Ezra Standish made a point of not stumbling down the stairs from his rooms to the saloon floor, which was uncharacteristically busy at the early hour of eleven. He had been involved in a long and lucrative game last night, falling into his bed some two hundred dollars richer at just before dawn.
“Tilden doesn’t just want to end Reconstruction,” one rancher was saying, “he wants to bring back the Old South. We’ll have to fight the whole damn war all over again.”
Perish the thought , Ezra prayed sincerely. He also doubted that Samuel Tilden, a man born and raised in New York State, had any interest at all in reviving the old ways of the South, unless it got him the votes he needed. Which was the fundamental problem with the democratic party.
“Doesn’t matter for us anyway,” someone from another table proclaimed, as part of another conversation. “Territories are full of second-class citizens. None of us have the least damn say in any of it!”
Which was untrue, of course. This election day the people of the New Mexico territory were voting on a number of things—chief among them in Ezra’s mind, the petition to overturn the governorship. He had no idea of his friends’ political affiliations—and did not wish to—but he was damned sure all of them would be voting to request the removal of the scoundrel who had ordered Mary Travis’s assassination.
“Vote! The fate of Statehood depends on it!”
Ezra smiled at the sound of the brash woman’s voice outside, even as he rubbed unconsciously at the scar in his side from the bullet he’d stopped from ending her life. As the president held the governorship of the territory in his hands, so the US Congress held statehood in theirs, and given that Californian Sargeant’s ridiculous additions to the amendment for consideration, there was almost no chance of the territory gaining the moniker, “State”.
“Easterners just don’t get it,” yet another pundit expounded. “They think we’re all a bunch of illiterate Mexicans with more interest in our animals than our politics.”
And of course, there was that. And the fact that the territory would, if allowed a member of Congress, be essentially double represented, the legal population being less than one half the population of a federal congressional district.
“Hayes is out to make sure the blacks take over. They’ll be letting women vote next!”
Highly unlikely. Ezra smirked. Hayes had been a proponent of the 15th amendment, but giving women like Mary Travis the vote was probably not somewhere the very traditional candidate wanted to go.
“Ezra, you look like a man who could use a cup,” Josiah called, nodding to the cup of coffee Inez had just set in front of one of the empty seats at the table the seven of them had claimed as their own months ago.
Ezra sat lightly and sipped at the bitter brew, feeling it wake him up a bit almost immediately. “Perhaps a touch more whiskey and a touch less noise,” he complained with an off-setting smile as he poured some whiskey into it from his flask. Chris, Buck, JD, and Vin were seated as well, all nursing their own cups.
“Inez said she wouldn’t even serve beer until tonight,” JD told him, perplexed. Ezra was just glad the woman had some common sense.
“Sir,” Mrs. Potter called from the street, accosting another good citizen. “Have you voted?”
Chris snorted. “I’ll be glad when the poll closes this afternoon.”
“And have you voted, Mr. Larabee?” Buck asked with a laugh, doing a creditable imitation of the fervency of those outside.
Chris sipped his coffee. “First thing this morning.”
“Got Missus Travis off your back right quick, huh, Cowboy?” Vin said with a grin.
“I still can’t believe you can’t vote for president,” JD exclaimed, directing the comment to Chris. “Seems like he’s got just as much influence over you here as he has back in Boston.”
“You ain’t changed your voting registration?” Chris asked. It was admittedly surprising, given JD’s wholehearted embrace of the West.
JD blushed. “Didn’t see a need to give it up.” He looked self-satisfied. “Mailed my ballot last week.”
“Kid, we’ll make a wise man out of you yet,” Buck joked.
“Well what about you?” JD asked their scoundrel. “I didn’t see you heading to the granary this morning.”
“Buck still votes in Kansas,” Chris answered.
Buck grinned. “Got a plot of land there that’s more rocks than soil. I figure why not use it for something useful, right?”
Nathan strode into the saloon with his head held high, dropping into the empty seat next to Josiah. Ezra joined the old preacher in a smile.
“I take it you have exercised your legal right and moral obligation, Mr. Jackson?” he asked, extracting his flask again and motioning to the coffee Inez was placing before the black man.
Nathan nodded his thanks as Ezra laced his brew and smiled like a teenager. “Seems damn foolish to be so happy to mark a few boxes on a piece of paper,” he admitted.
“The joy of doing something long denied, my friend,” Josiah said, slapping him on the back.
“I reckon you abstained, like always,” Nathan ribbed Josiah. Ezra’s eyebrows raised. Of all of them, he would have thought Josiah would vote regularly.
“Nope.” The old man looked significantly at Ezra, and the gambler felt a curious warmth. “Was a worm needed removing from the apple,” he said simply.
Vin glanced at Ezra too, and murmured lightly, “Felt damn good to make a mark for kicking that snake out, I’ll tell you that.” Chris looked at him and Vin ducked his head. “I didn’t want her after me, too.”
“So who do you think is gonna be the next president?” JD asked, bouncing in his seat. “Hayes seems like he’s got his head on straight. I don’t know about Tilden.”
“And Tilden don’t know about anywhere but New York,” Buck put in. “He’ll make sure the East is kept happy and sacrifice the rest of us to do it.”
Ezra wasn’t sure of that at all. He did know Tilden had nothing in common with the democratic whites clamouring to take back the South. And if he had nothing in common with them, he had no way to control them, which boded no good for anyone.
“You been awful quiet, Ezra,” Josiah said, earning a glare for pointing it out.
“We all know who he’d vote for,” Buck replied brightly. “Not all Dems are Rebs, but all Rebs are Dems, right, Ezra?”
Ezra smiled thinly. Politics made idiots out of every fourth man. And usually the first, second, and third as well. He wondered what Buck would say if he knew Ezra had voted for Hayes.
“I don’t think it prudent to discuss politics,” he said simply.
“Well, heck, Ezra, you discuss politics all the time!” JD disagreed.
“He’s a corrupt pig, and I can’t believe you’d ever want him in office!” came a ranch hand’s yell from across the saloon.
“Not on election day,” Ezra replied to JD’s statement as they all turned toward the altercation.
The irate man’s companion rose, kicking his chair out behind him. Each of the Seven put his cup down and more than a couple of them sighed.
“You saying I’m a pig, too?” the man asked.
“Well, you lie down with dogs—” The first man didn’t get a chance to finish his insult, as the other man launched himself across the table, bowling him into another group of spirited voters.
“Looks like Inez was right not to bring out the whiskey quite yet,” Josiah commented, rising to enter into the fray.
“Outside!” Inez yelled, reaching under the bar for her rifle. Ezra could see it wasn’t going to do her much good, but he let her blow off her own steam and fire a round into the ceiling. “If you are going fight, take it outside!”
“Don’t you worry, Inez,” Buck called over the sound of breaking furniture. “We’ll take care—” His assurance rang hollow as he was slammed over the back of the head with a chair leg.
Well of course, once one of Chris Larabee’s men was injured, the whole thing ended quickly. Not quickly enough that, twenty minutes later, Nathan wasn’t tending to both Buck’s head and Chris’s hand, though. Vin had a broad grin on his face.
“Hell of a day, huh?” he asked.
Ezra shook his head and walked out into the sunshine. Politics. What was the point of it, anyway?
He closed his eyes a brief second, then turned toward Mary.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Travis,” he said politely as she ran across the street following her own call to him.
She looked into the saloon and rolled her eyes. “So early in the day?” she asked.
“You are not the only one with spirited opinions, ma’am,” he remarked.
She grinned, then looked suddenly coquettish. “I haven’t seen you at the granary,” she wheedled.
Ezra smiled blithely. “I am still officially a resident of the great state of Georgia, Mrs. Travis. My ballot should have arrived in Atlanta in plenty of time for the counting, but thank you.”
Mary’s face fell slightly. “I’m sorry. I was hoping, with the referendum against Hopewell…”
Hoping against Hopewell, Ezra thought fancifully. What a turn of phrase.
“I regret I cannot help remove him from office for you,” Ezra commented.
“I wasn’t the one who got shot,” she reminded him, pride and gratitude in the words. Again, he felt a curious warmth.
“And we all thank God for that,” he told her truthfully. “Now,” he went on immediately, forestalling any comment on her part. “If you will excuse me, I believe it might be prudent to escort a few of these civic-minded gentlemen safely to their homes, don’t you?” He tipped his hat to her and headed for where Josiah and JD were continuing to move people along from the bar brawl.
“Ezra?” Mary called seriously. He turned to see her looking lovely and sincere. “Thank you.”
Ezra turned and grabbed the arm of a rancher before he could lay into the businessman beside him for his views on whether Indians should have the right to vote.
A wise man will not leave the Right to the mercy of chance, Ezra thought, the quote from Thoreau floating through the warmth in his soul. He grinned at JD—who pulled the businessman away and hauled him to the jail—then finished the line in his head, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.
“Especially not this majority,” he murmured.
Now where in God’s name would they put all of them until the election was over?