The Wages of Sin

By: Derry

Part Sixteen

When Nathan had finished splinting Ezra’s ankle, with Vin’s help, he lifted the unconscious gambler over his left shoulder. Vin had offered to help carry him but Nathan had two very good arguments against this. Firstly, with his leg splinted it was actually more practical for one person to carry him, and secondly, Vin would be needed to help Chris back to the saloon.

Predictably, Chris strongly asserted that he could make it there on his own but Nathan put his foot down. There were more than enough problems already without creating unnecessary ones through stubborn childishness. When he phrased it that way, Chris was forced to agree, although he indulged in a little childish grumbling along the way.

They approached the saloon rather cautiously, uncertain of who or what might be there to greet them. But they were pleasantly surprised when Mary Travis ran out towards them.

After briefly making sure that they were all more or less in one piece, she decided to help Vin with Chris and drew his other arm over her shoulder to help support him. This time he offered no objection to the assistance.

When they entered, Buck too rushed forward to help. Inez sat on a stool by the bar, gently rocking Angelica who clung to her, face buried against her shoulder. When the saloon manager looked up and saw Ezra draped over Nathan’s shoulder, she opened her mouth but was unable to speak, certain in that one terrible moment that he was dead.

Nathan seemed to read her thoughts. "He’ll be okay, Inez. I was just gonna take ‘im up t’his room."

He was considerably surprised when a weak voice protested, "No, put me down here."

Angelica looked up at the sound of the familiar voice, even as Nathan shook his head, "Ezra. It’d be better..."

"Please, Nathan!"

Nathan sighed and Buck helped lift the gambler down to the floor and prop him in a sitting position, against the bar.

Angelica immediately wriggled out of Inez’s grasp and threw herself into Ezra’s lap, wrapping her arms around his neck. He winced and couldn’t stifle a small gasp of pain but fervently returned the embrace.

The sight almost broke Inez’s already wounded heart, but she managed a sad smile as she knelt beside them both and gently brushed Ezra’s cheek. When he opened his eyes to look at her, she spoke softly, "I have to apologize to you, amigo. I did not shoot Buck like I promised you."

Buck grinned, "There is, however, a man back there with two pistol bullets through ‘is head and a shotgun blast to the chest. An’ I had nuthin t’do with it."

"Walsh?" asked Vin.

"Reckon so, but he’s a bit hard t’recognize."

Nathan had knelt down to check on Ezra’s splinted ankle, to find the limb increasingly swollen, and loosened the bandages slightly. He sighed again and looked at Buck, "I’d appreciate it, Buck, if y’didn’t hafta be patched up for the rest of the day. I’ve got my hands full with the rest of ‘em."

His memory prodded, Ezra fearfully asked after JD and Nathan managed a reassuring smile, "Don’t worry. I think he’s gonna be okay. Josiah too."

Ezra closed his eyes again with a small sigh. So in this damnable day, there had been at least this small measure of salvation.

Chris was trying not to scowl but couldn’t quite manage it. He could see that Ezra was in a rather fragile state but he was also the man with all the answers everyone needed and Chris, for one, didn’t feel inclined to wait any longer. He audibly cleared his throat and, when Ezra met his gaze, asked, "Mind tellin’ us all exactly what happened today?"

Ezra’s gaze flicked from Chris to Angelica and back again. The others deserved an explanation but he didn’t want to further traumatize the child with a graphic description of her mother’s demise. He was unutterably grateful when Inez stepped in.

"Back in San Francisco, Greel and his boss abused Teresa and threatened her child. She killed the boss and when Greel came to town, they went into hiding. She made us promise not to tell anyone." Then she looked helplessly at Ezra, since she had no idea of what had occurred that morning.

He reluctantly took up the narrative. "While waiting at Mrs Wells’ farm this mornin’, I realized that he’d found out about them. He must have followed me when I last visited them. I suppose I knew it was already too late but I had to go. I’m sorry. I know that it’s a completely inadequate thing to say, but I am really sorry."

"So then y’found her?" Nathan asked softly.

Ezra nodded, "They were where we’d left them, at the old Kelly gang hideout." He didn’t see Chris and Vin exchange a glance.

The gambler took a deep breath but his voice still trembled slightly as he continued, "It was a heartrending sight. Greel said later that she didn’t go easily, and I believe it. I eventually found Angelica. The poor child’s so traumatized that she hasn’t spoken a word. I brought her back here and, well you know the rest." He closed his eyes again and there were tears at the corners.

Nathan looked down at him. Ezra was usually quite fastidious about his appearance but now he was covered from head to toe in dust and dirt from the rubble of the Town Hall and probably from the mine as well. Most of the blood staining his clothes was probably Teresa’s. His clothes were also torn in various places and Nathan himself had slit his left trouser leg up to the knee, to treat the broken ankle. On top of all that, he was completely physically and emotionally exhausted. He looked like he’d been to Hell and back. And from what he’d said, he probably felt that way as well.

Inez was still kneeling beside him and Angie, with one hand gently stroking the child’s head and painfully working to contain her own tears. Nathan briefly touched her shoulder and whispered to her. She nodded and, with a quiet promise to return soon, headed into the kitchen.

Vin sighed heavily. They were all hurting inside but he felt like he was almost intruding on the grief of Angie, Ezra and Inez. More than anything, he needed to be out doing something, so he volunteered, "I’ll go see to Teresa."

"I’ll help ya," said Chris, feeling much the same way.

Nathan looked over at him irritably, "An’ what makes you think you’ll be much help?"

"I can still drive a wagon," Chris retorted, "Don’t y’think that you oughta check on JD an’ Josiah?"

Buck clapped Nathan on the shoulder, "Yeah, c’mon. I’ll come with ya." He too felt the need to give the surviving saloon residents space to mourn their loss privately. Mary Travis, barely holding back tears, also volunteered to accompany him, just as Inez returned carrying two steaming mugs.

Nathan looked over at the saloon manager, "Gonna check on JD an’ Josiah, then I’ll be back."

She nodded and placed the cups on the bar before seeing them all off. Then she returned her attention to Angelica and Ezra. He had managed to loosen her grip on him and now was holding her by the shoulders and looking into her eyes.

"I wish you’d say somethin’, Angel girl. You don’t know how much you’re frightenin’ me."

She shook her head vigorously at this suggestion and finally it dawned on him that there may more to her silence than just the shock. It was almost as if she had been forbidden to speak.

Of course! That was what had saved her. It was probably Teresa’s last instruction. She’d hidden her daughter and told her to keep silent no matter what.

Angelica stared back at him. She seemed to be aching from all the things that she wanted to say, but couldn’t. And her gaze cut right through his soul.

He had to break her out of this. "Did your mother tell you not to speak?"

She nodded emphatically and his heart nearly broke to think how much it must be weighing on the child’s mind. "Oh, Angel girl! She only meant while you were out there at the mine. She didn’t mean forever. You must believe me."

Finally, came the tearful voice which he’d begun to fear he would never hear again, "She said, ‘As you love me, don’t make a single sound whatever happens.’ I do love her. Really, I do!"

Ezra’s own voice was also tear-stained, as he answered, "I know that. She knows it too. I swear to you she does." He didn’t know if he was referring to Teresa in the present tense for Angelica’s benefit or his own. Released from her vow of silence, the child buried her face against him and wept torrentially.

"It’s goin’ to be alright," he whispered. It was a platitude but he clung to it, even though he doubted the truth of it, right now.

Inez had one hand on each of their shoulders. She squeezed Ezra’s to get his attention and said, "She needs to sleep."

Angelica shook her head and he nodded his, simultaneously.

Inez rose to retrieve the cups from where she’d left them, on top of the bar, and presented Angelica and Ezra with one each. He then saw that they contained warm milk.

Angelica had not eaten in twenty-four hours and it took only minimal encouragement to get her to empty her cup.

Ezra sipped his own, to find it generously laced with brandy. He cast a pointed glance at the child’s now empty cup and raised an eyebrow at Inez.

Inez snorted softly, "I wouldn’t do something like that to her!"

Ezra smiled slightly, "Of course, you wouldn’t." He refrained from mentioning that during his own childhood years, he had often been induced to sleep using milk spiked with gin or whiskey. It didn’t seem to have done him any lasting harm.

However, plain warm milk, exhaustion and the embrace of someone she trusted seemed to be enough for Angelica. She was soon fast asleep in Ezra’s arms, her head resting comfortably on his shoulder.

As Inez carefully took the cup from the child’s hands, Ezra drained his own and handed it to her, so she could return both to the kitchen at the same time.

While she was gone, he allowed himself to gently rest his cheek against the top of Angelica’s head and close his eyes for just a moment. But he immediately found it impossible to open them again and, within seconds, it would have taken something akin to a small explosion to have roused him.

Inez was unsurprised to find him thus, when she returned. It was the outcome which she had more or less intended when she had prepared the drink for him. She might have been above spiking Angelica’s milk but Ezra was another case entirely. And he needed the rest as much as the child did.

She only briefly contemplated making any attempt to move the pair of them. She might have been able to lift Angelica and put her to bed, but help would be needed to carry Ezra up to his room, without causing further damage to his broken leg.

So, she stood for a moment and heaved a sorrow-laden sigh as she gazed down at the man and child, asleep in each other’s arms. They might have made a heart-warming picture, if it hadn’t all been so tragic.

Angelica’s life had been utterly shattered and Inez knew that it would take a considerable amount of time to pick up all the pieces and slowly patch them together. But she swore to herself, by everything she had ever held sacred, that it would be done.

And Ezra. Inez could see how much self-recrimination was mingled with his grief. She would have to pull him back from that or he’d drown in it. However much he might think that he was responsible for what had occurred, she couldn’t let him live with that crippling guilt. He deserved better than that.

So, they were both going to need her to be strong for them (at this point in time when she herself felt so fragile). But she knew that she would have given her life and soul for the sake of either one of them. That she would have walked through fire and swum through floods, to spare either of them any degree of pain. Whatever may come, she vowed to see them all through it.

But here and now, when both had finally succumbed to oblivious slumber, Inez Roscios took a seat at her own bar, buried her face in her hands and wept her heart out.


Part Seventeen

Ezra found himself counting every step between the saloon and Mary Travis’ newspaper office. It had never seemed a particularly long distance before but, despite the fact that he had become reasonably proficient at using crutches over the past two weeks, he could have sworn that the length had at least trebled.

He rather envied Josiah. Flesh wounds, even those caused by bullets, seemed to heal quickly compared to bone. The preacher was already moving around quite freely on only one crutch. But Nathan had told Ezra that if he wanted to hold any hope of walking again without a limp, he would have to stay off even his crutches and keep his left ankle raised at least ninety percent of the time, for another week or two. Ezra had appealed to Dr Elliott for a second opinion, only to find that it reinforced the first.

And under the plaster cast which encased his left leg up to knee level, it itched like nothing else. Nathan said that the cast would have to remain in place for another four weeks at least, and even after that it might be replaced with another one for an additional month.

Ezra’s vehement complaints drew no sympathy whatsoever. In fact, Nathan appeared to be slightly amused by them. When Ezra had asked how someone who claimed to be a member of a caring profession could be so fundamentally lacking in empathy, Nathan had replied that he didn’t see how someone who claimed to live largely by their wits could be so thoroughly lacking in common sense.

Even Inez had told him that he was making things ten times more difficult than they needed to be. But at least Angelica had stood by him. She’d actually told the three of them collectively that if they weren’t going be helpful, they could all just leave. And she’d been quite disconcerted when they had been unable to stifle their laughter.

She held fast onto Ezra for her own security but she was also fiercely protective of him. And for both those reasons she had not been pleased to be left with Inez at the saloon while he performed this errand. Especially since he had refused to tell her what it was about. It had taken a very long intense discussion before she had agreed, and she remained distinctly unhappy about it. This was actually a major step forward. Until that point, for the past two weeks, she had flatly refused to let him out of her sight.

He seemed to be the anchor that the child had latched onto when her whole world had disintegrated around her. Her mother had been the only constant and stable thing in her life. And now she had lost her in a most horrendous way.

Ezra still didn’t know how much Angelica had seen and heard on that dreadful day, but when she called for her mother in her sleep, she also mumbled about screaming and blood. It was hard to know what was the best way to help her deal with the loss.

He, Inez and Josiah had arranged for Teresa’s body to be cleaned and arranged in an aspect of peaceful repose so that Angelica could view it and have one last memory of her mother at peace before they sealed the coffin. And they had made every effort to ensure that the funeral provided a fitting way for the child to say goodbye to her.

Angelica had attended her mother’s funeral in new black dress which Ezra had purchased for the occasion. Inez had argued against this. The dark grey dress which the child already possessed was perfectly suitable for the occasion and she saw no point in spending money on a garment that they sincerely hoped the child would not have frequent use for. She reminded him that Teresa herself would have been against it.

But Ezra was equally adamant that they were not going to be miserly about any aspect of Teresa’s funeral. No one was going to remember it as a cheap or sordid affair. Teresa would be laid to rest with as much dignity as any of the Four Corners residents that had gone before her.

To this end, he was encouraged by the considerable congregation who attended and the somber respect with which the ceremony proceeded. But as they departed, he’d heard a feminine voice sermonize that "the wages of sin are death".

It was the detestable Mrs Hansen. Ezra had never before regretted his resolution to not hit a woman under any circumstances, but he did at that moment. And he suspected that Inez was only prevented from striding over and inflicting serious physical injuries, by the combination of his vice-like grip on her arm and the fact that she was carrying Angelica.

But Josiah had done them proud that day. They watched as he drew the church-going woman aside and in that uniquely mild but menacing voice of his (which carried to the entire congregation) told her, "I trust that you were reflecting on the man who murdered Teresa when you uttered those words. Or perhaps, you were reflecting on what St Paul had in mind when he wrote them. That we are all sinners who will eventually come to a mortal end." When Mrs Hansen nodded dumbly as Josiah released her, Ezra had been sorely tempted to burst into a round of applause.

He’d been surprised by the support he’d been given by Josiah and Nathan, who seemed compelled to check on his spiritual and physical well-being respectively. He knew that he shouldn’t have underestimated their capacity for compassion, but he remained stunned by it.

However, aside from the two of them, Ezra had managed to largely avoid the company of his fellow law keepers. He’d let them down badly at Mrs Wells’ farm and he knew it. He’d broken the promise he’d made long ago, to them and to himself, never to abandon them in the face of danger. Those were the kind of betrayals which destroyed friendships. He suspected that the shock of Teresa’s murder had shaken even Chris Larabee, such that he wasn’t inclined to persecute the errant gambler. But Ezra knew things would never be the same again.

He couldn’t even look JD in the eyes. The young man’s wedding had been postponed until the new year, due to the groom being incapacitated so soon before the event. Ezra checked on JD’s condition via Nathan (despite the healer’s repeated suggestions that Ezra go to see JD himself, he didn’t withhold the information). JD was now up and about and would suffer no lasting ill effects from his head injury. But what ate away at Ezra’s conscience was that he need not have been injured at all, let alone skirted so close to death, if Ezra hadn’t asked him to hold that position behind the cattle pen.

And any injury to JD offended big brother Buck. Ezra couldn’t get out of his mind the frankly murderous look in Buck’s eyes when he had returned that day. But then he didn’t really think that he deserved to be able to forget it anyway.

Then there was Vin. At least when Buck or Nathan were angry with a person, they let them know clearly where they stood. Vin just tended to stand there and say nothing. No condemnation, no sympathy, no explanations, nothing. He’d probably look completely calm as he drew a weapon and shot the offender. And Ezra just didn’t have the fortitude to deal with that kind of ambiguity at the moment.

And Ezra didn’t even want to contemplate what was going on in Chris Larabee’s mind. Those dark and brooding recesses where he knew that all hope of mercy could be abandoned, they were areas where he had absolutely no inclination to tread.

However, he hoped that Chris hadn’t been sharing his thoughts with Mary and the judge (although he very much doubted it, such wasn’t in the man’s nature). Because if he had, it would probably make Ezra’s intended task well nigh impossible.


Mary Travis was rather surprised to see Ezra Standish slowly and rather wearily making his was to her office door. Her father-in-law was not. He’d only met with Ezra once since his return to Four Corner but the gambler had been the subject of numerous conversations and surreptitious surveillances. This was the meeting which the judge had been anticipating for some time and he walked over to stand beside Mary and greet her guest at the door.

The sight of the two Travis waiting in the doorway did nothing to alleviate Ezra’s apprehension. Each on their own was capable of putting him ill at ease at times. The combination of both could be frankly disturbing and at this moment, he felt like he was coming to them cap in hand.

He paused and mentally gave himself a little encouragement to see this through. The plan he had concocted would work. It made sense. It would be best for all of them. But what if the judge didn’t see it that way? He’d been away most of the time. What if he didn’t see the benefits? The man had a suspicious nature. He couldn’t possibly think that Ezra might be working an angle, could he? Ezra was going to need his assistance for this to work. What if he didn’t give it?

"Do you need a hand with the stairs, Mr Standish?" The judge politely interrupted his thoughts.

That wouldn’t be a bad idea, Ezra realized. "I’d appreciate it, sir."

Judge Travis came down the stairs and, taking the left crutch, drew the gambler’s arm over his shoulder to help him up the stairs. They were both slightly out of breath by the time they reached the top and Mary immediately produced a chair for Ezra to deposit himself in (which he did with considerable gratitude). The judge remained standing and gazed down upon him.

"So Mr Standish, to what does my daughter-in-law owe this visit?"

"Actually sir, it was you I came to see."

"Oh?" The judge feigned surprise and fooled no one.

"I find myself in need of expert legal advice with regard to the matter of adoption."

In the background, Mary broke into a delighted smile but the judge just looked at him sternly. "I take it that you are referring to a particular adoption, rather than the subject in general?"

Ezra nodded.

"And the particular adoptee would be a recently orphaned four-year-old girl?"

Ezra nodded again, "How would one go about the process?"

"Well, perhaps we should discuss the subject in general for a bit. It’s not something that the authorities involved tend to take lightly. The welfare of the children is uppermost in their minds and they do everything possible to ensure that only suitable people are allowed to adopt them."

Ezra’s eyes narrowed, "You see that as a problem?"

"Well, that really depends on who intended to adopt young Angelica."

Ezra had rapidly wearied of this little verbal cat-and-mouse game. He looked steadily into the judge’s eyes, "Me."

Travis smiled, almost as if Ezra had passed the first test, "Well then, let’s look at you as an adoption agency might see you. A single man whose current residence is a room above a saloon. No current and, as far as I know, no previous formal occupation. I don’t think ‘itinerant gambler’ would look particularly good on the form."

"I do have another occupation."

"‘Hired gun-slinger’ doesn’t look much better."

Ezra wasn’t above flattering the man, "Although they may be less than enthusiastic about the occupation, they couldn’t object to my employer."

Orrin Travis smiled. He was going to make the gambler work hard for this, even though he’d intended to grant his request even before he made it. Although they didn’t know it, he’d watched young Angelica and Ezra together. It was clear that they had already bonded closely and, after her recent traumas, the child needed him. To separate them at this stage would come close to killing her, and it wouldn’t do Ezra much good either.

However, he knew that he could use the gambler’s desperation in this matter to lever him towards a little more respectability. Ideally, he would have like Ezra and Inez to settle down, get married and look after the child together. But his work had led him to observe the effects of enough shotgun weddings to know that forcing people into matrimony was virtually always a bad idea. Nevertheless, he could still work on the area of respectable employment.

"I would be willing to help find you a more suitable occupation, which might help."

"Such as?"

"When we repair the damage done to the Town Hall and complete its construction, the records office will need a filing clerk."

That drew blood. Ezra was scandalized.

"Filing clerk?" he asked, but it was more an exclamation of pain than a question.

"I’m sure a man of your literacy and numeracy would be amply qualified. And it would be just the form of employment the adoption authorities would approve of. Furthermore, there’s no reason to terminate your arrangement with me. Most of the townsfolk wouldn’t stand for it anyway. Ever since that episode with Marshal Bryce, they’ve become almost superstitious about you and your six associates. They seem to think the town will be overrun or fall to ruin, if any of you leave your posts. So you’d still have that extra dollar per day and your accommodation paid for."

Ezra gazed at him steadily. He recognized an ultimatum when he heard one and realized that the judge knew that he had him over a barrel. He briefly considered trying to circumvent the whole process by obtaining forged documents to say that he and Teresa had managed to get married somewhere along the way. But he quickly quashed that thought. Such a lie seemed to abuse Teresa’s memory. She’d suffered enough defamation and defilement in her life. Let her at least lie in her grave unmolested.

So he was faced with the choice: undertake respectable honest labour or lose Angelica. There was really no choice at all.

But as he gazed up at Judge Travis and Mary, his mind rebelled against being forced into any situation and he came to a decision which he hoped he wouldn’t regret later.


Part Eighteen

Late that evening, when all the saloon patrons had gone home (under their own power or not), Ezra looked up to see Inez approaching from the bar and acknowledged her with studied nonchalance, despite the fiercely determined look he noticed in her eyes. She’d been waiting all day to have serious one to one conversation with him and was now seizing her chance.

"Do you know what you’re doing?" she demanded.

"I think so." He’d been surprised by her lack of enthusiasm for his plans regarding Angelica and was keen to know the reasons behind it.


When he had returned to the saloon from the meeting with Judge Travis and Mary, he’d made an effort to look like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders (the tiredness induced by the return journey helped considerably with the illusion). Inez and Angelica, who knew only that he had gone to the newspaper office to discuss something important, had been rather alarmed. They both rushed to help him to a chair.

"Are you alright, Mr Ezra?" Angelica asked anxiously.

Ezra sighed theatrically and pulled her up onto his lap. "It looks like I’m about to have both responsibility and respectability foisted upon me."

"Ezra, what have you done?" Inez asked in a low suspicious voice.

But he kept his attention focussed on the child, "You’ve never had a father, have you, Angelica?"

She tilted her head to one side, "No."

"Would you like one?"

She looked puzzled for a moment, then her eyes widened, "You?"

He nodded, "I could hardly make the offer on someone else’s behalf."

She broke into a brilliant smile and threw her arms around him. But then her practical side asserted itself and she drew back, "How?"

"I was just speaking to Judge Travis about how I could legally adopt you. Provided no one else lays claim to your guardianship (and I don’t think that will occur), he assures me that it should be achievable."

"So, you’ll be my father...legally?"


"And that means you would never leave me?"

"I promise that I would never voluntarily leave you."

"Voluntarily?" He wasn’t sure if she wanted an unconditional assurance or was merely querying the meaning of the word.

"If it’s up to me, we’ll be together forever."

That was enough for Angelica. She again smiled and embraced him tightly.

But looking over her shoulder, he saw Inez gazing at the pair of them and looking distinctly displeased about the arrangement. There was a terse edge to her voice as she questioned him about the practicalities of the adoption. And he got the distinct impression that she left several things unsaid because she was unwilling to mention them in front of the child.


So now that Angelica was asleep, up in Ezra’s room (she still refused to sleep anywhere else and it seemed to distress her to be in the room she had shared with her mother), Inez took the opportunity to pin him down.

She placed both hands palms downwards on the table and stared intently into his eyes. She then took a deep breath and spoke with calm deliberation, "Ezra, I am not going to let you spoil that child."

That took him slightly by surprise, "How do you think I’m going to spoil her?"

Inez’ gaze did not waver, "With too much indulgence and flattery, the same way any father spoils his daughter."

Ezra folded his arms with an almost subconscious defiance and Inez realized that she needed to change her tactics.

"Look, I have no doubt that you will give her all the love and attention she needs but Angelica is very bright and she has a streak of wildness in her."


"Alright, mischief then. You must admit, amigo, not every four-year-old would help you con Mrs Hansen out of her scarf, like she did."

Ezra allowed himself a sad smile at the bittersweet memory, while Inez came to her main point.

"She is going to need discipline. And you are going to find that very, very hard."

He frowned, "What makes you say that?"

Inez could think of no way to soften it, "Because you still feel guilty about what happened to Teresa."

Staring into her eyes, he found it difficult to deny, "She trusted me and I led her to her death. I convinced her to stay here and she was defenceless when they came for her."

"Ezra, we both convinced her to stay," Inez tilted her head to one side and added a challenging edge to her voice, "Or do you think I just blindly follow everything you do?"

He could hardly answer that in the affirmative and it wasn’t his true opinion anyway, so he mutely shook his head. Inez leaned forward to push her message home.

"Yes, she trusted you. She trusted both of us. We didn’t save her but we did everything we could and Teresa didn’t expect any more than that. The demon that killed her was from her own past, before she even met us. And, for a while, she was happy here with us. You have to let go of some of this guilt for Angelica’s sake as well as your own."

"Angelica’s sake?"

"She’s a clever girl. She will eventually see it and then one of two things will happen. Either, she will use it to guilt you into letting her have her own way in everything. Or, far more likely, she will begin to think that the only reason that you look after her is because you feel guilty and not because you love her."

Ezra digested this. She was probably right. And furthermore, it occurred to him that guilt was contagious (he thought that he, personally, had been associating with Chris Larabee, guilt-master extraordinaire, for far too long) and Angelica might even come to think the situation was in some way her fault. He certainly wasn’t going to let that happen.

He smiled at Inez. "Alright, I’ll attempt to reduce the self-recrimination. But, I’m placing you in charge of ensuring that I don’t spoil Angelica."

Inez rolled her eyes, "That sounds like a busy job and I already have a saloon to run."

"Well, I have to embark on another occupation. I don’t see why you couldn’t also."

"Yes, I was also going to ask you about that. Are you serious about the job as a records clerk?"

"Of course!" he protested with feigned indignation, "I gave my word to the judge. I wouldn’t go back on it. And I’ll do anything necessary to ensure that Angelica’s adoption is completed without impediment. However..."

Inez raised an eyebrow, "However what?"

"However, once the adoption was finalized, I think it would be utterly heartless for the authorities to separate a father from his child simply because he lost his mode of employment."

Ezra watched her shake her head in a rather poor facsimile of disgusted resignation (rendered ineffective because she couldn’t keep from smiling). She was the only one he could have entrusted with the knowledge of this aspect of his plan. He couldn’t be sure that anyone else might not have either intentionally or inadvertently let it slip to the judge.

It was then that he realized just how good a friend she was to him. He had long noticed that, amongst Four Corners’ seven law-keepers, he alone had not formed a special attachment to one of the others. Chris and Vin had become so close that they often didn’t have to speak aloud to communicate. Buck and JD had that ‘big brother-little brother’ relationship of theirs. Nathan and Josiah seemed to look first to each other for advice and company. He had actually told himself that he was intentionally hanging on to some vestiges of his former loner status. Not surrendering totally to this group bonding because he valued his independence. But in moments of more honest self-assessment, he’d wondered if that wasn’t just a touch of sour grapes.

But now he realized that here, literally staring him in the face, was the best and truest friend that he had ever had or was ever likely to have. During the past few years, they’d always been there for each other. Through dangers and disasters, injuries and illnesses, failed romances and drunken episodes of self pity, she’d always been there to turn to. She’d criticize him, if she thought he needed it (a situation which wasn’t all that uncommon), but her loyalty never wavered for an instant. A truly remarkable woman (he’d been fortunate enough to know several in his life). And an extraordinary friend.

Then, as he continued to gaze into her eyes, he realized that it wasn’t just platonic friendship that she was offering. He couldn’t quite believe it. He who considered himself a talented reader of people and one who seized every available opportunity. How long had he been oblivious to this? Or maybe she too, was only now realizing the opportunity which was presenting itself.

She certainly was aware of it now, as she leaned across the table between them and brought their lips together. The kiss was actually as light and brief and the one they had shared at the engagement party, nearly two months ago. But, to him, it was incandescent and filled with infinite promise. He closed his eyes to savor it and almost protested aloud when she unexpectedly drew back.

He then heard the sound of someone clearing their throat and realized that it was probably for the second time. They both looked around to see that the throat-clearer was Buck, wearing a broad knowing grin. Chris, Vin, JD, Josiah and Nathan also stood there, displaying varying degrees of amusement.

"Sorry t’interrupt y’both but we’d like t’have a word or two with ya, Ezra," said Buck.

Ezra gazed at the lot of them. He reached into his pocket and withdrew his watch but before he could open it and look at the dial, Chris said, "We know it’s late but this is kinda important."

Just then, Ezra and Inez both reacted as they heard a door creak upstairs. They’d both become especially attuned to listen for it (and Inez had purposely refrained from oiling the hinges so that the door remained audible). Angelica had woken and was looking for them.

Inez placed a restraining hand on Ezra’s shoulder, "I’ll go to her. You stay here and talk to them."

Ezra gave her the look of a man facing the gallows but she just smiled, gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and hurried up the stairs.

He was not looking forward to this at all, but he forced himself to adopt a genial smile as he turned to face them, "Well gentlemen, to what do I owe the pleasure?"

They approached closer, surrounded the table he was sitting at and looked down at him. Oh, great! Were they trying to make him feel more claustrophobic? It wasn’t as if he had enough mobility to make an effective escape anyway.

Just as he was about to lose his nerve and demand that they damn well state their business or get the hell out, Chris spoke.

"Well, for a start, we thought that we oughta drop by and congratulate ya on becomin’ a father."

"Oh." Ezra didn’t know why this came as such a surprise to him. "Thankyou."

Buck sat down in the chair next to him, "We know that it’s prob’ly a bit late for a christenin’ or t’wet the baby’s head. But we reckoned some sorta celebration was called for."

Ezra’s smile became genuine, "Well, I don’t think we should stray too far from tradition. It should be drinks and cigars all round, on me. However, since Inez is otherwise occupied and I’m less than fully ambulatory, I’m afraid that y’all will have to serve yourselves."

Chris also smiled, "Sounds like a damn fine idea. Vin? Nathan? Mind doin’ the honours?"

The rest took seats at Ezra’s table, as the two moved over to the bar and retrieved the necessary items. While Vin poured the drinks, Buck assumed what he was coming to see as his customary role of toastmaster.

"Well, I think the first toast should be to fatherhood."

"No," said Ezra.


"Forgive me, Buck, but I think that the first toast should be to motherhood rather than fatherhood. If you would allow me?"

Buck nodded and, unable to stand, Ezra settled for straightening as much as he could in his chair and raised his glass.

"Gentlemen, I give you Miss Teresa Antonia Velasquez. Her many virtues went largely unrecognized during her lifetime but she was one of the finest mothers and one of the most noble and courageous souls that it has ever been my privilege to know. May she rest in peace."

The others chorused, "To Teresa", before draining their glasses but JD hesitated slightly in bringing his glass to his lips.

There was a short silence before he burst out saying, "Ezra, I’m sorry!"

Ezra stared at him, "What are you apologizin’ to me for? Surely, it should be the other way around."

"I know you haven’t said anything but you an’ me both know that I got Teresa killed."

"How in God’s name did you come to that conclusion?"

"Well, if hadn’t shot my mouth off t’Casey about Teresa an’ Angie, Greel would never have found out ‘em."

Ezra had failed to even consider that JD might have staked a claim in the guilt over Teresa’s death. But now that he thought about it, that was just the sort of thing the kid would do. He sighed briefly before fixing the young sheriff with an intense gaze.

"Believe me, JD, I’ve considered every possible ‘what if’ scenario this tragedy could have produced. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the blame for Teresa’s murder lies entirely upon the head of Mr Malcolm Greel. But if there is any extraneous culpability to be had, I believe that I have a prior claim on it. So, do yourself and me a favour, son, and let it go."

Josiah looked at him, "And why do you think you’re to blame?"

Ezra sighed again. Hadn’t he just had this conversation with Inez? "As I said, I’ve considered all the possible roads I could have taken. If I hadn’t visited Teresa and Angie the night before she died. If I’d told y’all what was happening. If I hadn’t talked her out of leaving town when she first intended to. If I’d just shot Greel when I first met him, rather than trying to intellectually outmaneuver him…"

"What if I had let you know that I thought that Greel an’ Walsh were headin’ out to the old Kelly hideout that day?" Vin interjected quietly.

Ezra looked at him, again caught completely by surprise, "How could you have known that?"

"Overheard ‘em say they were headed out to a mine in the west hills, same time as they said they were gonna attack Miss Nettie. Even mentioned t’Chris that it mighta bin the old Kelly hideout. Thought it was prob’ly they’re new hideout. But if I’d let you know, maybe we coulda saved Teresa."

Ezra shook his head, "How could you have known the significance, when I kept their location from you?"

Josiah said softly, "I’ll bet Teresa made you promise not to tell us."

"Well yes, she would have been most angry with me, but she would still be alive to be so."

"The decision was hers and you respected it. You can’t condemn yourself for that."

"Not for that, no." Here, it came. This was the part he was really not looking forward to.

"For what, then?" asked Chris, although the tone of his voice suggested that he might have suspected of what the answer would be.

Ezra took a small breath then looked him in the eyes. "Well, abandoning one’s comrades in the face of the enemy has always been considered a highly reprehensible offence. I believe the ancient Roman deterrent was crucifixion or decimation."

Chris regarded him steadily, "An’ of course, someone like me wouldn’t understand the circumstances."

"Whatever the circumstances, the fact is I wasn’t there when I was needed. If I had been, maybe JD might have come through the experience unscathed."

Chris’ slightly predatory smile appeared, "Oh, we’re gonna play the ‘what if’ game again, are we? Okay Ezra, I’ve got one for ya. What if you’d bin there? What if you’d bin killed or had yer head knocked into next week so that y’didn’t wake up for days. An’ what if Greel an’ Walsh had got to Inez, as well? They obviously intended to. So, then there was no one to tell anyone else about Angie. An’ what if that little girl had jus’ sat in that blood-soaked hole for days until she died of starvation?"

Ezra had gone as pale as a sheet and made absolutely no effort to reply.

Chris placed a hand on his shoulder, "Don’t play ‘what if’ with me, Ezra. I’m an old, old hand at it. An’ it’s one game you’ll never win."

Ezra felt another hand come down on his other shoulder and looked up to see Nathan standing behind him, smiling kindly, "Y’think we don’t know the kinda thoughts that were runnin’ through y’mind that day? Course we do. The only one blamin’ you is y’self."

Chris spoke again, "All of us at the farm made it through that day an’ that’s what counts in the end. An’ as to Teresa’s death. Y’said it y’self, Greel was t’blame fer that an’ we saw t’him. No, you saw to him. An’ we got all the rest of ‘em. Y’oughta take y’own advice an’ let it go." He paused and cast a sweeping glare over all those present, "An’ if anyone says anythin’ about a pot callin’ a kettle black, I’ll shoot ‘em!"

Buck grinned, "So maybe, we should just get back t’drinkin’?"

"Fine idea, Buck. I believe we were toastin’ fatherhood."

"Right," Buck lifted his glass purposefully, "T’Ezra’s impendin’ fatherhood. He’s gonna need all the help he can get cos, as we all know, that little girl’s got ‘im wrapped around ‘er finger."

Ezra chuckled as they drank, wondering what Inez would think to hear Buck roughly echoing the sentiments she’d expressed earlier.

Chris got a wicked gleam in his eye, "An’ I hear that Ezra’s gonna get ‘imself a proper job. Maybe not exactly ‘menial labour’ but definitely honest toil. So let’s drink t’Ezra’s honest hard-workin’ soul."

Ezra laughed again and drank with them but retribution was definitely called for, "Alright then, gentlemen, we really must have a toast to Mr Larabee’s cheerful exuberance and indefatigable optimism."

Buck, especially, enjoyed that one. "Chris’ exuberance an’ optimism," he roared, as they drank.

JD decided to have a go, "Buck’s quietness an’ patience!" But as they finished drinking that one, they heard Inez clear her throat behind them.

They collectively turned to see her standing with Angelica in front of her, her hands resting on the child’s shoulders.

"She refused to go back to bed without seeing you, Ezra," the saloon manager announced.

Angelica folded her arms and gave Ezra a look that quite clearly said, "That’s right, I did."

Ezra hesitated slightly. He was hardly under the table at this stage but he wasn’t sure that he wanted Angelica to have too many memories of her new father with whiskey on his breath. But surrendering to the inevitable, he held out his arms to her and she rushed straight into them.

Once safely installed on his lap, she turned to look at the rest of the assembled group. "So, why is everyone here?"

Ezra was unsure how best to reply, "Um, they just stopped by to talk and maybe have a drink."

Nathan smiled at her, "An’ we all wanted t’say how glad we were that you’ve got y’self a new daddy."

She grinned back at him, "Me too, Mr Jackson."

An idea occurred to Ezra, "You know, Angelica, since you don’t have any blood relatives. And since I’m about to become your father by law, maybe we should think about getting you some additional arbitrary relations."

"Arbitrary relations?"

"Well, these men here represent the closest I’ve ever come to having brothers, so maybe you should consider them your uncles." Ezra found that he felt foolish enough expressing the mawkish sentimentality without the rather cloying grin JD cast in his direction.

He felt that he ought to bring things back to a perspective which he found more comfortable, "But there are a few things you should be warned about. Firstly, don’t ever let your Uncle JD teach you to tell jokes."

"Hey!" JD protested.

"And please don’t listen to your Uncle Buck if he tries to give advice about courtin’ or dealin’ with young beaus. And be very wary of your Uncle Nathan if he tells you something will ‘hurt a bit’, especially if your Uncle Vin offers you his lunch at the same time. And I would advocate never attemptin’ to lie to your Uncle Josiah, as he seems to have an aptitude for seein’ right through such strategies. And whatever you do, never ever call your Uncle Chris a cowboy."

"An’ watch out fer yer Daddy, if he offers t’play a game of chance with ya," added Nathan.

Ezra grinned and acknowledged the healer’s veracity with a nod.

Angelica seemed to absorb all this quite seriously and looked over at Inez, "And Aunt Inez?"

Inez winced, "Just call me ‘Inez’, Angelica."

But Ezra had instantly warmed to the idea, "No, Aunt Inez. You should probably just be wary of her, in general."

Inez sighed in resignation, realizing that if they went to war over this, she’d probably come away in defeat.

"Well," said Vin, pulling out his harmonica, "As we seem to’ve called a halt to the drinkin’, maybe we should have a bit a music." He put it to his lips and began playing a lively little tune.

JD held out his hand to Angie but she shook her head, content to remain where she was, on her new father’s lap. Buck extended an invitation to Inez but she also declined and went to take a seat next to Ezra.

Having been turned down by the only two females in the room, Buck and JD shrugged and started dancing with each other.

"Do you think those two have had enough to drink?" Inez asked no one in particular. She put her arm around Ezra’s waist and rested her head against his shoulder. He kept his arms around Angelica but turned to lightly kiss the top of Inez’ head before returning his gaze to the terpsichorean display.


As they watched Buck, JD and Vin, the three of them failed to notice that they in turn were being watched by Chris, Nathan and Josiah.

"Make a nice little family portrait, don’t they?" observed Chris.

"Yeah, they do," said Nathan. Then he frowned, "Reckon they’ll be alright?"

"Eventually," was Josiah’s opinion.

"Eventually?" asked Chris.

"Well, grief’s a terrible wound and guilt’s worse."

Chris snorted, "Y’reckon I don’t know that?"

The preacher continued, obliviously, "But I reckon those three just might be each other’s road to healing."

Even Chris smiled at that, "Roads like that are usually best traveled together."

"Amen to that, Brother Chris. By the way, how are Mary and Billy?"


Ezra, for one, certainly felt more contented than he had for weeks, perhaps even, for years. He turned to his new daughter to check that her emotional status was equally favorable, "Happy, Angel girl?"

"Yes, Father." She’d begun calling him by that title from the moment that he informed her of his intention to adopt her. But she still spoke the word a little tentatively, as if trying it on to see how it felt.

A thought occurred to her as she watched Buck and JD, "So, if they’re my uncles because they’re like brothers to you, does that mean Aunt Inez is like a sister to you?"

A sudden wicked grin appeared on Inez’ face, "Yes Ezra, am I like a sister to you?"

Caught unawares, Ezra stammered slightly, "Um, well no, not exactly."

Ironically, only a matter of hours ago, he might have indeed claimed that his feelings towards her were fraternal. But certainly not now.

Angelica gave him a puzzled look, "Why not?"

Ezra looked from Angelica’s questioning expression to Inez’ mischievous one and back again.

He then realized that, with these two around, it looked like his life was about to become a lot more complicated.


The End

Comments: Derry