By ten o’clock the Friday night game had reached a point of no return.
Warm August rain was pattering on the boardwalk outside the saloon and inside was standing room only.
Because of the faultless etiquette displayed by the gambling stranger in square spectacles (and the insouciant panache of his opponent), word spread fast that there was free entertainment on offer. The resulting audience grew throughout the evening and now the room heaved with folk who had no pressing concerns or family awaiting.
“Well lookit,” said Vin in amusement when even Nathan shouldered his way through to find a spot.
JD was near the front of the throng, red-faced from beer and enjoyment, Buck’s arm slung loosely about his shoulders. Josiah, on the other hand, hadn’t moved from his chair below the platform since the outset. He was in shirtsleeves, like every other man in the saloon, alert and stolidly protective.
Somehow, while the gambler in square spectacles took time out to visit the privy, a message was relayed through the banked spectators. Ezra, a flash of brocade against white, intended to up the ante once again, to the jaunty-sounding tune of $200. For this town it was high stakes gambling indeed, and only Larabee had been given prior knowledge of where to find the necessary contingency funds.
“Ain’t his damn gopher,” Chris said when the message was delivered. He couldn’t rustle up genuine rancor though. Vin laughed into his beer and then waved him towards the stairs.
“Go on, Josiah’ll see to it he don’t get hisself shot in the next five minutes.”
That made Chris take a fresh look around. There’d been no hint of aggression but with strangers in town things could always go belly-up. Still, he figured at least the heat dictated no-one could hide hardware under a coat.
He was almost reluctant to move, despite the agreement with Standish. For two hours or more he and Vin had sat here undisturbed and nobody would have been able to catch what they’d been saying to one other. Making plans and exchanging dirty comments in public wasn’t something they got around to very often.
“Go,” Vin mouthed with a frown, so he headed for the stairs.
Up in Ezra’s room it was cool.
Mindful of his mission, Chris crossed at once to the closet and pulled the door wide. There was a clunk as the black-handled umbrella they’d all laughed at fell out. He toed it aside and took a breath.
As ever, jackets and shirts hung neatly side by side and he raked through them quickly. Coming to the purple tailcoat he slipped a hand inside. A roll of bills would be pinned to the lining because of course... clothes were always more than just clothes where Ezra was concerned. Chris grinned to himself as his fingers touched the money.
Then, hearing a light, familiar tread behind him, he half turned his head and his elbow sent something cascading to the floor.
“Easy now,” said a low voice, “Jus’ makin’ sure no-one bushwhacks you on the stairs.”
Vin edged in beside him, went to his haunches to recover what had fallen.
“Put those back careful,” Chris said before he could stop himself.
Vin ignored him and just scooped up the mess. He stood, examining the fistful of colors in curiosity - black, scarlet, white, magenta and blue.
“Fer magic tricks?”
Surely, the tone of wry disbelief asked, not even Ezra likes to wear scarves made of such pretty, slippery nothing?
The material was insubstantial, all right, but Chris knew how it could hold fast. How it looked warm but felt cool when it first brushed against skin. He didn’t say anything, but then with Vin you didn’t always need to.
“With these?” Sure enough, Vin caught on straight away and his eyes moved from Chris to the bed and back. “You and Ezra?”
“Yeah, well if he don’t get a bullet in the back tonight you can ask him yaself,” Chris said quietly, and stroked a comforting finger down a bare forearm all the way to the wrist.
Vin sucked in a breath.
Chris wasn’t sure, although he knew they weren’t bad. He shrugged. “Need some new ones.”
There was a fresh wave of noise from downstairs and they looked at one another for a moment before Vin, calm, thoughtful and all the things Chris loved about him, motioned back at the door. Chris took the tangle of scarves and draped them carefully over the hanging rail.
Downstairs the atmosphere was still good. Josiah hadn’t left his post and wouldn’t, Chris guessed, until he’d seen Ezra upstairs in one piece, richer or poorer, victorious or chastened. Buck, JD and now Nathan were still in the front row. The stranger in the square spectacles was back in his seat. Ezra himself was taking a breath of air at the batwings, watching the curtain of soft rain and rolling his shoulders to loosen them. Chris joined him, pressed the roll of bills against his palm.
“And it ain’t for your pocket?”
A world-weary sigh. “As agreed. Purely for altruistic purposes. Lord help me Josiah is persuasive.”
The smallest of smiles passed between them. Magenta for Josiah, they’d always joked.
Glad he didn’t need to be embarrassed, Chris leaned a fraction closer. “May have to call in a favor.”
Ezra glanced back towards the platform where the audience was beginning to gather once more.
“Somethin’ of yours I need ta borrow.”
Ezra paused, trained his keen gaze to where Vin had sunk back in his seat, legs extended. “With pleasure,” he said. “May I suggest white for the wrists? A touch of surrender can be very appealing. And blue for the eyes of course.”
Chris grinned. “That should do it.”
Ezra hesitated for a moment more, gathering his confidence, but Chris nudged him away.
“Do me another favor,” he said.
“Go and win big.”