Main Characters: Ezra, Josiah, Chris, Vin
Notes: I wrote this not long after watching all the eps for the first time. I hope that, had they had more time, they would have explored this in the series. Watch Ezra's reactions to the deaths of Claire Mosley (Manhunt) and Irene Dunlap (Penance). This story came after I had pondered those reactions for a while.
Webmaster Note: This fic was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in May 2012.
Way out west they have a name for rain and fire only,
And when you’re lost and all alone, there ain’t no word for lonely.
Well I’m a lost and lonely man, without a star to guide me,
Mariah blow my love to me, I need a gal beside me.
From They Call the Wind Mariah
-Lerner and Loewe
“He out there again?” Chris Larabee asked.
“Yep,” Vin Tanner answered from where he stood at the saloon’s window.
“Pacing and mumbling?”
Chris joined his younger friend at the window. They stood watching a third member of the town’s peacekeeping force as he argued with whatever personal demons haunted him.
Ezra Standish was pacing the boardwalk outside, just as he had every night for more than a week; every night since they had discovered who had killed Irene Dunlap. The gambler had seemed his normal self until things had quieted down. Perhaps that was part of the problem; Cyrus Poplar was dead, the young woman that had been his last victim was buried, Josiah Standish had been absolved of her death, the traveling show had left town, and the windstorm was over. It was quiet enough to think again. And whatever was on Ezra Standish’s mind was not good.
Vin looked away from the window and caught Chris’ eye. “Seen that look b’fore, Cowboy. What’s on your mind?”
“Just thinking about Claire Mosley.”
“Yeah. When that bastard father of her’s brought her body into town, Ezra and Buck were there to take her off her horse. Buck told me later that Ezra looked like it was his sister that was dead, and he carried her into the undertaker’s.”
Vin nodded, carrying the man’s thought forward. “Y’know how he looked the other day when we’s all where we found Miz Irene. Nathan told me he ‘bout took the undertaker’s head off when they was lookin’ after her body. Don’t think a feller’s gonna get that het up ‘bout women they hardly know ‘less there’s somethin’ more goin’ on.”
Chris shook his head and took a long drink of whiskey. “Something’s going on with him, that’s for certain.”
“Mm hmm,” Vin turned to watch the gambler again.
Larabee turned and moved back to his chair, pouring another drink. “So, what’s on your mind, pard?”
“Just looks like he could use someone t’ talk to’s all.”
Chris smiled. “Like maybe ‘Robin Hood’?” They had all teased the quiet hunter about his penchant for championing the underdog.
Shuttering his eyes and squinting at his friend, Tanner said only, “maybe.”
“Never happen,” the blond shook his head. “Ezra ain’t one to share himself easy with anyone else.”
“Maybe, “ Vin repeated as he started out the door. “But maybe he just ain’t had anyone t’ listen.”
Ezra Standish was pacing the boardwalk, just as he had every night since the dreams had begun. He continued to hope that perhaps he could find some sense of peace in the darkness and quiet of the night. He had yet to find anything of the kind. “Yet another night...no peace...no sleep...” he mumbled as he strode angrily along the walk. “At this rate, J.D. will be able to win anything and everything I own in an hour at the table. Ezra, you are losing your edge...not to mention your mind. What is past is past...nothing can change that fact. Nothing that you can say...or do...or desire...can alter what has gone before. No matter how much you wish for things to have gone differently –“
The Southerner looked up from his dark musings to find Vin Tanner watching him from where he leaned against a wall. “Good evening, Mr. Tanner. Is there a specific reason you have ventured out at this late hour?”
Shrugging, the hunter said, “looked like maybe y’ lost somethin’. Thought maybe I’d see if y’ needed a hand or anythin’.”
“I assure you sir,” the Southerner said, pulling himself up ramrod straight, “that anything I may have misplaced is nothing that your keen senses may assist me in recovering.” Touching the brim of his hat, he turned and resumed his walk.
Watching the gambler melt into the darkness, Tanner contemplated his next move. Nodding to himself, the young man followed after the retreating red coat. For several yards he shadowed Ezra, getting no closer and no farther away. By the time they neared the end of the street, Vin knew that he was having an effect. Standish’s walk had changed, becoming something closer to a stomp. His arms were rigid at his side; hands clenching and unclenching in rhythm with his stride. Suddenly the man wheeled around and, with three quick steps, stood in front of the hunter.
“Mistah Tannah,” Standish said, his accent deepening in his anger. “I am certain that there are other matters that ah more deserving of your dogged attention.”
“Not really pard.”
With a deep breath that he expelled in an angry huff, the gambler said, “Perhaps you misunderstand my meaning sir...good night!” With a final glare that told Tanner quite certainly that he had crossed the line by a mile, Standish turned once more and disappeared into the shadows.
This time Vin watched, but made no move to follow. Instead he turned toward the saloon. Chris was watching from the doorway. Saluting his younger friend with a shot glass and a smile that said quite clearly said ‘I told you so’, he moved away into the room.
“Oh, shut up Larabee,” Tanner grumbled under his breath as he turned toward his wagon.
Josiah Sanchez sat on one of the pews in the partially restored church, contemplating the previous weeks. He had nearly been convicted of murder; only divine intervention in the guise of Vin Tanner had saved him from the noose. It was through that same intervention that he had found some small release in the burden he carried in caring for his sister Hannah.
A soft noise at the church door brought his attention back to the present. Turning, he found Ezra Standish standing in the doorway. The young man seemed almost afraid of crossing the threshold, although he had been inside as much – if not more often – than the other peacekeepers.
“I’m sorry...I don’t mean to disturb you, but I saw the lantern light –“
”No need to apologize, brother, come on in.”
Nodding hesitantly, the gambler came into the room and sat stiffly across the aisle from the big preacher. Unable to look at the other man, he stared forward, focusing on the small cross in the window about the alter. He had removed his hat and was twirling it nervously. Sanchez sat quietly, waiting. For several minutes they sat there in silence. Finally Standish spoke.
“Josiah, I seek counsel on an issue that has troubled me deeply for some time.” The fact that he referred to the other man not as ‘Mr. Sanchez’, but as Josiah, underscored the seriousness of the situation. Ezra Standish needed a friend, and that required letting down some of the barriers that had served to set him apart from the others, despite their close association.
“What is it that’s troublin’ you, Ezra?”
“I have...I have been troubled by dreams of late. Nightmares, really, “ he took a deep shuddering breath. “But nightmares based in reality...visions of the past. A past I would prefer to leave as far behind as possible.”
“I take it that somethin’s happened to bring those memories back now?”
“Yes,” Looking at Sanchez for the first time since entering the little church, he said, “the untimely demise of the sweet Miss Dunlap.”
The preacher felt a twinge at the mention of the young woman’s name, but he marshaled his emotions to focus on the gambler’s needs. Remaining outwardly impassive, he allowed the younger man to choose his own path in telling his tale.
“There...was an incident...it occurred some time ago, while I was still in my teens. I had been working with my dear mother; we were making our way through the gambling halls of Missouri.
“I was...very different then...I suppose that goes without saying...”
Josiah smiled but said nothing. Of all of them, the man sitting before him had changed most significantly. Once a loner who had only his own interest at heart, he had proven himself time and again a man of integrity and compassion.
“I was very much my...Mother’s son...much to my current dismay.”
“Ezra, ain’t none of us without regrets for the past. Son, it’s what makes us human...makes us who we are today.”
“Yes...well...I am perhaps the most human of all then...” he paused, favoring the older man with a dimpled smile. It faded quickly as he resumed his story. “In one of the halls where we had taken up temporary residence there was a young girl. She was barely more than a child, younger I would imagine than our innocent Miss Wells. She had been indentured to the owner and worked as...to be blunt...a slave. She worked sunup to sundown and beyond, each and every day. The child was frail and old far beyond her years.
“Her presence did not escape my attention, nor did her state of well-being. However, I could find no benefit to my becoming involved in her plight, while there could be a significant cost. The owner wielded considerable power in the vicinity. Were I to intercede on her behalf Mother and I could have found our livelihood...shall we say...seriously curtailed. So, while my conscience – for lack of a better word – made a valiant effort to make itself known, my pecuniary interests, coupled with my baser sense of self-preservation, managed to squelch it’s voice. Perhaps it was a trick of my guilt...perhaps it was only those same base needs. I make no excuses for my actions...I was no better than the bastard who...who owned her.
“I managed to convince myself that it was none of my business; that she was somehow responsible for the life she had been forced to lead. I surprised myself at how quickly...and easily... I came to believe that to be true. I was able to ignore... the screams...” Standish’s voice broke, and it took him some time to gather himself and continue. “I ignored her pleas for help in the night as that... that bastard... did things that even now I am unable to speak of.”
Josiah nodded slowly; he could well imagine what happened to the child in the darkness.
“And then... one day.. .she did not appear at her usual time. Although her cries for help had been more frequent... and more pitiable... the night before, I convinced myself that all was right with the world and her whereabouts were none of my business. That evening, as I customarily did, I took a walk around the little burg. My travels took me through the alleyways of the seedier side of the town; with it’s more... colorful... inhabitants and their ‘quaint’ customs... such as disposing of things they no longer wanted or needed, by dumping them among the rest of the refuse into those alleys. And it was in one such passageway that I espied a small knot of street urchins, busily converged on something there.
“I have no recollection of a conscious decision to do so, but I found myself approaching the little group. As I did, they departed with the alacrity of the guilty, leaving the object of their interest exposed to both the elements and my unplanned inspection...
“It was her...” he nodded as if agreeing with what Josiah had no doubt already discerned. “She was dead... beaten to death...” his voice broke once more, and he wept bitter, angry tears for many long minutes. Sanchez moved quickly and quietly, crossing the aisle and sitting on the pew near the stricken man. He sat just close enough to lend comfort without actually touching the gambler. He said nothing, allowing Ezra to work through his grief as he needed to. Finally the brown head lifted and he turned a chagrined face toward the other man. “My apologies, Josiah, I... I did not mean to create such a dramatic scene.”
“No apologies necessary, Ezra. Someone told me once that nothing cleansed a soul or a pained conscience as well as tears.”
Shaking his head, Standish said, “I fear that it will take more than a few tears to eradicate the guilt I hold in that young woman’s death. I cannot even properly mourn her... I never knew her name.”
“How can I help?”
“I dare say no one can help; not anymore. It is to late for her... for me, too, I suppose. This is a guilt that I shall always carry...” he paused, shaking his head. “I am sorry to have taken your time with this Josiah. I’ll take my leave.” He started to rise, but the bigger man placed a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“You’ve taken nothing from me, Ezra. If a man can’t turn to his friends for comfort, who can he turn to?”
Standish looked almost shocked at the other man’s calling them friends, but he managed to hide his amazement. Instead he said, “but there’s nothing you can do to help me make amends to the poor girl, there’s really nothing that can be done.”
“Ezra, how old were you when this happened?”
“As I said, I was in my teen years.”
“No, exactly how old? Thirteen...nineteen?”
“I had just celebrated my fourteenth birthday.”
“A boy... younger than J.D.”
“I suppose... but much more traveled than our Mr. Dunne.”
“But still a boy.” He didn’t wait for another answer, but continued. “A boy who saw a injustice. An injustice that the adults around him ignored... that went unpunished even,” he guessed.
“Yes. There were no charges pressed.”
“And the girl’s body?”
“Buried in potter’s field, an indigent waif with no one to mourn her.”
“On the contrary. Someone mourns her to this day.”
Ezra shrugged, not knowing how to respond.
“Ezra, you were not at fault, but you have claimed that fault as your own. Your mother did nothing... the other adults in that town did nothing... her family, if she had one, did nothing to protect and cherish her. But you have carried her in your heart all of these years, Ezra. You have cherished her memory when no one else did. But now it’s time to let her rest. Let it go, the guilt that you’ve used all of these years to keep her alive. No one blames you... no one but you yourself. Say good-bye to her.”
“But to whom do I say good-bye? How can I say good-bye when she is only a nameless memory?”
“Would it help if she had a name?” Josiah asked softly.
Staring again at the crucifix above the alter, Standish considered his answer. “Perhaps... I don’t know.”
“Then let’s give her a name,” the big preacher said quietly. “Make her real enough to say good-bye to, to let go.”
Ezra could only shake his head, his mind too filled with pain to think.
“Mariah,” Sanchez said simply. “A name for the wind. We may not see it, but it’s always with us. Just as this child has always been with you.”
Not quite looking at the other man, a small smile graced the handsome features as the Southerner turned the name over in his mind. Mariah...
Josiah squeezed the younger man’s shoulder gently. “Say good-bye, Ezra. It’s time.”
Nodding, he rose and left the tiny church. The older man watched the younger one as he made his way through the door. Ezra Standish seemed to be walking a bit taller. With a sigh, Josiah wiped a single tear from his cheek, shed for a young girl many years dead. Walking to the alter, he said a prayer as he lit a single candle.
Ezra closed the door carefully and stood for a moment, looking skyward into the night. Bright stars twinkled and danced in the heavens. He fancied that one seemed especially bright, it’s flicker seeming to take some of the pain from his heart. As he stood there he felt a burden lift from his soul.
“Good-bye... Mariah...” He said softly.
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