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Learning to Improvise...
By Katherine Lebman
Vin Tanner sighed silently, angry and frustrated with his current situation. It was supposed to be a simple job. Just take a prisoner, Cal Hoskins, to Bitter Creek, a three day ride from Four Corners, and leave him with the Sheriff there. Hoskins was a two bit drifter who was wanted for trying to rob the Bitter Creek bank. The bank teller had foiled the robbery attempt and had been wounded in the process. Hoskins was being charged with attempted murder in addition to grand theft.
Several witnesses had recently come forward implicating Hoskins in the murder of a local rancher. The angry citizens of Bitter Creek wanted justice to be carried out where the crime had occurred. His trial was set for next month when Judge Travis made his circuit through the area again.
[S'posed to be simple. No fuss, no muss, no big deal.] Except that the whole thing hadn't gone according to plan. Vin was beginning to think he should just forget planning all together. [You would think jus' once things would come together like they outta.]
Chris Larabee, the reluctant yet capable leader of seven gunmen assigned to protect the town of Four Corners, had sent Ezra Standish with him to help guard the prisoner. Because Hoskins had been a model prisoner the two weeks he'd been kept in Four Corners, Chris thought two men would be enough to handle the job.
No one really expected trouble.
Vin hadn't objected to taking Ezra. Despite his refined manners and dandy ways, Ezra was actually a good trail companion. When it was just Vin and Ezra, the man didn't complain, or whine, or even sleep late. Vin had asked him once why, and Ezra had just shrugged and told him he was being accommodating. Vin hadn't understood the word but decided it had to be a good thing if it made the trip easier.
Besides, Vin liked Ezra. He really did. He wasn't sure why. It wasn't like a scruffy former tracker, turned bounty hunter, turned lawman had a lot in common with a sophisticated, southern gentlemen gambler. But over the past year, Vin had come to enjoy Ezra's sly wit, his quick mind, and astounding ability to accurately read almost anyone or any situation. When it was just the two of them, Ezra had an easygoing attitude, and a relaxed approach that sat well with Vin's own laid back nature.
Recently, Vin had begun to notice and appreciate even more about the slick conman. Things he wasn't sure he was supposed to. Vin started looking for Ezra's dimpled grin that was so openly playful, so honestly happy, and was so very different from his usual self-deprecating smirk, or tight-lipped smile that had more to do with displeasure and anger than anything else. He found himself enjoying just watching the way Ezra's elegant, fine-boned hands handled a deck of cards with such easy, careless grace or a gun with deadly accuracy. He waited patiently to catch a glimpse of green eyes lit up with secret amusement that was almost never explained and rarely shared. He found himself listening closely to that smooth as honey southern drawl, not caring what was said, just enjoying the sound of Ezra's voice.
He had spent so much time studying the man he could now tell whenever his mood changed, no matter how subtle. Ezra's poker face might not give away much to the casual observer, but Vin was anything but casual in his study of the gambler. He couldn't get enough of just looking at him.
Vin wasn't sure what to make of his interest in his fellow peacekeeper. Having lived with several tribes he understood that it was not uncommon for a man to feel an attraction to another man. He just never had before. But then he'd never met anyone quite like Ezra before either.
He did his best to conceal his growing attraction to Ezra. Among the tribes it might be acceptable, under certain circumstances, for two men to become romantically involved, but it certainly wasn't in the white man's world. The last thing Vin wanted was to ruin the first home he'd found in years. He didn't want to lose the companionship he'd found with the others.
And he was not quite sure what Ezra's reaction would be if he knew that Vin had started fantasizing about what his lips tasted like, or what his skin would feel like under his hands. Vin was fairly certain that the gambler would not welcome his advances. He had come to think of Ezra as a friend, a good friend. He didn't want to lose that by pushing for more.
His friendship with Ezra was one of the reasons Vin was so angry now. Their prisoner had cohorts that had helped him before. Five men who'd waited to ambush them halfway between Bitter Creek and Four Corners. Men who'd recognized Vin as a wanted man. They were eager to collect the bounty being offered for him even though it meant a long trip to Texas.
So far they had just tied up Vin and Ezra, leaving them in a near by shack while they took care of settling their score with the people of Bitter Creek. They planned to kill the witnesses who'd come forward, and make a second attempt at the bank. It was impossible to know when the six men would return, but Vin had no doubt they'd be back. With his hands tied behind him, and his feet similarly bound, there was little he could do to escape, or help his friend.
[Iffen it weren't for me, Ez wouldn't be trussed up like some Christmas turkey.]
Ezra had refused to leave even when there had been an opportunity for him to slip away. Outnumbered and outgunned there was little chance the two of them could win over Hoskins' five friends. In less time than Vin had thought possible, he and Ezra were tied up and left to wait.
Vin had hoped that they might use the manacles that had formerly held Hoskins to bind Ezra. Ezra could pick that lock easily, but Vin knew his friend was lousy with knots. Vin tried again to move his hands enough to twist his bonds loose. No luck. [Aw hell.]
"I'm sorry, Ez." Vin offered, feeling guilty.
Ezra looked at him, and raised one eyebrow in question. "For what?"
"Ya shouldn't be here...like this." [If I had been paying attention, instead of watchin' how the firelight caught the highlights in yer hair, and made yer skin glow, I woulda seen them comin'. Shouldn't a let them get the drop on us in the first place.]
Ezra chuckled. "Indeed. Appalling conditions for a gentleman." Ezra shrugged one shoulder. "You think Hoskins and his associates have vacated the immediate vicinity?"
It took Vin a moment to puzzle out what Ezra had just asked him. He loved to hear those five-dollar words, but they often confused him. "Yeah, they've left the area." [Haven't heard any noise for a while. Don't have any idea when they'll be back. But I know they will be.]
Ezra nodded. He shifted so that he could lie flat on his back. Vin watched his fellow captive with undisguised amazement. The cardsharp had drawn his legs up, stretched his bound hands behind him and wiggled enough to get his hands past his hips. It was then a simple matter of pulling his legs through his bound hands. In one neatly executed maneuver Ezra now had his hands in front of him.
"Didn't know you could do that." Vin said, impressed. He'd known Ezra was graceful, but hadn't realized he was limber as well.
Ezra flashed a dimpled grin at him. "There is a great deal you do not know about me, Mr. Tanner."
Vin's breath caught. It was heady feeling to be the focus of that look. He wished he saw it more often. Vin bit his lip to keep from saying anything he shouldn't.
Ezra bent his head and began to use his teeth to work at the rope. Vin was about to comment that he didn't think chewing through the rope would work, when Ezra managed to work the knots loose and pull off the rope. Ezra then set to work untying his feet. His long, clever fingers that Vin had often watched deftly handle a deck of cards made short work of those as well.
Vin frowned. "Thought ya didn't know anythin' 'bout knots?"
Ezra rolled his eyes as he moved to untie Vin's feet. "It would be impossible to spend any length of time on a sailing vessel and fail to learn a thing or two about knots."
"You were on a river boat?" That really didn't surprise him. Vin could see Ezra hanging out on those gambling boats that regularly worked the Mississippi River.
Ezra shook his head. "No, Mr. Tanner. Riverboats are steamers. Sailing vessels are typically found on open water." Ezra deftly loosened the rope. He would have Vin's feet free in another moment or two.
"Ya mean like the ocean?"
"Exactly, Mr. Tanner."
This was the first time Vin had ever heard anything about Ezra being aboard a ship, but then as Ezra had already pointed out, there was a lot about the man he didn't know. "How long were you on one?"
"Long enough to learn my way around a rope."
Vin frowned. [That don't really answer my question.] He watched Ezra's fingers working the rope. "Thought ya said ya couldn't work knots."
Ezra pulled the rope free, and cast it aside. He regarded Vin steadily for a moment. "I never told you that."
Vin frowned. "Ya did. Ya lied to all o' us." Vin accused. He knew it was stupid, but it bothered him that Ezra had lied. [Man makes his living lying ta people. Shouldn't oughta surprise me that he didn't tell us...me, the truth.]
"I have never lied to you, Mr. Tanner." Ezra stated firmly. His jade green eyes never wavered from where they held Vin's sky blue eyes. Vin had no doubt he was telling the truth. "I may have said or done things to encourage a particular assumption. I may have omitted details on more than one occasion or failed to offer additional information. But I have never lied to you or to the others."
Vin considered that. "Why'd ya want us ta think you weren't good with knots?"
Ezra moved one shoulder in a gesture to precise or graceful to be considered just a shrug. "I have found that it is often better to give one's opponents a perceived weakness than to allow them to ferret out a genuine one on their own."
Ezra moved behind Vin to untie his hands. Vin thought over what Ezra had said. It didn't seem right that Ezra had misled them. That he felt the need to do so at all.
"You think of us as...opponents?" He hesitated over the last word. He wasn't sure but he figured it meant the same as being enemies.
"Let's just say we haven't always been allies, and I felt the need to act accordingly."
"You don't trust us?" Vin asked, even though it came out as more of a statement than a question. It hurt to think that he didn't trust them, him, even after all this time.
There a slight hesitation before Ezra answered. "Given that y'all felt the need to know if you could restrain me, to hold me hostage..." He took a breath before continuing. "Suffice it to say that I felt it wise, in the beginning of our association, not to put too much faith in any of you." A faint sound of satisfaction, and then a quiet, "Ah got it."
Vin felt a tug at his hands and then he was free. He brought his arms around front of him to rub his wrists. [Guess I wouldn't totally trust someone who wanted ta know how ta hold me down either.]
Vin wasn't sure if he should apologize for the rest of the seven or not. "We ain't opponents, Ez." [Don't want him thinkin' of me as an enemy. Ain't right when I think of him as a friend.]
Ezra stood and moved around him. He graced Vin with a quick, warm smile. "Not any more. You, Mr. Tanner, are a good and honorable man. It is a pleasure to associate with you."
That comment stunned Vin, and warmed him all the way to his toes. Ezra didn't say anything else, he just began searching the shack. Vin joined Ezra hoping to find something they could use as a weapon. Unfortunately, their captors hadn't left much of anything behind.
Ezra pursed his lips in annoyance. "Miserable cretins." He sighed. "It was too much to hope they would leave us something useful." Ezra rubbed at his right arm, clearly missing the spring loaded derringer he usually wore.
Vin could sympathize. He missed the weight of his Winchester and his knife. [Sons-o-bitches took everythin'.]
Vin stepped outside. He grinned when he spotted Peso and Chaucer standing side by side not more than twenty feet away. [Maybe not everythin'.]
"Hey, Ez?" He called back over his shoulder.
"Yes, Mr. Tanner?"
"They did leave us somthin' useful."
Ezra stepped out, and looked to where Vin pointed. Vin felt his breath catch for a second time when Ezra grinned, his dimples readily visible. [God, but he is so beautiful.]
"Excellent." Ezra slapped him lightly on the arm. "Come, Mr. Tanner, our coursers await."
Vin swung up in his saddle, and watched Ezra mount Chaucer. "We gonna go after 'em?"
Ezra frowned. "No guns." He reminded Vin.
Vin couldn't resist smiling. "We'll think of somethin', Ez."
Ezra snorted. "Improvisation? That's your plan?"
"Don't know what that means." Vin admitted. Sometimes it really bothered him that he couldn't understand Ezra. Of the group, only Josiah Sanchez seemed to understand the gambler, and even he didn't understand all the time.
"You plan to make it up as we go." Ezra clarified. "To improvise."
Vin grinned. "Yep." [Improvise...have ta remember that word.]
Ezra shook his head. "Wonderful." He heaved a long suffering sigh that Vin knew wasn't for real. The sparkle in those green eyes was a dead give away. Vin wondered if Ezra knew just how incredible his eyes were when he was planning mischief.
"I suppose I must accompany you on this fool's errand if for no other reason than to retrieve my possessions." Ezra nodded. "Very well, Mr. Tanner. Lead on."
Vin studied the tracks on the ground for just a moment. He knew the outlaws were heading for Bitter Creak, but he wanted to be certain just which route they'd chosen to take. With a little bit of luck and some hard riding they just might be able to set up an ambush of their own. He figured he owed it to Ezra to get his stuff back to him. It was the least he could do for getting him into this situation in the first place.
Vin followed Hoskins tracks long enough to know which route they were taking. He considered what the signs were telling him as he rode. Ezra stayed off to his right and slightly behind so as not to disturb any signs he might need. He appreciated the fact that Ezra stayed quiet letting him focus his attention on the job at hand.
Vin nodded to himself, satisfied that he knew where Hoskins and his gang were going. He stopped Peso and waited until Ezra had moved up along side him. "Know which way they're headed. We should be able ta take a short cut, and get ahead o' 'em."
"And when we do?" Ezra raised an eyebrow.
Vin shrugged. He couldn't resist smiling ever so slightly. "Well, see, I reckon since I took care of trackin' 'em down, you could take care o' what we do when we get there."
Ezra shook his head, and sighed. He opened his mouth to say something, but stopped. His green eyes narrowed, and he looked way. Vin recognized that calculating look. He could almost see wheels turning, and knew Ezra had come up with something.
"I believe, Mr. Tanner," Ezra paused and tapped his index finger against his lower lip. He nodded once. "Yes, I do believe, that I will be able to handle that portion of our dilemma."
Vin eyed him suspiciously. "What are ya plannin'?"
"I'll let you know when we get there."
Vin had stared at Ezra in disbelief when he heard the gambler's plan. "You carry dynamite 'round with you all the time?"
"Just a few sticks. It should be all we need."
[Just a few sticks, he says. Jesus.] "Ez, do ya know how dangerous that stuff is?"
"Naturally." Ezra said calmly. He didn't seem at all concerned that he routinely carried explosives in his saddlebags.
Vin rolled his eyes. "Any other surprises ya got in those bags?"
Ezra winked at him. "It pays to always be prepared."
Vin shivered, momentarily distracted by that wink. He refocused his attention quickly. "Tell me this plan again." [Wanna be sure nothin' goes wrong.]
Ezra took a stick and drew two lines on the ground. "This is where the trail narrows. Not quite a canyon, but definitely restrictive."
The trail Hoskins and his gang were taking meandered through what was an ancient riverbed. There was only one point at which it narrowed from over a mile wide to just ten feet. Vin guessed that the ancient channel was only a dozen feet deep at most where it narrowed, and the constricted area lasted for less than a quarter mile. It wouldn't ordinarily be considered a dangerous area for men riding in a group. Surrounded by open dessert, there was little in the way of protection for someone planning an ambush.
Ezra moved his stick to a point just outside the lines he'd just drawn. He moved the stick forward to the mouth of the narrowed area. He tapped it against the ground once or twice.
"Once Hoskins and his cohorts enter the breech, here, we need to convince them to continue forward. They must not be allowed to back out or go around. We are ill prepared to handle them on open ground."
"Ill-prepared!! Ez, we're unarmed!"
Ezra raised an eyebrow. He seemed amused by Vin's outraged statement. "Not entirely. As I already stated, a few sticks of dynamite at the right point should do the trick."
Vin sighed. "Dynamite. Right." He waved a hand telling Ezra to continue.
"If we play them correctly, Mr. Tanner, they will believe themselves to be out numbered, and caught in very dangerous ground. The only solution will be for them to continue forward."
Ezra moved the stick to where the area came to its most narrow point. On one side, several Juniper trees had managed to gain a toehold in the rock face just beyond that point. On the opposite side were half a dozen boulders large enough to conceal a grown man and a horse.
"Between the trees and the rocks we string a rope. Once they have started down the funnel, the rope is pulled taut." Ezra frowned. "Under more ideal circumstances, the goal would be to simply unseat the riders. In this case..." Ezra sighed.
He waved a hand in an empty, meaningless gesture, and looked at Vin. "I believe it would be best to attempt to bring down the horses. If we can take down the leading animals, it will create a living bottle neck. At least for a few moments. And it will unseat, possibly stun, more than half of our opponents."
"How we gonna take down the rest?"
Vin looked at him in confusion. The only sling Vin was familiar with was the kind Nathan Jackson put his arm in when he'd been wounded. "Ya said that 'fore. Didn't understand it then, don't get it now."
Ezra nodded. "Perhaps a demonstration is in order."
Vin watched with avid curiosity as Ezra pulled a length of rope from his saddlebag. The rope was folded in half, and in the middle sat a small leather pouch. Ezra bent down and picked up a small stone and placed it in the pouch. He twirled the rope at his side. The speed and momentum kept the rock positioned in the pouch until Ezra released one end of the rope. The rock flew from the pouch, striking a near by tree with enough force to shatter it. Vin whistled, impressed in spite of himself with the amount of force such a simple weapon could exert.
Ezra took a slight bow. "The ancient Romans used such weapons when they went to war. As did many of the armies of the middle ages until they perfected other long range weapons. And it was a similar weapon which young David used to slay Goliath."
"How long does it take ta get good with that thing?" Vin guessed that Hoskins was only a few hours away, at most.
Ezra shrugged. "It depends on the abilities of the user. You've got outstanding aim, Mr. Tanner. Not to mention a truly refined sense of coordination. I suspect you will master it in very little time."
Vin felt his face heat at that compliment. He wasn't sure what to make of the fact that Ezra had noticed things about him. [Hell, everyone knows I've got good aim.] Vin tried to convince himself it didn't mean anything.
He reached out to take the sling, careful not to let his fingers touch Ezra's. "Best let me try it then. Don't have a lot of time."
Ezra handed it over. He coached Vin a bit, but as he predicted it didn't take long for Vin to get the hang of it. His aim wasn't quite as accurate as he'd like, but he was impressed with the range he could get with so little effort. He hadn't expected it to be able to shoot so far or with so much force.
Loading the sling for yet another shot, Vin asked, "When did ya learn ta use this thing?"
"When I was a child. I'd read about such things as a young boy and wanted to see if I could make it work. My Uncle Malcolm had a passion for history. He introduced me to the idea of ancient weapons. And their subsequent evolution into modern ones."
Vin was thrilled to get such a detailed answer. He never knew Ezra had an uncle. [Wonder if findin' out stuff is a simple as jus' askin'? Can't hurt ta try.] Deciding to test his theory, Vin asked another question.
"Yer uncle, Malcolm, what did he do?"
Ezra tipped his head slightly, not quite hiding a small smile. "He taught military history and strategy at West Point for a number of years."
Vin filed that detail away for further consideration. It explained why Ezra seemed to know so much about the art of war. Vin readied the sling for another shot. His aim improved each time. It was getting easier to time his release so that he could hit his target right on. [Wonder if Ez would let me have this when we're done.]
"Ya ever use a bow?" Vin had learned to use a bow while living with the Comanche and the Kiowa. [Would be nice if we had somethin' in common.]
Ezra nodded. "A few times. Although, the bow I learned to use was not much like those the Indians use. Uncle Malcolm had a long bow that he graciously allowed me to try."
Vin raised his eyebrows. "Long bow?"
"Most of them are longer than I am tall, hence the name. The draw is substantial and it takes many, many years of consistent practice to perfect one's aim." The grin that Ezra gave Vin was reminiscent of a little boy. "However, a weapon of that size is difficult to conceal. I could hide a sling far easier."
Vin knew there was a story there, but didn't get the chance to ask any more. Ezra walked away carrying a rope over his shoulder. Vin watched Ezra tie the rope securely to one of the Junipers. He shook his head, surprised that he had ever thought his friend didn't know anything about knots.
[Don't know how I missed how easily he handles rope. Course, I ain't seen him handle it much 'fore now.] Vin clearly remembered Ezra stating, "A gentleman does not engage in manual labor."
Ezra laid the rope out across ground over to the boulders. He looped it loosely around one of smaller boulders twice. Wrapped around the stone should help secure and hold it against the weight of several horses hitting the rope at once. He left the end lying where whoever pulled it taut would be easily hidden from direct view.
"Gonna be me holdin' the rope?" Vin asked.
"Unless you'd rather handle the dynamite." Ezra raised an eyebrow. Vin could tell he was offering him the choice, even though he clearly didn't expect Vin to say yes.
"Nah. Stuff makes me nervous." He didn't trust it to not take his hand off.
Ezra nodded. "A healthy respect for it is a good thing. Particularly if one is not intimately familiar with its fickle nature."
"Where ya gonna be?"
Ezra moved back toward Vin. He pointed to his drawing still visible in the dirt. Shortly before ancient channel began to funnel into the narrows there were two other drainages that entered from the south. Ezra drew them both on his sketch.
"I'll be concealed here." He pointed to the first drainage. "It will provide ample cover for one man to remain unseen until Hoskins and his associates have passed."
Ezra pointed to the second drainage. "I will attempt to continue to move forward. There should be sufficient dust and debris to conceal me."
"Should be?" This worried Vin. [What if they don't keep movin' forward like they're s'posed to? What if there ain't enough dust ta hide in? What if they back out or see Ez? He's got no where ta go.]
Ezra shrugged. "There are no guarantees, Mr. Tanner." He focused his green eyes on Vin, his expression intense and concerned. "Your own position is far from secure. Even less so than my own. The rope may not be sufficient to disable their mounts. Or may not disable enough of them to generate the confusion needed."
Ezra frowned. He reached out hesitantly, as if to touch Vin, but pulled back before he did. "Vin, you could very well be a sitting duck. From your position there is no where to retreat. And a sling is not nearly as fast or as deadly as a gun."
Vin had jumped a bit when Ezra used his first name. It was a sure sign of how serious this situation was. He tried to bury his regret that Ezra had not completed his reach. [Wish he didn't wait until it was bad 'fore he called me Vin. Would like ta here him call me that more often. Woulda liked for him ta touch me too.]
Ezra regarded him steadily, pulling his thoughts back to the situation at hand. "This is risky, and not without some potential hazards to you. Make no mistake, you will be in harm's way."
Vin noticed that Ezra didn't say anything about the potential danger involved for himself. [Acts like it don't matter if he gets hurt. Like it only matters if I get hurt.] "You think it will work?"
Ezra nodded once. "I would not have suggested it if I thought it wouldn't. But if you have concerns, now is the time to pull out, before we are committed to a course of action. Another opportunity, a safer one, may present itself."
Vin doubted that would be the case. Out here, in the middle of nowhere there was no chance of an innocent bystander being hurt. And he wasn't sure they could get to Bitter Creek in time to warn the town or set up a plan to bring down Hoskins there. He wasn't even sure of how much help they could rely on there. No, there best bet to recapture Hoskins, and prevent a possible blood bath was right here and now.
Vin nodded. "Let's do it." [Ain't like I got any better ideas. And if he thinks it'll work...guess we go with it.] "I trust ya, Ez."
Ezra looked at him in disbelief. He smiled that tight, self-deprecating smile that Vin hated. "You really shouldn't, Mr. Tanner. Ask the others. I am not trustworthy."
"They trust you."
"No, they do not." Ezra stated calmly, his tone leaving no room for argument.
Despite the unconcerned tone of voice, Vin could easily read the momentary flash of pain and sorrow in those jade green eyes. It was quickly hidden, but Vin knew it had been there.
[Ez can read people. Makes his livin' doin' it. Wonder if he's right ta say they don't trust him? He's got no reason ta trust us if he thinks we don't trust 'im.]
Vin hoped Ezra was wrong. He really thought the others trusted Ezra, but he suspected that the cardsharp might be right. The others seemed to hold him to a different standard, judged him more harshly, said and did things to Ezra they wouldn't dream of doing to each other.
[Nathan's all the time raggin' on 'im 'bout cheatin' an' stealin' even though Ez don't cheat or steal. Josiah's always actin' like Ezra oughta be better, be someone else, like who he is ain't good 'nough. Chris and Buck both act like they's jus' waitin' for 'im ta run out. Act like he can't be relied on, checkin' up on him all o' time. And JD...well, he's jus' a kid, but he follows everyone else's lead. Don't exactly set a good example fer him either.]
Vin sighed silently. [Whole bit with the Seminole village shoulda been forgiven and forgotten. Same with that money. Weren't any o' them made a big deal outta me losin' my head over Mrs. Richmond or takin' that assassin's rifle.]
Vin started examine his own behavior, trying to work out what he might have done, or failed to do, that had made Ezra seem so surprised to hear Vin say he trusted him. [Have ta make sure I let him know I like him. I do trust him. He's my friend, damn it. Need ta make sure he knows that.]
Vin reached out and laid a hand on Ezra's shoulder. He squeezed once trying to communicate physically what he wasn't sure how to say. Vin decided it had to be his imagination that the gambler leaned into that touch, almost seeming to ask for more.
"Don't go getting' yerself killed. Ya hear?" Vin shook Ezra slightly. "Ain't got so many friends I can afford ta lose one."
Ezra rewarded him with a warm smile. His whole expression transforming from his usual poker face into something more relaxed.
It was an expression Vin had never seen before, but would love to see again. It reminded him of a flower opening up for the sun. [Musta said somethin' right.]
"I shall endeavor to come away unscathed. See that you do likewise, Mr. Tanner."
A moment later Ezra seemed to reluctantly pull away from Vin's grip with a quiet sigh. "We had better get into position. They will be here soon, and it wouldn't do for us to be caught unaware a second time."
With that he moved away, sweeping away evidence of his presence as he moved toward his chosen hiding area. Vin did likewise, settling in to wait. He was patient by nature. He got comfortable and settled in. Vin forced himself to maintain his focus, to not let his mind wander back to Ezra, but to concentrate on listening and looking for Hoskins.
Half an hour later Vin could hear riders coming. He was glad that he'd found a hiding place, out of harm's way, for both Peso and Chaucer. They should be able to retrieve their horses without too much trouble once they were done. Vin readied his grip on the rope waiting for Ezra.
He heard the first explosion as Ezra lobbed a stick of dynamite. Then a second. Horses were coming closer, moving fast. A third explosion signaled that Ezra had made it to the second drainage. [Good. Least he's got cover. Don't want 'im out in the open.]
Vin could just make out the riders coming toward him through the dust. Several of them had pulled guns and were firing blindly behind them. Vin pulled the rope taut, bracing himself with both feet against the boulder, just seconds before the galloping horses reached it. At that distance there was no way they could see it in time and avoid it. The rope rose to catch the horses at knee level. Rapid forward motion came to an abrupt and sudden stop.
Vin winced as he heard the one horse scream as it went down. He was pretty sure it had broken a leg when it tripped. It had slammed into another horse on its way down, both animals falling, hoofs flailing in a vain attempt to stay upright. Another animal went down hard, rolling head over heals. The horse got up, but its rider didn't. A third animal attempted to leap the downed horses in front of it, but miss-stepped, coming down with all four feet on one of the human riders before falling sideways slamming its rider against one of the Juniper trees as it went down. Another came to a rearing stop, unseating its rider as it did so. One horse managed to come to a complete stop avoiding the tangled mass of bodies.
Vin hated doing it, but he had to agree with Ezra's logic. It made more sense to take down the horses than try to unseat the riders, particularly when they didn't have guns. He was amazed at just how effective something so simple had proven to be.
Hoping the sling Ezra had given him would prove to be just as effective, Vin snatched up one of the stones he'd piled near by, and let fly. He aimed for the men he could see still moving. The dust made it difficult to zero in on his target, but Vin did manage to nail one man in the head. He dropped and laid still. He got another in the arm as he raised his gun to fire. From the way he dropped his gun, Vin was pretty sure he'd broken the arm.
The one man still mounted wheeled his horse and headed back toward Ezra. Vin took aim. He cursed when he missed. He cursed again when he heard a gun shot... and then another. [Shit! Shit! Ezra you better be okay.]
Vin moved out into the fray. He kept a wary eye on the men and horses strewn about as he made his way toward where he thought Ezra would be. One man lay with his head at an awkward angle. Vin didn't have to check to know he was dead. Another man lay moaning, cradling his left leg with both hands. From the way it looked, Vin was sure it was broken. The man he'd hit in the head lay still, unmoving. Vin couldn't tell if he was dead or simply unconscious. The man the horse had landed on was breathing with a wet gasping rattle. Bright red blood bubbled on his lips, a tell-tale sign that one or maybe both his lungs, had been punctured. Vin didn't think the man would last much longer, and there wasn't a thing he could do for him. A fifth man cradled his right arm. Vin watched that man carefully, relieved to note that he hadn't moved to retrieve his lost weapon.
Four horses stood about, shaking, looking wild eyed, and panicked. The one Vin had thought broke its leg lay on its side breathing hard. It had tried twice to make it to its feet before giving up and laying still. [Gonna have to put it down.] That saddened Vin. [Damn shame. Horse didn't do anythin' wrong. Don't seem fair.]
"Ez! You okay!!?" Vin shouted. "Ezra!" Vin moved to snatch up a gun lying nearby. He felt better holding a weapon he was familiar with. [Where the hell is he?]
"Ezra! Answer me, damn it."
"Mr. Tanner, I'm here."
Vin breathed easier when he heard that. He moved forward eager to catch a glimpse of gambler. He wouldn't totally relax until he was sure Ezra was okay.
Ezra held a gun in one hand, covering the man in front of him, Hoskins. Vin noticed immediately that Ezra was holding the gun in his left hand. There was a splash of crimson on Ezra's right arm. It stood out against the white of his shirt.
Vin had convinced Ezra that his red jacket would be far too visible against the light colored soil. So Ezra had removed both his jacket and his vest leaving them with Chaucer. His white shirt had blended in with the surrounding area well, but it sharply contrasted with the red blood now marring its usually pristine surface.
"You okay?" Vin asked. He shot a venomous look toward Hoskins. If looks could kill the man would have died right then and there. Hoskins hesitated seeing that look.
Ezra shoved him from behind to keep him moving. "Just a scratch, Mr. Tanner. Mr. Hoskins' aim is not very good. A fact I am decidedly grateful for."
Ezra looked Vin over. Vin could almost feel those sharp eyes running over him, cataloging every detail. "You are unhurt, Mr. Tanner?"
"I'm fine." Vin pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. "Your plan worked pretty good."
Ezra looked toward the chaos Vin had left in his wake. "Dear Lord!" Ezra took a surprised breath. "That worked far better than I had anticipated."
Vin nodded. "Yeah, kinda impressed me too."
Ezra shook his head slightly. "You managed to incapacitate the others then?"
"One dead. Looks like he broke 'is neck. Got one I don't 'spect ta last too long. Horse landed on 'im, probably stoved his ribs inta his lungs. One with a broken leg. One with a broken arm, and one I ain't sure if he's dead or just unconscious."
"Well, let us secure Mr. Hoskins then, and deal with the rest." Ezra shoved Hoskins forward again.
"What 'bout yer arm?" He didn't like seeing Ezra's blood darkening his sleeve. The thought of the man being seriously injured made his gut tighten. [Need ta bind that.]
"I'll have you see to it once the rest are taken care of. From the looks of things, they are in greater need than I."
Ezra forced Hoskins to sit down under a tree, and swiftly bound him to it. Vin covered him while he did so. He would feel a lot better once he had his own guns back, and all the gang was accounted for. [Will feel better once Ez lets me take a look at that arm too.]
Ezra looked toward the man with a broken neck for just a second before turning away with a shake of his head. He headed for the man still breathing bloody bubbles. He bent down and helped him sit up slightly, easing the man's labored breathing. The unnaturally compressed nature of his chest confirmed Vin's earlier theory that the horse's hoofs had collapsed his ribcage and punctured his lungs.
Vin looked closely and realized the man in question wasn't really a man at all, but a half grown kid. [Aw hell. Kid can't be more than sixteen.] Vin crouched down. "Ez...he gonna be okay?"
Ezra looked up from the boy's fear filled brown eyes, and sighed. "I am no doctor, Mr. Tanner." The resignation in his tone, and solemn expression, said it all. Vin's initial assessment that the boy would not live long had been accurate.
The boy choked, and tried to move. "Easy, now. Easy." Ezra ordered softly, his drawl softening his voice to a gentle croon. "I know it hurts. Moving around will only make it worse. Just rest. Concentrate on breathing."
Ezra ran his fingers through the boy's hair. It reminded Vin of seeing Mary Travis do the same thing for her young son, Billy. Ezra looked up again. "Mr. Tanner, perhaps you should see to the others. I'll stay with him."
Vin hesitated. Ezra looked at him steadily letting him know that he would wait with the boy until he breathed his last. Vin nodded and swallowed hard. He easily understood the message in Ezra's eyes. Nobody should die alone.
Vin really didn't want to watch this boy slowly drown in his own blood. He did as Ezra suggested and moved away to check the man who he'd hit in the head with his first shot from the sling. He felt the man's neck trying to locate a pulse. There wasn't one. He'd suspected that the sling could provide enough force to kill a man, but now he knew for certain that it could be deadly. [One more down.]
He checked the man with a broken arm. Vin had set a few bones in his day. This break looked to be clean, and should be easy to take care of. Vin looked at the man and waited until he made eye contact.
"Ya want me ta set and splint it for ya?" Vin figured it would be easier to ask than try to fight with him.
The man took a breath, and sighed. He looked reluctant but agreed to let Vin set his arm. Vin deftly set the broken arm as swiftly and as painlessly as he could. The man had done no more than let out a breath in a hiss of pain. Vin made sure to the man wasn't hiding any other weapons, and then helped him to his feet. He led him to a tree near the one where Hoskins was tied. A nearby tree branch provided what he needed to act as a splint. Once the arm was taken care of, Vin tied the man to the tree. He was careful not to jar the injured arm, but made certain he was secure, and not likely to go anywhere soon.
"I'll get ya some water in a bit. Just sit here quiet like. Understand?"
A nod was the only sign that the man had heard him. Vin made his way back to Ezra. Ezra had laid the boy down, and ran a hand over his eyes, closing them. That gesture let Vin know without asking that the boy had finally died.
Ezra made a strange hand motion, and said something in a language Vin didn't recognize. It sounded like Spanish, but it wasn't. Vin thought it sounded like stuff Josiah said in the church. [Latin...maybe.]
Ezra sighed heavily, and looked at Vin. The sorrow in his eyes took Vin's breath away. "He was far too young, Mr. Tanner. Far too young to die this way."
Vin agreed with that. [Kid had no place bein' here.] "Was his choice ta ride with Hoskins. His choice ta be what he was. There's a price ta be paid for makin' that decision."
Vin knew he sounded cold, but he didn't want Ezra to wallow in guilt over this. He didn't want to feel guilty about it either. And as cold as his statement was, it was also the truth. They might feel sorry for the boy, but he was riding with men who had every intention of killing innocent people and hauling Vin back to Texas to hang for a crime he didn't commit.
"Boy mighta been young, but he weren't innocent, Ez."
"True." Ezra shrugged one shoulder. "I am aware that there are always consequences, Mr. Tanner. Always. No matter what choice one makes. I'm just not sure this young man was aware of that fact until now."
Ezra sighed softly. "He made a decision about how to live his life very early in the game. A decision that, today, proved to be irrevocable."
"You okay?" Vin didn't like the sadness and regret he could hear in Ezra's voice.
Ezra smiled sadly. "I will be. Rest assured, Mr. Tanner, this is not the worst I've had the misfortune to witness." Ezra appraised him with a quick look. "Nor would I wager, is it the worst that you have seen."
"No. It ain't." Vin thought about his time in the war. He was probably close to the same age as the boy who'd just died when he'd signed up. He had seen things there that he hoped never to see again. "Don't make it any easier though."
"No. No, it doesn't." Ezra squared his shoulders, and his poker face again hid his thoughts and feelings. "We've got another wounded man to attend to."
They approached the man cradling his broken leg with both hands. He looked up when the approached, and snarled at them. "Goddamn you."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "All in due time, I'm sure." Ezra ignored the rest of the insults hurled his way. He looked at the man's leg, and considered it. Vin could tell it was an ugly break. The bone was sticking out through the man's pant leg. By all rights he should be unconscious.
Ezra stepped forward and pulled a knife from the man's boot. He knelt down, and deftly turned the blade so he could slit the pant leg, making it easier to get to the wounded leg. The man reached out and slapped Ezra hard on his wounded right arm. Ezra dropped the knife with a grunt of pain, and raised his left arm to cradle his right.
The man snatched up the knife with a surprising amount of speed and lunged at Ezra. Vin shot him with the Colt he'd appropriated earlier. He didn't have time to adjust his aim for anything less than lethal. He aimed to stop him, and that meant hitting the man at center mass. Vin's shot caught him in the chest and the force threw him back and away from Ezra.
Seeing the man would never cause a problem again, Vin knelt down to check on Ezra. "Ez... He didn't get ya did he?"
Vin had been certain that he'd managed to shoot fast enough to prevent Ezra from getting stabbed. But Ezra's silence worried him. Maybe he hadn't been fast enough. He was confident in his aim, but quick draws were something he usually left to one of the others.
"I am... unharmed." Ezra gasped. He still cradled his wounded arm. Fresh blood stained his fingers.
"Best let me see ta that." [Unharmed, my ass. That blood says otherwise.] Vin was determined not to be put off a second time. [Shoulda took care o' him first. No matter what he said.]
Ezra nodded. He moved to get to his feet. "I would prefer if we could do this away from here."
Vin understood that. No one willingly stayed around the dead if they could be elsewhere. He helped Ezra to his feet. His concern went up several notches when Ezra swayed. "You okay, Pard?"
"Uh-huh. Let's get ya sat down." Vin moved Ezra toward the boulders he'd hidden behind earlier. They were closer, and he didn't want Ezra anywhere near Hoskins and his remaining companion.
He helped Ezra sit. As worried as he was that Ezra seemed to need his help more than he ought to, Vin couldn't help but enjoy being so close. He took a deep breath and tried to imprint Ezra's scent on his senses. [God, he smells good. Wonder what that scent is.]
Vin couldn't quite figure identify all the components. There was a hint of something floral, blended with a trace of musk, leather, and something uniquely appealing but unidentifiable. Vin took in another breath, deciding that whatever it was, it was very, very nice. He wondered if it was just Ezra. [Has ta be. Don't remember ever smellin' anythin' like it 'fore.]
Vin knelt next to Ezra, taking Ezra's right arm and laying it across his knee. Vin ripped the sleeve open from wrist to shoulder in one swift jerk. He noticed immediately when Ezra winced.
"Sorry, Ez. Didn't mean to hurt ya."
"You didn't, Mr. Tanner. It was just the sound of yet another fine article of clothing meeting its untimely demise that bothered me."
Vin chuckled. "Ya must be okay to talk like that."
Ezra rolled his eyes. "I believe I stated I was fine earlier."
Vin snorted. "Oh sure ya are. Last time I checked, someone ain't fine that's bleedin'."
The wound was shallow, little more than a bloody furrow that cut across Ezra's bicep. It bled freely, and Vin used the sleeve he'd torn as a bandage. "Probably oughta have stitches."
"Neither of us have the tools to undertake such a task, Mr. Tanner."
Vin nodded, not happy with the situation, but there was little he could do about it. "Lemme just look for somethin' ta clean it with, and I'll bandage it up. Should do ya till we get ta Bitter Creek."
Vin quickly made his way to the horses. He was careful not upset them any more than they already were. Most of them had calmed down considerably. Vin glanced to the animal still lying on the ground. Taking care of putting the animal down for good was not something Vin was looking forward to.
[Sorry, boy. I'll be back ta put you outta yer misery in a minute. Promise.]
It didn't take him long to find a bottle of whiskey in one of the saddlebags. He was surprised to locate a clean shirt. It would work fine for a bandage. He tore off one sleeve, and then the other.
He went back to Ezra. Vin pulled the cork on the bottle. "This is gonna sting."
"I know." Ezra pulled away the bloody cloth he'd been holding against his arm.
Vin poured a liberal amount of alcohol over the wound. He was impressed that Ezra remained still, and other than a slight change in his breathing, gave no indication that it hurt. And Vin knew first hand that it had to hurt like hell.
Vin quickly wrapped one sleeve around the arm, and then used the second sleeve to secure the first in place. When he was finished, Vin patted Ezra on the arm. He tried hard not to notice just how good the skin beneath his fingers felt.
[Ez might not hold with doin' manual labor, but if his arm is anythin' to go by, he's rock solid. Always wondered what he looked like under them fancy clothes o' his.] Vin mentally slapped himself. [Ain't the right time or place fer that.]
"Why don't ya just sit here for a bit, Ez." Vin was still worried about how unsteady Ezra had seemed a few moments ago. "I'm gonna go take care of that horse, then we can decide what ta do with Hoskins and his buddy."
"It isn't necessary for me to 'sit here for a bit', Mr. Tanner." Ezra stated calmly. His tone told Vin that he'd been insulted. He got slowly got to his feet. "I'll see to retrieving our possessions while you attend to that poor animal."
Vin shook his head. He should have known better than to think Ezra would just sit still. The others, Nathan in particular, thought the gambler was lazy, but Vin knew he wasn't. He'd never seen Ezra shirk any task he'd been assigned. Oh he might complain about it, but he never failed to do his duty. [Hell, the man wore a dress for God's sake. Don't know if the rest o' 'em would done that. I sure as hell wouldn't have.]
Vin kept a careful eye on his friend as he went about riffling through various saddlebags, and examining each body. Ezra seemed steady on his feet now. He retrieved his Remington and derringer by the time Vin had managed to get all the equipment off the downed horse. Vin checked all four legs just to be certain there was no way to save the animal.
One leg was definitely broken, and the other looked as if the knee had become disjointed. [Two legs busted up. No wonder it can't get up.] He frowned knowing he couldn't put it off any longer.
Ezra approached him holding out Vin's own weapons. "You accouterments, Mr. Tanner."
"Thanks, Ez." Vin felt immediately better. He checked the action on his gun just to be certain it was clean and ready to fire. He slid one knife back into his belt sheath. The knife had been a gift and it felt good to have it back.
Ezra regarded the horse with sad eyes. His expression was solemn as he crouched down in front of the beast, and stroked its nose. Ezra bent his head to place his forehead against that of the horse. "You were never meant to suffer for the sins of your rider. Please understand that if there had been away to avoid this, I would have utilized it. Desperate times forced me to use desperate measures."
For a moment Vin was sure the horse had understood because it nickered softly seeming to respond to Ezra's words. Ezra cupped the animal's eyes, and then scratched it behind the ears. "You were a victim of circumstance. I'm sorry. Mea Culpa."
With a final pat, Ezra pulled away, and stepped back. Vin pulled his gun, aimed carefully, and fired once. Even though he'd been expecting it, the shot seemed incredibly loud.
Vin turned away. He hated having to put down a horse. He had considered asking Ezra to do it, but couldn't force that burden on to him as well. [Way he dotes on Chaucer, don't know if he coulda shot it. No...he coulda done it, but it woulda been harder for him than me. Takin' care of this is the least I could do. He stayed with the boy, wouldn't a been fair ta ask him ta do this too.]
"Now what?" Vin asked as he holstered his gun, steadfastly ignoring the tightness of his throat.
"Now we retrieve our own mounts, load up these men, and head for Bitter Creek. The sheriff there will undoubtedly want to know what happened here."
Vin nodded. If all went smoothly, they should be in Bitter Creek just before sundown. [Sure hope the rest of this day goes accordin' ta plan.]
Vin pulled Peso to a halt in front of the sheriff's office. He ignored the fear filled looks people shot toward them. It probably wasn't every day two men rode in with two prisoners in tow, and four bodies draped over the horses they were ponying with them.
It had taken some doing, but they managed to get all of the bodies loaded. Having put down one of the outlaws' horses had forced them to load two bodies onto one of the remaining animals. Vin had thought it would be simpler to just leave them for the buzzards, but Ezra was adamant that they all be brought in.
"Since neither of our captives seems inclined to tell us who these men are, Mr. Tanner, the only way we will be able to determine their identities is to take them to Bitter Creek."
Personally, Vin didn't care to know who they were, but came to the conclusion it would be pointless to argue with Ezra. The set look on the gambler's face let him know it was an argument he couldn't win. So he gave in, and helped load the bodies.
Vin swung out of the saddle. He glanced toward Ezra. He had expected him to join him on the boardwalk, but Ezra hadn't moved other than to lean forward and rest his crossed arms on the pommel of his saddle.
"I shall wait with Mr. Hoskins and his companion, Mr. Tanner. It wouldn't do for them to attempt to escape."
Hoskins scowled. He had stayed quiet the entire trip doing little more than sending dark looks toward Vin and Ezra. Vin smirked at him. "Yeah. Might just be a good idea. Be back in a minute."
The sheriff of Bitter Creek was a man about Chris Larabee's age, but with Josiah's build. Tom Wilton had been sheriff for five years, and was by all accounts good at it. He had a tough, weathered look, and a no-nonsense approach about his job that Vin appreciated.
Vin told him what had happened, leaving out only the part related to the bounty on his own head, and the outlaws' intention to collect it. He didn't think that little detail was really important. Vin hid a grin when he realized that he and Ezra might just have something in common. [Didn't lie, just didn't volunteer more information.]
Vin let Tom know what was waiting outside. Tom, and his deputy, Dale Willis, followed Vin when he headed back out. Tom shook his head when he saw Hoskins. "Hear you were dumb enough ta give these boys some trouble."
Hoskins spat at Tom, but didn't say anything. Tom rolled his eyes. He studied the other prisoner. "Dan O'Brian. Never thought I'd see you 'round here again. Shoulda been smart and kept ridin'."
O'Brian shrugged, and looked away.
Tom pursed his lips when he spotted the others. "Dale...take these two inside an' lock 'em up." The deputy pulled both men down, and shoved them toward the door.
"Mr. O'Brian has broken his arm." Ezra nonchalantly pointed out.
"Ya get it set?"
Vin nodded. "Yep."
"Town ain't got a doctor, so that'll have ta do." Tom shrugged one shoulder. He wasn't too concerned about the prisoner's health. It was his job to see to it the man made it to his trial more or less in one piece, any more than that didn't fall within his job description.
The sheriff walked next to each horse, and lifted the head of each man, identifying one after another. "Sam Watkins... Earl Potocek... Greg Stamos... and Greg's little brother, Martin. Watkins is wanted for murder. Potocek, and the two Stamos boys were there when Hoskins tried ta rob the bank. Guess we won't need ta worry 'bout the cost of a trial." Tom pulled on the horses' reins. "I can take it from here, boys."
Ezra raised two fingers to the brim of his hat and saluted him. "We will leave them in your capable hands, Mr. Wilton."
"You headin' back ta Four Corners?"
"Not tonight." Vin answered. He swung into his saddle. He knew Ezra would want a bath, and to be honest, he wanted one as well. [Won't hurt ta get a good nights sleep either.]
"Might be a reward for Watkins. I'll need ta check. Stop in 'fore ya leave, and I'll let ya know."
"Will do." Vin touched the brim of his hat, and followed Ezra toward the livery stable. [Need ta send a wire ta Chris an' let him know we made it okay. Can take care o' that after we settle the horses.]
Vin stripped his tack off Peso, and gave him a thorough rub down. He looked up quickly when he heard a pain filled gasp and a soft curse coming from the stall where Ezra had put Chaucer. He moved over to check on the cardsharp.
Ezra had dropped his saddle, and was holding his right arm. The gambler had put his vest and jacket back on when they had headed for Bitter Creek. It wouldn't do for a gentleman to be seen without adequate attire. Vin couldn't tell if the wound was bleeding again or not. He moved toward Ezra wondering if he'd been wrong and his injury was something more serious.
Ezra looked up, poker face fixed in place. It didn't fool Vin for a second. He could read the discomfort in those clear green eyes.
"I'm fine. I simply forgot that I managed to damage my person in our earlier altercation."
Vin frowned. "You forgot ya were wounded?"
Ezra shrugged one shoulder. He smiled. It was the self-deprecating one that Vin hated. It somehow said that what had happened was Ezra's fault and he deserved to suffer for it.
Vin shook his head, and deftly picked up Ezra's saddle and placed it on the nearby rack. [All he had ta do was ask me. Woulda helped him. Know what its like tryin' ta do stuff with a wing outta whack.]
"Thank you, Mr. Tanner."
Vin sighed. "Would it kill ya to call me Vin?"
"My name. Ez, we've known each other for over a year. Don't ya think it's 'bout time ya used my first name?"
Ezra raised one eyebrow. "I would not presume to be so forward."
"Ya called me Vin before."
In the dim light of the stable it was hard to tell for sure, but Vin was fairly certain Ezra blushed. "My apologies, Mr. Tanner. I forgot myself for a moment in my concern for you... this is to say, our situation. I should not have taken such liberties."
Vin tamped down on that warm feeling when Ezra said he was concerned for him. "Damn it, Ez. I just told ya I wanted ya to. Ain't bein' forward or taken liberties iffen I ask ya ta call me Vin. So jus' do it. Please?"
Vin was rewarded with another of those warm, open smiles. Twice in one day. Despite everything that had happened, Vin was beginning to think it was his lucky day. [Figured out how ta say the right thing twice, and got ta see that smile. It's been a good day.]
"Very well, Mr...Vin. Thank you."
Vin nodded in satisfaction. "Yer welcome."
Ezra ducked his head shyly, and turned to continue brushing down Chaucer. Vin knew Ezra would be awhile. He always spent an inordinate amount of time making sure his sorrel gelding was comfortable and well cared for.
"I'm gonna send a telegram ta the others an' let 'em know we made it okay."
Ezra nodded. "Please give them my regards."
"Wanna meet up in the saloon?" Vin tried not to sound too eager to have Ezra say yes.
"That will be fine...Vin." There was just the slightest hesitation over his name.
Vin grinned as he left the stable. It felt so good just to hear Ezra say his name. It sent a shiver up his back. [Gonna have ta watch myself.]
He sent a quick note back to Four Corners letting the rest of the boys know they'd made it safe and sound, and would be leaving sometime tomorrow. He waited several minutes to see if there would be a reply. When nothing came, Vin let the operator know where he'd be in case the others did send a message.
Vin stretched, and decided he'd get a bath before meeting up with Ezra. The dynamite they'd used earlier raised so much dust and dirt he could feel it all over his skin and under his clothes. [Damn dust permeates everythin'.] Vin chuckled realizing he'd used one of the words he'd picked up from Ezra.
He swung by the stable to get his saddlebags and a change of clothes before heading to the bathhouse. He didn't make any noise as he stepped inside, moving silently being second nature to him. Vin was surprised to find the place all but empty. Only one other customer. Vin blinked when he realized the other man was Ezra.
Vin hid in the shadows, and tried to control his breathing. [Oh my God.] Ezra was just finishing his bath. He had stepped out of the water, and was drying off. His wet hair was a disordered array of curls, that Vin wanted to run his fingers through.
Vin let his eyes travel the length of the other man's well muscled, compact frame. Ezra was the shortest of the seven, but he was by no means tiny. Fine boned perhaps, but not tiny. Vin noted that Ezra was indeed solid.
There wasn't an ounce of extra flesh on him anywhere. His chest was well muscled, his stomach flat. Vin licked his suddenly dry lips as he noticed the nice muscle definition of Ezra's thighs and calves. The faint ripple of muscle moving under smooth skin with every move Ezra made left Vin's fingers tingling and his whole body aching to touch.
Ezra bent over to dry his feet and legs. Vin swallowed hard. [God. That man has got the most beautiful ass.] Vin shivered. It was all he could do to stay still. He didn't want the other man to know he was ogling him like Buck Wilmington did one of his many ladies.
That thought was like a bucket of ice water down his back. Vin wanted more than a quick roll in the hay with Ezra. He wanted the chance to get to know him, a chance to explore every square inch of him over and over. Instinctively, Vin knew Ezra wasn't the sort to engage in meaningless sex. [If he was, he could have any woman in town.]
Ezra pulled on some silk underwear and the smooth slide of that fabric over his skin made it hard for Vin to breathe. He could just imagine what that felt like. Ezra pulled on his pants, socks and boots. With less skin exposed, Vin breathed a bit easier.
He forced himself to think about shooting the horse, and seeing the bloody bubbles on the boy's lips. It worked to bring his raging body firmly under control. He made himself ignore the fact that the whole room smelled faintly of flowers, musk, leather, and Ezra.
Sure that he had himself under control, Vin stepped out of the shadows and further into the room. He knew he'd been lucky that Ezra hadn't noticed his presence before now. It was surprisingly difficult to sneak up on the wily cardsharp.
This was the first time Vin could remember Ezra not spotting him before he had the chance to deliberately make himself known. He purposely made enough noise to announce his presence. Ezra's Remington came up and was leveled at his chest in less time than it took to blink.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Tanner. You surprised me." Ezra lowered the weapon. "I was not expecting company."
"No problem." Vin shook his head. He hadn't realized the gambler was so fast. "And it's Vin, remember?"
Ezra dipped his head slightly, a faint flush dusted his cheekbones. "Vin." He waved an elegant, long fingered hand toward the tubs. "You've come for your evening ablutions?"
Vin raised his eyebrows. "Ablutions?"
"Take a bath." Ezra clarified with a grin and a wink.
Vin fought hard to retain his control. He cleared his throat. "Figured it would be a good idea ta wash off alla this dust."
"A very good idea indeed." Ezra ran fingers through his hair trying to order it somewhat. He then reached for a clean shirt he had left hanging on a nearby hook. Vin's sharp eyes noticed the gash on his arm. It looked like it might have bled recently.
He stepped forward and halted Ezra's reach. Vin had hoped there was a doctor in town to take a look at Ezra's arm, but the sheriff's casual comment about the town not having one dashed that hope. "You gonna wrap that?"
Ezra raised one eyebrow. "I had planned to, yes."
"It was bleedin' again." [Wonder if that happened in the stable. Damn fool shoulda asked me for help.]
"Yes." Ezra looked down at his arm, his head cocked to one side as he considered it. "I decided to clean it again. I may have been a bit too rough in my fervor to prevent an infection."
Vin nodded. "Jus' bein' thorough?"
"Something like that."
[Good. Don't want ya getting' sick.] "You need help wrappin' it up again?"
"If you would be so kind." Ezra held up a clean piece of cloth.
He dropped his saddlebags from his shoulder to the floor with a soft thud before taking the cloth from Ezra. Vin quickly wrapped the wound, careful not to cause any additional pain. When he was finished, he turned away before he said or did anything he might regret. Being so close to Ezra was making it difficult to maintain his hard won control.
Vin noticed several buckets of fresh water sat lined up along the wall. He tested the water temperature, pleased to find it still warm. He filled the other tub, more than ready to get out of his dirty clothes. [Be nice ta be clean again.]
Vin shrugged out of his buffalo coat, hung it up, and then hung his hat on the same hook. He placed his guns within easy reach of the tub before he stripped out of the rest of his clothes. He heard a faint gasp behind him, and looked over his shoulder.
Ezra was staring at him, hands frozen in the act of buttoning his shirt. His expression reminded Vin of a child looking at the candy counter in Mrs. Potter's store. It was a mixture of lust and hunger, longing, regret and resignation. The pupils of his eyes were so large the normal green was almost hidden by black.
Ezra's eyes were hidden for a moment behind closed lids, and just that quick the neutral, poker face was back. His eyes were green again, and there was no trace of the earlier emotions. The sudden transition left Vin to wonder if he had imagined it all. He knew Ezra had a tight reign on his emotions and facial expressions but he hadn't realized to what degree.
"Yes, Vin?" Ezra responded to Vin with a voice totally dispassionate.
Vin frowned. He decided that asking what he really wanted to know would only embarrass Ezra. And he wasn't entirely certain how to ask it anyway. [Can't jus' ask the man if he was givin' me the once over.] He opted for a safer question. "Ya got any soap?"
"Certainly." Ezra handed over a bar of soap. Vin noted that it was Ezra who was careful to keep from touching him. Ezra's fingers trembled ever so slightly. No one but Vin would have noticed it.
Vin brought the bar to his nose and sniffed. He couldn't quite place the fragrance. [This is what Ezra smells like. Kinda, not exactly the same, but close.] "What is this?"
"Lavender and sandalwood." Ezra sighed. He looked faintly embarrassed and turned his face away. "If you don't like it..."
"I like it." Vin was quick to reassure Ezra. "Jus' wondered what it was. Never smelled it before."
"I have Mrs. Potter order it from San Francisco."
Vin took another sniff. "Nice."
Ezra smiled. "Please return it to me when you're finished." Ezra took a breath, and backed away. "I'll leave you to enjoy your bath." With that he was gone.
Vin shook his head, and stepped into the tub. It was the first time he'd ever wondered if Ezra might feel something more for him than just friendship. [Know what seein' him naked did ta me. Wonder if seein' me naked did that ta him? If that look I thought I saw really was there, an' the way he high tailed it outta here... I'd have ta say yes.]
Vin sighed. He wasn't sure how to approach this. He had never had much luck when it came to romance. Most of the time he was shy of women. He didn't know how to talk to them or what to say. They always seemed to want something from him he either couldn't give or didn't know how to give. Vin still considered Charlotte Richmond the best example of how poor his judgment concerning women was. And no man, before Ezra, had ever really held any appeal. He wished there were someone he could talk to.
Deciding to let the problem alone for a bit, Vin lathered up and set to getting rid of the layer of grime he'd accumulated. He was pleased to learn that Ezra's soap even worked well in his hair. He rinsed off, and took a deep breath. Vin immediately regretted borrowing Ezra's soap. The smell was so much like Ezra, Vin felt himself responding to it.
He had barely gotten himself under control before, but now, he couldn't even begin to hold it together. [Oh what the hell. I'm alone in here.] Vin sighed, and closed his eyes. His mind readily conjured up the picture of Ezra naked. He relived all the details he noticed earlier.
With one hand, Vin began to stroke himself. He let his imagination run wild, pretending it was Ezra who touched him... that it was Ezra who pinched and teased his nipples. He could almost hear that smooth as honey drawl saying his name over and over again.
Vin brought himself to completion in record time. He'd fantasized about Ezra before, but now he had so much more to work with. He'd actually gotten to see the object of his fantasy naked, gotten him to say his name, gotten to touch his skin however briefly, now knew his scent. Reality was so much better than anything he'd ever imagined. It hit him harder and faster, and left him feeling cheated because the fantasy was no longer what he wanted.
Vin shivered. The water had gone cold while he indulged himself. With a sigh, he got out of the tub, and reached for a towel. It had been enough to take the edge off, but it was far from enough.
Vin sighed and got dressed. He didn't want to scare Ezra by moving too fast. Vin shook his head in bemusement. [Hell, I went from thinkin' I had ta hide how I feel, ta thinkin' I might have a chance with him. This has definitely been a day for the record books.]
Vin rubbed his face with both hands. [Tanner pull yerself together.] He got dressed, and carefully packed up his things. He regarded the bar of soap with wary eyes. Ezra had left a small tin for it, and Vin swiftly boxed it up trying hard not to breathe in the lingering fragrance. For a moment he was tempted to keep it, but Ezra had asked him to return it, so he reluctantly put in his pocket where it would be within easy reach when he met up with the gambler.
He stepped outside and took a breath. Then another. He tried to work out some kind of plan, some idea of how to approach the gambler. Vin shook his head, and grinned. [Maybe I'll just improvise. Worked pretty good the last time.] He headed for the saloon to meet up with Ezra.
Ezra sighed, and took a sip from the shot glass he held. [Ezra P. Standish you are a fool.] He liked Vin Tanner. It was one of the reasons he took great pains not to aggravate the man when they were on the trail together. If he wanted quiet, Ezra was quiet. If he wanted to be up with the sun, Ezra got up right along with him. It seemed a small price to pay to maintain a cordial relationship with Vin.
In truth, Ezra liked him a lot. More than liked, really. In his rare moments of honest self-reflection he thought he might love the scruffy, long-haired tracker. But he knew that nothing would come of it.
[Vin Tanner is an honorable, honest, upright man. He is not the sort who would want me. What use would he have for a conman? A cheat? He is far better off finding someone he can respect. Someone worthy of being loved by him.]
Ezra took another sip of his whiskey. He was certain that if Vin were interested in men he would pursue a relationship with Chris. The dark clad gunslinger had far more in common with Vin than Ezra could ever hope to have. Half the time they didn't even need words to communicate. That wasn't something Ezra thought he could compete with.
Ezra snorted. [Like there is a competition to honestly consider. For us to be engaged in competition some declaration would have to be made. And that is not going to happen.]
He tried to convince himself that it was enough to know that Vin liked him. He wasn't going to risk that friendship by pushing for more. There had been very few people in his life that had genuinely liked him. Less than a handful that he could count on to stick by him in time of need, who hadn't regarded him as some kind of burden, or a tool to be used. It had surprised him to learn Vin was one of those rare few who seemed to care about him. That was far too valuable to be thrown away to satisfy his baser needs.
Ezra closed his eyes, and immediately the image of Vin disrobing in the bath house popped up. The man was gorgeous. All lean, rippling muscle and smooth sun bronzed skin. Long curly hair that just begged to have fingers run through it. Sky blue eyes sparkling with intelligence and humor. A beautiful face with strong, masculine features that any artist would kill to have as a model. Ezra had seen statues of Greek and Roman gods that fell short of the living, breathing unadorned beauty of Vin Tanner.
It had taken everything he had to rein in his raging desires. It simply wouldn't do for Vin to see how he felt. Ezra had no doubt revealing his emotions would ruin everything. It was bad enough that he had already slipped several times today. [Calling Vin by his first name, reaching out to touch him, confessing to be concerned for his safety...Ezra, you are slipping. And that will never do.]
He opened his eyes with a snap, and quickly downed the remainder of his drink. [Stop it. You know better. Dreaming about what will never be is a fool's bet.]
Ezra pulled a deck of cards from his jacket pocket. He shuffled, letting the familiar repetitive action quiet his mind. The cards flew through his fingers, and he took comfort in his absolute control over them. There were so many other aspects of his life ruled by chance, luck and fate, but handling cards wasn't one of those.
He deftly dealt out a hand of solitaire and played. Ezra focused on the cards, and let the simple game order his wayward thoughts. Even as he played, he sent out his senses to keep track of what went on around him. Without lifting his eyes from the table, he knew who was in the room, what they were doing and where.
It was a survival trick he'd mastered early on. Chris and the others wondered how he could seem so focused on his game and yet know who approached the table without looking up. He couldn't really explain it, but Ezra took great pains to always be aware of what was going on around him. He wouldn't have lived as long as he had if he'd let his attention to detail lapse or allowed his guard down for very long.
Having Vin surprise him in the bathhouse made him doubly wary. [That could have been a costly mistake. It wouldn't do for him to know I was daydreaming about him. That would be totally unacceptable.]
Ezra's radar tripped when he felt Vin entered the saloon. He froze for a second then took a breath and forced himself to relax. Without looking up he greeted Vin. "Hello, Vin."
Ezra hesitated just a fraction over the name. He regretted agreeing to use Vin's first name. It had been so much easier to keep the man at a distance using his surname. He kept all of them at a distance that way. But Vin had asked him to use his name, and he couldn't refuse the man anything.
"Hiya, Ez." Vin slid into a chair with a near boneless grace that Ezra couldn't help but admire. Vin reached into his pocket and withdrew Ezra's small soap case. He offered it to Ezra.
Ezra took it. He contained the shiver that ghosted over his skin when their fingers met. It had to be his imagination. There was no way that simple contact could generate a feeling of charged excitement.
He slipped the soap case into his pocket. "I hope you found it acceptable."
Vin half-smiled, his eyes lit up with some secret pleasure. "Oh, yeah. Liked it a lot. Was real nice o' ya to loan it to me."
Ezra tipped his head in acknowledgement. He continued with the game he'd laid out. Vin signaled the bartender, and a waitress made her way toward their table.
"Ya want another, Ez?" Vin tipped his head toward Ezra's now empty glass.
Ezra raised an eyebrow. He glanced toward the bar. He'd never really acquired a taste for bourbon, and didn't want any more. His flask of scotch had run out yesterday. [Surely something better than rotgut can be procured.]
"Only if it comes from that bottle." Ezra pointed toward a very dusty bottle that currently resided on the top shelf. He had spotted it earlier, and was surprised to see it there.
Vin squinted as he looked toward it. "What is it?"
"Brandy. Apricot brandy to be precise." [I haven't had a good brandy in years. Far too long really. It would be worth the cost just to taste it again.]
Vin frowned. "I ain't never had brandy."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "You might like it. Although, I must warn you, it does have a bite to it."
Vin grinned undaunted. "Okay."
Ezra asked the waitress to bring him the bottle of brandy. She glanced at him in surprise. "Ya sure, Mister? It costs more than whiskey." She quoted the price as though sure it would dissuade him.
Hearing the cost, Ezra understood why the bottle had languished on the shelf long enough to acquire so much dust. Still, it was brandy, and he wanted something good to drink. Ezra tossed a gold coin to the woman. "I'm sure. Bring the bottle, Darlin'. And two clean glasses if you please."
Vin frowned. He looked unsure. Not a usual expression for him by any means. "Kinda pricey, Ez. We coulda jus' had whiskey."
Ezra studied his friend for a moment. [Aw hell, I've offended or embarrassed him somehow. Better repair the damage.]
"You've not had the opportunity to try brandy, and it is my pleasure to introduce you to it." Ezra flashed a quick grin at him. "If you like it, then by all means, feel free to attempt to procure the bottle from me."
Vin chuckled. "Ya gonna raise the price on me?"
"Well, it would only be good business acumen to do so. But I'm sure we can work out an equitable exchange."
The waitress returned with the bottle, and two glasses. Vin poured a shot for himself and one for Ezra. Ezra sipped his drink savoring the flavor. He could feel the liquor creating a pleasant warmth as it went down. [God, but that is good.]
Vin tipped his back and swallowed the entire shot. Ezra did his best not to smile when Vin's eyes began to water, and he sucked in a breath rapidly. "I believe I did warn you that it has a bite."
"A bite... Jesus, Ez." Vin coughed, and rubbed his eyes. "Stuff burns."
"I know." Ezra sipped his drink again. "It can be a great comfort on a cold day."
Vin eyed the bottle warily. He poured another glass, and sipped it cautiously, following Ezra's example. "Nice flavor though, once ya get used ta it. Real smooth too. Better'n whiskey."
Ezra nodded. "Indeed."
Ezra smiled. "They are a fruit. Similar to peaches and nectarines." Ezra held up a hand indicating the size and shape.
"Don't think I ever had one."
"They are delicious. But I doubt they would be able to grow in this arid climate. One can only guess at how such a treasure as this bottle managed to find its way to this backwater dusty little hamlet."
Ezra picked up the bottle and regarded it for several minutes. He tried to picture the circumstances as to how it could have ended up in Bitter Creek. With a shake of his head he set it back down on the table.
"Can I ask ya a question, Ez?"
"I believe you just did." Ezra tipped his head toward Vin. "But feel free to ask another."
Vin sighed. "Ya never did tell me how long ya were on that ship."
Ezra considered that. [No. I guess I didn't.] "Three years."
"Years?" Vin looked startled.
Ezra nodded. He sipped his drink. He watched the play of light through the liquid remaining in his glass. [Beautiful.]
"When were ya on it?"
"I was thirteen when I first set foot on the Esmerelda." Ezra didn't really pay attention as he answered. He was distracted by the refracted light dancing through the brandy in his glass.
"Why were you an' Maude were on a ship so long?"
The image of his mother on the Esmerelda was so incongruous that Ezra burst out laughing. He couldn't help it. There is no way his mother would have ever traveled on a ship like the Esmerelda. The Esmerelda was as far from being a pleasure cruise ship as Four Corners was from New York City. She was a workhorse, carrying cargo from one port to another, with little room for more than crew, cargo and cannons.
"My mother... on a ship... for three years. Oh good lord."
He laughed so hard his sides hurt. He just couldn't picture Maude on a ship for any length of time. His laughter was so infectious that Vin had joined in even though he didn't have a clue what was so funny.
Ezra struggled to control himself. He needed to explain. "Mother gets seasick. She pukes like a poisoned pup for days." He chuckled again, and wiped tears from his eyes. He hadn't laughed so hard in years. "I would hazard a guess that she turns green at the very thought of traveling by water."
He suppressed another bout of laughter. It was unseemly to have lost control. "Not to mention, the Esmerelda was a working vessel. There were no passengers. Just crew quarters and a cargo hold. Only the captain had a cabin."
"Jus' crew? Thought you didn't do manual labor."
Ezra sighed. He regretted making that comment. Not because it wasn't true, but because had been so quickly misunderstood. "I said gentlemen do not engage in menial labor." Ezra stressed 'menial', emphasizing the distinction.
Vin frowned. "What's the difference?"
"One is physical, manual. The other is demeaning and done by servants, menial."
"Oh." Vin nodded. He seemed to consider that for a moment. Ezra could almost see the sharp mind hidden by that unassuming, quiet exterior processing what he'd said and storing it up for use later.
[They all assume that I don't know the first thing about busting my ass. A gentleman indeed! Please. I learned the part, that doesn't mean I belonged to it. It is shameful how easy the lot of them are misled. Say anything just the right way, and so many wrong assumptions are made it's a wonder anyone knows what is true.]
"So what'd ya do on that ship? And how did ya end up there when ya was just a kid?"
Ezra sighed. [Such a sordid little tale. Perhaps it would be best to avoid retelling it.] "Why do you wish to know?"
Vin shifted in his seat. "Ya said I didn't know anythin' 'bout you." Vin shrugged. "Realized yer right. Reckon, I ain't gonna know anythin' if I don't ask."
"Good point." Ezra nodded.
[The man wants to know something about me. God, I can't remember the last time anyone really wanted to know anything about me. Or the last time anyone asked just because they were interested. Or hadn't already assumed they knew all there was to know just by looking at the way I dressed, what I did for a living, or how I spoke. It's been years since someone showed an interest in me, Ezra Standish. Of course, once he hears the tale, I doubt he will be interested in hearing any more. Or getting to know the real me. The real Ezra hasn't been of interest to anyone. Ever.]
"Ya don't have ta tell me if ya don't wanna." Vin offered.
Ezra studied him realizing he'd been silent long enough to make Vin feel as if he'd trespassed in some way. "It was a valid question. And you were correct, the only way to know is to ask."
He downed the rest of his drink, and poured another. Ezra sat back in his chair and let his mind drift for a moment. "I suppose the best thing to do is to start at the beginning." He nodded to himself. He would tell this story and let the chips fall where they may. "Yes, always the best place to start."
He glanced at Vin, and was surprised to find him watching him closely. [Such an attentive audience. Amazing.] It had been years since anyone paid that much attention to him. He'd gotten used to people dismissing him, and what he had to say.
"When my mother visited our humble town, she did her best to create the impression that we spent a great deal of time together. That she was a dutiful and adoring mother. I must disabuse you of that illusion, for the truth is somewhat different."
"From the time I was old enough to walk, Mother, was passing me off to whatever relative she could find willing to take me in. I would spend a few months with one, and then a few months with another. Occasionally, when she had run out of willing relatives, I would spend a few months in her company. Consequently, I traveled a great deal from a very early age."
Ezra sipped his drink. He picked up the cards still lying in front of him, ordered them by suit, and began to shuffle. He organized his thoughts at the same time. Vin sat quietly, patiently waiting for him to continue speaking.
He stopped in mid-shuffle. "Funny, I just realized that next to my time on the Esmerelda, the longest I've stayed in one place has been in Four Corners." [Curious. Perhaps it is time I moved on.]
Ezra took a breath. It hurt to think of leaving. The others might not like him or trust him, but they were men he genuinely respected. People he'd come to rely on. And there was the matter of his unresolved feelings for Vin. [Best not to go there.]
He refocused his thoughts. "Forgive me, I digress. You asked me how I came to be working on a ship at the tender age of thirteen."
He shuffled the cards again. "It was one of those rare times that I was with Mother. We were in Baltimore. Lovely city really. Mother had a particularly bad run of luck, and she found herself in debt to a man named Gabriel St. John. Now, Mr. St. John was not the sort of man one left holding the bag. He was a formidable individual, and not one easily put off with empty promises, a woman's wiles, or Mother's usual tricks."
Ezra shook his head. "It's been over a decade since I last laid eyes on the man but I can still remember the first time I met him as if it were yesterday."
He took a sip of his drink. "Gabriel St. John had an air about him. It's hard to describe, but he was very charismatic."
"What's that mean?"
Ezra's lips quirked in a half smile. One of the things he enjoyed about Vin is that he asked for clarification. He wanted to understand, which also meant he was paying attention.
"It means he drew attention the same way a flame draws moths."
"At any rate, there was the matter of payment. Mother was without the financial resources to pay him, and Mr. St. John was not willing to wait. He was the captain of the Esmerelda, and she was due to sail the next day. So time was limited."
Ezra smiled tightly. "Mother was in a rather desperate situation. She offered him my services as restitution for her debt."
Vin frowned. "Yer services?"
Ezra forced himself to make eye contact and hold it. He wanted to be absolutely certain that Vin knew he wasn't lying. "In the bluntest possible terms, my mother gave me to Gabriel St. John as payment for her debt."
Vin sat back clearly stunned. Ezra clucked his tongue, at once pleased he shocked his friend, and disappointed at the same time. "Oh please, Mr. Tanner, don't tell me you thought it was only men of Mr. Jackson's race that have been sold."
Vin reached out to grab Ezra's wrist. His longer fingers neatly encircled Ezra's finer boned joint. His hold was gentle, more of a caress than one intended to restrain. Ezra berated himself for not being man enough to pull away. He wanted Vin to touch him, so he let Vin's hand remain.
Vin said something in a language Ezra didn't recognize. He got the impression it was a curse of some kind. "Excuse me?"
"Kiowa." Vin waved his free hand in dismissal. His eyes narrowed dangerously. "You were a slave?"
"Not a slave, at least not the same way Mr. Jackson was. I was officially an indentured servant."
"Indentured servant?" Vin watched him closely. "That means what?"
"It was a common practice many, many years ago." Ezra sighed. "A young person went to work for an established tradesmen to learn a skill. As an apprentice, the young man would work for a specified number of years, learning what he would need to know to eventually establish himself in whatever his chosen profession happened to be. While he was an apprentice he did what he was told, when he was told, or was punished accordingly. He made no money from his labor, but depended upon his master to supply room and board, food and clothing. An apprenticeship or period of servitude typically lasted six to seven years."
"Once I got used to it, it really wasn't a bad way to life. Mr. St. John, SinJin to his friends, was a rather old fashioned sort in many way. He took the responsibility of teaching me a trade seriously."
Ezra shrugged one shoulder. "I learned the fine art of navigation, and advanced mathematics from him. I learned to speak French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese so that I could barter in nearly every port we put in to. I learned how to pack cargo for ocean transport, to handle a sword, read the wind, and rig a sail."
[I also learned how to pleasure a man, and how to receive pleasure in return. SinJin didn't need a cabin boy. He agreed to Mother's proposal because he found my looks appealing, not because he had an empty berth on the Esmerelda. I was very lucky in that he was a gentle man when it came to his bed partners, willing to take his time, and interested in giving as well as getting pleasure. But I rather doubt you'd be interested in hearing that. So let us move on to other topics, shall we.]
He flashed a quick grin at Vin hoping to lighten the dark mood that had appeared to envelope the tracker. "Learned my way around a rope and a cannon as well."
"Wondered where ya learned ta fire one o' those. Mighty damn good with 'em as I recall." Vin grinned back a bit half hearted, but it was there.
"Yes, well, I only learned the basics on the Esmerelda. I didn't have time for an in depth study of explosives in general until later."
"The war?" Vin's question was soft. The tone let Ezra knew Vin had been there as well.
Such a simple answer managed to encompass a great deal more than one word should have the ability to do. Vin's hand that encircled his wrist tightened briefly. Ezra found that touch to provide a surprising amount of comfort. [Perhaps we have more in common than I thought.]
Vin swallowed, and cleared his throat. "Ya said servitude was s'posed ta last six or seven years. How come ya were only on the Esmerelda fer three years?"
Ezra felt his poker face actually slide into place, once again hiding his feelings. [I can't believe it is still painful to think about this after so many years.] "In November of 1861, the Esmerelda went down in a severe storm off the coast of North Carolina."
Ezra took a shuddering breath, struggling to maintain a neutral facade. "According to reports made at the time... reports that were impossible to verify, all hands went down with her."
He raised his glass, and studied it. Silently, he toasted Captain Gabriel St. John. [Thank you, SinJin, for saving my life. I owe you a debt I can never repay.]
"You weren't on her then?"
"I was never on her. Ezra Stanton was." He gently pulled his wrist away from the comfort Vin had offered. [I need to make him let go now, or I will never be able to.]
Vin seemed to let go reluctantly. "Ya went ta war after that." It was a statement, not a question, but Ezra gave an answer anyway.
"I joined an artillery battalion in the Army of Northern Virginia in January of 1862. There was a need for men who knew their way around a cannon."
"Men?" Vin snorted, and downed his brandy. Ezra absently noted that he was more prepared for the burn this time around. "We weren't any more than boys."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "How old were you?"
Vin sighed. "I didn't join up until 1863. Was only fifteen, but nobody asked 'bout my age. Put me ta work as a sharp shooter."
"That makes sense. They certainly made good use of your innate skill and likely honed them as well."
Ezra shuffled his cards once more before returning them to his pocket. "I believe, we have discussed enough history and morbid topics for one evening, Mr. Tanner."
"Vin." Ezra conceded with a smile, pleased in spite of himself, that Vin still wanted him to use his first name. "Perhaps we should consider getting dinner. While the brandy is excellent, I don't think it qualifies as adequate sustenance."
"I could eat."
Ezra stood up. "Shall we find a restaurant that can provide a serviceable repast?"
"Ya askin' if we're gonna look for a place with good food?"
Vin chuckled. "Ya know ya coulda just said that."
"I did." Ezra grinned delighted with the verbal by play. He noticed when Vin suddenly froze. He was about to ask what was wrong when Vin shook himself free of whatever had gripped him. Ezra shrugged. [Wonder what that was all about. He did that earlier after I untied us. Odd. Oh well, a mystery for another time.]
He put the cork in the bottle, and slid it into his saddlebags. Ezra had come to the saloon directly from the bathhouse and hadn't had time to rent a room to store his belongings. He returned the soap to its usual place as well. [The brandy will be most welcome for the journey back to Four Corners.]
He waved his hand before him inviting Vin to proceed him. "Shall we?"
Vin nodded. "We shall."
The best place to eat, in fact the only place to eat, proved to be the restaurant at the hotel. Deciding to kill two birds with one stone, Ezra stopped in the lobby and rented a room as well. It was the last room left available.
Vin sighed. "Guess that means I'll be sleepin' in the hay loft."
Ezra shook his head. [I can not believe I am about to do this.] "The room has two beds, does it not?" He directed his question toward the proprietor, Mr. Addams, if the sign above the register was correct. Mr. Addams waited behind the small desk, his eyes all but hidden behind the spectacles he wore.
"Yes, Sir. Room's a mite smaller than the others, but the missus thought families travelin', with children an' such, might want ta stay in one room. So she had me put in another bed."
Ezra nodded. "Vin, would it be acceptable to you if we were to share the room?"
"Ya sure? Know how ya like yer privacy."
Ezra knew he wasn't going to refuse to share the room. Even though it went against his better judgment. [You can barely control yourself around the man now, and you want to share a room with him!! Ezra, Mother must have dropped you on your head as a baby.]
"I would be remiss in my duties as a friend, and gentleman, if I allowed you to take your rest in a hayloft when I had means at my disposal to offer you a more comfortable place to slumber."
Vin nodded. "Long as ya let me pay for it." When Ezra would have objected, Vin stopped him. "Ya bought the brandy. Least I can do it pay for the room."
Ezra smiled. "A fair exchange then. A good night's sleep for a good libation."
He nodded toward Mr. Addams. "We will take the room."
Addams handed Ezra a key. "Room's at the end o' the hall. Last door on the right."
Ezra and Vin made their way up the stairs to secure their bags before getting dinner. He wasn't surprised when Vin took the one closest to the window. Or when he moved to open the window and let some fresh air. Ezra always picked the bed closest to the wall. It was safer to have his back to it.
Vin paused for a moment to study the sky. He sniffed the air. "Gonna be a storm tonight."
Ezra looked out the window, and noted the darkening clouds in the distance. He had sensed the change in the weather on the way over from the saloon, but had suspected the storm wouldn't hit until the following day. "Will it delay our return to Four Corners?"
Vin shook his head. "Nope. Should be clear come mornin'."
Ezra nodded. If Vin thought it would be over by then, it more than likely would be. Ezra was not quite as weather wise as Vin, and he trusted his judgement.
Vin's stomach rumbled. Ezra chuckled. "I believe that was the dinner bell." It was a running joke among the seven that Vin didn't need a watch to tell time, his stomach let him know the hour. Ezra turned and headed back down the stairs. He hoped the food here proved to be edible. He could do with a good meal. [Would certainly make for a nice compliment to the brandy.]
Ezra shivered, feeling the icy wind bite his skin even through his heavy clothing. The driving rain pelted him, stinging his face and hands. He could hear the timbers groaning under the strain of too much wind and water. The storm was going to be bad. SinJin said it would. The captain thought it might be a hurricane.
The damn Yankees had blockaded every port and they had no choice but to ride it out. SinJin hadn't been too concerned. They had weathered other storms. But never one this strong. The Esmerelda shuttered under the steady, relentless onslaught. The wind howled so loud it was deafening, and the sky was an angry blue black that hung above them like a shroud.
Ezra worked his way around the lower deck helping to lash down everything. He needed to make sure the deck was secure. He was afraid, but knew better than to let it show. He had a job to do, and come hell or high water, he was going to get it done. He would not let SinJin down. Three years on this ship had made him a more than passable, sailor. He had never let down his captain or his crew. He sure as hell wasn't going to now.
He could hear SinJin's voice carrying over the thunder of the wind, issuing orders, and doing his best to combat the chaos around them. A formidable man of great will and determination. He was afraid of nothing. Ezra knew if anyone could see them through this, it was him. SinJin would fight the devil himself to hold on to what he claimed as his.
Ezra worked his way toward upper deck. He could see the captain fighting hard with the tiller, trying to keep the ship pointed into the storm. The worst thing that could happen was for her to turn broadside. The first mate was working his way up the starboard side, moving to assist.
A wave broke over the bow, sweeping the deck clear. Ezra panicked as his feet were knocked out from under him. He struggled, grasping at anything that would keep him from going over board. He screamed, calling for someone to help him, knowing it was useless. He couldn't breath. He was going to die. No doubt about it.
Suddenly a strong hand grabbed his wrist and pulled him gasping and shaking back on to the deck. Arms wrapped around him, held him tight. It was SinJin. "I've gotcha, lad. Not to worry. I've gotcha."
He could hear someone else saying, "Ez, Ezra, I gotcha. It's okay." He knew he knew that voice, but ignored it. He'd deal with that later. The storm was still raging.
Besides, it wasn't okay. He knew that. SinJin had grabbed him, but left the wheel to do so. The captain had saved his life, but may have only delayed the inevitable.
Shit, shit, the ship was turning. He couldn't see the first mate, and suspected he had been washed overboard by the same wave that had nearly gotten him. He didn't have time to mourn his passing. There would be time for that later if he lived through this.
Ezra and SinJin struggled against knee deep water, and stiff wind, to get back to the wheel. Had to get to it. They threw their combined weight into it, trying to maintain course. The timbers groaned. A sharp crack, and Ezra saw the mast snap like so much kindling. He watched with horror as it danced for a moment before smashing with stunning force into the deck. Men screamed, caught under the weight and force of it.
Ezra was shoved out of the way as the top of the mast slammed into the wheel. The tiller was gone. Not good. They were dead in the water without it. SinJin issued orders. "All hands, ta the life boats. All hands, ta the life boats."
He grabbed Ezra. "C'mon, lad. We need ta get everyone off her. Now."
Ezra moved with him, working frantically to get the crew off the crippled ship. Some had stayed below decks, and needed to be ordered out. They needed to release the life boats in time for them to get away. The storm moved faster than any of them. Another wave broke over the bow, forcing the ship to turn. She was going broadside. The next wave might roll her completely over.
Ezra heard a change in the wind. A moment of silence, like time had slowed to a crawl, and he could feel the weight of it. The Esmerelda pitched and rolled, and pitched hard again. She was going to roll.
He looked toward SinJin. Eyes so dark they seemed black met his. He could read the certainty there. SinJin nodded, and grinned. The man never looked more alive than he did at that moment.
"Was a hell of a run, lad. Hell of a run. Damn glad ya were here ta run with me. It's been a pleasure, my boy, a real pleasure."
SinJin pulled Ezra to him in a tight hug. Then he was shoving him into the lifeboat as the ship pitched past the point of no return. Ezra lost sight of him. He scrambled, reaching, grasping... No. Goddamn it, No. Don't you die, you miserable son-of-a-bitch. NO!
Ezra sat up with a gasp. Or rather he tried to. He found himself wrapped in a strong pair of arms, and he struggled frantically, not sure of where he was or who held him. "Easy, Ez. Shhhh... It's alright. Jus' a dream. It's alright."
He opened his eyes, scanning, trying to remember where he was. The lamp on the table had been lit, and the dim light it cast, revealed his hotel room, not the deck of a storm tossed, dying ship. Ezra took a deep shuddering breath, and gradually relaxed. He managed to pull free of his nightmare. [Vin. Bitter Creek. Hotel. Not on the Esmerelda.]
"Not a dream. Memory." He forced out.
"Must a been one hell of a memory." Vin rocked him gently, fingers combing through his hair trying to calm him down. Ezra rested his head on Vin's shoulder and shook. His teeth chattered.
"Ship... going down. Hurricane... rolled her over." Ezra shivered violently. He couldn't seem to get warm. "Only got one... life boat free... in time." He began mentally running down the crew list. Only six men had made it off the Esmerelda. [So many dead. Gone, all gone.]
"Ship nearly... pulled it under... with her... when she went. Spent... two days... in open boat... riding out the storm. Almost died." Three of the other men that had made it to the lifeboat with him had died of exposure before they made land.
Vin released him and Ezra whimpered at the loss of contact. He didn't want to let go. He didn't want to be alone.
"Shhh... I'm just gonna grab that brandy. Jus' sit for a bit. I'll be right back. Promise."
Vin was back with the bottle in a moment. He uncorked it and offered it to Ezra. Ezra's hands shook so badly he couldn't hold it. He needed Vin's help just to get a drink.
The brandy warmed him almost immediately, and helped ease the shaking. Vin pulled Ezra into his arms again, and rocked slightly, holding him close. Ezra jumped when he heard thunder rumble over head. He instinctively burrowed in closer to Vin. He could hear the rain beating against the window.
"Shhh... jus' the storm. Can't hurt ya. No big deal. It's alright... yer safe."
Ezra took a shaky breath, and nodded. He made a conscious effort to control his breathing. It was bad enough that he had woken up Vin, there was no need to compound it by acting like a frightened child.
A sharp crack of thunder made him flinch. Vin pulled him in closer. Ezra turned his head to hide his face in Vin's neck, ashamed of his reaction, but unable to pull away.
It was then that he realized Vin wasn't wearing a shirt. He breathed deeply inhaling Vin's scent. Ezra could smell his soap on Vin's skin. Lavender and sandalwood. The smooth feel of warm skin next to his own was wonderful.
He had wrapped his arms around Vin earlier in an effort to get closer. Now he let his hands stroke the broad back, reveling in the satin smooth texture. He sighed, and shifted to get even more contact. Without conscious thought, Ezra opened his mouth to place a kiss against the hollow of Vin's throat. He let his tongue slip out to taste.
He felt Vin stiffen. [Oh shit. Mistake. Big mistake.] Ezra started to pull away. He tried to jumpstart his flagging brain. He needed to find something to say, something to fix this. Left over adrenaline surged through him as he tried to think of some way to excuse what he'd just done.
He never got the chance to speak. Vin brought his hands up to cup his face, and hold him still. Blue eyes searched his. Ezra didn't know what he was looking for, but held himself still, afraid to break the moment.
Vin leaned forward and placed his lips against Ezra's. The kiss was soft, hesitant, a chaste request for more. Ezra moaned, and let the kiss deepen. If felt so good, so much better than he had imagined.
[This is wrong. This is a mistake. He can't mean to do this.] Ezra pulled away. "Vin, please, I know you don't mean it. I know--"
"What if I do mean it?" Vin asked gently. "And I do mean it, Ezra. I do."
"Are you sure?" Ezra tried to read Vin's expression. There was no hesitation, no uncertainty there.
"Aw hell." Ezra knew he was lost. All his usual controls had fled, and he had no resources on which to call to keep him from what he so wanted to do. Ezra dove in, head first, hungry for more. This kiss was far from gentle. It was a passionate, intimate connection. He wanted to devour that sweet mouth, to lose himself in that touch.
Ezra let his hands roam over Vin, delighting in the small sighs and moans his touch elicited. He indulged his senses in Vin. Taste, touch, sight, sound, hearing. He wanted to imprint every detail on his very being, because he knew he'd never get another chance. At some point Vin would realize he made a mistake, but until then Ezra was going to make the most of it. He had dreamed about this for too long not to.
He opened his eyes to study Vin. Taking in the way his pupils had dilated, leaving nothing but an indigo ring around them. The way the flickering light highlighted his skin, turning it to molten gold. The ragged nature of his breathing.
Ezra let his hands ghost over the bare, hairless chest, delighting in the way the nipples tightened, and rose in response. He bent his head to lave first the right nub, then the left. Vin arched his back and pressed Ezra's head to his chest, his fingers carding through Ezra's hair and holding him in place. [Likes that. Good. Want him to enjoy it. He may well regret it later, but for now it is all about pleasure.]
Ezra spent several minutes tormenting and teasing those sensitive buttons with his tongue and fingers. Vin moaned softly, wordlessly offering encouragement. When Vin's hands weren't busy running through Ezra's hair, they were caressing every inch of flesh they could reach. Ezra shuddered. It felt like a trail of fire was left across his skin. It had been so long since he'd been touched. It was like he was starving and had just been offered a seat at a banquet.
Vin moved his hands to stroke Ezra's chest, Ezra moaned, tilting his head back, and doing his best to give Vin more room. He shivered under that gentle touch. Vin dipped his head to nuzzle Ezra's neck, finding that spot under his ear that made him go weak in the knees.
It wasn't enough. Ezra wanted more contact. He moved to strip Vin out of his pants. He was vaguely aware of Vin doing the same to him. Without conscious thought, he moved to make that task easier, raising and wiggling his hips to get free of his clothes faster.
Once they were both naked, Ezra pushed Vin back, and covered his body with his own. Ezra set to memorizing everything. He wanted to have this moment to hold for a lifetime. He wanted something he could focus on later... when he was alone, and on his own again.
Ezra raised himself up, holding his weight on his elbows, and studied every detail. Drinking in the sight of Vin. "You are so beautiful."
Without thinking about it, Ezra started speaking in French, his voice a soft whisper. "Simply divine. An angel fallen to earth. A creature of myth and magic."
He cupped Vin's face with both hands. Ezra placed a kiss on Vin's forehead, then each cheek. He hovered over his mouth, green eyes focused on blue. Still in French, he spoke again. "Thank you for this, my love, my heart. I will treasure this gift."
Ezra lowered his head and kissed Vin. He used his tongue to map that warm wet grotto. He couldn't believe how good Vin tasted. [Ambrosia.] He let Vin's tongue win the duel they'd been engaged in. He sucked Vin's tongue into his mouth. Vin raised his hands to tilt Ezra's head, changing the angle, letting him delve deeper.
Ezra used his hands to map the shape and contours of Vin's body from head to toe. Delighting in the feel of hard, lean muscle, wrapped in satin smooth skin.
He pulled away from Vin's kiss, and bent his head to taste Vin's neck, and moved on to his chest. Ezra followed the trails his hands had made only moments ago. His tongue tracked the curve of each muscle. He spent more time on any spot that made Vin moan and sigh. Ezra enjoyed hearing those quiet sounds of encouragement.
He probed Vin's bellybutton, his tongue moving to suggest a more intimate action. He nuzzled the quivering muscles around it, regretting that he didn't have the supplies on hand to do what he'd really like to do. [Doesn't mean there aren't other things that can be done.]
Ezra moved further south. He wrapped one hand round Vin's throbbing erection, and lowered his head to taste. His tongue probed the slit, and he reveled in the salty, slightly bitter flavor he found.
Vin arched his back, his hands fisting the sheets. "God... that's... Ez... God."
Ezra smiled. He sucked gently. He had never truly mastered the art of taking the full length of a man into his mouth, but he knew how to make that little detail unimportant. He licked and nibbled his way down Vin's hard shaft, curling his tongue around one side and then the other.
Ezra worked his way back up to the tip. One hand fondled Vin's balls, while the other began a lazy stroke. He took as much of it in his mouth as he could, and moved in time with his hand. On each up stroke he paid special attention to the glans, using his tongue to tease further. On each down stroke he hummed as he sucked. It was only his weight across Vin's hips that kept the sharpshooter from thrusting hard into his mouth.
"Ez... oh... oh... I'm... that's so good."
Vin's entire body shuddered, and Ezra knew he was close. He went down, worked his throat around Vin's shaft, while he let the hand that had been fondling Vin's balls dip behind them and find that sweet spot. He pressed his thumb there. Vin came hard, arching off the bed, shooting his seed into Ezra's willing mouth. Ezra swallowed, not missing a drop.
As Vin softened in his mouth, he let go with a final swipe of his tongue. Vin pulled him up for a kiss, and Ezra went willingly. He rested against Vin's chest. He could feel the tracker's heart beat slowing.
Vin took a deep breath. "That was... God, Ez, that was..."
Ezra just nodded. He didn't have words for it either. Vin cupped his face, his thumb tracing Ezra's lower lip. Vin smiled, and moved in for another kiss. It was soft, gentle. It felt like Vin was thanking him.
Vin moved to roll them over. He raised his head with a grin. "Your turn."
Ezra closed his eyes and moaned when Vin began licking his neck. He shivered when Vin lowed his head to suck hard at a spot right above his heart. Vin applied his teeth with just enough force to cause a wonderful mix of pleasure and pain. It was sure to leave a mark, but Ezra didn't care.
Ezra let his fingers roam freely through Vin's hair. It felt like raw silk in his hands. He shivered when Vin lapped his way across his chest like a cat eating cream.
Ezra felt like he was being bombarded by dozens of sensations as once. He lost himself in a haze of pleasure. The feel of hands and tongue were everywhere, nearly overwhelming him. He wanted to let Vin know how much he liked whatever it was he was doing, but had lost the ability to speak. He moaned and sighed, his breathing ragged and uneven.
Ezra began a lazy thrust of his hips, rubbing his already leaking erection against Vin's thigh. Just seeing Vin naked had been enough to get him going, and Ezra knew he wouldn't last much longer. He'd almost come when Vin had earlier.
When Vin took him in hand, and started to stroke, Ezra whimpered. He shuddered, and wordlessly encouraged Vin to stroke harder and faster. Vin captured his lips again, and sucked his tongue. Ezra bucked once, twice into Vin's tight hold.
He could feel his whole body trembling. He hugged Vin tight to him, trying to hold on to something, anything as he completely lost control. The whole world was spiraling down to a single point. Ezra groaned and came hard enough to see stars.
He felt almost boneless, incredibly heavy and weightless at the same time. Ezra struggled to catch his breath. He could feel Vin's hand lazily caressing his chest. It felt good. And Ezra let out a long sigh of contentment.
He snuggled into Vin's hold, enjoying the warmth and solid feel of the lanky Texan. Tomorrow the sun would come up, and he'd know just how big a mistake this had been. There were consequences for every decision. He knew that. But he wasn't going to worry about it until tomorrow. Right now he was just going to enjoy the moment.
Vin woke, as he usually did, just before dawn. He stretched languidly. Without thinking about it, he reached to pull the warm body next to his closer.
Vin opened his eyes. Some time during the night he and Ezra had shifted so that they were lying curled up on their sides, spooned in, close together. He lifted himself up on one elbow so that he could study his still sleeping bedmate.
[Looks so young and innocent.] Vin smiled. Young Ezra might be, probably a year older than Vin at the most, but he was no innocent. Not if last night was anything to go by.
Vin shivered reliving that experience. His usual morning hard on got harder just thinking about it. He had never had anyone do to him what Ezra did. It was better than anything he'd ever imagined. Vin closed his eyes. He could clearly remember the feel of Ezra's touch and tongue. The sound of his voice.
He hadn't understood what Ezra said to him. He vaguely recognized the language, but not enough to even begin to follow it. The way Ezra had made and held eye contact he knew what ever he'd said was important. [Wonder if I ask, if he'd tell me.] Vin had been stunned with how well simply asking had worked earlier.
He smiled when he remembered the way Ezra had laughed at the idea of his mother being on a ship for three years. He'd never heard Ezra laugh like that. With such honest, uncontained amusement. His laugh had been infectious, and Vin had laughed right along with him. He would love to hear Ezra laugh like that again.
He frowned thinking about the rest of that conversation. He didn't like the idea of Ezra being bounced around from one person to another. [God damn, Maude.] He couldn't understand how a mother could pass her child off like so much unwanted baggage. His own mother died when he was young, but there was never a doubt in his mind that she loved him. She would have stayed with him if she could have.
He had been more than angry. He had been livid. Maude lied to them. For what... to look like a loving mother, to ensure they had the wrong idea about her son so they wouldn't trust him or like him, to make Ezra look bad for challenging her. He couldn't figure out what she stood to gain by lying. She made it sound like he'd grown up in the lap of luxury, that she had doted on him, catered to his every whim. She told all these funny stories about him as a child, and things he'd done. Vin wondered how many of those were something she'd heard second hand or made up outright.
Vin was disappointed in himself that he hadn't recognized the con. He was usually better at reading people than that. But then, Maude had merely painted the picture they all expected to see. Appearances were everything, and she certainly made sure that she and Ezra sounded like everything they appeared to be. Vin was honest enough with himself to admit he was partly at fault there. He had assumed things, and played right into her hand.
What he simply couldn't forgive or even begin to comprehend was how she could sell her child. [She traded 'im like a sack of grain as barter against a debt.] It had taken every ounce of selfcontrol Vin had possessed to not lose it right then. He had wanted to offer comfort, apologies, anything to make it better, but he knew Ezra wouldn't accept it. He'd been surprised that Ezra had even allowed him to maintain his hold on his wrist for as long as he had.
When Ezra had been silent for so long after he asked about him being on a ship, Vin thought for sure he'd overstepped some boundary. Crossed over some hidden line. While he hadn't really enjoyed hearing the story, he had been grateful, even pleased, that Ezra trusted him enough to tell it. He felt privileged to be given such a large piece of Ezra's past.
Finding out they had more in common was a bonus. Vin's own childhood involved a lot of being passed around, moving from place to place, struggling to fit in. And to know that Ezra had also served in the war meant a lot. Vin tried not to think about it, or remember what he did and saw then. Now he knew that when he couldn't keep the memories buried he had someone he could go to. Someone who'd been there and would understand. Ezra would know first hand what it was like to be young and scared and see friends dying all around you wondering if you'd be next.
Vin had been pleased when Ezra offered to share his room. It had been unexpected. He hadn't wanted to be too far from the gambler. For the past three days they hadn't been more than a few feet apart, and Vin decided he liked it. Liked it a lot. It was rare that it was just the two of them, and Vin wanted a chance to enjoy every minute of it. He figured that once they got back to Four Corners things would go back to normal, and he wouldn't get another chance to be this close.
Vin had woken when the storm hit. He had left the window open. The feel of moving air made the room seem less confining. But he realized the way the wind was blowing it would be best to close it before the floor ended up soaked.
It was when he got up that he heard Ezra whimper. Over the past few days he'd become familiar with Ezra's normal sleep pattern. Vin could tell something was wrong. At first he thought it might be Ezra's arm. So he'd lit the lamp, thinking he'd need some light to tend to that shallow wound.
He was surprised to find his friend in the grip of a nightmare. He'd had enough of those to know that he couldn't leave Ezra trapped in his. The way Ezra trembled and shook hadn't been a good sign. Vin knew whatever he was dreaming had to be bad, very bad. He could easily read the fear and panic on Ezra's face. It had scared Vin half to death when for a moment Ezra seemed to stop breathing.
Vin had grabbed him, held him close, determined to help him escape whatever nighttime horror had taken over. Waking Ezra hadn't been easy. And when he did wake, Vin had nearly lost his hold on the struggling man.
He breathed a lot easier when Ezra seemed to recognize him, and where he was. He knew all too well how the after affects of a nightmare could linger. Especially when it wasn't some figment of your imagination, but a real event. [Nothin' quite like nearly dyin' ta haunt a man.]
Vin had worried about the chill he could feel on Ezra's skin when he'd pulled him close. Remembering the way the brandy had burned, and that Ezra said it was good for cold days, he scrambled to retrieve the bottle. Some of the chill had eased off once Ezra had a drink, and Vin was grateful for that.
Knowing the Esmerelda had gone down in a storm and damn near taken Ezra with her, he wasn't surprised when Ezra flinched in response to the thunder rumbling above them. Vin had liked the fact that Ezra sought comfort from him. He was surprised by how well the smaller man fit in his arms. He had been trying to figure out how to convince himself to let go when he felt Ezra place a kiss in the hollow of his throat.
When Ezra had pulled away, Vin could see him searching for an excuse. Wide, frantic eyes gave away every thought. Vin didn't want that. He recognized this as a chance to finally move forward. To stop dancing around how he'd felt. To find out how Ezra felt.
The first kiss was better than he'd imagined. Ezra's lips had been soft, wet and warm. He tasted of apricot brandy, and something Vin couldn't identify. It was sweet and delicious. Vin licked his lips as he remembered. He hoped he'd get the chance to taste Ezra's lips again.
Ezra shifted against him trying to get closer. He mumbled something in his sleep. Vin couldn't quite make it out, but he didn't seem upset. [Not another bad dream then. Good.]
Vin was content to just wait for Ezra to wake. It gave him a chance to watch him. He never would have guessed that Ezra was a cuddler. It was rather endearing.
The sun was just peeking over the horizon when Ezra shifted again. He pulled away slightly, and moved on to his back. Vin knew he was awake. He heard the change in his breathing, felt his muscles tighten a fraction.
Vin waited for those green eyes to open. Ezra went from asleep to awake just that quick. Vin had seen him do it on the trail a number of times but it still amazed him. Ezra could go from a sound sleep to instantly awake in under a second. It was probably one of the reasons he hadn't shot any them when they'd gone to his room to wake him up. He was awake enough to aim to scare, not to kill, from the minute they opened the door.
Ezra opened his eyes. He blinked once. He stared at Vin for a moment, confused, and then amazed. "Not a dream." His voice was whisper soft.
"No." Vin knew what he was talking about. "Was too good to be a dream."
Ezra smiled, warm and open. Then sighed. Just that quick his poker face hid his emotions. Vin didn't want that. He wanted the man who'd made love to him last night. The man who couldn't hide what he felt, the man whose eyes sparkled with passion, who had spoken what had to be endearments in a foreign tongue.
Vin shifted and moved to capture Ezra's lips. He plundered that warm, willing mouth. Eager to taste him and bring back the man from last night. [Still taste sweet. Like fresh peaches.]
When he finally pulled back, Ezra's eyes were bright, his expression again showed how he felt. Vin could read the astonishment and affection there.
"You don't... regret it?" Ezra asked hesitantly.
"No." Vin smiled. He cupped Ezra's face, letting his thumb caress Ezra's cheek. "Don't regret it. I jus' wish we hadn't waited so long."
"This is a mistake." Ezra stated. The conviction in his voice worried Vin. Maybe Ezra had regrets.
"You deserve more. Better."
"There ain't anyone better'n you." Vin said softly.
Ezra looked at him, stunned.
It angered Vin all over again that the gambler should think so little of himself. [Gonna have ta work on that.]
"The others would not agree with you."
Vin pursed his lips. He had to admit that Ezra was probably right about that. Vin shrugged. "Wouldn't be the first time I had my own opinion."
Ezra's lips twisted in a half smile. "Undoubtedly. You have always stuck me as a man who knows his own mind."
"Then trust me, Ez. I want this. I want us."
Ezra studied him. "You don't have to do this. We could pretend last night never happened. It doesn't have to mean anything."
"Could you do that?" Vin watched Ezra closely. He wanted an honest answer. "Did last night mean nothin' to you?
Ezra squirmed. "It shouldn't matter what it meant to me."
"So it did mean something." Vin stated.
"More than you can possibly imagine." Ezra whispered. He hung his head for a moment, as though he felt guilty about telling Vin that.
[Don't know why he thinks that's a bad thing.]
Vin watched as Ezra swallowed hard. Ezra looked up and spoke again. "I don't want you to feel obligated to say things you don't mean, or do something you'd rather not."
"You think I'm saying I want this because I feel beholden to you?"
Ezra sighed. "You are a forthright, honorable man."
"So are you."
"That is debatable." Ezra shook his head. "You are not given to casual liaisons. I know that you do not give your affections away carelessly. It is possible that you believe you feel more than you do. That you might need to... justify, what happened last night."
"What are ya sayin'? That I think yer some kind of virgin that I have ta marry?"
Ezra shot him a wry expression. "In the bluntest possible terms, yes."
Vin rolled his eyes. "I ain't that naïve, Ez."
"I just want you to be sure. I don't want for you to feel as though I am expecting more from you than you are willing to give. I want you to be free to choose."
Vin smiled. It was nice to know he'd finally found someone who was willing to let him decided how much to give and how to do it. "And if I choose you? If I want to give you everythin'?"
Ezra stared at him wide-eyed. On some level Vin knew Ezra was expecting him to take him up on the offer to pretend it had never happened. [Wonder how many times some one did just that. Took all he had ta give and walked away. Bastards.]
"Are you sure, Vin?"
"This changes things." Ezra warned.
"Jus' for the better."
Ezra laughed. "You are determined."
Vin grinned. "Yep."
Ezra sobered. His expression turned pensive. "Vin... I'm not good at this. My track record with relationships is far from stellar. Abominable, it fact. I would never hurt you intentionally, but... you could still get hurt because of my carelessness or outright ineptitude."
"My track record ain't so good either, Ez. I may not be the only one who gets hurt here." Vin felt compelled to point that out, his sense of fair play kicking in.
Ezra waved a hand in dismissal. "My getting hurt doesn't matter. It never has."
"Does to me."
Ezra shook his head. "You are a most amazing man, Vin Tanner."
"That what you said last night?"
Ezra blinked. "When?"
"When ya started talkin' in French?"
Ezra frowned, then his expression cleared. "I'm sorry. I hadn't realized I'd done that. I shall endeavor to refrain from doing that."
Vin wasn't going to be put off. Ezra had said something important. "Tell me. I wanna know."
Ezra repeated what he said in French, then in English. "You are an angel who fell to earth. A creature of myth and magic." Ezra looked away. "Thank you for this gift, my love, my heart. I will treasure it."
Vin gently forced Ezra to look at him. "You love me?"
Green eyes met his blue, uncertain, and wary. "I don't know. I think I do. Honestly, I have failed so badly at such things in the past that it is hard to know for certain. I'm not even sure if I know what love feels like."
Vin hugged him, pulling Ezra's head to his shoulder. "Know what ya mean, Pard. Ain't had a lotta luck there myself."
He cradled Ezra like that for several minutes before he pulled back. "Maybe we can just see how it goes. Work on it together."
"You want to improvise then?" Ezra grinned at him, dimples clearly visible.
Vin chuckled. "Yep. Didn't do so bad that way yesterday."
"No. No we didn't."
Vin smiled. "We'll learn as we go."
Ezra nodded. "Very well. I am willing to try if you are."
"Oh, I'm willin', Ez. I'm willin'." Vin leaned in for another of those sweet kisses. "We could start practicin' right now if ya want."
Ezra nodded his head, looking very serious, but for the sparkle in his eyes. "Practice makes perfect. It will likely take a lot of hours of arduous practice, and serious attention to detail, to bring about perfection."
Vin was eager to start working on perfection. Very eager. He pulled Ezra to him. "Well, then we better get started."
The end (for now)