(Moved to Blackraptor November 2009)
"Hey, fellas," Vin Tanner said quietly as he walked in through the batwing doors of the saloon and slid into a seat at the table occupied by three of his fellow peacekeepers.
"Vin," they chorused, each man barely looking up from his cards as he acknowledged the new arrival.
After another moment, Nathan threw in his hand with a sigh. "Fold. Dang if you ainít the luckiest cuss in town tonight."
"He ainít won yet," Buck Wilmington reminded, throwing a fifty-cent piece into the pot. "I think heís bluffing. I call."
Chris Larabee grinned and Buck groaned loudly as the two men laid down their cards and Chris was revealed to have the winning hand. Calmly raking in the small pile of bills and coins lying in the center of the table, he quirked an eyebrow at Vin. "Care to ante up?"
"I wouldnít," Nathan warned. "Ezra apparently left that devilís-own luck of his to Chris when he rode out for Eagle Bend yesterday. Five hands now, and neither me or Buck has managed to win a single one. Iím wiped out."
Vin grinned. "Think Iíll play it safe then, but seeinís how youíre so poor, Nate, Iíll buy you a beer."
"Hey, what about me?" Buck protested. "I lost, too."
Hooking his thumbs into his belt, Vin leaned back in his chair and favored his friend with a smug look. "Reckon I can spot you a drink, Bucklin. I ainít had Lady Luck smiliní at me as much as Chris has today, but I did do a little church-mendiní for Josiah this morning and he remembered to pay me back that three dollars I loaned him a few months ago."
"Ezraís having a bad influence on that man," Nathan snorted. "Time was, heíd have paid his debt on time."
Vin waved off the complaint. "Ah, it donít matter. Reckon heís found better uses for his money lately, and I wasnít hurtiní for want of it." He took a sip of the beer the bartender had just brought over for him. "Say, you boys see that crate that just come in on the stage? Driver said it was for Ezra but he wouldnít say nothiní else about it."
"You tell him Ezra wouldnít be back in town until tomorrow morning?" asked Chris.
He nodded. "Told him to put it over in the jailhouse. Itíll be safe enough there and I sure as hell wasnít about to drag that damn box clean up the stairs to his room. Somíbitch is heavy!"
"What do you suppose it is?" Nathan asked curiously. "Think he ordered some books or a few dozen more of them fancy coats of his?"
Vin shrugged. "Reckon somebody sent him something. Driver made me sign for the box. Ainít never seen him do that for anything one of us bought for ourselves."
"Maybe he didnít buy it. Maybe Ezraís mama sent him a birthday present or something," Buck speculated.
Everyone looked at him curiously.
"Didnít know he had a birthday cominí up," Vin said, not quite asking how Buck knew this bit of information about their gambling friend that none of the rest of them did.
"Donít know that he does," Buck admitted. "Just takiní a guess. Wonder why he didnít tell any of us?"
Chris snorted. "Before you start planning a party, maybe you ought to make sure whatís really going on. That box could just be some piece of furniture heís bought, or a fancy studded saddle for that spoiled brat horse of his. Itíd be like Ezra to do that and not tell us, wanting to wait until he could get a chance to show off. Special-order items usually have to be signed for."
"Reckon weíll have to wait until tomorrow and ask him," Vin decided, heaving a small, disappointed sigh. He really did want to know what was in that crate.
When Ezra arrived in Four Corners the following morning, he was shocked by his reception. It was not altogether unusual for one of his compatriots to be on hand at the end of a journey. Someone might be ending a jail shift, or getting ready to ride a patrol, or just sitting in front of the saloon waiting for the doors to open for business. It was, however, highly unusual to ride in and find three of the townís peacekeepers standing outside the livery waiting on him.
Ezraís pale green eyes squinted against the morning light as he removed his hat and made a show of wiping trail dust from its black surface, then fished a cigar from inside his coat, slowly checking all of his pockets for a match. He almost laughed to see Nathan, Buck and, of all people, Vin, fairly dancing with irritation while he did these things. Out of the corner of his eye, Ezra caught a glimpse of Chris Larabee lurking near the jail, also watching him with ill-disguised impatience.
Taking a leisurely puff of his cigar, Ezra smirked at the other men and finally dismounted from the saddle. Turning the animal over to the waiting stable-hand with a parting pat on the horseís neck, he turned to his friends and said evenly, "Good morning, gentlemen. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Canít we just be glad to see you back?" Buck tried, looking innocent.
Ezra grinned back at him. "Of course you can, particularly considering the prolonged state of my absence. My stars, an entire day! How ever did you survive without my company for so long?"
"Maybe weíre not that glad to have you back after all," Nathan grunted.
At this sour comment, the gambler laughed outright. "I missed you as well, Mr. Jackson. So, may I inquire as to the real reason all of you have chosen to form this early morning ensemble?"
"Got a package," Vin blurted. "Big one. Come yesterday. Had to sign for it."
Ezra smirked, the action causing deep laugh lines to form in his right cheek. "Such a verbose and detailed narrative, Mr. Tanner."
Deliberately prolonging the suspense a bit, just for the fun of watching the others fidget, he took another drag off his cigar, then tamped it out against the hitching post and replaced it in the silver case he kept in his coat pocket. Finally, he asked, "A package you say? From whom?"
"Dunno," Vin said with a shrug. "Big sucker, though."
"Come for you in a crate, all the way from Savannah," Nathan added, having taken the time to examine the box for clues during his evening shift. "Got it over at the jail."
At the mention of the city, Ezraís teasing expression suddenly changed, surprise and hope blooming over his features. His eyes widened. "She remembered! How on earth did she find me?"
With a startling whoop, Ezra spun on his heel and sprinted for the jail. A thunder of footfalls followed in his wake as the other three men exchanged questioning looks, then gave chase. By the time they reached the jail, Ezra was feverishly examining the box from all angles, muttering about finding something to open it, while Chris stood by and watched him with a bemused expression.
From within his coat, Vin Tanner pulled forth a crowbar. Four sets of questioning eyes instantly fastened on him. He shrugged. "Borrowed it. Figured it might come in handy."
Ezra accepted the tool and instantly set about wrenching loose the tightly nailed lid. The top of the box finally gave, toppling over to one side with a mighty crash and revealing a squashed mound of packing straw. Sitting atop the straw was a piece of paper, which Ezra snatched up and began silently reading.
"Whoís it from?" Buck asked when the silence grew too long for his liking.
Ezra ignored the question, folding the letter and tucking it into his coat pocket then digging rapidly down through the straw in search of the contents. All the men leaned eagerly forward, waiting to see what manner of treasure could possibly get the habitually unflappable Ezra Standish into such a state of excitement.
"Gotta be gold," Nathan murmured quietly.
"Maybe a couple cases of that real expensive booze he orders in a bottle at a time," Buck muttered back.
"My moneyís on books," Vin whispered. "Never seen anybody get as happy over new readiní stuff as him and Josiah do."
"I still say itís something for that damned horse," Chris growled under his breath.
Seemingly oblivious to the speculation going on behind him, Ezra gave another triumphant whoop and pulled forth a tightly sealed glass jar.
"Peaches?" Vin said in disbelief, taking the jar from Ezra and holding it up to the light.
Buckís mouth had fallen open. "We sat in here all night wondering what kind of treasure you might be coming into and it was nothing but a lousy box of canned peaches?"
"Lousy!" Ezra said indignantly, straightening to his full height. "How dare you even hint at such a thing. These, gentlemen, are only the finest creation God in his wisdom ever put upon this earth for human consumption. And thereís more!"
He dove into the box once again, pulling out more jars and bottles.
"Peach preserves," Nathan said, reading a label. "Brandy peaches. Peaches in sweet syrup. Good golly, Ezra, you got enough different kinds here to keep you going for a month!"
Ezra stroked his fingers lovingly over the top of one jar. "Or a year," he said softly.
Something in his tone caught everyoneís attention. "Who sent them?" Chris asked again.
"Martha Grace Kellerman, thatís who. The stubbornest woman and finest lady in the entire state of Georgia."
The others smiled in response to the affection in his voice. Helping himself to a seat on the sheriffís desk, Buck grinned and asked, "You got a hometown sweetheart you ainít told us about?"
Ezra laughed. "Iíd be proud to tell you if I did. Sadly, the lovely Mrs. Kellerman refused my offer of matrimony, though she did so in a most delicate fashion, sensitive as she was to the tender feelings of a twelve year old boy."
Even Chris had to smile at those words. "Some older man beat you to the punch, I take it?"
"Indeed," he said, sighing dramatically. "Though she was a widow when I met her and, to the best of my knowledge, has remained so for all the years since her husbandís death, in spite of my offer to amend her lonely lot in life."
Picking up a bottle, he went on, "Her son and I spent much of our youth together. David was the only reason I let myself get involved in the Late Unpleasantness, in fact."
"He wanted to join up, so you went too?" Nathan clarified, surprisingly undisturbed by the notion of Ezra fighting for the Confederacy. He had long suspected it but never had proof, and it was comforting to believe that this man had not necessarily fought for the purpose of preserving slavery.
Unaware of the former slaveís thoughts, Ezra nodded. "I had no notion of getting myself involved in anything so messy and dangerous but David was always one to relish a fight, no matter what form it took. He wasnít the most sensible of people, even as a boy, so when Mrs. Kellerman realized she couldnít stop him, she begged me to go along and keep him from doing anything foolish. I knew I could not refuse so I promised her that I would bring him home, no matter what."
"And did you?" Vin asked solemnly, knowing what a difficult vow his friend had made.
Ezra looked up from the crate, his smile carrying more than a hint of pride. "I did, indeed. Took every ounce of conniving and finagling at my disposal to keep us both out of harmís way, either from Union bullets or the Confederate stockade, but we finally made it. David lost an arm in our final skirmish together, but I got him home alive."
"Figures youíd go out of your way to protect a good friend," Buck said approvingly.
Surprising them, Ezra shook his head, his expression filled with amusement. "He wasnít really a friend. As I said, we grew up together, but I could never really stand the little bastard. To this day I canít understand how a woman as fine as Martha Kellerman ever managed to birth such a completely useless creature."
"You cared about her that much?" Nathan said, astonished. "So much that youíd go through the hell and privation of a war for her?"
"Of course," he said simply, frowning a bit as though the answer was entirely obvious. "Mrs. Kellerman was very kind to me, took me into her home as a favor to my mother, who had once been a friend of hers. She treated me as well as if I was her own flesh and blood; better, in fact. Martha Kellerman came into my life at a time when I dearly needed some kindness and understanding; gave me more than I can ever truly repay."
Chris nodded toward the crate. "And the peaches?"
Ezra looked at the jar in his hands. "All during the war, she would send a tin of these to each of us, whenever we stopped long enough in one place to receive mail. To remind us of better times, she said. After I brought David home, she told me that no matter where life took me, she wanted me to always remember her and know that she was grateful. Somehow, in all the years since, no matter where Iíve been or what name Iíve been using, she always managed to send a couple of jars of peaches. How many and what variety tells me how her life has fared during the year." Happiness filled him as he took in the containers spread over every surface. "This must have been a wonderful year indeed."
For a moment, the men were silent as they took in Ezraís story. Then, Buck offered, "Need some help getting all this stuff up to your room?"
"I would appreciate that," he agreed, then, "Perhaps, seeing as I have such an amazing bounty, I might be persuaded to share some of it. Assuming you gentlemen like peaches, of course."
Smiles filled every face at the unexpected offer. "Iíd be pleased to try some," Nathan said, nodding his gratitude. "Been awhile since I had any."
"Reckon a person could make a fine pie with these," Vin agreed, hefting a jar. "Or some cobbler maybe."
Ezra grinned. "Perhaps we might persuade Nettie Wells to take a few jars into her keeping. She certainly seems to enjoy feeding us all; we might as well provide the materials with which to do so."
"Count me in," Buck said happily.
Chris just nodded, moving to load the sweet supplies back into their container. Glancing around him, observing the playful mood among his men as they speculated on all the wonderful things that could be concocted from Ezraís gift, he smiled in quiet satisfaction. He had a strong feeling that Mrs. Kellerman would not have to go out of her way to track down her friendís location next year.
Ezra was home again.
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