Disclaimer: I don't own them, or the show they rode in on. I wrote this for fun, and no profit is made from it.
Archive: Starwinder's, You Want Fries With That?, and The All-Ezra FanFic Archive --- all others, please ask.
Summary: Buck finally figures Ezra out.
Author's Note: Winner of 2003 Gold Ezzie for Old West Slash Fiction - Short Category
Completed: 23 November 2001
Feedback: email@example.com welcomes comments
The last shot was fired, echoing dully down the main street - the only street - of the dusty western town of Four Corners. Gun smoke still rose in lazy swirls across the street, mixing with the clouds of dust now settling, as the seven gunmen rose slowly to their feet. Another bank robbery thwarted. Again.
Buck Wilmington could hear his young friend JD Dunne shouting something up to Vin Tanner where he was peering down from the top of the feed store. JD's all right, Buck thought with relief as he climbed to his feet and looked down at one of the recent robbers. Damn, damn, damn. He's jest a boy! Buck wiped at his face, grief pulling at his heart as he stood there staring down at the youngster who lived such a short time ago. Buck's own bullet had ended this young life. He hunched slightly, almost as if he'd been gut punched. Shit. His gun hung heavily from his hand at his side and he found it was an effort to lift it up high enough to slide it into the holster at his hip.
He dragged his eyes from the dead boy, looking blindly up and ahead. Rising into his view was the group's gambler, conman, and black sheep, Ezra Standish. It took a moment for Buck's eyes to clear enough and focus to see Standish clearly through the hazy afternoon air. The gambler was coming to his feet from behind one of the town's watering troughs, holstering his own gun and looking warily around. As if he stood at one end of a tunnel and Ezra at the other, Buck's vision narrowed, his hearing still dulled from the barrage of gunfire. Standish had lost his hat in the firefight, and stood there drawing a finger along under the collar of his frilled shirt, one cheek smeared with mud from the ground where the bullet-hole leaking trough had dampened some of the dusty street. Alarm flew through Buck. How old is he anyway? Without the hat, his clothes in disarray, and a muddy streak on his face, Ezra Standish looked very, very young.
"EZRA!" Buck's angry bellow had everyone freezing and turning to look. Standish himself spun and crouched, casting a hurried look around for danger. When he didn't see any, he looked over his shoulder with confusion at Buck. The look was so utterly at odds with his normally unflappable mien that to Buck it only confirmed his sudden conviction that Ezra was no older than JD. And, maybe even younger! SHIT!
As Chris and Josiah watched in surprise from where they were beginning to walk through the corpses, checking for wounded, and Nathan looked up from boardwalk where he was applying pressure to the bank manager's slight arm wound, Buck stormed directly at Standish, leaping over the dead boy to confront the gambler.
"Buck?" Ezra sounded puzzled.
By now, Wilmington had reached the smaller man and unceremoniously grabbed him by the arms, dragging the dusty green jacket off his shoulders and free, tossing it to the ground. That left Ezra in his shirt sleeves, derringer rig still on his right forearm, standing flat-footed staring up in the thundercloud of Buck Wilmington's face. "Ezra! How the fuck old are ya?" This last was gritted out in a low, angry growl.
If Standish had looked puzzled and confused before, he now looked absolutely flabbergasted. "Buck? What - ?"
But the rangy gunman wasn't done. He shoved the smaller man in the chest, forcing him to stumble backwards against the hitching rail that stood behind him. Buck caught at the rail, one hand twisted on the wooden pole on each side of the man in front of him, bent in an arc over the rail in his attempt to distance himself from his raging friend. "Damn you, Ezra, how - old - are - ya?" Fiercely, Buck's eyes scanned the other's face, taking in the wide, startled green eyes, the unlined, smooth face, the diminutive size of the gambler. "You ain't a man yet, Ez, you're jest a boy! Fuck! You're probably the same age as JD!" Then as he saw the change in the eyes looking back at him he realized it might be even worse than that. "What? You're even younger?"
Ezra couldn't believe this was happening. One minute they were all working together to bring down the Ellis gang, and now? Now he was being accosted by one of the others, accused of being a boy. Forcing himself to straighten against the towering figure in front of him, Ezra shook his head. "Buck, leave it alone," he said with as much dignity as he could muster, his voice low and even. With his heart still trying to batter it's way free from his chest, he still managed to pull his impassive poker face on. He knew that it aged him, just as he knew that when Buck's excitement eased he'd see the age-old wisdom in the green eyes glinting up at him.
But Buck wasn't prepared to back off just yet. His mind was whirling at the implications of his discovery. All this time he'd been protecting young JD Dunne when there was another in their midst that was just as young. Damn, he wanted to hit something in his rage and fear. Instead, he grunted and grabbed Ezra by the waist. Damn me if he ain't tiny! Lifting without any effort at all, he had the other dangling in the air in front of him so that they were nose to nose. "Ezra," he spoke softly and directly to the conman, "You ain't foolin' me no more. You ain't nothing but a boy!" With each 'ain't', Buck shook the small frame firmly.
It was the snick of the derringer coming free into the conman's hand that finally penetrated Wilmington's fog of roiling emotions. "Mr. Wilmington. Put. Me. Down." The small gun appeared as if by magic and the muzzle was pressed none too gently against the bigger man's chest. "Now." Standish's voice was uncompromising and steady, as he gazed deliberately into the deep blue eyes of his attacker.
"BUCK!" Chris' shout from across the street was concerned. "What'd he do?"
"Ezra do somethin' wrong?" Came from Nathan further down the street.
Ezra shut his eyes. This was a nightmare. He felt like turning his small gun on himself. He eyed the man holding him off the street and wondered at this new, aggressive, angry Buck Wilmington.
Shaking himself like a dog, a shiver of fear and protectiveness trailing down his spine, the tall ex-ranger lowered his captive to his feet and released him. He ignored the gun still pressed against his own chest, and the shouts of the others, and gently wiped at the mud on Ezra's face. "Aw, Ez, you been foolin' us." The quiet tone was so at variance with his early utterings that Standish blinked up at him, confusion again seeping through his shuttered expression. Stepping back from the smaller man, Buck bent over and retrieved the green jacket. He brushed it a bit and handed it to his friend.
Ezra simply stood there. He was stunned at this unexpected confrontation. With an inelegant shrug, he retracted and fixed his derringer in its mechanism. Accepting the offered coat in silence, he studied the man in front of him. It would not do to extend this conversation, if that is what it could be called. With that decision, he turned away, slipping his arms back in the sleeves of his now thoroughly dirty jacket. He picked up his hat from where it lay on the ground at his feet, gave it a cursory dusting and set it on his head with finality. Knowing to look back was to admit defeat, the conman straightened up and stepped up on to the boardwalk, then headed for the saloon and his room. At the moment, his sanctuary. He had heard the shouted questions from Chris and Nathan and it set his teeth on edge that they always assumed the worst when it came to him. A little distance, and a chance to clean up seemed the best course of action.
Wilmington stood, hipshot against the hitching rail, watching the smaller man reassemble his wardrobe and his persona. It was like some sorta sleight o'hand, he decided. Ez puts on them fancy duds and that poker face, and he's a grown up man. Only. Only he weren't no grown up man. He was a young man, maybe even a boy, wearing man's clothes, talking with grown up words, playing grown up games, and acting grown up ways. Well, most of the time, anyway. Buck's own impassive face broke into a grin as he remembered their shoving match by the wagon train not so long ago. Hell, now that he thought on it, it only really made sense. After all, Maude might not be no spring chicken but she weren't no old biddy neither. He couldn't be all that old.
By now, several of the others had reached Buck, worry clear in their eyes. Josiah, who'd strode over ready to intercede between Buck and his victim, had slowed as Buck released Ezra and the other had walked away without a backward glance. "Brother Buck? Is everything all right?" His deep voice sounded unsure.
"Yeah, Josiah, it's okay. Jest realized somethin' that's all." Buck stepped back and around to face the others, self-consciously battering his hat against one long thigh. He saw Josiah relax and lean on the rail beside him. Man was almost patriarchal at times.
"What happened?" Rushed JD as he skidded to a stop beside them, fumbling to re-holster his twin Colts. He busily brushed a dark wing of hair out of his eyes and peered up at one of his heroes.
"Nothin' happened." Buck was dismissive, then grinned and knocked JD's hat back and off his head. "See you didn't lose yore headpiece yet!"
"Buck!" Dunne scrambled for his hat, his tone disgusted. Realizing he'd get no more from his friend and that all seemed normal once more, he stayed back as the rest arrived.
Chris and Vin had joined them now, both silently listening to the others, Chris watching Buck closely. "Buck?" His tenor rising in question, "Something we should know about?" He worried about his old time friend when he got in one of his moods. Buck could be a fun-loving man most of the time, but Chris knew him very well, and he knew that Buck was a dangerous man.
Wilmington opened his mouth to tell them all about his discovery and then stopped, picturing those open green eyes again. "Nope." He tipped his head to settle his hat on and looked up, a smile widening at the others. "Everythin's fine."
Nathan pursed his lips, his whole face tightening in his closed anger. It always worried him intensely when he thought one of his friends was hurt. The way Buck had been carrying on, he'd thought Ezra'd done something, or worse still, was hurt and trying to hide it. "We still got this mess to clean up," he reminded the others.
The men all turned away and walked to the various slumped forms on the street, stooping to grab and drag the dead off the thoroughfare and towards the undertaker's storefront. Vin remained standing beside the quiet ladies' man for another moment. "Bucklin. Did Ezra get hurt?"
They both knew that the conman hated Nathan's fussing and would rather tend his own wounds given a choice. Sometimes such choices weren't possible but smaller injuries often went unreported. Buck shook his head. "Wasn't like that."
"Somethin' goin' on?" The ex-bounty hunter could be very perceptive.
Buck looked down at the toes of his boots, then up to meet the sky-blue eyes of the tracker. "Naw. Jest a little dust-up. Matter of a difference of opinion."
Vin nodded and headed off to help Chris who was dragging a huge man's body across the street. Together they made short work of it. Buck could see that neither man spoke, but he caught sight of the silent exchange nonetheless. Chris' raised eyebrow, Vin's tiny head shake. Dang, Chris an'me never were able ta do that.
Late that night
The green-eyed gambler bowed out early at the gaming table. He collected a respectable collection of bills and coins and smilingly bid goodnight to his circle of competitors who, for once, good-naturedly taunted him back. With a quiet nod to Vin Tanner who slumped in a chair beside the dark gunman at a back table, Ezra faded up the stairs to his room above the saloon. He didn't try to get eye contact with Larabee, the man was into his second bottle. It was best to leave that for another time.
Strolling down the long upstairs hall after putting away his winnings, Standish stepped out on to the back second-story landing of the saloon. He rested his forearms on the flat wooden rail and cricked his neck to gaze up at the night sky. A few streaks of dark, must be clouds coming in, hid some of the starry heaven. The rest of the world was at peace. His discerning ear could even distinguish the natural quiet of the night from the subdued noises of the late-night saloon crowd and the hidden noises of the nightlife of the prairie as it lapped at the edge of the small municipality. He touched his lips with the fingers of one hand and stood up to stretch.
It was then that a prickling at his neck made him aware that he was not alone. With a deliberation that was both casual and deadly, one hand fell to rest on the butt of his holstered revolver, the other flexing in preparation of release of his small but equally destructive derringer.
"Whoa, pard. 's only me." Buck's voice was soft and warm in the dark.
Ezra stopped himself from drawing on his friend with a gut-wrenching twist to hair-trigger nerves. Putting both shaking hands back on the rail, he looked back up at the huge sky.
"Ya left awful early t'night, Ez." Standish could hear the slurried movement of leather soles on the balcony's wooden planks. A creaking noise as the larger man came to stand beside him, tall and powerful. The southerner sighed. So, it wasn't over yet.
"I felt the need for some fresh air, Mr.Wilmington. Nothing more."
A hand, big with long, strong fingers, came to rest on one of his shoulders tugging him around to face the other lawman. Looking up into that face, so solemn and sleek, Ezra wondered why the man was here.
"Ez... aw hell." Buck put his other hand on Ezra's other shoulder. Squeezed both shoulders tight. "Ezra, ya shouldn't be like this. Yer too young to be so hard."
With a cat-like movement, the gambler twisted free and stepped back, a flash of fear on his face before it settled into its customary lines of placidity. "Young? Mr. Wilmington, I assure you, I have never been young." The bitter sound to the speech cut into Buck's reserve. He leaned forward, hands extended once more.
"Oh, Ez, that cain't be right."
Stepping back further, keeping his distance, the southerner steeled his voice. "Buck," he said with deliberation, seeing the start of surprise when he used the familiarity of first name, "It may not be right but it is the truth." Shrugging inelegantly, suddenly full of an anger that came from he knew not where, Ezra gripped the rail again. Raw words flooded his mouth and burst through the silence. "I am what life has made me. Childhood? Don't make me laugh. I was working whilst still in swaddling clothes, working my mother's cons." He closed his eyes and grit his teeth to keep them from chattering. "I was raised working, not chores mind you, but swindles. Cons. Games of chance. Oh, yes, I knew the inside of a gaming room before I was four years old. I drank fine liquor and held it when I was eight. I started smoking when I was eleven. By then, I was really getting too old for most of Maude's 'madonna' charms. She couldn't play the mama to a juvenile as she could to a young boy. So then I was relegated to relatives, friends, and even to foes. Anyone who would take me off her hands for a bit."
The unnatural silence from the lanky cowman seemed to goad Standish on, he caught his hands together, just stopping himself from wringing them, clenching a fist and holding it cupped in his other hand, he continued. It was as if a cork had been pulled and years of ire poured out, unstoppable now. "It was the war that killed off what was left of my youth, if such it could ever be called. You were in the war, were you not, Mr. Wilmington?" Without waiting for an answer, he let his tirade flow on. "I was only thirteen when it started for me. Thirteen is pretty young, even out here, isn't it?" The last was said almost pleadingly. But on he pitched, all yaw and swing. "My older cousins joined and they just naturally assumed I should too. I was supposed to be their go-fer. Only neither of them lived to see three more sunrises. I saw the war. All of it."
Gulping in air, Ezra stopped. Suddenly cold, shivering in the warm, balmy night. Two long, hard arms settled around him, drawing him back against the other's chest. One hand moved up to rub Ezra's chest, the other firmly held him at the waist. He considered fighting, then rejected the notion. It actually felt good to be in these capable arms. Something pressed down on the top of his head. It took him a moment to realize it was Buck's chin. That was somehow even more reassuring than any words that might be spoken. Ezra sighed and continued. "I started out carrying powder and shot for a gunnery crew, but by the end of the week, I was on the crew. By the end of the war, I was in charge of an entire battery. No one ever asked how old I was. War ages everyone, Buck." The arms around him tightened, the chin rubbed back and forth over his scalp.
"I was fifteen when it ended. The war, I mean. Lee's surrender. Mother re-surfaced out in Kansas City. How she got word of me, to me, I never found out. But she does have her connections. We worked as a team for about a year. Then I decided I'd had enough. I went down the Mississippi on a riverboat, ended up in New Orleans. Worked some gaming houses there. Made a few connections of my own."
There was a soft hiss. Then finally a murmur from the ladies man. "You weren't even seventeen by then."
"Buck, I never had a childhood. I've been an adult since I was four. I was an old man by the time I was seventeen." From anyone else such a statement would have sounded utterly ridiculous, but Buck realized that Ezra was absolutely serious, and honest. Tenderly, Buck let his chin slide down one side of the gambler's head until his lips touched the slender neck. And he kissed the skin there, softly and without fear.
"How did you know?" There was self-loathing in the whisper.
Buck jerked his head back as if his lips had been scalded. "Ez? I didn't know anything. Jest good at guessin'."
But the trembles of the smaller man only increased until he was shaking. "You want what the others wanted?"
"Others?" Now Buck was the one thoroughly confused. What others? He thought silently.
"Oh, come on, Buck. I felt your kiss. We both know I'm not one of your saloon strumpets." Impatience and something terrible, something that sounded like defeat, despair rang in the gambler's quiet tones. "You figured out my age. You heard my story. You filled in the holes, didn't you? You figured out the rest." Ezra actually let his head drop back to rest on Buck's collarbone. Rolled his head from side to side in emotional pain. "Well, Buck, I have news for you. I haven't 'put out' for years."
The night sounds crept back into the well of silence. The two men stood wrapped in it. Ezra simply existing as the past was torn open in painful recollection. Buck stood rooted in shock, both at his own daring actions and at what it had apparently cost his friend. Silence was filled by a far off coyote's yip and then the hoot of a night owl.
"Ez." Buck nuzzled his friend's neck, licking gently at the soft skin. "Ez, I didn't know. You're older now, Ez, and yore yer own man. Ain't none of that matters no more. 'cept that it made you who you are. Someone very special."
"Buck? Don't do this to me." It came out as a plea. Ezra felt weary. He couldn't seem to raise his head.
"Ain't doing nothing, yet, pard." Buck gently turned the other man in his arms and pulled him up tight. Felt unsure arms come around him at the waist, hands fidgeting at his belt near the back. He let his body soothe the fearful spirit of his friend. Then leaned down and captured the faintly trembling lips.
"It was bed you or beat you, Ez." Buck explained patiently to his partner on the feather mattress. Said partner was snuggled in tight against him, for all the world like one of his ladies of the night, only this one was no lady. He stroked the curve of spine and smiled at the shiver his touch could still produce. "Ez, I'm gonna hafta leave soon. Wouldn't be right, anyone finding me in here."
"By all means, Mr. Wilmington, be off with you." The muffled sounds of early morning voice came from the area of Buck's ribs and a down pillow wedged against him. The words, however, were belayed by the firm grasp of short arms that still encircled his middle.
Buck grinned in delight. He had a feeling that his roaming was finished. "Ya see, Ez, when I realized how young ya were, at first I felt like I shoulda been protectin' ya, you know, like I do JD." His smile only grew as he felt a stiffening of the form curled next to him. "But, then, listenin' to ya last night, I realized something."
"What was that?"
No big words. Damn, finally figgered out this ole boy. "I realized you'd seen more life'n I had, likely were older on the inside than me." He paused, enjoying the way the other relaxed back against him. "And, onct I'd figgered that out, why it was like I was lookin' at you different. And I knew I wanted to have you, like I hadn't ever thought about afore. When you said that about puttin' out, damn near froze my heart. Fer a moment, thought I'd have to stop, seeing as how you were thinking I wanted what I wanted only not why."
A series of small, repeated jerks got Buck's attention. He laid a calming hand on Ezra's back and felt the repeated tremors. Concern overrode his need to confide. "Ez? You hurtin'?"
The movements continued and a clear tenor with southern softness answered. "Buck, only you, or may be your young colleague JD, could come out with such a convoluted sentence. And only I would be able to understand your ill-measured logic with any success. I do understand, Buck." The last was said with a sweeter tone as smiling green eyes slid out to peer up at their target.
"Good." Ignoring the wit, and responding to the charm, Buck leaned down and planted a light kiss on Ezra's forehead. "Jest figgered out that I love you, you crazy southerner."
Pulling himself up the other's union suit, Ezra ended up plastered against the larger man, in the crook of one long arm. He sighed with open contentment and nodded against the other's chest. "Ez?" Buck ran long fingers through the fine reddish brown hair. When he didn't get a response, he tried again. "Ez? Manchild? You with me here?"
"Mmm. Manchild? I think I like that."
"Ezra P. Standish. I gotta get up. Think of your reputation."
"Think what this would do to the others."
"You got an answer for everything?"
"Everything but you."
"Huh? What's that mean, pard?"
Silence. Then, hesitantly, "I've never said those words to anyone. Not even my own mother."
"What words are those, Ezra?" Buck felt a sadness and joy bundle together in his heart.
"I love you." The joy exploded and shriveled the sadness away.
"Aw, Ez, I know. Knew it last night, knew it yesterday - when you didn't shoot me."
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