Special Thanks to Mitzi and NotTasha
Story moved to Blackraptor October 2009
The tides were turning and the
change of season was well and truly on them. Ezra Standish huddled
deeper inside his thick woollen coat. He sucked in a quick breath,
wincing slightly as the brisk morning air warped inside his lungs.
He hugged the jacket around his chest more firmly, but couldn’t
prevent the strangled cough that expelled the cold air. The chill
of the December morning was thick with moisture, and heavy clouds rolled
along the horizon, stretching low down to touch the frozen ground.
Ezra chanced a glance along the
deserted street and came to the conclusion that the citizens of
his chosen metropolis where ensconced inside their warm and welcoming
abodes, where they indeed should be. A tremor tingled down his
spine, and a fine sheen of sweat broke out on his forehead. It was
too early for much movement through the small western town and Ezra
quickly hopped off the boardwalk and strode briskly to the livery.
Two days before Christmas – he
couldn’t stay any longer. Standish sighed despondently.
Everyone had plans for the day of festivity – that was, everyone
except him. Not that he needed or wanted any, he quickly amended.
When did he ever celebrate? Certainly not with Maude, he grimaced
bitterly. His childhood lacked the stability of a normal home
life, but for that same reason, he was better suited to the nomadic
existence that he had adopted for his adult life. There was
nothing at all that interested him about the festivities, and he would
do well to remember that.
It didn’t bother him in the
slightest that both Vin and JD had been invited to the Wells’ ranch
for Christmas lunch or that Nathan had departed town two days ago to
visit with Miss Rain at the Seminole village. It would be nice for
the couple to spend the day together, even though Rain didn’t exactly
Josiah had a sermon prepared and
would take a service on Saturday evening - Christmas Eve. The
large preacher had thrown himself into the task of writing the sermon;
outwardly one would assume his melancholy disposition was attributed to
nervousness with standing court in the church and holding service, but
it didn’t take a genesis to recognise the trepidation that burned
within the preacher’s soul. You only had to scratch beneath the
surface a little to understand the troubled man’s erratic mood of
late. Sanchez would travel to Vista City on Christmas Day and
spend the day with his sister, Hannah. The preacher’s visits
were not well received, or even enjoyed by the large man, but he felt it
his duty to go. Hannah was his only family and from everything the
large man had disclosed, he truly loved his troubled sibling. It
would be a difficult night for the older man on his return. Ezra
shrugged his shoulders not bothering to hide his confusion about why
Josiah would torture himself so.
Larabee had been invited to spend
the day with Mary and Billy Travis, a veritable family in the making,
Ezra surmised. At least they would enjoy the day. And then
there was Buck. He had been feverishly juggling his schedule so he
could spend the majority of his day in bed. Not alone, of course.
Now the gambler didn’t begrudge
any of his friends their right to some enjoyment, but Ezra felt more an
outcast in the diverse group than he usually did, for his lack of
enthusiasm towards the special day. He didn’t want to burden them with
his dour mood – so it was simply common sense that he made himself
scarce. Not even a simple affliction, such as a cold, would deter
him. It was nothing of concern, a mere nuisance, as Maude always
referred to them. And he’d never once been allowed the
indulgence of idling away the day to recuperate, and he wouldn’t begin
Standish rubbed his hands together, generating some warmth. The short stroll from the saloon to the livery was a brisk encounter and not particularly inviting, but his mind was on other thoughts so he barely noticed. He desperately needed some time and space to himself, away from the celebrations and the joviality and the constant reminders that he was not a part of it all.
churned with all the good cheer, and at times he almost gagged from all
the sentimental bullshit. Whenever he turned around, there was a
familiar face smiling up at him, beckoning him to join in the merriment
that included everyone, even the destitute. How they could manage to
waste hard-earned money on frivolities that they could ill afford was
beyond him. People, who would have normally gone out of their way
to avoid him, now stopped him on the street and offered a kind word in
passing. He couldn’t understand the two-faced attitude that
generally encompassed the town, but it didn’t fool him. They didn’t
want him in their precious town, or their homes just because it was
Christmas. Here, was no different to any other place he’d spent
the typically festive season. No one wanted to share that special day
with the gambler.
To the conman, the town had been
transported to another realm. Everyone seemed to lock away all
their troubles, shelve their differences and come together. It was
all a façade, one that would be tossed aside as quickly as the mask was
put into place. It was not a comfortable feeling, watching the
changes that came over the residents, including his friends. After
all, he was fairly certain that following the celebrations, they would
all revert to their former selves.
Ezra pulled his hat lower over his
face and rubbed at his throat, swallowing painfully. In his rush
to reach the livery, he failed to notice the dark and brooding eyes that
followed his path.
Chris Larabee chewed on the end of
the cheroot and blew smoke from the side of his mouth. He stood,
sheltered from the wintry air, watching the Southerner disappear inside
the stables. “What are you up to, Standish?” Chris
waited patiently, easily hidden if the gambler should quickly exit.
He had to take a second look when he first spied Standish step from the
saloon, it was unusual to see the gambler up before noon on a good day,
let alone a mere hour past dawn. His mouth curled into a stern
line and Larabee glanced at the sky and breathed in deeply, filling his
There was a fresh crispness to the air and, if Tanner's prediction was right, they
were going to see snow early this season.
Ezra finally exited the livery
riding astride the Chestnut gelding. Chris had been beginning to
wonder when the Southerner was going to emerge and was astounded when he
exited on the back of his horse. Chaucer danced under the weight
of the Southerner, stretching his long legs and snorting thickly,
producing a cloud of smoke as the air crystallized. There were
packs on either side of the saddle and probably an extra blanket wrapped
inside the bedroll by the size; Ezra never did like the cold. So
he wasn’t just planning a short ride in the hills, Larabee weighed up
The gunslinger smirked, following
the path the gambler tracked from the livery. Standish rode the horse as
if he was born in the saddle – he sat ramrod straight, only using the
minimalist hand movements to control the horse – and the damn horse
responded to every command without hesitation. His posture and
self-assurance in the saddle were so natural, yet too regimented to have
been acquired from only experience, but discovering Standish had taken
an active role in the military was not a comforting thought. Many of
Chris’ friends had died in battle, fighting the Confederate army, and
it was something he had relegated to the inner recesses of his mind, not
wanting to be reminded of the bloodied fields and death cries of the
haunted past. And the more Chris learned about the younger man,
the less he understood.
Standish was a contradiction unto
himself. Larabee figured it was simpler not to question Ezra’s
But there were times, he admitted ruefully, when he enjoyed
watching the culmination of the gambler’s trickery.
The conman was always scheming.
Whether it was outwitting Buck in a contest of wills or manipulating a
deck of cards to his favour, there was always plenty to keep Standish
thirsty for more. Larabee considered whether the conman was in the
midst of some scam at the moment. Or perhaps he was responding to
a wager offered. That would explain the early morning departure.
Larabee reflected on where the
gambler would be now, if Ezra hadn’t joined them on their escapade to
the Seminole Village. Larabee knew, that under normal circumstances he
and the gambler would not have crossed paths. Unless it was facing
each other on the opposite ends of a loaded gun in some overcrowded
saloon. He grinned. And a man of Larabee’s reputation,
coupled with his violence, definitely wouldn’t have given Standish the
opportunity to join his group had they not been desperate for extra guns
when they faced down Anderson. Nor would he have given Ezra a
second chance to redeem himself if Chris hadn’t seen something
worthwhile in the gambler. But Ezra could certainly handle himself
around a pistol and a rifle, and Standish had proved his worth, if one
could excuse his initial running out on them. It did take guts to
turn back and face the wrath of his new associates and also the unknown
danger he was returning to, to help save them. That alone was what
made Chris see beyond the façade and the poker face that hid the better
man buried beneath the surface.
Chris wondered at Standish’s most
immediate departure and the demons that chased him out of town. It
didn’t even occur to the gunslinger that Ezra wouldn’t be returning.
He glanced again at the foreboding sky, a frown forming and lines
creased from the corners of his eyes. Maybe Standish hadn’t
noticed the looming clouds. Chris twisted the cheroot, throwing it
to the ground and squishing it under the heel of his boot. Chris hung
back in the grips of the shadows, waiting as the conman passed him by.
He stayed sheltered in the shadows until Standish had disappeared from
Chris was at a loss for something
to do. The town was quiet, anticipating the coming storm; folks
were reluctant to leave their homes and the streets were deserted.
Along rims of the horizon he could already see the storm’s ferocity
pummelling down, dark fierce clouds bunched thickly together.
There was an eerie expectation hovering over the western town. At
present only a mild breeze played seductively along the tired and worn
path through town, but soon the winds would move the blizzard closer,
blanketing and cutting off any escape. He wandered inside the
saloon and was instantly warmed by the inner sanctum. The
temperature outside had dropped in degrees with each passing hour, and
instead of warming as the day grew, it dripped into a solemn haze.
He scanned the near empty room, taking note of the strangers who
occupied each table. His spurs jingling on the boarded floor as he
traversed the room. Larabee selected a table and settled in; he
could watch the doors from this point and have the solitude afforded by
the dim corner.
The sombre gunslinger wondered
for the umpteenth time why he hadn’t ridden out to his cabin; it was
an option that grew more enticing with each passing hour.
Chris had promised Mary and her son he would be delighted to share the
day with them, but with each approaching day he grew more uncertain.
The young widow had requested his company during a moment’s weakness,
and it didn’t help matters that Mary had asked when Buck was present.
The gregarious rogue had all but goaded him into accepting and he’d
feel a heel to renege on the commitment at this late date. The
flare of delight shone from the blond-headed boy’s eyes every time
Billy talked with the gunslinger. Initially it amused him, but
lately the child’s actions so mimicked Adam’s that Chris only felt
immense pain being in the same room with the energetic child.
How was he going to spend Christmas
Day with Mary Travis and her son, when all he would be remembering was
Sarah and Adam, and how they’d spent their last holiday together?
It had been a special time he’d shared with his wife and son –
decorating the tree, Sarah cooking up a storm and Adam opening his
gifts. OH GOD! he cried wistfully – it was so hard to imagine
replacing them and delegating them to the far corners of his mind, only
to dredge up when he was in a drunken stupor. How many
holidays had he lost, unable to celebrate with his former family?
His eyes shuttered, drawing from his memories the images of past
Christmases. A faint smile curled around the corners of his lips.
How Adam loved the snow. He thought it was part and parcel with
the passing of the night – to wake up Christmas morning to a field of
white. Sarah would wrap him up in a cocoon of thick and woollen
jackets and pants, the child barely able to walk in the trappings, but
somehow he managed. A thin tear wet the corner of his eye, and
Larabee quickly rubbed the wet spot on the back of his hand. How
had he forgotten the simple joy his son had displayed?
The muscles around his jaw
tightened, and his brooding eyes showed a depth of emotion not normally
attributed to the man in black. The shot glass clinked where the
rim touched the neck of the whiskey bottle; the deep amber liquid
spilled forth, filling the glass to the top. The drink was downed
in one gulp, the owner not bothering to savour the taste before it
sloshed in his belly. He automatically refilled the glass to the
brim. If there was something he instinctively knew how to do, it
was how to deaden the angst that riddled his mind. He swirled the
liquor in the bottle, contemplating how long it would take this time, to
dampen the turmoil.
What now? Chris glared at the
intruder that shifted nervously in the doorway, the swinging doors held
open by thin and arthritic fingers. Larabee tipped the glass to
the ceiling, watching, through the bottom of his glass the balding man
swallow anxiously while scanning the saloon’s patrons. A wad of
paper was clutched in his hand. Finally, with certain trepidation,
he settled his gaze on the gunslinger. Larabee curled his lips,
and with a loud thump, dropped the shot glass heavily on the tabletop.
His eyebrows joined over the bridge of his nose; how dare this man
interrupt his solitude. Without looking up, Chris growled;
“What’d you want?”
“Mister Larabee, sir?”
The clerk considered aborting his mission after the look the gunslinger
past over him. “I’ve got a wire for Mister Standish, and
I’ve looked all over town for him…you wouldn’t happen to know
“He’s not here.”
The clerk stood unmoved.
“Er…do you know when he’ll be returning?”
“Give it to me,” Larabee
demanded. “I’ll see he gets it.”
The man hesitated. “It’s
kind of important…”
“I said he’d get it!” Chris
barked, snatching the slip of paper from the telegraph operator’s
hand. He pocketed the note and stood to leave, the clerk
already scrambling hurriedly out the swinging doors.
“Where you headed, pard?” Vin
Tanner jogged up and lengthened his stride to match Larabee’s
“You ain’t going out in this
storm, are you?” Tanner waved his arm in the air. It hadn’t
started yet, but it would soon.
“Got a while before it hits.”
Larabee didn’t pause his steady steps as he entered the livery.
“Depends,” he hedged.
“Which way you going? Ya could be headin’ straight into it.”
“Standish took off this
“Yep. I seen him leave.
Was kinda surprised to see him up so early.”
“He got an urgent wire.
Reckon I’ll be doing him a favour by gettin’ it to him.”
Vin resisted the urge to snort.
“Since when did you give two hoots about Ezra getting his
messages?" Had to be an excuse, so Larabee didn’t have to
spend Christmas Day and the trimmings with Mary and Billy. Chris
had been getting edgy and fidgety lately and Vin could only suppose it
had something to do with the holiday. “Josiah is real nervous
about the service Saturday night, figurin’ he’d want as many of us
as possible there for support.” Maybe Vin could work on guilt.
“Mind your damn business,”
Chris barked. “Sanchez will do just fine…and I ain’t gonna
be gone that long,” he growled. Josiah was planning on holding
the service Christmas Eve, and there was plenty of time to return before
then. That was the start of the Christmas festivities Larabee was
supposed to share with Mary and Billy.
“Why don’t cha let me take
it…I’ll be able to track Ezra better’n you.”
Vin moved into his stall and
started saddling Peso. “Then I’ll come with you.” Can
at least make sure you get back to town in time.
“Just stay out of it,” the
irate gunslinger hissed, climbing into his saddle. “I don’t
need your company, I know which way Standish went.” Chris
clicked his tongue and raced his mount from the stables, not giving a
Vin returned his tack to the wall
and slowly followed Larabee’s exit. “Yeah, and I’ll just bet
you get snowed in at your cabin and can’t make it back to town in time
to share it with two special people,” he mumbled, wandering along the
barren road to the boardwalk. “Damn it, Larabee!”
Ezra kept Chaucer at a steady gait
– a heavy weight leaving his shoulders as the distance between him and
the town lengthened. The gambler allowed the chestnut gelding to
set the pace as he had no destination in mind - he just wanted to leave.
All the activity and preparations had been wearisome and a little too
unsettling, but he didn’t want to dwell on the subject. He
leaned forward in the saddle and patted his horse affectionately.
“Good boy,” he rasped, wincing as the words tore from his throat.
“Shall we find a lucrative town, willing to share its wealth?” he
coughed. “Never fear, old friend…we shall return in a few days
It was noon when the snow began to
fall, sheeting the ground in a white blanket. “Marvellous,”
Ezra rasped. Chaucer danced under him while he agonized over
his position. Did he return to Four Corners, or continue his
journey? He’d not spoken with any of the seven about his
departure - it had been a spur of the moment decision when he left,
although he’d had the good presence of mind to fill his saddlebags and
add another blanket to his equipment. So no one knew where he was
going, and for that reason alone, Ezra turned his mount off the
snow-covered trail and circled around. It was time to weigh the
risks against getting lost and being caught out in the cold, or worse
– he decided to go home. “Sorry, ole boy…” Standish
sniffed, wiping the moisture from his nose and huddling inside his
stiffened coat seeking the warmth that had diminished over the course of
the day. “It has been a hard day on you.” He rubbed his
chest, hoping to bring some measure of warmth to his aching body.
“Home,” he hoarsely whispered.
Chris flipped the collar of his
coat high on his neck. It was hellishly cold and he had a good
mind to turn the black gelding towards his cabin in the hills.
Larabee patted the thick paper inside his pocket, only now giving it the
slightest pause. He hadn’t read the missive, and it wasn’t
even part of his plan to hightail it out of Four Corners. It had
been a means to an end, and it served a purpose. If he had to eat
the gambler’s dust all the way to Jericho, then it would be worth the
The miles gathered quickly under
his belt and the gelding was showing signs of tiring. The soft
fall of snowflakes littered the rutted trail and he allowed his mind to
drift over the reasons he bolted from town. Tanner knew him better
than he’d suspected. The wily Texan was up to speed on where his
thoughts were going. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to spend
time with Mary; it was just that they reminded him of everything he was
missing with his own family. He wondered if she wasn’t using him
in some way to keep Stephan’s memory alive also. He needed some
time alone, to reminisce and contemplate.
Buck hadn’t given him a
moment’s peace this week, every time he turned around the rogue had
his face. The cheerful ladies’ man tried to keep him from the
bottle and found a mountain of innocuous things to do that involved them
both; like painting fences and repairing rotting walls. Then there was
Vin. Tanner made up for time where Wilmington was off chasing the
ladies. Chris grimaced; he wouldn’t be surprised to find out
they had arranged a timetable to account for all his waking hours. They
were smart though, he’d give them credit; they had kept his activities
well outside the celebrations and hoopla surrounding Christmas. He
hadn’t partaken in decorating the church or even been herded under any
Larabee pulled firmly on the reins,
stalling his mount and examining the trail. He cast a thoughtful
gaze off to the right; if he left the road here and cut across country,
it would take him directly to his cabin. He stared at the trail
for a full minute, and then along the route Standish had evidently
taken. Any signs the Southerner had left behind were well covered
by now; they were out of sight beneath the snow. Chris stared
impatiently at the ground. In theory, he couldn’t possibly know which
path the gambler had taken. It appeared as though he was travelling
to Jericho, but one could never be certain. Larabee studied the
looming sky, struggling to make a decision.
“Aw, hell.” What did it
matter? Tanner would never know that he didn’t keep on the trail
following Standish. And neither would the gambler. Chris kicked his
spurs against the whithers and whirled the gelding up and off the track.
At least he’d be out of the storm when he reached his cabin.
The wind picked up, and the fine
flakes of snow became hard pellets, hitting the unprotected Southerner
from all angles. The road disappeared in the roaring haze and what
he could determine of his surroundings was layered with a mist of white
and one section looked like the next. Ezra groaned aloud, knowing
he’d made an awful mistake. The best he could do was to find a
sanctuary to wait out the storm.
Ezra ground his teeth together, biting his inner cheek. Lord what a predicament he’d landed
in! He was a fool to leave town as he did. It was not well thought out and he was paying the price for his escape. The blistering
winds tugged at his clothing and he hunkered lower in the saddle.
His face burned with numbness and his legs and arms were cramped.
He muttered a calming monologue to his horse, hoping to sooth the panic
while he searched for shelter - his voice a harsh croak and
unrecognisable as his own, but he kept up the one-sided conversation.
The storm whipped and burned, freezing in its tenacity. He could hardly see three feet ahead and when he chanced a look behind, the trail was lost in the blizzard. The ground became thick with fallen snow and with each step the journey became more hazardous to traverse. With a shrug of misgivings, he grimly admitted that he was hopelessly lost. Ezra slipped from his saddle, looping the reins over the gelding’s head and continuing on foot. He wouldn’t force his steed to carry him any further over the treacherous ground without knowing, or seeing, the slope and fall of the ground hidden below the deep drifts. It was heavy work trudging through the icy slush and every now and then his boots would slip and he’d have to quickly readjust his steps. It seemed to take all his energy to pull each leg through the snow; the effort tiring to his already depleted system.
The Southerner was unaccustomed to the wild elements, spending most of his upbringing inside the influence of a saloon. Some would say that his was a pampered lifestyle, but there were many a drama that unfolded within the hallowed walls of a drinking establishment. And although he was satisfied with that aspect of his life, even he had not escaped learning some basic survival skills required for being on the road. Especially since, before settling in Four Corners, he found himself chased out of towns on a regular basis. So he learned, but only the essentials, and nothing that prepared him for journeying through a blizzard. This was not his domain and he should have paid more attention to the weather before his departure. Another aspect of his life he rarely paid any particular interest in. Be it rain, hail or shine, he could always find a game of chance. At least he could have consulted with Vin he ruminated, before settling out. Tanner always seemed to be watching the sky.
The drifts grew deeper and his sure-footed friend was starting to kick about testily. Chaucer pulled up hard on the reins, stopping, almost hauling Standish over backwards. “What is it, boy?” Standish asked. The horse shook its mane, snorting thickly from his nostrils. Ezra dug beneath the snow, checking each of the horse’s four legs, fearing the mount had caused itself an injury. “Everything appears normal,” he puffed. When the gambler attempted to continue the gelding stubbornly held its ground. Standish tugged on the lead rope, but the horse remained unmoved. “Now is not the time for such antics, Chaucer!” Ezra sighed, patting the long nose gently. “I’ll have you out of this despicable weather, soon. I promise.”
The gambler took a step forward, but the chestnut gelding pushed him roughly in the back.
“Now that’s…quite enough,” Standish reprimanded, spinning around
and wagging his finger in annoyance. In the same moment, the winds
of the blizzard drew breath; drawing clarity to the clearing in which
they were standing. Standish grinned, shaking his head in
amusement. There, not a dozen or so feet away, stood a ramshackle
cabin. He chuckled, a dry hollow mirth. He could have easily
missed the snow-covered structure if not for Chaucer’s histrionics.
“You’re a gem, ole boy,” the gambler croaked. The building quickly disappeared from sight, but Ezra had a general direction in
which to set off. He finally reached the temporary shelter, and
after tethering his horse in the small lean-to at the back, Ezra sought
his own comforts.
The cabin had not been used in many
years and the door was wide open, the hinges only holding at the very
top, and the bottom set was completely broken off. The door stood
agape at a strangely awkward angle. Standish stepped over the
mound of frozen snow, dropped his saddlebags and bedroll on the dirt
floor and set about how to dispose of the heaped snow in the doorway so
he could close the door. He glanced around the walls, hoping for a
shovel or some implement to accomplish the deed. His green emerald
eyes fell on the small bundle, shaking in the far corner.
Ezra’s hand went to the Remington
at his side, but reconsidered his options as his sluggish mind
discounted the form as threatening. It was too small to be a man
under the heavy winter coat and shivering too much to be an animal.
Just the same, the Southerner cautiously approached, not wanting to
frighten, whoever hid under the covers. “Hello,” he whispered
Ezra continued his slow advance,
bewildered by what he was going to find. He crouched to the same
height, and drew off a portion of the jacket. He smiled grimly at the
youthful head that peeped from under the coverings. Dulled brown
eyes stared mutely at him, an impassioned plea irresistible in the
frightened expression. “Good Lord.” The small child was
shivering uncontrollably. Ezra smiled weakly, attempting to
reassure the boy. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he spoke
softly, worried as the child flinched away at his touch. “What
are you doing out in this storm? And where are your parents?”
The blond-headed child continued to stare at the gambler. “You
must be near frozen…” I know I am, he mused, and his throat burned
raw from the one-sided conversation. Ezra picked up his bedroll
and unwrapped it. He smiled at the boy, holding the blanket out,
and then added it to the child’s collection. He would add his
own coat, just as soon as he had the cabin warmed inside.
Ezra nodded contently at the
improved status of the shack. The door was secured in place, and
although he was no handyman and would never claim such, he was satisfied
that it would keep out the worst of the tempest. The mound of snow
was swept from the floor and a damp and muddy patch was all that
remained; a healthy fire glowed in the grate and he settled on his
haunches in front to thaw out his hands.
He glanced at his young companion
and a wistful smile formed on his lips. The child had not spoken a
word during the time Ezra spent straightening the cabin, but the boy
watched his every movement intently with bright fearful eyes. The
Southerner had initially kept up some inane chatter hoping to draw out
the child, but after a while Ezra’s voice became raspier and he
finished his labours without choking over words. He kept smiling
at the quiet child and eventually the boy succumbed, and fell asleep.
Ezra felt some measure of relief that the boy trusted him enough to
watch over him while he slept. But the gambler couldn’t
help wondering why the youngster was wandering around, alone. He chewed
his bottom lip, wondering if someone was out in the blizzard searching
for the lost child.
I wonder where your family is? Ezra
mused, shouldering out of his woollen overcoat and gently tucking it
around the fragile form. Surely someone is looking for you?
Especially at a time like this. His parents must be out of their
mind with worry. Ezra refused to celebrate the yuletide season’s
holiday, but he was well aware that the majority of folks did so.
In fact, the whole damn town of Four Corners seemed to be hell bent on
idling away the day and eating monstrous feasts. Not to mention
the presentation of gifts. Standish shook his head, remembering
JD’s change in demeanour over the last few weeks. First there
had been the Church - and decorating it had taken several days, then
Dunne procured a tree and set it up in the saloon they frequented.
Then there was the hanging of decorations on the tree and around the
building. He’d pestered each of them until they’d all shared a
mug of eggnog at the same table. And the young gunslinger had
almost worked himself into a fervour, doing extra chores, anything to
earn another dollar to add to his meagre savings to buy gifts for his
paramour and her aunt. Standish wouldn’t be surprised if Dunne
had bought presents for Buck and perhaps the others also. He never
imagined the carefree youth would ever spend money on something for him.
Ezra hugged his arms around his
thin shirt and squatted in front of the fire. He’d found a stash
of dry firewood stacked neatly inside the lean-to where his horse
sheltered from the weather and collected a moderately large pile for the
hearth, but it would eventually run low and he would need to replenish
the woodpile at some point. He shuddered uncontrollably, not
relishing the mission. It was far too cold outside and he
desperately wanted to rest. He removed his deck of cards from his
saddlebags and began to manipulate them through his fingers – the
well-practised moves brought more dexterity to his numbed digits.
The blizzard continued to rage outside and the gambler’s anxieties
grew while he considered his options.
Ezra’s head nodded, his chin
resting on his chest and the cards spilled from his hands lying
abandoned on the floor. A crash from outside startled the gambler
awake, and his sleep weary eyes roved about the shack to ascertain what
had caused the noise.
The door caved in and a dark
bundled giant stood in the doorway. Ezra flew from his
cross-legged position in front of the fire and drew a bead on the
intruder. The weapon wavered in his hand. “Mr. Larabee?”
Why was Chris Larabee standing in the doorway of the abandoned cabin?
For that matter, why wasn’t he still in town? Had Chris followed
him through the storm? But that made no sense; Tanner couldn’t
even track in this blizzard.
Chris shook the snow from his
shoulders. “Standish.” How in hell had the gambler found
this retreat? It was well off the travelled path; Standish must
have been lost to stumble across the shack. Hell, he’d been damn
lucky, considering the ferocity of the blizzard outside, and he knew of
the shack’s existence. It had been quite a while since Larabee
had cause to visit the small building, and he had been beginning to
doubt its whereabouts when the wooden structure loomed before him.
He licked his bottom lip and pointed his chin at the bundle in the
corner. “What have you got under that?”
Ezra quickly intercepted the
gunslinger, placing himself between the child and Larabee. “A
Chris met the Southerner’s hooded
expression. “What the hell are you doing? And who is
he?” What game was the conman up to this time? What the
hell was he doing involving a child in his schemes? And why was he
croaking like a frog? Was Standish really sick or was he playing
“He was here when I arrived…”
Standish paused to draw breath. “He has been… sleeping
Chris stared at the green eyes,
trying to find the truth in the words the gambler had spoken.
“Looks like he’s awake now…” Perhaps we’ll get some answers,
Ezra dropped the gun into his
holster, and smiled genuinely at the boy. “Hi, there.”
The young child cowered under the blankets, his eyes wide with alarm.
“Mr. Larabee, could you please stop… glowering. And close the
Chris pursed his lips, but
eventually capitulated. “He have a name?”
“That is what I am
attempting…to ascertain,” Standish replied curtly. He scowled askew
at Larabee, the stern features falling from his face as he was wracked
by a bout of coughing.
“Don’t seem to be getting too
many answers,” Larabee sneered and stalked toward the pair.
“Maybe he doesn’t like you.”
Ezra speared the gunslinger with a
menacing glare and waved a hand, suggesting the gunman to have a go.
Chris shrugged and squatted.
He winced inwardly as the child crawled backwards, cringing with fright.
“Ain’t gonna hurt you.”
Standish picked up his water
canteen and poured a portion into the metal cup, carrying it to the
child. As he joined the pair, a loud crack echoed through the
shack. Ezra startled, sloshing the water over the brim and onto
his hand. He noticed a similar reaction to the noise by Larabee.
The child hadn’t even lifted his eyes, seeking the source of the
sound. “He didn’t hear it,” Standish mused out loud.
Ezra touched his ears and then did
similar to the child, frowning the unspoken question.
The boy shook his head, and lowered
his eyes. A sad expression flushed his face.
“Great!” Chris groaned, rising
The boy held his hands in his lap,
his fingers moving in apparently nervous gestures, but as Ezra watched
the boy, a curious smile forming over his mouth. “He’s
signing!” he announced jubilantly. Lifting the boy’s chin to
make eye contact, Ezra saluted him and grinned widely as the boy jumped
excitedly to his knees and responded with the same sign.
Chris watched the gambler and the
child, wondering about the sudden change in the child’s behaviour.
Was Standish really ‘talking’ to the boy?
Ezra formed the letters of his name
and touched his chest, then pointed at Chris and spelled out the
gunslinger’s name. “What’s you name?” he signed, hoping
the boy understood enough of the language to be able to communicate with
The boy opened his mouth, but no
sound came out. He patted his chest and manipulated his fingers.
“What are you telling him?”
“Our names,” Ezra replied
without losing eye contact with the boy’s hands. “His name is
Toby Merrill,” Ezra grinned at Larabee.
“Merrill? They moved into
the Sullivan’s ranch about six weeks ago. Got a hoard of
kids.” Chris frowned as Ezra turned his back and spoke with
Toby. “Find out how he got here? And should we be searching for
anyone else?” The frown increased as Standish flicked an
impatient hand in the air, dismissing the queries.
“All in good time,” he
Chris Larabee tucked his thumbs
under the edge of his gunbelt. Standish and the Merrill boy were
talking up a storm, if watching their hands was any true indication.
Beyond the bare facts Standish deemed essential, the gambler had not
spoken to Chris in over two hours. He shifted his weight from one
leg to the other, watching intently as Toby quickly responded to the
Southerner. The blizzard roared beyond the small shack, and the
inner walls shuddered weakly, protesting the violent winds that hounded
the simple structure. By now, there would be a deep drift of snow
stacked against the outer walls, and sometime tomorrow they would have
to dig themselves clear. Chris deepened his frown, as he watched
the common ground bridged between his companions.
He shook his head, and long blond
hair fell over his forehead. Of all the ridiculous notions. Chris should
have been comfortable in his small dwelling, but no, he had to go and
keep looking for the damn Southerner. He had been close to his
abode, when he circled the black gelding about and returned to his
original course. Hell if he knew why he changed his mind.
Obviously his guilt far outweighed his good sense. By then the
blizzard was fairly whipping about and it had taken all his efforts to
hone in on the abandoned building they now shared. The simple
shelter at least protected them from the elements; it would have been
impossible to confront the chilly conditions without the modest refuge.
Look at them! he screamed inwardly. Chris stoked a cigar to life,
puffing small circles to the ceiling. Ignore me, will they?
Chris didn’t need either of them. Let them have each other.
“Mr. Larabee,” Standish rasped.
“The smoke bother’s Toby…” he left the sentence hang,
Chris dropped the cigar to the
floor and stamped it out under his boot. “Sorry,” he smiled
apologetically at the boy. When Toby tugged Ezra’s sleeve
Standish nodded and returned his attention where it was wanted.
Chris slid down the timber wall, frustrated, yet intrigued, by the game
Ezra and Toby were enjoying. The gambler turned over the playing
card and set it on the floor between them, then signed some message to
the boy. Toby clapped his hands, his eyes sparkling with
intense pleasure. Larabee fought to control his own emotions, but
the stirring bout of jealousy was tugging at his nerves. Standish,
initially spoke the words and questions as he signed, which at least
helped Chris understand what they were talking about, but Chris could
tell by the fading strength of Ezra’s voice that he was losing it and
therefore was talking more with his hands than vocally. Of all the
times to lose his voice – why couldn’t it have happened for the
others to witness? Instead, Chris was left in a world of silence,
sharing a room with a pair that couldn’t shut-up, yet he couldn’t
hear a word of what they said.
Ezra stretched on his side,
uncomfortable with the lack of furniture, he’d had to make do with a
borrowed blanket from Larabee, and lay on the dirt floor. He
imagined at one time the cabin had boasted a table and chairs, even a
simple cot, but after its abandonment, the fittings had become good
fodder for the fire. Ezra rubbed at his tender throat, wincing as
he did so. How much longer was this malady going to afflict him?
He swallowed, wincing again at the raw and painful scratch that burned
inside. God he wished he had not finished all the scotch in his
flask; he could do with some now. He lay awake, awaiting
sleep as his young friend and Chris Larabee had greeted.
The gambler sighed deeply, lifting
his head off his bent arm and studied the shack in the dimmed glow of
the hearth. Larabee lay closest to the door, almost as though he
were the sentinel, watching out for the pair of them. Ezra knew
that was fanciful thinking on his part, but he couldn’t help
conceiving Chris in this role. Ezra smirked at the bizarre
ramblings of his mind. He had been utterly stunned by the
appearance of the gunslinger when Chris had thrown open the door.
Larabee hadn’t explained his presence and hadn’t asked Ezra to
explain why he’d left town. Some things were better left unsaid.
Although, it was running circles in his head, reflecting on the reasons
that found them together in this ramshackle cabin sheltering together
from the blizzard. Perhaps in the morning, when the storm
relented, he would get some idea what had provoked Chris’ venture.
He wondered if the peaceable atmosphere would have been the same without
the presence of Toby Merrill to act as a buffer between the two very
different and volatile men.
Ezra rolled his tired eyes around
the walls, until they sought the form of Toby Merrill. He was
bundled in front of the fire; Ezra’s own bedroll and jacket covering
the small child. The gambler couldn’t begin to compare this boy
to the solemn creature he’d first discovered in the corner.
He was an outstanding child. His comprehension and execution of
signing was astounding. Ezra hadn’t used the coded language in
quite a while, and he was delighted at being given the opportunity to
practise this rusty skill. The child seemed to be starved of
information and pressed Ezra to tell him story after story, recite
songs, and even Christmas carols long thought forgotten. Toby
teased him when he misspelled a word using wrong hand signs, and he
responded by rolling his eyes, bringing tears of laughter from the
silent child. What a hell of a world to live in.
Ezra rested on his elbow, drawn to
the small figure. His head tilted to the side, listening to the
sounds inside by excluding the howling gale that roared outside.
He threw off the thin blanket and knelt by the lad.
He jumped, swearing inwardly at
Larabee’s concerned words. Why hadn’t he known the
blond-headed man was awake? Taking in a deep breath, he
forced his racing heartbeat to slow. Standish shrugged. Ezra
shook off the hounding look of Chris watching him, and lightly tapped
Toby’s shoulder. His tear streaked face turned upwards, fear
clear in the red swollen eyes. The boy’s shoulder’s trembled
beneath his hand.
“Ezra?” Larabee demanded
Ezra sat on the floor and hugged
the eight-year-old to his chest. He felt the child relax in his
hold. Again, Chris impatiently queried the conman.
Standish sighed, swallowing first before attempting to choke out the
words, but they came out in a gruff whisper. “He’s scared.”
Larabee nodded. Standish had
everything under control. He dropped back to his bedroll, keeping
an eye on them both as Ezra settled Toby in an embrace in front of him.
A curious smile tugged his lips, as they fell asleep; Toby holding
Ezra’s hand in a tight grip.
Chris bolted upright, swivelling
his legs under his body and drawing his gun from the holster, where
he’d left it at his head. “Damn!” Chris dropped the
weapon. “Sorry, kid,” he spoke apologetically to Toby.
The deaf boy had shaken the gunslinger awake, and Chris reacted
Toby retreated quickly, eyes wide
and staring at the Colt in Chris’ hand. He gulped.
“I said I was sorry,” Chris
tried again. When Toby continued staring mutely at him, Chris
looked past him to the still figure of the Southerner. “EZRA!”
Damn him…he can sleep anytime, but right now Chris needed Standish to
answer the kid’s questions. Larabee smiled crookedly; damn he
was never one for playing twenty questions. “Something wrong,
Toby shuffled nervously in the
dirt. He looked back at the sleeping gambler and turned back to
face the gunslinger. Ezra had said his name was Chris, but the
older man scared the begeibeses out of him.
Larabee crawled up on his knees.
“You need to take a pee?” Toby frowned, not understanding the
words. Toby slowly signed, but Chris couldn’t read the message
and shook his head in frustration. “STANDISH!”
Toby shook his head, seeing the
look of disdain Chris passed over Ezra. He took an enormous step
toward the dark-clothed man and tugged nervously on his sleeve.
“Look, I don’t know what you
want,” he said to Toby, but hissed over the boy’s head; “STANDISH
GET YOUR LAZY BUTT UP, NOW!”
Toby shook his head and pulled
harder on Chris’ sleeve.
This time the gunman stood to
follow. The boy dragged him over to Standish, and Chris stood
above the conman for a pause, waiting to see what Toby wanted him to do
next. He felt the small hand slip inside his own and brought it
down towards Ezra. He placed Chris’ hand on Ezra’s forehead.
“Aw, hell!” Chris pressed his palm down on the fevered brow.
“You done good, Toby.” He knew the boy didn’t hear him, but
Larabee had no other way of communicating with the deaf child.
“This is all we needed,” he groused unhappily.
This wasn’t right, or even
fair, the gunslinger groaned. Chris shook his head in annoyance
and squeezed the cloth out and replaced it over the gambler’s brow.
Ezra thrashed about on the floor and Larabee attempted to control the
sick man’s futile actions by guiding his limbs. Chris was no
doctor; and he’d leave that claim to Jackson. But if he had to
hazard a guess, he’d assume Ezra wasn’t too badly off. The
conman had woken with glazed eyes and hooded confusion several times
during the night, but drifted back into a restless doze almost as
quickly as he’d awakened.
Chris eyed the curious lump that
slept by the fire. Toby Merrill was a remarkable little boy.
If the lad hadn’t woken him up then Standish would have had to fend
for himself until light; or more accurately, until Larabee bothered to
check his ailing friend. As it was, Chris doubted he was doing the
gambler any good. “Easy, Ezra,” he crooned softly, not wanting
to disturb him from his sleep. He grimaced as heavy eyelids
fluttered and weary orbs searched his face. “Go back to sleep,
Ezra.” He bit his lower lip, suppressing the smile when the
gambler complied with the order. He snorted. “Wish you obeyed me
like that all the time.”
Larabee couldn’t keep his eyes
from crossing to the boy. It had been an effort to persuade Toby
that Chris would tend Ezra and he didn’t need to remain awake.
And he wasn’t convinced that he’d actually waylaid the boy’s
doubt, but at least the child was now sleeping. He turned his
calloused hand over and lightly touched the centre of his palm; the
corners of his lips curled slightly as he recalled Toby’s small hand
that had slipped inside his. He curled his fingers downwards and
attempted to replay the sensation. It was something that Adam had
done so often; a small gesture that represented a steel band wrapped
around his heart. In another lifetime, a different little
blond-headed boy would have claimed his time. And Larabee would
have been a different man if only his family had survived. But
now… he sighed, shaking the weary thoughts from his mind. Now,
it was only a distant memory. With both his wife and son destroyed
in a blaze, he could no longer take comfort in those simple gestures as
he once had. And then, there were Mary and Billy.
Chris absently lifted the drying
cloth and dunked it in a bowl of icy water. He paused; a
disquieting tremor ran down his spine. He lifted his head to find
Standish watching him intently. The normal lucidity was absent,
but Ezra studied him with an assessing gaze. Chris pressed the
cloth to the fevered gambler’s face, anxious to break the contact Ezra
had established. He swallowed the lump in his throat and fixed his
expression. How much had Standish seen? How much would the
gambler remember? How long had Standish been watching him?
Had he betrayed his feelings in a way Ezra could read the truth?
Ezra lifted his hand and pushed the
cloth off his face. Larabee wouldn’t meet his gaze and even
turned his back. He sighed, not feeling particularly well, and
uncertain of the emotions he’d witnessed on Chris’ face. Not
that the gunman would open up to him and discuss any problems he had –
that right was reserved for Buck or Vin. And it would never be
attributed to him. The Southerner swallowed; his dry raw throat
screamed for relief. Thirsty. With Larabee holding his
posture, his back facing the conman, Ezra searched the shack for a water
container. Once finding its location he set about retrieving it.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Chris
demanded, shoving Ezra to the floor and pressing a hand to his chest
until he was flat on his back.
Ezra raised both eyebrows, taken aback by the physical restraint. He opened his mouth, stunned into rigidity. He frowned, grimacing at the rough treatment he’d received, but couldn’t bring the words to his throat.
“What?” he shouted, and,
forgetting about Toby’s deafness, darted a worried glance at the child
to ensure he’d not woken the boy. Realizing his mistake, he
continued to question the gambler. “What do you want?” Chris
spread both hands wide, palms up. He knew he was terse in the way
he questioned the sick man, but he was struggling to come to terms with
events in his life and didn’t need any reminders from the Southerner
about how he was handling them. He got enough of that from Buck.
Ezra continued to stare in
bewilderment, not giving anything away.
Chris growled, throwing his hands
into the air with impatience. He spun on his feet, searching the
direction Ezra had been looking in. His shoulders sagged a
fraction seeing the canteen by the gambler’s saddlebags. He
picked it up and held it aloft. “This what you were after?”
Standish dropped his gaze to the
water container and automatically licked his lips. His head swam.
It would be easier to go back to sleep than play twenty questions with
Larabee. He closed his eyes, weary of all the turmoil that was
rampant in the cabin.
“OH NO YOU DON’T!” Chris
insisted, abruptly pulling the Southerner forward and sitting him
upright, lightly slapping his face. “Drink,” he commanded,
lifting the canteen to Ezra’s lips. Most of the water dribbled
down his chin, and Chris shook the gambler firmly, dragging him
backwards so he was seated against the wall. He tried again, this
time Ezra brought his hand up to support the container. As his
eyes drooped, Chris pushed against his shoulder, startling the gambler.
“Drink some more, then you can go back to sleep.”
Ezra nodded, already losing his
fight to stay awake.
As the new day dawned the tempest
increased, and the safe haven in the storm shuddered under the
intensity. The aging timber groaned with protest and the very
foundations of the structure lurched. Wind whistled through the
crevices and threatened the warmth inside by continually chilling the
air. Nobody was comfortable. Least of all, the scared little
boy who couldn’t hear a single sound.
There was a subdued quality to the
Christmas Eve morning and Larabee grew more contemplative as the day
passed. Ezra was trying hard to beat his illness and during times
of wakefulness he ‘chatted’ to Toby, reassuring the boy and
attempting to keep up his spirits. But for all his efforts,
Standish couldn’t fight the hold and frequently dropped off during the
day. Larabee braved the elements to check on the horses, returning
inside covered in snow with an armload of firewood to add to the
depleted pile. He shrugged out of his jacket and fed the fire,
enjoying the afterglow after his exposure.
And so the day passed, a long and
tedious monotony. Chris prepared meals from the supplies from both
their packs. Toby ate hungrily, while Standish barely touched a
The cabin was bathed in a warm glow
from the fire. Night brought a heavy cape of darkness and although
the daylight hours were dismal, the night became eerie and suffocating.
“The night before
Christmas…” Chris mumbled, shaking his head, lost in the mountain of
memories. He recited the familiar verse inwardly, welcoming the
warm caress of the words that once played a major role in his life.
Behind closed eyes he could see Adam’s expectant face, feel his arms
tighten around his neck while they sat snuggled together in the
overstuffed chair by the fire; Sarah standing in the doorway listening.
Adam grinned widely, enjoying the traditional storytelling on the night
before Christmas. Moisture filled his eyes, unable to prolong the
contented memory. He opened his eyes to find both Standish and
Toby watching him. He bit back a curse, jumping to his feet and
quickly schooled his features. “Don’t you have anything better
to do?” he snarled at the Southerner.
Ezra rested his head back on the
wall with a thump. His fever had broken, but it had drained him of
all energy and his voice was still out of action. He couldn’t
even articulate a reply in his defence. He’d witnessed the
turmoil that waged war within brooding gunman and could guess at its
origin, but he was forced to suffer the reprimand in silence. He
signed a message to Toby and the boy, sitting crossed legged on the
floor, started reworking the borrowed cards like the gambler had shown
Watching the two silent companions
dismiss him brought forth a frown. Must be an awfully difficult
time for a child to be absent from his parents. Especially so
close to Christmas. “Did you find out why he’s out here?”
Ezra lifted his head at the
question, a blatant look of surprise on his face. Ezra thought he
wouldn’t hear anything more from the gunman this night after the
rebuttal minutes ago. Remembering the query, Ezra eventually
nodded his head.
“Uh, huh…” Larabee prompted.
Standish rolled his eyes.
How did Chris expect him to relate the tale when he couldn’t speak?
Realising the difficulty Standish
would have, Chris waved him off. “Tell me later.” There
was a long pause before Chris said more. “Why don’t you tell
him Clement Moore’s Christmas story - ‘A Visit from St Nick’…all
kids like that?”
Ezra lifted both eyebrows
inquisitively. He turned both hands up, completely at a loss.
He considered himself well read, but he couldn’t pretend to know of
the story that Chris was referring to.
“You know…’twas the night
before Christmas when all through the house…”
Ezra continued to stare blankly at
the gunslinger. It was part of the verse he’d heard Larabee
mutter earlier. But he didn’t recognise it and again shrugged
Chris joined them by the fire.
He was stunned to learn Standish didn’t know the verse. “You
don’t know it?” he asked for confirmation. When Ezra shook his
head, Chris groaned. Didn’t his mother ever read it to him when
he was a child? “Yer not pulling my chain?” Chris queried
doubtfully, and the contempt was clear in his tone.
Ezra’s eyes flared with
indignation, the glare turning into a scowl. If they weren’t
closeted together for yet another night in the small enclosure, he would
seriously have considered finding alternate accommodation.
Or at least ignoring him for the rest of the night.
Or at least ignoring him for the rest of the night.
“Okay…Okay…” he mollified.
“How about I tell it to you and then you can pass it on to Toby?”
When Ezra agreed, he rubbed his jaw and cleared his throat.
“’Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house,
not…” Chris stopped suddenly as Standish tugged on the sleeve of his
jacket. “Sorry,” he grinned, realising Ezra couldn’t relay
the story as quickly as he could tell it.
It was a slow task of retelling the
story and Larabee could see Ezra was fading before his eyes. When
they finished, Toby clapped, smiling broadly at Chris and Standish.
In that instant Chris could only see Adam. It took him a few
moments to clear the mist of the past away and see the here and now.
Toby grinned and the
dimpled smile was infectious. He enjoyed ‘hearing’ the story and was more excited than ever about the following
day. He sought Ezra’s gaze and spelled out his request, and not
waiting for an answer starting untying his boots. He knew Santa
would know where to find him, even through this storm.
He wouldn’t be forgotten after all.
He wouldn’t be forgotten after all.
“What?” Larabee shouted, he
knew Toby wouldn’t be able to hear the harsh tone, but he’d watched
the boy pass on some message to Standish and Ezra’s reaction to it was
downcast, even disappointment.
Ezra cast a worried frown to
Larabee and was moderately taken aback by the pale and drawn expression
he encountered. Toby pulled off his long sock and held it triumphantly
aloft, grinning from ear to ear. He jumped to his feet, one bare
while the other was ensconced in a shoe and sock, and sought a place
along the rough wall to hang the stocking.
Ezra shook his head, a wistful
smile playing around his mouth as the situation became inevitable.
Larabee cursed loudly, stamping
irately in the narrow room. It had been a stupid idea; now look at
the mess they were going to have to clean up in the morning. The
young deaf boy drifted off to sleep almost instantly after he’d hung
the stocking, his bright face grinning from ear to ear. How
different it would be come morning when the stocking turned out empty.
“Hell!” Chris kicked the shack’s wall and whirled around to
resume his stalking. This was just the kind of thing Larabee had
been trying to avoid, but out here he could do nothing to staunch the
upcoming tide. He groaned irritable and grouchy; he hadn’t taken
any notice of the gambler for sometime. He gave a moment’s
thought now to Standish, recognising the fact that Ezra would be the one
to inform Toby why the stocking remained empty. “What are you
doing?” Chris asked, hands flared on each hip and elbows
Ezra ignored the question, while
empting out his saddlebags. A tin of cigars landed among the items
on the floor and his grin widened. The metal tin was hinged and
depicted a steam train on the lid; it would do nicely, he supposed.
“You gonna stuff the kid’s sock
with cigars?” Larabee drawled sarcastically.
Standish turned a withering gaze on
the gunman, and deliberately removed the cigars from the box.
Searching through his possession, he picked up two moderately new
pencils and fitted them inside and closed the lid.
“You got pencils? Damn it,
Ezra! It’s been hard enough working out what’s going on inside
your head, ‘cause you lost yer voice, but damn it all, you could have
done made it easier,” he growled heatedly.
Ezra glowered at Larabee. He
had honestly not given the writing implements a thought.
Especially as he’d not needed to use them when he ‘talked’ with
Toby, and initially when Chris had arrived Ezra could still articulate
some speech. Standish raked his hand through his scattered items,
and with disgust picked up a letter, written to Ezra from Maude.
There were several pages to the note, but he turned them over, removing
one of the pencils from the box he scrawled on the back page. WHY
ARE YOU HERE!!!! He drew several thick exclamation marks after the
terse query and handed the page to Larabee. There had to be some
reason for Chris to be here.
Chris accepted the note, his sandy
brows raised at the abrupt tone revealed in the message. Other
than his personal reasons for wanting to leave Four Corners, he hadn’t
given much thought to the impetuousness that drove him from town.
A wave of guilt assailed him, remembering the urgent missive the
telegraph operator had entrusted him to deliver to Ezra. Bowing
his head, he dug inside his coat pocket. “With everything going
on, I plumb forgot. Here…” Chris handed over the wire.
“This came for you….”
The Southerner quickly read the
cryptic note. The message was from his mother, and in effect,
informed him that she was desperately short of cash and needed a
contribution from him to finance a con. A mere fourteen hundred
dollars - not your everyday Christmas present. Ezra laughed, throwing
back his head and clutching his middle – his mirth was silent and had
Chris been able to hear it, he would have heard the harsh hysterical
quality to the gambler’s response.
As it was, Chris didn’t
understand Ezra’s reaction. “It was supposed to be
important…something wrong?” he pried.
Remembering his audience, Standish
closed his expression. He wondered if Chris had read the message,
but if that was the case, why was he looking so concerned? He
brushed an errant lock of hair off his face and wrote on a second page
of Maude’s letter. Mother, just wishing me a joyous Christmas
Day, he wrote. Larabee seemed to accept the lie.
Not wanting to expand more on the
note or the disappointment he must endure, Ezra returned the pencil to
the cigar tin. He picked up a brown paper bag off the floor and
proceeded to poke it and the pencil box down into the toe of the sock.
“What’s in the packet?”
sighed deeply, his shoulders heaving with frustration before removing
the packet from the stocking and opened it for Chris.
Ezra didn’t smile; he was dead on
his feet and wanted nothing more than to return to his makeshift bed.
He ignored Larabee without any qualms, repacking his saddlebags and
setting them aside. Then, if lady luck was smiling upon him
tonight, perhaps he might greet Morpheus quickly.
Larabee curiously turned over the letter Ezra had loaned him. He guiltily glanced at the slumbering conman and back down at the page. He shouldn’t read Ezra’s mail, but the temptation was too great. Maybe it would help him understand the gambler some more.
Larabee grimaced on Ezra’s
behalf, not wanting to read any further. How could a mother be so
cold? Chris folded the two pages together, uncomfortable by the
revelation. The informative note gave rise to another thought.
He wondered what the wire had actually held. And to think he’d
had it in his possession for the last few days and hadn’t looked at
it. He didn’t believe Ezra when he said Maude had wished him a
happy Christmas, how could that be the case after the letter she had
written him? And the telegraph operator had said the message was
urgent. Chris wondered if Maude was in some sort of trouble and
whether Standish was planning how to extricate her from the situation.
Chris wondered if Standish would ask for their help, or just go it
alone. And he couldn’t help, but wonder why Ezra had left Four Corners
the other day – was he planning on following Maude’s advice and work
over one of the nearby towns, but been waylaid only by the blizzard?
Chris settled against the tired and
waning walls, watching the rise and fall of the gambler’s chest while
he slept. Would he ever have answers to any of his questions?
It had been a long night already,
and still there were many hours left until dawn greeted the new day.
Chris picked up a narrow log of wood, intending on adding it to the
fire. The block was small and the grain even. He turned it
over in his hands, studying it while he reached for another piece to
replace this one. When the fire was stoked to a comfortable roar,
Chris set back to his original post; an idea forming that would take
little effort to complete. His mouth turned into a set line and he
dug through his saddlebags for the desired equipment.
His mind was kept active while his hands kept busy.
The raging menace that precipitated
their finding shelter had finally come to an end. Larabee snorted.
He had unknowingly been holding onto the notion that he wouldn’t be
able to return to Four Corners due to the weather. He could have
easily shelved the blame, and attributed his no-show because of the
elements. Everyone understood, that one could never predict the
whim of the conditions. He was banking on not having to reflect
too deeply his reasons for balking at the prospect, but with the
settling winds and the compacted snow, he no longer had that excuse to
stay away. Come morning they would travel home.
Mary and Billy Travis were
expecting him for dinner, and he hadn’t given them any hint beforehand
that he wouldn’t be there. He would be the worst kind of heel
not to honour the commitment. The young widow had gone to extra
lengths to include him in their special day, and as for Mary, she was
probably just as circumspect about sharing Christmas with him, as he
was. What could it hurt - a large dinner, a contented belly and
sharing time with some new friends? Larabee pursed his lips, his
eyes glazing over the gambler’s form. Wonder if Mary would mind
setting one more place for another guest? His mouth twitched in
amusement. It might not be so bad having an extra person around,
and Chris wouldn’t be feeling quite so uncomfortable. He’d
mention it to Mary as soon as they got back. He shrugged
philosophically, Standish had to eat somewhere.
Chris looked down at the creation
in his hands, a satisfied smile ghosted across his mouth. It felt
good shaping a form out of the solid block, creating something new. He
set it aside, determined to finish the job he’d challenged himself
Standish woke sluggishly, blinking
his eyes gritty from the night’s sleep. He tilted his head to
the side listening for the blizzard beyond the walls, but only silence
greeted him. Christmas morning had arrived; Ezra lay still
on his assortment of bed covers attempting to determine who else was
awake. He half sat up, propped on his right elbow. Toby
slept for now; but it wouldn’t be long before the rumbustious boy
surfaced from the depths of his bedroll. The Southerner choked on
a chuckle, seeing Chris with his face buried in the dirt and legs tucked
high under his chin. This would be an image to bring forth when
Larabee was chewing him out over some slight or other misdemeanours that
didn’t accord to the gunman’s high moral standards. Ezra
grinned, flopping back to the blankets.
He lay staring at the antiquated
ceiling wondering how it had come to this. Ezra wasn’t one to
put any faith in the traditionalist customs surrounding the yuletide
season, but no matter how much he wanted to deny it, he felt the
stirrings of sentimentality creep up upon him. Watching
JD’s growing excitement as the day approached gave him reason to
question his own scratchy upbringing, and in a moment of foolhardiness,
Ezra had written his mother appealing to her to visit him. He’d
been careful not to mention the Christmas date, and had secretly scoured
the merchandise stores for a suitable gift for Maude. But her
letter arrived a week ago, clearly reading between the lines to the
intended request. She had a more lucrative deal then visiting with
her son. And she wouldn’t be visiting him anytime soon - unless
she turned up seeking the cash she’d requested of him in her recent
wire. Standish chuckled, Maude had to be wondering why he hadn’t
responded to her call for help, but for once it had been beyond his control,
only receiving the message late last night. It would do her good
to simmer for a while; it was going to take him a few days to gather the
appointed funds in any case.
Standish rolled on his side,
slipping beneath the warm cocoon. Never, not once in his entire
lifetime, had Ezra spent a Christmas day with Maude where he wasn’t
expected to play out some con. His younger years were nothing but
disillusionment; Maude always played up the festive season to her
advantage - including his, she always pointedly declared.
Everything Maude Standish ever did, was for the benefit of her son.
It had taken most of Ezra’s adult life to fully grasp the fact that
Maude conned people only for her betterment. But by that time,
Ezra was guilty of scheming and conning good folks for the same reasons
as his tutor.
There wasn’t even an ounce of
curiosity about the con Maude was involved in, although he couldn’t
refuse to send the money. For some reason he felt honoured that
she’d thought of him to come to her aid. Perhaps Ezra would send
his mother the gift he’d bought along with the money, he mused slyly.
That was sure to get a reaction. His lips curled upward into a
smile as he drifted off to sleep.
When he woke next, it was to the
excitement of Toby shaking him. He hadn’t expected to resume
his sleep and was surprised to find that he’d dropped off so quickly.
Standish sat in the folds, crossing his legs so Toby could empty out the
stocking on the end of his blanket. He glanced apprehensively at
the looming gunslinger hovering by the door. Did Toby wake
Larabee, or had Chris woken naturally? Ezra assumed by his clear
eyes and finger combed hair that the older man had been awake for at
least a while.
The Southerner turned his attention
to the eight-year-old and worried if it had been appropriate, having put
something in that ugly brown sock after Toby had gone to bed. But
the sheer look of enthrallment on the young Merrill boy’s face was
answer enough. The boy hadn’t really expected to find the
stocking filled. Probably wouldn’t have if he’d been home with
his family. But would he like the gifts Ezra found? Toby had
probably written a list of some description requesting any number of
things…would he be too disappointed with the meagre offerings of a
Toby threaded his hand down the
knitted sock, grabbing his hand into a fist and pulling it free.
Standish held his breath, waiting almost with the same anticipation as
His mouth opened widely and a new
sparkle lit his brown eyes. Toby opened the tin box and clapped
his hands, carefully picking up the writing implements. He spun on
his backside and showed Larabee who’d been watching from the doorway,
but had not come any closer.
“Reckon he likes ‘em,”
Larabee spoke softly.
“Yes,” Standish agreed with a
coarse and gruff croak, nodding his head and smiling. He sighed,
letting go of the long breath.
Toby delved inside the sock again,
retrieving the bag of peppermints. As quickly as the packet was
opened, he tossed the sweet to the back of his mouth, grinning around
the bulge in his cheeks. And once more, the boy dipped into the
woollen sock and to Ezra’s befuddlement drew forth a wooden horse.
The boy was completely happy and returned with his bundle to examine
each more carefully.
Standish flashed emerald green eyes
at the gunman, knowing it had been his contribution to Toby’s present.
Thank you, he mouthed, not quite able to bring forth the necessary
Larabee shrugged. “Hell,
don’t go thanking me. Must have been St. Nick come visiting
Standish rolled his eyes, a relaxed
smile turning the corners of his lips.
“You ready to ride this
Standish nodded and automatically
clenched his fist, and knocking midair.
Larabee acknowledged the
gambler’s response. The smile played over his lips, and there
was nothing he could do to restrain it. Standish had been using
the knocking motion quite frequently with Toby, and Chris finally
understood the simply sign. He mimicked the Southerner’s hand
movements, repeating the actions. “This means, Yes?”
Standish grinned widely, nudging
Toby to look up at the gunslinger. They both replied together,
signing back at Larabee.
“Got company,” Larabee called,
jerking the reins hard and pulling the black gelding to a stand still.
Ezra glanced up; in the distance he
could make out spots on the horizon. He rubbed Toby’s head
They were too far away for Chris to
say one way or another; he just shrugged. He clicked his tongue
between his teeth. “Keep Toby safe, and stay behind me.”
Standish repositioned the boy so he
sat behind, and followed Chris. As the two groups closed in, it
became apparent whom the others were - the remaining peacekeepers from
Four Corners, minus Nathan, who was already visiting at the Seminole
Village. “They’ve come looking…for you,” the Southerner
“Yeah… hate ta burst yer
bubble, but Vin knew I was coming after you.” Chris grinned at
the gambler’s flustered reaction.
“Want to make a bet?”
Standish checked the range of the
approaching riders. “The stakes being?”
Chris grinned wryly, shaking his
head. Always the gambler.
“Vin. Boys,” Larabee
Standish nodded his welcome,
knowing his voice had improved some, but if he didn’t allow it to rest
it would take longer to return.
“Merry Christmas, Brothers,”
Josiah boomed cheerfully.
“Yeah!” Dunne chimed in.
“Isn’t this just so great!” he waved his arms around to encompass
the white landscape. “Look at all the snow!”
“Plenty of that,” Tanner
Sanchez sidled along side Ezra’s
mount. “This Toby Merrill? His parents have been tearing up a
storm since they came in to town the other night – been mighty
The boy pressed tightly against
Ezra’s back, staring fearfully at the large preacher. Ezra
signed a message to Toby to tell him these four men were friends.
Chris answered, also explaining
what had transpired over the past few days and where they held up
together in the abandoned shack, not forgetting to add at the end that
the boy couldn’t hear and the gambler currently was without speech.
Wilmington barked with laughter,
doubling over the saddle horn. “Now that would have been fun!
Not having to listen to all those five dollar words of his,” he
related to Chris.
“Droll, very droll, Mr.
Wilmington,” Standish answered in a scathing tone.
Buck did a double take, and burst
into another fit of laughter. “Guess it’s coming back, huh,
stud?” the ladies’ man slapped Chris on the back in commiseration.
“‘Spose ya didn’t get as much peace and quiet as you’d a
“Can it, Buck,” Larabee
grunted, sharing a sympathetic grin to the Southerner.
“You planning on coming all the
way into town?” Vin pressed the gunman.
“Sure,” Larabee responded
quickly. “Got a dinner waiting for me,” he grinned and kicked
his spurs into the gelding’s flanks.
Larabee paused on the threshold of
the saloon, studying the lone occupant surrounded by the gloom. He
fingered the gift in his hand and decided to pocket it for the moment.
Ezra shuffled the deck of cards, but seemed lost in concentration, his
mind wandering. Chris pushed open the swinging doors and cleared
his throat. “Ezra.”
Standish paused the manipulation of
the deck and looked up. “Mr. Larabee?”
The gunman didn’t wait for an
invitation and joined Ezra at his table. He interlocked his
fingers on the table and searched for the right words.
Ezra sensed uncertainty surrounding
Chris and wondered at the cause. “Shouldn’t you be…
“I’ve been there – goin’
“Ah,” Standish nodded, feigning
“Thought, seeing as how you
ain’t doing anything…and Tanner and JD have gone to Nettie’s
place, Josiah went to see his sister…and Buck is God only knows
where…Well the thing is…Mary and Billy don’t mind…and there’s
plenty of grub….”
Ezra opened and closed his mouth
several times, a deep frown etched over his brow. “Huh?” he
“Come have dinner with us.”
Chris watched the emotions flutter
across his face, as if he was struggling within himself to come to a
decision. He smiled inwardly, and taking a risk played his next
hand. Chris placed the small gift on the table and pushed it in
front of the Southerner. “Here. Would have given this to
you this morning, but I needed to do some more work on it to finish
Ezra’s eyes widened.
Larabee was gifting him with a present? It had to be some sort of
joke. He looked past the gunman, searching out the room for the
others ready to jump out at him and ridicule him. He wouldn’t
open himself to that sort of treatment. But he couldn’t detect
any movement behind Larabee or hear any snickering. He bit his
lower lip, curious but cautious. He sank back in the chair, not
willing to touch the package, but staring at it dubiously.
Larabee was stunned by Ezra’s
reaction. He was viewing the present as if he’d never been given
one before and didn’t know what to do with it. It was a
revelation that was probably closer to the truth than Chris wanted to
investigate. More so after reading Maude’s letter. “It
ain’t gonna jump out an’ bite ya.”
“What is it?”
“Guess you’ll just have ta open
it to find out,” Chris grinned.
“Why? Why would you do
this?” Standish asked suspiciously.
Larabee shrugged. “Figured
you’d like getting somethin’, seein’ as how you gave your stuff
away to Toby.”
Standish continued to frown.
“Hardly a comparison. And I…I don’t have…”
“Just open it, Ezra!
Wasn’t expecting anything in return.”
The gambler slowly picked up the
package and untied the string. The paper pealed away to reveal the
wooden craving inside. “It’s a…Falcon?” he questioned
incredulously. At Larabee’s nod, Standish gingerly inspected the
gift; almost afraid the gunman would change his mind and take it back.
“It’s exquisite!” The bird stood approximately four
inches tall with both wings extended upward, but not together, its head
turned slightly to one side. The talons poised in ready
anticipation of strike, as though the bird was closing rapidly to the
ground to capture its prey. It was certainly more intricate than
the horse Larabee had whittled for Toby. It was a work of art and
one he’d forever treasure.
“That mean you like it?”
“Lord, yes!” he enthused.
He’d never received anything similar, or so personal. He gulped
almost afraid to speak. “Why a falcon?”
Chris shrugged. “Had to
pick somethin’…figured Vin’s more of an eagle…so that made you
“You made Vin an eagle?”
That would be worth seeing, he mused.
Larabee growled. “Hell, you
go telling him I said that and then I’m gonna have ta make him one.
Now, are you coming to dinner?”
“It was very generous to
“No buts. You’ll be doing
both Mary and me a favour by comin’.”
“You get to fill in all the
awkward spots.” Chris was relieved when Ezra threw back his head
and burst into laughter.
“You want me to act… as a
“You coming or not,” Chris
“I thought young Billy would have
filled that role adequately.”
Embarrassed, Chris refused to
respond to Standish’s banter. “Reckon you would have liked
having a special dinner, sharing it with friends, but if you got more
important things to do…” There was a long pause before Ezra
Chris considered them friends?
How had he missed that? He lightly touched the wooden
object; it had to have taken a large amount of time to carve the detail
on the falcon; Chris had to have spent most of the night working on it.
His pulse leaped in his throat, could he do this? Would it be so
wrong to embark on the celebrations that had been denied him all his
life? His mother would certainly not approve. But she
wasn’t here, and had no way of knowing what the gambler was
contemplating. And it would be agreeable, just once, to know
how the other half celebrates Christmas Day. “What time?”
Larabee pushed back the chair with
a full-blown smile on his face. “May as well go over there now.
They’re probably wondering why it’s taken me this long to return.”
Ezra rose more slowly from the
table, taking his gift from the wrappings and placing it inside his
pocket. Had his acceptance been a fait de complait? Good
God…surely he wasn’t becoming predictable? “Um…should I
Chris pushed the gambler to the entrance and gave a two-fingered salute
to the barman behind the counter. He would close the saloon now
that his only customer had left and go home to his family.
When the two lawmen stepped out
onto the broadwalk, Chris patted the shorter man on the shoulder.
“You gonna teach Toby’s parents how to sign?”
Standish shook his head in
consternation. He had been astounded to learn, neither of the
boy’s parents could ‘speak’ to Toby. It had been an aunt who
had shown the young deaf child how to sign, but all his instructions had
ceased when the family moved west a few months ago. And the
parents had never learned. Toby had not been able to successfully
communicate with any of his family that entire time. He ran away,
hoping to ease the burden of Christmas on his parents, not understanding
that his parents loved him even though they couldn’t talk to him.
“They have requested some tuition. Josiah offered his services
“Think you can teach me?”
Ezra stopped abruptly. “Why
on earth would you want to?”
“Could be useful,” Larabee
“Josiah knows how to sign
also.” Why would Larabee want Ezra to teach him, when Sanchez
“Well good. But I didn’t
ask Josiah, I asked you. Could make it your Christmas present to
me,” he winked.
After a considerable pause, Ezra
responded with a smile. “Then consider yourself gifted.”
I'd love to hear your comments. Please send them to Yolande
The First book on teaching sign language to deaf people that contained the manual alphabet was published in 1620 by Juan Pablo de Bonet.
Want to check out the fingerspell Alphabet?
Here's an interesting page...Deaf History...Specially in the 1800's. There's other years as well.
‘The Night Before Christmas’
By Clement C Moore
was written in 1822 and originally published as ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ in 1823.
And lastly, this is what I think Chris carved for Ezra...Isn't it beautiful?