By Their Words Shall You Know Them
by Beth Green
Author's Notes: This was written in response to the challenge offered by Lady Catherine to write a story in which the boys discover the magic in a word or words - for better or for worse. Thanks to Chris for the beta work and helping to tame the rampant comma. Any remaining mistakes belong to me.
In the grand scheme of Mother Nature's distribution of her resources, the town of Four Corners did not often get rained on. As if to make up for the infrequency of the precipitation, when it did rain the storms tended to be violent and drenching. Today was one such day. Even though it was the middle of the day, the overcast sky cast dreary shadows over the town, more fitting for day's end than its apex. Rain fell in intermittent showers as thunder rumbled in the distance. Anyone with a lick of sense remained under cover, knowing that the worst was yet to come. The town's resident peacekeepers, being men of at least average intelligence, were safely ensconced in the welcome shelter of the saloon. They had slowly wandered in, one by one, as morning gave way to afternoon.
Not surprisingly, Ezra was the last to arrive. His cheerful demeanor seemed out of place given the air of melancholy that hovered over the town in general and his friends in particular. Ezra seemed oblivious to the depressive atmosphere. His words of greeting garnered more than one disbelieving stare. "Ah, gentlemen, and how are you all this fine day?"
Buck, drink in hand, gestured toward the street. "Maybe you better go take a look outside. 'Fine' ain't exactly the right word for today."
Ezra, still smiling, shook his head. "On the contrary, any day that begins with more money in my possession than I had the previous day is, indeed, a fine day."
Vin grimaced. "When that money comes out of the pockets of your friends, it ain't right to be so cheerful at their expense."
Ezra waved a hand in dismissal. "I don't recall you staying in the game last night beyond the loss of more than a dollar. No one forced you all to play. In fact, I believe that Buck also came out ahead last night."
Buck's face brightened in a grin. "That's for sure. Any night that I spend in the company of a pretty lady is surely a night I come out ahead."
JD frowned as he nudged Buck sharply with an elbow. "He was talking about last night's game."
Buck gently shoved him back and winked. "So was I; except maybe not the same game Ezra's going on about." Buck leaned back in his chair, slinging an arm companionably across JD's shoulders. "No, son, the game I'm talking about is the game of love."
Ezra rolled his eyes. "Oh, please."
Josiah decided to encourage Buck. The mustachioed man had been in an uncharacteristically somber mood this morning. His light-hearted bantering was a welcome sign of a possible return of Buck's usually cheerful demeanor. Josiah planned to do his best to keep whatever demon was bothering Buck at bay. "Ah, yes, the biggest gamble in life: the game of love. When a man stakes his heart, he is taking the biggest risk of all. To win is pure bliss. To lose is . . ." His voice trailed off as he noticed Buck looking at Chris. The two friends had already made substantial inroads on a bottle of whiskey. The brief glimpse of merriment Buck had exhibited disappeared as if it had never been. Chris' face was currently a blank slate. Buck's reflected the memory of a terrible loss. Josiah determined that a quick change of subject was called for. "Well, as much as my poker skills seemed to have deserted me last night, losing is the last thing that I want to talk about. Please, let's talk about something, about anything else."
JD, too, had noticed the brief lifting of Buck's discouragement, as well as its swift return. "I agree. It's just, well, what else is there to talk about?"
Nathan grumbled, "Don't get him started."
Josiah ignored his friend. "Fortunately, I am able to converse on many subjects at great length."
Vin lowered his head, staring into his glass. "Oh my God." If there was one person who seemed to delight in the sound of his own voice almost as much as Buck, that person was Josiah. Vin was in no mood for one of the man's sermons. He suspected that none of his friends were, either.
Unfortunately for Vin, Josiah jumped on his words. "Yes, I suppose that God is a better subject than some that we could talk about."
Nathan pointed an accusing finger at JD, reinforcing Vin's belief in the others' feelings regarding the prospect of a sermon. "This is all your fault."
JD leaned away from the finger as if it were a weapon, raising a hand defensively to his chest. His wide-eyed look of innocence reflected his confusion. "My fault? What did I do?"
Josiah did not let their squabbling affect his intent. "Have you ever noticed that, in times of extremity, even those who claim to cling to no belief invariably call on God? For example, when a man is down to his last dollar and he's chosen to foolishly bet it on a turn of the cards, he will send up a prayer to God to let the cards fall his way, as if God takes an interest in something as common as a game of chance."
Chris decided that it was time to intervene. "Josiah, have you ever noticed that the quickest way to clear out a saloon is to start talking about God?"
Buck muttered, "Amen."
Silence descended upon the seven men gathered around the table. It was not a comfortable quiet. Chris and Buck seemed to withdraw from the group, even though they remained physically present.
JD resumed his attempt to engage his friends in conversation. "There's lots of other things we could talk about."
Vin, too, was well aware of the atypical tension in Buck. He almost made a comment regarding Buck's sitting all broody like a hen with chicks, but decided that in his current mood Buck would more than likely take offense rather than laugh at the gibe. Vin considered a bit longer. Well, with only a few words Ezra had begun a discussion that served to lighten the mood. It wouldn't hurt to try a few more words. Vin decided to encourage JD. "So, talk."
JD nodded. "Alright, then, I will. I've been noticing how just a few little words can have a pretty big result. Like when you say 'God,' for example." JD glanced nervously at Chris. "I'm not talking about God and preaching, I mean just the word itself. Right away, when you say the word 'God', people tend to have some pretty strong reactions. Well, some people, anyway. Everybody has certain words that they really like, or that they really hate. So, anyway, I wanted to ask you all, what's your favorite word, and what word do you really hate?" JD looked hopefully around at his friends. However, the only response to his question was some pensive looks and blank stares.
JD did not let the silence discourage him. "To give you a minute to think about it, I'll go first. My favorite word is 'West.'"
Chris gave a brief snort of laughter. "Would've never guessed." Mentally, he added the word 'not' to the end of his statement. Even without JD's pronouncement, anyone looking at the kid would know how much pleasure the word gave him by the grin on his face.
"When I lived in the East and things got bad, all I had to do to feel better was to think about the West." And JD did not intend to share how bad things had actually gotten. During the hopeless despair of his mother's final days, he'd needed something to hang on to, lest he become overwhelmed by how alone he'd actually be in the world with no family, with the so-called friends who were nowhere to be found when he needed them.
JD decided to share a little of what he was feeling. "I'd think about the West, read about it, even dream about it. Some days, it was about all that kept me going. With all that thinking, you might expect that I'd find the real thing to be a bit disappointing. I got to tell you, there ain't nothing further from the truth. The things I've seen and done, the people I've met, and the friends I've made . . ." He paused a moment in reflection. "Well, I wouldn't trade them for anything."
Josiah raised his glass to offer a toast. "To the West!"
Seven glasses clinked together as the words were echoed around the table. "To the West!"
When silence again descended and no one spoke to fill it, JD resumed discoursing on his chosen topic. "As far as my least favorite word goes, that's easy." His eyes looked off in the distance, no longer focused on the here and now. He was overwhelmed by the memories of the woman he'd loved most in the world: his mother. Not as he remembered her, but as he'd last seen her: dead; dead, and finally, buried. And all of her hopes and dreams, and most of all, her love, buried with her. For a moment, no words could come from his suddenly tight throat. Even though he'd half-decided not to say it, he listened as the words came out of his mouth: "It's 'dead.'" He could add nothing to his stark statement.
Buck, sensitive to his friend's pain, tried to lighten the mood. "After the way you played poker last night, I've would've thought you'd add a bit to that."
JD returned from wherever his dark thoughts had taken him to turn a puzzled look toward Buck.
Buck clarified, "Dead broke." Nervous laughter drifted around the table, easing the tension.
Nathan had been thinking about his own most and least-favorite words ever since JD had made the suggestion. He decided to offer his own contribution. "I got a couple of words, and I really didn't have to think too hard to come up with 'em. My favorite word is love. Don't matter the reason or the season, it's absolutely the best word there is." The men gathered around the table had no doubt that Nathan was thinking about a particular dark-haired beauty when he made his declaration. Their only question was when Nathan would get around to sharing the word with Rain.
He continued, "I guess you can kind of figure that the word I hate is, well, 'hate.' The two words, they go together. Without the second word, we all would be out of a job." General laughter greeted that comment.
Buck raised his glass in salute. "I'll drink to that."
Nathan added, "And, if this world had more of the first word, it would be a better place."
Buck raised his glass again. "I'll drink to that, too."
"Why doesn't that surprise me?" Although the comment came from Vin, all of the men seated at the table echoed it in thought, as they exchanged knowing grins.
Ezra, pleased to note the improved ambience generated by the discussion, decided to keep it going. He smiled, making sure to expose his gold tooth. "I would be more than happy to share my favorite word. And that, my friends, is 'gold.'"
Vin again mumbled, "That don't surprise me none, neither."
Ezra merely shrugged in response. "My intent is not to surprise, merely to elucidate and elaborate."
Josiah added, "Not to mention, to alliterate."
Chris joined in, "And, to irritate."
Nathan contributed, "Nauseate."
JD offered his own form of encouragement. "I don't care what he 'ate,' let the man talk."
Buck raised his glass. "I'll drink to that."
JD frowned. "Buck, don't you think you maybe ought to slow down a bit?"
Buck drained his glass before replying, "Nope. Now, where were we?"
Ezra responded, "I was attempting to clarify my choice of the word 'gold,' versus, for example, 'wealth' or 'money.' We are not talking about my favorite things, merely my favorite word. 'Gold' is very versatile. It can refer to the gold of the setting sun, the golden highlights in a strand of hair, or the element of gold found in objects of great value." Ezra began to toy with a few coins from his pocket. His agile fingers caressed the coins as he spoke.
His listeners could not help but be drawn by the sight. His touch was as gentle as that of a woman against a baby's cheek, or to Buck, that of a man caressing a woman's breast. The sight was damn near erotic. Buck squirmed uncomfortably in his chair.
Ezra continued, "The warm feel of a gold coin is like no other. Even its very sound as it clinks onto the table is low and distinct as compared to the tinny shrill of a silver coin." Ezra dropped the coins to illustrate his point. His eyes closed. "Just by listening, I can tell whether or not a coin dropped onto a hard surface is gold or silver." His eyes opened and he retrieved the coins. "I much prefer gold."
JD prompted, "So, what's your least favorite word?"
Ezra replied without hesitation, "Leave." He immediately regretted it. He had not intended to be quite so honest, but his tongue had outrun his brain. It was too late. The word was out. Erza took a long drink, needing the artificial courage as well as a moment to collect his thoughts. Finally, he began to speak. "Or, if you prefer, the active form of the verb, 'leaving,' or the past tense, 'left.' All are equally unpleasant."
His life up until this point had been a long series of leaving and being left behind. When one made one's living by conning other people, it did not pay to linger, lest the ruse be uncovered in time for the victims to take revenge. When he was younger, he was often left behind so that his mother could run a rig unencumbered by a small child. Ezra grew used to the feeling of being left. Being used to something did not mean that you didn't continue to hate it with ever fiber of your being. He eventually grew old enough to become an active participant in Maude's schemes; at least by that time Ezra was the one doing the leaving. It was not much of an improvement. However, it was life as he knew it.
Then, he met his current companions. Rather than living their lives with an attitude of 'How can I best manipulate these people to my personal advantage?' they asked 'What can I do to help these people?' Their attitude was nearly incomprehensible. It was the sort of behavior one expected from a storybook hero. No one in real life acted that way. Or did they? The invitation for Ezra to join their ranks was astonishing. Did these men really believe that he could be like them? And if they did, shouldn't he ride with them to discover if it was at all possible? Some small, self-respecting part of his soul hoped that it was true. He could not help but ride with these men when the opportunity presented itself.
Ezra also could not help it when his flight instinct kicked in the first time they faced seemingly insurmountable odds. Ezra left; at least he tried to. The part of Ezra Standish that wanted to be like these men won out, and he returned. Without knowing what was going on in Ezra's head, all that Chris could initially focus on was the fact that Ezra had left them. Ezra could understand Chris' anger at being left. The sometime con man really hated that word.
As if he had been reading Ezra's mind, Chris spoke up. "I'll go next. My favorite word is 'loyalty.' It's simple, straight, and to the point. And when I give it myself, I expect nothing less in return."
Buck could testify first hand to Chris' narrow definition of loyalty. He rubbed his neck, remembering the straight razor Chris had held against it after Buck had shared a portion of Chris' tragic past without the man's knowledge or consent. Buck himself was a firm believer in loyalty. Why else would he stay with Chris after his friend had done his best to self destruct after Sarah and Adam's deaths? Buck lowered his head, cradling it with his hands. Sarah and Adam's deaths haunted him today like they'd haunted his dreams last night. He couldn't remember the last time he'd suffered from the terrible nightmare of Sarah and Adam's deaths. Buck had allowed himself to believe that now that his friend was rebuilding his shattered life, that Chris' soul was finally healing, the nightmares were a thing of the past. He was wrong.
Chris continued, "My least favorite word is 'God.' The things that people do and say in the name of God turn my stomach. When someone tries to tell me that some unbelievable act of cruelty is 'God's will,' it takes everything I have not to put a bullet in 'em. No offense, Josiah."
"None taken." Josiah added, "Being as you're the one that brought God into this after asking me not to, I won't hesitate to say that my favorite word is God." He turned to Chris. "No offense."
Chris' mouth quirked in a half-grin. "None taken." He paused to take a sip of his whiskey, then added, "Might be better for Josiah's health if somebody holds onto my gun for the next minute or three."
Josiah folded his hands in front of himself. "I don't think that will be necessary. You see, my least favorite word is also 'God.' The very concept of God inherently causes problems. For example, Epicurus, who walked on this earth before the birth of Christ, pointed out that 'Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. But, if God both can and wants to abolish evil, then how come evil is in the world?' Now, that's the kind of thinking that makes me both love and hate the word 'God.'"
"I suppose I could continue and turn this into a sermon, but this was supposed to be a discussion. That being said, Vin, you got a few words you'd choose to share with us?"
Vin nodded. "It's easier to figure out what word I hate than what word I like." In truth, words were important to Vin Tanner. He tended to carefully consider before speaking, wanting to get the words right before he said them. His inability to read and write words was a constant source of frustration. Therefore, it was easy to answer JD's second question. "The word I hate is 'ignorant.' It's an ugly word."
Ezra was irate that anyone would dare call Vin 'ignorant.' Why else would the man take such offense at the word? He couldn't just leave Vin's harsh statement lie. "In my experience, the word 'ignorant' is most often used by those who are, in fact, stupid. Now, stupidity is a condition of birth and cannot be overcome by any form of education; whereas ignorance is merely a lack of knowledge. The condition of ignorance is by far preferable to that of stupidity. Ignorance can be cured. Stupidity is forever."
Vin smiled. "Alright then, thank you for that." He paused to salute Ezra with his glass, took a drink, then continued. "I been thinkin' on it, and I guess if I gotta pick one, my favorite word is 'free.' Ain't nothin' better than freedom. Man ain't meant to be caged like some animal. He needs open sky to breathe, to live."
Nathan nodded. "I got no cause to disagree with that. That's a good word, 'freedom.'"
Josiah clapped a friendly hand on Nathan's back. "That it is, brother, that it is." He turned to the one member of their group that they had yet to hear from. "You been awful quiet over there, Buck. How about you? What's your favorite word?"
Buck allowed a slow smile to warm his face. "That's a tough question, Josiah. There's so many good ones. Like 'women,' 'whiskey,' and 'sweet.' If I gotta settle on just one, I'll make it 'honey.' That one just kind of rolls off the tongue. It's warm and sweet and golden brown. And, there's a lot you can do with it." His eyes took on a smoky, sultry glow as he contemplated his favorite use of honey.
Ezra begged, "Please, feel free to keep that information to yourself."
Buck lowered his lashes to half-mast as he purred at Ezra, "Just a little dab of honey in the right place and you want to wrap your lips around it and lick up every drop."
Ezra's eyes widened as Buck's comment rendered him temporarily speechless.
JD silently cursed the blush he could feel rising on his face. His voice slightly higher than usual, he asked, "So, what's your least favorite word?"
Buck shook his head. "I'm not sure I wanna talk about this."
JD wheedled, "C'mon, Buck, everybody else shared. How about you?"
Buck's low-voiced answer could barely be heard over the sudden increase in the intensity of the storm that raged outside. Buck felt that the rolling thunder provided the perfect accompaniment to his current mood. He muttered one word: "No."
JD wasn't quite sure what Buck was saying. "Are you saying 'No, you're not going to tell me,' or 'No,' as in you don't like the word 'no?'"
Buck slammed a fisted hand onto the table. "I'm saying 'No' as in I hate the damn word, okay? Are you happy?"
JD began to apologize. For what, he wasn't exactly sure. "Buck, I . . ."
Buck interrupted. "I know what you're thinking: 'Ol' Buck, he just can't stand it when the ladies turn him down.' For one thing, the ladies have a tendency to say 'Yes.' For another, it's a damn ugly word. For another, this discussion is as sorry as a two bit watch. If y'all will excuse me, I'm gonna go get some air."
With Buck's current foul mood, JD swallowed back the comment he almost made regarding the foolishness of venturing out into the raging storm. JD half-rose from his seat to follow when he was stopped short by a hand on his arm. He glared at the dark-clad arm restraining him. "Chris, let me go."
Chris shook his head. "Leave him be."
JD wrested himself from Chris' grip. "That may be how you treat a friend, but it's not how I do it." He started toward the door, then stopped to add, "Especially if that friend hasn't got enough sense to come in out of the rain."
JD stepped through the door and was immediately drenched by a wind-driven deluge of rain. Fortunately he didn't have far to go to find Buck. His friend had only walked to the edge of the boardwalk where he now stood, seemingly oblivious to the torrential rain. JD hunched further into his coat, feeling chilled already by the steady downpour. He raised his voice to be heard above the crashing thunder. "Buck, I'm sorry."
For long minutes Buck did not acknowledge JD's presence. The younger man tried again. "Buck, I'm sorry."
Finally, Buck turned to JD. A slight air of puzzlement lessened the sorrow in his eyes. "Sorry for what?"
"For whatever I said or did to upset you. Hell, for that matter, I'm sorry I asked the question in the first place."
Buck looked away from JD, staring into a distance too far off for JD to see. The older man was looking into the past, to another time and place. He was looking at the ruin of what had once been a home and family. He was looking at his best friend, Chris, who had collapsed into the ashes of his former life. At the time, Buck stood by, dumb with grief, watching over his best friend wrapped in a silent agony too painful for words. The two men had returned from a trip to Mexico to find Chris' wife and son murdered, their charred remains in the burned-out wreckage that represented the pitiful remains of Chris' home. Buck had no idea how long they stayed there, staring, both men slowly dying inside. Finally, Buck felt that he had to speak. "Chris, you need to go." He reached out a hand to pull his friend to his feet. Chris angrily shoved him away. Buck persisted, his voice half-breaking with his pain. "Chris, there's nothing here anymore. You can't stay here. They're gone."
Finally, Chris broke the grief-filled silence. Forever after Buck would wish that he hadn't. Chris uttered one word: "No." It began as a whisper, until he repeated the word again and again. His voice grew louder in volume with each repetition. "No, no, no, no, NO!" The last time, Chris screamed the word. His voice was a soul-tearing, gut-wrenching denial of the truth. "NO-O-O-O-OO-!!" To this day, the awful intensity of that agonized scream echoed in Buck's memories and nightmares. Buck could hear its echo still in the fading rumble of thunder. He whispered, "I'm sorry."
JD shook his head, water cascading off of the brim of his hat. "Alright then. You're sorry and I'm sorry. You wanna come back inside before we both drown out here?"
Buck turned toward JD, his gaze unfocused, not quite present in the here and now. The older man shook his head. "You go on ahead. I think I'll stay out here a bit, clear my head."
JD ignored his own discomfort in the face of the pain-filled visage of his best friend. "If you'd like some company, I don't mind a little rain."
Buck's half-smile only served to emphasize his forlorn expression. "No, that's okay. I just need some time to myself." He desperately needed the time to shove the unpleasant memories back into the dark corner of his mind from which they'd managed to escape. He prayed that this time they'd remain hidden away.
JD hesitated. "If you're sure?"
Buck gave him a gentle push back in the direction of the saloon. "Yeah, I'm sure. Go on."
As much as JD wanted to help his hurting friend, he had to respect Buck's decision to face his demons alone. However, he only traveled as far as the saloon's entryway. JD remained standing just beyond the door, keeping silent vigil.
Although JD tried to remain out of sight, Buck knew that he was there. And, somehow, that made his sorrow a little bit easier to bear.