This is a follow-on story to my previous story Hard Lessons. You should read that story before this one for it to make proper sense. A nod to Kristen for the name of Ezra's horse.
I recognize my culpability in the recent lack of correspondence. My sincerest apologies. I believe that once you have made your way to the end of this missive, you will understand my excuses – yes, more than one – and forgive your son this oversight.
You remember Buck Wilmington, Four Corners' very own Lothario? It seems that he and one or two other of my peacekeeping compatriots of our fair (ly dusty) hamlet have been taking lessons from Nathan Jackson. You are familiar with our fine healer from that time you hired him as your resident 'doctor', and from when you became more intimately familiar with him as he visited his dear departed father while you and Mister Jackson père were incarcerated at the same time in our delightful jail.
I preface this story of these last weeks with this understanding of Mister Wilmington's edification in the art and science of basic triage of ills and hurts for, without his knowledge, tender care and, indeed, brotherly concern, your 'sweet baby boy' as you relish in calling me even at the risk of embarrassing me in front of my comrades in arms, you might well have heard from one of these fine men notifying you of my death.
Dear Mother, do not worry. I am fully recovered from this ordeal. Suffice it to say that, as Mister Tanner has to his amusement reminded me constantly since the incident, I need to learn to duck. As it were in this situation, I had no warning or would have done so. Mister Wilmington and I were taken unawares while we rushed to what we feared was a brush fire during that long and miserable heat wave that has blessedly just days ago been replaced by infinitely cooler temperatures and brilliant blue skies and sunshine. I admit that with this brush with death I have found myself reveling in the simple beauty and goodness in life. Though it might have been that Mister Sanchez's crows would be more at the forefront of my mind, instead I find that the skies are indeed bluer, the smiles of my fellow townspeople, such as Mrs. Travis, young Billy Travis and the lovely Inez are brighter and warm my soul, Mrs. Potter's roses smell sweeter, young Mister Dunne's jokes are, impossible as it is to write, more amusing, and Chaucer's whinny when he senses I am approaching sounds as melodious as any great aria. And yes, even the companionable joking on my behalf from my fellow regulators – even the stern rapprochements from our leader Mister Larabee – no longer sting, as I know now that both of these types of encounters are offered in friendship and concern.
Yes, Mother, I have done the unimaginable. I have made friends. The taste of it has spoiled me, just as the taste of fine Kentucky bourbon from Louisville has done the same against the swill normally available in most of the drinking establishments in these parts. I will expect the requisite admonishments from you to come, though I should warn you that it will not be just I that you offend when you disparage me, my chosen role as a protector of this town, or the town itself. Be prepared to defend your comments the next time you visit.
I shall close by telling you of Josephine's cottonwoods. You may have heard tell of this grand stand of desert-thriving trees near a small creek not far outside Four Corners' proper, where Buck cared for me while we awaited assistance from our compatriots. I should say here that a young man, really just a boy, chose to helped us, a decision that, in the end, cost him his life. Buck assures me that the young man, while I was still quite unwell and unaware of the goings on inside the four walls of Mister Jackson's clinic, let alone what was occurring outside those walls, enjoyed several days of a life that he had never known in his short time on this earth. He was gunned down by his evil, vengeful older brother. This truly dysfunctional family, and their direct opposite, these six good men here who I feel as close to as I believe it should feel to have a blood brother, remind me that I owe you deep gratitude for my being an only child.
But I digress. Josephine was a hard working, 'salt of the Earth', as the saying goes. She and her husband were early settlers in the territory. This was a generation ago. They owned and worked a small parcel, about thirty acres, raising and selling cattle. It was a difficult life that they lead … Four Corners wasn't even a thought in anyone's mind back then. They had to make an overnight trip of it to get to town. Josephine had fifteen children. After she bravely bore each child, her husband planted a cottonwood tree. The cottonwood is of the genus Populus, or poplars as they are more commonly known. Here in the west, they continue to die as farmers redirect the water for their own uses that is required for their survival in the harsh conditions of the high desert. This desert environment can be a brutal place to live … to survive. Josephine's cottonwoods, and the fortuitous site of Josephine and her family's homestead on the bend of an abundant stream made their lives bearable, and this lush bosque in the desert has allowed these cottonwood trees to survive well beyond the family's abandonment of the homestead and move to California so very many years ago. Though I do not have full recollection of our time there, I do recall, and this is reinforced by Mister Wilmington's recitation, repeatedly he tells me as I was forever asking him the same questions those first days when I was finally awake enough to remember who and where I was, of our time out there, that without the protection of these fine old trees we might never have survived. Certainly, I would not be writing you now on this glorious late summer day without the aid of these sturdy trees and a fine man that I will be forever grateful to call friend.
I know that there are moments in this letter where what I have to say might come off as harsh. I do not mean to hurt you, Mother. I hope that you know that I love you. But I have changed, and right here, right now, as the man that I am this moment … I do not believe that I like you very much. And I know that we have had our moments where I have expressed my dissatisfaction to you in regard to my upbringing and how you continue to assume that I will be there for you to use as you see fit. I grow weary of thinking on my past, of how I used to be, of what you raised me to be. What I take away from this incident is that I have to live my life, take responsibility for it. I must move forward, and I ask that you understand that this means that you shall be in my life, henceforth, simply as my mother. No more games or cons or attempts on your part to insinuate yourself in my life here. I ask that you please accept this and allow me to live my life, and I shall do the same for you. Just as I do not ask for your help, or expect it, I would ask that you live your life and not expect me to bail you out of scams and cons that fail. Or jail. I can no longer, in good conscience, in light of being here now when by all rights I should have died those several weeks ago, live as I used to. Understand that this has been a gradual change. These six men, this town and its people, have spoiled me in every good way possible. Will I ever attempt a con again? Probably. Is it my hope that it would only be required in order to help the town or save a friend? Without doubt.
So, I end with an invitation. It has been some time since you have visited, and despite the appalled look on Mister Larabee's face when I tell him that I willingly and happily invited you back (you must admit that you have not endeared yourself to the man), I do hope that you will come. I have missed you (possibly not quite as much as Josiah has), and do hope to see you soon.
Ezra Standish sat back in his chair as he finished his turn minding the jailhouse. Dusk fast approached, the evening light had dimmed and the added darkness caused by the overhang had made it hard to finish what he was working on, but finish he did. He looked over the letter, though not really. He knew every word of it, and was satisfied that he'd written what needed to be said. He nodded his head and looked up as his replacement stepped onto the boardwalk.
"Evenin'," Chris Larabee said as he took the seat opposite the gambler.
"Mistah Larabee, how are you this evening?" he asked as he looked back down at the letter.
"Pretty good. Looks like it's gonna be a nice night."
Ezra looked up from perusing the correspondence to his mother. "Clear night should allow for quite a show up in the sky. The stars should go on forever."
Larabee nodded his agreement and then asked, "What's that?"
"Oh, just a long overdue letter to Mother."
"Looks like you had a lot to say," Chris observed as he noted the fine stationary, only written on one side, many pages long.
"Did you ever send her a telegraph about what happened?"
Ezra grinned and said, "Why ever would I want to do something like that?"
"She has a right to know."
"I beg to differ with you on that point, however," he said as he waved the just-finished last page of the letter, both to help it dry and to enhance his next words, "I have provided her with the details right here."
Now it was Chris' turn to smile. "Gotta post it first," he said as the smile left his face and he grew more serious.
"Aye, there's the rub," the con man said as he stood. He stretched; he'd spent nearly his entire shift sitting in the same spot, save for entering the jail for additional stacks of wanted posters … and more coffee. He'd sat at the table outside and sifted through the posters, contemplated the letter he would write to his mother, ate the lunch that Casey had brought that Nettie Wells had made for him, including the lusciously delectable flaky peach pinwheel that she had sent for dessert, read some of his book, looked through more posters, and finally hunkered down and wrote the note, which had turned into so much more. He stepped down from the boardwalk and headed to the saloon. "You know where to find me if you need me," he said as he walked away.
Chris watched as the southerner headed to his evening 'job', and then frowned as he witnessed his friend drop the letter into the street fire just before he took the steps onto the boardwalk and pushed the batwing doors open to enter the saloon. Chris shook his head. Ezra had been through something these last weeks. You didn't survive something like that without wanting to share it with those closest to you. And he had been happy to see Ezra open up more to each of his six partners after what he'd gone through. Maybe he didn't need his mother, but it was hard not to see it in his eyes that he yearned to at least talk to her. Stubborn cuss. Chris knew what his first order of business would be tomorrow. Well, maybe his third or fourth order of business, considering what time Ezra's day was likely to end tonight, or rather, tomorrow morning. With a satisfied nod, Chris went inside to do a little work and then lock up. His planned evening's entertainment, after joining Buck for supper, was to sit with whomever of the other seven could make it, share some whiskey, and watch their seventh make a killing at the poker table.