Dawn was still two hours away, but the saloon lights burned. Seven men were clustered around the table, drinking and playing cards.
None of them seemed able to sleep. The conversation turned to fatherhood. It was Ezra who asked, “What one thing would each of you say to your fathers if he were here?”
Silence fell, as the other six considered whether or not to answer that. It was Nathan who broke it with his soft, “If Pa were here, I’d tell him again how proud I am of him.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Buck said, and he did. A pause, and then he added, “I’d ask my dad why he didn’t marry Mom. She was a saint, but there are times when I wonder….”
“I think we all wonder,” Chris said gently. “Me, I wonder what life would be if my pa had decided to stay past six.” He kicked back a shot. “I’d ask him what the hell was so important he had to leave.”
Josiah leaned forward. “I suppose I’d ask mine why he used a God of love as an excuse for hate.”
JD whistled. “That’s deep, Josiah.”
Vin looked at him. “What about you, kid? What would you ask your dad?”
JD sipped his drink before he said three words. “Who he was.”
Silence fell, then Vin said softly, “I’d thank my dad. He died when I’s a baby. But if it wasn’t for him lovin’ my ma and givin’ me his name – well.” He smiled.
This time the silence was a warm one. Ezra sighed. “Well, as I started this…” He cleared his throat. “My father, as well, died when I was very young. But I remember he was my mother’s world. I…” He broke off.
“What is it, Ez?” Vin prodded.
Ezra licked his lips. “If…If I were to have to choose one? It would be… ‘Daddy….are you proud of me?’”
One by one, the pull of bed became stronger than companionship and the Seven separated. Ezra began to climb the stairs to his room, when a voice called his name. He turned to see Chris and Vin standing there. “Yes?”
Vin smiled at him. “I’m sure his answer would be yes.”
Ezra’s eyes widened, then he smiled. “Thank you, Vin. That…means a lot.”
Vin nodded and left.
Chris studied Ezra for a long moment. “I’m positive your father would be proud of the real you.”
“Chris….this is the real me.”
“I know. You showed him to us tonight.” A smile touched his lips. “And he’s a man I am proud of.” He turned and walked from the saloon before Ezra could react.
It was a full five minutes before Ezra could climb the stairs. It was another half hour before he could fall asleep.
When he awoke, he was still sporting the startled, proud grin.
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