* 'I Believe' is written and performed by Diamond Rio.
Every now and then
Soft as breath upon my skin
I feel you come back again
And it’s like you haven’t been
A spectral shiver made its way down Ezra Standish’s spine and seeped out into his veins. It was an ethereal feeling that took over his entire being. The scene before him forced his mind to unearth a past that had been pushed into the deep recesses of his soul. Normally reserved, his expression revealed a sorrow too powerful to be worthy of the solemn moment. He pushed his way to the front of the crowd; he had to get her off the street, and away from all these morbid thrill seekers. They should not be allowed to share in the tragedy Irene Dunlap had suffered.
Gone a moment from my side
Like the tears were never cried
Like the hands of time
Are holding you and me
Ezra eyes were fixed on the young woman laying the ground, unable to look away. She was so still, so pale. Her appearance was marred by the coins covering her eyes and the thin red line at her throat. Someone would miss her, mourn for her, feel that life without her had no value. His eyes glistened, not seeing Miss Dunlap, but another woman of another time.
“Ezra! No, don’t!” Constance laughed shrilly while escaping her predator behind the nearest live oak. Too late, a hand snaked her waist to draw her tightly to him. He bent his head and inhaled the scent of sweet lilacs from her skin. She was intoxicating to him.
“You have a price to pay, my dear.” Ezra Standish grinned, his eyes teasing her. “You cannot torment a man with your wiles without paying some sort of restitution as the consequences of such acts.”
Her bright eyes returned the merriment radiating from his. “Oh? And what, is the punishment for such a criminal deed?” She turned her head and gave him a seductive look out of the corner of her eye.
“More of the same,” whispered Ezra softly against her neck. He lifted his face up to meet hers and brushed the slightest of kisses to her waiting lips. They embraced each other tighter as the kiss grew and then subsided.
Constance Fielding had given Ezra something he had never thought he deserved… Love. Even more surprising, he had learned how to return the cherished feeling, unyieldingly.
Their relationship had begun as a ruse of sorts. Ezra’s mother had finagled an invitation to Southfield Plantation in Hopewell, Virginia, owned by the ridiculously wealthy, Charles Fielding. Maude had thrown a tantrum until her son agreed to her plan to woo the daughter of the tobacco magnate.
Ezra had obligingly attended the afternoon teas, the lavish dinners and the genteel evening affairs that were infamous in the Southern states. He had found it difficult to charm Miss Constance, not because of any rebuttals from her, but because she had captured him heart and soul from the start. He had denied any such emotions until he could not keep the feelings of happiness from bubbling to the surface. Ezra P. Standish was head over heels in love. Mother would be appalled.
To Ezra’s astonishment, Constance had professed her love for him in return. He had never thought he would be worthy of such a gift, but like a thief in the night, he snatched the treasure and never looked back. The summer of 1861 was a dream realized for both of them.
“I will miss you beyond words.” Ezra pulled back slightly to imprint her face into his memory so that it would carry him through the long days ahead.
“As will I.” Constance looked at the handsome, uniformed man pressed to her. He would soon be hers forever, providing fate was kind to them and he returned from the war unscathed. She believed with all her heart that he would come back to her, so that they could start their life together.
At first, the Fielding’s did not return the exuberance of the young lovers. Charles had come to discover that Maude’s ‘position’ in society was completely fabricated and he was less than pleased with his daughter’s choice of a suitor.
Over time, however, and with the sudden absence of Maude Standish, Ezra proved his sincerity and adoration of Fielding’s only daughter. Charles had found the younger man to be very intelligent, especially with numbers and a quick learner with a good business sense. Trusting his instincts and those of his persistent wife, Amelia, he consented to Ezra’s request for Constance’s hand in marriage.
And with all my heart I’m sure
We’re closer than we ever were
I don’t have to hear or see
I’ve got all the proof I need.
‘Vultures. Can’t they all just leave her be? There is nothing that can be done which would bring her back as she once was. Nothing.’ Ezra watched as the undertaker crassly measured the young lady for her final resting place. A pine box. Death hadn’t any pride or respect.
The healer, Nathan Jackson, examined her neck and body for clues in the unspeakable crime committed upon this unfortunate woman. His hands were kind and gentle, but an intrusion never the less. Ezra steeled himself. Information was needed to find the murderous savage that had committed such a heinous misdeed. And when this demon was uncovered, the flames of Hell would look inviting compared to the wrath of the red-coated peacekeeper.
The war began in July of that year and Ezra’s pride and experience dictated that he protect the heritage of his new found family. On August 11th, along with Constance’s brothers, Ezra left his betrothed with the promise that, no matter what, he would return to her. He knew it was a promise that ultimately was out of his hands, but in his blissful ignorance he believed love would prevail. How utterly wrong he would be.
By the winter of 1864, the battered and beaten Rebel troops had been pushed back to Petersburg, Virginia. It looked like the South’s defeat was eminent. Ezra pleaded for a short leave to travel the few miles east to Hopewell and to Southfield. He’d not had a letter from Constance in weeks and it had been almost a year since he’d laid eyes on his prospective bride. A cold dread had been slowly creeping into his confidence.
There are angels watching over me
I believe… I believe
The exotic looking woman from the Seminole village appeared in the doorway of the room where Nathan was continuing his inspection of the victimized woman. Rain’s gasp and short apology broke the quiet of the room. Nathan looked to the door and then to Ezra, who insisted the healer tend to his lovely paramour.
The Pinkerton Detective that had joined them for the autopsy gave the corpse one more brief inspection and departed as well. Left alone in the parlor with the still form on the table in front of him, Ezra’s attentions were again drawn to a time and place that he had tried to wipe from his memory forever.
He’d approached the stately home steering his horse under the canopy of trees that lined the road. The quiet was deafening. The only sounds were that of his horse’s hooves against the hard packed earth and that of Ezra’s pounding heart when he saw the remains that Grant’s ‘Dictator’ mortar shells left of Southfield.
The main home was still standing, barely. Windows and doors were missing and the out buildings were charred. He heaved a sigh of relief when Charles and Amelia came out to the veranda to meet him. Their house servants followed them, but there was no sign of any field hands or overseers.
“Ezra,” said Fielding. He looked old. Old and worn… and lost.
“Charles. Mother Fielding.” Ezra climbed the stairs to stand face to face with his future in-laws, his smile fading into trepidation. ‘Where was Constance?’
Amelia placed her hand on Ezra’s arm, either to gain strength or console him; he didn’t know which. “I’m sorry, Ezra. She’s gone.”
That when you die your life goes on
It doesn’t end here when you’re gone
Every soul is filled with light
It never ends and if I’m right
Our love can even reach across eternity
I believe… I believe
Ezra sat next to Miss Dunlap and lightly grazed his fingertips across one cheek. He moved his hand down to entwine his fingers in hers. He wanted her to know that she had not died alone and that she had gone to a better place. He truly believed that, a place without demons and monsters, no hurt or pain.
Past, present and future crashed inward onto Ezra. No thoughts or words would come, just fear and devastation. Constance’s father relayed the grisly tale of the slave uprising several weeks ago, the disappearance of Constance and eventually how they found her body – violated and beaten. They suspected a troublemaker by the name of Easter Weems, but all of the field hands had run off when they heard about the plantation owner’s daughter, each afraid they’d be blamed.
Weems had been an instigator in a number of riotous events and was known for his violence towards the other slaves and overseers. The field bosses had taken him to task and he’d been whipped quite a few times for his transgressions. It wasn’t hard to imagine that Easter had exacted his revenge on the Master.
‘Why? Why her?’ Ezra didn’t want to think about that, because he knew that his own guilt would overwhelm him, when the grief didn’t.
Ezra didn’t remember much of the next few days, they were filled with a pain he had never known. He had tried to douse the anguish with whiskey and once, with a gun to his temple, before he was stopped and arrested. He eventually returned to his regiment and numbly served his term, as a good son of the South should. The purpose of the battle no longer mattered, just the fight itself and the thrill of unnecessary risks. His fearless acts awarded him a command of the infantry’s cannonry.
Forever you’re a part of me
Forever, in the heart of me
I will hold you even longer, if I can
Standish made his way along the boardwalk. Night had just descended on the aftermath of the town’s brush with evil. The streets were deserted in fright, with the exception of the lawmen strategically positioned in anticipation of another attack.
Deciding his need for solitude was greater than his thirst for whiskey or the cards, Ezra darted into the side alley and around to the back of the saloon. He made haste to the back stairs and down the hallway leading to his room.
The heaviness in his heart continued as he tossed his hat on the dresser and slowly removed his coat. His resolve began to crumble as he stripped off his gun belt, shoulder holster and derringer followed by his boots. He often wondered how his life would have differed if the tragic events of Constance’s death had never occurred. He dreamed of his love’s smiling face in the gardens surrounding the Fielding home. He dreamed of the children he’d never share with her. He dreamed of the successful, legitimate businessman he could have been. When things became unbearable, he just dreamed.
Tears spilled onto trembling hands as they undid the buttons of his waistcoat. Giving up on the last stubborn button, he sat down heavily onto the bed. Dropping his head into his hands, he sobbed when the floodgate burst wide with memories.
The first few years after the war were blurred. His sorrow, anger, guilt and pain were too much to bear and so, he wandered. It wasn’t advisable to travel north, not so soon after the war, when southern sympathies were fictional, so he headed west, as far from Dixie as he could possibly get.
At some point in his meanderings, he met up with his mother and fell back into the familiar cons and elaborate schemes. It was a way to shut out the ache of his loss, after, of course, his mother gave him her little ‘I told you so’ speech.
He tried to replace the emptiness with an unrelenting quest for riches, but he never quite acquired any more than he needed to survive and move onto the next town. If Ezra had dug deeper into his soul, he would have found Constance’s voice whispering to his hero’s heart to keep searching for his destiny, his place in life now that she was gone.
Oh, the people who don’t see the most
See that I believe in ghosts
If that makes me crazy,
Then I am… Cause I believe
Oh, I believe
The tempest winds that had plagued the town over the last several days whipped around those solitary few that were at the desolate burial site. Josiah Sanchez’s baritone melodically prayed, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven; a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
Ezra Standish stood, removed from the small crowd, his hat pulled down tight covering most of his face. He witnessed the handfuls of soil dropped into the breach of the dry, caked earth and onto Irene Dunlap’s casket. With each ‘thud’ of dirt that hit, Ezra flinched slightly in despair. A woman’s life was reduced to a small number of friends and family, and a quote from scripture.
Guilt flooded Ezra. He had not known of Constance’s death to be able to attend her funeral. It made his grief stagnant and closure impossible. He had not been able to rid his heart of the pain, anger, regret, and blame, and allow fond memories, tenderness and love to fill the emptiness.
Constance Fielding was the most forgiving and loving person he had ever known. She would have understood why he was absent, but it was Ezra that could not excuse himself. Maybe if he had been there, she would still be alive. That was now the cause of the dilemma, Ezra’s inability to have mercy on himself and not the loss and grief. Constance had already absolved him, and it was time for the gambler to forgive himself.
The preacher’s voice continued, “A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. Amen.”
Again, one by one the mourners stepped up to the grave and bestowed wild flowers on the young woman whose soul had continued on to a most glorious place. The people moved out of the cemetery in a single line against the wind and dust.
Ezra waited until the last of the funeral goers had disappeared down the hill and around the corner of the church. He inched to the grave’s edge and let the simple bouquet of blue cornflowers fall from his hand onto the others, blanketing the casket. Though it was the seamstress’ resting place, his lexis crossed time to communicate with Constance.
“Goodbye, my love,” he whispered.
There are more than angels watching over me
I believe… Oh, I believe
The air was still, clear and crisp. The storm winds had blown themselves out, taking the riff raff of the horse show with them. The tempestuous demon, Poplar, had taken his own life, saving them all the time and effort of a trial and hanging. The town appeared to relax back into its usual pace, though unease still tattered its edges.
The gambler knelt in the shadow of the lone ash tree topping the hill behind the church. From this vantage point, he could see most of the goings on in the town. Ezra watched things move forward from a place that stood still.
He scooped up a handful of the sandy, loose soil that had been spread earlier in the week and let it slide through his fingers. Dust to dust. He swung his gaze over his immediate surroundings to see the haphazard arrangement of wooden crosses and stopped at the pristine epitaph in front of him. Irene Dunlap. 1853-1876. The name and dates were scrawled onto the makeshift headstone.
‘Ah, Constance, my darling, how did I get to this place? Sometimes I don’t think I can endure another minute without you, then in the next instant I fear that I am forgetting your face.’
Standish sighed deeply and pushed back to sit against the trunk of the tree. He removed his hat and again focused his attention on the main street below. He watched the women chatting in front of Potter’s General Store, the children playing in the alleyway beside Watson’s Hardware, the stagecoach rambling into town from the opposite end of the thoroughfare.
‘I wonder, dearest, if you had a hand in drawing me to this little municipality.’ Ezra grinned and felt unused muscles move for the first time in more days than he could count. ‘You would like it here. It’s a bit primitive… no, that’s not true, it’s downright barbaric, but its simplicity is refreshing. In their desperation, the people of the town have accepted us… me. It’s given some of them a chance to see more than just a fast gun, a smooth talker, a bible, black skin, a wanted poster, inexperience or a deck of cards.’
Ezra moved his hands behind his head and relaxed further against the tree. The day unfolded below him as if a curtain pulled back to reveal a stage. He spied Chris Larabee outside the saloon, silently communicating with a seated Vin Tanner, his chair precariously balanced on two legs. He watched Josiah Sanchez performing his act of penance on the church roof and Nathan Jackson by his side, performing an act of friendship. He spotted Buck Wilmington imparting some sage advice to his self-appointed charge, JD Dunne. Ezra felt content.
‘Yes, Constance, my dear, you have left nothing to chance.’
Every now and then
Soft as breath upon my skin
I feel you come back again
And I believe