Before They Were Seven

Christmas Past

by Sevenstars

Disclaimer: This is an original amateur story based upon the characters and situations put forth in the TV series, The Magnificent Seven. No profit is derived from it and no infringements upon any copyrights held by any individual or organization are intended.

December 17-18, 2000.

Author's Notes: Reading Gloria Atwater’s lovely Seven-at-Christmas story, "Hope and Angels’ Wings," inspired me to try my hand at something similar. But since several writers have already offered their take on the guys observing the holiday in their present, I thought it might be interesting to take a look back and see what it was like for them when they were younger--before JD lost his mother, before Ezra found his conscience, before Chris’s soul was seared to ashes in the fire that killed his wife and son. Part of what motivated me might have been the moment in "Hope" where Buck is reflecting on Christmases past "with presents and a tree in the parlor." I suddenly had a vision of him as a young boy, in the bordello, with his Ma and "the ladies," having a private "family" celebration (because, of course, the "respectable" people wouldn’t want anything to do with them, and the clients would probably all be spending the holiday with their relatives).

Josiah’s backstory, up till his departure from the Jesuit order, is taken from a discussion on the egroups TM7 board; thanks to Gloria, Janice, Judy, and Larabee’sLady for their suggestions.

If my Muse co-operates and there’s enough interest from you, the readers, I may well consider further pieces in this "Intimations of Immortality" subseries. After all, like all of us, "Larabee’s gang" are the products of their pasts!

December 24, 1868
New York City

The steeple clock at the Presbyterian church two blocks down was tolling a quarter till midnight as Marged Dunne wearily made her way up the back stairs to her room in the third-storey Mansard attic of the Endicott family mansion. For middle-class folk and even mechanics’ families Christmas Eve might be a time to gather with friends and relations, but for a maid, even an upstairs maid, in a grand city home it was just another day of work, and harder work than normal, what with callers and company and the hustle and bustle of preparing for church and the great holiday dinner tomorrow. Marged paused on the landing, gazing out the balconied window, and sighed. She would have liked to go to the midnight service, but it wasn’t possible. The nearest Methodist church was three miles downtown, and the horse-drawn streetcars had quit running at ten o’clock. The night was bitter cold--the mercury couldn’t have stood much above fifteen degrees if that--and Marged’s long gray coat had seen better days; it badly needed a new interlining, and she’d been too focused on saving something to make the Day a little special for her son, to trouble herself with putting aside enough money to buy the material for the project and perhaps enlist the aid of Mrs. Endicott’s maid Laurette or Miss Louisa, the governess, to it. Besides, she hadn’t wanted to leave John alone. It was foolish, she knew--he’d been asleep for hours and wouldn’t know if she was there or not--but he was all she had, and families should be together at the hour of the Savior’s birth.

She went on, and midway down the hall came to the door of her little room, which shared that level with the playroom, the storage rooms, and the quarters for the other maids. A tin coal-oil lamp in a bracket just inside shed a wan glow on the meager furnishings: Marged’s own narrow iron bedstead, the big trunk-like clothes chest at its foot, the six-foot-by-twenty-seven-inch folding Army cot where her son slept, the small unpainted washstand set under the single bow-topped window, and the old Lincoln rocker, upholstered in worn crimson damask, which had migrated in its day from the family sitting room, to the day nursery, to the night nursery, to the servants’ quarters. All that could be seen of John was a patch of midnight-black hair against the calico pillowcase; the rest of him was a little irregular mountain range under the clean gray comforter. A nail driven into the wall by the foot of his cot held a skinny stocking, knit by Marged herself, horizontally striped in blue and lovingly darned at heel and toe but finally outgrown. There were no other decorations, for such things hadn’t been customary in her girlhood.

The house was of masonrywork, stout against drafts, but the attic wasn’t heated except for the children’s playroom, and Marged’s room was probably no warmer than fifty degrees. Still, even that was better than the iron cold outside, and Marged was a coal-miner’s daughter and accustomed to hardship. Though only twenty-seven, she had already lived more than most women her age, and sometimes, after a long day on her feet, she felt about twice her years. It was chiefly her dreams for her son that kept her going when the work was hard or the employers in ill temper. She plucked her thick white wool shawl off the back of the rocker and wrapped it about her shoulders, not troubling yet to begin removing her black uniform with its lace collar and cuffs, then sat down and quietly unbuttoned her sturdy black leather shoes, eight dollars bought at Macy’s on her day off. Weary feet were eased into worn gray-felt slippers and the ruffled white cap with its bow of ribbon was unpinned and hung neatly on the peg on the back of the door. Then Marged knelt to open the clothes chest with the key hung around her neck and root silently in its bottom for the gifts she had spent the last three weeks’ worth of days off assembling. An india-rubber ball, a prism that broke the sunlight into shafts of color like a rainbow (Marged had gasped like a child herself when the shopgirl had shown it to her), a set of jackstraws, a little pearl-handled penknife, a top, a handful of marbles, a blue necktie, a set of suspenders; a wool cap, a pair of mittens, and two pair of black woollen stockings, all homemade; a little bag of raisins, a few nuts, a couple of striped candy canes, two precious oranges. Each was kissed and tucked lovingly into the stocking until it bulged impressively. Last came a thick package wrapped in plain brown paper begged from the grocer and tied around with a length of red string, which was placed on the bare floor under the stocking’s toe. Finally Marged sank into her rocker with a satisfied sigh and sat back to rest for a few minutes before getting undressed and slipping into bed. Off in the distance the steeple clock chimed the half hour.


Marged said something uncomplimentary to herself in her first language. She had forgotten that the rocker squeaked when you leaned back in it. "Why are you awake, now?" she demanded in her musical Welsh lilt.

Her son sat up, hugging himself against the cool air. "I heard the chair. What time is it, Mamma? Has Santa Claus been here?"

"It’s half after midnight, and time for small boys to be asleep," she rebuked him. "And, yes, he has been here."

"I want to see," he said, and before she could stop him he had flipped the comforter back and scrambled out of his warm bed in his white linen nightshirt, livened with red cross-stitch on the collar, cuffs, and front.

"John Daniel Dunne! You will catch your death, so!" Marged snatched a blue woollen blanket off her bed and hurried to wrap the eight-year-old in it as he scuttled around the end of the cot and stopped short, his hazel eyes wide with astonished delight at the condition of his stocking.

"Oh-h-h! Oh, Mamma, did you see? Did you see all the things Santa Claus brought me? You said not to hope--but he came, and he brought so much--look how full it is!"

"Yes, I saw. Because you are a good little boy, so, and he knows you are the light of your mother’s heart." She put her arms around his blanketed form, her chin on his jet hair that was so like her own, glossy and straight.

He twisted his head around. "Can I look in it, Mamma?"

"No," Marged told him firmly. "You know we do not look at presents until after church, when the Endicotts go to visit their friends, so."

"I have something for you," he whispered. "Can I give you that, and have one of mine? Just one?"

She was genuinely astonished. "A present for me? John Daniel, whenever--?"

He flushed briefly. "I know I shouldn’t have, but I kept out a dollar from each month’s pay. I didn’t spend any of it on sweets, Mamma, I held it all so I could get something nice for you. Then I asked Miss Louisa to take me to the store on her day out and help me pick a gift. I even paid my own streetcar fare." Ever since his birthday, six months ago, he had been dividing his time almost equally between the church-basement school Marged insisted he attend and a part-time job helping in the Endicott stables; he only got half pay, but that was twelve-fifty a month, and he had, she thought, surrendered all of it to her, for his clothes (which her two and a half dollars a week wasn’t enough to cover), an occasional treat, and above all the hoard slowly growing under her mattress for college. Marged, however, was illiterate except in Welsh and couldn’t accurately tally the money.

"John Daniel! To deceive your mother?"

"I know it was sneaky, Mamma. But I wanted so much to get you something..."

"Oh, my love," she whispered, and hugged him hard, planting a kiss on the crown of his head. "Very well, since you are awake and it means so much to you, we will do it, this one time, so. Show me what you bought for me, and you may have the package on the floor, which is from me and not Santa."

Curling his bare toes on the brightly colored but chilly scatter rug, the boy hurried back to his cot, lifted the thin mattress, and pulled out a lumpy but soft-looking parcel wrapped in paper, then something flat and rectangular between sheets of cardboard. Last out of his pillowcase came another, smaller package in tissue. "Merry Christmas, Mamma," he said, piling them in her lap.

"Oh! Oh, John Daniel! So many things! What a clever shopper you must be, so." For a moment Marged was actually at a loss as to which package to open first, and was reminded of her two Christmases of bounty and joy as the wife of dry-goods-store cashier Daniel Valerius Dunne, in the little house he had bought for them in Brooklyn.

"Miss Louisa helped a lot," the boy admitted. "I knew how much money I had, but not what I wanted to spend it on. Well, except the flat one, that was all my choice."

"Then that one I will save to last." Marged tore into the small package, which proved to contain two lesser ones: a box of six cakes of scented pink bath soap, and a dozen hemstitched linen handkerchieves.

Little John Dunne watched, tallying in his head as his teacher and Miss Louisa had taught him to do. His streetcar fare for the expedition had been a nickel each way, leaving him $5.90 to spend. The box of soaps had taken twenty-five cents of that, the handkerchieves a dollar. "Oh," his mother gasped, "what a lovely smell, so! And such pretty kerchieves! I will not wish to use them, so pretty!"

"Open the squashy one next, Mamma," John urged, and Marged did, gasping anew when a neatly folded length of blue poplin was uncovered. "Miss Louisa said to buy ten yards, so I did," the boy explained. "It’s to make a new dress for your day out. There’s a spool of silk thread, too, and twelve mother-of-pearl buttons, and five yards of black velvet ribbon." The poplin had cost another dollar and a half, and the notions thirty-seven and a half cents.

"Oh, so beautiful..." Marged’s hand smoothed the poplin greedily. "I shall be the envy of every girl in the house, so. And when they ask, I will tell them my good generous son gave me to make it, so they will all wish to have such a fine little boy of their own!"

John colored in delighted embarrassment. "Now the flat one."

Sandwiched between the cardboard sheets was a lithograph, a full-colored folio print, eighteen by twenty-seven inches, of Sunset in California. John had been eyeing it enviously on his way between his school and the streetcar stop every day for three months, and finally had arranged with the shopowner to put a quarter a week on it. He’d had half the three-dollar price paid by the time he and Miss Louisa went on their shopping trip. He’d almost wept when he discovered that after their stop at the dry-goods store he had only a dollar, a quarter, two copper pennies and a half-cent piece. Then Miss Louisa had offered to lend him what he needed, to be repaid when he got his pay for next month. "Oh, how bright!" Marged whispered. "Like sunlight in our little room! I will hang it on the back of the door, so it is the first thing we see when we wake up every morning. Oh, John Daniel, it is so lovely, and I am so pleased--"

I wanted you to have some beautiful things in your life, Mamma, he thought. There’s so much we don’t have, I wanted to give you some of what Miss Louisa calls food for the eyes. "I’m happy you like it," was what he said aloud. "I hoped you would."

"I do, so. More than you can ever guess," she told him. "Now, go and open your package, as I promised."

"Can I sit on your lap while I do it?"

"I had hoped you would want to," Marged agreed. "Go and get it."

He gathered up the bulky block, surprised at its weight. "What is it, Mamma?"

"Open it and see, then."

He tore into the string and paper with childish eagerness that eased her heart. As a servant’s son he had little chance at joy and fun, having been put to such chores as his age and size allowed--cleaning boots and shoes, polishing silver, waiting on table, washing lamp chimneys, emptying slop jars--almost from the time he and Marged first entered the household, and with school taking up much of his day. It always made her ache to see him so, when he was still so little; he took after her side in his size, and wasn’t yet four feet five, better than two inches shorter than most boys his age. It was her hopes for his academic advancement that had moved her to plan to spend almost a full week’s pay on reading matter for him. He must learn all he could, and go on to college, so he might be what his father could have become except for the marriage that had cut him off forever from his family and his own level of society. She was encouraged in this by her knowledge that he was very bright--she had little opportunity to confer with his teacher, but Miss Louisa had told her that she thought John could read at least two years ahead of his age--and she had wanted to get him things to read that were suited to a boy whose future lay in college, but being unable to read English herself she had very little idea of what books might fit that description. "He’s not old enough yet for Plutarch," Miss Louisa had mused thoughtfully, when Marged asked, "and he won’t be for at least another three years. Sir Walter Scott the same, except for Ivanhoe and Kenilworth; my brothers read those when they were nine and ten, and John is bright enough to master them. He might like some of Shakespeare, like the Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it would almost be better to wait, and get him a complete edition when he’s twelve or so. Don Quixote is a classic, and Les Miserables is thrilling and substantial, but again he’s not quite up to the second, and I’m not sure of the first. He might enjoy Mr. Ainsworth or G.P.R. James; they both write historical novels, like Scott--but then, again, I’m not sure he’s old enough for them. There’s Alice in Wonderland, but he might not like the nonsense and whimsy of it; he’s got his feet too firmly on the ground for that. And then there’s the question of money; any decently bound book in one volume, even without plates, is going to cost at least seventy-five cents for two."

So, in the end, Marged had chosen to stretch her meager funds as far as she could. The dime novels’ action-packed cover engravings had caught her eye as she passed the news agency where they were sold (respectable bookstores wouldn’t handle them), and the shopowner had assured her that they were the very sort of book young boys loved, besides teaching both history and lessons of manly ethics and avoiding all scenes of vice. And at ten cents each they allowed her to provide her son with more reading for her money.

He ripped the paper wrapping away and cried out in glee at the sight of a full score of books: Mayne Reid, Edward S. Ellis, Captain "Bruin" Adams, Major St. Vrain, Captain Jack Crawford, and an edition of Robin Hood and His Merry Men, which she had chosen because of the longbows in the cover illustration, so like those her own Welsh ancestors had used with pride and skill. "Oh, Mamma! Are they mine? All mine to keep?"

"Yes, my love, all yours forever. The shopman said they are good sound books for a little boy, full of adventure and fine heroes."

"They look like corkers," he agreed, picking up one after another to gaze in fascination at the pictures. "Thank you, Mamma."

"I am glad you are pleased, so," she said. "Now, will you get back in bed? I will sing you a song, if you like."

"I’d rather you told me a story. About the Old Country, and Papa. Would you, Mamma, please?"

"Very well." She put her arm around him and held him close while he cradled his precious books in his lap, and began to talk in her musical accent--about the coal village in Clwyd County where she had been born, the steep rugged mountains, the many small lakes and lovely waterfalls, and the gorges that marked the steep slopes leading down to the valleys; about the rivers leaping with salmon and trout, and the sheep and cattle that fed on the fells; about her father, who had only sixteen shillings a week, but managed somehow to rear ten children on it; about Swansea, where she had gone to seek work when she was barely thirteen (because there were no such houses in northeastern Wales), and the great manufacturer’s house where she had found it; about the young gardener she had met, and how he had gone to America to make his fortune, and later had sent her passage money, and how she had landed in New York at seventeen, all alone, to find that he had been run over by a brewery wagon and killed while her ship was making the passage; about how, with no money to return to Wales (or Cymru, as she always called it), she had gone to work in the Dunnes’ home and there met Daniel, a son of the house; about how they had fallen in love and eloped to New Jersey and how his father had disowned him for the choice he had made. She told him about the Eisteddfod held in Swansea at Christmas time, when the whole town gathered in the marketplace to sing carols--hundreds of fine Welsh voices led by dozens of trained carolling choirs--and about the contests that were held to find the best music for the newly-written words of a song, which was sung by the carol chorus to which the writer belonged. She told him about the plum pudding that was an integral part of a Welsh Christmas, and how very good Welsh cooks were at making it; and about how, through economy and thought, her family always had roast beef and fresh trout for Christmas dinner in their cottage, no matter how poor the year had been. She told him about her early life with Daniel Dunne, the Brooklyn cottage he could just remember that had burned when he wasn’t quite six, the way his father had enlisted in the Seventh New York Regiment to preserve the Union, and how it had marched down Broadway past two miles of cheering New Yorkers on its way to the boat that would carry it to Washington.

"Merry Christmas, John Daniel," she whispered as the steeple clock bonged out two and she saw that he was asleep. Then she lifted him up, tucked him back under his comforter with his books piled beside his pillow, and began to undress.

Palo Duro Canyon
Texas Panhandle

All along the canyon floor the Comanche villages lay strung out beneath the cold stars, the tipis tucked away in the shelter of the cottonwoods that lined the Red River. Ponies huddled together against the subfreezing temperatures, and a camp dog yelled a response to a pair of coyotes up on the rim, fetching a chorus of yowls and yelps from its mates.

A slight, wiry shape, some five and a half feet tall in its knee-length buffalo-hide snow boots with the fur turned in, ducked out through one of the two door flaps of a buff-colored double lodge with two encircling stripes of orange painted entirely around its exterior. Swathed warmly in a black bearskin robe, it paused to rub the nose of a slit-eared bayo coyote with a dark stripe down its back and each leg, picketed with the other best horses beside the lodge for safety and readiness in the event--remote at this season, but never discounted completely--of an attack. "So, Hawk," it said quietly in the Comanche language, "easy, brother," and the pony relaxed its ears, pushed its muzzle into its master’s chest, and having exchanged greetings went back to sleep.

The young brave whose adopted people knew him as He-Tans-Skins, son of Eagle-That-Sees-Afar, made his way slowly through the scattered lodges, his buffalo boots silent in the churned and trampled snow. When he was clear of them, he dusted a rock free of snow with the tail of his robe and sat down, gazing up at the frosty stars. He wasn’t sure what had fetched him out of the cozy lodge while his Comanche family slept, only that he had a sense that this night was somehow different from others.

He let the robe fall back to uncover wavy sandy-brown hair banged across the front and hanging in two long braids, center part emphasized neatly with red paint, thin-braided scalp lock trimmed with two slanted eagle feathers pinned to it. Gold-wire rings glittered in his pierced earlobes, and an elk’s-tooth necklace and double string of bear claws, the latter (like his robe) of his own killing two years ago, showed past the turned-back edge of the mantle. "’Evenin’, Ma," he whispered in English, in a low Texas drawl, soft and raspy and lighter than that of many men. "You there? Been a spell since we talked, I know. Ain’t sure you want to hear from me, bein’s I’s Comanche now. Just felt I’d oughtta come out’n’talk, even if you didn’t care to answer."

Nothing responded to him, though he kept the ears of his spirit, the ears through which the Wolf his brother spoke to him, open and ready. "I ain’t ever forgot I’s a Tanner, Ma," he went on. "I told ’em from the first, I’d done promised you never to do that. So they called me by a name that means the same thing, He-Tans-Skins. Eagle, my Comanche pa, he says it’s well for a man to keep hisself good with the women, on account he’s under their hands at both ends of his life.

"Five winters I been with ’em now, Ma. I reckon you recollect how I just couldn’t stay on with Aunt Myra no more. I told you that when I run off, that I had to go or die. It’s better here, Ma. They care about me. They want me to be who I am, not someone that don’t live ’cept in their vision of who I should be. I’m even gettin’ a name with ’em, Ma. I’s a warrior now, had my vision when I ’s twelve and went to war the next year. I got thirty-four ponies that’s all mine, and the right to four coup feathers. I try not to do things that’d make you sick at me, honest I try, Ma. But this is home now, and these is my people, and I ain’t figurin’ to leave ’lessen somebody makes me.

"I hear tell the war’s done and over, the Comancheroes say Texas done lost. I ’s sorry to hear that. But like I said, that ain’t home no more." He paused. "Reckon you’re s’prised I can even recollect how to talk English. Lots of Texians that gets taken into Comanche lodges loses it right quick. But Eagle, he says it’s a good thing for young Comanches to know the white man’s tongue. And my big brother, Goes Ahead, he talks it real good, so I practise whenever I’m with him. What you think about that, Ma? I got me a big brother. He’s done taught me lots of things, how to ride Comanche-style, and pull a bow, and track. He took hisself a wife this fall. It’s nice, havin’ such a big family. Eagle, he’s got three wives, and eight young’uns ’sides me. It feels good, knowin’ they’s so many folks around that loves me and that I can go to iffen I’m troubled. It ain’t felt no ways like that since you was with me."

He was silent for a while, thinking. "Eagle says he dreams about me," he went on. "Says he’s seed me growed up, standin’ with white men again. Says I’ll have a good life and know powerful things. Ain’t plumb sure how that’s to be, seein’s I got no plans to leave. You got any notions, Ma? You see further now than us livin’ folks can, or ain’t that a power you get?"

Still no reply, until somewhere away up river a wolf gave tongue in a deep throbbing bay. Other voices took it up, and the young man who had been christened Vin Tanner fifteen years ago held his breath and listened as the pony herds began shifting restlessly, snorting and nickering to one another. He knew the wolves would never hurt him; the wolf was brother to all Comanches, and especially to him. But it was late, and cold, and Ma didn't seem to feel like answering him.

"I reckon I’ll go back to the lodge now, Ma," he said, getting up. "I just wanted to--" and he stopped as his eye fell on a large distant star in the east. A memory surfaced from a decade and more ago, of his mother wrapping him in a quilt and taking him out onto the little gallery of their rented house in Sherman and pointing out that very same star. "They say there’s not but twelve nights in the year you can see it, from Christmas Eve through the sixth of January, when the Three Wise Men finally made it to Bethlehem to give little Jesus their gifts..."

"Merry Christmas, Ma," Vin whispered.

New Orleans, Louisiana

According to the French custom, every home in the city had its creche, and tomorrow would be a family holiday. All the shop windows were stuffed with toys, candies, and elegant goods of every description. All the cafes were crowded, as Ezra remembered them being in Paris on this night, and would remain open all night for the Réveillon, the after-midnight supper, to which all the regular customers would come following Mass.

For himself, he had elected to spend the evening quietly and alone, for the first time in a decade. He and Mother had finally parted ways earlier that year, after a three-year tour of Europe that had begun when he was twelve, a wartime recess while he served as a young officer aboard a blockade runner, and three more years of travel about the country, during all of which time (except, of course, his time at sea) she had been honing his skills at gaming and the many arts of the con. She had insisted that though his "God-given gifts" could not be denied, there was still much he had to learn, but now that he was a grown man he was finding it more and more difficult to play second fiddle in her schemes, and eventually, after a very civilized but vehement quarrel, he had left her in Baltimore and headed for Pittsburgh and the River.

Unlike much of the South, New Orleans had recovered quickly from the War; the Yankee occupation, pumping thousands of dollars worth of military pay into its economy, had sustained it through most of the conflict, and after the peace it had quickly picked up where it had left off as the point of export for goods from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains--and of import for goods from Europe, South America, and the Caribbean. As long ago as two years the steamboat boom had resumed as if the fighting had never interrupted it, and new packets--some of the biggest, fastest, handsomest boats the River had ever seen--had begun coming out of the shipyards again, one four-decker built in ’65 being capable of carrying 1600 passengers and 2500 tons of freight, while another, two years younger, had "calendar dimensions," 365 feet in length, fifty-two wide, twelve deep, seven decks high. Life on these boats was equal to that in the finest hotels ashore, with Negro waiters serving seven-to-ten-course meals in the dining salons, and cards, roulette, and other games going nonstop in the bars. Reconstruction might still be in effect, a black state government and the heavy hand of the carpetbaggers might remain to remind the Orleannaises that their side had lost, but for most of them it was a minor inconvenience, something they could take in stride. And for Ezra, the influx of Yankees only provided that much better an opportunity to avenge his defeated homeland and line his own pockets by picking those of others. Besides, the city was so gay and civilized, it suited his personality as did no other American one he knew. Well, perhaps San Francisco might, from what he had heard of it. At twenty-two Ezra already knew he didn’t intend to be a peripatetic gambler/conman all his life. It was a living, for the present, and the best way to gather a stake without having to stoop to the menial labor he abhorred. But he would have his own place one day, a fine casino or tavern or both, maybe a hotel and restaurant too, with a handsome suite where he could live and entertain. And San Francisco might be the very place to do it, though he wasn’t sure quite yet; he wanted to make an opportunity to talk with people who had been there, to garner their impressions of the place.

"Are you ready for your cafe brulot, Monsieur Standish?" the waiter inquired.

"Oh...oui, Georges, s’il vous plait. I was...woolgatherin’; I apologize. It was ungentlemanly of me not to notice you standin’ there."

"Cela n’a pas d’importance, Monsieur," Georges assured him, as he set to work mixing coffee in a bowl with orange and lemon peels, broken-up cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, bay-leaf, cloves, sugar lumps, and a jigger of brandy, warming it over a spirit-lamp, and flaming it. "On this night of all nights, anyone may be forgiven if he gives way to la nostalgie."

"No such thing, I assure you," Ezra drawled, as he slowly savored the last bites of his meringue-stuffed chocolate pastry. "I was lookin’ forward, not back."

Georges smiled slyly. "That too is good," he said. "How is it that no young lady shares your dinner, Monsieur? Or that you are dining with us at all? Have you no family in the city?"

For a moment something not quite sadness touched Ezra. His father’s only sister had married into the Louisiana quality, and he had numerous cousins in the region, all of whom he knew from having been left with them while Maude went about her profession elsewhere, but they weren’t among the few of his relations with whom he had gotten on well. He had had some vague notion of seeking out one of his favorites, Felicia Mallinger--Felicia Brye, she would be now; she had married at nineteen, mostly out of pique at her widowed father suddenly taking a second wife and a neighbor’s Yankee governess at that, and he had heard that her choice had been poorly made, her husband having proved to be a drunken philanderer who lost her fortune before having the courtesy to die and get out of her life, leaving her at thirty with five children to support. Supposedly she was living in Memphis now, and the boat had taken him right past it barely five days ago. He could have stopped...but he had told himself she wouldn’t want another mouth to feed, even if he could track her down, and as for Ezra Standish, he was emphatically not in the business of dispensing charity to impecunious relations, even relations he had genuinely liked as a boy. In any case, his experience with family to date--his mother and others--had left him with very few positive impressions of the institution.

"No," he said, a faint tightness in his languid drawl, "no family. And as for the young ladies, they are with theirs, for which I can hardly fault them. I shall find my recompense as I always do, Georges, at the tables."

"Money has neither heart nor soul, Monsieur, and does little to warm one unless it is burned," the waiter observed.

"Nevertheless," Ezra retorted, "it is a necessity, and I propose to gather my share of it. In any case--" his voice hardened-- "I do not perceive how it can be any concern of yours how I choose to observe the season."

"Pardonnez moi, Monsieur," Georges muttered, and set flame to the mixture in the bowl. He set it on the table, still flaming, and took himself off to attend to other diners while Ezra waited for the brandy to consume itself in an ephemeral flash of blue which, in his more reflective moments, he sometimes considered comparable to his own life.

But, after all, life was good. He had money in plenty, thanks to the unbelievable lack of expertise on the part of the so-called poker players with whom he had shared the downbound boat. The hotel he had selected as his headquarters for the winter--he had absolutely no intention of venturing any further north than Vicksburg before May!--was the same in which he and Mother had always stayed (thus accounting for the fact of Georges’ recognizing him), and one of the best in the city, four storeys, ninety rooms, its large, marble-pillared lobby decorated with ornate crystal chandeliers and fine chairs upholstered in rich leather, thick carpets, and a mahogany registration desk; plush-carpeted stairs twelve feet wide, with a mahogany rail, led up to the lodging floors, where he had a quiet room in the rear (so he could sleep undisturbed by traffic clatter after a late night at the tables), furnished with a bed with a satin-covered canopy, lamps with fine designs on the glass, a dresser, wardrobe, bedside table, washstand with hand-painted china ewer, and a soft chair in which to relax with a newspaper and cigar, as well as a cord to ring for a bellhop or waiter. The sole-leather trunk Maude had purchased for him when they embarked for Europe was safely stowed there, and his five tailored jackets, dozen shirts, waistcoats, and trousers had been neatly distributed about the room before he came down for supper, as had his shaving kit and favorite books; he had learned long ago to create a temporary home out of whatever place he might be staying, in the manner of those whose wanderings teach them to make each stay a pleasant experience. His jewelry was in the hotel safe, where even if he had to bolt he knew he could come back and get at it--safecracking was one of the surprising skills Maude had taught him. He had gotten in early enough to have time for a leisurely bath and a shave before supper. He had enjoyed a full meal such as only New Orleans could provide: little brown oysters, their flavor improved by a squirt of lime juice; turtle soup with sherry, topped with grated boiled turtle eggs; pompano en papillotte cooked in a paper envelope with a velouté sauce of crabmeat, shrimp, mushrooms, white wine, and bechamel; the traditional Creole Christmas dish of turkey boned and cooked in spices, herbs, and wine; white dry rice, each grain standing apart, with cream gravy; lima beans dressed up with thyme, parsley, bay leaf, cream, and butter; fresh mushrooms sous cloche; eggplant dressed with bits of well-seasoned ham; light fluffy croissants; and at last spiced peaches, cheeses, and his chocolate pastry, with Rispail Bordeaux brandy and Creole coffee laced with Cuban rum. His jacket pocket held several high-grade Monogram cigars, one of which he now pulled out, clipped the end off of with the dainty gold cutter on his watch chain, and lit with a match from the silver pocket case on which his intertwined initials, EPS, were engraved. For a moment he did experience a twinge of nostalgia; that case had been a Christmas present from Mother three years ago. Then he shook the feeling off. Mother had been right; he had learned that long before she had even imparted the lesson herself--that emotion was for other kinds of men. Remaining in one place for too long, growing attached to any place or person or thing, bonding with the locals, depending on--trusting--others, all were to be avoided, as was any sort of softer emotion. Life was too short to encumber oneself with emotional baggage. You had only one chance at it, and if you didn’t take care of your own interests no one else would. In the end, no one cared about you but yourself. He and Mother had made a formidable team, and he recognized the value of the skills she had had to teach him, but his fortune, his future, and his well-being were of no concern to anyone but Ezra Patrick Standish. Never had been, never would be.

His cafe brulot had ceased to flame as the brandy vaporized, and he picked it up and sipped daintily, savoring its unique flavor as he might that of a fine wine. Life would always have its ups and downs--in his dual profession that was unavoidable--and he would enjoy, and if possible profit by, the ups as thoroughly as possible. What else was there? Nothing anyone could prove.

He leaned back in his chair and began plotting out possible campaigns for the winter ahead. At least until Mardi Gras, New Orleans was his oyster, and he meant to clean that shell of every succulent bite available.


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