I kept my face suitably grave with great effort. In less than a week, I'd been able to turn up two witnesses proving young Mr. Tanner's innocence. Lulu, a lady of the evening, was currently telling her story to Judge Travis and her street cant had the poor man's eyes as wide as I've ever seen them. Earthy was the very least of what I'd call her testimony and every other word was a profanity that would have made one of the union busters blush.
But she was proving Mr. Tanner free of guilt with each and every profane word. The stenographer taking notes was bright red with embarrassment but manfully writing down her evidence. I was feeling quite satisfied with my detective skills and more eager than ever to take back a pardon to the man that Ezra Standish was so concerned about. David was off sketching a street scene on the edges of the growing metropolis of Oklahoma City.
The weather had turned quite cold but not even that discomfort could keep him in our cozy hotel suite when new horizons beckoned. I'd just have to find some way to get him warmed up when I returned. Smiling to myself, I left that pleasant thought and returned to the lawyer's office where the judge was concluding his questioning.
"Mrs. Green, I thank you for your clear and ... concise rendering of these events. If you'd be so good as to wait for a few moments, my secretary will soon have a statement for you to sign." Judge Travis politely raised her to her feet and drew her towards the door to the outer chamber. "I've arranged for tea to be served right about now and if you need anything, you just tell the matron. Thank you again."
She simpered up at him but allowed herself to be drawn into the outer room by the sweet faced matron of the women's jail that the judge had thought to have on hand. He closed the door behind her and took a deep breath. "Well, Summers, transcribe that without the swear words, please. I need a drink." I chuckled and he mock glared at me. "How did you find her, DuBois?"
"After speaking to some cronies of the victim, I noticed them frequenting Madame Rose's establishment. A suitable bribe or two later and Lulu Green's name came up. She's shrewd and grasping but basically honest, especially when I was able to assure her of his death." I accepted a whiskey and took a seat across from the secretary's desk.
"This testimony plus the other witness you found should prove sufficient to free Vin from prosecution. I'll make sure that they know at once." He sat back and sipped his own whiskey.
"Actually, Sir, I'd like to take the news myself. I've been promising my partner a trip to Four Corners since before Christmas." I met his inquisitive gaze squarely.
"Why?" He asked bluntly.
"Because I found your peace-keepers an intriguing group of men. And because I got an invitation to Josiah and Maude's wedding."
He snorted and drained his glass. "That is more of a miracle than even I can believe. She's an amazing woman."
"I think she may have met her match at long last, Judge Travis. Josiah struck me as a very discerning man with a heart big enough to take everyone in, including Maude A. Standish." I finished my whiskey also. "David is looking forward to sketching the wedding party."
"That would be a very nice wedding present, although I think Vin's exoneration will prove to be the nicest gift that either of us could send." He smiled faintly. "Then you may tell them the good news. Although, I believe that I have an invitation also so I'll be seeing you there."
"Excellent, Judge." I started to say something else but Mr. Summers finished his transcript and got up to hand it to the judge. He read it through quickly and nodded his satisfaction while I got up to go and get Mrs. Green.
She was enjoying the cookies that came with the tea and they were mostly gone when I called her name. The matron had an amused look on her face and I wondered at her unflappability. Perhaps she'd heard worse language from the jail inmates? Mrs. Green took a quick look at the document and I guessed at once that she couldn't read. But she nodded when the judge pointed something out and read it to her then shakily signed her name to the bottom.
Mr. Summers and I signed as witnesses and the testimony was complete. The Judge thanked her again and I escorted her out of the courthouse, back to Madame Rose's. Before we got there, I gave her the twenty-dollar gold piece that I had promised her if she agreed to testify. She slipped it into her string purse with a relieved smile.
Once at the bordello, I escorted her inside just as I would any lady of quality and she preened at my gallantry. It cost nothing to be polite and was one of the secrets of my success. People treated with respect often repaid me with the truth when bullying would have garnered lies.
Raised voices from down the hall caught my attention and I looked inquiringly down at the petite redhead. She sighed and gestured me further into the tawdry premises. "One of the girls had the cough real bad. I've been 'specting her to kick off anytime now."
Madame Rose was arguing with a man who looked like an undertaker and their conversation proved me right. The argument seemed to be about money and I quickly surmised the problem. Now that the prostitute was dead, she had ceased to be revenue and become a liability instead. Lulu whispered matter-of-factly that she had been sick for a week and hadn't been bringing in any money at all.
For some reason that statement touched my heart. Ever since the search for the Robineaux baby, I'd had an urge to do good deeds. Breaking into the escalating verbal fight, I agreed to pay the three dollars to have her buried. Madame Rose simpered up at me and stroked my arm fawningly. I kept my sense of revulsion to myself and offered to help the undertaker carry her out to his wagon.
He had a plank stretcher and I helped him straighten her out and lift her onto it. She weighed hardly anything at all and the wasting of her body spoke of a long illness. I asked Madame Rose her name and she told me it was Penelope Smith. How sad, I thought that this young girl who couldn't have been more than seventeen should have to die so young after living the hard life of a prostitute.
Carrying her out the back, so we didn't disturb the paying customers, I helped him slide the sheet-covered body into the back of his wagon. Turning back to the bordello, I spied a little boy sitting on the back steps, huddled in on himself while watching us load the corpse.
"Mama?" He asked and Lulu, who had followed us out, reached over to stroke his fair hair.
"Sorry, Billy, your ma's dead."
Tears welled in his bright green eyes but didn't fall. I was struck dumb by the knowledge in that young gaze. He couldn't be more than two but he already knew more about life and death than any youngster should know. His lip trembled but he didn't succumb to tears even at that news.
I crouched to his level. "Do you want to see her before Mr. Black takes her away?"
He looked at me carefully before looking up at Lulu. She nodded her approval and he looked back at me. "Please?"
"Good. Now, let me hold you up so you can see." I picked him up and wondered at his lightness. His little body was stick thin and he shivered in the cold air in his thin shirt and pants. I pulled back the sheet from her face and he sighed.
"Pretty mama." His little hand reached out and patted her face. "Bye, mama. Love you."
I had tears in my eyes but still his never fell. He carefully reached out again and pulled the sheet over his mother's face. The shrill voice of Madame Rose came from behind Lulu. "What the hell are we going to do with her brat?"
He flinched and tried to make himself smaller in my arms. Sudden hot fury rose in me like a volcano and I made a decision in the space of two heartbeats. "Madame, he is no longer your concern. I will see him placed with a family so he will not be a burden upon your establishment. Mrs. Green, would you be so good as to fetch his things? We'll wait in the kitchen."
Her eyes widened but a sudden smile showed me the remnants of her younger self. "It'll be a pleasure, Mr. DuBois."
I carried Billy in to the warmer kitchen and held him close while he watched me carefully. "What is your full name, son?"
He blinked and thought about that before whispering it in my ear. "William Samuel Smith."
"Well, William, do you understand what I said in the alley? I know of a family who's been looking for a little boy just like you. They rescued a little girl a few months ago from a fire. Her mama died too and they love her very much. But I know that they'd like to have a son. Would you like to become their son?" I asked him gravely, speaking slowly in the hopes that he would understand me.
"No hitting?" He whispered to me with just a darting glance at the scowling Madame Rose.
My eyes watered yet again and I patted his back gently. "No hitting or saying bad words or anything else that might hurt you. They have big hearts and they'll love you the moment that they see you."
He nodded slowly. "'kay, Sir."
Lulu returned with a little bundle of clothes. They were wrapped up in the sleeves of a nightgown, that might have been the dead girl's. "Here you go, Billy. Be good for Mr. DuBois and good luck on your new family. He's kind of lame, that won't matter, will it?"
I shook my head and took the small bundle, bowing over her work worn hand and kissing it gently. "One of the parents is a medic so perhaps he'll be able to help fix what's wrong. Mrs. Green, it's been a pleasure to meet you. I wish you luck."
She blushed and patted the child's hand. "Billy and me will both be fine, won't we, kid?"
He nodded and smiled at her, his little face so bright that it stabbed me through the heart. "Bye, Lulu."
I bowed slightly to Madame Rose and left through the kitchen door. Hurrying through the crowded streets, I suddenly wondered what I was going to tell David. Casting a look down at my new responsibility, I found him studying me gravely with perhaps a small spark of hope in his emerald gaze. With a start, I realized that those old/young eyes were identical to Ezra's.
Now it was my turn to blush. "William, we'll soon be out of the cold. I'll need to get you a warm coat for our journey."
That sparked his interest. "Not here? Home far away?"
"Yes, little one, it's far away." I hurried up the steps to our hotel and stopped at the desk to get our key. The desk clerk looked at Billy with a frown but I stopped his questions with a scowl of my own. It was none of his business if I'd suddenly gone insane and adopted a child, even if it was temporary. I told him to send up a tea tray with a good assortment of cakes and muffins.
We were on the second floor and I handed him his bundle while I struggled to balance him and get the key turned. But he was too busy looking with wide eyes about the warm room to even notice. I found it lacking in the amenities of our home in New Orleans but David had made it more beautiful with his sketches propped on all the flat surfaces of the little outer room. His sketch-book was gone so I knew that he had yet to return.
"William, how about we go through your bundle so I can see what you have?" I set him down on the little settee and stayed on one knee so I didn't loom over him. He nodded and pulled the sleeves apart to reveal one shirt, one pair of pants and one pair of socks. A tortoise shell hairbrush made him smile.
"Mama's." He told me, stroking the soft bristles.
"Good, I'm glad you have something of hers to take with you. Are you warming up?"
He nodded and began to look around the room again. I ruffled his hair gently and stood up at the knock on the door. It was the porter with a tray of tempting goodies and I tipped him before closing the door behind him. Setting the tray on the small table, I turned to find an empty settee.
"William? It's all right. You don't have to hide." I spoke softly and crouched to try and find him.
"Okay?" His little head gingerly appeared from under the settee.
"You're safe, Will, I promise you." I held out my hand and he crawled slowly out. I watched him stand with a hand on the arm of the settee. Then he let go and came towards me. Lulu hadn't been joking when she said he limped. His left foot dragged behind him while he used the furniture to help balance himself. It made my heart ache to see his slow but steady progress towards me.
Then he was close enough to hug and I gathered him in with a silent plea to a merciful deity for a cure for whatever was wrong with the twisted little leg. I picked him up and sat him in my lap while I pulled the tray closer to me.
He looked at it then turned to me with an excited look. "May I?"
"Certainly, I can't eat everything here so you will have to help me out. Would you like some milk?" I poured some in one of the cups and he took it carefully. I held it while he drank eagerly. When he was done, I pulled apart one of the muffins and fed him a piece. He nibbled on it with evident enjoyment while I poured myself a cup of tea.
I drank slowly while making a mental list of what he would need for the train ride. A jacket, warmer shirts and thicker socks for a start, I looked at the too large boots he could barely keep on and added new shoes to the tally. But he interrupted my thoughts when a small hand patted my cheek. He was holding out a piece of muffin to me and I smiled down at him.
"Is that for me, Will?" He nodded silently. "Thank you very much." I chewed on it while he watched. "It's very good, isn't it? But perhaps we should try this little petite-four next?"
His little eyes widened when I cut the pink frosted cake into thirds. "For me?"
I held back tears at his hesitant question. "Yes, Will, you can have however much you want to eat. I don't want you to be hungry, ever again."
He looked seriously at me then smiled all over while accepting the bit of cake and nibbling on it. That heart-stopping smile was a mirror to Ezra's and I could hardly wait to see his reaction to this child who reminded me so much of him. But once again my thoughts were interrupted with the rattle of the door handle. Will froze and tried to shrink in my arms.
David came in with cold hands and a full sketchbook. Shutting the door behind him, he looked at me and began to laugh. "Only you, my love, could leave for a whorehouse and come back with a child. I can hardly wait to hear this story. Pour me a cup of tea while I go freshen up."
He laid the sketchbook down and dropped a kiss on the top of my head before going on into the bedroom. Will looked up at me and I took a deep breath. "I'll introduce you when he gets back. More milk?"
He nodded and drank for me while I listened to David moving around. He came back out with his warm robe and slippers on, sitting across from us and reaching for the teapot. Once he had his teacup in hand, I told him Will's story. He frowned and smiled at all the right spots, shaking his head at my folly.
"Claude, I love you. You'd better telegraph Four Corners or were you just going to show up with him?" He held his hand out across the table and Will shook it gravely, still not saying a word. "William, it's a pleasure to meet you. My name is David. I think you'll be very happy with the Standish-Jacksons. Do you know how old you are?"
Will looked at me then back at David. "Two. Mama said Feb'ury two my born day."
"Ah, a child of Imbolc, may you herald a new beginning for yourself and your new family." David smiled at him and Will finally smiled back. "Oh dear, you are going to break hearts right and left when you get big."
"No break." Will shook his head vigorously.
"No, Will, that's just a saying. I know that you won't break anything." David patted his hand and reached for a cake, his hand hovering over the selection. "Will, which are the best ones?"
"Pink!" He said excitedly, sitting up straight and pointing at the twin to the petite-four that he'd just tasted.
"Pink it is." David cut it up and took one piece for himself then handed one to Will, who turned and gave it to me. "Very good manners, Will, I can see that your mama trained you well."
He nodded and chewed on the last piece that I'd gotten for him. I gave David my list of clothing items and he nodded, adding a flannel nightshirt and some long underwear to it. We decided to shop right then and he volunteered to sketch Will while I walked to the shops. Will sat on the settee with David on the floor near him with his sketchbook turned to a blank page.
My lover began to tell him a story and I took that picture of solemn Will beginning to thaw, as the story grew more exciting. I judge sizes pretty well and I was hard pressed to stop buying new clothes for the small orphan. He'd obviously been given hand-me-downs his entire life and I wanted him to have something that would be all his.
I returned heavily laden with bundles and David shouted with laughter at my inability to stick to the bare basics. But he was no better as I counted three sketches of Will and a fourth on its way to completion. David had grown up in a large family so he took care of Will's bath before dressing him in the warm flannel nightgown and thick knitted socks.
We ordered dinner in and Will sat on my lap, looking in awe at the number of dishes on the table. He ate a little of the chicken cut up small and several green beans but he loved the applesauce that David had ordered and finished almost the whole dish. A little bread and he was soon yawning in my arms. I rocked him a little and he leaned against me, closing his eyes and holding onto the edge of my waistcoat.
David smiled gently at me. "That is a picture that I will keep inside my heart instead of my sketchbook. Are we to become a family as well, Claude?"
"Not with this little one, sweetheart. He belongs to Ezra and Nathan. But there are many out in this cold world of ours without a family to love and protect them. If we wish it, we can grow our family when we want to." I smiled back and stretched a hand across the table to his. "I love you more each day, David. You have all my heart."
"Ah, you hold mine within you, Claude. But hearts are elastic organs and can grow when they need to. Perhaps in time we will take in an orphan or two. When we're older and a little more settled, we can look and see." He squeezed my hand before getting up to make a nest on the settee for Will.
Guarded by a chair back, in case he rolled, I laid him into the warm blankets where he curled up and slipped a hand under his cheek, falling back to sleep at once. We left the lamp on low in case he awakened and left the bedroom door ajar so we'd hear him if he awoke frightened. Then I took my lover to bed and to sleep, already planning the telegram I'd be sending in the morning.
We'd see if Four Corners was ready for another citizen.
The end for now