Notes: August Challenge answer offered by Jen
write us a story
inspired by a song. I don't know about anybody else, but I have a whole list
of tunes I associate with the boys and their adventures. Let's compare Magnificent
soundtracks! You don't have to use the lyrics in the story -- we're not looking
for songfic here -but please do include the lyrics at the end of the fic, with
Special Thanks to: Teresa
Please send comments to: email@example.com
Spring. It was the time of year for re-growth, when winter's wrath quickly disappeared beneath green grass and lush trees, and newborn calves enjoyed the sun and crisp, fresh air. Birds started early with their songs after returning from their southern migration, and horses began to shed their heavy winter coats.
Rains were common and not unwelcome, as the land and those living upon it relished the new life. Farmers prepared for planting, cattlemen planned for their next big sale, and horsemen started training their two-year-olds. Even the air seemed fresher, as though it had made a change for the good.
Chris Larabee leaned against the awning railing outside the sheriff's office, a cheroot hanging loosely between his well-defined lips. One hand rested casually against the handle of his sidearm, while the other was placed on his hip, just below the gathers of the black shirt that was tucked under a black belt. He watched with informal admiration as families rolled into town to make preparations for the anticipated large summer harvests; collecting seeds for planting and purchasing tools for the jobs. Children rushed from one store to the next while their parents tried their best to control their overwhelming curiosities. He couldn't help but raise the curve of his lips into a slight smile, a gesture of a sort that couldn't be ignored. Bluish-green eyes lined by thick, dark lashes accentuated his striking good looks, and warned for those with questionable motives. He was indeed a force to be reckoned with.
"You gonna stand there all day or do somethin'?" Buck asked, taking a seat outside the jail. He ran his fingers over his mustache to check the length and shape, wanting only perfection from the hair above his lip. He smiled generously as he watched a young woman cross the street, lifting her skirts in one hand and exposing well-shaped ankles that were slightly hidden beneath boots and long bloomers. "I've missed this time of year," he said, wincing as though in pain when she stepped onto the boardwalk and lowered her skirt.
"That's Carl Sander's daughter, Buck," Chris said flatly.
"Ain't nothin' wrong with lookin'." He grabbed his hat and carefully adjusted the shape, wanting to maintain its lazy perfection. His dark hair glistened in spots where the sun seeped through a crease in the awning roof. "What in the hell are you lookin' for?" he sighed, noting Chris' intensity as he looked up and down the street.
"You look hard enough, you'll find it," Buck mocked, smiling and hiding his humor beneath dark blue eyes.
"Where's everybody?" Chris asked, ignoring him.
"Vin's out on patrol-think he went out to Nettie's to eat some of her stew. Josiah's workin' on the church. JD's " Buck's smile increased in size, " out with Casey-guess they went fishin'." He made it sound as though their actions were suspicious. "Nathan's at the clinic brewin' his witchcraft, and Ezra's at the saloon where he's always at."
Chris nodded, never taking his eyes off the road. He subtly shifted his weight to his other leg and watched as a team of chestnut horses unhurriedly pulled a wagon into town, slowing in front of the hotel. The black man holding the reins wore a heavy, collapsible-type hat, coveralls and a plain brown shirt that was hidden beneath layers of dirt and mud. The woman seated next to him was considerably lighter in skin color, and wore a hat and a simple sunflower-print dress. Her right foot rested on the buckboard guard. Three children sat in the back looking curiously around the town, their faces expressing both excitement and fear.
The woman was strikingly beautiful. Her features were fine, classic and unusual for a woman of color - at least for those who categorized the Negro community. White men, as well as black, stopped to take notice, and in spite of her simple attire or trying to hide beneath a floppy straw hat, they couldn't help but stare. Her movements were graceful, and she seemed unaccustomed to the ruggedness of the frontier.
When the wagon was pulled to a stop her husband quickly jumped down, revealing his true height and size. Taller than Nathan, with muscles that could easily match Josiah's, he seemed comfortable in his own skin. He quickly lifted the three children from the back and then helped his wife down onto the muddied ground. He looked toward the boardwalk and briefly met Chris' eyes. A quick nod of acceptance passed-one of acknowledgment and understanding: they wouldn't be trouble.
The children, two boys-possibly twins, and a young girl, stood together awaiting their orders. The boys, dark like their father, were handsome and possessed a curiosity that begged to be fed. They wore loose pants and shirts that seemed two sizes too large, plain in both color and design. Neither boy wore shoes; Chris guessed that the family probably couldn't afford them. The boys couldn't have been older than five or six. Both shared similar large brown eyes and button noses.
The girl, older than the boys by four or five years, didn't share her brothers' dark skin tone. She was light-skinned like her mother-perhaps even more so. Her eyes were large and her features fine and elegant. Her hair, black and sleek like an Indian's, was pulled back into a braid and mostly hidden by a simple straw hat. She seemed more cautious than her brothers, more aware of who and what was around town.
"Think they'll be trouble?" Buck asked, not out of suspicion but recognition. They seemed like a nice enough family, but even in the west, black families were not overly welcomed, particularly in places where jobs were short and land was up for the taking.
"Not unless someone else causes it," Chris replied. He caught a glimpse of Ezra in the saloon window-looking like a man who knew something that he shouldn't-like a man about to face his demons.
He heard the ruckus; the sound of an old wagon about to lose an axle-maybe even a horse, and he stood to look out the window. At first, it didn't seem strange; new people, new place, a family moving west...but it wasn't just any family. Ezra took a long and deep breath, holding it in until his lungs protested and craved new air. He released it suddenly and removed his black hat, nervously shifting the rim between his fingers and thumb until he'd made it all the way around. He kept his eyes on the wagon and on the adults driving it, remembering a time when things had been so different.
Green eyes danced with recognition, and thick dark lashes, fluttered. Ezra lowered his head, as though hiding an expression that might reveal his emotions. He tried to focus his attention on the floor - the pattern of the wood, or lack thereof - and the mud that had been forced between the boards. Slowly, he disappeared from the window and escaped to the solitude of his table, flicking his cards between dexterous fingers, his nimble mind seemingly a million miles away.
"Buck," Chris said, keeping his eyes on the saloon.
"Keep an eye on Ezra."
Buck looked up from the knife he was using to pick the dirt out from beneath his fingernails. "Why?"
"Just do it."
Nathan stepped out onto the walkway to his clinic and looked down onto the street below. He spotted the newest family to arrive and a smile came to his face. It was difficult being black in a predominantly white community. Granted, there were a few families of color living in the area, but not enough to make him feel like he could disappear and not be noticed for the color of his skin. He wasn't sure it would ever come to that. If it wasn't for the fact that the six men he worked with had embraced him as one of their own, he wasn't sure he'd still be living in the town of Four Corners.
Through time and patience he'd developed a good reputation as a healer. Though not a doctor, he knew more than most; he just lacked the slip of paper that stated it. Most, when injured, came to him willingly. They didn't question the color of his skin or the intelligence of his mind. As long as he could ease their pain, fix their break, and birth their baby, he was welcomed in most homes. It had taken him a long time to earn that respect, but he had earned it, and he deserved it.
Broad-shouldered and standing over six-foot-two, Nathan used his size and his strength for the purpose of helping those who couldn't help themselves; he took pride in the fact that he'd learned to use his strength well. He slowly made his way down the long staircase toward the boardwalk, his steps were sure, long, and well placed.
"Can I help you?" he asked, clearing his throat and glancing at the two young boys' bare feet. They smiled with large, toothy grins-matching in shape and size.
"We's just passin' through," the big man said, placing his hands on his hips just behind the pockets of his coveralls. "I'm James Crawford, my wife Mora," he motioned toward his children, "Samuel and Jacob, and our daughter Emma May."
Nathan smiled, exposing bright white teeth and exuding a friendliness not to be underestimated. "How long do you plan on stayin'?" He knelt down in front of the boys, carefully looking them over. He'd get them some shoes, maybe even a toy.
"Just long 'nough to get our wagon fixed seems the axle's slippin'." He slipped his hat off while running a hand over his bald head.
Nathan stood and moved off the boardwalk, carefully peaking beneath the wagon. He couldn't help but notice the lack of supplies, even clothing; they had a single boxful of blankets, two carpetbags, and a box of canned goods consisting of only two cans. "Looks like you might be here awhile," he said, standing upright. "The smithy is the one to talk to; he's just down the street. George should give you a good deal on fixin' it." He watched from the corner of his eye as Mora grasped her daughter's shoulders and gently moved her to stand before her.
"We uh," James paused, taking a moment to look at his wife, his sons' bare feet, and his daughter's gaunt features. "We don't have " He stopped suddenly when the man in black moved across the street with the grace and ease of someone who knew that death could come at any time, and didn't care.
"Problem?" Chris asked, having noticed the stares of curious faces peaking out of store windows.
"Axle's goin'," Nathan supplied, looking up and noticing for the first time why Chris had made an appearance.
Both men looked down the street in time to see Vin riding up; his horse's belly and legs were splattered with mud. "Boys," he said, slipping off the horse before the animal could come to a complete stop. He tipped his hat toward the family and quickly tied his horse to the hitching rail. His legs, up to his knees, were covered in mud. His face was also splattered and his hair was damp with sweat, despite the cool temperatures. He looked tired but well fed-Nettie's stew must have been good.
Nathan quickly introduced everyone and looked toward Mora and her children. They hadn't spoken a word and remained still, as though they'd been scolded into place.
Chris peeked into the back of the wagon. "Where're you headed?"
"North," James answered, nervously wringing his hands together.
Chris raised his eyebrows in question, waiting for James to continue...
"We just come from Mississippi."
"Must 'ave come through some tough weather," Vin replied with a shake of his head, slapping his hat against his thigh causing mud and water to spray. "We got more comin' this way-could be as soon as tonight." He looked toward the north and saw the sheer signs of a storm's impending wrath.
Chris nodded. "Nathan, get these people set up for the night maybe find them some supplies."
"We don't want no charity," James protested.
"It won't be," Chris reassured, nodding toward Vin before heading into the saloon.
"We don't want no charity," James said again, this time facing Nathan.
Nathan smiled kindly and nodded in understanding. "I'll introduce you to Josiah. I'm sure he'll have some work that needs doin'."
"Maybe they're runnin' from somethin'," Vin said, tossing his hat on the table before taking a seat. He'd noticed the lack of supplies a family would need in order to make a trip as long as the one they said they had taken. Mississippi was a long way from anywhere, particularly Four Corners.
"Maybe," Chris replied, watching as Ezra habitually moved his cards between nimble fingers, not really concentrating on his actions as he stared toward the window-lost in thought...or the past.
Vin turned toward the table Ezra had claimed as his own. The table, used for high-stakes poker games, was hidden behind support beams and slightly elevated in relation to the rest of the room. Standish wasn't a fool, and he liked to know what was going on around him-he liked to see what others couldn't; it's probably what kept him alive. Vin, noticed the solitude Ezra hid behind, the unfamiliar distance in his eyes, and the casual flipping of cards through fingers that had done the same trick over and over again-moving out of habit, like a horse gnawing at the hitching rail, or a child sucking on their thumb.
"What's goin' on?" Vin asked flatly, as though he really shouldn't have to ask and was bothered by the fact that he did. He leaned back in his seat, allowing himself a better view of the room while still keeping one eye on Standish and the other on Chris.
"I don't know," Chris admitted.
Ezra suddenly stacked his cards and stood, walking quickly across the saloon and sprinted up the stairs to his room, never taking notice of who or what was in the room.
"Could be trouble?" Vin questioned, smiling politely as Inez placed a glass of beer in front of each of them.
Chris turned knowing eyes in Vin's direction and saw the young man for what he was: insightful, wise beyond his years, and a damn good friend-the kind who'd always be there-despite the road ahead. "I'm not sure," he said, picking up his glass and taking a short pull, enjoying the cool, bitter taste...knowing come summer, the beer would be warm and the air hot.
Vin nodded in understanding and reached to scratch above his ear, only to catch a torn nail in a few tangled strands of his long hair. "Shit," he sighed, pulling his finger free of the rat. He quickly bit and pulled the loose nail from his finger and spit it out onto the floor.
"Be thankful it was the hair on your head that you snagged," Chris said, keeping his eyes toward the door.
Vin chuckled. "No shit."
Josiah opened his church like he did his heart, and he stood off to the side as the Crawford family entered. He took notice of their clothing and the simple, poor way in which it had been made; their shirts were too large, their dresses too saggy and even their pants hung too low on narrow hips. The family needed more than what they had - food, clothing, money - they needed the help that only strangers could offer.
Nathan followed the family into the church with one of the twins in his arms.
"Welcome to my humble abode." Josiah curled his lips, showing off his bright, white teeth and a bear-like smile. Tall yet approachable, he seemed more inviting than anyone James had ever met, and for the first time in a long time the former slave relinquished himself to kindness and gave in to his family's need.
"I can't pay-"
"Nothing to pay for," Josiah said, motioning for them to walk to the back of the chapel. "I'll bring some more blankets in and I'm sure we can find some mattresses for you to sleep on-"
"The floor will be fine," James supplied, smiling at his wife as she carefully slipped her hat off and let her long black hair cascade down her back.
"Nonsense," Josiah replied, watching as two bags were set on a pew. He watched as Mora took her sons and her daughter to stand in front of the fireplace, something to keep them a little warmer than they had been. He couldn't help but be captivated by her gentle nature, striking beauty and elegant touch.
Nathan grabbed a blanket and tossed it over both of the boys, then moved to stand beside Josiah. "I'll have George take care of your wagon and he'll start work on that axle as soon as he can. Then I'll get Tiny to care for your horses - you had one that looked a little lame." He reached out and tapped Josiah's shoulder, a hint that he wanted to talk. Slowly both men headed out toward the street, leaving the family to get comfortable and warm.
"They say they're headed north - didn't say where," Nathan said, looking toward the street. He placed one hand on the back of his hip while the other toyed with the stair rail. He was worried, and it showed through his actions.
Josiah shook his head. "They're running from something."
"Or someone," Nathan replied, pulling a sliver off the stair railing and rolling it between his fingers. He was angry, feeling as though another innocent family was being chased from their home for inconceivable reasons. "They need supplies, food, clothes, even a better wagon " he paused, kicking his foot on the wood stair. "I'm thinkin' I might travel with them for a while."
"Might want to learn what they're running from first."
"They need help, Josiah. Them boys don't have any shoes! And with these temperatures, it's a wonder they haven't come down sick yet!"
Josiah reached willingly into his pocket and pulled out all the money he had - two dollars. It wasn't much, but it was a start. "We'll get the others to help - maybe the town can take up a collection. They won't have much to spare, though...not with planting season well on the way."
"What about tonight, Josiah?" Nathan reached into his own pocket, knowing he didn't have much. He'd just spent most of what he had on a new collection of medicine bottles. "Sixty-three cents."
"Let's go see what we can collect from the others."
JD reached into his pant's pocket and pulled out the wrinkled dollar and the excess change. "Sorry I ain't got more, Josiah, but "
"That's okay, JD," Josiah reassured, leaning back in his seat at the table.
"That makes eight dollars and eleven cents," Nathan sighed in disappointment. It wasn't nearly enough to purchase the clothes, shoes and food required, or to pay for the repairs to the wagon or even the care of the horses.
"You asked Ezra?" Vin asked, a slight grin creasing his lips.
"He ain't gonna give money without chargin' interest," Nathan supplied, "and we don't have enough to pay interest - at least not the kind he asks for."
"I'll go ask," JD said, getting to his feet. "How much do you think the family might need?"
"The clothes they have are in bad shape. They'll need some food for the night - good food. The boys, Samuel and Jacob, are skin and bones and the little girl ain't much better."
"You find out where they're headed?" Chris asked, resting his elbow on the arm of the chair.
Nathan shook his head. "Does it matter?"
Chris looked toward the stairs and then out the door, surprised at the time of day and the fact that there'd been no sign of Ezra since he had disappeared earlier. "Tell him," he said, looking toward JD, "that we'll get him the money back after we take a collection from the town. No interest."
Vin chuckled. "Good luck."
JD headed for the door.
"He's upstairs," Chris said, stopping JD in mid-stride. "Been there since this afternoon."
JD nodded and quickly trotted toward the stairs.
"He feelin' all right?" Nathan asked, slightly surprised.
"Seemed to be," Chris replied, watching JD slip up the stairs and disappear.
JD knocked on the door and waited. "Ezra!" he called, knocking again. "Hey, Ezra, I need to ask a favor." Hesitantly, he grabbed the doorknob and twisted. "Ezra," he said again, peeking inside, noticing the dimly lit lantern sitting on the nightstand next to the bed. Ezra's derringer, watch, rings and a wad of cash rested on the dresser next to the door. "Ezra?" he questioned, looking toward the rocking chair that was tucked up beside the window.
Ezra sat with his feet resting on the window ledge, his knees bent and his elbow resting on the rocking chair's armrest. He kept his eyes on the darkened street below, rubbing his lip and chin with his index finger.
"Take what you need, JD," came the hollow, distant reply.
"We can pay you back after-"
"Take it and go," he snapped, unwilling to move or look away from the window.
"You doin' okay?"
JD nodded, his eyebrows drawing together in a puzzled frown. Slowly, he took twenty dollars from the counter top and then left, closing the door behind him. He paused, looking at the money in his hand, and felt a wave of confusion ripple through his midsection. He glanced toward the door once more before slowly heading back down the stairs.
He shrugged his shoulders when his friends looked up from their table and he waved the money. He tossed it on the table when he got close enough and stepped back, as though it were contagious.
"How much interest did he get you for?" Buck asked, grinning at a young barmaid.
"None," JD replied. "Said to take it and go - didn't even ask how much I needed."
"He just handed you twenty dollars?" Josiah asked, slightly surprised but even more worried.
"No," JD answered. "He had a whole bundle of money on his dresser and he told me to take what I needed and get out."
"He sick or somethin'?" Vin asked, the humor gone from his tone.
"Ezra gets shot or he dislocates that damn shoulder, but he doesn't get sick," Josiah supplied, knowing something was wrong but knowing that now wasn't the time to ask.
"He got beat pretty good," Buck added.
"What in the hell does that have to do with him handing his money over as though it didn't mean anything?" Josiah snapped, getting to his feet and storming through the batwing doors.
"What in the hell did I say?" Buck grumbled.
Chris drew in a deep breath and took then another pull from his beer.
Mora sat behind her daughter and gently braided her hair. They sat on a blanket next to the stove, enjoying the warmth and the roof over their heads. The boys, covered with a blanket, slept side by side on the floor. Their father sat next to them.
"We should leave here," Mora said, wiping a strand of hair from her face.
"North," James said, his lips curving into an optimistic smile. "We'll build a house, raise some cattle and we'll grow our own corn and potatoes." He tucked the blanket up around his sons' shoulders. "Maybe then we'll have another child."
Mora smiled. "Maybe." She reached over and kissed the top of her daughter's head.
"Can't we stay here?" Emma May asked, rubbing the material of her dress between her fingers. She was tired of moving from one town to the next, always on the run running from something she didn't understand.
Mora looked toward her husband, her face sullen and regretful. Her eyes expressed pain and fear and she quickly looked away, embarrassed and ashamed. She rubbed her hand across her cheek and then over her daughter's brow.
"No, Emma, we can't stay here. But you'll like the territory we're goin' to. There'll be lots of trees, we'll be near fresh water and we'll grow our own food. You kids can even have your own horse." James sounded positive, but he always did, even when things got bad.
"And a dog?" Emma May asked, a look of excitement in her eyes. She knew how to play the game, too.
"Even your own dog."
Mora grabbed a blanket and tossed it around Emma May's shoulders. "Get some sleep," she ordered, getting to her feet and slowly moving toward the church doors.
Her husband followed after checking the children.
Mora wrapped her arms around herself, trying to ward off the cold. She was tired; the road had been more difficult than she'd ever imagined and she feared what lay ahead, not so much for herself but for her children. James wrapped his arms around his wife and smiled when she rested her head against his shoulder.
"They'll come for me," Mora said, taking a deep breath and watching as the clouds rumbled and the flashes of lightning in the distance lit up the ground. A storm was coming and it was going to be a bad one.
"They won't find us."
"They will they always will." She looked to her left and spotted a familiar face. Her heart jumped and her pulse quickly started to race. "If they find me they'll kill me, and they'll take Emma May." She watched as the figure looked toward her. She stood up straight, pulling away from her husband slightly, only to catch the man's eyes for a brief moment before he disappeared inside the saloon.
Mora paused and nodded. "Think I just saw a ghost."
Ezra sat hidden in the shadows of the saloon. He sat in the corner, drinking from his flask and flipping cards between his fingers. He watched as the ace of spades - his card - peeked up and then quickly disappeared back inside the deck. He shuffled again, losing himself, only to find himself again between the queen of hearts and the nine of diamonds.
It had happened a long time ago and things had been different; he had been different.
The war had been in full force, and his uniform - gray and tattered - had been bloodied. He winced, remembering the pain and his resurrection.
He had known when he'd first seen her so many years before that his heart had failed him. Her beauty had taken his breath away. They had been so young, so innocent and so willing to accept anything. The war had changed that. It had changed them.
Her name had been Mora Jane Anderson. Born of a white mother and a black father - though at first no one had known that - she'd been raised in a large house with all the accoutrements; she'd even had a slave. Mora's mother was half Cherokee but had passed as a white woman in Southern Georgia, where she'd married a wealthy plantation owner. Mora, having been born with skin light enough to pass as a white woman, had lived the privileged life of one until her natural father had declared her as his own, one year before the start of the war. He'd hung as a result of his proclamation. Her mother had been sent away, and Mora was forced to flee.
Ezra remembered the first time he'd seen her at a function with his mother four years before the start of the war. They'd both been very young and had found amusement playing with some new puppies in the horse barn. She'd been his first crush, and he was hers. Four short hours is all it had taken for the two thirteen-year-old kids to fall in love, only to be pulled apart when the party ended. He'd seen her only one time after that
"You feeling all right, Ezra?" Josiah asked, taking a seat at the table without an invitation. He looked around, noticing the dim lights and the lack of people. It was late, and most folks had gone home for the night. He hadn't been able to sleep.
"Fine, Mistah Sanchez," Ezra answered, taking another pull from his flask as he continued shuffling his cards.
"It's not like you to give money away so freely."
"It won't happen again." His words were flat, emotionless and distant.
"If you need to talk, Ezra, I'll be here to listen."
"Like the last time?" Ezra snapped, pulling his watch from his vest pocket. "I learn quickly," he smiled tightly. "Perhaps I can catch Vin before he heads out on patrol and offer to take his place. I'm sure he wouldn't mind." He stood and pulled his coat off the back of his chair. "Thank you for your company, Mistah Sanchez." He grabbed his hat off the table and quickly headed out the door.
Josiah winced and watched him go, wondering what memories he'd interrupted and what kind of life his friend had lived before coming to Four Corners, wishing he could help. Perhaps the gambler's life hadn't been as carefree as so many thought. Perhaps the man he'd come to know was more than he pretended to be.
Vin wasn't due to ride for another hour, but Ezra didn't care. Unable to sleep and with memories stirring in his mind like an ocean's current, he left the saloon and walked the boardwalk, eventually ending up in the livery. He lit a lantern and led his trusted mount from his stall. He would saddle him and ride patrol, perhaps give Vin the morning off.
The wind caused the canvas over the wagon to slap against its frame, and Vin woke to the familiar scent of rain and thunder. The lightning in the distance illuminated the ground, and for a brief moment it looked as if it were one o'clock in the afternoon. Then it was gone, replaced with the bold rumbling of thunder rolling across the horizon. The storm gave no warning as rain poured from the sky, slapping the ground and forming puddles of mud and small creeks that moved across its surface.
Vin pulled his boxful of hunting supplies underneath the protective tarp and closed the gap just enough to keep his belongings dry. It wouldn't be enough, but he'd lived through worse. Slowly he slipped into his jacket and then quickly finger-combed his hair, pulling at knots and freeing tangles. He needed a bath, but the storm would have to do until payday. He jumped out of the back of his wagon, his feet hitting the ground with a splash and spraying mud up onto his leather boots and canvas pants. He needed to wash his clothes as well.
He headed toward the livery, anticipating a long ride on patrol and expecting nothing out of the ordinary. At least the animals had sense enough to remain under the cover of night and enjoy the weather for what it was.
The big chestnut cocked his left hind foot and shifted his hip, enjoying the feel of the coarsely bristled brush as it moved over his rough coat, loosening clumps of winter coat. The brushing eased the itch and lessened his desire to bite at his skin and pull out mouthfuls of the hair.
"I thought you were dead," her voice echoed like a faint dream as she stood at the entry of the livery, her back turned to the storm outside and her face glowing in the light of the lantern.
Ezra didn't move. Slowly, he pulled a handful of reddish hair from the brush and let it float to the ground. It landed in a heap by his horse's left front hoof.
"I thought I'd seen a ghost earlier, until I heard Nathan and Josiah mention your name."
"You speak as though you know them," Ezra criticized, returning the brush to his horse's back.
"I'm no longer enslaved by proper society, Ezra."
"I didn't realize you had been." He turned toward her, unable to look her in the eye, feeling the old, familiar pull at his heart. "You shouldn't be here."
Mora nodded and picked up a narrow piece of straw, twisting it between the elegant fingers of her small hands. "We were so young then...children. I can't imagine knowing then what I know now." She leaned against the support beam and started to braid the straw, creating an intricately twined piece of rope. "Our parents had arranged for our wedding. Momma even made my dress."
Ezra looked at her finally, seeing again what he had that first time so many years ago. Flawless features embodied perfection like a finely cut stone; he hair was long, sleek and shiny black, reflecting her Indian heritage. "I hadn't realized..."
"How could you? Poppa kept things real quiet after my real father came forward and revealed who I was " she sighed, and then shrugged, recognizing it was too late to do anything about it. "Poppa had him hung, and the he sent Momma away said he didn't have any use for a savage who fornicated with garbage."
Ezra watched a lone tear slide down her cheek and drop onto the bodice of her dress. He clenched his jaw, fighting his desire to demand answers, and listened.
Mora looked up, smiled tightly, and then continued working on the braid. "God, I loved you." Her chin quivered and her nose flared. "But I couldn't have you." She looked up and met his eyes. "I knew I couldn't have you, not after..." She crossed her arms in front of her chest. "When they dropped you off at the house all those years later, bloodied you looked dead." She looked at him again. "They said you wouldn't live." He looked perfect now, she noted. "The doctors wouldn't waste their time on you...they said you'd die anyway. I didn't believe them."
Ezra looked away.
"May-ma and I took you in, cleaned your wounds, bathed you and fed you. I pleaded with her I pleaded with you to live." She wiped her cheeks dry and kept her eyes on the floor. "I remember sitting by your bed, and I remember telling you how much I loved you, how much I wanted to have your children - be your wife." She looked up and met his eyes. "I remember thinking that if you died, everything would be gone...everything that I'd hoped for would be gone."
Ezra clenched his jaw, remembering. "Is she mine?"
Mora chocked back a sob and tilted her head against the support beam. "I know what I did was wrong," her tears fell freely, "but I wanted at least a piece of you." She wiped her cheeks, trying to regain her composure. "I knew that if I couldn't have you I could at least have your child, and nobody would question it."
"We could have gone north. There are places "
Mora shook her head, stopping him in mid-sentence. "They would have hung you," she whispered. "They would have hung you for bedding a woman like me." She shrugged. "I'm not just a nigger, Ezra, I'm a savage. You remember that, don't you?"
"There are others..."
"Look at me, Ezra," she stood straight, her face illuminated by the lantern. "Look at me!" she screamed, pointing toward her chest. "I'm a negra!" She let the straw drop to the ground, ignoring it as it disappeared amongst the yellow and green strands of bedding and feed. She grabbed a handful of her hair and held it toward him, showing him the color - the blackness of it. "Poppa made it clear that I was not to live free, and your father would have killed you for being with me!"
Ezra bit his bottom lip and shook his head: "Ah nevah cared! What my family thought nevah mattered, Mora and he was my step-fathah, not my real fathah." He clenched his jaw and reached for the saddle blanket, throwing it over his horse's back and pulling it up and around the horse's narrow withers.
Mora stood back, ringing her hands together. "You have to take her," she said, fighting the tears. "She can pass as white and you can help her, Ezra. Please...she's your daughter."
Ezra felt as though his head had been forced between a vice and someone was slowly clamping it shut.
"She needs a mothah, Mora, not a fool of a fathah!" He grabbed the saddle and tossed it over his horse's back, causing the animal to grunt and move uncomfortably beneath the harsh treatment. "Hell, Ah can barely keep my own ass out of trouble, much less look after a ten year old girl a girl that Ah don't even know!" he snapped. He turned toward her, angry, bitter and confused. "This is no place to raise a child!" He reached for the cinch and pulled it beneath his horse's belly, looping it through the ladego and cinching it up tight. "You should have told me. Two months, Mora we were together for two months! You had to have known!"
"I couldn't," she replied, "I couldn't take the chance of losing you both." Mora shook her head and grabbed her skirts. "Ezra, you have to take her. I can't keep her with me, not anymore. She's a good girl - smart, patient and beautiful. She'll make you proud, Ezra. She's your daughter...I can't take her into my world! I won't let her lose herself between two different worlds that don't want her! She can have a life here...nobody has to know her heritage. She looks like you, for God's sake!"
"A life as what?" Ezra challenged, grabbing the bridle and slipping it up onto his horse's head. "A prostitute? She's my daughter, Mora," he sighed, "Ah had a right to know." He frowned, drawing his eyebrows together in frustration and anger. His hands shook, his pulse raced, and his heart felt as though it pounded between his ears.
"I'm sorry, Ezra. God forgive me, I'm sorry," she reached out for him but stopped herself. "She has a right to be free, to live in a world that won't judge her worth by the color of her skin. She has a right to be free, to be happy." She tried to blink back the tears. "I can't take her with us..." the tears continued to fall, "...she's not safe with me not anymore."
Ezra looked at her questioningly.
"I can't tell you why, but you have to take her. If you don't I'll find someone who will." She stood firm, despite the despair written on her face. Her eyes, so gentle and warm, turned stony and unwilling to waver.
Ezra shook his head, afraid of what, he couldn't discern. He grasped his horse's reins in his hand and headed for the door. Despite the rain and brutal winds, he'd ride patrol; he needed time to think, time to absorb all the facts and the feelings, and the pain that accompanied them. "Ah have to go," he said.
"Don't force my hand, Ezra...please." She pulled at the material of her dress, wishing she still wore the expensive fabrics of old - the ones that had caused men to stop and take notice for different reasons.
"For what it's worth," he sighed, never looking at her, "Ah loved you too." He pulled his hat down low on his brow and left the barn, mounting his horse and riding out.
Mora paused and looked around the barn, seeing it for what it was...a shelter for animals. Shelter - something she and her family wanted but lacked. She caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eye and jumped, fleeing the barn and rushing for the safety of the church.
Vin stepped out of the shadows, his hands clasped tight, his jaw firm, and his face etched with the realization that things had changed.
"How'd you and Mora meet?" Josiah asked, carefully sanding the back of a pew. James worked beside him, carefully adjusting the legs to ensure they were balanced.
"After the war, we was workin' at the same house...she was cookin', cleanin', stuff like that, and I was workin' with the stock and helpin' to get the land ready for farmin' and such." He smiled, carefully snapping wood together and then nailing it into place. "Prettiest woman I'd ever seen. Her little girl, Emma May, was always at her feet, never out of her mama's sight."
"She's not your daughter?" Josiah asked, slightly surprised.
"No, sir, but that don't mean I don't love her like she was my own."
Josiah smiled and watched as the two young boys rushed in from outside wearing new shoes and pants. "So what made you decide to move west?" He watched as the children grabbed some sticks and started sparring.
"Figured it was time to move on...ain't no other reason."
Josiah took the reply for less than what it was. He knew he wasn't getting the whole truth, but he wouldn't force it...not yet.
"Boys," James said with fatherly authority, "go get the broom and help us clean up this mess." He smiled, watching them rush for the broom and dustpan. "Twins," he sighed, "never thought they'd be so much work."
Mora entered the church wearing a new dress and looking refreshed after a long, hot bath. She nodded toward Josiah and smiled, setting a boxful of material on a pew. "Mrs. Potter said I could work off the children's and my clothes by hemming these dresses." She handed her husband a new shirt. "She said she didn't have any use for this."
Hesitantly, James took the shirt and tucked it away, afraid of taking charity and worried by the idea of losing his pride. "The smithy didn't think it would take long to fix that axle. Should be ready some time tomorrow, if not sooner."
"You have a place ready for you up north?" Josiah asked, exchanging sandpaper sheets.
"We'll know it when we get there," James replied confidently.
Josiah nodded, looking at the young wife who was afraid, the husband hiding her secret, and the children who were oblivious. He nodded toward Nathan, who had entered carrying a small satchel full of food. He'd collected donations from the townsfolk; many offered more than they could afford but they were willing to help make a difference.
Vin stood near the hitching rail of the livery. With one foot resting in front of the other, he picked at the dry skin surrounding his fingernails. His jacket lay open, exposing a freshly laundered shirt and a handkerchief that had been tied loosely around his neck; it had kept him alive after he'd been snake-bit, and as much as he hated to admit it, it was also fashionable. He truly enjoyed the only object of color in his wardrobe, unlike a certain green-eyed southern gambler who flocked to color like flies did to shit.
He looked up in time to see the familiar chestnut walking into town, his rider seemingly unaware of his destination. The big horse stopped in front of the hitching rail and cocked his hind foot - he was done for the day.
Ezra looked up and quickly dismounted, ignoring Vin as he tossed the stirrup over the seat of the saddle and un-cinched the girth. Mud had splattered the saddle and the animal's legs, belly, and chest...even Ezra was covered in it.
"You want to talk about it?" Vin asked, unwilling to move from his spot.
"I have no idea what you're talking about, Mister Tanner," his accent was faded. Ezra pulled the ladigo through the D-ring and then led his horse into the barn where he'd be unsaddled and cared for.
Vin followed. He watched as the saddle was pulled from the chestnut's back and placed on a sawhorse, the blanket tossed over the top, bottom side up. "Figure that storm pulled up a lot of topsoil. Should make it good for plantin' this season."
Ezra looked up in question before continuing to brush his horse.
"If she's your daughter...you've got a responsibility to her."
Ezra chuckled darkly and turned toward Tanner, a look of anger and the promise of violence showing in his eyes. "Don't start preachin' about something you know nothin' about, Vin. Just leave it be."
"I heard enough to know that you can't ignore this." He stood firm, unwilling to back down. "That family is runnin' from somethin' and that young mother will do anything to save her kids...even give 'em away. I've seen it before."
Ezra didn't say anything as he led his horse to the stall, then made sure he had plenty of water and feed. "I don't have time for this," he said, hanging the halter on a nail outside the stall gate.
"You'd better make time," Vin said. "If that little girl is yours..."
"What, Vin? Take her? Let her be raised in a saloon in a town with more riffraff than Yuma prison?" He sighed, running his hand through his hair as though he was ready to pull it out. He stopped suddenly and slapped his hat against this thigh. "I won't raise a child the way I was raised, Vin. I won't do it." He left suddenly, leaving a questioning Tanner in his wake.
Vin sighed, taking a deep breath and scratching at his chin. Ezra was right; he didn't have all the information he needed in order to fully understand the situation, but he knew enough to understand that Mora Crawford would indeed give away her child. The family was running from something.
It had entered his mind many times. What would it be like to have a child? To watch it grow? To love it unconditionally? Over the years he'd thought about it - getting married, having a family, settling down - but his lifestyle had never allowed it. Moving from one place to the next, sometimes running from the law or from a pack of angry gamblers, he'd never had time to do more than saddle his horse, mount up, and ride out. An ingrained habit, the readiness to move on was always with him - a reminder of who and what he was.
Ezra tossed his jacket onto the bedspread and winced when he saw the mud lining the sleeves. He removed the derringer rig and his shoulder holster. A father wouldn't be so armed; he wouldn't have a target pinned to his back...and he wouldn't allow his child to be around such things. At least, a good father wouldn't.
He sat on the edge of the bed and rested his elbows on his knees, interlocking his fingers behind his head and neck while trying to collect his thoughts. Mora could be lying. She could be desperately trying to force his hand; but he didn't think so. Mora wasn't that kind of woman - she never had been - although time did have a tendency to change people.
Could Mora have changed so much?
There had been a time when he wouldn't have cared, when he'd intended to share his life with her, share their children and create a family. He remembered his stepfather reading the newspaper, and the article that had changed his life. Bernard Anderson had sent his wife to live in a state hospital for the crime of adultery; his daughter, Mora Jane, was not truly his. Upon knowledge of that fact he had disowned her, forcing her to search out a living outside of the plantation. Her name alone sentenced her to exile, despite the light color of her skin. Ezra hadn't cared; she'd been a young beauty with dark eyes and a smile that had captured his heart. He remembered them playing together with the puppies, laughing and sharing the simple secrets that only thirteen-year-olds would care about.
He didn't remember arriving on her doorstep so many years later, but he did remember waking in the darkened cabin covered in blankets, watching the reflections of gold and yellow flames flickering off the walls. He remembered her being there...and he remembered what they'd done.
The child was his; of that he had no doubt.
For two months he had recovered, and for two months they had lived as husband and wife sharing in a dream that wasn't yet attainable. He looked at his hand and at the wedding band that encircled his ring finger the ring he'd shared with Mora and worn without promise for ten years. At the time, he had thought about taking her and escaping together, perhaps creating a life in the Pacific Northwest. He had heard that many had fled there, making their dreams come true and living where they weren't scrutinized or punished because they didn't conform to the dictates of society. Even Canada had been an option, but Mora wouldn't hear of it. She'd wanted to find her mother she'd needed to find herself.
So he'd left with every intention of returning; but life had a way of changing good intentions. The war had continued for more than a year, and as a result he'd grown - and the memories had faded. He found himself trying to survive - along with many others like himself - as a Southerner in a war torn community that didn't want him back. He'd found solitude in the crafts his mother had taught him and at which he'd grown talented. Gambling, cheating, lying, and conning - they were all things he could do without having to think about life beyond his God-given talents.
He hadn't thought about much at all.
The memories of war had clouded his mind, and his dreams of something more excused his bad decisionthe further he ran the easier it got until he ran from everything. His emotions had been blocked off, hidden away from the world behind an infectious grin and sparkling green eyes. It was easier that way, never having to explain to himself the 'whys', just the 'where to next'. At times his cold-hearted actions slapped him in the face, but not enough to change him until that day in the Seminole village.
It had started with the idea of a mine, a damn gold mine. Seeing an opportunity to get rich quick, he'd agreed to help save a small tribe from a Confederate Colonel who'd taken leave of his senses. That had been his first mistake; getting involved with the children of the tribe had been his second. Finding friendship with six other men just as screwed up as he was had been his third and final error. For the first time in so long he'd found that he couldn't turn away from the injustice he couldn't turn away from himself.
Ezra sighed and looked toward the window, wishing things were easier, wishing he could once again turn away without being pulled back. But things had changed for him.
JD sat with his feet kicked up on the desk in the sheriff's office, mocking Buck who sat across from him tentatively drinking the coffee Vin had made before the crack of dawn.
"You keep lookin' through those wanted posters, JD, you're bound to be pickin' your eyeballs up off the floor," Buck said, bringing the cup to his lips, then pausing to look critically at the coffee. He used his finger and thumb to pull out a small hair before taking a drink.
"Isn't anything wrong with doing my job," JD replied, tossing another poster into his 'captured' pile.
"So," Buck snickered, "what were you and Casey doin' yesterday?" He waggled his eyebrows up and down.
"We went fishing," JD replied, looking closely at a poster before placing it in the 'to catch' pile.
"That's all you did?"
"What else is there, besides eating them?" JD shook his head, knowing what Buck was getting at but refusing to play the game; Casey wasn't that kind of girl. He moved the next poster onto a pile. "Hey, Buck?"
"Yeah," he replied, pulling his eyes away from the window and looking toward the kid.
JD tossed a poster in front of him and waited. "They look familiar?"
Buck grimaced. "Let's go find Chris."
James took a step back from the wall and took a long look at his handiwork. The new application of white paint seemed to be exactly what the doctor ordered for the church's interior. He watched as Josiah walked in with an armful of tapestries that would be used to decorate the floors and the walls.
"Are you sure I can't talk you into staying here?" Josiah asked, placing the objects on a pew.
James chuckled and shook his head. "My family and I need to get to our new home, but thank you for the invitation." He ran a hand over his face as he looked at his achievement, thinking how much he wanted to one day have a place of his own to call home.
"The place you're moving to...is it pretty?"
James nodded. "Prettiest place in the world." He took a deep breath and walked toward the window, looking out and noticing his children making mud pies. He crossed his arms in front of his chest and leaned casually against the window frame. He hated the idea of piling his children into the back of the wagon, once again heading to a place they'd never seen. He hated the idea of having to keep a smile on his face, of staying positive when his world seemed so negative.
"You all right, James?" Josiah asked, knowing the man needed to talk and hoping he'd explain who or what he was running from.
"It happens a lot when we come into a new town." He never turned from the window. "Folks look at me and then at Mora and wonder what she's doin' with a man like me. Even white men." He ran a hand over his face. "First time I ever saw her I knew I was in love. She was the prettiest woman I'd ever seen, black or white."
Josiah took a seat in the front pew and watched James' back.
"Never could figure out why she married me." His self-disgust, or lack of self-esteem, was expressed in the tone of his voice...sad and nearly inaudible. "I figured it was because she needed to escape whatever past she was runnin' from, and I was more than willin' to accommodate." He smiled tightly and nodded in understanding of his own conclusion. "She married me 'cuz she had to, not 'cuz she wanted to."
"Seems to me you're assuming a lot of things about a very intelligent woman. Perhaps you shouldn't underestimate her?"
James turned and smiled: "It's a nice thought, but I know better." He turned back toward the window. "Emma May's father is - was - a white man."
"Does that matter?"
"It does when it means she could live in the white world," he looked up and met Josiah's eyes. "She deserves that."
Vin leaned back in his chair and looked up and down the street. Mud still lined the walkways, and clean boots were non-existent. He caught a glimpse of Ezra as he entered the saloon, disappearing behind the swinging doors.
"How was patrol?" Chris asked, stepping out of the sheriff's office and shoving his shoulder against the support rail of the awning.
"Muddy," Vin replied. He'd decided to keep what he'd heard the night before to himself.
Chris nodded and pushed his hat up and away from his eyes. He tapped the end of his cheroot on the back of his hand before slipping it between his lips. He didn't find it necessary to talk a lot, but then, neither did Vin. He scraped a lucifer against the inside of the support rail, causing the head to ignite; slowly he brought it to the cheroot and took several puffs, carefully lighting the end. He shook the flame out and then tossed the still smoking stick onto the street, watching as the smoke slowly faded and eventually died out.
"Looks like the Crawford's will be headed out tomorrow mornin'," Vin supplied, pressing his feet onto the floorboards and causing the front legs of the chair to leave the ground.
Chris nodded and blew a puff of smoke from between his lips.
Vin slowly lowered the chair back onto all fours when he saw Buck and JD walking toward them from Mrs. Potter's store. Neither looked happy.
"Where in the hell 'ave you two been?" Buck snapped, shoving JD forward, prompting JD to shove back.
Vin shook his head and looked away as though annoyed.
Chris looked unimpressed. "What is it?"
JD handed the wanted poster over and waited for a reply. "I was just looking through the ones in the office. Buck and I took off after you and couldn't find you, otherwise we'd have told you sooner."
Chris clenched his jaw and handed the paper to Vin. "You tell Josiah or Nathan?"
"No," JD replied, "they just know we were looking for you."
"Can't picture the Crawford's as murderers," Buck sighed, crossing his arms over his chest and looking toward the church.
"Everybody hides something," Chris said, stepping down onto the muddy ground and heading toward the church.
"He gonna lock them up?" JD asked, unsure about the whole situation.
"Yep," Buck replied. "But he'll send a telegram to Judge Travis and get this straightened out."
Vin clenched his jaw and headed toward the church.
James knew when he spotted Chris Larabee standing in the doorway of the church that their fates were sealed. Mora caught his eyes and immediately she slumped onto a pew, watching as her children carefully folded their new clothing.
Chris stepped forward, seeing the family for what they were - scared, and running from something they couldn't control. Ready for anything, he shoved the front right side of his duster behind his holster.
James stepped forward, not wanting his children to hear. "It's not what you think."
Chris nodded and looked to where Mora was sitting. "I have to lock you both up."
James nodded and nervously shuffled his feet. "The children?"
"Mary Travis will take care of them until Judge Travis gets here to clear up this situation."
"He won't make it in time."
Chris sighed and heard Vin take a step behind him. "We can't help you unless you tell us what's going on."
"That's up to Mora."
Chris nodded; he wouldn't push the subject. "Let's go then."
Mora and James Crawford were wanted for the brutal murder of Jubal Walker, the father of three grown sons. His two brothers had posted a five-hundred-dollar bounty for the live capture of both individuals. The wanted poster stated that James and Mora would then be taken back to Georgia to stand trial for crimes committed against the Walker family.
Chris tossed the poster onto the sheriff's desk and watched as it floated to a stop next to the cup of coffee that had been left on the corner. He looked up and met the eyes of Mora and James as they sat uncomfortably in the cell they shared. "You said you were movin' north from Mississippi?"
Mora looked at James and quickly turned away.
"If you don't tell us what happened, we can't help you." Chris took a step forward and crossed his arms over his chest. He leaned against the corner of the desk, awaiting answers.
"Jubal Walker was an animal," Mora said, keeping her eyes on the floor, distancing herself from the story she had to tell. "I cooked and cleaned for him and his sons."
Chris noticed for the first time that Mora Crawford was well spoken; her knowledge and use of words surpassed that of her husband and of himself. She obviously hadn't been born a slave, and she hadn't lived her life as one.
"He expected more of me than I could deliver," she looked up, "and I defended myself." She didn't need to elaborate.
"So you killed him?" Vin asked, stepping into the office and leaning against the doorframe. He'd seen it all before, and he wasn't willing to stand by and watch it happen again.
"Yes," Mora replied. "I cooked him dinner and slipped the rat poison James used into his stew." She wasn't remorseful.
Chris nodded: "How'd they figure it was you that killed him?" She'd have to explain all of this again to the judge when he arrived, but Chris wanted as much information as he could get.
"I didn't give him enough," Mora replied, never taking her eyes off the floor. "One of his sons found him. James and I left. We stole a wagon and the horses. We've been running ever since."
"Judge Travis is a fair man. He'll be here in less than three days."
"We don't have three days," James protested, placing a comforting arm over his wife's shoulders.
Chris stood and headed for the door. "When the judge gets here, he'll want to hear the whole story, not the short version."
Mora looked up, catching sight of his back as he left.
Vin leaned against the awning support railing, allowing his right foot to hang down near the step. With one hand tapping the mule's leg strapped to his side, he looked toward the church and the saloon, wondering how Ezra would handle the situation and if he'd ever tell the rest of them the truth.
"What're you plannin' to do?" he asked, turning to his left and spotting Chris.
"If Jubal Walker's boys and his brothers are headed here, we'll need to get ready for them."
"You think they're headed this way?"
"I'd bet on it."
"Think Travis'll side with 'em?"
Chris shook his head. "Not with the information they gave me." He sighed and shook his head, knowing there was more to the story but feeling as though he'd never hear it. "But they could hang just for stealing the horses, much less for murder."
Vin nodded and watched as Mary and Josiah helped the children, who were confused and frightened, get settled inside the Clarion. The boys clung to each other and the young girl clung to her hat, moving where she was ordered. "Think she's protecting her daughter?" he asked, glancing inside the sheriff's office. There had to be a reason Mora was willing to give her away - not for her own sake, but for Emma May's.
"Maybe," Chris agreed.
Nathan slammed his beer onto the table and looked hard at Chris. "It's not right!" he snapped, looking to where Ezra sat playing a game of poker with a couple of cowboys. "Those people wouldn't kill anyone without reason."
Josiah nodded in agreement. "I've spent a lot of time with them, Chris. There has to be more to the story."
"I'm not disagreeing with you, Josiah."
"Mary's goin' to try and find out all she can about the murder. She said she has some contacts that may know somethin', but it could take a couple of days to get the telegrams back." Vin leaned back in his chair and looked toward Ezra, who seemed unaffected by the entire situation. He couldn't help but feel angry, but he wouldn't betray a trust. Ezra's personal life was his own, and it was his decision to make.
Josiah looked toward the table where Ezra sat comfortably playing cards and obviously winning. He looked more relaxed than he had since the Crawford's had arrived in town. He couldn't separate his emotions from the logic of the situation, and his stomach churned in anger. He could see the same anger burning within Nathan.
"Buck and JD are with them tonight," Chris said, keeping his face solid and emotionless. "I don't want them left alone, just in case we get some surprise visitors. Vin and I will take tomorrow's watch and Josiah and Ezra can cover off tomorrow night. Nathan," he sighed, looking toward the healer who seemed more agitated than ever before, "try to keep the rumors down. There are a few folks around here who'd be happy to have a hanging of their own."
Nathan nodded and stood briskly, turning toward the door. He was angry at the world for victimizing him and his kind; angry for the injustice that seemed to be so prolific and the laws that protected whites more than blacks. Freedom wasn't just a state of mind; it was a state of being. He nodded once and left quickly, unwilling to stand by and do nothing. Mora and James might speak with him, if no one else. He had to learn the truth.
Ezra stood quickly and smiled, carefully placing his latest winnings into his breast pocket as he thanked his opponents and then abruptly excused himself from the saloon. He nodded toward Chris and the others, paying neither them nor the problems they so willingly embraced any further mind
"Seems whatever was botherin' him ain't botherin' him anymore," Vin supplied, looking down into his beer. He wished he understood Ezra better; how he could let things slide off his back as though he didn't have a care in the world, despite the situation.
Mary carefully dished out four bowels of soup and placed them on the table. She smiled, trying to give some comfort to the three young children. They all stared at the table, afraid or unable to look up and meet her eyes. She couldn't help but notice the differences in their looks, but the similarities in their personalities kept her mind from questioning what was evident.
"My son Billy usually sleeps in the room you'll be sharing. He's with his grandparents," she said, carefully buttering some bread and setting it beside the bowls of soup. "You look hungry."
Samuel was the first to show bravery; he looked up, but quickly ducked his head again when he spotted the smile from the beautiful blonde woman.
"Don't act like a fool, Samuel," Emma May chastised, never looking away from her hands that were folded together in her lap.
"It's okay," Mary said, taking a seat opposite the young girl. "My father-in-law is a very fair man, and I'm sure he'll help you in anyway he can."
"That's what they all say," Emma May replied, looking up shyly.
"Everyone," she replied, nodding toward her brothers to indicate that it was okay for them to eat.
Mary watched, recognizing the faces of children who had seen too much, too soon. Her heart went out to them, knowing that nothing could replace the innocence that had been lost or the optimism that had faded to pessimism. She watched them eat their food as though they'd been brought up in a home with riches...they knew the correct silverware to use, how to handle their napkins, and even how to eat their food without having to be told to keep their mouths closed. These were children who'd been brought up with the knowledge that there was something more for them; all they had to do was try. She watched as Emma May carefully dabbed the corners of her mouth before replacing the napkin back in her lap. Mary couldn't help but think that the child reminded her of someone, but she couldn't quite place who that someone was.
Ezra entered Mrs. Potter's store just before closing, nodding toward the woman who seemed to have a heart made from roses. She smiled, exposing large front teeth and blissful eyes. Her rosy cheeks seemed redder and more pronounced than usual, but he paid it no mind as he removed his hat and carefully held it at his side.
"What can I do for you, Ezra?" she asked, patting the front of her dress.
"I have a favor to ask, Mrs. Potter, of a rather delicate nature."
Gloria nodded and swept past him, only to shut the door and turn the 'open' sign over to 'closed'. "Aren't all of your favors of a 'delicate nature'?" She patted his shoulder before moving to stand before him. "What can I get you?"
Mora walked from one side of the cell to the next, shuffling her feet on the wood flooring and sending dirt and debris into chaos. Mini wind tunnels and wind drifts seemed to be more representative of her life in general than anything else she could fathom. Her world was crashing down around her, and she couldn't stop it. Her husband - caught in the middle because of his devotion to her - and her children, all suffered the consequences of her actions.
"We'll be okay," James said confidently, holding his hands together as though he were in prayer.
Mora shook her head: "No," she sighed, "not this time." She ran her hand over her face and through her hair, thinking about a time not so long ago that she had cherished; a time when things had been less complicated, when the decisions she made were for her and not for those around her.
"We could escape..." James said softly, watching as Buck and JD played a game of gin.
Mora adamantly shook her head. "The children." She wouldn't risk them; she couldn't. She took a seat next to him and rested her head on his shoulder, accepting his loving touch and the strength he had to offer. "He's here," she whispered, never moving, just concentrating on the change of her husband's breaths and the tension of his muscles.
"Walker?" he asked, keeping his voice down.
"No," Mora replied, reaching out and taking one of his hands. "Emma May's father." She sat up straight and waited for his reply, anticipating anger...perhaps confusion and maybe even rejection.
James nodded, accepting the information for what it was. His heart raced with questions his mind already knew the answers to. Would she leave him? (No.) Did she still love this man - this stranger who had left her with a child; a beautiful daughter that had brought her more happiness than James himself ever could? (Possibly.)
"I love you, James," Mora whispered, gently pressing her lips to his cheek. "I love you."
He smiled tightly and nodded, as though the information was understood, but not fully comprehended. "You did once...didn't you?" he asked, looking at her, watching as her eyes sparkled and her mouth curved. "You loved him once?"
Mora nodded. "Once," she said confidently, pressing her forehead into his shoulder. "But not anymore."
James reached up and placed a large hand on her soft cheek, thankful for her lies. "Emma May?"
"I don't know," she replied, pained by the thought of losing her child, but knowing it was for the best. "I don't know anything anymore."
James nodded, understanding her pain and knowing their choices had been drastically minimized.
By two in the morning the town had gone into hibernation or so it seemed. The night fires had long since burned out and the saloon lanterns had been extinguished. A cool breeze blew through the streets and down the narrow alleys. A couple of dogs scrounged for food along the boardwalk, and a hoot owl made its presence known with its pretentious call.
Ezra grabbed the sheriff's office door and opened it, only to be greeted by the business end of two short-barreled pistols. "Gentlemen," he greeted with a shake of his head, moving toward the coffee pot. "Who made this?"
"I did," JD said, not bothering to hide his smile.
"Can't sleep, Ezra?" Buck asked, continuing to poke a nail at all the crevasses in one of the silver spurs he'd acquired from Tiny. His right thigh was covered in the remnants of his obsession.
Ezra shook his head and tentatively took a sip of coffee, wincing when the bitter brew stung his refined taste buds. He looked up momentarily and noticed Mora and James watching him carefully. He paid them no mind as he grabbed a chair and quickly pulled out his playing cards.
All three men looked toward the window when Ashley Keats tapped on the glass with her long fingernails. She smiled and placed a finger on her bottom lip. Her shawl slipped past bare shoulders as she waved toward Buck, who had already succumbed to a bad case of goo-goo eyes.
"You goin' to be here awhile, Ezra?" Buck asked, quickly forgetting about the spur as it was placed on the edge of the desk.
Ezra raised an eyebrow, glancing from Ashley - the newest saloon girl - to Buck, who'd suddenly become all smiles. "How long is awhile?"
"Five...six hours," Buck replied, slipping into his jacket and grabbing his hat off the hat rack. He never gave Ezra time to answer as he opened the door and slipped outside, wrapping an arm around Ashley and slowly heading toward the saloon for a room.
"More like five or six minutes," JD muttered with a shake of his head. "He's been after her since she first got here."
Ezra chuckled and shuffled the deck of cards. "Would you like to play?" he asked, carefully pushing the ace of spades up and over the king of hearts.
"No," JD griped, sounding defeated. "Buck already wiped me out at gin."
Ezra winced as though the very thought caused him pain. "There are better ways to lose your money, son. Poker, for instance." He quickly laid out a game of solitaire.
"Hell, Ezra," JD sighed, tossing his dime novel onto the desk in disgust. He glanced toward the couple locked behind bars and shook his head in disbelief. "Can't figure them as killers," he whispered, leaning forward and resting his elbows on the desk.
"It's difficult to read anyone, JD." He placed the black jack on a red queen.
"They just seem so...kind," he sighed, and slumped back onto his seat. "Would you mind staying until Chris and Vin show up? Shouldn't be too much longer - an hour maybe?"
"You have someplace to go at this time of night?"
"Me and Casey were going for an early ride, so I thought I might catch a couple of hours of sleep before then."
Hesitantly, Ezra nodded, understanding how young love had a way of controlling one's emotions. "Have a good time," he said, taking a deep breath as he realized he'd just lost his game.
"Thanks, Ezra." JD stood and grabbed his jacket. He looked into the cell one more time, unable to say anything that would bring comfort to the young couple, and understanding that it would be prudent to let the judge decide what was best. He grabbed his hat and opened the door to the outside, nodding once before disappearing into the black night.
The room went quiet except for the faint sound of air being forced between cards and fingers. Mora stood and walked to the cell door, waiting and hoping for the best; hoping for an answer.
"Jubal Walker?" Ezra asked, never moving from his position, but knowing both could hear him.
"I had no choice," Mora replied, grasping a cold bar.
"Jubal Walker and the horde of animals he called family won't stop until you're dead." He stood and tossed his cards onto the table. He'd known Walker too well, and it burned him knowing Emma May or Mora had been close to him. He turned toward the cell and rested one hand on his hip, rubbing his index finger and thumb together with the other. "Did he touch her?" He looked up and met Mora's eyes.
Mora shook her head, but looked down. "I got her out in time."
"Are you sure?" Ezra's eyes reflected the pain of having to ask.
James looked down, still sitting on the cot, recognizing the eyes of a father and acknowledging the consequences of interfering, whether he had a right to or not.
Mora looked back with the defensiveness of a mother. "I killed him before he could touch her." Her words were firm and unbending. "I wouldn't let him touch her." She sighed, trying to be strong, but her heart was caught someplace between her chest and her stomach. "Help us."
James moved to stand beside his wife, confirming the identity of the man who was standing opposite him. He could see it now, the resemblance of Emma May to her father - her real father, the man whose blood she shared. Though her skin was slightly darker, she shared his eyes, his smile, even the way he moved. James' heart ached; he'd hoped he'd never learn of Emma May's real father, but he'd prayed the child he so cherished would learn of him.
Ezra grabbed the keys from the desk drawer. "I've filled your wagon with supplies. You'll have to restock once you get across the border - don't stop until you get there." His words were spoken harshly. "There isn't much time. Having dealt with the Walker clan, I suggest you change your names - something unassuming. Never go into a town together and never assume your secret is safe. The Oregon Territory will be best. Try and get as close to the coastal towns as possible; I understand they're the most accepting." He unlocked the cell door and moved aside as they slowly exited.
"The children?" James asked, surprised.
"Waiting for you," Ezra replied, moving toward the side door.
"Emma May?" Mora asked, ringing her hands together despite James' comforting hand on her shoulder.
Ezra grabbed the doorknob and paused, feeling his heart give way to emotions he'd hoped that he'd successfully buried. "I helped give her life, Mora but I'm not the father who can show it to her." He met James' eyes.
James swallowed hard, seeing the meaning behind the words acceptance, understanding, and compassion. "She has a right to live free."
"She's already free, Mr. Crawford, and she can only continue to live free by truly knowing who she is," Ezra sighed and stepped out the door. He looked around, making sure nobody was watching. "Slavery was never just about the chains that bound you."
James and Mora slowly stepped out of the sheriff's office, ready for anything but accepting of the help as it was offered.
"You speak as though you understand it?" James asked, not as surprised as he thought he might be.
Ezra didn't reply as he slowly led them toward the wagon. "There are two dresses packed in a box beneath the wagon seat. If you have to - but only if you have to - leave Emma May at Laray's School for Girls. It's located in a town called Twin Falls. You've passed before," he looked at Mora, "you can pass again. Show Emma May how; she won't make it unless she learns." He tried to stress the meaning, but he knew that Mora understood better than most.
The boys nearly jumped out of their skins when they saw their parents, but with hasty 'hushes' and fingers to lips to silence them, they remained in the back of the wagon wrapped in blankets and coats. Emma May sat next to her brothers, trying to keep them still. There was no doubt as to her heritage, and Ezra took a long look that would have to last the rest of his life - unless he got lucky, which he doubted. He could see his mother's cheekbones, Mora's skin and his own eyes - perhaps his mouth. Emma May would grow up strong, with a good family and in a home where she belonged; a home that Ezra couldn't provide
"Those aren't our horses," James said.
"Those aren't stolen," Ezra replied, quickly helping Mora onto the wagon seat. "Be careful," he whispered, grasping her hand. He hated to see her go, but at the same time he was relieved she was leaving.
"Thank you," she sighed, lifting her hand to his cheek a long overdue goodbye.
James quickly took the seat beside his wife and nodded toward Ezra before releasing the brake and slapping the reins against the backs of the two horses. The wagon jolted forward and slowly disappeared into the dark night.
Ezra remained in his spot, watching as his child disappeared. He hoped his memory wouldn't fade; he hoped her face was forever etched into his mind. It was all he had left. He looked at his hand, watching as the moon's rays reflected off the meaningless gold band he hadn't been able to rid himself of. Without it his finger would be bare, and for a moment he hated the thought of removing it, of accepting the fact his past was where it belonged...in the past. Slowly, he grabbed the ring and carefully pulled the gold band free, allowing it to rest briefly, glistening, in the palm of his right hand. It was a sad farewell, but one he couldn't avoid any longer.
Chris stepped out from the shadows, hidden by the saloon. A slight smile etched his lips as he watched the wagon disappear into the night, accompanied by the haunting sounds of wheels hitting rivets and the buckboard creaking with age. He leaned against the support rail of the awning and pulled out a cheroot, lighting it and taking several puffs. He watched as Ezra slowly shoved something into his breast pocket and then re-entered the sheriff's office, probably in the process of concocting some explanation for the escape of the prisoners.
"You just goin' to let them go?" Vin asked, stepping up beside him.
"Yep," he answered, pulling his hand out in front of him to look at the length of the cheroot, then tapping the end to watch as the ashes fell to the wet ground.
"Because blood's more important than a damn wanted poster." He flipped his cigarette out into the street, watching it bounce and land in a puddle.
"How'd you know?"
Chris smiled. "I'm not blind, Vin."
"Could you do it?" He had to ask, knowing he himself wouldn't have the strength.
Chris shook his head and stepped forward, allowing his booted foot to hang toward the second step. He scraped the back of his heel against the step and sighed. "I'd have to," he replied sullenly. "A son," he shook his head, "I would try and raise a son. But a daughter," he winced, feeling the pain, "a daughter needs things a father can't provide. Ezra's no fool; he may cheat you out of your hard-earned cash, but he'd never let you go hungry."
Vin nodded: "Should we go help him out?"
Chris pressed his lips into a tight smile and nodded. "Bloody him up, maybe? Make it look like a real escape?"
Vin chuckled: "Sounds good to me."
"He fell?" Buck asked, slightly amused as well as surprised. "What, he tripped over his 'big' feet?" He chuckled.
Vin rolled his eyes and looked toward the cell where the prisoners had been. The door was wide open, the key still in the lock. "Figure Ezra must 'ave been bringin' one of 'em in from the privy when he fell an' hit
Josiah tried to hide his smile by locking his teeth together and pressing his lips into a firm line; it wasn't working. He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the wall next to the stove.
"Hell," Buck continued, "Ezra's got smaller feet than Vin...an' you know what they say about feet!"
"What?" JD asked. "What do they say about feet?"
"The smaller your feet the harder it is to balance. I read it in one of those magazines. That's why the ladies are always fallin' over, 'cuz of their feet bein' so small." Buck stood and walked to the door, leaning against the frame and looking toward the saloon as Ezra rushed out with Nathan on his heels. "Looks like they're on their way here," he snickered. "Looks like he's keepin' his balance just fine to me." He furrowed his brow.
Chris stepped past him and out onto the boardwalk as Ezra and Nathan crossed the street. Neither looked happy. Ezra slipped past him and entered the sheriff's office, grabbing a cup and pouring himself some coffee. Nathan stopped in front of Chris with his hands on his hips.
"There ain't a scratch on him," Nathan complained, "least as far as I can tell." He wiped his face and stood off to the side, not bothering to try to continue his 'exam'.
Chris nodded and stood up straight when he spotted four riders coming into town. They headed directly for the sheriff's office and paused, their expensive clothing and weapons glistening under the sun. They looked more like uppity businessmen than gunmen.
"We're looking' for some fugitives - couple o' niggers with three kids." The man on the large bay mare leaned forward, causing the leather saddle to squeak and his horse to adjust her position. Unwaveringly, he looked from Chris to Nathan, clearly disgusted with what he saw.
"Dextah Walkah," Ezra announced, stepping out of the sheriff's office with a smile on his face. "And just how is that son-of-a-bitch fathah of yours doin'?" His accent was heavily exaggerated, appearing overly friendly and patronizing at the same time.
Chris remained leaning against the support railing, watching and waiting.
"Ezra Standish, or should I say Paterson? Or is it Thomson now?" Dexter asked, scratching the well-trimmed mustache above his lip. Narrow bones protruded from thin skin that looked older than it should have.
"Standish," Ezra replied, "Ah've returned to my roots." He pushed the rim of his hat up and then crossed his arms across his chest, standing casually and seemingly unworried. He smiled, allowing the sun to glimmer slightly off his gold tooth.
"That's right," Dexter chuckled, "Ah forget that your daddy was found hangin' from the rafters of our barn. Suicide, wasn't it?" He snickered and looked toward his brother, who seemed bored.
Ezra smiled to hide his anger. "It was difficult to say. As Ah remember it...wasn't Jubal found with a child, out of his mind, on the same day? Ah was under the impression it was murdah, myself."
Dexter sneered and cleared his throat, then spit. "Our fathah was murdered, Standish, and we aim to find the killers."
"How fortunate for you."
Vin moved to stand in the doorway and looked toward the riders.
"Ah'll find that bitch, Standish," Dexter snapped, yanking on the reins and causing his horse to toss her head. "She killed him, and Ah'll be damned if she gets away with it."
"Like your fathah got away with it?" The words were spoken in challenge.
Dexter looked toward his younger brother and then quickly pulled his weapon. The sound of a bullet piercing the air echoed briefly before Dexter Walker's eyes rolled up into the back of his head and he slowly fell from his horse, landing with a thud on the muddy ground. His horse spooked to the right and quickly fled across the street toward the saloon. The three other men with Dexter had raised their weapons, but found themselves staring down the barrels of seven weapons; none of the men on the boardwalk had budged.
"You won't get away with this, Ezra," Albert Walker said, looking from his brother to his killer.
"Take him home, Albert...before rumors start to spread about your father's unconscionable behaviors."
Albert snarled: "You wouldn't?"
"Ah would." Ezra replaced his derringer back up his sleeve and watched as Albert and his two uncles dismounted and lifted Dexter onto the back of his skittish horse.
"Think they'll be trouble?" Vin asked, replacing his mule's leg into the holster strapped to his thigh.
"No," Ezra replied, wincing when he looked up and caught the brightness of the sun. He pulled his watch from the small pocket of his vest and cringed when he caught the time. "I have a game to get to."
JD watched him move across the street. "What does he have on them, to make them return home?"
Chris shook his head and quickly headed toward the livery, wanting to make sure the Walker clan did remove themselves from Four Corners. Vin casually followed, unwilling to answer the question.
"Josiah?" JD asked.
Josiah reached out with a large hand and placed it on JD's shoulder. "Sometimes it's just better to let things go then to try and decipher the meaning behind it all."
"So, he didn't fall?"
"Oh hell, JD, you're givin' my brain a pain that ain't gonna pass until you learn to listen to folks," Buck said, shoving the kid forward onto the muddy road.
"I did listen!"
"An' Ezra's got bigger feet than me!" Buck sighed, shoving him again. "Damn it boy, you've got to pay attention to things." He headed toward the saloon.
"You don't know either!" JD proclaimed, stopping and pointing. "Ha! You don't know!"
"I do too know!"
Josiah rolled his eyes and looked toward Nathan who shook his head and took a seat in Chris' vacant chair.
"If he'd have asked," Nathan sighed, "I would have helped him do it."
Josiah chuckled: "Don't think there's a one of us who wouldn't have." He stuck his hands into his pockets and took a deep breath of air. "I think Ezra's a puzzle who's trying to put himself back together."
Nathan chuckled. "I think we all are."
Josiah nodded. "Hallelujah, brother. Hallelujah."
( Leonard Cohen )
I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the lord
But you don't really care for music, do you
Well it goes like this the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah....
Well your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to her kitchen chair
She broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah .... .
Baby I've been here before
I've seen this room and I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you
I've seen your flag on the marble arch
But love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah....
Well there was a time when you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show that to me do you
But remember when i moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was hallelujah
Well, maybe there's a god above
But all I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
It's not a cry that you hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah ....
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