“Looks like Standish is settling in.” Chris took a good belt of his whiskey. “Still ain’t sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”
Buck nodded, exchanging a grin with Vin, who was the only other one of the seven of them still at the table. The others had left to find their beds, save for Standish. Ezra was indeed looking pretty damned comfortable.
He’d set up shop in the good saloon—since he’d been banned from the one he’d had such a hand in trashing before they left for the Seminole Village—and was plying the slightly more legitimate side of his trade. Playing poker the way he did wasn’t exactly fair, but it didn’t seem like he was cheating, so it wasn’t exactly illegal, either.
The evening had been pleasant and comfortable, and Buck was still tired and a little sore from his injuries, his guard down. He should probably be working harder to block out the feelings around him, but right at this moment, with these men, he just didn’t feel the need. Plus, he wanted a little better idea of how they were going to work together, since they were clearly going to keep working together for a while at least. And Standish seemed to be the wildcard—in a lot of ways, he thought slyly, watching Chris drink.
“Wonder what went on at Fort Laramie that he’s so keen to get that pardon?” Vin asked.
Buck had felt the judge’s flush of anger, shame, and sadness when he spoke of it, and he was wondering, too. Not that they’d ever find out, likely. Ezra, for his part, felt nothing. Or showed nothing. Damn gambler drove Buck crazy. Drove Judge Travis crazy, too, but the old man had offered Ezra a pardon in good faith if he’d stay in town for the next month and try to clean the place of vermin, so Travis must have seen something worthwhile in the man.
Him and the rest of them. Lord, Josiah was insufferable with his talk of The Seven, but maybe there was something to it…
“Don’t know,” Chris replied, knocking back the rest of his whiskey but keeping his eye firmly on the cardsharp across the room. “Damn well better not be a problem while he’s here, though.” He poured himself another. “If we’re going do this long term, I need to be able to trust him.”
Jesus. Buck almost laughed. Chris was approaching tipsy now, after three bottles of rye, and when he was like this he was an open book. He didn’t trust Standish—hell, his distrust of the man rolled off of him in waves.
Wasn’t as powerful as the need to screw the gambler into the ground, though. Buck’d felt Chris’s lust before—for men and women. A secret he’d take to his grave was the feeling of Chris having sex nearby. He looked over at Ezra, with his trim figure and dancing eyes, and remembered another such man, ten years ago now. Justin Tiller had stoked a similar fire in Chris… Lord, it was the most powerful sex Buck’d ever been a part of.
Not that anyone knew he’d been a part of it, of course, but they were in the tent right next door. Wasn't his fault.
“Figure he’ll be gone as soon as his time is up,” Vin said quietly, watching the gambler as well, though with a less heated gaze. He liked Ezra, sympathized with him, maybe. Hell, Mayhem was as hard to read as Ezra was.
“Damn well better keep his end of the bargain,” Chris grunted. He was trying to sound like he couldn’t stand the man, and Buck wanted to point out what a horrible job he was doing of it.
That wouldn’t get the two men where they needed to be, though, so he kept his mouth shut. But it was hard to play the fool when he saw so many of the things that people thought they were hiding. Especially the really important things, like maybe finally finding some kind of solace after the loss of someone you held as dear as Chris had held Sarah.
It had always been this incandescent perfect, what those two had. Even when they fought it was exactly how it should be—they said what couldn’t be held back, then moved on the stronger for it. When she died, Chris had all but died with her, in heart and soul, if not in body. Buck remembered too many times when he felt that secondhand despair that had him hiding Chris’s guns… And all those times, Chris was just stoic. Blank. Hiding it all.
But he never could hide it from Buck. And hell, Buck thought, smiling, maybe that’s why he kept him around. To remind him that someone knew what was going on in there, even if Chris himself didn’t.
“I’m heading out,” Vin said, wings twitching beneath his shirt in that disturbing way Buck could recognize now, but hadn’t quite got used to. “Figure I can get a nap before dawn.” He grinned, and Buck felt that lift of spirit from him, like catching an updraft and floating into the sky… He shook himself as Vin continued. “Nathan wants me stretching ‘em slow, every day.”
“Go on, then,” Buck told him with a smile. “Find yourself a nest.” Timing was damn near perfect. Chris was drunk enough to listen, but not drunk enough to screw this up.
“Standish sure can get under your skin,” he remarked to Chris after Vin had gone and the two of them were left alone. Ezra had cleaned out another player, who left the table readily enough. Ezra leaned back, stretching subtly, something in the feel of him letting Buck know that he knew Chris was paying attention. Maybe. He didn’t seem bothered by the guy he’d beaten at any rate.
Chris, on the other hand, was hot and bothered in the best way. He watched Ezra like a hawk. “Better not be cheating,” he growled, the sound of it not at all the menace he wanted it to be, probably. “I don’t want us having to bail him out every time he pisses off a mark.”
Buck nodded at his friend’s sage advice. Was interesting that Chris didn't even consider not backing the gambler, no matter the mess he'd get in. “Probably ought to keep an eye on him, then,” he said slyly.
Fear flared in Chris suddenly, and Buck stopped a minute, puzzling. What the hell did Chris have to be scared of?
“I mean,” he stumbled on, trying to salvage this. “I’m sure he ain’t stupid enough to piss off the wrong people, but…” More fear. Hell, maybe even a little despair thrown in... What the hell?
Buck turned and saw Ezra looking over at them, now that his table was empty. There was an invitation in his eyes, and—
“You’re afraid of taking him up on it,” Buck breathed softly, not even realizing he’d said the words out loud until a white-hot dagger of anger lanced out at him.
“Keep your fingers out of my head, Buck,” Chris hissed, dangerous as a cornered mountain lion. He rose, stumbling only slightly as he left the building.
Ezra blinked, showing nothing, but giving off the barest whiff of disappointment, and tidied his cards with a sigh before rising and heading for the stairs to the rooms the bartender rented above the saloon. Again, Buck had to wonder what happened at Fort Laramie, because those rooms were more expensive than the boarding house, but the judge hadn’t begrudged Ezra the added money, beyond a little grumbling.
Buck sat there a long moment, confused gaze rolling between the saloon door and the stairs. Was Chris afraid of Ezra, or of the idea of something giving him a little relief? It wasn’t like the old dog hadn’t had sex since Sarah died. Wasn’t even like he hadn’t had a man since then…
Did he think having sex with Ezra’d be different? Buck thought about the disappointment Ezra was trying to hide. Did Ezra think that, too?
“Need another drink, son?” the bartender asked him, making a round of the place himself, now that the working girls had left for the night.
Shaking his head at the stupidity of some people, Buck sighed. Maybe he should keep his fingers out. Would save him the headache of puzzling out Chris and Ezra, at any rate.
“Yeah, barkeep,” he said, exasperated. “I think I do.”