Main characters: JD, Ezra
Note: This story originally appeared in the Let's Ride 1 fanzine (2001, Neon Rainbow Press)
It was a miserable night.
Actually, it was a beautifully clear, pleasantly warm, star-sprinkled night, the kind JD Dunne usually enjoyed. It was the perfect kind of evening to take a walk with a girl--so Buck said, anyway--or dig for earthworms for early morning fishing or sit out on the jail porch and chew the fat with the guys. In fact, that was where JD had been until he couldn't stand the friendly banter anymore and had crept away to be by himself.
Not that he didn't enjoy the company. On the contrary, there weren't six people on the earth he would rather have been with and called friends. And friends they were, almost like six big brothers. It was a warm, comfortable feeling so large, JD couldn't even wrap his mind around it. The last person he'd been able to call a friend was Charlie Dunlop back in grade school, and even Charlie had one day declared their friendship over and started hanging with stupid Jim Taylor. But these six were always there for him. JD hadn't felt that sense of belonging with anyone else, at least outside his mama.
He blinked hard at the bright half-moon above, then dropped his head to stare at the ground. It wasn't really the night that was miserable, it was he. The toe of his boot scuffed through the dust, stirring it briefly before it settled again. The ground was parched, as it had been when they'd buried his mama. The dust had choked him then, along with the tears that seemed to prickle in his throat even now. He'd cried a long time for her beside her grave, then finally swallowed his grief and walked back home to pack to go out west. The grief felt old now, a part of his past, and yet it still rose without warning sometimes to fill his heart and eyes, to remind him of the loss of the one person who'd ever loved him unconditionally. And the reminder was doubly painful on this of all days.
JD gulped hard even as the dim scenery before him blurred. Only a little light filtered out from the back windows of the town buildings next to him, the forbidding brick walls on one side, open prairie on the other. It was a lonely place to be, not another person in sight in the gloom, but he didn't want to cry. He was a grown man now, a peacekeeper and gunslinger. Even Chris Larrabee, with all his reasons to grieve, didn't cry.
But, oh, he missed his mother.
JD stopped behind one dark and quiet building and stared off into the open spaces beyond, trying to shore up the flood of emotion in him before it completely swept him away.
"Not much of a vista in the daytime let alone at night, even under such a canopy of stars."
Startled, JD spun around to face the speaker although he already knew who it was. The vocabulary would have given Ezra Standish away even without the soft Southern lilt. Sure enough, there stood the gambler, leaning comfortably against the corner of the nearest building as if he'd been there for hours enjoying the view. Even now his eyes were on the distant, obscure horizon.
Nevertheless self-conscious, JD rubbed the back of his hand over his eyes. How long had the man been there? He hadn't noticed Ezra's arrival or presence.
"What're you doing out here?"
"Same as you, I presume--escaping to enjoy the refreshing night air. The conversation had become... shall we say, somewhat bombastic."
JD temporarily forgot his melancholia as he frowned. "Bom--huh?" Listening to Ezra always made him feel like he was some foreigner trying to understand a language that wasn't his own.
Ezra's mouth curled into a small smile, not mocking but rather sharing a private joke. "Full of hot air. Mr. Wilmington's, mostly."
"Oh." JD couldn't help but smile a little, too. Buck did have a tendency to spin a rather tall tale; JD didn't know half the time whether to believe the older man or not. But he always enjoyed the listening, and usually Ezra seemed to as well, at least lately.
There was an easy pause, JD rubbing one booted foot against the dirt, Ezra lounging as gracefully against the wall as he did in a saloon chair or on a horse. The man sometimes seemed incapable of unrefinement. Some people were just born that way. JD's mama had cleaned other people's houses, and yet there had been an elegance to her even in her scullery dress that made JD's eyes sting to remember.
It seemed the gambler was in a mood to talk, typical for Ezra even if JD wasn't interested.
"Might I inquire as to why you're passing the evening alone out here? I seem to recall your being a fervent admirer of Mr. Wilmington's tales."
JD gave a shrug, gaze lifting back to the wide emptiness of the prairie. "Guess I didn't feel much like company tonight. Nothing wrong with that, is there?"
"Nothing at all," Ezra easily agreed. He had shifted so that his back was to the building's wall, leaving both his arms free. Already one was in motion, and JD just caught the glint of moonlight off a coin Ezra expertly tumbled through his fingers. The fingerplay mesmerized him for a moment until he shook himself free.
Actually, maybe this kind of company wasn't so bad. Buck had been hovering around him all day, sensing something was wrong and bugging JD to tell him what. The young gunslinger appreciated his friend's concern, he really did, but the attention made him uncomfortable and the words hadn't come. It would have sounded stupid, anyway, hardly worth all the fuss Buck was making about it. It wasn't like his mama had just died or anything.
But Ezra's casual presence wasn't pushy, wasn't even interested, by all appearances. Maybe that was just the kind of listener JD needed, one who didn't care if he made a fool of himself or not. Ezra would probably just wander off to a poker game as soon as he got tired of taking the air and forget he'd even seen or talked to JD.
JD wandered closer, finally settling against the same wall Ezra was propped against. His hands remained deeply shoved into his pockets and his bowler hat shaded his face against even the little bit of light that streamed from the window above them and the alley to one side. Ezra didn't move, didn't even appear to notice that JD had moved, intent on the coin in his hand, and JD watched the gold glitter as he chose his words.
"It's--it would have been--my mama's birthday today."
Ezra's eyes were also shadowed under the brim of his hat, but from the far edge of his field of vision, JD could see the hat tilt back a little as if Ezra were looking up at him. But the lazy Southern tone hadn't changed at all as he spoke. "Such an occasion would seem to merit some reflection."
"There's nobody else to remember her 'cept me, Ezra. I'm all she had."
"I'm certain she was not disappointed."
Was that a compliment? JD sniffed as he glanced at Standish, but he couldn't see much of the man's face in the semi-darkness. He blinked several times, returning his gaze to the dark vastness surrounding the town. "If she was, she never showed it, but she had a hard life. Doesn't seem fair she should have d-died before I had a chance to help her." He steadied the wobble immediately and gave his companion a surreptitious glance, but if Ezra had heard it he gave no notice.
"That does not mean your estimable mother was unhappy. I have seen countless living in abject poverty and," Ezra shook his head in disbelief, "incomprehensibly happy."
"Yeah, well, money don't buy happiness, Ezra," JD said pugnaciously. "She and I had a lot of good times together..." He trailed off at the thought, the memories coming to mind too easily that night. Oh, he missed her so much. It wasn't fair.
"My mother," and the stress Ezra put on the word made it sound more like a title than a name, "is still on this earth, thank the good Lord, and presumably will be for some years still. But she and I have never once had, nor are likely to ever have, the sort of 'good times' you mention with such fond wistfulness." The hat was turned toward him again, the faintest glint of soft green showing from beneath it. "At least you had love and good memories, my young friend."
JD stared at the gambler with eyes wide and mouth ajar. Had Ezra just said what JD thought he said? And the way he'd said it... JD wasn't too good at picking up all the subtleties in his friends' words, hadn't even realized they were there until he'd gotten to know them some. But for a moment there, he almost could have sworn he heard...envy?, in Standish's voice.
The black hat was tilted even lower now, not allowing him any view of the gambler's face as the coin began to lazily move through the long, thin fingers again. "Although I doubt your childhood was blessed with the same assortment of colorful company and fascinating locations I often found myself in as a young child."
Ezra's tone was back to the same languid, almost patronizing one JD was used to. He nearly thought he'd imagined what he'd heard a moment ago, but not quite. For once, however, JD knew better than to push. He thought about the cardsharp's words, instead.
The Dunne home wouldn't have been much by Standish standards, true. They'd had very little, and almost all his possessions had been made by his mother out of whatever she could find. He really wished she'd lived long enough for him to start earning so he could have taken care of her as she had of him. But Ezra was right, at least there had been plenty of love, and there still were good memories, and no amount of money could have rivaled that.
JD's face softened, emotions unexpectedly near the surface again but not as choking as before. He tilted a knowing glance at the man next to him. "Yeah," he agreed softly. "I didn't go anywhere 'til I was twelve."
Ezra clucked, shaking his head. "You have my sympathies." And he sounded like he meant it.
But not for JD's upbringing. And it was with quiet sincerity that JD answered, "Thanks."
The gambler seemed to catch himself then, straightening up, away from the wall. His head rose, light revealing his features once more. "Now if you'll excuse me, I think I hear the bleating of some sheep waiting to be sheared." A slender hand rose to give the brim of the black hat a respectful tug. "My compliments to you on your mother's birthday."
"Bye, Ezra," JD said with a small smile, watching as the gambler disappeared around the corner with the easy gait of a man just out for a walk. JD was grateful Ezra's walk had for some reason led him there that evening.
And then he tilted his head back against the plank wall behind him and let the tears come.
"Hey, kid, y'all right?"
Buck's voice startled him from the opposite direction Ezra had disappeared in, and for the second time that evening, JD was hastily wiping his eyes as he turned to give the speaker a startled look. Some gunslinger he was, being snuck up on all the time.
He didn't fool Buck for a second. The older man looked like he was torn between worry for JD and anger as he darted sharp glances past his friend. "Did Ezra say something? Durn it, I knew I shouldn't have told him where you went."
"W-what?" JD stuttered, then pulled himself upright. "Wait a minute--you been following me? I'm not some little kid that needs looking after, you know," he snapped.
Buck held up his hands placatingly. "Now, simmer down--that's not what I said. I was just worried about ya--you've been looking all day like somebody shot your dog or something."
He almost winced at the analogy. "It's my mom's birthday so I'm entitled to, okay?" He was sputtering, inexplicably frustrated. "And Ezra didn't say anything 'cept that I was lucky to have a mother like that."
Buck blinked, surprised, looked past JD again and then once more at him, then drew back. "He did? Well, he was right." A suddenly sympathetic look. "I...I'm sorry, JD, I didn't know. When I just saw you here all upset and Ezra just leaving, I guess..." He didn't need to finish the thought.
JD was only half-listening to him, Buck's earlier comment just sinking in. "Wait--did you say Ezra was looking for me?"
"Yeah, why? Didn't want him pestering you when it looked like you were chewin' on something, but he was mighty insistent."
"Huh." JD leaned back against the wall to think that one over. So much for an accidental meeting while taking a walk. The realization and what it meant warmed him through as much as Buck's concern. "Huh," he repeated to himself wonderingly.
"So...you okay?" Buck's voice was unusually hesitant, for once unsure of himself.
JD nodded, smiling a little. "Yeah, I think so." The sadness hadn't completely gone, but his heart didn't feel too heavy to bear anymore.
Buck grinned back and thunked him on the side. "Okay, then. What do you say we go have ourselves a drink and find some female companionship?"
"Not Sheila again," JD groaned, falling into step beside him. "She hates your guts, you know that." He half-turned away to wipe the remaining wetness out of his eyes.
A hand settled companionably on his shoulders and as he turned back, Buck's eyes were soft even as he teased, "Aw, she's just playing hard-to-get."
Utterly hopeless. JD sputtered a laugh and then just shook his head, turning the last corner and following his friend into the saloon. Right past a table full of poker players.
Ezra Standish looked up from his hand, their eyes meeting for a moment. The Southerner again reached up to tip the brim of his hat. JD solemnly nodded back to the gambler. And then Ezra's attention was back on the game, and Buck was ushering him up to the bar next to Nathan and Vin to order a drink.
Maybe life wasn't fair, but it had brought him some awfully good friends. He had a feeling his mama would have been happy for him.
Tilting his glass heavenward in silent toast, JD Dunne drank his one glass of the evening and then sat back to enjoy the company.