toastfic: (mag 7: chris & ezra)
[personal profile] toastfic
This is a piece from my Tucson days. It is also the story that prompted Katherine and I to take a research trip through Redington Pass in the Rincon Mountains. That trail is enough of a pain in the ass in an air conditioned car with all-wheel drive that I shudder to think what it was like on horseback in the 1800s. And yes, Agua Caliente is also a very real place. I used to live a stone's throw from it, and went there often to write.

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Ezra Standish/Chris Larabee, NC-17

First posted in 2003. Original beta by [personal profile] aithine, and the late Katherine Lawrence. Revised and reposted in 2011.




Chris moved restlessly beneath the worn blanket, unable to get comfortable and sleep. He wanted nothing more than to be back in the dim familiarity of the saloon sipping whiskey, or sitting on the porch with the brim of his hat tugged down, dozing in the warmth of the mid-afternoon sun. Instead he was in the middle of the San Pedro valley with only Ezra Standish for company and an affidavit from Judge Travis in his saddlebag to deliver to the law in Tucson in the hopes of setting an innocent man free.

Usually Chris liked the freedom of wide open spaces, needed that quiet and solitude when the press of people in town got too much, but tonight the desert stillness wasn't helping. He was jittery and ornery and didn't really know why. For a moment he was tempted to kick Standish awake and keep riding, but the horses needed rest even if he didn't. Besides, then he'd have to listen to Ezra piss and moan about getting his beauty sleep interrupted, and that was just more trouble than Chris was willing to put up with in his present mood.

He needed to get laid while in Tucson. Visiting the working girls was not something he indulged in much back in Four Corners; Chris was a private man, and there was enough gossip about him in town already without adding tales about his sexual affairs to the mix.

Of course, Tucson was still days away, which didn't do him much good right now. There was always his hand, but he was not particularly comfortable with that idea under the circumstances. Chris spared a glance off to the right where Ezra lay, nubby gray blanket pulled far enough up that only the top of his chestnut hair was visible in the dying light of the fire. The man seemed out for the duration, but Chris knew appearances could be deceiving, especially where Standish was concerned.

Better not, he decided and couldn't quite stop a sigh of resignation from escaping.

"Is there a problem, Mr. Larabee?"

"It's nothing," Chris said. "Go back to sleep."

"If I could sleep through your incessant tossing, believe me, I would. May I suggest checking your bedroll for errant peas?"

Chris chuckled in spite of himself. "That's pot calling kettle."

"So happy I could amuse you," Ezra said dryly.

With one last snicker, Chris closed his eyes in an attempt to will himself to sleep, only to open them a moment later when his blanket was unceremoniously pulled away. "What the hell are you doing?"

"Trying to get some sleep," Ezra said, nimble fingers tugging at the buttons of Chris's trousers. "Since you're so clearly incapable of taking care of matters yourself, I thought I would lend a hand. So to speak."

"Ezra!" Embarrassment warred with indignation before giving way to pure, unmitigated need as those clever fingers slipped inside the worn denim to capture hard, aching flesh. Chris's head fell back against the bedroll with a dull thump as his hips thrust upward into that knowing touch. "Ah, fuck."

"Language, Mr. Larabee," Ezra chided softly. Chris managed a laugh that hitched and wobbled into a breathless moan as Ezra's hand sped up, stroking his cock with ruthless abandon. It was rough and fast and exactly what Chris needed, just fucking Ezra's fist until he came with a ragged shout.

Exhaustion quickly followed in the wake of his orgasm and Chris let himself drift in boneless lassitude. He was dimly aware of Ezra tucking his cock back inside his trousers before doing up the buttons once more, of a blanket being drawn up over his body, the soft brush of lips against his forehead and a quiet voice murmuring Good night, Chris into his ear.

He was asleep within minutes.

+ + +

Chris woke to the smell of bacon frying. Something about that was not right and he cautiously opened one eye, expecting trouble and finding only Ezra. Which had to be wrong, because there was no way on God's green acre Ezra Standish had gotten up before him, especially not on the trail. Yet there the man was, shaved and dressed and apparently making breakfast in the early dawn light.

"There's coffee if you want some," Ezra said.

Chris sat up in his bedroll and nodded. "You're up early."

"Yes, well, contrary to popular opinion, I am capable of rising before the crack of noon when the mood strikes."

That made him grin. "I'll remember you said that."

"I'm sure you will," Ezra said, holding out a battered tin cup for Chris to take.

As he reached for the proffered cup, Chris had a sudden image of Standish's long, neat fingers wrapped firmly around his cock. He felt his face flush and looked up to find Ezra frozen in place, eyes wide and a little wild, outstretched arm trembling almost imperceptibly. The man was scared, Chris realized with sudden clarity, afraid of how his actions the previous night would be viewed in the harsh light of day.

More to the point, he was about to drop the damned coffee right in Chris's lap.

He took the cup gently from Ezra's shaking hand. "Much obliged."

Ezra blinked then nodded slowly and withdrew back to the fire.

They ate in companionable silence, something Chris hadn't thought the normally garrulous Southerner capable of. Then again, he wouldn't have thought Ezra capable of climbing into another man's blankets before last night, either, so what the hell did he know. Little sneak was just full of surprises.

Suddenly, the remaining trip looked a lot more interesting.

+ + +

They made good time, reaching the banks of the San Pedro river by mid-afternoon. The Rincon mountains rose before them in ever increasing swells, their age-rounded tops covered with a light dusting of snow. Chris eased back in the saddle and took a long, thoughtful look at the low gray clouds building up in the northwest. "We'll camp here tonight," he said.

Standish looked surprised. "There's still plenty of light."

Chris nodded towards the clouds. "Bad weather coming. Don't want to be stuck halfway up a mountain in fading light when it breaks."

Had Vin or Buck been with him, Chris might well have pushed on for another few hours. Standish was another matter. Even after so long working together, Chris still had no clear idea which way the man would jump in a given situation and that made him nervous.

"Something on your mind, Mr. Larabee?"

"Just wondering if we should turn south, take Old Spanish Trail instead."

Ezra paused in the middle of unpacking his gear for the night. "I was under the impression time was of the essence."

"Redington Pass is no picnic."

Ezra was silent, fixing Chris with a long, level stare. Finally he said, "Have you ever been through Donner Pass, Mr. Larabee?"

Chris couldn't quite suppress a shudder. "Nope. Don't aim to, either. You saying you have?"

"Alone and with winter hard on my heels. It is not an experience I care to repeat."

Chris's eyebrows rose. "Who were you running from?"

That got him a grin and the flash of a gold tooth. "My fiancee."

II.

Chris rubbed his aching side. He couldn't remember the last time he'd laughed so hard, not even for one of Buck's tall tales. "You are so full of shit."

Standish put one hand to his chest in mock affront. "It is God's honest truth, Mr. Larabee. Every last word."

"Even the goat?"

"I was vexed, sir. Well and truly vexed."

"That's not vexed, Ezra. That's —"

"Inspired?"

"Depraved."

"I'll take that as a compliment." Another wide, wicked smile. "Desperate times call for desperate measures. Even ones involving livestock."

That set Chris to laughing again. "You could've saved yourself a lot of trouble if you'd just married the girl," he said when he finally recovered his breath.

The smile never wavered but the merriment in Ezra's eyes vanished with the abruptness of a slammed door. "I fear I am not a marrying man." He rose smoothly and made a show of brushing the dust from the sleeves of his red coat. "Now, if you will excuse me, I would like to step down to the river and wash up while there is still light to see by."

Huh, Chris thought, and watched him leave.

+ + +

An hour and a half later, Chris was beginning to wonder if the fool Southerner had gone and drowned himself.

He hadn't heard anything untoward, just the wind in the cottonwoods, the quiet murmur of the river and the occasional stamp and snort of the horses, but that didn't mean everything was fine. If anyone could get in trouble just washing his hair, it was Ezra Standish.

Better go look for him, Chris thought, and hauled himself to his feet.

He followed the sandy riverbank downstream until he spotted a flash of red in a nearby stand of trees. As he drew closer, he saw that it was Ezra's coat, draped neatly over a low bush. The brocaded waistcoat hung beside it and off to the right, propped up against the gnarled trunk of an enormous mesquite, was the man himself, still in his shirtsleeves and apparently fast asleep.

"Son of a bitch," Chris muttered.

He was sorely tempted to fill his hat with cold water from the river and dump it on the fool gambler's head. Problem was, Standish was damn near as twitchy as Chris himself, and you did not startle a man like that unless you wanted your ass blown off. Ezra's shoulder holster and derringer rig might rest in the grass beside his hat, but the Remington was still on his hip and Chris did not doubt for a minute the man's ability to clear leather and fire before he was even fully awake.

No prank was worth dying for, no matter how richly deserved. Chris cautiously edged up to Ezra's side, expecting him to open his eyes at any moment. Instead the man slept on, oblivious to the world around him.

That was—not right.

Frowning, Chris dropped down on his haunches and studied Ezra's face, noticing for the first time the bruised shadows under his eyes. He thought back to the morning, how Ezra had been up before him. Wondered now if the man had slept at all. Probably not, judging from the look of things, and yet he had ridden hard all day today—and the day before as well—never once complaining about the pace, or asking Chris for a moment's rest.

Chris sighed and shook his head. "Ezra. Ezra, wake up."

Ezra started, hand automatically reaching for the revolver on his hip. Chris caught his arm before he could draw. "Easy there."

"Chris?"

"Yeah." He gentled his grip on Ezra's arm, rubbing the muscle apologetically. "Got worried when you didn't come back."

"My apologies. I must be more tired than I thought."

Chris nodded and slid his hand up to squeeze Ezra's shoulder. "Yeah, you look it."

That earned him a scowl. "Now that is an ungallant thing to say, Mr. Larabee."

He let his hand continue wandering, brushing his fingers lightly over the warm, bare skin of Ezra's neck. "I was Chris a minute ago."

"I was asleep a minute ago."

"You call me Chris in your dreams?"

Ezra opened his mouth but whatever he was going to say was promptly lost as Chris leaned forward and kissed him, stilling that too-agile tongue with his own.

"Sweet Jesus," Ezra breathed after, eyes wide and a little dazed.

Chris just smiled and stroked a knuckle down the flushed skin of Ezra's cheek.

+ + +

It stormed that night, brief but intense bands of rain that rolled in over the mountains on a steady course east. The gentle burble of the river rose to a dull roar as the waters swelled with runoff, prompting Chris and Ezra to move their camp further back into the trees as a precaution even though they were already above the high water mark; Arizona in March was unpredictable at best, and Chris had no desire to be drowned in a fifty year flood if he could avoid it.

The rough tangle of oak and mesquite gave some protection from the elements but not much. As the temperature dropped and the wind rose, Chris huddled under his pile of sodden blankets, silently cursing the heathen weather. It was cold, wet and thoroughly miserable, and things were only going to get worse as the night wore on.

"Damnation!" he spat, and surged to his feet.

"Chris?" Ezra's voice was thick with fatigue. "Are you all right?"

He didn't bother to reply, just gathered up his blankets and stalked the scant few feet to where the Southerner lay. Dropping his armload of bedding atop Ezra's, he nudged the other man with the toe of his boot. "Scoot over."

There was a moment of stillness that stretched out for several long, painful heartbeats. Then Ezra sat up, calmly smoothing Chris's blankets out on top of his own before shifting over to make room. Chris hunkered down and crawled in beside him, fitting himself neatly against the curve of Ezra's back before twitching the topmost blankets over their heads.

"That's better," he said as their combined body heat slowly warmed the woolen cocoon. Wrapping one arm around Ezra's trim waist, he closed his eyes and went to sleep.


III.

Thanks to the previous night's rain, the trail through Redington Pass was a slippery morass of mud and loose, jumbled stone. As the narrow path wound higher, windswept grasslands gave way to steep granite walls, often with a drop-off of several hundred feet to a boulder-strewn canyon below. Even the vegetation was unfriendly, the usual mesquite, pine and juniper mixed thickly with cholla, coachwhip and cat-claw acacia capable of lacerating a man's clothes—not to mention the tender skin beneath—to shreds in the event of a misstep. This was wild, dangerous country and you either gave it the respect it was due or you died, simple as that.

Chris called a longer halt at noon, ostensibly to rest the horses and eat but mostly because he was bone-tired and sick to death of riding. The pass was twenty-seven miles of rocky switchbacks and washes choked with mud and debris from the storm, and that kind of trail just ground a man down after a while. Even Ezra looked unwontedly grim as they shared a cheroot between them in silence, each man locked up in his own weary thoughts.

"This as bad as Donner Pass?" Chris asked, suddenly fed up with the unrelenting quiet.

Ezra looked thoughtful, taking a long pull off the cigar before handing it back to Chris. "Different," he said, "though I suspect each will try to kill you in its own special way."

Chris chuckled and blew a series of hazy blue smoke rings. "Ain't that the truth."

"How much longer until we reach the valley?"

"Two hours, maybe more." He shrugged. "Depends how bad the rest of the trail is."

+ + +

It took three hours to reach the end of the pass, by which time Chris was covered with mud, torn by cactus and wishing to God that he'd just stayed back in Four Corners.

The Santa Cruz valley stretched out before them in a vast, rolling plain. It was greener than Chris remembered, but the last time he'd been through this way it had been high summer, the washes had all been empty and the pass full of dry, blowing sand. Dragon weather, as Ezra liked to call it, and Chris was more than inclined to agree.

But it was March now, and the dragon days of summer were long months away. To the north, clouds were building up behind the Catalina mountains, thick and grey with the promise of more rain. And as much as Chris wanted to be out of the weather and in a soft bed with clean sheets, he knew there was no way in hell they would make it to town that night, the horses were just too damned tired. Hell, he was just too damned tired, and he pinched the bridge of his nose, closed his eyes and cussed low and long.

He heard the dull thwop of hooves against wet, packed sand as Ezra drew his mount up alongside him. "Am I to take it we will not be enjoying the fine hospitality of Tucson this evening?" Ezra asked.

"The next time I try to talk you into doing something noble, shoot me."

Ezra chuckled. "While I would prefer a non-lethal means of persuasion, I heartily agree with the sentiment. So, where will we be spending the night?"

"Agua Caliente," Chris replied.

"Caliente?" Ezra's eyebrows rose. "Mr. Larabee, are you offering me hot water?"

Chris smiled. "More like tepid this time of year, but—"

"Sold, sir. Pray, lead on."

+ + +

Agua Caliente was a series of loosely connected ponds and marshes, frequented by travelers, ranchers and the odd assortment of ducks. It was a hot, sticky, mosquito-infested mire in summer, but at this time of year, with temperatures still down in the forties at night, it was their best bet for a comfortable evening.

They turned northwest, picking their way carefully through the saguaro that covered the rocky foothills before finally smoothing out into flat valley plain. Mesquite grew thickly along the trail, mixed with prickly-pear and the ubiquitous cholla, and the smell of water was heavy in the air, along with the sweetness of the first spring wildflowers.

"Oh my," Ezra breathed as the trail abruptly opened up to a startling swath of verdant green. "Mr. Larabee, I do believe you have outdone yourself."

Chris grinned. "Thought you'd like it."

"Oh yes," Ezra said, dismounting his horse with the stiffness only long hours in the saddle on a difficult trail could cause. "It's lovely."

There was a wistful note to Standish's voice, something Chris hadn't expected to hear. He cocked his head and watched carefully as Ezra walked to the edge of the pond and knelt, dipping his hand slowly into the water. "Ezra? You ok?"

"Yes, of course. The trees—" He stood and nodded to the mix of willow, cypress and desert palm that crowded the water's edge. "For a moment they reminded me of a place I once lived. Never realized how much I missed it until now."

That had to be the most plainly honest thing Ezra had ever said to him. "Didn't mean to make you sad."

Ezra smiled a little too brightly. "Not to worry," he said with a dismissive wave of one hand. "Now, I must insist you come down at once before you become permanently affixed to your horse's back."

Chris shook his head. "Ezra—"

"At once, sir, and into the water with you! It is a bit tepid, I'll agree, but that is a vast improvement over our more recent accommodations."

Chris allowed himself to be drawn down out of the saddle, but when Ezra would have guided him to the water and likely pushed him in, clothes, boots, hat and all, he dug in his heels. "Hold up a minute."

"Mr. Larab—"

Chris pressed a finger against Ezra's lips to shush him. "Didn't mean to make you sad," he repeated.

Ezra closed his eyes, opened them again when Chris gently stroked his cheek. "You didn't," he said quietly. "Honestly, Chris. I'm fine. Just a little homesick, I suppose."

"Where's home?" he murmured, bending to kiss the tender skin beneath Ezra's ear.

"Savannah," Ezra gasped, hands coming up to grasp the front of Chris's duster. "But I spent several—Jesus, do that again—summers on Amelia Island."

Chris licked his way down Ezra's throat, tasting sweat and dirt and something indefinably Ezra. "Where's that?"

"Coast. N-near the Florida-Georgia border. I had f-family there."

He had the top three buttons of Ezra's shirt undone, grateful the man had worn plain, sensible cotton for this leg of the trip rather than his usual layers of finery. Made undressing a hell of a lot easier.

Ezra twisted in his grasp. "Chris, wait."

He paused, frowning. "What now?"

"I'm filthy."

"Noticed that."

"You're filthy."

"Noticed that, too."

"I don't--not like this. Please."

Chris took a half-step back, keeping his hands on Ezra's shoulders as he studied the other man's face. Need was obvious, in the flush that colored his skin, the darkening of his green eyes. But beneath the want was fear, old and trembling and threatening to break free.

He took a deep breath, and stepped back again. "Go take your bath," he said. "I'll start setting up camp."

+ + +

Chris wasn't even aware he'd dozed off until a gentle hand on his shoulder snapped him out of it. "The hell—?"

Ezra peered down at him with a mixture of concern and amusement. "I've heard of people falling asleep with their eyes open," he said, "but this is the first time I've actually seen it."

Chris scowled. "Wasn't sleeping."

"Then I must assume you have developed a sudden interest in spiritualism and were communing with the higher powers in an attempt to divine our future. Tell me, o great sage, what have you learned?"

"That you're cooking dinner," Chris deadpanned.

Ezra grinned. "It would be my pleasure."

Chris knew he should get up, dig some fresh clothes from his saddle bags and then head to the pond to wash, but for now he was content to lean back and watch Ezra putter about the campfire. The bath seemed to have restored Standish's equilibrium, but it also meant a return to his usual style of dress. Even a few days ago, Chris would have thought that mere vanity but now he could see it for what it was: hiding in plain sight. It was too easy to get distracted by the fine clothes and the bright flash of that gold-capped tooth and miss the man underneath.

He shook his head and grinned ruefully. If anyone had told him at the start of this trip that he'd wind up contemplating Ezra Standish naked in all senses of the word, he probably would have refused to go—and been poorer for it.

Oh, you got it bad, Larabee, he thought, and chuckled quietly to himself.

"May I ask what you find so amusing, Mr. Larabee?"

Chris glanced over at the fire, saw Ezra busy with the Dutch oven and smiled. "Ain't nothin' but a thing," he said lightly, before hauling himself to his feet. "Think I'll go have that bath now."

+ + +

The pond was cool, but not uncomfortably so. He washed thoroughly, luxuriating in the rich, creamy lather produced by the seemingly innocuous bar of soap Ezra had given him as much as the sensation of being truly clean for the first time in days. Another time he might have stayed in the water until his skin pruned up and the ducks began to consider him one of their own. But soothing as it was to just sit and soak, the urge to return to camp was stronger, and Chris dragged himself back to shore to towel off and dress.

When Chris had made camp earlier, he had deliberately left off setting up the bedrolls, figuring they'd sort sleeping arrangements out later. As much as he wanted to spend the night with Ezra curled warmly beside him, he hadn't wanted to force the issue given how skittish the man could be.

As he walked back into the camp, the sight of both sets of blankets neatly arranged into a single bedroll and placed a careful distance from the fire stopped him in his tracks.

Ezra sat atop the blankets, calmly playing solitaire. "You're just in time for dinner."

"Good," Chris said when he found his voice again.

Ezra smiled slyly, clearly enjoying his discomfiture. "You're looking a bit flushed, Mr. Larabee. Are you feeling all right?"

"Just tired," he said.

Ezra immediately looked contrite. Setting his cards aside, he rose and quickly moved to take Chris's arm, leading him to the blankets. "I'm an ass," he said apologetically as Chris settled into the bedding with a relieved sigh. "You're dead on your feet and I'm too busy playing coquette to notice."

Chris snorted at the mental image of Ezra as a southern belle playing host to a gaggle of admiring beaus. "Make it up to me later," he said.

"Oh, I intend to," Ezra replied and kissed him softly before withdrawing. "Stay put. I'll bring you some food."

Chris wasn't sure how he stayed awake long enough to eat, but he managed. He also wasn't sure how Ezra found the energy to not only cook, but wash the pots and dishes after. Chris felt as though he had been pounded with rocks—which, in a sense, he had—and he knew damned well that Ezra was little better, for all he hid it well.

But even Ezra had his limits. Chris was just on the edge of sleep when he felt the blankets being drawn back and a warm, solid body settle next to his. He burrowed closer, was rewarded with strong arms gathering him in, and finally drifted off with his head resting comfortably in the curve of Ezra's shoulder.

IV.

Sunrise was little more than a faint glow on the other side of the Rincons when Chris awoke. Ezra slept peacefully beside him, and Chris propped himself up on one elbow to watch for a while. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been content enough to simply lie beside someone and watch them sleep. Not since the death of his wife, surely.

Thinking of Sarah made him wonder what the hell he was doing. This had become more than just scratching an itch, though how much more remained to be seen. He had no clear idea what Ezra wanted, and was fairly sure Standish didn't know either. That made things difficult.

It had been a good fifteen years since he'd been with another man. Buck knew, and Sarah; he'd kept no secrets from either his wife or his oldest friend. And while Buck never quite understood that occasional need to find his pleasure in the hard lines and angles of a man's body, he'd never condemned Chris for it.

He was drawn to strength; he knew that. Both Sarah and Ezra had it in plenty, though they expressed it in different ways: Sarah with a quiet confidence that anchored him, Ezra with a mind and a spirit that challenged him.

It was a pretty puzzle, one that would take time to sort out.

For now, there was a handsome man lying next to him and that was all he needed to know. His heart might not be sure what was going on, but his body certainly remembered the way of it and he pressed a kiss to the side of Ezra's neck, drawing a soft sigh from the sleeping man.

Ezra's throat seemed to be particularly sensitive, so he concentrated on that, laving the delicate skin with his tongue while his hands worked the carved shell buttons that held the fine linen shirt closed. He was mouthing a line down Ezra's chest when he felt fingers tangle in his hair, tugging him up into a kiss that was long and slow and sweet.

"Morning," Ezra said, voice still blurred with sleep.

"Morning," Chris replied and bent to kiss him again.

Ezra opened easily beneath him, licking his way into a deeper kiss that left them both breathless. Strong hands ran up and down the length of Chris's spine, found the sweet-spot in the small of his back and slipped beneath the fabric of his shirt to trace spirals on his skin with a single, maddening finger.

Chris shuddered and gasped, grinding hard into the hollow of Ezra's pelvis. He was going to come in his pants in a moment and drew back just enough to tug at the buttons of his fly and release his cock before sinking down again. Ezra had somehow managed to push his own trousers down around his hips and they found a rhythm quickly, all heated skin and sweat and pure, driving need.

It couldn't last, not at this pace. A few more thrusts and Ezra was coming hard and hot against his belly, eyes closed and back arched, his mouth open in a wordless cry of pleasure that dragged Chris over the edge to his own release.

He collapsed against Ezra, nuzzling warmly into the sweat-dampened hair just behind his ear. "Too heavy?"

Ezra chuckled, tightening his arms around Chris's waist. "Chris, I probably outweigh you by twenty pounds."

He nipped sharply at Ezra's earlobe, partially for the remark but mostly because he felt like it. "You calling me skinny?"

"I think trim would be more accurate," Ezra replied with an unrepentant grin. His hands began to wander down Chris's back again, sliding under his shirt to run smoothly along his ribs. "Or perhaps lean."

"I like lean," Chris said, breath hitching when one of Ezra's hands brushed across a nipple.

"Sleek," Ezra purred, hooking one ankle firmly around the back of Chris's leg as Chris leaned in and caught his mouth for another long, leisurely kiss.

"Morning, boys," said an amused female voice.

It took Chris's sex-fogged brain several seconds to register they were no longer alone. Pushing himself up on one elbow, he peered blankly into the trees before finally spotting the dapple grey mare with her smirking rider on the edge of the nearby trail. "Morning," he said cautiously.

The woman grinned and urged the mare in closer. She looked about forty, with a tanned, weather-beaten face and dark, silver-shot hair in a braid down her back. Her clothes were plain but serviceable, a tan canvass duster worn over green riding britches and a simple white shirt, but it was the brass-plated Henry rifle cradled almost negligently in her arms that concerned Chris the most.

"I was going to ask what you were doing on my land," she said, "'cept it seems pretty obvious, now I've gone and got a closer look."

Chris felt a flush crawl up his cheeks and did his best to ignore it. "Wasn't aware this place had been bought. Been a while since I was last here."

She accepted this with a nod. "Well, it's mine now. You and sisterboy best get packed and skedaddle afore my oldest finds you. He ain't what you might call understanding."

"We'll do that, ma'am. Sorry to have troubled you."

The woman nodded again. "Boys," she said, touching the brim of her hat in farewell before kicking the mare into a trot and disappearing back down the trail.

Chris let out a breath he hadn't been aware of holding and flopped back down into the blankets. "Hellfire," he muttered, pressing the heels of his palms against his eyes. "You all right, Ezra?"

"Never better."

Chris glanced at him sharply, but Standish was already rising from the bedroll and setting his clothes to rights. "Ezra?"

"You heard the lady, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said in that pleasantly neutral tone Chris was starting to detest because it meant the man was hiding a world of feeling. "We'd best be on our way."

"Ezra—" A note of warning crept into his voice.

"We have been asked to vacate the premises," Ezra said. "I am vacating. What else is there to say?"

Chris ground his teeth in annoyance. "Suit yourself."

"Believe me, I shall. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to wash up before we leave. I'm feeling a trifle sticky at the moment."

Oh, hell, Chris thought, and watched him go.

+ + +

By the time they rode into Tucson, Chris was ready to strangle the man with his bare hands.

Redington Pass was not, in fact, hell. Hell was being forced to listen to Ezra chatter amiably about a whole lot of nothing for four solid hours, all in a perfectly polite, vaguely cheerful tone of voice that made Chris want to hit something.

Repeatedly. With a very large axe.

It was frustrating because Chris knew, he goddamned knew that Ezra was upset and that this wall of noise was a defense to keep him from finding out why. He'd thought at first it was offended Southern dignity at being caught with their pants down, but hell, they'd been under the blankets and the lady rancher seemed to find the whole thing funny, so why the fuss?

He shot Ezra a sidelong glance. The man was off on another tangent again, something about making up for the financial losses incurred on such a long trip by finding a high stakes game while in town. Chris let the words fade into a meaningless buzz and just studied his companion from the top of his neatly brushed hat to the rich crimson jacket to the long, clean lines of the well-tailored pants. The boots that were polished to a high gloss despite the fact they'd been riding hard for the better part of a week. The ruffled cuffs of the fine linen shirt peeking out beneath the sleeves of his coat.

Sisterboy.

Chris rubbed at the stubble on his chin. Yeah, he thought slowly. Yeah, that would set Ezra off but good.

"I want you to find us a place to stay," he said abruptly, interrupting whatever Ezra had been blathering about for the last several minutes. "I'll check in with the sheriff, see when we're needed at the courthouse to testify. We'll meet at the livery later."

Ezra blinked, then touched two fingers to the brim of his hat. "As you command."

"That'll be the day," Chris muttered as he watched Ezra's bay shift from a walk to a smooth, ground-eating trot and disappear into the dusty, crowded streets of Tucson.

+ + +

Chris found the sheriff's office easily enough and was directed from there to the courthouse to speak to the clerk, a thin, droopy-looking fellow with lank brown hair and a perpetual squint.

He peered up at Chris and blinked a few times, as if trying to bring him into focus. "Who did you say you were?"

"Larabee," Chris said. "Chris Larabee, from Four Corners. I'm here with Ezra Standish to testify on behalf of Shelby Brooks."

The clerk took down the information. "You boys made good time. Didn't expect to see you till the hanging, if at all."

Chris felt the vein in his temple throb at the assumption of Brooks' guilt. "We took Redington Pass."

That got the clerk's attention, and opened those squinty little eyes up a bit. "In this weather? Lord, that Brooks fella must be a damned good friend."

"No, just an innocent man wrongly accused."

The clerk snorted. "Aren't they all? Trial's tomorrow at ten with Judge Spicer. Dress appropriately."

Chris needed a drink after that, and found a saloon conveniently located a short walk down the street from courthouse. Two shots of whiskey later, he was starting to feel more like himself. It was just past one in the afternoon, which left an awful lot of hours to fill between now and the trial. He rubbed at his eyes. A nap, maybe. That would mean heading out to find Ezra—

"Good afternoon, Mr. Larabee."

—unless Ezra found him first. "Thought we were going to meet at the livery."

Ezra shrugged. "Yes, well, having had some experience with the courts myself, I decided there was a high probability you would come here first."

"Can't fault your logic."

"I procured rooms for us at the Hotel Mariposa on Calle del Arroyo," Ezra went on. He placed a key on the bar next to Chris's hand. "The livery's right up the street if you want to see that great black behemoth of yours stabled for the night."

Chris took the key and pocketed it. "You found a game yet?"

"Several, but only two look promising. Ah well, the day is young."

Chris ordered a third shot of whiskey and downed it fast. "Trial's tomorrow morning at ten," he said. "I want you up and ready to go at nine."

"Whatever you say, Mr. Larabee."

Part Two

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