," Josiah replied lightly, "I'd have to agree with that assessment."
"You think they struck gold?" JD asked with a frown.
Ezra grinned. "Feeling up to a little prospecting?"
The afternoon sun was beating down and Chris' head was pounding back, refusing to let him think or even see clearly. Vision blurring, he blinked down at his chafing, tightly handcuffed wrists and felt Buck and Nathan edge their horses closer to his once more. Despite the fact that Rawlson's men had tried repeatedly to keep them back throughout the journey, Buck and Nathan had somehow managed to end up riding alongside him for most of the way. Normally this would have been his preferred plan, keeping his men together as Rawlson's men grew increasingly belligerent, but Buck's constant jawing was beginning to get on his last nerve.
"Yeah, I hear the snakes in there can get big enough to wrestle a man off his horse," Buck said of the river they were approaching. "Damn near big enough to wear buckskins," he went on deliberately despite Chris' scowl.
"Oh, yeah, Buck, you're right," Nathan suddenly agreed as the rush of water grew louder. "I saw one near big enough to wear a hat once."
"Biggest ones come from Texas, I hear," Buck added inanely. "Yeah, those big critters just mosey on up the--"
"Quit talking back there," Rawlson bellowed at them. "There ain't no snakes in that river. It's too fast and deep."
"That's what makes the snakes so big and mean," Buck returned as quick as a flash. "Got to swim against the current and all. Ain't that right, big dog?" He winked and nodded at Chris.
Chris didn't say a word; his glower spoke volumes.
"There's nothing wrong with the damn river if you're careful and go in one at a time," Rawlson insisted as they reached the thundering banks. They were at the only calm stretch for as far as the eye could see. "Just don't let the horses try and trample each other and you'll be fine," he told his men as they started to go in. "You're next, Larabee," Rawlson said after his third man entered the water.
"Aren't you going to uncuff him first?" Buck demanded.
Rawlson shook his head. "Seems to me, if Larabee's half the horseman folks say, he'll get across without getting too wet." He smirked.
Buck was about to respond when Chris gigged his horse down the steep bank into the river. If something was going to happen, he wanted to get it over with. Then maybe his head would stop pounding and he'd be able to think straight.
As soon as the water was deep enough to lap up his mount's stomach, Chris' gelding wanted to turn back for the bank. Shivering and snorting nervously, the horse began to frighten itself with its own chaos in the splashing water. But Chris quickly calmed the gelding down with gentle touches and soft words and they were soon moving for opposite bank once more. However, they had only gone on a few strides before the gelding took fright again, rearing out of the water as if something was attacking its legs.
Hunkering down, Chris managed to stay in the saddle until the gelding lost its footing in its terror. Then the world was reduced to a churning fury of freezing water and it was all Chris could do to kick away from his thrashing horse.
He was just gaining his equilibrium, gasping some steadying breaths as he got his feet under him, when something pulled him back under the water. He immediately lashed out, Buck's earlier words striking panic. At first, the oddly familiar strips of buckskin waving in the water beside him only added to his confusion. Then he felt a strong arm tighten around his chest and the full implication of Buck's words finally struck home. He stopped struggling and did his best to kick through the water in time with the man holding him.
"Damn, Chris!" Vin gasped as they broke the surface in a niche of rocks a little further down stream. "You damn near took my jaw off," he continued, pulling Chris coughing and spluttering up onto the rocks behind him. "I guess Buck didn't get the chance to tell you about the plan."
Chris didn't reply; he just gulped air while Vin uncuffed him.
"They won't find us down here," Vin went on, tucking the handcuffs between the rocks and pulling out two blankets. "We're covered from both sides and the bank is sheer rock." He handed Chris a blanket. "We'll stay here till dark then meet Buck and Nathan back at my camp." He watched Chris rub at his wrists distractedly. "You all right, cowboy?"
"Guess I wasn't paying mind," Chris admitted with a shiver as they huddled up under their blankets. "What did I miss?"
Vin wiped drips of water from his face, wincing when his fingers brushed against the nasty swelling at his jaw. "After I got rid of those boys tailing me, I circled around ahead of you. It didn't look good, Chris. There was a lynch mob a-coming at you and I got the feelin' Rawlson knew they were there."
"Figures." Chris rubbed at his arms through his soaked clothes.
"I got close enough to have a word or two with Buck. We reckoned it'd be for the best if you drowned in the river."
Chris nodded, grinding his teeth to stop them from chattering.
"Water's damn cold, that's for sure." Vin shivered deeply and rubbed at his own wet clothes. "Sparkling purtty on the outside but ice underneath. I brought biscuits if you're hungry," he offered, reaching between the rocks again to bring out a small food sack.
Shaking his head a little, Chris grinned. "Wouldn't happen to have a firearm or two back there would you?"
Smiling, Vin reached back once more to snag an oilskin containing his mare's leg, his rifle and spare ammunition. "Always pays to be prepared."
Chris returned the smile before nodding at Vin's swelling jaw. "It's coming up fast." He winced apologetically.
"Had worse." Vin shrugged back.
Chris nodded, his attention returning to his stinging wrists. For a long moment, he watched the angry welts rise to contrast even more harshly with the shivering skin surrounding it. "I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of, Vin." He looked up to find Vin watching him calmly. "After Ella, I took to drifting along the border. Got in a few scrapes, treed a few towns." He smirked at the memory. "I walked a fine line."
Vin nodded in silent understanding.
"Then I met Clancy and his gang," Chris continued, leaning back against the rock and letting his gaze drift to the river. "Me and Clancy looked enough alike to be brothers. Kind of drew us together. We did nothing much but raise hell until Clancy got this idea about a Mexican bank." Chris met Vin's gaze again. "He wanted to prove something. He could shoot but he wanted that look, the one you only get by killing a man. I thought it was just the whisky talking."
"Sometimes a man don't rightly know what's on his own mind," Vin offered quietly. "Sometimes what you do is as much as a surprise to yourself as everyone else."
"I did nothing." Chris narrowed his gaze against the memory. "As long as I had a bottle, I didn't care what went on. They rode off without me. Next time I saw them they were facedown in the street."
"Then this Clancy's feller's dead?" Vin asked warily.
"I thought so," Chris said with a scowl. "Until now."
"Light that stove, JD."
"Was that a rat?"
"Josiah, could you please move the table?"
"It was either a rat or an Indian pony, JD."
"Josiah!" Ezra hissed for the third time, already breaking a sweat despite the morning chill. "Could I get a little more room to work here, please?"
"Hold your horses, Ezra," Josiah said as he flipped over the large, rickety table that dominated the floor of the tiny cabin and balanced it on top of the bed. "Those boxes aren't about to grow legs any time soon."
"No, they are not about to depart in that manner, as you so rightly predict," Ezra said, moving to sit cross-legged on the cabin floor and work Josiah's knife blade along the lid edge of one of the suspiciously heavy boxes they'd found stacked under the bed. "However, I get the feeling that its current owners would not be--" With a loud crack of wood, the lid of the box with its faded Mexican bank stamp flipped off. "Overly pleased to see us," he finished weakly at the sight of six perfect bars of gold glittering up at him.
"You can say that again." Josiah whistled as he and JD bent down to pick up a bar of gold each.
"Sure is pretty," JD said quietly.
"Pretty enough to blind," Josiah added and Ezra knew that he too had spotted the bank stamp on the lid.
"Last time I saw this much gold, it was lead," Ezra said, picking up a bar for close inspection. "There's another five boxes under there. That's six bars in a box and forty troy ounces in a bar at twenty-three dollars and seventeen cents an ounce."
"That's a helluva lot of money!" JD said.
"Nine hundred dollars a bar," Ezra supplied distractedly. "Give or take twenty-six dollars and eight cents."
"You think that's why he killed the panners? Because they found the gold?"
"Poor souls were in the wrong place at the wrong time," Josiah sighed. "They found their gold. Trouble is, the Mexican government found it first."
"We've got to get to Denton!" JD suddenly started. "Tell the sheriff what we found. Chris didn't rob no Mexican bank."
Ezra nodded in agreement while pulling out the other boxes to check the seals weren't broken. "You gentlemen ride to Denton to inform the sheriff. I'll stay here and guard the gold." He barely noticed the uncomfortable silence that followed.
"Uh, are you sure that's a good idea, Ezra?" JD asked. "I mean, maybe..."
"Maybe what?" Ezra finally looked up from the gold. "What are you attempting to suggest, JD?"
"Only that, well, you know, what with that money and all..." He looked at Josiah who merely looked on. "Ezra, you said yourself we shouldn't leave you alone with other people's money!"
"Son, this is gold," Ezra pointed out with studied calm. "It is rather impractical, not to mention weighty and conspicuous. I suggest you take as much as you can carry to prove our story to the sheriff."
"I don't know, Chris," Buck said with a sigh that carried loudly through the crisp morning air. "Do you really think it's the same man?"
"You just got through telling me that same Mexican bank was robbed not three months back," Chris returned, looking back to where Buck and Nathan led their horses up the mountain path behind himself and Vin. "I don't trust coincidence, Buck."
"The old Nelson cabin is the perfect place to hole up too," Vin said by Chris' shoulder. "High, lonely, good water, not a lot of visitors."
"Sounds like the kind of place you'd like, Vin," Nathan teased. "Somewhere to hear nature around you."
"It is at that." Vin smiled back.
"I've nothing against mother nature but I'd like to see a bit more of her feminine side, if you know what I mean," Buck said and Chris could hear the wink in his voice. "Yes sir, I'll leave the cabin in the middle of nowhere to you and Chris, if that's all right with you, Vin."
"Bucklin--" Vin began then drew up short.
Chris froze as he heard the telltale fall of rocks just before Vin signalled that someone was coming down the mountain. Since there was no cover on the narrow path, they all drew their guns for a tense wait.
However, a moment later, Chris felt Vin's tension ease and he turned to meet his gaze.
"It's Josiah," Vin said just before Josiah and JD led their horses around the steep corner up ahead.
"How in the hell did you know that?" Buck demanded of Vin. "How did he do that?" he repeated the question to Nathan as Chris and Vin moved forward to greet the others.
"Where's Ezra?" Chris asked with a scowl.
"Ezra's guarding the gold," JD replied brightly. "We found it in the old cabin. We were taking it to--"
"Ezra's what?" Chris growled.
"You left Ezra with the gold?" Nathan asked in disbelief.
Not waiting for further commentary, Chris jumped on his horse and pushed past Josiah and JD, driving the gelding up the steep slope as quickly as possible.
"Chris!" Buck called out as he rode up behind. "Ezra won't run off."
"Ezra won't think straight with all that gold," Chris snapped back. "And Clancy won't be far away."
Ezra had no sooner stamped the floorboard back into place than the worn porch outside gave an ominous creak. Whirling around, he drew his guns just as the door burst open and Chris stood there. At least it seemed to be Chris. For the merest split second, he was fooled. But then everything suddenly looked wrong. The stance of the man was too aggressive, almost savage; the set of the face too hard; and the eyes were stony, showing nothing of Chris' silent understanding. It was like looking at a twisted mirror image of his lover -- and it almost cost Ezra his life.
When the mirror image Chris cocked his gun and took aim, Ezra's own guns were half-lowered to his sides. But instead of barking a bullet, the mirror Chris barked a command. "Put them down. Now."
The moment over, Ezra cursed himself for the king of idiots and slowly crouched to place his guns on the floor.
"Kick them under the stove."
"The stove is lit. Is that particularly--"
Ezra complied, taking an odd solace in the fact that the stranger's voice barely resembled his Chris' gruff purr.
"You're one of them, aren't you?" the mirror Chris asked, seeming to relax a little as he kicked the door shut behind him. "You're one of Larabee's puppy dogs, following blindly wherever he leads, thinking he's it. All hail the great gunslinger with the eyes of steel."
Ezra narrowed his gaze suspiciously. "You haven't been partaking in Jock Steele's publications by any chance?"
The mirror Chris scowled in a horribly familiar way. "Against the wall, now. Flat. Arms and legs spread and don't move."
"I wouldn't dream of it." Ezra complied again, trying to listen to the sound of the stranger moving around over the rapid hammering of his heart.
He heard nothing until he was spun roughly around from the wall to have a gun shoved under his chin. "Where is it?" the mirror Chris snarled, anger deepening the flatness of his eyes.
Ezra swallowed against the hard press of metal. "Where's what?"
Wrong answer. A sharp blow to the side of the head sent him to his knees, senses swirling.
"Where's my gold, you fancy-talking bastard?" The mirror Chris hauled him to his feet again. "Your friends didn't take any boxes out. I watched them leave."
"Boxes?" Ezra winced with a dizziness that was only partly feigned. "Why do you assume they were here when we arrived?"
"They were under the damn bed!"
"Really? Well, that explains it."
The mirror Chris glared. "Smart one, ain't you?"
"Well, let's just say that I have never endeavoured to hide my loot under a bed in an abandoned cabin." Ezra smiled sweetly. "Perhaps you should consider changing your reading habits."
The mirror Chris stepped back as if taking Ezra's measure for the first time. "What are you to Larabee? You trying to take my gold for yourself?" He grinned. "Were you planning on running out and leaving old Chris to the hangman's rope? I bet you were." He ran the muzzle of his gun down Ezra's cheek. "Smart boy like you."
"You flatter me," Ezra returned dryly against a wave of nausea. "If you're looking for intelligence, you need look no further than your good self, my friend. Setting Larabee up for the hangman's drop was positively inspired, not to mention rather bloodily homicidal."
"Homicidal?" The mirror Chris shook his head with a smile. "Those fools didn't matter. I just reckoned Larabee owed me a favour or two. And, well, after those gold panners stumbled in on me, I thought of the perfect way for him to repay."
"By taking the blame and smoke-screening your get away."
"But why ride over to Denton?" Ezra shrugged, getting his enemy used to little movements of his body. "Why kill nine when six would have served?"
"What can I say?" The mirror Chris grinned. "Larabee deserved a good send off. You don't know how people look at him. The respect, the fear in their eyes, who wouldn't want that?"
"Forgive me for saying so," Ezra said, tensing for action. "But I think your best course of action would have been taking the gold and making a hasty departure."
"And miss out on the last laugh?" The mirror Chris sneered.
"You know what they say," Ezra replied softly, "he who laughs last, thinks the slowest."
The words had barely left his mouth when he released his derringer from his sleeve and grabbed his enemy's gun hand. But the mirror Chris was quick. As soon as Ezra made his move, he was roughly intercepted. The derringer's single bullet ploughed harmlessly into the wall and Ezra had to wrestle his enemy to the floor.
When a gunshot rang out across the clearing from the old cabin, Chris almost fell from his horse in his scramble for cover. Fetching up in a thorn-infested ditch, he watched Ezra's horse, a big bay horse and three mules shake free of their tethers and take off in the opposite direction.
"See anything?" Buck asked as he joined Chris in the ditch.
Chris shook his head just as a second shot rang out and a hauntingly familiar figure dressed in black darted out of the cabin. "Clancy!" Chris bellowed, but the murderer had disappeared behind the cabin before he could take aim.
"Hell." Chris looked around as the others dismounted to join them. "Buck, take Nathan and JD and circle left. Me and Josiah'll go right. Vin lays down cover if we need it. Let's go," Chris finished and took off low and fast along the right line of meagre cover offered by the riverbank.
Pausing at a large bush, he felt Josiah close up behind him and saw Buck picking out a line for his group on the opposite side of the clearing. Wanting to reach the cabin first, Chris picked up the pace so he and Josiah had secured the immediate proximity of the cabin by the time Buck's group had arrived.
As Chris moved towards the door, he heard someone move within and signalled Josiah to kick the door open high while he went in low.
It was a bad idea.
Chris realised his mistake a split second later when Ezra almost blew his head off. For the longest moment, the world seemed frozen as he was trapped in Ezra's green-eyed glare; the threatening muzzles of his guns were almost an afterthought.
Then Ezra dropped into the cabin's single rickety chair and holstered his guns with a hissed curse. "Mr Larabee, if you insist on pursuing a death wish I'd appreciate it if you took your aspirations elsewhere in the future." Ezra was still glaring but there was a warmth in his eyes now, warmth and pain.
"You all right?" Chris asked, noting the pulpy bruise coming up on Ezra's temple and the distracted way he was shaking his right hand.
"Oh, just a little intense burning agony." Ezra winced over his angry red palm as Chris glanced around the cabin. "Nothing a bucket of ice and a few shots won't remedy."
"I heard that." Buck grinned while Nathan moved past to check Ezra's injuries.
"Where's the gold?" Chris scowled.
Ezra met his gaze over Nathan's shoulder. "I saw no point in losing what is bound to be a substantial reward to your doppelganger's limited imagination."
"Ezra," Chris warned low.
"It's under the floor, safe and sound."
"Clancy's heading up the river to the west pass," Vin said, poking his head around the cabin door. "He's on foot and bleeding," he continued as Chris joined him outside. "Not much but its slowing him down."
"All right," Chris said, setting off in pursuit with Vin and Buck behind him.
They hadn't climbed far up the steep river's edge when Chris noticed the spots of blood he was following across the rocks were getting heavier. Pausing to check the positions of Vin and Buck on either side of him, he indicated to them that Clancy was close. As they nodded their understanding and held their ground, Chris moved on a little further to the shelter of a rocky outcropping. There, he carefully peeked over the top -- and a bullet immediately whizzed overhead.
"Chris!" Clancy called down from another outcropping further up. "Fancy meeting you here. I thought they'd have hanged you by now."
"Give it up, Clancy," Chris called back. "There's no way out."
"You're probably right. You're usually right, aren't you? The infallible Larabee with the lightning shot. Only your not too good at sticking with your friends, are you, Chris?" Clancy snarled. "But we were never really friends to you anyway. Not to you. You could make men crap themselves with a glare. We were just dirt to you."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Chris snapped back.
"Don't lie to me! I know what it's like to be you, to have that power. How can anyone really be your friend when you can see them for the pathetic creatures they are?"
"I'll prove it!" Clancy called and Chris looked up to see him standing in front of his outcropping, gun in his holster. "This is me, Chris, Clancy Boyer. Nothing to be scared off, huh?" he asked as Chris slowly emerged from his own cover, holstering his own weapon suspiciously. "When I was me, I got shot trying to take that bank. If it weren't for a little Mexican whore, I'd be dead right now," he continued as Chris moved warily towards him. "It took me years to hit upon the answer. You see, I knew that with you on the team we would have got that gold. There was no doubt in my mind."
"So you pretended to be me?" Chris asked disbelievingly.
"No, not yet." Clancy grinned. "When we robbed the bank I acted like you would have, yeah, but I didn't really feel like you, couldn't really know what it was like to be you until I'd killed my gang -- just like you did."
"I didn't kill any of you," Chris returned low, barely two strides away. "Stupidity did."
"Oh!" Clancy laughed. "You see, that's the Chris Larabee we all love and loathe. So sure you're right all the time."
"I'm not always right but I don't blame my mistakes on anyone else."
"No, you don't need to when they're all so willing to take the blame themselves. I've been you, Chris, I've seen the look in people's eyes when they look at you. When I was you, they looked into my eyes and they knew they were going to die. They knew their lives meant nothing. When I was you--"
"You aren't me, Clancy. You never were."
"Not yet," Clancy smirked and the world seemed to slow as he reached for his gun.
His fingers had barely brushed the butt when Chris tackled him hard to the ground. Clancy yelped out and a breathless second later they were rolling down the steep, rocky slope towards the murderous torrents of the river rapids. Locked in a swirl of kicks and punches punctuated by the hard bite of rock, Chris never saw the water's edge coming until it was too late.
There was an odd moment of weightlessness as they rolled off the rock to fall into the river. Time seemed suspended as Chris met Clancy's gaze. Then they hit the freezing water and Clancy was gone.
Unable to swim in the swift, choking cold, Chris tried to move with the water, gasping breaths and dodging rocks when he could. After getting his bearings, he used the tremendous strength of the river current to push him towards the edge. But, by the time he reached the sheer rock bank, the chill had seeped into his bones and his muscles refused to pull him up.
Fear and frustration welled as the river carried him on. Desperately, he dug his fingers into a passing crevice, determined to hold on until his other muscles obeyed him. But he knew they wouldn't; he knew it was over. Pure stubbornness alone kept him holding on until Buck's face appeared over the rock edge.
"Got him!" Buck bellowed off behind before wriggling over the edge as far as he could and reaching down. "Take my hand, Chris."
Try as he might, Chris couldn't get his muscles to move.
"Chris!" Buck pleaded, wriggling a little closer. "Take my hand."
The fear that Buck would try to reach down further and end up overbalancing was the spur that drove Chris into action. With all the strength he had left, he willed his body into movement. His muscles felt as if they hadn't moved for days and his bones seemed to creak with the strain. But then Buck's warm hand had a firm grip of his own and he was being hauled up to safety.
Buck didn't complain when Chris landed on top of him like a sopping wet rag; he just held on tight while they gasped breaths of relief together.
"Next time," Buck finally said, "do us all a favour and just shoot him!"
Chris shook his head as he eased out of his friend's embrace. "That's what he wanted."
"Dead's dead," Vin's voice sounded and Chris looked around to find him nodding down stream. "Yer Clancy feller washed up a little ways down. Deader than a fence post."
Chris dreamed that Ezra was watching him. He dreamed he was asleep in his cabin, in his bed, and Ezra was standing across the room, leaning against the wall, watching him. It was an odd dream only made stranger when he opened his eyes to find he really was lying in bed with Ezra watching him. Just like in the dream.
But in the dream, the room was dark; in reality, the lazy, late morning sun was streaking through the window, bathing Ezra in its warm light. Dust motes danced in the sunlight, giving the illusion of movement, but Ezra, standing holding his hat in his hands, remained unusually still. For one confused moment, Chris wasn't sure if any of it was real. Had he been asleep or had Ezra been there all night? As he elbowed up to blink around the room, Ezra's voice echoed in the stillness.
"For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face."
Chris frowned back at him.
"Quoth Josiah upon seeing Mr Boyer's corpse," Ezra clarified softly. "It's taken from Corinthians. A passage about love, I believe."
"I heard." Chris nodded but didn't add that Josiah never mentioned where the quote came from. After a moment, he moved to sit up, trying to ignore the aches and pains of his bruised and abused body. When Ezra continued to watch him without speaking, Chris finally gave in. "You all right?"
Ezra shrugged and looked down to give his hat a half-hearted brush. "Just ruminating upon our recent escapade."
"What about it?"
First setting his hat down on the seat of the nearby chair, Ezra slipped out of his coat and draped it over the back. He then took his silver whisky flask out of the inside pocket and wandered over to the bottom of the bed. There, he ran his fingers over the flowing manes of the carved horses that decorated the foot of the bed frame. "Tell me, Chris, was Mr Boyer aware of your artistic abilities?"
His attention drawn from the play of Ezra's fine fingers to the wood they caressed, Chris scowled at the mistaken chip in the design that always drew his eye. "Didn't do much but raise hell back then."
"And shoot people." Ezra met Chris' gaze. "Let's not forget your insatiable desire to shoot people who accidentally spill your drink." He walked around to the opposite side of the bed from Chris. "And, pray, let us not fail to mention your penchant for robbing banks," he continued dryly, sitting down on the mattress and toeing off his boots. "For that would make us truly remiss."
Chris watched Ezra swing his legs up on the bed to settle against the headboard beside him. "You think this is funny?"
"On the contrary." Ezra crossed his legs and wriggled his toes. "I generally take death very seriously. Especially my own."
It was only then Chris realised that Ezra was more than a little worse for wear. His gaze narrowed on the whisky flask in Ezra's hand. "You been drinking all night?"
"I wouldn't say all night, no." Ezra cocked his head to the side. "Technically, it was morning."
Chris eyed the gun still buckled to Ezra's hip. "Maybe you should've got some sleep instead," he concluded, reaching over to take the flask.
Ezra let him have it. "I'm afraid my bed held little appeal," he said quietly as Chris took a drink of whisky before tucking the flask under the mattress. "I had no reason to believe my dreams would be restful."
Taking a light hold of Ezra's fingers, Chris placed a gentle kiss on the hot skin of his burn-reddened palm. "I dreamed about you, not Clancy."
"Really?" Ezra met his gaze with a mischievous grin. "I trust we were engaged in something deliciously carnal?"
"Not saying," Chris returned with a smirk while reaching over to unbuckle Ezra's gun belt.
"For shame!" Ezra mock protested while rolling his hips to accommodate the gun belt's removal. "I believe it is your duty to inform me of all the salacious details, Chris. I am, after all, participating in these events in some form."
"Is that so?" Chris re-buckled the belt then hung it over the bedpost on top of his own. "All right, you first."
Chris met Ezra's frown with a smile. "You tell me yours and I'll tell you mine."
Ezra eyed him with suspicion then folded his arms and turned his attention back to his toes. "I was wondering if perhaps you might like to accompany me on an short excursion to Mexico in the near future? Thereby saving the Mexican government the expense of escorting my monetary reward across the border."
"Don't see why not." Chris shrugged. "I guess I'll have stopped aching by then."
"Which reminds me," Ezra murmured, moving in to softly kiss the particularly nasty bruise at the base of Chris' neck. "I've been wanting to do that all night," he continued, brushing his lips over the pulse at Chris' throat. "And that." He kissed up and along Chris' jaw.
As Ezra brought a hand up to his cheek, Chris mirrored the touch on Ezra's face and met his lips for a light kiss.
When they parted, Ezra thumbed Chris' cheek and quoted softly, "But then face to face."
Closing his eyes, Chris took Ezra's mouth in a deep, all-consuming kiss. Their bodies moved eagerly together and they eased down to lie on the mattress in each other's arms.
"Last dream I had we were in the saloon," Ezra said between kisses.
Chris reluctantly pulled back to assess Ezra's smirk. "The saloon?"
"Truth be told, the patrons rather enjoyed it."
"I bet they did," Chris returned dryly, slipping a hand under Ezra's shirt.
"Oh, we put on quite a show." Ezra sighed contentedly then whispered in Chris' ear, "Let me demonstrate."
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