II. Horse Thieves

by Sevenstars

3. Agendas
Damn, Ezra, get hold of yourself, the gambler rebuked himself sharply. You´re thirty-two years old, for God´s sake! You´re no longer a child--or even an apprentice or an accomplice. You´re an established businessman and these are your premises. You can meet her on a basis of equality for the first time in your life.

He took a deep breath and rose to his feet, smoothing his jacket as he started around the table. “Mother,” he repeated, “what are you doin´ here?”

“Why, I´ve come to visit my son, darlin´. Is that so incredible?” He flinched a bit as her arms went around him and her cheek was laid against his. His mother, as always, was impeccably dressed, in an expensive travelling suit of skirt and tailored jacket in dark watered silk, with a long dark cloak, and a black tulle bonnet with little pink flowers and a white pompom to cover her blonde hair against the dust. Over her shoulder he saw a man of past middle age, wearing a short chin beard, a gray derby hat, and an overcoat with astrakhan collar, his hand on the shoulder of an exhausted- looking youth of seventeen or eighteen in a handsome wolfskin coat. The older man carried two grips, the boy a telescope bag, a leather satchel, and a bedroll on a strap over his shoulder; they paid little mind to the reunion, but beelined for the desk, where Jacob opened the register for them to sign in.

Incredible? he thought. Has it escaped your memory how many times you abandoned me to the so- called mercies of our relatives, not to see or hear from you for months at a time? “Why did you not write and inform me of your imminent arrival?”

“Ezra, darlin´, surely I taught you better than that!” she exclaimed archly. “Never let others know the details of what you are planning. It keeps them on their toes. And, on occasion, it may preserve your liberty.”

His flinch this time was inward. Yes, he knew that, and had used it to his advantage in his flight from New Orleans. “I only meant to say, Mother, that if I had known you were comin´, I would have made suitable provisions for you.” He glanced past her at the open doors, where one of the stocktenders had appeared with a barrow piled high with two leather coach trunks and a little steamer, a Whitford- made wooden box for shoes, two satchels, three big hatboxes with flowered wallpaper coverings, a dressing-case for toilet articles, and several big suitcases. Damn. As if one trunk, plus the satchels and the hatboxes, wouldn´t be sufficient for most women for a year. But this was Maude, of course, and she didn´t operate by the rules most women did.

“Where you want me to put these, Mr. Standish?”

He smothered a sigh. “Take them to my quarters, please, Mr. Bennett. The door is unlocked.”

“Yessir.” The man heaved upward on the barrow´s handles and trundled it on past Ezra´s table, where the other three men were watching with bemused expressions.

Oh Lord. She´s doin´ it to me again. I forgot all about them. “Mother, allow me to introduce Captain Chris Larabee, Second United States Cavalry, currently on indefinite leave of absence while servin´ as District Superintendent for Russell, Majors, & Waddell. And his--deputy, Buck Wilmington, and Vin Tanner, his tracker. Gentlemen, my mother, Mrs. Maude Standish.”

The three men rose politely, Buck sweeping off his hat with his usual air of seductive chivalry, Vin giving a little duck of his head and touching fingers to his hatbrim. Only Chris met Maude´s green eyes steadily, and Ezra sensed the crackle of tension as the two powerful personalities recognized each other. Wryly he wondered if Maude might at last have met her match.

“Mrs. Standish,” Larabee acknowledged gravely. He glanced at Ezra. “It´s late, and I think we´d better turn in. Did Royale clean his gear out of his room?”

“Yes, I believe he did. Jacob, give Mr. Larabee the key to Sixteen, please.”

“Reckon I´ll go down to the barn and sleep in the hayloft like common, cowboy,” Vin murmured. “Never feel too easy in a reg´lar bed. See you come mornin´?”

“Sure, Vin.” The hunter nodded, touched his hat to Maude again and slipped out the doors. “I don´t know what we´ll do about you, Buck. I should have asked Steele about arranging a room for you.”

The big man shrugged and grinned. “Sleep on your floor till we get it straightened out, pard. ´Night, Ez. Miz Maude--”

Ezra watched them climb the stairs and wondered at how very much alone he suddenly felt, even in the presence of his closest blood relative. He took a moment to assure himself that the man and the boy had received their key and gone upstairs. “Now, Mother,” he began firmly, “shall we dispense with pleasantries? Why have you descended upon my little island of tranquility? I assure you, it is in need of no hurricanes to vary its routines.”

“Darlin´, is that any way to describe your mother? I merely grew curious to discover what there was about this locality which could inspire you to remain in one place fully half a year.” She glanced around with a disdainful expression. “I must say, I see very few possibilities. Of course, it is dark, and there may have been aspects to the situation which I missed.”

The Southerner tried to look at the place from her viewpoint. He had had everything scrubbed down, the walls painted, green drapes hung at the windows, and had imported, at considerable expense, four six-by-twelve mirrors which he had had installed edge-to-edge over the backbar, but there was still an unmistakeable air of frontier crudity about it--the heavy pine-plank bar, the iron-pipe foot rail, the bare varnished-wood tables, the lack of more than the most elemental gaming facilities, of a piano and stage, of gaslights, art, a cashier's cage, all the things he and she had always expected to find, as of right, in even the humblest establishment they graced with their presence east of the Missouri. To her, it must seem that he had come down a good deal. But he didn´t feel up to arguing the point with her tonight. “If you have come all the way out from St. Joseph by coach,” he said, “you must be fatigued. I know I was, when I made the same journey. Of course you will sleep in my quarters.”

“Darlin´, I can´t take your bed,” Maude protested.

“Why not?” he snapped. “At one time or another you have taken nearly everythin´ else.”

“Ezra!” Her voice became sharp.

He rubbed his forehead wearily. “I apologize, Mother. It´s merely that--that your luggage cannot possibly fit in any of our guest rooms. If you will permit me a few minutes to remove my toilet kit and tomorrow´s change of raiment, I shall leave my chamber entirely at your disposal.”

“And where will you sleep, my dear?”

“Mother,” he reminded her patiently, “I do own this establishment. I have keys. I can gain access to any vacant room I desire.”

“I trust not those alone,” she mused.

Ezra drew himself up. “Might I remind you, Mother, that you have always maintained we are not common thieves? That you have taught me, as you so often declare, a trade? That our mission in life is not to purloin or appropriate the goods of others by stealth, but to demonstrate to them, through our cleverness and deftness of hand, the folly of avarice and perfidiousness?”

“Of course, darlin´,” Maude murmured in an apologetic tone that did nothing to deceive her son. “And you´re quite right, I am weary.”

“Perhaps we may exchange tidings at a more civilized hour--at breakfast,” Ezra suggested. “My cook is extremely competent, and she knows my tastes and routines. She will have my repast prepared at ten- thirty. You will join me in the restaurant?” He indicated the dark archway with a sidewise nod.

“I shall see you then,” Maude promised.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra slipped a note under the door of Inez´s two-room apartment off the kitchen, asking her to send a pitcher of hot water up to Room Eight at ten A. M. and to prepare enough breakfast for two. He checked the register for the names of the new guests, who presumably had come in on the stage with his mother, and discovered that they had signed in as “Arthur & Owen Jerrenson, Terre Haute, Indiana.” This done, he wearily climbed the stairs, unlocked the door of Eight, put away the things he had removed from his room--he´d probably have to take out the rest of his clothes tomorrow, God knew how long Maude would take it in her head to stay--and undressed, got into his silk nightshirt and climbed into bed. Ordinarily, owing in part to his somewhat irregular schedule, he found it easy to fall asleep, but tonight slumber seemed to elude him. He lay on his back with his hands folded under his head, staring up at the unseen ceiling and thinking about his mother. His feelings toward her were confused. For all his ten years out on his own, he still found that the prospect of seeing her, much less working with her, left him uneasy and emotionally disorganized. He didn´t fear her; in fact, for all her cavalier neglect, he could honestly admit that he recalled no instance of her raising her hand to him when he was a boy. Certainly he respected her for her agile mind and tongue, her sense of style, her cleverness and creativity; he recognized her as a mistress of her profession, and knew he would never have succeeded at his own as he had without her to teach him. Yet he also resented her; he could never think of her without a sense of bitterness regarding the weeks and months during which she had left him with any relative who happened to be convenient. (True, he had to acknowledge that she had tried to choose houses where he would be, if not made welcome, at least adequately provided for. His physical needs had always been well met. He had never gone hungry or cold or ragged, never lacked elementary attention when he was ill, never been physically abused. But he had always been an intruder, a barely tolerated stranger, always having to learn new rules and routines, get used to new company. The experience had sharpened his ability to estimate character at an early age, but it had done nothing for his sense of security.) Sometimes he almost hated her. At the same time, he worried about her--her profession often demanded that she associate with people of highly questionable morals, and for all her skill and experience, she occasionally tended to get into some very awkward situations and to need help in removing herself from them. And he yearned desperately to receive her recognition and approval, to know that she was proud of him--that she loved him. He often had his doubts about that last--and then he would remember that they had had their share of rather jolly times during their ten years as, first, student and teacher, then partners in games and cons over two continents. They were very much alike, he and she--perhaps too much so: their senses of humor were similar, they were both highly intelligent, fastidious, slightly sardonic, they both appreciated-- and wanted--the finer things in life.

He sighed deeply. The finer things. He could just imagine--no, perhaps he couldn´t-- what she would say once she´d had the opportunity to look Jamesburg over in decent daylight. Well, that was another aspect of character they shared: their headstrong and ungovernable tenacity. And she no longer had any power over him except what he chose to grant her. He was an adult; he had been earning his own way for ten years. He didn't have to do anything she suggested any more.

It occurred to Ezra for perhaps the first time that he had become quite content, and quite comfortable, in Jamesburg. To be sure, the place was primitive, but even New Orleans and St. Louis, New York and Charleston--hell, London and Paris--had been frontier settlements too, in their day; the mere fact that the community was still at an awkward stage in its life didn´t mean it lacked the potential to become more. He had a good steady income, a good bed, a sound roof over his head, all the food he could eat, and plenty of passing strangers on whom to focus his skills as a gambler. He had at least a few people of intelligence and spirit with whom he could converse regularly. And he had...

Respect. Acceptance. He had become, at a single stroke, a person of consequence in the community. He provided a service vital to everyone who passed through: even if they didn´t lay over in his hotel rooms or eat in his restaurant, most of them at least tarried for a drink or two, and perhaps a game, in his saloon, or paused to replenish their supplies in the store whose premises were rented from him. Russell, Majors & Waddell had recognized, through their agent, the efforts he had made to improve his facilities. Their new superintendent clearly understood how vital his familiarity with the settlement and its people could be to him in the exercise of his duties; not that Larabee had said anything--even “thank you”--but Ezra was perceptive enough to know when he was being milked for information, and it made him feel rather smug that he was in a position to supply it.

A childhood of rootlessness had instilled in Ezra a powerful longing to one day find a place he could call his own, a place where he could settle down and feel safe; that had been one of the factors instrumental in his choice of a dream. A lifetime of marginality--first among his relatives, then on the fringes of society--had created an almost equally fervent desire for acceptance and respect. Here, much to his surprise, he had found both, as well as the financial security to which he had long devoted himself. For the first time he consciously realized--not without a feeling of amazement--that he liked having these things and didn´t want to give them up. He didn´t doubt that Maude would try to persuade him to do exactly that--at a profit, of course. Well, he´d be damned if he would. Surely he was old enough to know what was good for him; all he had to do was keep that fact firmly in mind. He wasn´t her “darlin´ baby boy” now; he was a grown man, his own man, and she didn´t live his life--he lived it, and he would decide how he wished to do so.

He fell asleep, finally, a little before dawn, but he had functioned effectively on a good deal less rest, and when he woke to the maid´s knock on the door, it was with a feeling of surprising rejuvenation. He made himself presentable with great care, and descended the stairs to find that someone had already pointed out his regular table to Maude and she was waiting, neatly dressed in a silvery-drab poplin with a pearl-and- black-onyx brooch at the neckline holding a web of Brussels lace, a beautifully embroidered crepe shawl with a heavy fringe draped low across her back and arms, a caul of beaded net containing her blonde chignon, a jaunty little velvet hat perched saucily in the stylish tilted-forward fashion. He observed the middle-aged man and the youth from last night--the Jerrensons--working steadily away at their breakfasts, looking considerably less drawn and weary than when they came in, and paused to introduce himself and ask if their needs were being met. The elder Jerrenson assured him that they were, and asked about connections to Denver; Ezra told him when the next stage could be expected and directed him to the ticket agency. Then he proceeded to his table and bent to kiss his mother´s hand. “Good mornin´, Mother. I trust you passed a restful night?”

“I did indeed, darlin´. I must say, your bed is most satisfactory.”

“I have always thought so,” he agreed, flipping his coattails back to sit down, “although I am forced to admit that I can claim no responsibility for it. It came with the property. The choice was that of the previous owner.”

“Yes, a Mr. Stuart James, was it not?” He had, of course, written to her about his triumph at poker, though not for almost a month after it had occurred. On the Catherine of Newport up from New Orleans he had composed a letter to be forwarded through her attorney in St. Louis, explaining that he was now a fugitive, not from the law, which could often be eluded or bought off, but from blood vengeance, and that, while he doubted the Saint-Mémins were aware of his relationship to her or where she might be found, it was possible that they would contrive to find out. He had wanted to make it clear to her that he would never be able to go back to New Orleans--or, probably, anywhere else along the River--and that some possibility, however slight, existed that she would be in danger; had wanted to warn her to be particularly vigilant with regard to anyone who seemed curious about him, and to assure her that he would be in touch as soon as he found a place where he felt secure. Even after he acquired the building and the business, he had remained restive and prepared for fight or flight for some time, but as the weeks passed and there was no sign of the family or anyone who might have been hired by them, he had begun to consider himself safe, and at last had decided that he could take the risk of contacting her. He didn´t doubt that she had expected that contact to come from San Francisco, or at the very least Denver or the Comstock, simply because there was so little else between the Coast and the settlement frontier of a hundred miles out from the Missouri. It must have puzzled her, he thought, to have seen his familiar handwriting on a letter postmarked “Jamesburg, Nebraska Territory.”

The table had been set for two, and now Inez appeared with the coffeepot. “Mother,” Ezra began, “I wish to make you acquainted with Señorita Inez Rosillos, without whose estimable services this hotel and restaurant could neither exist nor prosper as they do. Inez, my dear, this is my mother, Mrs. Maude Standish, who arrived among us on last night´s stage.”

Inez dipped a curtsey. “Señora Standish, es un gusto. But Señor Ezra is too modest. The place has been much improved by his hand.”

As she filled their cups and Ezra quietly basked in her approbation, two men entered from the lobby, one a stranger to the gambler, the other one of the hay contractors who supplied the Fort. “--a dead man out on the street,” the first was saying.

“Again?” said the contractor. “Third this week. You just wait till Saturday. That´s the night they let the wolves howl. You stick around.”

“I seen it here and yonder. Ain´t figurin' on it,” the other retorted. “You seen him?”

“No--don´t aim to. I seen a dead man. I seen two dozen of ´em, time to time. Ain´t nothin´ about ´em pleases me.” He caught sight of Ezra and lifted one hand in a salute. “´Morning, Mr. Standish.”

“Good mornin´, Mr. Jacobsen.”

The pair settled down at the big center table across from the Jerrensons, and Inez darted back into the kitchen to get the Standishes´ breakfast. “Ezra, darlin´,” Maude inquired in a low voice, “do tell me that what we just heard was some sort of tasteless jest?”

“I fear not, Mother. Jamesburg is still quite--raw, and this is an environment in which most men go armed as a matter of course. These little contretemps will occur from time to time.”

“But three murders and the week not yet over?” Maude questioned. “I thought your Señorita Rosillos said you had improved the place.”

“I have, Mother. But the actions of the citizenry, to say nothin´ of the frequent passin´ strangers, are beyond my power to control.”

She shook her head disapprovingly. “Such an environment is unsuited to you, darlin´. You deserve so much more. Yes, I know you are an excellent shot; a gentleman of Southern blood should be familiar with firearms. But in our profession especially, the avoidance of such eventualities is highly adviseable. Words can solve problems far more effectively than can bullets, blades, or fists.”

“I assure you, Mother, I continue to avoid the instruments you mention whenever possible,” Ezra replied. “Diplomacy is an attribute which any saloonkeeper must cultivate also. On numerous occasions I have contrived to lighten the mood of even the most uneasy of situations and find a way around violence.”

“Nevertheless,” she insisted, as Inez reappeared with a tray and began setting out red- bordered serving platters of pink ham, smothered steak, grits, eggs, potatoes, and muffins, plus two bowls of porridge. “If, as you declare, you can exercise authority only over the events within these walls, have you considered the possibility that you may become innocently caught in the midst of someone else's quarrel?”

Ezra tipped his head downward to hide his smile, wondering how she would react to hearing the story of that day down by the river. “Mother,” he pointed out patiently, “life itself is an uncertain proposition. I might also be caught in a wreck on the river, or crushed by a runaway brewery wagon while visitin´ you in St. Louis, or fall prey to some contagious disease. I am not immortal.”

Maude opened her mouth and shut it, and Ezra felt the quick lift of satisfaction, just as he had on the night he won the building from James. Round one to me once again, he thought. “Would you care for ham, or steak, Mother?”

“Ham, thank you, dear.” While he forked two or three pink slabs of it onto her plate, she tasted the porridge, then selected a huge cornmeal muffin from the basket, split it open, and applied homemade butter and wild-plum preserves. “This is quite tasty,” she observed in a faintly surprised tone. “Far beyond my expectations.”

“Inez has few superiors at cookery in these parts,” he agreed. “Indeed her sole rival, to my knowledge, is Mrs. Wells, at Wells Ranch, where I presume you partook of supper last evenin´. I feel quite fortunate to have her services.”

“I must admit,” Maude said grudgingly, “that you appear to possess a gift for hostelry management which I had not heretofore suspected. But still, darlin´, and all else aside, why choose such an inconvenient and uncivilized little town--no, permit me to correct myself, more a village--in which to exercise it?”

“The choice was hardly mine, Mother. This is where the cards fell in my favor.”

“With considerable assistance from yourself, if I recall correctly the story you recounted in your letter.”

“Well, yes, but I would not have gone to the lengths you mention if Mr. James had not been the first to offend. You know, Mother, that I consider poker to be a game of skill, and far prefer to win honestly. It is not a con.”

“Of course not,” Maude agreed, “and that suggests yet another criticism to my mind. Judgin´ from what I could observe out your windows and from the gallery, there cannot be more than two hundred persons resident here. How can you possibly hope to work any appreciable cons in so confined a setting? True, we have done so before, but always with the intent of movin´ quickly on once the gains were made. Repeated chicanery cannot succeed in a community where one is well known. In any case, the place hardly appears to be wealthy.”

“Appearances can be deceivin´, Mother. I agree, the permanent population is in fact less than the figure you mention. But Jamesburg is well suited for a prosperous future. Already we service an outlyin´ commonality of nearly seven hundred civilians, to say nothin´ of some three hundred military and their dependents at Fort Sedgwick. The land may not give the impression of fertility to one accustomed to a more lush climate, but it is ideally suited to the rearin´ of livestock, at which sizeable fortunes have already been amassed in the New Mexico Territory, and much of it remains freely available for purchase or use; I am beginnin´ to consider the possibility of investin´ in some of it. At the height of the summer, a thousand tons of freight for Denver are carried through daily--ten complete wagon trains, to say nothin´ of the emigrant outfits. The Potters´ store sees scarcely fifteen minutes pass from eight in the morning till six at night--seven A. M. till ten P. M. in the high season--when at least three or four customers are not on the premises. The military pours a great quantity of payroll and contract money into the settlement every month, and the Company is both generous and prompt with its compensation. The economy here is far healthier than you would easily believe, I assure you, and as for the risk of becomin´, shall we say, notorious, there is an abundance of strangers passin´ through hourly, on whom it would be possible to practise my skills at prevarication--if I chose to do so. I have no need. My legitimate interests here supply me with an income sufficient to provide all my material wants, and two or three evenin´s at poker each week furnish excitement and keep my wits sharp.”

“But pecuniary gain is not what drives us,” Maude objected. “Oh, the money is an agreeable benefit, but if that were all we sought, there are abundant means of acquirin´ it. It is the game that matters, darlin´.”

“Perhaps to you, Mother. And, I admit, there are moments when I find myself missin´ that thrill. Nor will I attempt to deceive you by claimin´ that I have not taken a certain pride in puncturin´ the balloons of so many of my victims, and I trust that they are the more virtuous for havin´ encountered me. But stimulation, both mental and emotional, is plentifully available in other forms.”

Maude pursed her lips a moment and dug into her eggs and ham. “I never expected that a son of mine would become so tiresomely...conventional,” she said.

Ezra drilled her with a look. “The mere fact, Mother, that you, in your salad days, found the restrictions of your environment more than you could bear, does not obligate me to hold similar opinions as to the undesireability of remainin´ fixed in some congenial location. The fact is that I grew weary of a gypsy existence at a youthful age, and clove to it chiefly because I had been trained in no other means of amassin´ the stake I knew I would require in order to realize my dream. You have been aware for years that I looked forward to one day ownin´ a fine saloon. Surely you could not have expected me to be an absentee? The possession of a business implies that one will settle down to oversee it.”

“I suppose so,” Maude admitted, “but I had rather anticipated that you would choose some more refined location. New Orleans, St. Louis, Cincinnati, New York, even Virginia City or San Francisco. Not a primitive pioneer hamlet. You have been reared as a gentleman. Such surroundings are inadequate to you.”

“Every great city must begin somewhere, Mother.”

Again his statement seemed to give her pause. She devoted herself to her food for several minutes. “This really is superior,” she observed presently. “You were quite right about your cook, darlin´. She is a gem.”

His eyes narrowed. When Maude turned on the charm, that was the time to be especially wary. He had seen it too often in the past not to know what was coming. “Mother,” he began, making a pre-emptive strike, “you are well aware that I dare not return to the river. I explained my situation clearly in the letter I forwarded through Cousin Alistair. Indeed, I fear the entire eastern half of the country may be permanently barred to me. The Saint-Mémins may be Creole chauvinists, but they are blessed with abundant commercial connections in nearly every state. Given the necessity of my goin´ where the money is to be found, do you suppose for an instant that they would not ultimately discover my whereabouts? Or, indeed, anticipate where I might go?”

“Then we shall simply avoid the older environs,” Maude replied. “I had considered a journey to Denver for some time before receivin´ your letter; I understand that it has begun to develop a respectable ambience and even a certain superior sort of society. Imagine my gratification when, upon inquirin´ as to the means of goin´ there, I discovered that I should have to change coaches in the very community where my son was domiciled. The fact is, darlin´, that for the present, at least, there is a surprisin´ dearth of opportunity in the East. The population is so tiresomely focused on the political question that even the pursuit of monetary wealth is takin´ a distant second place to the forthcomin´ election. I speculated that it might be worthwhile to simply relocate for a month or two, until the campaign was concluded and there was some agreement as to what effect the ultimate choice would have. You speak of the quantities of merchandise and travellers bound for Denver; surely that suggests a fertile field for such experts as ourselves. You could sell your interests here and we could go on together. A family such as the Saint-Mémins would possess only scorn for any community with less than fifty years of history behind it; they would never consider lookin´ for you there. It would be like old times. Remember how well we always worked together, darlin´. There has never been a team more capable--and few more successful.”

“I remember,” he agreed, though overwhelming those memories--even the best of them, the genuine fun they had had together, the sights they had seen, the thrill of risk attendant on running a con, the smug pride that came with its safe conclusion and a clean getaway--was the weary, bitter recollection of being a barely tolerated charity case in a score of homes, the yearning to be with her, the devotion with which he had applied himself to his schoolwork and her training, the excited anticipation of waiting for her promised arrival (which, more than once, failed to occur), the lonely journeys on coaches and trains after he got to be nine or ten and could be simply provided with the money and an itinerary and expected to reach her on his own, all his never-ending attempts to please her enough to be allowed to stay with her this time, and how devastated he had always been when it became apparent that, once more, he had proven a disappointment to her, that she was going to send him away yet again. He had grown up quickly--too quickly; had never really had very much of a chance to be a child. He supposed, looking back, that she had done the best she could for him, given her chosen profession; he could see, now, that it would have been impractical for her to keep him with her much of the time. But had it really been necessary for her to exercise that profession? Family was central to the Southern value system, and room was always made in any household for indigent female kin, even if they happened to come encumbered with a child. She could have opted out, could have settled down in some congenial home and been with him--if she had really wanted to. If his happiness had meant more to her than did her independence, or the prospect of money, or the thrill of the game. “But permit me to point out, Mother, that Denver is a community even more juvenile than this one whose crudities you so decried. Its inhabitants are new to their wealth and, in their way, more jealous of it than their counterparts in the East. They too go armed, if perhaps not always so openly as our citizens here, and the concept of fightin´ to obtain and retain what they have is by no means an unfamiliar one to them. It is, moreover, an island in the wilderness, and there are few circumspect, speedy, and covert means of departin´ it. Vigilante action is not unknown. You, as a woman, might be spared its heavy hand, but I might not.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Darlin´, don´t tell me that you would be in fear of your life if you plied your trade there?”

“I would certainly be inclined to think twice, or even thrice, before takin´ any rash actions,” he told her gravely. “And that is not cowardice, but the prudence of experience--the same that urged me to get myself out of N´Orleans with all possible expedition.”

Maude seemed to consider this. “Well, then, perhaps I shall exercise another option. It has been some time, after all, since I presented you with a stepfather. In order to enjoy an entrée to the better circles, I would desire an escort, and who better suited to the purpose than my handsome son?”

His lips compressed. “Considerin´ the ultimate fate of most of your marriages, Mother, I think I prefer not to be associated with your husband- huntin´. I dare say my position in Jamesburg is already well known in Denver through the gossip of the freight drivers and stage passengers. I have no desire to find myself, six months or a year hence, fendin´ off indignant interrogation from some outraged gold baron, particularly as the breed will possess the wherewithal to hire an abundance of help.”

“But, darlin´, I already said that you could sell out,” Maude reminded him. “Both you and your Inez maintain that you have improved the place immensely. Certainly you could recover your investment several times over. The gentleman you spoke to earlier, for example--the one travellin´ with his young nephew--”

“Mr. Arthur Jerrenson? The lad is his nephew, not his son?”

“Oh, indeed. They provided very pleasant company on the trip out from St. Joseph. As I was sayin´, Mr. Jerrenson is en route to Denver in search of some congenial investment. He is barely into middle age, but was a successful hardware wholesaler until he conceived the notion that his lungs were becomin´ unsound, and on hearin´ of the dry mountain climate of Denver he resolved to sell out his interests in the East and relocate there for semi-retirement. I believe he is carryin´ a very sizeable sum of cash. If it were pointed out to him that he would have less competition to deal with here than in a larger community, and would in addition be gettin´ in on the ground floor of whatever future the place may have, doubtless you could persuade him to part with a large percentage of that cash in order to buy you out.”

“And what if I don´t wish to sell, Mother?”

“But of course you wish to sell! All investments are to be held until they appreciate, then quickly disposed of. The panic three years ago in the East should have demonstrated how perilous it is to retain one´s grip tenaciously on anything which may abruptly lose its value.”

“This property is more than an investment, Mother. It´s the closest thing I have ever had to a true home, or a secure future. I have no desire to abandon it--even at a profit.” He hadn´t realized he was going to say the words until they were out, but as soon as he heard them he knew they were true. It was why he had stayed here so long--longer, indeed, than he had ever stayed in any one place in his entire remembered life till now. He fixed her with a level gaze and continued in the same vein before she could organize a reply. “In this community I am a respected citizen, Mother. Some of the more experienced and perceptive residents, like Mr. Larabee, may have their suspicions about me, but the complete story of my past is unknown to them. I find myself startin´ over with a clean slate, and although you may think it incredible, the sensation is one that is highly gratifyin´. I know I am not yet worthy of automatic faith, or trust, or whatever term one may wish to employ, and in truth, I find it difficult to give my own, but regardless of whether I am ever to be wholly endowed with that trust, I believe it to be a goal worth strivin´ towards. As far back as I can remember, you have taught me that all words and deeds conceal hidden motivations, deeper meanings, that everyone around me is forever schemin´ and intriguin´ to manipulate or overcome me in some fashion, that no one can be trusted. The result is that I have become incapable of trustin´ even myself--and I have lived more than a decade in what I now recognize as an ever deepenin´ maelstrom of loneliness and despair. Suddenly I have been offered an opportunity to free myself, and I intend to snatch at the rope that has been thrown me and cling for all I am worth--however little that may be. I have suddenly found that I take immense pleasure in the respect and confidence of others, and that this capability was one of the things which made connin´, with its frequent appearance of that confidence, attractive to me. Now for the first time I am experiencin´ the genuine article, and I see the other for the dross it is. I will not surrender what I have here, Mother, and I will not permit you to undermine my position, either.”

“I!” Maude echoed. “I, undermine your position? However do you imagine I can do that?”

“I´m sure you would find it elementary, to a person of your long experience,” Ezra retorted grimly. “An anonymous letter to the Company, perhaps, or a word to Mr. Larabee, to begin with. A few humiliatin´ stories about my childhood spread about the bar, to make a laughin´stock of me--a childhood, may I remind you, of which you saw very little, and have no license to make game of.” He stared at her with narrowed eyes gone icy and pale as jade. “Let me make myself quite clear to you, Mother. If through any action of yours I lose what I am just beginnin´ to build up here, I shall consider our relationship to be permanently at an end. I shall never again acknowledge you as my parent, nor shall I lend you my assistance in any emergency no matter how dire.” Let her not discern that I am not at all certain I can keep that promise...if ever in my life I am to run a con or a bluff successfully, let this be the time. “Do you understand me, Mother?” His voice was cold, every syllable distinct.

She stared at him with eyes gone wide. “No. No, I do not.”

“Very well, perhaps I should rephrase that. Do you grasp what I am sayin´ to you, or must I resort to words of one syllable? Do you believe I am in earnest? Do you have even the slightest conception of how important this is to me? Tell me, Mother--have you ever had a dream?”

Her face had gone still with the perfect, masklike blankness of a supremely skillful bluffer. “None that I suspect you would recognize as such.”

“Then do not presume to suggest that you realize what it means for me to have found this, elementary though you may consider it,” Ezra commanded. “All I ask is that you have the courtesy to acknowledge what I have requested. I cannot recall ever seriously attemptin´ to force you to live your life in any other way than the one you chose so many years ago. I consider that, as an adult, I deserve the same regard from you. You are welcome to remain here, as my guest, for however long you desire, and to use my quarters as your own. You have the freedom of the bar should you wish to seek a congenial game, although I do most ardently urge you to keep in mind that the players you will encounter are likely to be more impulsive than you are accustomed to dealin´ with, if you take my meanin´. But I am not sellin´ my property, and I will not go to Denver, or anywhere else, with you.” He carefully folded his napkin and laid it beside his plate. “Please feel free to finish your repast. I have matters of business to attend to.” And he walked out, with his heart in his throat every step until he had safely passed through the beaded curtains at the doorway and rounded the corner of the stairs, out of her view.


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