I seem to have a campfire fixation. Or is it a fixation with Vin's hair? Anyhoo. Hope you like this one. It ended a bit abruptly, but sometimes the muse slams the door. Usual disclaimers, I own nothing but will return the boys warm and fed once I'm done with them.
Shadows danced, cast by the leaping flames of a campfire, the silence of the night broken only by the crackling of the fire and the smooth, dulcet, tones of a mellow Southern voice. It had been a hard week for the seven peacemakers of Four Corners, chasing down a band of cattle thieves, and now they were returning to the dusty little patch they called home. JD Dunne lounged back against the log that his friend and older brother substitute, Buck Wilmington, perched on. Next to them sprawled Josiah Sanchez, flat on his back with his head comfortably cushioned by one of his saddle bags. Further around the fire lay Nathan Jackson, curled on his side on his bedroll, lazily watching the fire as he let the sounds sooth him. Next along was Vin Tanner, mirroring JD's pose as he reclined next to the reader. Slightly apart from the others, Chris Larabee, hunched over his latest creative offering to the gods of whittling. He too was closely following the story being read, marvelling at the way the reader brought the words to life with the subtle inflections of his voice.
As to the reader, that was an outwardly reluctant Ezra Standish, the odd man out of the seven. Often used as a scapegoat and usually regarded as the awkward step-child or errant cousin in this strange family, Ezra had nonetheless claimed his place in the hearts of the other men. After a year together, they had argued and fought their way to a greater understanding of the gambler, dragging him kicking and cursing into their band of brothers. Instead of struggling with his flaws, they quite often wheedled him into displaying the attributes he preferred to hide. For instance, he detested manual labour and could not be counted on to help set up camp voluntarily, but he would turn to cooking the meals with alacrity and great skill if flattered or threatened with Buck's cooking. Whatever Vin managed to kill and bring back would be turned into a mouth-watering stew with more flavour than any of the others managed. When asked what his secret was, Ezra would give a sly smirk and mutter something about "defending his digestive system against the punitive culinary endeavours of amateurs".
Ezra's other great strength when they were forced into confinement or camping out was entertainment. He never travelled anywhere without a pack of cards, or a book. Even the few times that these had been deemed unworthy amusements, he would regale them with tales of adventure, comedy, drama or romance, depending on the wishes and mood of his audience. Truly adept at spinning a tale, his voice brought images to life, entrancing anyone within listening distance. Even the most fractious and hardened of prisoners would quietly sit and let the Southern raconteur beguile and bewitch them, earning the gambler the undying thanks of his fellow peacekeepers on many prisoner escorts.
A peaceful half hour passed and Chris paused in his carving to study his work, twisting it from side to side, trying to tell what it was turning out to be. Snorting at the realisation that it was yet another horse, he straightened his back with a series of cracks and pops, sweeping his gaze over his men. A slow smile tugged at his lips as he noted that Nathan and Josiah had succumbed to Morpheus' call, Josiah snoring loud enough to "cause the sanctified dead to rise from their graves", as Ezra would say.
Buck had slipped down off his perch to lie with his long body stretched out towards the fire, his head and shoulders still propped up by the log. JD had tilted towards Buck and his head was now pillowed on Buck's flat stomach, slowly rising and falling with his friend's breathing, the rest of his body sprawled where it fell. Buck, for his part, had draped one arm over the kid's chest and his other hand rested on the shiny mop of hair spread over his belly. The rangy older man and young Easterner had both been raised by their single mothers and had been brought up to show affection freely, both verbally and physically. Still, the sight of the two closest brothers made Chris chuckle to himself, marvelling at their easiness with each other. Although, given the many times that the blonde gunslinger had thrown himself into the shelter of the big man's arms when the grief of losing Sarah and Adam had gotten too much to bear on his own, he knew he shouldn't be so surprised. And it hadn't been that long ago that JD had lost his mother, his only family in the world. So it was natural for the kid to cling to the man who had taken on the task of mentoring him in the ways of the West.
The biggest surprise was when he looked towards Vin and Ezra. Easily the two most secretive and private of his men, he'd watched as the two seemed to have discovered commonality in their pasts and used this to bridge their obvious differences in personality and style to form a firm friendship over the months. Neither one seemed the demonstrative type, although they submitted to the bear hugs of both Josiah and Buck, albeit with grumbling threats of shooting from the tracker and more verbose threats of dire retribution from the Southerner. Yet now, he was witness to a show of brotherly intimacy unlike he'd seen outside of the clinic, a place where normal behaviours were put aside in favour of what was needed. When one of them was hurt or ill, it was quite common place for the others to show solidarity and offer comfort with hand holding and rough caresses to push sweat soaked hair from a fevered brow. But when fit and healthy, they all tended to respect each other's personal space, with the notable exceptions of Buck and Josiah who were naturally tactile and big enough to ward off any resulting blows. Seeing Vin and Ezra as they were now, brought a warm glow to Chris' chest. Swallowing hard, he picked up a small pebble and surruptitiously tossed it over to land on Buck's thigh, knowing his friend wasn't sleeping by the lack of snoring.
Buck opened one eye when he felt the pebble hit him and peered in the direction of its origin. Seeing the fond smile on his long time friend's face and the subtle head tilt towards the other side of the fire, he opened the other eye and lifted his head to see what had made Chris look so happy. When he did, a huge grin lifted his mustache and a low chuckle rumbled in his chest. Looking back at the blonde, he winked and mouthed, "Awwww, ain't they sweet?"
Lifting an eyebrow imperiously, Chris gestured towards Buck and JD and mouthed, "Like you can talk."
All the while, the objects of their conversation were blissfully unaware of the scrutiny. Vin loved listening to Ezra read and always made sure to ask if the gambler had packed a book. When assured that there was a tome tucked away in Chaucer's saddle bags, he would nonchalantly ask if Ezra planned on sharing the story. He knew he never fooled Ezra with his seeming indifference, but was thankful that the gambler always played along rather than bring attention to his whimsy. When it was just the two of them on the trail, Ezra would encourage him to read the book himself, helping him to sound out any difficult words and explaining their meaning. The day after the drunken altercation when Vin had approached him for help at the saloon and been callously rebuffed, Ezra had apologised in straightforward words away from the others and begged forgiveness, offering to repeat the apology in public if Vin so chose. Just the thought of that had caused the tracker to blush profusely and beg Ezra not to say anything more in front of the others. When he'd hesitantly told the gambler that Mary was going to teach him to read, he'd been thrilled with the enthusiasm and pride that Ezra had shown. The gambler had immediately offered to help in any way he could and had been doing so ever since. Although he'd made great progress with his letters, Vin still loved to be read to best of all. The stories flowed through his mind as he lay back and listened to his friend's warm voice, sucking on the hard candy that Ezra always had for him.
Ezra tilted the book a little further towards the fire, squinting at the words in the inadequate light. Fortunately he'd read The Three Musketeers so often that he didn't really need the book, but kept it out as a pretense. After turning a page, his hand returned to stroking through Vin's long hair as his friend rested his head on his thigh. It had become a habit for them. Vin would ask him to share his book, and somehow throughout the reading, Vin would end up with his head on Ezra's leg and Ezra's fingers running through his hair. The first time it had happened, Vin had been leaning on him as he read along with Ezra, improving his reading skills. During the course of the night, Vin had fallen asleep, his head naturally falling forward and finding a resting spot on his friend. Deciding against waking the tracker, since the gambler had noted that the man rarely slept deeply or peacefully, he'd left him where he was and continued reading to himself.
After a few pages, he'd caught himself stroking Vin's hair in an unconscious gesture of comfort, whether his or the tracker's he was uncertain. As it hadn't disturbed Vin and he found the repetitive motion as soothing as shuffling his deck of cards, he'd continued to do so. He'd found himself feeling oddly connected to the scruffy, young Texan. Originally thinking the slightly younger man to be an illiterate, uncouth half-savage, without any redeeming features other than his excellent skills with a gun and his uncanny tracking abilities, he'd maintained his distance.
But as time progressed, he got to know the shy man under the dust and seemingly aloof air. He'd seen how many times the boy had been hurt by people and life, how he'd refused to let those experiences crush him and how vulnerable he was to being hurt again. As a result, Ezra's barely repressed protective instincts, had roared as they always did around animals and those people younger, much older or somehow weaker than himself. When the tracker had been so magnanimous in accepting his apologies, for his appalling behaviour when asked for help with Vin's poetry, he'd also realised that the tracker was a better man than himself and deserving of as much respect and civility as could be given. The pride he'd felt in Vin when told that he'd decided to learn to read, to better himself, was unexpected. It was at that point that he'd had to acknowledge that he now viewed Vin as he imagined someone would their younger brother. It was a sobering yet oddly warming thought. Not long after, he'd started to buy his friend little gifts of hard candy, or a book, here and there. He found the giving of these things gave him a pleasant feeling in return, seeing the shy gratitude and surprised pleasure shine from Vin's expressive blue eyes.
Vin felt eyes on him, even in his sleep and swiftly rose to consciousness. Assessing his surroundings before opening his eyes, he realised that he'd once again fallen asleep on Ezra's leg. Smiling a little, he took a moment to enjoy the feeling of having his hair stroked. Before joining up with these men, he'd been solitary so long that he'd almost forgotten what it was like to be touched by another human being in a non violent way. After his mother had passed, it had been years before he'd felt the touch of a caring hand. When he'd been taken in by his Indian family, his second mother had held him after his nightmares, soothing his fears and wiping away his tears with an ease born of long practice on her own children. Then the bluecoats had come and murdered his family, sentencing him once more to a life of touch deprivation. After that, if he wanted to be touched with gentleness, he had to pay someone to do so. He'd been desperate enough to do that once when he'd been alone for many years, but he'd come away from the experience feeling more lonely and miserable than before. But now he had six brothers, all of whom filled his life with their touch. Buck with his hugs, hair ruffling and back slaps, JD with his tentative arms slaps and firm handshakes, Josiah with his all encompassing, lift-off-the-ground bear hugs, Nathan with his big, warm, gentle hands that soothed away pain and fever, and Chris with their unique arm clasp and occasional one armed hugs. Nettie was also there, filling the hole that his mother and Trembling Flower had left a little.
Rubbing his cheek on the quality material beneath it, he thought of Ezra, who had enriched his life with so much although the wily southerner would deny it to his dying breath if you mentioned it. Ezra had opened up his world with his random snippets of interesting trivia, his tales of unseen cities and by helping him learn to read. Mary had meant well, but treated him like a child and was quite often too busy for him anyway. Ezra was a much better teacher, always willing to explain something without making him feel like an idiot for not knowing. The southerner also made learning fun and made sure to incorporate subjects that Vin found interesting in the reading matter.
Ezra came across as mean spirited and tight with his money, but he let Vin charge little things to his account at Mrs Potter's whenever the tracker had run out of cash. Vin tending to be a soft touch and often gave most of his money away to some charity case or another, knowing that he didn't have need for much. But every now and then, he'd get a craving for some hard candy or some of the pie that Mrs Potter sold, so he'd put it on Ezra's tab knowing that the gambler would never ask for it back. The first time it had happened, Ezra had been in the store with him and seen the tracker gazing wistfully at the pies on the counter. When urged to buy a slice, he'd explained that he'd spent all his money on blankets to send out to the Seminole village with Nathan. With many mutterings about Robin Hood acts and much eye rolling, Ezra had asked Mrs Potter to slice his "do-gooder associate" a piece of pie and put it on his tab. As he'd talked, the gambler had gently reached over to guide the knife so that the piece was twice the normal size, giving the storekeeper a sly wink and smile.
As they'd stood at the front of the store, Vin savouring his pie and Ezra puffing on a cigar, the southern gentlemen had quietly told his friend that he could charge any such inconsequentials to his account when the tracker found himself short of ready funds. Before Vin could swallow his mouthful to thank his friend, Ezra had been hailed by Billy Travis and had hurried off to help the boy with whatever childish concern had arisen. Vin had watched him go with a slow smile at what a humbug his friend was, always trying to appear so hard when he was really a big softie. Happily eating the rest of his pie, the tracker had made his way to the jail where he sat beside Buck, licking his fingers thoughtfully.
Ez always made sure that he had some hard candy tucked into his saddlebags for him too, thought Vin fondly. At first he'd been offered the peppermints that the gambler always had to spoil his horse with, but then he'd produced some wintergreen and hoarhound candies when the tracker had been stricken by a heavy cold that he'd refused to acknowledge. Orange, lemon and lavender candies were also produced on different occasions to appease the tracker's sweet tooth. He'd noted that the gambler never ate any of the candy himself and when he'd asked why, was told that the only candy the southerner ate was clove or peppermint. Unless he was feeling poorly with a chest or throat ailment. Since the candy was never openly offered when the others were around, Vin assumed that the gambler bought it solely for him. Never having been given a lot of attention or gifts in his life, the tracker cherished the thought behind his friend's offer of candy. Nothing too grand to embarrass him, but something he liked and didn't buy often for himself – believing it to be a childish frippery that he, as a hardened, conscientious adult, shouldn't indulge in.
Then there was the book. The first book that he'd ever read all the way through had been a children's version of Robin Hood, which Ezra had bought just for their practice sessions. At the conclusion of it, the gamble had nonchalantly handed the book over and told him that the book was his to keep for practise or a keepsake. He'd been hard pressed not to throw his arms around the gambler and hug him at that moment. Instead, he'd choked out his thanks before looking up through tear clumped lashes to see his friend looking benignly at him. Ezra had shocked him to the core at that moment by reaching out and pulling him into a brief hug, whispering that he was so proud to have the privilege of teaching him to read. Hastily releasing him, the southerner had gruffly announced that he had sheep to be fleeced and disappeared through the door in a flash of red. Vin had sat hugging the first book he'd ever owned, stunned, on the gambler's bed for a further half hour as he tried to get his tumultuous emotions under control. He'd woken up bootless and covered by a spare blanket the next morning, having fallen asleep on the feathery softness still hugging his book. Ezra had been asleep in his rocking chair by the window as the tracker crept out to face the day.
The hair stroking was another guilty pleasure. The first time he'd roused to find his head on Ezra's thigh, he'd sat up so fast that he'd almost pulled the gambler off balance when the man's hand had snagged in his hair. Both of them had been flustered at being caught in what they saw as a compromising position and had hastily disentangled and retreated to opposite sides of the fire for the night. The second time, he'd been feeling slightly off colour and was a little slower to wake which gave him time to register the feeling of having his hair finger combed. With every long stroke, Ezra trail his immaculately manicured nails over the tracker's scalp and down his neck. Then, every so often, he'd just rest his hand on the back of Vin's neck, sometimes given it a gentle squeeze. Practically purring with the pleasure the action was provoking, Vin decided to feign sleep a little longer, reluctant to lose the contact. Eventually he had slipped back into sleep anyway, waking up in his bedroll the next morning, feeling more rested than he had in a long time. Everytime after that, he just accepted the attention.
Stretching his neck to change the direction of Ez's fingers, Vin's eyes opened marginally and peered blearily across the fire. Seeing the amused eyes of Buck Wilmington gleaming back at him brought the unsettling realisation that he and the gambler weren't alone. Sitting bolt upright, he startled Ezra so badly that the gambler fell off his perch on the log, landing unceremoniously on his rump in the dust with an indignant squawk.
Popping the derringer from it's hiding place, the southern gentleman scanned his surroundings for the imminent danger that had so startled his friend. Seeing nothing, he protested from his prone position, "Mr Tanner! What the h…"
Hastily cutting off the tirade, Vin smoothed down his hair with one hand and gestured across at the now snickering Chris and Buck, hissing, "Ez, we ain't the only ones here, 'member?"
Smoothly scooping up his book and rising to his feet, the only evidence of his embarrassment at being caught being affection was the slight bloom of colour in the gambler's cheeks. Returning the book to his saddle bag, he straightened and began tucking the small firearm back into it's rigging. Raising one imperious eyebrow, he said, "Seeing's how our young companion is currently utilising Mr Wilmington as his own personal pilla, I fail to see how he can pass judgement on us. As for Mr Larabee, he would do well to remember the position he woke up in the last time he and Mr Sanchez decided to exhaust the saloon of it's supply of the rotgut they favour."
"Ezra," growled Chris, all humour wiped from his countenance, "We agreed that would never be mentioned again."
"I think you'll find, Mr Larabee," drawled Ezra, a wicked dimpled grin on his face, "You and Mr Sanchez agreed, whilst I did nothing of the kind."
A rumbling chuckle announced Josiah's return to consciousness as he remembered how he'd woken up with a monstrous hangover and a lapful of drunk, snoring gunslinger. Their position had been quite compromising and it was unfortunate that the gambler had chosen that day, of all days, to awaken with the dawn and come downstairs in search of coffee.
"Now, Josiah, I'm warning you," started the suddenly wary Larabee.
"Fear not, son, your secret's safe with me," intoned the ex-preacher from under his hat, shifting slightly and recommencing his ground shaking snores.
Glancing between Buck's salacious grin, Vin's knowing smirk and Ezra's smug smile, Chris threw his whittling project into the fire and made his way to his bedroll, grumbling, "No respect. Should just shoot the lot of ya."