Then Came Maude
by Beth Green
Chris Larabee had encountered enough desperadoes over the years that he had no difficulty in recognizing the four hard-eyed strangers for what they were the minute they rode into town. The men scanned their surroundings as if they expected to be attacked at any moment, eventually making their way to the saloon. Chris waited a minute to see if they planned to cause an immediate ruckus then followed behind them. Although they appeared to have arranged themselves peaceably around a table, it did not surprise the black-clad man in the least to see that the strangers had posted one of their number near the batwing doors, an obvious sentry.
Chris ignored the footsteps behind him. He'd seen his fellow peacekeepers heading toward the saloon as he'd stepped through its doors. He knew that the footsteps belonged to his friends, and that they had his back covered.
The two groups of men faced each other in a tense standoff, hands poised for a quick draw of weapons. Chris nodded his head toward the leader of the thugs. "Name's Chris Larabee. Maybe you've heard of me?" Chris allowed a slight smile to grace his face when he noticed the reaction his name produced from two of the gang members.
The leader was made of sterner stuff. He didn't so much as twitch as he blandly answered, "I suppose that I may have heard the name before."
"Good. That'll save us a lot of small talk. I just wanted to let you know that this town is under my protection."
"Thank you for sharing that information." The man's fisted hand upon the table belied the calmness of his next words. "Now, some folks might consider that to have been a threat. You're lucky I'm an easy-going sort of fellow. Otherwise, I'd think you're trying to stir up trouble where none exists. My friends and I are hot and thirsty and just stopped in to get a drink. I'd invite you to join us if it weren't for the unfriendly nature of your greeting to a few strangers passing through town."
Chris didn't give a rat's ass for the man's opinion. He advised, "This can be a pretty unfriendly town. You and your friends should think about passing through sooner rather than later."
The man shrugged, seemingly unconcerned. "I'll think about it."
The peacekeepers declined to exchange further words with the strangers. Instead, they strategically arranged themselves around the room. They did not need to put into words what they all knew: the seven men would be watching these strangers night and day until they left town.
Fortunately, Chris' words had provided sufficient incentive that the strangers left town the next day.
Ezra was happy to see them leave. His mother had arrived in her usual manner - unexpected and unannounced the previous day. Any and all attempts that Ezra had made to divine the purpose behind her visit had been rebuffed. In fact, it seemed that she'd been going out of her way to avoid him.
Yesterday was a prime example of her current stay. Ezra hadn't been able to exchange more than a sentence or two with the woman when he'd encountered her outside of the rooming house. "Mother, I know that this town holds little fascination for a woman of your refined tastes. Whatever possessed you to visit this time?"
Maude smiled and placed a hand tenderly against his cheek. "Why is it so hard for you to believe that I just want to visit my darlin' boy?"
Ezra pushed her hand away as he responded, "If I bothered to make the time and effort to count the number of times that you've traveled somewhere merely for the pleasure of my company, I could use the fingers of one hand to do so and still have fingers left over when I was done counting."
"Ezra, that was spoken like a petulant child rather than a full-grown man."
"Petulance aside, if you wanted to visit me, why is it that you've taken great pains to avoid me?"
Maude faced down her only child, hands placed upon her hips. "I have not been avoiding you. I merely have business to attend to."
Before Ezra could counter her declaration, his mother turned away from him. She smiled and raised a hand to wave toward a figure on the other side of the boardwalk. "Mr. Sanchez!"
She turned back to Ezra with an apology. "I'm sorry, dear, I've got to go." She began to walk away as Josiah drew near. Maude greeted the man enthusiastically. "Mr. Sanchez, you're just the man I was looking for." She linked her arm through his and they walked away together.
Ezra frowned at the besotted look on Josiah's face. The man was lying to himself if he thought for one minute that Maude would ever harbor any romantic feelings for him. Ezra immediately corrected himself. The truth was, his mother had a way of making men believe whatever she wanted them to believe. If she wanted Josiah to believe that there was a chance that she returned his affections, then the man was doomed.
+ + + + + + +
Maude and Ezra continued their little routine of hide and seek as the mini-drama of the passing strangers played itself out. Things got a lot more dramatic the day after the strangers had left town. JD was going through a newly delivered stack of wanted posters when he came across a couple of familiar faces. He immediately headed out of the jail in search of his fellow peacekeepers.
The young man encountered Chris and Vin in front of the livery. His tongue tripped as he rushed over his words. "Chris, Vin, look those guys that just left are wanted and there's a reward and, and . . ."
Chris and Vin were perusing the wanted posters in JD's hands. Chris raised an eyebrow and continued for the flustered JD, "And that's a very nice reward."
Vin commented, "Reckon it might be worth our while to track down those fellas."
Chris nodded and smiled. "Reckon it might. JD, you go find Buck and Ezra. Me and Vin will let Nathan and Josiah know. We'll meet up at the saloon."
The men scattered to find their friends. It was time for the Seven to ride.
+ + + + + + +
Six of the seven were soon gathered at their favorite drinking establishment. Ezra asked the obvious question. "Is Mr. Wilmington planning to ride with us?"
JD shook his head. "I don't know. I haven't seen him."
Chris stated, "It's just after noon. If no one's seen Buck yet, there's one of two places he'll be."
JD started, "His bed. . ."
And Chris completed, "Or a lady's. I'm hoping that it's his own, 'cause he'll be easier to track down. I'll go check."
Vin helpfully supplied, "I'll go with you," smiling as he remembered another time he'd helped to roust Buck out of bed by pretending to be a lady's estranged husband. This could be a lot of fun.
A few minutes later JD, thinking along the same lines, decided to head to Buck's room. His friends followed shortly thereafter. It would have been better for all concerned if they'd stayed in the saloon, but fate was fickle and proved to be decidedly unkind to Buck Wilmington upon this day.
+ + + + + + +
Chris and Vin approached Buck's room at the boarding house. Buck had the end room, out of sight and sound of most of the other residents. The boarding house was a safe place to live, and like most of its residents, Buck rarely bothered to lock his door.
Chris knocked and verbally announced his presence. He smiled at Vin, knowing that he'd given any lady present little warning as he turned the door handle and let himself in.
Both he and Vin had excellent poker faces, and did not give away their shock at the sight that greeted them. Buck appeared to be unclothed. He'd only had enough time to pull the bedcovers up to his chin, leaving his bare arms and one shoulder partially exposed. His female companion was fully clothed and seated comfortably sideways upon the bed. Buck's nudity was hardly surprising. The astonishment came courtesy of the lady's identity: it was Ezra's mother.
Vin politely tipped his hat. "Afternoon, Maude."
Maude gave a little smile and nodded her head in return. "Good afternoon."
Buck saw no reason to maintain his composure. "What the hell do you think you're doing, just walkin' in on a man like that?"
Chris replied, "Those rough-lookin' fellas that rode through town the other day got a price on their heads. We're lookin' to collect it. Thought you might like to come along. However, if you've got other plans. . ." Chris stopped, giving Buck a minute to consider.
Buck didn't need the time. Anger forgotten, he began to toss the bed covers away from himself. "Well, why didn't you just say so? Let me get dressed. . ." Buck's voice trailed off at both the realization that he'd been about to expose himself and the fact that JD had just walked into the room.
Buck dove back under the covers.
JD froze, his eyes bugging out and mouth hanging open in amazement. He finally found his voice. "Buck! And . . . Maude?"
The lady in question stood up and began to walk away from the bed, but it was too late. Both Ezra and Josiah had arrived in time to witness her oh-so-comfortable position beside Buck.
Ezra stated, "Mother, I keep thinking that you no longer possess the ability to do anything that would surprise me, and you keep proving me wrong."
Josiah's wounded look and pained words were the hardest to listen to. Everyone knew about the torch he carried for Maude, and their hearts broke a little with the man's as he uttered, "Buck. I can't believe it." He turned and headed out of the room, with Ezra following closely behind.
Ezra merely commented, "I'll leave you two alone." His bitter words could be heard as his voice faded out of hearing range while he and Josiah exited the building. "Where my mother is concerned, not believing in anything is probably the best course of action."
Buck attempted to defend himself. "It's not what you think!"
JD was not listening. "How could you do that to Ezra? To Josiah?"
"JD, give me a chance to explain." Buck looked around the room and frowned as Maude stood statue-still. "Aw, hell. I know you all don't give a damn about me, but show a little respect for the lady. Give me a chance to put some clothes on and we can talk, man to man."
Chris spoke. "Buck, I think this time maybe you ought to stay in town and keep an eye on things here. It might be a little too distracting to have you ride with us right now. The longer we stay here talking, the bigger the lead those murdering bastards will get on us."
Intellectually, Buck knew that Chris was right, but that didn't stop his heart from breaking with the knowledge that his friends didn't want him anywhere near them.
Chris rejoined his colleagues with a terse, "Buck's not coming with us," and they rode out of town.
+ + + + + + +
After the dramatic scene in town, capturing the wanted men proved to be downright easy. The desperadoes had made no attempt to hide their trail, and had not ridden their mounts very hard. The fleeing men were probably wishing to preserve their horses, as they expected to be on the run indefinitely. By the time they realized that that was not to be, they were in custody.
After securing the prisoners safely behind bars, the peacekeepers headed for their favorite watering hole: the saloon.
+ + + + + + +
Maude wisely waited until they'd had a chance to imbibe a few drinks before she dared to join them.
The men silently regarded her. It was Ezra who finally spoke. "I hope that our absence gave you and Buck time to come up with a suitable tale to tell."
Maude raised her nose in the air at that comment as she seated herself at their table. "With a greeting like that, how can I expect you to believe a word of what I've got to say?"
"How can you indeed?" Ezra proceeded to make a show of ignoring his mother as he reached for his drinking glass.
Maude looked around the table, assessing the men in front of her. Their expressions ranged from bland to outright hostile.
Chris commented, "I thought Buck'd be with you?"
Josiah snarled, "He hasn't got the nerve to show his face."
Maude let some of her own anger show. "You've got no cause to be upset with Buck. It was my fault that you came upon us while Buck was in dishabille."
Ezra scolded, "English, mother. The man was naked."
Maude frowned. "There's no reason to be crude. I needed to consult with Mr. Wilmington regarding a business matter. I was directed to his room. As I approached his door, I was nearly run over by a lady who was exiting. Rather than let the door close, I decided to enter as she was leaving. Mr. Wilmington was rather embarrassed at his state of undress. I'm afraid that I thought that it would be amusing to further discomfit the man. I chose to conduct my business while seated on the side of his bed."
Ezra quietly applauded. "Well done. I'd almost believe you myself, were it not for the fact that I cannot conceive of any business that you would wish to conduct with Mr. Wilmington other than the obvious."
Maude stated, "People have a distressin' tendency to believe what they want to believe."
Ezra restrained the snort that wanted to escape at Maude's words. In his mother's case, nothing could be further from the truth. People, especially men, had a tendency to believe whatever she wanted them to believe.
She continued, "At this very moment, Mr. Wilmington is on the road at my behest." Maude stood and pointed an accusing finger at Ezra. "You're upset because I have no intention of sharing my personal business with you. When you find out the truth - and believe me, you will - you'll have cause to regret your words." She gave a quick nod to the men seated around the table as she prepared to leave. "Good day." The room was silent as the men watched her exit the saloon.
Not sure what to believe, Vin commented, "Well. That was innerestin'."
JD offered his opinion. "You know, I believed her. I could see everything happening just the way she said it did."
Ezra spread his empty hands across the table, palms upward. "Mother is a consummate professional. She is very good at what she does."
JD attempted to clarify Ezra's statement. "Does that mean you think she's telling the truth?"
Ezra shrugged. "For the sake of all concerned, I suggest that you assume that she was."
Chris recognized the non-answer for what it was. However, he agreed with the sentiment behind it, so he held his peace.
+ + + + + + +
Buck did not return until the next day. He was relieved when JD greeted him with a wave and a smile. Buck pulled up in front of JD, the older man's brow furrowed in anxiety as he asked, "Did you all have a chance to talk to Maude?"
JD nodded. "Yeah. We got back yesterday with the prisoners. Maude explained everything."
Buck sagged limply in his saddle. It was not until all the tension left the man's body that JD realized how tensely Buck had been holding himself.
JD frowned at the dark circles beneath Buck's eyes. "You been riding all night?"
Buck shook his head as he wearily conveyed his horse to the livery. "Naw. Just didn't sleep too good last night."
JD assisted Buck with the routine task of stabling his horse. "If you're worried about the others, they're okay with what Maude said."
Buck warily asked, "What exactly did Maude say?" The older man nodded as JD repeated the brief explanation Ezra's mother had offered.
JD was surprised when Buck did not vehemently go on about how he'd initially been wronged. Buck was usually not quiet about letting his opinions be known. The young man knew that Buck had to be upset at the way his friends had immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion. Of course, under the circumstances, JD supposed they reacted the only way they could have. He rationalized that Buck had already figured that out and had forgiven his friends. Besides which, the man was probably too tired to engage in his usual excessive chatter. Yeah, that was it.
JD watched curiously as Buck removed a small package from his saddle bag.
"It's what kept me busy while you all were off playin' lawman." Buck stared off thoughtfully into the distance. "Somehow, when Maude asked, there was no way I could say no." Buck gave a small, sad smile then stated, "I'd better get this package on over to the lady."
JD frowned as his friend walked away, the usual spring gone from his step. He muttered to himself, "I know she's Ezra's mother and all, but I hope Maude goes back to wherever she came from, the sooner the better."
+ + + + + + +
JD's request was granted soon after Buck had delivered his package. Maude breezed into the saloon, smiling at the seven men gathered there. She announced, "I do believe that it's time I took my leave. Before I do, Ezra, I was wondering if I could have a word with you?"
Ezra paused in the act of shuffling a deck of cards from hand to hand. He was in no mood for games, especially the sort of amusements that his mother was wont to come up with. He assessed the risk of her current venture with his next words. "Anything that you have to say to me, you can say in front of my friends."
Maude hesitated. "Our words would be better exchanged in private. I would hate to be the cause of any further embarrassment to you."
Ezra sighed. At least his mother had given him the courtesy of a fair warning of the consequences to himself if he should refuse her request. He conceded her this small victory. "Very well."
To Ezra's surprise, Maude began speaking the moment they left the saloon. She hooked her arm through her son's and they began a casual stroll along the boardwalk. "First, I'd like to explain why I felt it necessary to consult with Buck. You see, somewhere along the line, you grew up without me. There are I times I feel like I don't even know you. I'm sure you've felt the same. I'm not really sure what you like or what you loathe. I needed your friend's help to determine whether or not a particular gift would be appreciated."
Ezra remained silent, certain that Maude would accept his lack of comment as nonverbal agreement.
She continued, "You probably think that I'm no longer aware of when your birthday is." Maude stopped, her arm linked through Ezra's forcing him to do the same. She stepped around to face him, one hand tapping her chest just above her heart. "I know. A mother never forgets the anniversary of the birth of her only child."
"I myself have never found any reason to celebrate getting another year older, and I raised you to think the same." Her voice grew quieter, her eyes shining with something that may have been regret as she stated, "Somehow, I don't quite think that you do."
She shook herself out of her somber mood. "Well, this year I decided that I would like you to have a token to remember me by. I had something in mind, but I wasn't sure if you would like it. I shared my idea with Buck, and he seemed to think that it was a good one. He even offered his services so that I could procure the needed item."
Maude removed a small package from her reticule. Her smile had a hungry intensity to it as she awaited her son's reaction. "Happy birthday."
Ezra hesitated before taking the package from his mother. In his experience, her gifts always came with strings attached. He stared at the woman in front of him, searching for lies within her body language. The pensive man desperately wanted to believe the sincerity of her words. He took the package.
He slowly untied the string from the cloth wrapper. He stared at the item that had been concealed within the soft folds of the cloth. It was a gold watch. The outside of the case was engraved, "To My Son." The inside of the case was deeper than usual, allowing room for the picture that had been inserted there. Ezra literally could not breathe when he saw the picture. It was a reproduction of a painting that was permanently engraved upon Ezra's memory. The original had been a gift from one of Maude's husbands. It was an oil painting of a very young and very beautiful Maude, with a tousle-haired child held close to her side. The artist had lovingly rendered his idealization of both mother and child. It reminded Ezra of the happiest of his childhood memories.
Maude chattered nervously. "I always remember you as being fond of that particular portrait. I recently met up again with the original artist, and he agreed to make the copy that you see there. I know it's excessively sentimental, but I did have the forethought not to put your actual name upon the watch, as one never knows when a change of name will be necessary; that is, if you should decide that you want to keep the watch."
Ezra remembered to breathe again. He closed the watch case carefully and reverently. "Mother, this is. . . I, I. . . I thank you." Ezra wanted to say, "I'll treasure it always," which was the truth, but he still could not quite believe that Maude did not wish to exact some price for the keepsake. He remained quiet.
Maude smiled. "You're welcome."
Neither she nor her son were much for sentiment, so it was no surprise when Maude abruptly changed the subject. "The stagecoach will be here soon and I've got to finish packing. It's been lovely seeing you again, but I must go." She turned and briskly began to walk away, waving as she departed. "Goodbye."
Ezra watched as once again his mother walked away from him and out of his life. His reply was a near-whisper. "Goodbye."
+ + + + + + +
Maude was not surprised that neither Ezra nor his friends showed up to see her off on the stagecoach. She supervised the loading of her trunks and was about to enter the coach when a voice called out to her.
She turned away from the coach, a pleased smile upon her face. "Buck. I cannot thank you enough." She held out a hand.
Buck gently took the offered hand within his own and bent to bestow a kiss. As he stood up, the hand followed him up to run a warm caress along his cheek.
Maude's voice grew low, her pupils dilating as she breathed out his name. "Buck. Thank you. For everything." She leaned toward him and would have kissed him on the lips if he had not turned his head a fraction at the last second. Instead of a passionate kiss, a more circumspect peck on the cheek resulted. Maude noticed that Buck did not say, "You're welcome."
Maude turned away and boarded the stagecoach. She began to prepare herself mentally for the con awaiting her at the end of her journey, dismissing the town of Four Corners and its peacekeepers from her thoughts.
She herself was not so easily dismissed from the minds of the men she'd left behind.