Four Corners. That name's a bit apropos, considering I feel like I've spent the last twenty seven years searching the four corners of the world for her; Annabelle Bransford, my Queen of Hearts. Twenty-seven years since she walked out of that bathhouse with a quarter million of my dollars, all of my heart, and something else of mine that I never knew existed. I never figured it would be this hard to find her. 'Course I never figured that she was dead and buried. Never figured that she'd been reborn into Maude Standish. Or that she had a son; that we had a son.
I'm an old gambler, made my living at it far longer than anyone has a right to. I've had luck and a bit of magic on my side, not to mention my own natural charm and ability. It's the life I've always wanted, but now, knowing that I have a son, I have to wonder what that family life would have been like. Would I have been as good a father as my own pappy? I doubt that, but he would have made a great grandpappy.
I was a bit torn between meeting my son and finding out what kind of man Maude raised him to be and finding Maude and finding out why she never told me. She may have been hard to track down, but I've never been. But for some reason, she decided to hide the fact that we had a child from me. Can't understand why. She and I had a connection, would have made a great and profitable partnership. What could possibly have happened to Annabelle to make her become Maude Standish? I don't know what I would have chosen, if I hadn't learned that Maude would be making a visit soon to this little town that our son now calls home. I have a few days to get to know Ezra Standish and get the measure of my son, before Maude comes into town and I can tell him who I am.
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Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner sat on the boardwalk outside the saloon and watched the townsfolk as they moved about Four Corners. Things had been pretty quiet for the last few days, but Chris was fairly certain that it wouldn't last. Four Corners may not be a boomtown, but it sure attracted more than its fair share of trouble. But he would take the peace when he could. It had been a long time since he had felt comfortable sitting outside of a saloon instead of inside one drunk out of his mind. But the town and the six men he rode with had given back to him a part of himself that he had thought lost forever. He would forever mourn the loss of his family, but somehow these six men had become a family to him. And while they could never replace the wife and child he had lost, they brought him a solace he never thought he would feel again.
His musings were interrupted by a nudge from Vin. Chris looked up at the Texan only to have him direct his attention to a figure riding into town. It was an older man, somewhere in his fifties. He had light brown hair, bright blue eyes and was very well dressed. He could be a gambler, a politician, a lawman or just about anything. He did not look like trouble, but Chris had learned early that was more often than not misleading. Leaning sideways in the chair so that he could look inside the saloon, he called inside, "Hey, Ez, get out here."
"Mr. Larabee, I am quite certain that there is nothing out there in the dust and heat that would be far more interesting, or profitable, than relieving Mr. Dunne and Mr. Wilmington of their money," the southern drawl answered.
Chris and Vin shared a smile and a shake of their heads. "What about a well-dressed gentleman riding into town? Might be a gambler looking for a good game." Ezra was beside him before he even finished talking. Chris hid another smile. Ezra was never one to jump when anybody called him, but lure him with the possibility of money and he would be quick to respond.
Ezra studied the older man riding in. His green eyes focused on the hands holding the reins. They were a bit gnarled from age and work, not a typical gambler's hands, not at all like his own slender, agile hands. Nor were the man's fine clothes the equal of his own. He wore a gun and rode with the self-assured air of someone who knew how to use it. But Ezra had been practically born and raised among gaming tables, so he easily recognized the man as a fellow gambler. "That gentleman is what those of us in my profession call an old gambler. Apparently one who still experiences some level of success."
You gonna challenge him to a game, Ez?" J.D. asked from just inside the saloon, where he and Buck also watched the man over the batwing doors.
"Naturally, Mr. Dunne," Ezra replied as he leaned against the boardwalk frame and began shuffling the deck of cards in his hands.
I'd already learned that Four Corners didn't have any official law and was protected instead by seven men, one of them my son. So I wasn't surprised to see two of them watching me as I rode in.
The long hair one noticed me first. I get the feeling that very little escapes those eyes of his. I'd lay odds that he's been some kind of scout or tracker before he settled into this town. He looks a little restless, like he's torn between remaining in this town and going back to something in his past. He nudges the man all in black next to him.
Now I've faced some truly dangerous men before. Well, faced some and backed away from most. I'm a gambler; I know the odds. What some may see as cowardice I see as simply folding the hand and waiting for a new deal. But this man is in a league all his own. His green eyes pierce me with a warning, even as he sits relaxed in a rocking chair. The man has been burnt by demons, but the fire has never left his spirit, he merely keeps it controlled by pure force of will. I know immediately that I don't ever want to see this man angry, and definitely don't want to be the cause of it.
He calls to somebody into the saloon and I'm amazed that the person doesn't respond immediately. I would not test his patience and would not make him repeat his summons. Hell, I'd probably not leave his side so he would never have to wait for me. But shortly a third figure joins them on the boardwalk and I can see immediately the resemblance between him and Annabelle. Of course there's a bit of me in him as well. He's a handsome devil. His light brown hair is a match for my own before the gray began to invade it. His build is mine, but a bit more slender. I've done some honest labor in my day, pappy demanded it, but I'd wager that he never has. His sea green eyes sweep over me and I know that he is studying me with a practiced eye.
I have to look away and catch my breath. I'd thought I'd be prepared to see him, but I wasn't. Finding out I have a son, is a bit different than looking him in the eye and knowing that he is my son. I'm overwhelmed by the desire to call out to him and tell him who I am, who he really is. But I can see there is a cynical air about him. He'd never believe me. No, I have to wait for Maude, have to make her admit to him, before he'll believe it. I've just got to bide my time and get to know him, let him get to know me.
I ride over to hitch my horse to the post in front of the saloon, while they continue to watch me. They don't attempt to hide it. They're the law in this town and must figure that any newcomers should learn that right off.'
"Good afternoon, gentlemen," I say as I dismount and nod to each in turn.
The man in black gets to his feet, revealing the lean, hard frame of a gunslinger. "What business you got here in Four Corners?"
I smiled. Obviously this man had no time for pleasantries. I could see the look of disgust on Ezra's face at his lack of diplomacy and manners. "Nothing in particular. Just kinda found my way out here. Figure I'll stay in town for a while, and then ride out. I've been on the riverboats for a bit too long and decided I'd like to see the west.' I looked at Ezra and added, "I might be up for a good game of poker before I ride out."
He has Annabelle's incredibly expressive face. His eyes have both her cunning twinkle and my own devil may care glint, along with a mischievousness that was all his own. He was about to answer my challenge when the man in black interrupted, "And you are?"
"My apologies, gentlemen, for not introducing myself. I'm Bret Maverick."
I didn't miss Ezra's jaw hanging open and then snapping shut. "Bret Maverick? The Bret Maverick?"
I had to laugh both at his open amazement and his southern accent. Annabelle had used a Southern accent because she felt that men appreciated a southern belle. I'd teased her quite a bit about how it needed work, especially since no one could quite place it. Ezra's was equally hard to place, but it seemed more genuine.
"The one and only," I replied basking for a moment in the secret knowledge that my own son held me in awe.
"You know him, Ezra?" The blond gunslinger asked.
Astonished eyes turned to the man who was obviously their leader. "Anyone who has ever aspired to lay hands on a deck of cards knows of Bret Maverick. Surely, even you have heard of him, Mr. Larabee?"
Larabee shared a look with the longhaired man beside him. Apparently the two of them shared some kind of silent communication, because he gave Larabee a shrug. "No, I'm afraid not. What exactly are you famous for?"
A flash of paternal pride flared in me as Ezra spoke up for me. "He's only one of the best gamblers to have ever lived, Mr. Larabee. Almost thirty years ago, he won the All Rivers Poker Championship and a half a million dollars. He's a legend."
I guess Maude had never informed him that she, too, had participated in that game or that she had taken half the pot herself. "A living legend, fortunately," I added with a smile.
"You'll live a lot longer if you don't cause any trouble in town," Larabee warned.
"I can assure you that I avoid trouble as best I can. It's the only way I've lived to be an old gambler, Mr. Larabee." I again smiled modestly. I am still in possession of the charm that has saved me so many times in the past and know when to turn in on.
I was rewarded with a brief smile from the gunslinger. "We're part of the law in this town, Bret. If you aren't looking for trouble, you won't find any here."
Ezra motioned to the man in black, "Mr. Maverick, this is Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner, and the two gentlemen hanging over the saloon doors are Buck Wilmington and J.D. Dunne," he supplied gesturing to each of the men. "And I am " Buck threw the saloon door wide open and stepped out, "And Ezra Standish here is the one drooling over the chance to play against a living legend."
Ezra shot Buck a withering stare. "I can assure you, Mr. Wilmington, that I am not drooling. I am merely anticipating the opportunity to test my not inconsequential skills against Mr. Maverick. Poker games against you six and the odd traveler have not been a challenge to my prowess and I have feared that I may have become a trifle stale." He tipped his hat in my direction. "When you have recovered from your travels, Mr. Maverick, I would be agreeable in partaking in a game of chance."
"Oh, I do look forward to it, as well, Ezra." I couldn't get myself to call him Mr. Standish. That was the name Annabelle, as Maude, had given him, but it wasn't his name. You'd like him, Pappy, would be proud to have him continue the Maverick name. "Now could you please point me in the direction of the best hotel this town has to offer."
"Buck, J.D.," Chris called to his men. As they stepped over, he continued, "Show Maverick here over to the hotel."
The tall, mustached man smiled as he made his way over to me. I liked him instantly. There was nothing hard or cold about this man. He looked like someone who loved to laugh and did it often. The young man, who came up behind him, was equally likable. He looked like an easterner who had decided to find out what the west was like. He'd obviously been in over his head until these six, especially Buck, had taken him in. I could immediately see Chris' strategy in having these two escort me to the hotel. They were not overtly threatening and put a man at ease. I could tell that Chris was a bit uneasy about me. I had that affect on lawmen.
"Maverick, I ain't seen anyone make Ezra drool like that. You must be really good." Buck said as we began to walk away.
I didn't have a chance to respond before J.D. asked, ""How'd you spend the half a million? I can't imagine spending all that money. Did you lose in another game?"
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Ezra watched Buck and J.D. lead the gambler off and then headed into the saloon. He caught Chris' questioning eyes and stopped. "Do you know anything else about this man, Ez?"
"I believe that he's run a few cons in his day, Mr. Larabee, but he is not dangerous. In fact my mother would often bring up his name when giving me examples of how I should not waste my talents. It appears that Mr. Maverick had a penchant for aiding those in need, regardless to the fact that it may have lead to a profit loss for himself. I believe he also made it a point to search out and expose cheats. There are quite a few people and towns that would call Mr. Maverick a true hero. I don't believe that he has any diabolical plans to wreck havoc on this principality."
Chris nodded thoughtfully at the gambler's assessment and watched as Ezra slipped back into the saloon. The gunslinger looked over to Vin. The Texan moved to the doorway and made sure that Ezra had moved far enough into the saloon that he couldn't over hear him. He sat on the bench behind Chris and said, "There's something more there, Chris. I don't think he's dangerous or nothing. But when he first looked at Ezra there was something in his eye that I can't place."
"All right, we'll keep an eye on him." Chris had quickly learned to trust Vin's instincts, especially when they agreed with his own. "Let Josiah and Nathan know about our new visitor. He definitely wants something with Ezra, so just in case, I don't want the two of them alone."
I have to admit that I was looking forward to playing a hand or two of poker against Ezra. The boy had to have card sharp in his blood. I was, of course, the best there ever had been, but Annabelle, despite her many tells, was quite good herself. I'm sure Annabelle, or Maude - got to start thinking of her as Maude - had him dealing from the bottom of the deck at a young age.
But we didn't get a chance to play that first night that I was in town. Some Texas drovers rode in and caused quite a stir. I did, at least, get to see my son and his fellow peacekeepers in action.
Ezra is not at all what I thought he would be, and I have a feeling that he is not at all what Maude wants him to be. He's a lot like me, but more courageous than I've ever been. I had to be backed into a corner or have some elaborate con set up before I'd face down anyone. He faced down two of the overly rowdy and obnoxious drovers in the saloon by himself. Ezra had boldly walked into the saloon and informed them that they were no longer welcome in Four Corners. I, of course, was ready to cover his back, but he didn't need any help from me.
Ezra had not even finished talking before one of the drovers stood and threw the first punch. Ezra dodged it and with graceful skill quickly dispatched the attacker. Unfortunately the second one took advantage of Ezra's distraction and landed a few punishing blows to Ezra's sides. My son grimaced as he slid away from him and motioned to something behind the drover. I couldn't decide what I didn't believe more; Ezra actually using that old ruse or the drover actually falling for it. As the drover turned back to him, Ezra landed a solid blow to his jaw and he soon joined his companion on the floor.
I saw him briefly place a protective arm across his side where the drover had managed to land a few punches before the sounds of gunshots in the street had him drawing his gun and joining his friends out there. I followed, finding myself overwhelmed with a need to protect this young man.
Ezra had pushed the bench over and was crouched behind it. His shots kept a drover who had sights on J.D. pinned behind a building. But he was so busy protecting the boy that he didn't notice the other one sighting on him. I acted without thinking. Drawing my gun, I launched myself at Ezra, knocking him heavily to the ground and fired. The drover went down, dead in the street. I turned to keep up the cover for J.D., but Buck had managed to dispatch his assailant.
I returned my attention to my son. His eyes were squeezed shut against the pain. I'd heard the ribs give way and knew that I had to have broken a couple when I drove him to the ground. Despite the pain, he managed to ask, "J.D.?"
"Buck took care of it." I looked up and down the street and counted. There were two that I hadn't met, but six in all. "They're all okay."
He nodded, swallowing hard against the pain, but the relief in his eyes was briefly visible. I wondered at his concern. Could Ezra have actually made such a deep family connection with these men? And if so, what did that mean for my chance to develop one of our own. He reached up and grabbed the edge of the bench to pull himself up, but I removed it. "You'd best lay still. I know you got some broken ribs, I heard 'em pop. I'm truly very sorry."
He smiled, but it looked more like a grimace, so he forced the humor to light his pain filled eyes briefly. "Considering my alternative was a bullet, I appreciate your gesture, Mr. Maverick. Thank you." The last was said so softly that I knew it was rarely spoken. He may be part of the seven, but he was still unused to relying on others. Maude would have taught him to be self sufficient and self-reliant.
I heard the jangle of spurs on the boardwalk and turned to face Chris. He took one look at Ezra and called, "Nathan! Ezra's down!"
Ezra sighed, "I will be fine, Mr. Larabee. Just allow me a moment to gather my breath."
Chris knelt down next to me and gave me a nod of thanks. I knew he was trying to dismiss me, but I wasn't about to leave Ezra's side. "We'll just let Nathan decide, Ez."
Sea green eyes opened again, filled with a stubbornness fiercer than any I've ever seen even when I look in the mirror. This time he pushed himself away from both of us with his feet. Chris and I both reached out with restraining hands. "Ezra," the name came out as a warning growl from Larabee.
"I'm fine," the southern drawl protested as a tall, black man joined us. I could only guess that this was the Nathan that Chris had called for. Paternal protection won out between my desires to not rat out my son and to see that he was properly taken care of. "He took a couple of hard blows to the ribs inside the saloon, and then I heard them give way when I tackled him." Nathan nodded to me as his firm, but gentle hands roamed over Ezra's ribcage. Hisses of pain from Ezra told him when he found the broken ribs. Nathan looked over across the street and called out, "Josiah, I'm gonna need your help getting him up to the clinic."
Chris nodded to Nathan and me and then went into the saloon to gather up the two drovers Ezra had left inside. I could see Buck, Vin, and J.D. doing the same to the others on the street.
We were soon joined by a man about my age, but considerably larger than me. He gave me an appraising glance as he knelt down beside Ezra. I could tell immediately that he was a gentle soul and that he had quite a bit of concern for my son. Again I found myself curious as to how Ezra reacted to this man. A pang of jealousy shot through me as I wondered if they had the relationship I had recently come to dream of. Nathan glanced up to him and said, "It's the ribs."
With a nod, Josiah grabbed Ezra's shoulders and began pulling him to his knees as Nathan supported his back. Ezra's only complaint was a groan of protest. Once on his knees he paused to catch his breath. With a reluctant nod to Josiah, he gathered his legs under him and pushed himself to his feet with both Josiah and Nathan supporting him. The two of them managed to get Ezra over to Nathan's clinic. I suppose the man had received some medical training somewhere. He sure seemed to know what he was doing. I followed them into the clinic. Neither of them seemed to care that I was there as long as I didn't get in their way. Ezra for his part kept up a steady stream of protest as we went up the stairs. I hid a smile behind my hand. The boy sure could talk, but then so could Maude, and I was known to babble on from time to time. These two must be used to him, because they simply ignored him.
They got him to sit on a cot with his back pressed up against the wall. The real fight came when Nathan tried to get Ezra to drink some laudanum. I caught a glimpse of what Maude must have had to deal with when he was a child. He clamped his lips shut and turned his head. I caught a wicked glint from Josiah's blue-gray eyes as he said, "Well, at least he finally shut up." Ezra opened his mouth to protest and quicker than I could follow, Nathan had the bottle of laudanum pressed against his mouth and forced quite a bit down his throat. The pain of his ribs kept Ezra from doing anything but choking down the horrid tasting liquid. As he choked and grimaced from the taste and pain, his eyes flared to life with promises of retribution. But when he was finally able to speak again, all he said was, "That was not kind. Not kind at all." His accent was thicker from the drug and pain, letting me know that his was indeed true. Maude had apparently hidden him from me in the south.
"Not kind, would be bandaging these broken ribs without giving you something for the pain, Ezra," Nathan said, his deep voice soothing.
Ezra merely raised his eyebrows in disbelief. Josiah and I shared a chuckle at the strange expression of him raising his eyebrows even as his eyelids drooped closed. Knowing that Ezra was in capable, and more importantly to me, caring hands, I introduced myself to the big man. "Bret Maverick." He took my hand in a very firm handshake.
"Josiah Sanchez. That's Nathan Jackson. I was across the street from the saloon. I saw what you did for Ezra. Thank you."
"It was my pleasure, Mr. Sanchez. After all, I do plan on winning all of the young man's money as soon as he's ready to play a hand of poker."
Nathan swung around to face us, disapproval darkening his brown eyes. I could see that Ezra had already drifted off to sleep, his head leaning back against the wall. He looked so young and peaceful, so much the child that I had never gotten to read bedtime stories to or hold when nightmares clutched at him. Something of that must have crossed my face, because I caught Nathan's confused look toward Josiah. For the first time in my life, I found it a struggle to drop my storied poker face across my features.
I found my voice and with a nod to each man, I said, "I can see that he's in good hands. Glad that I could be of help, gentlemen." And with that I strode out of the room, though my heart was screaming at me to stay. I wiped a hand across my face as I went down the stairs. The other four passed me on their way to see how Ezra was doing. My heart swelled with gratitude to them, for their concern for him, for their being there for him, when I could not. But when Maude arrived, that would change, I could express my feelings for my son and get a chance to see what his own feelings would be.
As he entered Nathan's clinic, Chris' eyes immediately sought out Ezra. Seeing the gambler peacefully asleep, though now with his torso firmly wrapped, the man in black turned questioning eyes to Nathan. The healer shrugged, "He's got a few broken ribs. A lot of rest, and as little moving around as possible, he'll be alright."
Buck laughed, "That is Ezra you're talkin' bout, Nathan. He ain't gonna sit still, 'specially with that gambler in town."
Chris' eyed each of his men, settling on Josiah and Nathan, "Maverick say anything to you, bout Ezra?"
Nathan and Josiah looked at each other, but Nathan spoke first, "He's seemed real concerned, bout Ez, Chris. Almost protective."
Josiah agreed, "He seems pretty harmless to me, Chris."
Chris nodded, "I can understand a gambler taking an interest in another, but there's more to it. I'll see what Mary has on Maverick in her files. See if I can get her to interview him. Keep an eye on him," and with one last look at their own gambler added, "and Ezra." With that Chris walked out of the clinic, with Vin close behind.
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