Notes: Youll want to read "Southern Cross" and "Enter From the East" before attempting this story. It would be even better if you read all the stories prior to this one, but I understand if Ezras your favorite and you just dont want to (Big Grin).
Special Thanks: To my betas Julie, Antoinette, and Katherine youre all just awesome!
Please send comments to: email@example.com
Mary Travis noticed a woman walking down the boardwalk in Four Corners. Seeing that the woman was unsteady on her feet she stepped out of her newspaper office and asked, Can I help you?
The older black woman stopped and looked thoughtfully at Mary and then smiled. Is on my way to the hotel, she said softly, her thick Southern accent filling the air. This is Emily and Joseph Davis, she motioned with her hand to the children standing beside her, an most folks call me Cora.
Mary Travis, she introduced herself. BILLY! she yelled, when her son tore out of her office like a cat with its tail on fire. Im sorry, he just has so much energy she apologized.
Dont apologize, chil, Cora said with a chuckle. All the children Is done raised had minds of their own aint no point tryin to cure that.
I suppose youre right, Mary replied with a laugh. Are you going to be in town long?
No, Cora shook her head, wes leavin on the next stage.
In that case, Mary looked up the boardwalk and pointed, the hotel is just up the way a bit, and theres a fine restaurant right next to it.
Cora smiled and then paused, as though she had something else to ask, They wont have no trouble servin me will they?
No, Mary reassured.
Nathan stepped up onto the boardwalk in front of the saloon and looked at his patient. How you feelin, Vin?
Not bad, he responded, sitting up in his chair.
You should let me change that bandage, Nathan replied, sitting in the seat next to the sharpshooter.
I will, Vin reassured, and then nodded in the direction to where Mary was talking with one of the people from the stage. Mrs. Travis has got it in her head to write a story bout the War.
Nathan shook his head: Dont think thats such a good idea, he responded sadly. Shes gonna bring up a whole mess of hard feelins.
Cora entered the hotel, and took a long look around, trying to decipher if she was going to be welcomed. The desk attendant looked up and smiled, causing her to relax.
There somethin I can do for you? he asked.
Mr. Davis was gonna get a couple rooms for us? she questioned, walking up to the desk. She knew her boss had been tired after the long trip, but she thought it odd that he hadnt come looking for them since arriving.
Ah, yes, the man said, looking in the registry. Rooms 8 and 9. Mr. Davis checked in a while ago, an I aint seen im yet.
Thats fine, chil, jus fine, Cora responded with a warm smile. She picked up the key to room 8 and started up the stairs with the children following closely behind.
Does Daddy miss Momma? Emily asked, waiting for Cora to open the door. The little girl hadnt been blind to her fathers lack of enthusiasm. He no longer carried her around on his shoulders, or read bedtime stories.
Course, chil, Cora paused and looked at her.
Joseph stood protectively beside his sister: He blames us for Mommas death, he replied stiffly.
No, Cora shook her head, hes just hurtin real bad insides all. She pushed the door open and waited for the children to enter the room. She sighed heavily before following them.
Joseph walked over to the window and looked down onto the street. He liked the West, it was different than home. Here, the land was open and the people werent as busy. He watched the saloon and caught a look at several men standing and sitting outside on the boardwalk. They looked important, people who captured respect without thinking about it, and they looked like men who demanded attention like heroes in storybooks. He wanted to belong to a group like that.
Yous all gonna be all right while I see to your fathah?
Yes, Cora, Emily answered, curiously looking around.
The ex-slave woman nodded and left the room. She closed the door behind her and hesitantly started knocking on room 9. Nobody answered. Mistah Davis, she called, and then knocked again.
Still nobody answered.
Mistah Davis, Cora called, slightly louder. Tentatively she placed her hand on the doorknob and twisted it. The hinges squeaked as the door opened, and Cora stopped, rooted in place by the sight that greeted her. Dear Heavens, she gasped, covering her mouth with her hand.
Hal Davis body hung from the ceiling rafters. His body still wavering slightly over the stool hed kicked out from under himself. His eyes bulged, and a stream of blood marked his chin from his tongue that hed bitten. Fluid dripped from inside his pant leg, landing in the puddle beneath him, illustrating that dignity was lost even in death.
Cora closed the door, and then rushed down to the front desk. Someone had to be notified and then shed have to tell the children.
Cora rubbed Emilys back as the child cried with all her might. Joseph stood next to her, trying to keep his composure. Thats what his father would have wanted.
Nathan squatted down in front of Cora and gently touched the back of the little girl. Sympathy and sadness filled his eyes. Why dont yall come over to my clinic? Ill make some tea for the children
Joseph moved closer to Coras side, unwilling to be taken from her.
Thats jus fine, Cora responded sadly, she squeezed Josephs hand, letting him know things would be all right. She stood up, keeping her hold on Emily. Its all right, chil, she directed toward the small boy, Mistah Jacksons only gonna help.
Nathan held out his hand and the little boy hesitantly took it. He was trying to be strong, that much was obvious. The healer directed them out of the room and down the hall, where he could see Chris, Buck, and JD talking about something serious, but now wasnt the time to find out what.
Judge ill be here in two days, maybe sooner, Buck said, running his fingers through his hair.
It was a suicide, JD said, not understanding the problem.
He had two kids, Chris snapped, disgusted with a man that would take his own life with his children in the next room.
Folks aint gonna take kindly to a woman of color tendin two white children, Buck said with a sigh. This was a war that would last a lot longer than four years.
Judge ill decide what to do with the kids, Chris said coldly, and then headed out of the hotel.
Ezra watched from a distance. The body was carried out of the hotel and taken to the undertaker. A few minutes later he saw Cora, who, was once again, embracing a frightened child. Her simple presence could cause even the most timid to relax. Nathan, ever the healer, had taken the small boys hand and led him away from the place that had caused him so much pain and turmoil.
When Josiah entered the picture, it was only natural. He was a gentle giant who could turn deadly in a flash when someone he loved was threatened. With the strength of an ox and the patience of a saint, he gently touched Coras shoulder in support and understanding. Hed be their support, listen to their pain, and understand their anger. Ezra watched as the big man entered into the life of the woman he had cherished as a young boy and still as a man. Ezra wanted to go help, but he knew he wouldnt be welcomed.
What do you intend to do bout those children? Mark Lewis asked, from the crowd that had gathered outside the hotel doors.
The judge ill decide that when he arrives, Chris snapped, angry that the news had spread so fast.
Until then? another person challenged.
Chris stopped and looked at the faces in the crowd. His temper was flaring. Judge Travis will be here in two days
Those children need to be cared for in a proper environment! Lewis argued.
Buck grabbed his friends shoulder before he could do anything drastic. The judge ill take care of it. Until then, why dont you and your friends go have a drink or somethin?
Chris stormed down the boardwalk toward Nathans clinic. He had a job to do in this town, and part of that job was making sure everyone was safe, no matter what the color of their skin was.
Buck stayed back, watching his friend leave, and feeling JDs presence behind him. Ever so slowly, the crowd that had gathered reluctantly dissolved. However, it did little to ease the apprehension that Chris and the others had when it came to this particular situation.
Chris entered the clinic to find Nathan serving a couple cups of tea to the two small children that looked more lost than ever. Cora? he asked, wanting to make sure he had her name right.
Yes, she said softly, unwilling to leave Emilys side.
I think it would be best to let the children stay with Mary
NO! Emily screamed, dropping her cup and frantically wrapping her arms around Coras neck.
Were not leaving Cora, Joseph snapped standing protectively in front of his friend.
Josiah chuckled; it wasnt very often that he got to see that much dedication. Perhaps Mary would be kind enough to allow Miss Liddell to stay with her, as well as the children?
Cora please, call me Cora, she interrupted. I dont want to be no trouble to no one, she said, all the while rubbing Emilys back.
Josiah nodded: Ill go see, he said, not giving anyone a chance to object.
Chris watched the big man go and then he ran his fingers through his hair. Do you know why ?
Cora looked up and shook her head, knowing what it was the tall blonde wanted to ask. These children lost their mother six months ago, she said, feeling the trembling of Emilys shoulders, he was a good man jus real sad.
Chris nodded in understanding: Do the children have any family someone they can stay with?
No, sir, Cora shook her head. Mistah Davis sistah passed away a few years ago, an as fah as I know she was the only family he ad left.
Mary Travis said you were leavin on the stage tomorrow? Chris waited for her to nod her head and she did. You know where you were headed?
Sacramento, Joseph answered, Papa got a job as a manager of a paper mill. He said hed make more money than he was in Boston.
Chris forced a smile on his face. He knew that despite the young boys brave façade, he was crying inside. Chris could only hope that Adam would have acted the same way if faced with the same hardship. How long ave you been workin with children, Cora? he asked, wanting to have as much information as he could get before things went bad.
Oh, heavens Cora sighed, Is a house slave since fore I can remember, but when I got sold to Mastah Liddell, she smiled warmly, I done raised my own chil as well as Samuels nephew for a time anyway.
Nathan and Chris watched her comforting movements, and her soft voice seemed to relax Emily. Joseph sat down next to her feet, resting his head on her leg. She was all they had left, and they clung to her because of it.
What happened to your child? Nathan asked.
Cora smiled, trying to hide the pain that was evident in her eyes. He was killed durin the war.
Im sorry, Chris said softly, knowing the pain of losing a son.
Dont be, chil, Cora said with conviction, Bennys life was brief but he lived it to the fullest. She smiled proudly. An he left me with some wil stories to tell.
Emily moved her head so it was resting on Coras shoulder.
When the judge gets here, hes gonna want to talk to you bout the kids. Chris looked at her, his face a mask of seriousness.
When the door to the clinic opened, Mary appeared slowly. Her long blonde hair fell over her shoulders and her soft features captured everyones attention. Mr. Sanchez said you needed a place to stay? her voice was soft and inviting.
We dont want to be no trouble, Cora reiterated.
Itll be nice to have some company for a change, Mary reassured. She walked over to where Joseph was sitting and crouched down, wanting to be more on his level. I made some cookies earlier, maybe we could go and have some, and then get you all settled in. She looked up into Coras eyes and received a look of thanks.
Ezra sat at his table, listening to the conversation that continued to escalate. Men were angry about the idea of a black woman, a former slave on top of things, caring for two white children. Ezra shook his head he knew better. He knew that the best place for those children was with Cora. Shed see to their needs, raise them with honorable intentions, and most importantly, with the love they so deserved.
What bout you, Standish? Kit Watson asked, slamming his beer onto the table. You of all people should know that a nigger cant raise no white child.
I hardly doubt, Mr. Watson, that my opinion matters on the subject. He played the red jack on the black queen.
You was born in the South, wasnt you?
Ezra rolled his eyes: Obviously, he replied, his accent not lost with his sarcasm.
Well, there ya go!
Kits right, Standish, Bill Howard said, his Missouri accent filling the air, you ave a responsibility to stand up for whats right. He stood up, looking at the men around him, looking for support.
And just what is right? Ezra challenged.
Niggers aint got no right raisin white children!
Sit down, Howard! Chris yelled, entering the saloon with Nathan, Josiah, and Vin right behind him. All of ya! He stood in the batwing doors, waiting for someone to challenge him.
This aint your fight, Larabee! Kit yelled back.
In this town, Chris warned, it is!
Ezra watched the episode, while casually finishing his game of solitaire. As usual, the patrons went back to their games, drinks, and conversations, after Chris nonverbal threats were heeded. Nathan looked around the room, feeling slightly betrayed. Ezra saw the pain in his eyes. Nathan had treated many of these people, their wives, children, and mothers. Josiah shook his head, not quite believing the bitterness in everyones voices. Vin moved past Chris, with his shoulder freshly bandaged, and headed to the table where Ezra was sitting. Chris took one last look around the room before moving to the table with the rest of his men.
You hear anythin we need to worry about? Chris asked, directing his question toward the gambler.
Nothing out of the ordinary, Ezra replied, picking up his cards and shuffling them.
Ordinary? Nathan asked, slightly surprised.
Unfortunately, Mr. Jackson, people have the right to speak their opinions.
Maybe so, Nathan agreed, but it dont make it right. There wasnt any malice in his voice; hed been around long enough to know that it wouldnt help.
Josiah nodded in agreement: Its hard to change a persons belief, and impossible to change their past. He looked at Ezra, knowing something was bothering him, but not knowing what.
Ezra looked up and met Josiahs eyes. It didnt take much for the gambler to see the accusing stare that wasnt really there, but something in his mind said it was. He turned his glance back to his cards and stood up quickly. Gentlemen, he spoke softly, and then tipped his hat before leaving abruptly. He passed between JD and Buck, not really paying them any notice.
Whats wrong with Ezra? JD asked, sitting in the seat the gambler had occupied.
I think our brother is exorcising some demons, Josiah answered, keeping his eyes on the spot where Ezra exited.
Buck ran a hand through his hair and sat down next to the kid. I got a bad feelin about all this.
The others quietly nodded.
The other day JD started to say, What were you and Ezra arguing about? He looked at Chris.
Somethin that is best left unsaid, Chris answered, picking up the glass of beer that Inez had brought over.
JD scratched his brow: That plan that Ezra had to get us to Whitley Pass he paused, unsure if he should continue, he said it would work cuz hed seen it before. And you said it wouldnt work and he said
I remember it, JD! Chris snapped bitterly.
He only asked a question, Chris. Aint not cause for jumpin down his throat, Buck defended.
Seems were all exorcising some demons, Josiah said softly.
See, kid, Buck started, durin the war Chris an I rode in the Calvary together he paused when Chris stood up abruptly and stormed out through the saloon doors, durin the battle of the Wilderness our unit got separated and split up. He took a long drink of his beer before continuing, See, there were over 10,000 men in our unit he chuckled, not quite believing what he had to say, and if he hadnt lived it, he wouldnt believe it, but 3000 Rebs beat the shit out of us.
You figure Ezra was a part of that group? JD asked, not quite believing it himself.
Id bet on it.
Ezra slipped into Troubles stall and started to give the animal a rub down. The big horse knew something was wrong. He didnt know what, but he could sense it in his masters hands and sad eyes. Trouble reached around and nipped innocently at the long red coat, wanting only to offer a source of comfort.
Ezra chuckled and patted his horses strong neck. Perhaps it was time to leave. He didnt know why he stayed, other than the fact that hed come to think of this backwater town as his home. It had been so long since hed had one. Cora flooded his mind, and like a wave that couldnt be held back, his emotions surfaced; anger, sadness, despair, guilt, and loneliness. Was it right for a grown man to feel such things? Cora had offered him nothing but love as a child, and in return
Hed killed her son.
Nobody knew his past, and nobody had a right to. Ezra realized early in life that things didnt always work out like hed planned; his mother had raised him like that. Never take anyone or anything for granted, everything comes with a price, and money was the one path to happiness. Those were the commandments Maude Standish lived by, and she had instilled them into her sons mind, despite not having raised him.
Slowly, Ezra sank down onto the straw that filled Troubles stall. His horse breathed heavily onto his face, and Ezra had to smile despite himself. The sun was going down, the town was slowly dividing on an issue that wasnt anyones business, and the judge was still two days away
Ezra sighed; this could only end badly for everyone.
Josiah, Buck, and JD stepped up onto the boardwalk where Cora Liddell and the two Davis children sat. They still refused to leave her side. Emily was wrapped in a blanket, while still being held by the former slave woman, and Joseph rested next to her, his arms around her and his head resting on her shoulder.
Everythin all right, maam? Buck asked, leaning against the railing while over looking the town.
Jus fine, chil, jus fine, she smiled in reassurance.
Nathan stepped up beside the woman and covered her and the two children with a heavy blanket: always the healer. He smiled and stepped back, wanting to watch out for trouble, and intent on protecting a piece of his past.
Was you a slave, Nathan? Cora asked, her soft smooth voice floating in the air like a warm wind.
Yes, maam, he responded softly, offering her the respect she deserved.
You ave a good mastah?
Nathan shook his head, unable to find his voice.
The lives weve led is whats made us who we is, an I reckon, she smiled, that you was a good man, with a good heart, cuz you learned from the past an not let the past control you.
Was your master a kind man? Nathan asked, not quite believing any slave owner could be good.
Cora smiled as memories flooded her mind. He was a very good man. Tears flooded her eyes but never fell.
Chris and Vin stepped up onto the boardwalk.
Things are quietin down, Chris said, looking at his men and the woman that had captured their attention. Wheres Ezra?
Cora looked up and met the blondes eyes. Ezra was a name shed not heard in a very long time. A smile came to her face as memories long remembered filled her mind.
Ridin patrol, Buck responded.
Tell us about Momma, Cora, Emily said, looking up at the sky.
The older woman chuckled and looked around at the faces of the men that were watching her. They looked as though they were all lost and in search of some answers. Any of you still got family? she asked, and then nodded in understanding when they shook their heads. All of you look up at that moon, she said confidently, pointing towards the white object in the sky.
Mommas up there, Emily said softly, resting the back of her head on Coras shoulder.
All your mommas are up there, smilin down on you. There wasnt any doubt in the womans voice. She spoke as though she was reading a passage from the Bible, and knew without a doubt that every word was true.
Even yours? Emily asked.
Oh, yes, chil, she answered softly, my mommas up there keepin er eyes on me, an helpin all your mommas.
JD looked at the moon, wondering what his mother would be thinking. He hadnt gone to college, something shed wanted him to do so badly. Would she be proud of him? JD smiled, he knew in his heart that his mother would be proud of him. He had a great job, friends that he thought of as brothers, and a place to call home.
You see, Cora started again, every time yous look up at that moon, you can see er smilin down on you, drinkin er coffee, an tellin the rest of your mommas stories bout er children.
Buck chuckled; he could see his mother up there, doing exactly what Cora had said. Except perhaps that coffee would be spiked with some good Kentucky Bourbon. Maybe, if she were lucky, his mother could get the rest of those ladies to try some crab cakes, and enjoy those stories even more.
Vin leaned up against the back wall, feeling the ache in his shoulder lessen. It was a nice thought his momma being up there in that bright moon. He smiled slightly, realizing that it had been his mother guiding his path at night when the sky was so black he couldnt see except for the light of the moon. Hed been young when she passed, and her face was fading through time, but hed never forget her.
Chris looked over at his men and realized they were thinking about the words Cora was sharing. What about your son? he asked.
A large smile adorned Coras face: Benny? she said softly, I always figured Benny was one of them stars up there, shinin so bright hes keepin all those other children in line, maybe even showin em how to look down here on us.
Thats a real nice thought, Cora, Josiah said, looking up at the moon and sky.
Aint no thought atall just what I knows in my heart. Cora pulled the blanket more tightly over Emilys shoulders, as the young child began to doze. After I turned seventeen Master Samuel done freed me.
An you stayed with im? Nathan asked, surprised by her words.
I loved im, she chuckled, Benny was is son.
And he died, fightin for the Union? JD questioned, not quite understanding.
No, chil, Cora replied, Benny and is cousin Ezra, left to fight in the Confederacy together the first year of the war.
Ezra a popular name in the South? Chris questioned, looking out into the street and thinking about the gambler.
Cora thought a moment. No, no, not really.
Chris let the subject drop. Theres a possibility that the judge will force the children into an orphanage, he said solemnly. Would you be willin to care for em?
Oh, heavens yes, Cora responded confidently.
Judge Travis will want to have some kind of a trial. It would be best if you had someone who could testify on your behalf is there anyway to contact this Ezra?
Even if I did know where he was, I wouldnt ask im to do such a thing.
You didnt get along with him? JD asked.
Loved im as though he were my own, Cora smiled sadly, last time I seen him was Septembah 21st 1862 he brung Benny home to me. She looked up into the sky, seeing things of her past that only she was privy to.
Damn, Chris sighed.
What, Pard? Vin asked, standing up straight.
Chris looked over and shook his head. He wasnt going to talk about it now. Buck, why dont you take first watch? he ordered, and then tipped his hat in Coras direction before leaving.
Nathan watched the rest of his friends for a moment and then paused when he looked at Vin. The tracker really needed to lie down and get some rest. Are you goin to be all right? he directed his question toward Cora.
The children and Ill be fine, chil, jus fine, she reassured softly.
Nathan gently patted her shoulder before motioning toward Vin. I wanna check that wound, an then you need to get some rest. It wasnt an order, but a suggestion that was taken seriously.
Vin tipped his hat in the older womans direction before leaving with the healer. Buck and JD soon followed, while Josiah remained, wanting only to offer comfort to souls in pain.
Ezra rode back into town well after midnight. The street fires still burned, but it seemed unusually quiet. Trouble tossed his head, trying to free himself from the tight rein his master held. The smell of his stable mates captured his attention, and he wanted to go inside and eat.
The big horse sighed when Ezra dismounted and was quickly led indoors. Trouble nickered softly in greetings to his herd and then grunted when his master released the tight cinch. In one quick movement, the hefty weight of the saddle was pulled from the horses back. Ezra chuckled when Trouble reached around and scratched his withers, causing the gambler to cringe at the harsh biting sound.
I should ave put two and two together when you fired that cannon at the Seminole village, and when James tried to have the town burned out, Buck said, leaning against the support beam in the middle of the barn.
Ezra continued to brush his horse down. Im not sure I understand your meanin, Mr. Wilmington.
The hell you dont, Buck snapped, I lost a lot of good friends at the Wilderness
Ezra stopped, and then turned to face the ladies man. What do you want to know? he asked flatly. Buck wasnt the only person whod lost friends during that battle.
I aint gonna judge you, Ezra, Buck sighed, Hell, the wars been over a long time
I dont like to repeat myself
Were you there? Buck came out and asked.
At the Wilderness? Ezra wanted to make sure he knew exactly what he was answering.
Yes, unfortunately I was a part of that endeavah. Ezra continued brushing his horse.
Buck moved closer to where the gambler was working, but he quickly shied away when Trouble pinned his ears back. Damn, Ezra, he gasped, that horse of yours has got a mean streak.
Hardly, the gambler responded.
How longd you serve? Buck changed tactics.
Why all the questions?
Buck looked toward the doors of the stable and sighed, Marys doin a story in er paper about the war, and
And what? Ezra asked, getting impatient.
Theres a woman in town, an you know bout all the shit that everyones talkin bout Buck took his hat off and ran his fingers through his hair. I know youre from the South, an I figured you fought for the Confederacy. All I want to know is are you gonna be able to keep an open mind as far as Cora Liddell carin for those two kids is concerned?
Ezra shook his head and led his horse into his stall. Lacking his usual graceful movements, he tossed Troubles halter onto his saddle and then stared at Buck. What do you think the war was fought over, Mr. Wilmington and just who the hell do you think was fightin in that war?
Buck took a step back, not quite expecting this kind of a reaction. We fought to free the slaves to keep the Union together, he answered.
Bullshit! Ezra snapped, his eyes were full of anger and pain. You assume that because of my Southern heritage that your Yankee lies and stories must hold true and therefore I must be a bigot
Not all slaves chose to leave the South and fight for the Federals, many stayed and fought for the land theyd worked, and their masters. The South wanted to abolish slavery long before the war, Ezra paused, but the Union wouldnt permit it. He stopped and looked at the man in front of him. You assume too much, Mr. Wilmington, and your assumptions are wrong. Ezra left the stable, he was angry, but not with Buck, but rather the situation as a whole. Ezra knew what was being said, the feelings of betrayal, and the memories of a war that had long since passed. But nothing was as distant as it seemed.
Buck sighed and leaned back against the support beam. He hadnt expected that kind of a reaction, but maybe he should have. Ezra was as human as any of them and he had the right to get angry. With everything that had been happening there was no wonder as to why he was.
Ezra forcefully ran his hand through his hair and stormed into the saloon. He didnt notice Chris or Josiah at the table near the back of the room. Instead, he headed up the stairs, as though it were his only destination in the world. He hadnt meant to snap at Buck the way he had. The ladies man was only asking a simple and worthy question, he didnt deserve the response hed gotten. Ezra was never one to show emotion emotion was a weakness that he couldnt afford. Since Cora had arrived in town, his whole world seemed to have been turned upside down. Memories of his childhood flooded his mind memories of the war, Benny, his uncle, and sometimes his father.
Maude would be so disappointed in him. Shed once again let him know that his talents were being wasted in this backwater town, and his affiliations with those men were weakening his skills. Perhaps they were. Perhaps he should leave before having to face Cora. In truth, he didnt think he could handle her rejection of him. Buck idolized his mother, as did JD. Ezra wanted only to remember Cora in her glory. The way her peach cobbler would embrace the home like a hug from his father. Or how her simple words could make him smile, despite all the pain. And how she could send a look of warning that Chris Larabee couldnt withstand. He missed that he missed her.
Buck entered the saloon and made his way toward his friends. Vin, Nathan, and JD were gone, probably getting rested for tomorrow. The ladies man slumped down in his seat and looked at Chris. Ezras wound up so tight hed make a rattler think twice bout striken im, he said, grabbing the cup and finishing the coffee Chris had been drinking.
Think everyones pretty uptight at the moment, Josiah replied, leaning back in his seat, enjoying the heat from the stove.
Damn near bit my head off in the livery, Buck criticized, rubbing his thumb and forefinger over his eyes.
Whatd you say to im? Chris asked with a chuckle. It was nice to know that Ezra had a temper.
Buck looked at Chris and then leaned back in his chair. Wanted to know if hed served durin the war. He watched as his long time friend nodded in understanding. He was at Wilderness.
Figured as much, Chris replied, looking out over the saloon tables. He watched Inez wipe the counter tops down and replace the shot glasses and whiskey bottles back onto the shelves.
If you dont mind me asking, brothers, Josiah said, leaning over the table top, what difference does it make?
I dont want Ezras past cloudin his vision now, Chris answered, looking toward the stairs. People aint gonna take kindly to a colored woman carin for two white children.
Why dont you ask im how he feels, before makin assumptions? Josiah asked, causing Buck to shake his head.
Dont care what he feels, Josiah, Chris said flatly, hes got a job to do.
You keep pushin the way you are, Buck said, stiffly getting to his feet, hes gonna leave.
Whats keepin im? Chris said thoughtfully, wondering why any of them stayed behind. They were all free men, and yet each had made the choice to stay. He didnt know why everyone did; they werent tied to the land, or the people just each other, in some unknown way.
Whats keepin any of us? Josiah asked softly, causing the two other men to turn their attention toward him. Do you trust im? he asked, directing his question to Chris.
Chris leaned back in his chair and watched the flames of the fire for a moment. Yeah, I trust im.
Buck slapped Chris on the shoulder before leaving the saloon, feeling somewhat relieved, and knowing most of Chris anger was directed at himself.
Maybe you should tell Ezra that, Josiah said softly. Might do you both some good. He slowly got to his feet before gently squeezing Chris shoulder and leaving the saloon. The big man knew that Chris was having a hard time dealing with everything that had happened. Being leader wasnt an easy job for anyone, but feeling responsible for everybody made that job more difficult.
Chris watched Josiah leave. A cold wind entered the saloon as the doors were opened like an unwelcomed guest. Chris looked around the empty saloon, wondering when and how this town had become his home. How had he allowed these men to enter into his life, causing him to think more about their lives than his own? They were the brothers hed never had as a child, and the friends that hed needed for so long. Even Ezra. Somehow the Southerner had integrated himself, somewhat reluctantly, but like the rest of them, he found a family that he didnt want to lose.
Thats what made it so hard.
Ezra wasnt any different than the rest of them. Hed been alone most of his life, having only himself to rely on. Just because he still had a mother didnt mean anything. Chris shook his head. Hed met Maude. The woman was as callous as her son tried to be, and she was independent, arrogant, selfish, and conniving Everything shed tried to teach her son to be but somehow shed failed. Chris smiled. Ezra had thought long and hard about taking that $10,000 dollars, but he hadnt. At the last minute, hed changed his mind the real man had appeared at the end of it all, the man that Maude Standish didnt know. The man that the rest of the seven were just beginning to understand, and the man that Ezra had been all along, only hed been hidden from view.
Chris stood up and headed for the door, feeling confident for the first time in days.
Judge Orin Travis stepped down out of the stagecoach with an authority that few men carried. He demanded respect like an angry bull. It wasnt his size or posture that emanated his power, but rather an essence; it was an essence that didnt go unnoticed.
We werent expecting you until tomorrow, Chris said, leaning against the hitching rail.
Evies womans intuition, he chuckled, and I decided to follow it.
Chris smiled, understanding how powerful a womans gut feeling could be, and Evelyn Travis was quite a woman in her own right.
I understand that Rodgers is dead? The judge looked to Chris for confirmation and he received it. Ill need to know exactly what happened so I can write it up. Last thing I want is for you boys getting into trouble for carrying out my order. He picked up his carpetbag and headed for the sheriffs office. Hows Vin?
Recoverin, Chris replied.
You boys ever get into a bind like that again, you abort the judge stopped in mid stride and looked at the tall blonde, its not worth getting anyone of you hurt, or worse, killed. He nodded abruptly and walked into the office.
Vin sat behind the desk in the room and watched as five of his friends listened to what Judge Travis had to say. His shoulder still throbbed, and Nathan had been right, he had overworked himself the day before. As a result, hed slept through the night and until late in the morning, something that he never did.
I dont understand why Miss Liddell cant just care for the kids she said she was willin enough? JD slumped against the wall in defeat. His youth and ideals were blinding his vision of reality.
Shes a Negro, Nathan said, scratching his brow. Aint no way shes gonna be able to take those kids without someone tryin to stop er.
I understand your unwillingness to face the unenviable, Nathan, Judge Travis looked up from his paperwork, but as law abiding citizens you have to understand Miss Liddells best interest is at stake.
Best interest? Nathan snapped.
Brother, Josiahs tone moved across the room with the grace of a dancer, Judge is only sayin that he has to have all the information in front of im before he can make a judgment.
Wheres Ezra? Travis asked, looking around the room at the faces of his men.
Buck shrugged his shoulders: He uh dont have a real clear picture of whats goin on with the Davis children and Miz Cora.
The last thing I want to do is start a riot in this town, or across the territory for that matter. The judge ran his fingers through his hair, and looked up. Ill hold a hearing to decide the fate of those children I have to keep what is best for everyone in mind, including the town, he said with authority.
Chris nodded in understanding.
Im going to visit my grandson, Travis stood up, Ill have Mary get the news out, and well start the hearing tomorrow morning. He grabbed his hat and headed outside, only to be bombarded with questions and comments concerning the future of the two orphans from what seemed like every citizen in town.
Why even hold a hearin, ifn he aint gonna allow Cora to care for those kids? Nathan asked, obviously frustrated.
The judge is an honest man, Brother, Josiah said confidently, and at least hes willin to hold a hearing.
Reluctantly, Nathan agreed. The judge was willing to hear both sides of the situation, something that very few men in his position would be willing to do.
Cora grasped Josephs hand and rubbed Emilys back as their fathers casket was slowly lowered into the ground. How strange, watching the earth open up and swallow a person whod had such an impact on those around him. The earth was cold and uninviting, but it served its purpose.
Emily wiped her eyes, trying to dry the tears that fell freely. Now she only had her brother and Cora everyone else was dead. She looked at Josiah, who was speaking over the grave of her father. She didnt understand what he was saying, but she knew the words were sad. She watched as Joseph wiped his cheeks, trying to the evidence of the tears hed shed.
Most of the town watched from a distance. They stood together while discussing what they thought should happen to the children. Men and women, several from as far away as Eagle Bend had arrived to watch the hearing. The fate of those two children lay in Judge Travis hands, and everyone wanted to know what he planned to do.
Chris, Buck, and JD stood around the gravesite, keeping an eye on things. Nobody wanted to see a riot during a funeral, but peoples emotions were running rampant, and anything could happen. A brisk wind picked up and those feeling chilled pulled their coats closer around them. Mary touched Coras shoulder in support, trying to understand what the older woman was going through. Judge Travis watched, keeping his experienced eye on the very people that were causing such a stir. He liked what he saw, and he generally enjoyed Miss Liddells company, but there was more to the situation than met his eye.
Billy reached up and grabbed his grandfathers hand. Orin smiled and gently squeezed his grandsons palm. Even at Billys young age he had his fathers way about him. Despite what the boy had been through, there was still that childhood innocence about him. Orin wished he had that, and then maybe he could look at this case in a different light. Perhaps then he could approach it without unfairness. He had always thought himself to be a fair man, and a respectable judge, but this situation was calling for more than just the law of the land much more.
Josiah and Nathan stood at the door of the Grain Exchange and watched the crowd that had gathered inside. This wasnt a trial, but rather a hearing. There wasnt a jury to decide the fate of the two Davis children. Instead, Judge Travis would take whatever was said within the courtroom and decide for himself what would happen to Joseph and Emily.
Vin and JD sat in the audience flanking the room while Chris and Buck sat beside Cora. Mary had agreed to take the children and keep them with her until the end of the hearing. They didnt need to witness everyones anger. Ezra willingly rode patrol, looking for stragglers that might get some ideas about storming the town with guns blazing. Chris hadnt asked the gambler about his hesitance to be inside the courtroom. The dark clad gunslinger didnt think it was any of his business, and truthfully, it wasnt.
Kit Watson had been chosen to speak for the peoples position on the Davis childrens behalf. The judge had made it clear that an attorney wasnt necessary, he was only going to ask questions, but many of the townspeople wanted to have a spokesman.
You cant let this woman care for these kids, Judge, Kit snapped, getting to his feet. Many of the people in the seats behind the desks cheered in agreement.
Sit down, Mr. Watson, the judge snapped, making his authority known. He set his glasses on his nose and looked at the papers in front of him. Hed spent most of the night looking through law books and old cases regarding situations like this, and he found nothing that could help him with a ruling. Miss Liddell, he spoke up and looked at the older woman. Her hair had been bound with a red and black cloth and her dress appeared to have been freshly cleaned. Her large black eyes were filled with nothing but trust and hope, and despite the hardship of her life, her delicate features were soft and inviting. How long have you been caring for the Davis children?
Cora cleared her throat: Been ovah six years now, she replied with a smile.
Are you close to the children?
Hell, Judge, Kit snapped, what kinda question is that?
Sit down, Mr. Watson, the judge ordered again and then turned his attention back to Cora.
Oh, yes, sir, she answered, Is the only mammy those children ave ever had.
Judge Travis stifled the smile he wanted to reveal. Do you have the resources to care for them?
Cora understood the question and turned her eyes downward. She didnt have the resources. She didnt have anything, except the love she was so willing to give. She tried not to let the murmurs, whispers, and sighs, detour her from answering the question, but she didnt know what to say.
I dont ave the best ways of speakin, an my learnin was simple, but I worked hard all my life, Ive scrimped and saved all I could it aint much but what I got, those children is welcome to it. They dont ave nothin anymore. Lost their momma an then their papa, she looked hard at the judge, the only thin those children need is a heap o love, aint nothin in the world can give em that but me.
Buck smiled. There was something about this woman that made him think she was really an angel in disguise. Anyone who cared would see that she loved those children as though they were her own. There wasnt anybody who could give them a better home.
Judge Travis took into consideration what Cora had said and sighed. He couldnt deny that she cared deeply for Joseph and Emily, but would that be enough? Would she be able to buy new clothing when they grew out of what they had? Would she be able to teach them how to read and write and do their arithmetic? Would she be able to help them in the white world, a place that she wasnt accepted despite her freedom?
Its obvious to everyone here that woman aint got no right raisin up them youngins. She dont have no job, or a man to care for her. She can hardly say a word, an she cant write worth a damn, Kit continued to argue.
Vin shook his head. He couldnt believe what he was hearing, but then again, he could. He looked at his friends and fellow regulators and saw the same expressions mirrored in their faces. Cora wasnt going to be able to care for those children. Vin didnt consider himself a smart man hed never experienced the book learning that the others had but he knew in his heart that the children would be sent to an orphanage; the one place where they didnt belong, no matter what. He continued to listen to the arguments, the judges questions, and Coras answers, realizing they were futile.
The judge had already made up his mind. It was written in his eyes.
Ezra rode back into town after having spent the last five hours on the back of a saddle. Trouble seemed content to be led into the stable where he could enjoy a short reprieve. The day had been uneventful, except for a few young kids out chasing cattle, and a few rowdy cowhands getting liquored up.
The town had quieted down, and Ezra hoped that the judge had the insight to hold off with a decision. Cora deserved time and consideration. Trouble nipped at his masters hands, wanting a treat of some kind, and the action brought Ezra back from his musings. He chuckled and then moved his horse toward his stall. The smell of straw, hay, and manure filled the air, and the big chestnut was eager to get settled and eat.
Mud and Digger nickered softly to the big chestnut, and Trouble tossed his head in response. Ezra tied the stall door shut, making sure to lock the gate in such a position so that his horse wouldnt manage to work his way out. There had been more than one time that the animal had gotten out and made a mess in the stable, more times than not in the grain barrel.
Ezra paused at the livery exit and looked out over the main road. People had gathered at every corner and were talking, more so than usual, and most likely about the placement of the Davis children. Everyone had an opinion, but only one mattered the judges. Ezra took his hat off and rolled the brim in his hands, trying to come up with the courage to speak with Judge Travis.
Cora placed her darning in her lap and watched the lone figure walk across the street. She couldnt help but smile. It had been so long. She watched his graceful movements, determined stride, and handsome features. He looked just like his father.
You all right, maam? Vin asked, looking to where Ezra was crossing the street. Hed seen the womans behavior change.
Josiah looked over at Cora and then looked in the direction of the gambler. Obviously, she saw something in him. The big man nodded to Chris, letting him know that things were fine. Judge Travis thought it best to make sure Cora had someone with her at all times for her own protection, he didnt want something to happen to her because of the situation. Chances were things could get hostile.
You know him? Josiah asked, tilting his head in Ezras direction.
Cora smiled and leaned back in her chair. I used to, she said softly, never taking her eyes off his form.
He never hurt you did he? Nathan asked, feeling overly protective of the woman.
Cora reached out and touched his shoulder: No chil, she spoke softly, that boy could never hurt me. She paused watching him enter the building. He looks jus like his daddy. She smiled, remembering back to happier times.
How well dyou know Ezra? Vin asked.
Is with Master Samuel the day Preston done brought Maude home with im, she continued, not noticing that she had garnered everyones attention, hed won er in a pokah game.
A poker game? Nathan asked in astonishment. Mrs. Standish is a white woman? He couldnt understand.
Shes a woman, Cora replied softly, looking at Nathans face. Suddenly, she chuckled, but her face went solemn. Preston and Maude done married a year latah, an a year aftah that Ezra ad his twin sistah was born.
Twins, Josiah chuckled in disbelief, he couldnt imagine two Ezras running around.
They both come early, she continued to explain, five weeks early the little girl died, an the doctah said Ezra wasnt goin to make it neithah, but he did. She smiled, remembering a better time. She felt Nathans hand on her shoulder and she patted his hand gently. He was so small. His daddy made im a crib out of a bread box. Her eyes were suddenly filled with a sadness that nobody understood. I bes go see to the children. Cora stood up abruptly and wiped her eyes before disappearing into the newspaper office.
Youd think hed be decent enough to come see er, Nathan said, getting to his feet.
Somethin mustave happened, Brother, Josiah responded, dont go makin judgments till you know the whole story.
Ezra tentatively knocked on the door to the small office where Judge Travis was working. Nervously, the gambler rolled the brim of his hat in his hands, seriously questioning his wisdom. He opened the door slowly when he heard the judge yell for him to enter. Taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly, he entered the office. It was Steven Travis old workplace.
Something I can do you for, Ezra? The judge asked, filing through his papers.
Ive come to ask you about Cora Liddell? Ezra took a seat and looked inquisitively around the room.
Whatever you have to say should have been said today during the hearing, Orins voice was strong and unwavering, Ive made my decision, and youll have to hear it tomorrow morning just like everyone else. He watched as the gambler stood up, seemingly having accepted his decision.
Ezra grasped the doorknob and paused: When Cora looks at those children, she doesnt see the color of their skin, he turned around and looked at Travis, nor do those kids.
Ezra, the judge warned.
You pull them out from her care youll be pulling them away from the only foundation they have left.
I understand your concern, but my decision is limited to
If you decide in her favor, youll risk your reputation, the frankness of Ezras comment caught the judge off guard.
Travis pushed himself away from the desk and looked hard at the man standing in the center of the room. Were his words true? My reputation has nothing to do with my decision in this case! he snapped, placing the palms of his hands on the desktop.
Doesnt it? Ezra challenged. If you allow a Negro woman to take those two white children, what are you saying to the people who placed you in the office you hold? His voice was soft and even, despite his anger.
How dare you!
You know as well as I do that those children will be best cared for by Cora Liddell. Ezras face and eyes expressed his frustration and care. What will it take? he pleaded, the accusation in his voice suddenly gone.
Its not a matter of what, Ezra, Judge Travis sighed, and sat down in his chair. Obviously this woman means something to you?
Reluctantly, the gambler nodded.
Why not come to the hearing tomorrow, and tell me there why she should care for those children?
I cant, Ezra replied, rubbing his forehead in frustration. He lifted up his right pant leg and pulled out a wad of bills from his boot. Theres five hundred dollars here, and I have more in my room. He placed the money on the table and looked at the judge for recognition.
Why cant you help her at the hearing?
Ezra took a step back and looked toward the door. An escape route. I cant, he whispered.
Now would be a good time for an earthquake, Ezra thought as he ran his fingers through his hair. I killed her son, he admitted.
Judge Travis folded his fingers together, wondering what it was that hed stepped into. He nodded his head in agreement; he didnt think it would be pleasant if Ezra spoke tomorrow. Can you tell me what happened?
No, Ezra responded sharply.
Theres a place up north where Cora and the children could go
And what then? The judge challenged, What will become of the children when they need to go to school? When they need help with their studies? Whos going to pay for their winter shoes, clothing, and supplies? He ran his fingers over his face and sighed. There is more to question here than just the love she feels for those children.
Youve made your decision then. It wasnt a question, just an observation.
What I decide will be the best for everyone, Ezra.
The gambler nodded in understanding and slowly headed for the door. He paused momentarily: In the South, it wasnt uncommon for husbands to leave their slaves to care for their children. He looked hard at Orin. Not all of them were beaten, Judge. Some were as close as family sometimes closer. He nodded and then left the room, leaving nothing but questions in his wake.
The room was filled with people, and yet it was so quiet a mouse could be heard. Travis looked out over the crowd, finding six of the seven men hed hired to protect this town. It was evident in his eyes that the situation was wearing on him. The news he had to share wasnt good.
Whatll it be, Judge? Kit Watson stood up, and looked around the room for support. He received it, and in abundance.
Sit down, Mr. Watson! Judge Travis ordered, raising his voice. The decision I have made is to benefit those two children, not the town, his voice was clear and unwavering. I have no doubt that Miss Liddell would have the best of intensions for Emily and Joseph Davis. I believe her ability with children is as well mannered as any of us probably better, he tried not to let the sounds of murmurs in the room dismay him, However, my concern lies with the childrens future, as well as Cora Liddells.
Josiah reached over and gently touched Coras shoulder in support. He knew the news wasnt good. He looked Nathan in the eyes and saw some bitterness there: it was the same story told in a different way.
When Mary burst into the room, everyones eyes turned toward the newspaperwoman. Her distress was obvious. The children theyre gone! she gasped, trying to catch her breath.
No, Cora cried, getting to her feet. She hardly felt the two men beside her help her out of the chair and out the back door.
The noise level in the room grew considerably, while Chris, Buck, JD and Vin headed out. They knew what they had to do. Judge Travis followed Nathan and Josiah out the back way, and they immediately headed for the newspaper office.
Ezra stood outside the saloon and watched in curiosity as the Grain Exchange was emptied rather quickly. When Chris and Buck jogged toward him, his focus went on full alert. He pushed his hat up away from his eyes and stepped off the boardwalk.
Whats happened? Ezra asked, watching as Cora was led across the street with Mary and the judge.
Kids are gone, Chris answered, and without saying it, he ordered his men to get to the stable to get ready for the search.
Vin jogged up beside them, his arm still strapped to his chest.
You stay here, Chris snapped, not giving the sharpshooter a chance to object. I dont want you out there in this weather. He motioned toward the approaching storm.
I aint gonna sit around an do nothin, Vin responded.
Try an find out if Billy knows where they went, Chris tightened the cinch around Muds middle, I saw them out playing together earlier.
Vin nodded and headed for Marys, leaving Chris, Buck, and Ezra in the stable with their horses.
Cora grabbed a couple of blankets and quickly handed them to Josiah. Theyre gonna get cold, she said, looking around the room for anything else the children would need once they were found.
Cora, Nathan said softly, gently touching the older womans arm. Well find em, he reassured, guiding her to a seat. He noticed the distant look in her eyes, it was one of defeat, fear, and frustration. Those children were her responsibility. She knew what was best for them, and deep down, she knew she couldnt keep them.
When Mary and Gloria Potter entered the room, both men knew that they would remain with Cora until the children were found. They, in essence, gave them permission to leave.
Whats happenin outside? Nathan asked, buttoning his coat.
Needless to say, nobodys makin an effort to go lookin for those children, Gloria said, sitting down beside the older woman.
You boys best get, Nettie Wells ordered, stepping into the room.
Well find the children, Josiah reassured, readjusting the blankets in his arms.
Nettie gently patted the big mans shoulder, and then gave both men an understanding nod. Well have some hot food for you when you get back.
Thank you, Nettie, Nathan said softly, moving past the older woman.
Vin, Josiah said, watching as the tracker made his way inside with his hand clutching Billys.
Chris an the others are leaving, Vin acknowledged. JD checked the stables, an out behind the stores. An Billy said he didnt know where they went.
Nathan nodded: You feelin all right?
Yeah, Vin reassured, just go find em.
Judge Travis watched six of the seven lawmen ride out of town. He could tell Vin wanted to go with them, but he understood why the tracker was ordered to stay behind. The man was still healing from a gunshot wound, and he didnt need to be out in the weather. Rain started to fall from the sky, hitting the already muddied ground. Spring was coming, and it was arriving with a vengeance.
Orin squeezed his grandsons hand, trying to give him some reassurance. Two small children out in the weather, alone in the rough territory wasnt a good situation even on the best of days. Most of the towns residents had gone back to their own lives, and once the storm came into view, every farmer and rancher headed home, having more important things to do than decide the fate of someone they didnt know or care about. A few stayed behind, watching and waiting. Their prejudices were keeping them from returning home, not their concern for the childrens well being.
I should have kept a closer eye on them, Mary said, watching the six figures disappear in the distance.
Aint your fault, Mary, Vin said, figure those kids were scared. He spoke honestly, and with a hint of sadness in his voice. Reckon they left before someone could take em away cant blame em for that.
Orin looked long and hard at the tracker, feeling as though Vin were speaking from experience rather than expressing his opinion. Orin understood on some levels, but not all. He knew better than most that life wasnt easy. But he also knew that opportunities didnt just happen, they had to be made.
Josiah listened to the rolling thunder, as his eyes scanned over the horizon. He was looking for two small children. Nathan rode beside him, viewing the land as well. They didnt know where to look, only what they were looking for. Where would children hide? Where would they go if faced with losing the only family they had left? Josiah shook his head. He and Hanna would hide in the hayloft at home. Theyd go there and talk about their dreams, and their plans all of which, never came true.
Nathan looked at his friend and thought about the medical supplies he might need when Emily and Joseph were found if they were found. They had brought plenty of blankets to keep them warm. Nathan knew what it was like to run from something he feared, and he understood why the children left Marys. He knew better than anyone.
Think well find em? JD asked, looking for anything that could lead them to the kids.
Hell, JD, Buck sighed, lets hope we do.
Chris an Vin found Billy. The kid looked up toward the mass of trees. You think they want to be found?
I spect theyre feelin scared, lonely, and lost. It aint easy losin your parents and then to lose your best friend cuz someone says the color of er skin aint right.
JD nodded in agreement, but he didnt understand the complexities of Judge Travis unspoken answer at the hearing. Was it like this durin the war?
JD shrugged his shoulders: Just hard for folks to get along you know.
People ave got it in their own minds whats right an whats wrong. Buck thought about Ezras words in the stable. I remember durin the war seein more colored men fightin with Reb soldiers than with the Union troops.
I thought they had their own ranks? JD asked.
They did, Buck said, remembering that hed never fought with them. Hed ridden with black soldiers on cattle drives after the war, and they were all good men, but Nathan was the first black man hed ever gotten to know well.
Do you think about the war?
I try not to, Buck answered quietly.
Chris looked over at the gambler, who seemed more intent on looking at the land than anything else. I saw you go into the judges office yesterday, he said, looking for a reaction.
Ezra just nodded.
Did you say somethin to im, bout Cora an the kids?
Mr. Larabee, I have no intension of sharing with you my opinions or what I discussed, in private, mind you, with Judge Travis, Ezra responded sharply.
I think youve made your opinions clear, Chris snapped, its not like you, keepin your distance.
Its a private matter, Ezra responded, wishing the conversation would drop.
Like takin that $10,000.
Ezra pulled Trouble to a stop and turned angry eyes toward Larabee. What do you want? he asked, bitterly.
Whyd you step in front of that gun? Chris turned to face the gambler.
Trouble stomped his foot, wanting to move forward, but Ezra held him back. I didnt have a lot of options, he responded.
Youve always had options, Chris replied sarcastically, nudging his horse forward. How long did you serve? He abruptly changed the direction of the conversation.
Ezra urged his horse forward and turned his eyes toward the horizon. I was there at the beginnin, he said sadly, and there until the end.
Never figured you for a soldier.
What should it mattah?
Dont, under normal circumstances, Chris answered, looking at the gambler for a reaction.
Livin in this town can hardly be called normal undah any circumstance.
Chris nodded in agreement. He couldnt argue that point. I aint one for sayin things outright, he said softly, but, thank you for savin Mary like you did.
Ezra merely nodded in acceptance.
And Chris paused, Im sorry about the money.
Theres no need to apologize, Ezra said softly after a brief pause, knowing how hard it was for Chris to say these things. Everything I did, I did of my own accord.
Maybe, Chris agreed, but we I shouldnt have said what I did.
Ezra tipped his head, hiding his eyes and smile. Thank you, he said softly. Hed needed to hear those words.
Im goin to ride out by Netties place, and see if the kids made it out that far, Chris said, pulling off to the right, Why dont you keep searching the area maybe take a peek by the river bed. Well meet back in town in an hour, he ordered, with or without the kids. I dont want anyone out here after dark and in the rain.
What about the children? Ezra asked.
Well find em, Chris replied confidently. He wasnt willing to sacrifice the lives of his men in the search for the kids, and what good would they do them if they were all sick, or worse, injured?
Ezra nodded and started for the river. The rain came out of the sky in a pouring fashion, unrelenting to even the most desperate.
JD and Buck entered town, drenched from head to foot. Their hats and coats did little to keep the cold wind and rain from their bodies. JD shivered despite himself and quickly handed Gus reins over to Tiny who took them without complaint. Buck did the same. They entered the saloon and found Josiah and Nathan sitting next to the stove trying to warm their hands.
Any luck, brothers? Josiah asked, moving so JD could take the seat closest to the hot stove.
Buck shook his head: No, he replied, his lack of enthusiasm expressed his feelings of defeat. He slumped down in a chair and took the hot cup of coffee Nathan handed him. Chris an Ezra still out there?
Yeah, Josiah nodded, he was starting to feel as though this was a lost cause.
When the doors to the saloon burst open, four sets of eyes landed on Chris who was soaked to the bone. Rain fell from his hat and his long coat left puddles of water on the floor as he made his way to the stove. He knew by his mens expressions that they hadnt found the children, and he took his hat off and ran his fingers through his hair. Damn it! he swore, angry with himself and the situation.
We can look again once the weather clears, Buck said, taking another sip of his coffee.
Ezra still out there? Chris asked, slightly surprised the gambler hadnt beaten him back.
Thought hes with you? Nathan queried.
Thought we could cover more ground if we separated, he responded flatly. Ill go tell Cora.
Lets wait for Ezra, JD piped in, maybe hell have better luck.
Chris reluctantly nodded, before grabbing a hot cup of coffee for himself.
Trouble stepped over the rocky terrain, trying to keep his feet under him. The larger rocks seemed to slip out from under his shod hooves causing him to stumble. Ezra thought about getting off and leading the horse, but he wanted to see further in the distance.
A shallow stream of water moved forcefully down the riverbed, collecting speed as the rain continued to gather. Ezras tan coat did little to keep the chill from his bones, and he wished for a warm dry bed. Troubles ears perked up and the horse stopped his movements, turning all of his attention toward the small gathering of trees in the distance. He wasnt spooked, just interested in something familiar. Ezra reached down and reassured his horse and then kicked him in the direction of the trees.
Emily Joseph! Ezra called desperately, wanting to find the children as badly as they themselves wanted to be found. He pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted. He tried to squint through the darkness and the rainfall, looking for any sign of hope. Trouble tossed his head, eager to investigate. Ezra gave his horse his head.
Dont let him come near, a childs voice cried out when Troubles nose sniffed between two boulders.
Ezra squatted down, pulling his horse back. Why dont you both come out so I can see you, it was a suggestion, but it sounded like an order.
I wanna go home, Emily cried, her wet clothing sticking to her skin. She was tired, hungry, and scared. She walked up to Ezra and let him pick her up.
How long have you both been out here, Ezras southern accent came out thick and strong.
Joseph shrugged: We aint going to an orphanage! he announced.
Sounds reasonable, Ezra replied, untying his bedroll from his saddle while still holding onto Emily.
Josephs teeth chattered, and he tried to get it under control, but his body continued to shiver despite his protests.
Did your fathah teach you to ride? Ezra asked, hoping for a positive response.
Started teaching me, Joseph replied, but Em, shes scared of horses.
Yes, I seem to have gathered that. Ezra wrapped Emily up in one of the blankets he had and then set her on the ground. Joseph, he called to the young boy, Im goin to put you both up on Troubles back. I cant carry you both back to town. He pulled off his coat and helped Joseph into it.
The child nodded his head in understanding and was up on the saddle in no time. His sister protested momentarily, but with some smooth talking and a reassuring nuzzle from Trouble, she too accepted the horses good nature and went up behind her brother. Ezra snuggly tucked the blankets around them before starting back towards town.
Without any light the walk back was tedious and dangerous. Rocks of all sizes lined the riverbank making the trip seem longer. Ezra held his horses reins in his hands and listened intently to Joseph tell his sister that things were going to be fine. Shed given up crying, and soon succumbed to a quiet slumber with her arms holding tight to her brother. Troubles smooth gait rocked her to sleep like an old chair.
The cold wind and rain bit at Ezras skin relentlessly. He shivered in response, trying to maintain his warmth that was quickly abandoning him. His jacket, vest and shirt did little to protect him, and it wasnt long before he was soaking wet. Trouble tried to walk steadily beside him, only miss-stepping on occasion. They needed to get away from the riverbank; the smooth stones were wearing on their feet.
Ezra stepped over a large boulder in his path and slipped suddenly when his foot connected with a muddied rock. His momentum carried him forward. He releasing Troubles reins, and landed on his right knee, triggering a bear trap. The snapping sound of the brutal instrument filled the air and Ezras cry went unheard as a roll of thunder echoed in the distance. Ezra grasped his thigh, falling onto his left side. He tried to stop the pain from moving farther up his leg, but it didnt work as he grabbed at the steel jaws that had unmercifully embraced his leg above and below his knee.
Are you okay? Joseph asked, looking down, fear laced his words. He grabbed the saddle horn with all his might, too afraid to release it.
Ezra gasped for breath, trying to find his voice. He pressed his forehead on a cold wet rock, while trying to keep the jaws around his leg from closing further. Trouble will take you back to town, he gasped between clenched teeth.
By ourselves? Joseph replied fearfully.
Trouble sniffed his masters leg, and then pawed the ground impatiently.
You can make it, Ezra gasped. He reached up and patted his horses nose. Get! he ordered, strengthening his voice for the command. Trouble tossed his head, the reins snapping him in the head in response. Ezra knew the animal knew where town was better than anyone.
The big horses ears flickered back and forth, as though he were thinking about the command. When Ezras hand came up and pushed him away, he knew what he was supposed to do. He grunted once, and then tentatively started walking away. Occasionally, hed look back, wanting to make sure he had the order right.
Ezra sighed heavily when his horse slowly headed in the direction of Four Corners. He grabbed again at the steel jaws and tried desperately to spread them apart. His leg felt as though it were splitting apart. Carefully he positioned his fingers between the sharp teeth, moving them slightly, and could immediately feel the blood that was seeping through. He shivered unexpectedly and then tried to pull his jacket closer around his body. It did little to keep the cold out.