This story is a direct sequel to the previously posted Virgin Territory and Storm Set. Familiarity with those stories would be helpful.
Thanks: To Kay and Kathi, for lending me the benefit of their firsthand knowledge of the vagaries of Southwest US weather.
Shadow Cast by Lumina~
An expectant hush filled the empty streets and found its way into Ezra. Excitement sparked within him, fraught with anticipation, as his steps, muffled and soundless, carried him over the main thoroughfare. This was the first time he had ever seen snow, and he was enchanted.
Ezra savored the quiet, his aloneness, the cold seeming to have driven all the town's citizens indoors this late afternoon. The chill barely penetrated his thick, wool coat though, so he let his feet take him aimlessly down the broad, tree-lined street.
Dry, crystalline flakes whispered against his skin, a smile curving his lips at the tender caress. They fell steadily from the translucent white sky, their straight path from heaven to earth halting in a silent, soft plop atop the layers already covering the ground. The city's park lay to his right, a vast stretch of virgin white, undisturbed, sparkling and iridescent in the waning light of the day, blue shadows limning the dips and hollows between the gentle swells of the land. Ezra surveyed the winter beauty all around him and again gloried in his solitude, gladdened that no one was about to mar the perfect peace.
Not wishing to mar the pristine blanket covering the grounds, Ezra followed the path circling the perimeter of the park. Soon trees arced overhead, obscuring the sky with their snow-laden boughs, the heavy burden weighing the limbs down towards the earth. Ezra slowed, his steps heavier as the snow began to cling to his feet with a sucking wetness. Cold rivulets of water snaked down his back now as snowflakes found their way under his collar and melted against his heated skin causing his muscles to twitch reflexively at the icy fingers. Black shadows now stretched before him, broken only intermittently by the yellow glow of the street lamps creating sallow pools of light in the snow.
Ezra stopped, the quiet now eerie, his need for solitude now replaced with a desire to see others of the town's citizenry out reveling in the light snowfall. A vague sense of unease replaced his earlier enthusiasm as his eyes followed the path before him, travelling through its darkness and lightness till it bent and turned in another direction and out of his sight. Ezra stared at that bend, its simple redirection seeming twisted to his eyes, ominous and forbidding. He turned his eyes away.
Giving himself a mental shake, he chuckled softly at his foolishness and took another step forward, lifting his eyes to that bend ahead of him. Again he stopped, his light laughter dying on his lips as the anxiety within him flared more hotly. He took a step backwards then, turned around and closed his eyes, sucking in his breath in a deep inhalation.
He opened his eyes with a start, his breath erupting in a rough exhalation as his chest heaved. Focusing his sleep-blurred eyes on the ceiling of his room, he pulled his mind out of the dream that had been disturbing his sleep for the past several days as he tried to calm his breathing and quiet his racing heart.
"Good lord," he groaned as his gaze took in the fiery orange glow of the setting sun outside his window, realizing it was time to start his day. Tossing back the covers, Ezra threw his legs over the side of the bed and sat there a few moments, his head in his hands, trying to throw off the lasting effects of his dream. Fatigue pervaded his body making his limbs feel leaden, his thoughts sluggish as he rose slowly and made his way to the wash basin. Pouring water into the bowl, he splashed his face with it, the cold liquid pricking through the cotton in his head and helping to clear the shadows from its corners.
Raising his gaze to the mirror, he took in his pale features, the dullness in his eyes, eyes that followed the tiny trails of water streaming down the clammy skin of his neck and chest. The glistening droplets caught the light of the evening sun, burning paths of red fire across his skin. Shivering involuntarily, he frowned at himself and picked up the soap. Beating it into a lather on his chest, he was anxious to erase the sight of those scarlet tendrils, to cleanse the too slick feel from his flesh, to obliterate the agitation curling in his belly as his eyes watched them flow freely across his body. Determined to ignore the little voice in his head that told him those red trails reminded him of something. Something he should remember.
Early evening light filtered through the smudged glass of the saloon's windows competing with the softly glowing lamps to light the interior. Already townsmen were shuffling in, ordering drinks and organizing games of chance, creating a rumble of voices that ebbed and flowed across the room. The acrid smell of tobacco smoke began to float on the chill air that crept in through the batwing doors.
Chris's attention, however, was focused entirely on the young man seated across from him. Compassion filled him as he watched his companion's brown eyes flicker sightlessly about the room, finally fixing on his, mournful and lost.
Leaning forward, Chris said earnestly, "Mr. Graham, we will find who killed your sister."
The young man opposite him stared intently into Chris's eyes. Apparently satisfied with what he saw there, he nodded then said, "Hell, Mr. Larabee, might as well call me John under the circumstances."
Chris smiled warmly and leaned back in his chair. "John, then. And I'm Chris."
John returned his smile briefly before his gaze dropped to a leather bound book resting on the table before Chris. Raising his eyes again, he said, "I know you're tryin' your best." Nodding towards the book, he continued, his voice catching softly on a sigh, "Thought I'd bring that to ya' just in case it might help. I'll be wantin' it back."
Chris laid his hand on the volume fingering its spine gently as he replied, "You'll have it."
The younger man held his gaze for a moment before nodding shortly and rising from the table. "I'd best be gettin' back to the hotel. Dinner crowd'll be comin' in soon." He paused by Chris's table for a moment, then whispered, "Thank you," before turning and making his way quickly out of the increasingly bustling saloon.
Buck Wilmington brushed by him on his way into the saloon, pausing to look at the retreating figure before heading over to join Chris. Dropping into a chair, he asked, "Hey, Chris. How's he doin'?"
Chris met his friend's blue eyes, seeing the genuine concern there. "Not good, I'd say."
Buck nodded and shot a look of sympathy in the direction taken by Molly Graham's brother. Turning back to his friend, he tilted his chin towards the book under Chris's hand. "Whatcha got there?"
Chris looked down at the book beneath his fingers. "It's Molly Graham's diary. Her brother thought it might help us out."
Buck leaned forward, his interest piqued. "Oh yeah? Had a look at it yet?"
"Nope. He just gave it to me." Chris tapped lightly on the diary as his friend nodded, noting in turn Buck's fingers absently plucking at the string on a brown paper wrapped package he was carrying. Nodding towards the box, Chris asked, "What have you got?"
Chris watched in amusement as a tinge of pink crept into Buck's cheeks as he said, "It's a gift. For Ezra." He met Chris's eyes then, defiantly, as if daring him to make something out of it.
Chris merely smiled in acknowledgement and asked, "Ez been sleepin' any better?" Chris had begun to feel the first stirrings of worry again at what he deemed a setback in the gambler's recovery from the accident. The shadows around his eyes that had disappeared were back, stark against the pale skin and accentuating the distraction he occasionally caught in the green depths. He had noticed too that Ezra's clothes were hanging more loosely than was normal about his frame, that a new notch had appeared on his belt.
Buck sighed and shook his head, "Nah. He won't say, but I think he's havin' nightmares. 'Course I'd like to think he's not sleepin' good because I'm not there with him, what with us still workin' different patrols and all."
Chris grinned as Buck pointedly glared at him, but inwardly he was beginning to rethink his plan to test the two by assigning them different shifts in his desire to see if their relationship would affect their abilities to do their jobs. So far, aside from the occasional grumble about not getting enough time together, neither had failed to do what was required of them. While he didn't know what had caused the faltering in Ezra's recovery, he was sure it was not the differing duty schedules he had assigned the lovers. Still he thought he'd end his test. They had passed after all, and maybe having Buck with him more might improve Ezra's health.
His decision made, he nevertheless felt the need to tweak his friend on the issue a little bit. "So, you plyin' him with gifts because you're afraid someone'll cut you out?"
Buck met his smirk with one of his own as he drawled, "Ain't no way anybody could cut me out with Ezra. And if someone were to try, why, I'd just have to kill 'im, I guess." Then, rising from the table, he continued, "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm goin' up to spend a couple minutes with Ezra before he goes on patrol."
Chris's eyes followed Buck as he made his way through the gradually thickening crowd of customers and up the stairs. He knew his own growing worry for the gambler was met with a far greater concern on the part of his oldest friend. He'd seen the increased watchfulness on Buck's part when it came to Ezra, the unease that shaded his eyes sometimes when he looked at him or spoke of him.
Resolving to let his friends off the hook the next day, he turned his attention to the diary laying before him.
Buck gave a one-thump knock to Ezra's door before slipping inside. Ezra smiled over his shoulder at him as he stood at his dresser arranging his cravat. Returning that smile, Buck tossed his small package on the bed and crossed the room to stand behind the gambler.
Sliding his arms around the other man's waist, Buck surveyed Ezra's features in the mirror. Frowning, he took in the smudges underlining the green eyes, seeming all the darker against the paleness of his skin. Ezra's fingers, always so graceful and sure, seemed to move a little more slowly than usual, their movements agitated as they maneuvered the cloth at his throat. Buck tightened his arms around Ezra, his worry for the other man increasing as he felt the loss of weight in that body and the tension in the stiff muscles.
"Didn't sleep well again?" he asked softly.
Ezra smiled and placed his arms over Buck's around his middle. "No. But I'm fine, Buck." Reaching up with one arm, he pulled Buck's head to his shoulder and rubbed his cheek across the taller man's skin.
Buck groaned inwardly, knowing Ezra was trying to distract him from his concern. The gambler had always been fiercely independent, even during his period of blindness, and was still getting used to the give and take of a relationship, becoming accustomed to Buck's need to take care of him. Just as he was learning to temper that sometimes smothering aspect of his nature, to gauge the receptiveness of his mercurial lover's mood. So, as he felt the smooth slide of Ezra's skin along his own, the long fingers stroking through his hair, and saw the mischievous glint in the slitted green eyes, he allowed himself to be distracted.
Spinning the smaller man around in his arms, he captured Ezra's seductively curving lips with his own. Feeling the soft exhalation of held breath fan across his cheek, the subtle lessening of tension in the muscles beneath his hands, Buck knew he had made the right decision, but he determined to gain a reward for putting aside his worry for another day.
Letting his lips dance across Ezra's cheek, he moved down the long column of neck till he found a pulse point. His own heart beat faster as he felt the rapid thrum there, his own pleasure growing at the knowledge that he had the power to produce this effect in this man in his arms. Sliding his hands down to the gambler's waist, he gently, but firmly propelled him backward towards the bed as his mouth continued to caress the tender skin of Ezra's throat. The warm breath of Ezra's laughter sighed through his hair as the gambler's fingers found his lapels and tugged on them forcefully pulling the larger man with him as Buck pushed him down on the bed. Buck was careful to land to the side of his still healing lover, a sharp, "Ouch," from the other man accompanying his own loud grunt as they hit the mattress.
"What?" Buck exclaimed.
Concern flooded through him at the puzzled look on Ezra's face as he twisted on his side and reached behind his back. Pulling his hand back out, he held Buck's package, its once sharply creased corners now squashed from the weight of the gambler. Holding the box on the palm of his hand, Ezra lifted a quizzical eyebrow as he looked at Buck.
"Oh, yeah," Buck said sheepishly. "It's a present. For you."
Buck stayed where he was on the bed, propping his head up with his hand as he watched Ezra sit up, a burst of warmth flooding through him as Ezra's face lit up with a smile of surprised pleasure.
"For me?" the gambler murmured his eyes questioning.
"Mmhmm." Buck gently stroked Ezra's cheek with the backs of his fingers before waggling them in the direction of the box. "Go on. Open it."
Buck smiled, his eyes glued to the other man's face as he treasured each changing expression. The gleeful glint in the green eyes as they tore off the wrappings, the hesitant quirking of the lips as he lifted the lid, but most of all, the wide smile of pure joy when he saw the contents of the box.
Lifting his gaze to Buck's, Ezra said, "I don't know whether to thank you or be insulted." The teasing sparkle in his eyes belied his words though as he lifted the box to his nose inhaling the subtle fragrance of his favored soap within.
"Yeah, well, you scrub up real nice. When you bother to scrub up." Buck laughed at the scowl Ezra aimed at him, and continued, "I just knew you'd run out awhile back and liked it so much, so I had Mrs. Potter order some." Examining his nails with feigned indifference, he said, "'Sides, I really did it for myself. I like the way it makes you smell."
He lifted his eyes to Ezra's then to find the gambler smiling at him affectionately. Ezra leaned towards him and brushed a soft kiss to his lips as he said, "Thank you."
Buck gripped the back of Ezra's head as he made to pull back and, touching his forehead to the other man's, he said softly, "I love you."
He let Ezra move away then, examining his face closely as the other man stuttered, "I-"
Ezra's lips moved silently for a moment, his eyes shifting about the room before coming to rest on Buck's face. Buck saw a pleading there, a helplessness that haunted those green eyes every time Buck said those words. Every time he hoped to hear the words returned. Every time he was disappointed, the hurt increasing within him with each failure. Buck was sure Ezra loved him. He felt it in his touch. He saw it in the way Ezra's eyes caressed him. And he knew it, without a doubt, when the other man let him see into his soul as they moved with each other in bed, as he shared with Buck an openness that he showed no other, and even as the man struggled to say the words, but failed.
Buck didn't know why Ezra, a man of facile words, couldn't say what he was already expressing to him in so many other ways. Likewise he didn't know why he needed to hear those words from the gambler's lips so badly when he already felt it was true. But he did.
But, just like he could judge when Ezra would accept his care and concern over his health, he knew this was not the time to push him into a declaration.
Meeting the green eyes staring at him hesitantly, he smiled reassuringly and said, "Hey! You'd best get movin'. Chris'll have your hide if you miss your patrol."
Ezra returned his smile before getting off the bed and moving to the washstand. Taking one last sniff, he placed the soap beside the basin and met Buck's eyes across the room, his smile widening as he shrugged into his jacket.
No, as he watched that smile light Ezra's face, Buck knew he had no desire at all to force the issue. He could wait until the gambler was ready to say the words of his own accord. In the meantime, he would hide his hurt and accept what Ezra was willing to offer him.
Chris chewed on the end of his dead cheroot as he leafed through the pages of Molly Graham's diary. Its leather cover was smooth and supple, its pages covered with words written in a feminine hand and dimpled from the many page turnings it had seen from that hand. It was evident that the book had been much loved and well used by its owner, and Chris handled it delicately, showing it the care and respect its owner had not been given in her death.
His eyes scanned the pages, reading random passages that told of a young woman of intelligence and humor; her spirit and sense of adventure, leaving a life back East that was safe and secure to find something better out West. It spoke of the courage within the woman that overcame her trepidation and fear of the unknown and allowed her to reach out for her hopes and dreams. Hopes and dreams that would never be realized.
Chris felt he was beginning to know a bit of Molly Graham, a woman he had never spoken to in life, as he continued to read, stopping when his eyes fell on a particular passage.
"…Mr. Standish is always real sweet to me. Don't look through me like most folks do when I'm serving them their dinner. I don't mind much. Guess they don't get to have someone wait on them much. Maybe it makes them feel more formal, like they can't treat me like they would anywhere else because it might remind them they're just ordinary folks after all. I don't mind. Everybody needs to get away from their own lives once in awhile.
Mr. Standish always has real nice manners, though. Always asks me how John is doing; how things are for us here; how we're making out with our plans to move on to San Francisco. I was so excited when I found out he'd been there! Now whenever he comes in and I got a free minute, he's just as patient as can be and answers all my questions. Makes it come alive for me, and I go home and share the stories with John, but I know I don't make them sound as real as Mr. Standish does.
Couldn't have been more sorry when that bank robbery took his sight. He didn't deserve that and I sure hope and pray that it comes back to him. He's trying real hard though to get by on his own. Don't ask for any help, but just like he done for me, I give it to him anyway. As soon as he found out me and John are going to be moving to San Francisco once we got enough money, he started leaving me bigger tips. Guess he knows how little a waitress makes. He don't say anything about it, just trying to help in his quiet way. So I do the same now. I make sure his food is always on his plate just right: meat, potatoes, vegetables always in the same place, and the plate always set down with the meat right in front of him. Sometimes folks just need a little extra help, but can't ask for it. Nothing wrong with that. He don't say anything about it, and I don't either.
I hope he knows he's got a lot of friends in this town who would help him out should he need it. He's got those six men he works with. I've seen them around town, respecting Mr. Standish's space, but being watchful at the same time. Most especially that Mr. Wilmington. Then there's that other man too. Stays away, but he's always watching…."
Chris looked up as familiar voices floated above the din of customers across the saloon to him. Buck and Ezra were on the stairs, the taller man throwing a laughing comment over his shoulder to the other man as they descended, a remark that was met with an answering mirth sparkling in Ezra's eyes and a sly grin that curved his mouth. And as he watched his friends, Chris hoped that the half-formed suspicions that were born and grew while he read Molly Graham's words would remain just that. That the man responsible for her death was not the same person who had intruded on their happiness once before in an aborted attempt to kill Buck. That this killer was not again planning to take away from them what they had so recently found.
That the twin feelings of doubt and unease twisting in his gut were completely unfounded.
But, as Ezra and Buck drew closer to his table, Chris couldn't make himself believe that his suspicions weren't dead right.
To Be Continued…..
Return to The Nights Fall