by Sevenstars & Aureleigh
Trinidad and Beyond
After they had seen Chris and the others off, Vin and Buck and JD retired to the Exchange to plan their next move. Sheriff Hanstrom had provided a large map of the country up as far as the Springs and west into the San Luis Valley, marked to show the roads and trails, the streams, the stage stations and ranches and homesteads, and this they spread out on a table, pointing things out to each other and speculating on where Ezra's kidnappers might have taken him.
"They'll need them a place that'll be good to use for a spell," was Vin's opinion. "We got no idea how much they're fixin' to ask Maude for him. Might could take her some time to get it all together. They'll be wantin' a place that they can count on not to be happened by casual-like, a place where they can keep Ez under guard easy--likely indoors: he don't do good on the trail, and anyhow a man can creep off too easy from a camp."
"There's plenty of caves up the Picketwire," Buck mentioned, "and the bad element's been usin' 'em as hideouts for years."
"But these ain't the bad element," Vin replied. "We figured whoever's in back of this has money to spare. Likely these fellers works for him--ranchhands, or worst hired guns. That kind ain't like to know the rough country. When a cowboy says he knows the district, it's like to be just the open range where he works. 'Sides, them caves is likely already bein' roosted in by folks that ain't lookin' for company, and anybody that's heard of 'em 'd guess that."
"If their boss has so much money," JD interrupted, frowning, "how come you figure they want ransom for Ezra?"
Buck snorted. "The more you got the more you want. Look at Royale. He had money enough to keep a dozen men in comfort for life, but that didn't mean he was ready to stop."
The kid considered this for a minute, then nodded uncertainly, granting the truth of the assertion. "But s'posin' they're figurin' we'd follow, sooner or later," he suggested. "Maybe they'd guess we'd think they'd go west, into the rougher country, and so they'd go east instead, out onto the prairie."
"Don't make this no more complicated than it is, boy," Buck told him. "Could be their boss'd think of that, yeah. But if you start tryin' to second-guess a man, you'll end up with more ways to go than a hank of string tangled up in a knot. Best to just figure on folks doin' what you'd do in their place. If you don't figure they headed for them caves," he went on, returning his attention to Tanner, "where do you figure they're at?"
"I'm guessin' their boss don't want no more folks than he has to have knowin' what's goin' on," the tracker replied, "and that pretty much lets out his headquarters, wherever it is. Too much chance somebody hearin' Ez's voice, or noticin' food bein' took into some locked shed, or like that. But they gotta be someplace where they can get out of the weather if they got to, where there's food for them and Ez and feed for their horses, and best where there's a buildin' with a couple of rooms, so's they can put him in one and sleep in the other." His long finger moved across the surface of the map, following the road that ran a little west of north to Walsenburg, slightly less than forty miles away. This was a junction point, with a road running roughly west to La Veta Pass, the gateway to the San Luis Valley, another northeast to La Junta, and a third slanting up to the Huerfano River and following along the edge of the mountains. "Iffen a feller was to take this trail here," he said, indicating the last of these, "it'd take him acrost some plenty wild and broken country over the Promontory Divide and past Crestone Needle, and on from there by a string of minin' camps, Silver Cliff, Rosita, Querida and a bunch of others. Up in here--" the finger indicated a point just below the sharp bend of the upper Arkansas-- "they's one called Romeo; I ain't ever been there, but I've talked to them as has. It's a tough town, and a lot of riffraff are runnin' things, and some of 'em are wearin' badges. A feller could do worse'n to keep a prisoner there. Folks done learned not to ask too many questions in Romeo."
"How'd you know?" asked Buck skeptically. "You said you've never been there."
"Ain't never been to the moon, neither, but that don't mean I doubt it exists. Everybody knows that things is made plumb easy for bad'uns in Romeo. It's kinda like what Four Corners might'a been, if it was a little more remote, and if th'all of us hadn't'a come along when we done."
JD listened to his two friends trying to thrash out the possibilities and thought that this was as close as he had ever come to hearing them actually quarrel. For himself, he was content to wait and listen, knowing he would learn something, as he always did from his six elders. He wasn't feeling very good about himself just now. So much time had elapsed since Ezra was taken, did they really have a chance of finding him? If they didn't, JD knew, there would be a score unsettled between himself and the Southerner. Each of his relationships with the others was unique: he worshipped Chris, loved Buck, respected Josiah and Nathan, looked on Vin as a kind of wise elder cousin and friend--but Ezra he owed in a very special way. All of them had had things to teach and give him since he had first come West, Buck perhaps most; but it was Ezra who had first extended a hand to him, accepted him as a man and an equal. JD knew he would never forget that, never really be able to thank the gambler for doing it. And yet in the War of the Saloons he had "converted" to the Ritz just as easily as Nathan and Josiah had. That, he now realized, hadn't been right or fair. He had tried to tell himself at the time that he had more faith in Ezra than to think the older man wouldn't find a way to avoid being run out of business--by his mother of all people!--but that did nothing to diminish the fact that he, JD Dunne, had acted like a traitor. He'd broken faith, contributed to Ezra's downfall just as surely as all the townsfolk and locals who'd chosen his mother's casino over his. He discovered he didn't like to think of himself as someone who would do that kind of thing. Hell, the reason they had succeeded and survived this long as a group was that they looked out for one another, watched one another's backs, stood up for one another in difficulty. If they couldn't count on the group, who did they have? They had owed it to Ezra--all of them--to stand by him in his rivalry with Maude, and they had all let him down. JD marvelled that Ezra had stayed on after that. He'd come to understand, over this last year-plus, that the main thing holding Standish back from entering fully into the bonds of friendship had been an uneasy conviction that the others were bound to cast him out sooner or later. They'd been telling him for months that they had no such plan in mind--and then, when push came to shove, they'd done it after all. And still Ezra had stayed, and turned the tide in their fight with the Nicholses. Better than any damn one of them, he was, no matter how much of a ne'er-do-well bastard he might want to make himself appear.
A hand tapped tentatively at his shoulder and he snapped his head around, one hand dropping reflexively to his waist. Behind his chair stood the Exchange swamper, a slight, graying, rheumy-eyed, hungry-looking black man. "'Scuse me, boss," he said in a thick Alabama accent, "but I done heared you askin' yestiddy 'bout dat friend of yourn--"
"Ezra?" JD prompted quickly, aware of Buck's and Vin's attention shifting from the map to the old man. "Yeah, we think somebody kidnapped him. Did you see him? He'd have gotten in here Thursday late, most likely. He stands about so high--" he marked off an inch above his own standing height with his hand-- "fair skin, green eyes, brown hair slicked down with pomade, a gold tooth on the left side, well back, that shows when he smiles. Got a pile of five-dollar words he likes to spread around. Southern accent, real fancy dresser, custom boots, nice-lookin' guns well cared for, neat as a cat, clean-shaven--"
The old Negro nodded eagerly. "Yassuh, boss, I sho seed somebody looked like dat. Thursday evenin' it was, 'long about eleben. We done closed up early 'count of dey weren't hardly no bizness, and I'se walkin' home arter work."
"Where was this, old-timer?" Buck asked quickly.
"Was on Animas Street, suh, dat's where I lives at."
The regulators exchanged meaningful glances. Animas Street was where Pickett's house was located. "Was he with somebody? What was he doin'?" Buck prompted. He'd been hoping for just this kind of break. Ezra's appearance was always so impeccable that he stood out even among the Seven, none of whom was exactly ordinary to look at, and would certainly stand out all the more if he was in the company of anyone who didn't dress as well and neatly as he did. Or if his escort were reasonably well clad but Ezra looked beat-up or ill-used, as he might do after the kind of struggle they had found hints of in the doctor's house, that would also stand out as odd. And a man like the swamper was so very ordinary that most folks would never look at him twice, which could mean that the kidnappers hadn't paid him any mind even if they'd been aware that he was in the vicinity.
The swamper seemed to dwindle a bit, managing to look pitiful and broke, or rather more pitiful and broke than most swampers ordinarily did, and the big man blew out his breath in disgust as he saw that they'd have to fork over if they wanted to hear what he had to say. "Go on, JD, pay the man."
"Pay him yourself, Buck!" the kid snapped.
"Now don't sass your elders, son. Besides, I left my money in my other pants."
"Yeah, and your other pants are in some irate husband's hands, I'll bet," JD grumbled, digging into his pocket and producing a dollar. Holding it up, he saw the hunger in the swamper's eyes and quickly folded his hand over it to prevent its being snatched away. "We ain't buyin' a pig in a poke," he warned. "First you tell us what you saw, then you get the money."
The Negro licked his lips. "Dey was a buckbo'd in front of Dr. Pickett's barn, an' I knows he don't own one," he began. "Dey was a man on de seat, holdin' de reins, an' one a-standin' by holdin' some hosses, an' two mo' a-he'pin' dis gemmun git in de back. I done noticed his hat first, on account it weren't like de ones dey was wearin'--it were like Banker Higgins's top hat, on'y sho'ter."
That's Ezra, JD thought, trying to hide his excitement. Their friend's soft black "riverboat hat" was indeed very similar to the shortened top hats that had been quite the thing among the young dandies of New York a decade ago, only somewhat broader of brim; when JD was beginning work as a stable boy he had often seen the type. "Go on," he prompted.
"He was wearin' a nice coat, too," the swamper obliged, "fitted like, it seemed. De moon was jes' comin' up ober de roof, an' I seed dey was a bruise on de side ob his face, an' fust I figgered dey was a-bringin' him in to see Dr. Pickett, but den I seed dey was gittin' him in de buckbo'd, like I said, not out. I didn' want no trouble so I hid ahint de lilac shrub an' figgered to wait till dey was gone."
"You said there was a man holdin' some saddle horses," Buck remembered. "Was one of 'em a chestnut, fine legs, kind of a lean nervy head, expensive hull?"
"Yassuh, I seed dem hosses good in de moonlight, an' dey was one jus' like dat, sho'. Seemed like he weren't too happy a-bein' wid de rest, he kep' on a-shufflin' back away an' snortin' at 'em."
"That's Gambit," JD agreed. The gambler's horse, like his master, was fastidious in his associations and didn't form attachments easily. He wasn't a biter, like Vin's Peso, but when he was with horses he didn't know, he tended to make it very clear to them that he wanted to be left alone. "So what happened? They got him in the back of this buckboard, and then--?"
"One on 'em clumb up in after him, I couldn' see what he was doin', but I could hear him talkin'. Sounded Southron, but up-country. Couple minutes later he slid out ag'in, pulled a tarp across de back ob de wagon, an' him an' de oder two got on deir hosses an' all rode out wid it. Dat chestnut, he was on a lead, kinda droopy, like he'd been rode hard an' hadn't got de chance to rest up."
"Which way'd they go?" Buck demanded.
"Dey done headed south down Animas till dey got to de co'ner whar de Acme Stable is, an' den dey tu'n west."
"You said the rest of 'em weren't dressed like our friend," said JD. "How were they dressed?"
"Like cowboys, boss. Big hats an' high boots wid spurs an' guns on deir hips."
"Like my partner?" JD prompted, indicating Buck with a tilt of his head.
"Yassuh, I reckon so. Only one ob 'em had a fedder in his hatband, an' de one dat was drivin'--he was a big man, boss, big as you is," he added to Buck-- "he was wearin' dem long ledder cuff bands, wid little bits ob metal patterned all ober 'em. An' one had a Confed'rit fo'age cap on."
"Keep goin', old-timer, you're doin' real good," Buck told him, excited. "Did you see anythin' else that'd help us know 'em if we ran into 'em?"
"De one dat clumb in de wagon," the swamper answered thoughtfully, "he was de only one ob de lot dat had a beard. Two ob 'em, de driver an' de one wid de fo'age cap, had muffstaches, but dis one, he had a beard. Real dark, 'twas, but seemed like dere was a li'l streak of gray in it right nigh de lef' co'ner ob his mouth. Could be dat was de moonlight, but could be not. He weren't so tall as you is, but mighty lean an' lank, like a houn' dog." He thought for a minute, clearly not an easy process, but apparently he was determined to give his interrogators their money's worth. "Dat's all I 'members fo' certain, boss."
"That's all right," Buck assured him, as JD handed over the dollar. "You done real good, and we got a hell of a lot more'n we had before."
The old man grinned, showing several missing teeth, before he stowed his silver bounty somewhere in his unkempt clothes and scuttled off to continue his work.
The three regulators circulated a thoughtful look. "They must'a wanted to get him well out of town without anybody gettin' a look at him," Buck mused after a moment. "So they put him in this buckboard and covered up the back real good, and took Gambit along so they could transfer him to the saddle once they'd gone a ways. But they headed west. That sounds like they were makin' for the caves."
"Reckon it does," Vin agreed, not sounding as if he liked the idea. "Iffen they'd been wantin' to take him to Romeo, not knowin' they'd been spotted, they'd likest gone north."
Wilmington nodded. "No need to throw people off your trail if you don't realize they were there to begin with. Okay, let's look at the map again. A buckboard can go 'most anywhere, but they'll make better time if they don't keep it. Four's a good number to flank a prisoner; I seen it done in the War. Most likely they'll stop somewheres along the way and pay some kid or cowhand to return the buckboard to wherever it belongs, while they go on with Ez."
"No point leavin' now," Vin decided. "We wouldn't get but maybe ten mile afore we had to stop and camp. Better to get some sleep and start out early in the mornin'."
"We'll find 'em," Buck declared, and it seemed to JD that he suddenly looked focused and dangerous as the kid had seldom seen him. He had an air of confidence and strength that made clear his deep devotion to the safety and well-being of his missing friend. Buck didn't often let his rambunctious joker-mask slip. When he did, you suddenly appreciated him for what he was--a man to whom loyalty was the supreme human virtue, who lived for and with it, who defined it within himself. Once Buck accepted you into his world, you could depend on him forever. Even if you thought you didn't want him, as Chris had discovered.
For the first time in over twenty-four hours JD suddenly felt confident that they really would get Ezra back. The gambler's abductors might well have checked him out, but still they didn't understand what they were dealing with, what they had crossed. You hang on, Ezra, he thought. We're comin'. We won't let you down. Not this time. You'll see. We'll make it up to you--for all of what happened with your saloon, we'll make it up.
Ezra leaned against the windowsill of his prison and considered his situation. Today was, according to his best guess, Wednesday, exactly one week since the false telegram had reached him, six days since he had ridden into Trinidad and five since he had been confronted by his nameless captor and made to write a note to his mother. After she had left, the bearded man she called Cole had marched Ezra out to his waiting horse, and in the midst of a cordon of four the Southerner had been taken across the range until they picked up a creek, which they followed to its junction with the Walsenburg road. They had made camp just off the trail, each of the four men taking a two-hour trick at guarding the prisoner, whom they kept unobtrusively bound except while he ate. In the morning they moved on again, passing through Walsenburg after about two or three hours. Ezra recognized it: he had come down this way last year, on his way from Denver to his fateful encounter in Four Corners. He had even stayed over a few nights in the town, working the saloons in an effort to replenish his depleted purse. It was a fairly new town, having been laid out in '73 and named after a German named Fred Walsen, a pioneer businessman who had settled there three years before. Walsen had also opened the first coal mine just west of the town in '76, and the deposits, like those of Trinidad, contributed mightily to its prosperity. The town was located on an irregular plateau broken by numerous narrow fertile valleys in the east, rising to the Culebra Range of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the west, wherein lay La Veta Pass, the gateway to the San Luis Valley, and the Spanish Peaks on the south, a cluster of snow-capped summits rising from a background of lower hills, which could be clearly seen from its streets.
It was Saturday, and the town was already filling up with the once-a-week farmers and ranch people in off the outlying properties; in the crowds no one seemed to notice the little party as it passed through. Just out of town Ezra's escort struck off to the northwest along a lesser travelled but still plainly marked road, where downbound coal wagons rumbled past them behind long teams of mules, and upbound empties clattered back toward the mines that owned them. Once a stagecoach thundered by on its way to Walsenburg and the railroad. Freight caravans, too, worked their way along the trail, and riders singly and in groups jogged along, passing the slower vehicles handily. No one seemed to think it odd that a party of five should be taking the northward trail even if one of its members did look so unlike those with whom he rode. The escort kept close enough to Ezra so that no one would be able to get a clear look at his bound hands, though probably if anyone had they could have claimed they were a posse returning a fugitive to the scene of his crime. Ezra had no intention of testing their creativity or their resolve by drawing attention to himself. There were just too many innocent passers-by whose safety might be threatened if someone started shooting.
They passed the mouth of the Huerfano Valley and crossed the river, then wound their way upward through rough hilly country, skirting the southern edge of the Wet Mountains, the most prominent peak of which was Greenhorn Mountain, visible off to the northeast of the road. They set a steady but not punishing pace as the trail wound steadily higher, passing by squat Gardner Cone and the dark neighboring groves of piñon pine, picking up Big Muddy Creek and following its winding course through the wild broken country until they camped, high up, at Promontory Divide. The scenery was breathtaking, with a lofty overview of the Huerfano drainage to the south and the Arkansas and its tributaries to the north, and the Sangro de Cristos rising directly to the west. Despite the season the night was cold, and Ezra was thankful for his excellent blankets. He gave some thought to attempting an escape, but decided against it. Though it would have been hard for his escort to follow Gambit's tracks on the well-used trail, they would certainly guess that he would lay a course for Walsenburg, simply because he would know what to anticipate by going back over the route he'd just covered. In any case, they were still too alert. He wondered what they were getting out of this. None of them looked like a professional gunman to him; tough men and savvy enough, but not killers in the sense of those with whom he had dealt as a peacekeeper. They spoke to him only when necessary, and little more among themselves, perhaps not wanting to risk his overhearing anything he might turn to his advantage. He did notice the brands on their horses--all different, which suggested that they were personal mounts. He had learned a fair amount about reading brands during his time in Four Corners, but the one on the pack horse that carried the camp outfit and food he couldn't decipher. It was a distinctive, if puzzling, mark which rather resembled a triangle standing on one point, with a V-shape centered on each of its planes. He memorized it, as he did the others. Perhaps Buck or Vin would know how to read it if it were drawn for them.
On the second morning they moved on, descending into Wet Mountain Valley and picking up Grape Creek, which they followed for several hours. The valley was a pleasant and fertile place, with subsidiary roads winding off across it, leading to ranchhouses and mining camps. The coal wagons were no longer seen, but traffic remained busy. Once they passed a signboard, pointing off to the east, that read Silver Cliff, 2 miles. Ezra remembered visiting the place, though he'd approached it from the opposite direction; it was said to be the richest of the many mineral towns between the Front Range and the Sangre de Cristos.
Around midday his escort turned off the main road and struck northwestward along a narrower, lesser-used trail. Ezra could make out the broad gashes left in its surface by the tires of freight wagons, but no sign of stagecoaches. The trail bent sharply toward the mountains, climbing steeply. The Southerner guessed they had followed it about ten miles when it abruptly widened out to become the main street of a town. At first he felt a shiver of familiarity as he observed the shabby condition of most of the buildings and the fact that fully half of them were boarded up, crumbling, or both. It was higher than Four Corners, more circumscribed by the mountains pressing in on either side of its gulch, but there was an air about it that suggested the town as it had been before the Seven came in and took hold. More, Ezra sensed a furtiveness about many of the people who moved along its broken boardwalks or scurried across its street. It was as if they were trying to keep from being noticed--even the women and children, who were few enough in any case.
Ezra's escort pulled up in front of a small, squat, square, one-storey building of heavy log construction, with a high false front and barred windows. A lean, hard-eyed man with a six-pointed plated-brass star pinned to his open elkhide vest stood from the barrel chair under the awning as they approached. He wore a U. S. Cavalry gunbelt with a high-riding twist-hand holster, and under his sack-cut brown woollen jacket Ezra could make out the bulge of a backup gun in a spring holster beneath his left arm. The brim of his dull black hat was rolled to a point in front and pulled down close over his brow and eyes, and with his drooping, shaggy crescent of mustache it gave him a somewhat sinister look, but it was the eyes themselves that confirmed these hints. They were brown, and not the warm friendly brown mostly seen, but a hard brown, like old briar roots, with black, pin-sharp pupils--keen umber eyes that flicked over the full length of the street before they settled on Cole. "Well," he said, "I see you got him. He don't look like so much."
"He rides with Chris Larabee," Cole retorted, "and that makes him worth watchin'. You got them keys?"
The sheriff, since that was plainly what he was, reached into a coat pocket and pulled out a key ring, which he flipped overhand at the bearded man. Cole snapped it expertly out of mid-air. "Everything's set up like we agreed," the lawman said. "You remember where to go?"
Cole snorted. "Let's go, boys," he said, and turned his buckskin gelding away from the curb.
The sheriff's first words had made it abundantly clear to Ezra that he could look for no help here. The gambler wondered, for a moment, how the lawman had been recruited into this scheme, whatever it was. Then, as the horses moved on up the street, he caught sight of a faded sign swinging by one corner above one of the planked-up buildings: Romeo Transcript.
So that is where I am, he realized. He had never been here--had never entertained the idea of visiting, not even on his way south last year; he had heard enough about the place to know that it would have little money to offer, and far too many chances of getting shot. Romeo had been one of the first camps to be established in this part of Colorado, as hopefuls fanned out from Cañon City, twenty miles east, to prospect the nearby mountains. Colorado wasn't a region where the miner with no capital could prosper: the richer deposits lay in quartz lodes, requiring heavy machinery and a large financial outlay to reach and reduce. Gold had been found near the site of Romeo in 1861, and like Oro City before it, the town rose, roared, and died to a standstill, all within five years, not because colors weren't there, but because of the increasing difficulty of extracting the metal from its ore. A few small operations hung on, and placer mining continued feebly, but unlike the diggings around Denver, Idaho Springs, and Gregory Gulch, there wasn't enough to attract the big investors. From a population of several thousand Romeo lapsed back to just a few hundred, and it probably would have gone back to the earth from whence it had sprung if it hadn't been discovered by the outlaw element. Located within a reasonable ride of Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Cañon City, Walsenburg, the well-travelled roads that linked them, and the steadily increasing ranches that surrounded them, it provided a handy retreat for anyone interested in raiding them, while the mountains crowded about offered dozens of caves, worked-out mines, and abandoned shacks and cabins easily convertible to long-term hideouts, and obscure little back-country trails provided short cuts over the ranges that could be utilized if a downcountry posse pressed too close. Too barren itself for widespread ranching, it was poor country, spare on worthwhile population, but dense with the impermanent kind, the ones that made Romeo intolerable for decent folk. Most of the latter had filtered out as the mines closed down, but there were still enough hopefuls hanging on to provide goods and services for the outlaws, and once the latter had begun coming in, with their free-spending habits, the remaining inhabitants were as hopelessly hooked as any laudanum addict.
A high and inaccessible mountain country means hideouts, hideouts mean riffraff, riffraff means graft money and graft money means crooked lawmen. The wild bunch soon came to know they could lay over in Romeo, get a drink and a meal, a room if they wanted it, a fresh horse if theirs were played out. They paid well, and the remaining citizens came to depend on them, as once they had depended on the mines. In return for the protection the town provided them, they held up their end, dealing for the most part fairly with the locals and refraining from causing trouble. If they didn't have the money on them, they got it and sent it back. A Romeo stable owner could ask $100 boot for any horse in his corral and he'd have it in a week. It was said that Severin Larousse did a good business that way with his hotel and saloon. Ludwig Heisler wasn't doing too badly with his store, either. The sheriff left them alone, unless they crossed the invisible line of behavior, and Judge Willis, the local JP, was supposedly buying stolen money from them at fifty cents on the dollar, then sending it to California where it could be safely put into circulation. It was a no-questions-asked town, and the fact that Sheriff Daly had had a name as a considerable town-tamer in his younger days kept it surprisingly orderly: the man might take his bite of graft, but he hadn't lost his speed or his grit, and the few early comers who tried to test him didn't get a second chance.
Ezra's escort took him about halfway up the main street, turned into an alley that transformed into a narrow subsidiary gulch, and followed that as it climbed, pinching inward, to a stand of spruce in which nestled a two-room cabin of thick logs with dried-mud chinking, a roof shingled roughly with hand-split shakes, hewn-oak floors, and a rude ceiling of rough-hewn boards forming a kind of loft, to which a ladder of two aspen saplings, pegged to the wall logs of the front room with braces between for rungs, provided access. The back room had a bright new hasp and padlock on its door, and a three-by-three-foot window to provide light and air. There were two beds, each consisting of a cornshuck mattress laid over a couple of squared-up cowhides two feet off the floor, laced together and stretched tight inside a pole frame built into one corner of the room. A heavy staple had been hammered into the wall just above the foot of one of these, and from it ran a long chain with a shackle cuff on the end. Ezra's captors clinched the cuff around his left ankle, snapped it shut and clicked a small, sturdy lock into place. They then shut the door and left him alone. An hour or so later his saddlebags and gear, both very obviously thoroughly searched, were brought in and returned to him. He had been here ever since.
He found his captivity light, except for its being captivity. No attempt had been made to abuse him. The bed was surprisingly comfortable, and with his own bedroll to complete it not unbearable. There was a gray enamel chamber pail underneath it--cheap, but adequate--and a folding field table and camp stool. He was provided with a lamp, water, all the food he wanted. He was even allowed to have his own razor once a day, though he was required to slide it out under the door after using it, on pain of getting nothing to eat until he did. He had his deck of cards, and someone had thought to leave him a pile of illustrated papers and a couple of dozen assorted inexpensive book reprints, including The Count of Monte Cristo, Bulwer-Lytton, Shakespeare, collections of Tennyson and Poe, and even some Scott. Between these and the dozens of variations he knew on solitaire, he was in no danger of losing his mind from boredom, and since he had no such difficulty with confinement as Vin Tanner did, he didn't really miss his liberty. His chain was long enough that he could reach the window--a casement--and open it if he wanted some fresh air; he just couldn't go through it and hope to get very far as long as the shackle remained in place.
Not that it must, he told himself, fondling the lapel of his waistcoat and finding the barely distinguishable shape of the lockpick sewn inside it. He knew he could have the cuff off his ankle in two minutes or less, whenever he wanted to remove it. But there would then be the question of either scrambling out the window and risking being seen if one of his captors happened to be in the right place, or breaking out by the door and getting past the quartet and across the outer room. And the proximity of Romeo and Sheriff Daly was another consideration. Obviously Cole or his employer had made some arrangement with the fallen lawman, and if Daly were to see Ezra riding around at large there was no telling what he would do.
No, it was better to wait. Let them think he had resigned himself to his fate, whatever they planned for it to be; they might go off guard, or he might see a better way of regaining his liberty. He had time. He was sure the mysterious redheaded woman knew where Maude was--in Cheyenne, the last he'd heard from her; with no telegraph or stagecoach servicing Romeo, just private Jackass Mail, contact would be slow. In any case, whatever they wanted from his mother, it would take some time to get it; even money--she'd have to telegraph her bank in St. Louis and wait for a draft to reach her. And she might not be sufficiently liquid to do that right away, depending on the amount they demanded. Though he had to wonder why, of all possible marks in the world, they had selected her. Why not kidnap the wife or child of some wealthy local figure--a banker, a rancher? Why choose as their pawn a financially insecure gambler who wasn't always on the best of terms with his only remaining parent?
As soon as he had recovered from the shock of realizing just how ruthless the woman was who had ordered him seized, his mind had gone into full self-preservation mode as he worked to fabricate a way of extricating himself from his precarious situation. It never occurred to him to think that his associates might come looking for him. Why should they think he might be in any danger? Cole's employer had provided a perfect excuse for his extended absence from Four Corners by the telegram she had sent--or caused to have sent; not even Chris Larabee would be surprised if Ezra were forced to stay away for another week or more. He could count on no assistance from that quarter, he was sure. In any case, his recent experience suggested to him that he might be able to depend on them in a gunfight, but not in a personal difficulty such as this. They had left him to rise or fall by his own efforts once before, why not now? Perhaps, in the end, Mother was right after all, and one could depend only on oneself. Discipline and self-control, wit and judgment. The necessities of life as he had lived it, the things he had only rarely allowed himself to corrupt with alcohol--or anything else, including personal emotion. Without them he would never have stayed alive this long. They would get him out of this too. It was just as he remembered telling himself that Christmas in New Orleans a decade ago: his fortune, his future, and his well-being were of no concern to anyone but Ezra Patrick Standish. Never had been, never would be.
Maybe the others didn't even miss him. That wouldn't be at all strange to him. He was used to it, after all. It wasn't as if his life had ever provided him with a great deal of support or sympathy from other people. He honestly doubted that there was anyone he had met, in the first thirty-two years of his life, who ever stopped to wonder, Whatever became of Ezra, in the end? He had lived most of his life knowing that he was of less consequence in the lives of those around him than a pebble tossed into a pool, and that he wouldn't be missed when he left; one uncle had gone so far as to say that his life was utterly worthless and that no one would ever want him. Indeed he actually had many more pleasant memories of chance-met strangers, people who had spoken kindly to him on train or boat, made sure he got something to eat and arrived safely at his destination, like one elderly lady who saw his solitude and gave him comfort, saying that he reminded her of her own grandson. Man and boy, he hardly seemed to be welcome anywhere. Part of it was, of course, his professions, but even before he took them up, he had often wondered, as a boy, why no one seemed to like him. What terrible fatal flaw did he possess that made them all accept him so resignedly and see him off without a tear?
His memories of his father were incomplete at best, but warm and positive, a frequent source of comfort in his lonelier moments. He knew the man's name and had a dim mental picture of chestnut hair like his own, hazel eyes and ivory skin, slender hands at once graceful and strong clasping him firmly around the waist as he stood on the rail of a river steamer and stared at the turning paddlewheel and the rhythmically pumping walking beam in fascination. He remembered the dried-apple smell of his cigars, the aroma of Macassar oil, Rowland's essence of Tyre, Old West India bay water and Henry's Chinese shaving cream, fine liquor and the excellent leather of his wallet and cigar case; remembered the dashing swirl of a cape, the subtle wink of jewelry, the flash of gold on the head of his walking stick. He remembered being lifted onto the saddle of his first pony--he must have been about four at the time; remembered trotting alongside a pair of legs clad in tight fawn trousers strapped under the wearer's insteps, while a warm hand enclosed his own and people swarmed all around them--where had that been? New Orleans? St. Louis? Chicago?; remembered being boosted up onto the man's shoulders and held there while his father ran, helping him get an immense Chinese kite aloft; remembered a voice reading to him, or sometimes singing in a rich tenor; remembered sitting on his father's lap, feeling the texture of his broadcloth Prince Albert coat, crimson velour waistcoat and soft white silk shirt, learning how to finger the keys of a piano; remembered being taught to shuffle and cut and to memorize the precedence of the winning hands at poker and the odds of being dealt them or drawing to them. He had a vague recollection of snuggling under an elegant blue plush lap robe and sleepily watching the shining rumps of a pair of matched black horses in silver-mounted harness, aware of a man's comforting body beside him supporting his drooping head. He remembered shouts and laughter and a cascade of parcels that turned out to be full of wonderful toys--tin trains, a shiny sword with a scabbard and soldier's belt, a regiment of colorful lithographed cardboard soldiers, a patent top that made music like an organ when it spun, a ball and bat--and a huge rocking horse, too big to be wrapped, clutched under the man's arm. And then, suddenly, Father wasn't there any more, and Mother didn't speak of him or display his picture.
Looking back from an adult persepective, Ezra had come to understand that the somewhat dubious way in which he had been received by his various relatives was no reflection on him. It was more an expression of their astonishment and disapproval at his mother's chosen manner of conducting her life after Father was gone. Family had always been central to the Southern value system: kinship was power, and the obligations of kinship were carefully tracked. And when a Southerner took the trouble to pack a trunk and travel twenty miles for a visit, that visit seldom lasted less than a month, and usually much longer. Southerners, particularly the upper classes, were enthusiastic visitors and hosts: visitors added excitement and variety to the slow-moving routine and were therefore always welcome. They presented no practical problems of accomodation, for houses were large, servants numerous, and, in that land of plenty, the feeding of extra mouths a minor matter. There was nothing unusual in relatives coming to spend the Christmas holidays and remaining till July; in newly married couples, on the usual round of honeymoon visits, lingering in some pleasant home till the birth of their second child; in elderly aunts and uncles coming to Sunday dinner and staying on till they were buried years later. All ages and sexes went visiting: honeymooners, young mothers showing off new babies, convalescents, the bereaved, girls whose parents were anxious to remove them from the perils of unwise romances, and girls who'd reached the danger age without becoming engaged and who, it was hoped, would make suitable matches under the guidance of relatives in other places. Because the mails were slow, it was customary for most visitors--who were of course always family members, however remote, or closest friends--to arrive both uninvited and unannounced, catching their hosts by complete surprise. And since travel was by horse and carriage, over mainly unpaved roads, they didn't just drop by for the afternoon. They came to stay for days or even weeks, prepared to be entertained at parties and picnics and parlor games. All of this was part of the fun of visiting and having visitors. Whole families--sometimes three or four of them at a time--would arrive at a plantation house with their carriages and servants and often remain for weeks, sleeping on sofas all over the house and amusing themselves with billiards, piquet, and loo, riding about the grounds in the morning, shooting larks and partridges, breaking colts with the sons of the house, and discussing dogs, horses, guns, and duels. Horseracing and horse-breeding were constant themes of conversation, while the serious talk of the older men often dealt with law and agriculture, the virtues of the different kinds of plows, and the raising of Indian corn--and especially politics, the affairs of the county, the state, and the nation. As in all other things, the middle class copied the planter's customs to the best of its ability, and even the Scotch-Irish frontier-dweller was ready to hospitably welcome passers-by (to say nothing of relatives, who in his clan-oriented view were perhaps even more important than they were to his lowland neighbor) into his humble cabin. Moreover, the man of means was obliged to share good fortune with less well-fixed kinfolk or be severely criticized for Yankeefied tightfistedness. In a section slow to find public means to house the dependent and indigent--asylums, hospitals, poorhouses, rooming houses--the family was the first and often the sole resort. Reliance upon family connections wasn't a sign of weakness, but a necessity. Under the code of gentility, the weak enjoyed the largesse and protection of the strong, against the public will if need be. It was much more dignified for a widowed distant cousin to accept an invitation for a "visit" that lasted over a year than to request a handout. One never knew when misfortune might descend. A widow such as Maude would have been completely within her rights to choose some congenial relation, or perhaps a succession of them, with whom to make a home for herself and her son, and whoever she selected would have accepted both of them without a moment's hesitation, though he, or they, would have called them "houseguests" or "visitors" rather than thinking of them as dependents or charity cases; families always made room gladly for indigent or unmarried female relatives especially. Instead, she had elected to inflict Ezra on a succession of families while she scandalously went out into the rough world of men, competing with them, being exposed to insult and gossip--which was emphatically not what a Southern lady did; if in hard times or widowhood she was so unfortunate as to be compelled to "make a little money to assist her family," she did it in a quiet, womanly way, keeping herself at home in the process: baking, sewing, painting china, doing millinery, plaiting straw hats, keeping bees or boarders, teaching school, giving music lessons, raising flowers or vegetables for sale, running a dairy or her husband's farm or plantation until her sons were of age to take over, all of which were perfectly respectable.
As for the relatives--at least the ones on Maude's side--they would take in her "tainted" child out of duty, but he was never made to feel very loved. Ezra sometimes wondered whether his disapproving kin had had any idea what Maude actually did in that "rough world;" if they did--and given the gossip network and the web of family connections that blanketed the region, he was almost certain that eventually they had--it would only have been one more reason for them to condemn her. They couldn't refuse the obligations laid on them by kinship: in a system where a gentleman would unhesitatingly co-sign a loan or mortgage for another gentleman who wasn't even related to him, they could hardly so neglect a hapless boy. But they could, and did, wonder what sort of "bad blood" Maude possessed and whether it might have been handed on to her son, and that was cause enough for them to keep him at arm's length. He was fed and clothed more than adequately, was given an education and taught the ways of gentlemanly behavior, but his tender young sense of self-worth took a terrific beating. Some of his uncles and aunts were wont to remind him of where he came from, of his mother's fallen state, as punishment when he stepped out of line. Even those who had the decency not to throw the matter in his face tended to look rather askance at him--something he sensed, with the keen perception all children have toward mood and emotion, even though he didn't understand the reason for it--and it eventually becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just like his mother, he was an outsider, seeing what genteel living was and what money could bring, but never quite having either for his own. "Appearances" were all they had.
Of course, Ezra didn't understand this until he was a good bit older. All he knew was that no one seemed to want him (not even his mother), no one was willing to love or accept him, and responsibility for his care was accepted as a matter of honor and obligation, like a financial debt. For half a dozen years he was the perpetual newcomer, stranger, outsider, or all three in whatever household was sheltering him at the moment and whatever school he was attending, and particularly in the latter case, there was always an opportunist or an outright bully--sometimes more than one--ready to make it his business to force the "new kid" to prove himself. That he was slightly too small for his age until he got into his teens, and very bright besides--it was considered "girly" for a boy to like school or anything connected to it, or at least to let on that he did--insured that he made even more tempting a target, and (as he later came to comprehend) often the children of the house had heard their parents talking about his mother's "disgrace" and spread the word among their schoolmates, in part because their own juvenile sense of honor forbade them to challenge him directly, but proxies were acceptable. The experience did teach him to be a scrapper early on, but it also forced him more and more into a self-sufficient, standoffish, reluctant-to-trust mold as he came to the conclusion that anyone he met was out to either get him or use him in some way. Being often outnumbered, he learned to fight dirty, using any weapon or tactic that came to hand, and when he was with his mother--who often dragged him to places inappropriate for a child, like taverns, gaming halls, and even a few of the frontier towns of the day--he picked up some surprising skills. He also learned that it was better to be slow to trust, quick to put himself apart, and careful not to let any weakness show, even among those who claimed to be his friends. Struggling not to show how much he hurt, he covered his aches with airs and a sort of pretended superiority--which, of course, only made him more of an outcast among his peers, though he would never have stooped to admitting that they were such. Most eight-year-olds innocently assume that the world is fair, that everyone is honest and good, that anything is possible; they believe in the power of smiles, hugs, a kind word, truth, justice, peace, dreams, the imagination and mankind. By the time he was eight, Ezra knew that wasn't true, and an unchildish cynicism had become a part of the armor he wore to protect his soft and secret places.
The result was that he very quickly came to think of the concept of "home" as something that had meaning for other people, not for him. Spending much of his childhood as the "odd kid out," constantly being shuffled from place to place, never staying in any of them more than a few months, repeatedly forced to learn new rules and routines and figure out just how to deal with a whole new cast of people, he had little opportunity or incentive to form any real lasting bonds with the relatives who cared for him; indeed, he became, inevitably, insecure, reluctant to make close ties because he knew he would eventually be torn away from the people and scenes he had come to care about, and learned of necessity, in self-defense, to put up walls, to not let himself become attached because he knew he'd have to give it all up in the end. Some of his cousins he quite liked--when he was about ten he had a terrible crush on one of them, an "older woman" of fourteen, named Melanie--but he soon realized that he would never be allowed to stay in one place very long, so he learned to hold his heart to himself and not give affection, knowing it would only lead to hurt when he left, as he inevitably would. He even resisted the unconditional love and acceptance offered by his cousins' pets, because they wouldn't be allowed to go with him--and he avoided developing any fondness for any unattached animal he encountered, because he understood how impractical it would be for him to take it along; not until Gambit had he possessed an animal friend that was his and that he dared to care for. He learned, instead, to take comfort elsewhere. He learned to take full and quick advantage of anything that offered itself, such as lessons in chess, backgammon, riding, or marksmanship, in all of which he became proficient at a young age. He learned to find solace and company in things other than living company: solitary rambles in the woods, swimming, reading, music--a flute or violin cost little money ($2.40 and three dollars, respectively, for the least expensive decent instruments to be had) and was easily tucked into his trunk when he had to move on, and many a Southern gentleman took pride in his ability to play one of these instruments; paper-covered copies of the best books could be had for a quarter apiece. And if Maude was seldom present in the flesh, and erratic in her communications, when she did send pocket money or presents she tended to be very liberal indeed, perhaps because at such times she was flush, and had the habit of living life to the fullest whenever finances permitted, storing up memories, nourishment, and valuables against the lean days of belt-tightening that were certain to follow. Always precocious, Ezra could read at five and was drilling the family pets in Latin conjugation before he was ten. He became intellectually curious and interested in everything, in part because his mother taught him that knowledge, however esoteric, could often be turned to profit. He developed early on a fascination with language and the habit of memorizing a new word out of the dictionary every day; by the time he was twelve he had accumulated almost 2200 of them. It was also at this period in his life that he learned to treasure both solitude and privacy. He acquired the habit of rambling about alone or seeking out quiet, secluded hiding places, sometimes small ones, like unused closets or the seasonal storage in attics, and sometimes high ones, like trees and rooftops; there he would give himself up to thoughts, daydreams, idle mental composition, a book if there was light enough, or--occasionally--memories. And he learned to watch, to analyze, to get a handle quickly on each new person with whom he was presented, because he found that if he did so, he was better able to melt into the background and go unnoticed. It was better not to call attention to himself. Perhaps that was one reason he now favored rich, almost flashy clothing: making up for lost opportunities--though even as a boy, whenever the chance was afforded, he would keep himself neat and clean, concerned about his appearance even if there was no one of consequence to see him.
Ezra had never been able, as a young boy, to understand what there was about him that made others push him away. But as the pattern became clear to him, he had begun to do his own pushing. It saved time, and grief, and pain. Don't let them get close, then it can't hurt when they reject you, or leave you--or you leave. Not until he was ten or eleven, and the habit had become a part of him, did he begin overhearing some of his kin talking about how "if Maude would only come home and beg her father's forgiveness," and even then he was never quite sure what it was they expected her to want to be forgiven for, but it certainly provided some validation for the slurs he had often suffered in the schoolyard. Pushed over and over again into the position of defending her honor and himself (to say nothing of his father's name), he came to feel a certain resentment toward her even as he longed for her love, approval, and acceptance. Why couldn't she just return to the family fold? Then their troubles would be over. At times in their lives, they did have money, whether through successful cons or Maude's several marriages. But it never lasted, and the wolf forever waited at the door. He and Maude were more often than not right on the edge of poverty, or at least led a dicey and uncertain existance. Especially in the early years, they struggled, had to often depend on relatives or Maude's snaring of wealthy men (whether she married them or not), and went through as many hard times as flush--perhaps more. One of her brothers was secretly a soft touch, arranging things for her and her son from time to time, making sure they had a little money whenever possible--somewhat on the order of the British "remittance man," a younger son of a wealthy family who lost the family fortune and position to the eldest under the system of primogeniture and perhaps was a rake or a scoundrel or a disgrace to the family in some way, so that he was basically paid to stay away, and roamed the world, dabbling in this and that, collecting a monthly "remittance" from his family but forever estranged from them--but he could never be relied upon to fully reopen the door to wealth and family. They were still mainly forced to live by Maude's wits, and later, by what Ezra was able to learn and exploit as he grew up. Serious wealth and position and respectability was never within their reach, and not even theirs to marry into. Maude, to this day, struggled to regain the trappings of the genteel life she had left behind. This experience of "exile in disgrace," with the exception of duty assistance and one or two forgiving relatives, went far towards teaching Ezra the lesson that love might be nice, but couldn't be relied upon; that in the end, one was responsible for one's own self, and no one could be counted on to step forward and help a person in a tight spot, be they family or friend or lover. It also taught him the wiles of a chameleon, the ability to adjust to whatever was around him, read it and fit himself in--the strategy of a man who had no choice, rather than that of a man who grew up used to having other folks change to suit his needs. His scrabbling background led naturally to his working hard to pick up many odd talents, from demolition and artillery (personal and full-size) to haberdashery, theatrics, gambling (of many kinds), horse-training, evangelic preaching, and even legalistic maneuverings--but from the bottom up, not the top down. Poise, manners, and language were as much a consequence of that experience as of the effort to seem "plausible" that was part and parcel of con-artistry. Just as his character had inevitably been shaped by an absent father and a domineering mother who frequently abandoned her only son, so his personal fastidiousness was at least partly attributable to a deserved aversion toward being dirty and wearing the same clothes day in and day out. Combined with his rather frugal childhood, it had naturally instilled in him an almost obsessive desire to be well groomed, to have comfortable sleeping arrangements and a variety of well fitting clothes.
He grew up with books, reading himself into other, better places with the romantic novelists of the day, the most popular of whom were Marion Harland, Mary Jane Holmes, Bulwer-Lytton, Dickens, Thackeray, Disraeli, G. P. R. James, Dumas, George Sand, Eugene Sue, James Fenimore Cooper, Joseph Holt Ingraham, Caroline Lee Hentz, Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth, and above all Sir Walter Scott, besides the several Southern novelists indebted to him--George Tucker, John Pendleton Kennedy, William Gilmore Simms, George Frederick Holmes, William Alexander Caruthers, Thomas Holley Chivers, Richard Henry Wilde, Henry Timrod, James Henry Hammond, Hugh Swinton Legaré, and Poe--and the poetry of Campbell, Tom Moore, Felicia Hemans, and the "dark sublime" Lord Byron. He knew Elzevir and Shakespeare, Montaigne and Jeremy Taylor, Bacon, Boyle, Locke, Hooper, the Federalist and other writings of Madison, the works of George Mason, Jefferson, and Calhoun, Elliott's Debates, the Greek and especially the Roman historians, the Letters of Junius, Burke, Longsword's Crysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea, Hawksworth's Almaran and Hammet, and the many Oriental tales of the early century, like Solomon and Almeda and Theodorus and Constantia, as well as Fielding and Sterne, Tristram Shandy, Roderick Random, Don Quixote, Mme. de Sévigné's Letters, a few old French books, and the beloved authors of the days of Queen Anne, especially Steele, Pope, Prior, Defoe, Swift, Johnson, Goldsmith, Godwin, and the cheerful Addison. He browsed through family collections of handsomely bound files of British and Northern quarterly reviews, the debates of Congress, books on geography, astronomy, law, music, history, the ancient and modern classics, travel, natural history, and science, the deist works of Voltaire, Volney, Hume, Gibbon, and Tom Paine's Age of Reason. His relatives saw to it that he knew his Lucretius and Horace, his Sophocles and Homer, as he did Shakespeare, Locke, Addison and Pope. He was also brought up on Scott and Froissart, Malory and Percy, and on Tennyson, the poet whose idylls of the feudal world appealed as deeply to the Southern mind as did the author of Waverley, exhaling as they did the feeling of caste, revelling in traditions of knights and chivalry and the splendor that fell on ivied castle walls. Scott and Tennyson especially expressed the principle of caste which they felt Americans had come on earth to destroy and stood for the personal qualities in which the feudal world excelled; Southerners had a great passion for the Laird of Abbotsford, whose note was loyalty to the soil, to the family, to the clan, who taught loyalty and self-sacrifice, a sense of obligation to one's kinfolk, honor and truth to one's neighbor, chivalry, tenderness, and protection to women, courage and valor in battle, open-handed hospitality, and a sense of responsibility toward those dependent upon one. Many looked upon their region as an actual reincarnation of the literary world created by the Waverley Novels, which inspired tournaments, castellated architecture, a code of honor, and the enshrinement of women. It was good form for Southern gentlemen to place his novels on their library shelves, and for all Southern boys and girls to read them as the great models of life and good breeding. The whole set of his works could be obtained for five dollars in 1845, and if that was too much to afford all at once, you could buy it on the installment plan for twenty-five cents a week. Like many Southerners, Ezra delighted in traditions of knights and chivalry and the splendor that fell on ivied castle walls, and was stirred by the dreams of an earlier age, the days of the wandering knight and the buccaneer, the figures of paladin and paynim, tournament and battle-ax and crossbow; fantasy was safe--in his own little world he had power, and no one dared call him names. He thrilled to Scott's pictures of the feudal castle, the time-worn turret, the feats of warrior knights, the conflicts of the tournaments, the battles against the infidel, often--until cynicism took possession of him--dreaming of himself as a knight or minstrel.
He was taught that a Southern man, who lived on and from the soil, admired and cultivated, not wealth in any form, but individual qualities--strength, courage, capacity, valor, dignity; the traditional openhanded hospitality and genial sociability of the region, the love of outdoor life and its activities, loyalty, the high sense of honor and chivalry, the sporting blood, and the taste for speculation, that had flourished in the region since the Golden Age of Tobacco in the mid-eighteenth century. He must be able to drink without showing any outward effects: a real gentleman must "hold his liquor," and would feel it demeaning to appear drunk in public. He was expected to be gracious, hospitable, decent rather than frigidly moral; never to lie, cheat, or steal; to be considerate to "inferiors" and treat all women as "ladies." He was taught that cards, dice, horseracing, cockfights, any game of chance or skill, along with hunting and sports, were the natural forms of recreation for a Southerner, and that not to play implied cowardice, differentness, a denial of equality of standing, unwholesome and even antisocial behavior. He learned that many planters worked, and worked quite hard, at their business; the trick was to pretend not to--gentlemen didn't sweat. The traditional picture of an indolent South wasn't true of the plantation, or of the society--from yeoman farmer to independent businessman to professional man--which took its example from the planter class. Everyone worked, whatever their sex or color or age. What you never saw was the hurrying pace that kills. Southerners, white and black, cultivated a gift of tranquillity in toil.
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