Main characters: Ezra, Buck
Previously published in: Magnificent Shorts 1 (Neon Rainbow Press, 2006)
He was not above the occasional eavesdropping when the conversation was particularly juicy, or involved his personal safety, especially where irate beaus were concerned. But Buck Wilmington had had no such intentions as he'd walked down the hotel landing, on his way to go talk to Chris. If he hadn't recognized the voice instantly as Ezra's very distinctive mother, and if the words hadn't been quite so provocative, he would have kept right on going.
"...found the perfect mark - a Mr. Wheeler owns the hotel. In fact, he and I are spending this very evening together."
Buck slowed, stopped.
"Really?" Ezra's voice, neutral in tone.
"We'll use the same con we pulled in Chicago. You know, the cotton gin investment."
Buck took a step back to find the best vantage point, his fists balling. Con? He'd thought Ezra-
"Excuse me?" Maude sounded as confused as Buck felt.
"I said no. Is that clear? The answer is no." Ezra didn't sound so flat anymore.
"Listen, Mother, I've got this town believing that they can trust me to protect it from people like you... Hell, from people like me."
Buck's mustache twitched. Was it possible Ezra had been conning them all along? He had just started to really trust the guy.
"I thought the protection job was just a front," Maude said, and Buck held his breath for the answer.
"Well, of course it is."
And there it was, damned by his own words.
Except... Ezra didn't sound too convincing.
Apparently Maude didn't think so, either. "Now, you haven't gone and joined the ranks of the employed, have you? Now, that would be undignified. Ezra, Ezra... What a waste of your God-given gifts. I raised you better than that."
Oh. Buck was starting to understand, and he didn't care for the picture he was seeing.
"R-raised me? Did you say raised me? Come on, now, Mother. You didn't raise me as well as, uh, as a stray cat raises a litter. You-you dumped me. Remember? At every aunt and uncle's house you could find. Unless, of course, you needed me... for a con."
Face flushing in shame both over what he'd heard and for his friend, Buck started walking again, Maude's answer fading into nothing behind him. He had a feeling he would have lost what control he had left if he'd heard her response, anyway, and he'd have done Ezra no favors by barging in and revealing what he'd learned. The gambler, for all his outgoing nature, was a private man and would have doubtless been mortified to know someone had learned his secret, because a lot of things were suddenly much clearer to Buck, the foremost being that his growing trust was not misplaced. One of the Standishes did deserve his disgust, but it wasn't the one he had - to his shame - briefly assumed.
There were more pressing issues at that moment, chief among them Billy Travis's safety, so Buck filed away what he'd heard for now. He could keep a secret, and Ezra didn't strike him as the kind who wanted sympathy.
But the young gambler's voice at the end, betrayed and hurt, wasn't easy to forget.
He had made a career out of insider information - knowing people's secrets and weaknesses - and while Ezra Standish no longer eavesdropped by trade, it was hard to completely set aside old habits. Therefore, it was with one ear open that he walked up the alley from the outhouses to the main street, sifting through the everyday noises and conversations of town life. Buck's voice struck his ear from just around the left corner, and Ezra smiled at its irritated tone. JD Dunne had probably committed some unpardonable error again. Mr. Wilmington had somehow appointed himself guardian and teacher of the young man and seemed to take each such offense personally.
But it wasn't JD who answered Buck.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Mister. Now, if you'll excuse me-"
Mother. Ezra jolted back into the shadows, instantly wary but straining to hear.
"I won't keep you, ma'am, I just wanted you to know something." Buck's voice could have frozen a lake in July. "Your son's a good man. He's earned the trust of the folks 'round here the hard way - by showin' 'em he's trustworthy and he won't run out just 'cause that'd be the easier thing to do. That might not mean much to you, but out here that's what shows what kind 'a metal a man's got under his skin - gold or tin."
Ezra winced, thinking about some of his less-than-noble deeds in the past few months, and his lingering fear Chris Larabee would change his mind about that second chance. Was this really how they saw him, though, as a man who had earned their trust?
"Ezra always did like gold," Maude said dryly, clearly unimpressed by Buck's opinion. Ezra felt his cheeks flush, hating that she still had such power over him, hating even more that at least one of his compatriots had seen as much.
But Buck never had been easy to deter. "I know it ain't my business, Miz Standish, but I just thought you should know that. Ezra's doin' something good here, with good people."
So that's what it felt like to have someone stand up for you. It was... really nice.
"If it doesn't kill him first. And you're right, Mister, it's not your business." There was a footstep on the hardwood boardwalk, and Ezra flattened against the wall of the building, trying to stay out of sight. The step hesitated, however, and there was a rustle of fabric as Maude turned back. "If it makes you feel any better, though, Mr. Wilmington, I happen to agree with you about my son. That boy is golden. I just think it's hard to see that in a dusty little town like this one."
And, as easily as she could embarrass him, it was her rare praise that made him feel like he was ten again, striving for his mother's love and approval.
"Not to his friends, ma'am," Buck said quietly.
Ezra swallowed and hung his head. His hat shadowed his face completely, rendering him invisible as his mother strode past, but it was humility, not sneakiness that had bowed him. Friend. It was one of the few guises he'd never worn in his years on the make. And now, maybe it was even the real thing.
Buck's boots thumped off in the opposite direction, and Ezra finally ventured out of the alley, watching the retreating figure. There was still the matter of Billy Travis to get to the bottom of, and his mother to see safely off, and Ezra was already working on an idea about the former. This overheard little nugget didn't change a thing, not really.
Ezra turned and traced his mother's steps down the boardwalk.
But it had made a difference to him. And he wouldn't be forgetting it anytime soon, either.