Vin swore softly and shook his head in disgust, furious at himself for not payin' more mind to the trail, furious at Peso for bringin' him here.
Son of a bitch was as contrary as Chris Larabee!
He bowed his head and ran a hand over his eyes, tired to the bone. But this wasn't what he wanted, what he needed. Hell, he'd never even considered comin' here! Bein' here would only remind him all the more of what he'd had, what he'd lost, what he'd never have again. Bein' here would only make the pain worse. An' he jus' didn't think he could take that.
But neither could he leave. Despite the hurt that would have driven him away, some deep, fierce longing held him rooted in place, refused to let him turn and go back into the endless, aching silence of his own loneliness. So, unwilling to go back, unable to go down, he held Peso atop the small rise, held himself suspended between what lay behind him and what lay before, and let his eyes drink their fill of what he would not allow himself to share.
Goin' down there would be too much like tryin' t' go home, when he knew damn well he didn't have no home t' go to.
All at once, it became too much -- the familiar peace that hung over the place, the welcome he knew he'd get as he'd gotten it so many times before, the sweet solace of a fire that would warm his heart as surely as it would his hands. He wouldn't -- couldn't -- allow himself to need this place so much, else he'd surely lose it, too. Tortured by that thought, that fear, he swallowed hard against the ache in his throat and turned Peso to leave.
The voice stopped him before he could start, startled him into swinging the big horse back around. Staring down through burning eyes, he saw her at the corral, looking back up at him, and pressed a hand hard to his aching chest.
She was walking around the corral, closing some of the distance between them, her eyes never leaving him. "Y'ain't never been rude before, boy," she called in her strong, carrying voice. "I don't aim t' see ya start now. It ain't good manners t' ride up on folks, watch `em a while an' then ride off without a word, like a damned skulkin' Indian! Least ya could do is come down `n say `howdy.'"
Not certain she was real, afraid he had been trying so hard to hear a lost voice that he had simply conjured hers, he sat there, silent and unmoving, and stared down in painful longing.
"Damn it, boy, don't git stubborn with me!" Nettie scolded. "You git yerself down here now, `fore I come up `n git ya!"
His weariness, his loneliness, his pain all rose up hard and strong within him in a crushing wave, taking the breath from his aching chest and bringing the damned tears again to his eyes. Unable to help himself, needing her more than he needed to get away, he gave in with a hoarse groan and kneed Peso down the hill.
Nettie watched him come, had been watching him since first he had topped that rise. Familiar with his ways, though, she had waited in silence, content to give him the time he needed. Until he had started to leave. Something in the way he had done that, something she had seen in his posture, had sent a pang of alarm through her and caused her to call him down. And as he rode slowly toward her, as she saw first the dejected slump of his shoulders, then the torment in the face that could never hide a thing from her, that alarm deepened, and she was grateful she'd had the good sense to stop him from leaving.
The boy, Lord love `im, had got himself in a world of hurt, an' didn't have the first notion of how t' git himself out.
He rode toward her in silence, trying to keep his head down, his face hidden, knowing she could read him when no one else could. To his frustration, he felt another tear sliding down his face, but didn't dare wipe it away, knowing she'd see that, too.
"Vin," she greeted, watching him sharply, knowingly.
"Evenin', Nettie," he said in his soft, raspy voice, still trying to keep his head low enough that his hat shaded his face. He stopped before her but didn't dismount, merely slouched in the saddle and fidgeted nervously with his reins.
She planted her hands on her hips and frowned as his eyes stubbornly evaded hers. "Why won'tcha look at me, son?" she asked directly, lovingly. "You in some kinda trouble?"
He swallowed hard and shook his head, staring fixedly at his hands. "Ain't in no trouble," he drawled, wishing she wouldn't look at him that way. His chest ached all the harder.
Hell and damnation.
"Then look at me."
He started to, then thought better of it. With a sudden desperation he dismounted, if only to get the big horse between them.
But Nettie knew him, and was not about to let him get away with this. She made her way around Peso with a determined stride and positioned herself at his back.
She saw him stiffen, then bow his head, and heard the soft groan that escaped him. Hurting for him without yet knowing why, she sighed and reached out, laying a gentle hand against his back.
"Look at me, son," she urged quietly. "Turn around an' look at me."
He couldn't help himself. He hurt too much and couldn't bear it anymore. With a hoarse, choked cry he turned, and was immediately taken into her arms.
"It's all right, son," she assured him, tightening her hold upon him as he clutched at her and shook from the force of his torment. "It's all right, Vin, I've got ya. I've got ya." She pushed his hat back and drew his head down to her shoulder, tenderly stroking his hair and rocking him in her arms as if he were a little boy.
He clung tightly, desperately to her, afraid this, too, might be taken from him. Hell, everything else in his life had been. Why should this be any different?
She closed her eyes and held him more tightly still as a hard shudder ran through his lean body, and murmured softly, soothingly as she felt his tears wetting her neck. Heedless of time and of the force of his grip on her, she held him, held him for as long as she felt his need. Only when his shaking began to subside and his grip on her loosened did she take him by the arms and push him slightly away, staring into his face. In the dying sunlight, she saw the muddy tracks of tears on his dirty cheeks and the ache in his hollow blue eyes. She smiled and reached up to brush the sweat-matted hair back from his face, letting her hand linger on his cheek.
"Come on in, son. Let's git some food an' coffee inside ya, an' you c'n tell me all about it."
He swallowed and bowed his head, nodding slightly. "Gotta see t' Peso--"
"He'll keep," she said firmly. "You go wash up while I fix ya a plate, then I'll take care of him. An' don't argue!" she ordered as he started to do just that. "I been tendin' trail-weary horses since before you was born, `n this'n ain't no different."
"He don't always take t' others handlin' him," Vin warned softly. "Gits downright o'n'ry. Sometimes he bites--"
"Not more'n once, he won't," she said with conviction. "An' not even th' once, if he's smart."
A slight, crooked smile lifted one corner of his mouth and he nodded, raising his eyes to hers. "Reckon he won't, at that."
She slipped an arm about his waist and started him toward the house. "C'mon on in, let's git you fed. Lord, boy, you ain't but gristle an' bone!"
+ + + + + + +
Maude paced nervously about the room, all the while watching Ezra, who still lay on the bed where Mr. Sanchez had deposited him. He had been sick several times already, and was paler than death, his hair damp with sweat. She had stripped off his coat, vest and boots and made sure his guns were within reach, though she doubted he could use them right now if he had to.
All at once, and entirely to her surprise, it came to her that it actually hurt her to see him this way -- not disappointed, not angered, not disgusted, but hurt. The realization stunned her, for she was not accustomed to hurting over the actions of others. Of Ezra.
She should never have struck him this morning...
The regret was as much a surprise as the hurt, and the unfamiliar sensation stopped her in her tracks and brought her slowly about, her gaze locking on him.
Good Lord, I am in hell, and before me stands the queen.
Was that truly what he thought of her? How he felt about her?
More confused and dismayed than she would have cared to admit, she made her way slowly to the chair she had pulled near the bed and sank heavily down onto it, her green eyes searching his ashen face intently. Had it truly, then, come to that?
She absently reached out and smoothed the sweat-damp hair back from his forehead, struck by how much younger, how much more vulnerable, he looked while sleeping. She hadn't seen him look that way since--
She sighed and drew back her hand, then clasped them both lightly together in her lap. How easy it would be to say "since his childhood," pretending she was intimately familiar with that part of his life. But while Maude Standish excelled at duping and deceiving others, she had never done so to herself, and would not start now.
The stark truth was, she knew precious little about her son's childhood, or any other part of his life.
Oh, to be sure, they had "worked" together countless times, and had proven a masterful team. In his childhood, she had used his youthful "innocence" to great profit, and, as he had grown older, had capitalized on his good looks, silky charm and nimble fingers. He had a true gift for the art of the con, and she was inordinately proud of that.
But what, really, did she know of him, of Ezra? And why in the world did not knowing suddenly bother her so?
Good Lord, surely she was not the only mother on earth not to know or understand her own son?
Frustrated, and confused by that frustration, she got once more to her feet and walked across the room, stopping at the window and staring out into the darkening street below. She could see the men going into and coming out of the saloon, and frowned.
What kept him here, in this dirty little town? And what on earth bound him to those men? What could he possibly hope to gain by his association with them?
Except an early, ugly, ignoble death...
She closed her eyes tightly at that and fiercely willed away the thought. She had seen men meet such brutal ends before, and would not entertain the notion of Ezra doing the same. He would leave before that happened, surely; he had always known when to cut his losses and run. It was part of his survival instinct, an instinct as finely honed as his skill with the cards.
Except that he had already stayed here longer than he ever had anywhere else--
She turned back to her son and stared in bewilderment at him.
What could he possibly have found here?
And what on earth did life with those six gunmen have to offer that life with her did not?
+ + + + + + +
Nettie stepped into the house and closed the door behind her, then stopped short at the sight of Vin. He sat at the table where she had left him, slouched forward in his chair, one elbow on the table, his head in his hand, his fingers thrust deep into his hair. He was staring morosely into his plate and absently pushing food around it with his fork. By the look of his plate, he hadn't eaten a bite.
An' that boy dearly loved her chicken an' dumplin's...
She sighed and shook her head, then set her Spencer carbine in its accustomed place against the wall and hung up her coat. When she figured she had given him enough time, and got no response, she turned and went to him with a firm stride, stopping at his side, her hands planted on her hips.
"Git yer elbow off th' table, son, an' sit up straight," she ordered with her customary directness. "You're in my kitchen, not some damned saloon."
He threw a wide, startled gaze up at her, but obeyed immediately, a slight blush creeping into his cheeks. "Sorry," he murmured softly.
She smiled fondly at him and patted his shoulder lovingly, then glanced again at his untouched plate. "Somethin' wrong with yer supper?"
The blush darkened, and he dropped his gaze from hers, bowing his head. "Reckon I ain't hungry."
"Ya been hungry ever' since I known ya," she countered. "It's a mystery t' me how ya c'n eat th' way ya do an' be as skinny as ya are. Now," she stared down at him, steeling herself against the pain and bewilderment she saw in his face, "ya gonna tell me what's ailin' ya, boy, or ya gonna make me drag it outta ya one word at a time?"
He winced and swallowed hard, shaking his head slowly, confused. He ran his tongue slowly over his lips, grappling for words that would not come. A soft, defeated sigh escaped him, and he shook his head again.
Nettie sighed, too, then went and sat down in the chair across from him. Leaning back, she eyed him steadily and smiled slightly. "In all my born days, I ain't never seen a man as stubborn silent as you, son," she mused. "I reckon if folks'd let ya, ya'd go a month o' Sundays without sayin' more'n three words." She leaned forward suddenly and caught his wrist in a strong grip, her eyes snaring his just as securely. "But I ain't gonna let ya', Vin Tanner!" she warned sharply. "You're gonna talk t' me, tell me what's eatin' ya, or y'ain't leavin' this table!"
He stared at her in wide-eyed, open-mouthed surprise, caught completely off guard by the change in her demeanor. Chris and the others tolerated his long silences, respected them, were hesitant to intrude upon them, and he had gotten used to that. Even when a part of him half-wished one of the boys would nudge him to give voice to the thoughts muddyin' up his brain, another part of him was grateful they didn't.
Truth was, he weren't no good with words, never had been an' never would be, an' didn't have no desire t' be made a fool of by his own tongue. Sides, there was more'n enough folks already who spoke without thinkin'; he didn't see no need t' add t' their number.
But Nettie wasn't about t' give him th' time an' space Chris an' th' others did, he could see it plain. Her sharp, knowin' eyes were diggin' through him like one o' Nathan's knives after a bullet, an', like th' healer, she weren't about t' stop diggin' til she got what she was after.
Hell, it made him wish for some o' Nathan's laudanum...
As if seeing the shadow of that thought in his eyes, Nettie released his wrist and, smiling, patted his hand gently, then rose to her feet. Going to the cupboard, she pulled out a bottle and carried it to the table, uncapping it and pouring a generous portion of its contents into his coffee.
"Reckon this'll take some o' th' stiffness from that stubborn tongue o' your'n," she said.
A slight, grateful smile pulled at his mouth as he smelled the whiskey. "I ain't near as stubborn as you," he said softly, reaching for the cup.
She laughed and took her seat. "'Bout time ya figgered that out, son. Now," she sat back and arched two iron-gray eyebrows, "ya gonna talk, or am I gonna have t' use some o' yer own Comanche tricks on ya?"
He took a deep drink of the whiskey-laced coffee, eyeing her over the rim of his cup. "Ya got a mean streak in ya, Nettie Wells," he said, some of the light returning to his eyes.
"An' don't ya ever fergit it," she teased back, watching in relief as the tension, at last, began to drain from his lean body. The pain, however, remained deep-seated in his eyes, and the sight of it hurt her as no physical wound could. But she said nothing more, knowing exactly how far she could poke and prod him before he holed himself back up in that stubborn silence.
He drank more from the whiskeyed coffee, letting it -- and Nettie's loving presence -- work on him a while. The words, and all that lay behind them, were weighing heavy on him now, and by the time he had drunk half the coffee, he could no longer bear that weight. A long, slow, heavy sigh escaped him, and he bowed his head and closed his eyes, his shoulders slumping beneath their burden.
"I'm fergittin' her, Nettie," he breathed at last, his soft, gravelly voice raw with pain.
He spoke the words so low that she almost missed them, and then wasn't sure she had heard them right. "What?"
His head went lower, his eyes closed tighter. "My ma," he whispered, his voice only a fraction louder. "I'm fergittin' her."
She sat back and exhaled slowly, understanding at last the cause and depth of his pain. Her weathered face softened, and her eyes filled with sorrow and compassion. "Vin--"
"I tried not to," he went on in that same soft, hurt voice, opening his eyes to stare at something only he could see. "I never let a day pass that I didn't think of her, talk to her, try t' see her. She told me to, when she was dyin'. Told me all I'd have t' do is think of her, an' she'd be there. Said that way she wouldn't never really leave me, an' I wouldn't never really lose her." He squeezed his eyes shut again the sudden sting of tears, and pressed the back of his hand to his mouth as a hard, sobbing gasp tore from him. "But I am!" he whispered harshly, fighting desperately against still more sobs pounding at his throat for release. "An' then she'll be gone forever!"
She went to him at once, wrapping her arms about him and pulling him to her, her own tears running freely as she stroked his hair. The wall inside him fractured, then broke entirely, and he clutched at her and buried his face in her, his body shaking from the force of his silent sobs.
She held him, stroked him, but said nothing to him. Lord God, what was there t' say? Th' boy had never had much in his life, still didn't. An' now t' lose th' one thing he'd always had, th' one thing he cherished above all else, th' one thing he'd clung to when ever'thin' else had slipped from him--
What words could possibly ease such hurt as that?
So she merely gave him her silence, and the deep, vast love that lay behind it, the love for and understanding of him that made him hers as surely as if she had borne him. She made no more demands that he talk, knew he would as his own need pressed and the words came. Instead, she merely let him hurt and grieve as he had a right to do, but also let him know that he did not -- and would not -- hurt and grieve alone.
And to a man like Vin Tanner, that simple knowledge meant more than all the words in the world.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra woke slowly, reluctantly, fighting against it but dragged ruthlessly into consciousness, or what passed for it, by the hard, sharp spike being driven mercilessly through his skull. Wondering when and how his head had been mistaken for an anvil, he groaned thickly and turned onto his side, burying his face in the crook of an arm as the cruel pounding behind his eyes grew only worse.
"You see, darlin'," drawled the voice that accompanied the hammer-strokes threatening to cave in his skull, "there's a steep price to pay for seekin' solace and oblivion in a bottle."
A wave of nausea wrung hard at his stomach, and he swallowed desperately against it. "Mothah," he croaked miserably.
Merciful God, was there no one around to shoot him?
Maude sat back in her chair and eyed him steadily. "That was quite a display you put on in the saloon, darlin'. Are you certain the reputation you've cultivated among the citizenry here can withstand it?"
"It's withstood you, has it not?" The nausea hit again, and would not be denied. "Oh, God!" he groaned harshly as his stomach rose violently.
With hands as quick as ever, Maude snatched the chamber pot from the floor and got it under him just as sickness overtook him. She said not a word, merely watched in silent concern and polite revulsion as his stomach emptied itself with a vengeance.
He was humiliated and infuriated that she should see him in such a state. True, he rarely allowed himself to reach this state, considered it a deplorable abdication of the discipline and self-control that had kept him alive this long, as well as an unforgivable corruption of wit and judgment. Yet now, not only to have sunk to such vile depths, but to have done so in her presence--
It was absolutely mortifyin'!
Maude, however, remained silent, saying nothing that would add to his torment. She knew his pride, and could well imagine how his soul must now be writhing in shame. And that shame, she decided, would chastise him far more deeply than anything she could possibly say. It was her trump card, and, as any mother would, she played it without the smallest remorse.
Some lessons could only truly be learned through bitter experience.
When at last his stomach quieted itself, he fell back onto the bed with a breathless groan, his skin glistening with a sheen of sweat, his hair clinging damply to his forehead and temples. Maude sighed and shook her head, then set the chamber pot aside and reached for the cloth in the basin of water on the bedside table. With an unexpectedly gentle hand, she bathed his ashen face and throat, as if it were as natural to her as breathing.
It was not at all what he expected. Deeply suspicious of her silence, her tenderness, he forced open one bleary, blood- shot eye and stared up at her as best he could while the unseen hammer played hell with his head.
"What're you doin' heah?" he rasped tiredly, warily. "What are you aftah?"
"Why, Ezra, darlin', what makes you think I'm after anythin'?"
"Because you are my mothah," he murmured thickly, "and, by the very nature that we share, you must be aftah somethin'!"
A frown pulled at her mouth and darkened her green eyes. "You don't trust me."
The eye closed; it simply hurt too much to keep it open. "You're my mothah," he said again. "Of course, I don't trust you!"
"'Nevah trust anyone,' isn't that what you've always taught? Trust is the prerogative of angels and the coin of fools' -- isn't that one of Maude's Laws?"
She ceased bathing his face and withdrew her hand, staring down at the cloth held in it. "Would you rather it were one of your six associates sittin' here, tendin' you?" she asked softly.
"Mr. Jackson would not be entirely unwelcome," he admitted in a tired, slurred voice. "He has a remarkable facility for easin' pain. The othahs, howevah--" A slight, strained smile touched his mouth at the thought. "Let us just say that tenderness is not conspicuous among their countless exceptional virtues."
"Why do you stay here, Ezra?" she asked quietly, unable any longer to bear not knowing. "What holds you to this town, to these men? Ruffians, gunslingers, and at least one wanted by the law. Really, Ezra, what kind of companions are these? They're simply not--"
"Not what?" he asked darkly. "Not our kind? Not like us?" He laughed shortly, bitterly. "Good Lord, Mothah, I should say not! They haven't a dishonest, dishonorable bone between them, and couldn't lie, cheat or steal if their lives depended upon it. So, no, they are not like us at all!"
"And this town," she went on, ignoring his insult. "Ezra, darlin', what possible standard of livin' can this town provide? You--"
"I have a room, meals, and all th' entertainment I could possibly desire," he answered dryly. "Between the card games, the gunfights, and the occasional horrendous trek into the vast, untamed and thoroughly inhospitable wilderness, I assure you, Mothah, I am nevah bored!"
"Gunfights! Wilderness!" she said sharply, rising to her feet and pacing in agitation. "Listen to yourself, Ezra! You, a gunfighter. Worse, a lawman! I don't understand any of this! It's so unlike you--"
"Unlike me?" he repeated incredulously, opening his eyes and frowning at her words. Despite the merciless pain in his head and the continuing unsteadiness of his stomach, he struggled to sit up and fixed resentful green eyes upon her. "Unlike me? An' jus' how in the hell, Mothah, would you possibly know what is like or unlike me? My deah woman, you don't know the first thing about me!"
She rounded upon him and opened her mouth to protest, but knew he was right and clamped it shut again. Of all the battles they had fought over the years, this was the one she waged with the least conviction, because she knew he was right.
"Do they?" she asked after a long, taut silence.
He blinked and frowned, confused. "Do they what? Who are they'?"
She sighed sharply and shook her head at his dullness. "Do they, your six gunslingin' associates, know the first thing about you?"
The question caught him by surprise, made him uncomfortable and put him instantly on his guard. "Mothah--"
"Do they?" she demanded stubbornly. "What are these men to you, Ezra? What do they see in you? And what could you possibly see in them?"
He thought of them each in turn, six men as unlike himself -- and each other -- as men could possibly be, men as capable and, with the possible exception of young Mr. Dunne, as dangerous as any he had ever seen, men whose sole purpose at times seemed to be to drag him into trouble, danger and discomfort, who seemed determined to see just how miserable they could make him. And slowly, slowly, despite his continued headache and nausea, a smile curved about his mouth.
"More, Mothah, infinitely more than you could evah imagine!"
Maude stiffened at that, her eyes widening, her mouth opening slightly, her heart falling into her stomach. For in that moment, she knew her son, her darlin' Ezra, had broken one of the cardinal rules, had turned his back on everything she had so carefully taught him, had opened himself up to a danger she had never anticipated.
Ezra had found friends.
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