I knocked on his door and his soft drawl greeted me, "I'm not in the mood to receive any visitors at the moment."
I smiled and pushed the door open. The fact that he hadn't locked it told me that he was waiting for me. Getting him to admit that would be something else entirely. He sat at the foot of his bed and looked extremely tired.
"I think we should spend a little time and talk, Ezra," I said.
He nodded but his tone was anything but agreeable. "Yes, I'm certain that a quick conversation will erase twenty seven years of knowing nothing about my father."
I tried to imagine how my pappy would have handled the situation, but I think even he would have been confounded on how to deal with Ezra. "How easy do you think this is for me?" I asked as I sat down next to him, not near enough to touch, but hopefully close enough to comfort.
He raised his eyebrows at me and then turned to look out the window; the window that faced out over the street where Maude and I had talked, where we had kissed. "You came here to reconcile with Mother. I have merely complicated things for you." It was said simply, and it hurt more because the lack of emotion did not hide the wealth of pain.
"I searched for Maude, because, yes, I did want to reconcile with her. I've loved her since the day I first met her. When she disappeared, I told myself that I looked for her only because she took my money. My father told me that I searched for her 'cause she took part of my heart with her. He was right. Seeing her again has awakened feelings I thought I had long buried. Seeing you for the first time, was a different matter altogether. Looking at you, knowing that you were my son is a feeling I cannot express. It's greater than any feeling of love or need. I would never have thought of my life as being empty because I had no children. But recognizing you as my own, made me realize just how empty it was, how much I had been lying to myself for so long. In that instant you came to mean more to me than Maude or anything else in my life."
Those pale eyes searched mine, looking for the angle that I could be working. "You were able to live blissfully unaware that you had a son. I've had to live wondering about my father. Mother told me he died before I was born, but would never tell me about the man himself. I wondered what he would think of me; wondered how deeply disappointed he would be in me." His shoulders slumped as he dropped his gaze to the floor.
A piece of the puzzle that was my son, fell into place then. Ezra measured himself far more harshly than he did anyone else. He was full of self-confidence as long as he kept himself apart from the rest of the world. But force him to become part of it, and he didn't find himself worthy. Maude must have expected and demanded a great deal out of him.
"If I had known about you and been unable to find you, I would have spent that lifetime wondering how disappointed you would have been in me. We are who we are, Ezra. We've been shaped and have made the choices that have brought us here. The pots on the table and we've anti-ed in. We can either fold our hand and never know exactly how good that pot was; or we can toss out the bad cards we've been dealt and see what luck comes with the new hand we're dealt."
I was as earnest as I could be, but he still laughed hard enough to hurt his ribs. When he finally caught his breath he said, "You couldn't come up with anything better than a poker metaphor?"
I laughed and felt so much of the tension ease from the room. "I thought it was appropriate."
"But so very obvious. I was hoping for a few words of wisdom from one of my parents that did not involve a deck of cards."
It was a strange, yet comforting way for him to acknowledge that I was one of his parents, but I knew I wasn't in a position to press the issue. I'd follow his lead for a while on this and let him move at his own pace. "My pappy always tried to pass on words of wisdom to me. He always said I misquoted him, so I thought I'd try something original."
"That was far from original," he laughed.
"No, no it wasn't. Doesn't make it any less true," I replied willing him to feel the depth of my sincerity.
"Well, between Mother, you, and me I believe we would be able to manipulate the deck well enough to insure a winning hand." He gave me a sideways glance and a shy smile, before dropping his eyes back to his hands.
I laughed to throw off the unease we were both feeling. "Now look who's using a card metaphor."
One side of mouth curled up in a grin, showing a dimpled cheek. "I was merely continuing your own. However, I must agree that with this," he paused and met my gaze, his pale eyes holding my own so that I would not doubt his acceptance, "family, card metaphors are more than appropriate." He quirked his head to the side as he attempted to deflect any unwanted, emotional response I might make to that statement. He might accept it, but he wasn't quite ready to face all that came with it. One step at a time; I could do that. "In fact, the ace of spades has always been my signature card."
I shook my head in disbelief. "Now, the ace of spades is my card, Ezra. I drew that card out of a deck stacked against me by using my own special magic."
Ezra's eyebrows shot up and his mobile mouth worked futilely as he searched for a response. Again he gave me a quick head tilt. "Do you perhaps believe that particular talent could be passed on to future generations?"
"Well, I was a bit older than you the first time I used it, so maybe if you practice as hard as I did, you'll develop it as well," I answered and clapped my hand down on his knee.
Ezra nodded but any response he would have made was drowned out by Maude's laughter as she stood in the open doorway. "Ace of Spades? The two of you are more like the Jokers. Worthless cards in every deck."
Ezra and I exchanged glances; I nodded for him to go ahead. "But what card is more valuable in a wildcard game than the joker? And a pair of them? Why, Mother, I believe that if you learn how to play your joker cards, you'll be more than recompensed for their wildcard nature."
"The trick, Maude," I continued, "is to know how to play them. It's your own fault if they turn out to be worthless."
Maude placed her hands on her hips, "I will not have the two of you ganging up on me. I am still your mother, Ezra Standish, and you will afford me the proper respect."
I stood up to deflect her anger from Ezra. That paternal protectiveness is a powerful force; one I found myself relishing. "He's a Maverick." I said simply.
One of her elegant eyebrows arched in response to my challenge. But before she could launch into a frightful tirade, Ezra spoke from the bed. "As honored as I would be to be known as a Maverick, and despite the numerous name changes I have gone through in my lifetime, Standish is the name that I hold most dear. It was the name that I came into this world with and when I settled into my life here it was the name I returned to. Sad as it may be, those are the two times that I have the least to be ashamed of. I would like to continue being that person. Perhaps with time, I may accept the name of Maverick as my own."
Maude smiled her triumph at me, but Ezra quickly made her victory short lived. "This is no reflection on you, Mother. After all the name Standish was merely pulled out of a hat, so to speak."
"I'll have you know that I researched the name very well before choosing it. It is a fine and upstanding name. You know as well as I do how the simple choice of name can mean so much. Now Maverick is an odd name and people make immediate assumptions about him. They're looking for a conman or a gambler with that name. Why handicap yourself from the start?" she protested.
Ezra stood up and this time he put a hand on my shoulder, "My father seems to have done very well on that front, Mother."
Maude took in the sight of the two of us standing side by side and her argument melted away. Her eyes again softened and when she smiled there was no cunning edge to it as it truly lit up her face. "Yes, yes he has. You would have done well, too, Ezra." She turned her face away from us, but we both saw her hand swipe at her eyes.
I could feel how uncomfortable all this made Ezra. I wondered if he was beginning to face the question of what he would do next. He had to know that neither Maude nor I would remain in this town for very long, despite how much I wanted to be with him. Maude and I were of an age where we needed the comfort, not to mention the gambling facilities of a larger city. And I believe that somewhere deep down, he had to know that he couldn't give up the life, or friends, he had here. It was something only he could decide and I would support him either way, despite my knowledge that these six men were a better influence on him than I could ever be. I was not so dissimilar to Maude, after all. The only way I could help him was to keep Maude from attempting to influence him.
I stepped forward and hooked Maude's arm with my own, swinging her around to exit the room. "Come along, Maude. Didn't you say something about dinner? I'm famished and I know of a really good restaurant in town."
"I wanted a family dinner," she pressed angrily.
I leaned into her ear, "He needs time alone. He's got a lot to figure out. And you will not make any attempt to influence him. You've lead his life for far too long," I said firmly.
She smiled up to me, "Why, Bret, are you trying to keep me all to yourself?"
"All in due time," I promised with raised eyebrows. I stopped and turned back to Ezra, who watched us with a bemused expression on his face. It quickly disappeared when he caught my eye. "You can join us if you like, Ezra, but I believe you have six rather curious gentlemen downstairs who may need to be filled in on these new developments."
He nodded. "Yes, I believe that I will join them downstairs. But perhaps I may join you and mother for a drink, or a game." I was becoming incredibly fond of the mischievous look in his eyes.
"We look forward to that. I still have to win my money back."
Ezra watched them walk down the hallway and had to smile at the incredulous tone in his mother's voice as she said, "So he really did beat you. Don't expect to get any of that money back
With a sigh he turned to the mirror in his room and made an attempt to become presentable. His ribs still ached constantly, and certain movements still shot pain through his slender frame. His hair had become a bit unruly as of late, due to his letting it grow a bit longer than he usually did. It gave him a roguish appearance that he knew was out of keeping with his southern gentleman persona, but he liked it. He had almost cut it when he realized that the reason he liked it was that by being a bit less than immaculate it made him fit in a bit more with the six other lawmen. He had been frightened when he had realized just how deep rooted his need for the six men to count him as a member of the group had become. A sense of belonging was something he had never needed in his life, but everyday that he remained in this town, he could feel it growing, despite his best attempts to keep the others at arms length.
And now that he had finally found that, he just might have to leave. Maude would never remain in Four Corners and he was pretty sure that Maverick would eventually follow her. That left Ezra with having to decide between remaining with the men who had become the only family he had ever known, or wanted to know, or leaving with the family he never really knew he had. He had always known that Maude was his mother, but he had never really known her as such. She had left him at boarding schools or relatives. He had seen for an instant the woman that could have been his mother and he desperately wanted to know her better and with Bret Maverick around he knew that more and more of her would be revealed.
Finally deciding that he would deal with that question when it arose, Ezra slowly made his way out of the room and down the stairs into the saloon. The six men were already gathered at his favorite table. Chris immediately spotted the gambler coming down the stairs. The man in black followed, Ezra's movements noting that while they were still a bit stiff, he did seem to be moving a bit easier. As usual, Chris could not get a feel for what was going on in the gambler's head.
Chris smiled to himself as he thought of how protective he had been feeling lately of these six men. He had always been protective of Buck, just as Buck returned the favor. J.D. was a young man desperate to follow in their footsteps. Chris had grudgingly taken him under his wing, but only to protect him. J.D. had a need to prove himself and with no family left he had latched onto these six men. Nathan had needed protecting the moment Chris had first laid eyes on him but had then proven himself more than capable of caring for himself after that. But, once someone fell under Chris' protection, they rarely were removed from it. Chris knew that Josiah did not need protection, but Chris had seen some of the foolish things the expreacher had done so he kept a cautious eye on him. Vin was a brother that Chris had never had, not even in Buck. Buck did not appreciate simple, silent moments. In fact the man could not stand them. Vin understood them and relished them as much as Chris did. The tracker would not stand to be looked after, but Chris could not deny the fierce need to protect him and he believed that Vin accepted and returned the favor. Chris could understand his need to protect these men, because he could understand them, knew what kind of men they were. Ezra was a different matter altogether.
He needed protection from himself, but guarded himself so well from others that no one could get close enough to the gambler to make him see that. He could protect himself from others with a casual ease that amazed Chris. He remembered first meeting the gambler, when he had faced down an entire saloon full of irate townspeople. The man was equally quick witted and quick footed, there was no denying that. The problem was he seemed to be lacking in self-preservation common sense. Ezra could easily get himself in over his head, and then with some manipulative twist extract himself. The others, except for J.D. had been self reliant for most of their lives as well. The difference was that they recognized the benefits of having someone else watch their back on occasion. Ezra did not want anyone watching his back, he probably feared that they would just as soon stab him in it than watch it. The gambler just did not know how to trust, so he tried to keep the others away using any means necessary, like his inherit greed or a sarcastic defense. It worked with most people, but he had made the mistake of letting Chris and the other five glimpse the good man he could have been, could still be. This drove them enough to endure his mercurial personality and protect him as best they could.
All eyes turned to Ezra as he joined them at the table. "Gentlemen, and I do use that term quite loosely, may I join you for the evening repast?"
"Hell, Ezra, if you're gonna compliment us like that all night, how could we say no?" Buck replied with his huge grin.
Ezra tipped an imaginary hat to him and then carefully sat down. It was, of course, J.D. who broached the subject they were all desperate to learn about. "Why ain't you eating with your Ma?"
Ezra blinked rapidly at J.D. "Maude has other dinner plans, and I have learned from past experience that it is best not to intrude on those."
Vin smiled and Ezra was reminded of a fox. Just like that cunning animal, Vin's smile held a secretive air to it, as if he knew far more than anyone would ever expect or probably ever know. Ezra had always believed that of all the six men, Vin was the most dangerous to him. The Texan had a deep, deadly soul. As a tracker he had learned to read the faint signs left by those who traveled before him. His silent, watchful nature had allowed him to extend that gift to reading people as well. Ezra survived by misdirecting people's attention away from what he was really up to. But Vin's eyes were too keen, his heart too pure, to be fooled by Ezra for long. Ezra knew that his quicksilver temperament still had the Texan off balance, but it would only be a matter of time before Vin could read him thoroughly. And for the gambler, nothing was more frightening than having someone see right through him.
"Aw, come on, Ez," Vin's twang stated, "we know there's more to it than that."
Ezra shrugged and immediately regretted it, but he kept his face impassive. If he were to get through this night, he would need every ounce of control he could muster. "My mother is having dinner with my father." He poured himself a shot of whiskey and with a silent toast to Nathan downed it.
"Whoa, whoa, wait a minute," Buck's boisterous voice rang out, "Bret Maverick's your father?" They had all seen Maude exit the saloon with the old gambler.
Annoyance flickered in Ezra's eyes, "I believe that is what I said, Mr. Wilmington. I did attempt to use words that even you would be able to understand. Apparently I was mistaken as to just how lacking your education has been."
Chris smirked at Ezra's annoyance. One of the few times that the gambler decided to speak plain English and the words were so astonishing that the others still did not understand him. He was amazed that the southerner had decided to share this news with the others so soon. Maybe he finally was beginning to see them as the brothers they wanted to be. The question now was how would those brothers react to this news.
Nathan and Vin took it in stride as was their nature, but Chris knew it in no way meant that they were disinterested. Ezra might not admit it but he relied on their silent, but firm support, just like the rest of them. J.D. and Buck would naturally find this information useful in teasing Ezra, but would watch his reaction carefully. It was a sensitive subject and they would respect it if Ezra didn't take to their teasing. At least they would once Chris had a short discussion with them. How Josiah would react to this news was something Chris had not even considered. He knew the man had feelings not only for Maude, but for her wayward son as well. He would be grateful that the gambler would finally know his father, but might regret not getting to be that father figure to Ezra.
"Damn, Ezra, no wonder you're the way ya' are!" Buck laughed. "You got gambling blood from both sides."
"Yeah," J.D. added. "You were probably born with a deck of cards in your mouth." His laughter died as he realized that the others were looking at him in confusion. "Well, they say that rich people are born with silver spoons in their mouths, so Ezra would have been born with a deck aw hell." He gave up trying to explain as the others just shook their heads in dismay. But as the uncomfortable silence grew, he had to break it. "But if he's your father, shouldn't you really be over with them?"
Ezra sighed inwardly, wondering what had possessed him to tell these six men anything at all. "He and my mother are taking this opportunity to become reacquainted. Apparently they only knew each other for a short while," he answered keeping his voice as flat as his drawl would allow.
"So, he never knew about you?" Buck pried.
"No, he never knew about me. It seems that my dear mother had stolen a quarter of a million dollars from Mr.," he paused only slightly, shaking his head, "my father." They all caught the hesitancy in his voice, but no one commented on it.
"A quarter million?!" J.D. yelled, causing Ezra and the others to wince.
"Mr. Dunne, please keep your voice down. While I can appreciate your amazement, I would prefer it if the entire principality was not made aware of these events."
"Sorry, Ez," J.D. said, bringing his voice down to a whisper and leaning low over the table. "But that's a lot of money. What did Maude do with all of it?"
"I have yet to ascertain those facts myself. But rest assured that I shall require my mother to give me a full accounting for those funds," Ezra said with a grin and for a moment it was as if he had not just given them earth shattering news.
But Josiah's deep voice broke that spell. "What are you going to do, Ezra?" All eyes turned to the preacher, as they all knew exactly what he meant by that question; Ezra might leave them to spend time with the family he had never known.
"You can't leave us, Ez!" J.D. blurted out, afraid to lose the only family he had left.
Ezra smiled appreciatively at the kid. He had always enjoyed J.D.'s company and knew that the kid accepted him almost unconditionally. It had always been the other five that he was unsure about. Like himself, they were not men who expressed their feelings openly. But somehow they always managed to express themselves to each other. He was the only one they had difficulty with, and he had to admit that was as much, if not more, his fault than theirs. He both longed for them to overtly show how they felt about him and feared it. Feared it, because he knew that the moment that they truly showed him how they cared about him and he accepted it, that he would change. He would no longer be the man he had always been. And while he was fairly certain that it would be for the better, he was still too afraid to let go.
Ezra looked from the kid to the others at the table, until his eyes finally met Chris'. The gunslinger leaned back in his chair as he pursed his lips together. "Ya gonna run out on us, Ezra?" he asked hoping to remind Ezra of the impact his leaving would have on the rest of the men.
The gambler wondered if he would always be bound to this town by those words. He cursed Larabee for knowing exactly what strings to pull. But Ezra would be damned if he would allow Chris to know just how easily he could be manipulated. He stood from the table. "I would never run out on family." With that he walked away. His ribs did not allow him to make as dramatic an exit as he would have preferred, but he did the best he could.
The remaining six watched him leave; each certain that the gambler would remain with them, until Josiah's deep voice suddenly reminded them. "He didn't say which family he was talking about."
Maude and I had a thoroughly enjoyable dinner. She shared stories of Ezra's early childhood cons. If Maude were not exaggerating, I'd have to admit that the boy was good. And while I could admire talent in one so young, I regretted more the fact that he never seemed to have the chance to just be a boy. I told Maude about Pappy's passing away and she asked me what he would have thought about Ezra. I told her that I knew he'd be real pleased to know that Ezra had taken up law enforcement. That he'd say that Ezra, as a law enforcing gambler, was the best combination of me and him as possible, and he'd be right.
She took my hand and squeezed it tight, "I am sorry to hear about good ol' Coop. I did love him dearly. He was such a good man." She paused for a moment and almost too softly for me to hear added, "I do regret that Ezra never got to know him."
I sighed, not at all eager to break this wondrous mood she was in but just having to know. "Why, Maude, why didn't you let us find you?"
For a moment true Hell blazed in those eyes of hers, but then just as suddenly as it blazed to life, it was snuffed out. She turned away from me as if to gather herself and her thoughts. Then gave me a hard stare, as if she was trying to take my full measure, trying to decide how much I really wanted to know and deserved to know. "You think I'm so selfish, don't you?" she began. "I'll admit that the money did play a big part in why I stayed away, and why shouldn't it have? But you can never think that maybe I was just afraid. Afraid of how you'd react, afraid that you would leave me like everyone else had," her voice held no trace of pain but I knew it was there.
"How could you think that, after what we had shared?" I asked softly.
She laughed, a short harsh sound, "It had been my experience that in the end it wouldn't matter. When I learned I was pregnant, I though about finding you again. I had a dream of us settling down with your winnings and raising a family together. But you know as well as I do, that neither of us would have fit in that dream. And I'd rather keep the dream than try to live it and have it fail. We were meant to live different lives."
"You're a gambler, Maude, couldn't you have at least taken a chance on us?" I asked, my voice filled with sadness.
"I don't gamble, Bret, I never leave anything to chance. I'm a businesswoman and I'm the best at what I do. That was the life I was meant to live. You're the gambler and that's the life you were meant to live. And Ezra, poor soul, he's still trying to find the life he was meant to live." She said it all with pride, but the last was tinged with true sorrow and regret. She never looked more beautiful.
I smiled and asked, "You just can't help it, can you?"
Confusion filled her lovely features just as it had so many years ago. She caught the glint in my eye and even before I said the words, "You are irresistible," the confusion, anger, fear, even the years seemed to melt away to be replaced by that perfect smile, that rapturous joy.
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