DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, TNN, Showtime Extreme, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
NOTE:  This is just a sad little story.  Ezra finds a kitty that needs some help. Sometimes, things don't end well
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated.
SPOILERS: Manhunt and Penance
DATE: July 14, 2002
TRANSLATION!:  Yes, here it is...Gray in Portuguese 

Winner of the 2003 Diamond Ezzie Award for Best Old West Fic - General - Short

Winner of the 2008 Mistresses of Markey - Best Gen Tearjerker Award

Ezra was in one of his gray moods. Buck hadn’t noticed it when it had started. They’d been rather busy over the past two weeks. Vin, Chris and Josiah had ridden off to take care of some business in Roosterville, leaving the other four to watch over the town. It meant that each of the remaining men had to work one of the daily shifts. It created long and monotonous days with little time for simple relaxation and conversation with his friends. Nathan – the early riser – worked the first shift, and JD took the afternoon. Buck followed with the evening patrol. Ezra’s was the night.

The situation had probably been going on for several days before Buck caught on. Something was bothering the usually garrulous con artist. He’d stopped talking, had faded away, had disappeared. Oh, Ezra could chat amicably when met on the street, would join them for dinner, would smile and joke and make an appearance – when necessary. Other than those counted upon times, he was simply -- gone. The smile was insincere, his eyes were strangely dim, his words – empty.

Of course, Ezra was working the night shift and sleeping during the day. Of course, he spent the evenings gambling. These facts would explain much of his absence, but there was a coolness to his demeanor, a quietness that wasn’t normal. It had all finally come clear to Buck when he caught the gambler, sitting quietly in the jail. Wilmington had just finished his evening shift and was to meet Standish there before Ezra started his. The gambler had been sitting with one leg tucked under the chair, his hands still in his lap, his eyes distant. He’d seemed lost in a fog. He’d snapped to attention the moment he knew that Buck was entering – but that didn’t change the fact that Buck had seen the desolate look, had seen something so very distant and sorrowful in those green eyes. Ezra had fast-talked him and slipped away before Wilmington could say much of anything.

Buck tried to figure it out. What could possibly have happened to their resident gambler? Usually it was Maude who put Standish into this sort of funk. Anytime she visited their town, it took several days for the cardsharp to perk up and truly smile again – Lord, that woman took the wind from her son’s sails. But Maude hadn’t breezed through anytime lately. Ezra hadn’t received a letter either, as far as Buck could recall. The mail was usually dropped at the jail for all of them, and there hadn’t been anything of note for the gambler.

Ezra, Buck knew, could also be deeply affected over the deaths of innocents – of children and women. Wilmington remembered when Claire Mosley had been murdered and brought back by her father, when that young seamstress was found dead in the street. Both incidents had bothered Standish more than he would ever admit. But the town had been quiet– not a soul had died or even been hurt recently.

Damn, Buck thought as he considered the facts. He wished he had figured it out earlier, but with Standish, it was hard to tell when something hurt him. Chris, when upset, got drunk, angry and loud -- Josiah too, although his rage tended to be quieter, but more ominous. JD talked – too much. The kid could babble like a brook when something was eating at him. Vin would go off on the trail until his spirit healed. Nathan would snap at everyone – especially Ezra. Buck knew that he, himself, tended to lose himself in women. Ezra – disappeared. He’d just fade away, like a gray ghost, like a gray mist on a lake. Hell, over the past few days, even his clothing had a gray cast to it; the flamboyant gambler was unusually colorless.

And it wasn’t even necessarily a physical disappearance. Ezra could be standing right next to you, talking about the weather or any old thing, but the fun-loving sharp that they all knew was gone.

Buck wandered the street, starting his evening shift, wondering what the hell was wrong with Ezra and what was he going to do about it. He’d somehow inherited the position of ‘leader’ during Chris’ absence. He could handle the ‘tough stuff’ – the bank robberies, the cattle barons, the Top Hat Bobs -- but he didn’t know how to deal with things like this. How does one talk to someone who won’t talk? Or rather, how does one talk to someone who’d talk… but wouldn’t say a thing.

He had to figure this out soon and get Ezra back. It was sad to see him so low.

“Mista Wilmington,” a voice called and he looked up to see Yosemite gesture to him from the front of his blacksmith’s shop. “Mista Wilmington!”

“Hey there, Tiny,” Wilmington said congenially, using another of the nicknames that the big man had picked up. “Anything wrong?”

“No, no,” Yosemite responded as Buck reached him. “I just got a message for Mr. Standish. You seen him lately?”

“Can’t say I’ve seen much of him,” Buck admitted, thinking – not even when he’s right in front of me. “But we’ll meet up at the end of my shift.”

“Oh, okay,” Yosemite responded. “Can ya tell him that I got the stone, and placed it?”

“What’s that, Yosemite?”

“Tell him that I got it. The stone came on today’s stage. I placed it nice.”

“I ain’t followin’ you. Stone?” Buck cocked his head, trying to catch onto what the blacksmith was talking about.

Tiny frowned and looked away. “I probably shouldn’t say much,” he finally responded discontentedly.

“This have somethin’ to do with what’s got Ezra’s so tied up in knots lately?”

Yosemite grimaced. “Yeah, I ‘spect.” He shrugged. “Ain’t my place to say…”

Buck groaned and placed his hand on the man’s chest, pushing him back into the shop and out of the street. “I need you to tell me about what’s goin’ on, Tiny. I’m tryin’ to keep a handle on these fellas and I can’t do that if I don’t know what’s ailin’ them.”

Yosemite looked undecided, so Buck stepped closer to him. Now, Buck Wilmington was a big man, but the blacksmith – he realized – could probably break him in half if he chose. Still, Wilmington pressed him, “Tell me, Tiny.”

The big man, cowed, shuffled a few steps back and lowered his gaze. “‘Bout a month ago, I first noticed it scurryin’ around in the back room, hidin’ in amongst the supplies.” Yosemite gestured vaguely toward the small room at the back, filled with cast-off iron, bits of wood, discarded crockery and other refuse. “Someone must ‘ave dumped it, and it needed someplace to hide…so it came in here. I didn’t mind none.”

“What?” Buck asked, perplexed. “A rat or somethin’?”

Yosemite scowled. “No, I don’t got no rats in here, Mr. Wilmington. I got lots of mice, but no rats. That’s the reason I didn’t mind none when I saw it – that cat. Figured it might kill some of those critters.” Tiny looked up at the lawman and said, “My ma kept cats.”

“Yeah,” Buck leaned against the doorway to the shop. “What about it?”

“So, I seen it for some days, but it never did seem to kill no mice. Maybe its mama didn’t teach it how to do it right. Well,” Yosemite continued. “Mr. Standish came in one day and seen it. Asked me if it belonged to anyone. I told him what I could and that I never did get a good look at it ‘cause it was so shy. It never come out. So he goes out and come back with a little bit of beefsteak and he set it right at the doorway to the backroom.” Yosemite paused, glancing back to the room. “So I told him that there was mice in there and I didn’t want him feedin’ no varmints. So he stayed close to make sure it was the cat that ate it and not those mice. Sure enough, that little gray cat jumps out and snatches up the meat and runs back into its hidey-hole. Mr. Standish smiled real big, then tipped his hat and walked off.”

“He come back the next day and the next and the next. He put out more meat each day and stayed until the cat came to take it. Each day he stood a little closer and put the meat a little further from the room. That cat would come out – scared as can be – snatch up that bit of food and run off again. One day he put the food right by his boot and the cat waited a long time but finally came out for it. Mr. Standish seemed so happy about that. Next day he come back with a chair and a whole plate of stew meat. He spent most of the day givin’ little bits of it to that cat, temptin’ it out.”

Yosemite kept his gaze on the pile of garbage that filled the room, and the chair that still sat just outside it. “I had work to do, and since they weren’t no bother to me, I didn’t give them no bother. Next time I look up, he’s got that cat right next to him. It’s rubbin’ against him and he’s pettin’ it. He had it eatin’ from his hand. That scared skinny thing was eatin’ right from his fingers. It’d scoot off if I made a big noise or if someone come in, but it’d come back out lickety-split, right to Mr. Standish as if it knew it was safe with him. The next day it let him scratch its head. Sweet cat. Little bitty thing,” Yosemite said softly and then looked up at Buck. “My ma kept cats.”

“Yeah, you said that before,” Buck told him.

“I don’t mind cats,” Yosemite explained. “Don’t do me no harm.” He sucked at his teeth a moment before he continued the tale. “Well, he came every afternoon and it got a bit tamer all the time, ‘til it stopped runnin’ off at every little sound and finally one day, I looked up and he got that little gray cat in his lap. It was rollin’ around like it was the happiest day of its life, and he’s pettin’ and scratchin’ it and keepin’ it from fallin’ off his lap ‘cause it’s wigglin’ around so much. The skinny thing was purrin’ so loud that I could hear it even from where I was standin’.”

Yosemite looked at the chair again and said, “He looked so content, you know, Mr. Standish did. I ain’t seen him look like that very often, but he looked downright peaceful-like when that little cat was curled up in his lap. For the next few days, he’d come in and sit on that chair. That little cat would come running up to him and mew and jump right into his lap to be petted. It was kinda sad to think that somethin’ so good-natured could ‘ave been so shy. Made me think that someone must ‘ave been pretty mean to the thing.”

"Yeah," Buck admitted.  "Pity that some have to suffer for nothing they ever did."

The blacksmith looked dour. “Then, well…few days ago, I come in to the shop and see the little thing in the bed that Mr. Standish made up for it. He’d brought in some old clothes and kinda wound the cloths up and made a snug nest for it. Usually when I come in, she’d go off and hide, but she didn’t that morning. I figured maybe she was tame enough now so that I could go pet her.” Yosemite looked askance and said, “You see, my ma kept cats and I’ve always kinda liked ‘em.”

“Yeah,” Buck said, knowing that the man was repeating this fact to make sure that Wilmington knew he was still manly in spite of the fact he tolerated felines.

“Well I came up real slow and the cat didn’t move a’tall. All curled up in that snug nest, she looked like she was sleepin’…almost. When I got close I saw that the little thing was dead.” The blacksmith shrugged and snuffled uncomfortably. “Poor thing. I think it had always been kinda sick, that’s why it never got very big. Sad.” He rubbed his beard discontentedly and looked away. “Anyway, I wrapped up the little girl in her bedding and waited. When Mr. Standish came in later, I told him what I’d found.” Tiny scuffed the dirt beneath his feet. “He just got this really peculiar look on his face, as if he was listening to something far way. Seemed to me like he didn’t know quite how to move or what to do for a second. Then he said that it was a ‘pity’ and that he wouldn’t be botherin’ me no more and he turned to go. Before he got out the door though, he said over his shoulder that I should at least bury the poor thing and not throw it on the trash heap. Then he asked me if that would be a bother. When I said, ‘no’ he thanked me and left.”

Buck shook his head and rubbed his forehead, understanding now why Standish had become so quiet. Damn fool southerner, he thought. I knew somethin’ had hurt you.

Yosemite continued, “He don’t come into my shop anymore, but when I saw him in the street, I told him that I’d buried her in a nice quiet place behind the shop, under that pretty tree I got there. I told ‘im that I’d taken a little pinewood box that some tack had come in and fixed up that bed inside it, then buried it deep. I told him that I’d show him the place but he just shook his head and told me he had places to go.”

“Yeah,” Buck said softly, “That sounds about right.”

“Then, I got a shipment this morning by the stage. A stone about yea-big.” He held his hands together, indicating a size that was about the size of a large spud. “Just said ‘Gray’ on it. That’s what he called her, Lady Grey…Little Gray …or just Gray. So I set it up on that grave. I just wanted to let him know that it had come and I had fixed it for him.” Yosemite frowned and said, “But I ain’t seen one hair of him since that last time. Sometimes I think he’s avoidin’ me.”

Buck nodded knowingly. “Yeah, that may be, Tiny. I’ll tell him when I see him later. He’d like knowin’ that you took such good care of things. He appreciates it more than he’ll be able to tell you.”

“Yeah,” Yosemite looked back toward the pile of rubbish. “It was a nice little cat. Glad someone was good to it.”

Part 2:

Buck waited in the dim jail for Ezra’s arrival. The streets were dark and his shift was ending. Exactly on time, the door opened and Ezra entered with that same shallow smile he’d worn for the past few days.

“Hey, Ez,” Buck greeted.

“Ah, Mr. Wilmington,” Standish said and nodded. “You’re looking unusually tired this evening. I’m hoping that tonight’s activities won’t be entirely exhausting.”

Buck ran a hand across his face. “Yeah, well. You mind, Ez, if we talk a bit before I go?”

Ezra shrugged and pulled out a chair. “I have no problem with that suggestion if it will allow me a few moments of ease.” He settled himself luxuriously.

There was a million ways to go about this, but Buck knew that the direct route was probably best with Ezra. The card sharp would win if the ladies’ man wanted to beat around the bush. Leaning forward on the desk, Buck said softly, “I know about that cat.”

The gambler looked thunderstruck. His eyes widened and he shifted backward on his seat, as if he meant to flee the scene. “The cat…” he repeated.

“Yosemite wanted me to tell you that the engraved stone you’d ordered arrived, and that he took care of it.”

“Oh,” Ezra rubbed discontentedly at a non-existent stain on his knee. “Well, very well. Yes. Thank you, Mr. Wilmington for delivering that news. I suppose I should start my rounds. Good day, sir.” He stood suddenly and made a move toward the door.

“Ezra, Ezra, wait,” Buck called. “Come on, Ez. Just talk to me a second. I ain’t gonna hurt ya none. I just wanted to see if you were okay…about the cat.”

The gambler stopped in his tracks and turned back toward Wilmington. “Please, sir, it’s nothing. It was only a cat.” Ezra opened his mouth as if he was going to say something, paused and smiled before he continued, “It was an experiment, you see. I simply wanted to find out if I could tame the wild thing that was roaming about our illustrious blacksmith’s back room. All she needed was a little bribery – a tempting with treats – and the creature was literally eating out of the palm of my hand. I proved to myself that I could domesticate the animal. It’s all I meant to do. Now, I’m certain I could win a bar bet on the subject if it were to come up.”

“Tiny said that you did a fine job with her.”

Ezra’s mouth twitched. “Well, well, that was pure chicanery. She was hungry and I provided her with a meal. She gained the sustenance she required and I found a new way of earning a quick dollar in a bet.”

Buck sighed and said, “I’m sorry she died, Ezra.”

Another false smile flicked across the gambler’s lips. “Ah well, the thing was sick, most likely. She was far too small and probably malformed from birth. It’s for the best that she didn’t last long on this earth.” When Buck didn’t respond immediately, Ezra continued at a quick clip, “Mr. Darwin proved that it’s the way this planet works – survival of the fittest. The less-than-perfect are weeded out. It’s best for the species. Best for everyone, really.”

“Aw, hell, Ezra. Don’t make it any easier. Yosemite told me that you worked a long time to bring her around.”

The lifeless smile didn’t leave Ezra’s face. “I used only my spare time and since it involved no labor, it was easily spent. She was rather untrusting at first, you see. I believe someone ill-used the creature. Unfortunate, for she had the most pleasant disposition once she came near enough to be touched.” His quickly spoken words slowed. “It was as if all she wanted in her life was to be close to someone, to be cared for and treated fairly, but I believe she was met with only violence before.” His voice had become softer and the insincere smile had melted away. “It’s a pity. I simply don’t understand how one could hurt such a trusting creature.”

“It was good of you to take care of her like that,” Buck stated.

“Bah,” Ezra muttered. “It was time wasted on her behalf. A worthless endeavor for a creature destined to die.”

“Weren’t worthless to that little cat, I figure. I think that Lady Grey had a pretty hard life, and you at least gave her a nice end to it. Must ‘ave been heaven for that little thing to have a bed to sleep in and someone who was gentle with her and brought her things to eat. Must have been awful special to her to know someone cared, that someone didn’t just toss her away.”

At the mention of the cat’s name, the gambler’s eyes blinked. He backed further away from Wilmington, drifting into the shadowy corners of the jail as Buck continued to speak.

“It was nothing,” Ezra hissed. “It was all just empty gestures.”

“Not to her, I figure,” Buck continued in a low voice. “Not to you.”

“It was just a cat,” Standish continued. “Just a little gray cat that was discarded, that no one cared about.”

Buck followed him into the dimness. He raised a hand to lay it on Ezra’s shoulder, but Ezra elevated one arm defensively. “Ezra,” Buck called. “You cared.”

Ezra dropped his arm immediately and repeated, “No. It was nothing.”

“It’s something.” Buck didn’t know what the hell to say, what the hell to do. “I had me a dog once, this dumb ol’ hound named Sergeant. I think I cried me a river when he died. It hurt like hell.”

“I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Wilmington. But, you have to agree that I had no claim on the cat. This is a completely different scenario than your beloved pet.”

“She mattered enough to make you walk about in a haze for the past few days. She meant enough to you that you bought her a special stone to mark her grave.”

Ezra’s lips twitched for a moment and he said, “She deserved to be buried with her name. Everyone deserves that at least.” He jerked his head and said quickly, “This is nothing but foolishness. Lord, I swear, I’ll never try this again.” He rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes. “Never again. It isn’t worth the dollar bet.”

“It’s not foolish to care about something.” Wilmington moved closer, seeing the shine of unwept tears in Ezra’s eyes. “It’s okay to mourn her, ya know.”

“It was a cat,” Ezra growled. “There’s no reason for me to be upset by it.”

Buck shook his head woefully, wishing he could understand the gambler better, wishing he could get him to see that he was only human, that he was allowed frailties and pains and sorrows. Sometimes, it seemed, that Ezra felt deaths deeper than any of them. Had he never been close to anyone who died? No, Buck doubted that. Something about Ezra made Buck think that the conman had seen his share of death. Maybe Ezra never had learned how to mourn properly. Lord, what the hell would they do if something were to happen to Chaucer?

“I’m sorry that she died, Ezra. I’m real sorry about that. I bet it was nice to have her for a while. I bet she was a real nice little friend.”

The tears were welling up in Ezra’s eyes, so Buck – not knowing what else to do – pulled him forward in an embrace. The gambler struggled for a moment, but seemed to collapse a little as he wept silently, muttering, “just a cat.”

“I know,” Buck returned. “I know.” Ah Ez, he thought as Ezra wept without making a sound. How the hell did you grow up without knowing how to handle grief? Were you never allowed to express it? Why is it that you always feel things so deep but never know how to deal with those emotions? Appearances, he knew, were everything.

After only a few seconds – far too short a time, Ezra pushed off of him and turned away before Wilmington could see his face. “I gotta go…” Ezra murmured. “Have to go check… the town.”

“I’ll take one last round before I head off to bed, Ez,” Buck assured, knowing that Standish would like a moment to compose himself before stepping out into the street. Appearances, after all.

Ezra nodded and ducked his head, disappearing further into the darkness. “Thank you, Mr. Wilmington.”

“Anytime, Ez,” Buck said as he walked toward the door. He glanced to Standish before he left the jailhouse. “You gonna be okay?”

Ezra, in the shadows, nodded. “I’m sorry for the…indiscretion. I should… I should never have…”

“Don’t worry none,” Buck assured, resisting the urge to reach out toward the fleeing form. “Figure you made that cat happy for maybe the first time in her life. Probably had nothing but loneliness and grief before that. Figure she was awful grateful to you for that.”

Ezra again just nodded in the dim recess of the jail.

“It was a nice thing to do.”

“Goodnight, Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra said, his voice suddenly stern.

“Night, Ez,” Buck concluded and pushed open the door.

“Mr. Wilmington.”

“Yeah, Ez.”

“Thank you.”

“Anytime.” Wilmington walked through the doorway and added, “I mean that, Ezra -- anytime.” He let the door shut and started his final walk through the town before going to bed. He glanced at the blacksmith’s shop as he made his way past it, wondering about what had gone on in there. What had caused the con artist to try to tame the fear-filled little cat? Did he recognize the loneliness of the creature, the guarded cry for affection? Ezra had used patience and understanding to draw the animal out. Had anyone ever tried the same with him?

Buck touched his wet shoulder, where Ezra had cried out his grief without making a sound, where he’d cried over a little cat that no one else had wanted. Ezra had held in that sorrow for days– probably not even knowing how to express it.

The moonlight had leached away the color from the street, cloaking it in shades of gray. Buck shook his head as he continued toward his room in the boarding house. Now that he knew the reason for Ezra’s somber mood, it would probably be easier to snap him out of it. He’d do it carefully, lure him out like Ezra had Lady Grey.

It’d just take a little patience and understanding.

THE END - by NotTasha

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