A secret is revealed, an apology is made, and an understanding is reached.
This story takes place after "Achilles" and contains some minor spoilers.
With thanks and apologies to Walter Mirisch, John Watson, Trilogy Productions, CBS, and the Alan Parsons Project, and proceeding under the assumption that forgiveness is easier to ask than permission....
We're living in a different reality
DANCING ON A HIGH WIRE ~ Alan Parsons Project
The steady pattering of the rain on the tarpaper roof was faint but rhythmic, suffusing the smoky atmosphere of the saloon with a white noise that Ezra Standish found almost hypnotic. It was a fallow period for the bar, and thus for the gambler: the brief cusp of relative quiet that fell between the day's activities and the onset of the busier evening hours often found the saloon sparsely populated and Ezra in a reflective mood, and this rainy afternoon was no different.
Rusty iron hinges creaked in protest in the heavy air, and Ezra looked up to see the silhouette of Vin Tanner framed in the bat-wing doors. He stepped in out of the weather, swung his hat off and shook it and the damp hair underneath, haloing his head in a spray of rainwater. The 'keep provided a beer without being asked, and Vin wrapped one long leg around the other and lounged hipshot against the bar, scanning the room with sharp blue eyes. His gaze fell on Ezra; Vin nodded in casual greeting, then turned his attention to his drink.
Ezra felt a twinge of regret.
Not that he'd expected Vin to join him. The relationship between the gambler and the tracker had long ago settled into one of mutual respect, tempered with an undercurrent of edginess. They traded barbs more often than horseplay, and were usually brought together by their comrades rather than seeking each other out. Accustomed to being the odd number in their group of seven, Ezra was not unduly disturbed by this most of the time, but he was troubled now. Things had been cooler than usual between Vin and himself of late, and Ezra knew why. His eyes fell on the newest edition of The Clarion, lying on the table at his elbow. He read again the tidy print above the fold on the front page.
"A Hero's Heart, by Vin Tanner," it said.
A small finger of guilt poked at Ezra's conscience. He tried to dismiss it without success, and sighed with regret at his recent and unwelcome susceptibility to such feelings.
"Billy," he called casually to the barkeep, "put Mr. Tanner's refreshment on my tab, would you?"
Ezra saw Vin's shoulders tense slightly before the tracker turned to gaze at him. After a moment, Vin nodded in acknowledgement of the favor, then turned back to his beer.
Ezra shrugged and lifted his own glass. He'd made the gesture and been dismissed. Let that be the end of it. He watched as a drop of condensation slid down the outside of his mug and fell onto the newsprint, causing it to blister. The word "hero" blurred and ran. The words were out before Ezra had actually decided to speak them.
"Mr. Tanner, would you care to join me?"
The buckskin jacket rode high on Vin's neck again, but after a considered moment, the younger man picked up his beer and moved with a deceptively casual stride to Ezra's table. He hooked a chair with the toe of his boot and deftly swung it into place, then settled into the seat, leaned back and regarded the gambler with skeptical blue eyes.
"Thanks for the beer," he said coolly. "Now, tell me what I'm gonna have to do to pay for it."
Ezra bit back the sharp retort that rose instinctively to his lips. He stalled by taking a long sip of his own drink, then settled the mug precisely on the damp ring it had previously created on the green baize.
"I owe you an apology. I'm asking that you accept it." Oh, that cost him; but not as much, Ezra knew, as it must have cost Vin to ask him for help.
The younger man's eyes narrowed. "You need to see Nathan?" he asked.
"No, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied, his lips quirking in a wry grin. "I doubt that Mr. Jackson has an herbal potion that will cure a guilty conscience. I must heal myself, if I can."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
Ezra nodded at the paper that lay on the table between them. "Poets are described by some as skilled interpreters of the human condition. I was hoping that you might intuitively grasp the nature of my gesture without forcing upon me the embarrassment of explaining myself further."
To his credit, Vin dedicated a few moments to unravelling Ezra's reply before his straightforward nature finally balked at the task. He pushed his chair back from the table and got to his feet.
"Ezra, I'd rather buy my own beer and drink it in peace than play games with you." He tossed a nickel onto the tabletop; the coin thudded heavily on the green felt.
Ezra spoke quickly, before he could stumble again on the thought behind his words. "That night you came to me for assistance in transcribing your poem, I didn't ... I was...." Oh hell. "I'm sorry I didn't help."
Vin kept his eyes averted, but Ezra could see his knuckles go white on the heavy glass grip of the beer mug. "Dammit," he muttered, almost to himself. "Did Mary tell you...?"
"That you can't read or write? No," Ezra said quietly. "But I have some small talent for deduction. I've known since the second week of our association."
The tracker's head snapped up, and Ezra saw surprise and embarrassment in Vin's eyes. And something else ... gratitude? "You never said nothin' ..." He seemed suddenly fascinated with the workmanship of the plank floor.
"Nevertheless, I knew. And I should have realized at the time ..." Ezra paused, shuffled his words, and started again. "I regret that my obsession with defeating that fellow Bangs diverted me from coming to the aid of a ... a colleague. One who is surprisingly talented."
Vin did not move. "You liked it?"
Ezra cleared his throat. "Yes," he said simply.
For a moment the tracker remained immobile, his shoulders hunched and his face veiled by the damp strands of his hair.
"Thanks, Ezra. Means somethin', comin' from you."
"Sit down and finish your beer, if you like," Ezra invited.
Vin hesitated, then nodded and settled again into his chair. Neither man spoke, content instead to let the sound of the rain fill the silence. A silence that seemed suddenly comfortable. Companionable. Ezra reached out and pushed Vin's nickel back to the tracker's side of the table. Vin's callused hand settled over it and then withdrew, leaving it in place. He rummaged for a moment in the pocket of his dungarees and produced two more coins, dropped them on the table next to the first, and looked up at Ezra with keen blue eyes that held less than their usual reserve.
Solemnly, Ezra reached up and touched one manicured finger to an imaginary hat brim. "Barkeep," he said over his shoulder, "we are in need of another round here. For me ... and my friend."
~ 30 ~