The Director of the Opponent’s Fate
“Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate.” - Sun Tzu
(from "Inmate 78")
EZRA: Don't take this the wrong way, but you gentlemen occasionally lack the essential skills of tact and diplomacy.
BUCK: What are you saying?
JOSIAH: I think he's saying we're rude.
EZRA: Rude? No. Rude would be a definite improvement. I'm saying you scare people. And perhaps terrorizing them won't buy you any answers this time.
VIN: What've you got in mind?
EZRA: Well, I believe a little subtlety is in order.
Vin stopped just inside the door of the saloon, taking a few seconds to let his eyes adjust to the dimness of the place. It was late afternoon, the sun low in the sky but the lamps and candles not yet lit.
Not that he needed them to find what he was looking for – and to be relieved in the finding.
Chris sat at the table in the back of the room, his bright hair, bleached by his time in the sun at that damned labor camp, shining like the sun itself.
It was the first time Chris had shown up here since they’d gotten him out of that damned place, and that had been almost a week ago.
He looked better though; not as thin, and not as wild-eyed. That was a good start.
In fact, Vin thought as he started across the floor to the bar, he looked rested and relaxed.
Despite the fact that he was sitting at the table with Ezra.
Ezra. Vin let the fact of it drift through his mind as he ponied up to the bar and waited for the bartender – Bob? Bill? Barkley? - to get to him.
Before Chris left town, off ‘haring around’ as Buck had suggested, Ezra had been underfoot a lot. Seemed that Vin could barely sit down at the table with Chris before Ezra was there.
And yet, when they’d started to worry on where Chris was, Ezra hadn’t said a word. Hadn’t raised a concern.
Though now that Vin thought about it, there was a sort of sense in it. Especially if the reason Chris had left had something to do with all the time Ezra was underfoot . . .
“Howdy, Vin. What can I get you?” The question drew him back to the moment and the need for – something. He’d planned to have a beer, but now, with the thoughts in his head swirling around, his mouth had it’s own ideas.
“You got a bottle of whiskey that ain’t full? Maybe half?”
He did. And as he set it on the counter with a glass, Vin found himself doing a healthy portion of it before he picked it and his glass up and headed toward the table.
They had been talking – well, Ezra had been talking, Vin had seen Ezra’s chin moving, but as he got close to the table, they were silent.
“Good to see you,” Vin said, putting the bottle on the table in front of Chris, and looking at him.
Chris looked up at him, meeting his eyes, and though he didn’t smile, his voice was warm as he answered, “Good to see you. Reckon I owe you more than a little for what you did.”
Vin shrugged then sat down to Chris’ right and across from Ezra. “Reckon -how did you put it, Ezra? Terrorizing people? - Reckon that just comes natural. Leastways, Ezra thinks so.”
Chris arched an eyebrow, looking from Vin to Ezra. Ezra, in turn, arched an eyebrow. As usual, he was turning cards, this time in a game of solitaire. “As ever, you take my words out of context,” he said, looking down to his cards. “I was speaking of all of you, together. Though, now that I think about it, you alone do seem to have a pretty keen ability to intimidate, when you wish to.”
Vin grinned, pouring himself a drink. “Glad to know it,” he said as he held the bottle out toward Chris. “Thought maybe I was losing my touch, staying here in civilization so much.”
Ezra paused, holding one of his cards in the air as he looked up at Vin and frowned. “I assure you, Mr. Tanner, this is hardly ‘civilization’. You are in no danger of losing – well, your dangerousness to these meager comforts. In truth, I personally wonder if you and our fellow compatriots aren’t actually becoming more terrifying in these environs.”
“Reckon you could be right,” he said. “A crowd of folk does bring out the worst in me. Though I don’t hardly think that’s the case with J’siah and the others. Reckon you were talking mostly about me terrorizing?”
“Do not give yourself so much credit,” Ezra said, looking back to his game. “You, Josiah, Buck – the three of you together? You are quite good at intimidation.”
Vin shook his head. “Don’t recall you being so subtle when we was going after those men who were looking to kill Billy Travis.”
Beside him, Vin felt Chris shift and he glanced over to find the other man frowning. He didn’t ask, but Vin suspected that he was wondering about this, and Vin wondered if Chris knew what they had done, how they had gotten the truth out of the men they had interrogated. It hadn’t been torture, not real torture, anyway, but in some circles, it could have been seen as such.
“Well, they weren’t truly hurt, of course, and they were truly terrible men – trying to kill a child? And to be fair, had I not been there, it is quite possible things could have gone quite badly. After all, you and Mr. Wilmington were not inclined to worry about the length of the rope.”
Vin snorted, shaking his head, but before he could say anything, Chris spoke up.
“Would one of you like to explain what happened that day? I’ve heard Buck’s stories, but now you’re making me worried that he wasn’t exaggerating in his usual way.”
Out of the corner of one eye, Vin saw Ezra straighten and once more, a card hung in the air. Seemed to him that the idea of Chris knowing what they’d got up to was worrying him, and it almost made Vin want to give all the details.
But given the last few days, and the situation they’d found Chris in – the horrors of that damned camp – Vin found himself not wanting to put his friend in mind of that.
“Weren’t nothing,” he said, settling back in his chair. “Reckon I’m just joshing with Ezra here, seeing as he’s less likely to take a direct approach when he can drink a man under the table and get the truth out of him that way.”
The words worked as he’d hoped they would, distracting Chris from the issue of actual torture. As he’d expected, Ezra immediately picked up the opportunity to change the subject himself.
“It worked, did it not? We did get the truth -”
“Took the whole damned day,” Vin interrupted. “And we still, in the end, had to go head to head with the sheriff -”
“Which we most likely would have had to do anyway – and waiting until he found out you were wanted – well, that just gave us entre into the prison, yes?” Ezra smiled broadly and, Vin thought, smugly.
“Just glad you got there when you did,” Chris said, his voice low. He was staring into the glass, which still held whiskey, though not as much.
Vin spoke and so did Ezra.
“As are we.”
Chris nodded once then picked up the glass and drank down the rest of the shot. But as he put the glass back on the table, he waved away the bottle Vin pushed toward him. “Need to get some food. Can’t seem to get enough right now.” With that, he pushed to his feet and picked up his hat from the table. “If you boys are around later, I’ll stand you some beer. Reckon it’s the least I can do.”
Before either of them could answer, he was walking away, his steps loud on the wooden floor, but not as quick as usual.
“He will recover,” Ezra said quietly, gathering his cards though he still looked toward Chris.
There was something in the words, something in the way he said it that made Vin think it was a question.
“Reckon so,” he said, picking up the bottle and refilling his own glass. Then, slowly, he leaned across the table and poured some of the whiskey into Ezra’s empty glass. “Reckon he’ll have some nightmares, though. Be good if someone kept an eye out for that.”
He didn’t look at Ezra as he said the last part, choosing instead to shoot back his drink.
Then, still not looking at Ezra, he pushed up from the table and said, “Need to check in with Nathan, change his bandage. Back later.”
He turned and walked away, smiling to himself at the silence. Ezra couldn’t find anything to say. That had to be a first.
And, he thought as he pushed through the bat-wing doors and onto the boardwalk, it was kinda rude, too, him not saying nothing.
As long as he said something in the dead of night, when Chris had the nightmares. Because Vin knew now that Ezra would be there.
“Drink this,” Ezra said, forcing the glass of water into Chris’ hand.
Chris shook his head, his eyes still wide and unfocused, dark in the spare light of the lamp that still burned on the dresser nearby; Ezra had turned it low, but not blown it out, for exactly this reason.
Vin had been right, of course, but how he had come to know of what was between Chris and Ezra, Ezra hadn’t yet figured out.
“Drink,” Ezra said again, curling Chris’ fingers around the tumbler. “You’re hot – too hot. Are those stitches infected?”
That finally seemed to get through to the other man. He didn’t answer, but he did draw the glass to his lips and drink.
Ezra sighed and shifted on the bed, moving from his knees to his butt. He drew the blankets up around him, chilled now that his heart was slowing. This was becoming habit, waking the middle of the night with Chris tossing, turning, muttering, sweating – thought tonight had been the first time Chris had actually cried out in his sleep.
It had been that cry that had forced Ezra to have to wake him with more force than usual. They couldn’t afford for anyone to hear it, to wonder what was going on.
To come to help and find the two of them in bed together.
He really did have to start dressing before they fell asleep. But he so hated the idea of not being able to feel Chris’ skin against his own, to put a boundary between them at when there were so damned many during the day.
“Sorry,” Chris said, his voice dry and rusty, though he’d just had water.
“No need to apologize,” Ezra said, reaching out to run a hand along Chris’ spine. It was sharp, knobby, a reminder of how much weight he had lost in that damned camp. “Though I am concerned about your heat – are those stitches getting infected?”
“They’re fine,” he said, and though Ezra doubted it, he didn’t argue; he’d learned that that never went well. It would take Chris collapsing before he would deal with the problem, especially while Nathan himself was recovering from the gunshot wound he’d sustained while saving Chris from he camp.
So Ezra did what he did best: he changed the subject. “What may I get for you? There is whiskey on the dresser, I have bread and cheese and, I think, an apple, I can - “
“You can stay right here,” Chris said, his voice a little more clear. He put the empty glass on the bedside table on his side of the bed, then he ran both hands through his hair. It needed a trim, at the top, the bans hanging low in Chris’ eyes, but Ezra hadn’t said as much.
Instead, as Chris sighed and put his arms back, his hands on the mattress and his face pointed toward the ceiling, Ezra said quietly, “Who is Jackie Pinder? You have mentioned him several times now.”
Chris closed his eyes, sighed once more, but in a surprise, he said very softly, “He was a kid who I killed. He called me out – it was a legal kill – but he was a kid. I didn’t have to kill him. But I did.”
“You were protecting yourself – self-defense,” Ezra said, frowning.
“Yeah, that’s why I said it was legal. He pulled on me. But,” Chris sighed again and this time, he turned his head, opening his eyes to look at Ezra, “I didn’t have to. He was a kid. I could have shot him in the hand, or in the leg – or hell, anywhere. Anywhere that didn’t kill him. But I did kill him. Because -” He turned away, and with a sudden move, he pulled his hands off the mattress and dropped into the pillows. “But I killed him.”
The whole idea was alien to Ezra; if someone threatened him with a gun, threatened to kill him, there was no debate: killing them before they killed you was the goal.
He turned to look at Chris, so confused by the whole issue that he wasn’t even sure where to start.
Chris met his gaze and then, strangely, he smiled. It wasn’t a broad, happy smile, and in truth, there was a deep sadness in his eyes as he said, “You remember when that kid, that girl – Olivia, I think? -when she was in town? And she caught the man cheating?”
Ezra nodded, remembering the incident. Remembering the child. She had a talent that was almost frightening.
“You let the man who had been cheating go – do you remember that? He was ready to draw on you -in fact, the situation had come to the point that Vin and the others had drawn. But there were no shots. Instead, you told him to clear out, and you told him that it would cost him extra to learn how you knew he was cheating.”
Ezra swallowed as the whole memory came to him. The man’s face over his gun, the others with their guns out and aimed, ready to protect him. It had been one of the first times he’d felt that the others respected him.
That he was a part of them.
But on the heels of that came the other realization: that he had had a choice, and he had chosen, consciously, not to kill.
He hadn’t had to.
And, apparently, Chris hadn’t had to, either. But he had, and now, that guilt, that soul, was weighing on him.
“Is this – how does this relate to your time in that hellacious place?” Ezra asked.
Chris smiled but it wasn’t with pleasure or humor. “Came to a reckoning,” he said, softly. “Those men who put me there – they were bastards, and I don’t regret at all what happened to them. But -” he looked away, once more staring at the ceiling. “But it was a reckoning for me, too. I did some things I didn’t have to do. I was hurting and I wanted to hurt others. And I did. That ain’t right. And while no court would convict me, it ain’t always about the law.”
It took him a while to make the words make sense. By the time they did, Chris had turned on his side, toward Ezra. Ezra felt the weight of the other man’s gaze on him, the weight of the idea, the message.
“I appreciate that you think that now. That you have come to a . . . different perspective on what happened. But . . .” He paused, working to find the words. To keep the fear at bay while his rational mind constructed the argument. “We can only do what we do in the moment. When confronted with a life or death situation, it is always best to err on the side of caution. Because you will not have a second chance to consider.”
“I know that, Ezra, and I ain’t talking about getting myself killed.” He reached out one hand, his fingers sliding down Ezra’s arm until the reached the wrist. There, they curled around the slender junction and tugged, drawing Ezra to him. “I came face to face with some bad men in there, and they made me realize that I can be pretty damned bad myself. And that those men could also do some good things. Reckon I’m sorting a lot of that out. Sorry that I woke you, though.”
Ezra settled himself against Chris, distracted by the heat of the man, the brush of skin against his own. Without a thought, his own fingers rose to curve over Chris’ hip, the bone there sharper than ever. “Perhaps we can find a way for you to make amends,” he said, nuzzling at Chris’ throat.
“Least I can do,” Chris agreed, pressing in closer, bringing their groins together. “The very least.”
It was barely dawn, more light than dark, when he eased his way out of the saloon’s back door and down the back alley, walking down several blocks to the boarding house where Judge Travis paid for rooms for those who wanted them.
The smell of coffee warned him that someone was on the wide front porch, cloaked in the shadows, and he wasn’t really surprised to hear Vin’s low and rusty greeting. “Morning.”
“Barely,” Chris returned, just as quiet. “You’re up early.” He’d reached the top of the stairs and paused.
“So are you,” Vin countered, and Chris thought he heard a little humor in the words.
Ezra was sure Vin knew about them, and if Vin had said what Ezra claimed he’d said the day before, then Chris would have to agree. But Ezra was also given to paranoia, and that had made it hard for Chris to accept the idea with certainty.
While Vin was observant to a fault, there was a distance between suspecting and knowing.
And this statement, while suggestive, didn’t prove knowing.
Strangely, though, Vin did not wait for him to answer but said into the pause, “Reckon I’d be having nightmares if I'd been in that place. Hell, I been having nightmares just from what little time I was there.”
And Chris understood. Vin was wanted for a murder he didn’t do, and the ploy they had used to get into the prison, pretending that they were turning him in, had hit a little too close.
That was why Vin was up so early.
Though unlike Chris, he didn’t have someone to wake up to, someone to distract him from the dreams.
“Got more coffee?” Chris asked.
“On the stove,” Vin said. “Mrs. Brannon likes it when I make the first pot - means she don’t have to stoke the fire.”
Which meant, Chris thought as he went into the house, trying to be as quiet as possible, that Vin had been up at least half an hour, probably more.
The coffee was still fresh and he poured himself a large mug before going back to the porch and settling into a rocking chair beside Vin. They sat in silence for a time, sipping their coffee and watching the slow creep of light along the road.
After a time, vin said, “You and Ezra get things settled? At least enough that you won’t go haring off again?”
Chris caught himself, but just barely. Vin still did not know, but there was little way to answer that would keep him from knowing.
And the fact that he was, at this moment, still silent was also a sort of answer.
So he settled on ignoring the first question entirely. “Ain’t planning to leave town anytime soon.”
“Glad to hear it,” Vin said, then he yawned. Afterwards, he rose and stretched, still holding his coffee mug which seemed to be empty. “Want more?” He asked, pointing toward Chris’ own mug.
While Vin went inside for more coffee, Chris considered what Vin’s suspicions really meant. Vin was making implications, which Chris could continue to ignore.
Because while ignoring them would deepen Vin’s suspicions, he would not actually know.
But Ezra…..he would eventually break, his fear overcoming his control and driving him to react.
So when Vin came out, handing Chris his mug and sitting back down, Chris said, “Is it gonna be a problem?”
The light was bright enough now that he could see Vin’s face clearly. The other man met Chris’ gaze, his eyes clear and his face open. He frowned a little, and his forehead wrinkled as he considered his answer, but Chris saw no sign of anger or disdain.
“I ain’t got a problem, if that’s what you’re asking. But I ain’t like most people. Reckon you two need to find somewhere away, if you’ve decided to keep this up. Maybe a shack in the hills or something.”
Chris thought about the suggestion. “That how you figured it out? Seeing me come out of the saloon?”
Vin grinned slightly. “Nope, though that confirmed it. Figured it out from Ezra. When you rode out of town, he pretty much disappeared too. Figured he was sleeping in, without you here to ride herd on him. But when I did start seeing him, he didn't look all that rested. Then I realized that while Mary was the one asking after you, she was always leaving Ezra. I thought maybe she was asking him before any of the rest of us—until I saw him go into the telegram office, ahead of her.”
Chris frowned, not sure how what he was being told. “So Ezra not getting sleep and then going into the telegraph office…” He stopped as Vin shook his head.
“He wasn’t acting like himself—and yeah, it coulda been Maude, but I figured out he was the one pushing Mary to get us on your trail.”
“And that made you wonder why.” Chris took a sip of his coffee, thinking on this. It still seemed a pretty big jump from what Vin was seeing to the idea of Chris and Ezra being—well, whatever they were.
“During the hunt for Chanu and all that went on then, I knew you were getting heat from Ezra and Buck for letting me go after him. Me being right about him seemed to clear the air for Buck, and even Ezra seemed less hostile with me, but he still seemed right miffed with you. Then you left town, without telling us much of anything, which ain’t like you at all. Buck kept telling everybody you was catting around, which mighta been the case, but that didn’t sound much like you neither, least ways not since I been around you.”
Chris smiled despite himself. “You forgetting Lydia?”
Vin grinned then, too. “Hard to forget her. But seeing her every now and again ain’t the same as spending days on end somewhere with a bunch of people you don’t know. I was already out scouting around, and planning to come looking for you when Buck finally agreed it was too long. Should a trusted my own instincts. Or—well, Ezra’s.”
Chris sighed. “Not your fault, and thanks for coming when you did.”
They fell silent again for a time, the sun finally up, though not high in the sky. Inside, people were stirring and the smell of baking bread and bacon made Chris’ mouth water.
“ I ain’t planning to talk to Ezra ‘bout anything,” Vin said eventually, his voice very soft. “But reckon you’d do better to let him know that you and me talked and that I do know – and that it don’t matter none to me, one way or the other. Just don’t want you two getting shot.”
With that, he rose and stepped past Chris, heading toward the door.
“Kinda like the idea of letting him worry,” Chris said with a grin.
Vin stopped with his hand on the doorknob and turned back. He didn’t smile and there was something sad in his eyes as he said, “Think he worried enough already. Truth be told, I felt sorry for him.”
Chris frowned then said, “Even when he was calling you a terrorist?”
This time, Vin did smile but it was still a little sad. “Pretty sure he wanted to get some answers, and he found our way of doing it wasn’t working. Can’t blame him for wanting to try something else. Reckon in his place, I would, too.”
With that, he pushed open the door and vanished inside.
Leaving Chris to think about what he’d learned, not just about Vin, but also about Ezra.
And to appreciate the beauty of a quiet morning, sitting in a rocking chair, free to be his own man.