by Sammy Girl
Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Author's Note: Betaed by Kerry
Ezra pulled the collar of his heavy coat up around his ears. It was hard to believe that just a few months ago it had been so hot, you felt like you were melting as soon as you stepped out of the shade. There were snowflakes blowing in the strong wind, stinging his face and freezing his ears. So close to Christmas, the prospect of snow should have been welcome, but there was little Christmas cheer in Four Corners. As he walked down the sidewalk, he saw the looks on every face, the unspoken question. He had no answer for them. The only person who actually did ask was Mary Travis, which was typical.
"Ezra?" she called, coming to the door of the Clarion as he past.
"Ma'am?" He touched his hat.
"Is there any news?"
He bit back the impulse to point out that if he had received any news, did she not think he'd have told her? "No, there is no news."
Ezra had to admit, as he continued on his way to the livery that Mary Travis was not a woman he warmed to, but he wasn't sure why. In the six months they had been together, working for her former father in law, she had been nothing but supportive. Some sections of the town were still resistant, but most of the citizenry were now very grateful for the protection they provided. Now that gratitude and trust had turned into expectation, a belief that they could pull of a miracle, and the weight of that expectation rested heavily on the shoulders of Ezra P Standish. People had trusted him before, even whole towns, but until now that trust had been misplaced. In the past people who trusted Ezra had lived to regret it, usually in their wallet. Not now, now that trust was well placed. He wasn't sure how he felt about carrying all this hope and expectation, it was not necessarily a good feeling, but it was a lot better then knowing you were lying to them.
Mother would be appalled, he mused to himself.
Three days ago the stagecoach had been attacked. It had been due at noon; Chris and Buck rode out in search of it at four. What they found a scene of carnage, the driver and three passengers had been killed, the driver and one of the men had both been shot in the knee first. Worse, there was evidence on the coach of female passengers, but no sign of them. The implications were all too obvious. Josiah and JD were out of town, delivering a prisoner to Yuma, they were hoping to be back by Christmas Eve, still some days hence. Chris needed Vin to track and Nathan, since they didn't know what state the women would be in when they found them - assuming they weren't dead already. Someone had to stay behind in town. Ezra wasn't surprised when it turned out to be him. Chris and Buck had known each other for years and in any case, Buck would never wait in town while women were in danger, his actions in Wickes town made that clear. Ezra had quickly worked out that - despite Buck's easygoing ways - if it was important to him, he had a will of iron. It was one of the things about him that made Ezra like the big rogue so much - not that he'd admit it to anyone.
By now he'd reached the livery. It was his custom to groom Chaucer every evening, before his evening meal. He enjoyed spending time with his much loved and pampered horse, but more than, that he found the action of brushing, the repetition, the attention to detail, helped to prepare him mentally for the evening's poker games. Dusk was falling, so he lit the lamp that hung on a nail by the stall, the yellow light added pleasing lustre to Chaucer's deep chestnut coat. As was not uncommon he lost track of time as he worked, not just brushing, but massaging. As Ezra worked on his flanks, Chaucer would turn his head and, with astonishing gentleness, groom his master, his ministrations never damaging his coat, or leaving a more than the slightest mark on his neck. When Ezra was out of reach he'd drop his head and doze, occasionally letting out deep, satisfied sighs.
When the doors opened, letting in an icy blast of air, Ezra didn't look up until Chaucer let out a nicker of greeting. Buck was leading Beau into his stall opposite. Even in the gloom of the semi dark barn, he looked tired, drawn and dishevelled.
"Mr Wilmington?" Ezra put down his brush and slipped out of the stall.
Buck made no response.
"Buck?" Ezra tried again. Finally the other man looked over at him. "Can I be of some assistance?"
Long schooled in taking in every scrap of information a person's appearance could give you in an instant, Ezra was alarmed by what he saw, now that he was closer to his friend. The left leg of his pants and the left side of his heavy winter coat, showed signs of having been recently caked in mud, Beau's flank was likewise marked. There were grazes and abrasions on Buck's cheek and forehead.
"I'm okay, thanks," Buck mumbled, turning back to Beau. He had already undone the cinch, but as he raised his arms to take hold of the saddle, he grimaced in pain.
Ezra hadn't bothered to ask if Buck had news, the man before him wasn't the bearer of good tidings and besides, if he had urgent news he would have disclosed it by now.
"Please, I insist on helping." Ezra stepped forward. "Why don't you see to the bridle, while I take the saddle off?"
Buck eye's betrayed him, so before he could protest more, Ezra continued forward, giving him the help he clearly wanted but was unwilling or unable to ask for. After hefting the big saddle down, Ezra placed it on the sawhorse at the back of the barn where Buck habitually kept it. He then returned to the stall, just as Buck was placing his bridle on a nail. Ezra again saw him wince as he reached up, his free arm wrapping around his ribs protectively.
"What happened?" he asked quietly.
Buck looked down and sighed. "They're still out there, Vin's pretty sure they've still got the women. He's tracking them, though truth is, they ain't trying to hide their trial, I could have tracked them just as good as Vin. They'll get them."
"I never doubted that, I was enquiring about you? What has forced you to return?"
Buck looked over at Ezra and gave him a small smile, acknowledging that Ezra understood he hadn't given up the chase willingly. "Ol' Beau got startled by a rattler, took a step back - can't blame him for that." He patted his horse's rump affectionately. "Trouble was we were riding on the edge of a creek, he stepped back right on the edge and it gave way, sent us both down into the mud and the water. Nathan reckons I busted some ribs, I told him they was only cracked, but Chris said he couldn't afford to slow up."
"So he sent you back."
"I can ride with cracked ribs, done it more than once, driven cattle, even busted broncs," Buck protested. "But Chris wouldn't have it, then Nathan starts going on about complications and the how dangerous it is. So here I am. There's only two of these bastards, so I guess the three of them can handle it, but..."
"You hate to leave women in distress?"
"Yeah and with hostages, things could get ugly."
"And you do hate ugly." Ezra gave him a small smile, which was returned. "Why don't you go and get something to eat, I'll see to Beau," Ezra offered.
There were those who would have made some comment about Ezra offering to do menial labour, but Buck didn't - perhaps he was too tired, perhaps he understood Ezra better than those 'others' who judged him too easily? Maybe Buck just knew that if there was a real need, Ezra was more than capable of bending his back and getting his hands dirty.
"Actually I'd rather have a shave and bath first."
Ezra nodded. "I'll meet you in the saloon."
Tiny couldn't be on call twenty four hours a day, when he wasn't there owners were expected to take care of their own horse. The town's seven peacekeepers were well used to finding food and bedding for their horses. Ezra quickly located some hay and oats for Beau and then picked up a body brush. He began to work at removing the worst of the mud from the big grey's coat. As he did with his own horse, he spoke softly as he worked, occasionally Chaucer - no doubt jealous - would snort at him.
"Hush now, your stable mate has had a hard few days, do not begrudge him some attention," he chided his horse. "And at least you are no longer alone here, you have a friend again."
Mindful of the passing of time, he did a thorough but basic job of cleaning up Beau, taking care to pick out his hoofs and comb out his tail, before he turned his attention to Buck's gear. The saddlebags were gone, taken by Buck, but the canteen, rifle and bedroll were still there. It showed great trust on Buck's part that he would leave his rifle in Ezra's care. With a sure and deft touch Ezra released the thongs that held the bedroll in place. He shook it out and hung it over the wall of Peso's empty stall. Then he up ended the canteen and shook out what was left of the water, leaving it hanging upside down from a convenient nail. Lastly he lifted the saddle and pulled out the saddle blanket, placing it on a different rail to the bedroll.
Buck's saddle wasn't anything fancy; it was a solid, plain, working saddle, good quality but not top quality. Ezra worked on the leather with a soft brush, removing the loose dust and dry mud. When he was happy he'd removed all he could from the top, he lifted the saddle up and began to brush away the dust and dirt from the underside. It was then that he saw something he'd never seen before. Under the saddle, burned into the underside of the rear housing were four letters. In the poor light it was hard to tell what they were, so - with his curiosity piqued - he picked up the lamp for a closer look.
The lettering read: 'FBFC'.
Now what, I wonder, does that mean? he asked himself.
With no time to stop and wonder he pressed on. Once he'd removed the worst of the dry mud, he used a damp rag to remove the rest of the grime. After working on the stitching to clean out mud, he worked the cloth in small circles, doing his best to remove every trace of mud. The leather on the seat was smoother and even after its mud bath, shinier, than on any other part of the saddle. As he worked on the seat he couldn't help but imagine how the leather came to be so smooth and shiny. Visions of Buck's ass polishing the leather came unbidden to his mind's eye, the moment his imagination began to strip his tall friend, he pulled the cloth away as if it was a hot coal.
Get a grip Ezra, what you want can never, ever, be and you know it!
He quickly washed off the bit and cleaned the bridle's leatherwork. The saddle blanket would need beating out in the morning, the bedroll too, then he'd have it washed. With one last pat for both horses he left the livery and headed to the saloon. He had expected Buck to be waiting for him, so was surprised that he wasn't there.
"Mr Wilmington?" he called as he entered the bath house.
"He left," Old Dan Cooper told him.
"Do you know which direction he took when he left?"
Dan thought for a while.
"It's a small town, I have no intention of paying you for the information, but withholding it will not win you any favours," Ezra pointed out.
"Think he turned right."
"Did he cross the street?"
"Not that I saw."
Ezra stepped outside and looked down the street. The saloon and the boarding house were across the street, so were was Buck headed? Curious and a little worried, he also turned right. As he came around the bend at the far end of the street he saw a light on in Nathan's clinic, and knew the answer.
Hurrying up the steps he knocked on the door. "Mr Wilmington, Buck? Are you alright?"
"That you Ezra?"
"Ah hell, come on in."
Ezra let himself in with some trepidation. Buck was standing there, shirtless, his hair still damp and glistening in the lamp light. This wasn't what made Ezra gasp, he had more control than that, no, what made him catch his breath was the huge expanse of livid bruising that covered most of the left side of Buck's rib cage. There were also abrasions and cuts on his forearm, chest, shoulder and from the look of it his hip as well.
Buck hadn't looked up, he was too busy studying a collection of bandages in one of Nathan's boxes.
"Nate strapped my ribs, have to admit it helped some. He told me to keep it on, but the damn thing itched like hell, so I cut it off in the bath."
"Would you like me to assist you to replace the strapping?" Ezra offered.
It was almost painful to watch Buck decide to ask for help. This wasn't the same as accepting help, how ever reluctantly, from Nathan, that was his job, it wasn't an imposition, you weren't being a burden. The more he got to know Buck, the more he got to see past the loud, woman chasing, eternally optimistic persona the man projected to the world, the more Ezra realised he and Buck had a lot in common.
"Do you mind?" he finally asked.
"Not at all, though I confess I have never done this before."
"I have, a time or two, I'll tell you what to do."
Ezra wanted to help, he wanted to be the one to make Buck more comfortable, what he didn't want was to cause pain, but he did. From the first stifled grunt as Buck tried to lift his right arm higher than a few inches above his waist, to the beads of cold sweat breaking out on his forehead as Ezra followed his instructions - ground out past gritted teeth - and bound up the abused ribs.
"How does it feel?" he asked when he'd finished.
Buck took a moment to get his breathing under control. "Better, thanks. Reckon I could eat now."
He tried to reach down for his shirt, which was lying on the bed, only to pull back as the pain caught him. "Damn it."
Binding up Buck's ribs hadn't been anything but helping a friend. He had been totally focused on doing it right, the last thing he wanted was to cause more pain or have to do it more than once. Helping Buck into his clean shirt was totally different. This was something he knew how to do. He felt his stomach do a flip as his fingers brushed over the smooth skin on Buck's shoulder, it was as if every time his touched Buck's warm, soft, skin, fire shot up his fingers and straight to his groin.
"Hey Hoss, you okay?"
Ezra pulled away. "Yes, of course. Can you...can you manage the buttons?"
Buck frowned. "Sure."
"Good, then I'll go and order some food, shall I?"
"Good idea, you know what I like."
"It's quite late, there may not be much choice."
Ezra was about to leave when Buck called to him. "Can you let folk's know that..."
"That you have no news?"
"Yeah - do you mind? I don't wanna have to answer a lot of questions."
"I quite understand."
As Ezra descended the stairs again, he smiled. Buck had asked him for help, not because he was in pain, not because he had no alternative, but because there was something he, Ezra P Standish, could do that would make Buck's life easier.
It was a short meal, Buck picked at his stew, which to be fair was perfectly edible, while Ezra ate more quickly than he was accustom to, mainly to fill in the silence. Finally Buck pushed his plate away.
"Think I'll turn in," he announced.
"Of course, I'll see you in the morning. With your permission I shall tell Mrs Travis that you have returned after your horse took a fall, but that Mr Larabee and the others are still on the trial. That should effectively inform the whole town and save you from having to answer questions."
Buck nodded as he stood, pain and stiffness all too evident in his careful movement. "Thanks."
Ezra had little interest in the cards that evening, in the end he found himself absentmindedly playing solitaire before retiring to bed early - which was to say before midnight.
Having retired early, he woke early - early for Ezra was eight thirty. He looked, but didn't see Buck anywhere. Eventually he asked around and discovered that his injured friend had come into the restaurant to get some coffee, before returning to the boarding house. Since rest was probably the best thing for him he didn't disturb him, instead he headed over to the livery to look in on the horses. Overnight a light dusting of snow had fallen, enough to be pretty, not enough to cause anyone any problems other than navigating the rock hard, frozen wagon ruts in the road.
"Mornin'," Tiny called.
"I heard Buck was back, something about an accident?"
Thank you Mrs Travis, "Indeed."
"Yeah, looks like the big fella had a mud bath." Tiny pointed over his shoulder to Beau.
"Well you should have seen him last night."
"Oh I can see someone put in some work on him. Don't worry, soon as I've done the routine chores I'll give him a good wash down."
Ezra thanked the livery owner and walked on into the barn. He knew by now both horses would have been cleaned out, fed and watered. So he saddled Chaucer and headed out of town to give him some exercise. When he returned two hours later there was still no sign of Buck. This put him in a quandary. Did he go and check on him, bring him a sandwich maybe, or leave him be? He'd had broken ribs, he knew how painful they were, if it was him, and he'd found comfortable position in bed, the last thing he wanted was to be forced to get up open the door and make small talk, even to a friend. With this in mind he let Buck be and, after checking in at the telegraph office - just in case - he ordered some lunch at the saloon, before returning to the livery.
The sun had come out and most of the snow had melted. Tiny had opened both the barn's doors, despite the cold it was always good to give the place a good airing when he could. With the doors open and bright winter sunlight shining in he got his first real look at Buck's saddle.
Yesterday evening he'd been so pleased with the work he'd done on it. Now, in daylight he was appalled how dull and shabby it still looked. He was aware that Buck spent a good deal of time keeping his tack, and the saddle in particular, in good order. He never just took it off and left it, at the very least he would rub over it with a rag, he washed and polished it at least once a week. Remembering how despondent Buck had looked the night before, he wanted to make at least one thing right for his friend, he wanted to see Buck smile again, his face lit up when he smiled, his eyes twinkled, it was like watching the sun come up.
Rolling up his sleeves he moved the sawhorse and the saddle out into the sunshine behind the barn. Then he took up a soft rag and a tin of saddle soap and began to work on the leather. He was methodical, starting with the underside. By the time the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon he'd managed to get the whole saddle, but for the seat, looking and smelling like new. As he worked he pondered the meaning of the letters. As far as he was aware Buck had never had need to used a pseudonym, so he didn't think they were his initials. The saddle wasn't new, but neither was it that old, Ezra reckoned it was between four and ten years old. There was no sign anyone but Buck had ever used it. All the wear was consistent to with only one person having sat on it. Of course it was possible that who ever had it first, this FBFC person, was smaller that Buck and his wear marks had obliterated any sign of him, but somehow he doubted it. The saddle fitted Beau perfectly, Buck had told him he'd had the big grey since he was a two year old, broken him himself and since Beau was now ten it was more than possible this was the only saddle he'd ever had on.
Hunger finally made him pack up and place the saddle back in the barn, before he headed to the bathhouse. As he contemplated his evening meal he once more debated calling on Buck. He had just made up his mine that this time he decided he had to, if only to set his own mind at rest, when Buck came into the saloon and eased himself down into the chair opposite.
"Evening," he greeted.
"Good evening." Ezra took in Buck's appearance, and frowned.
"What's the matter? You got news?"
"No, no I was looking at you, you look - horrid."
"Like I told JD a dozen times, it's just not possible."
"Have you looked in the mirror lately?"
"Then I suggest you don't question my assignment of your visage."
Buck ran his hand over his chin. "Not bad, I got a shave yesterday, combed my hair."
"Trust me, you don't look well, but that aside, are you hungry?"
That at least gave Ezra some comfort, if Buck was hungry, there couldn't be much wrong with him, despite the broken ribs, grey pallor and slight fever flush to his cheeks. In contrast to the night before Buck ate well, ordering steak, which he consumed, if not with his usual gusto, at least hastily.
Nathan does say sleep and rest are the best medicine, seems he is right after all. Ezra mused, as he watched his friend eat.
"You ridden any patrols while we've been away?" Buck asked.
"No, I did not feel it wise to leave the town, that is my job, to protect the town."
"We'll I'm here now, you best ride out tomorrow morning."
"I don't think that's wise, you are not recovered sufficiently, you need to rest - at least another day."
"We don't have another day."
"Snow's coming, and I don't mean that sugar dusting we had this morning, real snow, blizzards maybe. I reckon tomorrow afternoon, tomorrow night at the latest."
Ezra looked up and glanced at the window. "Are you sure?"
Buck nodded, then skewered his last piece of steak and ate it with satisfaction. "That's why Mary left on the afternoon stage, she doesn't want to get stuck here and miss Christmas with her boy."
"Well sure, didn't you see the stage in and out?"
"Um... well no, I did hear it but was otherwise engaged." Cleaning your saddle.
"Well she's gone, Mrs Bennett told me all about it, Lord that woman does love to gossip."
Mrs Bennett, the owner of the boarding house, did indeed love to gossip, Ezra couldn't deny it, but then so did Buck. He had such an easy way with women that they were happy to share their news with him, however trivial, it was information that had stood them in good stead more than once.
While Ezra had been preoccupied, Buck was still talking about the approaching weather.
"Can't you smell it on the wind?" he asked.
Ezra shook his head in a rare admission of ignorance. He'd grown up in the Deep South, hadn't seen snow or frost until he was fourteen, and that was only on a distant mountaintop. He'd been to places were it got cold at night, but always heated up as soon as the sun rose. Ezra was like geese, he 'flew south' for the winter. Never before had he remained in a place long enough to experience a real winter. If he thought he would have got any sympathy, he might have mentioned how cold he was, now winter had arrived, but he knew better.
"Take a ride early tomorrow, swing by the widow Forest see she's ready for the bad weather, might as well check on Nettie Wells and Casey."
Ezra was mildly surprised to hear someone agree to do this and even more surprised to find it was him. Just when had Buck taken over and started giving out orders? More importantly when did he start obeying said orders - from anyone?
"While I am away I insist that you rest."
"I'm fine, just a little sore."
"Mr Wilmington - Buck, if Mr Jackson returns and discovers you in worse health than when you left him, I will get the blame, he still mistrusts me, please do not give him any more ammunition."
Buck looked up at Ezra, studied him for a few moments then nodded. "Okay, I promise to rest."
Buck woke up slowly, to begin with he didn't feel too bad, until he tried to roll over, then the pain returned with a vengeance. It took him at least twice as long as normal to wash and dress, then he made his way slowly over to the restaurant to get some breakfast, only when he got there, did he realise it was almost ten. He couldn't remember the last time he'd slept until ten, unless he was sick. Maybe I am sick after all? Of course 'resting' in the saloon my not have been such as good idea. Then he dismissed the notion, the truth was while his ribs ached more and his back was stiff, his head wasn't pounding the way it had been since before he returned to town. He ordering his meal, tucking into ham, eggs, biscuits and coffee.
"Have you seen Ezra this morning?" he asked the owner.
"Mr Standish was the first person here," she confirmed. "He was outside when I opened up."
"Really?" Buck was incredulous. "At seven - in the morning?"
"Yes, tell the truth I had to look twice myself," she chuckled.
"Well I'll be damned - sorry ma'am." Touching his hat he walked slowly and stiffly out on to the street.
From the restaurant he headed to the telegraph office, there was no news. After this he went over to the livery. Beau was out in the corral, his coat was now clean again.
"Morning," he greeted Tiny.
"Thanks for taking care of Beau, he's looking good."
"Well it wasn't all me, Ezra did the hard work, taking most of the mud off," the huge livery owner come blacksmith admitted.
"Really, well I'll be sure and thank him when he comes back."
"He better not take too long getting here, snow's coming. I'm gonna have to bring the horses in soon."
Buck nodded sagely. They spent some time, leaning on the corral fence, discussed the possible severity of the coming snow storm, reminisced some on past blizzards they had known. Even as they stood there, the first fine flakes of snow began to swirl around in the wind. Little by little they began to gather in the sheltered places, nooks and crannies where the wind couldn't get to them.
"Damn it's cold, I'm gonna head back into town," Buck announced.
"Once I've got the horses bedded down, I'll join you."
Ezra didn't think he could be any colder, it just wasn't possible to be so cold and not be dead. He'd set out early, talking Buck's warning about the approaching storm seriously. After letting Nettie Wells persuade him into staying for lunch it was later than he had planned as he headed home. Despite his thick wool trousers, sheepskin overcoat, his good gloves - the one's with the silk lining, and even a scarf, he was frozen, he was sure his ears were going to fall off at any moment. The small snowflakes in the wind stung his face, chapping his cheeks as he headed home as fast as he dare. Chaucer, as eager to get back to a nice warm barn as his master was to return to a nice warm saloon, did his best to oblige, though he too had his head down, eyes half shut.
By the time he reached Four Corners there was at least two inches of lying snow.
"Mr Standish!" Tom came running out of the telegraph office. "I've got a wire for you."
Cold or not, Ezra pulled up and reached down for the flimsy bit of paper.
GOT THEM - STOP - BOTH DEAD - STOP - WOMEN OK - STOP - HOLED UP IN PINE RIDGE TO WAIT OUT STORM - STOP - HOW IS BUCK - CHRIS
"Thank the Lord." Ezra permitted himself a sigh of relief.
"Isn't it wonderful news?" Ben commented. "Is there a reply?"
"Oh, yes, let me put my horse away and I'll come over and compose a response."
Once he'd sent a wire, telling Chris and more importantly Nathan, that Buck was going to be alright, he headed into town to find his injured friend. It didn't take long to locate him at the barbers, where he'd nodded off in the chair.
"I didn't like to wake him, he looked so peaceful, and I don't have any other customers right now," the proprietor told Ezra, as the two of them stood and watched Buck sleeping in the big comfortable chair.
Ezra didn't think he'd ever seen anyone look so peaceful or so beautiful as Buck did right there and then.
"When he wakes, tell him I'm in the saloon and I have news," he told the barber.
"Sure will, is it good news?"
With that Ezra touched the brim of his hat and left the barber, heading not for the saloon, but the livery. Keen to send the wire and find Buck, he hadn't even unsaddled his horse.
"Don't worry, I've seen to him," Tiny told him as he walked in.
"I noticed how much work you've put in on Buck's saddle, you want me to finish it off?"
"It's a tempting offer, but since I've done so much, I think I'd like to finish the job."
Tiny nodded. "I'm sure he'll appreciate it. I sure would, I've busted a few ribs myself - in my time - hurts like hell. Trying to lift a saddle, much less clean one would be damn near impossible."
Buck hurried into the saloon almost two hours later, shaking the snow off his hat as he came in.
"You got news? Why didn't you wake me up?" he demanded.
"You needed the rest, indeed you do look better."
"Ezra, the news?"
"Oh, yes, sorry." He handed over the telegram.
Buck read then shook his head. "Don't reckon ol' Chris ever meant to bring them in alive." He seemed to think a moment. "If they're stuck in Pine Ridge now, the heavy snow should reach us around sunset."
The heavy snow? Ezra glanced at the now steady snowfall outside. That's not heavy? Oh dear Lord!
"I bow to your superior knowledge in these matters."
Buck looked back at Ezra, then cocked his head on one side. "You have seen snow before - right? I mean before yesterday."
"Of course I have ...on occasion." At a distance.
Buck looked at Ezra and smirked, he tried to keep his laughter in, because he knew full well that laughing and broken ribs was not a good mix, but he couldn't keep it in.
"Damn that hurts." He wrapped an arm around his chest. "But I swear Ez, for a gambler, you're a terrible liar."
Ezra bristled. "I am going to groom my horse. Mr Yosemite may be prepared to groom your horse for you - until you are recovered - I still need to care for my own, he, like his master, does not care for the cold."
Ezra's indignation soon melted away as he fell into the soothing routine of grooming. As he worked, he let his mind drift, and as usual, it drifted on to Buck. On to his broad shoulders, lean body, his smile, his intoxicatingly deep blue eyes. What if it was Buck he was caressing and massaging? What if it was Buck, who was making those low noises of pleasure?
Ezra, you're pathetic, that man has had more women than you've had winning hands, get over it - get over him.
Then his eyes drifted over to the saddle, still resting on the sawhorse at the back of the barn. He'd done so much, invested so much time and effort, what he'd told Tiny wasn't just a line, he really did want to see the job through. Finishing Chaucer quickly he moved the lamp and lit a second one. Then he picked up his rag and saddle soap again. He worked it into the soap methodically. Once it was all done he had to let it dry, before he could work in the wax, so he headed for the saloon. Outside the snow was still falling steadily, but now the wind had picked up considerably.
"The wind seems to have picked up a little," he commented as he sat down next to Buck, who was playing solitaire at a table close to the stove.
"It's just the beginning."
"You want a drink?" Buck asked. "I'm buying."
Ezra knew a peace offering when he saw or heard it. "That would be most agreeable."
Buck signalled to the bar keep. "Coffee with a shot okay by you? Keeps the chill out and warms the inner man."
"A perfect choice." Buck ordered their drinks. "Would you care to play a more 'challenging' card game?"
Buck shook his head. "Not for money, I've learned that lesson thank you. I'll play for bragging rights, matchsticks maybe, I'll even play checkers, but not for money."
Ezra, who needed to get back to the barn once the leather was dry, didn't want to get drawn into a long game anyway, settled for checkers and bragging rights - which turned out to be a wise move, since Buck proved to be a very able opponent. Outside the snow still fell.
"How long could this go on for?" he asked.
Buck shrugged, took out Ezra's only king and then looked up at the window. "Who knows? They can blow like that for hours, even days."
"How long do you think this one will last?"
"No way to know, I was caught in one once, over in north Texas, went on for a week and a half."
"I didn't need to know that."
Buck just grinned at him. "Think I'm gonna order some supper, what about you?"
Ezra checked his watch. "It's a little early for me, but why not."
Ezra woke the next day and instantly crossed the room, despite the cold, and pulled back the drapes. The snow was still coming down, driven on a fierce wind that had picked up early in the night. It howled, like some far off mythical beast in pain. Snow found its way into every crack and hole in its path. If Ezra hadn't been so tired when he'd finally made it back to the saloon and his room, it would have kept him awake. As it was he'd left Buck at the saloon and made his way through the snow to the livery. There he'd rolled up his sleeves and set about finishing his self appointed task. Using a soft rag he worked the wax into the now clean leather, then he used a scrap of sheepskin to buff it off, working it until he'd brought up a deep rich shine in the smooth, supple leather. So focused on his task was he, that he hadn't noticed the wind pick up. When he finally emerged, the snow was so thick and wind so strong, he could hardly see the other side of the street. He literally had to lean into it just to get to the saloon.
He wasn't surprised to find Buck had retired for the night, nor was he surprised, but somehow disappointed, to be told that - rather than cross the alley to the boarding house - he'd accepted an invitation to spend the night with one of the saloon girls. Quite what his relationship was with these women Ezra wasn't yet sure, in his hours of 'Buck watching' he had observed that these women didn't treat Buck as a customer or a potential customer, or even as an enemy, but as a friend. There was no doubting what went on when he accompanied one of them upstairs, yet Ezra strongly suspected no money ever changed hands. How Buck did this, he hadn't yet worked out. There was one possible reason, which briefly brought a smile to his face and a twitch to his groin, but that was just more wishful thinking.
Dressing quickly - not because he was in a hurry to start the day, but because the faster he got his clothes on the warmer he'd be - he headed downstairs in search of some breakfast. He had barely sat down before Ben burst through the doors, letting in an icy blast of air.
"A wire for you Mr Standish." He waved a slip of paper as he crossed the room.
"JOSIAH AND JD SAFE - STOP - CUT OFF BY STORM - STOP - HOLED UP IN." Ezra looked up somewhat perplexed. "Where is the rest of the message?"
"That's all there is, the line went dead, snow must have brought them down." Ben shrugged. "Looks like we're cut off, some Christmas Eve!"
"What was that?" Buck asked as he eased himself down at Ezra's table, just as Ben headed back out into the storm.
"Oh, Josiah and JD are cut off by the storm but safe, however where they are is a mystery since the line went dead half way through the message."
"Snow must have brought the lines down."
"That is what Ben thought." Ezra took a critical look at his friend. "How are you this Christmas Eve?"
"I'm okay, still a little sore. Might ask you to help me redo the strapping - if the storm lets up later?"
"Is it really Christmas Eve?"
"December 24th," Ezra confirmed almost absentmindedly as he tried to ascertain Buck's state if health. He did look better. "Did you sleep well?" he asked.
"Like a log. Is there any breakfast around here or do we need to go out?" Buck looked toward the windows, and the snowstorm. "Our host offered me bacon and biscuits, I have no doubt he could do the same for you."
"Think I'll have some of that."
Buck picked up the last biscuit crumb and looked back at the window. "You know I think it's letting up some."
As the storm abated they played cards and checkers and put the world to rights, while drinking whiskey laced coffee. Buck would occasionally rub a hand over his abused ribs and glance up at the window. Finally, after they had dined on more biscuits and bacon for lunch - the saloon didn't seem to have much in the way of supplies, other than whiskey and beer - Buck announced that the storm had let up enough for him to venture out to the bathhouse. Ezra was against the idea but Buck pointed out that the wind had dropped considerably, the snow had eased off and he could see smoke coming from the chimney.
"I need a bath, the damn bandages itch, and besides I'm stiff."
Ezra had to agree that a hot bath did generally make stiff muscles feel better, and as Buck pointed out, the bath house was the warmest place in town - next to the laundry. He did offer to collect Buck's clean clothes from his room in the boarding house.
"I insist that you wait until I return before attempting to cross the street," Ezra insisted.
"I'm not a little kid, I can cross the street on my own," Buck protested.
"You are injured and the road treacherous."
"I've walked through a lot more snow than you," Buck pointed out. "Actually, have you ever walked through snow?"
"Of course I have!" On occasion and it was never more than half an inch deep. He eyed the two or more foot of snow outside with trepidation. He looked back at Buck who was grinning at him. "What do you find so amusing?"
"Nothing, I'll wait for you, I promise. Ezra?"
"I appreciate what you're doing for me, what you've done already."
Ezra merely touched his hat and turned to go.
As predicted, the bathhouse was warm, not so warm that getting undressed was comfortable, but a lot warmer than the saloon. So far, since he'd agreed to stay in Four Corners and become a lawman of sorts, Ezra had avoided bathing with any of the others, specifically he avoided entering the bathhouse when Buck was there. He was worried his body would betray him and reveal his shameful secret. This was a situation that had concerned and puzzled him for sometime, after all he'd been 'dealing' with this situation all his adult life, more or less from the moment his voice broke. He was a poker player, schooled at hiding his true feeling, he'd disciplined his body to do what he commanded and not betray him - so why was that control slipping from him when it came to a certain tall, dark, easy going gunman?
He'd had liaisons before, all of them short and anonymous. It wasn't easy, but - if you knew where to go and what to look for - it could be done fairly safely. There was a particular bawdy house in New Orleans which catered for all tastes, a club in Kansas City, and a house in San Francisco, but these encounters were few and far between, and while pleasurable at the time, ultimately unsatisfactory. He wasn't na´ve enough to think that so called 'respectable folk' didn't know people like him existed or that people - men - like Buck had no knowledge of it. When women were scarce or non-existent, in prison, in the army, out on the trial, he knew men would, on occasion, turn to each other to take the edge off their desire, but this was but a short term solution, a poor substitute for the embrace of a woman. Buck in particular seemed to have so many liaisons, he probably had never needed to be 'with a man' at all.
With all this racing through his brain, Ezra quickly claimed the first bath, so that he would be in front of Buck, with nothing more interesting to look at than a blank canvas curtain. Since Buck was already taking off his clothes as they walked in, as fast as his ribs would let him, Ezra turned his back and began to undo his own shirt buttons - without taking off his vest or jacket. He'd got his boots and socks off and was about to undo his pants when Buck spoke.
"Reckon you could help me get out of this?" he asked.
Ezra stood up tall, took a deep breath and consciously put on his poker face, before he turned around.
Buck had stripped down to his long underwear, and now peeled off the top half. The formerly red, now faded to pink, underwear hung precariously form his slim hips, a tantalising tuft of dark curls peeked out below his navel. Ezra steeled himself.
"What can I do to be of assistance?"
"Can you undo the bandage and unwind it? I tried that last time, but I just couldn't, that's why I cut it off, I don't want to ruin another of Nate's bandages."
"Of course." If I can, if my fingers don't tremble.
His fingers did as he told them to do, since he had been the one to tie the knot in the first place it was relatively easy for him to undo it. There was little enough time to even register the extent of the livid bruising that was revealed, before Buck was pushing his underwear down. Ezra caught no more than a glimpse and then turned his back, undressing and climbing into his own bath as fast as possible. It might only have been a glimpse, but it was enough and he was eager to hide his growing erection under the water. As fast as possible he rolled the soap in the water, trying to make it cloudy enough to cover his embarrassment, should the attendant come in or, God forbid, Buck leave early.
Oh God! What if he wants me to help him get dressed, re-wrap his ribs?
In an attempt to remedy the situation he lay back and tried thinking about something else. His mind wandered on to Buck's saddle and its strange markings - FBFC - B could be 'Buck', more than likely. It was even possible that 'FC' was Four Corners but he doubted that, the letters were clearly put there some time ago and all at the same time, years before Buck had come to this little town, assuming he'd never been here before which seemed unlikely. His instincts told him these were personal marks, they had meaning to Buck.
All this speculation had done nothing to quench his ardour, and his erection was now aching painfully. As he lay there, still, deliberately not touching himself, he became aware of a slight splashing sound behind him. Clearly Buck was washing himself. As he listened he realised his friend had said next to nothing since he had entered the water, which seemed out of character. The splashing sound continued, as he listened, Ezra became aware that there was a definite rhythmic pattern to the sound, a pattern and a rhythm he was all too familiar with and then Buck let out a satisfied sigh.
Oh good Lord! The man has no shame!
Damn him, if only he knew what he was doing to me.
"Yes," Buck sighed in a voice that was full of satisfaction and laced with carnal pleasure
The hell with this! If he can, I can.
Nonetheless he was sure to keep the splashing to a minimum, and keep his hand below the cloudy water as he stoked himself. He came fast and hard and was still flushed and breathing heavily when Buck called over to him.
"Sure does feel good don't it?"
He knows! "Indeed a hot bath can be most relaxing."
Buck laughed, then hissed as the movement caught at his broken bones. "Relaxing, that is one way to put it alright."
Buck refused Ezra's offer to rebind his ribs.
"Honest, it don't make them feel any better and it's nice to be able to breathe normally," he assured a worried Ezra.
After they had dressed, involving Ezra keeping his back to Buck for as long as he dared without making it obvious what he was doing, they headed back to the restaurant for lunch - at least they had more to offer than bacon and biscuits. The snow had all but stopped. From the restaurant they went back to the saloon, reclaimed their seats by the stove and played checkers, poker - for bragging rights - and even a game of chess. They drank beer, whiskey and coffee - laced with whiskey.
"I guess if Josiah had been here he'd have held services tomorrow, maybe even tonight," Buck commented.
"I imagine so," Ezra responded.
"My Ma used to take me to Mass on Christmas day, midnight Mass too - when she could - sometimes we had to walk a ways to find a church that would let us join them, but she insisted."
Ezra privately wondered why Buck and his mother might not be welcome in a church.
"I always liked it."
Ezra had lost any belief he had in God - any god - early in life. Whatever belief various relatives had imparted to him as a small boy, he lost watching his mother manipulate people's beliefs - the better to separate them from their cash. Later he would do the same, preaching up a storm and then passing the hat, it always netted a tidy profit. Yet he still had to admit he enjoyed a good hymn and there was something about the Christmas story that got to even his cynical soul.
"I have to admit I have enjoyed singing carols, in my time."
"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, that's my favourite."
Ezra nodded and took another sip of whiskey. "I favour 'The First Noel' myself."
"I thought we'd all be together for Christmas," Buck mused, almost wistfully. "The seven of us, like..." He took another swallow of whiskey. "Never mind, at least everyone is safe, that's the important thing - right?"
Buck reached for the bottle and poured himself another drink. Ezra tried to think back over the months he'd known Buck, as far as he could remember he'd never seen him drink heavily and he was sure he'd never seen him drunk. He wouldn't call him drunk now, but he was definitely 'relaxed' if not 'merry', his defences were most assuredly down. Not that Ezra was entirely sober himself.
"I mean," Buck continued. "Christmas is a time to be with friends and...family - where is Maude by the way?"
"Some place warm."
"Can't blame her. Think I'll go see my horse." With that he stood up.
For a second Ezra was wrong footed by this sudden change in direction and didn't get up fast enough to stop Buck.
"Um, is that a good idea? It's getting dark." Ezra protested as he followed Buck to the door.
"Need to see my friends on Christmas Eve, that includes Beau." With that he picked up his coat, pulled it on slowly and carefully and walked out into the snow.
Beau lifted his head as soon as Buck stepped into the barn, Chaucer nickered softly when he recognised Ezra. Both horses had just been given their evening feed and quickly went back to munching on the hay they'd been given.
"Hey there old friend, another year almost over." Buck patted his horse, who continued to eat. "I'll see if I can find you a treat."
Holding an arm over his ribs Buck wandered to the back of the barn, in search of a carrot or an apple, Tiny usually had a few around the place.
"Hey Ez?" he called.
"You do this?"
Ezra extracted himself from Chaucer's stall and came to see what Buck was hollering about.
"Did I do what?" he asked.
"Clean up my saddle like it was new?"
"I've seen Tiny clean tack, he does a good job, but nothing like this."
Ezra still admitted nothing.
"You were in no state to rescue it from the lamentable state it was in and, knowing how particular you are about your equipment, I didn't want you to injure yourself further, trying to clean it."
Buck reached out a ran his fingertips over the smooth, supple, shiny leather, tracing the soft curve of the seat from cantle to horn.
"I appreciate it Ezra, I really do, means a lot to me."
Ezra stepped a little closer. "I was only trying to be a good friend, you looked like you needed a friend when you came into the barn that night."
Buck nodded and eased himself down onto a hay bale.
Seeing something of an opening, Ezra sat on an adjacent bale. "Can I ask you something - about your saddle?"
"I found some letters, burned into the leather - under the rear housing?"
Buck looked over at the saddle, the lamplight gave the newly polished leather a glistening golden hue. "FBFC," he all but whispered.
"Can I ask what it..."
"For Buck from Chris. Ol' Chris gave it to me the last Christmas we, well it was just a few weeks after he married Sarah, cost him almost two month's wages." It was clear to Ezra that alcohol had loosened Buck's tongue more than just a little. If he was going to find out about the saddle it was probably now or never. "Little Adam was born in the May. We were working for Hank - he's Sarah's father - and, well, Chris, he and Sarah were sparking some, one thing led to another and before we knew it he's standing there with Hank's shot gun at his back and a preacher at his front. It was never the same between us after that."
Buck leaned out once more running his hand over the pristine leather.
"It was a most generous gift," Ezra commented gently.
"Yeah, well we were very close, until Sarah. Don't get me wrong, she loved him, she was a great mother and he just worshipped the ground that boy of his walked or even crawled on."
It wasn't lost on Ezra that Buck didn't say anything about Chris loving Sarah.
"Me and him, we was close then, a lot closer than we are now. I used to think, when we first met up again, that it could be like it was, like before, but now there's Vin."
There was a depth of sadness and regret in his voice that really surprised Ezra. He was aware that Vin seemed to be closer to Chris than his old friend, but it hadn't seemed to bother Buck, or at least that was how it seemed to him. Of course he was a past master at hiding his feeling, why should Buck not be just as good at it?
"The way they look at each other..."
The way they look at each other? What is really going on here? Oh damn it Ezra he just told you everything and you missed it! I think.
Buck had rested his head back against the stall behind him and closed his eyes.
"Are you alright?"
"Mmm, just tired," Buck assured him.
And a little drunk.
Ezra swallowed hard, what he was about to do was risky, probably the most risky thing he's ever done, but if he was reading the situation right, the prize would be worth the risk - maybe.
"You said 'the way they look at each other' are you inferring that there is more to their friendship than is - how shall I say it - mere companionship?"
Buck opened is eyes and studied Ezra. "What are you trying to say?" he challenged.
"I am saying that I am aware that some men, on occasion, find 'companionship' with other men."
There was another long silence, then Buck looked him in the eye. "Me and Chris, we used to be... we were together. We still had women, but they didn't mean anything. Trouble was Chris wasn't as careful as me."
"And he got Sarah pregnant?"
"Yeah. I thought, maybe there was a chance that we'd go back to how we were but he's not the same man and now..."
"Yeah, Vin; the way they look at each other." He shook his head slightly.
"You know, I too have some personal knowledge of this kind of kind of 'companionship'."
"Yes, and if you were ever to look for..."
"Companionship, then I would be receptive."
"Receptive? You mean you, and me? Together?"
Ezra wanted to say YES! Oh God yes! But he didn't. "If you were interested - you're a good man Buck Wilmington, an honest man, and most attractive."
"You're not exactly hard on the eyes either, from what I saw in the bath house."
Ezra swallowed. "You were watching?"
"Oh you bet."
And right there the twinkle was finally back in Buck's eyes and his smile lit up the barn.
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