Fare Thee Well
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: Ugly words and silence bring on changes, chase Ezra away.
Warnings: Slash content, nothing too blatant
Author's Note: This didn't resolve too well, may not be some folks' cuppa tea... boredom set in here and I just started writing, so this one isn't as cohesive as some stories I've put together, sorry. Story was inspired in part by a blues song whose lyrics are posted after the story.
Completed: 14 March 2004
Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org welcomes comments
Ezra tipped his hat to his colleagues, smirk firmly in place. The other men, lounging in front of the saloon, returned his farewell with varying degrees of energy. JD was the only one to stand up and that was just so that he could turn away and walk into the shade of the drinking establishment, clearly giving Ezra the cold-shoulder.
Standish's expression did not change. He turned the salute into a tug, pulling the front brim of his black, flat-topped gambler's special down over his eyes. He reined over Chaucer's neck and turned his horse away, then gigged it into that showy canter as he headed down the single dusty street of Four Corners - and out of town. As requested. Ordered.
The only one not present to see the back of the exiled gambler was Buck Wilmington. The big man was out on a delivery run to High Peak, some papers that Judge Travis had sent by stage as far as Four Corners. Chris had deemed it best to act while his old friend was absent, cutting Standish out now. Not that he wouldn't, couldn't do it with Buck around, just that it saved energy. Wilmington had a tendency to stand up for anyone who came under Larabee's scrutiny and anger. Lately, it had been Standish, their ne'er-do-well conman and gambler.
Sanchez had watched the proceedings wordlessly, his brow furrowing and jaw hard with the knowing that his good friend, Nathan Jackson, had nearly lost his life because of the southern gentleman gambler. And then been hectored by the man for the last few days. He laid a hand on the other's knee, silently supportive.
Jackson, clear eyed and anguished, sat humbly in the midst of his brethren. Turning his wide hat brim inside the curl of two dark, big hands. Hands that could perform such delicate work, saving the lives of his friends more than anyone liked to remember. They all owed allegiance to this strong, morally incorruptible man. All, it seemed, except for Ezra Standish, who had more than once made known his views on each of the six men, never sparing his rapier wit out of any sense of decency or sentimentality, or at least, so it seemed to the rest. And this time, seemed he went too far.
Tanner, stealing a look over at Jackson, sighed silently. He had liked Standish, thought him a funny, smart feller. Only, when Ezra got riled, no one was safe from his tongue. Man had a way with words that was downright vicious, like some rattler gone worse. Nate had somehow become Ezra's target these last few days. Something had happened in the saloon the other night. No one knew quite what. But Nate had been shot, and then Ezra had started cuttin' into the man with his tongue, sharp and mean. No one was too sure why and Jackson hadn't said, just bowed his head and hunched his shoulders under the other man's scorn. Not like Nate at all. Man usually was the one doing the scorning. Nate could be Mr. High and Mighty when he thought he saw an injustice. Usually saw it in Ezra's direction, Vin mused, for the first time feeling a twinge of unease at the way they'd booted out Standish. The way that Chris had booted out Standish.
Chris Larabee, who'd been standing foursquare in front of the rest, in the dust of the street, hand on his flashy six-gun, remained stiff, watching until Standish's form disappeared into the dust and distance, down the road out of town. Now maybe there'd be some peace around here. He'd grown tired of the in-fighting among the men. Never interfered if he could help it, figured they were all grown-up, except maybe JD, and even he shouldered his share of the responsibility of the seven. Six. Chris felt a sudden sense of loss. Damn fool Southerner. If only he'd kept his mouth shut. Dragging a cheroot from inside his jacket, Larabee thrust it between his teeth and grimaced. Lighting the smoke, he ignored the rest and strolled over to the jail. For once, a drink did not sound appealing. And Buck would be back soon. There'd be questions to answer.
Ezra rode with his usual upright carriage, chin high, the shade of his hat brim hiding damp, angry green eyes from the contempt of others. Of them. Once his trail rounded a bend in the road and dipped down past the hill at the end of town, he knew he was out of sight of that small and dusty outpost. At that point, his shoulders slumped just slightly. Good for you, my boy, you made your exit with some dignity intact. Then he leaned forward to pat his gelding's hide. They'd arrived together, and now would leave that way. He spared no backward glance.
His thoughts, though, roiled with the injustice of it all. He'd had to suffer through Mr. Jackson's moral high ground for most of his stay in that town. He had actually grown to respect the healer's skills and opinions, even when the latter was opposed to his own endeavors. None of the others ever seemed to see anything amiss in Jackson's verbal attacks upon his person. None ever interfered. Granted, he often strayed from Mr. Jackson's ideals, but Ezra had really made an effort, had really tried to conform to the expectations of the town and his associates. He so wanted to be accepted by Mr. Larabee and the others. Ezra's mouth turned down slightly at the thought of Larabee. The man had a strength and core to him that drew Ezra like a moth to the candle's flame. He respected the older man, gave his support and loyalty without question.
Now he had failed him. Because he couldn't rein in his own temper. His disdain for the healer who'd churned up a disaster and then relied on the soiled gambler to get him out - and never defended the man afterwards. The stain of blame once again landing on Ezra's shoulders, undeserved this time like many times before. But this time, this time redemption was at hand. Only, the lie was allowed to stand, by the ever-so-noble Nathan. Ezra's lips curled in distaste.
"Chaucer, my friend, it seems we are off on adventure." The chestnut's ears pricked and swiveled back, then the creature snorted as if in agreement. Ezra grinned hazily, pushing away his deep pain of betrayal, and gave a pat to the dark haired hide. Good-bye to his 'friends' - well, associates. Friends surely wouldn't stand by and watch him driven into exile.
Eagle Bend was up ahead on this trail, and suddenly, Ezra didn't want to face another town, not yet. Despite what the others had come to believe, Ezra was adept in the wilderness, too many times having to flee the beaten path for his life, he knew quite well how to survive in cohort with Mother Nature. He turned Chaucer off the trail and hi-yupped him up the shallow incline of rough ground toward the dark and forbidding hills beyond. He knew the area fairly well from his time before meeting the others in that quaint little backwater, and from his patrols since then. His mouth quirked at the way he now viewed his life. A time before he was part of seven, a time when there were seven including him, and now, a time after. Chapters in a life. Ezra swallowed hard and mentally closed the book on the chapter of seven, and of one in particular.
Josiah sipped his whisky, no longer counting how many. In his mind's eye, he was back in Nathan's clinic, that night. He had stood back, wiping his hands on the damp, rusty rag. "Should be fine, Nathan. You're healing up with no sign of infection."
Jackson had nodded without meeting Sanchez's eye, shrugging his shirt back up and on. Chin to chest as he had buttoned the front of the homespun, he answered, "Thanks, Josiah. Not often I got call to be the patient."
Sanchez's face darkened at the memory of finding Nathan sprawled on the floor of the saloon, bloody and silent, only a few days earlier. Ezra Standish had been standing over him, flash with his gaudy clothes, ruby ring sparkling on one of two hands, each holding a gun. The little derringer had smoke rising from it, the Remington simply gleamed with a dark bore hole promising death to the rough looking men that had circled the two. Josiah remembered shoving past the standing men to sink to his knees by his bleeding friend. Ezra hadn't even spared him a look.
It had been Larabee and Tanner, following him in, who had cocked pistol and mare's leg, breaking the standoff. They'd asked who'd hurt Jackson, but Standish had shrugged, reholstering his Remington and then fussing with his derringer, turning away and climbing the steps back to his elevated gaming table. The other men, suddenly no longer looking very threatening under the harsh glint in the two lawmen's eyes, had shuffled and started to squawk. Denying all blame. Finger pointing at each other, and then at the conveniently silent red-coated gambler. No one ever did find out what happened because Ezra and Nathan never said a word about it.
Unable to fix blame, the peacekeepers had reluctantly warned off the strangers who quickly departed the building, the sounds of their horses' pounding hooves testifying that they'd as quickly fled the township. Josiah, recollecting the callous way that Standish had turned his back on the others as they struggled to lift Jackson, grimaced angrily. He'd really expected more from that boy. They'd had to carry the big, muscular healer up to his own clinic and there Josiah and Vin Tanner had tended to the bullet burn across his shoulder. It was clear from the angle that it had been a back shot, from above. Only places high enough in that saloon to be the right angle had been the stairs and Ezra's poker table. And no one was talking. Not even Nathan, it turned out later. Man could keep his own counsel when he wanted, Josiah mused, remembering the silent man in front of him then.
"Josiah?" Nathan had somehow materialized at his elbow, at the group's regular table.
"Umm?" Sanchez wasn't sure he was ready for conversation yet, not even with his dear friend.
"You think Ezra will ever come back here?"
Nathan's tone was so tentative that Sanchez blearily sought to reassure. "Unlikely. He knows he's not wanted 'round here anymore."
"Yeah." Jackson still wouldn't meet the ex-preacher's eyes. He rubbed his hands as if cold, though it was quite warm in the saloon, with the iron stove radiating heat nearby. "Reckon you're right." He looked up finally. "Thanks for doing for me." He gestured to his injured back and shoulder.
"Anytime, my friend." Josiah was relieved that Nathan was looking at him at last. His own liquored fog seemed to be lifting slightly and he raised an eyebrow at the dark man. "Seems to be something troubling you?"
"Got to think on it some more, Josiah." Jackson shook his head mildly. "I feel responsible for Chris kicking Ezra out of town."
"Would have happened sooner or later, brother." Josiah shrugged, the gambler now dismissed from his mind. "Ezra always courted his own downfall, his sins coming back at him."
"Not this time, Josiah." Nathan's murmur was soft as he stood and slowly left the table. His back gave no further clue as to the non sequitur, and left Josiah wondering at Jackson's strange final comment.
Ezra coaxed a fire from the small pyramid of twigs and tinder he'd made of shredded dry brush. The spark had flickered into a dancing light and now climbed hungrily upward, licking the larger bits of wood he fed it. Dusk was settling over the world around him. He'd picked a quiet clearing among the high timber, far from trails and even faint animal tracks. The small brook that edged the meadow made a tinkling noise that was now part of the acceptable background noise, together with Chaucer's browsing sounds and occasional thump of hoofed foot. The birds had quickly recommenced their songs, once he was deemed no threat.
He sat on the log he'd scavenged from the tree line and now cast a glance up into the night sky. By morning, he'd have to make a decision. Where to next? What to do? He patted his boot, feeling the thickness that was his bankroll. He was better off than when he'd arrived in that town, all that long time ago. So desperate then for some funds that he'd pulled an old shag of a con on those cowboys in the saloon and it nearly cost him his life. But, it had also put him in the way of Larabee and five other men who for some unknown reason became his friends for a short, inexplicable time. Friends. Yes, he dared call them that even if he'd been shown the door in the end.
He leaned back against the log and wondered exactly what Buck Wilmington would think, do, when he found out. The warmth that usually filled his belly when he thought of the big, happy cowboy, became a cold jelly and soured inside. Dropping his head, he stared into the flames of the small campfire and stretched out hands that defied him by trembling. He'd miss them all. But he'd miss Buck more.
"You what?" Buck's dark blue eyes flashed with pure anger. He faced his old friend in a fury.
"Had to do it, Pard." Chris didn't back down or away. "It was Nate or Ezra, and we need a healer."
"So Ezra had to go?" Wilmington was already shoving his arms back into the sleeves of his heavy riding coat that he'd so casually flung over a nearby chair when he'd bellied up to the bar beside his friends.
Tanner and Dunne both stared. Tanner with understanding eyes. JD with scared ones. It was JD who spoke up. "Buck, he let Nate get hurt. For all we know, he might have done it himself! They won't talk none about it. Ezra just kept on sniping at Nate."
"And that didn't tell you boys nothing?"
The angry scorn in Wilmington's voice had Chris coloring as he stared away and down into his drink. "Let it be, Buck, it's done with now."
"No, don't think so, old Pard." Buck slapped his big old hat down over his unruly black hair.
"Goin' after him?" Tanner's quiet, husky voice slid in from the side.
"Ain't like I got a choice, do I?" Wilmington leaned over the bar and waved Inez down toward him, from where she'd been keeping her distance from the men. "Darlin' fix me up some vittles for the trail, and hand me a bottle of Ezra's finest."
"Who's going to pay for it, senor?" Inez might be sympathetic to the situation but she still had a business to run, even if the owner's own son was somehow involved.
"I will." Larabee downed his shot glass of whiskey and turned muted hazel eyes on his friend. "I'm sorry, Buck."
Wilmington straightened away from the oak bar and faced his old partner. "Yeah, reckon you are, at that." His hot blue eyes read the regret rising in the blond. Chris often acted harshly and abruptly, when his temper was pushed and Buck hadn't been there to step in the middle, protect Ezra. He wiped at his face, leaning one hip against the bar as he waited out Inez's bustle in the back. "If I find him, should we come back?"
JD stiffened. 'We'? "Buck, you ain't got no need to leave."
Wilmington never even looked over his shoulder at the young man, eyes still locked with Larabee's suddenly tired ones. "Yeah, I do, JD." He waited on Larabee's answer.
"Come back." Chris turned away from the dark blue eyes drilling into him. "Bring him back." He poured himself another finger of whiskey and ignored the sound of Sanchez's big steps as the other man entered and came up to the bar. "Tell him -- tell him that I'm sorry." The blond raised his head then, turning to meet Buck's eyes again, letting the regret shine from his murky depths.
Buck nodded once, before turning toward the bar to accept a generous parcel from Inez, and a shapely bottle of amber liquor. "Well, alright."
It might not be clear to the others, but Chris knew that Buck was answering him, not speaking to Inez. He relaxed slightly. Maybe things would be back to normal soon. As soon as Buck brought their seventh home.
Josiah caught just enough of the conversation to become angry. "You're going after Ezra?"
At Buck's nod, Sanchez stepped up in front of the man. "Why?"
"To bring him back, Josiah." Buck could see burning anger there. He didn't know all the particulars but he'd heard enough to know that Jackson was injured and, of course, Sanchez would come down on the side of his old friend. Buck didn't see any reason to challenge the big man, not when he already had had his say with Chris.
"No." Josiah shoved hard at Wilmington, causing the man to stagger back against the bar, hands full of bottle and parcel. "He don't come back here."
"It's a free country, 'siah." Wilmington was unafraid of the ex-preacher. The lanky gunman was a match for the big man in size and likely strength, though he'd never before challenged him. He carefully set the bottle down on the bar top, the parcel beside it, before facing the glower directed at him.
"No." Sanchez repeated, stepping closer, nearly chest-to-chest with Wilmington. "Nathan's just now better. No reason to make things bad again. This is Nathan's home, Buck."
"Ezra's too, Pard."
"Ezra? He's a will-o'the-wisp, Buck, he ain't ever called any place home."
"Let him go, Buck, please." JD's voice behind him caused Buck to flinch a bit. Seemed that Ezra wasn't going to find a warm welcome home if he managed to bring him back.
At this point, Larabee slid in between the two taller men, facing off against Sanchez. "Back off, Josiah." He met the angry light blue glare mildly. "Buck's right. I was wrong to send Ezra away. He ain't done nothing more that ever."
"Is alright." Larabee didn't back down.
Sanchez looked murder for a moment, then swung away like a goaded ox, stung but for the moment, compliant. "If I see that boy, I won't promise for being peaceful."
Larabee stared at the heavy shoulders as Josiah went up to the bar and helped himself to Chris' drink. He didn't say anything, just looked over at Wilmington. "Stay away for a bit, Buck. Give it time."
Buck stared back, then with flicking glances of anger toward Sanchez and Dunne, he gathered up the supplies he'd requested and strode out the door in silence, only a nod to Larabee his concession to the other's quiet order.
Nathan Jackson blew out a pained, soft sound, back to the saloon's front, beside the swinging half-doors. He'd heard the entire confrontation, having followed slowly behind Sanchez as his big friend entered the saloon. Now he watched as Buck swung out the doors with a long stride. Wilmington didn't see him at first. Then the man reached his gray horse and stood packing away some supplies in his saddlebags. Looked up to face the saloon and met dark brown eyes staring back at him.
Buck felt eyes on him, and thinking he still might have a fight on his hands with Sanchez, looked up only to find Nathan Jackson standing there, frozen by the door. He studied the man consideringly. Jackson straightened away from the wall but didn't speak.
You're the cause of all this somehow, Wilmington thought as he eyed the healer. Never had a kind word for our Ezra and now, from what Chris had to say, you ain't got any words at all. He stood and waited.
Nathan didn't know what to do or say to the outraged gunman in the street. Buck could be a real rogue, chasing skirts all over town, but always standing up for what was right. Even facing down swords for Inez's honor. Jackson didn't really want to stand against him. So he simply waited too.
When nothing was said, Buck shrugged and mounted his horse, casting a final glance at the silent healer. Cat got your tongue, Nate? He had to wonder what had happened to silence that usually hasty, mean tongue where Ezra was concerned. Right now, though, his first thoughts had to be for the missing gambler, so he said nothing, gave no sign to the man, just reined Grey around and headed out of town, in the direction Vin had said Ezra was heading.
Got to go find me my con man, Buck thought, staring up the road. He only had the whole world to search. Clicking his tongue, Wilmington encouraged the tired gray into a smooth lope.
Dawn broke through the tall pines, sending sweeping shafts of light down into the quiet meadow. Chaucer stood near the brook, having just quenched his thirst; he was nipping up tender green shoots near the narrow banks of the tiny stream. His tail flicked at the few early morning gnats that dared disturb him.
Ezra stretched cat-like in his bedroll and blinked away sleep, staring up at the tall whispering pine tops that hung over his head, overshadowing the tiny clearing. It was nice here. Early spring and the worst of the cold spells behind them. Him, he corrected himself quietly. It would take a while to get used to solitary existence once more. He sat up slowly, taking in the scene, enjoying the morning birdsong and the warmth of Chaucer's nearby presence.
The horse must have noticed or heard something, for he turned and clopped over to his reclining master and nosed the closest shoulder. Cunning beast, Ezra thought lovingly. He dropped a hand into the saddlebag that had been his pillow and came up with a worn looking peppermint. He offered it on a flat palm and warm, large lips delicately removed it. Ezra grinned as Chaucer dipped his head and moved away, noisily crunching on the treat.
Time moved slowly as Ezra tidied the campsite and did his morning ablutions. He was in no hurry to move on. This was a pleasant spot and he'd stay a while. He had much to think upon. A life to rearrange. Rubbing at a newly shaved jaw, he sat hunkered down by the rebuilt fire, waiting for the coffee pot to boil. And ignored the hurt that seemed to be growing bigger in his belly.
Buck's gloved fist smashed down on the third bar in Eagle Bend in frustration. If Ezra had made it this far, there was no sign of it. A trapper, leaning on the bar just down from him, frowned at the frustrated cowboy and turned to face him.
"That man you're looking for. What's it worth to you---?"
The trapper, Ben Nevis, never got to finish his question as the rangy cowboy grabbed his collars and yanked him close. "You know something?"
With a strangled sound, Nevis choked out, "Maybe."
Buck dropped his hands, clearly realizing he was not going to get an answer this way. "Tell me."
"How about a bit of shine, mister?" Nevis rubbed at his neck, wheedling for some tin. It wasn't often he could get some cash for a bit of knowledge.
Buck pulled out a silver dollar and held it in front of the small, grungy looking mountain man silently.
Casting a hungry eye on the coin, Ben nodded his head wisely. "I seen a man, might be the one you're after. Had a pretty chestnut gelding. Didn't see no red jacket but he had a hat like you were saying, black and flat-topped."
Buck pressed the coin into the man's chest, but didn't release it. "Where?"
Ben drew one hand up to his chest, just under the big coin. "Up in timber country, just north east of here. I was coming down from my lines, saw the campfire, went a bit closer to see, make sure wasn't no trouble coming." He nodded to himself. Renegades and outlaws sometimes hid up there, causing trouble for peaceable men like him.
"Did you talk with the man."
"No, sir, he didn't get no wind of me." Ben shook his head. When he wanted company, he came to town. Didn't pay to meet up with someone that far from trails. Trouble could be there, even if it didn't look like it.
"Can you lead me there?" Buck knew that the scant directions wouldn't be enough, not out in the wilderness that the trapper was speaking about. Seeing the nervy look he got, he added, "It's worth a second one," and he dropped the coin into the waiting hand.
Nevis toyed with the silver dollar. Another one for simply going back up to his own trap lines? He grinned. "Sure thing, mister. Just need to get me a few supplies and finish my drink."
Buck nodded agreeably. This was his first lead and he knew pushing might lose it. He could wait, especially if Ezra was just camped out up in the hills, safe from harm. He hoped.
Ezra twiddled with his makeshift spit, turning the pheasant's plump, plucked form over the fire, enjoying the crackling sounds, the mouth-watering aroma that rose from the bird. With the greens he'd found along the stream's bed, he felt fortunate. He'd have a nice little feast this day and nary a trail ration in sight. Wonder what Mr. Tanner would think, he mused smugly, before the recurring pain of exclusion smothered his smile. Vin would never know.
The sounds of a horse picking its way up through the timber had him quickly dousing the fire with dirt and backing away from the campsite into the trees, gun in hand. Another crackle of small twigs beneath hooves and Buck's gray nosed into the clearing, Wilmington's cautious, "Buck here," carrying to the hiding man.
Ezra rose to his feet behind the huge tree trunk that he'd used as cover. He leaned against it and watched as Buck drew rein and dropped heavily to the ground next to the dead fire.
"Ezra?" Buck was turning in a circle now, looking out into the dark forest around him.
Ezra waited, confident that the big man would spot him when his eyes adjusted to the light and shadow. He was right. Wilmington stopped, facing him, and dropped his reins, effectively ground tying the big horse at his side.
"Ez." Buck stepped toward the shadowy shape, confident it was Ezra since Chaucer had ignored the whole proceeding with familiar distain. "I come to get you."
That broke the conman from his hiding. Ezra stepped out into the clearing, holstering his weapon. "Would you care to share my meal, Mr. Wilmington?" He stopped to brush the dirt from his dead fire with a stick, not meeting Buck's dark eyes.
"That'd be fine, Ezra." Buck had prepared himself to meet all sorts of responses from Ezra, knowing the man must be hurting. He'd bide his time. "Can I help?"
"Some more small tinder would be helpful," the southerner answered, rebuilding the fire's charred remains and adding kindling. The succulent bird wasn't yet cooked through but wouldn't need too much longer. He could throw some more greens into the pan he had at the side of the cook fire easily enough.
Ezra could hear Buck tramping off back in among the trees while the horse remained close by the fire circle. Sighing, he dusted his hands and stood, grabbing Gray's leathers and leading the relaxed animal over to where Chaucer grazed. It took only a few minutes to removed saddle, gear and bridle and set hobbles. Chaucer might not stray but he wasn't so sure about Buck's mount. Kindly slapping the animal on one vast rump, he picked up Buck's saddle, the gear stacked on top, and carried it back over to the campsite.
Buck was already there, having finished lighting and stoking back up the fire. He looked up quietly and nodded his thanks to the smaller man when all his things were dropped nearby. Taking in an appreciative sniff at the roasting bird, he arched a brow at Standish.
Ezra shrugged. "A bit more tasty than jerky."
"Smells right good, Ezra." Buck nodded complacently. Then waited. It didn't take long.
"Would you care to explain your presence in this out of the way locale?" Ezra kicked himself mentally. He knew better! Never leave an opening, you'll only get hurt. But it was too late, his loneliness spoke before his brain took hold. Dropping his gaze to the fire, he waited for whatever Buck might chose to say, do.
"Why, following you, Pard." Buck made it sound as casual and natural as possible, trying not to let his worry show. And it did worry him to find Ezra up here in the middle of nowhere. When Nevis had shown him the campsite at a distance through the trees, he'd tossed the man another coin but wasn't really sure it was Ezra until he saw the gleam of Chaucer's coat in the spotty sunlight of the clearing. Why was Ezra Standish out here in the wilds? The man was a bastion of civilized life.
"Was there something you needed, Mr. Wilmington? I truly thought I'd left all debts cleared when I departed our little village." Bitterness leached into Ezra's tone.
He's off his guard here, Buck thought with calculation. He pushed. "Heard about what happened, leastways, what the boys knew. Nate weren't talking." He went for the kill. "Cain't figure out why you run out on me, Ez."
Standish, who'd been sitting back against his saddle, idly poking at the fire, eyes on the cooking bird, choked and looked up in anger. "I did not run out on you or anyone else, sir. I was asked to leave." He bit out the words, then corrected, "No, not asked - ordered." He threw the stick into the fire and stood in one fluid, smooth movement, dusting his hands. "I need more greens." He spun away and was stalking off before Buck could answer him.
Wilmington whistled low, almost soundlessly. Like that, yep, that was how it had been from what the others had said. But why? If he was going to fix this, he needed to know. He could wait. Meanwhile, he and Ezra were going to find some new words between them. He figured it was time and beyond. If he hadn't held off so long, likely this would not have happened. He leaned back and laced his hands across his flat stomach, long legs stretched out to the side of the fire. He had a lot to do.
Chris eyed Nathan as the healer straggled through the door, the sounds of Buck's horse's drumming hooves still to be heard in the distance. Josiah, sulking at a back table, rose and came over to join Jackson at the bar. He clapped a hand on the tall healer's shoulder and offered to buy him a drink.
"No, thanks, Josiah." Jackson ducked his head. "Might not want to do that for me, once you hear what I got to say."
Chris straightened from his slouch, from the corner of his eye, catching sight of Vin doing likewise. This could be interesting.
"Brother?" Josiah's voice had none of the acid of a few minutes ago, when he'd confronted Buck.
Jackson poured a drink from the bottle Inez silently set in front of him. Nodded to her, then turned his back to lean against the bar and survey the others. JD Dunne, who'd retreated in anger, like Josiah, when Buck had been there, came over and pulled out a chair at the closest table, sitting silently and still, so unlike himself that the other men eyed him for a moment before turning their attention back to the tall black man. Nathan swallowed harshly and stared straight ahead, out the doors of the saloon to the sunlit street beyond.
"Weren't Ezra's fault. And I can't blame him none for getting angry with me afterwards when I didn't tell you all the truth." He hung his head in shame. Spoke to the floor. "That night I got shot." He moved restlessly, then sank back against the bar as if bracing himself. "I come into the saloon and saw Ezra, like some damn peacock, roosting up there at his table, raking in a big pot with some poor looking dirt farmers by their clothes. Nathan twisted around to grab up his glass, pour more courage, and turn back to the room.
"My mouth just started spewing out my anger at his cheatin' ways."
"Ezra don't cheat no more, Nate, you know that." Vin's scratchy voice interrupted.
Nathan threw back his new drink. "No, I don't know that." He frowned at his empty glass, "But, I ain't here to tell about my thinking on his poker playin.' That night, when I started in at him, I went right up there by the rail to have my say." He let his gaze sweep the empty room, not meeting the eyes of the five men who listened closely nearby. "One of the other players, some stranger, got mad at a 'nigger' back talkin' a 'gentlemen of the South.'" Nathan's face pulled into angry lines. "I don't take kindly to such talk, ain't right." He fiddled with the glass in his hands. "Guess I started to tell him off too."
"What happened?" Chris had sunk down into a chair near JD and had his hands steepled in front of his face now, elbows resting on the arms of the wooden chair.
Nathan faced the gunman. "He just drew his damned gun and shot me like some dog." The fear and rage in his voice made it shake. His hand went to his shoulder unconsciously, rubbing the slight wound. "Lucky for me, he weren't no shootist."
"But Ezra is." It was Tanner again. "How come he didn't shoot the mangy dog who shot you?"
"That's what I wanted to know!" Jackson's outraged brown eyes sparked as he nodded to the tracker. "What I asked him when he shot over that man's head."
"What'd he say?" Josiah was feeling a churning in his gut now.
"He just swung down off that little stage up there," Nathan nodded to the raised area of the poker table, "and stood over me, facing off them men. Most of them had agreed with the shooter and were not looking too kindly at me." He shrugged. "Someone else musta tried for a gun 'cause he fired his toy gun next, standing right there beside me where I lay on the floor." He looked up at Chris. "That's when you boys come in, broke it all up."
"Why didn't you say something, Nate?" JD asked, looking unhappy, and not waiting for an answer, asked, "And why did Ezra start ragging on you?"
"I 'spect he done that 'cause I didn't say nothing. I was shamed that a white man from the South had to rescue me from them men. A man who I ain't never even showed no respect for." Nathan closed his eyes. "He saved me, protected me, and never said a damn word."
"Sure spoke his mind later." Josiah rumbled discontentedly, still not sure about things.
"I think he just was plain angered that I never even said thank you, never told no one what he'd done." Nathan slumped. "And then I let y'all send him away. He stopped his yipping then. Closed right up. Think he was waiting for me to finally speak out. Only, I didn't."
The room fell silent.
"Real good, Ezra." Buck wiped at his chin, where greasy marks from gnawing at the last bones of the carcass were still smeared. "Thanks."
"My pleasure, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra sat back, eyes mild as he gazed into the fire. He felt warm and comfortable with his friend nearby. Almost as if none of the dark scenes that preceded this had ever happened.
"Now that we're done eating, Ezra, how about you come on over here?"
"I beg your pardon?" He wondered if he'd heard correctly.
"Com'ere, Ez." Buck patted the blanket-covered ground at his side, taking heart from the startled, wide green eyes that looked up at him. "Time we stopped pussy-footin' around, pard."
Stiffening, Ezra was ready to run or shoot, only undecided as to which he'd do.
Buck smiled and let his eyes convey his serious intent. "I'm tired of chasing petticoats, Ezra, when there's somethin' else I really'd rather be doing, and someone else I'd druther be doing it with."
"I --- I don't quite follow your meanin', sir." Ezra shifted, anxiety building.
Buck read him with surprising ease - shore nuff, ready for flight. Buck slouched back further, as non-threatening as he could make his big old self. "Ezra, I want you."
"Me?" Ezra squinted at him, waiting for the joke. He let one hand stray toward his still strapped on gun belt.
"I care about you, pard. Quite a lot. Like if you'd give me a chance." He could see he was losing the other. Sitting up just a bit, he added, "No one here 'cept you and me. No foolin' and no jokes. I'm serious."
Ezra stood up slowly and began to back away. Time to leave. "I can see that, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck rose too, moving carefully. "Ez?" He reached out a hand. Standish backed away, eyes never leaving him, the pale greens looking haunted. "Ezra P. Standish." Buck spoke firmly. "You come over here to me now."
The words washed over him, washing away the present moment and tossing him back in time to his childhood and brutal guardians who used those words. Just before they hurt him, beat him. Always the same. What had he done this time?
Something seemed to happen then, the small man blinked and shook, tremors rattling his slight frame. An unfocussed look coming to him, he obediently started across the camp towards Buck. Only he no longer seemed to know where he was and he was heading straight for the still burning cook fire and the full coffee pot.
"EZRA!" Buck dove over the top of the fire, pushing the crazy southerner away, and down on to his back.
Tanner was the first to move, putting on his slouch hat and heading for the front door.
"Vin, wait." Larabee dropped his hands to his knees, feeling old. "Buck went after him, let him do it. He'll bring Ezra back."
Vin hesitated, then nodded. Probably best.
JD surged to his feet, guilt heavy on his shoulders. "I should go. What I said to Buck ---" He had blanched at his own foolish words coming back to haunt him.
"JD, Buck knows you. He's already forgiven you." Larabee stood up and walked over to the bar, his steps dragging. "Inez, pour us a round." He flipped a coin from his pocket on to the bar.
Sanchez was still with Jackson, hand on his shoulder. "Nathan, your silence condemned a man."
"Usually it's his words that do that with Ezra." Vin's words were bitter.
"Vin." Larabee sounded tired. "Buck will make things right."
Sanchez nodded, "I hope so." He patted Jackson on the shoulder. "I'm sorry, old friend, you had troubles with this."
JD collected his drink from Inez's round and drank without looking towards the healer. "Reckon Ezra's the one who had the hard time." He spoke with regret. No one answered but all silently agreed.
Larabee wanted to shoot someone, or at least punch someone out. He glanced over at the penitent healer. Him. He shifted and pushed down the urge. Wouldn't solve anything. Maybe Josiah could talk some sense into the bull-headed man, he lifted his eyebrow at the big ex-preacher. Sanchez caught the silent look and nodded.
Buck fumbled with the man beneath him. "Ez? You alright there, pard?" He pushed up off the man, hands at the sides of the other's shoulders. He bit his lip when he realized that Ezra was unconscious, lying there limply beneath him.
"Shit, Ezra." Buck slid off to the side and gathered the young man up in his arms. He climbed to his feet and carried the drooping form to the blankets nearby, carefully depositing him on them as he sunk to his knees beside him. "Sorry, pard. Not sure what just happened, but we'll see you better." He touched at the back of Ezra's skull, drawing back a bloody hand. "Shit."
The next few minutes involved making sure Ezra was comfortable, cleaning and binding the crease at the base of Ezra's skull, and easing closer so that he could lift and pull Ezra into his lap and hold him still. He tugged the quiescent gambler around until the smaller man was draped against him, head on his chest, while Buck held him in the circle of his arms, rocking him slowly. He kissed the ruffled reddish brown hair, sniffing in the scent of Ezra and let himself dream about their future together. Buck was resolved that there would be a future. He ran his fingers through the tousled hair, enjoying the feel of the silky strands.
Ezra opened eyes to a blurry world. He felt warm. Snug. Someone was holding him. His mind, still trapped in the past, tried to figure out who was giving him comfort. That didn't happen all that often in his childhood. Then a voice murmured nearby. "Wake up, now Ez, time to show them pretty green eyes to me." And he knew that it was not the past that he was in but the present. And Buck Wilmington was holding him. He was sitting on Buck's lap.
Ezra squirmed and tried to fight free, but the long arms that held him just tightened. "Easy there." The voice gentled. And his panic subsided.
"Buck?" He hated the weakness in his voice but knew something had happened. Somehow he'd been hurt, his head was throbbing.
"Yeah, right here, Ezra," the joy in the voice was undeniable. "You're back!"
Moist, warm lips kissed his forehead, his cheek, his nose, and then, with mustache tickling, his lips. He tried to push back but those strong arms continued to enfold him, not allowing him any chance to escape. "Let me up." He struggled again, weakly.
"Nope. You're fine right where you are." Buck's voice took on an edge of happiness.
Ezra stopped fussing and lifted his face up to stare into Buck's and saw only tenderness and something more. "Buck? I don't understand." What are you doing to me? Having his heart's desire trap him like this confounded him.
"It's simple, really." Buck's face smoothed out at his most sincere, "I been waiting a long time for you to see me. Then you up and left." A kiss soothed Ezra's brow. "I figured I nearly waited too long."
"So I come to get you. Make you mine and take you back home where we belong."
Ezra sat stiffly there in the big man's arms. Staring straight into the most clear deep blue eyes he'd ever met. He's telling me the absolute truth. Ezra relaxed slightly, tipping his head back. I've wanted this for so long, why am I fighting it? He reached up and tentatively stroked the man's face.
Buck leaned into the touch, smiling softly. "Yeah, real nice, Ez."
More confidently, Ezra brought his other hand up and captured Buck's face, drawing it down to his own. He pressed a tentative kiss to Buck's lips. Buck pushed back immediately, tongue licking against Ezra's lips. Opening to the prodding intruder, Ezra melted against the big body and lost himself to the touches and kisses that followed.
Something was muttered against Buck's throat. "What was that, Ez?"
Ezra pulled back for the time it took to say, "It took you long enough," and then buried his head back in against Buck's shoulder.
The two men stood beside their horses at the edge of town. Ezra was fussing with his suit jacket, trying to beat out some of the trail dust. Buck simply stood there waiting patiently, holding Ezra's hat. Finally, when he realized that Ezra wasn't stopping, he spoke, "Ezra. You're clean enough. You look perfect. Put on your hat and let's go on in."
Ezra looked up at his new lover, unable to hide his fears from the man that now held his heart. "I'm not sure this is such a good idea, Buck."
"Sure it is." Buck stood hipshot beside his friend and slung an arm around him. "You look pretty as a picture, Ezra." He dropped a kiss on the upraised face, then topped the head with the black hat.
The pout that met his gaze then made him smile. Ezra was really childlike when it came to emotions, to things like family relations, to friendships, and to mending fences. Man had never had any practice growing up. Buck's smile turned rueful at the thought.
Ezra watched the change and was instantly suspicious. "What? What's wrong?"
Buck blinked at the way Ezra could shift so suddenly. "Nothing, Pard, just thinking that you've had a tough life. Makes it hard for you." He gestured towards the town. "You know, to face something like this. Just remember," he touched the beautiful face gently, "Chris says he's sorry and he's the one that counts. The rest will come around." Buck looked away toward the town, drawing Ezra in close for a hug, continuing, "Hell, may already have since we've been gone."
"I suppose we must?" Ezra clearly wanted to bargain away their entry.
"We must." Buck smooched his man hard, hugging him tightly, then set him free. "Get on your mangy horse and let's ride."
"Sir, I object to such a slight against fair Chaucer's mien."
"Awe, Ez, his hair's just fine. Now git on board." Buck grinned, knowing he'd punned the punster.
Ezra huffed but mounted and sat next to Buck on his Gray. With a silent exchange of glances, they both kicked the flanks of their steeds and rode on into town.
JD was the first to spot them, stepping out into the middle of the street, hands on hips, a wide grin lighting his face. He spun on his heels, yelling to his friends, "Here they come!" over and over until Chris came out of the jail, followed by Vin, Josiah looked up from the roof of the church, and Nathan came to the rail of his balcony. All faces turned to the end of the street where two riders were approaching.
It had been over a week since they'd chased Ezra out of town, nearly as long since Buck and come and gone again, in search of Ezra. Looked like he'd found him, brought him home as promised. By the time the two horses were drawn to a halt in front of the saloon, the five men awaiting them were lined up on the boardwalk there.
"Buck. Ezra." Chris nodded to both before facing Ezra directly. "Hope Buck told you, Ezra. I'm sorry for what I said. I had no right to send you away. I'm sorry."
Ezra had been told to expect this but it was still hard to believe he was hearing Chris say the words. Apologize. He licked his lower lip and touched his hat brim, nodding to Larabee. "Buck told me. I accept your apology, sir." Then he raised his head to look expectantly at the rest.
At his side, Buck stirred, dark eyes surveying the rest of their friends. Silently demanding they be men, too. Buck's hand dropped to his pistol.
Vin looked up into Ezra's quiet face. "Shouldn't have ever happened. Should have spoke up, stopped it, Ez. I'm sorry. Hope you aim to stay?"
Standish stared at the tracker for a moment, then shrugged without comment. His eyes traveled over the rest.
JD popped up next to his knee, causing Chaucer to sidestep in surprise. The young sheriff grabbed at the horse's reins to calm him and spoke up, "I'm real sorry, Ezra. I didn't think. Didn't try to find out what had happened. I'm glad you came back."
Once again, Ezra nodded silently. Josiah stepped forward from the shade of the boardwalk's cover. "Ezra, my temper overruled my thinking. Welcome home, son."
With a slight moue at the endearment, Ezra cocked an eyebrow at the still silent healer.
Nathan's chest was still moving from his mad run down the clinic stairs and across the street to be there to help greet the returning gambler. His dark liquid eyes rolled up at Ezra and his regret and pain were easy to read. "I should have spoken."
"Yes." Ezra nodded, not giving anything back.
"I was ashamed that you had to rescue me." Nathan stepped forward, head held up proudly.
Ezra listened, still giving nothing away, his quiet hands keeping Chaucer picture-still.
Jackson's hands curled into large fists at his sides. "When you started to taunt me, it just riled me up, didn't get me to admitting the truth though."
"No, in retrospect, I can see that." Ezra conceded with a tilt of his head. He still sat and waited.
"I was out of line. Shooting off my mouth, criticizing you like that. Man might have been in the wrong to say what he did about me, but I brought it on." Jackson finally hung his head.
Ezra sat up a bit straighter. "Mr. Jackson." When Nathan raised his head, Ezra went on. "There is never a valid reason for such disrespectful remarks as that man made to you. And no one would ever say he had the right to shoot at you like some animal."
Nathan actually cringed at that, but Ezra was now speaking and not about to hesitate. "He was in the wrong. You were cruelly treated. I stopped it." He shook his head, continued, "And then fended off his confreres when they might have added to your injuries. My only despair was your disregard for me before and after the incident. Have I not earned any modicum of your respect, even after all this time?" The last was nearly a plea, Ezra's green eyes dark with emotion.
Chris squinted at Jackson, hoping he had the guts to apologize and to change.
Buck maneuvered his horse closer to Ezra's and put a hand out on top of Ezra's that were folded on the pommel of his saddle.
Jackson sighed and met Ezra's eyes. "Yes, you have. There ain't no excuse for the way I been acting towards you." He closed his dark eyes, then opened them again, staring bravely into the southerner's, sure he'd see the sneer, the disdain, but instead seeing only compassion and patient sadness. It made it easier for him to say, "I'm sorry, Ezra. I have told everyone what happened now. I ain't proud of what I done by my silence. I am sorry." His hands were rubbing on his thighs now, repentance clear.
Ezra finally smiled. It was as if the sun had come out on a cloudy day, his dimples flaring, his gold tooth glinting. "Apologies accepted." He shifted sideways to cock an eyebrow at Buck.
Wilmington felt better, hearing his friends make up their differences with his Ezra. But that was only the beginning. Now they'd have to accept him and Ezra as a pair. Else ways, there was no point in stopping in this town. He squeezed Ezra's hands beneath his.
Chris was the first to realize that they weren't done. He studied his old friend, seeing things now that the apologies had been given. There was tenderness between the two men before them, a closeness that he recognized. He nodded to himself. "You two going to stay?"
Something in the way Larabee asked the question had Tanner cocking his head, then widening his eyes in understanding. The others just looked anxious.
Buck must have signaled the gray because the animal stepped back a few steps from the hitching rail, head bowed. Chaucer followed suite, as if the two ran together under a yoke. "Maybe." Buck looked searchingly at each face in front of them. Chris looked back with reassurance, Vin nodded and crossed his arms, clearly signaling his understanding and acceptance. Buck's eyes settled on the other three. When they only looked back puzzled, he shrugged and leaned over to kiss Ezra. Standish twisted in the saddle and responded unflinchingly.
Stunned silence settled over the watching threesome. Vin, in the background, smirked over at Chris who rubbed his jaw, knowing Buck was pushing things, and knowing why.
JD broke the silence first. "What is that?"
Buck looked down at him, one hand wrapped around Ezra's nearest arm. "Love, boy." He looked back up and met Ezra's eyes. "Love," his soft repeat meant for Ezra alone. Ezra smiled at him.
Josiah sat down hard on the edge of the boardwalk and Nathan sank down beside him. Both men looked astounded. Buck realized neither was going to speak. "We won't stay, if you don't want us here, now that you know."
Nathan looked up, face still frozen, but he choked out the words. "Stay. It's okay."
Josiah nodded. "Stay."
"Stay." There was a tremor in JD's voice, but he cleared his throat and repeated it. "Stay."
Buck's careful expressionless look dissolved into an enormous grin. "Well, alright." He dropped finally from the saddle and came around to Ezra's side, raising up his arms.
Standish wondered if they really should stay. Instinctively, he knew that Chris and Vin would accept them unconditionally and that was reassuring. But, he looked at the three dumbfounded men in front of him, but he wasn't so certain about Josiah, Nathan and JD. They all said stay, but he remained unconvinced. However, here was Buck, glowing with happiness and reaching up for him. And, in the last few days, he had discovered that he could not deny Buck anything, not anything at all. So he let Buck help him off Chaucer, help he didn't need but took for the opportunity to touch his lover yet again, to be held yet again in those strong, loving arms.
Together, they faced their friends, Ezra within the circle of Buck's arms. After a moment, Chris Larabee moved, turning towards the saloon doors. "Let's all get a drink. Figure we got a few toasts to make. Drinks on me." His back disappeared within the shadows of the saloon. The rest of the men stared at each other and then followed Larabee inside.
Ezra let Buck lead him in, wondering how long they'd stay. This time.
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Dink's Song (Fare Thee Well) Lyrics
This is a blues traditional that has been performed by Bob Dylan.
Jeff Buckley performed it several times in his concerts, and he performed it also live on-air for The music faucet, a WFMU radio broadcast, on October 11 1992.
If i had wings like noah's dove
I'd fly up the river to the one i love
Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well
If i met your man, who was long and tall
I'd hit his body like a cannon ball
Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well
One of these days and it won't be long
Call my name and I'll be gone
Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well
I remember one night, a drizzling rain
Round my heart i felt an achin' pain
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well
When i wore my apron low
Couldn't keep you from my do'
Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well
Now i wear my apron high
Scarcely ever see you passing by
Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well
Now my apron's up to my chin
You pass my door and you won't come in
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well
If i had listened to what my mama said
I'd be at home in my mama's bed
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well
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