A More Perfect Union
The sun had just set on a warm summer's day as the citizens of the small frontier town of Four Corners prepared for their Fourth of July celebration. Beneath the pink and purple clouds set ablaze by the receding daylight, laughing children chased each other down the dusty main street, excited by the prospect of the forthcoming fireworks. Here and there their parents strolled along, watching and enjoying the balmy air of the approaching night.
It was a large but relaxed crowd which strolled towards the end of town, almost reluctant to see the days' festivities come to an end. They wandered past the large grandstand still festooned with colorful red, white and blue ribbons where the days' rousing speeches had been delivered. The decorations fluttered and danced in the breeze, as if reluctant to give up their glory even though their moment of attention had passed. Some of the holiday participants found a moment to nip into the saloon for a bracing lemonade-or something stronger-before joining the crowd for the fireworks. On the boardwalks and in small groups the townspeople gathered to talk, gossip and enjoy the brief time before the holiday concluded for yet another year.
Few of those who wandered in or staggered out of the saloon expended much notice on the lean form of Chris Larabee, one of the town's hired protectors, as he sat in a tilted-back chair on the boardwalk, his long legs propped up against one of the wooden pillars which supported the planked roof. The handsome gunslinger watched the crowd carefully, alert for any sign of trouble. He had good cause to know that evil seldom took holidays. His green eyes held a distant gaze, however, as if the quiet of the evening had called his mind to another time and place.
"It appears the good people are enjoying the festivities, wouldn't you say, Mr. Larabee?" said a pleasantly drawling voice.
Chris glanced over as a dapper, attractive chestnut-haired younger man sat himself down in a chair next to his, mopping his brow with a handkerchief held in one hand while holding a mug of beer in the other.
"Looks like it," Chris replied, studying the man's attire. He was without his red jacket or hat. "Gamin' gettin' too hot in there for ya, Ezra?"
"Indeed not," was the firm response as the other man sipped at the beer. "I have been on a fairly good roll until now. It would seem, however, that my opponents are more interested in viewing the upcoming fireworks than gambling."
Chris nodded, looking back out at the street. More people were walking past now, including several families. "Don't worry, they'll be comin' back when it's all over."
"I'm counting on it," Ezra said with a gold-toothed smile as he tucked his fine handkerchief back into his pocket. "By the time they return I hope to be quite refreshed and ready." He took another drink and looked around. "Where are the rest of our comrades this fine evening?"
Chris shifted a little. "Off with the rest of the townfolks, I reckon. Nettie an' Casey made that big picnic dinner." He looked over at Ezra. "Vin told you about it."
Ezra's green eyes went wide with horror as he dug into his vest pocket for his gold pocketwatch. "Good Lord, I forgot all about that!" he gasped, opening the watch and checking the time. "Hm. Well, it appears I have time to finish my libation and join them before the mayhem commences." He snapped the case shut and deftly slid the timepiece back into his pocket. As he did so, he glanced at Chris. "Will you be joining us?"
Chris didn't move as he sat staring into the street. "Ain't decided."
Ezra said nothing more as he sat and nursed his drink. He knew, as they all did, how difficult festive days like this were for Chris. The murder of his wife and son some three years before still cast a pall over his soul, and Ezra and the five other hired men who watched over the town understood and respected the pain their absence still caused. The Southerner simply assumed this was the reason behind Chris's moodiness, and let it be.
After sitting silently for several minutes, Chris leaned back a little more in his chair and asked, "You in the War, Ezra?"
Ezra looked up, a little surprised, then paused for a moment before responding. "Not at the outset, Mr. Larabee. Mother was determined to stay out of any conflict from which she could not profit, so we spent the majority of the Late Unpleasantness as civilians. During its final course, however, I was bored enough to sign on to an artillery battery in the hopes of running some of my mother's cons on my hapless fellow soldiers."
Chris peered casually over at him with a keen gaze. "See any fightin'?"
The gambler shuddered, a troubled expression distorting his smooth face. "Enough to know that such a career suits me not at all."
A slight nod was Chris's only reply, and he turned his eyes back to the street. It was getting darker now, and more people were heading down towards the edge of town.
"Buck an' I signed up to one of the Indiana regiments," Chris said quietly, rubbing one leg a little as he remembered. "Got into some pretty hot battles. Seen men do things to each other I never thought possible."
His comrade shot a concerned, puzzled glance at him. "Be careful not to overexcite yourself with such festive thoughts, Mr. Larabee."
Chris started a little, as if he realized how he was sounding, looked back at Ezra for a second, then shook his head. "I was just thinkin' how many times back then I thought we were finished."
"A common soldier's thought in wartime," Ezra observed before draining his mug.
"Not just our regiment," Chris clarified, "though we sure had our moments. I was thinkin' on our country."
The other man cocked his head as he set the empty beer mug on the ground next to his chair. "Indeed?"
The gunslinger nodded solemnly as he glanced up and down the street at the joyful celebrants wending their way along. "Hell, yeah. I watched us spend four years tearin' each other's guts out, an' most of the time I figured there was no way we'd ever be able to come back together again, even if the North won. There was enough hate on both sides to keep it goin' forever, it seemed." He shook himself and looked at Ezra. "When you been on a battlefield that's covered end to end with dead and wounded men, you got to wonder if there's anything on God's earth that'll be able to make things right again."
Ezra solemnly nodded, a haunted light in his clear green eyes; his memories of the horrors he'd seen appeared to be no more pleasant than those of his comrade.
"Yet here we are," Chris said, waving one hand at the happy townspeople strolling past them. "Back together an' celebrating. Just seems sort of strange to think on."
A sigh escaped Ezra's lips. "You are surely aware that such a reunion has not been easy for many of our fellow citizens. There are those from my region who would rather die than submit to the Yankee government again."
A trace of sadness darkened Chris' face. "Yeah, I know. Plenty of folks in the North who don't have much use for Southerners, either."
"Hm." His companion thought for a moment, then tilted his head as he regarded Chris. "And what are your thoughts, if I may be so bold as to inquire?"
Chris threw him a somewhat startled look at the question, then sighed as he directed his eyes back out to the street. "Can't say I got any love for the soldiers who killed my friends, Ezra," he admitted in a somber tone. "But we had plenty of men on our side who weren't angels either. I was pretty tired of hatin' by the time it all ended, an' was happy enough just to have lived through it. By then I just wanted to go home."
The other man nodded as he tilted his chair back a little, gently rocking back and forth as he thought. "I was in a similar state of mind, as were most of my comrades," he replied. "For us, of course, it was not quite as simple. And many had no homes left to return to." He paused, a melancholy shadow passing over his face; his lip twitched and he dropped his eyes. "Many of them vowed never to forgive or forget. We may have reunited, but I fear the path to true reconciliation still lies far before us."
Chris cast him a glance, their eyes meeting for a moment; it was clear from their looks that both men were contemplating the same thing, hearing bitter voices speaking words of hatred and eternal separation. Then the gunslinger blinked and looked back to the street. "Well, no one with any brains thinks it'll be easy," he muttered. "But I reckon we'll make it."
Ezra looked up, his expression still solemn and vaguely troubled at the dark memories. "Would you care to elaborate on this optimism, Mr. Larabee?"
His comrade shrugged, watching the townsfolk as they streamed past. "There's some that won't ever come around," he conceded, "but then there's folks like Mrs. Potter and Mary and Billy. People with grit, who want to survive and build. They're the ones who'll make sure this country goes on, long after we're gone."
Silence fell as they regarded the men, women and children walking by, happy and excited to be celebrating the Fourth. None of them seemed to be thinking about the momentous responsibility Chris had imparted them with; their minds seemed only on the enjoyment of the moment.
Ezra chuckled and shook his head, gently settling his chair back on the ground. "My, my, how philosophical of you, sir. You are startin' to sound remarkably like our own Mr. Sanchez."
Chris looked sharply at him, a slight, challenging grin on his face. "You sayin' I'm wrong?"
"No, no, not in the least," Ezra responded quickly, turning his own gaze to the townsfolk going by. "On the contrary, I agree with you."
His comrade gave him a bemused look tinged with suspicion. "I thought you didn't believe in anything but yourself."
The response was a wide grin, accompanied by a flash of Ezra's gold tooth. "Rest assured, sir, that has not changed at all. But one in my profession must be able to observe and analyze, and I can say my analysis concurs with yours. We have every reason to be hopeful for our once-severed country's future. The situation of our own small band bears me out."
"It does?" Chris muttered, keeping a sharp eye on a couple of rough-looking men walking past.
"Indeed," drawled the Southerner as he surveyed the street. "I would put forth that we are every inch as diverse and contentious as our national population. Like our good nation, we have come together from various parts of the continent; and in a similar way, have suffered our differences, some of which may never be resolved."
"Hm," Chris grunted with a nod, watching the rough-looking men disappear down the street.
"There have even been times in which we, like our Union, were torn asunder," Ezra continued. "Yet, it appears this only strengthened our resolve to hold the restored group together in an even tighter bond."
Chris contemplated this as he watched the crowds walk by. This was true-after Travis had tried to replace them with Marshal Bryce, they had scattered, yet come back together stronger than ever, even more aware of the strange, precious nature of their bond. They could have simply disbanded, but something had compelled them to reunite. Chris couldn't argue that, having lost the fellowship once, he would fight all the harder to keep it intact as long as they were needed.
"I would suggest," Ezra was saying, "that our countrymen, like ourselves, having experienced the loss of the Union, now possess a better understanding of how valuable a commodity it is, and will see to it that the nation will grow strong and prosperous enough to never suffer such a calamity again."
Ezra smoothly reached into the pocket of his brocade vest, withdrew his gold pocketwatch and opened the engraved cover, studying the time. "I also believe," he went on in a casual tone as he closed the watch with a gentle snap and looked up at his friend, "that if men as different as ourselves can come together for as long as we have without murdering each other, certainly that bodes well for the prospects of the larger Union."
Chris laughed a little. "Guess it does."
The crowd was beginning to thin; most of them had passed by and were now at the edge of town awaiting the fireworks.
Ezra stood and slipped his watch back into his vest. "Now I must make haste before JD and Buck consume all of Mrs. Wells' delectable pies," he said. With one graceful motion, he picked up his empty beer mug and ducked into the bright yellow light of the saloon.
Chris watched him go in, then sat quietly in the gathering blue-purple darkness of the summer night, thoughtfully watching the few remaining stragglers go by.
After a few moments Ezra emerged, now wearing his red coat and black flat-crowned Stetson. The empty beer mug was gone, replaced by two large bottles of sarsaparilla. He nodded a farewell to Chris and turned to make his way to the edge of town.
"Hold on there, Ezra," Chris muttered, sitting up. He thought for a second, then rose and put his hands in his pockets, turning to the Southerner with a slight smile. "Think I'll join you."
Ezra returned the smile, handed one of the bottles to Chris, and together they walked down the boardwalk to the edge of town.
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