Winner of the 2006 Mistresses Of Malarkey "Best Gen Series" Award and 'Perfect' Award
By NotTasha... it just took some time...
Her gloved hands clutched the handle of her traveling bag as she anticipating holding something else, someone she had missed for far too long. The fingers squeezed, holding tight. She was nearly there – so very close – after so very long. Her heart beat faster and she felt flustered, like a child, but at 45 she could hardly be called ‘girlish’.
Oh, she was so excited, so ready for this moment. Her legs tensed, ready to stand, ready to get up and out of the coach, ready to find him. She ducked her head, trying to see out, but she’d been unable to move from the center seat and her view was hopelessly blocked.
She had to see him! She wanted to see him straight-away! Had he changed? Of course he had – most certainly -- after all this time. He’d grown to man. Funny, though, in her mind he’d always remained that child – that lovely, funny, intense, intelligent, somber and thoughtful child. She could picture him so clearly: the way he cocked his head, the quirk of his mouth, the delicate dimples, and his expressive eyes – reflecting such mirth, such sly intelligence, such depth of feelings, such loneliness. Had he changed?
She peered around her neighbors, trying to get a glimpse of her surroundings as the coach entered the town: a saloon, a dry goods, a grain exchange, newspaper, another saloon, a jail. Bits of ribbon and once-gaudy baubles decorated the town -- faded now – everything was a little faded from long use and relentless weather. Here and there a stray bough festooned a window – Christmas came even to a tiny western towns. She smiled, catching a glimpse of a church with holly wired around the stairrails. It was Christmas Eve and the town awaited the coming of that special holiday.
The horses slowed. The driver above shouted. Harnesses jangled and street traffic gave way. Anxiously, she tried to look beyond the richly-dressed man on her left, or the newly-married couple on her right. Straining, she searched through the figures that lined the boardwalk. Of the spectators, she saw only legs, torsos, a child or two.
The big vehicle continued to slow, finally stopping and jerking as the brake was set. It took far too long for someone to open the door. Slowly, stiffly, the passengers moved to the door in the cramped quarters – to step down and stretch their legs – or to depart at the stop. She pressed at her blue traveling dress, beneath her brown coat, aware of how terribly mussed she must look. Oh, she wished she looked fresh and perfect for this meeting, but nothing would stand in her way now. No, she wouldn’t waste any time with primping.
Everyone was moving too leisurely for her liking. The dull-witted bride couldn’t stop her giggling. Silly child, she thought. The bride seemed too delicate a creature to be so far from civilization. How would the pretty little fool survive here? The young groom took his time, helping his darling to step down from the stage.
She didn’t allow the other travelers to get to their feet. Moving quickly to the doorway, she stepped down without even waiting for the coachman to extend a hand to help her.
Adjusting her glasses, she squinted against the winter sun – so bright and low after the confines of the coach. Bringing her hand over her eyes, she pulled her coat close and immediately began her search. Along the boardwalk, the townsfolk paused to watch. The coming of the stage was the big event of the day, and everyone seemed interested to discover who had arrived. Somewhere nearby, the bride-and-groom bid a 'Merry Christmas' to Mother and were whisked away. She paid them no further mind.
Quickly, she examined the figures turned toward her, regarding each for a moment, before discounting them and continuing her hunt. There was one face she longed to see… one face that she had to find. Those eyes – she would recognize the eyes.
Where is he? Why he hadn’t stepped forward already? Surely, he must be here! He must have received her message. He should be charging out toward her, smiling and holding out his hands – ready to embrace her. He’d look the same, wouldn’t he? -- just older, taller, fully-formed. She had waited long for this day, waited to hold him again! She hadn’t held him enough, not nearly enough during those short six months when he’d been in her care. Her gaze kept moving, as she wondered where he could be.
Then she her gazed paused. The bright blue jacket and the sparking of the waistcoat were enough to catch anyone’s eye, but it wasn’t what held her attention. Her hand dropped to her side, and she smiled warmly on the familiar face.
He was leaning casually against a post, smiling, laughing as he talked to the men on either side of him. His eyes glinted with mischievous delight, and his dimples seemed even more charming than she recalled. He was dressed in a swallowtail jacket, handsomely made, with a silver brocade waistcoat beneath it. A festive sprig of holly decorated the band of his black low-crown hat. His hands flashed with gaudy rings, and a gold chain and fob rested at his chest. There was no doubting his profession, a gambler – a cardsharp – a man of leisure.
He looked happy -- oh, he looked so happy.
He was nodding toward the rich man from the coach, obviously talking about him. One of his companions a bit taller – with long brownish hair, a battered hat and a greasy-looking buckskin jacket, was responding with a laugh. The other, a tall black man, was shaking his head, smiling. The black man leaned closer and roughly slapped her boy across the shoulder. The gambler winced theatrically and rubbed the offended part.
She was gladdened to see him like that – cheerful and between two friends -- for they were undoubtedly friends. There was a companionship between them, obvious even from this distance. There he was… her boy… luxuriously dressed, smiling and chatting to two ‘disreputable’ characters, who leaned close to him. The buffalo hunter and the black man hardly seemed apt companions for that southern boy – yet there he was. It was utterly perfect.
The trio kept talking about the man who’d debarked after her, but she only had eyes for the gambler.
Feeling her attention upon him, the card sharp’s gaze shifted and their eyes met. He gave her a speculative look, narrowing his gaze as he pondered her – then his jaw dropped a fraction and his eyes widened. His complexion paled and he swayed a moment.
The attitude of the longhaired man changed, too. The man came suddenly alert, and she heard him say, “Ez? Ez? You okay?”
And her heart fluttered as he pushed off the post, and set himself in motion – almost like a clockwork toy. He strode toward her. Ezra… her Ezra… walked to her with a purposeful stride, his face a mix of surprise and concern…glee and terror.
She put out her hands as he came to her, wishing to throw her arms around his neck, but he took them in his own, holding her at a distance. “Ann?” he questioned softly.
And she smiled all the wider, letting his hands drop so that she could wrap her arms around him. She pulled him close, whispering, “You used to call me Auntie Annie.” And she held him – held him tightly as she’d dreamed. “Merry Christmas, Ezra, my dear,” she whispered. He smelled of lavender soap, bay rum and expensive cigars, and he returned the embrace after a moment’s pause – as if he’d been frightened to do so, and then finally gave in to some long forgotten instinct.
“I can’t believe it,” he whispered in her ear. He was strong, she noted -- not as tall as she’d expected, but strong and handsome and perfect. “I can’t believe it,” he repeated, his voice soft and stunned.
“I can,” Annie responded. “I always knew this day would happen. That I’d find you again.”
She held him, loving every moment of it, loving his height, and his strength and his clean scent, wishing she could cling to him and never let him go. She heard Ezra’s companions shuffle toward them – making more noise that one might have suspected – alerting them to their presence. Ezra suddenly let her loose, stepped back and glanced at the two men uncomfortably.
Neither the black man nor the tracker spoke, but they both looked to Ezra with expectant expressions.
“Ezra,” Annie sighed, taking in the sight of her boy, matured, handsome, debonair – formerly so comfortable on this rustic boardwalk – and suddenly so confused. “Just look at how you’ve changed! You grew up!”
“You look exactly the same,” Ezra replied softly.
“Oh! Silly boy, I’m so much older, and all grown up, too,” Annie responded. “Dear me, how I’ve grown up. It's been a journey of twenty years to become what I am now. I have the gray hair to prove it. And my, this trip itself seemed almost that long.”
“Care to introduce us, Ezra?” the buffalo hunter asked, sidling up to his friend, who seemed too bewildered to recall the simple civility.
Ezra, chagrinned, coughed and stated, “Gentlemen, this is my aunt, Ann Costello.” He gave her a knowing look as he stated that name, and she smiled affectionately at him in return, wrapping her arm around his. Continuing, Ezra stated, “Annie, this is Nathan Jackson, an esteemed healer – well-respected throughout these parts, and an able man with the blade. This is Vin, a renowned tracker, a crack-shot and a man of astounding talents.”
“Ma’am,” Nathan greeted as Vin chuckled.
“I’m so happy to meet you,” Annie returned, accepting Vin’s hand and then Nathan’s. “You’re Ezra’s friends?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Nathan replied.
“And he’s a mighty good friend of ours, too,” Vin responded, trying to give Ezra wink, but the man was too flustered to notice. “Good friend to us and the others.”
“Annie,” Ezra whispered, “What are you doing here?”
“Why, I’ve come to see you,” she responded. “For Christmas.” She laid one hand along his smooth cheek. How she’d longed to be near him again, and yet, here he stood, looking absolutely stunned and unable to fathom her appearance.
“But why?” Ezra asked, and Annie returned him a melancholy expression. She said nothing, a hand still on his face, looking into his pale green eyes that didn’t seem to understand any of this.
“Mrs. Costello,” Nathan stated, breaking the quiet. “You’ll want to claim your bag. They’ll be heading out soon.”
“Oh! Oh, thank you, Mr. Jackson,” Annie cried. “I’ve always been so silly about things like that.” And she turned to the coach to point out her bag.
Vin stood beside Ezra as Nathan helped Annie. “Ya’ll right, pard?” Vin asked, taking in Ezra’s appearance. “Ye ain’t gonna keel over on me, are ya?”
“I don’t understand it,” Ezra responded, his voice low.
“What don’t cha understand?” Vin replied, stepping closer to the con man as if he was afraid Ezra would drop. “Lady’s come to see you for Christmas.”
“I just don’t…” and Ezra voice trailed off as the coachman tossed a satchel down to Nathan. “She came so far… She has family… She shouldn’t have…” He broke away from Vin as Nathan and Annie approached them again. “Is that everything?” Ezra asked, nodding to the bag in Nathan’s hand.
Annie lifted the smaller case that she’d carried within the coach and nodded. “One should take only what is necessary when traveling,” she responded.
“Different concept than your mother, eh, Ezra?” Nathan remarked with a grin.
“Figure there ain’t no bricks in any of this,” Vin added, pointing toward the bags.
“Your mother’s been here, Ezra?” Annie asked, surprised.
“Once or twice,” Ezra admitted.
“Three times,” Vin corrected.
Annie gave Ezra a peck on the cheek. “I’m glad,” she said quietly. “I’m so glad.” And she took his offered arm, happy that Maude still sought out her son – that she cared about him in her own odd way. Did she treat him any better? Something about Ezra’s current expression made her ponder that.
“Yes, well…Mother…” Ezra trailed off, and then started again, telling his friends, “My Aunt Annie and Maude are two rather different people.” And he patted the hand that clung to his arm. “Thank you, Mr. Jackson, for assisting my aunt.” He took the bag from Nathan, with a nod. “You’ll need a room?” he asked Annie.
“Why yes, I suppose I will,” Annie replied. “Thank you for your help, Mr. Jackson.”
“Ain’t no problem,” Jackson returned. “And you can call me 'Nathan' if ya wish.”
“Nathan,” she restated, “Thank you.” And turning to Vin, she warmly thanked him as well. The tracker touched the brim of his hat in response, and Ezra turned Annie toward Virginia’s Hotel.
“I don’t see why you felt the need to thank Vin,” Ezra stated, keeping his voice too low for others to hear.
Annie kept her arm intertwined in Ezra’s, and rested her head on his shoulder. “Because he stood beside you,” she told him softly.
“A month?” Ezra questioned as soon as the door shut behind them. “Surely, you don’t mean to stay in this… burg… for a week even.” He looked concerned and told her, “What about San Francisco? Saint Louis? Nearby Ridge City is a far more enticing, and there’s Preston and even Skunkwater would be more appealin’ to a woman such as yourself. There’s a hot spring there. I can arrange for your transportation.”
Annie settled her bag on the bed. “A month is hardly enough time to catch up with you.” She briefly examined the hotel room, recalling how Ezra had quietly demanded the best room from the clerk.
The clerk, a reedy-looking man named Finn, had complied easily, showing deference to Ezra’s wishes. Finn had assured that Mrs. Costello would be treated like royalty. “Any friend of Mr. Standish, is a friend of Virginia’s Hotel,” Finn had stated unquestioningly.
It was good, she thought, so good to see her boy treated with respect and care.
“I’ll have fresh water sent up,” Ezra said, poking his nose into the ewer on the washstand. “And a kettle of hot water so that you can freshen up adequately. And if you need anything at all, please make a list and I’ll have Mrs. Potter fulfill it for you.” He fussed about, straightening a painting, opening the curtains, closing the window.
“I wish I could find better accommodations for you,” Ezra commented dourly, “But I’m afraid that this is the best available. I’d give up my own room to you, but that would be entirely unsatisfactory. The location or my quarters isn’t suitable and you’d find it rather cramped. You’ll be more comfortable here.”
She caught Ezra’s arm, pulling him away from his nervous actions kissed him on the cheek. She smiled sadly at his perplexed expression. Softly, she said, “I’ve longed to just sit with you and talk. The rest of this is just silly trappings. I’d stay in a shed if I had to.”
“A shed? Now, Annie…” Ezra muttered discontentedly. “I couldn’t even think of such a thing for you.”
She couldn’t help staring at the boy – now grown into a handsome young man. She never would have confused him with anyone else – those startling green eyes, that could look so solemn and then so bright -- that smile that had fled him now. “My dear boy,” she sighed.
“If I had known you were coming,” Ezra explained. “I would have arranged for something more adequate. It’s Christmas, after all, and as strange as it seems, we do have an influx of travelers.” He shook his head. “Christmas, for Chri… Pete’s Sake!” He grimaced. “You should be with your family.”
“This is what I chose to do. My family agreed. I sent letters – one before I left and another along the way. Didn’t you get them?”
Ezra shook his head. “No… no… Mail delivery isn’t always reliable out here.”
“And there was the telegram from Saint Louis.”
“We had an interruption in service. Apparently, the line is operational again, but…” And Ezra waved a hand.
Annie nodded knowingly. “Yes, I know how that can be.”
“But certainly, Officer Costello…” and he paused to correct himself. “Certainly Aaron would prefer you to be with him in this season.”
She smiled sweetly at him, not surprised that he knew.
“You shouldn’t leave behind the ones you love,” Ezra chided softly.
“Oh Ezra,” Annie sighed, feeling her spirits sag, understanding. “I waited for you in my home, and would be waiting there still if I had any belief that you would have returned there.”
Nodding, Ezra turned, moving toward the door. “I’ll leave you to freshen up,” he stated quickly. “And I’ll arrange dinner. I’ll be back at seven. It'll be at the best restaurant in town -- the only restaurant in town. Nevertheless, I'll ensure we have the best table. We’ll have plenty of time to talk afterward.” And he slipped out the door.
She let him go -- because she knew, this time, she wasn’t about to lose him.
Annie had barely time to unlatch her luggage and begin unpacking when a clunk sounded at the door. She opened to find young Finn.
The clerk smiled at her as he hefted a filled ewer in one hand, a steaming kettle in the other, and several towels tucked under each arm. He was dressed in gaudy green and red that made his stick-like figure even more ridiculous. “Thank you, ma’am,” the young man stated as she held back the door and he waddled into the room. He maneuvered his load about – placing the ewer on the washstand, removing the old one, and placing the kettle on the dresser. He wrapped one towel expertly around the kettle and set the rest of the linens beside it. He turned, taking three quick steps to the window, opening it with a 'bang', and dumping the water from the old ewer into the street.
Below, someone let out a startled yelp. Finn’s eyes widened as he slammed down the window, shouting “Sorry” to whoever was doused below. He gave Annie an embarrassed smile and then continued with his duties.
“Thank you, Mr. Finn,” Annie stated, watching the fellow move about her room.
“Just call me Finn, ma’am,” he responded. “And it’s no problem for a friend of Mr. Standish. He’s done good by me and the boss, so if you need anything, just ask.”
“Do you know Ezra well?” Annie asked.
Finn sucked his teeth as he thought. “Well, I know him well enough, I figure. He’s come here plenty of times when there’s been trouble, and more often when there’s been none.” The clerk smiled, stating, “Plenty of nights are quiet here with hardly a thing to do. It’d drive a man half mad, but Mr. Standish comes by sometimes and we play dominoes or the like, and it passes the time.” The man gestured to the door. “I best get back to the desk,” he commented. “Boss doesn’t like me to leave it empty.”
Annie nodded, letting him go. Finn turned, and made his way from the room, and strode purposefully down the hallway with the empty ewer.
By the time she’d washed up, and donned a green dress, more appropriate for Christmas and town, she received another knock on the door. She opened it to find a squat, red-faced woman, with spectacles perched at the end of her sweaty nose. She huffed, looking terribly cross as she folded her arms over her chest, and glared at Annie Costello as if she expected nothing but nonsense out of her.
Annie stepped back. “Can I help you?” she asked, not knowing what to expect.
“Your clothing,” the woman declared. “All of it.”
“My clothing?” Annie touched the lace at her neck.
The woman snorted and waggled her big head. “I’ve come to take it. Give it up.”
“But you can’t possibly…” Annie sputtered, stepping away from the menacing figure that forced her way through the doorway.
The creature snorted wetly, and stated, “Where is it?” She moved forward, an irresistible force in Annie’s room. “Oh, already unpacked? Well, I’ll have that undone in no time.”
A sheet, formerly draped over her arm, was unfurled over the bed, and briskly she went to the dresser and opened a drawer. “Tell me what you need for tomorrow. I'm taking all the rest. I’ll return what’s done day-after-tomorrow and come back for what you got on now.” The woman gave her a sharp look. “You ain’t gonna see me ‘til after Christmas Day, that’s for sure! I’ve got better things to do than mess about on Christmas with other people’s clothing. I got a life, don’t ya know.”
“Now, a moment please, I don’t think that…”
The woman grunted, cutting her off, and stating, “Mr. Standish sent me. I’m the only one he trusts with his laundry, so you’ll know your things are safe with me. Not just anyone would do this today. It’s a holiday, don’t you know?” She snorted again and said, “Marian Underwood is my name. Now, what goes into the laundry?”
“Oh!” Annie exclaimed and then shook her head. “I see.”
Mrs. Underwood gave her a speculative glance and commented, “What? You thought I come as a thief to take your things? Ha! Anyone can tell what I was here for.” And she shoved her foundering glasses further up her nose.
Together, they went through her clothing. Mrs. Underwood seemed determined to remove nearly everything Annie had brought with her. It was only through her own determination that Annie was able to keep a shift to sleep in, and underthings for Christmas Day - she could wear the same dress she wore now. As they sorted, Mrs. Underwood complained and muttered about how badly some people treat their garments. “If it’s not a bullet hole and blood, then it’s dirt and grime. He's always getting into some sort of a tussle. Lord, for someone that always wants to look his best, that boy makes a wreck of this things!”
“Ezra?” Annie asked, alarmed at the mention of blood.
Mrs. Underwood grunted, shoved again at her escaping glasses, and responded, “I ain’t one to speak on such things. A man’s clothing is a personal thing. He never likes to have his things a mess, but is always gettin' himself into situations where it can't be helped. Seems to like it, the fool!”
Finally, her sheet heaped with Annie’s things, Mrs. Underwood pulled the corners together and gathered up her load. With a gasp and a groan, she levered it onto her shoulder. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” she exhaled, even though the pack of clothing hardly seemed to weigh anything. Gaining her composure, Marian continued, “I’ll return Day-After-Christmas. You should be thankful I’m doin’ this today – of all days! Should be with my husband right now. Man likes his woman with him on the holidays, don't you know? You'll have the rest of your things ready when I come," she said, eyeing the green dress that Annie currently wore. "I’ll have everything cleaned, by God!” And she gave Annie a furious look. “Don’t keep me waiting!” And she swung her wide girth about, slapping the side of the doorframe with her load and stomped down the hallway.
Annie exhaled slowly, not knowing what to think of the woman, not liking what she heard either. Blood? Bullet holes in clothing? Surely not dear Ezra! Oh, the poor boy, and she shook her head in wonder. He’d always been reckless, climbing onto rooftops, courting danger in the casinos, causing trouble with the disagreeable folks about town. Such an active child! She supposed it was only natural that he grew to be an active man.
She pulled a pocket watch from her handbag. There was still plenty of time before her dinner with Ezra. Tired of being cooped up after the long days of travel, she left the room to take a look at the town.
She paused at the mirror to ensure that she looked appropriate and that her hair wasn’t horribly disarrayed. She smiled at her reflection, remembering a time long ago. Her hair, once a dull brown, was now streaked with gray. It looked better, she decided. The gray gave her character. Her glasses were a bit thicker as her eyesight worsened, but she never missed a thing. Her face was wrinkled, but it gave her a strength she had missed before. No, that smooth-faced girl was gone, replaced with something more substantial.
She smiled, proud of her looks. She took a moment to settle a hat on her head before she turned to the room's door. She left the hotel, nodding to Finn at the desk, and stepped out into the crisp winter air.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” a voice rumbled as she ambled down the boardwalk. She turned to find a man sweeping out the church. “Lovely day for a walk,” he commented.
“Yes, it is,” she responded courteously.
He smiled, a delightful expression that lit his long face. Letting the broom lean against the porch, he strode down the stairs to meet her. “Did you come on the stage?” he asked, charmingly.
Annie nodded at the big man, with the graying hair and the blue-gray eyes. “Yes, just this afternoon,” she declared. “Are you the caretaker?” she asked, nodding to the interior of the little rough church.
The man laughed, a low rumbling sound, “Caretaker, Head-Carpenter, Roofer, White-washer, Floor-scrubber and Preacher.” And he gave her a little bow. “And I really should be preparing for tonight’s service.”
“Then I’ll leave you to your work,” Annie responded. “I’m off to see a bit of the town before supper.”
Those eyes sparkled as he grabbed a serape that had been draped over the stair railing. “Sermon can wait,” he said as swung the colorful cloth over his shoulders and came beside her. “Care for an escort? I know every inch of the town.”
She smiled, not minding the company. “I would like that,” she told him.
“Josiah Sanchez,” he introduced.
“Ann Costello,” Annie returned, offering her hand. He took it gently and held it a moment in his own.
A disappointed look crossed his face as he noted the ring on her finger. “Ah,” he muttered, “All of the beauties are taken.”
She laughed at that comment. There was a time when she never would have considered herself as ‘pretty’, but her dear Aaron had changed that opinion. “You flatter me,” she responded.
“I have been called a silver tongued devil in the past,” Josiah admitted with a smile.
“Seems an odd term for a preacher,” Annie continued as they walked. “Not the sort that every man would expect.”
“Well, I’m not everyman’s idea of a preacher,” Josiah commented.
“I can see that.”
“And what would bring such a lovely thing as you to this town?”
She blushed at the continued sweet talk, and told him, “I’ve come to see my nephew.”
“Nephew? Perhaps I know him. I know most of the folks in and around this town.”
“He goes by Ezra Standish,” Annie informed.
Josiah came to a halt, and looked at her in disbelief. Then he guffawed, throwing back his head. “It seems that our brother Ezra has been blessed with lovely relatives all the way around. You wouldn’t be Maude’s sister, would you?”
At that statement, Annie frowned. “Heaven forbid!” she cried, making Josiah laugh again. Finding humor in his reaction, she added, “There’s no blood between us, but I love that boy like a son.”
And Josiah smiled warmly on the woman, as if this was the gladdest news he’d heard in years.
“Hey! Josiah!” A voice called, and Annie looked up to see two men striding toward them. One was tall with a dark mustache. The other was shorter, with black hair and a bowler hat. “Josiah,” the shorter one called again.
“Pipe down, JD,” the taller one ordered, grasping one of the roof supports and swinging himself onto the boardwalk with an easy gesture. “You’re offending the lady with all your yellin’.”
“Am not, Buck!” JD responded indignantly. “Hi,” he greeted. “I’m JD Dunne, you must be Ezra’s aunt. Nathan told us you’d come to town.”
“Buck Willington,” the other offered, extending a hand and smiled – an expression that could melt butter.
“Gosh!” JD cried. “It’s great that you’ve come calling!’’ He nodded vigorously. “Ezra’s really got all the luck, don’t he, Buck?”
Wilmington laughed, and gave Dunne a slap on the shoulder, “Guess that’s makes him what he is, kid.” He leaned closer to Annie and asked, his voice a delicious whisper, “Let me guess, Ezra was a naughty naughty boy.”
Josiah made a soft growl, and changed his position to ward Buck off. Annie laughed lightly and said, “He was a dear child, thoughtful and clever and kind.”
“Ezra Standish?” Buck queried, confused.
“Well, he used the name Severt then,” Annie returned, and was struck with the memory of how Ezra claimed to have no name when they’d first met. It was a memory that haunted her.
"Severt?" Josiah repeated. "Ah, I suppose that doesn't surprise me."
Buck scratched his head. “Don’t tell me he was a little angel.”
“Oh no,” Annie replied. “He was a boy, after all and kept me on the hop. He got into such trouble, and I loved him just the same.”
JD and Buck started talking at the same time, bombarding her with questions about her boy…did he own a dog that he’d dress up in clothing… was he always up to crazy schemes… was he always a fast talker… was he always too clever for his own good … did she have to spank him often.
Josiah, seeing Annie’s trepidation during the onslaught, shut the boys up with a sharp wave of his hand. “Enough!” he shouted. “Let the woman breathe!”
“Thank you,” Annie said gratefully.
Josiah leaned close and asked, “You will be coming tonight, won’t you? You can tell us all about Ezra then.”
“Coming where?” Annie asked.
“The party!” JD interjected. “Well, it's not much of a party really. Just us and the guys getting together – for Christmas, you know.”
“Seven souls with no place better to be,” Josiah told her. "No better place in the world."
“Oh, it won’t be much of anything,” Buck put in. “Probably nothin’ like what you’re used to.”
“Oh yeah, you can come!” JD exclaimed excited.
Josiah suddenly seemed concerned. “It might be a bit raucous,” he cautioned.
Annie laughed. “Oh,” she said, “I’m not too fragile a thing. Perhaps there was a time... but... I've grown a bit. Has Ezra been invited?”
“Of course!” JD shot back.
“Wouldn’t be a party without him,” Buck put in. “And we gotta have you there, too. It starts at about seven, but some of us'll be startin’ early, no doubt.”
Annie crinkled her brow. “Ezra said that we were to have dinner at seven and then we’d retire for a chat.”
“Damn that boy!” Josiah muttered.
“Trying to slink out of our soiree!” Buck included.
“He must have forgotten,” JD decided.
“Hell, kid,” Buck responded. “We’ve been pesterin’ him all week about it. Don’t see how the fool could forget. No offence, ma’am. I can understand him wanting to spend some time alone with you, but who’s gonna play the piano if he’s not there?”
Annie’s face brightened. “He still plays?”
“Aw, won’t own up to it if you shot a poker up his…” Buck started, but was cut off by a cautionary snort from Josiah. “But we can get him to play from time to time with the right incentive.”
“And what does it take to entice him?” Annie asked, smiling.
“Brandy!” all three answered as one.
“Only the best,” Josiah said with a long-suffering sigh.
“I think his plan is to get us all drunk so we won’t remember,” Buck said in a conspiratorial tone.
“So, you’ll both be coming, right?” JD asked, his eyes wide and pleading.
“I’ll make certain of it,” Annie responded. “Now, where would that boy be right now?”
“Hard to say exactly,” Buck commented. “Could be just about anywhere. Probably in one of the saloons, but he may be up on the roof of the saddle shop for all I know.”
“He still goes up on the roofs?” Annie cried. “Oh, he did that when he was a boy.”
With a chuckle, Josiah responded, “I guess some things never change.” And he gazed upward, checking to see if he could spot the gambler.
“You looking for Ezra?” a voice sounded beside them, and Vin approached, regarding Josiah’s upward glance. “Seen him go to his room earlier.” The tracker touched the brim of his hat. “Howdy, Mrs. Costello,” he greeted. “If you want, I can fetch him for ya.”
“If you show me the way, I will go myself,” Annie said firmly.
The tracker nodded, offered his arm, and escorted the lady away from the trio. He smiled over his shoulder at them as they headed toward the saloon.
Vin and Annie made their way up the side-stairs to the saloon. “You know Ezra when he was small?” Vin asked as they climbed.
“He was about ten when he stayed with me,” Annie told him.
“He stay with you long?”
“Only six months,” Annie responded, feeling a sadness tug at her as she recalled how Ezra been taken from her – she’d never been able to say ‘goodbye’.
Vin smiled at her information. “Bet those were good days for him. Bet you done him good.” He didn’t look at her as they made their way up. “Think he needed that. Sometimes I think he had lots of sad times. Musta been nice to be with someone like you for a spell.”
The words were meant to warm her, but instead they only saddened Annie. Oh, had Ezra’s life been so sad? If only she’d found a way to keep him – maybe she could have kept him from that sorrow. But he would have been a different, wouldn’t he? As she walked alongside Vin, she wondered how Ezra’s life could have been different if he stayed with her – would he have ever met up with these men? Would he have found this place?
"Tell me, is he happy here?" Annie asked the tracker.
Thoughtfully, Vin responded, "'Spect so." Then he looked resolved as he restated, "Yep, he is. Stake all I got on that."
"He seems so... strange," Annie told him. "He seems so sad... haunted almost."
Vin didn't respond immediately as they slowly climbed the stairs side-by-side. "Couldn't explain that," Vin finally stated. "Think maybe you stunned him by comin'. Ain't your fault, that," Vin said quickly when Annie inhaled sharply. "He's just a bit peculiar. I've learned not to mind."
They reached the upper level, and Vin opened the door. They stepped into a dim hallway, then stopped at the first door. Vin rapped.
There was no response.
Vin sighed and, closing his fist, pounded. “Ezra!” he shouted. “Open the gull-durn door! You ain’t gonna make me wait here all day. I know yer in there! Come on, it’s me!”
There was a shuffling inside the room, and Vin stepped back quickly, releasing himself from Annie’s gentle hand. He slipped out the entry door, with a wink and a grin, letting that door shut even as Ezra opened his.
Ezra jerked back the door and was astonished to see who stood there. Instead of bright colors and flashing jewelry, he was dressed in an black suit, with a subdued cravat – it made him look entirely different – more austere and serious – a little less like the Ezra she’d known.
“He played me,” Ezra muttered, staring off toward the door that Vin had disappeared through.
“You wouldn’t have answered the door for me?” Annie asked, hurt at this realization.
“Oh, no, no, that’s not what I…” and Ezra trailed off, pressing one hand to his head. “No, it’s just that… this isn’t a place for a lady. This isn’t right. You shouldn’t be here.”
“So you would have let me knock and have kept quiet?” Annie posed.
Ezra didn’t respond. He stood in the entry, holding the door open, looking like he’d really rather shut it.
“Ezra?” Annie’s heart seemed to clench as she came to a realization. “You don’t want me here?”
“No!” Ezra was quick to counter her. “Not at all. No… It’s just… you shouldn’t be here.”
“Sounds like the same thing to me!” Annie huffed.
He groaned, turning into his room. “It’s entirely different.” His hand still pressed to his head, Ezra wandered deeper into the chamber. “It’s Christmas! You should be with your family, with Aaron … and Bonnie, Sam and Carlotta.”
Shocked, Annie cried, “But…how do you know? How did you know?”
“You shouldn’t be here,” Ezra continued. “At Christmas, you shouldn’t be in the middle of nowhere… in some damn gambler’s room.”
Stunned, Annie strode forward, following him. Ezra stood with his back to her, staring out the window, his hands folded tightly behind him.
“Ezra,” she called softly, letting the door close on the little room. “Ezra.” She touched his shoulder, gently, feeling the stiffness of his posture. Beyond the window, people moved in the streets – and the buildings were all decorated for the holiday. All was bright and merry. Within, the room was cold. “Ezra, look at me.”
He didn’t move immediately, but some instinct kicked in and he obeyed her, turning slowly to meet her. His eyes, so pale were as vivid green as Drowning Pond near her home. His face was otherwise blank “You should be with them!” he declared mechanically. “With Aaron and the others.”
Gently, carefully, she wrapped her arms around his inflexible frame, and held him. She said nothing for a moment, pressing her face against his neck, feeling him slowly uncoil and relax against her, his arms encircle her. “My dear boy,” she finally whispered. “My dear, lovely child. I crossed mountains to be with you. I crossed nations. I’ve wanted to find you since the day I lost you. Did Maude tell you lies? Did she tell you that I’d never loved you?” Annie asked stepping back to see his face, letting his arms fall to his sides. “Did you ever try to find me after she took you away?”
Ezra didn’t respond, watching her, his face a mask. Finally, he said, “I was unable to get away for some time, shuffled off to various relatives for long stints. Years passed before I even had a chance of breaking free, and by that time…” He shrugged. “I figured you had long forgotten me.”
“Oh no,” Annie cried. “I never stopped thinking of you. Mr. Ryder knew that any letter addressed to me should be sent straightaway! Emma and Lisa Chan were always watching, waiting. Mr. and Mrs. Beverly, and Pastor Garby, and Mr. Winter… anyone I could think of… everyone was to keep an eye open for you, and take you in if you ever came.”
“But you were in Bolivia,” Ezra reminded.
Again, Annie was struck. “How did you know all this?” she asked. “How did you know about Bolivia, and Aaron? How did you know about Lotte, Sam and Bonnie?”
“I have connections.”
“But I spoke to everyone,” Annie insisted. “Nobody ever heard from you. You must have been in touch with someone from town. Tell me who.”
Ezra allowed himself a small smile. “I communicated only to the family who’d reveal the most about you, the family with the most limber tongues.”
“The Campbells?” Annie cried, and then laughed, seeing some light return to Ezra’s expression. “Ezra, they were your sworn enemy!”
“And who would be more likely to tell me all the dirtiest details about you?”
Annie made a sour face and slapped the young man on the arm. “You shouldn’t believe half of what they say!” she declared.
Ezra nodded. “Yes, that seems to be the right equation. They thought I was some fellow investigating your background and they told me everything.”
“What did they say?” Annie inquired, concerned.
“After I made my way through the refuse, I learned that you married Officer Costello.” Ezra smiled warmly. “Aaron Costello, he’s been a very fond memory. He was always kind and decent to me, even though I realize that a boy such as myself could be very trying. How is the dear man?”
“Perfect,” Annie replied. “Oh, Ezra, he is such a good man. I love him with all my heart. And he loves me so much.” She looked thoughtful. “I loved my first husband, my Harry,” Annie stated, wanting to make that fact clear. “He was a marvelous man, who kept me safe and content. But he kept me too safe, I think – too content. I learned to be fragile. I was a little girl in my father’s house, and a child still for Harry,” Annie explained. “I didn’t become a woman until…” and she paused, looking at the young man before her. She watched his intent expression carefully.
“…Until you married Aaron?” Ezra supplied.
And Annie shook her head. “I grew up when you came to me. You, who was too adult, and I, who was far too childish -- we made an interesting pair, don’t you think?”
“Truly,” Ezra responded. He continued on his previous tack, saying, “Aaron is a man of character – evidenced by the fact, a year after your wedding, he departed for Bolivia to help his brother, Declan, who’d been injured, jumping from a moving train. Declan was deeply in debt and his family was in danger. Aaron went, and you accompanied him.”
“I would have stayed in that old house, waiting for you,” Annie insisted. “I would be living there still if I’d thought there was any hope of you returning.”
“Maude made that rather impossible,” Ezra told her. “You realized that. You did the right thing. Declan and his family needed Aaron, didn’t they? Declan would have been thrown in jail and his family would have starved if Aaron hadn’t come to save them, to rescue the ranch from the brink. Aaron’s too good a man to leave his brother twisting in the wind.”
“We talked so long about it, Aaron and I,” Annie declared. “Should I stay in our house while he went to Santa Cruz de la Sierra? Should I stay and wait?”
“I never would have come,” Ezra told her. “It was years before I found any freedom. I never went back. You did the right thing.”
“But it hurt… it hurt just the same,” Annie replied. “I was set on staying, and letting him go. La Hacienda Costello was in ruin. It would take years to bring it back… but…” she drew out her sentence, and looked up at her boy. She admitted in a hushed tone, “I realized I was with child.” She bit her lip. “I didn’t want to have a child alone – I wanted to be with Aaron – so I went with him – keeping a secret -- the only I've ever kept from him. I was afraid he’d make me stay if he’d known.”
“Bonnie,” Ezra said the name of her oldest daughter. “She was born after your arrival. And then came Sam and Carlotta,”
Annie beamed. “Oh, our children are beautiful! From the moment I first held Bonnie, I was in love with her -- such a precious child. It’ll take hours, days to tell you all about them, and we have a month for that.” Annie smiled. “Our ranch is so lovely! Oh, I adore it. Declan, silly, irresponsible Declan, needs a firm hand to guide him, and his wife, Cathy, takes care of him. He’s fine now, and knows everything there is to know about horses, but nothing about managing men! It’s Aaron that keeps the ranch hands in line. Aaron and Declan are co-owners now -- the brothers Costello -- but it’s Cathy and I who manage the brothers. She’s like a sister to me,” Annie explained. “She came with me on this journey, as far as St. Louis, but took another train to visit her parents.”
Ezra’s expression changed again as he asked, “Why did you come? How could you leave your family at this time of year? Why now?”
”Now?” Annie asked, and smiled. “I made a promise to Bonnie when she was born. I promised that I’d never leave my children, not like Maude left you. I would always be there for them. But my youngest, Lotte, is 14 now, and tells me that she’s grown up. She’s the one who insisted that I come in search of you. Aaron and everyone agreed.”
“How did you find me?” Ezra asked.
“A book,” Annie replied. “Mr. Ryder, our old postman, found a book written by Jock Steele. Are you familiar with it?”
“Intimately,” Ezra responded.
“Mr. Ryder sent it to me, saying that he thought that one of the characters sounded like you.” She laughed. “And, after they'd read it, Emma and Lisa looked through newspapers, looking for an 'Ezra Standish', finding stories in The Clarion from Four Corners.”
Ezra sighed, "I never realized I was so easy to find.”
“I’d been searching for you since the day I lost you." She paused and smiled. "Aaron said, ‘go… be with that boy. He needs to see his Auntie for Christmas’.”
“It was a very long way to come. It must have been difficult,” Ezra commented, his demeanor becoming cool again.
“Not at all,” Annie replied. “Not when I knew what waited for me at the end.” Annie sighed, and asked the question she dreaded, “Do you truly hate me for leaving you at the train station?”
“Hate you? No, never!” Ezra aloofness disappeared. He became animated, grasping her. “You are one of the finest people I’ve ever known, and I feel blessed to have been with you. Hate you? No, I just wish... you could have found someone to be proud of.” And his voice hitched and he grimaced in shame as he released her.
“Oh, Ezra,” she sighed. “How could I not be proud of you?”
Making a disgusted movement, Ezra responded, “You always thought the best of me, always thought I was capable being something special, something good! Instead…” And he turned his head away again, glaring at the festive activities outside the window. “Instead I became exactly what my mother wished of me… a gambler, a con artist, a thief, a charlatan. I’ve lived my life all for the purpose of gathering more money… and spending it, I’ve cheated, lied, stolen, betrayed my friends… and lived my life for the sake of myself.”
“My boy, my dear boy,” she said softly.
“And the saddest part… the truly sorrowful conclusion... is that I enjoy my life… I honestly like it: the gambling, the conniving, the risks, the breaks, the life I lead in this ludicrous setting … I live for it.” He let out a low sigh and muttered, “How could you possibly want to know someone who enjoys such a tawdry, senseless life?”
“I would love you, no matter what you became.”
Ezra shook his head, disbelieving. “I’m not the sort of person you should be seen with,” he responded, his voice rising. “When you pulled me from that casino long ago, you told me I could make something important of myself. You were one of very few people who had any faith in me. You thought I had something good in me, something worth being. You tried to direct me on the right path. Instead, I’ve squandered all these years to become what you see now. This!” He thumped at his chest. “Just a two-bit gambler in a penny-ante town. How could anyone be proud of this? How could anyone…”
A sharp rap sounded at the door and the inhabitants silenced themselves.
“Ezra,” someone called from beyond the door.
Ezra’s expression changed to a forced smile. “Ah, Mr. Larabee. I’m sorry, but I’m indisposed at the moment. Perhaps you can find one of the others to attend to whatever task you’ve decided needs immediate attention?”
“We’re expecting you and your aunt downstairs... right now.” And the sound of spurs declared that the man had departed down the hallway.
“We’ll be joining them?” Annie asked.
“It’ll be… rather uncomfortable,” Ezra responded glumly.
“We will be joining them,” Annie restated, turning her question to a statement. She couldn’t help smiling at the look Ezra gave her. It was as if twenty years had disappeared and that ten-year-old child looked at her, accepting her declarations as law. “You shouldn’t wear black." she told him. "You looked so much better in blue and silver.”
Ezra touched his suit, saying, “It’s the finest quality.”
“Color suits you better.” She turned to the door, stating. “I’ll give you time to change and I’ll meet you downstairs. You need to be there. We’ll talk when this is over.” And she moved through the doorway to join the party that was forming below.
Annie descended the stairs slowly, taking in the small group in the saloon. Two men sat at one table, a whiskey bottle between them. Vin, JD, Nathan and a blond man that Annie didn't know stood near the bar -- talking to a Mexican woman who tended it.
Josiah and Buck got to their feet when they saw her. “Mrs. Costello,” Josiah greeted, stepping halfway to meet her. “Please, join us.” And he pulled out a chair for her. He wore a green jacket with an evergreen spring in his lapel.
“Glad ya came,” Buck added. “Ezra gonna be comin’, too?”
“After he’s had a moment to change,” Annie told them.
“There is no changing that boy,” Josiah told her with a grin, and they all sat down at the table.
She felt comfortable between the men. Both were kind to her, offering to get her anything her heart desired: tea? coffee? milk? a sarsaparilla? When she asked for a whisky glass so that she could drink with them, they both broke out in wide smiles. They fell into an easy conversation. Nathan and JD joined them a few minutes later, both of them eager and friendly in their conversations.
Finally, Ezra followed his aunt down the stairs. He came, dressed as he’d been that morning, with the bright blue jacket and the silvery vest. Annie smiled to see him so – he looked much more comfortable. Ezra smiled congenially at his friends and came to the table where his aunt was ensconced between Buck and Josiah.
“Aunt Annie,” he said softly. “Wouldn’t you prefer a quiet dinner at the restaurant? I’ve already reserved a table. There’s certain to be a rabble here tonight. You shouldn't be keeping company with this sort.”
Buck made a snort of disgust, but Josiah laughed at Ezra’s softly voiced comment.
“You do know what sort of place this is?” Standish continued.
“Of course,” Annie responded, lifting her glass of whiskey. “I find it delightful. I’ve had excellent company.”
Ezra was dumfounded. He didn’t even notice that Buck had stood to offer up his chair. He fell into it, and gazed at the woman he had known as a prim and proper lady. “Very well then,” he muttered, motioning for a glass of his own. “When in Rome.”
“Ezra,” she said softly, as Josiah handed Ezra a glass. “Things are rather rough on our ranch. There aren’t a lot of niceties. There’s been many times where I’ve spent the evening in the cantina with Aaron and the others. It’s our only entertainment.” And she lifted a toast to her boy.
A smile finally grazed Ezra’s face, a quirky smirk, as he watched his dainty aunt sip at her whiskey. She still had an air of class about her, but her face was flushed with a gentle drunkenness. Buck found another seat. All of them looked relaxed and happy.
Ezra reached out the glass and someone filled it. He downed it quickly. “Gentlemen,” he said, slamming the shot down on the table. “I thank you for entertainin’ my dear aunt while I was otherwise occupied. I hope you haven’t troubled her too terribly.” He tapped at his glass, waiting for Josiah to refill it. “What sort of lies have you been tellin’ her?”
“Oh,” Annie started, “They’ve told plenty of hair-raising tales. Something about you climbing onto an armored wagon with only a bottle of whiskey while a whole family of desperate men were shooting at you. Another about how you saved all of them from certain death by infiltrating an enemy’s camp and managing to free them.”
Ezra flashed the others a glare. “There’s no point in upsetting the lady with fables, gentlemen,” he muttered. “I thought this was to be a Christmas celebration.”
Vin appeared near the table, along with the tall, lean man, who'd been at the bar. “You mention a celebration?” Vin asked. “I’m ready. When’s it gonna start?”
“Ezra,” the tall blond said, his voice familiar to Annie. “Figure you’re the one that’s going take care of that.”
Ezra cleared his throat and stood, offering a formal introduction. “Mr. Christopher Larabee, I offer you my aunt, the lovely and charming Mrs. Anne Costello, newly arrived from her home at La Hacienda de los Hermanos Costello in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. Mrs. Costello, I offer you the dark and dangerous Mr. Chris Larabee – who is apparently wearing a red shirt for the Christmas occasion. A rare occurrence for the man-in-black.”
Larabee politely shook Annie’s hand, then pulled at his crimson shirt, as he muttered to Vin. “I don’t always wear black. Heck, I didn’t wear this because it was Christmas. It was my only clean shirt.”
“The man needs a better laundrywoman,” Ezra said conspiratorially to Annie.
"It's a pleasure to meet you," Annie stated, taking Chris' hand.
"You have a long trip?" Larabee asked congenially.
"Longer than you can imagine," Annie responded. "It's been 20-years." And she smiled at Ezra. "Twenty years since I've seen him."
"Too long," Larabee confirmed. He eyed Ezra, trying to gauge what the conman was thinking, but Standish's expression was unreadable. That man's got too much on his mind, Larabee decided. Can't he just be happy that his aunt has come so far to see him? Seeing that Ezra wasn't going to be relaxing anytime soon, Chris decided to change the mood. “Ezra,” Larabee started. “I seem to remember a promise made.”
“Promise?” Ezra echoed.
“We came to an agreement, an exchange,” Josiah reminded. He reached into a deep inside pocket and pulled bottle from within. Wordlessly he set the bottle before the gambler.
“Hmmm…” Ezra voiced, picking up the bottle and regarding the label.
“That’ll do the trick, right?” Buck asked, flicking an amused gaze to Annie. “It’s just us in the saloon, and we’ve met your price.”
Ezra’s brow puckered. “It seems a rather skimpy bottle, considerin’ the night of entertainment in store.” He cradled it like a child.
Another bottle clinked onto the table and Ezra’s grin increased. “Look,” he said, “Twins!”
“A deal’s a deal, Ezra,” JD reminded.
Ezra gave Annie a long-suffering look. “They conned me into playin’ the piano for them tonight, but little did they know the teacher herself would be in residence.” And a slyness came to him. “Yes, gentlemen, I present to you the star herself. She’ll, no doubt, be happy to assume the responsibility of providin’ the music, as she is much more talented than myself.”
“Ezra!” Annie scolded. “I will not have you going back on a promise.”
Cringing, Ezra clutched the bottles to his chest and then sighed. “Honestly, it makes little sense to have me assume this responsibility.” He looked to the others. “She has a much fairer hand than I.”
Larabee snatched one of the bottles from his grasp, and before Ezra knew what was going on, Josiah grabbed the other. Larabee smiled maliciously, “Unless you’re willing to give up your Christmas present, I suggest you get yourself planted at that piano and offer us some music.”
Ezra let out a little whimper as the bottles disappeared from sight, then turned a smile on his aunt. “You’ll forgive me if I leave you for MOST of the night, won’t you?” Ezra asked.
Annie patted his arm. “I’d love to hear you play, Ezra. It’s been so long.”
“Well, yes…” Ezra muttered, pressing himself upright, then with exaggerated dignity, made his way to the little broken-down piano in the saloon. “As long as this remains among the eight of us.”
"You are forgetting me," the Mexican woman said from behind the bar, smiling mischievously.
"Nine.." Ezra sighed. He poked experimentally at the keys, wincing at a sour note. “It’s not your pianoforte,” Ezra told Annie.
“And this isn’t exactly my parlor,” Annie responded, sitting up straight, eager to hear him. “Play, Ezra,” she encouraged. And Ezra played.
Christmas Morning – and Annie was walking down the main street of Four Corners. She felt light and happy, remembering the previous night. She’d gotten a little drunk. She’d danced with all of them, as Ezra played the off-tune piano.
Her boy had shot dirty looks at the other men, but had smiled beneath those narrowed eyes. His playing was a bit rusty. He’d never be a master at it, but he played out of love for the music, and it showed. But as more people slipped into the saloon, drawn by the festivities, he managed to sneak away from the instrument – and suddenly there was someone else at the piano.
“It’s Leo Quail from Digger Dan’s,” JD explained. “I bet Ezra had him paid off ahead of time – got in without anyone noticing.”
It didn’t matter – because the next thing she knew, she was dancing with her grown boy. He was so handsome, so graceful and strong. She’d remember forever how it felt to cross the saloon's floor with him. It was utterly delightful.
It wasn’t a typical Christmas Eve. She was used to quiet nights around the tree with her family. This night was loud and exhilarating, with people shouting and laughing and singing off-key. Men stomped the floor and saloon girls arrived all dressed in feathers.
All night long, she was introduced to people -- Mrs. Potter and her children, Mary Travis and Billy, Jed Green and the Stoker boys, Ben Mack, Yosemite. Inez Recilios, who tended the bar, along with a big bartender who arrived later, named Joe Rutledge – they kept the place hopping. There was Mrs. Underwood and her frazzled-looking husband. Nettie Wells and her niece Casey entered with a flurry of ‘hellos’ from nearly everyone. Finn from the hotel came, along with a serious looking woman that he referred to only as ‘the boss.’ The Juje family made their appearance, and even a sour faced man named Conklin stopped by – if only to make a statement against all the noise. He was summarily shown the door. Annie’s mind was aflutter with all the names – many of them so glad to meet her and to tell her stories about her boy.
Annie Costello née Greer’s Christmas Eve was filled with light and color, laughter and music. As the night drew longer, and she began to nod, Ezra escorted her back to her room at Virginia’s Hotel. The cold night air felt glorious against her flushed cheeks and she'd leaned on Ezra all along the walk.
She awoke in the cool Christmas morning, and started her day slowly. She’d take a walk, then go in search of a breakfast. Within the church, Josiah was preparing for his service, but the town was otherwise quiet– so it surprised her when Ezra suddenly appeared from the doorway of the saloon.
“Ezra!” Annie called out. “Oh, I’d never expect you to be awake at such an early hour. Have you changed your ways?”
The man grinned, showing off a golden tooth. “I fear I have been shamed into assisting our town’s preacher.” He shook his head woefully. “He needs someone to help set up the hymnals for today’s service. The old fool convinced me that the work would be easy, but he neglected to tell me of the hour until I’d already given my word.”
“Who’s the fool?” Annie asked.
Ezra rolled his eyes expressively and flung up his hands.
“Merry Christmas, Ezra,” Annie greeted, giving him a kiss.
“Merry Christmas to you as well, dear Auntie Annie,” Ezra responded. “Breakfast will be difficult to find on this blessed morning, but perhaps Finn can dig something up for us at the hotel. He’s very resourceful.” And he gestured toward Victoria’s Hotel.
As they walked, Ezra said, “I’m so glad you came. It’s been wonderful to see you again.” His eyes still had that wounded look to them as he stated, “But you shouldn’t have come so far. It must have been a terrible trial.”
“Some things are worth working for,” Annie told him.
“Ah, then where does that leave me? I spend my life as a man of leisure. I work for nothing. I am a man alone.”
“You’re not alone,” Annie stated solemnly, realizing that they didn’t have that promised talk last night. “Your friends are very fond of you.”
Ezra made a tsking sound as he shook his head. “Dear lady,” he muttered. “You are letting your imagination run away with you. These are hardened men, hardly the type for such patronizing emotions. They were only telling you stories, feeding you what they thought you’d enjoy.” He patted her arm. “They were kidding you.”
A door slammed open, and Ezra spun about to face the sound, pulling back his jacket to expose the gun at his hip. A gun? On Christmas Day? His posture relaxed immediately as Mr. Juje stepped out of the telegraph office and stopped upon spotting Ezra, then trotted right at them.
“Mr. Standish!” Mr. Juje called, taking long strides. “Mr. Standish!”
Ezra made no move toward him, letting the older man finish his run. “Mr. Juje,” Ezra greeted in an even voice. “Why all the excitement?”
The telegraph operator laughed, saying, “Some folks say it isn’t worth the trouble for a man to listen to the wire on Christmas Day, but there’s always something coming in.” He fluttered a paper and extended it at Ezra. “This, for instance.”
“For me?” Ezra asked. “Probably a note from Mother. She does remember from time to time. I sent her Christmas greetings yesterday. Perhaps I shamed her into responding.”
“No, Mr. Standish, it’s for Mrs. Costello,” the man replied, and he pressed the page at the woman.
She took it, unfolding it and reading the contents. “Oh no,” she sighed.
“Auntie Annie,” Ezra responded, concern in his voice. “Is something wrong?”
“Declan,” Annie responded. “Oh, Declan…” She held a hand to her mouth, looking aghast at the message. “It’s from Cathy. Declan’s been hurt!”
Ezra took the message from her. “Badly?” he asked, even as he read the note himself.
“Oh, Declan,” Annie moaned. “He’s so foolish! Oh! What was he thinking? Without Cathy he’s such a fool!”
“Injured jumping from moving train,” Ezra read, and looked to his aunt.
“Again!” Annie cried. “Oh, poor Declan… poor Cathy… poor Aaron, alone and having to take care of everything!”
“Poor Annie,” Ezra added. “You have to go back.”
Annie nodded tightly. “Cathy’s already headed to St. Louis. I have to meet her there. I can’t let her go alone.”
“I know,” Ezra responded, handing the note back to her.
“I have to get to the train,” Annie declared, turning one way and then the other. “Oh, but there’ll be no coach today!”
“Can you ride?” Ezra asked.
“I’ll see to it.” Ezra took charge. “Go to your room and pack. I’ll take care of everything.”
And she ran to the hotel, feeling a world of worry about her brother-in-law, sweet, foolish STUPID Declan. What was he thinking? Was he hurt badly? Oh dear… dear Declan! The message had said little, but Annie knew Cathy would be worried to death about her husband. Oh Cathy… Annie had to get to her sister-in-law, to accompany her home.
Finn was asleep at the desk. His head shot up as Annie banged through the door, and he watched her with alarmed eyes as she flew up the stairs and back to her room. Once there, she pulled her valise from the corner, and opened the dresser drawer, to be met with … nothing.
“Oh no… oh no… my clothing,” Annie cried, remembering that it had all been taken by Mrs. Underwood, leaving her bereft.
Frustrated, she grabbed what little she had – her nightgown, her combs, her brush, and the little things that made up her toilet bag. She jammed them into the valise – almost nothing. Disheartened, she plunked down on the bed and held her face in her hands, trying not to cry. She hadn’t cried in ages. Declan was hurt. She had no idea if he would be okay, no idea how bad it was. The man was like a brother to her. Please, she prayed, let him be all right. Please, for Cathy… for their children… for Aaron… for me… let Declan survive, well and whole.
She had to go home… she had to meet up with Cathy and go with her… she wanted to be home… to be with Declan and the others… but she was finally with her nephew again. She’d been here for less than 24-hours – and it was over. She’d dreamed of this meeting for 20 years. She was just getting to know him again.
She had to go -- and she didn’t even have any clothing. She lifted her head and grimaced at her situation. It was Christmas! No store would be open! How could things go so badly!
Someone pounded once on the door, wrenched the knob and strode in -- Marian Underwood, dressed in a pretty pink dress and carrying a pack on her back. She came within inches of Annie and declared, “Well, get up then. Here I am, all ready for church, but I'm at work, ain't I? We have to pack.” She slammed the load onto the bed beside Annie and started to untie it. “It’s not all as dry as I’d like, but there’s nothing to be done about that. Mr. Standish said you needed it now and there was no arguing with him.”
Before she finished her sentence, Finn appeared at the door, carrying a tray. He took a step back when he saw Mrs. Underwood. The washerwoman made an ugly face at the clerk and said, “Well, get in then. No loitering. Just stay out of my way, or I’ll break you over my knee like kindling.”
Skeptical, Finn edged his way in, settling the tray on the table. “Mr. Standish sent breakfast up.” His voice quavered as he kept his eyes on Underwood. “And I’ve made sandwiches, too.” He pointed to the wrapped parcel next to the plate with the eggs. “Do you like pickles? I got pickles.”
“You delivered your tray, now hush up, little man, and go,” Underwood ordered. “We have work to do.”
“Thank you,” Annie managed before Finn disappeared through the door.
“Might as well eat it,” the washerwoman declared. “I’ll take care of this.” Annie dutifully sat down at the little table, and nibbled at the breakfast while Mrs. Underwood filled her traveling bags with her cleaned things. “You’ll want to hang them out tonight. Let them dry a bit more.” She was meticulous in her work, going through the drawers and finding the forgotten items Annie had stowed away – making certain nothing was left behind. She shuffled past the table, grabbing up the wrapped parcels of sandwiches and pickles, to plunk them into the smaller carrying bag. “There!” she declared, finally snapping the hasp on the bags. “You’re packed. Come along now.”
Annie stood, leaving her breakfast half-eaten, and followed her.
Mr. Juje met them in the lobby. He was leaning on the counter, talking to Finn when the two women came down the stairs. He straightened upon their entrance, giving Underwood the same wary glance as Finn. “I’ve got your ticket set up to St. Louis,” he told Annie. “You’re on the noon train out at Ridge City, so you’ll have to hurry. Just ask for the ticket at the station.”
“You just gonna sit there and stare?” Underwood muttered at the hotel clerk as she shook Annie’s bags at him, sending Finn scuttling out from behind the counter to take them.
Mr. Juje shoved open the door, letting the other three pass. Finn went through in a hurry, followed by the blustering Underwood and finally Annie. They walked out into the street. “I’ll be working on scheduling the rest of the trip,” the operator continued. “Will be a bit tricky to get all the connections today – lots of folks won’t be working, but I’ll get it all set up by tomorrow. I’ll get you and your sister-in-law all the way to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, no question about that. Don’t worry about the cost. Mr. Standish said he’d get it taken care of.”
And they headed down the street toward the livery.
As she looked ahead -- seeing her boy standing outside the livery – Annie felt a terrible wave of sorrow -- unable to bear parting with him again – to say goodbye – to leave him once more.
Ezra waited just outside the livery with two horses – one a lovely Chestnut and the other a big grey. Buck, Vin and JD were with him. The three men seemed to be telling Ezra something, and her boy was nodding discontentedly.
“Morning, Mrs. Costello,” JD greeted, touching the brim of the hat.
“Merry Christmas, ma’am,” Vin added, taking the bags from Finn.
“Annie,” Buck greeted.
“Merry Christmas, gentlemen,” Annie responded.
“Sorry to hear you gotta go so soon,” JD exclaimed. “You only just got here.”
Buck leaned one elbow on Ezra’s shoulder, staggering him for a second before the gambler found his balance. “We’ve been tellin’ ol’ Ez here that he’d best fetch you back soon. It’s a damn shame you couldn’t stay.”
“I truly wish it could be different,” Annie told them. “I’d do anything to spend some time here with him… with all of you… There’s so much you’ve yet to tell me, but I must go home.”
“You have to get goin’ right away,” JD informed them. He nodded to Mr. Juje who still lingered. “Winston said that the train leaves at noon. That doesn’t give you a lot of time.”
“We must be leaving,” Ezra stated, shrugging out from under Buck. “Mr. Wilmington has graciously allowed you to borrow his steed.”
“Now Clyde is a fine horse,” Buck informed her, offering a hand to help her into the saddle. “He’s a bit dim-witted though, so you’d best do the thinkin’ for him.”
Annie settled herself, nodding to Wilmington’s words as Vin secured her baggage to the saddle. She looked up, seeing Josiah and Nathan coming down the church stairs. “You’re leaving?” Nathan cried. “So soon?” The black man’s concerned gaze strayed to Ezra.
Ezra explained the situation to Nathan and Josiah, and Annie watched as their expressions lengthened.
“I’m so sorry to see you go, but I know you must,” Josiah said, reaching up to take Annie’s hand. “It’s been a pleasure.” His gray-blue eyes flicked to Ezra as he said, “I know it has meant a lot to this boy to see you for Christmas. I don’t think you could have given him a better gift.”
With an easy movement, Ezra swung himself into his saddle, and quickly turned his horse. “Annie,” he stated. “If you mean to make this train, we must depart. Gentlemen,” he stated, gazing down at the five lawmen, the clerk and the telegraph operator, “and lady,” he added to Mrs. Underwood who spat into the dirt. “Give way.”
The small crowd parted, and Ezra brought his horse to a jog, nodding for Annie. The big grey easily fell in alongside, obviously used to the configuration.
“See ya when ya get back, Ezra!” JD called after them.
“We’ll keep ya somethin’ for supper!” Nathan added.
“Don’t get into any trouble!” Josiah demanded.
“Remember,” Buck added. “It’s Christmas. Behave yourself!”
“Merry Christmas, Ez,” Vin added finally. “Do what you think is right.”
Annie smiled at the sentiments, glad that her boy had people to look out for him. The chestnut slowed and came to a stop, and the gray along with it, when another man appeared on the walkway.
“Mr. Larabee,” Ezra greeted, touching the brim of his hat. “I’m afraid I must depart for the better part of the day. I must escort my aunt to Ridge City. She needs to catch the next train to St. Louis.”
“Trouble?” Larabee asked concisely.
“There’s been an injury in the family, her brother-in-law. She must return immediately.”
Chris narrowed his eyes. “Is he all right?” he asked, sincerely.
Annie bit her lip and responded, “I don’t know. I have to find Cathy. I have to go back.”
Larabee nodded, and turned his gaze on Ezra.
“Mr. Larabee,” Annie started, then paused, resting her hands against the saddle horn. “I just wanted to thank you. Thank you for giving my boy a home here.” Ezra groaned beside her, but Annie continued doggedly. “It means a lot to me to know that he has someplace like this.”
Chris smiled, wrinkling the skin around his eyes. “You’re welcome,” he responded. "Guess we kinda like having him here." And he waved them on.
The ride to Ridge City was spent mostly in silence. Annie, her mind reeling with possibilities, found little to say, and Ezra kept the horses at a brisk pace. He checked on her often, ensuring that she was doing well, but she’d spent years on the range and had become an excellent horsewoman. Ezra smiled with unconcealed pride to see her doing so well.
They arrived in the train city quicker that Annie expected, and soon she had a ticket in her hand, along with another telegram that had been relayed through Four Corners from Cathy. Annie sighed, glad of the news. “He’ll be fine,” she gratefully told Ezra. “Declan broke an arm and a leg, and won’t be walking for months.” She sighed, knowing that Cathy would still be flying to be at his side – and that Annie couldn’t let her go alone.
So, they waited at the quiet platform. Ezra stood beside his aunt, holding her hand with her baggage at their feet. No one else waited with them. It was Christmas Day and travelers were few. Everyone was already where he or she needed to be.
“Should be here soon,” Ezra murmured, pulling an old pocket watch from his vest pocket. “Any minute now.”
“I’m sorry, Ezra,” Annie said softly. “I’m so sorry that I have to go.”
“There’s nothing to be apologetic about,” he quickly rejoined. “When your family is in need – you go.”
“I wish… I wish I’d only had a few more days… some time…”
Ezra smiled stiffly, not looking at her – his gaze traveled down the tracks for the expected train. “No matter. It’s all for the best in the end. You’ll be where you need to be.”
“Well, I’ll be here.” He waved a hand about. “Out in the great expanse of the West. I’d meant it to swallow me up. I suppose it hasn’t quite managed that yet.” He nodded to himself. “Yes, I’ll be out there somewhere.”
“You’ll stay in Four Corners,” Annie supposed.
Ezra shrugged, still holding her hand. “Perhaps,” he said quietly, a sadness in his voice. “Your arrival has reminded me of many things… of everything I never became. Perhaps it’s time I left. My life has been full of comings and goings. I suppose it’s time to move on again. There’s little to keep me here. Honestly, I don’t know why I stayed so long. I don’t know why they let me. I know, I wouldn’t want a man such as me darkening my town if I had any say in the matter. Look, the train’s coming.”
As the train grew larger in the distance, Annie looked up at her nephew. “Ezra,” she spoke sharply. “I was a foolish foolish girl. There were so many things that I should have done better. I never should have locked myself up in that house for five years. I never should have given up on life. Those years are gone and can never be reclaimed.” She frowned, and continued, “But I don’t regret that life, because it led me to you. What I regret most in life, Ezra, is that I didn’t do more for you. I wished I could have saved you.”
“But Annie,” Ezra said earnestly. “You did everything you could, and I’ve always been grateful for what you did for me. You gave me a sheltered place in a turbulent life. Those months spent with you were some of the best in my childhood.”
“Months, Ezra,” Annie commented. “Only a few months. I had a fantasy, you know. I had it all planned out at one point. I thought I’d sneak you away. I had no idea where I’d go, or what I’d do, but I thought we might just disappear – and never let Maude find you.”
Ezra smiled sadly, and said, “She would have found me, you know. She’s a clever lady.” He held onto Annie’s hand, stating, “And I do love her. For all her faults, in spite of what’s gone on between us, and what didn’t go on between us – I do love her. And in the end, I always wanted to be with her. As much as I desired to stay with you – always – I would have always wanted to be back with her. I wanted her to want me. You’d best step back a foot. Train’s pullin’ in.”
Annie nodded, gripping Ezra’s hand even tighter as he picked up her traveling bag with his free hand and she picked up the smaller case. “I know that,” she said. “All I wanted was for you to be happy.” She bit her lip, not lowering her head. “Hearing the way you talk, Ezra, I realize that I failed miserably.”
“No… no, Annie, you never failed,” Ezra insisted as the train pulled in before them – chuffing and sighing and groaning like a great beast. Someone had tied gay ribbons about the windows – decorating it for the season.
“Promise me, Ezra, that you’ll believe what I am about to say,” Annie pleaded.
The conductor stepped down from the train as it stopped, and looked up and down the platform, checking for other riders. He called out the names of the next stops, ending with “Saint Looooois!”
“Promise me, Ezra! Promise you’ll believe.”
“Of course,” Ezra responded.
The conductor stepped toward them, giving them an appraising look. “We’re not lingerin’ here,” he said abruptly. “Best get on now.”
Above them, the locomotive hissed as water was dropped in from the tower. Someone from the mail office hefted a bag into the rear car and received one in return. Ezra watched the activity with a detached expression, not letting loose his hold on Annie’s hand.
“Ezra, listen to me.”
“I’ve always listened to you,” Ezra responded.
“I made you a promise, that I’d come back. I have kept that promise. I found you.”
“I know,” Ezra responded.
“There’s something you need to understand though – something I don’t think you have ever truly known.”
Ezra started to say something, but stopped, looking pained as if he didn’t want to hear what she was about to say.
As the water hissed above them, Annie stated strongly, “I love you, Ezra.” She stared into his trouble green eyes as she continued, “Don’t make the same mistake I made, Ezra. Don’t lock your heart away. You promised that you’d believe me, and I’d never lie to you.”
The conductor, who’d briskly walked to the ticket booth and back, came alongside the pair and gestured toward the door. “We’re leavin’,” he uttered.
“Ezra!” Annie cried. “Do you believe me?”
And Ezra nodded, slowly, reluctantly -- but he nodded, his face growing softer.
“I have to go,” Annie cried. “I have to…”
And Ezra helped his aunt step up into the car, and finally released her hand as she turned to face him. “Ezra,” she called above the noise of the locomotive. “You will believe me, won’t you? I know you’ve been lied to, but never by me.”
The conductor was on the train again, shouting out “All aboard!” and the whistle sounded. The train started chuffing again, coughing and shuddering as the engine turned its great wheels. People in festive holiday garb peered out the windows above them.
“I’ll come back,” she stated, clinging to the handles at the doorway as Ezra shoved her traveling cases onto the top step. “Oh, Ezra. I wish we had more time. You said that you lived in the middle of nowhere, but that’s not true, Ezra… it’s not true at all.” She spoke quickly, trying to get out everything she needed to say. “You live in a town where you have friends, where people care about you – that’s not nowhere. You said you were nothing but a ‘damn gambler’.” She spit out the words. “That isn’t it at all. You have to know that, Ezra. You have to realize what sort of man you are. You're a good man, Ezra. I'm so proud of you.”
Beneath her, the train jerked. She held out her hands. “Be happy. Just be happy, Ezra." And her eyes started to tear as she said, "Goodbye, my dear. I didn’t get to say it before and it always hurt me… goodbye…”
Ezra looked up at her as the train, all decked in holiday ribbons, started to move, as his aunt was taken from him once more.
JD, Vin and Chris sat back in the saloon, content after a late breakfast at the hotel, and looking forward to a bigger Christmas feast in the evening, but they were all feeling a little melancholy at that moment.
“Too bad about Ezra’s aunt,” Vin finally stated.
“Yeah,” Larabee returned.
“She just got here,” JD included, sounding annoyed. “And she had to go. It took her forever to come this far."
"Twenty years," Chris commented. "That's an awful long journey."
"It’s just real bad that Ezra only got a day to spend with her.”
“Guess it could have been worse,” Vin responded. “She might’ve had to go back a day sooner – might've never got here -- might've never seen 'im.”
Chris nodded. “Spect you’re right, Vin. At least they got a day.”
“Still, it’s not fair,” JD muttered.
Buck entered the saloon, pressing open the door and standing for a moment at the entry. “Anyone up for a ride?” he asked.
“Where to?” Chris responded.
“Ridge City,” Buck said as he strode in. “Gotta go fetch Clyde and Chaucer.” He smiled as handed the wire to Chris. “Ezra hopped the train to St. Louis. Guess he got the ticket agent to send the note. Said he’s gonna escort his aunt ‘til she meets up with her sister-in-law, then’ll come on home.”
Vin grinned as Chris read the page, “Says he apologizes for the short notice, but he’ll be absent from service for the next week or so.” Chris raised an eyebrow, but made no further comment.
JD grew concerned. “Think he’ll come back?” he asked, his voice going high. “I mean, he might go all the way to Bolivia with her -- all the way to Sierra de la whatever. He might never come back.”
“Naw,” Vin responded as he got to his feet. “This is his home.”
Chris and JD stood as well, and the three came toward Buck at the door. “Ya’ll comin’?” Buck asked.
“Figure we’ll be home before tonight’s feast,” Chris supposed.
“And I could use a ride right now,” JD added. “Kinda a nice thing to do for Christmas.”
“I was hopin’ to borrow Job,” Buck stated. “If yer’all comin’, that means I’ll have to take Nathan or Josiah’s horse.”
“Bet they’ll be comin’, too,” Vin decided as he sidled up along Buck. “Sure they’ll want to take a Christmas ride with the rest of us.”
“Dang,” Buck muttered as he turned and moved through the door. “I ain’t gettin’ stuck with that troublesome palomino of Yosemite’s! No way in hell!” and he moved toward the livery, looking for a mount to borrow.
JD ran toward the church, in search of Nathan and Josiah – following his service, Sanchez would probably appreciate the ride.
Vin and Chris continued toward the livery at a slower pace.
“Good for him,” Chris finally said.
“Yup,” Vin agreed.
And they made their way through the Christmas afternoon.
THE END - by NotTasha
Sorry that this story got rather overrun with OC's... I guess it was based on an OC so the others just figured they could come on in too. It happens every time!