"And you," she said finally to break the spell we were under, "you just have to be all irritating and likeable." We laughed for a long time and just like that all the anger and mistrust that we had been harboring against each other disappeared, just like magic.
I turned back to my dinner and asked, amazed at how easily we could fall back into our playful teasing. "So you had five husbands? I seem to recall you saying that there never would be a Mr. Bransford."
"And there never was. Now, really, Burt, what type of man would take on his wife's name?" She laughed, her southern drawl giving the words a cultured purr.
I shook my head at her, but didn't rise to her bait. "So are you counting him and the fictitious Mr. Standish as two of your ex husbands?"
"No, I only count those who actually walked among us living," she answered, slightly emphasizing the past tense of her words.
I shifted in my seat a bit uncomfortable. "May I inquire as to what befell these gentlemen who had the, uh, fortune to marry a lady like yourself?"
Her answering smile was as secretive and teasing as her words, "I believe that a lady should always remain a bit mysterious, don't you?"
I laughed and with a nod admitted my defeat. Gone was the awkward and a bit clumsy young woman that I had known as Annabelle. Maude was entirely self possessed, but still retained all her charm in abundance. "Well then, Madam, may I interest you in a game of chance?"
She practically beamed as she stood with me and slid her arm into mine. "What are the stakes?" she asked, arching a suggestive eyebrow at me.
"Since I am decidedly short on funds, due to an unfortunate encounter with the best poker player I've ever met, I believe that we will have to make the stakes a bit more," I paused and raised my own eyebrows back at her, "interesting."
"Just as long as you can cover your bets, Mr. Maverick," she teased as she slipped away from me and continued on ahead.
"Oh, I can assure you that that has never been a problem," I answered and started to hurry to catch up to her. But the glance she tossed over her shoulder held so much promise that I decided that I'd just follow behind her for a bit. She had definitely aged gracefully.
I was thus distracted enough to not notice Ezra, who sat in front of the jail. But as we passed him, he stood up and joined us. "I trust that y'all had an enjoyable dinner?" he asked, his voice heavily guarded. I wondered if I would have to constantly regain his trust and good will.
"Quite enjoyable, Ezra dear," Maude answered. "You should have joined us," but her slight nod in his direction told him that she was thankful that he had given us that time alone.
He smiled a broad smile that flashed gold and dimples. "I was otherwise occupied." Chris would tell me later that Ezra had left them and had merely sat outside needing to be alone with his thoughts. "But as I see that you are making your way back to the saloon, may I trust that you are seeking a game of chance?"
"Of course, darlin', what else is there to do in this godforsaken town you call home?" Maude replied.
Ezra ignored her and said, "Then shall we make it a family affair?"
I smiled, "Definitely." I shook my head at Maude's protests, actually killing them on her lips. She and I had found a way to mend our relationship. I needed to find a way to make one with my son.
As we made our way into the saloon, I noticed that Ezra did not even spare a glance over at the other six men. Fear coursed through me as I felt the rift he was trying to place between himself and the others. I wondered if he had told the others and what their reactions had been. Something had driven him away from them. Maybe they had asked him what his intentions were; whether he'd stay or leave.
Ezra chose to sit with his back to the other lawmen, so I sat across from him. I watched J.D. start to get up to come over to our table, only to be stopped by Buck. With a flick of his head, Chris sent the two of them out of the saloon. I could see the disappointment etched on the boy's face, but a wink from Buck told me that the big man would take care of everything. Nathan and Josiah also left the saloon. The preacher nodded to both Maude and me. I saw a wistfulness touch his eyes and realized too late that he'd had feelings for Maude. She'd given him a small smile and shrug in reply. Ezra, for his part, never flinched or turned to watch his friends leave. But I know that he was all to aware that Chris and Vin remained, stretched out in their chairs in a companionable silence that I'm sure he envied as much as I did.
We played well into the morning, all of us far too stubborn to be the first to want to retire. Or maybe none of us wanted to lose this special time that we had never had. We played not for money, but for the sheer enjoyment of it, something I think all of us had forgotten. We laughed and recounted tales of the lives we'd led. Maude and I told Ezra about our meeting and I was happy to learn that she remembered it as clearly as I did. He, in turn, told me of some of the happier moments that he and Maude had shared. I think he surprised himself with how many there truly were. We argued a bit, over the cards, over impossibilities in the others stories, but the arguments always ended with one or the other of us teaming up and bringing it back to a humorous end. And in all that time, Chris and Vin never left. They remained, letting Ezra feel their presence but not intruding on him. During one argument between Ezra and Maude I took the opportunity to nod my gratitude to him. He returned it and a look that promised that we had a great deal to discuss.
I saw Ezra hide a wince as he shifted slightly in his seat and knew that it was time to end the game. I stood up slowly and stretched; listening to my old bones pop as I did. "I do believe that I am no longer made for these all nighters. If you don't mind I will retire for the night."
Maude laughed teasingly at me, "Why, Bret dear, have you lost your stamina? The night is still so very young."
"I said retire, not sleep, Maude." Catching the twinkle in my eye, her own eyes lit up. I extended my hand to Maude, "May I escort you to your hotel?"
"Why of course, darlin'" she answered. Ezra rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Good night, Mother," he said. Then catching my eye, he paused before saying, "Good night, Pappy," he drawled out, teasingly.
I laughed, my heart breaking a little. Pappy, you really would have loved this boy. I promised myself that tomorrow I would share as much about his grandfather as possible to Ezra.
"Good night, son," Maude and I said simultaneously. We shared a self conscious look and laugh before turning and exiting the saloon
Ezra sat still in his chair but his mind fairly swam with all that had happened that day. He glanced at the chairs where moments before his mother and father had sat and suddenly found that he could not wipe the grin from off his face. This had been the type of family moment that he had dreamed of all those years ago when he had been forced to stay at some aunt or uncle's or even stepfather's home. It was far from typical, but even as a child, he had known that nothing about his mother would ever be typical. He chuckled softly as he thought of how he had never seen anyone get the best of Maude as easily as Bret did. Of course, Maude gave as good as she got. He could easily imagine a wonderful future with the two of them, of getting to know the two of them for who they really were.
Ezra's thoughts flicked back to the men who he knew still sat behind him and the four others who had left. He could not truly fathom how much these men had come to mean to him. He respected them more than anyone he had ever met. Even the kid, J.D., was so forthright and earnest about become a truly good man, that Ezra could not help but respect him. Nathan and Josiah were committed and faithful to their ideas and forced everyone, even him, to find the means within themselves to become better people. Buck's love of life and pure, unwavering loyalty were inspiring even to his cynical heart. And Vin's fortitude, his quiet endurance of each new hardship that came his way, was an example to Ezra of how he should be. Then there was Chris, the man who had led a harsh life, set it all aside when he found something truly worth living for, only to tragically lose it all. Despite all that, or perhaps because of it, the man was a natural born leader. And Ezra, even with all his rebellious, loner tendencies, had decided to follow him. He could not now turn his back on him, on any of them.
Ezra laughed out loud as the words, 'Be careful what you wish for,' crossed his mind. All of his childhood he had wished for a family, now he had two that he had to chose between. Without a look to the others he stood from the table and started to make his way over to the stairs, when a call from Chris stopped him. Careful to keep an impassive face, Ezra walked over to their table and merely raised a questioning eyebrow at his leader.
"Judge wants us to escort him over to New Haven. They got a couple of men up there that the town's accusing of running a protection scam. The judge thinks the local law may be involved, so he wants us to ride with him in case things turn ugly," Chris said.
Ezra managed a frown as he gestured with open hands, "Unfortunately my condition prevents me from accompanying you on this expedition, Mr. Larabee. Therefore I will offer my services to remain here to protect the town from any unsavory characters who may take the opportunity to harass the citizenry of Four Corners."
Chris shook his head. "No, Nathan and Josiah'll stay here. We'll need your skills in finding out if the local law is dirty. You can ride in the stage with the judge."
Ezra indignantly straightened to his full height, ignoring the pain it drew from his ribs. "I would rather endure the agonizing torment of riding horseback that face a minute's confinement with the self-righteous Judge Travis."
Chris' smile turned decidedly wicked, "We leave at eight tomorrow morning."
"Oh, this just gets better and better, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
Ezra sighed as he nodded to Chris. He ignored Vin and the grin on the tracker's features. Without another word, he turned and walked up the stairs. He did not see the glance that Chris and Vin shared as they realized that the gambler must truly be distracted by the day's events if he did not even attempt to argue.
Morning found all seven gathered around the stage. Ezra was immaculately dressed, as always, but his uncharacteristic silence and frequent yawns were proof that he was indeed not a morning person. He found it both ironic and infuriating that they were waiting on Judge Travis. He leaned against the stage and closed his eyes for a moment. He was not looking forward to the stage ride. His ribs were improving, but he could only imagine the jostling they would get. Apparently Nathan had the same thoughts. "Hey, Ezra," Nathan said to get his attention.
Ezra opened one eye, but said nothing. He immediately focused on his own silver flask that Nathan held in his hands. He had left it because he still had not had an opportunity to refill it. His other eye shot open with a questioning look as he took the proffered flask and felt that it was indeed full.
"I figured, you'd be needin' something, on the trip," Nathan said.
"Why, Mr. Jackson, you are too kind, indeed," Ezra said as he slipped the flask into his jacket pocket as Chris strode over with Maverick and Judge Travis.
"Maverick, here, has offered to ride with us. He's had some experience in spotting a scam and the judge wants him to come along," Chris said.
Ezra's bloodshot eyes looked up at his father and then over to the hotel. "I believe it would be best if you were to remain here. Mother's wrath is not to be courted lightly. She will be angry enough at my leaving. I can not fathom the depth of her fury if you are missing as well."
"I've always loved to live on the dangerous side," Maverick answered.
Ezra shook his head and would have argued further, but Chris motioned for him to enter the stage. Judge Travis followed Ezra into the stage, and Chris and Maverick had to laugh at the disgusted look Ezra shot them as they closed the stage door. The gambler was not at all pleased to be trapped in the stage with the judge, especially since he was certain the man would question him about his relationship to Maverick.
Ezra leaned back into his seat and made himself as comfortable as possible. He closed his eyes and drawled, "Wake me when we reach New Haven."
Judge Travis watched the young man. He liked the young man despite all his faults. Chris had told the judge everything about Ezra, Maverick, and Maude, and about the possibility that they could lose Ezra. Travis would hate to see that happen, as much as he knew a man needed to be with his family. This town still needed the seven; he still needed them, all of them. They were a team, where each member was distinctive, yet complimented each other. To lose one, would be to lose the team. Travis had no doubt that the other six would still remain, but they would be a bit weaker, a bit empty.
The stage hit a particular rough spot that threw both Travis and Ezra around in their seats. Ezra hissed in pain but glared Travis' hands away from him. The gambler reached for his flask and with a toast in the judge's direction took a good swig of the liquid within. And nearly choked on it as the laudanum rolled down his throat. Only his desire to not spit the offensive liquid over Travis made Ezra actually swallow it all.
With blinking eyes and a weak smile he offered the flask to Travis who merely shook his head. It was far too early in the morning for drinking, especially anything strong enough to get that reaction from the gambler. Ezra replaced the lid on his flask and returned it to his jacket pocket, all the while dreaming up possible retribution to the town's healer. Travis noticed the devilish grin that crossed Ezra's face as he leaned back and did actually manage to fall asleep until they reached New Haven.
Chris watched as Ezra and Travis exited the stage, both of them seemed to be in one piece and none the worse for the trip. Ezra even looked a bit better rested than he had when they left. Chris nodded to the judge. "Vin and I'll stay with you. The rest of you, see what you can find out from the town. The trial's not until tomorrow, so you'll also have to find a place for the night."
"I trust that we will be reimbursed for this expenditure, Judge Travis," Ezra said.
"Yes, Ezra, but I'm not covering any of your losses at the gaming tables," Travis replied with a smile.
"The only reason I would lose, Judge Travis, would be to gain access to valuable information. As such, it should be covered in your reimbursement," the gambler pressed.
"Then just win it back," Chris said as he motioned for Vin and the Judge to follow him.
Buck laughed as he threw his arm around Ezra's shoulders. "Yeah, shouldn't be too hard for you to win back. And if you can't, your dear old da should be able to do it for you."
Ezra slipped out from under Buck's arm tossing him an irritated glare. "I believe it would be best if we split up, Mr. Wilmington. I suggest you and Mr. Dunne, take that side of the town and Maverick and I will take this."
Buck nodded his agreement before turning and noticing that Ezra had naturally chosen the side with the saloon. "Come on, Buck," J.D. said, "let's go get a room first." The young man pulled at Buck anxious to see the new town.
Ezra turned to Maverick who had been a bit too quiet during the entire time. "I have managed very well without a father for this long, I can assure you that I do not need your parental protection at this time," he said, anger and frustration coloring his words.
Maverick shrugged at him, "I just wanted to spend some time with you and your fellow lawmen. It's been quite some time, since I've done this kind of thing, and I hate to say it, but I do miss it. Besides it'll give us a chance to get to know each other."
"Mother will be quite furious," Ezra warned, turning the conversation away from the subject of their relationship. He had gotten away from Four Corners, now he wanted to get away from making a decision. He did not need any reminding of it.
Maverick laughed, "Maude was a bit tired when I left her. She might enjoy the peace and quiet for a bit."
Ezra shot him a disgusted look and then opened his mouth to speak, but decided against it and turned away, his face wrinkled with distaste. Maverick smiled happily as he followed Ezra into the saloon.
Both men paused as they stepped into the saloon, giving the patrons time to get a good look at them while their own eyes adjusted to the lack of light. Maverick had to grin at the looks of dismay that fell across most of the townsfolk. After all, one gambler was a rare sight to these small towns. Two together had to be a fearful sight indeed.
They found a table and Maverick pulled out his deck of cards. Before he could even begin to shuffle, a rough looking cowboy strode over and asked, "What are you doing here?"
Maverick looked to Ezra who merely shrugged his confusion. "I could be wrong," Maverick began, "but it looks to me like we are about to play a hand of poker."
"What are you doing in town?" the man asked slowly as if Maverick were impaired.
"Oh, that, what are you doing here." Maverick answered to Ezra's amusement. "Well, Ezra here Oh, by the way, I'm Bret Maverick and this is Ezra Standish." Maverick paused waiting for the gentleman to introduce himself. When he did not, Maverick continued, "Ezra here is part of the law over in Four Corners. Judge Travis is in town to try the case of a couple of boys running a classic protection scam. The judge wanted Ezra and the other boys to join him and see if they could learn if anyone else was involved in this little scam. I came along for the ride."
"Well you can just go along for the ride home. There ain't anything for you here. My brother's the sheriff here and he's got everything in control. He doesn't need the like of you in town," the man responded.
"You're brother's the sheriff? I'd appreciate it if you'd point him out to me. I've got a few questions for him," Maverick asked eagerly.
The man blinked at Maverick. "He's the one at the jailhouse. The one wearing the sheriff's badge."
Maverick stood up. "Much obliged to you. Couldn't have found him otherwise." Ezra stood up and followed his father out of the saloon.
It took him a few tries, but Ezra finally managed to ask, "What reasoning do you have for that idiotic display?"
"Simple men like that, already think they're better than us, m'boy. If we just play their game, they are the ones who walk into our traps. Trust me, instead of watching us like he should, he's gonna go running to his dear brother," Maverick explained. I'm going to go have a chat with the sheriff. You keep an eye on our new friend in there. "
Ezra shook his head. "I believe it would be best if we remain together. I don't trust this gentlemen at all. We don't know if the sheriff is involved in this little scheme at all. It would be better to attempt to gather more information before visiting the sheriff."
Maverick laughed, "Trust your good ol' pappy on this one, Ezra. I've seen enough of these protection scams to know that the law has to be part of it. That man knows his brother is guilty so he's going to want to warn him. All we'll have to do is be there so we can hear the confession."
Ezra watched his father walk down the street to the sheriff's office and shook his head again. He took a step back and immediately felt the barrel of a gun press into his back. Ezra froze as the sheriff's brother whispered in his ear, "Just step down and walk behind the saloon, quiet like." He threw his arm over Ezra's shoulder as he steered toward the alleyway. Ezra cursed the broken ribs that would not allow him to twist free of the man's grasp, but he mainly cursed his pig-headed father.
Behind the saloon, the man quickly gathered Ezra's belt and shoulder guns. "Your pappy's a smart man. You play to type and people just don't see what you really are. You can hide in plain sight and nobody will ever know."
Ezra sighed, realizing his father's mistake. Maverick had been out smarted by the cowboy who had been playing the same game Maverick had. The older gambler had seen just what the cowboy had wanted him to see and now it was Ezra who would pay for his mistake. "My friends will notice that I have gone missing. Since Maverick is with the sheriff they will know that he is not the culprit, which will lead them to you. If you had been smart, you would have just ridden out of town and let your brother take the fall."
The man's face twisted with disgust. "I ain't leaving my friends to rot in jail or hang. You probably don't know nothing about loyalty, but I do. I'm gonna get them out of that jail and you're just the leverage I need to do it." With that he pushed Ezra against the wall and with the rope that had hung coiled at his belt tied the gambler's hands in front of him. He noticed Ezra's grimace of pain and laughed. "I always knew you fancy dressed gamblers were sissies."
Ezra's mind began to develop and discard all the possibilities for escape even as he said, "I was forced to deal with some overly rowdy Texas drovers the other day and have a few broken ribs to show for it." He winced again, letting pain show freely on his face, hoping to overplay his pain and get his captor to relax his guard or at least offer him some sympathy.
The man smiled, "Then I guess I'd really better gag ya', 'cause you ain't about to enjoy this little ride we're gonna take."
Ezra's eyes widened as his captor forced his handkerchief into the southerner's mouth and tied it tight behind his head. "I was getting tired of listening to you anyway, Reb." He forced Ezra to the ground and tied the end of the rope attached to Ezra's wrist to the saloon's back railing. Ezra struggled with his bounds as the man went back to get his horse. The binding was tight, but Ezra was fairly certain that he could work them lose given enough time. His bigger cousins and stepbrothers had often enjoyed tying the smaller boy up. Ezra had been an incredibly curious and energetic boy and his unflagging spirit had not given in to the bigger boys threats or bullying. They discovered they could keep him out of their hair by tying him up, but Ezra's naturally deft hands had quickly learned the value of undoing knots. He would smugly return to the older boys only to have to face their wrath in a more violent manner. But on more than one occasion he gave as good as he got. Maude had taught him early that he would have to rely on himself to survive and he had taken that lesson to heart.
He was so intently working on the knots that he did not notice the man's return until he received the cuff to his head. The man laughed as he untied the rope from the railing. He picked Ezra up out of the dust and forced him up on the horse. He tied Ezra's hands to the saddle horn, and then mounted up behind him. "Figure you'll need some help holding on. I left a note for your friends." With that he spurred his horse into a gallop and only the gag in his mouth, kept the scream of pain from escaping Ezra's mouth.
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