Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven and Penance are owned by lots of good people, namely MGM, CBS, TNN, John Watson, Mirsch/Trilogy and many others I don’t know (including the wonderful people who wrote the episode). Quite obviously, I will remain just as debt ridden after this is posted as I am now, as no money will ever be made except in my dreams. As before, I also know I borrowed some things from other fan fiction writers, I just can’t recall now who. As many have acknowledged, Chaucer is Kristen’s creation, Silace (the undertaker) is also someone else’s, and Yosemite is, well, Yosemite’s. Any other names I borrowed, well, you’ll figure out who you are and thank you.
Notes: Ezra’s reaction in Penance always bothered me a bit, so I made this up to take place on the same day as Irene’s body is found. The gold band on his wedding finger is another puzzle, so I had a bit of fun. The Lady Heather, well, she’s all mine.
Spoilers: Penance and Manhunt. Also, there are bits in this that refer to other stories of mine that I haven’t posted yet, but they shouldn’t effect it.
Penance – Missing Scene
He gripped the bridge of his nose tightly, focusing his attention on keeping the pressure between his forefinger and thumb constant in a vain attempt to prevent himself from keeling over. The smell of her dried blood assaulted his equilibrium, and he was only barely aware of the murmuring of the crowd around him. His eyes, normally open and bright, were shut firmly closed, his mind afraid of what he would see. Already his traitorous memory had conjured up images of Heather, and he couldn’t trust his vision to not place her face over that of the woman lying before him.
In the background, he became aware that Chris’s voice had joined the others, its tense inflections rising above the harsh wind and dust. He heard Nathan tell the gunslinger that the murdered woman’s name was Irene Dunlap, the local seamstress, and Vin added that JD had gone to tell her folks. Grasping onto the professional tone of Nathan’s and Vin’s responses to Chris’s questions, he gathered his mind to him and tried to imitate their posture. A question floated down to where he knelt by the body, and he answered it.
"Those silver dollars?" Chris asked.
"They appear to be freshly minted, but the dates on them say they’re six years old. Seems he saved them for just such an occasion." Silently, Ezra applauding himself for his poise. However, opening his eyes again to look down at the coins covering her eyes had indeed been a mistake. The world began to spin around him. In the background he heard Mary’s sad voice asking if they shouldn’t get the poor girl off the street, and he seized the opportunity like Tantalus seizing the apple.
"I’ll see to it," he said abruptly, jumping up quickly, almost running in his need to get away. He dove through the crowd, never hearing the arrival of the Pinkerton detective as the newcomer ordered the others to back away from the body.
By the time he reached Silace’s, his steps were more even and his balance returned. The undertaker was standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame, his face a mask of professionalism.
"You need a box?" the old man asked quietly, his voice as aged as old paper.
Ezra nodded, and followed the man inside. He was only vaguely aware as Buck and some of the other townsfolk joined him to help. Silace pointed to a box in the corner, and Ezra immediately went to grab a handle, his eyes deliberately avoiding looking at the knives and other implements of Silace’s trade that hung about the black room, glittering brightly in the lamplight. Meanwhile, Silace moved to put on his black top hat and undertaker’s jacket, and proceeded to brush the clothes down with a handy wire brush. Not that it mattered, the wind outside was preventing anyone from being clean.
When they returned to the scene, Ezra yelled out for the gawkers to step aside, his anger at their morbid curiosity burning away some of the sickness he felt. As they pushed through, he did not look around at the blur of faces, his subconscious only cataloguing who they were on the basis of a handful of trademark accessories. Vaguely, his green eyes caught the glint of Mary’s magnifying glass where it hung from her neck, the thick long brown hair and beard of Yosemite blowing in the breeze where he helped to make room for the pall bearers, the black of Chris’s clothes as the gunslinger stood over them, his presence always making him appear taller in moments like this.
The gambler dropped the box next to her body, and heard himself telling the others to "watch it, be careful with the poor thing, go easy now," and various other throw away remarks, as if they could possibly damage her further. Once she was laid down inside, he reached to take the handle again, but felt another’s hand on his. Looking up, he found Nathan looking at him, his large brown eyes appearing to look directly into his soul.
"I got it," the healer whispered kindly, taking the handle and lifting. Ezra hung his head, hiding his face beneath the brim of his hat. Clearly, he was not hiding his discomfort as well as he would have liked. Moving slowly, he followed the others as they carried the box away, unable to focus on anything except the need to keep moving.
The street seemed to quiet down as the body was taken away, and while people continued to stare, the expressions no longer betrayed that awful curiosity, only sadness. Ezra nodded at them as he walked past though he didn’t make eye contact, and they nodded back just as perfunctorily.
When they reached the undertaker’s, he watched as the other men placed Irene’s body on the central table in that cold room, Silace’s knives and saws hanging above her body like a mobile over a baby’s crib. He was abruptly reminded of the time he’d placed the missionary’s daughter Claire on that table six months ago, and it made him shiver slightly. He hadn’t been able to look at anyone in the face that time either, knowing that every emotion he felt was visible for the world too see.
The other men stepped away, Buck briefly grasping Ezra’s arm in his hand as he headed out. Only Nathan remained, the healer staring down at the body quietly, his brown eyes calm and clear. The black man was obviously searching the body for clues as to what had happened, his medical skills affording him a level of detachment. Ezra moved to stand on the other side of the table, forcing himself to look down at her, berating himself for his weakness.
She was just another death, something this town saw often enough, something that Ezra himself made a living from. Both as a lawmen and as a gambler, he’d been party to the death of so many, and he rarely felt any remorse or guilt at their deaths. The guns he wore were testament to the sort of man he was – hell, he carried more weapons on his person than any of the others, except possible Nathan, whose arsenal of knives would put Silace’s collection to shame.
But this was different. It always was when the victim was both innocent…and a woman.
He took off his hat, running the brim around in his fingers, and realized he was barely holding on. How could anyone do this?
Suddenly, Silace was there, running the measuring tape across her shoulders to measure her for a casket. The action was so cold that Ezra found himself lashing out with his hand, roughly pushing the man back.
"Do you mind?" he said curtly, forcing Silace back. The undertaker simply raised an eyebrow in his direction and shrugged, then looked askance at Nathan before walking away. Looking over at the healer himself, Ezra noted the questioning look, and attempted to cover up the myriad of emotions crossing his face.
"Vulture," he said, looking back down at Irene. Why were they all so desirous to simply put her in the ground and forget about her? She deserved more than that, surely. Just as Heather had deserved more.
"Just doing his job," Nathan responded quietly.
"Yeah, well, he could…could show a little respect," came the tense reply.
Nathan nodded, not understanding why Ezra was still here. He could see that the man was not dealing well with this girl’s death. In fact, her couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Ezra looking so…pained. He felt it better to just agree with the gambler’s opinion, and perhaps try in some way to offer Ezra a bit of the same detachment he felt. He sighed.
"Yeah…" he said, leaning over the body, and indicated to the slit on her throat with his fingers like a teacher pointing out a math problem to a child. Ezra’s eyes followed the movement as he gripped his hat in his hands, his fingers nervously playing with the brim.
"We got a strong hand," Nathan began slowly ignoring Ezra’s nervous twitching, "sharp blade…a single cut from right to left. Could be our man’s, uh…."
"Left-handed," agreed a voice from the door. "I see you’re a student of pathology."
"I learn as I go," Nathan replied slowly, turning to the intruder. Ezra looked up, slightly confused. Who was this? He vaguely remembered someone in the crowd yelling at them to be careful as they moved the body, because "he would want to examine the body later." Was this that same man?
The newcomer stepped forward and removed his hat, and Nathan’s deference to him made Ezra realize that this was probably some sort of lawman or detective. But there was something odd about the man’s eyes….They did not appear simply detached from the gruesome scene before him, as Nathan’s were, rather they seemed almost… disembodied.
"Can we turn her over please? There may be some bruises from where he grabbed her," the man continued, looking down at Irene. Ezra looked to Nathan for guidance, and the healer nodded back at him, telling him it was okay.
"Yeah. Could tell us the size of the hands."
Swallowing the bile that rose to his throat, the gambler told himself to stop being silly and do his job. He placed his hat on the ground and leaned over to grab Irene about the shoulders in order to lift her and reveal her back. Nathan crouched down to look at the marks. Just then, an audible gasp filled the room, causing everyone to look up. Nathan’s jaw fell.
"Nathan….They said you were here. I’m…sorry….I did not realize." The pretty girl backed away from the sight of the murdered woman, and pushing the curtains aside roughly, dashed back outside.
Ezra swallowed harshly as he straightened up, and looked across at Nathan as they gently dropped Irene back down. "Isn’t that your charming paramour from the Seminole Village?" he asked weakly. "She’s a long way from home."
Nathan just looked back at him, the shock still plain on his face. Then, without a word, the healer spun around and dashed outside after the girl, calling her name.
Ezra watched him go, his heart begging the man to stay, but unable to utter such a childish plea. And it was childish. Infantile. He gritted his teeth, and turned his gaze to the newcomer. The detective, if that was what he was, approached the table and returned the gaze calmly.
"I take it from the clothes you wear that you are not the undertaker," the man said slowly.
Ezra inclined his head, "Quite right, sir. I am, uh, a member of the law here."
The man raised an eyebrow, clearly surprised. "Really. Well then, may I ask your name?"
"Standish, and yours?"
"Poplar, Cyrus Poplar, of the Pinkerton Agency….So, Mr. Standish, can we turn her over?"
Ezra grimaced, and looked back down at the woman. With Nathan gone, he saw no reason to further punish himself. "Actually, Mr. Poplar, I think that Silace may be the best one to help you out." He called loudly for the undertaker before Poplar could disagree, and the man in question quickly scuttled back into the room just as Ezra bent down to retrieve his hat.
"You finished now?" Silace asked, a sarcastic tone edging his voice.
Ezra just tensed his jaw, not answering. Looking back at Poplar, he once more shuddered at the blank expression in the man’s ice blue eyes, but put the feeling to one side. He was obviously not thinking clearly, and was likely reading hidden meanings where they did not exist. The detective nodded at him, telling him his departure was fine, dismissing him. Ezra nodded back, and stepped away from the table and over to the door, brushing Silace’s arm rudely as he squeezed past the undertaker.
"Mr. Standish, a moment!" Poplar called, stopping the gambler and causing him to turn around. The detective licked his dry lips. "Is Mr. Sanchez a friend of yours?"
Ezra frowned at the non sequitur. "Josiah? I suppose. Why?"
Poplar shrugged. "Oh nothing. Just curious. Know him well, do you?"
Ezra’s eyes narrowed, his own discomfort momentarily forgotten. "I’m afraid I do not understand the purpose of your questioning, Mr. Poplar. If, for some strange reason, you have arrived at the obviously erroneous impression that Mr. Sanchez may have had something to do with this…this…" He waved at the dead woman and paused, suddenly aware that Silace had tipped her head to the side so that she seemed to be listening to Ezra’s words, though her eyes were still closed. In that moment, the horrible nature of her death came crashing into him once again. His jaw shook slightly, and when he looked back at Poplar, all the assurance he’d felt a moment before had faded from his eyes.
"Please…excuse me, sir. I am afraid that I not going to be of much help to you at the moment." With a brief nod, he left, unable to spend another second in that place.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
The loud knock on his bedroom door a couple of hours later startled Ezra so badly that he nearly lost control of the half empty bottle of Red Eye he was holding. Gripping it tighter to his chest, he silently hoped that the person, whoever they were, would go away. He closed his eyes as he anticipated the next round of knocking, his body shaking slightly. He started to count seconds, just as one would between a lightening bolt and its accompanying sound of thunder.
One, one thousand…
Two, one thousand…
BANG! BANG! BANG! BANGABANGABANG!…..BANG!
Go away! He begged silently. Please, just go away!
A couple of seconds later, he cocked an eye open. Maybe, just maybe…
"DAMNIT EZRA! OPEN THIS DAMN DOOR OR I’M GONNA BREAK IT DOWN, HEAR?"
"How could I not, Buck," Ezra whispered, dropping his head forward onto the bed. He’d been sitting cross-legged with his back to the headboard, a bottle of Red Eye in his lap and a deck of cards fully laid out in front of him, face down. Now, after putting his head forward, he looked like he was bowing to the door before him.
"EZRA…" Buck’s voice warned, "You make me break this down and I ain’t gonna pay for it."
"ITS OPEN!" Ezra yelled back, sitting up once more, and quietly added, "you rat infested sack of manure."
"Oh," Buck turned the knob and entered the dark room, a sheepish grin on his face. "So it is."
He quickly noted that, though the windows were cracked open slightly, Ezra had his shades pulled down. The wind howled through the slits, giving the room a haunted quality. Grimacing, Buck immediately walked to the window facing the street, shutting it and pulling up the blinds. Ezra didn’t protest, though he squinted slightly at the sudden increase of light. Buck followed through with the two windows facing the alley.
"That’s better," the ladies man grinned into the air, heading over to the bed. Ezra watched him approach warily, like a caged animal. Ignoring the black look, Buck simply pulled the rocking chair over away from the alley window and brought it next to the bed.
"Whatcha doin?" he asked innocently, looking at the cards all laid out. He noticed Ezra had them in eight rows, alternating six and seven cards per row. Several cards had been displaced and put aside, leaving random holes in the pattern.
Ezra’s jaw tensed, and his voice was strained as he answered. "A child’s game, Mr. Wilmington, to tax the memory."
Buck’s eyes narrowed slightly, and he pursed his lips. "How’s it work?"
Sighing heavily, Ezra opened his left hand to reveal two dice. "I roll the dice for a number between one and fourteen…"
"fourteen?" Buck interrupted.
"Two to ten for the number cards. Eleven to fourteen for the face cards."
"As I was saying…."
"But two dice. How can you get a number higher than twelve?"
Ezra gritted his teeth before replying. "If I roll a number I have already played, Mr. Wilmington, then I treat that as thirteen. The next time, I treat it as fourteen. And, before you ask, the time after that, I simply roll again." He paused, exhaling loudly as he took a swig of Red Eye. "Now, as I was saying, in order to play the game, I roll the dice for a number, then attempt to recall where those cards lay in the pattern before me. They are randomly arranged. I only looked at them once before I put them face down."
Buck nodded. "Sounds like fun. Can I play?"
Ezra glanced at him, raising an eyebrow. "I wouldn’t recommend it."
"Oh, come on. I reckon my memory’s pretty good."
"Mr. Wilmington, you can barely remember the name of the woman you slept with last night."
Buck glared at him. "Not that its any of your business, but it was Cherise. But that ain’t here nor there. C’mon, let me have a go."
Ezra watched him for a moment, his face a mask of forced indifference. "Mr. Wilmington, shall I show you why you will fail?"
"Pick a number. Any number. Except eight and three, as I have already picked those out."
Buck screwed up his face, and his voice took on a suspicious quality. "Well, I ain’t gonna say eleven, twelve or thirteen, cause the face cards are too easy."
Ezra rolled his eyes, but shrugged. Buck thought for a moment, then grinned.
"Six," he said decisively.
Ezra nodded, and looked at the cards before him. He placed the dice on the bedspread to free his left hand (the right was still firmly gripping the neck of the Red Eye), and ran it once above the cards. Then, it rapid succession, he turned over four cards…every one of them a six. Buck whistled as Ezra pulled them out and placed them on the discard pile.
"Not bad. How ‘bout two?"
Ezra didn’t reply, simply repeated the motion, except, this time, he hesitated on the last card. His hand shook as he considered two cards next to each other. Finally, he upturned the one on the left…to reveal a ten.
"HELL!" the gambler yelled, banging the bedspread next to his knee with his fist. Buck recoiled slightly from the extreme reaction, then reached over to turn up the other card. It was the last two. He pulled it out and turned the ten back over.
"Shoulda gone with your first instinct," he suggested quietly.
"Why don’t you just f--k off!" Ezra shouted in response, turning bloodshot eyes on the ladies man. Buck sat back and returned the stare guilelessly, clearly not going anywhere. After a moment, Ezra turned away and closed his eyes, taking another swig of the Red Eye. Holding the bottle close to him, the gambler soon had his breathing back under control. Buck quietly admired the effort, knowing he himself could rarely keep his rage that much in check, especially not with almost a full bottle of rat gut whiskey inside of him. Ezra’s green eyes opened again, and he stared down at the cards. His left hand picked up the dice, and he started to shake them.
"Why are you here?" he asked, his voice now at a more controlled level as he loosed the dice onto the bedspread. A six and a five.
Buck shrugged. "Inez said you had two bottles of Red Eye up here. Thought I’d just help you drink them." He watched as Ezra reached out and plucked all four jacks out with ease.
Ezra squinted, then gave a short laugh, before taking another swig. "I am not amused, Mr. Wilmington." He picked the dice up again.
"For Christ’s sake, Ezra, this ‘Mr. Wilmington’ stuff it is getting old. You address me proper, or I’m going to have to shoot you."
"Fine…Buck….Now get the hell out of my room." He loosed the dice once more. A six and a four.
"I know where one of the tens is," Buck smiled, trying to lighten the mood as he pointed to the card. Ezra gave a short laugh, and turned over the one next to it. Buck jumped slightly as he realized he’d made a mistake.
"How the…? Hell, I coulda sworn…"
"I memorize cards for a living, Mr. Wilmington, and have had a lifetime of practice. Don’t worry about it," the gambler replied quietly. Buck smiled crookedly and shook his head. He looked up at Ezra, and noted that the younger man was now staring out the window, the dice forgotten in his hand. Buck swallowed.
"But I do worry, Ez, it’s in my nature." His smile fell as watched the younger man drink again from the bottle, finishing it. Ezra dropped the empty bottle onto the floor, and reached down to pick up the other one, his actions so smooth that the cards on the bedspread barely moved. Buck took in a deep breath, and Ezra tensed slightly, knowing what was coming.
"Listen, Ezra…I came because I saw how you reacted to Miss Irene’s death. I just wanted to make sure you were alright."
Ezra didn’t reply, just turned to stare calmly at Buck with dull green eyes. The ladies man continued, his own eyes narrowing slightly at the other’s subterfuge.
"Look, when Claire Mosely was murdered, I was there with you, remember? I remember the way you looked when they brought her in, and the way you couldn’t look at anyone for hours afterwards, hiding in the saloon during the funeral procession. And I remember the fury which filled you when I suggested we go and track down Chanu ourselves. I should have seen it, the way you were so willing to follow my lead, practically reveling in the idea…. I was too angry at the whole mess myself to notice how out of character you were acting; you, who so rarely reacts strongly to anything, preferring your poker face to betraying emotion…you were acting just as blood thirsty as I." He paused, and licked his lips. Ezra just stared at him, his face unreadable. Buck continued, leaning forward in the rocking chair.
"But seeing you today, well, I think I got a better idea. I’ve never see you so easy to read before…even Nathan saw it." Ezra flinched slightly at the admission, the first sign that he was actually listening to what Buck was saying.
"What exactly are you attempting to suggest, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra asked evenly.
"I’m saying that I think you got two bottles of Red Eye up here cause that girl’s death reminded you of something…something that you’ve kept hid for a long time. Claire brought it out some, but Miss Irene’s murder was even worse…maybe cause her throat was slit?" The ladies man stopped, his eyes still narrowed as he awaited a response.
Ezra frowned. After a moment, he looked back down at the cards, and his left hand started to shake the dice again. Instantly, Buck reached out and placed a large, callused hand over the gambler’s smooth one.
"It’ll help to talk about it, Ez. It always does. I know you think that you’ll be fine again in a few hours, after you’ve drunken yourself into a stupor, but it only means the pain’ll come back two-fold next time. Trust me, I know."
"You think I don’t?" Ezra hissed. Buck didn’t answer, just stared at the gambler’s fist held in his own. Ezra’s green eyes darkened, and he shook his head. Roughly, he drew his hand away, and loosed the dice, only vaguely glancing at the total they revealed. In his mind, he was thinking venomous thoughts. How dare this idiotic man think he knew what going in his mind? Well, fine. He wanted to know? Fine. He drew again on the bottle, part of him recognizing that the alcohol was probably spurring this decision.
Buck sighed, thinking Ezra was withdrawing further. "Ez, please…I know its hard…"
"Ever wondered why I wear a wedding ring, Buck?" Ezra interrupted, his voice sharp. He waggled his left hand in front of Buck, the sunlight glinting off the simple gold band.
"Wedding ring? I thought it was just more of your frilly jewelry."
Ezra laughed, and looked at the large green stone ring he wore on his other hand. Frilly, indeed. "Mr. Wilmington, you should know by now that I rarely go for anything plain. No, sir, this simple circlet is a wedding band. I was married…once."
Buck’s eyes widened, not having expected this. "You were married?"
"You really want to hear this?"
Buck looked at the ring, probably seeing it for the first time. Ezra didn’t wear it all the time, but often enough that it did seem to blend into the finger. He looked up at the gambler, noting the unusually open expression. Ezra was offering to tell him everything. Buck was not about to let this rare opportunity slip by. He nodded.
"Who was she?" he asked quietly.
Ezra tilted his head, "Heather Carter. Well, actually, her real name was Heather Kazinsky, but, as you would say Buck, that is neither here nor there." He sighed, and leaned back once more into the headboard, his green eyes glittering as he stared off into the space at the end of his bed.
"She was the most beautiful woman I have ever known. Dark curly hair, which she used to spend hours on perfecting with scented oils, complemented by big brown eyes and a heart shaped face that always made her seem younger then her years. I didn’t even know until I’d been with her for a few months that she was three years older than me…" A dimpled smirk crossed his face, lighting it up. "She was also perhaps the best con artist I have ever known…and that includes my redoubtable mother."
"She was a con?"
"Took me for a ride first time I met her. Had she known that I was as false as she was, I doubt she would have tried so hard. Lord, her face when she learned that all my supposed wealth and breeding was a real as her title, her ‘Lady Heather Maclean.’" Despite his misery, Ezra laughed, remembering the way she’d punched him….right before she’d kissed him.
Buck nodded, recognizing the signs of a man who had once been deeply in love. "So how’d you meet her?"
"Oh…it was the last year of the war and I had earned my peace with it, so I headed west to get away and gather my rags about me. I spent some time in Kansas, working the poker halls and hippodromes to earn enough cash to set up a new life, a new identity. After a couple of months, I turned back towards Missouri and entered Kansas City, by which time I had reinvented myself as a very young and naive English railroad financier looking to invest in rail expansion in the west – a boy in a man’s world, if you will." He paused, his accent changing to imitate the Queen’s English, his face morphing into a stern looking visage. "Mr. Peter E. Solomon the third, at your service, sah!" he announced gallantly to the world of the room, his hand forming an English palm up salute.
Buck just shook his head, wondering if he would ever know who this man on the bed really was. Ezra’s expression fell, his eyes losing their mirth as his left hand reached again to pick up the dice. He started to roll them across his knuckles in a nervous fashion.
"After ingratiating myself with the proper sort of society, I met the woman whom I imagined would be the perfect mark, a Scottish heiress, the Lady Heather. I spent weeks wining and dining her, convincing her of the need to join in my endeavors. She in turn, tried to convince me to join hers. Then one night she came storming into my rooms, threw a picture of me taken with my mother six years before when I was only fifteen after we were arrested in Saint Louis for…well, that’s another story. In any case, she threw the picture on the bed and demanded to know who I thought I was fooling. Since her Scottish accent had disappeared at the same time as her anger took over, I told her I thought I was fooling a Lady, but perhaps I had been fooling a tramp." He gave a short laugh, "That was perhaps not the best thing to say at that exact moment." He grinned, and sentimentally rubbed his jaw. "She had a terrific right hook."
"Sounds like quite a lady."
"You don’t know the half of it, Buck. Before she graced my life, I considered myself a pretty good confidence man, but I was well out of my league. She was quicker, smarter and cleverer than I could ever hope to be. After figuring each other out, we did the natural thing and joined forces, pretending to be in love and charming the purses out from under every aristocracy-loving soft touch in the city. She rescued me so often out of my messes of lies that I began to wonder how I ever existed without her." He stopped, his eyes glassing over, and the pained look from this morning returned. "I still wonder."
Buck grimaced, "Just pretending to be in love, huh? So…when did you stop pretending?"
The gambler looked down at his hands, and started running the dice over his knuckles again. "I think…I think for me, I was in love with her from the moment she stalked into my room and punched me.…It was also…it was also the first time she kissed me….Oh God…" His eyes closed, the dice falling away as he clenched his hand into a fist, his breath quickening again. When he opened them again, he was looking down at the ladies man, his green eyes glistening, all pretense of aloofness gone.
"Do you know what it is like, Buck, to fall so deeply that, for every moment that you are not with a person, all you can think of is the touch of their lips on yours? All you crave is to know that sensation again?"
Buck stared back at him for a moment, feeling his own blue eyes warming in response, and finally nodded. "Yes…yes, I do." Ezra nodded back, then turned away to pull the cork out of the new bottle with his teeth, upending the fierce reddish liquid into his mouth, and allowing the warmth to streak down his gullet to briefly relieve the tightening in his chest. When he finished and wiped his a hand across his mouth, his composure had returned.
"Well, then, you may also know how frustrating it is not to know whether that person loves you back."
Buck didn’t answer, simply looked down at his own hands where they rested on the arms of the rocking chair. Ezra cleared his throat, and reached for the dice once more, using them to keep his emotions in check, just as he did with cards. They resumed their dance across his knuckles.
"Anyway, we, uh, we continued to work the high society of Kansas City, never once needing for anything, despite the danger that we would be caught if we stayed too long. Yet, for all that I knew it would eventually have to end, I found myself praying for it to last forever, so that she would be with me forever. I used to spend my days in a dream, waiting in breathless anticipation for the nights when we could be together." He took yet another drink, and Buck fought the urge to rip the bottle away from the younger man.
"But, as with all good things…" the gambler smiled, not finishing the sentiment. "Oh, but we finished our business in Kansas City in style…I still remember the day we left as being one of the best moments in my life."
"By that time, we had been wandering within the inner circles of society in the City for months. Everyone believed we were in love, and Heather had worked out the most wonderful coup de grace, one that could set us up for life. We would get married. She had slowly gotten it into the heads of the haut monde that her title was all she had left after Queen Victoria stole all the Maclean land over of a Clan dispute. She let them know that I was her savior, that together we would go back to Scotland and reclaim her Highlands home and castle. The romance of it had the women swooning and the men treating me like a prince. I barely had to think at all, Heather was carrying me along in her wake so effectively I wasn’t even aware of how lucky I was. I almost began to believe I truly was Peter Ezra Solomon the third." He paused, the grin back on his face as he swished the liquor around the bottle. "Of course, the next step was that I had to be mugged, robbed and left for dead."
Buck’s eyebrows flew up. "Somebody mugged you?" Incredulity lined his tongue.
"Oh no, Mr. Wilmington, I mugged myself," Ezra laughed, and took another swig. "I had some rather nefarious characters trash my rooms at the hotel, rough me up a little and knock me out, then set fire to the place. Heather then ‘found me’ just before I perished in the flames. I, of course, lost everything in the unfortunate accident, including all the supposed ‘wedding presents’ sent from Britain." He grinned. "This was just a week before the wedding was to take place, and I played my part to a tee."
"Obviously I could not possibly have the money to replace what I’d lost wired across the ocean in time, so much of it being tied up in investments. More to the point, the Solomon family were still wary about their youngest son marrying a Scot, despite her estimable pedigree, and were not willing to help. The wedding would have to be cancelled, postponed perhaps for months or even a year. Heather was the consummate actress, crying into the laps of all the women, driving them into a frenzy of concern. The men had conferences in the parlours of city hall, shaking their fists in the air at the indignity of it all. No, no, my dear sir, the wedding must go on!" He raised the bottle high, and Buck found himself leaning forward, lost in the story.
"It was incredible. They did everything, from finding her a dress, to replacing all the so-called presents, to providing us with the carriage to take us east back to New York and England. The wedding took place in the largest church in the city, filled with roses and streamers, silk and lace. It was a fairytale, and, for a day, everyone felt the magic of it. I suppose it was a way for them to be able to create something beautiful as the war wound down around them, a way to forget all the devastation it had caused…." He shook his head, the faraway tone of his voice bringing the time to life.
"I’ve never seen so many happy people in one place, and I didn’t even know who half of them were. Heather just acted every inch the lady, smiling and preening as she walked down the aisle, looking so beautiful it brought joy to all who looked on her…I looked like the toad trying to get the princess to marry him in comparison."
"I gave my heart to her that day. Every word I spoke on that dais, every phrase, I have never been more true to anything in my life." His eyes flicked to glance at Buck, but the ladies man hadn’t moved, his lips slightly parted as he listened, completely open and never judging.
"As far as I know, Kansas City has never learnt of the deception. For them, it was merely a moment in time where they could do something magical, and then we were gone, with promises to write and tell them of our success back in Britain. We rode off in that opulent carriage, the words "happily ever after" ringing in everyone’s mind, the fairytale at an end."
Ezra’s voice failed him on the last phrase, cracking slightly, and he stopped, leaning forward over the bottle cradled in his arms. After a moment, he sat back up, resuming the story more slowly.
"Before we were even a day out of the city, Heather started laying out our future. We would get an annulment when we reached Ohio, then head North to Canada, maybe try the same con. I told her I didn’t want an annulment. Told her that I loved her." He sniffed, and ran his left hand across his warm face. "She didn’t reply. Just looked at me as if I had two heads."
"She didn’t love you?" the ladies man said softly. Ezra shrugged.
"I don’t know. She never denied it. I think the idea scared her. It meant that part of her was no longer her own, but mine. Instead, she would avoid the subject, saying that we would talk about it when we got to Ohio and got rid of the carriage….But I think she did….The way she kissed me when we slept together at night, baring her soul to me…." He stopped, frowning at the memory. After a moment, he took another draw on the bottle, literally guzzling down the harsh liquid.
Buck watched him, head tilted to one side, waiting patiently for the rest of the story. When Ezra didn’t continue after a few minutes, he frowned slightly.
"So what happened?" he asked finally.
Ezra glanced in his direction, meeting Buck’s blue eyes for only a second before returning to stare out at nothing. Without seeing them, he looked down at the cards on the bedspread, running his left hand across them, causing some of them to flip over, disturbing the perfection of the pattern, of the game.
"It was the carriage, I suppose. It was too tempting. Black, with a pattern on the side, the top brimming with packages. We must have looked so very rich….We were not far out of Saint Louis when the bandits chased us down, killing the driver before he could even pull the horses to a stop. I tried to crawl out and stop the beasts myself, but by then one of the bandits had already climbed aboard and stopped them himself. Then he shot me in the side, propelling me off the hateful contraption. Last thing I heard clearly was Heather screaming my name."
"I don’t know how long I was unconscious, but I thought I could hear her calling out to me at points. When I came to, they were gone, the carriage being gutted by fire. Heather lay a few feet from me, her skirts ripped to shreds, her face turned away…and just as you so aptly guessed, Mr. Wilmington, her throat was slit. I crawled to her side, lifting her into my arms, holding on to her until I once more fell into oblivion. And I welcomed it. I really did. I wanted to die with her." He exhaled slowly, blowing the air out his cheeks, and looked at the bottle in his hand. With deliberate care he moved to place it back on the floor, releasing both his hands. He started to pick up the displaced cards and stack them together again. When he continued, his voice had taken on a detached quality.
"I woke up a few days later in a hospital in Saint Louis. My mother was there…God knows how she found me. Apparently, about the same time that I lost consciousness the second time, some soldiers came along, drawn by the fire, and saved my life. But the bandits were long gone by then. The soldiers never found them." He shrugged. "Just another random act of violence, or so they told me."
"My mother helped pay for the funeral, but she didn’t have enough to hold a proper one, not with the hospital bills. Saint Louis was just too expensive of a city. Heather was relegated to a pauper’s cemetery." The muscles in his face twitched as he held desperately onto his composure. He licked his lips and sighed.
"Maude took me with her to New Orleans when I was strong enough, telling everyone down there that I was wounded in the war that was winding down. She broke me out of the misery I felt with her usual gentle touch – by beating me into the ground with guilt then reminding me of my ‘god given gifts.’ I responded to her prompting by throwing myself into her cons, playing whatever part she wanted of me. Investment schemes, marriage schemes, poker games….Anything to help me forget who I was, even if only for a while. We worked our way through the states, never in any consistent pattern, sometimes in the North, sometimes in the South. The last place we visited was Virginia…" He smiled. "We separated after Virginia, and I came west again." Having put the cards together again, he started to shuffle them, indulging in the sweet sound of the motion. His sound.
"A few years later, I was where you found me."
Buck sat back, and crossed his arms, overwhelmed. This was not what he expected. How is one supposed to respond to a story like that?
"It wasn’t your fault," the ladies man tried lamely.
Ezra looked at him, and smiled lightly. "I am not Mr. Larabee, Buck. I know it wasn’t my fault. You do not need to counsel me. I have lived with this grief for nigh on seven years, and I have come to terms with it. Does not mean that I have forgotten it…or that when I see atrocities like today’s that it doesn’t still sicken me to the core, reminding me of all that I have lost." He turned to the deck in his hand, bent them in one hand then sprayed them into his other in one fluid move.
Buck nodded slowly, and watched as Ezra turned the cards over and quickly started memorizing the order. After going through them once, he started to lay them down in the same pattern as before.
"I, uh, don’t suppose this little talk has helped you any?" The ladies man asked, hope underlining the phrase. Ezra didn’t pause in his movements.
"If it makes you feel better, Buck," he replied, finishing the pattern and reaching for the dice.
"Is that a yes?"
"Has it made you feel better?" Ezra replied.
"Uh…no, not really."
Ezra sighed as he prepared to loose the dice, surprised that he did actually feel a bit better. He looked over at the ladies man, a genuine smile on his face.
"Did I overhear a rumor correctly that you will be racing that McCormack brothers tomorrow?"
Buck nodded. "Yup, and you better bet on me Ez. I plan to wipe the floor with that popinjay."
"Oh, Mr. Wilmington, I assure you, I know exactly where to place my bets."
Buck grinned again, and leaned forward to watch Ezra work.
Several hours later, just after the sun went down, the ladies man left the gambler in a deep, alcohol induced sleep, knowing the younger man would be unlikely to wake until forced to. As such, Ezra never heard a thing when Mary screamed, or when Josiah ripped the saloon below to rubble. Not until Nathan poured a bucket of water over him at four in the morning in order for Ezra to take his place on patrol did the gambler learn of what he missed.
(Two days later, after Poplar’s demise….)
Josiah knelt down next to Poplar, and picked up the coins that the man had dropped to the ground when he fell. Ezra stepped up next to them, standing at Poplar’s head as Josiah placed the coins over the dead man’s eyes. The preacher glanced up at the gambler, then around him at the others, feeling more than seeing them all there with him. Vin came up from behind and placed a hand on the big man’s shoulder.
"I’m sorry, Josiah," Ezra said quietly, kneeling down to meet Josiah’s eyes. "He cheated."
Josiah shook his head slowly, not breaking the contact. "He’s gone to his torment, Ezra. He only cheated himself."
"What do you want to do with him?" Vin asked Chris, who had stepped up behind Ezra. The preacher and the gambler continued to stare at each other, each of them unable to look away for some reason.
"Yosemite’s gone to fetch Silace," Buck answered from behind them. "Seems to me we should just stick him in a pine box, throw him in the ground, and forget about him."
"Forget Buck?" Josiah said solemnly. "I don’t think any of us will forget."
Ezra nodded, "Irene Dunlap doesn’t deserve to be forgotten," he whispered back at the preacher. Vin and Chris both frowned at the strange moment, then backed away, leaving the gambler and the preacher to…whatever it was they were doing.
Abruptly, Ezra dropped his gaze, ending the connection Josiah had felt with him. Dropping his hat low to cover his face, the gambler stood up and walked away, never once looking back. A sudden feeling of loss gripped the preacher, but it soon passed as he looked once more down at the dead man. When he looked up, he found Vin’s hand there, offering to help him stand up. Gratefully, he took it, standing just as Silace and several others came around the bend with a casket.