"Ah cannot believe that Ah … Vin." The distraught man shook his head, seemingly in disgust at himself and not at the mess he was dealing with. "Ah do not know what … "
"Ezra," Vin Tanner said softly in an attempt to get his friend's attention.
Ezra Standish pressed firmly but as gently as he could on the persistent flow of blood from the tracker's hand and wrist. From the gambler's distracted and distressed chatter, a steady stream of apology at his horse's and his own culpability in the current situation, it was clear to the man sitting on the rock-strewn side of the well-used thoroughfare they were taking from Eagle Bend to Four Corners that the Southerner was blaming himself for what caused both of them to be getting dusty and hot on the hard-packed ground, not more than thirty minutes farther to their destination.
"Ezra," Vin tried again, decidedly louder, more forceful. Tanner's regular, easy-going style was not getting through.
Ezra pulled his hands away as though scorched from a hot lump of coal. Vin didn't like that reaction much more than the agitated chatter.
"V … Vin. Ah apologize." He looked briefly at Vin's face but quickly moved his gaze back to the hand he was previously tending. "Did Ah hurt you more?" he asked, ignoring that Vin Tanner had just raised his voice to him. Despite the stress evident in the former con man, and his worry that he might hurt Vin further, he continued his ministrations, hoping to staunch the flow of blood and get them back on the trail and to Nathan Jackson's clinic as soon as possible.
"Ezra," Vin tried one more time. He wanted Ezra's full attention. "Ezra, it's all right. It's not yer fault."
"Ah fear it was. Chaucer, he … he would not have stepped on you if Ah had been payin' attention. Mah … distress over these last days … Ah have been losin' concentration. Ah am sorry," the card sharp said as he packed the injured hand as best he could and finished wrapping it.
"Yer still in mournin', Ez." Ezra turned away, blinking ferociously in his attempt to push back the tears that had been ever-present or near so this last week. Ezra shook his head. "Weren't nothin' you could do about that, jest like weren't nothin' you could do 'bout this," Vin ended as he waved his hand. "It ain't really that hurt, more bloody than anything."
"'More bloody than anything' means somethin's wrong, Vin. Ah did not even witness what had you on the ground. Ah should have seen … well, Chris will have mah hide daydreamin' and causin' you hurt." Ezra shook his head, for a different reason this time, Vin knew for certain, and refused to look Vin in the eye. He started to clean up the mess from caring for the injury he caused to this man who had grown so dear to him.
"Ezra, you couldn't have got Chaucer out of the way fast enough."
"Ah could … "
"No, ya couldn't. That cat came outta nowhere. Yer quick shootin' scared it offa me 'fore it could do the bad things a mountain lion can do to a man."
"Ah should have seen … "
"Damn it, Ez. Think ya need ta talk 'bout what happened. Ya been through some loss in yer life and I don't think ya give yerself a chance ta heal." The gambler continued looking away, or down at the things he was gathering up to get them moving again, but not to the face of the long-haired tracker. Vin tapped the green-sleeved arm. "Ezra." The upset man turned to look at his worried companion. Vin could see the pain clear as though what happened a week ago had just now taken place. Ezra Standish's fellow peacekeepers in Four Corners, the seven of them made famous now as The Magnificent Seven, were aware of what happened to Ezra's brother Daniel, but only from fevered dreams while he recovered from a bad hit to the head suffered during a bank robbery. They decided to keep that knowledge to themselves back then, figuring that if Ezra wanted them to know such intimate and important types of things from his past, it should be his conscious choice to reveal them. But the compassionate former bounty hunter and now tracker for their band of lawmen knew that this loss was certainly an early one of many where Ezra chose to close himself off from others and lick his wounds alone, much like what happened the previous week.
"Ah have been … " Ezra stopped, seemingly unsure how to go on. Vin Tanner knew where his friend was heading.
"Ezra, ya weren't distracted, least ways not enough to have changed what happened here today, 'cept that ya saved me from a world o' hurt from that cat." Ezra kept eye contact with Vin this time, his expression telling the tracker how much he wanted that to be true. "And there weren't nothin' ya could o' done last week ta change what happened."
"It … it h … happened so fast," the card sharp said, softly, the pain in his voice and in the tears that suddenly welled in his eyes. "Ah … " he started, but a sob took hold and would not let go. The tears came, a rush, the sob turned to uncontrolled tears, Ezra finally succumbing to the grief he had held to and tried to keep inside, away from others. The two friends were still sitting on the parched grass on the side of the trail, Ezra on his knees. Vin used his good hand to grab hold of the familiar green jacket and pull Ezra into a hug. The gambler dropped the supplies he had gathered. Caught off-guard, he fell into Vin's cross-legged lap. He cried and he sobbed as Vin held tight, accepting the comfort he clearly so desperately needed. Ezra learned to accept comfort better from his friends of over three years, though he was still pretty good at hiding that he needed it.
Today he needed it.
The two men sat in the dusty grass not far outside of Four Corners for some time, knowing there was no rush to clear themselves from the roadway. The likelihood of people coming upon them was low. Ezra did, finally, seem well cried out, for the moment. He patted Vin's chest in gratitude and leaned away.
"Ah guess," he sniffed as he reached for his handkerchief, "Ah needed that."
"Reckon." Vin smiled sadly. Ezra started to rise, but Vin stopped him. "Can we talk, after Nate gets a look at this?" the tracker asked, lifting his bandaged hand.
Ezra lowered his head as he began to gather the supplies anew. "Ah don't know, Vin."
"Ez." Vin waited to say more until Ezra raised his head to look at his friend. "I care about ya, and I know ya been extra sad this last while. I think you should talk about it, and anything else. I know neither of us is very good at that." He smiled, which elicited a knowing smile from the fancy-dressed card player. "But maybe, you know, we can be there for each other. Yer holdin' in some hurt. I think what happened last week has ya thinkin' on some old pain. I know it's been like that fer me, and it didn't affect me nowhere near what it did you."
Ezra looked as his friend. Vin wasn't the only one of his fellows who had offered to talk with him after last week's events. Ezra felt that his focus was way off. No matter what Vin said, Ezra knew that had he been sharper, more attentive, less distracted, he could have re-directed his horse and avoided injuring Vin's hand. He owed Vin at least a talk. But he likely owed it to himself, too. Maybe even hurts from long ago could be healed with a few words with this good, kind man.
"W … Would you like to dine with me tonight … in mah room?"
"I'd like that," Vin replied.
"Unless Nathan wishes you to retire early to better affect your recuperation."
"He won't." Ezra would speak to the healer to make sure of that.
"Ah will ask the lovely señorita to prepare a special meal."
"Very well." Ezra stood, effortlessly and as though nothing serious had just transpired on the road home from Eagle Bend. It made Vin sad, but maybe they could come to some sort of agreement that they wouldn't hold their hurts so close to their vests anymore, after this talk. Ezra offered his hand to Vin, who grabbed it with a smile and let his friend help him to his feet. "Allow us to finish our ride home."
"You will speak with Vin about this but you will not speak with me?" Inez Rocios said as they spoke in the kitchen of the saloon.
"Yes." Ezra didn't have the words to explain it to her. The one-word answer would have to suffice, even if it did serve to displease the woman who would, hopefully, one day, become the future Mrs. Standish.
Inez pushed by her lover as she grabbed some ingredients from the small pantry shelf beside the stove that held her more oft-used items. She turned, pushed by Ezra again, and shook in what seemed far too much dried chile in the vegetables that would become her amazing pozole. He knew that he and Vin could handle it, but not everyone in town could. Inez agreed to make a few of Ezra's favorites for his supper with Vin, including her mother's variation on the traditional Mexican stew.
"Because he asked. Ah do not especially wish to delve into these things, but Ah feel we two both would benefit. Ah do not wish to burden you with any of this." He reached for her hand and brought it to his mouth for a kiss, but Inez pulled away and turned back to the stove.
"I will have your food ready as you asked."
"Inez … "
"You need to see to Chaucer, get to the bath house and see Nathan, correct? You should go."
"Ah did not intend … "
"I know." No, Ezra could tell that this woman who meant the world to him, did not really know. "I, too, have things to finish before the evening gets busy." Inez busied herself and ignored Ezra as he left her to her anger and disappointment. He understood why she felt hurt by his decision, but he needed to take this slowly, this opening up of his life to these people. His heart had been through the wringer in the last year or so with Inez. The same could not really be said for his relationship with the tracker. It was true, they had experienced disagreements, but their easy friendship never allowed those troubles to last for long. He could not help Inez with what she wanted just now. As close as he was with Vin, Ezra still felt he was stepping out on a long, precarious limb with his decision to discuss details of his past with him. He was nowhere near the point where he would be comfortable discussing some of these things with Inez.
Ezra removed himself to his room, gathered a clean set of clothes, dropped them at the bath house and then spent a few minutes, thirty minutes to be precise, grooming his horse.
"Do not feel badly, boy. It was mah fault, not yours."
"What was?" Chris Larabee asked.
Ezra sighed. "Have you spoken with our tracker? Certainly he has relayed to you today's debacle." Ezra put away his brush and turned to the leader of The Seven. "Ah was distracted on the ride home … "
"Forget it, Ezra. Vin told me what happened and that your story might be different. Seems to me that since Vin only has superficial hurt to his hand and you likely saved him some skin by chasin' away that mountain lion, we can say that it was a good day and move on."
Ezra looked Chris in the eye and said, "That may be easier said than done, Chris."
"Shouldn't be, based on Vin's story. And considering how you've been mourning … "
"Ezra … "
"Ah have a dinner date. Ah have to remove this dust from mah person, Ah must stop by to speak with Nathan and then be ready … "
"For Vin." Ezra blinked rapidly. "I'm glad you two are talking," Chris said. "I think it'll be good for both of you."
Ezra lowered his head and spoke softly. "Ah have … fears of … "
"You don't have to worry. Vin is as genuine as they come."
"Chris, you need not convince me of this truth." The gambler looked into the former gunfighter's eyes. "That does not mean that something Ah may say will not scare him."
"Ah hope you are right."
Chris nodded his head. "Go get cleaned up. You headin' to Nate's 'cause you're hurt?"
"No. Ah would wish for the prognosis on Vin's injury from, how shall Ah say … "
"Someone who's not Vin?" Chris asked.
"Hilarity is nestled deep in mah bones."
"You two are a lot alike." Ezra furrowed his brow dramatically, though he knew it was true. "He's fine. I checked."
"That is a relief." Ezra did not breathe a sigh of relief, but he might as well have.
"Why don't you get your ablutions completed," Chris said with a wicked grin.
"It is the proper word, Chris."
"I know. If you get 'em done quick, you could grab a little rest before Vin shows up. You look like you could use it."
"Ah would be lyin' if Ah said Ah was not tired. That is wise counsel."
"I can be wise," Chris joked.
'More than you know,' Ezra thought to himself. Indeed, the accomplished poker player was not completely convinced that Chris wasn't involved in Vin's suggestion that they talk, despite how organically the offer seemed after the events of the day.
"You can indeed," Ezra said, his voice strained, his countenance weary.
"Will we see you in the saloon later?"
"Ah do not honestly know."
"See you in the mornin', then." The tall blond who Ezra had fought so long and so hard with but who ultimately became one of his best friends and greatest champions, headed to the saloon.
Ezra smiled as he patted his horse affectionately, left the livery and turned for the bath house.
Vin knocked on the door of Ezra's room on the second floor of the saloon. It was "their" knock, and allowed the card sharp the ability to relax when he heard the key unlock the door should he not be awake or otherwise incapacitated ... or just slow getting to the door. That would normally only happen when Ezra was either a little bit or a lot bit drunk. This time, Vin knocked three times and decided that waiting any longer might be detrimental to himself, but worry that Ezra hadn't answered had him in the door and moving to the right of the doorway and closer to the bed, a more difficult angle for the expert shot to shoot him. He found Ezra sound asleep. Vin shook his head sadly as he lifted the nearly empty bottle of bourbon from the night stand. Damn. The vessel with so little remaining didn't mean that Ezra had drunk all or nearly all of it, but he'd had some, the fancy tumbler sitting beside the bottle half full.
"Ezra," Vin called, hoping that his friend didn't drink his dinner.
"Ah am not drunk, if that is why you let yourself in," Ezra replied as he swung his legs over the side of the mattress. He swiped his hand over his face and added, "Chris suggested Ah might try to rest some. He relayed the information from Nathan that your hand would be fine."
Vin grabbed the rocking chair and moved it closer to the bed. "You look like you needed the rest. You feelin' all right?" He removed his jacket and hung it over the other chair sitting in the corner. He sat in the comfortable, precisely-balanced rocker. He performed all of those things with a hand that was newly wrapped but seemingly unaffected by the activity.
"Ah feel … tired."
"You've had a rough week, Ez."
"Vin … " Ezra started in reply, but a yawn caught him, unexpectedly. "Good heavens, mah apologies, Vin."
"We can do this another time if yer tired."
"No, no, no, no, no we cannot. We will not disappoint the lovely lady who is preparing our meal. Ah have already given her reason for disillusion once this day." Ezra stood, went to his washstand and poured some water into the basin. He rinsed his face and said, "No, we shall eat what Inez brings us and we will like it." He turned and saw Vin looking at him worriedly. "We quarreled. It will be fine. She is making us a delicious meal." Vin still looked worried. "It is fine, or it will be. Pour yourself a drink." They both looked to the bottle. "There is a new bottle in the second drawer of the dresser." Vin retrieved it and poured himself a drink.
"How much have you had?"
"Ah haven't. Ah fell asleep before Ah had the opportunity to imbibe." Vin looked to the glass and saw the truth in the pristine lip of the glass.
"Good," Vin replied. Ezra smiled.
"Probably." The professional poker player nodded to the tracker's hand. "What did Nathan have to say about your injury?"
"Said it was more scratched and bloody than really hurt. Says you must o' reigned Chaucer in so he only skimmed me with the shoe. Got lucky." Ezra nodded sadly. "You heard what I said? Nate says you and Chaucer, you avoided hurtin' me bad."
"Ah honestly have no memory of doin' any such of a thing."
"Then maybe it was that well-trained horse o' yers. Either way, you made it so I didn't git stepped on." Ezra shrugged, not convinced of anything other than luck, which is how he called it. "Yer wrong, but I don't wanna argue with you on that. I want ta talk. I think you have some old troubles that yer thinkin' on 'cause o' what happened last week. I want ta help ya, Ez. Yer real important ta me and I don't want some … I don't know, somethin' from yer past eatin' at ya and have ya thinkin' that ya gotta leave because of it."
"Vin, Ah will not … "
"You don't know that, Ezra." Vin watched his friend's face. He could see how tortured he was, how he needed to talk, but how talking about things of a personal nature was so hard for him. The tracker blamed Maude Standish. The damned woman wasn't much of a mother if she'd taught him to keep in all of his hurts. She'd not visited her son in the last year. Damn her. Vin sat next to Ezra on the bed. "Yer all torn up about last week. Can't ya tell me?"
"Ah … Ah can. Ah will. But we should eat."
"It's hard ta eat when there ain't no food, Ezra," Vin joked as he knocked his elbow against Ezra's arm. A knock at the door had the two men smile at each other.
"One moment." Ezra went to the door. He took the tray of food from Inez and handed it to Vin. He turned to Inez and said, "Gracias, mi amor." This time, when Ezra reached for her hand, she allowed the kiss. She smiled sadly, and turned to leave. Ezra shut the door behind her, and locked it. He did not want to be interrupted, by friend or foe this evening. "Shall we eat?"
The pozole, with tomatoes, onions, avocado and a light, soured cream for adding to the stew, homemade corn tortillas, was rich and delicious. Two large bowls were delivered, and not a drop remained when the two hungry men were through. They drank some more, spoke of minor goings-on in town. Inez included a fried delicacy, buñuelos, for dessert.
"This is delicious. How come we ain't never had these before?" Vin asked as he took another one from the basket and bit off a huge piece.
"Pace yourself, Vin. Ah do not wish to have to call for Nathan to save you from choking."
"'m fine." He chewed some more, then asked, "How come we haven't had these before? Does Inez only make 'em fer you?" Ezra blushed. "Aw, hell. Sorry, Ez." Then he looked quizzically at his friend. "Did you ask her to make 'em for us?"
"Ah did not. It says everything about how she feels about you that she did this. You should feel flattered."
Vin smiled and nodded his head. "Don't think it's flattered that I feel. More kind o' warm inside."
"Ah believe that is a dearer compliment, Vin. Ah shall let her know."
Ezra rubbed his stomach. "Lord, Ah believe Ah ate too much."
"It's hard not to eat it when it's all so delicious."
"You gonna eat that last buñuelo?"
"Hell, no. Ah truly could not eat one more bite. It is all yours, Vin." As Vin took the last pastry and dipped it in the now room temperature sugar cane sauce, Ezra smiled affectionately and moved all of his empty plates and his napkin onto the tray. "When you are through, could you please remove the tray to the hallway. Inez said that Tommy would be around within the next while to pick it up."
"I can take it down … "
"No. It will be fine. Ah would rather … talk."
"All right." Vin ate the last bite, and then took the tray with the completely empty plates and set it outside Ezra's door. When Vin turned back around, he found Ezra laying up against his pillows, his eyes closed, breathing in and out slowly. "Ya'all right?"
"Yes." Ezra opened his eyes and looked with sadness and pain at his friend. His dear friend. He never expected to have one of those, not ever again. But here they were. And Ezra figured it was important that he not keep important things from a man like this. He knew that one day he might feel the same way about Chris. He was very close to that already. The others? It didn't seem likely, though he hoped it might happen, some day. For a man like Ezra Standish, opening up to two men would likely be the limit, no offense intended to the other men with whom he shared his life in law enforcement … and life in general in their growing town.
"Ah know that you are aware of the neglect mah mothah showed to me in mah youth."
"She weren't much of a mama."
"No, she wasn't. Mah troubles with malaria, you recall from our Denver trip."
"There were innumerable times when she left me with assorted family and friends, jumping from one to the next when Ah would either get sick or cause more trouble than Ah was worth, or D … Daniel was."
Ezra cocked his head. "Vin?" 'Daniel' had been spoken not questioningly but more matter-of-factly.
"Ezra, I need ta tell ya somethin'."
The Southerner pushed himself up and sat up straighter in his featherbed. "You know about Daniel? Did mah mothah … "
"No. Weren't nothin' Maude did. You remember when ya got hit in the head during that bank robbery?"
"You were a bit out o' yer head. You were thinkin' on times when you were young. Ya talked about Daniel."
"Ah … Ah did? What did Ah say?"
"Not a lot, jest that he died in a swimming accident."
Ezra kept his eyes on Vin's face. He felt the pain of guilt the tracker suffered over not telling him about this. To be fair, what would have been the point?
"Does everyone know?"
"All the fellas. And Mary and Gloria and Nettie."
"And you have all kept this quiet all this time, nearly a year?"
"A year? And J.D., Buck and Josiah have kept this secret that long?"
"Amazin', ain't it?"
"It defies belief," Ezra said with a chuckle. "So all that is known is that Ah have … had a brother, who died tragically and Ah have chosen not to speak of this with mah friends?"
"None of us figgered it was our business ta ask about it. Ya thought J.D. was Daniel and ya spent a lot o' time sayin' how amazed ya were to be talkin' to him again."
"It's all right. J.D. was so good about it. All he wanted was ta make ya feel better, ta not worry."
"Ah would not be surprised. He spoke of caring for his mothah during her illness. He is a good young man."
"We all agreed that it was yer life, yer story, yer decision ta tell it." Vin looked with compassion at the top of Ezra's head. "Ya don't need ta talk about it now, if ya don't want to. But I reckon some o' yer thoughts this week have been about Daniel since what happened."
"It should not … should it?" Ezra asked as he raised his head, tears in his eyes. A slight sob was followed by, "Is it right that what transpired last week should bring up memories of someone Ah held so dear twenty-three years ago? And could the loss of a little dog … should it compare to losing a brother?" Ezra leaned his head back in his pillows and placed his forearm over his face. His shoulders showed the evidence of crying even if he chose to cry silent tears.
"Aw, Ez." Vin rose from his chair again and went to sit beside his distraught friend. "Ezra, ain't nothin' wrong with feelin' bad 'bout Fred dyin'." The words had Ezra sob desperately. "Ya loved him. And he was a special little guy. Everyone loved him, even Larabee." Ezra let out a laugh that never managed to overcome his tears … it never could. Vin lifted Ezra into a hug. "Cry it out, Ezra. Take all the time that ya need." Ezra tried to speak but he was unable to make himself clear over the sobs that tore his breath from him. "Talk later. We got time."
Vin could feel his chest and shoulder becoming wet with Ezra's tears. He would never tell Ezra that there was anything wrong with crying over the death of Fred the orange and white hound dog, just like he won't be telling him that when it was Chaucer's time. There are relationships in life between man and beast that mean just as much as those shared between people. Ezra's ability to share his feelings like this, to shed tears for the loss of such a cherished part of his life were no doubt very different from how he had ever mourned a loss before. There was safety for him, here, now, with people who cared for him and would not judge him for crying over the death of a dog. Vin wondered if Ezra ever really mourned the death of his brother. From what he could gather from what J.D. and Mary said during Ezra's recovery from that head injury, Ezra was probably around twelve or thirteen years old when his brother passed away. Had he been able to mourn that death properly? Did Maude sweep in to make whatever arrangements she deemed necessary to show that she mourned the death of her son properly, thinking not of what Ezra was going through? Vin could imagine that. And then, did she remove him from the people who had not minded properly the safety of a thirteen-year-old and his little brother and then dumped Ezra at the next family or friend on the list, leaving him alone to dwell on what a young boy might have done to prevent a brother's death? Yes, Vin could well-imagine that this was exactly how it happened. He would hold off on damning the woman for those actions until Ezra confirmed them.
It is what his mother would expect of a Tanner.
Vin felt Ezra moving within his arms. "Ah could use a handkerchief," Ezra said, his voice sounding odd, the familiar congestion of too many tears in too short a period of time.
"I'll get it." Vin quicky made it to the dresser, opened the top drawer, and pulled out a new handkerchief. "Here."
"Thank you." Ezra wiped his eyes and face and then blew his nose. "Mah apologies, Vin."
"Don't worry none." Vin sat back down next to Ezra. "How ya feelin'?"
Ezra didn't answer, not right away. Tears started anew. The card sharp removed himself from the bed and went to the dresser to get another handkerchief, two in fact. He came back to sit next to Vin on the bed. He cried some more and then wiped the tears. His eyes were bloodshot, both from days of tears he forced himself not to shed, and from this crying, his skin puffy under them. He shook his head, more tears came, more drying of them. He sighed before he spoke.
"Ah did n … not believe Ah c … could express mahself in that way." Vin put his arm around Ezra's shoulder. Ezra stiffened a little at the initial touch, but relaxed immediately, understanding the comfort Vin offered. "You will m … make me begin weeping anew, Vin."
"Seems ta me ya needed it." Vin blinked his own eyes as he watched his friend in such pain.
"Look, ya gotta be tired. Lay down and sleep some," Vin suggested.
"No! Sorry," Ezra said as he looked down to his lap. "Ah meant to say," he continued as he looked back up. "y … you were kind enough to join me … to … well, Ah said Ah would talk … "
"I'm stayin'. Jest take a rest fer a while. I'll wake ya when I come back. Don't shoot me when I come in."
Ezra blinked tired, sore eyes and offered the weakest of smiles. "Ah would nevah. Where are you goin'?"
"Jest down ta get a pot o' coffee."
"Tha' sounds like a g'd ideeea," Ezra said.
Vin nodded and then said in a whisper, "Hope ya never have ta cry yerself asleep again, Ez."
Vin saw Chris down the back hall of the saloon. He cocked his head, requesting that the leader of The Magnificent Seven come to him in the back room. Chris excused himself from the table where Buck and J.D. were playing a hand of Conquian.
"Aw, come on, Buck!" J.D. complained after a particularly unfortunate play.
"Simmer down, kid. It's not my fault you're such a bad card player."
Vin grinned at the interchange as Chris walked up to him.
"Everything all right?"
"Yeah. He's sleepin'."
"Really?" Chris asked. "You sure he's all right?"
"Yeah. Told me about Daniel, then broke down over Fred."
"He needed it. Don't think he ever was allowed ta really feel his hurts all his life. Maude taught him every wrong thing."
"Maybe not every wrong thing," Chris said. "He turned out damned good: smart, reliable, good company."
Vin grinned, yanked Chris' ear forward, and pulled his invisible spyglass out to look inside. "Are you really Chris Larabee?"
Chris slapped the tracker's hand away. "Knock it off," he said easily.
"Can ya ask 'nez ta get a pot o' coffee goin'? I'm gonna go … " Vin ended and headed toward the outhouse.
"I'll take care of it."
Vin returned to find Chris standing in the hallway, a tray with coffee, milk, sugar, three mugs and pastries that looked suspiciously like Nettie Wells' strawberry-rhubarb tarts and Gloria Potter's blueberry scones sitting on the table near the back staircase.
"That was fast."
"Inez was pouring the coffee into this pretty silver pot as I walked into the kitchen."
Vin took a whiff. "She loves her man," Vin said.
"Don't know. She seemed a little … "
"Off? Yeah," Vin said. "They had a fight."
Chris cocked his head, hissed faintly and then nodded his head knowingly. "She's not happy that he's not confiding in her instead of you."
"Well … "
"Fer sher." Vin looked at the tray. "There's three cups."
"Inez's idea." Chris could read what Vin was thinking. "Let me take that one back." He eyed the tray and said, "Which of these should I take back?" Vin stared at his friend, a slight dare in the expression. "I guess I'll …" he started as he grabbed a scone from the tray, " … take this one."
"We'll see ya in the mornin'," Vin said, smiling at his best friend.
"You spendin' the night?"
"All right. See you tomorrow."
Vin headed back upstairs and found Ezra napping, though no longer asleep.
"Thought you'd be out longer," the man from Texas said.
"And Ah thought it would take longer to brew a pot of coffee," Ezra countered.
"Well, Inez already had the coffee goin'. Got some goodies from Nettie and Gloria."
"Those fine ladies are going to be the death of me," Ezra said as he happily threw his feet to the floor and inspected the items under the napkin. Vin poured them each a cup of coffee, put their preferred amounts of milk and sugar in each cup. Ezra selected a scone to start and took a small bite from the crusty edge. "Ah know the scones are from the lovely Gloria Potter," he said after savoring the first taste.
"Ezra," Vin said as he handed the former con man his coffee, "I think ya know who baked any sweet put in front o' you."
The two men enjoyed their dessert. Ezra took a break from eating as he rested once more on his bed, legs crossed, his head raised by multiple pillows. He sipped his delicious coffee; Inez had used his "good stuff" for this pot. He took one, then another taste. Vin held on to his cup, waiting. The silence told Ezra that it was time to speak.
"Mah brother Daniel was mah best friend. Ah suspect that this is how it should be, with brothers, but as you might imagine, with years between when Ah was born and when Daniel came along, at the beginning, Ah had little use for him. Five years separated us. It took me five years to even realize what Ah had. Within three years of that realization, he was gone. Ah wondered for years after his passin' what precisely Ah was waiting for. What did a five-year-old have in common with a newborn, especially when mah mothah had already placed me on a … certain path in life." Vin fumed in the comfortable rocking chair, Ezra could tell. He ignored the man, for now. He knew how his fellow peacekeepers felt about Maude Standish. He could not say that he blamed them. "As the years went by, we lived more separately than we did together. Mothah had determined that she had the tool that she required in me, and allowed Daniel a relatively decent life with an aunt who was barren and treated Daniel well and as though he was her own. Ah truly envied him, but not in a negative way, just in the way that a young child would wish to live, away from the many questionable events and people who littered mah mother's grifter lifestyle."
"Wish ya could o' had a normal life."
Ezra smiled. "Who of our brothers-in-arms has had a truly normal life, Vin?"
"I know that life can turn on a person, Ez. But as a kid, even though it was ruined for a while with my ma dyin', I had a good childhood. Chris did, think both Buck and J.D. would say they did, too, 'spite circumstances." Ezra smiled again. 'A fine word choice, Vin,' he thought.
"Ah understand. Fate is fickle and had a different plan for me."
"You mean Maude did."
"Like Ah said. Fickle. Ah suffered through those assorted bouts of malaria, as you recall, while Daniel lived farther north, in northern Virginia. After mah last illness as a child, Mothah removed me to mah Aunt Sophie's home. Ah was ten, Daniel was five and things were completely different. He was more than Ah expected, smart and funny beyond his years. After a few months living with mah aunt and her second husband, her first had died young, Ah realized that Daniel was taking after Uncle James. It was a very good thing for both of us. Ah remained healthy, we were having fun. We read to each othah, we both loved reading and learning. Ah had little opportunity for reading as Ah helped Mothah with her cons, or spent most of the remainder of mah time in Georgia or New Orleans with other family, sick in bed."
Vin listened as Ezra told his story. He seemed almost happy in the telling. No, not happy. Grateful? That seemed more like it. Grateful to tell the story of Daniel, to have someone who wanted to listen. Had he not spoken of Daniel since the boy died twenty-some years ago? Did Maude forbid him to speak of her younger son? Did Maude blame him for Daniel's death? As much as Ezra professed his love for his mother, there always seemed something about the two that said something different. Ezra seemed content in not seeing his mother for nearly a year now. Vin knew that a lot of that was because he had 'family' here in Four Corners who actually treated him like family, like they cared about him.
Like they loved him. Which they did.
"In Virginia, besides havin' Daniel, Ah shared in the love that Aunt Sophie and Uncle James felt for him, and seemed to easily shower upon me on the short visits Ah spent with them."
"Yer ma took ya away a lot?"
"She'd trained me, she needed to make use of her investment."
"Damn it, Ez," Vin said as his eyes grew wide and near tears.
Ezra raised his hand as he stood to fill his coffee cup. "It is history, Vin. The cons that mah mothah enlisted me for informed mah life, in ways both good and bad." Ezra walked over and took Vin's cup, filled it, sweetened it and added milk, and brought Vin a strawberry-rhubarb tart when he returned the full cup. He looked at his tart and smiled. "Ah believe Missus Wells has forgiven me mah rudeness upon our first meeting." He took a bite and savored the sweet-tartness of the pastry.
"She did on that day you met and loaned her the money."
"She could not have, Vin. It was … Ah … Ah cannot even come up with the proper words for the awful Ah displayed that day."
"She told me you were hurtin', that ya had some things that never got right from yer past."
Ezra shook his head. "Ah cannot understand what fortuitous winds blew the day Ah found mahself in our dusty burg lo those, what is it, comin' on four years ago?"
"Yep. I feel lucky, too. How often did Maude come ta get ya?"
"Often. But every time Ah returned it was, truly, bliss. We lived on a wide bend along the Shenandoah River. Our lives there were as easy as mah lonely nights left unattended in a hotel room as Mothah ran her cons without me were hard."
"I wish … " Vin started, but Ezra cut him off.
"Ah no longer think of what-might-have-beens, save for what happened with Daniel." Ezra pulled in a deep breath and started in with the worst of his story. "Ah was away the morning of the accident."
'Hell', Vin thought. Too much like what happened with Fred.
"Ah had been gone for weeks. Mothah sent me back to Virginia alone, as she often did. Ah was thirteen, Daniel was just eight. The coach broke down, twice, from Charlottesville. Ah arrived to a household in a frenzy. Aunt Sophie was sobbing. Ah thought her dear Willie had passed on." Ezra raised his eyes and saw the confusion on Vin's face. "Willie was her horse. Ah dropped mah luggage and started toward her, to comfort her, when Uncle James intercepted me. He placed his hand on mah shoulder and ushered me to the staircase. He looked at me and told me that there had been an accident. He said Daniel had fallen at the river. The current swept him around the bend. He asked me to follow him. Ah asked him if Daniel was all right. He would not answer and just said that Ah should follow him. We went to the extra bedroom at the top of the stairs. We sat on the settee on the landing." Ezra was a world away, telling the story of every moment that he spent from setting foot in the house, and seemed to be planning to tell the entire story in one sitting. Vin stood, poured his friend something stiffer than coffee, and handed it to him, or tried to. Ezra didn't notice the tracker standing beside him.
"Ezra." Ezra stopped talking and looked up. "Here."
Ezra blinked the tears that were starting. "Thank you." He took a large swallow. "There is not much more to tell."
"You tell me as much or as little as you like."
The card sharp nodded. "Uncle James said that Daniel had fallen unconscious and had not come to since … " Ezra sobbed and placed his glass on his night stand. "He had fallen into the river two days before. He was torn from a collection of branches and smaller tree limbs, unconscious. Uncle James said he was in and out of consciousness since they pulled him from the river, but that the doctor said that he had been deeply unconscious longer than his body could tolerate. That he had taken on more water than was survivable for someone conscious and able to fight. That his lungs … " Ezra blinked, tears fell down his cheeks. He retrieved his glass and downed the last of the bourbon. "We walked into the room. The doctor stood at the window, looking out to the long meadow that reached to a stand of trees and then the beautiful Shenandoah. I turned from him to Daniel. He was … so pale. He looked like a painting of himself, laying abed. Ah could not hear him breathin'. Ah could not see him breathin'. Ah stepped close to the bed. Ah looked up to Uncle James. He reached over and felt for breath from Daniel's nose and mouth. He leaned over and listened to his chest. He turned to the doctor, who shook his head faintly. And then Uncle James turned to me and took me in his arms. He said he was sorry. Ah could still see Daniel beneath mah uncle's elbow. Ah was certain Ah was in the midst of a dream, that Ah must have fallen asleep in the coach, that Ah missed mah brother too much and that god was punishin' me for lovin' him too little, too late."
"Ah remember thinkin' 'you knew that you should have wanted him more.'"
"Ezra, you were a little kid. Ya didn't know what ta think. Yer ma didn't help ya know what ta think. Ya weren't ta blame fer yer brother dyin'."
"Ah do know that, Vin. There is wisdom gained in distance from the episode, from many years of thinkin' it through."
"Didn't get any feelin' that Maude had another son."
"No. You weren't aware that Ah had a brother, except for mah delusional rantings. We Standish know how to con, even when our hearts are broken," Ezra added as he headed to the bottle of bourbon once more.
"Mebbe. Don't think yer doin' so good on that anymore." Ezra turned away. Vin knew his friend was no longer thinking of Daniel. That story had been told, a burden held in the gambler's heart now shared, a burden eased. No, Vin knew that Ezra's tears this moment were for the loss of his little hound friend, who died the previous week from some unknown illness that took him far too fast after the first signs that something was wrong. Ezra and Buck returned from an errand after an overnight at a small, growing town. The rains had washed away the stagecoach trail for a substantial section, but Judge Oren Travis could wait no longer for the package he was expecting that was making its way far too slowly along the stagecoach route through some of the more remote towns in his jurisdiction. Chris had selected Ezra and Buck for this task. It was clear from the fact that Chris Larabee met them at the livery upon their return that something was awry. His mere presence was evidence enough, but it was the tortured expression on his face as he looked at Ezra that told of despairing news. Fred had been terribly sick since the previous day. By the time Ezra ran to the back room of the saloon, which is where Nathan and Chris decided to keep the dog as they tried to come up with a way to treat whatever it was that was wrong with the little hound, it was evident that they would have to let Fred go. Chris had told the returning lawmen that both Nathan and Robert Merton's man who cared for all of his livestock worked night and day to find what might have happened, but Fred never recovered from the terrible ill condition he was found in not long after Ezra and Buck departed the previous morning for their job to pick up the paperwork for the judge.
Vin walked over to his grieving friend. "Ezra … " he started. The former con man let out a mournful cry, turned around and forced the tears away.
"He was a dog, Vin. How do Ah justify actin' in this way over a dog when Ah was able to live ovah twenty years of mah life without cryin' for Daniel? What kind of a person mourns more for a dog than he does for his own lost brothah?" Ezra might have stopped crying for Vin's benefit, or because of Maude's words floating around in his head about "appearances", but it was clear to the compassionate and observant tracker that these would not be the end of Ezra's tears this evening.
"Ya ain't done that, Ezra."
Ezra sniffed, walked past Vin to grab another handkerchief from the dresser, and continued, "How can you say that, after everything you have heard tonight?"
Vin walked right up to Ezra, despite the fact that the poker player abhorred most people waltzing into his personal space, he did not move when Vin insinuated himself right up against the Southerner. Clothes brushed against clothes, Vin had gotten so close. "'Cause ya didn't. I don't believe ya didn't cry fer yer brother. Reckon if yer Aunt Sophie and Uncle James're still around, they'd tell ya so."
Ezra took a trembling breath. "They are."
"So, if ya ain't clear on what transpired back then, after yer brother died, figure we got a way o' findin' out."
Ezra offered a slight grin. "'Transpired', you say?"
"'s what I said." Ezra started to cry. "Aw, Ez, I'm so sorry," Vin said as he took his friend into an embrace. It wasn't what they did, not often enough. Vin was a hugger, learned from the loving woman who bore him, lost once his life as a man began at such a young age, a hard life, but found anew with the love of an old woman who reminded him so much of his long-lost mother. Others helped, too. It was hard to walk through Four Corners sometimes with all of the hugs of a grateful townspeople. Of Mary Travis, who loved these men like the brothers they were to Chris Larabee, a man she would marry, one day. Gloria Potter. Many others. Of Chris Larabee, who so easily rested an arm across Vin's back early in their acquaintance, and would comfort him in that way, and more, more times than the former bounty hunter could count in these last years.
Ezra was less inclined to hug, unless it was a child in need of one. But he, too, had won the hearts of the town and found countless times where these women would invade his space and insist on a hug. He taught their children and, with his six fellow peacekeepers, had saved entire families. He returned the hugs willingly and warmly now. Mary, Gloria, Casey, all of the mothers of the children he helped to educate. Nettie Wells had become a favorite, in spite of that uncomfortable first encounter.
And he had Inez, for far more than hugs, even if she failed to shower him with one today. Or tomorrow.
Vin kept his hold as Ezra wet his shoulder for the second time this night. Ezra pulled away, turned to wipe his tears and blow his nose, and then turned back. The tears started again as he looked at his friend.
"Good lord, Ah do not know when this will evah end," he forced out his choked-up throat.
"May be a while."
"Indeed." Ezra stepped over to the table with the bottle of bourbon.
"Ez, how 'bout some more coffee?"
"That sounds like a fine idea. Shall Ah go down to refresh the pot?"
Vin looked at Ezra worriedly. "You shur?" The puffiness and red around the eyes wouldn't fool anyone that he had not been crying.
"Ah shall throw some water on mah face. If Ah am unable to fool mah friends or mah lover that we have had painful discussions up here, maybe it is time that Ah allow such openness with the people Ah care about."
"And who care fer you," Vin added.
"Mebbe it's a little early fer that?" Vin knew that Ezra wanted to do what he said, but he wasn't too sure that that man who just expressed some pretty serious emotions and really only today allowed himself to mourn Fred wouldn't be a puddle of tears downstairs.
Ezra blinked his eyes, and then the tears fell. Vin pulled the crying man in for another hug.
"I'll be back in a while." Vin moved the remaining pastry into one basket and took everything with him that they were through with, leaving the pastry in Ezra's room, and headed for the door. He looked at his friend as he remained standing near his bed. He set the tray down, walked to the washstand, wet a cloth and returned to Ezra. "Lay down."
"Ah am f … fine," the gambler said as he sobbed lightly.
"All right," Vin agreed. Ezra laughed lightly through his tears. "Lay down."
"You are very pushy this night."
"Yep. Lay down."
"Yer still standin', Ezra."
Ezra lay down on his comfortable bed with his comfortable feather pillows. Vin handed him the cloth. "Put that on yer eyes." Ezra complied. "Be back faster 'n a jack rabbit gettin' a free night at a jack rabbit brothel."
"Ah will see you upon your return, Mistah Wilmington." Vin stepped through the threshold of Ezra's room with a crooked grin on his face.
Chris Larabee was not the first among his group of peacekeepers to arrive at their table the next morning. He wasn't always, sometimes Vin beat him there. Nobody else ever did.
"Ezra, everything all right?" he asked, a little worried at seeing his friend up this early.
"It is," the professional poker player said as he enjoyed a cup of coffee. The aroma was amazing; Inez had obviously started a pot of the Southerner's favorite brew. "There is more of this fine coffee in the kitchen."
It was well early for anyone to be in the saloon other than Inez and whoever was helping in the kitchen. Chris left to get his cup of coffee. He returned quickly; he preferred his coffee black. He sat down across from Ezra, a frown on his face. "Where's Inez?" he asked. When he went to the kitchen, he found Tommy firing up the griddle. Tommy had become an accomplished cook in addition to his night job as a bartender. The young man had come a long way.
"She informed me on mah way down that she would be takin' the morning off."
"Is that right?" Chris said with a grin.
"So she tells me," Ezra replied as he read the previous day's Clarion News in the too-dim light. He noticed Chris' grin had changed to a smile and added, "We did not spend time together last night."
Chris's smile fell. "Oh. I thought after Vin left … "
"Vin spent the night. His back was botherin' him and Ah offered the othah side of the bed. He took me up on the offer."
"You are a good friend, a good person."
"Ah am perfectly happy with the first descriptive, Chris, but please do not announce that second moniker out loud when people are about."
Chris snorted a laugh. "You mean when a poker mark might be around. I'd think that might be just when you would want such a thing said."
Ezra looked up sharply from his newspaper. He folded it with a snap and said, "Good point." At that point, Vin, Josiah and Nathan came in the front door.
"Gentlemen, you are here early." Ezra said.
"We are, but you are earlier, son," Josiah Sanchez said as he placed his hand warmly on Ezra's shoulder. "How are you today?" he asked.
"F … " Ezra started, intending to claim he was fine. He was certainly better today than he was yesterday, but fine still seemed a way off. "Bettah, Josiah. Thank you for asking."
"I'm glad to hear that, Ezra," Nathan said, his deep, rich voice projecting his concern for his friend. That these two men were friends was one of the true wonders of these years in Four Corners. It hadn't started off as though this would be possible, and ups and downs in their relationship over the last nearly four years could have had their association one that never made it beyond the 'Mistah Jackson' or 'that Southerner' level. Ezra nodded his gratitude to the former slave, then looked to Vin, who winked his good morning. The card sharp lowered his head as he smiled at his friend's silent address, an ability that he now seemed nearly as adept at with the tracker as their leader was.
"Will we be seein' … " Ezra said as he started to ask after Buck and J.D., but he stopped in the middle of the question as the boisterous pair barreled their way in, one from the back door, one from the front, both of them skidding to a halt in front of their table.
"What the hell?" Chris asked.
"It was a race," J.D. said.
"And I won, kid," Buck said as he sat quickly in his seat.
"Aw, hell," the youngest of their team said as he plopped into his chair.
"Fergot ta sit?" Vin asked.
"Well, you have begun your day with a lesson learned, J.D.," Ezra said. "That makes this a good day."
"Shoot!" the man in the brown suit said as he took his hat off and tossed it to the nearby table. He misjudged and it fell to the floor.
"Maybe not such a good day, J.D.," Buck said with a big smile.
"Days are frequently a mix of good and bad. Ah know Ah have experienced some very low lows of late." Ezra worried his coffee cup before he looked up. "Occasionally the day is just new and we do the best we can as we begin our new day." He took a deep breath and continued, "Ah wished to apologize to each of you," he said as he looked at each man who sat with him this morning. He had slept fairly well once he and Vin finished talking. Good food, good drink, most excellent company. Vin was the ear Ezra needed; there was no question that what went on between the two the previous night was what Ezra needed to move forward. The gambler still wondered how much Chris Larabee had to do with Vin showing up and doing the hard job of helping Ezra through this difficult time he was having. But Ezra felt he had more talking to do and his apology to his brethren was the beginning of that.
"No need for that, Ezra," Chris said.
"No, Ez. We know how you felt about Fred. We loved him, too," J.D. said. J.D.'s partners in crime smiled at the comment. Except for Buck.
"Sure, ol' Chris loved that dog, didn't ya, Chris?" Buck joked as he slapped his old friend on the back.
"Buck, Ah think you underestimate the affection our man from Indiana felt for young Fred. From mah observations, Chris spent more time with Fred than only J.D. and yours truly," Ezra said. This conversation about Fred included the first words Ezra spoke about the little dog since he leaned over and said goodbye to his sweet, canine friend. He hugged Fred that day he returned to town to the unbearable news, and kissed him and told him what a good boy he had been. And he stayed with him as Nathan gave him the medicines and herbs that would put him to sleep and out of the pain that Ezra could not bear the sweet dog, his boon companion, to suffer any longer.
Buck smiled at his friend speaking about his little dog in this way. Make no mistake, though Fred was adopted by and lived his life with Robert Merton and his family, Fred was from the time Ezra saved his life and through all of their adventures together, the tricks Fred learned, the naps alongside his healing man on the boardwalk outside the saloon or the jail or at his bedside in the back room of the saloon at Christmastime, playtimes with the children or just Ezra, Fred and a dirty, knotted sock for a toy – much to Ezra's chagrin when a nice ball or stick would have sufficed - Fred was Ezra's dog. And the Mertons knew this truth and understood how lucky they all were for the love shared by this man and beast.
Ezra and his friends spent the morning sharing their favorite stories of Fred. The Southerner shed some more tears and accepted pats on the back, his hair tousled by Buck more than once … so annoying. A fond clasp of his neck or a hand reached over to tap his arm gently when one story or another became too much for him. As these men shared Ezra's laughs and comforted his tears, Inez stopped at the first landing and caught Chris' eye. The tall blond figured Ezra had made plans with his lady for later in the morning, but as she stood out of sight of the other men, she smiled at how the man she loved was opening up to his friends about the dog that had stolen his heart before she had. She smiled, kissed her hand and blew the kiss to the leader of The Magnificent Seven and took the stairs back to her room.
The genesis of this story:
My long time away from The Magnificent Seven does not mean that I lost interest in our boys. I love them still, very much. But I lost some things in the last couple of years that I cherished. This story speaks of loss and mourning in much the way I experienced my own.
My sister passed away on July 10, 2018. I will never forget it. Her death was near water, she suffered a heart attack in a pool. I think much like Daniel Standish and his lucky happenstance to be living on the glorious Shenandoah River, my sister was enjoying her day in the water at her favorite place in the world, Bonaire. I want to think that she did not suffer, at least not for long. Like Daniel. I miss her every day.
My Fred died on April 1, 2019. It was a crushing blow, a loss that I still feel every single day of my life. He was the most special boy, and I have had some extraordinarily special dogs in my life. He was 13+ years healthy, got sick, and within days he was gone. The vet had no explanation for what happened or why his health deteriorated so rapidly. There has been no closure for me with Fred's passing. Maybe now, through the tears I shed as I wrote this story, there can be, though I doubt it. I fear Ezra and I will miss Fred, deeply, sorrowfully, with a full but aching heart, all of the rest of our days.
Because Fred was the most wonderful soul, generous to human and canine alike, I promised him that, when I was ready, I would find a dog in a shelter that really needed a home. Fred would have wanted to be replaced; he knew how great it was to be a dog in this family. I adopted Bella, a diabetic 10-year-old hound mix. When she joined my household in November, she still had her eyesight. But her diabetes had only recently started to be treated and had not yet stabilized while at the shlter, and she lost her sight around the beginning of this year. She was in my house long enough to learn the ropes, though. She is my hero. Most days she does not boop her nose into anything. And she, usually, doesn't charge around in order to avoid knocking into things. But there are times when she is in the hallway, or outside, and she just can't help herself. She is a joy. She joins 13-year-old Homer and 11-year-old Atticus in my canine crew.
One more loss. My oldest sister expressed through many tears that she felt that she would not see us enough (my youngest sister lives with me), with her on the East Coast in New Jersey and me living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was never going to make a move closer to me, so I left the town that I had lived in and loved for 6+ years and moved back East, not to New Jersey but to southwestern Virginia. My mourning now includes missing my Santa Fe and the glorious western landscapes more than I can say.