The Agony of Defeat

by Helen Adams

How could it have happened? How could a week that had started out so beautifully have ended in such ruin? How could he have allowed the small spark of hope that had begun to kindle in his heart all those months ago to turn into a foolish bonfire of plans and dreams? How could that secretly cherished dream have turned into such a nightmare?

Ever since his mother had departed town, smiling in satisfaction over the ruin she had made of his life, the questions had burned. Ezra groaned softly in response to the endless litany, rolling over to lie face down on the uncomfortable straw-tick mattress that the public boarding house provided. Grimacing at the touch of the rough-spun sheets against his skin, he paused a moment to wonder at his own foolishness. He knew the poor quality of this place, but had come here in such a huff of hurt feelings that he hadn’t even returned to his room long enough to collect some decent bedding, or a nightshirt or fresh undergarment to sleep in. He had simply not been able to bear the thought of sleeping in his usual room, located above a saloon that was no longer his. The hotel across the way was equally unappealing, even had its walls not been full of bullet-holes from today’s gun-battle. The sight of those two buildings brought him nothing but misery, so he had taken the only other option available and bedded down at Virginia’s. With a sigh, Ezra pounded a fist into the thin pillow beneath his cheek, recognizing the futility of trying to pummel some softness into the dilapidated lump even as he did it. Futile…yes, that was a word that just about summed up his existence. For what had he ever provided for anyone except a momentary distraction from their own humdrum lives? He was the odd-man-out in a group of otherwise well matched partners. A source of amusement when things were quiet and a handy extra gun when they were not. Otherwise he smiled, he charmed, he conned and he gambled. Anything to gain the attention of others. Anything to keep those others from knowing how empty his life often was.

Why had she done it? Why here and now, to him? Why had Mother felt such a need to snatch away the first shred of security he had found since he was a boy? To keep him sharp, she had said. Because they, the two of them, were "business people…the best at what we do".

A hoarse laugh broke from his throat at that thought, the sound quickly stifled in the pillow as he heard it and was struck by how like a sob it sounded. What, was he going to cry now? Prove just how pathetic he truly was by bursting into childish tears because somebody had stolen his toy? That would just make Maude’s victory over him all the sweeter, wouldn’t it? The best, indeed! Ezra restlessly rolled over onto his back again, staring at the dark ceiling overhead. He had never bested his mother at anything, not one time in his entire life. She always had the upper hand and won the bigger prize in every contest. That was what made this whole incident truly pathetic. He had known perfectly well that she had what she liked to call "a mother’s advantage" over him, just as he had known that her claim to want a business that would compliment his, rather than compete with it, was a ruse. And yet he had jumped. She had bobbed the bait in front of him without so much as an attempt to hide the barb and he had leapt to hook himself on her line just like a stupid starving fish.

When would he learn that the starving part of his heart, the same part that had leapt so eagerly for that bait, would never get what it craved? When would it sink in that his mother would never simply love him and approve of him just for being the blood of her blood?

He knew what he should have done, now that it was too late for rational thought to save him. The day he had made the down payment on the ill-fated Standish Tavern, he had spent the morning painting his castle in the air for Josiah, JD and Nathan. He had outlined the future of the saloon just as he had dreamed it would be, glistening wood, sparkling mirrors and all. He had known that the place would need to be closed for a while, possibly as much as a few weeks, while it was renovated to fit his standards. He had saved a little extra money with the intention of ordering supplies to begin the improvements, and he had hoped that his friends would infuse enough investment capital to fund the rest. If he had just stuck to that plan instead of wasting that small cache of extra funds trying to out-do his mother things would be so different now! She would quickly have grown bored with the lack of competition, alternately teasing and ranting over his new business venture but unable to do anything about it. Perhaps she would have even invited him to help run the gambling tables in the Ritz hotel and casino. It would have been the smart thing to do, allowing each of them to make a profit and still keep a subtle but suspicious eye trained upon the other.

What was it about him that made logic and rational thought flee whenever his mother dangled the carrot of competition before his eyes? Was he really so easy as that? What did people see when they looked at him? Did they see the charming and intelligent rogue that he tried to project - a man who needed no one but occasionally stopped to tend the needs of others because it suited him to do so? Or did they see just a foolish mark with less brain than bravado - a cheater who was only fooling himself?

Clearly the latter must be what Inez Recillos had seen. She had gulled him to her own advantage just as surely as his mother had. Ezra frowned, wondering suddenly if the feisty young Mexican woman could possibly have been in the employ of Maude Standish all along. Surely it was rather odd that she, a perfect stranger, should happen to come along and request a job in a saloon that was all too obviously doing poorly, when just across the street a thriving business boomed. Had her ability to handle that old drunk been a bit too masterful? Inez certainly had ingratiated herself with his mother with phenomenal speed once Maude had decided to darken the door of her son’s saloon. And then to be made manager! Promoted right over his head after only two days’ employment, all without so much as a "do you mind" from either of them. Even if Inez was innocent of any machinations, she had certainly not hesitated to drive a knife into his back at the first self-serving opportunity! He should have sent her packing the moment she asked for the job. But…she had seemed so genuine. He had liked her. Still did, oddly enough. There was something admirable in her. Something that would likely prove to be an asset to any man who was patient enough to get to know her well enough to be called friend. Still, with friends like that…

Where had all his other supposed friends been while his dreams were being ground into the dirt beneath Mother’s dainty boot-heel? Where was the respect he had thought he was earning from Nathan? Where was the trust that JD always seemed to have that the men he worked with were worth believing in? Where was the fellowship that Josiah was so fond of droning on about? Dust in the wind, apparently, when faced with the appeal of foolproof gambling systems, social elevation and the romantic solicitation of a lovely female. Utterly false, all of them, and he would not make the mistake of putting his faith in any of them again!

Was it wrong that he still wanted to?

Growling in frustration over that last traitorously wistful thought, Ezra flipped over onto his side then flung the covers aside and launched himself out of the bed. The contours of his new quarters were unfamiliar, forcing him to tread carefully as he felt his way blindly across the small space to the room’s only window. Moving the curtain aside, he lifted the sash and allowed the cool evening breeze to come in and drift soothingly across his lightly perspiring skin. For a moment, Ezra shied back, struck with the impropriety of standing in full view of a street-facing window without a stitch to cover him. Then he stepped forward again. To hell with propriety! It wasn’t as if he had much pride left anyway. Besides, it was the middle of the night and nobody would see him anyway. Even if someone did, what were they going to do; have Buck, or JD or one of the others arrest him? He snorted softly at the thought. JD would die of mortal embarrassment at such a task, Buck would simply leer and check around to see if he had stashed an equally nude female companion somewhere about the room, and none of the others would even bother to check on such a complaint.

Who was he kidding, anyway? An, "I don’t need anybody but myself" attitude was comforting at times but clearly not fooling anyone…not even himself. If it was, he would never have even considered buying property here, and the other lawmen would have found an excuse to run him out of town long before he’d put that notion into play. It wasn’t fooling his mother, certainly. If she truly believed that he was as self-sufficient, self-reliant and just plain selfish, as she had taught him to be, she wouldn’t have bothered to travel hundreds of miles simply to "conquer" him. And after all, who had he expected to stand with him against the indomitable Maude, when he had known full well that he was not strong enough to do so himself?

It was nobody else’s fault that the saloon had failed. Nobody’s fault but his. If he had used his head instead of his heart, his mother never would have struck him down so easily. If his timing had been better, he would have had the full support of Chris, Vin and Buck in his business venture. Ezra knew that as surely as he knew the sun would rise far too early in the morning. The others might not have understood his desire to own a saloon, perhaps seeing the venture as just another way to greedily siphon cash off the locals, but they would have patronized the Standish Tavern over the Ritz. Buck would have come because they were friends and no other reason was required. Chris would have spent his money here and encouraged others to do the same simply because he disliked Maude and would enjoy taking business away from her. Vin would have come because he wasn’t a man to change his habits without a good reason and because he understood a little about wanting to belong without wanting to admit it. And if those three had come, the others would have too, eventually. They would have come because that’s where their friends were. And he would have welcomed them, in spite of everything.

Allowing the curtain to drop, Ezra wearily made his way back to bed, frowning again at the feel of the scratchy linens as he climbed between the sheets. Tomorrow he would go back to his own room, to his featherbed and soft down pillow. His return would not be without a few pangs of regret, but he would do it. Nobody would ever know just how much it had torn at him to lose that saloon. They would see a man who knew how to lose gracefully, but refused to let one defeat turn him completely away from the game. He would have a talk with Inez, to see if he could find out a bit more about her motives and perhaps get the lady on his side before the time came for a rematch of wits with his mother. He would eat his meals in that saloon. He would drink whiskey with his compatriots there, all of whom would almost certainly return now that the unfortunate business with those bounty-hunters was over. And he would ply his trade there, playing many (hopefully) lucrative games of chance until the time came for his ultimate triumph: the day he could go to the bank and buy back his dream. This time there would be no down payment. He would wait until he could buy the business, free and clear with no chance of foreclosure and no need to borrow money from doubtful coworkers to get the place going. Then, perhaps, when he was ready to reopen, he would ask the other men if they wanted to invest their money anyway.

After all, what else were friends for?

The End

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