Disclaimer: The boys are the property of MGM, Mirisch, and Trilogy Entertainment. I do not own them or make money from them but if I did own them I promise I would share.
Characters: Old West. Ezra, Vin, the boys and Maude
Summary: Continuation of Misplaced and Misplaced 2 Finding Earl Standish is a daunting task for Ezra but the gambler has six friends willing to help.
No one in Four Corners ever had to actually search for Ezra P. Standish. The Southern gambler was always seated at the same green baize table, in the same saloon, at the same time of day. So the telegraph operator placed the wire in Ezra's hand only mere minutes after it had arrived.
Vin Tanner's broken arm had healed well and Ezra could no longer use the tracker's injury as an excuse not to leave Four Corners in search of his long-lost father, Earl Standish. Ezra would die with his fancy boots on before he let his six friends know how truly worried he was at the prospect of finally meeting his father. The gambler had brought down the shutters not wanting the other six men to have any idea how he felt.
Vin's eagle eyes could only see the printed top of the telegraph message from his place nursing a warm beer at the bar. His infrequent reading lessons with Mary Travis meant that he could now read telegraph messages. Vin had decided that he liked telegraphs. No long complicated sentences and not much of that there punctuation that Mary Travis was always harping on about, that fair made him want ta cry when she tried ta make him wrastle with it.
Ezra having already decided to leave Four Corners at the ungodly crack of dawn as there would not now be a train due in Libertyville until tomorrow, so his hands were tied in that respect, hastily pocketed the message before Vin could read it and returned to his game of Solitaire.
"What yer ma got ta say?"
"Nothing, Mr. Tanner, and most certainly nothing of any interest to you."
"But it's yer ma, Ezra." It never occurred to the tracker that Ezra wouldn't think him enough of a friend to have taken an interest in the gambler's life.
Aw, dear gawd, Tanner wasn't going to leave the subject alone, the annoying ragamuffin, thought Ezra.
"Mr. Tanner, I am quite well aware she is my 'Ma' as you so delicately put it. I was there when she gave birth to me, much to her disgust I might add. So let us just drop the topic shall we? Haven't you some ABC's Mary Travis should be teaching you?"
Ezra was so upset about Maude's lies that he resorted to taunting Vin with what the shy tracker thought was a secret known only to himself and the lady newspaper editor, Mary Travis. How Ezra had found out Vin could not even start to imagine. Humiliated, the tracker stormed out of the saloon and with a sigh Ezra resumed his solitary card game.
"That was out of order!" snapped Chris Larabee furiously, as he left the saloon to find the tracker.
"You are low enough to walk under a worm's belly, Ezra," sneered Buck Wilmington as he followed Chris Larabee outside.
"Yeah," added J. D. Dunne.
"That was beneath you, Ezra," sighed a clearly disappointed Josiah Sanchez.
"I can't think how a man like Vin Tanner rides with a man like you. He's worth ten of you," said Nathan Jackson, before he too followed the other four men out of the smokey saloon.
If it had not been for bad luck Ezra would have had no luck at all at the poker table that night.
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Ezra was at the livery stable tacking up a very surprised Chester before the sun had even considered getting up. He had to catch that railroad train and start his search. Then he would have to consider whether or not to ever return to the town of Four Corners. He turned Chester on to the trail for Libertyville and left Four Corners behind. In fact he was some way out when he heard another rider making good time behind him.
"Whoa, hold up there, Ezra!"
Ezra twisted in his saddle and nearly unseated himself. "Mr. Tanner, why are you pursuing me?"
"Reckon I's comin' with ya is all."
"Coming with me? After all I said to you in the saloon?"
"Aw Hell, Ezra, ya were jus' real awful upset bout yer ma an' yer pa."
"I were? I mean, you could tell that I was upset?"
"Sure." The tracker loosened the stampede strings on his slouch hat and reached for his canteen.
"Well, that is very kind of you and I do appreciate the offer but I have to travel by railroad."
"Which means you can't bring that." Ezra pointed at Peso.
Rather disparagingly, thought Peso. The uppity black gelding resolved to gnaw on the gambler at the earliest opportunity by way of revenge.
"I's rode a locomotive afore ya know."
"Yes, well, yes, perhaps you have but this is a very long journey, Mr. Tanner."
"Yeah? Where we's goin' ag'in?"
"New Orleans, Mr. Tanner. I," reiterated Ezra, "am traveling to New Orleans."
"Yes, Mr. Tanner, have you heard of it?"
"Reckon so," the tracker wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and stoppered his canteen.
"Well, there you are, it is a very long journey."
"Good thing I's comin' along, ya'll be dreadful bored all on yer own."
Aghast, Ezra could not think of any suitable reply.
Both men rode along in profound silence for some great distance.
"New Orleans a mighty big city, Ezra?"
"Indeed, yes, Mr. Tanner."
They rode along in silence for a while.
"New Orleans a mighty busy place, Ezra?"
"Indeed, yes, Mr. Tanner."
Again, they rode along in silence for a while.
"New Orleans a mighty noisy place, Ezra?"
"Indeed, yes, Mr. Tanner."
They rode along in silence for a little while.
"New Orleans a..."
"Mr Tanner, just turn back now if you wish, I shall not be in the least perturbed if you do."
"Only making polite conversation, Ezra."
"Indeed, Mr. Tanner," commented Ezra dryly.
Relieved not to feel obliged to continue to make small talk Vin was more than happy to ride along in silence for a very, very long while.
Maude Standish had found that hiding in plain sight was often very effective. Libertyville's Red Onion saloon had a panoramic view of the railroad depot and Maude spied a familiar red jacket boarding the morning train. Triumphantly, Maude ordered a buggy to take her into Four Corners. Maude was certain that when she arrived she could persuade Inez Recillos to loan her the key to Ezra's room.
That very same morning Chris Larabee's longtime friend, Buck Wilmington, forwent Blossom Call's ample charms to join Chris Larabee for breakfast in the saloon. Buck knew his friend well enough to have realized just how much the gunfighter was going to miss the impudent tracker. Even if Larabee hadn't yet acknowledged it to himself. Besides, standing in for Vin Tanner over breakfast was no great hardship decided the ladies' man. Inez held their food tray at shoulder level so it would not impede her on her way through the saloon's tables and chairs. Buck watched the smoldering barkeep head their way and the sensual sway of Inez's hips had him hypnotized.
Stroking his mustache, his blue eyes twinkling, the ladies' man smiled up at her. "Inez I---"
He tried again. "Let me---"
She placed the silent Chris Larabee's food down on the table in front of him. Then she slung Buck Wilmington's plate haphazardly down onto the table before turning on her heel and wending her way through the tables and chairs on her way back to the kitchen.
Buck compared the meagre, burnt offering on his plate to Larabee's ample portion. "Inez is finding it hard to deny the animal attraction we have between us."
"Yeah, it must have taken great effort on her part to burn your breakfast to a crisp when mine is perfectly cooked."
"She's weakening," beamed an always irrepressible Buck.
"As Vin would say, ya got a name fer that world a yer own ya live in?"
Without any further warning Larabee suddenly arose from their table and strode towards the saloon's batwing doors. Seizing his chance Buck helped himself to half the gunfighter's breakfast. The eggs were delicious. Hearing the the sound of the batwing doors swinging shut followed by a high-pitched feminine squeal, a reluctant Buck decided that he had better investigate.
Out on the dusty boardwalk Chris Larabee had Ezra's mother, Maude Standish, pinned by her arms. "Maude Standish, as an affront to motherhood, you are under arrest."
"On what charge?" Maude demanded to know.
"Fraudulently masquerading as fit to be a mother. Causing heartbreak and misery to a third party, to wit one Ezra P. Standish, the young man unfortunate enough to have to call you mother. Spitting in the street and anything else that comes to mind on the way to the jail house."
"I demand to see the judge!"
"Judge Travis is due back in town in approximately six weeks. If on his arrival he chooses to set you free I won't object."
"Six weeks!" squealed Maude. "You can't keep me locked up for six weeks on trumped up charges!"
"I can't? Hmm, I wasn't aware that was part of the gunslinger's code but then, they are mostly just guidelines."
"That stinking little jail house isn't a fit place to keep a lady!" Maude screamed.
"I agree but it's good enough for a woman like you. Or perhaps I can arrange to find you a cell in Yuma Prison. The warden there is very accommodating."
"Yuma Prison is much too harsh, Chris," remonstrated Buck.
Maude sighed with relief. "At last, a true gentleman."
"They got a better jail house over in Snellville, Chris? We could wire Preston Wingo and ask," suggested Buck, with a mischievous smile.
"No!" shrieked Maude. "Not that bloated wood tick!"
As the cell door clanged shut behind her Maude Standish was already stridently demanding various items to make her cell more habitable. Folding his arms across his chest, Chris merely stared at her until she changed tack.
"I need a doctor!"
Chris continued to stare.
"I have a bad heart!"
"That's why you're in here," thundered Chris, turning the key in the lock.
The tall gunfighter pulled up a wooden chair, sat down and looked through the metal bars at her. "I once had a son. Adam was torn from me. Ripped out of my life by a vicious harpy. Not a day goes by when I don't curse God for that and then fall on my knees to beg that self same God that Adam didn't suffer. I would give up my own life just like that," Larabee snapped his fingers before continuing on in a low but threatening voice. "Die a thousand deaths just to have him walk this Earth again. But you...you had a beautiful son and you...threw him away."
"You don't understand---"
"No, lady, I don't."
"I was all alone. I had to make a living. I couldn't keep him with me!"
"Honey Tanner kept her son with her until she drew her last breath. Even though she was a working girl Buck's mother always had him by her side. JD's mother worked hard everyday to raise him. Nathan's mother went unwillingly to an evil man's bed to prevent her son from being sold away from her. Josiah's mother suffered living with a religious maniac for the sake of her children. My own mother would have got down on her hands and knees to scrub floors in order to feed and clothe me. And Sarah...I wonder sometimes whether or not she alone ever had a chance to escape that inferno. I'll never be sure because I know for a fact that rather than take that chance she would choose to stay with Adam. Nothing would have parted her from our son not even the option to save her own life. So you are right, I don't understand."
Maude blinked rapidly as he arose from the chair and slammed the jail house door behind him.
The tedious railroad journey was largely uneventful. Ezra made more than enough money to finance the entire trip at one fell swoop at an impromptu poker game with some very affluent businessmen already aboard the train. Tanner seemed to be able to find ways to keep himself amused on the train much to Ezra's surprise, as the shabby tracker disappeared once again for some considerable time. Several times Ezra thought that Tanner might have accidentally got off at the wrong railroad stop.
"Mr. Tanner, so glad you could find time in your busy schedule to stop by."
"Ya miss me, Ezra?" grinned Tanner. "Here."
The Texan dropped a pile of money in crumpled notes and coins on the seat in front of the gambler before flopping down in his seat and removing his slouch hat to scratch his head vigorously. Ezra inched away from the dusty buckskin which had acquired an even more pungent aroma from its time aboard the train.
"What pray is this, the Sunday church collection?"
"My fare, Ezra."
"Railroad ain't free. Ya had ta pay fer me upfront now kin pay ya back."
"Mr. Tanner, in your own way you are attempting to do a friend a favor by accompanying me on this journey, so why should I expect you to pay?" Ezra was deeply moved by Tanner's selfless act.
"Ya might be needin' all that cash in yer fancy boot fer findin' yer pa, pard."
Ezra looked out of the train window for a while, the scenery suddenly having become of the utmost interest to him. Tanner's quiet thoughtfulness had touched and embarrassed him. Ezra still did not know how to react to random acts of kindness having so rarely experienced them for himself.
"Ya awright, Ezra? Done gone a mite quiet. Ya ain't goin' ta be travel sick are ya?" Tanner inched his buckskin away in case Ezra was going to vomit.
"No, Mr. Tanner, I have never felt better. How in fact did you acquire these monies?"
"Here an' there, this an' that," shrugged the tracker.
"Shoveled some coal, carried some bags, moved some crates, kilt a rat..."
"You? Y-y-you killed a rat?" spluttered Ezra.
"Gotten in the baggage car an' did some chewin' on folk's stuff."
"You got paid for killing a rat?"
"'T were a big rat, Ezra," whispered the tracker so the other passengers would not overhear and become alarmed. "Yey big," he held his hands apart to illustrate the size of the monster rodent, "killed the rat fer nothin' but wanted paying ta clean up the bloody body an' all."
"Did you shoot it?"
"Shoot it? Ya don't shoot rats, Ezra. Bullets cost money ya know," Tanner screwed up his face in disbelief at the very idea of such wanton profligacy, "were only a rat, Ezra."
"Of course, how remiss of me not realize that."
Maude wasn't the kind of woman to relish having nothing to do but twiddle her thumbs. Her lonely incarceration was already wearing her down when Nathan Jackson entered the jail house.
"Mr. Jackson! What a welcome sight you are! Have you come to effect my emancipation from this hellhole?"
"Chris Larabee said you had complained of ill health, ma'am?"
"This is hardly the place to carry out any kind of medical examination, Mr. Jackson," stated Maude primly.
"I agree, ma'am. If you still feel unwell Mrs. Travis and Mrs. Potter have kindly agreed to manacle you and escort you across to the clinic," explained Nathan.
"I will not be paraded through the streets like a common criminal!"
Nathan nodded. "Well, let me know if you change your mind."
"Wait! Mr. Jackson, please could you not intercede with Mr. Larabee, kind sir?"
"On what grounds?"
"On the grounds that I have committed no crime in Four Corners."
"I don't rightly know the exact process of the law but as your victim mostly resides here in town, I think Chris has some grounds to arrest you here."
"My victim? My victim? You make it sound as if I deliberately tossed Ezra on his head as a baby and seriously injured him! Mr. Jackson, as a medical man I think you must agree that Ezra is the acme of good health!"
"I know that a man can be wounded in the soul as well as in the body. Poor Ezra bears deep mental scars caused by your wanton neglect of him. Now, if you feel well enough I got plenty of real patients in need of some doctoring."
At last they arrived in New Orleans and Ezra watched Tanner look about him with wide open fascinated eyes. As they reached a rather fine looking hotel Ezra observed his companion and realized Tanner would have some rather specific room requirements as he was more used to sleeping in the back of his wagon or outside under the stars.
Once inside the hotel Ezra booked one of the better double rooms with its own private balcony.
"Kin pay fer m' own room, Ezra, ain't got ta bunk in together," muttered Tanner.
"You most certainly can't afford this hotel on your own, Mr. Tanner, there aren't enough rats in New Orleans for that. And I insist that you stay here where I can keep an eye on you and make sure that you don't get lost out there in the big city."
Vin Tanner noticed that the haughty room clerk was looking down a long nose at the fringed buckskins he wore. Vin wasn't sure he was actually going to take to city folk. They all seemed to be in an awful hurry. He looked about him thinking it sure was a purty place with lots of gold painted stuff and fancy plaster work. Somebody else was smiling in his direction, Tanner glanced across the lobby. Now, that just was a work of art. He tipped his hat and she acknowledged the salute with a graceful nod of the head.
"Oh, no, you don't. You buckskin Romeo. We have no time for you to get your heart handed to you on plate by such a glowing beauty. Follow me."
Both men followed the bellhop up the stairs. Tanner reflected that it was a good thing that he was a tracker by trade as it was going to be interesting finding his way back to the lobby through the maze of identical corridors. Once inside their room Ezra checked that it was up to meeting his high standards before giving the bellhop a more than generous tip considering that they had the minimum of luggage. Tanner only having his saddlebags, that he had insisted on carrying up to the room himself.
Tanner stared at the big brass bed and soft down pillows with trepidation. It didn't look big enough for two men unless they were real good friends. No offense to Ezra but Vin didn't think he was ever going to meet a man he could get that friendly with.
Ezra flung open the French windows and stood there as proudly as the original architect must have done after he'd designed the beautiful iron balcony.
"Your accommodation for the night, Mr. Tanner, complete with starlit canopy. I ordered some extra blankets to protect you against the winter's night air. I am sure that they will be an ample substitute for your bedroll."
Tanner was gratified that Ezra had actually shown him such consideration.
"Thanks, Ezra, much obliged." Tipping his hat to the gambler, Tanner inspected the balcony, it was ideal.
"One small favor you might do for me in return, Mr. Tanner."
"While we are in such a civilized place as New Orleans could we dispense with the buckskins? I wonder too if you might own a shirt collar?"
"Hell, ain't thought ta go an' get prettied up afore I's lit out after ya, Ezra. Naw."
"May I lend you a shirt for when we dine?"
"Iffen ya figure ya must." Tanner was almost starting to wish that he had never accompanied Ezra to New Orleans at all.
Tanner had yet to earn the money to pay Ezra for this fine and dandy room as well as his train fare back to Four Corners. He was mighty sure that he would need his buckskins for that.
"Can we git a shuffle on an' start lookin' fer yer pa's house? now yer planned my big city wardrobe fer me?"
"Josiah! At last, a man of integrity and good sense! This miserable little backwater's entire peacekeeping force seems to have taken leave of its senses. Please, put an end to this ridiculous charade and release me!"
"Maude, I think this is the safest place for you at present," rumbled Josiah Sanchez, finding a chair and collapsing wearily into its seat. "Not only are Brother Ezra's peacekeeping brothers angry with you, several formidable ladies hereabouts find your behavior utterly repellent."
"Why? Whatever do they think I am guilty of?" Maude moved carefully across the cell floor to stand in the exact beam of sunlight that would cause her to look at her most angelic.
"The boy had a right to know that his father was alive and well, Maude. Even if you thought you had a good reason to keep them apart."
"I though that you of all people would have the capability to forgive me, Josiah," simpered Maude.
"I am not that one that you need to seek forgiveness from, that would be Ezra. He is the only one that can grant you a pardon. Truth be told, Maude, the selfish way you raised that boy makes me doubt that he yet knows how to be so magnanimous. I pity you, Maude. You have spend all your life in the pursuit of wealth and right under your very nose was was a child that, in spite of everything, has a heart of gold."
"Poppycock! I raised him to be self-reliant! I taught him every skill he needed to thrive in this modern age we live in!" protested Maude.
"You set him up to fail, Maude. Brother Ezra, in spite of what he himself believes, doesn't have the ability to harden his heart against those who suffer. Slowly but surely he was learning to trust us, Maude. Shaking off your corruption and becoming the man he was always born to be." Sorrowfully Josiah shook his head. "It will be a tragedy for you if Ezra decides to banish you from his life but no more than you deserve."
Maude sat in stunned silence as Josiah left the jail house.
Having mentally girded his loins for this long awaited meeting, the anticlimax hit Ezra hard on finding no answer at the door of the given address.
"Mighty fine house, Ezra. Ya think he's gotten more than one room here?" rasped Tanner, gazing up at the facade of the charming tree shaded house.
"This is a gentleman's residence, Mr. Tanner, not a common lodging house."
"Yeah? Mighty big place fer one man. Ya sure ya got the right address writ down? Reckon Larabee could build his shack seven times over in this here railed off rose garden."
"It is far more substantial than I was expecting," murmured Ezra.
"Reckon it's a mite lonely fer 'im alone. All them big rooms an' such."
Ezra gave Vin a sideways glance and shook his head. "We may as well return to the hotel and make plans to leave."
"Leave? Yer givin' up?" Vin blinked at the gambler in surprise.
"The garden is somewhat neglected leading me to suspect that he has left New Orleans," stated Ezra, using an icy tone in order to disguise his considerable disappointment.
"But we ain't come travelin' all this way fer nuthin'? Hell, Ezra, take a closer look."
"At what, Mr. Tanner?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Open the damned door, Ezra!" rasped Tanner.
"Mr. Tanner, am I to understand that you are advocating that we imitate common criminals and break in?"
"Hell, Ezra, we ain't gonna thieve the family silver jus' take us a quick look inside fer clues."
"Damn, Ezra, want me ta blow the lock clean off?" Tanner's sawed-off was in his hands in a blur of speed.
"No! No indeed."
Standing close to the door as Tanner shielded him from prying eyes, Ezra examined the lock and swiftly employed his picklock. Both men were rewarded with a satisfying click and discretely slipped inside.
Standing at the foot of a flight of stairs Vin wrinkled his nose. "Reckon yer right, Ezra. Done bin empty fer a good few weeks."
"Ain't no one ta hear, Ezra."
"I know that but it just seems wrong to..." frustrated, Ezra ran a hand through his dark auburn hair until it stood up in disarray.
"Cause a ruckus in yer pa's place?"
"Yes. I know you don't---"
"I understan', Ezra," smiled Vin.
Bracing himself for what he might find, Ezra opened the nearest double doors. "Dining room." Crossing the hallway he opened the next set of doors. "Drawing room."
"Front parlor," agreed Vin.
Slipping by Ezra the tracker squatted by the white marble fireplace. Drawing his hunting knife the tracker poked at the fragile black ash in the fire grate. "Burned some papers afore he done left. Ain't nuthin' readable 'cept this. Some old letter from a stagecoach company." Although not totally sure why he was doing it, Vin slipped the scorched letter into a capacious pocket of his buckskin.
Ezra had wandered over to the piano. Lifting the lid he touched the keys reverently before sitting down and opening the sheet music.
From this valley they say you are going.
We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile,
For they say you are taking the sunshine
That has brightened our pathway a while.
So come sit by my side if you love me.
Do not hasten to bid me adieu.1
Listening to the music Tanner ambled over to stand at Ezra's shoulder. "Ya know what them little black squiggles an' lines all mean, Ezra?" the wide-eyed tracker asked.
"Great-aunt Birdee once spent an entire summer teaching a lonely boy to read musical notation and to greatly appreciate the solace of music, Mr. Tanner."
"Yeah? Thought it were all stored up in yer head. Ya kin jus' read it an' play any tune them music fellers scribed down, Ezra?"
"For my sins, yes. This particular song I do know well. Very well indeed."
"Yer favorite tune's a farewell song?"
"Leaving a happy place behind or indeed being left behind somewhere is a scenario that I am most familiar with, Mr. Tanner, so it is hardly surprising." Ezra banged the piano lid down with an abrupt display of ill-temper.
"Adieu? Frenchified ain't it?"
Ezra sighed impatiently. Tanner was worse than a dog with a bone. Never knowing when to leave well alone in Ezra's opinion. "French? Yes, Mr. Tanner."
"Kin mean, 'until we meet again'?"
"Then mebbe one day ya's able ta go back?" asked the tracker gruffly.
Ezra stared at the scrawny tracker. It had never once occurred to Ezra that he could return to visit any one of the numerous 'family members' Maude had foisted him on as a small child. Perhaps, if he returned minus Maude, they would forgive him and make him welcome? It was a thought entirely new to the gambler. One day soon he would sit down and calculate the odds and if they seemed in his favor then just maybe....
"Time ta try upstairs," announced Vin, heading for the staircase. "C'mon, Ezra, this is fun."
Shaking his head, Ezra followed the mercurial tracker out into the hall and up the stairs. Fun? The tracker surely had an odd way of viewing the current situation, mused Ezra.
Tanner was standing in the corridor staring at one of the doors when Ezra joined him. Both men stared at the brass nameplate affixed to the door.
Ezra traced the legend with the tip of his finger as if to ascertain its existence in his reality.
Tanner was the one to turn the brass doorknob and open the door as Ezra seemed rooted to the spot. The two companions gazed in disbelief at a single moment frozen in time.
A banner tacked up on the opposite wall read, 'Welcome Home'. In the center of the room stood a circular tea table complete with tarnished silver cake forks and dusty china side plates arranged on a lace cloth. The frosting on the cake itself was faded and discolored but Ezra could make out his own name in the blue letters spelled out by the nozzle of an frosting-bag. An English style dumb waiter festooned with thick gray cobwebs held petit fours and other stale dainties on its circular shelves.
Tanner glanced around the large room guessing that once the heavy drapes were opened it would be light and airy. Ideal as a bedroom-cum-playroom for a small boy. A green-painted bookcase held colorful storybooks and a large schoolroom globe. A toy-box painted the same cheerful shade of green stood at the foot of a brass bed. A mural depicting deep blue sky and white fluffy clouds adorned the wall behind the bed. On the ceiling up above a cat played a fiddle as a cow jumped over a laughing man in the moon. In the corner a rocking horse wearing a red saddle and bridle waited patiently to carry its young master over the hills and far away. No expense had been spared in creating a child's wonderland.
Tanner posed the question Ezra couldn't even hope to voice. "Figure yer pa once had an expectation of bringin' ya back ta live here with him?"
Receiving no answer from the gambler, Tanner slowly backed out of the room and tactfully left Ezra to his thoughts.
Moving slowly across the room Ezra opened the armoire. Fine clothes suitable for a small boy and clearly never worn waited in vain. Leather boots and shoes still shone with polish. Closing the doors, Ezra studied the carefully chosen decoupage on the lid of the toy-box before he opened it. A bat and ball, a spinning top, boxes of lead soldiers and a gaily colored kite, complete with ball of string, nestled inside.
Letting out a long shuddering breath Ezra picked out a wooden jigsaw puzzle. Clearly new when placed in the toy-box, he recognized it as identical to one he himself had been given as a Christmas gift by an older cousin. Except the one he had been gifted had two missing pieces and the box had been tattered and faded. Gently he closed the pristine lid and replaced it in the toy-box.
A deft flick of the wrist caused the spring-loaded Derringer to appear in his hand, he aimed it at the door and prayed that Maude would step across the threshold. Instead Tanner walked into the room.
Tanner threw up his hands in surrender. "Whoa, Ezra!"
"My deepest apologies, Mr. Tanner, I was thinking of my dear mother and how she contrived to turn my father into the male equivalent of Miss Havisham for her own duplicitous ends."
"Figures," grimaced Tanner. "Found this in yer pa's bedroom an' a big pile of unpaid bills."
Ezra examined the telegraph message Tanner handed him.
"It says ya can be found in San Francisco. Reckon he's gone lookin' fer ya?"
"Maude!" raged Ezra, angrily pacing the beautiful polished wood floor.
"Ain't signed none, what makes ya sure it were her?"
"Foolishly, on our immediate return from Purgatorio I telegraphed Maude to advise her that I intended to seek out my father. This message is dated the day after I might have expected Maude to be in receipt of my missive." Ezra avoided looking into Tanner's deep blue eyes, he had no wish to see the tracker's pity for him.
Tanner stepped forward and unusually for him, affectionately gripped Ezra's shoulder. "Ezra, knows that she-cat is yer ma but she is a copper bottomed four-flushing bitch."
Ezra risked looking up, his own emerald eyes meeting not pity but true empathy. "Mr. Tanner, that is not news to me I do assure you."
"She knew were yer pa was ta be found all along, Ezra."
"Obviously," ground out Ezra, clenching and unclenching his fists.
"An' now he ain't here."
"He has doubtlessly undertaken this useless peregrination at Maude's behest."
"He gone a lookin' fer ya?"
"That woman's deviousness knows no bounds," snarled Ezra.
"Wondered why she always used a different name in New Orleans. She were hiding herself from yer pa?"
"Mother uses so many non de plumes that even I am unsure whether or not her real name is actually Maude."
"What were in the telegraph message ya got back in Four Corners?" asked Tanner, uncharacteristically curious for once.
Ezra reached inside his red jacket. "Here, read it for yourself."
"It's blank, Ezra," puzzled Vin, turning the telegraph message over in his hands.
"Mother isn't speaking to me."
"Now that's subtle," chuckled the tracker.
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"How big was the pile of unpaid bills?"
"Mighty big," drawled Tanner.
Ezra pointed to a deck of playing cards with a tiger design on the reverse, a bottle of absinthe and a solid silver absinthe spoon. "La fée verte, Mr. Tanner. Perhaps, I did inherit my tactile dexterity from Maude after all. Still, I find it hard to believe that he lost all his wealth bucking the tiger."
Opening the bottle and taking a suspicious sniff at the Green Fairy, Tanner took a swig. "Aniseed tastin'. They favor it hereabouts? Yer pa gotten malaria? Some thinks this is a cure," rasped Tanner, handing the bottle back. "Faro ain't a game a man with any smarts plays, Ezra. Hell, they even manufacture crooked shoes fer dishonest games."
"If even you, a man that rarely gambles money on anything, is aware of that fact then I find doubly hard to believe that he isn't apprised of the nefarious practices of the faro dealers. Perhaps he lost all his money in the Panic of 1873?"
"Yeah? Ain't seeing how yer pa can afford a ticket ta San Francisco iffen he owes all that money. Only bill paid in the whole stack was this 'un."
"Then we shall pay this establishment a visit," decided Ezra.
"Mother only paid a bill if it was of benefit to her to do so. For example, if she intended to beg, borrow or steal money from the unsuspecting victim."
"A hot bath and a change of clothing, followed by a good meal is in order. Mr. Tanner, please return to the hotel and make a start on these matters while I make a small number of urgent purchases."
"Yes, indeed, Mr. Tanner."
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"Here are the results of my short sojourn in the city emporiums." Smiling, Ezra passed Tanner a number of large flat boxes.
"Ya want me ta open 'em?" asked Tanner puzzled.
"They are for you, Mr. Tanner."
"Me? What ya done bought me? Can't take stuff off ya, Ezra. Ya ain't owing me fer helpin' find yer pa ya know," Tanner was embarrassed by Ezra's largesse.
"This will aid us to ascertain Father's exact location as you will pass un-remarked on in the finer establishments of New Orleans and therefore not send up warning signals which may reach Maude's ears before we are ready to tip our hand."
Ezra had been blessed with a reasonable amount of time to anticipate Tanner's reaction to his shopping spree and had prepared this speech accordingly. Although he despaired of the long hair and hat.
Reluctantly, Tanner opened the largest box first. Inside was an extremely plain but extremely well cut and very dark blue jacket.
"It is manufactured of very fine material and the stitching is quite exquisite, although far too plain for my liking of course. Unfortunately, it is not brand new but of exceedingly good quality." Obviously Ezra was keen for Tanner to accept his gift. In the other boxes were two white cotton shirts, several collars, one pair of charcoal gray pants and finally a silk tie. "It really would assist our mission greatly if you would dress the part, Mr. Tanner."
"Thanks, Ezra," blushed the tracker, totally overwhelmed by the gambler's generosity.
"Would this also be a good time to press you into accepting my sincerest apologies for the insulting remarks I made about your lack of formal education? I am deeply sorry and I would like you to know that I consider you a man of great innate intelligence."
"Hell, iffen I knowed what that were all meanin' I's be lookin' as pleased as a dog with two tails. Already forgot what ya done said. Told ya, ain't that bright but can tell when a man's upset 'bout his pa an' his ma's shady shenanigans."
Ezra was well aware that Tanner understood exactly what he had said and that totally proved his point.
"It may be a little early for a visit to the establishment you mentioned in the normal course of events but as we are looking for information not enticing company it may be the most opportune moment," mused Ezra.
"We goin' ta the damn bawdy house now or not?"
"Patience, Mr. Tanner, perhaps I may draw my bath first? I am still redolent of our journey, I fear. The bordello we are intending to visit is the best in New Orleans and if we mean to at least get inside the door we should not herald our arrival with the dubious fragrance of unwashed traveler."
Tanner laughed at his fastidious friend. "Yeah, ya do tend ta stink up the place, Ezra."
Smoothing out the creases in her black beribboned traveling costume, Maude tried to look unperturbed as the jail house door opened.
"Mr. Dunne! JD, how pleasant to see a friendly face at last---" began Maude.
JD stared at the woman behind bars and solemnly shook his head before walking back to the door.
"Mr. Dunne! Sheriff!"
"I can't stand to breathe the same air as you, Mrs. Standish. I know you're Ezra's ma and all but...I hate you for what you did."
Seeing the loathing in his innocent hazel eyes, Maude wished that he had drawn one of his Colt Lightnings and just put a .38 through her brain.
Later, Ezra was pleasantly rewarded when he saw how well Tanner scrubbed up. The dark blue suited him and he looked surprisingly good wearing a tie. Or a fancy 'bonnet ribbon' as the tracker kept calling it. The hair was still unruly but licked into some sort of order and Ezra had insisted that he leave the disreputable hat behind. Where did they purchase such hats? wondered Ezra. He'd yet to see a store proclaiming, 'We sell hats already trampled by herds of buffalo and having previously been used to shoot the rapids in a leaky canoe to save you taking the time to do it for yourself '. Texas must specialize in importing them.
Tanner had tried to argue about the hat and finally warned Ezra that if he caught cold and succumbed to a fatal fever it was on Ezra's head, exactly where his own hat should be.
The bordello did appear to be a substantial establishment housed as it was in a fine mansion set back behind high gates and in its own well manicured grounds.
Tanner let out a low whistle. "Ya think the President is at home?" he quipped.
Ezra seemed a little overawed himself as he banged on the double doors with the great brass knocker. "We would like to speak with your mistress on a little matter of personal business. My card." With a flourish Ezra placed his printed calling card on a shining silver salver the frilly apron wearing maid held out.
Tanner gazed dumbfounded at the fine tasteful furnishings and the white and black marble floor of the generously sized entrance hall. The grand sweeping staircase was hung with works of fine art. It wasn't like any bawdy house he had ever seen, not a trace of gold fringed red velvet, or potted plants, no piano and no half-naked women draped about the place. He was a bit disappointed about that but then you couldn't have everything, he thought, as he tugged at the collar of his new shirt.
Almost immediately double doors opened and a gorgeous, if long past the first flush of youth, violet-eyed brunette welcomed them into an elegant drawing room. "Gentlemen, do please call me Emmeline. What are your requirements? We cater for all kinds of foibles and you are of course assured of our utmost discretion," she purred.
Tanner was glad Ezra was with him because he wouldn't have had any idea what his requirements were or even if he had any foibles. With honeyed Southern charm Ezra chose to ignore the fact that she had chosen to ignore the fact he had stated his requirements on entering the establishment and graciously presented his calling card again.
"Ezra Standish and friend, I would care to speak with the Madam, on a personal matter."
"I am deeply sorry but she is not at home to gentleman callers," she said firmly, a hint of steel in her voice. "If we can't attend to your needs, gentlemen, perhaps we can escort you to the door and cordially welcome you back when we can be of service?" she said, as a man mountain appeared behind her like a genie out of a bottle and stood with folded arms and a look meant to intimidate.
Ezra thought retreat was a better tactic than suffering the indignity of being thrown out bodily. He was sure he could find some other strategy without getting pugnacious about it. Especially with the Black Hills of Dakota standing there.
They made it as far as the main double doors before the little maid trotted up to them. "The lady of the house will see you," she said, smiling at Vin Tanner.
"M-me?" stammered Vin, "naw, naw, he's Mr. Standish," he said, pointing to Ezra and self-consciously fiddling with his collar. "He's the one with the right dandy calling card an' all."
"Well, you're the one she told me to fetch, the young man with long hair, are you coming or not?" she demanded to know, the thin veneer of etiquette slipping a little.
Hell, it was for Ezra's sake, so as a man going to his doom Tanner followed the little maid up the grand staircase. Still tugging nervously at the stiff collar of his new shirt. Near the top of the staircase he gave Ezra such a look of quiet desperation that Ezra almost called him back down so they could flee together. Except this was what they were here for.
The little maid led him into a large and airy sitting room and motioned him to sit down in an armchair, Tanner complied and tugged at his collar again.
"Refreshments?" the maid asked.
Tanner managed to shake his head and sat and waited for what seemed an age. Refreshments? He probably would have had time for a three course meal while he was waiting. If someone didn't appear soon he would have strangled to death in his collar.
A door opened in the wall opposite, he hadn't spotted it before as it was cleverly disguised with the same yellow block printed wallpaper as the wall. He politely got to his feet as she entered. Wearing what he now knew was termed a peignoir she walked gracefully towards him, both her hands held out.
"It's the cowboy from the Hotel Louis Royale is it not?" she smiled as she spoke taking hold of both his hands. "I am Mimi Dupree and this is my establishment."
Tanner gaped open-mouthed, until he recalled her from the hotel lobby, it was the same smile. He was suddenly struck by her resemblance to the woman downstairs. The same unusual violet eyes. Mother and daughter? Perhaps a little too old for that. Sisters?
"This yer place?" he blurted out, wondering how a woman got a place as grand as this from her own endeavors. Then realizing how and blushing. He was being rude, he had no hat to tip so he should have wished her 'good afternoon' or some other such nonsense. Damn, Ezra would have oozed old-fashioned Southern charm and known exactly what to say.
She turned his hands over and looked at the hard callused skin. Tanner had never been ashamed of his hands before, they controlled uppity horses and fired a rifle real well but right now he wished that he had Ezra's soft lily white ones. She was still smiling at him so he tried to think of something appropriate to say that would please her before she had him thrown out for being a ham-fisted, tongue-tied fool.
"I understand that you are inquiring for Earl Standish? Oh, don't look so surprised, Mr. Tanner, I know everything that occurs both inside and outside my hotel."
Tanner was shocked and must have looked it. She gracefully crossed the room and rang a bell. The maid must have been hovering just outside the door because she entered the room in an instant.
"We shall have tea and sandwiches. Any entertainment Mr. Standish may require while he waits will be arranged, on the house of course. Now, where were we, Mr. Tanner?" she mused as the maid scurried away. "I recently advanced Earl, Mr. Standish, a not inconsiderable sum of money. Oh, tea."
Tanner waited while the maid placed a tray that included tiny china teacups down on a side table and busied herself with small crust-less sandwiches and petit fours. When she left, his hostess poured him a teacup full of hot tea and he politely took it.
He was going to definitely strangle in this collar, he tugged and the collar stud Ezra had lent him flew across the room. Mortified he blushed as he ferreted about trying to find it.
"Mr. Tanner? Mr. Tanner? Vin?"
He looked out from beneath the table.
"Why don't you just put the collar in your pocket and relax, it obviously is driving you to distraction. I'll have some one get you a new collar stud. Unless the one you have lost has some sentimental value. A gift from a lover perhaps?"
"Naw, naw, not a gift at all. Jus' borrowed, ma'am," stammered Vin.
Tanner did as she suggested and put both the collar and the tie in his pocket. He gulped down the scalding tea and held out his teacup.
"You don't really want more tea do you? Or to have that jacket on? As for the collar and tie as handsome as you look in it it was making you crazy. What if I sent for some strong coffee, maybe ham and eggs while you take that jacket off and relax while we work out how to help your Mr. Standish?"
Seeing him hesitate, she kicked off her dainty high heeled slippers and curled her legs up under her in the chair. As she relaxed so did Tanner, he nodded and slipped the jacket off.
"Rose!" she yelled, as Tanner nearly fell off the chair deafened, as the maid entered the room again, "Take all this away and bring some coffee, no chicory, ham and eggs for two. Send for Big Joe, I have an errand for him."
When Tanner finally reappeared to collect Ezra and leave he was grinning from ear to ear.
"We got ta get back ta the hotel, Ezra an' meet up with Big Joe."
"Big Joe?" asked Ezra, mystified by recent events.
"Mimi says she lent yer pa money. Only part of it in cash, the rest in a bank draft. So she sent Big Joe ta the bank ta find out when yer pa drew on it an' where."
"The, er, madam, name a Mimi Dupree."
"You have been upstairs with Mimi Dupree?"
"Yeah, ya know I done. Ya saw the maid take me upstairs. Ya awright, Ezra? Ya gone a mite pale."
"Spit it out, Ezra."
"My dear, Mr. Tanner, Mimi Dupree is a legend in New Orleans. I would never have guessed that she was the madam here. A gambler so skilled, so blessed with luck, she took herself from abject poverty to become the queen of riverboat gamblers. I would give anything to sit in at one of Mimi Dupree's poker games. Is she still as exquisitely beautiful as they say?"
"She sure looks nice fer her age. She never, er, worked at a place like this herself?"
"Mr. Tanner! You are speaking of the goddess of gamblers, the patron saint of all poker players! Most certainly not, the very idea. I strongly suspect that she won the house from some lesser exponent of the gambler's art. She is my ideal, a paragon of womanhood. The very acme of the feminine persuasion. Don't dare to sully her reputation with such a vile suggestion, Mr. Tanner." Ezra waxed lyrical for several more minutes before a horrendous idea occurred to him.
"Mr. Tanner! Please, swear on your oath that you didn't!"
"Mr. Tanner, you didn't," Ezra gulped, "presume to inflict yourself on Mimi Dupree, did you?"
"Inflict m'self, Ezra?" Tanner wished that jus' fer once Ezra would speak like a regular feller.
"Take advantage, press your unwanted ardor on her?"
"Ezra, look like I's done any inflicting or unwanted pressing?" asked Tanner solemnly.
Ezra exhaled a long sigh of relief.
"Shucks, she wants ta have me fer dinner. Wants ta take me out somewhere an' feed me oysters."
"Oysters!" cried Ezra.
"They ain't a favorite a mine either. Eat 'em when there ain't nuthin' else ta be had but I's more partial ta lobster iffen truth be told," drawled Vin.
"Please, Mr. Tanner, assist me into a sitting position before I swoon in the street like a maiden aunt." Reaching inside his jacket Ezra took several large swigs from his flask of liquor. "My dear Mr. Tanner, let us reiterate all you have just told me, sir. Mimi Dupree, denizen of this city, wants you, Mr. Reeking Buckskin, to escort her, out in the public eye no less and let her feed you oysters with her own fair hands?"
"Reckon I's old enough ta feed myself, Ezra," shrugged Tanner.
"You do know that the oyster is famed for being an aphrodisiac?"
"Ain't sure what ya jus' said."
"Oysters are known to increase your potency, your virility, Mr. Tanner."
"Yeah? Guess she might want me ta do some inflicting an' pressing after all," blushed the tracker.
"Mr. Tanner!" blustered Ezra. "Don't even think about it!"
When they returned to the hotel the desk clerk was clearly some what discombobulated. "Mr. Standish, there is a gentleman waiting for you in your room, sir. Normally the hotel would frown on such a thing but as you and Mr. Tanner," the desk clerk paused and now smiled ingratiatingly at Tanner, "are friends of the owner of the hotel, Mimi Dupree, please know that we are glad to accommodate you in any way necessary."
Upstairs a waiting Big Joe silently handed over a note. Ezra sank down on the edge of the brass bed to read the note. Tanner stood looking up at Big Joe, David eyeing Goliath.
"Reckon ya kin go now," rasped the tracker, never one to be intimidated by a man's bulk.
"The Missus wants to be sure of getting her compensation. I'm to stay until you get in the carriage at eight o'clock. And you will be getting in the carriage one way or another, mister."
"Yes, Mr. Tanner, I insist too. Mr. Big, or is that Mr. Joe? I think I will barber Mr. Tanner's hair and tidy him up, will you wait outside the door?"
"Naw! Look like I's wantin' ta be scalped? Stood enough tidying up fer a lifetime from ya, Ezra," protested Tanner, speedily taking cover behind Big Joe.
A smiling Maude was inordinately pleased to see Inez Recillos enter the jail with a tray of food. However, Inez's features remained frozen in place. Clearly, she too now despised Maude.
In a tone of voice that might have indicated defeat Maude asked Inez to summon Chris Larabee to the jail house. Inez left without indicating whether or not she had heard Maude's request.
Maude found herself awakened by terrible nightmares. She didn't recall actually making a conscious decision to try and sleep. The jail house was in darkness now and she had no idea of the time.
A menacing figure in black hovered in front of the cell door.
Larabee curled his lip into a sneer. "You have something more you want to say to me?"
"I...yes, please sit."
The gunfighter dragged a chair across the floor and sat, arms folded across his chest, only inches from the cell bars.
"I am not sure that you are a proper person to discuss this with. I am not sure a man is capable of understanding but you seem to be the present ruler of my fate and I don't know for how much longer I can bear this ordeal. Childbirth itself is a traumatic experience for many women but the circumstances of Ezra's birth came as a great shock to me."
"Circumstances?" snapped Chris.
"Ezra was born with a caul. Are you familiar with what one is---"
"I know what a caul is."
"I was so young...I had no idea what affliction my baby had been born with. I was horrified. I'm sure you can't imagine how it was for me. Alone in the world. Abandoned with no one to turn to. I think I may have experienced a mental aberration. For several months I was thoroughly convinced that Ezra was a changeling and that somehow the fairies had stolen my own child from me. I never felt as if Ezra was mine, a part of me...I was incapable of loving him. I felt so full of sorrow and dark feeling. I couldn't make anyone understand how I perceived the world. Suddenly after the birth, everything seemed warped and twisted. Doom laden and hopeless---"
Chris stood up and hurled the chair across the room. "I didn't come here to listen to a story fresh from the pages of Grimm's Fairy Tales."
The glass in the jail house door rattled as the gunfighter angrily made his exit.
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Later that evening Chris Larabee had already emptied a third of a bottle of Highland Pure Rye whiskey by the time the others entered the saloon. He immediately waved Nathan over to his table. Nathan joined him, accepted a glass of whiskey and lit a well earned cigar. Leaning back in his chair Nathan watched the fragrant smoke curl upwards to join the general fug that pervaded the saloon.
"Nathan, when..." Chris wasn't sure how to start this conversation or if he really wanted to have it. Adam's birth had been such a source of joy and happiness to himself and Sarah and even to Buck, that he was sure Maude must be lying to save her own miserable skin. How could a mother not love her child? It was a woman's sole purpose in life wasn't it?
"Have you ever read of a case of a new mother not feeling motherly love for her child?" Chris practically whispered, feeling deeply embarrassed to be discussing 'women's troubles' in the saloon of all places. "What I mean is having some kind of mental---"
Thinking of his own mother, Nathan quickly interrupted. "One or two doctors in sanatoriums are just beginning to suggest that a number of mental conditions among women might be directly connected to childbirth. I don't think the rest of the medical fraternity sets much store by it. I read a journal that proposed developing some kind of brain surgery to be performed in cases where women show signs of failing in their motherly duties. I have seen a few instances where women have suffered a degree of melancholia after childbirth but the other women in the family usually make sure they pull themselves together and get on with life."
"So unless a woman has family to turn to she is left to find her own way of coping?"
"Might she abandon her baby? Leave it behind with someone she trusts until she feels...better?"
"Chris?" yawned Nathan.
"It's has been a long day, unless this is related to a specific case can we just agree that women are complicated and leave it at that?"
"Complicated? Yeah, let's leave it at that."
Early the next morning an astonished Maude awoke to find her cell door wide open and freedom beckoning.
At eight o'clock precisely Vin Tanner was collected in Mimi Dupree's carriage and spirited away. Three times Ezra got up in the night and checked the bedroll on the balcony but there was no sign of Tanner until noon the next day. Then he strolled in with a big smile and his pockets stuffed with money.
"Where in hell have you been, Tanner? Where did you obtain all this money?" asked Ezra suspiciously, as the money piled up on the marble washstand.
"A gambling hole down on the river. Mimi gave me a good bit of advice on how an' when ta bet. Ain't had time ta count it how much do ya think is there?" wondered Tanner.
"Four hundred and seventy two dollars," replied Ezra distractedly, after a quick glance at the cash. "You went gambling with Mimi Dupree?"
"Yeah, after the oysters which was nice, all zesty an' some dancing. How do ya do that with the money? Know how much is there without actually countin' it?"
"Years of playing poker and assessing the size of the pot. You have been gambling all this time?"
"Shoot, ain't fixed on it like ya are, pard, jus' till sunup."
"So where, pray, have you been to until now?" Ezra demanded to know, reaching into the pocket of his silk vest and consulting his beloved gold pocket watch pointedly.
"Ezra, ya ain't my ma!"
Ezra suspected that this was as much information as he was going to get. Tanner was one of life's natural gentlemen when it came to the female sex.
"Thanks fer the loan of yer shoulder pistol, Ezra."
"No thanks are necessary, Mr. Tanner. Your sawed-off Winchester is a most ungentlemanly looking weapon totally unsuited to be worn in the company of a lady. However, I would not allow you to squire a national treasure such as Mimi Dupree, into morally degraded surroundings, unarmed."
"She brung her muff pistol, Ezra, her virtue were safe," drawled the tracker with a wink.
"I am most gratified to hear that."
"Kin pay my share a the bill now," continued Tanner.
"There is no account to be settled, it has been waived for us by Mimi Dupree. According to Mimi's note my father is staying with old friends in San Francisco while," Ezra swallowed hard, "he tries to locate me."
"Yeah? Where exactly?"
"That is yet to be discovered."
"Yes, Mr. Tanner?"
"Thinkin' ya'll need somebody ta help ya find yer pa in San Francisco. A fella that knows 'Frisco, some."
"Mr. Tanner?" Ezra was bewildered.
"Take all the money I's won last night, Ezra. Awready done gotten me a railroad ticket home ta Four Corners an' wired fer Josiah. He's on his way here ta accompany ya ta 'Frisco. Reckon a few days in a big city is enough ta last me a lifetime, Ezra."
"Josiah is already on his way?" Ezra quickly realized that he should have expected Vin to start feeling a little homesick for Four Corners or at least to begin to miss Chris Larabee.
"Yep. Figure he can be awful helpful ta ya out in Frisco, Ezra, jus' never rely on his Chinese talk!"
1Ezra's song, Red River Valley, a traditional folk song published under various titles from the 19th century onwards.