Josiah looked around the saloon for the others, and not finding them, quickly went to gather them. They returned shortly and sat at a table next to ours, close enough to watch but out of our way. They were present not so much just to watch our game but to lend a unified support for Ezra in case things went badly for me and I reacted badly. Chris, however, merely raised his eyebrows at me with a rare touch of humor touching his eyes, as he settled in to watch the game.
As he dealt the cards, I looked up at Ezra and suddenly knew exactly what Chris had meant earlier. I could take poker face lessons from him. Gone was the incredibly mobile and expressive face. It had been replaced by impassive eyes and incredibly still features. Temporarily, I forgot that he was my son and he became a new challenger to my legendary status. I settled my own poker face across my features and settled down to play with a renewed enthusiasm. I will probably play cards until the day I die, hell, it may be the reason that I die. But when you've been around as long as I have, you've already seen and done just about everything there is to do with a deck of cards. Challengers to my status are countless and each one walked away a loser. But Ezra was different, and it wasn't just because he was my son. It was because for the first time, I looked across a poker table and knew that there was a distinct possibility that I would lose.
And after the first couple of hands, I knew I would lose. My son was incredible, and while his wonderfully dexterous and nimble hands possessed a mastery over the cards that I've never seen, I knew he wasn't cheating. He simply had no need. We continued to play for hours and I never found a tell, and I could usually spot those within an hour. The others would lose interest and wandered away from the game, but they always came back, anxious to see how it would end. I was just delaying the inevitable, so finally, after my last losing hand, I stood up. "Ezra, It has been a pleasure. While I am sorry for my loss, I am grateful to know that my legacy is in capable hands." I caught Chris's knowing look at that last, but I ignored it.
"Thank you, Mr. Maverick," he said gathering up my money. "You were indeed quite a challenge." He moved as if to stand and stopped suddenly as pain filled him. Ribs that had grown complacent as they sat still for so long complained loudly at him for moving. Nathan was at his side in an instant.
"Just don't try to move so fast, Ezra. You're ribs ain't ready for that yet," he scolded.
"I'm well aware of that, Mr. Jackson," was Ezra's reply through gritted teeth. I watched as Nathan helped Ezra up the stairs then made my way out of the saloon and started for the hotel.
"He really that good?" Chris asked as he joined me.
"I had every intention of winning, if that's what you mean, Chris. He beat me fair and square," a little annoyed that he would think I would hold back against my son.
"Well, coming from you and Maude, what'd ya expect?"
"Nothing less than what he is, Chris, nothing less." I answered and both Chris and I knew that I was talking about far more than just his poker skills.
He smiled and with a tip of his hat walked off to his own room. I watched him and knew that he was feeling a small measure of the pride that I was. He may not always agree with Ezra's use of his talents, but he was grateful to know that Ezra was indeed the best at what he did.
Chris was true to his word in the morning, as well. He had Buck and J.D. intercept Ezra as he came down into the saloon late in the morning. Somehow the two of them coaxed him over to the restaurant that was on the far end of town, well away from where the stage would stop.
Chris and I stood across from the saloon, waiting for the stage. I can't describe my feelings when the stage finally rolled to a stop in front of us. I have to admit that I've faced down irate gunslingers, I've hung from a cliff with my bare hands, have even been almost hanged, but I've never been so nervous or afraid as I was waiting for Maude to step out of that stage. Chris nudged me when she did, but it was not necessary. She had aged as I had, but had not lost a bit of her beauty. Finely dressed, as always, she disembarked from the stage with a stately manner. She strode purposefully to the saloon after paying a boy to carry her incredible amount of luggage to the motel. After not finding Ezra or any of the other seven in the saloon, she reemerged and looked up and down the street. I ducked and hid my head as she turned to Chris.
"Mr. Larabee, it is always a pleasure," she said as she approached us her southern drawl much improved from her time actually spent in the south. "Could you please tell me where I may find my son?"
Before Chris could respond, I raised my head and said, "I could never forget the beautiful southern tones of Annabelle Bransford. How have you been, Annabelle?"
Her face unreadable, she gave me a thorough look over before responding, "You obviously have me confused, sir. My name is Maude Standish, Mrs. Standish."
"Now Maude doesn't suit you near as well as Annabelle. It's a little too close to fraud for my tastes. And I'd bet there's no more a Mr. Standish than there was a Mr. Bransford." I had forgotten how quick her hands were, but remembered the sting of her slap. "How dare you?"
My hand darted to my face even as I smiled. "I've met my son, Maude."
Maude glanced at Chris, turning her head away from me dismissively. "Really, Mr. Larabee, I thought you were sworn to keep the riff raff out of this town."
Chris shook his head, "Never swore an oath, ma'am. I'll just let you two work it out." And with that he slipped off into the saloon, where I'm sure he planned on keeping an eye on us.
As soon as Chris slipped out of earshot, Maude said, "Burt, Burt Maverick, why I haven't seen you in ages."
I winced at her old game, "It's Bret!"
"Of course it is, how silly of me. Whatever are you doing in this little town?" she asked pleasantly but I could see the scorn in her eyes.
"Rumors of a gambler who has actually not only put down roots in this town, but is part of the law enforcement." I answered knowing this was a sore point with Maude.
"Really? And have you played against this gambler?" she asked as if uninterested, but I could see the curiosity that burned in her eyes.
"Yes I have," I answered her simply, wanting her to have to work as hard as I was to get information.
She pulled me around so that I faced her, "He won, didn't he. I just know that he did." And for that brief moment she was Annabelle again. She was full of the vitality and eagerness that had drawn me to her in the first place. I could have held her in my arms and remained happy for the rest of my life. But I didn't, I had to know the truth; had to make sure Ezra knew the truth.
"Why didn't you tell me that I had a son?"
Her eyes hardened immediately and it was like watching the death of Annabelle and everything that she had been. Only Maude stood in front of me now and she was a cold, hard woman, one who was used to getting things her way. I felt a great deal of sympathy for Ezra. "I had a quarter million of your money. Do you think I was going to go back to you to tell you that I also had your son?"
I can't begin to describe the feelings that I had at that moment. I was relieved and ecstatic to know that Ezra was truly my son. And I was also furious with her for having hid it from me for so long. "Do you think I would have cared about the money? We're talking about my child, here."
"That's exactly the attitude that I tried to keep from Ezra. It's always about the money, Bret. I made every effort to raise Ezra to understand that fact. He can be so much better than either you or I ever were. He was destined for greatness until he came to this town and fell in with these six men. Now he's wasting his abilities just like you always did."
All the anger that I had felt toward Maude suddenly melted into pity. I couldn't help but let that pity fill my words, "What happened to you, Annabelle?"
"Annabelle died when I left you. She had to so I could survive. I had so many wonderful plans on what I would do with that money. Then I learned that I only had half of it, that somehow you still managed to trick me. I got over that disappointment, after all a quarter of a million dollars is quite a lot of money. I could make a great new start. Then I learned I was pregnant with your child. There was nowhere that I could go as an unwed mother, so I had to reinvent myself. I needed a good, matronly and upstanding name so I chose Maude Standish. My 'husband' Patrick Standish unfortunately had met an untimely death in the west leaving me with an unborn child and his wealth. I set up a household and for the first few years made an attempt to settle down. But the money quickly disappeared and I grew restless and needed to get back to the tables. I left Ezra with some relatives and returned to the riverboats. When I could, I took Ezra with me; he had so much natural ability with the cards and cons. "
"Why, Maude? You could have come back to me or let me find you. We could have gotten married and raised Ezra together. All of our lives might have been better."
"I've been married five times, Maverick, and the only way any of them made my life better is that they gave me money and a place to leave Ezra so I could return to the tables." There was no remorse in her voice or eyes only a cold hearted defiance.
My heart broke at the news that she could have so easily left Ezra with people who would have cared nothing for him. I grabbed her arm and started to pull her with me as I walked down the street.
"Where are we going?" she demanded as she pulled her arm free.
"We're going to tell Ezra the truth," the fierceness of my voice surprised me, but it perfectly matched my mood at the moment.
I expected a fight, but she merely smiled her beautiful, cunning smile and said, "Good. Maybe this will finally get him to leave this town."
I was torn then between the thought of Ezra leaving town and going with me and us getting a chance to get to know each other as we traveled, and the knowledge that he belonged in this town, with these six other men. Somehow those six men were slowly undoing all the work that Maude had done on him. They were bringing out the good man that had been buried under that self-centered façade that Maude had built. I couldn't be the instrument that took him away from here. Ezra deserved to know the truth, but I couldn't let this work to Maude's advantage. But I would deal with that when I had to. First I had to tell Ezra who he really was. My biggest fear was that he would simply hate me for never being there for him.
I paused as I entered the restaurant, Maude stopping behind me, and watched Ezra with Buck and J.D. for a moment. The smile that lit up his eyes as he related some humorous tale to his friends almost made me walk back out. What selfish right did I have to spoil this strange peace that he had found? But Maude's impatient shove to my back spurred me into the room. Ezra's smile deepened at my entrance and then immediately disappeared as Maude followed me in. He rose stiffly from his chair and approached us.
"Why, Mother, I had no idea that you were due for a visit," he said, irritation filling his voice, as he stood in front of us. His poker face had fallen back over his features, but there was still sadness in his eyes.
"Of course not, dear. If I gave you advance warning, you might not be here when I arrive," Maude replied. It seemed like playful banter, but I wondered if there was some truth to it. Ezra did not seem at all happy to see his mother. After hearing and learning everything I had about Maude's raising of him, I could understand. Maude noticed his posture and said, "You've been injured, Ezra. I've told you that this town is no place for you."
Anger rose quickly in those pale green eyes. "And I've told you, Mother, that . . ." I shifted slightly to remind them of my presence. Ezra immediately held his words and simply switched to a new subject. "I see that you have met Mr. Maverick, Mother."
"Actually, my dear, I've met him before. But I believe that conversation would be better held in private."
His mouth dropped open slightly and an almost amusing, childlike look of bewilderment crossed his face as he looked from Maude to me and back again. I could imagine his curiosity as to why Maude would not have ever told him about meeting me. He followed us back out of the restaurant without a glance at Buck and J.D. who had watched everything with interest. I knew that as soon as we left, they would go to Chris and see if he knew anything. I wondered what the gunslinger would tell them.
"Now, Ezra, Maverick here tells me that the two of you have already shared a game of poker. But he has yet to tell me who managed to win at that game."
"Why, Mother, do you doubt my abilities?" Ezra asked, some of his self-assurance returning.
"Why, Darlin'," Maude mocked in return, "of course I do. But, you're abilities have grown rusty as you waste your time with these six gunslingers."
I glared at Maude. "Nothing rusty about his playing, Maude. He's a natural born player, the best I've ever seen. He beat me easily and thoroughly."
There must have been a little too much pride in my defense of him and Ezra was too quick and sharp to miss it. Chris had warned me this morning that the only reason Ezra had not seen through me as he and Mary had was his distraction with his injury. Even so, I completely missed the glint in his eyes as he said, "Well, the apple did not fall far from the tree." He kept his eyes on me, watching me closely, but I didn't notice until the words were already out of my mouth.
"No, it didn't," both Maude and I agreed smugly.
Ezra stopped dead in his tracks in the middle of the street, reached out and grabbed hold of both Maude and me. Impatience flared in those sea green eyes. I hid my smile at his high-strung antics, since I couldn't decide if they were Maude's or mine. "What are you two hiding? Mother, why didn't you ever tell me that you knew Mr. Maverick before?"
"Ezra Standish, you are making a scene. We can have this conversation in private," Maude said sternly.
I knew that I was about to see a battle in what had to be a lifetime (Ezra's at least) of war of the wills. I had a feeling that Maude was ahead in the score, she had become quite ruthless. Unwilling to watch any more of this I stated simply, "I'm your father."
Ezra's jaw dropped. He'd take a short breath and move his mouth as if to speak, but would only give a short exhale of disbelief. Finally he managed, "What?" I would learn later what a feat it had taken to force a one word sentence from him.
Maude took command of the situation. "He's your father, Ezra. I told you about how he won the All River's Poker Championship. Well I was there, too. And at the end, so were you, apparently," she said it as matter of factly as if telling us the weather.
There was no masking the emotions that ranged across his face. Each one drew answering emotions from me, but I could do nothing but wait for him to sort them out himself. Denial, anger, pain, and loss all warred on his mobile and expressive face. But what I latched onto, what I had to hold on to no matter what he did next, was the joy that lit up his eyes. Finally wariness settled across his features.
"Did you know when you came into town?" he eventually asked his voice a mere whisper.
"I was fairly certain. But I had no proof and I had a feeling that you would want some. I knew Maude was coming into town soon, so I figured I'd wait." I looked at him, willing him to believe me. "And it gave me a chance to get to know you a little." I knew honesty would be the only way to go with him. He had all his guards up and was searching cautiously for a con.
"So you never knew about me?" the intensity of what he was feeling made itself known in the slight thickening of his accent. It gave him a vulnerability that every ounce of his being was attempting to hide.
"No more than you ever knew about me." I reached out and laid a hand gently on his shoulder. "If I had, you can be certain that I would have found you." I felt the shoulder twitch, his natural instinct to shrug it off, but he didn't. He looked at me, his eyes searching mine for any hint of a lie. Finding none, he nodded at me. His other hand came up slowly and he clutched my hand that still rested on his shoulder. I wanted to pull him to me, to hold him, but I knew that while he might have accepted it, he was not quite yet able to face it. I made my living at the card tables. I knew how to be patient.
Ezra released my hand and turned to face Maude, who surprisingly had remained quiet during this entire scene. He faced her with his poker face firmly affixed, but his naked grief was expressed in the single worded question, "Why?"
Maude rocked back a bit as if surprised that he would not understand her reasoning. Disbelief and sarcasm colored her words, "I took a quarter of a million dollars from him, Ezra. What was I supposed to do? Return the money to him so we could raise you together? Do you really think that he would have made a fit father?"
"More fit that any of the men that you forced me to call father," he answered and then releasing years of bottled up anger added viciously. "More fit to be a parent than you ever were."
The harshness and vehemence of his words hit a nerve within Maude as actual grief touched her beautiful features at that moment. Her eyes softened as they filled with tears that she refused to allow to fall. It suddenly struck me that she had never even considered that she was a bad parent. She must have thought that she was raising Ezra the best way that she could, that she was making him into a strong young man. In many ways she had, but she'd also forced him into a lonely existence. Even I, who had known her before she became Maude, was unprepared for her next words. Ezra and I had expected some sort of biting retort, some effort to retain her dignity. Neither of us expected the simple and heartfelt, "I'm sorry, darlin'."
Ezra stepped back from her as if to get a better perspective on the woman who stood in front of him. She was still his mother, but it was the woman he had never known. The small part of Annabelle that had lain dormant within Maude now flashed to the surface. She stepped forward and grabbed Ezra and held him in a tight embrace. Unfortunately the wondrous moment was interrupted by Ezra's cry of pain from the pressure placed on his cracked ribs. As his legs buckled underneath him he clutched at me for support. For a brief moment we stood in the street in an odd embrace. Maude still held him and he held her with one arm and me with the other. He was fighting the pain, pushing it back so he could hold on to the moment and both of us for a little bit longer.
Finally, he pushed away from us. I could tell that he had reached the limits of his endurance. I can only imagine how overwhelming it was to learn that your father is alive and in front of you and also get a glimpse of the mother you never knew. This was a man who kept himself aloof from the tentative offer of friendship from his fellow lawmen. He lived within himself because it was how he learned he could best survive. He could accept me for who I was but it might be a hard road for him to accept me into his life. I could only follow his lead and make it as easy as possible.
Without a word he walked over to the saloon, past both Chris and Vin who sat outside, and made his way inside. Vin stood and peered inside the saloon and motioned to both Chris and me that Ezra had gone upstairs to his room. I nodded my thanks to him and turned back to Maude. Regret was clearly etched on her beautiful face, but I had no idea what thoughts filled her mind. "Do you really believe that we could have been happy?" she asked.
I looked at her, threw my arm around her shoulders and felt them twitch just like Ezra's had, but she did not throw my arm off either. Instead she turned into my embrace as she waited for my answer. I sighed as I looked down into her green eyes. "No, I really don't. You and I would never have been able to settle down." It was an admission I never would have made to her if she had not offered an apology to Ezra. "I think that while you've been much harder on him than you ever had to be, you did your best in raising him."
I felt her stiffen in my arms but she did not move. "You know nothing about the life I've led, what I've had to do to survive. I had to make him tough, so he wouldn't be hurt the way I've been."
I cut her off with a soft kiss to the top of her head. "You taught him every trick you know and he is a very strong man. But he doesn't need all the strength and tricks you did. He's living his own life now. And there are six men in this town who are helping to shape it in a completely different way than you or he ever imagined. You can't keep trying to hold him to your, to our, way of life."
"But I can't just let him go. What will I have left if I lose him? My cons and schemes?"
She had walked into it so easily that I had to be gentle when I said, "Don't force him to have nothing but that emptiness when he looks back on his life. He's got a chance here that you and I never had. He'll fight it kicking and screaming, but I think that eventually these men will pull him into a different type of family that you and I could never offer him."
She pulled away from me then and eyed me angrily. "As if your life has been so full and joyous."
I shook my head and pulled her back to me. "No, I have that same emptiness. What do you think spurred me into searching for you after all these years? I wasn't lying when I said that I don't think that we could have been happy as a family. But I think that you and I have a real opportunity to find that happiness now, together."
"What about Ezra?" she asked, surprised that I had not included him.
"He will find his own happiness. And we will find a way to share ours with him. You know him better than I do. Do you really think he is ready for both a mother and father?"
She smiled and it reached her eyes, returning that cunning twinkle to them. "I've always been too much for him by myself. You would be far too much for him to bear. In fact, you were always too much for me to even bear, Burt."
I released her and shook my head in frustration. "Bret. You're Maude, I'm Bret."
"No, I'm Annabelle, you're Bret, remember?" For a moment we stood there lost in our memories of that day on the ferry when we'd first argued over names.
"Is that you're real name, Annabelle Bransford?" I asked curious to see how much she would be willing to reveal.
"Does it really matter any more? Or should I ask if Maverick is really your name?"
"I can assure you, madam, that I am a Maverick through and through," I responded with pride.
She slipped out of my arms and said teasingly, "Oh, of that I am quite certain. And your son is even more of a Maverick than you ever were." The smile slipped from her face to be replaced by concern. "Speaking of Ezra, it's about time that you and he had a father and son talk."
"At his age?" I asked. "You've really been remiss in your parental duties. Poor boy hasn't had any chance to enjoy life."
"You know what I mean!" she hissed as she batted me on the shoulder.
I nodded as my own smile slipped from my face. "I know and you're right, but first." I grabbed her and gave her a kiss to rival the ones we had shared in the past. I had to laugh when I felt the lightest brush against my chest. "You're losing your touch and I don't keep my wallet there anymore," I said as I turned to go to Ezra's room over the saloon.
Maude gave me a most knowing smile and said, "I will expect to have a nice family dinner tonight. Let's say around eight this evening." She consulted a very familiar pocket watch. My hands flew to my waistcoat pocket and I could only shake my head at her.
"Really, Maverick, do you think I could lose my touch?" she asked as she handed the watch back to me.
I raised my eyebrows up at her and said, "I certainly hope not."
She laughed and motioned me to continue on my way. As I made my way onto the saloon porch, Chris stopped me with a look. I could see the warning and promise in his eyes. If Ezra were hurt somehow, I would pay dearly. I nodded to him to let him know that his warning had been received. I also hope that I managed to reassure him, when I myself was praying that I could get through this without further damaging my son's life. God knows the boy needed a few breaks. I climbed the stairs and paused outside his door, gathering up my strength and praying for the ability to find the right words.
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