"So, you are the owner of the fractious beast that has been harassing my Dandy."
The soft drawl drew Vin Tanner's eyes to the man leaning casually against the post at the entrance to Devil's stall.
"Don't rightly know what fractious means."
"Unruly. Easily angered."
"Then I reckon he is a mite fractious."
That earned him a chuckle. The man took a couple of wavering steps towards him.
Vin noted that he was dressed in the height of fashion, or at least Vin supposed it was the height of fashion. He really wouldn't know as he never paid any mind to fashion. Still the man looked good. Black, pinstriped trousers with stovepipe legs, a blindingly white shirt with ruffled cuffs and bib, a green, brocaded-silk vest, shot through with silver threads, and a jewel-green, dovetailed coat that set off his emerald eyes.
The man slipped a hand into one pocket and then withdrew it, holding it out towards Vin and Devil. "Do you suppose a bit of sugar would improve his disposition?" he asked, smiling, his southern accent strong.
He stumbled, a bit, as he took another step and Vin instinctively reached out to steady him.
"You're drunk." Vin stated flatly.
The man chuckled again, "Nonsense. I am merely a bit inebriated." He leaned against Vin.
"A bit whatever ya said, my ass!" Vin muttered.
The other man giggled and reached around Vin to caress an ass cheek. "And a very nice ass it is." He grinned, as he gazed drunkenly up into the plainsman's face.
"Sorry, pard. Thought I'd find me a woman..." Vin tried to shrug off the arousal the man's groping was causing.
The man laughed uproariously, leaning heavily against Vin as he did so, his hands still wandering. "Have you *seen* the women in this so called town?" He asked incredulously. "Each and every one of them could play one of the witches in Macbeth scans makeup. Snaggle-toothed hags, the lot of them." He snuggled closer to Vin, running a hand up and down the soft doeskin shirt that the plainsman wore. "I'm prettier than the lot of them put together." One hand drifted down to caress Vin's rising erection, "and quite adept..."
Vin struggled with the desire to simply toss the man over a convenient hay bale and take him, but couldn't bring himself to do it. The man was so obviously drunk, that to take advantage of him would be rape, plain and simple. No matter how much the man seemed to want it, he was in no condition to consent to it.
Vin would never, *could never,* do that to another man. He still had nightmares of the month he had spent in a Yankee prison camp near the end of the war. Fifteen, slender and good-looking he had quickly caught the eyes of the guards. He didn't like to think about what had followed.
He resolutely pushed the thoughts away and pushed the man away, as well. "Ya need ta go back to your room and sleep it off."
"Alas," the man made a sweeping gesture with one hand, "I fear that I have left my fortune at the poker table and am reduced to sharing my noble steed's accommodations. He sighed heavily. "Poor Dandy shall simply have to make room for me."
"Okay then," Vin took hold of his arm to guide him out of Devil's stall, "let's get you over there..."
"Wait!" The other man pulled loose and staggered towards Devil. "He hasn't had his sugar yet."
Devil pranced away slightly.
"It's all right, pretty boy." The stranger crooned. "Got something for you..." he held out his hand.
Devil sniffed curiously.
Vin expected him to take the stranger's hand off any second. He had trained the horse not to take anything from someone he didn't know.
Devil tossed his head and looked at Vin. Then after a moment's hesitation, as if he knew he was doing something that he wasn't supposed to, he stretched his neck out and delicately took the sugar cube from the stranger's hand.
"See there, you can be a good boy." The stranger continued to croon as he lay a hand on Devil's neck and began to pet him.
Vin moved in to guide the stranger away from the horse, giving Devil a look that said, 'We're gonna have a talk about this later. Ya know better'n ta take anything from a stranger.'
Devil snorted. 'Stranger? He's draped all over you. Smells like you. You didn't say a word about not taking it.... How was I supposed to know he was a stranger? Besides... it was sugar! Real solid sugar!'
As Vin guided the stranger out of the stall, Devil took a couple of steps behind them, nosing at the pocket that the sugar had come out of.
"He likes me!" The stranger announced proudly, then with a pout asked, "Don't you like me?"
"Sure, pard," Vin soothed as he guided the other man into an empty stall and helped him to lie down in the fresh hay there.
As Vin leaned over him, the man pulled him down into a long, heated kiss.
Vin finally managed to break loose and say in a somewhat breathless voice. "Sorry... really... but I told ya, I'm looking for a woman."
"Fine." The man pouted, "but I assure you that once you see what's available... you'll be back." He grinned up at Vin drunkenly then called out, "Dandy. Un garde," before flopping back on the straw and beginning to snore softly.
Vin shook his head and sighed. At nineteen he'd been on his own for five years. The first two had been spent in the war. Then he'd lived with the Indian's and hunted buffalo. Now he hunted men.
He'd seen and done a lot in those years. He knew about women... and men.
The man sleeping in the stall looked so young and innocent, but his touch had been knowledgeable and his intentions quite clear.
Vin walked out of the stable and followed the sound of a tinny piano towards the town's only saloon.
Ezra Standish cracked his eyes, watching the plainsman through dark lashes, as he exited the stables. He waited a couple of minutes more then rolled gracefully to his feet and moved stealthily to the open doorway of the stable, keeping to one side and flattening himself against the wall to insure that he could not be seen. There was no trace of his earlier drunkenness.
He peered carefully around the edge of the doorway, checking up and down the street. He could just make out the plainsman, making his way along the boardwalk towards the saloon.
He watched until the man had gone inside then quickly turned to saddle Dandy. He spoke soothingly to the horse as he saddled it. "Sorry, boy. I know you were looking forward to an evening under a decent roof, as was I. Unfortunately, the fates had other ideas. I fear that handsome young man will be most upset when he discovers that he is somewhat poorer than he was before our encounter. I believe it would be prudent to make a hasty retreat from this humble hamlet."
He swung into the saddle and turned Dandy's head towards the rear opening of the stable. Keeping the building between him and the rest of the town, he rode off into the moonlit night. He glanced up at the moon. It would set in a couple of hours but he should have a good head start by then and even the plainsman couldn't track him without light.
An hour later Vin Tanner set his empty beer mug down on the scarred top of the table he sat at and sighed.
The green-eyed man in the livery had been right about the women. The youngest 'soiled dove' in the place was older than his mother would be if she yet lived and nothing much to look at besides.
He smiled to himself. Now, the man in the livery, that had been something to look at. The face of an angel, with wide green eyes, a soft, slightly crooked smile and a halo of red-gold curls. Pretty didn't begin to cover it. Beautiful. That was the word... and the offer had been clear.
He stood, tossing a nickel on the table to cover the beer and exited the saloon. He stopped on the boardwalk, looking up and down the street, noting the hotel across the way.
He smiled to himself again. He'd even get a room for them. The green-eyed man was worth that.
He reached back to pull his money pouch from his hip pocket. As soon as his hand touched the pocket he felt a chill go thorough him.
The pouch was gone.
He slid his hand on down into the pocket just to make sure but he *knew* it was gone.
He wasn't disappointed. The pouch *was* gone.
There was no way in hell that he had just lost it... and only one place it could have been taken.
He cursed silently.
"That little shit!" He muttered. "He picked my pocket while he was groping my ass."
He stalked towards the livery.
He wasn't surprised to find the man gone. The stall next to Devil's was empty.
He gave Devil an angry look. "You liked him, mule! Little bastard robbed us blind!"
He considered mounting up and riding after the man right then, but reconsidered. The moon was full but it would set in an hour. Better to use the time to see if he could distinguish Dandy's tracks from the others in the livery and then start tracking him in the morning.
He took down the lantern from its hook and began to examine the stall where Dandy had been. It had probably been cleaned before Dandy had been placed in it. The green-eyed man had seemed too fond of his horse to allow it to be stabled in a dirty stall... but then he had *seemed* drunk, too.
Still, it was the best chance that he had of discovering Dandy's prints.
He knelt and looked closer at the prints in the stall. A new shoe. The horse had a brand new shoe on his right rear hoof. He could ask the blacksmith in the morning to make sure that he had put a new shoe on the green-eyed man's horse. For now he would assume that that was the case and scout around the outside of the livery to see which direction the man had gone.
Fifteen minutes later he was following the tracks of the new shoe away from the livery. He carefully studied the other prints that the horse left until he had them set in his mind. Then he retreated to the livery and curled up in Devil's stall to sleep until morning.
He'd spent three months tracking the bounty that the money represented. He'd spend another three tracking the thief who stole it, if he had to.
Eleven days. He'd been trailing the little thief for eleven days. Twice he had almost caught him only to have the man slip away.
Vin Tanner rode wearily into the small town and looked up and down the street.
His breath caught in his throat.
Dandy! Tied in front of the saloon.
The big bay lifted his head and whickered a greeting to Devil.
Devil pranced and tossed his head, nickering back at the other horse.
Vin dismounted and tossed his reins over the hitching post, ignoring the two horses greeting each other like long lost siblings. He stalked into the saloon, drawing his mare's leg as he went.
Sharp blue eyes scanned the room, finally settling on the raised platform and the poker game going on up there.
He strode across the room, ignoring the silence that followed his entrance. He stomped up the steps to the raised platform and came to a stop next to the green-eyed gambler in the bright red coat.
"Where's my money?" He demanded.
Cool, green eyes looked him up and down. The man gave no sign of concern at the sawed off Winchester that was pointed at him. "It's in the pot." He said calmly. "I'll be happy to return it when I win this hand."
"What if you lose?"
The green-eyed man smiled, showing a gold canine tooth. "If I lose, you can shoot me."
"Don't think I won't." Vin growled.
"Aw, hell!" One of the other men at the table grumbled and tossed in his cards.
A second man looked back and forth between the two men for a moment then decided that he didn't want to be there if shooting started and tossed in his cards as well.
The third man frowned, "Ya ain't gonna win this." He said confidently. He tossed some money in the pot. "I call." Then with a grin he laid his cards on the table. "Read'em and weep." He chortled. "Full house, tens and kings."
The green eyed man just smiled, "That's all very well, sir... but I also have a full house... and I do believe," he lay the cards down with a flourish, "that ladies and aces beats tens and kings."
He reached for the pot.
Vin beat him to it, laying the sawed off Winchester across the table. "Reckon I'll take that."
"What?! There's more than three hundred dollars there. I only borrowed a hundred..." He jumped to his feet.
Vin ignored him as he stuffed the money into his pocket. "Borrowed? You didn't borrow nothing. Ya stole it. Plain and simple. Ya picked my pocket!"
"Be that as it may. I only took a hundred!"
"Yeah, well, it took me three months ta catch the fella that bounty was on. Then the sorry sumbitch jumped me and I had to kill him and spend another two weeks hauling his rotting corpse into Black Rock to collect the bounty. All I wanted was a drink, a bath and a woman. Thanks to ya, all I got was a drink. Then I had ta spend another week and a half chasing after you! So, I figure you owe me!"
"I don't owe you an extra two hundred dollars!"
"Reckon I'm the one ta say what ya owe me!" Vin snarled then turned to go.
He froze at the sound of a gun being cocked against his ear.
"Ah want mah money." The heavy southern accent was back, and the voice as cold as ice. "Now. Put it on the table. Nice and slow."
Vin cursed his foolishness at turning his back on the man. He should have known better.
He sighed and dug into his pocket, tossing a handful of bills on the table.
The green-eyed man frowned and his gaze flicked down to the table, in that instant, Vin moved. He knocked the man's gunhand, with the small derringer clutched in it, away from his head and swung his Winchester, using it as club to hit the man in the stomach, doubling him over.
The derringer went flying and Vin followed up with a hard left that dropped the man on the floor, dazed.
Vin snatched up the money, that he had tossed back on the table, and headed for the door as the other man scrambled to get his derringer.
He had made it out the door and into Devil's saddle when the other man staggered out after him.
He dug his heels into Devil's sides and the horse lit out running.
Ezra cursed to himself.
He had known as soon as he opened the pouch and found the hundred dollars that the plainsman would be coming after him, but dammit, he hadn't had any idea that the man was a bounty hunter.
He had found himself being jumpy and nervous ever since the encounter in the livery. He supposed he should be glad to have the man off his trail but he needed that money. It was all he had.
And it wasn't right. He had only taken the hundred. Where did the man get off thinking he could just take Ezra's hard won money?
It never occurred to him to think that he had just taken the bounty hunter's hard earned money.
That was different. He was a thief. He was supposed to steal things.
He finally got a hold of the derringer and scrambled to his feet, staggering towards the batwing doors.
The plainsman was just kicking his horse into a run as Ezra made it to the edge of the boardwalk.
Ezra fired off a shot, knowing perfectly well that the small gun didn't have the range to hit the man. He just wanted to let him know that he wasn't getting away with this.
He jumped off the boardwalk and grabbed up Dandy's reins. A second later he was in the saddle and urging Dandy after the disappearing plainsman.
Vin glanced back over his shoulder. [Damn! The little shit can ride! Well, let's see how good he really is.]
He swung Devil's head and plunged off the trail and down the slope beside it.
The green-eyed man followed, Dandy handling the obstacle-strewn pathway as easily as Devil and his rider keeping his seat as easily as Vin did.
They plunged through the undergrowth and burst out onto the bank of a small creek. Unable to stop, Devil lunged onward, landing in the water with a splash. He found his footing on the sandy creek bottom and scrambled for the opposite shore.
Vin heard the green-eyed man curse as Dandy followed.
The ground on the other side was clear grassland and Devil came up the bank with a surge and opened up into a full out run.
That was where Dandy's breeding paid off for his rider.
Devil was a mustang, sturdy and strong with endurance to spare. He could keep going all day and half the night.
But Dandy was a thoroughbred, born to run and trained to race. It took little to inspire him to open up and practically fly. The sight of Devil pulling away from him was more than enough.
The pounding of hoofbeats coming up behind had Vin turning his head to glance back. Dandy was practically on top of him and Vin knew that Devil was giving his all. There was no way he was going to be able to outrun the bay.
Then with a wild rebel yell, the green-eyed man launched himself off Dandy's back at Vin. The impact sent them both flying off the other side of Devil.
They hit the ground hard, rolling over and over, before coming to rest with Vin on top the smaller man.
Not that it did Vin any good.
The smaller man tangled a hand in Vin's shoulder-length hair and yanked to the right as he brought his left knee up to roll them over one more time so that he was on top. He pulled back the other hand and struck at Vin.
Vin turned his head, jerking it to the side and the blow missed. He countered by grabbing a handful of the smaller man's shirt and yanking upwards towards his head, then grabbing the other man's waistband in his other hand and tossing him over his head. He rolled to his feet and came up.
The smaller man gained his feet at the same time and they quickly closed again. They exchanged blows then Vin suddenly ducked and grabbed one of the other man's legs, upending him. He dove on top of him but the other man quickly rolled out to the way and Vin landed on the ground. He immediately scrambled after the other man throwing himself on top of him.
As the smaller man wiggled and squirmed, trying to throw him off, Vin felt his body responding. His cock, trapped between his body and the thief's buttocks grew hard.
After a long moment the green-eyed man stopped struggling. He lay still, beneath Vin, defeat in every limp line of his body. Then in a resigned voice he asked, "Is... is t-that what it w-will take to get my money back?"
Vin lay slumped on top of him a moment longer than rolled off, sitting up. He could hear the hesitation, the shame and humiliation in the other man's voice. How desperate would he have to be to make such an offer? This was different than the night in the livery, at least he thought it was.
After a long moment the other man sat up as well, pulling his jacket around him as if he were cold, despite the warmth of the day.
Finally Vin asked. "You do that often?"
"Do what?" It was barely a whisper.
"Offer yourself... for money."
The green-eyed man hugged himself, rocking slightly. "No. Never in fact."
"Then why make it to me?"
"I'm broke! All right? You took every penny I had! I... don't have anything else to sell."
"You got a horse."
The head came up and the man looked at him like he'd asked him to sell his first born child. "Dandy? You think I'd sell Dandy?" The voice was disbelieving.
Then the man was on his feet, running away from Vin towards his horse. He caught up the reins and swung into the saddle.
Vin sprang up and raced after him, catching up as he mounted. He grabbed the man's leg and pulled him from the saddle, only to find himself with an arm full of wildcat.
They tumbled to the ground again, the smaller man, hitting, scratching, and biting while Vin simply tried to contain him as he cursed Vin.
"Bastard! Son of a Bitch! You're not taking Dandy! I'll kill you! Son of a bitch!"
Finally, Vin managed to get him pinned, sitting astride him. "Calm down! Dammit! I don't want that fool horse!"
"Dandy's not a fool! He's the smartest horse around here! Smarter'n your old crowbait!"
"Dammit! I just figured it'd be better ta sell the horse than sell yourself!" Vin yelled.
"I'd *never* sell Dandy!" the green-eyed man yelled right back, trying to push Vin off him. "He's the only friend I've got!"
Vin sighed and stood up, reaching out a hand to pull the other man to his feet. "Reckon I can understand that. I ain't got nobody but Devil, myself."
When the other man was on his feet Vin went on, "How about we split the money even? And let bygones be bygones."
Ezra hesitated. It went against his grain to let the other man have any of what he considered *his* money but he realized that he could still lose it all if he didn't agree. With a defeated sigh he nodded. "All right. You have a deal."
"Come on then, let's make camp and we can divvy it up." Vin said, walking over to take Devil's reins and lead him back towards the creek that they had crossed.
Ezra followed, catching up Dandy's reins.
"My name's Vin Tanner." Vin informed him as they strolled towards the creek. "What's yours?"
Ezra hesitated then said, "Eric Simmons."
"Uh-huh." Vin shook his head, sensing the lie. "Wanna try again?"
Ezra walked for several minutes in silence then sighed, "I suppose it might be Ezra. That is the name Mother uses most consistently. As for the last name...." He trailed off. "I'm not certain... perhaps Standish. Mother uses it fairly often. I am rather fond of the name Ezra Standish. It will suffice."
"You really don't know what your name is?"
"Mother has never been very forthcoming in regards to who my father might have been. I'm not convinced that she knows. In our line of work, one does not keep one name too long. It makes it too easy to be traced."
"What line of work is that?"
"Mother and I are con artists, gamblers, thieves if you prefer."
"Your ma's a thief?"
"She taught me everything I know." He flashed Vin a smile.
Vin shook his head again. A con man, a liar and a thief, but damn he was good looking.
It didn't take long to set up the camp and soon they were sitting on their bedrolls, dividing the money.
As Ezra tucked his into his boot he flashed Vin that grin again. "I don't suppose you'd care to indulge in a game of chance?"
"Not likely. Ain't no great card player and I reckon you make a living at it so I'll pass."
Ezra chuckled. "I like a man who knows his limitations. I could give you some pointers..."
"Never drink while gambling but do buy drinks for the table. Never, ever, under any circumstances, draw to an inside straight. The odds of filling it are horrendous. Never make large wagers until you have taken the measure of your opponents, noting their tells and skill level."
"Makes sense." Vin sat back on his bedroll and reached for his saddlebags, bringing out a bottle of Redeye. He opened it and took a swig. After a moment he asked, "That night in the livery, what'd ya have done if I took you up on your offer?"
Ezra's eyes dropped then he sighed. "I would have most likely faked passing out and hoped you weren't desperate enough to take advantage of an unconscious man."
"So, you wasn't really interested in me?"
"On the contrary. I just... I mean that I... well I've never actually done it with another man... not willingly in any event."
"Somebody forced ya?" Vin asked softly, his voice held sympathy. When Ezra sat staring down at his hands and refused to look up at him, Vin added, "I know how that is. I's a POW for a bit near the end of the war. Yankee guards could be real bastards to a goodlooking kid."
Ezra's hands trembled slightly. He still refused to look up. "Yes, they could be." It was barely more than a whisper.
"Reckon I was right lucky... only took me a month to escape."
Ezra reached up and wiped away tears. "I... I didn't escape... the war ended and we were released."
"How long?" Vin asked gently, moving closer.
Ezra shied away slightly and Vin stopped moving towards him.
After a long moment of silence, Ezra whispered, "Three months... three months that felt like forever." He reached up swiping silent tears away.
Vin edged closed, "Weren't your fault. Damn Yankee bastards. They done it to lots of kids. Didn't have nothing to do with you. It was them. Animals."
"They said... they said it was because I was a... sissy... a pretty boy... they called me names...."
"I know. They's just trying to pretend that it weren't their fault but it was. They did it. Not you. You didn't do nothing wrong."
"But... but they said...."
"NO!" Vin caught Ezra's face between his hands, "It don't matter what *they* said cause they was just looking for a way to justify what *they* was doing. It don't matter how pretty a man is or how sissified he acts, ain't no man got a right to take him by force. A real man, wouldn't even think of doing that. That they done it, is all the proof ya need that they wasn't men, but animals."
He pulled Ezra into his arms and held him tightly. "Ya are beautiful, Ez... and I can't deny that I'd love ta have ya... but I won't ever force ya to do anything you don't wanna do." He began to rock the other man slightly. He could feel the tremors running through the gambler and knew that he was crying, but Vin would never say a word about it.
Ezra let Vin hold him, burying his face against the deerskin shirt, crying silently. He didn't know why he felt safe with this man, but he did. He had responded to the bounty hunter that night in the livery and, if he admitted it to himself, he had wanted to be in Vin's arms then.
He had never cried in the POW camp, never let the pain and shame out. Now, held securely in the arms of a stranger who had known some of the same pain, shame and humiliation, he let himself grieve for the horrors visited on his younger self and finally began to heal.
A long time later, as they sat across the campfire from each other, Vin asked quietly, casually, not wanting to pressure Ezra, "How about we ride along together for a while? I got no place in particular to go right now. We can drift whatever direction ya want."
Ezra considered for a moment. Vin Tanner knew what he was, hell he'd stolen from the man. Vin had seen him at his worst and at his weakest and still he was offering to ride with him. Then there was the fact that he was drawn to Vin, sensed that he was someone that Ezra could trust.
After a long moment, Ezra smiled. "That sounds acceptable, Mister Tanner."