TREASURE by Sevenstars


In light of Melinda’s mention of a trunk, Buck arrived at the house the next afternoon driving a rented buckboard. Edward and his mother were waiting in Isabelle’s office, the boy slicked and clean in his best white sailor suit with navy braid and stars, ribbed stockings and buttoned shoes, and a round hat with long ribbons on it. She may be his ma, Buck thought, and I can’t fault how she dresses herself, but I gotta see if I can get him into somethin’ he can play in, somethin’ like Adam would’a worn. Anyhow, all tricked out like that, he’s a mark for the bullies. "Well, Ed," he said cheerfully, "did your mamma tell you you’re gonna be comin’ to live with me a spell?"

"Yes, sir." The boy didn’t seem particularly distressed at the prospect, Buck noticed; he wasn’t even clinging to Melinda’s hand.

"All right, then, how about I get your trunk out while the two of you say your goodbyes?" the deputy proposed. He heaved it onto his shoulder, somehow not entirely surprised at its weight--the child was clearly something of a dandy and probably had a better supply of clothes than many grown men.

He roped the trunk to the siderails of the buckboard bed and waited until Melinda brought her son out. "Now, be a good boy for Deputy Wilmington, Edward," she cautioned, "and I will come and get you as soon as I can."

"Yes, Mother."

The woman handed Buck an envelope. "This should be enough to pay for his keep for a couple of weeks. By then I hope I shall be able to purchase passage East for us, but if not, I shall see to it that further compensation is forwarded to you through the marshal’s office. I think it would be wise if I do not attempt to come and visit him; the less visible connection there is between us, the safer he will be."

"Yes, ma’am," Buck agreed. "I’ll have him write to you, though, that shouldn’t be no problem. Let’s go, Ed." He lifted the child onto the spring seat, scrambled up himself, gathered in the reins and clucked to the team.

Buck’s boarding house was located on the other side of El Paso, out toward the edge of the city limits, and like most such institutions it was run by a widow--in this case one who’d been left with a comfortable establishment and nothing to maintain it on. It was a rambling three-storey Italianate villa with a marble front and seventeen rooms--foyer, drawing room, dining room, a large front bedchamber and two smaller adjoining ones (used by the landlady and her children) downstairs, more bedrooms up--arranged in an L-shape with a square tower tucked into the angle and rising another full level above the main roof; the landlady’s deceased husband had turned the uppermost level into a billiard room. The kitchen, tucked away in the cellar, stayed remarkably cool even in the height of the Border-country summer. There was a sizeable property--big enough for a two-acre vegetable garden, fruit trees and berry bushes, poultry, pigs, and cows, even a veal calf or young steer purchased at intervals, fattened up, and butchered by the Mexican houseman/gardener, which was cheaper than buying the meat in one of the town markets; Buck and a couple of the other male boarders, as time permitted, often went out to fetch some fish or game, and the landlady’s sons fished and trapped rabbits, thus stretching the food budget even further. Having been modelled on the homes typical of a warm climate, it was airy and light, with wide overhangs on the roofs to shade the rooms and help keep out rain, and first-floor rooms opening onto terraces and loggias for outdoor living. The exterior doors and the porch arches, and a few of the windows as well, were curved at the top, while most of the windows were rectangular with little projecting hoods or pedimented crowns; many were set in two’s and three’s. Above the main entrance was a recessed balcony with columns and a sloping roof of its own, and above that in turn, set back a bit from the break of the roof, a little cupola with a scrolled finial atop it, forming the base for a weathervane and lightning rod. Round brick-framed portholes were let into the third storey of the tower above the regular windows, and in the uppermost was a trio of windows in each wall, the one in the middle higher and broader than its flankers, with a hanging balcony to finish it off under a pointed four-way blockhouse roof. A long roofed gallery ran the length of the long stroke of the L, where the dining room was, and turned the corner to continue across the back end. Swinging from the balcony rail was a gold-lettered sign, bordered with pink roses, that read MRS. MAYBORN’S BOARDING HOUSE FOR SELECT GUESTS, and underneath that, Lodging--Meals--Boarders. A carriage house in matching style, with three bays and a louvered cupola, could be seen down at the end of the gravelled drive, which swept past the front door and around a projecting three-sided sun room with bracketwork under its eaves and long narrow windows all around it.

The entry hall, with the stairs rising out of it, divided the drawing room, where most of the guests gathered in the evening, from the dining room, whose wide, curtained, glass-panelled pocket doors had been pushed back, revealing a long table set for twelve, each place on the crisp, snowy-white muslin cloth equipped with a turned-over delftware plate, a matching cup upside down in a saucer, knife and fork, drinking glass, and ringed cloth napkin. The drawing room was furnished with several sofas, chairs in various styles, small and larger tables, a couple of corner whatnots laden with bric-a-brac, a piano, pictures on the walls, a sizeable collection of books (including a complete Encyclopedia Americana) in two matching glass-doored bookcases, an unabridged dictionary on its own stand, and several Rogers groups--We Boys and Going for the Cows placed adjoining each other, School Days with its organ-grinder and mischievous monkey, and The Farmer’s Home. All that suggested it might not have been lifted wholesale from some nice house back East was the mounted buffalo bullhead above the mantlepiece and a stuffed bear in one corner, standing on its hind legs and showing its long white teeth. Buck felt Edward shrink back against his legs as he caught sight of it, patterned with shadows that made its real nature hard to distinguish. Then the boy seemed to collect his courage and take a second look. "Oh," he said, "it isn’t alive, of course. That was stupid of me, to be afraid."

"No, it wasn’t," Buck told him. "It’s scared a few a lot older than you are. Ain’t stupid to be scared if you ain’t sure whether you’re in danger or not. Well, here we are, Kate," he added as a woman a few years older than Melinda appeared from the dining room, wearing a simple gray dress with white collar and cuffs, a beautiful cameo pinning it at the throat, her deep brown hair tied in a huge loose knot. "This is Ed Sands, the young feller I told you about. Ed, this is Miz Kate Mayborn, she owns this place."

"How do you do, Mrs. Mayborn," the boy greeted her.

"Welcome to my home, Edward," the landlady replied. "I hope you’ll be very comfortable here. Supper’s at seven o’clock. Since school’s not in session now, you’ll be eating your dinner here; that’s at one during the week, and four on Sundays."

"I’ll remember, ma’am," Edward promised. "I have a watch." He pulled it out of his pocket--a typical boy’s watch, very plain, maybe four and a half dollars new, with a nickel case and no cover, but spidery Roman numerals and a busy second hand on its own small dial. "Mother always says no gentleman is ever unpunctual."

Kate had moved Buck into the biggest of the boarders’ rooms, with a recess, originally occupied by a study corner or daybed, for a smaller secondary bed where Edward could sleep, besides the big double one the deputy himself was to occupy. Three enormous closets opened off the big, high-ceilinged room; one was used to store a metal bathtub, tastefully decorated with cornflowers on a bright yellow ground, that could be dragged out and set before the ornate cast-iron fireplace when it was wanted, though Buck usually patronized one of the bathhouses downtown. He offered to help the boy unpack, but Edward politely refused, saying that he liked to put his own things away so he would know exactly where to find them when he wanted them. Seeing the logic of this, Buck left him to the task and went to see to his horse, who lived in the carriage-house-cum-stable when she wasn’t needed, and get washed up.

The supper table was attended by the usual assortment of bachelors, widows, the aged, young married couples saving for establishments of their own, a schoolteacher and a bachelor clergyman, besides Kate and her three children, Julia, George, and Carl, aged twelve, ten, and five. Edward acknowledged the introductions politely, spoke when he was spoken to, and otherwise kept his attention on his food, eating neatly and quietly. His appetite seemed healthy enough, Buck was pleased to note, although he didn’t tuck in as enthusiastically as most boys might have, and protested that he "couldn’t" when Kate offered a second helping of her famous frosted two-layer yellow cake with custard filling. "Sure you can," Buck insisted. "Your ma’s payin’ for it, you want her to get her money’s worth, don’t you?"

The boy hesitated. "Since you express it in those terms, I suppose I do," he agreed, and graciously accepted the cake.

"He talks funny," Carl declared.

"Carl!" Kate scolded.

"Well, he does," George agreed. "He talks like a schoolteacher."

"George, mind your manners," his mother rebuked. "You shouldn’t make fun of how people talk. I think Edward talks beautifully."

The boy thanked her but sounded, for the first time, as if he didn’t want to.

After supper most of the boarders assembled in the drawing room to peruse newspapers and magazines, exchange stories of their day’s doings, and, in the case of the women, occupy themselves with needlework. Often there would be music or parlor games, and Kate always prepared a special meal and a cake when one of her guests had a birthday. Buck noticed Edward eyeing the piano with a kind of shy envy. "Want some music, son?" he asked. "Kate and Julie play, and so do some of us. Even me, but I ain’t too good--never did learn to read notes, I just play from memory."

"I--" Edward hesitated, then seemed to think better of whatever he’d been about to say. "Music would be very pleasant, if someone is willing to play."

So they had a little songfest, interspersed with instrumental pieces, until Buck realized that it was past nine o’clock and young boys should be in bed. Edward didn’t protest, though he didn’t act as if he were tired either. Taken upstairs, he insisted firmly that he didn’t need any help getting undressed, so Buck turned the bed down for him and waited until he came out from behind the Japanese screen in the corner. Even then, the boy had to hang his suit up and brush it off, fussing over it until Buck began to lose his patience, and he would have polished his shoes if the deputy had let him. "It can wait till tomorrow," Buck told him. "You got an extra pair, don’t you? Fine, you wear those and shine these. Now get on to bed. You say your prayers?"

"I prefer to do that in private, if you don’t mind, Mr. Wilmington."

"That’s okay," Buck replied. "Reckon what’s between a man and God ought to stay between ’em. You go to sleep, now, and I’ll see you in the morning."

He went back downstairs to bid his fellow boarders good night and give the boy time to get settled and drop off, then returned to the room and undressed quietly in the dark. It must have been around five A.M. when he cautiously crept back in and turned his covers back to get another hour or so of sleep. The squeak of bedsprings from the alcove warned him that Edward was awake. "Who’s there?"

"Just me, son. Buck."

Edward hesitated a moment. Buck could make out the pale oval of his face in the darkness, and the white of the nightshirt beneath. "I thought I heard the door."

The question, though it wasn’t voiced, was clear. Most people didn’t go out to the privy at night; that was what chamber pots were for. Buck knew he could lie, or at least encourage the boy to think he’d been dreaming, but he didn’t want to start their relationship with deception. Hadn’t Melinda said she wanted a proper role model for her son? "You did. I went downstairs a spell."

Edward seemed to think that over. "Mrs. Mayborn is an attractive woman," he said, sounding ten years older than he was.

Well, hell, he’s been livin’ in a bordello after all, Buck thought. "Yeah, and lonely. Widow ladies are sometimes in need of comfort, and comfort’s somethin’ I do real well. But you don’t tell nobody what you know, hear?"

"Of course not," said the boy, in a faintly scandalized tone--scandalized not at Buck’s behavior, the deputy thought, but at the inference that he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. "If she acquires a name for immorality, she will lose her boarders, and with them her income and all means of support for her children. No gentleman would ever so imperil a lady’s livelihood."

Buck wasn’t really certain whether or not he’d just been subtly rebuked, but he was sleepy and getting chilled and in no humor to argue the point. "And you’re a gentleman," he finished.

"Always, Mr. Wilmington. Always."

"Then go back to sleep so I can," Buck told him, and pulled up his pineapple-pattern quilt, turning on his side to punch the cooled pillow into shape.

"Yes, sir," said Edward softly, and was silent.


Edward had moved in with Buck on Tuesday. On Thursday the deputy got another note from Isabelle that sent him posthaste back to the brothel. Apparently once her son was out of the room they had shared and she could do so in private, Melinda had packed her own trunks, then hired a local boy to go down to one of the stables and arrange for a driver and buckboard to pick her and her luggage up on Wednesday afternoon, after Isabelle and the working girls had all set out on their own calls and errands. Isabelle didn’t realize she was missing until the evening customers began to appear and she saw that her hostess wasn’t on duty.

Buck checked every possibility he could think of, but neither the name nor the description fetched any response from hotelkeepers, stage-ticket agents, or anyone else. El Paso was a large enough town for a person to lose themselves in pretty thoroughly, but his instincts told him that Melinda wasn’t there any more. For reasons unknown, she had taken off, leaving her son in his care.

He looked in the envelope she had given him. She had said the contents would be enough to pay Edward’s keep for a couple of weeks, but he found himself in possession of fully a hundred and fifty dollars. In a day when a working man earning ten dollars a week could support a large family, Melinda had provided sufficient money to take care of the boy’s needs for two years or more.

By the time he realized the truth, it was Monday. Edward, of course, hadn’t been expecting to see his mother--at least not for a couple of weeks--but Buck had never lied to Adam and he didn’t propose to change the pattern for this new little responsibility that had been placed in his hands. The child deserved to know now that his mother had gone, before he could start wondering why she didn’t show up when she had suggested she might. In any case, it was barely possible that he could provide some lead as to her whereabouts. So, after supper on Monday and before he had to go back out on evening rounds, Buck took Edward out onto the back piazza and explained what he knew.

Edward listened without comment, his face shuttered, unemotional. After a little thought he said, "I cannot claim I am surprised. It is hardly the first time Mother has departed on business of her own and left me to the care of others."

Buck stared at him. "You mean she’s done this before?"

"She doesn’t ordinarily make her exit so secretively," Edward admitted, "and until this point she has always chosen relatives, however distant, to assume guardianship of me, but, yes, she has done it many times. You needn’t be troubled, Mr. Wilmington. She will return for me; she always does." He sounded almost resigned to the prospect.

"Do you know when?" Buck demanded, feeling a touch of panic at the prospect of becoming sole guardian to this perplexing child. "Did the two of you work this out together, Ed?"

"No, sir." The clear emerald eyes met his with innocent gravity. "I didn’t know she had any plans to decamp--although I suspected. She told me nothin’ of her intentions."

"You don’t know where she went?"

"No, sir," the boy repeated. He hesitated a moment. "And I seriously doubt it will do you any good to continue your inquiries. Very probably she assumed a disguise. Certainly she would not have used the name you knew her by."

Buck was beginning to suspect that he wasn’t the only one who’d been gulled. "Ed," he began firmly, "I want you to tell me what your mother’s real name is."

"Maude Standish," the boy answered at once. "But she won’t be employin’ it, not at least until she is far from here."

"And I bet your name ain’t Edward Sands, either, is it?" Buck pursued.

Again that brief pause, then: "No, sir. It’s Ezra. Ezra P. Standish."

"I’ll be damned," Buck muttered. He was silent for a moment, trying to adjust to the situation.

"I don’t wish to be a burden," Edward--Ezra--told him. "If you feel that Mother’s behavior abrogates whatever agreement she made with you, you needn’t feel that you are obliged to hold up your end. I can take care of myself."

"Like hell you can!" Buck blurted. "You ain’t even ten years old yet, how do you reckon to earn a living?"

The boy produced a deck of cards from his jacket pocket and began deftly shuffling them with all the flash and finesse of a professional gambler. "I’m an excellent poker player," he said calmly, "and rather good at euchre and red dog as well. And if no opportunity offers for any of them, I can deal three-card monte." Quickly a queen and two jacks were cut from the deck and laid face down on the flagged surface of the piazza. "Watch the lady, sir, watch the lady," the boy singsonged. "In and out, round about. The lady is bein’ pursued by the two knaves, but she is quick and agile. See how she hides from them. Watch the lady. The hand is quicker than the eye. Make your choice, find the queen and take the pot." The quick distracting patter was accompanied by a rapid continual shifting of the cards, the queen occasionally flashing into view only to be whirled out of sight again in a blur of small agile fingers. Finally the cards stilled. "Where is the lady, Mr. Wilmington?"

Buck blinked and tapped his forefinger against one of the printed pasteboards. Ezra turned it up, smiling sweetly. Jack of clubs. "Someone loses, someone wins." He scooped the cards up, cut them back into the deck and returned it to his pocket. "I can do the shell-and-pea game too," he added. "So even if someone confiscates my cards, I’m not deprived of all possible means of support."

The deputy snorted. "Well, you don’t have to worry about it," he declared. "I promised your ma I’d look after you and I mean to keep my promise even if she don’t. Good or bad, boy, we’re stuck with each other, and we better make up our minds to make the best we can of it."

Ezra tilted his head curiously. "Why would you wish to assume such a task?" he wondered. "As I said, Mother has always before chosen kinfolk to provide me with a temporary home. You’re no kin to me, nor I to you. You have no obligation to me."

"Yes, I do," said Buck. He was silent a moment, thinking of Adam. The boy and his mother might not have died if he hadn’t persuaded Chris to stay over a night in Mexico. Now here was another little boy, one who was the same age Adam would have been, and who, to the best of Buck’s knowledge, had no one--as he himself now had no one, with his mother long dead and the home he’d had at the Larabee ranch a part of vanished history. Maybe Ezra’s coming into his care was God’s way of giving him a chance to make up for the fatal mistake he’d made two years ago. He found that that possibility gave him comfort. He might not have been able to help Sarah and Adam or save Chris from himself, but he could be an uncle--or a foster father--to this strange, precocious, full-of-surprises Southern child, and maybe add some stability to his life that apparently had been somewhat wanting up till now. "Well, maybe I don’t have any to you, but I got one to me, and that’s the only kind of obligation that really matters. I took you on, and I ain’t givin’ you up, so get used to it."

Ezra studied him thoughtfully. "You’re not like any adult I’ve ever been left with before, Mr. Wilmington."

"Well, you ain’t like any little boy I ever met before, so that lets us start out even," Buck told him. "We’ll both need to make some adjustments, but I reckon we can deal with it if we try." He searched his mind for some suggestion that might appeal to whatever sense of juvenile honor Ezra might possess. "A gentleman," he said, "wouldn’t make another gentleman do somethin’ that would injure his good name or make him lose face, would he?"

"No, of course not." Ezra sounded mildly scandalized at the very hint of such a thing.

"Well, you’re a gentleman, ain’t you? So if I figure I’m obliged to go on lookin’ after you, that means you gotta let me, don’t it?"

The boy seemed to wrestle with the question. "Somethin’ about that doesn’t sound quite right."

"It sounds right to me," Buck retorted. "You see, Ezra, a man has to live with himself. He has to be able to look himself in the face when he shaves every mornin’, and that means he has to do what seems right to him, even if other folks don’t always understand why it does. If he loses his own good opinion of himself, it’s a lot harder for him to get it back than it might be to redeem himself to others. You can fool other people, but not yourself, on account of you always know the truth, somewhere inside."

"I suppose that is true," Ezra decided after brief reflection.

" ’Course it’s true. One thing I’m never gonna do, Ezra, is lie to you. I don’t know what kind of folks you’ve lived with before, but I want you to forget every twisty thing they ever did to you and look at this as a whole new start. It’s you and me now, Wilmington and Standish, and if we can’t trust each other, we’ll never be able to make it work--all the more on account of not bein’ related. But somebody used to tell me that family--bein’ related--ain’t about blood, it’s about carin’. Folks can find, or make, a family just about anywhere. I did it once, so I know how. You follow my lead, and I’ll teach you what I learned."


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