Getting At The Truth
Author's Note: This story would take place some time after Working Girls and Chinatown.
Ezra sat in the saloon, having a glass of tea with his lunch and listening to JD reminisce about his youth back East. The conversation centered on some big debutant function he had been pressed into service for and he was explaining about the bevy of women he had seen. Ezra answered as many of JD's questions as he could, enjoying the fact that he was the one the younger man sought to share his memories with. Inez passed the table, freshening his tea and taking away the empty dishes. It had been quiet for the past few days and some of the others had taken advantage of the lull to attend to other activities.
"Well, I better get going if I'm going to meet Casey on time," JD said as he wiped his mouth and dropped his napkin on the empty plate. "I'll be back before dark if anyone asks."
Tipping his head in acknowledgement of the information, Ezra let his attention drift. He finished his meal and rose from the table, glancing around the room to catch the barmaid's eye before he left. Once outside, he donned his hat and snapped the sleeves of his emerald jacket before venturing down the boardwalk toward the livery. The blacksmith was hard at work, repairing a harness rigging. Ezra waited patiently, not wishing to disturb him and cause him to lose his grip on the leather. When he picked up the hammer and tapped the rivet into place, the gambler cleared his throat to announce his presence.
"Mr. Standish! What can I do for you today? You need your horse readied?" Tiny asked as he wiped his hands on his leather apron.
"No, I am on duty here in the town today. My compatriots have all gone off to enjoy the amenities. I was wondering if you would mind taking a look at Chaucer's right front shoe. He threw it last week over near Greeley and I had the smithy there replace it but it doesn't feel right."
"Sure thing, I'll have a look at it. I'll pull the other shoes and give his hooves a trim too, while I'm at it," the big man said with a smile.
Pulling a coin from his pocket, Ezra handed it to Tiny, "I certainly appreciate the quality of care my mount receives. I know I can always depend on you to look after him." Touching a finger to his hat brim, he turned and crossed the street, intent on making his rounds of the businesses there. He spotted Nathan coming out of the Chinese laundry with a basket of folded bandages and detoured to speak with him.
"Ezra, you the only other one in town?" the dark skinned man inquired.
"Alas, the rest of our compatriots have eluded the boredom of our little hamlet for more interesting climbs," he replied with a slight smile.
"Never use one word when twenty will do," Nathan muttered softly.
That evening, the seven were gathered in the saloon, sharing a bottle of Red Eye and playing penny poker. Vin was slouched in his chair as he considered the two pair in his hand before tossing another coin into the pot. Nathan folded, as did Josiah, and JD called. Cards were exchanged and Buck tossed his cards down with a huff of annoyance. Ezra put down his cards and watched as a slow, sweet smile lit the tracker's face as he put down his full house and raked the coins into his pile.
The batwing doors opened and two men entered, dragging a young woman between them. Her hands were tied and, from the look of her clothes and the bruises on her face, she had put up a hell of a fight. All seven of the regulators turned to watch but only one came to his feet, gun drawn.
"Ezra! Help me! I didn't-" the girl began before one of the men rudely yanked on her arm, causing her to wince in pain.
"Take your hands off of her this instant!" Ezra demanded, his voice low and menacing. Vin let his hand automatically drift to the mare's leg at his side, recognizing that the situation had every look turning ugly.
"Are you Standish?" the one holding the woman's arm asked as he eyed the well-dressed man.
"I am," Ezra answered calmly, "and I won't ask you again to unhand the woman."
The other man pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and looked at it before he spoke, "This here paper says she belongs to you and that you're responsible for her. That right?"
"It is. Now, Let... Her... Go!"
The man shoved the girl, sending her stumbling into Buck, who caught her and turned, holding her protectively as she wept. He implicitly trusted the others not to let anyone put a bullet in his back. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ezra step away from the table and move toward the two strangers.
"Get out," he told them.
"Not until we get what we're owed," the one with the paper demanded. "You owe us five dollars for delivering her, and another two for the time we spent looking for her when she run off."
Without taking his eyes off of them, Ezra reached into his pocket and pulled out some bills. Not even bothering to count them, he flung them at the men's feet. "Jade," he said, holding out his arm. The woman pushed away from Buck, who had untied her hands, to move into the outstretched arm and Ezra holstered his weapon, turning toward the steps that would take him to his room. He didn't see the confusion in the faces of his friends, or the hurt in the pale blue eyes that followed him up the stairs.
"Who in the hell are you?" Chris asked as his hand drifted to rest on the butt of his gun.
"Lyle and Frank Oleson, what's it to you?"
"When you drag a woman in here like that, it becomes my business," the blond answered. "Who is she and why did you bring her here?"
Frank handed off the paper he'd been holding, not bothering to hide his disgust at the dark skinned man who took it from him. Lyle had picked up the crumpled paper money and shoved it into his pocket.
"This is a deed. It says that she belongs to Ezra," Nathan read, his voice heavy with anger.
"Fine, you made your delivery and you've been paid. Don't let me see you around here after sun rise," Chris said, dismissing the men. They exchanged a glance before backing out of the saloon, not willing to turn their backs on the lethal-looking gunslinger.
"I thought it was illegal to own slaves," JD said, breaking the uneasy silence that followed the men's exit. He couldn't read the faces of any of the others except for Nathan, and Nathan looked pissed.
"It is, JD," Vin answered quietly. "I'm going to see if Ezra needs anything." He took the stairs two at a time in his rush to get information. He didn't even pause at the door, but opened it and went right in. The woman looked up, fear burning brightly in her eyes at him before Ezra spoke.
"Not now, Mr. Tanner, I will answer all of your questions, but later."
Stunned by the firm command in the gambler's voice, Vin nodded and turned away. "I'll take your patrol tonight then."
"Thank you, I hadn't even thought about it. Have those swine departed?"
"The Oleson's, yeah, they're gone. Chris told 'em to be outta town after sun rise."
Vin opened the door and stepped out, turning for one last glance into the room. The woman buried her face in Ezra's shirt and he was stroking the back of her head. Sighing, he pulled the door closed and started down the stairs, avoiding the others. The night air was cool as he paused at the edge of the boardwalk and leaned against the porch post. He mentally counted to three before the soft voice intruded on his solitude.
"He say anything?" Chris asked.
"Just that he'd explain it later. I'll take his patrol tonight."
The blond could only watch as Vin stepped off of the boardwalk and strode purposefully toward the livery. It was a testament to how upset he was that Peso was led out scarcely three minutes later and the horse's hooves could be heard as he slipped into the darkness at a fast jog. Buck joined him, leaning against the same post Vin had used.
"Junior gonna be alright?"
"He's upset. And I can't say as I blame him."
"We agreed to stay out of it," Buck reminded him.
"I'm staying out of it. But if Vin gets hurt because of this, I'll have Ezra's ass in a sling so fast that he won't know what hit him."
Nathan stared at the crumpled piece of paper as his rage built. The girl was a slave, from Mexico, and it said that she belonged to Ezra P. Standish, complete with the name of the town. Ever since the day they met, when Ezra had glanced at him as if it was distasteful that they should be in the room together, it had been an uneasy relationship between the two. He resisted the instinctive urge to go up and demand answers, with his fists if need be, and folded the paper before tucking it into his shirt pocket.
Alone on the hard-packed road, Vin was deeply upset. He and Ezra had grown close over the past few months, and had finally admitted their feelings for one another. For Vin, who had spent time among the tribes, the idea of finding his soul mate in a male body was not a problem. For Ezra, who had been brought up to believe the maxim 'appearances are everything,' it had been a struggle.
They had been returning from a prisoner delivery when Vin decided that it was time to confront the other man. Ezra had been jumpier than a cat in a dog pen ever since they left Yuma prison. When they stopped for the night, Vin hadn't been able to get him to sit down long enough to talk. He tended to his horse, gathered wood for a fire, prepared their meal, and carried the battered tin plates to the river to wash them. He had put down his bedroll and moved it three times before Vin decided that enough was enough. As Ezra knelt to straighten the blankets, Vin made his move. He knelt beside Ezra and placed a hand gently on his back. He wasn't totally unprepared for the explosive reaction.
Ezra flinched and turned, swinging his fist for Vin's jaw. The tracker had avoided the blow, pulling the other man toward him as he wrapped his arm around him. Off balance, the pair tumbled onto the bedroll and Vin ended up on top of a bucking, fighting little wildcat. He pinned Ezra easily, holding him until he stopped struggling.
"Unhand me at once!" Ezra demanded.
"Not just yet," Vin replied, settling closer to his captive. When he lowered his chest to Ezra's, he could feel the rapid heartbeat through all of the clothing between them. He felt the shuddering breaths and something else. Rocking his hips, he rubbed against the rock-hard erection he felt beneath him.
"Don't!" Ezra demanded as he glared up at Vin.
"Take it easy, Ez, I'm not gonna hurt ya." He eased his grip on Ezra's wrists as he settled his body more firmly against the warmth of the gambler's body. "I'm gonna take care of that little problem ya got in yer pants."
Eyes alight with indignation, Ezra gasped, "Little problem! Little problem?"
Vin let his head down until he could capture the enticing mouth as he ground his hips against Ezra's. He felt the tremors increase, heard the muffled protests and squelched the renewed struggles until he felt the other man's body change gears. He groaned as Ezra began to respond, arching up against him as he sucked on the tongue intruding in his mouth. Just as he began to relax his grip, Ezra bit his tongue and tossed him off. Vin tried to catch hold, but the gambler scrambled away. When he regained his feet, Vin found himself looking up the muzzle of Ezra's Richards Conversion pistol. He held his hands away from his sides as he stepped back.
"Take it easy, Ezra. I wasn't gonna hurt ya."
"You don't have the faintest idea what would or would not hurt me. I'm not some whore you can take your pleasure with any time you want!"
Judging from the rapid rise and fall of the other man's shoulders, Vin realized that he had made a serious mistake. Sliding to his knees so as to be less threatening, he let his gaze fall for a moment before looking into the hypnotic green eyes. "I'm sorry. I never meant to scare ya."
"I'm not scared of you," Ezra defended.
"Might be more convincing if yer hand wasn't shaking."
Ezra holstered his gun and crossed his arms to still the damnable trembling, "You have no right-"
"I said I'm sorry."
"You can't just... do something like that... without speaking... you didn't... you've never-"
"I didn't know the right words... to tell ya how I felt about ya," Vin admitted.
Ezra had turned from him, every line of his body screaming to be touched. Vin rose and crossed the short distance between them, halting just shy of actually coming into contact.
"I thought you were different. All of the other people in my life, they were only there because of what they could take from me. I never suspected you would want to take-"
"I don't want to take anything from ya, I wanna give ya something," Vin said softly, interrupting the torrent of words that were about to spill from Ezra's mouth. "I wanna give ya my heart."
Vin smiled at the memory of the stunned surprise that shone from Ezra's eyes when he'd turned around. He waited while the gambler searched his face for any hint of lies or deceit. As quickly as it had come, the rage disappeared. Ezra had leaned into his arms, wary and confused. There hadn't been any more passion that night, but the two men remained close physically while Ezra spoke hesitantly of his past. It was a beginning for them.
In the days and weeks that followed, they had slipped away several times, to places they had discovered on their patrols, so they could be alone together. Ezra was like a yearling colt, nervous and afraid. All of his prior experiences had been unpleasant to downright brutal and he was leery of being hurt again. Vin had patiently coaxed him, with gentle touches and kisses, until they had finally made love to each other. It had come as no surprise to him that Ezra was a fiercely passionate lover.
Chris discovered their secret by accident. The weather had been miserable and Vin and Ezra had been unable to get away to be together. Finally, there came a sunny day when the winds weren't as cutting and they made plans to meet at the nearest place, Chris's shack. Vin gathered supplies and told the blond that he was going to ride out to the shack for a while to get away from the town. Thinking to surprise his friend and spend a pleasant afternoon with him, Chris had also gathered supplies and rode out. When he tossed the door open and stepped inside, he froze. Vin and Ezra were curled together, sound asleep. It was warm in the little, one-room shack and the blankets came barely to their hips. Chris could see the love-bites that dotted Ezra's chest. He also spotted the tin of lanolin on the floor beside Vin's boots. He knew enough to know what they used it for. A gust of wind blew the door from his hand, sending it crashing to the wall behind it and waking them. Ezra spotted Chris first and gasped, alerting Vin to his presence. The blond had turned and walked out without saying a word.
It had taken a lot of persuading to get Ezra to even consider going back to the town with him. JD told them that Chris had come back and that he and Buck had left immediately afterwards. Chris had left word that they were going to Mary Travis's old cabin if anyone should come looking for them. Ezra and Vin had packed what they could not bear to leave behind, just in case. They rode out, intent on allowing the gunslinger to say his piece and then they were going to leave.
Instead of leaving, Chris had only cautioned them to be careful. He had no desire to see either of them strung up for their actions. It was Buck who finally told them of how he and Chris had come upon the lynching of two young men several years ago. One of the men was the son of a wealthy rancher. His father had ordered the hangings, saying that he would not allow their ' filthy perversion' to go on. He had made sure that his son witnessed his lover's death first. It had taken four men to hold the young man as his lover was dragged out and tossed up on the bed of the wagon. He deliberately had them place the knot so that the other man would suffer before he died. It had taken several minutes, as the body jerked and twitched, the open mouth emitting guttural sounds as the rope tightened. When the first young man succumbed to death, the rancher's son screamed. He got away from the men holding him and ran to the body of his lover, throwing himself over the body after they cut it down. When the men put him on the wagon, he didn't even resist, too heartbroken and in shock to care. It had made a profound impression on Chris and it wasn't something he ever wanted to experience again.
It hurt Vin, thinking that Ezra owned a slave, and a female slave at that. He thought he knew the man better than that. Peso stopped, having completed the circuit of the town and arriving at the livery again. Vin looked up in surprise, having spent the entire ride so deep in thought that he didn't even realize how much time had passed. Stepping down from the saddle, he glanced up at the gambler's window and sighed.
The next morning, five of the other six men found excuses to be in the saloon to wait for Ezra to come down. Chris and Buck kept throwing worried glances at Vin, wondering what he was making of all of this. When Ezra did come out, it was following blood curdling screams from his room.
"Nathan, I am in dire need of your assistance," he called before turning and retreating into the room. The healer leapt over the rail around the low dais and took the stairs in threes.
When he reached the room, Nathan was stunned. The woman was on her knees, clothed in one of Ezra's nightshirts, and rocking back and forth with her arms wrapped around her ribs. The neck of the nightshirt revealed that her back was covered in scars that were cruelly familiar to the former slave.
"You bastard!" Nathan shouted as he rounded on Ezra, striding right into the smaller man's face. "You talk a good game. First with them girls from Wicks town and then that China girl from the railroad... I knew you were nothing but a bigoted Southern bastard!"
Backed into a corner, Ezra tried to calm the enraged man crowding into his personal space. "While I will agree that it is very possible that my mother and father were never married, I take umbrage at the rest of your statement, Mr. Jackson. Please, I need your assistance with Jade, she is in considerable difficulty."
"I'll just bet. Get out of here before I throw you out that window," Nathan snarled. He waited until it appeared that Ezra would leave before he turned his attention to the woman. She flinched under his hand and cried out.
"Don't leave me with him! Ezra, please? I'll be good. I promise."
"Allow Mr. Jackson to examine you while I procure a meal for us, Jade."
The woman returned to rocking, whimpering in pain. Nathan picked her up and settled her back on the bed she had obviously slept in, judging from the stains on the immaculate sheets. He covered her to her chin with the quilt before turning to get water from the ceramic pitcher on the dresser. When he turned back, the woman's eyes were blank.
"Miss! Miss Jade?" Nathan shook her gently before feeling for a pulse. Finding none, he sighed and let his hands rest in his lap.
In the saloon, Vin hurried to be the first to speak to Ezra. "Are you alright? Do you need anything?"
"At the moment, I can only hope that our illustrious healer can be of some assistance. Inez dear, would you be so kind as to prepare two breakfast trays as soon as possible?" Ezra waited until the pretty barmaid turned away before he looked at his lover. "I will answer all of your questions as soon as I have seen to Jade's needs, alright?"
"Sure, I can wait. I was just worried about you," Vin said softly, itching to reach out and brush the curls from Ezra's forehead.
Inez set two trays on the bar and reached across to pat his arm before turning back to the other customers. Vin picked up one of the trays, silently offering his support. Ezra nodded, smiling slightly as he picked up the other and mounted the stairs. When they reached the room, he opened the door and stepped in, quickly setting the tray on the dresser and turning to take the other one from Vin. The tracker caught the deep sadness in Nathan's eyes and was unable to look away. Ezra took hold of the tray and then followed the direction of his gaze. He gasped, letting go of the tray and approaching the bed.
"She's gone, Ezra," Nathan said, his voice tinged with anger. "I'm sorry."
Vin slipped into the room and set the second tray beside the first. He edged closer as Nathan rose to allow Ezra to sit on the side of the bed. Both men watched as Ezra reached out to gently close the unseeing eyes before reaching under the blanket to draw out her hand. He curled her fingers around his before covering the unmoving digits with his other hand. Silent tears rolled down his face. Vin nudged Nathan and tossed his head toward the door, indicating that he should go. The healer didn't hesitate, he went to get the undertaker.
"Ezra? Who is she?" Vin asked as he moved to gently press his hip against his lover's back.
The others were waiting for him when he reached the saloon. Nathan shook his head sadly, "She's gone, there wasn't anything I could do for her."
"How's he taking it?" Buck asked.
"He must be devastated," Josiah suggested, "I should go have a word with him."
"He's probably up there mourning the loss of his investment," Nathan spat angrily. He was surprised to find himself jerked forward by the front of his shirt and dragged out of the saloon.
"Don't let me hear you say anything like that again, Nathan, or I'll have to beat the shit out of you. And you know I can do it, don't you?" Josiah growled as he gave the healer a shake.
The others waited until the undertaker arrived before going up to knock on Ezra's door. Chris was mildly surprised to see that it was Vin who allowed them to enter. Ezra was standing with his back to them, looking out the window. Silently, Chris inquired after the gambler and Vin shook his head. Jade now lay on top of the quilt, clothed in a beautiful dress. Her hair was braided and lying on one shoulder. Josiah stepped forward to gather the body into his arms, reverently murmuring a prayer before pressing his lips to her forehead. He carefully settled her in the basket the undertaker had brought, snapping the blanket off of the bed and covering her with it to keep curious onlookers away. When the others had gone, Chris moved closer to the window.
"We'll take care of the arrangements for you," he said softly before leaving the room, trusting that Vin could handle things up here. By the time he reached the door, the tracker had moved to turn Ezra toward him, letting his lover bury his face in Vin's neck. Chris silently closed and locked the door behind him.
They held the funeral the next morning. It was a somber affair, with just the six of them in attendance. Nathan wouldn't come and Chris didn't press him. Ezra stood, dry-eyed and silent, as Josiah spoke over the plain pine box. Buck and Josiah carefully lowered the casket into the hole. Ezra pulled something from his pocket and dropped it on top of the coffin before taking a handful of the loose dirt and tossing it into the hole. He then turned and walked away. Josiah motioned for the two men he'd hired to close the grave and they all hurried to catch up with the grieving man. To their surprise, he went into the church and dropped into one of the pews like a marionette with cut strings. The others filed in silently, each taking up a spot near Standish.
It was JD who broke the uncomfortable silence. "Who was she, Ezra?"
"My sister... half sister, really. Jade Maria Guadalupe Standish. We had the same father but different mothers. I didn't find out about her until about six years ago."
No one spoke, no one moved as Ezra haltingly told the story. Nathan had been sitting in the shadows when they arrived, praying for the soul of the unfortunate woman.
"When I found her, she was nearly dead from the beating her master had given her. Jade's mother was the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner. My father swindled him out of a good amount of money before leaving. He claimed that he didn't know he'd sired a child on her. Her own grandfather sold her into slavery because of her eyes."
"Her eyes?" Josiah asked.
"They were green, like mine. It was how he knew who her father was. I ran across some papers in my father's things when they were delivered to me upon his death. I spent two years searching for her. I had to buy her, it was the only way the man would let her go. He took every penny I had. I couldn't even afford to buy her a decent dress, all she had was the rag he dressed her in. I found a convent to take her. They wrote to me that she was not well. Then the church was destroyed by a fire. I didn't know where she was until she showed up here. I can't imagine that the good sisters gave her to those men to bring to me. I don't know what happened."
"I'm sorry, Ezra," Nathan said, stepping away from the shadows that had concealed him. "I had no call to treat you the way I did. I'm ashamed."
"Don't torture yourself over it, Mr. Jackson. You were acting on your upbringing, just as Jade's grandfather did, and my father and mother,... and me," Ezra said softly without looking at the healer.
"No Ezra, not you," Josiah corrected. "You did the best you could for her." He understood, better than anyone else, how heavy the burden was that the younger man had carried. He knew all about paying someone else to care for your family because you couldn't. Raising his eyes to meet Vin's, he saw that the tracker also understood.
"But she was in such pain, Josiah! I was trying to make her more comfortable and my every touch caused her agony!"
"She's at peace now, Son."
Ezra shuddered and Vin moved closer, letting his hand gently brush over the black jacket his lover had donned for the funeral. The light touch proved to be his undoing and Ezra turned to bury his face in Vin's shoulder as he wept. Buck tapped JD and motioned for them to leave and the others soon followed. Nathan stayed the longest, watching the man he had wrongly accused. When he found Vin's eyes fixed on him, he was puzzled, there was no condemnation in their blue depths, only profound sadness.
Chris sent Vin and Ezra out to his shack for a few days to give Ezra a chance to grieve. For the most part, he just spent time with Chaucer, brushing and babying the horse. Vin made sure that he ate and slept. Several times, he was wakened by nightmare-driven thrashing but Ezra never made a sound. Gradually, over time, Ezra began to move on, but his relationship with Nathan remained tense. Although he had said he forgave the healer for his thoughtless words, he couldn't get past the pain they brought.
It had been raining for the better part of two days and the town was as quiet as a tomb. Vin found Ezra had traded his shift with JD and hoped that it meant they could spend the night together. He pulled out a chair and slumped into it, motioning to Inez for a mug.
"Would you care to engage in a game of chance?" Vin asked, too softly for anyone else to have heard.
"Shouldn't that be my line?" Ezra asked. "What are the stakes?"
"Winner takes all, loser has to do whatever the winner says."
"For how long?" Ezra asked as he began to shuffle the cards.
"Just 'til daylight."
The game was short, Vin carefully spread his cards and fought to keep the grin off of his face as he revealed the Ace-high flush. Ezra peered curiously across the table.
"How many cards do you want?"
"I'll play with these," he answered.
"Dealer takes two," Ezra said as he tossed the cards and took more. He rearranged his cards and sighed before laying them down. "Four of a kind," he said.
"Not good enough, Ez, not by a long shot," Vin said as he slowly put his cards on the table. "Looks like it's whatever I want 'til morning."
"Could be interesting."
"Could be," he agreed, picking up his mug and draining it in one gulp. "Come on."
"Where are we going?" Ezra asked, looking out at the gray afternoon.
Half an hour and one thorough soaking later, they were at Mary Travis's old cabin. Vin built a roaring fire in the fireplace and started water to heating. They had discovered an old bathtub in the cabin and it was one of their favorite things about the abandoned house. After a hot bath, they climbed into bed together. Vin curled up to Ezra and began nuzzling the nape of his neck, one of his favorite hot spots. Soon, he had his hands full of hot, eager gambler.
Afterwards, as they lay bathed in the afterglow of glorious orgasm, Vin posed an open-ended question, "So, is there anything else that I don't know about you that I should?"
"Well," Ezra said as he snuggled in closer, "now that you mention it..."
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