It had been over four years since Maude had seen Ezra, and when he stepped out of the train car it took her a moment to realize it was her son, and not an image of Preston. Her son looked more like his father than she ever expected he would. Granted, at nineteen years of age he still hadnt filled out completely, but hed gotten taller than she ever could have expected.
Maude knew she hadnt been the best mother in world, but she also knew that one of the reasons her son was still alive was because of her independence. Ezra had learned from her, and had taken what shed taught him to heart. When she received his first letter, telling her about Bennys death, it took her a year to respond. Friends were a handicap, they caused more pain than they were worth, and for the most part they always took advantage of any given situation. She wrote him back telling him so. He hadnt explained how he died, only that his death was unexpected. Benny was a good boy with a good heart, but he wasnt what her son needed.
My darlin boy, Maude gasped, and then kissed her son on the cheek.
Mother, Ezra responded.
Maude took a step back and looked her son over. First thing we need to do is get you something decent to ware, this she pulled at his jacket, will not do.
Ezra held out his arm and his mother took it. She hadnt changed. Wheres your newest companion?
Mr. Crass was just that, crass, and we divorced a few months ago.
Divorce? Ezra questioned, slightly surprised by her statement.
Dont sound so astonished, she nodded at a handsome man that walked by, the judge that signed the papers was quite modern, and thankfully, he saw my reasonings as very palpable
Maude sighed and then changed the subject. Youll have to read some of these Yankee papers, she laughed, theyd have us believing that Southerners are monsters with human features. Some of the stories are just horrendous, and utterly disgraceful.
And your reason for telling me this? Ezra wasnt blind to her escapades.
Use it to our benefit just like everything else. She stepped down the boardwalk and with her son by her side, and then they walked into the tailors shop. So, my suggestion to you is dont let anyone know you fought in that dreadful war. She smiled at the tailor, who let them know that he would be with them momentarily. Thats why, darlin, its so important to have an untarnished name, she said with a smile. Now, lets spend some money so we can make some money.
New York was short lived for Maude and Ezra who quickly found it necessary to head south for a while. Not the war torn South, but rather, to the lucrative businesses of riverboat gambling. The war hadnt done away with all of the young gamblers in the world, nor had it quenched peoples desire to make money. Everyone had to learn a living somehow.
There werent many boats on the river. Many had lost their funding over the last four years. It was only those with the well-known names and reputations that had stayed in business. People from all over the world would come to these small moving islands. Many just to see the river, and others to play the game theyd devoted their lives to. Ezra soon found himself embraced by the establishment. All the cultures, languages, and lifestyles fed his imagination. He liked playing poker with men that had wonderful stories to tell about their homeland. He also improved his ability to read people. Ever since he was a child the talent came easy for him. His father had taught him well. However, here, he learned more about his opponents and their tells than he could have ever imagined. Unlike the saloons hed been raised in, people didnt come here just to drink or play a friendly game of poker. They came here with one intention, to play, and to play well.
Poker tournaments last for days, not hours, and nights were nonexistent. Nobody cared to look at their watches, and nobody dared get caught cheating, that was a sure way to earn a free swimming lesson. However, cheaters quickly learned how to improve their skills in all abilities. Ezra wasnt any different. Just by watching he learned trick after trick, memorizing it and improving it, making it his own. Half the fun of poker wasnt necessarily the game itself, but those playing it. It was challenging, learning every facial muscle, every ear twitch, every blink of an eye, and even a smile. Everything about a person that Ezra needed to know was in the face, particularly the eyes, every emotion could be read there good and bad.
Ezra had his moments when he could look sixteen and then blink his eyes and look five years older. It wasnt a gift by any means, but rather a curse. The war had changed him Benny had changed him. Staying up late playing games of poker meant avoiding sleep, because sleep brought with it unwanted dreams and nightmares. The war was over, but not for those who fought in it, and not for those who killed. Four long years of brutality, death, and blood had taken its toll. How could it not?
Poker was an escape route. It was a game of intense skill, thought, and precision. In order to play it, and win at it, every sense and attention had to be paid to it. The cards they were dealt didnt create winners and losers; they were created by the way they were played. And Ezra played well very well. The more challenging the game the more fun he had. He didnt cheat, unless he had to, and it was usually another cheater at the table that brought on the slight of hand movements. Accusing someone of playing dishonestly was a sure way of getting killed, so the best remedy was to out cheat the cheater. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didnt.
This was his life.
Moving from one place to another didnt bother Ezra as much as someone might think. He enjoyed the new territories. One week he was in a fabulous saloon with a beautiful woman on his arm and the next week he was in Chicago, pulling a con with his mother. His name changed from Standish to Smith to Harper depending on his location.
So, where are you goin after this? the young woman asked, tracing the muscle pattern on Ezras bare chest with her finger. She moved slightly and the bed squeaked, causing her to giggle.
Ezra smiled and ran his fingers through Rachels light brown hair. Does it matter?
You realize that is the third time youve answered a question with a question, dont you? She cocked an eyebrow, resting her chin on his chest.
I figure after your mother finds out what weve done Id better make my appearances minimal. He smiled, revealing dimpled cheeks and mischievous eyes.
Dont flatter yourself, Rachel said, sitting up on the edge of the bed, youre not my first. She let her long hair fall over her shoulders.
Im stunned, shocked overwhelmed, he joked, sitting up against the headboard of his bed. I do hope you dont intend to wear white at your weddin.
Rachel threw a pillow at him: I do intend to wear white. She laughed. Momma says she wants one of these rich bankers that come on board all the time to marry me theyre so soft. She crawled back up into the bed and rested her head on Ezras shoulder. I dont want to get married, she said flatly.
Why? Ezra asked, slightly surprised by her sudden change of demeanor.
Lincoln may have freed the slaves, but he didnt do shit for women.
So why are you lyin in a bed with a Southern cuss? he asked softly, all the while stroking her hair.
Rachel smiled, looking up into her bed partners eyes. I like sex.
Well, Ezra sighed, I cant argue with that.
Momma said that the first time she did it with her first husband, she didnt know what to expect, her eyes smiled bright during the story, so she laid newspaper on the bed and hid a twitch under her pillow.
Ezra laughed and the muscles on his stomach quivered. I have a hard time seein your mother in that particular light.
Momma is full of surprises.
That, my dear, is an understatement.
Rachel smiled and slowly slid her soft fingers over Ezras stomach. Its a good thing I dont take after her, she said softly, pressing her lips to his.
Absolutely, Ezra muttered, wrapping his arms around Rachels tiny waist.
When Ezra stepped off the Blue Rose riverboat, he never dreamed it would be his last. He tipped his hat to Miss Betty Kramer, Rachels mother. She winked at Ezra and sent him a kiss, and then turned her attention to someone new. Ezra watched as Rachel waved goodbye to him, and suddenly laugh before turning to move back inside the large gambling hall. He wasnt bothered by it, it was part of the lifestyle hed chosen to live by.
The town of Shaw was located on the west bank of the Mississippi River. It served more for settlers moving west. Horses, wagons, a blacksmith, and general store, filled the muddy streets while street vendors tried to sell their homemade items. Everyone needed money.
Maude would call this place ripe for the taking but Ezra saw it only as a temporary stop along his way. He was going to San Francisco. There, he intended to buy his own saloon with the finest alcohol, and the best gambling.
If yous headin West, boy, you best buy up some supplies, a street vender yelled, holding up a woven blanket. His toothless grin scared the little children that were new to the area, and his steely eyes terrified the young women that were looking for a new life.
Ezra ignored him.
Hows about some of Mommas Elixir, proven to cure all ailments, and remove any stain?
Ezra shook his head and moved passed the man holding up the small glass jars. He was only here for the night, and then he was heading out. Ezra stopped suddenly when a young woman wearing a blue dress stepped out of the General Store in front of him.
Im sorry, she said softly, trying to gather up her collection of items that had fallen. I didnt mean to
No apology necessary, Ezra replied, picking up a bag that shed dropped. Would you like some help? he offered, with a dimpled smile.
That would be most appreciated. She sighed, and pushed some of her items into his arms. My names Mary OBrien.
The woman nodded and walked confidently down the tattered boardwalk. My fiancé thought it would be best if I moved west after he did, that way he could get everything settled. She laughed. Were getting married as soon as I arrive in Portland.
Youre traveling alone? Ezra asked, slightly surprised.
No, my brother, Ephraim is traveling with me. I would imagine, that, at this very moment, hes trying to sell my fathers horse, she laughed, as though this was a joke Ezra was in on.
Oh, she laughed again, and her whole face lit up. Im so sorry you see, my father died six months ago, and he raised thoroughbreds. However, on his deathbed, he made Ephraim swear that hed never sell Double Trouble, his prized three year old colt out of the mare Datmia
Ezra nodded, as though he understood where this woman was going with her story.
needless to say, Double Trouble, or Trouble as we like to call him, is a little on the temperamental side, she laughed again, Ephraim wants to sell him, but I cant seem to bring myself to do it unless I were to find someone worthy. She smiled to herself.
Have you had any offers?
No, Mary shook her head. Most people arent willing to spend the amount of time a horse like Trouble needs, despite his breeding.
What do you plan to do with the animal?
Marys face fell for a moment and she sighed: You wouldnt happen to be looking for a horse at the moment, Mr. Standish? It was in her voice, the sadness of the idea of selling the animal Ezra had yet to see.
Matter of fact, I am.
Mary laughed: Youre extremely kind to offer
Really, Miss OBrien, I am.
The woman stopped in the middle of the boardwalk and looked hard at the man carrying some of her purchases. In that case, she said with a smile, follow me.
The large chestnut reared up and kicked out, not to be mean, but out of fun. His ears perched forward on his head and his kind eye told Ezra just that. However, the animals handler thought differently.
Ive had it, Mary! Ephraim yelled, releasing the lead rope, letting the big horse run around the arena. If we cant sell him, well have to shoot him. Hes too much trouble and well never get him on a train, he pleaded, hoping his sister understood.
Ephraim, Mary announced, this is Mr. Standish, and hes here to take a look at Trouble.
You know much about horses, Mr. Standish? Ephraim rested his arms over the corral fence.
Enough, Ezra answered honestly.
What kind of a horse you looking for?
Something with adequate speed, Ezra replied with a grin. He broke? He pointed to Trouble.
That depends on who you ask, Ephraim chuckled, the horse or me.
Ezra laughed, hed been around horses long enough to know what that meant. Slowly, he crawled through the slats in the fence and made his way toward the large beast. Trouble snorted and tossed his head around, the rope flung in the air with every movement he took. He watched as the strange man stuck his hand out. He snorted again and stepped forward, more than willing to meet someone new.
Hes definitely got the speed youre lookin for, Ephraim said. However, controlling that speed is a different story.
Ezra laughed: I take it youre not a gambler, Mr. OBrien?
Ephraim laughed, he understood Ezras meaning. No, but Id be willin to wager that you are.
Ezra nodded: How much to acquire this animal? he asked, rubbing his hand over the horses lean neck.
Ephraim shook his head: Way I see it you reimburse me for all the trouble hes caused, that should cover it.
Sounds like I own a horse. Ezra chuckled when his new equine pushed his head into him.
He seems to like you, Mary said with a smile. It wasnt easy for her to watch as her fathers horse was sold, but she knew that animal wouldnt make it to Oregon with them.
Marys dream is to raise thoroughbreds with her fiancé, after they marry. He pointed to the four horses that were tied to the hitching post outside the barn. I wish Trouble could have been a part of that, but Im afraid he needs more attention than I can give him for the time being.
I wish you luck, Ezra said, admiring the horseflesh. I hear the road north is a treacherous one. He reached into his pocket book and handed the payment for the animal to Ephraim.
Ephraim will get us there, Mary said with a confident smile. Her long auburn hair glistened in the sunlight.
Ezra nodded and shook Ephraims hand. Thank you for the pleasure. He motioned with his hand to the horse attached to the lead rope.
I hope he works out for you, Ephraim responded.
Ezra tipped his hat in Marys direction and led his new horse through the front gate. He had a saddle to purchase, and supplies to stock.
Double Trouble knew more about knots than Ezra did. The horse could untie himself from whatever hitching post he was attached to. While Ezra was inside the store, Trouble went for a short exploration, just wanting to welcome the new horses into town. When he discovered the apple stand at the general store all hell broke loose.
Trouble dug his nose into the lush red pile of sweet smelling apples, and the thin legs that the stand was being held up by, broke, and crashed to the floor. People jumped back as small red fruit rolled down the boardwalk, into the stores, and onto the muddied ground. Trouble stood glued to his place, munching contently on his discovery. The storeowner came rushing out of his establishment waving his broom. The big horse stuck his tail in the air and grabbed one last apple before being chased down the street.
Ezra exited the saddle shop with his newly purchased tack weighing heavily on his arm. He shook his head when he saw his horse trotting down the street looking like a kid whod just played the worlds greatest prank. Ezra debated claiming the animal as his own.
Trouble! Ezra yelled, and then whistled sharply.
The big horse stopped, as though hed been caught with his nose in a feedbag. White foam from the apples hed eaten gathered at his lips, and spittle had landed on his chest and legs. He lowered his head and cocked his hind foot. He knew he was in trouble.
Ezra walked up to his horse, slightly surprised the animal had stopped and acted in the manner he had. There wasnt any doubt that Trouble was a smart horse no doubt at all. Ezra grabbed the lead rope and led his horse to the stables. If the animal couldnt be tied, then hed be stabled, until his training could begin.
As usual, morning arrived too early. While the sun pried its way in through the rustic curtains, Ezra tried to ignore it. It wasnt working. Today was the day he was heading up north to meet up with his mother again. Her last conquest hadnt worked out like shed planned, so shed notified her son. And Ezra, always searching for her approval, agreed to join her.
He rolled out of bed and ran his hands over his face. He needed to get going. He could hear a commotion down on the street and he quietly wondered what was going on. Hopefully his new horse hadnt gotten out and decided to rampage through town. Ezra chuckled to himself. The animal was bored not aggressive or unruly, he just needed more to do, and Ezra had a lot of tricks to teach him.
That poor childs been murdered, an elderly woman gasped, standing with three of her friends. Together they stood on the boardwalk a short distance away from an alley that was now crowded with people. Just a young thing, couldnt be over seventeen.
She and her brother arrived here two days ago, another woman spoke up, they were going west together.
A murder in Shaw I cant believe it.
Ezra furrowed his brow listening to the whispers and watching the people he past down the boardwalk.
Closest lawman round these parts is Sheriff Burger in Jonestown, Mark Sands, the storeowner, replied.
Mary! Ephraim yelled, rushing for the crowd from within the livery. Someone had told him that his sister was the victim. Mary!
Ezra forced himself through the commotion trying to see what had actually happened. He could see Ephraim shoving, and pushing people aside trying to get to his sister or what he thought was his sister. The sound of voices echoing through the air caused confusion, fear, and uncertainty. Women cried, and men stood protectively around the form that lay motionless on the dirty ground. Ezra paused when he saw the sight. Ephraim cried out when he realized it was, in deed, his sister.
Mary had been murdered.
The sight had caused even the hardest of men to turn their eyes. Fathers rushed their daughters away, husbands comforted their wives, and brothers grew angry at the injustice. Ezras stomach turned and he had to spin his head from the view. Blood had soaked through the blue dress Mary had been wearing the day before. Her face had been battered, her bodice ripped shed been raped.
Death happened all the time, and for most people, it wasnt a strange occurrence. Death wasnt avoidable, but when it occurred unnaturally it affected everyone differently, particularly when it happened to someone so innocent. Anyone that could take a life in such a manner wasnt human. How could they be? To take a life of someone so defenseless, so willing to brutalize, and so unnaturally spiteful, wasnt even conceivable to those witnessing the killers accomplishment.
Two men moved in beside Mary, and with Ephraims approval, they carefully placed her on a flat board, covered her in a blanket and moved her toward the undertakers. Her muddied dress hung towards the ground, and like a ghost waving goodbye, her delicate hand fell from its place on the board. Ephraim continued to sit on the ground, unable to move. It wasnt supposed to happen this way.
Ezra sighed, and tried to take a deep breath. Perhaps the old witch that lived behind his uncles plantation had been right. Perhaps Death did walk close to him.
Ezra knew that women werent the epitome of everything that was good. But they were the gentle souls that men cried out for while they lay dying. Who did Mary cry for? Such brutality wasnt deserving of such a person. Nobody deserved the fate she had received.
How could such a monster walk around and not be noticed?
There wasnt much of an investigation. A few questions had been asked, but nothing ever surfaced about the killer. Ephraim was outraged. He wanted the fiend that had done this, but like the mayor of the town had said, the murderer was probably gone.
Ezra saddled his new mount. He was hesitant to leave, while at the same time he couldnt move fast enough. Trouble tossed his head, eager to get going as well. He nickered softly when the barn doors opened and Ephraim walked in carrying his belongings.
Thank you, Ephraim said, and then pulled his four horses from their stalls, for finding the preacher that said those nice things over Marys grave.
It was the least I could do, Ezra responded softly. He wished he could do more. What are your intentions?
Mary had a dream to start a horse ranch in Oregon I figure Ill see that it gets done.
You have my sincerest condolences, Ezra said softly, stepping forward. Your sister seemed to be a very exquisite person.
Ezra nodded and then tipped his hat before leaving the barn. Trouble followed close behind him, ready to leave and discover new exciting things. His ears perked forward and his eyes grew wide. He was unaware of the tragedy that had occurred. Ezra slipped into his saddle and took one last look around the town before gently nudging Troubles sides. The animal seemed to know his new masters thoughts, and like a child yearning to please, he took each step carefully. His long strides were a comfort to the man aboard.
It was the least Trouble could do.
Over the past few years Ezra learned that he didnt like pulling cons. However, Maude thought differently. Whether it was the cotton gin investment, falsifying land deeds, or preaching the gospel with unreligious intentions, cons always seemed to be the easy way out. It wasnt necessarily the lying, or the taking of someones money that bothered Ezra so much. It was, however, the false pride he felt after the swindle was over. Maude pretended to tell him how proud she was of him. But it was only after these cons were pulled that she would tell him such things. And deep in his heart he wanted his mothers approval, he wanted it more than anything.
Maude never took the time to think about anything other than her next move. Like a chess champion, every move was calculated, methodical, and entrusted only to her. Her mind wasnt centered around her sons feelings or thoughts, not that she didnt know he had any, but rather, they were a handicap that needed to be ignored.
The stagecoach rocked back and forth as the wheels seemed to find every hole and crevasse in the road. A dull wind had picked up and Maude did her best not to be bothered by it. Cards flew through her fingers as she watched her son sleep in the seat across from hers. She could hear the sound of the horses feet striking the road as they headed for their destination.
Ezras head lolled to the side, jarring him awake. He rubbed his eyes and stifled a yawn. What? he asked, meeting his mothers eyes.
Maude smiled before turning her attention back to the cards that soared through her fingers. You look like your father. She sighed, realizing how much her son had matured in the last few years. No longer gangly and thin, hed filled out, taking on the appearance of a man. She wasnt going to tell him the things a mother would normally say to their son. She wouldnt tell him that shed been jealous of Cora and his relationship, or that shed been terrified that he was going to die after hed been born. These things would make him weak, and weakness could get him killed.
Ezra nodded, but didnt say anything as he returned his gaze out the window of the coach.
What are your plans? Maude asked, knowing he had no intention of going with her to New Orleans, and shed learn long ago that there wasnt a point in arguing with him. He was as stubborn as his father.
Theres a game in Topeka, Id like to attend.
I do hope you intend to do something more
Some of the best players are going to be there, and
I wasnt discounting you intentions, but I think its important to realize that there are bigger things to accomplish. Maude shook her head, knowingly.
Ezra fingered the curtain that was blocking out the sun. He wondered how his horse was doing, having taken the place of the left rear coach horse. For some reason, Trouble had taken the place of a close friend. Trouble didnt care what Ezra did or said, and the only rewards the horse asked for was affection, and, on occasion the core of his apple.
I suppose you still have the intentions of purchasing a saloon? She looked at her son, anticipating an answer, but she didnt get one. I hope you remember, Ezra, that there are certain appearances that must be maintained.
Ezra rolled his eyes, but didnt say anything.
Maude waved her hand in front of her face and sighed. The dust was driving her mad, and she would much prefer the comfort of a busy city. You can reach me at The Grand Hotel, she said, picking through her purse, Ive made plans to meet a Mr. Jack Sanford. She smiled as though he had already been caught.
Isnt The Grand a little extravagant?
Im not paying. She smiled mischievously. Maude looked out the window and noticed the small town coming into view. She was planning on catching the train, a much more respectable way to travel, and then shed be gone from her sons life again.
Ezra pulled his jacket sleeve down and situated himself on his seat. He knew they were getting close to their destination, and he wanted to look presentable. He was looking forward to a bath, a shave, and a hair cut. The past week had been hard on him. Not just with his mothers unusual quirks, but the thoughts of uncertainty filled his mind. He always tried to act unaffected by peoples opinion of him, particularly his mothers, but every word and question of his character hurt. He rebuffed the insults, false accusations, and lack of trust, with his quick wit and big words. But they all stung, but what caused him the most pain was his mothers lack of acceptance. And once again she was leaving to find another gold mine that shed lose, only to turn around and ask of him what he couldnt give her. His devotion.
The horses came to a stop and Ezra sighed. It was times like these when he missed Cora, and her unconditional love. He missed Benny, and he couldnt bring himself to forgive himself for what he had done. No matter if hed been right. Ezra missed the life he could never go back to.
He missed home.
The saloon bustled with activity. Saloon girls moved through the maze of tables and customers like rats to cheese. An old man tried to make the even older piano sing, but its out-of-tune keys deafened those that were already hard of hearing. Voices grew louder as the noise in the room escalated. Poker chips flung across tables and landed with the slight twang that sounded like music in Ezras ears. Money was being folded and stashed away, coins were being dropped for glasses of libations, and boots scraped across the floor indicating that someone had too much to drink.
Ezra moved through the labyrinth like a pro. His clothing and hat let everyone know he was a gambler. The tails of his coat brushed against the back of his thighs, and his weapons hung perfectly from his body. He knew how to reach them, and how to use them.
Gentlemen, Ezra said with a warm smile, may I join you?
An older man wearing a ten-gallon hat looked Ezra over before nodding. The mans face was covered in old scars and his beard and mustache had come in completely white. Its a two dollar ante, he said, and then started shuffling the cards.
You a riverboat gambler? Another man asked, and then took a drink of his beer.
Not anymore, Ezra replied with a grin.
Just sos you know we might not be able to toss ya overboard, but wes can still shoot ya.
Ill take that under advisement, Ezra said, removing his hat.
Five card draw, duces wild, the dealer said, before dealing.
Names Hank, a young kid said. His blonde hair stood up on end and he hardly looked old enough to be there. That, he pointed to the dealer, is Bobcat Jones
The kid shrugged his shoulders and continued, Thats Big Duke, next to him, and finally the Cap.
Obviously nobody has a real name, Ezra thought, while handling his cards. Ezra Ezra Standish.
Ill take two, Big Duke said, lying two cards face down on the green felted table.
Ezra watched each man carefully. Bobcat Jones liked to pull at his mustache when he bluffed, and when he thought he had a winning hand, hed scratch his left eyebrow. Big Duke had a tendency to play with his beer glass, when he bluffed he drank more, and when his cards looked good hed tap the table top next to the bottom of the glass. Ezra smiled, each man was different, but at the same time, they were all the same. The Cap had the hardest tells to discover, but they were there. And Ezra, like a wolf caught in a trap, continued to gnaw at the problem. It was near the end of the first hour when Ezra caught it, the slight twinge of Caps nose. When he knew he had a solid hand, he knew he didnt have to bluff, so he scratched his nose out of relief. But when he did bluff he held his cigar in his fingers until the hand was finished. Hank was the easiest to discover, he didnt have a poker face at all, but Ezra wasnt going to take advantage of a kid who was only there to learn. This was part of the game. It wasnt just knowing the cards, but rather, the players.
The game was a relatively friendly one, until a table not far from where Ezra and the others were sitting, started to grow loud with an argument. Hank ducked when a bottle of Red Eye was thrown across the room. The glass shattered and contents sprayed in all directions, and like a bomb ready to explode, the room erupted.
Tables were upturned, and chairs flew across the room landing nowhere in particular. Glass shattered, and customers were thrown through the windows. Alcohol soon covered everything from bodies to the floor, and spittoons were emptied unceremoniously on unsuspecting targets.
Ezra hit Duke who was trying to strangle Hank, and then he felt strong arms grab him around his middle. There wasnt anything quite like a saloon brawl. Fists connected with jaws and stomachs, while heads connected with the floor and walls. Ezra wiped his nose and sighed when he saw blood on his fingers. If it wasnt for the fact that his coat was new he would have thought this to be a good fight. But he hated losing his jackets and vests to blood, and more importantly, his blood. The red stains were permanent.
When the back of a chair connected with the right side of Ezras jaw he flew backwards and landed with a thud against the bar. He grabbed his jaw and rolled onto his back. He saw stars for a moment, and then, without much thought, he crawled out the back door. His head felt as though his head weighed a ton, and his mouth was on fire. He could hear the fight inside continuing and it wasnt long before a shot rang out and everything stopped.
Ezra sat on the step debating on whether or not he was going to stand. Blood trickled down his chin landing on his sleeve. Carefully, he placed his handkerchief on his jaw and cringed. His mouth was on fire or at least he felt like it was. He looked up when he saw several patrons moving haphazardly down the boardwalk. Ezra took a deep breath and decided to get back to his room. He needed to know what the damage was to his face and even worse his teeth.
Dr. Owen Carter took a step back from his patient and sighed. That tooth needs to be pulled, he said, knowing the news wasnt going to be good.
Ezra sighed, not the information he wanted to hear. Is there nothing you can do? he asked, trying to keep himself seated.
The doctor looked around his clinic. Nobody was there. Being a dentist was hard enough; most people would let their teeth rot out of their heads before theyd come to him. And when they finally did come, it was usually too late. In turn, this caused his income to be on the small side, to say the least.
From what I can see, the tooth is still secured however, it wont be long before it turns
So Im going to lose it no matter what? Ezra asked, already knowing the answer. Hed taken care of his teeth ever since he was a young boy. Most of the men in his ranks would tease him about it during the war. While others were out looking for food and clothing, Ezra was searching for tooth powder.
There is a procedure I can do
How much? Ezra asked, before allowing the doctor to finish.
Forty dollars, he sighed, knowing the price was too high.
What does it entail?
Doctor Carters eyes glistened. This was the first patient hed ever had that was even willing to listen. Ill cover the tooth in gold by pounding and heating layers onto the existing incisor its a painful process, but well worth it. The hope in his voice was obvious.
Ezra clenched his jaw and nodded. He couldnt go around without a tooth, and even worse a tooth that would turn black after it had gone bad. I try and avoid pain as much as possible, however, in this case I dont think theres any way around it. Ezra leaned forward in his chair and pulled out his pocketbook. He didnt think hed be willing to pay the man after the procedure, so it was better to pay him now.
The doctor smiled and took the cash. Ill just get my instruments.
Ezra leaned back in his chair, hoping and praying that he didnt end up crying like a little boy getting his first hair cut. Appearances were everything, and he needed to keep a certain façade. Unconsciously, he gripped the handles on the chair when the doctor entered the room with a case of supplies.
This was going to hurt.
Trouble bit down on the blanket that was covering the still sleeping form beneath. He pulled the object away from Ezras body and shook his head. It was time to get up.
Ezra reached for his cover. Trouble! he snapped, and then covered himself again.
The horse stood over his master and stomped his foot. The warm sun was out and he wanted to get going. He reached down again and pulled the blanket from Ezras form and then quickly backed away. He wouldnt get it this time.
Ezra sat up in a huff and looked at his horse that seemed to be laughing at him. I can still sell you, he said plainly.
Trouble shook his head and then lifted his upper lip.
He was definitely laughing.
Ezra stood up and slowly started a fire for his coffee. He watched as his horse moved around the campsite, looking for something to do. Trouble was more like a dog than a horse, and he was just as loyal. Ezra had given up trying to tie him, opting to just let the horse walk around free. He never went very far, and he always responded to Ezras whistle or call.
The gold watch glistened in the early morning sun and Ezra shut the cover. It was 7:00 a.m. too early by any standards. Trouble munched quietly on the grass near the creek, and Ezra poured himself a cup of his coffee, spiked, of course with a touch of fine Kentucky whiskey.
Fort Laramie could hardly be called a fort at all. Since its original formation the military post had expanded. It was now a busy town with stores, homes, a school, and of course a church. It was a large place that held people of all kinds from everywhere. Traders, travelers, merchants, and soldiers walked the streets, and called this place home.
Ezra entered the busy saloon and seated himself at a table near the rear door. He was tired, hungry, and in need of a drink. People talked, some argued, glasses hit tabletops splattering beer and whiskey in all directions. Spittoons continued to ring as they were pushed across the wood floors and filled with chew and spit, sometimes more. Poker chips rang like Christmas bells as they were tossed into the center of the table, and cards passed through air. This was the kind of place Ezra felt most at home.
Ezra? a familiar voice asked, stepping closer to the table.
Ezra looked up from his plate of food and furrowed his brow. Can I help you? he asked, unsure of what to expect.
John, the man said, John Carpenter. He stuck his hand out for Ezra to shake. We served together durin Fredericksburg.
Ezra smiled and willingly shook the mans hand and then motioned for him to take a seat at his table. I seem to remembah you had a friend, John?
John nodded: Yeah, after the war we rode togethah for a while, but, well, he shook his head, unsure of how to finish, he always said he wasnt goin to live long. He got run ovah by his plow.
Sorry to heah that, he seemed to be a good sort. Ezra pushed his plate away, no longer hungry as images of his past filled his mind. So, what are you doin so far north?
Huntin the Yankee bastards that killed my pa, John said angrily. They strung him up like a dog and burned our farm to the ground.
Have you found any of them?
Not as yet, John shook his head, but I will. The determination in his voice left no room for doubt.
Im lookin for a few men from Hookers regiment
How do you know? Ezra asked, slightly surprised by Johns bitterness.
My sistah was there she told me everythin, he leaned over the table top, they took her. His eyes pleaded for understanding, and he received it. She died a few months ago, thats why Im here lookin for the monstahs that did it.
Im truly sorry, John.
Are you still gamblin? John asked, changing the subject.
Ezra grinned, exposing his gold tooth. Certainly.
John smiled and leaned back in his chair: You ever think about the war? he asked, suddenly solemn.
I try not to, Ezra admitted.
John nodded and cracked his knuckles. How about a game of cards?
Ezra shook his head, John wasnt any different that himself. He changed his mood like a green horses desire to buck. Ezra removed his playing cards and quickly began shuffling. A friendly game of cards, what else could they do to ease the tension?
Trouble walked patiently toward their next location. Another town, more nameless faces, and, characteristically, another place they wouldnt be able to call home. The hot sun beat down on the pair and Ezra had given up wearing his jacket, opting instead for his crisp white shirt. He flipped his cards between his fingers as though they were an extension of his hand, a part of himself. He stared at the ace of spades, wondering why he was drawn to it. Just like his father had been.
Had his father been a wanted man as well?
Ezra took his hat of briefly to run his fingers through his auburn hair and then he quickly replaced it. Hed jumped bail in Fort Laramie, something hed never expected hed do, but something he was capable of doing. The crime wasnt anything serious. Hed simply paid the twenty dollars to be released from his incarceration, and then fled, before he could be sentenced for a diminutive crime. He hadnt done anything wrong. Well, that was an understatement. Hed pissed off the wrong judge by placing a bet on whether or not Judge Travis had enough nerve to sentence a man to hang for killing his wife.
Obviously the judge hadnt been amused when he heard about the wager.
Judge Orin Travis had jailed Ezra for contempt of court. The gambler didnt find the charge viable, so he paid his bail money and left. Hed been in several towns, seen several court cases, and he knew what the punishment was for a man who killed his wife.
A slap on the hand, sometimes it was worse and a fine was included, but that was usually it.
Ezrad had it, plus hed seen a way to make a little extra cash. What harm was there in that? Except for the fact that the judge hadnt found it amusing. What did the short man with pudgy fingers know anyway? Nothing, as far as Ezra was concerned. John had thought the bet appropriate, but hed managed to get out of town before being arrested.
Trouble perked his ears forward when a town started to appear in the distance. Ezra sighed, perhaps he could acquire a drink, something to eat, and possibly some cash. Surely there were some cowboys there looking for a good game of cards, and if worse came to worse, he could always resort to the blanks in his saddlebag, and pull a con.
It wasnt going to be his first choice, but at least he had one.
In the years hed had to think about his past, he had never thought that this would end up his life. His dreams of San Francisco had, somehow, been reprioritized, and in the process hed lost sight of it. The hope and anticipation of owning his own saloon still rang true in his heart, but for some reason he didnt think hed make it to California. He missed home, the deep rich smells of the Southern winds, and the soft subtle changes of the color green.
Hed fought hard for his country, and lost. Hed killed his best friend, and over the years that day had become a haunting memory, one that would never leave him. No matter what he did to twist and turn his ideals and beliefs, the only constant he had in his life was himself. His ability to play cards, his ability to con, and his desire to keep moving. Perhaps that was his punishment, his hell on earth, forever wondering and never being invited to stay like the Devil himself.
Perhaps one day, when hed be brave enough hed face those Southern Crosses, those uninvited burdens that he carried. Maybe just maybe, hed make it home to see Benny and possibly hed visit the place where his father had died. And then possibly, hed build two simple white crosses to mark those two graves. But until he was ready to face his past, hed fall into his future.
Notes: Insurance policies, though not common, were available. Approximately 60,000 slaves were insured prior to the Civil War. For less than $20.00 a year, and for as much as $1000, a master could insure his slave, and like today, there were conditions for a pay out on the event of the slaves death.
The information I acquired regarding the position the South had during the Civil War I obtained through two books, both of which I highly recommend to anyone more interested in the subject matter.
The Men In Gray: by Robert Catlett Cave
The South Was Right: by James Ronald Kennedy and Walter Donald Kennedy
Next: Enter from the East: - Seven
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