by Sevenstars & Aureleigh
In this part of the city an aristocratic, close-minded culture held sway; the Orléans Theatre, the renowned St. Louis Hotel of the famous ballroom, and the old thick-walled stucco St. Louis Cathedral on the Place d'Armes, flanked by the identical classical façades of the eighteenth-century Cabildo, or municipal building, and the Presbytère, arose from a tangle of narrow, balconied Old World streets filled with cafés, billiard rooms, and Parisian shops. Here too was Antoine's, opened in 1840, which had quickly became the most famous restaurant in the city. Strolling past the old Franco-Spanish houses of yellow adobe or stuccoed brick, faced with showy shops and gay with flowers, one saw balconied façades, battered brass knockers highly burnished, and gate hinges a yard long; it was almost possible to touch with a walking-stick the overhanging eaves of many of the houses, and streets and alleys abounded with archways through which one caught tantalizing glimpses of cool flagged flowery inner courts, blossoming parterres, dark palms, and pale bananas. Scarlet pomegranates, orange-boughs and lemons and climbing jasmine hung over the walls. The houses were tinted like the rainbow, gaily colored in every pastel shade imaginable, their stucco fading into three or four different shades in the fervent heat and humidity, with beautiful lacelike wrought iron gracing their porticoes, balustrades, balconies, gateways, and window gratings, over which flowering vines climbed in profusion.
Ezra was enrolled in one of the numerous one- and two-teacher Protestant private schools that were taught by clergymen to bolster their meager incomes, supplementing the Catholic parochial institutions and the public system. It was located over Canal Street in the American section, so usually Patrick walked him to and fro, with often a side jaunt in the afternoon, when time didn't press. On these walks they would see wealthy cotton and sugar planters, ladies and gentlemen wearing elegant clothes even in the middle of the week, nuns and priests, pretty Creole girls on the balconies, Choctaw squaws selling sassafrass and bay, richly clad Negro women of light color--placées--kept by white men of wealth and taste, and in the old French market flower-girls and agèd mulatto women from whose kettles one might drink his morning coffee; and slaves ranging in hue from creamy tan to ebony--for New Orleans was the greatest slave market in the country. Free Negroes were prominent members of the community--indeed, nearly half the city's Negroes were free; some were wealthy and cultured, able to send their children to private schools, give liberally to the Catholic Church, and contribute significantly to the well-being of the city (the philanthropies of Thomy Lafon were such that a statue was eventually raised to commemorate his good works), while others made up a sort of underworld, living by their wits and frequently behaving in a manner that was, to say the least, unruly. And slavery, with certain French variations, was of course everywhere in evidence. Most slaves were either domestic servants or workers in some skilled occupation--waiters, draymen, bricklayers, carpenters, blacksmiths, might all be slaves; many managed their own affairs, paying their masters an agreed-upon share of their earnings, and were able to save enough to buy first their own freedom and later that of their families, while others actually supported down-at-the-heel masters through their earnings at self-hire. The city's populace was a mad mix of the descendants of the original French and Spanish colonial stock (those who thought that they alone had a right to call themselves "Creole"); Cajuns toward whom the city Creoles adopted a patronizing air (refugees from the Acadian expulsion from Canada, originally derived from the rugged shores and wide bays of Brittany and the green fields, grassy valleys, rolling hills, and apple orchards of Normandy, an illiterate and unprosperous people comparable to the poor whites of other Southern districts, yet gay and boisterous, fond of sports and drinking); foreignors from Holland, Germany, and every other corner of the commercial world who had flocked hither after the American purchase to pick up fortunes and many of whom had stayed and established families; exiled West Indian planters refugeed from the slave uprisings of San Domingo, Martinique, the Barbadoes and Cuba, with tales of fire and blood, captures and flights (among them musicians, pastry-makers, wigmakers, fencing-masters, and teachers of French, who contributed much to the art of pleasant living in the South); political exiles from the Revolutionary movement and the disturbances of the Napoleonic period (usually much better educated and more sophisticated than the native population, to whom they regarded themselves as superior); a considerable contingent of the descendants of Isleños from the Canaries; Cubans, West Indians, European immigrants (especially Irish, German, and English), Portuguese, Italian, Indian, Negro, "Red Bones" from the Natchitoches area (a mixture of French, Indian, and Negro), Sicilians with their violent gestures, Turks, Malays, Scotsmen, Mexicans, and fair-skinned, blue-eyed octoroons, griffes, mulattoes, and especially quadroons. And, not least of all, Americans, or the sons of Americans, who had come in after the Purchase: lawyers, doctors, planters seeking rich land, businessmen seeking money. Many were from New York originally, and all were in general better educated than the French colonials, more enterprising, energetic, and resourceful. In the new decade William Walker's filibusters were to swarm in the streets and the rotunda of the St. Charles Hotel, talking about Spanish-American misrule and the golden rewards that would fall to those who supplanted it with a stable government, their lawless enterprise catching the fancy of the young men of the city.
The sugar and cotton aristocrats, living on their beautiful plantations along the intricate bayous of lower Louisiana, were perhaps the most magnificent and cosmopolitan aristocracy in the nation, numbering among their midst French revolutionary refugees, Napoleonic exiles, and planters who had fled from the race war of Santo Domingo. They lived in fine houses, played their pianos, read novels as well as more serious tomes, and were proud of their imported furniture; they sent their daughters to the fashionable New Orleans convent school of the Ursuline nuns, frequented the large French theater, bet avidly on the horses, and hunted with carefully bred hounds. The institution of slavery permitted the wealthy and more leisured inhabitants to engage in a most active social life--attending a gay round of balls, dinners, parties, masquerades, serenades, and oyster suppers, hunting snipe, ducks, bullfrogs, and deer, fishing, dancing, playing cards (especially euchre) and billiards, feasting on good food, dallying with beautiful and demonstrative girls, and constant visiting of their numerous relatives--which reached a climax each year in the Mardi Gras celebration that preceded the Lenten season. Any form of recreation--legal or illegal, moral or immoral--was available in the city; gambling houses and saloons abounded, numerous bawdy houses catered to every level of taste and pocketbook, and the French custom of frankly recognizing the existence of brothels and roulette gambling houses seemed scandalous to many Yankee visitors. French coffee houses with their lively billiard and card games upstairs awaited the visitor, the gaslights of the theaters glowed bright, and the city was famous for its cuisine, with all frequent visitors having a favorite restaurant. A long colonnade formed the marketplace. The large square fronting the river was bordered with retail shops selling wine, cigars, and dried fruits. The fanciest cafés and confectioners, bookstores, milliners, jewellers, dry-goods and perfume shops were in Chartres Street, the Broadway of the city. After the evening gun roared out, the long avenues grew bright with the glow of lamps suspended on chains that stretched from house to house. The vigor and cosmopolitanism of the place were a match for Northern cities and its lack of inhibition was all its own. Its society was more European than American, in which canons of civility were more relaxed, and a langorous if cautious sensuality was regarded as the norm. Its manners and music, its theater, its urbanity, its various languages, gave it a European flavor. But no European city had such a levee, where ships and steamers of every description--ocean-goers and river travellers alike--waited their turn to receive or discharge cargoes; for four miles along it they tied up, often in five or six tiers. Sometimes Patrick would take his son down to the waterfront to see the sailing ships coming proudly up the river from the Gulf, with foreign-looking sailors climbing nimbly into their rigging, gold rings in their ears. These sailors gambled and brawled in the saloons, poolrooms, and gambling halls along the riverfront, while pickpockets jostled each other on the streets, and in the doors of the residences Negro women with baskets of goods on their heads cried their wares. Bales upon bales of cotton were piled high on the levee for shipment to the textile mills of Britain and New England, while silks, French wines and brandies, British cutlery, rum, coffee, and other exotic imports jammed the warehouses.
To the Creoles, Christmas Day was mainly a religious occasion, and the true time for holiday pleasuring was New Year's, Le Jour d'An, when children gathered for gifts from Papa Noël, families visited from house to house, and all who had differences were supposed to shake hands and make a new start. Every year they celebrated Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday," eating heartily of everything and having a rousing good time before the self-denials of Lent. They rented fanciful costumes--Pierrette and Pierrot, pirate captains with pistols, ladies and gentlemen of the court of Louis XIV, Indian braves, Chinese mandarins, Spanish señoritas with tall combs and lace mantillas--and went about the streets masked. There was dancing in the streets and balls that lasted till morning. As for the Sabbath, once morning Mass was attended, it was regarded as a holiday, a day for recreation, shopping, visiting, and giving parties. Play and concert bills were posted each morning to announce evening performances; tenpin alleys, billiard rooms, and other gambling places were open, as were stores and grog shops; the coffeehouses were well patronized by men who sipped hot punch, read the newspapers, played dominoes, or sat in congenial company smoking a cigar. The Standishes, like the native city-dwellers, watched as the Creole regiment paraded in full regalia to martial music in the square before the cathedral, or went strolling along sidewalks thronged with sailors, planters, boatmen, priests, slaves, gendarmes, and soldiers. There were horseraces, duels, match fist fights, cockfights, circuses, exhibitions of waxworks, German magicians, organ grinders playing on the street corners, Kentucky minstrels, balls, dinner parties, horseback and carriage rides, and lectures "on subjects of such a nature," as one Protestant had reported, "as would be only made on a week day at the North." Faro and roulette were openly enjoyed by all classes from high noon till supper at two A. M. Northerners who arrived on business, especially the conscience-ridden New Englanders, called these activities desecrations of the Sabbath, and were sure they indicated general depravity. The processions and dances of the carnival season blended French and Catholic with African elements, and on Sundays at Congo Square whites stared at the spectacle of hundreds of Negroes of all ages leaping, swinging, and gliding to African rhythms, modified by French steps and tunes set to the measured beat of the drum. Perhaps more sinister were the voodoo cults which engrafted upon the blacks' newly acquired Catholic faith the magic, sorcery, and primitive religion of Africa. From West Africa and Haiti came serpent worship, the voodoo doctor, and the powerful "queen of the voodoos." In Congo Square at night one heard the monotonous chants and machine-like tune-beats of the African dances, the rattling of mules' jawbones mingling with the wild Negro songs of the gyrating dancers, the sounds of tom-toms and wooden horns. Superstitious slaves--and impressionable whites as well--bought voodoo charms, amulets, love philters, and even poisons; the "best people" went for advice to voodoo priestesses and fortune-tellers, while voodoo meetings, festivals, orgiastic rites and incantations were well known to the press of the city.
In a class by themselves were the so-called quadroons, cultivated, Paris-educated girls who were a special, distinguishing feature of the city's life. A whole section was devoted to small, attractive houses inhabited by these girls and the white men who seemed to find them extraordinarily attractive. A businesslike arrangement was typically made between the girl's mother and the white suitor: she would inquire into his financial resources, and if they were sufficient, provision would be made for supporting the girl in proper style and, if the liaison should be broken, for providing a proper sum for the support of her and her children. One observer reported that to maintain such a mistress cost from $1500 to $2000 a year--a sum, obviously, that only the wealthy could afford--increasing with the proportion of white blood: an octoroon was the most expensive, a griffe (the offspring of a mulatto and a Negro) the lowest. All negotiations were transacted between the gentleman and the girl's mother, with the bargain often including an old-age pension for the latter. It was the Creole gentlemen who kept these mistresses, described by another commentator as practically a separate class of people, who considered themselves far above the Negroes and wouldn't associate with them. The couples were prevented from marrying by both law and social custom; if the man married one of his own race, the girl received the house and furniture, and reputedly she seldom contracted a new alliance, and not infrequently committed suicide. As for the white ladies, they met this delicate situation by ignoring it.
Ezra loved the bustle and variety of the city from the first; he'd been not yet three the last time the family had been there, and had little recollection of it. And Patrick and Maude delighted in its cosmopolitan character, which Patrick said was equal to that of any capitol of Europe. They went to the magnificent St. Charles Theatre, which, when it was built in 1835, surpassed all other American playhouses in luxury and splendor, and the New French, opened in 1818, which had a company of actors superior to that of the American, while its handsome, well-appointed building contained, besides the auditorium, a large ballroom, supper rooms, and gambling halls. They dined at the St. Charles, the greatest hotel in the city, located in the American Quarter on St. Charles Avenue at Common Street, which had opened its doors on Washington's Birthday, 1837, and was considered the most imposing building west of the mountains, being famed for its immense dome, visible from forty miles upriver, and Corinthian portico, to say nothing of the famous gold dinner service, valued at $16,000, which was used on special occasions of great ceremony; it was nationally known for its luxury, and to it came the nabobs of the river plantations to attend the quadroon balls at the Salle de Conde. Sometimes they went to the French Opera, the center of all Creole social life, an elaborate structure built in 1816 in classic style with parquet, two tiers of boxes, a gallery, and even grilled loges on the side for those in mourning; patrons attended in full formal evening dress, and not to have a subscription was tantamount to being outside the pale of society. Patrick trained with the stellar swordsman Bastile Croquere, a handsome mulatto who could fight no duel in Louisiana because of his color, but was sought after as an instructor.
"Patrick was the most devoted mate any woman could dream of," Maude observed, "but if he had one fault, it was his staunch refusal to bring his profession home with him. He taught Ezra to shuffle and cut and deal, but the poker table, which was his place of business, was where he left all talk of the games he played. I seldom knew how his fortunes were progressin' unless I noticed that he wasn't wearin' some favorite item of jewelry for a week or a month at a time. He had purchased all manner of finery for me, but he never so much as considered pawnin' or sellin' any of it; his attitude was that once an item had been bestowed as a gift, it belonged utterly to the recipient, and the giver had no further claim upon it.
"Much of what became of him I only discovered long after the fact, by talkin' with those who knew him. It was just after Ezra's birthday, and Patrick had been on a losin' streak since before Christmas, exacerbated by his generous custom of buyin' quantities of gifts for Ezra and myself. Then he learned of a very high-stakes poker game to be held at the New French Theatre. Anyone who could afford the buy-in was welcome to participate, but that buy-in was five thousand dollars, and he would also need to redeem his jewelry from the pawnbroker and see that he was sartorially at his peak. So he sought out a lender, and unfortunately the one he selected was one he would have done better to have avoided like the hackneyed plague. And he lost. Gamblin' debts, of course, are not legally collectible, and his sponsor knew that. He had other ways of guaranteein' that no one else would so abuse his good nature.
"I had been invited to a small card party bein' given by a connection of Patrick's sister. My maid Emily accompanied me; Patrick had given his valet Richard the night off, and agreed to stay at home with Ezra. When I returned, he was gone. The lamp in the sittin' room had not yet burned out, so I knew he couldn't have been absent very long, but I could find no sign of him, though I searched the whole house. I discovered Ezra in his bedroom, unharmed and awake. He didn't seem unusually disturbed, and yet there was somethin' about the air of him that I couldn't understand. I sent Richard for the police as soon as he returned, but they could find nothin'. Two days later Patrick's body was discovered at the margin of Lake Ponchartrain. The coroner was of the opinion that he had been severely beaten, then shot in the back of the head."
The regulators were silent a moment, stunned by this revelation, of which their Southern counterpart had never given the least hint. "Does Ezra know...how his father died?" Josiah asked cautiously.
"I believe that he witnessed the act," Maude replied, "or at least saw the perpetrators. But I've never been certain. He has never spoken a word that would lead me to suspect my guess was accurate."
Like Billy, Chris thought, with a sinking sensation in his gut. Now he understood why Ezra had leaped into the task of protecting the boy's life and smoking out the killers he had seen take his father's life; understood even, perhaps, why Maude had taken a hand in the process when there was nothing to be gained from doing so. Damn, Ezra, he thought despairingly, why didn't you ever say anything? We'd'a' never asked you if we knew it meant puttin' yourself through some private kind of hell. You oughtta said somethin'.
Josiah scrubbed a weary hand over his face. He had always been somewhat disposed to regard the three youngest of the regulators--Ezra, Vin, JD--as surrogate sons, but Ezra held a special place in his heart. Perhaps it was because he was the only one of the group who approached the ex-preacher in erudition, sophistication, and international experience; perhaps it was that he had admitted, in the Seminole village, to having acted the part of a clergyman himself on occasion; perhaps it was Josiah's pastoral instincts, urging him to bring the stray lamb back to the fold. Was this why he had never been able to get through to Ezra, why Ezra had so staunchly resisted his paternal overtures? Why he hadn't succeeded in breaching Ezra's walls sufficiently as to convince him of his true worth, of all the genuine good that was in him? Why Ezra so often insisted, in a weary or exasperated tone, that he was "not your son"? Sanchez sighed. He had never meant to offend the younger man...or to remind him of something painful. It was just the frustrated father--spiritual and temporal--in him; the feeling that there seemed to be so much promise, so much potential for good, in Ezra, even though he consistently denied it, ignored it, or brushed it aside as inconsequential. Josiah knew that much of the gambler's charm was probably the result of Maude's training, yet he had known so many people over the course of his varied life that he had developed a deep insight into human character. Stubborn Ezra was, irritating, morally vague, capricious and ungrounded, and contradictory to the point of ridiculousness, but equally so much more than he was willing to admit--clever and beguiling, courageous, intelligent, kind and selfless too. All he really needed was someone to guide him, to set him on the right path, help him along, answer his concerns and direct him toward a righteous life. Had it been a sin to want to be that someone? If he had ever guessed that Ezra might be seeing his overtures as an insult to his beloved real parent, or an unwanted recollection of what must, to a child barely six, have been a night of horror, Josiah would have held his tongue with a resolve the Sphinx might have envied. Forgive me, Lord, he thought. You know I never wanted to hurt him. Help him understand that, and forgive an old man his fancies.
Nathan shook his head. For all the outward confidence he displayed in dealing with them, he had always tended toward a certain reserve with the other six, perhaps partly because, as a former slave, he couldn't completely shed the training that bade him not to get "uppity" or familiar with white folks, and therefore hesitated to show affection for them, but also because, as a healer, he tended to feel more protective than defensive toward them. Their priorities for each other boiled down to "got your back, friend," while Nathan, though he did his share in that direction, was also charged with fixing them up when something went wrong. He hesitated to let them know how attached he had really gotten to them--and in Ezra he saw someone whose ethics needed healing as surely as any injured body he had ever encountered. Unless he was lecturing the man, he found it hard to be direct with him; his awareness of Standish's convoluted con-artist style of relating to other people sparked a similar style in him. Oddly enough, he had never had that problem with Maude--actually almost liked her; possibly because she wasn't someone to whom he was expected to trust his life on a regular basis.
Yet he saw so much potential in the man, and his experience in bondage had inspired in him an intolerance for the concept of human potential being wasted. He knew somehow that Ezra was capable of so much more than he seemed to be willing to allow himself to be, and he got angry, and therefore frustrated, when the reality intruded. It bothered him that Ezra didn't always live up to it. He was willing to admit that Ezra did seem to be trying to change. The gambler had done a lot of positive things in Four Corners. But it didn't erase his past. And whenever Nathan brought the subject up, Ezra ignored him or changed the subject. If he couldn't or wouldn't defend himself, wasn't that an admission of guilt? Or didn't Standish consider a black man worthy of the trouble it would take to answer him? If only he'd talk--and God knew the man loved to talk!--they could hash it out and Nathan could prove his logic, to Ezra, to himself, to the others. The healer wasn't immune to any good qualities Ezra happened to display; he was just too damn proud to admit them, most of all to the man's face. At first he had probably been tarring the gambler with his old master's brush, just like that classic "good Indian" attitude so prevalent in the West: "Just because I had a bad experience with one Southerner, all Southerners are bad." Later on, it had become habit. He counted on Ezra to watch his back in a fight, but he never really thought of him as a friend, the way he did Josiah, or Buck, or JD, or even Vin, who, God knew, was as truly a Southerner as Standish was. He accepted Ezra in a restricted, conditional way, never making the effort to find out what (other than money) drove him, what secret pain he might harbor in his past. Even on those rare occasions when he knew he'd been wrong, he was too upright to admit it and apologize. When he thought about it at all, he simply told himself that Ezra might be a greedy, arrogant, amoral, conscienceless rogue who couldn't walk a straight line to save his life (or anyone else's), but he was their greedy, arrogant, amoral, conscienceless rogue. He belonged with them. Who else but this collection of outcasts and misfits would ever put up with him? Hell, I know better than that. It's like Vin says. Watch how he is with the children, or with any animal he meets. Watch how they are with him. You know it's a lot harder to pull the wool over a child's eyes or an animal's senses than it is to fool a grownup.
He'd never guessed at such a trauma as this. He still felt that there was no way Ezra could ever understand or approach the suffering he had endured as a slave, but he was beginning to realize now that he'd been unjust--fully as unjust as he'd often accused Ezra of being. He didn't approve of Ezra's "profession"--not so much the gambling (hadn't Nathan himself taken the greatest gamble a man could, staking his life and his freedom on his flight North?) as the conning--and he never hesitated to let Ezra know when he thought he was wrong. He probably never would approve of the conning, but he had to admit that he couldn't think of a single instance since they'd first come together when Ezra had employed that angle of his character against his fellow peacekeepers. If Maude was telling the truth (and why should she lie about something this intimate, when she could simply elect to say nothing about it at all?) the gambler had endured something even Nathan had never been forced to face--the death of a beloved family member before his eyes: Nathan's mother may have died when he was seven, but at least he hadn't had to actually see it.
"What happened then?" Chris asked quietly.
"Under the terms of Patrick's will, Richard and Emily were manumitted upon his death," Maude replied. "Of course he had no investments or insurance. I sold his clothing and jewelry and took Ezra to St. Louis, hopin' to find a place with Lucienne, but she had died of the cholera in the same epidemic as my daughter. I had no resources left but my own.
"I had written Patrick's family the news of his demise. His mother, bein' a Virginian, might have comprehended the obligations of blood, but she was then dyin' of dropsy, and her husband was understandably focused upon her care. Patrick's brother George offered to take Ezra in and see to his education, but I was not invited. I knew he and his brothers blamed me for what had become of my darlin', since it was in the attempt to support me and our child as he thought fit that Patrick had impoverished himself to the point of bein' driven to deal with malefactors and murderers. I refused his offer. I would not be forced to part forever from all I had left of my husband. I turned instead to my own kin, and to Patrick's sister, who was more sympathetic, havin' been at my side in the aftermath of his death."
Yet even then, her options were severely limited. Having run away with a man she hadn't married, and later married another of his stripe, she lost all the advantages of her decent, reasonably comfortable background when she chose her "men of adventure." Once Patrick was gone, she was "disgraced," and found herself ostracized amongst her family. Her stubborn, proud nature didn't allow her to beg her way back into her parents' good graces, even for the sake of her son. Instead, she took the skills she had learned and made her own way--however dubiously. This required, among other things, that she behave in what the South considered an even more scandalous fashion, since she was neither willing nor able to moulder tragically away in a corner somewhere. No Southern matron was ever a belle, and a widow must be twice as circumspect in her conduct. She must wear black dresses without flowers, ribbons, lace, or even a touch of braid to enliven them, and no jewelry except onyx mourning brooches or necklaces made from the hair of the deceased. The black crepe veil on her bonnet must reach to her knees, being shortened to shoulder length only after three years. She must never chatter vivaciously or laugh aloud, and even when she smiled, it must be a sad, tragic smile. She must not attend social functions, for to do so would be disrespectful to her late husband, making it appear that she hadn't loved him. And she could in no way indicate an interest in the company of gentlemen; should one be so ill-bred as to seem interested in her, she must freeze him with a dignified but well-chosen reference to her late husband. Much as she had loved the man--and still did--Maude knew that such a demeanor would be the kiss of death for cons or gaming. She still had all the high spirits, vivacity, and charm of her youth, and she used them. She gave up her weeds before Patrick was two months in the ground, and did what she had to do.
"Don't you dare to insinuate, Mr. Larabee, that I don't love my son," she finished. "I do. I love him to distraction, for his own sake and for the sake of his father who was my only love. None of my other husbands has meant anything to me, and none of their names has ever seemed to fit; that is why I have always gone back to Standish in the end."
"You got a strange way of showin' it, Maude." But there was nothing accusatory in Chris's tone now. It was quiet, almost compassionate.
"Why? Because I taught him the only skills I had to offer him? Because I forced him to depend upon himself, to learn to fall back on his own resources? I have known want, Mr. Larabee. I have been hungry and cold and alone, with no one to care what became of me. I learned, to my cost, what it is to have nothin' to count on but oneself. I could have gone into some quiet, discreet occupation like seamstressin', but what could I have given Ezra then? And what would he have learned of the character of the world he was to live in? I was determined that my son should never suffer what I had. I was resolved to give him the kind of life Patrick had tried to give both of us--or, if I couldn't provide it, to equip him to make it for himself. Losin' his father as I did brought home to me the terrible uncertainty of life. I realized I might not be there to help Ezra along. The world is a cruel place. I saw that I must literally force him to become self-reliant, emotionally as in other respects, rather than allowin' him to depend on me. I raised him the best way I knew. I have always wanted the best for him."
"The best, accordin' to whose vision?" Chris pressed. "Money, comfort, all the trappings of success and wealth? I'd be the last man to say they don't matter, but they're not all there is." He smothered a sigh. "I know that, better than most, maybe. But that ain't the point, Maude. We're not talkin' about Ezra's past. We're tryin' to make sure he has a future, whether it's with you or us or nobody. It don't matter if you approve of the choices he's made, or I always like the way he behaves. And it don't matter if you like me or I like you. It matters that now we know what the people who have him want, and we know you're the only one who can give it to 'em. Maybe Vin and the others can still get a line on him and get him out, but they'll need time, and if these people don't see some sign that you're goin' along with their demands, they won't have it."
"Do you believe his life is in danger?" Maude asked.
"I can't take the chance that it's not," Larabee told her. "That's part of my job, to see to the safety of my men, as far as I can."
The woman seemed to hesitate, and Josiah stood and came to her side. "Maude," he said quietly, "I can understand how looking at ten thousand dollars cash, knowing it's connected to the possibility of your son's death, is painful to you. But you bore him in more travail. You have it in your power to save his life now, as you couldn't save your husband's. There's not a one of the seven of us who doesn't have moments of memory we'd rather not. What makes us strong, what gets us through them, is being there for each other, as we're ready to be there for you. What Chris is saying is that we're partners in the effort to get our lost lamb back, and for the sake of that goal, we need to work together. It's the best chance we have."
They could see the old indomitable mask slipping back into place, the steel stiffening her spine again, and when she spoke her voice was steady. "Yes, of course you are correct, Josiah. Mr. Larabee, what is your plan?"
"Not sure I have one at the moment," Chris admitted. "We need to know more about these Kanes, which is why I want Josiah to go over to Pascoe's and check 'em out. But we have to figure Ezra's kidnappers will be watchin', and if they are, maybe they'll slip. Once we can get our hands on one of 'em, we might be able to squeeze Ezra's whereabouts out of him. That's why you'll be havin' bodyguards tonight--me and Josiah. Nathan, you'll be the outside man, just in case somebody gets past us. Maude, you better be thinkin' what kind of cover story you figure to tell to explain why a woman is lookin' to play high-stakes poker; we'll need to know it ourselves before we go out."
"I shall have a plausible tale ready when you arrive," Maude promised evenly.
"All right," said Chris. "Josiah, get goin'. I'll take a look at the LaFont House, check out the ground while I have some daylight. Nathan, you're still on duty here. After I get back you can go look things over too."
When the gunslinger and the ex-preacher had left, Maude excused herself to Nathan and retreated to her bedroom, ostensibly to put her dressing-case away, but actually to take some time out and regain her emotional equilibrium. She wasn't accustomed to looking backward, or to regrets; in her experience neither one changed anything. Yet she wasn't blind to the new side she had seen of the grim, standoffish gunslinger whom even her son seemed a little inclined to fear. Clearly he too had known a great love, regardless of how he had lost it. Knowing this made her feel, if not in sympathy with him or with what he had made of Ezra, at least more inclined to listen to him.
She knew her own experience had scarred her. Patrick had been, not only her husband, but her savior, her teacher, her friend. No other man ever had, or ever could, approach the part he had played in her life. Not until he was gone did she fully realize all that he had meant to her. The sun and the moon and the stars, all warmth and love and joy. When he was killed, the light went out of her world. Abandoned by her own family, rejected by her husband's, denied even the faintest prospect of justice for her murdered husband, she began to believe that his death had been intended to punish her personally. Bitter and angry, she decided that if this was the "love" of God she wanted no part of it. Religion became a tool for cons, not something to believe in any more. "It's all lies," she would tell Ezra, "comfortable lies people make up for themselves, or have foisted on them by people seekin' the power and authority to tell them how to live their lives. Intelligent people like us don't need it. Pretend to the best of your ability, because it will give you an appearance of respectability, but know within yourself that it's a sham, a con, as surely as any we run, just on a larger scale--and its magnitude and longevity and success are the only reasons to have any real respect for it."
So she lived for appearances, for money, for the thrill of the game, the sense of power she got from taking revenge on the society that had cast her out. What was worst, her husband's death poisoned her relationship with her son. She refused to give him up to his father's kin, who could have provided for him, who had no such resentment of him as her own family did (even if he had been illegitimate, which he wasn't, a son's indiscretions were much easier to forgive than a daughter's), yet she couldn't bear to have him around her. Ezra was so like Patrick. So tender-hearted under his superb mask of bluff, so easily engaged in his sympathies--she could see it still, in his rapport with children and animals, his tendency to suffer at the deaths of innocents, even his sneaking support for the concept of justice, his insistence on retaining his job as a lawman, however beneath him she might think it. (Why had she been so surprised? His Great-Uncle Tobias Rawlings had been a sheriff, and a very able and respected one; why was it so astonishing that he too should choose a badge, even if it wasn't a literal one?) So quick to be hurt, so likely to hug his pain to himself. So steadfastly loyal, ready to stand by her and love her still, even through every betrayal, every desertion, every abandonment. Every time she looked at him, she saw Patrick, the only man she had ever really loved. The quickness of his smile, the clarity of his eyes, the sense of humor. She had almost hated the boy for being his father's son. She couldn't bear the prospect of enduring another such loss, and so, even knowing how much he needed her, how much he too must be suffering at his father's death, she had cast him off. So many hurts dealt him, so much time wasted. She had even blamed him, irrationally, for what had happened--how could a boy barely six have prevented Patrick's abduction and murder? Yet she knew Patrick lived in him.
Self-recrimination wasn't Maude's way, and neither were tears over what was over and done. Yet she found that the specter of death hovering over her boy had gotten her attention in a way nothing else ever had. Once she had known joy, fulfillment, a sense of place. How could she have forgotten what that was like? How could she have believed that her son--Patrick's son--wouldn't have it in him to want the same things? She still found it difficult to accept that he could be finding a degree of personal satisfaction, friendship, self-esteem, in risking his life almost daily, in associating with people she would never have encouraged him to know. Yet even if she couldn't understand it, she could see that, somehow, it seemed to make him happy. Why else would he have stayed all this time? She decided she wanted to accept it, for his sake, because it was a part of the man he had become--the man her own acts had made of him. Certainly it seemed self-evident that no tactic she could bring to bear would force him to give up his new life. She had hoped that knocking his feet out from under him, destroying his dream, would do it, but even that had failed; indeed, from what Josiah had told her about the Nichols family, it had only tightened his bond with his associates. His father would be proud of him, of what he had made of himself over these last months. "Those men are good for him, Maude," he'd say, "and he's good for them." He had always wanted the boy to have a good life, a life devoted to more than just the pursuit of wealth. It was she, in her obsession with not repeating earlier experiences or forcing their son to endure anything similar, who had given Ezra the idea that money was all that mattered.
Yet even more than money or position or the respect of others, what she had always wanted to guarantee him was the safety of his heart, his soul, his peace of mind. She had never wanted him to be in a position to suffer as she had suffered--not so much materially as emotionally. Her great fear wasn't that he would die impoverished, but that he would form attachments he couldn't afford to lose. That he would make friends or find love and then have them ripped brutally away from him, as his father had been ripped from her. She couldn't bear to think of her boy going through that kind of agony. And if he cemented friendships with men who earned their living by their guns, who put themselves in peril every day of their lives, wasn't he risking exactly that?
But she couldn't direct where he gave his heart. She understood that now. It wasn't in her power--it had never been in her power--to prevent him from wanting, or seeking, or finding the kind of emotional support she had been unable, or afraid, to give him. Perhaps it was better for him to do it. Even though it was a risk, perhaps, in the end, it would make his life better, make it count for something, as her time with Patrick had done for her. Maude understood now that she could never sever the ties that bound her son to these six men, but she also realized, somewhat to her surprise, that she didn't really want to. She realized that there might come a time when those ties would be useful to her, when she would need help or protection beyond what Ezra alone could provide her. His friends would give it for his sake if not hers. That could be very useful. And perhaps she could take some pride in herself too, because if she hadn't made him who and what he was, would he ever have attracted Larabee's attention in the first place? Would he have had the skills to hold his own in a convocation of peacekeepers?
When I have you back again, she thought to her absent son, we will talk about this. But first, as Mr. Larabee says, we must get you back.
In the quiet hour between supper and full night, before the high-stakes poker games got under way, Chris lounged against a porch post in front of the hotel, thoughtfully puffing on a cheroot and watching the street through hooded eyes. With saloons as such barred in the Springs (though not in Colorado City), the town was much more peaceful after dark than Four Corners was likely to be, and offered a good environment for thinking.
It was possible, Chris thought, that Maude had been spinning a lie from one end to the other this afternoon; but he didn't think so. In his line, you had to have a sense for human character. Maude was a consummate actress and con artist, but somehow Larabee felt that the story she had told was the truth. After all, what profit would it bring her to have lied about this particular subject? Sympathy? She already knew she had Josiah in her corner and was unlikely to recruit Chris no matter what she said. Besides, she hadn't put herself in the best of lights, as a liar would ordinarily try to do; she'd admitted quite frankly to her own youthful indiscretions (something a woman who made as much as she did of being a "lady" would ordinarily avoid), not to mention her unwillingness to assume the details of day-to-day care for her infant son. And, from his perspective as a former father, who had watched Adam grow and seen what the boy got from his earliest environment, Chris thought he could now understand a lot more of what made Ezra the man he was. Much of the dichotomy of the Southerner was explained by the contrast between his first five years (though he probably didn't remember them very well) and all those that had followed on his father's death.
Ezra might not have had a conventionally loving mother, but he'd been blessed with a nurse who'd probably been an exemplary caregiver; Chris had seen such devoted "mammies" in his days in the South during the War, and he could well imagine what Ezra's had done for him. She would have carried him around, breast-fed him, rubbed his back, and generally taught him that touching felt good and that being close to another body was comforting and soothing. He'd have learned that people showed love by the way they touched one another and that it was good to touch and be touched by people who loved you. Never left to cry in his crib, he'd have had no cause to cease to believe in the value of his cries, or to conclude that he was powerless or worthless or that his attempts at communication must be without meaning. His needs were appropriately and consistently met. His environment gave him a calm, happy, secure feeling that became a part of him. He would have come to feel that he was loved, valued, cared for and worthy of attention, that he was somehow special because he received so much special care. He hadn't received the impression that life was unpredictable, or that he shouldn't trust the world or be sensitive to his own needs--at least, not then. He had learned, as an infant, that when he cried he was comforted, when he was hungry he was fed. He had learned to expect such responses, had discovered that his actions could make things happen and help him feel better. He learned that he was valuable, that it was safe to trust others, that his needs would be consistently met, as well as to respond, himself, to someone in need, to comfort someone who was hurting, to turn to other people for help, to trust his own perceptions about himself and the world, and to be happy. He felt he could trust that his needs would be met, which made him feel worthy of having it happen. Because his parents, most particularly his father, responded sensitively to him, he became sensitive himself, and he learned that people helped one another. This sense of how the world worked became part of his character. Later, as he learned to walk and talk, he would have been easy to discipline, as Adam had; he would have known he could depend on the adults around him to respond to his needs, so he didn't become angry or aggressive or stubborn. He would have wanted to please--still did; that was what made his quirky relationship with Maude so heartbreaking to anyone with the wit to understand it. He had also learned to see through the façade that parents often put on, trying to hide their emotions from their young or put on happy faces when they're unhappy. He entered life as an idealist, which was good: if you don't know what the ideal is, you can't know what you're shooting for. He didn't have as strong a need as some children do to force others to bend to their will, because he was used to having his own needs and wishes respected. Having been himself understood by his parents, he could understand how others felt, and imagine how his behavior might affect someone else. He had learned to be sensitive to the feelings of others. Chris suspected he'd actually been willing to share, something that many small children find difficult; he was concerned about the needs and rights of other children because that was the behavior his parents had modelled for him. Yet he wasn't a pushover; he was flexible, he could hold his own against the more aggressive children he met, and he could also propose solutions when a disagreement arose. He behaved well because his parents had let him know what behavior was expected and that he was secure, loved, and valued. Trust had become an ingrained part of him, and the world a warm and trusting place in which to live. Caring, giving, listening, and responding to needs had been his family norm, and these qualities had become a part of him, though he tended now to express them mainly when he was with children, perhaps because doing so allowed him to re-enact a lost and much-missed part of his own past. As he learned to talk, he found it easy to ask for what he needed and wanted, and felt in control of his life and destiny.
When his father died, his connectedness with his parents, and especially with Patrick, would have meant that the event was not only upsetting to him but downright devastating. Even the little family's peripatetic lifestyle hadn't been as difficult for him to accept as this, because Patrick had always been there, an anchor, an invariable presence, a giver of comfort and strength, companionship and love. Because of his deep sensitivity, Ezra would have been terribly distressed by anything that went against his norm. Travelling had always been part of that norm and he didn't mind it, but he couldn't easily give up his father. Suddenly he lost almost every positive kind of connectedness that had characterized his first five years of life. He was cast adrift, floundering and bewildered, unable to understand why everything had changed so much.
Maude's new cold and distant style of parenting did nothing positive for her son's emotional health. She no longer gave him the idea that he was fun to be with, that she valued him, that his opinions mattered, that his behavior pleased her, that he was worthy of her time. Instead, he came to perceive that his value as a human being was tied to his performance, to fulfilling her expectations. Being expected to perform to gain love and acceptance was a tough assignment for any child, but perhaps more for one who didn't understand why everything had changed so completely. And trying to live up to unrealistic parental expectations set him up for failure, which became a part of his beliefs about himself. As a result, he didn't feel at ease with intimate relationships, or even simple interpersonal ones. Experiencing his mother as cold, uncaring, and unresponsive, he came to expect that lack of responsiveness in other relationships, including his relationship with the universe--most specifically with God. The poor sense of self-worth he developed left him feeling that he couldn't get what he needed from the people around him and that he was of no value to anyone, even himself. This led to anger and distress. He believed he was no good at anything, so he didn't trust himself. Instead of whining and crying to get what he needed, or yelling and bullying--because the latter couldn't work against an adult, and the former just didn't--he gave up and withdrew. His various caregivers--being for the most part Southerners, who considered emotional expression healthy--didn't like this, though they didn't know why they didn't like it, so they reacted with anger, scolding, punishment, or avoidance, according to their several inclinations. That only made him more passive, and his behavior got worse instead of better.
Yet on some level he remembered what he had had before and longed to go back to it. That was why he reached out to the other six even to the extent that he did. He still carried that capacity for being close to family members into relationships with other important people in his life. For all the times he had been betrayed, he still wanted to have some shadow of what his earliest years had taught him he should have, should expect as his birthright. And that opportunity to form a close bond with at least one caregiver in his infancy had given him a greater chance of a good outcome, even with a poor start--or, in his case, actually, a poor middle. He had had sensitive parenting from warm, affectionate people, and had come from a home in which his parents were highly invested in him--and very much in love, just as Chris had been in love with Sarah. He had seen them kissing and embracing, and had seen that they respected each other. That early connectedness had built into him a capacity for recovery from hard times. Without it, he might not have been as sane and well-balanced as he was. So many children who were abused or neglected grew up to be people who felt no remorse for what they did and acted with no thought whatsoever about the effects of their behavior on others; no one cared about them, so they didn't know how to care about others. Ezra did know. He was just terrified to let on, because he thought that showing vulnerability got you hurt.
One important thing he hadn't lost was a high degree of adaptability. His early experiences had given him that. He weathered the many trials of later life better than he might have if he hadn't had that sound foundation of caring. Once he found the other six and a way of life that didn't require him to live a con man's life, he was really easily redirected from not-so-good behavior (as society saw it) to better ways of doing things. And the dim memory of his parents' marriage was a model for what his own marriage would be, if only he could feel secure enough to find the right woman.
Josiah's quiet arrival caught the part of his attention that never went off guard, and Larabee removed the cigar from his mouth and asked, "How's Maude?"
"She's making herself presentable," the preacher replied. "She should be ready to go in about fifteen minutes."
Larabee grunted and went back to scanning the street. Abruptly he said, "I just been thinkin'...maybe there's a good reason I never got along with her too well. Maybe we're a lot more alike than we ever thought we were."
"How so?" Josiah prompted, but he couldn't help the sense of excited anticipation that throbbed through him. Of the other six, Chris was the only one who had never once come to him for advice or even a listening ear. JD sought him out all the time; Nathan, as a long-time friend, felt thoroughly comfortable baring his soul to him; Vin seemed to see him as a kind of shaman, a wise and knowledgeable advisor-figure; even carefree Buck and self-sufficient Ezra had been known to make use of him as a confidant or a sounding board. Chris never did. Even after the terrible loss he had suffered, he seemed thoroughly complete and all of a piece, content with, or perhaps resigned to, the concept of harboring his feelings and hugging his pain. Josiah didn't think it was healthy, but he knew better than to think he could force Larabee to do anything he wasn't ready to do. Seeking emotional advice was in some ways not unlike the experience of conversion; it occurred when you were open to it, and not before.
"After Sarah and Adam died," Chris explained slowly, "I was in so much pain that I didn't think I'd survive. Hell, I didn't want to survive, not at least beyond whenever I could find the people who'd taken my family from me. Ask Buck some time about some of the damn fool things I did, that first year. Afterward, after the first edge wore off, I was just terrified of gettin' close enough to anyone to be hurt like that again. So I locked up my feelings and started showin' the world this icy I-don't-care, I-won't-let-myself-care, get-the-hell-away-from-me desperado image. I was ready to spend the whole rest of my life alone, shit, I even pushed Buck so hard and so often that he got sick of me and left. My oldest friend, the man who thought of my family as his, and I still did that to him." He snorted a bitter laugh. "Hell, even Ezra's not really as different from me as I figured he was. Till I came to Four Corners, I was a professional killer, not much more than a step above a gunman, distancin' myself from the whole rest of the world and livin' only for me and the prospect of revenge. I thought, why get close to people if it's so hard to lose 'em? And I wasn't in a line that made it easy to trust, anyhow. Self-reliance was the only way I could keep goin'--emotionally as well as physically. I can see now that Ezra has just the same reasons to be careful about the way he deals with others. How many times in his life has he been hurt, or betrayed, or abandoned, by the people who were supposed to look after him? And if he saw his father killed, that has to be all the worse. I don't know why I didn't guess it. Maude told us herself she'd been five times married, and Ezra's father had to've been one of the earliest of the lot, but when he first introduced her as 'Standish' it never occurred to me as strange that they'd still share the same name. Now I see that she just keeps goin' back to it, like she said, because no other name fits. You'd think, after what I went through, I'd have some kind of sense for people who might've had to deal with somethin' similar. Maude and Ezra must've loved Patrick Standish as much as I loved Sarah and Adam, maybe more. Must've been hurt to the core of 'em when he died, especially considerin' how he died, kidnapped right out of his own house, maybe even with his boy lookin' on..."
Josiah nodded. It was what he had hoped for, that Maude's story had jolted the leader into taking a second look at their resident con artist, given him an insight into Ezra's character that might cause him to look a little more kindly upon the elegant Southerner. For three years the gunfighter had worked hard at not caring--about himself, about anyone else. He had lived in a black, blind, unholy rage that was part guilt and self-recrimination and part the need to strike out at whoever had taken his family from him. His spark and enthusiasm had gone up in the flames that had taken the lives of his wife and son. After the fire, he had buried his emotions in whiskey and kept people at arm's length, feeling sure that if he opened himself to new relationships, he would only get hurt--and he never wanted to hurt that way again. Only in this last year or so had the illusions he'd created for himself begun to fall apart as, with the friendships he had forged in Four Corners, he slowly let down that guard and made himself emotionally accessible to other people--not just the six of them, but Mary and Billy, the Potters, the Wellses. Josiah knew how difficult that could be, having had some experience with illusions in his lifetime. Chris's illusions were, in a sense, easier to let go of, because they weren't connected to something outside him: he was simply finding out that he wasn't the cold, unfeeling bastard he had thought he was or wanted to be. Still, it wasn't easy for him. Vin had been the first to force his guard down, then Nathan and Buck, then JD, then Josiah. Ezra was the last of them still bearing the brunt of his reserve. Larabee knew that if he let down that last barrier, he'd be just one step away from human again, and it scared him. Every cloud has a silver lining, so they say, the preacher told himself. Difficult and even painful as it may have been for her, it may bring about a very basic alteration in the way Chris treats him--and the others, even Nathan, perhaps especially Nathan, will take their cue from Chris. If he can only keep in mind what he's learned today, he may be able to look past that impassive mask and appreciate Ezra's true value.
"I think you're right," he agreed. "I think it explains quite a lot about the way she treats him, especially the way she did him over the saloon. She wants to save him from the kind of pain she suffered, and she figures that destroying his dream is better than seeing his soul destroyed. It's not even so much about the danger he's in, physically; it's about the chance of his bonding with us and then losing a piece of himself if one of us is killed. We're in a dangerous line of work, and she knows it. It must seem very possible to her that he might lose one or more of us at any moment. She wanted to knock his feet out from under him now and bring him back to his senses, shake him into realizing who, or what, he was raised to be--a sharp, shrewd, go-for-the-jugular man of business, whether at cards or a con or a saloon, a man who didn't let personal feelings rule him. Maybe, in her mind, he'd gotten too complacent, and she figured that by taking the wind out of his sails hard and quick, she could strop the edge back onto him for later, when he might really need it. In her world, as a woman alone and with no one else to depend on, I imagine she sees life as a constant battle for survival, no holds barred, and she can't imagine Ezra ever settling into some cozy, boring, safe little routine."
Chris snorted. "Boring and safe is the last damn thing it is. But if that's what she thinks, she's lettin' her gender do her thinkin' for her. She don't bother to think, or admit, that as a man, Ez has options that ain't open to her. And if that damn railroad ever gets to us, Four Corners is likely to become a regular boom town; as much as Maude's been around, you'd think she'd have the wit to see that. I think Ez does; I think that's one reason he decided to buy the saloon."
"I think she honestly thought she was helping him," Josiah observed. "I think she was afraid--still is afraid--that he'll settle down in our 'little hick town' where he'll never make any serious money, at least as she sees money, and risk dying for a dollar a day and keep instead of fulfilling his potential the way she taught him to do and getting himself a life of travel and financial gain." He sighed. "But what I think she fears even worse than that is that Ezra will lose his edge--that he'll come to trust and rely on others, and one day find that trust misplaced and pay a heavier price for it than losing a saloon. Or form emotional bonds and then be torn apart when he loses one or more of the first real friends he's made. It's like she told us: she's been hungry, she's known what it's like to misplace her trust, and she's known the agony of losing a loved one, someone whose life may have meant more to her than her own. To her, nobody since her first husband has ever really been worthy of that trust--or maybe she just hasn't been able to bring herself to give it--and the only sure route she knows to comfort and safety is money. When she took the tavern away from Ezra, she was trying to show him that he should take care of himself and trust no one--not even her; that independence and self-sufficiency is the one way to survive in a harsh world. She learned that lesson herself the hard way, and like most mothers, she wants to spare her boy from having to find it out on his own and go through the same kind of pain and loss she did."
Pawn IndexComments to: Sevenstars