Everything on this page is fiction. Any resemblance or reference to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Five Dollars
By Starwinder

Part 2

Morning came too early. Vin opened his eyes then squeezed them closed again. His mouth tasted like crap and his tongue felt furry. Hangover hell. The bounty on his head wasn't the only reason he seldom got drunk. He fucking *hated* having a hangover. He rolled over on the bed and immediately regretted it. His stomach lurched and bile rose up in his throat. He managed to get his head over the edge of the bed before the vomit spewed out of him.

His stomach knotted and he heaved again, not even aware that someone was holding a pan for him, until he felt the hand fall on his back and begin rubbing soothing circles there.

"Take it easy, Cowboy. You got yourself one hell of a hangover."

He registered that the voice was Chris' and managed to croak, "Ya'd know, being a' expert."

Chris chuckled. "Yep. Been a while since I've had one this bad, though."

Vin's groan was his only answer as the tracker let his head hang over the side of the bed.

Chris moved the pan away so that the smell wouldn't make Vin heave again, if he wasn't going to, and asked, "Think you're finished?"

"Fer now." Vin moaned and tried to roll back on the bed.

Chris helped him, moving him slowly so as not to start him heaving again.

Raising one arm enough to shield his eyes from some of the light Vin cracked one eye again, taking in the room that he was in. Larabee's room.

Chris grinned at him, "How ya feeling?"

"Head's fallin' off. Stomach's rollin'. Mouth tastes like shit. "

Chris snorted a short laugh. "Sounds about right." He got up and poured a glass of water from the pitcher on the table. "Here, rinse your mouth then take sips."

Vin started to nod then aborted the move as his head felt like it was going to explode. He rinsed his mouth and spit into a cup that Chris held for him.

"If you think ya'll be all right for a minute, I'll go empty this pan. You're probably going to need it again."

Vin grunted and Chris took that to be an affirmative and left to carry the pan down stairs and dump it out the back door.

When he returned Vin was laying still on the bed, one arm still flung over his eyes to block the light. Chris went over to the window and hung a blanket over it.


"Yeah." Vin slowly moved the arm down to his side.

"You remember much about last night?"

"Naw. Did I do somethin' stupid?"

Chris gave him an innocent look and asked, "You mean after you ripped off all your clothes and danced naked on the bar?"

Vin sat up abruptly, all the color draining from his face. "NO!"

The look of horror in his face broke Chris up. The gunslinger started laughing then broke off as Vin clutched at his stomach and turned to lean over the side of the bed.

Grabbing the pan Chris got it back under Vin's head just in time as the bounty hunter retched again and again.

Finally Vin was reduced to dry heaves and fell back on the bed. He wiped his mouth and snarled, "Damn ya, Larabee! Laughin' at a sick man!"

Chris chuckled again. "Hell, you've had your share of teasing me when I was hung over. Just getting some back at you." He stood looking down at the tracker for a few minutes. "Here." He handed him the glass of water. "Rinse again. Try to sip some of it then go on back to sleep. You'll feel better when you wake up."

"Ya staying?"

"Josiah'll be by after while. I'll go get some breakfast and check on the town then. But other than that, I'll be here till you wake up."

"'kay." Vin muttered and lay back, happy to go back to sleep.

"And then we'll have a little talk about what you said last night." Chris muttered.


Ezra hadn't had a good night either. He hadn't gotten a lot of sleep before Chris had woke him up and he had slept fitfully afterwards. Still he was awake at the crack of dawn, sitting in the rocking chair, watching the sun come up.

He loved sitting in the old rocking chair. He'd bought it from Mrs. Potter shortly after her husband had been killed, when she needed some money. He told himself that he'd just been helping the widow out but he knew why he'd bought it. The chair was identical to one that had sat in his great aunt Yvonne's house in New Orleans.

Great Aunt Yvonne had been a favorite relative. She had been one of the few who had enjoyed taking care of the young Ezra. A flamboyant woman with flashing black eyes and raven hair, only just beginning to go white at the temples, she had made life fun for him. She'd taught him French and introduced him to the works of Dumas and Voltaire in that language. He'd spent many a happy hour curled up in that rocking chair in her parlor reading about the adventures of the Musketeers or reading some of the more racy novels that he'd found in her well stocked library.

The rocking chair reminded him of the happy summer he'd spent with her in her house on Bourbon Street with its walled garden where they would take afternoon brunch. Sunny days spent exploring the French quarter and the wide Mississippi River. Fresh crawfish, steaming hot, bought off a vendor in the street. Rainy afternoons spent in the parlor, rocking and reading.

A safe haven in the turbulent life of an unwanted ten year old whose mother's new husband didn't want him around... not that that marriage had lasted long... just long enough for Maude to get her hands on the man's money. Strange, he couldn't even recall the man's name but he could list the books on the bookshelf that 'Vonne had designated as his, as if he were looking at them.

He sighed. Maude, of course, had not allowed him to keep a single one of the books when she had come for him.

He let his hands glide over the arms of the rocker. He had this now and while he knew it wasn't the same rocker, it gave the same comfort and had become a safe haven in its own way. This was where he retreated to now when he was upset or worried. To sit and rock and think.

He had a lot to think about. He loved Vin. He had known it for a long time but saying it aloud to Chris last night had somehow made it more real. Somehow, telling Chris had made it seem possible for he and Vin to actually make a life together.

[What am I going to do?] He drew the quilt he'd pulled off the bed closer around him and watched the sun rise over the trees east of town.

[I'm going to stand my ground. I love him and I need him... but I'm not some porcelain doll. I have a job to do just like he does. He can't wrap me in cotton and keep me safe. He wouldn't stand for it, if I tried to treat him like that and I won't stand for him treating me like that. I will get on with my life. If Mister Tanner wants to be part of that life, he will meet me on my own terms.]

He gave a sharp nod of his head. His decision was made. He might be Vin's lover but damned if he'd be dictated to!

Rising he went about his morning ablutions, trying to ignore the marks of Vin's passion from the night in River Bend.

He sat his hat on his head and adjusted the angle, checking his appearance in the mirror one last time, he strolled out the door and down the stairs.


It was nearly midnight when Vin Tanner made his way slowly into the Standish Tavern. The hangover from hell had wiped him out completely. He felt utterly drained. His stomach ached, the muscles sore from heaving and his head still hurt. He headed for the seven's usual table seeing that everyone except he, Chris and Ezra were already there.

Chris was right behind him and Ezra... Ezra was holding court at the poker table on the raised platform to the left of the long bar. It looked as if he'd hooked a couple of well-heeled businessmen into a game. Soon they would have empty pockets and Ezra would be well-heeled.

He couldn't stop a smile at that thought. He was actually proud of Ezra's poker playing. Ezra seldom had to cheat to win, never mind what Nathan thought. Vin had watched Ezra enough to know that as a rule he didn't cheat. Not that he couldn't. Ezra could do things with a deck of cards that looked down right magical. He just didn't need to... unless he was playing with a cheat then he cheated in self-defense.

Vin drew out a chair and sat down, facing the table where Ezra sat. He accepted a shot glass of whiskey and took a tentative sip, waiting to make sure it was not going to come back up before he took another slow sip.

As Chris pulled out the chair next to him and sat down, Vin's eyes drifted back to Ezra. The gambler wasn't wearing his lucky red coat. He had on the deep green one with a green brocade vest shot through with silver threads. Vin couldn't see the pants but Ezra usually wore black ones, either solid or pin striped. He'd have on the black boots too, polished to a high sheen. His hair was perfectly coifed and while his face looked a bit drawn he still looked very good.

He saw Vin looking at him and lifted an eyebrow, giving Vin a small smile before dropping his eyes back to his cards.

Vin couldn't help the warmth that spread through him at the smile. He found it hard to believe how much he liked just being near the gambler. Hell, just being in the same room with him lifted his spirits. He took another sip of the whiskey then sat the glass down. He wasn't going to get drunk again tonight.

He and Chris had, had a long talk about what Vin had said the night before. Vin was embarrassed that he had admitted his feelings for the gambler even if it was to his best friend. He knew in his heart that Ezra should have been the first person to hear him say that he loved him.

Chris had been sitting beside the bed when Vin had awakened for the second time.

["Feeling better?" the gunslinger asked.

"Reckon. Ain't got the heaves at least." Vin sighed. "Shit! I hate hangovers."

"Well, if you get drunk, you can expect to be hungover." Chris replied mildly.

Vin nodded wearily and tried to sit up. Damn! His ribs and stomach were sore.

Chris let him struggle up on his own, knowing that the independent man wouldn't want his help... was probably embarrassed as hell that Chris had helped him before when he was vomiting.

Chris motioned towards the dresser, "I got you some soup from the hotel dining room. Figured that'd be about all you could handle right now and you need to eat something."

"Thanks, Cowboy." Vin smiled wanly. The soup was still warm and Chris had brought a couple of biscuits as well. Vin crumbled them into the soup and ate it slowly.

When he was done, Chris took the bowl and sat it back on the dresser. Then he returned to sit in the chair beside the bed and regard Vin with a speculative look.

"What?" Vin demanded, "I got food on my face?"

"Nope." Chris paused a moment then said, "You want to talk about it?"

"'Bout what?" Vin got a sinking feeling in his stomach and it knotted slightly.

"You... and Ezra..."

"What 'bout Ez?"

"About you and Ezra." Chris shook his head seeing the stubborn look on Vin's face. "All right. Let me be a little clearer. About you being in love with Ezra."

Vin's jaw dropped, "I... I... who said I's...?"

"You said."

"I said...? What'd I say?" Vin demanded belligerently.

"That you were afraid that he was going be killed in the street yesterday and that you hadn't ever told him that you love him."

"Shit! Shit! Shit!" Vin rolled over, sitting up on the side of the bed. Rising he stumbled across the room and leaned his head against the wall, his shoulders hunched. After a long moment he asked, "Anybody else know?"


Vin sighed again and turned putting his back to the wall and slowly sliding down it to sit on the floor, "I don't know what ta do, Chris."

"He loves you, too."

Vin looked up at him. {How do you know?}

"Josiah came in... I left him to look after you, while I had a little talk with Ezra."

{And he said that he loves me?}

"Enough to let you decide what you want... even if it means losing you."

Vin stared down at the floor. After a long few minutes he said, "He scared me... bad. Don't know if I can take worrying bout him ever time we get into it with some..." he hesitated then with a grin said, "miscreants."

Chris grinned at Vin's use of one of Ezra's words and thought fondly that the two men really did fit well together, like two halves of a whole. "You can't expect him to stay out of it. He's one of us just like you are. Do you think he doesn't worry about you?"

"Ain't thought about that."

"I think he worries but he cares enough not to try and change who you are, enough to respect your right to make your own decisions." He fell silent for a moment then decided to share a bit of his past. "You know, Sarah never asked me to hang up my guns. She knew that I could be killed but she also knew that it was just as dangerous for me walk around unarmed, not just because of my reputation but because out here a man has to be able and prepared to defend himself, his home and his family."

Vin listened but said nothing for several minutes, when he did speak it was to go off on a tangent, "Why'd ya ask Ez to ride with us that day in the saloon?"

Chris tilted his head to the side and considered the question for a long moment, "I'm not sure. I knew he cheated and at the same time I felt like he didn't have to cheat. I... felt that he could have made the shot with out using blanks. He... I saw a dangerous man, a man with nerve and cunning, a man that I'd rather have with me than against me."

"Cunnin'. That's just about the perfect word fer Ez. Smart as the devil, quicker'n a whip...."

"And tougher than he looks. He won't take kindly to you trying to 'protect' him... no matter how much he loves you."

"Yeah. Reckon he's right pissed at me fer yellin' at him in the street."

"Oh, yeah. Real pissed."

The two men shared a chuckle.

"Reckon I need ta have a talk with him."

"Reckon you do."]

Vin gave a small shake of his head and pulled himself back to the present. The poker game was breaking up and Ezra was headed for their table.

"Good evening, gentlemen... and I use the term loosely." Ezra smiled, taking the sting out of the words as he pulled out a chair and sat down.

Josiah and Nathan gave him wordless nods in greeting.

Buck grinned and said, "Ya skin those poor guys out, Ez?"

"Not completely." Ezra smiled back.

Vin grinned, "Now, Buck, ya know Ez always leaves his victims just enough money to make them think that next time...." He trailed off leaving them to fill in the blank. They all knew that Ezra never took all their money... unless they had pissed him off about something.

"Indeed, everyone knows that one does not kill the sheep to get the wool. One shears the fleece, lets it grow back and shears it again. Ergo; the expression to fleece someone." Ezra grinned, flashing his gold tooth. He gave Vin a sharp look, "You look a bit worse for wear, Mister Tanner."

"I'll survive. Just a bit of a hangover."

"A bit?" Ezra raised a brow at him, clearing indicating that he believed that Vin had more than a bit of a hangover.

"Vin got drunk last night!" JD put in, "Real drunk. I ain't ever seen him so drunk!"

Vin gave the enthusiastic younger man a deadly glare.

"Sorry." JD muttered.

Silence fell in the wake of that. The seven men sat drinking quietly in the otherwise empty saloon.

Then Vin looked over at Ezra with a sly grin, "So, how much did you win?"

"Why do you ask, Mister Tanner? Do you need to borrow some money?" The gambler quirked an eyebrow at the tracker. 

"Could use five dollars." Vin said a grin playing around his lips.

"Really?" Ezra was having a hard time keeping his own grin from breaking out.

The others looked back and forth between the two men who where struggling to keep from laughing.

"Yep." Vin said.

Ezra's grin broke loose. Vin's matched it.

"Well, I believe such a loan might possibly be negotiated." Ezra rose, "Perhaps we could discuss it in private...."

Vin grinned and pushed back his chair to follow Ezra as he moved towards the stairs.

"What's so damned funny about Vin needing to borrow five dollars?" JD asked in confusion.

"Hell, since when does *Ezra* loan out money?" Buck added.

"Why do they have to discuss it in private?" Nathan asked.

"The Lord moves in mysterious ways." Josiah intoned.

"What the hell does that mean?" JD demanded of the preacher.

Chris and Josiah exchanged glances.

"Means it ain't none of our business." Chris said. He rose. "I think I'm gonna call it a night." He nodded to the others and left.

JD looked at the clock behind the bar and sighed, "Reckon I better go make rounds."

Buck sat his beer down and rose, saying, "I'll go with ya, kid."

Nathan and Josiah sat a bit longer then Nathan gave a sigh, "Reckon I better turn in. I need to go check on Mrs. Milan in the morning. Getting' nigh her time."

Josiah nodded to him, "Want me to ride out with you? She's having a hard time with this one isn't she?"

"Yeah. Lost the last'n. Sure would appreciate ya ridin' along, Josiah."

"I'll meet you here for breakfast and we can ride out after."

Nathan nodded. "Nite."

"Good night, Brother Nathan." Josiah, nodded to the black man and settled back in his chair his eyes going to the stairs. Two hours later he sighed and rose to leave, locking the doors to the saloon behind him.

Vin had never come back down the stairs.


Ezra unlocked the door to his room and pushed it open, waving Vin in before him, then stepping in behind the tracker.

Vin turned to face him in the dimly lit room. Ezra had left the lamp on the bedside table lit, turned down low, preferring not to come back to a darkened room after a night at the tables. There was a slight smile on the tracker's face.

Ezra smirked at him as he stepped close. Laying a hand on Vin's chest, stroking down it slowly. "So, Mister Tanner, do you really need to borrow five dollars?"

"Nope. Wanted ta talk to ya... private like. Figured ya'd get the hint."

Ezra chuckled and moved closer, "Oh, yes. I do believe, I 'got the hint'," he purred.

Vin moved back a bit. "Uh-uh. Don't think ya did." He looked down into the gambler's eyes with a serious expression on his face. "Ah really need to talk to ya, Ez."

Ezra moved abruptly away, tossing his hat onto the dresser he began to take off his coat. He bit out the words, "Fine. Talk."

Vin let his head drop with a sigh. He hadn't meant to upset Ezra. "Ah'm gonna ride out for a couple of days. Need ta think a bit. Wanted ya to know. Didn't want ya ta be upset... or worried. Ah'm coming back, Ez. I... I just need some time.... Please... don't be mad at me.... Ez?"

Ezra closed his eyes, listening to the hesitant voice. The image of a shy, scared little boy formed in his mind and he had to fight the urge to turn around and run to Vin, taking him in his arms to soothe and comfort him. When he had himself under control he turned to face his lover, asking in a casual voice, "When are you leaving?"


"You could sleep here...." Ezra offered, quietly, his eyes hopeful.

Vin looked at him doubtfully. "I don't know, Ez. I..."

"You don't have to *do* anything, Vin. Just stay with me tonight." He watched the emotions playing across Vin's face then played his thump card, "In the months we've been together, Ah've nevah asked ya for anything, Mistah Tannah. Is this so much ta ask? To be *allowed* to sleep in your arms, to have that memory to hold on to should you decide that we are finished."

"Ah never said that Ah was thinkin'...."

"You didn't have to. Why else would you make a point of telling me that you were riding out... to think. You ride out all the time. You've never made a point of telling me before... unless you wanted me to ride with you and you've made no mention of that."

"Ez, I...." Vin took half a step towards the other man, uncertainty written in the motion.


The single word froze Vin. Ezra *had* never asked anything of him in their relationship. He had always given, taking great care to attend to Vin's pleasure, and accepted whatever Vin chose to give back to him... however much that was... or however little it was... and he had never before said 'please'. Vin swallowed hard. How could he deny Ezra this... when he truly did not know, if it would be their last night together.

He held out his hand to Ezra, and nodded, a slow smile coming to his face.

Ezra smiled back at him and stepped close, letting Vin draw him into a gentle embrace.

For a long few minutes they just stood there, held in each other's arms, each lost in their own thoughts, both unaware that those thoughts were much the same. Two hearts beating in time. Two hearts aching with the same dull pain of loneliness... both together and yet each so very lost and alone.

After a time they moved apart, each careful not to let the other see the depth of the emotions running through them. They stripped off their guns and laid them close at hand and took off their boots. Then by silent, mutual agreement they lay down on the soft feather bed fully clothed.

Ezra lay on his left side, facing the door, his derringer rig still on his right arm. Vin spooned up behind him. The tracker's pistol was under his pillow, his mare's leg hanging from the bedpost close at hand.

Vin draped his right arm across Ezra hugging him snugly, his right hand resting on top of Ezra's. He buried his face in Ezra's hair.

"Good night, Mister Tanner." Ezra murmured. His calm voice gave no hint of the agony he felt.

"Nite, Ez." Vin whispered back, his own heart breaking.

Ezra lay perfectly still as silent tears dripped from his tightly closed eyes to dampen his pillow. This could well be the last time that he would ever be in Vin's arms. He felt as if his heart were being torn apart.


The pale light of dawn was just beginning to lighten the room when Vin awoke. He sleepily nuzzled the neck of body he held close and smiled as Ezra's scent filled his nostrils.

His hand gently caressed the gambler's. He threaded his fingers between Ezra's twining them together with the other man's. Only half awake, he snuggled closer.

Ezra stirred at Vin's movements, pressing back to feel the tracker's morning erection press against his buttocks. He sighed gently.

Vin heard the sigh and gave a small tug on the hand twined with Ezra's.

Ezra obligingly turned towards him and Vin continued to nuzzle his neck, working his way up to the delicate lobe of the gambler's ear.

Ezra moaned softly as Vin shifted to lay atop him, claiming his mouth in a deep kiss.

Ezra moaned and reached up to pull Vin closer.

Ezra's arms tightening around him, brought Vin fully awake. He drew back, blushing slightly, embarrassed that he had initiated lovemaking without even being aware of it. "Mornin'."

Ezra grinned up at him, "And a very good morning it is, Mister Tanner." His hands stroked slowly, sensuously up and down Vin's back.

"Ez, I..." Vin stammered.

Disappointment flared in Ezra's eyes. "You don't want to finish what you started?"

"Sorry, Ez... but I really think I oughtta go." But he didn't move.

Ezra's smile faded. His poker face slid into place, "Then might I suggest that it might facilitate your departure, if you were to GET THE HELL OFF ME!"

He punctuated the snarled demand with a twist and shove that dumped Vin not only off of him but also off of the bed.

Vin hit the floor with a THUMP and let out a yelp. He lay still for a moment. [Shit! That went over real well.] He sat up and looked over at Ezra.

The gambler had turned on his right side, facing away from Vin.

With a loud sigh, Vin said, "Ez, I'm sorry."

"Get out, Mister Tanner!" Ezra never even moved but his voice left no room for argument, "And don't come back until you know what the hell you want!"

Vin stood up slowly and began gathering his things as Ezra lay in a huddle on the bed, refusing to even look at him.

When he was dressed he started for the door then turned back, stepping close to the bed he reached out a hand to lay it on Ezra's shoulder, "Ez---"

The gambler flipped over to face him so fast that Vin jumped back... and found himself looking down the barrel of Ezra's derringer as the gambler sat up on the edge of the bed.

The gambler's eyes were hard and deadly, "Ah said, get out! Mister Tanner! Do you have a hearing problem?"

Vin stumbled backwards, shaking his head. "No... ah heard ya... I just... I wanted ta say... bye, Ez...."

"Goodbye, Mister Tanner." The voice dripped ice.

Vin nodded, backing to the door, he yanked it open and stepped out. Pulling it closed behind him he leaned back against it. This was not the way he'd wanted to part from Ezra.

Inside the room Ezra mechanically returned the derringer to its place in the rig then leaning forward on the edge of the bed, he rested his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands. This was not the way he'd wanted to part from Vin.


Vin was grateful that there was no one around to witness his foul mood as he stomped his way to the livery. He threw his saddlebags over the side of Peso's stall and grabbed the saddle blanket.

As he went to throw it over Peso's back the horse turned his head and gave him a baleful look.

"Don't start with me, mule! I ain't in no mood fer yer shenanigans!" He snarled and the horse turned his head around and stood still.

Peso knew when to give his 'daddy' trouble and when not to. The snarly tone told him this was not a good morning to try his daddy's patience. He raised his head and sniffed the air. He could smell another man's scent. Chaucer's daddy. He liked Chaucer. The chestnut had shown him how to open his stall door. He'd shown Chaucer how to untie his reins. His daddy had been spending a lot of time with Chaucer's daddy lately. Usually his daddy was in a good mood when he smelled like Chaucer's daddy. Was something wrong?

Vin finished saddling the black and led him out.

Peso snuffled at Vin's back. He definitely smelled like Chaucer's daddy. Usually when he had this much of Chaucer's daddy's scent on him, the other man and Chaucer would be riding out with them. He turned his head to look back at Chaucer. He gave a soft whiny. {Where's your daddy. Isn't he coming?}

Chaucer gave a snort and stamped in his stall. {I don't know. I want to go.} He kicked the stall door and tossed his head.

Vin mounted up and rode off down the street.

Chaucer kicked his stall door again and hung his head, pouting. {I wanted to go.}


After Vin left, Ezra sat on the side of the bed for a long few minutes. Then knowing that he would not get back to sleep with his thoughts and emotions in the turmoil that they were he gave a deep sigh and went to sit in the rocking chair, gazing out the window.

The sun was just coming up. He shook his head ruefully. Two days in a row that he'd been up to see the sun rise. A truly unusual occurrence. He seldom saw sunrise... unless it was at the end of a long night at the tables or because he was on the trail with the other peacekeepers... and even then they tended to let him sleep as long as possible before waking him, not wanting to deal with his surly early morning personality.

He saw Vin lead Peso out of the livery and mount up. The tracker rode down the street, stopping once at the jail to speak with the dark clad gunfighter sitting there. Then with a final glance up at Ezra's window he turned Peso's head and rode out of town.

Ezra watched until Vin rode around the bend in the road and was lost to his sight. Sitting back in the rocking chair he thought about what had happened between them. The look on Vin's face, as he'd found himself staring down the barrel of Ezra's derringer, haunted him.

Shock.... Disbelief.... Fear...?

Would Vin even bother coming back after that?

[Yes. He'll be back... if only for Larabee and the others.] The tracker's sense of honor wouldn't let him just keep riding.

[Perhaps, it would be best, if I were not here when he returns. He is after all the reason that I stay... isn't he?]

The gambler's gaze was drawn back to the dark figure sitting on the porch to the jail.

[Chris Larabee.] The man had given him a second chance. Had given him the chance to prove that he could be trusted, when he had already proven that he couldn't be. He hadn't even asked for an explanation, just fixed him with that icy green glare and snarled, 'Don't *ever* run out on me again!'

A tall broad figure strode up the street and stopped to speak with Chris before moving on to enter the saloon below Ezra.

[Josiah Sanchez.] The large ex-preacher had taken an almost fatherly interest in Ezra. Try as he would to deny it, Ezra enjoyed the attention. He could not remember his own father. Didn't even have a picture of him. Perhaps Maude did but she had never chosen to share it with him... had never answered any of his questions regarding his father. It had been Josiah that he had chosen to confide in when he could no longer deal with his feelings for Vin alone... and Josiah hadn't judged him, as he'd feared the ex-priest would.

He could hear the deep rumble of Josiah's voice in the saloon beneath him. A light feminine voice responded. He closed his eyes and focused on the voices. He still couldn't understand the words but he did recognize the woman's voice.

[Inez.] Beautiful, vivacious, capable, Inez. [Why couldn't I have fallen for her? We'd be a good match. She's a strong woman, smart and tough. I'd need a strong woman to keep my baser instincts in check.] But he'd already met Vin before she came into his life... and Vin had already stolen his heart... and then there was Buck.

The tall gunslinger had taken one look at Inez and lost his heart. He'd almost died in a sword fight to protect her from the arrogant bastard that she had fled from.

[Buck Wilmington.] Big hearted, good humored, Buck Wilmington. How had someone so different from the grim Chris Larabee stayed friends with the man for so long? Because he was loyal... loyal to a fault. Ezra enjoyed the smiling man's company. He could always cheer the gambler up... especially when he was horsing around with JD.

[JD Dunne.] The youngest of their group. He actually seemed to look up to Ezra, another thing that no one had ever done before. He was young and enthusiastic. His every emotion played across his face for the world to see. He pestered Ezra constantly to teach him how to win at poker but his very openness, which was what made him so likable, was his worst enemy at the poker table. He simply could not hide what he felt. If he liked you, you knew it... and he liked Ezra. Sighing Ezra admitted to himself that he liked JD as well. Hell, he loved him... like a kid brother.

He glanced back out the window. Gloria Potter was sweeping off the broadwalk in front of her general store. [If I leave, who will do her books for her?]

Missus Potter had no knowledge or skill at bookkeeping. Her husband had done all the paper work necessary for running the store until his untimely demise. She'd been in a quandary until Ezra had discovered, quite by accident, that she didn't have a clue how to deal with the books. A bargain had been struck and Ezra had begun doing the books for her... and trying without a great deal of success to teach her to do them herself.

Amelia Potter raced past her mother and out into the street with her brother Josh chasing after her. [Amy.] She'd be up after lunch to sweep out his room, make his bed, dust and straighten up for him. He paid her a small fee to do so. The wildflowers she often left in a small vase on his dresser had never been part of the bargain, they had just begun appearing one bright spring day.

[Josh.] He'd bring the water up for Ezra's bath later. Again a bargain that had been struck. Ezra paid more for his bath than the bathhouse charged but he didn't have to bear the indignity of having to share with other patrons. The folding tub under his bed was his alone... well, except for the two occasions when he'd shared it with Vin.

Mrs. Travis came out of the Clarion's office, Billy right behind her. She ruffled the young boy's hair then sent him off to play... probably with the Potter children.

[Mary Travis.] The brave woman's courage in facing down a lynch mob had been the catalyst for the formation of their little group. Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner had seen the incident and been inspired to stop the lynching... the attempted lynching of Nathan Jackson.

[Nathan.] The colored healer always left Ezra with confused feelings. The man didn't seem to like him. Ezra's profession was an affront to his sensibilities. Still he never hesitated to reach out to help when Ezra was injured. He supposed that was a lot to ask that an ex-slave and southern 'gentleman' not have conflicts. That had been Ezra's reason for his original refusal to ride with the others. He hadn't been certain that he could trust Nathan not to shoot him in the back just because he was a white southerner... but Nathan thought that Ezra had refused because he was a bigot who hated Nathan purely because of the color of his skin.

[If I stay on here, sooner or later I am going to have to address that misunderstanding.]

With a sigh, Ezra realized that Vin was far from the only thing keeping him here. Somehow his life had become entwined with the town's. Even though he could easily wire Judge Travis and simply resign from his position as one of the peacekeepers, he could never just ride off and forget about this town.

'That's what you get, Ezra, for staying in one place too long, for caring about other people. I thought I taught you better than that.' His mother's voice echoed in his mind.

[You did, Mother. You did. Fortunately these people have taught me differently.]

He smiled to himself and stood up. He might as well go down stairs and have breakfast, after all, he had a busy day ahead.

It was the end of the month. He needed to do the books for Mrs. Potter... and check over the saloon accounts for Inez. She was much better at doing the books for the saloon than Mrs. Potter was at doing the books for the store but she still occasionally made mistakes. Ezra had started 'auditing' the books for her at the end of each month when he'd walked in on her struggling to find an error she had made in the accounts. She'd been swearing fluently in Spanish and English at the time.

After that he should check in with Mrs. Travis, see how the paper was doing, he was an investor now. He'd offered to finance the new press after the old one had broken down... for a percentage of the ownership of the paper. (The bank had refused Mrs. Travis a loan, saying that the paper wasn't profitable enough for her to be able to repay the loan.) He would not, of course, interfere with Mrs. Travis' running of the paper but as an investor he certainly had the right to know what was going on... besides Vin had given him permission to have several of his poems printed in the paper, at his leisure. He could drop one off.

After that it would be time for lunch. He'd stop at the hotel dining room. The new cook was quite good. Then it would be time to relieve Mister Larabee at the jail. There were still four prisoners there, so someone had to be there all the time until they went to trial... and the Judge wouldn't be back in town until the end of next week.


Vin rode Peso down the street from the livery. He saw Chris sitting on the porch to the jail. Reining the big black in he leaned on the saddle horn and spoke to the gunslinger. "I'm ridin' out fer a while."

"How long?"

"A day or two... shouldn't be more'n that."

"Ezra know?"

Vin looked down at the ground. "Yeah... he knows."

Chris studied the other man a moment. He looked very unhappy. "Vin?"

Vin looked up, reading Larabee's expression, "He weren't happy. Had a bit of a fuss."

Chris nodded. Vin hated 'a fuss'... and Ezra... well to put it mildly the man could 'fuss' with the best of them.

"I'll be back." Vin said as if the gunslinger needed to reassurance.

Chris nodded, "Know you will."

Vin straightened in the saddle and touched his hat brim. As he turned the horse and rode on down the street he looked up at the window of Ezra's room over the saloon. He could see the gambler sitting staring out the window, watching him ride away.

A chill went through him. How many times had Ezra sat and watched... or stood and watched as someone he loved left him behind. He had to resist the impulse to stop Peso in front of the saloon and rush inside to the gambler, take him in his arms and promise him that he'd never leave him... but he needed to think this through... needed to be sure that that was what he wanted. It'd hurt Ezra worse if he said that now, then changed his mind later. He needed to be sure... real sure... for Ezra's sake. He didn't want to be just one more person who'd let the gambler down.

He turned Peso off the main road and gave the horse his head. He didn't have anyplace in particular in mind to go. He'd just needed the peace and quiet away from town to think.

Quite some time later Peso came to a stop and stood patiently waiting for Vin to notice.

After a moment Vin gave himself a shake and looked around. They were at the river. A small clearing opened up before them, the stones for a campfire lay almost dead center of the clearing, a couple of huge old pecan trees stood sentry on either side of the clearing. The river was placid, here... and shallow. It was a good place to cross. A good place to camp.

It was where he'd had sex with Ezra for the first time.

"Why'd ya bring me here, boy?" Vin asked the big black as he stepped out of the saddle.

He loosened the cinch on the saddle and led Peso over to let him drink his fill of the water. Leaving the horse ground hitched at the riverbank where he could graze and drink, Vin walked back into the campsite and sat down on an overturned tree trunk.

Looking towards the river he remembered that night. They'd taken a prisoner to Ridge City, a ten-day ride there and back. On the return trip it'd been just him and Ezra. The gambler had been complaining long and loud about having to rough it, particularly about the dust and grime that 'permeated' (Ezra's word) everything from their horses to his underwear.

Vin had gotten tired of hearing it. It'd been about an hour before sundown when they'd forded the stream and he'd reached over and shoved Ezra off Chaucer, dumping him in the river. The gambler had come up sputtering and furious. He'd splashed after Vin swearing and grabbed his leg, pulling him off of Peso and throwing him in the water.

They'd gotten to wrestling in the water and somehow... somehow Vin had ended up lying on top of the gambler in the shallow water, looking down into green eyes that were by that time laughing as their breathless owner looked up at him. The gambler had been so beautiful... and they had both been aroused.

It happened so fast that Vin still wasn't sure just how it happened. One minute he'd been looking down into those eyes and the next he'd been kissing the man... and Ezra had kissed him back, eagerly... hungrily. They hadn't even taken their clothes off the first time, (Hell, they hadn't even gotten out of the water!) just bucking against each other, clinging together as they rubbed their cocks against each other, through their clothes, until they came.

Spent but only partially sated he had lain atop the gambler in the shallow water as they had regained their breath and waited for Ezra to push him off... and shoot him. Instead when he had finally lifted his head from Ezra's shoulder to look into the green eyes he had seen only amusement there, accompanied by a pleased smile.

[Ezra chuckled softly. His hand drifted down Vin's chest in a sensuous caress. "Perhaps next time you wish to ravish me, we could divest ourselves of our accouterments," he drawled, "I find it increases the pleasure exponentially."

Vin looked at him with puzzled eyes, "Huh?"

Ezra laughed out loud. "It's *bettah* when we're *naked*, Mistah Tannah!" Ezra translated with a wicked gleam in his eye. "Not to mention that the odds of our accidentally shooting one another, while rolling around on top of each other, is greatly reduced by taking off our guns."

Vin laughed too, then and struggled to his feet offering Ezra a hand up.

Ezra took the hand and once on his feet leaned in close to Vin, his hands reaching to caress Vin's chest, "So, would you care to get naked with me, Mistah Tannah... or did this little tryst satisfy all your needs?"

Vin's answer had been to pull Ezra close and kiss him as he tugged at the gambler's soaked clothing. After a moment he'd drawn back and grinned at the other man, "Reckon we ought ta get outta these wet things." He leaned back a bit, letting his hands continue to stroke Ezra's back as he added, "We ought ta set up camp 'fore dark."

Ezra nodded and started to pull away.

Vin had pulled him back. "I do wanna..." he grinned at the gambler, "...'get naked' with you, Ez... wanna take mah time. Iffn we set up camp and fix supper first... then we'll have all night."

Ezra had leaned back against him and gazed up at him, the smile returning to his face. "Ah like how you think, Mistah Tannah." He drawled.]

And they had, had all night... they'd spent it exploring each other, slowly and thoroughly.

Vin jumped to his feet and stalked over to Peso. He tightened the cinch back up and swung into the saddle. "Damn mule!" He groused. "Bringing me here!"

He pulled the horse's head around more roughly than he was usually wont to do and kneed him into motion. This time he had a destination in mind.

It was lunchtime when Vin rode Peso into Nettie Wells's yard and swung down by the water trough. He loosened Peso's cinch again and headed for the house.

Nettie had heard the horse and come out on the porch with her old Spencer Carbine to see who it was. She smiled at him, "Vin Tanner. What brings you out this way?" She looked past him as if expecting to see some one else but didn't say anything more.

"I's just ridin' a bit. Thought I'd stop by and see if ya had any peach pie..." He grinned at her. Everybody knew that Vin loved peaches and Nettie doted on the young tracker.

She chuckled, "Nope." Then grinning at the disappointed look on his face she said, "Got a peach *cobbler* though."

Vin's laugh lightened her heart.

He slipped an arm around her shoulders and walked her back into the house, taking the Carbine from her and standing it in its regular place near the door.

As he sat at the table and Nettie fixed him a plate of food, telling him he had to eat the rest of the meal before he got dessert, Casey came in.

"Hi, Vin!" She greeted him with a smile and hug and innocently asked, "Where's Ez?"

Vin looked up freezing with a spoon full of stew half way to his mouth. "Ez?"

"Yeah. He ain't sick is he?" She saw how Vin was looking at her and stammered, "I just thought... I mean... he's always with ya... I just wondered... if he... was okay...." She trailed off looking to Nettie for some explanation of why she shouldn't have asked Vin about Ezra.

Nettie just shook her head.

Vin set the spoon of stew back down in the bowl.

Casey began stammering an apology, "I'm sorry, Vin I didn't mean ta be nosy... I just..."

"Ya was just worried 'bout Ez." Vin put in. "Ya got ever right ta be. He's yer friend, too." He looked down at the bowl in front of him. "Reckon ya'll've kinda got used ta seein' us together, huh?"

"Well, yeah. I mean ya ain't been out here without Ez in months. I thought maybe something had happened to him... but then I thought... ya wouldn't have left'm iffn he was sick... or hurt.... Would ya?"

"No... no, I wouldn't have left'm iffn he was sick... or hurt." He looked up and saw Casey looking at him expectantly and realized that he still hadn't answered her original question. He smiled at her, but there was sadness in his eyes. "Me'n Ez had us a bit of a... disagreement. That's all."

"Oh." Casey said then looked at his again, "But ya'll are still friends... right?"

He didn't look at her as he said, "'course we are."

Nettie saw Casey open her mouth to continue the conversation and broke in, "You go get washed up, girl. Your food's getting cold."

Casey knew from the look on her aunt's face that she wasn't to keep asking Vin questions.

After lunch, Vin went out to sit in the rocking chair on the porch, He just sat, staring off into space.

Nettie left Casey to do the dishes and went out on the porch taking the chair next to the rocker, "You want to talk about it, son?" She asked quietly.

He turned to look at her, "Ya always know when I got somethin' preyin' on mah mind, don'tcha?"

She just sat back in the chair and waited for him to start talking or not as he chose.

After a long moment he asked, "Did ya love your husband, Nettie."

"Thought I did." She replied shortly, not sure where he was headed with the question but determined to answer him honestly.

"What happened?"

"We married young, too young maybe. I was just fifteen... Andrew was seventeen. We came west after our first son was born. Turned out it was a mistake for Andrew..."

"Ya told me that he didn't like it out here."

"Yes, well after our third child was born, Andrew up and left... went back east. I refused to go with him. I liked it out here."

"Is he still alive?"

She shrugged, "Don't know... don't really care. Haven't heard from him in years."

"When you... love somebody... how do you know if it will last?"

"Don't reckon there's anybody that can answer that question."

He turned and gave her a puzzled look.

She sighed and reached over to take his hand. "Life don't come with a guarantee, son. Neither does love. Ya gotta grab hold of love when you find it and hang on to it just as long as ya can." She smiled at him, "I don't regret a minute that I spent with Andrew... and I don't regret lettin' him go. Bible says ever thing's got a season."

"A time to sow and a time to reap...."

She leaned over hugged him, "A time to love... and a time to let go... just don't let go till ya know it's time... and you will know, Vin. You will know."

He stared down at the floor, then finally he raised his head and gazed off in the distance, "Nettie," he said softly, "Ya know that I lived with the Indians..."

"I know."

"Ain't got much book learning... don't know much about the Bible..." He fell silent for a few minutes then went on, "The Indians... they believe that the spirit... the soul ain't male or female... and that when you love someone your spirits are joined together. So it don't matter if the bodies those spirits... fill... are male and female, or male and male, or female and female... cause it's the spirit inside that you love."

Nettie asked softly, "Are you trying to tell me that you think you're in love with another man?"

He turned to look at her and the fear in his eyes stabbed her in the heart.

"Oh, Vin!" She whispered.

His eyes filled with despair, "Do ya hate me, Nettie? Do I disgust ya... wantin' ta be with another man?"

She sat back in the chair and let her head lean back, after a long moment she said, "Are you sure that you love him? That it ain't just... that ya been alone for so long?"

"I been with women, Nettie. Even thought I loved a couple of them... ain't no woman ever made me feel like he does. He makes me feel alive... makes me laugh. Just bein' near'm makes me feel... content... like ever thing's all right... just cause he's there. He makes me feel... complete."

After a long silence she said, "I can't hate you, Vin Tanner... you're a good man. If he makes you that happy then..." she took a deep breath, "...then I'm happy for ya." She hesitated then leaned over and hugged him and whispered in his ear, "You tell that fancy man, that if he ever hurts you, he'll be looking down the barrel of my old Spencer Carbine."

He turned and stared at her, "Nettie, I never said it was Ezra."

She reached over and stroked his hair. "I got eyes, boy. You been mooning over that man worse'n Casey does over JD! Hell, remember when you brought him out here to 'help' you fix my roof...? You're up there hammering away, sweating in the hot sun and he's just lying there on the roof, reading to you in that honey sweet voice of his and you're grinning like a baboon and you think I ain't supposed to notice that you're besotted with the man?"

"Damn, Nettie, why didn't ya never say nothin'?"

"Weren't my place." She sighed, "I thought maybe you'd get over him... but I reckon you just fell deeper in."

After a long minute he looked deep into her eyes, "He ain't what ever body thinks he is. He hides real good... most folks can't see past that poker face...."

"But you're a tracker, a man who hunted men... you have to be able to see more than most. So what do you see in him?"

"He's got a good heart. There ain't no pure meanness in him. He acts like he don't care but... he does... he cares a lot. Ya ought ta see him with kids... he's a wonder with'em. Ain't no quicker way to get on Ezra's bad side than to hurt a kid... or a woman... or an animal. Reckon the first clue I had that he weren't as bad as he tried to pretend was how good he treated that horse of his... Damn horse is spoiled rotten. Loves him to death. Kids and animals... they know when somebody's bad and I ain't seen a kid or animal yet that didn't take to Ez. Hell, even Peso likes him. He's a good man. Better'n most folks think."

"Does he love you?"

"Yeah... I think he does...."

"You think he does?"

"Ya know I ain't much for words, Nettie. We ain't talked." He looked back out over the vista, "...but I think maybe it's time we did."

She stood up and looked down at him. "Sooner started, sooner finished," she said quietly.

He stood up and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek," Thanks, Nettie... and tell Casey that ever thing's gonna be all right." He turned and headed for his horse, eager to return to town.

Part 3

Everything on this page is fiction. Any resemblance or reference to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.