No infringement of the following characters and situations is intended.
Warning: Rated [MA] Mature Adults only. Contains m/m themes and violence
Title: Tennessee Waltz
Series: Magnificent Seven
Status: WIP Part 1 Series 7/9 Sequel to Fall From Grace
Archive: Yes to EBoS
Pairing: Ezra/Buck (some other pairings, suggested pairings, unresolved longings and jealousies)
Date: May 2002 - November 2003
Disclaimers: Don't own these characters, MGM and the rest do. No copyright infringement is intended or inferred.
Warnings: slash, H/C, extreme violence, m/m hanky panky, drug use, nudity, coarse language, adult themes
Spoilers: Season 1 & 2
Summary: Chris tries to spare Ezra the blood on his hands.
Notes: I've played a bit fast and loose with history, blending events from 1874 with 1876, but as the series was no stickler for the truth, I'm hoping you'll let it slide.
"Anna? Who's Anna?" Buck teased, dancing about with the silver watch.
Ezra reached for the watch but Buck dangled it out of reach.
"Who's Anna?" Buck insisted cheerfully.
"Give me back the watch, Buck."
"Not until you tell me who Anna is," he giggled.
Furious, Ezra drew on him. "Give it back!"
Shocked, Buck mutely held out the watch.
Ezra snatched it back, holstered his gun, then checked on the watch's precious contents before polishing it and putting it away safely. Then he sank down in a chair, on the verge of tears.
"Ezra," Buck crouched before him. "Ezra, I'm sorry, I was only teasing. Who was Anna?"
Ezra wiped at his eyes and tried to compose himself.
"My sister," he answered at last. "Well, half sister at any rate. She was as unwelcome as I was, but she was the prettiest little girl you ever did see, all strawberry blonde curls and big blue eyes." He smiled at the memory.
"You doted on her," Buck agreed, softly.
Ezra wiped his eyes again. "I was her big brother." He looked away. "She was barely two when she died. A fever took her. Scarlet fever, I think, I can't remember. I just remember my mother never crying, treating the whole thing like an enormous inconvenience. She told me boys don't cry, especially in public." He looked up at Buck. "After we put my sister in the ground she never spoke of her again." He pulled out the watch and opened it, revealing the tiny curl of strawberry blonde hair nestled in the back of the case.
"I carry this so I won't forget her."
"You never told me you had a sister."
"It was a long time ago. It doesn't matter now."
"It matters. I'm sorry, Ezra."
Ezra met his eyes and knew that Buck really was sorry, and he took comfort in that.
"If you miss Anna so much, how can you bear to have your own little girl so far away?" Buck accused mildly.
"Because I was fool enough to marry a girl too much like my own mother, that's how I bear it," Ezra rued, then shrugged slightly. "You know our Charity," he reminded. "She finds our little outpost rather too provincial entirely for her tastes, and you know as well as I do that if she'd tried flirting with Chris like that just once more Mary would have had her eyes out, for certain this time."
Buck nodded in agreement, still equal parts amused and appalled at the behaviour of all the parties involved. Chris especially, for encouraging it. The old dog loved a cat fight, but playing up with Ezra's wife, no matter her past or unconventional marital arrangements, it was just plain unseemly.
Ezra didn't seem overly bothered though, accepting it all as a fact of life. Charity was just a very high strung, high spirited, high maintenance, easily bored, trouble making young lady, of that there was no doubt.
"I believe my dear wife believes herself destined for things greater than this little dust bowl. I understand San Francisco or New York would be more to her taste, eventually."
"Right now she has everything she's ever wanted in Kansas City: money, power, prestige, feted by society, her name up in lights. She's having the time of her life."
"With your money."
"Our money," Ezra corrected. "It was part of our agreement. She runs her enterprises as she sees fit, without any suitors to bother her that she doesn't want or need, and, for the reputation and protection of myself and my associates, I take a cut."
"You sure she's not cooking the books?" Buck wanted to know, not trusting the woman for a second.
Ezra twinkled a smile at him, and Buck had enough sense at least to know not to ask any further after the financial affairs between man and wife, especially in regards to that pair. Professional thieves and con artists both, they'd met their match in each other, and if they tried to cheat the other it was purely for fun or practice. Charity might well be cooking the books but it was obviously only to an amount Ezra was willing to tolerate. Some might accuse Ezra of going soft, but so long as his generosity in overlooking his wife's financial misdeeds was being spent on spoiling his darling daughter with ribbons and bows, Ezra didn't much mind.
Ezra doted on his child, conceived by chance as she was, and he did miss her fiercely, but he was correct in saying the matter was out of his hands. He had married a girl just like his mother, and he had no real part to play in the life of his wife, or their child.
Ezra gave his old watch one last polish, then pocketed carefully. Perhaps his own father had wanted to be a part of his life, perhaps not. Most likely not. He had no idea and it made no real difference. Both he and Buck had grown up fatherless, and they'd turned out all right.
Buck saw the slight regret in Ezra's face and moved quickly to close the gap between, catching Ezra's face gently in his hands and licking across his lips, slipping his tongue in just a little. A warm touch, a reminder of why Ezra was here, with him, and not in Kansas City with his family. Ezra opened under the kiss, fully aware of why he was here, with Buck.
Buck would later muse how funny it was that life could change as quickly and as dangerously as the weather, all blue skies and sunshine one moment, dreadful and terrible tempests the next.
Ezra had been playing cards all afternoon for a diversion more than any real need for income, though he'd fleeced a few poor foolish souls who thought they could easily best the flash looking gambler. They had mistaken Ezra's situation in this pathetic little excuse of a town, with barely one main street to call its own, for a cardsharp fallen on hard times or not up to the standards of the nearest city, and they had paid with all the coins left in their pockets for this misconception.
Sending them on their way with a lesson well learned Ezra had since passed the time dealing cards to himself, practicing the flourishes that amused his comrades so easily.
Ezra frowned at the hand he'd just dealt himself, catching the first pang of unease and, turning over the cards, he'd suddenly been struck by a deeply bad feeling, a sense that something in his life was terribly amiss. He dealt another hand, reading meaning in the faces, and he didn't like what he saw, not at all.
Ezra had known something was wrong, he'd convinced himself he'd had a premonition, and he worried at it like a dog with a bone. His inexplicable anxiety had gotten on Buck's nerves after a while and instead of letting Ezra ride all the way to Kansas City he'd tried convincing Ezra to send a telegram instead but Ezra didn't want a cold, anonymous telegram. Ezra wanted to see for himself that his family were safe and sound and his irrational fears, the dark swirling in the pit of his stomach, were all unfounded. The cold feeling had a hard grip on him and it wouldn't let him be.
From his lazy position, just sitting and smoking and watching the world go by, Chris could see Ezra and Buck tumble out of the telegraph office, screaming at each other, mad enough to nearly come to blows until Ezra just turned on his heel and stalked off, leaving Buck to fuss and fume by himself on the sidewalk.
Chris watched Buck consider his options for a moment, then make a beeline for the saloon, Chris barring Buck's way with a booted leg lazily slipped out to stall him.
Buck glared down at the leg, then up to Larabee's all too amused eyes.
"Chris, I ain't in the mood, so you can either move or so help me I'll shoot your damn foot off."
Chris retracted the offending boot but drew himself upright as smooth as a snake, blocking Buck's path a step later, still with that shit eating grin on his face.
"You haven't told me what you did to get Ezra all riled up yet," Chris explained, wanting the story as his toll before he'd let Buck pass.
Buck scowled at him, knowing he was caught, and spat on the sidewalk in extreme annoyance.
"Ain't anything I've done, least ways he ain't blamin' me for anything. One minute we're just drinking and playing cards, the next Ezra has a damn hive of bees blownin' up his skirts over his family. He reckons something's up but the telegraph won't do, even though it's done before."
"He thinks there's trouble?" Chris's eyes had instantly narrowed, as he had never forgotten the fact that Ezra had married himself into a family that earned as much of their money under the counter as above it. If you wanted or needed something, Ezra was the man to supply it. Any vice, be it for whores, liquor, gambling or even candy, Ezra could get you exactly what you wanted, for a price.
Any services Ezra provided he did quietly and on the sly in town, but in larger towns and cities, Ezra was a partner in a number of enterprises that didn't exactly hold with the image of a lawman. However, since such enterprises were outside any jurisdiction Larabee and his regulators might hold, there wasn't a damn thing any one could do about it. Certainly any suggestions that Ezra reform his character and try to profit by more honest means had fallen on deaf ears.
Not even Buck had any real influence over Ezra's constant gambling with shady business deals. Though Buck worried and fretted he'd eventually just turned a blind eye to all of it, unable to take the high moral ground with Ezra after the unfortunate entanglement with the wife of a notorious gangster, the very same woman Ezra now called his wife. The very same woman who had encouraged Ezra in his wheeling and dealing.
Buck shrugged in answer to Chris's question, unable to answer for sure as to whether there was real trouble or if Ezra was just blowing smoke.
"What are you going to do?"
"Wait'll he cools down, then send a telegram."
"You think it's something?"
"Depends if Ezra thinks it's something," Buck shrugged again, and he followed Chris into the saloon, badly needing that drink.
Whatever Ezra was playing at, Buck didn't much care right now. He just saw it as another symptom that Ezra was bored and restless, and it wore on him.
Chris saw the tightness in his friend's face and he patted him on the shoulder lightly, wondering again why Buck had bothered to take up with Ezra when Ezra so plainly vexed him at times. Perhaps there were moments with Ezra that made it worth it.
Chris wasn't sure he'd be willing to pay the price, certainly Vin hadn't been.
Vin referred to Ezra as Coyote, the trickster spirit, always up to something
or other, always getting himself or others in trouble, a wayward child too
damn clever for his own good and always looking over the horizon, never where
Ezra was restless, reckless and exhausting to be around, yet like the coyote he was a rogue and a charmer, almost always with a twinkle in his eye, a flashing smile and a promise that he was the very answer to your prayers.
It was easy to see how Buck had been lured to the honey pot. What Chris couldn't figure was why Buck stayed. Ezra must be giving Buck what he needed, whatever it was, letting Buck hang around like an addict, desperate for his next fix.
Buck never felt like that, of course. Buck loved Ezra right down to the soles of his feet and they had an easy friendship, but sometimes Ezra just shut him out and it hurt and today was one of those times and Buck didn't know why.
Chris planted a large glass in front of Buck, a balm to sooth what ailed him, and Buck just leant into the bar and swallowed it in one tight gulp, ordering another. Chris was right, there was no real point in fretting over Ezra, better just to sit and wait for the boy to come to his senses again.
Only whatever had stirred up Ezra pricked at Buck, and the whisky sat sour and burning in his empty stomach, churning over as he imagined all the reasons why Ezra had suddenly wanted to leave so badly.
Ezra was furiously saddling his horse, taking out all his anger on the dumb animal. Fortunately Ezra's horse was used to both Ezra's moods and Ezra's hasty exits and so it endured its current treatment, ears flat back, tail flicking, saving its revenge for later.
"If you want to go, go, I've never kept you here," Buck drawled from just outside the livery, hidden in shadows.
"Like hell," Ezra growled viciously against his animal's quivering flanks.
Buck came into the circle of lamplight at that, both dumbfounded and distressed by Ezra's behaviour. One minute everything had been right between them, the next moment Ezra was as jumpy as if somebody had slipped a scorpion down his shirts, hissing and spitting vinegar, fretting over his family but not willing to sit and wait for a telegram. Nothing was going to stop Ezra riding out of here, probably forever, and Buck knew it. He could see it quite clearly in Ezra's eyes. He just wanted to know what he'd done to deserve this.
"Tell me what I did to hold you down, Darlin', because I promised you I'd never do that," Buck asked softly, and his low soft voice got under Ezra's skin as it always did, he could see that boy wriggling over that itch from where he stood.
Ezra stilled for a terrible moment, then turned to face him. "You kept me here. You know you kept me here, long after all sensible fools would have departed. I know you'll never leave Chris as long as he draws breath, and I could never leave you."
"Chris, what the hell has Chris got to do with this? He been at you again Ezra because I swear, friend or not, I'll cut him if he -"
"No." Ezra almost wailed, his fists pressed against his saddle. Damn Buck for being thicker than a root cellar door at times.
"It has nothing to do with Chris, it has nothing to do with you. It's just -"
"Just what, Ezra?" Buck's need to hold onto to Ezra, to understand, warred with his increasing irritation at the situation. Damn if Ezra wasn't the most contrary man, and a part of Buck wondered if this sudden drama wasn't just another invention of Ezra's to relieve the boredom of being stuck in a small, too small town that was barely more than a trading post in the middle of nowhere.
Ezra wilted, the fight leaching out of him. He spoke quietly, forcing Buck to listen, really listen.
"You ever felt the air before a storm, the way it gets low and heavy and you know something terrible is coming? You try and shake it and even if you can't see the dark clouds rolling in you can't lose the sense of foreboding, the sense that by the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes." He glanced up at Buck. "That's how I feel. I know I've played with the cards and you all think it's a trick, and I know none of you will ever believe any word that falls from my lips, but believe me when I say I know something dreadful is going to happen. I can feel it deep in my bones, and not you, not even Mr Larabee, are going to stop me from riding out of here. I can feel it, Buck. Something bad is coming."
Those last words were a plea, for understanding, for sympathy, for companionship.
Buck shrugged, not about to let Ezra ride out of here alone into god only knew what, and he knew enough of Ezra's hunches now to take him seriously, even if he always teased him for them. Maybe it was his gambler's sense, or just simple survival, but Ezra had a nose for trouble, and Buck wasn't about to doubt him now.
"You ain't riding out here alone. Not if you think there's trouble and even if there weren't. We're friends, you and I, and friends ride together."
Ezra could have melted into Buck's arms, but didn't. He needed all his strength, but he was glad for Buck's, always there when he needed it most, always given without question or cost.
"What about our friend Mr Larabee, won't he be annoyed if you suddenly ride off with me?"
"Oh, I'm not planning to ride off with you alone." Buck whistled to the stable boy who had been loitering just out of earshot as the two men had argued.
A quick nod was all it took for Buck to relay his message to Chris via the boy, and Ezra realised he was no longer setting out alone. Ezra crackled with irritation at this delay and interference, almost hissing out his breath in his restless need to be mounted up and moving already, but the more calculating part of his brain kept reminding him that the odds were much better in his favour if he rode out with his companions, and if his fears all turned into fancies, well, they could hardly think any less of him than now. It simply wasn't possible, in his estimation.
He glanced up at Buck again, but Buck just shook off that look. They were friends and friends rode together. It was as simple as that for Buck, and he wasn't about to let Ezra complicate it.
One of these days Ezra would settle down and realise Buck loved him, no matter what, and he'd stop waiting for the other shoe to drop. Until them Buck just had to be patient, let Ezra have his head, and only reign him in when he got up to some damn fool plan like dashing off in the middle of the night without so much as a word of goodbye.
It stung Buck a little, he couldn't deny it, and he'd felt very keenly how Ezra was torn between staying here with him, or moving to some fancy city with his family. He'd thought the strings holding Ezra here had finally snapped, but things weren't that simple. Things were never just that simple with Ezra.
"Are you sure about this?" Chris asked, pulling Buck aside as men milled about horses.
"Am I sure this isn't some game of Ezra's? As sure as I can be. I know we've all seen Ezra pull his gipsy crap on people, telling them their fortunes, telling them what they want to hear, but -"
"You think he really read it in the cards?"
"You don't think it's more likely someone slipped Ezra some warning, some business rival?"
Buck shot him a harsh look.
Chris shot him an equally bitter look back.
"You know damn well Ezra's dealings are more crooked than not, you knew this might happen. You've seen disgruntled former associates of Ezra's come to town, looking to extract a little payback. What makes you think this is any different, Ezra just wanting to get out and lay low for a while?"
Buck got up right up close to Chris, cold and fierce.
"Because Ezra doesn't think they're coming after him." He shared one long, real hard meaningful look with Chris.
Chris nodded, hand gripping his saddle, ready to mount up and ride out this instant, feeling that old, dreadful ice cold terror coiling in the pit of his gut.
It had been near dusk the day they'd finally arrived at the house. There was no one in the yard and no lights in the windows. The grand, white washed two storey edifice was unnaturally quiet, the front door dark and gaping open, as if the house was locked in a long, terrible silent scream.
They'd found the maid with her throat slit in the front hallway, the blood drying in an ugly brown pool on the polished chessboard tiles. The cook was dead, too, and the two men Ezra had hired as caretakers and guardians to his household were dead in the back yard. One had been sot in the back, the other had put up quite a struggle.
Ezra had raced up the steps before they could stop him, and like the house, Ezra had been unable to give voice to his scream.
His wife was there, dead amongst the torn and bloody sheets of their bed, her clothes ripped from her, all cut to pieces.
"Get him out of here," Chris ordered, but Ezra couldn't be moved.
"Get. Him. Out." Chris hissed and Josiah knocked Ezra out with one swipe of his heavy hand, caught him and handed him off to Buck.
"Take him away from here, brother," Josiah begged of Buck softly, knowing Buck would be seeing that dead girl in that bed for the rest of his life. They all would. He gave Buck a shove towards the door.
In the child's room they found the nanny lying dead by the door.
Vin crept towards the tiny crib, peeked over the side, and wished he'd never had. He'd seen similar horrors, and the sight of it still woke him at night, but never brought upon a child that he'd dandled on his knee.
Chris saw all of the colour drain out of Vin's face.
"Who'd do that to a child?" Vin asked him, pleading with him.
"Monsters." Chris answered simply, abruptly.
JD was crouched crying in the corner, huddled over next to where he'd been sick. Chris nodded and Nathan took JD back downstairs, to sit out in the front where a few stray chickens searched the courtyard for something worth pecking. JD leant over and retched again.
It took them all night to carry the bodies down to the undertaker's cart that JD had fetched, irritated by the constant suggestions from the local police chief that Ezra's wife had turned his house into a brothel and a gaming house, and this had been the natural outcome.
They'd had to restrain Chris physically from killing the man if he'd called Ezra's wife a whore one more time. They all knew Charity had entertained gentleman callers on the side, but as lovers, never paying customers. It was a fine but important distinction. She had her lovers and Ezra had Buck and it had suited them fine. They were sure Charity would have never let a man into the house who could have done this.
Josiah had tenderly carried Charity's body downstairs, wrapped in a clean sheet. He'd prayed for her as they'd loaded her onto the cart with the rest, Vin placing a tiny bundle beside her. Josiah had no words to offer up for the child, struck into silence. He could only touch the child's body and wish it peace. He'd buried children before, too many, but they'd died of fever of starvation, never anything like this.
They'd shut up the house, leaving Vin and Chris to guard it, while Josiah, JD and Nathan had followed the police chief and undertaker back into town.
Buck had checked into one of Ezra's part owned hotels, standing guard outside the door of one of the best rooms.
"How is he?" Nathan asked of Buck.
Buck was slumped against the door, head bowed. "I think you can give him more of what he needs than I can," Buck murmured quietly, his eyes flicking to Nathan's medical bag.
Nathan nodded opened the door, finding Ezra curled on one side in the bed, the sheets balled in his hands, not moving or saying a word. Shattered furniture and broken glass swept into the corner showed testament to an earlier rage.
Ezra ignored Nathan, not caring at all as Nathan gave him a healthy dose of morphine to quiet him for the night. Nathan wished he could do more for Ezra, but that was more Josiah's area than his. He shook his head and took his leave.
"He'll sleep now," he advised Buck and gently guided Buck downstairs for some medicinal brandy, because in all his time in the man's company, Nathan had never seen Buck look so wretched.
Vin hunched over the small fire he'd managed to get started, unable to get warm. He and Chris were both going to sleep out in the open, neither having the stomach to stay in the house. The whole place was haunted by the angry ghosts of the newly dead. Even without seeing what he'd seen, Vin would have known something terrible had happened here. It had that sense about it.
They were here to see that nothing more was touched, that Ezra's fine things weren't looted, not that they thought Ezra cared much one way or the other right now. In the morning they'd begin closing up the house properly, disposing of the property and hunting for clues, if any remained, as to who could have done such a terrible thing. Neither wanted to say it, but they both knew their first thought was probably the right one, that this had been done by a business rival of Ezra's. Someone had resented Ezra's hostile takeover of the Nicholls organisation and they'd sent him a message. This was the first act in a criminal gang war. They'd turned a blind eye to Ezra's illicit activities for too long.
The time had come for Ezra to choose between being a lawman or a law breaker. They'd stand by him, if he chose to walk away now, but if he embroiled himself in this war, they would have no part in it.
Chris was smoking quietly, watching the flames dance, looking as raw and exposed as Vin had ever seen him. Then Vin remembered with a shock what Chris was seeing in the flames: the murder of his own wife and child.
"Chris," Vin tried, but Chris shook his head. He wasn't given to words, and no words could describe what the day had dredged up, memories he'd thought long buried and forgotten. Chris took another bitter swallow from the one bottle he'd taken from the house, not thinking Ezra would mind, or care.
Vin studied the man and realised that's why Chris had volunteered himself for this duty. In town he'd be too tempted to burn his anger and bury his grief, and Buck was in no shape to bring Chris back from the brink this time. Chris knew this and he'd chosen to isolate himself out here instead, where he could sit and try to smother the churning emotions himself.
Losing himself was easy, composing himself took much more steel and grit, yet Chris had to, he had no choice. He had to be there, to hold the team together, for Buck's sake. He owed him that much, at the very least. It was time for Chris to stand up for Buck, no matter how much it hurt.
Chris wasn't the man they'd first encountered: a sullen loner prone to exploding in insane fits of rage when his blood was up, the moon was high and he'd been drinking hard. The Chris Larabee sitting by the flames now was a bitterly wounded man, but with a quietness and strength about him that drew Vin in. Vin could imagine a Chris less hardened by life, more given to smiling and laughing, and he could well imagine how Buck and Sarah had fallen in love with him.
Vin watched the flames with Chris, neither man wanting to talk. It was enough to share the silence. The fire crackled and popped in the darkness and they huddled close, all too aware of the night pressing in around them, and waited for the first light of morning.
Nathan had to take spell sitting down. He cursed himself for his squeamishness. It wasn't like he hadn't cut up anybody he'd known before, nor should he let the decomposing state of the bodies get to him, but it did. He'd seem some terrible, terrible things in his time as a slave and a stretcher bearer in the war. He'd seen murders and butchery and animal cruelty, but this had to be close to the worst thing that he'd ever seen. He'd heard of such things happening, but he'd never really seen it this close, and never to somebody he'd known, to a child he had delivered with his own hands.
He bent forward, still feeling slightly faint, his empty stomach rising and falling, the outrage in his heart growing second by second. He'd known Ezra's wife had been brutally raped before the animals had started cutting into her, and probably during. That much he'd known just from seeing the way the body had been spread out on the blood soaked bed. But the child, what monster would do that to a child, Ezra's child? Dear god, that there were such people in the world.
He schooled himself, made himself bite down on all his churning emotions, and went back to his job of cataloguing each terrible wound before the bodies were decently buried. He'd tell Chris what he'd found, but he knew Ezra must never know. The thought came unbidden to him that Ezra might already know, because Ezra, like Vin, missed very little, and Ezra, as much as Nathan and Josiah chided him, always looked for the worst in a man's nature.
The thought stayed Nathan's hand for a moment. Ezra knew what they'd done to his wife and his baby daughter. Dear god, what must Ezra have felt when he saw them. Nathan was glad he'd given Ezra some release this night.
It was true Ezra had only married Charity for the enterprises she had inherited from the gang war she'd had a part in starting. She was quick and ruthless and so very beautiful and Ezra had found his match in her. He'd fallen in love with her in his own way, more as a brother than a lover, but there had been no doubt that his affection for her was real, and returned in kind. The child had sprung from the legal requirement that their marriage be consummated, and Ezra had lavished all the love and attention on his child that he himself had been denied. And now they'd been taken from him in one brutal gesture. No matter what Ezra's wife might have done, no woman deserved to die as she had.
Nathan shook his head. No matter how much he disapproved of Ezra's financial interests, Ezra's dubious business dealings did not require a payment for his transgressions in the loss of his family, especially not like this.
It was a slow, long and sombre trip back into town. Everyone knew Ezra was grieving hard so they left him well alone.
Ezra had doted on his baby daughter, as proud as any pappa, spoiling her with lace dresses and silver hair brushes and promenading her up and down the town when his family had come to visit. Now all he had of his darling Amber was a photograph and a lock of hair, and a terrible regret that he'd not moved his family here, to be with him. But both he and Charity had enjoyed their freedoms and had thought nothing of their visits between this town and Kansa City. They had been such a match for each other, the gambler and the actress, much more like siblings in looks and manner than lovers. For a sham marriage born of convenience, they'd shared more love and respect than most other marriages people could think of.
There was nothing Ezra could have done, even if he had been there. He'd have probably died trying, as Chris and Buck reminded him, but it didn't make the what ifs any less painful or real in his mind, as he played over and over in his mind what he could have done differently to save the life of his only child.
Ezra was sitting on the edge of his quilted bed, turning the tiny silver hairbrush over and over in his hands. There were still a few wisps of strawberry blonde hair caught in the brush.
Tenderly Buck caught the brush and pulled it away from Ezra's hands, setting it down carefully on the dresser.
"Time to go," he offered quietly.
Ezra gazed up at him with eyes so burnt full of sadness. There was nothing Buck could say or do to ease the pain he saw there.
"Come on." He pulled Ezra gently to his feet. "Everybody's waiting." He fussed with Ezra's best mourning coat, brushing it down.
Ezra led the way out of the room in a sombre procession, a procession that lasted all the way to the cemetery.
It was a cold sharp wind that ripped across the plains, biting into raw, exposed skin. The grass was brown and withered as far as the eye could see, the trees were stripped bare early this year, skinned and shivering.
Chris dipped the brim of his hat, trying to deflect the wind that stung tears in his eyes. He was cold, ice cold, and so empty, watching the tiny coffin lowered down into the ground to rest with a clumsy clump on top of the larger one. He turned away as the first shovel of hard baked dirt rattled down on the polished wooden boxes, remembering two coffins, hand hewn from burnt timbers, being dropped into holes he'd dug himself with blistered, bleeding hands.
He'd never forgotten how the tiny box had weighed almost nothing. He gazed across at Ezra. Ezra knew that now, how a child's coffin weighed nothing, how you had nothing left to hold in your hands. They were burying Ezra's family on this cold and bitter afternoon. There were no sounds, other than the soft thuds of soil slowly filling the holes.
It had happened in a heartbeat. Ezra had married for money but friendship then a child had followed. Ezra had adored his wife and baby daughter, even though they lived in Kansas City, where his wife's business interests lay. She ran her business under Ezra's name, but it wasn't enough to protect her. Ezra's family had been brutally murdered, just to let Ezra know a business rival had his eye on the prize. Right now business was the last thing on Ezra's mind.
Right now Chris doubted there was anything left functioning in Ezra's mind. Dosed to the eyeballs by Nathan, lest anyone be distressed by the sight of unseemly grieving, and gently manoeuvred into position by Buck like an automaton, anyone could tell just by looking at Ezra that he'd gone away. Ezra would remember this day for the rest of his life, but for now, he wasn't here, and there were no words to speak, no tears to cry.
As the solemn party walked slowly back to town Chris watched as Buck remained by Ezra's side, protecting him like a faithful dog and growling at anyone who got too close. Chris envied the arm Buck kept around Ezra's shoulders and he bitterly regretted having pushed Buck away with words, fists and even bullets when he'd needed him most. Buck could have offered him comfort like this, if only Chris had been left with enough sense to let him.
Only he hadn't and he'd nearly destroyed their friendship in his grief. Chris watched Ezra and he envied him in a terrible way. Ezra had a circle of friends all doing what they could to ease him through this, and Chris wondered again if the dark demons that burned in his nightmares might have been banked down to embers if he'd just let Buck hold him the way he saw Buck holding Ezra now.
Buck left Ezra lying alone in the middle of their bed, helpless to do anything, and quietly exited the room. He found Chris and Vin waiting on the landing, sympathy etched in their faces.
"How is he?" Vin had to ask, knowing he was intruding, but fretting over Ezra's wellbeing too much not to.
Buck exhaled, leant back against the door and shook his head.
"I don't know. He's barely said a word to me."
"Man's grievin'," Chris surmised bluntly.
Buck shot him a look and Vin could see a lot of history, bad history, ripple between Chris and Buck without a word being spoken. This whole business had stirred up dark memories for both men. Chris was revisiting old hurts and Buck, Buck was just torn apart. Bad enough he'd had to help Chris bury his family, now he'd helped bury Ezra's family, too. Buck had lost his friendship with Chris over the graves of his wife and child, and it had taken him a long time to earn it back.
Buck was scared he'd lose Ezra just the same way. He was afraid he was cursed. Both times he'd kept the men from their families, both times he'd accepted more than his share of the blame. Buck was grieving almost as hard as Ezra. He'd not only been a part of the strange little family, there'd been some thought that the child might have actually been his, until she'd popped out all orange curls, bright green eyes and dimples. There had been no doubt as to who her father was after that. It hadn't stopped Buck doting on her and spoiling her rotten.
As unlikely as it was, Ezra had fathered a daughter. Now she had been taken from him, and Buck held himself to blame, keeping Ezra in town, keeping Ezra with him when he should have been in Kansas City with his family. That Ezra and Charity had been happy to lead their independent lives made no nevermind any more. Ezra had lost his family, and now Buck feared he was losing Ezra, piece by piece, moment by moment. The closed door between them was only the start. He'd been through this all before. Chris had fought hard against his grief, getting bitter drunk and mean, rather than Ezra's eerily quiet acceptance, but the sentiment had been the same. Chris was too often reminded of his loss when he looked at Buck. Now Ezra would be the same.
Chris saw all this pass through Buck's eyes and he reached out, placing a hand on Buck's shoulder.
"Weren't your fault. You couldn't have known. You can't be responsible for what some crazy murdering bastard has done."
Another long look passed between the two men, and Vin could see Buck grab onto Chris' forgiveness with both hands, lean and sparing though it was. He turned into Chris, and Chris, never one to give much of himself these days, held him tight, knowing he needed to do this, as much for his own sake as for Buck's.
"Weren't your fault," he soothed, brushing his cheek against Buck's. Gently, he made Buck look at him and pay him mind. "Weren't your fault. You couldn't have known. We all pretend like we've got forever."
Buck buried his face into Chris' shoulder's and let a dreadful sob loose, and Chris was about the only thing holding him up.
Embarrassed by the breaking of the dam of emotions between Buck and Chris, Vin slipped quietly into Ezra's room. He sat quietly on the bed and ran a hand along Ezra's arm, just so he'd know he was there in the dim gloom. Not that Ezra wasn't perfectly aware of Vin, he just didn't have the strength to react.
Vin began rubbing his hand down Ezra's back, as though calming a spooked horse, and Ezra rolled over at last, though whether to stop him or to acknowledge him, Vin wasn't sure. He couldn't see Ezra's face, not clearly in the darkness, only the white of his shirt, now slightly rumpled.
Vin wanted to light a lamp but he knew that was the last thing Ezra needed. He could feel Ezra watching him with those eyes that saw more than they ever let on. That was one of the few things they had in common.
Vin knew now it would have never have worked out between Ezra and him. He loved the feel and smell of Ezra but Ezra was so different, a breed apart from Vin Tanner. Ezra was a fancy city boy through and through and at least in Buck Ezra had someone more than capable of helping him run his enterprises. Vin was barely literate and he knew he'd have never have been able to help out Ezra the way Buck did.
His feelings for Ezra had never gone away, though. They'd banked down, but he still felt their warmth like an old hearth. Ezra must have felt the same way because he reached out a hand to Vin in a wordless gesture. Vin took it and held it and lay down beside Ezra, holding him close. There was nothing overtly sexual in his embrace, only comfort. Ezra needed to feel the living warmth of someone who loved him. Only wrapped in Vin's arms did Ezra finally manage to fall asleep.
When Vin finally came back down the stairs he found Chris and Buck still in the hotel, eating dinner. It seemed odd to be dining at such a time, but Chris had insisted, stating with authority that sadness was more bitter on an empty stomach.
Buck sat up properly and regarded Vin coldly. He didn't ask if Vin had fucked Ezra. He didn't want to know, but if he had it was just one more step that Ezra had taken away from him.
Chris knew Buck's thoughts and squeezed his shoulder in a small gesture of sympathy.
A wall Vin had never even noticed had broken down between Chris and Buck. They were close, sharing thoughts with just a look, the way he and Chris had. Vin suddenly realised he'd been usurped in his position by Chris's side, or rather, Buck had regained his rightful place.
It wasn't just a sexual vibe between the two men, it was love, and a friendship and history that was five times deeper than anything he and Chris had managed so far.
Buck went back to eating, not saying anything, but silently blessing Chris for his wisdom. The beer and potatoes were cushioning the pain he felt inside.
Chris flicked a glance at Vin, inviting him to sit at his left. He didn't much want to care about what had passed between Vin and Ezra upstairs either.
"He's asleep," Vin offered.
Buck nodded and Chris gave Vin a searching look, one Vin couldn't answer, not just yet.
Buck pushed his plate away suddenly, unable to eat any more.
"Where you going?" Chris asked, concerned at the sudden abrupt change in Buck's mood.
Buck wiped his mouth and threw his napkin down on the table. "Just goin' ta check on him."
"But he's asleep," Vin protested.
"I'll be quiet," Buck informed him primly, pushing back his seat.
"He's just gonna wake him up again," Vin sulked, watching Buck walk up the stairs.
"Don't you go getting yourself involved," Chris warned.
Vin flicked him a reproachful look, one meant to remind Chris to mind his own words, but it washed off Chris like water. Chris was too busy nursing his shot glass, considering the colour. An awkward silence fell between them, the first awkward silence, ever.
Vin picked at the table cloth uneasily, wishing to restore his former ease with Chris, but unsure how to, when Buck broke the silence, thundering down the steps again, taking them two and three at a time.
Chris was on his feet instantly.
"Buck?" he asked, fearing the worst.
"He's gone," Buck managed. "The little bastard's up and gone - out the window - like a thief."
Chris bit back the usual retort that rose by instinct, slipping instantly into his leadership role.
"He can't have gotten too far. Vin, you ride with me. Buck -"
"I'm going." Buck insisted darkly.
"I need you here." Chris tried to placate him.
"I'm not going to lose him," Buck ground out, and Chris knew nothing short of a knock on the head was going to stop Buck coming after them, and probably not even then.
"Alright, but if Ezra don't want to come back, you let him be." Chris warned.
Buck nodded curtly. "You reckon you know what he's up to."
"I reckon I might have an idea," Chris countered, and Buck fell silent.
Ezra and Chris, they'd been burnt by the same pain. Chris alone understood
the demons that were now driving Ezra across the desert this night.