Pairing: Ezra / Chris
Disclaimer: Don't own them or the show they rode in on, no profit made from this.
"Stop right now, Ezra!" Chris Larabee's harsh order was ground out between gritted teeth. He closed his eyes briefly, wiping his face with a downward swipe of one large hand.
Ezra had frozen at the words and now looked back at Chris with chilling green eyes. Involuntarily, Chris shivered. Ezra quirked an eyebrow and slowly twisted around fully on their bed. "I am leaving here and you are not going to stop me."
Chris fought back the despair that crept into his heart at the cold words. When Ezra wanted to, he could do the be cold, heartless even - a reflection of deep pain within. Worried, Chris sat up and shoved his hair back from his forehead in an impatient gesture before propping himself up on stiff arms. He raised his chin and met the glare with his own, patented version. "Yes, I damn well am going to stop you."
Ezra slid free of the bedding and stood defiantly away from their bed. "Good bye, Chris." With that, Ezra Standish gave a simple nod and turned away. He reached for his under things that were neatly folded on top of his clothing on the nearby chair. Chris spun himself out of the bed on the far side and stalked around it, bare feet padding on the wood floor. He caught Ezra's shoulder as the man bent for his silk drawers. "Wait."
Ezra shrugged violently, loosing himself from Larabee's grasp and backed away. "For what? For the next time that Vin is out of town? For the next time that you feel...lonely?" By the time Ezra had finished, his voice had gone from icy to sad.
Larabee flushed but kept his stance strong and his eyes locked with the gambler's. "Vin and I are just good friends, Ezra. Don't make it into something it isn't."
"Something ugly? Like this?" Ezra's head dropped as he swung clear of the shootist. He quickly slipped his thin under drawers up his legs and buttoned them, stopping only when Larabee's hands closed over his.
"Ezra." Chris' voice took on a coaxing quality.
"Chris, let me go."
The pain and sadness in the tones tore at Larabee. He slowly released his grip and stepped back. "Don't go."
"You called out his name." Ezra was efficiently dressing himself, eyes still on the floor. As he tugged his cravat into place, he turned back to face Chris Larabee who stood naked and beautiful in the hotel room's dim lighting. Ezra swallowed hard and leaned over to the side to take up his gun belt and weapons. "I won't come between you." He raised his eyes finally to meet Chris'. "And I can no longer abide his place between us." Blinking back dampness, the southerner stepped close to his frozen lover and raised up on his toes to press a soft kiss to Chris' lips. "Good bye," came out in a choked whisper.
Chris watched as the man he loved walked out of their room and perhaps out of his life. No! With a muttered curse, he broke free of his stunned reflections and snatched up his clothing. He would follow Ezra to the ends of the earth. Somehow, he would prove his love and his fealty. Nothing and no one else mattered as much.
Ezra nearly tripped as he plunged down the final set of stairs, having increased his speed with each landing he passed. Somewhere above and behind him, he'd left his heart beating out the last of his soul's own blood.
Steadying himself with a hand flung out to splay on the veloured Victorian wallpaper, he paused to let his breathing slow. He could do nothing about the incredibly loud buzzing in his ears, like a river at full flood. He had been delusional to ever think that Chris would care enough about him, that Chris would actually put Ezra first. Chris and Vin were the soul mates. Such a bond, Ezra yearned to have with Chris but now it was clear that he'd never supplant the quiet tracker.
"Mr. Larabee will be down shortly but this should cover the room bill." He swiftly counted out a generous overage to stifle comment.
The hotel clerk nodded silently, pulling the bills across the small secretary desk and discretely counting them. With a smile, he looked up to thank Mr. Standish but found himself alone in the small lobby.
"Where's the telegraph office?"
Nearly jumping off his seat, Hiram Dinty, the clerk, stared wide-eyed at the menace looming over him now. "Mr. Larabee, sir?"
"You heard me."
"Ah, yes," Hiram swallowed hard. "Just down the street on your right, sir."
"For the room."
Now Hiram felt more comfortable, this was after all his domain. "Why nothing at all, Mr. Larabee. Your Mr. Standish paid in full just moments ago. He said you'd be down later."
The deadly look that was aimed at Hiram Dinty felt as if it could reduce him to dust. Eyes wide in nervous fear, he waited, afraid to say more.
Chris glared at the blameless clerk and wished he could shoot the man, it might actually make him feel better. With a grunt, he turned away, never seeing the clerk slump back in relief. Ezra would be in the livery already. If he chased him into a corner, he'd likely lose him for good. Take care of some business and then follow. I'll figure out something.
"Hey, Vin! I think this message is for you!" JD trotted into the saloon, waving around a yellow flimsy.
"You think? JD, does it say it's for him or not?" Nathan snapped. He'd had a rough morning and nonsense like this just seemed to irritate.
JD's dark eyes opened in momentary surprise at the sharp comment but he'd learned to let such remarks slide by. "Well, it says to the sheriff, that's me, but then it says, 'Vin', and I figure Chris just didn't' want to advertise Vin's full name."
"It's from Chris?" Tanner sat forward from where he'd been slouched back in his seat at the seven's table next to Nathan Jackson.
JD nodded and slid the thin paper rectangle across the round table, pulling out a chair to sink into at the same time. Without taking any apparent breath, he added, "Yeah, said to meet him in Bacon's Corner soon's you can."
Fingering the telegram, Vin reluctantly turned it over and squinted as if that might help him better decipher the actual words. Nathan, feeling a bit remorseful over his earlier moodiness, gently tugged it free from Vin's hand and cleared his throat. "To Sheriff Dunne, Four Corners. Vin, meet in Bacon's Corner. Waiting. Larabee."
"Not much, huh?" JD waved a wild arm to Inez behind the saloon's long bar. She nodded back and came around the counter with a beer mug for him.
Nathan cocked an eyebrow at their tracker. "You going?"
"Reckon." Vin nodded. He drew another mouthful of his own beer and then rose to his feet with that lean grace that usually had roving female eyes rolling his way.
He settled his leather hat deeper on his head and looked around the room. Only a few early customers yet. "You'll tell Buck and Josiah?" His gaze came to rest on their youngest.
"Sure, Vin." JD wiped his mouth on his sleeve, removing faint traces of beer foam from his first sip. "Say hi to Chris and Ezra for us."
Vin's smile curled a bit wider. "Will do. Take care, boys." With that, he headed out of the saloon, silently wondering why Chris needed him to come to Bacon's Corner. Why it was only signed with Chris' name and what had happened. Chris and Ezra were supposed to be taking sometime out together. At least, that was what Larabee had told him privately before the two men rode out. Sooner I get there, sooner I find out, he told himself as he moved down to his wagon for trail supplies.
Ezra hadn't been with a carnival in a long time. He dealt another round of cards and grinned as the roustabouts picked up their cards and groaned. The smell of sawdust and wet canvas, animals and sweat, was a sweetly sour mix as familiar as breathing. He'd met up with this troupe only hours after fleeing Chris Larabee and Eagle Bend. It was a pleasure to be amongst such a savvy group. They all knew he wasn't cheating, that he was too good, but they played with him for the fun of it, the entertainment. And they played it up as well. Someone behind him clapped him on the shoulder and rubbed his head hard, disheveling his neatly combed hair.
Only in such a place would Ezra be so relaxed that he'd let his guard down enough for that to happen. He ducked out from under the affectionate attack and laughed. "I am not some pet gorilla to manhandle, Quinn!"
The dark haired ringmaster merely grinned back at him, fists resting comfortably on his lean hips. "No? But you'd make a fine pet, Ezra."
Multiple raspberries sounded from around the cluster of men at the planks braced into a temporary table. Life on the road had to accommodate a lot of making-do. Ezra chose not to answer the provocative remark, though the reddening of his ear tips may have had a few of the men smirking to themselves.
He'd been welcomed as Maudie's boy, when he'd stopped at the encampment far down the road from Eagle's Bend. The troupe was slowly moving through the territories, with the eventual intension of reaching California and tracing its way up the coast. For now, the talented and clever performers were taking a well-earned rest between two towns. SoHo Jack and Maryjane McGillicutty owned the wagons, the animals, and paid the men and women of the small carnival troupe. SoHo Jack had known Ezra as a lad when Maude was less of a lady and more desperate. Ezra had fond memories of Tigerless Lil and the Rubberman and the rest. He'd found his perfect refuge as he licked his wounds from Chris Larabee's betrayal.
Ezra shivered slightly in the chill of the late evening, gazing up at a night sky so full of stars that it was like staring into the embers of a campfire. Hands came to rest firmly on his shoulders and he trembled in response. But, it wasn't Chris.
"hmm." A chin followed one hand to rest with weight on his left shoulder. "We get up early here, Ezra, you should be in bed."
"Ah yes. I had forgotten the carnie rituals." Ezra twisted away, stepping forward to free himself and face the other man. "Quinn, do not overstep."
"Soho told me that you prefer -"
"Jack talks too much."
"He's worried about you."
"No reason to be." Ezra patted his vest front pockets, locating and withdrawing a long thin cigarello.
The ringmaster approached again, pulling a tiny bottle of sulfur matches from his trousers. "May I?" He leaned in, his slight height advantage allowing him to create an intimate space between them as he cupped the now lit match to Ezra's stick-like cigar.
They stood together, nearly one, as the end of the small thin cigar glowed to life against the flame. Ezra raised his head and blew a stream of white smoke over Quinn's shoulder. "Thank you." He began to turn away when Quinn once again laid a hand upon him, this time stopping him with a light grip on his arm.
"Ezra? Will you stay with me tonight?"
Vin's horse trotted swiftly into the outskirts of Bacon's Corner. He'd only been here once before, at the foot of the tall cascading mountains on the edge of the Rocky Mountain range. Like Four Corners, it was a settlement that had grown up from a ranching community and so had a more permanent look than a mining camp or boomtown. He drew rein by the first livery he came to. From the looks of things, this place was big enough to have several.
A shadow emerged from the shadows at the edge of the wide maw that was the stable entrance.
"Chris." Vin spoke with surety.
Breaking free from the building, Larabee took the few steps that brought him to Vin's stirrup. Looking up he smiled, but it was a painful sight. "Vin. Thanks for coming."
Tanner simply smiled slightly, eyes full of seeking questions that reached Larabee without words. Then he raised his head to look around the empty area in front of the stables. "Where's Ezra?"
The black flat hat dropped to cover Larabee's face and telling eyes. From beneath it, Chris spoke to the ground.
"Chris, he's -" Vin's fearful voice was accompanied by a thump as the man threw himself from the saddle to land dustily at Larabee's side. Tanner gripped Chris Larabee's shoulder as if to squeeze an answer from the man.
"Not dead. Just gone."
Taking a breath to steady himself, Vin patiently waited now that he knew Standish was alive at least.
After a moment, Larabee's head came up. "How about a drink? Found a saloon that's quiet."
"Sure, if you're buying." Vin released his hold on his friend, ready to follow. He figured he'd hear the tale when Chris was ready.
The two men stayed together while Vin had Peso stabled in the livery in the stall next to Larabee's horse. The tall black nickered a quiet greeting to his herd mate. Peso flicked his tail and moved to the small offering of grain that Vin left out for him. With a final look at the quiet movements of the animals, Tanner followed Larabee back out into the sunshine of midday.
"Before we get inside any walls," Larabee said, slowing their pace, "you need to know that there's a hunt on for you."
Vin quirked an eyebrow, bright blue eyes shifting sideways to examine his friend as they crossed the nearly still street, packed with dusty wagon wheel ruts.
Chris took off his hat to wipe his brow with one sleeved arm. The dust smeared, joined other streaks on his once black shirt. "Something I overheard a couple of towns back."
"That why Ez isn't with you?"
"Something like that."
"I've dropped my roll by the main fire, Quinn. That's where it's staying."
The darkly handsome Irishman sighed dramatically. "Ezra, there is no need for that."
"There's every need." Standish moved further away from the other man, drawing in the comforting aroma of Chris' last cheroot, then letting the stream of smoke fill the space between him and Quinn O'Hara. "I like you, Quinn, but I'm not ready to look elsewhere yet."
"Elsewhere?" A lock of midnight black hair fell across Quinn's high forehead as he stooped to pick at the scattered straw littering the ground. Flashing, nearly-black eyes shone up at Ezra. "You are with someone?"
Ezra's lips tightened around the cigarello before his fine long fingers plucked it free and tossed it to the earth. He ground it, only half-smoked, into the dirt with the heel of his boot. "No. Not any more."
Ezra's face was a study of calm when he looked up, but Quinn O'Hara could see the pain and anger in the smoldering green eyes that met his. They gave him hope. He was smart enough, though, to be patient. Now was clearly not the time to press his suit.
"I need to get some cigars." Larabee paused at the tobacco shop beside the saloon's swing doors.
Vin nodded and dropped to the spindle-backed wooden bench seat that stood in front of the shop's display window, right next to a roughly carved and rather enthusiastically painted wooden Indian. He raised a curled lip at the garish symbol and then slumped back, drawing his hat down low over his face. No point in advertising his presence if there was a hunt out for him. Must be more than some casual bounty hunter or Larabee wouldn't be so concerned. And Ezra? Vin drew in a deep breath. Wonder what happened? They were getting mighty close, good for both of them from what Chris had said.
Larabee stepped back out onto the boardwalk. It had felt strange to purchase the smokes alone, to carry them without sharing. Damn. We were getting to be like an old married couple. How the hell did things get so wrong? Ezra is the most untrusting son-of-a-bitch I ever met. Takes things too much to heart, too. Chris frowned as he bit off the end of one of the newly purchased cheroots and spat it into the street in front of him. Soon as I get Vin hid, I've got to find Ez. Make things right. Hazel eyes lifted to the majestic mountains rising over the roofs on the far side of the dusty street. God, I miss the man already.
The quiet drawl pulled Larabee back to the present. He gave a nod to his friend and started over toward the saloon, knowing Vin would be right behind him.
Together they broached the doors of the quiet noontime building. Dust motes drifted on the shafts of light that streamed in around them from the street. The smell of whiskey, beer, and old tobacco juice mixed with stale smoky air and greeted them like long-lost souls. Across the room was the bar, a battered counter now, but clearly once a fine piece of mahogany furniture, complete with brass rail and spittoons. Behind it stood a bored-looking man, short and squat, his hair parted in the middle and a wide once-white apron stretched taut across his large chest and belly.
The two friends crossed the wide-planked floor, ignoring the crunch of bits of broken, unswept glass amidst the strewn sawdust. Leaning on the bar, both turned to survey the largely empty room. Two or three solitary individuals sat in silence at separate tables, each lost in his own drink.
"Whiskey. Two." Chris twisted around to face the barkeep.
Ezra strolled among the smaller campfires, nodding to the carnies that sat comfortably on the ground or small folding stools and the odd crate. The colorful mix of folk, the friendly faces and laughing murmurs, it all drew the southerner back into his childhood and a wonderful summer spent with Soho Jack's traveling show. Maryjane had mothered him and Jack had taught him to respect himself. Ezra, looking back now, realized just what precious gifts they had bestowed upon him.
Maude had been in a hurry to leave some town in Tennessee and needed to flee unencumbered by child. Ten year old Ezra had been taken to the 'circus' that was in town. It hadn't been quite that grand, but there were a few interesting animals and strange folk. Maude had left him watching a magic show, speaking briefly to the ticket master. Ezra only learned later that she'd offered his services to the man for at least the next six months. It would be only after some time had passed that Jack sat Ezra down to explain that he'd paid Maude fifty dollars cash, not to own the boy, but to rescue him from the woman who clearly didn't care enough about him.
Ezra half laughed, half choked at the memory of the pain he'd felt at that revelation. Maryjane had tugged him close beside her then, hugging him and telling him that it didn't matter, they loved him as the son they'd never had. And that is how they'd treated him.
"You still shoot as straight as I taught you?" Jack's voice emerged from the back of his and Maryjane's tinker wagon, their private sleeping quarters.
Ezra grinned. "Yes, sir." He glanced at the tall wheels of the ornate little camp wagon, many the night he'd slept cozy in a hammock slung below the space those high wood wheels provided. He walked closer to the rear of the wagon to find Jack and Maryjane seated in splendor on their two folding armchairs, side-by-side, obviously just enjoying the night air and each other's company. He folded his legs, dropping down to sit in front of them unselfconsciously. "Thanks for letting me stay tonight."
"Ezra!" Maryjane's voice was sharp with rebuke, then softened as the buxom lady gave him a look of affection, "You are family, my dear. You are always welcome!"
"Never forget that, boy." Jack chastised gently. He leaned over to kiss his wife on one round cheek, his walrus mustache so full and long that he nearly looked like the sea creature himself.
Ezra nodded seriously. "I want to thank you for back then, too."
"Nonsense, boy." Jack's gruff snort ended in a chuckle, "You were a little hellion, you know."
"But sweet, Jack, he was so sweet too." Maryjane smiled reminiscently and then leaned forward to reach out a hand to their friend.
Ezra came up in a crouch, gracefully rising to accept the hand and clasp it easily. She drew him to her side and then down to accept a kiss on her other cheek.
"Bide a while, Ezra, we'd love to have you stay with us again."
Her soft Ohio River Valley tones were light music to Ezra's ears. "I would like that."
"Good!" Jack clapped his hands together. "There are a couple of places in the show that we could use you, too, if you're willing?"
"Jack, I'm not joining the show."
"Ah, boy, not for life, just for now. Some of our folk are tired, a few got a sickness back down the road, and they could use the rest. Getting better but they could really use a bit of time."
His beguilingly persuasive manner made Ezra laugh. "All right, Jack! I certainly owe you."
"Now stop that nonsense! You do this as a favor to us. A favor!" Maryjane shook her plump finger at him. "NOT as repayment for anything. There's nothing to repay."
Ezra looked away from the two wonderful people in front of him, blinking back moisture that had mysteriously formed at the corners of his eyes.
Behind him, the couple's eyes met in silent understanding and sympathy. They could tell that their favorite son was hurting.
Ezra took a deep, silent breath and turned back to his friends. "So, what would you like me to do? Some trick shooting and riding, I presume?"
"Aye, that, and how do you feel about the tigers?"
Sitting shoulder to shoulder, backs to the wall, Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner sat and drank their shots of whiskey slowly. It was a town neither knew well so they were cautious. In a low voice, barely above a whisper, Chris had laid out what he knew about the hunt for Tanner's bounty. He and Ezra had been in the main saloon of a large hotel, Ezra deep in a poker game, Chris lounging at the nearby bar, keeping an eye on Ezra's back. A group of five or six men had trouped in, snarling at each other impatiently as they shoved aside other drinkers to get to the bar and belly-up. Larabee had been further down the rail and was ignored.
He'd overheard them discussing the split on a bounty they'd just brought in and then the names of three men they were hunting for now. Tanner had been one of them - and they somehow knew he was in Four Corners. Larabee had figured he'd telegraph Vin in the morning, get him out of town and warn him as soon as he could talk to him, not trusting the wires with the details. Only, he'd apparently been more worried about it than he'd realized.
Scratching his jaw line, Chris' eyes lost focus as he stared straight ahead and into the past few nights.
"You didn't tell Ez?"
"The game didn't break up for nearly four more hours. Those men had gone up to rooms in the hotel before then." Chris shook his head.
Tanner took another sip of his whiskey, letting it roll around his tongue before swallowing. "So, you going to tell me what happened?"
Chris finished off his drink and thumped the glass down on the marred table top. His hard eyes swung up and with a small gesture he caught the attention of the barman. Two fingers in the air were enough to get a nod and the man heading their way with replacement drinks - and a bottle.
"You want I should leave it?" The hoarse tenor offered as the man gave the table a swipe with a sodden cloth.
"Yeah." Larabee tossed him a coin.
Larabee took up the fresh glass and swirled the hazy golden liquid as he studied it. After a few moments, he said, "Guess I said your name aloud. Called out to you." He snuck a look at his friend and shrugged. "I think I might have been dreaming. About you getting bushwhacked."
"So you did this in bed?"
"Shit, Chris, you got to use more than one word in a sentence!"
"Yeah." Larabee sank back and down in his seat sullenly.
"Hell, this is Ezra we're talking about. He needs words like other folks need water and food."
"Took me by surprise," Chris confessed and raised the glass to his lips, taking another small sip of the rotgut.
"So, what you going to do now?"
"Soon as we get you away safe, I'm going after him."
"Might need reinforcements when you find him. Think I'll tag along."
Chris sat up and peered over at two twinkling blue eyes. "Now hold on."
Vin leaned close and nudged him with a shoulder. "No, that's Ez you need to do that with." And he chuckled.
"You have tigers now?"
"That's right, Jack, Ezra hasn't seen us since Leopold and Leonides passed on." Maryjane pulled Ezra's hand closer and tucked it under one plump arm as she rose to her feet in an impressively dignified manner. "Come, Ezra, you must meet the kitties."
Jack's deep rumbling laughter filled the air as he stood, his soldierly bearing still reflecting another lifetime ago in the British army in India. "These girls will wind right into your heart, boyo." His smile made his chapped red cheeks ball up and he rubbed his hands together as he strolled on Ezra's other side.
The three walked slowly, promenading through the loosely sprawled encampment, with cheery calls and remarks of greeting. The warmth in voices told its own story. This traveling show was a family affair, even if the folk were not related by blood. Ezra's nerves seemed to loosen more with every step, the love in the air giving him that comfortable feeling of belonging that he'd forgotten so long ago. In quiet recognition, he realized that it had been building with six very strong and different men back in Four Corners, but with Chris he had thought he was making something even more. Gloom returned, swamping the feelings of good will of a moment before, and stiffening, he gently withdrew his arm from Maryjane's grasp.
"It's nothing, Maryjane, just some trouble now over. A mere thought brought it back for a moment but it will be fine. I will be, I just need a bit of time and space to regain my equilibrium."
"These beauties should do it for you then," Jack said easily, coming to stand beside a large barred wagon. The sides had canvas panels lowered, the canvas painted with garish jungle scenes in bright colors. "Hey, babies, it's Jack." He purred out his final words as he grabbed a crank and rolled up the side panel nearest them, as if it were a curtain.
Ezra came to a stop next to Maryjane and watched with interest as the cloth was raised. Lounging back comfortably within were two large Bengal tigers, their black and orange stripes beautifully bizarre in the American west. The two females' heads and shoulders were raised, intelligent golden eyes blinking lazily at them. The sleek bodies told of plentiful food and exercise.
"They're beautiful," Ezra breathed out, enchanted. He trusted his friends explicitly and so walked right up to the cage bars without fear, knowing that he'd be stopped if it wasn't safe. Ezra remembered the two lions they'd had all those years ago, older but still playful, they became his pets, his best friends. "Hello, lovely ladies." Without hesitation, he slowly slid a hand and arm into the cage.
With feline grace undeniable, the two big cats slung their bodies up and padded over to the offered hand. Incredibly loud purrs thrummed deep in their chests as they took turns dipping massive heads beneath his hand to be fondled and scratched. Ezra couldn't help it, he was grinning from ear to ear, his dimples so deeply carved that it looked like someone had cut holes in his cheeks.
Jack flung an affectionate arm around Maryjane's shoulders. Together they stood there and watched their adopted son interacting with their tigers fearlessly. Erza had always had a way with animals. He'd trained two chimpanzees for them, kept their prissy performing horses in prime form, and had gentled their two old lions into cooperative pussycats. These tigers were gentle, well-trained, but still wild beasts. They could show teeth and snap and growl with great show during their acts, and didn't normally like to have their spaces poked by prying hands or sticks. They, too, had sensed something in Ezra. Jack squeezed Maryjane's shoulders. "Ezra, will you work with them while you're here?"
Glancing back over his shoulder with a brilliant smile, Standish nodded wordlessly, then leaned close to the bars to receive a near-bath from a rough, large tongue to his face.
Chris' face was a picture of angry frustration as he tightened the cinch on his tall horse. Vin Tanner, already lounging in Peso's saddle, had to suppress a smile. This was the second town they'd searched without finding any sign of their gambler. Ezra seemed to have vanished into thin air.
Vin's slouch hat was pulled low over his face, his stubbled jaw shaded by the brim. Shadowing the grim-faced notorious gunslinger, Chris Larabee, he was less noticed and they both felt he was safer, hiding in plain sight, than lurking in the mountains that were a known haunt for him. There'd been no direct signs of the party of bounty hunters but they heard about them in the last town, where they'd arrived in triumph, toting the dead bodies of two wanted men - the other two names that Larabee had overheard several days earlier. Vin was now their remaining coup to capture.
Chris felt the churning in his belly, the burn just above his heart. He knew he was making himself sick with worry about Ezra but couldn't help himself. The man was all flash and stood out like a sore thumb in any crowd. Yet, they couldn't find him. Not even word of anyone seeing the fancy dressed southerner. Knowing how hurt and angry his friend had been, Chris continually flogged himself for failing to speak up in time to stop the man from fleeing. He'd been so sure that he could track him down that he'd wasted time contacting Vin and drawing him out of Four Corners to safety.
They'd been in contact with the rest of their friends back in town by way of telegrams. Carefully worded, the messages had let them know that Vin was safe and that they were looking for Ezra now. So far there'd been no word on the hunters reaching Four Corners, but that seemed only a question of time. For now, they would head back toward Eagle Bend and try another trail out of the town. Silently, Chris was praying that Ezra hadn't met something he couldn't deal with out in the wilderness between towns.
"He's trail smart, ya know." Vin's low Texas' drawl interrupted Larabee's latest internal plea to the powers that be.
Chris' eyes slid to the side to take in his quiet friend. "Yeah." Wiping at the back of his neck, he resettled himself in his saddle and neck-reined Brazos over as they started their way out of Egg's Hell. He stared up the hill that shouldered above the tiny crossroads, a clear trail heading over it leading to Eagle Bend. "Just worried about him."
"We'll find him." Vin made sure that his words rung with confidence. He'd learned that from Ezra, you had to sound convinced yourself or no one would believe you. He wondered just what had happened to the hurting man who'd walked out on Larabee.
The two men had been keeping company for sometime, from what he'd observed. He liked both men and it seemed to him that the building union would be a good thing for both, and for the seven as well. Each man had seemed more settled, less volatile, since they'd started seeing each other privately. Vin had quietly signaled Larabee with his acceptance of the new twosome; so he had been let in on the partnership enough to know when Chris decided to go away with Ezra for a while, to build a stronger linking. The others had just known that Larabee and Standish were on a job out of town. With a close-mouthed bastard like Chris, that was enough, no questions asked. Vin snorted to himself. If this keeps up, the rest are going to have to know what is going on so they can help. Privacy be damned. Won't let old Ez get hurt, know that Chris will go crazy, too, if we don't find our southerner soon.
Together, Larabee and Tanner walked their horses up the trail, talking finished for now. Reaching the crest of the hill, with open path before them, both men gigged their mounts into ground-covering canters.
Ezra sat on a crate, wiping at his face as he removed shaving soap, his image in the small travel mirror showed his face pale, and thinner than he'd been in a long time. Despite all the kindnesses he'd been shown this past week, he had fallen into a deep depression. The only times he was truly happy were when he was with the cats or with Chaucer.
His horse loved the attention in the ring and performed flawlessly, flicking his beribboned tail and keeping his neck arched so that the tiny bells and bows worked into his flowing mane seemed to dance and chime with his movements. Ezra's form-fitting black outfit seemed to reduce him to a shadow on the flashy chestnut's back, the tiny saddle a mere postage stamp on the sleek barrel of the horse. The thin cotton trousers ended in straps that kept the bottom cuffs tight against his ankles, his 'boots' in reality little more than black slippers with shafts that clung up to mid-calf. His shirt was of the thinnest silk, snugly contoured to his flat stomach, cut low in a nearly embarrassing display of chest. He'd objected to the costume, but Maryjane had managed to convince him that no one would recognize the normally well-covered and fashionably clad gambler.
Athletic prowess, unrecognized in Four Corners, was making his performance on Chaucer a stunning show for the small backwoods audiences flocking to the traveling show. Jack had told him that if he would stay, he'd get star billing. It wasn't that easy to find a performer who worked on horseback, doing handstands on withers or balancing on one foot while seeming to float above the smooth-gaited horse, arms out like a bird, his other leg raised behind him in graceful parody to the bird's tail. Chaucer's fine looks and showy style only added to the mix.
Later, doing the cat act, he'd exchange his skimpy black shirt for a flowing, billowing white one, with many ruffles, still open at the neck to a plunge down to his midriff. Ezra shook his head at his reflection. It had been a long time since he'd had to earn a living on his looks. With a self-depreciating half-smile, he pulled out his small scissors and began to trim his sideburns, taming back his lustrous light brown hair.
At least, with the cats, he had the advantage of protection from the swarms of humanity that had no fear of horses. Crowding close to the edges of the ring during the equestrian shows, they quickly backed off when the tigers leaped down from their carefully positioned wagon and into the center ring.
Vin drew rein abruptly.
His horse plodding steadily along behind his friend's, Chris had to react quickly, tugging Brazos off to one side of the narrow trail to avoid Peso now standing stiffly alert. "Vin?"
"Something's wrong." Tanner rose up in his stirrups to better see around them, craning his neck and scrutinizing the shallow pass they were approaching. The sides of the mountains collided here, debris from old landslides eventually settling between the two to form a hollow that was fairly level and much easier to travel through than scaling the steep sides of the higher elevations. The hairs on the back of his neck had risen unaccountably. He sniffed the air, trying to identify what was causing his unease.
Larabee coaxed his horse up beside Vin's. Suspiciously, he eyed the deep pockets of shade in the rough landscape and the clumps of dry, scrubby trees. Just as his horse came even with Tanner's, a shot rang out.
Ezra stood poised in the center of the ring. The grass had been trodden down by the horse acts, including his trick-riding act with Chaucer. Quinn had just introduced him as Wilhelm, tamer of beasts. He stood with a long thin riding crop in hand, body turned slightly to the side as he waited for Jack to stride to the still curtained wagon at the back edge of the ring. Louis, their musician, produced a staccato drum roll. With another flourish, Jack cranked the curtain up, and revealed the two alert tigers. The sound of that particular drumbeat was their signal too.
The crowd gasped. The trick horsemanship was impressive, even to westerners well-used to the demands of horseback, but this was totally different. This was exotic, a whiff of danger and the unknown. Even the wranglers, who'd laughingly heckled Ezra and the other performing riders, fell silent.
Jack pulled the pin on the center gate of the wagon's barred side and first Clarice, then Sindhaj dropped gracefully to the ground. Ezra quickly moved to them and the three faced off in their now well-practiced routine. One snap of his whip into the air and the ladies paced around him, emitting low growls, lips raised in convincing snarls. Their large bodies slunk past with sinuous power, paws as large as dinner plates padded silently on the horse's circular track.
Two roustabouts rolled in half-barrels, letting them drop to form short platforms near the center of the ring. With smooth, wide-armed motions, Ezra signaled the girls up onto their perches. Obediently, the two black and orange beauties hunched up on the almost too-small drums and roared with open-mouthed fearsomeness. The revealed teeth, sharp and larger than any puma's, drew another loud gasp from the audience, now all edging back from the ring where the two huge tigers bristled. Ezra called out simple commands, putting first Sindhaj, then Clarice through paces well learned. He used German only because it was the language of their regular trainer, currently suffering from an uncomfortable bout of dysentery.
By now, he and the cats had captured the imaginations of the watching throng and periodic cheers and clapping burst out with sincere admiration and a touch of fear. This is what made the price of admission well worth the cost. SoHo Jack, standing on the sidelines with Maryjane, grinned fondly at his foster son's professional performance. The boy was good.
A startled silence fell again as Ezra's finale dropped him to his knees between the two cats who circled tightly, one on either side of him, before sprawling down against him, their big heads resting on his thighs. Ezra let his arms come to rest around their necks, hugging the two to his sides. For a moment, he lowered his face down to bury it in their neck fur, his smile hidden from the crowd as the tigers' twin purrs vibrated against his ribs, nearly shaking his encircling arms. He held the tableau with them for just a short count of seconds, then pulled back and called sharply so that both cats sprung to their feet to dash madly around the ring.
Women screamed and men cursed, everyone stepping back even further. Then with another loud command, Ezra spun on his heel and leapt to the side of the wagon gate. First Clarice, then Sindhaj with a final irrepressible growl, bounded back into their cage and reared up with front paws high on the barred side, white furred bellies exposed. A clank had the barred gate closing and then Ezra bowed to the audience as Jack dropped the curtain on the cats' cage. The applause was loud and enthusiastic. Ezra's flash of teeth was the only true smile that Jack had seen in several days. He rested a large hand on his friend's shoulder for a moment of support before the show moved on to the acrobats and he and Ezra faded off to the side.
"Beautiful job, Ezra!" Maryjane kissed the thin cheek, fussing over the southerner as she tossed a warm cape over his shoulders. The day was brisk here in the foothills of the mountains. Tomorrow they would cross a low pass and move on to a scattering of small towns further west. She wasn't sure that Ezra would travel with them.
"I'll just check on the girls." Ezra smiled softly at Maryjane and Jack, and nodded to Quinn who was waiting at the edge of the ring, ready with the knife-thrower and his lovely assistant. With a final pat to Maryjane's shoulder, Ezra quickly walked away, already uncomfortable with the attention his caring friends gave him. For some reason, today he was feeling anxious and needed the comfort and closeness of a warm, loving body. The tigers were the closest thing to what he really craved --- Chris. With a quick look around to make certain there were no lurking observers, Ezra ducked under the canvas at the back of the tigers' wagon and swung out a small door normally used for feeding the big cats. Slipping inside, he murmured greetings to the two animals who shifted restlessly at his arrival. Both crowded close to him, nearly smothering him as they pressed against him. With soft words and a soothing touch, he settled them easily and then crawled into their warm furry mound to snuggle close. A big, gentle paw came to rest on his stomach. He wrapped his arms around the thickly furred limb and he closed his eyes, imagining something, someone quite different, but no less dangerous.
"Ah, shit!" Vin Tanner dove off his horse, yanking his rifle free from its sheath as he left the saddle. Chris had been knocked backwards off Brazos by a bullet as best as Vin could tell. His friend now lay unmoving on the stone strewn trail as both horses trod perilously close to Larabee's body. "Git away!" He slapped at Peso's near leg and made a shooing motion at the animals who quickly moved off, reins trailing the ground.
"Chris?" His hissed call went unanswered as he peered around trying to find the source of the single shot. Before he could do more, a volley of shots crashed around him, coming from three different spots. They'd ridden right into an ambush. Likely the bounty hunters, after him. And Larabee took my bullet, damn it, rode too close at the wrong time. With a look of regret and helplessness for his best friend, he flopped on to his belly and took aim at the flash of gunfire showing in the group of trees just above him on the right side of the trail. Taking a slow breath, he squeezed the trigger.
"Chris!" Vin wriggled closer to his best friend's still form, finally reaching out to grasp one limp arm and shake it. "Larabee!"
There was no response and Vin Tanner feared the worst. He continued edging closer on his belly, one hand firmly holding his Sharps, finger still hooked on the trigger. Nearly on top of the silent gunslinger, he risked a quick look at Larabee.
Blood bloomed from a tear up near the man's right shoulder, his dark gray shirt black with the blood now dripping onto the dry stony earth. While painful and dangerous if untreated, it should not have had the man so still.
Gently, Vin pressed two fingers to his friend's neck. The pulse within was strong and steady. Snatching quick glances away from the silent hillsides surrounding them, Vin slide his fingers up to Larabee's scalp, probing behind the blond's ear. The fingers came away coated in more blood. Damn. Probably hit his head on a rock when he was blasted from the saddle.
Vin rolled onto his back and twisted his neck, first to his right, then left. His movements provoked response as three gunshots sounded at once. Aiming carefully at the spot he'd seen a flare of light among shadow, high in the tree line, Vin fired off one round.
A pained cry came from the wooded spot. With a satisfied smile, Vin raised up slightly to turn and face the other ambushers. He never got completely turned. Another volley of shots was fired and Vin felt a harsh burn on his gun arm, then a second agonizing pain that barely registered against his skull, and day dimmed to darkness.
Ezra pulled Chaucer down to a slower pace as he came even with Quinn O'Hara. The man, who could be ringmaster, sword swallower, or roustabout, was also the chief scout and trailblazer for the traveling troupe. Ezra was more comfortable with the man since Quinn had stopped pressing his attentions on the southerner.
They'd gone off hunting twice, with several others who were the best shots among the group, pulling down an elk, two mule deer, and several rabbits. The tigers were fed well, along with the hungry performers.
Now Quinn, on his flashy pinto, rode nearly a mile ahead of the wagons, ensuring that the trail was clear and safe. Standish respected the man more and more as he grew to know the Irishman, whose dark good looks were beginning to draw Ezra's eye. Quinn hadn't bothered him with too-intimate touches or invitations since Ezra had warned him off and Ezra appreciated that. The man's warm humor and sharp intelligence were attractive.
Feeling relaxed, plodding along beside Quinn on his Annie, Ezra chuckled at Chaucer's flirting and coy moves toward the pretty mare. Though Chaucer was no longer a full stallion, he seemed to ignore that fact upon occasion. Catching Quinn's eye, Ezra grinned.
Breath catching in his throat, Quinn O'Hara nearly reached for the beautiful man at his side, only firm discipline keeping him in check. Ezra was such a lovely boyo, smart and talented, and so damn pretty. Those dimples and smiling green eyes took O'Hara home to the old country, to the Emerald Isle that was usually so far away. He yearned desperately to sweep Standish into his arms and smother him in kisses, lavish him with caresses and thrust deep within that tender flesh. Fisting his reins and heart, Quinn straightened and breathed deeply, tearing his eyes from his laughing companion and looking ahead to the low pass they were approaching. Something caught his eye.
Ezra saw the sudden change in O'Hara's demeanor, from friendly amusement and suppressed lust, to alert concern. Looking ahead, following Quinn's gaze, Ezra spotted several birds of prey circling over a dark shadow misplaced on the sunlit rocky trail, just at the highest point of the trail's rising path. Exchanging a worried look with Quinn, Ezra and his new friend urged their mounts forward at a fast clip, both drawing weapons without comment.
"VIN!" Ezra's cry was one of surprise and fear as he slipped from his saddle and dropped to his knees next to the still form on the rocky path. Ignoring the sound of Quinn climbing down and crunching over to his side, he gently touched two fingers to Vin Tanner's exposed neck. He felt the strong pulse beneath his fingers and sighed, sagging back to sit on his heels and draw a deep breath.
And Quinn was beside him, crouching and offering an open canteen and clean neckerchief. Ezra nodded, accepting the water and cloth, quickly dampening the calico and gently wiping Tanner's dusty face, blotting at dried blood that had streamed down from a harsh bullet crease above his left temple.
"Yes." Ezra didn't waste further time answering Quinn. Beyond that, Vin was a wanted man, it wouldn't do to simply blurt the man's full name out regardless of how much he might trust someone like Quinn.
Together, the two men assessed Tanner's injuries. Ezra was relieved to find only one other minor wound, a graze to Tanner's gun arm. By the time they had cleaned the wounds and wrapped Tanner's head with one of Ezra's white shirts, torn into efficient strips by Ezra's shaking hands, the first wagons of the carnies' were in sight behind them.
Chris cracked one eye open, fighting a swimming sensation in his head. The bright light of day hurt and he squinted his eyes tightly shut instantly. The swaying movements of a horse beneath him were causing his stomach to clench as well and he realized he was resting on his belly on the back of a saddled horse. Short testing flexes told their own story - he was bound, wrist and foot and secured, most likely by rope, to the saddle. The brief movements also produced shooting fire in his shoulder.
"Hey, Mr. Bockman! Think he's waking up." A rough voice sounded close by.
Larabee gritted his teeth. Clarence Bockman. He had no doubts at all. He'd managed to kill off two of the man's sons in a gunfight up in Abilene several years earlier, back when he was still mostly alone and angry and largely drunk, grieving his lost family. Mostly alone because Buck Wilmington had still hovered nearby in those days, trying to pull Chris from his deep pit of despair.
Had Buck been with him when Bockman got him? He swallowed on a dry, scratchy throat, forcing bile back down with a choked cough. Damn, he couldn't think, couldn't remember. Where had he been? How had he been caught? He could tell that somehow his head had been hurt along with what felt like a gunshot wound to the shoulder but his mind was a blank. He remembered ... Ezra. Ezra, angry and leaving. And nothing more.
But, Ezra wouldn't betray him, hurt him, turn him over to someone like Bockman. No, not his Ezra. Where was Ezra? Chris felt his heart clench in fear.
Having removed Tanner's leather coat to inspect his arm, Ezra had bundled it under Vin's head. He used Vin's neckerchief to wrap around his friend's head, covering the white strips of his own shirt that bandaged the head wound. Ezra wiped the Texan's face with Quinn's offered bandana. Tanner remained unresponsive. Ezra looked up at Quinn O'Hara, his worry clear in his light green eyes as he assessed the distance back to the now close, approaching lead wagon of the carnies.
"We need help. Quinn, can you get-"
"That one's ours."
The harsh voice came from behind Ezra who was turned to face the on-coming carnie train. Craning his neck around, Ezra was dismayed to discover five rather rank looking individuals mounted on equally scruffy looking horses. The quintet had apparently ridden up, nearly soundless, on the thickly dust-covered trail, while he and Quinn were concentrating on Vin Tanner.
Licking his lower lip, Ezra sat straighter, pulling Vin's supine form close to him. "Sirs?"
"That there is Vin Tanner, a wanted man." The man in the center spat at the ground and Ezra curled a lip in disgust. Before he could answer, the man continued, "We claim bounty on him."
"You, my good man, are mistaken." Ezra put every ounce of firm conviction into his voice, one hand reaching out to press his palm against Vin's face and shadow the handsome features. He looked down at Tanner, a good friend, and, apparently, the man that Chris doted on in his dreams. Enough testimonial for saving the Texan. "He is my cousin, Vender Standish."
The men on horseback looked unconvinced. "Yeah?" the apparent leader scoffed, "then how come he's laying out here all shot up?"
"He is NOT 'shot up' as you so vulgarly say," Ezra gently patted Vin's shoulder and pushed up to his feet so that he could stand and face these adversaries. "He was on point with Mr. O'Hara," here Ezra nodded at his nonplussed companion, still thankfully silent, "and me as we scouted the trail for our traveling show."
The scowling men in front of him stared down unmoved.
"His horse was startled by a serpent," put in Quinn, warming to his part, unsure of Ezra's intentions but ready to help any way he could.
"And his wounds are honorable from meeting the ground roughly," put in Jack who had stomped up to the front when the confrontation was observed by the lead wagoneer.
Ezra flashed bright green eyes at Quinn, then Jack, his gratitude clear as he nodded sharply. He faced off against the bounty hunters once more. "There, you heard my colleagues. Vender is one of us."
"Vender, huh?" The skeptical tone and frown of the leader told Ezra that his ploy was not a complete success yet.
"Ven needs medical treatment and you gentlemen don't appear to have any to offer, so I would suggest you ride on." Ezra let one hand rest on his Remington, still holstered on his hip. He wasn't dressed in his usual garb, instead in simple leather breeches and a light linen shirt, easy and comfortable for the carnival life. Somehow, dressed as he was, he had a feeling that he was more convincing to the strangers who were eyeing the gathering crowd of carnie folk, all similarly attired. The fact that Vin, minus his buffalo hide coat and slouch hat, could pass for one of them helped.
A glance down at his 'cousin' had Ezra dropping back down to his knees. Bright blue eyes were studying him. "Ven? Here, drink this." He offered a sip from his canteen, ignoring his two audiences.
Vin took a few sips as Ezra supported his head, then carefully pushed it away and let his eyes wander to the circle of faces above him, seeing the bounty hunters and the other folk who apparently were Ezra's friends.
"Ez?" Vin's voice was soft.
"Just be still," was the equally soft reply. "I'll take care of this." The unspoken 'I'll take care of you' was easy for Vin to hear. He relaxed, his fuzzy world dimming again, but without fear, safe in a brother's care.
Chris Larabee grunted as he was dragged off the barrel of the horse he'd been carried on and dropped to the earth. Unforgiving, dusty, stony earth. His quick inhale, after having the air punched out of his lungs on that landing, gave him a lungful of dust and he coughed, retching at the same time as his uneven brain tried to adjust to a concussion and more injuries on top of that. Someone kicked him in the side with a sharp-toed boot, the burst of pain so severe that he curled around his stomach and began to pant.
Clarence Bockman stooped over the bastard who'd killed his two best sons. His weathered face, lines deep as furrows in a new-dug field, creased around a toothy snarl. He used a forearm to push back his battered Stetson and then grabbed a handful of Larabee's hair. Ignoring the choking coughs and quick breathing, he yanked the man's head up and back off the ground, forcing his skull back toward his shoulders as he raised him, exposing a long column of neck that seemed to be convulsing as he stared in anger. With a viciousness that sent chills through his crew who surrounded him, he punched the whoreson in the unprotected throat.
His windpipe was suddenly crushed by massive force and Chris lay bound and helpless as he choked on his own vomit and his lean body thrashed about seeking release and oxygen without success. His head, held painfully up and back by hair that pulled at his scalp, was released and he dropped down, arching his back and trying to breathe past the sore and swelling esophagus. Gasping, open-mouthed, he sagged back to the ground as air finally moved through his abused neck and relieved his foundering lungs. Face a smear of sweat and dust, he blinked his eyes open again and tried to see past the dirt that now thickly stuck to him, caking his skinned face. Slits of ice green, so murky it might be blued moss, sought out his enemy and stared. Bockman. Mind clearing, he knew he was not going to be getting any help soon and grimly set himself to die.
Reluctantly, the five bounty hunters neck-reined their ill-looking horses to the side of the trail and then trotted them past the long straggling line of carnival wagons and folk. The men were sullen and suspicious as they all eyed the carnies, uncaring that they raised more unwelcome dust clouds to blanket the traveling troupe in their passage.
Jack's people stared and cursed as the five mounted men clattered past, eyeing them in a surly fashion. While no one knew what the passing men were about, word was already spreading that Ezra had had words with them to protect a stranger. A stranger who Ezra said was his cousin. The troupe buzzed with the news and conjecture.
Once the gang moved away, Ezra slumped a bit in relief, kneeling fully on the ground next to Vin Tanner who was unconsciousness once again. Gently, he wiped the drying blood from Vin's face and stared down at the man who owned his lover's heart.
A strong and handsome man, Vin Tanner, with the skills a cowman or hunter needed to survive and conquer wilderness. Ezra had always admired Vin as a most suitable specimen for success in this wild west that was their home. All six of the peacekeepers respected Vin's talents and knowledge, followed his lead in many things and treated him as an honored member of their group.
Ezra had watched Tanner's link to Chris Larabee become a firm bond from the beginning of the group's association. He had admired, and later envied, that bonding. Eventually he'd yearned to have a similar one with Chris. Instead, he'd had the man's body. Much as he enjoyed Chris in his bed or blanket, he wanted more and yet always suspected that Vin already occupied the rest of Chris - his attention, his spirit, his mind, and his love.
A touch at his shoulder broke Ezra's reverie. Looking away from Vin, he met Jack's worried eyes. "Ezra, who is he?"
With a shaky laugh, throwing off his painful thoughts, Ezra shrugged. "You heard, Jack. He's my cousin. He's also a good friend and a good man. Those cretins were mistaken." Ezra made sure that his voice sounded firm and full of conviction. Not even Jack would know the truth, it was too dangerous for Vin. Ezra trusted Jack and liked his people very much, but one wrong word, whispered in the wrong ears or even just overheard, could be a death warrant for Vin. He might be jealous of Tanner, but he also held him a close and true friend and could never betray that friendship in any way. So, for now, and until Vin could heal and leave, he would be Ezra's cousin Ven. A poor and panicked invention, but perhaps sufficient with the carnies' blind support.
Ezra essayed a smile that gradually became easier as he looked over Jack's shoulder to meet the bright eyes of Quinn O'Hara. "Just my cousin."
Quinn frowned down at the dark muddy spot nearly a full length from where Ezra's cousin still remained unconscious on the ground. Cautiously he touched it with a fingertip and brought the damp grit to his nose. The iron smell of blood, still damp, drew his frown deeper. Glancing over to where Jack stooped above Ezra, he called out, "Ezra? There's blood over here. I don't think it came from your cousin."
Ezra, who had just lowered Vin's shoulders back to the ground, gently easing his bandaged head onto the bundle of buckskin jacket, froze for a moment. Turning to stare at where Quinn O'Hara knelt on one knee on the trail, he eyed the dark patch of earth and then Quinn's raised finger, darkened with the tarry mud. He silently measured the distance from Vin Tanner's form to the other bloody spot. No, not Vin's. Not one of the bounty hunters. They would have crowed that out. He swallowed a sudden lump in his throat. Who would have been riding with Vin? And why was Vin alone when they found him? In frustration, he stared at the muddle of tracks that churned up the trail all around them. Certainly he could not decipher any story from the mess. He looked back over at O'Hara. Unlikely he could either. Not after those bounty hunters' passage.
"I don't know, Quinn. Maybe you're right, but until Ven wakes and can speak with us, there isn't any way to know."
Jack looked sharply at his friend. Ezra's voice sounded despairing. He straightened and clapped a hand on Standish's shoulder. "Ezra, let's get your cousin in one of the wagons, we need to move on to the evening campsite."
Quinn stood up and joined Jack and the two men bent together, one taking Tanner's shoulders, the other his legs at the knees. Lifting the limp body, they drew off to the side of the trail with Ezra following, Vin's hat and jacket held tightly to his chest in folded arms.
Vin slowly fought his way out of the darkness. His brain ached and thinking was difficult. He remembered seeing Ezra. Seeing a circle of faces, some looking friendly, others angry and ugly. Bounty hunters! Vin bolted upright, striking his head on something hard. He cried out softly in surprise and pain, one hand going to his head.
"Vin, calm down." Ezra's soft voice was close by.
Tanner swallowed hard and risked opening one eye. "Ez?" They were inside a wagon, of that he was fairly certain. The movements of the whole structure pretty much confirmed his fuzzy thought. "Where?"
"We are riding in a wagon, in a wagon train of carnival performers." Almost as an afterthought, Ezra added, "My friends."
Since when? Without speaking aloud, Vin wondered at this turn of events. He fingered the swath of bandaging around his head, thick over his brow. Wincing at the pain that pressure provoked, he closed his eyes and tried to remember what had happened. He had been riding to - where? Somewhere. Why? He'd gotten word from Chris about meeting up on the trail. Bacon's Corner. He tried to pin down his hazy thoughts.
"Vin?" Ezra lightly touched Vin's hand where it rested on the makeshift bedding. "We found more blood. Not yours. At the ambush site," Ezra tried to be encouraging even though he could see that his friend was confused.
"Blood?" Vin coughed and found a tin cup of water being pressed into his hand. Gratefully, he grasped it and raised it for several careful sips. Blinking his eyes again, he saw the inside of a modified Conestoga more clearly. The row of gaudy tights and sequined bits of clothing swung in decided jerks beside and above him, hanging from some sort of rack. The bright colors attracted him and he lost focus again.
"Mr. Tanner?" Ezra's hiss brought Vin back to the moment.
"Yeah?" Vin shook his head. Big mistake. The world swung wildly about, unconnected to the wagon's lurch and sway. The combination left him gasping in pain and fighting bile that rose uncomfortably from his stomach. "Oh, god." He bent over, only to feel strong hands catch him and guide him to lean over a wooden bucket. It was enough. He lost everything inside him over the next few minutes. He accepted a wet rag and wiped his mouth, spitting into it to clear the taste of his vomit.
Ezra eased his friend back to a semi-reclining position. "Vin, you have a bad concussion. You will be all right but it will take time. A bullet clipped your head. You are most fortunate to be alive at all, my friend."
Sighing, Vin sagged back on the pillows arranged behind his shoulders and head. "Don't remember much." He didn't try to shake his head again but did pause, trying to recall anything. He felt the bullet burn again just as he was hovering over - "Chris!" He jerked upright once more, then moaned as his body objected.
Ezra paled, biting his lower lip as he tried to support Tanner's now hunched form. "Chris?" His whisper sounded half-strangled even to his own ears.
"Yeah, he fell off his horse." Vin's voice was confused, dry and scratchy and he closed his eyes. "There was a lot of blood on his head, must have hit it when he fell."
Ezra tensed as he watched Tanner struggle to remember more. He wanted to hit something and scream out his fears. Chris was hurt out there somewhere. "Vin, please, try to think. Who did this? Where is Chris now?"
"I don't know, Ez. Never saw who it was. Chris was on the ground beside me when I got hit. That's the last I remember." Vin's voice faded as he slowly turned his head on the scratchy cotton sackcloth covering his pillow. He looked at the gambler. Ezra looked haunted, his face bleached of color, eyes huge in a drawn, too thin face. "Ez? You hurt too?"
"No, Vin. Just worried." Ezra gently patted the concussed man on his uninjured shoulder, then closed his eyes and leaned back against one of the struts that held up the canvas canopy above them. Chris was in trouble, he knew it. Vin was injured and needed protecting. What was he supposed to do? The pain in his heart only confused him more.
Chris shivered. The icy water ran over his body in rapid sheets as he lay mostly submerged in the bed of a mountain stream, only his face raised enough to keep his nose and mouth above the water. A sure hand held his head high enough so that he wouldn't drown. Chris stared helplessly up at a blue sky through the tops of pole pines, so tall and spindly that they seemed to be mop ends pointed skyward. The rush of cold water soothed his battered body, eased the pain in his side and was finally reducing the swelling of the side of his throat where Bockman had punched him viciously the day before.
Since then, he'd barely been able to breathe and been unable to speak, not that he'd say anything to the son of a bitch. If Bockman had hit his neck straight on, Larabee would have been dead by now and he knew it. For some reason, the old man didn't want Chris dead - yet.
Chris, with nothing to do but breathe and think, let his mind drift back to what had happened after his capture and beating.
When Bockman had realized how bad off Larabee was, he'd told his cook to look after him. Harvey, the cookie for the trail crew, had taken one look at the swelling, reddened tissue and shook his head. "Mr. Bockman, he ain't gonna keep breathing if we don't ice that neck. It'll puff right up and choke him off, just like he's been dancing a jig on the end of a rope."
Several of the men stirred uncomfortably as they stood or sat around the dry camp where their boss had dragged the killer of his sons. While they all sympathized with their trail boss, losing two sons must be tough, the drovers were not used to such violence against strangers and the thought of watching this one die at their feet didn't sit well at all.
Bockman, who'd been pacing, anger still high, had stopped and stared down at the curled up form of the dark-clad gunslinger. Frowning, he'd looked over at his cook. "We don't have any ice."
Possum, one of the scouts, spoke out. "We go up country," he nodded toward the tall mountains surrounding the valley to which they'd retreated from the ambush, "we can find a runoff. Likely be cold enough to feel like ice."
"That do it, Harvey?" Bockman had asked, dropping to crouch by the man whose breathing was a loud sawing sound, eyes squinted shut in pain.
"Yes sir, think it might work, but we'd have to go soon." Harvey had looked doubtfully over at the suffering prisoner. "Better put his hands in front of him, too, might ease the pull on his neck."
"Do it." Bockman pushed back up to his feet and looked around the circle of his men's wary faces. "We'll travel up country a bit. Any of you want to head home before I'm done with my business, go on." He flicked a look over at Possum. "Possum, I'll need you and," he looked consideringly at his crew, "Chandler and Marty." The two toughs were his least reliable men, but they were both mean-spirited and so probably better suited for what he had in mind.
There was a sense of relief, almost a sigh, from a good many of the men. With muttered apologies and farewells, the rest of the trail crew picked up the small items taken out for the dry camp stop and began to pack up. Bockman ignored them. He'd meet up with them later, back at the trailhead. The cattle herd that they had delivered to a rancher down here in the territories was already becoming a distant memory as he stared at the man who'd killed his sons, Ike and Tom.
Chris, twisted and aching on the ground, had been briefly released from the bindings on his wrists, his arms were wrenched painfully to the front where they were quickly retied. Not that he could have done much, between the ache to his head from what was likely a concussion, to the bullet wound, to the beating, it was all he could do to struggle for one more breath.
Blinking away the rapidly flowing water that passed over him now, he thought about it all and gritted his teeth. Too ornery to die yet, he decided.
Ezra slipped out of the back of the wagon and dropped to the ground. Morning found him stiff and tired. Vin was resting comfortably. Some patented mixture that Maryjane had produced finally let Tanner sleep. Ezra rubbed at his forehead, trying to fight off a headache from the strain of the last fifteen hours or so. Since finding Vin and discovering sign of a second man, Ezra's thoughts had been churning in fear. Although Vin had yet to be fully awake or cognizant, he'd said enough that Ezra was fairly certain the missing man was Chris Larabee. Standing in the dawn light, he bit his lip and began to worry it, gnawing at his troublesome fears and feeling of helplessness.
Quinn O'Hara slowly stood up from where he'd kept vigil through the night. Ezra had come to mean a lot to him. The attraction was strengthening as he admired how the man protected his cousin and then nursed the man so faithfully. Quinn wasn't afraid to go after what he wanted in life, but he'd never really wanted anyone the way he was growing to want the southerner. The man was beautiful, but that wasn't enough to keep O'Hara on the track like this, it had been the man's spirit and intellect that shone through, and now his grace and loyalty. Quinn began to think he might just be falling in love. Quietly, he approached his so far unrequited love.
Ezra straightened abruptly as two hands gripped his shoulders from behind.
"Easy there, Ezra. I just want to help you relax a bit."
Quinn's soft voice helped ease his panic. Nodding slowly, Ezra leaned back into the strong hands that began to massage his shoulders and neck, letting the tight muscles loosen and the strains ease off. Closing his eyes, he let himself drift under the caring hands of his friend.
"Feel better?" the warm, moist breath on his neck sent frissons of shock up and down Ezra's spine.
Dumbly, he nodded, his tension melting beneath the firm, careful hands on his shoulders, hands that were tracing the tension up his neck and pressing deeply to loosen it there. He wished silently that they were different pair of hands, then quashed his pointless wishing. The thoughts were quickly replaced, however, with fearful images of Chris hurt and alone, out there somewhere. He opened his eyes and stared up at the pale sky where dark silhouettes of birds in a loose cloud formation flew overhead, the faint sound of their cries like a tinkling on the air. Chris. The cry came from his heart but never left his lips.
Inside the wagon, Vin Tanner woke, feeling rested and alert, hearing the morning sounds of the wilderness close by. Swallowing harshly on a dry throat, he slit open his eyes and let his sight traverse the small wagon interior. He had vague memories of the night before, of Ezra hovering over him. Strangers, too, but ones that Ezra seemed to trust. With the silent movements of a survivalist, Tanner curled upward to a seated position and then rolled on up to his knees. Early light leaked through the open tailgate of the wagon and he could make out the shapes of more than one man there. The shorter one turned his head as if following something up in the sky. Ezra! He'd know his friend anywhere. But where was Chris?
Slowly, he crawled forward to the wide rear opening of the wagon, parting his lips to call out a greeting when a stranger's murmur stopped him.
"Ezra? Do you think you might reconsider my offer?"
Vin's eyes narrowed. Something in the tone was suggestive, almost pleading. What kind of offer? He waited.
"Quinn, I can't think right now. I have a cousin injured and a friend missing."
"About this friend," Quinn's voice paused, then continued, "how do you know that the missing man is your friend?"
"Ven and Chris travel together often. They are best friends. It is most likely."
So Chris is missing? Vin's hands formed fists, he frowned.
"Still, is that not Ven's affair?"
"His affair?" There was something in Ezra's voice that made Vin flinch, the pain that cut through the normally mellow southern tones cut so deeply that it sounded almost hoarse. Then Ezra spoke again. "Yes, you are correct. Chris is Ven's." A pause, and Vin could hear Ezra clear his throat softly. "But he is my friend, too. And he may be in serious trouble right now. As soon as Ven can help me, we will have to go and try to help Chris. Find him."
The answer from this 'Quinn' was so low that Vin couldn't make it out. He decided to interrupt. He was ready, they could leave now. He moved closer to the half-drawn cloth boundary of the wagon's gate, lifting a hand to push aside the curtain. What he saw made him hesitate. Ezra wasn't just standing with the other man, he was in the man's arms, or at least held from behind as the man stroked his neck and shoulders in caresses that seemed too damn full of liberty, to Vin. This ain't what Chris would be expecting.
Vin took a deep breath and let out a large, loud yawn, clambering out now with thumpy movements and clumpy sounds. "Aye! Ez? You out there?" By the time he'd stuck his head out the back, Ezra and the other man were standing a respectable distance from each other and Ezra greeted Vin with a relieved smile.
"Ven! You're awake." Standish rushed up to Vin and grabbed his arms, pressing close to whisper quickly, "Remember you are my cousin 'Ven!'" Then he leaned back, still holding on to Tanner and smiled more broadly. "You look much better!" Green eyes flashed to Tanner's head wound, "How do you feel?"
Vin answered bluntly, "Like shit." He broke contact with Standish by twisting so he could swing his legs around and out of the wagon, then he slid forward, and dropped to the ground. The next few moments did not go as planned. The world swung around and the edges of his sight blurred and darkened.
"Ven!" And Ezra was there, catching him and holding him upright. "Here, sit down." Ezra eased Vin onto the flap of wooden tailgate that served as a boost step up into the wagon, and now could do for a perch.
Tanner slumped against the boxy backend of the wagon and sighed, eyes closing as his hand went up to lightly probe his head. "Hurts a might."
"I would think it does." That was that Quinn's voice, only louder and more 'normal.'
Vin's blue eyes snapped open and up to see the man facing him, taller that Standish, about Chris Larabee's height, but with smooth, raven black hair and interested, dark eyes. Ladies would say he was handsome, too, Vin imagined. Tanner grimaced, only partly in pain. This couldn't be good.
"We keep just out of sight, follow nice and easy and wait." Acorn's words echoed in Jim Hansey's memory. Hansey, Acorn and their three friends, Morse, Upton, and Kendal, had been hunting bounty from the Mississippi to the Colorado. Right here in the Territories, they'd already counted at least six bounties and were nearly ready to head northeast back toward Nebraska.
Only one bounty left that they'd been aiming for, that Vin Tanner feller. Thought they'd found him until the smooth talker in the carnival wagon train claimed the man as a cousin. Mighty fishy. They'd been trailing a bunch of drovers with loud mouths who'd let drop that a man named Chris Larabee was headed toward Eagle Bend through a small pass in the foothills. Their boss had it in for this gunslinger, Larabee, for some reason and the whole bunch were talking ambush. Talking loud and nervous, like no one would give a care that their words might be heard.
John Acorn swore he'd heard that Larabee used Tanner as a tracker in some hick town down this way. So they'd decided to follow behind the old man and his loud-mouthed crew. The drovers were early risers, though, and had gotten ahead of them. By the time Hansey, Acorn and the rest had made it to the pass, all they found was an arriving wagon train and one downed rider. Jim was certain it was Tanner but the carnies at the front of the lead wagons insisted the man was one of theirs.
Hansey switched his chaw from one cheek pocket to the other, ignoring a bit of brown juice that dripped down his lip and burrowed through his badly stained salt and pepper beard. Looked like the waiting might be paying off. The man they figured was really Tanner just popped out of the rear of a wagon and was talking with those two men they'd met yesterday and faced off. With a huff, Jim Hansey pushed up on creaky knees and staggered off, back to the low camp below the ridge they were using as cover. Time to let John know that their bounty was out in the open again.
Clarence Bockman was feeling his age. With both his best boys gone, it was hard to think of the future. His work as a trail boss was becoming harder each year as his bones felt the cold and wet, as the ache of a full day's ride in the saddle became harder to ignore, and as he gazed at younger and younger men working for him. With Ike and Tom dead, the purpose and energy had left his life. Those boys from his first wife were head-strong and sharp, vying for his approval and attention in all things. A sad smile pulled at his mouth for a brief moment as he stared into space, sipping coffee from a tin mug. Ike was the meaner one, much like his mother had been.
Bockman eased his legs out in front of him as he sat on his saddle in front of the small campfire. Possum was still out scouting for a way back out of the high pines. Now that it looked like Larabee would live, the old trail boss was anxious to track down his remaining son, a stepson really, but still, a son he thought of as his own. If Clarence could get the boy to come back to him, he still had time to start the ranch he'd always dreamed of owning. With a son, it was worthwhile. If his son would help him with Larabee, then the boy could prove his salt and drop his pansy ways. They'd finally be a family.
His gaze shifted over to where his cook, Harvey, had been trying to force some water down Larabee's throat. The man was a shivering mess. Clarence hid a grin behind his mug. Served the bastard right. The high and mighty gunslinger was hunched over on the ground, shaking uncontrollably with cold after being dowsed repeatedly in a freezing, fresh water mountain stream. Bockman's cook said the harsh treatment had worked at bringing down the swelling of a throat so abused that it had threatened to cut off the man's air. Bockman lost his small grin as he thought about his own actions. His fury had nearly lost him an opportunity to bring Larabee to proper justice and bring his last son back to Bockman. Once he'd had a chance to think, he'd calmed down and let the cook help Larabee. Keep the man alive until Clarence's son could be the one to kill him. It was only right.
Chris felt Bockman's calculating eyes on him. He didn't bother looking over at the old man relaxing by the campfire. Right now, he just concentrated on trying to find a spark of warmth within his own body. Despite a larger fire built up in front of him, he couldn't seem to feel it. Of course, the wet clothing he still wore didn't help any. Another involuntary shiver, so violent that it rattled his teeth, ran through his body. His wandering attention, slipping in and out of focus, drifted to his missing lover. Ezra. How could things go so wrong? He regretted the likelihood of never being able to see the man again, speak to him, clear up their troubles and kiss him silly. He nearly smiled for a moment and tried to shake his head to free his hair from dripping down into his eyes, but it was plastered there in wet strands and clumps and defied his efforts. At least he could breathe fairly easily again. Somewhere out there, Ezra was safe from all this. Maybe it was better this way. He didn't bother to test the ropes that bound his hands, the rough hemp had already stripped skin in patches from his wrists and the stickiness of blood was drying on his hands and between his fingers now.
The only thing he couldn't figure out was why he was still alive. Bockman's anger had been elemental, battering at him as he floundered from his concussion and shoulder wound. Now the shoulder was bandaged and his head was finally clearing. He had thought he was dying when the man punched him in the throat. Cautiously, he bent his neck and the spasms that had gripped it did not reappear, only stiffness and ache. He guessed the cold water had done that. But why? Bockman wanted him dead. So, why was he still alive?