Learning to Improvise…
Chapter 3

by Katherine

Previous chapters: 1 | 2

This story takes place approximately one month after the previous chapter. As I’ve tried to do before, each chapter is a complete story in and of itself. However, it would help to have read the previous chapters in order to more fully understand this one. Events are referred to that occurred in earlier chapters, and to fully understand what is happening, it would probably be a good idea to read chapters One and Two. I am considering a fourth chapter. Suggestions or request are welcome. I make no promises, but I am open to considering any idea that is offered.

Feedback: Yes, please. Unless you tell, I’ll never know what I got right, wrong, or indifferent. I welcome comments, both good and bad.

Size: Approx 460K


Vin Tanner sighed, and stretched. His favorite way to wake up in the morning involved being wrapped around his lover, Ezra Standish. He loved snuggling in close, enjoying the feel of a soft feather mattress under him, and the warm, smooth skin next to his own. The faint scent of sandalwood and lavender soothing his senses, letting him know all was right with the world. His second favorite way to wake was finding Ezra wrapped around him, cradling him in a strong, yet gentle hold, making him feel safe and well cared for. Much further down on the list was the way he woke this morning, on the ground, in his bedroll, alone.

Over the past month, Vin had come to hate sleeping alone. He found that on his own, he only slept lightly, waking intermittently, unable to relax his guard completely. He missed the soft sound of Ezra’s regular breathing, the feel of his warm skin, and the knowledge that the gambler would be on guard when Vin wasn’t. On his own, he felt the need to be constantly vigilant. Before hooking up with Ezra, he’d never known what it was like to sleep deeply and soundly for more than a few hours at a time. Now that he knew what it was like, he found he missed it. Almost as much as he missed Ezra.

Vin flipped his blanket back, and got to his feet. The sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon. No point in layin’ here any longer pretendin’ ta sleep. With any luck they’d be back in Four Corners today, and he could get back to waking up the way he liked.

He and Ezra had told Chris Larabee about their relationship almost a month ago. They hadn’t planned to tell anyone, but Chris had noticed the new closeness between them when they’d come back from Bitter Creek. And he had asked Vin about it, determined to get an answer.

Unwilling to lie to his best friend, Vin took him to Ezra, and together they told him about their feelings for one another. Chris expressed some concerns, but he seemed to accept it, with the proviso that their being together did not affect their ability to do their job. So, when several of the neighborhood ranchers had reported problems with rustlers, Vin had agreed to do some scouting of the area. As the best man for the job, it was expected that he would be willing, even eager, to use his skills to take down the rustlers.

Vin knew Ezra wasn’t completely comfortable with the idea of letting Vin go without him. But the others didn’t know about their relationship, and neither of them were keen on revealing the new nature of their involvement. They’d only told Chris because he asked. They both knew that a romantic relationship, between two men, was not what most would consider normal, and it was often not something that would be openly tolerated. Keeping their relationship a secret meant operating as though it was business as usual.

In general, Ezra hated camping out or being on the trail. Normally Vin objected to staying in town. Not wanting to raise questions, they acted as if everything were as it had always been. Ezra had just nodded his head when Chris told him he’d be staying in town with JD Dunne, Josiah Sanchez, and Nathan Jackson. It was expected that he would want to stay in town, volunteering to go would have seemed out of character. And Vin couldn’t ask him to go for the same reason. So far none of the others seemed to have noticed anything different, and Vin and Ezra were content to keep it that way.

Ezra had gotten up early with Vin the day he rode out with Buck Wilmington and Chris. The gambler had hugged him hard, kissed him softly, and made him promise to be careful. Vin knew that Ezra had watched him until they were out of sight. He wondered if the gambler was sleeping any better than he was.

Buck, Chris and Vin had spent the past few days searching for the elusive rustlers. Vin had found plenty of sign to indicate the ranchers’ complaints had been valid. There had indeed rustlers in the area, but Vin hadn’t been able to determine just where they’d gone, or even an exact number. His best guess was that there were six to ten men involved, but hadn’t been able to find any clearer information than that. Much of the sign he had found was several days old, and had been compromised by the ranchers’ attempts to handle the problem on their own. It was impossible to tell for certain just how many of the tracks belonged to the rustlers’ and which were the ranchers’.

Without fresh sign, finding the rustlers would be unlikely. As much as Vin hated to admit it, they might well be reduced to waiting for them to strike again before he would be able to locate them. Guess we’re lucky they ain’t killed anyone. Least wise not yet. Seem ta be more interested in jus’ stealin’.

After he finished packing up his stuff, Vin crouched down next to Chris, and accepted a cup of hot coffee gratefully. He glanced over to where Buck was still sleeping soundly. Damn glad Ez don’t snore like that or I’d never get any sleep. He grinned at that thought, but quickly hid it behind his coffee cup.

Chris had seen it though. He looked fondly at his old friend. "Never could figure out how Buck could sleep like the dead, and still make enough noise ta wake ‘em at the same time."

Vin chuckled softly. "Jus’ one o’ life’s little mysteries."

Chris rolled his eyes. "That it is." He sipped his coffee, eyes steadily regarding Vin for several moments. "Things still okay with you and Ez?" The question was quiet in deference to both their still sleeping companion, and the subject matter.

Vin raised an eyebrow. Chris normally said little about their relationship. Vin got the distinct impression that Chris was still uncomfortable with the whole idea of two men being together. It wasn’t like he disapproved. It was more like he wasn’t quite sure what to say or how to say it.

Vin had tried to respect the dark clad gunslinger’s uncertainty by not talking about it. He didn’t want to force the issue, wanting to let his friend come to terms with things in his own way and time. Although there were days over the past month that Vin couldn’t resist whistling, and sharing a small knowing grin with his best friend. He was happy, and he couldn’t help that it showed through sometimes.

Not talking about it wasn’t really a hardship for Vin. He was intensely private by nature, and even if he’d been involved with a woman, he would not have felt any need to discuss it in detail. Although, Vin admitted to himself, he wouldn’t mind being able to hold hands with Ezra in public, or not having to sneak into his room always leery of being seen. On occasion, Vin wished he had the opportunity to stake a more public claim to Ezra, something to clearly establish that they were a couple. But he knew it wasn’t really an option, and had come to terms with that fact.

"Things are good, Cowboy."

He didn’t think Chris would appreciate him going into specifics on just how good. Don’t think he really wants to know that Ez can make me howl like a coyote. Or how often he makes me laugh. Or how much I’ve come to ‘preciate some o’ the better things in life, like good quality whiskey, feather beds, and bein’ able ta read since Ez introduced me ta all that.

Chris nodded. "Still what you want?" The question was one of honest concern.

Vin grinned widely. "Yep." I’m always gonna want him.

Chris cocked his head to one side, his expression faintly puzzled. "Why him?"

Vin frowned. "What’d ya mean?"

Chris waved a hand. "I mean, why Ezra? What is it about him that…well…that does it for you?"

Vin sipped his coffee. "S’pose it’s like anybody else, Cowboy. Ya see someone who holds yer attention, makes ya sit up and take notice, challenges ya to see the world in ways ya never thought about. Could jus’ as easily ask you why Mary."

Chris smiled slightly. "Mary’s beautiful." He stated with quiet conviction, his expression distant.

Vin smiled. "So is Ez." Those chestnut curls, and green eyes. He may not be a big man, but sure is put together well. And I love the graceful way he moves. Not ta mention those clever and talented hands he’s got.

"Mary’s intelligent." Chris offered that almost as a challenge, dark blue-gray eyes sparkled with good humor.

Vin looked at Chris, his own sky blue eyes bright with amusement. "Ezra is the smartest man I’ve ever met. He’s read more books than I knew were written, and been ta places I’ve never heard of."

"She’s a good mother."

"He’s a good friend." Vin shrugged. "An’ I don’t want kids."

Chris looked startled by that. "You don’t? What about a family?"

"Chris, not every man wants ‘em." Vin pointed out, his tone reasonable, only somewhat dry. "An’ I got a family. Got me five brothers and a lover. Can’t ask fer more’n that." Vin shrugged one shoulder. "Sides, ‘til I can clear my name, I wouldn’t want ta put a child in danger like that."

Chris nodded. "What about puttin’ Ezra in danger?"

Vin smiled. He had thought about that on more than one occasion. He had even voiced his concern to Ezra. Ezra had pointed out that his past and profession had its own inherent perils. He also was quick to point out that he could defend himself if need be. He wouldn’t have lived as long as he had if he couldn’t.

"Man’s more likely to hurt somebody else than get hurt. And he’s makin’ his choice ta be with me. Jus’ like I’m makin’ the choice to be with him. We both know what we’re getting inta. Kids don’t get a choice."

Chris pursed his lips thinking about that. He nodded, clearly understanding Vin’s reasoning. After a moment, he sent a sly look toward Vin. It was most definitely a challenge. "Mary makes me wanna be a better man."

Vin just looked at Chris, and said nothing. His look was enough. Chris sighed, and shook his head. "I just don’t understand why you couldn’t settle down with a woman. Have a nice, normal life like everyone else."

"Cause I want Ez." Vin shrugged. He finished his coffee. "An’ I never wanted ta be like everybody else. Never have been ‘fore, so why start now?"

"That simple?" Chris looked skeptical, but Vin could tell he was trying. It had to be hard to come to terms with something so far out of his usual realm.

"That simple, Cowboy." Vin said firmly before he stood up. "It don’t have to be complicated, Chris. I love him, and he loves me."

Chris sighed quietly. "Okay. Long as you’re both happy."

Vin smiled. "I am, and so his he."

He knew Chris just wanted the best for them. The problem was that what Chris thought of as best, wasn’t the same as what Vin and Ezra thought. They’d had differences of opinion before, but eventually they would come to an understanding. Vin figured that given a little more time, Chris would relax and accept him and Ezra totally, rather than merely tolerate their relationship.

Vin moved to saddle his horse. "Best wake Buck if ya wanna get started." I wanna get be home tonight. Home. Has a nice ring to it.

Chris nodded. He got up and moved to where Buck lay, still sawing logs. Chris kicked the ladies man’s feet. "C’mon, Buck. We’re burnin’ daylight here."

Buck came awake with a snort and a groan. He opened his eyes to send a tired glare in Chris’ general direction. "Ya know, it wouldn’t kill you ta let a man sleep until there was enough light ta see by."

Vin thought that comment was something Ezra would be inclined to say. Chris just laughed. "I got coffee ready. I even poured ya a cup."

"Bless you." Buck rolled out of bed. "Knew there was a reason I liked you." He stood and stretched to his full height. He glanced around. "Where’s Vin?"

"Saddling Peso."

Buck raised his eyebrows. "Boy is eager ta get goin’ this mornin’."

Vin stepped back toward the fire. He flashed a quick grin at Buck. "Jus’ ready ta be done with this. Tired o’ runnin’ in circles."

"I hear ya." Buck reached for the cup Chris offered him. "Be good ta get back ta town." He waggled his eyebrows. "And the ladies."

Vin rolled his eyes at that. Buck had a one-track mind. If Chris has trouble figurin’ out how I could wanna be with a man, and what I see in Ezra, gotta wonder what Buck would think. On second thought, might be best not ta even go there. Don’t even wanna imagine what he’d have ta say.

Chris put out the fire, and moved to gather his stuff. "Lets get movin’. Wouldn’t mind bein’ back in town tonight myself."

+ + + + + + +

JD Dunne watched the town from where he sat in front of the sheriff’s office. With three of the seven gone, it fell to the remaining four to keep up with the regular patrols and shifts watching the town. JD kept an eye on where he expected Ezra to appear shortly. He was due back any time.

The gambler usually took the midnight to morning shift, keeping an eye on the town. And he had continued to do so. He’d also taken Vin’s usual morning shift, which meant riding out at sun up to check on outlying ranches. JD took Chris’ shift, meeting up with Ezra at the jail before the cardsharp left. Josiah would usually help out with the morning shift before taking the afternoon patrol. Nathan took afternoon watch and early evening in town. JD would take over again shortly after sunset, with Ezra on duty again at Midnight.

Nathan usually took the shortest shift because he was often needed elsewhere. He rarely went on patrols for the same reason. With no doctor in town, Nathan was the closet thing they had to one, and it made sense for him to be available as much as possible. Josiah had widened his patrol because of the reported rustlers, covering more than twice the area that they normally did. The big man hadn’t been back until suppertime every night. He would usually stop by the jail to keep JD company for a bit before settling in for the night.

Ezra and Josiah out on their own bothered JD. If there were trouble brewing it wasn’t like one man alone could handle it. He never rested easy until the older men returned from their respective patrols. He kept watch for them making sure that they were back on time, and ready to go look for them if they weren’t.

JD felt that Ezra was getting the short end of the stick with the current schedule, but had held his tongue. Ezra hadn’t argued about the set up, so JD wasn’t sure if he should complain on the man’s behalf. He suspected Chris had set it up as a way to punish Ezra for something, but he had no idea what. The gambler hadn’t said or done anything JD knew of that had pissed off Chris. Everyone seemed to be getting along just fine recently.

JD was willing to concede that Chris might just not have thought about what he was doing when he assigned Ezra two shifts back to back. The gunslinger had a habit of giving tough assignments to the gambler. Even if that were the case it still didn’t seem right to JD. Don’t think he’d a done that to anyone else. No reason ta do it ta Ez, jus’ cause he can get the job done, don’t mean he has ta always be the one that gets the shit detail.

He stood up was he spotted Ezra riding into town. He looks tired. Wonder if he’s sleepin’ okay. Know he’s a night owl and all, but it still has ta be hard ta get much sleep durin’ the day. JD knew for a fact that Ezra didn’t even go to his room until nearly four in the afternoon. He liked to meet up with the others for lunch, and still made a point of spending time teaching the children.

Might be a good idea ta make sure he takes a break today. Hope the others get back soon. Chris, Buck and Vin had been gone four days already. It was impossible to predict just how long it would take to round up this latest batch of bad guys, but JD was pretty sure the others wouldn’t want to be gone more than a week. He knew that even though Chris would never come right out and say so, the gunslinger worried too much about the town to leave it shorthanded for longer than absolutely necessary.

JD waited for Ezra to bring Chaucer to a halt in front of him. Ezra raised two fingers to the brim of his hat. "Mr. Dunne."

"Hey, Ez." JD reached out to gently rub the chestnut gelding’s nose. "Any trouble?"

Ezra shook his head. "Not that I could find." He smirked slightly. "And believe me, Mr. Dunne, I looked diligently."

JD laughed. "I’m sure ya did, Ez." He knew Ezra might complain about riding patrols but the gambler never shirked his duty. Ezra was sure to check every ranch, and speak with everyone he encountered. JD thought Ezra was almost as good as Vin at paying attention to details and gathering information. Both of them knew seemed to know more about the surrounding countryside than anyone else in town. It was just the way they gathered their information that differed. Ezra talked to people, Vin read signs of their coming and going.

JD looked away for a moment. He wasn’t sure how to ask if Ezra was feeling all right without offending him. Oh the hell with it, if he gets mad, he gets mad. "You feelin’ okay, Ez?"

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Why do you ask?"

JD shrugged. "Ya look tired."

Ezra waved a hand in an elegant gesture of dismissal. "I shall have to work on maintaining my appearance better. It would not do for a gentleman to be seen at less than his best."

JD sighed. He didn’t care about Ezra looking his best. He cared about whether or not his friend was genuinely feeling all right. Ezra never looked tired. He had to be exhausted for JD to notice. JD didn’t like the dark circles under his eyes, or the way Ezra’s green eyes seemed to have lost some of their normal sparkle. It just didn’t seem right to him.

"If ya want, I can take the late shift tonight."

"Why would I want you to do that?" Ezra seemed surprised by his offer.

"Well, it just seems like ya been getting the short end o’ the stick here. Don’t really seem fair that ya gotta work two shifts back ta back. An’ I know I can’t sleep at all when the sun’s up. Feels weird ta be layin’ down when everyone else is up and about. Figured ya might want the chance ta bed down like normal people for a change."

"It is not a hardship for me Mr. Dunne. I am well rehearsed in the art of keeping odd hours. And I honestly find it easier to simply stay awake rather than get up at such an ungodly hour as the morning patrol requires." He shook his head slightly. "I simply cannot fathom why anyone would want to be awake when the sun has not yet arisen."

JD grinned. "You’d have to get Chris or Vin ta explain it, cause I’m not sure I see the appeal either."

Ezra chuckled. "It is good to know I am not the only sensible member of our little troupe." Ezra tipped his head. "I thank you for the offer, and appreciate your concern for my health and well being, but I will continue to carry out my duties as assigned."

JD sighed. "You’ll let me know if ya want a break though, right? Might be nice ta switch off now and again. Gets boring always doing the same stuff all the time."

Ezra smiled warmly. "So your offer is not entirely altruistic then?"

"Have ta tell me what altruistic means before I can answer that." JD shrugged. Somehow Ezra always managed to explain himself without making JD feel silly or stupid. It made JD feel like it was perfectly okay to ask. He’d learned a lot from the gambler that way. Ezra didn’t treat him as a kid the way the others tended to do.

"It means to do something solely for another’s benefit, without seeking personal gain. You did not offer to take the late shift just out of concern for me, but with some self benefit also in mind." Ezra raised an eyebrow saying the last bit, making the statement more of a question.

JD thought about that. No, I made it ‘cause I thought you needed a break, but I know you’ll say yes if I tell you I offered ‘cause I wanted a break in my routine. JD grinned. "Well, yeah. Like I said it gets boring doin’ the same thing all the time."

Ezra chuckled. "Indeed it does. Very well, Mr. Dunne, for your sake, I will deign to forgo my usual shift, and allow you to serve in my place. Although, I believe you will likely find it as uninspiring as the morning hours have been."

JD laughed, pleased with just how easy it had been to get Ezra ta agree. "Probably. Will still be different. Better’n nothing."

Ezra tipped his head. "Now, if you will excuse me, I believe Chaucer would like to retire. He has put in a full day."

"Sure, Ez. You gonna eat lunch with us?"

"I will be there, Mr. Dunne, rest assured. I would not miss our daily commune."

JD nodded. He was still a bit worried about Ezra. Even thought the gambler joined them every day it didn’t seem like he ate that much. Ez is a finicky eater though. It’s not like he wolfs inta stuff like Buck, or snacks all the time like Vin. JD decided he’d keep a closer watch on Ezra.

He had noticed that Ezra tended to eat less when he was upset or nervous, picking at his food rather than eating it. Not that the gambler ever looked or acted like he was bothered by much of anything. But JD knew he was a human as anyone else and just as likely to suffer from worry and anxiety as the rest of them. Everyone else was worried about Buck, Chris and Vin. It only stood to reason that Ezra would worry too.

JD headed for the restaurant. Hopefully, Mrs. Anders would have something Ezra liked well enough to eat. Maybe she’ll have a pie. Man can’t seem to resist pie. JD grinned to himself. He liked pie almost as much as Ezra did. Not exactly…altruistic, wanting her ta have pie, but I don’t think Ez would mind. Not if we both get a piece.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra unsaddled Chaucer. He leaned against the horse for a moment, letting the strong animal support his weight while he gathered his energy. He sighed, and pulled away with a soft pat to Chaucer’s shoulder.

He was tired. He couldn’t seem to sleep well lately. With Vin gone, he found it difficult to relax enough to really sleep deeply or for very long. For the last few days he had managed to sleep only a few hours at a time. Most of that occurred shortly before he was due to be at the jail for the late shift.

And he had nightmares when he did sleep, so what rest he did get was far from refreshing. Memories from his past would get jumbled up with his fears for Vin. Every good thing in his life had been lost to him at some point, and he feared Vin would be next. Ezra was beginning to dread the idea of lying down and closing his eyes. It was easier to face his fears awake, and tired, than to let the demons and shadows of his mind attack him at night.

Ezra put his tack away somewhat disgusted with himself. Honestly, Ezra, you are a grown man. You’ve slept alone, and been on your own, for most of your adult life. Hell, for most of your childhood for that matter. One month should not make that much difference. But it did.

Knowing Vin loved him, even liked and accepted him for who he was, was something Ezra reveled in. Sleeping with Vin made him feel safe, secure, and content. Experiencing such emotions was a novel thing for him. He wanted the chance for those feelings to continue.

As a child, Ezra was never sure how long he would be staying anywhere. He had to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice in case Maude needed to flee some con gone wrong. He had to be prepared for when a relative had finally gotten tired of his presence and demanded his immediate removal, or had decided to punish him for some transgression real or imagined. During the war he was often too scared, or cold, or hungry to ever be comfortable or really let down his guard. It was a time when he needed to be vigilant just to stay alive. After the war he moved from town to town, mostly on his own, ever wary for someone one looking to pay him back with violence for winning at the poker table. Alone, he needed to be watchful for someone who’d taken a dislike to him personally and wished to see him suffer. It was second nature now to know where everyone was in a room, who entered and who left, who might pose a threat and who was harmless.

Ezra pulled brushes from his tack box and began to brush down Chaucer. As he thought about his life, he realized that prior to being with Vin, the only time in his life he’d ever really felt even close to being content was on board the Esmerelda. SinJin had made sure the crew knew he was off limits, that he was to be treated as the though he belonged to the captain. Not much of a stretch there. I did belong to him. Just as much at that ship did.

As demeaning as that had been, it was also very reassuring. No one messed with what SinJin claimed as his own. And it was oddly comforting to know that someone actually wanted him. Ezra, as himself, and not just as who they wanted him to be. That someone saw him as useful, seemed to enjoy his company, thought him worthy of spending time with, and not as just another burden or hardship to be endured. SinJin was the first person in his young life to ever take an interest in him.

And to date, as an adult, Vin was the only person to show the same level of interest. Vin honestly seemed to care what he thought, and asked for his opinion. He was genuinely interested in the places Ezra had been, and the things he had seen. Vin had, in turn, shared his own past. Giving of himself, freely, sharing with Ezra those events and circumstances that made him the man he was. Letting Ezra share in his hopes, fears and expectations. Ezra was still astounded that Vin trusted him enough to reveal so much about himself. He treasured that closeness, that honesty, that feeling of mutual respect and understanding, of knowing their relationship was something that had been freely given. It was something he had never had before, and was desperately afraid of losing.

He met SinJin as a child. And things were never truly equal between them. He had been appalled knowing Maude had handed him over to SinJin fully aware of what it was the man wanted. In his heart of hearts, Ezra never forgave his mother for that, nor would he ever forgive her. Her use of him to pay off a debt was even more degrading than being used for SinJin’s pleasure.

Her act reduced him to no more than an object to be bartered, and let him know, in no uncertain terms, just how little she really thought of him. She never asked him for his opinion, or gave him a choice. He was just a means to an end for her. What he thought, what he wanted never mattered to her.

Ezra knew it was wrong for SinJin to have used him the way he did. It wasn’t right for a man to find sexual gratification from a child. There was no way that could be right. Ezra remembered his shame and fear when he realized what it was SinJin wanted from him. He’d been even more embarrassed, completely mortified, to learn that whole crew knew just what SinJin used him for.

His time aboard the Esmeralda wasn’t always solely about SinJin’s pleasure. SinJin made certain he ensured Ezra’s pleasure as well as his own. Something, which at the time, had also caused a lot of shame and confusion for Ezra. It was wrong and he shouldn’t enjoy it. Ever. But there were times when he did. Times when he wanted it even.

He enjoyed being touched, having had so little physical contact from anyone as a child. He craved it some times. A hug, and warm hand on his shoulder, a pat on the back, the sort of contact he’d seen other people take for granted. The sort of contact other mothers gave their children without even thinking about it.

He enjoyed knowing SinJin thought he was attractive, and intelligent, worth spending the time to teach. That, in his own way, SinJin cared for Ezra a great deal. He was wanted. It was what SinJin wanted him for that sometimes caused problems. It was hard to reconcile the different aspects of the man. He could go from being the friendly, paternal figure, to something else entirely very quickly. All the time and attention SinJin gave him came at a price, and the decision of whether or not to pay it, wasn’t one Ezra ever really had available to him.

SinJin never did anything that physically hurt Ezra, with the exception of the first time he wanted to take him completely. Even then, Ezra was fairly certain hurting him had not been SinJin’s intent since there was never any pain later on. Their initial encounters had been hands and mouth only. SinJin waited until Ezra was fifteen before demanding more.

Not once, in the three years Ezra had been aboard the Esmerelda, had SinJin ever hit him. That in itself had amazed him as a child. He was used to the rather heavy-handed discipline of numerous aunts, uncles and cousins. He had learned at a young age to be wary of people getting too close. Being within arm reach meant they could hit or grab him far too easily. Even as an adult, the habit of keeping his distance was deeply ingrained. Vin was one of the few who’s touch he welcomed, and actively sought.

A stern look from SinJin was all it took to keep Ezra in line most of the time. SinJin had mastered the art of a look that could be both a threat and a promise before Ezra was even born, making the use physical discipline almost unnecessary. He didn’t have to shy way from SinJin’s touch or watch him carefully trying to gauge when he would finally lose it and beat him.

What was even more amazing to Ezra, even now, was that SinJin took the time to teach him a great deal, making Ezra more than just his sex toy, but also a functional member of the crew. As Ezra had told Vin, SinJin was a bit old fashioned. He had taken on Ezra as an indentured servant when he agreed to take the boy in payment for Maude’s debt. To SinJin that meant Ezra would be taught a trade, a useful skill that would allow him to make his way in the world on his own at some point.

He had told Ezra, that he would be aboard the ship for six years, until Maude’s debt was paid, and after that he was free to choose his own path. So SinJin had taught Ezra the ins and outs of operating a sailing ship, giving him the skills and knowledge he would need, when the time came to make his own decision. Ezra had counted the days, eager to be able to shape his own destiny, to have his freedom to be what ever he wanted. He promised himself he would never again be an object to be bartered. In the future, it would be his skills that would see him through, not his body. Toward that goal, Ezra learned everything SinJin was willing to teach him. SinJin had him useful in his own right, allowing him the opportunity to earn a place among the crew, a place that garnered him respect and understanding.

Or at least he was respected until SinJin would pull him away from his duties, with a friendly hand on his shoulder, and a soft command of, "Son, I want a word with you." Then he went from being just another crewmen to the captain’s whore. He lost even the illusion of choice, of rights and freedom.

Ezra shuddered at the memory. He hadn’t been able to tell Vin everything about what life was like aboard the Esmerelda. Nor did he intend to. Ezra preferred to focus on the good things that happened there. In spite everything there had been moments of contentment and joy. Taking the good with the bad was the only way one could survive.

His thoughts were interrupted by a snort and light shove from Chaucer. "My apologizes, old friend. I stood here daydreaming rather than attending to you as I should."

With a quiet sigh, Ezra finished brushing Chaucer. He let the simple, repetitive task clear his mind, and put the genie back in the bottle where it belonged. He added fresh hay to the manger before leaving. JD was expecting him join the others for lunch, and it wouldn’t do to be late.

Ezra made his way to the restaurant, casually acknowledging people as he passed them. In two days after he arrived in town, Ezra knew every person’s name and occupation. Even when he’d expected to spend just thirty days in this dusty little burg, it had seemed wise to do so. A year later, Ezra still had no reason to regret it. He managed not to grin at what the upstanding members of the community would think if they knew Ezra knew so many of their little secrets. Knowing their secrets was just one of the reasons Ezra was so careful with his own.

He entered the restaurant. Nathan, and JD were already there, Josiah having left on his patrol. Ezra was somewhat relieved by the larger man’s absence. He wasn’t up to dealing with being called ‘son’ or manhandled. Sometimes Josiah’s mannerisms just brought far too many memories to the fore. Memories Ezra would rather not deal with. He hadn’t quite figured out how to explain that to the ex-preacher. He hadn’t figured out how to tell him that what he thought of as a gesture and term of endearment, held a certain amount of revulsion and fear for Ezra. He wasn’t willing to go into detail, or talk about that part of his life with anyone. At least not yet, and may be not ever.

Ezra knew himself well enough that controlling his temper was always more difficult when he was tired, and Ezra was afraid he would say or do something that he shouldn’t. He was afraid he would act out of those memories. He didn’t want to permanently alienate the ex-preacher, and that is likely what would happen if he gave into his temper. Avoidance seemed like the wiser course of action.

He nodded his head in greeting to both Nathan and JD. He hadn’t had much appetite of late, but enjoyed the opportunity to sit with his fellow peacekeepers. It was a part of his daily routine that he had come to enjoy. Somehow eating with the others made him feel a bit more connected to Vin, and he needed that.

He could feel Nathan’s eyes on him as he spent more time moving his food about than he did eating it. He raised an eyebrow in question. Nathan looked pointedly at Ezra’s plate but didn’t say anything. Ezra rolled his eyes in response.

Nathan wasn’t so easily put off. "Somethin’ wrong with your meal, Ezra?"

"The food is fine, Mr. Jackson. I’m simply not very hungry at the moment." He took a few more bites to appease the concern he could see in JD’s eyes, and to keep Nathan from asking more questions. It was bad enough that JD noticed he was tired. Really must get a hold of myself. This will not do. I will lose a fortune at the poker table if it is so easy for JD to read me.

JD pushed his own plate away. He winked at Ezra. "I know yer just savin’ room for dessert. Mrs. Anders made a mess o’ pies today. She’s got cherry and blueberry."

Ezra smiled. He loved pie. "Did you say she had cherry?" It wasn’t his favorite, but it would most definitely make a workable substitute.

"Yep." JD nodded eagerly. "She’s got a bunch o’ fruit from Mr. Gregor, jus’ the other day. Said she canned as much as she was gonna, but didn’t want ‘em ta go ta waste."

As one of the very first to settle in the area some fifteen years ago, the first thing Mr. Gregor had done was plant an orchard. He had apples, peaches, cherries and plums. The blueberries were a relatively resent addition. He sold most of the fruit to the local ladies, for making jams and jellies. Although, Mr. Gregor always made sure he had enough apples for cider. His hard cider was also a local favorite.

JD ordered a piece of pie for himself and one for Ezra. Nathan declined. "You don’t like pie, Mr. Jackson?" Ezra couldn’t help but ask. It was unfathomable to him that anyone could not like pie.

Nathan shook his head. "Like it jus’ fine, Ezra. Gotta get going. Need ta check on Mrs. Cavanaugh. Told her I be out a little earlier today."

Mrs. Cavanaugh was pregnant for the fourth time. She had miscarried with the two previous children, and was very concerned about this child. Nathan had made a point of stopping in to see her daily to allay her fears and concerns.

"She’s doing well, yes?" Ezra liked the dainty woman who lived with her family just outside of town. He marveled that she had survived in this harsh environment for as long as she had. She had heard he was teaching some of the children in town, and had asked him if he would be willing to teach her young son when he was old enough to learn. Ezra had agreed, but found himself wondering if he would still be in Four Corners when the time came.

Nathan nodded his head. "So far, so good. She’s still got just under two months ta go. God willing this one will go full term like it’s s’posed to."

Ezra sighed silently. "From your lips to God’s ear." There was something decidedly tragic about a life cut short before it had the chance to begin. Although, it is perhaps better to have missed out on later tragedies.

Nathan stood up. "I should be back in an hour or two."

JD nodded. "I’ll be waiting for you."

Just like he waits for Josiah. Ezra managed not to smile. JD is certainly becoming a fine, upstanding young man. His concern for his friends does him credit. Rather like Buck. Buck would not have been my first choice to teaching JD the ways of the west and on what it means to be a man, but I must admit he has done an admiral job of it so far. I have done our resident Lothario a disservice. I shall have to find a way to make that up to him.

Ezra had not over looked the fact that JD made a habit of waiting for him, and watching out for him as well. He liked to believe it was out of friendship and not duty, but Ezra knew better than to expect that to be the case. He did not have enough experience with friendship to really gauge it well.

Ezra finished his pie, savoring the tart taste of the cherries. He pushed his plate away once he’d finished, feeling a bit over full, having not eaten much lately left his stomach less able to handle a full meal. But the pie had simply been to good to allow it to go to waste. "I must thank you, Mr. Dunne, for calling to my attention that such a delicacy was to be had."

JD grinned. "No problem, Ez. You gonna be teaching the kids today?"

Ezra nodded. "Yes. Two hours of instruction have been scheduled as per usual." He sent a questioning glance toward JD. "Is there some other task that you feel requires my attention?"

"No. No." JD was quick to answer. "Just wanted ta know where you’d be in case I need ya. Just me in you in town until Josiah and Nate get back."

Ah…yes. I should not have forgotten. "Would you like for me to assist you this afternoon?"

"Nah. Town’s been real quiet."

Ezra nodded. Yes, it has. Perhaps I am merely paranoid to view it as the calm before the storm. "Are you expecting trouble?"

JD chuckled. "Buck says I should always expect trouble."

Ezra made a wry face. "It is unfortunate that, in this case, Mr. Wilmington, may be correct."

"I won’t tell him that, if you don’t."

Ezra grinned, dimples visible, and gold pre-molar flashing for a moment. He knew just how often Buck and JD playful argued about the merits of Buck’s advice. "Agreed."


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