∼The touch of a lover makes everyone a poet∼ (Plato)
Chris collided with Ezra as he turned the corner outside the cigar shop. They barreled into one another with one heck of a thump because Chris’s head was firmly in the past and he was striding along the sunny boardwalk with mindless intent, not looking where he was going.
And Ezra was coming the other way, maybe to find him. Both were left breathless from the impact although it was Ezra who swept off his hat, full of apologies, guileless for once. Chris felt a brief pain grasp his midriff at the clean, fresh-shaved smell of him. He vaguely processed some wordy panegyric about it being a happy accident on this beautiful day, which mostly drifted past his consciousness, then a quieter, more personal, “Perhaps, if you’re not busy, we could... go out somewhere for a while?”
Chris just closed his eyes tight against the feel of the sun.
He could detect the sharp scent of cologne, knew Ezra was looking at him. Standing there on the corner outside the cigar shop with his hat in his hand, doubtless wondering why his suggestion, so welcome last week, was being met with silence.
Chris opened his eyes slowly, a more familiar twist in his gut now. It really didn’t make any difference what Ezra was wondering.
“I can’t be with you,” he said, straight out.
He absolutely knew what he meant, that it was just today he couldn’t handle—this sunny, spring day—not every day. It was vital to add that clarity, of course, to ease away the hurt he at once saw, but Chris couldn’t manage it. Right now it was too hard to imagine any other days being different to this one, really, deep down different.
Ezra was completely knocked back, of course. He dropped his eyes so he wouldn’t show it, brushed at the dust on the crown of his hat, a nervous tic, nodded too many times. When he looked up again he was trying to smile with cool good manners across whatever he was really feeling. And mostly failing.
“Of course.” His voice was smooth and flat. “As you like. I happen to have an appointment in the saloon in any case.”
He settled his hat on his head, looked out across the street unseeing. When he moved smoothly around Chris to step off the boardwalk, he touched two fingertips to the brim without making eye contact, made sure that, this time, their shoulders didn’t so much as brush.
Chris felt a queasy relief as Ezra walked away, immediately followed by a crushing regret. The two feelings twined in a knot, the resulting discomfort making him want a drink stupidly hard.
There’d been the same need for that punishing burn when he’d come to this morning - just from the sight of the early light across the ceiling, the knowledge of what day it was. Stupid, illogical, but not exactly unexpected.
He’d been only too aware of today’s date approaching like a dust cloud on the horizon and had laid down a light layer of whiskey last night in preparation. The liquor had edged him into sleep before he could begin to dread the next day coming. But you couldn’t stop the next day coming, and the memories were there, strong as ever in his head, soon as he awoke.
April 24th eight years ago had been a day brimming with hope. He couldn’t forget that. Or the profound happiness there’d been in every single second of it, a lightness of heart Chris figured he wouldn’t ever have again. And that was about the size of it, the reality he couldn’t ignore. That knot of pain, always there, always reminding him, had felt tight enough to near kill him this morning. He wondered what it’d take to be rid of it for good.
So at first he’d just wandered down to the street, nauseous with tension. He’d asked himself, almost to his own disgust, if coffee and eggs might help. Some company perhaps? The thought of that lifted him a little, but then he’d thought himself a fool. It seemed that staying in town this long, with this group of men, had softened his brain, made him reliant, made him forget.
But he’d grit his teeth and clumped along to the saloon, hardly aware of what clothes he’d dressed in. Nathan and Buck had been there when he arrived, and Inez was in a carefree mood, humming to herself behind the bar. He’d sat, ordered some breakfast, accepted a full cup of coffee, just as he might do any morning.
“Good day for a ride out of town,” Nathan had said to him after a while, not knowing the significance of any of it.
And when Chris had turned his head and obediently looked out the window, the April sunshine and jaunty, scudding clouds did make it seem like that – a good day for... something. At the sight of it, though, a wash of bitter truth had slopped right through him. Whatever was out there could damned sure never be as good or as meaningful as what he’d lost. He’d finished his coffee, made his excuses and left. Buck would have known why.
Outside Chris had tried to walk it off, because Hell, he wasn’t so special. Didn’t everyone have their own problems and tragedies, memories they could hardly stand to live with? And by the same token, didn’t everyone have to turn the corner sometime?
It wouldn’t walk off. Everything was too much like it had been that day, eight whole years ago, the first wedding anniversary. The pretty light, the sharp smell of the wind. There was even the exact same billowy blue sky overhead. A day fresh and breezy, bursting with spring, making all that love stuff possible.
Back then he’d left their little house in the morning, pretending he hadn’t remembered; and Sarah, stirring a pot at the range, one hand on her beautifully rounded belly, had kissed him on the lips goodbye, gaily pretending she didn’t care one way or the other. Chris knew by the spark in her eye and the toss of her head that she was bluffing. It was delicious, made him glad to be alive.
In town Buck—so damned earnest it hurt—told him he’d just better think of something to mark the day or not bother going home at the end of it, and Chris had laughed at him because of course he’d always meant to and Buck’s serious face was a picture.
First anniversary was paper, so he’d made her a flower. Like no flower he’d ever seen in a garden, mind, but she’d twirled the stem in her fingers, worn it in her hair. And she’d kept it, kept it close. Even when it had gotten squashed all out of shape she’d kept it in a little wooden box with her grandma’s locket and her mama’s wedding band. Chris guessed it had been in a drawer somewhere, got melted to ashes.
Sarah had cooked chicken and dumplings eight years ago. Of course she had. She’d been wearing her prettiest non-church dress, altered yet again just a few days before so it would fit, when he rode the wagon home and gave her the flower and a kiss.
“Could be a prairie rose,” she’d said, fingering the paper petals carefully, seriously, as if they were real. Then she’d smiled, mischievous. “Or a buttercup.”
They’d sat on the porch after supper and because it was warm she’d kicked off her shoes and rested her bare feet on his lap. Hard-working feet, she’d said, apologizing. But he’d thought them pretty, had rubbed the hard work out of them. They’d made plans and talked to her belly. Sarah said she thought the baby was kicking her so bad because he’d had enough dumplings and chat, must be ready to come. He must be ready to get out and meet the world she’d said. ‘He’, of course, because they always thought they’d be blessed with a boy. And then only days later ‘he’ had been there. Adam Henry, for his grandfathers. Red and wrinkled, with nothing but a tuft of down on his head, bonny bright eyes and a fine set of lungs. The most precious thing.
Chris could see himself standing by the crib with his heart full to bursting, knew that had been him back then. Not the wild him, or the broken him who only got out of bed in the morning to carry on looking for his family’s killers, but the real him. It was who he wanted to be, too, a man at peace with his world, lucky, happy, cherished. On days like this it just cut so deep that she wasn’t here, that his precious little boy had been lost, that he had to go around being this other him. This other him that Ezra wanted.
“Mornin’,” said a voice and he jumped back into the now.
Ezra was long gone to fester his day away in the saloon and Vin was down on the dusty street, thumbs in his belt. Giving him a look.
“Vin,” Chris responded, head still with Sarah on the porch.
“Thought I’d go ride in with the stage.”
There’d been trouble the last few miles into town lately. They’d talked about keeping an eye on things. Chris forced his mind to engage with it, to pull away from the pain.
“Sounds like a plan.”
“Want to ride along?”
Chris took a breath. He thought about how that’d look, to Ezra, how hard the man found it to see things as they really were sometimes. And then he thought about himself kicking his heels in town all day long, trying to avoid Ezra, crazy with thinking he wanted a drink, wanting to be on his own, distraught at being on his own.
“Nice day for it I guess,” he answered, aware how flat he sounded.
Vin made a face, his eyes crinkling under the hat. “Nice day?” he said, unaccountably amused. “Can’t you smell it? Gonna be a fuckin’ big storm later.”
Stepping down off the boardwalk into full sunlight Chris fell into step and they walked. The pain walked along with him, wouldn’t be left behind, not even with Vin at his side. As they drew near the livery he was vaguely aware that Vin had raised a hand in brief greeting to Josiah on the church steps. His own hand felt like a lead weight at his side.
The heaviness was familiar, debilitating.
All day long he fought it, tried to beat it off.
Because he was riding out with Vin, he didn’t need to talk much although he half wanted to. They met up with the stage near Baker Pass, escorted it as far as the woods just outside town. The driver was mighty relieved and his passengers cheery and grateful. Chris tried to force words up his tight throat and out. There hadn’t been any trouble so he hadn’t needed to switch his mind to deal with that.
By the time the stage was rattling safely down the road into town, the weather started to turn, just as Vin predicted. It began to cloud over, ominous, a bank of gray rolling in from the north. Chris thought maybe that would do it. Banish all the thoughts about that sunny day, his lost son, his lost wife, the lost paper flower. But it didn’t of course.
“Look like you could use a drink.” Vin was regarding him again that same way, reading him best as he could.
Chris met the light eyes square on. They were eyes that didn’t ask, didn’t angle, didn’t need.
“Reckon I’m better on my own.” He glanced behind them down the road at the last corner before the distant roofs of town would come into view. Then he shifted in the saddle and stared in the other direction, towards the hills. “At my place.”
Vin hardly missed a beat. He nodded. “All righty,” he said, trusting, and with no censure. Probably the only one of them who wouldn’t have tried to change Chris’s mind on the spot. “Take it easy.”
When Vin extended his arm Chris clasped it, the close contact almost a shock. The grip was strong, warm, saying all those things Vin didn’t tend to say in words. Ezra would have been babbling fit to bust in the same situation, Chris thought, like he nearly always did. Tanner just touched his hat, wheeled his horse around in a graceful arc and disappeared from the day same way he’d appeared.
Chris watched him go. His mouth felt dry, the bone-headed need for whiskey buzzing in his brain.
When he got into the hills there were already some spatters of rain. By the time he’d reached the shack there was a swirl of wind. It blew crossways across his face as he arrived, humid and full of dust. He saw to his horse, made sure it was rubbed down, fed and watered. Sheltered it as far as possible in the little roofed stall Vin and Josiah had built between them last summer, standing near the trees across the yard. They were the usual routine tasks and he knew when they were over he’d have to get himself inside, and then either face up to his thoughts, banish or blank them out somehow. Hoping that tomorrow would be better.
By the time it was dark he’d discovered there wasn’t enough fuel to get the pot-belly stove lit. There was oil for the lamp but that was about it. It didn’t bother him much. The only thing he might have wanted to heat up was the coffee pot, and there wasn’t any coffee anyhow. Despite the rain he wasn’t chilled beyond repair. The bedding was dry enough and he had a few spare clothes in the squat little standing closet. He’d found the whiskey and some food on a shelf. Nothing homely enough to drag at his memories, just a dented tin of beans and some jerky. He had water, too, and the whiskey would suit him fine - an unopened bottle of gut-rot with the label half unstuck. The tin, the jerky, the empty coffee pot, and the bottle sat on the rough-hewn table waiting for him while he stripped off his damp outer clothes and boots. Maybe they’d be a cure. A purgative. Despite the change in the weather, the loss of the similarity to eight years ago, his chest felt tighter than ever. Almost painful.
He sat in his longjohns and undervest, chewed the jerky out of necessity for sustenance rather than because he wanted it. His stomach alternately rolled and cinched in on itself. He ate a few mouthfuls of the cold beans with a bent spoon, washed each down with great gulps of whiskey. Listened to the rain gaining in intensity, then stood with bottle in hand, staring through the black glass of the window, his mind and gut unquiet, unanswerable questions roiling through him.
When the hell was he going to turn the corner? What the hell would it take?
The ill-fitting panes rattled in the gusty wind that had bowled him along the trail. It had hardly stopped since he arrived. The surface of the glass was busy with the constant slide of fat raindrops. Nothing could be seen out.
A draught caught the backs of his legs through his longjohns. There was an air of damp in the small dwelling, especially after today. It was really no place to be on a night like this. Not unless you intended to drink yourself into a stupor and then roll up in the assorted blankets that were dumped on the low cot in the corner.
He turned, bringing the bottle to his lips.
And heard the distinct sound of footsteps. Close, moving across the boards of the porch towards the door, muffled by the mud and the wind.
Chris tried to clear his head. The hair on the back of his neck prickled. His main thought was to get to his gun, although as he weaved across the small room he didn’t leave hold of the bottle. Before he reached the chair where he’d slung his gun-belt there was a fist to the door. The panel rattled in its frame.
Who the hell would be polite enough to knock for entrance in this weather? Anyone looking to jump him sure wouldn’t. Those who knew him well wouldn’t. Buck wouldn’t, Vin wouldn’t. Both would have yelled out their presence long in advance. Hell, none of them would bother knocking, except perhaps...
Fumbling the latch he threw open the door, nearly staggered as cold wind and rain rushed him.
A round-shouldered figure stood out on the porch, huddled under the meager overhang of the roof, saddle-bag in hand. Behind the familiar shape everything looked pitchy black. Chris felt harried, unbalanced, but he also felt a surge of the sharp-edged euphoria this particular visitor often gave him.
It wasn’t like Ezra to ride out in a slight rain shower, never mind towards a full blown gale. Standish didn’t care for riding in the dark, he didn’t care for getting wet, and had made it known on more than one occasion he didn’t at all care for Chris when he was determined to get drunk. Ezra’s dark jacket was heavy and water dripped from the brim of his hat.
“Chrissake.” Chris felt the sluggishness of his mouth, the way the words stuck to his tongue. He didn’t really want more whiskey, just the thickness of it in his system, weighing his limbs, deadening his senses and dragging him into sleep.
Ezra, face mostly hidden by his hunched posture and hat pulled over his brow, advanced over the threshold, uninvited. Chris shut the door against the weather by staggering into it. His cold hand reached shakily for the latch. When he turned around Ezra had slung down his saddle-bag in some kind of disgust, was regarding the bottle in his hand.
Chris held it towards him, challenging rather than hospitable, but Ezra shook his head. He removed his sodden hat, letting it drip on the floorboards as he watched Chris take another swig.
“Why don’t you stop now?” he said, his drawl roughened by the damp air.
Ezra had that look on him - sure of himself, in control of a situation and anyone who came near him, full of fire and danger. He reached into his soaked jacket and removed what turned out to be a fat packet of Arbuckles, well wrapped in a square of oilskin. It was thrown towards the table, landed with a defiant thump right next to the coffee pot. Then Ezra stripped off the jacket, draped it round a chair and tossed a sardonic look at the cold stove.
Chris felt his face twist.
“So let me get this right... you came all the way out here to make sure I had my morning coffee?”
At Ezra’s raised brow Chris’s hackles rose further. There was another reaction as well, though, a tightening of something unexpected low in his belly.
Ezra began to un-buckle his gunbelt. “I was merely brought up to bring gifts when visiting is all. If it ever stops rainin’ I daresay I could make a fire.”
Chris snorted. His fist gripped the warm neck of the bottle but he didn’t take another slug. He watched Ezra lay aside his guns, unfasten his vest, and then sit on the chair by the cold stove, begin to wrestle off his sodden boots. And then his socks which he looked at with an exaggerated sigh. After a few moments he lifted his head, regarded Chris keenly. There was a slight but evident crackle in his green eyes.
Chris thought he knew that expression. He felt his lip curl.
So that was it. Never mind coming to make sure he wasn’t on his face, choking himself to death with booze. Ezra was here for something else entirely, some kind of gratification. He looked to be making himself comfortable. Maybe he hadn’t been hurt by Chris’s words this morning after all. Perhaps it had made him mad instead, made him want to express that somehow.
“Ain’t in the mood.” Chris was sharp, to make the point. To remind Ezra of the point. Whatever it was.
“Well good, neither am I.”
Not sure whether to believe that, or even quite what they were talking about, Chris shook his head. “So what the hell then? I came here to... take some time, have some goddamned privacy and keep outa everyone’s hair. Don’t need fetching back or looking after.” He felt mired in a confusion of liquor and fatigue.
Ezra looked away from him around the small interior and suppressed a disgusted shudder. “Well I came out here to make sure you were all right. Obviously. Couldn’t put up with Buck and Nathan fretting. I didn’t know it was going to rain this hard or believe me, I wouldn’t have bothered.”
“Vin didn’t warn you?”
A dismissive shrug. “He may have said something.”
Rather bitterly amused at that, in spite of himself, Chris took a few steps to the table, set the bottle down. Ezra was leaning close to the cold stove, the satin panel of his vest stretched like a second skin across his back and shoulders.
“You need to learn to trust Vin’s instincts.”
Ezra threw him a look of irritation. “Now why would I want to do that?”
“Might save your life one day.”
Chris could read the impatient reaction from the tense movement of muscle under the satin.
“He said you were out here.” There was a barb in the words, as if Ezra knew full well he might be revealing a broken trust.
“Well he was right.” Chris turned away. His head was spinning and he wanted to sit down, or even better lie down. “And now you’re here too. Guess you’ll need to stay the night.”
Again Ezra looked around, apparently ignoring the import of that. “Do you happen to have a towel?”
Raking a hand through his hair, Chris gestured towards the closet. He picked up the bottle again and took a slug, although it wasn’t a large one. Somehow it was starting to taste bitter. It was burning the back of his throat, and no longer in a pleasant way.
Ezra crossed to the closet and poked around inside. He turned around with a frayed, starch-stiffened towel in his hands.
With increasing wariness, Chris watched him hang it over the open door, and proceed to slip out of his vest, which—for crying out loud—he shook out and then hung up inside the closet. It was ridiculous, unnecessary, yet strangely comforting at the same time.
“Why don’t you put the bottle down?” Ezra suggested over his shoulder. He’d shrugged off the suspenders, was unbuttoning his white shirt at the collar. It wasn’t wet through but his hair had dripped on it so it stuck to the curve between his shoulder blades. Chris watched him pull the tails out of his pants with a flick of irritation. There was still something vaguely threatening about his body language and Chris was reminded of their previous... ‘liaison’ as Ezra would say. Arousal twitched in his groin but he tried to ignore it. His bare feet felt tender against the floorboards. He lowered the bottle to the floor, stood staring stupidly at the cot, rubbing his chest. It wasn’t that today’s pain wasn’t still there, more that now it had become an imprint, quiet and dull.
After toweling his hair, Ezra turned around once more. The action was smooth, controlled.
“Listen,” Chris began, but Ezra interrupted him.
“It’s all right. I know. Buck told me.”
More resentment furrowed Chris’s brow. “Told you what?”
“About today. The anniversary.” Ezra’s voice wasn’t rough anymore, like it had been when he’d first walked in. If he hadn’t known better Chris might have thought it verging on the tenderhearted, the way women spoke to him about Sarah sometimes. He was surprised that even hearing someone say the word ‘anniversary’, in any tone at all, didn’t make him feel like digging his fingernails into his palms.
“Buck ain’t got no business-“ he began, but couldn’t finish the thought or bring up the anger.
Ezra threw the towel over his shoulder. He smoothed both hands through his hair. “I know you told Vin you were better off alone,” he said simply. “And I know you think you can’t be with me, but as it happens I... well, as it happens I disagree fundamentally on both points.”
Chris struggled to focus, to bat away the extraneous ‘as it happens’. He didn’t think he had the vocabulary and clear-headedness to spar with Ezra tonight. While he wasn’t exactly blind drunk, there was still too much whiskey and not enough sustenance racing around his system. He wanted to sleep. He wanted Ezra to go away, and he wanted him, suddenly quite desperately, to stay.
“I disagree,” Ezra confirmed. “And I came out here to tell you that.”
Chris swallowed. “So now you’ve told me.”
“No,” Ezra said after a pause, and although his voice was soft, controlled, he still had that dangerous air about him that caused the hair on the back of Chris’s neck to rise. “I haven’t. Not nearly.”
Chris began to frown, an irritated question forming on his lips. He saw Ezra drape the towel back over the open door of the closet. There was a trance-like moment when he watched him reach for the little lamp, thought he was going to pick it up and bring it over.
And then, abruptly, the light was extinguished and the room was plunged into thick blackness.
Realizing in a flash it was deliberate, Chris opened his mouth to bark out an expletive, demand what the hell Ezra thought he was doing. Air went in all right, but it was if the dark had swallowed his breath.
His heart thumped, a dull ache in his throat. He knew for sure Ezra would be crossing the pitch dark cabin towards him, even though he was quiet, quiet as a cat. And Chris braced for something. A strike, a push. Seduction or retribution. He reckoned Ezra was in the mood.
But all that came out of the black was a brush of fingers against his arm. The delicate, exotic scent of Ezra’s cologne.
Chris tensed, tried again to speak but couldn’t. There was a slight touch of two hands against his back, against the fibers of the washed-up undershirt. For a while the hands were still. Chris could manage nothing more than a little husk of breath as he felt them slide beneath the fabric. They caressed his bare back, still cool from the rain, and then became still once more as if they’d found where they wanted to be. As if Ezra was waiting to see if he was welcome.
It was so far from what he’d been expecting Chris didn’t know how to react.
But it seemed he didn’t have to. Ezra wasn’t asking him for a reaction, it was more as if he was just trying to... tell him something.
Lips pressed against his temple, moved down his cheekbone. At a wet, probing touch against his bottom lip Chris shivered, although he wasn’t cold. There was a voice in his head urging him to push Ezra away, reminding him as it always did that this was a betrayal of all he had once held dear. But somehow Ezra’s voice, even silent, was louder.
A murmur of pleasure caught in the back of Chris’s throat but still he couldn’t speak. The darkness was complete, pressing against his open eyes, smothering all the words he might have uttered. There was nothing except the quiet sounds that left him as Ezra’s kiss first soothed, and then aroused.
Somehow in the dark it was all right to accept what was offered, not to fight. Chris let go the need for whiskey, he let go the day. He felt the thick dark wrap around him just as Ezra’s arms did. He allowed every touch, every response from his skin and blood and senses.
The rain was still drumming on the roof, pelting the window pane.
Ezra was there, more solid, more real, more truthful and eloquent than he’d ever been. Chris lay naked in the dark and held fast to a strong hand in the drenched and moonless night. He thought of turning a corner outside the cigar shop, of tears, and flowers, and of being with someone who loved him this damned much.
And he wept.