Bleary-eyed and horribly dazed from his formerly inebriated state, Ezra debated even raising his head off the feather pillow. But if he didn't soon, he was deathly afraid he might suffocate. But maybe death would be better than this wretched situation he currently found himself in. When he attempted to raise himself from the bed, he discovered that he was desperately entangled within the somewhat suspect bed sheets and was still wearing the clothes he had worn the day prior. He rolled over and stared at the ceiling through narrowed eyes. The expression might have been comical, but the combination of the blinding headache and the piercing emerald color of his irises made him resemble some sort of fearsome jungle cat.
How had he gotten here? The events leading up to this recent bacchanalic revelry had only happened a few weeks before, but now ... well, they seemed like an eternity ago. Ezra had said goodbye and what he thought had been good riddance to that little decrepit town, Four Corners. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he had always know it wouldn't last. You shouldn't con a conman, he thought to himself dismally. Chris Larabee had made himself perfectly clear, standing in the middle of Main Street in his black attire, his duster whipping around his lanky frame as he stared Ezra down. What in the hell gave you the idea that you could lead a normal life, Ezra Standish? Maybe Mother was right, I didn't belong there in the first place. Just about the time he'd started to have something go right in his life, he had to go and jinx it.
Speaking of your mother, his mind rudely reminded him. Ezra really wanted to tell that inner voice to shut up, go back to sleep. But he was too restless for that. He could drink a lot men, many of them bigger that he, under the table without even batting an eyelash, but his rate of alcohol consumption had grown to greater proportions than what even he was accustomed to. Ezra raised his aching head off the pillow and sat up, his body protesting at his exertions, well...any kind of movement at all.
He slowly made his way over to the mirror and took a long look at his reflection in the distorted glass. He definitely didn't like what he saw, but was too apathetic to really even change any of it. Maybe if he was really lucky, some gunslinger would be just that much faster than he at a card game and put his miserable hide out of it's misery. Neglecting the slight shading of stubble that furred his usually immaculately shaven face or the total disarray of his rumpled clothing, Ezra picked up his hat and his ever-present deck of cards and departed for another day of drunken oblivion.
Ezra rounded the corner of the saloon, on his way back to his rather dingy place of rest when he felt as if he had walked into a brick wall. Well, the guy he stumbled into was as big as a wall anyway. Ezra shook his head as he tried to clear his vision, blurred not only from the copious amount of alcohol he had consumed that evening but also from the unexpected collision with the fellow his mind so jovially named The Mountain. Where in the hell did that come from? His mind stumbled through random thoughts as The Mountain and his compatriots began to rough Ezra up, purportedly for his hijinks at the poker table.
The Mountain comes to Mohammed...hee hee ...Does that mean I'm a prophet?? Oh God, I sound just like Josiah now...no,...not God, Allah..isn't it???
Ezra tried his hardest to get away from a particularly unsavory individual with steely hands and an equally strong stench. He caught a fist to the midsection and doubled up as the breath whooshed out of him. He really couldn't feel the pain, the impending danger through the haze of his inebriated state. Mother, you warned me there would be days like this... Another blow connected powerfully with his face, making him see stars, more than just the ones that illuminated the night sky overhead.
He was stupefied by the blow, losing his balance and falling backwards on to the dusty hardpack of the road. One of the other hulking menaces took advantage of Ezra's plight and landed a couple of well placed kicks to his ribcage. Excruciating pain lanced through the protective fog of the alcohol, and for the first time since the beginning of the altercation, Ezra has a lucid thought. The piercing agony radiating through his body brought with its discomfort, clarity as well. I am going to die. Die in the street like a common dog....
A blow to his head ended all thought, rational or otherwise, as blackness enveloped him into its waiting arms.....
Cool fingers, long and tapered, in actuality almost too feminine to be attached to a male physique, smoothed the whiskey-colored hair off the young man's forehead as they surveyed the damage to the handsome, but youthful gambler's face. Ezra moaned perceptibly as the probing hands brushed a particularly sensitive spot with a cool damp cloth. The alcoholic haze would soon wear off and the young man would soon be in a great deal of agony.
The older man dipped the blood-soaked rag into the pinkish water and wrung it out yet another time. He did not recognize the elegantly-dressed Ezra as a regular at the local saloons, those places of abomination and degradation. How sad...this man, not even yet into his thirties, possibly cut down in his prime because of demon liquor. His hands shook, palsied before their time, from the damage wrought by that poison which he now preached against. His vision swam mistily as glimpses of where his past had taken him, the places, the faces, the sins he had incurred along the way....
"Don't you walk away from me, Xavier Kelly. You'll regret it." He spun on his heel to face the diminutive harpy that raged at him. He gazed at her beautiful face, the china-blue eyes that glared back at him irately. Those same eyes that had so vividly gazed into his as they made love time and again, that fantastic mixture of passion and power that she exuded trapped him every time.
"You already gave me your answer. I don't have to hang around and have my heart ground under the heel of your delicate shoes, Madam." Xavier met her fiery gaze with an equally steely one of his own. His handsome visage set in the most dispassionate expression he could muster. Meanwhile, inside he was seething at her audacity and he fought the urge to run his strong, capable fingers through his brown, cropped hair.
"What do you expect me to do? Starve?"
"I'm sure with all of your ...abundant charms, you'd surely not starve. I made the offer once, I will not do so again."
"But I explained to you, why I couldn't marry you."
"Which all boils down to being too good to marry a shanty Irishman. The way I see it, you're becoming the lowest of the low in marrying that man. You'll be nothing but a whore to him."
She brought her hand up sharply, connecting soundly with his cheek. A resounding slap echoed through the silence of the church. The votives flickered with the spring breeze that fluttered in through the open door. Xavier stood unreactive to her violent outburst, his hand itching to smooth back the blond tendrils away from her livid face. "How dare you," she ground out indignantly through clinched teeth.
"I dare a lot of things. Otherwise I would have never become involved with a senator's daughter. My point is your father is no better than a pimp for taking the money that corpulent drunkard offered for you, and you are no better that a common street walker for going along with it." His anger was apparent now, his cheek flushing with ire. Brilliant green eyes sparkled like emeralds as he finally said what he had felt all along. As she made a move to slap him again, he gripped her wrist before she could make contact. He pulled her flush against his hard body, honed to a steely perfection from years of working as a miner. Never again, he promised himself, would a woman ever take him for a fool. He kissed her savagely, his mouth slanted across hers, punishing her full lips.
As she submitted willingly to his caress, he laid her back on the floor. The plaster saints around them gazed down at the two bodies joining in anger, but also in a great passion that could not be denied....
A soft, almost imperceptible groan dragged the old man out of his reverie and back to the present. His charge had changed position on the bed, and his attractive face was contorted in pain. Xavier had removed the young man's jacket and shirt as well as the arsenal of weapons he carried on him. The older man had seen a contraption, like the one Ezra had for his derringer, during the war, but that like his youth, was a long, but not forgotten memory. Ezra writhed in his unconscious state as Xavier sought a remedy for the pain. As Xavier mopped up the rest of the blood that soaked and matted Ezra's hair, he noticed a deep scar that ran from the hollow of his throat to the right side of his collarbone. From all appearances, it looked to have been caused by a sabre, but the age of the wound was considerable. If this young man had been in the war, he would have been young, early twenties at the outside.
Xavier took up a poultice he had prepared earlier, a remedy he had learned from a local medicine man, and placed it against the deepest gash he could find. The pressure was excruciating to Ezra's pain-filled brain. Ezra fought to open his eyes, he felt he was drowning in the waves of pain that washed over his body. Xavier sat down in the rickety wooden chair and resumed his stance of contemplation, distractedly staring out the window at the endless golden prairie. Ezra's hand twitched where it lay on the crisp white sheets. Xavier looked down with concern at the young man, when Ezra's lashes fluttered open and revealed brilliant emerald eyes, dilated with pain. Shock mirrored confusion as the two men regarded each other for the first time.
Blinking hard against the mist that hazed his vision, Ezra struggled to focus on the apparition that loomed before him. For a split second, a crazy thought flittered through his mind. It's like looking in the mirror at this guy. But soon the pain muddled his thinking even more severely. The cool relief of the compresses soothed some of the abrasions, but the combination of excessive imbibing and the brutal assault on his person had given birth to an excruciating headache. He tried to raise his upper torso, but was beset by a insidious wave of nausea. He promptly lost his last shreds of dignity and emptied the contents of his stomach into the dented metal pail, placed at the bedside for just such an occasion. Ezra collapsed back onto the narrow bed, limp and exhausted from the ordeal.
Xavier studied the young man lying before him. He had seen too many fine young men fall into the seductive clutches of alcohol, and knew from personal experience how far the degradation would carry you into Hell. As he reached out to lay a comforting hand upon Ezra's shoulder, the gambler flinched back suddenly. Ezra rasped out softly, "Who the Hell are you?" His usual extensive lexicon was conspicuously absent, his dulcet Southern drawl roughened by the pain from the beating and the misery of his wretched existence.
"A Good Samaritan, my son." Xavier responded gently, quite accustomed to the less than sociable inquiry. "You unfortunately met with some ruffians yesterday, and were decidedly outnumbered." His rich Irish brogue rumbled through Ezra's clouded mind, lending a lifeline which he desperately hung on to. This rugged old man was comforting in a way that Ezra, even with his enormous vocabulary, could not put into words. The normal resentment that Ezra felt when the word "son" was mentioned in his presence did not rear it's ugly head.
Ezra closed his eyes, desperately trying to recall the events of the day prior. He remembered drinking in the saloon, the memories of his increasingly severe binges seared into his mind. But after that, everything was just beyond his mental reach, somewhere out in the netherlands of his hazy mind. He opened his eyes again, regaining a better focus on the man who had saved him.
The Samaritan was dressed all in black, his coat and trousers cut from a rough, simple wool. His ascetic attire must have been terribly uncomfortable in the dry, dusty weather. The conspicuous white collar at his throat answered a few of Ezra's questions. The priest's face was weather-beaten, but had probably been quite handsome when he was younger. Green eyes identical to Ezra's gazed down in concern at the troubled gambler. Gray had replace most of the whiskey-colored waves that Xavier now kept closely cropped. But it was with the priest's hands Ezra was most fascinated. They were scarred and calloused from hard manual labor, but had the design of an artiste. The strong capable muscled rippled just under the roughened skin, long tapered fingers seemingly capable of delicate maneuvers belied the workman's aesthetic. Only slightly detectable was a palsied tremor of the hands, but of course, Ezra's own being wasn't exactly the most stable at present.
"Can you tell me your name?," Xavier inquired gently.
"Ezra." Ezra swallowed against another wave of nausea. He searched the room with his eyes in a futile search for the location of his belongings, most importantly his sidearms. He felt positively naked, vulnerable without them. He didn't feel comfortable regaling this man, priest though he may be, with his entire life story. He just didn't have the energy, nor was it in his nature to be too loose-lipped about his personal life. "No offense, Father, but you don't happen to have any whiskey around here, do you?"
"No, I don't." Father Kelly grimaced at him slightly. "Even if I did, I don't think it would solve your problem, Ezra. Alcohol appeared to have gotten you into the predicament in which you currently have found yourself," he admonished lightly. "And if you are looking for your possessions, they are quite safe, I assure you."
"Save it for the congregation, sir. I'm quite comfortable with the sinner's life. It's much more lucrative." Ezra grumbled back. He wasn't in the mood to hear a teetotaling celebate lecture him on the evils of "demon" rum. If he had wanted to do that, he might as well have stayed in Four Corners. God save him from well-intentioned meddlers.
"And considerably more dangerous. If I had not arrived when I did, you would have most certainly been food for the worms by now. It would have been a shame that your family would never know what became of you."
Ezra's entire body stiffened at the mention of his family, a topic that was taboo to his psyche, and he glared back piercingly at the dark figure. "You know nothing about my family." With that outburst, he rolled, albeit painfully, to face the wall, afraid to let the tears that glittered in his brilliant emerald eyes trickle down his roughened cheeks. Oh just admit it Ezra. You know nothing about your family either.
"Ezra, we have been over this a thousand times before. You know you can't go with Mama. You're going to have so much fun here with your Aunt Pauline and Uncle William," Maude lifted her seven-year-old son's face, bringing his forlorn eyes up to meet hers. It was important for her to remain positive in front of him. It was much too difficult to explain why she really had to leave him here with her late husband's sister and her husband. The boy's resemblance to his biological father was uncanny, but had also been devastating for Maude. She could not bear to gaze upon the child who constantly reminded her of HIM, but also cost her what little standing she had left in Charleston society.
"But, Mama. I promise I'll be good. I don't want to stay here. I want to go with you," he wailed. He threw his skinny arms around legs, or what part of her legs he could span in spite of the heavy silk skirts of her traveling dress. If she would just take him with her, he would show her how good he could be, how smart he was.
"Ezra Xavier Standish," Maude snapped, her patience at the breaking point. She stared down at him, aggravation in her china blue eyes. "This is not up for discussion. I expect you to act like a proper gentleman while I am away. You really are much too old to be crying and carrying on like this. I will send word to Pauline where I will be and you can practice your letters by writing to me." This communication via correspondence became their only link, as superficial as the letters later became, as time passed. She ran her delicate fingers through his tousled whiskey waves as she took up her reticule and pelisse in the hallway. She walked to the door, willing herself not to turn around and telling herself it was for the best.
Ezra stood there, giant tears threatening to fall, surrounded by antique mirrors and knickknacks, paneled walls and an enormous staircase. His childish sniffle echoing throughout the vast entryway of his Aunt's home. This sterile and love-less domicile became his residence for the next seven years until Maude came to claim him once more.
He had understood the whispers, the callous name-calling he received both directly and indirectly at a very early age. Ezra closed his eyes, attempting unsuccessfully to block out the memories of his bastard existence. His exposure to the harsh realities of this life, of the ideals imbued by society about a man's worth, had left him with a bitter taste in his mouth. What could this priest know about the life he had led, comprehend the motives behind his self-destructive actions? It angered him in an inexplicable, intangible way that this sheltered hermit would dare to utter sympathetic words, to condemn or criticize. Ezra's head fell back and relaxed against the down pillow as his tired mind drifted off to sleep. Sleep, the next best thing to alcohol - its numbing effect giving his tired, battered body and soul a slight respite from the war that raged both within and without.
Father Kelly watched the very troubled young man drift off to sleep, Ezra's comment remaining in the forefront of his mind. What had caused him to suffer so? As Kelly began to nod as well, his mind wandered through episodes in his life he thought long buried...
"Kelly, you'd better get your act together. No woman is worth this much grief," chided Mick Collins, a good friend. They both hung drunkenly over the bar, Collins stopping off for a pint on the way home to his wife and Kelly on the way home to a drunken stupor. His memory of that night wouldn't leave him, no matter how desperate he might be for a respite. The paper's headlines concerning the wedding collapse all hopes in his mind of ever reasoning with Maude Grayson...wait, it was Maude Standish now. Her new husband could trace his roots all the way back to the damn Pilgrims, while the only thing fancy about Xavier Kelly was his first name. He was a first generation immigrant, soiled and stained from heavy labor, never of the class of Senator Grayson's beautiful daughter. He was simply a dalliance on her dance card, he knew that now. That knowledge still didn't keep the hurt at bay and that was why he had come here tonight, just as he did every night, to drown his sorrows in a bottle of stiff Irish whiskey.
Collins wasn't aware of who the woman was who had broken the poor bloke's heart, but if he ever met her, he'd give her what for. "Kel, you need to stop drinkin' like this. Your poor ol' liver's just likely to be pickled right now."
"Mick, I have not yet begun to drink," commented Kelly as he tipped his glass with stumbling fingers, fingers that usually had the softest touch, whether it was on the piano or at the card table. Mick finished up his pint and mumbled his good-byes to his friend as he walked out the door. The bartender looked Kelly's way with that inscrutable look only someone who has kept bar can maintain. The whiskey burned as it poured down his throat, its flavor like ambrosia to Kelly's tormented soul.
As darkness fell and the bars in Charleston closed for the evening, although in reality it was the wee hours of the morn, Kelly stumbled out of the pub and down the poorly lit street. Some of the last of the street walkers were waiting for the most gullible clients, those who had won a stash at the gaming tables or were drunk as skunks. One made a half-hearted play for Kelly's attention, but even she was frightened off by the dark scowl pasted on Kelly's inebriated face. He rounded the corner and in the waiting arms of the local constabulary, who liked nothing more than to send the carousers down to the local jail for the night.
His hangover blinded him, the harsh Southern sun unrelenting to his pitiful existence. His jailers had thrown him out to the curb just a few minutes prior, with the bored admonishment of keeping his nose clean and his lips from the bottle. He longed for another drink but he was already late for work. When he finally made it to work, just outside the city, his employer told him no uncertain terms that his presence was no longer required at the job site. Damn it all, he thought to himself muzzily. That woman cost me my self-respect and my job. So from there he sought the closest saloon.
Kelly was well in his cups when he decided to pay the newlyweds, his beautiful Maude and that damnable weasel she married, a visit. Surely she would want to reminisce! His anger flooded his body, causing him to visibly shiver in the hot sun. He grabbed the half-empty bottle from the table and headed out to the Standish plantation.
Knocking on the door, Kelly was met by a dark-skinned liveried butler, who was quite at odds at what he should do with this disheveled man on the front porch. Kelly pushed his way inside, bellowing at the top of his voice, for his darlin' Maude. The library door off the foyer opened and Maude stepped out, at her side was her new husband, who looked absolutely shocked at this display of vulgar behavior. He called for a couple of the slaves to remove the drunken Kelly, but Maude placed a small hand on his arm, effectively stilling the command. Her face was ashen, she shook with anger, fright at what her husband would say, the tenuous position she had in this house.
"How do you do, my dear?" Kelly slurred as he took a big swallow from the bottle in his begrimed hand.
"What do you want?"
"Maude, do you know this man?" Standish looked quite startled that his genteel wife would associate with such a ruffian.
"Know me, sir. Right well, she knows me." Kelly held out his hand to Standish, who refused to acknowledge its presence. This man certainly was not an equal. "Knows me in the biblical sense, even. But I'm sure you knew that. Right, Standish?"
"How dare you, sir." Standish reddened in embarrassment and ire at the allusion that his wife had ever had carnal relations with this man. He glanced over at Maude, watching her blanche even whiter than she had before. He would talk about this later with her, but the issue now was removing this miscreant from his home.
Maude felt Kelly's vivid green eyes boring into her, a boundless hatred blazing emerald fire. How dare he do this to her? She thought he loved her, why would he try to ruin her life like this? She remained silent at her husband's non-verbal inquiry. When she didn't respond, Standish set his slaves upon Kelly's person and removed him, bellowing blistering accusations and curses the entire way out the door. Maude's shoulders slumped, watching his unseemly egress from her home. How she wished things could have been different.
Kelly woke to see those eyes, his eyes, staring at him intently. The young man, Ezra, had pulled himself into a sitting position, his iron will unable to mask the pain that must be coursing through his body. He thought about giving Ezra a sip of something alcoholic to help with the pain, but he knew in his heart that wasn't the answer. Ezra, for his part, matched the priest gaze, still unsure in this untenable situation to where exactly his bearings had fled. "Do you think I can get something to drink?" Ezra asked, his voice hardly above a whisper from fighting back the pain.
Ezra grimaced in pain and distaste when the older man handed him a tin cup full of tepid water. But when in Rome... he thought to himself, his fingers trembling weakly against the metal of the cup. At least he was more aware of his surroundings, this one had been a real bender. And to tell the truth, he really couldn't recall what had instigated it to begin with. He drank the water slowly, using most of his stored energy just for that simple task. When he finished the priest set it on the night stand within easy reach.
"I don't know how I can thank you, Father." It seemed odd to Ezra to refer to another male figure like that, he wasn't Catholic and he certainly didn't have a father, well....at least one that gave a damn.
"It is my calling, my son, to help others. Would you like to talk about it?" Kelly sat back in the wooden chair, his long fingers steepled in front of him.
"Don't take this the wrong way, sir, but I'm not much accustomed to speaking to strangers about my personal life."
"Maybe that's why the bottle became your friend."
"I can manage my liquor intake, sir. This incident was quite out of the ordinary."
"And it almost got you killed." Ezra was silent. As much as he hated to own up to it, the priest was absolutely correct in his assessment. "I'm sorry, Ezra. I often become overzealous in proving a point. Is there something else you would like to discuss?"
"I see you were in the war. Which side?"
Ezra's eyes lost their luster, as a tumult of memories flooded his brain: the death, the loss, the extreme waste of it all. He absently fingered the scar at his collarbone for a second before he realized what he was doing. "The South, Father."
"It's where I'm from. It was expected....oh, I don't know. I just signed up ...it seemed the thing to do at the time." Ezra stumbled, trying to keep his warring emotions in check. Almost his entire commission was served in intelligence, but the few times he had seen the battlefield, he knew that he would never have been able to stay sane and function in such carnage. He waited for the priest to chastise him for choosing what so often now was considered to be the side of the Devil. Despite what Nathan believed, Ezra was certainly not involved in the War because of the slavery issue. He had certainly had his own motives, trying to prove something like all young men do.
"Excuse me?" Ezra's attention was brought back by Kelly's probing question.
"An intelligence unit attached to the 25th South Carolina regiment. Based out of Charleston."
"So you were a spy." The statement hung in the air, with no emotion or connotation attached.
"Of sorts." Ezra was beginning to grow weary of fighting, both the physical pain of his injuries and the maelstrom of emotions he felt at dredging up his sordid past. He slumped down, Kelly noticing the weariness in Ezra's eyes.
"Do you have family in Charleston?"
"My mother's." Ezra couldn't understand why he just said that. Usually he was so tight-lipped about his past, for fear he might be judged and also the painful memories of his childhood, the stigma and rejection inherent in the label bastard.
"I lived in Charleston for a short time. Long before the War, however. I will probably go back East before I die."
"I won't, there's nothing for me there." Another admission. He'd better heal up soon or this priest would be talking him out of all of his card tricks and underhanded secrets.
"I felt like that too, once. Have you no family?"
"My mother, if you want to call her that. And you?"
"Of blood kin, only myself here in America. The Church has been my family for almost thirty years now. Why so hard on your mother?"
"You don't know my mother. She doesn't have a maternal bone in her body. Don't get me wrong....I care for my mother, but let's just say, she isn't the most stable person to have in charge of a child." Ezra swallowed hard. His eyes dimmed at the thought of all those lonely years being in the care of others, those who only felt the burden of his presence. "I spent much of my childhood with distant relatives."
"Where was your father?"
Ezra stiffened. Should he tell the truth, that he had no idea who the father of Maude Standish's bastard child was? It certainly was not Hezekiah Standish, who had quietly annulled the marriage after discovering Maude's little secret. His mother's family had turned their collective backs on her, forcing Maude to make it on her own, her own reputation forever tarnished because of the man who ran out on her.
Kelly understood now what troubled this man so deeply. His reticence to answer his unwitting question spoke volumes about the lack of a father figure in his life. He sat more upright in his chair, focusing his gaze on the downcast eyes of the young man. "Ezra, I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable." Father Kelly reached out a large hand to pat the young man on the shoulder as he rose from his chair. "You're tired. You should get some sleep now, and we'll talk later." He turned to go when he heard the chest-wracking sob issue from the bed.
"You know, I couldn't really tell you. I never knew my father..." Tears streamed from Ezra's troubled green eyes, his dark lashed damp and spiky. He brought his hands, doubled in fists, up to face, pushing tears away like a small child. Kelly's heart went out for this man... the same societal mores that kept him and his kind in mediocre jobs with low pay had wreaked havoc on the mind and well-being of young boy, who could not help the life into which he was born. He stroked the man's whiskey-colored hair in an attempt to soothe his frazzled emotions. Ezra softly murmured, "Of course, Maude Standish never was very good at choosing romantic attachments."
Father Xavier Kelly's hand stopped and he withdrew as if he had been bitten by a deadly snake. He felt as if he could have been knocked over with a feather. Ezra looked up in time, and even with impaired reflexes and a great deal of bodily injury, he was able to keep the old man upright until he could guide him over to the chair.
"Father, Father Kelly, can you hear me?" Kelly's attention was aroused at the sound of his name. He gazed down at the heavily bandaged and knocked-about young man who knelt before him, a very concerned look in his vivid green eyes.
"What happened?" Kelly was disoriented, and disbelieving at what he just heard.
"I don't know, sir. You tell me."
"Who did you say your mother was?"
"Mother tends to have that effect on people. No doubt she's been run out of this town as well." Ezra gave a weak smile. "Name's Ezra Standish, the illustrious Maude is my mother."
Kelly appeared as if he was going to have a fit of apoplexy. "I hope you don't regret helping me sir, but I see my presence bothers you, so I'll gather my belongings and be on my way. I did not intend to bring you to such grief."
Kelly murmured..."It can't be...not after all this time..."
"Sir? Are you okay?"
Kelly stared at the young gambler. He gripped Ezra fiercely by the thin linen shirt Ezra wore. Ezra flinched at the arcs of pain that lanced through his body as the priest held him in a tight hold. "Ezra, what's your mother's maiden name?"
"Grayson. Sir, could you tell me what's going on? Do you know my mother?"
Kelly closed his eyes. "Very well."
"Oh great. This time she's gone too far." Ezra loosened Kelly's grip and straightened to a standing position, his sore muscles protesting vehemently at the movement. "She corrupted a priest."
Kelly stood to stare Ezra in the eye. "I wasn't a priest when I knew your mother. Far from it. Ezra, how old are you?"
"Twenty-eight in June, sir."
"Oh, my god." Kelly ran his gnarled fingers through his short white hair.
"What is it?" Ezra was uneasy at this turn of events. He had a feeling there was something desperately wrong, like something large and painful was going to plummet from the sky and he would be a sitting duck.
"I ask you to forgive me, Ezra...if only I had known...."
"Damn it...." Ezra was shocked that he had cursed at a holy man, but he needed some answers. "What are you talking about?"
"Ezra, I'm so sorry....I'm the man who walked out on your mother."
Ezra stood motionless. He was so confused, his emotions were so jumbled his mind couldn't begin to sort them out. This man...a priest...was his father???? He was almost hysterical with the thought. He had to laugh out loud. Kelly looked at him, bewildered at the laughing fit his son, yes...his son, was having before his eyes. It definitely wasn't the type of response one would expect. Anger, confusion, resentment - he could handle those, but laughter???
"You mean to tell me that my father is a priest???" Ezra laughed a little more. "That completes the farce that is my life. My mother the con artist and my father, who actually admits it, is a Catholic priest. Wow, no wonder the family didn't know what to do with me."
"Ezra, I can't tell you how surprised I am. I never knew."
Ezra's smile faded and all of the anger of twenty-eight years of torment and conflict was unleashed. "You never knew!!! How about me?? I never knew ....a lot of things, things a father should have been there to teach his son..."
"What about Standish?"
"He annulled the marriage to my mother before I was even born. All of society knew I was a bastard...you...." Ezra still couldn't bring himself to call out a priest. "My mother had to earn her own keep...the Graysons weren't about to soil themselves any more with a daughter who couldn't keep her legs closed for every Irish mick in Charleston, apparently...."
Kelly reddened in anger. "It wasn't like that. I asked your mother to marry me...she refused because of her family. She married Standish, instead. I went through the seven levels of Hell because of her and she didn't even have the common decency to let me know about you..."
"She probably couldn't find you!"
"Ask her. Ask her about the night I went to see her at the manor house. She had the opportunity to tell me then, Standish already knew about our relationship. But she didn't, she let Standish's slaves wrestle me out of the house. Ezra, I know you..."
Ezra exploded. "You don't know me at all! You're nothing like me."
"Ezra, I'm exactly like you in many ways, not just in physical resemblance. Our lives parallel each others in so many ways. I know that you are angry now, but please listen to me. I would never had done that to you intentionally. Too many things conspired against your mother and I staying together. I just hope that one day you can bring yourself to understand that. You don't have to ever speak to me again. I am satisfied knowing that I have a son, that my life is complete."
Ezra closed his eyes, his anger and hurt still so fresh in his mind. But in a way, he was complete, at least in the sense that he now knew his father. He was not sure how he would relate to this man standing before him, but it was a start....
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