Two men help each other find out where they stand.
This story takes place before my tale "You'll Never Work in Dis Bidness Again," and is a birthday present for my insightful beta reader and good friend Amy.
With thanks and apologies to Walter Mirisch, John Watson, Trilogy Productions, CBS, Warren Zevon, and Maria Mogavero, and proceeding under the assumption that forgiveness is easier to ask than permission...
I've been playing the blues so long
TRAVELIN' IN THE LIGHTNING ~ Warren Zevon
"'The Past Through Tomorrow'? What the hell kind of a name is that for a store?"
"It's from a book, Mr. Wilmington."
"Shit, Ezra, I know what it means! They got old and new stuff. I ain't totally dim."
The two men stepped through the front door to the jingle of a small silver bell and stood side by side for a moment. They unzipped their jackets, and Ezra Standish slipped his sunglasses from his nose and folded them carefully before he slid them into his breast pocket, while Buck Wilmington simply pushed his black plastic Aviators back into the bushy shock of hair that crowned his forehead.
"Sure got the heat cranked up in here," he complained.
"And a good thing, too," countered Standish. "It seems that springtime in the Rockies isn't much warmer than winter."
"You missin' Atlanta?" grinned Buck.
"I miss the weather in Atlanta," the southerner said edgily.
At the sound of the bell, a woman looked up from behind the counter, where she'd been rummaging through a large box. Strands of excelsior tangled in the stray wisps of hair that had escaped the bun on her head, and she pulled one out, smiled ruefully, and let it drift to the floor. "May I help you gentlemen?" she asked cheerfully.
"We are merely browsing at the moment," answered Ezra politely.
"Well, make yourselves at home. There's coffee on a table in the back." The woman smiled again and went back to her unpacking.
"Thank you." Ezra scanned the room with interest, while Buck stuck his hands in his pockets and stood hipshot, a bemused look on his face.
"Where you gonna start?" he asked. "This place is a mess." He rolled his eyes, then looked guiltily over his shoulder to see if the proprietress had heard.
"It is not a 'mess', Mr. Wilmington," corrected Ezra. His research assistant Grace had told him of the antique shop scant blocks from the ATF office, and it was everything she had promised. The huge old storefront dating back to the 1800s was a warehouse of the past, both distant and recent; antique furniture and furnishings, paintings, clothing and jewelry, and other oddities were everywhere. Ezra bent over a glass-topped table and peered at the contents. "There are stories here," he said pensively, "some fascinating, some mundane ... but all the whispers of ghosts who lived in days gone by...."
"It's just a bunch of old stuff, Ez," said Buck.
Standish straightened and shot a long-suffering look at his companion. He had no idea why the man had invited himself along on this errand in the first place; they had only known each other for a few months, and rarely did anything together outside of work.
"Indeed," he said, with some condescension. "'Old stuff.' But Alexander Patrick Campbell likes 'old stuff.' And since I must somehow ingratiate myself with the man in order to ascertain from whom the local sympathizers of the Irish Rifleman's Association are obtaining their weapons, a gift of 'old stuff' might prove useful in breaking the ice." A box of prints and lithographs caught his eye, and he turned his back on Buck and began flipping through them.
"Well, I wouldn't know trash from treasure in a place like this," muttered Buck. Ezra's attention was focused on the pictures and he didn't seem to hear; his companion drifted away, wandering aimlessly through the maze of furniture and displays of memorabilia. As his eyes idly roamed the place, a glint of light caught his attention, and Buck followed the glimmer to a shelf draped in an old serape. He reached out and pushed the woven cloth aside.
There on the barn wood plank lay two brass spurs, their outer cuff buttons chased in the design of a star in a circle, and their rowels also star-shaped.
Buck looked away at Ezra's delighted exclamation. "What?"
Ezra began to thread his way through the aisles, a square of aging paper wrapped in plastic held triumphantly aloft. "Perfect!" he repeated, and held his prize out for Buck's inspection.
It was an old lithograph of a group of men in miner's clothing seated in a rocky outcropping, surrounding a central figure who held one hand up and seemed to be speaking to the others. Buck shook his head.
"Why perfect?" he asked, bemused.
"Because, my historically challenged compatriot," crowed Ezra, "this is a lithograph of a secret meeting of the Molly Maguires."
"Ez ... there ain't no women in that picture."
Ezra sighed in exasperation. "Of course not. The Molly Maguires were a group of American coal miners of Irish descent, who took their name from a woman whose persecution was the inspiration for an antecedent group of the IRA. In 1875, they organized a strike against the coal mining industry in Pennyslvania, which was notorious for their exploitation of the miners in their employ. It was a violent strike, finally broken by Pinkerton detectives, and resulted in the hanging of four men, including the man depicted here. His name was Alexander Campbell."
"The same as--"
"--that of the gentleman with whom I will be meeting," Ezra concluded with satisfaction. "This just might open a closed door." He smiled broadly.
Buck nodded. "That's great," he said absently, his gaze drawn back to the shelf.
Ezra's smile faded, and he followed Buck's line of sight to the brass spurs, then looked back at his coworker. The older man's expression was one of wistfulness, and a hint of sadness darkened the normally cheerful blue eyes. Ezra knew he was seeing an old pain usually hidden behind Buck Wilmington's genial face, and wondered what it was about the spurs that had parted that curtain of good cheer and revealed the sorrow behind it.
"Mr. Wilmington?" he said softly.
Seeming not to hear, Buck reached out and picked up the spurs. He flicked one rowel with a callused finger and watched it spin. "Might open a closed door... " he murmured, almost to himself.
Wilmington broke from his reverie and gave Ezra a hollow grin. "You ready?" he asked.
"Yes," answered the southerner.
"Then let's go." Buck brushed past Ezra and strode up to the counter, his companion trailing behind him. He set the spurs down and reached for his wallet.
"Oh, aren't those wonderful?" smiled the shopkeeper as she keyed the price into the register. "I got them at an estate sale a few years ago ... they date to the 1870s." She looked up at the big man standing before her. "I think they might be a bit small for you," she cautioned.
"They're a gift," said Buck.
"I see," she said. "That will be eighty-five dollars and seventy-three cents."
Buck didn't flinch as he dropped his American Express card on the counter. Ezra's green eyes widened in surprise. The woman rang up the purchase and began to wrap the spurs in brown paper. Ezra struggled to hide his curiosity.
Fifteen minutes later the two men walked out into the chilly sunshine of late afternoon. Buck pulled his sunglasses down over his eyes and waited patiently while Ezra slipped his from his pocket and settled them on his nose. The southerner looked at his watch.
"Mmm." Buck's thoughts had returned to that dark and distant place Ezra had glimpsed before.
"Mr. Wilmington," he began, then hesitated. "Buck ... would you like to join me for a drink?" What the hell am I doing? he thought, even as he nodded down the street toward Inez Roscios' saloon, barely two blocks away.
"Excuse me?" It was automatic; in the few months since the southern man had been part of Chris Larabee's ATF team, Buck could count on his fingers the number of times Ezra had joined his coworkers after hours.
"Of course. I understand. I'll see you tomorrow." Standish had clearly taken Buck's response as a dismissal. The younger man tucked his package under his arm and was half a block away before Buck recovered.
"Hey, Ez!" A few long strides brought him shoulder to shoulder with Standish. "Ezra, wait. I wasn't thinkin'." He grinned ... a mirror of the unnatural smile he'd offered Standish in the antique store. "Hell, who am I to turn down a free beer?"
"Who am I to offer one?" Standish kept walking.
Shit, thought Buck. He dropped a broad hand on the younger man's shoulder, stopping him in his tracks. "Ez, I'm sorry. I ain't myself today. Truth is, I could use some company. Let me buy you a drink, okay?"
Silence greeted the offer. Aw, to hell with it. He lifted his hand, but in the moment before he turned away, a quick nod stopped him. Buck smiled again, and this time the smile was small, but genuine.
"All right then," he said, and the two men reversed their course and walked together toward the little neighborhood bar.
A quartet of empty glasses sat in front of each man when Ezra's curiosity finally forced the question out.
"What kind of woman rates an eighty-five dollar pair of antique spurs?" he asked bluntly.
Buck answered without hesitation, as if he'd known the question would eventually come up, and almost welcomed it.
"Ain't for a woman."
"Who else do you spend that kind of money on?"
"A friend. Two friends." Buck drained his beer mug, and gestured at Inez.
The barkeep frowned, knowing that the two were already close to having been overserved, then shrugged. She'd poured Buck Wilmington into a cab before. The southerner was a surprise ... he was not a regular customer as were the rest of the ATF agents ... but Mile High Taxi could cart him home too, if necessary. Inez poured the drinks, brought them to the table, gathered up the empties and left without comment.
As she returned to the bar, Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner walked in. Inez greeted them with a few quiet words and a nod in the direction of the corner table. Vin lifted an eyebrow and Chris' eyes narrowed, but they smiled at Buck and Ezra and moved on to seats on the other side of the room.
"Those two friends?" asked Ezra.
Buck nodded, and the cloud passed over his eyes again. Ezra faltered, unused to drawing out a friend instead of a mark.
"You want to talk about it?" he asked, uncharacteristically direct. Buck looked at his beer, but Ezra could tell he was seeing the past.
"I called him 'cowboy' the first day we met ... the day they made us partners," he said. "Got caught in a shootout that same afternoon, and he broke cover to draw fire offa some asshole rookie who didn't have a clue. I called him 'cowboy' ... I was the only one he ever took that off of."
"Vin calls him 'cowboy'," Ezra observed.
"I know it. He did that the first day they met, too."
Buck looked up, and in those blue eyes Ezra saw emotion eddying like an oil slick on water. "Always blamed myself a little for what happened to Sarah and Adam, ya know. I was supposed to pick her up that day and run her over to the doc's. Sarah thought she might be pregnant and didn't want Chris to know until she was sure." Warning suddenly hardened Buck's expression; Ezra understood the demand and made the promise with a slight nod. The grim line of the big man's mouth softened slightly and regret crept back into his eyes. "I was runnin' late, and begged off, so she and the kid took Chris' truck."
Buck's gaze returned to his drink. "After ... I tried to look out for him," he said. "It was a ... an obligation. A trust. I owed 'em both. I didn't have a family of my own, and Sarah made sure that I stayed in Chris' life after they got married."
Buck paused, remembering, and Ezra left the silence undisturbed. After a moment, the sorrow and the beer filled it again.
"I watched his back for a long time." The big man looked across the room. "But now he looks to Vin to do it."
"I don't hold nothin' against Vin," Buck said honestly. "That's why I got the spurs. I want 'em to know that I'm glad ... for both of 'em." He looked at Ezra with hopeful eyes, as if seeking the younger man's understanding and approval.
"I see," Ezra said again, a bit stunned by the heretofore unperceived depth of the big-hearted man sitting across from him. A twinge of empathy and admiration tightened his throat.
"Anyway," Buck said suddenly, seeming to change the subject, "I got JD to watch out for now. He's a good kid. Gonna make a good cop ... a good man ... someday. I wanna do what I can to see he gets there."
Ezra nodded. "I think most fathers feel that way."
"I ain't his father. And anyway, I wouldn't know." The sadness had returned.
"Neither would I, Mr. Wilmington."
The two men exchanged another glance, then both looked away.
"Damn big shoes to fill, Ez."
"I'm sure Vin knows that."
Buck looked up in surprise. "I was talkin' about JD. I ain't the man he thinks I am."
"I believe you are. You think Vin doesn't worry about living up to what you've been for Chris?" Ezra said quietly.
Buck was wordless.
The saloon door swung open and JD Dunne tumbled in, followed by Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson. "Watch that first step, son," Josiah said, grinning. "It's felled better men than you."
"Dammit, Josiah! If you guys weren't in such a hurry to get in here ... Buck!" The boy spotted his friend and made a beeline for the table; his open face showed honest surprise and pleasure at seeing the other man sitting there. "Hey, Ezra. How come you guys aren't sitting with Chris and Vin?"
Ezra spoke hastily, covering for Buck while he collected himself. "Because I offered to buy Mr. Wilmington a beer," said the southerner, "and I didn't want them to presume upon my generosity."
"Oh." JD thought for a moment, then grinned. "Well, if I buy everyone a beer, can we all sit together?"
A spontaneous laugh escaped Ezra ... the boy was as big-hearted as his mentor. "A splendid idea, Mr. Dunne." He got to his feet, and Buck did too, a bit slowly. The others headed for the table where Chris and Vin sat, but Buck put out a hand and held Ezra back.
"Ez ... thanks."
"The spurs were an inspired idea, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said softly. "I'm sure Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner will appreciate the gesture."
Buck smiled. "Yeah. Only one problem."
"Oh? What's that?"
"I shoulda got three of 'em."
Ezra looked up at the taller man, bemused. Buck's eyes crinkled, and his mustache crept up over the genuine grin Ezra was accustomed to seeing. He dropped one big hand on the the younger man's shoulder and steered him toward the table in the corner where the other five waited.
"Don't worry, Ez. You'll figure it out one 'a these days ... friend."
~ 30 ~