I watched Ezra out of the corner of my eye. He was pensive with a faint air of ... melancholy that hadn't quite gone away since I'd come home the night of his dream a month ago. It still had the power to amaze me, that he would want our child so much. William, he'd named him William after my father. After the strange upbringing that Maude had put him through, he could still yearn for a child.
My child. Our child.
He said that I'd given him so much love that he was overflowing. After so many years of drought, he finally had an ocean of feeling to float in. He held me close and cried into my shoulder while I wet the top of his head with my own tears. I loved him so much and I could feel the love that he gave me fill up my soul. I vowed then to seek out those orphans that were created every day in the dangerous world of the West and find one for us. My Ezra deserved to have everything he wanted.
"I'm fine, Nathan." His voice chuckled. "I truly am."
Caught. I kept the horses on the road to Sarney. "I know you are, Ezra, but I also know that you're still feeling a little out of sorts."
He slid a little closer to me on the wagon seat and I felt the warmth of his hand on my leg even through his gloves and my jeans. "Maybe a little. I never realized that a man could feel such an aching need for a child before. I guess that I thought only a woman experienced that ... that yearning for a baby. And heaven knows that I'd be a terrible mother ..."
"Whoa." I stopped the horses and slid an arm around him. "You would not be a terrible mother, Ezra P. Standish. Do you remember what you told me after Mr. Gray died? I'm warm, caring and compassionate, you said. Well, so are you. You're also patient and tender with all the children of Four Corners. I told you once before that you'd be a good father and I haven't changed my mind."
His eyes glittered with unshed tears but he kissed me softly before moving a few inches away. We tried not to do anything in public that would raise eyebrows and so far we'd succeeded in living together without any gossip. I clucked to the horses and we started off again. Once a week, one of the seven took the wagon to the railroad spur in Sarney to pick up supplies and mail for the town.
I had a shipment of medicine and herbs coming from San Francisco that I really hoped was on the Friday train. I was low on almost everything and winter was definitely coming. Ezra didn't complain of the cold but his jacket wasn't heavy enough and I was hoping that we could find something to fit him in the railroad town. Sarney was twice the size of Four Corners and they had a haberdashery that he had mentioned once.
The rest of the trip went smoothly while we spoke of little things that we needed to do and errands for some of the townspeople to run. Gloria Potter had come with us the last time we went to Sarney but this time she'd just sent a list. Ezra was already planning the best division of our time so we could head back after lunch. There was only one restaurant in town where he and I could sit down at the same table for a meal.
I was resigned to the segregation that had traveled west from the South but it made him angry and sad at the same time. The little café near the railway station run by a soldier from Massachusetts welcomed everyone, regardless of race or creed. And his food was good, too. He and Ezra had swapped recipes the first time we ate there and ever since, we'd made it a point to take our meal at Benjamin's. The others of the seven did, too.
It was a small thing but made us feel like we were helping to spread a little tolerance in a world that could be pretty cold and unfeeling. I pulled up to the shed that served as a warehouse for shipments. Mr. Weston, the stationmaster, came out with a smile and the news that he had two crates waiting for us. We loaded them into the wagon and threw blankets over the horses while we ran our errands.
They were the shipments that I was waiting for and I sighed with relief. The cough syrups and medicines would go a long way to keeping the citizens of Four Corners well when winter finally arrived. Mr. Weston told us he'd watch over the supplies while we ran our errands. First stop was the store where Ezra could get a heavier coat. The tailor's shop was small but shelves climbed the walls all the way to the ceiling and held ready-made shirts and pants.
A sheepskin coat with a high collar fit him like a glove, falling just past the curve of his ass. The soft tan color made his eyes seem even greener and I had to fight the urge to pull him close and kiss some color into his lips. When he looked up from paying for the coat, he caught my look and blushed. He can always tell when I'm thinking lusty thoughts.
The tailor boxed up his old jacket for him and I saw a shirt being packed away as well. When I looked a question at Ezra, he shook his head and that little smile flitted across his lips. "You need to replace the shirt that got ruined during the influenza epidemic, Mr. Jackson. Mrs. Potter told me in no uncertain terms what to buy for you."
I had to shake my head at his explanation. I was dearly loved by this wonderful man and it was so like him to use another for an excuse to pamper me. But I did notice the tailor relax a bit when he heard the words, only then noticing that he was uncomfortable with me in his shop. Prejudice came in many forms - at least this one was familiar.
I took the box from him, while Ezra nodded to him and shooed me ahead of him out the door. We split up then to run our errands and an hour and a half later, we met at Benjamin's for lunch. I unloaded my bundles at the wagon then headed for the restaurant. I got there first and the old soldier seated me near the potbelly stove. The heat felt good and I gave him our order while I waited for Ezra.
He came through the door a moment later, also free of burdens and he spotted me at once. Threading through the tables, he sat down across from me. "I got everything on my list. Vin should be pleased with the peppermint balls that I found. And there were three new books at the paper shop."
"I got everything on my list as well. Buck's knife was ready at the ironmonger's. And they had a new shipment of fishhooks so Chris should be happy. I already ordered for us." I pressed my knee against his, which was the closest that I could come to touching him. He pressed back with a beautiful smile and removed his coat.
"It's getting colder, Nathan. I'm glad that the tailor had something in my size." He looked up when Benjamin set our food on the table. They spoke for a few minutes, exchanging cooking news while I tucked into my roast beef and mashed potatoes. The gravy was just the way I like it, slightly salty and rich with flavor.
Benjamin left to check on his other diners while we ate our lunch. Occasionally Ezra would press his knee against mine or I'd catch a smile meant just for me. The only thing better would be if he were sitting in my lap while we fed each other. Maybe naked, too. I grinned at him and watched that eyebrow of his quirk upwards. I'd have to tell him about that little fantasy later when we could do something about it.
We finished off our apple pie with relish and Ezra promised me that he'd be baking over the weekend. For all that he'd had such a terrible six months at the bordello, he'd taken away an interest in cooking that persisted to this day. I was willing to bet that one of the new books he'd bought would be a cookbook. I dearly loved him and his wonderful cooking.
I heard the train whistle from far away and we gulped the last of our coffee so the waitress could clear our table for the hungry people on the train. I paid Benjamin for the meal and ushered Ezra out ahead of me, my hand on the small of his back. I hated going this long without touching him. We walked up to Mr. Weston and he looked a little worried.
"She's never been this late before," he said looking at his pocket watch. "I hope there's not been trouble down the line."
We nodded and strained our eyes for the first glimpse of the black steam engine. The billows of dark smoke finally appeared and soon after the train limped into view. And limped was the right word. One car looked burned out, the windows broken and a horrible whining screech came from the wheels. The odd sound brought more spectators and the sheriff of Sarney appeared at Mr. Weston's other side.
The train conductor swung off almost before the train stopped. "We need a doctor two cars back."
I stepped up and took his arm while the sheriff sent off a boy to find their doctor. "I was a medic in the war, what kind of injuries are we talking about?"
He led us back to the car that showed the least amount of damage. But the people that lay and sat on the floor and seats were badly injured. He explained that one of the stoves had exploded, burning the car and the travelers. The next hour passed in a blur of activity. Some of the burns were minor and I got them out of the way first, sending them into the makeshift clinic where some of the women of Sarney were cleaning people up.
But five of the victims were in serious condition. In fact, one of the men who'd been closest to the stove died while we were trying to move him to the clinic in town. Sarney's doctor arrived a few moments after he breathed his last. Dr. Kell was a good man who tolerated my skin color and accepted what little skill I had. He took over evaluating the last four but his exclamation brought me over to his side at once.
"Oh dear." He knelt by the side of a small figure curled in on herself who was whimpering. "Nathan, help me get her onto the stretcher. Leave her in that position for now. Oh my God, she's holding a baby."
I hesitated for a moment then gently unhooked the frozen fingers from around the tiny form clutched in her arms. The whimpers were coming from the infant and not its mother. Ezra was right behind me and he caught his breath before taking the little blanket wrapped bundle.
"Was she traveling alone?" Dr. Kell asked the conductor who had manfully stayed to help the horribly burned victims.
"Yes, she got on in Albuquerque with the child. Being colored and all, she was at the back of the carriage but only two seats away from the stove when it exploded. She was burning alive but she wouldn't let go of the baby." He swallowed hard. "We couldn't pry her arms from it so we left her alone. Is she still alive?"
Dr. Kell sighed and raised the blanket to cover her face. "No. She hung on long enough to save the baby. What a tragic waste."
The whimpers were louder now and I stood to see what was wrong. Ezra had uncovered the small body and all I could see was black curls wreathing a small brown face. He looked up at me with tears in his eyes. "She's a girl."
"Why don't you take her over to Benjamin's and see if he has some milk he could warm up for her?" I wanted him out of this chamber of horrors. "She has to be our first priority right now."
He nodded and refolded the blanket loosely over her face. Carefully he walked down the stairs to the ground and I watched him out of sight with a frown. This had to be hurting him with what we couldn't have. But Dr. Kell needed assistance with the next victim and I pitched in to help. Two hours later, all the victims had been treated to the best of our ability. Two more had died, one from inhaling the smoke and the other of burns that covered 90% of his body. I wanted to find Ezra in the worst way but I had something to do first. Tracking down the conductor, I asked about luggage that the woman might have had. He took me out to the car and we searched but the only things left were charred lumps of what might have been a carpetbag under what had been her seat.
Steeling my courage, I next went to the morgue, where the town undertaker was attending to the bodies. He hadn't gotten to her yet. Being colored, she'd been left to last. I had no energy left to be angry about that slight and I gingerly checked to see if she'd been wearing a money belt with papers that might identify her. In a small pouch tucked into the top of her stocking, were twenty dollars and a locket with a coil of black hair entwined with blond.
That kind of took me aback but I put it aside for now. The urge to find Ezra was growing stronger. The undertaker readily agreed to allow me to take her body with us. I gave him two dollars to pay for a casket. I didn't want her to lie amongst strangers. In Four Corners, she'd be close enough for us to put flowers on her grave. I checked with the sheriff and Dr. Kell, asking them if there was a couple in Sarney that wanted to adopt a colored child. There wasn't so I told them that a family in Four Corners would take her. They agreed. It looked like Ezra and I were about to start that family we'd been speaking about.
I found him at the rear of the restaurant, patting the baby against his shoulder and humming to her. A partially filled bottle of milk with an artificial teat sat beside him on the table and he looked so happy, smiling down at her. Then those beautiful green eyes met mine and he shared the smile with me.
"Is everyone else all right?" He asked when I sat down heavily beside him.
"Two more died. One other may die before morning. How is she doing?" I peeked around his shoulder and met curious brown eyes looking back at me.
"She fussed a little when I first gave her the milk. It obviously didn't taste like her mother's. But she finally licked some from her lips and decided that it wasn't too terribly bad. I already asked if there was anyone who would take her and they all said no." He looked beseechingly at me.
"Well then, I guess that Amanda Petra Standish-Jackson will be going home with us." I stroked her cheek softly and she smiled at me.
Ezra beamed, two tears of joy seeping from his sparkling green eyes. "How ... how old do you think she is?"
"I'd say about two months. We'll need something warm to carry her in on the trip home. I made arrangements for us to take her mother's body back with us. That way she'll be there to help watch over her little girl. And Amanda will always know that her mother loved her so much that she died to keep her safe." I sighed and stroked the soft cheek again.
She smiled and blew a bubble at me while Ezra kept patting her back. The belch sounded much too large for her small body but it brought another smile to his face. "There we go, sweetheart, that feels better, doesn't it?"
I chuckled and dropped my hand to his arm, needing to touch him. "I'll go see if I can find something for her to travel in. I just want to go home."
"Yes, let's go home, Nathan." Ezra patted my hand and settled her in the crook of his arm to see if she wanted more milk.
I took that sight with me while I attended to the business that would see us on our way. The doctor's wife had a baby quilt that she gave me along with some diapers to keep her dry. Benjamin loaned me a leather carryall that would serve as a baby bed until we could get home. Back at the station, the stationmaster loaded the mail onto the wagon for us and told us that he'd telegraph if anyone asked about her. The undertaker's men brought the mother in a plain pine box and slid it in beside the medicines.
Life and death sat side-by-side in our wagon. But the very best part of life was coming towards me and I thanked God for him. Amanda was cocooned in the carryall with Ezra's old jacket to cushion her and the baby quilt to keep the cool air from her. We sat her between us on the wagon seat and waved goodbye to Mr. Weston before starting out.
Once out of sight of town, Ezra's hand clasped mine over the partially open bag opening. "We're a family, Nathan. She's beautiful but so tiny. What if we can't get milk for her?"
"That won't be a problem, Ezra. Remember the goats that Mr. Brewster keeps behind the stables? Best kind of milk available for a growing baby. We're going to be just fine, sweet cheeks. We probably know more about keeping her healthy than most new parents do." I grinned at him and squeezed his hand. "What do you think the others are going to say when we come home with this strange assortment of items?"
He chuckled. "It should be real interesting to see who asks which question."
I laughed out loud and heard Amanda chortle from her travel bed. Ezra's eyes sparkled at me and he raised my hand to his lips. I was tired to the bone and the stink of burning seemed to fill my nostrils. But that didn't matter, not up against the joy of saving a life that would become a part of Ezra and me. There were interesting times to come and it wouldn't be easy for two men to raise a girl child.
But she looked like a feisty little thing and I expected her to hold her own. The other five of our team were going to be putty in her little hands. But what about the ladies of the town? "Ezra, do you think that the rest of the town will feel that we're not fit to parent a baby girl?"
"We'll take each person one at a time. Gloria Potter will back us and perhaps Mary Travis as well." He smiled determinedly. "There are no colored families in Four Corners or within a hundred mile radius so it's only natural that you'd want to save her from being farmed out to just anybody. But what if someone asks for her or her father comes looking for her?"
I couldn't bear to see him worry so I told him about the locket with the blond and black hair woven together. It was in my pocket and I fished it out to give to him. The daylight was waning rapidly and all I really wanted to do was go home and cuddle my lover and our new daughter. But there were so many things to do that my head spun with all the details.
"LR must be her initials." His elegant fingers traced what, I had thought was only a pretty design etched in the gold. "Or maybe his initials?
"Or a family name, maybe." I pondered the mystery. "It's a pretty nice piece of jewelry for a colored girl. We'll have to keep it safe for Amanda when she grows up. And don't borrow trouble, sweet cheeks. She's ours right now and I have a feeling that she's going to be ours forever."
He smiled at me and nodded. "Forever, Nathan, just like we're forever."
"I love you, Ezra." I raised his hand to my lips and kissed his long elegant fingers. "Put your gloves back on or you'll catch a chill."
"Yes, dear." He said meekly, putting the locket in his coat pocket and tugging his gloves back on. "Do you think she's warm enough?"
"She'll be fine, Ezra. She's well insulated from the cold air." I grinned at him. "She's the best kind of Christmas present for this happy year."
He smiled and patted the quilt. "My two best presents are right here, her and you, my wonderful, generous lover."
It was my turn to blush. "We're the luckiest men in the world to have found each other, Ezra. And now we're starting a family. I can hardly wait to see how everyone else reacts when they see what we brought back with us."
We both chuckled at that and half an hour later, we pulled up in front of Josiah's church. He came out when he heard us so he was the first to learn about our trip. He and I carried the white pine casket to the shed near the church where there wasn't any heat. Ezra brought Amanda in and hurried to the back room where Josiah slept. I deliberately didn't tell him what was in the bag so he was completely surprised when he walked back with me.
"Merciful heavens, Ezra." He exclaimed when he saw Ezra in the old rocking chair, cradling a sleepy Amanda. Going down on one knee, he stroked her cheek while I told him what had happened in Sarney. By the end of the story, he was shaking his head in amazement. "You two are amazing. May I be one of her godparents?"
Ezra dimpled at him. "Of course you may, Josiah, but first we need to bury her mother."
He nodded solemnly and we made a list of things that needed doing. But Amanda was fussing and we packed her back up to drive to Mrs. Potter's with the mail and deliveries. Chris was there and he helped us unload everything while Ezra took the baby home. Vin appeared and was dispatched to take the wagon and horses to the livery and bring some milk back to our place. JD was right behind him and he listened with wide eyes while I asked him to bring dinner from Inez' for all of us. He left quickly and promised to tell Buck our news.
I was antsy as all get out, needing to get home and hold Ezra close. Chris sent me on my way and I hurried up the stairs, the lamplight spilling out of the window to show me the way home. I opened the door and quickly closed it behind me. Ezra was humming in the bedroom and I flung my jacket next to his on the hooks by the door. I took off my boots as well and then tiptoed across the room so I didn't wake Amanda up if she had fallen asleep.
Ezra knelt by the side of the bed, changing her diaper while she waved her little arms at him. He looked up at me with a smile. "Welcome home, Nathan. See Amanda, here's your other father."
She cooed and smiled at me with the same dimple that I saw on Ezra's face so often. "Sweetheart, we're glad you're here. And Godfather Vin is bringing you some fresh milk so you can have some dinner while Godfather JD is bringing your daddies dinner over. You've got your Papa Ezra's smile, Amanda."
"And you've got your Papa Nathan's beautiful golden skin." Ezra kissed my cheek and I tilted my head to reach his tasty lips. We kissed for a long moment while Amanda chortled happily.
A knock on the door broke us apart with a laugh. I got up to answer it while he finished pinning her diaper shut and wrapping her in the baby quilt that the doctor's wife had given us. I made a mental note to ask Gloria if she stocked any baby clothes. All five of the others were there loaded down with bundles. Even though Christmas was still a month away, it felt like the festivities had arrived early.
We gathered around the table, setting it with our mismatched dishes and opening the food while it was still hot. Ezra brought Amanda out and I have to say that one smile from her sweet lips reduced them to abject slaves to her slightest whim. My eyes met Ezra's and his slow sweet smile told me that this christening ceremony was going to be a big one. She had just gotten seven defenders for life.
Life -- what a beautiful word that was. But more importantly, little Amanda would be loved and cared for to the very best of our ability. Love -- that other word that meant so much to me. This wonderful man who held my heart loved me passionately and our love had reached out to draw this little orphan into our family.
I had the feeling that this Christmas would be a very special one. Everyone would have something to be thankful for and maybe our family would grow a little more. Josiah had told me that Maude was coming for another visit the week of December 20th. Both of us hoped that maybe this time she would give Ezra the unconditional love that he needed from her. I was willing to bet that Amanda would be helping out there as well.
Life had just taken a definite turn towards the interesting. Luckily, we faced the future with solid friendships and the love that kept growing between us. We were the two luckiest men in the whole world. As we sat down to eat, I bowed my head for Josiah's blessing and thanked God for the men in this room. They had saved my life and Ezra had saved my soul.
Now it was our turn to save another life and I watched Ezra hold the bottle to those tiny lips while her arms waved approval of the warm milk. Our family was truly blessed with joy and I prayed fervently that it always would be. Winter was going to be a time of renewal for all of us. And Amanda, well, she was going to be the catalyst that brought even more love and peace to Four Corners.
I don't know how I knew that, I just did.
The end for now