If Teresa took only a short time to fit into life at the Four Corners saloon, it took Angelica no time at all. Since both Ezra and Inez seemed to have her mothers endorsement, she saw no reason to be wary of either of them.
She happily spent the next morning getting under Inez and Teresas feet. Fortunately for them, when Ezra appeared later, he was unable to induce anyone to join him in a game of poker and so sat at a table near the bar and dealt himself out a game of solitaire.
Seizing the opportunity, Inez directed Angelica over to him and the girl climbed onto a chair at the opposite side of the table.
Ezra looked up and smiled, "Good afternoon, Miss Angelica."
"Good afternoon, Mr Ezra," she smiled back at him and then folded her arms onto the table top, rested her chin on top of them and quietly watched him move the cards for several minutes.
"Red seven goes on the black eight," she said after a while, pointing out the relevant cards.
Ezra grinned at her, "You know, Miss Angelica, I have a theory."
She regarded him with curiousity, "Whats that?"
"A theory is an idea about the way things work."
"Oh," she considered this, "and whats your theory, Mr Ezra?"
"My theory is that I will never be lost alone in the wilderness because I always carry a deck of cards with me."
"Because, all I will need to do is to deal out a game of solitaire and, without fail, someone will be sure to approach and advise me on how to play the game."
"Like I did just then?" She had grasped the concept, if not the humour.
He grinned again, "Just so."
"Did you mind?"
"Not at all."
"So can we keep playing?"
"Alright, the red one goes up top."
"A? Like Angelica starts with A?"
"Ace," he repeated, stressing the consonant, "The card is called an ace not a one."
"Why not call it a one?" It was a reasonable question.
"Because, it is traditionally called an ace. The ace of diamonds." He picked up the card and handed it to her. "I think you should regard it as your card, the ace of diamonds. Ace begins with the letter A, just like your name does."
Angelica turned the card over in her hands, pleased but puzzled, "It isnt much use without the rest of the cards, is it?"
"True, but everyone should have a card which they consider their own. For you, thats any ace of diamonds, you understand, not just the one in this deck. That way, no matter who owns the deck, you can feel that you have mastery over at least that one card."
Angelica looked at him with a touch of awe, "Do you have a card like that?"
He smiled and without looking pulled the ace of spades from the deck and handed it to her.
"Another ace?" she asked.
"So does your name start with A?"
Soon after, the game of solitaire was abandoned as Ezra took out a pencil and piece of paper to help explain the spelling of her name, his name and several other words, including "theory".
Inez watched the pair of them from the bar with a fond smile. Ezra had many likeable qualities but the way he related to children was one of his most endearing features. If she had let herself, she probably could have watched the two of them for hours and she almost started guiltily when she heard Teresa approach from behind.
"Do you want to rescue your daughter from Ezras influence?" she asked, recovering quickly.
Teresa shrugged, "Not really. I always wanted her to speak English well. For that, I think Mr Standishs influence is probably a good thing."
"You might not be able to understand what she says by the time hes finished." She saw that Teresa was also watching the spelling lesson and realized that they were both in danger of again being mesmerized. So, despite her previous resolution not to pry, Inez found herself saying, "You never said anything about Angelicas father."
Teresa sighed but turned to look her in the eye. "His name was Michael Langley. He worked for the Harradine family as a farm hand but then he lost his job and he went to the city to find another. He said before he left that he would come back for me and marry me and I believed that for a very long time."
Inez put a consoling hand on her shoulder and Teresa gave her a sad but grateful smile, before continuing, "I didnt realize that I was going to have Angelica until a few weeks later, but I never saw him again."
"So he never knew?"
Teresa shook her head, "No. But still, every so often, I dream that he shows up where Im working. Hes been looking for me all these years. Hes delighted to find out about Angelica. Hes got a good job and a home for us all, and we all live happily ever after." She ended with a snort of self-disgust.
"Dreams like that are nothing to be ashamed of, Teresa."
"I know, but you cant live off them."
Just then, JD entered the saloon, accompanied by Buck and Nathan, and came over to the bar to thank Inez for hosting his engagement party. Almost immediately after that, all three of them were distracted by the sight of Ezra and Angelica.
So, its not just a female thing, thought Inez. But then again, they were probably curious as to who Angelica was.
Buck was a direct type of person. If he wanted to know something, he usually just asked.
"So Ezra, whos your new friend?"
"My friends, may I present to you Miss Angelica Velasquez."
Buck, JD and Nathan turned to look at Teresa. She was already coming from behind the bar to join them. While she now seemed quite at ease with Inez and Ezra befriending her daughter, her apprehensions seemed to resurface with each new acquaintance the child made. Inez supposed that this was understandable, given what Teresa had hinted had happened in San Francisco.
"My daughter," Teresa announced, a definite challenge in her voice.
JD was quite obviously astonished. Buck, although somewhat surprised, was less affected and smiled easily at Angelica, "My names Buck and this heres JD an Nathan."
Angelica again held out her hand to be shaken. It seemed to be an ingrained response.
JD was still dazed as he shook her hand and asked, "How long have ybin in town?"
Buck rolled his eyes and gave JD a light whack on the back of the head, as Ezra said dryly, "I believe that she arrived around the same time as her mother."
"Oh yeah," JD mumbled. He realized that everyone was now looking at him and that he needed to recover some lost ground. "Say, would you an your ma like to come to my weddin?"
Angelica tilted her head to one side, "I dont know. Would we, Mama?"
Teresa still looked apprehensive but replied, "Its up to you."
Angelica shrugged, "Ive never been to one before. Whats it like?"
JD smiled, "Casey an I go to church an get married. Everyone gets dressed up in their best clothes an comes to watch. Then we have a big party to celebrate."
"Sounds like fun."
"So will you come along an wear your prettiest dress?"
Unfortunately, JDs little attempt at Buck-like charm ended with his foot firmly wedged in his mouth again.
Angelica looked slightly hurt, "This is my prettiest dress." The light blue dress she wore was slightly small for her but at least it was clean and not torn. Not anymore, anyway. Aside from the nocturnal camouflage she had worn on the previous night, she had only one other piece of attire, a dark grey dress with a rip in the right sleeve which needed mending.
Ezra came to the rescue, "Its a very pretty dress, my dear. But perhaps, with your mothers permission, I might be allowed to purchase you one of surpassing beauty."
The sentence had Angelica stumped but, catching the reference to her mother, she cast a deferring glance to that authority.
Teresa sighed, "If you buy my daughter a dress, you must let me pay you back for it," she considered her financial situation and added, "Eventually."
Ezra feigned shock, "Id insist upon it! Five cents a month for as long as you work here and not a penny less!"
"Its no use, Teresa," Nathan laughed as the young mother looked set to argue, "If Ezras got his mind set on bribery, theres no stoppin him."
"Bribery?" Another unfamiliar word, and Angelica was determined to have the meaning of this one.
"Mr Jackson here, is implyin that I am goin to buy you a new dress in the hope that you will then be my friend," Ezra explained.
The child grinned, "Oh, dont worry Mr Ezra! Ill be your friend anyway!"
"My dear, you are truly a lady of taste and refinement."
Angelica didnt really understand what hed said but she could tell it was a compliment by the tone of his voice, "Thank you, Mr Ezra."
Teresa had a significant amount of foreboding that these two were about to gang up on her and thus felt the need to step in, "I think its more correct for you to call him Mr Standish, Angelica."
"He calls me Miss Angelica," the child pointed out.
"Its true. I do call her that," Ezra owned with a shrug of false apology.
Teresa sighed again. Shed been right, they were ganging up on her.
Then Buck joined in, "Id like to call you Angie. Would that be okay?"
Angelica looked at her mother who shrugged fatalistically and the child nodded, "That would be fine."
Before any further clarification of names could occur, Vin Tanner stuck his head over the main saloon door.
"Howdy everyone! Gonna need your help fellas. Somethins goin down across the street."
The four hired law-keepers in the saloon immediately headed out to join him. Buck went somewhat automatically, he had a job to do, no further thought required. A concerned frown flitted across Nathans face, as it always did at any sign of trouble. Despite the years of experience he had acquired, JD still went with a certain amount of eagerness. And Ezras mood as he followed was one of irritation.
He was being called to perform these services less and less often. In fact, he sometimes suspected that it might not be too long before Judge Travis felt that he was no longer getting an adequate return for the dollar per day he paid each of them and terminated the law-keeping arrangement he had instigated.
Nonetheless, despite the infrequency of these duties, Ezra always resented when they intruded upon either his other mode of employment or (as in this case) an interesting social interaction.
When he joined the others outside the saloon, he saw what had prompted Vins concern. Several distinctly unwashed characters were gathering across the street. Even more disturbing was the fact that several others of the same ilk (they might as well have been wearing a uniform) appeared to be placing themselves at strategic points along the towns main thoroughfare.
Chris Larabee leaned against the open doorway of the building closest to the main group of ruffians. He looked up to make eye contact with Vin Tanner who in turn flicked a glance at Josiah Sanchez, unobtrusively approaching from the direction of the church, before nodding briefly.
At this silent signal, Chris and Vin both headed towards the main group in the street, while the rest of the Seven moved to take up places covering both their friends and the potentially troublesome intruders.
Ezra himself didnt move far, leaning against one of several large barrels in front of the saloon which afforded him a good view of most of the street but would also provide cover from most directions if an altercation erupted.
It didnt take long. Ezra couldnt clearly hear the conversation which Chris and Vin were conducting with the uncouth visitors but it appeared distinctly unfriendly. Then suddenly a shot gun came up, aiming directly at Chris. He rolled in one direction at the same time as Vin pulled the barrel of the gun in the other and it discharged, hitting the two ruffians behind them. Then, in the words of the common idiom, all hell broke loose. Chris and Vin ducked for cover as gunfire erupted from all directions.
Whoever this gang were, they seemed to know that there were seven gunmen who protected Four Corners and had brought with them what seemed like sufficient forces to take on that number. This was hardly surprising, over the years, Ezra had found that their reputation had begun to proceed them more and more. However, they obviously had no description of said protectors because other than at Chris and Vin, they had little idea where to direct their fire. Hadnt they been watching when he, Nathan, Buck and JD had responded to Vins summons?
This musing came close to costing him dearly, as a bullet whizzed past his head from an unseen attacker to his left. There was a crash of glass from that direction and what sounded like Teresas voice cried out in alarm. He whirled to see one of the thugs discharging several shots from his revolver into the saloon.
Ezra took the man down with a single shot, even as he saw a small light blue bundle roll into the street. Angelica! Obviously trying to throw herself out of the line fire but probably choosing the worst possible direction in which to do so.
Ezra ran to collect her but was beaten to it by the hurtling form of a man in black who swept her out of the path of another barrage and back into the saloon in one swift movement. Not for the first time, Ezra silently thanked God for Chris Larabee. Then turning to deliver covering fire, he saw many of the invaders mounting horses to make their escape.
The other five town protectors, apparently unhurt, collected in the street to give them a fitting send off. Ezra, however, was more concerned about the occupants of the saloon.
As he entered, he noticed the broken glass in front of the entrance which appeared to come from a shattered beer glass. Chris was breathlessly leaning against the bar and gazing with astonishment at Angelica who had been swept up into her mothers arms. Ezra decided to take advantage of Chris momentary speechlessness to make his own inquiries.
He looked at Angelica and Teresa, "So, how did Miss Angelica happen to venture into this affray?"
"I saw that man point his gun at you and..." Angelica began.
Her mother looked at her sternly and she fell silent. Teresa then offered her own version, "We could see one of them aiming in your direction. Before I could stop her, this one," she again looked reproachfully at her child, "hurls a glass in his direction. This prompts him to fire at us. I tried to get to her but when she tried to get out of the way she fell outside. And if it hadnt been for Mr Larabee..."
"I was just trying to help!" the child protested in an injured tone.
"Well, the best way to help would be to try to stay out of trouble!" Teresas anger did not abate but Ezra could see that it was fear for what might have happened which was fuelling it.
Chris looked at them somewhat incredulously, as he finally regained his breath, but before he could demand answers to his questions, the others arrived.
"Chris! Angie! Are you two okay?" demanded Buck.
Chris at last managed to gasp out a question, "Angie?"
"Yeah," Nathan nodded at the girl in Teresas arms, "Angie, short fer Angelica Velasquez."
"Teresas little girl," added JD.
Chris surveyed the rest of the group, "Am I the only one who doesnt know whats goin on around here?"
"Aw Chris, should know theres always some things kept from the boss." Vin didnt feel the need to point out that hed never met Angelica before either.
"Speakin of not knowin whats goin on," said Ezra, "did either of you two manage to discover the reason our recent visitors dropped by?"
Vin grinned, "Seems word has it that Four Corners is gettin too big for the seven of us to look after on our own. Those boys thought we might appreciate them sharin our work."
"But I think they were lookin for more than a dollar a day as payment for their protection," added Chris.
Ezra snorted, "I trust that we have asserted the independence of our franchise?"
"I dunno about that," it was the first time Josiah had spoken since he arrived. They all turned to look at him.
Chris eyes narrowed, "Whadya mean by that."
"Think I recognized one of the leaders, fella by the name a Walsh, and he was one of those who rode away from todays skirmish."
"Whadya know about im?"
"Vicious but pragmatic," he slowly gazed around at each member of the group, allowing his words to sink in, "Hell look for easier pickins in the short term but he wont forget us or this town and, as like as not, one day hell return to even the score."
Over the following days, life for the Velasquez family slipped into an easy routine. As Ezra had suggested, Teresa dropped her daughter off at the orphanage each day before she began work. Angelica had actually spent very little time with other children during her four years but, being a naturally adaptive child, quickly fitted in.
From the first day of this arrangement, Ezra had volunteered to fetch Angelica home each evening. Inez and Teresa had managed to hide their knowing smiles. The gambler had instantly taken to Angelica and she to him. His six compatriots and indeed most of the town also realized this and no one was at all surprised. Everyone had long known that he had a soft spot for children and by all accounts this particular child was herself a rather precocious little charmer.
However, while Angelica and her mother had begun to feel comfortable in the town of Four Corners, not all of the town could be said to be comfortable with them. The gradually increasing security of the town had in turn fostered an increasing sense of respectability and some felt this was in some way threatened by an unwed mother raising her child in a saloon. None had wanted to discuss it with the saloon residents themselves though.
The evening it was first mentioned to Inez and Ezra (approximately a week after Angelica had been discovered) began as usual with Ezra escorting the child back to the saloon. He had given his candy-distributing sleight of hand performance again, mainly because he had felt guilty that since Angelica had arrived, he had been neglecting Josiahs orphans. There was the added bonus that Angelica, who had not seen it before, was considerably impressed and they discussed it at length on the journey home.
As they passed by the general store, they heard some one call to them and turned to see Nathan at its door.
"Good afternoon, Mr Jackson," Ezras smile of greeting widened when Angelica echoed his words exactly.
"Afternoon to yboth," said Nathan, then focussed his attention on the girl. "Angie, do ythink your mother would be angry if I gave you a small present?"
"Tryin to bribe the favour of small children, Nathan?" Ezra asked mockingly, fully aware of how blatantly hypocritical his words were, "Im shocked!"
Angelica, however considered Nathans question quite seriously and answered, "I dont think so. Not if it was a small one."
Nathan smiled and offered her a stick of liquorice which he had held hidden behind his back. But Angelica shook her head, "No, thank you, Mr Jackson. I dont like liquorice."
Nathan couldnt quite hide his disappointment and Ezra felt a twinge of sympathy. It was always painful when such friendly overtures were rejected. Even when it was done politely and completely without malice by someone too young to know any better.
Angelica seemed to know that shed said something wrong and added, "Sorry." And Ezra decided to break the uncomfortable moment and continue on their way.
After they said their farewells and started to walk away, he leaned down and spoke softly to the child, "You hurt Nathans feelins, Angelica, it might have been better to have just accepted the gift graciously."
"But I really dont like liquorice. I think it tastes awful!"
Ezra shrugged, "You could have given it to me later. I like liquorice. And then he would have had the pleasure of givin you a gift."
Angelica considered this, then abruptly turned and ran back to the general store. Ezra watched as she spoke to Nathan, accepted the liquorice stick he gave her with a smile and raced back towards Ezra. As she approached, she called out to him, offering the liquorice.
Ezra looked up apologetically at Nathan as he accepted it and he could see that the original benefactor was unsuccessfully trying to hold back laughter. At least Nathan hadnt been further offended by this turn of events but it still made Ezra feel exceedingly awkward. He shook his head as he looked down at his small companion and took her hand again.
"Angelica, do you have any idea of what the word subtle means?"
* * * * *
Inez had been slightly surprised to see Mary Travis enter the saloon. Although far from a stranger to the place, the newspaper editor was hardly a regular customer and usually had a reason for her visits. She also looked rather nervous and when Inez caught her gaze, the saloon manager had the distinct impression that she was the bearer of a message which she would rather not impart.
"What can I do for you, Senora Travis?" Inez supposed that she might as well take the bull by the horns and if the message was as serious as she supposed, best keep things rather formal.
Mary, on the other hand, hoped to diffuse what she had to say with a more casual and friendly approach. "Hello, Inez. Listen, theres some things we need to talk about."
"Like what?" Inez couldnt quite the suspicion out of her voice.
Mary took a deep breath. "I want you know that I dont agree with them but several people have come to me and asked me to have a word with you."
Mary searched for a diplomatic way to phrase it, "They have concerns about your staff."
Inez felt her temper rising, "What concerns them?"
"Well they have said that a saloon isnt a fit place to raise a child."
"What do they expect? That well send her to boarding school?"
"No, but they think that she will come into contact with some disreputable characters here."
"Do you mean Ezra, myself or her mother?"
"Dont be silly, Inez! Thats not what they meant!"
Inez realized that Mary probably actually believed what she was saying. She tried to reign in her temper and keep her voice even. "Silly? Listen Mary, I know which people have felt they need to talk to you. And I know what they say about Teresa, even if they are too afraid to say it to her face or mine. Well, you can tell them from me that Im running a saloon here not some kind of church group. And you can also tell them that Teresa is a better mother than the whole gossip-mongering lot of them put together!"
The little tirade had gathered both volume and vitriol as it progressed. Mary was momentarily rendered speechless but, luckily, she was spared from an immediate reply by the arrival of the child supposedly in peril and her current less-than-reputable caretaker.
"So," Angelica was saying, "to ask for a cookie would be obvious but to say they looked delicious would be more subtle."
Ezra nodded, "Exactly! And to ask someone to leave would be obvious, and possibly rude, but to remark upon the lateness of the hour would be more subtle."
"Saying how cold it is, instead of asking for a coat or blanket?"
"Yes, Id say youd grasped the concept of subtlety."
"Is that the same as having an idea what it means?"
Ezra grinned, "Thats right." He looked up and noticed Mary, "Evenin, Mrs Travis. May we be of assistance?"
The newspaper editor blushed slightly but then seemed to recover. "No, Inez and I were just discussing something." She looked back at Inez and her eyes became set with determination, "Ill tell them what you said. Perhaps in those exact words."
She then offered a smile, which was returned, before heading for the door. But she paused at the entrance and turned back with an apologetic expression.
"Sorry. I almost forgot, this letter arrived for you, Mr Standish." She produced the missive in question from her pocket and handed it to him with another smile. He thanked her and she again took her leave of them but, as she turned to go, she almost collided with Teresa, carrying a box of various foodstuffs she had just purchased from the general store.
"Sorry, Mrs Travis!"
An almost guilty expression flitted across Marys face, "No, Teresa. Im sorry." Her face cleared and she was successful in her third attempt to exit as she bade them goodbye.
Teresa looked briefly confused before shrugging and addressing her daughter, "Come and help me put these in the kitchen, Angelica. I think theres an apple here somewhere."
Angelica cheerfully followed her as she led the way and Inez went back to tending the bar.
Ezra took a seat at a nearby table and opened his correspondence. His mothers handwriting was instantly recognizable. It had been a while since he had heard from her and he was curious as to her recent activities.
My dear Ezra,
I hope this letter finds you well and unencumbered by any financial or legal difficulties.
In my recent travels, I have encountered someone who has expressed an interest in expanding their business venture into the territory where you presently reside. Their business is entertainment which, as we both know, is something your current abode could use more of. Brief inquiries have revealed the project and the organization behind it to have achieved moderate success in the state of California.
My contact, a Mr Malcolm Greel, has asked to be made known to someone with local knowledge. I unhesitatingly forwarded your name and address and he plans a visitation in the near future. He was also gratified to learn of your connection with local law enforcement. Such contacts have proved fortuitous to him in the past. I have every hope that an association between the two of you will prove successful and I wish you all the best.
You loving mother,
When he looked up from reading it, he saw Inez regarding him with a querying expression. He smiled ruefully. Theyd known each other so long that she didnt even need to voice the question aloud to get an answer.
"My mother. She says that an acquaintance of hers is comin to visit and may have a business proposition."
Inez raised her eyebrows, "What sort of business?"
"She says entertainment. To my mother, that could be anything from choral singing to gambling and prostitution. Although some of her comments about law enforcement lead me to suspect that it more likely tends towards the latter two."
"So what are you going to do?"
He shrugged, "It cant hurt listenin to what he has to say. If the proposal is reasonable, then why not? If its outrageous, I can always refuse to be involved."
"Perhaps you should discuss it with some of the others. After all, your idea of reasonable isnt always the same as everyone elses."
He grinned at her, "True, but this time I promise to be good."
She shook her head in resignation, "Youve promised that before. Just dont say later that I didnt warn you."
It was time for a change of subject, in his opinion, "So what did you discuss with Mrs Travis?"
Inez hesitated. Mary was a closer friend to Ezra than she was to the saloon manager and Inez didnt really want to offend him by being overcritical. "Oh, gossip mostly."
He raised an eyebrow, "You were gossipin? Or were you discussin other peoples gossip?"
She shrugged, "Other peoples gossip."
"And how goes the tide of public opinion?"
"It turns against Teresa."
"How so?" Now he was concerned as well as curious.
"They dont think shes raising her child properly."
"Shes one of the best mothers Ive seen!"
Inez laughed, "I said something like that." Then she sobered, "The church-going crowd might try to make things difficult."
Ezra sighed, "I suppose things were gettin just a bit too comfortable."
"So what do you think we should do?"
"You and I should stand shoulder to shoulder against the rampagin armies of puritanical righteousness."
He shrugged, "We wait vigilantly. A confrontation may be weeks away and we dont need to force it. As long as Teresa knows that she has our support, I dont think we need be unduly vexed. Let them say what they like."
Inez nodded. Neither of them had ever cared much about the opinions of the puritanical hypocrites which were lining up against the Velasquez family. Those whose opinions they did value had already shown their support. As Ezra had said, there was no need to force a confrontation.
As it turned out, the first confrontation was a couple of weeks away but friendship did get caught in the crossfire.
"Is it red?"
"It changes colour?"
"Yes, it does."
Angelica actually stopped dead in her tracks to consider this. Ezra smiled as he watched her turn the facts over in her mind. Small. Quite soft, but also firm and definitely not mushy. Occasionally red. She carefully considered her next question.
They were again walking home together from the orphanage. He had long since discovered that these word games were a far more effective way of bribing Angelica for her company and affection, than any form of candy or trinkets. For a four-year-old, she had a truly remarkable grasp of words and ideas and he was highly flattered to discover that she seemed to prefer his conversation above any other.
He knew that everyone laughed about how taken he was with Angelica. He himself knew that, while he was as susceptible as the next man to the charms of a pretty woman (especially if she had a degree of sophistication), his real emotional Achilles heel was the attention of a bright and inquisitive child.
He remembered how charmed he had been by Olivia Greer who had managed to beat him at poker at age six and who had spotted one poor cheating amateur when he was palming cards. But Angelica eclipsed even her. Oh she didnt have even a fraction of Olivias skill (or interest) in cards but her inquiring mind and budding conversationalist skills were a joy to observe.
"Good evening, Mr Standish. Are you taking the little one back to the saloon?"
He glanced in the direction of the question. Mrs Hansen. She was one of the more self-righteous matriarchs in Four Corners society. One of those churchgoers who felt duty bound to tell others exactly how far along the road to hell they were. He instinctively gathered Angelica into his arms. "Evenin, Mrs Hansen. We were indeed headin in that direction. Say hello, Angelica."
The child sensed his tension but nonetheless responded politely, "Hello, Mrs Hansen. Pleased to meet you." As usual, she extended her hand to be shaken.
The woman took it tentatively, as if the girl was in some way contaminated, "Im sure."
Ezra felt his anger building. That anyone would dare slighting Angelica. Vengeance was definitely required. He gazed at the girl. She was quick, would she be able follow his lead?
Meanwhile, Mrs Hansen unable to contain her righteousness, kindly began to set herself up. "I cant imagine how any mother can raise their child in such a den of iniquity."
"Iniquity?" Angelica queried the meaning of the unfamiliar word.
"Sin, evil, vice," Ezra explained quickly and quietly to the child before turning again to Mrs Hansen, "Some young mothers must take what work and lodgings they can, to feed and clothe their children. They have neither the time nor the resources to be subtle."
He threw a quick meaningful glance at Angelica. She was up to the task and said, "Im so cold, Mr Ezra. Will we be home soon?"
"Weve still quite a distance to go," he replied, vaguely apologetic.
Mrs Hansen wore an expensive silken scarf over her cloak. Both Ezra and Angelica had noticed it and now the child gazed at it with a masterfully timid and sorrowful expression and she hugged her arms around herself as if to keep out the cold. The woman touched the scarf at her shoulder. Ezra fought to suppress a smile. They had her!
Then, much to Ezras surprised delight, Angelica actually managed to shiver slightly. Mrs Hansen glanced around to see at least one person, Nathan, watching the small group with vague disapproval colouring his features. She crumbled but managed to impart one more pious slight as she did so.
"Well if these women cant clothe their offspring, then decent folk must be charitable." She took off the scarf and wrapped it around the childs shoulders.
Angelicas face shone with an imitation of surprised gratitude as she gushed, "Thankyou ever so much, Mrs Hansen. You are so kind and you have really lovely red hair."
Ezra nearly lost control of his expression completely, at that point. The shade of Mrs Hansens red hair changed from week to week and had been a source of great mirth among some of the saloon patrons during the previous evening.
Mrs Hansen put a hand to her hair and genuinely smiled, "Thankyou, my dear." And with that she turned and left.
"Well," said Angelica, as soon as she was out of earshot, "was that subtle?"
"It was brilliant, Angelica. Your subtlety wavered at some points but the overall performance was inspired."
"And she didnt even realize that it isnt that cold."
"She didnt even realize that I could have given you my own coat. But then, perhaps she just thinks Im heartless."
"Ezra!" They both looked over to see Nathan approaching with a furious expression on his face.
"Mr Jackson?" Ezra merely raised an eyebrow but Angelica slid out of his arms, hiding behind him when she reached the ground.
"What the hell was that?" Nathan demanded, so angry that he forgot to watch his language in front of Angelica.
"Mrs Hansen very generously donated this fine silk scarf to Angelica."
"So youre teachin her to con people!"
"Angelica and I are conductin a study of human nature." Ezras tone contained a warning that went completely unheeded.
"And youre prepared to teach that little girl every dirty little con you know? I cant believe what I just saw!"
Ezras eyes flashed, "Mr Jackson, I was taught what you just saw or somethin very similar when I was younger than Angelica is now. It must be nice to have no vices to reflect upon but both Angelica and I know what it is like to walk the more shady side of the street. You should be grateful. If people like us didnt exist, who would the morally superior such as yourself and Mrs Hansen look down on? However, if we are that offensive to your sensibilities, we will remove our corruptin presence!"
After finishing this tirade, Ezra abruptly turned, took hold of Angelicas hand and strode angrily down the street, trailing a very perplexed child behind him.
* * *
Nathan stood rooted to the spot and fairly shook with silent rage. How dare Ezra accuse him of being some kind of patronizing bigot like that Hansen woman? How dare he!
Nathan knew Ezra was good at fighting with words. Hell, if it came to a duel to the death, words would probably be Ezras favourite choice of weapons. He had a formidable arsenal. But although Nathan knew that he couldnt match the firepower, he often stepped into the fray, using his own sense of right as a shield. This time Ezra had actually used that against him, making Nathan doubt himself in a way which he very rarely did.
Three years ago, he never would have thought to find himself fretting over the Southern gamblers words. They had truly loathed and despised each other when they first met. A lot of that was prejudice, and when Nathan was honest with himself, he had to admit that it was prejudice on both sides. Ezras smooth Southern accent had been enough to bring back all the memories Nathan would rather have forgotten. But added to that, the smug and arrogant manner which the gambler so easily slipped into and the pure contempt with which he had first greeted the black ex-slave, had all given Nathan enough reasons to firmly stamp Ezra Standish as not worth knowing.
All that had changed. Prejudices were not overcome overnight, but the two of them had gradually developed a certain amount of mutual respect and even affection. Neither was the kind of man to go overboard in expressing it. They would both rather trade insults. But neither would hesitate to describe the other as a friend.
Nathan had been through a lot of hardship in his life and this had only increased his compassion for those who were suffering. But Ezra had been right, Nathan had never doubted his own morality and perhaps his sympathy for the morally flawed was not so well developed. Nathan also knew that he did take some pleasure in his own righteousness and although he made an effort to tolerate Ezras shortcomings, he rarely tried to understand them. So maybe the fault was his, at least partially. Suffering took many forms and perhaps he had failed to recognize one of them.
* * *
Ezra was approximately twenty yards ahead of her before he heard Angelicas voice calling to him to slow down. He stopped and turned. He hadnt even realized that he had let go of her hand.
The child was quite breathless when she slowed to a halt in front of him but she managed to gasp out, "What did I do wrong?"
"You?" He blinked and the guilt he was feeling at least doubled, as he stooped down to face her on her own level. "You havent done anythin wrong."
He sighed. He had done something wrong, again. It was all very well to lecture Nathan about his judgmental tendencies but Ezra knew that he had no right to speak for Angelica. Whatever Teresa might think of her own moral turpitude, it was clear that she wanted something far better for her daughter. And Nathan had been right, he had used Angelica to pull a con. In exactly the same manner his mother had used him when he was a child, and for which he had frequently condemned her.
It had been this realization of his own guilt which had made him turn on Nathan with such venom. He hadnt even started out with any intention of educating Angelica in the fine art of the swindle. The whole thing had stemmed from a desire to exact revenge on that hypocritical self-righteous Hansen woman. But in the end, he had not only reverted to type but made good inroads into corrupting the child. If only his mother could see him now, she would be so proud. As he reflected on this with a considerable amount of self-disgust, he realized that Angelica was still gazing at him with nervous concern.
When she realized that she had caught his eye, she offered a tentative smile. "Is it true that you learned to do all that when you were younger than me?"
He smiled sadly but couldnt repress a sigh. "Yes."
"Maybe you could teach me all the other things you learned."
"Maybe someone else could teach you much better things."
"You dont want to teach me?" Her face and voice displayed naked disappointment.
"I want you to learn to be much better than I am, Angelica. I want you to grow up to be everythin your mother wants you to be." As opposed to everything that his mother had wanted him to be, he thought to himself.
Angelica just stared at him sadly. Somehow in all this, hed managed to damage the childs sense of self worth. He offered an encouraging smile. "Angel girl, Ill teach you all the good things I know. But you must always listen to your mother more than you listen to me. She will teach you all the better things." He reached over to wipe away the tear that was about to spill onto her cheek and was quite overwhelmed when she flung her arms around his neck and held on tightly.
"So youre still my friend?" her tear-stained voice whispered in his ear.
"You and I will always be friends, Angelica," he drew back to look into her eyes and reiterated with emphasis, "Always!"
She managed a smile, releasing him from the embrace, and he stood, taking her hand, and resumed their journey home. After a few steps, she piped up again, "That thing thats soft and sometimes red?"
He smiled. As far as she was concerned, they could continue on just as before. "Yes?"
"What makes it change colour?"
"Temperature usually, although sometimes other things." The answer he had been trying to make her reason out was her own nose.
"Whats the matter?"
"I thought it might have been Mrs Hansens hair."
He burst out laughing, "Her hairs not all that small, Angelica!" He picked her up again. She was truly a remarkable child and deserved to be carried the rest of the way home.
The following morning, Inez accosted Ezra as soon as he appeared downstairs, "Id stay out of Teresas way this morning, if I were you. Angelica let slip how she came by that scarf."
"Oh," Ezra frowned. Hed thought that theyd managed to sidestep that one.
As soon as they had arrived at the saloon, the previous evening, Angelica had presented the questionably acquired scarf as a gift to her mother. Despite himself, Ezra couldnt help a small proud smile. The child had superb instincts which went beyond any tutelage he had given her. Always unload suspect acquisitions as soon as possible, and preferably implicate any authority which may try to prosecute you.
When Teresa had asked where it had come from, Angelica had simply said that it was a gift. Teresa had then told Ezra that he shouldnt have and he had told her that it was a pleasure. She had not looked entirely pleased but she had let it go. He really had to congratulate Angelica, it had been an artful piece of misdirection and neither one of them had had to utter a single untruthful word.
However, it seemed that he had underestimated Teresas ability to procure the truth from her daughter. Well, he could hardly blame the child. She was, after all, only four.
"How bad was it?" he asked Inez.
"Well, Angelica looked very meek when they set off for the orphanage together this morning and I heard Teresa mutter something about betrayal." She regarded him closely before adding, "Yknow, I think that girl is beginning to fall for you."
He blinked, then purposefully misunderstood, "Angelica?"
Mild impatience crossed Inezs features, "Teresa. Id watch myself, amigo. Shes probably looking for a father for her daughter."
Ezra silently reflected that such fatherhood wouldnt have been an entirely unappealing proposal, but what he said aloud was, "Youre imaginin things, Inez."
"Yes well, maybe Im imagining that Nathan seems to have stopped by to talk to you."
He followed her gaze to where the healer sat with an untouched glass of whiskey in front of him. It was certainly unusual for him to be drinking hard liquor this early in the morning. Ezra wasnt sure if he wanted to face him yet but when he looked back at Inez, she gave him a look that quite clearly demanded "Well?" So he acquiesced with a sigh and wandered over.
"A bit early for you, isnt it?"
Nathan looked up. "Could say the same about you," he ventured with a small tentative smile.
Ezra managed a small smile in return, acknowledging the reminder that the general population seemed to think him incapable of rising before noon. He wasnt prepared to let his guard down just yet, though. "So, is there a reason?"
Nathan regarded him steadily, "Maybe I thought I might take a stroll on the shady side of the street."
Ezra sighed heavily and sat down opposite him at the table. He regarded the hat in his hands for a few seconds, before looking up at Nathan, "It can be rather cold. Particularly if you dont have strong enough convictions to keep you warm."
"On the other hand, some folks convictions are so strong they tend to burn."
"They can somewhat," Ezra looked at his hat again but the small smile had returned to his face, "but unless I value the persons opinion, Im usually fireproof."
Teresas voice cut through the air like a knife, "Mr Standish, can I have a word you?"
Definitely not fireproof in this case, thought Ezra as he looked up at her.
She didnt wait for an answer, "Angelica told me exactly what happened yesterday."
"Yes, I gather that she finally broke under interrogation." No repentance yet, that would be a tactical error.
"So, can you tell me what prompted Mrs Hansen to make a gift of her scarf?"
Nathan stepped in, "She thought Angie was cold."
Ezra looked at him with an expression that suggested that the healer had no idea what he was getting himself into and Teresa pounced, "Were you there?"
"Well, yes." Nathan was somewhat taken aback by the cold venom in her voice, now equally directed at him.
"And did it seem particularly cold to you?"
"So would you then think that Mrs Hansen was led to believe that Im not capable of properly clothing my daughter?"
"Do you think this is funny or something? I wont have my daughter taught criminal activities and I wont take charity from that woman or any of her sanctimonious friends," she dropped the offending scarf in Ezras lap, "and you can return that at the first opportunity!" With that, she stalked off.
Nathan downed the whiskey in front of him in a single swallow and turned to see Ezra regarding him with amused sympathy.
"Welcome to the shady side of the street, Nathan."
* * *
Teresa walked out to the back room of the saloon. She seriously wanted to throw something but that wouldnt have been fair to Inez or her property, so she just seethed silently with anger born of a trust betrayed.
She had occasionally left Angelica in care of close female friends before but Ezra Standish was the first man she had ever trusted with her. Teresa had seen the almost instant bond the pair of them had formed and the obvious affection he had for her. How could he do something like this?
It was her own fault for trusting him. Oh, he was good man at heart, she knew that. But she was also aware that he had faults and all this seemed to have come about due one of the most strikingly obvious of those faults. And when she thought about it, that woman had probably really asked to be conned.
Teresa pulled herself up. Now she was making excuses for him? She gave a little snort of self-disgust. She was becoming far too fond of that man altogether.
She sighed. She was getting very fond of him indeed, but he seemed to think of her as some kind of little sister. Of course, it was hardly likely that he would think of her as anything else when he had a woman like Inez. And Teresa knew that she had been lucky to find both of them. Faults and all, they were the best friends that she and Angelica had had in a long time. Perhaps ever.
Well, she had told him what she thought. She might as well go and make peace with him (for the sake of harmony in the workplace, if nothing else).
But as she turned to go back to the bar, she saw something that made her blood freeze.
Malcolm Greel! He looked like hed just entered. Walking over to Inez, he introduced himself and then asked where he could find Ezra Standish who, he believed, was more or less expecting him.
Teresa nearly fainted. Never had she known betrayal like this, and shed thought shed pretty much seen it all.
The bastard! Hed made her think she and Angelica were safe here, wormed his way into their hearts and all the time hed had this planned. She wanted to kill him! But then her survival instincts won over. Her survival and Angelicas. They had to get away from here. She grabbed a sack and began to fill it with provisions. When she went to a drawer to get a knife, she also found one of Ezras revolvers. He had lent it to Inez the previous day for some reason and she had obviously put it here for safe keeping until it could be returned. She picked it up and checked that it was still loaded. This would certainly be useful.
She scrambled to collect what else she needed from the kitchen. No one was going to stop her escaping. And if that treacherous bastard Standish got in her way, hed get one of his own bullets right between the eyes.
Ezra was in two minds as he bade adieu to Malcolm Greel. There was something about the man which he found vaguely unsettling but he couldnt put his finger on it. On the other hand, hed promised himself that he was going to hear the man out on his business proposal. After all, some of the most fulfilling business associations Ezra had formed had come from distinctly unpromising beginnings.
However, since he suspected that the business venture may be morally and legally suspect, he thought it best not to discuss it around Nathan. So he had arranged to meet Greel again after the man had settled into his hotel. Apparently, he had come straight from the stagecoach to the saloon, in search of Ezra. Was that perhaps a little overeager, on Greels part? Maybe.
After Nathan left, soon after, Ezra noticed that he felt slightly peckish. Seeing that Inez was fairly busy behind the bar, and since he only wanted some bread or a piece of fruit, he thought he might fetch it himself.
He was moderately surprised to find Teresa filling a sack, when he entered the kitchen. He was considerably more surprised when, two seconds later, he found himself staring down the barrel of one of his own revolvers.
"Dont move! Ill blow your head off! You know I will!"
He didnt doubt it. She was literally shaking with fear.
"Teresa, whats the matter?"
"Dont pretend you dont know! I saw you!"
"Talking to him."
"Who?" Ezra thought quickly, of his recent conversations, there was really only one likely candidate, "Mr Greel?"
She snorted and her face twisted in a bitter smile, "Yes, Mr Greel." Her hand steadied. This was probably a good sign, even though the pistol was still directed at a point right between his eyes. He was more inclined to think that she hadnt merely snapped but rather had some legitimate reason for her fear. His mind was racing. He had to talk her down. If she snapped off a shot in panic, it wouldnt do anyone any good. Least of all him, since her aim hadnt wavered.
"Is he the real reason you left, San Francisco?"
She was torn. He could see it in her eyes. He lowered his voice and spoke very gently, "Trust me."
Tears appeared in her voice, "I did! And look where it got me."
The delicate balance was broken when Inez entered. Teresa swung around to cover her. Ezra leapt forward and swiftly twisted the weapon from her grasp before she could pull the trigger. The tide of emotions driving her broke and she began to collapse, sobbing.
Ezra caught her, uncocking the weapon with one hand and tossing it onto the nearby bench. As he held the sobbing girl, he looked over her shoulder at Inez.
"Ezra, what the hell is going on?"
"I have absolutely no idea but we certainly need to find out."
Inez approached them quietly as Teresas sobs subsided. She moved to pull herself from Ezras embrace and he drew her out to arms length, still grasping both her shoulders.
"My dear, you really must tell us exactly what has happened. Well help you but we need to know what the problems are?"
Inez also put an arm around her, "You can trust us. Really, you can."
Though no longer hysterical, Teresa was still quite distracted, "Angelica..."
"She is quite safe where she is for the moment. Our new visitor has no reason to go to the orphanage and indeed, no reason to suspect that either of you are here," He considered for a moment, "Unless, he has seen you?"
She shook her head, "I thought..."
"You thought that I had told him," Ezra shook his head gently, "My dear, our conversation was brief and purely related to business. Neither Angelica nor yourself featured in it."
Inez broke in, her voice taut with anger, "What did he do to you?" She knew what it was like to be hounded by someone who thought they had the right to abuse young Mexican women. Teresa was a reasonably level-headed and quick-witted girl and Inez suspected whatever had driven to this level of paranoid hysterics must have been pretty horrific.
Teresas gaze flicked back to the inner door and Ezra remembered the sack that she had been filling when he arrived. Flight had obviously been her first thought, but maybe she could be dissuaded. "Dont worry, we will ensure that he doesnt find you. Can you make your way to the orphanage without bein seen?"
Teresa nodded, "I think so."
"Good. Go there immediately. Inez or myself will meet you there after midnight. Tell Josiah as much or as little as you wish but you can trust him with your life."
"I try to trust as few people as I can."
He grinned, "Now there is a policy that I can relate to. But a person who trusts nobody is equally as vulnerable as one who trusts everybody. Havin a few solid allies is far better than bein alone in the world, remember that."
Inez took off her shawl and handed it to Teresa, who wrapped it around her head and shoulders. There was enough of a wind blowing outside that wearing it like that would not look suspicious. She walked silently to the back door, but as she opened it, she turned back uncertainly and said, "After midnight?"
Both of them nodded, and she was gone.