There were times when the English language was woefully deficient. "Exhausted" didnt get anywhere near describing what Ezra felt a the moment. There ought to be a word to aptly describe the mind-numbing fatigue that had him almost falling from his horse and not caring if he did. But, for the life of him, he couldnt think of one, right now.
And why was he expending energy trying to fathom out this inadequacy of vocabulary anyway? Just stay in the saddle, hang onto the reins and let the horse make its way home. Hed already given up on conversation, problem-solving thought processes were rapidly on their way out. Minimum of thought, just enough to get home, that was his resolved course of action - or inaction - whatever.
Nathan and Josiah had tried to initiate a few conversations, early in the journey, but the only replies they received from their usually loquacious companion were unintelligible grunts. They probably thought he was still annoyed with them. Well, they were right about that, but the main reason that he remained uncommunicative was weariness rather than rancor.
The two of them had busied themselves with lecturing their four prisoners for most of the journey, anyway. Ezra was unsure if it would have any significant long-term effect but the boys looked thoroughly cowed at the moment and it was planned that they would have an educational overnight stay at the jail in Four Corners.
They couldnt be far from home. He was struggling to keep his eyes open now. When they got home everything would be fine. Hed tumble into bed and sleep for a week. Nothing at all could possibly matter to him. The world at large could just take care of itself.
Nathan had said that he would spend two or three days in town before heading back to the village. All of his surviving patients there were on the road to recovery. The epidemic had passed its crisis point and Nathan could afford to spend a little time assisting with the upkeep of justice in Four Corners.
It was just a pity that the crisis had taken innocents like Nikkanoochee with it. No, not a pity, it was a tragedy. Ezra knew that he had to stop thinking about it. It was something that he couldnt change. The boy would be buried beside his parents with all the appropriate ceremonies of his tribe. It was the end of his journey. There was nothing more Ezra could do for him. He was gone.
Ezra looked up as the town of Four Corners came into view. Almost home. Soon he could rest and just ignore all the rest of the world. He might rouse himself to spend some time with his daughter and maybe even Inez, if she was feeling a bit more amicable. Hell, even his mother may have been struck by a generous mood (or, failing that, left town). He allowed himself just a smidgen of optimism. He was almost home.
* * * * *
Buck Wilmington was standing outside the saloon, as the small contingent of riders made its way into town.
"Oh, Lord! Would ylook at that!" He stuck his head into the saloon. "Hey, guys! Inez! Ygotta come see this!"
Chris, Vin, Inez, Maude, Angelica and several other onlookers from the saloon came out to investigate the source of Bucks amusement. JD was already making his way over from the direction of the jail.
"What the hell happened to you?" Chris asked Ezra as the group came to a halt in front of the saloon.
Ezra scowled, unaware that his annoyed expression only added to the overall comic effect of his appearance. Not that the patchwork Seminole poncho in clashing, eye-gouging colours wasnt enough in its own right.
"Its a long story," he muttered.
"No, it aint," said Nathan (the laughter in voice, as much due to relief that Ezra was speaking again, as anything else), "He decided to teach Harry Blackwood tswim."
"Yfell in the river," Chris surmised, his characteristic half-smile broadening.
Ezra nodded wearily.
"Aint it a bit cold fer swimmin?" JD asked. He was outright laughing.
"Indeed," Ezra confirmed, looking futilely for a single face moved to sympathy rather than mirth.
He couldnt even look to his own mother for a little compassion. But then again, hed never really been able to do that.
"Well, yall know that Ezras always had a penchant for out of season swimmin." She had just been regaling the saloon patrons with a tale of Ezra escaping from a gambling riverboat as a teenager and the comment drew snorts of laughter from the whole group. Even Angelica was giggling.
"And I see that youve acquired a new tailor, darlin." Maude shamelessly played to the crowd and got another round of laughter.
Ezra was thoroughly unimpressed with the response of the group as a whole but saved his most reproachful glares for Inez and Angelica. Et tu, Brute!
Nonetheless, the hilarity continued.
"I thought the Seminole took Nathan into their tribe, not Ezra," said Buck.
"Aw, yknow Ezra," Vin responded, "He could talk his way into any gatherin."
Ezra realized that they didnt actually need him to be there to carry on with this. They could quite happily keep going while he left to have a bath and go to bed. To hell with them all! He didnt need any of them, anyway!
But he wasnt going to go quietly. "I had thought that the conspiracy to persecute me, bein conducted by the three significant feminine persons in my life, just might have dissolved in my absence. But it seems to have grown to encompass the men I work with as well."
He spoke in a rather quiet flat voice but easily made himself heard through the dying laughter. "Im sure that you gentlemen can take care of the prisoners without my further assistance. Im goin to have a bath, then have a drink and then go to bed."
Then he dismounted and stalked off in the direction of the bathhouse.
Damn! Nathan inwardly cursed. Hed thought that Ezra was gradually coming a little way out of the depression hed been in since they learned of Nikkanoochees death. Obviously not.
He also climbed off his horse and made one more attempt to mollify the gambler. A bit of humour, usually helped. "I thought ya already had a bath today."
Ezra didnt even look back at him, just kept trudging towards the bathhouse.
Josiah reached down, patted Nathans shoulder and spoke softly "Ease up on him, Nathan. Hes had a hell of a day."
Nathan resisted the temptation to snort in exasperation. He knew that! Hed been there! Okay, so hed tried the wrong tactics. Their usual banter wouldnt work this time. It was going to take a good dose of plain talking. Nathan sighed. As if any conversation with Ezra could be described as plain talking.
He remembered that Ezra had mentioned wanting a drink. That would probably help things along a bit. Nathan turned to Inez who was also now gazing after Ezra with a worried expression.
"Inez, could I trouble ya fer a bottle of whiskey?"
Inez nodded distractedly before the question seemed to fully register. Then she looked at Nathan and gave him a half-smile. "Brandy would be better at a time like this. I have a bottle behind the bar."
* * * * *
Ezra was already soaking in a tub of hot water with his eyes closed when Nathan entered the bathhouse. The gambler neither turned towards him nor opened his eyes but Nathan knew that hed registered his presence because he sunk further down into the water. Well, if Ezra wasnt going to acknowledge him, then hed just have to make the first move.
Ezra opened one eye and then closed it again. "Mr Jackson."
Oh, so we were in a Mr Jackson frame of mind rather than a Nathan one? Nathan kept his sigh to himself. Of course, we would be. This was going to be a tough conversation but, hell, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
"Mind if I join ya?"
Ezras eyes opened again and his gaze was not friendly, "Also feelin in need of a superfluous cleansing?"
Nathan held up the bottle and glasses hed brought with him. "Dunno, maybe later. But I do feel in need of a drink and I heard ya say ya wanted one too."
"Im rather choosy whom I drink with."
Nathan couldnt help tensing slightly. There was a time when that comment would have really got his back up. That was the point really. Ezra knew this and was using some his sharpest weapons to try and keep Nathan at bay.
Well, Nathan had known that it wasnt going to be easy. He wasnt going to let this first obstacle defeat him. "Yeah, always known that. Always took it as a compliment. Buckll drink with just about anyone willin to pay fer his liquor."
That was perhaps a bit unfair to Buck. There was very definitely a class of people he wouldnt let buy him a drink. But that didnt matter right now. Buck wasnt here to be offended and the point was to get through to Ezra. Probably best to stop with the words and get a drink inside him.
Nathan poured a shot and proffered the glass to Ezra. His gaze remained overtly hostile but he took the drink and gingerly sipped it. Then his eyebrows lifted slightly and he took another look at the bottle in Nathans hands.
"Been talkin to Inez?"
Nathans own brows lifted. "What makes ya say that?"
Ezras face slipped into the smallest degree of a smile and Nathan knew that he was finally making progress.
"Offerin me brandy is one of her ways of sayin sorry."
"An whats yours? Cleanin the saloon glasses without her havin task?"
Ezras face became expressionless again. No need to tell Nathan that he was right in that supposition.
But Nathan knew the reaction well enough to deduce it anyway and he smiled, as he took a seat and poured himself a drink.
They sat there sipping brandy (it was very good stuff, no wonder Inez kept it hidden) and the silence stretched out for a bit but this time it was a little more comfortable. They needed to talk a few things out but now that Nathan knew he was making progress, he could afford to take a little time.
He made another non-confrontational overture. "Yknow, you forgot to bring yself some clean clothes" He held up the other item hed got from Inez, a bundle of Ezras clothing, including his favourite red jacket.
Ezra sighed and gestured at his Seminole outfit, lying on the bathhouse floor. "I didnt forget, actually. I just thought that Id wear this exquisite ensemble back to the saloon and just change into a night shirt when I got there." He closed his eyes, as the days events threatened to overwhelm him. "I just want to go to bed and make this day end. Tomorrow simply has to be better."
"Yeah." There was not much else Nathan could say to that.
The silence dragged on for a few more seconds before he decided to bite the bullet. "Ywere thinkin of takin in Nikkanoochee, werent ya?"
Ezra said nothing, so Nathan persisted, trying for a lighter approach. "What with Angie, as well, were ya thinkin of settin up another orphanage tcompete with Josiahs?"
That managed to provoke a half-smile. "Do you think I couldve made it turn a profit?"
"If anyone could, itd be you."
"Yes. You once said that I could work an angle on anyones sufferin."
Nathan closed his eyes. Damn! Hed walked straight into that one! Just when he thought that hed broken through. Well, it just went show that you could never let your guard down for a second, when arguing with Ezra. He had a gift for remembering things you said like that and had no compunction about using them to get himself out of an awkward position if he didnt want to talk.
But Nathan wasnt going to back off this time. Ezra needed to talk this out. All the tragedy and the horror that you saw when tending to the sick and dying, it couldnt be hidden away inside you. If you tried to do that, it would just fester.
"There was nothing you couldve done, Ezra. Sometimes, these things just happen."
Ezra stared morosely into space. On an intellectual level, he knew that what Nathan was saying was true but he just couldnt come to terms with the unfairness of the whole situation. "Those things should never happen to a child."
Nathan sighed. "Yre right, but sometimes they do."
Ezra looked Nathan directly in the eye for the first time. "You must frequently witness events such as that. How do you stay sane?"
"Dunno exactly but talkins important. Especially talkin to folks whos bin there an knows what its like."
Ezras eyes closed again. "What is there to say?"
But despite the pessimism of the words, Nathan knew that hed finally broken through the barrier. So he just sat back and waited for Ezra to start talking again.
* * * * *
Ezra had hoped to reach his bed without encountering anyone else. Hence, he had entered the saloon through the back door, via the kitchen. But Inez stood at the foot of the stairs leading to his room, obviously hoping to waylay him.
He couldnt think of anything civil to say so he simply ignored her, brushed past her and began climbing the stairs.
But she followed him. "So youre not going to talk to me?"
"Im too fatigued to hold any meaningful conversation. Maybe tomorrow." He didnt break his stride as he finished climbing the stairs and walked across the landing and into their room.
It was Inez who closed the door behind them. Their last major argument had been in public, there was no need for this one to be as well.
"So what are you going to do?"
"Im goin to get changed and go to bed." Suiting action to word, he began stripping off clothes.
"Whats the matter? Did something happen while you were away?"
"Any number of things but you need not concern yourself."
"Ezra, how can I help if you wont talk to me?"
"You dont need to help. If you want a conversation, go talk to your customers. Im sure Buck would be up for some witty repartee."
Inez blinked. Hed never expressed any jealousy over her previous relationship with Buck before. Was that the cause of all this? If so, what could have set it off? Theyd never talked about it. She thought that they had just tacitly agreed that the past was the past and not to worry too much about it.
"You know that Id rather talk to you than Buck, any day."
"Well, not today. Youre goin to have to just accept the next best offer." He finished changing and climbed into bed, turning away from her.
Inez realized that she was getting nowhere and tried another tack. "Have you said goodnight to your daughter?"
A brief trace of remorse flitted across Ezras face but then it hardened, as he remembered exactly why he had left town in the first place. "Im sure that she and her grandmother are more than capable of keepin each other entertained."
In a gesture of overt childishness, he pulled the bedcovers over his head to signal the end of the conversation. Inez felt her sympathy rapidly dissolve. It was all very well for him to give her the cold shoulder but he had no right to take his anger out on the child.
"Well, we have managed to cope without you quite well for the past few days. When you are ready to come back and join us, just let me know," she said coldly before she stormed out, slamming the door behind her.
She spent the rest of the evening in a truly irate mood and she certainly didnt indulge in any meaningful conversations. Even Buck had given her a wide berth, Angelica had gone to bed early without even a hint of an argument and Maude had disappeared somewhere with Josiah. Nathan had returned her bottle of brandy and looked as though he wanted to discuss some things with her, but then he had been called away to deal with one of the prisoners in the jail whod managed to injure himself. And she closed the saloon early, as the last of even the heavy drinkers had left before midnight.
Even so, Inez was still exhausted as she climbed the stairs to her room. Ezra was asleep. He mumbled slightly when she climbed into bed beside him but didnt wake. Probably a good thing. She couldnt face another argument with him at the moment. She turned her back to him and closed her eyes.
Theyd work it out in the morning.
Angelica had watched the doctor, Nathan, Inez, her grandmother and Josiah all parade into her fathers room.
When she had called out to each one of them, they had told her that nothing was wrong and to go back to sleep. But she could tell that they were lying. Something was most definitely wrong, it involved her father and they were deliberately not telling her.
She knew that Ezra was still angry at her. Well, she had been quite mean to him.
She had only been his daughter for less than a year but she really did love him a lot. She had loved him when they were just friends and her mother had still been alive.
Then when Teresa had been killed and Angelica felt that she was all alone in the world, Ezra had made sure that she wasnt alone after all. He had gone to a lot of trouble to legally adopt her, so that the whole world know that he was her father and that they would be together forever. Hed actually said that, "together forever", just when she was scared that she would have nobody.
But when her grandmother had come to town, Angelica had abandoned Ezra. How could she have been so thoughtless and ungrateful and disloyal? To him, of all people. How could she have been mean to him at all?
She couldnt help liking her grandmother. Every time Maude came to Four Corners, she brought presents and all Angelicas favourite types of candy. She spent time with her, played games with her and told her wonderful stories.
A lot of the stories were about Ezra and Angelica knew he felt uncomfortable when her grandmother told them. But she couldnt help laughing at the funny things he had done. It was actually quite reassuring for her to learn that he could do such silly things when he was little and still grow up to be the wonderful person that he was now.
But added to all that was the fact that Maude was now her grandmother. She actually had a grandmother now, as well as a father. Shed never had either before. Ezra had adopted her and Maude was tied to him by blood. So Angelica had a real grandmother that no one could take away. Another real legal relation.
It wasnt that she didnt love Inez and the "arbitrary" uncles which Ezra had given to her. But they had only said that they were like family to her. One day, they might change their minds. Ezra and Maude, they were her real family.
But first and foremost, Ezra was her father. He had given her everything. And how had she repaid him?
She had betrayed him. Every moment she spent with her grandmother was one which she didnt spend with him. And she knew that he had been fighting with Inez too.
No wonder hed got so angry that hed left town for a while.
But Angelica was really, really sorry. And shed do absolutely anything to make it up to him.
If hed only let her see him, then she could tell him how sorry she was. Then maybe they could make things alright again.
* * * * *
Ezra had always had a degree of antagonism towards the medical profession. When you were already feeling unwell, they poked and prodded you, seemed to take forever to make up their minds and then made some incomprehensible pronouncement about your condition. And their medicines almost universally tasted repulsive.
His current situation was not doing much to alter his opinion. He was tired and breathless, so they were forcing him to sit up so they could examine his chest. They always had to do things in the most uncomfortable position and it wasnt as if he wasnt suffering enough already. He was still unbearably hot and his throat was so raw that it felt like hed swallowed sharp nails or broken glass or something like that. But at least the coughing had stopped. During the last few episodes, each cough had felt like someone was sticking a sharp knife into his chest.
Thoroughly exhausted, Ezra had given up even trying to keep his eyes open and couldnt help leaning into Nathans grasp on his shoulders as his friend propped him up for Dr Elliot to listen to his back with a stethoscope. It meant that he didnt have to look at the anxious faces of the audience that had gathered in the room either.
Inezs apprehension had been readily apparent. She didnt even try to hide it. His mother had kept her emotions from reaching her studiously expressionless face but there was a tension in her poise which she never would have allowed to show at a card table. And Josiah had stood behind Maude, almost subconsciously placing a hand on her shoulder, in a gesture of comfort. It all produced a rather grim little scene which Ezra didnt want to look at just now.
"Ninety-nine, ninety-nine." He concentrated on repeating the word, as he had been instructed to, each time the doctor moved the instrument to a new position on his chest but his voice was beginning to fade.
Dr Elliot saw his patients strength failing and decided against further probing. He was sure of the diagnosis anyway.
"Alright, Nathan. Let him rest now."
The black healer gently eased his friend back into a supine position on the bed and pulled the covers up over his chest.
"Well?" asked Inez, frightened by the particularly subdued and somber manner with which the doctor had conducted the examination.
It was the patient himself who pre-empted the doctors reply. "Its what Nikkanoochee and the others had, isnt it?"
Dr Elliot spoke cautiously. "Well, its pneumonia. Double pneumonia, in fact." He looked over at Nathan who nodded to indicate his concurrence with the diagnosis.
Ezra managed to raise a smile, although his eyes remained closed. "Double?" he queried, his voice barely more than a whisper. "Well, never let it be said that I do things by halves."
Then he realised something and his eyes snapped open. "This must spread quite easily. I spent less than a day with Nikkanoochee."
Dr Elliot frowned. "In my experience, it can be quite contagious. It seems to be particularly so when youre coughing or sneezing. It would probably help if you tried to contain that as much as you can with handkerchiefs and the like. And Id avoid any close face to face contact." He turned to look at Inez as he spoke.
Ezra considered the risks and quickly came to a decision. "Inez, I think you, Angelica, Mother and Josiah should vacate this room immediately and indefinitely. Nathan can stay. He probably knows how best to avoid the contagion."
Inez did not agree. "Dont be ridiculous. I have already shared a bed with you all night and I will not let Nathan kill himself trying to nurse you single-handed. And anyway, do you honestly think that I would leave you while you are ill like this?"
"Inez, I forbid you "
"What do you think you are going to do? Throw me out?"
Ezra knew that he didnt have the strength to compel Inez to do anything she didnt want to, so he tried to enlist the assistance of a formidable ally. Surely, Maude would see the sense of his suggestion. "Mother, would you please take her outside with you?"
Maude gave him a look that was laden with both reproach and determination. "I know that you dont have much regard for my maternal instincts but if you think that you can persuade me to leave, youre seriously mistaken."
"Dont even try to fight me on this Ezra. Just save your strength."
That, at least, was good advice. He didnt think he even had enough energy to keep his eyes open much longer. But even if these two refused to act in their own best interests, perhaps they would see sense on behalf of the third case.
In a breathless voice but with all the fervor he could muster, he insisted, "Angelica is to be kept out of this room, no matter what she says. I wont let her take the risk and I wont forgive any of you who do." Another coughing fit wracked his body, robbing him of his remaining strength.
"Please," Ezra made one last painfully whispered plea and his eyes closed.
Inez took hold of his hand and her eyes filled with tears, as she reassured him, "Dont worry, querido. Ill make sure that she wont risk it. I promise you." At that moment, there was almost nothing that she would have been able to deny him.
One of her tears fell onto his face and he opened his eyes again and smiled at her. "Gracias, querida," he murmured and managed to exert a faint pressure on the fingers within his grasp.
His eyes closed but the smile remained as Inez reached out with her other hand to gently stroke his face which then slowly slackened into the expressionless of sleep.
Inez remained frozen in the spot where she stood. This couldnt be happening. He simply couldnt leave her. Not now. Not like this.
She felt a hand come to rest on her shoulder and glanced around to meet Maudes clear blue tearless eyes.
"Best go down to the kitchen, darlin. The troops will need provisions."
Inez stared incredulously at her. "I am not going to leave him!"
Maude remained unperturbed by her vehemence. "When he wakes, hell need somethin to keep his strength up." She looked over at the medical experts. "Soup would probably be best. Doctor? Mr Jackson?"
They both nodded wordlessly and Maude directed her attention back to Inez. "And these poor boys must be famished as well. Surely, you would not leave them to the mercy of my dubious culinary expertise?"
Inez wavered and Maude made a final push to topple her resolve. "Ill stay with him. Its a mothers prerogative to have the first watch over her boy."
Inez swallowed her tears and nodded. She briefly lifted the hand she still held and lightly kissed Ezras fingers, before releasing it and wiping her eyes as she walked slowly to the door. Then she paused once in the doorway.
"Soup for Ezra and enchiladas for everyone else?"
"That would be lovely, dear."
Inez nodded once more, as she departed and Maude turned back to her charge.
The charge that shed just coerced Inez into giving her. A mothers prerogative.
Maude had known that the claim of familial privilege would carry considerable weight with Inez, just as she knew that the girl needed to be away doing something useful. Even though Inez wanted to be there for Ezra, just sitting and waiting while he remained unconscious would simply eat away at her.
A mothers prerogative and also a mothers duty. Maude herself needed to be there for him now. To prove to him that she had enough concern and compassion, and to prove to herself that she had the courage.
The familiarity of the situation almost overwhelmed her. More than twenty years since it had occurred but the voices, the sights, even the smells were still vivid in her mind. Every instinct in her wanted to run.
But she had to concentrate on leaving the past behind. All that was gone was gone forever. These fears and doubts had no right to return. It was not going to happen again. This time, she wouldnt allow it.
* * * * *
Inez had not even reached the stairs, on her way down to the kitchen, when she was intercepted by a very hostile Angelica.
"I want to see Father!"
Inez sighed, "No, Angelica, you cannot go in there."
"Thats not fair! Everybody else has seen him!"
The worry and exhaustion had frayed Inezs temper. "Angelica, you are not going in there!"
Angelicas eyes blazed. She could be as hot-tempered as any of them, given the right provocation.
"You cant stop me! Hes my father. You just live with us!"
She knew this was terribly unfair. Inez loved Ezra too, and she had known him much longer than his daughter had. But the child was prepared to use absolutely any weapon at her disposal to get access to her father.
Inez was afraid for Ezra. And she was afraid for Angelica. And she was tired and at her wits end. The one thing at the forefront of her mind was her promise to Ezra. She was damn well going to keep it and if Angelica didnt like it, well they would just have to deal with that later.
"If you even look like you are going to try, I will tie you to the chair in your room!"
Angelica stared at her for a moment. There was a burning intensity in Inezs eyes. Maybe she would tie her up. Angelica wasnt sure that she would be able to get out of knots tied by Inez.
Unwilling to risk it, she angrily turned away, stomped into her room and slammed the door behind her.
Inez let out a long breath. She wasnt sure how many of these confrontations she could withstand in one day. Then she glanced back, to where Nathan had stuck his head out of Ezras room and was giving her a questioning look.
"She wasnt happy with being kept out," Inez explained.
Nathan sighed. "No, sppose she wouldnt be. But Ezras right, she shouldnt go anywhere near him."
* * * * *
On the other side of her door, Angelica was listening intently. What she heard devastated her and she sank down to the floor and began to sob softly to herself.
It was Ezra who didnt want to see her. He didnt want her anywhere near him, Nathan had said. And Nathan didnt usually tell lies.
She had thought that she was fighting against Inez to get in to see him. But it was her father himself who had locked her out. He was still so angry that he wouldnt even talk to her.
But if he wouldnt let her see him, then how could she tell him how sorry she was?
What could she possibly do to make everything alright again?
When Inez reached the foot of the stairs, barely seeing the steps in front of her along the way, she heard a familiar voice call her name.
She wearily lifted her eyes to her visitor. "How can I help you, Buck?"
He grinned that open, genuine, good ol Buck grin. "Well darlin, I woke early an thought I might beat the crowd an grab me an early breakfast."
Inezs eyes narrowed. There was more to it than that. She remembered the mood she had been in last night. He was probably fishing for what had been irritating her. As if that mattered now.
"I am not making breakfast today, Buck. You and the others can go and ask at the hotel."
Buck frowned. Whatever the problem had been, it seemed to have gotten worse. So much for subtle (that was Ezras way, not his, anyway), best to just come to the point. "Inez," he asked gently, "whats the matter?"
She felt a brief flash of anger but quickly quashed it. Why was she reacting like this? Buck was an old friend, both to her and to Ezra. He was just showing concern. He had every right to ask and every right to know.
"Ezra has pneumonia." Her voice cracked as she told him. "It looks very bad, Buck."
Be they friend, lover or complete stranger, Bucks first instinct, upon seeing a woman with this level of distress, was to take them into his arms and comfort them. But when he moved to do so, Inez flinched at his touch.
She couldnt help it. Only yesterday when they had been arguing, Ezra had made a comment about herself and Buck. It had been rather cryptic but it seemed to indicate an unspoken jealousy over the relationship which had previously existed between them. To accept an embrace from Buck now seemed like betrayal. It was the last thing she could do.
Buck didnt understand but he accepted. Touch unnerved her instead of reassuring her. He stepped back to give her space. But he had to know. Ezra had seemed fine yesterday. Well, rather annoyed but healthy enough.
She knew what he was asking and didnt wait for him to finish the question. "I dont know. They said something about the illness in the Seminole village." And now she couldnt stop the tears. "He looks so sick, Buck."
He couldnt restrain himself and reached out to put a hand on her shoulder. But she pulled away again and wiped a hand across her eyes, trying to compose herself. She had been given a task and shouldnt be just standing around moping.
"I have things to do in the kitchen."
Buck looked at her in surprise. "I thought ya werent makin any breakfast."
"Im not. They said that I should make some soup for Ezra. And I am making something for Nathan and the doctor and everyone upstairs."
"If ya make me some too, Ill watch over the bar for ya." That, at least, he could do. Then she could be with Ezra, like she so obviously needed to be.
But Inez was not as convinced of the merits of the proposal.
"Buck, half of the times I leave you to run the bar, I have to come back and break up a brawl."
"Not this time," he promised her but she still looked at him sceptically.
"Look Ill get Vin or Chris or both to help me watch the place. Surely you can trust the three of us for a day or so."
Inez was tempted. Someone did need to keep an eye on things and Buck was trying to show friendship in this offer of help.
"Alright" she agreed and headed for the kitchen. She offered him a watery but grateful smile from the doorway. He was a good friend. Always had been and always would be. "You like your enchiladas extra spicy, dont you?"
The good ol Buck grin returned and he nodded. "Ill go see if Chris or Vin are up."
* * * * *
Ezra didnt stir at all when Nathan wiped his face once more with the dampened cloth. The healer contained his worried sigh for the benefit of the others in the room. Not that he had ever been very good at hiding his apprehension. And anyway, Maude had an even greater ability to decipher peoples thoughts from their faces than Ezra did (hell, she was the one whod taught him) and Josiah had always been able to read Nathan like a book. So he belatedly let the sigh out. Then Dr Elliot caught his eye and beckoned him over to a corner where they could confer without being overheard.
Maude briefly looked up from where she hovered by Ezras side. Her tension was almost palpable. At least that was how it seemed to Josiah from where he stood by the door. They had come in together, having spent last night in each others company, but he had immediately retired into the background where he could watch over her and her ailing son from a distance. He knew better than to get between a mother and her child.
Maude sat beside Ezras bed, feeling useless and utterly unsure as to what to do. She was naturally a reserved person and to some extent had instilled a similar demeanour in her son. Overt emotional displays were something she feigned to take in her marks. She had always related to Ezra via conversation (usually civilised). Tactile demonstrations of affection were kept perfunctory. To her, they had always seemed rather trivial and meaningless, anyway.
But now she needed to give him comfort and reassurance. She needed to show him that she was there for him. But he wasnt awake to talk with her.
That was no excuse. He couldnt speak but she could. Tentatively taking his hand, she leaned closer and said softly. "Well darlin, youve done some foolhardy things to try and get my attention in the past. But dont you think that this is a little excessive?"
Maude ventured a sad little half-smile, hoping to encourage her son to share in the joke. No response. Well at least, if he wasnt going to argue with her, this might turn out to be one of the easiest conversations she ever had with him. But this wry reflection gave her no comfort.
She glanced over at Josiah, watching herself and Ezra protectively, like some kind of guard dog. She sighed and, with a look, invited him over to join them. She and the preacher had begun to share so many things, he might as well share this.
But even when Josiah pulled up a chair to sit quietly beside her, she kept her conversation directed at Ezra (who remained completely oblivious).
"Yknow darlin, I was utterly shocked when I received your telegram to tell me that you had adopted Angelica."
Beside her, Josiah suppressed a smile. He remembered that at the time, Ezra had rather suspected that she would be. But he let Maude continue her monologue uninterrupted.
"I came to ask you what on earth you were thinkin. But when I arrived, you told me how the poor child lost her mother and how it was Mr Greel who murdered her. You know that I had no idea when I sent him to see you, dont you, Ezra? Angelica certainly has no suspicion."
No, Angelica had no suspicions at all. She didnt know why Maude had thrown herself into her role of grandmother so ardently. She had no preconceptions about what Maude was like, or indeed, what a grandmother was like. But Maude knew that it had surprised the hell out of Ezra.
She knew that hed never seen her bestow such care and attention on anyone unless she was running a con. He certainly hadnt liked it. Was that jealousy or did he think she might be working an angle? There was certainly no deceit in his dealings with Angelica. He obviously adored the child.
And Angelica adored him. He entertained her, educated her and gave her all the security he could. And it all seemed instinctive.
She shook her head in wonder. "Where did you learn to be such a good parent, Ezra? You had a shockin role model."
Josiah placed a hand on her shoulder and she briefly glanced at him. Her face took on a vaguely apologetic expression as she turned back to Ezra.
"Its an awful thing for a mother to say but I hated to be tied down and I loathed to be forced into things. I had to be able to go wherever I needed to at a moments notice and there were some places I really couldnt take you." She smiled sadly again. "You might even understand that now. After all, we both learned that the hard way. But children never seem to know whats in their own best interests."
Ezra had clung to her literally and figuratively, every time she tried to say goodbye. All he ever wanted was to be with her and no matter how many times she told him that it just wasnt possible, he refused to believe it.
She squeezed his hand. "You were like a dog with a bone. You just wouldnt let go." He never gave up on trying to stay with her. "Very few relatives could put up with you for any length of time. You made certain of that. I suppose you thought that if there was no one else whod have you, Id be forced to take you with me."
But eventually Ezra had learned that if he could participate in a con, it would help encourage her to take him with her. "Then you became the best co-conspirator I ever had. I never told you that, did I?"
Theyd had some good times together when he was a teenager, taking on the world by conning and gambling as a team. But after a while she found that he had begun to try to compete with her. Maybe it was because she had always ignored his suggestions. "You thought you were clever, darlin, but Mother knows best." After all, he still couldnt win against her and she still thoroughly trounced him each time he tried. The thought brought another brief smile to her face. He was utterly adorable when he got flustered.
"But one day you seemed to decide that you didnt need me anymore and you just took off. And somehow getting my freedom back didnt feel as good as Id thought it would."
Now it seemed that they only ever met when she came looking for him. It was as if hed never looked back. But even if he thought that he no longer needed her, she knew better.
"You need some one to keep an eye on you. Keep you on your toes. Youre never goin to be rid of me."
But now he had others to watch over him. She looked up again at Josiah, then Nathan and even at that moment Dr Elliot went and opened the door to admit Inez carrying a laden tray.
Now he was surrounded by people to care for him. Maybe, he really did no longer need her, after all.
The problem was that she now knew that she needed him.
It was some time around dusk and Inez sat alone by Ezras bedside, waiting for him to awaken. He had stirred and muttered on several occasions during the day but each time (despite earnest coaxing from Inez, his mother and Nathan) he had slipped back into profound unconsciousness.
And momentarily at least, all the rest of his beside guardians were elsewhere.
Dr Elliot had left midmorning to see several other patients on his rounds. He had promised to return in the evening and, in fact, would probably be turning up sometime soon.
Josiah has escorted Maude down to the saloon. He and Inez had agreed that she needed a break and he reasoned that taking money off him, Chris and Vin might be just about the only thing that would take her mind off her sons illness. Besides, he always found it amusing to watch Buck struggle to contain his temper with the more obstreperous saloon patrons. It would be interesting to see how frayed he had become, having spent an entire day behind the bar.
Nathan had just ducked out to Dr Elliots surgery to borrow his spare stethoscope. He would be back any moment.
So Inez sat alone, watching and waiting and reflecting. The soup she had made was on a tray in her lap, no longer even lukewarm although she had already reheated it once. She had taken the comment about keeping Ezras strength up quite seriously and was determined that she would get something inside him before the day was through. The soup was a simple beef stock to which she had added barley and every vegetable she could find. Maybe he would only manage the broth but if she could persuade him into taking any solids, it would be a welcome bonus.
He stirred again and she brought her chair closer and called his name. This time there seemed to be a response.
"Come on, Ezra." She put a hand to his face and his eyelids slowly lifted. "Come on, you have to eat something."
"What?" He blinked at her. "Inez?"
"Yes, querido." She took a spoonful of the soup and moved to put it in his mouth but he turned his head away.
"No," he murmured, "not hungry."
"You have to, Ezra. Its only a little cold." That last part was a blatant lie but he could complain about that later.
"I dont want it."
"Ezra, you have to keep your strength up if you are going to fight this."
"I dont care." He was clearly awake now. And just as clearly had every intention of digging in his heels against something he didnt want to do.
Inez sighed. There were times when she could do without this petulance.
"You have to think of Angelica and me. What would we do without you?"
Ezra found that rather ironic, as his mind drifted back to the conversation theyd had the previous evening. Almost subconsciously, he threw one of the comments she had made back at her. "I expect that you would cope quite well."
Belatedly, he realized how bitter that sounded and he then tried to soften the reminder with a smile. But the performance was not up to his usual standard.
Inez winced. She remembered the whole conversation vividly and could scarcely believe that she had said something so hurtful. If she could have taken it back, she would have.
But since that wasnt possible, all she could do was try to reassure him. As usual, she mixed just a touch of levity into her reply. "Maybe we would cope but all the joy and laughter would be gone."
"Yes, I know that I am your chief source of amusement." Ezra persisted with the smile but his whole façade was deteriorating and this time the resentment in his tone was unmistakable.
Inez felt the crack in her heart widen. He couldnt truly believe that, he simply couldnt. The time for hiding behind humour and banter was long past. She had to tell him how much she needed him. Putting the spoon to his lips to silence him, she tearfully poured her heart out.
"Ezra, stop it! You are the very lifeblood that keeps my heart beating."
His eyes widened and he made half an attempt to protest. But she continued without pause.
"And Angelica. You are the only father she has ever known. She has already lost her mother. What do you think it would do to her to lose you as well? And your mother? And Nathan and Josiah and all the others? Dont pretend that you dont mean anything to us. You know that it isnt true. And none of us will forgive you if you dont do everything possible to fight this."
Ezra stared in wordless amazement at her impassioned declaration. Then his expression turned remorseful.
Inez inwardly reproached herself again. She hadnt meant to hurt him.
But then again, maybe it had done some good.
"Now eat." She coaxed softly and he meekly took the spoonful she offered.
But he grimaced theatrically, as he swallowed.
"Did you have to put carrots in it?" he asked, surprising her slightly by complaining about the contents rather than the temperature.
But for once, she was glad to see the petulance returning. "Yes. They are good for you. Everything possible, remember?"
"But, Ine- "
She smiled as she silenced him again by placing another spoonful in his mouth.
"Dont look at me like that. Just swallow it. Theres plenty more left."
And so it continued, spoonful by spoonful, each one accompanied by cajoling, pleading or outright bullying. It took all her powers of persuasion to coax him into eating and all his available strength to comply with her demands.
He had only taken half the bowl when another coughing fit assailed him and sapped even that meager reservoir of energy. His eyelids began to flutter and she gently caressed his cheek.
"Its alright, querido. Rest. I am here with you."
She watched him drift back to sleep, then placed the bowl and tray on a bedside table.
"So many things to say," she murmured, "but I cannot tell you when you are like this."
They had been lovers for only a year but they had been close friends for a long time before that. Sometimes, she felt as though she knew him like the back of her hand. At others, she chafed as she him watched hide from her, behind an endless barrage of quips and witticisms.
"Sometimes, it seems that we do nothing but talk, but somehow we never seem to say the things that are important."
That was going to stop. When he was better, she was going to force him to sit down and listen, as she told him everything that he needed to know.
"You have to fight this, Ezra. Youve got to beat it. I have so many things I need to tell you."
* * * * *
Nathan was well used to spending days at a time in a patients sickroom. It didnt quite get to him in the same way that he saw it got to others, even when the patient was a friend. He supposed that if he had felt like that, he would have gone well and truly crazy, long ago.
But still, he greatly appreciated small absences from the bedside, to briefly clear his head and get a breath of fresh air. He had fetched Doc Elliots stethoscope from his surgery. The doc wouldnt mind and Nathan would be better able to check on Ezra, now that he had it.
Hed actually met up with the doctor as they both passed through the saloon and they were now on their way up to Ezras room together. Nathan had been exceedingly grateful when the others, Chris, Vin, Buck and JD, had all volunteered to help look after Ezra during the night. And he knew that Inez would be very moved by their offers when he told her.
But even as he put his hand on the door of Ezras room, he was interrupted by the voice of someone who had completely slipped his mind.
He turned to see her standing in the doorway of her own room. Hell! Shed probably been hiding in there all day.
"What is it, Angie?" But he already knew what she wanted.
"I have to see Father. I need to discuss something very important with him."
It was out of the question. But how did you explain that to a troubled child who was desperate to see her father?
"Angie honey, itd be very bad fer ya tbe in that room."
He could see that this meant nothing at all to her. "Why?"
The doctor stepped in. "Your father wants you to stay outside and you want him to be happy, dont you?"
Angie had an answer for that one. "Hed be happy to see me. I could make him happy to see me."
"No, you couldnt. Not this time."
Nathan almost winced. The hurt on Angies face was heartbreaking and her eyes were already red with recently shed tears. But he knew that her loyalty to her father was just about the only thing they had in their favour. "Yve gotta be a good girl an do what yer daddy says."
She obviously fought to contain her frustration. "I can be good," she said, in the biting tone of a much older person, "Its just none of you will let me show him how good I can be!"
Dr Elliot seized upon this. "How about you show us how good you can be for a while? Then maybe later, well see what we can do."
Angie was dubious but she would accept any genuine offer. "How can I show you?"
"He needs quiet. You need to show us how quiet you can be. Then well see."
She wilted against the doorframe of her room. "Okay, Ill wait in here." Then she disappeared into the room and the door closed behind her.
Geez! Nathan could see that the kid was exhausted. Well, shed been up since about 4 oclock in the morning. Come to think of it, he had too. And Inez. He yawned as he opened Ezras door and led the way into the room.
* * * * *
Inez looked like she was just about ready to fall off the chair at Ezras beside. But she straightened in her seat, as she heard them enter, and tried to look reasonably alert.
Nathan spoke gently, "Hey Inez, I think yneed tget some sleep."
"Im alright, Nathan."
"No, ynot. Yre dog tired. Ezrall kill me if you get sick as well."
She wearily tossed his reasoning back at him. "What about you?"
"Im fine." Then he realised that the best way to persuade her was to give her another target for her concern. "Im more worried about Angie."
It was a good strategy. Pain and remorse briefly crossed Inezs tired features. "Where is she?"
"In her room. Think shes bin there all day."
Inez leaned forward and buried her face in her hands.
"Hey," Nathan said gently, "I think yshould go an put her tbed. An get a little sleep yself."
She lifted her face and nodded tiredly. "Alright, but what about you? You are exhausted too."
"Chris an Vinll be up later. Both offered ttake a turn watchin Ezra tnight. Buck an JD too. But I told JD that he needed tget home tCasey an Buck that youd roast im alive if he werent wide awake tlook after the saloon tmorrow. Oh, an Buck said to say that there were no fights at all today."
She managed a smile, as Nathan helped her to her feet. "There is a first time for everything."
"Yeah." He walked to the door with her and gave her a quick squeeze on the shoulder before she went out. "Sleep well, Inez. An say gdnight to Angie fer me."
* * * * *
There was no reply when Inez knocked on the door to Angelicas room, so she opened it quietly and tip-toed in.
Angelica was curled up on top of her bed, hugging her pillow like it was the last friend she had left in the world.
"Angelica?" Inez whispered. No sense in waking the child if she had already succumbed to exhaustion.
There was no response, as she cautiously approached the bed. She leaned down to find that the pillow was not only being clasped fiercely but also thoroughly stained with tears.
"Oh, Angelica," she murmured. They had all been so caught up with the crisis occurring in the next room, that the child had been left abandoned with her anguish all day.
Well, better late than never. At least, Inez could be there for her now. She climbed onto the bed beside Angelica and gently took the sleeping child into her arms.
Angelica stirred slightly and mumbled only a single word, "Father." But this was even more piteous than her pillow full of tears.
Inez tightened her embrace. "He is going to be alright, mi nina. He is going to get better so that the two of us can hold him tightly in our arms until he truly understands just how much we love him. And also, you will know how much we both love you."
The child stirred again but then seemed to settle when Inez placed a light kiss on her forehead, mimicking the way Ezra did so every evening when he bade her goodnight.
"He is going to be fine."
Maybe if she said it enough times, it would ease the persisting chill of fear in her own heart.