Buck and J.D. joined me later in the saloon. They were both curious to know how Ezra had managed to take down the two drovers. They laughed as I recounted the fight. "That's Ezra for you," Buck said. "That man's got more'n a few surprises up his sleeves."
I smiled and nodded. "As a gambler, I can say that he doesn't seem to be the law enforcement type. How did all of you manage to fall into this line of work?" I was curious and knew that these two were probably my best hope of finding out. Chris and Vin wouldn't trust me enough to tell me and Nathan and Josiah were still up in the clinic with Ezra, where I should be, where I wanted to be.
"Well, that's a long story, pard," Buck said. I grinned at him and ordered another round of drinks. With an answering smile he and J.D. took turns telling the story of how the seven gathered. Then sensing where my interest lay, they told me a few other tales about Ezra's part in policing the town. I have to admit that my heart broke a bit when they told me about Ezra and Maude's war over the hotel and saloon. What had Maude become? She'd always been money hungry; it was one of her more endearing qualities to me. But how could she be that way with her own son? When had she become so hard?
When their tales ended I asked if they knew anything about Maude's husband, Ezra's father. The two looked at each other and shrugged. "Ezra never mentions his dad and well, you don't really ask Ezra any personal questions." J.D. said.
I nodded. No, Ezra wouldn't talk about the man he never knew, at least not to these men. But at some point, he would have had to ask Maude. I could only wonder what story she had given him. Fear began to creep into me on how he would take the truth. But I shook it aside; he had the right to know. And I had a deep need to tell him.
The next day I found Ezra sitting stiffly outside the clinic. His immaculate appearance was a little worse for wear. His brown hair was disheveled and even stuck up a bit in places. But the green eyes were bright with thanks. I nodded to him as I sat down. "How are you feeling?"
"I have had quite a few better days, Mr. Maverick, but I am feeling better, thank you," the drawl was still thicker than usual. His eyes caught Chris walking towards the saloon and he called to him. "Mr. Larabee, I do hope you have rid this town of the remainder of those heathen cattle drovers?"
Larabee stopped and glanced up at both of us. I caught a brief look of annoyance in his eyes as he recognized that it was me sitting with Ezra. "They've moved on, Ezra." He called. And then throwing a glare my way, I sensed that he was suggesting that I do the same. From this second story perch I could see that he moved past the saloon and went into the town newspaper office. I was equally pleased and jealous of his protectiveness. Pleased to know that Ezra despite his and Chris' rough beginnings had managed to earn a place under Chris' protection. Jealous, because it was the role that I should have filled.
With a grateful sigh, Ezra lurched to his feet. I stood up ready to give him a steadying hand, but he merely glared at me. With a smile I backed away, hands up. Very slowly and obviously painfully he made his way down the stairs, across the street and into the saloon. When I caught his wistful glance up the saloon stairs I could only guess that his room was up there. Deciding that he had punished his body enough at this point he settled for sitting at a table. I could only guess that he was desperate to clean up and perhaps rest in his own bed. I knew that would be exactly what I would want in his place.
As I sat down across from him, his eyes pinned me with a look of disdain. "I must apologize, Mr. Maverick, but I am not at all up to a game of poker at this point in time."
"You shouldn't be up at all," a threatening voice said from behind me. I recognized it to be Nathan's and had to smile as Ezra squeezed his eyes shut, as if that alone would hide him from the healer's wrath.
My smile spread into a grin as Ezra quickly tried a bit of subtle misdirection. "But so great is your medical expertise, Mr. Jackson, that I am quite able to move about this morning without aid. I can not express how grateful I am that you have chosen to remain here in Four Corners and are able to care for those of us who have the misfortune of being the victim of violence or sickness."
Nathan, however, would have none of it. I turned in time to catch him shake his head, but there was a touch of laughter in his eyes. "You want to sit here, instead of in the clinic, fine, Ezra. But," he paused and those gentle features suddenly took a sinister turn, "I'm gonna make sure that they serve you nothing but water."
Ezra opened his mouth to protest but clamped it shut as Nathan turned to the barkeep. He flashed me a smile, revealing deep dimples and a gold tooth. From his coat he pulled out a silver flask. With his back still turned to us, Nathan called out, "I emptied that last night, Ezra."
"Aw, Hell!" Ezra said as he gave the flask a shake and confirmed Nathan's words. "But surely, Mr. Jackson, you would not deny me a drink when its medicinal purposes are well documented."
"But, Ezra," Nathan said as he walked by us on his way out of the saloon. "Remember, my healing abilities are so great that you don't need any aid."
Ezra sighed and threw his head back in the chair, defeated, for now. He heard my stifled laugh and opened one eye to glare at me. "Is there anything else I can do for you, Mr. Maverick, besides being a source of amusement?"
Taking the hint, I got up from the table. "Just let me know when you're up to a game, Ezra."
He nodded and then slumped as far into the chair as his ribs would allow. I left him there and decided to wander about he town. I was curious to see if I could learn more about these men. But I knew I would have to be careful. Chris and Vin obviously sensed there was more to me than I was letting on. If they knew I was asking about them, I'm sure I would face their demanding questions. And Chris would be far too insistent, possibly even violent, and Vin would probably be able to see through my guise easily. I knew to stay away from them as much as possible.
I was fortunate when the beautiful editor of the Clarion newspaper sought me out. After a few questions from Mrs. Travis it became apparent that Chris had asked her to find out what she could about me. And since I was fairly well known, she could ask questions without raising my suspicions if I were prone to them. Despite his mistrust of me, I was truly beginning to like Chris Larabee. He was a smart and careful man and a good leader. I could see how he had somehow managed to earn Ezra's loyalty and faith.
The day sped quickly as Mary Travis and I spoke. Her questions were quite thoughtful and I could see that while she tried to keep her guard up against my charm, she couldn't quite resist it fully. She relaxed and between my answers to her questions she answered a few of my own. She is truly as intelligent as she is beautiful. She reminded me of Annabelle, but without the larcenist tendencies. She even dared ask me if I was fearful of what would happen to my reputation if I lost to Ezra.
Suddenly unsure of how I would react if he managed to beat me, I went for a little misdirection myself. "If, and that is a fairly large if, he manages to beat me, do you plan on writing this in your paper?"
She leaned back away from me in her surprise. "It would be a fairly newsworthy event, Mr. Maverick. I would have to publish it in the Clarion."
I nodded, "Of course you would. But do you realize what would happen if you do? As a gambler myself I can't understand why, but Ezra seems to be quite happy to remain here in your little town. You spread the word that he beat me in poker and suddenly every man, woman, and child that calls themselves a gambler will be rushing out here to test their skills. When they do, they'll bring a whole new, unwanted element to this town. The only way to stop that will be to have the other six run Ezra out of town. And I may be wrong, but I believe that this town needs all seven of her protectors. They seem to make a fairly formidable team."
She smiled at me, "You just don't want anything to spoil your reputation."
I don't know how, but the words slipped out before I could stop them, "I don't want to spoil the best thing that boy's ever gotten."
I could feel her studying me, her woman's intuition slowly putting two and two together. I quickly spoiled her addition, "Now then, if you would like some truly wonderful tales to print in your paper, I have several adventures you may be interested in. The amazing feat of my winning half a million dollars is merely the icing on the cake."
Like most people, when I want them to, she quickly tired of my tales and told me that she had to attend to her young son. I nodded and after caring for my horse at the livery I made my way back to the saloon, eager to see how Ezra was fairing. He sat outside the saloon, on an old rocker, his legs carefully stretched out in front of him as he read a book. He must have made it up to his room, because while he was still slightly disheveled, he had managed to change into clean clothing. Obviously he had inherited both my and Maude's stubbornness in full measure, not to mention our exquisite taste in clothing.
J.D. and Buck beat me in interrupting his reading. He scowled at them, but no malice entered his eyes. In fact, if I could read his body language, wounded as it was, correctly, it seemed as if he was downright grateful for the interruption. I slipped into the general store to watch through the window.
From the smiles and frowns that passed among them, I could guess that there was a lot of good-natured teasing going on. I found myself marveling at the apparent comfort had with these men. Aside from my pappy, I always traveled alone. And despite all the things I did for people and towns, I never found one that would tolerate my presence for very long. Gamblers just weren't meant to take up residence in a town, it just wasn't in their nature and just wasn't good for business. Until I saw my son enjoying everything I never had, I never realized how much I had wanted it myself. If Annabelle had told me about Ezra would we have married and settled down? Would she and I have found camaraderie and some measure of acceptance as our son had? I would never know.
Finally I walked out of the store and across the street to the saloon. All three of them stopped their conversation and turned to watch me. "Gentlemen," I said, "would you care to join me for a drink?"
"You buying?" Buck asked.
"Only the first round," I answered.
"Then we're drinking," he said, "Come on, Ez." So very gently for such a large man, he pushed Ezra forward in his chair, while supporting his back. Ezra gathered his feet under him and with Buck's support managed to stand without upsetting his ribs too much. J.D. and I preceded them into the saloon. We could hear the wince of pain from Ezra as he attempted to shuffle his way in. Finally making his way to the table, he eased into the chair. I knew that since Nathan still had him banned from drinking, the only thing that had drawn him inside was the comfort of his friends and the possible chance of seeing me play a few hands. Not wanting to disappoint, I drew a deck of cards out of my coat pocket.
"Would either of you two be interested in a game of chance? Mr. Standish has already informed me that he isn't quite up to a game yet."
J.D.'s brown eyes widened, "That true, Ez? I've never known anything to stop you from playing a game of poker. You must really be hurting."
Ezra smiled crookedly. "While my pain is not insubstantial, you are correct in stating that it would normally not affect either my desire or ability in a common game of poker. Under these circumstance, I could and would still take all of your and Mr. Wilmington's money." He nodded to me. "However, Mr. Maverick is an entirely different caliber of player, one that requires that I am not impeded in any manner whatsoever. He is a gambler and a gentleman like myself, and as such, has agreed to wait until I am better prepared to play."
I tipped an imaginary hat to him at his gracious words. As I began to deal the cards, J.D. asked, "But, Ezra, how fair is it for you to watch Mr. Maverick, here, play us? You'll get a chance to see if he's got any tells."
Ezra blinked slowly as he released an irritated sigh. Unable to suppress a grin, I said, "Kid's got a point."
He opened his mouth to respond, but never had a chance to speak as Nathan and Josiah entered the saloon. Josiah joined us at the table and motioned for me to include him in the hand. Nathan stood behind Ezra, who graced us all with a wince of pain. "All right, Ezra, you've been up and about all day. I've seen you've been up and down those stairs at least once. Well you're going up them one more time, but you're staying up there for the night. Moving around, pulling on those ribs, ain't gonna help them heal any faster. But some rest might."
Ezra's green eyes, searched those of his fellow lawmen looking for some support, but they all kept their eyes on their cards. Obviously they had the good sense to not anger the man who would be able to ease their pain if they ever met any harm. My son still needed to learn that lesson.
"Mr. Jackson, I can assure you that I intend to remain here for the better part of the night. Then I shall retire to my room, and remain there until perhaps the afternoon. I have no intentions of . . ."
"Don't 'Mr. Jackson' me. I know exactly what your intentions are. Now either get up and get to your room and get some rest, or I'll ask Chris for some assistance in getting you up."
Like his mother, and I'll admit myself, Ezra did not give in to defeat easily. Moving faster than a man with broken ribs should be able to, he swiped Buck's shot glass and downed the whiskey before Nathan could even voice a protest. The others laughed at this display, but I grimaced in pity for the revenge the healer would surely take on Ezra.
But to my surprise, Nathan merely shook his head as he gently pulled Ezra to his feet. I had a feeling that it was only his healer instincts that forced him to not cause undo pain to Ezra. The flash in Nathan's deep brown eyes, however, told me that would not always be the case. As he was forced across the saloon and up the stairs, Ezra kept up a steady stream of protest. Josiah must have caught the concern in my face, because he smiled reassuringly at me. I cursed myself for giving away too much. But it was so hard not to show my concern when my son was so very near.
We played several hands of poker that night. Nathan eventually came down and joined us, sitting where he could keep an eye on the stairwell. Even Chris and Vin joined us after a while. As we traded stories of adventures, I could feel Chris watching me, his eyes searching me for a clue as to why I was really in town. The man would never relax until he knew everything. I met his eyes on occasion and merely smiled in return. They were all good men and I found myself liking each of them in their own way. They had obviously learned a thing or two about poker from Ezra since they weren't the easy marks that I had first taken them for. In fact, I was surprised when I lost a few hands that I did not intend to.
"While I have enjoyed the game and company, I must keep some money in reserve for my game with Mr. Standish," I said as I stood from the table.
J.D. laughed, "If you lost to us, you're going to lose everything to Ezra. He's the best there is." I kept my poker face in place even as I filled with paternal pride.
"We'll just have to see about that, J.D.," and with that I turned and walked out of the saloon and over to my hotel. Maude would be in town in a day or two and then my real challenge would begin.
The next morning I was sitting in the town restaurant enjoying breakfast, when Chris came and sat down at my table with me.
"Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Larabee?" I asked good-naturedly.
"You can tell me why you're in town. We've already got a gambler." The man obviously knew how to get directly to the point.
I nodded, "And that has been troubling me. Why on earth would you have wanted a conman to join you on your little crusade? He doesn't seem the type that you would seek out when wanting to ride to the rescue of some poor villagers."
Chris leaned back in his chair and gave a small, contemplative smile. He didn't seem surprised that I knew their story, but then I'm sure he'd had a long conversation with Buck and J.D. about me. He was a thorough man. "I asked Ezra 'cause I thought I needed a cheat. Turned out I needed Ezra."
It took me a moment to overcome my surprise at that admission and Chris watched my reaction carefully. Finally, he continued, "Half the time I don't have a clue what he's gonna do, I don't think he does either. As frustrating as he is, a wild card is a good thing to have in your hand.
"So why are you in town, Maverick."
"I can assure you that I intend no harm to Ezra," I blurted out without thinking.
Chris nodded, and I thought for a moment that he would leave it at that. But his hard green eyes trapped and held mine. "So, do you 'intend' to tell him that you're his father?"
My jaw dropped open in shock, but before I could protest, he held up a hand, "Mary suggested it might be a possibility, and after talking to you right now, I know she was right."
He gave a short laugh as he cocked his head to the side, "Let's just say that Ezra could give you a few pointers on keeping a poker face."
It was a low blow and he knew it. But Ezra had placed his faith in this man, so I would too. "I'm waiting for Maude. She should be in town shortly. I figure he might not believe it unless I can make Maude confirm it."
"Or, he might think that you and Maude are trying to scam him. She's done it before, but then you know Maude."
I shook my head, "Actually I don't. She was Annabelle Bransford when I met her. And from the few stories I've heard, she's changed quite a bit. Oh, she was quite the poker player and thief, but wasn't quite so cut throat in her scams."
"Annabelle, huh? So where'd you meet her?" he asked.
I smiled at the memory. "Over a poker table of course." Chris shook his head, but his face was transformed by his full smile. "Well, while we wait for old Maude to ride into town, you can fill me in on that little story."
And I did, I told him everything, from her trying to steal my wallet with a kiss to her stealing a quarter of a million from me and my pappy while we bathed. And as I was telling it, it struck me how very little time I had ever had with Annabelle. It must have struck him, too, 'cause he said, "Seems like you hardly knew her at all, and yet here you are almost thirty years later trying to track her down. And you never knew you had a kid."
I nodded, "Some women, Chris, are so remarkable and memorable that they haunt you for the rest of you life."
He got a far off look and I knew he was thinking of just such a woman who had been in his life. "Yep," was all he said and I had no intention of prying.
He looked back at me, his mood changed and chuckled, "So, ol' Ez was conceived on a riverboat. Seems pretty fitting to me."
I'm a man, I couldn't resist, "Yeah, I wonder which time, though."
Chris shook his head and laughed as he rose from the table. He met my eyes and said, "If you need some time with Maude when she gets her, me and the boys'll keep Ezra away. I won't tell them anything, though."
"Thank you, Mr. Larabee. I don't know what kind of childhood Ezra had, but I'm fairly certain that he's always been able to count his friends on one hand. Thanks for changing that for him."
He tipped his hat to me and exited the restaurant. If I had any doubts before they were now dispelled. Ezra was in good hands. These men cared for him and understood him enough that they knew they had to express that caring in ways he would accept. He was a tough fit for their group, and they weren't the type to make accommodations, but somehow it all worked out.
I roamed around town again that day, but spent most of the time in Josiah's church. I liked the big man a lot and not just because we're about the same age. I was certain now that he had a deep affection for Ezra, maybe even a fatherly feeling toward him. It should have bothered me more than it did, but it didn't. I figured the biggest influence on Ezra's life had always been Maude. And while she may have given him a good understanding on the best ways to use his talents, she'd never let him feel like he belonged anywhere. I don't think he quite feels like he belongs here, but he's closer than he's ever been.
Like the rest of the seven, there's something lurking in the back of Josiah's heart, a pain he'll never be free of. But today it's nowhere to be found in his blue-gray eyes. He welcomed me into his church and before I even have a chance to sit on one of the wooden pews, he asks me, "Do you have something to confess, brother?"
I laughed, "Nothing you'll ever hear."
He joined me in my laughter and gently slapped me on the back. "Then what brings you in here?"
"Relief from the heat and the peace and quiet."
Josiah nodded sadly, "Yes, I have a poor congregation." He motioned to the empty pews.
"I'm sure that's no reflection on you, Josiah, just the lack of a religious nature in this town."
"I can only hope to remedy that." He settled down in the pew next to me and we sat in a comfortable silence for a while. He broke the silence first, telling me about how he saw rebuilding the church as his own act of penance. He was a good man, just the sort that people naturally turn to for advice. I was tempted to ask him about his relationship with Ezra but didn't want to tip my hand to him as well. Instead, we spent the day trading stories until as evening dawned we both felt a different calling.
"Well, brother, I don't know about you, but I could use refreshing from another type of spirits," he said.
"Lead the way, my friend. I also must see if your Mr. Standish is up to our promised poker game," I said, suddenly eager to test my skills against my son.
"I'm sure that Ezra is more than ready to play. Nothing can keep that man away from a gaming table for long."
Josiah's words proved true as we found Ezra sitting at his table shuffling a deck of card. Josiah smiled as he teased, "You look very well rested, Ez."
Ezra raised one corner of his mouth, rolled his eyes and shook his head at Josiah. Then putting that childish petulance behind him, he looked over to me, "If you are agreeable, Mr. Maverick, I am prepared to begin our game." He still appeared to be stiff and sore, but I knew the challenge that I presented to him was too much for him to wait for.
I sat across from him. "So am I, Mr. Standish." I almost choked on the name but found it only proper to answer him in kind.
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