I finished packing the last of our things and looked around the cold room. Everything that had made it a warm haven was gone, packed away into three wooden crates. I was tired, beyond tired really. The nightmare that had become my life seemed to have sucked all the goodness from the air around me. My heart gave a great thump and I wondered if it would break right here where Ezra and I had been so happy.
"Josiah, this the last of it?" Vin's grim voice came from the doorway and I shook my head clear of the fatigue before nodding. "Good, I got my wagon at the back door. Nathan's on his way. We'll be loaded up and gone before another hour."
"Good," I managed a smile for him. He and the rest of the seven were the only reason that I was keeping my sanity.
"You feelin' all right, 'Siah?" Nathan's voice asked professionally from over Vin's shoulder. "Let's finish haulin' this out to the wagon so's we can be on our way."
I nodded again and took one side of the biggest crate while he took the other. Vin held the door for us and we slid it onto the back of his wagon. Two more trips and I took a last look at the church that had taken so much of my time and thought. It would probably be exorcised by the new preacher.
Nathan gave me a one armed hug and handed me Solon's reins. Mounting, I waited for Vin to go first with the wagon then I fell in beside Nathan while we left the dust of Four Corners behind. I could feel eyes on our backs and I twitched just a little, wondering if one of the town bigots would decide to erase the sin of our presence with a rifle bullet or three.
Chris met us on the road to Sarney, riding Pony. There wasn't anything to say so we didn't speak on the two hour trip to the railroad town. I know that my brain had gone numb and only the knowledge that Ezra was waiting for me there kept me upright in the saddle. For the first time in a very long time, I wished that I had a bottle. Didn't matter what it was so long as it was strong.
Buck was waiting at the livery and with a few words he gave us the important parts of the plan. I hadn't even realized there was a 'plan for this contingency' as Ezra had put it when Reverend Andrews denounced us in the street outside the saloon. But it seemed to be working so I was content to let it play out. The best part of this plan was waiting for us in the small hotel a few blocks away.
********* Ezra *********
My poor Josiah was barely putting one foot in front of the other when Buck brought the rest of our brotherhood to the suite I'd reserved. I hugged him right in front of the others, glad that he was finally here. His arms held me so close that I could hardly breathe but that didn't matter, only that he was safe from the small minded idiots in our former town.
After a long moment when all I wanted to do was take him straight to the big bed in the other room, I murmured his name. His big hands finally came to rest on my shoulders and I was able to lean back enough to see the sorrow in his eyes. I couldn't bear to see that so I rushed into speech.
"We are going to California, Josiah. The midnight train should have two cars reserved for us. One will hold the horses and our household goods, the other will hold the eight of us." I smiled at his questioning look and looked around him for our healer. "Rain will be here shortly, Nathan. When I explained what had happened, she started packing. JD waited for her while Buck and I came on ahead to send some telegrams and get some supplies."
Nathan beamed and I was glad that Buck had reminded me of the sassy woman who lived with the tribe. It was good that we all had our lovers with us on this new venture into the unknown. I led Josiah to the settee and made him sit down before going to the tea set that I'd borrowed from the hotel kitchens. It wasn't the dainty tea service that was ours but it would do for now.
"You going to tell us how we got us a couple of railway cars reserved?" Vin asked from beside his lover on a pair of chairs near the windows.
"I was an actor for a time right after the War. One of my companions was a very experienced thespian who helped me learn the trade." I remembered my friend with a smile. "He was so amazing that he could literally become anyone he wished and you'd truly believe that he was a . . . a Chinaman or a grizzled old sailor or Othello himself. Two years after I'd moved on, I came across him again only to find that he worked for the government. We kept in touch after that so when he retired with his partner to northern California, he wrote me about their adventures. When I fell in love with Josiah, I wrote him about how happy I was even though Four Corners was the back of beyond."
There was a little wrinkle between Josiah's eyes and I reached up to smooth it out. "He was very happy for me because he was in love with his male partner and blissfully happy himself. He questioned the safety of our love in such a backwards village and since I also wondered just how safe we would be if our passion was discovered, we worked out a code by which I could cable him for help and he would provide it. The railway cars have been in place for over two months in Santa Fe. It seems that his partner owns quite a bit of railway stock so our escape route was assured."
********* Josiah *********
I could hardly take it in. All the time that I thought I was taking care of him, he'd been planning to take care of us. And it seemed he was doing a much better job of it than I could hardly believe. I could smell the lavender of our soap on him and I wanted to just bury myself in his arms and never come out. I was also jealous as hell of this actor to whom he was so close.
"We goin' to be actors, too?" Chris said sarcastically but I could see him thinking about California.
Ezra winked at him saucily. "I doubt you would succeed, Mr. Larabee, unless it was as one of the villains with that black glare of yours. No, I believe that Artemis has some land under title for two stalwart veterans of the War." He smiled at Vin and the tracker relaxed. "Their town needs a sheriff, JD. They have a very good doctor who needs an apothecary, Nathan. Their wood worker has more work than he can handle, Buck. And the town is in crying need of a good bookstore, Josiah."
He looked up at me and the hope there grew a large lump in my throat. After clearing it, I brought his hand up to my lips. "I think becoming a bookseller is exactly what I'd like to do."
His smile lit the room. "Excellent, Josiah, it will be great fun to find good used books with which to stock our shelves and even more fun to talk about them to their new owners. We can hold readings in the evenings. They will love to listen to you read, Josiah."
I almost flushed at his praise but the part of me that had sunk into despair, raised up and took a deep breath. "Getting started will take more capital than either of us have, my love."
Ezra blushed and slipped his hand into mine. "Actually, Josiah, Artemis' partner is a talented businessman who is a genius with a stock portfolio. I transferred half of my assets to an account in San Francisco and gave him charge of it. So far, he's tripled it and will have perhaps quadrupled it by the time we reach them in eight days. We will have sufficient to stock our modest book shop, Josiah, truly we will."
My angel was proving to have wings and a halo, I thought while stroking a thumb across his soft cheek. He must have realized that I was content because he dimpled up at me before laying his head against my shoulder and cradling my left hand in both of his. We were all tired from the last two days of hell and the release of tension sent us all into a torpor that might have passed onto sleep if JD and Rain hadn't arrived.
Watching Nathan take both her hands in his, I truly felt like smiling for the first time in what seemed like forever. They were good together and both had escaped pasts that would have crippled less strong souls. I could hardly wait for the wedding.
********* Ezra *********
I sighed in relief. Josiah hadn't asked anymore questions so I'd not had to skirt the truth much. I hadn't kept my finances a secret exactly, just never mentioned some of my resources. If mother taught me anything, it was to hide your assets and always diversify. I hadn't met Artemis' partner, except the once but within investment circles the name James West was spoken of with awe.
My nest egg had hatched enough gold to stock more than a modest book shop but starting small would take a great deal of time and effort. And after the shocking events of the last week, we all needed something to take our minds off the loss of the sinecure that was Four Corners law enforcement. I hadn't liked the looks of the Reverend Andrews when he and his pious wife had come to town.
His thundering denunciations of the sinfulness of life in town and especially of the seven peace keepers had at first dismayed us but then painted targets on our backs for the lawless scum who pretended to be so shocked and appalled at our depravity. It had all gone from bad to worse within the space of twenty-four hours and I'd kissed Josiah goodbye with all the fervor I could manage before heading here to Sarney and the telegraph office.
Mother always had an escape route planned and I'd learned that lesson extremely early. I held onto Josiah's hand tightly, pressing it against my chest and wishing we had this room to ourselves. But there was no time for cuddling. We had six hours to get the rest of our supplies, see Sarney's preacher so Nathan and Rain could get married, and find enough bedding to go with the cots Buck and I had bought at the local emporium.
Dividing up the tasks, I parceled out some of the gold that I'd withdrawn from the bank earlier. I never kept my money in the same town where I worked since that was rarely prudent. The bank manager had tried to talk me out of taking it all but I merely informed him of the 'special but unspecified deal' in which I was participating. While there, I also arranged for the mortgages that I held in Four Corners to be transferred to an old friend of mine who had recently settled in Santa Fe.
Reverend Andrews and his cohorts would soon be dealing with a Sicilian who owed me a life debt and had my approval to bring his own form of justice to the place that I'd once thought might be a home. His large family would no doubt help. I smiled to myself and shook my head at Josiah's questioning look. I didn't think he'd approve of my machinations since he really didn't believe in his father's 'eye for an eye' philosophy.
I didn't either . . . much. I didn't really care what they did to me but they'd hurt Josiah and my friends and that was completely unacceptable. I was fierce in my determination to take care of them now. Once Josiah was feeling better and getting interested in our future, then I could go back to being the free spirit he saw in me. He'd compared me to a kitten once and I smugly agreed that I was. And right now my claws were needed.
********* Josiah *********
The steady rumble of the rails beneath me was a rather soothing accompaniment to my tired self. We'd gotten everything done, including celebrating Nathan and Rain's wedding in the small church in Sarney. The midnight train had pulled in on time and we'd quickly loaded up our horses, supplies and household goods into the two cars. The people car had been a revelation to most of us.
There was a small necessary room with a sink and a commode next to a galley kitchen where Rain and Nathan had unpacked the food and drink that we'd gathered for the next two days. The parlor was small but bigger than the other rooms so it accommodated four of us. Buck and JD set up their cots at one end while Vin and Chris took the other end. Two other rooms were small bedrooms and our newly weds took the far end while Ezra and I set up our cots in the other one.
We placed our cots side by side, the way we all had and I held Ezra's hand as if he'd disappear if I let go. Might he still be awake? I whispered, "Ezra?"
"Beloved," he raised up on one elbow and looked down at me, the moonlight from the window veiling him in silvery light. "Are you mad that I took over and planned everything without telling you?"
"God! No, Ezra, I'm grateful beyond belief that you thought so far ahead." I tried to smile. "I'm ashamed that I did so little to help."
"Josiah," he frowned sternly, well as sternly as his adorable face would allow. "You took care of me for the last six months." His hand stroked my bristly cheek and I wished I'd shaved so I wouldn't mar his tender skin. "You loved me, fed me, made love to me and did everything while I was healing. I love you so much and I cherish our friends so very much that this was the least I could do. Mother always taught me to plan for the rainy day that was sure to come."
I chuckled a little. "She was right, beloved, rainy days and crows always come."
"But together, we can shelter from the rain and shoo the crows away." He reminded me before leaning in and kissing me sweetly.
We feasted on each other slowly until we both had to yawn, which set us to chuckling quietly. Laying as close together as the two canvas and wood cots would allow, we fell asleep to the accompaniment of the click-clack of the wheels against the rails. Sleepily, I heard a moan from the end compartment and I smiled at the two hearts who'd been united so recently.
The future was a bit cloudy but between the eight of us, we'd make sure that the sun would break through to guide us to our new home.
********* James *********
I was not nervous. I tugged a little on the tie that kept trying to strangle me. Artemis' chuckle told me that he'd noticed. I darted a look at him and found him smiling tenderly at me. That can still make me blush and we'd been lovers for just over four years now.
"James, my dearest love, please relax." That rich voice that I loved to listen to poured over my ears like honey. "They are going to like you and you are going to enjoy them. Ezra's judgment is second only to your own, beloved, and he has called these men his brothers."
"I know Ezra has a quick mind and a talent for business but this man he loves is a minister." I could hear my father's voice trumpeting about sin but it was quieter now after the years of Artemis telling me he loved me.
"True but Ezra has a secret weapon." My lover chuckled and took my hand. "He was raised by a she-wolf who did untold damage to his sweet soul, in almost the same manner that your father did to you. Mothers do not always protect their young and if this man was anything like your father, Ezra would have run a mile from him."
I thought about that while we waited in the small front parlor of the Hilltop Hotel. We always stayed here when we came into San Francisco and we had rooms reserved for the eight new settlers of Nice. From the descriptions in Ezra's last letter, I would probably be most comfortable with Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner. Artemis had chosen ten thousand acres about half way around the lake for them to claim and with a little help in Sacramento from our lawyer and five thousand dollars from Ezra's account, the seven of them now held the deed.
The others would be in town and that had proven to be an interesting puzzle to figure out. Wellington had accepted Buck Wilmington for a probationary period of six months and offered the rooms above the shop for him and J.D. Dunne since he and Denver had built their new home. The town council had been looking for a new sheriff since the old one caught the gold fever and departed for the northern territories. Artemis recommended the young man and the council agreed, again for a six month trial.
The shop next door to Wellington's furniture workshop was empty now and I'd bought it from the former owners who'd also left for greener pastures. It would be perfect for the book store that Ezra had written us to find. The rooms above would house him and his partner quite well with no need to worry about any noise affecting their neighbors. For the Negro and his new wife, of whom Ezra had cabled us once they were on their way, we had a temporary home ready.
A homestead on the edge of Nice between the railroad station and the woods through which we traveled when we came to town, we'd thought would provide enough land for the herbs that Nathan Jackson would be growing. But the tiny cabin already there would barely hold him, let alone a wife and perhaps children. Still, we had experience building houses and the others of the seven would surely help their friend build on.
While I was musing, they arrived and I was soon shaking hands while trying to keep an eye on Artemis and the beautiful young man he'd hugged and called 'Ezra'. Flashing green eyes and a sassy smile made my stomach quiver. The young man shone with bright laughter and I compared myself to him with a sinking heart.
"Mr. West, I'd like to thank you for your help." The older man was grizzled with tired eyes and the deep voice that reminded me of the pulpit, but his hand shake was gentle. "Do not borrow trouble, young man. Your Mr. Gordon is rather like my Ezra, a bright soul with a beautiful and bountiful heart. I can see that you and I are somewhat alike also."
I looked into almost identical blue eyes and blinked. I'd barely met the man but he'd read my mind with ease.
He smiled, looking at the two green-eyed men across the room. "I have long been a solitary man, fighting demons within my soul and devils out in the great world around us. Until Ezra, I was lonely and sad, thinking myself too old and definitely too mundane to attract such a beautiful man."
I blinked again and cast a quick look across to my laughing lover. As if he could read my mind, he looked at me and smiled lovingly. At the same moment, Ezra looked over to beam at the man beside me. Once again, I thanked God for the man who held my heart.
Coming back to the graying man at my side, I swallowed hard and replied. "You are right, Mr. Sanchez. Artemis rescued me from the icy prison that my father had walled me in for most of my life. According to him, there was nothing but sin in my soul and nothing loveable about me at all."
He nodded and finished his tea. "That is well said, Mr. West. My father was the same, a preacher of hellfire and brimstone. We will talk more later. For now, please accept my deepest thanks for helping Ezra plan our escape. I'm looking forward to beginning a new life with friends around me, both old and new."
He smiled and left me to get another cup of tea from the side board. I felt more settled and crossed the room to speak with the gunslinger and his tracker. Artemis had been right again, these were good men and would be just the right kind of diverse minds to help Nice grow. It should prove interesting to see them settle in.
End part six