All things are taken from us,
Alfred Lord Tennyson
The little boy watched forlornly as he saw the pretty lady drag her son away from him. It had happened again. He wasnít good enough too play with.
"Come along Billy, now you have to get ready for dinner."
"But ma.," Billy whined as he was dragged into the building across the street.
Sighing deeply the boy moved round behind the Saloon to play where no one could see him.
"Whey hey now, little fella be careful you donít run into anything," a big voice boomed, lifting him gently under the arms and setting him down again out of harms way.
The young boy looked up at the tall lanky man, his face streaked with dirt and tears he hadnít known he had shed. The big man frowned, his blue eyes turning decidedly serious. Although the boy could tell that from the crinkle lines around his eyes that this was a man that laughed a lot. 'Mama wouldíve liked this man,' he thought, 'that is if she hadnít already met him.' The manís moustache turned down if that was possible.
"Whatís wrong, young fella?"
The boy scowled, shaking his head, "nothing."
The man grinned, "Sure looked like something now why donít you tell olí." The boy shook his head again, dodging the hand the man reached out to grab him with and he was off running behind the Saloon to the whorehouse.
The man watched him go, his smile fading as he saw the boyís destination. Rubbing a hand through his hair he sighed, and mentally tried to rid himself of the image of the boyís sad young face. Too young to know such pain, it reminded him of something, with a furious shake of his head he turned and stepped up on the porch watching as four men walked down the street. Turning away from them he went to buy himself a bottle of drink, the fact that the sun had just risen was not a dissuading factor for him, he needed it.
+ + + + + + +
Dust swirled and landed at the feet of the men who walked down the main street of the town they called home, Four Corners. Ezra swiped at the layer of filth with a grimace of distaste, before giving up. One couldnít live in this part of the country without getting a shade dirty.
He glanced at the men walking beside him, JD Dunne, Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner, only Wilmington was missing from the protective entourage that had formed around him upon his return to Four Corners. No one except perhaps Mary Travis knew what had occurred between Josiah Sanchez, Nathan Jackson and himself.
He shook his head against his ruminations his brow frowning at the absentee Wilmington. He thought he could see the tall man down near the Saloon and saw that the other menís attention had also been drawn there, they saw the young boy and smiled so like Buck to help a child.
Ezra frowned, curious as to why the ladies man appeared to glare at them and walk away. Bad night with the ladies he assumed, smirking at the very thought of Buck being unlucky in that particular field.
A hand on his arm stopped him walking and he saw what the other men had seen moments before he had, a carriage pulling up right outside the general store. He saw a woman disembarking and froze.
All colour drained from the Southern manís face and he involuntarily took a step back. "Mother," he whispered his voice a strangled sound that made the other men wince.
"Breathe, Ezra," JD counselled softly, gently leading the other man away from the carriage, it was obvious that he couldnít actually face the woman right now.
Tanner glanced at Larabee and saw that his face had darkened with anger at the Southern belle. "Shall we," Chris said quietly his voice deadly soft. Tanner almost laughed, he was almost afraid for Maude, almost.
Josiah Sanchez nearly had a heart attack as he walked along the sidewalk of Four Corners; he felt more than saw Nathan also freeze beside him. Oh no, it couldnít be - Maude Standish had just returned to Four Corners, and Josiah couldnít help but feel his penance was just about to get worse and he welcomed it. He deserved to be punished.
"Josiah, Nathan," Maude purred, while gesturing for her luggage to be taken to the Ritz hotel. "What a nice surprise."
"Maíam," Josiah answered, his eyes darting desperately and seeing with dread two men dressed in black and beige respectively walking determinedly towards him. "If youíd excuse me. I have to go."
"Stay," Chris ordered flatly, overhearing the last part of Josiahís sentence. Josiah and Nathan watched as Chris and Vin cornered their unsuspecting prey. "We need to talk."
Maudeís eyes widened unintentionally at the tone. "I am sorry, it was a long journey and if youíd allow me to freshen up." As the beautiful woman turned to enter the hotel, her arm was grabbed none too gently by the man in black.
Chris steered her towards the Sheriffís office, "No, we talk now," he rebutted. Maude glared at him, irate at this mistreatment.
"Is this how you would treat your own mother?" She fumed gallantly trying to move away from Chris and backing into Vin who smiled politely, but helped steer her towards the porch.
"No. Then again I never had a mother quite like you, and neither did Ezra," Chris responded coldly. .
Maude gasped, and she turned to Josiah glaring at him, betrayal evident in her countenance. "How could you," she sputtered angrily. Josiah shrugged apologetically following after them as they entered the Sheriffís office.
"A loads easier to bear if you share it," he whispered softly.
"And I can just see that you did," Maude said her southern accent thickening with hurt. She blinked back tears, she would not cry in front of these men. She was stronger than that, she just had to be.
"Whereís my son?" She asked her voice quiet and controlled. "Where is Ezra?"
"Last I saw he was walking away from ya," Tanner drawled, and then winced at the flash of hurt that crossed the Southern womanís face before it was quickly hidden away.
"I see," she murmured, pulling out a handkerchief and patting at her face softly, trying to rid herself of the heat of this small room.
Ezra Standish stumbled into the saloon, normally the place seemed to be a haven of sorts, but now it was only a prison. He was vaguely aware of the small man beside him, guiding him none too gently towards their usual table at the back of the saloon.
He was shoved done into the spare seat, and a drink pushed quickly in front of him. He knew that JD was talking, but all he heard was noise, it was just noise.
The one clear thing vibrating through it was the words of Josiah and Nathan "Well, Maude ainít your mother either".
He gulped feeling the sting of the bitter liquid but quickly threw back another one. He couldnít breathe, he was shaking again ĎDamn ití he thought staring at the table, he was getting past it, dealing with it. Now he found that it was all an illusion, he was no more past it than Chris over his familiesí death. No, he couldnít deal with this now, and all he wanted to do was run.
+ + + + + + +
You canít play with him child. His motherís a lady of the night
You get away from here, you scoundrel
Ya go on home, now ya hear? I donít want you around my children
Your mamaís a prostitute, what does that make ya? A bastard
Buck shook his head at the memories that had risen unbidden with that small boy. His hand trembled and clenched at the darkness that descended on his soul, it was too much. Too much had happened because of him, hell Chris wouldnít be sitting around this dump if it werenít for him. It was his entire fault, those little kids in the past had been right he was nothing to anyone, everything he touched turned to dirt.
He breathed out heavily, running a ragged hand across his face tiredly. God, he couldnít keep thinking like this- it didnít do anyone any good, least of all him. With a concerted effort he pushed the thoughts away; it didnít pay to be so morbid, the ladies wouldnít like it.
Glancing up, Buck watched with curiosity from his vantage point in the shadows, the two men in the corner. He hadnít seen them come in, but he had seen Dunne push the obviously unsteady gambler into a chair. He looked ill. Buck frowned, his mind shifting away from the early memories of the small child, he moved away from the wall. He headed towards them; he didnít like the way Standish was downing the drinks. He saw JD look vainly at the door of the saloon, as if the devil itself might enter. That Dunne hadnít seen him yet was an indication that something was up. Seating himself down at the table, JD looked at him in surprise while Ezra was staring at the table as if it held his salvation.
Wilmington frowned. The Southernerís shaking was noticeable only when he raised his hand to down a shot. "What happened?" Buck drawled his blue eyes meeting the wide brown ones.
Dunne swallowed hard his own face pale. "Maude," he replied simply.
The Southerner flinched moving as if to rise, but the two men grabbed his arms keeping him in his place.
"Donít run," Buck said softly, as desperate green eyes swung up to him, and the two men winced, the poker face was gone. Leaving the silent desperation and anguish on the Southerner's face.
"I canít face her" he whispered haltingly.
Both men nodded glancing at each other, they pulled the faltering man to his feet and headed towards the livery, they were going for a ride.
Maude sighed irritably as she glanced down the boardwalk, she had only glimpsed her sonsí back in the past few days. She hadnít spoken a word to anyone other than that annoying Mr Larabee and his sycophantic team. Why Ezra had decided to stay, sheíd never know. She only knew that she regretted it more than she did anything she ever had in her entire life.
"Maude?" Josiah prodded gently, waiting for the woman to continue her narrative. Josiah glanced up at Chris who lifted his shoulders, they couldnít force her to tell them why.
"It was a long time ago," Maude declared, playing with the fabric on her elegant dress.
ĎObviously.í Tanner thought absently, his mind running over where Ezra had taken Dunne, they had been riding an awful lot lately. But then again JD had been literally through this situation before so he knew what to say.
Sure he could read the Southerner pretty well and that meant that he knew when to back off, and right now Ezra had needed the presence of his friends, but not the platitudes. They sounded false at the moment, with only Dunneís phrase Ďit takes time.í Ringing totally true.
Tanner rubbed his chin thoughtfully, wondering what could make a woman lie to her son for so many years.
"Should make it easier in the telliní then," Vin drawled, his blue eyes clashing with hers.
He could read that she felt betrayed by Josiah, she had trusted him with her greatest secret and he had betrayed her. Tanner could see that the woman they knew as Maude was just barley fumbling to stay composed.
"Indeed, Mr Tanner," she replied. "But I really think that I should be telling Ezra this, after all he is my son."
"Thatís debatable," a southern voice called distinctly from the doorway of the Church. Maude gasped in shock, turning they all saw the man framed in the doorway. The afternoon sun highlighted him. His face was in shadow, but his tone clearly conveyed the depth of his malevolence towards the woman that had just spoken.
Maudeís eyes pricked with tears. "You donít know why, Ezra."
"Oh pray, do tell us mother why you lied to me for so very long? Why mother?" Ezra challenged, his eyes glinting in fury.
Maude gasped at the anger and betrayal she could see there, she had seen it there many times before when she had taught him lessons to keep him sharp, but it had always been tinged with love and understanding of why she had done it. This time all she could see was anguish behind the blind anger in the familiar features, she had caused the betrayal, which she had thought would come from these men.
She felt her heart constrict in pain, and she knew that the words that she should tell him would only hurt. As his mother she couldnít abide that - in the blink of an eye she decided that her only salvation lay in the methods that had gotten her out of so many despicable situations. Therefore she knew the best defence was in a good offence.
"Why?" Maude snorted, rising to her feet and walking towards Ezra. "Why not? Isnít it what I do, baby?" she saw him wince and take a step back in surprise. Smiling coldly, she continued "You donít want to know why I did it, Ezra" she stated firmly, dismissing the subject and moving as if to leave the room.
"For a con?" Ezra asked shattered, grasping hold of the door frame as if it was a lifeline as the anger dissipated from him.
Maude didnít respond but just gazed at the handsome gambler, pity displayed on her features. "I told you, you donít want the truth, son" the last word was out before she could reel it back in, she hoped no one realized the heavy truth in that statement.
Ezra stared at her in disgust, the other men werenít sure if it was for himself or her. "I never meant anything, did I?" he asked, his green eyes hard and the poker face was back, "It was all just a game, wasnít it?" he muttered more to himself, seeing the looks of sympathy on his fellow comrades faces.
Maude smiled maliciously, preparing herself for what she would next say and the pain that would surely appear on his face. "Of course, dear. I have to keep my skills sharp somehow and you were very useful."
He took another step back, staring at her anguish etched in his features. "God, Iíve been a fool." With that he was gone.
Maude watched him go, her back to the other men; she could see Ezra shake his head, rubbing the back of his head agitatedly as he walked towards the saloon. "Iíll be leaving this afternoon," she said, walking out the door.
Tanner drew in a breath deeply, he sat down on one of the pews and stared thoughtfully at the other men. Larabeeís green eyes were hard. "We gotta find Ezra."
Sanchez nodded, his big frame leaning wearily against the pulpit. "Thatís right. But I think Maudeís lying."
"Yeah, sheís lying alright. Question is why?" Tanner mused thoughtfully.
Chris nodded, "Yeah. But letís go find Ezra, I got a feeling heíll be drinking his dinner."
+ + + + + + +
Maude hurried away from the Church, this time uncaring as to how she Ďappearedí to the population of the town. She strode fast needing the privacy of her room, only when she had shut and firmly bolted her door did she allow herself to break down and cry. She had lost her baby.
Ezra sat staring unseeingly out the window of the saloon, a half-full bottle of whisky stood a lone soldier on the table. He quickly poured himself another shot and tossed it back. All he wanted was sweet oblivion, anything to make the noise stop, so many thoughts, and so many memories. So much pain.
He closed his green eyes briefly. He wanted so badly for it to be a bad dream, he had thought he could forgive her. But he was just a mark, he was nothing to her. Standish looked up to see his friends making the way down the busy main street, he knew that they would come, and there was a comfort in that despite the pain that was seemingly trying to over take him.
He had thought she loved him, he had thought that even though she left, she loved him in her own way. He could feel the empty darkness building within, and he felt alone. But, he knew he wasnít, the other men were here, they wouldnít leave him. And he wanted to believe it, he did. But, he didnít know how he could ever believe in anything ever again.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah and JD watched as Chris and Vin entered the Saloon. JD shifted his hat in his hands for a moment. "Heíll want to be alone. Josiah, you come with me."
The big man knew that it wasn't a plea for company, rather it was an order. He marvelled at the twist that had made him suddenly see the boy turn into a man - pity he had caused it. No, correction, he hadnít caused it, it had just made them all realise that the boy had been a man long before they had acknowledged it. Now they knew it, and it showed in the deferential respect that some of the men treated him with.
+ + + + + + +
Wilmington saw the mother drag her son away, and he frowned, his hand clenching the railing. He had heard the womanís voice clearly, it had carried all the way across the street.
"Now you get away from us, ya hear. Donít want the likes of you playing with my son."
The boy watched them go his face a mask of sorrow, he didnít understand why no one would play with him.
Wilmington could feel the despair from the boy, and his hand tightened into a fist. He had been that boy, it just wasnít right the way that woman was treating him.
Chris walked up quietly, his black coat left behind, leaving him standing in his tailored vest and striped shirt. He had seen Buck when he had exited the Saloon and had been concerned when he saw the stillness and the air of despair that had hung around him.
His eyes followed Buckís line of sight and he frowned. That little boy was the son of the new addition to the whorehouse. Curious, he leaned against the railing beside Buck, his arms resting on the hard rough wood. "Was it like that for you growing up?" He asked quietly.
Buckís form abruptly stiffened, his eyes flashing rage. "Back off, Chris," he growled. He had his demons and right now he didnít want to share that particular one.
"Easy, Buck," Chris answered, raising himself up to face the man that now stood quivering with - rage or despair he wasnít sure. "It was a fair question."
"Sure. It was fair. What ya gonna do, feel sorry for me?" Buck stormed. His anger growing at the concern that suddenly appeared on the gunslingerís face. Buck moved to walk away from him to head towards the Saloon. Chris grabbed his arm, and Buck shrugged it off, pushing the other man so hard that he fell off the sidewalk, hitting his head on the water trough. Buck stilled for a moment.
ĎOh God! He thought. Iíve killed him.í Leaping off the porch he knelt down beside the fallen man. There was blood pouring from a wound on his forehead. "Jesus, Chris, I am sorry. Iím sorry. IĎve killed him," he muttered. "Iíve killed him," he repeated to himself. It took him a moment to realise that his friend needed help, help that he couldnít give. Standing he whirled around, yelling for Nathan. Buck didnít see Chris begin to blink his eyes and begin to focus blearily on his surroundings. He didnít see the hand twitch.
He looked away, murmuring quietly. "Maybe I will see Josiahís crows tonight after all."
Suddenly they were all there; Nathan dispensing orders, Vin kneeling down beside Chris. JD being held back gently by Josiah. Ezra was there being watched carefully by JD and the large man beside him. Buck heard Nathan say two words in the next few minutes that made his heart fall like lead. "It's bad..."
It was his fault. His fault. Buck felt despair and desolation grip him. Chris was dead because of him. Sarah and Adam dead because of him - countless others.
Course he shouldíve known, it was bound to happen sooner or later. He was no good. He should have learnt the lessons of his childhood, that a man that had a background like his could never make good. He was always going to be stained with dirt, these were the sins of his past. He could never escape it.
Backing quietly away all he could think was that maybe it was better for these men if they hadnít met one Buck Wilmington.
He knew Ezra was hurting with his mama in town, but what could a man like him do to help? Heíd just make it worse. God! Ezra was hurting and he had just gone and made it worse for them all. ĎMaybe, I really am a bastard.í
Buck rode hard, his blue eyes not noticing the scenery as it passed by. His heart ached in his chest, a real or imagined pain. It didnít matter. He had let them all down. He was no good. He was going to hell for what he had done, and one way or another Buck was determined that he would end up in a pine box tonight. After all he already knew how it felt to lie in one in this hellhole.
Seeing the outlaws that circled around each other like vultures, pecking on the remains of dead animals. He wanted to stop the hurting, and the only way he could do that was to make sure that no one else had the misfortune of meeting him.
ĎIíve killed my oldest and best friend, and because I chose to believe in Kate and Mady it nearly killed JD.í "Yeah," he mused sliding off his horse as he walked into the dank and dusty saloon. "Itís better that I die now, rather than later."
+ + + + + + +
Chris stared impatiently at Nathan "Would you cut that out!" he snapped as he made to rise from the bed, but a flash of vertigo made him pause.
The black man snorted as he gave him a small grin, his white teeth flashing "Told you" he laughed.
Larabee gave him a stare that would give most men pause but made the other just laugh. "We need to get after Buck," he murmured around the wave of nausea that swam over him.
Tanner grunted in response "We know, you told us, and we will" his blue eyes meeting his best friends.
"So why you still here?" Chris groaned weakly, collapsing back onto the bed, holding his head as he pitifully moaned. "Would you boys quit jumping around?"
Tanner chuckled, his eyes dancing with amusement despite the seriousness of the situation "Ainít leaving yet, we have to wait till morning" he said seeing the agitation rise in the other man. "No use Chris, we ainít heading out till morning, youíd be insane to head towards Purgatory at night" he stated bluntly as he shook his head at the man who lay on the bed.
Jackson muttered "Sometimes I think yíall are".
Tanner laughed again, rising to his feet he patted Larabeeís arm "Going to check on Ezra" concern shifting over his features at the thought of his friends.
Tanner walked towards the church, he could see Josiah and JD sitting on the steps. "Where?" he asked softly, the quite of the night making his voice sound like a cannon.
"Inside" Josiah responded wearily, as he raised his head to look at the tracker.
Vin nodded and moved silently up the steps and into the church.
A few candles lighted it and a lone desolate figure sat in one of the pews. "Ezra?" Vin said quietly as he sat down next to the gambler.
Standish glanced at him, his eyes suspiciously bright. "How is he?" he drawled his voice heavy with pain.
"Stubborn" Vin returned, leaning back on the hard wooden pew.
Standish gave a soft laugh that vibrated around the room. "Nice to know some things are constant" he drawled sardonically.
Tanner winced slightly at the tone. The silence was heavy between them and while the tracker normally enjoyed the quiet, he didnít like this one.
"Iím worried about Buck" Vin continued softly as he rubbed his jaw wearily, trying to distract the other man from his dark thoughts. He could see the pain in every fibre of the Southernerís being. The gambler turned slightly as he raised an eyebrow in question.
Vin shrugged "Buck said something about crows before he ran off, just after them two got into it" he said wearily.
Standish looked confused for a moment, as his eyes assessed the bounty hunter. "Crows?" He shook his head. Wilmington had to be pretty desperate if he mentioned them.
Guilt assayed the gambler, he had known something had been troubling the ladies man for a while but he had been too caught up in his own crisis.
"About what?" he inquired as he studied the church. It was really quite beautiful in its simplicity, a pity that all was destroyed by this afternoon. Pushing that away with determination, he concentrated on the man before him.
The Texan sighed heavily "Chris and Buck watched that new.. um.," Tanner paused as he wondered how to phrase it delicately but Standish supplied the word "Courtesan" Vin smiled pleased to see that at least Ezra was listening. "Her son was playing with some little boy, and apparently the mother didnít approve of the ladies son, guilt by association" he said softly.
Standish sighed "Like Buckís childhood" as the tracker nodded, although he had the distinct feeling there was more to it.
Standish leaned forward then, resting his head on his hand. "Where is the famed ladies man now?" he drawled.
Vin shrugged again as he shook his head, "His tracks lead towards Purgatory, weíre heading out in the morning, canít go tonight".
The con man nodded in agreement "It would be unwise to step into that city and I do use the term loosely, at night".
The tracker chuckled, "least ways you understand, Chris was about to jump on a damn horse and head there now, damn near get killed you head that way at night".
Vinís eyes flashed with what could only be a bad memory, and Standish reached over before he thought about it and gave the arm a gentle squeeze, Vin looked startled by the gesture but nodded at Ezra, who shifted on the seat slightly embarrassed.
"Well then, it would be prudent to leave at dawn then".
The tracker grinned, rising to his feet "which means some shut eye" he pulled the gambler to his feet not waiting for the denial and pushed him towards the hotel.
"Get some sleep, Ezra" the preacher called softly, to the gamblers back. The other man nodded slightly at the words, and the three men watched him go.
Standish headed into the saloon and towards his room, quickly grabbing a few items. He waited till Vin was at his wagon, and Josiah and JD were gone, before he slipped into the livery and saddled one of the horses, he wouldnít fail Buck now.
Buck glared in utter disbelief as he saw Ezra Standish enter the Saloon near dawn. The men shared a look, only Buck couldnít hold it seeing the pain in Ezraís eyes. Pain that he had helped cause. His eyes glistened for a second before he turned to exit the saloon.
Ezra rubbed his face wearily. The utter devastation in Wilmingtonís demeanour had told him too much and suddenly he was glad that he had followed after the scoundrel.
The other men would probably just be finding out right about now that he was missing.
But that was not important, for it was obvious Buck was aiming to end up in a box; a pine box. Resolutely he gathered himself, brushing off his clothes as if brushing aside his own pain.
He found Buck outside saddling his mount, glaring at a woman that had walked up and tried to engage him in conversation. Ezraís eyes narrowed. This was not going to be an easy task.
+ + + + + + +
"What!" Chrisís voice boomed in the silence of dawn. He ignored the startled shifting of the horses and sat down heavily on the edge of the boardwalk. "When?"
Vin shifted uneasily. "Donít rightly know. Mustíve been late last night. Rode after Buck Iíd assume."
Dunne nodded. "Heís burying it." Suddenly his eyes fastened on Chrisís and the older man read a desperation there. Chris stood, walking over to the younger man.
Chris grabbed the younger manís shoulder. "You know Buck..." Larabee trailed off not able to finish the thought.
JD grinned half-heartedly. "Thatís what I am afraid of, Chris" The younger manís voice lowered so that only Chris heard him. "Iíve been thinking about it all night, and Buckís been kinda strange since this whole thing with Ezra started."
Chris frowned, realising that JD was right. Why hadnít he noticed it? Because damn it, the ladies man had been trying to hide it from them all. God. Just like Standish. Why did he have to have such stubborn friends who for all their apparently outgoing natures, hid away their pain? Chris shook his head, rubbing the bandage on his head. "I think you're right, JD. Letís just hope that-" He stopped.
Vin finished the sentence for him. "That Buckís not like Ezra in Eagle Bend." The two men turned, startled by the quiet approach of the tracker. JD and Chris nodded at the comment. They couldnít argue with that, itís exactly what they had been unwilling to say.
Vin shrugged, then pointedly looked at the horses. "Gotta get moviní if we wanna make it by lunch."
Chris stepped back to allow JD to mount his horse. His hand going to steady himself as a wave of dizziness assaulted him. Vin steadied him, unobtrusively guiding him to the boardwalk to sit down with a firm hand. Chris smiled thinly. Who wouldíve thought the Tracker would be a mother hen? Nathan frowned at him. His face clearly telling the leader that he was going to be sentenced to more bed rest.
Chris sighed as he watched Vin touch his hat in a salute that had become so familiar to him.
JD gave a brief wan smile. Then they were gone, their horses cantering out of the town gracefully.
Chris stood slowly watching the dust settle again. Buckís comment about crows and Ezraís face yesterday in the Church had worried him more than he cared to admit.
Buck hadnít actually talked to him about his past. As his spurs clicked on the ground and Nathanís guiding hand on his back, Chris realized that Buck had never ever spoken about it. Buck avoided it, diverting the conversation to other stories about women and men that he knew. Buck used stories as means of protecting himself - just as he himself had used silence.