Enough For Fifty Hopes And Fears
Disclaimer: I own none of the characters which appear in the TV series "The Magnificent Seven" but this is a non-profit venture and thus I respectfully ask that no one litigates against me.
Warnings: The actual violence will only be moderate but this story is going to deal with some very heavy issues, up to and including the death of children. It will also contain some adult concepts but nothing explicit. Some mild to moderate swearing (but hopefully all within context).
Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Maria (Ezra’s Chica) for all her help with the Spanish dialogue used in this story.
Summary: Sequel to "Wages of Sin", set approximately one year later. A potentially fatal illness, a multitude of fears and insecurities and some ghosts from the past.
Back to: The Wages Of Sin
Just when we are safest, there’s a sunset-touch,
A fancy from a flower-bell, someone’s death,
A chorus-ending from Euripides, -
And that’s enough for fifty hopes and fears
As old and new at once as Nature’s self,
To rap and knock and enter in our soul.
Bishop Blougram’s Apology
Inez Roscios was surprised to find herself awake at approximately 4 o’clock in the morning. Not usually reaching her bed until the saloon closed some time after midnight and needing to rise around dawn to make preparations for the day’s business, she usually slept soundly through the intervening hours.
It took her a few seconds to realize what had woken her. The familiar source of warmth beside her was considerably hotter than usual and he was mumbling softly in his sleep. She raised herself up onto one elbow and used her other hand to gently shake his shoulder.
"Ezra?" Her hand instinctively drew back when it detected just how much heat was radiating from his body. Alarm stirred in her as she leaned over him and laid a hand along his cheek. "Querido, you’re burning up!"
He muttered incoherently again as she lightly slapped his face.
"Come on, Ezra. Wake up!"
Finally he roused slightly, "What?"
"Ezra, you’ve got a fever!"
"And you woke me to tell me that?" He rolled away from her murmuring, "Just let me sleep." Then he began to cough violently.
"Ezra!" She was really worried now.
"Leave me alone," he gasped when the coughing fit subsided. His voice was weak but the irritability in it was still audible. He’d been in a surly mood for almost a week, ever since his mother had arrived, and there was no reason that his temper should improve now that he was also unwell.
"I’m getting the doctor!"
Apparently he hadn’t heard that because he only mumbled again, and such suggestions usually provoked vehement protests. Inez scrambled out of bed and into some clothes.
She felt his forehead one more time. It was still burning but he shivered under her touch and moaned softly in protest.
"I’ll be back soon, querido," she assured him as she left the room.
Maybe, it would be better to try Nathan first, rather than Doc Elliott. Not only was he knowledgeable about medical matters but he had spent most of the past few days in Ezra’s company. He might have a better idea of what was going on. There had been an illness amongst the people of the Seminole village which Ezra, Nathan and Josiah had been visiting over the past few days. Didn’t they say that some of those people had died?
Guilt mingled with her fear. She knew that it was predominantly out of pique that Ezra gone with Nathan and Josiah. To escape from what he described as a conspiracy to persecute him conducted by the three significant females in his life.
Inez hadn’t meant to be unsympathetic but sometimes Ezra could be downright childish in his petulance. And he had once directed her to curb spoiled behavior in Angelica, so she certainly wasn’t going to let him get away with any. But he had not taken kindly to her criticism and it had begun to drive a wedge between them.
Maybe that was why she had failed to consider that genuine illness might be contributing to his irritability. Now every unkind word that she had uttered over the past week bit back at her.
Lost in these thoughts, she almost collided with Angelica as the child stepped out from her room into the corridor.
"What’s wrong?" Angelica asked, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
"It’s alright, mi nina. Go back to bed. I’ll tell you about it in the morning."
"Is Father alright?"
As if on cue, the sound of violent coughing could again be heard emanating from the room Inez had just left. Inez couldn’t help casting a worried glance in that direction before she turned back to Angelica.
"Go back to bed! I’ll be back soon and we’ll talk about it then." She took hold of the child’s shoulders, turned her around and gently propelled her into her room with a light push.
As Inez ran lightly down the stairs, Angelica poked her head around the door again. After ensuring that she would not be observed, she walked over to the door of the room where Ezra and Inez slept and stood contemplating the barrier for a few moments. Not only had Inez just told her to go back to bed but she was also forbidden to enter this particular room without getting permission first (ever since she had once walked in to find her father kissing Inez along her neck and shoulder with both of them only half-dressed).
But she was almost desperate to see him. He hadn’t come to say "Goodnight" to her last night. It was the first time since he had adopted her that he had failed to do so unless he was out of town.
She knew that he was a bit angry with her. Since her grandmother had come to visit, Angelica had spent most of her time with her. Her father was always around. Grandmother only usually visited for a few days at a time and she told such wonderful stories. But she shouldn’t have left Father on his own and she shouldn’t have laughed when Grandmother told funny stories about him. And she really shouldn’t have laughed when he got back to town yesterday even though he did look really funny.
But maybe if she said she was sorry and was really good, he would forgive her.
Finally, the shouting from outside his door managed to wake Ezra again.
He groaned into his pillow. He really didn’t have the energy or inclination to deal with this now. He was exhausted but he found it hard to sleep when he felt so hot and short of breath. And his throat was raw from those recent episodes of coughing.
Ezra rolled over to ask Inez to deal with whatever the problem was but apart from him, the bed was empty. Typical! Where the Hell had she got to?
"What?" he shouted back and the effort sent him into another fit of coughing.
Angelica at least had the courtesy to wait until that had ceased before she shouted her question. "Can I come in?"
"No! Go back to bed!"
She had been content to virtually ignore him for almost a week and now she wanted to see him? Well, hard luck! Right now, all he wanted to do was go back to sleep. If only he could get his breath back.
The past week had been almost unremittingly unenjoyable. Angelica and Inez conspiring with his mother to torment him followed by all that had happened in the Seminole village and now he felt really quite awful.
He remembered saying to Nathan yesterday, "Tomorrow simply has to be better."
So far, it didn’t look promising.
Ezra had to admit that despite some relatively minor discontentments and disappointments, the current year had been one of the happiest that he could remember. And he couldn’t deny that most of the gratifications stemmed from the presence of Inez and Angelica in his life.
The previous year had been truly calamitous towards its conclusion. Angelica and he mother, Teresa, had sought refuge in Four Corners but within a few months, an old enemy of Teresa’s had discovered and brutally murdered her. Several other friends had been injured in the conflict (JD had also nearly lost his life) and Ezra himself still limped slightly where his left leg had been broken during the final battle with Teresa’s killer (although, Nathan told him that the limp was now caused mostly by his mind rather than his leg).
His decision to adopt Angelica had been so easily made that it had almost seemed automatic. Even before her mother’s death they had become inseparable friends and he felt somewhat responsible for failing to prevent Teresa’s murder. But to secure the adoption, Judge Travis had blackmailed him into undertaking respectable employment as a filing clerk at the Town Hall.
Ezra had agreed to it with every intention getting himself dismissed from the job at the first opportunity. However, he’d actually held onto the job for considerably longer than he had originally planned. He had found that strangers in town were much more willing to play poker with an office clerk relaxing at the end of the day than with a professional gambler and kept up the practice for over six months. He’d even invested in some appropriate somber gray suits to complete the image.
However, despite this little unexpected bonus, he’d never been content with the lifestyle – a predictable stream of paper to be collated and catalogued, no imaginative input, no flexibility in working hours. In a word, drudgery. So when Bernard Woolley had arrived in Four Corners, Ezra had contrived for the young man to replace him.
Woolley had been an accountant for one of the railroad companies but had been made redundant when the company had run into financial difficulties. Having moved his family out west and suddenly finding himself without a job, the man was desperate and had approached Ezra as he left the Town Hall one evening, to inquire about work opportunities in the town. He was quite overwhelmed when Ezra almost immediately concocted and then enacted a scheme to arrange his own dismissal on the grounds of incompetence and get Woolley hired as his replacement. Judge Travis had been extremely suspicious but there had been nothing he could do.
So Ezra returned to his previous lifestyle - playing poker at the saloon, some short trips out to nearby towns for more lucrative games, occasional law-keeping duties and assisting Inez in her work whenever she could persuade him into it. Although he’d never admit it to her, it was really the least he could do to recompense her for all of her help with looking after Angelica (not to mention everything else she did for him).
Ezra found living with Inez and Angelica a constant challenge (each had a ready wit and an independent nature) but there was no way in Hell he’d ever opt for an easier existence. Although he and Inez argued frequently, even the most cynical observer could not doubt that they were devoted to each other or that they both doted on the child. And, to tell truth, when he sat back and contemplated what his life had become, Ezra often found himself teetering on the brink of an almost ludicrous degree of euphoria.
However, he had recently entered a discontented phase, which had commenced with the arrival of his mother. This was not exactly surprising. Although he loved her dearly, over the years he had discovered that any significant length of time spent in Maude’s company was challenging, if not outright detrimental, to his self-esteem.
In virtually all of the talents he prided himself in, she had an even greater degree of proficiency. Gambling, business administration, the art of profitable persuasion - he reluctantly acknowledged that she remained the master and he the apprentice. But he had thought that, at least in the area of dealing with children, he might hold some small degree of superiority.
Thus he had been considerably disconcerted by how quickly she had befriended Angelica. He would never have believed that Maude would take to grandmotherhood so well.
He distinctly remembered the day he had formulated the telegram to notify her that he had adopted Angelica. Josiah had accompanied him to the telegraph office and Ezra had said to him, "I am not entirely sure which I am anticipating more eagerly, advising her that I am about to undertake reputable employment or informing her that she is about to become a grandmother."
However, he had received her reply telegram the next day and she had arrived in Four Corners less than a week later.
Maude now visited him more often than he could ever recall her doing in the past and, from the very outset, she had spoiled and flattered Angelica, lavishing care and consideration on the child in a way he had never seen before. (She had certainly never shown any such attentiveness to him when he was a child.) And while Inez diligently watched Ezra to ensure that he didn’t spoil his daughter with overindulgence, she ruthlessly turned a blind eye to Maude doing so. He found that he couldn’t compete for the attention of either his daughter or his mother (and truthfully, he wasn’t sure which of the two he was more jealous of).
Three days ago, he had finally felt compelled to point out the inconsistency to Inez but she had been unrepentant. It had started as a quiet conversation behind the bar and ended as a shouting match with a half-full saloon as an audience. Inez had a classic Latin temper, which was quite easily fired up.
"It was you, yourself, who told me to make sure you didn’t spoil Angelica! Here in this very room!"
"And you were determined to criticize my abilities as father anyway. Don’t pretend that it was any great sacrifice! And anyway, you never criticize Mother about the way she indulges the child."
"That is different! Grandparents are allowed to indulge children. It is your job to make sure she is raised properly, not your mother’s!"
"So she can flatter and bribe my daughter as much as she likes, and I have to just stand back and watch?"
"Yes, Ezra! That is the way things are!" She cast a angry gaze over their rapt audience before bringing the conversation to an abrupt end. "I am not going to argue with you anymore. There are things I need to do in the kitchen." And with that she had stormed out.
Ezra fumed silently for a moment before he realized that he was still being scrutinized by everyone in the room. "Thank you, everyone! The show is over for today!"
Buck tried to offer an encouraging smile. "Hey, don’t worry about it, Ezra! Inez always ends fights like that. She used to do the same thing to me."
Ezra knew he meant well but everything and everyone in Four Corners had begun to irritate him. Even the saloon no longer felt comfortable. It no longer felt like home. He was beginning to feel isolated from all those close to him and just about the last thing he needed now was a reminder that Buck and Inez had once shared an intimate relationship.
It was then that he remembered a potential escape route.
"How long ago did Nathan and Josiah leave for the Seminole village?"
Buck looked at him quizzically, "About an hour ago. Josiah stopped by to thank JD and Casey for looking after the orphans while he’s gone. Why?"
"Well, I thought I might join them. I haven’t seen the village for a while."
JD gazed at him in astonishment. "We were all there last month for Nathan’s wedding!"
That was indeed true but Ezra wasn’t going to let it impede his plan for a few days of sanctuary. "Yes, and it’ll be amazin’ to see how much things have changed since then. Gentlemen, would you be so kind as to inform Inez, as well as my mother and daughter, that I have decided to accompany Nathan and Josiah on their errand of mercy?"
And thus he departed, bitterly reflecting that if Angelica, Maude and Inez were so happy in each other’s company they could easily do without his.
Nathan and Josiah had been quite surprised to see Ezra join them but they hadn’t questioned his motives too closely. Although he had little expertise in caring for illness, they knew they could use all the help they could get.
Since his marriage to Rain, an ex-slave who had been more or less raised in the Seminole village, Nathan now considered that village his home. But he still traveled between there, other local Indian reservations and Four Corners to conduct his work as a healer. He had been in town when he had received word that several of the Seminole people had been stricken with a febrile illness, and had immediately headed home to deal with the epidemic, accompanied first by Josiah, followed by Ezra.
When the three of them reached the village, Ezra was alarmed to learn that Nikkanoochee and his mother were among the seriously ill. The boy, now approximately ten years old, had been a friend since they had worked together, creating decoy mannequins to help defend the village against Colonel Anderson all those years ago.
Nikkanoochee had hardly been the most forward and enthusiastic of the children that Ezra had met that day and the gambler had often wondered if his reticence was in some part due to his mixed Seminole-Negro blood. Nikkanoochee’s Seminole father had died a year before Anderson had attacked the village. And although an effort had been made to still welcome the child and his ex-slave mother, Ezra had no doubt that Nikkanoochee was aware that he differed from the other children around him. Perhaps that was why he and Ezra had become such firm friends. It was easy for the gambler to identify with someone who felt somewhat outcast in such a close-knit community.
Without hesitation, Ezra had gone to the side of the suffering child. Josiah and Nathan had been more than content to let him do so. Although this left them to look after the majority of the sick without his help, they knew that Nikkanoochee was at least one person that Ezra (medically unskilled as he was) would be able to give comfort to.
Nikkanoochee was already very weak and occasionally delirious but he smiled in recognition when Ezra sat down beside him. Gently sponging the child’s face with a damp cloth, as he had often observed Nathan and others do, Ezra began to tell him stories, adapting into a Seminole context several tales from a Hans Christian Andersen anthology which he had recently purchased for Angelica.
It was easy for Ezra to lose himself in the both the task and the narrative. Although Nikkanoochee was predominantly unresponsive, in his waking moments, Ezra had his undivided attention (exactly what he had been unable to obtain from his own daughter over the past few days). He was unaware how much time had passed and was quite surprised to discover that night had fallen when Nathan arrived with some tragic news.
Ezra looked up at his approach, "You look exhausted, Nathan. How are the other patients?"
Nathan cast a quick glance at the now sleeping child before returning his gaze to Ezra, "Most look like they might be turnin’ the corner but we just lost another one."
Ezra felt a chill at his words. "Who?"
Nathan nodded sadly at Nikkanoochee. "His mama passed away a few minutes ago."
"What will happen to boy now?"
Nathan heard the worry in his voice and tried to reassure him. "The rest of the village will care for him. He’s still one of us."
"Of course," Ezra nodded although he doubted it.
But he could scarcely voice those doubts aloud. Nathan had an innate faith in the compassion and generosity of certain people, including this group of Seminole Indians. From the outset, the black healer had been considerably impressed by the way they had taken in runaway ex-slaves, like himself, to become in their own words "one tribe". And by marrying Rain, Nathan had truly become a part of that tribe and come to espouse much of their philosophy.
Ezra knew that Nathan himself had a seemingly boundless capacity for compassion and generosity. (He himself had been a beneficiary of it on more than one occasion.) But he didn’t think that Nathan appreciated Nikkanoochee’s true position. The boy was something of an outsider already. Without his mother, what would be left for him here? He needed a family, like any other child, to personally see to his care and protection. The idea instantly arose, how difficult would it be to adopt him?
It might be more difficult to persuade Judge Travis into assisting him, this time. After all, the judge was probably still somewhat disgruntled about the way Ezra had vacated the clerking job which had been a prerequisite for him to adopt Angelica. And how would Angelica herself react? She was quite used to being his main focus of attention. How would she take to sharing it with another child? Ezra had to admit that the idea of provoking just a touch of jealousy in her held a vague appeal.
"Ezra?" Nathan had pitched his voice to a gentle persuasive tone and Ezra looked up again with slight suspicion.
"You’re pretty exhausted y’self. Come have a bite t’eat with me an’ Josiah, then get some sleep."
"I don’t think he should be left alone." Ezra’s voice contained no anger, as he looked down at Nikkanoochee, but Nathan immediately knew that there was no point in arguing.
Ezra’s eyes narrowed behind the black healer’s retreating back. He knew Nathan’s stubbornness as well as Nathan knew his. Such easy acquiescence was very uncharacteristic. Nathan would soon be back for the second round and obviously thought he had some kind of ace up his sleeve.
He startled slightly when Nikkanoochee called softly for his mother. His mind sent forth a painful echo from the dim distant past. Another mother who wouldn’t come to her child when he called but this time it was because she was absolutely unable to do so.
Knowing himself to be a poor substitute, Ezra leaned down and spoke gently to the boy. "It’s alright, Nikkanoochee. I’m right here."
He flinched slightly when the child coughed directly in his face but didn’t draw back, wiping Nikkanoochee’s forehead with the damp cloth again as he tried to sooth his unrest.
"Everythin’ will be alright. I promise you."
At least Nikkanoochee stopped coughing and had drifted back to sleep by the time Nathan returned, accompanied by a Seminole woman Ezra was only vaguely acquainted with.
"Come on now, Ezra. Opalocka will look after her nephew. You need a break."
It was only then that Ezra recollected that Opalocka was the sister of Nikkanoochee’s dead father. Not surprising that he should forget, he could not recall one instance of her spending time with Nikkanoochee or his mother, during any of his visits to the village. Another relative to be burdened with a child whom they had no particular reason to care for. Not this time Ezra vowed, not if he could help it.
But when Opalocka smiled gently at him and promised to tell him if there was any change in Nikkanoochee’s condition, he allowed Nathan to lead him out to join him and Josiah at the fireside.
The preacher also looked bone weary but still greeted Ezra with a smile, as he handed him a bowl of food. Ezra thanked him then slumped down and began eating, both too tired and too preoccupied to try and make conversation. But Nathan had already noticed his unease and sat down beside him.
"He’s not gonna be left alone. His aunt and the rest of us will take care of him."
"Being taken in by relatives does not necessarily constitute a home or family." Ezra muttered more to himself than to Nathan.
But Nathan caught it and his suspicion heightened. "Ezra, what exactly are ya thinkin’?" he asked sternly.
Ezra tried to evade the inquisition. "That the night is cold, this food is warm and that I am about ready to succumb to the spell of Morpheus."
Josiah smiled, "Yeah, you do look tired."
Ezra sighed and inwardly chided himself. In his effort to deflect Nathan’s prying, he’d admitted his fatigue. Between them, these two would probably soon have him nicely tucked up in bed. He must be exhausted to have left such an opening available but it was still worth making half an effort to divert the attention.
"Well Nathan, at least you can worry a little less about the cold. Rain can help keep you warm tonight."
Despite himself, Nathan smiled bashfully like a love-struck schoolboy. "Dunno, Ezra. Don’t think I’ll be gettin’ much sleep tonight."
"Aren’t you ashamed to leave your wife cold and alone on your first night home?" If he could keep the focus on Nathan, Ezra thought that he might actually begin to enjoy this little skirmish.
"Rain understands about it, Ezra." Nathan explained then neatly executed his own deflection. "So, when are ya gonna do the right thing by Inez?"
Ezra bristled. Discussing his own personal life was definitely not on the agenda. "I wasn’t aware that I was doin’ the wrong thing by Inez."
Seeing the blood drawn, Nathan pushed home his advantage "So ya just plan to keep on takin’ advantage of her the way y’do?"
Ezra was aware that the comment was only playful sparring (which he himself had more or less instigated) but still found himself becoming really irritated. "Takin’ advantage of her?"
"Well, what do you call it?" Nathan asked him, with a sly smile.
That was it! He’d really had enough. Even after having left Maude and Inez back in Four Corners, he was still getting harassed about the way he was running his life.
He gave Nathan a cold stare. "I don’t think that I need to give you a label for or a description of what exists between Inez and myself. The relationship is perfectly satisfactory in the form it exists in now, thank you very much! But it’s really none of your business anyway. Furthermore, it was years before you and Rain formalized your union with any form of ceremony, so a little less hypocrisy would be greatly appreciated."
He then turned on Josiah, before the preacher could offer any advice of his own. "And until you make an offer to my mother of the security of matrimony, the same goes for you." He had to admit that he rather enjoyed the surprised look on Josiah’s face. Did the pair of them honestly think he didn’t know what happened every time Maude visited Four Corners?
Ezra stood. "Well gentlemen, I hope you have a most pleasant evenin’ but for myself, Morpheus awaits."
With that he turned and walked off to find somewhere to lay his head for the night.
There was no point in trying to fight Opalocka for the vigil by Nikkanoochee’s sickbed.
So, sleep seemed the only satisfactory option.
It was still profoundly dark when Ezra was woken by someone roughly shaking his shoulder. The hand shaking him was substantially larger than average so he didn’t need to hear the voice to identify Josiah.
"C’mon, Ezra, wake up. We need your help."
"What?" Ezra was unable to fathom what could have possibly happened at this ridiculous hour of the morning.
"Let me put it another way. Your urgent assistance is required."
"Most amusin’. Just tell me what catastrophe has occurred." A sudden fear gripped him and he sat bolt upright, grabbing Josiah’s arm. "Nikkanoochee?"
"He’s no worse," Josiah reassured him, "Opalocka’s still with him."
"But no better either?"
"Not really, no. But we do need your help with something else. Nathan saw some intruders down near the goat pen. Thinks it’s Harry Blackwood and some of his friends."
"Oliver Blackwood’s son? What the hell are they doin’ here?"
Blackwood was a rather tyrannical patriarch who owned one of the larger sheep properties to the east of Four Corners. Ezra couldn’t imagine why young Harry might venture all this way in the middle of the night.
"Villagers say they were here a few weeks ago but when they were confronted, the boys killed some of the chickens then ran off."
"So what do you hope we are going to achieve?"
"Well, I reckon if they suddenly found them selves facing you, me and Nathan, they might not be so belligerent."
Ezra could see the logic of the strategy but still felt compelled to protest. "What possesses a rabble of teenagers to travel all this way (they must have left yesterday) just to make a nuisance of themselves, at a time when no one with any sense would contemplate leavin’ their beds?"
"I suspect that the lads in question haven’t seen their own beds for several days and that there’s more than a little liquor involved."
Ezra groaned as he climbed to his feet and pulled on his coat. "Wonderful! That should render them particularly amenable to receivin’ our advice."
Josiah grinned at him and clapped him on the shoulder as he led the way out. "C’mon."
The sky was beginning to brighten in the east, as they silently made their way to where Nathan was watching the youthful invaders. There were four of them and, as Josiah had said, they were all well liquored. So far, they had not harmed any of the livestock but were rather awkwardly trying to release the goats from their pen and not being particularly successful because the youngsters themselves stood blocking the exit.
Ezra stared, fascinated by the drunken ineptitude on display. "I’m not certain that we really need to intervene," he whispered to the other two, "From what I can see, these lads will be lucky to be able to put one foot in front of the other, let alone cause any serious damage."
Nathan glanced at him. "They need a lesson. Need t’learn they can’t go round hurtin’ folks or their property, just cos they’re bored or somethin’."
Ezra sighed. "And thus we find ourselves designated instructors?"
Josiah grinned. "Yeah, that about sums it up."
"Well, you go first." Ezra gestured with his hand. "After all, you are the most physically imposin'."
Josiah was still grinning as he nodded and preceded the other two down to the goat pen. He stopped approximately five feet behind them and, raising one arm towards heaven, he pointed the other at the boys (he could be quite theatrical when he wanted to be).
"My children," he pronounced in his most deep booming voice, "you have sinned in the eyes of the Lord."
The teenagers spun around to face him and then, recognizing three representatives of lawful authority in Four Corners, scattered in all directions.
"Well, that went well," muttered Ezra as he dashed to close the gate of the enclosure before the livestock escaped.
After accomplishing that small task, he looked around to see Josiah holding two of the youngsters by the scruff of the neck and Nathan tackling a third to the ground. Young Harry Blackwood had managed to slip past them and was fleeing down in the direction of the river. Ezra heard Nathan yell something to him as he set off after the lad but couldn’t quite distinguish the words.
Nathan looked up from subduing one of the intruders, to see Ezra heading down towards the river in pursuit of the last. Neither of those two could possibly know how the small timber bridge had been damaged by recent rain and flooding of the river. It was unstable and dangerous and if they tried to cross it, anything could happen.
Nathan instinctively called out to try and warn them. "Ezra! Wait!"
The gambler didn’t glance back as he disappeared down the path to the river. Damn!
Nathan shoved his captive towards Josiah (who quickly had him under control) and ran to catch up with Ezra.
They were both nearly at the bridge when he spotted them. In fact, Harry Blackwood had one foot raised to take his first step onto it.
"Ezra! Stop now!"
This time, Ezra did glance back but then looked again at the fleeing Blackwood and resumed his pursuit.
Damn, damn, damn! Nathan commenced a silent litany of expletives in his head. When he heard the first of the timbers crack, he began to say the words aloud.
Ezra also muttered something very similar when he registered the cracking sound and identified its source. He had just managed to bring down Harry Blackwood with a diving tackle and the boy screamed. Whether this was provoked by fear of capture or the imminent collapse of the bridge, no one ever determined.
They actually rolled off the small rickety bridge before it collapsed and they didn’t fall far, less than three feet. But the river was still swollen from the recent rains and the temperature had dropped with the approaching winter and Harry Blackwood had never learned to swim.
Ezra himself was actually a very good swimmer but even the best would find it difficult to keep their heads above water in a fast flowing river while being choked from behind by the panicked grip of someone half a stone heavier than themselves. He knew that he had to do something quickly or they were both done for and so brought his arm around to elbow Harry in the ribs with all the strength he could muster. Harry’s grip loosened and, after a brief struggle, Ezra found himself free and managed to break the surface.
Now that he could breathe again, he began to register just how cold he was and the fact that someone was calling his name. Twisting his head, he saw Nathan running along the riverbank. He was about to strike out for that shore when he remembered young Harry.
The boy was six or seven feet downstream of him, still yelling his head off but his struggles were becoming weaker as he went under for the umpteenth time.
Oh hell! Blackwood Junior was an overindulged, overfed, arrogant, small-minded bully. But there would be Hell to pay if Oliver Blackwood lost his only son. And besides, the kid was only sixteen. He deserved a chance to learn better.
The trick was to get him to shore without getting within reach of his panic-stricken clutches. And fast, before they both froze to death. No time for subtlety.
Harry was making too much noise and flailing motion to notice as Ezra swam towards him. The gambler moved in swiftly and managed to stun him with a rather inaccurate blow to the head (he wasn’t sure exactly where it landed). Then taking a grip of the boy’s collar, he tried to drag them both to shore.
It didn’t help that his own waterlogged coat felt as if it were composed of lead. But hearing splashing at the shoreline slightly downstream, he looked up to see Nathan, knee-deep into the river and holding a large branch out towards him.
Ezra managed to get a firm hold of it and gratefully felt himself being pulled to shore. Then he found himself, in the shallows, on his hands and knees, coughing, spluttering and shivering. Strong hands pulled him to his feet and onto the dry ground. He closed his eyes and let them, assuming they belonged to Nathan. But the deep rumbling voice he heard coming from over his head, when he collapsed back down into a shuddering huddle, told him that Josiah had also caught up with them.
"Take it easy, Ezra. We’ve got you both."
"H-h-harry?" Ezra stuttered through chattering teeth, as he looked up from where he sat on the ground.
"A mite dazed and more than a little annoyed."
Josiah grinned, "Yeah. Be even more so when Nathan’s finished with him." The preacher then lowered his voice, "And I think he has a few things to say to you as well."
They both looked up to see Nathan approach, in full lecturing mode and dragging the unfortunate Harry Blackwood with him. He came to halt in front of them and scowled down at the gambler.
"Is there some particular reason ya never listen to a word I say? Times like this I’d like t’break both yer legs just to teach ya to stay put!"
"So I could be crippled as well as freezing?" Ezra’s teeth were still chattering but he managed to keep his words even, as he returned an equally hostile glare.
Josiah found himself holding his breath. Nathan was on a knife’s edge from worry and fatigue and Ezra’s voice had taken on a particularly ominous tone. One more wrong word could set off a major explosion from either or both.
But fortunately Nathan saw sense and relented with a sigh. "No, on second thoughts, y’were a difficult enough patient last year with only one broken leg. Probably be twice as bad with two."
Ezra was easily his most exasperating friend. In the early days of their association, Josiah had been Nathan’s main source of exasperation and he wasn’t even sure he considered Ezra to be a friend, back then. But over the years, the gambler appeared to have finely honed his techniques for irritating Nathan, such that he was now without peer.
"If it was you who broke them, I’d certainly make every endeavor to be difficult."
The preacher flinched again (seemed like there could still be fireworks) but Ezra smiled wearily and the tension rapidly dissipated. Audibly sighing with relief, Josiah took off his coat and wrapped it around Ezra’s shoulders (Nathan had already bestowed his on the now very subdued Harry Blackwood), before hauling him to his feet.
"C’mon. Let’s get the two of you properly warmed up. There’s good fire still going, back at the village."
When they had reached the village, warm blankets had been rapidly fetched for them. But Ezra was still shivering as he huddled by the fire with two of those blankets wrapped around his shoulders and nursed a cup of hot coffee (containing a generous shot of whiskey) in his hands.
Fortunately, he had been spared any further lecturing from Nathan, thus far. The healer had found a much more compelling target in Harry Blackwood and his friends and his raised voice formed a comfortable familiar background noise, as Ezra reflexively sipped his coffee and morosely contemplated just how cold, wet and uncomfortable he was.
He wanted to go home. As soon as he could be sure that Nikkanoochee would be alright, he would get on his horse and ride non-stop until he reached the doors of the saloon in Four Corners. He could look into adoption possibilities tomorrow. Right now, the lure of a warm bed, and perhaps a warm bath before that, was just too hard to resist.
He was a creature addicted to worldly comforts and he’d never tried to deny it. Oh, he could tolerate deprivation of such comforts if he had to, but he never enjoyed it and certainly made every effort to avoid it.
So why the hell had he ventured out here, in the first place? For a moment, he struggled to recall what his reasoning had been. Then he remembered. He had gone in an attempt to escape the antagonism he’d been getting from Inez and his mother and daughter.
He sighed heavily. Right now, he’d give virtually anything for a smile from Angelica or Inez. Or even his mother. A single kind word would have driven all the chills from his body. A brief embrace or light kiss on the cheek would have warmed him to the very core of his being. Comfort be damned, what he really needed was their company! God, he needed to get home!
He startled visibly when Nathan’s voice broke him out of his reverie.
"What?" he responded in a peeved tone.
"Y’ve gotta get outta them wet clothes."
Ezra wasn’t impressed by the proposal. He had left Four Corners so precipitously that he had neglected to pack any clothes to change into (that would teach him to just embark on something like this on a whim).
"I am not parading into town wearin’ just a blanket, thank you very much! I know what those people are like!" Once, a long time ago, he’d been forced into a similar situation and the townsfolk had been thoroughly ungenerous with regards to his dignity.
It seemed that the Seminole villagers were a little more charitable and Nathan held out a bundle of clothes. "You can wear these instead."
Ezra stood up to inspect the garments offered.
"I don’t think so!" he pronounced. The tunic and pants were tolerable but, although Ezra knew that his compatriots regarded his wardrobe as somewhat ostentatious, it did not extend to anything quite so lurid (and in his opinion tasteless) as the patchwork poncho which was also being proffered. He fingered the offending item of clothing with distaste.
"Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, for he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colors."
Ezra looked over to see Josiah also approaching, not even bothering to hide his wide grin. Nice to see that everyone was getting such entertainment value out of his predicament.
He directed a withering look at the preacher. "I’d like to point out that: firstly, you are not my father and, secondly, there is no conceivable way that you could induce me to put on that garment."
Nathan had had enough of the gambler’s recalcitrance and decided to exactly spell out the situation for him.
"Ezra, y’need to get outta them wet clothes right now. Either ya do it yerself or me an’ Josiah will hold ya down and strip you naked. Then y’can decide if y’wanna put on these dry clothes. The amount of dignity y’hold onto is completely up to you."
Ezra’s mutinous glare was rather ruined when he couldn’t hold back a loud sneeze and besides he could tell that Nathan wasn’t joking. He rather ungraciously snatched the outfit from Nathan’s grasp and disappeared into a nearby hut to change, muttering cantankerously.
Josiah and Nathan exchanged grins, as Nathan called after him. "Y’need a hand?"
Ezra’s words instantly became crystal clear and hard enough to cut through rock. "No, thank you!"
Although he couldn’t help chuckling at this, Josiah gently chided Nathan. "Leave him be. He’ll be self-conscious enough, as it is."
Then a tearful feminine voice behind them caused them to turn towards it. "Nathan..."
It was Opalocka and she looked frankly devastated. She was trying to tell them something but it took several attempts before she found her voice again.
"He’s gone," she finally told them, tears streaming down her face and her words punctuated with sobs. "He stopped breathing... nothing I could do."
Nathan and Josiah looked wordlessly at each other, then back at Opalocka and then at Ezra, who emerged from the hut, obviously having heard the news, his face blank with shock.
Ezra slowly walked forward and took the sobbing woman in his arms. No words were necessary. He barely knew her but for this moment they were united in grief. United in wondering if there was anything that they could have done to prevent this unthinkable thing. United in wishing that the ground would just swallow them up so that they didn’t have to contemplate it anymore.
But as his own tears began to fall on the Indian woman’s shoulder, Ezra was forced to reflect on yet another failure. Once again he hadn’t been there when he was needed. Maybe Nikkanoochee would still have died but Ezra knew that he should have been there anyway. For the sake of keeping him company at the end, if nothing else.
Not good enough. Simply, not good enough. These sorts of things shouldn’t happen to a child.
Almost instantaneously the world had turned cold and gray and hollow.
More than anything he needed some reassurance that life and love and the laughter of children still existed somewhere in the world.
God, he needed to get home!
There were times when the English language was woefully deficient. "Exhausted" didn’t get anywhere near describing what Ezra felt at the moment. There ought to be a word to aptly describe the mind-numbing fatigue that had him almost falling from his horse and not caring if he did. But, for the life of him, he couldn’t think of one, right now.
And why was he expending energy trying to fathom out this inadequacy of vocabulary anyway? Just stay in the saddle, hang onto the reins and let the horse make its way home. He’d already given up on conversation; problem-solving thought processes were rapidly on their way out. Minimum of thought, just enough to get home, that was his resolved course of action - or inaction - whatever.
Nathan and Josiah had tried to initiate a few conversations, early in the journey, but the only replies they received from their usually loquacious companion were unintelligible grunts. They probably thought he was still annoyed with them. Well, they were right about that, but the main reason that he remained uncommunicative was weariness rather than rancor.
The two of them had busied themselves with lecturing their four prisoners for most of the journey, anyway. Ezra was unsure if it would have any significant long-term effect but the boys looked thoroughly cowed at the moment and it was planned that they would have an educational overnight stay at the jail in Four Corners.
They couldn’t be far from home. He was struggling to keep his eyes open now. When they got home everything would be fine. He’d tumble into bed and sleep for a week. Nothing at all could possibly matter to him. The world at large could just take care of itself.
Nathan had said that he would spend two or three days in town before heading back to the village. All of his surviving patients there were on the road to recovery. The epidemic had passed its crisis point and Nathan could afford to spend a little time assisting with the upkeep of justice in Four Corners.
It was just a pity that the crisis had taken innocents like Nikkanoochee with it. No, not a pity, it was a tragedy. Ezra knew that he had to stop thinking about it. It was something that he couldn’t change. The boy would be buried beside his parents with all the appropriate ceremonies of his tribe. It was the end of his journey. There was nothing more Ezra could do for him. He was gone.
Ezra looked up as the town of Four Corners came into view. Almost home. Soon he could rest and just ignore all the rest of the world. He might rouse himself to spend some time with his daughter and maybe even Inez, if she was feeling a bit more amicable. Hell, even his mother may have been struck by a generous mood (or, failing that, left town). He allowed himself just a smidgen of optimism. He was almost home.
Buck Wilmington was standing outside the saloon, as the small contingent of riders made its way into town.
"Oh, Lord! Would y’look at that!" He stuck his head into the saloon. "Hey, guys! Inez! Y’gotta come see this!"
Chris, Vin, Inez, Maude, Angelica and several other onlookers from the saloon came out to investigate the source of Buck’s amusement. JD was already making his way over from the direction of the jail.
"What the hell happened to you?" Chris asked Ezra as the group came to a halt in front of the saloon.
Ezra scowled, unaware that his annoyed expression only added to the overall comic effect of his appearance. Not that the patchwork Seminole poncho in clashing, eye-gouging colors wasn’t enough in its own right.
"It’s a long story," he muttered.
"No, it ain’t," said Nathan (the laughter in voice, as much due to relief that Ezra was speaking again, as anything else), "He decided to teach Harry Blackwood t’swim."
"Y’fell in the river," Chris surmised, his characteristic half-smile broadening.
Ezra nodded wearily.
"Ain’t it a bit cold fer swimmin’?" JD asked. He was outright laughing.
"Indeed," Ezra confirmed, looking futilely for a single face moved to sympathy rather than mirth.
He couldn’t even look to his own mother for a little compassion. But then again, he’d never really been able to do that.
"Well, y’all know that Ezra’s always had a penchant for out of season swimmin’." She had just been regaling the saloon patrons with a tale of Ezra escaping from a gambling riverboat as a teenager and the comment drew snorts of laughter from the whole group. Even Angelica was giggling.
"And I see that you’ve acquired a new tailor, darlin’." Maude shamelessly played to the crowd and got another round of laughter.
Ezra was thoroughly unimpressed with the response of the group as a whole but saved his most reproachful glares for Inez and Angelica. Et tu, Brute!
Nonetheless, the hilarity continued.
"I thought the Seminole took Nathan into their tribe, not Ezra," said Buck.
"Aw, y’know Ezra," Vin responded, "He could talk his way into any gatherin’."
Ezra realized that they didn’t actually need him to be there to carry on with this. They could quite happily keep going while he left to have a bath and go to bed. To hell with them all! He didn’t need any of them, anyway!
But he wasn’t going to go quietly. "I had thought that the conspiracy to persecute me bein’ conducted by the three significant feminine persons in my life just might have dissolved in my absence. But it seems to have grown to encompass the men I work with as well."
He spoke in a rather quiet flat voice but easily made himself heard through the dying laughter. "I’m sure that you gentlemen can take care of the prisoners without my further assistance. I’m goin’ to have a bath, then have a drink and then go to bed."
Then he dismounted and stalked off in the direction of the bathhouse.
Damn! Nathan inwardly cursed. He’d thought that Ezra was gradually coming a little way out of the depression he’d been in since they learned of Nikkanoochee’s death. Obviously not.
He also climbed off his horse and made one more attempt to mollify the gambler. A bit of humor usually helped. "I thought ya already had a bath today."
Ezra didn’t even look back at him, just kept trudging towards the bathhouse.
Josiah reached down, patted Nathan’s shoulder and spoke softly "Ease up on him, Nathan. He’s had a hell of a day."
Nathan resisted the temptation to snort in exasperation. He knew that! He’d been there! Okay, so he’d tried the wrong tactics. Their usual banter wouldn’t work this time. It was going to take a good dose of plain talking. Nathan sighed. As if any conversation with Ezra could be described as plain talking.
He remembered that Ezra had mentioned wanting a drink. That would probably help things along a bit. Nathan turned to Inez who was also now gazing after Ezra with a worried expression.
"Inez, could I trouble ya fer a bottle of whiskey?"
Inez nodded distractedly before the question seemed to fully register. Then she looked at Nathan and gave him a half-smile. "Brandy would be better at a time like this. I have a bottle behind the bar."
Ezra was already soaking in a tub of hot water with his eyes closed when Nathan entered the bathhouse. The gambler neither turned towards him nor opened his eyes but Nathan knew that he’d registered his presence because he sunk further down into the water. Well, if Ezra wasn’t going to acknowledge him, then he’d just have to make the first move.
Ezra opened one eye and then closed it again. "Mr Jackson."
Oh, so we were in a ‘Mr Jackson’ frame of mind rather than a ‘Nathan’ one? Nathan kept his sigh to himself. Of course, we would be. This was going to be a tough conversation but, hell, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
"Mind if I join ya?"
Ezra’s eyes opened again and his gaze was not friendly, "Also feelin’ in need of a superfluous cleansing?"
Nathan held up the bottle and glasses he’d brought with him. "Dunno, maybe later. But I do feel in need of a drink and I heard ya say ya wanted one too."
"I’m rather choosy whom I drink with."
Nathan couldn’t help tensing slightly. There was a time when that comment would have really got his back up. That was the point really. Ezra knew this and was using some his sharpest weapons to try and keep Nathan at bay.
Well, Nathan had known that it wasn’t going to be easy. He wasn’t going to let this first obstacle defeat him. "Yeah, always known that. Always took it as a compliment. Buck’ll drink with just about anyone willin’ to pay fer his liquor."
That was perhaps a bit unfair to Buck. There was very definitely a class of people he wouldn’t let buy him a drink. But that didn’t matter right now. Buck wasn’t here to be offended and the point was to get through to Ezra. Probably best to stop with the words and get a drink inside him.
Nathan poured a shot and proffered the glass to Ezra. His gaze remained overtly hostile but he took the drink and gingerly sipped it. Then his eyebrows lifted slightly and he took another look at the bottle in Nathan’s hands.
"Been talkin’ to Inez?"
Nathan’s own brows lifted. "What makes ya say that?"
Ezra’s face slipped into the smallest degree of a smile and Nathan knew that he was finally making progress.
"Offerin’ me brandy is one of her ways of sayin’ ‘sorry’."
"An’ what’s yours? Cleanin’ the saloon glasses without her havin’ t’ask?"
Ezra’s face became expressionless again. No need to tell Nathan that he was right in that supposition.
But Nathan knew the reaction well enough to deduce it anyway and he smiled, as he took a seat and poured himself a drink.
They sat there sipping brandy (it was very good stuff, no wonder Inez kept it hidden) and the silence stretched out for a bit but this time it was a little more comfortable. They needed to talk a few things out but now that Nathan knew he was making progress, he could afford to take a little time.
He made another non-confrontational overture. "Y’know, you forgot to bring y’self some clean clothes" He held up the other item he’d got from Inez, a bundle of Ezra’s clothing, including his favorite red jacket.
Ezra sighed and gestured at his Seminole outfit, lying on the bathhouse floor. "I didn’t forget, actually. I just thought that I’d wear this exquisite ensemble back to the saloon and just change into a night shirt when I got there." He closed his eyes, as the day’s events threatened to overwhelm him. "I just want to go to bed and make this day end. Tomorrow simply has to be better."
"Yeah." There was not much else Nathan could say to that.
The silence dragged on for a few more seconds before he decided to bite the bullet. "Y’were thinkin’ of takin’ in Nikkanoochee, weren’t ya?"
Ezra said nothing, so Nathan persisted, trying for a lighter approach. "What with Angie, as well, were ya thinkin’ of settin’ up another orphanage t’compete with Josiah’s?"
That managed to provoke a half-smile. "Do you think I could’ve made it turn a profit?"
"If anyone could, it’d be you."
"Yes. You once said that I could work an angle on anyone’s sufferin’."
Nathan closed his eyes. Damn! He’d walked straight into that one! Just when he thought that he’d broken through. Well, it just went show that you could never let your guard down for a second, when arguing with Ezra. He had a gift for remembering things you said like that and had no compunction about using them to get himself out of an awkward position if he didn’t want to talk.
But Nathan wasn’t going to back off this time. Ezra needed to talk this out. All the tragedy and the horror that you saw when tending to the sick and dying, it couldn’t be hidden away inside you. If you tried to do that, it would just fester.
"There was nothing you could’ve done, Ezra. Sometimes, these things just happen."
Ezra stared morosely into space. On an intellectual level, he knew that what Nathan was saying was true but he just couldn’t come to terms with the unfairness of the whole situation. "Those things should never happen to a child."
Nathan sighed. "Y’re right, but sometimes they do."
Ezra looked Nathan directly in the eye for the first time. "You must frequently witness events such as that. How do you stay sane?"
"Dunno exactly but talkin’s important. Especially talkin’ to folks who’s been there an’ knows what it’s like."
Ezra’s eyes closed again. "What is there to say?"
But despite the pessimism of the words, Nathan knew that he’d finally broken through the barrier. So he just sat back and waited for Ezra to start talking again.
Ezra had hoped to reach his bed without encountering anyone else. Hence, he had entered the saloon through the back door, via the kitchen. But Inez stood at the foot of the stairs leading to his room, obviously hoping to waylay him.
He couldn’t think of anything civil to say so he simply ignored her, brushed past her and began climbing the stairs.
But she followed him. "So you’re not going to talk to me?"
"I’m too fatigued to hold any meaningful conversation. Maybe tomorrow." He didn’t break his stride as he finished climbing the stairs and walked across the landing and into their room.
It was Inez who closed the door behind them. Their last major argument had been in public, there was no need for this one to be as well.
"So what are you going to do?"
"I’m goin’ to get changed and go to bed." Suiting action to word, he began stripping off clothes.
"What’s the matter? Did something happen while you were away?"
"Any number of things but you need not concern yourself."
"Ezra, how can I help if you won’t talk to me?"
"You don’t need to help. If you want a conversation, go talk to your customers. I’m sure Buck would be up for some witty repartee."
Inez blinked. He’d never expressed any jealousy over her previous relationship with Buck before. Was that the cause of all this? If so, what could have set it off? They’d never talked about it. She thought that they had just tacitly agreed that the past was the past and not to worry too much about it.
"You know that I’d rather talk to you than Buck, any day."
"Well, not today. You’re goin’ to have to just accept the next best offer." He finished changing and climbed into bed, turning away from her.
Inez realized that she was getting nowhere and tried another tack. "Have you said goodnight to your daughter?"
A brief trace of remorse flitted across Ezra’s face but then it hardened, as he remembered exactly why he had left town in the first place. "I’m sure that she and her grandmother are more than capable of keepin’ each other entertained."
In a gesture of overt childishness, he pulled the bedcovers over his head to signal the end of the conversation. Inez felt her sympathy rapidly dissolve. It was all very well for him to give her the cold shoulder but he had no right to take his anger out on the child.
"Well, we have managed to cope without you quite well for the past few days. When you are ready to come back and join us, just let me know," she said coldly before she stormed out, slamming the door behind her.
She spent the rest of the evening in a truly irate mood and she certainly didn’t indulge in any meaningful conversations. Even Buck had given her a wide berth, Angelica had gone to bed early without even a hint of an argument and Maude had disappeared somewhere with Josiah. Nathan had returned her bottle of brandy and looked as though he wanted to discuss some things with her, but then he had been called away to deal with one of the prisoners in the jail who’d managed to injure himself. And she closed the saloon early, as the last of even the heavy drinkers had left before midnight.
Even so, Inez was still exhausted as she climbed the stairs to her room. Ezra was asleep. He mumbled slightly when she climbed into bed beside him but didn’t wake. Probably a good thing. She couldn’t face another argument with him at the moment. She turned her back to him and closed her eyes.
They’d work it out in the morning.
Angelica had watched the doctor, Nathan, Inez, her grandmother and Josiah all parade into her father’s room.
When she had called out to each one of them, they had told her that nothing was wrong and to go back to sleep. But she could tell that they were lying. Something was most definitely wrong, it involved her father and they were deliberately not telling her.
She knew that Ezra was still angry at her. Well, she had been quite mean to him.
She had only been his daughter for less than a year but she really did love him a lot. She had loved him when they were just friends and her mother had still been alive.
Then when Teresa had been killed and Angelica felt that she was all alone in the world, Ezra had made sure that she wasn’t alone after all. He had gone to a lot of trouble to legally adopt her, so that the whole world know that he was her father and that they would be together forever. He’d actually said that, "together forever", just when she was scared that she would have nobody.
But when her grandmother had come to town, Angelica had abandoned Ezra. How could she have been so thoughtless and ungrateful and disloyal? To him, of all people. How could she have been mean to him at all?
She couldn’t help liking her grandmother. Every time Maude came to Four Corners, she brought presents and all Angelica’s favorite types of candy. She spent time with her, played games with her and told her wonderful stories.
A lot of the stories were about Ezra and Angelica knew he felt uncomfortable when her grandmother told them. But she couldn’t help laughing at the funny things he had done. It was actually quite reassuring for her to learn that he could do such silly things when he was little and still grow up to be the wonderful person that he was now.
But added to all that was the fact that Maude was now her grandmother. She actually had a grandmother now, as well as a father. She’d never had either before. Ezra had adopted her and Maude was tied to him by blood. So Angelica had a real grandmother that no one could take away. Another real legal relation.
It wasn’t that she didn’t love Inez and the "arbitrary" uncles which Ezra had given to her. But they had only said that they were like family to her. One day, they might change their minds. Ezra and Maude, they were her real family.
But first and foremost, Ezra was her father. He had given her everything. And how had she repaid him?
She had betrayed him. Every moment she spent with her grandmother was one that she didn’t spend with him. And she knew that he had been fighting with Inez too.
No wonder he’d got so angry that he’d left town for a while.
But Angelica was really, really sorry. And she’d do absolutely anything to make it up to him.
If he’d only let her see him, then she could tell him how sorry she was. Then maybe they could make things alright again.
Ezra had always had a degree of antagonism towards the medical profession. When you were already feeling unwell, they poked and prodded you, seemed to take forever to make up their minds and then made some incomprehensible pronouncement about your condition. And their medicines almost universally tasted repulsive.
His current situation was not doing much to alter his opinion. He was tired and breathless, so they were forcing him to sit up so they could examine his chest. They always had to do things in the most uncomfortable position and it wasn’t as if he wasn’t suffering enough already. He was still unbearably hot and his throat was so raw that it felt like he’d swallowed sharp nails or broken glass or something like that. But at least the coughing had stopped. During the last few episodes, each cough had felt like someone was sticking a sharp knife into his chest.
Thoroughly exhausted, Ezra had given up even trying to keep his eyes open and couldn’t help leaning into Nathan’s grasp on his shoulders as his friend propped him up for Dr Elliot to listen to his back with a stethoscope. It meant that he didn’t have to look at the anxious faces of the audience that had gathered in the room either.
Inez’s apprehension had been readily apparent. She didn’t even try to hide it. His mother had kept her emotions from reaching her studiously expressionless face but there was a tension in her poise which she never would have allowed to show at a card table. And Josiah had stood behind Maude, almost subconsciously placing a hand on her shoulder, in a gesture of comfort. It all produced a rather grim little scene which Ezra didn’t want to look at just now.
"Ninety-nine, ninety-nine." He concentrated on repeating the word, as he had been instructed to, each time the doctor moved the instrument to a new position on his chest but his voice was beginning to fade.
Dr Elliot saw his patient’s strength failing and decided against further probing. He was sure of the diagnosis anyway.
"Alright, Nathan. Let him rest now."
The black healer gently eased his friend back into a supine position on the bed and pulled the covers up over his chest.
"Well?" asked Inez, frightened by the particularly subdued and somber manner with which the doctor had conducted the examination.
It was the patient himself who pre-empted the doctor’s reply. "It’s what Nikkanoochee and the others had, isn’t it?"
Dr Elliot spoke cautiously. "Well, it’s pneumonia. Double pneumonia, in fact." He looked over at Nathan who nodded to indicate his concurrence with the diagnosis.
Ezra managed to raise a smile, although his eyes remained closed. "Double?" he queried, his voice barely more than a whisper. "Well, never let it be said that I do things by halves."
Then he realized something and his eyes snapped open. "This must spread quite easily. I spent less than a day with Nikkanoochee."
Dr Elliot frowned. "In my experience, it can be quite contagious. It seems to be particularly so when you’re coughing or sneezing. It would probably help if you tried to contain that as much as you can with handkerchiefs and the like. And I’d avoid any close face to face contact." He turned to look at Inez as he spoke.
Ezra considered the risks and quickly came to a decision. "Inez, I think you, Angelica, Mother and Josiah should vacate this room immediately and indefinitely. Nathan can stay. He probably knows how best to avoid the contagion."
Inez did not agree. "Don’t be ridiculous. I have already shared a bed with you all night and I will not let Nathan kill himself trying to nurse you single-handed. And anyway, do you honestly think that I would leave you while you are ill like this?"
"Inez, I forbid you..."
"What do you think you are going to do? Throw me out?"
Ezra knew that he didn’t have the strength to compel Inez to do anything she didn’t want to, so he tried to enlist the assistance of a formidable ally. Surely, Maude would see the sense of his suggestion. "Mother, would you please take her outside with you?"
Maude gave him a look that was laden with both reproach and determination. "I know that you don’t have much regard for my maternal instincts but if you think that you can persuade me to leave, you’re seriously mistaken."
"Don’t even try to fight me on this Ezra. Just save your strength."
That, at least, was good advice. He didn’t think he even had enough energy to keep his eyes open much longer. But even if these two refused to act in their own best interests, perhaps they would see sense on behalf of the third case.
In a breathless voice but with all the fervor he could muster, he insisted, "Angelica is to be kept out of this room, no matter what she says. I won’t let her take the risk and I won’t forgive any of you who do." Another coughing fit wracked his body, robbing him of his remaining strength.
"Please," Ezra made one last painfully whispered plea and his eyes closed.
Inez took hold of his hand and her eyes filled with tears, as she reassured him, "Don’t worry, querido. I’ll make sure that she won’t risk it. I promise you." At that moment, there was almost nothing that she would have been able to deny him.
One of her tears fell onto his face and he opened his eyes again and smiled at her. "Gracias, querida," he murmured and managed to exert a faint pressure on the fingers within his grasp.
His eyes closed but the smile remained as Inez reached out with her other hand to gently stroke his face which then slowly slackened into the expressionless of sleep.
Inez remained frozen in the spot where she stood. This couldn’t be happening. He simply couldn’t leave her. Not now. Not like this.
She felt a hand come to rest on her shoulder and glanced around to meet Maude’s clear blue tearless eyes.
"Best go down to the kitchen, darlin’. The troops will need provisions."
Inez stared incredulously at her. "I am not going to leave him!"
Maude remained unperturbed by her vehemence. "When he wakes, he’ll need somethin’ to keep his strength up." She looked over at the medical experts. "Soup would probably be best. Doctor? Mr Jackson?"
They both nodded wordlessly and Maude directed her attention back to Inez. "And these poor boys must be famished as well. Surely, you would not leave them to the mercy of my dubious culinary expertise?"
Inez wavered and Maude made a final push to topple her resolve. "I’ll stay with him. It’s a mother’s prerogative to have the first watch over her boy."
Inez swallowed her tears and nodded. She briefly lifted the hand she still held and lightly kissed Ezra’s fingers, before releasing it and wiping her eyes as she walked slowly to the door. Then she paused once in the doorway.
"Soup for Ezra and enchiladas for everyone else?"
"That would be lovely, dear."
Inez nodded once more, as she departed and Maude turned back to her charge.
The charge that she’d just coerced Inez into giving her. A mother’s prerogative.
Maude had known that the claim of familial privilege would carry considerable weight with Inez, just as she knew that the girl needed to be away doing something useful. Even though Inez wanted to be there for Ezra, just sitting and waiting while he remained unconscious would simply eat away at her.
A mother’s prerogative and also a mother’s duty. Maude herself needed to be there for him now. To prove to him that she had enough concern and compassion, and to prove to herself that she had the courage.
The familiarity of the situation almost overwhelmed her. More than twenty years since it had occurred but the voices, the sights, even the smells were still vivid in her mind. Every instinct in her wanted to run.
But she had to concentrate on leaving the past behind. All that was gone was gone forever. These fears and doubts had no right to return. It was not going to happen again. This time, she wouldn’t allow it.
Inez had not even reached the stairs, on her way down to the kitchen, when she was intercepted by a very hostile Angelica.
"I want to see Father!"
Inez sighed, "No, Angelica, you cannot go in there."
"That’s not fair! Everybody else has seen him!"
The worry and exhaustion had frayed Inez’s temper. "Angelica, you are not going in there!"
Angelica’s eyes blazed. She could be as hot-tempered as any of them, given the right provocation.
"You can’t stop me! He’s my father. You just live with us!"
She knew this was terribly unfair. Inez loved Ezra too, and she had known him much longer than his daughter had. But the child was prepared to use absolutely any weapon at her disposal to get access to her father.
Inez was afraid for Ezra. And she was afraid for Angelica. And she was tired and at her wits end. The one thing at the forefront of her mind was her promise to Ezra. She was damn well going to keep it and if Angelica didn’t like it, well they would just have to deal with that later.
"If you even look like you are going to try, I will tie you to the chair in your room!"
Angelica stared at her for a moment. There was a burning intensity in Inez’s eyes. Maybe she would tie her up. Angelica wasn’t sure that she would be able to get out of knots tied by Inez.
Unwilling to risk it, she angrily turned away, stomped into her room and slammed the door behind her.
Inez let out a long breath. She wasn’t sure how many of these confrontations she could withstand in one day. Then she glanced back, to where Nathan had stuck his head out of Ezra’s room and was giving her a questioning look.
"She wasn’t happy with being kept out," Inez explained.
Nathan sighed. "No, s’ppose she wouldn’t be. But Ezra’s right, she shouldn’t go anywhere near him."
On the other side of her door, Angelica was listening intently. What she heard devastated her and she sank down to the floor and began to sob softly to herself.
It was Ezra who didn’t want to see her. He didn’t want her anywhere near him, Nathan had said. And Nathan didn’t usually tell lies.
She had thought that she was fighting against Inez to get in to see him. But it was her father himself who had locked her out. He was still so angry that he wouldn’t even talk to her.
But if he wouldn’t let her see him, then how could she tell him how sorry she was?
What could she possibly do to make everything all right again?
When Inez reached the foot of the stairs, barely seeing the steps in front of her along the way, she heard a familiar voice call her name.
She wearily lifted her eyes to her visitor. "How can I help you, Buck?"
He grinned that open, genuine, ‘good ol’ Buck’ grin. "Well darlin’, I woke early an’ thought I might beat the crowd an’ grab me an early breakfast."
Inez’s eyes narrowed. There was more to it than that. She remembered the mood she had been in last night. He was probably fishing for what had been irritating her. As if that mattered now.
"I am not making breakfast today, Buck. You and the others can go and ask at the hotel."
Buck frowned. Whatever the problem had been, it seemed to have gotten worse. So much for subtle (that was Ezra’s way, not his, anyway), best to just come to the point. "Inez," he asked gently, "what’s the matter?"
She felt a brief flash of anger but quickly quashed it. Why was she reacting like this? Buck was an old friend, both to her and to Ezra. He was just showing concern. He had every right to ask and every right to know.
"Ezra has pneumonia." Her voice cracked as she told him. "It looks very bad, Buck."
Be they friend, lover or complete stranger, Buck’s first instinct, upon seeing a woman with this level of distress, was to take them into his arms and comfort them. But when he moved to do so, Inez flinched at his touch.
She couldn’t help it. Only yesterday when they had been arguing, Ezra had made a comment about herself and Buck. It had been rather cryptic but it seemed to indicate an unspoken jealousy over the relationship that had previously existed between them. To accept an embrace from Buck now seemed like betrayal. It was the last thing she could do.
Buck didn’t understand but he accepted. Touch unnerved her instead of reassuring her. He stepped back to give her space. But he had to know. Ezra had seemed fine yesterday. Well, rather annoyed but healthy enough.
She knew what he was asking and didn’t wait for him to finish the question. "I don’t know. They said something about the illness in the Seminole village." And now she couldn’t stop the tears. "He looks so sick, Buck."
He couldn’t restrain himself and reached out to put a hand on her shoulder. But she pulled away again and wiped a hand across her eyes, trying to compose herself. She had been given a task and shouldn’t be just standing around moping.
"I have things to do in the kitchen."
Buck looked at her in surprise. "I thought ya weren’t makin’ any breakfast."
"I’m not. They said that I should make some soup for Ezra. And I am making something for Nathan and the doctor and everyone upstairs."
"If ya make me some too, I’ll watch over the bar for ya." That, at least, he could do. Then she could be with Ezra, like she so obviously needed to be.
But Inez was not as convinced of the merits of the proposal.
"Buck, half of the times I leave you to run the bar, I have to come back and break up a brawl."
"Not this time," he promised her but she still looked at him skeptically.
"Look I’ll get Vin or Chris or both to help me watch the place. Surely you can trust the three of us for a day or so."
Inez was tempted. Someone did need to keep an eye on things and Buck was trying to show friendship in this offer of help.
"Alright" she agreed and headed for the kitchen. She offered him a watery but grateful smile from the doorway. He was a good friend. Always had been and always would be. "You like your enchiladas extra spicy, don’t you?"
The ‘good ol’ Buck’ grin returned and he nodded. "I’ll go see if Chris or Vin are up."
Ezra didn’t stir at all when Nathan wiped his face once more with the dampened cloth. The healer contained his worried sigh for the benefit of the others in the room. Not that he had ever been very good at hiding his apprehension. And anyway, Maude had an even greater ability to decipher people’s thoughts from their faces than Ezra did (hell, she was the one who’d taught him) and Josiah had always been able to read Nathan like a book. So he belatedly let the sigh out. Then Dr Elliot caught his eye and beckoned him over to a corner where they could confer without being overheard.
Maude briefly looked up from where she hovered by Ezra’s side. Her tension was almost palpable. At least that was how it seemed to Josiah from where he stood by the door. They had come in together, having spent last night in each other’s company, but he had immediately retired into the background where he could watch over her and her ailing son from a distance. He knew better than to get between a mother and her child.
Maude sat beside Ezra’s bed, feeling useless and utterly unsure as to what to do. She was naturally a reserved person and to some extent had instilled a similar demeanor in her son. Overt emotional displays were something she feigned to take in her marks. She had always related to Ezra via conversation (usually civilized). Tactile demonstrations of affection were kept perfunctory. To her, they had always seemed rather trivial and meaningless, anyway.
But now she needed to give him comfort and reassurance. She needed to show him that she was there for him. But he wasn’t awake to talk with her.
That was no excuse. He couldn’t speak but she could. Tentatively taking his hand, she leaned closer and said softly. "Well darlin’, you’ve done some foolhardy things to try and get my attention in the past. But don’t you think that this is a little excessive?"
Maude ventured a sad little half-smile, hoping to encourage her son to share in the joke. No response. Well at least, if he wasn’t going to argue with her, this might turn out to be one of the easiest conversations she ever had with him. But this wry reflection gave her no comfort.
She glanced over at Josiah, watching her and Ezra protectively, like some kind of guard dog. She sighed and, with a look, invited him over to join them. She and the preacher had begun to share so many things, he might as well share this.
But even when Josiah pulled up a chair to sit quietly beside her, she kept her conversation directed at Ezra (who remained completely oblivious).
"Y’know darlin’, I was utterly shocked when I received your telegram to tell me that you had adopted Angelica."
Beside her, Josiah suppressed a smile. He remembered that at the time, Ezra had rather suspected that she would be. But he let Maude continue her monologue uninterrupted.
"I came to ask you what on earth you were thinkin’. But when I arrived, you told me how the poor child lost her mother and how it was Mr Greel who murdered her. You know that I had no idea when I sent him to see you, don’t you, Ezra? Angelica certainly has no suspicion."
No, Angelica had no suspicions at all. She didn’t know why Maude had thrown herself into her role of grandmother so ardently. She had no preconceptions about what Maude was like, or indeed, what a grandmother was like. But Maude knew that it had surprised the hell out of Ezra.
She knew that he’d never seen her bestow such care and attention on anyone unless she was running a con. He certainly hadn’t liked it. Was that jealousy or did he think she might be working an angle? There was certainly no deceit in his dealings with Angelica. He obviously adored the child.
And Angelica adored him. He entertained her, educated her and gave her all the security he could. And it all seemed instinctive.
She shook her head in wonder. "Where did you learn to be such a good parent, Ezra? You had a shockin’ role model."
Josiah placed a hand on her shoulder and she briefly glanced at him. Her face took on a vaguely apologetic expression as she turned back to Ezra.
"It’s an awful thing for a mother to say but I hated to be tied down and I loathed to be forced into things. I had to be able to go wherever I needed to at a moment’s notice and there were some places I really couldn’t take you." She smiled sadly again. "You might even understand that now. After all, we both learned that the hard way. But children never seem to know what’s in their own best interests."
Ezra had clung to her literally and figuratively, every time she tried to say goodbye. All he ever wanted was to be with her and no matter how many times she told him that it just wasn’t possible, he refused to believe it.
She squeezed his hand. "You were like a dog with a bone. You just wouldn’t let go." He never gave up on trying to stay with her. "Very few relatives could put up with you for any length of time. You made certain of that. I suppose you thought that if there was no one else who’d have you, I’d be forced to take you with me."
But eventually Ezra had learned that if he could participate in a con, it would help encourage her to take him with her. "Then you became the best co-conspirator I ever had. I never told you that, did I?"
They’d had some good times together when he was a teenager, taking on the world by conning and gambling as a team. But after a while she found that he had begun to try to compete with her. Maybe it was because she had always ignored his suggestions. "You thought you were clever, darlin’, but Mother knows best." After all, he still couldn’t win against her and she still thoroughly trounced him each time he tried. The thought brought another brief smile to her face. He was utterly adorable when he got flustered.
"But one day you seemed to decide that you didn’t need me anymore and you just took off. And somehow getting my freedom back didn’t feel as good as I’d thought it would."
Now it seemed that they only ever met when she came looking for him. It was as if he’d never looked back. But even if he thought that he no longer needed her, she knew better.
"You need some one to keep an eye on you. Keep you on your toes. You’re never goin’ to be rid of me."
But now he had others to watch over him. She looked up again at Josiah, then Nathan and even at that moment Dr Elliot went and opened the door to admit Inez carrying a laden tray.
Now he was surrounded by people to care for him. Maybe, he really did no longer need her, after all.
The problem was that she now knew that she needed him.
It was some time around dusk and Inez sat alone by Ezra’s bedside, waiting for him to awaken. He had stirred and muttered on several occasions during the day but each time (despite earnest coaxing from Inez, his mother and Nathan) he had slipped back into profound unconsciousness.
And momentarily at least, all the rest of his beside guardians were elsewhere.
Dr Elliot had left midmorning to see several other patients on his rounds. He had promised to return in the evening and, in fact, would probably be turning up sometime soon.
Josiah has escorted Maude down to the saloon. He and Inez had agreed that she needed a break and he reasoned that taking money off him, Chris and Vin might be just about the only thing that would take her mind off her son’s illness. Besides, he always found it amusing to watch Buck struggle to contain his temper with the more obstreperous saloon patrons. It would be interesting to see how frayed he had become, having spent an entire day behind the bar.
Nathan had just ducked out to Dr Elliot’s surgery to borrow his spare stethoscope. He would be back any moment.
So Inez sat alone, watching and waiting and reflecting. The soup she had made was on a tray in her lap, no longer even lukewarm although she had already reheated it once. She had taken the comment about keeping Ezra’s strength up quite seriously and was determined that she would get something inside him before the day was through. The soup was a simple beef stock to which she had added barley and every vegetable she could find. Maybe he would only manage the broth but if she could persuade him into taking any solids, it would be a welcome bonus.
He stirred again and she brought her chair closer and called his name. This time there seemed to be a response.
"Come on, Ezra." She put a hand to his face and his eyelids slowly lifted. "Come on, you have to eat something."
"What?" He blinked at her. "Inez?"
"Yes, querido." She took a spoonful of the soup and moved to put it in his mouth but he turned his head away.
"No," he murmured, "not hungry."
"You have to, Ezra. It’s only a little cold." That last part was a blatant lie but he could complain about that later.
"I don’t want it."
"Ezra, you have to keep your strength up if you are going to fight this."
"I don’t care." He was clearly awake now. And just as clearly had every intention of digging in his heels against something he didn’t want to do.
Inez sighed. There were times when she could do without this petulance.
"You have to think of Angelica and me. What would we do without you?"
Ezra found that rather ironic, as his mind drifted back to the conversation they’d had the previous evening. Almost subconsciously, he threw one of the comments she had made back at her. "I expect that you would cope quite well."
Belatedly, he realized how bitter that sounded and he then tried to soften the reminder with a smile. But the performance was not up to his usual standard.
Inez winced. She remembered the whole conversation vividly and could scarcely believe that she had said something so hurtful. If she could have taken it back, she would have.
But since that wasn’t possible, all she could do was try to reassure him. As usual, she mixed just a touch of levity into her reply. "Maybe we would cope but all the joy and laughter would be gone."
"Yes, I know that I am your chief source of amusement." Ezra persisted with the smile but his whole façade was deteriorating and this time the resentment in his tone was unmistakable.
Inez felt the crack in her heart widen. He couldn’t truly believe that, he simply couldn’t. The time for hiding behind humor and banter was long past. She had to tell him how much she needed him. Putting the spoon to his lips to silence him, she tearfully poured her heart out.
"Ezra, stop it! You are the very lifeblood that keeps my heart beating."
His eyes widened and he made half an attempt to protest. But she continued without pause.
"And Angelica. You are the only father she has ever known. She has already lost her mother. What do you think it would do to her to lose you as well? And your mother? And Nathan and Josiah and all the others? Don’t pretend that you don’t mean anything to us. You know that it isn’t true. And none of us will forgive you if you don’t do everything possible to fight this."
Ezra stared in wordless amazement at her impassioned declaration. Then his expression turned remorseful.
Inez inwardly reproached herself again. She hadn’t meant to hurt him.
But then again, maybe it had done some good.
"Now eat." She coaxed softly and he meekly took the spoonful she offered.
But he grimaced theatrically, as he swallowed.
"Did you have to put carrots in it?" he asked, surprising her slightly by complaining about the contents rather than the temperature.
But for once, she was glad to see the petulance returning. "Yes. They are good for you. Everything possible, remember?"
She smiled as she silenced him again by placing another spoonful in his mouth.
"Don’t look at me like that. Just swallow it. There’s plenty more left."
And so it continued, spoonful by spoonful, each one accompanied by cajoling, pleading or outright bullying. It took all her powers of persuasion to coax him into eating and all his available strength to comply with her demands.
He had only taken half the bowl when another coughing fit assailed him and sapped even that meager reservoir of energy. His eyelids began to flutter and she gently caressed his cheek.
"It’s alright, querido. Rest. I am here with you."
She watched him drift back to sleep, then placed the bowl and tray on a bedside table.
"So many things to say," she murmured, "but I cannot tell you when you are like this."
They had been lovers for only a year but they had been close friends for a long time before that. Sometimes, she felt as though she knew him like the back of her hand. At others, she chafed as she watched him hide from her, behind an endless barrage of quips and witticisms.
"Sometimes, it seems that we do nothing but talk, but somehow we never seem to say the things that are important."
That was going to stop. When he was better, she was going to force him to sit down and listen, as she told him everything that he needed to know.
"You have to fight this, Ezra. You’ve got to beat it. I have so many things I need to tell you."
Nathan was well used to spending days at a time in a patient’s sickroom. It didn’t quite get to him in the same way that he saw it get to others, even when the patient was a friend. He supposed that if he had felt like that, he would have gone well and truly crazy, long ago.
But still, he greatly appreciated small absences from the bedside, to briefly clear his head and get a breath of fresh air. He had fetched Doc Elliot’s stethoscope from his surgery. The doc wouldn’t mind and Nathan would be better able to check on Ezra, now that he had it.
He’d actually met up with the doctor as they both passed through the saloon and they were now on their way up to Ezra’s room together. Nathan had been exceedingly grateful when the others, Chris, Vin, Buck and JD, had all volunteered to help look after Ezra during the night. And he knew that Inez would be very moved by their offers when he told her.
But even as he put his hand on the door of Ezra’s room, he was interrupted by the voice of someone who had completely slipped his mind.
He turned to see her standing in the doorway of her own room. Hell! She’d probably been hiding in there all day.
"What is it, Angie?" But he already knew what she wanted.
"I have to see Father. I need to discuss something very important with him."
It was out of the question. But how did you explain that to a troubled child who was desperate to see her father?
"Angie honey, it’d be very bad fer ya t’be in that room."
He could see that this meant nothing at all to her. "Why?"
The doctor stepped in. "Your father wants you to stay outside and you want him to be happy, don’t you?"
Angie had an answer for that one. "He’d be happy to see me. I could make him happy to see me."
"No, you couldn’t. Not this time."
Nathan almost winced. The hurt on Angie’s face was heartbreaking and her eyes were already red with recently shed tears. But he knew that her loyalty to her father was just about the only thing they had in their favour. "Y’ve gotta be a good girl an’ do what yer daddy says."
She obviously fought to contain her frustration. "I can be good," she said, in the biting tone of a much older person, "It’s just none of you will let me show him how good I can be!"
Dr Elliot seized upon this. "How about you show us how good you can be for a while? Then maybe later, we’ll see what we can do."
Angie was dubious but she would accept any genuine offer. "How can I show you?"
"He needs quiet. You need to show us how quiet you can be. Then we’ll see."
She wilted against the doorframe of her room. "Okay, I’ll wait in here." Then she disappeared into the room and the door closed behind her.
Geez! Nathan could see that the kid was exhausted. Well, she’d been up since about 4 o’clock in the morning. Come to think of it, he had too. And Inez. He yawned as he opened Ezra’s door and led the way into the room.
Inez looked like she was just about ready to fall off the chair at Ezra’s beside. But she straightened in her seat, as she heard them enter, and tried to look reasonably alert.
Nathan spoke gently, "Hey Inez, I think y’need t’get some sleep."
"I’m alright, Nathan."
"No, y’not. Y’re dog tired. Ezra’ll kill me if you get sick as well."
She wearily tossed his reasoning back at him. "What about you?"
"I’m fine." Then he realized that the best way to persuade her was to give her another target for her concern. "I’m more worried about Angie."
It was a good strategy. Pain and remorse briefly crossed Inez’s tired features. "Where is she?"
"In her room. Think she’s been there all day."
Inez leaned forward and buried her face in her hands.
"Hey," Nathan said gently, "I think y’should go an’ put her t’bed. An’ get a little sleep y’self."
She lifted her face and nodded tiredly. "All right, but what about you? You are exhausted too."
"Chris an’ Vin’ll be up later. Both offered t’take a turn watchin’ Ezra t’night. Buck an’ JD too. But I told JD that he needed t’get home t’Casey an’ Buck that you’d roast ‘im alive if he weren’t wide awake t’look after the saloon t’morrow. Oh, an’ Buck said to say that there were no fights at all today."
She managed a smile, as Nathan helped her to her feet. "There is a first time for everything."
"Yeah." He walked to the door with her and gave her a quick squeeze on the shoulder before she went out. "Sleep well, Inez. An’ say g’dnight to Angie fer me."
There was no reply when Inez knocked on the door to Angelica’s room, so she opened it quietly and tip-toed in.
Angelica was curled up on top of her bed, hugging her pillow like it was the last friend she had left in the world.
"Angelica?" Inez whispered. No sense in waking the child if she had already succumbed to exhaustion.
There was no response, as she cautiously approached the bed. She leaned down to find that the pillow was not only being clasped fiercely but also thoroughly stained with tears.
"Oh, Angelica," she murmured. They had all been so caught up with the crisis occurring in the next room, that the child had been left abandoned with her anguish all day.
Well, better late than never. At least, Inez could be there for her now. She climbed onto the bed beside Angelica and gently took the sleeping child into her arms.
Angelica stirred slightly and mumbled only a single word, "Father." But this was even more piteous than her pillow full of tears.
Inez tightened her embrace. "He is going to be alright, mi nina. He is going to get better so that the two of us can hold him tightly in our arms until he truly understands just how much we love him. And also, you will know how much we both love you."
The child stirred again but then seemed to settle when Inez placed a light kiss on her forehead, mimicking the way Ezra did so every evening when he bade her goodnight.
"He is going to be fine."
Maybe if she said it enough times, it would ease the persisting chill of fear in her own heart.
Now Inez felt as though she was being pulled in two directions simultaneously.
Ezra was worse this morning. He was still more often asleep than awake and now even when he was awake, he barely seemed to know who she was. He was struggling harder to breathe and had already been through several painful coughing fits this morning which had drained him completely.
Then there was Angelica. Inez had found it necessary to rise and go downstairs, before Angelica had awoken, to check on how Buck had coped with the saloon. But she knew that the child desperately needed someone to talk to her and explain things. However, when Inez had ventured back to check on her, she found that Angelica had temporarily disappeared.
But she tried to keep her anxiety under control. It was not uncommon for Angelica to wander off when she was upset and she always returned in due course. Besides, there was nothing Inez could do about it, anyway. When Angelica was intent on remaining hidden, the only person who’d ever been able to find her was Ezra. So Inez waited for her to reappear, while trying to balance out all the other things that she felt were required of her.
There were some things that she just had to do herself, although she had been truly moved by the way all of their friends had rallied around herself and Ezra. Chris and Vin had each taken a turn at staying with him overnight, to give Nathan and herself a break. And she now had Casey, as well as Buck, helping her with the saloon.
Inez sighed. Although truly grateful for her help, she worried about Casey. The girl did not truly understand the way the world worked and Inez hoped she wouldn’t suffer in anyway because of this enthusiastic display of kindness and loyalty.
Inez had tried to dissuade her, saying, "I do not think that your aunt would approve."
That had only annoyed Casey, who felt that she was no longer a little girl who had to turn to her aunt to solve all her problems.
"Inez, I’m a married woman now. I don’t havta ask Aunt Nettie about everythin’ I do."
Inez smiled. Casey’s heart was in the right place but she didn’t realize that she now had a reputation to consider.
"That is the point, Casey. You are now a married woman. You do not see many respectable married women behind the bar of a saloon."
But Casey had been adamant. And Inez remembered that she had always been fairly unconventional, in any case.
"My husband approves," she declared. "That’s all that matters."
She had looked at JD, certain that he would back her up. These were also his friends that she was trying to help.
JD had looked a little unsure. He probably knew that Inez was right but could tell from Casey’s expression that she expected no opposition. "I guess so."
He’d then looked hopefully at his best friend. "Buck’ll make sure she’s okay."
Inez had managed not to laugh. JD was probably the only man in town who would trust Buck with the care of his wife.
So now the pair of them were looking after the bar.
Inez pricked up her ears, as the voices she’d been expecting finally appeared. Maude’s honeyed Southern tones, accompanied by Josiah’s deep rumble, exchanged greetings with Buck and Casey.
It was well past 10 o’clock but Maude was probably not long out of bed. Inez had long known that Ezra had gotten his tendency towards late rising directly from his mother. But when they entered the kitchen and Inez turned to greet them, she was surprised by the slight haggardness creeping into Maude’s features. She may have slept late but she hadn’t slept well.
Maude forced a smile. "So how’s my baby boy this mornin’?"
Inez searched for a reply that wouldn’t alarm her further and the hesitation itself gave her away.
Maude patted her arm in a rather distracted manner. "Don’t worry, darlin’. We’ll see him through."
But Inez felt her consternation increasing, as she handed a tray of food to Ezra’s mother. She had never seen Maude let so much tension show. God alone knew what was going through the woman’s mind.
And Inez swallowed hard as she watched the two of them climb the stairs to Ezra’s room.
Mother and son. Father and daughter. And her, Inez.
If anything happened to Ezra, well God help them all. Nothing else would have a hope of saving them.
It took a lot to shake Maude Standish. That was one of the things that Josiah found most attractive about her. Beautiful, well-preserved features and stylish accoutrements notwithstanding, he couldn’t help but admire the way she could stand steady as a rock while all those around her fell to pieces.
But now that fortitude was being stretched to its limits. Josiah watched Maude carefully putting one foot in front of the other, as she carried the tray up to Ezra’s room. Her distraction was such that even this small task had become a challenge.
However much she tried to hide it, she could not keep from him how much the situation was taking its toll on her. No matter where he took her or how much he tried to engage her in conversation, her mind remained elsewhere. It had essentially taken up residence in the room they were now heading towards, where her son was fighting for his life.
Suddenly there was a flurry of movement and Maude almost fell as something collided with her legs. The soup lurched from its bowl onto the tray and came close to spilling to the floor as well.
"Grandmother!" The projectile cried, announcing her identity.
Maude gasped as she tried to maintain her balance and Josiah knelt down to try to detach Angelica from around her grandmother’s waist.
"Come here, Angie. You’re gonna make your grandma fall."
Angelica reluctantly gave in to his firm grasp on her shoulder but immediately launched into a long imploring spiel.
"You’re going to see Father. Take me with you. I’ll be very good and very quiet. I’ve been quiet all day. Nobody even knew where I was. Please! Just for a while. I’ll be very, very good. I’ll help you carry the tray. Please!"
She knew this was going to be a hard sell. Her grandmother was no fool but, on the other hand, she had always been generous and attentive where her granddaughter was concerned. There should be a more than even chance of winning her over.
Angelica aimed a mournfully plaintive expression at her grandmother. The child knew that she had a natural aptitude for this kind of con (as well a small amount of training) and, this time, she didn’t even have to feign the emotions she was projecting. It was a powerful performance.
There was another sharp intake of breath from the veteran conwoman. Even though she recognized the tactic, she found herself swayed by the skill of its execution. The child had the gift. But for once, witnessing her talent caused Maude pain rather than pride.
Josiah saw this and gathered the girl into his arms. "Angie, come talk to me. Your grandma has to give your father his lunch." He nodded to Maude who silently thanked him for the diversion, as she carried the tray into Ezra’s room.
"I could help," said Angie plaintively, as she watched the door close.
"Stay here with me." Josiah called her attention back to him. "We haven’t had a decent talk for a long time."
He saw Angie size him up. New target, different tactics.
"Uncle Josiah, what’s that’s thing Jesus said about letting little children go to him?"
Josiah raised his eyebrows. "Suffer the little children to come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
"That’s it!" Angie saw him smile slightly and grinned in anticipation. She was finally getting somewhere.
The preacher sighed. "Oh Angie, the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."
Angie blinked at him. "What flesh?"
"Never mind. It doesn’t matter."
She decided to play her plaintive card again. "Why are you all keeping me away?"
"It’s not that we want to, Angie. It’s something we have to do for your own good."
"But I really miss him."
"I know but, for now, you just have to wait and keep a hold of him in your heart."
"It’s not the same," she sulked. And abruptly coming to a decision, she wriggled her way out of his arms.
Josiah didn’t fight her. It would only further anger the child. But he called after, as she headed for the stairs.
"Where are you goin’, Angie?"
She looked back over her shoulder. "To talk to Uncle Buck." Then she headed down to the bar of the saloon.
Buck would help her. He always gave her what she wanted if she wheedled long enough. It seemed that he was just unable to keep saying no to her. Not if she used the really pleading look.
Her determination redoubled. Now she was onto a sure thing.
Maude paused before lifting the spoon to her son’s mouth again. Nathan had propped Ezra up into a sitting position to help him eat, but he still wasn’t fully awake and, every so often, she had to remind him to swallow the spoonful she had placed in his mouth.
She could hear Josiah’s deep voice, as he talked to Angelica outside the door. She couldn’t distinguish any words, just the low indistinct murmur of their voices, as he tried to reason with the child. She managed to raise a slight smile. He really was quite remarkable.
Although her main purpose in coming to Four Corners had always been to visit her son, Josiah’s presence was a welcome bonus.
Initially, she hadn’t given him much thought. He had seemed to have nothing that she could use to her advantage.
It had taken her a long time to realize that his company was an advantage in itself. He was a kind and educated man with a charming manner and diverting conversation. And he seemed to be to be content just to be with her, never exerting any pressure.
And now, when she was facing a crisis that she wasn’t sure that she could handle on her own, he had waited in the background, as he watched over her. Never crowding her and, at the same time, never leaving her forlorn.
She knew that she didn’t deserve his support and care. She was shallow and scornful of the kind of commitment he deserved. Initially she’d patronized him, and then she’d used him in her altercations with Ezra. And Josiah knew it.
But still he kept coming back, asking nothing and offering his strong steady presence. She knew that she didn’t deserve it, but it would wound her deeply, if it were ever withdrawn.
"Mother?" She turned to see Ezra looking at her uncertainly.
"What are... you thinking?" His voice was alarmingly weak and breathless.
She smiled slightly. "Oh just daydreamin’, Ezra. Here you need to take some more of this."
He took another mouthful and grimaced. "Carrots again?." He took a long pause for breath. "I hate carrots... in soup."
"They’re good for you, darlin’. They say they help you see in the dark."
"Probably keep me... awake all night," he grumbled childishly.
The door opened and Josiah stuck his head in and called Nathan to join him outside.
"Where are they goin’?"
"Never you mind, Ezra. Just eat for me. Here comes another one."
He looked annoyed. "Y’all are treatin’ me... like I’m six years old."
She grinned, sorely tempted to point out that he was acting like a child of that age. But instead, she decided to use a different argument, in a further attempt to induce his compliance.
"Well, you managed to pull through when you were six years old. Just listen to your mother."
That was a mistake. The painful remembrance it inspired caught her unawares.
And as she gazed at Ezra, she saw that she had dragged him too back to that painful time.
"Yes," he whispered, "I pulled through... Others paid the price."
"Ezra...." Her voice caught. The past suddenly had a hold of her with fingers of ice.
He began to cough again and she helped him raise a handkerchief to his face. She almost closed her eyes to deny this reality. It was all too like before.
Then he moaned, as the coughing subsided. He was slipping under again, his eyes already closing. She reached out and stroked his hair, as she had indeed done when he was six.
"Inez?" he whispered.
Maude sighed. Of course, that would be who he turned to in his hour of need. Still, it meant that he had come back to the present.
"She’s downstairs, darlin’. She’ll be back soon."
"Angelica!" His eyes suddenly opened wide with alarm.
She brushed back his hair again and spoke soothingly. "She’s outside, Ezra. With Josiah, I think."
He focussed on her, as if recognizing her for the first time. "Mother?"
"Yes, Ezra." She kept her eyes locked with his, as she heard the door open and Nathan come back into the room.
Ezra’s eyes began to close again but the fear didn’t leave them. "Mother... where’s Zolda...? Is she alright?" he asked in a very small voice.
Maude nearly surrendered to her tears, but managed to keep her voice steady, as she answered him. "She’s safe, Ezra. She’s somewhere where nothing can ever harm her again."
He quieted and seemed to be settling but then whispered Zolda’s name once more, before finally succumbing.
Maude looked up to meet Nathan’s gaze. There was a question in his eyes. Then he looked away.
The healer was extremely curious as to who Zolda might be. But when he saw the raw pain in Maude’s eyes, he refrained from asking.
Maude inwardly thanked and blessed him for this consideration. She felt that to speak of it now would have torn her heart apart.
The usual daily routine for Inez rarely allowed her to sit down for any length of time. She would have thought that she would have welcomed the opportunity but, in fact, the disruption of her normal pattern only increased her restlessness and anxiety.
Still, it allowed ample time for contemplation and God knew that there were enough troubling issues to think about. So as she anxiously kept watch by Ezra’s bedside, she tried to occupy her mind with figuring out ways of easing his pain. Not only physical, but also emotional. As well as Angelica’s and Maude’s.
Maude had looked close to being overwhelmed when Inez had returned to Ezra’s room. It really unnerved the saloon manager to see this loss of composure. Maude never floundered. Inez had seen her locked in a jail cell and still carry herself with the dignity of a queen holding court. But this was slowly destroying her. The woman that Josiah had escorted from Ezra’s room seemed to be only a shell of the one that Inez had known.
Both Maude and Inez always spoke as if they had absolute certainty of Ezra recovering from this illness. But each privately admitted to themselves the possibility that it might not occur. And if that possibility eventuated, Inez knew that it would crush them all.
And it would devastate Angelica completely. It had been Ezra, and Ezra alone, who had pulled the child back from the brink when her mother had died. Inez had done all she could but Ezra had been the only one who’d had a strong enough connection with Angelica to properly get through to her. If he didn’t make it now, there was a very real possibility that she would disown the world completely.
And the child still didn’t really understand what was going on. No one had garnered enough courage to tell her.
Inez had told herself that she had been waiting for the right time, that she had to be told privately, that it couldn’t just be blurted out to her. But, between various interruptions and Angelica’s frequent disappearances, she had failed to find the right opportunity. And of course, it was definitely possible that Angelica was avoiding her.
It was perfectly obvious that Angelica’s sole intention was to get in to see her father. Inez had thwarted her in her very first attempt and now the child was systematically working her way through every family friend and acquaintance, to argue and plead her case.
Her latest target (well, the last person Inez had seen her target) had been Buck. It had been one of those classic comedic confrontations, a tall strong fully-grown man unable to cope with the arguments of a five-year-old girl. Poor Buck had always been defenseless against the attacks of little Angie. He had once commented that she had Ezra wrapped around her little finger but, in truth, she was even better at getting what she wanted from Buck. Ezra, at least, could spot a con from a mile away.
When Inez had wandered over to the two of them, she found Buck desperately trying to change the subject and Angelica doggedly persistent. Her interference was greeted with a grateful sigh from Buck and a resentful glare from Angelica. Inez had tried to use the opportunity to talk to her. But a momentary distraction from a customer at the bar had given the child enough time to slip away and she’d disappeared again. Inez had asked Buck where she’d gone but he had been so relieved to be free of the onslaught that he hadn’t noticed.
Inez sighed. Angelica was definitely avoiding her. Now that she thought about it, she had threatened to tie the child up if she tried to gain access to Ezra. Angelica was probably afraid of that or a similar form of retribution.
How had she managed to set up so many misunderstandings and false suspicions? It also seemed that somehow, somewhere along the way, Ezra had begun to form a suspicion that Inez might be rekindling her old relationship with Buck.
It was just so ridiculous! Inez knew that only her concern about Ezra’s illness had kept her anger in check. If he had been well, they would certainly have had a spectacular confrontation by now.
She really didn’t understand how could he suspect such a thing? She and Buck were good friends. She was entitled to be friends with him and any other man she chose without any ridiculous jealousy. After all, Ezra had close friends who were women and he expected Inez to accept that. She was expected not to resent his interactions with Mary Travis or any of the other women around town. And she did trust him in this regard. So why couldn’t he trust her? How could he possibly think that she would be unfaithful to him, even in her heart? Did he think that she was that fickle and shallow?
Suddenly, Ezra took in a sharper breath and his eyes snapped open. She reached down and squeezed his shoulder.
"It’s all right, Ezra." Inez knew there was a faint edge to her voice but she couldn’t help it. She had sequestered this away for days and now it refused to be contained.
Ezra blinked at her. "Inez..."
"Outside somewhere. I don’t know where. She is very much her father’s daughter. No one seems to know what she is thinking."
He heard the anger in her tone and, already disorientated, could make no sense of it. "What?"
She sighed. "Nevermind. Would you like some water?"
He nodded and she poured a glassful and then helped him lever himself up far enough to drink it. When she took the glass away, he sighed and closed his eyes as he leaned back.
But, despite the effort expended to imbibe it, the water had revived him a little. He opened his eyes again and looked steadily into hers. "What’s the matter?"
"Nothing," she stated automatically.
He managed to raise an eyebrow. "Everythin’s... completely alright?"
Inez mentally shrugged. Well, if he wanted to know.
"Well, you know that Buck and I have been together."
He looked startled and somewhat hurt. "When?"
She sighed. "So long ago now, that it seems like a lifetime ago."
His relief was patently obvious. "Oh... yes, of course... I know."
Inez frowned at him and the anger in her tone deepened. "But, even just then, you thought that I meant more recently."
"Well,... you said..."
"Why would you suspect me of such a thing?"
"I don’t... suspect you."
"You just did!"
"I..." He didn’t really have an answer. He didn’t even understand how the question had arisen.
"Don’t you trust me, Ezra?"
"I trust you... with my life."
"But not with your heart."
"I trust you... with everything... I can afford... to lose."
The vulnerability in his voice cut deeply into her, even through her shield of anger. She took hold of his hand, suddenly again needing to reassure him.
"If you gamble on me, Ezra, you will not lose!"
He shook his head, his eyes beginning to close again. "I’ll remind you... on the day... you leave me."
She wasn’t going anywhere. How could she get that through to him?
"What makes you think that I will ever leave you?"
His eyes briefly flickered open again. "Why not?... You left Buck." Then he slipped into slumber again.
She sat back and clenched her fists in frustration. How was she going to get through to him?
Her anger was shifting from him to those who seemed to have beaten his capacity to trust out of him. She knew that it had taken him a long time to understand comradeship and friendship and community. She had thought that he understood love but maybe she was wrong. With love the trust came without reason. Or maybe the love itself was reason enough to trust.
But Ezra trusted no one and kept his emotions as deeply hidden away as he could. Firstly, because that was what Maude had taught him from the earliest age and, secondly, because then he could try to shield them from being trampled on when amiability and kindness ended.
The only person that Inez had ever seen him open up to was Angelica. It seemed that he knew that she was a sure thing, and he wasn’t going to risk his heart on anything less.
Everyone else he had ever loved before had always left him. So why should he believe that Inez would stay with him? With difficulty, she could understand that misgiving. But what was this thing about Buck?
Inez never had thought of the end of her relationship with Buck, as her leaving him. The situation had been more that both she and Buck had mutually decided that it wasn’t what they had really wanted. Buck had a healthy respect for women, as well as an incurable fascination for them. But with Inez, half of the attraction for Buck had been the unavailability she had created through her constant rebuffs. Once he had attained her, that challenge was gone. And Inez had come to realize that she too had overconvinced herself of how fond she was of Buck. He was charming and she liked him as a friend but in the end, she had found that those things weren’t enough. Maybe, it had been that while being with him, fun though it was, she had never felt able to stretch her mind.
In any case the whole affair had only lasted a month or two. It was in no way comparable to what she had with Ezra. But was what Ezra thought he and she shared the same as what she thought they did? After all, he had somehow come to the conclusion that she had walked out on Buck.
She and Ezra had already been good friends when she was with Buck. But they had never actually discussed each other’s relationships. Neither was the type to openly discuss such personal details. But Ezra had known that Inez had wanted to end it.
Inexplicably, one evening, he had come over to her, poured her a drink (and paid for it) and talked, in his usual obfuscating manner, about individual freedom and the value of personal independence. That had been his strange (but rather touching) way of showing her that she had his support. And any assertions that Buck had made in a similar vein, Ezra had probably taken as merely a case of a rejected Don Juan licking his wounds and putting a best face on his misfortune.
So somehow, Ezra had come to decide that the relationship between himself and Inez was of finite duration. That one day, she’d decide that she didn’t need him anymore and would just walk away. He might have even begun it all with those very thoughts in his head. Oh, there were times when she wanted to take him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him!
She had so many things to say to him. In her heart and soul, they were eternally joined together. But would he take what she told him as proof of her love for him? Or would his preconceived doubts twist her words and arguments into some sort of evidence that she only stayed with him out of pity or because she thought that she had no other choice?
"Ezra, mi amor, how can I turn what I feel for you into something you can believe about yourself?"
Maude and Josiah sat side by side, on her hotel room bed. He kept a steady gaze on her and she kept an equally steady one on some fixed point outside her window. They had exchanged brief comments from time to time, but the larger portion of the evening had been spent in silence.
Josiah felt as though he was watching a storm about to break. For two days now, he had watched this woman slowly losing her grip on her self-control. She had clung to it fiercely but it was slowly but surely slipping through her fingers.
It was not surprising. Maude virtually defined herself by her ability to remain in control of situations, by her capacity to take all Life’s random chances and redirect them in her favor. But now there was a very real chance that she might lose her only son. Perhaps the only thing she valued and cherished more that her own life and all of her profits and possessions combined. Although Josiah was quite sure that she’d never told him that, and Ezra might not have believed her if she had.
The silence, somewhat oddly, felt like a clock ticking. Sometime soon the mask of control was going to disintegrate. Maude would speak or she would weep or both. And Josiah would be there for her.
"A mother should never outlive her child." Her voice sounded flat, drained, perhaps even resigned.
It was a tone which alarmed Josiah "You’re not giving up hope, are you? He’s still fighting and fighting hard."
She glanced at him, for the first time in over an hour. "No I can’t give up hope," she said softly, "Hope is all I have left." Then she looked out the window again. "I just don’t think I could bear to go through it again"
Josiah nodded slightly to himself. He had begun to suspect that some sort of specter from the past had been haunting her. "Again?" he prodded gently.
The sigh she produced was like the first few drops of rain in the storm. She had fought long and hard to keep these emotions contained. Releasing them was almost like a form of surrender. But she needed to share the burden with someone. And Josiah was easily her first preference.
"Her name was Isolde but Ezra could never pronounce the first syllable. He always called her Zolda and, after a while, I also acquired the habit." Her voice was little more than a whisper but it carried easily in the fierce silence of the room. Another sigh, and then, as if steeling herself, her voice gathered volume.
"I had taken them to New Orleans. Isolde was four. Ezra was six. I had an old friend who’d watch over them while I indulged in a little gaming. Then one day, at the tables, someone related the story of Emile Ducot, one of the richest men in town, at the time.
"Old money without an heir. He’d disinherited his only son when the young man had married against his father’s wishes and both the son and his young bride had drowned in a boating accident soon after. They said that the old man was looking for a young boy to make his heir and raise in place of his son.
"Ducot was over eighty and of frail health. I thought, if he wanted to adopt a boy, why not Ezra? The old man would only live a few years and then the child would come into a considerable fortune.
"So I arranged for Ezra to visit with Mr Ducot every week, so that he could win his favor. Ezra hated it and would complain bitterly on the way home each time. Well, you know what he’s like. He was always the same, even at the age of six.
"Then one day, after two months, Ducot had his servants tell me not to bring Ezra any more. I later found out that Ducot had a fever which he died of, the next day. I tried to ask Ezra what had happened but he was tired and irritable and he tried to be evasive. I didn’t realize... dear God, why couldn’t I see it? I got angry with him. I didn’t realize that he’d caught the fever that eventually carried off Ducot.
"I sent him to bed without supper for being disobedient and insolent. Then later that evening, when I went back to check on him, he was... he was like he is now." Her voice finally broke and the tears began to fall.
Josiah put an arm around her and she allowed herself to rest her head against his shoulder. She wiped her eyes with a handkerchief and then took a deep breath before continuing with her story.
"As soon as Isolde found out, she wouldn’t leave her brother’s side. They’d always been close but, that morning, they’d had some silly children’s tiff and she’d threatened never to speak to him again.
"She never did. Or at least, he never heard her. By the time he was aware enough to speak with anyone, she was already gone. She’d caught the malady and she succumbed within three days.
"At first Ezra wouldn’t believe me. We had to show him her body before we sealed the coffin. And even then, he’d denied it at first, saying that she was just asleep. He still carries it with him. I didn’t truly realize until today but he does."
It explained a great deal. No wonder Ezra was so adamant about keeping Angie away. In his mind, fevers killed little children and furthermore, Josiah supposed that what had recently happened with Nikkanoochee had only reinforced that notion.
Maude looked out the window again. So many thoughts buzzing through her mind and now, having seen some of their fellows escape, the rest seemed determined to follow suit.
"Angelica reminds me of her so much that sometimes it hurts."
"Isolde was like Angie?"
"Not in physical appearance, no." Maude actually smiled at the memory. "Isolde was a golden-haired little cherub. I used to actually call her ‘my cherub’."
"And Angie is a dark-haired waif-like little thing." Josiah risked joining her in the smile and found it well received.
Maude nodded slightly. "But every so often she casts an impish smile in my direction..."
She sighed. "The smile is so similar. And the laugh. Sometimes when Angelica laughs, I can close my eyes and see my little cherub so clearly, I can almost touch her. I wonder if Ezra remembers her laugh. He was only six, but making her laugh had always been one of his favorite pastimes."
The floodgates were open now. Finally, she could revisit those memories and know that there was support for her, if they threatened to overwhelm her. That she had someone with her who could offer understanding to her without experiencing an equal pain while they listened.
She began to immerse herself in these reminiscences, and she related story after story about Isolde and Ezra. For once, every single one of them was true and each was accented by either laughter or tears and occasionally both.
And Josiah leaned back and allowed her to share with him the memories of her little girl whom she had lost and those of her little boy whom she was so fearful of losing now.
Early the next morning, Inez had a truly unexpected visitor when she returned to the saloon. She’d only been able to venture out on a few occasions, usually early morning or late evening. But then, she hated to be away anyway. She was terrified that something might happen to Ezra in her absence.
And she had been desperately afraid yesterday, when what Ezra was coughing up turned rust-colored, as if it was tinged with blood. It was as if he was coughing up the very substance of his lungs. And with his steadily increasing weakness and the weight he’d lost over these past few days, it seemed like the life was draining out of him before her eyes.
But Nathan said that he’d seen patients come back from worse than this. She clung to that. Nathan wouldn’t lie to her.
Inez looked up to see Bernard Woolley waiting for her by the saloon door.
She had always liked him. He was an inoffensive, gentle and rather bookish young man. But he and his family were "good church-going Methodist folk" and almost never visited the saloon. Ezra had once taken him there for a celebratory drink, when Woolley had replaced him as records clerk at the town hall, and the young Methodist had continually looked around nervously as he sipped his lemonade, then immediately excused himself and disappeared.
"Can I help you Senor Woolley?" she asked as she met him at the door. With a gesture, she invited him inside and after a second of nervous hesitation, he followed her in.
He again looked positively skittish in the ungodly venue but then took a deep breath and said, "I... we heard about Mr Standish. The whole prayer group is praying for him."
Inez smiled gently at him. "That must be a first."
"Oh no, not at all!" Bernard Woolley’s eyes widened with his earnest denial. "We’re not all like Mrs Hansen."
Inez’s eyebrows lifted at that and Woolley blushed deeply.
"I’ve heard about her... disagreements with Mr Standish. Actually she herself is very willing to talk about them. Do you know, when he lost his job at the town hall, she tried to tell Annie how that proved what she’d always said. That he never could be relied upon. But even though we couldn’t tell her, we knew that he’d done it for our sake. So that I could have the job. It was a truly generous gesture of charity on his part and we will never forget it."
Inez was touched by his earnestness but felt that he needed reassuring.
"Please do not feel too indebted. Ezra never wanted that job for himself. He wanted you to have it."
"But still, someone said that he might have lost his daughter over it. That would have wounded him almost to death. Everyone knows how much he loves her. Except perhaps Mrs Hansen."
"Yes well, Angelica and I are not in Mrs Hansen’s good books either."
Bernard Woolley actually smiled at that. "No, you’re not. She has told Annie and I the whole story in great detail and it is not flattering to either of you or the child’s mother. But somehow I don’t think that her opinion concerns you greatly."
Then he seemed to remember his original purpose. "But I also came to give you this."
Inez had not taken notice of the small box he was carrying, until he proffered it to her.
"It’s shortbread," he explained, "Annie baked it this morning. We thought you or Mr Standish might appreciate it."
For a moment, Inez found it hard to find the words.
"Thank you," she said finally, after she had accepted the gift. "I’m sure we both will. And Angelica too." The saloon manager reflected that she might even be able to entice the child out of hiding with it.
Bernard Woolley smiled again. He seemed to be gaining confidence.
"What you and he did for that little girl shows just how good your hearts must be. Nothing that Mrs Hansen or her friends can say will ever convince Annie and me otherwise. I was at my wits end before Mr Standish gave me his job. They say the Lord will provide but I honestly couldn’t see how I was going to keep Annie and the children fed and clothed. Sometimes great kindness comes from the most unexpected sources."
Inez couldn’t help herself. She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek.
"Yes, Senor Woolley, it does indeed."
He blushed to the very roots of his hair. "Um... I really must go. I’ll be late for work. Remember to tell him. He and all of you are in our prayers."
He fled without hearing her reply.
"And you and your family will always be in mine."
There was only so much that could be solved by talking, Maude reflected silently. The cathartic conversation that she’d had with Josiah, the previous evening, had gone a long way in helping her to cope with her persisting grief over the loss of her daughter. But talk alone was not going to prevent her from also losing her son.
Although in many ways, it felt like she’d already lost him. Her place in his affections had been well and truly supplanted by others. For, as the fever progressed, it was not his mother that Ezra had called for in his delirium.
Well, not often, anyway. Occasionally, his mind seemed to be taking trips back to that terrible time in New Orleans and, at these times, he sometimes uttered the names of both his mother and his sister (even then it seemed to be more often Isolde’s). But his cries to Inez and Angelica were far more frequent and desperate.
It was Inez that he trusted to take care of everything and Maude couldn’t hold that against her. The young woman was inherently capable. Maude had liked her from almost the moment she’d met her for that very reason. And in fact, she had then singled her out as a woman she could trust with the management of her most valuable asset. She could hardly take exception to being so right in her assessment.
A sudden change in the pattern of Ezra’s ragged breathing caught her attention. Sure enough, he stirred and his eyelids began to flutter.
She had taken a hold of his hand before he managed to get them fully open but the gesture of support and familial devotion was not exactly rewarded in kind.
"Inez?" he croaked.
"No darlin’, it’s just your errant mother." She reached for the glass of water and got him to swallow a few mouthfuls.
After a brief sigh of relief, he focussed on her. "What’re... you doin’ here?"
She smiled sadly, despite herself. "I came for a visit, Ezra. Seemed like a excellent opportunity to spend some time with my darlin’ boy."
The smile faded. "She’s gone, Ezra."
She felt that she had to stop this before it went any further. Leaning forward, she spoke in a low intense voice.
"We’re not in New Orleans. We’re in that quaint little hamlet they call ‘Four Corners’. You live here with Inez and Angelica. You do remember them, don’t you?"
He nodded. "Sorry."
"There’s nothing to be sorry for darlin’. Just try and keep your mind in the present time and place."
Ezra shook his head slightly. "Sorry for... back then." He had to tell her this and fought to get the words out.
"That last day... the old man... he was angry... ravin’... said awful things... called you... ‘gold-digging whore’... I ran... walked around... garden in the rain... Minnie... housekeeper... found me... took me inside... gave me soup... dried my clothes... she said I’d... catch my death... but I didn’t... I caught someone else’s."
He gasped for breath and tears formed in Maude’s eyes.
He shook his head again, more vigorously this time. "Won’t happen again... Not Angelica."
"Of course it won’t. She’ll be fine." She understood his paternal protectiveness, but she also had her own maternal version. "But it will not be your death this time either"
"Won’t let it happen." His mind seemed fixed on that point, even as his eyes began to close again. This unreasoning guilt had a hold of him and it wouldn’t let go. His strength would fail before its did.
"Ezra, it really wasn’t your fault, darlin’."
"Angelica... must stay away."
"Inez... where is she?"
"Not far away. She’ll be back soon."
Almost as if on cue, Inez entered carrying what looked like a plate of shortbread.
"Is he asleep again?"
Maude glanced back at her son and nodded. He was indeed.
Inez sighed, "I thought I heard him talking. Well maybe then, you would like some. It was a gift from some well-wishers."
"Oh really? Who?"
"Senor Woolley and his wife."
"That nervous little man who replaced Ezra at the town hall?"
"Well, that was most kind of them but I don’t think I will. Best save it for when Ezra wakes."
Inez shrugged. "You are probably right. I will take it back downstairs."
"No, wait!" Maude stood and took the plate from her. "I’ll take it. It’s not me that he wants by his side, anyway."
Inez looked at her in surprise. "What are you saying?"
Maude sighed. "It’s no secret that I haven’t been the most attentive of mothers. I’m really not unduly surprised to learn that my son has placed his affections with someone of more proven constancy."
Inez blinked and then, comprehending her meaning, grabbed Maude’s arm as she headed for the door.
"No! You mustn’t think that. He does love you. It is just that he cannot tell you."
Maude looked up sharply, a touch of hope in her eyes, but she needed to know more.
Inez shrugged. "I don’t think such talk was encouraged when he was a child."
Maude sighed again. "And that’s my fault too."
"Maybe. But it is not only you that he keeps away. He finds it hard to talk to me about such things too. We say a lot of things with jokes and we argue a lot. But he doesn’t like to just sit and talk seriously. I think he finds it hard to believe what is said. That makes it very hard to tell him certain things."
"Yes, I can imagine. It’s always been difficult to make him understand some things."
"I think it is not so much understanding. It is more about trust. The only person that he seems able to talk to in that way is Angelica. And I think it is because she is the only person that he is certain will never leave him."
Maude winced. And who had been the first to abandon him? Her fault again.
"Cria cuervos y te sacaran los ojos," Angelica told the small cat as she ran her hand along it’s back and down it’s tail. Rather gruesome little phrase. Raise crows and they’ll claw your eyes out, what was that supposed to mean? Probably something about ingratitude.
Ezra and Inez had insisted that Angelica continue to practice her Spanish, even though, aside from the two of them, there were very few people around that she could use it with. So she tended to use it when talking to this stray cat that was often found loitering around the saloon. Like herself, it had been given a Spanish name and thus she had more or less assumed they shared a common heritage.
Inez had christened it "Cuervo" and since it wasn’t a black cat, nor in any other way crow-like, Angelica assumed that its name was derived from the eye-clawing phrase which Inez spouted from time to time. The saloon manager had been feeding the wayward feline for several months. But it still frequently sharpened its claws on her sacks of flour (spilling the contents everywhere and leaving an unmistakable trail of white pawprints), knocked things from shelves while climbing up on them and left dead mice in prominent places around the saloon. And Angelica had noticed that whenever Inez discovered one of these things, she would moan, "Cria cuervos y te sacaran los ojos," in an exasperated voice.
The name had caught on and most of the saloon patrons also referred to the cat as "Cuervo". Ezra tended to call it "that fleabag" and pretended to have no time at all for the animal. But Angelica knew that he was just hiding what he really thought because she had seen him put out milk for it when he thought no one was looking. Still he obviously felt that no one should know that he liked "the fleabag" and so Angelica had kept this secret for him.
Angelica sighed in frustration. She had already asked Cuervo his opinion of the situation, while the two of them had been sitting together on some of the barrels outside the front entrance of the saloon. But this had only produced a result similar to the results of all the conversations she’d conducted over the past few days, friendly but unhelpful. The cat had simply rubbed his head against her leg and mewed softly. Well, that gesture of affection was all that she could really expect from him.
Nobody wanted to help her. They all had gone in to see Ezra but none of them would take her. And the reasons they gave were either hollow or non-existent. Even reliable "Ole Buck" had just kept trying to change the subject.
Only Inez seemed to want to talk to her and, in fact, had come looking several times.
Well, she could go rot, as far as Angelica was concerned. All this pretending to be friendly and caring. If Inez had really cared, she would have helped her to see her father.
Ezra had been angry with Inez, as well as Angelica, to begin with. But Inez had been able to talk with him and he must have forgiven her because now she could go and see him as often as she liked. She’d obviously known that it was important to see him early and say sorry but she had still kept Angelica out. That had been unforgivably mean and selfish and Angelica wasn’t going to listen to any of her false excuses.
So she’d been hiding from Inez for nearly two days now. She really was very good at it. For as long as she could remember she’d relied on this ability. When she had traveled with her mother, they’d had to go to some quite dangerous places. But Angelica had always known that as long as she remained unseen and unheard, she would be safe.
Since she had come to Four Corners, there had only been one time that she’d had to hide for safety’s sake. It had saved her life when her mother had been killed. But since then, she’d discovered that the ability was very useful when she was angry or sad and didn’t want to talk to people.
The only person who’d ever been able to find her was Ezra. He was clever like that. The two of them had actually met because he’d found her hiding in her mother’s wagon. And truthfully, Ezra was the only person that she’d ever wanted to find her.
And she particularly liked hiding almost under Inez’s nose. The saloon manager had looked for her and asked after her but she couldn’t see Angelica when she was virtually under her feet. It obviously annoyed her and Angelica was a bit glad about that. She didn’t see why she should be the only one who was unhappy.
She looked up to see who had called her and was relieved to see it was only Billy Travis. But Cuervo was less reassured and quickly disappeared into the saloon.
"Hi, Billy," she replied without enthusiasm. Billy was nice enough but, right now, she would have preferred the cat’s company.
"Whatcha doing out here?" Being about four years older than Angelica, Billy seemed to think he was her big brother or something.
Angelica just looked at him and his expression turned sheepish. "Oh, your dad, right?"
"They haven’t let me see him for more than two days and he was away for days before that too."
Billy thought that he ought to try and make her feel better but he wasn’t sure how.
"Well, y’know he’s been sick. Sometimes they keep people out of the room so they won’t get sick too."
Angelica shook her head. "Everyone else has gone in to see him. Even your mother and Aunt Casey. They only keep me out."
"And me! I haven’t been in there either."
Angelica’s expression turned cold. "He’s not your father!"
Billy returned the gaze. He knew self-pity when he saw it and he really didn’t have much time for it. He knew that her father was sick but things could be worse.
"I don’t have a father."
"So? I don’t have a mother." Angelica was ready for a fight.
"Yeah, but Inez is almost like your mother."
"She is not! She’s nothing like my mother! She just lives with us!" Angelica was incensed by the very suggestion. Her mother would never have been as mean and unfair as Inez was being.
"Okay, she’s not." Billy actually still thought she was but Angie in full fury was quite a vicious little fighter and he didn’t think it was worth pushing her to that extent over the issue. "I was just saying that you’re lucky to have a father."
Angelica didn’t argue with that. She knew she was lucky to have a father like Ezra and she also knew that the lack of a father was a sore point with Billy. She and he had one rather morbid factor in common. They had both been forced to watch the murder of a parent. So she knew that she didn’t have an exclusive right to anger like this.
But if she had to consider accepting replacement parents, then so did he.
"Well, Uncle Chris is almost like your father."
Billy snorted. "He doesn’t even live with us, Angie."
Angie flared again. He wasn’t helping or trying to understand. He was just distracting her. "Well, at least, he’s not trying to take your mother away from you!"
Talking wasn’t going to get her anywhere. She had to do something. So she got off the barrel and walked purposefully into the saloon.
She’d had enough. She was going to see Ezra now. Just let them try and stop her.
Ezra was really delirious now. He seemed to have absolutely no sense of where he was.
A short while ago, he had flailed an arm at Inez as she tried to feed him and spilled the soup all over himself. With Nathan’s help she had managed to change his nightclothes even though Ezra had fought every inch of the way.
He started muttering about Zolda again, as he leaned heavily against Nathan and coughed into a handkerchief that the healer held up to his face. And at the mention of that name, Nathan glanced up at Inez who was anxiously looking on, still clutching Ezra’s old nightshirt which was sodden with soup and sweat.
Before she had left, a minute ago, Maude had imparted to them who Zolda was. Inez had wanted to weep. As if Ezra didn’t have enough to face now, without this ghost coming back to haunt him. And he was so caught up in the nightmare that nothing Inez could say or do would bring him out of it.
She was startled by the sound of the door opening and looked up to see Angelica charging across the floor. The child was halfway to Ezra before Inez intercepted her and grabbed her by the shoulders.
Angelica fought with everything she had, fiercely kicking and shouting. Inez wasn’t sure that she wouldn’t have bitten her, given half a chance.
"Father! Let me go, Inez! Father!"
Ezra lifted his head and tried to focus. But it wasn’t Angelica that he was seeing.
"Zolda," he muttered softly before his voiced gained volume and he tried to shout at her.
"Get out, Zolda!" he rasped, "Go away!"
Angelica stared. She had no idea who Zolda might be but her father was looking at her as he spoke.
He started to cough again but recovered enough to gasp out, "Get out... If you stay... I’ll kill you." Then the coughing overcame him and he collapsed back onto the bed. Nathan only just managed to catch him as he fell back and prevent him from hurting himself further.
Inez felt Angelica go rather slack in her grasp and slightly loosened her hold. Somewhat afraid that the child might actually faint, she knelt beside her, ready to catch her if she collapsed. But then Angelica’s dazed expression hardened into something dangerous and, again too quick for Inez to stop her, she turned and fled from the room.
Inez got up to follow her but then Ezra moaned her name softly. Once more, she was torn in two directions. She would need to deal with them in both in rapid succession, so first she went quickly to the more immediate source of need.
He was barely conscious but, when she reached out and put a hand to his forehead, he groaned and managed to whisper "Ange-..."
"She’s gone. I am going after her to make sure she is alright."
He moaned again and moved his head slightly. It was almost a nod and Inez took it as an indication of his agreement. She desperately needed to check on Angelica too, but still she hesitated to leave him.
Nathan placed a gentle hand on her arm.
"Go," he said softly, "I’ll take care of things here."
She gave him a quick nod and squeezed his hand on her arm in gratitude. Then she left the room to find Angelica.
The child appeared to have taken refuge in her own room and Inez knocked on the door.
"Go away! Leave me alone!"
Inez tried to push the door open and was met with considerable resistance. Angelica appeared to be on the other side, throwing all her weight against her door to keep it closed. And apparently realising that her message wasn’t getting through in English, the child resorted to Spanish.
"Dejame sola, no te quiero ver!"
Inez didn’t care if the girl didn’t want to see her, she had no intention of leaving her alone this time and demanded entrance.
Inez redoubled her efforts and her superior weight and strength overcame Angelica’s attempt at physical opposition. The door began to ease open slowly and when it reached half open, the resistance suddenly disappeared.
Angelica had changed tactics. She stood facing the intruder, her face still wet with tears but more than ready for a showdown. And she fired the first salvo, telling Inez that she didn’t want to talk to her and demanding that she leave.
"No quiero hablar contigo, largate!"
But equally heatedly, Inez told her that she had no choice but to listen. "Pues te amuelas, porque me vas a tener que oir!"
Finding that Spanish was equally ineffective, Angelica reverted to English, saloon-style.
"Go to Hell! I’m not allowed in your room so you can damn well get out of mine!"
But Angelica had closed her eyes and placed her hands over her ears, as she began to shout, "Go away, go away, go away," over and over again.
Inez almost shook with frustration but it was obvious that she wasn’t going to be able to get through to her now. She certainly wasn’t going to try and beat the child into submission. She would just have to wait until Angelica’s anger had cooled down sufficiently for them to talk.
"All right, I will talk to you later." And the saloon manager retreated, closing the door behind her.
Nearly an hour later, Angelica lay on her bed and contemplated the ceiling. Or rather, she gazed at the ceiling while she contemplated her place in the world.
Last week, it had all seemed so simple. She’d lived at the saloon in Four Corners with the most wonderful father in the world and Inez who had seemed to care for her almost as much as he did. The two of them argued a lot but they both loved each other and they both had loved her. She’d had six fantastic uncles who each spent time talking with her or playing with her or showing her things. And her grandmother had visited every so often and she was just so much fun.
But now her father didn’t want her any more. He’d told her to go away. She’d been so bad that he’d stopped loving her. And Inez had become mean and selfish and untrustworthy. And she couldn’t even trust her grandmother or her uncles to try and help her.
Suddenly, she was all alone in the world again. Ezra had promised that she wouldn’t be. He said that they’d be together forever. And now he was telling her to go away. He hadn’t even given her a chance to be good again. Fathers weren’t supposed to be like that.
He didn’t even look like the father she remembered. She knew that he was sick but he looked so changed. His face flushed and beaded with sweat. And he had that really short beard-type stuff that Uncle Vin often had, and sometimes her other uncles, especially if they’d been away from town for a while. But never her father, he always made sure that he shaved and dressed nicely. Now he was different, everything was different.
He’d said that he’d kill her if she didn’t go away. How could he say something like that? And if he couldn’t be trusted, then no one else could.
She heard footsteps outside her door and rolled over, closing her eyes.
It was probably Inez again. She still wanted to talk but what could she possibly say to make things any better?
Sure enough, the door opened and Inez softly called her name. Angelica carefully made sure that she didn’t make any sound or movement. If Inez thought she was asleep then she would go away again. There was no point in arguing with someone who was asleep.
But then she heard the footsteps approach her bed. Inez sighed, a soft mournful sound, and then Angelica felt a light kiss on her forehead.
"Que suenes con los angelitos, mi nina."
Then, swiftly and quietly, she left the room again.
Angelica was almost overcome. Inez had wished her pleasant dreams so softly and fondly and sadly that she couldn’t have been pretending. After all, she must’ve thought that Angelica was asleep, what would be the point of pretending?
Angelica began to cry silently. She and Inez had once been such good friends, and she missed that too. Maybe if she’d said something before Inez left the room, she would have come back and made everything right between them. Then Angelica wouldn’t have been so totally alone.
But she hadn’t and now the chance was gone. So alone in the darkness, Angelica cried herself to sleep.
After she’d seen that Angelica was asleep in her room, Inez had returned to Ezra. She’d even managed to convince Nathan to go and have a meal and hopefully get some sleep. Actually, the healer had gone with comparatively little argument, as if he had realized and made concession for how much the confrontation with Angelica had exhausted her.
Inez sighed. She really didn’t know what to do about Angelica. The child must have been terribly hurt and confused by the day’s events. She had certainly been furiously angry and Inez had been totally unable to reach her because of it.
But at least, Angelica’s slumber now appeared to be peaceful. Ezra’s certainly wasn’t. His face was flushed with the raging fever and his hair was soaked with sweat. The tossing and turning had greatly diminished (he was just too weak to indulge in that much movement). But his incoherent moans continued, even as he fought painfully for each and every breath. But Inez thanked God that, at least, he still continued to breathe, even though each breath sounded like it could be his last.
Inez closed her eyes, as she held his feverish hand against her cheek. She couldn’t bear to see him like this.
She wanted to see him swinging Angelica into the air, both of them giggling and their faces alight with the sheer joy of living. She wanted to catch that brief half-smile, followed by the deliberately exaggerated wide-eyed innocent stare, when one of the other six accused him of cheating in a friendly poker game. She wanted to exchange one of those fleeting glances with him, as another fracas erupted in the saloon, and even sense that little lurch of her heart as she realized that he was about to step into the fray. She wanted to watch his eyes drift closed and feel all the tension seep from his body, as he fell asleep in her arms after they had made love to each other. She even wanted to feel the familiar burning fury as he ended one of their arguments with a smart comment and a smug smile, obviously (and mistakenly) thinking that he’d won convincingly.
"I need you do all of those things again," she whispered, opening her eyes to steal another glance, "Please, querido, stay with me."
She closed her eyes again and laid her head on the bed beside him, needing to be near him. The sound of his tortured breathing filled her ears and, to her, each ragged gasp was like blessing from God.
The early morning sunlight filtered through the window and onto Inez’s face, waking her. From long-standing habit, she straightened up and stretched, preparing herself for another long day. In the morning’s quietude, she could hear her joints crack, after a night spent sleeping in an awkward position.
Quiet? Suddenly fear clutched at her heart again. It was far too quiet. She couldn’t hear Ezra’s breathing. She anxiously gazed at him. He was utterly pale and still.
Her throat constricted and her own breathing was suspended.
He couldn’t have died while she was sleeping!
"Ezra!" she cried, giving full voice to her alarm and anguish.
There was a startled movement behind her and she glanced around to see Nathan waking in a chair. He must have come back to the room after she had fallen asleep.
"Nathan?" Inez desperately needed to know what had happened but emotion choked her and she couldn’t articulate the question.
But she didn’t need to. Instantly, Nathan moved to her side, placing one hand on Ezra’s brow and the other over his heart, to ascertain his condition. The healer’s concerned expression slowly melted into a broad grin and he turned to Inez.
Inez stared at him, so shaken by the threat of the unthinkable that her mind found it difficult to comprehend good news.
"His fever’s broken. He’s turned the corner."
"He’s going to be alright?"
Nathan never liked to give guarantees. In his line of work, it was often dangerous to get people’s hopes up. But looking into Inez’s desperate and disbelieving eyes, he knew that he had to give her something.
"Yeah, I think he might be."
He immediately found himself enclosed in an enthusiastic embrace with tears of relief being rained upon his shoulder and Spanish prayers of thanks being rained upon his ears.
"It’s okay, Inez," he said, trying awkwardly to pat her on the back.
She laughed as she released him and wiped the tears from her eyes.
"It is better than okay. It is wonderful. We must tell the others. And Angelica! She could see him now, couldn’t she? It has been breaking her heart."
Nathan considered the proposal. "Yeah, I think it’d be okay. So long’s she don’t get too close."
Inez was out of the door before he’d finished speaking. But then she returned, a little more subdued.
"She’s not there," the saloon manager sighed, "Probably hiding from me again."
But even this disappointment couldn’t keep her elation in check for long. "We have to tell his mother! She should know straight away!"
Nathan couldn’t help laughing at her. Her exuberance was contagious.
"Inez, she prob’ly won’t be awake for another hour or two."
Inez shook her head. "For this, she would want to be woken!"
Nathan chuckled again. "Okay, I’ll go get her. But don’t y’go wakin’ Ezra while I’m gone. He needs as much rest as possible."
Inez laughed as well. The sheer relief was making her feel ridiculously light-headed.
"It is not Angelica that you are talking to. I can contain my enthusiasm."
Nathan grinned at her. She was indeed acting a lot like Angie or another child of similar age.
"See that ya don’t!" he told her in his best serious parental tone.
And she burst into a fit of childish giggles again.
Angelica had been sitting, half-hidden in a corner of the kitchen, for ten to fifteen minutes, as she contemplated the bottle of whiskey which she had just stolen from the bar.
Ezra obviously enjoyed drinking it, like he enjoyed smoking his cigars. So, for a very long time, she had wanted to try some.
But he had told her quite definitively that these things were for fathers and other grown-up people, and not for little girls. She had looked around the saloon for confirmation and found that it seemed to be the case (although nearly everyone in the saloon, apart from her, was grown-up).
It wasn’t that she didn’t believe him but she’d decided to research the subject a bit further. So she’d asked several people why they liked whiskey and tobacco. (With Inez and Ezra not far away, she’d always felt free to roam around the saloon and talk to anyone she liked.)
One answer had always stuck in her mind. "Oldest reason there is, Littl’un. T’drown m’sorrows."
It had come from poor Mr Rowan, whose wife had died in childbirth, at the beginning of the year.
"And whiskey makes you feel better?" she’d asked him.
"Well, it makes me not feel quite so bad."
Well, right now Angelica reckoned that she was feeling very sorrowful and she really wouldn’t mind not feeling quite so bad.
It had taken a bit of effort but she had finally got the bottle open. She sniffed at it, even though she had known what it smelled like for ages. She hadn’t thought to get a glass but then she’d seen people tip it down their throats straight from the bottle. The bottle she held seemed quite heavy but it was worth a try.
As soon as the liquid hit her mouth, she gagged. A small amount went down her throat but the majority came straight back up. She dropped the bottle, coughing and spluttering.
The stuff was absolutely awful! How could they bear to drink it, let alone enjoy it? Not only did it taste disgusting, but it was burning her throat too.
Then to her further dismay, she saw that the bottle she had dropped was rapidly emptying onto the floor. She scooped it up and stoppered it but it was already more than half empty. And the whiskey had not only splashed onto her but also made a large puddle on the floor. She’d need to clean that up quickly.
She raced back into the bar and climbed up to place the bottle back on the shelf. Would Inez notice another half empty bottle? Maybe not. But she would certainly notice a large pool of whiskey on her kitchen floor. As she returned to the kitchen, Angelica looked for something to clean it up with and grabbed one of Inez’s aprons which was hanging behind the door.
She managed to mop up most of the spill but what was she going to do about the whiskey-soaked apron? And her own clothes for that matter? She’d need to change and maybe she’d better lie low for a while.
Checking, that no one saw her, she crept up to her room. And as she neared her father’s room, she could hear Inez and Uncle Nathan laughing.
She frowned as she slipped into her room and changed out of her whiskey-stained nightdress to get dressed for the day. What right did they have to be so happy? She was alone and miserable, and her father didn’t want her anymore, and it seemed that they were all perfectly happy to carry on as if nothing had happened. They even found it funny.
Well, she didn’t need any of them. If Ezra wanted her to go away, then that would be what she’d do. She and her mother had always traveled from place to place. She could certainly do it again. Even if, this time, it was on her own.
She looked around the room for what she would need.
Her warmest coat. It was getting really quite cold these days. So she took it from the wardrobe and put it on.
The deck of cards that Ezra had given her. As he had told her, they were a necessary tool for survival. So she placed them in one of the pockets of her coat.
Her pen and paper, in case she needed to write something? But she looked dubiously at the small pot of ink on the shelf. That would be hard to carry. No, leave them behind.
But she should write a letter to Ezra to tell him that she was going. Since she wasn’t allowed to see him, it would be her only chance to say goodbye. So she carefully wrote out the words and placed the piece of paper on her bed.
Then she angrily wiped at her eyes. If he didn’t want her, then she didn’t need him! She would look after herself!
She opened her door cautiously and looked outside. It seemed that the laughter had stopped and she then saw Uncle Nathan hurrying down the stairs.
He didn’t seem to have noticed her. Well, why would he? Nobody cared about her anymore.
Well, she didn’t care about any of them! She’d get some food from the kitchen and then she’d be gone. She’d find somewhere else to live and she’d look after herself.
She didn’t need any of them!
Maude Standish had volunteered to fetch her granddaughter. Somebody had to do it and, anyway, she was beginning to feel claustrophobic amidst the ecstatic relief that her son’s room was now awash with.
She knew that many people thought of her as a cold and unfeeling woman. That wasn’t really true. She was as relieved as any of them to learn that Ezra’s fever had broken. She no longer felt as though she was wading through quicksand or that her heart was encased in ice. So she could understand the comparative euphoria that the release of tension had brought them.
But, although she was not really unemotional as a person, she was undemonstrative. The uncontainable jubilation which the others so freely displayed felt like it was smothering her. She needed to get away and someone needed to talk to Angelica. Thus it seemed only logical that she offer to be the one to go and find the child.
But Maude had instantly found herself the recipient of a suffocating embrace. Inez currently seemed incapable doing anything in a sedate manner. After the crushing tension of the past few days, the saloon manager’s relief was being expressed in the form of completely uninhibited exuberance, with both laughter and tears flowing freely. And Inez was truly grateful that someone had volunteered to fetch Angelica. If she didn’t need to search for the child, she could remain by Ezra’s side and be certain of being there when he woke. And with the way Angelica had been hiding from Inez recently, finding her might take quite some time.
Maude decided to try Angelica’s room again and called her name as she entered. No answer. Several items of clothing were strewn across the floor (the child had always had a tendency towards creating chaos) and there was a faint odour of alcohol. It was very unsettling.
A piece of paper lay on the bed and Maude picked it up with an almost overwhelming sense of foreboding.
I am going away
The characters were reasonably well formed and the language used was outstandingly simple, but still she had to reread it twice for the message to penetrate.
Going away? No, it seemed that she was already gone. How could she? Why in God’s name would she?
Why would she? What a stupid question! It was profoundly obvious. The child had been trying to see her father for days and everyone had been keeping her out. And those who might have made it up to her by spending time with her, were more concerned with checking up on him. So no one had really explained to her what was happening. All Angelica knew was that she had been excluded and abandoned.
"This, Maude Standish, is why you should never have become a mother," she murmured to herself, as she left the room and headed downstairs. She’d never managed to meet the needs of any of the children who’d relied on her. And now she had failed again with another generation.
She hadn’t been able to look after Isolde. She should have prevented her from being exposed to the illness, just as Ezra had endeavored to do with Angelica. So her only daughter had died because of her lack of thought and care.
She hadn’t been able to look after Ezra. Always distracted by the next prospect or plan, she’d let him grow up essentially without her. True, she’d raised him to be independent, a survivor and a fighter. But loneliness and isolation still haunted him, and these were scars from the wounds that she’d inflicted long ago, when he’d been too young to protect himself.
Now, she hadn’t been able to look after Angelica. Again she’d been distracted, although this time by a far more worthy cause. But she knew that she’d failed in the resolution she’d made to herself that Angelica would never want for anything.
After all, it was at least partially Maude’s fault that the poor child had been orphaned in the first place. A careless conversation could cost a life.
Oh Mr Greel, if that is what you have envisioned, you really must look up my son, Ezra. The quaint little town he resides in would be ideal for such a venture and he practically runs the local law enforcement.
She’d really given very little consideration to the words she’d uttered to get that distasteful man off her back. But now they haunted her dreams. In his ensuing visit to Four Corners, Malcolm Greel had murdered Angelica’s mother and thus Maude Standish found herself responsible for the death of an innocent young woman.
And it was Ezra who had stepped forward to, in some way, remedy her mistakes. Ezra, who had himself been abandoned, had taken in the orphaned child and adopted her. He had managed to give her the security that he himself had never known. And now when he had been too ill to care for his daughter, his mother had allowed that security to be stripped away.
Shame was a concept that Maude might have once professed to have no understanding of. But now she could write the definitive book on it and she felt like she was about to embark on a whole new chapter.
But she wouldn’t admit defeat yet. Angelica couldn’t be long gone. The ink on the paper still smudged slightly under Maude’s fingers.
She’d have to find the girl. She couldn’t have Ezra awaken to find that he’d lost his daughter. As Inez had said, Angelica was the only person he believed would never leave him. And when he was six, he had emerged from fevered delirium to find that he’d lost his only sister. Maude simply couldn’t bear to face that look in his eyes again.
But where would Angelica go? Inez had said that she had an unparalleled expertise in hiding. Would she try to conceal herself?
Putting down the child’s note, Maude made a quick search through the kitchen and saloon bar. She found a hastily mopped up whiskey spill (which surely bore witness to an interesting tale) but no sign of Angelica. No, it seemed that she had definitely left the premises.
Where would she head for? The child was hurt and she was probably looking for comfort and familiarity. So where was comfortable and familiar?
Since her arrival in Four Corners, Angelica had always lived at the saloon and she wasn’t there. She could hardly try and make her way to San Francisco. After all, neither the train nor the stagecoach would arrive for at least several hours. Maybe there was somewhere else nearby where her mother had taken her.
Of course! It hit Maude like a bolt of divine lightning. If Angelica felt that she’d been abandoned by her family here at the saloon, there was a quite obvious place that she might head for.
Immediately, Maude set off for that destination. Her sense of purpose was almost legendary. She wouldn’t let it fail her family now.
Inez was beginning to worry. Maude had been gone for a very long time. Maybe Angelica was hiding from her grandmother, as well. Or then again, since she was no longer encumbered with worry over Ezra, maybe Maude was taking the opportunity to spend time with her granddaughter.
No, that was almost impossible. If she had been told that she was allowed to see Ezra, there was absolutely nothing that could possibly stop Angelica from invading the room as fast as was humanly possible.
So Maude couldn’t have told her yet. Angelica must still be in hiding.
Ezra stirred slightly and Inez instantly leaned forward. She couldn’t help it. Each time he moved, she hovered in anticipation like this. But this time, there was also a quiet moan. She placed a hand to his face and received another faint response.
She called to him softly. "Ezra?"
Nathan and Josiah instantly came to stand beside her. The three of them were the only ones left in the room. The others had gone downstairs for something to eat and drink.
Inez just couldn’t wait any longer. She gently but firmly shook Ezra’s shoulder.
"Ezra! Wake up!"
Another moan and his eyes slowly opened. He blinked and whispered, "Inez?"
"Si, querido!" She wanted to kiss him, even though she knew that it still wasn’t a good idea. With difficulty, she managed to restrain herself.
"Welcome back," Josiah’s voice rumbled from over her shoulder.
Ezra blinked again. "Have I... been somewhere?"
The preacher smiled at him. "Everywhere and nowhere."
"Y’ve been ill, Ezra," Nathan explained, "pneumonia, remember?"
Ezra’s brow furrowed slightly, then he closed his eyes and nodded.
"But you are going to be fine now." Inez caressed his face again and he reopened his eyes.
"I take it... that you mean... eventually... because... at the moment... I feel like hell." His voice was still weak and halting, but the complaint was delivered with a shadow of his sardonic smile. And Inez took immeasurable comfort in that.
She picked up his hand and kissed his fingers fervently. Tears of joy escaped down her cheeks and mingled with her kisses.
He was back. He was going to be fine. Everything would be all right now.
Ezra felt his chest tighten at her display of naked emotion. He knew that she couldn’t help it. Her nature and, to some extent, the culture she had been raised in were expressive in that way. And his illness must have alarmed her greatly.
But he needed to say something, anything, to break the mood before he too succumbed. The disease had severely drained his resources and his defenses were weak. He wanted nothing more than to just relinquish control and let her take care of him. But he knew that he couldn’t afford to rely on anyone like that.
He had put up the walls for a reason. The soft vulnerable parts of his heart and soul couldn’t afford to be risked. After being trampled on so often in the past, they had to be hidden away. Her companionship and tenderness were wonderful. But he was rapidly becoming addicted to them and they would probably be withdrawn someday.
So he tried for a tone of self-depreciating nonchalance, to hide any sign of emotion. "It’s reassurin’... to find you... still here."
Inez looked up sharply. "Of course, I am here! Where else would I be?"
"Well you... have other... responsibilities... the saloon and... such things."
"And do you think that such things have mattered at all while you have been ill?"
She couldn’t believe this. She had been watching over him for days with her heart bleeding, and every moment spent away from him had torn even more at that gaping wound. And now he was implying that she would have just continued on as if nothing was wrong. She was becoming well and truly annoyed with this attitude.
"What do you think of me? That I tell you that I love you to your face and then laugh at you behind your back? That I weep on the outside but on the inside I do not really care about you at all? Why do you find it so hard to believe that I love you? You are not so hard to love. Surely, Angelica has shown you that. You love her and would never leave her. Why can’t you understand that I love you and I would never leave you?"
"You don’t... have to be... melodramatic... I think... we’ve established... I’m not goin’... to die."
She was a hair’s breadth from physically shaking him. How could he be so obstinately stupid? But instead she snorted in exasperation.
"I cannot convince you. I think, you will probably be sitting with your grandchildren on your knee, some day, and you will be telling them how surprised you are that I am still by your side. Oh well, so be it!"
For a moment, she thought that she might have gotten through to him because he didn’t come up with a reply to that. But then she noticed that his eyes were drifting closed again. He was probably just too tired to speak.
He did manage to whisper her name once more before he lapsed back into unconsciousness. And Inez thought that she still heard a note of reproach in his voice.
She looked up at Nathan and Josiah, who had witnessed the argument in silence.
The preacher reached out to squeeze her shoulder reassuringly and offered a sympathetic smile. "Yeah, he’s definitely back."
All three of them knew that any affection for Ezra came with a requisite amount of exasperation attached. If you wanted to invest the former, you might as well expect the latter.
Then they heard the door opened with boisterous force and all turned, expecting to greet Angelica and Maude.
But it was Buck, JD and Casey. They all looked frantic, and all three started speaking at once.
"Inez, she’s gone!"
"Found this just then..."
"She’s left. We gotta get after her..."
Nathan managed to cut through the babble. "Hush, you lot! Ezra still ain’t too well an’ he just got back t’sleep."
They fell silent but Inez already felt a fear seize hold of her. "What’s happened?"
Casey handed her a piece of paper. "Sorry, Inez. I only just found it. It was on a table near the bar."
Inez read the note and, once more, her world came crashing down around her ears.
"Madre de Dios!" It came out as little more than a whisper and she found that she couldn’t move. Nathan and Josiah read the note over her shoulder and both also swore under their breath.
"What’ll we do?" Casey was near tears. For the past few days, Angie had kept pestering her about seeing Ezra. And Casey had brushed her off because she was too busy trying to look after the saloon. "We gotta find her."
Josiah nodded. "Then we’d better start lookin’." A thought struck him. "Where’s Maude?"
Buck shrugged. "Don’t think anyone’s seen her since this mornin’."
"We’ve gotta tell her. And we gotta find Chris and Vin and Mary and anyone else who’ll help. Form a proper search party."
"Right!" JD immediately headed for the door.
"Tell them we’ll all meet in the saloon," Josiah called after him. Then he turned to Inez, "You best stay here with Ezra."
"No, I need to help you look for her." It was her fault that Angelica had gone. She should have done more to get through to her.
Buck knelt down in front of her and took her hand. "Don’t worry, we’ll find her. Someone’s gotta keep an eye on Ezra."
She shook her head vehemently and Nathan came to her rescue. There was a new crisis and he could see that Inez needed to be there to deal with it personally. She’d always rebelled against letting others fight her battles for her. Once or twice, she’d been forced to accept it. But it was obvious that she wasn’t going to let it happen this time.
"I’ll stay with Ezra," he volunteered, "Other than him, Inez knows Angie better than anyone. You folks will be needin’ her with ya."
Inez threw him a grateful look and Buck sighed. In his experience, having a distraught mother in the search party was a recipe for disaster. Okay, so Inez wasn’t Angie’s ma, but she was the next best thing. But he knew that weren’t going to be able to stop her. So they’d better let her join the search party, where someone could at least keep an eye on her.
"C’mon then, darlin’," he said, drawing her to her feet, as he himself stood.
Inez let him lead her out the door. She was still slightly numb from the shock. She couldn’t get Ezra back just for them to both lose Angelica. It would destroy him. And it would destroy her too.
They had to find her. They simply had to.
Maude reached the Four Corners cemetery, to find that she couldn’t see a living soul. She could, however, hear an indistinct voice, barely carrying against the wind. Since she didn’t really believe in ghosts, Maude readily assumed that it was the person she’d been looking for and headed towards it.
As she approached, the voice became easily recognizable, as did the words it was saying.
"It was easier when we had the wagon, Mama. It’s so far to walk anywhere and I don’t think the stagecoach or the train will let me on if I don’t have any money."
So now that she’d found her, how would be best to approach her? It had to be non-confrontational. The child would probably bolt at the first sign of interrogation.
How should Maude appear to her? Anxious, like any concerned grandmother would be? Nonchalant, as if she were just out for a stroll and had no idea anything was wrong?
But she found that it was a situation that she just didn’t have an appropriate angle for. So, in the end, she opted for a standard greeting as her opening gambit.
Angelica started visibly, then she jumped up from where she’d been sitting in front of her mother’s grave and turned to face the newcomer.
"Grandmother! What are you doing here?"
Selected truth plus a little diversion, Maude decided.
"I was wonderin’ where you were. And now, after wanderin’ around for some time, I’m rather hungry. Would you care to join me for something to eat? I thought maybe back at the saloon. Or at the hotel, if you prefer."
Angelica shook her head. "I’m not going anywhere. But I’ve got something for you to eat, if you’re hungry"
Maude immediately accepted this first overture. At least, Angelica seemed prepared to talk to her and it was far too early to push for anything more. "That would be lovely, dear."
Angelica began rummaging through her pockets and from them produced some cookies, a small apple and a deck of cards. She handed the food to her grandmother and was about to return the other item to her pocket, when Maude stopped her.
"No, darlin’. Why don’t we have a little game while we’re eatin’?"
Angelica’s eyes narrowed. She wasn’t stupid. Her grandmother obviously wanted something. Something she seemed scared to ask for.
You didn’t live in a saloon for any length of time without learning that playing cards was a very good way to get people to give you money and other things. And she knew that Maude, like Ezra, was an expert at it. So Angelica had no intention of falling into that trap.
"No, I don’t think so."
Maude looked at her thoughtfully and then spoke with a faint challenge in her voice. "If you’re not goin’ to indulge in such activities, why did you bring them with you?"
Angelica shrugged. Her grandmother might as well know. "They’re an invaluable tool for survival."
Maude’s eyebrows lifted. That was a direct quote from Ezra, if ever she’d heard one. "Oh? How so?"
"Well, if I ever get lost in the wilderness, all I have to do is deal out a game of solitaire and someone is sure to come along and tell me how to move the cards."
Maude couldn’t fully repress a smile. "Did your father teach you that?"
Angelica nodded and her voice became soft and forlorn. "It was the first thing he ever taught me."
Then she looked away. Her grandmother wasn’t going to see her cry. In fact, she decided that no one was ever going to see her cry again. Maybe, if she took really deep breaths, she could stop the tears from coming.
Seeing the emotion about to spill over, Maude reached out and placed her hand on the shoulder of the anguished child. "He loves you very much, you know."
Angelica wiped her eyes and shook off her grandmother’s grasp angrily. "He used to. He doesn’t anymore! He told me to go away and he said he’d kill me if I didn’t!"
Maude felt tears starting in her own eyes. "Oh, Angel!"
Angelica turned on her vehemently. "Don’t call me that! Only he calls me that!"
Maude was taken aback by her fierceness. But this obviously indicated that Angelica was still very possessive about Ezra and that had to be a hopeful sign. Maude managed a slight smile and tried to compromise. "Can I call you ‘Cherub’ then?"
Angelica was suspicious. The word didn’t sound too bad but it seemed to mean something to her grandmother and she had no idea what.
"Because I think it suits you."
Well, that seemed as good a reason as any. "Okay."
Maude sighed as she embarked on the Herculean task of trying to explain the situation to the child. "Cherub, you’re father’s been sick."
"I know that!" Angelica’s expression clearly indicated that she thought her intelligence was being insulted. "That’s why he’s been coughing and staying in bed and the doctor’s always coming to see him."
"Yes, well. When people are as sick as he’s been, it sometimes affects their minds."
Angelica’s eyes went wide "He’s gone crazy?"
When she’d lived in San Francisco, Angelica had often seen an old man who lived on the streets and who thought he was someone called General Santa Anna. He used to yell at passersby as if they were soldiers he was commanding. She couldn’t imagine Ezra ever acting like that. But, when he’d told her to go away, the look in her father’s eyes had been similar to that old man’s.
Maude only just managed to keep a straight face "The term is ‘delirious’, dear. He’s not thinkin’ straight but it will only last while he’s very sick."
Angelica shook her head. They couldn’t just pretend that he didn’t mean what he’d said. "If he loved me, he wouldn’t have told me to go away. And he said that he’d kill me. He wouldn’t say that if he loved me."
"Oh Cherub, it’s because he does love you that he told you to go away. He thinks that you’ll get sick if you see him and that might kill you. And he would think that it was his fault."
Again the child shook her head. "He lets you and the others see him."
"I know it seems unfair, but it’s because you are a little girl."
"What’s that got to do with it?"
"When your father was just a bit older than you are now, he had a little sister. Her name was Isolde and he loved her very much."
Angelica looked up, intrigued. This was something she’d never heard before. "And you did too?"
"Yes, and I did too. But one day he got very sick and she went to see him and got sick as well. He got better but she died and he thinks that it was his fault. Cherub, if the same thing happened to you, I don’t think he could bear it."
Angelica digested this. Maybe it was true. But if this sickness was so bad, then Ezra was in danger.
"But what if he dies?"
"He won’t. He’s gettin’ better."
"But he could have! He could have died and I never would have seen him again!"
Maude flinched. There was no point in pretending that Angelica was too young to really understand what losing a parent involved. She’d already had that experience and in a particularly brutal form.
She was obviously incensed by the thought that they had all known that she might have lost him forever and hadn’t even given her the chance to say goodbye. And the only excuse available was the truth that she had already been told, that it was for her own good.
"Cherub, we just couldn’t risk you gettin’ sick."
Angelica shook her head and spoke with a child’s unshakable belief in their own indestructibility. "I would have been alright! Inez and the rest of you just want to keep me away from him!"
"Why would we want to do that?"
The child exploded in frustration. "I don’t know! All Inez cares about is making sure he isn’t angry with her. Maybe she wants him all for herself. She made sure that he forgave her for whatever she did to make him angry but she wouldn’t let me see him so he’d forgive me."
Maude found herself rather perplexed by this argument. "Forgive you for what, darlin’?"
Angelica looked uncertainly at her, then took a deep breath and said, "For abandoning him to spend time with you. You know, before he went away. He was really angry about that."
Another chill went through Maude’s heart. It rang true and she realized that, added to everything else, she’d also managed to come between Ezra and his daughter.
Time to lay all cards on the table. Maude knelt down, placed both hands on Angelica’s shoulders and gazed steadily into her eyes.
"Come back with me. You’ll see that Ezra loves you and that Inez loves you and that they both want you to stay with them forever."
Angelica stared back doubtfully. "He said that before."
Maude squeezed her shoulders in a desperate attempt to reassure her. "He meant it then and he still means it! Come back with me and see!"
She could see the conflict occurring behind the child’s eyes and anxiously awaited her reply.
Nathan sat in the chair by Ezra’s bed and reread Angie’s note again. Ten words in all. Rereading them over and over wasn’t going to make them change and it wouldn’t make him feel any better either.
He kept remembering all the times in the past few days when he might have taken five minutes to talk to Angie. Maybe he could have made her understand. Maybe then she wouldn’t have run off.
He sighed and reread the note again. All of them was probably feeling like that.
Nathan started and then looked over to find Ezra awake again and regarding him speculatively.
He shrugged. "Just somethin’ that Casey found in the saloon."
That had been a question that he had more or less been expecting and he’d spent some time trying to think up some answers that he might get away with. He knew that he was a shocking liar and that Ezra was an expert at spotting deception. So he thought that the only way he could pull it off, was to formulate some suitable half-truths in advance.
But he saw that his best effort had been spectacularly ineffective. Well, he also knew (from being told rather than successfully doing it himself) that attack was the best way to divert attention. Best give it a try, and quickly.
"Think you owe Inez an apology."
"Oh?" Ezra’s eyes narrowed. He could obviously tell that Nathan was up to something, so the healer redoubled his attack.
"Yeah, and ya oughta start treatin’ her right?"
Ezra looked annoyed. "I thought we’d already had this conversation."
Nathan blinked, then he remembered the argument they’d had, that night in the Seminole village.
He shook his head. "Not talkin’ about marryin’ her."
"Then what are you talkin’ about?"
"Ezra, that woman loves ya and y’talk t’her like ya don’t believe that she cares about ya at all. That’s hurtin’ her real bad. What’re ya tryin’ t’do? Hurt her so bad that she’ll up and leave ya?"
Ezra didn’t reply but a shadow fell briefly across his eyes. Nathan saw it and suddenly knew exactly what was going through his friend’s mind.
"That’s what yer afraid of, ain’t it?" he said softly, "Ezra, that ain’t gonna happen."
"So now you’re blessed with some form of semi-divine insight into her way of thinkin’ as well as my own?"
Nathan shook his head in disbelief. Ezra made his living, largely by discerning the hidden thoughts of complete strangers. How could he possibly be blind to the undisguised loyalty of someone as open as Inez?
"Y’d only havta ask her and that woman’d stay with ya fer the rest of her life. No, y’wouldn’t even havta ask. She’d do it anyway, unless ya finally manage t’push her away. Hell, Ezra! Y’love her, don’t ya?"
Ezra almost seemed to squirm without actually moving a muscle. "And what if I do?"
"If y’love her then ya gotta trust her. I don’t know if she can keep goin’ on if y’don’t trust her. It hurts her too much."
Nathan realized that he’d probably pushed this point as far as he could. Ezra was getting seriously annoyed.
"Do you have any other advice?" he asked tersely.
Nathan smiled. He actually did have a small fallback strategy.
"Yeah, drink this!"
He picked up a cup from the bedside table and handed it to Ezra who eyed it suspiciously.
"What is it?"
Ezra sniffed at it. "And?"
"A mixture of herbs and honey."
"I’d rather have some brandy in it."
Nathan smiled briefly. "Not until y’ve got a bit more strength. This’ll help build that up."
Ezra sipped at it. It was one of Nathan’s less repulsive concoctions. In fact, it was rather pleasant.
Silence descended as Ezra finished the drink and Nathan was grateful for the reprieve. Maybe he wasn’t so bad at this misdirection thing after all. Ezra seemed to have forgotten the note entirely as Nathan reached out to take the empty cup from him.
"So if you’ve exhausted your supply of distractin’ comments, maybe we can now discuss the contents of the paper you were readin’ earlier."
Nathan froze. One day he’d just learn not to take Ezra on at this game.
Seeing Nathan on the back foot, Ezra pushed his advantage. He managed to lift a hand and held it out. "Don’t try and conceal it. Just give it to me."
Nathan couldn’t think of a reasonable excuse not to but he had to cushion the blow somehow.
"They’ll find her," he said, as he handed it over, but Ezra didn’t even hear.
He immediately made a brave but futile attempt to get out of bed. Nathan easily pushed him back.
"Where the hell d’ya think yer goin’?"
Ezra fixed him with a hostile glare. "Where do you think I’m goin’?"
"Ya aint got enough strength t’stand, let alone go lookin’ anywhere!"
"Where did she go? How long ago did she leave? Why did she go? What the hell have you lot been doin’ to her while I’ve been lyin’ here?"
This accusation was too much. The tension and lack of sleep, for more than three days, had caught up with Nathan and his patience finally snapped.
"We kept her outta here, like ya asked us to. No, like ya demanded we do. She’s bin confused an’ lonely. An’ yesterday she broke in t’see ya an’ ya yelled at her t’go away."
Ezra stared at him for a second and then redoubled his efforts to get out of bed. But he fell back again, even before Nathan needed to restrain him.
The healer was ashamed of his outburst. What were a couple of sleepless nights compared to what Ezra had been through? The man had nearly died and now he was understandably vexed about was happening to Angie. And Nathan also knew that one of the reasons he had spoken so roughly, was that Ezra’s reproach had come too close to the whisperings of his own guilt-ridden conscience.
He put a hand on the gambler’s shoulder and spoke gently but firmly. "Ezra, stop it. Y’ll hurt y’self. An’ if folks are worried about you, they can’t be out lookin’ for Angie."
Ezra was breathing harshly again from the expended effort. "So, why... aren’t you... out lookin’?"
"’Coz we were all that worried about you. Somebody had t’stay with ya."
Ezra took several deep breaths before speaking again. He had give an appearance of being reasonably calm or Nathan would never agree to his suggestion.
"Well now, you can stop worryin’ and go out and look for her."
Irritation crept into Ezra’s voice, despite his resolution to seem calm. "If you’re goin’ to stay here whether I behave myself or not, what incentive do I have to even try?"
"Please go, Nathan!" Ezra resorted to blatant pleading. "Each extra person participatin’ in the search might make the difference in findin’ her. And as you said, I don’t have the strength to go anywhere."
Nathan reluctantly agreed. "Okay, but Casey’s downstairs and she’ll be up here real regular, t’make sure yer doin’ the right thing."
Nathan looked at him dubiously but, having forced himself into a corner, nodded and went out to join the search. But he gave a final warning, as he walked to the door.
"I’ll be back soon an’ so will the others. They were gonna meet back downstairs, an hour from now, anyway."
Ezra nodded, in his turn, and tried to appear every inch the model patient. However, as soon as the door closed behind Nathan, he made another effort to rise from the bed and quickly fell back, panting.
It was no use. Angelica was wandering alone out there with no one to protect her and there was nothing he could do about it.
Nathan had said that he’d shouted at her and told her to go away. How could any father treat his child in that way?
So now, he’d lost her and it was entirely his own fault. He’d broken the bond of trust between them and Angelica would pay the price.
He had to do something! He couldn’t just lie here while she could be in danger. If he’d sent her away, then he had to get her back.
But his next attempt sent him tumbling to the floor, dragging the bedclothes with him. He landed with a considerable thud and lay there, gasping for breath.
"Oh, well done, Ezra!" he muttered breathlessly to himself.
The room was spinning around him and it hurt to move. But he had to try. And keep trying!
He fell back again and this time, darkness finally came to claim him.
"I’m sorry, Angel girl," he managed to whisper before it descended.
Maude could hear a heated argument in process, as she and Angelica climbed the stairs of the saloon.
"How can so many of you not be able to find one little girl?"
So, Ezra was awake.
"Oh c’mon, Ez! We’re trying! Remember how long it took us to find Billy, that time he ran off? An’ Angie’s much better at hiding."
Poor Mr Wilmington. He had surely made every effort.
"Do I have to do it myself?"
Truculent and impractical. Typical of Ezra.
"Don’t even think it! I’m not gonna pick ya up off the floor again!"
Well said, Mr Jackson. Don’t stand for any nonsense.
But still, Maude was pleased to hear Ezra being so recalcitrant. He was obviously recovering well. And maybe she hadn’t been able to prevent his pain over losing Angelica, but now she would be able to relieve it.
She signaled for her granddaughter to wait outside and remain quiet. This sort of entrance had to be effected with suitable aplomb. She would go first and try to pave the way.
When she entered the room, she found it somewhat crowded. Not only Inez and her son’s six associates had gathered at his beside, but Dr Elliott, Mr Dunne’s young wife and Mrs Travis were also there.
"Is there enough space to permit the entrance of another visitor?"
Ezra turned his head to look at her. Someone had apparently been kind enough to prop him up in a sitting position, so that he could harangue his friends and colleagues with greater comfort.
"Mother! Where have you been?"
She smiled. It was nice to see that he had actually noted her absence. She’d thought that Angelica’s had probably occupied his mind to the exclusion of all else.
"Most recently, at the local cemetery. But before we embark on a lengthy discussion about that, Ezra, I have a companion who craves admittance." She reached out into the corridor and drew her granddaughter into the room.
Angelica heard her name chorused in various forms, and she was unsure whether to smile or to run.
She looked to her father and thought that he still seemed rather angry and unkempt. She’d been told that he would be glad to see her. Well, maybe he still wasn’t feeling very well and that was making him cranky.
"Angelica Teresa Velasquez Standish!"
Ezra’s words caused Angelica to flinch. All four names - she was still in really serious trouble.
"What on earth did you think you were doin’?"
Angelica’s anger resurfaced. At times like this, it was obvious that she’d inherited every iota of Teresa’s fire.
Her grandmother had convinced her to return with a promise of reconciliation and understanding, not interrogation.
But if he hadn’t got the message from her note, she was fully prepared to tell him again.
"I was going away. If you don’t want to be my father anymore, that’s fine! I can look after myself. I don’t need you or anybody else!"
Ezra made the transitions from anger to shock to remorse, in less than a second. "Don’t want to...? Oh Angel, how could you think...?" Words failed him. There simply were none that were adequate.
So, despite all of his resolutions about quarantine, he held out his arms to her. And despite all her bravado about not needing him, she instantly rushed forward to be claimed by his embrace.
Nathan started to move forward to separate them but then stopped. It seemed that it would do more harm than good, at this stage. And looking at the fierce desperation with which they both clasped each other, he’d probably need a crowbar to do it.
Ezra was too choked by emotion to speak. She was here in his arms again. His own precious Angel girl. And he might have lost her. She might have left him because she’d actually believed that he no longer loved her.
Finally, he managed to whisper into her hair, "I thought we said ‘together forever’."
And her tear-stained reply came back. "Yes, I thought we said that too!"
All her confusion and loneliness were conveyed in those few words. He had to do something to restore the bond between them. He had to let her know that while he drew breath in this world, she would never be alone or unwanted.
"Angel, whatever happens, I’ll always want to be your father."
"I promise faithfully."
He drew her out to arms length so that he could look into her eyes. "Now you once made me promise never to leave you. I need you to promise me that you will never leave me again."
She smiled and wiped her eyes. "Never!" she assured him.
He grinned and decided to qualify his request. "Well, at least not until you’re all grown up and we find a suitable young gentleman who’s worthy of you."
She shook her head. "Not even then!" she vowed and his grin widened.
"Easy to say now, my Angel, but I won’t hold you to that. The promise only lasts until the day of your wedding."
"Would you leave me, if you got married?"
"Of course, not."
"Well, then I won’t leave you, if I do."
He resisted the urge to hug her again. "Yes well, some things which apply to fathers are not the same for daughters."
Hesitancy suddenly appeared in Angelica’s eyes again.
Ezra had once said that about drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco. He was going to be really angry with her when he found out what she’d done with the whiskey. And he’d only just forgiven her. It would be a real shame to make him angry again so soon.
Ezra frowned. The conversation seemed to have stopped abruptly and Angelica was anything but a reticent child.
Unless, she was feeling guilty about something.
"Is there something which you would like to tell me?"
Angelica hedged. "Yes, your face is all scratchy. Are you going to shave soon?"
Ezra laughed, she was a born dissembler but it wasn’t enough this time. "Soon enough. What else is on your mind?"
Angelica still hesitated. She didn’t know where to start.
But her grandmother was prepared to hazard a guess.
"Does it have something to do with the somewhat Bacchanalian odor I detected in your room or the drying whiskey puddle I saw in the kitchen?"
Angelica thought franticly. She’d half-hoped that she might blame the whiskey spill on Cuervo. After all, knocking a bottle of whiskey over was exactly the sort of thing that Inez and everybody else expected from the cat.
But that wouldn’t explain how her clothes or one of Inez’s aprons had gotten soaked at it. Maybe she could make the truth not sound quite so bad.
"I didn’t drink any!" she told her father desperately, "It tastes awful anyway! I just tried a bit and then it spilled and then..."
He gazed at her in utter astonishment. "What on earth possessed you to try it in the first place?"
"Mr Rowan said that it made people feel better when they were feeling sad." She looked at him pleadingly, needing him to understand. "I was really sad and it seemed like a good idea."
Ezra closed his eyes. "Wonderful! It’s been less than a year and I’ve already driven my daughter to drink!"
Then he looked at her again. He certainly had to discourage the behavior. "You’ll refrain from doin’ it again, won’t you? As the poet said, ‘Drink to me only with thine eyes, And I will pledge with mine.’"
Angelica looked at him uncertainly. He didn’t look angry but his words didn’t quite make sense to her.
"You’re not still delirious, are you?"
There were several failed attempts to contain laughter and Ezra turned to his mother, looking for an explanation of this addition to his daughter’s vocabulary.
Maude shrugged. "Well, I had to say somethin’ to explain your inexcusable behavior."
His eyebrows lifted and he turned to his daughter for confirmation of his misconduct. "Was I that bad?"
"Well, you really were quite scary," Angelica said carefully, "You said you were going to kill me."
She’d been deeply hurt but, as long as all was right between them now, she was prepared to forget it.
Ezra, however, was aghast. "I said what?"
Nathan tried to reassure him. "Think y’meant the fever’d kill her. Y’seemed t’think she was yer sister, at the time."
Ezra closed his eyes as he digested this. Then, still shocked and shamed, he opened them and addressed his daughter. "I’m so very sorry, Angel girl. What can I offer you by way of compensation?"
"Make it up to you."
Angelica looked at him thoughtfully. All she had wanted was for him to forgive her, not the other way around. But, on the other hand, she wasn’t the type to pass up an offer like this.
What did she want most? Well, she’d wanted Ezra to be her father again, but she’d already gotten that. So, what had she missed most about him? They hadn’t talked for ages and she’d really missed the sound of his voice. What would keep him talking?
"Would you read to me?"
He smiled. "Of course. But you’ll need to fetch a book for me."
"Hang on, Angie!" Nathan interceded, "Yer daddy still ain’t real well. Y’ll tire him out readin’."
Ezra grinned at him and shook his head.
"A debt is a debt, Mr Jackson. I will read while my strength holds."
Nathan looked exasperated but Inez smiled tolerantly. It was so good to be able to watch Ezra and Angelica interacting again. She was prepared to indulge them a little.
But, to pacify Nathan, she suggested, "Well then, mi nina, you had better also fetch some milk and some of Senora Woolley’s shortbread for your father. To help keep his strength up"
Angelica nodded and headed for the door.
"And you might add some brandy to the milk, to help keep my spirits up," Ezra called to her.
Angelica nodded even as Inez and Nathan almost shouted "No!" in unison.
Inez was prepared to make some concessions but not that one, and the child’s intentions were ambiguous.
"No brandy! Do you hear me?" she demanded.
"Yes," Angelica said reluctantly and left to perform her errand.
"Senora Woolley’s shortbread?" Ezra asked, as the door closed behind her. He was somewhat surprised, as he knew that Inez did most of her own baking.
"Yes, her husband brought it here yesterday. He said to tell you that their whole prayer group praying for you."
Ezra smiled. The way she said it, anyone would think that such religious activities were completely alien to her.
"Did you light any candles?"
"Two each day," she admitted with an almost sheepish smile, "one every morning and evening."
"Thank you," Ezra said simply.
It was one of the things that he admired about Inez. She had strong beliefs and observed certain religious rites but she didn’t just follow the dogma mindlessly, or use it to judge or exclude other people.
And that was just one of many things which he’d come to appreciate about her. No, one of many things which he’d come to cherish and adore.
She was his match as a verbal sparring partner. Her vocabulary was not as extensive, but her intelligence and insight more than compensated. She had a fiery temper but she was also capable of seemingly infinite gentleness and tenderness. She was in no way shy about stating her opinions and they were often critical, but she was also fiercely loyal. She would defend her friends to the death.
Loyal. Yes, indeed. Loyal, faithful and trustworthy. She had never ever done a single thing that indicated that she might be undeserving of his trust. But still he’d kept that distance between them. He was sure that he could love her without relying on her. It was, after all, how he dealt with his mother. But it seemed that it might not work like that.
Nathan had said that his lack of trust was hurting her, that it might eventually push her away from him. Could it be true?
Well, he knew that he’d hurt her. He’d seen it her eyes over the past few days. The memories were hazy but he knew he hadn’t imagined that. And he knew that he’d already nearly pushed Angelica away. He hadn’t thought that was possible, but somehow he’d done it.
It seemed like he’d been given a second chance with Angelica. He couldn’t make the same mistake with Inez. If he wanted to conserve what they had together, then he needed to show her that he trusted her and accept all the risks that involved.
Well, if one was not prepared to take risks, then one shouldn’t be in the game. And, extending the metaphor further, why not up the ante and call her hand? What was the worst that could happen? That he’d find that the cards he held weren’t good enough to match her? That was the same risk in any game. But he’d had no chance to stack the deck this time.
He reached out to take one of her hands in both of his. "Inez..." he began tentatively, before the full weight of what he was doing hit him. His voice faded and his gaze dropped to the hand that he held.
But he couldn’t give in to cowardice now. He cleared his throat and purposefully lifted his eyes to meet hers again.
"Inez, would you do me the extreme honor of consenting to become my wife?"
Inez stared at him for a second, then instinctively glanced at the door through which Angelica had departed.
Ezra drew her attention back to him. "My request has nothing to do with Angelica. It is based solely on what exists between you and myself. Inez, I do want you by my side when I have grandchildren on my knee. And I want you’re there as their grandmother and my wife. Will you marry me?"
She was astonished. He seemed in earnest, not to mention extremely vulnerable and self-conscious. And suddenly she couldn’t completely repress a small chuckle.
"You want to make an honest woman of me?"
He smiled too. Her gentle humorous tone was familiar and what she’d said gave him a glimmer of hope. So he continued in the same vein.
"Well it would be the first time that forming any association with me was said to endow anyone with a degree of honesty but yes, if you would grant me the privilege."
"Then yes. I too would be honored and privileged."
He almost reached up to kiss her but then caught sight of Nathan hovering and remembered the risk of spreading infection. So he reluctantly settled for squeezing the hand that he still held and grinning like an idiot.
Inez was grinning too. She had sat by Ezra’s sickbed, over the past few days, and imagined countless possible outcomes. But she’d never envisioned this. And she still hadn’t managed to tell him everything yet. She’d been about to when Angelica had launched into the story about the whiskey.
She broke into a brief chuckle. "Well your timing is very good."
That puzzled him. He failed to see why the recovery period from a potentially fatal illness constituted particularly praiseworthy timing.
But before he could query that, he saw her exchange a look of understanding with his mother and had to make a conscious effort to subdue his resentment at their effortless unspoken communication. He was only partially successful. His voice contained a distinct note of irritation as he asked, "Would you care to explain your reasoning to me?"
Maude favored him with a tolerant knowing smile. "Let’s just say that I think Angelica’s next challenge will be sibling rivalry."
Ezra’s jaw dropped and his gaze swung back to Inez. "Surely, you jest."
"I do not!" She couldn’t help laughing at his astonishment. It took him a couple of seconds to find his voice again.
"How long have I known or how long before it happens?"
"Well, I’ve been fairly sure for about two weeks and if all goes well, the child should be born in about seven months."
"Why didn’t you tell me?"
Inez arched an eyebrow. "You have not really been in a mood for listening."
A look of annoyance crossed his features. He obviously thought that this was an unfair assessment. But Maude intervened before he could say anything that he might later regret.
"It’s better this way, Ezra."
"How so?" he asked skeptically.
"Well, since you have already proposed, Inez won’t have to be concerned that you only married her because of the baby."
Ezra snorted. "A large number of people will probably believe that to be the case anyway."
Inez leaned forward with a somewhat conspiratorial grin. "And when did we start worrying about what such people think?"
His annoyance melted into a rueful smile. "Indeed."
They all then looked up at Nathan, when he also started laughing.
"And what do you find so amusin’ now?"
"Oh, I jus’ think yer timin’s good, same as Inez."
The entire room just looked at him expectantly.
"Well, last time we was back at the village, Rain said to me that she thought she might be expectin’ too."
"And why didn’t you say anything?" Inez asked him.
Nathan shrugged. "Didn’t seem right to be talkin’ about such things. Y’know with the worry ‘bout Ezra, an’ all."
Ezra knew that he owed Nathan a great deal. Apologies for the hurtful things he’d said recently. Gratitude for all the healer’s care and patience. And, not least, the simple duties of friendship.
"Well, as soon as I’m on my feet again, we should make another trip to the village to properly offer you and Rain our congratulations. After all, I still need to return that stunning outfit the villagers loaned to me."
Nathan looked hesitant but then said to him, "Actually, the poncho was made fer ya."
Ezra’s eyebrows lifted, encouraging him to continue.
"Nikkannochee remembered what ya said at my weddin’ about not havin’ proper ‘Seminole attire’ and he an I picked out the colors. And his ma an’ Opalocka to sewed it for ya."
Ezra digested this. It would be unforgivably ungracious to be disparaging of such a gift. "Then," he said softly, "I will wear it with pride, every time I visit the village."
An uncomfortable air of melancholy had descended and Buck tried to break the mood.
He elbowed JD in the ribs. "Y’re laggin’ behind, JD."
JD looked at him incredulously. "With what?"
"Oh, come on! Inez an’ Ezra. Nathan an’ Rain. An’ you two got married before any of them."
"Well, I didn’t know it was a race!" JD exclaimed with an understandable amount of sarcasm.
But the statement earned him another dig in the ribs from the other side. "It ain’t!" Casey told him pointedly.
"What race?" Angelica asked from the doorway. She balanced a large book against her hip, using it as a tray to carry a glass of milk and a plate of shortbread, in a fair imitation of Inez’s technique.
"There ain’t no race," Nathan told her, as JD and Casey both coloured furiously.
Angelica shrugged and walked over to hand the milk to her father. He grinned as he accepted it and thanked her.
Then, as he took a sip, his grin widened.
"Most fortifyin’. My thanks again, Angel girl."
Inez’s eyes narrowed and she held out her hand. "Let me taste that!"
Angelica looked apprehensive but Ezra simply withdrew the cup from her reach and said coolly, "I think not. It would be far too hazardous. We can’t risk spreading any contagion."
Inez knew there was no point arguing with him and turned to Angelica.
"I thought we agreed that you wouldn’t put any brandy in it?"
The child shook her head. "No, I said that I heard you when you said that you didn’t want me to."
"Cria cuervos y te sacaran los ojos."
Angelica’s temper flared again.
"I’m not a crow and you can’t tell me what to do! You’re not my mother!"
Ezra reached out and took hold of Angelica’s shoulder.
In a both placating and warning voice, he told her, "She may not be your mother, but you need to show Inez some respect. After all, she tries very hard to look after both of us. And all three of us are soon to become a proper family."
Angelica was not quite ready to let go of her hostility. "How?" she asked suspiciously.
"Inez and I are goin’ to get married."
"When?" This was going to change everything.
"As soon as we can."
Angelica felt like the floor was falling out from under her and looked apprehensively at Inez. "Do I have to call you ‘Mama’?"
Having spent most of the day talking to her mother by her graveside, the idea of calling someone else by that title really disturbed the child.
Inez felt her heart go out her. She’d never had any intention to try and take Teresa’s place, but Angelica obviously needed reassuring.
"No, just call me ‘Inez’, Angelica."
Angelica still looked disconcerted and Ezra looked for something else to offer her.
"How would you like a new brother or sister?"
She slightly misunderstood the question. It seemed that this was another compensation that they were considering. And they were offering her the choice. After a moment’s pondering, she decided, "A brother."
Ezra was intrigued by this unexpected answer. "Why?"
Maude grinned. She’d seen how possessive Angelica was of her position in Ezra’s life and he in hers.
"Because then, darlin’, she’ll still be your only little girl."
Angelica looked up at her, awed and disconcerted that Maude had correctly deduced what she was thinking.
Well, she’d soon get used to it, Ezra reflected. And in truth, he was a little comforted that he was no longer the only one that Maude visibly outmaneuvered in this way.
But his mother’s answer also provided a reason for Angelica’s renewed hostility. She was afraid that she would be superseded in his affections and again needed reassurance from him.
"Even if the new baby was a little girl, you would still be my one and only special Angel girl."
"And the new baby would be?"
"Special in another way."
Angelica looked a little dubious and she still hoped that the baby would be a boy.
"So when are we going to get this new baby?"
"Well, the preparations have already been made and the baby should arrive in approximately seven months."
Ezra hoped that she wouldn’t ask too many more questions and that Inez might explain pregnancy and childbirth at a later date.
"That long?" exclaimed Angelica.
Inez laughed. It must seem like forever to a child of Angelica’s age. "These things take time."
Angelica looked at her. When they’d first told her of the marriage, she’d been quite jealous that Inez would soon have an official bond with Ezra as close as her own.
But, now that she thought about it, when Inez married Ezra, then she would be another real legal relation for Angelica. Another one that no one could take away. And this new baby would be a real brother or sister. She couldn’t contain a small laugh at her sudden reversal of fortune.
Ezra looked at her. " What is it?"
Angelica laughed again. "It’s just that I thought I was going to lose my family." She glanced over at Maude. "Both of you. But now it looks like I’m going to have twice as many."
Ezra suppressed a smile, as he translated her statement into a proposition in gambler’s parlance. "So what do you say, Angelica? Double or nothing?"
He kept his face studiously expressionless and Angelica was unsure if this was a joke or a test. But either way, she thought the answer should be the same.
She grinned at him. "If it’s double or nothing, then I guess I’m in"
Ezra also broke into a proud grin, and reached out to tousle her hair.
"That’s my clever, clever girl!"
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