I held him and listened to the tiny lungs labor to take in air, hoping against hope that he was far enough along to make it on his own. But five minutes later, I laid him down and wrapped his small body in the quilt his mama had made for him. Mizz Black was stoic, having gone through this before. Two miscarriages had worn her out and I really hoped that Mr. Black would let her heal before trying to get her pregnant again.
"I'm real sorry, Mizz Black. It was just too soon." I sat by her side, holding the little boy who'd come too quickly into the world.
"You did your best, Mr. Jackson. I 'preciate you coming out all this way. When the pains started, I knew it was too early." Her faded blue eyes held mine, all the knowledge in the world in that resigned gaze. "Would you mind tending to him for me? Mr. Black won't return until next Friday. We buried his sister under the big maple tree at the other end of the pasture."
"I'll take care of him, Mizz Black. You just rest and take a little nap." I stood up, cradling the baby in my arms.
"Mr. Standish is still watching the children?" She could barely keep her eyes open but she had responsibilities.
"He's telling them stories out by the well. They're safe with him." I told her quietly.
"Good, tell him thank you for me." And she was asleep, just like that.
That was the best thing for her and I left her in the small bedroom off the kitchen of the shanty Mr. Black had cobbled together when he first came. It was a poor excuse for a home but she was proud of it. Heading outside, I wondered where the shovel might be found.
Green eyes met mine over the heads of the two children he was showing magic tricks to and his face never changed expression when I shook my head. Heading for the barn, I found the shovel and left out the back to head into the pasture. The old maple was a landmark in these parts and I thought of the little girl that slept there for eternity. Now she'd have company.
It didn't take long to dig down far enough so he wouldn't be disturbed. I laid him gently at the bottom and bowed my head in prayer. Josiah might could have done it better but he wasn't here so I did the best I could, asking the good Lord to take him safely to his sister. And I added another prayer that Mizz Black would get well and not get pregnant for at least a year.
Then I shoveled the dirt back in and rolled a nice sized stone onto the spot the way the other grave was marked. There was a stream not far from the homestead and I went there to wash away the dried blood. I took off my shirt and washed it too, wishing I had brought some soap with me. Like as not, the blood stains would set up and I'd have to buy another shirt.
"Here's the soap, N-n-nathan." A small voice piped up behind me and I sat back on my heels to take the white bar from the current man of the house.
"Thank you kindly, Johnny. I 'preciate it."
"You're w-w-welcome. Ezra asked m-m-me to bring it." Johnny's stutter would pass in time, I hoped. "The baby d-d-died."
The matter of fact statement shook me for some reason. "I'm afraid so, Johnny. It was too soon for him to be born."
"I w-w-was 'fraid too. I'm real glad you and Ezra c-c-came."
"I'm glad I came too, Johnny. Your mama will need you to be real strong for her while she heals up." I treated him as I would an adult but when he hugged me, I hugged him back the way I would any eight-year old boy who was growing up too fast.
"Thanks, N-n-nathan. You going to stay the n-n-night?" The little voice piped near my ear and I nodded. "Oh, b-b-boy, then Ezra is going to cook johnny-cakes for us."
"Really? Well then, I better wash up or he won't make me any." I let him go and watched him race back to the house. Ezra could cook? Somehow that seemed real strange to me. Shaking my head, I went back to washing my shirt and saw the last blood stain disappear with satisfaction.
I wrung it out good and threw it over my shoulder, headed for the barn and my saddlebags. I found them hanging over one of the horse stalls, my spare shirt hanging on a nail just awaitin' for me. It was too high for Johnny to reach so it must have been Ezra who thought of it.
'Course, clothes were real important to him so it kind of made sense. I shook my head, I would never understand him not if I lived to be a hundred. Buttoning up my shirt, I pondered the man I thought I hated once upon a time. That had been a year ago when my hatred of all things Southern had been strong. I'd tried avoiding him but time after time we were thrown together to save Four Corners or one thing or another until I guess I grew used to him.
He was good with kids, that much I had to give him. And it appeared that he could cook. Who'd have guessed it? I tucked in my shirt and dried my hair with the towel hanging there. If we stayed the night, the hayloft would be our bed and I stopped for a moment, wondering why I felt so warm at that thought.
"D-d-dinner." The stuttering cry came from the front porch and I hurried out of the barn.
The table was set with plates and forks with some fading wildflowers in a tin cup in the middle. Ezra was just coming out of the bedroom. "Mr. Jackson, Mrs. Black is having some beef broth for her dinner. I hope that is all right?"
"Best thing for her. Didn't know she had any on hand." I sat at the table and helped little Mary with her bib.
"I took the liberty of bringing some with us. Inez made up several jars and told me it would help her with the ... blood loss." He hesitated a moment over the words but I was too surprised at his thinking that far ahead to really notice.
"That was a real good thought, Ezra. Something smells good." I watched him bring over a stack of hotcakes that were steaming from the stove.
"Enjoy. There's syrup in the cruet." He blushed a little and helped Mary pour some syrup over the cake on her plate before handing it to me to help Johnny. With the edge of the fork, he showed her how to make little bite-sized pieces of cake so she didn't burn her mouth.
I finished off an entire cake in about two seconds. They were good and the syrup wasn't maple. "Ezra, what's the syrup got in it?"
"Um," his startled green eyes flew up to meet mine, "oh, it's a combination of honey and boysenberry. That's why it's a little dark colored."
I was too busy finishing another cake to do more than nod at him. He smiled, that gold tooth flashing at me. But Mary was demanding more help so he buckled down to cut up more of her cake. He must have been keeping a close eye on the disappearing ones though because just as I was polishing off the last, he got up and began to make more.
"Where did you learn to cook, Ezra?" I wondered if I could tease anymore of his past out of him. He'd seemed real secretive to me until I met his mother. Then I understood him a whole lot better. That woman was a force of nature like a flood or a hurricane.
"One of my ... early homes was rather deficient in funds and they hired me out to a local eatery establishment. I soon learned to cook to keep the chef's displeasure at a minimum." He set another plate of steaming cakes on the table and sat down this time to have one himself.
I'd gotten pretty good at deciphering Ezra-isms and I thought about a young boy sent to work in a kitchen. He was probably only one step up from the slaves working there and I could just see the young boy he was then, learning to duck a heavy hand or stir a sauce so it didn't burn. I'd come to realize over the course of the year that we both of us had had some similar experiences. 'Course I was a big strong boy at an early age and Ezra still wasn't that big.
"Well, I'm glad you did, Ezra. These taste real good. Did you make the syrup, too?" I looked up in time to see him blush again.
"Yes, I brought some supplies with me, not knowing what might be on hand." He shoved some cake in his mouth to keep from saying any more.
I knew just what he meant though. I'd kind of wondered my own self what state their larder might be in. Still, it had been a real generous thought of his. "I'm glad you thought ahead."
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the look of surprise that he quickly hid. And that made me feel kind of bad. I knew that I had held on to my prejudices longer than I should have but he deserved the praise he'd earned. I'd have to make sure that I remembered to thank him when he did something right and good. It was only fair.
Mary's appetite flagged after she finished the first cake and Johnny only managed three before having to quit. Ezra told them they had to do the dishes since he had cooked but I noticed that he 'helped' them after we were finished. I checked on Mizz Black and helped her use the chamber pot before changing the moss that was soaking up the trickles of blood left from the birth. I made sure that I covered the pot before I took it out to the outhouse to dump.
No sense in the children seeing the bloody aftermath of the miscarriage. When I came back in, Ezra had them washed up and into their nightshirts. The trundle bed was pulled out from under the big bed and they were tucked in side by side listening to his bedtime story with sleepy eyes. Mizz Black was listening too and I sat in the kitchen while he spun a yarn about boating down the river down to a big lake where trout leapt up into the boat for dinner and the little brother and sister sounded quite a bit like Johnny and Mary.
I was grinning by the time he finished the story and I heard Mizz Black thank him real quiet like, the little ones having already fallen asleep. Ezra surely did have a way with words. He shut the door quietly behind him and nodded at me, coming a little closer to whisper to me that he was going down to the stream to wash up before going to the barn.
I told him that I get our bed ready in the hayloft and he smiled kind of shy like, ducking his head and murmuring yes. I made sure the fires were banked in the house and I noticed that he already had the oatmeal soaking for breakfast tomorrow. Shaking my head, I closed the door behind me and walked slowly out to the barn. Somehow when I didn't know it, Ezra had turned into someone that I approved of, someone that I could trust.
Maybe all those qualities had been there all along and I was just now noticing them. If so, I owed him a big apology. Looking back over the last year, I realized that I'd been so wrapped up in snarling at the world that I'd closed myself off from someone who might become a friend. In fact, already had become a friend. Pulling both our bedrolls from our saddles, I climbed to the loft and mounded the straw to make a good base for our blankets. It was going to be cool later and the temp was already dropping.
Ezra was going to be shivering if he didn't hurry up. At that thought, he hurried in half-dressed. I'd just taken off my boots and laid them to the side when I looked over the edge of the loft. I was in the right spot to see him when he pulled the damp towel from around his shoulders. I barely bit back a shocked cry when I saw the white lines of scars that crisscrossed his whole back.
I knew what made them, too. The overseer on my plantation had been real fond of a bullwhip.
I soundlessly made my way back from the edge and lay back on my blankets while I tried to understand what I'd just seen. He hadn't gotten those scars just once. It had to have taken time to accumulate that many. Some of them had silvered so they'd been put there when he was just a boy. What in the good Lord's name was a white boy doing with scars like that?
Maybe that was why he wore so many layers between him and the rest of us. Thinking back, I realized that I'd literally never seen him without something over his back. Damn, I'd been seriously low-accounting him. And I felt such anger that I wanted to find whoever had done it and take their own whip to them. Where was that coming from? I was thinking so hard that I almost missed when he blew out the lantern and began to climb the ladder.
Suddenly, I was nervous but I wasn't sure why.
"Mr. Jackson?" His voice was softly questioning.
"Right here, Ezra. I put our bedrolls close together 'cause it's going to get real cool by morning." I tried to keep my voice even, all the time wondering about the nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach.
"I was afraid of that so I brought an extra blanket." All I could see was a darker shadow crawling towards me and when he touched my leg I like to jumped a mile. "Sorry."
"No problem, Ez'. I was just thinking of something else." And like a cannon burst, I suddenly realized what I was feeling. Maybe I'd gone crazy but somewhere along the line, I'd stopped thinking of him as the enemy. Instead, I felt desire the likes of which I'd never felt before. Not even with Rain had I felt this breathless urge to hold and taste.
While I was having this revelation, he was trying to get comfortable not six inches away from me. I could smell the soap he'd used to wash up with but under that was the kind of spicy musk that was just Ezra to me. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness and through the chinks of the plank roof the stars shone in. He was wearing his long underwear same as me but they smelled of lavender.
"Ezra?" He was probably going to shoot me but I needed to know something. "Could I ask you a question?'
"Certainly, Mr. Jackson." His voice was a little leery but then he always kept us kind of arms length anyway. "If I can answer, I will."
"I saw your back just now. Who did it?"
I could hear his shock and he took a deep breath then another before answering. "When I was ten, Mother left me with some cousins in Louisiana. She neglected to leave any remuneration with them so they gave me to the owner of a brothel to work in their kitchen. I was a very scrawny child without any looks at all, which was probably a good thing or I'd have ended up on the other side of the wall, servicing the men who came to visit."
Now I really was mad as hell. How dare they treat a child like that? I hadn't even realized that I said that out loud until I heard the sob in his voice.
"Thank you, Mr. Jackson, that is a kind thought. I was clumsy in the extreme or so the cook said while he was beating me. What I didn't realize was that my whippings were being watched by a ... a customer who liked such things." His voice wobbled a little and I just couldn't lay there and allow him to bare his soul like that.
Moving a little closer, I went up on one arm so I could see the pale flesh that gleamed in the starlight. Little tear tracks shone in the silver light and I couldn't bear it. "Ezra, I'm sorry. I don't need to know anymore if you don't want to say it."
"I've never told anyone, not even Mother." He shivered. "The Madame of the brothel was going to sell me to him." He was holding onto his arms and rocking a little.
That decided me right then and there. I gently gathered him up and held him close to my heart while I stroked that soft hair of his. He started and held real still for a long moment but I just kept a'rockin' him until he relaxed. "Let it out, Ezra. There ain't nothing you can tell me that would make me think any less of you."
He sniffled. "Well, I couldn't probably get any lower in your estimation. I know what you think of low-account gamblers and I don't blame you."
"That's not who you are, Ezra and hard as it may be to believe, I'm not always right." I rested my cheek on the soft dark hair. "I've been real wrong about you. You're a good cook, a great storyteller and you'd make a real good father."
He stilled and I felt him shake his head. Maybe it was time to peel back a few more layers. "I've been pretty harsh to you and some of the others. I hate to say it but I've always seen the people I meet as good or bad with nothing in between. And that's just not right, Ezra. People is made up of a little bit of everything, both good and bad. You're no more sinful than the next man and I just realized that I'm real glad that I know you."
"You are?" His voice was real low and he relaxed against me. "I was afraid to tell you that I'm very glad you're our healer and thank you for letting me help this time."
"Well, if I'd been thinking straight, I'd of had you along a couple of times to help me out." His scent was starting to make me feel kind of dizzy. Now that he'd relaxed, I could feel all of him against me and damned if that wasn't making me harden.
"Oh, um, Mr. Jackson, I'm sorry but I ... um" he kind of stopped talking the same moment that I realized that I wasn't the only one getting hard.
"Ezra, I got to say that I'm enjoying what my body is saying but how do you feel about it?" I held my breath and wished I could see his face better but it was buried in my neck. "Would it be rape if I said that I'd like us to make love right now?"
He shivered again then ... Glory Be, he kissed my throat. "Never rape ... Nathan."
I think I might have been blushing pretty hard myself right then but that didn't stop me from gathering him in closer and nuzzling my way from his ear down his jaw line then to his lips. He gasped, I think but all I could feel was the softness of those lips. Maybe half the time that I wished he would stop talking was simply the desire to do this instead. I'd have to do some thinking on that.
But not now.
Now was for fumbling open the buttons on his long underwear so I could touch his skin all over. His fingers were faster than mine and pretty soon I got the added bonus of those pretty hands on my skin. But when I pulled his top down and off his arms, he stopped moving completely and let me explore his nipples with my mouth. He was shaking all over and I checked first to be sure it was from passion and not fear.
But he shook his head ruefully and stroked my cheek. "It's been a long time, Nathan."
"Me, too." I admitted and finally felt him smile against my skin.
"Then, let me give you ease." And he began to stroke my stomach slowly moving over my skin lower and lower until that elegant long hand of his was wrapped around my cock.
My groan brought his eyes flying up to mine while he stilled. "Ezra, that wasn't a bad groan but an 'oh my God he's touchin' me' kind of groan."
He chuckled and gripped me a little tighter. "You're so warm and soft."
"You keep a'doin' that and I'm not going to be soft long." I finally had his longjohns open so I could touch him, too. "I wish we had some light so I could see you. If'n we wake up early, maybe we can help each other again?"
"You would like to continue ... this?" His wondering tone touched my heart.
"I would but only if you want to, Ez'." I stroked a little harder and felt him swell in my hand. I had the feeling that I was going to enjoy seeing and tasting him.
His voice was shy but determined when he sat up and shrugged out of his longjohns. I thought that was a great idea and I followed suit. The cold air didn't have a chance as we heated up. But when he began to suckle on one of my nipples, I like to exploded. No one had ever done that for me and I liked it a lot. So I pushed him onto his back and leaned over him to pull one of those pink nipples into my mouth.
His groan sounded familiar and I would have smiled and teased him but Mama always told me not to talk with my mouth full. When I switched to his other nub, his hands pulled me closer and I ended up between his legs with our cocks dueling for space. He started thrusting up while I was bearing down and all too soon, we were panting into a messy release.
Our seed mingled on our stomachs and chests. He sighed and hugged me close. But I thought I was too heavy and tried to move to the side. "Please."
And I realized that he thought I was leaving him. "I'm too heavy for you, Ez'. And we're going to be glued together if I don't get something to clean us up."
"Oh ... yes, I think we might." He let me go and sat up. "I have a handkerchief in my pocket if I can find my ... here it is."
He began to stroke the soft cotton over my skin, using his touch to find our seed. "Actually, why don't you lie back there and I'll just make sure you're clean."
And just like that he bent over me and began to lap the seed from my skin. I like to shivered myself to pieces. Nobody had ever done that for me, either. I was beginning to think that I had a lot to learn and that Ezra might be a real good teacher. He was even tonguing my cock and damned if it didn't think about rising again. Once wasn't going to be anywhere near enough for these lessons.
"There, that's better. I surely do wish I could see this magnificent organ in a state of full hardness." He stroked it softly while I reached out for him.
"Come here, Ezra. It's your turn." Laying him down, I started my search for missing seed about his belly button and he squirmed like he had ants in his pants. "Hm-m, ticklish there, are you? It's a good thing you done drained me dry tonight or I'd be seeing what I could do."
He chuckled then hiccuped when I gently kissed the end of his cock. "Oh, Nathan, that feels so good."
"You surely do, Ezra, feel real good, that is. We are definitely going to be waking up early, even though I know you like to sleep in." I nudged his balls and licked them clean while his legs fell open on either side of me and his cock considered coming back to life.
"With this kind of incentive, Nathan, I will do my very best to awaken early." He caught his breath and let it out slowly when I rubbed my bristly cheek over his inner thigh.
"Oh, there will be a great ... big ... incentive for you, Ez'."
"Yes, I tasted it earlier." He had a smile in his voice and I slid up beside him, drawing him into my arms.
"We forgot something, Ezra." I held him close and felt him turn his head towards me.
"What did we forget, Nathan?" Curious as a cat, as my Mama used to say.
"This." I leaned over and brushed my lips over his in a goodnight kiss.
"Oh ... can't forget that." And he reached up and brought me closer while that clever tongue of his slipped inside my mouth as if he'd always known the way. We kissed until we had to breathe then I tucked him close beside me and drew up the extra blanket he'd brought with him.
Tomorrow was going to be a beautiful day.
End Dust to Dust