July 2005 Challenge - By Rowan: It's time to get the guys out of the water and into the desert - in the middle of July - injured - always got to have an injury. Any one or all of the guys can be injured and the rest, or the one, needs to save the day.
(Moved to Blackraptor October 2009)
The saloon lay in shadow, the sun having moved far enough west that it no longer shone in through the worn batwing doors. Buck Wilmington had to stop and let his eyes adjust to the gloom as he entered. Most of the tables were empty at this time of day. It was too late for lunch but still too early for an evening of drinking and gambling.
The table in the far corner of the room, the one bathed most deeply in shadow, did have an occupant. Nodding once to himself, it was there that Buck headed.
Ezra Standish did not look up at his approach. Did not move a muscle, in fact. He might as well have been a statue, or Buck an invisible apparition, for all the attention he paid. Were it not for that unnatural stillness there would have been nothing particularly unusual about the scene. Ezra often sat in the saloon, finely dressed and perfectly groomed, sipping a libation and shuffling his cards, smiling and talking amiably with those who passed by as he invited them to share a game or a drink. Today there was no shuffling, no sociability. There was nothing at all.
Well, perhaps not quite nothing, Buck decided, sharp eyes noting the half crumpled piece of paper that lay on the table-top, partially hidden by Ezras interlaced fingers. A telegram.
Outside, Buck had run into JD Dunne, who had informed him that Ezra had received a message earlier that day, the contents of which he had not shared, but which had stopped him cold in the middle of a story hed been relating. JD had told him that Ezra had simply stopped talking, turning away and walking toward the saloon without another word.
Buck still felt a little surprised that JD had asked him to find out what was wrong rather than chasing after Ezra to demand an answer for himself, but then, the kid was sometimes a lot more sensitive than people gave him credit for. Whatever he had seen in Ezras face had convinced him that it was not his place to question.
Probably aint mine either, Buck mused, but he knew that he had to try. Clearing his throat on the off chance that his presence had not been noted, he asked, "You okay?" His voice was a soft rasp, barely audible to his own ears but he did not bother raising it or repeating himself. Something in Ezras manner, that profound stillness, seemed to forbid speaking in a normal tone of voice. "Mind if I join you?"
Ezras shoulders shifted in the barest of shrugs. His eyes raised for a moment then dropped again, as if the weight of maintaining visual contact was too much to bear. Buck winced at the sight. Sadness, stark and terrible, had shone from the depths of those light green eyes.
Not knowing what to say but feeling sure that questions would not be welcome just yet, Buck pulled out a chair and sat, trying to loan the strength of his presence to his oddly fragile-seeming companion. Ezra seemed to appreciate this. The tension in his frame eased a bit, though he made no move to look up or speak. After a few moments, Buck glanced toward the bar and gestured with two fingers, nodding toward his companion at the same time.
Inez had evidently been waiting for just such a signal, for she appeared at the table almost instantly with a bottle of Ezras favorite Kentucky bourbon and two glasses. She set them down without a word, flashing a look of such pity toward the still-silent man that Buck wondered how much she knew about what had driven him here.
Pouring out a couple of shots, Buck pushed one slowly forward until it touched the edge of the paper. Ezra simply stared at the glass for a few seconds, and then shifted to wrap one hand around it, leveling the other out flat atop the telegram as though fearing to lose contact with it. His fingers trembled slightly as he lifted the drink, closed his eyes and knocked it back in a single swallow. Buck poured another without a word when the glass was moved his way and Ezra repeated the gesture, downing the second shot with equal swiftness.
Bucks eyebrows twitched when the glass was held out in silent request for a third shot. The gambler could handle his liquor but he rarely drank more than a sip at a time, creating the façade of keeping up with heavier drinking opponents while maintaining his sobriety and his edge. Today it appeared that his aim was to get blind drunk as fast as humanly possible. After obligingly pouring again, Buck deliberately set the bottle aside, out of reach unless Ezra wanted to stand up and get it. Ezras eyes followed the bottle and while he looked vaguely unhappy, he made no move to pursue it, simply tossing back his drink and setting the glass down.
"You okay?" Buck asked again, a note of gentleness in his voice that seemed to surprise Ezra, for this time when he looked up he did not avert his gaze. A slightly glassy look produced by his quick infusion of alcohol did nothing to hide the pain in his eyes and Bucks breath caught at the sight of that terrible expression. He had seen it enough times in other eyes to recognize it. Ezra was grieving. Gesturing toward the down-turned telegram, he asked, "Your ma?"
Ezra shook his head; lips pressing tightly together, face twisting slightly. Then his features eased, smoothing out into something so bland and calm that Buck could almost believe he had imagined the anguish of a moment before. However, knowing that he had not, he refused to look away and in only seconds the pain became easily visible again. Ezra inhaled deeply, staring intently at Bucks face, and then he slowly pushed the telegram across the table.
Gingerly, Buck picked up the missive, reading the contents silently. Uncle Z dead lung fever funeral Wednesday - my deepest sympathies Emma. Frowning at the brief message, he asked simply, "Who?"
Taking another long breath, Ezra said, "Emma is my cousin. She felt a family obligation to look after her mothers only brother when he became ill and willingly shouldered a burden I that could not bring myself to carry." He paused, casting a longing glance at the bottle sitting beyond his reach, before adding bitterly, "That says a great deal about both of us, doesnt it?"
Putting together the pieces, Buck guessed, "He was your father?"
Ezras head jerked once in a brief nod, then he sighed thankfully as Buck retrieved the bottle and poured each of them another good-sized shot of liquor. Raising his glass, Buck started, "Heres to " then paused, frowning when he realized that he did not know the name of the deceased.
Recognizing his dilemma, Ezra quietly supplied, "Ezekial Pierson." Before Buck could ask, he added, "Standish is Mothers family name."
Buck noted the challenge in Ezras eyes and refused to meet it, simply stating, "Heres to Ezekial Pierson. A good man. May he rest in peace." Saluting Ezra with his glass, Buck downed the shot, feeling the burn of the fine liquor as it passed down through his chest.
Ezra drank the toast somewhat hesitantly, and he could not quite hide the tremor in his voice as his erudition and emotional control both began to fail him. "How? How do you know that he was a good man? I mean, he he was, of course, b-but "
Meeting his pleading eyes squarely, Buck answered, "Youre a good man, Ezra, and its obvious to me that you loved your pa, so I figure he was probably a good man too. Right?"
"Yes," he whispered. Turning his head, Ezra tried vainly to hide the liquid brimming in his eyes. Struggling to affect a normal tone, he said, "You may wish to occupy the rest of your afternoon elsewhere, Mr. Wilmington."
"Why?" he asked gently, expression filling with sympathy as he watched a tear escape to slide down Ezras left cheek.
"Because I fear that I am going to utterly disgrace myself if you dont."
Buck understood perfectly. It wasnt easy to let another man see your weak moments, and it would be especially difficult for someone as proud as Ezra, but Buck also knew how important it was for somebody to be around to pick up the pieces when you fell apart.
Reaching out, he laid one callused hand upon Ezras forearm. "Your secrets safe with me."
Whether it was the touch, the words, or the effect of too much alcohol in too short a time, Ezras stoicism chose that moment to fail him. A sob wrenched free from his throat and he dropped his face into his free hand. Pulling the other arm free of Bucks light grasp, he wrapped it tightly around his middle as his body began to shake.
Buck shot a grateful smile at Inez when he noticed her quietly shooing the saloons few other patrons outside and closing the doors against the outside world to give them a moment of privacy. For a moment, he remained still, allowing the other man to express his grief without intrusion, but soon the terrible isolation in that hunched pose began to bother him and he scooted his chair close enough to wrap an arm around Ezras quivering shoulders. Ezra, surprisingly, made no attempt to move away.
Minutes ticked by slowly, the silence unbroken but for hitching breaths and soft sniffles. Buck made no effort to speak, knowing instinctively that Ezra would probably consider comforting words to be patronizing. Instead, he just waited, occasionally giving the shoulder under his hand a sympathetic squeeze.
Finally Ezras tense muscles began to relax again and Buck heard a very soft, "Damn it," followed by an equally soft hiccup.
With a gentle pat to his back, Buck rose and went to the bar. Inez had once again anticipated his request, holding out a tall glass of water and a cloth. Her eyes held questions but he shook his head. The pretty Mexican saloon manager nodded and whispered, "I will say a prayer for him."
"Thanks, darlin. I reckon maybe he could use one." As he returned to Ezras side, Buck saw that he had pulled a handkerchief out and was attempting to wipe away the evidence of his emotional breakdown. Holding out the damp cloth in his hand, he offered, "Try this one."
Head bobbing once in gratitude, Ezra swiped the cool material over his reddened face and pressed it against his puffy eyes. "Much better, thank you," he murmured. Grimacing as he hiccuped yet again, Ezra sucked in a breath and held it while he slowly drained the glass of water that had been set before him. Noting Bucks observation, he gave a weak smile. "Works every time."
Buck smiled back. "Ill have to remember that." Pulling his chair out so that he sat across from Ezra, he asked seriously, "You feelin any better?"
Long fingers twisting the cloth in his hands, Ezra shrugged, refusing to meet his eyes. "I apologize for subjecting you to such an unseemly display. Im afraid it caught me by surprise."
"Dont worry about it. I reckon itd be a lot more unseemly if you couldnt shed a few tears after losing your pa. He been sick a long time?"
Ezra nodded and blew his nose. His voice still sounded thick and a bit rough as he replied; "He had weak lungs. Four years ago he suffered a bout of pneumonia so severe that his physician didnt expect him to finish out the winter. When he did get better, it was strongly suggested that he move to a drier climate, so he packed up everything he owned and moved to the arid climes of the Sonoran desert. Bought himself a fine patch of scrub and cactus a few miles outside of Wickenburg. Cousin Emma declared he wasnt fit to live alone, so she packed herself and her three children into the first available conveyance and joined him."
"Whyd they go so far?" Buck asked. "I heard you say once that your family is mostly scattered over Georgia and the Carolinas. Wouldnt Texas or maybe Arkansas have been far enough for a little change of scenery?"
"If you had ever met my father, you wouldnt be asking that. Hes always been a very headstrong individual, and given an opportunity to obey his natural streak of wanderlust, he took it. We have that in common, if nothing else." The smile that had started as he spoke abruptly flickered out as he corrected, "That is, we used to have that in common."
Momentarily pressing his handkerchief to his eyes again, Ezra drew a deep breath then deliberately folded the cloth and put it away, seeming determined not to need it any more. "The desert air helped for awhile, I guess, but he never truly recovered. Ive been expecting word of his demise for so long now that I cant imagine why Im reacting so strongly now that its finally happened. It isnt as though we were ever particularly close."
Delaying his answer, Ezra poured another drink, this time taking only a tiny sip before setting the glass back down. "I never saw a great deal of him, growing up. He and Mother evidently shared quite a passionate relationship at one time, but they were not a matched pair, if you take my meaning."
"One of em already married?"
Ezra looked a bit surprised by Bucks quick perception, but nodded. "At the age of seventeen, Ezekial had done the socially accepted thing and married the daughter of his fathers neighbor all arranged by their parents as I am given to understand with the hope of uniting two flourishing plantations into one."
The bitterness in his tone prompted Buck to fill in, "Through the first born child?"
Knocking back the rest of his shot, Ezra set the glass down on the tabletop with a sharp click, then laughed humorlessly. "It seems that my very first act upon this earth was to cause a scandal, simply by coming into existence; a fact of which I was reminded regularly. Not that I understood those odd looks and vicious whispers then.
Anger and old misery colored his words, making Buck grimace. He knew exactly what Ezra was saying and as he thought about the small, confused child that the man across from him must have once been, understanding poured through him. He knew all too well what it was like to have folks hissing comments and pointing at him for a cause he couldnt understand. "Seems you and me got us something in common, then."
Ezra stared at him in confusion for a moment, and then realization struck. "I see. Did you know your father?"
"Nah," Buck told him easily, the years having erased the pain that once been associated with that confession. "He was just some drifter passin through Mas life. She didnt need him, though. She raised me just fine on her own."
A small smile lightened Ezras expression. "Indeed she did."
Buck allowed the moment to linger a beat, then deliberately returned to his original topic. "So, did you ever get to see your pa after your folks ended their uh ?"
"Affair?" he said bluntly. Pouring another fortifying shot of bourbon he continued, "Rarely. Whenever it became inconvenient for Mother to have a child clinging to her skirts, she would arrange to leave me with relatives. Occasionally it would be Aunt Delia or Aunt Sophia, my fathers two sisters, who would look after me. Not always a pleasant experience, for any of us, but those two stalwart females refused to turn their backs on any blood kin, even kin whose very existence was a shame to them."
"And when you stayed with them, your pa would come visit you?" Buck pressed, frowning at the picture the words painted. It sounded as though Ezra had been "inconvenient" quite often. He had always assumed that Ezra and Maude had been an inseparable duo in times past, perhaps because they seemed alike in so many ways. Or maybe because his own mother had been so wonderfully devoted, he had assumed the same to be true of his friends parents.
Unaware of Bucks train of thought, Ezra nodded. "He always appeared very pleased to see me, whenever we would meet. Far happier than Mother ever seemed to be and " He hesitated, then drew a deep breath and admitted, "I asked once why I couldnt stay with him permanently, not realizing that I would be a far greater burden on his life than on Mothers."
Buck shook his head, understanding the implication. He had witnessed for himself Maudes rather cool farewell to her son the last time shed been through town. It had been almost a dismissal and had brought a fleeting look of hurt to Ezras face, which he had quickly covered with a smile. It sounded as if Ezras relationship with his mother had always been somewhat like that. And at the same time to have a father who could not publicly acknowledge his existence? "Hell, thats just not right," he muttered aloud. "So, what happened?"
Instead of answering, Ezra polished off his drink and poured yet another from the bottle in the middle of the table, turning away slightly as he did so. His body language made it clear that, for the moment at least; he was done talking about his past.
Well, Buck was a patient man when he needed to be and he knew that there would be another time to pursue this subject, so instead he asked, "You got any idea where Chris might be?"
Ezra blinked at the sudden switch. "No, why?"
"Cause I need to let him know were gonna be gone for awhile." He glanced at the telegrams message again. "We wont make the funeral, it looks like. Sorry about that, Ezra. Still, late is better than not at all."
Ezra frowned uncertainly. "Late?"
"Sure. I figure you can go see the grave and pay your respects, even if you cant be at the service," Buck said matter-of-factly.
"You want me to go you want us to go to Wickenburg? Thats 300 miles from here," he said dubiously, clearly sure that Buck was not grasping the significance of what he proposed.
Buck simply nodded. "Sure, I know. Made a little bit of news a few years back when some German fella struck gold there." He smiled. "Sounds about like the kind of town a Standish sorry, pal a Pierson would settle down in. Id kind of like to see it."
As Ezra continued to stare at him, Buck went on, "Its not that far. If we get an early start tomorrow, we can ride down to Cedar Ridge in time to flag down the C&A stage heading south. They claim to make 200 some miles a day, so that means its only a couple days travel to Wickenburg."
"Plus several hours ride south through the desert," Ezra said slowly, frowning heavily as though not entirely sure he and Buck were speaking the same language. "Its not a pleasant journey."
"You been there very often?"
Shame colored Ezras face at the question. "Only twice. I know I should have returned more often but it it was not a pleasant journey," he repeated, voice dropping away slightly on the last word.
Buck had a feeling that Ezra referred to the destination more than the traveling, but he could see that now was not the time to ask. Removing the depleted bottle of bourbon from his friends slack grip, Buck stood and handed it back to Inez with a nod, then levered Ezra out of his chair.
When Ezra teetered, the rapidly consumed alcohol rushing to his head with the motion, Buck easily steadied him. "Lets get you upstairs to pack some duds. Then you can get an early start on a good nights sleep, while I go track down Chris and send a wire to your cousin to let her know were coming."
Ezra reluctantly pressed his crumpled telegram into Bucks hand. Hesitating a moment, he swallowed and said, "Buck, I I cant...I dont know how to "
"Youd do the same for me," Buck replied easily, deliberately interrupting the fumbling expression of gratitude with a conciliatory pat on Ezras shoulder as he helped him toward the stairs.
Chris Larabee raised no word of protest at the announcement that two of his men would be leaving town for several days. The gravity in Bucks eyes and voice told him that this was no simple request for time off to gamble and carouse, but something more important. "You all right?" he asked instead. "Both of you?"
"I am, and Im hoping that Ezra will be by the time we get back," Buck said frankly.
"Anything you want to tell me?"
With a shrug, Buck replied, "If this was just me, old dog, Id tell you. But it aint my place to talk about another mans business, especially when Im pretty sure he dont want it shared."
Chris accepted that reasoning easily. "Figure Ezra needs some looking after, do you?" He smiled, reading the familiar determination on his friends face with the ease of many years practice. "Take good care of him, then. Wire if youll be longer than a week or two."
A slow easy smile lit Bucks handsome face. "No fear of that. Ezra wont fuss over losing out on seven dollars, but two weeks with no pay and not much chance to make it up at the tables and hell turn meaner than a rattler with bad sunburn. You think I want to deal with that any longer than I have to?"
Chris nodded, understanding implicitly that in spite of his teasing, Buck was ready to see Ezra through whatever trouble was on him whether it took one week or a full fifty two. "Sunup?" he asked simply.
Smoothing down his dark mustache, Buck nodded. "Yep. Ezra wont be happy, especially with the hangover hes bound to be nursin, but I expect hell manage. See you then?"
"Well be there," Chris promised, including the towns other four peacekeepers in his declaration. Two of the towns regulators heading out for a few days would not normally be cause for excitement, but this was clearly a serious matter. If the boys knew that one of their own needed a little support, they would come no questions asked.
Satisfied, Buck tugged his hat brim and sauntered down the boardwalk toward the general store. Theyd be needing a few extra supplies.
"Put some of this aloe paste I made up on your skin if you're riding out in the open during the heat of the day. Oh, and make sure you keep your hats on and drink lots of water every chance you get when youre there. You both got extra canteens?"
Buck smiled as he accepted the large jar of greenish cream that Nathan Jackson was holding out to him. "We were just figuring to split one between us. You really think we'll need another canteen?"
For a second, Nathan looked outraged, and then he reluctantly chuckled as Buck continued to grin at him. "Sorry. Just take care, all right?"
"Your show of concern is much appreciated," Ezra said quietly. Looking around at his riding companion and the other five men gathered on the boardwalk outside the livery stable, he gave a slow nod, including them all in that statement. Visibly steeling himself he continued, "I suppose youd like to know what this is all about."
Head shakes and other small negating gestures answered the faltering question. Only JD spoke aloud, his tone equal parts request for information and permission not to give it. "Buck said you'd fill us in when you're ready."
There was a pause as Ezra considered this, his fingers fidgeting and tugging at the cuffs of his jacket, revealing more about his distracted state of mind than he likely intended. Finally, he said, "Youre sure you dont mind?"
"Go take care of what you got to, pard," Vin told him easily. "Aint our business til you want it to be. Sure you dont want a couple more of us goin with you, though? Aint no trouble."
Ezra swallowed and averted his gaze to the fingers of his right hand, which he had unintentionally clenched around his saddle horn at the offer. "No, no thank you, Mr. Tanner. Your offer is most kind, but Im sure that we can manage on our own."
"If you change your mind " Josiah Sanchez told him softly, laying a large callused hand upon his arm. Buck and Ezra both indicated their understanding of the unspoken words. If they needed the others, at any time, they had only to ask. Satisfied, Josiah smiled and added, "Then God go with you, my friends."
Ezra did not speak again until he and Buck were well outside the limits of the small town they called home. "Thank you for your discretion, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck looked over at him, riding tall and a bit stiffly in his saddle. Ezra had given little sign of suffering this morning, other than a wince and slight grunt upon walking out into the early morning sunlight. His demeanor had been casual, almost uncaring, and that alone had been enough to tell Buck that his friend was embarrassed, possibly over his drinking binge of the prior afternoon, but more likely for having had a witness to his emotional breakdown.
"No problem," he said easily. "Didnt figure you were ready to have this out in the open yet. The others know it, too. Theyll talk a mile trying to figure out whats eatin you, but they wont butt in."
"I suppose youre right," Ezra agreed slowly, "and Im sure that I can trust Miss Recillos to keep what she witnessed to herself as well."
He sighed softly and Buck asked, "Youre not thinking something stupid, are you? Like, that maybe Inezll think less you less of a man because she saw you cry yesterday?"
Ezras eyes widened, and he seemed about to protest, but then decided, "No, I suppose she wouldnt."
"Right," Buck said firmly, "and neither do I. Thatd go for Chris or Josiah or any of the others if theyd been in my place too. We all know how much it hurts to lose somebody close to you, even when youve grown apart from em. Nobodys going to think less of you for grieving, and thats a guarantee you can take to the bank. Now here, its a damn hot day already, so you better put some of this goop on your face before Nathan rides out here, gets a look at you and starts hollering at us both."
Tossing the jar of aloe paste to Ezra, Buck kicked his horse into a faster pace to give his friend a few moments alone. Hed let his words sink in for a bit and also give Ezra the chance to pretend that the sudden infusion of color to his cheeks had been caused by the sun and not by those same caring words.
"Lord, I feel like I belong in that box of dried fruit Mrs. Potter was displaying in her store window yesterday," Ezra groaned as he stretched out the knots in his back garnered from a long jostling ride in a crowded stagecoach. "I swear, Id no more take a sip of liquid today than it would double in quantity and pour from my body in the form of perspiration."
Buck smiled at the complaints, glad to hear them. All day long, Ezra had been abnormally quiet, struggling with a hangover and lost in his own thoughts as they traveled through hills, valleys and long stretches of bare parched land. Buck had left him alone for the most part, not wanting to intrude. For entertainment he had carried on a series of lively conversations with the conveyances other six passengers, all the while watching Ezra who sat crushed miserably in the corner of the bench seat next to him. In deference to the four women riding with them, and the comfort of his own long legs, Buck had elected to sit on the floor between the rows. It wasnt too clean down there, but at least a man could move a little.
They had arrived in Cedar Ridge in good time that morning, catching the California and Arizona stage line just as it was about to pull out for its weekly trip south. The stage had traveled nonstop all day except for a few brief stretches to allow for a change of horses and a visit to the outhouse for the passengers. Buck had been glad to see that the coach wasnt going to be overly crowded. Eight people was pretty tight living for the middle of summer, but he had seen coaches stuffed with twice as many passengers riding on the top, sides and anywhere else the driver could put them for the sake of a few extra fares.
"Know what you mean," Buck said, raising his hands high above his head and stretching out a kink in his shoulders. Pulling the sweat-stiffened material of his dark blue shirt away from his chest, he declared, "I mustve lost a bucket or two today, for sure. If I couldve wrung myself out, Ill bet I couldve made another great salt lake, like they got over Utah way."
"Well, perhaps if the air hadnt been parching you dry again two seconds after youd exuded the moisture, you could have," Ezra said tartly. "At any rate, I am thankful for the temporary secession of heat and movement this station provides, even if well have to face the same conditions tomorrow."
Pulling out his bedroll, Ezra arranged it neatly on the floorboards and sat down heavily, rubbing at his neck. "I was rather hoping we might get a chance at a decent bed tonight, but it appears that was far too much to expect."
Buck put his own bedding in order and lowered himself into a chair to take off his boots. "Youre not fooling me a bit. No way youd be ungentlemanly enough to take one of the bunks when them ladies were needing a good nights rest."
The southerner shrugged, but a sly smile played over his lips. "Pity for you I didnt. Those poorly constructed planks would collapse into a pile of splinters if anyone were to dare place the weight of two people on them. It looks as though the ladies are quite safe from your advances tonight and youll have to make due with your lonely bedroll."
Buck laughed loudly, quieting only when an annoyed "Shhh!" sounded from across the room where two of their fellow travelers were settling down for the night. "Reckon Ill live," he whispered good-naturedly. "Say, you want some jerky or something? I noticed you skipped out on that stew they served us for dinner."
"Im not hungry," Ezra said with a deep sigh as he finished removing his weapons, boots and vest and laid down on his bedroll. "Far from it. Im merely exhausted from todays trek through the inferno."
"You probably ought to at least have some water. You took a few swallows from your flask this afternoon but not much else. Ought to put some of what you sweated out this afternoon back inside your body."
Ezra deliberately placed his dusty black hat over his eyes. "Im fine. I swear, sometimes you are worse than Mr. Jackson!" Feeling the weight of Bucks gaze boring into him, or perhaps a bit disturbed at his own rudeness toward a man who did not have to be out in this desolate country with him at all, Ezra tipped the hat back up. "I promise to have something to eat in the morning. Will that satisfy you?"
Grinning, Buck coaxed, "Sure you dont want to eat now? I bought a couple cans of those peaches Mrs. Potter got in before we left. Got em right here in my bag."
"In the morning," he repeated flatly. Dropping the hat back down, he added, "If you save me some peaches to have with breakfast, I might be persuaded to do the cooking the next time we find ourselves out on the trail."
Buck Wilmington was no fool. Ezra might not be much of an outdoorsman, but he was a hell of a good campfire cook. Probably due to the little jars of spices that he kept tucked away in his saddlebags to disguise what he called the "distressingly low culinary standards" of the west. "For some of that fancy southern cooking of yours, Ill find you a whole tree full of peaches!" he declared happily.
Unexpectedly, the corners of Ezras mouth turned down at the joke. Just as Buck was trying to decide what he had said and if he should apologize for saying it, Ezra spoke. "I was just a little boy, about four years old I think, the first time I was sent to stay at Aunt Sophias house in Georgia. Her brother my father, came out to visit a couple of weeks after I arrived and he ended up staying for the whole summer."
Not wanting to break the moment, Buck remained quiet, hoping Ezra would continue and after a moment of silence, he did.
"Aunt Sophia had a peach orchard and my father used to take me out there each morning and hold me up high, so that I could reach the fruit. Most of the crop would go for canning and preserves, but the peaches that the two of us picked were reserved for special things. For pies, or cobblers, or just to eat in glorious freshness right off the trees." His Adams-apple bobbed as he gave a convulsive swallow. Then he said so quietly that Buck had to lean closer to hear, "Strange that Id remember that now, so many years after the fact."
Without another word, Ezra rolled onto his side away from Buck, pulling the blanket tightly around him. Buck watched him for a long moment, then said quietly, "Memories like that are too special to put away forever. Im glad you got some nice recollections of your pa, Ezra. Thats important. Specially now."
There was no response from the huddled figure across the room.
Morning arrived all too early at the way-station. The sounds of someone chopping wood and clanking stove lids as breakfast was started woke Buck to the fact that he was hungry. Getting up out of his blankets proved to him that he was also stiff and sore after a day spent bumping on the floor of a stagecoach and a night on a thinly padded floor. "Must be getting soft," he grunted.
"If thats true, then you may be the only soft thing in this entire edifice," Ezra replied grumpily as he worked to extricate himself from his own blankets. "I swear that they built these floors with stones rather than wood planks."
Noting that Ezra winced as he rose and bent forward to pick his valise up off the floor, Buck asked him, "Neck still bothering you?"
Ezra looked surprised at the observation. Rolling his head from side to side, he winced and agreed, "Some. Mostly Im just suffering from a God-awful headache.
"You trying for the record in longest lasting hangovers? Hate to tell you this Ezra, but I figure Chris has got you beat by at least a day or so."
Ezra glowered for a moment, and then smirked. "I concede that he does get in a great deal more practice than I do." Placing both hands around the back of his neck, he rubbed at it trying to release some of the tension. With a deep sigh, he muttered, "Wont this just be a grand day."
"It's only a headache," Ezra said again. "I must admit, however, that I'm tempted to claim some malady that would necessitate staying right here or better yet turning back the way we came and forgetting we ever started on this miserable journey."
Buck felt a rush of shame wash over him. "I never did really ask whether you wanted to go on this trip, did I? Just sort of assumed, given how strong you reacted to the news in that telegram, that you did. You werent exactly in a condition to argue the point though." Taking a step closer, he said, "Im sorry."
Ezra shrugged off the concern. "You have nothing to apologize for." He paused for a moment, then licked his lips and said, "On the contrary, I should thank you for taking charge in a moment when I was not strong enough to do so myself."
Studying him carefully to judge the sincerity of the words, Buck smiled. "Well, in that case, youre welcome. You feel ready for some breakfast?"
"The only thing I am ready for at this moment, Mr. Wilmington, is a little water, which I will use to help eradicate the itch of whiskers from my skin and the taste of sand from my mouth."
"What about coffee?" Buck persisted, noticing that a coffeepot was heating on the now lit stove.
Ezra paused thoughtfully. "That, I would welcome."
"Ill get us some, soon as its ready," Buck offered cheerfully, glad to see that Ezras mood seemed to be improving just a bit.
Going outside to tend to his own needs, Buck thought about their situation once more. According to the schedule hed seen at the stage office in Cedar Ridge, they were due to reach Wickenburg by early evening. Ezra would wish to be in full control of his emotions before confronting his cousins, but Buck hoped that if he could keep him in an affable mood before then, he might just relax enough to talk some more about his past.
Grieving was a hard thing to deal with at the best of times. Grieving for a father you hadnt really known, or had maybe known just well enough to miss, must be a hell of a thing. Probably why Ezra wasnt feeling well. "Must be what Nathan calls a tension headache," he muttered as he walked back inside the station.
Ezra, face half covered in shaving lather, glanced up. "Excuse me?"
"Just talking to myself," he said lightly. "Wondering what Nate would recommend for a bad headache."
Shrugging one shoulder, Ezra guessed, "Probably a dose of that vile tea he insists on pouring down our throats at the slightest opportunity."
"I probably have some in my pack if you want it," Buck offered. "Nathan made up some medical supplies for us in case we ran into any trouble while we were gone."
Ezra licked his lips and made a face, as though he could taste the medicine just from the mere mention of it. "I believe my head feels better already, thank you. What do you say we leave our good healers bag of tricks undisturbed until one of us finds himself at deaths door?"
Bucks laughter rang through the room, bringing smiles to the faces of his fellow stage travelers as they emerged, ready to face the new day. "If it comes down to a choice between drinking more of that tea and meeting with Saint Peter, I think I might just prefer to take me some harp lessons!"
"I dont know that Id look so bad in a pair of wings myself," Ezra quipped.
Pouring out two cups of coffee from the pot on the stove, Buck took a sip from his and closed his eyes blissfully. Hot and strong, just the way he liked it. "Now thats the way to start up a morning!"
Ezra took a careful sip from the cup Buck handed to him. "A little strong," he commented, "but certainly acceptable." Setting his drink down, he continued scraping away the light coating of whiskers.
"So," Buck said conversationally, slouching back against the corner of the stations rough-hewn dining table. "Whats this place that were going to like? You never really said whether your pa had a farm, a ranch or even a goldmine. Just that it was a ways outside of town."
Ignoring the question long enough to finish his task and take a careful check of his face in a small cracked mirror mounted on the wall, Ezra finally told him, "A ranch; or an amusing imitation of one, at any rate. My father purchased a small cattle ranch from a Mexican family when he came west, one whose scrubby desert plant life was barely enough to sustain a herd large enough to feed the family every year." Wiping his cheeks with a towel, Ezra set about straightening his sleeves and settling his string tie into perfect order around his collar. "Fortunately for them all, he had enough money from other ventures to provide them with the other necessities and a few luxuries. I suppose theyve all been quite content living out in that wasteland, watching the tumbleweeds pass by, but that kind of life is not for me."
"Nah," Buck said. "You need a more predictable kind of life. Revenge seeking families in armored wagons, cheatin one-legged poker players, folks comin through to loot and sack the town every now and again, that kind of stuff."
Ezra grinned, causing his gold canine tooth to gleam in the dim light. "All that and a grand fortune of seven dollars a week. How could anyone pass up such an opportunity?"
"Hell of a way to live," Buck agreed with a chuckle.
The growing heat of the day and the steady sway of the coach as it traveled over flat desert ground on its southwesterly course had a lulling effect on most of the passengers. The four women all succumbed to the need for sleep a bare two hours into the journey. For a while the men fared better, but soon Buck and Ezras two fellow male passengers, a father and son, also fell into a heavy slumber, leaving them more or less alone.
"I can switch places with you if youd care for a nap."
Ezras offer, so casually made, shocked Buck. Ezra Standish, willingly occupying a dirty stagecoach floor? Maybe he really was sick
Obviously reading the thought in his expression, Ezra raised a rueful eyebrow. "I doubt I could become any filthier than the rolling dust and layers of accumulated sweat from this journey have already made me. If youd like to sleep for awhile, Im quite willing to offer you the comfort of a seat."
Struggling to hide his reaction, Buck smiled. "I appreciate that, Ez, but Im okay where I am. Wouldnt mind talkin for a bit, though, if youre not tired."
For a moment, Ezra looked doubtful, but then he heaved a soft sigh and nodded. "I suppose you must have questions."
"A few," Buck said readily. "Id like to hear some about your cousins before I meet them; and Id like to know more about you and your pa."
He almost qualified the second statement with the words, "if youre willing", but some instinct held him back. Ezra needed to talk about this, but he didnt really want to. If he were offered a way out, he would take it. Maybe it was rude to push, but Buck Wilmington had never been too concerned with good manners when observing the proprieties got in the way of love or friendship. So, he held his gaze steady on Ezras face, silently encouraging him to begin.
Ezra fortified himself with a sip from his flask before he said, "Of my cousins, there is little I can tell you. Emma is a widow; mother of one son and two daughters, and quite a formidable and independent woman if the few times Ive met her were anything to go by. She is my Aunt Delias only daughter.
"And Delias was your pas sister," Buck confirmed.
"Correct. They were separated by more than a decade and their sister Sophia was older still. There had been a number of prematurely deceased children born before my father came along," Ezra clarified, "and he was evidently the last hope for an heir to his parents estate, which is why he was pressed into early marriage. To secure the line."
The sarcasm in Ezras tone was unmistakable, telling Buck that there was little love lost between him and his paternal relatives.
Ezra went on, "Emma was fourteen the first time we met, while I was a mere tot. Her behavior was polite enough, I suppose, but I can still remember her pointed disapproval of my presence in her parents home. Looking back, I believe she felt that having her uncles," he took a quick glance around at the sleeping women before continuing in a softer tone, "bastard in the house would somehow contaminate them all."
Buck nodded, familiar with the attitude. "Never understood reasoning like that. Aint like a little innocent kid is responsible for what his folks did before he came along. So, what made Emma change her mind about you and your pa?"
"What makes you think she did?"
"Well, you said she came out this way voluntarily to tend him when he got sick," Buck reasoned. "Seems like she must not have held his past against him."
"Against him, no," Ezra said, "but she never particularly warmed toward me. She had been something of a pet of my fathers while growing up and apparently she couldnt bear to hold his mistake against him. He was her uncle but they were only separated in age by ten years and she looked up to him. I imagine it would have been too great a disappointment to allow her hero to fall from his pedestal. I was a more convenient target."
"But it wasnt your fault!" Buck protested hotly.
Ezra closed his eyes briefly. "No, it wasnt, but human emotion is rarely rational when choosing those we love or hate." His eyes opened, meeting Bucks outraged blue ones, and he smiled, recognizing that Bucks defensive instincts had been roused by the implication of unfair treatment toward one of his friends. "Despite her disapproval of me, Emma has been kind enough to keep me informed as to my fathers condition over the last few years, and Im grateful to her for that. Had it been left to him, I would never have known the depth of his illness. He always insisted that he was hale and hearty and making plans for the future on the rare occasions that we exchanged correspondence."
"Maybe he just didnt want you to worry," Buck suggested gently, seeing the flash of pain in Ezras pale eyes. "Or maybe not liking anyone to make a fuss when youre ailin is just another thing you two had in common."
Ezra looked thoughtful, as though that idea had never occurred to him before. "I suppose its possible."
"Of course it is," Buck said firmly. "As for Emma, as least that telegram she sent was pretty cordial; wishing you deepest sympathy and all."
At this, Ezra smirked. "Good manners would not allow for anything less. Her mother was a great proponent of proper etiquette and doing ones duty, and she would surely have come back to haunt my cousin if she had shirked it."
Buck gave an amused snort. "Im beginning to think I would have liked your aunt. Sounds like a feisty old girl."
"She wasnt the easiest person to get along with," Ezra said. "She had little patience for the mischief and mishaps of a small child, but there was a deep vein of kindness running through her. Nettie Wells actually reminds me a great deal of Aunt Delia."
A delighted chuckle rose from the man on the coach floor. "Well, that explains a lot. Maybe you should tell Vin about her some time."
"Perhaps, I will." Giving an impatient tug at his tie, worn along with his black mourning coat in spite of the heat because there were ladies present and appearances must be maintained, Ezra shifted in his seat. "Ive always assumed that Cousin Emmas dislike for me stemmed partly from her loyalty to my fathers late wife. They were good friends, or so Ive been told. Rose Pierson sadly passed away delivering the last of four stillborn children just a few months after I was born, which left all of their relatives in a rather uncomfortable situation."
A low whistle was Bucks response as he thought over the implications. "So, they had to acknowledge you as one of their own, in spite of the way youd come into the family, huh?"
"Either that, or wait for Ezekial to marry again and hopefully produce one or two legitimate sons. Unfortunately for them, he refused to be forced into another wedding and neither of his sisters had produced any boys, so they were forced to live with the situation for more than a decade."
"Until?" Buck said curiously.
"Until Emma wed and delivered a boy within the first year of her marriage."
"And is this boy one of the ones were due to meet?" Buck found that he was having a little trouble with the idea that some of the people in Ezras narrative were living just a few hundred miles of his home. In the little less than two years Buck had known him, Ezra had only ever referred to his family in the broadest of terms, his tone somehow implying that all of them were long gone and best forgotten.
"Freddy? Yes, I suppose so." Ezra frowned thoughtfully, lowering his chin so that his hat hid most of his face. "He must be about eighteen now, so he may very well have struck out on his own. My fathers last letter mentioned something about him wanting to go away to school. He was very proud of Freddy for that ambition, proud that he would become the first member of the family legitimate or otherwise - to attend college."
Buck shifted, trying to get a better look at Ezras face. There was regret in that last statement, particularly the qualifying remark. "Did he want you to go?"
Ezra lifted his shoulders in the barest of shrugs. "He may have. I really dont know. We had lost contact with each other by the time I was old enough for the matter to be of any significance. I was busy traveling the country with Mother. She had just deserted her third or fourth husband, taking a sizable fortune with her, and we were free to do as we pleased."
Which meant running cons and gambling from coast to coast like the well-honed team they were, but with Maude calling all the shots. Buck could read between the lines, and he had long since realized that it had only been in settling down in Four Corners and signing on as one of the peacekeeping team there that Ezra had finally declared his independence from his mother. Ezra was smart and seemed pretty well educated, but there had probably been little time or consideration in his life for such things as college.
Buck decided to divert the topic a little. "Your pa ever remarry?"
"No," Ezra told him. "Im not sure why. He certainly had opportunities. He always spoke fondly of his late wife, however, so perhaps he remained loyal to her memory."
Buck frowned. "Well, what about Maude? Maybe he was in love with her all these years."
This time, Ezra actually laughed. "I hardly think so. She certainly never seemed to harbor any particular sentiment towards him. He was nothing more than a source of potentially wealthy connections that she could access through her connection to me. He should have resented her thoroughly."
"You know what they say, though. Love is blind."
"Well, for his sake, Mr. Wilmington, I hope that you are wrong. No matter how he may have felt about Mother, that ship had long since sailed."
Buck had his doubts, but he made no argument. "So in a way your cousin and her youngns living with him way out here has been kind of like a second chance at home and family."
If he had not been watching for it, Buck would have missed the fleeting expression of resentment that crossed Ezras face before he smoothly replied, "I suppose it has; for all of them."
"Whatever happened to your grandparents plan to have your pa or your cousin Freddy take over for em when they got old?" Lowering his voice a bit, he guessed, "The war?"
"Yes," Ezra said softly. "As it turned out, none of their assorted machinations for bequeathing land and property to future generations amounted to anything. They lost everything they had during the war. Not just material goods, either. Illness and privation ravaged their family and the families of their children until now, with Ezekials death, Emma and her offspring are all that is left of the once proud Piersons."
"Theres you," Buck reminded him firmly. "No matter what happened in the past, or how much water has gone under the bridge, youre a part of that family too."
Pretending not to notice the sudden rapid blinking of Ezras eyes, Buck fell silent, staring out the window across from him for a few minutes before saying casually, "Sure is a scorcher today. Not even noon yet and I already feel hotter than a roasted rabbit."
Grasping the safe topic like a life preserver, Ezra agreed, "Indeed. The heat and monotony of the scenery outside are tempting me to join our traveling companions in a short nap."
Buck accepted the fact that their conversation was over for now. Tugging up the canteen hed been holding balanced between his booted feet, he took a gulp of the water inside before passing it up to Ezra. "Have a slug of this first."
"Thank you," he said, taking a healthy swallow then grimacing at the warmth of the liquid as it washed down his throat. Passing it back, he sighed, "Rather makes you long for a cold beer, doesnt it?"
Buck took another sip. "Sure does. Well have to hunt one up in Wickenburg before heading out to your cousins place. Maybe get us a bath too, fore we go meeting up with those fine young ladies."
Ezra narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "May I remind you that those fine ladies are kin to me, and somewhat younger than even you should be looking to for company? Ruth and Hannah are only fourteen and fifteen years old, respectively."
"Ah, but what about Emma?" Buck reminded him, with a suggestive hitch of his eyebrows. "A lonely widow woman, living out there in the middle of nowhere with nary a friendly face to be seen for miles "
"Mr. Wilmington, if you go any further with that thought, I may be forced to challenge your fledgling skills as a duelist again," Ezra responded with a hint of a smile in his voice.
Buck grinned at him; glad to see his attempt at lightening the mood had worked. "Cant blame a man for trying." Pulling his hat down over his eyes, Buck adjusted his back more firmly against the coach door. "Reckon Ill take me a little siesta too."
Despite his declaration, Buck was not yet ready to sleep. For a long time, he simply listened to the sound of Ezras quiet breathing, punctuated with an occasional deep sigh. When at last, he heard the other man shift around and settle against the wall with a muttered oath for the discomfort of his position, Buck relaxed his vigilant guardianship and allowed himself to drift off.
"Wickenburg!" the driver bellowed, as the stage began to slow its frantic pace at last.
Buck sat up straight, rolled his neck and worked a hand behind him to press against his lower back. A satisfying crunch sounded as several vertebrae moved back into proper alignment. "Never seen the beat of these folks for a speedy journey, but I feel like a slab of meat that's been attacked by a hammer."
"I concur," Ezra said with a grunt as he too attempted to stretch cramped muscles. The other passengers were doing the same, all obviously relieved to have reached, if not the end of their journey, at least a place to get out and move freely for a few hours. The stage would be stopping here overnight before moving on to the next leg of its journey into California.
As the coach thundered to a halt inside the town limits, the driver unstrapped the luggage and began flinging bags down to someone waiting on the outside to receive them. Someone else lowered the coach steps and opened the door with practiced efficiency, standing ready to help the ladies down from their perch.
Buck and Ezra, on the far side of the conveyance, waited until everyone else had disembarked before stepping outside. As they moved to collect their carpetbags from the luggage piling up on the boardwalk outside the stage depot, Ezra took a look around, glanced at the position of the sun overhead and frowned. "We've made excellent time," he observed, sounding none too happy about it.
"Not too late to set out for your cousin's place," Buck commented. "There's a few hours of daylight left yet."
"What about the bath and libations you wanted to procure once we reached town?" Ezra reminded him. "Early as we are, we've still surely missed the funeral by now, so I doubt it would hurt anything to wait until we're each a bit more rested and presentable before heading out to pay our respects. Besides, they may not welcome the presence of overnight guests at such a time, which we would almost certainly become if we were to venture out now."
The tone was casual and the reasoning sound, but Buck was experienced enough at deciphering Ezra's speech and mannerisms to recognize that he was all but begging for a short reprieve before facing up to his father's absence and the presence of four potentially disapproving relatives.
"You come for Ezekial Pierson's funeral?" a voice asked from behind them, cutting off Buck's intended response. He turned to find a young man studying them. He was about twenty, maybe a bit younger, with pale blue eyes, a short sturdy build and unruly dark curls framing an intense square-jawed face.
Buck smiled and held out a hand, which was automatically shaken by the stranger, and said, "Matter of fact, we have. My name's Buck Wilmington and this is my friend-"
"Ezra!" the youth interrupted, eyes widening as Ezra finally turned around to face him.
Brushing dust off the sleeves of his black coat, Ezra stepped forward. His features were schooled into a carefully neutral expression as he said, "Hello, Freddy." Glancing at Buck, he gestured toward the shocked stranger. "Mr. Wilmington, this is my cousin, Freddy."
"Fred," he said firmly, a note of warning in his voice. "Everyone calls me Fred now."
Ezra nodded. "Forgive me, I hadn't realized. Fred Edmonds is Cousin Emma's only son." Facing the young man again, he told him, "I wasnt sure I would see you this trip. Id heard you were considering going away to school."
Fred looked down at the ground, expression darkening. "I was, but then Uncle Z got sick again, real bad this time. I figured college could wait, while he maybe couldnt. It seems I was right." He looked up, challenge clear in his eyes. "I wasnt sure wed be seeing you again at all."
"Neither was I," Ezra replied softly, briefly closing his eyes against some sudden emotion. Taking a deep breath to settle his composure, he asked, "How is it that youre here in town? Was the funeral not held at your place today?"
"It was, this morning, but Mama sent me into town to drop off Parson Long and..." Impatiently cutting off his explanation, he demanded, "Why are you here?"
Refusing to show offense at the question, Ezra told him, "Your mother sent me a telegram."
The young man snorted. "I mightve known. She always humored my uncle whenever hed start going on about you. You couldnt even be bothered to visit more than once in the last three years, but now that hes dead youre here to find out whether he left anything of value behind, right?"
Seeing the muscles in Ezras jaw twitch as he clenched his teeth, a sure sign that his temper was rising in the face of this continuing rudeness, Buck laid a calming hand on his shoulder and said, "Youre wrong, boy. Youre cousin here just figured hed like to come and pay his respects to his father." He deliberately emphasized the family relationship a bit and was rewarded by a flush of color in the boys face. "And if youre wondering what Im doing here, well, thats simple. Im Ezras friend and I figured he might need one of those about now. You got a problem with that?"
Shifting uncomfortably under the pointed blue stare blazing down on him from a good eight inches above his head, Fred backed down. "Mama asked me to meet the stage coming in. Said there might be someone on it needing a guide to our place. I never figured she meant you."
"Would you have come if shed told you?" Ezra asked pointedly.
Instead of answering, the young man spun on his heel and walked away, clearly not caring if they followed or not.
Meeting Bucks gaze, Ezra gave him an apologetic shrug. "I tried to warn you that my presence might not be warmly welcomed."
Picking up both carpetbags, Buck nudged Ezra with one. "We better go before junior decides to leave us standing here. Maybe the women wont be so bad."
"Or maybe theyll be worse," Ezra growled, but nonetheless started walking in the direction his cousin had taken.
It was a long journey out to the ranch and necessarily slow due to the fact that Fred was driving a buggy not built for great speed over uneven terrain. Ezra and Buck had rented horses from a livery stable in town and Ezras surly young cousin seemed happy not to have to share his conveyance with anything more than their luggage. He made no effort to speak to either of his new companions, and so the three traveled mostly in silence.
If the weather had been hot before, it was like an oven now as they ventured mile after mile into the desert. All good intentions aside, Buck was grateful that he didnt share in his friends stubborn insistence on gentlemanly attire. He was sweating like a pig in his plain cotton shirt and blue bandanna. How much worse must Ezra feel with his shirt covered by a vest, tie and black wool jacket?
The gambler was not complaining, but Buck could tell by the way he kept his head down and his movements to a minimum that he was suffering. The only thing that shifted regularly were Ezras hands, the right occasionally moving to pull the whiskey flask from his jacket pocket for sips of Dutch courage, and the left repeatedly adjusting the fit of his low black hat. Nudging his horse a bit closer, Buck asked quietly, "Headache worse?"
"Wretched," he murmured back. "It had gone away for a time, but now the pounding in my skull has redoubled its rhythm to the point that I feel almost nauseous."
A bit surprised by the frank reply, Buck asked him, "You want to stop for a few minutes, take a rest?"
"No. If this visit is to be anything but torturous, it is imperative that I show no sign of weakness. Besides, theres nothing to be done until we reach Ace High. When we arrive, I would appreciate it if you would request a chance to brew some of that tea you said Nathan gave you."
"Sure," he replied unhappily. Damn Ezra and his insistence on maintaining appearances at all times anyway! Watching him take another small sip from his flask, Buck shook his head. Well, at least Ezra was getting fluids, if nothing else. Knowing there was no use in arguing Buck took a swallow of warm water from his canteen and returned his voice to normal levels as he asked, "Ace High?"
Fred, evidently assuming that the question was directed at him, joined the conversation. "Uncle Z named the ranch that when he first bought it. Had a special brand made up in the shape of a spade. You know, like the Ace of Spades? He claimed that was the best card in the deck and that itd bring luck to the family some day." He spared a glance at Ezra and said, "I always figured you must have told him that. Some kind of gamblers nonsense."
"I never did," Ezra denied, his surprise clear. "I knew he had called it that, but I had no idea where the name originated."
The young man shrugged and turned back around to concentrate on the horses, clearly not believing him. Buck grinned to himself. He believed it and he was delighted by the explanation. Apparently, no matter how seldom he had seen his only son through the years, Pierson had been proud of him and now, whether he chose to acknowledge it or not, Ezra knew it too.
The three men traveled along in resumed silence for another forty-five minutes, when Ezra suddenly lurched in his saddle, losing his grip on the reins and nearly falling. His horse danced a bit and then, responding instinctively to the sudden lack of instruction from its rider, stopped.
"Hold up!" Buck bellowed at Fred, pulling his own mount to a halt and vaulting out of the saddle just in time to steady Ezra as he began to slide toward the burning soil at their feet. "Are you all right?"
Ezra stared into his face, looking oddly confused. "I I " Giving up on verbalizing, he simply shook his head.
Looking over his shoulder to see a bewildered looking Fred standing behind him, Buck snapped, "Give me a hand here, boy."
Fred responded to the command instinctively, hurrying forward to steady the horse as Buck pulled an unprotesting Ezra from his saddle and maneuvered him over to the buggy, lifting him into the padded seat so that the vehicles extended cloth top could offer some shade.
"What happened to him?" Fred asked with a note of confusion.
"Help me get him out of this stuff," Buck ordered, ignoring the question as he yanked Ezras tie loose and wrestled the dark material of his coat off his shoulders.
Fred obligingly climbed back into the buggy and worked the sleeves free, tossing the coat over the back of the seat.
With fingers made deft by much practice removing intricate feminine clothing, Buck unfastened Ezras derringer rig then unbuttoned his dark brocade vest. Leaving Fred to work the vest and overlying shoulder holster off Ezras body, Buck then went to work on the small, closely spaced buttons of his white lawn shirt. "God damn it!" he burst out as the garment finally came open.
"What?" Fred demanded nervously.
Buck clenched his hands around the shirt, untucking it from Ezras waistband with a single firm pull. "This shirt is dry as a bone."
"So, that means hes not sweating," Buck told him impatiently. "And if hes not sweating, then he aint been cooling off at all. Feel his skin. Its so hot it feels like you could fry an egg on it, but his face is pale as a corpses."
Looking into his cousins eyes, which were dilated and rolling confusedly around, Fred finally caught up to what Buck had already realized. "Heatstroke?"
Buck gave a terse nod, not having time to devote to further explanation. Damn it, hed known Ezra was overdressed. Fool probably hadnt been drinking enough water either. Hed practically ignored the canteen on his saddle in favor of taking sips of booze from his flask. Buck had known he wasnt feeling well. Why hadnt he insisted they stop, or at least told Ezra to take off that stupid coat? "I need some water."
Now that he knew what they were dealing with, Fred had already anticipated the request, jumping out of the buggy and running to get both of the two canteens hanging from Ezras saddle. "This one feels almost full," he commented as he handed one over. The second he opened, pulling his cousins loosened shirt free of his body and soaking the material with water before draping it back over his shoulders. "Thisll help."
"Thanks, kid," Buck said, pulling the bandanna free from around his own neck and soaking it as well before placing it around the back of Ezras. Leveling the canteen to Ezras lips, he ordered him, "Take a slug of this."
Disoriented by the overheated blood pulsing through his brain, Ezra refused, turning his head and weakly pushing the canteen away with an incoherent sound of protest.
"Why wont he take it?" Fred asked with a frown. "One of my sisters got a case of heatstroke a couple of years ago and when Mama offered her water, she couldnt get enough of it. We had to force her to slow down."
Buck tried again, sighing in frustration when his friend again refused to swallow. "I dont know. All I know for sure is that weve got to get him cooled off, and pronto, or wont be alive long enough to worry about it. How much further is it to your place?"
"About another half hour due south, the speed weve been going."
"Can you ride a horse?"
"A horse. Can you ride?" Buck repeated impatiently.
The young man bristled. "Of course I can."
"Good," Buck said. "Then I need you to hop up on one of the horses and ride out to your place as fast as you can make it. Let your ma know whats happened and that well need some cold rags and a place to lay him down as quick as she can get em together."
"Why me? Why cant you go?"
"Ill be right behind you." Seeing that the boy was about to protest again, Buck snapped, "Your ma dont know me and I aint leaving Ezra. Youve got to be the one to go. Now hurry the hell up and quit arguing!"
Fred looked momentarily rebellious, but then Ezra suddenly gasped, his body jerking forward in a frightening spasm and then slumping back against the seat of the buggy as he fell unconscious. Freds narrowed blue eyes widened in shock, and he turned, leaping up onto Ezras surprised mount and striking his heels hard against its flanks as he galloped off, all refusal forgotten.
Buck watched him go for a moment, not particularly sorry to see the back of him. He had enough trouble on his hands without dealing with a brat. Knowing there wasnt a whole lot else he could do to cool Ezra off out here, Buck took a swallow from the nearly full canteen in his hand, then lifted it to pour a stream of liquid over Ezras face and head, scrubbing the moisture into his hair. Hed seen victims of heatstroke before, and had been told that cooling off the scalp and neck would go farther than anything else toward revitalizing the victim. Prying Ezras mouth open, Buck then poured a little water inside and held it closed, pinching his nose shut to force a reflexive swallow. He repeated the action twice more, praying that it wasnt already too late.
"Reckon thatll have to do for now," he muttered, settling Ezras limp form more firmly against the seat, then jumping down to secure his horse to the back of the vehicle. Satisfied that he had done all he could on his own, Buck got back into the buggy, picked up the reins and snapped them hard, shouting, "Hyah!"
The startled team of horses leapt into motion, taking off in a gallop across the arid terrain. The buggy lurched and bucked but held steady as they raced along toward help. Buck alternated between driving, shouting encouragement to the horses to go faster, and keeping an eye on Ezra who jerked and jostled unaware in the seat beside him.
Even with their increased pace, it still seemed to take an eternity before Buck saw what he had been looking for. A neat little adobe house surrounded by a few outbuildings and corrals rising out of the desert floor like an incongruous but welcome oasis. Lifting a little ways out of his seat, Buck snapped the reins again, coaxing just a little more speed from the tired horses. "Cmon, you beautiful sons of bitches, give me all youve got!"
As they drew closer, Buck could see a woman standing on the stone porch of the adobe, waving him in. He pulled the reins, slowing down and finally coming to a neat stop in front of the house. "Buck Wilmington, maam," he said with a hasty nod.
"Emma Edmonds," she said, in equally hasty introduction. "How long has he been unconscious?"
"Hes been out for a good twenty minutes or more. We gotta get him cooled off, fast."
Casting a quick but appraising eye over the newcomer, the woman said, "Pick him up and follow me. My son told me what happened and weve got a cool bath waiting in the back bedroom."
Grateful for the womans efficiency, Buck hastened to obey, securing the buggy and hurrying around to the other side to lift Ezras unconscious form into his arms. Following the woman into the house, which felt blessedly cool after several hours under the beating sun, he soon found himself in a small dimly lit bedroom, where a large copper tub had been brought in and filled halfway with water.
"Put him on the bed," the woman told him, shutting the door behind her. Nudging Buck out of her way, she quickly jerked Ezras boots off his feet, following this action by briskly stripping the unconscious man of his socks, pants and even underwear, his shirt having already fallen away from its loose draping around his shoulders. Boldly running her hands over his body, the woman frowned and shook her head. "Burning up. Put him right in that tub, Mr. Wilmington."
"Yes, maam," Buck said, jumping to obey the crisp order. Sternly ignoring the oddity of the situation, Buck slid his arms under Ezras knees and shoulders and carefully lifted him into the bathtub.
"This water is nice and cool," the woman told him, kneeling down beside the tub and picking up a tin cup that had been on the floor beside it, which she used to scoop up a cupful of water, pouring it carefully over Ezras head and chest. She repeated the motion several times before continuing, "We have a well out beyond the house thats nice and deep and runs cold even out here. It was a terrible chore to dig but its been a blessing to us. We always keep a barrel of water down in the root cellar as well, for emergencies. Heat like this takes folks by surprise, even when theyve lived with it for a while. This summer has been hotter than any weve experienced since moving out this way, I think."
Nerves soothed by the calm action and matter of fact words delivered in the womans smooth southern drawl, Buck smiled. "I hope you wont take this the wrong way, maam, but Im glad youve had some experience with this."
A pair of very familiar looking eyes rose to meet his. "You cant help but get experience living out here. Had he been drinking something other than water today?"
Buck was a bit startled by the question. "He took a few sips from his flask. Had a real bad headache all day and I guess he was hoping thatd help until he could get his hands on some better medicine. Why?"
She sighed, "Because alcohol seems to make things worse. Dries a man out faster than if he hadnt been drinking anything at all."
Interesting, Buck thought. Hed have to ask Nathan if there was anything to that idea when they got back home. He watched Emma work for several minutes, joining her in scooping handfuls of water up over Ezras face and head. Then Emma set the cup down and rolled her sleeves up a bit farther, placing a hand under Ezras armpit and then dropping it lower under the water, causing Bucks eyebrows to raise at the familiarity.
Emma saw his expression and smiled for the first time, a trace of color staining her cheeks. "I apologize if Ive shocked you, Mr. Wilmington. Ive had training as a nurse and so I know how to check certain areas of the body that naturally retain heat. I need to make certain that his body has cooled off sufficiently before we let him out of the tub."
"Oh," he said hollowly, stunned but at the same time grateful that the lady hadnt asked him to check for her. There were some things that friendship just didnt cover. "So, uh, how did it feel um, I mean, that is, hows he doing?"
Amusement showing clearly in her eyes, she rose to her feet, wiping her damp hands on her apron. "Hes improving, but it will take a little more time. Ill have Freddy bring in some more cold water."
"Thank you, maam," Buck said. "I reckon youve saved his life."
Emma looked at Ezras face, studying it as though noticing his identity for the first time. "I would do as much for anyone, Mr. Wilmington, and Ezra is...family."
Without another word, she turned and strode from the room, shutting the door firmly behind her.
A few minutes later, there was a thumping knock on the door. When Buck opened it, he found Fred on the other side balancing two full buckets of water in his hands. "Cmon in," he said, opening the door all the way.
The young man set one of his burdens down on the floor and poured the other into the tub. "He woken up at all, yet?"
Noting that he actually sounded concerned, Buck said, "Not really. Sort of groaned a little and fidgeted around but thats all."
"Hell come around soon then." Raising himself up a bit at Bucks questioning look, he said, "My father was a doctor. He taught me a bit before he passed away."
Buck nodded. "When was that?"
"Six years ago." Fred seemed to deflate a little. "Lung fever, just like Uncle Z."
Picking up the other bucket, Buck poured it into the tub, careful not to let the rising water spill over the side. "Im sorry. I guess I didnt have time to say so before, but Im real sorry about your uncle too. Ezra tells me he was a good man."
Fred seemed surprised. "He was. Always treated my sisters and me as though we were his own."
Suddenly feeling a great deal more compassionate toward this boy, who had just lost the second father figure in his life, Buck said, "Would you mind getting your ma? She was going to let me know how long to leave Ezra in this cold water bath."
Looking grateful to be released from further conversation, Fred hurried out to get his mother.
When Emma returned, she was carrying two pillows, a couple of large towels and what looked to be a newspaper. Briskly drawing back the sheet and quilt from atop the bed, she placed both pillows at the foot and draped the towels over the entire surface. Then, a few minutes later she checked Ezras temperature again and said approvingly, "He feels much cooler now. You can bring him over here." Once again, Buck lifted Ezra from the tub, placing him atop the protected surface while Emma lifted his legs up to rest on the pillows. "It will help his circulation," she commented.
"Shouldnt we cover him up?" Buck asked, a little uncomfortable on Ezras behalf.
"Im afraid not," she said kindly. "We need to keep him cool until were sure hes fully recovered. Meanwhile, just fan him with this for a little while."
Buck accepted the newspaper she offered, snapping it out stiffly before wafting it back and forth above the other mans supine form. "I hope you know that you owe me big for this, Ez," he muttered.
As though responding to the threat, Ezra shifted slightly, his eyes fluttering open a moment later. Blinking in confusion, he stared up at Buck who grinned and fanned harder. "Buck?" he croaked. "What?"
"Welcome back," Buck crowed, happy to see sense in those eyes again. "How you feelin?"
"Fine," he replied uncertainly. "Where ?"
"You passed out on the trail, Pard. Sunstroke. We made it to your Cousin Emmas house just in time." He gestured with his chin to where Emma was standing, waiting.
Ezra blinked again and frowned. Then his eyes traveled down to see what Buck was looking at and he gasped, suddenly putting together that there was a woman in the room and that he was lying on a bed completely naked. Hands flailing out to his sides, he grabbed the discarded sheet and flung it over his body.
Emma just as resolutely tore it back off, grasping Ezras wrist when he made another try for it. "Stop that," she scolded. "Its far too late to worry about your modesty and right now you have more important things to think about. Now be a good boy and Ill go get you something to drink."
To Ezras obvious astonishment, she patted him on the cheek, then spun on her heel and left the room. Noticing his fingers snaking out to grab the cover again, Buck laughed. "I wouldnt if I were you. I think that lady means business."
Unhappy but apparently still too disoriented to put up a fight against two people, Ezras hand dropped. "Shumiliating," he mumbled.
"Maybe it is," Buck agreed, still energetically fanning, "but she saved your life. You were about ten minutes away from being boiled leather when we got here."
Ezra frowned. "I remember feeling sick hot. Then everything just faded."
While Buck was giving him a rundown on the events hed missed, Emma returned. Ezras fingers again twitched toward the sheet but settled for clenching around the fabric as he tried to ignore his situation. Emma certainly gave no sign of discomfort as she sat down on the bed beside him. Setting down a glass and cup on the bedside table, she lifted Ezras head so that he could drink, offering the contents of the cup first.
Ezra made a face as he took his first swallow. "Ugh," he grunted. "I would know that vile flavor anywhere. Willow bark?"
Emma smiled. "Mr. Wilmington told me youd been suffering from a headache. This will help." She set the cup down as he finished and replaced it at his lips with the water glass.
"Good lord," he exclaimed, spluttering as he got a mouthful of the contents. "What on earth is this?"
"Cool well water, with some salt and sugar stirred in," Emma told him briskly. "You need to replace your fluids and the salt and sugar will help you do so more quickly. Now, drink."
He obeyed but made no effort to hide his unhappiness. "Disgusting."
"Quit whining," Buck told him, enjoying the scene more than he felt he should. "Shes only trying to help. You havent even thanked the lady."
Shooting Buck a glare that promised thorough retribution, he said, "Forgive me, Cousin. I do thank you for all that youve done."
Emma smiled. "I appreciate that, Ezra, but as I told your friend here, its only as much as I would expect to do for family." She patted him again, on the shoulder this time. "The sun is setting so the house will cool off quickly now. You just stay in here and rest and tomorrow well talk."
Ezra finished his water, unable to prevent a yawn as he settled back against his pillow. He was asleep almost as soon as his eyes closed. Watching him, Buck cast a worried look toward Emma. "Is he all right?" he asked softly.
"Yes," she replied. "The tea I gave him was a little more than just headache powder. He needs to rest and let his system get back to normal. I was afraid he would insist on trying to get up if I didnt take the choice out of his hands. His father was very stubborn about doing what was best for his health."
"Hes the same way," Buck told her. Probably wont be too happy if he finds out you gave him something to make him sleep, but I aint gonna tell him. You want me to help you get that tub out of here?"
She shook her head. "We may as well leave it here until morning. Heatstroke can cause the bodys temperature to fluctuate for a while, so we may need it again."
Buck nodded his understanding, but asked hopefully, "Think its safe to cover him up now?"
"His skin feels much cooler, so I think its safe," she agreed, drawing the sheet across Ezras body as she stood. "Poor boy, he mustve been terribly embarrassed, but it had to be done."
Buck could not prevent a low laugh, imaging Ezras reaction if he had heard himself being described in such a manner. "Youre quite a woman, Mrs. Edmonds," he said warmly.
As had many a woman before her, Emma blushed with pleasure at the honest admiration in his eyes. "Thank you, Mr. Wilmington. Come out to the kitchen when youre ready and Ill get you something to eat. You must be starved after your long journey."
"Yes, maam," he agreed enthusiastically. When she had left, he checked Ezra over with his eyes, needing to satisfy himself that he was sleeping peacefully and safely on the road to recovery. Noticing the discarded clothing lying untidily on the bed and floor, Buck impulsively picked the items up and folded them, laying everything in a neat pile on the bedside table. Satisfied with his good deed, he left Ezra to his dreams.
The sound of agitated feminine voices greeted Buck as he emerged, shutting the door softly behind him. Two young girls were talking animatedly to Emma, both begging for a chance to see Ezra for a moment.
"Girls, girls!" the woman said, raising her voice to be heard above the din. "You mustnt shout. It isnt ladylike." The girls subsided but kept their pleading gazes fixed on her, prompting her to say, "Ive told you, your cousin is resting and mustnt be disturbed this evening. Do you remember the time you suffered heat prostration, Ruthie?"
The smaller of the two auburn-haired young women gave up the fight, sitting down abruptly in one of the chairs set around a table by the east-facing window. "Yes, Mama. Its just that we havent seen Cousin Ezra in so long."
"And one more night isnt going to make any difference," Emma said firmly, casting a stern gaze upon them both. The other girl sighed gustily and joined her sister at the table. Looking up, Emma noticed Buck standing awkwardly by the door. "Girls, theres someone Id like you to meet. This is Mr. Wilmington. Hes a friend of your cousin. Mr. Wilmington, these are my daughters, Ruth and Hannah."
Putting on his best smile, Buck stepped forward, sweeping his hat off as he offered a courtly bow to the ladies. "Well now, its not often that a man is fortunate enough to come across a garden full of such sweet pretty flowers out in the middle of the desert," he declared. Looking each of them in the eye, he captured a hand and laid a soft kiss upon each ladys knuckles. Both of the girls blushed and giggled, while Emma merely shook her head at his smooth talk, unable to keep from smiling at his antics.
"Its very nice to meet you, sir," the taller girl said politely, her green eyes sparkling with enjoyment at the attention. "Would you like to join us? We were just about to have supper."
"Now how could any man refuse such a lovely offer?" he returned. Then, glancing down, he asked, "Is there someplace I can wash up first, though?"
Emma looked immediately apologetic. "Yes, of course. Forgive me. Ive had my son put your bags in the back bedroom. Let me get you some water and a towel."
Suiting action to words, she bustled about filling a large pitcher from the kitchen water pump and leading him back into the room one door beyond where Ezra lay. "I need to fill the pitcher in Ezras room as well," she decided. "Hell likely be very thirsty when he wakes and he needs to take in plenty of water for the next day or so."
Buck had quickly decided that, no matter what sort of family difficulties Ezra had had with this woman in years past, he liked Emma Edmonds. "Appreciate it, maam. Ill be right out." As soon as he was alone, Buck took the opportunity to change his shirt and clean a little of the accumulated dirt and sweat from his skin. Feeling sure that the women would appreciate it, he also took a few minutes to shave away the two-day accumulation of beard from his face.
Stopping just long enough to transfer Ezras carpetbag to his room, Buck returned to the kitchen to find Emma and her daughters busily setting the table and placing several delicious smelling dishes down. "Anything I can do to help, maam?"
Emma looked a trifle shocked at his offer. "Oh, no. Thank you for offer, Mr. Wilmington, but the girls and I can handle everything. Please, sit down."
Accepting the seat she had motioned toward, Buck smiled, rising again to help the girls into their seats as they came in to join him. Fred, who had come back inside at his mother's call, rolled his eyes at the gesture but nonetheless followed suit and pulled out his mothers chair, earning himself a surprised but approving smile.
"Sure smells good, maam. I thank you for offering me a place at your table," Buck said politely, deliberately exhibiting his best manners.
"Youre quite welcome," she replied cordially. The family bowed their heads and Buck followed suit, hastily pulling his hand back from a dish of potatoes he had begun to reach for as Emma began to speak. "Dear Lord, we thank you for the bounty you have placed before us and for the company of our long absent cousin and his friend within our walls. We have sent Home one special to us today, but you soften the blow by bringing these other souls to bless us with their company. We thank you for this gift. Amen."
"Amen," the three teenagers echoed dutifully.
Bucks reply was mumbled, not quite knowing how to respond to such an unexpected declaration. His discomfort was alleviated by Ruth, who passed him the dish of potatoes and asked a question she had clearly been holding back by sheer force of will.
"How long have you known Ezra, Mr. Wilmington?"
"First of all, my name is Buck and I want you all to feel free to use it."
The girls giggled and looked to their mother for permission. "Well," she said thoughtfully. "I suppose that would be all right, if its what you prefer. Are you sure you wont find it disrespectful?"
"Not a bit," he assured them. "Ezra calls me Mr. Wilmington sometimes, but mostly just when hes trying to get my goat. Pardon the expression, maam."
She smiled. "Certainly, but if all of us are to call you by your given name, then you must do the same. Please, call me Emma."
He grinned. "Happy to." Turning back to Ruth, he continued, "Now, you wanted to know how long Ive known your cousin?"
"Yes, please," she said eagerly. Beside her, Hannah nodded a show of equal interest. Fred looked bored but nonetheless appeared to listen closely.
Buck thought for a moment. "Let me see. Its been about two months shy of two years. We met when him and me and five other men were hired to protect an Indian village from a band of crazy ex-soldiers who didnt seem to have got the message that their General had long since surrendered and ended the war."
"They were Confederate?" Emma asked in surprise.
The question sharply reminded Buck that this family was from the south and had probably lost men on that side of the fighting. "Im afraid so. They couldve been from either side, though, for all it mattered. Their colonel, a fella named Anderson, was crazy. He was using the loyalty his men felt for him to send them raiding through innocent villages looking for treasure. This particular village had a gold mine on their land. Completely played out, but incentive enough to bring those boys swarming over the countryside looking to steal control of it."
"And you and Ezra protected the villagers from these men?" Ruth clarified, her light blue eyes shining. "Just seven of you?"
"Well, we didnt do it all alone. The villagers were a fine bunch of folks and they pitched in wherever they could to protect their homes and each other." Knowing what the family really wanted to hear, Buck heightened the drama in his tone as he went on, "Your cousin, though, he was a force to be reckoned with. Hed got separated from the rest of us when Andersons men came through and all of us were captured but him. Some men wouldve turned tail and never looked back when facing odds like that, but not ol Ezra. He flummoxed the whole bunch of em by pretending to be one of their own men and sneaking back into the village. Got their attention long enough for a couple of us to get free, then snuck back up the hill where Anderson had left a cannon sitting. Blew a big hole right in the middle of their party."
"Ezra was an artillery officer during the war," Fred said with a nod, taking a huge bite of his steak. "Hes good at blowing things up."
"Dont talk with your mouth full," Emma scolded automatically. "Go on, Mr. Wilm I beg your pardon, Buck."
Buck smiled, hiding his satisfaction at having found an answer to something he had long suspected. Ezra never had mentioned what, if anything, he had done during the war. "Yes, maam. Well, that was just about the end of that problem. Colonel Anderson was killed making a one-man charge against us. What were left of his men disbanded after that and the seven of us all went back to the little town where wed first been hired. Turned out they needed some law there and since there was a little too much excitement going on for just one or two men to handle, the local circuit judge offered us all a thirty day job looking after the place. Thirty days turned into a couple of months, then it just kept on from there. Weve all settled in pretty well over the last couple of years. Maybe not permanent, but good enough for now."
"Seven disparate souls brought together by the hand of Fate to form a unique and formidable brotherhood," Ruth said dramatically, quoting a line Buck instantly recognized.
"Jock Steele," he groaned. "Mercy, aint there anyplace that book of his hasnt made it to?"
"Ive read it three times," the girl confessed proudly. "A family friend saw it in a store in Saint Louis and recognized Ezra. He sent a copy to Uncle Z and he " She stopped suddenly, her happy mood deflating at the mention of her absent uncle.
Compassionately, Buck laid a hand on her arm. "Its all right, darlin. Your uncle would be happy to know you remember the happy times you had together." Looking around the table to include them all, he said, "Ezrad probably like to hear about some of those times too, if youre willing."
"If Ezra wanted to remember happy times with Uncle Z, maybe he shouldve considered being around for some of them," Fred snarled, flinging his napkin onto his plate and standing in a sudden show of anger.
"Fred!" Emma scolded. "That is completely uncalled for, and no way to behave in front of a guest. Sit down and finish your dinner."
Ignoring his mothers order, the young man walked to the front door and slammed his way out, leaving three subdued and embarrassed ladies behind him. "Im terribly sorry," Emma said quietly. "Freddy has been having a difficult time with all thats happened."
"Dont you worry about it," Buck said, his tone kind. "Its hard to lose somebody you loved and looked up to. I know that and so does Ezra. In fact, I was just telling him the same thing a couple of days ago."
"Was Ezra very sorry to hear about Uncle Z?" Hannah asked quietly.
Buck nodded. "Yeah, sweetheart, he was. Reckon his heart just about broke when he got your Mamas telegram. I think even he was surprised to find out how much it hurt."
"Im glad," she said, then quickly amended, "Oh, I dont mean Im glad he was hurting. Just that Im glad he cared so much. My uncle loved him, you see, and it just wouldnt have been right if Ezra didnt love him back."
The rest of the meal was subdued and finished as quickly as decorum would allow. As soon as it was over and the dishes done, the girls both went to bed, tired after a long and emotional day. Fred had come back inside a few minutes earlier, grunting a not very sincere sounding apology to Buck, and then he too had gone to bed, leaving Buck and Emma alone.
The two sat companionably at the large kitchen table sipping at cups of freshly brewed coffee. Silence reigned for several minutes. Then Buck gathered his courage and asked the question that had been preying on his mind for the last two days. "Emma, I dont mean to be rude, but can you tell me what happened between you folks and Ezra? It sounded like youd all kind of moved past the trouble surrounding his birth, so what was it that drove him away?"
Emma had stiffened at the question and her eyes flashed as she looked up. Buck was struck by her resemblance to Ezra. It was certainly obvious from which side of the family his expressive catlike green eyes had come. "He told you about that?"
"Yes, maam, he did," Buck said softly. "See, he knew I wouldnt hold a thing like that against him."
"Whereas we did," she finished, lips pursing in irritation. Tossing her head, she admitted, "That is unfortunately true, and not something Im particularly proud of after all these years. At the time it was a subject of great embarrassment and scandal for my family. It was bad enough that my uncle, the only son of a socially prominent plantation owner and husband to a fine young lady, should have had an affair. That he would father a child out of wedlock during that relationship and openly declare that child his son was adding insult to injury. I know that the circumstances of his birth were not Ezras fault, but to us he was a living reminder of my familys disgrace."
"So nobody would give him a chance," Buck concluded. He had already learned most of this from his conversation with Ezra, but somehow hearing it confirmed from the other side made the situation just seem all that much sadder.
Emma dropped her gaze to her fingers, twisting fretfully atop the table. "My grandparents never forgave their son for disgracing the family and they refused to allow his son into their home. My parents and my Aunt Sophia wanted to at least meet the boy before making up their minds."
"And they did?" Buck prompted.
"They did, after arguing the matter over at every single family function and get together for three long years. My mother got things moving by inviting my uncle to bring Ezra to a family picnic without telling anyone. Confronted with the issue in flesh in blood, there was little that any of us could do to deny his existence, particularly given his resemblance."
Surprising Buck, she rose abruptly from her chair and left the room. Just as he began to wonder whether she had deserted him for good, she returned with something clutched in her hands. It was a framed photograph, a bit yellowed with age but still clear.
"My father had a friend who was interested in picture-taking," she said. "He had been invited to come to the picnic that day and take some shots of the family. I suspect it was no accident that Ezra somehow ended up in some of the pictures, leaving a lasting reminder of his presence."
Buck accepted the frame, studying the image within its borders with great interest. He smiled at the sight of a pretty woman, who looked very much like Emma, holding a small boy in her lap. The curly haired child in the photograph stared solemnly up at the woman, his chubby hands resting atop her interlaced fingers, which held him securely in her lap. Their hair, their eyes and even the shape of their noses was the same. If he hadnt known better, Buck would have sworn he was looking at a mother and son. "He sure was a cute little cuss," Buck chuckled, reluctantly handing back the picture. "Is this your mother?"
"Yes. She was very fond of Ezra, right from the beginning, though she wasnt the type to show it openly."
Buck nodded. "Ezra told me she was a real kind lady."
"Im glad he remembers her that way," Emma told him, smiling slightly. "I am not proud to admit it, Mr. Wilmington, but I am an extremely stubborn person. I disapproved of Ezra, of his presence among my family, and I refused to see what it was Mother found so charming about him. I didnt see him again for almost a year after the day this picture was taken. I knew that he had spent some time with my uncle and my Aunt Sophia, but he usually spent time in the custody of his mother. Id almost managed to convince myself that he didnt even exist."
"Out of sight, out of mind," Buck said sourly, not bothering to hide his disappointment in her attitude. It was one he was uncomfortably familiar with, having grown up in a house of ill repute. Some of the girls and most of the customers had treated him like a piece of the furniture or like a dog that could be given a bowl of food and a pat on the head and forgotten.
For a moment, Emma looked angry, but she quickly recaptured her composure as she continued her narrative. "My parents fostered Ezra for several months the year I turned seventeen. I dont know if it was his constant presence, or the fact that I had matured, but I suddenly found that I didnt mind him so much. He was about seven years old then, and he was the quietest child I ever saw. He liked to sit in a corner and watch me as I sewed or played the piano and I unexpectedly found myself growing rather fond of him." She shook her head. "I suppose he must have been drawn to me because he missed his mother."
Buck nodded. "Yeah, Maude isnt exactly what anybody would call maternal, but those two are real close in their own strange way."
"You know her?" Emma asked in surprise.
He shrugged. "Weve met a few times. She blows through town every few months or so, turns everybodys life upside down, then leaves again. Drives Ezra crazy, but he loves her, so he just puts up with her as best he can. Guess theyve always been that way."
"Yes, I suppose so. That woman is the boldest creature it has ever been my misfortune to meet. It seemed to bother her not one speck that she had had an improper relationship with my uncle. She had since married some other poor fool and was having the time of her life traveling the countryside and engaging in further scandalous behavior."
Emma suddenly reminded Buck of an angry hen, feathers ruffled and beak ready to peck something or someone. He could just imagine how this seemingly well-bred woman would have reacted to someone like Maude, with her selfish ways and unapologetic delight in the lures of drinking, gambling and hoodwinking honest folk.
A strong surge of pity for Ezra suddenly washed over Buck as he imagined how it must have felt to be shuffled among the homes of relatives he barely knew, all of whom loathed and disapproved of the one person he loved more than anyone else.
"So, is that what drove the wedge between Ezra and his pa?" he asked quietly, drawing his own conclusion from the clues he had discovered. "Maude?"
"I suppose it was. Heaven only knows what that woman must have told Ezra about our family. She didnt send him to us very often, no more than once every two or three years. Each time he came, he was a little more distant, a little more openly resentful of his father for not keeping in touch. As though that was possible, never knowing where the boy was for more than a week at a time!"
"Did he try?" Buck asked pointedly.
Emma shifted uncomfortably. "I suppose he must have. I dont know for certain. All I know is that Ezra seemed to feel that Ezekial owed him something, an attitude that Im quite sure was fostered by his mother. My uncle had been unwell for some time. Hed had an attack of bronchitis that had lasted through the winter just prior to Ezras final visit. Ezra was fifteen at the time and I suspect he was not ready for what occurred. I wasnt there then, having married and moved away, but I was later told that the two of them had had a terrible fight. My uncle had come close to dying that winter and he was feeling the pressure of his mortality. He felt that Ezra should be glad to accept his place in the family and begin learning to take over the responsibilities in case the worst were to happen."
"And Ezra was mad as hell that a family whod never seemed to want him for his own sake suddenly found some value in him now that they needed him for something," Buck concluded. He snorted softly. Some things just never changed and even by that young age, Ezra had probably had about as much of that cheap form of love as he cared for.
Emma looked shocked. "Is that how he interpreted it? I never realized."
"Miss Emma," Buck said earnestly. "You may have known Ezra longer than I have, but you dont know him as well. How was he supposed to look at an offer like that? His pa had been happy to see him for a few weeks every couple of years but never made any move to keep him around permanent. Then hes on the verge of becoming a man and suddenly hes offered a load of hard work in exchange for the honor of being recognized as something hed been all his life; Ezekial Piersons son. And not because his pa had suddenly realized what hed missed all those years, but because he was maybe dying and needed somebody to take over after he was gone. Well, excuse me, maam, but I wouldnt have been too happy with that situation either."
For several minutes, Emma was silent, absorbing this new perspective and trying it out. "It makes sense," she said finally. She sighed deeply and rubbed at her temples. "Merciful Heavens. Ive assumed all these years that Ezra simply turned his back on his heritage, telling myself that he was ungrateful for an offer that would have placed him far above his station."
Buck could not hide a sneer at her terminology. "How a man is born doesnt have anything to do with how good a person he is, or what kind of treatment he deserves out of life. The six men I work with in Four Corners are about as far apart as a group can get when it comes to birth and raisin. We got one started out with a nice normal family but went on to be a gunslinger. One was a stable boy back east who came west and became a sheriff. Got us an ex-priest and an ex-slave, both spendin their lives caring for the well being of others. One fella was orphaned young and raised with the Indians, and hes one of the toughest hombres and the kindest souls you could ever met. My station in life wasnt too different from Ezras, but I became a ranger and he became a gambler. And now all seven of us are lawmen in a little town out here in the middle of nowhere. No, maam, I reckon birth dont have nothin at all to do with the makin of a good man."
A deep blush had burned its way into Emmas weathered skin as he spoke. "Youve given me a great deal to consider, Mr. Wilmington," she said stiffly.
Not one to rub in a point once hed made it; Buck flashed her a smile. "Its still Buck, maam. Same as before."
"Very well, Buck," she replied, rising from her chair. "This has been a very long and trying day. Im going to check on Ezra, then Im going to bed."
"Good night, Ms. Emma," he said.
Nodding wordlessly, she went to conduct her errand, her expression troubled. Buck was sorry to have caused her difficulty but the words had needed to be said.
The voice, coming from the darkness behind him, had Buck reaching for the gun he wasnt wearing. He quickly calmed as he recognized Fred. "What are doing hiding in the shadows, boy?" he demanded. "You bout scared a years growth off of me."
"I came out to get some water, but for the last few minutes Ive just been, well listening," he confessed with a hint of shame. "I never knew all that before, about Ezra. I just knew he didnt seem to care about coming here, about spending time with my uncle. Guess I always figured he thought he was too good for us."
Buck blinked. "Too good for you? Son, Ezra may like to put on a show of being suited for the good life but hes never been one to hold himself up as being worth more than other folks. I dont know what all came between him and his pa, but I reckon that hes sorry things couldnt have been different."
The boys eyes were fixed on the floor as he said, "My uncle was too. He and Ezra always seemed a little uneasy around each other, but my uncle was proud of him. Always told him that one day hed realize that he belonged here with us. Guess Ezra didnt like that much cause finally he just stopped coming to visit."
Placing a friendly hand on Freds shoulder, Buck told him, "Things like that happen sometimes. Parents sometimes spend their whole lives trying to make their kids live up to what they want for em. And sometimes that yoke just dont fit. Remember something, though. Whatever happened between Ezra and his pa, its over now. Theres no reason for you to carry on a fight you had nothing to do with."
"Youre right," he said quietly. "I guess the only thing we can do is to try and start over. You think Ezrad be willing to do that?"
"I think hed be real happy to try, son."
For the first time that Buck had seen, Fred grinned, his cheeks creasing with the same pattern of laugh-lines that became visible every time Ezra smiled. Something about the sight make Buck grin back at him. Nodding wordlessly to each other, Fred slipped back into the darkness to return to his bed. With a deep sigh, Buck stood and stretched, suddenly feeling more than ready to do the same.
Dawn had broken and the morning was well underway when Ezra emerged from his room. He had dressed lightly today, wearing his dark pinstripe trousers, boots, and an unembellished white cotton shirt. His face was washed and clean-shaven and his hair was beaded with moisture where he had wet-combed it, but his eyes still blinked sleepily as he made his way to the table.
"Good morning," he muttered politely, dropping into a chair as though too tired to hold himself up any longer.
"Mornin, Ezra," Buck greeted him cheerfully. "Coffee?"
A vague grunt was his only reply, and Buck grinned and poured out a cup on the assumption that the sound had been an affirmative. Apparently it was the correct action, for Ezra lifted the cup and took a sip, then tipped his head back and drained it completely. As the beverage made its way through his system, his eyelids finally raised above half-mast and he smiled at his cousins, seeming to notice them for the first time as he repeated more coherently, "Good morning."
"How are you feeling today?" Emma asked him, a hint of concern in her voice. "Did you sleep well?"
"Much better, thank you, and yes I did."
Fred grinned. "I think the question, Cousin, is did you sleep enough?"
Ezra looked a bit surprised by the friendliness in his tone. "Yes, I believe so."
Reaching across the table, Buck gave him a friendly punch in the arm and told them, "That sleep walking routine is the way he always greets the morning sun. I swear to you, some days his eyes dont open fully until it gets to be about noon."
"I simply subscribe to the notion that one can never get enough sleep," he shot back, and some of the tension seemed to leech out of Ezras posture when his cousins both laughed at the quip.
Suddenly a thundering of footsteps filled the room as Hannah and Ruth burst into the kitchen. Ezra turned to look and jumped in surprise when two happy shrieks of "Ezra!" filled the air and he suddenly found himself enveloped in a pair of tight hugs.
Prying them off, he stood and held the two brightly grinning young women at arms length for a better look. "Good heavens, these cant be my kittens," he said in astonishment. "Theres no way those two little urchins could have blossomed into such beautiful young ladies."
"But we did!" Ruth said proudly, making her sister roll her eyes in despair. "What?"
"Youre not supposed to agree when somebody gives you a compliment, silly," Hannah scolded. "Youre just supposed to accept it. Thank you, Cousin Ezra."
He laughed. "You are most welcome, my dear." Impulsively, he hugged the girls again.
"Keep that up and youre gonna make all your friends jealous," Buck teased him as the three took their seats. Ezra merely smiled, and Buck could see that he was both relieved and delighted by the surprisingly enthusiastic welcome. Under the happy din of conversation that surrounded them, Buck asked, "You all right?"
"I really do feel a great deal better," Ezra assured him. "My headache is completely gone this morning and I feel well rested."
Buck nodded, pleased to note that Ezra really did seem to be in good health as he piled his plate high and began eating with apparent enthusiasm.
Breakfast was a noisy affair, with plentiful questions and observations from the two girls preventing any chance for awkwardness among the others. Buck was in his element, teasing and flirting, and relating grand and only slightly embellished tales of Ezras brave deeds as a peacekeeper to entertain the family and embarrass his friend. By the time the meal was over, a great deal of tension seemed to have evaporated.
As everyone rose from the table, Fred approached Ezra and Buck. Shooting a nervous glance at Buck, who gave him an encouraging nod, he said, "I wanted to tell you that Im sorry, Ezra. For the way I acted and the things I said when I met you in town yesterday. I had no call to say them, and I hope you and I can be friends."
He held out a hand and Ezra, astonishment clear in his expression, shook it readily. "Id like that, Freddy." As the name slipped out, his eyes squeezed shut in self-irritation. "Sorry Fred."
"Its okay," the young man said with a slight laugh. "Mama does that all the time."
"Just the same, I will endeavor to remember it from now on."
The three younger Edmonds filed out of the kitchen. Ezra watched them go then turned to look at Buck, his brow crinkling in puzzlement, voice pitched low enough to prevent Emma from overhearing him. "Mr. Wilmington, what magic have you been working in my absence? Yesterday, I would have laid odds that this family would have refused to give me the correct time of day. Today, they all treat me like their long lost best friend."
"I didnt do a thing, pal. I just talked with them a little, got em to maybe start thinking about things from another point of view."
"Somehow I doubt thats all you did," Ezra said dubiously, "but whatever it was, I am once again grateful to you."
Ace High turned out to be a somewhat more active ranch than Ezra had led Buck to believe it would be. About two hundred cattle, bred for the hot harsh conditions of this wild desert land, were spread out over its acreage. More than a half dozen workers, mostly Mexican, milled about the property, taking care of the animals, tending the land and tackling any chores that needed doing. By the time the real heat of the day began taking over again, encouraging him to seek shelter, Buck was positively impressed by the small enterprise.
Entering the house through the back, Buck cleared his throat and called out, "Hello? Anyone here?"
Emma emerged from the kitchen, "Oh, Buck, I didnt hear you come in."
"Whats wrong?" he asked, noting with concern the traces of tears upon the womans cheeks.
Wiping the traces away with her hand, she smiled. "Nothings wrong, really. Ezra and I have been having a long talk about things and I just got a little emotional."
"Where is he?" Buck looked around but saw no sign of his friend.
"Outside. He wanted to spend a little time alone with Ezekial."
She pointed to a shuttered window at the far end of the kitchen and Buck went to take a look. He opened the shutter just enough to peek outside. About a hundred yards in the distance stood a small grove of evergreen trees, their appearance seeming slightly out of place among the low growing shrubs and empty space around them. Kneeling in the shade of one of the smaller trees was Ezra.
"My uncle had those planted when he first moved here. Just about the first thing he did," Emma said softly. "He loved this country but he said he couldnt live anywhere for more than a day that didnt have a few trees to look on. He spent time out there in the grove as often as he could and when he died, there was no question as to where he would want to be buried."
"Not sure I remembered to say so before, Ms. Emma, but Im real sorry for your loss," Buck told her, not turning from his observation. He felt a gentle touch on his arm.
"Thank you, Buck." The two stood quietly for several minutes, enjoying the companionable silence and allowing Ezra time alone, but at last Emma said, "Youd best go get him. Its not good for him to be out in the heat so long."
"Mind if I join you?"
The quietly voiced question seemed to stir Ezra from a trance. When he looked up, he was blinking with a kind of slow shock that told Buck that his period of solitude had not been an easy one. A strange feeling of déjà vu swept over Buck, and he almost expected to turn and find Inez Recillos standing by with a bottle of bourbon and a sympathetic smile.
Ezra broke the moment by sighing deeply. "He left me this place. Did she tell you that?"
Astonished, Buck knelt down on the other side of the freshly turned grave, staring at the simple headstone inscribed with the name Ezekial Pierson as though it might offer him an explanation.
"You mean this spread? The Ace High? You pa left it to you?"
He nodded. "Yes. Emma just told me a few minutes ago. Apparently, shes the only person who knows. He had a will made up last year, after his lungs started getting worse again. It seems that my father was worth a great deal more than I ever had any reason to suspect. He left me this ranch and ten thousand dollars." An odd slightly hysterical sounding laugh burst forth. "Ten thousand dollars. That seems fated to be my ultimate purchase price, doesnt it?"
"But, what about Emma and her kids? They lived with him, took care of him, loved him like he was their pa. Didnt he leave anything to them?" Buck was astounded.
Ezra tossed his hands in the air helplessly. "Thats exactly what I asked. Apparently, my father was a somewhat shrewder financier than anyone knew. He had salvaged what capital there was remaining from his familys ruined estate and reinvested the money in assorted ventures out in this part of the country, including some of the gold mining expeditions that put the town of Wickenburg on the map. My father died with more than $50,000 in his bank account, which he split into an equal inheritance among his remaining relations."
Shaking his head, Ezra repeated, "He left this place to me." He made a sweeping motion encompassing the land before him, and then Buck was shocked to see tears spilling down his cheeks. An angry, almost outraged expression stole over his face, as he demanded, "What am I supposed to do with it? Just tell me that, Buck! What the fuck am I supposed to do with a cattle ranch stuck out in the middle of the God-damned desert?"
Ezra was almost choking as he continued to force words past his sudden powerful weeping. "All these years. I just w-wanted him to accept me. Who I am what I do what I WANT!" The shout seemed torn from him and was, for the moment, all that Ezra could manage as the emotions took over. His chest heaved as sobs tore from his unwilling throat.
Buck stayed where he was, giving Ezra the space he needed. Unlike a few days ago in the saloon, this storm of feeling would not be abated by a kindly touch. This was pain of a different sort and it demanded the respect of distance. This was rage, confusion and the exquisite torment of learning that he had just been handed something he had always wanted at the cost of something he had wanted even more.
At last, the furious sobs abated, leaving just a silent stream of tears in their wake. "Why couldnt he understand," Ezra whispered, "that I never wanted this ranch, or the plantation, or his position in society? All I ever wanted "
Even now, he could not bring himself to say the words, so Buck filled them in for him. "You wanted his love."
Ezras watery gaze flicked up to meet his eyes and then dropped again.
Feeling that it was now safe to do so, Buck stood and crossed to the other side of the grave, drawing Ezra to his feet and pulling him into a tight hug.
For a moment, Ezra stood stiffly within the fold of Bucks arms, resisting the comfort being offered, but when Buck did not release him, he slumped forward, not returning the embrace but no longer refusing it.
Buck held him steadily for several long seconds until he once again felt Ezras body tense and released him. All but a hand he left clasped around the back of his friends neck, forcing Ezra to meet his eyes. "From what Ive seen around here, and what Ive heard from your kin, I think you had his love, Ez. I think youve had it all along but that maybe your pa just didnt know the best way to show you. Dont throw all this away just because it wasnt what you expected."
Pulling away from Buck, Ezra turned and wiped his sleeve across his face, trying to recover a bit of his dignity. Then, unable to speak, he looked back over his shoulder and offered Buck a slightly wobbly smile. Buck smiled back, understanding the message there. He would try.
It was nearly a week before everything was settled. The family had traveled together into Wickenburg for the official reading of Ezekial Piersons will. His money and property was dispensed exactly as Emma had said, and Ezra left the office with a cashiers check for $10,000 and the deed to a ranch that he did not want.
The Edmonds children had been told what was coming and they were alternately giddy over their unexpected inheritance and sad and resentful over the idea that they might soon have to leave their home of four years.
They would be staying in town overnight. The ranch hands at the Ace High were more than capable of looking after the property and livestock and, as Buck had pointed out, he and Ezra were due to leave on the next days stage. It seemed silly to make two trips. Emma, still solicitous of Ezras health even after several days of seemingly full recovery, had promptly agreed.
Over lunch at the hotel restaurant, Ezra finally broached the topic he had firmly avoided before their visit to the attorneys office. "Now that everything is settled, I have a question for all of you," he began, looking each of his relatives in the eye. "What do you want for the future? You now have sufficient capital to go anywhere and do just about anything your hearts desire. Do you want to stay here in Arizona? Do you want to keep the ranch in the family or would you prefer to see it go to someone else?"
"Why ask us?" Fred demanded bluntly. "Its yours now, to do as you see fit."
He returned the accusing blue gaze steadily. "I ask because it is not my home we are discussing, it is yours. I know from experience what it feels like to have ones home and ones fondest desires ripped away at the whim of another. I have no intention of sharing that sort of pain with yall just because I now have the ability."
Buck winced at the cold statement, only now realizing how much resentment his friend still harbored over the loss of his dream to own a saloon. A dream his own mother had savagely ripped away just over a year ago.
Ezra continued, "I must, however, consider the possibility that it is not your desire to stay here. Perhaps you would prefer to go elsewhere, to some location with a more pleasant climate or a larger, more urban population. If that is the case, then I must consider ways to find someone who wishes to rent the property."
"Rent," Emma said in surprise. "Are you not planning to sell it?"
A strange smile played over Ezras lips. "It would hardly be a proper show of gratitude for all my father has done to sell his grave right out from under him. No, cousin, I believe I would prefer to retain ownership. The only condition under which I would consider selling it would be if some close relation, whom I can be assured will maintain it properly, were interested in purchasing the place."
Seeing by the looks of shock and delight on their faces that everyone understood what he was offering, Ezra stood. "If you will excuse us for a few minutes, Mr. Wilmington and I will leave you to discuss the matter amongst yourselves."
Buck picked up his cue and stood, tipping his hat to the dazed-looking family. "Where we going?" he asked curiously.
"I believe that I owe you a cold beer," Ezra told him smugly. "Im afraid we have no time for the additionally proposed bath."
"Hey, a beer sounds good to me," he agreed enthusiastically. Slapping Ezra firmly on the back, he added, "I could get used to this."
The beer served at the Lucky Strike saloon was not overly cold but it still slid down with gratifying ease. Buck smacked his lips happily. "Ive been wanting one of these all week."
Ezra took a deep swallow from his own glass and agreed, "It is a welcome relief."
Leaning his elbow on the bar, Buck fixed his friend with a penetrating stare. "Were you figuring on giving Emma n them that land all along?"
"If they want it," he replied honestly. "As I tried to tell my father when he was alive, I have absolutely no interest in becoming a rancher. And even if I did, I certainly wouldnt choose such an inhospitable climate in which to try it. I had to give them the option of refusing, however. The Edmonds came out here for my fathers sake. Now that hes gone, there is no guarantee that they will wish to stay."
"Mm," Buck grunted, draining the last of his beer. "But what about you? What do you want to do? Youre a pretty rich man now, Ezra. You can join your ma in one of those new historic projects of hers, or open up a fancy hotel and casino, or maybe just buy a big house somewhere and get fat and lazy. Youd never have to get up before noon, and you could live on nothing but fancy vittles and the finest hooch."
Ezra laughed brightly. "I rather like the sound of that, but I really havent decided. I thought, for the time being I would return with you to our dusty little hamlet and let this fortune compound a little interest while I make up my mind. Perhaps I will begin some sort of lucrative business venture in which those of you who are interested can buy shares."
"And all get stinkin rich?" Buck asked with a grin.
The gamblers grin fairly stretched from ear to ear. "What else?"
Upon rejoining Ezras family at the restaurant, the two men found them waiting with ill-concealed impatience.
"Am I to assume youve reached a consensus?" Ezra asked, resuming his seat and folding his hands firmly across the table-top.
Emma copied his posture. "We have. My son still wishes to go to college, and the girls have a wish to see something of the world, but all of us want a home to come back to. So, depending on what sort of asking price you have in mind, wed like to buy Ace High from you."
Ezra smiled warmly, giving little doubt as to the answer he had been hoping for. "Twenty dollars," he said at once.
The familys expectant looks faltered into confusion. "I beg your pardon?" Emma stammered. "Did you say twenty dollars?"
"I did," he said calmly. "Five dollars a man, or woman in your case."
Buck laughed, drawing their attention to him. He waved them back to Ezra with the comment, "Sounds like a good deal to me."
"I have found," Ezra told them evenly, "that great things can be had for that amount. Greater rewards than you may even dream possible. If you want the land that is the only price I will accept for it. Take it or leave it."
Ruth opened her small reticule and dug frantically; triumphantly producing one of the brand new five dollar gold pieces she had obtained at the bank where the family had gone to complete the transfer of funds from the completion of the will. Sliding it across the table, she said, "Heres my share."
Fred and Hannah exchanged a grin and followed suit, each coming up with the required amount, which they promptly delivered to Ezras waiting hand.
Looking as though she suspected Ezra of having had a mental relapse from his sunstroke, Emma opened her reticule and found a gold piece of her own. "Youre sure about this?"
Ezra captured the hand holding the money, transferring the coin from her hand and passing the deed into her keeping before standing and laying a gentle kiss upon her cheek. "I have never been more sure of anything. Take good care of it for me."
She smiled and blinked back tears. "Youll always be welcome at Ace High, Ezra. I hope you know that."
"Thank you, Emma. I do now."
The next morning, the stage pulled up, ready to begin its northeasterly journey. Buck and Ezra had already bid farewell to the family, seeing them off on their early morning journey home. As the luggage was loaded, Buck noticed Ezra turning something in his hands. "What you got there?"
"A present from Cousin Emma," Ezra said, showing him the object. It was a photograph, very much like the one Buck had seen a week ago, only in this one, instead of a woman holding the small boy it was a man. The man was dressed in the ornate formal garb of a southern gentleman of twenty-five years past, his face square jawed and strong, but his eyes were the same as those of the boy in his lap. In direct contrast to the typical style of formal pictures, the man was smiling, his cheeks creased by familiar laugh lines as he gazed down at the child. Young Ezra was smiling as well, the expression fairly beaming off his small face as he looked at his father.
Buck turned the image over. Etched on the back were the simple words, "Ezekial and Ezra" and the year. "That was real nice of Emma, giving you that."
"Yes," he said softly, resuming control of the picture. "It was."
As the coach began to board, Buck noted, "Only three other passengers this trip. Looks like our lucky day."
Ezra looked around, a slightly wistful smile on his face as he observed the lazy milling crowd of citizens beginning another day. "I think perhaps youre right," he agreed. Motioning Buck into the coach ahead of him he said, "Lets go home."