RATING: PG CATEGORY: Challenge - OW MAJOR CHARACTERS: Josiah and Ezra DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, TNN, The Hallmark Station, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended. NOTE: June 2003 Challenge, offered by Katherine Lehman: Of the boys, we know about Ezra's mother, Vin's mother, JD's mother, Buck's mother...Josiah's father, Nathan's mother and father, and not a thing about Chris' parents. What I want is a story that fills in some details on the missing parents or even the ones that we do know something about. SUMMARY: It's another South Bridge Story.. Josiah finds out more than he really wants to know about Ezra's father. SPOILERS: To my stories Somewhere In-Between, Someone Else's Son and even a little of Night and Day ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: A big thank you to Nightwing for helping me with the names that appear in this story and for giving me an excellent idea for Ezra's ancestry. DATE: June 18, 2003, some housekeeping done Sept 13, 2013
SOMETIMES, I WONDER
Fourth story in the South Bridge Series
Josiah savored his coffee as he relaxed in the Twice-Shy saloon in Red Rock. The Cavanaugh Trial was about to take place in Four Corners and so the preacher needed a little breathing room before throwing himself into the hustle and bustle of people coming to see the harrowing case. Tomorrow would be the big day, so there was no more delaying. It was time that he started back. Chris would, no doubt, be looking for him. He allowed himself a few more minutes of relaxing, sipping quietly, doing his best to make the mug last as long as possible. Sometimes I wonder, he thought. Why do I put myself through this? There'll be trouble. Nick "the Knife" Cavanaugh has friends that'll be crawlin' all over the place. Why would a sane man want to put himself in a position where he might get stuck by one of Nick's friends? Benji the Blade perhaps? Bart the Bowie? Dan the Dagger? Pete the Penknife?
The preacher chuckled, knowing the answer. Why do I do it? Because I'm not entirely sane. Because it's my destiny to protect the town. It's OUR destiny to do it together. He reached the grounds at the bottom of the mug and considered calling the server over for more when the doors parted and a familiar face appeared in the doorway.
Cal Stoker, a rancher from the Four Corners area, stood in the doorway and glanced about. When his gaze landed on Sanchez, he smiled and strode toward the big man's table. "Josiah," he greeted familiarly as he pulled out a chair. "Folks at the hotel said you'd be here."
Josiah nodded and stated, "Best coffee in town."
Stoker nodded in concession. "True. A man needs good coffee." He gestured to the girl who waited the tables, letting her know that he'd like a cup for himself, then turned back toward the preacher. "I'm glad I caught you before you headed back." He pulled an envelope from his pocket and slid it across the table. "Larabee wanted me to deliver this to ya. Said it was important. I looked for you last night when I got in, but you'd already turned in."
"Wanted to make an early start," Josiah told the rancher. "We got that trial tomorrow."
"Yup," Stoker returned. "Nick the Knife?" He shuddered. "Reckon you fellas are expecting some trouble."
With a sigh, Josiah commented, "Trouble always seems to find us somehow."
"Yeah, seems to be that way," Stoker responded. He tapped one hand on the table and said, "Well, I'll letcha be. Gonna get me some coffee and somethin' for breakfast. Let me know if you got any message to send back."
Josiah considered that comment, wondering why Stoker would say that. Certainly, Josiah would make it back to town before the rancher. Stoker stood, and made his way toward another table, obviously wanting to leave the preacher in private. The rancher was never one to intruder.
Shrugging, Sanchez regarded the empty mug one last time, and then set it down to open the envelope. Contained within were a letter and a newspaper clipping. He glanced at the clipping, reading "J. SCHELTINGA TO APPEAR AT SOUTH BRIDGE RALLY". He grimaced at the mention of that town, and then picked up the letter, noting that it was from Chris before he read it:
Josiah: I need you to go to Southbridge.
Those opening words brought Josiah to a stop. Nothing ever went well in South Bridge, especially for him. Nothing good ever came out of that town.
Before you come up with excuses, I need you to hear me out. I had words with Standish. You know we need as many hands available as possible for Thursday's trial. Yesterday - Monday - Standish came to me asking to be given leave for a week. I denied him. He insisted. I stood my ground. Things got ugly after that and I told him that if he wouldn't stay put, then I wouldn't have him here any longer. He resigned his position and left town.
Josiah paused in his reading, absorbing this information. Good Lord, Standish knew how to draw a man's ire. Ezra resigned? Gone for good? Dear God, will I ever see him again? Why? The paper trembled in Josiah's hand as a sorrowful regret formed in him. It can't be. It's not… fair. Sanchez swallowed and soldiered on.
Buck showed me this article today. He says that Ezra was reading this story and started acting 'funny'. Standish came to me directly after that incident. He offered no explanation with his request. Just made his demands and that was the end of it. We haven't been able to figure out what this has to do with Standish. I had JD check it out to see if he'd gone chasing down this Scheltinga. The kid found out that Standish IS in South Bridge, registered at the Precious Hotel. I don't know what's going on, but I need you to check it out. You've had trouble in that town before, but you're closer than we are and I can't spare another man.
Josiah shook his head, struck by the irony of Chris' order. The last time he'd tried to reach South Bridge alone, Larabee had forced Ezra upon him as an escort – wouldn't let him go without that gambling shadow. Now, he was telling him to go alone – to fetch back that contrary man.
Be careful. Find out what's going on and talk to him. Tell him
And here, a blob of ink told Josiah that Chris had hesitated for a moment, his ink pen poised over the paper as Larabee thought.
that we need him here. Tell him that I'm ready to discuss this civilly. I didn't give him a chance the first time. Let him know that he still has a position with us. Bring him back, Josiah. And be careful when you're in Southbridge. Don't cause any trouble, stay safe. We need you back, too. – C. Larabee.
The preacher sighed, folded the note and then picked up the newspaper clipping. He read it carefully, trying to discover what had caught Ezra's attention. Jacob Hendrik Scheltinga, a well-known judge from New York, was attending a Statehood Rally in South Bridge. Apparently, he had some designs on snatching up the position of governor if the chance arose. Sanchez made a face, remembering how the last Statehood Rally went. Apparently, Mary Travis thought the man worthy of the position.
The article went on, extolling the wonderful accomplishments of Scheltinga - how he was renown for his work in the justice system and how the people of this territory would be proud if he were to govern the new state. The story stated that he was a good and honest man and respected throughout the country. He'd attended dinners at the White House and was a friend of several railroad entrepreneurs. It also noted that he was an extraordinarily wealthy man.
With a resigned feeling, Josiah inserted the letter and clipping back into the envelope. What the hell did Ezra want with Scheltinga? Did he have designs on the man's money? On his position? On the Governorship? What could Ezra possibly want with a man as respected as this judge? With a sigh, Josiah shook his head, not wanting to form an opinion on the situation yet. It seemed that every time he tried to figure out the southerner, Ezra surprised him.
Something was up. Something had brought Ezra to the conclusion that it was better to go to South Bridge to see this Scheltinga than it was to keep the family and the home he'd found in Four Corners. If Standish had only spoken to Larabee, explained his reason - whatever the cause - perhaps Chris might have allowed it. If Ezra were only more trusting of his friends, the situation would never have gotten to the point where such an ultimatum was levied. Why couldn't he just trust them?
"Sometimes I wonder what makes that man tick," Josiah muttered to himself. "Why is he like this?"
South Bridge. Josiah let out a slow breath, remembering his last visit to the town. He thought about his trip toward that town to find his son. He recalled his grandson, and smiled softly. He remembered the time everyone had considered Ezra dead after one excursion, how Standish was stuck down by a rock after another, and shot and nearly drowned during the third, and the smile faded.
Well, there was nothing he could do about it. Time was wasting and South Bridge awaited.
Josiah stood and slipped the letter into his pocket. He paused long enough to tell Stoker to pass a message on to Larabee - that he would do as asked - and then he headed to the livery to commence his long ride to the town that never seemed to produce anything good.
It was early evening by the time the preacher rode down the hill into that strangely foreboding town called South Bridge. It sat in a bowl-like depression along the Banyon River - where the best bridge in the area crossed it.
He'd prepared himself to face a surging sea of angry faces. He was ready for trouble - ready to be accosted and accused. The last time he'd visited this town, he'd taken on a good percentage of the townspeople in a drunken fit and caused enough damage to put him into debt with the cardsharp for months. The second time he'd had contact with this town, his son - his own flesh-and-blood - had murdered two of its citizens and fled to Mexico. Some might think the father had helped the son in the escape and, all things considered, Josiah knew he'd done nothing to stop Miguel from outrunning the noose.
There was no love lost for him in South Bridge. Josiah expected to be stopped at the city limits, to be pulled from his horse, to be locked up…to be publicly assaulted, humiliated… something! Instead, he anticlimactically made his way down the main street without incident.
He did find a mob when he reached the center of town - but nobody gave him any attention. The town was teeming with people, still milling about after the recently completed rally. A stage had been constructed at one end of the street, near where they unloaded boats from the Banyon. The stage was hung with buntings and placards - but the speakers had already vanished.
Here and there, he heard people excitedly talking about Judge Scheltinga and the promises he had made to them for when they attained statehood. The people were enamored with the judge from New York and vowed to vote him into office.
Funny, Josiah thought. Tomorrow, another Hopewell might find his way into the town and these same people would be decrying the loss of freedom that statehood would cause, and pledging their support to the latest Hopewell.
Once Prophet had been seen to, Josiah set out to find Ezra at the Precious, but the desk clerk declared that the gambler was out. Josiah considered leaving word at the desk, but decided against it - not wanting to annoy the gamester with his inquiries - for certainly Ezra would not appreciate someone spying on him. When Josiah asked for a room, he discovered that the place was booked solid - Ezra was even sharing a room with three other men. Josiah shook his head at this news, knowing that the gambler preferred his privacy. Things must be tight, he decided.
Sanchez searched the town for Ezra without success, then sought out a room, but found the same news everywhere - the rally had brought in people from all over and every space had been taken. Even if there was a place for him, several hotel clerks looked on him in panic when he entered their establishments. Guest registries were cautiously closed and heads shook before he even asked for a room - proving that the people of South Bridge hadn't forgotten him.
Can't blame them, Josiah thought as he turned and left their businesses before someone sent for the law. I suspect they'd like to keep their investments in one piece.
The preacher was about to give in and take a bedroll out to some secluded spot beneath the stars - despite the fact that there were definite signs of approaching rain - when the owner of The Happy Home restaurant, a buxom and pleasant woman, took pity on him. She let him spend the night in her dining space. When she heard his name, she stiffened, obviously familiar with his escapades, but didn't retract her offer. He thanked her for her Christianity and, happy for a dry spot, the preacher spread out his blankets on the hard floor and fell asleep almost instantly.
Morning starts early in a restaurant, as Josiah discovered, and Miss Violet, the owner, brought him a mug of coffee, a plate of cold biscuits and a jar of jam, then asked him - kindly - to get off the floor so that she could open her doors. The rain had come during the night, leaving the air crisp and fresh, but the sky had cleared, promising a dry day.
With a groan and a stretch, Josiah crept out of his position and found a chair. Lord, he was too old for sleeping on the floor. He scratched his beard and rested his elbows on the table. There was no point in looking for Ezra now. That gambler wouldn't be awake for hours. Sanchez figured he'd bide his time here, as long as Miss Violet allowed.
She was good to him. They chatted as she fired the stove and puttered about, and Josiah found the well-endowed woman to be engaging and humorous - a kind and gracious woman.
Sanchez looked up as an elegantly dressed man pushed open the door – the first real customer of the day. The gentleman appeared to about his age - if not a little older - clean-shaved, with a full head of white, carefully-styled hair. He was tall and slim, and his eyes had a sharpness to them. He chose the table beside the window, next to the one Josiah currently occupied. With a graceful movement, he removed his hat and set it on the table, brushing at the tabletop first to remove any crumbs that remained from the night before.
Miss Violet was all-aflutter as she approached the customer. "Judge Scheltinga," she cried. "It's such an honor to have you in my restaurant!" She made a little curtsey and dropped her gaze as if she wasn't quite fit to look upon someone so important.
Scheltinga smiled at the excited woman. "Yes, my dear," he agreed. "I suppose you don't regularly receive customers such as I." He spoke in a regal and disinterested eastern accent, flavored with unusual tones that Josiah couldn't place. "Do you have anything fresh available?"
"Yes, sir," Violet cried. "We have the best biscuits in town." She swelled with pride, nearly busting her buttons.
"Well, I've heard that before," Scheltinga commented with a snort. "Everyone seems to make a similar claim in these places." A diamond pin sparked on his tie and an emerald ring graced his hand. His white, thick hair gave him a striking judicial look. He pulled a delicately engraved watch from his waistcoat pocket and opened it. A lilting melody played as he regarded the expensive piece. "I have a limited amount of time," he declared, not raising his head. "And do not want to be delayed. I plan to leave within the hour."
"Yes, yes, of course!" Violet said, bobbing her head. "I've just opened, so there's nothing ready yet. The stove's been fired and today's biscuits are ready to bake or I can warm up some biscuits that are already made and…" she suggested.
Scheltinga held up a hand to stifle her. "If the biscuits are from yesterday, I don't want them. I will require fresh eggs, fried in sweet butter; bacon, well crisped with minimal rind, fresh fruit, FRESH biscuits and marmalade. And bring it quickly. I don't have time to loiter."
Violet bobbed her head again and disappeared into the kitchen.
"And coffee!" he shouted after her. "With fresh cream." He raised an eye to Josiah and stated, "They always end up serving cream that is half-curdled and sour, as if I couldn't tell the difference."
Josiah replied, "If you took your coffee black, you wouldn't run into that problem."
Scheltinga scowled, presumably a familiar expression to the man. "Hardly," he murmured. "The cream helps disguise the bitter concoction they try to pass off to their customers as coffee."
"Hmmm," Josiah responded, sipping his coffee and finding it rather pleasant. "Perhaps you should try it before you form an opinion."
"Sir," Scheltinga replied. "The last person to offer me advice was my father, and he was an abject fool."
Violet returned with a mug, a creamer and a coffeepot. She carefully poured a cup before stepping back and letting the judge enjoy the beverage. He took a sip and made a face. He dipped a finger into the cream and tasted it. Apparently, it was satisfactory because he poured a liberal amount into his cup to counteract whatever foulness he found in the drink. Violet stayed long enough to ensure the man would drink it, and then she hurried back into her kitchen.
"Do you hail from this hamlet?" Scheltinga asked casually, raising an eyebrow at Sanchez.
"Nope," Josiah replied, hiding a smile. No, not from South Bridge. If certain people knew he was here, he was sure he wouldn't be staying much longer. "Where I live is a two-day ride from here."
"Good for you. I doubt your town would be any worse than this one-horse catastrophe."
Josiah chuckled. "If this town is 'one-horse', than I'd have to declare mine a 'half-pony'."
Scheltinga regarded him, not sure of how to take that statement. "Really? Well. Hmmm." He finally shook his head and declared, "Lord, I need to live in civilization. One can never receive adequate service out here and the food one is forced to endure is appalling in its quality. The locals might rave over it, but I find it not fit for hogs."
Josiah noted the Violet was standing in the doorway of her kitchen and turned an ashamed face toward their tables. Sanchez winked at the woman who had been kind to him and said, "I find the food to be exceptional."
"Some have lower standards than others," Scheltinga harrumphed and pulled at his jacket, a nervous gesture that looked so familiar to the preacher. "I prefer decent sustenance, Mr.…" he drew to a stop, cocking his head in Josiah's direction.
"Sanchez. Josiah Sanchez," Josiah said, extending a hand. There was something about the way Scheltinga held his head, Josiah thought. With his head tilted just-so, Josiah had the definite impression that he recognized the judge from somewhere. It clicked together when Scheltinga smiled - self-satisfied and proud. He'd seen that same smile appear on a certain gambler when that gambler was trying to hoodwink him.
Josiah blinked and saw - quite clearly now - a definite resemblance. It was in the shape of a jaw and cheekbones, the way his head tilted, that calculating expression. Damn, if Scheltinga didn't share a striking similarity to Ezra.
Dubiously, Scheltinga took Josiah's hand with his fingers and gave it a little shake. "The Honorable Judge Jacob Hendrik Scheltinga," the man replied with a dip of his head. "But you know that already." He smiled, sure of himself and his position.
Josiah stared, unable to convince himself one way or another - unable to say for certain if Scheltinga really looked like Standish, or if it had just been a trick of light, or perhaps the product of an aging mind.
The door to the restaurant opened, and a nervous-looking man entered, his eyes instantly fastening on the judge. "Judge Scheltinga, sir," he greeted, and carefully approached the table.
The important man rolled his eyes. "Carver," he grumbled. "How many times have I told you? I don't like to be interrupted at meal times." Scheltinga gestured to his table. "In spite of these appalling surroundings, the rule still stands."
Carver glanced to the table, that held nothing but the coffee and cream. "Yes, sir," he answered in a low voice. "But, sir, I had an urgent message to deliver."
As Scheltinga extended an arm, he furrowed his brow. "What's it about, Carver?"
With a quick step, Mr. Carver reached the table and proffered the envelope. "I'm not quite sure, sir. A gentleman told me that it was of an urgent and private nature. He seemed quite anxious that I deliver it immediately."
"Carver…" Scheltinga voiced, his tone carrying all his displeasure.
"He was rather persuasive, sir."
Sighing, Scheltinga took the letter and turned it over in his hands. He made a dismissive gesture to Carver, and the lackey disappeared through the door. "Someone always wants something from me," the judge mumbled peevishly. "Sometimes I wonder why I put up with them. You'd think a man of my position would be allowed to do his job without such pointless interruptions."
Josiah smiled softly, wondering what campaigning for Governor had to do with Scheltinga's position in the justice system. The man flipped the letter over in his hand, and Josiah was caught by the familiar handwriting addressing the envelope. The judge opened it and pulled the note from within.
As Scheltinga read, Josiah caught an even clearer image of the card sharp. The judge bowed his head and ran one thumb across his bottom lip as he digested the words. Lord! That man looked like Ezra. Josiah sat back in his chair, willing to bet everything he owned that this man was Ezra's father - reading a letter from his son. His mouth dropped open slightly in wonder and shock. Here, sitting at the table next to him, was the man he'd puzzled over for so long.
Violet arrived, carrying a plate of food and setting it down before the judge, playing the part of a perfect server. She returned to the back room without Scheltinga even noticing she'd been there. Josiah hardly saw her either, his attention was so captivated by the man who resembled the gambler.
Scheltinga's expression darkened as he read and that semblance of Ezra disappeared, submerged under a wrathful visage. "Damn him," Jacob spat, crumpling the note in his fist. He almost threw the letter onto the table and was surprised to find a plate of food in the way. Instead, he slammed it down beside the plate, making the dishware jump.
The judge glanced to the other table and Josiah looked a question at him. Scheltinga responded in a low voice, "Mr. Sanchez, do you have any children?"
"Yes," Josiah replied after a short hesitation. "A son."
Scheltinga grunted. "Did he turn out the way you wanted?"
After another pause, the preacher responded, "No."
With a snort, the judge stated, "Then you might understand my predicament." He sighed, rubbing his forehead dolefully. "If only I had had him from the start, he may have stood a chance. I could have molded him into something worthwhile. I could have made a decent man out of him. But, perhaps it's just in his nature to be a …" Abruptly, he sat forward, and edged his chair closer to Josiah's table. He said in a confidential tone, "I met this woman, Maude, at a… tavern. We…" and his voice trailed off as he grimaced.
Josiah said nothing, waiting for Scheltinga to continue.
Deciding to forge onward, the judge stated, "I was a young lawyer then, just starting out - new practice, trying to make a name for myself. I had a wife, Elizabeth, but…" he made a familiar open handed gesture. "Elizabeth's family was rich beyond measure. She was a beauty – breathtaking – coal-black hair - skin like alabaster - and as stupid as a fence-post. Maude…" He sighed. "… wasn't. She was exciting, intelligent, engaging. We…clicked." He narrowed his eyes at Sanchez and declared, "I only knew her for a month or so. Then she moved on, leaving me with only Elizabeth to engage me." He grimaced, a look of betrayal flitting across his face.
After clearing his throat, Jacob stated, "I didn't realize that anything had become of our… encounters. So, when eight years passed and she showed up with her whelp, I was… I should say… astounded. He looked like me," he muttered, looking annoyed. "She introduced him as Jacob Hendrik Scheltinga, Jr. Damn, if she hadn't planned it from the start! I believe she may have forced liquor upon me during our visits for the sole purpose of lowering my defenses so that she could use a child against me later."
The judge fumed, obviously still bothered by this meeting. "She was a dangerous woman and thought she could blackmail me. She told me that she'd raised the brat for eight years and deserved recompense for her troubles. He had been an extremely costly child. She demanded $8,000 from me for my silence, saying that it might be enough to get him to his adulthood without troubling me again. When I didn't answer immediately, she told me that she'd make it 'difficult' for me if I refused her request, since the child bore such a strong resemblance to me."
"He must have been so unhappy," Josiah responded softly, trying to imagine the scene, wondering if Ezra was there to hear this negotiation, realizing that he probably was. In his mind's eye he could see a younger version of the cardsharp, with sad eyes and a plastered-on smile, waiting for the outcome, wondering what his mother was getting him into. "It must have hurt him," Sanchez whispered.
"Hardly!" was Scheltinga's response. "The bastard was in on the scam, ready to fleece me out of everything I'd worked so hard for. Everything I possessed was my own doing. My father had come to this country with empty pockets and raised me on dirt." Jacob took on a distant expression as he picked up his fork and poked at the bacon. "We had it so hard. I pledged that I'd never go back to that existence. I recall, in my youth, staring wistfully at our rich neighbors, wanting everything they had. And I had gained it all through my own diligence."
"There are more than one type of wealth," Josiah commented as Jacob ate.
Scheltinga grunted. "Ah," he commented. "A philosopher! Only the poor can afford to be philosophers." He continued to chuckle as he ate a few bites.
"True," Josiah responded. "Perhaps, because the poor are not blinded by their riches."
"Honestly," Scheltinga replied. "I'd rather be blind." He waved his fork as he brought his story back on track. "Now Maude, was a clever woman, but I was considerably smarter. I outfoxed her. Shortly after I parted ways with the con woman, Elizabeth and I took a grand tour through Europe, and tragically, she took a fever and died. I'd remarried upon my return to the states. Victoria proved to be an adequate mate, but failed to bring me an heir. So you see, when Maude presented me with this dilemma, I came to a quick realization. It would be easy to pass off the interloper as a child of Elizabeth's and my union, born in Italy and left with adequate supervision until he was able to travel. The fact that I never mentioned him would be allowed due to my grief over losing Elizabeth." Scheltinga smiled toothily, reveling in this proof of his aptitude. "I told dear Maude that I'd take him off her hands for eight years and the debt would be void." He laughed.
Josiah sighed, unable to fathom what had been going through Ezra's mind at that point.
"Hoo hoo!" the judge chortled. "She almost choked! Of course, I'd prefer that she simply backed off and left with him, but I wasn't going to pay her any money. She tried to bargain with me, lowering her price. But I didn't budge. She kept going lower, but in the end, she agreed to my plan. She took the boy aside - gave him a talking to, and left him at my doorstep with nothing but a carpetbag. You should have seen the expression on his somber little face." Scheltinga laughed again.
Josiah nodded, wondering what it must have been like to be used as a chit, to be treated as the 'bad end' of the bargain, and ultimately left behind. He wondered how low the price went before Maude gave it up as a lost cause.
Smiling at his cleverness, Jacob continued, "So I ended up with him, but at least I had an heir and wasn't bothered with the difficulties that come with an infant in the house. Of course, I didn't realize at the time, that the boy was already his mother's child. If I had known…" he paused to fork more eggs into his mouth.
Josiah could think of nothing to say, his mind suddenly drawn away to his own son, wondering what might have happened to Miguel if he'd only stayed with the boy. Maybe, he thought, if I'd had that boy from the start, he might have turned out better. He was such a sweet child. If I'd kept him at my side, he may have grown into good man.
Scheltinga kept up his monologue, oblivious to his listener. "He was beyond any hope by the time I had my hands on him, tainted… ruined." He sighed, exasperatedly. The judge leaned back in his chair. "For the first three days, the boy terrorized us. One would think he'd been raised by savages. He 'accidentally' dropped dishes, was impolite, smart-mouthed and a complete nuisance to everyone in the household." With a sharp nod, Scheltinga added, "I taught him a lesson he wouldn't soon forget, and afterward his behavior improved considerably." With a chuckle, Scheltinga leaned forward again and whispered, "I fully believe that his mother had put him up to that. She must have told him to behave like a naughty naughty boy so that I'd send for her and pay her off to take him off my hands." A sly grin split the man's face. "I was smarter than her. A boy will behave quite handsomely with the proper method is applied."
Stiffly, Josiah asked, "Did you beat him often?"
Scheltinga shrugged. "Once he learned his place, he was tractable. He learned quickly enough to stay out of my way. He took to climbing into high places or escaping into the smallest holes." The judge sucked at his teeth for a minute, and then added, "It was for the best really. He had a habit of getting on my nerves." He waved his hand, as if he couldn't describe how the offences had truly occurred. "In the end, I rarely saw him. He was tutored during the day. I wouldn't have an ignorant offspring. I had hoped that he would work beside me at my firm in time, so I hired a man to ensure that he knew the law. I understand he was a fair student, but not as quick as I would have hoped."
"He was so young," Josiah said hollowly, remembering his own youth.
"Old enough," Scheltinga said, tugging at his chin, perhaps thinking about how nice it would have been to have a son in the business.
Josiah thought of his own son. They might have built a church. They might be guiding their flock together, sharing the responsibilities, dividing the load. If he'd had his son by his side, perhaps things might not have gone so horribly wrong in his own life. Perhaps he could have stayed on that path.
The judge went on with his story, saying, "The child would appear at supper and would remain silent if he knew what was good for him. Other than that…" Again Scheltinga shrugged. "He could have been anywhere. I didn't see him in any case."
"Did anyone?" Josiah questioned, drawing himself back to Scheltinga's story. "Did anyone in the family give him attention? Look out for him? Care for him?"
Scheltinga looked puzzled. "I don't believe so. Victoria hated the child. She saw the brat as a slap in the face - proof that she couldn't uphold her part of the marriage. There was the tutor of course, but I paid him to teach the boy, not to be his 'pal'. He may have spoken to the servants at times, but they knew better than to become familiar with their betters." With a frown, Jacob added in an ironic tone. "I did bring him to see my father, the great Eduard Pieter Scheltinga. The old man seemed to like him, but his mind was mostly gone by that time and he couldn't recognize a waste of time when he encountered one. He couldn't speak any longer. Even if he could, the old man knew mostly Dutch, so I don't know how the brat managed to make himself understood. Still, I brought the boy every Sunday to keep him out of trouble and to fulfill my duty to my father."
Leaning close to Josiah again, Sheltinga stated, "I thank my lucky stars that the old man was too far-gone to consider revising his Will to the boy's benefit." He didn't seem to notice that, as he leaned in, Josiah edged away. "The child made off with nothing beside a cheap pocket watch." With a shake of the head Scheltinga added, "And he seemed happy to have it."
"How long?" Josiah asked softly, glaring at the respected judge. "How long did he stay with you?" He hoped to God it wasn't eight years.
"Six months," Scheltinga stated. "I was rather happy with the way the situation had panned out. He had learned to behave as I saw fit and gave me no trouble. Then, when I informed him that we wouldn't be visiting Father any longer because the old man had finally died, the boy became somewhat… belligerent. He had the nerve to inform me that I had mistreated my own father, leaving him to die alone at that hospital. As if I could have kept him at my own residence? I already had one worthless child, I couldn't add a senseless old man to the mix."
Josiah opened his mouth to speak, but stilled his intention. He was afraid that if he spoke, things would end badly. He needed to hear the story to the bitter end.
"The child said the most disrespecting things to me. He needed to be put in his place. But when I came at him, he tried to escape. Oh, but he'd raised my ire and I wouldn't let him get away so easily. He climbed into this rat hole, but I grabbed him by the foot and hauled him out." Scheltinga's eyes were bright with the rush of emotions that caught him. "The devil wouldn't shut his mouth until I shut it for him. I sent him to stay in town after that, until his mother could come and claim him. I couldn't stand to set eyes on him again."
Good Lord, Josiah thought. Good God.
"Before he was taken away, I made that boy swear - swear on his own grave - to never, never use my name again. He didn't deserve to be a Scheltinga. How could someone like me want to be associated with a hoodlum like him? Whether he's kept that promise, I couldn't say. Knowing his type, he's probably blabbed it everywhere. At least it has never reached my ears."
Josiah couldn't speak. He closed his eyes and tried to quiet the roaring sound in his ears, tried not to give into the red anger that prepared to consume him.
"And today," Scheltinga continued, gesturing to the wad of paper. "He sends me this note, asking to meet me, as if I would be seen with him. I caught sight of him at the rally - I'm sure of it. He was off to the side, but had a commanding position so that he could be sure to see me. He hadn't changed, not one iota! And, I could tell by looking at him - he's just like his mother - a thief, a gambler, a con artist with no value to good society. The note said that he wanted to talk, to work things out between us. Pfft! He wanted to publicly humiliate me, to continue the blackmail his mother started! To think, people might believe there was some connection between us!" He crumbled the letter further, fisting it into a ball. "I'll have nothing to do with him."
"Go," Josiah said, his voice a low rumble.
"What?" Scheltinga questioned.
"Get the hell out of here," Josiah growled, jumping to his feet. "Get out of this building. Get out of this town. Get out of this territory!"
"I beg your pardon?" Jacob got out of his chair in a hurry, edging away from the furious preacher. Sanchez' eyes nearly glowed in their orbits.
Josiah picked up the man's hat and shoved it at him, mangling the crown. "Leave now, or God help me, I'll do something I'll regret." Sanchez was shaking, trembling with rage over what he'd heard. His hand moved toward his Schofield. "GO!"
Stumbling backward, Scheltinga made it to the door. He cringed, as if afraid of a blow, but Sanchez hadn't moved. "You're crazy!" he cried. "What's the matter with you!"
Josiah considered the question. Yes, what was wrong with him? Why had he sat so long in silence? "What's the matter with me?" Josiah echoed, twisting a smile. "Sometimes I wonder."
"Crazy!" Scheltinga stated again, noting the look - as black as a tar - that Sanchez shot him. "Madness!" He shoved open the door and was gone, leaving the meal half-eaten and unpaid for.
Josiah lifted his chin as the door slammed shut and the respectable judge spun about, nearly colliding with one of the good people of South Bridge. Sanchez released a breath, knowing that if Scheltinga had stayed a moment longer, he might have pounded that notable judge to dust. He breathed slowly, trying to still his racing heart, trying to clear the redness that filled his mind.
How dare he….
Sanchez glanced down, spotting the discarded letter. It didn't seem right to leave it lying in the dust. He stooped and retrieved it, smoothing it out carefully. Between Scheltinga's sweat and his destruction of the paper, only: "Dear Father…" and "..I was a child and, although that doesn't excuse my behavior, I'd…" and later, "… I hope you might find it in your heart to speak to me. I'll be at the True Blue, awaiting..." was still legible.
Josiah was still for several minutes, breathing deeply until Violet urgently touched his arm. "You have to go," she said quietly, indicating the back door. "Hurry, before they find you." He managed to press enough money into her hand to pay for both meals before he slipped through the door and into the back alley.
The True Blue Saloon was a decent yet quiet place - a place where a good and upstanding citizen might consider meeting one of the dregs of society without feeling too improper – it was a place where one could go without fear of being seen by anyone that mattered.
When Josiah pressed the door open, his eyes instantly fastened on the well-dressed gambler. Ezra sat, at that ungodly, early hour, dressed in a subtle and gentlemanly charcoal-gray suit - a mug of coffee sat before him and his hat rested by his elbow. Josiah saw the gambler's face light up in anticipation at his entrance and then change to a look of puzzlement as he recognized the newcomer. "Josiah?" His voice was tinged with shock as he stood. "Mr. Sanchez," he restated, quickly regaining his composure. "What a surprise." He smiled then, a bit too widely. "Fancy meetin' you here, of all places," he cried cheerfully. "I might have expected to find you on the moon before I saw you on the streets of South Bridge. What brings you here?"
Josiah strode across the room, noting the strained look of Ezra's expression. He honestly had to think a moment to recall why he had come. "Chris sent me." It seemed like ages since he'd read that message from Larabee.
"Ah, yes," Ezra responded, stepping back. The smile disappeared. Without that forced expression, his face looked so sad. "Perhaps he has some final words of wisdom for me? He speaks so rarely, that I must remember to listen when he imparts anything. Or maybe, he sends details as to where he sent my belongings?"
Josiah shook his head. "He wanted me to make sure you were okay," he responded. Seeing the disbelieving look cross Ezra's face, he added, "He was afraid that you and he had parted in a less than acceptable way."
"That's one way to say it."
"He wanted to make sure you came back so that the two of you could work this out." Sanchez handed Chris' letter over to the Southerner.
"Oh, I see," Ezra replied, a look of relief washing over him, replacing his forced smile. He pulled the letter from the envelope and read it. "How very good. Yes, well, I could find my way back to that locality. A discussion might be in order. I'm afraid I may have burned certain bridges preceding my departure." He dipped his head and stated, "I would appreciate an audience with Mr. Larabee to clear up the matter."
"Come on then," Josiah stated. "No reason to delay. That trial's beginnin' today, but I'm sure they'll be glad to see us when we arrive. We'll head out before it gets too late."
Ezra carefully returned the letter to the envelope, and inserted it into his pocket. "Unfortunately, I have prior business that needs attendin' to." He pulled a pocket watch from his waistcoat and flipped it open. A frown caught his features as he noted the hour.
A carriage rattled down the road and both men turned to see it. It was an expensive rig, with a matched set of sorrel horses. "Looks like Judge Scheltinga is leaving town," Josiah stated as he noted the harried-looking man within. Scheltinga sat with his eyes forward and a scowl marring his face. Carver, his assistant, sat beside him, looking as nervous as ever. The road, slick from the overnight rainfall, kicked up a hail of mud to mark their departure.
"Oh," Ezra responded, still holding the old, but well-cared-for, watch. His eyes took on a lost and lonely look as they followed the carriage.
Josiah watched as Ezra closed the watch and rubbed a thumb across the engraved EPS on the cover. With a disinterested sigh, Standish stated, "Perhaps you're right, Mr. Sanchez. We'd best not delay our departure any further."
Josiah laid a companionable hand on the smaller man's arm, not letting him get away. "Besides, I got a good reason to be leavin' town before the local law finds me."
"Oh Lord!" Ezra moaned. "Don't tell me that you've again found trouble in this fair town."
"Trouble kind of found me," Josiah replied.
"You didn't get into a fight, did you?" Ezra queried, grabbing his hat, and looking as if he was ready to go to battle. He fished a coin out of his pocket and left it beside his empty mug.
"Nearly," was Josiah's response as they made their way toward the door. "Made threats against a man's life."
Ezra raised an eyebrow and chuckled, looking less strained and more like his usual self. "Now, why does that not surprise me?" He cracked open the door, checked the street and gestured to the preacher. "Come on, let's escape while we can."
They made it to the boardwalk and kept at a quick clip, eager to reach the livery and be away. As they walked, Josiah glanced to Ezra – imagining him as a young boy – alone and afraid, misused and betrayed. How could a man do that to a child? Josiah wondered how in hell it had been allowed to happen. As they hurried along, Josiah watched Ezra's expression fall, perhaps remembering that his father had left him - without a word. Sanchez wished he could think of something to say, to ease the southerner's troubled mind.
"I thought about Miguel today," Josiah said softly, bringing Ezra to a sudden stop.
Standish rotated his gaze to meet Josiah's eyes, startled by this sudden statement. "And?" he prompted.
"I wondered what our lives would have been like if I'd stayed with him through his childhood."
Ezra forced a laugh. "Well, Mr. Sanchez, that doesn't always turn out for the best. Just because a child is with his father doesn't mean things will go smoothly. The behavior of some children is just beyond any hope of remedy." He started walking again, drawing Josiah with him across an alley and toward their escape from town. "A father doesn't always deserve the child that has been forced upon him," the cardsharp concluded.
Josiah couldn't help it. The rage that had been bottled up sprung loose. Ezra cried out in shock as Sanchez grabbed him and jerked him into the alley, slamming him up against the wall.
"He was a goddamn fool, Ezra!" Josiah shouted at the stunned face. "He was a monster without remorse who had no idea how to handle a child. He was a heartless son-of-a-bitch!"
Ezra gulped, grabbing tightly onto Josiah's arm that pinned him by his neck and lifted him off his feet. "J'siah," he gasped. "Can't breathe! Please!"
Horrified, Sanchez let go and allowed Ezra to get his feet. The gambler coughed and shook his head to clear it. "Good God!" the preacher uttered.
"You have…an alarming tendency… Mr. Sanchez… to 'fly off the handle'," Ezra got out. "A little warning would be… appreciated."
"Ezra, I'm so sorry. I should never have…" Worry filled his voice as Josiah watched Ezra cough. " Are you okay?"
"Right as rain," Standish supplied, trying to get away from Josiah's concerned glance. "Perhaps we should be on our way… before the authorities get wind of … your latest attack."
"I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me. Ezra, you must believe me."
With a placating gesture, Ezra waved off his entries. "Don't let it bother you," he stated. "You wouldn't be the first."
At those words, Josiah sighed and placed one hand on each of Ezra's shoulders, garnering an alarmed look from the gamester as if he expected to be slammed against the wall again. Josiah winced at this realization.
"Ezra," the preacher said softly. "It wasn't your fault."
"I agree!" Ezra returned heatedly. "I was simply walking along when you…"
"No, Ezra. Listen to me. No father has the right to mistreat his child. What he did to you was wrong."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Ezra returned as his expression darkened. "Unhand me."
"A good father treats his child as a precious gift."
"Let me go."
" A good father forgives faults and takes pride in his child."
Ezra smiled ironically. "Not all children are worthy of such things, Mr. Sanchez."
"No," Josiah said flatly. "You're wrong. Ezra, but he was wrong – about everything. He didn't deserve you."
"That's what I was saying."
"No, Ezra, No. Your father didn't deserve you because you were too good for him."
Ezra closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall. "I have no father," Ezra whispered. "At least, none that would claim me." Suddenly, Ezra realized what he'd said and spun his way out of Josiah's grip. He looked astounded as he backed away. "We must be going," he stated. "We must be on our way."
Josiah watched mutely. Watching Ezra's panic as the gambler kept out of arm's-reach, headed toward the livery, as jumpy as a cat.
With a deep sigh, Josiah followed, observing as Ezra scanned the small morning crowd in front of them, dodging and hedging his way, carefully delivering them from the eyes of the law. It was going to be a long ride home, Sanchez knew. There'll be plenty of time to talk. Of course, the preacher rather doubted he'd be able to get Ezra to spill any more information, but at least he now understood a great deal about him.
When they reached the front doors of the stable, Ezra looked over his shoulder at him. He'd regained his composure, smiling as if nothing had happened in that alleyway. "Looks like we may make it out of here unharmed," Ezra stated with a tight grin.
Not quite, Josiah thought, still aching from the information he'd learned. Josiah followed, keeping quiet for now, biding his time. They had two days ahead of them. There'd be time.
With a chuckle that disguised any distress, Ezra stepped into the livery. "Sometimes I wonder why we have such hard luck with this town. Doesn't seem quite right. It's otherwise a charming locale." He kept a few steps ahead of Sanchez, not allowing him to catch up.
Yes, Sanchez thought, sometimes I wonder…. I wonder why a grown man could treat a child that way; I wonder why a mother would leave her own son in that situation. I wonder how a man can grow up thinking so little of himself, thinking that he deserved every blow he received.
Sanchez watched as Ezra approached his horse, greeting it, stroking its nose and speaking quietly to it. I wonder how a bright, charming, caring man could have sprung from such conditions. Chaucer tossed his head, and although Ezra dodged, he lost his hat. Standish caught it easily and waggling a finger at the horse. Some of the stress seemed to disappear from his face as the horse snorted and pranced. I wonder how a man could be so mistreated and end up like this.
Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if he'd been mine.
Sometimes, Josiah thought, looking warmly on the young man, who turned at him and gave a carefree smile. Sometimes I wonder.
The next South Bridge Story is: A Day Away