Disclaimer: The boys are the property of MGM, Mirisch, and Trilogy Entertainment. I do not own them or make money from them but if I did own them I promise I would share.
Characters: Old West. Ezra and the boys, Maude, OC's.
Warning: Contains drug use.
Summary: Continuation of Misplaced 3. Finding Earl Standish is a daunting task for Ezra but the gambler has six friends willing to help. Which is lucky as Maude has yet another confession to make.
Josiah Sanchez looked up and down the railroad platform but saw no sign of Vin Tanner. The burly preacher found this extremely disconcerting. The tracker had wired that he would meet the train in New Orleans and Vin Tanner's word was his bond. Josiah removed his hat and waited until the platform was empty of passengers and well-wishers. Seeing only one person still standing at the far end of the platform Josiah replaced his hat and walked towards the solitary figure. He paused and waited.
The other man slowly raised his head, revealing eyes of shocking blue and resumed his usual trademark lean. "Howdy, J'siah. Good journey?" rasped Vin Tanner.
"Mighty nice, until my dear brother decided to play a trick on me by agreeing to meet me and then showing up in disguise!"
"Aw shucks, ain't no disguise," answered the tracker, indicating the well-tailored jacket and pants he wore. "Ezra's got me all prettied up like this while I's in the civilized 'big city'. Now ya got here mebbe ya kin persuade Ezra ta stop walkin' an' talkin' like he's got a stick up his ass. Iffen he tells me 'Mistah Tannah, how uncouth!' one more time I's gonna shove m' sawed off where the sun don't shine!"
"Is it really so bad?"
"Truth be told, J'siah, Ezra is tryin' ta be some feller he ain't. Reckon he's got this idea fixed in his mind that he has ta be the kinda man his pa was expectin'. That Ezra ain't good enough as he is."
"Maude," groaned Josiah.
"He ain't our Ezra, J'siah. Worse than when we first met up with him. He's lost hisself. Ain't daring ta leave him alone in New Orleans 'til ya got out here, J'siah."
"Still, he waited for me to arrive before he left for San Francisco. That must be a good sign."
"Yeah," Tanner didn't sound wholly convinced. "Figure he ain't been hisself since we found the nursery in his pa's house. He's tryin' ta be some boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth. The fancy words is gettin' longer an' his patience with me is gettin' shorter. Ev'rythin' I's sayin' an' doin' is wrong. Were like sharin' a room with the Queen of England herself. 'Cept she has less airs an' graces than Ezra do."
"A playroom with Ezra's name on the door. Plumb stuffed full with toys an' the like in his pa's house. Figure his pa got real close ta bringin' Ezra home once an' that scheming witch, Maude, put the kibosh on it at the very last."
"You got inside his pa's house? I can see that I have a lot to catch up on."
"He's gotten twisted up inside, J'siah. He knows that iffen Maude ain't bin so selfish an' left him with Cajun Jack, his pa woulda found him years back. Ezra's like a butterfly ridin' them gulf winds halfway across the world but when they fly inta yer path it don't take much ta break 'em inta itty bitty bits. He's a strong man but them dirty tricks Maude plays can shatter him." Tanner looked searchingly at Josiah, hoping that the preacher had understood the point he was trying to make.
Josiah nodded, understanding what Tanner was driving at.
"Ain't able ta help him m'self, J'siah. He kinda resents that Jake McKenna found me. That my Mama always told me ta remember ta be a Tanner. Deep in my bones I's sure she was goin' ta take me ta meet my Pa when I were old enough ta understan' things. She weren't no Maude Standish."
"I need to see him as soon as possible."
"Follow me, J'siah."
Josiah followed Tanner to a smart carriage. The preacher raised an eyebrow but the tracker merely rolled his eyes. On their way down Bourbon street Tanner filled Josiah in on the events of the last few days. Josiah sighed, hoping that Tanner was exaggerating.
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Sadly, in spite of being a Texican, Vin Tanner hadn't exaggerated one iota.
Ezra Standish was seated in the shadow of a magnolia tree outside a pleasant enough little place. A bottle of absinthe and an absinthe glass, complete with spoon, on the table before him. Not yet an hour past noon, the gambler had already imbibed more than one glass.
"Mr. Sanchez, how kind of you to agree to act as my guide in San Francisco." Ezra put aside his newspaper, arose from his seat at the white, wrought iron table and stuck out his hand stiffly.
"A touch formal ain't we, Brother Ezra?" boomed Josiah, briefly shaking Ezra's clammy hand.
Dear Lord God, this boy is sick in body and mind! Josiah quickly sat down at the table and unobtrusively pushed the bottle and glass aside. Ezra's face was a pallid mask of apathy.
"Looking a mite peaked, Brother Ezra," remarked Josiah.
"New Orleans in the winter leaves one feeling somewhat...jaded," replied Ezra, languidly.
"One carouses all damned night an' day a gamblin' an' a drinkin'," muttered Tanner testily, "one's knowed night owls that git more sleep."
Totally lacking his usual tendency to loquaciousness, Ezra didn't respond to the taunt.
Josiah waved a waiter over and ordered enough food for all three men. He himself was hungry, he strongly suspected that Ezra had not yet eaten and Vin Tanner, well, that boy was a bottomless pit that didn't know the meaning of the word 'full'.
Josiah studied Ezra as the gambler picked listlessly at his food. He met Vin's eyes across the table and the tracker grinned. Josiah watched as Vin allowed gumbo to dribble down his chin before loudly slurping it off with his tongue and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Mr. Tanner! Use your table napkin!" cried an outraged Ezra.
"Ain't wantin' ta dirty it. It's awful nice, better than m' bandana. Kin use m' bandana instead?"
"No, you most certainly may not. It would help if you used your spoon correctly."
"Got it the wrong way up?" puzzled Vin, winking surreptitiously at Josiah.
"No, no. Watch me, Mr. Tanner. Hold your spoon thus with your index finger here. Put your thumb there. No there, like this. There is no need to grip your cutlery as if you intend to dig a hole in the ground." Ezra elegantly lifted a spoonful of gumbo to his lips.
"Mite tricky. Show me ag'in."
Ezra swallowed daintily. "See?"
"Naw. Do it ag'in."
By the time the tracker had apparently mastered his spoon under Ezra's exacting tutelage, Ezra's bowl was empty of a second serving of the nourishing gumbo. Josiah smothered a laugh as Ezra became equally horrified with the way that Tanner attacked his fried apple pie with his hunting knife before proceeding on to instruct the tracker on the finer points of serving beignets and chicory coffee. Josiah was willing to wager that it was the most Ezra had eaten in the last few days and all thanks to the devious tracker's tricks.
Chris Larabee closed the door of the cigar store behind him and pondered on whether or not Ezra Standish had ever found a way to get Judge Travis to sign off on the gambler's cigars as 'room and board'. "Yep, just bet he found a way," muttered Larabee.
The gunfighter turned on his heel as Maude Standish stepped up onto the boardwalk. "Thought you had enough savvy to get out of town before the womenfolk ride you out on a rail."
"I have made arrangements to leave but before I do I have one more...small confession to make."
"What?" barked Larabee.
Having observed Maude Standish enter the church earlier, presumably in search of the absent Josiah Sanchez, Buck Wilmington disengaged himself from the fragrant Miss Alice and sauntered over to join them.
"I didn't choose to send Earl Standish to San Francisco merely on a whim. I had an ulterior motive."
To give Maude her due any other woman would have shriveled under the two peacekeeper's twin glares. "Earl searched for Ezra in San Francisco on a previous occasion and probably would have found us except I had the wit to disguise Ezra as a girl. On finding no trace of the boy Earl succumbed to an...addiction."
"Addiction?" snapped Larabee.
"Opium?" groaned Buck.
"Ezra is traveling to San Francisco in search of his father only to find an opium-eater?" Chris Larabee took a menacing step forward and fearing that she was about to be slapped Maude hastily retreated.
"I'm on my way there now. Please, forgive me---"
"FORGIVE YOU!" bellowed Larabee. "If you were a man I'd horsewhip you from one end of town to the other. Buck! Find Nathan, he doesn't know it yet but he's on his way to San Francisco." Larabee pushed Maude out of the way and headed towards the saloon.
Taken unawares J. D. Dunne spit out the contents of his glass of cold buttermilk as a swirling dust devil of black fury barked his name over the saloon's batwing doors.
"JD, guard the town! Tell Mary Travis we're on our way to help Ezra out in San Francisco!"
"The hell I will! I'm coming along! Ezra is my brother too, Judge Travis can find another damn sheriff," said JD, throwing his badge over his shoulder where it landed on the bar.
Chris Larabee couldn't prevent a smile from ghosting across his stern features. Knowing how honored JD felt to wear the Sheriff's badge but witnessing how the youngster was ready and willing to sacrifice it for Ezra's sake made Chris feel proud. "I'll telegraph Deputy Sheriff Jake McKenna over in Libertyville and ask if he'll watch over the town for us."
"Pick up that stinkin' badge."
"Chris?" Nathan Jackson asked breathlessly, clutching his doctor's bag to his chest and carrying out a visual inspection of the gunfighter's medical well-being. On seeing no obvious bullet holes he allowed himself to relax a little.
"Maude has kindly informed us that Earl Standish suffers from an addiction to opium. We have to get to San Francisco, Ezra will be in need of help," explained Chris.
"Chris, much as I'd like to be there to aid Ezra, a ticket to San Francisco is beyond my pocket."
JD and Buck both looked similarly abashed.
Aiming for the Butterfield Stageline office, Maude tried to make her way past the four men, only to find herself facing a solid wall of brotherly concern. She suddenly felt every year of her age. Her shoulders slumped and she began to breathe heavily as she realized that, in spite of a lifetime's worth of machinations, Ezra had finally found a family of his own right here in this dusty cow town. She delved into her oversized reticule and produced a tight roll of large denomination banknotes.
"Mr. Larabee, take this. There should be more than enough to finance a trip for four to San Francisco."
"Blood money?" sneered JD.
"Compensation, for mistakes I may have made in the past," snapped Maude.
More used to Ezra Standish being the one to swoop down on any money offered in their direction, it was a full minute before Larabee took charge of a bankroll thick enough to choke a mule.
"Nathan, go pack whatever supplies you'll need. Buck, JD, get the horses from the livery. I'll telegraph Vin telling him to continue on to San Francisco with Ezra and Josiah," commanded Larabee, before pointedly turning his black garbed back on Maude.
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"So you're running out on Ezra again?" On his way back from the livery Buck accosted Maude outside the Butterfield office.
"Mr. Wilmington, your friends have made it perfectly clear to me that I should leave both the town and Ezra behind," huffed Maude.
"That's another thing Chris is pissed about, he don't own the railroad," chuckled the handsome ladies' man. "This might be the last chance you get to say you're sorry and make your peace with Ezra is all."
"I am certain that I am the very last person Ezra wishes to run into in San Francisco."
"Well, bless your heart, I'm so glad that you have allowed me to convince you," sneered Maude.
"But that's all the more reason to face him down an' show him that you are real contrite. Yeah, things might get ugly but it will be no more than you deserve."
"Ugly? It could be a veritable bloodbath, Mr. Wilmington."
"Ezra is entitled to his chance to tell you in his own words the damage you did to him while he still has the support of his brothers."
"You think that Ezra isn't evah coming back here?" Maude stared up at the man on horseback in astonishment.
"Yeah. Ezra can't grasp the idea that true family forgive. We've mostly learned to live with Ezra's faults and see the man, the boy, inside. Hell, as Chris says, if he was perfect he wouldn't be one of us! If what he has to say hurts you then it's long overdue in my book but what matters now is what Ezra needs. If you run out on him now, yet again, the next time he sets eyes on you he'll more than likely just shoot you on sight. You'll lose him forever."
"Chris Larabee might be the one to shoot me on sight!"
"I'll take the bullet," chuckled Buck. "It won't be the first time I've gotten 'tween Chris an' his temper. If I was you I'd be more worried 'bout Vin. He's already goin' to be mighty pissed at having to stay in the city. Can't guarantee that he won't go Comanche on you!"
"I wouldn't know what to say or where to begin," admitted Maude.
"It's a long journey to Frisco, you'll have plenty of time on your hands to think of something to say."
"This is a very luxurious suite," remarked Josiah, as he opened his case and unpacked his few belongings back at the Hotel Louis Royale.
"Yep. Mimi Dupree had us all moved up here. Ya can have m' room opposite Ezra's. I sleep on the balcony an' leave Ezra the run a the place but all this mighty fine grandeur still ain't made Ezra smile none," sighed the tracker.
"Not The Mimi Dupree?"
"Yeah, she owns the Hotel Louis Royale an' a big fancy bordello fer rich folks."
"Mimi Dupree has become a particular friend?"
"Ya could say," drawled Tanner.
"Don't you think a card game with Mimi Dupree would be just the thing to pull Ezra out of his present bout of the doldrums?"
"Iffen Mimi Dupree sat down an' played cards with Ezra it might jus' put a smile on his phizog," agreed Tanner. "He kinda worships the ground she walks on."
"Brother Vin?" prompted Josiah.
"My train leaves early in the morning an' yer train goes that same night. Ya brung yer best suit with ya, J'siah?"
"And a boiled shirt," answered Josiah.
"So we're going to pay New Orleans' foremost lady gambler a visit?" beamed Josiah.
"Will we be welcome?"
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"Gentlemen! How pleasant to see you all return to us!" Emmeline's welcome was far more effusive than on their previous visit and Tanner blushed profusely as she kissed him on both cheeks.
Tanner smiled to himself as Josiah melted under her violet-eyed gaze, raising her ivory hand to his lips and barely leaving her side for the rest of the evening. This wasn't quite the kind of help Tanner had hoped to get from Josiah but the preacher man was certainly setting Ezra a good example when it came to delighting in feminine company.
Mimi Dupree's well-attended soirée spilled out onto the stone terraces and down into the gardens. Avoiding the light from the red and gold Chinese lanterns strewn amongst the trees, Tanner found a suitable tree to lean on that still enabled him to have a good view of all the action taking place inside Mimi's elegant salon. He observed Mimi and Ezra taking their seats at one of the card tables, a glass of absinthe at Ezra's elbow.
Some hours later, the absinthe glass was still untouched but Ezra's gold tooth was gleaming in the light from the gilded torchéres that gently bathed the card table. Tanner sank further into the shadows as Josiah and Emmeline appeared on the terrace. Quickly realizing that these were the gardens of a bordello and that the bushes were being used for other purposes, Vin hastily rejoined his friends on the balustraded terrace.
"A cold collation is laid out in the morning parlor, Mr. Tanner. Or you may wish to skip the late supper and take breakfast later?" suggested Emmeline.
"He'll take both," laughed Josiah, as Tanner quickly disappeared in the general direction of food.
It was almost dawn before Ezra took his leave of Mimi's card table.
"Josiah!" greeted Ezra.
Noting that Ezra had dropped the formal 'Mr. Sanchez' the preacher smiled. "Brother Ezra, did you win?"
"Ah barely broke even," laughed Ezra, his emerald eyes sparkling.
"Barely? Then why so joyous?"
"Ah had an epiphany, Josiah."
"It came to me while sitting at the card table with Mimi Dupree that I could play without resorting to my, ahem, tactile sensitivity. I no longer have to abide by Maude's rules. I can be, do, anything I want! Be a jungle explorer, an intrepid seafarer, I can walk any path I choose! I could be a...bank clerk---"
"A bank clerk? Damn, Ezra, ain't no call ta set yer sights so high!" chuckled Tanner, joining his friends and handing Ezra a china plate piled high with food.
"Maude's ultimate act of matriarchal duplicity has freed me of my obligations," announced Ezra.
"Son, you always could be anything you wanted to be," rumbled Josiah.
"But we likes ya the way ya is," drawled Vin.
"Y-you do?" Ezra's eyes grew big and round.
"'Cept fer the not wakin' 'til noon."
"Avoiding your share of early morning patrols is annoying," agreed Josiah.
"An' that highfalutin' New York cologne that gets skunks runnin' fer cover."
"Phew! I agree with you there, Brother Vin."
"An' never buyin' a round a drinks when we all knows yer pockets is stuffed full with money."
"Yes, that does seem a little miserly," nodded Josiah.
"An' squealin' like a hog iffen I's gits jus' a smidgen a dirt near yer fancy haberdashery."
"Which is hardly your fault, Brother Vin."
"An' constantly tellin' us we's rude," Vin drawled.
"Anything else?" laughed Ezra.
"Plenty! But yer family, Ezra, so we stand yer funny ways like family puts up with a windy great aunt."
"Oh yes, Great Aunt Eliza, I remember her well!"
"Sunup an' gotta train ta catch," rasped Vin. "Good Luck, Ezra."
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Tanner leaned out of the railroad car. "J'siah?"
"Don't go on the worry none, Hannah will be kept safe fer ya. Gonna ride out there with some wildflowers while yer away."
"Brother Vin, I don't know what to say. Except a very inadequate, thank you."
"Aw shucks. That's all it takes, J'siah."
Josiah brushed away a silent tear of gratitude as a red-faced bellhop from the Hotel Louis Royale interrupted them. "Telegraph for Mr. Tanner," he panted.
"Fer me?" Tanner reached out a hand nervously for the message. "Larabee says ta wait an' leave fer Frisco with y'all. The boys will meet up with us there."
"That doesn't bode well," commented Josiah as Vin returned the message with his own scribbled on the back and a generous tip for the bellhop. "Still it will be nice to be all together for Ezra's sake. Do bellhops usually chase you all over New Orleans, Brother Vin?"
"Mimi Dupree owns the Hotel Louis Royale an' she knows ev'rythin," rasped the tracker, retrieving his saddlebags and stepping down from the railroad car determined that Hannah would still get her wildflowers. "The hotel clerk is cozying up ta us ta keep on her good side. An' jus' so y'all know I's shuckin' this fancy jacket an' wearin' m' buckskins in Frisco."
As the locomotive pulled into the crowded railroad station Chris Larabee and the other three men standing at his shoulder seemed to dominate the entire platform. Aloof from the hustle and bustle of the jostling travelers. An oasis of calm. Until JD saw the three travel stained men alight from the railroad car.
"We've gotten rooms in a nice little hotel and we've already started searching for your pa, Ezra. Is this all your baggage? We found Lydia and Emily! Nora too! She's having a baby and she's getting married. Emily I mean. She's already asking around after your pa. She's marrying a sailor. Emily is not Lydia. Lydia is the one asking. Chris just got 'em all running scared so she's doing it---" JD was beside himself with excitement, hopping from one foot to the other.
"Brother John, slow down, son," chuckled Josiah, setting down his battered case to hug the young Easterner.
Vin and Chris seized each other's forearms in their familiar warriors grip, sharing more than a greeting as the others fell respectfully silent. Then Vin Tanner stretched, his slightly twisted spine clearly being bothersome after the long journey. A concerned Nathan was beside him in an instant and the tracker cussed long and loud at the indignity of having his undershirt pulled up and his body poked and prodded in the public eye. Buck threw his arm around the shoulders of a flustered Ezra and Chris shook the gambler's hand. As any wolf pack would, they reacquainted themselves with brief but constant touches, disguised as playful punches on the arm and slaps on the back, until they reached the hotel.
The hotel was small and spartan but scrupulously clean. Chris had taken an attic room under the roof. Pulling Vin's bed across the room and propping the skylight open so the tracker could at least see the stars.
"Nathan made me move the bed twice so it wasn't in a draft," explained Chris, as the tracker dropped his saddlebags on the bed. "And I don't want to hear any complaints about sleeping in a soft bed. I swear that ticking is full of rocks."
"Ezra gotten me used ta plush hotel suites an' room service now, Cowboy," said Vin impishly. "Git ya thrown out iffen ya snore."
"Most nights I'm with Lydia."
"She snore?" drawled Vin.
"I don't bring her back here!"
"Hell, spendin' the entire night in a workin' girl's bed. What would Miz Travis say?"
"I hear that you're the one spending the night with brothel madams. What will Miss Nettie say?" retaliated Larabee.
"Aw shucks. We only played cards an' talked all night. She asked me ta tell her 'bout all the folks in Four Corners."
Chris leaned over and whispered into the tracker's ear, "You're not supposed to bore the ladies into bed."
"Leaves that ta ya, Cowboy. Relies on m' homespun country boy charm ta win over the ladies."
"Which is why you usually only have your horse for company!"
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Maude Standish was the very last passenger to step down from the train. Raising her parasol while contriving to look demure and helpless, she soon had male assistance to carry her luggage. Knocking discretely on a door in a disreputable area, a bleary eye examined Maude through the peephole, duly recognized, she was readily admitted.
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Ezra carefully unpacked his belongings in yet another hotel room. For a brief moment he allowed himself to embrace the idea of unpacking one last time in Four Corners. Putting down roots. The town was becoming more 'civilized' and pretty soon those same town folk would take a long hard look at their seven peacekeepers and decide that they were attracting more trouble than the town wanted. He'd make his final decision when, if, he found his father. Perhaps the rest of the seven would decide not to return to Four Corners either.
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When he opened the door wide-awake blue eyes gleamed in the moonlight.
"You ever sleep, Tanner?"
"Ya make enough noise ta wake the dead, Cowboy."
"How serious is Ezra about finding his father?" asked Larabee, pausing to light the brass oil lamp.
"What kinda question is that? Ya knowed somethin'?" asked Vin, adjusting his pillow and leaning back on the wooden headboard.
Pursing his lips Larabee tried not to laugh at Tanner's serious case of bed hair before saying, "Maude."
Not sure what Chris was smirking at Vin pulled the blankets up to his chin. "Aw hell."
"Earl Standish has an addiction to opium."
"Should make him easier ta find."
"Lydia found him?"
"Through Li Pong."
"Li Pong? Liked her she was real sweet. Damn, she ain't workin' in some opium den is she?"
"No. She's quite an important businesswoman. Imports goods from China. Got herself a reputation for paying fair prices. Folks often go to her for help and she hears things."
"So she found him. Gotta tell Ezra."
"It might not be a pretty sight."
"Ya thinkin' mebbe ya need ta take J'siah an' Nathan with ya ta check things out first?"
"Josiah is familiar with the city and its ways."
"Want me ta take charge of Ezra?"
"It's for his own protection."
"Jus' remember," yawned Tanner, "J'siah don't really speak Chinese!"
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"You didn't bring Mr. Ezra with you?" Li Pong was clearly disappointed.
"We thought it best to get the lay of the land first," explained Larabee.
"Ma'am, just tell us the way and we'll go. No need for you to visit one of those miserable places," said Josiah.
"I'll take you as far as the entrance. I owe Mr. Ezra so much more than money," insisted Li Pong. "Follow me."
The streets were strewn with filth and tall ramshackle buildings with broken windows surrounded them on both sides. Li Pong indicated a door and they watched over her while she hurried away to a safer part of the neighborhood.
Larabee rapped sharply on the door. The peephole slid open and Josiah held up a fistful of dollars. Nathan took a deep breath as the door swung open to admit them.
"Another thing we have to thank the goddamn British for," muttered Chris, scrutinizing their crowded surroundings.
"Anybody know what Earl Standish looks like?" asked Nathan.
"Hellfire!" Chris suddenly realized that he wouldn't know Earl Standish if the man jumped up and bit him on the ass.
"Search for a man that resembles Brother Ezra?" suggested Josiah.
Chris rolled his eyes hopelessly as Nathan tugged on his sleeve. "Chris," he hissed.
"Maude!" thundered Chris, following Nathan's pointing finger. "The damn bitch is everywhere. I swear I should have left her to rot in the jail house."
"Mr. Larabee! They won't let me take him out of here." She grasped Larabee's duster as she hurried over. Pulling and twisting at the black cloth in her distress. Her elaborately coiffured blonde hair falling down and escaping its pins. "He owes them vast amounts of money. I've told him Ezra is here in Frisco but Earl thinks it's a trick."
"Can't think why he should think that, Maude." Josiah was a forgiving man but even he couldn't absolve Maude, a mother, of her sins.
Disgusted, Larabee forcefully pried Maude's hands from the front of his duster. She turned to Nathan, "Please help him! I've been by his side ever since I arrived. I haven't slept but I've done all I can do for him here. It's the only way I can put things right with Ezra. Please help him for Ezra's sake," she begged.
They threaded their way through the low, ornately carved, opium beds and tables. It was clear that Earl Standish was a long standing opium addict. Having his own paraphernalia. Josiah almost felt physical pain as he gazed down at a beautiful lacquered opium tray holding the pipe, its bowl, long needles for putting the pellets into the bowl and the small glass chimneyed oil lamp used to vaporize the opium. To see such artistry put to a sordid use hurt his soul.
"Chris?" asked Nathan.
Receiving a nod from Larabee, Josiah scooped Earl Standish up in his arms and started to walk towards the door. Maude gathered up the opium accouterments and followed them towards the exit. When it looked as if they might be prevented from leaving, Chris drew back his long black duster, displaying the tied down Colt Peacemaker worn high. One basilisk glare and nothing more was needed. They left unmolested.
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Ezra was feeling aggrieved. He detested having to drag himself out of a warm feather bed he only just climbed into in order to join a man who habitually reeked of, well, today it was unexplainably dog but it could just as easily be horse.
"Boots an' saddles! Ezra, shake a leg! Up an' at 'em," the tracker had rasped.
"Please, Mr. Tanner. I beseech you take it down a notch." Ezra had frozen in place as the tracker sat down on his soft bed.
"Up an' at 'em," he'd whispered in the gambler's ear. "Or do I got ta come in there an' git ya?"
"No! Indeed you do not!" shrieked Ezra, leaping out of bed.
"Works jus' as good on Chris too!" grinned Tanner, as he'd lolled back on the bed, his dusty boots hanging off the quilt.
"Really, Mr. Tanner!"
"Times a wastin' Ezra we's goin' ta visit the inns an' taverns now the ships is in." Tanner had informed him following Larabee's order to distract the gambler away from the real search.
"We are? Why?"
"Lookin' fer yer pa."
So here they were, scouring every drinkery and questioning every rumpot. Tanner disappeared into one particularly fetid tavern while Ezra waited impatiently outside.
"Mr. Tanner! If I am called upon to be leered at by one more toothless, scurvy-ridden sailor I will call you out onto the field of honor and shoot you dead!"
"Leered at? Yer flatterin' yerself ain't ya? Iffen they's only got scurvy yer mighty lucky."
"Mr. Tanner, you may have frequented such dens of iniquity often enough to be at your ease conversing, in several languages, with the dregs of the World's every dock and quayside but I, sir, have not!"
"Ain't bin here more than once or mebbe twice."
"Then why do so many of these salty old mariners appear to know you and respectfully address you as the 'White Tiger', pray tell?"
The tracker shrugged. "Breathe in that fine salt air, Ezra."
"Mr. Tanner, I have no intention of breathing in a miasma of unfettered infection and disease," huffed Ezra.
"Ya scared a the sea, Ezra?"
"I am not. I, sir, was born with a caul."
"Yeah an' the sailors sense ya ain't able ta drown, Ezra. They ain't all 'leering' at ya. They's admirin' yer good fortune."
"I hardly call having dear Maude for a mother and suffering a misplaced father, lucky."
"Here it is, Ezra."
"Here is what?"
"The ship I's lookin' fer."
"Ship? Do you intend to see me press ganged?"
"Give me yer hip flask."
"Hand it over!"
"Mr. Tanner, I must protest!"
"An' the other one," demanded Vin, as his hand dived into the gambler's inside jacket pocket.
"Unhand me you wretched thief!"
A struggling Ezra was appalled as Vin wrestled his flasks from him and poured the absinthe they contained into the harbor.
"No more Green Fairy fer ya."
"Have you joined the Temperance Movement and signed the pledge? That wasn't sarsaparilla you so wantonly disposed of!"
"Aw shut yer mouth, Ezra. Yer 'bout ta sample the best brandy yer ever done tasted. Permission ta come aboard?" Tanner called up the gangway, as he boarded the sailing ship. Ezra reluctantly following him, still complaining bitterly about the emptying of his flasks.
Astonished to find himself in the captain's cabin and even more surprised to discover that it was paneled in gleaming wood and tastefully furnished, Ezra sat down with a bump. Watching suspiciously as Vin poured brandy from one of the ship's wide-bottomed crystal decanters into two matching crystal snifters.
"My! This is excellent!" Ezra failed to hide his delight as he savored the liquor.
Tanner opened a cupboard and removed a bottle. "Fill yer flasks, Ezra. It's Napoleon's brandy."
"Yes, I can well believe that it is Napoleon brandy."
"Naw, it's Napoleon's actual brandy from some island he got hisself exiled on. Ya kin go up on deck an' ask Cap'n Melville iffen ya ain't believing it."
"Nothing but the best for Maudie's boy," boomed a familiar voice.
"Earl wrote me to say he was coming here to look for you and the moment I read that it was Maude that had most likely tipped him off I set out to find him, cher," explained the giant Cajun while embracing both men.
"A-and have you? Have you found him?" asked an emotional Ezra.
Cajun Jack topped up Ezra's glass before answering. "Maude had already found him. Li Pong came to tell me where they both could be found. I asked Li Pong to allow Lydia to inform Chris Larabee where he could find Earl. I'm afraid little Lionheart has been tasked with arranging this meeting."
Ezra gulped down some more of the brandy. "There is something wrong with him isn't there? That's the reason for this wild goose chase. What y'all hiding from me? Is he d-dying?"
"No, cher. Not dying. Your friends rescued him from an opium den."
"Opium den? He's an opium smoker?"
"I'm sure the clever Mr. Jackson will be of great help to him," soothed Cajun Jack, patting Ezra's back comfortingly.
"Yeah, Ezra, don't go on the worry. Nathan will fix him up."
On hearing the ship creak and groan as the crew weighed the ship's anchors, coupled with the sound of running feet, Ezra jumped up. Dropping the snifter and showering both men with brandy. "I have to see him now! Wait! Is this ship moving? How can we be moving? Where are you taking me? I demand to see my father!"
"Settle, Ezra. We's takin' on the harbor pilot an' moving up the coast a little so ya kin see yer pa a mite sooner," explained Vin.
"We're under sail? I warn you I'll jump overboard if this is another one of Maude's dastardly schemes to prevent me from seeing my father!"
"Calm yerself, Ezra. The boys are taking him up the coast ta a real nice convent where he can rest up an' Nathan can git him through the really bad days. They won't stand fer him shoutin' an' cryin' out in the hotel. Lydia right kindly offered ta take him in but Josiah said the convent he knowed would be more quieter fer him," explained Vin.
"It's better this way, cher. Trust us."
Ezra looked at Vin and Cajun Jack through tear-filled eyes. Ezra had never openly trusted anybody before but if he could have faith in anyone it had to be these two men.
"Very well," he said.
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They came ashore in the jolly boat. Ezra claiming that the trembling, coupled with his ashen pallor, was due to seasickness. Neither of his companions saw fit to argue.
The Mother Superior waited at the top of a flight of steep stone steps, heavy pectoral cross shining in the sun, her black habit billowing in the strong sea breeze.
"Mother Mary Aidan," greeted Vin, respectfully removing his hat.
"Vincent, John the Cajun and you must be Ezra," she stated. "You have your father's green eyes."
"Indeed you do, boyo. Get away inside with you, this wind is cold enough to freeze the b---"
"Mother Mary Aidan!"
"Bejesus out of you. Vincent! I'll have four Hail Marys out of you, boyo, for even thinking that I would use that expression!"
"I never suspected that you were Roman Catholic, Mr. Tanner?" queried Ezra, as they walked several yards behind Mother Mary Aidan. Entering the convent through iron gates and huge oak doors studded with heavy nails.
"Ain't but Mother Mary Aidan ain't never seen fit ta believe it. Makes no nevermind how many times I's telled her I's a heathen. Nuns are more ornery than Peso an' as stubborn as all hell," muttered Vin.
"Vincent! Six Hail Mary's!"
"Damn, she kin hear like a long eared bat with an ear trumpet," whispered Vin.
"And no supper!"
"Aw hell!" whined the tracker.
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Mother Mary Aidan took Ezra's clammy trembling hands in white hands as cool as Carrara marble. "There is nothing to be afraid of boyo. God understands the pain of being apart from a son and He cares for your Da. Follow me and see for yourself." As she opened the door to a bright cheery room, Ezra glanced back over his shoulder and Vin nodded reassuringly. Inside the room Maude sat in a chair at one side of the bed and Nathan arose from a chair on the other side. He motioned for Ezra to sit.
"My father," breathed Ezra as he took up his seat by the bed. "Is he asleep?"
"Not really nor is he fully awake. It's the opium," explained Nathan. "He's sort of drifting and feeling good right now. I'll go get some food to eat then I'll be back. Call me or one of the nuns if you need anything."
"Yeah?" said Nathan from the open door.
"Ezra, you're welcome."
"Ezra?" began Maude, as soon as the door closed behind Nathan.
"Maude? Maude? Can't you even address me as Mother?"
"You're lucky that I saw fit to call you Maude, it wasn't the first word that sprang to mind. Why are you even here?"
"I found him for you, Ezra. We can be a family at last."
"A family?" purred Ezra softly.
"Yes, we can---"
"A family?" roared Ezra, raising his head to rivet a startled Maude to the chair with green eyes full of venom. "You have no idea what that word means! My family is here with me today! Six brothers who know more about being a family to me than you have ever shown. Vin Tanner, the man I insulted so cruelly when you sent me the petty blank telegraph message, traveled with me to New Orleans. A man who loathes being in a crowded room never mind a bustling city! He must have hated every single suffocating moment but he stuck to my side like glue. Chris Larabee who marshaled the others into coming to San Francisco to help search for my father. Nathan Jackson, who will sit by my father's side night and day to tend him. All of them, all six, will stand by me and I would die for any one of them."
Knocking over his chair with a clatter Ezra stood up, his fists clenched by his sides, knuckles white. His jaw clenched to stem the tide of rage threatening to engulf him as he realized for the first time that he did indeed have family.
"Ezra? Ya okay?" asked Vin, entering the room on hearing Ezra hollering his name.
"Ezra, honey, your father abandoned me! He let me vanish without a trace. All he ever wanted was you. I was nothing to him! He could have searched for me but he didn't."
Vin reached into the pocket of his buckskin. "That ain't the truth of it. See this part burned up letter? Ezra's pa wrote letters ta the stageline companies searchin' fer ya."
"Mr. Tanner, Vin, please escort Maude out of here," instructed Ezra.
"Ma'am?" Vin urged a stunned Maude to her feet.
Frozen with shock Maude allowed Vin to take her arm and help her up.
"Ezra Peregrine Standish! Listen to me! I provided the money for your friends to be here."
"They would have found a way to be here without your filthy lucre, Maude. Vin did it," answered Ezra, as Vin gently but firmly guided Maude out into the cloister.
Ezra righted his chair and sat back down as Maude left, only then noticing that green eyes were regarding him from the bed. Eyes full of disbelief.
The eyes closed but a ghost of smile appeared on the drug ravaged features as Ezra took his father's hand for the first time in his life.
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"Mr. Tanner, what can I do? How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child," a weeping Maude quoted dramatically from Shakespeare's King Lear, sure that her crocodile tears would melt the tracker's soft heart and encourage him to take her side.
"Try givin' him somethin' ta be thankful fer," rasped Vin, his narrowed blue eyes slivers of ice that bored into Maude's soulless heart.
"That is it? The sum total of your understanding of the situation? You long haired country bumpkin!" lashed out a sneering Maude. "I always knew that you were dumber than a shovel! You're nothing without that gunfighter telling you what to say and what to think! Motherless, slow-witted, illiterate, uncivilized, penniless half-breed!"
Vin remained silent as Maude vented her vitriolic fury.
"It takes a man of real intelligence to cut through all your bull," remarked the always blunt Mother Mary Aidan, drawn into the cloister by Maude's raised voice. "Now you will kindly leave here."
"No! I won't leave Ezra in Earl's hands. He'll poison Ezra's mind against me!" argued Maude.
"Maude, you surely would have failed The Judgement of Solomon. You think only of yourself and never the needs of your child. Ezra isn't a pawn in your game of revenge. Ezra is a gentle, goodhearted man that feels the pain of others."
"How can you say that? You don't know him. Ezra has cheated and connived his entire life. He's so crooked they'll need a corkscrew to bury him with!" yelled Maude.
"I know what kind of a man he is because Vincent Tanner is his friend and my sweet angel with a flaming sword on his hip would never ride with a man cursed with the character you ascribe to Ezra. I think you are describing the person that you see in the mirror, Maude."
Maude looked around wild-eyed, trying to find an ally as the nuns formed a circle around her.
"Sistren, do you require any help in evicting this virago?" asked Josiah, arriving at a run with the other men.
"No, Brother Sanchez, Maude is leaving before I get very Old Testament and apply a hickory switch to her boney ass," replied Mother Mary Aidan, with a beautiful smile of righteousness.
A very amused Buck whispered in Maude's ear as she passed by. "Penniless? Vin's family probably owns half of Texas."
Vin snickered as he watched Maude trying to hold her head up high as she left the convent in high dudgeon.
"That's ten Hail Marys, Vincent."
"Thought I's yer sweet angel with a flaming sword?" protested Vin.
"When was the last time you went to confession, Vincent?"
"Aw hell. Yeah, I knows, a dozen Hail Marys."
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Ezra watched Nathan roll Earl Standish on to his side.
"Nathan, what are you doing?"
"I'm preparing the opium for your pa. I'm going to wean him off the drug slowly with smaller and smaller doses. It's too painful to jus' stop, Ezra."
Ezra watched as Nathan picked up the pipe inlaid with silver, jade and ivory. Lighting the chased silver oil lamp and using the long needles to place the opium pellet in the highly decorated red and green ceramic bowl.
"Pains me to admit that Maude was far better at this," confessed Nathan.
"Maude gave him opium here?"
"We gave him a pipe to smoke before we arrived here to keep him quiet on the journey."
"Maude knows how to do this?" marveled Ezra.
"Maude was very skillful. I ain't thinking it was her first time in an opium den."
"Whenever I think there is nothing else she can surprise me with, she contrives to knock me sideways."
"In some ways she's a helluva woman," conceded Nathan.
"Ain't that the truth."
"When she first found him she immediately started to cut back on the amount he was smoking, little by little."
"Nathan, are you saying that we need Maude's help?" Ezra was aghast at the very idea.
"I think I know what I'm doing and what to expect. The stomach problems, the fevers and the raving. Still, truth be told there is no substitute for practical experience."
The door opened and the first inkling that Ezra had of the fact that Vin had been in the room all along, was when the door closed behind the tracker.
"Need yer help ta find Li Pong. Nathan wants someone with him that knowed opium."
"Li Pong's uncle was an opium addict," remembered Josiah.
"An' Ezra would surely like ta cozy up in a rockin' chair with Li Pong ag'in," smirked Vin.
"Vincent!" bellowed a female voice.
"Damn penguin, she's everywheres," blushed Vin. "Cain't even think 'bout another man sinning let alone havin' a chance at doin' some sinning fer m'self."
"And do you want to sin, Brother Vin?" chuckled Josiah.
"Take me ta the big city an' bring on the hoochie coochie dancers, J'siah," winked Vin.
They exited the convent to the sound of Josiah's laughter.
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"Li Pong! How, why? I'm speechless...."
"I'll go get us coffee," said Nathan tactfully, as neither of them noticed him leaving the sick room.
"Two of your friends came to ask me to help," explained Li Pong.
"Please sit down." Ezra waved her into his chair and placed Nathan's chair beside hers. "Let me look at you. You look...very well. You are happy here?"
He gazed at her disbelievingly but years of keen observation had already catalogued the gold and jade bracelets, the jeweled ring and golden necklace. Her silk dress was the latest fashion in San Francisco but with subtle Chinese touches apparent in the style of the collar and the bright jewel colors of the rich embroidery. She clearly wasn't the poor downtrodden railroad worker he'd met in Four Corners.
"You gave me too much money," she said as if reading his thoughts, "with what was left when I arrived here I was able to buy a few goods to sell on a street corner. Tiny dolls and good luck charms. It was hard at first standing outside in all weathers but I did so well that I opened a little store. Gradually I began to import goods for my own store and then for other street sellers. I make a modest profit on each item but I sell in quantity. Now I also ship goods from my warehouses to places as far away as Chicago."
"You are quite the entrepreneur and your family they are all well?"
"Oh, yes. We have a nice house now and mother sometimes rents a few rooms to paying guests."
"You have help with the business?" asked Ezra nervously, wanting to know something else entirely.
"I don't have a, how you say, a beau?" replied Li Pong, answering the question Ezra had really wanted to know the answer to. "I haven't met anyone as brave and handsome as you."
"Really, you think I'm handsome?"
Earl Standish may have still been in another world due to the influence of the opium but Ezra was sure that he heard him whisper, "Kiss her."
Nathan opened the door with coffee and cookies on a tray, saw Li Pong encircled in Ezra's arms and quickly backtracked out of the room. A wide grin almost splitting his face in two.
"Just call me Cupid," he chuckled.
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Over the next few days when Earl was lucid he was in great pain, his body craving the opium. The cramps in his stomach made him scream and yell in agony. Ezra held his hands to prevent him gouging out his eyes when in the grip of some terrifying hallucination. Between them they changed the sheets and cleaned him up several times a day.
Li Pong readied the opium as Nathan wondered if they shouldn't just give up and let him have as much of the drug as he wanted. It wasn't in Nathan's nature to see such suffering.
Earl grasped both of Ezra's hands in his. "Please, no more," he begged.
"Li Pong give it all to him. I can't stand to watch this any longer," decided Ezra.
"NO!" pleaded Earl, his voice hoarse from screaming. "No more opium."
"Earl, you don't know what you're saying," said Nathan.
"It will be worse. The pain ten times as great," explained Nathan. "You won't be able to control your body. It will be unbearable."
"Thirty years without ever seeing my boy is enough...I don't want to waste a single day."
"I'm not going anywhere, Papa. Maude can't steal me away from you this time. I don't want you to do this," whispered Ezra.
"I don't want you to see me weakened by that evil stuff. Tie me down and leave me to get through this alone."
"No," said Ezra. "I won't let you do it. I don't want the first memories we make together to be so hideous. We'll do it Nathan's way."
Earl weakly smiled up at his son. "You get that determination from Maude."
"We could call her back," threatened Ezra.
"I'll do it...Nathan's way," surrendered Earl.
Weeks later Earl's first night of unbroken drug free sleep was a cause for quiet celebration. Josiah sat beside Ezra as he had most nights since this had first started.
"I'm not condoning his drug use but he's a brave man, Ezra. Driven to despair by the loss of his son and Maude's cynical conspiracies."
"I thought all his money had gone up in opium smoke but he told me that continually paying detectives in New York, Chicago and Boston to search for me, has almost bankrupted him thanks to Maude. He was preparing to sell the house and furniture in New Orleans to enable him to pay his debts and carry on financing the hunt."
"If I see Maude again I'm going to follow Mother Mary Aidan's advice and cut me a hickory switch."
"Did she really threaten Maude with a hickory switch?" smiled Ezra wanly, dark circles under his eyes.
"The expression on Maude's face was priceless. Only her countenance on hearing from Brother Buck that Brother Vin's family is one of the richest in Texas was funnier."
"That must have come as a real shock to her as I deliberately made sure that she didn't know about any of that. Just in case she tried to make Vin husband number six!" chuckled Ezra.
"Dear Lord," laughed Josiah.
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Vin was sitting at the top of the steep stone steps watching the sun rise over the bay when he heard the jingle bobs coming along the cliff top path. An black-clad arm was draped across his buckskin shoulders.
"Ya missin' Lydia?" drawled the amused tracker.
"You could say," said a voice close by his ear.
"Don't let the long hair fool ya, I ain't her. Iffen ya stick yer tongue in my ear yer dead, Cowboy."
"I hear that there's a hickory switch waiting for anyone who upsets you."
"Chris Larabee, fearsome gunfighter, scared of a bunch of itty bitty nuns."
"Only the formidable Mother Mary Aidan, those gimlet green eyes bore right through me."
"Thought ya would git on real well, ya both wearin' so much black an' all. Ya armed with that big shiny gun an' her armed with that big shiny cross."
"She really likes you."
"I's really likes her. Iffen I'd knowed her years ago..."
"You'd have taken holy orders?"
"Mebbe," the tracker shrugged one fringed shoulder, quickly changing the subject. "Has Ezra told yer his plans now his pa is recovering?"
"Yep. He wants to join us."
"Join us where?"
"Anywhere we decide to go."
"Where do you want to go, Vin?"
"Me?" asked Vin, staring out to sea while thinking about JD and Casey Wells, Nathan and Rain, Buck and Inez Recillos, Chris and Mary Travis. Just like Ezra, Vin didn't want to go anywhere unless he had all six of his brothers with him.
"Vin?" prompted Chris.
Chris didn't say anything in reply but he too stared out to sea and smiled.
A week later two men wearing red coats walked arm-in-arm along that same cliff top path, both buffeted by the stiff sea breeze. Only the touch of gray in the chestnut hair of the one using the silver-topped walking cane setting them apart. Two identical pairs of emerald eyes gazed out across the silvered bay.
"Nathan Jackson is a good doctor," remarked Earl Standish.
"He'd be the first to point out that he isn't a 'proper' doctor but he's the best healer I've ever seen," agreed Ezra.
"Doctor or no, he says that I'm fit to travel."
"As long as I don't intend to drive the locomotive. Nathan says that I'm well enough."
"You're taking the train back to New Orleans?" asked Ezra, already feeling bereft.
"Nothing waiting there for me, son. I thought I might visit this dusty little cow town you're planning on heading back to. It sounds a very special place."
"Well, it isn't. It's just a few stores, a newspaper and a saloon desperately in need of a fresh coat of venetian red."
"So it doesn't have any redeeming features?"
"You can occasionally find a good game of cards in the saloon and ah have a regular order for a tolerably drinkable case of Scotch whisky to be delivered there."
"A good game of cards and Scotch whisky? could a man ask for more?"
"Now I think of it, maybe it could be a good place for a son to get to know his beloved papa."
"And for a papa to get to know his beloved son and his son's six brothers."