When Ezra saw Nathan the next morning, he was more than a little tempted to hasten his steps in the opposite direction. However, that would merely postpone the inevitable. "Good morning, Mr. Jackson. I trust the rest of your family reunion proceeded more calmly?"
"I will kill you if you touch my sister."
"You have already made your feelings on the matter quite clear. Repetition is not only unnecessary, but redundant. Besides, giving the inherent dangers in assisting Mr. Larabee, I would have to be a complete idiot to annoy the only healer in the county."
"It's all practicality for you, ain't it? Never what's right or wrong. When she was a whore, you had your way with her. Now that you know she's my sister, you'll let her be, but not because you respect her. Just because you wanna make sure the next time there's a bullet in your good-for-nothing carcass that I'm willing to take it out instead of letting it fester." Nathan shook his head. Dealing with Ezra always lowered his faith in human nature.
"Have you ever been to a cathouse?"
Reluctantly, Nathan admitted he had.
"Did you ever interrogate the lady whose company you'd hired as to her genealogy? Or did you have other things on your mind at the time?"
Nathan relaxed just a trifle, although he was unwilling to admit aloud that Ezra had a point.
"At the moment, our main concern is your niece, not your sister. I think we are agreed that your sister's plans for Esther are ill-advised?"
"Zilpah, she's not the girl I knew. She's convinced being a – that what's she's doing is better than being a respectable wife and mother. I don't know how to change her mind."
"Nor do I," Ezra confessed.
"If Essie's yours, then you got some say in what happens to her."
"There's no way to know whether or not she's mine. I was not the only man to find your sister attractive." When Nathan glared at him, Ezra hastily assured him, "My word on it, in deference to your wishes, my professional acquaintance with Zilpah is over. I will not see your sister unchaperoned." He glanced across the street. "Perhaps you would be wise to extract a similar pledge from Mr. Wilmington."
Nathan turned his head to see what Ezra was looking at. Zilpah and Buck stood in front of Mrs. Potter's shop. Buck was flirting with her, and she didn't appear to be objecting in the least.
Nathan Jackson and Zilpah LaBelle kept an uneasy truce for the next few days. He took her to their father's grave, so she could pay her respects. He hired a buckboard and drove her and the children out to the Seminole village, so the kids could see real Indians … and so Zilpah and Rain could meet. He introduced her to every colored family in the county, hoping some handsome bachelor could change her mind about being a white man's whore instead of a black man's wife.
Ezra treated Zilpah and her offspring to a picnic luncheon outside town, but true to his word, invited Mary and Billy Travis along for chaperonage. He discreetly worded the invitation in such a way that Mary thought he was inviting her on a picnic, and including Zilpah as chaperone, and her children as playmates for Billy.
"You have a lovely family, Zilpah," Mary complimented her.
"Thank you. You just have the one boy?"
Mary nodded. "Steven and I had hoped to have more, but he died before we could give Billy any brothers and sisters. Billy's nearly seven. How old are yours?"
"Essie's gonna be thirteen in a month. Sally's eight, nearly nine. Isaiah is five, and Deborah's four." She sighed. "Noah would be fourteen by now, but he was sold away and I wasn't able to find him after the war. Ruth would've been seven, if she'd lived. Fever took her, five years back."
Ezra said nothing as he poured mugs of lemonade. He had never stopped to think what life was like for a colored prostitute, after the men had gone home. The first time he'd claimed her company for an hour, he'd chosen her at random, because the darky wenches were cheaper than the white women at Mrs. Russell's bordello. He'd gone back to her, as often as he could afford, because she made it clear she enjoyed her work and she did her best to make sure her partners enjoyed themselves, too.
He handed Mary a mug. She thanked him as she took it. He couldn't help noticing that the respectable widow had hands that were worn by washing dishes and laundry, callused from running a printing press. Whereas, Zilpah, a fallen woman, had hands as soft and dainty as any European aristocrat's pampered daughter. Perhaps she was right in thinking the path she had taken was better than working in a shop or as a maid.
Mary called to the children: "Lunch is ready!"
They weren't quite ready to give up playing tag. They continued running around, ignoring the invitation to eat.
"Esther! Salome! Isaiah! Deborah! Y'all get over here!" Zilpah yelled.
Ezra knocked on the hotel room door. "Zilpah?"
Esther opened the door. "Hey, Mistuh Ezra."
"Hello, Essie. May I speak to your mother?" He had finally managed to get Zilpah to drop the 'mister' when she spoke to him, and Esther, to his immense relief, had adopted her mother's former way of addressing him rather than calling him 'Daddy Standish.'
"Yes, suh." She opened the door so he could step inside.
"Ezra! I was hoping you'd come visit," Zilpah greeted him.
He kissed her cheek. "You are as lovely as ever. May I impose on you to come to the clinic? I have something I'd like to discuss with you."
She sat down on the bed and patted the space next to her. "Why not discuss it here and now?"
"Because I promised your brother that I wouldn't see you unchaperoned," he reminded her. He remained standing. "Besides, I think he'd like to hear this."
"You aren't afraid of Nathan, are you?" she asked teasingly.
"It's important that he trusts me to keep my word. You read that piece of tripe Jock Steele wrote. The only thing he managed to get right is that the seven of us depend on each other. Given the disparity of our backgrounds, it's taken some time for Nathan and I to develop an amiable working relationship. I don't want to risk that relationship; I have to continue working with him after you've gone on to California."
"Nate's right. With you it's all about what's practical. Is practical more important to you than I am?"
He took her hand and raised it to his lips. "How could anything be more important than the most beautiful woman, black or white, in Atlanta?"
"Ezra, you always did say the sweetest things."
"Will you come to Nathan's clinic? If I stay here, in your bedroom, much longer, I may forget my promise to your brother."
She smiled at the compliment. "Let me get my hat."
"You'll forgive me, I hope, for not escorting you there."
"Oh, yes, a southern gentleman's word of honor and all that nonsense. Go on. I 'spect I can walk that far all by myself," she told him. After he'd shut the door behind himself, she told her daughter: "Of all the 'gentlemen' who came to Mrs. Russell's in Atlanta, and Madame De La Croix's in New Orleans, your daddy was one of the few who actually acted like a gentleman. If you gotta be kin to a white man, honey, you could do worse than him."
Ezra opened the door to the clinic without knocking. "I hope you're not busy, Mr. Jackson."
"And if I am?" Nathan eyed the man he'd considered a friend (until a week ago) suspiciously.
"I've just invited Zilpah to join us. She should be along in a moment."
Nathan raised an eyebrow, silently inviting the gambler to continue.
"I think I've come up to a solution for Esther's situation."
Just then they heard footsteps coming up the stairs.
"That's probably her." Nathan put the coffeepot on to boil.
A minute later, Zilpah knocked on the door. "Lordy, Nathan, what do you do for patients with broken legs?"
"It was all I could afford when I came to town. Now," he shook his head, "I'm too settled to move."
"All right, just what is it you wanted to talk to both of us about?" Zilpah turned to face her brother. "He wouldn't even escort me to your door, for fear of breaking his word. You two are like a pair of little boys playing cross-my-heart. Never occurred to either one of you to ask what I want, or that a grown woman could make her own decisions."
"You are still determined that Esther follow in your footsteps?" Ezra asked.
"She's a black girl in a white man's world. Best thing she can do is get herself in a good house, a fancy house. Laying on your back and opening your legs for white men is a helluva better than picking their cotton and scrubbing their floors."
"We are agreed that she deserves better from life than picking cotton or a career as a domestic servant. Nathan and I disagree with you that auctioning off her virginity is the best way to begin her career."
Nathan gave Ezra a sharp look. The southerner rarely called him by his first name.
"She's my daughter."
"She might be mine. And if she is, then I am responsible for her welfare. How much do you expect to get at this auction?"
"A hundred dollars, easy," Zilpah replied without hesitation. "Maybe more. Some men at an auction get so caught up in the bidding, they think more about winning than how much they're spending."
"I'll give you two hundred dollars if she stays a virgin."
"I'll pay you two hundred dollars for her to keep her legs shut." Ezra hoped the vulgarity would shock her into paying attention.
"Might get more than a hundred dollars. Maybe two hundred, maybe five hundred. And that's just for her first time. She'd be working regular, earning money. Making lots more than two hundred dollars."
"Zilphah," Ezra said gently, "no decent man, no normal man, would be interested in a child Esther's age. The sort of man willing to buy her virginity, the sort of man who'd deliberately seek out a child-whore, that's not the kind of man you want touching your daughter. It's certainly not the sort of man I want touching my daughter."
Zilpah flinched, hearing the truth in his words.
"And another two hundred dollars every year she stays virgin."
She looked up. "You'd be wanting a note from a doctor once a year?"
He shook his head. "I would never insult you by suggesting your word was insufficient. I know she might make more in a high-class house. She might die young of syphilis, too. Two hundred dollars is nearly a year's pay for a cowboy – more than enough to pay for her room, board, and schooling, as well as her siblings'."
"Nearly a year's pay for us, too," Nathan said, shocked that Ezra was willing to put his money where his mouth was. Judge Travis paid them seven dollars a week to keep the peace in Four Corners.
"Then I shall endeavor to be as successful as possible at cards. If you wanted to contribute to the girl's stipend, I shan't stop you," Ezra suggested. "She's your niece, after all."
Nathan nodded. "I'll give what I can afford." He was paid in barter more often than he was in cash for his doctoring, so he depended on his salary from Judge Travis more than Ezra did.
Zilpah made a pretense of thinking the offer over, even though Ezra's argument over the type of men who would request Essie's services had already convinced her. "All right. Two hundred dollars a year."
Ezra reached into his boot and pulled out the money.
"Hell, if I'd known you had that much, I'd have held out for more."
Ezra looked both ways to make sure no one was looking, then kissed Zilpah on the cheek. "It was good to see you again."
"Would've been better if you hadn't been too afraid of my brother to do more than look," she replied.
He refused to dignify that comment with a response. "Permit me to take this trunk for you." Nathan already had the rest of her luggage and the children loaded on to the stagecoach.
Ezra walked her across the street. Nathan eyed the pair suspiciously.
"Have a safe trip," Ezra said. He slipped a scrap of paper into her hand as he helped her into the coach.
"Bye, Uncle Nathan! Bye, Mistuh Ezra!" the children called.
"Goodbye, Nathan." Zilpah blew a kiss to her brother.
"Goodbye, Zil." Nathan shot Ezra a dirty look, almost daring him to say goodbye. "Send word when you reach California."
The driver cracked his whip above the horses' heads, and the stagecoach pulled out of town.
Zilpah opened the note.
I hope to visit San Francisco in a month or two. E. S.
Author's Note: The idea for this story popped into my head on a Friday. It was outlined on Saturday. By breakfast Thursday the rough draft was finished. (Unusual, as I'm usually a very slow writer.) It was inspired by many things I've read and seen: a Robin of Sherwood story (author's name forgotten, dog-gone it) wherein Tuck's sister became Guy's leman, reading excerpts of Mary Boykin Chesnut's diary, an old Brooke Shields movie, an episode of Paradise I honestly don't remember well, and too many years of living in Memphis, with all its racial tensions. It is dedicated to Allison Lonsdale, who changed many of my attitudes on sexuality and morality.