A day and half later, the stage pulled into the town of Harrisburg, AR. The stage master stepped up to the stage and reached for the door latch only to find his hand blocked by an arm covered in black. He looked up from his clipboard into the eyes of a blond haired man, whose glare caused the stage master to step back. Without a word, the stranger grabbed the latch and opened the door. With a small smile, he reached into the stage, "It's about time you arrived. Was beginning to worry a bit." A black weathered hand reached out and took his and he helped Miss Hattie off the stage. "Good to see you again Miss Hattie."
She patted his arm, "It's good to see you again, Mr. Larabee. These old bones are tired of rattling around in this here stage."
Chris's smile widen, "Well, Miss Hattie, you can relax for bit now. We're gonna rest up here until the rest arrive. Should be here in a day or two. Then we'll be on our way home. How's Angelique been doing? Is she any better?"
"Oh, she's coming along just fine. Mr. Jackson is a fine healer. He done followed all Doc Mitchell's instructions. She did start running a fever again a couple of days ago, but Mr. Jackson fixed her a tea of some sort and made her drink it. She didn't like it much," Hattie laughed and shook her head, "but Mr. Jackson made sure she drunk it and her fever came down in no time. Yep, he's a fine healer."
Chris nodded his head in agreement and gave a small laugh of his own, "Yes he is Miss Hattie. And I can't blame Angelique for not liking the tea. He's poured more nasty tasting teas down all of us, than I can remember. And we complain about all of them. But they do work."
As they stood there talking, a distinctly southern drawl was heard from inside the coach, "While we patiently wait the appearance of our missing comrades, I pray that Mr. Jackson, Angelique, and myself of course, will not be forced to pass the time sitting in this infernal contraption. Angelique particularly would enjoy the comfort a soft feather bed and a down pillow to rest her beautiful head on."
Chris turned back to the stage and reached inside, "Hand her to me." He stepped back with Angelique in his arms and looking down into her gorgeous blue eyes; his smile actually met his eyes. "Well, hello there." He started to walk away with her as Ezra and Nathan disembarked from the stage, but the look on Angelique's face caused him to stop. She turned her head to look around him, as her eyes filled with tears. "Hey, hey. It's alright. Ezra's coming sweetheart." He turned so she could see Ezra and Nathan gathering their baggage and waited for them to join him.
Miss Hattie stepped up beside Chris, where Angelique could see her. "Sweet child, it's alright. You don't remember Mr. Larabee here, but he's helping your brother, just like Mr. Jackson is."
Angelique looked up at Chris and back to Miss Hattie, not quite sure she could trust Chris, when Ezra walked up. Still holding their gear in his arms, "Angelique, look at me." She turned her eyes to Ezra. "Angelique, rest assured that you can trust Mr. Larabee as much as you trust Miss Hattie or myself. Mr. Jackson here is the only friend of mine you have met, however, there are a total of six men that I not only trust with my life, and I have faith in them with yours as well. And Mr. Larabee here is the leader of our little group. Trust me, my dear, Mr. Larabee here would give his own life before he would permit any harm to come to you. Do you trust me?" She nodded her head. Ezra smiled, "Then you can trust them. Alright?" She gave Ezra an intense look, then turn to Chris and gave him the same look. After a moment, she reached her hand up to touch Chris's face and smiled.
Chris squeezed her a little tighter and turned to walk down the boardwalk with everyone else following him, "Let's get to the hotel. Vin will meet us in about an hour at the restaurant."
The desk clerk looked up as Chris and party stepped through the door. He smiled until he saw Nathan and Miss Hattie. Chris walked up to the counter, "I made a reservation two days ago for my friends here. The name is Smith. Emmett Smith and party."
The clerk cleared his throat, "Alright, let's see. It will be for this man and his child, along with his servants?"
Ezra's head shot up, "Excuse me my good man, but these two people are not my servants. They are in fact my friends."
The desk clerk stared at Ezra, then shook his head, "Alright, sign the register and I will find you a room." After both Ezra and Nathan signed the register, the clerk handed them keys. Talking to Ezra, "Your room is on the second floor, over looking the main street. Quiet a good view." Turning to Nathan, "You and your mother's room is out the back kitchen door. There's a small shack we use sometimes to store things in. It's got a couple of beds in it you can use."
Ezra started to say something but suddenly found Angelique practically thrown into his arms. Unfortunately, for the desk clerk he found a pistol shoved his face as Chris spoke, "Now that ain't being too hospitable. When I made the reservation, I told you that I wanted the two rooms next to mine. Mr. Smith will take the next door to mine and Mr. Jackson and his 'mother' will take the room on the other side of his. Do I make myself clear?"
"But sir," the clerk sputtered. He stopped when he heard the click of the hammer as it was being pulled back. It only took a second for the clerk to realize he was in a no win situation, "Yes, sir. Anything you want." He took the one key back from Nathan, turned and took another key off the board, and handed it to Ezra. "Mr. Smith, your room number is 212. Your friend will have room 213."
Ezra nodded, "That is most kind of you sir."
They turned to walk up the stairs, only to hear the desk clerk mutter, "Gonna have to fumigate the room after they leave."
Chris turned back, gun still in hand, "Did you say something?"
Shaking his head, "Ah, no. No sir, I didn't say nothing."
"Good, cause I get real upset when folks start insulting my friends." He holstered his gun and followed the group up the stairs. As he turned to continue up the stairs, he heard Ezra speaking to Miss Hattie.
"Miss Hattie, you take the middle room with Angelique. I will share the other room with Mr. Jackson."
"Are you sure Master Ezra? I mean ."
Shaking his head, 'Miss Hattie, Angelique may need you tonight. So go be with her. And please, stop calling 'Master,' you are no one's slave anymore. Least of all mine.
"Alright, I'll stay with her." She grinned then hung her head, "I's sorry if'n I made ya mad. I didn't mean nothin' by it."
As they reached the top of the stairs, Ezra shifted Angelique so he had one hand free and turned to Miss Hattie. Placing his finger under her chin, he lifted her face to look at him, "'Miss Hattie, I could never be mad at you. You are a God send." Placing a small kiss on her forehead.
Angelique awoke from her nap to find Ezra sitting beside her bed reading a book. When he saw her watching him, he closed his book and smiled. "It's about time you woke up. How are your feeling?"
"Fine." She whispered.
"Fine enough to put something on your stomach besides one of Mr. Jackson's teas?" Angelique grinned and nodded her head. "Very well then. Let us adjourn to the local eating establishment for a nourishing meal."
Angelique insisted that she was feeling well enough to sit in a chair at the table in the restaurant so when they joined the others, Ezra pulled out a chair, and helped Angelique to be seated and pushed her chair up to the table and then sat down beside her, "Our apologies for being tardy. It seems Miss Angelique has a fondness for every horse she sees." Angelique nodded her head and smiled as the waitress walked up to the table.
"Everyone else has already order. What can I get you and your daughter sir?"
Angelique giggled, "He's not my father. He's my brother!"
The waitress eyes grew big and she opened her mouth to say something, but shut it instead. Ezra grinned, putting his left arm across Angelique's shoulder and spoke to the waitress, "Angelique, let's not confused the poor woman. What would you like to eat? How about some chicken?"
After a moments thought, she shook her head, "Liver."
All eyes turned to Angelique and the waitress dropped her pencil, "Excuse me?" she asked.
"Liver. Either chicken or beef liver."
"Um, Angelique, sweet heart, you don't have to eat liver. I know that it is not the most pleasant tasting meat. If you are concerned of the cost, please don't. Paying for food is my concern, not yours. You can order anything on menu you'd like to eat. So what will that be?
"But, Angelique, why would you CHOOSE liver?"
At the same time, Chris took a bite from his biscuit and he heard Angelique's response, "Cause I like it." He thought he was going to choke. Vin and Nathan froze with food-laden forks in mid-air. Miss Hattie just laughed. Ezra looked over at Miss Hattie with questioning eyes.
She held her napkin over her mouth while she tried to stop laughing, then answered Ezra's question, "Don't ask me. She's always loved liver. Never seen the likes. What was so funny was Master Peterson never knew she liked liver. When he thought she needed to be punished, he would 'force' her eat it. That's when I learned what a good little actress she is. She cried the whole time, at least until he was out of the room, then she'd smile and clean her plate. She always ate better when 'being punished' than she did any other time."
Ezra listened to Miss Hattie and then turned back to Angelique, "Seems I'll have to study my dear little sister more closely in order to ascertain her talents." He smiled up at the waitress, "Liver it is. And she will also have green beans and mashed potatoes."
"Aw, do I gotta eat green beans? I hate green beans." Angelique cried.
Ezra looked down into the tear-filled eyes and almost caved, however, out of the corner of his eye he saw Miss Hattie smile. "Alright, no green beans. Make it asparagus."
"NO!!!! Green beans! I want the beans!" Angelique panicked and Ezra laughed.
Leaning toward her, "Never con a con darlin'"
"NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! No! I won't do it again! Please Uncle Darice, please stop!" Angelique cried out in her sleep. As she tossed and turned in her bed, Miss Hattie rose, hurried over to Angelique, and sat down beside her.
Miss Hattie brushed Angelique's sweat soak hair from her face, "Hush now child. It's only a dream." Suddenly, the door to the room burst open and Ezra rushed into the room, shirt unbuttoned, barefooted, and gun drawn. Chris and the others were right behind him. Miss Hattie placed her finger up to her lips, "Shhhhhhhh, it's alright. She's just having a nightmare."
Ezra let out a breath of release, laid his gun down on the dresser and sat down on the opposite side of the bed. Cupping his hands around her face, "Angel girl. Wake up. It's Ezra. Everything's alright. Wake up, baby." Her eyes fluttered open and tear ran down the sides of her face. With his thumbs, Ezra wiped the tears away, "It's alight. It was just a dream."
With hope in her eyes, she sobbed, "It it was so so real." She looked around, seeing everyone in the room, "Are you sure Uncle Darice isn't here that he can't find me?"
Ezra pulled her into in lap, rubbing small circles on her back and holding her head close to his chest, "I swear on my father's grave, that Uncle Darice is not here and he will never hurt you again."
"No 'buts.' I made you a promise and I would rather die than be unsuccessful on that promise. I've told you before, you can count on me, baby. You can count on me."
Buck, Josiah, and a wounded JD rode into Harrisburg, riding past the saloon, where they saw Chris and Vin sitting out front. Not stopping until they reached the hotel, the tethered their horses and entered. After checking in, they headed up the stairs, following Chris and Vin who had enter behind them. Instead of going to their own rooms though, they followed Chris to his room. After dumping his gear on the bed, Buck spoke up, "Well, pard, is everything alright? Ezra beat us here, didn't he? The little girl's ok, isn't she?"
Chris held us his hand, "Hold up Buck. You're getting to be as bad as JD, here."
"HEY!" was all JD could say.
The door opened and Nathan walked in, saddlebags in hand. "I knew it! I knew this bunch couldn't do something as simple as ride from Tennessee to Arkansas without at least one of them getting hurt. What happened JD?"
"Well, it wasn't my fault. We were ambushed. It was a lucky shot."
"Yea, lucky for you it wasn't a little lower and to the right. Cause then you'd be dead. Ya dang fool. Get over there and sit on the bed and let me take a look at you." JD sat on the bed and took off his jacket and shirt. Nathan set his saddlebags beside JD and began to take things out. "Chris heat up some water for me." Chris turned to the stove and set the kettle on the burner as Nathan unwrapped the wound. Being careful not to reopen it, Nathan used some cool water to moisten the cloth before pulling it away. After examining the wound, Nathan took some carbolic acid from his bag and poured some on the wound. Then he placed a clean bandage over it, and a clean tie down across JD's chest. After he finished, he carried a small leather pouch over to the stove and picked up a cup. He poured a powder from the pouch into the cup and then added some hot water from the kettle. After stirring it, he handed it to JD, "Drink it, go to your room and lay down." JD looked Nathan in the eye, then down at the cup in his hands. Taking a deep breath he downed the drink all at once, sat the cup on the nightstand, stood up, slipped his shirt back on, jacket over his arm, he shoved his hat back on his head, nodded, and walked out. "Anybody else hurt?" Buck and Josiah just shook their heads. "Good. Cause right now, that little girl next door needs my attention. So don't the rest of ya'll go an get yourself hurt, unless your ready to fix yourself up." That said he repacked his saddlebags and stormed out of the room.
The next morning nine passengers stepped aboard the train that would eventually take them to Eagle Bend and sat down in the rear of the car. Angelique sat with Ezra, looking out the window and Miss Hattie sat in the seat facing them. Chris and Vin sitting across the aisle, while Buck, JD, Nathan, and Josiah sitting near the front of the car on either side as the train pulled out.
A day out of Eagle Bend, things were looking up. There had not been any sightings of Peterson's men since the shootout between them and Buck's company. JD's wound was healing and most importantly, Angelique was feeling better every day. She had also wound seven tough gunmen around her little finger in just a few short days. Chris smiled as he watched her sitting there with her new doll. The one he had bought her before they had left Harrisburg. He had been at the saloon and was headed back to the hotel. Angelique had had a pretty rough day. Her fever had gone back up again, as infection had tried to set.. But, Nathan had been with her the entire time, forcing his teas down her. Ezra had sat with her as well, wiping her brow, holding her hand, and talking to her. Reassuring her that he would protect her. It was on that walk when Chris had seen the doll in the window of the mercantile. He took one look and knew that Angelique would love it. So, without a second thought, he had entered the store and purchased the doll. When he had entered her room and laid the doll beside her, her eyes had lit up.
She touched the doll as if she thought it would vanish. "Is this for me?" she had asked.
When Chris had made the comment of, "Well, I think I'd look kinda silly playing with it, don't you?" she had giggled and hugged the doll.
"Thank you, Mr. Larabee. I've never had a doll before. Uncle Darice always said that toys were a waste of money and he wasn't going to waste money on a no account piece of trash like me. Thank you."
Chris met Ezra's eyes, took a deep breath and looked back at Angelique, "Angelique, you are not now, nor have you ever been a piece of trash. Your Uncle lied. And I don't want to ever hear you refer to yourself like that again." He watched her as she bit her lip to stop it from trembling and the unsure look in her eyes. "Angelique, if you don't believe anything I ever say again, believe me when I say that you are one of the most beautiful, smartest, and bravest little girls I've ever met."
"ME? I'm not any of those things. I'm not pretty or smart or brave. Uncle Darice made sure of that. He cut my hair, he never let me go to school, and I'm scared all the time."
"Oh I don't see it that way. I see a little girl with the most gorgeous eyes and a smile that will one day make every man take notice. As for being smart, book learning isn't the only way a person can be smart. I know a man who can't read or even write his own name. But, he is one of smartest men I know. And you have managed to out smart your uncle by surviving. And brave? How many little girls do you know would trust seven complete strangers enough to travel half way across the country? I'd say you are real brave." Angelique thought about for moment, looked over at Ezra, who smiled and nodded his head. She looked back at Chris am smiled, hugging the doll even tighter..
Chris was brought back to the present when Vin slapped him on the leg. "Where'd ya go, cowboy?"
Shaking his head, "Was just wondering what kind of man refuses a child something as simple as a doll."
"You and I've both seen our own share of monsters, Chris. What that man did to that little girl," Vin shook his head, "He's the worst kind of monster, one that preys on children."
"Yeah, he better hope that he never crosses my path. It there's one thing I don't put up with, it's hurting children.
"I think you might just have to get in line. If I'm reading Ezra right, Uncle Darice shows up in Four Corners will be the worst mistake he ever made. Cause Ezra will make him wish he'd never laid eyes on Angelique, let alone hurt her. We may end up having to protect the monster, just to ensure Ezra don't hang for murder. "
Chris nodded his head, "Guess we best keep a close eye on our gambler. That little girl needs him."
As the train rambled down the track, Josiah watched as the scenery rushed by. Without warning, he started laughing. Buck, JD, and Nathan all looked at him. It was Nathan who spoke, "You want to tell us what's so funny?"
Josiah gathered his senses and looked at his friends, "The name Darice. And it is a very appropriate name for Angelique's uncle. It means "The Dark One." One the other hand, Angelique's name. It means 'Angel.' And to top it off, Ezra. His name means helper or salvation. All of them very appropriate."
Buck grinned, "Names sure do fit."
"Yeah, that's what I was thinking. Wonder how Maude's folks knew their son would live up to his name?"
Buck grinned as he looked over at JD, who was being way too quiet. "You alright?"
"No, Buck, I'm not alright. I keep thinking about what that man did to Angelique. I mean, how could he? She's his niece! And she so little, he could have killed her with one of his beatings."
"Yea, you're right, JD. What that man did not, only to Angelique, but to Ezra as well puts him in a class lower than a snake's belly. And, if he shows his face in our town, I think he might be in for a rude awakening. Ezra ain't the little six-year-old boy he used to beat on. He's a man who will protect his sister to the death if necessary and then he'd have to deal with six more men. Don't think he'll be up for that."
"Well, personally, I hope he does show up. Cause I want him to suffer. Maybe get Vin to practice some of those Comanche tortures he knows. Make the man suffer for a long time."
Buck sat back and smiled, "Vin sure would enjoy that, JD, but I think Ezra has his own plans."
Angelique sat snuggled deep into the lap of her brother, starring out the window of train at the passing scenery, holding her new doll. Smiling, she took a deep breath, taking in the smell that belonged to her brother. She still couldn't believe he belonged to her. She'd never had a brother before. At first, she was a little scared, especially when she had met his friends. The one dressed in black, what was his name? Oh yea, Mr. Larabee, he really scared her at first. But, not anymore. Ezra told her she could trust him and if Ezra said it, then it must be true. Cause Ezra wouldn't lie to her. Of course she figured out really fast, that if she wanted something, all she had to do was look sad and they were all scrambling to make her feel better. Ezra shifted and held her tighter. She looked up into his eyes. As he smiled down at her, she reached up to pull his head toward her. When his face was close enough, she kissed him on the cheek. "I love you Ezra."
Ezra's smile widen as he returned the kiss, "No more than I love you, Angel."
Suddenly, Angelique's face grew solemn. "Ezra, how long am I gonna get to stay with you?" She asked as she fidgeted with the doll.
Puzzled, "What do you mean?"
She swallowed, "Well, when Mother finds out I am with you, she will come and get me. Then I'll have to go back to Uncle Darice." Her eyes filled with tears.
Ezra picked her up so her head was resting on his shoulder and pulled her close. "My precious little sister. You are mistaken. Oh, Mother will discover you are with me, of that I have no doubt, but she will not be taking you away and you most definitely will not be returning to Uncle Darice's home. You see I have a friend in Arizona. He is a judge. After I tell him what you have been through, he will give me custody of you and them Mother can never take you away. Do you understand?" She shrugged her shoulders. He pulled her away from him and held her head between his hands, "Angelique, even if something were to happen, and the judge not grant me custody, if Mother were to come and attempt to take you away, then you and I would leave, never to have contact with her again, until she understands that I will protect you. Now do you understand?"
She smiled, "Yes, I understand that you love me."
He closed his eyes and again pulled her close, "More than life itself sweet child. More than life itself."
The train pulled into the safety of the depot. Chris, Vin, JD, and Buck rose, stepped out of the train and onto the platform. Josiah took Angelique from Ezra while Nathan helped Miss Hattie. Ezra stood and stretched his back, then attempted to take Angelique back into his arms, but Josiah had already started towards the door. "Mr. Sanchez, you needn't bother yourself. While I appreciate your assistance in rising from one of the most uncomfortable seats I have ever had the misfortune to sit in, rest assured that I can take care of Angelique."
Josiah smiled over his shoulder, "I hear ya Ezra. But, you keep hogging her all to yourself and we'd like a chance to get to know her and for her to know us."
"No 'buts' Ezra. Face it, you can't be around every minute of every day. She's got to learn that she can trust all of us. And that's not going to happen if you don't allow us to help you."
Ezra stood starring at Josiah and smiled, "Point taken, Mr. Sanchez."
Buck took that moment to step back inside the train. "We checked the area and everything looks clear. We can get her to the hotel and then set out in the morning." Angelique frowned. "What's the matter, darlin'?" She shrugged her shoulders as her lower lip pouted out. "Now come on darlin'. Ole Buck can read your mind. What's wiped that pretty smile off your face?"
"JD" she whispered.
Buck, Ezra, and Josiah all looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders. Ezra cupped the back of her head, "What did JD do?"
She shook her head, "It's what he said." Ezra looked at her, still confused. She took a ragged breath, "He told me that when we got to Eagle Bend, that we be going to Four Corners."
"Yes, that is correct."
"But, he said that Four Corners is only about a half a day's ride from here."
"Well, if we go a hotel and start in the morning, then we don't get to go camping."
She nodded her head, "Yes, sir. Uncle Vin and JD were telling me how they like to camp outside under the stars. I've never been camping before. Uncle Vin said that he'd teach me to fish and how to catch a rabbit, skin it, and cook it."
Buck and Josiah laughed while Ezra turned pale, "My dear little sister, of all the things you need to learn, fishing and skinning rabbits are not at the top of the list."
Three hours later, found the group on their way to Four Corners. After Chris heard the story and saw the tears in Angelique's eyes, there was no question as to when they would be leaving. Of course, Chris made sure that Vin and JD were assigned the duties of not only catching the food, but, teaching Angelique how in the process and then of course how to prepare it. She had smiled from ear to ear upon hearing this, while Vin and JD just grinned sheepishly and walked away.
Angelique had adamantly insisted that she didn't need to be carried everywhere anymore. She proudly demonstrated that she could walk short distances. While Ezra was delighted, she was feeling so much better, it saddened him also, and he would miss the closeness they had shared as he held her. However, he put his foot down when she insisted that she could ride by herself. Much to her dismay, he insisted that she ride with one of the men, himself particularly. So, three hours out of town found Angelique and 'Christine' her doll, riding with Chris. While everyone laughed when she announced the name she had chosen for her doll, Chris tried one of famous glares, but failed miserably and had almost choked on his cheroot. Chris had convinced Ezra, that if they met up with Peterson's men on the trail, that they would immediately start shooting at him, putting Angelique in danger. Although Ezra did not want to agree with him, he knew Chris was right. She would be safer riding with any of his friends, than riding with him. Miss Hattie was riding with Josiah, telling them all stories of Ezra when he was living with Uncle Darcie. But, she kept the stories to the ones that would make Angelique laugh.
"Why, I remember the time one of the dogs had died on the ranch. Ezra was so upset. This dog happened to be one his favorites. When he found out about the dog, he ran to the barn in tears. I ran after him and found him curled up in the back of a stall, just a ballin'. Well, I sat down next to him and pulled him into a hug. I was trying to comfort him when I told him that that ole dog was so special that God want him, so he took him home to be with him. Ezra stopped crying, looked at me like I had three heads, and asked in all seriousness, 'Why would God want a dead dog?' Lordy, I about split my side laughing so hard."
Everyone was laughing, including Ezra. He winked at Angelique and then turned to Miss Hattie and with his best poker face, "Yes, well, if I remember correctly, you never did answer my question."
This caused everyone to laugh even harder. Chris wiped away a tear that was running down his cheek as he tried to speak, "Ok, enough! Miss Hattie, you sure know how to liven up a dull ride. But, we better keep sharp here fellas. We ain't home yet. We need to start looking for a place to hummmm .camp." He looked down at Angelique's smiling face, "Yea, we need to find a place to camp."
Vin grinned, "There's a place about a mile up the road. Nice stream and a good clearing. Perfect place to set up camp. I'll ride ahead and get started." He went to spur his horse when Chris grabbed the reins.
"Don't think so pard. I seem to remember you promised to take Angelique fishing and show her how to clean the fish for dinner. You ain't fixing to disappoint her now are you?"
Shooting Chris a glare of his own, Vin smiled down at the girl, "Nope, I promised I'd teach you to fish and that's what I plan on doing. Fact is, if Angelique wants to ride with me, both of us will go on ahead and by the time you old folks get there, we'll have dinner waiting on ya."
Angelique's eyes lit up like stars. Clapping her hands, she reached out for Vin. Ezra looked worried, "Now Mr. Tanner, maybe it's not such a good idea for you to go riding out alone with her. I mean, I trust you with my life, sir, but there is the possibility of Uncle Darice's men being in the area. While I realize that you would give up your own life before allowing any harm to befall young Angelique, I dare say that I would feel more comfortable if she remained with the group." Ezra looked at Vin with pleading eyes and swallowed hard.
Vin saw the look in Ezra's eyes, turned to glance at Chris who sat dumbfounded at the gambler's speech, and then turned back to Ezra and nodded, "No problem, pard. We'll just ride with everybody." Ezra nodded a 'thank you' as Vin kicked his horse into a forward motion.
Ezra jumped up from where he had been sitting, dropping Christine in the dirt. Vin had taken Angelique to the stream for her first fishing lesson. Ezra had started to tag along, but Josiah told him to relax. Ezra knew that he was being over protective, but she was his little sister, didn't that give him the right to be over protective. However, it was Angelique herself that convinced him to let her go alone with Vin. She had taken his hand, pulled him down to her level, and whispered, "You told me I could trust your friends. But if you don't trust them, how can I?" Ezra had pulled back and looked her. He was speechless. No, he was humbled.
He gave her a quick hug, "As they say, 'out of the mouths of babes.' Very well, go with Mr. Tanner and enjoy your lesson." She had smiled and hugged him back, then walked as quickly as she could, considering her legs were hurting with each step, took Vin's hand and headed for the stream.
But now, he heard her yelling his name. As he had jumped up from where he had been sitting holding her doll 'so she won't be lonely' according to Angelique, he started in the direction of the stream, only to now have Angelique come running, out of breath, from behind the bushes, proudly carrying a string of fish. Excitedly, "EZRA! LOOK! Look what I caught! Mr. Vin said that I's a great fisher! He said he ain't never seen nobody catch on as fast as me! He said that "
Ezra held up his hand, "Angelique, slow down. You are going to hyperventilate yourself. Taking the string of fish from Angelique, Ezra handed them off to Chris. Turning back to Angelique, Ezra observed the mud stained face and clothing, shook his head, took her hand and started back to the stream, picking up his saddlebags on the way. "Now, Miss Angelique, we must discuss you vocabulary "
Halfway to the stream, they past Vin who winked at her and smiled at Ezra, "Ya did a real fine job there girl, and you can go fishing with me anytime."
Ezra smiled back, "Yes, well next time, please ensure that the dirt and mud stay in the stream and not on my sister please."
"Aw, Ez, getting dirty is half the fun. Right, girl." She shook her head vigorously.
Ezra could only roll his eyes as they proceeded to the stream. Angelique called back to Vin, "Don't forget, I get to help clean the fish." Ezra stopped in his tracks, looked down at her, and took a deep breath. Without saying a word, he simply turned around and headed back to the campsite.
Mary wiped her brow as she lifted another paper from the press. The air was so hot and humid, it was stifling. As she studied the paper, she smiled. The governor had agreed to, at least talk about women voting. Oh, Mary wasn't dense. She knew that the issue of women voting was so far out of reach, that she would probably never live to see it come to pass. But, at least the governor was willing to talk about it. As she read the article, she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. She lifted her head to look out the window and saw the seven riding slowly back into town. Her smile lit up her face as she laid the paper down and walked very quickly to the door and opened it. Stepping out on the boardwalk, she nodded to Chris as he rode past and watched as the remaining group paraded by her. She couldn't keep the puzzled look off her face as Ezra rode past along with a little girl. At least Mary thought it was a little girl. And, her questions grew when Josiah rode past with an older black woman. Stepping back inside her office, she reached for paper and pencil. There was a story here and she was going to get it.
The group pulled up in front of the saloon and dismounted. Chris helped Angelique down and held her hand as they started to enter. However, Angelique stopped as she looked up at the sign over the Saloon. Concentrating on the words, she finally turned to her brother, "Ezra?"
"Ain't that our last name up there on that sign?"
Ezra smiled, "Yes, my dear. This is my establishment. It is called 'The Standish Tavern.'" Cupping her chin in his hand, "And please, there is no such word as 'ain't". We must work on you vocabulary."
"But, Mr. Vin says it."
Shooting a glare at Vin, who turns away so Angelique can't see him laughing, "Yes, well as much as I admire Mr. Tanner's tracking abilities, his vocabulary leaves much to be desired. Please, if you must imitate someone's speech, please at least choose someone who speaks English!"
Vin tried his best to look hurt, "What ya saying, Ezra. I'm good enough to help save your sister, but I ain't good enough to talk to her?"
Ezra just glared at him, put his hand on Angelique's shoulder and ushered her inside, to a table. "Come you and I are going to have another talk. What did I tell you about calling my associates by their first names."
Angelique smiled and laughed as she ran down the street with Cora Potter. They were almost the same age and found they had a lot in common, including thinking Cora's brother was mean and that Ezra was the bravest of the seven. Well, Cora thought they were all brave, but Angelique insisted that Ezra was the bravest. Chris and Vin sat in front of the saloon and watched from across the street. They had been back in town for more than a week now and it was Ezra's turn to be on patrol, so they had agreed to keep an eye on her. They heard the stage coming into town but knew that Buck and JD would meet it, so they paid little attention. However, when the stage came into view, they knew who was on board before it even came to a stop. There sitting on top was enough luggage to hold enough supplies for a brigade of soldiers. Without a word, Chris stood and ran across the street, grabbed Angelique and hurried her into an alleyway. Buck and JD had noticed the luggage also and had watched as Chris took off to hide the girl. Vin remained seated and watched. When the stage did come to a stop, the door opened and Buck helped her down. "Morning, Mrs. Standish. It's been a long time. What brings you back? Here to wipe Ezra out again?"
She shot him a glare, worthy of Chris. Held her head high, "You know perfectly well why I am here, Mr. Willmington. Where is Ezra and where is Angelique?"
"Well, now Ezra is out on patrol. Who is Angelique?"
"Don't play games with me, sir. You will lose. I want my daughter returned to me, immediately."
"When Ezra gets back into town, I'm sure he'll straighten everything out, just fine Mrs. Standish."
From inside the coach another voice was heard. A man's voice, "You best get word to that kidnapping nephew of mine, that I have a warrant for his arrest and I will see him in prison when this is all over." With that said, Uncle Darice stepped out of the stage. As he placed his black shinny leather boots on the boardwalk and stood up straight, Buck and JD got their first look at the monster that had beaten Angelique. JD was taken back some by his size, however, Buck stood toe to toe with him.
Buck squinted his eyes, glared right back, and in a hushed voice, "A warrant for HIS arrest! That's pretty funny considering the fact that it was you that dang nearly killed the girl. You should be hung for what you did."
"She is my responsibility sir. And since she is very strong headed, much like her brother, I have no problem disciplining her when need be. She is mine to do with, whatever I feel like. No one can tell me how to discipline a child of whom I have custody. Not even you or any of Ezra's friends."
"Oh, that's where you are wrong. See, out here, we don't take kindly to folks that beat kids. And neither does the judge."
"Judge?" Darice looked at Maude.
She gave a smile of annoyance, "Oh, he's just a local judge, nothing to worry about." She turned back to Buck, "We will be at the hotel when Ezra returns. Please have him come see me immediately, and he is to have Angelique with him. Is that understood?"
"Hear ya loud and clear."
"Good, now please carry our luggage to the hotel and see to it that Ezra gets my message."
"Oh, I'll give Ezra your message, but you can carry you own luggage." With that said, both Buck and JD walked off.
Chris carried Angelique as he ran to livery. He peeked around the corner of the back door and saw Tiny mucking out a stall. After Chris set Angelique down, he motioned for her to stay there, while he went inside to get Storm. He pulled his duster together and casually entered the livery, "how ya doing Tiny?"
Tiny looked up but didn't stop working, "Working hard, Mr. Larabee. You fixing to take a ride?"
"Yea, I got word that Miss Nettie wanted to see me, so I figured I'd ride out and save her the trip." He opened the door to Storm's stall, took hold of his halter, and lead him out into the middle, where he used the crossties to hold Storm while he put the tack on him.
Tiny nodded his head, "She's a good woman. Too bad she didn't send Royal to his maker when she had the chance."
Chris grinned, "Yea, there's a lot of folks that feel like that." After saddling Storm, Chris lead the horse out the back door, "See ya, Tiny." Tiny nodded but didn't say anything. Outside, Chris helped Angelique up into the saddle and then swung up behind her. After he wrapped his duster around her, so no one could see her dress, he spurred Storm into a full out gallop down the back ally and out of town.
Ezra rode back into town, as if he didn't have a care in the world. As he past the church, he noticed Josiah standing just inside the doorway. He glanced at him noticing the look of caution on the older man's face. As he continued his journey, he saw Mary and JD outside the Clarion. JD motioned with a tilt of his head toward the saloon. Ezra nodded his understanding and sat up a little straighter. As he pulled Chaucer up and dismounted in front of the saloon, he disengaged his derringer, just in case of trouble. The hairs on the back of his neck where standing when suddenly a bear of a man came flying out the saloon tackling him to the ground. Fists began to hit him in the face until he heard Vin and JD yelling for the beast to back off. The hitting stopped momentarily, and that is when he heard the voice he hoped he would never hear again but knew that he would, "I'll stop when this kidnapper is behind bars." He raised his hand to hit Ezra again, but when he turned to look at him, he found a derringer pointed at his face.
"Uncle Darice, what an unpleasant surprise. I didn't think you had the intelligence to find your way here." Looking beyond his uncle, Ezra saw his mother, "Aw, I might have guessed. Mother, I would say it's a pleasure to see you again, but that would be a lie."
Vin reached down, pulled Darice off Ezra, and held him at gunpoint until Ezra was standing. When Darice turned back around to face Ezra, he found Ezra's Colt Richards short-barreled gun out staring him in the face. "To what do I owe this abhorrent, and might I say, undesired visit?"
Darice ground his teeth, stepped close enough to Ezra to have the gun pressing against his chest, "You know good and well, why we're here. You kidnapped my ward. And I want her back, NOW."
Ezra smiled, his gold tooth showing, "Your ward, you say. Well, my sources tell me that there have never been any legal papers filed with the courts, giving you custody of her. So that means that mother is still her legal guardian." Pushing Darice back with his gun, "So if you don't mind, Mother and I need to have a talk. A PRIVATE talk." Without taking his eyes off his uncle, "Mr. Tanner, why don't you take Uncle Darice to the stage depot and help him purchase two tickets east."
"Not a problem, Ez." Vin nudged Darice in the back with his mare's leg, "Let's go."
Darice was furious. His face turned red and he glared at Ezra. Through clenched teeth he snarled, "This isn't over."
With his best poker face, "Oh yes, Uncle Darice, it is quite over. You will never touch my sister again. Or else I will be forced to cut your heart out. Do you understand me?"
Darice backed up and stared into Ezra's eyes. What he saw made a chill run down his spine. For the first time in his life, Darcie was afraid. He swallowed hard and then nodded his head, and walked off.
Ezra turned to his mother. Putting his gun away, he walked past her and into the saloon without a word. Maude followed him inside and they sat down at a table in the back. Without offering her a seat, as every southern gentleman would do for a lady, Ezra sat down and just looked at her. Disgusted with his actions, she huffed and sat down. "Now, you listen to me. That is my daughter and you will hand her over to me immediately. Do you understand me Ezra Standish?"
Ezra glared at his mother. Thoughts ran through his mind. Thoughts of how she had used him as a child, how she had swindled him as an adult, how she had belittled him all his life caused his anger to grow. But how she could subject her own daughter to the likes of Uncle Darice was too much. He reached into his inside pocket, pulled out some papers, and then leaned forward, laying them on the table. "My dear Mother. Your heart warming tears of thanks for saving your daughter from the cruelty of Uncle Darice are heartwarming."
"He is not cruel. He is demanding yes, cruel no."
"Oh please Mother. Wake up." Ezra all but shouted. Then in a lower tone, "Mother this is what is going to happen. You are going to sign these papers giving me full and unconditional custody of Angelique and then you and Uncle Darcie are going to be on the next stage out of town."
Maude sat back in her chair and laughed, "And why on earth would I do something as stupid as that?"
"Because dear Mother, if you do not, then I will kill Uncle Darice and take Angelique anyway and disappear. Moreover, you will never hear from either of us again. On the other hand, if you do as I say, then when Angelique is secure in the fact that you cannot take her away from me, I will notify you and invite you for a visit. You mother, not Uncle Darice. Angelique and I never want to lay eyes on that man again. Do we understand each other?"
Maude watched Ezra's eyes. She knew without a doubt that he was not bluffing. After a few minutes of thought, she asked for a pen. Ezra asked Inez to get the one from his room. Upon her return with the pen and ink well, Maude took it, and signed the custody order. "Happy?"
"Quite." She then rose from her chair and stormed out. Walking across the street to the stage depot, where she met up with Darice.
Ezra folded the papers and put them in his pocket again. He then ordered a drink from the bar. What happened next, well, Ezra was half expecting it. Darice came bursting through the bat-winged doors, gun drawn and fired once at Ezra. If Ezra had not been expecting it, things might have gone another way, but Ezra was expecting it. Therefore, when he heard his uncle's footsteps and Maude's pleas for him to stop, Ezra pulled out his Colt and just as Darice entered with his raised gun, Ezra fired. Darice landed on the floor, one bullet between the eyes.
Chris stood in the stall, brushing Storm as he watch Angelique. He had put a swing up in his barn for her, from the rafters and she was sitting on it. However, she didn't look like she was having very much fun. He took a deep breath, laid down the brush, and walked over to her. She looked up at him with said eyes, "When will Uncle Darice come and get me?"
He knelt down in front her and stopped the motion of the swing, "Do you think we rode all the way to Georgia, hid you on trains and stage coaches, brought Miss Hattie with us, and even camped out just so your Uncle Darice could come and take you back?" She shrugged her shoulders. He smiled, "Well, we didn't. Ezra made you a promise. Do you remember what that promise was?"
"He promised that no one would ever hurt me again." She whispered.
He nodded, "That's right. And Ezra will keep that promise or I just might have to shoot him."
Her eyes grew wide, "You wouldn't shoot Ezra would you? I mean he's your friend. And and he's " The tears welled up in her eyes. Chris laughed and pulled her off the swing into a hug.
"No darlin', I won't shoot him. I was just teasing."
She pulled back to look him in the eye, "That wasn't very nice, Mr. Larabee."
Chris shook his head, "No it wasn't. And what's this 'Mr. Larabee'? What happened to Mr. Chris?"
"Oh, Ezra said it wasn't proper for me to call you that. He said a young lady should show respect and call her elders by their surnames." She answered in all honesty.
"Her elders? Was he calling me old?"
"Well, you are old. I mean you gotta be at least thirty, right?"
Chris let out a belly laugh, "Yea, at least." From the distance, Chris heard the sound of a horse in a hurry. He carried Angelique to an empty stall and raised his finger to his lips to tell her to be quite. Then he picked up his gun and holster, slung it over his shoulder and walked out of the barn. With the sun in his eyes, he watched as the rider drew closer. He was about to reach for his gun, when he recognized the rider. He walked further out into the yard and raised his hand in a greeting, "Hey there Ezra. Everything alright?"
Ezra smiled down at him, "Yes Mr. Larabee. Everything is perfect. Where is Angelique. I have news."
"She's in the barn." They started in that direction when she came running out.
"EZRA! I knew it was you!"
He scooped her up in her arms as she ran to him, "And how did you know it was me?"
"Cause Storm don't like Chaucer, and he was making a fuss."
"A horse with less taste than its master." Ezra grinned.
Chris only smiled. "Now, Ezra, you shouldn't go putting Chaucer down like that." Ezra shook his head, "Tell ya what. I'm gonna go check on Storm. Why don't you two go inside. I'll be there in a minute."
"Thank you Mr. Larabee." Ezra set Angelique back on the ground and hand in hand they went inside Chris's home. Ezra pulled out a chair and sat down, pulling her onto his lap. "Mr. Tanner told me that you saw Mother and Uncle Darice get off the stage this morning." She nodded her head. "Well, please do not fear. They will never take you away."
"How do you know?"
He pulled the papers out of his pocket, "Because Mother signed these papers, giving me full custody of you."
"What about Uncle Darice? Won't he be mad?"
"Oh yes, he was very mad. So mad he tried to kill me."
"He did!" She answered in shock.
"Yes, he did. But, your brother is faster and smarter than Uncle Darice ever was. When he raised his gun to me, I shot him first."
"You shot Uncle Darcie? Won't he even be madder now?"
"No, sweetheart, he won't. My bullet killed him. He will never hurt you or anyone else again."
"You killed him!"
"Well, when a person is killed, they are dead, yes." For a moment she looked happy then she hung her head. Ezra lifted her quivering chin with his finger, "What ever is wrong? I thought you would be relieved."
"Uncle Darice always said I was a bad seed. I didn't know what that meant until now."
"And you think you do now?" She nodded her head. "What does it mean?"
"I must be a bad seed, cause when you told me he was dead, I was happy. So I must be bad."
He held her close, "No, darling, you are not bad. You are not happy that he is dead either. You are happy that he can no longer hurt you. That is all."
"Than I'm not a bad seed?"
"No you are a very good girl."
She sat up, "What about Mother?"
Ezra cleared his throat, "Well, we will be burying Uncle Darice in the morning. After that, Mother has a ticket for the next stage out of town. She will be at the funeral of course. If you do not want to attend the funeral, you do not have to. If you would like to speak to Mother before she leaves, that is your choice. If you do not wish to speak to her, that will be acceptable, also. Moreover, she will not be returning until you tell me that you would like to see her. I want to make sure that you know that she can never take you from me. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir." She thought for a minute, "Do I have to decide right now if I want to see her? I know I don't want to go to the funeral though."
"No, you can think about it. In fact, if you decide you want to see her, but change your mind at the last minute, that too will be alright. Whether or not you see Mother, is entirely up to you. Do you understand?"
"Alright." She reached up, wrapped her arms around his neck, and gave him a hug.
The next morning, Angelique found herself in the care of Mrs. Travis. Everyone else was at the funeral. Mrs. Travis was at her desk writing something for her newspaper. Angelique stood by the window and watched the group from a distance. She had seen the funeral go past but had hidden so Mother would not see her. Now she stood, chewing on her bottom lip. Without turning away she spoke, "Mrs. Travis, should I say anything to Mother? I mean should I at least say goodbye?"
Mary laid her pencil down, "What do you want to do?"
"I want to say goodbye, but I'm afraid."
"Afraid of what?"
"That she'll try and take me away."
"Ezra won't let her."
"I know. But I'm still scared."
"It's alright to be scared."
"Do you think Ezra would hold my hand if I decide to talk to her. I don't want to be alone with her."
"Ezra will be right by your side. So will six other men, if you want them to be."
Angelique smiled, "it's kind of funny."
"All my life I dreamed that my father would come rescue me from Uncle Darice. Only he didn't. Ezra did. Now I have seven fathers and I know each of them love me. Makes me feel special."
"You are special, Angelique. So what would you like to do?"
"Well, if Ezra and the rest will be there, then I'd like to say goodbye."
Mary stood, "Alright, I'll let Ezra know. You stay here while I get the message to him."
Angelique stood like a statue with Ezra's hand in a death grip, while she waited. Buck and JD stood like sentinels on either side. Ezra had received the message that Angelique wanted to say goodbye to Maude and here they were waiting for her to arrive for the stage. Vin, Chris, Nathan, and Josiah had agreed to help with her luggage just to get her out of town. When they approached ahead of her, they handed the luggage to the stage driver, who took them and placed them on top. Maude stepped forward, "Ezra, it's so nice for you and Angelique to see me off."
"It was Angelique decision Mother. She wanted to say goodbye."
"Yes, well, it was nice to see you again, darling. Maybe next time we can spend some time together."
"Not alone Mother." Was all Ezra would say.
Maude went to step into the stage.
"Goodbye, Mother. I love you." Angelique blurted out.
Maude froze, "What?"
"I said I love you."
Maude blinked, shook her head, and boarded the stage. And the stage pulled out. As the dust whirled behind the departing stage, a dejected child and seven furious men watched until it vanished from sight.
SEQUEL - WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO?