The Wages Of Sin
Disclaimer: I think that everyone knows that I don't own any of the characters which appear in the CBS TV series "The Magnificent Seven" and I make no claim to. This piece of fiction is written purely for personal enjoyment and I will receive absolutely no monetary remuneration. In short, any litigation would be pointless so I respectfully request that no one instigates any.
Summary: Ezra and Inez befriend a young woman with a dark secret which is about to catch up with her.
He was aware of Inez watching him from the bar as she cleaned the last few glasses. They were the last people left in the saloon and the look in her eyes, when he'd glanced up a few minutes before, had left him in no doubt that she intended to have a serious conversation with him as soon as she was finished. He wasn't going to avoid it but he wasn't looking forward to it either, so he kept his eyes focussed on the game of solitaire spread out on the table in front of him. That, at least, was going well. He had already revealed two aces, spades and diamonds, and he regarded the cards with a small musing smile. As a professional gambler, he had to admit to a degree of superstition and he wondered if he had dealt out his fate in the cards before him.
He'd often thought of Life as a hand dealt out by God or Fate. He reckoned they probably stacked the deck but knew that he could play his cards with more natural cunning and acquired expertise than the average soul. So how had he come by the hand that he held now? He thought about the events of the last few days, and those of the last few weeks and hell those of the last few years. Could he have played his cards differently? Better? Could the casualties, the recriminations and the whole tragic business have been averted?
Still, even if nothing else could be said for him, he was willing to accept the consequences of his actions. The loss of the trust of friends. The loss of the friends themselves. Deaths that would probably haunt his dreams for the rest of his life.
He heard footsteps and looked up to see Inez approaching from the bar, none of the determination in her eyes diminished. "Ezra..." she said in a tone uncannily like his mother's despite her Mexican accent.
He sighed. He knew what in particular she wished to discuss which was his new relationship with the girl now asleep in his room. He wasn't backing down but Inez was too good a friend for him to ignore what she had to say. "Yes?" he answered and gazed up at her, prepared to face the music.
Two months earlier, Ezra Standish had stood at the entrance of the saloon, rested his arm on the door and looked out at the town of Four Corners. A town which could now be justifiably described as "thriving", a significant change from when he had arrived there nearly three years ago. The transformation was more palpable than visible, to him at least. True, there were more shops opening, a new school, the church restored, a town hall now under construction, railway tracks completed and (after nearly three years of "almost there") the first trains would be coming past in a matter of weeks, but more than all that, the town felt more secure.
It all made Ezra feel somewhat like a proud uncle as he surveyed the town and its citizens going about their business on a September afternoon. Oh, he knew he wasn't solely responsible (and he knew that it had taken significant coercion for him to agree to participate in this law-keeping venture in the first place) but he felt that his contribution had been significant. However, even after three years, one part of his mind still refused to accept that he had finally found a place where he felt he belonged and it was certainly something he would never voice aloud, even under extreme duress. Nonetheless, even while he mocked the ridiculous sentimentality of it all, he decided to indulge his avuncular notions and pay a visit to Josiah's orphanage.
There was one obligatory detour along the way. When he entered Mrs Potter's general store, she was deep in conversation with Mary Travis.
"So they've finally set a date, have they, Mary?"
Mrs Travis nodded, "Last Saturday in October."
"Rather short engagement, but I s'pose they were long enough courtin'", Gloria Potter looked over to Ezra with a welcoming smile, "Afternoon, Mr Standish. I s'pose you'll be there in your best suit."
Ezra smiled in return, "Afternoon, Mrs Potter, Mrs Travis. If we are discussin' the impendin' nuptials of Mr Dunne and Miss Wells, then yes, I expect to be attendin', suitably attired."
"Glad to hear it. What can I do for you today?"
He indicated one of the candy jars on the counter in front of her. "I'll have a dozen pieces of this confectionery, if you'd be so kind."
Mary Travis was smiling too. "A sweet tooth, Mr Standish?"
He was well aware that everyone present knew the true destination of his purchase and accepted the mild gibe good naturedly. "I believe that I am notorious for it." His grin widened and he paid for the candy then tipped his hat to them both as he left.
He continued on his way to the small orphanage Josiah Sanchez had started nearly five months before. The first four children from two families had lost their parents in a tornado which devastated their farms, and the last two had lost their widowed mother to a fever three months ago. Ezra expected that Josiah was ready for a new project to throw his considerable energy and compassion into, now that the church had been restored. He had created the orphanage in a small house behind the church and, perhaps with a little help from his friends, created a secure and nurturing environment for the orphans.
Ezra was a little disconcerted to see Nathan Jackson's horse tied up outside the orphanage. He had not been aware that Nathan had returned from the Seminole village, some distance out of town. He hoped that the healer had not been summoned by Josiah to deal with an emergency among the children. The town now had a fully, conventionally qualified medical practitioner but Josiah and many others in the town still had more faith in Nathan. Dr Elliott didn't mind. He was middle-aged man who had left a busy city practice for a less demanding life in a rural area, only to find that being the only doctor in a country town was even busier. After an early and reasonably mild altercation, he had realized that Nathan's help was a valuable asset and recompensed the amateur with advice, teaching and any medical equipment he could spare. He had even been surprised to find himself learning a lot from Nathan.
Ezra was drawn from his reverie (surprised at how contemplative his mood had become) by the arrival of the tall black man that he too had underestimated (not to mention insulted) on first acquaintance.
"Good afternoon, Mr Jackson. Has there been a mishap?"
Nathan looked up, as he exited through the front entrance of the orphanage, and smiled, "Hi, Ezra. No, everythin's fine. Jus' thought I'd drop in on Josiah and the kids. Heard the news about JD an' Miss Casey an' thought I'd come to town and wish 'em well."
"Have you seen them yet?"
"No, I was on my way to JD's office now."
"Inez and I wondered if they might not appreciate a small soiree in their honour, at the saloon."
Nathan shook his head slightly, still grinning, as he began untying his horse, "Did Inez call it a 'soiree'?"
Ezra shrugged, "Perhaps not."
"I'll mention it to JD. No, wait. Maybe it'd be better as a surprise."
Ezra nodded, "Maybe so."
Nathan mounted up, "Count me in. Be seein' ya later."
Ezra nodded again and the healer was gone.
As he entered the orphanage, the gambler called out to Josiah. However, instead of the burly preacher, he found himself immediately accosted by the six children. "Greetings, my friends." The youngest, aged two, held out his arms to be picked up and Ezra obliged him. "Do any of you have any idea where Mr Sanchez might be?"
"Puttin' away his whiskey, Mr Ezra," the eldest reported, "Mr Nathan was just here, conversin' with him."
Ezra couldn't suppress a small chuckle, "I know. I conversed a little with him myself, as he departed."
"Still corruptin' the innocent, Ezra?"
He glanced around to see Josiah encompassing them all, including Ezra, with his tolerant paternal gaze.
"Expandin' their vocabulary is corruptin' them?", Ezra's tone and facial expression were all injured innocence. It wasn't very often that he had the luxury of holding the moral high ground and he savoured every opportunity.
"Not so long as it expands in the right directions but I suspect that your pockets are full of temptation to gluttony."
His expression became ruefully sheepish, "Am I becomin' predictable?"
"Only to those who know you well."
Josiah spent the next hour watching Ezra entertaining the children (not to mention the gambler entertaining himself), alternately dazzling them with sleight of hand tricks and challenging them to earn the pieces of candy which he appeared to pluck from behind ears and out of thin air. The distribution of candy was drawn out over the hour and spread evenly among those present. It was all done with a certain roguish charm which seemed to characterize most things that Ezra did and there were protests all round when dusk came and he made his farewells and headed back to the saloon.
As he entered, he saw that Buck Wilmington had arrived just before him and was greeting Inez with a fond, almost fraternal kiss on the cheek. Ezra knew that they had previously had a liaison and when it had ended, they remained warm friends. Buck still flirted with her, he wouldn't be Buck if he didn't, and she now rebuffed and side-stepped him with the same dignity and humour she had learned to use on the more amorous saloon patrons. Although it had to be said, that those who failed to respond to dignity and humour still tended to leave with a few bruises.
Nathan and Vin were also there at the bar with them and the small group turned as one to greet him.
"Howdy Ezra! How're the kids?" Vin Tanner wore the same amused, knowing smile that everyone seemed to adopt when they referred to his orphanage visits. Ezra was vaguely bemused that they still found it so entertaining.
"As replete as ever with juvenile charm. And yourselves?"
"Good," Buck answered for the group, "We've bin talkin' with Inez about that party for JD an' Casey. Vin was over at Miss Nettie's place today an' she says that she an' Casey are gonna be in town on Friday evenin'."
Ezra grinned, "That sounds fortuitous. I'm sure that between us, we can conspire to have JD present at the same time. Inez?"
She nodded, "Friday evening, it is."
They all turned at the sound of a young female voice with a very slight Mexican accent, "Excuse me, please."
She was probably a little younger than JD, twenty years old at most, slim and pretty, with an olive complexion, large brown eyes and long dark hair which was tied at the nape of her neck and hung over her right shoulder. She wore simple and extremely dusty dress and was obviously quite weary but there was still a noticeable alertness in her wide dark eyes.
Buck smiled kindly, "What can we do for you, senorita?"
"I'm looking for whoever's responsible for hiring," she instinctively looked at Ezra as the most likely candidate. She wasn't the first to make the mistake and Ezra again felt the small sense of pride at the knowledge that he looked the part, coupled with the mild regret that it wasn't the case.
The saloon had had numerous proprietors, and almost as many names, in the time he had lived in Four Corners but Inez had managed it throughout several changes in ownership and many of the locals struggled to remember what it was like without her behind the bar. Ezra himself had hired her as a barmaid when he had briefly owned the saloon, more than two years previously, before he been driven to near bankruptcy and bought out by his indomitable mother. It was Maude Standish who had made Inez manager. She was so proficient at it, that each time it had been sold the new proprietors had asked her to stay, including the most recent buyers, Solana Holdings, a business firm based in San Francisco who had also purchased the hotels in Four Corners and the not too distant town of Eagle Bend.
It was Buck who corrected her, "That'd be Miss Inez here. She's the manager."
Inez smiled apologetically, "We're not really looking at the moment."
The girl visibly increased her determination, "I'd work very hard, do whatever's necessary and all I'm asking is something to eat and a place to stay."
Ezra regarded her speculatively, "You don't want to sound too desperate, my dear. It tempts people into exploitin' you."
She suddenly grinned in a way that immediately struck them all as extremely JD-like, "I'd do that for a while until you realized how valuable I was and offered me a pay rise."
Ezra laughed and looked back at Inez, "I'd hire her."
Inez was more cautious. She frowned warningly at Ezra and asked the girl, "Any previous experience?"
"Yes, in San Francisco."
"Why'd you leave there?"
The girl looked apprehensive, then reluctantly offered, "There was a customer who wanted something that wasn't on the menu. A fight started. It wouldn't happen again."
Inez softened, "No, it wouldn't. I wouldn't allow it. What's your name?"
"Well, Teresa, I'll give you a chance. A room, two meals a day and a dollar a week."
Teresa's face lit up, "Thank you!"
Ezra broke in again, still grinning, "Well, I say you should step around here now to demonstrate your bar-keepin' skills and give Inez the evenin' off."
Inez gave him a look of fond exasperation, "I thought I was the manager here."
"So you are, my dear, and the art of management is delegation."
Buck also liked the idea, "C'mon Inez, have a few drinks with us."
Teresa hesitated, "I've a small wagon parked out front, would you mind if I drove it around the back of your place first."
Buck was curious, "You didn't come into town on the stagecoach?"
"No, but the stagecoach driver let me drive with him the last few miles. That little pony and wagon is all I have, would you mind if I put them round back?"
They were all somewhat surprised at her owning more than the clothes she stood up in. And as for a young woman driving from town to town on her own, that was insane bordering on suicidal. Inez shook her head, "I don't mind at all. I might ask you to run some errands in it from time to time."
"No one but me drives it!" She startled them with her sudden vehemence.
"Of course, if that's how you feel."
The moment quickly passed and she was all exuberance again, "Thanks!"
"I'll lend a hand, if y'like," Vin offered and accompanied her out when she nodded.
Chris Larabee walked in as they left, "Who was that with Vin?"
Nathan grinned, "Teresa Velasquez, Miz Inez's new barmaid."
"Yes," Inez looked pointedly at Buck and Ezra, "Thank you, senors!"
Chris gave them his patented narrowed-eyed glance, "You two have somethin' to do with it?"
He was rewarded with two matching looks of complete innocence.
Inez sighed, "Well, if I'm taking the evening off..." She reached under the bar and handed a bottle to Nathan, "You can all take a seat at that table over there. I'll come over when Teresa gets back." But she collared Ezra as he moved off. "If I regret this, so will you."
She should've known better than to expect any degree of repentance, "I don't see why. She seems an interestin' young woman."
"Oh, yes. Interesting. Mr Lao down at the Chinese laundry once told me that they have an old curse that says something like 'May you live in interesting times.'"
"Relax, Inez. Enjoy your evenin' off!"
She snorted but her irritation was rapidly fading, "Amigo, you are going to have a very unprofitable evening."
"What makes you say that?"
"You are in far too good a mood. Your mind is not on the job."
He shrugged, "I've had an enjoyable day. Perhaps I shall take the evenin' off as well. Sometimes pleasant conversation and the company of good friends is all the profit needed."
"You can stop trying to sweet talk me."
Vin and Teresa returned. The latter appeared to have removed most of the dust from her dress and, as she confidently stepped up behind bar, the rest of them comfortably sat down for cards and drinking at a nearby table. They were soon joined by Josiah and JD and the young sheriff received another round of at least partially inebriated congratulations. As Inez had predicted, Ezra had a thoroughly unprofitable evening from a monetary perspective but, immersed as he was in camaraderie with the best seven friends he had in the world, he really didn't care at all. Yes, a thoroughly enjoyable end to a thoroughly enjoyable day. But at the time, he didn't realize how significant it was. And as to what would follow, well, "interesting times" didn't even begin to do it justice.
It seemed to take Teresa very little time to adjust to life at the Four Corners saloon. Her claim to have previously done similar work elsewhere was obviously true and if the saloon's finances had not been so tight at the time, Inez might have even agreed to her suggested pay rise.
In fact, Inez felt like she had acquired a younger sister and Ezra seemed to have taken to the girl in a similar fashion. Before long, Teresa was exchanging quips and affectionate gibes with both of them, seemingly as comfortably as they did with each other. She was slower to say much about her past and Inez did not want pressure her about it. After all, she had been similarly reticent about her own background when she had first arrived in town.
It was two days after Teresa's arrival that they learned any details and it was to Ezra that she first said anything. That wasn't particularly surprising. He could be a very easy person to talk to when he wanted to be, the trait came in very handy in his line of work.
As usual, they were the last people left in the saloon. They were, after all, the people who lived there. It had been very profitable night all round which was fortunate because there would be no profit made on the following night, due to JD and Casey's party.
There was a lot of clearing up to do and with familiar mild frustration, Inez looked over to where Ezra sat placidly shuffling his cards and watching the two women work.
"I don't suppose there is any chance of you helping Teresa clean the glasses."
"Do I have an incentive?"
"How about I forget about half the drinks I put on your tab this evening?"
He grinned, "That sounds equitable." And with that, he put away his deck of cards and levered himself out of his chair, unaware of Inez and Teresa exchanging knowing tolerant smiles.
They both knew that his help was better than no help at all but it had to be said that Teresa usually cleaned at least two glasses for each one cleaned by him. One reason for the inefficiency was that he would far rather talk than work and it took him less than ten seconds to strike up a conversation.
"So, Miss Velasquez, your name and lovely complexion reflect a Hispanic ancestry but, I must say, you speak very good English and with very little accent."
"I left Mexico when I was about twelve years old. You pick up things over time."
"So why did you leave?"
She paused in her work and regarded him steadily, "Do you really want to know?"
He nodded seriously, "I would not have asked otherwise."
Teresa took a deep breath and carefully inspected the glass she was cleaning before she began to speak again.
"As I said, I was about twelve. One day, what seemed like an army of banditos came to the village where my family lived. They burned it to the ground. My father, mother, brothers and sister were all killed. Nearly everyone was. I managed to hide and when it was all over, there was virtually nothing left. I took what I could find and went. Then I survived for about a year by stealing food and sleeping in doorways."
She looked up at them, trying to appear calm but obviously anxious about their reactions.
"And then?" Ezra prompted gently.
"Well, I didn't realize it at the time, but I was gradually moving north. I managed to clean myself up a bit and get some work cleaning for a family called Harradine in Texas. That lasted about three years before I had to leave."
"They were 'God-fearin' folk'!" Teresa almost spat the words out, "They didn't approve of me. But this time I'd saved a little. I managed to get work here and there, drifted to San Francisco. Then drifted back to where I am now." She ended with a hopeful smile directed at them both.
They had both been listening with rapt attention. Even Inez had given up even the pretence of work. Realizing that Teresa needed some kind of encouragement, Ezra cleared his throat and offered, "Well as a fellow drifter, I can say that this town is a reasonable place to lodge for a while."
Teresa became slightly less tense. Lack of condemnation was all that she had hoped for. "How long have you been here?"
"About three years, and I might stay a while longer."
"I might hang around for a while too."
Inez grinned, "Glad to hear it. I've already got used to having you around to help. We'll really need you tomorrow night for the engagement party."
"And you'll get to meet some of the citizens of our town who usually don't deign to enter this establishment," said Ezra, "Many won't be willin' to miss the sheriff's engagement. After all, in a few years, they might want to cultivate their influence with him."
Inez laughed, "Cynic!"
But Ezra only nodded his head sagely, "We shall see."
True to Ezra's prediction, the keystones of Four Corners society were present at the Dunne-Wells engagement party. Some had good reason. The local newspaper editor, Mary Travis, was a long-standing friend to the young couple and indeed to JD's six fellow hired law-keepers: Chris, Vin, Buck, Josiah, Nathan and Ezra.
In fact, over the past three years she had developed an even closer friendship with Chris Larabee. About as close as a woman could get to a man who hadn't quite finished mourning for his wife and child, really.
All of Chris' associates fully endorsed the budding relationship, believing that the man needed to be brought back from his brooding solitude. Especially Buck, as his oldest friend and the only one who had actually known Sarah and Adam Larabee, he had long felt it to be his responsibility to ensure that Chris really lived his life again, rather than just drifting through it.
Despite his famous easy going nature, Buck had a definite tendency to feel the need to look after others. And along with Chris, the main beneficiary of his protectiveness was JD. And Buck felt that he needed to allude to this in the speech which he had volunteered to make.
"Well, a few years ago, I met a young man who had arrived here more or less straight from Boston and seemed to be headed more or less straight to a graveyard."
JD closed his eyes. He had expected this to be painful but it looked like it would turn out even worse than he had thought.
"Now, I'm not sayin' that he didn't have some very fine qualities. He could ride and he could shoot."
"And he could fly," Ezra interjected.
"And he could swim," six voices chorused in unison.
Some of the townsfolk looked confused at this little in joke, referring to the time when JD had first met his fellow law-keepers. JD groaned theatrically but couldn't fully suppress a smile. Casey patted his arm consolingly but she too was grinning.
"He then went on to nearly get himself killed," Buck continued, "and if that wasn't bad enough he soon stood up and volunteered to be sheriff. Well, like I told him then, I didn't wanna have to come up with somethin' nice to say at his funeral."
"So far, you haven't come up with much for my engagement party," JD got in what retaliation he could.
"I'm just warmin' up," Buck retorted. "Now, where was I? Oh yeah, despite everythin' I managed to keep him alive though all this."
"An' the rest of us managed to keep you alive," put in Nathan.
Beside him, Josiah glanced upwards to seek strength from the Lord. This could easily degenerate into a free for all. He heard Ezra pipe up again. Oh great! Right on cue!
"And by which we put the entire feminine population in daily peril!"
"Hey!" Buck protested, "There ain't a woman here who'd say I was perilous."
"That's just 'cause they wouldn't wanna admit how they knew!" This was from Vin, who usually spoke little, but when he did it often packed a punch.
"Lord, deliver us!" Josiah muttered under his breath.
Luckily Chris (apparently acting as the Lord's instrument) stepped in to put an end to it. "Boys, if we could spare the reputation of the ladies an' maybe get back to toastin' JD an' Casey."
"Was that 'toastin'' or 'roastin''?" asked JD, hoping to stall things.
But Buck seized the opportunity to get back on track. "So, Sheriff JD Dunne. What woman would wanna take on a problem like that? Luckily, in this town there was a fair lady with that kinda courage. Miss Casey Wells perhaps got off to a bad start with JD by challengin' him to a horserace."
Casey blushed and looked apprehensive, but Buck was too much of a gentleman to torture her any further.
"However, it took just one look at the lady in one of her lovely frocks for the boy to completely lose his head. Wouldn't admit it at first, of course. An' it's taken 'im years to work up the courage to ask 'er to marry 'im. But now he has and she was crazy enough to say 'yes'. So I ask everyone here to drink to a long and happy life together for JD Dunne an' Miss Casey Wells."
His request was granted. When the toast was drunk, JD said in a dangerous tone, "Thankyou, Buck!" Then he grinned, "An' thanks everyone. An' most of all, thankyou Casey for bein' crazy enough to say 'yes'." He took something out of his pocket, "Here's somethin' I'd like you t'have." He placed the ring on her to a chorus of cheers and sighs which then increased in volume as he kissed her.
Basking in the glow of a job well done, Buck wandered over to where Nathan and Josiah stood. "So Nathan, how long before you an' Rain follow the young folks' fine example."
"Geez, Buck! You're worse than a maiden aunt. One weddin' not even under way yet, an' yer already plannin' another."
"Well, you and Rain have been courtin' even longer than JD and Casey." Josiah pointed out.
"Yeah, We've bin on tenterhooks for years watchin' the two of you!" Buck added.
Cornered, Nathan desperately tried to deflect the attention, "What about Chris an' Mary?"
"Hell, Nathan! It's taken 'em three years to just hold hands in public."
The three of them looked over at the couple in question who were doing just that. No more, no less. Nathan searched for another potential target and spotted Inez and Ezra, both leaning back against the bar and apparently chatting amiably.
"What about them two?"
Buck laughed, "I don't think so! Inez is too smart t'fall for Ezra."
Nathan snorted, "I dunno, Buck. We thought she was too smart t'fall for you!"
Josiah looked over at the pair and seemed to give the idea serious consideration.
Unaware that they were themselves the subject of speculation, Inez and Ezra were theorizing about a third party.
"You know, as much as I like her," Inez was saying, "there are still some things that worry me about Teresa."
Ezra nodded, "Like the fact that she won't eat her meals with us? Takes them up to her room instead? For a while, I wondered if she might think her table manners were so bad they'd offend us."
"Yes, it's such an odd thing to be secretive about. And have you noticed how she kept quietly leaving the party this evening."
"Almost subtly enough that you probably wouldn't notice unless you were watchin'."
"Which we both were."
"So it would seem."
"So what do you think it all means?"
He assumed an aspect of deep contemplation, "I think it means that Teresa has a secret."
Inez laughed, "That's what I like about talking to you, amigo. You tell me things I could never have worked out by myself."
He shrugged, "When all else fails, state the obvious."
"Alright then, Buck, Josiah and Nathan are watching us."
"Indeed, they are. I have a theory." Inez looked at him questioningly and he smiled slightly before suggesting, "Kiss me in the manner you used to kiss Buck in public, when the two of you were together."
"You reckon that's what they're thinking?"
He just looked at her. A shrug would have given the ruse away to the spectators. She gave him a conspiratorial smile.
"Alright, but don't get any ideas about what might happen in private."
"I wouldn't dare."
The kiss was light, affectionate and rather chaste but nonetheless conveyed the desired effect. Nathan raised his eyebrows, wondering if he might not have unintentionally stumbled onto something. Josiah looked contemplative and Buck was quite simply speechless.
Another was observing them from just inside the saloon door. They really seemed like a nice couple, thought Teresa, and they didn't seem the judgmental type (at least not yet). Maybe she should trust them more.
When the festivities ended, Ezra again found himself drafted into the clean up. This was starting to become a frequent occurrence, he reflected.
He was pondering on ways to halt the trend as he carried some plates back to the back room of the saloon where Inez carried out her food preparation. Some cookies she had baked to be served with coffee, still sat on a tray next to the oven. They hadn't managed to get around to coffee. Ezra had thought it unlikely these delicacies would be necessary from the start but, as he regarded them now, he was quite tempted.
He'd put down the plates he was carrying and was removing a cookie from the tray, when he heard a faint creak from the door leading outside. He looked around but could see no movement. Nonetheless, he was sure that he had heard it. He waited quietly and surely enough, the door was edged open.
He couldn't get a clear view from where he was standing. All the movement was at a level not even waist-high. So, it was a child. He cleared his throat softly and heard a rapidly scurrying exit.
Following outside, he looked around, giving his eyes time to adjust to the darkness. Of course, the youthful intruder could have disappeared into the street. But playing a hunch, he strode over to Teresa's tiny covered wagon and spoke quietly but clearly.
"Would you like to come out now?"
He was rewarded with a scarcely audible sound, as the child startled in their hiding place.
"I promise I won't hurt you. You must be hungry. Is that why you were lookin' in the kitchen?"
He turned as the back door of the saloon opened again. Teresa stood in the open doorway, her face unreadable. Then she slowly and deliberately approached the wagon.
"Angelica," she called, softly.
The four-year-old waif that appeared was very like a miniature version of Teresa but dressed in an outfit worthy of Chris Larabee. Ezra guessed that the black tunic and trousers were intended to render her less visible at night. She looked uncertainly from Teresa to Ezra and back again but said nothing.
Ezra crouched down to the girl's level and smiled gently at her, "Hello. As I said, you must be hungry." With a minor flourish, he produced from behind her ear and presented to her the cookie which he had stolen from the baking tray in the kitchen.
Timidly, the child took it from his hand but before she could place it in her mouth, Teresa spoke again.
"What do you say, Angelica?"
Teresa sighed, "English, Angelica."
"Thank you, sir"
Ezra's smile broadened, "You're more than welcome, Miss Angelica."
Angelica once again tried to take a bite from the cookie but Teresa hadn't quite finished.
"And I thought I told you never to accept anything from strangers."
Angelica again froze guiltily with the cookie halfway to her mouth, then she rallied, "But he's a friend of yours, isn't he?" And with that she took a bite before anything else could stop her.
Ezra had been desperately trying not to laugh during the exchange which, despite the maternal criticisms, was obviously amiable. He looked expectantly at Teresa to perform the introductions.
"Angelica, this is Mr Ezra Standish. Mr Standish, this is my daughter, Angelica." As she spoke, her tone became, noticeably apprehensive.
Ezra tried for his most soothing, reassuring voice, "Well, I don't think Miss Angelica has to stay out here any longer. And Inez, the two of you and myself need to have a discussion."
Teresa reached out for her daughter who had already devoured the cookie and now leapt into her arms.
Ezra gestured for them to proceed him into the saloon. "Don't worry, my dear. Everythin' will be alright."
Teresa threw him a look of pure skepticism, but nevertheless carried her daughter inside.
"Inez, I think we should procure a larger room for Teresa," was Ezra's preamble as he led the way into the virtually empty saloon.
Inez looked up from cleaning down the bartop and her eyes widened although she did not speak.
"May I present to you, Miss Angelica Velasquez." Both Ezra and Inez smiled when the four-year-old extended her right hand to be shaken. Inez shook it gently but firmly and the child responded in kind but when Ezra placed light kiss on the back of Angelica's hand, she tilted her head slightly and regarded him with curious surprise.
"Why didn't you tell us, Teresa?" Inez asked gently, although she already suspected the answer.
"I've learned not to let people know."
"Winter's approachin'," The words could have been a reproach but Ezra's voice was also without condemnation, "You weren't goin' to let her keep sleepin' out in your wagon, were you?"
"I don't know," Teresa shrugged, suddenly looking like a weary child herself, "I've been making plans more or less day by day."
"Well now, I think we need to make some long term plans."
"Such as?" Teresa's apprehension was audible. This was probably about the time she was usually told that people didn't want any of her kind around.
"Well as I said, a larger room for the two of you to share and while you work, perhaps Angelica could spend some time at the orphanage and play with the other children there. She has been cooped up on her own for days."
Teresa looked somewhat startled and Inez smiled kindly at her expression, "Did you think we would turn you out onto the streets?"
"It wouldn't be the first time," Teresa replied steadily, "The Harradine family threw me out when they found out I was going to have a child and many employers have asked me to leave as soon as they knew."
"Was that what happened in San Francisco?"
Teresa hesitated then shook her head, "Not exactly." She took a deep breath before continuing, "I will do anything to keep my daughter fed and warm." She gazed at them defiantly. "Anything, you understand? In that way, I have no pride. But I won't let anything be done to her. Do you see what I mean?"
Her audience both nodded, shocked and slightly sickened by the implication that anyone could intend such harm to a child.
Inez walked over to Teresa and put a hand on her shoulder. "Nothing like that will ever happen here."
Ezra placed his hand on her other shoulder, "Anyone who intended harm to either of you would have to fight their way past both Inez and myself first."
Inez gazed at her seriously, "Will you trust us?"
Teresa nodded, muted by emotion.
Angelica beamed. She hadn't been able to understand the darker aspects of the conversation but she correctly deduced the outcome and so the still hungry child decided to test the generosity on offer, "Could I have another cookie, please?"
If Teresa took only a short time to fit into life at the Four Corners saloon, it took Angelica no time at all. Since both Ezra and Inez seemed to have her mother's endorsement, she saw no reason to be wary of either of them.
She happily spent the next morning getting under Inez and Teresa's feet. Fortunately for them, when Ezra appeared later, he was unable to induce anyone to join him in a game of poker and so sat at a table near the bar and dealt himself out a game of solitaire.
Seizing the opportunity, Inez directed Angelica over to him and the girl climbed onto a chair at the opposite side of the table.
Ezra looked up and smiled, "Good afternoon, Miss Angelica."
"Good afternoon, Mr Ezra," she smiled back at him and then folded her arms onto the table top, rested her chin on top of them and quietly watched him move the cards for several minutes.
"Red seven goes on the black eight," she said after a while, pointing out the relevant cards.
Ezra grinned at her, "You know, Miss Angelica, I have a theory."
She regarded him with curiousity, "What's that?"
"A theory is an idea about the way things work."
"Oh," she considered this, "and what's your theory, Mr Ezra?"
"My theory is that I will never be lost alone in the wilderness because I always carry a deck of cards with me."
"Because, all I will need to do is to deal out a game of solitaire and, without fail, someone will be sure to approach and advise me on how to play the game."
"Like I did just then?" She had grasped the concept, if not the humour.
He grinned again, "Just so."
"Did you mind?"
"Not at all."
"So can we keep playing?"
"Alright, the red one goes up top."
"A? Like Angelica starts with A?"
"Ace," he repeated, stressing the consonant, "The card is called an 'ace' not a 'one'."
"Why not call it a 'one'?" It was a reasonable question.
"Because, it is traditionally called an 'ace'. The ace of diamonds." He picked up the card and handed it to her. "I think you should regard it as your card, the ace of diamonds. Ace begins with the letter A, just like your name does."
Angelica turned the card over in her hands, pleased but puzzled, "It isn't much use without the rest of the cards, is it?"
"True, but everyone should have a card which they consider their own. For you, that's any ace of diamonds, you understand, not just the one in this deck. That way, no matter who owns the deck, you can feel that you have mastery over at least that one card."
Angelica looked at him with a touch of awe, "Do you have a card like that?"
He smiled and without looking pulled the ace of spades from the deck and handed it to her.
"Another ace?" she asked.
"So does your name start with A?"
Soon after, the game of solitaire was abandoned as Ezra took out a pencil and piece of paper to help explain the spelling of her name, his name and several other words, including "theory".
Inez watched the pair of them from the bar with a fond smile. Ezra had many likeable qualities but the way he related to children was one of his most endearing features. If she had let herself, she probably could have watched the two of them for hours and she almost started guiltily when she heard Teresa approach from behind.
"Do you want to rescue your daughter from Ezra's influence?" she asked, recovering quickly.
Teresa shrugged, "Not really. I always wanted her to speak English well. For that, I think Mr Standish's influence is probably a good thing."
"You might not be able to understand what she says by the time he's finished." She saw that Teresa was also watching the spelling lesson and realized that they were both in danger of again being mesmerized. So, despite her previous resolution not to pry, Inez found herself saying, "You never said anything about Angelica's father."
Teresa sighed but turned to look her in the eye. "His name was Michael Langley. He worked for the Harradine family as a farm hand but then he lost his job and he went to the city to find another. He said before he left that he would come back for me and marry me and I believed that for a very long time."
Inez put a consoling hand on her shoulder and Teresa gave her a sad but grateful smile, before continuing, "I didn't realize that I was going to have Angelica until a few weeks later, but I never saw him again."
"So he never knew?"
Teresa shook her head, "No. But still, every so often, I dream that he shows up where I'm working. He's been looking for me all these years. He's delighted to find out about Angelica. He's got a good job and a home for us all, and we all live happily ever after." She ended with a snort of self-disgust.
"Dreams like that are nothing to be ashamed of, Teresa."
"I know, but you can't live off them."
Just then, JD entered the saloon, accompanied by Buck and Nathan, and came over to the bar to thank Inez for hosting his engagement party. Almost immediately after that, all three of them were distracted by the sight of Ezra and Angelica.
So, it's not just a female thing, thought Inez. But then again, they were probably curious as to who Angelica was.
Buck was a direct type of person. If he wanted to know something, he usually just asked.
"So Ezra, who's your new friend?"
"My friends, may I present to you Miss Angelica Velasquez."
Buck, JD and Nathan turned to look at Teresa. She was already coming from behind the bar to join them. While she now seemed quite at ease with Inez and Ezra befriending her daughter, her apprehensions seemed to resurface with each new acquaintance the child made. Inez supposed that this was understandable, given what Teresa had hinted had happened in San Francisco.
"My daughter," Teresa announced, a definite challenge in her voice.
JD was quite obviously astonished. Buck, although somewhat surprised, was less affected and smiled easily at Angelica, "My name's Buck and this here's JD an' Nathan."
Angelica again held out her hand to be shaken. It seemed to be an ingrained response.
JD was still dazed as he shook her hand and asked, "How long have y'bin in town?"
Buck rolled his eyes and gave JD a light whack on the back of the head, as Ezra said dryly, "I believe that she arrived around the same time as her mother."
"Oh yeah," JD mumbled. He realized that everyone was now looking at him and that he needed to recover some lost ground. "Say, would you an' your ma like to come to my weddin'?"
Angelica tilted her head to one side, "I don't know. Would we, Mama?"
Teresa still looked apprehensive but replied, "It's up to you."
Angelica shrugged, "I've never been to one before. What's it like?"
JD smiled, "Casey an' I go to church an' get married. Everyone gets dressed up in their best clothes an' comes to watch. Then we have a big party to celebrate."
"Sounds like fun."
"So will you come along an' wear your prettiest dress?"
Unfortunately, JD's little attempt at Buck-like charm ended with his foot firmly wedged in his mouth again.
Angelica looked slightly hurt, "This is my prettiest dress." The light blue dress she wore was slightly small for her but at least it was clean and not torn. Not anymore, anyway. Aside from the nocturnal camouflage she had worn on the previous night, she had only one other piece of attire, a dark grey dress with a rip in the right sleeve which needed mending.
Ezra came to the rescue, "It's a very pretty dress, my dear. But perhaps, with your mother's permission, I might be allowed to purchase you one of surpassing beauty."
The sentence had Angelica stumped but, catching the reference to her mother, she cast a deferring glance to that authority.
Teresa sighed, "If you buy my daughter a dress, you must let me pay you back for it," she considered her financial situation and added, "Eventually."
Ezra feigned shock, "I'd insist upon it! Five cents a month for as long as you work here and not a penny less!"
"It's no use, Teresa," Nathan laughed as the young mother looked set to argue, "If Ezra's got his mind set on bribery, there's no stoppin' him."
"Bribery?" Another unfamiliar word, and Angelica was determined to have the meaning of this one.
"Mr Jackson here, is implyin' that I am goin' to buy you a new dress in the hope that you will then be my friend," Ezra explained.
The child grinned, "Oh, don't worry Mr Ezra! I'll be your friend anyway!"
"My dear, you are truly a lady of taste and refinement."
Angelica didn't really understand what he'd said but she could tell it was a compliment by the tone of his voice, "Thank you, Mr Ezra."
Teresa had a significant amount of foreboding that these two were about to gang up on her and thus felt the need to step in, "I think it's more correct for you to call him 'Mr Standish', Angelica."
"He calls me 'Miss Angelica'," the child pointed out.
"It's true. I do call her that, " Ezra owned with a shrug of false apology.
Teresa sighed again. She'd been right, they were ganging up on her.
Then Buck joined in, "I'd like to call you 'Angie'. Would that be okay?"
Angelica looked at her mother who shrugged fatalistically and the child nodded, "That would be fine."
Before any further clarification of names could occur, Vin Tanner stuck his head over the main saloon door.
"Howdy everyone! Gonna need your help fellas. Somethin's goin' down across the street."
The four hired law-keepers in the saloon immediately headed out to join him. Buck went somewhat automatically, he had a job to do, no further thought required. A concerned frown flitted across Nathan's face, as it always did at any sign of trouble. Despite the years of experience he had acquired, JD still went with a certain amount of eagerness. And Ezra's mood as he followed was one of irritation.
He was being called to perform these services less and less often. In fact, he sometimes suspected that it might not be too long before Judge Travis felt that he was no longer getting an adequate return for the dollar per day he paid each of them and terminated the law-keeping arrangement he had instigated.
Nonetheless, despite the infrequency of these duties, Ezra always resented when they intruded upon either his other mode of employment or (as in this case) an interesting social interaction.
When he joined the others outside the saloon, he saw what had prompted Vin's concern. Several distinctly unwashed characters were gathering across the street. Even more disturbing was the fact that several others of the same ilk (they might as well have been wearing a uniform) appeared to be placing themselves at strategic points along the town's main thoroughfare.
Chris Larabee leaned against the open doorway of the building closest to the main group of ruffians. He looked up to make eye contact with Vin Tanner who in turn flicked a glance at Josiah Sanchez, unobtrusively approaching from the direction of the church, before nodding briefly.
At this silent signal, Chris and Vin both headed towards the main group in the street, while the rest of the Seven moved to take up places covering both their friends and the potentially troublesome intruders.
Ezra himself didn't move far, leaning against one of several large barrels in front of the saloon which afforded him a good view of most of the street but would also provide cover from most directions if an altercation erupted.
It didn't take long. Ezra couldn't clearly hear the conversation which Chris and Vin were conducting with the uncouth visitors but it appeared distinctly unfriendly. Then suddenly a shot gun came up, aiming directly at Chris. He rolled in one direction at the same time as Vin pulled the barrel of the gun in the other and it discharged, hitting the two ruffians behind them. Then, in the words of the common idiom, all hell broke loose. Chris and Vin ducked for cover as gunfire erupted from all directions.
Whoever this gang were, they seemed to know that there were seven gunmen who protected Four Corners and had brought with them what seemed like sufficient forces to take on that number. This was hardly surprising, over the years, Ezra had found that their reputation had begun to proceed them more and more. However, they obviously had no description of said protectors because other than at Chris and Vin, they had little idea where to direct their fire. Hadn't they been watching when he, Nathan, Buck and JD had responded to Vin's summons?
This musing came close to costing him dearly, as a bullet whizzed past his head from an unseen attacker to his left. There was a crash of glass from that direction and what sounded like Teresa's voice cried out in alarm. He whirled to see one of the thugs discharging several shots from his revolver into the saloon.
Ezra took the man down with a single shot, even as he saw a small light blue bundle roll into the street. Angelica! Obviously trying to throw herself out of the line fire but probably choosing the worst possible direction in which to do so.
Ezra ran to collect her but was beaten to it by the hurtling form of a man in black who swept her out of the path of another barrage and back into the saloon in one swift movement. Not for the first time, Ezra silently thanked God for Chris Larabee. Then turning to deliver covering fire, he saw many of the invaders mounting horses to make their escape.
The other five town protectors, apparently unhurt, collected in the street to give them a fitting send off. Ezra, however, was more concerned about the occupants of the saloon.
As he entered, he noticed the broken glass in front of the entrance which appeared to come from a shattered beer glass. Chris was breathlessly leaning against the bar and gazing with astonishment at Angelica who had been swept up into her mother's arms. Ezra decided to take advantage of Chris' momentary speechlessness to make his own inquiries.
He looked at Angelica and Teresa, "So, how did Miss Angelica happen to venture into this affray?"
"I saw that man point his gun at you and..." Angelica began.
Her mother looked at her sternly and she fell silent. Teresa then offered her own version, "We could see one of them aiming in your direction. Before I could stop her, this one," she again looked reproachfully at her child, "hurls a glass in his direction. This prompts him to fire at us. I tried to get to her but when she tried to get out of the way she fell outside. And if it hadn't been for Mr Larabee..."
"I was just trying to help!" the child protested in an injured tone.
"Well, the best way to help would be to try to stay out of trouble!" Teresa's anger did not abate but Ezra could see that it was fear for what might have happened which was fuelling it.
Chris looked at them somewhat incredulously, as he finally regained his breath, but before he could demand answers to his questions, the others arrived.
"Chris! Angie! Are you two okay?" demanded Buck.
Chris at last managed to gasp out a question, "Angie?"
"Yeah," Nathan nodded at the girl in Teresa's arms, "Angie, short fer Angelica Velasquez."
"Teresa's little girl," added JD.
Chris surveyed the rest of the group, "Am I the only one who doesn't know what's goin' on around here?"
"Aw Chris, should know there's always some things kept from the boss." Vin didn't feel the need to point out that he'd never met Angelica before either.
"Speakin' of not knowin' what's goin' on," said Ezra, "did either of you two manage to discover the reason our recent visitors dropped by?"
Vin grinned, "Seems word has it that Four Corners is gettin' too big for the seven of us to look after on our own. Those boys thought we might appreciate them sharin' our work."
"But I think they were lookin' for more than a dollar a day as payment for their protection," added Chris.
Ezra snorted, "I trust that we have asserted the independence of our franchise?"
"I dunno about that," it was the first time Josiah had spoken since he arrived. They all turned to look at him.
Chris' eyes narrowed, "Whad'ya mean by that."
"Think I recognized one of the leaders, fella by the name a' Walsh, and he was one of those who rode away from today's skirmish."
"Whad'ya know about 'im?"
"Vicious but pragmatic," he slowly gazed around at each member of the group, allowing his words to sink in, "He'll look for easier pickin's in the short term but he won't forget us or this town and, as like as not, one day he'll return to even the score."
Over the following days, life for the Velasquez family slipped into an easy routine. As Ezra had suggested, Teresa dropped her daughter off at the orphanage each day before she began work. Angelica had actually spent very little time with other children during her four years but, being a naturally adaptive child, quickly fitted in.
From the first day of this arrangement, Ezra had volunteered to fetch Angelica home each evening. Inez and Teresa had managed to hide their knowing smiles. The gambler had instantly taken to Angelica and she to him. His six compatriots and indeed most of the town also realized this and no one was at all surprised. Everyone had long known that he had a soft spot for children and by all accounts this particular child was herself a rather precocious little charmer.
However, while Angelica and her mother had begun to feel comfortable in the town of Four Corners, not all of the town could be said to be comfortable with them. The gradually increasing security of the town had in turn fostered an increasing sense of respectability and some felt this was in some way threatened by an unwed mother raising her child in a saloon. None had wanted to discuss it with the saloon residents themselves though.
The evening it was first mentioned to Inez and Ezra (approximately a week after Angelica had been discovered) began as usual with Ezra escorting the child back to the saloon. He had given his candy-distributing sleight of hand performance again, mainly because he had felt guilty that since Angelica had arrived, he had been neglecting Josiah's orphans. There was the added bonus that Angelica, who had not seen it before, was considerably impressed and they discussed it at length on the journey home.
As they passed by the general store, they heard some one call to them and turned to see Nathan at its door.
"Good afternoon, Mr Jackson," Ezra's smile of greeting widened when Angelica echoed his words exactly.
"Afternoon to y'both," said Nathan, then focussed his attention on the girl. "Angie, do y'think your mother would be angry if I gave you a small present?"
"Tryin' to bribe the favour of small children, Nathan?" Ezra asked mockingly, fully aware of how blatantly hypocritical his words were, "I'm shocked!"
Angelica, however considered Nathan's question quite seriously and answered, "I don't think so. Not if it was a small one."
Nathan smiled and offered her a stick of liquorice which he had held hidden behind his back. But Angelica shook her head, "No, thank you, Mr Jackson. I don't like liquorice."
Nathan couldn't quite hide his disappointment and Ezra felt a twinge of sympathy. It was always painful when such friendly overtures were rejected. Even when it was done politely and completely without malice by someone too young to know any better.
Angelica seemed to know that she'd said something wrong and added, "Sorry." And Ezra decided to break the uncomfortable moment and continue on their way.
After they said their farewells and started to walk away, he leaned down and spoke softly to the child, "You hurt Nathan's feelin's, Angelica, it might have been better to have just accepted the gift graciously."
"But I really don't like liquorice. I think it tastes awful!"
Ezra shrugged, "You could have given it to me later. I like liquorice. And then he would have had the pleasure of givin' you a gift."
Angelica considered this, then abruptly turned and ran back to the general store. Ezra watched as she spoke to Nathan, accepted the liquorice stick he gave her with a smile and raced back towards Ezra. As she approached, she called out to him, offering the liquorice.
Ezra looked up apologetically at Nathan as he accepted it and he could see that the original benefactor was unsuccessfully trying to hold back laughter. At least Nathan hadn't been further offended by this turn of events but it still made Ezra feel exceedingly awkward. He shook his head as he looked down at his small companion and took her hand again.
"Angelica, do you have any idea of what the word 'subtle' means?"
Inez had been slightly surprised to see Mary Travis enter the saloon. Although far from a stranger to the place, the newspaper editor was hardly a regular customer and usually had a reason for her visits. She also looked rather nervous and when Inez caught her gaze, the saloon manager had the distinct impression that she was the bearer of a message which she would rather not impart.
"What can I do for you, Senora Travis?" Inez supposed that she might as well take the bull by the horns and if the message was as serious as she supposed, best keep things rather formal.
Mary, on the other hand, hoped to diffuse what she had to say with a more casual and friendly approach. "Hello, Inez. Listen, there's some things we need to talk about."
"Like what?" Inez couldn't quite the suspicion out of her voice.
Mary took a deep breath. "I want you know that I don't agree with them but several people have come to me and asked me to have a word with you."
Mary searched for a diplomatic way to phrase it, "They have concerns about your staff."
Inez felt her temper rising, "What concerns them?"
"Well they have said that a saloon isn't a fit place to raise a child."
"What do they expect? That we'll send her to boarding school?"
"No, but they think that she will come into contact with some disreputable characters here."
"Do you mean Ezra, myself or her mother?"
"Don't be silly, Inez! That's not what they meant!"
Inez realized that Mary probably actually believed what she was saying. She tried to reign in her temper and keep her voice even. "Silly? Listen Mary, I know which people have felt they need to talk to you. And I know what they say about Teresa, even if they are too afraid to say it to her face…or mine. Well, you can tell them from me that I'm running a saloon here not some kind of church group. And you can also tell them that Teresa is a better mother than the whole gossip-mongering lot of them put together!"
The little tirade had gathered both volume and vitriol as it progressed. Mary was momentarily rendered speechless but, luckily, she was spared from an immediate reply by the arrival of the child supposedly in peril and her current less-than-reputable caretaker.
"So," Angelica was saying, "to ask for a cookie would be obvious but to say they looked delicious would be more subtle."
Ezra nodded, "Exactly! And to ask someone to leave would be obvious, and possibly rude, but to remark upon the lateness of the hour would be more subtle."
"Saying how cold it is, instead of asking for a coat or blanket?"
"Yes, I'd say you'd grasped the concept of subtlety."
"Is that the same as having an idea what it means?"
Ezra grinned, "That's right." He looked up and noticed Mary, "Evenin', Mrs Travis. May we be of assistance?"
The newspaper editor blushed slightly but then seemed to recover. "No, Inez and I were just discussing something." She looked back at Inez and her eyes became set with determination, "I'll tell them what you said. Perhaps in those exact words."
She then offered a smile, which was returned, before heading for the door. But she paused at the entrance and turned back with an apologetic expression.
"Sorry. I almost forgot, this letter arrived for you, Mr Standish." She produced the missive in question from her pocket and handed it to him with another smile. He thanked her and she again took her leave of them but, as she turned to go, she almost collided with Teresa, carrying a box of various foodstuffs she had just purchased from the general store.
"Sorry, Mrs Travis!"
An almost guilty expression flitted across Mary's face, "No, Teresa. I'm sorry." Her face cleared and she was successful in her third attempt to exit as she bade them goodbye.
Teresa looked briefly confused before shrugging and addressing her daughter, "Come and help me put these in the kitchen, Angelica. I think there's an apple here somewhere."
Angelica cheerfully followed her as she led the way and Inez went back to tending the bar.
Ezra took a seat at a nearby table and opened his correspondence. His mother's handwriting was instantly recognizable. It had been a while since he had heard from her and he was curious as to her recent activities.My dear Ezra,
I hope this letter finds you well and unencumbered by any financial or legal difficulties.
In my recent travels, I have encountered someone who has expressed an interest in expanding their business venture into the territory where you presently reside. Their business is entertainment which, as we both know, is something your current abode could use more of. Brief inquiries have revealed the project and the organization behind it to have achieved moderate success in the state of California.
My contact, a Mr Malcolm Greel, has asked to be made known to someone with local knowledge. I unhesitatingly forwarded your name and address and he plans a visitation in the near future. He was also gratified to learn of your connection with local law enforcement. Such contacts have proved fortuitous to him in the past. I have every hope that an association between the two of you will prove successful and I wish you all the best.
Your loving mother,
When he looked up from reading it, he saw Inez regarding him with a querying expression. He smiled ruefully. They'd known each other so long that she didn't even need to voice the question aloud to get an answer.
"My mother. She says that an acquaintance of hers is comin' to visit and may have a business proposition."
Inez raised her eyebrows, "What sort of business?"
"She says 'entertainment'. To my mother, that could be anything from choral singing to gambling and prostitution. Although some of her comments about law enforcement lead me to suspect that it more likely tends towards the latter two."
"So what are you going to do?"
He shrugged, "It can't hurt listenin' to what he has to say. If the proposal is reasonable, then why not? If it's outrageous, I can always refuse to be involved."
"Perhaps you should discuss it with some of the others. After all, your idea of 'reasonable' isn't always the same as everyone else's."
He grinned at her, "True, but this time I promise to be good."
She shook her head in resignation, "You've promised that before. Just don't say later that I didn't warn you."
It was time for a change of subject, in his opinion, "So what did you discuss with Mrs Travis?"
Inez hesitated. Mary was a closer friend to Ezra than she was to the saloon manager and Inez didn't really want to offend him by being overcritical. "Oh, gossip mostly."
He raised an eyebrow, "You were gossipin'? Or were you discussin' other people's gossip?"
She shrugged, "Other people's gossip."
"And how goes the tide of public opinion?"
"It turns against Teresa."
"How so?" Now he was concerned as well as curious.
"They don't think she's raising her child properly."
"She's one of the best mothers I've seen!"
Inez laughed, "I said something like that." Then she sobered, "The church-going crowd might try to make things difficult."
Ezra sighed, "I suppose things were gettin' just a bit too comfortable."
"So what do you think we should do?"
"You and I should stand shoulder to shoulder against the rampagin' armies of puritanical righteousness."
He shrugged, "We wait vigilantly. A confrontation may be weeks away and we don't need to force it. As long as Teresa knows that she has our support, I don't think we need be unduly vexed. Let them say what they like."
Inez nodded. Neither of them had ever cared much about the opinions of the puritanical hypocrites which were lining up against the Velasquez family. Those whose opinions they did value had already shown their support. As Ezra had said, there was no need to force a confrontation.
As it turned out, the first confrontation was a couple of weeks away but friendship did get caught in the crossfire.
"Is it red?"
"It changes colour?"
"Yes, it does."
Angelica actually stopped dead in her tracks to consider this. Ezra smiled as he watched her turn the facts over in her mind. Small. Quite soft, but also firm and definitely not mushy. Occasionally red. She carefully considered her next question.
They were again walking home together from the orphanage. He had long since discovered that these word games were a far more effective way of bribing Angelica for her company and affection, than any form of candy or trinkets. For a four-year-old, she had a truly remarkable grasp of words and ideas and he was highly flattered to discover that she seemed to prefer his conversation above any other.
He knew that everyone laughed about how taken he was with Angelica. He himself knew that, while he was as susceptible as the next man to the charms of a pretty woman (especially if she had a degree of sophistication), his real emotional Achilles heel was the attention of a bright and inquisitive child.
He remembered how charmed he had been by Olivia Greer who had managed to beat him at poker at age six and who had spotted one poor cheating amateur when he was palming cards. But Angelica eclipsed even her. Oh she didn't have even a fraction of Olivia's skill (or interest) in cards but her inquiring mind and budding conversationalist skills were a joy to observe.
"Good evening, Mr Standish. Are you taking the little one back to the saloon?"
He glanced in the direction of the question. Mrs Hansen. She was one of the more self-righteous matriarchs in Four Corners society. One of those churchgoers who felt duty bound to tell others exactly how far along the road to hell they were. He instinctively gathered Angelica into his arms. "Evenin', Mrs Hansen. We were indeed headin' in that direction. Say hello, Angelica."
The child sensed his tension but nonetheless responded politely, "Hello, Mrs Hansen. Pleased to meet you." As usual, she extended her hand to be shaken.
The woman took it tentatively, as if the girl was in some way contaminated, "I'm sure."
Ezra felt his anger building. That anyone would dare slighting Angelica. Vengeance was definitely required. He gazed at the girl. She was quick, would she be able follow his lead?
Meanwhile, Mrs Hansen unable to contain her righteousness, kindly began to set herself up. "I can't imagine how any mother can raise their child in such a den of iniquity."
"Iniquity?" Angelica queried the meaning of the unfamiliar word.
"Sin, evil, vice," Ezra explained quickly and quietly to the child before turning again to Mrs Hansen, "Some young mothers must take what work and lodgings they can, to feed and clothe their children. They have neither the time nor the resources to be subtle."
He threw a quick meaningful glance at Angelica. She was up to the task and said, "I'm so cold, Mr Ezra. Will we be home soon?"
"We've still quite a distance to go," he replied, vaguely apologetic.
Mrs Hansen wore an expensive silken scarf over her cloak. Both Ezra and Angelica had noticed it and now the child gazed at it with a masterfully timid and sorrowful expression and she hugged her arms around herself as if to keep out the cold. The woman touched the scarf at her shoulder. Ezra fought to suppress a smile. They had her!
Then, much to Ezra's surprised delight, Angelica actually managed to shiver slightly. Mrs Hansen glanced around to see at least one person, Nathan, watching the small group with vague disapproval colouring his features. She crumbled but managed to impart one more pious slight as she did so.
"Well if these women can't clothe their offspring, then decent folk must be charitable." She took off the scarf and wrapped it around the child's shoulders.
Angelica's face shone with an imitation of surprised gratitude as she gushed, "Thankyou ever so much, Mrs Hansen. You are so kind and you have really lovely red hair."
Ezra nearly lost control of his expression completely, at that point. The shade of Mrs Hansen's red hair changed from week to week and had been a source of great mirth among some of the saloon patrons during the previous evening.
Mrs Hansen put a hand to her hair and genuinely smiled, "Thankyou, my dear." And with that she turned and left.
"Well," said Angelica, as soon as she was out of earshot, "was that subtle?"
"It was brilliant, Angelica. Your subtlety wavered at some points but the overall performance was inspired."
"And she didn't even realize that it isn't that cold."
"She didn't even realize that I could have given you my own coat. But then, perhaps she just thinks I'm heartless."
"Ezra!" They both looked over to see Nathan approaching with a furious expression on his face.
"Mr Jackson?" Ezra merely raised an eyebrow but Angelica slid out of his arms, hiding behind him when she reached the ground.
"What the hell was that?" Nathan demanded, so angry that he forgot to watch his language in front of Angelica.
"Mrs Hansen very generously donated this fine silk scarf to Angelica."
"So you're teachin' her to con people!"
"Angelica and I are conductin' a study of human nature." Ezra's tone contained a warning that went completely unheeded.
"And you're prepared to teach that little girl every dirty little con you know? I can't believe what I just saw!"
Ezra's eyes flashed, "Mr Jackson, I was taught 'what you just saw' or somethin' very similar when I was younger than Angelica is now. It must be nice to have no vices to reflect upon but both Angelica and I know what it is like to walk the more shady side of the street. You should be grateful. If people like us didn't exist, who would the morally superior such as yourself and Mrs Hansen look down on? However, if we are that offensive to your sensibilities, we will remove our corruptin' presence!"
After finishing this tirade, Ezra abruptly turned, took hold of Angelica's hand and strode angrily down the street, trailing a very perplexed child behind him.
Nathan stood rooted to the spot and fairly shook with silent rage. How dare Ezra accuse him of being some kind of patronizing bigot like that Hansen woman? How dare he!
Nathan knew Ezra was good at fighting with words. Hell, if it came to a duel to the death, words would probably be Ezra's favourite choice of weapons. He had a formidable arsenal. But although Nathan knew that he couldn't match the firepower, he often stepped into the fray, using his own sense of right as a shield. This time Ezra had actually used that against him, making Nathan doubt himself in a way which he very rarely did.
Three years ago, he never would have thought to find himself fretting over the Southern gambler's words. They had truly loathed and despised each other when they first met. A lot of that was prejudice, and when Nathan was honest with himself, he had to admit that it was prejudice on both sides. Ezra's smooth Southern accent had been enough to bring back all the memories Nathan would rather have forgotten. But added to that, the smug and arrogant manner which the gambler so easily slipped into and the pure contempt with which he had first greeted the black ex-slave, had all given Nathan enough reasons to firmly stamp Ezra Standish as 'not worth knowing'.
All that had changed. Prejudices were not overcome overnight, but the two of them had gradually developed a certain amount of mutual respect and even affection. Neither was the kind of man to go overboard in expressing it. They would both rather trade insults. But neither would hesitate to describe the other as a friend.
Nathan had been through a lot of hardship in his life and this had only increased his compassion for those who were suffering. But Ezra had been right, Nathan had never doubted his own morality and perhaps his sympathy for the morally flawed was not so well developed. Nathan also knew that he did take some pleasure in his own righteousness and although he made an effort to tolerate Ezra's shortcomings, he rarely tried to understand them. So maybe the fault was his, at least partially. Suffering took many forms and perhaps he had failed to recognize one of them.
Ezra was approximately twenty yards ahead of her before he heard Angelica's voice calling to him to slow down. He stopped and turned. He hadn't even realized that he had let go of her hand.
The child was quite breathless when she slowed to a halt in front of him but she managed to gasp out, "What did I do wrong?"
"You?" He blinked and the guilt he was feeling at least doubled, as he stooped down to face her on her own level. "You haven't done anythin' wrong."
He sighed. He had done something wrong, again. It was all very well to lecture Nathan about his judgmental tendencies but Ezra knew that he had no right to speak for Angelica. Whatever Teresa might think of her own moral turpitude, it was clear that she wanted something far better for her daughter. And Nathan had been right, he had used Angelica to pull a con. In exactly the same manner his mother had used him when he was a child, and for which he had frequently condemned her.
It had been this realization of his own guilt which had made him turn on Nathan with such venom. He hadn't even started out with any intention of educating Angelica in the fine art of the swindle. The whole thing had stemmed from a desire to exact revenge on that hypocritical self-righteous Hansen woman. But in the end, he had not only reverted to type but made good inroads into corrupting the child. If only his mother could see him now, she would be so proud. As he reflected on this with a considerable amount of self-disgust, he realized that Angelica was still gazing at him with nervous concern.
When she realized that she had caught his eye, she offered a tentative smile. "Is it true that you learned to do all that when you were younger than me?"
He smiled sadly but couldn't repress a sigh. "Yes."
"Maybe you could teach me all the other things you learned."
"Maybe someone else could teach you much better things."
"You don't want to teach me?" Her face and voice displayed naked disappointment.
"I want you to learn to be much better than I am, Angelica. I want you to grow up to be everythin' your mother wants you to be." As opposed to everything that his mother had wanted him to be, he thought to himself.
Angelica just stared at him sadly. Somehow in all this, he'd managed to damage the child's sense of self worth. He offered an encouraging smile. "Angel girl, I'll teach you all the good things I know. But you must always listen to your mother more than you listen to me. She will teach you all the better things." He reached over to wipe away the tear that was about to spill onto her cheek and was quite overwhelmed when she flung her arms around his neck and held on tightly.
"So you're still my friend?" her tear-stained voice whispered in his ear.
"You and I will always be friends, Angelica," he drew back to look into her eyes and reiterated with emphasis, "Always!"
She managed a smile, releasing him from the embrace, and he stood, taking her hand, and resumed their journey home. After a few steps, she piped up again, "That thing that's soft and sometimes red?"
He smiled. As far as she was concerned, they could continue on just as before. "Yes?"
"What makes it change colour?"
"Temperature usually, although sometimes other things." The answer he had been trying to make her reason out was her own nose.
"What's the matter?"
"I thought it might have been Mrs Hansen's hair."
He burst out laughing, "Her hair's not all that small, Angelica!" He picked her up again. She was truly a remarkable child and deserved to be carried the rest of the way home.
The following morning, Inez accosted Ezra as soon as he appeared downstairs, "I'd stay out of Teresa's way this morning, if I were you. Angelica let slip how she came by that scarf."
"Oh," Ezra frowned. He'd thought that they'd managed to sidestep that one.
As soon as they had arrived at the saloon, the previous evening, Angelica had presented the questionably acquired scarf as a gift to her mother. Despite himself, Ezra couldn't help a small proud smile. The child had superb instincts which went beyond any tutelage he had given her. Always unload suspect acquisitions as soon as possible, and preferably implicate any authority which may try to prosecute you.
When Teresa had asked where it had come from, Angelica had simply said that it was a gift. Teresa had then told Ezra that he shouldn't have and he had told her that it was a pleasure. She had not looked entirely pleased but she had let it go. He really had to congratulate Angelica, it had been an artful piece of misdirection and neither one of them had had to utter a single untruthful word.
However, it seemed that he had underestimated Teresa's ability to procure the truth from her daughter. Well, he could hardly blame the child. She was, after all, only four.
"How bad was it?" he asked Inez.
"Well, Angelica looked very meek when they set off for the orphanage together this morning and I heard Teresa mutter something about betrayal." She regarded him closely before adding, "Y'know, I think that girl is beginning to fall for you."
He blinked, then purposefully misunderstood, "Angelica?"
Mild impatience crossed Inez's features, "Teresa. I'd watch myself, amigo. She's probably looking for a father for her daughter."
Ezra silently reflected that such fatherhood wouldn't have been an entirely unappealing proposal, but what he said aloud was, "You're imaginin' things, Inez."
"Yes well, maybe I'm imagining that Nathan seems to have stopped by to talk to you."
He followed her gaze to where the healer sat with an untouched glass of whiskey in front of him. It was certainly unusual for him to be drinking hard liquor this early in the morning. Ezra wasn't sure if he wanted to face him yet but when he looked back at Inez, she gave him a look that quite clearly demanded "Well?" So he acquiesced with a sigh and wandered over.
"A bit early for you, isn't it?"
Nathan looked up. "Could say the same about you," he ventured with a small tentative smile.
Ezra managed a small smile in return, acknowledging the reminder that the general population seemed to think him incapable of rising before noon. He wasn't prepared to let his guard down just yet, though. "So, is there a reason?"
Nathan regarded him steadily, "Maybe I thought I might take a stroll on the shady side of the street."
Ezra sighed heavily and sat down opposite him at the table. He regarded the hat in his hands for a few seconds, before looking up at Nathan, "It can be rather cold. Particularly if you don't have strong enough convictions to keep you warm."
"On the other hand, some folks' convictions are so strong they tend to burn."
"They can somewhat," Ezra looked at his hat again but the small smile had returned to his face, "but unless I value the person's opinion, I'm usually fireproof."
Teresa's voice cut through the air like a knife, "Mr Standish, can I have a word you?"
Definitely not fireproof in this case, thought Ezra as he looked up at her.
She didn't wait for an answer, "Angelica told me exactly what happened yesterday."
"Yes, I gather that she finally broke under interrogation." No repentance yet, that would be a tactical error.
"So, can you tell me what prompted Mrs Hansen to make a gift of her scarf?"
Nathan stepped in, "She thought Angie was cold."
Ezra looked at him with an expression that suggested that the healer had no idea what he was getting himself into and Teresa pounced, "Were you there?"
"Well, yes." Nathan was somewhat taken aback by the cold venom in her voice, now equally directed at him.
"And did it seem particularly cold to you?"
"So would you then think that Mrs Hansen was led to believe that I'm not capable of properly clothing my daughter?"
"Do you think this is funny or something? I won't have my daughter taught criminal activities and I won't take charity from that woman or any of her sanctimonious friends," she dropped the offending scarf in Ezra's lap, "and you can return that at the first opportunity!" With that, she stalked off.
Nathan downed the whiskey in front of him in a single swallow and turned to see Ezra regarding him with amused sympathy.
"Welcome to the shady side of the street, Nathan."
Teresa walked out to the back room of the saloon. She seriously wanted to throw something but that wouldn't have been fair to Inez or her property, so she just seethed silently with anger born of a trust betrayed.
She had occasionally left Angelica in care of close female friends before but Ezra Standish was the first man she had ever trusted with her. Teresa had seen the almost instant bond the pair of them had formed and the obvious affection he had for her. How could he do something like this?
It was her own fault for trusting him. Oh, he was good man at heart, she knew that. But she was also aware that he had faults and all this seemed to have come about due one of the most strikingly obvious of those faults. And when she thought about it, that woman had probably really asked to be conned.
Teresa pulled herself up. Now she was making excuses for him? She gave a little snort of self-disgust. She was becoming far too fond of that man altogether.
She sighed. She was getting very fond of him indeed, but he seemed to think of her as some kind of little sister. Of course, it was hardly likely that he would think of her as anything else when he had a woman like Inez. And Teresa knew that she had been lucky to find both of them. Faults and all, they were the best friends that she and Angelica had had in a long time. Perhaps ever.
Well, she had told him what she thought. She might as well go and make peace with him (for the sake of harmony in the workplace, if nothing else).
But as she turned to go back to the bar, she saw something that made her blood freeze.
Malcolm Greel! He looked like he'd just entered. Walking over to Inez, he introduced himself and then asked where he could find Ezra Standish who, he believed, was more or less expecting him.
Teresa nearly fainted. Never had she known betrayal like this, and she'd thought she'd pretty much seen it all.
The bastard! He'd made her think she and Angelica were safe here, wormed his way into their hearts and all the time he'd had this planned. She wanted to kill him! But then her survival instincts won over. Her survival and Angelica's. They had to get away from here. She grabbed a sack and began to fill it with provisions. When she went to a drawer to get a knife, she also found one of Ezra's revolvers. He had lent it to Inez the previous day for some reason and she had obviously put it here for safe keeping until it could be returned. She picked it up and checked that it was still loaded. This would certainly be useful.
She scrambled to collect what else she needed from the kitchen. No one was going to stop her escaping. And if that treacherous bastard Standish got in her way, he'd get one of his own bullets right between the eyes.
Ezra was in two minds as he bade adieu to Malcolm Greel. There was something about the man which he found vaguely unsettling but he couldn't put his finger on it. On the other hand, he'd promised himself that he was going to hear the man out on his business proposal. After all, some of the most fulfilling business associations Ezra had formed had come from distinctly unpromising beginnings.
However, since he suspected that the business venture may be morally and legally suspect, he thought it best not to discuss it around Nathan. So he had arranged to meet Greel again after the man had settled into his hotel. Apparently, he had come straight from the stagecoach to the saloon, in search of Ezra. Was that perhaps a little overeager, on Greel's part? Maybe.
After Nathan left, soon after, Ezra noticed that he felt slightly peckish. Seeing that Inez was fairly busy behind the bar, and since he only wanted some bread or a piece of fruit, he thought he might fetch it himself.
He was moderately surprised to find Teresa filling a sack, when he entered the kitchen. He was considerably more surprised when, two seconds later, he found himself staring down the barrel of one of his own revolvers.
"Don't move! I'll blow your head off! You know I will!"
He didn't doubt it. She was literally shaking with fear.
"Teresa, what's the matter?"
"Don't pretend you don't know! I saw you!"
"Talking to him."
"Who?" Ezra thought quickly, of his recent conversations, there was really only one likely candidate, "Mr Greel?"
She snorted and her face twisted in a bitter smile, "Yes, Mr Greel." Her hand steadied. This was probably a good sign, even though the pistol was still directed at a point right between his eyes. He was more inclined to think that she hadn't merely snapped but rather had some legitimate reason for her fear. His mind was racing. He had to talk her down. If she snapped off a shot in panic, it wouldn't do anyone any good. Least of all him, since her aim hadn't wavered.
"Is he the real reason you left, San Francisco?"
She was torn. He could see it in her eyes. He lowered his voice and spoke very gently, "Trust me."
Tears appeared in her voice, "I did! And look where it got me."
The delicate balance was broken when Inez entered. Teresa swung around to cover her. Ezra leapt forward and swiftly twisted the weapon from her grasp before she could pull the trigger. The tide of emotions driving her broke and she began to collapse, sobbing.
Ezra caught her, uncocking the weapon with one hand and tossing it onto the nearby bench. As he held the sobbing girl, he looked over her shoulder at Inez.
"Ezra, what the hell is going on?"
"I have absolutely no idea but we certainly need to find out."
Inez approached them quietly as Teresa's sobs subsided. She moved to pull herself from Ezra's embrace and he drew her out to arms length, still grasping both her shoulders.
"My dear, you really must tell us exactly what has happened. We'll help you but we need to know what the problems are?"
Inez also put an arm around her, "You can trust us. Really, you can."
Though no longer hysterical, Teresa was still quite distracted, "Angelica..."
"She is quite safe where she is for the moment. Our new visitor has no reason to go to the orphanage and indeed, no reason to suspect that either of you are here," He considered for a moment, "Unless, he has seen you?"
She shook her head, "I thought..."
"You thought that I had told him," Ezra shook his head gently, "My dear, our conversation was brief and purely related to business. Neither Angelica nor yourself featured in it."
Inez broke in, her voice taut with anger, "What did he do to you?" She knew what it was like to be hounded by someone who thought they had the right to abuse young Mexican women. Teresa was a reasonably level-headed and quick-witted girl and Inez suspected whatever had driven to this level of paranoid hysterics must have been pretty horrific.
Teresa's gaze flicked back to the inner door and Ezra remembered the sack that she had been filling when he arrived. Flight had obviously been her first thought, but maybe she could be dissuaded. "Don't worry, we will ensure that he doesn't find you. Can you make your way to the orphanage without bein' seen?"
Teresa nodded, "I think so."
"Good. Go there immediately. Inez or myself will meet you there after midnight. Tell Josiah as much or as little as you wish but you can trust him with your life."
"I try to trust as few people as I can."
He grinned, "Now there is a policy that I can relate to. But a person who trusts nobody is equally as vulnerable as one who trusts everybody. Havin' a few solid allies is far better than bein' alone in the world, remember that."
Inez took off her shawl and handed it to Teresa, who wrapped it around her head and shoulders. There was enough of a wind blowing outside that wearing it like that would not look suspicious. She walked silently to the back door, but as she opened it, she turned back uncertainly and said, "After midnight?"
Both of them nodded, and she was gone.
Ezra and Inez watched the door close behind Teresa and, for a few seconds, dared not look at each other.
"Well," Ezra said, at last, "whatever Mr Greel's business proposal is, I don't think I want to be involved."
"I should hope not," Inez's voice was tight with barely contained fury.
Ezra favoured her with a glance which was both placating and warning at the same time, "Nonetheless, we need to determine what it is and discourage him from pursuing it in this town. And," the warning edge sharpened, "we must remain civil so that he will depart with no suspicion of our young friends' presence."
"I know!" Inez snapped then heaved a sigh laced with frustration, "Just give me some time."
Ezra nodded and began to plan aloud, "Obviously, the two of them will need to remain concealed until we can convince him to depart. I have a place in mind which might be suitable."
"People will want to know where they've gone."
"Called to the bedside of an ailin' elderly relative has always been a favourite of mine."
"They don't have any relatives anymore, except each other!"
"Aside from you and I, who around here knows that?"
Inez considered this. As far as she was aware, Teresa had remained quiet about her background. Angelica's conversation tended more towards asking questions than giving answers. At most, people may have known that Teresa was an orphan. A dying grandmother might be half-plausible as a story. She admitted this to Ezra.
He nodded again, "We won't venture anythin', unless asked, but our stories must be identical. These things are always best kept simple. She received a letter sayin' that her grandmother was dyin' and left straight away. She was headin' down to the border in that little wagon of hers and didn't know when she'd be back. We don't know any more than that."
It was then that Inez realized a commotion was brewing in the saloon bar and frowned. She had left Buck serving at the bar and suspected that he had lost control of things. She smiled ruefully at Ezra, "Y'know, I'm really going to miss my hired help." With that, she squared her shoulders and headed off to deal with the unrest.
Ezra went to keep his appointment with Malcolm Greel. Lunch had been over long ago and the restaurant of the hotel was well nigh empty, as they took their seats at a table near the window.
"So, Mr Standish!"
"So, Mr Greel." Ezra's tone was non-commital but amiable.
"Your mother told me that you were a man always interested in a business proposition."
"I'm a man who's always willin' to listen to a business proposition but my interest depends on what I hear."
Greel smiled conspiratorially, "I think I have something that may pique your interest."
"Well, would I be right in assuming that men here crave a woman's touch and that it may not be to a wife they turn?"
Ezra shrugged, "Several members of the world's oldest profession have done good business here over the years."
"But as yet, they conduct their business in a haphazard fashion?"
Inwardly, Ezra breathed a sigh of relief. He could see the direction this was heading in. This he could divert relatively easily.
"Well, to tell truth, some years ago, an attempt was made to bring organized prostitution to this town and it met with little success."
Greel frowned, "Why was that?"
Ezra searched for the best way to phrase the explanation, "Well, let's just say that it wouldn't do to underestimate the righteous element in this town."
"Everywhere has its puritans. That usually does nothing to prevent a roaring trade in vice. Why should this town be any different?"
"Well, elsewhere significant members of the righteous element may not have as firm a hold over the forces of the law."
Greel was obviously on the back foot, "I thought you ran the law in this town."
Ezra chuckled self-deprecatingly (although inwardly he sighed, trust his mother to exaggerate to influence he wielded), "I'm but one contractor among several and by no means hold the majority say in the matter."
"What about gaming?"
Ezra nearly laughed. This was not the seasoned player he'd been led to expect. The man had shown his hand far too early and now desperation was creeping in. Still, best to keep the conversation going as long as was tenable and learn as much as possible.
"Well, some small scale players are tolerated. I myself dabble in it. But I think that a large going concern would be impossible to get off the ground."
"The righteous element?" Greel sounded disbelieving.
"Just so. They will ignore vice if it is modest and unobtrusive, but if you give them a large focus for their zeal... Well, as I said, it's been tried before."
"I was led to believe that you would assist me in getting a business started in this town. I've come a long way to be rejected." An edge of petulance had crept into Greel's voice.
"I'm sorry but those businesses just won't be allowed to flourish here. However, there are numerous other venues which may have potential. I'll admit that the details relayed to me by my mother were rather cursory, but she did indicate that you had the backin' of a large business venture. Surely they would provide you with the resources to relocate your plan."
"Alright, I'll admit that perhaps I exaggerated my standing in the business to your mother."
Inwardly, Ezra winced at the man's ineptitude. Whatever he did for this corporation, he certainly wasn't one of their valued negotiators. "So, would you like to outline your exact standin' to me?"
"Well, I was working my way up. I had gained significant influence with the heir to the business."
"I was instrumental in the procurement of certain pleasures he had a taste for."
Ezra now had to fight to contain his repugnance. This was almost certainly how the man had come into contact with Teresa. But he listened as Greel continued.
"Unfortunately, he was killed which meant that I had to find a new avenue for advancement."
"I'm truly sorry but I don't think Four Corners is along that avenue." Alright, he'd refused to get involved. Now, how could he get rid of this wretched man?
Greel certainly wasn't in any mood to go. His expression became noticeably defiant. "Well, thank you for your advice Mr Standish but maybe I might inspect the area myself and see if there are some opportunities that have been overlooked."
Ezra managed to hide his concern under a mask of indifference. Just because the man was an inept negotiator, didn't mean that he wasn't dangerous. There was something about him which suggested violence and the fear which he had inspired in Teresa also needed to be considered.
"As you please, sir," Ezra offered with a shrug, "I can only venture my opinions on the matter. However, I do assure you that any of the undertakings you have proposed would be met with vehement opposition. I really suggest you look elsewhere." He stood and tipped his hat, "Good day to you," then made his exit.
As he sat watching Ezra Standish depart, Malcolm Greel finally realized what Maude had been doing when she suggested that he look up her son. She had been fobbing him off because she hadn't thought that it was worth wasting time and effort developing him as a business associate. And now, her son had done the same thing. They had caused him to travel all this way and played him for a fool.
He felt his anger rapidly build until it was fit to explode. If the two of them thought that they could get away with this, they would find themselves seriously mistaken. That bitch, Maude would just have to wait. But before Malcolm Greel left Four Corners, her son would be made to pay dearly.
It was well past midnight when Inez closed the saloon and she and Ezra headed over to the orphanage. Ezra led his horse, quietly muttering reassurances to it and stroking its head, to make sure it made no noise along the way. Inez carried the sack which Teresa had been filling earlier, now well stocked with provisions.
Josiah met them at the door, as if he had had a precognition of their arrival. Or then again, maybe he had just been watching from a window. After the exchange of brief greetings, Josiah answered their first questions before they could ask, "They're both fine. Teresa's still awake, waitin' up for you," as he led them to a room at the back of the house.
As they entered, Teresa looked up from where she sat watching over a sleeping Angelica. Josiah quickly withdrew, as he had already perceived Teresa's mistrust, but he murmured to Ezra that he would wait in the next room, in case he was needed.
Despite Josiah's earlier reassurances, Inez had to ask for herself, "Are you both okay, Teresa?"
Teresa nodded, absently stroking her daughter's hair.
Ezra walked over and sat down at the foot of the bed with a sigh, "I believe we should define exactly what sort of threat Mr Greel poses to you."
Teresa snorted, "Oh that's easy!" She gazed steadily into Ezra's eyes, "If he finds me, he'll kill me!"
Inez had taken a position leaning back against the wall with her arms folded, partially hidden in the shadows. "Why?" she asked, her tone dangerously measured, as if she was holding in a terrible fury.
Teresa looked a little startled, even though she knew the anger wasn't directed at her.
Ezra broke in softly, "He informed me that he procured pleasures for the heir to some sort of business empire. I assume that you were one of those pleasures."
Teresa bowed her head. "He found me working in a bar. I was already doing extra work so that I could help a friend pay for food and rent so that she could look after Angelica while I worked. So when Greel offered me the opportunity to make, in one night, enough money for us to live on for three months, I accepted without really thinking."
She looked up again, nervous for their reactions. She couldn't see Inez's expression which was obscured by shadow but Ezra reached across to give her a brief reassuring pat on the shoulder. The sad but grateful smile they had both seen before flitted across her face again, but she still had to look away from them both, before continuing.
"He took me to a house which James Muldoon kept for such 'pleasures'. It's true that Muldoon was the heir to a business. His business was corruption and his hobby was depravity. He used me for a day and a night and after, when he paid me, I told him that I wouldn't do it again. He didn't like that answer and told me that I would come whenever Greel came to fetch me and perform whatever services Muldoon asked me to."
She shuddered at the memory. "I didn't have anywhere to go. It went on every couple of days, for about five or six weeks and Muldoon was getting more violent all the time. He did keep paying me though and I stored the money away, planning to flee but never getting around to it."
She paused and took a deep breath, "Then he found out about Angelica. We were at his house when he told me that he had followed me home one night. He told me next time to bring my little girl. I refused and then he went berserk. He kept hitting me and then he said that he would take Angelica and there was nothing I could do about it. I grabbed something heavy, I don't even know what it was, and I just kept hitting him until he stopped moving."
She was visibly shaking now. Inez had come out of the shadows to sit beside Teresa and placed an arm around her. "It's okay," she reassured but Teresa seemed unable to stop talking, her words spilling out in a rush.
"He was dead. There was blood everywhere. I panicked, grabbed a large coat to cover the blood on my clothes and fled. Muldoon had that small pony and wagon parked outside, so I took it. He had some more money in it and in the coat. I collected Angelica and divided the money I'd saved with my friend. We fled in different directions."
Ezra also approached Teresa and knelt in front of her, placing a hand on her knee to gently claim her attention. "It's alright. You're both safe here. We won't let them find you." Teresa's story had confirmed some suspicions he had already been forming and it truly sickened him.
The likelihood of discovery had to be determined, before a course of action could be decided.
"You've been workin' in the saloon for several weeks, what if someone asks after you or Angelica within Mr Greel's hearin'?"
Teresa shook her head, "I used the name Teresa Moreno in San Francisco and no one there knew Angelica's name at all."
Inez's eyes narrowed, "So what's your real name?"
Teresa regarded her steadily, "Teresa Antonia Velasquez."
Ezra smiled, "Fair enough." After all, following a profligate use of pseudonyms in the past, he had introduced himself as Ezra Standish from the beginning of his stay in Four Corners. What the hell, as far as he was concerned, your name in Four Corners could be considered your name for life.
A few more points still needed clarification, "So, was it only James Muldoon who was aware of Angelica's existence?"
Teresa shrugged helplessly, "I don't know. I think so. Why?"
"She might be better off stayin' here. If Greel doesn't know her, he will assume she's just another one of the orphans and leave her alone."
"No!" Teresa shook her head vehemently, "I'm never leaving her with anyone again! Never!"
"Alright then, we'll just have to hide you both." Ezra smiled and sat back on his heels, "There's an old mine in the hills which the Kelly gang used as a hideout, before my colleagues and I put an end to their activities. I know for a fact that, as of two days ago, it was still unoccupied."
"The wagon you stole, was it the same one you drove here?" Inez asked.
Teresa nodded, "Yes, Greel might recognize it."
"Don't worry. I'll take care of it while Ezra takes you and Angelica to this mine."
Tears were forming in Teresa's eyes, "Thank you, both of you. Thank you for everything, not just this." She looked at Ezra, "And to think I nearly shot you, this morning."
He laughed shortly, "Please don't dwell upon it. If I had suspected that someone was colluding with a person like Mr Greel, well then I might have entertained homicidal thoughts as well."
Teresa managed a small smile but then became serious again. "Be careful of him. He's a very vicious man and he won't go quietly. And if he finds out that we're here and lets Muldoon's father know..."
"We will ensure Mr Greel departs and that both he and Mr Muldoon senior remain ignorant of your whereabouts."
"I really can't thank you enough."
"Thanks are unnecessary. After all, speakin' for myself, I am bein' paid the exorbitant wage of one dollar per day to protect the innocent in this town."
That drew a laugh from Teresa. "Innocent?" she queried and then began to list her transgressions off on her fingers, "Adultery, theft, murder. What exactly do you call a sin, Mr Standish?"
Most people who knew Ezra Standish would have been shocked to discover that it was actually a subject which he had reflected upon at some length. He smiled and offered, "I believe that sin is a stain upon the soul. And the undiscoloured nature of your soul shines through in you every word and deed."
Inez stared at him, surprised by the revelation of hitherto unknown depths in this man she thought she knew so well.
Teresa laughed again, this time so loud that Angelica stirred and blinked her eyes open. "You should have been a preacher, like your friend, Mr Sanchez." The young mother told Ezra.
Ezra shrugged, "Well truthfully, it is a vocation which I have attempted, on occasion."
Now both Inez and Teresa were regarding him incredulously.
He favoured them with a wicked grin, "If approached with the right attitude, it can be a remarkably lucrative profession."
Inez rolled her eyes, Teresa laughed again and Angelica finally became fully awake. The child's eyes lit up, "Mr Ezra!"
"Hello, Little Angel. Are you ready to go on a short journey?"
She tilted her head and gave him her standard quizzical expression, "I suppose so. Where are we going?"
"We're going to live in a cave for a little while, Angelica," her mother explained.
"Because we can't stay here for a while."
Angelica had heard phrases like this before but they had never filled her heart with dread like they did now. "Will we come back?"
Teresa couldn't lie to her. "If we can."
Angelica stared mournfully at the man who had, only yesterday, told her that they would be friends forever. He broke instantly under her gaze, "It's alright, Angel girl. Inez and I will visit as often as we can."
Teresa also tried to reassure her, "And Mr Ezra, I mean Mr Standish, is going to take us to the cave."
Angelica couldn't help grinning at her mother's small slip of the tongue. Ezra was also smiling as he said, "It would be best if the three of us go straight from here. Inez will return to saloon and make sure the wagon is taken care of, as well as anythin' else that is required."
The saloon manager nodded, "I'll tell Josiah we're leaving."
She opened the door and looked out but didn't move. A few seconds later, the preacher appeared at the door. Before anyone else could speak, he offered, "You can take my horse as well. Best not to tax Ezra's too much, if you're travellin' some distance."
Teresa regarded him suspiciously, "Were you listening to us?"
Josiah smiled, "No, but it was obvious that a journey was planned when those two arrived." He looked pointedly at the sack which Inez had had brought with her, now lying in a corner.
Teresa looked abashed. She actually had no problem with those she called "God-loving" religious people, like Josiah, it was the puritanical "God-fearing" type she objected to. And Ezra and Inez trusted this man, so maybe she should have given him more credit.
"I'm sorry," she muttered.
Josiah's smile became warmer, "That's alright, little sister. Sometimes, it may seem like there are devils on every corner but occasionally you'll find one who's an angel in disguise."
"Bearin' in mind, that Lucifer himself was an angel before he fell," muttered Ezra.
Josiah raised an eyebrow at him, "Thank you, Ezra! Was it really necessary to undermine my metaphor?"
Now it was Ezra's turn to look abashed and mutter, "Sorry." There was something about Josiah which occasionally made him feel like a chastened schoolboy.
Teresa picked up Angelica, wrapping her in the blanket from the bed, and the group moved outside to where the horses waited.
Ezra took Angelica from her mother, as Teresa mounted Josiah's horse. Before he could pass her back, the child slipped her arms from the blanket and wrapped them around his neck, whispering conspiratorially, "We'll be back, Mr Ezra, I promise. Because you and me are going to be friends forever, aren't we?"
"Never doubt it," he whispered back, before handing her up to her mother. The child's words warmed his heart beyond all reason and he realized again how painful he would find it, if the Velasquez family did have to leave the area permanently.
He glanced over at Inez, with her somber but steadfast expression, and drew a little strength from her gaze. He knew it was unreasonable, but he felt like the darkness around them was closing in.
He had to shake off this uncalled for foreboding. He would make Greel realize the pointlessness of his quest and he would leave. Teresa and Angelica would return to Four Corners and the saloon. Any other course of events was completely unthinkable.
But still a dark voice nagged at him as he mounted his horse and waved a quick au revoir to Inez and Josiah. The completely unthinkable had been known to happen.
Malcolm Greel had enjoyed an informative week since his conversation with Ezra Standish.
He had long known that the best way to get to a man was via those closest to him and Standish appeared to have a veritable plethora of friends and associates in Four Corners. The question was which would be the best focus to attack first.
Greel had first considered his saloon paramour but she had people surrounding her constantly. Also, by all accounts, she was quite a feisty little fighter. It would be difficult to control a showdown if he used a blow against her to instigate it. If he was going to attack her, she would have to be drawn out more into the open first.
Standish's six law-keeping associates were similarly problematic. They watched each other's backs and, although one occasionally ventured out on his own, even the young sheriff might prove difficult for Greel to handle on his own. This would have to be a carefully executed plan, no point in making reckless mistakes.
Greel had also contemplated something directed against the woman who edited the local newspaper. She seemed to be prominent in this close circle of friends but, like the saloon manager, she was rarely alone. The black-clad gun-slinger who seemed to lead the group of law-keepers, kept a very close watch on her indeed. Now that was a man Greel didn't want to rouse without a significant force to back him.
The obvious target and the backing he needed both, more or less, fell into his lap. The young sheriff had fiancée who lived with an older female relative on a farm some distance out of town. Greel had been looking over the place from a distance, trying to determine the best point of attack, when he encountered someone else with the same intent.
It had been an odd but fruitful meeting. At first, scruffy outlaw and the well-dressed man from San Francisco had regarded each other mistrustfully. Until the latter, risking a throw of the dice, commented, "A peaceful and picturesque little property, isn't it? It would be tragic if something were to happen to those two ladies."
The slowly growing smile on the other's face told him that his estimation of the man had been correct.
"Yeah, was thinkin' the same m'self."
"If I might ask, what led you to those thoughts?"
"Y'might say I had a score to settle with that little girl's truelove and his friends."
"How interesting. One of those friends has been causing me trouble. It would seem that we do indeed have the same interests."
It didn't take long for he and Carlton Walsh to form an alliance of extreme convenience to them both. As far as Greel could see, they seemed to go a long way towards balancing the each other's deficiencies.
Greel found Walsh's tactical planning so inadequate that he found himself wondering why the outlaw had not ended up swinging from a noose long ago. On the other hand, the man did lead a moderately sized band of seasoned cut-throats which would provide Greel with the backing he needed to take on Standish and his associates.
Furthermore, Greel had made an interesting discovery when he overheard the Wells girl discussing something with her sheriff boyfriend in the saloon. A quite unexpected bonus.
There was one crucial factor that he failed to take into consideration. When he and Walsh performed one final reconnaissance to double-check their focus of attack on the Wells farm, they completely failed to observe Vin Tanner, eavesdropping on their conversation from a tree branch above them.
But then again, most people would have.
Ezra was the last to arrive for the meeting at the restored church. The seven of them had got so used to meeting there that they'd never bothered to change venues. Even though, these days they occasionally found themselves dodging the "Women's Auxillary Flower-Arrangin' Taskforce" (as Ezra called it). On this particular evening though, they were the only occupants and when Ezra entered, he found himself the sole focus of attention.
"At last," said Chris, "now maybe you can tell us why your new friend has it in for Casey an' Miss Nettie"
Ezra stared at him, "Well perhaps, if I had the faintest notion of what you were referring to."
Chris assumed his cold, not-taking-any-nonsense voice, "Malcolm Greel."
Ezra paled visibly, "What about him?"
"What about 'im? Man comes to town a week ago. Talks to you a couple a'times then goes nosin' around. An' now Vin tells me that he's plannin' with some outlaw to take a swipe at Miss Nettie."
Ezra had to sit down. He and Inez had kept an eye on Greel as much as possible while he was in town but they couldn't very well go traipsing around everywhere the man went without arousing suspicion. Ezra was unaware that Greel had developed an interest in Nettie and Casey Wells, but he realized that the man's only probable motive was revenge for the dismissal of his business proposal.
He looked up to see six pairs of eyes watching him expectantly. "My mother met him in San Francisco and referred him on to me. He proposed a business deal which I refused and I don't think he took kindly to that."
"An' ya didn't think t'mention it to the rest of us?" the anger in Chris voice crept up a notch.
Well, if the truth were to be told, Ezra hadn't mentioned it because he feared that in discussing it, he might have let slip something about Teresa and Angelica. His compatriots had easily accepted his explanation that they had gone to the deathbed of Teresa's grandmother and he'd always been one to let sleeping dogs lie.
"I didn't think it was relevant to any of you." It sounded feeble, even to his own ears, and it nothing towards mollifying Chris.
"An' now because he's sore at you, he's gonna make Miss Nettie an' Casey pay the price?"
Ezra rallied. That was a bit much, although perhaps essentially true. "I assume that we plan to take measures to avoid it."
Vin stepped in before Chris' anger achieved incoherence. "Yeah, I overheard 'em plannin' to hit Miss Nettie's place at dawn. So we're plannin' to be waitin' for 'em."
"Unless, of course y'wanna talk to this guy like businessman to businessman, an' ask 'im to play nice," Buck suggested with a provoking smile.
Ezra was not at all pleased by the comparison, "Mr Greel is a well-dressed thug, not a civilized entrepreneur, and I would speculate that a man of his vicious tendencies would not be amenable to negotiation."
"So ya don't think it's a good idea?"
"I've heard better."
"Well then, I s'pose it's lucky that Chris has a plan."
Ezra looked over at their black-clad leader, not terribly surprised. So, it was not as if his input was urgently required, a plan of action had already been formulated. However, he knew that Chris rarely let such things stand in the way of a decent inquisition, if he had decided that one of his men required censure.
"Well, now that you have delivered your reprimand, might I be enlightened about the details of this strategy?" Baiting his leader was a simple pleasure, which Ezra had yet to grow weary of.
But Chris had obviously regained some of his equanimity because he responded in a similar vein.
"We tried to keep it simple for ya."
Ezra raised an eyebrow at this insinuation that he was unable to cope with complexity, but said nothing as Chris continued.
"Vin tried to get Miss Nettie to leave the farm for the night but she had one of those stubborn turns of hers and she'll only go as far as the barn. An' of course Casey won't go any further."
Ezra allowed himself a small smile as he pictured the confrontation and when he caught Vin's gaze, the tracker shrugged sheepishly and muttered, "Yeah, it was a kinda short discussion."
"So the two of 'em are goin' to sleep in the barn with Buck an' JD to protect 'em. Vin an' me will wait in the house. Josiah an' Nathan will keep an eye out from that little clump of trees to the north-west."
"You'll be coverin' the other end from behind the corral an' that little cattle pen of hers. We'll be relyin' on you to make sure they don't escape that way."
Ezra favoured them all with a self-deprecating smile, "Well, as y'all know, 'reliable' is my middle name."
That drew several snorts of laughter and even Chris allowed himself a grim half-smile.
"So when will we commence implementin' this little scheme?" the gambler queried.
"Y'mean when are we gonna get started?" said Buck, "Well, we were just waitin' on you."
"Well then, if I might briefly return to the saloon to effect a change of attire," Ezra lifted one lapel of his coat to draw their attention to it, "Scarlet is a rather inconvenient colour to be wearin', if one is attemptin' to remain inconspicuous."
"Never worried ya before," Buck observed.
Chris however, recognized the merit of the suggestion. In fact, if Ezra hadn't done so, he would have suggested it himself.
"We'll meet you at the north end of town in twenty minutes."
Ezra nodded and tipped his hat to the group as a whole as he departed. Most of the others followed, also intending to collect items they might need for the overnight stakeout. However, Chris drew Nathan aside at the last minute.
"It really might be a good idea for you to stay in town. With Doc Elliot off visitin' his daughter, you're the only medical man left in this place."
Nathan shook his head, "Seems t'me that I should be where I'm most needed. An' t'night, I'd say that'd be with you folks. Both as a medical man and as another gun t'watch y'backs." He flashed a brilliant smile, "Can't be havin' Ezra goin' round sayin' he's more reliable than me, now can I?"
Again Chris managed a half-smile, "No, s'pose not. But y'better take care."
"Always do, Chris. Be seein' ya at the north end of town."
As Chris himself stepped outside, he wasn't surprised to see Vin leaning against a post, waiting for him.
"Not really Ezra's fault, Chris," the tracker said mildly.
"I know," Chris replied. He'd already come to the same conclusion but he still thought that it was always a good idea to keep Ezra on his toes. "But if he'd just tell us these things, it'd probably be a whole lot easier."
"Yeah, well," Vin shrugged, "I've bin thinkin'. That fella I saw with Greel looked kinda familiar. Not sure, but I reckon 'e mighta bin part of that gang that turned up in town 'bout a month back."
"Didn't Josiah say at the time that they'd prob'ly be back?"
"Yeah. So it seems Greel's gunnin' for Ezra an' that other fella's prob'ly gunnin' for all of us."
Chris nodded, "Could be. Come on. We'd best get goin'."
"Yeah, I'm kinda lookin' forward to seein' the looks on their faces. Greel reckoned he'd use all the confusion he'd be stirrin' up to soften up 'is next target. Reckon he'll be mighty surprised"
"So y'reckon they'll come in from the west?" Chris continued the conversation as they walked to meet the others.
"Yeah, 'cause they said they were headin' up to some old mine in them hills to the west. Must be their hideout. Could be the same one the Kelly gang used."
The hour of reckoning was at hand. A virtually undetectable lessening of the darkness was beginning to touch the eastern sky.
Ezra (now wearing a coat of dark forest green which blended nicely with the foliage behind him) noticed a barely distinguishable form approaching his position behind the cattle-pen at the south-eastern corner of Nettie's homestead. He soon identified it by the distinctive bowler hat perched on it's head. It was not unknown for Malcolm Greel to wear similar head apparel but he stood at least a head taller than the approaching figure.
"You okay, Ezra?" it asked in a loud whisper.
"Mr Dunne," Ezra replied, in equally hushed tones, although he failed to notice that his voice had also acquired a stern, almost Larabee-like quality, "shouldn't you be seein' to the safety of your fiancée?"
"It's not quite dawn yet, an' I jus' wanted to check you were okay."
"I hope you're not expectin' our adversaries to ride into view punctually when the cock crows and the first rays of sunlight stream across the ground. And why this disproportionate concern for my well-bein', anyway?"
"Well, I know that Chris put y'out here on y'own because he was kinda mad at ya."
Ezra smiled at the lad, who was far too kind-hearted for his own good, "It's hardly an unfamiliar state of affairs and anyway, maybe he was just takin' into consideration my well-known tolerance for proximity to livestock."
JD grinned. Being so near the cattle was probably offending Ezra's sensitive nose. When Chris wanted to get back at someone, he always did a damn good job of it. "Yeah, maybe."
He knew that Ezra was right and he should get back to Casey. But after being cooped up in the barn all night, listening to Buck's endless banter and advice, he was tempted to delay his return. It wasn't that he didn't like Buck and respect what he had to say, but after a while, it could become a bit wearing.
"So this fella Greel sounds like a real nasty piece of work."
Ezra considered Teresa's experiences, "So I have been informed, by a most reliable authority."
"Well I caught 'im listenin' in to what me an' Casey were talkin' about in the saloon the other day. Really gave me the creeps."
"What were you discussin'?"
"Oh, um...I think she asked me where Teresa and Angie had got to. I hafta say, I didn't know Teresa's grandma was still alive."
The hairs on the back of Ezra's neck stood on end, as JD obliviously continued on, "Couldn't see what Greel found interestin' in that. Can't help feelin' sorry for her m'self, I remember nursin' my mama when she died..."
JD felt his arm seized tightly and looked up to find Ezra's expression as close to frantic as he had ever seen it.
"JD, when exactly was this?"
Confusion and concern mingled on JD's features, "About two days ago. Why?"
Ezra's mind raced. Two days ago, and he had visited Teresa and Angelica that night. He always checked if he was being followed, as did Inez, but he had no idea what stealth Greel or his associates might be capable of. And anything could have happened in the past twenty-four hours.
"JD, you've got to make my apologies to the others. I've got to go. If Greel finds Teresa and Angelica, he'll kill them."
JD nodded mutely. He knew that the others still saw him as a bit naive but he wasn't stupid. He could see from Ezra's reaction that something he had said to Casey had put Teresa and Angie in deadly danger. He would do anything he could to help.
"And you'll have to cover my position for me," Ezra added, barely containing his anxiety. He was somewhat reassured by the resolution he saw in the young man's eyes.
The gambler briefly clasped JD's shoulder and said, "Tell the others I'm sorry." Then he turned and raced towards the woods behind the house where group had tethered their horses.
JD watched him go. "Take care of 'em, Ezra," he whispered. Then he closed his eyes and sent the same plea heavenwards.
In the barn, Casey was becoming increasingly restlessness due to JD's absence.
Casey exhaled loudly in frustration. "I should know by now, when he says five minutes, he means more like half an hour."
Despite his own growing concern, Buck grinned at her, "Y'can't start keepin' tabs on 'im yet, Casey. He's still got a week or two of freedom left."
She threw him a filthy look, then sighed, "But what on earth is he doin' out there?"
Her aunt glanced over, "Patience, child. JD can take care of 'imself."
"I know but if he doesn't get back soon…"
Her words were cut short by the thundering hooves of several horses. All three of them went to the window of the barn to investigate.
"'Bout fifteen of 'em," Buck grunted, "an' they'll be reckonin' they have the advantage of surprise."
"So?" asked Casey.
"So, that's quite a lot of men to attack a coupla ladies with, 'specially while their sleepin' in their beds."
"How long y'gonna wait?"
"Until Chris gives the signal."
As they had been speaking, they had watched Greel delegate three of his men to go into the house. Not long after they entered, a volley of shots rang out.
"That signal!" Buck grinned and began firing at the group of outlaws, as did Josiah and Nathan from their position to the north-west. From behind the cattle pen, where JD had gone to talk to Ezra, gunfire also sounded. But, although Buck couldn't clearly see who was firing, it sounded like only one pair of six-guns. And that was odd because he knew that both JD and Ezra each carried a pair.
The gang's numbers were rapidly being cut down, as they tried to return fire in all four directions.
Malcolm Greel had quickly recovered from his initial shock. So, this part of the plan had been uncovered. The enemy had been lying in wait and now held all the advantages on this ground. They would need to escape and regroup with as many men as they could.
He heard Walsh yell, "Let's get outa here!" Good to see that they were thinking along the same lines. The only problem was that all their avenues of retreat seemed to be cut off.
Greel looked at the penned in cattle. If he could get them panicked and cause some kind of stampede, they would easily overrun whoever held that position behind them. He changed the direction of his shooting, aiming at the cattle and turned his horse towards them. From the corner of his eye, he saw Walsh follow suit.
The cattle were initially a little slow to move but, by the time Greel's horse reached the cattle pen, they had knocked down the far fence and, like himself, were making an enthusiastic break for freedom. He found himself virtually swept along with them and, turning to discharge a few parting shots, found Carlton Walsh (but no others) at his heels.
The approaching stampede had taken JD completely by surprise. And, in that instant, the Boston-raised lad would have sworn that he'd never seen anything so terrifying in his life. He would have been surprised (and a little disheartened) to learn that, as stampedes went, this was a relatively small version.
He stood rooted to the spot, firing a few shots which did absolutely nothing to deflect the oncoming tide of cattle. His stunned mind quested for a suitable course of action, but came up with no answers.
Rather belatedly, it occurred to him to run. He turned and got as far as a small clump of trees, before he was hit forcefully from behind. He was thrown forward but never remembered hitting the ground. There was an explosion of pain inside his skull, then utter darkness.
As soon as he saw the stampeding cattle, Buck passed one of his guns to Casey and rapidly exited the barn.
Nathan and Josiah also broke cover, attempting to make their way to the position which they thought Ezra was holding. There were only four outlaws left standing, but one managed to spot them and fired off a couple of shots. Josiah's left leg collapsed from under him, as one lodged in his thigh. His and Nathan's returning fire brought the man down with several bullets in his chest. Then Nathan directed his attention to the fallen preacher.
Chris and Vin appeared from the house, quickly going to round up the three remaining outlaws. These remnants of Greel's gang offered very little resistance and, leaving Vin to cover them, Chris turned to view the devastation caused by the stampede.
Wreckage, including several flattened small trees, was all he could see in that direction and he mentally kicked himself. In an act of what now seemed like extreme pettiness, he had left that position to be covered by the person least likely to know what do when facing a stampede (except possibly JD). He yelled Ezra's name, knowing that he would find it hard to forgive himself if the gambler had sustained anything worse than a few bruises.
He was astonished to see Buck running in that direction, even though he'd had years of experience regarding the man's impetuous nature.
"JD!" Buck yelled.
Chris ran to catch up with him, "Whad'ya mean 'JD'?"
Buck turned frantic eyes towards him, "JD slipped out t'check on Ezra an' never came back."
"Y'mean they were both out there?" Chris' concern rapidly became an ice-cold desperation. They couldn't have lost both of them! He and Buck rapidly crossed to the far side of the cattle-pen and immediately saw JD lying inert beside one of the larger trees.
Chris turned to bellow Nathan's name before joining Buck as he knelt beside the lad. JD's face was covered with blood and he made no movement at all when Buck called his name and placed a hand on his shoulder.
Nathan arrived. "How bad?" he asked breathlessly but knelt to examine JD without waiting for an answer.
The blood came from a deep gash in JD's scalp at his right temple. Buck winced as Nathan easily and unhesitatingly put two fingers inside the wound to assess the damage to the skull. The healer then made a completely unencouraging grunting noise as he felt a fracture of the bone with a small step between the two edges. "It's bad," he said, although Buck and Chris had already deduced that fact from his reactions.
"How bad is 'bad'?" demanded Chris.
Nathan looked up from checking JD's pupils (which were both large in the dawn's semidarkness but at least they were of equal size), "Skull's fractured. An' at that point there, it's 'specially dangerous. Can cause bleedin' from an artery inside the skull." He looked them both directly in the eye, "He might never wake up again. We'll need to watch 'im very close an' wait an' see."
Both Buck and Chris absorbed this information and reacted, in the manner typical of both of them, with a fierce anger. Buck's abundantly visible. Chris' hidden below the surface but just as intense.
Nathan looked around briefly, "Where's Ezra?"
"Shit!" muttered Chris. He'd become so absorbed by finding one of his missing men in such a grievously injured state, that he'd momentarily forgotten about the other.
"Yeah," he heard Buck growl beside him, "Jus' where the hell is Mr Reliable?" As was often the case when JD was injured and/or in danger, Buck's anger was colossal and somewhat indiscriminant in direction. Seeing Vin approach, he snapped, "What about the prisoners?"
The tracker eyed him steadily, "Tied up an' Josiah's watchin' 'em. What happened here?"
Chris placed a placating hand on Buck's shoulder, as he answered, "JD's hurt bad an' Ezra's missin'."
"Then we'd better find 'im." Sometimes Vin wondered why the obvious had to be stated. He left to scout around further.
Chris envied that virtually unshakable equanimity which appeared to be the tracker's inherent nature. It wasn't that Vin didn't care. But he usually didn't let his feelings run amok and lash out at others. Of course, on the rare occasions that he did lose control, it was quite spectacular to see.
However, in this case, his calm assessment was absolutely right. Nathan was doing all he could for JD, and Buck was there if he needed any help. They needed to find out what had happened to Ezra.
Chris had spent several minutes futilely searching the area, when he saw Vin returning, his face noticeably grimmer than when he'd left.
"His horse's gone," the tracker said quietly.
"Could it've run off with the stampede?" Chris asked, even though he knew it wouldn't be the case.
Vin shook his head, "Rest are still there. Bit skittish, but not ready t'run."
Chris felt a familiar cold anger spread through him. Bitter experience had taught him that trust often meant betrayal and for years he'd held off forming loyalties or close attachments. But he'd let his six associates gradually break through his barriers and work their way into his trust.
The last through that door, by a long stretch, had been Ezra Standish. Con-artist, liar, cheat. The man's credentials had hardly been trust-inspiring. And that smartarse mouth of his didn't help either. Then when he'd disappeared and left them in the lurch when that nutcase Confederate colonel had attacked the Seminole village, well Chris had let him know of the dire consequences should he ever run out on them again.
And now the faithless son of a bitch had done it again. And probably because of it, JD was lying over there with his head split open. There was a good chance that the kid might even die.
Damn him! After all this time and everything they'd been through together! Damn his useless lying cheating soul! Chris damned Ezra for making him trust him and then he damned himself for letting Ezra con him and then he damned the whole pathetic dismal situation. Damn it all to Hell!
He dared not look at the others, lest they saw him lose control completely, but he ground out, "Find him!"
"Yeah, we will," Vin said quietly, neutrally.
They all needed answers, Chris included, but he knew that it would take every ounce of his self-control to stop himself from shooting Ezra on sight when they found him.
Ezra rode like all the demons of Hell were at his heels. A few of his own personal ones rode with him. Leaving, Chris and the others as they were about to go into battle was something which he thought he would never do again. He'd sworn it to himself, actually. The guilt felt like a physical weight in his chest.
JD might try to explain to them, but Ezra knew that the explanation he'd left with the young sheriff was terribly inadequate and JD could hardly explain what he didn't understand himself. Not that it would stop him trying. The kid was all loyalty, right through to his bones, even when his loyalty was pulled in six or more directions at the same time.
But the bottom line was that he knew that his six friends possessed a reasonable amount of skill in self-preservation, even in the face of very unfavorable odds. Teresa and Angelica had nothing with which to protect themselves against Greel. That was another huge reservoir of guilt. It was he who had convinced Teresa to stay, promised that they could protect her and help turn her life around.
It was pretty much hopeless. Greel had had hours to reach them and he wouldn't have gone alone. Teresa had no expectation of attack and the pistol and rifle she had would be no match for the forces Greel would have brought with him.
Ezra had never had a lot of time for prayer. He had always considered that, inundated as he was with the petitions of the righteous, the Lord would hardly place a high priority on the requests of an unrepentant sinner such as himself. But right now, he would have happily traded in all his days to come and rotted in eternal hellfire, if by some miracle those two innocents (and they were, no matter what Teresa thought of herself) could be saved.
He could see the old mine up ahead. There was no movement at all. No blood, no bodies, no circling birds of prey. Was this a good sign? Could he begin to hope that he had arrived in time? Maybe he'd guessed wrong and Greel had no idea that Teresa was here. He'd have a hell of a time explaining everything to Chris if that was the case but at this point in time he really didn't care. If Teresa and Angelica were safe and well, he'd happily take all the righteous anger that Chris could dole out.
He dismounted and as he made his way to the entrance, he called out to Teresa. No sense in getting his head shot off by her because she thought he was an intruder. There was no answer and his brief flash of optimism began to fade. Fear gripped him again as he peered inside and saw the flickering torchlight in the distance.
He stumbled twice as he ran toward it and when he arrived, he was almost physically sick.
They had obviously intended for her to be found. The torches had been placed to produce the maximum horrific effect. Blood splattered in all directions. Her body had been horribly mutilated and burned in places (Dear God, he hoped that these had occurred after she was dead) but her face was smeared with blood but otherwise untouched. They had wanted her to be recognized.
He dropped to his knees beside her, gently and uselessly wiping some of the blood away from her cheek. "Oh, Teresa."
He remembered the hollow words he'd uttered, only a week before.
And her reply.
"I did! And look where it got me."
"How right you were, dear girl. Better if you'd never met me, let alone heeded my advice," He murmured, removing his coat and covering her body with it.
But where was the little one? He reluctantly surveyed the bloody tableau for another body and couldn't find one.
"Angelica?" He grabbed one of the torches and began searching every nook and cranny in earnest.
"Angelica, it's Ezra. Answer me, please." The only reply was the echoes from his own voice. A thought struck him. They had obviously left Teresa to be found and recognized by someone she knew. What if they were waiting for that person to lead them to Angelica?
Damn! He could hardly leave her in this bloodstained pit. Dead or alive, he had to find her.
He drew his one of his pistols with his left hand and feeling somewhat foolish he knelt in front of an empty niche saying, "There you are! Thank God!" He reached his right hand forward as if to take the child's hand, while listening intently for any noise from the shadows. Not a sound. Either there was no one there or they weren't fooled.
So much for subterfuge! He started calling her name again, even more loudly, moving further into the mine. There was no answer, no sounds of movement, no sounds at all. He looked in every corner, under every fallen timber and piece of debris, calling to her until he was hoarse.
More than an hour later, thoroughly dejected, he made his way back to Teresa's bloody resting place. Looking down at the covered corpse, he whispered, "I can't find her. God help me, I've tried," as he leaned back against the cavern wall, in utter despair.
It gave way slightly under his weight and he turned to see a cracked timber with some dust stirring around it. Then he heard it. A faint, almost inaudible, cough. If he hadn't been so desperate to hear it, maybe he wouldn't have.
"Angelica!" He ripped the rotting timbers away from the wall with his bare hands and held his torch at the opening of the resulting hole. There she was, staring up at him with terrified eyes and visibly shaking, her mother's shawl wrapped loosely around her. He could see the child was in shock and very slowly and gently extended his hand toward her.
"Don't be frightened," he whispered as he placed his hand on her shoulder. She didn't flinch. She didn't move at all.
He glanced back at the gory scene behind him. He couldn't let her see that. Placing the torch in a convenient hollow in the rock wall, he reached forward and wrapped the shawl tightly around her. Then he drew her forward, receiving absolutely no resistance, and buried her face against his shoulder as he lifted her out. He quickly strode out of the mine and towards his horse, continually muttering vague reassurances even as he awkwardly held his revolver, semi-ready to deal with any threat that presented itself.
Angelica's apparent paralysis was fading and she clung to him fiercely, as if afraid that he might suddenly vanish. This made it easier for him to hold both her and his gun but much more difficult to mount his horse when he reached it but he managed to swing up into the saddle with her and turned to head back to Four Corners. Nowhere seemed to be really safe anymore but home instinctively felt slightly safer. With one arm around Angelica, he rode back as fast as was humanly and equinely possible.
He had no idea what would be in store for him when he got back. He had been gone for hours. He had failed Teresa miserably. Now he had to consider that he may have failed Chris and the others too. The demons were regrouping with a vengeance but there was no alternative but to return and face whatever awaited him there.
Inez raced to the door of the saloon, shotgun in hand. She didn't know the exact details of what was happening but she could feel the thick cloud of unease that was enveloping the town. A man on horseback thundered down the main street. She recognized him instantly.
"Ezra!" He didn't rein in until he reached her and she realized that he had Angelica clasped to his chest. "What's happened?"
He swung down off his horse, still holding the child, and when he looked at Inez, his eyes were haunted. "Teresa's dead."
"Dead?" She couldn't quite believe it, but there was no other way the young mother would have left her daughter.
He nodded, "Greel found her but she managed to hide the little one."
"How? I mean did he..."
Another feminine voice cut across hers.
"Mr Standish!" He turned his head to see Mary Travis crossing the street towards them. She looked perturbed. He glanced back at Inez whose gaze was one of concern. She hadn't had time to tell him and, to her, he looked slightly dazed but before she could say anything, Mary reached them.
"Chris is looking for you!" Mary actually had a lot more to say. Earlier, Chris had appeared at her office, after checking first at the saloon. He had exuded cold rage as he asked if she had seen Ezra and when she had asked why, he had tersely told her that Ezra had run out on them again and left abruptly. But when she took in the gambler's appearance, pale and dazed with blood staining his clothes and carrying Teresa's four-year-old daughter, the words died in her throat.
Her words seemed to shake Ezra out of his stupor, "Where is he?"
"At the church I think."
Ezra tried to pass Angelica to Inez but the child tightened her grasp on him, even as he tried to soothe her. "Come now, Little Angel. You have to go with Inez now." With Inez's help, he had physically pry her arms and legs from around him. She fought every inch of the way but, throughout it all, didn't make a sound.
Mary had taken the shotgun from Inez, as she grappled with the struggling child. Inez soon gained control and Ezra handed her one of his revolvers, "Lock yourselves in the cellar until I come for you. If it's anyone other than me…"
"I'll blow their brains out." The look in her eyes left him in no doubt that she would.
Ezra turned his gaze again to Mary, "I'm not sure how much peril you might be in, Mrs Travis, but I would not put it past Greel to try and harm anyone even vaguely connected with us..."
Mary cut him off, "I'll stay with Inez and Angelica." She held up the shotgun for emphasis and silently thanked God that her son was out of town, visiting his grandparents.
Ezra looked vaguely disconcerted but nodded, turned and ran towards the church, not once looking back.
"We better get down to the cellar." Mary glanced at Inez when she spoke. The saloon manager's features showed grim determination. In contrast, the child in her arms had tears silently forming in her eyes and her hand still reached out in the direction Ezra had gone.
Ezra was less than halfway to the church when he saw Chris, Vin and Buck approaching. He increased his pace and called to each of them as he ran.
"What happened?" Ezra had barely got the question out when Buck, who had reached him first, drew a fist back and solidly connected it with Ezra's jaw. Ezra's vision darkened momentarily and when it cleared he found himself lying supine in the street with Buck, restrained single-handedly by Vin, glaring murderously down at him. The numbness in his jaw was beginning to give way to pain as Ezra managed to lever himself onto his elbows. He was stunned out of any further mobility by the sight of gregarious, genial Buck staring at him as if he wanted to tear him apart with his bare hands. He had more or less expected searing recriminations from Chris, but Buck?
The black-clad man did not disappoint. The glare Ezra found directed at him from that quarter was enough to make the devil himself quake in his boots. Vin's expression was unreadable, as it so often was, and his tone was neutral as he asked, "Well?"
Ezra stared into the distance, unable to look them in the eye any longer, and tried to organize a myriad of thoughts into an answer to the monosyllabic question. The first thing that came into his mind actually seemed like a reasonable place to begin. "Teresa's dead."
Chris had expected some kind of explanation from Ezra and although he didn't have a clue what form it would take, he couldn't imagine one that would be satisfactory. Not after what had happened at Nettie's farm. But this reply was so unexpected, he couldn't even recognize his own reaction. Ezra himself had told him that Teresa had gone to the deathbed of her grandmother. Another lie? What the hell was going on? He needed answers, now!
"Greel. That was why she fled from San Francisco." Ezra suddenly seemed to take stock of his surroundings. "Where are the others?"
"Nathan's looking after JD and Josiah. Josiah's bin shot in the leg an' JD's got a fractured skull and may never wake up accordin' to Nathan."
It was Ezra's turn to ask, "How?" and his voice had become very subdued.
Buck broke in furiously, "He got trampled by stampedin' cattle. 'Cause, he was on 'is own, coverin' up where you were s'pposed t'be. An' when them bastards panicked Nettie's cattle, he didn't stand a chance."
Ezra felt like he was sinking into the earth beneath him and he barely heard Chris' voice as he told him what happened, his mind only surfacing to hear the conclusion, "...So we rounded up the last few thugs but Greel an' Walsh weren't among 'em."
Suddenly, several shots rang out, coming from the direction of the new town hall. Chris and Buck took off instantly while Vin paused for half a minute to pull Ezra to his feet before following.
As they approached the town hall, taking cover behind various wagons, barrels and other large objects, there was a lull in the gunfire. A body lay motionless in the centre of the street and, motioning for the others to stay back, Chris moved swiftly to investigate.
Another shot rang out from a ground floor window of the town hall and Chris stumbled, clutching his left arm.
Vin and Ezra directed a barrage of gunfire at the window, as Buck immediately and instinctively went to help Chris. There was no further retaliation from the window gunman and all four quickly but cautiously made their way to the front door of the town hall.
Silently Vin elected himself to be first through the door, signaling this to the others but giving them no time for opposition. Buck and Ezra covered him but there was no more gunfire and they met no resistance as they entered the main hall.
Suddenly, the roof exploded above them and bricks, tiles, timber and plaster cascaded down. Buck managed to catch hold of Chris' arm but the rest lost track of each other as they frantically tried to throw themselves out of harm's way.
Vin heard Ezra cry out but it seemed to be more in anger than fear or pain. He tried to call out to Ezra and look in the direction he had heard the sound come from but the falling dust was choking him and making his eyes stream with tears. Then he felt something connect with his head and full darkness fell.
When the dust appeared to have settled, Buck wiped the tears from his eyes and, still coughing, called out to his friends. Almost instantly, Chris' voice beside him irritably asked him not to yell so loud and there was a groan from the other side of the room. After briefly checking that Chris was not seriously hurt (he had a bullet graze on his left forearm and twisted his right ankle), Buck scrambled over to investigate.
Vin seemed almost to erupt from a pile of dust and light debris, as Buck neared him.
"Vin! Are you okay?"
Vin didn't answer immediately. He sat and leaned back against a nearby wall, blood streaming down the left side of his face from a scalp wound somewhere above his hairline. It took him a few seconds to focus on Buck and process the question.
"Think so," he muttered.
"What the hell happened here?" All three turned to see a mildly bewildered Nathan, standing in the doorway.
"Gunfight, then the roof fell in," Chris said. It wasn't much but it was all that any of them knew. "How're JD an' Josiah?"
"JD's awake. Still very groggy but I think he'll be okay."
Buck let out an audible sigh of relief, "Thank God! An' Josiah?"
"He's fine. I left 'im lookin' after the kid."
"Where's Ezra?" Vin asked suddenly.
"Ezra?" Nathan asked, really confused now.
"Yeah, he came back. Was with us till the roof came down."
Buck started calling Ezra's name in earnest and picking through the debris as Nathan, after prioritizing Chris and Vin's injuries from a distance, headed towards Vin to provide medical attention.
"So, did he say where he'd bin?"
Vin shook his head, which didn't help Nathan's work at all, "All he said was that Teresa was dead."
"You didn't ask 'im any more than that?" Nathan's incredulous tone revealed how much he, like the others, needed an explanation.
Vin shrugged, "Well, Buck also got one good punch in."
Buck paused in his search to glare over his shoulder at Vin.
"But then," Vin continued, "we got kinda busy."
"And what did he mean that Teresa's dead?"
Another shrug was the only reply.
Buck had rapidly covered all possible places of concealment within the room.
"I can't find him. D'ya reckon he coulda got out the back?"
The exit in question was now blocked by substantial debris.
"Dunno," said Chris, "I s'pose he musta done."
Despite Nathan's protests, Vin got up slightly unsteadily to help Buck clear the debris from the door. Chris made a similar attempt but fell back when his right ankle gave out from under him and Nathan redirected his efforts towards their black-clad leader.
"When ya find him," Chris said, reluctantly acknowledging that he wouldn't be able to participate in the search, "tell him to quit with the disappearin' act. It ain't funny anymore."
Then they heard gunshots from behind the blocked door, followed by a loud crash.
Just as the roof had exploded, Ezra had glimpsed Malcolm Greel slipping out the back exit of the main hall. Finally, the bastard was within his reach. Almost involuntarily, he shouted Greel's name, as he followed him through the back door.
He was so intent on his pursuit that he barely noticed the cacophony behind him, as the doorway he had just passed through was buried in rubble. He did hear the footsteps on the upper part of the staircase which led to the unfinished upper floor and unhesitatingly climbed it. Only to find himself facing the business end of Greel's revolver when he reached the top.
Greel favoured him with one of the most purely evil smiles that Ezra Standish had ever seen.
"Why, Mr Standish, I'm so glad you could make it. For a moment, I feared that you might not accept my invitation. Now I really must ask you to put your weapons down."
The intention to eliminate Greel had become so strong that it had virtually excluded all other thoughts from Ezra's mind. This blight on humanity facing him had to be eradicated so that it could never cause harm to another person again. If the cost was to be his own life, then he could honestly say that he would spend it without a single regret.
He quickly judged the odds that he might be able to get a bullet into Greel and found them overwhelmingly unfavourable. But, if he read the man correctly, he seemed inclined to talk, so maybe, if he played along, an opening might arise. So Ezra relinquished his weapons, awaiting his opportunity.
Greel's smile deepened as he saw the situation come more under his control. "Thank you. I hope that you're having an enjoyable day. Mine has had a couple of rough patches but on the whole, it's been immensely satisfying."
Ezra just stared at him silently. Greel didn't show his annoyance at this lack of response, merely continuing with his side of the conversation.
"I take it that you've caught up with Teresa. I really couldn't believe my luck there. I mean, I was only scouting around to find a way to destroy you, but to actually take out the little bitch that ruined my prospects in the first place. Well, I can't tell you how gratifying that was. She put up quite a fight, though. Have you seen the results? The men did a very good job."
Ezra spoke with a deceptively even voice, "What was done to that girl was the work of subhuman animals, not men."
Greel's smile increased even further, "There was no more blood spilled than when she killed Jimmy Muldoon, so we're probably even."
Despite himself, Ezra couldn't stop the anger creeping into his voice, "The situations are in no way comparable. That was a mother protecting her child."
Greel actually laughed, "So, it was because Jimmy found out about little Angie. I can just imagine what he suggested. It's a pity that I didn't find out about Angie, myself. Could have earned myself a nice little bonus from old Jimmy. First I knew that Teresa had a kid was when I overheard your boy sheriff telling his girlfriend about 'Teresa and Angie', who apparently had disappeared as soon as I arrived. But indulging my curiosity has certainly paid good dividends."
He looked for a response but Ezra had returned to watchful silence.
Greel shrugged, "I had half a mind to start up a business in this town, despite your advice. Mr Walsh and I had plans for a nice little protection racket. Unfortunately, your friends have virtually wiped out our workforce. So I'll just have to settle for going back to San Francisco to see if I can pay back that little debt with your mother. Do you have some personal item which she would recognize easily? So I can dip it in your blood and wave it in front of her face as I kill her very, very slowly."
"Mother?" This caught Ezra by surprise. Perhaps the man really was completely deranged.
"I think I owe her something for fobbing me off to you and thus sending me all the way out here, despite the unexpected rewards the trip has produced. After that the debts will all be settled. After, of course, Mr Walsh deals with Senorita Roscios whom, I presume, you left little Angie with."
"What?" Ezra's blood ran cold. He'd thought that if he could take out Greel here, Inez and Angelica would be safe.
Greel laughed again, "You didn't take a good look at the man lying in the street, did you? Mr Walsh played a very convincing corpse. And I even nearly managed to take out that friend of yours with the Hamlet delusion too. Then you all rushed in here to find to find the shooter and it didn't take much dynamite to bring the roof down on all of you (although you, for one, seem to have escaped relatively unscathed). And by now, Mr Walsh will have slipped off to the saloon. Rather neatly done, all in all. What do you think?"
It was now or never, Ezra decided. "I think you talk too much," he said, as he desperately dived forward to tackle Greel. He managed to divert the man's pistol before he had recovered from the surprise and fired several shots which went harmlessly over Ezra's shoulder. But they fell heavily together onto the loose floorboards and the structures beneath them began to collapse rapidly.
First, Ezra became aware that he was plunging downwards. Then, he was aware of a sudden intense pain although he couldn't locate its source. Then, he wasn't aware of anything at all.
When Buck, Vin and Nathan had finally cleared enough of the debris to get through the back door, the first thing they noticed was that a large section of the upper floor had crashed to the level below.
"Oh great!" said Buck, "More rubble!"
Vin got down to the task at hand and shouted Ezra's name. Buck and Nathan followed suit, but it was several minutes before they got a response.
Nathan was actually slightly startled when the response he'd been listening for finally was heard. From somewhere near the centre of the debris, a dazed and rather breathless voice said, "Nathan?"
All three of them immediately clambered towards it. Nathan called out again, "Ezra, can you hear me? Can you move at all?"
The voice returned, more lucid but still breathless and interspersed with small coughs. "Might be slightly difficult. I appear to be underneath the remnants of a small house and I think my leg's a bit twisted."
That actually worried Nathan considerably. Strangely, although Ezra had a unique capability to gripe and moan out of all proportion about minor discomforts and inconveniences, he tended to downplay serious injuries as much as the rest of them. 'A bit twisted' could mean anything from slightly bruised to partially amputated. Furthermore, he was only slightly exaggerating about the amount of rubble covering him.
Nathan would have complained about the ridiculous macho stoicism which his comrades frequently indulged in, which certainly didn't make his job any easier, except that he knew that he tended to be just as guilty of it when he himself was injured.
He, Buck and Vin managed to unbury Ezra from the wreckage heap he was under, to find that several large pieces had sheltered the gambler from being badly crushed. And as they lifted him out to a flat area, they realized that there was another body underneath which had partially broken Ezra's fall (and consequently sustained the majority of the damage).
Vin stepped closer to investigate. "It's Greel. Deader than a doornail. Looks like he got what he deserved."
"No," Ezra managed to gasp out. He was a little worse for wear after the necessary manhandling but that wasn't going to prevent him from pronouncing judgement on Greel, "What he deserved was a far more painful and lingerin' kind of death."
Buck smiled slightly then winced as Ezra suddenly gripped his arm.
"Walsh!" the gambler said, desperately, "He sent Walsh to the saloon, after Inez and Angelica. And Mary's there too."
Buck leaped to his feet, "Don't worry! I'll get to 'em!"
He was halfway out the door when Ezra called out him, "Be careful! Inez is armed and ready to shoot!"
Buck turned to flash them a quick grin, "Like I ain't faced that before!" Then he was gone.
Nathan was examining Ezra's misshapen left ankle. He had managed to remove the boot with the aid of a sharp knife, causing Ezra a moderate amount of pain, and was alarmed to find the foot pale and pulseless.
Ezra, the professional face-reader, correctly deduced, "Bad?"
Nathan looked him straight in the eye, "Yeah, the ankle's fractured an' dislocated an' the blood to the foot is bein' cut off. If we don't put it back as soon as possible, it might go gangrenous."
Ezra didn't like the sound of the proposal, but it didn't seem like he really had a choice, "Will this be worse than puttin' a shoulder back in place?"
"Oh yeah," said Nathan softly, "Y'prob'ly won't be awake by the end of it."
"Wonderful," Ezra murmured, closing his eyes.
He opened them again when Vin tapped him on the shoulder, and looked up to see the tracker proffering a dilapidated piece of leather decorated with numerous teethmarks. It might have been the sheath for a knife, at one stage.
"Here, bite on this."
Ezra eyed it with distaste, "No thanks, Vin. I couldn't possibly take your lunch."
Vin couldn't repress a small smile, "Stop tryin' t'be funny, an' do as y'told." When Ezra opened his mouth to protest again, Vin shoved the leather between his teeth. Ezra sighed and bit down on it.
Nathan had removed the shirt from under his jacket and was tearing it into strips, "Vin, could y'find a coupla nice straight pieces of wood for a splint. An' then I'm gonna need you t'provide countertraction."
"I'll be pullin' 'is foot in one direction t'straighten it. You pull the rest of 'is leg in the other direction."
With his mouth full of leather, Ezra couldn't offer the rather hypocritical observation that since he'd begun associating with Dr Elliott, Nathan had acquired a tendency to use long technical medical words. So he settled for just rolling his eyes.
Then he remembered what Chris had said about JD and Josiah, and realized that he was now also unable to inquire after their conditions. If Nathan was here, they were either out of danger or dead and his pessimism-steeped mind was tending towards the latter. He was about to spit out the leather and ask when Vin and Nathan turned back to him, armed with all the necessary tools for putting his dislocated ankle back in place and splinting it. It seemed to him, that they had gotten ready in a remarkably short amount of time.
Nathan cut away his left trouser leg up to the knee and then took a relatively gentle but firm hold of the foot. On Nathan's instruction, Vin took hold of the knee and then looked up for the healer's signal.
"Ready?" asked Nathan.
They weren't sure if he was speaking to Vin or his patient but both nodded anyway, and Nathan started pulling. He did so slightly tentatively at first, to get a feel for the position of the bones, then sharply so as not to prolong the pain.
Due to long experience, he was able to partially block out Ezra's substantial groan of pain (he'd long ago accepted the truth of the adage that you had to be cruel to be kind) but he noticed Vin wince in sympathy. The sound didn't last long though. As Nathan felt the bones slip back into place, he saw that, as he'd predicted, Ezra had become mercifully unaware.
The foot became warm and reddened in his grasp, as flow returned to the blood-deprived tissues, but just to be certain, he felt for and found the pulse on the top of the foot. Vin looked at him questioningly and he nodded, "Yeah, it's back. Jus' gotta splint it up for now." The injury would probably be unstable and he'd most likely have to raid Doc Elliott's office for some plaster of Paris to make a proper cast but he knew that he wouldn't be able to do that until all the swelling had gone down anyway.
Vin looked down at the unconscious Ezra, "S'pose all them answers'll have to wait."
Nathan sighed, as he continued to bind the ankle with strips of cloth, "Not sure I really wanna hear 'em anymore."
Vin glanced at him in surprise, before understanding dawned, "Y'mean about Teresa?"
Nathan nodded, "Yeah. I s'pose I feel that until I hear it from him, it won't be true."
Vin knew what he meant. They had all become fond of the feisty young mother. She had always seemed so full of life. It didn't seem possible that she could be dead.
At least, they knew that little Angie had been spared, so far. For her sake, not to mention Mary and Inez, Vin prayed that Buck had got to the saloon on time.
When Nathan had finished splinting Ezra's ankle, with Vin's help, he lifted the unconscious gambler over his left shoulder. Vin had offered to help carry him but Nathan had two very good arguments against this. Firstly, with his leg splinted it was actually more practical for one person to carry him, and secondly, Vin would be needed to help Chris back to the saloon.
Predictably, Chris strongly asserted that he could make it there on his own but Nathan put his foot down. There were more than enough problems already without creating unnecessary ones through stubborn childishness. When he phrased it that way, Chris was forced to agree, although he indulged in a little childish grumbling along the way.
They approached the saloon rather cautiously, uncertain of who or what might be there to greet them. But they were pleasantly surprised when Mary Travis ran out towards them.
After briefly making sure that they were all more or less in one piece, she decided to help Vin with Chris and drew his other arm over her shoulder to help support him. This time he offered no objection to the assistance.
When they entered, Buck too rushed forward to help. Inez sat on a stool by the bar, gently rocking Angelica who clung to her, face buried against her shoulder. When the saloon manager looked up and saw Ezra draped over Nathan's shoulder, she opened her mouth but was unable to speak, certain in that one terrible moment that he was dead.
Nathan seemed to read her thoughts. "He'll be okay, Inez. I was just gonna take 'im up t'his room."
He was considerably surprised when a weak voice protested, "No, put me down here."
Angelica looked up at the sound of the familiar voice, even as Nathan shook his head, "Ezra. It'd be better..."
Nathan sighed and Buck helped lift the gambler down to the floor and prop him in a sitting position, against the bar.
Angelica immediately wriggled out of Inez's grasp and threw herself into Ezra's lap, wrapping her arms around his neck. He winced and couldn't stifle a small gasp of pain but fervently returned the embrace.
The sight almost broke Inez's already wounded heart, but she managed a sad smile as she knelt beside them both and gently brushed Ezra's cheek. When he opened his eyes to look at her, she spoke softly, "I have to apologize to you, amigo. I did not shoot Buck like I promised you."
Buck grinned, "There is, however, a man back there with two pistol bullets through 'is head and a shotgun blast to the chest. An' I had nuthin t'do with it."
"Walsh?" asked Vin.
"Reckon so, but he's a bit hard t'recognize."
Nathan had knelt down to check on Ezra's splinted ankle, to find the limb increasingly swollen, and loosened the bandages slightly. He sighed again and looked at Buck, "I'd appreciate it, Buck, if y'didn't hafta be patched up for the rest of the day. I've got my hands full with the rest of 'em."
His memory prodded, Ezra fearfully asked after JD and Nathan managed a reassuring smile, "Don't worry. I think he's gonna be okay. Josiah too."
Ezra closed his eyes again with a small sigh. So in this damnable day, there had been at least this small measure of salvation.
Chris was trying not to scowl but couldn't quite manage it. He could see that Ezra was in a rather fragile state but he was also the man with all the answers everyone needed and Chris, for one, didn't feel inclined to wait any longer. He audibly cleared his throat and, when Ezra met his gaze, asked, "Mind tellin' us all exactly what happened today?"
Ezra's gaze flicked from Chris to Angelica and back again. The others deserved an explanation but he didn't want to further traumatize the child with a graphic description of her mother's demise. He was unutterably grateful when Inez stepped in.
"Back in San Francisco, Greel and his boss abused Teresa and threatened her child. She killed the boss and when Greel came to town, they went into hiding. She made us promise not to tell anyone." Then she looked helplessly at Ezra, since she had no idea of what had occurred that morning.
He reluctantly took up the narrative. "While waiting at Mrs Wells' farm this mornin', I realized that he'd found out about them. He must have followed me when I last visited them. I suppose I knew it was already too late but I had to go. I'm sorry. I know that it's a completely inadequate thing to say, but I am really sorry."
"So then y'found her?" Nathan asked softly.
Ezra nodded, "They were where we'd left them, at the old Kelly gang hideout." He didn't see Chris and Vin exchange a glance.
The gambler took a deep breath but his voice still trembled slightly as he continued, "It was a heartrending sight. Greel said later that she didn't go easily, and I believe it. I eventually found Angelica. The poor child's so traumatized that she hasn't spoken a word. I brought her back here and, well you know the rest." He closed his eyes again and there were tears at the corners.
Nathan looked down at him. Ezra was usually quite fastidious about his appearance but now he was covered from head to toe in dust and dirt from the rubble of the Town Hall and probably from the mine as well. Most of the blood staining his clothes was probably Teresa's. His clothes were also torn in various places and Nathan himself had slit his left trouser leg up to the knee, to treat the broken ankle. On top of all that, he was completely physically and emotionally exhausted. He looked like he'd been to Hell and back. And from what he'd said, he probably felt that way as well.
Inez was still kneeling beside him and Angie, with one hand gently stroking the child's head and painfully working to contain her own tears. Nathan briefly touched her shoulder and whispered to her. She nodded and, with a quiet promise to return soon, headed into the kitchen.
Vin sighed heavily. They were all hurting inside but he felt like he was almost intruding on the grief of Angie, Ezra and Inez. More than anything, he needed to be out doing something, so he volunteered, "I'll go see to Teresa."
"I'll help ya," said Chris, feeling much the same way.
Nathan looked over at him irritably, "An' what makes you think you'll be much help?"
"I can still drive a wagon," Chris retorted, "Don't y'think that you oughta check on JD an' Josiah?"
Buck clapped Nathan on the shoulder, "Yeah, c'mon. I'll come with ya." He too felt the need to give the surviving saloon residents space to mourn their loss privately. Mary Travis, barely holding back tears, also volunteered to accompany him, just as Inez returned carrying two steaming mugs.
Nathan looked over at the saloon manager, "Gonna check on JD an' Josiah, then I'll be back."
She nodded and placed the cups on the bar before seeing them all off. Then she returned her attention to Angelica and Ezra. He had managed to loosen her grip on him and now was holding her by the shoulders and looking into her eyes.
"I wish you'd say somethin', Angel girl. You don't know how much you're frightenin' me."
She shook her head vigorously at this suggestion and finally it dawned on him that there may more to her silence than just the shock. It was almost as if she had been forbidden to speak.
Of course! That was what had saved her. It was probably Teresa's last instruction. She'd hidden her daughter and told her to keep silent no matter what.
Angelica stared back at him. She seemed to be aching from all the things that she wanted to say, but couldn't. And her gaze cut right through his soul.
He had to break her out of this. "Did your mother tell you not to speak?"
She nodded emphatically and his heart nearly broke to think how much it must be weighing on the child's mind. "Oh, Angel girl! She only meant while you were out there at the mine. She didn't mean forever. You must believe me."
Finally, came the tearful voice which he'd begun to fear he would never hear again, "She said, 'As you love me, don't make a single sound whatever happens.' I do love her. Really, I do!"
Ezra's own voice was also tear-stained, as he answered, "I know that. She knows it too. I swear to you she does." He didn't know if he was referring to Teresa in the present tense for Angelica's benefit or his own. Released from her vow of silence, the child buried her face against him and wept torrentially.
"It's goin' to be alright," he whispered. It was a platitude but he clung to it, even though he doubted the truth of it, right now.
Inez had one hand on each of their shoulders. She squeezed Ezra's to get his attention and said, "She needs to sleep."
Angelica shook her head and he nodded his, simultaneously.
Inez rose to retrieve the cups from where she'd left them, on top of the bar, and presented Angelica and Ezra with one each. He then saw that they contained warm milk.
Angelica had not eaten in twenty-four hours and it took only minimal encouragement to get her to empty her cup.
Ezra sipped his own, to find it generously laced with brandy. He cast a pointed glance at the child's now empty cup and raised an eyebrow at Inez.
Inez snorted softly, "I wouldn't do something like that to her!"
Ezra smiled slightly, "Of course, you wouldn't." He refrained from mentioning that during his own childhood years, he had often been induced to sleep using milk spiked with gin or whiskey. It didn't seem to have done him any lasting harm.
However, plain warm milk, exhaustion and the embrace of someone she trusted seemed to be enough for Angelica. She was soon fast asleep in Ezra's arms, her head resting comfortably on his shoulder.
As Inez carefully took the cup from the child's hands, Ezra drained his own and handed it to her, so she could return both to the kitchen at the same time.
While she was gone, he allowed himself to gently rest his cheek against the top of Angelica's head and close his eyes for just a moment. But he immediately found it impossible to open them again and, within seconds, it would have taken something akin to a small explosion to have roused him.
Inez was unsurprised to find him thus, when she returned. It was the outcome which she had more or less intended when she had prepared the drink for him. She might have been above spiking Angelica's milk but Ezra was another case entirely. And he needed the rest as much as the child did.
She only briefly contemplated making any attempt to move the pair of them. She might have been able to lift Angelica and put her to bed, but help would be needed to carry Ezra up to his room, without causing further damage to his broken leg.
So, she stood for a moment and heaved a sorrow-laden sigh as she gazed down at the man and child, asleep in each other's arms. They might have made a heart-warming picture, if it hadn't all been so tragic.
Angelica's life had been utterly shattered and Inez knew that it would take a considerable amount of time to pick up all the pieces and slowly patch them together. But she swore to herself, by everything she had ever held sacred, that it would be done.
And Ezra. Inez could see how much self-recrimination was mingled with his grief. She would have to pull him back from that or he'd drown in it. However much he might think that he was responsible for what had occurred, she couldn't let him live with that crippling guilt. He deserved better than that.
So, they were both going to need her to be strong for them (at this point in time when she herself felt so fragile). But she knew that she would have given her life and soul for the sake of either one of them. That she would have walked through fire and swum through floods, to spare either of them any degree of pain. Whatever may come, she vowed to see them all through it.
But here and now, when both had finally succumbed to oblivious slumber, Inez Roscios took a seat at her own bar, buried her face in her hands and wept her heart out.
Ezra found himself counting every step between the saloon and Mary Travis' newspaper office. It had never seemed a particularly long distance before but, despite the fact that he had become reasonably proficient at using crutches over the past two weeks, he could have sworn that the length had at least trebled.
He rather envied Josiah. Flesh wounds, even those caused by bullets, seemed to heal quickly compared to bone. The preacher was already moving around quite freely on only one crutch. But Nathan had told Ezra that if he wanted to hold any hope of walking again without a limp, he would have to stay off even his crutches and keep his left ankle raised at least ninety percent of the time, for another week or two. Ezra had appealed to Dr Elliott for a second opinion, only to find that it reinforced the first.
And under the plaster cast which encased his left leg up to knee level, it itched like nothing else. Nathan said that the cast would have to remain in place for another four weeks at least, and even after that it might be replaced with another one for an additional month.
Ezra's vehement complaints drew no sympathy whatsoever. In fact, Nathan appeared to be slightly amused by them. When Ezra had asked how someone who claimed to be a member of a caring profession could be so fundamentally lacking in empathy, Nathan had replied that he didn't see how someone who claimed to live largely by their wits could be so thoroughly lacking in common sense.
Even Inez had told him that he was making things ten times more difficult than they needed to be. But at least Angelica had stood by him. She'd actually told the three of them collectively that if they weren't going be helpful, they could all just leave. And she'd been quite disconcerted when they had been unable to stifle their laughter.
She held fast onto Ezra for her own security but she was also fiercely protective of him. And for both those reasons she had not been pleased to be left with Inez at the saloon while he performed this errand. Especially since he had refused to tell her what it was about. It had taken a very long intense discussion before she had agreed, and she remained distinctly unhappy about it. This was actually a major step forward. Until that point, for the past two weeks, she had flatly refused to let him out of her sight.
He seemed to be the anchor that the child had latched onto when her whole world had disintegrated around her. Her mother had been the only constant and stable thing in her life. And now she had lost her in a most horrendous way.
Ezra still didn't know how much Angelica had seen and heard on that dreadful day, but when she called for her mother in her sleep, she also mumbled about screaming and blood. It was hard to know what was the best way to help her deal with the loss.
He, Inez and Josiah had arranged for Teresa's body to be cleaned and arranged in an aspect of peaceful repose so that Angelica could view it and have one last memory of her mother at peace before they sealed the coffin. And they had made every effort to ensure that the funeral provided a fitting way for the child to say goodbye to her.
Angelica had attended her mother's funeral in new black dress which Ezra had purchased for the occasion. Inez had argued against this. The dark grey dress which the child already possessed was perfectly suitable for the occasion and she saw no point in spending money on a garment that they sincerely hoped the child would not have frequent use for. She reminded him that Teresa herself would have been against it.
But Ezra was equally adamant that they were not going to be miserly about any aspect of Teresa's funeral. No one was going to remember it as a cheap or sordid affair. Teresa would be laid to rest with as much dignity as any of the Four Corners residents that had gone before her.
To this end, he was encouraged by the considerable congregation who attended and the somber respect with which the ceremony proceeded. But as they departed, he'd heard a feminine voice sermonize that "the wages of sin are death".
It was the detestable Mrs Hansen. Ezra had never before regretted his resolution to not hit a woman under any circumstances, but he did at that moment. And he suspected that Inez was only prevented from striding over and inflicting serious physical injuries, by the combination of his vice-like grip on her arm and the fact that she was carrying Angelica.
But Josiah had done them proud that day. They watched as he drew the church-going woman aside and in that uniquely mild but menacing voice of his (which carried to the entire congregation) told her, "I trust that you were reflecting on the man who murdered Teresa when you uttered those words. Or perhaps, you were reflecting on what St Paul had in mind when he wrote them. That we are all sinners who will eventually come to a mortal end." When Mrs Hansen nodded dumbly as Josiah released her, Ezra had been sorely tempted to burst into a round of applause.
He'd been surprised by the support he'd been given by Josiah and Nathan, who seemed compelled to check on his spiritual and physical well-being respectively. He knew that he shouldn't have underestimated their capacity for compassion, but he remained stunned by it.
However, aside from the two of them, Ezra had managed to largely avoid the company of his fellow law keepers. He'd let them down badly at Mrs Wells' farm and he knew it. He'd broken the promise he'd made long ago, to them and to himself, never to abandon them in the face of danger. Those were the kind of betrayals which destroyed friendships. He suspected that the shock of Teresa's murder had shaken even Chris Larabee, such that he wasn't inclined to persecute the errant gambler. But Ezra knew things would never be the same again.
He couldn't even look JD in the eyes. The young man's wedding had been postponed until the new year, due to the groom being incapacitated so soon before the event. Ezra checked on JD's condition via Nathan (despite the healer's repeated suggestions that Ezra go to see JD himself, he didn't withhold the information). JD was now up and about and would suffer no lasting ill effects from his head injury. But what ate away at Ezra's conscience was that he need not have been injured at all, let alone skirted so close to death, if Ezra hadn't asked him to hold that position behind the cattle pen.
And any injury to JD offended big brother Buck. Ezra couldn't get out of his mind the frankly murderous look in Buck's eyes when he had returned that day. But then he didn't really think that he deserved to be able to forget it anyway.
Then there was Vin. At least when Buck or Nathan were angry with a person, they let them know clearly where they stood. Vin just tended to stand there and say nothing. No condemnation, no sympathy, no explanations, nothing. He'd probably look completely calm as he drew a weapon and shot the offender. And Ezra just didn't have the fortitude to deal with that kind of ambiguity at the moment.
And Ezra didn't even want to contemplate what was going on in Chris Larabee's mind. Those dark and brooding recesses where he knew that all hope of mercy could be abandoned, they were areas where he had absolutely no inclination to tread.
However, he hoped that Chris hadn't been sharing his thoughts with Mary and the judge (although he very much doubted it, such wasn't in the man's nature). Because if he had, it would probably make Ezra's intended task well nigh impossible.
Mary Travis was rather surprised to see Ezra Standish slowly and rather wearily making his was to her office door. Her father-in-law was not. He'd only met with Ezra once since his return to Four Corner but the gambler had been the subject of numerous conversations and surreptitious surveillances. This was the meeting which the judge had been anticipating for some time and he walked over to stand beside Mary and greet her guest at the door.
The sight of the two Travis waiting in the doorway did nothing to alleviate Ezra's apprehension. Each on their own was capable of putting him ill at ease at times. The combination of both could be frankly disturbing and at this moment, he felt like he was coming to them cap in hand.
He paused and mentally gave himself a little encouragement to see this through. The plan he had concocted would work. It made sense. It would be best for all of them. But what if the judge didn't see it that way? He'd been away most of the time. What if he didn't see the benefits? The man had a suspicious nature. He couldn't possibly think that Ezra might be working an angle, could he? Ezra was going to need his assistance for this to work. What if he didn't give it?
"Do you need a hand with the stairs, Mr Standish?" The judge politely interrupted his thoughts.
That wouldn't be a bad idea, Ezra realized. "I'd appreciate it, sir."
Judge Travis came down the stairs and, taking the left crutch, drew the gambler's arm over his shoulder to help him up the stairs. They were both slightly out of breath by the time they reached the top and Mary immediately produced a chair for Ezra to deposit himself in (which he did with considerable gratitude). The judge remained standing and gazed down upon him.
"So Mr Standish, to what does my daughter-in-law owe this visit?"
"Actually sir, it was you I came to see."
"Oh?" The judge feigned surprise and fooled no one.
"I find myself in need of expert legal advice with regard to the matter of adoption."
In the background, Mary broke into a delighted smile but the judge just looked at him sternly. "I take it that you are referring to a particular adoption, rather than the subject in general?"
"And the particular adoptee would be a recently orphaned four-year-old girl?"
Ezra nodded again, "How would one go about the process?"
"Well, perhaps we should discuss the subject in general for a bit. It's not something that the authorities involved tend to take lightly. The welfare of the children is uppermost in their minds and they do everything possible to ensure that only suitable people are allowed to adopt them."
Ezra's eyes narrowed, "You see that as a problem?"
"Well, that really depends on who intended to adopt young Angelica."
Ezra had rapidly wearied of this little verbal cat-and-mouse game. He looked steadily into the judge's eyes, "Me."
Travis smiled, almost as if Ezra had passed the first test, "Well then, let's look at you as an adoption agency might see you. A single man whose current residence is a room above a saloon. No current and, as far as I know, no previous formal occupation. I don't think 'itinerant gambler' would look particularly good on the form."
"I do have another occupation."
"'Hired gun-slinger' doesn't look much better."
Ezra wasn't above flattering the man, "Although they may be less than enthusiastic about the occupation, they couldn't object to my employer."
Orrin Travis smiled. He was going to make the gambler work hard for this, even though he'd intended to grant his request even before he made it. Although they didn't know it, he'd watched young Angelica and Ezra together. It was clear that they had already bonded closely and, after her recent traumas, the child needed him. To separate them at this stage would come close to killing her, and it wouldn't do Ezra much good either.
However, he knew that he could use the gambler's desperation in this matter to lever him towards a little more respectability. Ideally, he would have like Ezra and Inez to settle down, get married and look after the child together. But his work had led him to observe the effects of enough shotgun weddings to know that forcing people into matrimony was virtually always a bad idea. Nevertheless, he could still work on the area of respectable employment.
"I would be willing to help find you a more suitable occupation, which might help."
"When we repair the damage done to the Town Hall and complete its construction, the records office will need a filing clerk."
That drew blood. Ezra was scandalized.
"Filing clerk?" he asked, but it was more an exclamation of pain than a question.
"I'm sure a man of your literacy and numeracy would be amply qualified. And it would be just the form of employment the adoption authorities would approve of. Furthermore, there's no reason to terminate your arrangement with me. Most of the townsfolk wouldn't stand for it anyway. Ever since that episode with Marshal Bryce, they've become almost superstitious about you and your six associates. They seem to think the town will be overrun or fall to ruin, if any of you leave your posts. So you'd still have that extra dollar per day and your accommodation paid for."
Ezra gazed at him steadily. He recognized an ultimatum when he heard one and realized that the judge knew that he had him over a barrel. He briefly considered trying to circumvent the whole process by obtaining forged documents to say that he and Teresa had managed to get married somewhere along the way. But he quickly quashed that thought. Such a lie seemed to abuse Teresa's memory. She'd suffered enough defamation and defilement in her life. Let her at least lie in her grave unmolested.
So he was faced with the choice: undertake respectable honest labour or lose Angelica. There was really no choice at all.
But as he gazed up at Judge Travis and Mary, his mind rebelled against being forced into any situation and he came to a decision which he hoped he wouldn't regret later.
Late that evening, when all the saloon patrons had gone home (under their own power or not), Ezra looked up to see Inez approaching from the bar and acknowledged her with studied nonchalance, despite the fiercely determined look he noticed in her eyes. She'd been waiting all day to have serious one to one conversation with him and was now seizing her chance.
"Do you know what you're doing?" she demanded.
"I think so." He'd been surprised by her lack of enthusiasm for his plans regarding Angelica and was keen to know the reasons behind it.
When he had returned to the saloon from the meeting with Judge Travis and Mary, he'd made an effort to look like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders (the tiredness induced by the return journey helped considerably with the illusion). Inez and Angelica, who knew only that he had gone to the newspaper office to discuss something important, had been rather alarmed. They both rushed to help him to a chair.
"Are you alright, Mr Ezra?" Angelica asked anxiously.
Ezra sighed theatrically and pulled her up onto his lap. "It looks like I'm about to have both responsibility and respectability foisted upon me."
"Ezra, what have you done?" Inez asked in a low suspicious voice.
But he kept his attention focussed on the child, "You've never had a father, have you, Angelica?"
She tilted her head to one side, "No."
"Would you like one?"
She looked puzzled for a moment, then her eyes widened, "You?"
He nodded, "I could hardly make the offer on someone else's behalf."
She broke into a brilliant smile and threw her arms around him. But then her practical side asserted itself and she drew back, "How?"
"I was just speaking to Judge Travis about how I could legally adopt you. Provided no one else lays claim to your guardianship (and I don't think that will occur), he assures me that it should be achievable."
"So, you'll be my father...legally?"
"And that means you would never leave me?"
"I promise that I would never voluntarily leave you."
"Voluntarily?" He wasn't sure if she wanted an unconditional assurance or was merely querying the meaning of the word.
"If it's up to me, we'll be together forever."
That was enough for Angelica. She again smiled and embraced him tightly.
But looking over her shoulder, he saw Inez gazing at the pair of them and looking distinctly displeased about the arrangement. There was a terse edge to her voice as she questioned him about the practicalities of the adoption. And he got the distinct impression that she left several things unsaid because she was unwilling to mention them in front of the child.
So now that Angelica was asleep, up in Ezra's room (she still refused to sleep anywhere else and it seemed to distress her to be in the room she had shared with her mother), Inez took the opportunity to pin him down.
She placed both hands palms downwards on the table and stared intently into his eyes. She then took a deep breath and spoke with calm deliberation, "Ezra, I am not going to let you spoil that child."
That took him slightly by surprise, "How do you think I'm going to spoil her?"
Inez's gaze did not waver, "With too much indulgence and flattery, the same way any father spoils his daughter."
Ezra folded his arms with an almost subconscious defiance and Inez realized that she needed to change her tactics.
"Look, I have no doubt that you will give her all the love and attention she needs but Angelica is very bright and she has a streak of wildness in her."
"Alright, mischief then. You must admit, amigo, not every four-year-old would help you con Mrs Hansen out of her scarf, like she did."
Ezra allowed himself a sad smile at the bittersweet memory, while Inez came to her main point.
"She is going to need discipline. And you are going to find that very, very hard."
He frowned, "What makes you say that?"
Inez could think of no way to soften it, "Because you still feel guilty about what happened to Teresa."
Staring into her eyes, he found it difficult to deny, "She trusted me and I led her to her death. I convinced her to stay here and she was defenceless when they came for her."
"Ezra, we both convinced her to stay," Inez tilted her head to one side and added a challenging edge to her voice, "Or do you think I just blindly follow everything you do?"
He could hardly answer that in the affirmative and it wasn't his true opinion anyway, so he mutely shook his head. Inez leaned forward to push her message home.
"Yes, she trusted you. She trusted both of us. We didn't save her but we did everything we could and Teresa didn't expect any more than that. The demon that killed her was from her own past, before she even met us. And, for a while, she was happy here with us. You have to let go of some of this guilt for Angelica's sake as well as your own."
"She's a clever girl. She will eventually see it and then one of two things will happen. Either, she will use it to guilt you into letting her have her own way in everything. Or, far more likely, she will begin to think that the only reason that you look after her is because you feel guilty and not because you love her."
Ezra digested this. She was probably right. And furthermore, it occurred to him that guilt was contagious (he thought that he, personally, had been associating with Chris Larabee, guilt-master extraordinaire, for far too long) and Angelica might even come to think the situation was in some way her fault. He certainly wasn't going to let that happen.
He smiled at Inez. "Alright, I'll attempt to reduce the self-recrimination. But, I'm placing you in charge of ensuring that I don't spoil Angelica."
Inez rolled her eyes, "That sounds like a busy job and I already have a saloon to run."
"Well, I have to embark on another occupation. I don't see why you couldn't also."
"Yes, I was also going to ask you about that. Are you serious about the job as a records clerk?"
"Of course!" he protested with feigned indignation, "I gave my word to the judge. I wouldn't go back on it. And I'll do anything necessary to ensure that Angelica's adoption is completed without impediment. However..."
Inez raised an eyebrow, "However what?"
"However, once the adoption was finalized, I think it would be utterly heartless for the authorities to separate a father from his child simply because he lost his mode of employment."
Ezra watched her shake her head in a rather poor facsimile of disgusted resignation (rendered ineffective because she couldn't keep from smiling). She was the only one he could have entrusted with the knowledge of this aspect of his plan. He couldn't be sure that anyone else might not have either intentionally or inadvertently let it slip to the judge.
It was then that he realized just how good a friend she was to him. He had long noticed that, amongst Four Corners' seven law-keepers, he alone had not formed a special attachment to one of the others. Chris and Vin had become so close that they often didn't have to speak aloud to communicate. Buck and JD had that 'big brother-little brother' relationship of theirs. Nathan and Josiah seemed to look first to each other for advice and company. He had actually told himself that he was intentionally hanging on to some vestiges of his former loner status. Not surrendering totally to this group bonding because he valued his independence. But in moments of more honest self-assessment, he'd wondered if that wasn't just a touch of sour grapes.
But now he realized that here, literally staring him in the face, was the best and truest friend that he had ever had or was ever likely to have. During the past few years, they'd always been there for each other. Through dangers and disasters, injuries and illnesses, failed romances and drunken episodes of self pity, she'd always been there to turn to. She'd criticize him, if she thought he needed it (a situation which wasn't all that uncommon), but her loyalty never wavered for an instant. A truly remarkable woman (he'd been fortunate enough to know several in his life). And an extraordinary friend.
Then, as he continued to gaze into her eyes, he realized that it wasn't just platonic friendship that she was offering. He couldn't quite believe it. He who considered himself a talented reader of people and one who seized every available opportunity. How long had he been oblivious to this? Or maybe she too, was only now realizing the opportunity which was presenting itself.
She certainly was aware of it now, as she leaned across the table between them and brought their lips together. The kiss was actually as light and brief and the one they had shared at the engagement party, nearly two months ago. But, to him, it was incandescent and filled with infinite promise. He closed his eyes to savor it and almost protested aloud when she unexpectedly drew back.
He then heard the sound of someone clearing their throat and realized that it was probably for the second time. They both looked around to see that the throat-clearer was Buck, wearing a broad knowing grin. Chris, Vin, JD, Josiah and Nathan also stood there, displaying varying degrees of amusement.
"Sorry t'interrupt y'both but we'd like t'have a word or two with ya, Ezra," said Buck.
Ezra gazed at the lot of them. He reached into his pocket and withdrew his watch but before he could open it and look at the dial, Chris said, "We know it's late but this is kinda important."
Just then, Ezra and Inez both reacted as they heard a door creak upstairs. They'd both become especially attuned to listen for it (and Inez had purposely refrained from oiling the hinges so that the door remained audible). Angelica had woken and was looking for them.
Inez placed a restraining hand on Ezra's shoulder, "I'll go to her. You stay here and talk to them."
Ezra gave her the look of a man facing the gallows but she just smiled, gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and hurried up the stairs.
He was not looking forward to this at all, but he forced himself to adopt a genial smile as he turned to face them, "Well gentlemen, to what do I owe the pleasure?"
They approached closer, surrounded the table he was sitting at and looked down at him. Oh, great! Were they trying to make him feel more claustrophobic? It wasn't as if he had enough mobility to make an effective escape anyway.
Just as he was about to lose his nerve and demand that they damn well state their business or get the hell out, Chris spoke.
"Well, for a start, we thought that we oughta drop by and congratulate ya on becomin' a father."
"Oh." Ezra didn't know why this came as such a surprise to him. "Thankyou."
Buck sat down in the chair next to him, "We know that it's prob'ly a bit late for a christenin' or t'wet the baby's head. But we reckoned some sorta celebration was called for."
Ezra's smile became genuine, "Well, I don't think we should stray too far from tradition. It should be drinks and cigars all round, on me. However, since Inez is otherwise occupied and I'm less than fully ambulatory, I'm afraid that y'all will have to serve yourselves."
Chris also smiled, "Sounds like a damn fine idea. Vin? Nathan? Mind doin' the honours?"
The rest took seats at Ezra's table, as the two moved over to the bar and retrieved the necessary items. While Vin poured the drinks, Buck assumed what he was coming to see as his customary role of toastmaster.
"Well, I think the first toast should be to fatherhood."
"No," said Ezra.
"Forgive me, Buck, but I think that the first toast should be to motherhood rather than fatherhood. If you would allow me?"
Buck nodded and, unable to stand, Ezra settled for straightening as much as he could in his chair and raised his glass.
"Gentlemen, I give you Miss Teresa Antonia Velasquez. Her many virtues went largely unrecognized during her lifetime but she was one of the finest mothers and one of the most noble and courageous souls that it has ever been my privilege to know. May she rest in peace."
The others chorused, "To Teresa", before draining their glasses but JD hesitated slightly in bringing his glass to his lips.
There was a short silence before he burst out saying, "Ezra, I'm sorry!"
Ezra stared at him, "What are you apologizin' to me for? Surely, it should be the other way around."
"I know you haven't said anything but you an' me both know that I got Teresa killed."
"How in God's name did you come to that conclusion?"
"Well, if hadn't shot my mouth off t'Casey about Teresa an' Angie, Greel would never have found out 'em."
Ezra had failed to even consider that JD might have staked a claim in the guilt over Teresa's death. But now that he thought about it, that was just the sort of thing the kid would do. He sighed briefly before fixing the young sheriff with an intense gaze.
"Believe me, JD, I've considered every possible 'what if' scenario this tragedy could have produced. And I've come to the conclusion that the blame for Teresa's murder lies entirely upon the head of Mr Malcolm Greel. But if there is any extraneous culpability to be had, I believe that I have a prior claim on it. So, do yourself and me a favour, son, and let it go."
Josiah looked at him, "And why do you think you're to blame?"
Ezra sighed again. Hadn't he just had this conversation with Inez? "As I said, I've considered all the possible roads I could have taken. If I hadn't visited Teresa and Angie the night before she died. If I'd told y'all what was happening. If I hadn't talked her out of leaving town when she first intended to. If I'd just shot Greel when I first met him, rather than trying to intellectually outmaneuver him…"
"What if I had let you know that I thought that Greel an' Walsh were headin' out to the old Kelly hideout that day?" Vin interjected quietly.
Ezra looked at him, again caught completely by surprise, "How could you have known that?"
"Overheard 'em say they were headed out to a mine in the west hills, same time as they said they were gonna attack Miss Nettie. Even mentioned t'Chris that it mighta bin the old Kelly hideout. Thought it was prob'ly their new hideout. But if I'd let you know, maybe we coulda saved Teresa."
Ezra shook his head, "How could you have known the significance, when I kept their location from you?"
Josiah said softly, "I'll bet Teresa made you promise not to tell us."
"Well yes, she would have been most angry with me, but she would still be alive to be so."
"The decision was hers and you respected it. You can't condemn yourself for that."
"Not for that, no." Here, it came. This was the part he was really not looking forward to.
"For what, then?" asked Chris, although the tone of his voice suggested that he might have suspected of what the answer would be.
Ezra took a small breath then looked him in the eyes. "Well, abandoning one's comrades in the face of the enemy has always been considered a highly reprehensible offence. I believe the ancient Roman deterrent was crucifixion or decimation."
Chris regarded him steadily, "An' of course, someone like me wouldn't understand the circumstances."
"Whatever the circumstances, the fact is I wasn't there when I was needed. If I had been, maybe JD might have come through the experience unscathed."
Chris' slightly predatory smile appeared, "Oh, we're gonna play the 'what if' game again, are we? Okay Ezra, I've got one for ya. What if you'd bin there? What if you'd bin killed or had yer head knocked into next week so that y'didn't wake up for days. An' what if Greel an' Walsh had got to Inez, as well? They obviously intended to. So, then there was no one to tell anyone else about Angie. An' what if that little girl had jus' sat in that blood-soaked hole for days until she died of starvation?"
Ezra had gone as pale as a sheet and made absolutely no effort to reply.
Chris placed a hand on his shoulder, "Don't play 'what if' with me, Ezra. I'm an old, old hand at it. An' it's one game you'll never win."
Ezra felt another hand come down on his other shoulder and looked up to see Nathan standing behind him, smiling kindly, "Y'think we don't know the kinda thoughts that were runnin' through y'mind that day? Course we do. The only one blamin' you is y'self."
Chris spoke again, "All of us at the farm made it through that day an' that's what counts in the end. An' as to Teresa's death. Y'said it y'self, Greel was t'blame fer that an' we saw t'him. No, you saw to him. An' we got all the rest of 'em. Y'oughta take y'own advice an' let it go." He paused and cast a sweeping glare over all those present, "An' if anyone says anythin' about a pot callin' a kettle black, I'll shoot 'em!"
Buck grinned, "So maybe, we should just get back t'drinkin'?"
"Fine idea, Buck. I believe we were toastin' fatherhood."
"Right," Buck lifted his glass purposefully, "T'Ezra's impendin' fatherhood. He's gonna need all the help he can get cos, as we all know, that little girl's got 'im wrapped around 'er finger."
Ezra chuckled as they drank, wondering what Inez would think to hear Buck roughly echoing the sentiments she'd expressed earlier.
Chris got a wicked gleam in his eye, "An' I hear that Ezra's gonna get 'imself a proper job. Maybe not exactly 'menial labour' but definitely honest toil. So let's drink t'Ezra's honest hard-workin' soul."
Ezra laughed again and drank with them but retribution was definitely called for, "Alright then, gentlemen, we really must have a toast to Mr Larabee's cheerful exuberance and indefatigable optimism."
Buck, especially, enjoyed that one. "Chris' exuberance an' optimism," he roared, as they drank.
JD decided to have a go, "Buck's quietness an' patience!" But as they finished drinking that one, they heard Inez clear her throat behind them.
They collectively turned to see her standing with Angelica in front of her, her hands resting on the child's shoulders.
"She refused to go back to bed without seeing you, Ezra," the saloon manager announced.
Angelica folded her arms and gave Ezra a look that quite clearly said, "That's right, I did."
Ezra hesitated slightly. He was hardly under the table at this stage but he wasn't sure that he wanted Angelica to have too many memories of her new father with whiskey on his breath. But surrendering to the inevitable, he held out his arms to her and she rushed straight into them.
Once safely installed on his lap, she turned to look at the rest of the assembled group. "So, why is everyone here?"
Ezra was unsure how best to reply, "Um, they just stopped by to talk and maybe have a drink."
Nathan smiled at her, "An' we all wanted t'say how glad we were that you've got y'self a new daddy."
She grinned back at him, "Me too, Mr Jackson."
An idea occurred to Ezra, "You know, Angelica, since you don't have any blood relatives. And since I'm about to become your father by law, maybe we should think about getting you some additional arbitrary relations."
"Well, these men here represent the closest I've ever come to having brothers, so maybe you should consider them your uncles." Ezra found that he felt foolish enough expressing the mawkish sentimentality without the rather cloying grin JD cast in his direction.
He felt that he ought to bring things back to a perspective which he found more comfortable, "But there are a few things you should be warned about. Firstly, don't ever let your Uncle JD teach you to tell jokes."
"Hey!" JD protested.
"And please don't listen to your Uncle Buck if he tries to give advice about courtin' or dealin' with young beaus. And be very wary of your Uncle Nathan if he tells you something will 'hurt a bit', especially if your Uncle Vin offers you his lunch at the same time. And I would advocate never attemptin' to lie to your Uncle Josiah, as he seems to have an aptitude for seein' right through such strategies. And whatever you do, never ever call your Uncle Chris a cowboy."
"An' watch out fer yer Daddy, if he offers t'play a game of chance with ya," added Nathan.
Ezra grinned and acknowledged the healer's veracity with a nod.
Angelica seemed to absorb all this quite seriously and looked over at Inez, "And Aunt Inez?"
Inez winced, "Just call me 'Inez', Angelica."
But Ezra had instantly warmed to the idea, "No, Aunt Inez. You should probably just be wary of her, in general."
Inez sighed in resignation, realizing that if they went to war over this, she'd probably come away in defeat.
"Well," said Vin, pulling out his harmonica, "As we seem to've called a halt to the drinkin', maybe we should have a bit a music." He put it to his lips and began playing a lively little tune.
JD held out his hand to Angie but she shook her head, content to remain where she was, on her new father's lap. Buck extended an invitation to Inez but she also declined and went to take a seat next to Ezra.
Having been turned down by the only two females in the room, Buck and JD shrugged and started dancing with each other.
"Do you think those two have had enough to drink?" Inez asked no one in particular. She put her arm around Ezra's waist and rested her head against his shoulder. He kept his arms around Angelica but turned to lightly kiss the top of Inez's head before returning his gaze to the terpsichorean display.
As they watched Buck, JD and Vin, the three of them failed to notice that they in turn were being watched by Chris, Nathan and Josiah.
"Make a nice little family portrait, don't they?" observed Chris.
"Yeah, they do," said Nathan. Then he frowned, "Reckon they'll be alright?"
"Eventually," was Josiah's opinion.
"Eventually?" asked Chris.
"Well, grief's a terrible wound and guilt's worse."
Chris snorted, "Y'reckon I don't know that?"
The preacher continued, obliviously, "But I reckon those three just might be each other's road to healing."
Even Chris smiled at that, "Roads like that are usually best traveled together."
"Amen to that, Brother Chris. By the way, how are Mary and Billy?"
Ezra, for one, certainly felt more contented than he had for weeks, perhaps even, for years. He turned to his new daughter to check that her emotional status was equally favorable, "Happy, Angel girl?"
"Yes, Father." She'd begun calling him by that title from the moment that he informed her of his intention to adopt her. But she still spoke the word a little tentatively, as if trying it on to see how it felt.
A thought occurred to her as she watched Buck and JD, "So, if they're my uncles because they're like brothers to you, does that mean Aunt Inez is like a sister to you?"
A sudden wicked grin appeared on Inez's face, "Yes Ezra, am I like a sister to you?"
Caught unawares, Ezra stammered slightly, "Um, well no, not exactly."
Ironically, only a matter of hours ago, he might have indeed claimed that his feelings towards her were fraternal. But certainly not now.
Angelica gave him a puzzled look, "Why not?"
Ezra looked from Angelica's questioning expression to Inez's mischievous one and back again.
He then realized that, with these two around, it looked like his life was about to become a lot more complicated.
|On to: Enough For Fifty Hopes And Fears|
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