Notes: This is a sequel to Father and Son. Jen asked for a sequel, nay demanded one, so here it is. If you haven't read the previous story it is probably best to do so before reading this. If not, you'll end up asking Joseph who? Ezra is really the main character but Chris and Buck have supporting roles so I have added them too.
Ezra sat stirring his coffee slowly as Buck entered the saloon behind him. The ladies' man looked at the seemingly preoccupied gambler before heading toward Inez, his long strides sounding loudly on the wooden floor as he did so. He leant one arm on top of the counter and looked back at Ezra thoughtfully.
"Senor Wilmington? What can I get you?" Inez asked.
Buck flinched as his thoughts were interrupted and he answered the woman distractedly and without his usual sass. "Oh hello, darlin'. Just coffee, please."
Inez poured him a cup and the ladies' man smiled in thanks as he pushed himself upright and picked up his drink. He wandered back to Ezra and sat down opposite him before observing his friend's activities for a minute. The gambler appeared to be in a world of his own and totally oblivious to the hustle and bustle going on around him. He was still stirring his coffee like a robot and didn't acknowledge Buck's presence at all. The tall gunman leant back in his chair so that he was balancing on the two back legs as he continued his visual examination of the con man. Finally he lowered his seat back onto all four legs quietly when Ezra still hadn't looked at him. Buck decided it was high time to find out what was wrong.
"You'll make a hole in the bottom of the cup in a minute, pard," he observed dryly.
Ezra jumped and looked up with a puzzled frown. "I beg your pardon?"
Buck pointed at the drink and said, "Yer coffee. You've been stirring it for ages, pard. Somethin' on yer mind?"
"Joseph," was the quiet reply from the gambler, who had dropped his trance-like gaze back to the swirling liquid in front of him.
"Oh," Buck said as he studied his emotionally-brittle friend. "What in particular about him, pard?"
"It'll be the advent of his abduction tomorrow, Bucklin."
"Shit, so it will." Buck now understood the reason for the gambler's erratic behavior during the past week.
"Five years. Five long years. He's the only reason I chose to remain in this hellhole of a town. I prayed that he'd eventually find his way back to me and although I don't believe it will ever happen, it's all I have to cling to." Ezra picked up his drink and took a sip before screwing his face up in distaste. "Cold!"
"Not surprised, pard. Here, have mine," Buck offered kindly as he pushed his cup across and took Ezra's away.
"Thank you, Bucklin." Ezra raised it to his lips and took a sip and then sat with the palms of his hands round the cup as if he were cold.
The ladies' man could have kicked himself for not remembering the date. Ezra's behavior always deteriorated around the anniversary of Joseph's disappearance so Buck really ought to have known what was wrong. The tall gunman promised himself that he would try to help get his friend through the following days unscathed. The gambler was liable to get sloppy and not take care in dangerous situations although Buck knew that that had been the case pretty much from the day Joseph had been taken.
Buck remained silent, sensing that Ezra wasn't in the mood for talking. He stayed with the gambler though, hoping that Ezra at least found some comfort in his presence. After a quiet hour of drinking coffee and staring into space the two men rose and headed outside together. They wandered slowly in the direction of the jail as the stage drew up outside the livery.
"Ez, what's up?" Buck asked as the smaller man came to a sudden stop on the boardwalk and gasped.
"Oh, my God!" was the only reply that the gunman got. Ezra stood rooted to the spot and stared with unblinking intensity at something.
Buck followed the direction that Ezra's eyes were pointing in and saw an elderly lady and a young boy who had just climbed out of the stagecoach. He looked at the boy and thought that he was maybe five years old. Five years old? Jesus, Buck thought to himself. Could it be? He sure looks like a miniature Ezra.
The woman must have felt Ezra's gaze on her because she looked up and stared back at him while tightening her grip on the youngster's shoulder. She bent down and said something to the child and the boy looked at Ezra too. She then began walking toward the two men hesitantly so Buck backed up a step because it was obviously Ezra that she had come to see.
"Mrs. Turner," Ezra stuttered as his eyes remained fixed on the child. He was too shocked at the turn of events to question why Mrs. Turner had returned with Joseph after all these years.
"Is this ..?" Ezra asked, needing confirmation that his dreams had come true. He looked at her fleetingly before dropping his gaze to the child once more as he waited for the answer to his question.
"Yes. He's your son."
"Oh my God," Ezra said again haltingly. He dropped to his knees before the boy and Buck could see the man's jaw clenching as he tried not to cry. Ezra's hands worked over the child from his face down his arms and back up again as if making sure he was real and not a hallucination, which of course he wasn't. He was a living, breathing child and he was back where he belonged.
Why ain't ya ranting and raving at her after what her husband did, Ez? Buck wondered silently. And where is Mr. Turner anyway? His musings about the situation were suddenly interrupted when he heard Ezra sob loudly.
"Joseph. Oh dear Lord, Joseph," Ezra gulped softly as he seemed to break down both physically and emotionally.
Buck could hear Ezra's breathing become increasingly labored and when he took a quick peek at Joseph he could see a frightened look on the child's face. Mrs. Turner appeared slightly perturbed by the gambler's partial collapse as well so the ladies' man turned his attention back to his friend. Buck saw Ezra wobble on his knees and then heard another strangled sob so he dropped down beside the con man hastily.
"Ezra? Are you okay?"
Mrs. Turner put her hand back on Joseph's shoulder and pulled him toward her when she saw Ezra's distress. When the youngster had moved out of the way Buck shuffled round on his knees so that he was now facing Ezra. He got several splinters in his skin as he did so but he didn't even flinch. His attention was focussed entirely on Ezra and nothing else mattered to him. The gambler had his head down so Buck reached up and removed the man's hat and ran his fingers gently through Ezra's hair. The con man looked up as he felt the touch and Buck saw the tears on his friend's face as the shocked man fought hard for breath.
"Ezra? Talk to me, pard. Try and take a deep breath, will ya?" the gunman instructed anxiously.
Ezra continued breathing erratically though, almost panting, while putting a hand to his chest as his heart seemed to falter in its rhythm. The edge of his vision was fuzzy and got increasingly dark as each second passed. He bent forward and closed his eyes as he groaned at the sensations he was experiencing.
Buck looked round worriedly for some help and spotted Nathan just about to enter the clinic. He stood and cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled, "Nathan! Need yer help, pard!"
The healer turned as he heard his name being called but he couldn't see where Buck was. He searched the street back and forth with his eyes but still couldn't locate the mustached gunman. Buck jumped down off the boardwalk and waved his arms in the air to try and gain the man's attention. As soon as Nathan spotted him he ran down the stairs two at a time and sprinted across the street to meet him. He couldn't see what was wrong but he knew that Buck wouldn't have called him without good reason.
"Bucklin? What's wrong? Someone hurt?" he shouted as he drew near.
"It's Ez, pard. He's well, look for yerself," Buck said as he climbed onto the boardwalk and dropped down beside his distressed friend again.
Now he was nearer, Nathan could see the gambler on his knees, swaying back and forth like a rocking horse. A woman and child had previously obscured the con man from Nathan's sight. The healer followed Buck onto the boardwalk and moved the woman gently out of the way so that he had room to work.
"Ezra? How ya feelin'?" the healer asked as he studied the man and took note of his symptoms. The gambler didn't reply, couldn't reply by the look of it, so Nathan looked at Buck and asked, "What happened?"
"Joseph's turned up and Ez got a bit upset."
"What? Joseph? Here?" Nathan stuttered in astonishment. That was the last thing he had expected to hear but it definitely explained Ezra's obvious shock.
Buck turned and pointed to the child whose eyes were glued to his father. Nathan flicked a quick look at him before turning his full attention to Ezra. The gambler was still gasping and had gone very pale as he trembled suddenly and put a hand over his mouth as if he was going to be sick.
"Ezra? Come on, calm down. Ya need to slow yer breathing," the healer instructed as he felt the gambler's pulse and found it pounding away under his finger. The green-eyed man, though, showed no sign whatsoever of hearing what Nathan had just said to him.
"Ez? Sit down on yer butt before you topple over, will ya?" Buck ordered anxiously as he watched his swaying friend. He put out his hands and rearranged the con man's lower limbs with Nathan's aid so that the man could sit properly. They received no help at all from Ezra and the two men had a hard time achieving their aim. Eventually they succeeded but as Buck let go his hold and sat back on his heels, Ezra put his head down suddenly before jolting upright again as if he'd passed out momentarily.
"Ezra?" Nathan said worriedly as he got hold of Ezra's chin and looked into his eyes. "Breathe with me, Ez. Ezra! Listen to my voice," Nathan said loudly as he tried to gain the gambler's attention. He saw Ezra's eyes finally focus on him and the gambler squinted at him in confusion. "Keep looking at me, Ez. Don't look at anyone else. Now, breathe in, nice and slow. Hold it , now let it out slowly. Well done, Ezra. Yer doin' just fine. Okay, breathe in .hold it .breathe out," Nathan said hypnotically.
Ezra followed Nathan's instructions but still felt very dizzy and sick. He felt his son's presence again tugging at his soul so he moved his eyes to look at Joseph instead of Nathan and immediately lost the control that he'd only just begun to regain. His eyes rolled back and he slumped backward, slipping out of Nathan's tenuous grip on his chin. He landed with a muffled thud on the boardwalk and hit his head in the process.
After making a grab for the falling man and missing by a mile, Nathan cursed, "Dammit! Buck? Help me get him upstairs."
"I'll take him, Nate." Buck bent down and lifted Ezra into his arms and set off toward the clinic. He stopped and looked back at Mrs. Turner and studied her as he turned things over in his mind. "Would you like to come?" he finally asked the woman.
Mrs. Turner shook her head but smiled gratefully. "Best not. We'll give him some time to get used to Joseph being here. I'm sorry for upsetting him. Perhaps I should have said we were coming." The woman looked down at Joseph and then up again as she said, "I can't understand why he didn't yell at me after what Abraham did. I expected a somewhat cooler welcome."
"Give him time. You may yet get one when he's back to his senses," Buck said wryly. "I'll come and get you later then when he's feelin' better."
Buck started moving again and Nathan hurried to catch up after retrieving Ezra's hat from the boardwalk. As the ladies' man began climbing carefully up the clinic stairs he heard Chris call his name.
"Bucklin? Is Ez hurt?" the blond asked anxiously.
"Come on up and I'll explain, pard."
The blond hurried up the stairs behind his friends and watched as the gambler was laid gently on the bed so that Nathan could continue with his examination. Buck turned and put a hand on Chris's shoulder, wondering how he'd take the news. Since Joseph's disappearance, Ezra and Chris had become very close and the blond had been with Ezra every step of the way through his struggle to come to terms with his loss. Chris had grown very fond of Joseph in the time that the boy had been with Ezra five years before and the gunfighter had mourned his loss along with the con man.
"P'raps you'd better sit down, pard," Buck suggested. "Yer in for a shock." Chris shook his head impatiently so the ladies' man shrugged and said, "Joseph's here. Turned up on the stage with Mrs. Turner. Ezra seemed okay to start with but then couldn't catch his breath and he passed out, hitting his head as he fell."
"Jesus! Joseph's here?" the blond said faintly in disbelief. Think maybe I'll join Ezra in passing out, the blond thought as he sat down slowly in a chair. No wonder Ezra felt sick when confronted by his son after all these years. "Where is he now?" Chris asked out loud, once he'd gotten his own breathing back in control.
"Don't know. I said I'd find them later when Ez had recovered."
"I'll go look for them. I wanna word with her," the blond said in a determined fashion.
Buck clamped a tight hand on the gunfighter's shoulder and held him down in the chair. "No, Chris! Ez should be the one to talk to her first. You shouldn't interfere yet, pard."
"Okay. S'pose yer right. Didn't you feel like saying anything to her when you met her, Bucklin?" Chris asked as the tall man released his grip.
Buck shrugged and raised his eyebrows momentarily. "Sure I did but it weren't my place to speak to her so I held my tongue, pard. Wouldn't have wanted to say anything in front of Joseph anyway. He was scared enough by events as it was without me getting angry. He's the innocent one in all of this, ain't he?" Buck pointed out. "Besides, I had other more pressing matters to attend to what with Ez being taken bad and all."
"Yes, 'course you did." Chris turned to the healer anxiously. "Is Ez gonna be alright, Nate?"
"Hopefully," the medic said from the bed. "His breathing seems to have eased and he's gotten more color in his cheeks. The bang on his head don't seem serious although he landed heavily when he fell. He was just real shocked and upset by events, I reckon."
The gambler stirred as Nathan checked his pulse and the healer helped him into a half-sitting position as he put some pillows at his back for comfort.
"Hey Ez. Take it easy. How do you feel? Any better?"
"I just dreamt about Joseph. He was here," the gambler sobbed as he covered his mouth with the palm of his right hand. "Right here in town," he mumbled through his fingers.
Nathan sat beside him and smiled. "No Ez, it weren't a dream. He's really here. You passed out after seeing him. Do you remember?"
"He's here?" Ezra asked in confusion as he frowned and dropped his hand back to the bedcovers. After a few minutes silence, his face finally cleared and he said, "Yes, I remember now. It all came as a bit of a shock. I couldn't believe it and it literally took my breath away. Mr. Wilmington and I had only been talking about Joseph this morning and then suddenly there he was right in front of my eyes. I touched him to make sure he was real and then I felt as if my heart was going to stop. It was as if someone had it in their hand and was squeezing it tightly."
"Well, yer looking better, pard," Buck said as he too sat on the bed. "I tell ya I nearly crapped my pants when I realized who he was."
"You and me both, Mr. Wilmington. I could quite easily have soiled my underwear but lucky for you I didn't," Ezra said with a weak smile. "Where is Joseph now?"
"Still in town," Buck said, without adding the 'I hope' that had followed the statement in his head. "Shall I get them? S'pect you've gotten a lot of questions for Mrs. Turner."
"I know I've been waiting a long time for this day but now it's here I'm a trifle unsure of what to do. Can you make sure they're still around? I don't want them to disappear again. I am aware that I frightened Joseph earlier with my antics and I wouldn't want to exacerbate matters by seeing him before I'm ready and passing out again. I still feel a bit dizzy but I want to see them when I feel more human. I have so many thoughts in my mind at the moment I fear I might become tongue-tied."
" You? That's hardly likely, pard." Buck smiled before saying, "I can't understand how you kept yer cool this morning though, pard. I thought you'd have gone for her throat on first sight."
"I suppose because it was Mrs. Turner and not Abraham who came with Joseph my chivalrous nature came to the fore. I don't think I've ever been rude to a female before, expect Maude of course. If Belle's father had been there, I'm afraid I may have shot first and asked questions later but I wouldn't have wanted Joseph's first sight of his father being one of shooting or shouting at one of his grandparents. He must love them after all, even if I don't. Seeing that sort of behavior from me would have turned him against me quicker than anything, wouldn't it? Anyway, I was too flabbergasted at seeing him to even think about questioning why they'd come."
The blond gunfighter reached out a hand and patted Ezra's shoulder. "I'll look for them if you like, Ez," Chris offered. "Do you mind if I have a word with Mrs. Turner?"
"Don't scare them away will you, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked anxiously, knowing how badly the man had been affected by Joseph's disappearance as well. "I don't want to lose him again now they've made the effort to come back."
"I'll be tactful, Ez. Get some rest and I'll come back and see you after I've seen them."
Chris walked out of the clinic and went in search of Mrs. Turner. He checked the hotel first and saw who he thought might be her there with a young boy who looked just like a younger version of Ezra. Before introducing himself he went back outside onto the boardwalk and looked up and down the street. He saw Billy entering the Clarion Office so the blond set off in that direction but frowned when he walked inside and found Mary on her own.
"Mary? Is Billy here?"
"Yes. Do you want him?" the beautiful woman asked with a broad, welcoming smile.
"Yeah, I need him for a bit if that's alright."
"Billy? Chris needs you."
The youngster appeared in the doorway and smiled at the blond.
Chris walked forward and placed a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Hey Billy. Can you help me out? Do you remember Joseph, Ezra's son?"
"Yes," the boy said in confusion as he looked at his mother quickly.
"Well, he's in town with his grandmother."
"Chris!" Mary said in astonishment as she stopped working. "How did Ezra react?"
"I didn't see him meet them but he's in the clinic after passing out and hitting his head. He was a bit shocked by all accounts and had trouble breathing."
"Is he alright?" the blonde asked worriedly while wiping her inky hands on a cloth.
"Will be but he's understandably in a bit of a state at the moment." Chris turned back to Billy and smiled at him. "Anyway Billy, can you take Joseph and show him round town while I talk to Mrs. Turner?"
"Sure, I'll look after him," the boy agreed and nodded vigorously.
"Great. Come on then." Chris increased his grip on the boy's shoulder and led him across to the hotel. He approached the older lady and waited until she looked up at him curiously. "Mrs. Turner? My name's Chris Larabee and I'm a friend of Ezra's. Can I have a word?"
"Of course," the woman agreed apprehensively as she studied the tough, grim-looking gunfighter.
"Perhaps Joseph would like to have a look around town. This is Billy Travis and he's volunteered his services if you're agreeable."
"Off you go, Joseph. Have fun but behave, won't you dear?" the woman cautioned.
Billy held out his hand and the younger boy took it after first looking at his grandmother questioningly. The older boy smiled encouragingly at the child when he transferred his gaze back to him. He then pulled Joseph gently toward the door so that the adults could be left to discuss matters in peace.
Chris waited until the two youngsters had gone before turning back to the woman and sitting down at the table. "I guess you must know what I'm gonna ask. Just tell me why you took him away from Ezra?"
"My husband told me that both my daughter and Ezra were dead and I had no reason to doubt him. I only found out the truth when Joseph was looking through Abraham's belongings after his funeral and found a newspaper article about it all. He said, Look Grandma. Someone with the same name as me. I read the article and felt so ashamed about what we'd done. I really can't imagine how Ezra has been feeling all these years," the woman admitted. "My husband had kept quite a few things to do with Joseph's disappearance. I found a wanted poster and another newspaper article about Ezra saving a child's life in a fire last year while nearly losing his own life in the process. He seemed to be keeping tabs on Ezra's life from afar."
Chris digested the news that Abraham was dead before giving her an insight into just how badly Ezra had been affected by her husband's actions. He tried to remain calm and not let his anger get the better of him as he talked. "Yeah, well since Joseph was taken he ain't given a damn about his own welfare. That fire was just one example in a catalog of many. He took awful risks in most things that he did. So much so that he became a liability to us occasionally. He didn't care if he was killed because without Joseph he felt he had nothing to live for. It's like he's had a hole in his soul since his son was taken so you're real lucky that he's still alive to bring Joseph back to. I know all about how he's been feeling. My son and wife were murdered but at least there's a finality with murder. I knew they weren't ever coming back but with Ez it's been like a kinda long drawn-out torture. Always wondering how Joseph was, where he was even," Chris said before really getting down to business. "Why bring Joseph back now? You coulda just kept him and no-one woulda known."
"Well, I couldn't keep him, could I? Not after knowing that Ezra was still alive. Anyway, I'm not as young as I used to be and .. ."
Chris snarled angrily and interrupted as he lost his tenuous grip on his fury, "Oh, so you want Ezra to care for him when it suits you? That's a bit rich, ain't it? You really hurt him and denied him his rights all those years ago. How dare you just turn up like this and expect the slate to be wiped clean."
"It was my husband, not me. I'm sorry," the woman stuttered as she bit her bottom lip anxiously.
" Sorry, don't cut it. The man you saw today ain't the same man that took Joseph into his life when Belle died. Ezra was always so happy and full of fun but when Joseph was taken, it broke him. The light went out of his eyes that day and I don't think I've ever seen him laugh since. Sorry don't come anywhere close to good enough for what was done to him." Chris hated shouting at the woman but as Mr. Turner wasn't around to vent his anger on, his wife was taking the brunt of it instead.
"I told you that I didn't know he was still alive. If I'd known, I'd have made my husband take Joseph back but Abraham had always been so set against Ezra that he probably wouldn't have seen sense anyway. I never had much control over him and even let him drive Belle away with his obsessive behavior," the woman sobbed.
Chris softened his tone slightly, knowing what it was like to lose a child, no matter their age, but there was still a sharp edge to his voice. "Your daughter's buried here in town. Did you know that? As well as hoping Joseph would come home, Ezra stayed here in town so he could be close to her. He visits her every day and has tried never to miss a day since they buried her. Even gone when he was sick and usually made himself sicker by doin' so, but he adored her. You've misjudged him badly."
"Yes, I can see that now," the woman agreed as she wiped her eyes with a lacy handkerchief, which she pulled from her bag.
+ + + + + + +
Back in the clinic, Ezra was still trying to sift through his emotions. "Buck? Am I being stupid?"
"What more than usual ya mean?" the ladies' man laughed as he patted Ezra's leg.
" Bucklin, " the gambler complained. "What I meant was, after all the years I've been waiting for Joseph, I now can't face him. Why? "
"Well, you never expected him to come back, did you? S'pose you'd resigned yerself to that but now he's here and it's been a bit of a bolt from the blue. Sorta like someone coming back from the grave," the ladies' man said as he took up position on the bed next to Ezra with his back against the headboard. He stretched his long legs down the mattress and crossed them at the ankle with a contented sigh.
The gambler nodded in agreement. "What do I say to him? I used to know exactly what I was going to say but my mind is empty now and I cannot recall a single thing."
Buck was silent for a short time and then said, "Well, if he were mine I'd tell him how much I loved him, how I've missed having him around. He's probably got a few questions of his own too. Some may be awkward but it all depends on what his grandparents told him about you, if they mentioned you at all."
"What if he rejects me? I couldn't bear that," Ezra said in panic, thinking the worst.
"Don't look at what can go wrong, Ez. It's gonna take time for both of you to adjust but before you start making plans, do you know if Joseph is staying or just passing through?" the ladies' man asked quietly.
Ezra turned a fearful gaze on the bigger man. "Oh God! I just assumed he was here to stay but as you know not much was said before I made a fool of myself by passing out. There seems to be much to discuss, doesn't there?"
"Yeah, well just make sure you take Joseph's needs and wants into your decisions. He seems to have been the pawn in the game that Mr. Turner was playing," Buck said seriously.
"I know, Bucklin. He's had all his choices made for him, hasn't he? Thank you for giving me your advice. I know I've had a long time to prepare for this, as I said, but I never expected my patience to be rewarded."
"Everything comes to those who wait, that's the saying, ain't it? Just been proved, hasn't it?" Buck smiled as he patted his friend's shoulder.
"Well, I'd better go and see my son," Ezra said as he rolled off the bed and got to his feet unsteadily.
Buck stood up too and put out a helping hand and escorted his friend to the door. "Good luck, pard. You deserve some happiness."
"Thank you, Bucklin. I've always appreciated your friendship. You and Mr. Larabee, well all of you, are like the brothers I never had. I hope one day to be able to return your kindness."
"Already have on many occasions, pard. That's what friends do."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra made his way slowly down the stairs onto the street. At the bottom he took a deep breath and headed for the hotel because he assumed that was the most likely place that Mrs. Turner would be. He entered the building apprehensively and spotted the woman with Chris. He stared at her for a moment as his body erupted in goose bumps. His stomach tied itself in knots and his heart jumped up and down in his chest as if it was trying to escape from his body.
He took a deep breath while he looked around the room. He couldn't see Joseph anywhere so he walked slowly toward Chris and hoped that he would be able to act with decorum when talking to Mrs. Turner. Being in such a public place for the meeting was a bit unnerving and he wondered if he should go somewhere private.
The blond heard the footsteps approaching and he looked over his shoulder with a scowl to see who it was. When he saw Ezra his face cleared and he stood up and put a concerned hand on his shoulder. "Ez? You feelin' better?"
"Yes, thank you. Do you mind if I have a moment alone with Mrs. Turner?" the trembling man asked as he stared into the green eyes belonging to his leader.
Chris studied the gambler for a minute to make sure he was really alright before saying, "'Course not. I'll be around if you need me."
Ezra nodded and sat down in the chair that the blond had just vacated. "Thank you, Chris," Ezra acknowledged before turning his attention to the woman. "Where's Joseph?"
"He's being shown around town by Billy Travis," Mrs. Turner informed the man as she fidgeted with her sleeve nervously.
Ezra watched her for a while and asked, "Oh. Is he alright? I'm aware I may have inadvertently scared him with my behavior earlier."
"Yes, he's fine. Have you fully recovered now?"
Ezra nodded and was amazed that he was actually managing to be civil to the woman. Whether that remained the case though, he would just have to wait and see. "Yes, thank you and I must apologize for my collapse. As Mr. Wilmington said earlier it was like seeing someone come back from the dead and I was rather overwhelmed."
"Perhaps I should have sent a telegram first but I wanted to see you in person. There is so much to discuss."
"All I want to know for now is why you came. Is it just a visit?" Ezra asked, hoping for a negative answer.
"No, I want to put matters right. Joseph should be with his father and I won't stand in your way if you say you want him here."
"Of course I want him! I never wanted to lose him in the first place," Ezra snapped, feeling his good manners slipping for the first time.
The woman looked taken aback at his anger even though she'd been expecting it. "I know and I'm sorry. It's only since my husband died that I learnt the truth."
"Well, I'm sorry for your loss but that man blighted the lives of three people and caused your daughter's death. I'll never forgive him for that! He stole my son and now you just appear in town as if nothing happened. I missed seeing Joseph's first step, didn't hear his first word! How could you deny me that?" Ezra shouted more loudly and forcefully than he intended. He could feel the occupants of the room turn to look at him. He flicked a quick look over his shoulder and met Chris's eye and received an encouraging smile from the man. The blond's presence calmed him for some reason and he felt his anger dissipating.
"Why did you let your husband take Joseph?" Ezra asked, his mind still fixed on wanting an explanation about why he'd been wronged.
"I didn't. He left me at home while supposedly coming here to get Belle to come back with him. I daren't have asked to accompany him on the trip, even though I would have loved to. My husband wasn't someone who you ever went against for any reason. Well, you know that to your cost, don't you? Anyway, when he returned he had Joseph with him and said you and Belle were dead. He said he'd arrived in Four Corners just before Belle died and it was her dying wish for me to raise Joseph." The woman shrugged forlornly. "We moved to a new homestead soon after Abraham returned because he said it would have less reminders of Belle if we started afresh somewhere else. I assume the real reason was so that you wouldn't be able to find us if you tried to track us down. How Abraham thought I could ever forget Belle though, I will never know. She was my daughter and I could never have let those precious memories fade." She sighed thoughtfully. "Anyway, as I told Mr. Larabee, it wasn't until I was sorting through Abraham's effects that I realized the truth about Joseph. I made inquiries as to your whereabouts and decided to come here to meet you straightaway. I know Abraham did wrong and I'm trying to put things right. I know you've missed five years but I'm giving you back the rest of Joseph's life."
"How very noble of you," Ezra retorted sarcastically.
The woman sighed and remained silent for a few minutes until she raised her eyes and looked at Ezra again. She saw the hard look on his face and sighed. "I will leave town as soon as Joseph gets back. I must say good-bye to him but can we at least discuss Joseph's future before I go?" Ezra nodded distractedly, his mind occupied with other thoughts. The woman continued talking even though she could see Ezra was not really listening to all she said. "Joseph was so very excited but also daunted about meeting you. I've tried to explain things to him but he's only five and didn't understand everything I said to him. He knows that you love him though, I made sure he knew that. He knows he's coming to live with you but he's a bit unsettled about everything, as you can imagine. I truly regret what we did to you, Ezra."
Ezra sat silently as he considered how Abraham had manipulated and lied to the woman as well. He could imagine what a rough life she'd had with him. "Well, I appreciate what you are now trying to do. It seems we've all been deceived in this affair," he conceded after a few minutes had gone by. From feeling angry he now had a complete change of heart and he couldn't understand the way his mind was currently working. He took a deep breath and asked something he would never have thought of asking even a couple of minutes ago and he hoped he wouldn't live to regret his generosity. "Would you consider staying on in town and helping to take care of Joseph? I wouldn't want to deny him seeing you. That wouldn't be right. You've been the one constant in his life and it would be spiteful of me to take that stability away from him, although I think you'll agree that I would be perfectly entitled to do so."
The elderly lady's eyes filled with tears. "I admit I fully expected to be cut out of his life altogether and I wouldn't have blamed you if you had. I would love to stay on in town though, and I promise not to interfere with how you raise Joseph. My husband was wrong about you, Ezra. I'd have been proud to call you my son."
Ezra smiled but felt tears in his eyes at the life that had been denied him. He could have been happily married for the past six years to a beautiful wife if one man hadn't stood in his way. No time for regrets. My son is back with me and that's all that matters. All the anger in the world won't give me back the last five years so it's time to look to the future. Best to make a fresh start, if only for my sanity. He smiled at the woman again and said, "I will arrange for somewhere for you to live but for now I will try to find Joseph."
The gambler rose as he put a finger to his hat brim in farewell and then walked outside where he lit a cigar and inhaled the smoke deeply. He heard the hotel door open and close and then felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked round and stared at Chris with blurry eyes as he tried not to cry.
The blond frowned in concern. "Ez? Everything okay?"
Ezra nodded and wiped his eyes. "Yes, thank you. We've sorted out our differences and I hope you won't think I'm insane Chris, but I've asked Mrs. Turner to stay on and help look after Joseph."
Chris smiled. "That's swell, Ezra. You ain't lowering yerself to her husband's level by denying her access."
"Well, we all seem to have been his victims and I couldn't just send her away because Joseph would never forgive me. It would have been quid pro quo and as Buck told me earlier it is Joseph whose needs should come first from now on. My needs are now of no consequence and although I was angry with her, still am really, I could see she had no part in the deception. I just feel monumentally sad about the whole affair and I want to try and put it behind me once and for all."
Chris patted his shoulder and smiled encouragingly. "I know son and I'm real proud of you, Ez. Jealous also because you acted so well in a difficult situation, unlike me. You've done the right thing by everyone, haven't you?"
Ezra shrugged. "Well, when I began to think back over my years with Belle I can't say that Mrs. Turner ever treated me badly. It was Abraham who was so vitriolic in his hatred toward me. I s'pose I never really held Mrs. Turner responsible through any of this so I would've been hypocritical to have punished her. Having her around will be easier on Joseph, I think you'll agree. Rather than him being left with me on his own, he's at least got a familiar face in town to help ease him into his new life."
Chris smiled and patted Ezra's back gently. "Abraham could have learnt a lot from being around you instead of turning you away as he did. Joseph's a lucky boy to have such a caring man as his father and I hope Mrs. Turner realizes that too."
"Thank you, Chris," Ezra said quietly. "I regret losing my temper with her earlier but I thought I was very restrained in the circumstances. Anyway, I knew you'd talked to her as well and I dare say you were a bit more forthright than me because she looked rather shattered when I arrived." Ezra smiled as he saw Chris wince. "I always thought I'd have yelled and shouted if I ever met them again. I can't understand why my anger didn't come to fruition but all I care about now is my son. He's here and that fact overrides any other feelings I may have had in the past. I should be bitter I s'pose, but I've wasted years of my life being angry. I know I had good reason but now he's home, I can't stay angry any longer. The moment I saw him, all that anger, bitterness and hurt seemed to fade away." Ezra smiled wryly and then asked seriously but apprehensively, "Would you consider having a role in bringing up Joseph too? I've been eternally grateful for your support and I know you felt dreadful when Joseph was taken. I don't want you to think though that I'm trying to replace Adam with my son. I don't want to offend you in any way."
Chris's eyes filled with tears. "No offense taken, Ez. I'd be real honored to be a surrogate uncle or somethin'. Thanks Ez. That's real generous of ya."
The gambler smiled and shook hands with the blond to cement the agreement. He then turned and walked away to begin his search for Joseph. He couldn't find the boy but he wasn't unduly worried because he knew he'd be safe with Billy. Unbeknown to him, Joseph and Billy were actually following him round town. The youngest boy wanted to see his father from a distance before talking to him properly.
Unaware of his shadows, Ezra wandered along the boardwalk outside Potter's store just as a young girl fell flat on her face in front of him. The gambler knelt down beside her and picked her up carefully.
"Hello darlin'. Did ya hurt yerself?" Ezra asked as he brushed the child's dress down to rid it of the dirt.
"I fell over, Mr. Standish," the child cried as she looked into his eyes.
"I saw, sweetheart. You seem to have suffered a multitude of scrapes and bruises, don't you?" he said as he wiped the tears gently from her face.
"I want my Ma," she yelled in a shrill voice, making Ezra wince.
"Well, let's find her, shall we?" Ezra said as he picked the child up. She wrapped her arms tightly round his neck and sobbed into his shoulder. Ezra smiled and rubbed her back as he entered the store in search of her mother. "Mrs. Peters? Young Polly has just taken a tumble but she seems fine except for the injuries to her knees so there's no cause for alarm." Ezra passed the sobbing child over and the woman smiled at him gratefully.
He wandered back outside onto the boardwalk and looked up and down in the hope of seeing Joseph. When his son failed to show himself Ezra made his way to the graveyard and sat by Belle's grave. He reached out and touched the headstone and smiled.
"Joseph's come home, darlin'. We can be together as you intended so you can rest in peace now, sweetheart," he said as he crossed his legs and settled back for a few minutes peace.
+ + + + + + +
Chris was heading to the saloon but spotted Buck outside the livery and he hurried to meet up with the man. Billy and Joseph were inside the building having ducked in there to remain out of sight when Ezra had emerged from the store. They had been on the verge of leaving when Chris and Buck stopped outside so cutting off their escape. The two youngsters stood just inside the door and listened to the two gunmen talking.
"How'd it go?" Buck asked, unaware that Joseph was in the building behind him.
"Well, I lost my temper a bit and so did Ez. He managed to keep his perspective though and has done somethin' real commendable. He's put his anger aside and has asked her to stay in town to help care for Joseph."
"Really? Well, that's good news, Chris," the gunman said. "Ez was worried that he might lose his temper totally and drive them both away. He'd never have forgiven himself if he had. Anyway, all he cares about now is seeing Joseph grow up but I've never seen him quite so unsure of himself before. Sure hope Joseph's presence has a positive effect on him. I've hated seeing Ez so sad."
"Yeah, he's had a real rough time. I never expected him to stay in town when Joseph was taken from him. Then when he did stay he seemed intent on gettin' himself killed. I felt I had to watch him every minute of every day to make sure he didn't do nothing stupid."
"Yeah. We've all felt the same, pard. Hopefully the dark days are over."
"I sure hope so." Chris smiled suddenly and looked down at the ground with what Buck thought were tears in his eyes.
Buck frowned worriedly. "Chris? You okay?"
The blond nodded and looked up as a couple of tears escaped. "Do ya know what Ez asked me?"
"No, pard. Why don't ya tell me?" Buck requested quietly.
"He wants me to have some part in raisin' Joseph."
"Yer pleased, ain't ya?" Buck asked, for once not sure how Chris was really feeling. "That was real kind of him, pard."
"Yeah, it was. I just never expected it and it's kinda knocked the stuffin' outta me. I'm real pleased but I can't help thinking about Adam."
"I can imagine, pard. I know it ain't been easy for ya but I also know that Sarah wouldn't hold it against ya for loving and nurturing another child. She'd been glad that you were helping Ez out."
"Yeah, I know she would."
"You did accept Ez's offer, didn't ya?" Buck asked anxiously.
"'Course I did," Chris looked up and beamed. "Can't wait."
Buck smiled and put his arm round his friend's shoulder and pulled him toward the saloon. "Let's have a celebratory drink. For once we really got somethin' to be happy about, ain't we?"
+ + + + + + +
"Billy? Pa seems nice, don't he? He was real kind to the girl who fell over," Joseph said quietly after Chris and Buck had gone. The two boys were swinging their legs from where they sat on the top pole of one of the livery stalls.
Billy nodded and smiled. "Yeah, he's nice although he's been real sad since you left," the teenager admitted.
"Grandma wants me to live with him but I don't know if I want to. I don't know him," Joseph said tentatively. He'd only known life with his grandparents and he felt very unsettled to be asked to live with someone he considered a stranger. His life was on the verge of changing forever and he found it frightening.
Billy could see the boy's fear and tried to put him at ease. "You'd like him. All the kids in town love him and trust him, as you saw earlier. He's friendly and kind and he's really missed you."
"What does your pa do?" the child asked curiously, thinking that if he compared his father to someone else it might help him make up his mind.
"My father died. He was murdered but I feel like I've had seven fathers looking after me. The peacekeepers who protect the town have been real good to me. Ezra's one of them, you know? He's real brave."
"Has he been in gunfights?" Joseph asked excitedly as he jumped up and down slightly on his perch.
"Yeah plenty, but you shouldn't judge him by how many men he's killed," Billy replied seriously. The older boy didn't want Joseph to only want to get to know the man because of his reputation. "He's helped a lot of people without killing anyone in the process."
Joseph digested that information and remained quiet for a minute before asking, "Did you know my ma? Grandma says she was beautiful. She told me lots about her but I didn't know I had a father until last week."
"No, I never knew your mother. She died and left Ezra to care for you but you were stolen from him when you were still a baby. Ezra had only had you for a few weeks."
"Did he cry when I left?" the boy asked after remembering Ezra's reaction when seeing him that morning.
"Yes and he still does. He's always talking about you. He really loves you, Joseph."
"If he loved me why would Papa wanna die?" the smaller boy asked, thinking about what Buck and Chris had said.
"'Cause you weren't here with him. He thought life wasn't worth living without you and your mother."
Joseph still couldn't comprehend how someone could love a relative stranger. " Why does he love me? He doesn't really know me."
"You're his son. Although you were only with him a short time he worshipped you. You can't really break the connection between kin no matter how little time you spent together."
"Why didn't Grandma tell me about him?" the youngster asked, not understanding the real circumstances of his young life.
"I don't know, Joseph. You'd have to ask her about that. All you need to know for now is that Ezra loves you. I lost my father forever so don't give up this chance of getting to know yours. You heard Mr. Larabee say that yer grandmother is staying in town too so you won't be on yer own. You'll soon make friends, made one today with me, ain't ya? Everythin' will work out fine, believe me, Joseph," Billy said as he smiled at the younger boy. "Come on, best get going or they'll start fretting."
Joseph headed back to the hotel with Billy to meet up with his grandmother again. They passed the graveyard and saw Ezra sitting by Belle's grave.
Billy leant down and whispered in the boy's ear, "That's yer mother's grave he's sitting next to. Go and speak to him. There's no need to be shy. Remember he loves you."
Joseph flicked an apprehensive look up at the taller boy but began walking slowly toward his father after receiving an encouraging push from Billy.
Ezra heard the soft footsteps approaching him but didn't look round, thinking it was another visitor to a lost loved-one.
The gambler whirled round and saw Joseph standing on one leg a short distance away. The boy had his hand to his lips sucking a finger nervously as he looked toward Ezra with slightly lowered eyes. Ezra stared back at the boy, suddenly dumbstruck once more.
"Do you love me as much as Mama?" the boy asked quietly as he flicked his eyes to the grave.
"Oh yes, Joseph. Even more," Ezra said as he stood and moved slowly closer to his son. He reached out a hand and cupped the youngster's face as he smiled kindly at him. He decided it was time that the child had some say in his upbringing. "Do you want to live here with your grandmother and me? I'd like to have some part in seeing you grow up. I love you so much Joseph and I don't want to lose you again."
"Will we live together?"
"I expected you to live with me but your grandmother would be nearby. Would you like that?"
"I want to live with you Papa, but I want to be with Grandma too," Joseph said still unable to make up his mind. It was a big decision and the child wavered uncertainly.
Ezra smiled. "Well, we'll sort something out, son. As long as we are together that's all I care about. You're home and life is suddenly full of possibilities," Ezra said as he laughed and hugged his son.
The man's six friends watched events from the church and could almost see the dark cloud that had been hanging over their friend for the past five years drift away. They looked at one another and smiled before heading to the saloon, happy in the knowledge that the Ezra of old was back in their midst.
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