All I Want
Vin easily pulled himself up onto the roof, grinning when he saw the gambler lying on his back reading a book. He moved closer, careful not to lose his balance. He sat down next to Ezra, content to wait for the gambler to acknowledge him.
After a few moments the gambler sighed and lowered his book, one eyebrow arching as he glanced pointedly at the Texan. But Vin remained silent, an enigmatic grin on his face as he waited, forcing the still recovering Southerner to speak first.
"Can I help you, Mr. Tanner?" The few words were slowly and hesitantly spoken, the speed of his words and the slight stutter constant reminders of his head injury.
Vin's grin grew wider. "Nope. I'm here to help ya. Chris has been tearin' the town apart lookin' for ya since ya snuck outa the clinic."
Ezra lowered his eyes and sighed. "It was not my intention to worry him. I merely needed a little space."
The tracker chuckled, stretching his legs out and crossing his booted ankles. "Know what ya mean, Ez. 'Ol Chris can get a mite antsy when somebody's hurt." He suddenly grinned. "I think I heard him saying something 'bout locking ya up in your room 'til after New Year once he finds ya."
The gambler dropped his head back in dismay, wincing when it connected with the roof. "Can this day possibly get any worse?"
At that moment the stage pulled into town and both men came to attention. Ezra's face paled slightly as he looked at the stage and it lost all color when a woman's voice rang out from inside. "Ah, hell."
Vin's smile faded as a familiar woman stepped gracefully out of the stage. "Ez, ain't that...?"
Ezra nodded. "It seems that Maude has arrived just in time to ruin my Christmas." He glanced over at the tracker as he dropped back to lie on the roof again. "Perhaps I shall remain up here for the remainder of the holiday season." His accent had thickened, hiding the greatest part of his stutter.
"Ya can't do that, Ez. Ya'd freeze up here." The Texan pulled his coat tighter around himself, but Ezra was no longer paying attention.
The gambler's eyes were fixed on the street below them where Chris and Maude stood, glaring at each other in silence. The hostility between them was obvious and seemed to be escalating with every moment that passed. Ezra groaned and slid the book into his coat pocket as he prepared to climb down from the roof. As he slipped out of sight Vin heard him mumble, "They couldn't even wait five minutes, and on Christmas Eve."
Ezra nimbly dropped from the roof, landing lightly next to the shocked conwoman and the glaring gunslinger. "Is there a problem here?" He mentally flinched when he stuttered over the simple words, but kept his face pleasantly blank.
"Ezra, darlin', if you're going to speak, please do it properly. I will not stand here and listen to you stutter like that. And you should not be cavorting about on the rooftops like a common idiot." Maude turned up her nose and began to step towards the hotel when Chris reached out and grabbed her arm.
"You got no cause to talk to him like that, and I'm not gonna stand for it." The gunslinger's voice was soft but it fairly crackled with violence.
Maude arched one elegant eyebrow and glanced pointedly down at her captive arm. "Unhand me, Mr. Larabee. Ezra is my son, and I shall speak to him in whatever manner I see fit."
Chris's eyes hardened. "He ain't your son, Maude. He's mine."
A cold smile appeared on the conwoman's face. "If he is your son, then where were you when he was being beaten nearly to death? What kind of a father does that make you?" She smirked at the frozen gunslinger and pulled her arm out of his now-slack grip. "Think about that, Mr. Larabee, before you instruct me in parenting." With those words, she turned her back on them and strode into the hotel.
Ezra glanced over at Chris, but the blond simply walked past him and into the saloon. The gambler sighed, flashing a sad smile at the tracker as he dropped down beside him. "As I said, just in time to ruin Christmas, for everyone."
Vin was silent for a moment, then his lips curled up in a slow smile. "How 'bout me and you go for a ride? Things'll look better if'n ya get outa town for a little while. And it'll give 'em a chance ta cool down some."
The gambler considered it for a moment, then nodded. "You may be right, Vin. In any case, it cannot hurt."
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For over two hours the two men rode in silence, neither of them feeling quite like talking. Vin finally slowed his horse, wishing once again that he was riding Peso. After a moment the gambler also pulled back on his horse until he was once again beside the tracker.
"Ez, ya ain't hiding out here cause Maude and Chris were arguin', are ya?"
The gambler sighed but shook his head. "No, I'm not. I'm just hiding from Chris." The tone of his voice and the slight stutter he still had almost made him sound his true age.
The tracker nodded, pleased that the Southerner was being honest with him. "That's what I figured. But why are ya hiding from Chris out here in the cold on Christmas Eve? There's warmer places ta hide, ya know."
Ezra glanced down at the frozen ground for a moment before looking back up and meeting Vin's eyes. "I have respected Chris from the moment I met him here, and I knew that he was not the kind of man to call a cheat and conman friend." He chuckled sadly. "And as it turns out, the cheat and conman is the son he once lost. He feels guilty because his son is still gone, and the conman is all that is left. The irony is truly amazing." His stutter had gotten progressively worse the more he said until the last few words were nearly unintelligible.
Those words were what allowed the Texan to put the final pieces of the puzzle together. "You're afraid he's disappointed in ya."
The gambler lowered his eyes. "I am the last person that Chris would want for a son, and the last person he should have for one."
Vin reached over and grabbed the reins out of Ezra's hands, pulling both horses to a stop. He raised the gambler's chin so that he could meet the startled green eyes, ignoring the snow that was beginning to fall. "Now, ya better listen, Ez. Chris knows it's gonna take time to get everything between the two of ya worked out. But he's gonna do whatever it takes, 'cause you're his son. That's all that matters ta him."
Ezra's lips slowly curled up into a smile. "Perhaps you are correct, Vin." He glanced around, noting the snowfall that was getting steadily heavier. "I think we should make a hasty retreat back to town before the snow becomes any worse."
The tracker nodded and they turned their horses, heading back towards Four Corners. They had only been riding for a few minutes when Ezra's horse stepped in a hole and went down. The gambler managed to kick his feet free of the stirrups, rolling as he hit the ground to avoid being pinned by the horse.
He slowly rose to his feet, moving to check on the injured animal. He sighed in regret when he saw that the horse's front leg was badly broken. He exchanged a glance with Vin as he pulled his gun and stepped back. "I'm sorry, my friend. I truly wish this was not necessary." He fired a single shot, ending the animal's pain.
Ezra shivered as he holstered his gun, his coat doing little to block the icy wind. "Well, Mr. Tanner, it seems that we shall be riding double back to town."
Vin grabbed the gambler's arm as soon as he was close enough and swung him up into the saddle behind him. "We're gonna have ta take it slower, though. Don't want the horse gettin' too tired."
The snowfall was soon so thick that neither man could see more than a few yards in front of them. The horse continued to plod along, both the heavy winds and the weight of the two men keeping the animal from moving very fast. They were only about halfway back when the horse stumbled and refused to move another step. Both men quickly dismounted and Vin knelt to check on the bay. He ran nearly numb fingers up the horse's legs, quickly finding the strain in one of its forefeet.
The tracker pushed himself to his feet, shivering as he pulled his coat even tighter. "We're gonna have ta walk, Ez. He ain't gonna be able to carry even one of us back without ruining his leg."
The gambler burrowed further into his coat, pulling the collar up around his neck. "Then let us proceed before we freeze to death." His voice shook as his teeth chattered, making his stutter even worse.
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Chris glanced up as the doors to the saloon burst open and snow swirled in followed by a muffled figure. Once he realized that it was Maude, he returned to staring at his whiskey. His eyes narrowed as he noticed the conwoman walking towards his table but he refused to look up. He ignored her as she gingerly pulled out a chair across from him and sat down. But he couldn't ignore her when she reached across the table and grabbed his whiskey, downing it in one gulp.
The gunslinger raised an eyebrow when she handed the empty glass back, but still said nothing. He just watched as she seemed to silently argue with herself. When it looked like she had finally come to a decision he poured himself another whiskey and tossed it back, waiting for her to speak.
"I am sorry for what I said earlier, Mr. Larabee. It was completely uncalled for." Maude lowered her head for a moment, then glanced back up at the gunslinger. "I have no doubt that you were a much better parent than I ever was. I never had any desire to be a mother, but when I found Ezra I couldn't leave the poor little thing all alone. But I was never a proper mother to him."
Chris looked at Maude in silence for a moment then back down at his whiskey glass. "Reckon you oughta tell that to Ezra. He'd probably appreciate hearing it."
The conwoman sighed. "I know. But since he is not here and you are, I thought that I would apologize to you first." She glanced back towards the saloon doors and the puddle of water in front of them from the melted snow. "I'm worried about him, Mr. Larabee. It is my fault that he is out in this horrid weather, and I don't know what I would do if something happened to him because of me."
"Neither do I." The words were softly spoken, but both Chris and Maude could hear the pain in his words.
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Ezra wasn't sure how long he and Vin had been walking, leading the injured horse between them. He wasn't even sure if they were heading in the right direction but remained silent about it, trusting that Vin would get them home. His feet were going numb in his boots, and it didn't matter how often he brought his stiff fingers up to his mouth to blow on them. He was quickly losing all feeling in them as well.
As they continued stumbling along through the thick snow, Ezra suddenly stopped. He squinted, trying to see through the snow. "Vin, I think I see a light further on." Between his chattering teeth and the remainder of his stutter, the words were nearly unintelligible but the tracker seemed to understand them.
The Texan stopped and looked, one hand shielding his eyes. "I think you're right, Ez. Let's keep going."
The two men continued to plod along until Ezra stumbled, falling to his knees in the snow. Vin dropped the horse's reins and knelt next to the Southerner, trying to help pull him back up to his feet. The gambler winced as he put weight on his left foot, nearly falling back to the ground before the tracker caught him.
"I think I twisted my ankle, Vin."
The Texan ignored him, sliding under Ezra's left arm and taking some of his weight. Then he reached for the horse's reins and began slowly moving towards the faint light again. "Come on, Ez. We ain't stoppin' now."
It took them nearly half an hour to reach the light, and both men felt their frozen lips curling up when they realized that they were nearly in Four Corners. Once they reached the saloon, Vin loosely tied the injured horse to the hitching post. He would have someone take care of the animal as soon as he and Ezra got inside.
He pushed the doors open and they nearly fell inside, leaning back on the doors to close them against the wind. Vin barely had a chance to see Chris and Maude staring at them from a table in the corner before he and Ezra were sliding down the door to sprawl on the floor of the saloon.
Before he or Ezra realized what was happening, Chris and Maude were both kneeling next to them and the gunslinger was calling for Nathan. He glanced over at Chris when he noticed Maude pulling Ezra forward into a hug. One side of the blond's mouth turned up in a smile, telling the tracker that he would explain it all later.
By the time Maude released Ezra, the gambler's eyes were wide in shock. They grew even wider at the words that the conwoman whispered in his ear. She flashed him a sincere smile as she stood, letting Chris take her place.
Chris pulled the shivering gambler into his arms, resting his chin on the bowed head. "Don't scare me like that any more, Ez. I don't think I can take it." He pulled back, a very familiar glare directed at Ezra. "And one more thing, Ezra." The glare melted into a smile. "Merry Christmas, son."
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