DISCLAIMER: The following is an original work of fan fiction based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended. No profit is being made - enjoy!!
Make sure you're 18, or whatever the legal age to read smut is in your corner of the world. And should anyone decide that the toast in the epilog is something they should take personally - please, don't. J
Chinatown: Alas, Purgatorio...
Eleanor Tremayne, Ezquire
Ezra couldn't believe his ears.
"I have freed Li Pong from the clutches of her vile uncle, I have emancipated her people from the tyranny of their overseers, and I have provided her the wherewithal to return to the bosom of her family! What more do you want of me, Mister Jackson?" Draining his shot glass, he slammed it to rest on the poker table, looking at Chris for support.
"So you just gonna dump that girl on the train to San Francisco tomorrow and leave it at that?" Nathan countered. "That's a long ride, Ezra, and there'll be harpies ready to pick children like her to pieces all the way along it. It'll get worse when she gets to 'Frisco - now, damn it, you know that!"
Chris watched in fascination as Ezra's righteous indignation literally paled. "My apologies, Nathan. You are right - what was I was thinkin'?" He stared at the empty glass he twirled between his fingers. After a moment, he looked back at Chris. "Mister Larabee, I find myself in need of a leave of absence."
"How much time you think you'll need, Ezra?" Chris asked.
"Not more than a week, I imagine. She hasn't been separated from her parents for very long; they should be fairly easy to locate."
"Go do what you gotta do," Chris told him.
Li Pong laid out her bedroll as Ezra prepared to lie down on his bed.
"This is ridiculous..." he said, sitting up. "You can't sleep down there."
"Oh, then I go sleep in the hallway?" she asked, quite ready to do so if that was what he wanted.
"The hallway? No.... No! Uh... look, I - I... I may be a scoundrel, but I am still a gentleman, and I will not allow a lady to sleep on the floor while I enjoy the comforts of a feather bed. Now..." he patted the mattress imperiously, "up you go."
"Madam... amongst my many misdeeds, taking advantage of a woman has never been one of them."
"Then you... you don't want to?" Li Pong asked, shyly disappointed.
"I am a man, of course, I al-always want to... but I certainly don't - intend to. So, get up on this bed; I will sleep on the floor." Standing, he took the young woman's arm and lifted her to her feet. "I insist. Up you go. I'll be right down here... on the floor. Go on. Don't worry. I'll be just fine... right here... on the floor."
"Oh, it's so soft..." she sighed, her dark eyes glowing with pleasure.
Her comment made him sit up on his knees, the bedroll forgotten. "This can't be your first feather bed?"
"In San Francisco, my family very poor. We always sleep on the floor."
"That where your family is now?"
She nodded, stroking the pillow. "We were going to start a new life there, but my father became very ill. My mother, she could not take care of all of us, so I was sent to my uncle."
"Well.... You must miss them terribly."
"But I'm glad to be here. You are a good man."
"Huh... don't be fooled by a few good manners."
"I know many bad men, but you are different."
"Different? That is hard to deny."
"Do you want kiss me?" she asked shyly, her eyes bold but without the gleam of carnal knowledge.
'Yes,' he thought, shaking his head 'no'.
She sat up on one elbow, leaning forward and reaching for him with her free arm.
"I don't feel... how you say... obliged," she told him, her arm going around his neck and pulling him toward her. Her lips touched his; soft, wanting to be kissed - wanting him. It had been such a long time since someone had wanted him like this....
Her mouth opened eagerly to his demanding tongue. The skin of her face was silk under his fingertips, her body pliant as he laid her down upon his pillow. He let them both breathe, moving his mouth to taste her neck, his hands sliding up under the hem of her blouse to touch the warm skin of her belly.
Decency stopped his hands there, and he raised his head to look down at her. "Have you ever been with a man before?"
She shook her head no, lifting a hand to stroke his cheek. Her eyes shone like the night sky as she touched him, her fingers stealing into his hair.
"Darlin', I can't do this."
"Please..." she begged, her hand going to his shoulder as she tried to pull him back down against her. Raising herself from the bed, she pressed her body against him. "Please -!"
"I mustn't," he reminded himself raggedly. "It is your gift to your husband...."
"It is my gift... to you," she told him, closing her eyes as her lips met his.
God have mercy on his soul, he just couldn't deny her any longer, despite the gauche invitation. English was her second language, after all....
He took her mouth gently, teaching her how to kiss with her tongue, rejoicing at the innate ability nature had given her. He was contented to just kiss her for the longest time, exploring her face and neck with his mouth, caressing her under and through her clothes, letting her body get used to the intimate invasion of his presence.
When he lifted himself away from her she cried out in protest, stretching her arms out to chase him. He caught her hands between his, kissing their fingertips, knuckles, the back of their wrists and palms. Her breath came in sighs and gasps that washed over him like water, arousing his imagination as much as they did his body.
Keeping hold of her slender arms, he guided her to sit on the edge of the bed. On his knees in front of her, she was almost a head taller than he. He let his fingertips trail over the back of her neck as he brought her braid over her shoulder, pulling its wrap off. She leaned toward him, eyes closing in pleasure as he loosened the tight plait. He raised himself up to kiss her eyelids as he finger-combed her long, black hair down her back.
"Oo-h..." she protested as he sat back on his heels to lift one of her feet from the floor to coax it free from its white sock. A pretty foot, clean and smelling of soap. She had taken the time to make herself presentable before coming to find him. Later, he would show her the pleasure of cleaning up together.
"Oh!" she gasped again as he raised her foot and bent his head to kiss the inside of her arch and then each perfectly straight little toe in its turn. He did the same to her other foot, finding that attention to one particular toe reduced her to squirming pleasure. He memorized its effect for later use, rising up on his knees to take the hem of her tunic in his hands.
She understood what he wanted, raising her arms up as he pulled the top off over her head. He tossed it to the floor at the foot of the bed, enchanted by the lithe young body that met his eyes. She looked like a naiad rising from the sea, her breasts firm, her hair wild, her golden skin warm in the lantern light.
She ducked her head shyly at his scrutiny and leaned forward to hide against him.
"Shall we stop?" he asked her, stroking his hands soothingly down her back and along her bare shoulders as he put his arms around her and held her.
Slowly she shook her head 'no', moving in his embrace to slip her hands under his suspender straps. He let her tug them down over his arms, raising her chin to make her look at him as her trembling fingers removed his tie. She folded it neatly, setting it aside on his nightstand table before beginning to unbutton his shirt. He didn't help her in the task, allowing her to control this moment as he stroked the length of her hair. Dear Lord, she was lovely....
She used both of her hands to take one of his, turning it palm up as she lifted it to her lips. The muscles in his gut jumped, clenched - and stayed that way as she pressed her mouth to the hollow of his palm. Then she carefully removed his cufflinks, setting them on top of his tie. The slow torture continued as she did the same to his other hand and sleeve, the minutes crawling by as his head spun. She oh, soooo carefully plucked his shirt tails out of his trousers, those dangerous little fingers tickling his hips as they dipped under his waistband. It struck him as odd that he wasn't wearing his gunbelt, but then she extended an index finger to touch his nipple.
"Are you cold?" she asked, puzzled by its hardness when his body was beaded with perspiration.
"No," he whispered, swallowing hard.
Thus reassured, she proceeded to slip off the bed to help him shoulder out of his shirt, her soft breasts brushing against his naked back. Ezra took a few deep breaths, fists clenching and unclenching on his thighs while he waited for her to hang his shirt up in the wardrobe.
She returned to the bed, standing in front of him. He caught her around her trim waist, fingers flexing against its gentle curve as he buried his face against the swell of her stomach, pressing down hard against the warm skin and rough fabric.
She bent her head over him, her hair falling around his head and swaying along his back as she ran her hands over his skull.
"May I?" he asked, tongue dancing along his lower lip and his hands slipping down to the drawstring casing that held her pants up.
He felt her hair dance as she nodded yes, murmuring something in her native tongue. Lifting his face, he untied the little bow that held her loose pants around her hips. Sliding his hands down those hips, he tugged the cording loose enough for her pants to drop away from her.
"So lovely..." he sighed, pushing himself out to his arms' length so he could look at her. Hands still on her hips, he guided her to sit back down on the bed. She did, removing those delicious little feet out of the legs of her pants one at a time.
"So very lovely...." He slid his hands up from her hips, bringing them over her ribcage and up to cup her breasts. Leaning forward, he softly kissed each dark nipple. Ezra heard her breath catch and lifted his head to her, rising up on his knees to meet her as she bent to kiss him.
It was a simple thing to take her in his arms and lay her down upon his bed, her dark hair spreading around her like a halo as she gazed up at him with absolute trust. It made him kiss her gently, nuzzling his way across her face to gently chew and kiss her neck. The sensations he provoked made her move against him with a primal rhythm, and he let his hand take advantage of its access to her body, fondling her arm, her breasts, her stomach, her thigh.
She reached out to catch his hand as it strayed perilously close to her pubic triangle, just barely brushing against the outermost hairs of the black thatch framing her labia. He stopped his exploration immediately, sliding the hand back up her thigh to rest on her stomach. She left her hand over his, clutching it tightly.
"We can stop any time you like," he told her, nuzzling his nose up under her chin.
"I like it!" she assured him, moaning in protest at the very thought of stopping.
"So do I," he laughed, lowering his head to flick his tongue over each of her nipples in turn.
"Uuuoooorrhhhhh," she gasped as he shifted the angle of his body so that his right hand could take the breast closest to him in hand while his mouth teased the other. He let her gasps of pleasure and the hand pulling in his hair tell him when he was pleasing her, the stiffening of her body under his left hand letting him know when he had gone too far with the pressure of his sucking.
When he'd gotten the range of her pleasure, he slowly, slowly, crept his left hand down again onto her thigh, trailing it down to his arm's fullest extension to caress the curve of her knee. She was rocking against him now, her right leg bent to put her foot under her to give her more leverage, her left held down by the weight of his body across it.
He couldn't do what he wanted to in this position - even dislocated, his shoulder couldn't bend like that - so he tickled the back of her crooked knee before spider-walking his fingers back up her body while reluctantly letting go of her right nipple with his lips. He blew softly across its wet, wrinkled surface, making her squirm with delight. She squirmed even more when his left hand took command of it and his mouth moved to her left nipple, picking up with it where it had left off with her right.
He could feel the heat sparkling through her body, telling him he was nearly where he wanted her to be. Moving slowly again, he let go of her breast with his hand, moving it down her body in slow circular sweeps of his fingertips, letting her raised leg angle it off into the rough-tressed mound between her thighs.
Her hand immediately came to cover his and he stopped rubbing, cupping the soft pad of flesh in his palm. It fit nicely there and he couldn't resist shaking it a little. She moaned, pressing his hand down into her with the hand on top of his and trying to bring her knee down far enough to do the same. He pushed down too, first with the heel of his palm and then with the stiff width of his fingers, massaging her labia and teasing her clitoris until he felt warm wetness rising to slick his hand. Then he relaxed the stiffness, letting his index and ring fingers part the engorged lips to allow his third finger to sink into her shallow channel. He rubbed the bottom of that third finger against her clitoris and sent the tip of it inside her. He left it there for a moment, letting her get used to it before he began to circle it firmly around and against the opening of the small tunnel of her vagina.
She was pushing against him harder now, both hands coming up to clutch his head to her breast. He continued what he was doing, rocking his hand as he dipped in and out of the first inch of her, introducing her to the joy of the nerves that lived in the doorway to paradise.
Her body curled up around him and she cried out something in Chinese as she shuddered against him in blissful orgasm. He stopped sucking on her nipple the second before she stopped moving, releasing the swollen flesh gently. He kissed her breast just below it, then kissed her, praising her, telling her just how wonderful she was. He drew his left hand away from its task of pleasuring to one of comforting, massaging her trembling thighs and stomach as she spiraled back down to reality.
"Did you know your body could do that?" he asked her, when she had begun breathing almost normally again.
She shook her head 'no', unable to find the words in English.
"Your body can do that again," he told her. "Would you like that?"
A smile stretched from ear to ear, taking her eyes to slits as she nodded.
"I'd like that, too," he smiled, walking across the room to grab the rocking chair. The perfect cut of his trousers made the walk exhilaratingly painful as he brought the chair back to set it down a scant two feet from the edge of the bed.
"Pillah," he said, and she handed one to him, her anticipation quickening her not-quite spent arousal. He put it lengthwise against the back rails of the chair and held out his hand for her. She took it and he sat her in the chair, smiling at her as she gasped in surprise as he tipped the chair back to make sure he had the distance to the bed right for the angle he wanted.
"Perfect," he grinned, setting the rockers back down level. He paused a moment to kiss the curious young woman, before standing up with some little difficulty and going to the wardrobe to remove one of his shirts. He made a detour by the bed to take off his boots and grab his other pillow, before returning to her side and giving her another kiss.
The pillow he threw to the floor at her feet and the shirt he put around her shoulders, so she wouldn't grow cold as the night progressed. He collected another kiss as he knelt on the pillow in front of her, leaning forward to kiss her neck and touch her breasts as she put her arms around his shoulders with a happy sigh.
The sighs quickly turned again to gasps and groans of pleasure as her body gleefully responded to his touch. He could work faster this time, truly playing with the gift of her body, as she knew what to expect from it - and from him - now. He worked his way over her torso, licking, claiming, touching, until he came to kiss the wetness curling the hair along the edge of her dark red labia.
She gasped in delight as his tongue went where his hand had gone before, gasping again in surprise as the rocking chair was tilted backwards against the bed. Ezra leaned into it, using his chest to keep it steady as he arranged her hips with his hands. Satisfied that he could now apply himself to his task safely, he slid his tongue into her vagina, liking the taste of her as he had always liked the sweet-salt taste of a woman.
He brought his right hand into play, alternating the penetration of his tongue with that of the first knuckle of his index finger. When his finger was busy, he introduced the tip and flat of his tongue to her clitoris. She moaned and quivered, clutching at his hair, digging into his shoulders, her heels drumming against his ribcage as she struggled to wrap her legs around him and pull him in deeper. Soon, he left his finger to explore and awaken her vagina, concentrating his mouth and tongue on her swelling clitoris. He was careful in probing her channel, finding her hymen as he'd expected and pulling back from it. That he wouldn't take - but for tonight, she'd given him everything else.
Including a perfectly splendid, eyes rolling back in her head, shrieking, multiple orgasm that made him feel rather smug. Carefully setting the chair level, he again soothed her jumping muscles, rubbing her tummy and wrapping his shirt around her as she left the chair to straddle his lap, clinging to him, her head buried against his neck.
After a few unbearable minutes of holding her warm, naked, heaving body against him, she whispered just loudly enough for him to hear her, "Can you make me... again?"
"I need a minute, Darlin'," he panted.
"You not have to," she immediately said.
"I want to," he hastened to assure her. "I just - need a minute...."
She sat back from him, touching his glistening face with the back of her hand. Leaning forward, she kissed his forehead, his nose, his cheeks, his chin, and then his lips, before standing up on shaking legs and walking unsteadily to the washbasin. Like a fool, he turned his head to watch her, the view not helping him maintain his self-control at all. It was worse when she got close enough for the mirror above the basin to capture her reflection, thus provoking Ezra going and coming.
Closing his eyes, he decided that calculating logarithms might take his mind off the screaming demands of his erection - if he could just remember what the hell a logarithm was....
He heard her pad to a stop next to him and opened his eyes to a view that only made things worse. She held a damp washcloth in her hands, kneeling in front of him to clean his face, his neck, and his chest. He took the cloth from her, washing his own skin and wiping the fingers of his hands. She sat back on her heels, watching him like he was a hero instead of a little man on the long road to nowhere.
With that entrancingly shy smile of hers, she ran her hands down his chest, the gleam of curiosity in her eyes making him uneasy.
"Darlin' -!" he yelped, grabbing those hands as they hit the waistband of his trousers.
"I want to see," she insisted.
"No..." he gurgled.
"Yes!" she giggled, pulling her hands free and sending them walking down the arching bulge of his penis. It wriggled under her touch, trying to fight its way through the layers of cloth separating it from her by main strength alone.
"Gggkkhhhhhhh..." Ezra guttered, his eyes crossing.
She giggled again, before delivering a two-handed push that made him catch his balance by putting both his hands down behind him.
'Good Lord!' he thought dazedly as she put her hands between his knees and shoved his legs apart so she could take advantage of his steep backward lean. Again, she rubbed her fingers down the length of his penis, squeezing it gently between her fingers.
"Darlin'!" he cried as he felt a button pop loose on his fly.
Twitching her bottom like a cat about to pounce, she did just that, rubbing her cheek against the straining bulge of his determined penis. She bumped it with her nose, loving it like a cat marking a new toy. Then she put her lips around it, chewing it through the fabric, pulling at it with her teeth. His head thrashed from side to side, his whole world rocking.
"Don't -!" he begged, getting one hand off the floor to try and pull her off him by her hair. "Don't -!"
He didn't have the strength to pull her away, and she kept chewing and bumping and pulling until just the right combination of teeth and fabric on just the right spot on the head of his penis took him beyond the point of recall.
"NNNNggggggHHHHHHH!!!!" he bellowed as his orgasm shuddered through him. He felt like he was spinning, falling -
Ezra smelt hay, felt cold straw sticking into his face as he rolled off his stomach - and his Remington - onto his side, pulling his legs up to his chest in a protective curl. Oh, that landing had hurt....
'What an incredibly juvenile fantasy,' he cringed through the pain in his groin. He was appalled to find that such purple expectations still thrived somewhere in his subconscious.
'And what an incredibly juvenile response to a fantasy...' he realized. 'Good Lord, I haven't done that since I was thirteen -!'
Chaucer nickered somewhere over him, shaking the hammock above Ezra with his teeth. The mystery of how he had arrived on the stall floor was solved. Hot horse breath blew down Ezra's collar as the bay gelding deliberately pulled a mouthful of straw out from under his head, then picked up his master's blanket from the floor and dropped it over the gambler.
"Jealousy does not become you," Ezra told him sourly, breathing very carefully as he pulled the blanket off him.
Chaucer nickered again, lips pulling at the gambler's waistcoat and side trouser pocket. Horrified, Ezra realized his horse was playing their "where's my carrot?" game - and had been for some time now, given Chaucer's current state of frustration at his lack of success. Staring at the long, red mane hairs clutched in the fist of his free hand, Ezra's whole body went numb.
"Oh, Gawd," he moaned, Remington still held in one of the hands he hid his face behind. "I'm goin' t'hell...."
Chris looked up in surprise as Ezra came through the door of his room; the gambler was the last person Larabee had expected to wake him up by knocking on his door at three in the morning. Standish was buttoned up to his chin in his tan turnout coat, hatless, with hay sticking out of his hair and a wild, worried look in his green eyes.
"I need a favor, Chris," Ezra stated without preamble.
Larabee blinked, trying to remember if Ezra had ever called him by his Christian name before. Even more stunning, the independent gambler had asked him for a favor and that was something Standish simply didn't do. One asked one's friends for favors, and he had made it quite clear that he considered the six men he worked with to be his business associates, not his friends.
"What kind of favor?" Chris asked, suspicious of this odd behavior. Unless he was in the middle of some strange dream....
"I wanna take J.D. with me to San Francisco."
Had to be a dream - Ezra was talking straight to the point.
"J.D.?" Chris repeated.
"Yes - I would like Mister Dunne to accompany me on my journey to the Bay."
Ah, that was better. Maybe he was awake.
"You wanna take J.D. with you...."
"To San Francisco?"
"Yes!" A desperate edge was growing in Ezra's voice.
"You wanna take J.D. with you to San Francisco?" Chris said one more time, just to make sure he'd gotten it right.
"Yes!" Ezra swallowed hard. "Please...."
'Damn!' Chris thought, genuinely shocked.
"Won't J.D. get in your way?"
"I'm countin' on it, Mister Larabee."
Chris patted the neck of his big black gelding as the whistle of the approaching train made its ears flick nervously. He didn't blame J.D. and Ezra for preferring to ride their own horses home, instead of taking a bone-jarring stagecoach ride from the train depot at Ridge City to Four Corners.
"Wonder what the kid thought a'Frisco?" Buck grinned. He clucked soothingly to the agitated team pulling the flatboard wagon that J.D.'s telegram had told them to bring. Speculation had been rife among the five as to why the wagon would be needed, but the odds-on favorite reason was that Ezra had been adding to his wardrobe.
"Reckon we'll find out," Chris told him, sharing the grin. He knew he'd surprised Buck and Nathan when he'd shown up to ride out with them, and if the truth were known, he'd surprised himself. The closest he could get to understanding why he'd decided to lead the welcoming party was that the town had been too damn quiet. No, quiet wasn't the word - they'd had plenty of noise, just none of it any fun.
Buck didn't need to look at Larabee to read his best friend's mind. 'Justify it however you like, Chris,' he thought. 'Truth is, you missed those boys somethin' fierce, just like the rest of us.'
The train blew a long warning blast as it slowed to a crawl before stopping at the station platform.
"There they are," Nathan said, pointing at where J.D. was bounding out of the first class Pullman car.
"Looks like the kid got a new suit," Chris said, rolling his unlit cigarillo in his mouth to hide his amusement.
"Too bad he didn't get a new hat," Buck muttered. Jumping down from the wagon, he yelled, "J.D.! Over here!"
Dunne waved, staying where he was. The lovely young reason for his inattention to his friends made her appearance as the conductor placed portable steps under the car door.
"Kid's learnin'," Buck said with satisfaction as J.D. helped the young woman to the ground, offering her his arm as soon as she had both feet on the dusty ground.
"Yep," Chris agreed, watching them promenade into the shack that passed for the station house.
Ezra wasn't far behind J.D.'s Miss, assisting an older gentleman down the steps and carrying his briefcase. An overjoyed Chaucer did an elegant little prance and neighed a greeting. The Southerner raised the hand that held the briefcase in response, before returning to the rickety stairs to assist an older lady to the ground. A family, Chris guessed - traveling first class.
"Lord, I hope we're in time to save those poor people's money," Nathan sighed, shaking his head as he followed the same turn Chris's mind had taken.
"Don't look too poor to me," Buck observed, leaning against the shoulder of one of his team.
"Just 'cause a man's got money don't make it right to steal from 'im," Nathan countered.
Ezra, however, shook the man's hand and kissed the woman's outside the station house, forgetting them as soon as he'd seen that they'd safely reached its dubious sanctuary.
There'd been no con, Chris realized, almost disappointed. Despite the spring in his step and the crispness of Ezra's truly stunning new suit, the gambler's heart just wasn't in his work today. Perhaps the object lesson of keeping his mind on the job at hand had taken root - or perhaps the presence of J.D. had managed to keep Standish honest.
"Gently!" they heard Ezra call to the local men unpacking the luggage for the first class passengers.
'Crates?' Chris thought as Buck climbed back up on the wagon to bring it closer to the ever-growing stack of wooden boxes. Suddenly, a hatbox appeared and Larabee grinned. That was more like it....
Four bits in the hands of the workmen persuaded them to load the wagon with the loot from the Big City.
"So much for parsimony," Nathan chuckled. "Seems a little reckless for a man tryin' to save up to buy a saloon."
'Buy back a saloon,' Chris amended, trading a frown with Buck as Wilmington lent a hand to the laborers in filling the flatboard. His old friend was in agreement with Larabee that Nathan was entirely too amused by the gambler's recent setback at the hands of his mother. He'd been too involved with Eli Joe and Vin to realize what Maude Standish had been doing to Ezra, and Buck's brush with fatherhood had made him miss what was happening, too. It had taken Mary to set them straight about what had happened to one of their boys while their backs had been turned.
By the time they'd found out who Maude's collaborators had been, it was too late to do anything but watch Ezra make a joke out of his loss with them. J.D. was too young to know any better and Josiah was in love - or something close enough to make him a blind fool. Of all of Maude's accomplices, Nathan was the one who'd known exactly what he'd been doing to the gambler.
Chris had decided the young healer had justified it with the excuse that he was teaching Ezra empathy for his own marks. He was almost certain Nathan hadn't realized how much he craved the power to jerk the gambler's chain. White, educated, arrogant, exuding a sense of entitlement, unabashedly Southern - he was the poster boy for everything Jackson had a right to hate with all his heart and soul.
He couldn't get too mad at Nathan for acting on the urge to smack Ezra down, though. Standish had the uncanny ability to get on a man's last nerve without even opening his mouth.
In fact, Ezra was enough of a gold-plated bastard to make a saint want someone to get the better of him, and his mother had traded on that as much as she had punished her son for his loyalty to the town and to the six of them.
Trouble was, every time Chris reached the point where he was personally ready to knock the gambler down a peg or two, Ezra would go and do something that just took his fucking breath away in admiration and respect. Then Ezra would remember what he was supposed to be, and go out of his way to pick someone's pocket so that Chris would forget about the man Ezra hadn't ever meant for him to see - the man he was determined he would never be again.
Well, the next time Maude Standish came to town, she'd find the players and the game had changed. He and Buck would see to that personally, and - judging from whom Vin had spent the evening drinking with after they buried Eli Joe - the tracker would also be there to lend a hand. Chris knew Nathan - and J.D. and Josiah - well enough to know that none of the men had thought about why Maude had wanted to put Ezra 'in his place', or realized that place was under her heel - out of their lives and away from their influence.
Chris promised himself - and Ezra, who wouldn't thank him for the help - that the next time Mother Standish showed up to visit her baby boy, they'd be a damn sight more informed about the stakes they were playing for in Maude's little game.
Job shifted under Chris, readjusting himself in a demonstration of his legendary patience, as Wilmington let the hired laborers finish putting the last of the packages into the flatboard and tie a tarp down over the creaking wagon and its load. Good thing Buck had brought the heavy draft team, Larabee reflected as J.D. jogged out of the station house toward them.
"Chris!" J.D. called, and Larabee dismounted to walk over to where the boy was being hugged and pummeled by Buck and Nathan.
"How was 'Frisco?" the gunslinger asked, allowing himself an enthusiastic handshake. Buck knocked the new bowler hat from J.D.'s head and Chris indulged himself with a tousle of the kid's dark hair - which had, he noted, been properly cut even though it kept its length.
"Great!" J.D. enthused as he picked up the hat and dusted it off. "The food was fantastic -!"
"Ferget the food, kid," Buck demanded. "How were the women?"
J.D.'s ears turned pink and he grinned, trading a knowing look with the amused Ezra.
"Gentlemen never tell, Buck," Dunne informed Wilmington loftily, setting his hat on his head with a decided air.
Chris laughed out loud as J.D.'s hat went flying past him. Nathan beat the kid to it and a lively game of keep away ensued, scaring the chickens scratching around the station.
"Tired?" Larabee observed.
"You know what they say about traveling with children, Mister Larabee," the gambler sighed as he pulled a mock-weary face.
"Everything go okay in 'Frisco?"
"My errand had a - satisfactory conclusion," Ezra replied, not looking at Chris as he brushed and patted away the dust eagerly rushing to smother his new green velvet jacket.
Ezra wasn't tired, Chris decided. He was missing his China Doll. She'd gotten through the bastard armor plating, right to where Ezra lived and bled, and Standish was suffering because of that breach.
The gambler whistled and Chaucer trotted forward, having untied himself from the back of the wagon as usual. Ezra had exploited a happy natural talent for escape in the horse, making sure that whenever he needed a quick getaway, the bay could get to him.
A genuine smile lighted Ezra's face as he kissed the velvet of Chaucer's nose. The horse snuffled the gambler's new brocade waistcoat, looking for his present. Standish produced an apple from somewhere that should have been impossible in the tight lines of his suit, not minding the drool and slobber and bits of fruit that dripped onto his hand as he held the treat for Chaucer. The gambler's free hand stroked the bay's nose and scratched the base of his ears while he murmured to him in Latin.
Chris had once been required to study Latin and Greek and had been good at neither. His mind hadn't returned to his long ago linguistic suffering until he'd met Ezra. This time, "...intelligent conversation..." was the only thing that managed to get through the rust of disuse that corroded his originally limited translation skills.
Chaucer seemed to understand his rider perfectly, rubbing his forehead against Ezra's shoulder in sympathetic agreement as he slurped up the apple core.
"You ready to ride?" Chris asked, side-stepping a charging J.D. and Buck.
"I am," Ezra said, using his canteen and handkerchief to wash his hands free of horse slobber.
"Saddle up," Chris commanded, raising his voice just enough to be heard as he returned to Job.
Buck, Nathan, and J.D responded to his call immediately, Nathan handing J.D. his hat as the kid jumped up on the back of his red horse. J.D. rode next to the wagon, continuing his endless debate on the merits of his hat with Buck. Chris took the point, Ezra settling in behind him in a way that clearly said he wanted a quiet ride back to Four Corners, undisturbed by any company.
Nathan didn't let him have it, guiding his horse to come abreast with Chaucer.
"You find Li Pong's parents?" Chris heard Jackson ask. There was a moment of silence before Standish answered - a dangerous pause, the gunslinger realized, the hair on the back of his neck stirring against his collar.
"I don't consider that any of your business, Mister Jackson," Standish said, his voice as cold and smooth as ice.
"I said it's none of your business," the Southerner interrupted in the tone of voice that he knew made Jackson furious because it scared the daylights out of him. "Nor has it been since you decided to make it mine. I fear it is too late for you to repay me my seven dollars - or render me the apology I deserve."
Ezra shot past Chris, Chaucer happily showing off his getaway speed. Pulling Job up, the gunslinger waited for a confused Nathan to catch up with him. While it was common for Nathan to scold and challenge his cherished black sheep, the gambler rarely bit back.
Nathan chalked the meekness up to a sneaking sense of guilt on Ezra's part, but Chris suspected it wasn't quite so simple. His guess was that Ezra felt that provoking a fight with Nathan would make the others choose up sides, and that wouldn't be in his best interests. Six to one were bad odds when the wager in the balance was where you were welcome to lay your head.
"Ezra lent you money?" Chris asked, kicking his horse into step with Jackson's.
Nathan shook his head. "That girl he took to San Francisco, Li Pong?"
Chris nodded, letting the healer know he was listening. The silence from the vicinity of the wagon told him that he wasn't the only one.
"Her uncle was selling her to the highest bidder to get money for opium. I only had four dollars - I got outbid. I had to make Ezra give me the money to buy her! Money he got by cheatin' those Chinamen at dominoes. Can you imagine that?" Nathan's moral outrage was palpable. "An' he got the nerve to tell me it ain't my business what happened to her!"
'It ain't,' Chris thought, frowning. Suddenly, that business with the beer foam just wasn't funny anymore.
"Nathan, what does Judge Travis pay us to do?"
Jackson blinked. "We're the law."
"The Federal Law," Chris reminded him. "And accordin' to Federal law, slavery is illegal in the United States and its territories. Or ain't you ever heard of the emancipation proclamation?"
"Yeah, I heard of it, but -"
"Why the hell didn't you just arrest the son of a bitch and take the girl into protective custody?"
Nathan opened his mouth, and found he had nothing to say.
"Hell, don't worry about it Nathan - I wouldn't expect Ezra to think of it, either." Leaving Nathan to stare angrily after him, Chris spurred his horse to catch up with the gambler.
"What the hell did he mean by that?" Jackson demanded, pulling up to let the wagon and Toby come up beside him.
"You can't figure it out?" J.D. demanded with an anger that astonished Nathan. Exchanging a telepathic glance with Buck, the kid kicked his horse into a trot that put him ahead of the wagon and Nathan, but nowhere near to catching up with Chris and Ezra, far ahead on the trail and riding fast.
"Figure out what?" a perplexed Nathan asked Buck.
"Hell, Nate - Ezra was half in love with that little girl when they left. Reckon a couple a weeks in San Francisco probably finished the job."
Nathan snorted. "A broken heart just might do that man some good. Teach him a little somethin' about the milk of human kindness."
"Whoa," Buck called to the team, pulling them to a halt as he braked the wagon. Jackson reined in as well.
"Somethin' wrong?" Jackson asked.
The tall cowboy didn't answer, watching the dwindling figure of J.D. recede into the distance.
"Nathan...." Wilmington shook his head, unable to put his frustration into words.
"Damn it, Ezra sat there and let a man sell a girl - if I hadn't been there, she'd belong to some bastard usin' her for more than cleanin' his boots. He just sat there, like he didn't hear or see anythin'!" Nathan shook his head. "'Course he might not have been able to hear anything over the rustle of the money he was cheatin' them Chinamen out of."
"Probably figured it wasn't his business," Buck said, sighing. "'Sides, weren't you handlin' it? Did y'figure he wouldn't back you up if you pulled your gun?"
"'Course he'da backed me, but people coulda gotten hurt if we'd started shootin' the place up! All I asked him to do was lend me seven dollars!"
Buck laughed. "Maybe he figured you already owed him enough money - or have you thought about how much losin' that saloon cost him?"
Nathan's eyes narrowed. "I don't owe that cheatin' bastard anything."
"No, I guess you don't - after all, dreams are free, ain't they?" Buck let off the brake and snapped the harness reins against the backs of the team to get the wagon rolling again. He had to get moving, or he might take it into his head to get off the flatboard and take the loss of his own dreams of a yellow-haired daughter out on Nathan.
Jackson watched him go, his jaw clenched. Why couldn't the others see that all Ezra would have used that saloon for was to break other people's hopes and dreams, prey on their pain? The man was better than that, damn it! Buried somewhere deep inside Ezra Standish, under a mountain of pain and shame, was a good man who knew right from wrong. Li Pong had proven that, proven that everything Nathan had ever hoped for Ezra was possible. The gambler's broken heart would mend, and he'd be better for having had it broken doing the right thing.
Jackson frowned in anger as he kicked his horse into moving after the others. With the world of learning Ezra had in his head, he could be anything, anything in the world - and he might realize that someday, if he had the chance. Nathan knew that chance would never come as the owner of a saloon, and it surely wouldn't ever come if his tramp of a mother had her way. The others had been too wrapped in their own troubles - or their infatuations - to recognize the kind of danger Maude posed to her son.
Nathan had known people like Maude Standish all of his life, as a slave and as a free man. To her, Ezra was nothing more than property to be exploited and used as she pleased. His heart went out to Ezra - a slave could feel righteous in hating his master, but how could a son do anything but love his mother, no matter how much she hurt and embarrassed him? How could all of Ezra's brains and learning and plain common sense override what his heart so desperately wanted to pretend was true: that his mother adored him as much as he did her?
Buck could be as mad at him as he pleased, but Nathan didn't regret doing everything in his power to help Maude take the saloon away from Ezra. It was the only thing he could think of doing that would guarantee the stubborn man wouldn't ride out of town to please his Mama. He just hoped that the next time Maude tried to bring her bright boy to heel, the others would be ready to help him watch out for Ezra. If they weren't, he'd have to find a way to convince them - without letting either Standish find out what he was doing. Doing that successfully, Nathan realized, was going to be one hell of a con....
He was going to be up to it, though. After all, he was learning from the best.
Chaucer had settled into a saucy trot that ate up the road. Larabee could tell Ezra was upset, because he'd forgotten to ride like a civilian and was posting along like an officer on parade. Chris matched his horse's speed to the bay gelding's, riding along next to Standish in silence. The only acknowledgement from Ezra that he knew the gunslinger rode next to him was that he settled back into his saddle to ride as much like a cowboy as he could.
Finally, Chris cleared his throat, letting Ezra know he expected the gambler to listen to what he had to say. "Reckon Nathan might not think someone could take ownin' a slave as a responsibility."
Standish listened, but didn't say anything for at least a quarter-mile. Then he looked over at Larabee, silently demanding a promise that whatever passed between them in this moment would go no further. Chris consented with a single nod and a steady gaze.
"Have you evah owned a slave, Mistah Larabee?"
Chris didn't miss the deepening of Ezra's accent away from its Missouri veneer into its true Virginian blue-blood drawl.
"My Dad did, when I was just a kid... an old man and a woman who worked in the house. He freed 'em when they turned fifty...."
"What became of them?"
"They stayed with us. Dad deeded them an acre or two of property on our farm, helped them build a house."
"And continued to look after them, no doubt."
"Seemed the right thing to do."
"Would it astonish you if I said that I concur with your opinion and approve of your father's actions?"
"Would you be surprised to know that it was the prevailing opinion of intelligent and reasonable men in my coun - amongst my people?"
"Noble ideals often stumble in the face of reality. What would you say it cost your father to take care of - I presume - your Nanny and her husband?"
"More like my aunt," Chris smiled. "Don't know, really - quite a bit, I suppose, with the land and all."
"Imagine the burden of inheritin' one-hundred and twenty-seven slaves - and of standin' in expectation of inheritin' some hundreds more." Ezra's mouth quirked upward. "An embarrassment of riches, y'might say."
Chris blinked, lips pursing as he considered the scenario the Southerner painted.
"As I think you will agree, 'doin' the right thing' becomes a shade more complicated." Again, Ezra's mouth twitched momentarily into something that might have been a smile. "One school of thought held to sell them all, along with the land that came with them, and move to the coal-choked delights of New York or Philadelphia."
Something about the way Ezra held himself as he offered this opinion reminded Chris of Maude.
"Another held that the labor of your slaves was the prerogative of your duty toward them. Whatever their grandfathers had been, they were as innocent and ignorant of the world as children were, and you were responsible for their well bein'. It was - a compact, a way of life." Ezra shook his head, the agony of his birthright tearing at him as it hadn't for years.
"Even had a man wished to free his slaves, where would they go?" he demanded of the silent Chris. "Who would protect them from those who would exploit them without thought or care to - at the very least - their value as property? As they are bein' exploited now.... Can you honestly tell me that the life of a sharecropper is any different from the worst conditions of slavery? At least a slave's life held the worth of his Master's power to protect him from others...." Ezra pulled at Chaucer's reins in agitation, earning a disapproving hobbying of the bay's head.
"What kind of man could drive people from the home in which they had been born, deprive them of the only life they were fit to lead? Certainly no gentleman would entertain such a cruel course of action - especially not against people who had... served him... all the days of his life."
Because Ezra was gazing at him in expectation of a reply, Chris silently shrugged. He wasn't about to get caught in the crossfire of Ezra's personal civil war - though watching Standish at this moment, Chris would have given rather more than he was comfortable admitting to meet Ezra's daddy.
"Your father did the proper thing - but were a gentleman who owned hundreds - even thousands - of slaves to do as your father did with his prop - with his inheritance, how could he then explain to his own family why they had rags upon their backs and no roof over their heads? How could he justify givin' away the land and the labor that was their livelihood, as it had been for generations? How could he feed - or face - his own starvin' children?"
Chris shrugged again and Ezra sagged out of the echo of an imposing and eloquent stranger into his own troubled self.
"Did you evah buy a slave, Mister Larabee?" Ezra asked after another long period of silence. He wasn't looking at Chris as he asked the question.
"When I was a young man, I had occasion to visit such a market. It is not a memory I cherish - and I must say there was a conspicuous lack of gentlemen in attendance at the event. Plenty of overseers, Negro and White, but no gentlemen."
"Except you," Chris pointed out, astonished that he had opened his mouth.
Ezra did smile this time, bitterly. "If you like...." His smile disappeared. "I purchased two slaves at that market, a young woman and her male infant. I like to tell myself that I bought them because the child was most likely my cousin, but the truth is I was there because there was just the slightest possibility he was my son."
Larabee's mouth dropped open - and stayed that way as he realized what Nathan's self-righteousness - and his own stupid joke - had done to Ezra.
"She was so lovely, Chris," Ezra murmured. "A mulatto - what they call a Creole in Louisiana. She was my uncle's mistress after his first wife died. I was nearly fourteen when I returned from - when my mother felt it was best for me to return to my father's family to further my schooling. I suppose my - infatuation - with her was rather transparent, despite my best efforts to - conceal it. My uncle sent her to my room, with the instruction to make sure the mornin' would see me a man." Ezra sighed. "She was so lovely.... Too lovely for the domestic comfort of my uncle's second wife."
"I emancipated her, and the boy; took them to New York, bought her a farm, found her a good man to marry. They were both light enough to - well, what people don't know won't hurt them - and close enough to Canada to make a run for it, just in case. The boy became quite a scholar..." Ezra's smile was tender. "Very much a little gentleman, and a vociferous advocate of Mr. Lincoln."
The smile twisted and disappeared. "As I understand it, the entire family died of typhoid durin' the war."
Suddenly, Chaucer took off, racing ahead of Job. A part of Chris's reeling mind admired the bay's stamina, as the rest of it pictured Ezra in the Seminole village, surrounded by laughing, brown-skinned children - and one bright young boy of about ten in particular.
Spurring his black, Chris caught up with Ezra. They rode on at a fast walk, each man lost in his own memories and regrets until the gunslinger reined in on the outskirts of Four Corners.
Ezra pulled up, turning Chaucer around to face Larabee. Chris leaned forward and Ezra nudged the bay forward until the gunslinger's black could scratch its head against the gambler's stirrup.
Automatically pulling Job up, Chris didn't look at Ezra as he spoke.
"Been thinkin' 'bout gettin' outta town for a coupla days," he said, scanning the distant town for signs of trouble. "Figured on gettin' drunk, gettin' laid. Care to join me?"
Ezra thought about it for a moment. "Yes, Mister Larabee - I believe I do."
Chris nodded and led the way into town.
The next morning found J.D. the indulgent center of attention as Nathan and Buck re-heard the kid's stories about San Francisco as he related them to Vin and Josiah.
"He bought her a restaurant?" Josiah repeated.
"Said she'd work too hard in a laundry. Besides, she can really cook! While we were there, her family did this thing with a duck - y'eat it with these thin little griddlecakes and this sauce, and they serve it t'ya with its head still attached! Sure is good, though."
"Sounds like he was spendin' money like he was pourin' water," Tanner frowned. He hadn't thought Ezra'd give in to Maude and let go of his dream of owning a saloon, at least not so fast.
J.D.'s eyes got wide. "You shoulda seen what he won, Vin. He wouldn't take me with him when he left the hotel in the evenin', but when he got back in the mornin' I watched him count his money. Said he had to make up for what he was losin' by not bein' on the job."
"What about the money you lost goin' with him?" Nathan asked.
"Oh, he paid me," J.D. said guilelessly as he chugged down his milk before going back to tucking into his eggs and bacon. Nathan hid his grin.
The chime of spurs announced Chris's entrance into the restaurant.
"Mornin', Cowboy," Vin said.
Chris nodded, declining the chair the tracker's greeting had offered. "Gettin' outta town for a coupla days. Buck, you're in charge if push comes to shove."
Touching the brim of his hat, Chris turned to go, leaving five astonished men in his wake. When he reached the door, he looked back over his shoulder.
"Takin' Ezra with me."
"He's what?" Buck asked after a moment, the rattle of the door as it was thrown shut still echoing in his mind.
"Takin' Ezra with him," J.D. repeated, equally stunned.
Vin led the way to the porch. Sure enough, Chris and Ezra were trotting out of town together, side by side, their horses kitted up for a long ride.
Four pairs of eyes turned expectantly to the tracker.
"Gonna finish my breakfast first," the tracker agreed, figuring there was no point riding out after them when it would be work to not catch up with 'em. He knew how Chris would react to being mother-henned, and he could guess what Ezra would do. Putting the two men's reactions together might be just plain ugly - and Ugly was best faced on a full stomach.
The saloon in Purgatorio was quiet, except for the soft scrape of bodies being dragged over the dirt floor and out into the street. The cutthroat scum of the earth who patronized the dim, reeking hellhole were crowded into the far corner of the debris-strewn room. They held their breaths while they waited for the man in the fancy red coat to fire his slick Colt Richards Conversion at the ace of spades tacked up on the wall.
His dangerous-looking friend sat watching him with a grin on his face and a whore on his lap, three other of the finest local girls arranged around him. His black gaucho hat, Colt Model P and two open bottles, one of bourbon and one of tequila, sat on the table in front of him.
It was the best table in the saloon by virtue of the fact that it was still intact, but no one still standing - and breathing - felt any desire to challenge the odd duo for possession of it.
The tongue of the man aiming the Richards slipped out of the corner of his mouth to aid his concentration and he fired, once, twice - six times in all, emptying the pistol's clip into the same hole the first bullet had punched through the center of the card. There was a swagger to his steps as he retrieved the perforated ace of spades and handed it to his friend.
"You owe me ten dollars, Mister Larabee," he drawled.
The dangerous man's grin grew wider and he held up both hands, a stack of five silver eagles held in each of them. Before the man in the velvet coat could collect his winnings, the man sitting at the table handed one stack of coins to the blonde beside him and the other to the redhead who was rubbing his shoulders.
The women took the money and the cue, leaving the sitting man to take the arms offered them by the man who'd murdered the ace of spades.
"Ladies," he greeted them, a gold tooth flashing in the dimness as he smiled. "May I buy you a drink?"
Two days after Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish had ridden out of Four Corners side by side, Vin Tanner and his horse limped back into town.
J.D., sitting in what he privately thought of as Ezra's chair in front of the saloon, saw them first. His shout of "Buck!" brought the other peacekeepers running. The four of them watched in shocked silence as the blackened, burnt spectacle that used to be Vin's coat and hat trudged wearily down Main Street toward them. An equally battered and tattered Peso kept pace with his master, his head hanging low.
Without a word, Vin led his horse past his gathered comrades, through the batwing doors and into the haven of the saloon.
Grinning, Buck, J.D., Nathan and Josiah followed him.
Behind the bar, Inez decided silence was her safest course, and she quickly uncorked a bottle of whiskey and poured several shots out for the tracker. Vin held up two sooty fingers, and Inez sat a second bottle beside the first as Vin slouched against the bar.
Picking up a shot glass, Vin threw it back, slamming it on the bar in front of Inez to be refilled, before uncorking the second bottle of whiskey with his teeth and setting it in front of Peso.
Buck stared at the black as it took the long neck of the bottle between its teeth and raised it on high to gulp the amber liquid down at a speed Vin was putting to shame. Finally, curiosity got the better of Wilmington's common sense.
"Y'find Chris n'Ezra?" Buck asked.
Vin shuddered, shooting and slamming another shot. Buck decided to take that as a 'yes'.
"Where'd they go?" J.D. ventured.
It took Vin a couple more shots to get close to saying anything, and then he had to stop and take another drink.
"Purgatorio," Tanner finally growled out.
"Purgatorio..." Buck repeated gleefully, as Peso slurped the last of his bourbon out of his bottle and sat it back down on the bar with a clunk.
"It's gone," Vin said, downing another shot.
Buck looked at Vin's coat and discovered a whole New World of speculation laid out before him. "What happened?"
Vin thought about it for a minute and two successive shots of bourbon.
"BOOM!" he suddenly yelled at the top of his lungs, throwing both arms in the air and scaring the bejeesus out of everyone in the bar.
"Vin," Buck said, delight quivering in his voice, "where'd your eyebrows go?"
"With Purgatorio," Vin answered succinctly, picking up his bottle and Peso's reins. The two weaved out of the saloon together, Vin stopping a foot outside the door as a thought occurred to him. After a moment, he dropped Peso's reins to the dirt and returned to the saloon to stand just inside the doors.
Blue eyes, made deranged by the black smoke and dirt that smudged Vin's face like war paint and the absence of eyebrows and eyelashes, swept the frozen occupants of the saloon.
When he was sure he had everyone's attention, he growled a promise that went on to become legendary in the town and the territory:
"I will gut-shoot the next mother-fucker who gives Ezra dynamite!"
The frantic creaking of the hinges on the swinging door punctuated the sobering announcement as Tanner rejoined Peso and led the way to his wagon.
"J.D., get your horse," Buck ordered.
"Why? Where we goin'?" the kid wondered.
"Purgatorio," Buck grinned.
Buck stared in slack-jawed awe at the cratered ruin that lay before him as he pulled his horse up on the bluff overlooking Purgatorio. Dust rose like smoke from collapsed adobe huts, and board and tarpaper shacks had been reduced to charcoal and ash. Loose horses grazed amongst bodies lying on the street. Only the saloon had escaped the destruction, rising like an oasis from the desolation.
Yet young children laughed and played around pregnant women, who sang as they cooked in the open air. Older children and a few women hauled bodies off the street and from under wreckage, sorting the living from the dead into neat piles. The shadow that had always stretched over the border town was gone, leaving happy people in its wake.
"What the hell happened?" J.D. breathed, echoed by Toby's sneeze as the acrid dust reached his nose.
"Boom," Buck grinned.
"You think Ezra did... that?"
"No, kid - I think Ezra n' Chris did that."
"Funny thing about purgatory - it might be one step away from hell, but heaven ain't ever that far away."
"Hey - isn't that Ezra?"
Buck squinted through the glare of the sun on the dust, following where J.D. pointed to a man in a red jacket, weaving through the rubble with the support and guidance of three women. Buck blinked, rubbing his eyes to make sure he was seeing what he thought he was seeing.
"No, J.D. - that there's Chris."
"Why's he wearin' Ezra's jacket?" Dunne asked, leaning forward on his saddle to anxiously scan the growing pile of corpses and wounded. "Hey -- ain't those Ezra's pants, too?"
"Now that is a question worth findin' the answer to. C'mon, kid." As he spurred his horse down the embankment, Wilmington couldn't remember the last time he'd had this much fun.
"Uh, seņorita..." J.D. said to one of the pregnant women making tortillas across the street from the saloon. "I'm lookin' for a friend of mine - uh, quiero, uh, un amigo...."
The pregnant woman took the bowl of corn flour dough from the hands of the younger woman who was helping her. The young woman stepped toward J.D., cuddling up to him as she played her fingers down the buttons of his shirt.
"No, uh, no thanks," J.D. stammered, trying to disengage himself from her embrace. "Un amigo," he repeated. "A man - I'm lookin' for a man...."
Too late, J.D. realized how these women might mistake his request. As their gales of laughter rose to the sky, the younger one slipped her hand down the front of his pants.
"We try anyway, seņor?" she suggested.
"Ah - ah, not that kinda friend," J.D. squirmed, trying to back away from her. Well, most of him, anyway. Encouraged by the 'hello' her hand was getting from the fickle imp in J.D.'s trousers, the younger woman followed up her advantage.
Buck's bellow made all of J.D. jump.
"Buck!" the kid squeaked, finding that backing away from the young woman only made her follow him. Wilmington was moving in his direction fast, his face hidden behind his hat.
"We ain't got time fer that," Buck said, putting the hat on his head as he hauled the seņorita out of J.D.'s pants. "We gotta go!"
The seņorita and her pregnant friend laughed and waved at J.D. as he was hauled away by Buck. There was an indulgent and regretful something about the way they were watching him leave that made J.D. blush purple.
"No - it ain't like that," he called back to them, only to have Buck's hand clap over his mouth.
"Sssshhhh!" Wilmington hissed in his ear. "Y'want somebody to hear ya?"
"LLgggmmmgggdddddtttttt!" J.D. protested.
"NNNNNNNGGGHHHHHHH!" said a familiar neigh of disapproval behind them.
"Ssssrrrrrr!" J.D. recognized with delight, wondering why the horse sounded like he was inside the saloon they were creeping past.
"Sssshhhhhh!" Buck looked behind them nervously. "Just shut up and get on your da-nged horse, J.D.!"
Trust won out over indignation at his manhandling and J.D. did as he was told, mounting up on Toby and riding hard to keep up with Buck, who sent Clyde out of Purgatorio at a flat-out run.
A mile out of the flattened border town, Buck let his laboring horse slow to a walk, allowing J.D. to catch up with him.
"Damn it, Buck! What the hell happened back there?"
"Nothin'!" Buck yelped, the narrow line of skin between his mustache and flared nostrils turning white. "Nothin' happened back there, J.D.! You remember that, y'hear?"
"Did you find out where Ezra was?"
"Kid...." Buck's voice sounded strangled and he hung his head.
"Where was Chris goin'? And why was he wearin' Ezra's coat?"
Buck's hand shot out and gathered a handful of J.D.'s shirt, hauling the kid in close to his face so he could see just how serious Buck was.
"Listen to me, J.D., and listen damn good. We never made it to Purgatorio, see? We never saw Chris - we were never there! And we didn't see what Ezra was doin', got it?"
J.D. nodded and Buck let him go. A minute of plodding silence passed between them and Buck's composure was nearly restored when J.D. piped up again.
"But why was Chaucer in the saloon?"
Buck groaned, covering his face with his hand. He'd never be able to saddle a horse with an easy mind again... God help him, he'd never willingly touch a saddle horn that wasn't his own ever again!
"They broke everything else that stood on four legs, kid."
It was late when Buck and J.D. walked into the Four Corners saloon, but their three compatriots were waiting for them nonetheless. Vin sat between Josiah and Nathan, cleaned up but still looking shell-shocked. The preacher and the healer made sure his glass was full and discouraged the curious from asking what had happened and how the tracker was feeling.
"How was Sodom and Gomorrah?" Josiah greeted them.
Buck started, face going pale. "No!" he barked. "No - nothin' like that!"
"He means Purgatorio," J.D. sighed.
"Oh! Oh - 'course he does, kid," Buck covered, smacking J.D. with his hat. "Hell, I knew that."
"So?" Nathan prodded. "How was it?"
"Didn't get there," Buck replied, glaring fiercely at J.D. "Right, kid?"
"Right, Buck," J.D. sighed, closing his eyes as he recited the litany that had been drilled into him. "We decided to go fishin' instead."
"Man's entitled to his privacy," Buck nodded vigorously.
"So you didn't see Chris or Ezra?" Nathan grinned, wondering what it was Wilmington was trying to hide.
"No!" Buck shook himself hard enough to rattle his chair and the table. "Hell, no!"
"Me neither," Vin agreed, shoving his full shot glass across the table to Buck.
Chris and Ezra rode back into Four Corners at high noon three days after Buck and J.D. had returned from the best-documented fishing trip in the history of the western territories, their horses trotting along like a matched team.
Buck's mouth dropped open as his two friends posted by him on their way to the livery, riding like officers on parade. It had been nigh on ten years since he'd last seen Chris ride like that.
Josiah and Nathan joined Wilmington on the porch of the saloon, waiting for the two men to return from seeing to their horses. J.D. and Vin joined them in time to watch Chris and Ezra cross the street together. The gambler's step matched the gunslinger's chiming stride perfectly. They stopped in front of the men gathered to meet them at the same moment, eerily in synch with one another.
"Gentlemen," Standish acknowledged them with a tip of his hat and a genuine smile. "I take it you're gathered here to take turns buyin' us a drink?" Chris seconded Ezra's demand with a grin.
Their expectations having been made known to their compatriots, Chris and Ezra walked into the saloon through the path their friends made for them.
As Josiah watched the batwing doors swing shut behind Chris and Ezra, the preacher felt a shiver go down his back and he offered up a prayer for whoever had decided to cross them in Purgatorio.
With the courage of ignorance and innocence, J.D. led his more cautious elders into the saloon. "Hey, guys! How was your trip?"
"Relaxin'," Ezra dead-panned. Chris grinned an evil grin. Moving in an unsettling unison, the gambler and the gunslinger tossed their hats to the best table in the saloon and settled themselves into chairs that put them at the radius points of its circle.
J.D. frowned, studying his friends to try and figure out what seemed different about them. Larabee looked reassuringly dangerous, like always, and Standish was perfectly groomed despite the dust of the trail. As usual, he didn't even have hat hair. The only thing out of the ordinary was the black eye Chris sported and the bruised and torn knuckles of Ezra's right hand. J.D. decided not to ask if the injuries had been sustained in the same incident.
"Anything important happen while we were gone?" Chris asked, signaling to Inez to bring two beers to the table as Ezra produced a deck of cards out of thin air.
"Buck and J.D. went fishin'," Vin answered, settling in between Ezra and Chris.
Chris gave Buck an unreadable look. "Catch anything?"
"No." Buck shook his head for emphasis. "Not a damn thing, Pard."
"Pardon my curiosity - but what happened to your eyebrows?"
"An unfortunate accident with a lamp," Josiah explained, as he and the others sat down at the table. Sanchez watched with a smile as Chris fielded the two beers, keeping one for himself and sliding the other to where Ezra liked to keep his drink, so he could use the glass as a mirror to keep track of the rest of the table and the saloon beyond it.
Vin ducked his head to hide his expression under his hat brim, scratching his brow-ridge furiously with his blunt nails.
"Sounds pretty quiet," Chris grunted, stretching out his legs in front of him and putting his hat over his face.
Nathan chuckled as Larabee began to snore. Turning to where Ezra sat with the deck held in the hands laid on the table in front of him, Jackson asked, "You gonna deal them cards, Ezra?"
His answer was a soft snore that rose to blend with Larabee's. Waving his hand in front of the open green eyes, Nathan was vaguely aware that Chris and Ezra were snoring in harmony.
Reaching out, Vin tugged the deck from Ezra's resisting hand before guiding the gambler's head down to his forearm. He shuffled the deck a couple of times in an effort to de-Ezra it before dealing out five hands and stealing Chris's beer.
"I still wanna know why Chaucer was in the saloon," J.D. whispered, enduring the kicks he knew Buck and Vin would aim his way.
"Sufferin' a bad case of equine envy," Ezra answered, his voice muffled by his forearm.
From under his hat, Chris laughed. His foot nailed Buck's shin for the kid and the vibration of Vin jumping through the table told him Ezra had taken care of the tracker.
"What's equine mean?" J.D. asked. The only answer he got was a groan from Buck, a chuckle from Josiah, and a snore from Ezra.
"'Nite, boys," Larabee yawned, going back to sleep.
The sound of Chaucer's disappointed neigh snapped Ezra's attention out of the game of solitaire he was playing and woke Chris up. The gambler was out of his chair and halfway to the street when Josiah stumbled through the batwing doors, laughing his ass off.
The uncharacteristic display did nothing to reassure Ezra about his horse, who was - after all - supposed to be minding his own business, pretending to be tied down in front of the saloon while his master had a quick dinner of coffee and cards before riding a dawn patrol.
Ezra calmed down some when Buck was helped through the batwing doors by J.D. and Vin, Nathan tagging along behind. Wilmington was the only man not howling with laughter. Buck, in fact, was white - so white that Standish had the momentary impression that his mustache had turned gray overnight. Wilmington's legs seemed to have lost the ability to move, his whole body frozen in a strange sort of pinched crab-like posture.
Deciding that, since no shots had been fired, Chaucer had most likely come out on top of whatever difference of opinion he'd had with Buck, Ezra sat back down at his table and gathered his cards into a deck, shuffling rapidly.
"What the hell happened?" Chris demanded, a glint in his eye as Vin and J.D. lowered the shaking Buck into a chair.
"Oh, it's just Buck's animal magnetism," J.D. whooped, going to the bar to get a bottle of whiskey for his friend. Being a sensible lad, he got six glasses and a mug of milk for himself.
"It ain't funny," Buck gasped weakly as Ezra began dealing out seven hands of stud poker.
"Seems Miss Lucy decided to get a bath before retirin' this mornin'," Vin explained, reeking of unholy glee as he sat down at the table. "An' our Bucklin here - well, y'all know how he feels about Miss Lucy - an' I guess Chaucer just kinda misunderstood who he was lookin' at."
Josiah managed to make it into a chair before he collapsed to the floor, but Chris still wasn't sure what the hell his friends were talking about. Ezra, however, had no problem visualizing what had happened.
"I suggest that in future, should Chaucer be present when you - stand - in expectation of Miss Lucy's favors, you should either have a carrot in your pocket, or prepare yourself for a shotgun weddin'." Ezra patted the hilt of his Remington to make his point. "I will not allow my horse's affections to be trifled with, Mister Wilmington."
J.D. returned with the whiskey, the mug and the shot glasses, nearly dropping everything as Chris's chair tipped backward into him as the gunslinger roared with laughter.
Vin helped the kid out by relieving him of the burden of the whiskey and the glasses. Pouring out a generous shot of bourbon, he shoved it into Buck's shaking hand.
"That goddamned horse is a pervert!" Wilmington swore, tossing the whiskey down his throat and ignoring the outraged whinny floating through the door from the maligned Chaucer.
"Well, hell - we knew that," Vin drawled, looking at the lousy hand he'd been dealt. "Ain't a one of us here he hasn't had in the ass."
The only sound in the saloon was the rustle of denim and buckskin as six men shifted their horse-bite-scarred backsides on the worn seat chairs.
"Speak for yourself, Mistah Tanner," Ezra replied smoothly into the stunned silence. "I have not - shall not - and will not - evah! - take it in the ass."
"Hear, hear!" Chris seconded, hoisting a shot to toast the sentiment.
Buck exchanged a glance with Vin, his own recent trauma forgotten as he and the tracker shared a deep sigh of relief.
"Amen," Josiah rumbled, raising his own glass into the toast. Three more shot glasses and one beer mug full of milk clinked together in heartfelt agreement.
As each man threw down his shot of whiskey, he sent his empty glass to shatter against the iron of the Franklin stove in the corner of the saloon. J.D.'s mug was last, shattering in large pieces against the door of the heater. Not a man among the seven had any doubt that the glasses could ever be raised in support of a greater truth than the one just spoken. They shared a deep and solemn moment of brotherhood before Ezra looked again at Buck.
"Your bet, Mister Wilmington?"
"You know, I just might have to shoot you, Ezra," Wilmington said, taking a look at his hand. "Hell, these cards are enough to convince any jury you got what you deserved."
"Wouldn't try it," Vin advised, tossing a quarter to the center of the table as Buck folded in disgust. "He's faster'n you."
"Like hell he is!" Buck snapped as Ezra smirked at him.
"He's faster'n me," Chris remarked, putting his own quarter into the pile. Jaws dropped around the table, none lower than the gambler's.
"I am?" Ezra asked, his astonishment turning to worry as his imagination superimposed a bull's-eye over his heart as word spread that he was faster on the draw than the notorious gunslinger, Chris Larabee.
"He is?" Buck echoed.
Chris's smile was the diabolical one that always meant, 'Gotcha!'
"He cheats," the gunslinger explained, with a significant look at the sleeve that concealed the gambler's spring-loaded derringer.
Ezra's grin flashed gold and he met the quarter bet, raising it by a silver dollar.
Recognizing the wisdom in Chris's words, the six men folded garbage hands and let Ezra collect the scant pot and his hat from the table.
"Gentlemen," he thanked them, adjusting his Stetson to a dapper angle. "If you'll excuse me, I find myself in need of a quick trip to the grocery before embarking upon my appointed rounds. Let us pray for Mister Wilmington's sake that carrots are in season."
"Maybe I should just shoot the horse," Buck muttered as the gambler left the saloon.
"Then Ezra'd shoot you," J.D. pointed out.
"I could always shoot both of 'em."
"Reckon that'd be a bad idea," Vin said. "What if they took it inta their heads t'haunt ya?"
"Brother Standish would be the personification of an unquiet spirit," Josiah mused.
"I'd have Josiah do a - what'ya call that, Josiah? That thing that gets rid of ghosts and devils?"
"An exorcism," the ex-priest replied.
"Wouldn't work," J.D. decided. "Sounds too much like exercise - and Ezra's too much of a gentleman for any kind a' exercise."
"Don't bet on it," Chris advised, standing up and stretching, before ambling out of the saloon toward the restaurant and a real breakfast.
After a few moments of mercilessly speculative silence, Nathan cleared his throat.
"I don't think we oughta let them two play together anymore," Jackson said.
"Sounds good to me," Vin agreed, with a significant look at Buck. "Tell you what, though - I sure as hell ain't gonna be the one to get between 'em."
"Me, neither," Buck agreed, chewing on the corner of his mustache as he poured Vin another whiskey. "Me, neither."
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