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"The Posture of Respect"

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We submit to the majority because we have to. But we are not compelled to call our attitude of subjection a posture of respect.” - Ambrose Bierce


Ezra stood with his hand on the door of the room, wishing he were somewhere else. Anywhere else. The very idea of spending time in close quarters with any man of the law made him uncomfortable. Judge Travis was a discomfort all of his own, a man who seemed to be able to reach into Ezra’s mind and pull out his thoughts.


The fact that this meeting – informal as it was – was being held in the church didn’t help either. He’d never been especially fond of churches, not since his father’s funeral.


Why had he agreed to this?


But he knew why he had. Because someone had to be there, and Chris was the man who had killed Eli Joe, so his presence would have been counter productive. Nathan was black, so any corroborating testimony he gave would have been suspect, as would any from Josiah, given his history with the Catholic Church.


Neither Buck nor JD could have kept their mouths shut. And Vin – well, the whole thing revolved around him so he certainly could not have born witness.


Mary was related to the Judge – and a woman, as was Inez, who was also Mexican. It was all so very complicated – and it still left him as the only one who could legitimately bear witness to this interview.


He sighed and turned the knob on the door. Once it started to open, there was no turning back. For an instant, he held it close, thinking of escape, of not going in.


It was a blissful second – before the knowledge of the cost of not doing it rolled through his consciousness like a summer thunderstorm unleashing a flood on a hillside.


Josiah had obviously been at work on the doors of his church; the hinges made no sound as the door moved inward, and the floor of this room, the church office, was covered in a worn rug so Ezra’s steps were silent as he entered, closing the door behind him before slipping into the chair placed close by.


Travis was seated at a desk near the far wall, under a window, and the prisoner, Yates, was seated before him, his hands shackled behind his back so that he was forced to lean forward.


Neither man gave any indication that they knew Ezra was here; the Judge continued to stare at the sheaf of pages before him, and Yates didn’t lift his head. He looked like a man who had already been convicted – and maybe he was. There were more than enough witnesses in the town to his impersonation of a federal marshal, and Mary had been very thorough in digging through her newspaper archives and sending out requests to all of the other newspaper editors in a two-hundred mile radius, to get as much information on this man as possible.


Information that linked him to a multitude of crimes, and to Eli Joe.


Ezra had already heard – more than he cared to – about the things Mary had found. He suspected that the Judge had as well, as Mary wasn’t want to be discreet about her findings, but the Judge was taking his time, reading each page slowly and thoroughly.


Eventually, and thankfully, the Judge looked up, rubbing his nose then removing his glasses. He stared at Yates for a few seconds, his gaze sharp in that way that made Ezra thankful it wasn’t directed at him.


“There seems little doubt about your impersonation of a federal marshal,” the Judge said, his voice low and calm. “Most of the people in this town have offered statements to the effect that you introduced yourself as one. That is a felony, in and of itself, and one that the federal government takes quite seriously.”


Yates didn’t look up though he did sigh.


“These pages include a lot of testimony of your involvement in crimes. Much of it implicates Eli Joe – who seems to have numerous patronymics, but always ‘Eli Joe’ - as the primary instigator – along with descriptions of a man who seems to be you, who is also known as ‘Yates’, and who is Eli Joe’s second. As he was killed here in this town, and you were captured impersonating him so that he could escape to come here, it is unlikely that any jury will consider you not to be one of his henchmen.”


Yates didn’t say anything, but Ezra noticed that his head dropped a little lower.


“You came to this town impersonating an officer of the court, in order to kidnap a man so that you could kill him.” The words were clear and uncompromising, an indictment.


Yates drew in a breath and then slowly looked up. Ezra could see part of the left side of his face. It was bruised and swollen, the result of Vin’s frustration on discovering that the man he had thought to be Eli Joe was actually Yates in disguise.


An interesting question, that: why Yates had chosen to impersonate Eli Joe. A question made all the more interesting by the fact that Eli Joe had shown up here, in town, taking a room in the hotel from which he attempted to assassinate Vin. Only Chris’ paranoia – and good hearing – had saved Vin.


As had a bullet from his gun a few minutes later, when Vin had tried to pull Eli Joe onto the roof of a building and Eli Joe had attempted to knife him for his efforts.


“He was a wanted man,” Yates said quietly and with a little desperation. “Dead or alive. We could have killed him and taken him back to Tascosa for the reward.”


Ezra arched an eyebrow, mentally applauding the man. It was an argument he had considered himself, though he had never voiced it, not to his current group of associates.


And certainly not to Chris.


The Judge sat back in his chair, his gaze still implacable. “Yes, you could have. But you did not. You chose to attempt an elaborate con – and then to turn him over to another man who was wanted for a number of crimes in Texas, a man with a substantial bounty on his own head. At no point in time did anyone hear you mention a bounty, which is legally required if that is your intent. And at no point in time did you say as much to the man you abducted.”


The way in which this was delivered told Ezra that the Judge had also considered this defense. It was an interesting sticking point, especially in the strange laws that pertained to bounty hunters.


Yates sighed again and his head dropped. The angle muffled his words, so Ezra had to work to understand them. “He was a wanted man, that was what I knew. He was wanted dead or alive – which leaves a lot of room for getting him there.”


Travis sat for a time, looking at Yates.


Which gave Ezra time to do the same. And to consider what he had said – though not the words so much as the sound of his voice. He was being stubborn, no doubt there. But there was also a resignation there. A despondence that Ezra had heard too many times before.


After a time, the Judge said, “There isn’t much about you prior to your association with Eli Joe. There’s a man known as Austin Yates who owned some property in Texas in the panhandle area, a man who paid his taxes on time and seemed to be holding his own, until a series of misfortunes destroyed his crops for three years running, forcing him into foreclosure. His description seems a lot like you.”


Yates swallowed, then he said quietly, “I spent almost a decade working that land, making it productive. Fought off the damned natives, almost got taken by them bastards once. But I survived, me and my folks. Did all right until the drought and typhoid fever. They died of it, and so did some of my men. After that – well, after that, it was all downhill. Hated losing that place. Like losing my own blood.”


Ezra swallowed, the words, especially the last ones, sounding too familiar, too much like someone else.


The story wasn’t that uncommon, he reminded himself, not out here. People worked hard, too damned hard, and it was too damned easy for one or two little things, timed too coincidentally, to destroy them.


“Is that how you ended up riding with Eli Joe?” Travis asked. He still leaned back in his chair, seemingly comfortable, as if this were an afternoon social or a polite conversation over tea and cookies. He still hadn’t acknowledged Ezra, but Ezra wasn’t sure if that was from disdain or from the concern that it would disrupt the intimacy of the conversation.


And it occurred to him then that it was intimate. Private, intrusive, and very personal.


The idea came fully formed into his head, an idea so unexpected that he had a physical reaction: he jolted forward in his chair, almost falling from it before he caught his balance.


It couldn’t be. The odds of such were – well, given his own life experience, damned near impossible.


But then again, here he was, in this God-forsaken dust bowl, having just lost his own fortune at the hands of his own mother. On a business that he should have known backwards and forwards, one he could have managed in his sleep.


The only thing that had saved his sanity was the company he kept.


Company that was not, per se, acceptable in the eyes of genteel society.


The fact that Judge Travis was suggesting such – wait, was he?


Ezra looked at the older man, watching him. The Judge still seemed relaxed, casual, as if this were a common occurrence. A common discussion.


Yates didn’t look up. “Didn’t mean to,” he said softly. “I started out working as a ranch hand for others, trying to feed myself, trying to stay alive. I wanted to pay off my debts, get back in good standing. Wanted to get my land back. Hell, my folks, my kin were buried there. Are buried there.”


The memory sprang fully formed, a tombstone bearing Ezra’s father’s name, grey marble striated with black lines, the smell of rich earth and summer rain. The other tombstones nearby, weathered and green with moss and ivy. The family cemetery, on a hill behind his grandparents’ home, outside of Savannah. They had fought to keep that land in the wake of the war, for this very same reason.


“I was in the bank one day,” Yates said, still quiet. “I had saved up some money, was hoping to put down a payment against the foreclosure. But the manager – Mister Bartle – he said the land had already been sold. And that even if it hadn’t, I was a risk, a liability. I had proven myself untrustworthy.”


He spat the last word, full of disgust and venom, as if were a condemnation of everything he held dear.


And it probably was, Ezra realized. He knew men for whom this was the case, their reputations – their very senses of themselves – tied to this sense of honor.


“And Eli Joe was there,” Travis said. He said it evenly, still conversationally.


Yates sat for a time before answering. From his vantage point, it seemed to Ezra that the man’s eyes were closed and his jaw set, as if he were willing himself to silence. Or to consideration. An effort to think through what he was saying, and what the words meant, to himself, and, perhaps, to the dead man of which they spoke.


Eventually, he said, “I was still in the office when the robbery started. I didn’t know about it – I was too busy trying to argue with Bartle. But we heard a commotion outside and before either one of us knew what was going on, the door to the office burst open and he was standing there, his gun in his hand. He wasn’t pointing it – he didn’t really like to do that. And he was grinning, with a match stick in the corner of his lips.”


There was something in the way he said it, something that made Ezra swallow.


Something that brought to mind that fateful day in the saloon, a man in black standing casually even as he whispered Ezra’s secret to him, and the other two men standing near. It had been then, Ezra knew now, that he had been lost.


The idea was back once more, that Travis was thinking something similar to this of Yates.


“So you helped him with that bank robbery?” Travis asked. His tone was still noncommittal, but Ezra felt censure behind it.


And his own defensive response. As he struggled to sort his own emotions, Yates answered.


“I did not help him with the robbery. It was never my intent to steal from anyone. But things got out of hand. Things went wrong.”


The words, the idea, was so strong with what Ezra knew himself that he thought, for a second, that he had said them. It was only as the echo sounded in the small space that he heard the tones that were not his.


Travis looked down at the papers before him, then he reached out and shuffled them for a time. Eventually he held up a piece and frowned. “Bartle. I thought I recognized that name. According to eyewitnesses, Eli Joe shot him. He almost died.”


Yates swallowed before he said, “Yeah, he did – Eli, I mean. He did shoot him. He shot him because of me. I didn’t ask him to – hell, I was as scared as Bartle was. This man shows up in the doorway, holding a gun, and people are screaming and men are shouting – it was frightful.”


Travis raised his eyes to look over the edge of the page at Yates. “So what happened?”


Yates shook his head, looking back down at the floor. “Eli asked us what was going on in here, who we were. Bartle – a pompous ass – said he was the bank manager and that he had the power to evict Eli from the place. Eli – well, he didn’t take kindly to that sort of talk. He lifted his gun and waved it at Bartle, trying, I think, to remind him of who was in charge. Then he looked at me. I wasn’t stupid – a man waving a gun is someone you don’t fu- um, mess around with. So I told him who I was and why I was there.”


Travis tilted his head. “You told him that Bartle had foreclosed on your property.”


Yates shifted in his chair then said, “Well, yes. That was the truth.”


“Was that when Eli Joe shot him?”


Yates sighed but nodded. “He said he couldn’t abide a thief – which was odd, you know, since he was robbing the bank. He told me later that he didn’t think of that as thieving, since the banks were taking away from working folk to benefit the rich.”


“But at the time, he didn’t explain – he just shot Bartle. What did you do?”


Yates shrugged insofar as he could. “What could I do? I wasn’t expecting it – and once he’d done it, I thought I was next.”


“But you weren’t.”


Yates sighed again. “No, I wasn’t.”


“And you ended up leaving with him – and staying with him from that point forward. Taking part in his crimes.”


Yates swallowed, but he didn’t say anything. The room was silent for a time, which Ezra used to mull over the words. In many ways, they reminded him too much of his own thoughts – his own reactions. He, too, had stumbled into a situation, one that was supposed to go one way and ended up, because of one man, going quite differently.


Oddly, where as Yates had ended up breaking the law because of the company he kept, Ezra had done – well, the opposite. More or less.


“To be clear,” Travis said eventually, “this is not a formal interview. While I do have the power to try you and send you to Yuma prison, there are outstanding warrants for you in Texas. As a federal judge, I have priority, but Texas has murder charges, people who have lost loved ones and who deserve resolution.”


The words hung there, the threat implicit. As was the offer. The Judge was about as devious as Ezra had ever seen, and he wondered, not for the first time, what sort of devil this man was.


But then, the Judge was a lawyer, and a man of the law. And Ezra had yet to meet one of them that wasn’t tainted by the power that came with the position -and the sense that they were all doing what was best. It was that belief – that they knew what was best – that made them as human as anyone else.


It was also the one area that always made Ezra wary of them. There was little more dangerous than a man who felt he was doing what was ‘right’.


Yates was no fool. He, too, knew what he was hearing. “So what do you want, Judge? You want for me to say that Tanner didn’t do it? I can’t tell you that – I don’t know.”


The words were hollow – not enough to say the man was lying, but enough to say that he wasn’t telling the whole truth.


The Judge knew it, too, Ezra could tell from the frown on his face. “I find that very hard to believe, Mr. Yates. Why did you kidnap him from this town, knowing that the intention was to kill him?”


It was a question that’s answer seemed obvious – in fact, it set Yates up perfectly to justify his actions: he had believed that Vin had killed the farmer, Jess Kincaid, and thus that there was nothing wrong with what they were doing.


And as expected, Yates started to say exactly that. “He was wanted – dead or alive – for the murder of Jess Kincaid. Other than lying about being a federal marshal, I wasn’t out of line with taking him. Eli Joe said that Tanner was a bounty hunter who had been after him, so taking him was doing Texas a favor as well as taking him off Eli Joe’s mind.”


Ezra saw the Judge’s lips twitch, and realized that Yates had said something, something that was incriminating in some way. It took him a few seconds to realize what it was: the admission that kidnapping Vin was not about getting the bounty. Yates had known from the start that the intent was to kill Vin.


It had been a risky move. Yates could have been smart enough to continue to play his game of bounty hunting, but he was distracted.


And Ezra knew that was what it was – distraction. The man was too smart for that to have happened otherwise.


The Judge knew it too, which was why he had opened it up for Yates to throw out that defense. And to talk too much.


“So you knew from the start that the plan was to kill Tanner,” the Judge said quietly. “That Eli Joe was not planning to take him to Texas for the bounty.”


Yates straightened, as much as he could, and Ezra saw his mouth open. Then it closed. The man had been caught and he was wise enough not to speak out of turn.


“Mr. Yates, I will say this again: this is a friendly conversation. Off the record, more or less. I am simply trying to determine what it is that I wish to do with you and your associates. I need to make that determination soon; it’s costing the nice people of the territory for every day that you are housed in the jail here, and I am certain that you would prefer less crowded conditions.” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk and looking directly at Yates. “There are multiple murder charges against you in Texas, and while it is possible that you can defend yourself against them, I fear that guilt by association – your long-term association with Eli Joe - will be enough for a jury. As Eli Joe is not there to bear his own crimes, I suspect that you will do as a close proxy.”


The elegance of it made Ezra think of Maude. What a pair these two would have made, all that power and will masked in innuendo and politeness. He had tried to perfect this art, but at his core, there was some failing that kept him from this ease, this subtlety.


This deftness that kept it from being such an obvious manipulation.


Yates swallowed. Then, incrementally, his shoulder slumped. He knew enough to know that he was beaten.


When he spoke, his tone was low and raspy, an echo of another voice that Ezra knew well. It made him wonder, especially as the story unfolded, how much of the problem had to do with Eli Joe and his own affections and desires.


By the end of it, he knew the answer. He wondered, though, if the Judge truly did.


*&*&*&*&*


“It seems the least I can do is buy you a drink.”


Ezra swallowed, looking at the glass that was set before him, stalling to gather himself, before looking up at the man who was, presumptuously, settling himself in a chair at the table.


Not that there was anyone else here to save him. It was late afternoon, and he had come here as soon as he had found a moment to escape the aftermath of Yates’ storytelling.


He wanted to see Chris, wanted to tell Chris everything. Wanted to divest himself of the information and clear his own conscience – to distance himself as much as possible from the life that could have been his – should have been his.


But Chris was nowhere to be found, probably still building fences with Vin or hunting cougars or some other pursuit that hunters got caught up in to distract themselves from the politics of human life.


Caught up with Vin and trying to prove that he was worth the other man’s forgiveness. As if saving his life didn’t mean anything.


Damn Vin Tanner and his nobility. Damn him and his defense of his name.


Damn him and everything about him that tied Chris to him.


But that was not a thought for now, not with the Judge sipping on his own whiskey, sitting so close that Ezra could smell high quality of his clothes, the faint trace of lilac from his soap – and the hint of sweet and pure tobacco that came from the cigars he wasn’t supposed to be smoking.


The older man sighed and sat back in the chair, his glass clutched in one hand. After he swallowed, he asked, “Any part of what he said worry you?”


Ezra shuffled his deck of cards, using it to focus his eyes and attention. “Worry me? In what way?” he asked. He understood the question, knew what the Judge was fishing for, but he wanted the other man to actually say it.


The Judge made noise that sounded a lot like a snort, but he spoke with the slowness of a parent explaining something to a favored child. “He certainly had no love for Tanner. But I don’t get the sense that he’s a killer, not by nature. The records don’t bear it out – there’s no sign of him in the worst of the accusations made against Eli Joe.” He paused and took another sip of his whiskey, giving Ezra time to deal a spread of solitaire, and to think.


“No,” Ezra agreed after a time and a pregnant silence, “it is hard to see him as a cold-blooded killer. Despite his choice to ride with a man who was.”


He turned a few cards, not able to place them. He felt the weight of the Judge’s gaze on him and wondered how much the other man understood.


“We all make choices,” the older man said eventually. “We all have to answer for them. But yes, there are mitigating circumstances.”


Ezra continued to look at the cards, though he wasn’t really seeing them. “He seemed very conflicted about his role in the attempt to hang Vin.”


The Judge shifted in his chair. “He seemed to think that Eli Joe would not go through with it.” His words were as calm and even as they had been through the conversation with Yates.


Ezra realized that it was his turn now to be under the other man’s scrutiny. He couldn’t seem to get past it, damn it all. But two could play at the game, if necessary. “He wanted to find out. Which is curious, of course. Why would he care if Eli Joe would kill Vin? Certainly, he knew Eli Joe was more than capable of murder.”


“And there in lies the real question, don’t you think?” The Judge shifted in his chair and raised his glass once more to his lips. Before he sipped, he said, “What do you think his motivations were?”


Ezra knew the motivations, very well. It was another thing he had in common with Yates. His real concern here, though, was how to answer this question. What did the Judge really want to know? Was he asking about Yates – or was he asking about Ezra? Had he managed, in that sly way of his, to figure out what was between Ezra and Chris?


As the thoughts raced about in the back of his mind, his mouth, so well trained and practiced in the art of deflection, returned the volley. “I could hardly imagine. Perhaps he wanted to see the cold-blooded side of his business partner?”


The Judge swallowed and sighed. “Perhaps. Though he should have had ample ways of doing that without all of this. I think it has to do with Tanner, himself. I think he wanted to see Tanner.”


Ezra relaxed a little. Perhaps the Judge was merely speculating. “I suspect he had heard quite a bit about Vin from Eli Joe. Maybe he wanted to see if those assessments were accurate before he allowed Eli Joe to kill him.”


“I was thinking something like that myself. I got the sense that Eli Joe was obsessed with Tanner. Or at least Yates thought he was.” He sipped again from his drink but Ezra felt the weight of the man’s gaze.


“Vin is rather tenacious,” Ezra said slowly. “I would not wish to be on his bad side, as Eli Joe was.”


The Judge was slow to answer, still sipping on his drink as he thought. Eventually, he said very softly, “Do you think that’s all it was? That Eli Joe was afraid Vin was coming after him? Or was it something else?”


Despite his best effort, Ezra fumbled the card he had been turning over. The card didn’t fly off the table or disrupt any of the others he had placed, but it did skim over them, a noticeable demonstration of his surprise.


And disquiet.


He covered over it by reaching for his own glass and taking a drink. The motion gave him a chance to get himself together.


As he swallowed, he looked at the Judge, not surprised to find the man looking at him. “What else could it be?” he asked, but he kept his words as soft as the Judge’s had been.


Travis tilted his head to one side. “A man of your experience in the world – surely I do not have to draw a picture for you.” He raised one hand, the one without the glass, and gestured, indicating their surroundings. “You have spent many hours in places such as this – you even owned one for a short time, very recently, or so I have been told.”


Ezra’s belly tightened, knowing where and why the Judge had heard of this, but still irritated by it. “Your point?” he asked, hearing the edge in his own words.


The Judge shrugged. “Surely you know of men who are more . . . compelled by other men than they are by women.”


‘Compelled’. What a polite word. Not at all the condemnation Ezra had expected – but then, that wasn’t the Judge’s way. He had never said anything overt to Yates this afternoon, never suggested that he found the man cowardly or murderous or heinous. Everything the Judge said had been cloaked in the abstractions of the law. About Yates’ acts as opposed to his inherent corruptness.


But as Ezra thought about the Judge’s slyness, something else came to mind – something that was disconcerting in another way. “Are you suggesting that Vin is - such a man?”


As he said it, he turned to look at the Judge and had the pleasure of seeing the older man’s eyes widen, in what appeared to be genuine surprise. It was a welcome change, to be the one on the interrogating side.


But he couldn't thoroughly enjoy it, because of the voice in the back of his head dredging up images of Vin and Chris, the comfort they found in each other, the closeness of their relationship. It had never pleased him, but he had always taken solace in the fact that Vin had never demonstrated any interest in men. Though he had also never demonstrated any overt interest in women, which Ezra tried not to think about.


What if, all this time . . .


“I had never considered it,” the Judge said, and the tone in his voice, a sort of shock, led Ezra to believe that he was sincere. “I was considering Eli Joe and Yates.”


The bluntness of that statement, which was in keeping with Ezra’s own thoughts, was enough to reassure him – at least about the Judge’s thinking. The worrier in the back of his own mind was still dredging up visions that he didn’t want to consider.


“Ah,” Ezra said, picking up his deck of cards once more. His fingers worked of their own accord, turning over the top card and either placing it on a row or putting in on the bottom of the deck. “Well, I would have to admit, I did find it peculiar that Eli Joe had such power over Mr. Yates. I understand being afraid of what might happen if you reject someone with that sort of temperament, but by the same token, it sounds as if Mr. Yates had ample opportunity to make his escape, especially if he were rarely party to any of the violent events that made Eli Joe such a wanted man.”


Travis nodded, his head moving up and down in Ezra’s peripheral vision. “I suspect that Eli Joe’s death has caused him no little anguish,” the man said, his voice once more low. “I suspect that much of what he said today was a product of his grief, and perhaps some anger.”


Ezra found himself in agreement, though he tried not to show it. “He did not seem particularly interested in exonerating Vin.”


Travis made a noise low in his throat and after a few seconds, Ezra realized the man was chuckling. It was a sound that was intimidating in its own right.


“No, no, he did not,” Travis agreed. “But then, if you thought that the person who . . . you were most devoted to was not as concerned about you as about someone who you had never met – and then the pursuit of that person led to the death of the your . . . friend – would you want to exonerate him?”


With no warning, Maude came to mind – Maude and her plans, some of which were good, but many of which were not. If trying to save her in some way led to something happening to Chris . . . It wasn’t the best parallel, by a long shot, but still . . .


But is also left him with the problem of Chris’ concern for Vin. For Vin being dragged back to Texas and Chris, damned fool that he was, trying to save him.


Ezra sighed and once more put down the deck, reaching for his drink. As he lifted it off the table, he said, “So what does this mean for Vin? Are you sending him back to Tascosa?”


Once more, Travis looked surprised, but this time, as the surprise gave way, he smiled. “My apologies, I thought you understood. I have testimony from the others that were captured. They knew of Eli Joe’s plot to set up Vin – two of them were with him when Jess Kincaid was killed. So no, I have no reason to send Tanner back to Tascosa, not as long as I can send the reports and my own sworn statement and that of a witness. In this case, I had Mr. Bartram to sit in. He made quite the impression, I think, though he never actually said a word.”


Bartram. The undertaker.


Ezra looked at the Judge and despite himself, he smiled. “I suspect he did, at that.” But then he frowned, confused. “So what, then, was the point of the conversation with Yates?”


The Judge chuckled again before he answered. “I wanted to know just how complicit Yates was in the intent to kill Tanner. Whether he should be charged with attempted murder as well as everything else. We only have Tanner’s word for what happened. While Chris is an eyewitness, he didn’t hear what was said. Yates could have claimed that Eli Joe would have killed him had he not put the noose around Vin’s head and planned to run the horse. He could have said a number of things to contradict Vin’s assessment of the matter.”


“And you believe – what, at this point?” Ezra reached once more for his own glass, noticing that it was almost empty. As was the Judge’s.


The Judge leaned forward and put his glass on the table. “That the whole idea was actually Yates’ doing. A test for Eli Joe, to prove his . . . loyalty to Yates. I believe that Yates devised the situation to force Eli Joe to choose between himself and Tanner.”


The idea was no little shocking, and it must have shown on Ezra’s face. The Judge nodded, then he glanced toward the bar and waved to Inez, who seemed to understand the Judge’s importance and gave him special privilege. She nodded and made her way over with the whiskey bottle, amply refilling both glasses, smiling politely as she walked away. Ezra took the time to let the idea sift into place, to consider what he had heard Yates say earlier – and how he had said it.


“So, then,” he said, “Eli Joe’s death is actually Yates’ fault.”


The Judge nodded and swallowed more liquor. “I believe that’s a big part of his anger. He set this all in motion. Eli Joe might have wanted to come looking for Vin, but not to kill him – not unless he didn’t have a choice. The kidnapping was too elaborate, too messy. If Eli Joe was going to kill him, he’d have done exactly what he ultimately did: ride into town, set up at the hotel or on a rooftop, and shoot Vin when he wasn’t prepared. I think it was Yates’ idea to take Vin captive – so he could have time with him. Then, to take him to Eli Joe and make him choose.”


Ezra shook his head, looking at his forgotten cards. “It sounds like some dreadful romance, gone terribly wrong.”


“As most do,” the Judge said dryly. “If it involved two women and a man, we’d find it cliched.”


Ezra gathered up his cards, shuffling them. “So what do you intend to do?” he asked, trying to ignore the implications of the Judge’s words.


The Judge drew in a long breath, then let it out slowly. “Honestly, I have no idea. I need to talk to Tanner, see where he stands on all of this. I wanted to be clear on the issue of the situation in Texas before I did – don’t want any conflict of interest here. Then I’ll think about who is better served. Most of those men will be returned to Texas, as they have more counts against them there than they do here. The ones who told me about the plan to kill Jess Kincaid – I didn’t make any deal with them, but I will put in a good work for them, see if they can get life in Yuma instead of hanging, if that’s what they want.”


Ezra shuddered. “I think I’d prefer to hang. I know I would prefer not to have to make the choice.”


The Judge grinned, took a long drink on his glass, finishing it off, then put his hands on the table. “Then don’t do anything foolish,” he said as he pushed up.


But before he stepped away, Ezra said, “Out of curiosity, why did you ask me to sit in on your interview with Yates?” He had considered how to ask this question, wanting to see how the Judge would interpret it.


Wondering if the interpretation would line up with his own thought – and concern – on the issue.


The Judge opened his mouth to answer, then he stopped and looked down at Ezra, meeting his eyes. His voice was once more low and even as he answered, discreet. “As I said, I suspect you’ve had some experience with men who have . . . those predispositions. I could not afford to have that part of the issue made public – it complicates the whole situation. And I assumed you would understand that, especially as it does pertain to Mr. Tanner. I don’t need the seven of you tainted in any more ways than you already are.”


He said the last with a sort of grin, as if he were teasing. But his gaze darkened, and Ezra felt a chill that made his teeth clench. Before he could speak, the Judge was gone.


It was a relief when, moments later, Buck came strutting through the doors, calling out greetings to one and all before dropping into a chair and distracting Ezra from the dark sets of worries competing for his attention.


&^&^&^&^&^&^


“That’s all he said?” Chris frowned even as he blew a slow stream of smoke from one side of his lips. “That he didn’t want our reputations to be any worse than they already were?” From the tone of his voice, Ezra knew he was not taking the Judge’s words as seriously as he should be.


Once more, he glanced at the door, knowing that it was locked – he’d checked it just moments ago – but he couldn’t stop himself from getting up and walking back over to it.


“Ezra, calm down. He ain’t a mind reader. Though – that was pretty interesting, about Eli Joe and Yates. I’d not have guessed it. Though . . Huh. I think Vin might have.”


“Oh?” Ezra asked, pushing a chair in front of the door. “What did he say?”


Chris snorted. “We ain’t doing nothing,” he said, though he was stretched out on Ezra’s bed, his boots, hat, coat, and guns off, his shirt open at the collar and part way down his chest. He wasn’t undressed, per se, though he was showing more skin than was decent in public – including the end of one big toe that stuck provocatively through a hole in his sock. “You’re jumpier than one of Buck’s long-tailed cats.”


Ezra sighed and turned back to face him. “I do not think this is a matter to be taken lightly. I believe the Judge was sending us a message. Or, if not us, then me. He has never liked me, and I suspect that he would hold me accountable for any damage to your reputation should this -” he waved a hand around, indicting the room and everything – every one – that was in it - “become known.”


Chris blew out more smoke, and Ezra noted that the ash from the cigarillo was growing. He picked up a saucer that they used for such and handed it to Chris, finding himself more annoyed than usual with the other man.


“How do you think it’s going to become known?” Chris asked, taking the saucer and setting it on the bed beside him. He was careful, though, tapping off the ash and not getting any on the bed covers. “We’re quiet and nobody sees me come and go – hell, we’re pretty much the only ones who use those stairs. It’s like having your own personal access to this room.” He reached out with the hand not holding the cigarillo and caught Ezra’s fingers, holding them loosely. “And even if you’re right, and the Judge does suspect, well, he’s giving us a warning – us, Ezra, not just you. Though to be perfectly frank, I can’t believe for a minute he wouldn’t say something to me. Ain’t like he’s ever been shy.”


Ezra took the hand that was offered, appreciating the rough callouses and strong grip that Chris offered. And the reassurance. Though he didn’t agree, it did lessen his tension some. “So what did Vin say that makes you think he knew about Eli Joe and Yates?”


Chris grinned slightly. “He said that something about Yates was strange – ‘like a jealous woman’ was his exact words. Said he was too handsy, kept touching in ways that wasn’t necessary or wanted. Like he was seeing how Vin would react.”


Ezra squeezed Chris’ fingers, uncomfortable at the idea of what Vin had gone through.


“When they were planning on hanging Vin, it was pretty clear – I could see it – that Yates and Eli Joe were arguing about something. Vin said they were, and though he couldn’t hear the words, a couple of the men near him made comments about it being a lovers’ spat, and some questions as to who was the real boss, Eli Joe or Yates.”


Ezra swallowed, turning to look out the window. “So the men knew. I worry that our friends will -”


“Those weren’t their friends, Ezra. They were men who rode with them for the money, nothing else. Reckon the fact they sold out Eli Joe on that murder of Jess Kincaid should make that clear enough.” Chris wasn’t censuring, his words were light and clear, and the press of his fingers against Ezra’s was warm. “Don’t think any of our friends give a damn – and if they did, well, they ain’t really friends, then, are they?”


Ezra shook his head. They’d had this conversation too many times as of late, and Chris, always so confident, wasn’t going to be swayed. It made Ezra want to ask him how he knew, though he really didn’t want to know, when it came down to it. He suspected that Vin and Buck, canny in their different ways, had already figured it out.


Which brought back his worries from earlier, the worry about Vin and the directions in which he was ‘compelled’.


As if knowing his mind, Chris said, “Vin said something else, too. When he was trying to pull Eli Joe up on the roof, before I shot him, Eli Joe said something to Vin that I didn’t hear. According to Vin, he said he was sorry, but that Vin wasn’t going to be his, so he had to keep the one who was. Vin said he didn’t understand what it meant, but that that was what he was trying to understand when he saw the knife – and then I shot Eli Joe.”


Ezra nodded, appreciating the context. “Does Vin understand now?”


Chris pulled at Ezra’s hand drawing him closer. He had put the cigarillo out by pressing it into the saucer and he moved it to a point farther along the bed. “I think so – and I know he will after you tell him about what happened today.”


Ezra let himself be pulled into a sitting position at Chris’ hip, the other man’s arm wrapping around him. “I’m not sure I’m at liberty to tell him. The Judge was counting on my discretion in this matter.”


“Your discretion with the town, Ezra. Not with us. But if you don’t want to talk to him, I respect that.” He shifted over, trying to draw Ezra even more onto the bed.


“Because you’ll tell him,” Ezra said with a sigh.


That confidence, once again. “Yep. You gonna come here?”


Ezra sighed again but let himself be drawn down into the warmth of the other man’s heat. “So Vin also thinks that he was caught up in some sordid bad romance?”


Chris snorted, the sound loud against Ezra’s ear. “Don’t know about that – don’t think Vin knows much about bad romances – well, not in the sense of literature. He was pretty surprised that Eli Joe showed up here, though, and he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t have done so without someone else doing the pushing.”


Ezra nodded, thinking hard on the other part of the equation, even as his body relaxed of its own volition. “So . . . how well did Vin know Eli Joe? Before, I mean?”


Chris stilled, even his breath stopping. Ezra could feel the tension in his body, the tautness of his muscles that wasn’t usual. After a time, Chris asked, his words slow and careful, “What are you looking for?”


Ezra swallowed, trying to find a graceful way out of this. Trying to find an alternate, innocent interpretation of his question.


But Chris wasn’t just anyone. In the same way he could read the tension in the other man, Chris could read him.


“Vin had never met Eli Joe, not enough to recognize him. That was why he believed that Jess Kincaid was Eli Joe – don’t you remember?” There was an edge in Chris’ voice now, that edge that came when he was irritated.


And of course he was right. The whole situation had started because Vin didn’t know Eli Joe on sight. But that begged another question.


“Then why would Eli Joe . . .” He wasn’t sure how to ask the rest of it – wasn’t sure what the rest of it was. Yates had been jealous – and apparently, Eli Joe had been sorry that he had to kill Vin.


But there was a wide scale between those two extremes. And again, what Yates felt versus what was truly there were two different things.


Chris was silent for a time, but he wasn’t angry. He stroked Ezra’s arm through the fabric of his shirt, gradually getting Ezra to shift closer to him, the two of them sinking into the thick mattress. When Chris finally spoke, Ezra felt him more than heard him, the words vibrating along Ezra’s throat and chest. “I don’t know what his mind was – closest one who might is Yates. So I can’t tell you why he did anything – and I don’t think Vin can either. But I can tell you that Eli Joe, like Vin, was a hunter. He looked for opportunities, for people, to take advantage of. For the most part, he was a bank robber, but he didn’t pick the banks casually. He knew they were getting shipments of gold or silver or dollars, things worth taking. The killing wasn’t what he sought – it was the hunt for the money. Vin said that was why he was surprised that Eli Joe had come after him; that sort of hunt wasn’t his way.”


Chris paused for a minute, but Ezra didn’t interrupt. He knew there was a point here, and it would frustrate things if he interrupted. And among the things it would frustrate was Ezra’s own contentment, as he was enjoying the rhythmic strokes of Chris’ fingers along his arm, the heat that connected them in the places they touched.


“Eli Joe had never been tracked the way Vin tracked him. That was one of the things that led to Jess Kincaid’s death – to a murder. Eli Joe panicked because Vin was that good – he was a hunter, in the same way Eli Joe was, but he was hunting Eli Joe. Vin thinks that somewhere in there, Eli Joe came to respect Vin, which wasn’t something that came natural to Eli Joe. He was fascinated by the fact that he had an opponent – a tracker – who was as good as he was, maybe better.”


“So . . . it wasn’t love, so much as it was – infatuation?” The idea was interesting. Lord knew that infatuation could make a man do all sorts of crazy things . . . stay in a dust bowl of a town, just waiting for the right moment . . .


Chris shifted a little, settling deeper into the bed but also against Ezra. “I don’t know if that’s the right word. There’s a thing that happens between hunter and prey. Back when we were hunting Fowler,” he said the name with a sharpness that reminded Ezra of how deep that wound still was, “I told a story about a mountain lion I was hunting – a smart damned cat who had killed a lot of my stock. As I went hunting for it, I figured out it was not in front of me, by behind me. It had doubled back on me, and was hunting me. Cost me a damned good pack mule, I might add, and almost killed my horse and me.”


Ezra didn’t recall the story, but right now, that didn’t matter. What did matter was the warmth and respect he heard in Chris’ tone.


The affection.


“I can’t explain it,” Chris went on, “but I really didn’t want too kill that cat. We were in a competition, but it was a competition of equals. And there’s a sort of . . . relationship, I guess, that comes out of that. It ain’t love, not in the way most people mean it, but it’s an appreciation for the fact that there’s something – someone – who is as good as you at something. And who respects you at other levels because of it.”


“ ‘Our enemies are our outward consciences’.” He sighed and tilted his head back, staring at the ceiling. “Shakespeare – though he wasn’t the only one to suggest that we get more in our relationships with those who we fight than those who we love.”


Not sure I’d put it that way, but it’s close. It’s a game of wits and a game of survival – high stakes poker, I guess, where the stakes are your life.”


The thought of it made Ezra’s stomach roil. “So Eli Joe and Vin – they were playing this sort of extreme competition?”


Chris rubbed his forehead against Ezra’s shoulder, his hair tickling Ezra’s ear and the part of his neck it touched. “Yeah, they were. Vin – well, you’ve played him at poker. He’s pretty straight up. He can bluff, but he can’t lie for shit. It’s not his nature - and it’s not the way he wants to do anything.”


Yes,” Ezra agreed before he could stop himself, “he’s just like you.”


Chris snorted, this time more loudly, and Ezra thrust out his hand to cover the other man’s mouth. But Chris was already laughing at a lower level and when Ezra finally withdrew his hand, Chris said, “Yeah, that’s pretty much it. We don’t like to be anyone but who we are, no matter the cost.”


And that, Ezra realized, was really the point. “Eli Joe . . . felt however he felt for Vin because Vin wouldn’t . . . lie?”


Chris sighed. “Not so much that he wouldn’t lie, but he wouldn’t - well, he wouldn’t cheat. Some would say he was playing by the rules set down in the law – you know, the thing about having to announce you’re a bounty hunter in order to be doing it legal and to file your reports where ever you catch someone – all those rules that most hunters can’t be bothered with, and that the law only drags out if someone else makes a hell of a noise.”


Ezra thought about it for a time. It made sense. Too much so, actually. “Maude always taught me that I had to know the rules to any game – always. Not so much because I had to play by them, but because I had to know what everyone else was thinking they were.”


So that you could break the rules but make it look like you weren’t,” Chris said, though it was, once more, without censure.


Ezra turned his head, wanting to glare at the other man, but his eyes were even with the top of Chris’ brow as Chris was tucked into Ezra’s neck. So he made do with saying, “So that we could explain the more esoteric rules to people who didn’t understand them.”


Ah,” Chris said, the syllable a warm breath across Ezra’s throat. “Of course.”


What, exactly, are you suggesting?” Ezra said, annoyed.


I’m kidding with you,” Chris said, leaning in close enough to kiss Ezra’s cheek. It was an unexpected touch, as Chris wasn’t given to signs of casual affection.


Ezra turned his head, his nose brushing against Chris’. The other man smelled of the sweetness of the tobacco, but Ezra knew if their lips touched, he would taste the edge of bitterness that Chris preferred in the flavor. “But what was your point?” Ezra asked, trying to curb the temptation. “About rules?”


Just that Eli Joe was caught up in trying to win the game, which he was afraid he’d lose even though Vin wouldn’t cheat, not like he did. That fascinated him – that Vin became an outlaw but that he wasn’t like Eli Joe – he didn’t rob banks or go about hurting folk. He actually settled down here and became as much of a real lawman as he could.” Chris gave a small sound that Ezra realized was a laugh. “Just like you did.”


Ezra drew in a breath, almost irritated, until he thought about it. To this point, he had been comparing himself to Yates.


But then, he was also like Vin.


It wasn’t actually a new thought – he had compared himself to Vin often, as Chris seemed to split his time between the two of them, and Ezra still struggled to understand what Vin offered. His instincts and even his careful considerations on the point – often, and usually with a healthy side of liquor – usually led him to his oft-visited list of failings. Though in the ledger book that he kept, Vin, too, had failings, starting with this lack of upkeep, lack of manners, and general preference to maintain both.


But on the other side of it, he offered something to Chris that Ezra didn’t have, and that usually led Ezra back to his own short comings. Thus, this idea that whatever it was that Vin offered to Chris, that Chris liked – Ezra had some of these as well. This was – different.


New.


And strangely, tantalizing, welcome.


So much so that despite the promise he had made to himself earlier, after the Judge had left, he allowed himself, once more, to give into the dangers of being in bed with Chris Larabee.

Though he did promise to buy yet another, thicker, carpet for his floor . . .


*&*&*&*&*


What do you think they’re talking about?” JD was trying to be quiet, but it just wasn’t in his nature. He was almost quivering with excitement, curiosity, and worry that something would happen.


In a way, Ezra couldn’t blame him. The sight of Vin and Yates standing at the grave of Eli Joe did prompt one to wonder.


Reckon they’re talking about Eli Joe,” Chris said, his voice so dry and even that Ezra had to turn his head and clear his throat to keep from laughing. Damn Chris and his statements of the obvious.


As usual, Buck came to JD’s defense and deflected the potential insult. “Seems odd, though – Vin and Yates – especially after Vin took out his anger that way.”


Reckon they have some air to clear, seeing as how Yates kidnapped Vin for Eli Joe.”


The choice of the word ‘kidnapped’ cued Ezra to the fact that Chris was selling the Judge’s story of events. That was the official accusation, that while impersonating a marshal, Yates had kidnapped Vin. Yates had agreed to take that plea in exchange for not going back to Texas. In it, he had also agreed to talk to the Texas authorities about the crimes he knew Eli Joe had committed – thus clearing up some mysteries for a lot of folk and laying the blame on Eli Joe for many things.


He had also agreed to support the testimony of the two men who had known about the killing of Jess Kincaid, thus laying the groundwork to clear Vin’s name.


That was all part of the ‘public’ record – the part that Chris had told Buck and Josiah and anyone else who had asked. Josiah had been particularly – and oddly, to Ezra’s mind – interested in the proceedings, and he had taken more than his fair share of shifts at the jail, watching over the crowded group of men in the cells.


The private record, though, was a little more complicated. He knew it because Chris had told him: Yates wanted a private conversation with Vin.


It hadn’t been easy. Vin had balked at the idea, not sure what Yates could possibly offer to him that he didn’t have already in the testimony from the other two men. Especially as, by his own admission, Yates hadn’t been there at the killing of Jess Kincaid.


Vin was also not forgiving about the kidnapping – or the manhandling or, what he termed, the crazy in Yates that had made no sense.


But he had been convinced – by Chris and the Judge, as Ezra intuited- to take this trip into the cemetery.


They stood on either sided of the grave, and though it was clear that Vin wasn’t enamored of this idea, he was respectful of the dead. Though maybe not so much of Yates. Yates was in irons, though, so it wasn’t as if he would be able to get away. His hands were once more behind him, and he had a ten pound ball chained to each ankle. He wasn’t going anywhere fast.


Vin, for his part, was uncomfortable. Though Ezra thought it was more than that. He was pretty sure the other man was angry but trying very hard to control it. He was able to do that because he also seemed to be confused and disbelieving, as if whatever Yates was saying to him made no sense.


Perhaps, for Vin, it didn’t. Once more, Ezra felt a strange compassion for Yates – a man who cared for another man in a world where it was unacceptable – but also where, because of that, every affection was competition.


In his heart, Ezra knew, as well as he knew the calculations on a chart, that Chris cared for him, and that where they were now, the longevity of their congress, the way they spoke to each other and the habits they had set, was a sign of a commitment on both of their parts. Of course they had spoken it – hashed it out for hours in the dead of night, acted upon it when and where they could, plotted time together in town, out of town, anywhere they could feel safe.


He had thought, hoped, dreamed, that owning his own place could allow them a modicum of safety to come and go as they wanted.


And there was no little part of him that had guessed that Maude knew that, and had, as she was want to do, interceded to thwart his plan.


Because she was scared for him. She knew as well as he the price paid by men who were caught feeling the things he felt for other men. As the Judge had so politely pointed out, it was saloons, gambling halls, and other places where sins were already being committed that attracted men of unnatural tastes. Maude was no stranger to those places, either.


And if he ever needed reminding, he could come out here to the cemetery and stand where Vin was now, looking down at the unmarked grave of a man who had died because of his love.


You sure it’s all right for Vin to be up there alone with him?” JD asked. “Maybe I should go -”


No!” The word was sharp and layered in pitch, as it was said by Chris, Josiah, and Ezra all at the same time. JD looked at each of them in turn, his eyes wide and no little hurt.


You think Vin can’t handle a man chained up like Yates is?” Buck said quickly. “Hell, I’d be more worried about Yates than Vin.”


Ezra almost smiled, looking once more to see Vin with his hands clenched into fists, his jaw tight with anger. Buck was right.


Vin can handle Yates,” Chris agreed with Buck. “Those two have some things they need to say before Yates gets in that wagon with the others.”


The wagon was a prison wagon that sat in front of the jail. The guards for it – six of them, thankfully – were getting food for their horses and themselves, and they planned to be on the road as soon as they were finished. This was the last possible chance for Yates to talk to Vin.


Apparently, he was talking. His head was down and his back was to them, so the only way Ezra knew the man was talking was in the way Vin’s body shifted and changed. The anger of a few seconds ago was still there, but it diminished some, his jaw less rigid and his shoulders more relaxed. He was looking at Yates, but he seemed, once more, confused.


Anybody see where those federales got to?” Josiah asked casually from where he was leaning on the wall of the saloon. “Might be good to check and see about how long before they’re ready to load up.”


Some of them were heading to Mrs. Mabel’s – you want me to go check on ‘em?” JD asked, and Ezra knew that that had been Josiah’s intention, to get JD moving.


Good idea,” Chris said. “Let’s help get them out of here. Josiah, you keeping an eye on Yates?” At Josiah’s nod – indeed, the man had not looked away from Yates the entire time, as far as Ezra could tell – Chris slapped Ezra on the shoulder and said, “Then you and me are gonna start rousting the ones inside, getting ‘em ready to leave.”


Ezra turned to look over his shoulder at Chris. “Whatever did I do to deserve such an honor?” he asked, though he was pleased at Chris’ trust in him.


Figure your cologne is strong enough to cover up the smell of the all those men, cramped up in the jail for so long,” Chris said as he turned away.


Not surprisingly, Buck laughed long and hard, and Ezra spent the next few hours considering how he was going to get even with Chris.


Late afternoon found Ezra in the saloon, at his usual table, dealing out a game of solitaire, when Vin settled into the chair next to him. It caught him by surprise; it was rare for Vin to be in the saloon this early, more rare for him to sit down at Ezra’s table when Ezra was alone.


And even more rare for him to bring a bottle of whiskey with him, which he set between them, a silent offer to share.


Ezra continued to play his game, though he looked at Vin covertly. The other man was tired, his face thinner and lined, as if he hadn’t slept in a while. He looked more in need of a shave than usual and his eyes were bloodshot. The anger from earlier still seemed to vibrate through him, his hands twitchy and his jaw periodically tightening unexpectedly.


Even more worrisome was the fact that he threw back three shots in about as many minutes, something Ezra couldn’t recall ever having seen Vin do before.


A celebration?” he asked, trying to sound light. “I was given to believe that things might be taking a turn for the better in regards to your situation in Texas.”


Vin blew out a breath before saying, “Reckon they are. Maybe. Ain’t sure I trust this turn of good luck, though. Eli Joe is dead and though those other two claim to have been with him, they can always change their minds.”


Ezra smiled, remembering why he liked Vin Tanner. Like himself, Vin was acutely aware that depending on other people was a sure path to disappointment.


Most other people.

Indeed, but we could also celebrate the fact that they are gone. The jail will need to air for a while – perhaps several weeks -but we are no longer housing and feeding – and watching over – all those men.”


Vin shrugged and reached once more for his bottle. He poured himself a healthy measure, but this time, he didn’t swallow it in one gulp. Instead, he put the bottle closer to Ezra and sat with both hands around his glass, which was on the table. “Reckon you’re the only person who ain’t asked me what Yates said today. Well, you and Chris.” He added the last part quickly.


Ezra flipped another card and considered his answer – for he knew this was a question, despite its phrasing. Vin Tanner was a master of this sort of conversation, in which he never asked, because that might be invasive and lead to problems, but instead, he made pointed comments that encouraged conversation.


It had taken Ezra a while to figure this out, and when he had, he had wondered – and still did – where Vin had learned this technique. It was one he was trying to adopt himself.


But now was not the time to consider it. Instead, he said slowly, “I won’t deny I am curious, but I assumed it was a private matter.”


Vin shook his head but Ezra saw the slight grin on his face. “And you’d get around to worming it out of Chris at some point.”


He said the words casually, as if there were nothing to them, but Ezra went cold, his breath catching and his heart racing. The memory of the Judge’s words, the implicit threat that Chris had not taken seriously, the fear of Vin Tanner pulling out his gun and shooting him right here -


Calm down, Ezra.” Vin’s voice was low and soft and right in his ear. “Ain’t no need to worry. I know you and Chris are spending time together – known it for a long while now. Ain’t planning on telling nobody – ain’t nobody’s business, not even mine. Though Chris knows I know, which is why I figured you’d get it out of him.”


He couldn’t breathe. As a child, he’d had asthma, a condition he had eventually outgrown, but all of the memories of it – the terror of struggling for breath – came back to him now as he found he could not draw air into his lungs. He knew it was because his mind was unable to take in all that Vin had said, all of the implications, and his body was having a physical reaction to the shock of it.


All of the reasoning did nothing for the fact that his lungs had no air and he felt himself growing light-headed, his vision dimming.


Then a sudden blow to his back forced him forward against the table. He saw cards flutter into the air, landing in a cascade along the table, but he was more aware of the air that pushed out of his mouth in a gust that spread more cards across the table and onto the floor.


And then the intake of air and the diminution of pounding in his temple, as the oxygen slowly came back into his head.


It’s all right,” he heard Vin speaking though the words were distant, “he choked on the whiskey. Ain’t used to the cheap stuff, I guess.”


As his vision cleared, Ezra saw Inez hovering near, her hands on her hips but not angry; she was worried, he saw it in her dark eyes.


I am fine,” he said, though he stumbled over the words as he had trouble getting his voice to operate.


Water,” she said, hurrying toward the bar.


Ezra lifted a hand, hoping that he was waving it noncommittally, but he used his other hand to reach for his glass. The whiskey was smooth and soothing as it went down his throat, settling warmly in his stomach.


Ain’t no need for you to worry,” Vin said, his voice warm in Ezra’s ear. “Even if you don’t trust me, I think you should know that I ain’t gonna do nothing to hurt Chris.”


It didn’t take but a few seconds for the truth of those words to settle in Ezra’s brain and reassure him. There was a little sting in them – his own jealousy – but at the same time, there was more reassurance because he knew the truth in Vin’s words: Vin would never betray Chris.


As Chris would never betray Vin.


He mulled that as Inez returned with the water and then, graciously, gathered up the cards that had fallen on the floor, placing them in a neat stack near him.


Thanks, Inez,” Vin said, nodding to her. She nodded back, her smile easy, before she went back to the bar. Maybe there was something between them . . .


Before Ezra could let himself consider being relieved, Vin said, “I owe you for what you did with the Judge and Yates, sitting in on that meeting. Don’t reckon it was easy on you, being in there with the Judge, not knowing what was going on. Guess I owe you the tale, for what you did. So here’s the long and short of it: Yates thought Eli Joe was lying about me. He thought Eli Joe was telling some sort of tale about me, in order to keep Yates at a distance.” Vin stared down at the table, shaking his head. “I ain’t got no explanation for any of this, Ezra. I saw Eli Joe one time in my life, and that was in Tascosa, when I was in jail. They gave me a hearing, if you can call it that. It was the one time I had a chance to say anything. No one believed me, and as they were taking me back to the jail, he was there, standing in the back of the crowd. I knew it was him – not because he looked like his Wanted poster, but because he was grinning at me, letting me know he’d won. Guess it was what made me angry enough to break free. I wanted to get to him – but he was long gone by then.”


Ezra frowned, taking in the words. “You only saw him the one time. How many times did he see you?”


Vin glanced up, frowning. He thought for a few seconds, then he shrugged. “Reckon that’s a good question. I didn’t think to ask Yates, but from the way he talked, Eli Joe saw me more than that one time. Yates said something about how Eli Joe would tell him about me, how I looked, how I acted – he couldn’t have gotten all that from that one time.”


Ezra looked at Vin, almost amused; he had known everything he needed to know about Vin Tanner the first time he’d seen him, standing in that saloon between Nathan Jackson and Chris Larabee. That assessment had grown more complex over the time they’d spent together, but he had never deviated from his initial impression: Vin Tanner was exactly who he appeared to be, confident, stubborn, and uncompromising in his values. Eli Joe could well have seen that in those few seconds in Tascosa.


Ezra had seen it in the way Vin carried himself the day Yates and his fellow ‘marshals’ led Vin out of town, supposedly on their way to Tascosa.


But he also agreed with Vin; to plot the kidnapping that they had pulled off, Eli Joe had had to watch Vin more than that one time. To get to him in town, as he had been planning with his attempted assassination, Eli Joe had been watching Vin for a while.


The thought unsettled Ezra. If Eli Joe had been watching Vin, he’d been watching all of them.


As if knowing his mind, Vin said quietly, “Yates mentioned that he and Eli Joe had seen a few things here, in town. He wasn’t trying to blackmail me, though – I think he really don’t care if he lives or dies now. He just didn’t want anyone else who . . . well, I guess he didn’t want anyone to get caught. I reckon he was hoping that things would be better for him and Eli Joe once I was gone.” Vin grinned quickly and looked at Ezra. “Thought maybe you might think that sometimes, too.”


The comment – and its accuracy – was so unexpected that Ezra felt the heat rise in his face before he could control his reaction. He struggled for words, but Vin went on.


I’ll tell you the same thing I told Yates: you got no worries. Shame to waste time on it – hell, look at what it cost Yates.”


He lifted his glass and finished off his drink, starting to get up as he did.


Ezra found his voice, finally, though he reached out first, catching the sleeve of Vin’s jacket. “I don’t understand,” he said, which was, actually, true.


Vin frowned, still halfway to his feet. The frown held a hint of annoyance, and Ezra suspected that he thought Ezra was playing dumb. While it was an instinct, in the time his tongue was struggling to find words, he had known it would be foolish to go that route; Vin was giving him a gift that he had never expected and while he wasn’t going to openly admit to anything, he knew better than to betray this gift with an active denial.


Instead, he asked after the other part that confused him. “Why did you choose to tell me this, and not Chris?”


The annoyance ebbed from Vin’s face and though he stood up, he leaned down. “Told you already. Figure I owe you for what you did in that meeting. You’ll tell Chris, which is better than me having to have that conversation with him. You might have figured this out already, but me and Chris don’t talk about a lot of things – we don’t have to. I don’t care ‘bout what y’all get up to – but that don’t mean I want to have that conversation with him.”


He grinned then and straightened, touching the brim of his hat as he turned and walked away.


Ezra watched him go, his mind a whirl of thoughts and ideas. Fear was the overriding emotion – one that had been a constant companion since he’d confronted his desires many years ago.


But that was instinct. And it didn’t take long for him to remember that Vin had known about his situation with Chris for longer than Yates had. And that he was someone who was not going to tell.


Without thought, his hands returned to his cards, mixing them then turning over a pattern for a game of solitaire. He played with little awareness of his actions, passingly aware when the game ended with either the deck or himself winning, passingly aware of shuffling the cards and starting over again and again.


It was only when a glass dropped onto the table near the bottle Vin had left that Ezra came back into an awareness of where he was and who was joining him. He didn’t have to look up to know, though; the faint jingle of fine spurs, the rich, sweet smell of tobacco, told him it was Chris.


The immediate and unsolicited sense of comfort that came with those awarenesses.


Damn it all.


They’re gone,” Chris said. “Judge too.” He reached for the bottle and poured some of the whiskey into his glass before leaning back in his chair. He wasn’t drinking like Vin had been, which Ezra took as a good sign.


He also realized that Chris was talking – unnecessarily. Ezra knew that Yates and company were gone, and that the Judge had planned to leave on the afternoon stage. It was well into the evening – the saloon lamps were lit, the light coming through the windows was coming spare and yellow, from the watch fires and starlight.


It was unlike Chris to speak unnecessarily. The only times he did that was when he was . . .


Ezra turned and looked at the other man, so surprised that his hand stopped in mid-motion, a card suspended between his fingers.


Chris frowned at him, but there was something else in his expression as well. A wariness that confirmed Ezra’s suspicions: Chris was nervous.


As if knowing Ezra’s mind, Chris said, “I ain’t seen Vin today. Buck said he saw him in here, talking to you earlier.”


The last words were said flatly but there was a slight lilt that suggested a question – or a worry.


Ezra forced himself to look back at the card he was holding up, to consider it and place it in it proper place, a three of hearts on a four of clubs. Chris was worried about Vin. Perhaps he had reason to be.


But why wasn’t he worried about -


You ain’t thinking of cutting out of me, are you?” These words were so quiet, so soft, that Ezra didn’t register them so much as the warmth of the breath in his ear and the brush of Chris’ arm against his.


Vin had done the same thing earlier. But this nearness, this touch, was different.


Ezra stiffened but he didn’t jerk away. Before he could decide if he were angry, amused, or pleased, Chris went on, “Don’t let him worry you none, Ezra. He’s my friend, but he’s not making decisions for me.”


The worry he had heard before was back now, an undercurrent that raised the pitch of Chris’ voice just a little – just enough for Ezra to notice.


Just enough to make him appreciate what Vin had actually given him: the proof of Chris’ affection.


He smiled and looked at his cards, continuing to turn them as he said, “Mr. Tanner chose to relate the story of his conversation with Yates. He suggested that I should share it with you, as he seems somewhat . . . disquieted by the discussion of it with you. It seems that Yates has some warnings to share and while Vin does not appear to have concerns about . . . things concerning you and I, he does not seem comfortable discussing some things with you.” Despite himself, he felt a sort of pride in the realization that Vin Tanner found something he could discuss with Ezra and not Chris.


Chris drew in a deep breath and sat back, picking up his drink. He took a sip, frowning, but after he swallowed, he said, “Reckon I knew that – or at least some of it. He’s shy about affections – not just like – well, all of them. He likes Casey, and he thinks she’s good for JD, but as soon as the talk gets into more personal areas, he finds a way to disappear. He listens to me when I get maudlin about Sara, but he doesn’t ask questions, and he’s pretty unsettled by it.” He stopped abruptly, as if he had run out of words, or, more likely, realized how much he was saying. He didn’t like to talk about people, either, especially those he knew well.


The fact that he was now, the fact that he did, sometimes, when they were alone, was another sign of what Ezra was coming to understand as a reflection of Chris’ affection for him.


Though now, he knew it for what it really was: trust.


Which was what Vin had given him as well.


Ezra looked around the saloon. It was still early, in terms of the business; the room was growing more crowded, but most people were eating dinner or drinking. Gambling – serious gambling – would not start for a few more hours.


And even as he calculated how long he could be away, he knew that if he left, he would not come back this night.


Which was, actually, quite fine with him. He gathered his cards together, stacking them into a deck, as he said, “I find that I should like some quiet for a time, perhaps a cold plate or two delivered to my room. Could I interest you in joining me? I think we have much to discuss that does not warrant interruption by our many friends.”


He didn’t have to look at Chris to feel the man’s amusement, or to know his answer. That was clear in the way that he finished off the drink, set his glass on the table, and corked the bottle before standing up.


Why don’t I head over to the restaurant and grab us some grub?” Chris asked as he put the bottle in the pocket of his coat.


It was a delaying tactic, one they both used on the rare occasions that they abandoned the saloon this early.


Ezra nodded as he stood, slipping his deck of cards into the inner pocket of his coat. “I trust in your decisions,” he said, picking up his hat.


Makes two of us,” Chris said, walking away. But as Ezra turned to look at him, once more caught off guard, he saw the faint grin on the other man’s face. It was one that Ezra knew well. One that was sincere.


One that promised more than just the events of this night.