The jangle of spurs wasn't even a deterrent from Ezra's gaze transfixed on the cards in his hands as he shuffled them with a practiced ease. Funny how you grew so accustomed to being around people that you knew who they were by the sound of their spurs. He knew immediately that it was Chris that approached him, even before the other man settled into the seat on the opposite side of the table from the gambler.
"Maude left," Chris said, stretching out his long legs, crossing them enough to prop one heel on the toe of his other foot.
"Did you come to tell me I was wrong to send her away or that I need to get over it?" Ezra drawled.
Chris scoffed a laugh. "Hell, no," he said. "If it'd been me, I'd have been tempted to shoot her." He gave Ezra one of his rare grins when the other man lifted a surprised gaze to him.
"Amusing," Ezra admitted, a small grin forming.
"Look, Ezra," Chris said. "I certainly ain't going to tell you that you need to get over it. Personally, I think you are showing a pretty damned remarkable amount of control on your anger."
"You do?" Ezra asked, surprised.
"Ezra, you had your world ripped out from under you," Chris said. "Findin' out Maude ain't your Ma is one blow to deal with, but to find out she kidnapped you from her own kin, that's a whole new level. Plus add in the fact that Mary's your sister... yeah... it's a bit more restraint then I'd be capable of."
"Yes, because you are so known for that," Ezra quipped, then winced. Chris arched an eyebrow at him. "My apologies, Chris. It would seem that my sarcastic nature is emerging more than I'd like it to."
"No need to apologize, you are right. I'm not a model of self restraint," he said. "Which is why I came to talk to you instead of the others."
"So you do think I should just get over it," Ezra said rather than asked. Disappointment filled him. He couldn't understand why no one understood how he was feeling.
"No," Chris said. "I ain't saying that and I don't think that."
Ezra frowned. "Then... what?" he asked.
"You have every right to be pissed," Chris said. "And it's purely justified. But take it from someone who knows what it's like to have your world ripped down. Don't let that anger consume you. It'll only prove disasterous in the end."
"Chris, she stole me," Ezra said. "I can't just... forgive and forget."
"Not saying you should either," Chris said. Ezra's frown deepened. "What Maude did... that's unforgivable. And frankly it was unfair for Mary to make you think that's what she wanted you to do. Same with your other aunt. Mary's mad too. Real mad. Last time I saw her that mad was when Billy was bein' hunted."
"I remember that anger," Ezra murmured.
"Good. But Mary's also an optimist and she's realizin' that she has her brother back. I think it's throwin' her off kilter," Chris said. "And deep down she knew you needed to clear the air, no matter the outcome."
"She asked me to talk to Maude..."
"Which you did," Chris said. "The chips are going to fall where they will on that front. But you made a gesture most never could. To at least be civil should Maude come back... if Mary wants that."
"Mary wants to forge a relationship with Maude," Ezra said.
"Maybe," Chris said. "Vin said she's awful quiet on the subject, but at the same time... Maude's still your family and Mary knows she's hers now too. I think that's Mary's stickin' point right now. I think deep inside she wants to cut ties with Maude and tell her to go straight to hell... but she's the last link to her Ma."
"There's me," Ezra said quietly.
"Yeah, there is. And that is what's keeping Mary going," Chris said. "But because of Maude, you never got to know your real Ma. Maude knew her, even before your other aunt. I think that's a link that Mary just ain't ready to break yet."
"Yet?" Ezra asked, his eyebrow arching.
"Like you said, Maude stole you," Chris said. "It would take a lot for any person to get over somethin' like that."
"Even Mary?" Ezra asked.
"Especially Mary," Chris said. "Remember how she reacted when Billy was threatened. He wasn't stolen physically, but a lot of his spirit was cause of that fear of seeing his Pa killed and his life bein' threatened."
"My nephew," Ezra said, his voice carrying a tone of awe. "Good Lord, I'm an uncle..."
Chris chuckled. 'Yeah," he said. "At least you know he ain't a hellion child."
"Wouldn't matter if he were," Ezra said. "Children are precious."
"Don't remember you sayin' that about Eugene," Chris teased him, remembering the lad from the wagon train they escorted.
"True, but even he is precious. In the sense that his mother thinks so and that's what matters in the end," Ezra said.
Chris tilted his head, regarding the gambler with a critical eye. "Is that why you are so taken with kids?" he asked. "Because, despite the hardships, many of them have the childhood you wanted?" The sudden shift in the man's stance, the obvious discomfort Chris saw flit across Ezra's face was all the answer he needed to realize how close to home he hit with that statement.
"So what do I do?" Ezra asked, clearing his throat when his voice caught.
"You deal with it how you need to," Chris said. "Just don't shut Mary out. Or your Aunt Elizabeth. Specially since she'll be leaving soon to head back to Greece."
Ezra let out a breath before nodding. "I suppose I should. Having family has never felt more complicated."
Chris scoffed a bit. "Hell, Ezra," he said. "If'n you hadn't noticed, you've had family for awhile now. Just cause we ain't blood don't make us any less of a family."
A man known for controlling his emotions, Ezra was having a damned hard time controlling them now. Chris would never know what those words meant to Ezra. Glancing over at the gunslinger, he saw the look on his face and in his eyes. Perhaps he did know and that the words didn't need to be said, but Ezra said them anyway.
"I wish you could stay longer," Mary said to Elizabeth as her stage driver loaded the older woman's bags.
Elizabeth smiled at her niece and moved forward, embracing her. "Leonidas and I promise to visit as soon as we can, but I must return to him in Greece first," she said. "Besides, you have a brother to catch up with."
"We will," Mary said, smiling.
"I wish you could stay longer," Ezra said, walking up to his sister and aunt. His face melted into confusion as Mary grinned wider and Elizabeth started to laugh. "Was it something I said?"
"Oh my dear," Elizabeth said, gaining control of herself. She reached up and caressed Ezra's cheek, causing him to blush. "You and your sister are so much alike in some ways. I am surprised you never noticed the similarities before now."
Ezra glanced at his sister, confusion still written on his face. Mary smothered the laugh that wanted to erupt. One upping the clever gambler was rare, so to see him so befuddled was endearing. "I just told her the exact same thing, word for word," she explained.
"Great minds and all," Ezra said, flashing his customary gold tooth.
"Indeed," Elizabeth said. She glanced at Mary. "May I talk to your brother privately?"
"Of course," Mary said. She smiled a bit and stepped aside to let Elizabeth talk to Ezra. She knew what Elizabeth had to discuss, but she understood her aunt's need to speak one on one with the man.
Elizabeth returned her attentions to her nephew, smiling at the slightly worried look that he quickly masked. "My dear nephew," she said. It's still such an amazment to have found you."
Ezra relaxed, seeing the love in his aunt's eyes. He was having difficulty shaking past hostility and snubbing from those he had been told were related. To see genuine affection from a true relation was taking him longer to adjust to then he realized. "What did you wish to discuss?" he asked.
"Have you given any consideration to taking your family name?" Elizabeth asked. One night, Elizabeth told Ezra that he was an Ashford and had every right to the name as Mary did. He had grown quiet and uncomfortable, grateful that his aunt realized it was not a subject he was easily ready to discuss.
"I've been Ezra Standish so long that I don't know if I could adjust," he admitted after a moment's hesitation. "Besides, why would the Ashford family want to be remotely tied to a con man? It might be better if I continue to use Standish to protect..."
"Do not finish that sentence," Elizabeth said sternly. "You are an Ashford, Ezra. You are your father's son."
"My father would be--," he started, sadness in his voice.
"Able to understand exactly who you are," Elizabeth finished, cutting him off. A frown crossed Ezra's features. "Ezra, Patrick was not unlike you. Yes, you had Maude's influence, but your father, too, did things he may not have always been proud of to get by."
"He was a con man?" Ezra asked.
"Con man is such a harsh turn of phrase. He was... persuasive," Elizabeth said. "And a rebel. We both were, though he moreso because he wanted to make his own way out from under our father's rule."
"I don't understand," Ezra said.
"A full family story will have to wait for another time, but suffice to say your father and I do come from old money, but our father was sometimes foolish and made bad choices," Elizabeth said. "But your grandfather never wanted to admit to his own foolishness, so he accepted no lip from either Patrick nor myself. Especially Patrick. Patrick was his heir and that was all he needed to be. Except Patrick didn't want to take over a failing business without a way to boost it back up again."
"Becoming a con man was his solution?" Ezra asked, skeptically.
"Your cons are predominantly played at the poker tables, yes?" Elizabeth asked. Ezra nodded and she continued. "So was your father's." His eyebrow arched, causing Elizabeth to smile. "You didn't really think Maude taught you your tricks of the trade, do you? No, my dear, you come by those naturally. She simply helped to hone them. After Patrick taught her a few things in jest."
Ezra blinked in astonishment. He shook his head and waved for her to continue.
"Patrick didn't just gamble," Elizabeth said. "He learned what he could because most men he played were those in the circles our father ran in. Businessman and lords, some of the finest in England. Oh Father was furious that Patrick would gamble as he did, especially because he viewed what he did as a loss that could not be dignified, but the other men... they were savvy. They understood what Patrick was doing. Yes, he often won quite a bit of money but sometimes it was returned in exchange for knowledge. Like you, Patrick absorbed knowledge like a sponge. He smartly started saving the money he did win and keep, but he also gained a vast amount of business knowledge."
"What happened?" Ezra asked, fascinated to learn about his father.
"Father took ill. As much as he hated to, he handed the reigns to Patrick," Elizabeth said. "Within six months, the debts my father had accumulated due to bad choices and bad practices had been settled and the business was flourishing."
"Due to the knowledge Father gained at the poker tables?" Ezra asked, awe in his voice.
"In part, yes," Elizabeth said. "But it wasn't just knowledge that Patrick gained while playing poker. He gained the trust, admiration and loyalty of the men he played with. Soon many became investors, business partners and colleagues. So much so that when Patrick chose to come to the United States after meeting your mother, he had those to turn to in order to help guide your uncle when he took over the business in England."
"Quite an accomplished man," Ezra said.
"Yes he was, but not viewed favorably by your grandfather for how he gained that accomplishment, right to the end," Elizabeth said. "So never think you are an embarassment to our family. Your father would be very proud of the man you are."
Ezra felt his throat tighten and he had to duck his head to regain his composure. Elizabeth, understanding, squeezed his upper arm. "If you choose to go by Standish, you are still a part of our family and we'll understand, but do not be afraid to embrace the fact that you are an Ashford." She rifled in the large bag draped over her arm, pulling out a large packet. "Here. This is yours."
Ezra lifted his head, frowning. He took the package from her hands. "What is it?" he asked.
"Open it," Elizabeth said.
His eyebrow arched, but he turned the package and slipped the papers inside out. His facade unable to stay in place, Ezra's jaw dropped before he jerked his head up to look at his aunt. "It's... it's the deed to the saloon... completely paid for," he said.
"Yes," Elizabeth said. "Mary and Inez told me what Maude did. She had no right to steal the property from you, which I think she did because she could tell how much like your father you are."
"I... I can't accept this," Ezra said. "It's too much of a gift."
"Oh it's not a gift," Elizabeth said. Ezra frowned. "You've paid for it, free and clear."
"I... have?" he asked, confused.
"Basically," Elizabeth said. "You are the eldest son of a rich English businessman. You have more money at your disposal than most would know what to do with."
"But Mary..." Ezra started.
"Is financially sound," Elizabeth said. "Sweetheart, when I mean your father made the business flourish, I meant he made it booming. I met my husband, your Thios Leonidas, because he worked with your father and soon became President of the Greek branch of your father's business. It continues to flourish in England, as well as other branches of it, including the one out East that Patrick ran till his death."
"Who runs it now?" Ezra questioned. "Surely they would object to..."
"My son does," Elizabeth cut him off. "And he will not object. He is quite excited to meet you. He, his wife and their children wish to come here for the holidays. I do believe Leonidas and I will try and come then as well. My other children will want to meet you as will your uncle from England."
"I don't know, Mrs..." He paused, noting the arch of her eyebrow. "Aunt Elizabeth."
"Better," she said, smiling. "And I know it seems overwhelming, but the family knows your father's history and they know the basics of what Maude did. They will not judge you, if that is what you think."
"I judge myself enough," Ezra said.
"And you must stop," Elizabeth said firmly. "You are an Ashford, now a business owner."
"But this is Mary's money," Ezra protested.
"It's our money," Mary said, finally coming up to them. "Ezra, this is both of our inheritance. You have as much right to it as I do, probably more since you were Daddy's heir."
"But he was this phenomenal businessman," Ezra said. "Fromw hat Aunt Elizabeth said. I couldn't even keep the saloon running for the little time I had it."
"Because of Maude," Mary reminded him. "Now... you have the support of everyone here, especially me and the other guys." She smiled. "Plus you have Inez to help you."
"You really think I can do this?" Ezra asked, staring down at the deed.
"I know you can," Mary said. He looked at her side ways, grinning a bit as she smiled.
"Good, now that that is handled," Elizabeth said, turning to walk over to the coach. Mary and Ezra followed her.
"You said the holidays?" Mary asked.
"The holidays," Elizabeth said. "If not sooner." She placed her bag inside before turning to them. She smiled, lifting her arms. "Now, my darlings, I must bid you adieu."
Mary moved forward and embraced her aunt lovingly. "I'll miss you, Aunt Elizabeth. Try not to create such a whirlwind when you come again."
"Now, darling, what fun would that be?" Elizabeth quipped, grinning at her niece as she pulled back. She looked at Ezra.
He smiled and moved forward, taking her into his arms. "It's been... educational to meet you," he said. "Thank you. For bringing me the truth."
Elizabeth's hold on Ezra was tight and loving. She pulled back enough to cup his face and look into his eyes. "Remember what I told you, Ezra. You are an Ashford and your father's son. Don't let anyone ever tell you differently, hm?"
Once again, Ezra found his throat tightening and he nodded, trying not to let his emotions overcome him completely. "I will," he whispered.
Elizabeth smiled and pressed a kiss to each of his cheeks before stepping back. Her driver assisted her into the coach, closing the door. She looked out the window as Ezra and Mary stepped back, the man's arm coming around his sister.
"Give my love to your friends and tell them it was a pleasure to meet them," Elizabeth said.
"We will, Aunt Elizabeth," Mary said, smiling. "Safe journey."
"Thank you, my darlings," she said with a bright smile before ducking back inside. The driver gave a loud hyah and the coach began to move.
Mary and Ezra stood, side by side, watching the coach disappear in a cloud of dust as it left town.
"Quite the whirlwind, isn't she?" Ezra asked.
"That she is," Mary said, smiling fondly. She slipped her arm around her brother's waist. "Let's go get something to eat, brother dear."
"I'd be honored, sister mine," Ezra said grinning. "And you can tell me all about Mister Tanner's intentions towards you."