Reading The Game
Both Buck and Nathan thought they had a winner this hand. Watching them via the mirror behind the bar, Ezra could clearly make out the occasional telltale twitch from Buck's left shoulder and the way that Nathan held the cards just a little tighter than strictly necessary. Of his six confederates in arms, only Chris Larabee had proven to be any type of a challenge to read and Ezra had discovered his quirks in less than four hours of poker play. It was all in his eyes. Chris squinted at his cards just like he squinted at everything and everyone else. It was as if he was trying to see through them to the truth of the matter. Sometimes he tipped his head slightly in consideration too. The trick was to read these signs in the right order to make the correct diagnosis. It took a little longer to figure out, and was a little more subtle to detect, but Ezra found that he could now read Chris' poker face unerringly: Chris didn't think he was onto a winner this hand and was getting ready to bluff.
Throwing back his last shot of whiskey, Ezra tuned out the poker players behind him and considered his options. Reviewing his monetary worth while in this town always brought him to the same conclusion: he had to leave. If he wanted to make money, to be free to make money in the ways he knew best, he had to get out of here and he had to go now. There was no other option. Staying in this town was a waste of his time and talent. He knew that as sure as he knew that Buck was going to bet himself dry before folding. It was as plain to see as the garish designs on the back of the playing cards. So why was he still here?
Ezra watched in the mirror as Chris claimed the pot and Buck, discovering the bluff, threatened to skin him alive with a butter knife while the others laughed and cursed good-naturedly. As much as Ezra enjoyed being with these men, he had stopped playing poker with them some time ago. It wasn't the winning that bothered him, he was just that much more skilled than the others. Poker was an intrinsic part of his profession, after all. What burned was the fact that the games were not as friendly or as open, nor did they last nearly as long, when he sat down to play. He felt as if the other lawmen thought he was cheating them when he played. Slowly, one by one, they'd drift off each time Ezra won the pot. And he couldn't just not win, so he didn't sit down with them any more. They still asked him on occasion but Ezra always declined. He was sure they were beginning to think that he thought he was to good for them, that he refused to waste his talents on them. The fact was there was no one within a fifty-mile radius worth Ezra's skills to skin them. This town was just a complete joke. His wage as a lawman was laughable.
He needed to get somewhere where he could find someone to bankroll a Faro table for him. That way he could get himself up a decent stake and get back in the game. A bunco exploit was another option but, looking over his shoulder at his fellow lawmen, Ezra knew he wouldn't feel comfortable undertaking such a swindle for another few hundred miles at least. What were these men doing to him?
Distracted by his thoughts, Ezra pulled at a loose thread on the sleeve of his jacket and one of the carefully crafted buttons on his cuff dropped off onto the scarred bar top with a dull 'plink'. Watching the ace high design on the button glitter as it rolled over the battered wood, Ezra made up his mind to leave town. He was always more or less packed so he could be riding out of town forever in less than an hour. Sending for his trunk when he got settled wouldn't be a problem. He was pretty sure that none of his six confederates would come after him after he had 'run out' on them. It was simple. It was easy. Ezra straightened away from the bar, took one last look in the mirror, then strolled casually out of the saloon.
His trunk was packed and he was halfway through changing his clothes when there was a demanding knock at his room door.
"Come in, Mister Larabee," Ezra called out and continued to button up the front of his pants before picking up his shirt from the bed and pulling it on as Chris came in and shut the door behind him.
Taking in the look of the room with one slight tip of his head, Chris settled a piercing gaze on Ezra then held out the button from the bar top. "You dropped this," he said, so low it was almost a growl.
"That I did, sir. Much obliged." Ezra reached for the button but Chris held it firm.
"Where you off to, Ezra?"
"Nowhere in particular."
"In the middle of the afternoon?"
"I find our quaint, quasi-hamlet a mite oppressive this time of day." Ezra gave up on the button and stepped back, buttoning up his shirt instead.
"You could have joined the game." Chris tucked Ezra's button back into his pocket.
"Are you gentlemen not tired of bestowing your hard earned money upon me?"
Chris barely shrugged. "We take our chances."
"For a dollar a day," Ezra retorted. "I have participated in games of chance where people have dropped our weekly wage on the floor and not bothered to pick it up." He finished buttoning his shirt and reached for a dark blue vest to pull on. "I've seen people win and lose a fortune in a single night. More money than you'll ever see in your lifetime."
"Money isn't everything," Chris said, as if explaining the facts of life to a child.
Ezra couldn't help it; he burst out laughing. He laughed until his sides hurt. He laughed until tears rolled down his cheeks. He laughed until Chris pinned him to the bed and snarled at him to stop.
"How much is enough, Ezra? Ten, twenty, a hundred thousand? You can't buy anything that matters and enough is never enough."
"Well, as much as I appreciate you trying to save my soul--" Ezra struggled against the bodyweight holding him but found he had allowed Chris to pin him too securely. "Let me up, sir," he requested coldly. "I won't ask you again."
"And I'll tell you this once," Chris hissed back. "If you ride out of here now, you're never coming back. If I catch you swindling anyone in these parts, I'll put a hole in your hide and ask questions later. Is that clear?" Chris finished, then took Ezra's mouth in a harsh, breath-stealing kiss. "You're not the only one who's the best at what he does around here." Chris stood away to watch Ezra slowly sit up and catch his breath.
After a moment's still silence, Ezra began buttoning up his vest. "You shoot people for a living, Mister Larabee. Forgive me for saying so, but you're hardly preacher material. And your profession lends itself more suitably to our current occupation."
Chris scowled. "You do your part."
"When you need a cheater," Ezra added, standing up to sling on his shoulder holster. "And I find that my aptitudes are at best unwelcome and at worst execrated in this vicinity."
"So why did you stay?"
Ezra slipped his gun into its holster and looked Chris in the eye. "Good question. Unfortunately, I find myself bereft of answers."
"No you don't." Chris picked Ezra's jacket up off the bedpost and balanced it on the tips of his fingers, just out of Ezra's reach. "You think leaving is the answer."
"What do you want from me, Larabee?" Ezra let his hands drop to his sides in exasperation. "I am not hero material. My only ideal is to live high enough and long enough to wash away the desperate stench of small towns like this, people like these."
"People like me?" Chris asked flatly, dropping the jacket on the bed beside Ezra. "People like Buck, Vin and JD? Like Josiah and Nathan who try and help others, try to make this town a better place? What do we smell of, Ezra? Honest sweat?"
"That's not what I meant." Ezra pushed his jacket to the side and sat back down on the mattress, looking down at the bare floorboards between his boots. "I can't do this anymore. I'm not a lawman. I loathe games of chance and the odds of getting out of this game alive are getting shorter and shorter. It was a bet I never should have taken to begin with."
"Then why did you?"
Ezra looked up into Chris' frown. "I don't know. The judge's pardon and my current economic depression no doubt contributed to my rather rash decision-making. I thought it might be an entertaining way to bide my time, I suppose."
"Awful dangerous way to get your kicks."
"What can I say?" Ezra shrugged with a grin. "Sometimes a high stakes game is better than none at all."
"What was the bet?" Chris asked, running the back of his fingers over Ezra's neck then under his chin. "Are the odds getting better or worse?"
Ezra smirked. "You tell me, Mister Larabee."
"Stay a little longer and you might find out." Chris moved to straddle Ezra's legs, fingers finding and unbuttoning Ezra's clothes while easing him back onto the mattress.
"Well, the pot is starting to look mighty appealing," Ezra murmured into Chris' hair as Chris worked a hot tongue and nipping bites down Ezra's neck and collarbone. "In fact, I'm almost tempted to raise my stake," Ezra went on light-headedly until Chris' hand clamped over his mouth. Taking the hint, Ezra closed his eyes and let the waves of pleasure roll over him: the feel of Chris' body-warmed clothes against his exposed skin; the way Chris' fingers explored a path down his chest and stomach that was quickly followed by a knowing mouth and clever tongue, lower and lower.
"Oh lord!" Ezra choked a breath when Chris had to use both hands to hold down his bucking hips while licking the length of his rapidly hardening cock. "Oh lord, what did I do to deserve this sweet..." Ezra lost his breath as Chris experimentally sucked the head of his cock before drawing it further down into his wet, yielding heat.
His fingers tangling in Chris' hair, Ezra thought he was about to go mad when Chris suddenly replaced his slow mouthing action with fast, heavy stroking from a strong, determined hand.
While Ezra almost jerked himself off the bed, Chris leaned in close to Ezra's ear. "Don't decide you're beat until you've seen all the cards," he whispered low, and Ezra came hard into his hand.
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