When Nathan had finished splinting Ezras ankle, with Vins help, he lifted the unconscious gambler over his left shoulder. Vin had offered to help carry him but Nathan had two very good arguments against this. Firstly, with his leg splinted it was actually more practical for one person to carry him, and secondly, Vin would be needed to help Chris back to the saloon.
Predictably, Chris strongly asserted that he could make it there on his own but Nathan put his foot down. There were more than enough problems already without creating unnecessary ones through stubborn childishness. When he phrased it that way, Chris was forced to agree, although he indulged in a little childish grumbling along the way.
They approached the saloon rather cautiously, uncertain of who or what might be there to greet them. But they were pleasantly surprised when Mary Travis ran out towards them.
After briefly making sure that they were all more or less in one piece, she decided to help Vin with Chris and drew his other arm over her shoulder to help support him. This time he offered no objection to the assistance.
When they entered, Buck too rushed forward to help. Inez sat on a stool by the bar, gently rocking Angelica who clung to her, face buried against her shoulder. When the saloon manager looked up and saw Ezra draped over Nathans shoulder, she opened her mouth but was unable to speak, certain in that one terrible moment that he was dead.
Nathan seemed to read her thoughts. "Hell be okay, Inez. I was just gonna take im up this room."
He was considerably surprised when a weak voice protested, "No, put me down here."
Angelica looked up at the sound of the familiar voice, even as Nathan shook his head, "Ezra. Itd be better..."
Nathan sighed and Buck helped lift the gambler down to the floor and prop him in a sitting position, against the bar.
Angelica immediately wriggled out of Inezs grasp and threw herself into Ezras lap, wrapping her arms around his neck. He winced and couldnt stifle a small gasp of pain but fervently returned the embrace.
The sight almost broke Inezs already wounded heart, but she managed a sad smile as she knelt beside them both and gently brushed Ezras cheek. When he opened his eyes to look at her, she spoke softly, "I have to apologize to you, amigo. I did not shoot Buck like I promised you."
Buck grinned, "There is, however, a man back there with two pistol bullets through is head and a shotgun blast to the chest. An I had nuthin tdo with it."
"Walsh?" asked Vin.
"Reckon so, but hes a bit hard trecognize."
Nathan had knelt down to check on Ezras splinted ankle, to find the limb increasingly swollen, and loosened the bandages slightly. He sighed again and looked at Buck, "Id appreciate it, Buck, if ydidnt hafta be patched up for the rest of the day. Ive got my hands full with the rest of em."
His memory prodded, Ezra fearfully asked after JD and Nathan managed a reassuring smile, "Dont worry. I think hes gonna be okay. Josiah too."
Ezra closed his eyes again with a small sigh. So in this damnable day, there had been at least this small measure of salvation.
Chris was trying not to scowl but couldnt quite manage it. He could see that Ezra was in a rather fragile state but he was also the man with all the answers everyone needed and Chris, for one, didnt feel inclined to wait any longer. He audibly cleared his throat and, when Ezra met his gaze, asked, "Mind tellin us all exactly what happened today?"
Ezras gaze flicked from Chris to Angelica and back again. The others deserved an explanation but he didnt want to further traumatize the child with a graphic description of her mothers demise. He was unutterably grateful when Inez stepped in.
"Back in San Francisco, Greel and his boss abused Teresa and threatened her child. She killed the boss and when Greel came to town, they went into hiding. She made us promise not to tell anyone." Then she looked helplessly at Ezra, since she had no idea of what had occurred that morning.
He reluctantly took up the narrative. "While waiting at Mrs Wells farm this mornin, I realized that hed found out about them. He must have followed me when I last visited them. I suppose I knew it was already too late but I had to go. Im sorry. I know that its a completely inadequate thing to say, but I am really sorry."
"So then yfound her?" Nathan asked softly.
Ezra nodded, "They were where wed left them, at the old Kelly gang hideout." He didnt see Chris and Vin exchange a glance.
The gambler took a deep breath but his voice still trembled slightly as he continued, "It was a heartrending sight. Greel said later that she didnt go easily, and I believe it. I eventually found Angelica. The poor childs so traumatized that she hasnt spoken a word. I brought her back here and, well you know the rest." He closed his eyes again and there were tears at the corners.
Nathan looked down at him. Ezra was usually quite fastidious about his appearance but now he was covered from head to toe in dust and dirt from the rubble of the Town Hall and probably from the mine as well. Most of the blood staining his clothes was probably Teresas. His clothes were also torn in various places and Nathan himself had slit his left trouser leg up to the knee, to treat the broken ankle. On top of all that, he was completely physically and emotionally exhausted. He looked like hed been to Hell and back. And from what hed said, he probably felt that way as well.
Inez was still kneeling beside him and Angie, with one hand gently stroking the childs head and painfully working to contain her own tears. Nathan briefly touched her shoulder and whispered to her. She nodded and, with a quiet promise to return soon, headed into the kitchen.
Vin sighed heavily. They were all hurting inside but he felt like he was almost intruding on the grief of Angie, Ezra and Inez. More than anything, he needed to be out doing something, so he volunteered, "Ill go see to Teresa."
"Ill help ya," said Chris, feeling much the same way.
Nathan looked over at him irritably, "An what makes you think youll be much help?"
"I can still drive a wagon," Chris retorted, "Dont ythink that you oughta check on JD an Josiah?"
Buck clapped Nathan on the shoulder, "Yeah, cmon. Ill come with ya." He too felt the need to give the surviving saloon residents space to mourn their loss privately. Mary Travis, barely holding back tears, also volunteered to accompany him, just as Inez returned carrying two steaming mugs.
Nathan looked over at the saloon manager, "Gonna check on JD an Josiah, then Ill be back."
She nodded and placed the cups on the bar before seeing them all off. Then she returned her attention to Angelica and Ezra. He had managed to loosen her grip on him and now was holding her by the shoulders and looking into her eyes.
"I wish youd say somethin, Angel girl. You dont know how much youre frightenin me."
She shook her head vigorously at this suggestion and finally it dawned on him that there may more to her silence than just the shock. It was almost as if she had been forbidden to speak.
Of course! That was what had saved her. It was probably Teresas last instruction. Shed hidden her daughter and told her to keep silent no matter what.
Angelica stared back at him. She seemed to be aching from all the things that she wanted to say, but couldnt. And her gaze cut right through his soul.
He had to break her out of this. "Did your mother tell you not to speak?"
She nodded emphatically and his heart nearly broke to think how much it must be weighing on the childs mind. "Oh, Angel girl! She only meant while you were out there at the mine. She didnt mean forever. You must believe me."
Finally, came the tearful voice which hed begun to fear he would never hear again, "She said, As you love me, dont make a single sound whatever happens. I do love her. Really, I do!"
Ezras own voice was also tear-stained, as he answered, "I know that. She knows it too. I swear to you she does." He didnt know if he was referring to Teresa in the present tense for Angelicas benefit or his own. Released from her vow of silence, the child buried her face against him and wept torrentially.
"Its goin to be alright," he whispered. It was a platitude but he clung to it, even though he doubted the truth of it, right now.
Inez had one hand on each of their shoulders. She squeezed Ezras to get his attention and said, "She needs to sleep."
Angelica shook her head and he nodded his, simultaneously.
Inez rose to retrieve the cups from where shed left them, on top of the bar, and presented Angelica and Ezra with one each. He then saw that they contained warm milk.
Angelica had not eaten in twenty-four hours and it took only minimal encouragement to get her to empty her cup.
Ezra sipped his own, to find it generously laced with brandy. He cast a pointed glance at the childs now empty cup and raised an eyebrow at Inez.
Inez snorted softly, "I wouldnt do something like that to her!"
Ezra smiled slightly, "Of course, you wouldnt." He refrained from mentioning that during his own childhood years, he had often been induced to sleep using milk spiked with gin or whiskey. It didnt seem to have done him any lasting harm.
However, plain warm milk, exhaustion and the embrace of someone she trusted seemed to be enough for Angelica. She was soon fast asleep in Ezras arms, her head resting comfortably on his shoulder.
As Inez carefully took the cup from the childs hands, Ezra drained his own and handed it to her, so she could return both to the kitchen at the same time.
While she was gone, he allowed himself to gently rest his cheek against the top of Angelicas head and close his eyes for just a moment. But he immediately found it impossible to open them again and, within seconds, it would have taken something akin to a small explosion to have roused him.
Inez was unsurprised to find him thus, when she returned. It was the outcome which she had more or less intended when she had prepared the drink for him. She might have been above spiking Angelicas milk but Ezra was another case entirely. And he needed the rest as much as the child did.
She only briefly contemplated making any attempt to move the pair of them. She might have been able to lift Angelica and put her to bed, but help would be needed to carry Ezra up to his room, without causing further damage to his broken leg.
So, she stood for a moment and heaved a sorrow-laden sigh as she gazed down at the man and child, asleep in each others arms. They might have made a heart-warming picture, if it hadnt all been so tragic.
Angelicas life had been utterly shattered and Inez knew that it would take a considerable amount of time to pick up all the pieces and slowly patch them together. But she swore to herself, by everything she had ever held sacred, that it would be done.
And Ezra. Inez could see how much self-recrimination was mingled with his grief. She would have to pull him back from that or hed drown in it. However much he might think that he was responsible for what had occurred, she couldnt let him live with that crippling guilt. He deserved better than that.
So, they were both going to need her to be strong for them (at this point in time when she herself felt so fragile). But she knew that she would have given her life and soul for the sake of either one of them. That she would have walked through fire and swum through floods, to spare either of them any degree of pain. Whatever may come, she vowed to see them all through it.
But here and now, when both had finally succumbed to oblivious slumber, Inez Roscios took a seat at her own bar, buried her face in her hands and wept her heart out.
Ezra found himself counting every step between the saloon and Mary Travis newspaper office. It had never seemed a particularly long distance before but, despite the fact that he had become reasonably proficient at using crutches over the past two weeks, he could have sworn that the length had at least trebled.
He rather envied Josiah. Flesh wounds, even those caused by bullets, seemed to heal quickly compared to bone. The preacher was already moving around quite freely on only one crutch. But Nathan had told Ezra that if he wanted to hold any hope of walking again without a limp, he would have to stay off even his crutches and keep his left ankle raised at least ninety percent of the time, for another week or two. Ezra had appealed to Dr Elliott for a second opinion, only to find that it reinforced the first.
And under the plaster cast which encased his left leg up to knee level, it itched like nothing else. Nathan said that the cast would have to remain in place for another four weeks at least, and even after that it might be replaced with another one for an additional month.
Ezras vehement complaints drew no sympathy whatsoever. In fact, Nathan appeared to be slightly amused by them. When Ezra had asked how someone who claimed to be a member of a caring profession could be so fundamentally lacking in empathy, Nathan had replied that he didnt see how someone who claimed to live largely by their wits could be so thoroughly lacking in common sense.
Even Inez had told him that he was making things ten times more difficult than they needed to be. But at least Angelica had stood by him. Shed actually told the three of them collectively that if they werent going be helpful, they could all just leave. And shed been quite disconcerted when they had been unable to stifle their laughter.
She held fast onto Ezra for her own security but she was also fiercely protective of him. And for both those reasons she had not been pleased to be left with Inez at the saloon while he performed this errand. Especially since he had refused to tell her what it was about. It had taken a very long intense discussion before she had agreed, and she remained distinctly unhappy about it. This was actually a major step forward. Until that point, for the past two weeks, she had flatly refused to let him out of her sight.
He seemed to be the anchor that the child had latched onto when her whole world had disintegrated around her. Her mother had been the only constant and stable thing in her life. And now she had lost her in a most horrendous way.
Ezra still didnt know how much Angelica had seen and heard on that dreadful day, but when she called for her mother in her sleep, she also mumbled about screaming and blood. It was hard to know what was the best way to help her deal with the loss.
He, Inez and Josiah had arranged for Teresas body to be cleaned and arranged in an aspect of peaceful repose so that Angelica could view it and have one last memory of her mother at peace before they sealed the coffin. And they had made every effort to ensure that the funeral provided a fitting way for the child to say goodbye to her.
Angelica had attended her mothers funeral in new black dress which Ezra had purchased for the occasion. Inez had argued against this. The dark grey dress which the child already possessed was perfectly suitable for the occasion and she saw no point in spending money on a garment that they sincerely hoped the child would not have frequent use for. She reminded him that Teresa herself would have been against it.
But Ezra was equally adamant that they were not going to be miserly about any aspect of Teresas funeral. No one was going to remember it as a cheap or sordid affair. Teresa would be laid to rest with as much dignity as any of the Four Corners residents that had gone before her.
To this end, he was encouraged by the considerable congregation who attended and the somber respect with which the ceremony proceeded. But as they departed, hed heard a feminine voice sermonize that "the wages of sin are death".
It was the detestable Mrs Hansen. Ezra had never before regretted his resolution to not hit a woman under any circumstances, but he did at that moment. And he suspected that Inez was only prevented from striding over and inflicting serious physical injuries, by the combination of his vice-like grip on her arm and the fact that she was carrying Angelica.
But Josiah had done them proud that day. They watched as he drew the church-going woman aside and in that uniquely mild but menacing voice of his (which carried to the entire congregation) told her, "I trust that you were reflecting on the man who murdered Teresa when you uttered those words. Or perhaps, you were reflecting on what St Paul had in mind when he wrote them. That we are all sinners who will eventually come to a mortal end." When Mrs Hansen nodded dumbly as Josiah released her, Ezra had been sorely tempted to burst into a round of applause.
Hed been surprised by the support hed been given by Josiah and Nathan, who seemed compelled to check on his spiritual and physical well-being respectively. He knew that he shouldnt have underestimated their capacity for compassion, but he remained stunned by it.
However, aside from the two of them, Ezra had managed to largely avoid the company of his fellow law keepers. Hed let them down badly at Mrs Wells farm and he knew it. Hed broken the promise hed made long ago, to them and to himself, never to abandon them in the face of danger. Those were the kind of betrayals which destroyed friendships. He suspected that the shock of Teresas murder had shaken even Chris Larabee, such that he wasnt inclined to persecute the errant gambler. But Ezra knew things would never be the same again.
He couldnt even look JD in the eyes. The young mans wedding had been postponed until the new year, due to the groom being incapacitated so soon before the event. Ezra checked on JDs condition via Nathan (despite the healers repeated suggestions that Ezra go to see JD himself, he didnt withhold the information). JD was now up and about and would suffer no lasting ill effects from his head injury. But what ate away at Ezras conscience was that he need not have been injured at all, let alone skirted so close to death, if Ezra hadnt asked him to hold that position behind the cattle pen.
And any injury to JD offended big brother Buck. Ezra couldnt get out of his mind the frankly murderous look in Bucks eyes when he had returned that day. But then he didnt really think that he deserved to be able to forget it anyway.
Then there was Vin. At least when Buck or Nathan were angry with a person, they let them know clearly where they stood. Vin just tended to stand there and say nothing. No condemnation, no sympathy, no explanations, nothing. Hed probably look completely calm as he drew a weapon and shot the offender. And Ezra just didnt have the fortitude to deal with that kind of ambiguity at the moment.
And Ezra didnt even want to contemplate what was going on in Chris Larabees mind. Those dark and brooding recesses where he knew that all hope of mercy could be abandoned, they were areas where he had absolutely no inclination to tread.
However, he hoped that Chris hadnt been sharing his thoughts with Mary and the judge (although he very much doubted it, such wasnt in the mans nature). Because if he had, it would probably make Ezras intended task well nigh impossible.
Mary Travis was rather surprised to see Ezra Standish slowly and rather wearily making his was to her office door. Her father-in-law was not. Hed only met with Ezra once since his return to Four Corner but the gambler had been the subject of numerous conversations and surreptitious surveillances. This was the meeting which the judge had been anticipating for some time and he walked over to stand beside Mary and greet her guest at the door.
The sight of the two Travis waiting in the doorway did nothing to alleviate Ezras apprehension. Each on their own was capable of putting him ill at ease at times. The combination of both could be frankly disturbing and at this moment, he felt like he was coming to them cap in hand.
He paused and mentally gave himself a little encouragement to see this through. The plan he had concocted would work. It made sense. It would be best for all of them. But what if the judge didnt see it that way? Hed been away most of the time. What if he didnt see the benefits? The man had a suspicious nature. He couldnt possibly think that Ezra might be working an angle, could he? Ezra was going to need his assistance for this to work. What if he didnt give it?
"Do you need a hand with the stairs, Mr Standish?" The judge politely interrupted his thoughts.
That wouldnt be a bad idea, Ezra realized. "Id appreciate it, sir."
Judge Travis came down the stairs and, taking the left crutch, drew the gamblers arm over his shoulder to help him up the stairs. They were both slightly out of breath by the time they reached the top and Mary immediately produced a chair for Ezra to deposit himself in (which he did with considerable gratitude). The judge remained standing and gazed down upon him.
"So Mr Standish, to what does my daughter-in-law owe this visit?"
"Actually sir, it was you I came to see."
"Oh?" The judge feigned surprise and fooled no one.
"I find myself in need of expert legal advice with regard to the matter of adoption."
In the background, Mary broke into a delighted smile but the judge just looked at him sternly. "I take it that you are referring to a particular adoption, rather than the subject in general?"
"And the particular adoptee would be a recently orphaned four-year-old girl?"
Ezra nodded again, "How would one go about the process?"
"Well, perhaps we should discuss the subject in general for a bit. Its not something that the authorities involved tend to take lightly. The welfare of the children is uppermost in their minds and they do everything possible to ensure that only suitable people are allowed to adopt them."
Ezras eyes narrowed, "You see that as a problem?"
"Well, that really depends on who intended to adopt young Angelica."
Ezra had rapidly wearied of this little verbal cat-and-mouse game. He looked steadily into the judges eyes, "Me."
Travis smiled, almost as if Ezra had passed the first test, "Well then, lets look at you as an adoption agency might see you. A single man whose current residence is a room above a saloon. No current and, as far as I know, no previous formal occupation. I dont think itinerant gambler would look particularly good on the form."
"I do have another occupation."
"Hired gun-slinger doesnt look much better."
Ezra wasnt above flattering the man, "Although they may be less than enthusiastic about the occupation, they couldnt object to my employer."
Orrin Travis smiled. He was going to make the gambler work hard for this, even though hed intended to grant his request even before he made it. Although they didnt know it, hed watched young Angelica and Ezra together. It was clear that they had already bonded closely and, after her recent traumas, the child needed him. To separate them at this stage would come close to killing her, and it wouldnt do Ezra much good either.
However, he knew that he could use the gamblers desperation in this matter to lever him towards a little more respectability. Ideally, he would have like Ezra and Inez to settle down, get married and look after the child together. But his work had led him to observe the effects of enough shotgun weddings to know that forcing people into matrimony was virtually always a bad idea. Nevertheless, he could still work on the area of respectable employment.
"I would be willing to help find you a more suitable occupation, which might help."
"When we repair the damage done to the Town Hall and complete its construction, the records office will need a filing clerk."
That drew blood. Ezra was scandalized.
"Filing clerk?" he asked, but it was more an exclamation of pain than a question.
"Im sure a man of your literacy and numeracy would be amply qualified. And it would be just the form of employment the adoption authorities would approve of. Furthermore, theres no reason to terminate your arrangement with me. Most of the townsfolk wouldnt stand for it anyway. Ever since that episode with Marshal Bryce, theyve become almost superstitious about you and your six associates. They seem to think the town will be overrun or fall to ruin, if any of you leave your posts. So youd still have that extra dollar per day and your accommodation paid for."
Ezra gazed at him steadily. He recognized an ultimatum when he heard one and realized that the judge knew that he had him over a barrel. He briefly considered trying to circumvent the whole process by obtaining forged documents to say that he and Teresa had managed to get married somewhere along the way. But he quickly quashed that thought. Such a lie seemed to abuse Teresas memory. Shed suffered enough defamation and defilement in her life. Let her at least lie in her grave unmolested.
So he was faced with the choice: undertake respectable honest labour or lose Angelica. There was really no choice at all.
But as he gazed up at Judge Travis and Mary, his mind rebelled against being forced into any situation and he came to a decision which he hoped he wouldnt regret later.
Late that evening, when all the saloon patrons had gone home (under their own power or not), Ezra looked up to see Inez approaching from the bar and acknowledged her with studied nonchalance, despite the fiercely determined look he noticed in her eyes. Shed been waiting all day to have serious one to one conversation with him and was now seizing her chance.
"Do you know what youre doing?" she demanded.
"I think so." Hed been surprised by her lack of enthusiasm for his plans regarding Angelica and was keen to know the reasons behind it.
When he had returned to the saloon from the meeting with Judge Travis and Mary, hed made an effort to look like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders (the tiredness induced by the return journey helped considerably with the illusion). Inez and Angelica, who knew only that he had gone to the newspaper office to discuss something important, had been rather alarmed. They both rushed to help him to a chair.
"Are you alright, Mr Ezra?" Angelica asked anxiously.
Ezra sighed theatrically and pulled her up onto his lap. "It looks like Im about to have both responsibility and respectability foisted upon me."
"Ezra, what have you done?" Inez asked in a low suspicious voice.
But he kept his attention focussed on the child, "Youve never had a father, have you, Angelica?"
She tilted her head to one side, "No."
"Would you like one?"
She looked puzzled for a moment, then her eyes widened, "You?"
He nodded, "I could hardly make the offer on someone elses behalf."
She broke into a brilliant smile and threw her arms around him. But then her practical side asserted itself and she drew back, "How?"
"I was just speaking to Judge Travis about how I could legally adopt you. Provided no one else lays claim to your guardianship (and I dont think that will occur), he assures me that it should be achievable."
"So, youll be my father...legally?"
"And that means you would never leave me?"
"I promise that I would never voluntarily leave you."
"Voluntarily?" He wasnt sure if she wanted an unconditional assurance or was merely querying the meaning of the word.
"If its up to me, well be together forever."
That was enough for Angelica. She again smiled and embraced him tightly.
But looking over her shoulder, he saw Inez gazing at the pair of them and looking distinctly displeased about the arrangement. There was a terse edge to her voice as she questioned him about the practicalities of the adoption. And he got the distinct impression that she left several things unsaid because she was unwilling to mention them in front of the child.
So now that Angelica was asleep, up in Ezras room (she still refused to sleep anywhere else and it seemed to distress her to be in the room she had shared with her mother), Inez took the opportunity to pin him down.
She placed both hands palms downwards on the table and stared intently into his eyes. She then took a deep breath and spoke with calm deliberation, "Ezra, I am not going to let you spoil that child."
That took him slightly by surprise, "How do you think Im going to spoil her?"
Inez gaze did not waver, "With too much indulgence and flattery, the same way any father spoils his daughter."
Ezra folded his arms with an almost subconscious defiance and Inez realized that she needed to change her tactics.
"Look, I have no doubt that you will give her all the love and attention she needs but Angelica is very bright and she has a streak of wildness in her."
"Alright, mischief then. You must admit, amigo, not every four-year-old would help you con Mrs Hansen out of her scarf, like she did."
Ezra allowed himself a sad smile at the bittersweet memory, while Inez came to her main point.
"She is going to need discipline. And you are going to find that very, very hard."
He frowned, "What makes you say that?"
Inez could think of no way to soften it, "Because you still feel guilty about what happened to Teresa."
Staring into her eyes, he found it difficult to deny, "She trusted me and I led her to her death. I convinced her to stay here and she was defenceless when they came for her."
"Ezra, we both convinced her to stay," Inez tilted her head to one side and added a challenging edge to her voice, "Or do you think I just blindly follow everything you do?"
He could hardly answer that in the affirmative and it wasnt his true opinion anyway, so he mutely shook his head. Inez leaned forward to push her message home.
"Yes, she trusted you. She trusted both of us. We didnt save her but we did everything we could and Teresa didnt expect any more than that. The demon that killed her was from her own past, before she even met us. And, for a while, she was happy here with us. You have to let go of some of this guilt for Angelicas sake as well as your own."
"Shes a clever girl. She will eventually see it and then one of two things will happen. Either, she will use it to guilt you into letting her have her own way in everything. Or, far more likely, she will begin to think that the only reason that you look after her is because you feel guilty and not because you love her."
Ezra digested this. She was probably right. And furthermore, it occurred to him that guilt was contagious (he thought that he, personally, had been associating with Chris Larabee, guilt-master extraordinaire, for far too long) and Angelica might even come to think the situation was in some way her fault. He certainly wasnt going to let that happen.
He smiled at Inez. "Alright, Ill attempt to reduce the self-recrimination. But, Im placing you in charge of ensuring that I dont spoil Angelica."
Inez rolled her eyes, "That sounds like a busy job and I already have a saloon to run."
"Well, I have to embark on another occupation. I dont see why you couldnt also."
"Yes, I was also going to ask you about that. Are you serious about the job as a records clerk?"
"Of course!" he protested with feigned indignation, "I gave my word to the judge. I wouldnt go back on it. And Ill do anything necessary to ensure that Angelicas adoption is completed without impediment. However..."
Inez raised an eyebrow, "However what?"
"However, once the adoption was finalized, I think it would be utterly heartless for the authorities to separate a father from his child simply because he lost his mode of employment."
Ezra watched her shake her head in a rather poor facsimile of disgusted resignation (rendered ineffective because she couldnt keep from smiling). She was the only one he could have entrusted with the knowledge of this aspect of his plan. He couldnt be sure that anyone else might not have either intentionally or inadvertently let it slip to the judge.
It was then that he realized just how good a friend she was to him. He had long noticed that, amongst Four Corners seven law-keepers, he alone had not formed a special attachment to one of the others. Chris and Vin had become so close that they often didnt have to speak aloud to communicate. Buck and JD had that big brother-little brother relationship of theirs. Nathan and Josiah seemed to look first to each other for advice and company. He had actually told himself that he was intentionally hanging on to some vestiges of his former loner status. Not surrendering totally to this group bonding because he valued his independence. But in moments of more honest self-assessment, hed wondered if that wasnt just a touch of sour grapes.
But now he realized that here, literally staring him in the face, was the best and truest friend that he had ever had or was ever likely to have. During the past few years, theyd always been there for each other. Through dangers and disasters, injuries and illnesses, failed romances and drunken episodes of self pity, shed always been there to turn to. Shed criticize him, if she thought he needed it (a situation which wasnt all that uncommon), but her loyalty never wavered for an instant. A truly remarkable woman (hed been fortunate enough to know several in his life). And an extraordinary friend.
Then, as he continued to gaze into her eyes, he realized that it wasnt just platonic friendship that she was offering. He couldnt quite believe it. He who considered himself a talented reader of people and one who seized every available opportunity. How long had he been oblivious to this? Or maybe she too, was only now realizing the opportunity which was presenting itself.
She certainly was aware of it now, as she leaned across the table between them and brought their lips together. The kiss was actually as light and brief and the one they had shared at the engagement party, nearly two months ago. But, to him, it was incandescent and filled with infinite promise. He closed his eyes to savor it and almost protested aloud when she unexpectedly drew back.
He then heard the sound of someone clearing their throat and realized that it was probably for the second time. They both looked around to see that the throat-clearer was Buck, wearing a broad knowing grin. Chris, Vin, JD, Josiah and Nathan also stood there, displaying varying degrees of amusement.
"Sorry tinterrupt yboth but wed like thave a word or two with ya, Ezra," said Buck.
Ezra gazed at the lot of them. He reached into his pocket and withdrew his watch but before he could open it and look at the dial, Chris said, "We know its late but this is kinda important."
Just then, Ezra and Inez both reacted as they heard a door creak upstairs. Theyd both become especially attuned to listen for it (and Inez had purposely refrained from oiling the hinges so that the door remained audible). Angelica had woken and was looking for them.
Inez placed a restraining hand on Ezras shoulder, "Ill go to her. You stay here and talk to them."
Ezra gave her the look of a man facing the gallows but she just smiled, gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and hurried up the stairs.
He was not looking forward to this at all, but he forced himself to adopt a genial smile as he turned to face them, "Well gentlemen, to what do I owe the pleasure?"
They approached closer, surrounded the table he was sitting at and looked down at him. Oh, great! Were they trying to make him feel more claustrophobic? It wasnt as if he had enough mobility to make an effective escape anyway.
Just as he was about to lose his nerve and demand that they damn well state their business or get the hell out, Chris spoke.
"Well, for a start, we thought that we oughta drop by and congratulate ya on becomin a father."
"Oh." Ezra didnt know why this came as such a surprise to him. "Thankyou."
Buck sat down in the chair next to him, "We know that its probly a bit late for a christenin or twet the babys head. But we reckoned some sorta celebration was called for."
Ezras smile became genuine, "Well, I dont think we should stray too far from tradition. It should be drinks and cigars all round, on me. However, since Inez is otherwise occupied and Im less than fully ambulatory, Im afraid that yall will have to serve yourselves."
Chris also smiled, "Sounds like a damn fine idea. Vin? Nathan? Mind doin the honours?"
The rest took seats at Ezras table, as the two moved over to the bar and retrieved the necessary items. While Vin poured the drinks, Buck assumed what he was coming to see as his customary role of toastmaster.
"Well, I think the first toast should be to fatherhood."
"No," said Ezra.
"Forgive me, Buck, but I think that the first toast should be to motherhood rather than fatherhood. If you would allow me?"
Buck nodded and, unable to stand, Ezra settled for straightening as much as he could in his chair and raised his glass.
"Gentlemen, I give you Miss Teresa Antonia Velasquez. Her many virtues went largely unrecognized during her lifetime but she was one of the finest mothers and one of the most noble and courageous souls that it has ever been my privilege to know. May she rest in peace."
The others chorused, "To Teresa", before draining their glasses but JD hesitated slightly in bringing his glass to his lips.
There was a short silence before he burst out saying, "Ezra, Im sorry!"
Ezra stared at him, "What are you apologizin to me for? Surely, it should be the other way around."
"I know you havent said anything but you an me both know that I got Teresa killed."
"How in Gods name did you come to that conclusion?"
"Well, if hadnt shot my mouth off tCasey about Teresa an Angie, Greel would never have found out em."
Ezra had failed to even consider that JD might have staked a claim in the guilt over Teresas death. But now that he thought about it, that was just the sort of thing the kid would do. He sighed briefly before fixing the young sheriff with an intense gaze.
"Believe me, JD, Ive considered every possible what if scenario this tragedy could have produced. And Ive come to the conclusion that the blame for Teresas murder lies entirely upon the head of Mr Malcolm Greel. But if there is any extraneous culpability to be had, I believe that I have a prior claim on it. So, do yourself and me a favour, son, and let it go."
Josiah looked at him, "And why do you think youre to blame?"
Ezra sighed again. Hadnt he just had this conversation with Inez? "As I said, Ive considered all the possible roads I could have taken. If I hadnt visited Teresa and Angie the night before she died. If Id told yall what was happening. If I hadnt talked her out of leaving town when she first intended to. If Id just shot Greel when I first met him, rather than trying to intellectually outmaneuver him "
"What if I had let you know that I thought that Greel an Walsh were headin out to the old Kelly hideout that day?" Vin interjected quietly.
Ezra looked at him, again caught completely by surprise, "How could you have known that?"
"Overheard em say they were headed out to a mine in the west hills, same time as they said they were gonna attack Miss Nettie. Even mentioned tChris that it mighta bin the old Kelly hideout. Thought it was probly theyre new hideout. But if Id let you know, maybe we coulda saved Teresa."
Ezra shook his head, "How could you have known the significance, when I kept their location from you?"
Josiah said softly, "Ill bet Teresa made you promise not to tell us."
"Well yes, she would have been most angry with me, but she would still be alive to be so."
"The decision was hers and you respected it. You cant condemn yourself for that."
"Not for that, no." Here, it came. This was the part he was really not looking forward to.
"For what, then?" asked Chris, although the tone of his voice suggested that he might have suspected of what the answer would be.
Ezra took a small breath then looked him in the eyes. "Well, abandoning ones comrades in the face of the enemy has always been considered a highly reprehensible offence. I believe the ancient Roman deterrent was crucifixion or decimation."
Chris regarded him steadily, "An of course, someone like me wouldnt understand the circumstances."
"Whatever the circumstances, the fact is I wasnt there when I was needed. If I had been, maybe JD might have come through the experience unscathed."
Chris slightly predatory smile appeared, "Oh, were gonna play the what if game again, are we? Okay Ezra, Ive got one for ya. What if youd bin there? What if youd bin killed or had yer head knocked into next week so that ydidnt wake up for days. An what if Greel an Walsh had got to Inez, as well? They obviously intended to. So, then there was no one to tell anyone else about Angie. An what if that little girl had jus sat in that blood-soaked hole for days until she died of starvation?"
Ezra had gone as pale as a sheet and made absolutely no effort to reply.
Chris placed a hand on his shoulder, "Dont play what if with me, Ezra. Im an old, old hand at it. An its one game youll never win."
Ezra felt another hand come down on his other shoulder and looked up to see Nathan standing behind him, smiling kindly, "Ythink we dont know the kinda thoughts that were runnin through ymind that day? Course we do. The only one blamin you is yself."
Chris spoke again, "All of us at the farm made it through that day an thats what counts in the end. An as to Teresas death. Ysaid it yself, Greel was tblame fer that an we saw thim. No, you saw to him. An we got all the rest of em. Youghta take yown advice an let it go." He paused and cast a sweeping glare over all those present, "An if anyone says anythin about a pot callin a kettle black, Ill shoot em!"
Buck grinned, "So maybe, we should just get back tdrinkin?"
"Fine idea, Buck. I believe we were toastin fatherhood."
"Right," Buck lifted his glass purposefully, "TEzras impendin fatherhood. Hes gonna need all the help he can get cos, as we all know, that little girls got im wrapped around er finger."
Ezra chuckled as they drank, wondering what Inez would think to hear Buck roughly echoing the sentiments shed expressed earlier.
Chris got a wicked gleam in his eye, "An I hear that Ezras gonna get imself a proper job. Maybe not exactly menial labour but definitely honest toil. So lets drink tEzras honest hard-workin soul."
Ezra laughed again and drank with them but retribution was definitely called for, "Alright then, gentlemen, we really must have a toast to Mr Larabees cheerful exuberance and indefatigable optimism."
Buck, especially, enjoyed that one. "Chris exuberance an optimism," he roared, as they drank.
JD decided to have a go, "Bucks quietness an patience!" But as they finished drinking that one, they heard Inez clear her throat behind them.
They collectively turned to see her standing with Angelica in front of her, her hands resting on the childs shoulders.
"She refused to go back to bed without seeing you, Ezra," the saloon manager announced.
Angelica folded her arms and gave Ezra a look that quite clearly said, "Thats right, I did."
Ezra hesitated slightly. He was hardly under the table at this stage but he wasnt sure that he wanted Angelica to have too many memories of her new father with whiskey on his breath. But surrendering to the inevitable, he held out his arms to her and she rushed straight into them.
Once safely installed on his lap, she turned to look at the rest of the assembled group. "So, why is everyone here?"
Ezra was unsure how best to reply, "Um, they just stopped by to talk and maybe have a drink."
Nathan smiled at her, "An we all wanted tsay how glad we were that youve got yself a new daddy."
She grinned back at him, "Me too, Mr Jackson."
An idea occurred to Ezra, "You know, Angelica, since you dont have any blood relatives. And since Im about to become your father by law, maybe we should think about getting you some additional arbitrary relations."
"Well, these men here represent the closest Ive ever come to having brothers, so maybe you should consider them your uncles." Ezra found that he felt foolish enough expressing the mawkish sentimentality without the rather cloying grin JD cast in his direction.
He felt that he ought to bring things back to a perspective which he found more comfortable, "But there are a few things you should be warned about. Firstly, dont ever let your Uncle JD teach you to tell jokes."
"Hey!" JD protested.
"And please dont listen to your Uncle Buck if he tries to give advice about courtin or dealin with young beaus. And be very wary of your Uncle Nathan if he tells you something will hurt a bit, especially if your Uncle Vin offers you his lunch at the same time. And I would advocate never attemptin to lie to your Uncle Josiah, as he seems to have an aptitude for seein right through such strategies. And whatever you do, never ever call your Uncle Chris a cowboy."
"An watch out fer yer Daddy, if he offers tplay a game of chance with ya," added Nathan.
Ezra grinned and acknowledged the healers veracity with a nod.
Angelica seemed to absorb all this quite seriously and looked over at Inez, "And Aunt Inez?"
Inez winced, "Just call me Inez, Angelica."
But Ezra had instantly warmed to the idea, "No, Aunt Inez. You should probably just be wary of her, in general."
Inez sighed in resignation, realizing that if they went to war over this, shed probably come away in defeat.
"Well," said Vin, pulling out his harmonica, "As we seem tove called a halt to the drinkin, maybe we should have a bit a music." He put it to his lips and began playing a lively little tune.
JD held out his hand to Angie but she shook her head, content to remain where she was, on her new fathers lap. Buck extended an invitation to Inez but she also declined and went to take a seat next to Ezra.
Having been turned down by the only two females in the room, Buck and JD shrugged and started dancing with each other.
"Do you think those two have had enough to drink?" Inez asked no one in particular. She put her arm around Ezras waist and rested her head against his shoulder. He kept his arms around Angelica but turned to lightly kiss the top of Inez head before returning his gaze to the terpsichorean display.
As they watched Buck, JD and Vin, the three of them failed to notice that they in turn were being watched by Chris, Nathan and Josiah.
"Make a nice little family portrait, dont they?" observed Chris.
"Yeah, they do," said Nathan. Then he frowned, "Reckon theyll be alright?"
"Eventually," was Josiahs opinion.
"Eventually?" asked Chris.
"Well, griefs a terrible wound and guilts worse."
Chris snorted, "Yreckon I dont know that?"
The preacher continued, obliviously, "But I reckon those three just might be each others road to healing."
Even Chris smiled at that, "Roads like that are usually best traveled together."
"Amen to that, Brother Chris. By the way, how are Mary and Billy?"
Ezra, for one, certainly felt more contented than he had for weeks, perhaps even, for years. He turned to his new daughter to check that her emotional status was equally favorable, "Happy, Angel girl?"
"Yes, Father." Shed begun calling him by that title from the moment that he informed her of his intention to adopt her. But she still spoke the word a little tentatively, as if trying it on to see how it felt.
A thought occurred to her as she watched Buck and JD, "So, if theyre my uncles because theyre like brothers to you, does that mean Aunt Inez is like a sister to you?"
A sudden wicked grin appeared on Inez face, "Yes Ezra, am I like a sister to you?"
Caught unawares, Ezra stammered slightly, "Um, well no, not exactly."
Ironically, only a matter of hours ago, he might have indeed claimed that his feelings towards her were fraternal. But certainly not now.
Angelica gave him a puzzled look, "Why not?"
Ezra looked from Angelicas questioning expression to Inez mischievous one and back again.
He then realized that, with these two around, it looked like his life was about to become a lot more complicated.