Now Inez felt as though she was being pulled in two directions simultaneously.
Ezra was worse this morning. He was still more often asleep than awake and now even when he was awake, he barely seemed to know who she was. He was struggling harder to breathe and had already been through several painful coughing fits this morning which had drained him completely.
Then there was Angelica. Inez had found it necessary to rise and go downstairs, before Angelica had awoken, to check on how Buck had coped with the saloon. But she knew that the child desperately needed someone to talk to her and explain things. However, when Inez had ventured back to check on her, she found that Angelica had temporarily disappeared.
But she tried to keep her anxiety under control. It was not uncommon for Angelica to wander off when she was upset and she always returned in due course. Besides, there was nothing Inez could do about it, anyway. When Angelica was intent on remaining hidden, the only person whod ever been able to find her was Ezra. So Inez waited for her to reappear, while trying to balance out all the other things that she felt were required of her.
There were some things that she just had to do herself, although she had been truly moved by the way all of their friends had rallied around herself and Ezra. Chris and Vin had each taken a turn at staying with him overnight, to give Nathan and herself a break. And she now had Casey, as well as Buck, helping her with the saloon.
Inez sighed. Although truly grateful for her help, she worried about Casey. The girl did not truly understand the way the world worked and Inez hoped she wouldnt suffer in anyway because of this enthusiastic display of kindness and loyalty.
Inez had tried to dissuade her, saying, "I do not think that your aunt would approve."
That had only annoyed Casey, who felt that she was no longer a little girl who had to turn to her aunt to solve all her problems.
"Inez, Im a married woman now. I dont havta ask Aunt Nettie about everythin I do."
Inez smiled. Caseys heart was in the right place but she didnt realise that she now had a reputation to consider.
"That is the point, Casey. You are now a married woman. You do not see many respectable married women behind the bar of a saloon."
But Casey had been adamant. And Inez remembered that she had always been fairly unconventional, in any case.
"My husband approves," she declared, "Thats all that matters."
She had looked at JD, certain that he would back her up. These were also his friends that she was trying to help.
JD had looked a little unsure. He probably knew that Inez was right but could tell from Caseys expression that she expected no opposition. "I guess so."
Hed then looked hopefully at his best friend. "Buckll make sure shes okay."
Inez had managed not to laugh. JD was probably the only man in town who would trust Buck with the care of his wife.
So now the pair of them were looking after the bar.
Inez pricked up her ears, as the voices shed been expecting finally appeared. Maudes honeyed Southern tones, accompanied by Josiahs deep rumble, exchanged greetings with Buck and Casey.
It was well past 10 oclock but Maude was probably not long out of bed. Inez had long known that Ezra had gotten his tendency towards late rising directly from his mother. But when they entered the kitchen and Inez turned to greet them, she was surprised by the slight haggardness creeping into Maudes features. She may have slept late but she hadnt slept well.
Maude forced a smile. "So hows my baby boy this mornin?"
Inez searched for a reply that wouldnt alarm her further and the hesitation itself gave her away.
Maude patted her arm in a rather distracted manner. "Dont worry, darlin. Well see him through."
But Inez felt her consternation increasing, as she handed a tray of food to Ezras mother. She had never seen Maude let so much tension show. God alone knew what was going through the womans mind.
And Inez swallowed hard as she watched the two of them climb the stairs to Ezras room.
Mother and son. Father and daughter. And her, Inez.
If anything happened to Ezra, well God help them all. Nothing else would have a hope of saving them.
* * * * *
It took a lot to shake Maude Standish. That was one of the things that Josiah found most attractive about her. Beautiful, well-preserved features and stylish accoutrements notwithstanding, he couldnt help but admire the way she could stand steady as a rock while all those around her fell to pieces.
But now that fortitude was being stretched to its limits. Josiah watched Maude carefully putting one foot in front of the other, as she carried the tray up to Ezras room. Her distraction was such that even this small task had become a challenge.
However much she tried to hide it, she could not keep from him how much the situation was taking its toll on her. No matter where he took her or how much he tried to engage her in conversation, her mind remained elsewhere. It had essentially taken up residence in the room they were now heading towards, where her son was fighting for his life.
Suddenly there was a flurry of movement and Maude almost fell as something collided with her legs. The soup lurched from its bowl onto the tray and came close to spilling to the floor as well.
"Grandmother!" The projectile cried, announcing her identity.
Maude gasped as she tried to maintain her balance and Josiah knelt down to try to detach Angelica from around her grandmothers waist.
"Come here, Angie. Youre gonna make your grandma fall."
Angelica reluctantly gave in to his firm grasp on her shoulder but immediately launched into a long imploring spiel.
"Youre going to see Father. Take me with you. Ill be very good and very quiet. Ive been quiet all day. Nobody even knew where I was. Please! Just for a while. Ill be very, very good. Ill help you carry the tray. Please!"
She knew this was going to be a hard sell. Her grandmother was no fool but, on the other hand, she had always been generous and attentive where her granddaughter was concerned. There should be a more than even chance of winning her over.
Angelica aimed a mournfully plaintive expression at her grandmother. The child knew that she had a natural aptitude for this kind of con (as well a small amount of training) and, this time, she didnt even have to feign the emotions she was projecting. It was a powerful performance.
There was another sharp intake of breath from the veteran conwoman. Even though she recognized the tactic, she found herself swayed by the skill of its execution. The child had the gift. But for once, witnessing her talent caused Maude pain rather than pride.
Josiah saw this and gathered the girl into his arms. "Angie, come talk to me. Your grandma has to give your father his lunch." He nodded to Maude who silently thanked him for the diversion, as she carried the tray into Ezras room.
"I could help," said Angie plaintively, as she watched the door close.
"Stay here with me." Josiah called her attention back to him. "We havent had a decent talk for a long time."
He saw Angie size him up. New target, different tactics.
"Uncle Josiah, whats thats thing Jesus said about letting little children go to him?"
Josiah raised his eyebrows. "Suffer the little children to come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
"Thats it!" Angie saw him smile slightly and grinned in anticipation. She was finally getting somewhere.
The preacher sighed. "Oh Angie, the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."
Angie blinked at him. "What flesh?"
"Never mind. It doesnt matter."
She decided to play her plaintive card again. "Why are you all keeping me away?"
"Its not that we want to, Angie. Its something we have to do for your own good."
"But I really miss him."
"I know but, for now, you just have to wait and keep a hold of him in your heart."
"Its not the same," she sulked. And abruptly coming to a decision, she wriggled her way out of his arms.
Josiah didnt fight her. It would only further anger the child. But he called after, as she headed for the stairs.
"Where are you goin, Angie?"
She looked back over her shoulder. "To talk to Uncle Buck." Then she headed down to the bar of the saloon.
Buck would help her. He always gave her what she wanted if she wheedled long enough. It seemed that he was just unable to keep saying no to her. Not if she used the really pleading look.
Her determination redoubled. Now she was onto a sure thing.
* * * * *
Maude paused before lifting the spoon to her sons mouth again. Nathan had propped Ezra up into a sitting position to help him eat, but he still wasnt fully awake and, every so often, she had to remind him to swallow the spoonful she had placed in his mouth.
She could hear Josiahs deep voice, as he talked to Angelica outside the door. She couldnt distinguish any words, just the low indistinct murmur of their voices, as he tried to reason with the child. She managed to raise a slight smile. He really was quite remarkable.
Although her main purpose in coming to Four Corners had always been to visit her son, Josiahs presence was a welcome bonus.
Initially, she hadnt given him much thought. He had seemed to have nothing which she could use to her advantage.
It had taken her a long time to really that his company was an advantage in itself. He was a kind and educated man with a charming manner and diverting conversation. And he seemed to be to be content just to be with her, never exerting any pressure.
And now, when she was facing a crisis which she wasnt sure that she could handle on her own, he had waited in the background, as he watched over her. Never crowding her and, at the same time, never leaving her forlorn.
She knew that she didnt deserve his support and care. She was shallow and scornful of the kind of commitment he deserved. Initially shed patronized him, and then shed used him in her altercations with Ezra. And Josiah knew it.
But still he kept coming back, asking nothing and offering his strong steady presence. She knew that she didnt deserve it, but it would wound her deeply, if it was ever withdrawn.
"Mother?" She turned to see Ezra looking at her uncertainly.
"What are...you thinking?" His voice was alarmingly weak and breathless.
She smiled slightly. "Oh just daydreamin, Ezra. Here you need to take some more of this."
He took another mouthful and grimaced. "Carrots again?." He took a long pause for breath. "I hate carrots...in soup."
"Theyre good for you, darlin. They say they help you see in the dark."
"Probably keep me...awake all night," he grumbled childishly.
The door opened and Josiah stuck his head in and called Nathan to join him outside.
"Where are they goin?"
"Never you mind, Ezra. Just eat for me. Here comes another one."
He looked annoyed. "Yall are treatin me...like Im six years old."
She grinned, sorely tempted to point out that he was acting like a child of that age. But instead, she decided to use a different argument, in a further attempt to induce his compliance.
"Well, you managed to pull through when you were six years old. Just listen to your mother."
That was a mistake. The painful remembrance it inspired caught her unawares.
And as she gazed at Ezra, she saw that she had dragged him too back to that painful time.
"Yes," he whispered, "I pulled through....Others paid the price."
"Ezra..." Her voice caught. The past suddenly had a hold of her with fingers of ice.
He began to cough again and she helped him raise a handkerchief to his face. She almost closed her eyes to deny this reality. It was all too like before.
Then he moaned, as the coughing subsided. He was slipping under again, his eyes already closing. She reached out and stroked his hair, as she had indeed done when he was six.
"Inez?" he whispered.
Maude sighed. Of course, that would be who he turned to in his hour of need. Still, it meant that he had come back to the present.
"Shes downstairs, darlin. Shell be back soon."
"Angelica!" His eyes suddenly opened wide with alarm.
She brushed back his hair again and spoke soothingly. "Shes outside, Ezra. With Josiah, I think."
He focussed on her, as if recognizing her for the first time. "Mother?"
"Yes, Ezra." She kept her eyes locked with his, as she heard the door open and Nathan come back into the room.
Ezras eyes began to close again but the fear didnt leave them. "Mother,...wheres Zolda?...Is she alright?" he asked in a very small voice.
Maude nearly surrendered to her tears, but managed to keep her voice steady, as she answered him. "Shes safe, Ezra. Shes somewhere where nothing can ever harm her again."
He quietened and seemed to be settling but then whispered Zoldas name once more, before finally succumbing.
Maude looked up to meet Nathans gaze. There was a question in his eyes. Then he looked away.
The healer was extremely curious as to who Zolda might be. But when he saw the raw pain in Maudes eyes, he refrained from asking.
Maude inwardly thanked and blessed him for this consideration. She felt that to speak of it now would have torn her heart apart.
The usual daily routine for Inez rarely allowed her to sit down for any length of time. She would have thought that she would have welcomed the opportunity but, in fact, the disruption of her normal pattern only increased her restlessness and anxiety.
Still, it allowed ample time for contemplation and God knew that there were enough troubling issues to think about. So as she anxiously kept watch by Ezras bedside, she tried to occupy her mind with figuring out ways of easing his pain. Not only physical, but also emotional. As well as Angelicas and Maudes.
Maude had looked close to being overwhelmed when Inez had returned to Ezras room. It really unnerved the saloon manager to see this loss of composure. Maude never floundered. Inez had seen her locked in a jail cell and still carry herself with the dignity of a queen holding court. But this was slowly destroying her. The woman that Josiah had escorted from Ezras room seemed to be only a shell of the one that Inez had known.
Both Maude and Inez always spoke as if they had absolute certainty of Ezra recovering from this illness. But each privately admitted to themselves the possibility that it might not occur. And if that possibility eventuated, Inez knew that it would crush them all.
And it would devastate Angelica completely. It had been Ezra, and Ezra alone, who had pulled the child back from the brink when her mother had died. Inez had done all she could but Ezra had been the only one whod had a strong enough connection with Angelica to properly get through to her. If he didnt make it now, there was a very real possibility that she would disown the world completely.
And the child still didnt really understand what was going on. No one had garnered enough courage to tell her.
Inez had told herself that she had been waiting for the right time, that she had to be told privately, that it couldnt just be blurted out to her. But, between various interruptions and Angelicas frequent disappearances, she had failed to find the right opportunity. And of course, it was definitely possible that Angelica was avoiding her.
It was perfectly obvious that Angelicas sole intention was to get in to see her father. Inez had thwarted her in her very first attempt and now the child was systematically working her way through every family friend and acquaintance, to argue and plead her case.
Her latest target (well, the last person Inez had seen her target) had been Buck. It had been one of those classic comedic confrontations, a tall strong fully-grown man unable to cope with the arguments of a five-year-old girl. Poor Buck had always been defenseless against the attacks of little Angie. He had once commented that she had Ezra wrapped around her little finger but, in truth, she was even better at getting what she wanted from Buck. Ezra, at least, could spot a con from a mile away.
When Inez had wandered over to the two of them, she found Buck desperately trying to change the subject and Angelica doggedly persistent. Her interference was greeted with a grateful sigh from Buck and a resentful glare from Angelica. Inez had tried to use the opportunity to talk to her. But a momentary distraction from a customer at the bar had given the child enough time to slip away and shed disappeared again. Inez had asked Buck where shed gone but he had been so relieved to be free of the onslaught that he hadnt noticed.
Inez sighed. Angelica was definitely avoiding her. Now that she thought about it, she had threatened to tie the child up if she tried to gain access to Ezra. Angelica was probably afraid of that or a similar form of retribution.
How had she managed to set up so many misunderstandings and false suspicions? It also seemed that somehow, somewhere along the way, Ezra had begun to form a suspicion that Inez might be rekindling her old relationship with Buck.
It was just so ridiculous! Inez knew that only her concern about Ezras illness had kept her anger in check. If he had been well, they would certainly have had a spectacular confrontation by now.
She really didnt understand how could he suspect such a thing? She and Buck were good friends. She was entitled to be friends with him and any other man she chose without any ridiculous jealousy. After all, Ezra had close friends who were women and he expected Inez to accept that. She was expected not to resent his interactions with Mary Travis or any of the other women around town. And she did trust him in this regard. So why couldnt he trust her? How could he possibly think that she would be unfaithful to him, even in her heart? Did he think that she was that fickle and shallow?
Suddenly, Ezra took in a sharper breath and his eyes snapped open. She reached down and squeezed his shoulder.
"Its alright, Ezra." Inez knew there was a faint edge to her voice but she couldnt help it. She had sequestered this away for days and now it refused to be contained.
Ezra blinked at her. "Inez..."
"Outside somewhere. I dont know where. She is very much her fathers daughter. No one seems to know what she is thinking."
He heard the anger in her tone and, already disorientated, could make no sense of it. "What?"
She sighed. "Nevermind. Would you like some water?"
He nodded and she poured a glassful and then helped him lever himself up far enough to drink it. When she took the glass away, he sighed and closed his eyes as he leaned back.
But, despite the effort expended to imbibe it, the water had revived him a little. He opened his eyes again and looked steadily into hers. "Whats the matter?"
"Nothing," she stated automatically.
He managed to raise an eyebrow. "Everythins...completely alright?"
Inez mentally shrugged. Well, if he wanted to know.
"Well, you know that Buck and I have been together."
He looked startled and somewhat hurt. "When?"
She sighed. "So long ago now, that it seems like a lifetime ago."
His relief was patently obvious. "Oh...yes, of course...I know."
Inez frowned at him and the anger in her tone deepened. "But, even just then, you thought that I meant more recently."
"Why would you suspect me of such a thing?"
"I dont...suspect you."
"You just did!"
"I..." He didnt really have an answer. He didnt even understand how the question had arisen.
"Dont you trust me, Ezra?"
"I trust you...with my life."
"But not with your heart."
"I trust you...with everything...I can afford...to lose."
The vulnerability in his voice cut deeply into her, even through her shield of anger. She took hold of his hand, suddenly again needing to reassure him.
"If you gamble on me, Ezra, you will not lose!"
He shook his head, his eyes beginning to close again. "Ill remind you...on the day...you leave me."
She wasnt going anywhere. How could she get that through to him?
"What makes you think that I will ever leave you?"
His eyes briefly flickered open again. "Why not?...You left Buck." Then he slipped into slumber again.
She sat back and clenched her fists in frustration. How was she going to get through to him?
Her anger was shifting from him to those who seemed to have beaten his capacity to trust out of him. She knew that it had taken him a long time to understand comradeship and friendship and community. She had thought that he understood love but maybe she was wrong. With love the trust came without reason. Or maybe the love itself was reason enough to trust.
But Ezra trusted no one and kept his emotions as deeply hidden away as he could. Firstly, because that was what Maude had taught him from the earliest age and, secondly, because then he could try to shield them from being trampled on when amiability and kindness ended.
The only person that Inez had ever seen him open up to was Angelica. It seemed that he knew that she was a sure thing, and he wasnt going to risk his heart on anything less.
Everyone else he had ever loved before had always left him. So why should he believe that Inez would stay with him? With difficulty, she could understand that misgiving. But what was this thing about Buck?
Inez never had thought of the end of her relationship with Buck, as her leaving him. The situation had been more that both she and Buck had mutually decided that it wasnt what they had really wanted. Buck had a healthy respect for women, as well as an incurable fascination for them. But with Inez, half of the attraction for Buck had been the unavailability she had created through her constant rebuffs. Once he had attained her, that challenge was gone. And Inez had come to realise that she too had overconvinced herself of how fond she was of Buck. He was charming and she liked him as a friend but in the end, she had found that those things werent enough. Maybe, it had been that while being with him, fun though it was, she had never felt able to stretch her mind.
In any case the whole affair had only lasted a month or two. It was in no way comparable to what she had with Ezra. But was what Ezra thought he and she shared, the same as what she thought they did? After all, he had somehow come to the conclusion that she had walked out on Buck.
She and Ezra had already been good friends when she was with Buck. But they had never actually discussed each others relationships. Neither was the type to openly discuss such personal details. But Ezra had known that Inez had wanted to end it.
Inexplicably, one evening, he had come over to her, poured her a drink (and paid for it) and talked, in his usual obfuscating manner, about individual freedom and the value of personal independence. That had been his strange (but rather touching) way of showing her that she had his support. And any assertions that Buck had made in a similar vein, Ezra had probably taken as merely a case of a rejected Don Juan licking his wounds and putting a best face on his misfortune.
So somehow, Ezra had come to decide that the relationship between himself and Inez was of finite duration. That one day, shed decide that she didnt need him anymore and would just walk away. He might have even begun it all with those very thoughts in his head. Oh, there were times when she wanted to take him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him!
She had so many things to say to him. In her heart and soul, they were eternally joined together. But would he take what she told him as proof of her love for him? Or would his preconceived doubts twist her words and arguments into some sort of evidence that she only stayed with him out of pity or because she thought that she had no other choice?
"Ezra, mi amor, how can I turn what I feel for you into something you can believe about yourself?"
* * * *
Maude and Josiah sat side by side, on her hotel room bed. He kept a steady gaze on her and she kept an equally steady one on some fixed point outside her window. They had exchanged brief comments from time to time, but the larger portion of the evening had been spent in silence.
Josiah felt as though he was watching a storm about to break. For two days now, he had watched this woman slowly losing her grip on her self-control. She had clung to it fiercely but it was slowly but surely slipping through her fingers.
It was not surprising. Maude virtually defined herself by her ability to remain in control of situations, by her capacity to take all Lifes random chances and redirect them in her favour. But now there was a very real chance that she might lose her only son. Perhaps the only thing she valued and cherished more that her own life and all of her profits and possessions combined. Although Josiah was quite sure that shed never told him that, and Ezra might not have believed her if she had.
The silence, somewhat oddly, felt like a clock ticking. Sometime soon the mask of control was going to disintegrate. Maude would speak or she would weep or both. And Josiah would be there for her.
"A mother should never outlive her child" Her voice sounded flat, drained, perhaps even resigned.
It was a tone which alarmed Josiah "Youre not giving up hope, are you? Hes still fighting and fighting hard."
She glanced at him, for the first time in over an hour. "No I cant give up hope," she said softly, "Hope is all I have left." Then she looked out the window again. "I just dont think I could bear to go through it again"
Josiah nodded slightly to himself. He had begun to suspect that some sort of spectre from the past had been haunting her. "Again?" he prodded gently.
The sigh she produced was like the first few drops of rain in the storm. She had fought long and hard to keep these emotions contained. Releasing them was almost like a form of surrender. But she needed to share the burden with someone. And Josiah was easily her first preference.
"Her name was Isolde but her brother could never pronounce the first syllable. He always called her Zolda and, after a while, I also acquired the habit." Her voice was little more than a whisper but it carried easily in the fierce silence of the room. Another sigh, and then, as if steeling herself, her voice gathered volume.
"I had taken them to New Orleans. Isolde was four. Ezra was six. I had an old friend whod watch over them while I indulged in a little gaming. Then one day, at the tables, someone related the story of Emile Ducot. One of the richest men in town, at the time.
Old money without an heir. Hed disinherited his only son when the young man had married against his fathers wishes and both the son and his young bride had drowned in a boating accident soon after. They said that the old man was looking for a young boy to make his heir and raise in place of his son.
Ducot was over eighty and of frail health. I thought, if he wanted to adopt a boy, why not Ezra? The old man would only live a few years and then the child would come into a considerable fortune.
So I arranged for Ezra to visit with Mr Ducot every week, so that he could win his favour. Ezra hated it and would complain bitterly on the way home each time. Well, you know what hes like. He was always the same, even at the age of six.
Then one day, after two months, Ducot had his servants tell me not to bring Ezra any more. I later found out that Ducot had a fever which he died of, the next day. I tried to ask Ezra what had happened but he was tired and irritable and he tried to be evasive. I didnt realize...dear God, why couldnt I see it? I got angry with him. I didnt realize that hed caught the fever which eventually carried off Ducot.
I sent him to bed without supper for being disobedient and insolent. Then later that evening, when I went back to check on him, he was...he was like he is now." Her voice finally broke and the tears began to fall.
Josiah put an arm around her and she allowed herself to rest her head against his shoulder. She wiped her eyes with a handkerchief and then took a deep breath before continuing with her story.
"As soon as Isolde found out, she wouldnt leave her brothers side. Theyd always been close but, that morning, theyd had some silly childrens tiff and shed threatened never to speak to him again.
She never did. Or at least, he never heard her. By the time he was aware enough to speak with anyone, she was already gone. Shed caught the malady and she succumbed within three days.
At first Ezra wouldnt believe me. We had to show him her body before we sealed the coffin. And even then, hed denied it at first, saying that she was just asleep. He still carries it with him. I didnt truly realise until today but he does."
It explained a great deal. No wonder Ezra was so adamant about keeping Angie away. In his mind, fevers killed little children and furthermore, Josiah supposed that what had recently happened with Nikkanoochee had only reinforced that notion.
Maude looked out the window again. So many thoughts buzzing through her mind and now, having seen some of their fellows escape, the rest seemed determined to follow suit.
"Angelica reminds me of her so much that sometimes it hurts."
"Isolde was like Angie?"
"Not in physical appearance, no." Maude actually smiled at the memory. "Isolde was a golden-haired little cherub. I used to actually call her my cherub."
"And Angie is a dark-haired waif-like little thing." Josiah risked joining her in the smile and found it well received.
Maude nodded slightly. "But every so often she casts an impish smile in my direction..."
She sighed. "The smile is so similar. And the laugh. Sometimes when Angelica laughs, I can close my eyes and see my little cherub so clearly, I can almost touch her. I wonder if Ezra remembers her laugh. He was only six, but making her laugh had always been one of his favourite pastimes."
The floodgates were open now. Finally, she could revisit those memories and know that there was support for her, if they threatened to overwhelm her. That she had someone with her who could offer understanding to her without experiencing an equal pain while they listened.
She began to immerse herself in these reminiscences, and she related story after story about Isolde and Ezra. For once, every single one of them was true and each was accented by either laughter or tears and occasionally both.
And Josiah leaned back and allowed her to share with him the memories of her little girl whom she had lost and those of her little boy whom she was so fearful of losing now.
Early the next morning, Inez had a truly unexpected visitor when she returned to the saloon. Shed only been able to venture out on a few occasions, usually early morning or late evening. But then, she hated to be away anyway. She was terrified that something might happen to Ezra in her absence.
And she had been desperately afraid yesterday, when what Ezra was coughing up turned rust-coloured, as if it was tinged with blood. It was as if he was coughing up the very substance of his lungs. And with his steadily increasing weakness and the weight hed lost over these past few days, it seemed like the life was draining out of him before her eyes.
But Nathan said that hed seen patients come back from worse than this. She clung to that. Nathan wouldnt lie to her.
Inez looked up to see Bernard Woolley waiting for her by the saloon door.
She had always liked him. He was an inoffensive, gentle and rather bookish young man. But he and his family were "good church-going Methodist folk" and almost never visited the saloon. Ezra had once taken him there for a celebratory drink, when Woolley had replaced him as records clerk at the town hall, and the young Methodist had continually looked around nervously as he sipped his lemonade, then immediately excused himself and disappeared.
"Can I help you Senor Woolley?" she asked as she met him at the door. With a gesture, she invited him inside and after a second of nervous hesitation, he followed her in.
He again looked positively skittish in the ungodly venue but then took a deep breath and said, "I...we heard about Mr Standish. The whole prayer group is praying for him."
Inez smiled gently at him. "That must be a first."
"Oh no, not at all!" Bernard Woolleys eyes widened with his earnest denial. "Were not all like Mrs Hansen."
Inezs eyebrows lifted at that and Woolley blushed deeply.
"Ive heard about her...disagreements with Mr Standish. Actually she herself is very willing to talk about them. Do you know, when he lost his job at the town hall, she tried to tell Annie how that proved what shed always said. That he never could be relied upon. But even though we couldnt tell her, we knew that hed done it for our sake. So that I could have the job. It was a truly generous gesture of charity on his part and we will never forget it."
Inez was touched by his earnestness but felt that he needed reassuring.
"Please do not feel too indebted. Ezra never wanted that job for himself. He wanted you to have it."
"But still, someone said that he might have lost his daughter over it. That would have wounded him him almost to death. Everyone knows how much he loves her. Except perhaps Mrs Hansen."
"Yes well, Angelica and I are not in Mrs Hansens good books either."
Bernard Woolley actually smiled at that. "No, youre not. She has told Annie and I the whole story in great detail and it is not flattering to either of you or the childs mother. But somehow I dont think that her opinion concerns you greatly."
Then he seemed to remember his original purpose. "But I also came to give you this."
Inez had not taken notice of the small box he was carrying, until he proffered it to her.
"Its shortbread," he explained, "Annie baked it this morning. We thought you or Mr Standish might appreciate it."
For a moment, Inez found it hard to find the words.
"Thankyou," she said finally, after she had accepted the gift. "Im sure we both will. And Angelica too." The saloon manager reflected that she might even be able to entice the child out of hiding with it.
Bernard Woolley smiled again. He seemed to be gaining confidence.
"What you and he did for that little girl shows just how good your hearts must be. Nothing that Mrs Hansen or her friends can say will ever convince Annie and me otherwise. I was at my wits end before Mr Standish gave me his job. They say the Lord will provide but I honestly couldnt see how I was going to keep Annie and the children fed and clothed. Sometimes great kindness comes from the most unexpected sources."
Inez couldnt help herself. She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek.
"Yes, Senor Woolley, it does indeed."
He blushed to the very roots of his hair. "Um...I really must go. Ill be late for work. Remember to tell him. He and all of you are in our prayers."
He fled without hearing her reply.
"And you and your family will always be in mine."
* * * * *
There was only so much that could be solved by talking, Maude reflected silently. The cathartic conversation that shed had with Josiah, the previous evening, had gone a long way in helping her to cope with her persisting grief over the loss of her daughter. But talk alone was not going to prevent her from also losing her son.
Although in many ways, it felt like shed already lost him. Her place in his affections had been well and truly supplanted by others. For, as the fever progressed, it was not his mother that Ezra had called for in his delirium.
Well, not often, anyway. Occasionally, his mind seemed to be taking trips back to that terrible time in New Orleans and, at these times, he sometimes uttered the names of both his mother and his sister (even then it seemed to be more often Isoldes). But his cries to Inez and Angelica were far more frequent and desperate.
It was Inez that he trusted to take care of everything and Maude couldnt hold that against her. The young woman was inherently capable. Maude had liked her from almost the moment shed met her for that very reason. And in fact, she had then singled her out as a woman she could trust with the management of her most valuable asset. She could hardly take exception to being so right in her assessment.
A sudden change in the pattern of Ezras ragged breathing caught her attention. Sure enough, he stirred and his eyelids began to flutter.
She had taken a hold of his hand before he managed to get them fully open but the gesture of support and familial devotion was not exactly rewarded in kind.
"Inez?" he croaked.
"No darlin, its just your errant mother." She reached for the glass of water and got him to swallow a few mouthfuls.
After a brief sigh of relief, he focussed on her. "Whatre you doin here?"
She smiled sadly, despite herself. "I came for a visit, Ezra. Seemed like a excellent opportunity to spend some time with my darlin boy."
The smile faded. "Shes gone, Ezra."
She felt that she had to stop this before it went any further. Leaning forward, she spoke in a low intense voice.
"Were not in New Orleans. Were in that quaint little hamlet they call Four Corners. You live here with Inez and Angelica. You do remember them, dont you?"
He nodded. "Sorry."
"Theres nothing to be sorry for darlin. Just try and keep your mind in the present time and place."
Ezra shook his head slightly. "Sorry for...back then." He had to tell her this and fought to get the words out.
"That last day the old man...he was angry ravin said awful things called you gold-digging whore I ran walked around garden in the rain Minnie housekeeper found me took me inside gave me soup dried my clothes she said Id catch my death but I didnt I caught someone elses."
He gasped for breath and tears formed in Maudes eyes.
"Oh, Ezra "
He shook his head again, more vigorously this time. "Wont happen again...Not Angelica."
"Of course it wont. Shell be fine." She understood his paternal protectiveness, but she also had her own maternal version. "But it will not be your death this time either"
"Wont let it happen." His mind seemed fixed on that point, even as his eyes began to close again. This unreasoning guilt had a hold of him and it wouldnt let go. His strength would fail before its did.
"Ezra, it really wasnt your fault, darlin."
"Angelica...must stay away."
"Inez...where is she?"
"Not far away. Shell be back soon."
Almost as if on cue, Inez entered carrying what looked like a plate of shortbread.
"Is he asleep again?"
Maude glanced back at her son and nodded. He was indeed.
Inez sighed, "I thought I heard him talking. Well maybe then, you would like some. It was a gift from some well-wishers."
"Oh really? Who?"
"Senor Woolley and his wife."
"That nervous little man who replaced Ezra at the town hall?"
"Well, that was most kind of them but I dont think I will. Best save it for when Ezra wakes."
Inez shrugged. "You are probably right. I will take it back downstairs."
"No, wait!" Maude stood and took the plate from her. "Ill take it. Its not me that he wants by his side, anyway."
Inez looked at her in surprise. "What are you saying?"
Maude sighed. "Its no secret that I havent been the most attentive of mothers. Im really not unduly surprised to learn that my son has placed his affections with someone of more proven constancy."
Inez blinked and then, comprehending her meaning, grabbed Maudes arm as she headed for the door.
"No! You mustnt think that. He does love you. It is just that he cannot tell you."
Maude looked up sharply, a touch of hope in her eyes, but she needed to know more.
Inez shrugged. "I dont think such talk was encouraged when he was a child."
Maude sighed again. "And thats my fault too."
"Maybe. But it is not only you that he keeps away. He finds it hard to talk to me about such things too. We say a lot of things with jokes and we argue a lot. But he doesnt like to just sit and talk seriously. I think he finds it hard to believe what is said. That makes it very hard to tell him certain things."
"Yes, I can imagine. Its always been difficult to make him understand some things."
"I think it is not so much understanding. It is more about trust. The only person that he seems able to talk to in that way is Angelica. And I think it is because she is the only person that he is certain will never leave him."
Maude winced. And who had been the first to abandon him? Her fault again.
* * * * *
"Cria cuervos y te sacaran los ojos," Angelica told the small cat as she ran her hand along its back and down its tail. Rather gruesome little phrase. Raise crows and theyll claw your eyes out, what was that supposed to mean? Probably something about ingratitude.
Ezra and Inez had insisted that Angelica continue to practice her Spanish, even though, aside from the two of them, there were very few people around that she could use it with. So she tended to use it when talking to this stray cat that was often found loitering around the saloon. Like herself, it had been given a Spanish name and thus she had more or less assumed they shared a common heritage.
Inez had christened it "Cuervo" and since it wasnt a black cat, nor in any other way crow-like, Angelica assumed that its name was derived from the eye-clawing phrase which Inez spouted from time to time. The saloon manager had been feeding the wayward feline for several months. But it still frequently sharpened its claws on her sacks of flour (spilling the contents everywhere and leaving an unmistakable trail of white pawprints), knocked things from shelves while climbing up on them and left dead mice in prominent places around the saloon. And Angelica had noticed that whenever Inez discovered one of these things, she would moan, "Cria cuervos y te sacaran los ojos," in an exasperated voice.
The name had caught on and most of the saloon patrons also referred to the cat as "Cuervo". Ezra tended to call it "that fleabag" and pretended to have no time at all for the animal. But Angelica knew that he was just hiding what he really thought because she had seen him put out milk for it when he thought no one was looking. Still he obviously felt that no one should know that he liked "the fleabag" and so Angelica had kept this secret for him.
Angelica sighed in frustration. She had already asked Cuervo his opinion of the situation, while the two of them had been sitting together on some of the barrels outside the front entrance of the saloon. But this had only produced a result similar to the results of all the conversations shed conducted over the past few days, friendly but unhelpful. The cat had simply rubbed his head against her leg and mewed softly. Well, that gesture of affection was all that she could really expect from him.
Nobody wanted to help her. They all had gone in to see Ezra but none of them would take her. And the reasons they gave were either hollow or non-existent. Even reliable "Ole Buck" had just kept trying to change the subject.
Only Inez seemed to want to talk to her and, in fact, had come looking several times.
Well, she could go rot, as far as Angelica was concerned. All this pretending to be friendly and caring. If Inez had really cared, she would have helped her to see her father.
Ezra had been angry with Inez, as well as Angelica, to begin with. But Inez had been able to talk with him and he must have forgiven her because now she could go and see him as often as she liked. Shed obviously known that it was important to see him early and say sorry but she had still kept Angelica out. That had been unforgivably mean and selfish and Angelica wasnt going to listen to any of her false excuses.
So shed been hiding from Inez for nearly two days now. She really was very good at it. For as long as she could remember shed relied on this ability. When she had traveled with her mother, theyd had to go to some quite dangerous places. But Angelica had always known that as long as she remained unseen and unheard, she would be safe.
Since she had come to Four Corners, there had only been one time that shed had to hide for safetys sake. It had saved her life when her mother had been killed. But since then, shed discovered that the ability was very useful when she was angry or sad and didnt want to talk to people.
The only person whod ever been able to find her was Ezra. He was clever like that. The two of them had actually met because hed found her hiding in her mothers wagon. And truthfully, Ezra was the only person that shed ever wanted to find her.
And she particularly liked hiding almost under Inezs nose. The saloon manager had looked for her and asked after her but she couldnt see Angelica when she was virtually under her feet. It obviously annoyed her and Angelica was a bit glad about that. She didnt see why she should be the only one who was unhappy.
She looked up to see who had called her and was relieved to see it was only Billy Travis. But Cuervo was less reassured and quickly disappeared into the saloon.
"Hi, Billy," she replied without enthusiasm. Billy was nice enough but, right now, she would have preferred the cats company.
"Whatcha doing out here?" Being about four years older than Angelica, Billy seemed to think he was her big brother or something.
Angelica just looked at him and his expression turned sheepish. "Oh, your dad, right?"
"They havent let me see him for more than two days and he was away for days before that too."
Billy thought that he ought to try and make her feel better but he wasnt sure how.
"Well, yknow hes been sick. Sometimes they keep people out of the room so they wont get sick too."
Angelica shook her head. "Everyone else has gone in to see him. Even your mother and Aunt Casey. They only keep me out."
"And me! I havent been in there either."
Angelicas expression turned cold. "Hes not your father!"
Billy returned the gaze. He knew self-pity when he saw it and he really didnt have much time for it. He knew that her father was sick but things could be worse.
"I dont have a father."
"So? I dont have a mother." Angelica was ready for a fight.
"Yeah, but Inez is almost like your mother."
"She is not! Shes nothing like my mother! She just lives with us!" Angelica was incensed by the very suggestion. Her mother would never have been as mean and unfair as Inez was being.
"Okay, shes not." Billy actually still thought she was but Angie in full fury was quite a vicious little fighter and he didnt think it was worth pushing her to that extent over the issue. "I was just saying that youre lucky to have a father."
Angelica didnt argue with that. She knew she was lucky to have a father like Ezra and she also knew that the lack of a father was a sore point with Billy. She and he had one rather morbid factor in common. They had both been forced to watch the murder of a parent. So she knew that she didnt have an exclusive right to anger like this.
But if she had to consider accepting replacement parents, then so did he.
"Well, Uncle Chris is almost like your father."
Billy snorted. "He doesnt even live with us, Angie."
Angie flared again. He wasnt helping or trying to understand. He was just distracting her. "Well, at least, hes not trying to take your mother away from you!"
Talking wasnt going to get her anywhere. She had to do something. So she got off the barrel and walked purposefully into the saloon.
Shed had enough. She was going to see Ezra now. Just let them try and stop her.