Learning to Improvise…
Chapter 2

by Katherine

With the first story I posted, I realized I had more than one story in mind. Something along the lines of a running series seemed to be where my thoughts, and consequently, my story was headed. This is the second chapter in that series. It is a complete story by itself, and while events of the first chapter are referred to, and mentioned, it is not absolutely necessary for someone to have read the first chapter to understand this one. It wouldn’t hurt, but as I said, it isn’t absolutely necessary. This story picks up a few days from where Chapter 1 left off.

Feedback: Yes, please. The only way I will know if I got it write, wrong or indifferent is if you tell me.

Size: Approx 241K


Ezra Standish sat silently in front of the small campfire. He took a deep breath, sucking in as much air as he could, as slowly as possible. He held it for a moment, and then let it out just as slowly as he’d breathed in. He did this several times, consciously controlling his rate of breathing, slowing his heart rate at the same time.

Ezra let his mind drift free, flowing randomly from one thought or image to another. The last few days were at the forefront of his mind. Being tied up by Hoskins’ friends, escaping, riding hard to get ahead of them, planning to capture them, bringing Hoskins and his remaining friend, Dan O’Brian, to the Sheriff of Bitter Creek.

He skipped over all that in an instant. Skimming the surface of those memories. There wasn’t much that he really wanted to dwell on about the journey from Four Corners to Bitter Creek. It was what happened in Bitter Creek, and afterwards, that he wanted to focus on. Wanted to commit permanently to his memory so that he would have them to draw on in the coming days.

He closed his eyes and smiled as those memories came. He had been dealing with his feelings for Vin Tanner for some time. Almost from the moment he’d laid eyes on the longhaired tracker, he’d found him attractive. Attractive, but untouchable.

Initially, Ezra had considered the man to be off limits. For one thing, there was the fact that a relationship between two men was generally frowned upon by good, upstanding citizens. Ezra had been thrown out of enough towns based on his chosen profession as a gambler, he had no real desire to find out if being thrown out for another, more morally offensive crime would be worse.

And for another, Ezra had planned to stay only until his thirty days were up. He wasn’t obligated to stay any longer than that. And he had been certain some one would ensure he wasn’t permitted to stay any longer than absolutely necessary. There was no point in pursuing a relationship he had been certain was destined to fail. Casual liaisons were not something Ezra made a habit of indulging in.

Now, almost a year later, as he’d gotten to know Vin and spent time with him, his attraction had become something more. Still, he hadn’t considered it a viable option. They worked together as part of the group hired to protect the town. Ezra didn’t want to upset the dynamics of their assembly. He was convinced that he would bare the brunt of the others’ displeasure if he did so. Ezra firmly believed that his position in the group was tenuous at best. He liked being with them, sharing in their camaraderie even if only on the fringe. Having something that resembled a home far too important for Ezra to want to risk it.

In addition to all that was the fact that Vin was a friend. There had been too few friendships in Ezra’s life for him to do anything to jeopardize the one he had with Vin. He thought Vin was interested only in women. Or if willing to pursue a relationship with men, he assumed Vin would be more likely to choose their dark clad leader, Chris Larabee. He didn’t want to make a fool of himself by approaching the Texan. Nor did he want to embarrass, or worse yet, offend him.

Ezra took another breath and let it out slowly. He realized he was fortunate that the course of events was not left entirely up to him. He had never expected Vin to be the one to initiate a romantic relationship. Not that Ezra had objected very much or failed to be a willing and active participant. He had been simply astounded to find that Vin shared his feelings. That he too had been hiding how he felt for some time.

While in Bitter Creek, he and Vin had explored each other’s bodies thoroughly. That exploration had continued over the last few days as they made their way back to Four Corners. What absolutely stunned, and amazed, Ezra was that their interaction was not purely physical.

He found himself sharing details about his life he’d never told anyone before. They weren’t something Ezra regarded as deep, dark secrets. They were just bits and pieces of his life no one had ever been interested enough to ask about before. Little things like books he’d read, places he’d been to, relatives he’d stayed with, when and where he learned to use dynamite.

Vin was the first person Ezra had ever met who seemed to want to know everything about him. He was also the first person Ezra trusted enough to share things with. It was a new and heady experience. Ezra realized he shouldn’t be all that surprised. He wanted to know as much about Vin as Vin seemed to want to know about him.

Ezra had been pleased to find that he and Vin had a great deal in common. More so than outward appearances might have suggested. Ezra had been delighted to learn that his mother was wrong. Appearances were not everything, not even close.

He could feel Vin watching him from the other side of the fire. He waited patiently for the question he knew was coming. Right on cue, Vin asked. "Ez, what are ya doin’?"

Ezra opened his eyes and smiled. "I am preparing myself for our return to Four Corners."

Vin frowned. "What’d ya mean?"

"We have agreed that our relationship remain between us."


"That means, come tomorrow, when we ride into Four Corners, we must be prepared to act as though nothing has changed. That we are no more than just good friends, fellow peacekeepers."

Vin nodded. He cocked his head to one side as he studied Ezra. "Does that bother you?"

Ezra shook his head. "No. I understand the necessity."

"Ya sure?" Vin’s expression was earnest. "It ain’t that I don’t want ta tell people. Ya know that, right? It ain’t that I wanna hide us bein’ together, it’s jus’ that--"

"I know that you are no more ashamed of being with me than I am of being you." Ezra smiled softly. Vin smiled shyly back at him.

Ezra shook his head. "It is not our feelings that are the issue. It is the reaction of others that we must guard against."

"So what is it yer worried about?"

Trust you to see to the heart of the matter. Ezra frowned. He spoke carefully, picking his words. "Newborn things are fragile, vulnerable, easily damaged or destroyed. What we have started is so very new, so very young. It would not take much to do irreparable harm."

Vin moved from his side of the fire, to sit next to Ezra. He wrapped an arm around Ezra, and pulled him close. Ezra rested his head on Vin’s shoulder.

"Ya think our goin’ back will hurt us?"

Ezra sighed, and snuggled into Vin’s side. "I think the possibility exists. The last few days have been…extraordinary. Like we were the only two people in the world. I am not looking forward to having to censure my actions, or monitor myself so closely. Not when it comes to you."

"Me either."

"Will you be able to?" Ezra pulled away to make eye contact. His lover had an ingrained sense of honesty, and an innate forthright nature. It was something Ezra genuinely liked and respected about Vin. Such character traits were usually a good thing, but it could prove problematic in this case.

"You are a lousy liar, Mr. Tanner."

Vin grinned at him, blue eyes sparkling with humor. "Don’t plan ta lie."

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Do tell?"

"Reckon I jus’ wont offer additional information."

Ezra burst out laughing, and hugged Vin hard. He couldn’t believe it was only four days ago that he had told Vin he never lied to him; he’d just said or did things to encourage a particular assumption, left out details, or simply failed to supply additional information.

"I fear that I am a bad influence on you."

"Oh yer an influence all right. Ain’t all bad either." Vin pulled back enough so he could kiss Ezra. It was a soft, warm kiss. Ezra gave himself over to it, and their tongues dueled lazily for several minutes.

Vin broke off the kiss, and cupped Ezra’s face with both hands. His eyes searched Ezra’s. "What you were doin’ before…That deep breathing? That help ya get ready ta hide how ya feel?"

"Yes." He hesitated, and then shrugged. He was finding that he couldn’t keep many secrets around Vin any more. "It isn’t always easy to hide what I feel. Especially not when I feel it so strongly."

The deep breathing was a technique he had learned a long time ago. It helped to calm his mind and focus so that he could control his thoughts and emotions. He used it to bring order to internal chaos. Usually it didn’t take very long. He could often do it with one breath. But then most situations didn’t affect him as strongly as Vin did.

Vin half smiled. "Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s kinda reassurin’ ta know it ain’t easy."

Ezra nodded. He understood that completely. If it were easy, Vin might doubt the depth of his feelings.

Vin tilted his head to rest his forehead against Ezra’s. He rocked slightly. "We don’t have to go back."

Ezra chuckled, and smiled sadly. "I appreciate the offer, but we both know that isn’t an option. For better or for worse, we have both attempted to make a home for ourselves in Four Corners. You have friends there."

"So do you."

Ezra stifled the urge to argue that point. It was minor and didn’t matter. The others tolerated him, but they liked Vin. The town needed all seven of them as protectors. If that were not the case, Ezra knew he would have been run out on a rail a year ago. As it was, his stay was still conditional. He knew that.

At one point, Vin had suggested that they consider telling the other five, if not the rest of the town. Ezra had talked him out of it. Even if they were open to the idea of two men involved in a sexual relationship, they would likely not regard Vin’s choice of Ezra as being a good one.

He did not want their dim view of his character to reflect badly on Vin. The others were good friends to him, almost family. The last thing Ezra wanted was for his relationship with Vin to drive a wedge between him and the five men he thought of as brothers. Ezra was afraid of what would happen if Vin were forced to choose between him and the others.

It was a lose, lose situation. If Vin chose them, Ezra lost. There was no way he could stay in Four Corners if that came to pass. It would hurt far too much. If Vin chose him, Ezra feared Vin would end up blaming him for putting him in that situation in the first place, and he would still lose. I am not sufficient compensation for five men who would die for you. There is no way I could ever make up for that.

Ezra cleared his thoughts, and refocused on what Vin had said. "It wouldn’t matter where we went. The same issues and concerns would still exist." Ezra pointed out reasonably. It wasn’t just the people of Four Corners. It was people everywhere that found romantic affiliations between men highly suspect.

"Damn depressin’." Vin stated matter-of-factly. Yet somehow that lightened Ezra’s mood.

He smiled. "Indeed."

Vin’s hands moved to burrow inside Ezra’s shirt. He grinned mischievously at Ezra, blue eyes warm with affection. "We ain’t in Four Corners, yet. Still got tonight ta ourselves."

"Why, Mr. Tanner, what ever are you implying?" Ezra looked out from under his lashes. He lightly slapped at Vin’s hands. "Such forward actions are unbecoming of a gentleman, Sir."

Vin leered at him. "Good thing I ain’t a gentleman."

Oh yes, it is a very good thing. Ezra silently agreed, and moved in for another kiss. He shivered when Vin’s hands managed to find a way through his clothing.

Vin might have been a novice when it came to the specifics of male-to-male love, but Ezra had found him to be a willing, and very eager pupil. Ezra wasn’t sure what he’d say when Vin got around to asking him just how he’d come to know so much. It was a bridge he’d have to cross some day, but he wasn’t going to worry about it now. There were other things he’d rather concentrate on. Like stripping Vin of all his clothing.

Guns were placed with in easy reach. They might be alone out here, but that didn’t necessarily mean they were safe. Both men knew better than to leave themselves totally open to attack.

Vin dropped his head to suck on a spot right above Ezra’s heart. Over the past few days he had left numerous passion marks on Ezra. Ezra got the distinct impression Vin was trying to make some sort of declaration.

"Marking your territory?" Ezra gasped when Vin ran his tongue of the new mark he’d just made.

"Yep. Yer mine." Vin smiled softly. He looked up and pulled Ezra’s hand to a spot just over his own heart. "And I’m yours."

Ezra found the thought that he was wearing Vin’s mark comforting. Even if no one else would see it, he would know it was there. Even when they were forced to act as nothing more than good friends, he would have proof that they were more than that.

Ezra sighed as Vin lowered his head to lave his nipples. Ezra ran his fingers through Vin’s long, curly hair. He knew if he did it just right that he could make Vin purr. There was no other way to describe the sound of pleasure and contentment that Vin made.

Ezra had managed to remove the last of Vin’s clothing, but Vin was still struggling with the many layers, Ezra normally wore. "Ya got on too many clothes, Ez." Vin almost quivered with excitement and frustration.

Ezra chuckled. "So impatient." He quickly moved to help Vin get rid of the last of his attire. "You would think it had been days since we last did this instead of just this morning."

Vin grinned impishly, pulling Ezra close. "I’m greedy. Jus’ can’t get enough."

"Insatiable." Ezra whispered as he let his hands roam over Vin’s bare skin, enjoying the feel of warm, smooth skin beneath his finger tips. He loved the way Vin’s skin felt.

Vin frowned slightly. "Insatiable?" He repeated, carefully pronouncing the word.

Ezra smiled. "It means never satisfied." He could almost see Vin committing the word to memory.

Vin nuzzled his neck. "Oh, I’m satisfied, Ez." A soft kiss was placed at the hollow of his throat. "Very satisfied. Jus’ not fer long, is all."

Ezra shivered. He moved his fingers to ghost over Vin’s chest. He stopped to pay special attention to those sensitive, dusky nipples. The low moan he received in response seemed to travel right to his already hard shaft.

He reached for the small tin he’d placed near the fire earlier. Before leaving Bitter Creek, Ezra had made sure to replenish his supplies. He had been pleased to find a small tin of liniment that he knew would work well as a lubricant.

Two days ago they were in a position very similar to the one they were in now, when Ezra had offered it to Vin. The look he’d gotten told Ezra, Vin didn’t understand the significance of it. Ezra shook his head at his own foolish assumptions.

"You’ve never been with a man before, have you?" Ezra had questioned softly. The passionate, eager participation the night before, and following morning, hadn’t really indicated a lack of experience.

Vin blushed, and shook his head. Ezra guessed that the man’s shy nature had kept him from getting involved with very many people. It touched a chord in his chest to know this man had been willing to take that risk with him. Seemed keen to in fact.

"Would you like me to teach you?" Ezra rested a hand on Vin’s chest, patting softly. He was careful not to sound patronizing. Everyone started somewhere, and having someone show you the way made everything easier.

Ezra would love to have the opportunity to expose Vin to all the pleasure to be had, but he wasn’t going to force it. What they had been doing was more than he’d ever expected. He had said he wouldn’t ask for more than Vin was willing to give, and he meant it.

"We will do nothing you are not ready for. All you need do is tell me to stop, and I will."

Vin smiled. "I trust you."

That simple statement had the power to warm Ezra right to his toes. Ezra cleared his throat. "Do you remember last night?
Vin’s eyes widened, and his breathing quickened. "No way I’m gonna forget that. Ever."

Ezra blushed, flattered. "Yes…well do you remember the spot I pressed? Here?" Ezra had moved his hand behind Vin’s balls, to gently rub the spot he meant.

Vin moaned, his head tilting back at Ezra’s touch. "Yessss…I remember." Ezra removed his hand, and Vin whimpered.

"The pleasure you feel is much more intense if done internally." Ezra waited until Vin nodded his understanding. "Women have their own natural lubricant, that makes this," Ezra held up the tin, "unnecessary. For men, it is best to provide artificial assistance."

"It is also best to go slow. To take time to do it right. Loosen the channel gradually." Ezra had kissed Vin softly. He raised his head to make eye contact. "To rush would cause pain, and I do not want to hurt you."

Vin nodded. "Show me."

Ezra had coated one finger and gently rimmed Vin’s hole while his tongue laved one of Vin’s nipples. Vin had responded immediately with a hissed gasp of pleasure. He started rocking against Ezra’s hand.

Ezra had worked his way down Vin’s chest, licking, kissing, and nibbling. Letting his lover get lost in those sensations, feeling him relax into his touch. He carefully slid one finger inside. Vin tensed.

"Shh…it’s okay. Just relax." Ezra waited, letting Vin get used to the feeling. "Am I hurting you?"

"No….jus’ feels…different."

Ezra smiled. "Well let us endeavor, to go from different, to good." He lowered his head to take the head of Vin’s cock into his mouth. He began moving his finger in time with Vin’s lazy hip thrusts. When it felt as though Vin were totally comfortable, Ezra added a second finger. This time Vin didn’t tense up, but moaned softly. He seemed torn between thrusting into the wet heat of Ezra’s mouth, and fucking himself on Ezra’s fingers.

Like he was playing a complex musical instrument, Ezra worked his fingers, mouth and tongue together to give Vin as much pleasure as he could. He scissored his fingers, relaxing the ring of muscle. He reached for, and found that nub inside Vin. He knew he’d found it when Vin arched his back, and cried out. Ezra rubbed it again and again, until Vin was trembling and almost sobbing.

Vin had come so hard he’d nearly passed out. When he’d recovered, Vin had hesitantly asked if he could try doing to Ezra what Ezra had done to him. He didn’t have to ask twice.

Ezra handed the warm tin to Vin. Vin smiled. "Gonna get another lesson?" The question was eager.

Ezra nodded. "Yes." Ezra cupped Vin’s face. "I want you to come inside me tonight."

Vin froze for just a second. "Ya sure? Don’t want ta hurt ya, Ez. And fingers ain’t the same size as—"

"I know." Ezra halted the flow of words with a finger against Vin’s lips. "You won’t hurt me. I’ve done this before. Just take it slow." Ezra tilted Vin’s head to kiss his forehead, then placed a kiss on each cheek, finally one on his mouth. "Start with your fingers, and loosen me up a bit. You’ll need to coat your penis as well."

Vin nodded. In moments of quiet reflection, Ezra would consciously acknowledge the benefits of having a lover who was so attentive to details. At the moment, he could only revel in the physical sensations.

Vin went to work doing everything he’d noticed over the past few days that had driven Ezra wild. Tongue and teeth were artfully applied, hands roamed everywhere drawing forth moans and sighs. He left the gambler panting for breath, writhing, unable to articulate a word.

Vin slipped two fingers in easily. He stretched Ezra the way Ezra had showed him. Ezra rocked, trying to wordlessly encourage Vin to thrust deeper, harder. Vin carefully added a third finger. Ezra sighed, and let himself just enjoy the feeling. He relaxed, and let Vin open him up.

After a few minutes, Vin withdrew, and positioned his cock against Ezra’s tight, hot hole. Ezra had brought his legs up to rest his calves on Vin’s shoulders. Being limber had paid off many times in the past. Ezra was glad they could do this face to face. He wanted to see Vin.

Vin breeched his opening. He froze when Ezra sighed, and tensed. "Ya…okay?"

"Yes….just give me a moment." Ezra took a breath and relaxed. Yes, he had done this before, but it had been years since he’d done it since. He had forgotten what the initial burn would feel like.

"More, Vin…give me more." Ezra panted. He tipped his head back, eyes closed, when Vin thrust slowly forward. He took his time, letting Ezra adjust to each increment, until he was all the way in.

Vin panted. He shook with the effort of staying in control. Ezra lowered his legs to wrap them around Vin’s lean waist and hold him in place.

Vin leaned forward and kissed Ezra hard. "You feel…so good. So tight…so hot…God. Never…knew it could…be like this."

Ezra raised a hand caress Vin lightly from cheek to navel. "It will feel even better." Ezra rolled his hips, in a long, sensuous movement, squeezing lightly with internal muscles.

Vin shuddered. "God…Ez….God." He started to thrust. Slowly at first, and then gradually increasing the length of each stroke, and the speed.

Ezra shifted a bit, and changed the angle so that Vin hit is prostate every time. He shivered, and trembled in response. He forced himself to keep his eyes open. He wanted to watch the ecstasy building on Vin’s face, to see him slip over the edge.

Ezra moved a hand to fist his weeping erection. Vin slapped his hand away. "Mine. All mine." The Texan growled low in his throat.

"Yours," Ezra conceded. He shuddered when Vin wrapped his hand around his cock. The feel of that grip against his heated flesh was incredible. Vin matched his hand stroke to his hip thrusts. Ezra felt like he was caught in a whirlwind, spiraling ever higher.

"I can’t….sorry, Ez…I’m gonna…Ya feel so…good…Can’t hold…" Vin thrust forward hard several times, hips snapping violently, then his whole body went so tense he was vibrating. He tipped his head back, and howled as he came. The site of Vin lost in the throws of his own orgasm was the last straw to bring Ezra over the edge a second later.

Vin collapsed. He rested his head against Ezra’s shoulder and sucked in air like a drowning man. Ezra struggled to control his own breathing. He raised a hand, gently caressing Vin’s back. He waited for Vin to ride out the aftershocks. He had his own tremors to ride out as well.

Vin raised his head after several minutes. He cupped Ezra’s face, and kissed him deeply and thoroughly. He raised his head, and smiled. Ezra smiled back at him, amazed at the beauty of the man.

"That was incredible."

Vin nodded. "Yeah." He shook his head. "Was more’n that. But I ain’t got words."

Ezra spoke softly in French. "The little death." Seeing the questioning look on Vin’s face, Ezra obligingly translated.

Vin nodded, and grinned. "Sounds ‘bout right."

Vin moved to pull out and Ezra gasped. Vin froze, looking instantly contrite and worried. "Ya okay, Ez? I didn’t mean…I’m sorry--"

"Shh. It’s fine. I’m fine." Ezra patted Vin’s chest. "No harm done." Ezra stretched and felt muscles twinge in response. He consciously relaxed, and Vin’s soft member slid free easily.

Vin reached for a clean towel that Ezra had left near the fire when he’d placed the tin there earlier. He gently cleaned Ezra’s chest, and then himself. Ezra put the top back on the tin, and returned it to his saddlebag. Reluctantly they both got dressed. It wouldn’t do to be caught out here naked. It was too dangerous.

Vin yawned, his eyes heavy lidded. He looked like a sleepy, well fed cat. Ezra patted his lap encouraging Vin to use his as a pillow. "Lay down. I’ll keep watch."

Vin nodded. He leaned in for another kiss, before he settled in, resting his head on Ezra’s lap. Ezra combed his fingers through Vin’s hair, and he was asleep in seconds.

Ezra would keep watch until just after midnight. Then he would wake Vin, and then he would sleep a few hours until dawn. By late afternoon they would be back in Four Corners. Ezra silently prayed that he would be ready.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan Jackson slipped out of the clinic, and headed for Mrs. Potter’s store. Things had been reasonably quiet of late, and he took that as a sign of bad things to come, like the calm before a storm. Best to be prepared no matter what.

He had asked Gloria Potter to order some things for him. Replenish the supplies he’d used and stock up for the future. Nathan might not be a doctor, but he was the only thing close to one for several days. The people of Four Corners depended on him, and he took his duties as a healer seriously. Mrs. Potter told him she was expecting a shipment today. He was hoping the things he ordered were on it.

Nathan stepped inside the store. He noted with some surprise half a dozen children gathered in one corner. They ranged in age from six to thirteen. None of them paid any attention to him or looked up from what they were doing.

Nathan frowned. He stepped closer to see what they were up to. It wouldn’t do for them to get into mischief in Mrs. Potter store. There was no telling what kind of havoc a group of children could create.

Each child had a copybook and appeared to be engaged in some serious form of study. Little Sammy Wilson, at six years old was the youngest of the group. He was carefully writing out the alphabet. Jenny Thomas, and her sister, Sarah, eight and nine respectively, were taking turns going over a list of words. They seemed to be working on spelling. Danny Kowalski and his twin brother, David, age ten, were working with numbers. The oldest child present was Cecilia Potter. She was thirteen and seemed to be reading something quietly to herself.

Sammy looked up. "CeCe, I’m finished."

Cecilia used her finger to mark her place. She held out a hand for Sammy’s copy book. She studied it carefully. "Very good, Sammy. You got all the letters, and they are all in the right order."

Sammy beamed at her. "Mr. Ezra will be proud a me."

"Yes, I’m sure he will." Cecilia grinned.

"I learned ta sign my name. Look." The little boy proudly showed her where he had carefully written his name in large block letters on the previous page.

"Very good, Sammy."

"Mr. Ezra promised ta show me a card trick if I could sign my name by the time he got back."

Danny and David looked up from their books. The Kowalski’s moved to Four Corners just over a month ago. The two little boys had quickly become the talk of the town. To look at them it was nearly impossible to tell one from the other. Same red hair, same blue eyes, same height, they even wore matching outfits. It wasn’t until they spoke that a difference became apparent. Danny stuttered. David didn’t.

"Mr. E-e-ezra comin’ back t-t-today?"

Sarah Thomas piped up, looking very important. "I heard the sheriff tell Mr. Larabee that Mr. Vin and Mr. Ezra are due back this afternoon. They got a telegram that said so."

Nathan was surprised by how happy they all looked. Ezra does have a way with kids. But it don’t seem right that they’s waitin’ for him. Nathan didn’t know the children even knew Ezra. Or that Ezra knew them.

Man spends alla his time in the saloon. Those kids better not be hangin’ out ‘round there. Ain’t no place for children. Ezra knows better than ta let them in a place like that.

Josh Potter burst through the door. He stopped quickly, barely avoiding a collision with Nathan. "Sorry, Mr. Nathan." Josh darted around him and head for the other children.

"Mr. Ezra’s back." He announced. Sammy jumped of from his stool. Sarah and Jenny did as well. They looked ready to run out the door to see for themselves, when Cecilia stopped them.


Nathan blinked. Her tone and inflection had been exactly like Ezra’s. "What did Mr. Ezra say?"

Sammy hung his head, and Jenny looked away. It was Sarah who answered. "He said we are to comport ourselves the way ladies and gentlemen do."

Cecilia nodded. "And that does not mean running around like hooligans." Again there was the echo of Ezra’s voice in her statement.

She closed her book, and nodded toward the books the other children had dropped in their haste. All three quickly picked them up. She smiled, suddenly looking like the thirteen-year-old girl she was, and less like the young woman she was becoming.

"Now we can go see him."

David piped up. "He’ll be in the livery. He always takes care o’ Chaucer first."

They trooped out together, leaving Nathan alone in the store, staring after them in amazement. Somewhat bemused, Nathan followed them, forgetting for them moment the supplies he’d come for. Ezra was just dismounting, and heading in the livery with Peso and Chaucer when the children reached him.

Wonder where Vin is. Horse o’ his is almost as temperamental as that one o’ Ezra’s. Only person who can handle him most o’ the time is Vin. Most people steered clear of either animal, wary of being kicked or bitten.

Ezra handed Chaucer’s reins off to Josh and Cecilia. The two Potter children smiled in response and led the gelding in to the livery. To Nathan’s surprise, the horse followed placidly. Huh. None o’ the rest o’ us can get that horse ta do that.

Ezra followed with Peso, listening as the children spoke animatedly about something. Nathan walked over curious to see what the children had to say to the gambler, and why they were so excited to have him back in town. He also wanted to find out where Vin was. If there had been trouble someone would have come for him by now. Nathan stopped just inside the door.

Josh and Cecilia had put Chaucer in his usual place. Ezra put Peso in the neighboring stall. "Thank you, Mr. Potter, Miss Cecilia. If you would be so kind as to loosen the cinch."

"Sure, Mr. Ezra." Josh nodded. "Ya want me ta put yer tack away too?"

Ezra nodded. "That would be acceptable."

Nathan frowned. Typical. Making someone else do his work for him.

Danny stepped forward. "C-c-can we b-brush him m-m-r. Ezra?"

Ezra crouched down in front of the little red haired boy, putting himself at eye level. "A gentlemen should not rush his words, Daniel." He smiled gently. "It causes him to misspeak, and to be poorly understood."

Nathan scowled. Ain’t got no call to make fun of that little boy. Thought he was a better man than ta do somethin’ like that.

"Now then, Daniel. Take a breath." The boy did so, wide eyes on Ezra the entire time. "Good. Think about what you wish to say, order the words in you mind. Have you got them the way you want them?"

Danny nodded. "Good. Now ask me your question."

"Can we brush Chaucer, Mr. Ezra?" Danny asked clearly, with no hesitation or speech impediment. Nathan raised his eyebrows. He had never heard the boy speak plainly before.

Ezra grinned, dimples readily visible, drawing a similar grin from Danny and his brother, David. "Certainly, you may. But it might be better for you to ask him, than me." Ezra gestured toward Chaucer with a graceful wave of his hand.

Danny moved to stand in front of Chaucer. He took a breath and clearly asked, "May we brush you, Chaucer?"

Nathan wasn’t sure what signal Ezra gave the horse, but Chaucer nickered and nodded his head several times. Danny shared a delighted grin with his twin, and together they raced to get the brushed that Ezra kept in his tack box just for his horse.

Nathan held his breath when the twins entered the stall. He had stepped forward to stop them, but waited. He knew Ezra would never have let them near the horse if he thought they were in any danger. He watched warily, ready to intervene if necessary. Chaucer never moved. The gelding stood very still, calmly letting Danny and David go to work. Josh and Cecilia had moved away, carrying Ezra’s tack to his box without any fear the horse would hurt them.

Sarah, Jenny and Sammy stood in front of Peso’s stall. "Can we help with him, Mr. Ezra?"

Ezra hesitated, and then shook his head. "Peso is more reserved than Chaucer, and does not enjoy the attention of so many at one time."

Sammy nodded. "Peso’s shy." He declared with sympathy.

Nathan suppressed a snort. Shy…hell. That horse is just plain mean.

Ezra tipped his head toward the three children. "And the polite thing to do would be what?"

"Not ta make him uncomfortable." Jenny stated, smiling brightly. "A lady never knowingly does anything to embarrass a guest or a friend."

"Quite correct, Miss Jennifer." Ezra nodded his approval of her answer. "So while I do appreciate the offer, it would be better for me to take care of Peso without your assistance."

Sammy sighed, clearly disappointed. He dug a furrow in the dirt with the toe of one shoe. "Wanted ta help."

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "You may help by keeping me company while I take care of Peso."

"We can do that." Sarah stated confidently.

Ezra deftly stripped Peso of Vin’s saddle and bridle. For anyone else the ornery horse would have danced and threatened with hooves and teeth. But for Ezra he stood patiently, apparently unconcerned with what was going on around him. Amazing.

"Have you all worked on your lessons in my absence?"

A chorus of eager yes’s were his answer. Nathan listened; dumbfounded to hear each child run down the list of things they had been studying. Ezra appeared to follow each child’s enthusiastic input. He seemed to know exactly what they were talking about. Asking questions occasionally that would set off another round of excited answers.

When Ezra finished with Peso, he sat down on a nearby bale of hay. Each child came forward with their copybooks, eager to show him what they had done. Ezra studied one book after another.

"Very impressive. I must commend you for keeping up with your assignments even while I was unavailable. Miss Cecilia, you did an outstanding job acting as my proxy." Cecilia blushed prettily, and then curtsied.

Man acts like he’s some kind of teacher. Guess he thinks since he was ‘the masser’ that he’s the best qualified. Won’t hurt ‘em to get some schoolin’ but I ain’t sure if Ezra’s the right man for the job. Those kids ought ta have a proper teacher not some conman with fancy airs. Have ta ask Mrs. Potter an’ Mrs. Kowalski and the other mothers if they know what that damn gambler’s been doin’.

"Will ya show me a trick now?" Sammy asked, eyes pleading. "I signed my name all by myself."

Ezra pulled a deck of cards from his pocket. He performed a trick for each child. The children watched in awe as he made the cards dance and disappear at will. Nathan was impressed as well. He knew it was all just slight of hand, but Ezra made it look like magic.

"Mr. Potter, would you bring me my saddlebags please?"

Josh nodded, and placed the bags at Ezra’s feet. Ezra opened one, and withdrew a peppermint stick for each child. He handed them out, receiving grins and thank yous as he did so.

"Now then, your mothers’ must be wondering what has become of you."
Jenny quietly asked. "Will ya be there tomorrow, Mr. Ezra?" Six other pairs of eyes fixed intently on the gambler. "Momma says travelin’ wears a body down. Jenny hesitated, but reluctantly continued. "So we’d understand if you was too tired. We could always do it another day."

Ezra smiled. "Your mother is correct, Miss Jennifer. Travel is often exhausting. However, I am not that tired. Rest assured, little ones, I will be there."

Seven children positively beamed in response. Nathan frowned. Be where? Jus’ what are you plannin’? Nathan watched the gambler with narrowed eyes. He objected on moral grounds to most of Ezra’s schemes and money making plans, but he couldn’t imagine what he might be planning that would involve children. Be best to keep an eye on him and make sure he don’t lead those kids into some kind o’ trouble.

"Off with you now before y’all are late for supper."

The children turned and dashed off. Racing past Nathan. The healer watched them leave. His attention was called back to Ezra when the cardsharp spoke to him.

"It is unseemly to lurk in shadows, Mr. Jackson." Ezra hadn’t looked up from where he was ordering his cards. He patted the deck in place and returned the cards to his jacket pocket.

Nathan blushed. How does he do that? Man never even looked my way. "Wasn’t lurking, Ezra." Nathan stepped further into the stable. "I was just waitin’ until you were done."

Ezra raised an eyebrow, but didn’t comment further. Nathan could easily read the disbelief in that silence. Somehow he and the gambler just never saw things the same way. From the day they met they seemed to be on opposite sides. Nathan liked to think things between them were improving, but at times like these he doubted that.

"Where’s Vin?"

"The last time I saw him he was conversing with Mr. Larabee at the jail." Ezra reached into his saddlebag and withdrew an apple. Both Peso and Chaucer immediately hung their heads over their stall doors, ears pricked forward, watching Ezra intently.

"I offered to attend to his faithful steed, while he attended to our illustrious leader."

Probably just tryin’ ta hide from Chris. Man wouldn’t volunteer ta do a lick a work if there wasn’t somethin’ in it for him. Wonder what he did. Maybe it’s what he’s plannin’ ta do.

The gambler pulled a knife from his boot, cut the apple in half, and handed one half to Chaucer, the other to Peso. So that’s how he gets Peso ta behave. He bribes him.

"You have any trouble getting Hoskins ta Bitter Creek?"

Ezra returned the knife to his boot, picked up his saddlebags, and rose smoothly to his feet. "Nothing that Mr. Tanner and I couldn’t handle." Ezra raised two fingers to the brim of his hat as he moved past Nathan. "Good day to you, Mr. Jackson."

Nathan was tempted to stop him, and ask what he was doing with the children, but knew the conman wouldn’t give him a straight answer. Man couldn’t tell the truth if his life depended on it. Just going to have to keep a close eye on him. Wouldn’t be right for him ta take advantage o’ those kids.


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