I got off the train in Sarney, a small town with no particular cachet. It was just another dusty little backwater except for one thing, the burned out passenger car that sat forlornly on a sidetrack. Even a month after the accident, there still seemed to be a smell of burned flesh and cloth arising from it. The stationmaster was more than willing to talk about the survivors, some of whom were still in the small clinic in town.
The one I was after, however, was only mentioned after almost twenty minutes of seemingly idle questions. The dead colored woman and her baby had gone to yet another dusty town called Four Corners. It had been a long trip and I checked into the hotel for a good dinner and a peaceful night's sleep. But first I sent a telegram to my employer telling him that I'd arrived.
Arrived. Two stops. Business good.
Mr. Pinkerton would know what it meant. Our client was paying handsomely to track his former slave and her child. Why didn't concern me although I did wonder when my boss told me that price was no object. This was the fourth lead I'd followed up and I really hoped that this was the right one. I was tired of the west and wanted to go home to New Orleans to celebrate Christmas.
But this was what I was paid for so I ate a light meal and turned in for an early night. Tomorrow, I'd rent a horse and travel to Four Corners. Idly, I wondered why someone would take the body to be buried in a tiny town when she could have been left in Sarney and only the baby taken on. Yawning, I pulled the blanket higher up and fell asleep in mid thought.
Four Corners was just as dusty and tired looking as I expected. A snowfall must have recently fallen because the streets looked almost pristine. I stabled the horse at the livery and engaged in some gossip with the farrier, Mr. Brewster. He mentioned the men who guarded the town and I asked the sheriff's name so I could pay him a visit. It paid to keep the law on my side when I was asking questions.
He pointed the way and I carried my bags first to the hotel, reserving a room for the night. After a quick wash, I put my coat back on and headed for the saloon for a drink before visiting the sheriff, a Mr. JD Dunne. The pretty Mexican behind the counter flirted with me while pouring me a whiskey. Inez answered my questions about the town and its residents while keeping an eye on the door behind me. The outer door opened and her eyes lit up. "Pardon, Mr. DuBois. Buck, is it done?"
A tall man with an easy smile walked up, nodding to me genially. "Sure is, darlin'. I just varnished it and put it to dryin'. Should be ready for Christmas Eve." He accepted a beer from her and turned those blue eyes to me. "Don't think I've seen you before, Sir. Just passing through?"
"Yes and no, Sir. Passing through but with a purpose. My principal is looking for some land in this area so I'm taking a look around for him. I had hoped to be done by Christmas but he's an impatient man and so far I have found nothing." I smiled up at him with my own twinkle. "If I may be so bold, I am curious as to what surprise you are making for Christmas."
He chuckled and drank down half his beer. "Ah, that hit's the spot. I'm a bit of a wood carver in my spare time. For the last few weeks I've been making something a little bigger than normal. Two of my friends have a new baby and I made a cradle for her."
"And I have made the bed clothes for it. She is to be christened on Christmas Eve." Inez' eyes flashed with good humor and they exchanged a look of complete joy.
It was rather refreshing to see such devotion between them for their friends. "A most joyous occasion and worthy of such fine gifts. A little girl?"
"A little girl just as pretty as she can be. Even Maude had to admit that when she arrived yesterday for a little visit." He snorted a bit and finished his beer while Inez rolled her eyes and went to get him another. "Do you have a room yet, Mr... ?"
"Claude DuBois, Sir, at your service. And you, Sir?"
He held out a broad hand to shake mine. "Buck Wilmington, one of the peace keepers here in Four Corners."
"Ah, I heard something of you in Sarney when I got off the train." I decided to test the waters. "Terrible thing about the accident. The burned out railroad car is a very stark reminder of how quickly life can be extinguished."
He shivered a little, his eyes focusing on his empty tankard. "And how something so terrible can turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The baby that I made the cradle for was left orphaned by that very accident. Our healer, Nathan Jackson adopted her and brought her mama here to be buried so Amanda will always know how much her mother loved her."
"Indeed, what a touching story and what a lucky little girl. But what of the father?" My mind raced at the possibility that my search was at an end.
Buck frowned. "She wasn't carrying any papers, just a locket and a little cash money that they put in the bank for the baby. We check each week in Sarney with the sheriff there in case somebody asks after her. I hope no one ever does ask, 'cause it would just about kill them to have to give her up now."
"Them?" I asked cautiously. The name Nathan Jackson I'd heard in Sarney although nothing had been said about a wife, but before he could answer, we were interrupted. Another man had entered and Buck turned to frown at him.
"Damn it, JD, I told you to wear your coat when you go outside. You want to get sick?" He scolded the younger man.
"It's not even a block, you old worry-wart." The youngster grinned at him, nodding to me.
He had to be the sheriff but I hadn't expected such a young man. "Sheriff Dunne?"
His eyes sharpened, focusing on me with a sweeping glance. I added five years to his age. "Yes, I am. And you are?"
I introduced myself and spun my tale about land. He nodded and suggested that their banker would be a good person to talk to. The conversation became general until another man entered and made his way to the bar. Dressed all in black, his piercing gaze seemed to look right into my soul before turning away. The dynamics of this odd group of men fascinated me and I made sure that I bought a round of drinks so I could continue to study them.
Little bits and pieces of town life came up in the conversation, and over and over, the names Nathan and Ezra. When a rather scruffy looking hunter appeared, they retired to a corner table that was obviously known as theirs. I made my way to the hotel with a lot to think about. There was something about this town that was different than I was expecting.
The four men were so obviously coupled that it leapt to the eye and yet the other townspeople accepted them matter-of-factly. Buck and the sheriff were so much in love that it shone from them. The hunter, Vin Tanner, was enigmatic to the extreme but Chris Larabee softened ever so slightly when he was there at his side. I chuckled to myself. I hadn't expected to find others of my kind here in this little backwater town.
Cleaning up, I went down to the dining room for an early dinner and right into a meeting with the missing members of the seven. I was seated at a corner table with my back to the wall so I could watch the other diners. I had a book with me for a cover should I need one. There were only a few diners this early but a little flurry brought my eyes to the door and the arrival of a tall black man with a shorter white man at his side.
The smaller man was a beauty of the first water with sparkling green eyes and the prettiest chestnut hair I'd ever seen. He was cradling a small bundle in his arms and the waitress seated them with a smile and a soft coo when the blanket was pulled back from the baby. I cast quick looks at them and strained my ears to hear their words when she left to get their menus.
"She's fine, Ezra." The colored man smiled at them both while he folded the quilt. "She just wants to see all the pretty lights. Amanda hates to be kept in the dark."
"I know, Nathan, but I worry that we should have had Mother to home instead of bringing the baby outside in this cold weather." His soft southern accent was a welcome sound to my ears.
Another stirring at the doorway brought the next actors to this drama unfolding before my eyes. A tall, bear of a man escorted a beautiful older woman into the room. All eyes went to her by right and she acknowledged them with a queenly nod. The man sat her down before taking the last chair at the table one over from mine.
Ezra smiled at them both but I could see his nervous looks at the woman. And out of the back of my mind came the memory of where I'd first met her. Maude Standish, con artist extraordinaire and very much married woman of our great cities of New York and New Orleans. She'd aged well and I suddenly made the connection with her son, Ezra P. Standish.
What an odd coincidence, that I should find these people in a tiny little town in the back of beyond. And unless I missed my guess, the people who had the little girl that I was looking for.
"She looks quite nice, Ezra. Are you sure you should have brought her out into this cold night air?" Maude's accents were exactly as I remembered.
His eyes flashed to Nathan before he took a deep breath. "She will come to no harm, Mother. We bundled her up very well before we brought her out. You look beautiful this evening."
"So Josiah was telling me." She flirted with the older man and I ticked off the last of the seven. "But it's nice to hear it once again. Nathan, how is the clinic?"
The conversation made it's slow way through the niceties and I could see them trying to navigate a battlefield of gigantic proportions. She had to be aware that her son was in love with the colored medic and they were obviously living together, once again under the noses of this odd little town's inhabitants. The older man was buffering this encounter trying to protect the younger man.
And yet, I was willing to bet that he was enamored with Maude. Nathan was determined to be polite even if it killed him and the only one not with an agenda was the baby. She was the happiest child I'd ever seen. Her cooing always seemed to bring whatever tension grew down to manageable proportions. She was determined to see everything there was to be seen and Ezra held her with more assurance than I could see his mother expected from him.
Our dinners arrived all together and I ate slowly, pretending to read while I listened to their fascinating conversation. Nathan took the baby for a few moments and burped her gently while Ezra ate rapidly then he accepted her back while his partner ate. Josiah took his turn too and little Amanda crowed gleefully when he tickled her cheek. Perhaps I hadn't been around enough babies but truthfully, I'd never seen such a sweet natured child in my life.
Even Maude softened when she plucked the baby from Josiah's arms. "Amanda, I can see that you and I will have to have a little talk about men much sooner than I thought. You're going to have them all wrapped around your little finger and there are responsibilities that go along with that power."
She spoke softly but commandingly and the baby gazed at her with wide eyes before kicking up her feet and crowing again. The men tried not to laugh, they really did but it was no use and soon even Ezra was chuckling at the unexpectedly sweet picture of his daughter in her grandmother's arms.
I checked myself with a mental slap. Where had those words come from? I'd lost my perspective of this case. I turned another page of my book and pondered my instructions. Another choked laugh brought my eyes up in time to see Amanda twist her little hands around the pearls circling Maude's throat and bring them to her mouth. Maude took it in stride and asked them if they'd thought of a teething ring.
They obviously hadn't and I saw Ezra shoot Nathan a quick look. The colored healer chuckled, his soft answer making his lover smile. His voice was deep and clear as a bell. Amanda's head turned towards him automatically, as did Ezra's whenever he spoke. He was a very lucky man to be so loved and I wondered how in the world a former slave had ended up the healer in a small town in the west.
With a white man for a lover and a mulatto daughter -- I shook my head and turned another page. This mystery would take both shorter and longer than I had anticipated. I had a sealed letter in my bags, that was only to be opened if I found the woman or child. I would have to read it tonight to see what it said. Taking another look at the family sitting there, I took in the love that I could see shining from the unlikely pair before me.
Love returned by the little girl they shared between them. Ezra had her back in his arms and her tiny hand patted his cheek sweetly while she blew a bubble at him. I just hoped that I wouldn't have to break up this little family. Sometimes my job was less than satisfactory and made me do things that I regretted. Hopefully not this time.
They had dessert and Nathan compared it unfavorably to a pie that Ezra had made the week before. So the southerner cooked, too. He seemed to be a man of many talents and I decided right there and then to make sure that I talked to him without any of the others present. I was curious about them all and decided to not open my letter tonight. Tomorrow night would do as well.
I left the dining room with a nod of my head for them all and a gentle compliment on the baby's behavior after I picked up a wooden rattle that she'd dropped. Ezra thanked me with that beautiful smile of his and I felt my breath grow short this close to his tempting body. The healer was a very lucky man to have all this beauty by his side.
Adjourning to my room, I readied myself for bed with more questions than answers.
The next morning, I walked the street of Four Corners and spoke with all I met. Mrs. Mary Travis quizzed me about my supposed land search but she also gave me a valuable insight to the men who guarded her town. I doubt she even realized how much she was telling me of their history. At the general store, I struck it lucky. Ezra and the baby were there to do some shopping.
We struck up a conversation that lasted long enough for him to invite me to their home for afternoon tea. That fit my plans very well and I tipped my hat to Mrs. Potter who was busy playing with the baby before leaving for a ride about the countryside to inspect two properties that the banker, Mr. White had told me about. The exercise felt good and I cantered back with an appetite.
Freshening up, I walked over to the clinic and up the outside stairs to knock on the bright green door. Nathan opened it and his gaze looked me over very carefully while he welcomed me inside. Ezra was busy at the stove and the smell of fresh baked bread filled the warm rooms. A bright laugh from a box between two chairs showed me Amanda's bed.
I found myself thinking how nice it would be for her to have the cradle that Buck had made. Giving myself another mental shake, I prepared to be charming. All too soon it was no effort at all while the conversation flowed around the table. Nathan fed Amanda a disgusting mixture he called pabulum but she seemed to be enjoying it while I ate a piece of apple pie that was truly food fit for the gods. A slice of sharp cheddar cheese on top made me sigh with delight.
Ezra dimpled at the same moment that Amanda did and for a moment the resemblance was uncanny. Nathan thought so too if his fond look was any indication. I'd never thought of myself as prejudiced but I'd been having a hard time reconciling Ezra's loving relationship with a colored man. The big man obviously adored him and wanted nothing but the best for him. And Ezra appeared to worship the ground the healer walked on. They both loved the little girl that they'd adopted and their family was beautiful.
Suddenly, I had to read my letter of instructions. I said my heartfelt thank you for the wonderful tea and hurried back to the hotel. Slitting the envelope open, I pulled forth the single sheet of costly paper.
If she is well and happy, leave her be. If something has happened to her and the baby still lives, bring her back to New Orleans. If indeed something has happened to Jasmine and the baby has found a good home with loving parents then leave her there with them and return.
I trust your judgment. Provisions will be made for a trust fund to keep her dowered if that is needed. At no time will my family name be drawn into play. I will expect a full report when you return.
Good heavens, what was I to do now? She'd found a loving family but not a conventional one. My first instinct was to return with a suitably altered report. I had no idea what his reaction would be to two men raising what I had always considered his illegitimate daughter with a former slave. A knock at my door brought me out of my dilemma.
I shouldn't have been surprised but I was when Maude Standish swept into the room imperiously. "Mr. DuBois, do you still work for that ... Mr. Pinkerton?"
Shutting the door behind her, I chuckled. "I do indeed, Mrs. Standish. And before you ask, let me tell you why I am here."
She listened intently and read the letter with a frown. "I heard stories about young Peter when I was last in New Orleans. He married well into the Desquanes family but there were rumors about his liaison with a former slave that grew up with him. What are you going to do?"
Her blue eyes flashed at me and I decided to tell the truth. "Little Amanda has two loving fathers and a very good home life. Are you here to break them apart?"
She sighed and paced to the window then back again. "It was not what I expected when I came three months ago. Ezra was always a difficult child and I was not the best mother while he was growing up. I wanted the best for him as every mother does and this backwater little town was not at all like him."
"True but there is something to be said for love and friendship. That can grow anywhere." I said gently and watched her nod slowly. I would have given a hundred dollars at that moment to know what she was thinking.
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "For the first time in his life, Ezra is happy and content. He has someone who loves and cares for him. This odd little town has given him back his confidence along with six good friends who would protect him, even from me."
I chuckled and she shot me a heated blue look that silenced me. "So, no -- I am not going to try to break them up. Amanda is a beautiful baby and just what they needed to complete their family. Will you go back and give Peter your approval of her family?"
Nodding, I consigned my assignment to the done column. "Mr. Robineaux will learn of the loving and caring family that took in his orphan child without any details that might worry him. It occurs to me that it would be nice if I could report that Amanda's grandmother was very supportive of her granddaughter."
She tried to frown at me but it was a lost cause as she chuckled. "I believe that would be a true statement, sir. Now, I will let you get to your packing. You have a report to write, don't you?"
I opened the door with a bow and found a large man just preparing to knock. Josiah's eyes met mine and I would have shivered at the enmity there but Maude swept out. Taking his arm, she turned to me with a smile that I could only call feline. "Before you go, Mr. DuBois, do you by any chance know her birthday?"
"September 23rd, Madame, Amanda was born under the sign of the scales of justice. And may her life always balance between the love and happiness she has now." I bowed to them and saw Josiah's surprised look turn to joy at my words.
"Bless you, Brother DuBois. May your journey be a peaceful one." His deep voice said my name with reverence.
"Your journey won't be peaceful, Sir, but it may well prove to be enjoyable." I said with a smile at the unlikely pair. Maude dimpled up at him and I watched the big man shiver under that potent smile.
Closing the door behind them, I began to pack. If I made an early start, I could be on my way back to New Orleans within the day. From the street below, a band of carolers sang forth in the still cold air. Raising the window a bit, I listened with the sense of peace that always came at this time of year. 'God rest ye merry gentlemen', I hummed along with them. It was definitely time to get home to my own lover. Sweet David was waiting and the little girl I'd been sent to find was safe.
Safe and loved -- no father could ask for anything more.
The end for now