Notes: This was written in response to Jean's Birthday Challenge. <BG>; I know, that was ages ago - I guess I'm little slow. I think there was a word length stipulation too - well I've exceeded that also.
Special Thanks: to NotTasha
Feedback: Yes please.
Ezra Standish finally stood on the outskirts of Moorebank; he surveyed the tiny village with a casual gaze. Chaucer nickered softly by his side and the gambler patted the lame animal. Both man and mount were exhausted from their trek north. Standish licked his dry lips and took note of his dusty apparel. His emerald green jacket was covered in a thick layer of dust, he patted the front and a plume of dust fell from the garment. This would never do. Fortunately he had another set of clothing in his saddlebags. It would not pay to have his Mother see him in this disreputable state. Appearances were everything; he could hear his Mother's words echoing in his mind.
By rights, if everything had gone to schedule, he should have arrived two days ago. Trouble was, Chaucer put his foot down a gopher hole and came up lame. That was three days ago. Standish had been walking for those past three days. Through the desert heat, dust and the accursed flies. His feet and legs ached, muscles unfamiliar with the bruising pace he'd set. A simple two-day's journey resulted in an exhaustive four-day hike.
Ezra remained on the rise, overlooking the slow meanderings below. Why had Maude wanted to meet up with him in this remote town? The gambler studied the scene below and shook his head. Whatever reasons his mother had, Standish grinned in anticipation. Maude Standish wanted to see him, Ezra Standish, and it had nothing what so ever to do with a con. Tomorrow was his birthday and she elected to spend the time with her son.
The sun was almost setting as Ezra led his mount off the rise and down the sloping road into town. It had been another long day, but still a lopsided grin creased his face. He would see to his mount's needs first, then acquire a room for himself. Such as the town could offer.
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The southerner was not overtly concerned to find Maude had yet to arrive, she had only arranged to meet up with him on the morrow. There was still plenty of time and it gave him ample opportunity to clean up. So there was no need to worry yet over her absence. She'd arrive on the stage the following morning. Although a small thread of doubt had begun to surface, the southerner deigned to allow its growth, determined not to fret on the slight possibility that his trip was for naught. Ezra had an early night; the patron's of the saloon uninterested in his challenge for a game, not wanting to lose their money.
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Standish stretched and yawned, pulling the covers over the top of his head. The form beneath the blanket wriggled for a minute or two then settled back down, attempting to sleep some more. His eyes shot opened, the brilliant green orbs sparkling with delight. Today was his birthday, and more importantly, Maude was coming. The smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, and he enthusiastically jumped from his bed. A soft chortle escaped as he considered the reactions of the six men he worked with, were they to find out he'd voluntarily gotten out of bed at such an ungodly hour. Musing on this thought, Standish flipped open his pocket watch to determine exactly what hour of the morning it was. "Good Lord!" Ezra chuckled, shaking his head in amusement. It was not quite the hour of seven. "I sincerely hope the stage is early," Standish lamented.
Following a repast of barely edible bacon and eggs the gambler left the restaurant. His first course of action was to tend Chaucer. He knew he spoilt the animal, but Chaucer served him well and deserved a special treat from time to time. Intending to procure an apple from the grocer's, he was puzzled to find the establishment closed. Frowning, he changed direction and headed for the livery albeit empty handed. On the way he passed the bank, saloon, druggist and hardware store, all displaying similar signs in their windows.
Ezra tipped his hat and smiled as a couple passed him on the broadwalk. "Ah, excuse me, madam, sir, could you enlighten me as to why all the establishments are closed?"
The woman shyly bowed her head and deferred to her husband to answer. He was middleaged with a greying beard and both were resplendent in their Sunday best. "Town's closed fer the day, mister. Everyone's goin' to the fete down yonder at the Adamson's spread. Yer welcome ta come along." He slipped his arm through the crock of his wife's elbow and, satisfied he'd explained sufficiently to the gambler, continued on his way.
"Thank you, but I have alternate plans," Standish called to their retreating backs. The fete was obviously beyond the town limits; the steady flow of people leaving all headed up the road he'd arrived on the evening before. That didn't bother him; once Maude arrived he'd have all the company he required.
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Ezra leaned back on the bench stool, resting his back against the wall of the saloon. Although it was closed he still felt some comfort in waiting by its door. Besides, it would be the first place Maude would come looking for him, and it also gave him a good view of the street. The gambler sat waiting patiently for an hour and a half. It was only nine-thirty, still early by his standards, but the traffic of passing citizens had slowed and only an odd straggler loped out to the fair.
A degree of uncertainty had settled in his chest, yet he refused to allow its full fruition. He stood and leaned against the support post of the verandah, tipping his black hat back off his face. Standish crossed his right leg over the left and idly brushed at some unseen lint from his burgundy jacket. Outwardly he betrayed no evidence of the churning nervousness that was beginning to play havoc with his emotions.
The sheriff swaggered up in front of him, smoke circling from the cheroot that hung from his mouth. "Ya ain't gonna cause no trouble now are ya?" he gruffly asked.
"That's not my intention, sir. I am merely waiting on the stage, to meet up with an old friend."
"Stage ain't coming today," the sheriff announced. "Don't come on Saturday. Be here on Monday."
Standish licked his suddenly dry lips and stared at the aged peacekeeper. He shuffled the dirt on the road with the toe of his boot. "But she said " he paused, not about to discuss this with the stranger. "Would you be so kind as to point out the telegraph office?"
The sheriff turned full circle and pointed out the dilapidated building at the end of the street. "Shifty ain't there, he's out at the fair and all."
Marvellous! Ezra groaned inwardly. "Mr. Shifty "
"Nah, it's just Shifty," the sheriff interrupted.
"Ah, Shifty, will he be returning tonight?" Standish inquired.
"Yeah, after dark but."
Ezra slowly sank to his seat. He knew this was likely to happen. How many times had Maude done this to him? And he continued to fall time and again to the same con. Had she even planned on coming? Or was it all some elaborate hoax? Great! Just great!!! Ezra screamed silently, throwing his head back hard against the wooden wall. Why did she have to do this to him? Now he was stuck in this deplorable little backwoods town, where all the shops were closed, including the saloon. With everybody gone off to their fair, his horse lame, and Maude not going to show up. This day got better and better, he sarcastically moaned. And to top it off, today was his birthday. His 34th birthday, and yet again he was to spend it alone.
He squeezed his eyes shut, forcing to stem the tears that stung at his eyes. Angrily he thumped his fist on his thigh. Ezra had even refused JD's generous offer to accompany him here, bearing in mind that Maude would not have appreciated the youth's company and exuberance. What a miserable day this was turning out to be. Still he could go to the fair he glanced up the road, eyes glistening with tears. He bobbed his head to his chest and fingered the chain that secured his pocket watch. No, he was not in any mood to join the revellers.
With the saloon off limits he couldn't even bury himself in the drudgery of liquor, much to his disgust. Standish found a secluded area behind the hotel where he rented his room. He occupied himself with his deck of card, expertly manipulating them in his nimble fingers. Even this could not secure his undivided attention. The knot tightened in his chest, and the tears threatened to fall. The gambler wiped at the moisture that trickled down his cheek and swore futilely. How was this any different than any other birthday? None were particularly memorable. With a snort of frustration he admitted that at least he wasn't rotting in some jail, or about to be hung. Now, those particular birthdays definitely rated among the worst.
Standish hovered restlessly around the town, lost in his morose thoughts for the entire day. It was late afternoon before the townsfolk started to trek their way back into town. Moorebank was once more gripped with the fervour of laughter and revelry. The chaotic atmosphere from the fair travelled along side them, sending Standish into an even deeper depth of despair. He slowly stalked to the telegraph office to wait out front of the building. After another hour, he began pacing - ten steps to the right then swivelling in a narrow circle he counted back ten steps to the left. The insidious clip of his boot heel on the roughened sidewalk became a monotonous melody, in harmony with his tempered mood.
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As night settled over Moorebank a hoot of laughter and raucous yell startled the southerner and he snapped his head up. Standish pierced the drunkard with an irritated gaze. The drunk wobbled nearer the gambler, tripping over his feet as he stepped off the road and landing in a heap at Ezra's boots. His words slurred together and his vision swum wildly. "Wan sum, mista?" He held the half-empty bottle aloft, as he crawled to his knees.
Reluctantly the gambler reached down to assist the man to his feet. "I think I'll pass, thanks all the same." Ezra wrinkled his nose at the stale whisky breath that was blown into his face.
"Your loss." The drunk pulled a key from his hip pocket and rattled at the lock, but dropped it in his clumsiness.
Standish arched an eyebrow, and as the drunk bent to look for the key Ezra swooped in first. "You're Shifty?" The gambler stared incredulously.
"What's it too ya?" he slurred.
"I'll open the door for you, if you could check the messages for me?" Standish negotiated.
The drunk eyed Standish suspiciously, but not for long. He swallowed another mouthful from the bottle and grinned foolishly. Nodding, he stepped away from the door, allowing the steady hand of the southerner to insert the key into the lock. Shifty fell into the room and waved at the untidy table by the window. "Help yerself," he yawned, dropping wearily to the single cot.
"Good Lord," Standish groused. Doesn't the man know how to utilise a filing system? Ezra picked at the assortment of papers and folders that covered the table. Lighting a lamp he pulled up a chair and started sorting the messages into piles. Shifty's raucous snoring and the occasional grunt were the only indications that he was indeed in the room.
Ezra picked up the another message and with a great sense of relief, saw his name printed at the top of the page. Finally!SON STOP CHANGE OF PLANS STOP MEET ME AT BRUNXTER INSTEAD STOP LOVE MAUDE STOP.
Standish scratched his head, disappointment encroaching on him. He scanned the message again. "What!!!" It was dated two days ago. He jumped from his seat and stalked over to the drunk. Shifty grunted in his stupor and rolled to the wall. What the hell, the gambler would get nothing coherent from him anyway. If the gambler had been in town early as he'd planned, then he may have acquired the wire in time. But as it was, it was too late now. Standish dropped back into the chair and fumbled with the lost opportunity. Maude would have moved on by now, there was no use chasing after her, she would have figured he wasn't coming by now.
The gambler stole quietly from the room taking his message with him. He would more than likely be leaving in the morning. No, it was already this morning and his birthday was gone for another year. So much for his reunion with his mother. What an empty and totally wasted day. Ezra returned to the hotel for what was left of the night. Later today he would head back to Four Corners.
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"Mr. Standish?" Shifty guiltily called out to the southerner as he finished saddling Chaucer.
"Mr. Shifty to what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Huh?" His hangover was bad, and he'd thrown up twice already that morning. "Um this came fer ya early yesterday morning - sorry it's late, but I didn't find ya 'fore I went to the fair. Guess ya didn't see it last night, neither?"
Ezra nodded and accepted the wire, dismissing the telegraph operator with a coin. Not expecting more than one message, he admitted to himself that he must have missed it in his search the night before.HAPPY BIRTHDAY EZ STOP HAVE A GREAT DAY STOP SAY HI TO MAUDE STOP JD, BUCK, JOSIAH, NATHAN, CHRIS AND VIN STOP.
A small grin returned to his features. The day before didn't seem nearly so bad after all.
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