Colón – After the Fire

As he saw the depth of Estelle's resentment, great questions began to form in Byron's head, questions about injustice and what it meant to be loyal. In some small obscure way he felt responsible. Not just for having never thought to save her precious keepsakes, but for having joined with those who had taken advantage of her trust. He hated to think that it would be one more stone upon her heart when she discovered his lie and realized he had never deserved her kindness. To cover his shame and show his loyalty he blurted out that the three of them should forget about this crazy town and sail away together on the very next ship.

Longers dismissed his flash of inspiration with gruff disdain. "How many thousand you think are right now fightin' like crabs to book their passage? Besides, Miss Estelle is not some little country bumpkin. She can't pick up and leave just so. She'll be all right so long as I'm here to back her up."

Byron felt his face start to burn as if it had been scorched by more hot ash. It was not the first time Longers had been quick to slap him down. Since the new year started the sailor had seemed out of sorts and unusually ill-tempered. Yet listening to him tell Estelle the horrible news, Byron sensed he had gotten back his old stolid self-possession. It was almost as if Longers had drawn comfort from the Last Frontier's destruction, knowing that the unmet wishes he had invested in Miss Estelle were no longer threatened by her swift success.

"The boy is just being sensible," Estelle objected, surprising Longers who reared like an injured bull to hear his ruling disputed. "Even if I could afford to repair the damage, there won't be much business here for me right now. I think I'll go and stay with my sister, assuming she doesn't turn me away —" She looked imploringly up at Longers. "That way, at least I'll be able to spend some time with little Isabella. I need to figure out if this town still has a future ..." Estelle halted midstream and a tacit line seemed to strain in between them. She turned her head to avoid Longers' wounded look. "The real question is what to do about the two of you," she went on quickly. "I hate to think of you roaming the city with nowhere to stay ..."

"Don't go fretting yourself about me," Longers snapped, his nostrils flaring and his eyes glowing red. "I'll manage."

"I know you can manage, but I shall worry all the same," Estelle answered quickly, touching his arm to try and soothe his ruffled hide. "It would ease my mind to know where you were and how to reach you."

The tender admission seemed to draw the heat from Longers' ire but he was not ready to let pass the fact that his original position had been wrongly disparaged.

"That won't be simple if I have to go wandering across the country. And where the devil would I go? Everybody I know lives here in Colón. I might as well go back to living on the sea."

From the gleam in Longers' eyes it was clear he was testing to see how much he was going to be needed. Estelle caught on instantly.

"I should know better than to contradict you. You're right. It would better if you were someplace close by, but it has to be somewhere safe for our young fiddler ..."

"You mean the one I never hear practice?" Longers put in snidely.

A trickle of fear began to churn in Byron's gut. He braced, expecting to finally be exposed, but instead Estelle again jumped to defend him.

"And whose fault is that? You decided you needed to work full-time at the shipyard. The poor boy's been busy helping me. He's probably been too exhausted."

"Exhausted?" Longers echoed with dripping sarcasm. "What's he been doing — digging you ditches?"

"Byron's done everything I've asked and more! You know it's true," she said, seeing Longers' quick glower, "because you said so yourself!"

Byron hated to think that, on top of everything else, he was now an issue between them. He decided to remind them he was not a child or a stupid bumpkin. "Don't worry 'bout me either! If Cristobal never catch on fire I can stay with my friend Thomas —"

"No!" Estelle shouted in command. "Cristobal is bound to be heavily guarded. If you're lucky they'll only arrest you and not just shoot you as a looter. No. There must be somewhere safe you two can stay until I can find a place for you ..." She paused with one sooty palm pressed to her forehead. "That's it!" she burst out finally. "Longers, you know that English church — the one the railroad company built for their Anglos?"

"The one down by the sea? Yes! I catch your thinking! That little church is solid rock-stone. They couldn't burn it down! But you're sure they'll take us in?"

"Well, it wouldn't be very Christian of them not to!"

Longers sat back to mull the proposition.

"You know you've been my right hand and my left," said Estelle, addressing him more gravely. "I want you to swear you won't let this young fiddler out of your sight. I'm going to need you both and I don't need any more burdens on my conscience. Promise me you'll stay put in that church until you hear from me. It shouldn't be for very long."

Any objections Longers may have been pondering melted on his tongue the moment Estelle grasped his hand and set it fondly on top of her knee.

"You sure you can manage?" he asked, his gruff voice so faint and filled with care it was almost melodious. "I don't like leaving you ..."

Estelle rested her small palm on the back of Longers' large black hand. "I know," she whispered gratefully.

Byron moved away, his arms cuddling Johnny's fiddle. He felt uncomfortable seeing the rugged sailor in that woeful pose.

"You need to go," Estelle murmured gently. "Promise me you won't let him wander? Promise me —"

Longers bent his imposing frame and kissed the backs of her plump smudged hands. "I'll look out for the boy. You have my word on my dead mother's grave. Come on, young fiddler!" he barked, standing abruptly. "You and me need to lie low for awhile and not be a burden."

"Now listen," said Estelle walking up and cupping Byron's face in her hands. "I still have big plans for you, so I don't want you getting into any more trouble. You're to stay with Longers until I can send for you, comprendo?"

Byron pulled away self-consciously. Apart from his mother, he had never felt a woman's soft touch. Even with her round face marred by ghoulish streaks from tear-borne ashes, with Estelle so warm and close his body responded. Its reaction upset him, as it had the day they met, except now his shame was compounded and much more acute. He groped for something manly to say. "You done enough for me a'ready," he mumbled. He wanted to thank her and say he was not a boy, he could get by on his own, but her closeness stopped him. "I — I'm sorry 'bout what happen ... I shoulda did think to save your pretty things ..."

Estelle crooked a sooty finger and lifted his chin. "Byron, look at me! Who needs a little stick fiddler when I have one in the flesh?" Her strong gaze held his eyes. "Those things are not what matters. I've known what it is to have nothing. I'll have something again, and so will you. I'm keeping you to your promise — I want to hear that fiddle in your arms sing just for me."

Her projection of his promise into the indeterminate future touched him like a reprieve. Somehow her words had woven him inside a mystical web and he felt himself nod yes, as if in a trance. As she gave them her last instructions, Byron's wild imaginings were possessed by those wishful ambitions which flow from the fount of a second chance. Who was to say, he thought magically, what he might not still achieve with a little practice?

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