And in a side note, that is the worst summery I’ve ever written.
I am cover in shame because of it.
The man on the floor writhed in erratic, spastic motions as his life bled away from the ragged wound in his throat. Choked gurgles fell brokenly from his lips, accompanied by bubbles of blood that swelled and burst as he struggled for air.
The killer stared down at him, eyes taking in every movement with the interest of a man who is seeing a project completed after years of work. He watched avidly as his victim's movements came slower and slower, as the blood began to dribble ever more thickly from his paling lips. While there was still light in the fallen man's eyes, the killer leant down and deliberately wiped his gore-spattered blade on the dying man's clothing, cleaning away the final traces of crime before sheathing his knife and concealing it once more in his clothing.
A final choking struggle for life and then the bleeding man was dead, awareness gone from his eyes and his limbs heavy with the bonelessness of death. The killer immediately lost all interest in him. Vengeance had been exacted; the dead man no longer mattered. All that mattered th him now was finding the two men who were left, the final men on the list of the guilty who still had to pay for their crimes against him, suffer for his suffering, pay as he had been forced to pay.
Leaving the body behind him in the dirt, the killer strode out of the
alley and into the night. It was time to move on, move west and finish
his mission. The General would be no challenge to find. That
old man would die in harness, working for his precious army and refusing
to accept the fact that time had moved past him and rendered him useless.
The challenge would be in finding the silver-tongued bastard who'd got
him into this mess in the first place. No doubt the coward would
be hiding in the shadows out west,
running away from the crimes he'd committed during the war and must have continued to commit after it, desperately trying to avoid the justice he could sense seeking him out.
Let him hide. The killer untethered his horse and quietly rode out of town. His time had come, and the coward would no longer be able to hide from vengeance.
The time had come for Captain Ezekiel Sanders to die.
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
Ezra pretended he hadn't heard the voice. He kept his eyes closed and his hat pulled low over them as he lounged in the chair outside the sheriff’s office. The gentle warmth of the spring day had soaked through his clothes and into his skin, leaving him pleasantly relaxed and just on the edge of drowsy. He wanted to enjoy the soft breeze over his fingers and the relative quiet of the day.
Too bad other people had other plans.
"The gods help them who help themselves." JD paused after reciting the saying, waiting for a response.
Ezra wasn't going to give him one. He'd considered the conversation over when he'd left JD's office, so he felt no real need to answer. He sank more deeply into the chair, sighing in pleasure as more tension left him under the sun's ministrations.
This time it was Buck's voice that broke the silence. "The grasshopper sleeps alone in his bed while the ant has hot sex every night."
Tilting his head back so he could see under the brim of it, Ezra glared mildly at the tall man. "That isn't a moral to any of the fables of Aesop."
"It should have been," Buck countered. "Ez, come on. Me and JD are just trying to help."
"Help? You gentlemen are not helping. You have given in to that most insufferable of traits of the newly in love: wanting everyone else to be in love as well. I would have expected the pair of you to show more restraint and control the urge to match make, but so far I have been disappointed." Ezra lowered his head and closed his eyes once more. "We have discussed this already. The matter is closed."
"But Ezra..." The confusion was thick in JD's voice. "If you love him, why don't you even want to try?"
"No, Mr. Dunne. I don't want to try. Nor do I wish to speak
of this any longer." He'd just spent the past half hour trying to
convince JD and Buck to let the matter rest, but obviously his arguments
had failed to make any real impression. He felt some irritation at
their persistence, but was surprised to find that it didn't really bother
him. They might be pushy, but they were pushing him because they
were his friends and wanted to see him
happy. There were worse motivation people could have. It might have been the lethargy so often brought by the sun that was keeping him calm, but he doubted it. He'd finally made his peace with the idea of staying in Four Corners. The urge to move on to a city had left him. A busy urban area might present him with more opportunities to gain a greater amount of wealth, but the impetus to grow rich had slowly become less of a driving force in his life. He now valued the easy familiarity of the small town, the true
sense of community and knowledge that he would recognize all the faces he encountered on the street. He was a part of a larger community here, known and recognized in turn. Even more importantly, he was a member of a close group of colleagues and friends. He had found companionship that he had once believed he was destined never to feel again. It was more than he had ever expected out of life and he was willing to stay in Four Corners so that his happiness there could continue.
Even if his friends were pushy bastards.
"You helped us get together," JD said softly. "I just want to return the favor."
Deciding that he may have been overly harsh with his last comments,
Ezra forced himself to sit up and look at his friends. JD was watching
anxiously, while Buck merely looked concerned. The green-eyed man
couldn't keep the smile from his face. The two men looked *right*
together. It hadn't taken much effort on his part to get them to
realize that they were meant to be with each other. A few hints to
Buck about JD's entirely fictional interest in a ranch hand who'd been
visiting town had been more than enough to make
Buck possessive and territorial. All that had been needed after that was to allow JD to "discover" an old-looking letter in a book the young man had borrowed that was a love letter from a man who was no more than a figment of Ezra's imagination. JD had been embarrassed and then intrigued, and he had sought out Ezra, looking for information. Ezra had only been too happy to spin tales of a fictional romance for the younger man, firing his imagination and priming him for Buck's attentions.
For a man so adept at manipulating human emotion and action, the whole thing had been rather elementary. Despite its simplicity, Ezra doubted he'd ever been so satisfied with any con he'd run before. The last of his irritation drained away as he watched them together and he didn't even try to fight the smile that crossed his lips.
"I do appreciate that, Mr. Dunne," he said, pleased to see JD relax. "And while I am touched by your concern, I must repeat to you once more that while your offers of help are appreciated, they are also unnecessary. My situation is very different from your own, and no amount of help, no matter how generously offered, will do any good."
"I think you're being a mite pessimistic," Buck said.
Ezra laughed and even he could hear the lack of humor in the sound. "The man is your best friend, Mr. Wilmington. Can you honestly say that I'm wrong?"
The way Buck glanced down at his boots was all the answer Ezra needed. He hoped that this conversation would be the last that they had on the subject. Ever since he'd been careless one night after over-indulging in his private stock of scotch and JD had seen him gazing in open longing at Chris, the two of them had been begging for a chance to play matchmaker for him. He was growing weary of refusing them, but he wasn't going to relent. There was no way anything could ever come of his emotions.
Ezra knew that falling in love with Chris had been a foolish loss of
control on his part, but it didn't seem to be one that he was able to correct.
He wasn't going to act on them. It was obvious that the gunslinger
did not return his feelings. Chris had come to terms with Ezra's
presence in town. The stolid tolerance and dislike had softened into something
that felt very close to friendship. Ezra knew he was lucky beyond
what he had any right to expect in gaining even this much and he wasn't
going to do anything to
jeopardize it. Besides, he knew how foolish it was as a rule to get involved with someone with whom one worked closely. JD and Buck were the exception; their connection couldn't be denied. For Ezra, though, he knew how quickly friendships could deteriorate and trust disappear when lust went uncontrolled.
Relaxing back down into his chair, Ezra admitted to himself that he probably wouldn't pursue anyone else, either. He didn't have much hope left inside of him; life had burned most of that fragile faith out of him. He wasn't going to waste what he had left on foolish chances that would leave him empty. Impossible dreams were called impossible for a reason. Ezra was a quick student; he had learned that lesson well and didn't need to have it repeated.
The sound of hoof beats came to his ears. All horses, so not a misguided cattle drive, but too many to be a family coming in from an outlying ranch. "Are we about to have visitors? And are they the sort I should rise in order to properly greet?"
"You might want to salute," Buck said. "Looks like the army's come to town."
"I'll stay seated, thank you." Ezra tipped his hat back a tad so he could see the street. "I was never one for wearing a uniform." Soldiers in dusty uniforms rode down the main street. There weren't many of them, perhaps twenty in total as they traveled in loose formation down the street.
"Do you think we should tell Chris?" JD's eyes were a little wide as he took in all the uniforms and insignia.
"Nah," Buck said. "Soldiers won't make much trouble."
Buck was right. Soldiers rarely meant much trouble for a small town. Officers were usually quite diligent about patrolling their own, controlling their men and keeping the peace without involving the local law at all. Soldiers also meant business. They'd buy things in the stores, spend money in the saloons, and gamble willingly with professionals and town folk both. Ezra was going to have a good night at the tables.
Rising to his feet, Ezra stretched indulgently, waking up resting muscles. "I must take my leave of you gentlemen. Tonight promises to be most profitable and there are some preparations that I must make to take full advantage of my good fortune."
"Now, Ez," Buck said warningly, "Don't you go bankrupting the army. That would be just plain unpatriotic."
"Mr. Wilmington, you have nothing to fear. I will use care and discretion, and allow every man in a uniform to leave my table with money in his pocket." Ezra wasn't going to make any promises about how much money each man would have, but he wouldn't bankrupt them. A soldier's life was not an easy one and Ezra could be merciful.
He walked across the street with his usual saunter, not able to hurry. The sun still held him in its lethargic grip and he was in no hurry to leave its warmth. He nodded a little to himself as a few of the soldiers dismounted in front of the general store. Four Corners could use some fresh money in its pockets. He would definitely go easy on the soldiers, if only to guarantee that they had enough money to spend with the merchants in town.
He finished his trek across the street and walked along the crude sidewalk, headed for the saloon. Before he reached the doors, he heard someone approach him from behind.
"Captain Sanders, is that you? Captain Ezekiel Sanders?"
With eight words, Ezra's world was blown apart.
Chris handed the reins of his horse over to the hostler with an absently muttered word of thanks. His attention was focused on the men on the street in front of him. He'd noticed the dust cloud raised by the soldiers while he was still out of town. It had prompted him to cut his patrol short and head back into Four Corners; a party large enough to raise a noticeable cloud was something he wanted to be in town to greet and examine. He'd relaxed a bit when he realized the men were soldiers. An army patrol rarely caused as much trouble in town as a rowdy group of cowhands just coming off a long drive, but they were strangers in his town and he was going to check them out. Predictably, most of them were heading for the saloon first off. Chris could well understand that impulse.
A flash of red caught his attention, drawing an unconscious smile from him. Amid the dusty blue jackets of the visiting soldiers, Ezra's pristine coat stood out like a beacon. Once his attention had been diverted to the gambler, Chris found himself very reluctant to shift it elsewhere. He kept his gaze upon Ezra as he walked the rest of the way into town, enjoying the way the sun glinted off strands of gold and auburn hair, admiring the easy grace of the other man's walk. He caught himself doing this a lot lately - losing himself in the quiet enjoyment of watching Ezra. It was alarmingly easy to do.
Chris wasn't a man given to much introspection. He could fall into a melancholy fit of brooding when he'd had enough to drink, but he never thought about himself during those times. He saved his drunken focus for the past. This instinctual interest in Ezra was forcing him to take a long look at himself, to try to understand from where these new thoughts and feelings were coming.
It was hard to believe that he'd started out barely able to stand the man when he first met him. He'd had a certain amount of respect for Ezra's casual fearlessness, for the easy way he made the impossible seem possible...even when it was just a con. One had to admire that level of sheer gall, if nothing else. Chris hadn't thought the man trust-worthy, though, not even after his return to the Seminole village. Sure, Ezra could have easily kept on riding, leaving them to die - but he could have also never left in the first place, rendering the whole debate moot. Chris had made sure the gambler had known he was on probation, that he wasn't going to be trust implicitly but rather through necessity, at least until he had proved himself. Chris hadn't seriously believed the man would be able to pass the test. He'd expected Ezra to make a break for it within the first few weeks, and then after the first month, and then after the second month...but over a year had passed and Ezra was still here. Hell, the man had more of a stake in the town than any of them, investing his money in local ranches and saving up to buy the saloon.
Chris wasn't sure when he'd stopped waiting for Ezra to finally run
out on them. He didn't really give the possibility any thought any
longer. Ezra was a part of life in Four Corners, an integral part
of their peace-keeping group, and an increasingly necessary part of Chris's
life. The gunslinger didn't feel as though his day had truly begun
until Ezra had wandered down out of his room, hair brushed to perfection
as he took command of the saloon once more. After a particularly
bad cold snap the past winter, Nathan had
ordered Ezra to stay in bed for a few days to make sure the nasty cold he'd been fighting didn't become something more serious. The fact that Ezra agreed was a good indication of how bad off he'd really been. Those few days, during which Chris never saw Ezra, made him realize how much he looked forward to catching sight of the man each day.
Ezra was a friend now. They didn't share the past like he and
Buck did, or easy communication like he and Vin, but his distrust of the
gambler had melted away under the warmth of gradual liking and growing
respect. He'd welcomed that change, was glad to find it in himself.
Their group went beyond colleagues. They fought and bled and hurt
and killed for each other. That made them brothers. Of course,
the way he felt when he looked at Ezra didn't exactly qualify as brotherly
anymore. It was a surprise. more than being a shock. Before
he met Sarah, Chris had taken affection where he could find it, in the
arms of women and men both. He'd thought he'd left that part of
himself behind after he'd married, that it was something he'd outgrown.
He'd been wrong. It wasn't just lust, either. Lust he could put down to loneliness, to being too much on his own since Sarah had died. Lust would explain the way he enjoyed the sight of Ezra walking away, the way he watched the other man's hands with almost greedy interest...but lust couldn't explain the way Ezra's laugh could make his day start anew, erasing the bad that had come before and lightening his entire outlook. Lust couldn't explain his need to keep Ezra in view, to be sure of the other man's continued safety and happiness in Four Corners.
Chris hurried his steps, wanting to reach Ezra as soon as the other
man entered the saloon, if not before. Once Ezra was inside, he'd
no doubt be quickly drawn into a game of poker with entertainment-seeking
soldiers and Chris would lose his chance to talk to him. The gunslinger
wasn't quite ready to reveal anything to Ezra about his feelings.
He knew that Ezra enjoyed his friendship, knew that they got along, but
he didn't want to risk
revealing too much and pushing the gambler away. Sometimes he'd thought that he'd caught the other man watching him, had seen a hungry gleam in green eyes that was always quickly hidden when he moved to face Ezra directly, but he couldn't be certain. He needed more time talking to Ezra, more time sounding out the other man before he could be sure it was safe to say anything.
He walked around a few soldiers, nodding shortly if one happened to catch his eye but not pausing to speak to anyone. There would be time for that later. For right now, he needed to see Ezra, hear him speak and maybe even coax a smile from him. He returned Buck's nod by raising his chin in recognition, and couldn't help returning JD's grin. JD had matured quite a bit since joining with them. He’d had to - it was either grow up or die in their world. There was still something fresh about him, though. Maybe it was his optimism. Whatever it was, Chris couldn’t resist it or the smile it pulled from him.
He kept to his course. He wanted to talk to Ezra before he lost the other man to the lure of the poker table and the profits that it promised. Ezra would readily leave off gambling if Chris or any of the rest of the Seven needed his help, but Chris couldn’t bring himself to admit that he needed to see the gambler, needed to speak to him.
Ezra had already stepped up onto the sidewalk by the time Chris got within speaking distance of him. The gunslinger gathered his thoughts and prepared to hail Ezra and get his attention. Before he could, one of the solder stepped into Ezra’s path, peering into the gambler’s face with an expression of utter disbelief. “Captain Sanders, is that you? Captain *Ezekiel* Sanders?”
Chris watched disbelievingly as Ezra missed a step. Ezra was never that clumsy, never that out of control. The green-eyed man stepped away from the soldier, placing distance between them as he brushed dust that wasn’t there from the sleeve of his jacket. “Sir, I do apologize. I fear there may have been some sort of misunderstanding. I am not the man for whom you’re looking.” Ezra nodded shortly and stepped around the soldier.
The uniformed man was no dissuaded by Ezra’s denial. he shook his head. “Captain Sanders, I know it’s been years and there’s no reason for you to remember me. I remember you, though, sir. My name is Robert Lark and ten years ago I was a terrified kid who’s company had been caught behind enemy lines. You and your men -”
“Once again, I must apologize for this misunderstanding,” Ezra said, interrupting Lark. “But I am not the man you think I am.”
“I could never forget the man who save my life!” Lark raised his hand in entreaty. “Listen to me, please. Sir, the Army needs you -”
“Captain Sanders is dead,” Ezra said sharply, closing his eyes for a brief moment. “He died ten years ago, and your army is what killed him. This line of conversation is over and if you attempt to pursue it further I will dissuade you by any and all means necessary. Have I made myself clear?” He didn’t wait for a reply; he just walked past the stunned soldier and made his way into the saloon.
Chris stood frozen in the street. What the hell had just happened? The soldier’s, Lark’s, words were a puzzle in and of themselves, but it was Ezra’s reaction that had Chris utterly bewildered. Ezra rarely became angry and never to the degree that had happened just now. What was more, no matter how angry Ezra became, he never lost his temper badly enough that he became rude. Interrupting Lark and going so far as to threaten the man was wildly out of character. Ezra must have been tremendously upset.
Unable to stand out in the street any longer, Chris quickly entered the saloon. In doing so he walked past Lark, who stood utterly still in the street, staring in the direction, Ezra had gone. Chris promised himself that he’d deal with the soldier later, but for right now he had more important concerns. He half-expected to have to go to Ezra’s room and dig the green-eyed man out of hiding. Instead, he found Ezra at his usual table, idly shuffling a deck of cards as though nothing had happened. Truly worried now, Chris stepped up to the table and rested his hands on the back of a chair. “Ezra?” Since when had he ever sounded so hesitant? “Is everything all right?”
“But of course, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra replied easily. “Are you perhaps looking for a game?” He glanced up at Chris with a welcoming smile.
No. This wasn’t right. Chris hadn’t imagined Ezra’s reactions outside just moment before, his shock or his rage. He looked closely at Ezra, refusing to be fooled by the diffident, careless attitude. He’d spent enough time watching Ezra to be able to look past the surface and see the truth. The gambler’s lips might have been upturned in a smile, but that smile didn’t reach his eyes. Nothing showed in his eyes, not the intense emotions he’d revealed earlier, not the ease which the gambler wished to project. Ezra was a master of concealing his thoughts and feelings. Chris was still learning how to read him, and while he couldn’t discern Ezra’s true emotions, he could tell that Ezra was definitely hiding them. There was a new tension to the set of the seated man’s shoulders, tension Chris knew hadn’t been there before.
“Ezra, I overheard what happened outside,” Chris admitted.
It barely made Ezra pause. “A most inconvenient case of mistaken identity,” he said dismissively. “I am sure that the man has realized his error and that the matter will now be closed.” His attention shifted to his cards. “I have no wish to be rude, sir, but if you do not intend to join me in a game, I do fear your presence will prove to be a hindrance to me attracting willing opponents.”
Chris let his hands slip to his sides. He couldn’t push Ezra about this. The man could be even more mule stubborn than Josiah and Chris would just be starting a fight he couldn’t win. He’d have to approach Ezra later in a more private setting if he wanted to have any luck. “No offense taken, Ezra,” he said, forcing his tone to be light. “Maybe I’ll join in the game later.”
“It would be my pleasure, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra said softly, an honest smile touching his lips as he looked back up at Chris.
Warmed even though his worrying, Chris smiled back. “I’ll make a point of trying, then,” he said as a farewell as he left the saloon.
Back on the street, Chris forced his concern for Ezra to the back of his mind. He knew he wasn’t going to be able to forget it, but he could work around it. He needed to check in with JD and Buck and see how things were in town while he was patrolling, then check on Mary Travis and assure her that the soldiers would be no trouble. She tended to get a mite excited about strangers in town. He couldn’t blame her - she’d learned to be that way through experience and had every right.
He wasn’t going to forget what he’d heard, though. He wasn’t blind to the implications of the name ‘Ezekiel Sanders’. This was a mystery that he wouldn’t, that he couldn’t, let go. And if Ezra wasn’t going to talk to him, then Lark was.
One way or another, Chris was going to get some answers.
Ezra murmured apologies to the men at the table, but he refused all entreaties to reconsider as he gathered his meager winnings and left the table. His concentration had been shattered and he was barely maintaining control of the game. He despised so-called gamblers who played in such a fashion. If one was a professional, then one relied on skill and control to win the game. Luck was for amateurs.
Luck was the only thing that had kept Ezra in the game thus far and he couldn’t rely on it any longer. He refused to play in such a manner any longer. It was detrimental to his chosen career path and unfair to the men who faced him. They came to him expecting an exciting game and also to be entertained and he had been failing them in both respects. With a final apology he walked away from the table and headed up the stairs, needing the privacy and security of his own room.
With the door shut, he allowed his facade of calm to fall away. He removed his jacket and folded it over his chair, then sank down onto the bed. What the hell was he going to do? He’d never expected the past to come back like this. That part of his life was over. It had died with Ezekiel Sanders, never to rise or haunt him again.
The walls of his bedroom seemed very close, threatening rather than comforting. The familiar urge to run was rising up within him, the need to run and escape the danger that had found him. Before coming to Four Corners, that was exactly what he would have done. Pack up his favorite clothing and a few books, make arrangements for the sale of the rest, and be out of town by dawn. He’d done it dozens of times before. He could do it again...no, he couldn’t. This dusty little town was his home and he didn’t want to leave it. He had acquaintances and friends, men he called colleagues and loved like brothers. And though he knew his feelings for Chris were foolish and futile, the thought of going through life without ever seeing the blond man again was one he didn’t want to have to face.
Squaring his shoulders, Ezra forced himself to think. If he wasn’t going to run, then what was he going to do? Closing his eyes to help himself focus, the green-eyed man considered his options. He could speak to Lark, try to persuade the soldier that he’d made a mistake...but that would perhaps show too much interest in the supposed mistake and could bring more attention to himself. Lark claimed Ezra had saved his life; Ezra might be able to trade on that and convince the other man to leave him alone. He would be throwing himself on the mercy of the soldier, though, and Ezra had no reason to trust him. His best option was to continue on the course that he had already set; deny being Ezekiel Sanders and insist upon being left alone. In a few days, the patrol unit would be moving on and the problem would fade away, once again buried by time.
Lark had said something about the Army needing his help, but Ezra couldn’t make himself care. He owed the Army nothing. Nothing. He’d given the Army three years of his life and in return he’d had the soul burned out of him; he’d ridden away with nothing except the crushing weight of guilt on his shoulders that it had taken him years to learn to lay down. He didn’t like to think about the years right after the war much. He’d been a shadow, drifting from town to town as he slowly learned to let go of the hate and the pain. His time in Four Corners had nearly completely the healing process for him; he’d discovered that he was still able to trust. He wasn’t going to put himself through that kind of hell again, especially not for the organization that had damned him in the first place.
Ezekiel Sanders...Ezra hadn’t expected to ever hear that name again. He’d left all traces of that life behind, in effect burying the man he’d been during the war. Sanders had been murdered, not by Ezra’s hand, but by those of the people who’d destroyed everything he’d held dear, everything that had made his life worth living. The ghosts of old emotions stirred within him: rage, helplessness, utter despair. He breathed deeply, willing them to dissipate. They couldn’t change the past, could do nothing for the men who’d been betrayed and buried years ago. He had to focus on the present, focus on protecting the life he now had and the men he now knew. Above all, he must protect the six men he called brothers in the privacy of his own heart. Protect them as he hadn’t been able to protect the men he’d known before...
Shaking himself, Ezra stood. As tempting as hiding in his room was, it would do nothing to allay Lark’s suspicions and would only arouse those of his colleagues. He couldn’t indulge his own cowardice. Pulling his jacket on once more, he headed back down to the saloon. He had no plans to join in another game tonight; his concentration was still shot and he would not settle for sloppy competition from himself. He could still walk through the streets of the town, greet acquaintances and share a drink at the bar, be seen and shore up the facade of confidence that had been damaged earlier.
He was hyper-aware of the crowd in the saloon as he descended the stairs. Two sets of eyes tracked his every movement; Lark from the bar, and Chris from a table he shared with Vin and JD. Steadfastly ignoring the soldier, Ezra made his way over to Chris’s table. “Good evening, gentlemen. I trust this night finds all of you well?”
“Doin’ all right,” Vin agreed. “Pull up a chair and join us.”
Signaling the bartender to brink him a drink, Ezra sat down. “I have been occupied for a portion of this evening with personal matters. Has everything been quiet?”
“Yeah,” Chris said. “No fights yet, and I don’t think there will be any. Some of the laughter’s been a bit rowdy, but there’s no law against that.” He looked at Ezra carefully. “How are you doing?”
Chris’s concern warmed Ezra mightily, doing more to sooth his tension than the drink he’d just received. “I am well, Mr. Larabee.” For the first time in hours, a genuine smile crossed his face.
“Ezra?” JD frowned as he leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Ezra, there’s a soldier who’s been staring at you since you came down.”
Ezra didn’t need to turn around to know who it was. “I am aware of his attention, Mr. Dunne. Please don’t concern yourself with it. It’s a simple misunderstanding that will soon blow over and be forgotten.”
“I don’t know,” Chris said. “Out on the street, he seemed pretty sure of himself.”
“Those who are mistaken often are,” Ezra said easily. “He has been told the error of his ways. No doubt he will accept it given just a little time.” He could feel Lark’s gaze on the back of his neck, the attention an unpleasant itch that he wanted gone. He ignored it, unwilling to give the man any sort of encouragement.
“If you need any kind of help with it...” Chris offered hesitantly.
“I will come to you first,” Ezra said, while at the same time promising himself that he would do no such thing. His past was his own, his problems his own. He wasn’t going to drag these men into difficulties that were not of their making. All he had to do was wait out the patrol’s stay in Four Corners and all this would be an unpleasant memory. He didn’t acknowledge Chris’s worried glance or the way Vin was watching him with eyes that said he didn’t believe Ezra’s promise for a moment but was willing to go along with him right now. Tossing back the rest of his drink, Ezra rose from the table. “I must take my leave of you gentlemen. Enjoy the rest of your evening.”
He walked out into the night, intending to do a final patrol of Four Corners before he headed for bed. It would help his peace of mind as far as security went and the cool evening air would help him clear his head. The streets were empty. The natives of Four Corners usually went to bed with the sun and the soldiers that were still awake had congregated in the saloon. Ezra embraced the silence, allowing his thoughts to roam in the quiet. Everything was going to be all right. The patrol would move on and Ezra could get back to his life.
“Captain Sanders?” A soft voice broke into his thoughts.
Ezra forced himself to keep walking, not pausing at all to acknowledge the hail.
“Please, sir.” Footsteps sounded as Lark followed him. “I need to speak to you. It’s a matter of your safety, sir!”
With a sigh, Ezra turned to face the soldier. “I have made my distaste for this conversation more than clear. I cannot believe that you intend to persist in this.”
Lark shook his head. “I don’t understand you. I’m trying to tell you that your help is needed, that your life might be in danger, and all you want to do is deny who you are. Sir, what I want to tell you is important.”
“I’m sure it is important to you,” Ezra said, dropping all pretense
of patience or interest. “But try to understand this. I am
not Ezekiel Sanders. The war is over and so is that life. My
name is Ezra Standish. I am a resident of this town with no interest
in anything that concerns the Army. Any obligation Sanders had to
the Army died with him. I care nothing for your warnings or your
need for help. You claim to feel gratitude toward Sanders.
If that is at all true, then leave me alone, then leave this town and forget
anything that you think you have found.” He stared hard at Lark for
a moment more, then walked away, never noticing Chris listening in the
shadows of a nearby alley.
After living out west for a few years a man came to understand secrets. The land itself held secrets, just waiting to be discovered by the man who had the courage to cross the next ridge and see what lay on the other side. Most of the people who came to fill the land carried their own secrets with them. Chris concealed secrets of his own within his heart and he respected the right of others to do the same. A man’s business was his own, as were his secrets. It was a code Chris lived by and one he was loath to violate.
The time had come to do so, however. As much as Chris wanted to preserve Ezra’s right to privacy, he couldn’t stand by any longer. He’d left the saloon when Lark did, intent on protecting Ezra if necessary from any further harassment. He knew the gambler was capable of handling himself in almost any situation, but Chris wasn’t going to leave him without backup. He’d hung back in the shadows, ready interpose but waiting until he was certain he was needed. When Lark told Ezra that his life was in danger and Ezra ignored him, Chris knew that he couldn’t pretend that he hadn’t heard anything. If Ezra’s life was on the line then Chris was damn well going to do something about it, and the others were going to help.
Walking swiftly back the saloon, Chris stopped by Vin and JD’s table briefly, asking them to gather everyone except Ezra and meet him in JD’s office. Ignoring their questions, he left just ask quickly as he’d arrived. He needed to find Lark before the soldier had time to bed down in the hotel or worse, goad Ezra into shooting him. Fortunately, he found the man easily.
Lark was sitting on a bench, staring blindly down at his hands. He glanced up at Chris’s approach. “Is there something you want?”
“Yeah. To talk to you.” He didn’t give the soldier a chance to refuse. “About Ezra.”
Hesitating for only a moment, Lark nodded and rose to his feet. “All right. He’s not going to listen to me. Maybe you can get him to listen to you.” He followed Chris willingly to the sheriff’s office, where the rest of the Seven awaited them.
Chris didn’t waste time with introductions or social niceties. “This is Lark. I heard him tell Ezra that his life is in danger, so I asked him to come here and explain himself.”
Lark glanced around at the six men facing him a little nervously. “I have to know one thing first. Why do you care? Are you friends of Captain Sanders?”
“*Standish*.” Chris insisted. “And yeah, we’re his friends, which is why I don’t take kindly to hearing him threatened.”
“I wasn’t threatening him! I was just trying to warn him.”
“Warn him about what?” Josiah asked. “How is Ezra in danger?”
“I’m guessing you don’t know much about his past,” Lark said. “Leastwise, not about what he did during the war.”
“He’s never talked about it,” Buck said. “Course, a lot of men don’t talk about it. Those weren’t good times, not for anyone.”
Lark shook his head. “No, they weren’t, and he’s got even less reason to want to think of it than most. He spent the last couple years of the war heading up a group of men in charge of gathering information. Many times they worked behind enemy lines, posing as soldiers on their way from one point of service to another, or even wounded men being sent home. They charted out enemy positions, mapped out the lay of the land, and even recovered some captured men and brought them home. They were a pretty close-knit group and Captain Sanders was their leader. He didn’t just lead them from behind a desk, though. He was out riding with them every mission that he could.”
“Who was his commanding officer?” Chris it knew it was rare for a captain to be in charge of a small group of men, but if the work being done was judged sufficiently important it might happen. He’d never heard of a Captain Sanders, though, not that he could remember.
“At the time, it was Colonel Allister. He’s now General Allister.”
“Colonel Allister?” Buck shook his head. “He served for the Union, not Confederacy.”
“Yes, so?” Lark looked at him curiously. “What, you thought the Captain was a Confederate officer?”
“He’s from the south,” Nathan said. “He’s always talking about it.”
“He’s what? Captain Sanders was born in New York. He could put on a southern accent so good that he sounded just like a Georgia boy.” He paused thoughtfully. “I thought it sounded like he might have an accent when I talked to him before, but I wasn’t paying all that much attention. The Captain’s a Yankee, born and bred. He joined up with the Union army and after working with General Allister for a while he put together his own company.”
Chris held up a hand, silently asking Lark for a moment to gather his thoughts. His view of Ezra had just been shaken to its foundations. Ezra wore his southern status as a badge, was proud of the area of his birth and often made reference to it. To find out it was all a lie...how much else that he knew about Ezra was a lie?
“I think I heard something about that once,” Buck said. “They were never near anywhere I was stationed, but I heard some stories round the campfire about a group of spies working for the army and some of the things they pulled. I only half-believed most of what I heard.”
Lark hesitantly began speaking again. “You might be surprised how much of it was true. Towards the end of the war, when the higher ups were almost certain of victory, the Captain’s team went on an information gathering mission without him. He’d been delayed by briefings with General Allister and was supposed to meet up with them later. Before he could leave, though, word came back that Sanders’ men had run into a larger patrol and were pinned down. A couple Union sympathizers found out and sent word that things looked bad; the men were under siege but were in no shape to withstand one. Sanders got ready to go right away, but Allister and the other officers in charge wouldn’t let him leave. They said it was too dangerous, that he’d just being throwing his life away in a futile effort to save theirs.”
“I can’t see Ezra taking that kind of order easily,” Vin said quietly.
“They had to lock him up,” Lark said. “Lock him up until word came in that his team had been killed down to the last man. Then they figured it was safe to let him out, that he wasn’t going get himself killed.”
“Oh my God,” JD muttered.
Chris shook his head disbelievingly. He couldn’t imagine what it would be like, to be told that the rest of the Seven were in danger, that they were going to die, and then be prevented from making any attempt to save them. The war itself had been brutal enough on its own; men killed and maimed in bloody battles that returned in nightmares years after the dead had been buried and the survivors returned home.
“They still lost him,” Lark said. “As soon as he was released, Captain Sanders disappeared. General Allister received a letter in the mail a few days later announcing the death of Captain Sanders. No one ever heard from him again, until I saw him on the street.”
“You said his life was in danger,” Chris said. He’d worry about people that he needed to kill for hurting Ezra later. Right now he wanted to make sure that he kept Ezra alive.
“Yes. Back before the death of his men, Captain Sander was involved in a criminal trial. Another officer, Lieutenant Darlson, killed a man in an argument. Captain Sanders refused to let the matter be swept under the rug for the Lieutenant’s sake. He insisted that Darlson be brought to trial, even worked to collect evidence against him. The man was convicted, court-martialed, and imprisoned.” Lark swallowed hard. “Right at the end of the war, there was some kind of accident. I don’t know all the details, but I do know that Darlson’s family was killed. He blamed the men who sent him to jail for the deaths. He escaped from prison about a year ago and he’s been seeking revenge ever since, killing the people that he blamed for his imprisonment and the loss of his family. There are two people left on his list of blame. General Allister is the first.”
“And Captain Sanders is the last,” Chris concluded.
“Yes. Darlson isn’t going to stop. He’s killed four other good men so far and he’s not finished yet.”
“Hasn’t anyone been trying to catch him?” JD asked.
“The entire army’s been put on alert, it seems like. It wasn’t enough to save Colonel Stocker. He was killed nearly a month ago in his home in Fort Lietson.” Lark smiled just a little. “I might not have noticed the Captain except that the killings have been so much on my mind lately. All of us have been warned about keeping our eyes open, watching for him. The reason why Darlson’s been killing people has gotten around, too, which brought Captain Sanders back to my memory.”
“You only found Ezra by chance,” Buck said. “Who’s to say this Darlson will be so lucky?”
“Who’s to say he won’t be? Darlson’s got no other purpose in life except for killing Sanders and the General. He isn’t going to stop until we put him down.”
“So stay the hell away from Ezra and there will no reason for Darlson to come looking for him here.” Chris knew the situation wasn’t really Lark’s fault, but he was handy for taking the blame.
Lark raised his chin. “That’s not how it works and you know it. Darlson is searching for him and he just might find him.”
“Fine.” Josiah looked calm, but the glint in his eyes was dangerous. “We’ve faced trouble before. If it wants to come looking for our brother, let it come. We’ll put it down.”
“I was hoping the Captain would come with us to Fort Davies. The General is there. We could protect him there.”
“You’ll just end up making him a target, putting him directly into the path of danger.” Chris shook his head. “That’s not going to happen.”
“There are more of us,” Lark said.
“Your number’s ain’t helped you catch him yet,” Vin said. “We can take care of our own.”
Lark bristled a little at the comment, but he kept his tone mild. “I’ll admit the thought crossed my mind that the General would be grateful for his help. Sanders caught this madman the first time around. With his help, we might even be able to catch him more quickly this time.” He leaned forward. “You say you’re his friends. Then convince him to come with me. We’ll get him back to the fort and protect him there and find a way to stop Darlson.”
“I’m not going to promise you anything,” Chris said. “Ezra’s his own man. He makes his decisions.”
“But will you talk to him?”
“Yes.” Chris leaned away from Lark. “Thanks for talking to us.”
Lark had been a soldier long enough to know a dismissal when he heard one. Moving a little stiffly, he rose to his feet. “Just talk to him, please. I owe Captain Sanders and I want him to be warned.”
Chris nodded. “I’ll talk to him.” Oh, he’d be talking to Ezra. Forget about just how much of his past the gambler had been hiding. That was something to worry about when they had time on their hands. For right now, Chris was only concerned with making sure Ezra knew that he was in danger so they could figure out how to best protect him.
He glanced at the other members of the Seven. “Thanks.”
“Of course,” Josiah said. “It’s for Ezra. But what are we going to do?”
“I’m going to talk to Ezra tomorrow. He’s most likely headed to his room already tonight.” Chris grinned a little. “Besides, knowing Ezra, there’s going to be quite an argument coming up and I want to give myself all day for it if I have to.”
“I think that sounds like a good idea,” Buck said. “Too many of us talking to him at once might make him less likely to listen.”
That settled, the men began to drift off, preparing to end their days.
Chris stayed behind in JD’s office, using the solitude to gather his thoughts.
He was going to have wait for Ezra to rise tomorrow and catch him right
after. He’d need to talk to Ezra somewhere private, so hopefully
the gambler would be willing to open to him a bit instead of being so damn
closed-mouth. There was no way Chris was going to just let Ezra get
away with trying to slip this under the rug. Ezra was his friend,
his colleague, his brother. Hell, he was falling in love with the
man. Chris was going to see that Ezra was safe, no matter what it
Ezra stayed in the darkest corner of Chaucer’s stall, gently working a comb through the hair of his horse’s tail. There were no snarls there to, but Ezra was feeling slightly guilty for neglecting Chaucer and he was trying to ameliorate the emotion. He’d spent the past two days hiding in his room, claiming to be catching up on long-neglected correspondence and bookkeeping. He was hoping to wait out Lark. Once the soldier left town, the whole ugly business would pass and he could return to living his life.
Unfortunately, reality had not deigned to cooperate with his wishes. His two days of hiding had accomplished nothing except to give him cabin fever. Lark and the other soldiers were still in town and every time Ezra went down into the saloon Lark was there, staring at him. Ezra was grateful that the man had the sense not to approach him, but he wasn’t going to be comfortable until the company had ridden on. Maybe then he could return to his place at the gaming table, go back to talking to the rest of the Seven without having to face his friends and the questions in their eyes.
With a final stroke of his comb, Ezra stepped away from Chaucer and patted his rump affectionately. He knew the hostler had taken good care of the horse, but Chaucer was his steed, his friend, his responsibility. He had to make sure for himself that all was well, which was why he’d risen at an ungodly hour of the morning to sneak down to the livery and check up on the horse. Assured that Chaucer was content and well cared for, Ezra was ready to face another day of staring at the walls of his bedroom as he attempted to out-stubborn the US Army.
He strode quickly out of the livery, intent on making his way back to his room. All he had to do was keep his head down and walk swiftly and he’d be -
Damnation. Pasting a smile on his face, Ezra stopped three feet shy of the door. “Mr. Larabee. I was just returning to my bed and my slumber. If there is no emergency, I would like very much to catch up on my sleep.”
“I’m sorry,” Chris shook his head, but his face was set in lines of determination. “This is working up to be an emergency.”
Defeated, Ezra refused to let his shoulders slump. He might be unwilling to fight any longer, but that didn’t mean he had to show that he was defeated. “I take it you wish to speak about Lark and his regrettable remarks?”
“Yes,” Chris said. “Ezra, please.”
“I will talk to you,” Ezra said, unable to resist a slight smile as he realized how much Chris feared his stubborn nature. “But I would rather talk to you while our esteemed colleagues are also in attendance. This tale is not so entertaining that I wish to tell it twice. I trust the others will be easily gathered?”
Chris smiled in obvious relief. “You’re thinking right. If you’ll give me five minutes, I can have all of them in the saloon waiting for you.”
“Not the saloon.” If he spoke in the saloon, there was too much of chance that he could be overheard. More than that, there was a good possibility that Lark would make an attempt to join them. Ezra was determined to continue his policy of denial where the soldier was concerned and confessing most - he was too careful to confess all - to his friends would destroy that.
Chris eyed him warily. “JD’s office?”
“Too official.” Ezra held up a hand to ward off Chris’s suspicion. “I am not trying to finagle a way out of this. I merely wish to ensure our privacy. The saloon is too open and Mr. Dunne’s office is too accessible.” He nodded his head toward the building across the street. “Mrs. Travis’s office will do quite nicely.” He knew the young widow would be working on the paper, even at this early hour. “I will go make the request while you locate our comrades.”
“Five minutes,” Chris promised, walking away swiftly toward JD’s office.
Ezra watched him go. He knew he’d be waiting for closer to a half an hour. It was never easy to gather their group together, unless they’d all been called by the sound of gunfire. He turned his own steps toward the newspaper office. He knocked quietly on the door before entering hesitantly. “Mrs. Travis? Might I impose upon you?”
As his eyes adjusted to the dimmer interior light he could see her sitting behind her desk. She looked up at him and smiled honestly. “Mr. Standish, it is no imposition. What can I do for you?”
“I’ve come to ask a favor of you. I need to have a meeting with my colleagues and we were searching for a place to give us sufficient privacy for the matter we must discuss. I was hoping to prevail upon your good graces and beg the use of your office.”
She immediately began to gather her papers together. “Of course. I’d be happy to help.”
“Only if it won’t be a true inconvenience.”
“Not at all. I can spend some time with Billy this way.”
“Thank you,” Ezra said sincerely. “I truly do appreciate this.” He took off his hat and gave her a short bow.
A small smile on her face, she nodded as she passed him. “You are welcome, Mr. Standish.” A rustle of skirts and she was gone.
Really, a most remarkable woman. Ezra had every sympathy for a woman raising a child on her own, especially in so unforgiving an environment as the frontier. Mary seemed to be handling it just fine and Ezra had to admit he’d rarely seen as happy or outgoing a child as Billy. The boy’s energy could be exhausting, but the sheer excitement that drove the boy forward was good to see.
Shaking his head to bring his thoughts back to order, Ezra walked over to Mary’s desk and carefully settled himself on the edge of it. He didn’t know how long he was going to have to wait for the others to gather and he wanted to take a moment to organize his thoughts. He knew he wasn’t going to be able to hide any longer. If Chris was willing to press the point, then there was nowhere left that he could hide. Short of leaving town, he had no way to avoid the other man indefinitely and Ezra wasn’t willing to leave Four Corners until he was certain that he had no other viable options. He couldn’t lie to the other men, either. The possibility of danger was too real, the chance that they could be hurt as a result of his presence too great. Besides, he had done enough lying to them. If he was going to attempt to build himself a home in Four Corners, then he was going to have to lay a foundation and lies were not the sort of materials he wanted to use. He was going to have to be as honest as he could without endangering them any further.
A noise on the sidewalk outside focused his attention back on his surroundings. He watched the door, wanting to see who entered first. He was betting on JD...and he bet wrong. Chris walked through the door, scanning the room quickly before his gaze came to rest on Ezra. A pleased smile tugged at his lips and he entered the office fully. “Ezra,” he said quietly, moving to stand beside him.
Ezra wanted to speak to him, to find a reason to make the gunslinger smile again, but he was distracted by movement in the doorway. Buck stooped a little as he walked through the door, JD following him so closely that he might be his shadow. Ezra drew in breath to greet them, but then Josiah entered the room, then Nathan and finally Vin. All six men gathered together in less then fifteen minutes. Ezra raised an eyebrow. “Good morning, gentlemen.” He glanced at Chris. “I had no idea you would be so efficient in gathering them. How ever did you find them so quickly?”
He didn’t need JD’s blush to know the truth. They’d been waiting for him. He didn’t make Chris answer. He crossed his arms over his chest. “Since you’ve all been so good as to come so quickly, I won’t make you wait either for the answers you seek.”
Nathan raised his eyebrows in an expression of exaggerated surprise. “It can’t be that easy.” His tone was warm, though, belying the teasing words.
“Oh, there is a slight catch. I’m guessing at this moment that man, Lark, came to one or more of you with stories about the danger in which I might be. I need to know what he told you.”
“He told us your life’s in danger,” Chris said quietly.
“He mentioned something about that, yes. We’ll discuss that in just a bit. What else did he say?”
“He said you used to be a soldier,” Buck volunteered.
“That is true. I was a soldier, briefly. It isn’t a part of my life I care to discuss.”
“He also said you were a Yankee by birth.” Nathan’s voice was filled with honest confusion.
Ah. Ezra hadn’t been sure if Lark had known that bit of information or if he’d shared it with the rest of the Seven. Damn it. Lark had no discretion, none at all. “I thought he might have. Anything else?”
“Isn’t that enough?” Josiah laughed a little. “Brother, what kind of trouble has come looking for you?”
Ezra appreciated his wording. “I’m not certain. It appears that Lark told you more than he has me. What he said about my past was true. I was born in New York.” Hearing himself say those words in his assumed accent brought an unwilling smile to his lips.
“Then what about all those stories you told about growing up?” Josiah asked.
“The locales might not have been entirely accurate, but the stories themselves were true. I did in fact spend some time in the south, enough to learn the customs and the language. When the war started, I was rather too far west to take much of an active interest in it, but eventually I was drawn in and joined up with the Union Army. Because of my...specialized talents, let’s call them, I was removed from the ranks of common soldier and set to the task of gathering intelligence.”
“Spying,” Buck said.
“Call it what you like,” Ezra said easily. He’d had worse descriptions thrown at him. It might not have been considered the most honorable of professions for a soldier. He’d served his country, helped to save some lives and made it out alive himself. That was all that mattered. “I worked closely with a group of good men.” He swallowed hard. “I was the only one to survive the war.”
“What about the man Lark says is hunting you?” Vin asked. “This Darlson fellow?”
Ezra’s arms fell away to his side and he was grateful for the desk that supported him as his legs went weak. That was a name that he’d never expected to here again, that he’d never wanted to hear again. “Darlson?” He had to be sure.
“Lieutenant Darlson,” Chris said. “You know the name.”
“I do.” Ezra closed his eyes. Ben Darlson. The man’s conviction had been one of the small victories in the war in which Ezra had allowed himself to take some pride. Loud and domineering, Ezra had never cared for the lieutenant. One night Darlson had gotten into an argument with a soldier that had escalated into violence and ended in the death of the volunteer. There had been a certain amount of inclination among the higher ups to try to sweep the matter under the rug; the dead man had been an escaped slave and Darlson was an officer, after all. Filled with disgust for the whole matter, Ezra had refused to let it be forgotten. A man had died for no reason and no man’s life could be valued above another’s. He’d been relentless in his pursuit of justice, driving the arrest, prosecution, and conviction of Darlson. The man had been a murderer. “I take it he’s escaped, then?”
“Escaped and killing people,” Vin said. “He didn’t take kindly to be locked up, and Lark says something happened to his family while he was in jail.”
Damnation. He hadn’t been expecting this. “I imagine I’m on his list of people he wishes to see dead.”
“You and General Allister are the only ones left.” Chris watched him carefully.
“*General* Allister now, is it?” He really didn’t feel any surprise. He couldn’t imagine Matthew Allister anywhere except in the Army. Ezra wrapped his arms around himself. This was more serious than anything he’d ever imagined. Darlson had been a brutal man before going to prison. If he was out and already killing people, Ezra had no doubt that the threat to his life was very real.
He couldn’t stay in Four Corners. Lark may have found him entirely accidentally, but now that he had been found he was going to have to move on. News of his location could reach Darlson’s hungry ears and then the killer would make his way to this town. Not only would Ezra then be in danger, but so would be everyone else. He couldn’t risk the lives of others. He wouldn’t.
Schooling his features into lines of calm, Ezra glanced at the men watching him. He let his gaze move over each of their faces, stealing one last chance to memorize their features. He saved Chris for last. He already held an image of the gunslinger’s face in his heart. Holding Chris’s gaze, he squared his shoulders. “I shall pack my things and leave town before nightfall.”
“No!” JD objected. “You can’t leave. Not if you’re in trouble.”
“Mr. Dunne, I appreciate your concern, but the fact remains that the trouble in my own. I have no desire to involve innocent persons in a potentially dangerous situation. The best way to guarantee that no one comes to harm is to remove myself from this area. Once I’ve gone, Lark will no longer know where I am and it will be much harder for Darlson to find me.” He stood up straight. “It’s the best possible solution.” The emptiness he felt inside was sickening. He needed to get out, to escape to his room and find away to pull himself together and force himself to leave the home he’d just realized he’d found.
“No,” Chris said firmly.
“No, Ezra. You’re not going anywhere. If you leave Four Corners, you’ll be completely on your own. You’ll stay here and we’ll protect you here if we need to.”
“Mr. Larabee, you seem to be missing the point.” Some of the sickness left him under the influence of the flood of warmth he felt at Chris’s concern, but he had to remain firm. This wasn’t about him; it was about protecting Four Corners and the men he’d come to care so much about. “If I leave Four Corners, I’ll be the only one in danger. There will be no need for concern here.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Chris said flatly.
Ezra drew in breath to continue the argument, but he was interrupted by Josiah. “Chris has it right,” the preacher said. “If one of our brothers is in trouble, then we’ll face that trouble together.”
“Damn right,” Buck said. “You just try leaving town. Vin will find you before you get a mile and we’ll just drag you back.”
“Half a mile,” Vin promised with a small smile.
Ezra glanced over at Nathan, hoping to find an ally in the healer. They often failed to see eye to eye, but perhaps this time Nathan would agree with him.
Nathan shook his head. “I’ll be riding right beside Buck to help with the dragging.”
“Have you all gone mad?” Ezra glanced from one man to the next to the next. Didn’t they understand? “Darlson is looking for me. I remember him. He will be a dangerous man. So long as I leave, this town and you will be safe from him. I highly doubt that Lark can be trusted. News of his discovery of Captain Sanders will spread and heighten the risk that Darlson will find me. If I go...”
“If you go, you’ll be facing Darlson without me...us...to help you.” Chris crossed his arms over his chest. “That’s not going to happen.”
Ezra had to try one more time. He was amazed and moved by their determination to not allow him go it alone, but he had to be sure they truly wanted him to stay. He wasn’t going to endanger them if they were acting out of some misguided sense of responsibility or obligation. “Gentlemen, Darlson will know that he is a hunted man by now. If he has embarked on path of killing, then he must have nothing else in this life which to look forward to. Getting in his way would be a very good way to set oneself up to be injured, perhaps seriously. You don’t have to risk this. I can be twenty miles away by sundown. Further, perhaps.”
“Didn’t you hear?” Chris asked. “We’d have you back here before you got a half mile. You’re not going anywhere, Ezra.”
“We’ll help keep watch for him here,” Buck said. “We know the town, the people. This guy isn’t going to have a chance if he does make it all the way here.”
Ezra spread his hands out before him. “Gentlemen, I honestly am not certain of what to say. Thank you.”
Chris’s hand was a warm weight on his shoulder. “You’re one of us, Ezra.” A light squeeze and then the hand was gone.
Startled by the gesture, Ezra looked up and found himself caught by Chris’s gaze. There was concern in his blue eyes, and determination, but something shone behind those emotions, something Ezra couldn’t really believe he was seeing directed at himself. His awareness of the others faded away, the sound of their conversation muted into a background hum as his focus narrowed exclusively to the man in front of him. He licked his lips. “Mr. Larabee-”
A sharp rap upon the door distracted them all and the questions that had been rising up inside of him were lost as Ezra’s full awareness of his surroundings returned. Panic seized his throat for a moment. What had he been thinking? What had he been about to do, about to reveal, in a room full of men respected? In front of Chris, no less, and all based on the hint of an emotion he knew couldn’t possibly be real? Breathing deeply to center himself, Ezra opened his mouth to answer the knocking.
Chris was immediately in front of him. “Shh.”
Ezra raised an eyebrow. “We made no secret of being here,” he said, albeit in a low voice. “My presence here can hardly be considered unknown.”
“We’re going to start being a little more careful now,” Chris said, jaw set in a stubborn line. “That means you don’t answer any doors you don’t have to.”
Buck nodded. “Right.” Raising his voice, he called, “Yes? Who is it?”
The door swung open slowly. Ezra had to tilt his head to the side to see around Chris, who had planted himself directly in front of the gambler as he moved to face the door. A woman’s figure stood silhouetted in the late morning sun that poured through the doorway. Ezra squinted, trying to force his eyes to adjust to the light. It wasn’t Mary Travis.
“I’m looking for someone,” the woman said hesitantly. “I was told he was in here.” She stayed in the doorway, obviously reluctant to come any closer as her gaze searched their faces.
There was something familiar about her. Ezra’s memory moved sluggishly, refusing to reveal who she was or how he might know her. Unwilling to remain in hiding any longer, he stepped to one side.
Her gasp proved that he was the one she sought. “Ezekiel!” she
said, taking a few steps forward. “Oh, Ezekiel, thank God I found
you. I need your help, need it desperately.”
Chris flinched a little as the woman called Ezra ‘Ezekiel’. More of Ezra’s past was in Four Corners and again they’d had no warning of it. If this woman had found Ezra, how long could it take for this Darlson fellow to show up in Four Corners? He watched her move toward Ezra, hands reaching out as if to touch him, perhaps to take his hands in hers. Telling himself that it was out of concern for Ezra’s safety, Chris didn’t move out of the way. He shifted his weight a bit to the side, blocking her clear access to Ezra so that she was forced to stop short before reaching him.
The woman’s hands fell back down to her sides. “Ezekiel?”
Chris turned marginally so that he could keep both the woman and Ezra in view. He noted with approval that Vin had moved to watch the door while the rest of their attention was elsewhere.
Ezra cocked his head to the side. “Claire? What are you doing here?” He made no move toward her, seeming content to remain half-hidden behind Chris for the moment.
“Looking for you. Oh, Ezekiel, you must have heard the news.”
“Of Lieutenant Darlson’s escape and the threat he poses? Yes, I am aware of the situation.” Ezra glanced over at Chris. “Gentlemen, do forgive my rudeness. This is Miss Claire Allister. Claire, these gentlemen are my colleagues and friends.” He briefly introduced them.
Claire nodded toward them distractedly. “Ezekiel, there isn’t any time. I need you to come back to Fort Davies with me.”
Ezra shook his head. “Impossible. I have no intention of leaving Four Corners.” He held up his hand in a sharp gesture to forestall her objections. “How did you find out I was here?”
Chris thought the answer was obvious, but Ezra was right: they needed to be sure of how she knew.
Glancing a little nervously at the men surrounding her, Claire shifted closer to Ezra. “A telegram to Father. He can’t leave the fort, but I could. He told me where to find you. I swear to you that we haven’t told anyone else, that no one else knows.”
Ezra’s tightened his lips for a bare moment and then his features returned to their normal genial expression. “I appreciate your discretion,” he said quietly.
“My discretion? Ezekiel, what about my need? Darlson is a madman. He’s going to try to kill Father.”
“Yes, I do imagine that he will want to try that. Your father has the entire fort looking out for him. I have no doubt that he will be protected and that Darlson will soon be brought to justice.”
“Ezekiel is dead. He has been for years. Go home, Claire. Go home to your father and forget that you saw me. Leave Ezekiel Sanders where your father buried him and go.”
Sudden calculation entered the woman’s eyes and Chris realized that she wasn’t as young as she might have first appeared. There was too much knowledge in her eyes, too much awareness of how to get what she wanted. She raised her chin. “Andrew is with Father. He says he isn’t going to leave his side until he’s sure that Father is safe.”
Ezra held himself so still that he didn’t even seem to be breathing. He held Claire’s gaze for long silent moments. “I’ll leave for Fort Davies soon. When I choose. Take yourself home and tell your father that I will arrive in my own time.” Not looking at any of the others, he walked around her and out the door.
What the hell was this? She mentions a man named Andrew and then all of a sudden Ezra’s good sense goes out the window as if he’d never had any at all? Who was Andrew? What did he mean to Ezra? Unmoved by the expression of intense relief that crossed the nervous woman’s face, Chris left the office. Ezra wasn’t going to be able to just change his mind like that without explanation. More, he wasn’t going to be able to just walk through Four Corners on his own. With people from his past popping up in town with alarming frequency, Ezra was going to have to give up some of his precious solitude in order to ensure his safety.
The bright sunlight was nearly blinding after the dim interior of Mary’s office. Ignoring his watering eyes, Chris quickly scanned the street, searching for the red jacket he knew he could use to easily track Ezra. He soon found it moving in the direction of the saloon.
Oh, no. Chris wasn’t going to let Ezra bury himself in his room. He didn’t have the time to waste arguing through the wood until the man either relented or he ran out of patience and busted the damn thing down. He drew the line at actually running after him, but he hurried his steps enough so that he caught up to Ezra at the base of the stairs. “Ezra.”
Ezra paused but didn’t turn around. “Mr. Larabee, I fear I have some packing to do.” He drew in a long breath. “I don’t want you to believe that I am running out on you. As soon as this matter is cleared up, I shall return to Four Corners. That is, if I am still welcome.” He paused for a moment longer, then began to walk up the stairs.
That apology destroyed the slowly building anger that Chris had felt within. The anger left behind a deep reserve of determination. Ezra had barely told them anything, hadn’t even confirmed everything that Lark had told them. Chris wasn’t going to let this go. Those secrets could get Ezra killed and that wasn’t going to happen on Chris’s watch. He followed Ezra right up the stairs, ignoring the fact that Ezra was trying to ignore him.
When Ezra reached his room, he turned around to face Chris, his hand on the doorknob. “Mr. Larabee, I will make my way back downstairs and say my good-byes. I will not leave without doing so.”
“Wrong,” Chris said.
Ezra stiffened. “If my presence will no longer be welcome in Four Corners, I do of course understand that and will make arrangements to have my things delivered to me as soon as I have a place for them.”
With a sharp motion, Chris barely managed to rein in the urge to slam his fist into the wall. Ezra wasn’t understanding him and he didn’t have the easy words that he needed for both of them. “Ezra.” Even he could hear the impatience in his voice and he cut himself off and began again. “Ezra, it’s not that, not that at all. I need to talk to you. Can I please come in?”
The refusal was clear in Ezra’s eyes, but Chris could see the hesitation there as well. “Please,” he repeated.
Chris followed Ezra into the small room, stealing quick glances as he did so. He’d rarely been allowed up into this room. Ezra was jealous of his privacy and was one of the few people in town who always kept his door locked. If there was an emergency, a member of the Seven could bang on the door and wake him up, but there was no way they’d be able to just walk in, short of kicking in the door. The neatness of Ezra’s bedroom was expected. An orderly row of books lined the top of the low dresser, while the closed closet door concealed the gambler’s wardrobe. The bed was made, sheets drawn tight with military precision and all the surfaces, from the dresser to the small nightstand, were clear of dust. A heavily-used candle and a small book on the nightstand by the bed bore silent testimony of Ezra’s late night reading.
Ezra gave no sign of noticing Chris’s scrutiny. He pulled a set of well-traveled saddle bags out from under his bed. “You will not be offended if I continue my preparations, I trust?”
“Of course I will! You don’t need to make preparations because you’re not going anywhere.” Chris’s hands itched to tear those saddlebags away and pull them out of Ezra’s reach, but he knew better than to try that. He hadn’t found himself staring down the business end of Ezra’s derringer yet, but he had no doubt that a move like that would give him the opportunity.
“I do apologize, Mr. Larabee. I had believed that I would be able to remain in Four Corners, but circumstances have changed. In the end, I truly believe that this is for the best. I’m not sure what I had been thinking when I agree to stay - it would be unconscionable for me to stay and place all of you in danger.”
It was like all of their arguments had been completely forgotten. Chris didn’t know the woman downstairs but he already resented her. Her, and the mysterious Andrew. “Ezra, nothing’s changed. So what if the Army knows where you are? We can still protect you here.”
“The situation has changed considerably, sir. If Claire and her father know where I am, then I can guarantee you that so do his aides and her friends, and then so do all the people they trust...my location is no longer a secret, and for this reason I must leave.”
“So it’s got nothing to do with this Andrew she mentioned?” Chris couldn’t believe that slipped out. He was sounding like a jealous lover. This was no way to get Ezra to trust him. He was just going to reveal his feelings and possibly drive the gambler away even faster.
At least the question made Ezra stop fiddling with those damn bags. His hands still on the worn leather, the gambler looked up and met Chris’s gaze. “Andrew is Claire’s brother. General Allister’s only son.”
“It’s only natural that a son would want to be with his father, ‘specially at a time like this.” Chris didn’t really like playing stupid, but he knew that Ezra wasn’t going respond to direct questions right now. The man was looking to leave town and would resist any obvious ploys to delay him.
“Andrew was a boy during the war, barely more than a child. He was always braver than was good for him and I doubt that has changed. He’s going to stand in Darlson’s way and get himself killed when Darlson just rips through him to reach his father. I can’t just hide here and wait for that boy to die.” He looked down at his hands. “I’ll return to Four Corners once the situation has been resolved and remove my belongings.”
“That’s not going to happen, Ezra.”
Long elegant fingers clenched into fists. “I will arrange their removal by other agents, then.”
“No, Ezra, you’re not understanding me. You’re not going to leave Four Corners.”
Steel glinted in green depths. “I wouldn’t recommend trying to stop me.”
Chris wasn’t that crazy. “Ezra, if you leave Four Corners then I know you’ll be coming back, coming back to stay. And if you leave Four Corners, it won’t be alone. I’ll be coming with you.”
“Absolutely not,” Ezra said. “The danger is not yours and you are needed here.”
This was a fight that Chris didn’t think he could win, not on his own. Ezra would bury him with words and Chris would end up following him out of town like a guilty tagalong. “At least come down and explain to the others,” Chris asked. “They’re not going to like it, but they at least deserve a chance to say so, and say good-bye.”
Ezra’s gaze was full of distrust, but he nodded reluctantly. “You are correct, sir. They deserve more, but that at least I can give them.”
“Thank you,” Chris said.
No longer willing to meet his gaze, Ezra walked around him and led the way back down the stairs. The rest of the Seven were sitting at a table in the saloon, obviously waiting for them. To Chris’s relief, Claire was nowhere to be seen.
Josiah rose to his feet. “Ezra?”
Ezra’s smile was far from steady but he made a damn good go of it. “Mr. Sanchez, gentlemen, Mr. Larabee has pointed out my rather churlish behavior to me and I have come down to apologies and make my farewells.”
“Ezra, are you sure you have to go?” JD’s voice was plaintive.
“Mr. Dunne, I am. My location here is no longer a secret. There is no way that I can hide and wait for the situation to resolve itself without my intervention. I must act, and in order to act I must go to Fort Davies.” With a nervous glance toward Chris, Ezra said, “I will endeavor to return as quickly as possible.”
Silence descended on the room as everyone sought for a way to react. Chris’s thoughts were a confused tangle as he tried to find the words that would make Ezra stay. Nothing was coming to him, though.
Buck looked around the room at the others. “I guess it’s settled, then.”
Ezra’s smile was brittle but genuine. “Thank you, Mr. Wilmington.” He glanced back over at Chris. “I should be ready to leave in an hour.”
“Whoa!” Buck raised his hand. “That’s moving a mite fast. I know you might be ready to go, but some of us need a little time to prepare. How ‘bout we take the rest of the day and then head out early tomorrow morning?”
“What?” Ezra’s face was set in lines of bewilderment.
“Well, by the time we all get ready to go and saddled up, we’ll just be riding off into the heat of the day. We won’t make good time at all doing that and by the time it cools off we’ll need to be looking for a place to camp. Fort Davies has got to be a four day ride. It makes more sense to get a fresh start tomorrow morning.”
“Mr. Wilmington, no one else is going to be leaving.” The bewilderment was fading fast and Ezra’s chin was beginning to take on that stubborn tilt that drove Chris mad. It made him want to shake the man until it disappeared...or maybe try kissing him so hard that he forgot what he was being stubborn about.
Buck’s glance at Chris was sly and over in an instant. “Now, Ez, if you think you’re going to take yourself off to the fort to have fun without the rest of us, you’re just not thinking right. No way do you get to have all the excitement. Things have been flat boring here lately and I’m feeling the need to maybe explore some new territory.”
Josiah jumped in to the conversation so fast that Ezra didn’t have a chance to even try to object. “I heard they’ve got a new chapel up at the fort and it’s got some murals painted on the walls. I’d like to see that. When I get the roof finished, that might be something I could try my hand at next.”
“Be nice to get out of town and ride through some wild country,” Vin offered.
Eyes impossibly round and innocent, JD looked appealingly at Ezra. “I’ve never seen a real army fort before. I bet that could be real interesting.”
“Educational, too.” Nathan glanced over his shoulder, out the door toward his clinic. “I bet they’d have some supplies they’d be willing to sell. I think I’m running a little low on laudanum. I wouldn’t mind talking to a real doctor, either, just to get his opinion on a few things that I think might work.”
“No.” Ezra shook his head. “I appreciate what you gentlemen intend to do, but this cannot happen. Your leaving would deplete Four Corners of its protection and you have a duty to the people here.”
“The town survived for years before we came,” Chris said, finding his voice at last. “I think it could handle us being gone for a couple weeks.” The voices of his friends had helped him find the words he needed. “The situation has changed, you’re right about that, but the only way it’s changed is that we can’t protect you in Four Corners any more. We’re still in this together. That hasn’t changed.”
Ezra shook his head. “Mr. Larabee-”
“No. Ezra, your memory must be slipping. We’re not letting you go this alone. If that means that we go with you to Fort Davies, then so be it. Don’t argue; just say yes and wait for us to join you tomorrow morning.” He didn’t fight the urge to step forward and clasp Ezra’s shoulder with his right hand.
Green eyes stared into his, brilliant with emotion. Chris watched
as understanding and acceptance dawned in those eyes. He squeezed
gently and acceptance became gratitude with something hiding behind it,
something Chris very much wanted to see. It gave him hope...but this
wasn’t the time or the place to pursue it. “Say yes, Ezra.
Just say yes.”
Chris’s hand was so warm, even through the material of his jacket and shirt. It was warm and honest and real. Ezra focused on the feeling of that hand on his shoulder even as his thoughts raced. When he’d agreed to stay in Four Corners, he’d had a sneaking suspicion that the others were wanting to protect him as way to guarantee that they’d be able to keep an eye on him and better protect the town as well. But now, they were ready to leave Four Corners and go with him to Fort Davies. This wasn’t about Four Corners any longer, wasn’t about making sure that his problems didn’t affect the town.
It was about friendship. It was about the way they felt about him. It was real - he’d really found the place where he belonged, the place he could call home, the men he could call family. He looked at the men who were watching him with hope in their eyes. All of them willing him to say yes. His family.
He met Chris’s gaze once more. “Yes.” His throat was dry and the word came out too soft. “Yes,” he said again.
JD’s whoop and Buck’s victorious slap to the table weren’t enough to distract him from the fierce gratitude on Chris’s face. “You mean it?” Chris asked in a low voice, careful not to let the others overhear.
Ezra didn’t fight the smile that came to his face. “I am. I still think you’re all quite mad for accompanying me, but I won’t fight you on this any longer.” He raised his eyebrows. “Besides, I am beginning to believe that further resistance would prove to be utterly futile.”
“Damn right,” Chris said. “If you tried sneaking out of town, you’d find me behind you before the hour was out.” Some of the fierceness faded from his face. “Me, and the others, too.” He returned Ezra’s smile. With a start, he seemed to remember his hand on Ezra’s shoulder, pulling it away with...was that reluctance?
Chastising himself for acting like a fool, Ezra nonetheless missed the warmth of Chris’s hand. Pulling his attention back to reality and away from his foolish dreams he asked, “Will we follow Mr. Wilmington’s proposed plan, then?”
“It sounds like a good one,” Chris said. “I should go break the news to Mrs. Travis, get the word passed around that we’ll be gone for a bit.”
“You’re leaving?” Mary Travis’s voice cut easily through the men’s conversation. She stood just inside the doorway, reluctant to fully enter the saloon even so early in the morning. Two figures lurked behind her: Claire Allister and Lark.
Ezra blinked when Chris moved to stand in front of him. Stepping off to one side, he heard Chris say, “Yes, ma’am. Some trouble has come up and we’ve figured out that the best way to keep it from coming to Four Corners is to take ourselves out of town.”
“Surely you don’t mean all of you?”
“Yes, ma’am, I do. We shouldn’t be gone long.”
Mrs. Travis was not a woman to give up without a fight. Ezra was tempted to take a seat, despite the rules against sitting in a woman’s presence. They’d need to start out tomorrow morning for certain now, because it was going to take a while to convince her of the necessity of their leaving. He certainly understood her concerns; they were supposed to protect Four Corners and the town certainly needed more than the normal amount of protection. “You’ll be leaving us defenseless,” she said.
Ezra’s heart fell. Her arguments would succeed where his had failed and he would be riding on to Fort Davies alone. He squared his shoulders. He could take comfort in the knowledge that the others had been willing to come with him. Especially Chris; knowing that the blond man had intended to see this through with him was going to warm him during the lonely nights he faced ahead.
Mrs. Travis started to speak, then silenced herself. She stared at Chris for a moment more, then bowed her head slightly. “How long will you be gone?” There was soft acceptance in her voice.
Ezra blinked. Chris’s back was to him so he couldn’t see his face. He wondered what Mrs. Travis had seen in his expression. All he could see was Chris’s shrug. “A few weeks,” the gunslinger said. “I doubt it could be longer than that.”
Mrs. Travis nodded. “If anything happens...”
“We’ll be at Fort Davies. Send a telegram. If anything happens at the fort, I’ll be sure to send a telegram to you.”
“Good luck,” the blond woman said, and then she was gone, leaving the saloon with her usual swift, sure steps.
Ezra watched without enthusiasm as Claire and Lark entered the saloon. Claire stayed ahead of the soldier. “Ezekiel, is it true? You’re coming to the fort?”
“I am.” He moved around Chris so that the gunslinger was no longer blocking his view of the room.
“Oh, thank you. You don’t know what this means to me. I am so grateful, and I know Father will be to. He-”
Ezra shook his head and interrupted her. “I’m not doing this for your father.” His voice was harsh and he didn’t care.
Lark stepped in front of Claire, using her startlement to his advantage so he could speak. “Captain Sanders? If you want to go to Fort Davies, I’m sure my company can take you there.”
“That won’t be necessary.” Ezra was determined to avoid as much US Army control as possible. That included allowing himself to be escorted back to the fort like a criminal. Like a prize. No, he’d ride in just as he’d leave: with his six friends and brothers.
“If you’re going to the fort...”
“I am going to the fort. I will go of my own volition and in my own time, and I will leave in exactly the same manner.” The minute he gave over any measure of control he knew that the army would attempt to take over completely. He absolutely would not allow that. Ezekiel Sanders had been willing to place his trust in the army. That trust had killed him. Ezra wasn’t going to make the same mistake.
“You need my men to protect you. Beside, General Allister would prefer it if -”
“The preferences of General Allister mean less than nothing to me.” Ezra moved his hand slightly, pushing back his jacket to reveal the gun on his hip. His derringer he was going to keep a secret, even from the people who were ostensibly on his side. “This gun is all the protection I need. This gun, and these men.” He took a few steps past Chris and turned to face him, effectively turning his back on Lark and Claire both. “I think it would be best if we began our preparations as soon as possible.”
Chris’s gaze was hard as he looked at Lark, but it softened when he looked at Ezra. “Sounds good to me.” He looked over at the others. “What do you think?”
“I got some ladies to say good-bye to,” Buck said with a leer. “After that, I’ll get started on packing.”
The others made similar excuses and scattered, moving to get ready to leave. Ezra watched them go, then looked at Lark and Claire. Neither gave any sign of intending to leave and he had no desire to speak to them. He looked at Chris. “I shall return to my packing,” he said quietly.
Chris nodded his understanding. “I’ll be by in a bit.”
“I assure you that I’ve been taking care of myself for a number of years. I am quite capable of walking down the stairs once I’ve finished putting my things in order.”
Stepping closer, Chris lowered his voice. “I understand that, but the situation’s special here. I don’t want you on your own any more than you have to be. You don’t have to like it, but I’m not taking any chances with your life.” Chris flushed a little. “If I don’t show up, it’ll be one of the others. Just until this is over.”
“All right.” Ezra could fight it, but what good would it do? The other men would ignore his objections and protect him as they pleased. Besides, it would take a stronger man than he to resist Chris Larabee’s softly spoken plea. “I’ll stay in my room like a good little boy until someone comes for me.” He didn’t want to push Chris, didn’t want to reveal how badly he wanted it to be Chris who came for him.
“It won’t be too long,” the blue-eyed man said. He turned and walked out the door, steadfastly ignoring Claire and Lark.
Ezra used Chris as a distraction to facilitate his escape up the stairs, not wishing to speak further with either of the people waiting for him. He didn’t actually breathe again until he’d shut the door firmly behind himself. Neither Claire nor Lark would dare to follow him up the stairs. He removed his jacket and then sat on the bed, bending to remove his boots. He also removed his gun belt, placing it on his nightstand for easy access.
He turned his attention to the saddlebags on his bed. They’d served him well in the past, but he hadn’t planned on needing them again so soon. He felt an odd sense of reluctance as he dusted them off. He didn’t want to leave Four Corners. He’d discovered that the town was his home. It had been a long time since he’d had a sense of place, of belonging in a specific location. He hadn’t felt it since he was an adult and he’d felt it only briefly as a child. Now that he knew what Four Corners meant to him, he didn’t want to leave. This was his home.
He chose some of his less prized clothing from his closet and folded it carefully for travel. It fit easily into the bags; he’d had a lot of practice in this, after all. He didn’t look toward his books. Now that he knew he’d be returning, he didn’t need to take anything along with him except what he absolutely needed for the next few weeks. He decided to fill the extra bag with a few surprises. He opened up the drawer in the bottom of his dresser and pulled out the odds and ends he kept squirreled away...just in case. A length of rope, a set of knives, a few explosive relics of his days in the army, as well as a few other items that might come in handy.
Those packed, he decided that he had enough room to take along a few indulgences. He hadn’t planned on taking them initially; they’d been something he’d hoped to return and pick up later when he was asked to leave Four Corners after abandoning the town to deal with his own troubles. Chris had proven to be more forgiving than he’d feared...more than forgiving. Ezra looked up and caught sight of himself in the small mirror on his dresser. His eyes were unforgivably soft and the smile on his face would never do. He looked like a love struck fool.
Ezra scowled ferociously at himself, lip curling in a snarl. It did no good. His eyes were still unforgivably soft. He couldn’t let himself read too much into this. All right, so Chris hadn’t let him leave. It didn’t have mean anything. In fact, it *didn’t* mean anything. Chris was an honorable man. He wouldn’t force anyone to leave Four Corners, not even Ezra. His sneer slipped a little. Chris wasn’t just allowing him to return, though; the gunslinger was actually accompanying him to Fort Davies. That went beyond merely being an honorable man, didn’t it?
Self-disgust brought the sneer back. Of course it did. Chris was his friend, just like the rest of the Seven. Chris wasn’t the only one coming with him. The others - and he could still hardly believe it - were coming with him as well, all eager to help watch his back and protect him until Darlson was no longer a threat. Chris was acting like a friend. To attempt to read anything more into the man’s actions would be a betrayal of that friendship and Ezra wasn’t willing to do that. He owed Chris too much, cared for him too much to abuse the other man’s trust like that.
Forcing his thoughts away from their treacherous path, he took a final glance around the room, hoping that anything he might be forgetting would catch his eye.
Nothing caught his eye. Ezra stowed the two saddle bags at the foot of his bed. He’d have to pick up some travel rations from the general store before leaving, but other than that he was ready to go.
Ready to go, with nowhere to go. He sat down on his bed. He didn’t like this feeling, didn’t like being dependent on others. Sitting alone in his room waiting for someone to come and get him...it was just like being a child again, half-certain that he had been forgotten as minutes grew into hours and passed him by. The temptation to escape the feeling was strong. He was an adult, a man in complete control of his own actions. All he had to do to fell that control over himself again was stand up and open the door. He could go to the general store and finish his preparations. He could do his part to thank and reassure Mrs. Travis. He could see if any of the others need help or an extra bag. He sat up straight, muscles tensed and ready for movement. He wasn’t a child and he no longer had to wait on the pleasure of others do as he willed.
Chris’s soft voice teased at his memory. //Say yes, Ezra.// Nathan’s refusal to let him leave, even if it would be safer for everyone in town. Vin’s determined smile when he’d corrected Buck, saying it would only take him a half-mile to track Ezra down. The way JD used every trick he had, including his youth, to stop Ezra from leaving. Josiah’s eagerness to come up with any excuse, plausible or not, to go with him to the fort. Buck’s failure to even consider that he and the other wouldn’t be going.
//Say yes, Ezra.//
All the energy drained out of him as suddenly as it had come. He’d agreed to accept their help, to accept their protection. He’d told Chris that he’d stay in his room until someone came for him. He understood the reason for the request; he was safer in company than on his own. If he was going to show his friends’ desire to protect him the honor it deserved, then he had to begin by acceding to their reasonable requests and allowing them to actually protect him. Laying back on the bed, he reached for the book on his nightstand and opened the worn pages to the place he’d left off.
Five minutes and three sentences later he gave up all pretence of reading. He wasn’t fooling himself and there was no one else in the room, so what was the point? He put the book aside. He’d wait until he could pay proper attention before picking it up again. Stretching full length on the bed, he unfastened the first few buttons of his shirt and folded his hands behind his head. He was effectively a willing prisoner in his own room, so he might as well indulge himself in a few moments of sheer indolence. He allowed his eyes to slowly close and cast his thoughts adrift, allowing them to follow their own paths and wander where they willed.
A knock at his door brought him back to awareness. The light coming through his window hadn’t changed much, so he must not have been asleep for long. He glanced down at the gun in his hand. At least his reflexes hadn’t gone to sleep. He steadied his aim at the door. “Yes?” he asked quietly, deliberately keeping his voice indistinct.
Possessed by a sudden urge toward deviltry, Ezra holstered his gun and swung his feet to the floor. “What’s the code word?” he asked, walking towards the door.
“Damn it, Ezra, we didn’t set up a code word.” Even muffled by the door, Chris’s voice sounded confused.
Ezra grinned. “You’re not Mr. Larabee. Step away from the door or I’ll fire through it.”
“Ezra!” Confusion was rapidly giving way to exasperation.
“You have until the count of three. One.” He placed his hand on the doorknob.
“Two.” He gently gripped the worn, pitted metal.
Instead of finishing the count, Ezra unlocked the door and jerked it open. Chris’s eyes were wide and he was standing well off to one side of the door. Ezra didn’t bother to hide his grin as he raised an eyebrow. “Mr. Larabee. What took you so long?”
Chris’s alarm was gone in an instant. For a moment Ezra feared he’d gone too far. This wasn’t Buck or JD he was teasing. This was Chris and no matter what he thought he’d seen in the man’s eyes he should know to be more careful. He watched as Chris’s irritation melted into reluctant amusement. “Am I to be released from my prison, sir?” he asked.
“I think I might be changing my mind about that,” Chris answered, shaking his head.
Ezra glance back out the window of his room. It was early afternoon. He was usually downstairs at this point, speaking to the denizens of Four Corners as well as the rest of the Seven. He didn’t want to stay hidden any longer, cowering in his room. He’d had enough of that over the past few days. He looked back over at Chris.
“Anytime you’re ready,” Chris said, finally smiling.
“I’ll need a few moments to put myself to rights.” Ezra stepped back to allow Chris into the room. He watched as the gunslinger closed the door firmly, security still his first concern. Ezra turned and walked over to his bed and sat down, reaching for his boots. “Have you been able to finish your own preparations?”
There was no answer. Pausing with one boot in his hands, he looked up at the blond man. “Mr. Larabee?” Chris was looking at him, but his gaze was off center; instead of looking Ezra in the eye, he seemed to be looking a little lower. Deciding not to press the point, Ezra returned his attention to his boots and soon had them on. He rose to his feet and strapped on his guns. Looking down at the empty set of saddle bags on his bed, he asked, “Do you think Mr. Dunne might be in need of an extra set of baggage? I seem to have a surplus.” Again he receive no answer.
This was pushing the bounds of rudeness. “Really, Mr. Larabee. I am aware of your dislike of conversation but this is going a little far.” He looked back over at the gunslinger. Once again, Chris was looking at him but not looking him in the eye. What on earth was he doing? Suddenly nervous, Ezra raised his hand up to the apparent focus of Chris’s attention. His fingers soon encountered an oddity: unfastened buttons. His shirt was still partly undone! Embarrassed to have appeared in such an unseemly fashion, especially in front of Chris, he could feel a blush threatening. Cursing as his fingers suddenly became stupid and slow, he quickly rebuttoned his shirt.
Chris started and jerked his gaze up to meet Ezra’s. With a quick shake of his head he turned around and faced the door. He cleared his throat. “Are you about ready to go?”
Ezra picked up the bag. “After you, sir.” Chris couldn’t have been staring at him, could he? For a moment hope threatened to well up within him. Chris had been staring at him, had been staring at the skin revealed by his relaxed dress in the privacy of his own room. Chris had stared because he, too felt something when he looked at Ezra, the same thing that Ezra felt when he looked at him.
Of course he did. That was why Chris was practically running from the room. More likely was the possibility that Chris had noticed something untoward in Ezra’s manner, something that made him uncomfortable. Ezra was going to have to control himself more stringently. He refused to allow his unruly emotions to ruin the friendship he’d found with the other man. With a sigh, Ezra caught up the saddle bags and followed Chris out the door.
He was pleased to see that neither Lark nor Claire was waiting for him in the saloon. He wasn’t looking forward to encountering either one of them or their arguments again. His luck held for the rest of the day and into the night: neither Lark nor Claire made an appearance. He was able to spend the rest of his time with the Seven, helping JD pack, joking around with Buck, assuring Josiah that the church wouldn’t collapse while he was gone. The whole time, Chris was hovering in the background, keeping an eye on Ezra. Keeping him safe.
In an attempt to repay the other man for his actions, Ezra was careful to strictly control his actions and avoid doing anything to make Chris at all uncomfortable. He was careful not to look at the other man for too long, to avoid the trap of focusing on him and making him aware of Ezra’s hidden emotions. Between the conversations he had with the other men and his attempts to main control over his behavior, the rest of the day passed far faster than he had anticipated.
It was soon early evening. Most of the Seven had retreated to their own rooms, intent on finish packing and getting ready for an early start. Even Chris had left, finally admitting that he too needed to pack. Ezra rose to his feet, leaving off leaning against JD’s desk. He looked at JD and Buck as they sat behind the desk. “Gentlemen, I do believe it is time for me to retire.”
“It’s early yet,” JD protested.
“And we will be leaving early, Mr. Dunne,” Ezra countered. “I’d suggest that you also seek your bed early.” He kept his face absolutely straight. “I’m sure Mr. Wilmington could find a way to persuade you to turn in soon.”
A light flush built up in JD’s cheeks, but he grinned at Ezra. “I think he might be able to, too,” he agreed.
“You *think*?” Buck said. “I’ll be proving it to you, just as soon as I get back from walking Ezra over to his room.”
“It is across the street. I hardly think an escort is necessary.”
“Yes, it is,” JD said. “Until this is over, I think you’re always going to need an escort.”
“Besides,” Buck said, “I don’t want to think about what Chris would do to me if he found out I let you walk over by yourself.”
“Suggest that you be more careful in the future?” Ezra suggested.
“More like he’d tan my hide and then shoot me.”
Ezra wanted to head the tall man off before he could get started on the forbidden topic of Chris. “I wish to retire. If you could talk less and walk more...”
Buck’s teasing smile softened. “I know, Ezra. I just think that you’re not seeing everything in this here situation. Like you’re too close to it, maybe.”
The memory of Chris’s fixation on his unbutton shirt surfaced and Ezra hesitated. “Earlier today,” he said, then stopped himself. He was being a fool.
“What happened?” JD asked.
It was in him to refuse, but they already knew his secret heart; how could he embarrass himself further in front of either man? “Earlier today, Mr. Larabee came to escort me from my room. I wasn’t prepared for his arrival and was rather...disheveled. My appearance was apparently quite distracting for him.”
“Disheveled how?” There was a twinkle in Buck’s eyes.
“My shirt was somewhat undone and I had removed my boots.”
“And Chris couldn’t quite meet your eyes, could he? Bet he was all distracted by your buttons being undone.”
“Perhaps.” Ezra could say more than that. To say more would be to give into hope and he had steeled himself against that.
“No perhaps about it,” Buck said. “Chris-”
“Mr. Larabee is a topic that I no longer wish to discuss. I have made my feelings clear on this matter.”
“Ezra,” JD said. “We only want to help.”
“This is not a situation that can be helped.”
“Like I said, I don’t think the situation is what you think it is,” Buck said. “Let me make a deal with you.”
“Just hear me out, Ezra. We’re gonna be riding for a few days to get to the fort. You just concentrate on watching your back and staying safe. You let me and JD concentrate on watching Chris.”
Ezra raised an eyebrow. “I thought you were coming to help safeguard my person.”
“If you think danger has a chance of getting within a mile of you while Chris is by you, then you’re a crazy man,” Buck said. “Just you wait. When we get to Fort Davies, we’ll sit down and have talk, just the three of us. JD and me will use our eyes and we’ll just see if the situation with Chris is what you think.”
It would do him no good to object. Besides, that stubborn spark of hope within him that refused to die wouldn’t let him. What could it hurt? Realistically he knew that Buck and JD would see nothing because there was nothing to see. Maybe that would finally convince them that there could be nothing between him and Chris and then they would leave him in peace. “Mr. Wilmington, you may do as you like. I have always found myself unable to stop you once you have embarked upon a path.” He cocked his head to the side. “Now may we please go to my room?”
Buck laughed out loud. “That there is a very tempting offer, Ez, but I think JD might have a problem with it.”
Ezra realized what he’d said. He shot a withering glare at the taller man. “I’m leaving now.” He looked over at JD. “Good night, Mr. Dunne. I shall see you in the morning.”
“Night, Ezra.” The dark-eyed young man mock-glared at Buck. “You come right back, you hear?”
Ezra gave up and headed for the door. Buck beat him to it and insisted on going out first and looking the street over before letting Ezra exit out into the street. They quickly made their way over to the saloon and up the stairs. Ezra unlocked his door and rolled his eyes as Buck also insisted on checking the room for intruders. “Good night, Mr. Wilmington,” he said firmly.
“Yeah, I bet it will be.” With a grin, Buck was gone.
Ezra locked the door behind himself. It didn’t take him long to prepare for bed and he was soon encased in cool sheets. His body was quiet but his mind refused to follow suit, racing along twisting paths that gave him no rest. Each path led to the same person: Chris Larabee. He was mad to have agreed to Buck’s suggestion. He was feeding himself false hopes and in the end they would make him sick. Better not to indulge in them at all, rather than wait for the inevitable consequences to hit him. He had more than enough to worry about: escaping Darlson’s vengeance, seeing Andrew again, facing Allister...he had no time for distractions like this. He had to stay focused and make sure that he protected both himself and his friends.
With the hard-learned control he cleared his mind of everything except a single deck of cards. He dealt imaginary players imaginary hands and forced himself to keep meticulous track of the cards. It was the closest he ever came to meditation and the calm in brought him allowed him to fall into troubled sleep.
Sporadic sleep broken by dreams that he couldn’t remember in the pale light of dawn made him even less pleased to be awake than usual. He rose from his bed and dressed quickly, wanting a cup of coffee to clear his head and give him the will to get started. Strapping on his guns, he came to abrupt stop and glared at the door. He needed coffee, but he had agreed to wait upon an escort before venturing out into public.
Did the saloon really count as public? He could easily find coffee there and prepare it himself. Better yet, he could walk very swiftly down the street to the restaurant. There was always coffee available there, hot strong coffee that could knock a man down even as it lifted him up.
He wanted that coffee. Who would be out on the street right now, anyway? It was barely past dawn and the townsfolk of Four Corners didn’t rise nearly as early as their counterparts on the surrounding ranches did. He wouldn’t encounter anyone except perhaps another member of the Seven and then he’d have his escort.
Coffee. Unable to withstand the temptation any longer, he walked over to the door. Just as his hand touched the knob a tentative knock gently shook the wood. Hand on his gun, Ezra backed off a few steps. “Yes?”
“You’re up?” Chris’s voice was surprised.
“I’m awake and ready to be released from this prison.” No games about a password this time. Coffee. Ezra pulled the door open. “Shall we?”
Chris looked utterly startled. “Shall we what?”
What was so difficult to understand? “Coffee, Mr. Larabee. This is the second morning in a row that I am awake at an utterly ungodly hour and I am badly in need of some coffee.” He stepped through the doorway even though it meant crowding Chris, pulling the door shut behind himself. “So shall we?”
Looking suspiciously as though he was trying to hide a smile, Chris turned and led the way back down the hall and down the stairs. Fine, let him laugh. So long as he did it while leading the way to coffee, he could laugh himself sick. Ezra forced him to keep a swift pace as they walked down the deserted streets to the restaurant.
The cook looked up hopefully as they entered the empty restaurant. He got some business this early, but not much. Ezra was aware of this from those rare days where he failed to retire before the sun rose and needed hot coffee to keep him going during the coming day. “Coffee,” he said. “Please.” The early hour was no excuse for rudeness. He sat down at a small table, already knowing that the day would be long.
“And maybe a bit of breakfast?” the cook suggested.
Ezra barely repressed a shudder. He couldn’t face food this early in the morning. “Not for me, Mr. Goodwin, though I thank you.” He glanced at Chris. “Mr. Larabee?”
“Coffee for me, too.” Chris joined him a the table.
Goodwin nodded and soon two steaming mugs sat upon the table. Ezra was hardly able to wait for his to cool, sipping it eagerly, carefully, needing the jolt of the strong flavor to clear away the cobwebs and complete the process for him to wake him up. After a few minutes he was, while still not happy to be awake, much more alert. He placed his empty mug back on the table and blinked at Chris.
“You awake now?” Chris wasn’t even bothering to hide his smile.
Ezra allowed himself to smile back. “I am. Awake, and prepared to travel. Is there a set time for our departure?”
“I think the others are all up now. If you’re ready, I think we can head out of town as soon as we finish saddling up.”
Ezra groaned quietly. “If we must, we must.”
Chris drank the rest of his coffee and rose to his feet. “The sooner we can get this over with, the sooner we can be back home.”
Home. Ezra very much liked the sound of that. He stood and followed Chris out the door. As soon as he got out onto the sidewalk, Chris came to a dead stop. Ezra was completely unprepared for it and bumped into the gunslinger. He quickly moved back, not wanting to cause any unwanted contact with Chris. “Mr. Larabee-” The apology died on his lips as he saw the reason for Chris’s abrupt halt.
Soldiers filled the streets, leading their mounts through the wide central street. Lark stood beside a man who was obviously his superior officer, both of them standing as though waiting for Ezra.
Chris stiffened and stepped to the side, blocking the waiting men’s view of Ezra.
That of course also cut off Ezra’s view of them. While he appreciated the protection, there was nothing to be gained from hiding. He placed a careful hand on Chris’s arm and stepped around him. “You gentlemen look to be leaving town.”
Lark glanced at his superior, then said, “That’s because we are.”
“Ah. Continuing on with your patrol, are you?”
“No.” This time the officer answered. “We’re going back to the fort.” Hellfire and damnation. This was no coincidence. They wanted to escort him back to Fort Davies. One of the townspeople had talked.
Chris shook his head and took a step forward. “You -”
Ezra tightened his grip on Chris’s arm to silence his protest. He ignored the soldiers, who were waiting for him to respond. Instead, he began walking back toward the saloon. After a moment, Chris fell into step beside him. They reached the saloon without further incident.
“What the hell do they think they’re doing?” Chris’s fury was palpable.
“Escorting their prize back to the fort,” Ezra said dryly. “Whether I like it or not.”
“They can’t do that,” Chris said. “We’re going to protect you. I don’t need them.”
“Have you ever tried giving orders to the US Army, Mr. Larabee?”
A sudden grin eased Chris’ rage. “I bet it’s about as easy as giving you orders.”
Ezra tried to look affronted, but he wasn’t sure if he’d managed to pull it off. “I’m not sure that comparison is at all accurate, sir, but I will tell you that it is damn difficult.”
“Fine. If they want to tag along, that’s just fine. They can swallow our trail dust till they choke.”
It wasn’t a solution Ezra liked, but they didn’t have much of a choice. “I need to gather my packs.”
“I’ll help.” Chris accompanied him to his room and picked up one of the saddle bags. Together they walked to the livery stable. Ezra could feel the weight of the soldiers’ stares on his back but he forced himself not to react. The soldiers didn’t matter. His friends were coming with him and that was all he needed to know.
Vin and Josiah were in the livery, checking over their mounts before starting the journey. Vin nodded. “Morning, boys. How’re you doing?”
“Oh, just fine,” Chris said, leading his horse from its stall. “So fine that I’ve decided to add a few people to our little group.”
“Who?” asked Josiah.
“The soldiers who’ve been visiting Four Corners.”
“What?” Vin asked.
“New of our trip has reached them and they’ve decided to return to Fort Davies today,” Ezra explained. “They’ll be leaving as soon as we do, I imagine.”
Josiah shook his head. Vin looked irritated, but then shrugged it off. “If they want to tag along they can. Just so long as we don’t have to feed them.”
“They can starve,” Chris said darkly.
Ezra let that go and concentrated on Chaucer for the moment. He settled his saddlebags upon the horse’s broad back, testing them for balance to ensure they would be comfortable. Sure that they were settled perfectly, he led Chaucer of the stable. The others followed suit. “What about the others?”
“Buck and JD just had to go get their things. Nathan’s all packed up; he’s just dropping off some supplies with Mrs. Travis in case anybody needs a little doctoring while he’s gone.” Josiah nodded over toward the inner parts of town. “Here they come now.”
Ezra took his word for it. He wasn’t going to look over and see the soldiers he knew would be beyond his friends.
He looked up when he heard Buck and JD’s quiet conversation approaching. He carefully repressed a grin. Both of them looked tired. Most likely Buck had found a way to get JD into bed early, but then both of them had forgotten that the purpose of retiring early was to sleep. “Good morning, gentlemen.”
“Morning, Ezra,” JD said.
“Morning,” Buck echoed. “It looks like we might have some company on our way to the fort.”
Ezra let his disgust show. “They are determined to escort me, whether I like it or not. If only Lark had held his tongue...” He shook his head. Wishing would do him no good.
“I dunno,” Buck said. “It looks like Corporal Evers is pushing pretty hard for it, too. It might not be all Lark’s fault.”
Evers? Ezra didn’t recognize the name, but then he didn’t expect to. He’d keep it in mind, though. He inclined his head toward Nathan. “Mr. Jackson. How are you this morning?”
“I’m ready to ride,” Nathan said. “Think we can get a lead on them?”
“We can sure as hell try,” Chris said.
Ezra shook his head. He’d had to die to get away from the army. They’d learn. Right now wasn’t the time to disillusion them, though. Vin mounted up and Ezra followed suit, swinging into the saddle with the easy grace of a western man. In moments the rest were horsed as well. Not looking back at the soldiers, Ezra followed when Vin started riding, leaving Four Corners behind and heading for the fort.
Chris was hanging back, no doubt to watch the soldiers and see what they did. Ezra forced himself to stay up closer to the front of their little party. He didn’t care what the soldiers did. He looked up when someone began to ride beside him. “Mr. Wilmington. Is there some way in which I might be of service?”
“Nope. I was just wondering if you noticed how upset Chris is about someone else trying to protect you. Looks like he thinks that’s a job that should be left up to him.”
Ezra shook his head. “Mr. Larabee’s dislike of interference with his actions is well know, sir. I have no doubt that he would be just as irritated if your role and mine were reversed.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. He might want to help watch out for me by walking with me when I’m out and about, but I don’t think he’d get all ornery about it if, say, he didn’t get to walk me to my room before I turned in for the night.”
Ezra was asking the question before he realized he was going to speak. “Did that happen last night?”
“He was fine until he found out I’d walked you back to the saloon. Then he didn’t want to talk to me any more and just wandered off on his own, looking like he wouldn’t much mind a fight right then. Mighty funny way for a man who doesn’t care to act, if you ask me.”
Ezra wanted to point out that he hadn’t asked, but his heart wouldn’t let the words come. All he could do was shake his head. Buck had no reason to lie to him, but how could it really be true? The memory of that hidden something he’d seen in Chris’s eyes surfaced in his mind. Maybe he’d really seen it: affection and warmth and wanting - he didn’t dare call it anything else. He looked back over at Buck and met the other man’s gaze.
Buck’s smile was surprisingly gentle. “You’ll see,” he promised. “Me and JD aren’t going to do anything to make trouble, but by the time we get to Fort Davies, you’ll see.”
Ezra made no reply, but hope brought that look in Chris’s blue gaze to his mind’s eye once more. Maybe.
Squinting at the horizon, Chris tired to make out the faint outlines of distant buildings. Maybe if he looked a little harder he’d be able to see through the dimming light.
“You’re not going to be able to see the fort, cowboy.” Vin’s drawl was tinged with amusement. “We’re still a day out. Maybe tomorrow.”
Chris leaned back into the saddle, suddenly aware that he’d been leaning forward. “We’ve been making good time,” he said a little defensively.
“Not that good.” Vin looked around the empty plains that surrounded them. “You don’t like the chance to get out into the wild country?”
“It’s not the country,” Chris said, looking back at the company of soldiers trailing along behind them. “It’s the people in it.”
Buck’s voice brought his attention back to his friends. “I don’t know about that. Some of the company ain’t bad.”
Chris followed the direction of Buck’s gaze. Up ahead of them, Ezra and JD were talking in a fairly animated fashion, JD’s eyes following Ezra’s every gesture. The gambler looked relaxed in the saddle, his smile genuine and flashing gold in the light of the lowering sun. He reluctantly looked back over at Buck. He was fairly certain that he was talking about JD. One of these days those two were finally going to admit what they felt for each other to the rest of the Seven. None of them talked about it, but he was sure the other four men knew what was going on, too. Whenever they were ready, Buck and JD would tell them. “You’re right,” he said a little belated. “Not all the company is bad.”
We should think about setting up camp soon. Light’s fading.”
Chris grinned at him. “Admit it. You want to stop because you’re tired.”
Eyes wide with indignation, Buck stretched himself up to his full height so he loomed over Chris a little. “Me? I’m good to ride for hours, yet. But Ezra’s looking a little worn around the edges.”
Gaze snapping back to Ezra, Chris examined him closely. The gambler did look a little tired: his posture was still flawlessly straight, but his shoulders were no longer squared. When JD looked back over his shoulder at Buck, Ezra raised his hand to his temple for a moment, dropping his hand back to the reins as soon as the younger man turned back around.
That was it. “Vin, isn’t there a stream just up ahead?”
Vin nodded. “Yeah, about another half mile.”
“Buck, you ride up ahead and give those boys a heads up. We’re setting up camp there.”
“Sure thing.” Buck was grinning hugely as he urged his horse forward.
Chris would find out what Buck was planning later. Right now he was going to concentrate on worrying Ezra. The other man did *not* want to go to Fort Davies and they would be arriving there tomorrow. Chris couldnt’ make the whole situation disappear, but he could make it a little more bearable for Ezra. And if that meant camping before full dark, then so be it. Chris would take what he could get.
Now Vin was smiling for no damn reason. Chris twisted in the saddle to face him more directly. “What’s so funny?”
“Did you hear me laughing, cowboy?”
Chris wanted to push it, but the sound of hoofbeats distracted him. He glanced over his shoulder and watched Claire Allister ride toward them. A soldier trailed her distantly, staying close enough to stay close to her to keep an eye on her, but staying far enough away to avoid a confrontation with Chris. When the soldiers had come a little too close to the Seven’s first night campsite, Chris had ridden out and warned them off. It was then that he’d seen Claire, ensconced in the middle of the military company. He didn’t know where she’d gotten the horse and he didn’t care. So long as she stayed away from Ezra, she could trail along with to her heart’s content.
He was of two minds about speaking to her. He didn’t want her using their conversation as an excuse to get close to Ezra. She knew too much about him, could potentially manipulate and hurt him. At the same time he was very tempted to speak to her, wanting to hear her reveal the secrets of Ezra’s past that were still hidden from him. She knew Andrew, could explain why the man’s name had moved Ezra when no other pleas could. He stared steadily her as she approached but made no sign of welcome.
“Good evening,” she said, gaze flitting from him to Vin and back again.
Chris settled for nodding, while Vin bobbed his head and said, “Evening.”
She looked past them both to where Ezra was riding up ahead. Chris followed the direction of her gaze and watched Ezra talk to Nathan while Josiah rode a little ways ahead of them. Buck and JD were out of sight, no doubt scouting out the place where they’d bed down for the night.
“I never thought I’d see that again.” Her voice was soft.
“See what?” He couldn’t help asking.
“Ezekiel riding in a group like that. After what happened during the war, Father said that Ezekiel was going to end up some kind of a lone wolf, never riding with anyone but himself again.”
Chris looked back ahead. Ezra wasn’t riding on his own any longer. Seeing him ride in the middle of the other men, Chris came to a sudden realization. The death of his men during the war was what had driven Ezra from the Seminole village. It wasn’t cowardice or greed; it was the demons he carried with him. No doubt the experience of being a part of group had hit too close to wounds that were only half-healed and Ezra had tried to escape the pain by running. It was courage and honor that had brought him back. Chris wanted to tell Ezra that he finally understood, to try to use words to soothe the old hurt. He could take Ezra into his arms....realizing that his thoughts were taking a dangerous path, Chris forced himself to look back at Claire. He turned back to look at Claire. He didn’t know what to say to her. Ezra hadn’t forgotten anything of his past and the wounds from it still hadn’t healed. He didn’t want to say anything about Ezra riding with them out of worry that she’d bring the same subject up with the gambler. If Ezra had gotten over the deaths of his men, then he wouldn’t have kept it such a secret, wouldn’t be refusing to speak of it even now.
Chris decided to avoid making any comment on it at all. “It’s getting dark,” he said mildly.
Her gaze hardened, but she took the hint. Inclining her head, she smiled at both him and Vin. “So it is. Good night, gentlemen.” She turned her horse and rode back towards the military company, her escort trailing along behind her.
“It’s not that dark,” Vin said.
“Yes, it is.” Chris urged his horse forward. They were nearly to the stream and he wanted to make sure that if Ezra needed help with anything that he’d get it.
Josiah had a small fire started by the time Chris arrived. The others were removing their packs so that Buck could take the horses to the stream to be watered.
Vin gently pushed Chris away from his horse. “I got it.”
Chris wanted to object or demand an explanation. Ezra was getting a little to close to the campfire, though, so he let it go. He walked over to stand beside the gambler. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“It is my turn to cook,” Ezra said.
Chris caught sight of JD’s wide eyes and Josiah’s quick headshake. Good with his hands with guns or cards, Ezra was a hopeless cook. “I think Josiah’s got it tonight.”
Green eyes turned slightly dangerous. “It is my turn.” The words ‘I can carry my weight’ went unsaid but Chris heard them just the same.
“But I want to cook,” Josiah said mildly. "I need to be doing something with my hands after riding for so long."
Ezra shifted his gaze over to Josiah, doubt clear in the quirk of his eyebrows. "You do not wish to rest, Mr. Sanchez?"
"Nah." Josiah looked a little sheepish. "I miss working on the church. I feel...idle, riding. Not that looking out for you isn't keeping me busy, brother Ezra, but-"
Holding up a hand to signal his understanding, Ezra nodded. "If you truly wish to cook, then far be it from me to come between you and the fire. I cede my place to you, sir."
"Thanks," Josiah said.
Chris caught JD looking enormously relieved before the sheriff managed to hide the expression. Not wanting to see Ezra to see the same look on anyone's face, Chris moved into the gambler's field of vision. "Ezra? I need to ask you some questions."
Ezra stiffened a little, but he nodded reluctantly. "I understand the need, Mr. Larabee."
Looking about the small campsite, Chris spotted a relatively secluded area, back a bit from the fire. The remains of a fallen tree would provide almost a bench. Perfect. He led the way over to it, conscious of Ezra following him. He sat down and watched as Ezra gingerly perched himself on the make-shift bench.
"Just what is it that you need to know?" Ezra asked.
Chris shot him a sideways look. "Why don't you tell me what I need to know?" Damned closed-mouth man. He wasn't going to volunteer any information that wasn’t specifically asked for. A reluctant smile touched his lips. That was Ezra. Stubborn, even now.
"Oh, I wouldn't want to bore you with too many details," the southern man said easily. "I believe this will go much more quickly if you ask me what you wish to know."
Knowing he was beat, Chris nodded. "Fine. I want to have an idea of what we'll be running into. I don't know the players in this game, so I've got no idea which direction they're gonna jump when things get hot."
"They'll be jumping in front of Allister," Ezra said, a small shake of his head the only outward sign of his irritation. "Protecting him is going to be their primary goal." His tongue crept out to wet his lower lip. "And surely you've had contact with the military mind before, Mr. Larabee. You know what to expect."
True. Chris had served in the Union Army. Adherence to regulations and a certain desire to see the members of the Seven follow the rules. With Ezra leading the resistance, there was no way that was ever going to happen. "How's Allister going to react to seeing you again?"
"I honestly do not know. I am technically a deserter, so he may very well order me arrested and held over for trial."
"He can order anything he wants. We'll just see what actually happens." Chris caught himself flexing his fingers and forced them to relax. "Do you think he'd actually try it?"
"He's done it once before....but no. I think he wants me to apologize and tell him I was fool to leave. Then I think he'll want me to play stalking horse and draw out Darlson."
Chris was liking this guy less and less. So Allister was the one to order Ezra imprisoned? Oh, Chris himself had let Ezra cool his heels in JD's office before, but only as a joke and never for long. The man had refused to let Ezra try to save his men. It may have been a fool's suicide mission, but those were his men. He'd had the right to try and Chris understood how Ezra's anger could still burn today.
Ezra was still holding all his cards close to his vest, but Chris couldn't control his curiosity. "Is there anyone else we'll have to watch out for at the fort? Anyone else you might have history with?" Like this mysterious Andrew, for example...
The gambler looked away from him to stare sightlessly into the fire. His lower lip glistened in the light and the flames cast shadows in the hollows of cheeks and throat. The flames summoned up glints of red in Ezra's hair, making him look like a creature of fire. "Andrew," he said quietly. "Andrew Allister. The old man's son."
“He was just a boy during the war. Oh, I know we were all young back then, but he seemed merely a boy, not a scared young man. He’d followed his father to war and was tremendously proud of that. The only good thing that Allister ever did was keeping his son by him and off the field. He never would have survived, physically or mentally.”
“So you knew him because you were under his father’s command?”
“Andrew was always at his father’s side, acting as a clerk and a gopher. He’d sit in on our briefings and hear me report what me and my men had managed to do. He wanted to join my team, said that he could be one of us, help me win the war one trip behind lines at a time. I wouldn’t allow him to join, even if his father had been amenable to the suggestion. It would have been to dangerous for him and it would have invited too much interference from Allister.” A small smile touched his lips. “It was the only time in my life that I had a chance to be someone’s hero. That’s worth swallowing my pride. That’s worth returning to Allister.”
Chris didn’t realize he was going to move until he’d placed his hand over Ezra’s. “We’re going to get this guy, Ezra. And then we’re going to go home.” If he had to kill Darlson himself, Chris was going to make sure that Ezra left Fort Davies as soon as possible and as safe as possible.
Ezra blinked. “Thank you,” he said quietly, his smile loosing some of the pain that had lurked behind it.
For a moment, Chris forgot where they were and why. All that mattered was that Ezra was staring at him with those brilliant green eyes, sitting so close that Chris could feel his heat and smell the faint set of his soap. He wanted to lean forward, to see if Ezra’s lips were as soft as he’d imagined.
“All done!” Josiah’s cheerful voice broke the spell.
Ezra recovered first, blinking rapidly and then standing up quickly, sliding his hand out from under Chris’s and backing away. His eyes were wide, almost panicked and he turned around quickly. “Mr. Sanchez, I can hardly wait.”
Damn Josiah and his big mouth! Chris pulled himself together. Josiah hadn’t done anything wrong. Chris got to his feet and walked toward the fire. He looked up and caught Buck glaring at Josiah. Christ, they all had to be getting tired if Buck wasn’t happy to hear about food.
They all ate quickly and turned in right away. Chris took first watch knowing that the army wasn’t too far off and keeping half an ear reserved for them. The hours until he awoke Nathan to relieve him passed quickly and when he slept it was with dreams of fire-burnished skin behind his eyes.
Vin’s predictions about when they’d reach the base proved to accurate. Chris could see the buildings by mid-morning and by afternoon they were just outside of town. As they neared it, a sudden pounding of hoofbeats sounded from behind them. Chris reined in his horse and turned in the saddle. The company of soldiers were riding swiftly in an obvious attempt to overtake them. Chris began to swear.
“I bet we can still beat them,” Buck said.
“It’s not worth it,” Ezra said. “They want to draw us into the game so they can try to force us to play by their rules.”
“But we’re not going to follow the rules, right Ezra?” JD asked.
Chris laughed as he suddenly understood what Ezra was thinking. “No. We’re not going to play their game at all.”
“Very astute, Mr. Larabee.” Ezra nodded. “Let them ride into town first. Arriving first means nothing. It is a petty victory that they will discover to be utterly empty.”
Nathan watched the soldiers ride past, Claire in their midst. “And they look so happy about it now. That is a shame.”
After the horsemen had passed, the Seven resumed riding into the fort. Curious faces watched them as they moved down the central street.
“Do you know where to find this General Allister?” Josiah asked.
“Oh, that won’t be a problem.” Uniformed men were approaching them. “Getting away from him is where we’re going to find difficulty.”
As the uniformed men came closer, Chris recognized Lark and his superior, Evers. The third man with them was young and a stranger. Ezra knew him though: there was recognition in the stiff set of his shoulders. Chris studied him carefully. Dark hair cut very short matched equally dark eyes that were set in a face that was regular and handsome.
“We’re here to take you to the General,” the stranger said.
Ezra inclined his head. “What about our mounts?”
“They’ll be taken care of.”
“Yes. Because we shall see to their care. Where would you suggest we take them?”
“The General is waiting.”
“And he will continue to wait.” For all his stubbornness, Ezra’s voice remained mild, almost genial. “If you cannot suggest a place, we will find one ourselves.”
The stranger’s jaw tightened. “Lark. Help them see to their horses and bring them to the General’s office when they’re finished.” He turned and walked away with Evers without looking back.
Chris looked over at Ezra but the gambler’s face was studiously blank. He followed Lark without speaking. Once they reached the livery it didn’t take long for them to stable their mounts. Ezra tipped the hostler to ensure that their belongings would be safeguarded as well.
As they walked behind Lark, Chris maneuvered himself so he was walking beside Ezra. There was no way he was going to let Ezra feel like he was alone in this. Evers and the stranger awaited them outside of a small building.
“Thank you, Lark.” The stranger dismissed Lark and returned his salute. He looked over the Seven. “We weren’t expecting you to bring company.”
“I deplore being predictable,” Ezra said. “They are with me.”
The stranger raised his chin a bit, but after a few moments sighed and turned his back on them. “This way.”
Wise man. Chris didn’t know anyone who could win a staring contest with Ezra. The young man led them into a large office. A man stood behind the desk. His hair was iron gray instead of dark, but the resemblance between him and young man was unmistakable. The young man had to be Andrew.
Andrew saluted his father. “General.”
Allister returned the salute. “Thank you.” He focused his attention on Ezra. “Captain Sanders. It is traditional to salute in the presence of a superior officer.”
“I do apologize. There seems to be some kind of confusion here. My name is Ezra Standish.”
“Damn it, Sanders, this is not the time for one of your games!” Allister slammed his fist down on the desk.
“Standish,” Ezra said.
“Standish.” Ezra’s voice was firm. “That part of my life is over. This is just a final detail that I have to attend to before I can finally leave it behind.”
“Standish. Or I walk out now and you may deal with Darlson in any way you please, for I will no longer be involved.”
“Anytime you’re ready to go,” Chris murmured.
“And who are these people?” Allister’s anger was gone just like that, brought under control by what Chris guessed was formidable will. This wasn’t just a man who’s decisions years ago had prompted Ezra to shed his name and flee westward. This was a man who had risen through the ranks of the United States Army, a man who’d spent his life in command of himself and others. Chris wasn’t going to let himself forget that again.
“I work with these gentlemen. They have decided to accompany me here, feeling that they may be of help.”
“They aren’t needed. I have a base full of soldiers.”
“Yeah, I heard how well that worked for Colonel Stocker.” Chris kept his tone mild but he didn’t back down under the full force of Allister’s glare. This wasn’t about this man. It was about Ezra and keeping him safe.
“Fine. You can try to turn this into a damn circus if you want. Change your name, paint yourself blue. You will not cause disorder in my fort. Is that understood?”
“Most definitely. I’m sure Darlson will cause enough disorder to more than compensate for the restraint of both my friends and myself.” Ezra straightened his cuffs, a nervous gesture that made Chris want to pack him up and take him home to Four Corners. “We’ve been riding for several days now. I am fatigued and my friends are as well. Have you any suggestions as to where we might find lodging?”
“I hadn’t expected you to bring half your damn town with you, so the room I’d reserved for you at the boarding house won’t be adequate. I don’t know if there are more available or not.” He glanced over at his son for the first time. “Andrew can show you the way there.” He looked back over at Ezra and the first flash of humor Chris had seen flickered dimly in his expression. “Would it do any good to tell you that you’re dismissed?”
Ezra inclined his head. “Only because I wish to leave.”
Andrew saluted his father and left the room, Ezra close on his heels. Chris knew this because he was right beside Ezra the whole way. If the gambler was nervous enough to be fidgeting, no matter how mildly, then Chris wasn’t going to leave him alone for a moment. Ezra wasn’t going to have to face his past on his own. Not if Chris had anything to do with it.
“The boarding house is just over here,” Andrew said as he led them off the main street onto one of the smaller side roads. He stared straight ahead, not looking over at Ezra.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Ezra said abruptly. “Darlson is killing the people he blames for his family’s deaths. He wants your father but he’d be more than happy to kill you as well, just to try to increase the price of vengeance.”
“Darlson is after my father. Not just my father, but my commanding officer. If you think I’m going to abandon him, especially at a time like this, you’re crazy.” He marched resolutely ahead.
“You’re just making yourself a target. You’d help your father better by removing yourself from danger so he wouldn’t have to split his attention between protecting himself and you as well.” Ezra reached out toward the younger man but let his hand fall back to his side.
Andrew turned and glared at Ezra, his eyes full of scorn. “Running away might be your trick, *Standish*, but it will never be mine. So long as my father needs me I’ll be staying right by his side.” He jerked his head over toward the building to his left. “That’s the boarding house. You’ll be told what to do once the General finishes drawing up his strategy.” He walked back the way he’d come, not looking back.
Chris watched Ezra carefully. The gambler stood very still for a moment, staring blankly at the dirt in the street. He visibly came back to himself as he turned to raise his eyebrows at the rest of the Seven. “Well, gentlemen. Let’s see who will be joining me in staying here and who will be bedding down in the stables, shall we?” He walked toward the boarding house.
It took Chris a moment to catch up with him. This wasn’t good, but it was pretty much what he had expected. Ezra was going to pretend that the damn poker face was the way he always looked, that he was fine and nothing could touch him.
By the time Chris reached Ezra’s side, the green-eyed man was already talking to the manager of the house. “Ah, Mr. Larabee. The news is mixed.”
“Good and bad. There are rooms available, yet I fear there are not seven, so some of us are going to have to share.”
“How many of us are going to have to share?” Nathan asked. “Four to a room isn’t sharing.”
“It’s penance,” Josiah agreed. “And the Lord isn’t that hard on us men down here below.”
“It isn’t that dire,” Ezra reassured them. “There are three rooms available, so you will only be three to a room.”
“*We’ll* only be three to a room?” JD asked suspiciously.
“My room was reserved for me ahead of time. That leave the other two for the rest of you.” The humor in Ezra’s eyes was there. It was strained and weak and mostly for show, but the fact that it was still there gave Chris hope.
“Oh, you’re not going to be able to work it like that,” Buck said. “Besides, if we’re gonna make sure you’re safe, then there is no way you get a room to yourself.” He glanced around at the others. “Chris should stay with you.”
“Mr. Wilmington -” All the humor had fled from Ezra’s eyes.
Chris took three seconds to consider it. He’d be in the same room as Ezra, so if Darlson somehow got to him there, Chris would be able to send the bastard to hell as soon as he showed his face. He’d be in the same room as Ezra, so he’d get to watch him sleep, maybe hear him laugh quietly, maybe see him dress. He’d be in the same room as Ezra, so he might just give himself away and reveal the emotions he’d been increasingly unable to conceal. “Good idea, Buck.”
Vin jumped into the conversation before Ezra could renew his objections. “And I think Buck and JD should take another room.”
“Buck snores!” JD’s smile belied his objection.
“And you sleep like the dead, so it’ll work out,” Nathan countered.
“That means the three of us would be in a room together,” Josiah said.
“Two of you,” Vin said. “I’m gonna stay out of town nights. Keep an eye on what’s happening outside the fort.”
Ezra left off glaring at Buck for a moment. “Are you certain, Mr. Tanner? I would in no way wish for you to be deprived of a bed.”
“I’m sure. ‘Sides, Josiah snores worse than Buck.” Vin grinned and ducked Josiah’s swat.
“Looks like you have everything figured out,” the manager said. “Everything but the bill.”
Ezra stepped in front of Chris to stand squarely before the manager. “Very true, sir. We haven’t decided how long we’ll be in town.” He handed the man a bill. “Consider this a deposit. If we stay longer than this will buy, you will of course be further compensated.”
“Of course,” the manager agreed. “Here are the keys to the rooms. They’re on the second floor, last three at the end of the hall.”
As Ezra passed out the keys, Chris looked over the others. “I think we should get our things, take a few minutes to get settled. This place has to have a restaurant. We can get something to eat and work out a plan.”
Nods of agreement met his suggestion, so they headed over to the livery to retrieve their belongings. The entire trip there and back, Chris kept a careful eye on Ezra. The other man had gone quiet, only coming to life if one of the others asked him a question. If left to himself he remained silent and introspective. Andrew’s rejection was no doubt eating away at him and Chris wasn’t going to let him brood over it for much longer. It didn’t take long for them to return to the boarding house. The rooms were grouped together. Chris claimed the center room for Ezra and himself. He wanted to be sure the gambler was protected on as many sides as possible.
Alone in the center room, he and Ezra set about unpacking. Chris watched in amusement as Ezra carefully placed his clothing in the tiny bureau that was in the room. The Army might require its men to adhere to certain standards of appearance, but Ezra was going to make all the soldiers look slovenly.
It became obvious that Ezra wasn’t going to talk about the thoughts that were occupying his attention. Nothing new there. That meant it was up to Chris to try to get this started. “Ezra?”
“Yes, Mr. Larabee?”
“That Andrew...he seemed pretty angry.”
“He had reason.” Ezra refused to turn around.
“Maybe. Doesn’t make everything he said right, though.”
“It sounded like truth to me. I did run away from the Army. You should be able to believe that, Mr. Larabee. After all, I ran out on you, too.”
“No!” Chris was surprised by his own vehemence, but at least it got Ezra to turn around and face him. “You didn’t run out on me, Ezra. You ran out on your own demons...for a few moments. You came back and you’ve been there every day since. So based on that...I have to say that while Andrew might be angry, he definitely isn’t right.”
Ezra stared at him for a few moments, lips barely parted. “Mr. Larabee-”
“I’m right, Ezra, even if you can’t see it. Trust me.” He held Ezra’s gaze as he took a few steps forward, willing the other man to believe him.
Ezra’s lips remained parted, but he didn’t make another attempt to speak. He stared at Chris, searching the gunslinger’s gaze with his own. He was intent on his search, taking a few steps forward so he could better see. He seemed to find whatever it was he was looking for, because after long minutes a slight smile touched his lips. “Thank you,” he said softly.
“You’re welcome,” Chris said, voice just as quiet. Ezra’s smile remained and Chris returned it. They’d come very close to each other in the past few minutes and Chris was reluctant to move away, liking being so near to the other man. There was an openness to Ezra’s gaze that Chris wasn’t used to seeing and thought it maybe it meant something, that perhaps the time was right to let Ezra know how he felt and find out if the gambler felt the same. He was almost sure now that Ezra did. He leaned forward, gaze pinned on Ezra’s still parted lips. Ezra’s eyes began to slowly droop closed.
“Buck here is looking hungry enough to maybe start snacking on the rest of us!” Josiah’s voice accompanied loud knocking on the he door. “Tell Ezra to finish folding his clothes *after* we eat.”
Ezra blinked and then staggered back, distancing himself from Chris and heading for the door. “We shouldn’t keep them waiting,” he muttered as he pulled the door open.
Chris shook his hat and grabbed his hat off his bed. He wasn’t going to punch Josiah in the mouth when he saw him. It would be a struggle, but he wasn’t going to do it. He might not have gotten to taste Ezra’s lips, but he’d seen Ezra’s eyes start to close, felt him begin to lean forward. He wasn’t alone in attraction. He knew that now, knew it for a certainty.
That was enough to save Josiah from a fat lip.
He walked down the stairs and found the others waiting for him outside on the street. “Any idea of where there’s a restaurant in this place?”
“The guy inside said there’s one a few doors down,” JD said.
“Well then let’s get down there before Buck gets so hungry he starts nibbling on you.” Chris couldn’t resist the urge to tease JD. One day the other man was going to get too old to blush and Chris had to get in his jabs while he could. Ignoring Buck’s glare, Chris led the way toward the restaurant. The faster they ate, the sooner they’d be planning, the sooner they’d be turning in for the night, the sooner he’d have Ezra back in their room and they’d have a chance to finish what they started.
The restaurant was larger than Chris had been expecting and they were able to find a table for ten. Ezra nodded reluctantly when he saw the table Chris had chosen.
“There’s only seven of us,” Buck pointed out.
“Someone will be joining us shortly,” Ezra explained. “Either Andrew or the general or perhaps both.”
Chris maneuvered so that he was sitting next to Ezra. The gambler was avoiding his eyes but he hadn’t made any real effort to move to sit somewhere else. Chris ate quickly once the food came. He was hungry and could feel the longing for a night of sleep in a real bed building within him. The others were no doubt weary as well and there wasn’t much conversation until they were finished eating and lingering over coffee.
“So what do you think we should do?” JD asked at last.
Chris stayed quiet, waiting for Ezra to answer.
The green-eyed man stared down at his coffee, a bitter twist to his lips. “We could wait for Darlson to kill Allister and then catch him in the act.”
“I like that plan,” Chris said.
Josiah cleared his throat and sounded disapproving.
“Maybe just let Darlson rough him up a bit?” Chris asked hopefully.
“No,” Ezra said quietly, refuting his own suggestion. “Waiting for Darlson to attack Allison isn’t feasible. It puts us purely on the defensive, relying only on his actions, his plans. I would rather not stay here any longer than absolutely necessary.”
“So how do we make this guy follow our plans?” Nathan asked. “Wait. Set a trap.”
“With bait he won’t be able to resist,” Ezra said.
“What? No!” Chris objected, knowing what Ezra was going to suggest.
“I don’t think that is a good idea,” said General Allister, approaching their table. “We are outlining a strategy of how to deal with Darlson. No heroics are necessary on your part, *Standish*.” He stood at the empty head of the table, Andrew by his side.
“So what exactly are we supposed to do?” Ezra asked.
“Stay out of trouble while we finalize the details. You are here so that you will be protected. Darlson is the Army’s problem and the Army will solve him. Just stay here and obey the orders you are given and you will be taken care of.”
“No. I am not just going to sit here idly and wait for Darlson to attempt to kill me or you. Nor will I just stand by and ignore potential risks the lives of my friends. I came here to take action, not wait.”
“While you are here you will abide by the orders you are given,” Allister said. “You, and your friends.”
Those were the wrong words to use with Ezra. Chris knew it even before Ezra stood up to face Allister squarely. “Abide by orders? No. Especially not orders given by you. You lost the right to give me orders when you left the finest men I had ever known to die and denied me the right to die with them.” Ezra walked around the table and headed for the door.
Chris was immediately on his feet, following Ezra. He could hear chairs pushing back behind him and knew that the others were following. Ezra didn’t speak on the way back to the hotel and remained silent until all the others had joined him and Chris in their hotel room. They all crowded in, Ezra standing near the window, JD sitting on Chris’s bed with Buck close by him, Nathan on Ezra’s bed, Josiah near the door. Chris hovered by Ezra, not wanting to crowd him but unable to be too far from him.
Ezra stared out the window for a few minutes, features lit by the light of the setting sun. Visibly returning to himself, he turned around to look at the others. “I fear I lost my temper in the restaurant. My apologies.”
“You’re not the one that owes apologies,” Chris said.
A quick flash of a golden smile was his reward. “Thank you. But my outburst prevented us from formulating a plan. If you gentlemen would care to continue...”
“Not if you’re going to keep talking about being bait, we’re not.” No way was Ezra going to set himself up to be killed.
“It is the most logical course of action to take. And it isn’t as though I would be doing this on my own. I would have you gentlemen to back me up.”
“How do we know that Darlson will go after you? He could just kill Allister first.” Buck’s glance over at Chris was sly. “Or is that part of the plan?”
“No,” Ezra said quellingly. “We should leave the fort as we have found it with all its occupants alive and well. But Darlson will seek me out before the general. During his trial he blamed me for his ‘persecution’, blamed me for his conviction, blamed me for everything. We never got along and our mutual dislike has no doubt deepened into hatred. If given the opportunity, he will attempt to kill me before moving on to Allister.”
“No,” Chris said. “It’s too dangerous.”
“So is just sitting and waiting,” said Vin. “If we set the trap instead of waiting for Darlson, we’ve got a chance of staying in control.”
Chris shook his head stubbornly. He wasn’t going to let Ezra be taken from him before he’d had a chance to explore what they might have together.
“We don’t have to make a decision tonight,” Josiah said. “I suggest we all get some sleep and discuss this in the morning.”
JD yawned hugely. “That sounds good to me.”
The members of the Seven prepared to leave. Ezra cleared his throat as they did so. “Mr. Tanner? Are you certain that you wish to sleep outside?”
“I’m good, Ezra. Thanks, though.” Vin glanced over at Chris and a grin began to stretch his lips before he turned and left.
And Chris was alone with Ezra once more.
The green-eyed man shifted nervously. “I find that I am most tired. I think I shall retire now if that is acceptable to you.”
“Yeah. Yeah, sleep sounds good.” He turned around and pulled a pair of long underwear bottoms out of his bags. He didn’t want to sleep in his clothes, but if anything happened during the night, he wasn’t going to be running around naked while there was trouble. He was hyper aware of Ezra behind him and was tempted to make his way to the bathroom at the end of the in order to change.
“I’ll be back shortly,” Ezra said, jerking open the door and quickly leaving.
Damn it, he wasn’t supposed to keep doing that! Chris followed him out into the hall, then stopped as Ezra disappeared into the bathroom. He nodded to himself. Looked like Ezra was about as nervous as he was. The realization that Ezra, the master of unflappable calm, was off-balance reassured Chris and made him feel more in control. He might not be sure of what was going to happen next, but Ezra was lost too and they’d find their way together. Suddenly cheered, he reentered the bedroom and changed quickly. He didn’t want to make Ezra uncomfortable. A little nervous, a little excited sure, but never uncomfortable.
He was tugging back the covers on his bed when Ezra returned to the room. Chris finished pulling the blanket back. “You’re going to have to stop doing that, you know.”
Chris turned around. “Walk..” Ezra had changed his clothes as well. He placed his worn clothing away in an empty saddle bag, then turned to face Chris. He was wearing short pants of some soft-looking material and his shirt, now unbuttoned and hanging open in the front, revealing a strip of bare, muscled flesh. Chris cleared his throat. “Walking out into hallways and out of buildings without letting me check them first. Just until this is over.”
Ezra lifted his chin in a familiar stubborn gesture, then shook his head as a rueful grin touched his lips. “You’re right. I shall do my best to remember that, sir.” He turned his back on Chris. With hesitant hands, he pulled away his shirt and placed it in the bag. He walked to the head of his bed and started to undo the bedcovers, muscles shifting and flexing under the smooth skin of his back.
Unable to resist, Chris reached out and traced a finger down that firm skin, finding that it was as soft as it looked and hotter than he would have believed.
Ezra stiffened with a gasp and turned to face him. “What?”
“I-” He shook his head. He was going to fail if he tried to do this with words alone. They would twist on his tongue and betray him. He took a step closer to Ezra and could feel the warmth of the other man’s skin, so near to his own. Careful to hold his arms at his sides, he leaned forward and pressed his lips to Ezra’s in a tentative brush of flesh over flesh. Another small gasp escaped the gambler, but Ezra made no move to escape so Chris pressed his luck, kissing him again, a firm press of lips that set his hands to shaking with the need to touch. Still he refrained, and he forced himself to lean back a little.
Eyes fluttering open, Ezra had to try several times before he was able to speak. “Mr. Larabee? What...why?”
“Because I wanted to know, Ezra. Wanted to know if you tasted like I dreamt you did.” Chris watched the other man swallow convulsively and pressed his advantage. “Wanted to know if your kiss was as sweet as I imagined.”
“I wanted to see if you would smile at me after, Ezra, smile just for me. Wanted to see how my name sounded on your lips.”
“Chris. Please, Ezra. Chris.”
“M-Chris. I...I don’t know what this is.” Panic was flickering at the edges of Ezra’s gaze as he licked his lips.
“Oh, I’m not exactly sure either, Ezra. But I know what I’d like it to be.” He leaned forward and kissed Ezra again, sneaking his tongue out to steal a taste of that tempting lower lip before he leaned back again. “I care about you, Ezra. More than I thought I’d ever be able to care about anyone again.”
“Chris, I don’t understand. You don’t...you’re not...” Ezra shook his head, obviously frustrated with himself.
“Ezra, I’m not sure exactly about what that is. That is true. But is also true that I care about you, that I think that could maybe be l-”
“Don’t,” Ezra said. “Don’t say anymore.”
“I want to,” Chris said.
“I think I want you to,” Ezra admitted, although he still seemed jumpy. “But why now? Why here?”
“Ezra, if you think I’m going be able to explain love, you’re crazier then people say I am. Because you’re you, because each day I want to see you more and like being parted from you less.” The words were coming to him now and he was thankful for that. “I just want to find out what this could be.”
“I don’t want to play a game,” Ezra said.
“No games,” Chris promised. “This is serious. I’m not looking for a diversion or way to pass the time.”
Ezra’s weight was held forward on the balls of his feet as if he was still half-ready to run. He swallowed hard and reached out to lay a trembling hand over Chris’s heart. “Be sure. Please be sure. If you were to change your mind-”
“No,” Chris said, reaching up to cover Ezra’s hand with his own. “And however long as it takes to convince you, whatever it takes, I’m willing to do it.” He stared at Ezra, willing him to believe.
Ezra smiled a little. “I think I would like to find out, too,” he said quietly, catching Chris’s hand in his and raising it to his lips for a quick kiss. “But now, I would like to sleep.”
Chris laughed a little. “Thank you,” he said.
“No,” Ezra countered. “Thank you.” He darted forward quickly, stealing a brief kiss before sliding into bed and hiding himself beneath his blankets.
Chris shook he head and blew out the candle before climbing into bed
himself. He could still feel Ezra’s lips against his own, the warmth
and firmness of them. Sleep wouldn’t come easily, he knew.
That was all right. It would just give him more time to remember
and more time to plan. Ezra would need convincing, and Chris was
going to give him as much as he needed. Smiling to himself, he listened
to Ezra breathe and thought about the coming days.
Ezra awoke slowly, sleep unwilling to release its hold on him. For a few moments he fought the urgings of his body. The mattress was soft and the blankets sleep-warm and his muscles were all too eager to remind him of the riding he’d been doing. He let one eye open to a mere slit, just to judge the light and convince himself that he could sleep longer. It was mid-morning, by the light coming through the window and cascading over Chris’s empty bed.
Ezra sat up in bed, memories of the night before flooding his mind. Chris’s lips on his, the incredible heat of the other man’s hands on his skin...the even more incredible words the gunslinger had spoken. In the fresh light of morning the memories seemed like a dream. Ezra raised a hand to his lips and felt them still tingle a little from Chris’s touch. It was no dream.
So where was Chris? Ezra slowly climbed out of bed. Had the other man changed his mind, come to his senses in a sudden rush of sanity and left so to avoid an awkward moment the morning after? Why else would he be gone? If he truly felt the way he said he did, then he’d share Ezra’s need to hold him in his gaze, to be close to him even if no words were exchanged. For him to slip out in the morning rather than waking Ezra up...closing his eyes against a rush of despair, Ezra got dressed roughly, jerking his clothing into place. After strapping on his guns, Ezra took a few deep breaths to calm himself down. Fine. He’d made a mistake, made himself a fool. It didn’t mean he had to look one. Chris would no doubt to keep his little misadventure to himself and there was no reason anyone else had to know. He took some extra time to make sure everything was in place, smoothing his clothing into place and settling his hair into its usual arrangement. As he reached for the doorknob, a bitter little smile twisted his lips. So much for all Chris’s protectiveness. The request for him not to leave rooms without someone being with him was apparently as forgotten as their kisses.
The door opened abruptly, slamming into his knuckles. With a muffled oath, Ezra stumbled backwards, drawing his gun in the processes.
Chris stared down the barrel of his weapon with widened eyes. “No need for that, Ezra.”
Don’t be to sure, Ezra thought viciously before regaining control of himself. “Mr. Larabee. I trust the morning finds you well.” There. Calm and controlled and as cool as the gunslinger could wish.
“Mr. Lara- Ezra? Ezra, what’s this?” Chris cocked his head to the side as he stepped into the room.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” Ezra said. “I was merely hoping to rejoin the rest of our colleagues and continue to work on our strategy.”
“I told you to stop going outside on your own.”
“You told me many things, didn’t you?” Ezra brought himself back under control before he could act even more a fool.
Chris stared at him for a moment, then took several aggressive steps forward into Ezra’s space. Ezra took a few steps backwards, confused by Chris’s actions. The blue-eyed man shoved a pair of mugs onto the low dresser then continued his forward motion into Ezra’s space. The gambler opened his mouth to demand that the other man back off.
“No, Ezra. I don’t know what you’ve managed to tell yourself, but it’s going to stop here.” Chris reached out and cradled Ezra’s face in his hands, palms warm against the green-eyed man’s skin. “What happened?”
Ezra wanted to hold onto his anger; it was the only thing keeping the hurt away. But Chris was looking at him with confusion and pleading in his eyes. “You were gone,” he said quietly. “I woke up and you were just gone.”
Chris nodded, a slow smile crossing his face. “I woke up before you,” he said. “Of course, everyone wakes up before you do. I left because Buck is sitting in the hall watching the door and I wanted to get you coffee.”
“Coffee?” Ezra’s gaze remained locked on Chris, but he could smell the contents of the mugs on the dresser.
“Coffee,” Chris confirmed.
Ezra licked his lips. So he’d been a fool after all, but he’d done it all on his own without any help from Chris. He could feel a blush rising in his cheeks and he turned around. If Chris hadn’t had second thoughts before he surely would begin to now, after Ezra had acted like a clinging, choking vine. He tried to come up with words that would retrieve the situation.
A tentative hand brushed over his shoulder and gave him hope.
“Perhaps we could start this morning over again?” He couldn’t force his voice to be any louder. What if Chris came to his senses and said no?
“Let’s,” Chris agreed, both hands on Ezra’s shoulders.
Ezra turned around to face him. “Good morning.”
“Morning.” Chris leaned forward and kissed Ezra gently.
Ezra returned the kiss eagerly, moving closer to Chris. He wrapped his arms around Chris’s middle to pull him close. Chris moved easily into his arms, not breaking the kiss for a moment. Feeling a little light-headed from the close contact with the gunslinger, Ezra finally had to break the kiss. He rested his forehead against Chris’s and closed his eyes. “I am a fool,” he admitted quietly.
“No,” Chris said.
“I have seen many fools in my time, sir. If I say that I am a fool, rest assured that I truly am one, and that I am a most remarkable specimen.”
Chris kissed him again, harder this time. “If you’re a fool, then so am I. I surprised you last night, dumped all my feelings on you without any warning. What were you supposed to think when I disappeared this morning without any explanation?”
“That you went to get me coffee?” Ezra suggested.
“Smart as you are, Ezra, even you can’t tell the future.” He kissed the corner of Ezra’s mouth. “Forgive me?”
“For what? I am the one who should be asking your forgiveness.”
“Then let’s forget the whole thing.” Chris glanced over at the dresser. “That coffee’s going to get cold.”
“Let it.” Ezra captured Chris’s mouth in a kiss, deepening it quickly, relishing the slick glide of tongue over tongue. He slid his hands inside Chris’s jacket, stroking them up the length of his back. Chris responded instantly, pushing against Ezra, forcing him to walk backwards until the back of his legs hit his bed. Ezra stumbled and sat down heavily on the bed.
Breathing heavily, Chris looked down at him. “We can’t do this. Not right now.”
“Do what?” Ezra did his best to look innocent.
“Don’t you sit there and look at me like that. Not when we have plans to make.” Chris raked his hand through his hair.
“I have no idea what you mean,” Ezra said. He leaned back on his elbows and tilted his head back a little.
“You-” Chris raised his hand and shook his finger at him. He turned and grabbed the mugs of coffee, thrusting one of them at Ezra. “Take this and let’s get going. We have to meet the others.”
Ezra sat up and took the mug. The coffee within was still warm and he sipped at it gratefully. “Of course. Shall we join them now?”
Chris stalked over to the door and jerked it open. “Everything clear?” he called.
“All clear,” answered Buck cheerfully. “Is Ez actually up?”
“I am,” Ezra answered for himself. He followed Chris out the door after settling his hat on his head. Buck’s grin was huge and Ezra refused to react to it. He was still adjusting to what he had Chris had just done and he wasn’t sure he was ready to share it just yet.
“The others are out and about. I told’em to meet us at the restaurant in a bit. We could go wait for them there.” When they nodded, Buck led them out of the hotel.
Ezra was intensely aware of Chris walking behind him. He had to forcibly remind himself to stay aware of his surroundings rather than focus on Chris. The fort streets were quiet, soldiers in uniform conspicuous as they walked about it groups of three and four, patrolling with watchful eyes. Ezra doubted they even knew what Darlson looked like, but if there was trouble on the streets, they’d be on hand immediately.
JD was waiting in the restaurant when they arrived. Buck sat down beside him and glanced up at Chris. “You want to go take a look for the others? JD and me will watch Ezra.”
“I do not need keepers,” Ezra griped quietly.
Chris hesitated, then nodded. “Fine. I can do that. All three of you stay sharp, you hear?” He looked at Ezra for a few moments more, then turned and walked quickly out of the restaurant.
Ezra leaned back in his chair and looked back and forth between Buck and JD. “And why exactly did you send Chris out on that errand?”
“Because of the promise we made,” JD said. “About watching you and Chris on the ride here.”
Ezra had almost forgotten that. “Gentlemen, while I appreciate your efforts, it is truly unnecessary.” He wasn’t quite sure how to tell them what had occurred between him and Chris, wasn’t even sure that he could tell them without discussing it with Chris first. Either way, their efforts on his behalf on the ride over were moot at this point.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Buck said. “You don’t want to hear anything because you’ve managed to convince yourself that it’s impossible, but it isn’t. See, while you were watching your back and keeping an eye on the army, I was watching Chris. And you want to know what he was watching?”
“I’m sure you’re going to tell me.”
“Chris was watching you. All it took was a little hint that you might be tired and he’d call a halt to the day’s ride.”
“And he was always making sure the Buck or me took care of Chaucer so you wouldn’t have to,” JD jumped in. “I don’t know how he talked him into it, but Vin took care of Chris’s horse for him a few times so Chris could be with you.”
“Remember a few days back when you tried to skip eating lunch? I thought Chris was gonna sit on you until you ate something.”
“And the night before, when you two were sitting off to the side, Chris looked like he wanted to hit Josiah for interrupting you when you were talking. He was touching your hand, too.”
“I’ve know Chris a long time,” Buck said. “He’s never touched my hand like that.”
“He cares,” JD said earnestly. “I think he’s worried about you and he’s letting his feelings show more than usual because of it.” He stared at Ezra, all brown eyes and pleading.
Ezra laughed. “Mr. Wilmington, do you ever win an argument with him?”
“Only if I don’t look at him.” Buck’s words were teasing, but his eyes were warm when he looked at JD.
JD pouted for a moment, then gave in to a smile of his own. After a few moments he looked back over at Ezra. “Do you believe us now? That there’s a chance?”
Ezra held himself very still. He had to answer this carefully. He couldn’t betray Chris, but neither could he refuse JD’s pleading or Buck’s generous hope. He licked his lips. “For the moment, I am willing to concede that there may be a chance.” He couldn’t say anymore. Fortunately, it was enough.
Buck slapped him on the back hard enough to rock him forward. JD whooped and slapped the table. “Yes! That’s what we wanted to hear!” the younger man exclaimed.
Ezra smiled, glad that he had made them happy. He was relieved when the others started to arrive because it meant an end to the conversation, though. He wasn’t quite sure he was up to dancing around the subject of Chris with them. They’d known his secret heart for too long and he feared that he would give himself away without realizing it. He greeted Nathan eagerly and was soon being told more about the dangers of over-using laudanum then he’d ever expected to know. And information was useful and Nathan seemed quite excited about it, so Ezra was glad to listen. Even as he nodded, he was aware of Chris’s return and felt a rush of warmth when Chris took the chair next to him.
Once they were all in place, the mood became solemn as they all focused on the business ahead of them. Ezra was reluctant to speak. He’d been distracted for most of the time away from the others, but he’d done some thinking and he hadn’t been able to come up with a better plan then he’d suggested the night before. If he brought it up again, Chris would just object again.
“I was awake for a long time last night,” Josiah said. “This is a deadly serious matter. There is a man out there who wishes to kill our brother and we need to make sure he doesn’t succeed. The whole reason we’re here is to keep Ezra safe...and I don’t see a way to do that without putting him in danger.”
“No,” Chris said.
“Mr. Larabee, it is the only way to draw him out. It is the only way to draw him out and have any hope of forcing him to conform to our plans. Any other course of action leaves us completely at the mercy of his whims.”
“Like Josiah said, we’re here to keep you safe. Setting you up like some kinda lamb to slaughter isn’t keeping you safe.”
“Chris,” Buck said quietly. “Ezra ain’t exactly a lamb. I’ve never seen a lamb who can handle a gun like him, anyway.”
“This isn’t a joke,” Chris said.
“Oh, believe me, I know it. But Ezra and Josiah are right. We’re dealing with a man who’s not in his right mind. We don’t have a lot of choices here. Setting a trap is our best chance to get a handle on him.”
“Ezra won’t be alone,” Vin said quietly.
“Not alone at all,” Nathan agreed. “As soon as Darlson sees him, we’re gonna spot *him*.” A fierce expression crossed his face, making him look very much unlike a healer. “And then God help him when we do.”
Ezra blinked. He hadn’t expected Nathan to get quite so vehement.
“I’m not sure God will be enough to help him,” said JD. The sheriff looked over at Josiah and blushed a little, but he didn’t take back his words.
Chris stared at the rest of the Seven and then turned to face Ezra directly. “Are you sure you want to do this? We can find a different way if you’re not sure.”
“I’m sure,” Ezra said. “This is the only way I can see, especially since our time is so limited. With you gentlemen watching my back, I am confident that this will work.”
“What will work?” Andrew Allister’s voice preceded him as he approached the table.
“Our plans for lunch.” Ezra forced himself to answer and keep his tone light. The Army was his responsibility to handle.
“I don’t believe it. You were told that the general was going to develop a strategy. There isn’t a need for amateurs to be interfering.”
Restless stirring was the only sign of the rest of the Seven’s anger. Ezra kept his features blank. “I am sure that the general will develop a most useful and effective plan. We were merely speculating. Discussing possibilities and trying to develop our own strategy will keep us out of trouble.”
“Don’t try that with me, San-Standish. I know you. You won’t be content to just sit and make plans. I don’t doubt that your friends are just the same.”
“What have we done?” Ezra asked. “We’re attempting to enjoy breakfast and pass the time with idle speculation.”
Andrew shook his head. “No. I was young during the war, but I wasn’t that young. I remember you. I remember how you and your men used to operate. You can protest all you like. I’ll be watching you.”
“And while you’re sitting and watching, we’re going to take of Darlson for you,” Chris said.
Ezra repressed a groan. There went the pretense of innocence.
“I knew it,” Andrew said.
“Forgive Mr. Larabee. He tends to be quite inhuman until he’s eaten. Would you like to join us?” Ezra asked. “Then you can see that we’re just talking and eating breakfast and all your fears will be allayed.”
“I have work to do. I can’t just pick up and leave my duties for days at a time. I don’t have time to linger over meals for hours.” He shook his head. “I don’t remember what I saw in you.” He turned around and walked away.
Ezra retreated behind the familiar lines of his poker face as he absorbed the hurt. His words from just a few days in the past returned to haunt him. Someone’s hero? If he’d been a hero once, he wasn’t any longer. There wasn’t much about the war years that he cared to remember but Andrew’s company and admiration had been something to he’d secretly treasured.
Chris’s hand on his arm drew him out of the maze of his own mind. The blue-eyed man stared at him intently. “He’s worried about his father. He’s scared but he can’t let it show because he doesn’t want to disappoint the man and he’s taking it out on you.”
“And now he’s seeing you here with us,” JD said. “It’s not easy - when you all were first getting together and I was on the outside, I wanted to be a part of this so bad I could taste it. He never got to be a part of unit during the war and he’s not going to be a part of us now. He’s acting like he doesn’t care but inside it’s making him crazy and that’s something else he’s taking out on you.” Beside him, Buck nodded vigorously.
And the pain was suddenly manageable. His friends were looking at him with support instead of condemnation and Chris hand was warm even through the cloth of his jacket. He drew in a deep breath. “Thank you,” he said simply. He forced his mind away from Andrew’s words and his own loss and focused once more on the problem at hand. “On to more important matter, then,” he said.
With a final squeeze, Chris slowly withdrew his hand. “Are you going to insist on this damn baiting a trap plan?”
“Can you honestly see another way?”
Chris shook his head in frustration. “No. But if we’re going to this, then we’re going to do it careful and we’re going to do it right. We might be risking your life but we’re not going to take any chances while we do it.”
Ezra nodded. As they began to debate ideas, Ezra relaxed.
The plan they would outline would no doubt be risky, but it would be crafted
by men who called him brother, by a man who spoke of love to him.
There would be danger, but it would be danger shared and they would face
this challenge as they had faced so many others and once again emerge victorious.
The smile on his face became firmer and real and he joined in the planning.
“Better keep that scowl buried in your drink or else you’re going to scare the bastard off before we can spot him.” Buck’s voice was quiet but it broke through the haze of Chris’s thoughts.
Chris quickly smoothed his features. “I hate this.”
“None of us like it, but it’s the only plan we’ve got.”
It was a struggle, but he kept the scowl off his face. He glanced across the saloon to where Ezra sat at a table dealing out a fresh hand of cards. He couldn’t let his gaze linger or else he might be observed showing too much interest in him. He and Buck were loitering at the bar, slowly nursing their drinks as they tried to keep an eye on Ezra.
This was the first full day that they were trying to lay a trap for Darlson and Chris hated enacting the plan more than he’d hated the idea of it. Ezra was all the way across the room, acting the part of a frightened gambler looking for protection from the Army. In order to further that illusion, Ezra was avoiding the others while in public, spending all his time in the saloon talking to soldiers and engaging anyone who crossed his path in games of chance. The rest of the Seven took turns watching the street and watching Ezra himself. He and Chris still shared a room, but as it was hardly uncommon in a crowded boarding house for strangers to share rooms it didn’t interfere too badly with their plan.
So far no one had displayed any unusual interest in Ezra, but that was small comfort to Chris. To keep the trap intact, Chris couldn’t go near the gambler during the day. Ezra had to look as though he was on his own so he would seem to be a more attractive target. That meant the only time that Chris got to spend with Ezra would be at night.
In their room.
The gunslinger immediately took a sip of his drink in order to hide his face. It wasn’t that he wasn’t looking forward to seeing Ezra in their room. Last night, they’d shared a series of goodnight kisses that had left Chris unable to sleep for hours. He couldn’t wait to get back to the room and feel Ezra’s body against his again but he worried about what might happen in the time before they got there. He hadn’t realized that Ezra was so skittish, but the green-eyed man’s reaction to finding him gone the night after Chris had revealed his feelings had taught him that lesson well. Chris worried that the enforced distance between them could worry Ezra and the other man didn’t need to have any more stress put on him.
“You’re taking this awful hard,” Buck said. “Ezra’s a big boy. He can take care of himself.”
Chris shook his head. “I know that, Buck. But we came hear to protect him and what are we doing? We’re leaving him out there on his own.”
“He’s not on his own, Chris. We’re watching him every moment of every day.” Buck toyed idly with the glass in his hands. “There any particular reason you’re so upset about not being able to talk to him?” The glance he shot at Chris was sly, knowing.
What was this? Chris sat up a little more. Buck was hinting at something in his usual less-then-subtle style, but Chris wasn’t sure exactly what the other man was getting at. He didn’t think he done anything to reveal his feelings for Ezra and the gambler was too self-aware to have accidentally slipped up. Chris had always been close-mouthed about his personal life, but this was Buck. Buck, who was involved with JD...with a shrug, Chris met Buck’s gaze evenly. “Maybe there is.”
“Care to share that reason?” Buck’s grin had grown.
“I have a feeling you’re not going to let this drop, so I guess I do.” His gaze slid back over to Ezra for a moment and then he looked back at Buck. “I’m falling in love with him,” he said quietly.
Buck’s eyes lit up just like a kid’s. “Really? You sure it’s not just a passing fancy?”
“No. I thought it might have been, but I know better now. This is love.”
“Hot damn. Have you told him?”
Chris cocked his head to the side. “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”
“Come on. You can tell me.”
“Yeah, I can. That doesn’t mean I’m going to.”
Some of the teasing faded from Buck’s eyes. “You have to tell him.”
“What do you care, Buck?” Chris watched his friend carefully. Buck was always cheerfully nosy, happy to insinuate himself into the lives of his friends. This urgency, though, was out of character.
“He needs to know,” Buck said. “How else is anything going to happen?”
“I don’t even know if he feels the same.”
“All the more reason to tell him. Nothing ventured and all that.” Buck’s excitement was out of sync with the moment. It was as if the other man was already sure about Ezra’s feelings and just wanted Chris to find them out as well. Chris looked over at Ezra and caught the gambler looking away from him and Buck. The glance lasted barely a moment but it was long enough for Chris to catch the concern in the green eyes.
That settled it. Buck knew more than he was saying.
Chris leaned back. “I don’t know, Buck. The man just doesn’t seem interested and with all the stress he’s under, I don’t want to add to it. I think I’d better just keep this to myself.”
Buck looked about ready to fly apart, he was so upset by Chris’s lack of resolve. “No! This could be just what he needs.”
Green eyes glanced toward them again and Chris knew he had to stop playing. It was a golden opportunity to finally pay Buck back for all the teasing he owed him, but Ezra was picking up on the tension between them and the gambler didn’t need the distraction. “Keep your voice down,” Chris said. “Calm down.” He took a sip of his drink. “I already told him.”
“What?” Buck hissed. “When?”
“Day before yesterday.”
Buck stared at him, then swore even as he started to laugh. “You two deserve each other. That sneaky bastard looked me right in the eye yesterday and told me that maybe you two might have a chance to get together. When this is over, I’m going to give him a piece of my mind.”
“When this is over,” Chris emphasized. He matched Buck’s grin. “You completely fell for the line he fed you, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did. Ez is a professional.” The smile faded from Buck’s eyes. “You know this is serious, don’t you? You can’t play a game with him.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Chris said. “Not to Ezra.” He leaned in toward Buck. “And why is that so important to you?”
Buck met his gaze evenly. “Ezra’s a friend, Chris.” He drank the rest of his whiskey in a final gulp. “And he got me and JD together.”
Chris hadn’t known that. “Ezra?”
Buck blinked. “You’re not surprised about me and JD?”
It was too late to be tactful. “Already figured that out. I didn’t know that Ezra had a hand in it, though.”
“I didn’t either, at first,” Buck admitted. “He’s slicker than we realize. It took me a while to work it out, but he definitely guided the whole thing. After, we both wanted a way to pay him back. JD figured out how he felt about you, but he’d never let us try to do anything. I’m real glad that you two got together on your own.”
“How long ago did you notice?”
“That’s not my place to tell. Long enough for me to tell you that you have to be careful. No games, Chris. I mean it.”
“I won’t,” Chris promised. He tossed back the rest of his drink. It was time for them to leave. He and Buck stood together and left without looking back at Ezra or acknowledging Josiah, who had just slipped into the saloon. Chris wanted nothing more than to look back at the smiling gambler but he didn’t dare show too much interest.
They barely reached the street when Andrew Allister fell into step with them. “This is your grand plan?” the younger man asked.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Chris said.
“You’re not fooling anyone. You all came into the fort together.”
“Ezra’s a gambler. He usually spend his time in saloons.” Buck’s voice was quiet, patient.
“Right. You can pretend whatever you like. I’m going to be watching you.” Allister walked off without further comment.
“Do you think he’s going to be a problem?” Buck asked.
“Maybe. For right now, there isn’t much we can do so let’s not worry about it. He isn’t going to try to kill Ezra.” Chris lapsed into silence. Allister wasn’t saying anything that Chris hadn’t thought himself. Seeing Ezra in the saloon had helped to convince him that it just might work. The green-eyed man had fallen easily into the role of a frightened gambler hiding at the fort for protection. His act could fool anyone who didn’t know him well. It could fool Darlson. It had to.
Grateful for Buck’s company, Chris walked around the fort, looking for anything out of the ordinary but not expecting to find anything. He had to do something to fill the hours that he was separated from Ezra, though, and this made him feel like at least he was being useful.
When night finally began to fall, Chris headed eagerly over the restaurant. He’d volunteered to get dinner for Ezra, so he ordered enough food for two and paid extra to be able to take the plates over to the hotel. He carried his burden quickly, knowing that Ezra wouldn’t linger in the saloon too long today. He was just beginning to establish himself about town. Tomorrow he’d spend more of the evening in the saloon, but for tonight he was coming back to Chris.
Chris noticed light coming from under the door to the hotel room as he walked down the hall. He paused at the door and knocked on it, careful not to drop the food. “It’s Chris.”
The door opened and Vin glanced him up and down, then shot a look down the hallway. “C’mon in.”
Ezra was in his shirtsleeves, sitting on his bed. Chris sat down next to him and handed over dinner. “I expected to have everyone else inside here.”
“They decided to get dinner at the restaurant, rather than try to cram themselves in here.” Ezra looked over the plate in front of him. “Thank you, Mr. Larabee. Did the proprietor of the restaurant by any chance give you utensils?”
What? Chris looked down at the slices of beef and bread on his plate and groaned. He’d forgotten to get forks.
“It’s all right,” Ezra said. “I have some in my bag.” He put his plate to the side and rose to his feet.
“I’ll clear out and let you eat,” Vin said.
“Are you certain? Your presence is always welcome,” Ezra said.
“I’m sure. I think I might stop and get myself some dinner. That smells good.” Vin opened the door. “I’ll be back in town tomorrow. Maybe I’ll stop by and lose some money to you, Ezra.”
“Please do, Mr. Tanner. Your company and your money will be appreciated.”
“Good night, Vin,” Chris said.
“Night.” With a final smile, Vin was gone.
Ezra walked over to the corner where he’d stored his bags. He bent at the waist as he searched through the pile for the utensils, his pants drawing tight as he did so. Chris drew in a long breath but didn’t look away. After a few moments of searching Ezra retrieved a mismatched pair of forks. With a small smile, he presented one to Chris.
They ate quickly, quietly. Chris wouldn’t have believed that just watching and brooding would work up an appetite, but he finished eating before Ezra. He used the extra time to look the other man over. Ezra looked fine, a little tired and stressed but that was to be expected.
As he finished eating, Ezra glanced up and caught Chris looking at him. “Is anything amiss?”
“No. How did everything go today? From what I saw everything was pretty quiet but I wasn’t there for very long.”
“The day progressed much as I expected. I was able to make a modest profit, but I did not see anyone who could be Darlson.” Ezra stood and moved their plates to the dresser by the door. “I believe that this will work, Mr. Larabee. We just need to give Darlson enough time to reach the fort.”
Chris didn’t want to talk about Darlson any longer. And he didn’t want Ezra to slip back into calling him Mr. Larabee, either. “Chris. You didn’t have any trouble calling me Chris this morning.” He leered a little at the memory of the kiss they’d shared before leaving the room for the day.
Ezra smiled back at him. “Chris. Old habits are difficult to break.”
“I’ll help you work on it.” Chris patted the bed next to himself.
“I have no doubt of that.” Ezra sat down next to him but kept a little distance between them. “Did anything of interest happen to you today?”
“Nothing. Except...Buck and I ran into Allister’s son.” He briefly described the encounter. “Do you think it’s anything to worry about?”
“No. Andrew has enough common sense to guarantee his silence while we’re working.” A sad smile touched Ezra’s lips. “And I remember as a child he had little patience for waiting games. I doubt his interest in our activities will last more than a day or two more.” He looked down at his hands, eyes far away as he lost himself in thought.
Chris didn’t want him to brood over the past. Not now, when he had enough other things to worry about. He reached out and took one of Ezra’s hands in his. “This is going to be over soon. We’ll be able to go home.”
Ezra sighed. “Thank you.” He looked up at Chris. “Since this is going to be over soon, I suppose we shouldn’t waste any time.”
“What-” Chris never got the chance to finish his question. Ezra leaned forward and cut him off with a kiss. Chris was willing to let the question go in favor of exploring Ezra’s mouth: wet devouring warmth that he couldn’t quite get enough of.
Warm hands skimmed up his sides and he turned to face Ezra more fully and pulled the other man to him. The contact wasn’t enough and Chris pushed against Ezra until he was lying on top of him, still feeding from that tantalizing mouth.
Clever fingers had his shirt unbuttoned and he only realized it when Ezra began to jerk the shirt down his arms. He left off trying to get his hands under Ezra’s shirt and cooperated. He smiled down at him. “Sneaky.” A thumb moving roughly over one nipple made him gasp.
Ezra smirked at him. “You’re just jealous.”
Chris was. He wanted a chance to feel the heat of Ezra’s skin against his own. He sat up to work at the buttons on Ezra’s shirt. He took a brief detour to remove his boots and tug off his lover’s as well. He straddled Ezra’s hips and looked down at him. He saw muscles covered by smooth skin and he couldn’t resist touching, hand stroking firmly over the warm flesh.
Ezra arched up into the touch, his own hands sliding up Chris’s thighs. Green eyes hot with desire, he trailed his fingers over Chris’s stomach, moving upwards to trace the faint lines of various scars before bringing his hand back down to rest on Chris’s belt. He raised an eyebrow in a wordless gesture of inquiry.
Leaning down to kiss Ezra fiercely was Chris’s answer. Long fingers worked at his belt and he returned the favor, moving off to the side to make the whole thing easier. A few minutes effort and he was finally skin to skin with Ezra, the lean body he’d coveted for so long pressed tight against him as he returned to his mouth again and again. He reached up to twist his fingers in Ezra’s hair, finding the strands there even softer than he’d imagined. Needy sounds reached his ears and they only increased his desire. He pulled Ezra to him once more and was surprised when Ezra continued the rolling movement so he stared down at Chris.
Sucking hard on Chris’s lower lip, Ezra thrust against him. “What do you want?” he asked in a rasping whisper.
“You,” Chris said. “You, Ezra.” He ran his hands down the muscled back to rest them on Ezra ass and hold him close as he thrust up against him. “Just you.” Words left him as they found a rhythm together, moving against one another ever faster as completion came closer and closer. Hearing his name on Ezra’s lips as the green-eyed man orgasmed was enough to push Chris over the edge and he gasped his pleasure into Ezra’s mouth as he did.
Ezra lay still atop him for a moment, then pushed himself up as though he intended to rise. Chris locked his arms around his waist and held him close. “Don’t go.”
“I will be too heavy for you.”
“No.” Chris slowly eased Ezra back down to relax against him. He breathed deeply, feeling the weight of his lover against him and inhaling the warm scent of his skin.
“We should clean up,” Ezra said.
A warm kiss was pressed to his shoulder. “All right.” Ezra cuddled closer to him, his breath soft against Chris’s skin. “I love you.”
Chris stroked his hands up and down the length of Ezra’s back, soaking in the closeness between them. “Love you, too.” In a few moments he would get up and help Ezra get cleaned up, but for the moment he just wanted to keep Ezra and near and feel the reality of finally having his love so close.
The next morning came too fast. Chris had persuaded Ezra to share a bed with him despite the tight quarters. He’d spent the entire night wrapped around Ezra and he was reluctant to face a day during which he’d be separated from him. He knew there was no way they’d be able to hide away in the room for the rest of the day but that didn’t mean he had to like getting up. He sat on the bed and watched Ezra finish getting dressed. A thought occurred to him and he smiled a little as Ezra carefully brushed down his pants. “I had a talk with Buck yesterday.”
“You were with him all day. I would certainly hope that you spoke with him.”
“We were talking about you.”
Ezra paused. “And what exactly were you talking about?”
“The fact that he and JD knew how you felt about me.” Chris watched as Ezra froze and immediately regretted the potential accusation in his words. He rushed to fill in more details. “He was pushing me to talk to you, to tell you how I felt and I told him about us, that there was an us and he told me a little about you.”
The gambler relaxed and finished dressing. “So Buck and JD know about us, then?”
“It only seemed fair. He told me that you got him and JD together.”
Ezra grinned. “It wasn’t difficult to push them to do something they both wanted so very badly.” His look became calculating. “So Buck and JD know about you and I, while everyone knows about Buck and JD.”
“Do you want everyone to know about us?” Chris caught himself holding his breath, but this was important. He’d never been comfortable sharing his private life with people, but he didn’t like hiding. He wanted to know how Ezra felt, though. This was something they hadn’t talked about at all.
Ezra dropped his jacket over the back of a chair and walked over to sit beside Chris. “I never really believed that there would be any need to have this conversation,” he admitted quietly. “I am not ashamed of how I feel, of what I’ve found with you. But I have no wish to open the doors to my personal life and invite the comments of others upon it, either.”
“Our friends should know.” Chris didn’t want to hide anything from them. Withholding the information could be dangerous, as well. He didn’t want their relationship to somehow be used against the rest of the Seven.
“Yes,” Ezra agreed. “When we finally have a chance to sit down together as a group, we should consider telling them. Perhaps we can decide how to proceed with others when need to do so arises?”
“Works for me.” Chris took advantage of Ezra’s nearness and slid a hand up and around his neck to cradle the back of his head and pull him in for a kiss. Ezra relaxed into the caress, deepening the kiss and reaching up to cup Chris’s face between his hands.
They remained connected for long moments until Ezra pulled away. “I have to get to work.”
“Breakfast, then work.”
Ezra smiled and stood up. “You worry too much.”
“Get used to it.” Chris finished pulling on his boots and led the way out of the room. He scanned the street and nodded as though to himself once he saw it was clear. He walked over to the restaurant and returned the plates from dinner the night before. He claimed a seat and waited for Ezra to appear. And waited. And waited.
With a muffled oath, he realized that Ezra had followed his usual inclinations and skipped breakfast, probably heading directly over to the saloon. They’d risen later than Chris was accustomed to so it would not be difficult for him to find someone to engage in a game of poker. Chris wanted to follow Ezra to the saloon but doing so would reveal their connection to casual observers and he couldn’t do that. Fighting down his irritation, he ordered breakfast and ate swiftly.
As he was finishing up, Josiah walked into the room and sat down next to him. “Morning, Chris.”
“Morning, Josiah.” Chris slowed down eating. It would be rude to scarf down his dinner and then take off now that Josiah had arrived.
“Vin asked me to tell you that as soon as you’re finished here, he’d be much obliged if you could go to the saloon and relieve him.”
“He’s with Ezra?” Good to know that the gambler hadn’t just gone over on his own.
“Yes, but he wants breakfast so I’m sure he’d be grateful for you to show up.”
That almost sounded like permission to go back to wolfing his meal down and Chris took it that way. He finished off the rest of his meal with more speed then finesse and stood up. “I’ll send Vin over to take my place.”
Josiah grinned at him but didn’t reply. Chris quickly made his way to the saloon. He spotted Vin but ignored him in favor of claming a table off in the corner of the room. He’d had enough practice hiding in the corners of bars across the west to know how to sink into the shadows and let his glower frighten off anyone who approached him. He ordered a drink and let himself sink into silent contemplation of it. He kept his attention on Ezra, watching him from the corners of his eyes and listening as closely as he could to any conversation that might possibly concern Ezra.
The day passed much like the one before and that night he once again held Ezra in his arms until well past dawn. Chris fought down irritation and restlessness when the same thing happened the day after as well. He wouldn’t trade the time spent with Ezra for anything, but the waiting was slowly driving him crazy. On the fourth day of waiting the only improvement Chris could see was the fact that Andrew had lost all interest in their activities.
It wasn’t much, but Chris would take what he could get.
Ezra understood intuition and hunches. He was a professional gambler and so disdained playing with his gut as so many amateurs did, but he was familiar with the way a hunch could twist a man’s stomach. He didn’t rely on such feelings when they came to him, but nor did he ignore them completely. He merely acknowledged the feelings and kept them in mind as he continued to remain focused on facts and experience.
It was for this reason that he didn’t immediately react to the man sitting across from him, even though he was getting a bad feeling about him. The man was older but Ezra couldn’t tell much else about his appearance since he hadn’t removed his hat and wore it pulled low in the front. He didn’t speak much, just requested cards in a low voice and grunted instead of answering questions fully.
Ezra had been playing card and skulking around Fort Davies for a week and even he was beginning to lose patience with the plan he’d supported so fully. He was half-inclined to leave and let fate take its course back in Four Corners. The thought of bringing danger to the people who lived back in the dusty little town stopped him, but it was the nights he spent with Chris that kept him going. He could face any amount of boredom and false alarms if it meant he’d be able to taste Chris’s lips that night, feel his heat and his strength against him.
He forced those memories to the back of his mind. Right now he needed to focus his attention on the man across from him. He didn’t want to appear too curious so there was no way he could just lean forward and peer into the man’s face but there was something about him that unsettled Ezra too much to be ignored. As the current hand came to an end, Ezra excused himself for just a moment and rose to his feet, stretching luxuriously in the manner of a man who had been sitting too long.
Across the room, Chris put down his drink and Josiah straightened in his chair. The stretch was their pre-arranged signal for needing to watch someone at the table. It had been a long day and night had nearly fallen, but both of them came instantly to alert and were ready for anything.
Ezra returned the game, aware of the increased attention from his friends. The game continued slowly. Two other men beside the silent stranger were at the table. If the stranger was Darlson, Ezra wanted to have as few bystanders near as possible. He concentrated on making sure that they lost quite a bit of money in the next round. One man left in an angry huff.
The other tried one more round before conceding defeat. He tossed his cards down on the table. “One day, Sanders, I’ll get my revenge,” he said, but with a good-natured smile. Shaking his head, he left the saloon.
“He was merely joking,” Ezra said, moving to placate a potentially rattled opponent.
“It doesn’t matter,” the stranger said.
“Hm?” Ezra asked, dealing out another round of cards.
“You won’t be around for him to try to take any revenge.”
This was it. Ezra left off shuffling and looked up. The stranger tilted his head back a little and met his gaze fully for the first time. “Darlson,” Ezra murmured.
“Sanders. Nice to see that you haven’t forgotten me.” Darlson’s face was deeply creased. Ezra knew the man couldn’t be much older than fifty but he had the features of a much older man. Lines drew his mouth down in a permanent scowling frown. His eyes were dark, not just in color but dark inside. Darlson looked embittered, angry, the harshness in his voice matched by that in his face.
“Don’t do this.” Ezra knew that words would do no good but he had to try.
“So will you beg me for your life after all, coward? The others didn’t, but somehow I always knew you would.”
The others? Did that mean Allister was already dead? “We’re in the middle of a saloon. In the middle of Fort Davies! You’ll never be able to do this and get away.”
“I don’t have to get away. I just have to kill you and then blow Allister away before they cut me down. I think I can manage that. I wasn’t the little golden boy tactician, but I can still make a plan that works.”
Allister lived, then. “Darlson, this isn’t a plan. It’s madness. You don’t have to do this.”
“I’ve got nothing left. You ruined my life. You destroyed everything I had to live for.”
Ezra shook his head with the slightest of motions. “You ruined your own life. Your mistakes and your crimes are completely your own.” He refused to shoulder the burden of Darlson’s guilt as well, not even now. He had enough of his own to carry without taking on this that was so undeserved.
“How do you propose to kill me undetected? We are in a public place.”
“Not for long. I’ve got a gun on you under the table. Don’t make any sudden moves, but I want you on your feet.”
“Don’t make any moves? Or else what? You’ll kill me?”
“No. But I’ll start killing the rest of the people in here. I want Allister, but I want you more. Get up or have innocent blood on your hands.”
Ezra carefully stacked his cards at the edge of the table and rose to his feet with easy, unhurried motions. He couldn’t risk setting Darlson off here where innocent people might die. He took the time to straighten the hang of his jacket before walking slowly toward the door.
He was surprised by the lack of fear he found within himself. He believed absolutely that Darlson would kill him as soon as he had a chance but that failed to terrify him. It wasn’t that he had any special confidence in his abilities to escape from the situation, but rather that he had confidence in the men who were watching him. Finally, finally he knew he wasn’t alone. He no longer had to face life on his own. Not only in this, when he faced a man who sought to end his life but in everything. He knew he could rely on himself, had known that since he was a child. There was a certain security to knowing that he didn’t have to hold himself up by his own power, though. If his burden was too heavy, if it was too broad for his shoulders, then he had friends who were eager to help him carry it.
Even if something were to go wrong, his death would not go unnoticed. His plan to protect innocents and ensure that Darlson hurt no one else would be carried out, whether or not he himself fell. He found enormous comfort in that. It kept his heart from racing, made his step sure and steady he walked out onto the street and paused, waiting for Darlson’s next order. He didn’t look up or around. He knew the other men were there. He didn’t have to see them to know that.
“Don’t stop,” Darlson said, voice rasping behind him.
Ezra nodded and walked away from the center of town. If he could avoid endangering anyone else then he would do so. He followed a path he’d half-mapped out in head, angling away from the main street and heading for an alley that had no residences on it. When he reached the mouth of the alley he hesitated. This wasn’t supposed to be his show; Darlson was the one with the gun.
“Here’s as good a place as any,” Darlson said. “It would be fitting for you to die in a forgotten back alley. Go in. All the way in.”
Ezra nodded and entered the alley. Halfway in, he stopped and turned around.
“I said all the way.” Darlson pointed the gun at him openly.
“You no longer have innocents with which to threaten me. You intend to kill me. How will you coerce me now?”
Darlson stepped closer to him, the gun steady and even. “You always were a smug little bastard. Always so smooth with your words, always outshining me with your fancy words and flashy moves.”
Ezra spread his hands. “I am who I am. I don’t deny that. You are who you are, Darlson. You are who you’ve chosen to be.”
“Alone? Imprisoned? I never chose that. That was what you did to me.”
“You did it to yourself. You took a life. That demands a price.”
“Not the lives of my family!” Darlson’s hands clenched white before he regained control of himself.
“That wasn’t me. It wasn’t anyone. Accidents and tragedies happen everyday and the blame lies with no one. The death of your family was horrible, yet there is no one who deserves the blame for it. The only person here deserving blame is you, Darlson. You started your own downfall with murder and you've only compounded that mistake."
"No, I'm just setting things to rights now."
"Killing me won't bring them back. It won't erase your crimes. The past is set in stone, Darlson. Immutable stone that your violence cannot change." Ezra spread his hands. "Stop this insanity now."
"Or what?" Darlson laughed at him. "What will *you* threaten me with? There's nothing left for me here. Nothing except revenge and that's what I'm going to take." He stepped closer to Ezra, only a few feet away from him now.
Ezra lowered his arms, ready to spring the derringer loose. He knew he would be able to fire before Darlson, though, not at that range, so he held himself ready rather than taking the chance. He wasn't out of options yet.
"Maybe Ezra won't threaten you," a new voice said behind Darlson. "But I sure as hell will." Chris stood at the mouth of the alley.
Darlson's reaction was instantaneous. He didn't turn around; he leapt forward, grabbing Ezra and spinning him around so the gambler was a living shield before him. The barrel of the madman's gun dug painfully into the corner of Ezra's jaw. "Who the hell are you?"
Chris and Josiah stood at the mouth of the alley, the gunslinger in front. His face was frozen, his expression utterly blank. "It doesn't matter who I am. What matters is the fact that I'll see you dead if you don't throw that gun down and step the hell away from him."
"You always manage to find yourself some friends, don't you?" Darlson snarled.
Ezra didn't reply. He was barely able to continue breathing. Facing Darlson with a few feet between them was one thing; having him so close with his gun bruising his flesh was something else entirely. He didn't want to do anything to goad Darlson into shooting. No one survived a head shot like that.
"He does find friends," Josiah agreed. "And brothers. Let him go. The minute your finger twitches, you're a dead man."
"The minute my finger twitches, he'll be dead, and that's what matters."
Ezra clenched his jaw against a hiss of pain as the barrel dug further into his skin. He looked across the dirt of the alley to meet Chris's gaze. The blond man's features might be impassive, but his eyes were alive with fury and fear. Ezra managed a slight smile. Chris and Josiah were in front of him...which likely meant Vin was up on the room with JD. Buck and Nathan would hopefully be near Allister to ensure that if Darlson somehow got out of this he wouldn't be able to take any more lives.
Chris didn't react but some of the fear lessened in his eyes. "Darlson, this isn't going to happen. In a few more minutes everyone in the fort is going to know you're here. You won't be able to move a foot outside this alley without being cut down."
Darlson snarled, his breath hot against Ezra's ear. "Doesn't matter. So long as this bastard dies, nothing else matters."
"That's all I needed to hear," Chris said. "Vin!"
Ezra knew what was coming. He took advantage of Darlson's momentary distraction to twist his head to the side, away from the gun. He continued the motion, throwing himself to the side. Vin was an amazing marksman but he didn't want to risk Darlson's reaction. The sound of two shot overlapping rang in his ears as he fell heavily to the dirt. He lay stunned for a moment, not sure what had happened, not sure he wanted to know. If he'd been hit...
The choice to move was taken out of his hands when Chris grabbed him by the shoulders and turned him over. "Ezra! Are you hit?" Frantic hands stroked over his clothing, searching for any sign of an injury.
Breathing deeply to calm himself down, Ezra realized that besides an ache in his jaw, he wasn't in any pain. He hadn't been hit. With a shaky sigh, he relaxed back against the ground. "I'm fine," he said.
Chris's hand continued their search, moving over his legs then back up to ruffle through his hair.
Ezra jerked his head away. "Mr. Larabee, I assure you I am fine. Aside from a few bruises-" He gave up talking as Chris tilted his head to the side. Allowing his head to be moved by the always surprisingly gentle fingers, Ezra watched as the gunslinger examined the soft skin of his jaw. With touches so light they brought no pain, Chris mapped out the bruise Ezra knew would be forming.
"Are you sure he's dead?" Chris asked.
Josiah looked up from his examination of Darlson's body. "Yes. Vin shot true."
Chris didn't look satisfied.
Josiah shook his head. "You can shoot him again if you like, but he isn't going to feel it."
Footstep at the mouth of the alley drew their attention. Rifle balanced on his shoulder, Vin had his head cocked to the side. JD stood beside him, a shaky grin on his lips. "Never thought I'd see the day that you'd just lay there in the dirt, Ezra."
Looking down at his clothing, Ezra swore and scrambled to his feet, using Chris to push himself upwards. He was covered in dust and out on the street. He beat at the dirt on his clothing, knowing that he couldn't fix the wrinkles but needing get the dirt off. He was careful not to look at the corpse in the street behind him. He didn't need any reminders about how close he'd come to dying.
"Ezra, calm down," Chris said. "We'll get you back to the hotel and you can change."
"There isn't time." Ezra twisted his neck but he couldn't see the back of himself. "Mr. Tanner, I know that you have impeccable skill, but I must ask: was I spattered at all with blood when you felled Darlson?"
"Not a drop," Vin said, sounding slightly offended.
"Thank you, sir. I have faith in your abilities, but I had to be sure."
Chris stepped in front of him. "Ezra, what's going on?"
"Buck and Nathan went to Allister?"
"That was the plan, yes." Chris grimaced. "So now Allister know that Darlson is here." He raised his hands and grabbed Ezra's shoulders, turning him around. He began to brush off Ezra's back, helping to clear him of the dust.
Ezra shot him a grateful smile when he turned around. He didn't want to appear before Allister in filthy, rumpled clothing.
While he was working on his clothing, JD studied the walls. "Look!" he said, pointing upwards. "You can see where his bullet nicked the eave of this roof."
Ezra glanced up briefly. "Thank you, Mr. Dunne." With Chris's help he soon had the worst of the dirt removed, allowing him to feel a little more settled, a little more in control. With that finished, he had no other reason to delay. He nodded in the general direction of the corpse. "What do you think we should do with that?"
"Leave it," Chris said. "He can rot there."
"That hardly sounds healthy." Ezra didn't want to touch it, nor did he want to leave any of his friends to stand guard over it. "Mr. Tanner, might I impose upon you?"
"What do you need?"
"I'm going to fetch a few soldiers and have them take possession of the body, but while I'm doing so would you be so good as to stand watch over it?"
"Sure, Ezra. Just don't leave me out when you go to talk to the general, all right?"
"All right, and thank you." He moved to leave the alley and smiled as Chris fell into step right beside him. "This is almost finished," he said quietly.
"Damn right it is," Chris said. He looked up at the sky. "I suppose it's too late for us to leave."
Ezra smiled again, amazed that he could do so honestly after having a gun to his head. "By several hours, yes. We will be much better off waiting for morning. Or afternoon."
"Morning," Chris said. "Dawn."
"No," Ezra said. "Not dawn."
"I want out of this place."
"I do as well, but not enough to allow myself to go mad." Ezra stopped talking as they encountered two uniformed soldiers.
"We heard shots," one of them said.
"Yes. If you head back two streets and over to the east, you'll find a gentleman keeping watch over a body. Would you be so kind as to relieve him?" Ezra forestalled their objections by raising his hand. "It's Darlson. The general would be most grateful."
After staring at him for a moment, the two young men took off at a fast trot, disappearing into the darkness. "We should wait for Vin," Ezra said.
"Good," Josiah said. That'll give us time to talk you into leaving at dawn."
"Homesick?" Ezra asked. He grinned. "Or church sick?"
"A little bit of both, actually. This isn't home and I don't like the feeling of leaving something behind me unfinished. It doesn't sit right with me anymore."
Vin approached them silently out of the darkness. "What's the meeting about?"
"What time we leave tomorrow," Chris answered. "Ezra thinks we should leave at dawn."
"Best time of the day for it."
Ezra threw up his hands in surrender. "Fine. We leave at dawn." He ignored Chris's grin and JD's out right laughter. He looked over the men standing near him. "I need to speak with Allister. After I speak to him, I will be finished with this place."
"And we can go home," JD said.
"Yes," Ezra agreed. "Since Darlson is dead, I no longer require an escort so you gentlemen are free to do as you like."
"I'm going with you," Chris said.
"Me, too," JD said.
Vin just stood there and Josiah crossed his arms, neither giving any sign that they intended to leave. Josiah shrugged one shoulder. "We met that man as group and it just seems right that we leave him the same way."
"Besides," Chris said. "Just because Darlson is gone doesn't mean you don't need an escort. You get into enough trouble on your own without any outside help."
Ezra didn't bother to fight his smile. "And who would you suggest take that post, hm? I could always advertise in Mrs. Travis's publication, I suppose."
"That won't be necessary," Chris said. "I think I know someone who can take the job." He leaned closer to Ezra, then seemed to remember himself and pulled away.
Ezra blinked and looked at the others. JD already knew how he felt about Chris, but Vin and Josiah were unknown factors. He looked over at them. Vin was grinning and Josiah looked as though he was on the verge of laughing out loud. The tall man looked back and forth between Ezra and Chris and then gave in, laughing. "You two? Lord, you're not much better at hiding anything than JD and Buck!"
"Hey!" Josiah laughed right over JD's objection.
"Bout damn time," Vin said.
Ezra was inclined to be offended, but Chris didn't give him the chance to reply. He just pulled Ezra to him. Ezra’s protests were covered by Chris’s lips. He gave into the sensation of being so close to the man he loved for a moment before coming to his senses and then pushed Chris away. “Enough.”
"Propriety is propriety, sir. We are on the street."
"It's night time," Chris said.
"Isn't like someone could see you past Josiah, anyhow," JD said
Ezra just shook his head. "I'll deal with you later," he promised Chris is a low voice. He didn't look back as he headed for Allister's office. He didn't have to. Chris was immediately at his side and he could hear the others close behind. It was the same confidence that had carried him through the confrontation with Darlson. Just as he knew he'd walk through hell to do anything to help his friends, he was now beginning to believe that they might feel the same way about him.
It was a short walk to Allister's office. Two uniformed soldiers guarded the door. They moved closer together as Ezra and the others approached.
"You can relax, gentlemen," Ezra said. "Darlson will no longer be a problem."
"Because you say so?" one of the men asked, tightening his grip on the rifle in his hands.
"Yeah," Chris said. "And now he'd like to see Allister." He took a step forward, his voice more dangerous than usual.
Ezra raised his hands before the situation could escalate. "Sir, if you could just inform the general that I am here, I am sure he will ask you to allow us entrance."
"Fine." One of the soldiers ducked inside the office door, leaving his comrade to stand and watch them on his own.
Taking a few prudent steps backwards, Ezra pushed Chris back as well. Common sense dictated that they not crowd the nervous man with the gun.
"I can't believe he didn't leave orders for you to be let in," Chris said.
Hm. He hadn't anticipated this. "Chris, this meeting is not likely to be terribly pleasant. It might be better if you and the others waited elsewhere." He didn't want Chris to do anything rash while he was speaking to Allister. This was his last chance to free himself of the bindings the army kept trying to slip around him. If Chris didn't give him or Allister the chance to speak, than he was going to risk being dragged back into he military at some future time and he didn't want that. He wanted to finally be able to consider his past dead, dead and buried and so far behind him that he might actually begin to forget it.
"No, I want to be there."
"But can you be there quietly?" Ezra asked. "That is the true heart of the matter."
Chris stared at him for a moment, then nodded reluctantly.
Ezra smiled gratefully at him, and then turned his attention to the others. "The same holds true for you gentlemen." He looked especially hard at JD. "I understand the temptation to speak out, especially if Allister is his usual charming self. Please leave him to me." He waited until he had all of their nods, then turned around just in time to see the second guard reappear.
"The general says he'll see you now." He stood aside and held the door open for them.
Ezra nodded his head gratefully as he passed him. As he'd supposed, Buck and Nathan were both with Allister; Buck was seated by a window, while Nathan stood in the shadows in the back.
Allister stood behind his desk, Andrew close by. "There were shots," said the general.
"That was Mr. Tanner. He took it upon himself to solve the problem of Darlson for us." Beside him Chris shifted restlessly, but held his peace.
"He's dead?" Andrew asked.
"Yes. Your men have custody of the body even as we speak." Ezra watched as Andrew looked openly relieved and even Allister relaxed a bit. "The situation that brought me here has been resolved. I will be taking my leave of Fort Davies in the morning."
"Just like that?" Andrew asked.
"Yes. I would be most appreciative if you would cease to speak of me once I am gone. I want to avoid any further complications from the past, which would be far easier if people forgot about me."
"Forgot that you are a deserter? Forgot that you ran away from your duties and abandoned your country to become a drifter?" Allister's voice was cold.
Chris shifted more obviously so Ezra moved as well so he was standing more or less in front of the gunslinger. "Call it whatever you like. The fact remains that I am leaving in the morning. My friends and I managed to take Darlson down before he was able to do any real harm in this town, either to you or anyone dear to you."
"You save your own life."
"That could have been done in Four Corners. We could have easily handled Darlson at home, but that would have involved waiting for him to kill you. I preferred to show a little more initiative."
Allister glared at him. "You want a pardon?"
"For what? You try to bring me to trial. Do you truly believe you could get any sort of conviction with the war so long over? People want to bury their dead, not dig them up again. Leave Sanders in his grave. That's all I want. Just let him and his men rest."
"You are Sanders!" Andrew objected.
"I was," Ezra corrected. He caught Allister's gaze and held it. "Just forget about him. About me. It's not so much to ask." He didn't look away from the eyes that weighed him and found him wanting. He just waited and refused to look away.
At last Allister turned his attention to the papers on his desk. "Fine. Go. Don't come back here, though. If you want out this bad, then you are going all the way out and there will be no returning for you."
"Thank you." Ezra inclined his head towards Andrew as well. "Good-bye." He turned and walked out of the office. When he heard the door to Allister's office close firmly behind Josiah, the last of them to leave, he finally allowed himself to relax. "It's over."
"You're sure?" Chris asked.
"He might not like it but he'll keep his word. He won't be telling anyone else where I am and his children should hold their tongues now as well."
"So we can go home?" JD asked.
"Yes. Tomorrow." Ezra rolled his eyes. "At dawn."
"What?" Buck asked. "Dawn?" He looked over at Nathan. "You might want to have a look at him."
Ezra grinned at the laughter of the others. He was going to go home. "Dinner?" he suggested hopefully. Being scared half out of his mind usually put him off the idea of food, but he found he was recovering nicely, surrounded as he was by his friends.
"Sounds good," Buck said, turning toward the restaurant.
Chris shook his head. "Of course it does." He didn't move up beside Buck to continue the teasing as he usually would, though. Instead, he walked beside Ezra, close enough for their shoulders to brush with each step.
In the dim light and with all their friends surrounding them, it was unlikely that anyone would be able to see them and Ezra decided to just relax and enjoy being so close to the other man.
Warm fingers brushed against his, a barely there caress that Ezra half-thought he'd imagined until it happened again. He didn't look at Chris but he thought he could feel the man's smile anyway. When the fingers again touched his he immediately tangled his own fingers through them, capturing Chris's wayward hand for his own.
A scuffled step behind them drew Ezra's attention and he looked back to see Nathan regaining his balance. The healer's gaze stuttered up to meet Ezra's, startlement written clear on his features.
The green-eyed man tried to tug his hand away from Chris's but the other man didn't let go. "Chris," Ezra murmured.
Chris just tightened his grip. Ezra looked him in the face and saw the determined look on the other man's face. "You knew," he half-whispered.
"Yeah, and now Nathan does. So it's completely out in the open."
Ezra glanced back at Nathan. The other man shook his head, and then grinned at Ezra. "I will say this," Nathan said. "You never seem to run out of surprises, Ezra."
Enormously relieved, Ezra grinned back. He'd been worried about how some of the others would react to him and Chris. Buck and JD would of course be fine with it, but the others were unknown quantities. Vin had seemed amazingly unsurprised which somehow fit with Ezra's perception of him. Josiah and Nathan had been the two he truly worried over and he was pleased to see that he had wasted a lot of time over nothing. Both of them had far exceeded even his wildest expectations. He squeezed Chris's hand. He got a soft squeeze in return and then they were nearing the restaurant so they had to let go. Ezra curled his fingers in on themselves, already missing the contact.
Dinner was a celebration. All of them were alive and unharmed and they would be heading home in the morning. They were the loudest table in the restaurant and Ezra didn't mind a bit. He raised his glass and cleared his throat, calling for silence as he made his toast. "To friendship, gentlemen."
"To going home," Chris added, raising his glass.
"To good aim," Josiah said, glancing at Vin.
"To good planning," Vin returned.
"To family," JD said.
"To life," Nathan suggested.
"To love," Buck finished, looking first at JD, and then over from Chris to Ezra.
A blush rose up on JD's cheeks but he kept his glass and head held high. Ezra caught his eye and inclined his head in a small gesture of respect. JD returned the nod. Everything was now out in the open, even the secrets that weren't actually secrets. Feeling incredibly pleased, Ezra leaned forward and the others followed suit, gently tapping their glasses together.
Ezra held Chris’s gaze as he swallowed the contents of his glass. He agreed with all of the toasts, but especially to love. Judging by the look in the blond man's eyes, he felt the same. Ezra ate quickly, eager to get to bed so they could leave early in the morning. He saw the others doing the same; even Buck was inhaling dinner faster than usual. Ezra sat back after he finished, watching the others do the same. He was please to be able to sit with them once more instead of grabbing solitary meals here or eating furtively with Chris in the hotel.
Movement at the door drew his attention and he repressed a sigh as he watched Andrew walked in. He'd hoped that he'd be able to leave town without any further confrontations. He was ready to leave the past behind. He could accept that he no longer held a place among Andrew's heroes, but once upon a time he had attained that honor and that would have to be enough for him. It was time to focus on the future, on the friends he had found and the place he had won.
He kept his face blank as Andrew approached him.
"You're really going to do it, aren't you?" Andrew asked. "Just leave?"
"I have no reason to stay," Ezra said quietly.
"So you're happy, just being a gambler and hiding under a fake name? You aren't the man I remember at all."
Ezra wasn't sure he ever was the man Andrew thought he remembered. He wasn't going to argue the point, though. There was a time to fight and a time to just give in and let go. Giving in wouldn't hurt him at all, so why fight this? He cocked his head to the side. "I'm not," he said evenly.
"No," Andrew said, voice full of contempt. "You're not." With a final shake of his head he left the room.
Chris pushed back in his chair a little. "I've got half a mind -"
"I think you underestimate yourself," Ezra said, interrupting him. "But let him go. He's entitled to his opinion."
"Even if he is dead wrong," Chris said, but he relaxed back down into his chair.
Ezra stretched, feeling weariness creep up upon him. "I think it is time to retire. If you gentlemen are determined to leave at an utterly ungodly hour..."
"I'd leave right now if I thought we could get away with it," Nathan said.
"The horses-" Vin shook his head. "We can't risk them."
Ezra blinked. They were seriously considering leaving at night. "The morning is fine, gentlemen. We could all do with a night's sleep, no matter how brief." He didn't especially want to admit it, but he was eager to leave the fort. He might not have gone so far as to suggest leaving at Dawn but he found he had surprisingly few objections to the idea. Leaving at night would be too dangerous to the horses and too wearying for themselves.
"Then we're best off heading for bed," Buck said. "Dawn, Ezra? You are a cruel man."
Ezra shook his head but grinned as laughter welled up around him. "Then you'd best seek your bed, Mr. Wilmington." He rose to his feet. "That is what I'm going to do." He walked out of the restaurant and onto the street, but he stopped moving before he got any further. "Mr. Larabee, Darlson is dead. If you wish to linger over dinner you are more than able to now. I have nothing left to fear in this place."
A single step forward put Chris inches away from Ezra, almost uncomfortably close. "I'm not following you because I need to, Ezra. I'm following you because I want to." Holding Ezra's gaze, he stepped around him and headed for the hotel.
The green-eyed man stared after him for a moment and then gave into his own desires and followed him to the hotel. He didn't really notice much of anything as he made his way down the street and into the building; all his attention was focused on the man in front of him who was leading the way through the lobby and up the stair. Chris only turned around once, just as he opened up the door to the room and pushed his way inside. His lips were quirked in a small smile.
Ezra walked into the completely dark room and stumbled to a stop. Why hadn’t Chris lit a candle? “Chris?” he said quietly.
The door slammed shut behind him. Ezra turned quickly, but the darkness was too thick. He couldn’t see anything. “Chris?” he called again, still quiet.
Warm hands cupped his face, startling him. Before he could pull away, strong arms pulled him forward and he was cradled against a hot body. He leaned forward further and captured Chris’s mouth, claming those lips for his own and moving his own arms to pull Chris closer.
“I could have lost you today,” Chris murmured, twisting his head to the side to kiss Ezra’s jaw, his throat.
“But you didn’t. None of us was hurt. We’re going home.” He scored his teeth over Chris’s throat in turn. He pushed against the other man, walking him over to the closest bed and pushing him down on it. Ezra shrugged out of his jacket and tossed it to the other bed, for once uncaring of potential wrinkles. His eyes had adjusted to the dim light and he was able to see Chris quickly removing his own clothing. Soon the rest of his clothing was on the bed and his boots had been kicked beneath it while Chris’s clothing lay in a pile on the floor.
Ezra wasted no time; he needed to feel Chris’s skin against his own, to reassure himself that the other man was whole and alive and with him still. Darlson could have easily shot Chris and destroyed Ezra’s future. He lay down atop Chris and caught his mouth once more, unable to get enough of the wet heat that assured him of his lover’s well being. Chris arched up beneath him and ran his hands up and over Ezra’s back, roughly pulling him down to demand more contact.
There would be time in the future for full exploration, to learn the blue-eyed man’s body until he knew it better than his own. That would have to wait; Ezra needed this haste, this immediacy and he felt answering impatience in every whispered curse that fell from Chris’s lips. He thrust against his lover, gasping a little as the feeling of slick hardness gliding along his own and the matching thrust of Chris’s body in return. He returned again and again to the other man’s mouth, needing that connection as well as their bodies moved in an instinctual rhythm made new all over again. It didn’t last long – it couldn’t, not with the heat between them growing so quickly. A few minutes more and Ezra was softly crying out his release against Chris’s lips and tasted his lover’s own gasp of completion a moment later.
He relaxed against Chris, blanketing the other man’s body with his own. In a moment, he’d suggest a quick clean up and switching to the other bed. They’d lie entwined in the too small quarters, sleeping as close as possible without sharing the same skin. They would pack hurriedly in the morning and face sly looks and teasing laughter from their friends on the ride home and then there would be the future and the rest of their lives to live and to love together. For right now, though, Ezra was content to relax in Chris’s fierce embrace and live in the moment, to revel in the feeling that he’d found. He’d at last found his home, the place he belonged, the space where he was most truly himself. It was Chris’s arms, and from the way Chris was holding him, he was never going to have to leave that home again. He pressed a gentle kiss to Chris’s shoulder and received a similar one to his temple in return.
He was home.