Rating: R for violence, and hints of non-con.
Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended, this story is strictly for fun, not profit.
Beta'ed by the amazing Sherri, Ra, Antoinette, and Alayne. First published it in the multimedia anthology zine Dyad #23, January 2006.
"Would you mind explaining to me, yet again, exactly why we are attempting this lunacy?"
Buck looked at the man riding beside him, having known the question was coming and surprised it had taken Ezra so long to ask. After all, they had left Four Corners the afternoon before and had slept on the trail, providing plenty of time and opportunity to quench one's curiosity. But then again, this was Ezra P. Standish, stubborn to the point of madness.
"I told ya, hoss," he replied with a smile. "Chris is probably drinkin' 'imself silly in Purgatorio; we're here to bring 'im back."
Ezra gave him an annoyed scowl. "I had gathered that much already, Mr. Wilmington. I understand the need to save our illustrious leader from alcohol poisoning. What I don't understand is why he chose now to drown his sorrows, since we are not even close to the anniversary of his family's demise. And why bring me along? If you had the unassuageable desire to confront Mr. Larabee's wrath, why not drag the young, innocent-looking Mr. Dunne along with you instead? I'm fairly certain even our resident gunslinger would be unable to resist that pleading puppy-dog gaze our resourceful sheriff has mastered so well of late."
"Ya know this has been long in comin', Ezra," Buck told him seriously. "Chris has been fit to blow for months now. He needed to cool off some. Vin and I told him ta go or we'd shoot him ourselves. We just didn't expect 'im to stay for a whole week."
"But why me?" Ezra insisted. "I am very likely the last person on Earth he would want to see at this moment. Ever since..." he hesitated, and Buck fought the urge to sigh at the sudden slump of shoulders and tight expression on the gambler's face. "Ever since that regretful affair with the ten thousand dollars, he has hardly spoken a word in my direction."
Buck shook his head. "Are ya really that blind, pard?" he asked softly.
To his relief, Ezra didn't pretend to misunderstand the hidden meaning behind the words; but then again, they'd had a similar conversation shortly after the mess with that mad woman, Ma Nichols, and her sons. Chris had been fit to blow then too, particularly after seeing Ezra's crazy stunt with the whiskey bottle. Jumping onto a steel armored coach, and dropping the bottle through the smokestack while in the middle of a gunfight had been madness. If not for JD's timely intervention, the gambler would have been shot. Ezra and Chris' confrontation afterwards hadn't been pretty, both men too headstrong to know when to back off.
Ezra gave him a sad smile. "I thought I wasn't, that things between Chris and I were... changing. But I am also aware I ruined everything, Buck. I should never have surrendered to my greed and taken the money. If I hadn't seen the assassin heading for Mrs. Travis, I would have been long gone by now; probably halfway across this God-forsaken country, most likely in a proper eastern town living it up with Mother."
Buck chuckled. "Nah," he rebuked gently. "I know you, Ez. Ya would've been back. Maybe not right away, but ya wouldn't've been able to stay away. And if you think the reason why Chris has been ignorin' ya is because ya tried to take off with the money, you're wrong."
"I am?" Ezra asked, sounding genuinely surprised.
"Yep," Buck replied, unable to prevent a smug little smile from breaking through. "The man's scared out of his wits. Ya nearly got yer fool self killed, Ezra, and that was too much for him. Reckon it reminded 'im of Sarah and Adam all over again, and now he's runnin' like hell in the opposite direction. It'll have ta be you ta get somethin' started. Ya get what I'm sayin'?"
Ezra exhaled slowly. "I believe so, yes. But, Buck, this is insanity. We have spoken of this before. Even if Chris is... shares my feelings... we are so very different, and we work together... and Lord, should anyone in Four Corners discover... and our colleagues..."
"Ezra, stop!" Buck interrupted with a laugh. "He does share your feelings, different is good, our friends will be happy 'cause you're happy, and we'll help ya hide from the busybodies in town. Anythin' else? Face it, Ez, you're just too chickenshit to go for it!"
"I am not!" Ezra huffed indignantly.
Buck grinned at the cardsharp, both of them now clearly amused at their own whimsicality. He realized how different the Ezra riding by his side was from the reserved man he had met over two years earlier. It made his heart glad to think he and the others had something to do with the change.
Suddenly, Purgatorio was in sight and lively music could be heard. As they drew nearer to the usually filthy, muddy, outlaw town, Buck felt like pinching himself. Maybe they had taken a wrong turn somewhere, because the place they were riding into certainly didn't look like the Mexican hideout he knew and hated.
Buildings were decorated with potted flowers, cactus plants, colored paper and balloons. There were long tables everywhere, covered in loud tablecloths, and piled with hot tamales and tortillas, burritos, enchiladas and tacos, among other dishes Buck had never seen before. Drink abounded in every corner. Mariachi bands in full costume walked through the streets, singing and playing. Children were laughing around piñatas and, all around, serapes and sombreros could be seen. Women wore their best dresses, men their Sunday suits. A brightly colored "Fiesta Time" sign was tied to the two highest buildings. It was... unsettling.
Beside him Ezra cleared his throat. "Perhaps it would be best if we were to search for Mr. Larabee?"
"You're right, pard. Let's go."
They found him in one of Purgatorio's many saloons, and to Buck's surprise he wasn't drunk. He seemed to have been nursing the same shot for some time, judging by the way he kept rolling the glass in his fingers, eyes downcast.
Buck gestured for Ezra to sit at Chris' right, while he sat on his left. Hearing the scrape of chairs being moved, Chris looked up, instantly glaring at Buck.
"What the hell are you doin' here?" he demanded, voice low and husky.
"Lookin' for you," Buck replied, unfazed by the glare. "When Vin and I told ya ta get lost, we didn't mean permanently, ol' dog. More like 'til your head was... clearer. What's all this?" he added, waving towards the fiesta and all the couples dancing in the main square.
Chris shrugged slightly. "Don't know, don't give a damn," was the curt reply.
"Today is Dia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe," the barmaid replied, placing two glasses and a bottle on their table, obviously having overheard the question. "Or day of the Virgin of Guadalupe for you gringos. She's our patron saint."
She left and Buck turned his attention to his oldest friend. "Ready to leave, pard?"
"Any trouble in town?" Chris countered.
"Ain't leavin' yet, then. No reason to," Chris replied, throwing his whiskey back in one swallow and refilling his glass.
"If you intend to drink yourself into oblivion, Mr. Larabee," Ezra spoke for the first time, "I'm certain you can accomplish that just as well in Four Corners. Purgatorio is not the safest of environs for one such as yourself."
"I'm not the one who likes to step in front of bullets, Standish," Chris bit out angrily. "I do as I please; it's none of your business."
"Oh, but it is," Ezra drawled smoothly. "You warned me against running out on you. I expect the same courtesy."
The words were so unexpected that Chris choked on his drink, sending whiskey flying across his shirt and the table. Buck had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. Silently he cheered Ezra on. He kept quiet throughout their battle of wills, watching Chris narrow his eyes as he looked at the gambler.
"I'm not runnin' from anythin', least of all you, Standish," Chris gritted out.
"Yes, you are. No matter what you tell yourself -- or me -- deep down you know the truth." Ezra rose from his chair, an eyebrow raised in query. "Coming?" he asked, already moving to the exit without so much as a backwards glance.
Buck stood as well. "Up to you, pard. Ya might be passin' up somethin' real good if you stay. Figure he's worth it." With that he went out to join Ezra by the horses.
Damned gambler! Chris glared at both Ezra and Buck as he joined them on the street, trying to convince himself he wasn't surrendering too easily. So what if he was running away from Ezra and his feelings towards the aggravating man? It wasn't anyone's business but his. Having seen Ezra take the bullet meant for Mary had shown him what he stood to lose -- a second time. He wasn't about to give in any time soon.
But it was childish to hide all the way down in Purgatorio, especially since he had been hired by Travis to protect Four Corners and was shirking his duties. It was time to stop moping around and get back to the real world. As for Ezra, Chris would just have to keep up the silent treatment and hope the other man took the hint. Some dreams just weren't meant to come true.
"My horse is in the livery," he muttered, as he passed the other two without stopping.
"I shall walk with you," Ezra volunteered immediately.
Chris stopped abruptly, ignoring the fact the two of them were surrounded by the dancing crowd. "I don't need a guide, I know the way. And I'm not runnin'!"
To his exasperation, Ezra gave him a pleasant smile. "Of course not, Mr. Larabee. Perish the thought. I merely wish to visit the livery," he added, with a cheeky grin.
Chris took a step towards the gambler, torn between strangling or kissing him.
Before he had the chance to decide, the sound of a shot shattered the party atmosphere, and close to them a woman screamed as her dancing partner crumbled to the ground. By his side, Ezra reacted rapidly, snatching Chris' bandanna from his neck, and kneeling by the moaning young man, pressing the cloth against the bleeding wound.
"We need a doctor! Call a doctor!" Chris heard himself shout over the chaos generated by the shot.
People were scattering in every direction, frightened expressions on their faces, some screaming, others searching for the shooter without much success. Buck was standing close by, eyes scanning the rooftops anxiously, hand resting on his gun and ready to draw if the need arose.
After what seemed like an eternity, a slim, old man rushed over to them, his eyes rapidly taking in the situation. "I'm Doctor Parra," he said, his Spanish accent heavy. "I can do nothing here, señores. Help me carry him to my home."
Chris and Buck carried the man between them, as carefully as they could manage on the uneven ground, Ezra never easing the pressure on the wound. Luckily Parra's house wasn't far and soon they had left him caring for his injured patient, and were sitting in the small living room waiting for some news.
They had been there for little over half an hour when the front door burst open, a tall, impressive man marching in with murder in his eyes. "Where is he?" he snapped, looking around wildly. "Where is my son?"
"Your son?" Chris echoed, standing now and regarding the frantic Mexican warily.
"Miguel, the young man shot in the square," the man replied, voice hoarse with pain. "He's my son."
"Doctor Parra is with him," Ezra said softly. "It shouldn't be long now."
"I want to see him," the man demanded, already moving to the bedroom.
Chris watched with a sense of disbelief as Ezra barred the way, preventing the bigger man access to both his son and Doctor Parra. "I believe you heard me, sir. The good doctor is tending to your son, even as we speak. I'm certain the last thing he needs is a seething parent hovering over him, disturbing the peace and preventing him from doing his job."
"And who the hell are you, gringo? Who dares to stand up to Don Rodrigo?" the irate Mexican snarled, towering over Ezra.
The gambler stood his ground. "My name is of no consequence to you, Don Rodrigo. Have you found the shooter?"
The question was asked in a soothing tone that seemed to calm the Don down somewhat. He ran a hand through his thick, black hair tiredly. "Not yet, no. But he won't be hard to find. I'm sure it was one of Don Paco's henchmen."
Chris raised an eyebrow in query. "Don Paco?"
"He and I own all the land around here. Our families have been at war for as long as I can remember. Our great-grandfathers hated each other and the hate has carried down from generation to generation. Dios, this is such an ancient war, not a soul alive knows what started it all," he said as he sat down, subdued.
"Wouldn't you say four generations of hate is enough?" Ezra remarked evenly. "Perhaps it is time you both met, tried to make peace --"
Don Rodrigo shook his head, the weight of the world on his shoulders. "We have tried that many times before, señor. It never worked for long. The grudge, and the death count, are too big to be dismissed. One day, Don Paco and I will kill each other. I believe that is our fate and that which is written can not be erased."
"That's a load of crap," Buck rebuked gently. "It's never too late to change one's destiny, you just need ta want it bad enough."
"Perhaps. But now is not the time. Don Paco is grieving and I can not say in all conscience that I blame him. Last month we had a fierce dispute over joint properties, where his began and mine ended. There was also the question of the stream that flows in between our lands. Our men got carried away and a fight broke out. Margarita, Don Paco's daughter, was riding close by and got hit by a stray bullet. She died. Don Paco blamed me, even if the bullet could have been from one of his men. He warned me at her funeral that it would be an eye for an eye. This is his revenge."
"I'm sorry," Chris told him grimly, sympathizing with both men's pain. He knew what it was like to lose a son, to lose everything one held dear to one's heart, and how much it tore you up inside.
Don Rodrigo looked up at them, fire in his eyes now. "Señores, I must thank you. I heard about the gringos who rushed to help my son. If not for your quick thinking, Miguel might have bled to death right there in that square. People around here are used to avoiding confrontations like the plague, and thus are slow to act. Sometimes this proves fatal. But I would advise you against meddling in our affairs from now on. You don't know our ways and you shouldn't interfere. Miguel is sangre de mio sangre, blood of my blood, my sole heir, my life. If he dies, his will not be the last blood spilt in this town." He stood up, tense and weary. "Now, no more stalling, I wish to see my son."
Once again, Ezra blocked his path. "Don Rodrigo, please. Rushing Doctor Parra will not serve any purpose, nor will it help your son."
"You are either very foolish or very brave, gringo. This is not any concern of yours," Don Rodrigo commented nastily, with a glare that made even Chris feel uneasy. Ezra, however, made no attempt to move.
Before Chris could step in and try to shake some sense into Ezra, a new voice intruded, "What's going on here?"
All heads turned to see Parra leaning against the doorway, cleaning bloody hands on a rag. The doctor grimaced as he spotted Don Rodrigo. "Lo siento, Don Rodrigo. I'm sorry."
The Don shook his head in denial; almond eyes filling with unshed tears. "No, no, no…" he whispered over and over again.
"There was nothing I could do," Parra continued, sadly. "The bullet was too close to the heart, too deep to be extracted. He just passed away."
Don Rodrigo shoved Ezra aside, walking in the room and slamming the door behind him. Before any words could be spoken, a sound that could only be wrought out of a wounded animal shook the house, as Don Rodrigo shouted his pain at the heavens.
"Dios mio," Doctor Parra shuddered. "This town is going to be a living hell for a long while." He looked at the three men. "Thank you for all your help. It was no fault of yours that Miguel didn't make it. No one could survive that injury, not even one so young and healthy. You had better leave now, before Don Rodrigo comes to his senses. To aggravate him further would be a mistake you would likely pay for with your lives."
Chris nodded. "I'm sorry, I wish things had ended differently."
Doctor Parra smiled weakly. "So do I, señor, so do I. Come, I'll walk you out."
Chris, Ezra and Buck trailed after him, only to be greeted outside by the sight of a large group of riders aiming their weapons at each other.
"Whoa!" Buck exclaimed, surprised.
"Don Rodrigo's men," Parra waved to the riders on the left as a way of explanation. "Don Paco's men," he nodded towards the men on the right, and then to one in particular. "Don Paco. Don Paco, what are you doing here?"
"I heard what happened," Don Paco replied, a strong, round man in his late fifties. "I have no doubt Don Rodrigo will blame this on me, so I thought it best to come and clear my name."
"You mean you didn't have one of your men kill Miguel?" Parra asked, voice dripping with contempt.
"Miguel died? Then my heart goes out to Don Rodrigo in shared sorrow." Don Paco frowned down at the older man. "I know you are upset, Doctor Parra, so I will let that accusation go. I know the pain of losing a child; I would never bestow that pain on another, not even my worst enemy. Squabbles yes, fighting mano-a-mano, face-to-face yes, but not this. There is no honor in killing another's heir in this way. I did wish to avenge my Margarita's death, but never like this. Fighting with Don Rodrigo's men is one thing, outbidding him on land or cattle, but not to murder his only son. I, at least, still have another child with whom to share my sorrow." He bowed his head slightly. "I know he will not believe it, but please, give Don Rodrigo my condolences and tell him I had nothing to do with this tragedy."
With those final words he gestured towards his men, and they made to leave. Chris stood on the porch, watching as Don Paco and his men slowly rode away, knowing Ezra and Buck were keeping an eye on Don Rodrigo's men. The last thing they needed was to get caught in the middle of a shootout.
Buck waited until Don Paco and his party were long gone before taking his hand off his gun. Don Rodrigo's men had finally holstered their own weapons, so at least for the moment Purgatorio was eerily quiet and deserted.
"Now what?" he asked the two men beside him.
"I would like to stay the night," Ezra replied, to Buck's surprise. "I'm curious to witness what will occur between the Dons and besides that, we missed lunch and I am in need of nourishment. I'm also in no mood for trail food and it's been quite a long while since I have tasted a delightful Mexican meal. Mr. Larabee, where are you currently residing? Mr. Wilmington and myself will need rooms for the night."
Buck fought the urge to laugh as Chris blinked at the gambler. The bewildered look suited Chris, and it served him right for what he had put Ezra through during the last few months.
Chris took them to the inn where he was staying and after renting rooms and freshening up, they met by the front door. Buck was reaching for the doorknob when gunfire broke out not far from the inn. Years of watching their backs had the three men crouching down and going for their guns, but the bullets didn't seem to be meant for them.
Buck looked cautiously out the window next to the door. He could see five men hidden behind barrels and crates firing at someone he couldn't see from his standpoint.
"Damnation," he cursed under his breath, standing and holstering his gun. "Don Rodrigo's men. I bet they're fightin' some of Don Paco's people."
"You'd bet right," the innkeeper said, walking up to them. "It has started already. It was like this almost everyday after Margarita died, then it settled down. Now... I guess it will be again."
"Don Paco said he didn't have Miguel killed," Buck told the man. "I believe him."
The Mexican shrugged. "And so do I. But it won't matter none to Don Rodrigo." He looked out the window. "The fighting has stopped, for now anyway. If you want to go out for supper, you better hurry. And if you know what's good for you, don't stay out too late. Stray bullets don't care who they hit."
Despite the innkeeper's warning, they took their time finding a good place to eat. Chris had to recognize the food was excellent, but watching Buck and Ezra's bantering kept him balanced between amusement and jealousy, something he wasn't too comfortable with. He had no claim on Ezra; he himself had chosen not to act on the feelings he knew they shared. But having Ezra laugh and smile at Buck twisted him up inside, made him want to snap at them, and only sheer willpower prevented him.
As if sensing the emotional turmoil burning inside Chris, Ezra turned to him, his expression suddenly serious. Chris fought the impulse to fidget as those shrewd eyes gazed at him, all-too knowing, seeing far more than Chris intended.
"We need to talk," Ezra said, eyes never leaving Chris'.
"Ah," Buck gushed out softly, as he stood. "And that's my cue to search for a lovely señorita and woo her off her feet." He touched the brim of his hat with two fingers. "Pards."
Chris waited until Buck had disappeared among the crowd, before speaking. "We have nothin' to talk about."
"Yes, we do. If nothing else, you owe me an apology for the way you have been acting towards me of late. In the last five months you have ignored me, left whenever we happened to be in the same location, and if you have spoken five words to me in all that time, it was five words too many, I'm sure. I was certain you hated me for allowing my greed to overrule my better judgement and take the money."
Chris looked at him, surprised. "I never said that, Ezra."
"No. But then again, you haven't said much of anything since that day. What was I to believe?" He sighed. "Chris, please, can we go back to the inn and talk?"
Knowing he would have to face up to this moment sooner or later, Chris agreed. They paid for their meal and returned to the inn, locking themselves in Chris' room. Once inside, Ezra turned to him.
"Right. Now, I am going to ask you a few simple questions. All you will have to do is say yes or no, merely nod or shake your head if you prefer. Something has been building between us from the day we met, true?"
Ezra tilted his head, as if in thought. "So, you feel it too?"
"Do you love me?"
Chris couldn't possibly miss the hope in both the question and the green eyes begging him, and as much as what he was about to do pained him, he couldn't lie. "Yes."
"Are you in love with me?"
It took all of Chris' control not to crush Ezra against him and kiss that wonderful smile off his face. "Yes," he answered instead.
The smile grew, making Chris' heart hurt all the more. "Aren't you going to do anything about it?" Ezra purred, walking closer to him.
The smile vanished and Ezra froze, the light dimming in his eyes. "Why not?" he whispered brokenly.
"Because I can't stand to lose."
A frown creased Ezra's brow. "You wouldn't lose me, Chris," he said, an edge of frustration showing in his voice. "I'm not Sarah," he swallowed thickly. "I will be more careful from now on, I won't attempt any more of those daring stunts as you call them, no heroics. Please?"
Unable to stand the pain any longer, and feeling so much worse for knowing his fear was shattering something in Ezra, Chris merely shook his head, "No."
He left the room then, and the inn. Love wasn't enough; it would never be enough. He had learned that lesson the hard way and it was one of life's teachings that would always stay with him.
Ezra was certain his heart had stopped beating at Chris' final no, but there he was, still standing, still breathing. Still staring at the door, hoping against all odds that it would open anew and Chris would return. He exhaled slowly, willing his emotions under control.
He had tried. Now, at least, he would never regret not knowing for sure, not acting upon his feelings. He should have known better, however, than to leave himself open for such an attack. Chris hadn't been vicious, on the contrary, but it had still hurt beyond words. To realize he had lost, not because Chris didn't love him back, but because he was too afraid to allow that love to flourish, made it so much worse.
Ezra walked over to the window, looking at the darkness outside. He would have to leave now. Leave Four Corners, leave Chris, forget his friendship with the others. It would be maddening to stay, to have his dearest wish within reach, yet so far away.
The sudden pressure of the barrel of a gun against his back had him gasping in surprise. Lost in his own thoughts, he hadn't heard anyone walk in the room.
"Where is he?" a male voice whispered in his ear.
"I'm sure I don't know of whom you speak," he replied, grateful his voice didn't betray his uncertainty.
The man laughed quietly. "Larabee. Where is he? And don't tell me you don't know who he is. I've seen you together, I asked around and know you work together. And… I know this is his room. So, where is he?"
"I don't know," Ezra answered truthfully, thinking it was better to play it safe until he held all the cards in his hands.
"Well, we'll just have to wait, then, won't we? Don't turn around. Take off your coat, slowly." Ezra obeyed and heard the man whistle softly. "Nice weapons," he commented, approval in his tone. "A man after my own heart. Now, remove them, one by one, no sudden moves. Take off the vest as well when you're done. Wouldn't want to find out later you had a little surprise for me tucked away somewhere on your person."
Once he was freed of his trusted guns and the vest had joined his coat on the floor, Ezra found his hands tied securely behind his back. He was ordered to sit on the bed, his back against the headboard, which gave him the chance to meet his captor face to face for the first time.
Whoever the man was, Ezra didn't recall ever seeing him in Four Corners, so he was probably a ghost from Larabee's past. About the same age, tall and slim like Chris, there was something cold and unnerving about him.
"What do you want with Chris?" Ezra dared to ask.
"To settle a score." The man shook his dark, greasy head, lips curling up in obvious amusement. "Luck is a wonderful thing. I've been after Larabee for years, always arriving at some dusty town a few days too late to catch him. Then, about three years ago, I lost track of him. Anyway, here I am in Purgatorio, hiding from a particularly annoying Marshal when I see Larabee in the crowd with you. What are the odds on this ever happening?" the man exhaled gently, pulling out a large hunter's knife from its sheath. "If only he hadn't moved, just as I pulled the trigger..."
Ezra tried to process that last statement, hardly daring to breathe as the tip of the knife brushed playfully against his chest. "You were the one who shot Miguel," he murmured faintly, eyes mesmerized by the gleam of the blade as it rubbed against his cloth-covered nipples.
"An unfortunate accident, I assure you." The knife was now shearing off Ezra's shirt buttons, from collar to waist, until they were littering the bed and floor. The man then moved the cloth aside with the blade, licking his lips as he gazed down at Ezra's chest. "Nice. Larabee does have good taste, I grant him that."
Ezra's head shot up. "What? I -- We -- We're not --"
The other laughed. "Don't bother to deny it. I saw you two on the square, saw the way you looked at each other, saw Larabee's intensity. You're lovers." He sighed, putting the knife away. "He is taking too long and I have other things to do. I guess I will just have to leave a message with you."
"Message?" Ezra repeated, half-dreading to know what kind of missive the man was talking about, but unable not to ask.
The man grinned. "Yeah. I want him to stay put and wait for me. I want him on his guard, never knowing when a bullet is going to end his life. I enjoy playing cat and mouse, with him as the mouse, of course. The best way to have him react is to rattle him. And the best way to do that is to damage his property a little... and you being his lover..." he trailed off, leaning closer to Ezra with a leer.
Ezra opened his mouth to shout for help, but a dirty hand rapidly covered his lips, preventing any sound from escaping. He closed his eyes as he felt the man's breath against his neck, desperately wishing either Chris or Buck would return at that moment.
They never did.
"What the hell are you doin' here?!" Buck growled, seeing Chris sitting in the saloon closest to the inn, a bottle of whiskey and a glass on the table.
"None of your business," Chris growled back without bothering to look up.
Buck sat in front of him, anger surging through him at his friend's stubbornness. "You chickened out, didn'tcha? You stupid bastard! I saw it happen before my eyes the moment you two met; it was like lightning on a prairie during dry season -- instant fire. I saw it grow, I saw you both take notice; I know you love him and I know he loves you. Why do ya keep denyin' what you feel?"
"Why do you care?" Chris retorted with a glare. "I still see the burned down cabin in my dreams at night, Buck. I still see their graves. I... I can't go through that again," the sorrow-filled words trailed off into a whisper.
Buck shook his head sadly. "Can't you see it's already too late? You already love him, Chris. Doin' nothin' about it isn't goin' to make the hurt less if anythin' happens to him. You'll end up regrettin' all the time you could've spent together and didn't because you were too afraid of somethin' that might never even happen. All you're doin' now is makin' yourself -- and him -- miserable."
"I want to, Buck, I really do. I hurt him tonight... I know that. But if I lost him..."
"I never had you figured for a coward, but maybe I was wrong." Buck made to leave. "I'm goin' to check in on 'im."
"Wait." Buck watched as Chris rubbed his hands over his face tiredly. "I'm comin' with you," Chris finally said.
"Why?" Buck asked, wanting to be sure he was reading his friend right.
"I'm scared shitless, Buck," Chris admitted in a rare moment of honesty. "But you're right, it's already too damn late. And… I just had this thought... After our talk tonight he'll leave for sure. And that scares me a lot more than takin' a chance and losin'."
Buck slapped Chris' back affectionately. "All ya can do is live for the moment, pard; it's all any of us can do. Come on, let's go join that Southern pain in the ass, and see if we can get him ta take ya back. Ya might have ta crawl, though."
Chris smiled at him, the first real smile Buck had seen on his friend's face in a very long time. "Like you said, he's worth it."
When knocking on Ezra's door got no answer, Chris exchanged a puzzled look with Buck. "Maybe he went out," he ventured. "Or maybe he's still in my room. Come on."
Chris opened the door to his room, resisting the urge to hit something at the image that greeted him. Ezra was lying on the bed, gagged, with his wrists and ankles tied. But what made him furious beyond words were the open shirt, the unbuckled belt and the angry-looking bite mark at the juncture of shoulder and neck.
"Ezra!" He rushed to the bed, untying the gag and cutting through the ropes. "You okay?" he asked, helping the gambler sit up straight.
"Yes," Ezra replied, a little breathlessly. "The bastard caught me off guard, there was nothing I could do. He said you would recognize his name, Luther, and that he would return soon."
Chris nodded. "I recognize it all right. I killed his younger brother some years back, self-defense. The damn kid wanted to make a name for himself by killin' me. Luther's been on my scent ever since." He knelt by the bed. "Ezra, did he..." he stammered to a stop, lost for words. How do you ask someone if they were raped?
Ezra tipped his head to the side, regarding him quizzically. "What?" he asked.
"I think Chris is tryin' to ask about that bite mark on your neck," Buck explained, his tone light, but Chris could clearly hear the anger behind the words.
"Oh. Oh!" Ezra flushed slightly. "Well, um... He saw us together in the square this afternoon, and for some reason decided we were lovers. He... He thought a good way to 'rattle' you would be to damage what he called your property. He didn't attempt anything else. The open shirt and the belt were merely for effect, I believe. He only... well, bit me."
His heart finally slowing down to its regular rhythm, Chris cupped Ezra's face in his hands gently, touching his lips lightly to the other man's before pulling back. The green eyes were wide as saucers, a little hope shining within.
"You..." Ezra cleared his throat. "You changed your mind? About us?"
"Yeah," Chris replied with a grin, before winking at Buck. "Had a little help, though. And you're goin' to have to be patient, as I'm sure I'm goin' to drive you crazy every now and then."
Ezra's face lit up with a delighted smile. "I'm certain that will be true for both of us." His smiled vanished as he regarded Chris seriously. "I'm afraid our relationship and consequent change will have to wait. We have more pressing matters."
"Like what?" Chris asked, seeing concern lurking in the gambler's eyes.
Ezra licked his lips nervously. "Chris, Luther told me he was the one who shot Miguel. He... um, he was aiming at you and missed."
Chris slumped down on the bed, covering his face with his hands. "Christ," he whispered, his gut tightening at the thought his past had taken its toll on yet another young life.
"It wasn't your fault, Chris," Ezra hissed, evidently understanding what he was thinking. "You were not responsible for what happened with Luther's brother and you are not responsible for Luther's actions now. Luther is perfectly capable of thinking for himself and I'm certain so was his brother. The course of life they both chose was unfortunate, but of their own device."
"But --" he tried to protest.
"No buts about it, Chris," Ezra interjected angrily. "No one forced Luther to pull the trigger, he chose to do it on his own. He could have at least challenged you face to face, instead of cowering in the shadows of a rooftop. Miguel's death was a tragedy, yes, but Luther's doing, not yours."
Ezra was being so forceful Chris couldn't help but smile. "Pushy, ain't he?" he asked Buck, who was still leaning against the doorframe.
Buck chuckled. "Yeah, but he's right, pard."
"Chris?" Ezra whispered.
Chris looked at those pleading green eyes and nodded gratefully. "I get it, Ezra, not my fault. We still have to clean up this mess, though. Luther might've been the one to pull the trigger, but he was still tryin' to kill me. And the Dons are at each other's throats 'cause of Miguel's death."
"We could try talkin' to them, explain what happened," Buck suggested. "Reckon we could start with Don Paco, since he's more likely to be the only one thinkin' straight right now."
Chris stood up, new fire burning in his veins. "Okay. Might as well go now, before Luther shows up again. Comin'?" He held out his hand to Ezra, helping him off the bed.
Ezra rose slowly, never letting go of Chris' hand. He closed the distance between them until their chests were touching and kissed Chris tenderly. "I'm glad you changed your mind about us. You will not regret this, Chris, I promise. I love you."
Chris felt a completely idiotic smile breaking through. "I love you too, Ezra. And when this is over, I plan on showin' ya just how much." He watched the gambler leave the room before turning to a silently laughing Buck. "What?" he snapped, trying for his most menacing glare and knowing he failed by miles.
Buck's shoulders shook with laughter. "Nothin'. Nice ta see ya act like a fool in love again. I'd forgotten how entertainin' that could be." The hilarity was replaced with fierce determination. "Come one, ol' dog, let's go prevent a massacre. I have a feelin' Don Rodrigo won't wait long before he tries to get even for Miguel's death. And when that happens, no one in this town will be safe."
They were already riding through Don Paco's land when Ezra caught sight of something moving under the cover of darkness. Halting Rascal and gesturing for the others to remain silent, he kept watch, eyes focused on the location he thought he had seen movement.
"Shit," Chris breathed, suddenly by his side. "That's Don Rodrigo! He's probably here to kill Don Paco."
The Don was literally crawling through the undergrowth, on his way to Don Paco's hacienda. Now that they were motionless, Ezra could hear the Mexican's labored breath and constant muttering. Considering their proximity, it was amazing that the Don had failed to hear their horses or to see them, but the man's state of mind obviously left a lot to be desired.
"He'll never make it," Buck whispered. "Not makin' all that noise."
The words were barely out of his mouth, when they found themselves abruptly surrounded by a large group of Don Paco's men, shotguns and revolvers cocked and aimed at them. How they had managed to get so close -- even on foot -- without being spotted Ezra didn't know, but he grimaced as three of the men found Don Rodrigo and began to drag him kicking and screaming back to the ranch.
"Get down from your horses, gringos," one of the men ordered. "And drop your guns and holsters."
Faced with so much opposition there was no point in resisting, so they obeyed. Their mounts and weapons left behind, they were escorted to a large white house, through a lavishly decorated corridor and made to enter into a wide den. There stood Don Paco, looking down at Don Rodrigo, who was kneeling on the floor, his eyes shooting daggers at their 'host', while being restrained by two strong men.
Don Paco spared only a brief glance at the three men before returning his attention to his old enemy. "I am truly sorry for your loss. It seems we now share the sorrow of losing one's child."
"Go to hell, hijo de puta!" Rodrigo spat, face flushed with fury. "Margarita's death was an accident, but you... you had my Miguel murdered!"
Don Paco sighed tiredly. "I give you my solemn word I had nothing to do with Miguel's death. I know how grief can destroy one's mind, so I'm going to give you a chance. If you promise not to return to this hacienda, I will allow my men to release you."
"Why should I believe you? You're an assassin! Solemn word!" Don Rodrigo snorted disdainfully. "Your word means nothing to me. I will kill you. Perhaps not today, not tomorrow, not the day after. But you will die, and by my hands."
Don Paco shook his head sadly. "So be it, you leave me no choice." He turned to his men. "Take him to Death's Valley and kill him. It is time to end this war, one way or another."
"Wait!" Chris shouted, taking a step forward. "You don't have to do this, Don Paco. You said it yourself; he's blinded by grief right now. We came here to talk to you, to make things right. We intended to speak with Don Rodrigo later, but we might as well talk to the both of you now." He took a deep breath. "Don Rodrigo, Don Paco is tellin' you the truth; he did not have Miguel killed."
"How do you know?" Don Rodrigo asked, regarding Chris suspiciously.
"What happened at the fiesta..." Ezra took over rapidly, not wishing Luther's intended victim mentioned unless absolutely necessary. He wasn't about to risk Don Rodrigo's wrath turning to Chris. "...was an accident. There's a man in town by the name of Luther. He was aiming for someone else, but at the last minute his target shifted and Miguel was the one who got shot."
Don Rodrigo shook his head, looking dazed. "No…"
"It's true," Buck assured him, his voice soft. "Miguel was killed in the crossfire. There was no assassination attempt, no murderous plot. It was just an unfortunate accident."
Deciding to push their luck some more, Ezra stated dryly, "You can see this as an irony of fate, if you wish. Both your progeny died by stray bullets. Miguel's death was unforeseeable, but Margarita's might have been avoided. I believe it's past time you settled your differences. And don't give me that nonsense about being too late, or that the hate runs too deep, or even that the deaths amount to one too many. You both have lost men; you both have lost loved ones. You are fighting an idiotic war. For pity's sake, you can't even recall who started it or why!" He tipped his head to one side, looking at the two men thoughtfully. "As an old friend of mine said once, 'peace hath higher tests to manhood, than battle ever knew'. Stop this useless bloodshed, gentlemen; it will only lead to your destruction. Now, we are leaving. If you still wish to kill each other..."
He left the room swiftly, hearing Chris and Buck walking behind him, half-surprised when no one attempted to bar their exit. Once outside, they found their horses tied to a post, their holsters and guns hanging from the saddlehorns. Mounting in silence, they slowly rode away from Don Paco's ranch, half-expecting to hear the sound of gunshots before they made it far.
When they were finally out of harm's way, on the outskirts of Purgatorio, Buck finally broke the comfortable silence to ask, "Old friend?"
Ezra stared at him, confused. "Huh?"
"That quote," Chris elaborated. "You said it was by an old friend."
Ezra grinned. "Oh, that. I had the good fortune of having John Greenleaf Whittier as a teacher during one of mother's sojourns from her constant travels. I had to be tutored at his home in Amesbury, as his frail health had forced him to retire some years before, but we became friends and still exchange the occasional letter. He's a great man and a wonderful poet."
"And a fierce abolitionist," Buck remarked. "Heard a lot about him durin' the war."
Ezra laughed. "Yes, he was somewhat vocal on that subject, as I recall, even before the war."
Once in town, they left their horses in the livery, being tended by a shaggy old man who disturbingly reminded Ezra of Yosemite. They made their way to the inn and their rooms, Buck immediately claiming exhaustion and saying goodnight.
"Stay with me?" Chris asked softly, and Ezra could hear the pleading in his voice.
He brushed his hand over Chris' silken hair in silent apology. "Not tonight. I'm fatigued and it's been an eventful day -- and night -- to say the least. If I stayed, even if only to sleep, I would end up feeling tempted by that luscious body of yours, and I'm afraid I'm not up to much exercise, no matter how pleasant." He shared a grin with Chris, relieved when the other man seemed to accept his reasons. "When we finally come together, I want us to be able to fully enjoy ourselves, at least until one -- or both of us -- passes out from exertion."
"Pretty sure of yourself, ain't ya?" Chris teased, pressing their foreheads together gently.
"Haven't had any complaints yet," Ezra retorted playfully, rubbing his nose lightly against Chris'. "We okay?" he breathed.
"More than okay, Ezra," Chris answered, letting him know he understood. "I'll wake you up for breakfast, bright and early."
Ezra grimaced, feigning distaste. "Not too bright and early, please. You know how much I enjoy the comfort of a good down pillow." Seriously, he added, "Tomorrow afternoon, after Miguel's funeral, we will go out for dinner, talk, and I will spend the night with you. I promise."
"That's good enough for me." Chris brushed their lips together in a feather-like caress, then pulled back. "'Night, Ez."
"Goodnight, Chris. Sweet dreams."
The grin Chris gave him was positively wicked. "Oh, I will, I will," he exhaled in a sensual purr, just before closing his door.
"Bastard," Ezra muttered ruefully, adjusting his suddenly too-tight pants. He would have to make sure Chris paid dearly for arousing him. Over, and over, and over again.
Miguel's funeral was a sad event, with most of the local inhabitants attending. To Ezra's surprise, both Don Paco and Don Rodrigo were there, standing side by side, and apparently at peace with each other. Maybe there was hope for them yet.
Once the crowd had dispersed, Buck gave them a broad smile. "Time for me to scatter," he stated cheekily. "I'll just leave you two to whatever it is ya have to do. And just for the record, ol' dog, it's about time." A parting wink and he was strolling down the street, all bows and compliments to the passing señoritas.
Ezra exchanged an amused look with Chris, and then, together, they made their way to a small, but cozy restaurant, for their promised dinner. It was one of the most memorable nights in Ezra's life; they spoke of their relationship, their hopes and fears, even some events from their pasts. They shared travel stories, anecdotes, useless trivia. And minute by minute, hour by hour, they grew closer, learned more about each other's hearts and minds.
They were walking back to the inn, shoulders brushing together, electricity almost a living entity between them, when both Don Paco and Don Rodrigo intruded on their private moment.
"Good evening, señores," Don Paco greeted politely. "We understand you are probably busy and that we are the last people you wish to see at the moment, but we would like to speak with you." His last words were for Ezra alone.
Ezra nodded his understanding, before turning to Chris. "It's all right, Chris. You go up, I'll be right there."
"If you're sure," Chris hesitated.
Ezra smiled, hoping to reassure him. "I'm sure."
Chris spared a final glare at the two Mexicans and disappeared into the inn. After making certain they were alone, Ezra raised an eyebrow at the Dons. "What can I do for you, gentlemen?"
"We merely wished to thank you for your words last night," Don Rodrigo explained, still looking haggard and pale, but his own man once again. "Miguel's death left a scar I doubt will ever heal, but you and your friends prevented me from blaming, and possibly killing, an innocent man. And we are going to try to keep the peace."
"Yes," Don Paco continued. "No doubt it will be a hard task, since we are both stubborn and proud men, but at least we are on speaking terms, which is more than could be accomplished in decades. So, señor, gracias." He bowed, the action followed by the other Don, and both men walked away, talking quietly.
Ezra nodded to himself as he watched them leave. Yes, perhaps there was hope for them yet.
Ezra walked in the room to find a naked Chris sprawled on his bed. Not even in his more erotic dreams had he dared to imagine what Chris Larabee would look like underneath all those somber clothes. He was certain nothing his mind could conjure could compare with the reality.
"You were lookin' mighty pleased with yourself when you walked in," Chris commented, stretching leisurely, obviously aware of the effect his wantonness was having on Ezra.
"I am pleased," Ezra whispered absently, eyes still roaming greedily over the smooth body laid out for his pleasure. "The Dons seem to have settled their petty disagreements and are actually attempting a truce. Only the future will tell, of course, but perhaps this time the truce will not be broken."
Chris snorted, fingers skimming down his own chest slowly, taunting Ezra. "And you say you care for no one but yourself. That excuse is gettin' old, Ezra."
"I admit I do have my altruistic moments," Ezra said with a lopsided smile, his coat already lying on the floor. His guns were carelessly thrown on a chair, his vest and shirt flying through the air to land across the room. His boots were toed off, his pants kicked away.
"What about that?" Chris gestured towards Ezra's silk undergarments.
"What about it?" Ezra countered huskily, deciding two could play the teasing game. He thumbed and pinched his nipples to hardness, eyes narrowing as Chris licked his lips and moaned hoarsely.
Ezra shuddered at the need in that groan and surrendered to his own desire. Allowing his undergarments to slide down his legs, he stepped out of them and sauntered slowly over to the bed, heart skipping a beat at the hunger in Chris' eyes. And then he pounced.
His predictions turned out right. The fire that ruled their daily relationship carried into bed, setting them both aflame into a night of lovemaking neither man was likely to forget any time soon. And they did pass out -- both of them -- more than once. They were both awakened around noon the next day, by loud banging on the door.
"Wake up, sleepyheads!" Buck called out, sounding way too pleased with himself. "Ya gotta see this! Come on, it's important!"
Curious in spite of themselves they got cleaned up and dressed and followed a broadly grinning Buck out into the street. "Look," the mustached man waved towards the undertaker's store. Outside, leaning vertically against the wall, was a coffin. And inside the coffin, dead by a bullet wound to the heart, was...
"Luther!" Ezra exclaimed. "What -- Did you --?"
"Kill him? Nah. Don Rodrigo's men brought him early this morning. I guess the Dons decided one good deed deserved another," Buck said, looking at Ezra with a knowing smile. "So, the 'miscreant' is dead, we won our place in heaven and you two lovebirds are together," he added with a chuckle. "Can we go home now?"
Ezra looked up at Chris. "Can we? Are you ready to face the others?"
Chris gave him a wide smile, and Ezra was certain that if they weren't in public he would have been kissed senseless. "No turning back now," Chris replied softly. "Even if it was possible, I wouldn't want to. Yeah, let's go home. I'm lookin' forward to it."
Somehow Ezra knew Chris wasn't talking about the ride, going home or meeting up with the others again. He was talking about them, about this new thing between them, and where it might take them. And truth be told, Ezra was looking forward to it himself.