Warning: DEATH STORY
Note: This story, incidentally, was written months ago, when I was pining for Ezra to be injured while doing something heroic. No spoilers here.
Places among the stars,
Soft gardens near the sun,
Keep your distant beauty;
Shed no beams upon my weak heart,
Since she is here....
-- From 'Places Among the Stars,' by Stephen Crane
Then the force of the shot pushed him back. Ezra Standish stumbled against something warm and yielding. He meant to draw the Remington from its place at his hip, for the man on the plodding bay surely had more than one bullet in his gun. Chris and Buck, whom he had left a handful of minutes ago in the hotel restaurant would only now have realized the danger along with the sound of gunfire. But to his bewilderment and disgust, he could not locate his hand to make it obey. He fought the abrupt ringing in his ears and the screaming of his lungs as, for a moment, he forgot the methodology of breathing, and tried to shut out the pain that seared through him, so lush and white-hot.
His hand spasmed, clutching at the body behind him, at the slim waist he'd caught in a desperate move to put himself in the way of the bullet, at the woman against whom he sagged. He heard a sharp gasp, nearly in his ear --
"Ezra -- !"
-- and the word was like the crack of a rifle in a thicket, sending the sounds around him -- explosions of gunfire, the roar of hoofbeats, and fluttering, distant words -- up into chaos like fearful birds taking flight. His tenuous balance disintegrated, his knees unlocked, and he drifted to the boardwalk, landing with a jolt that nearly tore him apart. He blacked out.
But not for nearly long enough. His body lurched and jerked -- someone was moving him, someone not strong enough to do it smoothly. The shock of the sensation left his head reeling, though it did force him to breathe. The cool, pre-storm desert air filled his mouth. It washed down his throat into his lungs, and the pain in his chest ebbed suddenly, strangely, becoming numbness that spread through his body like the blood he sensed rapidly soaking his shirt down across his abdomen. He couldn't move, but for just a moment he could think.
The pale man on the bay, asking for Mary Travis. And drawing his gun upon her answer.
Chris and Buck, too far away.
Ezra opened his eyes wide, praying that he would not see the gunman nearby, perhaps standing over his intended target, emptying his gun into her now that Ezra had failed to protect her. He prayed he wouldn't see it, but he expected to just the same.
He saw rough-cut boards, nailed neatly together side by side into a long plank that was somewhat distant. He blinked in confusion, and let his eyes rove to the side to snag upon the clear forms of letters. 'I,' 'O,' 'N.' It should have read 'The Clarion,' he realized, but the rest of the letters had shattered with the window, and most likely lay in a hopeless puzzle of glass shards inside the building. He looked up again, and saw that he had been staring at the underside of the storefront awning. Everything was silent, and he tried to lift his head, searched around fearfully with his eyes -- and saw nothing. Until his head drooped sideways and he caught sight of the street, and saw the pale man slumped in his own blood on the dusty street.
Ezra almost had time for relief; but he felt himself slip sideways then, and the arms around him struggling to hold him steady. The jostling pulled him out of blissful numbness and antagonized the blistering heat in his torso; unfortunately that wasn't half as bad as the pain that spiked through him as a small hand pushed beneath the fabric of his wool coat and heavy, brocaded vest to press firmly against his wound. He would have retched in reaction to the dizzying pain, but that would have been sheer torture, so he fought the urge back. Instead he focused on the other slender arm tucked beneath his, holding him up from the dusty planks of the boardwalk, curling around his chest so that sweetly cool, delicate fingers pressed against his neck and held him against her soft body. His eyes flicked upward again.
Mary Travis. If a dying man had to choose a last sight, she would more than do.
Blood -- only his, he hoped -- freckled the porcelain-smooth skin of her neck and cheek. As she gazed down at him her sapphire eyes brightened with tears, her bottom lip trembled and her nose reddened with distress. Despite all this -- or perhaps because of it -- she looked more beautiful than he had ever seen. His eyes drifted over the threads of golden hair that stuck in the tears now running down her face, and curled under her chin; his gaze trailed downward along the curve of her throat to the hollow at her collarbone. He saw the yellow morning light caress her shoulder and that small space of skin exposed by the low sweep of her neckline. The delicate white lace which edged the blue calico drew his eyes down, and a heat that had nothing to do with that more and more distant pain in his chest welled up around his heart as he took in the swells of her breasts, bare above the dipping neckline, and that sweet crevasse between them.
He sighed, and it burned, and blackness stroked the edges of his mind. He held onto the stray thoughts he floated upon -- oh that pure, virtuous Mary would grant a man his dying wish, and allow him to touch those plump mounds with his lips just once, to explore that satin skin and taste her succulent musk....
He blinked, ashamed of defiling this respectable woman even within his own mind, and searched her glimmering eyes for any sign of offense. He managed somehow to creep his hand up, and he grasped hers where it lay against his throat. He put everything he had into a weak squeeze of apology as he began to drift away... her hand was soft, silky like the petals of a magnolia blossom....
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