The first unexpected luxury of San Francisco was the condition of the casino tables. Ezra had trouble keeping his hands away from the smooth green baize.
It was not that he had forgotten that the poker tables he frequented in Four Corners tended to be grievous insults to the finer breeds of carpentry--covered as they were in scratches, spilled whiskey, dabs of tobacco juice, and the occasional spot of dried blood, it was a difficult matter to forget. He had simply . . . ceased to notice. Why did it matter if the wood was spotted with gunpowder? His unfortunate fellow gamblers usually provided enough green as recompense for the lack of proper baize. It was not that he had forgotten that they did not look as they should; it was that he had forgotten how they were originally intended to look.
He moved his hand over the table again with a smile. Smooth, unblemished, and almost ironed flat. Good Lord, it even prettied up the cards. He did love the look of a full house against a clear table.
Ezra picked up a poker chip--polished clean and still brightly painted--and smiled at it.
"Gentlemen," he said. "Raise fifty."
+ + + + + + +
The second unexpected luxury of San Francisco was his hotel room. Judge Travis had only been kind enough to reserve him a room that, while certainly bearable, did not live up to the expectations Ezra had formed after seeing the hotel's casino firsthand. The few hours he had spent taking advantage of the lovely tables downstairs had been well worth it. He handed over the cost of the new room with scarcely a whimper at the price.
"Velvet curtains," he said. "I shall simply have to remain here forever. I will telegraph Mr. Larabee with my regrets." He chuckled, imagining the reception of such a missive.
MR LARABEE <STOP> DECIDED TO REMAIN IN LAP OF LUXURY <STOP> HAVE VELVET CURTAINS <STOP> APOLOGIZE FOR NOTHING <STOP>
"Please forward all possessions to hotel," he said aloud. "End."
The pillows were stuffed with down, too. That settled it. He would send the telegram and worry about Mr. Larabee's reaction once he had explored the local bathhouse to his heart's content. It would be splendid to bathe just once without Buck and JD urging each other into the inevitable water fights that left half the room damp with soapsuds and dirty bathwater. And he was sure that, in the gloriously civilized San Francisco, he would actually be able to towel himself off before some dust-up summoned him out into the street.
Yes, his stay in San Francisco would be wonderful--and all too brief, he was sure.
One of their own prisoners had been rerouted here to stand trial and, as a reward for spending such an inglorious stretch of time serving as the man's escort on the long journey, Ezra was allowed only a week in the city before he was scheduled to return to Four Corners. He had attempted to persuade Mr. Larabee that since those seven days would no doubt include his testimony at the trial, adding on a little more time would not go amiss. Chris had borne this patiently--for him, at any rate--for several minutes before he began to wonder rather loudly about the possibility of sending Vin, instead.
"Mr. Larabee, despite Vin's considerable talents and doubtless personal charm, sending him to San Francisco would be the equivalent of throwing Daniel into the lion's den." Here Ezra had paused, trying to find the best way to convey the magnitude of the flaws in the reasoning behind even joking about considering sending Vin in his place. "And anyway, I've already packed my things."
It was, perhaps, one of his weaker persuasive efforts, although Chris had certainly found it amusing.
Considering how unwilling Chris had been to lengthen his stay, Ezra thought that a carefully-worded telegram or two describing his temptation to remain would not go amiss. Although he was sure that they would not understand about the luxury of having decent gambling tables. Those men would deal a game on a canvas tarp with a smile. Maude would understand but no doubt be incapable of sympathizing--although she would certainly support his decision to remain in San Francisco, which was the main reason why he was so loathe to voice it to her.
He toyed with the velvet curtains, moving the swath of rich red cloth back and forth to swing sunlight through his room like a pendulum.
"Only a week, Mother," he said, "which is a shame, but he didn't have to send me."
Although Vin would indeed have been ill-suited to navigating San Francisco--and Ezra sincerely doubted whether he would have agreed to make the trip in the first place--Josiah and Nathan would have been more than capable. Even Buck could have been talked into it, once wooed with the promise of a whole city teeming with women that he had never met. Any of them would have been willing to make the trip and none of them would have tried for a longer stay.
Mr. Larabee had sent him.
He supposed that living in Four Corners might have some benefits, if one could learn to ignore the unfortunate saloon tables.
All the same, however, he fully intended to take advantage of his time in the city.
+ + + + + + +
The third unexpected luxury of San Francisco involved the quality of the alcohol. Even on his trips with Maude, Ezra had rarely tasted wine any finer. It was certainly a pleasant change of pace from the routine beer and whiskey he drank in Four Corners--and in San Francisco, while he continued to rake money in at the card tables, no one tried to cajole him into spreading his wealth by buying rounds for the whole table. People in San Francisco lost their money in a much more reasonable fashion and simply decided to sulk. They certainly didn't trouble him as he attempted to enjoy a quiet drink.
If he had been in Four Corners, he was sure that a brawl of some sort would have broken out by this point and he would have had to abandon his lucrative efforts at the card table--the blemished card table--to quell it. Then he would have complained about his lost money and Nathan would have tried, once again, to tell him that the money he drew out of other men's pockets wasn't as important as he thought. And, undoubtedly, he would have had to buy them all drinks to silence the suggestion that he was miserly. Once drunk, JD would have knocked something over and started telling his pathetic excuses for jokes. Josiah would have drunk them all under the table and Ezra would have woken up in his velvet curtain-bereft room with Vin snoring on his floor.
Yes. Things were quieter in San Francisco.
Ezra drank his wine in silence.
+ + + + + + +
The first unexpected drawback of San Francisco was the weather.
It was ridiculous of him to object to balmy nights when he spent so much time in Four Corners bemoaning the chills that could sweep across the desert--he was sure that the others would be amused if they could hear him muttering to himself as he wriggled uncomfortably in the heat--but he had simply not expected the mild climate. His wardrobe was unsuitable for it. Layers of clothing in the desert could protect one from the unkind glare of the sun during the day and ward off the cold at night--in San Francisco, they were simply unnecessary. He was sweating through his best things.
"Why must these nights be so devilishly warm?"
The man at the barstool next to him offered a friendly grin. "Ought to be used to it, I'd think--someone with an accent like yours."
"I'm from Four Corners," Ezra said shortly. "It's a desert." He drained his glass of wine. Impossible to even enjoy a drink in this heat. It all tasted like vinegar.
What he needed, he thought, was a glass of beer to cool him down.
+ + + + + + +
The second unexpected drawback of San Francisco was all the uncomfortable attention to legislative detail. Hancock's trial seemed to drag on endlessly, wasting good time that Ezra could have been spending elsewhere. Good Lord, if he'd ever been interred here, it would have taken the greater resources of the Union Army to extricate him. He much preferred the types of jailhouses where a simple lock-pick and a few greased palms could ensure his escape. If the law were this thorough in its pursuit in the territories, they would have lost Vin long ago.
"Honestly, Mr. Hancock," Ezra said in a low voice, causing Hancock's hands to jerk nervously away from the lock on the jail door, "had the circumstances of your arrest been different, I could quite wish you free of all this nonsense."
He saw the hard glint of hope appear in Hancock's eyes.
"Of course," Ezra continued, "as I still have clear memory of your vigorous attempt to carve up young Mr. Dunne like a Christmas ham, my only true wish is that the jury is not too addled by this infernal heat to produce a swift and guilty verdict. The more time I spend in that courtroom, the less time I have to spend at my hotel's majestic card tables."
Hancock raised his hand to indicate the bars that surrounded him. "Then why are you sittin' here talkin' to me?"
"Because the elimination of the letter g from your vocabulary has, most unfortunately, become something of a bewildering comfort to me."
"You have much in common with the young man you so uncharitably attempted to murder," Ezra said. "I believe it's your call, Mr. Hancock, although a smarter man would take the opportunity to fold. Your tell is most obvious."
Hancock caressed the jail lock again. "Ain't got no tell."
"Wonderful," Ezra said.
+ + + + + + +
The third unexpected drawback of San Francisco--and the most unexpected drawback that Ezra had ever encountered in his life--was that absolutely no one expected anything of him.
When men lost their money at his table, they did not regale him with stories of the families that they had to feed or the wives that would be cross with them. He never had to lecture them about never playing money that they couldn't afford to lose and he certainly never had to sigh and peel off a few bills to return to their hands. If they had pleaded with him and he had consented to return at least a portion of their lost money, he was sure that the only looks he would receive in response would be ones of shock, not those infuriatingly knowing glances that were inevitably backed by someone buying him a drink and clapping him on the shoulder.
On the rare occasion that something untoward occurred between two of the more inebriated casino patrons, Ezra received only blank looks from his fellows at the card table as he rose to intercede. Which was all for the best, perhaps, because if he had forgotten his place and tried to separate the men fighting, he likely would have been arrested with them.
Feeling rather morose, he again found his way to the jailhouse while Daniel Hancock continued to await his verdict.
"Mr. Hancock," he said, "if you were to somehow escape the clutches of the law at this particular moment, what would you do?"
Hancock thought about it for a moment. "Run," he said.
"Yes, yes, of course. Very sensible of you. But if I were standing right here, as I am now, as you made your escape attempt . . . ?"
Hancock thought about it some more. It seemed to be a very involved process.
"Reckon I'd have to kill you," he said. "Nothin' personal."
"Ah!" Ezra held up a finger. "But why would you have to kill me?"
This seemed to require no thought at all.
"'Cause you wouldn't just let me leave," Hancock said. "You're law."
"Thank you," Ezra said, somewhat mollified. He checked the time on his pocket watch. "This may be a delicate subject, but given the faces of the jury as I and several others recounted the extent of your crimes, I do believe that within the hour, we will receive word that you are going to hang."
Hancock shrugged. He seemed fairly resigned.
"As much as I bear a grudge over your attack on Mr. Dunne, it occurs to me that you are one of the few people in this fair city with whom I can stand to converse. That being said, I thought I would offer to stay and watch your hanging, if you would like that, or if you would prefer that I not witness such an event, I could depart expeditiously."
"You've been all right to play cards with," Hancock said, "and you don't shove me around like most of the law likes to, even though you got a better reason. Might be nice to have kind of a friendly face in the crowd. Not that you're too friendly, but all the same. Somebody familiar." He rolled his shoulders back and turned his head to the side, undoubtedly flexing his neck while he still could. "But I reckon you should be gettin' on. Place don't seem to agree with you much."
Ezra nodded. "I'm afraid you're correct. I thought that it would, but it seems that I was mistaken. There were a few unexpected drawbacks." He rose from his crouch and tipped his hat to Hancock, who made a vague gesture in return.
"You tell that boy I reckon I should've left him alone," Hancock said. "Considerin' how damn quick things went to hell afterwards."
It was, Ezra felt, as close to an apology or an admission of wrongdoing that anyone could receive from a man like Daniel Hancock. He nodded briefly, accepting it for what it was, and left Hancock--and San Francisco--behind him.
+ + + + + + +
"What was Frisco like, Ez? Did you see any of the old Wickestown girls?" JD fairly bounced from foot to foot as he walked alongside Ezra. "How was the weather? How was the trial? Were there any fights?"
Ezra sighed. "San Francisco was tolerable, I regret that I did not have the opportunity to avail myself of any of the pleasures offered by our old acquaintances, the weather was insufferably warm, the trial had a satisfying outcome, and the fights were suitably confined to the lower classes." Hastily, he backtracked. "Of course, the chance to immerse myself in civilized society was gratifying, and the accommodations were excellent. I was quite tempted to stay."
"Couldn't have been too tempted," a voice said from behind him. His hand twitched in the direction of his gun before he recognized it.
"Mr. Larabee. I trust I've returned near enough to schedule?"
"Nearer than I expected," Chris said. "Day early, in fact." He walked around Ezra and got a good look at him. "Things go badly?"
"Things went perfectly well," Ezra said stiffly. "I simply . . . decided that it was my duty to return once the trial had reached its inevitable conclusion. There was no reason to delay."
"He means he lost money," Chris said to JD, as he swung open the door of the saloon. There was a slight smile on his face. "And no doubt left a lynch mob in Frisco hunting for his head."
"Not at all. My turns at the table were quite successful, I can assure you."
He stepped into the welcoming shadows of the saloon, where he could already detect the start of a good drunken brawl between two of the patrons. The whole room smelled of stale beer and there was nary a velvet curtain--or any curtain at all--in sight. Chris touched his elbow, guiding him towards their usual table.
"Meant to have everyone here, but we didn't expect you back yet," he said. There was a note of apology in his voice. "You want to tell us why, after damn near bribing me for a longer stay, you got yourself in such a hurry to come back?"
"I believe," Ezra said, laying a hand upon the pitted and stained wood of the table, "that I simply must have lost track of time." He touched, lovingly, one of the lengthy scars that ran the course of the table--a relic from when a ricochet off a piece of tin had scratched the table and nearly shot his hand off in the process. "I can't imagine what came over me."