"Yer leavin'," it wasn't a question, not really.
Vin Tanner had watched as Ezra Standish walked from the saloon to the livery, his saddlebags over his shoulder, his Remington revolving rifle in his hand, wearing his tan coat that he only wore on the trail.
He had noted the weight of the saddlebags and the way that Ezra's head was bowed, his shoulders slumped just a bit as he made his way from the saloon to the livery.
Now, he stood a few steps back from where Ezra was kitting up Chaucer for a long ride.
Ezra paused in his preparations for just a moment then continued on. "Yes, Mister Tanner. I am leaving."
Ezra shrugged. "My thirty days are up. I have my pardon. There is no reason for me to stay."
"You sure about that?"
Ezra turned to give him a puzzled look. "Why should I stay?"
"'cause ya can."
Ezra gave a short, sharp, laugh as he turned back to his preparations. "Perhaps... but I can also leave..." bitter resignation colored his voice as he finished with, "before I am run out."
"I know that feelin', ... but might be this is one town that ya won't be run out of."
This time Ezra laughed out loud, "If you believe that sir, I think that I have the deed to a stretch of worthless dirt and rock around here somewhere. I'd be delighted to sell it to you, for the quite reasonable price of every cent you have, of course." His voice was sarcastic, then he sighed and the sarcasm gave way to resignation. "No, sooner or later, one way or another, I am always given to know that my presence will no longer be tolerated. Sometimes the... ejection is less violent than other times, but I am always... requested to move on."
Vin sighed, then nodded, "I been..." he paused thinking on the right word before saying, "'requested to move on' a few times myself. How about I ride along with you for a ways. You're getting a late start, ain't long till dark. I know a good campsite. Could show you?"
"It's a free country, sir. Far be it from me to try and tell anyone what they may or may not do." Ezra finished up and began leading Chaucer out of the livery.
"Ya gonna wait while I tack up?" Vin asked, moving to Peso's stall.
"No. You're a tracker, I'm sure you can find me." Ezra led Chaucer out into the afternoon sun and swung up into the saddle.
Vin stepped to the door to see which way Ezra headed before going back to saddle Peso.
Chris Larabee was sitting on the porch of the jail as Ezra rode past. He looked up and called out, "Ezra?"
Ezra turned Chaucer in at the jail and plastered a smile on his face. Without dismounting, he dipped his head in greeting, "Mister Larabee."
"Well," Ezra hesitated, then nodded, "Yes, I am."
"I... I think not." He forced another smile. "My thirty days are up. I have my pardon and I really think it would be best if I moved on."
"You're welcome to stay."
"I appreciate that, I really do but...."
"Your decision," Chris said, cutting Ezra off, as he rose and moved down the steps to stand beside the gambler's horse. Holding out his hand, he said, "Take care of yourself... and if you ever need anything, let me know. I'll be hanging around here a while longer at least. It's been good knowing you."
Ezra took the offered hand and shook it firmly. "It's been a pleasure, sir, and an honor to ride with you. Thank you... for everything."
Buck Wilmington stepped off the boardwalk in front of the saloon as Ezra turned Chaucer back up the street, he'd watched the interaction between the gambler and Larabee with interest, knowing instinctively that the gambler was saying goodbye.
"Ez," he greeted as Ezra drew even with him.
Ezra touched two fingers to his hat brim, acknowledging him with a quiet, "Mister Wilmington," but rode on without stopping.
Buck angled across the street to the jail and stepped up on the porch as Chris sat back down in his chair and tipped it back. "He's going, huh?"
"Place won't be the same without him."
Chris looked after the gambler, a small smile quirking up one side of his mouth. "He did keep things lively."
Just then, Vin rode past, heading in the same direction as Ezra, moving at a quick trot, intent on catching up.
Buck raised an eyebrow at Chris. "Vin ain't leaving, too, is he?"
"He'll be back."
Buck stood a moment longer staring after the tracker. "Reckon he'll bring Ez back with him?"
"Reckon he's damned well gonna try." There was a definite note of satisfaction in Chris' voice.
"You think he can?"
"I think he's the only one who might be able to."
It only took a few minutes for Vin to catch up to Ezra. He slowed to walk Peso beside Chaucer but didn't say anything.
He had hunted bounty for a number of years and he knew well that there was more to tracking a man than just the signs that he left on the ground. To be really good at bounty hunting you had to be able to get inside another man's head, be able to know what he was thinking, know where he'd go and what he'd do.
Vin Tanner had been very, very good at hunting men.
If what he suspected about Ezra was true, if Ezra's reason for leaving was what he thought it was, he'd have to be very careful where he tread and what he said.
Here on the open trail was not the time to broach the subject. This particular subject called for a place that was both private and secure. He wasn't worried that Ezra might shoot him for bringing it up. He'd studied Ezra's way of dealing with trouble and knew that Ezra drew his gun as a last resort. Given another way out he'd take it. The problem would be keeping him from running, before Vin got what he wanted to say said.
The campsite that Vin had in mind would be perfect. It was private. There would be no worries that someone passing by might overhear the conversation. It was secure. They wouldn't have to worry that someone might burst in on them unannounced.
As darkness began to fall, Ezra looked over at Vin and raised an eyebrow in question.
"Ain't much further. Trust me. It's worth ridin' a bit longer. Real safe, secure campsite."
Ezra nodded, "Very well."
Half an hour or so later, as full darkness closed in, Vin turned off the road and stepped out of the saddle. "Be best to lead the horses. Ain't far now."
Ezra dismounted and leading Chaucer, followed as Vin led Peso across an open area then into some trees.
"Grab holda Peso's tail," Vin ordered. "Easy to get lost in here.
Ezra nodded, then realizing that Vin couldn't see him clearly in the darkness, said, "Yes, sir," as he groped ahead and found Peso's tail.
The horse shied away and as he lost his grip on the tail, he heard Vin chide Peso gently. "Behave, mule. It's just Ez."
Peso settled and Ezra moved close again, patting the big gelding's rump and speaking soothingly before letting his hand slide back to catch hold of the tail.
He heard Vin ask, "Got it now?"
"Yes," he replied.
"Good," Vin said then spoke quietly to Peso, "Ya be good now. Ain't but a few more minutes."
They moved along a narrow path, bushes lining it on both sides, branches tugging at their clothes.
About ten minutes later, Vin spoke again. "Stoppin'," he said, letting Ezra know that they had arrived, wherever it was that he had been leading them.
"Stay right here. I'll get us some light an' be right back."
Ezra stood silently in the darkness, wondering exactly where they were. A minute or two later he saw the flare of a match some distance away then Vin was returning to him and the horses, carrying a lantern.
The path opened out some at this point, enough so that they could walk side by side now, leading the horses behind them. It lead up to a sheer wall of rock, Vin led him along it until they came to the mouth of a cave, screened by bushes. Vin handed Ezra the lantern and pulled the growth aside, indicating that Ezra should lead Chaucer and Peso in while Vin kept the bushes pulled back.
Once Ezra and the horses were inside, Vin entered letting the bushes spring back across the entrance, screening it from casual observers.
Taking the lantern back from Ezra, Vin led the way to the back of the cave and around a left hand bend into a narrow corridor, just wide enough for the horses to get through. A dozen or so feet further along, the corridor turned back to the right and opened up into a large cavern.
The cavern had clearly been used as a campsite many times before. The cave floor had been swept clean of debris. A fire pit had been dug and lined with rocks. In the back of the cave, Ezra could hear the sound of running water. A cool breeze blew gently through the cavern, indicating that there was at least one other good-sized opening somewhere.
Vin sat the lantern on a rock shelf on the side of the cave, away from the fire pit, and began removing Peso's tack.
Ezra followed suit, unsaddling Chaucer as well.
Once the horses had been cared for, Vin moved to the other side of the cave and taking wood from a stack against the wall began to build a fire.
Ezra sat down on a strategically placed log and watched him. "You have obviously made use of this place before."
"Yep. It's 'specially nice on a hot summer day. Cave's cool," he gestured back towards the small water fall and the stream that fed it, "plenty of water to drink or even splash around in iffn ya like. Good grass for the horses outside. Fire can't be seen from outside neither, cause of the bend." He gestured back to the bend that they had come around.
Ezra nodded, then said. "An excellent campsite. I shall remember it, if I should ever be back this way."
"Now, that's what I want ta talk to ya about, Ez." Vin said as he got out the coffeepot.
Ezra chuckled as he leaned back against the wall of the cave, which the log he was sitting on lay against. "Now, how did I know that you had an ulterior motive for riding along with me?"
"What's an ulterior motive?" Vin asked, as he headed for the small steam to fill the coffeepot.
"A motive is a reason for doing something. An ulterior motive is a *hidden* or unstated reason for doing something."
Vin nodded slightly to himself, absorbing the words and their meaning into his vocabulary. He rose and returned to the fire setting the coffeepot on it. He sat down across from Ezra. He remained silent though, thinking on how to say what he had to say.
He was silent so long that Ezra shook his head and said, in an amused tone, "If you wish to persuade me to return to Four Corners, I believe you're going to have to actually say something."
Vin chuckled, "Figure I ain't gonna get but one shot at this. Need to be sure I say it right. Ya can talk rings around an educated man... and I ain't educated."
"Perhaps not, but you are certainly intelligent and in the larger scheme of things, intelligence is more important than education. Take all the time you need to choose your words."
"I appreciate that."
"What?" Ezra asked.
"That ya can be patient. You know how to wait. Knowin' how to wait an' when ta wait is an important skill. One of the things that we have in common."
"More likely, the only thing that we have in common," Ezra scoffed.
"Now that's where I disagree. I think we got a lot in common. Fact is, I think we just might be two of a kind." He looked straight into Ezra's eyes as he said the last.
Ezra dropped his gaze away, "I think not, sir."
"And I think so. I can tell when I'm being watched, Ez. Same as I think you can. I can feel a body's eyes on me. Took me a while to figure out it was you watching me. Took a little longer to figure out why, but I can read sign, Ez and sign ain't just the marks left in the dirt by a person's passage. I hunted bounty for a good while, now, anybody can read trail sign. It's easy enough to learn, but to be really good at huntin' men ya gotta be able to get inside their heads, figure out how they think, what they want, what they need, why they do what they do. You got to be able to figure out their obvious motives *and* their *ulterior* motives."
He grinned to himself when Ezra looked up at his use of the words that Ezra had so recently told him the meaning of. He was pleased that he'd been able to use the new words and he knew from the look on Ezra's face that he'd used the phrase correctly.
"If you hadn't been trying so hard to keep me from noticing that you was looking at me, you mighta noticed that I was doing my own share of looking. You're a fine figure of a man, Ez. I appreciate that. Thought maybe you'd like to know that."
Ezra swallowed hard, "Mister Tanner...."
"Ez," he caught Ezra's gaze with his own, "I'm tired. I'm so tired. Tired of a night here an' a night there with some stranger. Always worrying *if* I'm making a mistake, wondering *when* I'm gonna make a mistake and pick the wrong man to approach. Wondering when I'm gonna get strung up instead of just beat up or run outta town. I think we're the same. I think you prefer men, too, and I think yer as tired as I am of the worrying and the wondering. Take a chance. *Give* me a chance. I know we'll have to be careful. I know I ain't good enough for you. I ain't no fine gentleman like you. I ain't educated or sophisticated like you, but I care about you, Ez. I got deep feelings for you and I'll treat you fine as I know how, take care of you, look out for you."
He slid off the log he was sitting on, kneeling in the dirt across the fire from Ezra, "Please, I'm begging you to stay, Ez."
Ezra had come to his feet when Vin slid forward. Now, he stood looking down at the kneeling man, into the pleading eyes.
He shifted his feet, sidling sideways, moving almost imperceptibly towards the entrance to the cavern. His eyes flicked towards the entrance and freedom, then back to Vin.
The tracker didn't move. He knew the war going on inside of Ezra, intimately. He knew the panic created by being discovered. He knew the fear that warred with want and he knew the hope that struggled against memories of pain and terror.
Ezra took a step towards the entrance.
Vin felt his heart begin to break. Without thinking, he lifted his hand, reaching out towards Ezra.
The look on Vin's face was heartbreaking, equal parts, despair and resignation.
It was a look he knew well, from the inside.
Vin wouldn't come after him, if he left. Vin would let him go, and would remain behind, desperate and despairing, resigned to his loneliness.
Ezra had only allowed himself to give in to his desires a few times, but each time had ended the same. His lover had walked away and he had remained behind, desperate and despairing, but resigned to his loneliness.
He has never dared to ask anyone to stay.
Vin had had the courage to ask.
He glanced back towards the entrance. He could run, but somehow he knew that the freedom he saw there was only an illusion. The world outside was a prison as sure as any with bars.
He looked back at Vin, still kneeling unmoving in the dirt. He looked at the outstretched hand.
He licked his lips, in a nervous gesture and took a step to the side, not towards the cave entrance and not towards Vin, not yet.
If the world was a prison for men like him, and freedom but an illusion for men like him, then what did it matter where he was?
One part of a prison was much like another. A cell was a cell... but here in this particular place, this particular part of the prison, there was another, another like him.
He couldn't escape the prison... but he didn't have to be alone anymore, unless he chose to be.
He took a step, hesitant and unsure, towards Vin and saw hope blossom in bottomless blue eyes.
The second step was more certain and he felt a slight smile lift one corner of his mouth. Wry amusement sparked in his eyes as he took the third step, and dropped to his knees in front of Vin, catching the outstretched hand in both of his, he drew it close, pressing a kiss to the callused palm.
Vin shifted to face him, "Ez?"
It was little more than an exhalation, but Ezra heard it and lifted his head to look into those true blue eyes.
He smiled and drew Vin's hand to his chest placing it over his wildly beating heart. He let everything that he felt for this man show in his eyes and his face as he said, "I love you, Vin Tanner. I was leaving because I do not have your courage. I did not dare to speak and could not bear to stay. It hurt too much to need you as I did and to know that I would never have you, because I did not dare to speak. I do not deserve you, but if you will have me, I am yours."
Vin drew his hand away from Ezra's chest, bringing Ezra's hand with it to his lips. He pressed a gentle kiss to the back of it. "Always, Ez, always."
He pulled Ezra into his arms and bent his head to kiss him.
The kiss was sweet and tender, deep and long. They broke apart only when the need to breathe forced them to.
Ezra let his head come to rest on Vin's broad shoulder.
Callused fingertips, carded through his hair, a work roughened hand stroked down his back in a gentle caress.
He let himself be held. He let the feelings of safety and love wash over him as a raspy Texas drawl murmured promises of forever in his ear.
He knew that the promises could not be kept. Life is fickle. Death clears every slate and man has no control over it, but it didn't matter.
This was love. This was freedom. Forever comes one day at a time and this was just the first day of the rest of their lives.
They would worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.