Standard Fanfic Disclaimer that wouldn't last ten seconds in a court of law: These aren't my characters (well, except for the OCs). I'm just borrowing them for, um, typing practice. Yeah, that's it, typing practice. All characters will be returned to their original owners undamaged (or at least suitably bandaged). Originally published in the fanzine Magnificent Shorts #4, from Neon RainBow Press.
by Susan M. M.
A train whistle blew in the distance. Ezra pulled his gold watch from his pocket and looked at it. "Five past five. The train is early today." He glanced around the Standish Tavern. In a few minutes, hungry, thirsty travelers would be coming in. They would fill their stomachs and his coffers. He permitted himself a small smile before returning his attention to the cards in front of him.
A few minutes later, the train pulled into the station. In a loud voice, the conductor announced, "Four Corners. Hour's stop at Four Corners!"
One by one, the passengers made their way off the train. Most were merely getting off to stretch their legs and buy dinner; they left their luggage aboard. A few were ending their journey, and they fussed over their carpetbags and trunks with the conductor and the porter. One elderly woman, however, was ignoring her luggage.
"But, madame, the bags," protested the middle-aged woman accompanying her.
"They'll be fine where they are, Marie," replied a stately, white-haired woman. She couldn't be a day under seventy, yet her posture was as erect as a soldier's. "You, there, young man."
Chris glanced around and was surprised to realize that she was addressing him. No one had called him "young man" in fifteen years or more. "Ma'am?"
"Are you acquainted with Mr. Wilmington, who lives in this town?"
Chris smiled. "Yes, ma'am, I am." He didn't mention that he'd known Buck Wilmington since the Civil War, or that Buck was as close to him as a brother.
"Do you know where I can find him?" the old woman asked. Her gray silk dress rustled as she stepped closer to him.
"This time of day, likely at the saloon," Chris replied.
"Thank you. Come along, Marie."
"But, madame! You cannot go to a saloon!" Marie protested.
"At my age, I hardly think I need to worry about having my reputation compromised," the old woman replied with dry humor. "Give the porter a dollar and arrange to have our bags delivered to the hotel."
"Which hotel?" Marie asked helplessly.
"Do you really think a town this size has more than one?" Her blue eyes twinkled. She turned back to Chris. "Young man, would you be kind enough to direct me to the saloon?"
"Be honored to escort you, ma'am. Really not the sort of place a lady should go alone," Chris told her, his expression completely deadpan.
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The old woman looked up at the front of the building. "I've never been in a saloon before."
"If you like, ma'am, I can go in and fetch Buck out," Chris offered.
"No, it's past time I tried some new experiences." She pushed the batwing doors open and stepped inside.
Chris looked around. Buck and Vin were at the back table, the one they often shared. "There he is – the dark-haired fellow with the mustache."
She stopped and stared for a moment, gazing at Buck the way a thirsty man would look at a cool mountain spring. She took a deep breath, then stepped forward.
"Buck, got somebody wants to meet you." Chris' hazel-green eyes were filled with mischief and curiosity; he couldn't wait to find out what Buck had done to attract the attention of an elderly, silk-clad society lady. "Ma'am, this here's Buck Wilmington and Vin Tanner." He looked at the old woman, waiting for her to introduce herself.
"Buckleigh?" Vin repeated.
Buck looked up in surprise. "Ain't nobody called me that in years." He peered into the woman's wrinkled face, not recognizing her.
"Priscilla Wilmington," she introduced herself.
"Wilmington?" Vin repeated.
Buck stared at her, dropping his spoon into his bowl of chili. "Grandmere?" he whispered.
Vin caught Chris' eye. Without a word, the long-haired tracker picked up his own dinner and rose from the table. He and Chris went to the bar to allow the Wilmingtons a bit of privacy for their reunion.
"Aren't you going to invite me to join you?" she asked.
"Why should I?" Buck countered.
"Then I'll invite myself." Mrs. Wilmington seated herself in the chair across the table from her grandson. "Now that I'm a widow, and no longer bound by vows to 'love, honor, and obey' a man I never even liked, I can do as I please."
"Grandfather's dead? I thought that man was too mean to die," Buck said callously.
"He and your father died three months ago. There was a fire on Wall Street. Their office building burned down with them in it."
"Daddy, too?" When she nodded, Buck replied, "Thank God." He returned his attention to his dinner, as if dismissing James B. Wilmington, Sr. and Jr. from his mind.
She didn't chide him for his unchristian attitude. "It's safe now. You can come home."
"This is my home," Buck declared. "Ain't been to New York since I was eight. Don't got no plans to go back, neither. Only thing I miss is the ice cream at Delmonico's."
Mrs. Wilmington tsked. "Ain't. Don't got no plans. Didn't they teach you any grammar at Baylor?"
Buck looked up from his chili. "How'd you know I went to Baylor University?"
She chuckled, not unkindly. "Who do you think paid your tuition?"
"I won a scholarship," Buck protested.
Mrs. Wilmington shook her head. "I arranged that 'scholarship,' Buckleigh."
"Then that's the only thing you ever did for me," Buck growled. "And my name's Buck, not Buckleigh. And it sure as hell— er, sure as heck ain't James Buckleigh Wilmington III."
"And just who," Mrs. Wilmington asked, her blue eyes flashing like sapphires, "do you think gave your mother the money for the two of you to escape?"
"Your father was a brute and a bully, just like his father. Just like my father-in-law. When your father beat your mother, I wept, because I knew exactly what she was going through. But when he started beating you, I didn't know which frightened me more: that you would share our suffering, or that you would grow up to be just like James – another beast who thought he had the right to beat his wife and children if they dared to disagree with him, or simply because the mood struck him." She took a deep breath. "It wasn't easy. My husband had money; I didn't." Buck looked at her in disbelief, and she continued, "Not cash in my pocket. The Wilmington family had plenty of money, and your grandfather saw to it that I always had the finest clothes and jewels. But he paid all the bills. It took quite a while to gather together enough money, but eventually I had enough to buy the train tickets, and you and your mother were able to escape. I only wish," she sighed, "that I'd had the courage to go with you."
Before Buck could reply to that, Inez Recillos approached the table, a coffee mug in her hand. She set it down in front of Mrs. Wilmington.
"I didn't order any coffee," Mrs. Wilmington said. Then the scent from the cup caught her nose. She picked it up and inhaled. "Tea."
"From Ezra," Inez explained. "On the house." She batted her eyes at Buck and smiled sweetly. "If you want anything, you have to pay for it."
"Tea in a coffee cup, how delightfully informal." Mrs. Wilmington picked up the cup and took a sip. "Ezra, that would be your gambler friend."
"How'd you know…?" Buck's voice trailed off as he realized the most likely source of her information. "Oh. Jock Steele."
Mrs. Wilmington nodded. "I lost track of you after the war. Your mother was very good about sending pictures of you, but the letters stopped halfway through the war."
"That's when she died," Buck said sadly. He looked up suddenly. "She wrote you?"
"Twice a year, just so I'd know you were both alive and well. And she sent pictures, so James would know he couldn't have her declared legally dead. She never included a return address; she didn't want him able to find her and divorce her."
"Why wouldn't she want free of that bas— er, of him?"
"If he divorced her, he'd be free to marry and beat another woman. This way she had her freedom and James was still legally bound to her. And oh, how he steamed to see her in her working clothes, knowing what she was doing for a living, what she had chosen as preferable to him." Her blue eyes gleamed at the memory.
"You and Daddy knew what Mama did?" Buck wasn't ashamed of the fact his mother had been a whore, but he didn't brag about it, either.
His grandmother nodded. "I'd managed to slip her a little money above and beyond traveling expenses. She could have used that to support herself until she could find work as a teacher, or a shop clerk, but she wanted him to know that harlotry was – how did she phrase it in her letters? – 'beat being Mrs. James Wilmington all hollow.'" Mrs. Wilmington smiled. "She knew his pride was the second best place to attack your father, after his pocket book."
Buck was speechless. He'd always assumed it was the only job his mother could find to support the two of them.
"The last picture she sent of you was of you in your uniform. Quite handsome," she said approvingly, "but when we get back to New York, we'll have another photograph done. Or perhaps have your portrait painted."
Buck looked up at her, surprised. "I'm not going back to New York."
"But it's safe now," his grandmother repeated. "Besides, you're heir."
"Let Uncle Toby have the money. I don't want it."
Mrs. Wilmington took a deep breath. "Tobias was killed in the war."
"I'm sorry to hear that. He was the only one in the family besides you who was halfway decent." For just a moment, Buck remembered his uncle playing with him, when his father regarded getting down on the floor to play with wooden trains beneath his dignity. "And he didn't make me speak in French to him, Grandmere."
She sighed. "It was your grandfather who insisted that you speak only French on Tuesdays. He wanted you to be cultured."
"Don't seem to have worked, or if it did, it wore off years ago."
"You underestimate yourself," Mrs. Wilmington chided him. "There's more to culture than speaking French with a Parisian accent, or dropping literary allusions into a conversation just to demonstrate your education. Even allowing for hyperbole, Jock Steele made it clear that you are a man of courage and honor."
"Jock Steele wouldn't know the truth if it kicked him in the backside," Buck retorted.
"Now you're the one exaggerating, Buckleigh." She corrected herself. "Buck. You have an obligation to your father's and grandfather's clients. The Wilmington name is trusted on Wall Street. Just because the office burned down, that doesn't mean that Wilmington Merchant Bank needs to go out of business."
"I don't know the first thing about being an investment banker," Buck protested. "And I don't want to learn." He shook his head. "Sorry, Grandmere, but I'm just not interested in going back to New York, especially not to Wall Street, locked up in some teeny little office telling other people what to do with their money."
"I know New York doesn't hold many happy memories for you," Mrs. Wilmington conceded. "Perhaps we could travel together. This has been quite an adventure, traveling west with just my maid, not a whole retinue of servants. We could go to San Francisco, or to Denver. I'd like to see the Rocky Mountains." Her eyes lit up at the prospect. "We could travel the world together: Jamaica, London, Paris, Egypt. Wouldn't it infuriate your grandfather to think we were wasting his hard-earned money on something as frivolous as traveling for pleasure?"
"Yep, I reckon it would," Buck agreed, "but I've set down roots here. Folks need me here."
"I understand." She tried not to let the disappointment show in her voice, but Buck heard it nonetheless. "Well, it's your money. Perhaps you can buy a ranch here."
Buck thought a minute. Having enough money to not worry about bills would be nice, but taking anything from his father and grandfather… He shook his head. He wanted nothing of them, nothing that had been theirs."Seem to remember you and your society friends did a lot of charity work… as long you didn't have to get your hands dirty."
Mrs. Wilmington nodded.
"Maybe you could use the money to set up a home for unwed mothers, and for womenfolk whose men slap 'em and kick 'em around."
"It's possible," she allowed. "The lawyers would need to phrase the charter of such a charity foundation carefully; legally a husband can do as he likes with his wife." She took a deep breath. "Including slapping her if she speaks to her grandson in English on the day set aside for French practice."
Buck looked up sharply at that. He'd never known that before.
"However, I didn't intend to come this far just to say 'howdy,' then turn around, go back to New York, and set up a charity fund. I want to spend time with my grandson."
Buck smiled at her. "I'd like that, too, Grandmere."