DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. It is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
RATING: PG-13 for language and violence
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Josiah and Ezra
SUMMARY: This is the direct sequel to Somewhere In-between but, it also references things that happened in Night and Day. Josiah hears about his long lost son, and goes to meet up with him. Ezra joins him.
SPOILERS: Tiny little spoilers for Penance, Serpents, The Trial and Ladykillers
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Special thanks to Keren and Flavia for their language skills - anyone who can speak more than one language is pretty cool.. Also, text used from "The Jumblies" by Edward Lear.
DATE: originally posted March 03, 2002, some cleanup done September 10,2013
SOMEONE ELSE'S SON
The Third Story in the South Bridge Series
PART 1: Segue- this first section comes directly after the end of "Somewhere In-between"
The journey between South Bridge and Four Corners had taken longer than expected. First, they'd traveled far off the normal route, then they were forced to deal with the accident that came close to killing one of them, delaying them by another day. Preacher and gambler rode together in the dark. Josiah kept Chaucer close beside him and, for once, didn't have to worry about the troublesome horse butting his. Chaucer's movements were as smooth as glass, keeping his rider easy in the saddle.
Standish suffered the cold worse than any of them, and although the early autumn days were mild, the nights were growing chilly again. Ezra shivered under his jacket. Soon, Josiah would be able to get Ezra warmed up and have Nathan see to the gash on his head, see if there was anything he could do about the awful headache that caused the genteel southerner to squint and hunch his shoulders.
They'd had a trying day. Ezra had been sick more than once and they'd had to rest several times. At the last stop, Ezra had taken an ill-advised sampling from his flask. Most of the vessel's contents had ended up on his jacket and the rest didn't last long in his stomach.
'Damn fool southerner,' Josiah had thought as he tried to clean him up, and getting a pained expression from the man in question. Of course, he realized that Ezra didn't have all his wits about him at the time and couldn't exactly be blamed. Josiah should have confiscated the flask at the start - that would have saved Ezra from himself. Sometimes, he had to look out for the young man - someone should.
The gambler was only semi-coherent when they reached the town. It was a quiet night, and apparently everyone had gone to bed early. Josiah dismounted, keeping one hand on the smaller man. "Come on, Ezra," he whispered. "We're home."
Ezra turned his head slowly and met his eyes. The glance drifted as he took in his surroundings. "Thank the Lord," he muttered. "I thought this day would never end." He tried to disengage himself from the saddle without success and ended up falling hard onto the preacher. Josiah stumbled back to keep from dropping him.
"Sorry," Ezra sighed, as he pulled away from Sanchez. He moved drunkenly as he found his footing. "Didn't mean to…"
"I'm fine, Ezra," Josiah responded adamantly. "Let's get you settled." He led him the short distance to the front steps of the saloon and set him down on the bench. "You wait here. I'm just gonna take the horses to the livery and get the boys to bed them down. I'll be back for you in a minute." His voice became stern as he added, "Wait for me. I don't want you to try those stairs without help." When Ezra looked annoyed, Josiah pressed one finger to his chest. "Behave!" he ordered. "Remain!"
The stunned look on Standish's face was priceless. His jaw dropped and his eyes opened wide for a moment before he dipped his head and looked away. Finally, he tugged his jacket close to him and slouched in his seat, grumbling. Josiah chuckled. He'd have to remember that - just use the same commands that Ezra used with Chaucer and he'd get the conman to mind him. He walked back to the horses, gathered their reins and led them to the stable.
It took a few minutes to rouse the sleepy young men that looked after the animals, but Pat and Eddie came soon enough. The horses deserved some tender care after the past few nights on the trail. Sanchez grabbed their saddlebags and headed back to the saloon. He quickened his step when he discovered that Ezra was no longer alone.
Larabee had found the slouching gambler on the bench, and as Josiah hurried toward them, he could hear the sharp conversation. "You care to tell me about what happened in South Bridge?"
"Not at the moment, thank you," Ezra murmured. "I'm rather done in."
"Like hell. I got about a dozen telegrams from the folks there, listin' all the damage you two managed."
"Paid for… most of it," Ezra slurred, slumping further.
"Where've you been all this time?"
A wave of the hand. "Around."
"Buck and Vin have been out lookin' for you."
Ezra licked his lips. "We came by an …unortho…unorthri…un…" He paused and blinked before trying the word again, "Unorthodox route."
Larabee's nose twitched as he caught scent of the whiskey. "Are you drunk?" His voice was incredulous. When Ezra snorted, Chris snatched him up by his lapels and jerked him to his feet, giving him a fierce shake. "Damn it, Ezra. What the hell do you think you're doing? Where's Josiah? Where'd you leave him?"
Ezra went limp in his hands, and Chris had to react fast to keep from dropping him.
"Let him be!" Sanchez snarled as he ran the final steps. He threw down the bags and pounced at the startled Larabee. "Let go of him!" Josiah ordered. Chris unquestioningly loosened his hold. Chris Larabee was a dangerous man, but Sanchez was as menacing as a grizzly bear when his ire was up.
Josiah took hold of Ezra as the gambler blinked and tried to stand on his own. He wavered dangerously. Josiah carefully lowered a bewildered Standish back to the bench.
"I haven't been drinkin'," Ezra responded, sounding flustered, his voice thick and slurred. "Just a taste is all… a taste. Didn't leave Josiah. Didn't leave him. Wouldn't…" His head lolled forward and Chris finally noted the bandage visible under his hat in the dimness.
"Ezra?" Chris squatted beside the con man, but Standish had finally succumbed. Larabee looked up to Josiah. "What happened?" His voice was concerned, lacking all the anger that had filled it a moment ago.
"Almost got himself killed by a rock," Josiah answered. "Let's get him to bed and find Nathan. Then I'll tell you every damnable thing that happened in South Bridge."
They carried Ezra to his room, stripped him out of his clothes and settled him into his feather bed. He responded feebly to their ministrations, murmuring quietly and offering them no real resistance, shivering from the chill that had caught him.
They buried Standish in blankets before Chris left to find Nathan. The healer arrived, tsking and clucking to himself as he removed the improvised bandages. The bleeding had stopped, but the wound had best be closed up properly.
"Damn it, Erza, what sort of trouble did you find this time?" Jackson murmured as he pulled out his stitching gear.
"Wasn't his fault," Josiah quickly defended. "None of it was." He sighed deeply and added, "He spent the whole trip watching out for me, and this is how he gets repaid."
Sanchez told the two of them everything he remembered, told them about their stay in South Bridge and all that happened on their journey in-between the two towns. They both nodded and remained silent most of the time. Neither disputed a word that was said. Josiah kept his eyes on Nathan's hands as he tended to the unconscious southerner.
Exhausted, Standish didn't move and barely reacted to Nathan's work. The healer gently patted him on the chest when he was done, smiling. "He'll be okay, I figure," he stated. "Gonna want to rest a few days. Probably have a headache for a while. I'm hopin' that his head's okay on the inside. When he wakes up again, we'll know more."
Josiah stayed at Ezra's bedside that night and was there when he woke up in the following evening. The gambler was confused, but in much better frame of mind than before.
"Mr. Sanchez, what happened?" he asked, wincing as his head throbbed. "Have we made it safely from South Bridge?" He glanced around his room, taking in the familiar sights. "Ah, home again," he sighed as he settled back into his pillows. "How nice." Ezra tried to sound relaxed, but a look of alarm flitted across his face as he came across the gaps in his memory.
"Yes, Ezra, we came home last night. You been sleepin' pretty deep since then,"
Ezra nodded and closed his eyes as he forced his hurting head to remember. His forehead creased as he asked, "Was there a dog somewhere, a black one?"
"Yes, that was Sadie. She ate most of your dinner."
"Ah yes. They were a pleasant group. And there were children and something involving a wagon wheel…"
"We stopped to fix the wheel along the way."
Ezra opened his eyes halfway and looked toward Josiah. "You, I recall, were the one who performed that task."
"You were busy, too."
"Hmmm," was Ezra's response. He squinted across the room, and then his eyes opened wide as he cried, "The Lamar brothers!"
Patiently, Josiah retold Ezra everything he could remember following their encounter with the unhappy brothers. Standish only nodded. He eventually recalled everything leading up to the strike on his head, but his memory of what followed was missing. It was probably for the best. Ezra seemed philosophical when Josiah once again explained that he had let the Lamars and their friends go. The gambler nodded and said nothing in response.
Once he knew that Ezra was well, Josiah considered returning to South Bridge to mend the worst of his sins, but the others in his group let him know that this was not the wisest of plans. The telegrams they'd received had stated quite clearly that the citizens of that particular town never wanted to see Sanchez near their home again. He requested a list of damages and received a detailed summary of destruction: from the glasses broken in the Lucky Saloon, to the broken nose of one of the Lamar brothers; from the destroyed carriage, to the ruined spout on the water tower and the shattered mirror. And, not forgetting the torn awning, the road that had turned to mud in the flash flood, the damage done by certain overexcited sheep, and a bill from Doc Meer for services rendered throughout the community. It was an impressive list.
And to his relief, Josiah found that most of the damage had already been paid for, due to monies hastily shelled out by one Ezra Standish as they fled the scene. The Lamars had forgiven the offenses to their persons, so only a few debts remained. Josiah quickly paid what was left outstanding, and then went to Ezra to find out how much he owed.
Ezra, who had been forced to spend the day in bed, started off by saying that he was far too infirmed to worry about such a thing and his head hurt too badly to deal with numbers, but shortly after that, he'd drawn up a contract. His payment schedule, he said, was fair and the interest was not outrageous.
And so, the South Bridge adventure came to a close. Ezra was soon up on his feet again without a trace of the injury that had frightened Josiah so deeply. The only reminder of the experience was the debt that remained between them.
Josiah clutched $20 dollars in his hand. This would be the last of it. With this final payment the debt would be closed. Now, all he had to do was to find Ezra. He poked his head into the saloon first and didn't find Standish at his regular table. Chris, who was watching a pair of prisoners in the jail, hadn't seen him. When Sanchez stopped JD in the street, Dunne informed him that Ezra had taken Chaucer out behind the livery to put him through his paces.
Lord, Josiah thought, this could take all day. The gambler spent an inordinate amount of time with that horse – one might think it was human the way he indulged it. Sanchez had just started toward the corral when he found the object of his search coming toward him. Ezra was leading his gelding back toward the livery. The horse pranced as a small pack of children skipped alongside.
"How'd you get him to dance?" Paul Potter asked.
"First I taught him a simple square, then the dos-à-dos." Ezra said the phrase like a Cajun. "The Virginia reel followed. Once we mastered that, we moved on to the waltz. He's quite good at it, but he always wants to lead," Ezra responded, sounding completely serious.
"Did it take you long to teach him so much?" another boy asked, the son of one of the shopkeepers.
"A lifetime, Young Mister Green, it's taken a lifetime.'
"He sure is pretty," Katie Potter commented admiringly, stroking Chaucer's leg. The horse paused to allow himself to be adored. He nickered happily. Ezra stopped the procession, as they caressed the happy horse.
"I bet you've had him for a long long time," the youngest of the Green children said.
"For nearly as long as you've been breathing on this earth," Ezra replied. "Now, I wish to thank you, my friends, for coming out today and providing an audience for Chaucer. He goes through his paces with more enthusiasm when he hears applause."
"It was fun," Billy Travis replied. "Thanks, Ezra."
"Thank you, Ezra!" the other children chimed. Starved for entertainment, the regular 'exercises' of Chaucer had become as good as a traveling show to the children of Four Corners.
"I did little more than stand about. This magnificent animal is the one that did all the work," Ezra said, and indicated the horse proudly.
"Thank you, Chaucer," the small crowd stated and the horse nodded his head and snorted as they patted him. He bowed. They all laughed.
Josiah watched as Ezra spoke to the children. The gambler seemed so at ease with them. It was a gift that few seemed to have, but Ezra somehow had mastered it. Children took to him like ducks to water. They seemed oblivious to his worst aspects and flocked to him. Perhaps they came because he was a showman. He talked to them - never at them. He made them feel important.
The children ate it up. But it was easy, wasn't it, to be good-natured to someone else's children, Josiah tried to rationalize. Ezra could play with them and then give them back when he was done. He didn't have to deal with them when they cried, when they misbehaved, or when they were unhappy or sullen. Playing with children was one thing – rearing them was something altogether different.
Yes, he's going about it the easy way, Josiah thought. But still, the preacher couldn't help smiling when he noted the way the children looked at the gambler, the way Ezra treated the young ones.
Finally, Ezra said, "Now, run along. I'm certain your mothers will be searching you out shortly for your mid-day meal. I don't want to be under the consternation of any of them. Lord help me!"
"G'bye, Ezra. G'bye, Chaucer!" the children called as they headed off to their homes.
Ezra smiled as he watched them go. He leaned to his horse and muttered, "There goes the wealth of the world, my friend." The horse tried to knock off his hat.
That horse, Josiah thought, is the most troublesome creature I've ever seen. It always seemed to be harassing his owner in some manner or other. Ezra managed to catch his hat and shook his head at the horse. Most men would probably punish a horse for such ill behavior. Instead, Ezra pulled Chaucer's head close to his and said something quietly. The horse responded with a nicker and pressed closer to him. There was no mistaking the response of the horse - it loved its owner to bits and pieces.
Ezra Standish was a conman and a gambler. He'd stolen, cheated and found his way through life by means of underhanded dealings.
He was a man of dubious character. Yet, Josiah decided, any man that is so loved by both children and animals couldn't be all bad.
It was moments like this that he felt especially fond of Ezra, but the feeling was mixed with a strange melancholy. He could almost imagine Ezra as his son, could think of him as flesh-and-blood, heir to all the world had given him. Yes, Josiah thought, an educated, handsome, charming, good-natured son would have been exactly what he wanted. He could see himself as the gray-haired grandfather at a table surrounded by grandchildren with Ezra at the head, everyone laughing and talking and enjoying themselves. Ezra would spoil those children terribly.
Josiah smiled, imagining the scene. He could almost taste the pie that would inevitably be present.
Given a little work, Josiah decided, Standish might actually turn out to be a good man. The preacher often looked at Ezra with almost fatherly care, but Ezra really wasn't someone Josiah should consider as a son, was he? No, there was too much gray area where the con artist was concerned. If Ezra were to give up some of his morally vague meanderings, perhaps he could become someone that Josiah would be proud of.
There already was someone that should have held his pride. Miguel, he thought - his own flesh and blood - his son. He'd wanted to be a father to that boy, but it just hadn't worked out.
Miguel had turned out to be a cur, crude and violent, drunken and without remorse. He'd died during the war. Died of his vices, or killed in a battle - Josiah never could find clarification. Information considering the incident was vague and Sanchez never pursued the facts. Even now, a quiet pain would reach him at the thought of his dead son. Pain borne from deeds not done, from chances missed, from a child that turned out all wrong. And sometimes, even though he wished it were different, Josiah felt relief that the boy was gone.
He straightened and continued his way toward Ezra.
Ezra smiled warmly at his approach. "Mr. Sanchez," he greeted. "It appears that our afternoon will be favorable, in spite of the chilly weather."
"Yeah," Josiah agreed, even though the weather seemed fair to him. "Winter's finally comin'. Won't be long and snow will be flyin'."
"Lord help me," Ezra moaned. "I should've headed to Mexico by now. It'll be balmy there and save me from a possible bout of pneumonia. At least I should have traveled to the warmer climes of Georgia. Ah, my beloved home." He held his hand over his heart and then gave Josiah a wistful grin. "Of course, I could just as easily claim Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Carolina - North or South, Virginia, parts of Florida and California, a section of Massachusetts, Kansas, New York…"
"Ezra,"Josiah said, cutting him off because he knew the well-traveled gambler could go on for a while. " have a bit of business to go over with you."
Ezra nodded, understanding what Josiah wanted to discuss. "I've just finished putting Chaucer through his exercises. He'll want his stall now and his supper. If you allow me to tend to him first, I can then devote my full attention to your finances."
"Won't take but a minute. I got the last $20 that I owe you." Josiah pulled the money from his pocket and smiled proudly, glad to finish the debt. He watched as Ezra's eyes fastened on the bills, noting the greedy look that flashed and disappeared.
The gambler looked away, becoming fascinated with straightening his horse's bridle. "Let it wait until I'm finished here. I can draw up a proper receipt and we can bring this entire transaction to a close."
Sanchez sighed. "I don't need a receipt, Ezra. Just want to give you the money."
Ezra laughed. "If you choose to 'give' it to me, then by all means do so. Currency is the best gift – it's always a perfect fit and never out of style. If you mean to complete your payments, then please wait. I'll have the paperwork ready in a few minutes."
Josiah stood with the money in hand, a consternated look on his face. "Ezra, you just have to take the money and you can write out whatever you want later."
Ezra sighed as he started walking his horse into the stable. "Mr. Sanchez, I never enter such a business relationship without the proper paperwork to back it up. What would happen if I were to take the money as payment and then to later declare that you had given me nothing? You'd have no proof to back your claim and I could easily sue you for whatever I said was outstanding." He headed into the dimness. "Now, if you forgive me, Chaucer will require my complete attention. I'll see you shortly at our appointed meeting place."
Josiah moved through the saloon in a rush of indignation. He clomped through, yanked out a chair and thumped it to the ground before dropping into it.
Nathan raised an eyebrow. "Somethin' eatin' at you Josiah?"
"That damn pretentious fool!" Josiah growled, all his warm feelings vanished.
"Ezra?" Nathan surmised.
Josiah snatched the money from his pocket and dumped it on the table. "All I wanted to do was to pay him what I owed and he wouldn't take it from me. He needs to put up a big show and put me through signing my name to a note in front of everyone." The preacher folded his arms over his chest. "Just to make me understand that I was indebted to him."
Vin chuckled. "I never knowed Ezra to hesitate to take money from a man."
Josiah's frown increased. "His excuse was that he might come back and claim I hadn't paid him if I didn't have a receipt."
Both Vin and Nathan laughed. "Yeah," Nathan agreed. "Sounds about right. Him and money are a powerful combination."
"Don't understand him," Josiah mumbled.
Nathan rolled his eyes. "You're not the only one."
Vin leaned forward. "I 'spect he's run a con or two regardin' that very thing. Just lookin' out for you. Don't want you to get hoodwinked."
"Probably for the best that you get that receipt," Nathan put in. "Get it done in front of witnesses."
Josiah grunted in frustration.
"It's your own fault, ya know," Vin added quietly.
"Why's that?" Josiah responded defensively.
"He'd have let you wait 'til you had it all together. Weren't gonna push you none." Vin shrugged. "But you were all fired up about payin' him in installments. Can't keep track of what you put in if you don't got a record of it."
Josiah pursed his lips. "I suppose you're right."
"He does seem pretty quick about writin' up contracts though," Nathan commented. "Seems he's always drawing up somethin' for someone."
"That's his ma's fault," Vin explained. "Word got out that he wrote one for her."
"Yeah," Nathan agreed. "Seems to know what he's doin' when he talks law." He laughed as he recalled a stunt they'd pulled together. "Sounds like a lawyer when he wants to. Folks in town see that."
"They take advantage of him sometimes," Vin added. "Seems they're always looking for him write up something and thinkin' they should get it for free. 'Least he's smart enough to get his fee. Still, he didn't ask for my mark when I …ah…borrowed that money from him to pay off Nettie's place."
Nathan smiled. "So, is that why you never gave him that 10% interest?"
The tracker shrugged and gave the healer a sly look. "What 10%? Ain't no paper says it." He turned back to Josiah. "Askin' for that 10% of me was just his way of keepin' his pride. He couldn't let the money go without promise of more to come." He turned to Nathan and added, "He ever ask you for the money you borrowed to buy that Chinese girl?"
Nathan blushed for a moment and then shook his head with a small smile. "Josiah, he probably just wants to prove to you that he's doing good by you. Wants you to know he's not gonna cheat you." Jackson paused as Josiah considered this, then he added, "Now, of course, if he really wanted to do good by you, he wouldn't charge you interest."
"Hey, Josiah!" JD called as he pushed open the batwing doors with Buck close behind him. "Hi there, Vin, Nathan. Look what Buck saw."
Wilmington smiled as he strode to the table. "They been writin' about you in South Bridge again, Josiah." Buck held up the latest edition of the Clarion.
"What?" Josiah cried as his eyes fastened on the paper. The account of his 'conquest' of South Bridge had been spelled out in lurid detail in the South Bridge Journal following his return to Four Corners. The sensational account made it seem as if one of the riders of the apocalypse had been visited upon them. Ezra had been pleased to note that his name never appeared in the story, except for a inclusion that 'a companion of the man in question paid restitution for the damages before following Sanchez out of town.' The curious chain of events that allowed Sanchez to make his escape had been noted with a touch of awe and superstition.
Buck cleared his throat and read, "Dispatch from the South Bridge Journal: Sanchez captured and held for questioning in regard to local crime."
"Gee, Josiah, you been to South Bridge lately?" JD smiled as he and Buck sat down at the table.
"Can't say I have," Josiah pronounced.
"Well, you're off the hook, in any case," Buck declared. "Seems the man was using the name Miguel Sanchez, but his name is really Garcia. Says he's thirty years old or so, half-Mexican fella. Murdered one of the townsfolks last week. Gave him a knife between the ribs. His trial's set up for Tuesday. Hanging is scheduled for Friday."
Josiah's eyes widened. "Let me see," he requested softly and Buck handed over the sheet. He read the story silently, soaking in every detail, finding something familiar at every turn. Miguel, he thought, dear Lord, how could that be?
His eyes found the name written as 'Miguel J. Garcia' later in the story. Dear God… oh dear God … it couldn't be. Miguel was dead… he'd been told so years ago. But, he'd never been able to confirm that fact - never knew for certain that the news was true - always felt that maybe… just maybe…he was still alive.
Josiah stood up, filled with nervous energy, with fear, with excitement, with grief and joy… his son… Miguel. My God, they were going to hang him!
"J'siah, somethin' wrong?" Vin asked, worriedly watching the preacher.
"I have to send a telegram," Josiah muttered, and clenching the paper in his hand, he barreled out the door, just as Ezra came in.
"Mr. Sanchez," Ezra called as the man pushed past him, shoving him to the side. The gambler stumbled for a second before he was able to gain his balance. He looked confused as the preacher continued on, apparently oblivious to the fact that he almost trampled the conman. Once the doors stopped swinging, he asked the men at the table. "Is somethin' amiss?"
"Dunno," Buck replied. "Took my paper with him. I paid for it. Hope to get it back."
"Somethin' bothered him powerful about that story," Vin informed the southerner. "Someone usin' the name Sanchez in South Bridge."
"Lord help us all," Ezra sighed as he set a ledger on the table and then carefully placed a inkstand beside it. "Sanchez and South Bridge… it doesn't bode well."
Sanchez waited nervously outside the telegraph office. He'd sent a simple question to Sheriff Hughes of South Bridge: WHAT IS MIGUEL GARCIA'S MIDDLE NAME?' If the J stood for Josiah, then he'd know that this was his boy.
He watched as people came and went along the boardwalk. He'd been standing here for over an hour, waiting. Ezra had left the saloon, pausing and contemplating something before crossing the street. The gamester headed to the jail, probably to relieve Chris from his shift.
Josiah waited, brushing the dust from his hat and gazing absently at the passing townspeople. Mrs. Underwood, a washerwoman, spoke to him and he answered her - but after she walked away he couldn't recall what they'd discussed.
The door to the telegraph office opened and the operator leaned out. "Here's the answer," Mr. Juje said, extending a hand.
"Thanks, Winston," Josiah responded and opened the note. His eyes widened at the first word. "PAPA." It took a moment before he could read the rest. "IT'S BEEN A WHILE. COME SEE ME BEFORE I HANG. YOUR SON, MIGUEL."
He held the frail paper in his hand, feeling the cool wind blow against him, feeling a deeper chill fill him. Then, with a quick movement, he turned on the boardwalk and jogged to the jail.
He paused for a moment when he laid his hand on the door, looking in through the pane to see Ezra and Chris within. Ezra was pouring himself a cup of coffee and Chris was getting ready to leave. They were chatting quietly, their voices – but not the words - distinguishable through the door. Suddenly, they both looked up and noted him at the window. Josiah sighed and stepped in.
"Chris," he began and paused. He dipped his head in embarrassment before he continued, "I have to take a few days for myself…a week maybe."
"Kinda bad time for it," Chris responded. He nodded to the two prisoners. "Buck and Vin are gonna take these two to Eagle Bend tomorrow. Can it wait?"
"No, 'fraid it won't. I want to leave within the hour." Josiah turned toward the door, not able to look at either of them. "It seems my … my son has been accused of murder and I want to see him before he's done away."
Josiah didn't see the reaction of the two men. When he turned toward them again, they both were gazing at him. Chris looked amazed, and Ezra had a placid and disinterested expression.
The prisoners chuckled and got a vicious glare from Larabee. They quieted immediately.
"I want to send a wire," Josiah went on. "Let him know I'm coming."
"A son?" Chris asked, his voice quiet.
"My boy, Miguel." He held up the newspaper that he'd confiscated from Buck.
Chris quickly read through the story and then handed the newspaper to Ezra who read it at a slower pace. "You sure it's him?" Larabee asked.
Josiah nodded and handed him the telegram. "I need to see him."
Larabee glanced at the wire, handed it to Ezra, and then consented, "You can go. But, I don't want you headed there on your own."
The preacher furrowed his brow and mulled this over for a moment. Finally, he bellowed, "I don't need no one to watch me. This is my own business."
Chris wasn't swayed by the angry outburst. "If it wasn't South Bridge, I'd let you go in a minute, but you got a history there."
"You don't think I can keep myself clean?" Josiah bit back. "I learned my lesson. It's not as if I can't go there without getting drunk and making myself a fool! I can handle myself."
I'm sure you can, Josiah." Chris nodded. "But, there's plenty of folks in that town that might do you harm if they could. Ezra's gonna go with you."
"Now, wait one moment!" Ezra put in as Josiah shouted, "No!" Standish looked stunned at this quick negation.
Josiah turned and faced the windows, trying to get his emotions in check. "I'm not taking him! I need to do this alone."
"Mr. Larabee, I must agree with Mr. Sanchez," Ezra added as he set down the papers. "He's a grown man who's more than capable of handling himself. I'm certain he will stay far from trouble on this excursion and won't need a shadow."
"Ezra knows what went on while you were there," Chris told Josiah. "He'll be able to keep you out of trouble."
"I don't need him," Josiah replied sharply.
Chris continued, facing Josiah, but watching Ezra out of the corner of his eye, "Plus, he'd know who was affected. If some fool stepped up and told you that you'd done somethin' to him, Ezra would be able to tell you if it was truth or not. There's no sense in you getting cheated by these people."
Ezra nodded, seeming to accept this fact, since money was involved. But Standish put in, "Nothin' ever goes well for me in South Bridge."
Chris smiled. "Way I hear it, things go rather smoothly for you in that town. It's only on the way home that you run into trouble. You get to be in charge in town, but Josiah's gonna mind you on the way back."
"Great," Ezra muttered and folded his arms across his chest. He smiled when he realized something. With a casual movement, he picked up his coffee cup and, looking smug, added, "My shift is about to begin. I won't be able to leave until nightfall, and by then..."
"I'll cover it." Chris grinned as Ezra groaned.
Josiah couldn't believe it. "No, I'll go alone."
"He's coming," was Chris' un-contradictable response. He nodded to Ezra. "Pack. I'll change his mind."
"Wonderful," Ezra muttered as he settled the still-full mug on the desk. He nodded to Chris and headed toward the door.
Josiah waited until the door shut before he spat out, "Chris, he's the last person in the world that I'd want with me!"
Chris glanced up, seeing Ezra just outside the door, his hand still touching the knob. The shout had been obviously heard. The gambler glanced up at him through the window, and for a second Ezra didn't seem to know what to do. Then he looked away and quickly headed toward the saloon.
"Damn it, Josiah!" Chris shouted. "Why the hell did you think that? He's the one that got you out of there last time. I thought you were glad to have him."
"It's not that… it's not that…" Josiah sighed as he sat down. He buried his head in his hands as he whispered, "I just don't want him there when I meet my boy."
Chris watched Sanchez thoughtfully, remembering Josiah's anguish when they all thought Ezra had died on that trip from South Bridge with JD and Buck - the sorrow he'd seen in Josiah's eyes seemed almost fatherly. He recalled how Josiah had sat at Ezra's bedside as he recovered from his head injury, refusing to leave him. Yes, he'd noted it and often wondered where, exactly, this situation would lead. Ezra never seemed very accepting of Josiah's advances, but never really pushed him away either.
One never really knew what was going on with Ezra Standish.
"Is it because he reminds you of your son?" Chris asked quietly.
Josiah's head shot up. "No! No, not at all." He shook his head, trying to explain, but couldn't. "I'm a bit confused is all. I thought Miguel was dead."
"But he's not," Chris returned.
Josiah wrung his hands. Lord, how could he explain this to Chris when he didn't understand it himself? His son, Miguel, was alive. His son, Miguel, was accused of murder and would probably hang in a few days. His son, Miguel, who had long been dead to him – was alive again, if only for a few days. His son, Miguel, whom he'd given up as a lost cause, whom he'd forfeited and forgotten about, was back and asking for him. His son was Miguel.
And then there was Ezra. Josiah had kidded himself into believing that he had some sort of paternal influence over Standish. He'd invented a fantasy where he could be a guide to the man, be something like a father to him. He'd enjoyed that feeling. But it was, after all, a fantasy. Ezra was not his. Worst of all, the charade might end now that Miguel's existence was revealed.
He drew in a breath and said, "I always wanted a son, someone that I could give everything to, bring up better than I'd been. I could make him a better person that I ever was - someone I could be proud of."
"And you had Miguel…" Chris started.
Josiah nodded, his face serious. "I didn't find out about him until the child was five years old. I loved him, as deeply as any father. I would've kept him with me forever."
"But you didn't?" Chris continued to try and draw the halting story from the preacher.
Josiah shook his head in a quick jerk. "His mother and I could never be together. I left him. I should've found some way to stay, but instead, I left him to the world. Saw him only a few times as he grew. Then, I lost him. I thought he was dead." He sighed deeply. "I wanted a son. The one I had was…" he held up a hand, open palmed, and then let it drop. "He just didn't turn out like I'd planned."
"They don't, you know," Chris responded. "You can plan all you want, but kids are incredible things. They take in what you teach them, what you show them, and become their own people. They grow up and change and…" his voice grew quiet as his expression distant as he thought of another child.
"I know. Somehow, I guess, I figured I could just start again with Ezra. Maybe it'd turn out better with him. I thought I could mold him into what I wanted."
Chris smiled and laid a hand on the preacher's shoulder. "Somehow, I figure that Ezra wouldn't take to that sort of treatment. He ain't exactly the malleable type."
"You're right… you're right. I don't know why, but I got it into my mind that he needed a father, but I think maybe it's just that I needed a son." Josiah shook his head slowly. "The problem is, I already had a son, someone I should've taken care of from the beginning. Chris, I don't want them to meet up."
"You're not going to South Bridge without Ezra," Chris insisted. "We'll make this work. I'll talk to him. I'll get him to leave you alone at the jail."
"You won't tell him about all this?" Josiah spoke quickly.
"Not if I can't help it."
"He'd hate it if he knew," Josiah stated.
Chris nodded. "Yeah, you'd think a man would like a father in his life. Never can quite figure out that Standish though."
Josiah didn't respond, remembering the night Ezra had been hit in the head, remembering the following morning and Ezra's ranting as he'd been pulled from that hiding place between the rocks. He'd cried out against a father, his voice full of fear.
Josiah turned toward the door, wondering what, exactly, Ezra expected from a father.
Chris watched as Ezra prepared his saddle. It would be an overnight journey to South Bridge. It would be cold at night out on the desert - autumn was ending. The horse shifted back and forth as he was loaded, obviously excited to be underway. A touch from Ezra stilled him.
"Ezra," Chris said and gestured the gambler toward him.
Ezra finished his work and headed to their leader. "Yes, sir," he replied, with a cocky grin. "I have packed as ordered, sir." He saluted smartly.
"Cut the crap, Ezra," Chris replied. "I need you to keep an eye on things in South Bridge."
"I know. I've already received that directive."
"And I need to you to leave Josiah alone when he sees his son. Just stay clear of him while he's visiting."
"Oh," Ezra took a few seconds before he continued. "I see."
"Needs some time alone. That's all. You understand."
"Yes, yes, of course." Ezra smiled tightly. "Any man would like to be with his own flesh-and-blood, I'd assume."
"Other than that, I need you to stay with him. Make sure those South Bridge folks let him be." Larabee fixed Ezra with a steady gaze and said, "He's havin' a tough time. You gotta give him some leeway in this."
"I'll do my duty," Ezra said with a formal bow. "But what about my duty here? With Buck and Vin gone, as well as Josiah and myself, you'll be rather shorthanded."
"JD, Nate and I can handle things for a few days. We're capable, I'd think."
Ezra looked about carefully, ensuring that no one was nearby. "It might take us some time to return, depending on whether the lad is declared guilty. It seems they're rather certain of his fate. If the boy is to hang…"
"Stay with Josiah. Don't leave him." Chris' gut clenched at the thought of the hanging. Lord, he hoped it didn't end that way. He couldn't even begin to imagine what it would be like for a man to watch his own son executed. An old pain reached him at that thought, his mind traveling back to his own son – Adam.
"And if Mr. Sanchez chooses to … perhaps… move outside the law and let his only child free?"
Chris stopped, unprepared for this question. But, the thought seemed quite possible - a means of saving one's own blood. "Stay with him, Ezra. I need you to watch out for that fool preacher." Given the same circumstances, Larabee realized that he'd take desperate measures; he'd rather die in a shootout than to let something happen to his son. Josiah was another issue. Josiah was his responsibility. "If he wants to go into that jailhouse with guns blazing, I need you to hold him back."
Ezra laughed. "You overestimate me." He held out his hands. "I'm half his size. He'd flatten me with one sweep of his mighty paw."
"Damn it, Ezra, I doubt if anyone's ever overestimated you. Keep him from getting any new holes in himself."
"I shall do my best. And if he were to find some underhanded means to free the young man? If he were to ask the assistance of one who might find a way to emancipate him…?"
It was times like this that he was reminded how irritating Standish could be… asking questions that he'd prefer not to hear voiced. "If he rides with Garcia to Mexico, I want you to keep with them. You can get your ass back here once you see them safe. Drag Josiah along with you if you can, but don't leave him until you can be sure he'll be fine."
Ezra sighed and looked away again, searching the corners of the livery as if he expected intruders. "And what," he whispered, "Am I to do if the boy proves to be guilty of the crime and deserving of his fate? Am I still to see that he be loosed again upon this earth?"
Chris' face grew dark and he responded, "I will not allow Josiah to watch his son die. A man should never have to sit still to watch his own child suffer anything."
Ezra nodded, not looking terribly pleased.
"I'm counting on you, Ezra," Chris added. "I need you to keep Josiah safe. That's all I care about in the end. Watch out for him."
"So shall it be," Standish muttered.
And then, clapping a hand on Ezra's shoulder Chris added, "And keep yourself safe, too. Won't stand for hearin' you got yourself hurt again"
"As always, I do my best to protect my person." Ezra smiled. He breathed on his fingernails and buffed them against his jacket. "It'd be a shame to ruin such fine fabric with bullet holes."
"Yeah," Chris replied. "I don't want to hear anymore hair-raising stories about your trip home from South Bridge." He remembered clearly the incident where Ezra had spent days leading the Hollowell boys from JD…'doing his best to protect his person'…like hell, Larabee thought. He smiled slightly. "I don't give a shit about the damn fabric."
Ezra pouted, "But this is an especially fine garment, designed to keep out the cold while looking striking on the proper form. It fits me astonishingly well." He modeled briefly, smiling at Larabee's scowl.
"Take care of him. Got it, Ezra?"
"Clearly, Mr. Larabee." Ezra saluted again, roguishly. "I give you my word. I will do my best to keep Mr. Sanchez from harm."
Josiah suddenly appeared in the doorway, his saddlebags slung over his shoulder, walking with a tread that dared anyone to get in his way.
"It looks like we'll be off," Ezra said.
"Just get yourselves there and back," Chris told him. He watched as Ezra headed back toward his horse. "Both of you," he added vehemently.
They traveled in silence. Ezra glanced over to Josiah from time to time, but saw only a grim and determined expression. He decided to keep quiet, hoping that Josiah would relax in time, but it didn't seem to be happening. Apparently, this was going to be an inordinately dull excursion. To pass the time, the gambler tried to recall the poetry he'd read a book he'd recently acquired. There was little of worth in the edition, just some over-blown sickly-sentimental hogwash mixed in with some nonsense by Edward Lear. He found it hard to draw any of the verse into his mind again. Well, it was all for the best.
Ezra yawned and pulled a deck of cards from his vest pocket and began shuffling it, flipping the cards in his hands. Sanchez didn't even seem to notice his actions. Josiah's eyes were fixed on the horizon, his forehead creased and his jaw set tight. The gambler fiddled with the deck for some time before he inserted it in his pocket again.
Finally, to dispel some of the unhappy energy, Ezra spoke. "Your boy," he said, "Must be excited to have this opportunity to see you."
"Hmm," Josiah responded.
"How long ago has it been since you've seen the lad?"
"Too damn long."
Ezra smiled thinly. "The child must count himself lucky to have such a father as you. I'd think…"
"Ezra, he's not a kid. He's as old as you!"
"Ah, so he's reached the perfect age." After a sideways glance, Ezra added, "You must have been rather young at his birth, a mere child yourself, seein' how young and vital you are now. I could hardly imagine that you'd be old enough to be my father."
"I don't want to talk about this, Ezra," Josiah snapped.
"Very well," Ezra said with a sigh. At least he'd gotten a conversation going. Perhaps the rest of the journey would be more enjoyable. "There's plenty else to discuss - Our sleeping accommodations for one. It'll be nightfall in a few hours and we'll be comin' to a water hole soon. I think it'd be best if we were to set up our camp there and…"
"Do what you want," Josiah returned. "I'm gonna keep going."
"And end up in the middle of nowhere for the night? Truly, Josiah, we would be much more comfortable near the water. There's a nice stand of trees there to provide shelter and I've brought provisions for an agreeable repast. It'll be much more enjoyable than what we usually consume when Buck…"
"Ezra, they're going to kill my son. I only have a few days left with him. I'm not going to spend those scant hours biding by a waterhole with you, eatin' whatever it is you cook up. I aim to ride all night."
"You might last, but the horses won't. We'll need to rest them."
"I'll go 'til the horse gives out." Josiah glared at Standish. "Maybe that circus animal of yours can't keep up."
Ezra continued to look unaffected. "Certainly you'll be exhausted by the time you reach that town and need immediate rest. Josiah, it'll make little difference in the long run if you sleep on the trail or when you get to South Bridge. Your son will still be there. It's not as if he has anywhere to go."
"You don't understand, Ezra." Josiah's voice was deep with anger. "He's my son. A father must take care of his son, must show him that he's the most important…" His voice trailed off and he rubbed his forehead, remembering all the times he'd failed Miguel. "A father should love his son, let him know he's loved. I've got to get to him…got to talk to him."
"And you're doing exactly that. I'm only asking that you behave with some sense in the matter."
"Be reasonable, Josiah. Mr. Larabee has asked that I keep an eye on you. There's no need to…"
"What right do you have to make decisions for me?" Josiah shot off. "He's my son! He's my blood…the most important thing in my life." He turned a meaningful glance on Standish. "Any father would do this!"
A smile tried to find its way to Ezra's face. He turned from Josiah and watched the trail ahead.
Josiah frowned at Ezra's lack of response and then shook his head sharply. "Larabee sent you along to dog me in town. The trail to South Bridge is my own. Do whatever the hell you want, Ezra. Sleep the day away if that's what's best for you. I've got somethin' worthwhile to do. I'll see you in South Bridge," he uttered and dug his heels into Prophet's sides and the big sorrel took off at a quick lope.
Ezra watched in hurt shock as Josiah rode on ahead. He never expected such behavior out of the kindhearted preacher. Chaucer snorted and pranced a few steps, eager to follow his friend, but Ezra kept him at his pace. At that moment, he didn't exactly feel like catching up to Josiah.
He rubbed Chaucer's neck and murmured, "He's worried about his son. It's understandable that he's a bit sharp in his comments." Yes, Ezra thought, a father should go to his son when he's in danger, should want to protect him. Ezra's hand was gentle on the horse's neck, as he continued to think. A father should accept the fact that his son is hopelessly imperfect and can never be as good as the man who proceeded him. Josiah, apparently, understood that.
"That's the way it should be," he said to Chaucer. "It's good that Josiah is rushing to his son." He watched as Josiah brought his horse back to its original pace, but didn't slow Prophet any further. Ezra didn't bring Chaucer to a quicker stride. "We'll give him a little space for now, since it's apparent that's his wish. Keep him in sight, my friend."
The two men traveled along the same trail, with a long space between them. What's keeping him? Josiah wondered. Certainly Ezra would come charging up to him any minute. Was Ezra angry with him? Why should he be angry anyway? It was Ezra that started it all with his irritating questions and comments. Ezra shouldn't be the one who was angry!
But why the hell am I so angry? Damn, Josiah thought as he watched the trail ahead. How did he let Ezra get to him like that? Just a few simple questions and he was snapping at the con artist. He shouldn't have done that - he should have just answered or told him to stop. There was no cause for becoming so abrupt. No wonder Ezra was hanging back. Probably doesn't want to be attacked again, especially after...
Ah, damn. He rubbed his forehead, upset with himself. Why did he bring up Ezra's father just then?
They traveled onward, each alone on the trail; the space between them remained the same.
Eventually, Josiah turned in his saddle, and saw how far back Ezra was riding. He groaned inwardly and pulled Prophet to a halt. He hoped to see Ezra hurry toward him, but Chaucer never changed his gait. At least he didn't stop. Josiah wanted to shout out, to call out cheerfully and encouragingly, but couldn't find his voice.
Finally, Ezra closed the distance and reached him.
"I'm sorry, Ezra," Josiah said genuinely. "It wasn't right for me to lash out like that. My mind is…"
"Don't let it bother you, Mr. Sanchez. Your reactions are reasonable when you consider the circumstances," Ezra said as Chaucer clipped past them. His voice was even and calm. He smiled, but didn't look at Josiah. "I'll be more than capable of continuing through the night with you. Now we'd best make up some time if we mean to ride our mounts to death tonight."
Josiah sighed. "We'll rest them at the waterhole before we go on." He encouraged Prophet and caught up to Ezra.
"An excellent idea," Ezra responded and did not turn toward him as they came astride one another.
"I didn't mean anything by what I said," Josiah tried.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Mr. Sanchez."
"I'm sorry." Josiah wanted to reach out a hand and lay it on the southerner, but didn't think he could handle having it shrugged away.
"No need to apologize, Mr. Sanchez. You've done nothing wrong. You're distressed and I pressed you. It's I that should be begging forgiveness. I apologize for my uncouth behavior. I'll do my best to remain innocuous for the rest of this trip and not bother you again. I've given my word to Mr. Larabee and won't leave you. Set the pace as you see fit."
They traveled they rest of the way to the waterhole in silence.
The quiet little oasis came into view as the day grew longer. The gambler and the preacher rode on in silence. Josiah realized that he should speak just to start an easy conversation again, but couldn't come up with anything to say. Ezra had kept his promise and remained inoffensive, not saying a word. The silence grew oppressive as the waterhole drew nearer. Josiah kept his eye on the approaching trees, hoping he'd find reason to speak when they'd reached the water.
They were nearly there when Ezra suddenly reined in his horse. "Someone's already there," he said matter-of-factly.
Josiah watched as a figure moved among the trees. His eyes picked out a horse near the water and the glint of gunmetal.
"Who's that?" a harsh voice called. "Who's that comin'?"
"Don't mean no harm,' Josiah shouted back, raising his hands to show that he had no violent intentions. "Just passing through. Need to water the horses and we'll be gone."
Ezra said nothing, but flipped back his jacket for easy access to his weapons.
A sharp laugh cut the air, quick - like the bark of a fox, and a large man stood clear of the trees.
"Who's with you, old man?" the stranger asked as he set the butt of his rifle on the ground.
Josiah squinted across the distance, taking in the familiar shape and voice. He sat stock-still in his saddle as the realization hit him. Dear Lord, he thought, dear God in Heaven. The man was bigger than the last time he'd seen him… his voice was deeper, but there was no mistaking the man he was greeting. "Miguel," Sanchez gasped and kicked Prophet into a gallop to close the distance.
Josiah slowed as he approached his son, drinking in his appearance. The boy had changed. Gone was the filthy, drunken haze that had surrounded him at their last meeting. The man that greeted him was neatly dressed, clean-shaven and smiling. "Papa!" he greeted as the horse and rider drew near. Miguel spread his arms wide, the rifle held harmlessly by the barrel.
Josiah couldn't speak immediately, he could only gaze at the boy, seeing pieces of himself in his form, remembering Miguel's mother, Amelia, by the shape of his face. "Miguel," he finally uttered. "What are you doing here?"
"I wanted to see you," Garcia replied, looking up at the rider. "God, it's good to see you, Papa." Garcia gently grabbed hold of Prophet's bridle. "Come on down. Rest yourself."
Almost without thinking, Josiah dismounted and then he found himself in a warm embrace as his son wrapped his great arms around him. "I've been waiting so long," Miguel whispered.
"Me, too," Josiah replied as tears came to his eyes. "Me, too."
"I heard you were dead," Miguel said with an undisguised sob. "Years ago, I heard you'd died."
"Oh God," Josiah murmured. "I'd heard the same. I would've come lookin' for you if I'd only known."
Miguel laughed and Josiah laughed with him. They slapped each other's backs and stepped back, grinning at each other like fools. Josiah's gaze took in the young man. Miguel had grown taller and broader, bigger than his father now. His skin showed the scars of a dozen fights, his nose wasn't quite centered on his face, but his eyes were clear and sharp once more.
"What happened?" Josiah demanded. "How did you get here? What about the trial?"
Miguel shook his head woefully. "I'll tell you everything, but first, who's this?" He nodded in the direction Josiah had come.
The preacher turned quickly. He'd almost forgotten Ezra was there. The gambler held back a few lengths, still seated on his horse, his coat still thrown back. He watched the scene warily.
"Ezra," Josiah called. "Ezra - my son, Miguel Garcia. Miguel, this is…"
"Ezra Sands," Ezra got in.
Miguel stepped quickly toward the rider and extended a hand. " 'Ey," Garcia greeted. "Glad t'meet ya." His complexion was dark, but he spoke with an easy western accent.
Ezra smiled congenially and shook the offered hand. "Good day to you," he returned. "Garcia? Not Sanchez?"
Miguel shrugged. "I use Sanchez sometimes, but it was my mother who raised me."
"Ah yes," Ezra said knowingly. "It must have been an interesting upbringing." And then, after changing his position in the saddle, he added, "Perhaps you can enlighten us on why you are here and not in your jail cell?"
Miguel grinned. "Come on down. Rest your horses and I'll tell you all about it." And he started back into the trees.
Josiah stepped toward Ezra and his horse. "Ezra," Josiah hissed under his breath. "No need to hide your name. I don't want to lie to him. He's my son."
"And an escaped criminal. We'd best be cautious."
Josiah nodded. "I know, but…" he trailed off, his voice growing softer, his eyes turning from Ezra and drifting toward his son. "I'm gonna hold off judgment until I hear his story," Sanchez declared.
"Is that wise?" Ezra asked as he dismounted.
Josiah waited a moment before answering. "It wasn't so long ago that I was held in a cell, declared a murderer while I was innocent," Sanchez finally said. "I could 'ave used someone believing in me then." His gaze returned to Ezra, fixing him with a pointed look.
Ezra smiled disarmingly as he dismounted. "But you had Vin," he said as he patted his horse. "And my beliefs in the situation never came into play."
Josiah turned toward his son again, speaking in a low voice to Standish, "And, Ezra, don't tell me that you were never in a similar situation. Were you ever accused of a crime you didn't commit?"
"Why, Mr. Sanchez, constantly." Ezra scratched his chin thoughtfully and added, "But, I was guilty of most things so…"
Josiah frowned unhappily. "You'd want someone to believe in your innocence, wouldn't you?" He shook his head as he remembered something. "You told me once that no one trusted you and you couldn't understand why. This is part of it, Ezra. If you want others to trust you in, you've gotta start by giving others a fair shake."
"I recall the incident quite clearly, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra replied. "And if you recall the outcome, and I was as guilty as your words implied."
Josiah sighed deeply and then extended an arm, resting it on Ezra's shoulder. "Please, Ezra, give him a fair shake. Let's listen to him. Let's find out what's happened before we make any judgments. It's only right."
"Very well," Ezra said, his lip twitching ever so slightly.
Josiah smiled broadly, patting Ezra's shoulder before turning abruptly, and jogging toward his son.
As he led his horse toward the pond, Ezra kept a sharp eye on Miguel, not knowing what to think of the man. Josiah seemed convinced that he was worth a benefit of the doubt, and Sanchez should know – he was the father after all.
Miguel seemed amiable enough, and the fact that he was free of a jail cell didn't necessarily speak ill of him. Ezra himself had escaped from similar predicaments more than once. He chuckled softly. Yes, Josiah was right. It would be hypocritical to fault Garcia without further evidence. But, part of Ezra's hard won education was learning how to read people, and he'd gained a mighty strong impression from Miguel almost immediately.
Nothing was right about this situation, and apparently Josiah was too enamored with the idea of finding his son to notice. Ezra would have to be on guard for both of them.
"Can't stay here long," Miguel said when the reached the little spring. "Gotta be headed south soon. When I got your second telegram, I figured I could come out this way and meet you b'fore I headed to Mexico. Never would 'ave thought you were livin' out here. Figured you'd be in India or Europe, back East maybe."
"I thought you said that you believed he'd died," Ezra put in quietly.
Miguel laughed. "I meant, if he were alive, that's where he'd be." He shook his head, watching the gambler who met his gaze with sharp eyes.
"Tell me," Josiah demanded. "Tell me what happened in South Bridge."
Miguel nodded. "'Spect I should." He sighed. "I saw a fella knife another guy in a saloon. The killer was a fancy dresser like this one." He indicated Ezra, who glanced up at him levelly. "Smart talker, rich-lookin' fella who probably never had a day of trouble in his life. Never had to suffer no ills. When I tried to tell the law what happened, the bastard turned it around and told everyone that it was me that done it. Me! It got down to his word against mine." Miguel furrowed his brow. "And who's the sheriff gonna believe when listening to a man like me and a fancy-man like him? It's ones like him that are believed." His gesture toward Ezra was contemptuous.
Ezra smiled and shook his head, revealing nothing. "And there was no suspicion placed on this 'fancy man'?"
"I was the one with blood on my hands," Miguel bit back. "I'm the one who tried to save that fella. That fancy man left right quick. Took a damn bath to clean himself before he went to the sheriff. A bath! Said it was because he was so nervous about the killin' that he needed to calm himself." Miguel spat and then continued. "If I'd done the same, they'd say it was proof against me. I tried to save a dying man while the killer was taken a damn bath. I'll get hung for it."
"I know I enjoy the calming influences of a bath, and watching a man cruelly gutted might be reason enough to require that tranquilizing sensation."
Garcia glared at Ezra, and Josiah quickly stepped in. "You should've stayed, son," he put in. "Judge Travis is a good man. He would've listened to you, would've weighed the evidence and given a fair trial."
"I admit that I've done some bad in my life, but it's behind me now. Problem is, I can't shake this black cloud. I've been doubted and blamed all my life, watching folks like him take what should've been mine," Garcia continued spitefully. "Ain't no fairness in it."
"True," Ezra responded. "Not much in life is fair. What makes us men is how we decide to deal with the unfairness."
"Miguel, what happened?" Josiah pleaded, trying to get back to the events that proceeded their meeting. "How'd you escape?"
"Got a friend," he replied. "Distracted the sheriff enough so that I could get out. We tied Hughes and gagged him in the cell."
"Where is this friend now?" Ezra asked.
"Halfway to Mexico. Went south straight off, hopin' that if a posse followed, they'd take that path. They shouldn't find the sheriff 'til mornin' anyhow, seein' as he won't get relieved 'til then. That gave me time to come find you and say, 'adios, Papa'."
"Goodbye?" Josiah echoed. "I'll never see you again?"
Miguel shrugged hopelessly. "This isn't gonna go away. Have to leave the country if I want to keep my life. Gonna meet up with my partner."
Josiah slumped as he placed a hand on his son's shoulder. To have found Miguel again and to lose him once more was almost more than the preacher could bear. Innocent or guilty, Josiah couldn't let his son be hung. "I'll go with you," he finally said.
"Mr. Sanchez," Ezra said urgently. "Let's discuss…"
"Papa!" Miguel declared, wrapping his big arms around his father's neck. "I prayed you'd come with me. It was all I wanted!"
"Josiah!" Ezra called, his eyes fierce. "Think this over!"
"It's what I want to do, Ezra," Josiah responded calmly. "I need to be with my son." Josiah had abandoned his child before, left him to make his way alone. He wouldn't turn his back this time.
Ezra worked his jaw, watching the two embrace. "Mr. Sanchez, I must insist that we discuss this situation before you make any hasty decisions."
"I believe him, Ezra!" Damn, Sanchez thought… I want to believe.
Miguel stepped back from his father and looked at the gambler. "His decision is made, Sands. Once it's dark, we'll go. We'll follow the Banyon River and find my partner when we reach the border. Papa, I could use your help."
"I'll go," Josiah pledged.
"Josiah, I insist," Ezra repeated. "Please, I request a moment only."
Sanchez turned to face Standish. "You'll tell Chris that I'm sorry about what happened. Tell him that I'll come back when I can. I just gotta see my boy to safety. Gotta see him through this. I need to be there for him this time. Chris will understand."
"Understand? Do you honestly think he'll understand this?"
"He will…I know he will."
"Oh, he'll understand that you'd behave irrationally. What he won't understand is that I didn't give you counsel before you took this action."
"I won't be swayed, Ezra. Now, go!"
"Wait," Garcia declared. "Sands can't leave."
"I need him to deliver the message," Josiah responded. "He's gotta make sure I get this straight with someone."
"He can't leave," Miguel repeated.
Ezra sighed. "Your son is afraid I'll reveal everything, Mr. Sanchez." The gambler watched the outlaw. "He believes that if I were left to my own devices, then his life would be at risk."
"Ezra'll swear to keep this secret," Josiah declared. "You won't tell a soul, will you, Ezra? Won't let anyone know where we've gone."
Ezra raised and dropped his hands futilely. "How am I to tell Mr. Larabee that you've accompanied your escaped son to Mexico if I cannot tell him that you've accompanied your escaped son to Mexico? Am I just to tell Mr. Larabee that I turned back and left you to your own devices after promising him that I'd look after you? My life, for what it's worth, wouldn't last long in Four Corners if I did this. If you go, I'll go with you."
Miguel barked out a laugh again. "Can we trust him? He looks like the type that'd turn like a snake given the chance."
Josiah fixed an eye on Standish. "I can trust him," Josiah responded. Ezra cocked his head at the preacher.
Garcia shook his head. "If you trust him, Papa, so will I. Come with us, Sands."
Ezra could only shake his head.
Father and son rode side by side as they made their way to Mexico. Josiah kept his gaze on his son, looking at him in disbelief. He could see himself in the man - in the way he rode, in the way he glanced about but kept his eye on his goal. It felt so good – so right to be riding beside him. They fit together, father and son.
The sodden ruffian who he'd last seen almost ten years ago was gone, and replaced with a young man that resembled Josiah Sanchez. Josiah had seen trouble in his own past, had escaped injustice himself. Josiah glanced across at his son, knowing how the young man must feel, accused of a murder that he didn't commit, and, in his heart, he was glad that Miguel was able to escape.
He smiled fondly at the young man, wistful about the lost years, but hopeful now. Perhaps, even in this exile, he might be able to know his son now, to be part of his life - finally. He would work for it this time – he wouldn't just let the boy slip through his fingers.
Miguel called him 'papa'. It had been so many years since he'd heard that named uttered by this young man, since anyone spoke that name to him. It was music to hear it again.
Garcia glanced over his shoulder and frowned. "Sands," he called. "Why you ridin' so far back? Maybe you should be 'long side."
Josiah turned, and noted Ezra's position behind them.
"Simply watching our backs, Mr. Garcia," Ezra responded. "One must be careful when one is being pursued by the law. This is open country and our passage will be noted from miles around."
"It'd be best if you come 'long side," Garcia repeated. "It's getting dark now. Don't need to watch behind anymore."
"Come on, Ezra," Josiah said with a sigh, gesturing Ezra to his side, but the conman rode up to the far side of Miguel instead.
"As you wish," Ezra responded, smiling congenially at Miguel.
Miguel snorted as he sized up the well-dressed man. "You know my papa? You a friend of his?"
"A friend, yes."
"How'd you get to know him?"
"We both abide at the same locale. "
"So you just decided to come with him when he went to meet up with his lost son?"
"I understood that he wished to journey to South
"I understood that he wished to journey to South Bridge and it was decided that traveling together might be of benefit."
"You know him well?"
Ezra lowered his head and looked discretely toward Sanchez. "It is difficult to truly know anyone."
Miguel chuckled. "Yeah, but you been around him a lot? How long you know him for?"
"I made his acquaintance about a year and a half ago."
"He speak often of me?" Miguel asked.
When Ezra registered the look on Josiah's face, he responded, "When he speaks of you, it was always with a paternal partiality."
Miguel barked out a laugh again and looked to his father. "I've told my partner about you, Papa. Talked a lot about you. We'll meet soon."
"I await the moment in breathless anticipation," Ezra responded.
Again, Miguel laughed. "So tell me, Sands. What does my papa do in Four Corners?"
"He spends much of his time in construction."
"That right, papa?" Miguel asked, turning toward him. "You a builder?"
Josiah kept silent a moment, not knowing what would be best. What should he say? Agree with Ezra's half-truth? It really wasn't a lie. It would be easy to just go along.
Yes, it might be a bad idea to tell this escaped suspect that they were lawmen. But, could he just hide this fact? He mulled this over, realizing that he couldn't let his son be misled any longer. He'd spent too much of his life without his son. There'd be no more lies – no more half-truths, no more hiding. He wanted to keep Miguel with him from now on – so he'd best tell him the truth about everything.
"We're part of regulators that protect Four Corners," Josiah finally added.
He saw Ezra roll his eyes in exasperation as Miguel shot him a startled look. Garcia reined in his horse. "You're a lawman?"
"We protect the town."
Miguel looked between them, realizing that they had him flanked. "Why? I told you I was innocent? You're gonna bring me in? You're gonna see me hang?" His horse danced backward. Miguel's eyes were wide with alarm.
"No, I swear, son," Josiah shouted. "I only wanted to be here with you. I won't let them take you. I aim to protect you!" Prophet wheeled about dangerously as Miguel's horse minced anxiously. Josiah's hands jerked as he tried to catch his balance.
"You're a lawman?" Garcia questioned again, his voice rising in panic and rage. His hand went to his gun. "You won't be takin' me in."
"No!" Josiah shouted, throwing his arms up.
At Josiah's quick gesture, Miguel's gun came clear of his holster. Prophet reared, feeling the tension in his owner, feeling the panic from Miguel.
"Miguel, no!" Josiah shouted.
"I won't be brought in, old man," Miguel said between his teeth as he aimed at Josiah's chest.
A shot split the air. Garcia cried out in pain as the old revolver flew from his hand. His other hand few to his shoulder. His horse turned around as Miguel sagged for a moment, clutching his bleeding arm. He turned toward the gambler, seeing the Remington aimed at his head.
"Stand down!" Standish ordered, his eyes intense as he held the weapon on Garcia. "Stand down!"
The horse wheeled again and Josiah's eyes went wide as he saw his son's hand go for his other gun, unseen by Ezra. When the horse came about once more another shot was fired.
Ezra jerked, struggled for a moment to keep his seat. The gun fell from his hand as he fought to stay put, and then he collapsed from his horse and onto the ground.