by Luna Dey
Third story in the Second Chances series
Back to: By The Light Of Day
"Ezra," a hesitant voice drew the gambler's attention at the same time as the small hand on his arm did.
"Billy?" Ezra looked at the wide-eyed boy in surprise. "Why on earth have you entered this establishment? If your mother discovers that you've been in here, you and I will undoubtedly both be facing some undesirable consequences."
The boy's eyes roamed to take in as much as he could of the saloon. He gawked at the shelves full of whiskey bottles behind the bar and edged a bit closer to the con man when he noticed a drifter on the far side of the room staring at him. He shook his head. "Mama sent me to find you."
"Is there something wrong?" he asked as he gathered his cards from the table where he had been playing solitaire.
"She said she wanted to ask you somethin'."
Ezra put a hand on Billy's back to steer him out of the saloon. Out on the boardwalk they paused a moment to let their eyes adjust from the dim interior to the bright sunshine. "Did she offer any information as to what she wished to inquire of me?"
"Did she tell you what she wanted to ask me?" Ezra translated.
"No. She just said to come find ya." Billy waited quietly at the gambler's side.
Standish saw the boy risk a glance at Chris. The man in black had settled into one of the chairs outside the saloon to read. He also saw Larabee glance back at the kid and then pretend that he hadn't noticed they were there. Ezra knew that Mary had kept the details of what had happened the month before from her young son, and he understood why she had. But, the lad obviously couldn't understand why all of a sudden his mother couldn't stand to be near the man he still idolized. He had been told that his mother had been hit accidentally when she tried to stop a fight, but not that it had been Chris who threw the punch. "You don't need to accompany me, if you would like to spend a little time with someone else." The gambler nodded toward where the blond sat.
"It'll make Mama mad," he said sadly.
"I'll explain to your mother. Go on! I have it on good authority that he has missed you too." He gave the small shoulder a pat and smiled when he saw the boy's face light up.
He sighed as he walked away from the pair and went in search of Mary. Billy was her son and he really shouldn't interfere, but he was too young to understand the rift between the adults. He shouldn't have to suffer for something that had nothing to do with him. 'Well, he did tell Chris about Mary being sick after I asked him not to,' Ezra thought. But, that was partly his fault too. He had told the boy not to tell anyone, but he hadn't explained that he meant the other six peacekeepers too. As young as he was, Billy did realize that they worked as a team.
Standish stepped into the newspaper office to find it unoccupied. He frowned, wondering why she would send for him and then leave. "Mrs. Travis?" he called out.
"I'm in the kitchen. Come on back."
"I thought perhaps I had misunderstood and had come to the wrong place." Ezra leaned casually against the doorframe.
Mary glanced around him and looked at him with raised brows. "Didn't Billy come back with you?"
"I do hope that you had not insisted on his immediate return. I let him stay to talk to Mr. Larabee for a little while. They miss each other." He braced himself for her reaction and hoped he had not made a serious mistake.
He saw her stiffen at the mention of Chris's name, but she held her temper. "You know I would rather he didn't spend time with him. It isn't fair to him since there is no chance of there ever being anything between Chris and me, not after what happened."
"Sit and talk with me." Ezra nodded to the chairs at the table. He waited until they were both seated and then took her hand before looking her straight in the eyes. "Mary, I know you feel a strong animosity toward Chris, but Billy doesn't understand. He still looks up to him, and frankly, he could have a lot worse role model."
"You can't honestly mean that?" She stared at him, slack-jawed and wide-eyed.
"I most certainly do. He did not deliberately hurt you, and I know you realize that, and that he would never hurt your son," he answered adamantly.
Mary huffed and pulled her hand from his. "He killed our baby, Ezra! How can you defend him? Don't you care that our baby is dead?"
"There is not a day goes by that I don't think of the child, and not a night that I don't see it in my dreams. You know I care, and I still grieve that loss too, but it was an accident. That punch was intended for me, not you." His voice broke and his eyes glistened with unshed tears. "I know you might never be able to forgive Chris, but don't take it out on Billy. This is breaking his heart."
He could tell she tried to muffle the sobs that were coming. There were those telltale spasms when she tried to hold them back, but it was going to be a losing battle because the tears already rolled down her face.
"I don't... mean to... do that," she said between sobs.
Ezra passed her his handkerchief and scooted his chair around closer so he could put an arm around her shoulders while she cried. "I know you don't, but it is happening despite your intentions." He gently rubbed her upper arm and felt her rest her head against his shoulder as she wept uncontrollably. He sat and held her quietly until she had cried herself out.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to fall apart like that." She sniffed and blew her nose before continuing, "This has been so hard. I can't talk to anyone about what happened, and I have to try to act like I am fine, and I'm not."
"You have me to talk to, or any of my associates," he offered.
"It isn't the same. I know I can talk to any of you, but sometimes there are things a woman just needs another woman to talk to about," she said sadly.
"I am sure that is true. Is there not even one of the women here who you trust enough to confide in?" He watched Mary shake her head no and sighed heavily. "I am sorry that you have to bear so much of this burden alone, but the secrecy has been to protect your standing in the community."
"I am very grateful for that." Red-rimmed eyes caught and held his gaze. "I have misjudged so many people that they would love to get hold of this for the town gossip."
"Now, you had Billy inform me that you had something you wished to discuss with me." A sudden sense of deja vu swept over him. He could recall the last time he sat at this table and made a similar comment.
"You said it yourself, the way I am right now is hurting Billy. I need to get him away for a little while until I can get myself straightened out." She got up and turned her back to him to look out the window as she spoke. "I'm hurting my son, and I can't bear it. He's all I have left." She took a deep breath and plunged on before she lost her nerve. "Will you help me take him to his grandparents?"
"Are you sure that is what you want to do? Wouldn't that be hurting him more?" Ezra knew from his own past how much it hurt to be passed off to relatives when his mother couldn't have him around for some reason or another.
"Billy loves his grandparents and he loves to visit them. They already said they would love to have him there."
"Didn't they inquire as to why you wanted him to go to them?" She turned back around and he saw a spark of determination, just a hint of the strength of the 'old' Mary. "I could perhaps help you create a plausible reason."
"I told them that things had gotten in such a state with me being laid up for so long that I could use some time to get things back in order, and that I felt I was neglecting Billy by spending so much time trying to catch up. They were thrilled at the chance for another visit so soon." She stopped and waited expectantly.
"You have sent your son on the stage in the past, you don't intend to this time?"
"Not after those men threatened to kidnap him." She visibly shuddered at the memory. "If we take the horses we can save time by cutting cross-country instead of staying on the road. Instead of two full days riding, it would take slightly less than a day and a half. Will you help me, please?"
"When do we leave?"
It was just past dawn two days later when Ezra and Mary saddled the horses and led them out of the livery. They stopped in front of the newspaper office for her to get the well-stocked saddlebag she had left there with Billy. Chris had come out to see the young boy off, and he tensed when they drew their horses to a halt.
"Mr. Larabee, what has you up at this uncivilized hour?" the gambler teased.
"Well, unlike you, I don't usually sleep half the day away," the blond replied with a hint of a smile. "I wanted to tell Billy to have a good time, and I had something to give him." He reached in his pocket and pulled out a small woodcarving. It was a wonderful sculpture of a horse.
"Hey, ya got it right this time!" Billy smiled broadly at the blond.
"Looks like I did." Chris ruffled the boy's hair and gave him a wink before lifting him up to sit him in front of his mother on her horse. "You have fun." He looked up at Mary's troubled expression, grateful that she had allowed him the few minutes with the boy he had grown to care deeply about. "Thank you, Mary." He gave her a slight nod and backed away so they could turn the horses back out into the street.
Chris caught Ezra's attention as he maneuvered his horse away from the edge of the boardwalk. "Keep them safe."
"I assure you Mr. Larabee, that is my top priority." He gave a curt two-fingered salute and a slight nod of the head before urging his horse to catch up with Mary's.
The day had been relatively uneventful. They had taken turns riding double with Billy, partly to keep one horse from carrying the extra weight the entire time, and partly so neither of them would be worn out from dealing with a restless seven year old for the entire day. They had stopped to rest the horses and have a lunch of cold biscuits and bacon, and then they started out again.
"I do believe we should begin keeping an eye open for a suitable campsite, even if it means we stop earlier than planned. This time of year water is getting considerably more scarce. If we find a satisfactory source it would be unwise to pass it by." Ezra scanned the landscape around them and sighed. He hated the dry season. It was way too hot, water was hard to find, and he hated being dirty and sweaty.
They had ridden for nearly an hour when Mary pointed to a stand of trees. "What about over there? It looks a little greener so maybe there is water."
"It is worth the time for the short detour to investigate. We still have a couple hours of light left if we need to move on." He turned his horse toward the copse and Mary followed close behind with Billy.
As they neared the trees, Chaucer picked up his pace slightly, and Ezra could see him sniffing at the air. It was a good sign. He had seen the horse act that way when they got near water before. They wound their way in through the shade and finally found it. It was a small stream, very small at the moment since it had been some time since there had been any substantial rain, but it would do. The water was still flowing so it was fresh and not just a stagnated pool left behind when the stream had dried up, but there wouldn't be enough water left to keep the stream running if there wasn't rain soon.
"This will do," Ezra announced. "Billy, can you hold the reins and let the horses quench their thirst while your Mother and I unload them?"
"Yeah... Mama, can I take off my boots and wade in the water? I'm hot!"
"Take care of the horses first, then you may. I might even join you." She laughed at the surprised look on her son's face. "Mothers need cooling off too sometimes." She started helping unload the horses. Ezra wouldn't let her lift anything very heavy despite her protests that she was well enough to handle it.
The gambler got all the heavy packs moved to a small clear area and then set to work on the saddles. Mary was left with the bedrolls, the weapons, and canteens. Once he had the horses unsaddled, he set about rubbing them down and spreading their saddle blankets out for the sweat to dry. There were still a few small patches of green grass next to the stream, so he tethered the horses so each had patch to itself.
Billy had his boots off and was wading in the water almost before Ezra had a good hold on the reins. The water barely covered his feet but the boy was happy nonetheless. "Is the water cool?"
"Uh huh. Sure wish it was deep enough to swim in." The kid bent down and scooped up some water to rub on his sweaty face.
Mary had been busy setting up the camp while he tended to the animals, and she had things nearly done when Ezra joined her. "I think we should clear a larger area surrounding the fire, and keep it to a minimum size as a precaution tonight."
She glanced around and then back at the area she had cleared for their campfire. "I think you're right. It would probably be a good idea to put it out when we get ready to go to sleep."
The evening meal was a simple one. They opened a couple tins of beans and heated them over the fire. Those were served along with more cold biscuits and coffee. Ezra sat and turned the empty tin around in his hands. "Whoever invented this..." he held the can up for them to see, "...is a brilliant man."
"What makes you think it has to be a man who invented it? Women are usually the ones who do the preserving." A pair of delicate eyebrows rose in question and she waited for his reply, sure that he would have some detailed reason for why the inventor had to be a man.
"Quite true. Perhaps a woman developed the concept and a man created the way to make it work." He grinned showing off dimples and his gold tooth in the process, when he heard her laugh softly.
Billy had given up fighting it and had fallen asleep before it was fully dark. Now he lay there sprawled on his back, blissfully unaware of the adults. A soft snore had them both chuckling. "I wish I could sleep like that," Mary commented.
"Under the right circumstances, I can," Ezra confessed. "You can sleep like that. I've seen you do it a couple of times." He grinned mischievously when he saw her duck her head the way she always did when she was trying to hide a blush. "What say you, fair lady?" He stood and offered her his hand to help her up. "Shall we follow the young gentleman's example and take a cooling stroll in the stream?"
"Why Mr. Standish, I thought you would never ask," she replied, mimicking his courtly manners.
They laughed when they pulled off their shoes and socks, making a race out of it to see who could get their feet wet first. Ezra had his pant legs cuffed up to keep them dry and stepped into the water before Mary had the second shoe off. "That's not fair!"
"Oh, but it is fair. I beat you; it's as simple as that." He winked at her and offered a hand to keep her from slipping on the wet pebbles on the bottom of the streambed. When she reached his side, he offered his arm and they walked through the cool water, letting it pull some of the heat out of their sun-baked bodies. "I vote for sleeping in the stream," Ezra teased.
Morning found all three curled up closely together with Billy in the middle. Ezra had insisted that they stay close since they put the fire out completely. He hadn't seen any signs of any dangerous wildlife, but that didn't mean it wasn't there. They opted to skip starting a fire for coffee and settled for a quick, cold breakfast before setting out for the day's ride.
Orin Travis was waiting for them when they rode into town at mid-afternoon. "I was beginning to worry. I expected you here before noon," he said as he lifted Billy down from his place in front of Ezra.
"We were forced to stop early yesterday. Water is not very plentiful during this season," the gambler explained.
"Ahhh, I hadn't considered that." The judge still held his grandson, and he hugged him tightly before setting him down. "So, did you have any great adventures on your ride here?"
"Ezra let me ride his horse," Billy said, with a huge grin on his face.
"Well, of course he did. You were riding on his horse when you got here," the judge pointed out.
"I believe your grandson is referring to me letting him take the reins for a time."
"You did? Then it won't be much longer until you can ride on your own." Judge Travis ruffled the boy's hair and grinned at him affectionately. "Your grandmother is waiting to see you. Why don't you run on ahead? Mary, you can go too, you must be tired. I'll help Ezra with the horses."
The older man busied himself tending to his daughter-in-law's horse. From the next stall he could hear the soothing sounds the gambler made to Chaucer as he rubbed him down. "Ezra, what's really behind this sudden trip here?"
"I am certain that Mrs. Travis informed you of her reasons," he responded warily, sensing a trap.
"She gave us a reason, but I don't think it is the reason. I realize she got badly hurt and was laid up for a while, but I think it is more than just needing time to get things back in order at the Clarion." He paused and when the younger man didn't respond he continued. "Why did she have you bring her instead of Chris?"
Ezra poured a measure of grain into the feedbox and left the stall to go stand in the opening to the one where the judge was just finishing up. "I think this is all something you should broach with your daughter-in-law; however, I will tell you this much. I am aware that you were told that she was seriously injured when she tried to break up a fight. I doubt that she told you that the altercation was between Mr. Larabee and me." He held up a hand to stop the judge from interrupting. "Mr. Larabee was so enraged that he didn't see her step between us. It all happened in the space of a heartbeat. The blow that Mary received was intended for me."
"Chris hurt her?" The judge sagged back against the wall of the stall and ran a shaky hand across his face as he tried to digest that information. Then he looked the gambler straight in the eyes and asked, "Why was he that mad at you?"
"The reasons for his anger are personal. But, I can assure you that it had nothing to do with the performance of our duties to the town, and that it is the only instance where our esteemed leader has lost control in such a manner." He hoped this would appease the judge. He hadn't wanted to tell him anything, but he could read him well enough to know that he wouldn't give up until he found out the real reason for the visit. Ezra knew that he would have to give him something in addition to the story Mary had given him, or the judge would keep digging. "She is still recovering from the ordeal, and has been dealing with some emotional issues in addition to the physical trauma. She had grown quite fond of Mr. Larabee. Now, she has her business to get in order, and she needs time to finish healing both physically and emotionally."
"But it was an accident?" the judge asked.
"Yes, but I believe seeing him like that and suffering injury by his hand has her frightened. She doesn't want to be near him right now. Hence, she requested my assistance for this excursion." He kept his game face on and hoped this was enough. "I would appreciate it if you did not inform her that I provided you with this information."
Travis pushed himself away from the wall, stopped next to the gambler, and he gave Ezra's shoulder a squeeze. "I'll not let her know what you told me, but I thank you for telling me the rest of the story. I knew she was leaving something out." He sighed heavily. "It won't be long until supper, I'd like you to join us if you will."
"Are you sure we can't convince you to stay a little longer?" Judge Travis asked his daughter-in-law.
Mary shook her head and hugged him tightly. "I have to get back. Maybe I can visit longer when we come back to get Billy." She let go and pulled herself up into the saddle before he could convince her to stay. She had already said a tearful good-bye to her son at the house, and they had to go now before she lost her resolve to leave him there.
"Alright, I'll hold you to that." He gave the horse a pat on the rump as it started to move away. "Ezra..."
The gambler smiled knowingly at his former adversary. "I give you my word; I will see her safely home." He was slightly taken aback when the judge offered his hand in farewell.
"I know you will, and thank you." He clasped the younger man's hand before sending him on his way.
They rode quietly for a while before Mary broke the silence. "Where do you think we should stop tonight? I don't remember passing any other good places, other than the one we found."
"I had been thinking on that very subject. It will be an early stop, but I believe it would be wise to pass the night in that same location." He looked questioningly at his riding companion. "Would that be acceptable to you?
Mary was surprised to be consulted on the decision. She was used to the men around her always taking control of the situation, like her thoughts on the subject didn't matter at all. "Totally acceptable," she agreed.
They stopped at mid-afternoon and divided up the tasks as they had before. Ezra was alarmed to see how much lower the water was after only two days. In places the water flowed only in the slightly deeper channels, exposing a good portion of the streambed. If they had stayed in town another couple of days the water would have, in all probability, been gone by the time they got here.
"Ezra, I don't think we should chance a fire tonight. Look at this." She indicated the area where they had camped three nights before. "Everything is so much drier."
"I agree. But, at least we don't have to eat cold beans," he said with a grin.
"Why not?" She looked at him suspiciously.
He went to his saddlebag and pulled out a cloth wrapped bundle. "Compliments of the elder Mrs. Travis," he said as he passed it over to her.
The fried chicken and biscuits tasted like a full course meal after riding most of the day. "That was so much better than beans," Mary said as she held her stomach and groaned. "But, I am stuffed," she added.
"Indeed, your mother-in-law did not intend for us to go to sleep hungry." He pulled the last bite of meat off the chicken leg in his hand. There was one piece left and he offered it to her.
"I couldn't eat another bite if I tried." She shook her head and wrinkled up her nose at the mere thought of more food.
The gambler finished off the last piece and then moaned. "I think I understand now why gluttony is considered a sin." With an exaggerated effort, he got to his feet and gathered up the cloth with the pile of chicken bones inside. "I think I will take these some distance from the camp to dispose of them to avoid attracting undue attention during the night."
He headed upstream from the campsite for a considerable distance before he stopped and looked back to be sure he was well out of visual range. Once certain he was far enough away he pitched the bones out into a thicket, and then searched for a good place to relieve himself.
Mary watched Ezra walk away from the camp and once he was where she could no longer see him, she left the camp in the opposite direction. All that food was making its presence known quite insistently. She wanted to put enough distance between herself and the camp that he wouldn't see her if he got back before she did. This was the one part of roughing it that she really didn't like. Old newspapers seemed like real luxury compared to having to use dried leaves.
After that unpleasant business was attended to, she went to the stream to rinse her hands and grinned at what she saw. She couldn't wait to tell Ezra.
The two got back to camp at almost the same time and Mary couldn't contain herself. "Don't sit down! I have something to show you." She grabbed his hand and tugged him back downstream.
"I admit that I find myself intrigued as to what could have excited you so much. Just please, tell me you didn't find something edible," he teased.
"No, but I think you'll like it." She pulled him along behind her for a short distance more and then stopped at the edge of the stream. "Look!"
In a place where the stream made a very sharp curve around a rock outcropping, there was a shallow pool of water. It was barely three feet deep where the water had dug out the streambed as it churned against the rocks when the water had been higher, but it was deep enough for a bath. "My dear, you are an angel. I will definitely sleep better with the dust and sweat of the day washed away." He smiled at her showing both dimples and a flash of gold. "Ladies first," he offered gallantly. He nodded to a stump a short distance away. "I'll wait there to keep watch, but I give you my word that I will keep my back turned."
She watched until he had taken his place and then started to undress. It was comforting to know that he was close if she needed him, but despite the fact that he had seen her naked before, she was relieved when he turned his back. It might seem silly, but this was a different kind of naked. This was for bathing, something she had always done in complete privacy; it wasn't the same as when they had made love.
The crystal clear water was deliciously cool as she stepped from the shallows into the waist deep pool. She sighed as she submerged herself and felt the heat pulled from her skin. The water moved gently around her from what little current was left, and she stretched her legs out and let herself hover nearly sitting on the pebbles at the bottom of the pool for several minutes. But, she couldn't actually sit or the water would have been over her head. It would be wonderful to soak there until her fingers and toes wrinkled, but Ezra was waiting patiently for his chance to bathe. She submerged again and worked her fingers through her hair to wash the sour smell of sweat away, then using her hands she rubbed herself clean, before ducking under the surface one last time to rinse.
Reluctantly, she walked out of the water and went to her clothes. Why hadn't she thought of bringing something fresh from the saddlebag? "Ezra?"
He didn't turn when she spoke. "Is something amiss?"
"I guess you could say that. I was so anxious to get here that I didn't bring other clothes. I really don't want to put those sweaty ones back on." She stood holding her clothes up in front of her in case he did turn around.
"A good point, and one that I had not considered either. I shall return momentarily." He rose and quickly made his way back to the camp to get their clothes.
It seemed like such an invasion of her privacy to rummage through her saddlebag and her personal articles, but he didn't want to carry that heavy bag all the way back. It wasn't that they were able to carry all that much in them, but the thick leather of the bags added significantly to the weight of them. He finally settled on a pair of pantaloons, a camisole, and her extra set of riding clothes. The only other outer clothes he saw was the dress she had taken to wear in town. If he missed something she could attend to it when she got back to camp. As an afterthought he added her hairbrush to the stack of clothing.
Ezra found her right where he had left her. He tried not to stare at the exposed skin of her arms and shoulders as he got closer, despite the reactions of his body to the sight. There was a boulder just a few feet from her and he sat the stack down there and divided it into two piles, one his and the other hers, before he stepped away and turned his back. He could hear her behind him and he tried to put the image of those bare shoulders out of his mind, but his body continued to betray him.
The thought of that cool water and the fact that it was close to getting dark had the gambler working at his buttons and removing his weapons while he waited for her to finish dressing. Considering the fact that she had seen him unclothed before, the thought of her seeing him that way again didn't really bother him, except that seeing her standing there partially exposed had had an effect on him that he would rather not reveal to her.
"Okay, I'm done."
He turned back to her and smiled. "Feeling a little more human now?"
"Feeling much more human," she said with a soft laugh. "I'll keep watch for you." She nodded toward the stump and grabbed her brush to go take her place with her back to the stream.
Ezra made quick work of stripping out of the sweat-soaked clothes and stepping into the water. As inviting as the deeper water was, at that moment he needed another kind of relief even more. He slipped around behind the outcropping, knowing it wouldn't take long since he knew all the tricks that put him over the edge quickly. Keeping quiet grew increasingly difficult the closer he got, but somehow he managed to swallow the cry that tried to break free at the moment of release. He stood, leaning back against the rock, gasping for breath and hoping Mary couldn't hear him.
After a couple minutes, he slipped into the deeper water and washed quickly. The water felt wonderful, but she had been considerate and had not tarried too long. It wouldn't be fair to leave her sitting there on that stump any longer than he had waited for her. He pressed his wet hands against the fine dry sand of the sandbar that was right next to the pool and rubbed it gently over his skin to scrub off the sweat and dust of the day. Then he submerged himself to rinse the sand off and wash the sweat from his hair. After a second dunking, the gambler forced himself to leave the cool water behind and headed for his clothes.
"Feeling better?" she asked, when she heard Ezra step up behind her.
Mary jumped when the bright flash and a loud thunderclap jolted her awake. She felt Ezra's hand on her arm when she sat up, and she turned to look toward him in the dark. Another flash lit up the area and she could see him watching her. The thought of trying to sleep out in the rain wasn't a pleasant one, but if it meant an end to the drought she wouldn't complain.
"It's heat lightning."
The flickering of the lightning hurt her eyes, and she pulled her gaze away from it to look down at the man lying quietly a couple feet from her. "Are you sure? I don't think I have ever seen it this bright before."
"I do believe we happen to be right under it, instead of viewing it from a distance. I've been watching it for some time. It really is a spectacular display." He lay there watching the brilliant flashes and listening to the low rumbles from the clouds above. "What I don't understand is how we can have the presence of those clouds and still not receive any rain."
Mary flinched when an exceptionally bright flash lit up the sky accompanied by a loud boom. "It never made sense to me either." She really wished it would stop. She had never told anyone, but lightning terrified her; it had ever since she was a little girl.
Dry leaves crunched and she felt his presence close by her side. Without a word he gathered her into his arms and held her close until she started to relax. "Better now?"
"Yes. I feel so silly being afraid of a little lightning." She raised up on one elbow and studied him. "How did you know?"
"I dare say you would not find the answer very flattering," he replied and chuckled softly.
"Oh really? Now I really want to know."
"I have seen the same look in my horse's eyes when something has him spooked."
"Ezra Standish! Are you comparing me to a horse?" She smacked him on the arm. There was no way she would ever be a convincing actress, even she could hear the amusement in her own voice. Another thunderclap sent her back into his arms with her face pressed against his neck.
He held her, shielding her face from the brilliant spectacle above them. One hand rubbed slow circles on her back, gradually relaxing the tight muscles. When the rumbles of thunder began to move farther away, she finally drifted off to sleep.
Ezra groaned when the bright shaft of sunlight hit him squarely in the face. It felt like he had just gone to sleep. He felt Mary still snug against him and smiled. She felt like she belonged there curled up to him; they just seemed to fit together. She moved and he shifted so he could see her face as she struggled to open her eyes. "Good morning, sleepyhead." He wasn't about to tell her he had just woken up himself.
She looked around at the brightness of the day and then it hit her. "What time is it?"
The gambler pulled out his new pocket watch and checked the dial. "Approximately nine o'clock."
"We should have been on our way at least two hours ago!" She started to scramble from her bedroll but the arm around her tightened and wouldn't let her go.
"My dear, if you will recall, we stopped early that first day. We will still reach the town by nightfall." He looked intently into her pale blue eyes. "After our sleep had been disrupted by that dazzling exhibition in the night sky, we both required a little more rest."
He let her go, and they both got up to see to their morning needs. They shared a quick breakfast of cold beans and day old biscuits before packing up and heading for home.
"What's that?" Mary asked as they topped a hill.
Ezra stared off in the direction she pointed and tensed. "Smoke! The lightning must have started a fire." The line of smoke stretched on with no end in sight. "It's a good distance away, so I don't think we'll have reason for concern." He eyed the thick haze anxiously, despite trying to reassure Mary. As dry as everything was, if the wind shifted toward them it could be real trouble.
The pair rode on keeping a wary eye on the smoke in the distance. They had been riding into the light wind and the blaze appeared to be spreading back in the direction they had come from. But then the wind shifted, and they got their first hint of the smell of smoke on the air. The horses recoiled from the scent, their nostrils flaring, eyes wide with alarm. Both riders had their hands full with their nervous mounts, as the acrid smell of burning grass grew stronger.
"We have to change direction. There is no way we can continue on the direct route home." Ezra urged Chaucer to turn, putting the rapidly approaching fire behind them. The horse was more than happy to oblige and needed little encouragement to pick up his pace. Mary's mare kept close at their side as they tried to outrun the approaching flames.
They rode at a ground-eating pace, but the scent of smoke continued to overtake them. Mary chanced a glance back over her shoulder. "Ezra, look!" She waited until he turned toward her and pointed behind and to their right. The fire was not only gaining on them, but it was flanking them as well.
The gambler whipped around to look back and to the left and recoiled at what he saw. He had been so intent on keeping as much distance as possible between them and the inferno behind them that he had failed to consider the other directions. Dense smoke signaled the line of fire was beginning to curve in on them from that direction as well. He was in unfamiliar territory, so all he could do was keep them all moving forward and pray that they found some refuge soon. For now, all they could do was ride.
Ezra pulled up for a moment when he saw a large wooded area blocking their way and turned Chaucer so he could check in all directions. Mary struggled to keep control of the nervous animal she rode. The beast clearly did not like the idea of stopping with the wind picking up and pushing the flames ahead of it and causing the blaze to close in on them rapidly. "Where to?" she shouted.
There was nowhere to go. The flames had completely cut off any escape to their right. To the left there was still some clear space between the blaze and the trees but without knowing how far the wall of fire continued in that direction they didn't dare try to make a break for it that way. He turned back to face the trees, knowing there was no turning back once they moved ahead. "In there! It is our only choice!" he called back to her.
The pair plunged their mounts through the dense undergrowth at the tree line then spurred them on as fast as they dared between the trees. With any luck the trees still held enough moisture that they wouldn't burn as quickly as the dry grass of the plains. Luck proved not to be with them. They could hear it when the trees flared up. The crackling of the grass fire gave way to the roar of flames reaching into the canopy.
Fear gripped him like an iron fist squeezing the air from his chest and causing him to struggle for breath. The air had become unbearably hot and sweat rain in rivulets down his face and chest. The smoke brought on fits of coughing, making it difficult to breathe and even harder to try to speak. Ezra stole a glance at Mary and he could see the same terror had control of her. "Stay close! We can't get separated!" he yelled over the deafening sounds of destruction around them as the flames leapt from tree to tree over their heads.
Glowing embers rained from the canopy igniting the undergrowth. A horse squealed in pain as a hot brand landed on its flank setting the coarse hair on fire and searing into the animal's flesh. Mary screamed and clung helplessly to the saddle horn as the pain-ridden animal reared in terror. Ezra fought to keep Chaucer from bolting long enough to reach the other horse. In desperation the gambler jerked off his hat and used it to swat at the smoldering hair on the mare's rump.
The crack of limbs collapsing had both animals dancing sideways away from the falling debris. "There!" He pointed off to their right. Mary still struggled to stay in the saddle of the frightened animal, unable to regain control. As Ezra maneuvered his gelding past her, he leaned out and yanked the reins out of her hands. The mare resisted, rearing and twisting, trying to pull itself free, but to no avail. The gambler refused to let go. Another limb crashing to the ground behind them finally persuaded the beast to move in the direction that he wanted her to go.
The opening was small, but if they hurried they just might get through. "EZRA!" The sound of Mary's scream was lost in the horrifying sound of wood splitting as a tree toppled in a shower of sparks and blazing coals. Burning branches brushed past them, but they did not slow in their headlong dash toward the opening in the trees.
Cooler air hit them within moments of clearing the tree line. They gulped in the air, filling their tortured lungs until they could hold no more and then expelling it in fits of violent coughing. Ezra slowed them slightly to hand Mary back her reins and in the process he looked back. Flames rose high above the treetops, and the wind blew live coals out into the grass behind the riders. "Go! Heyah!" He smacked the mare hard on the flank causing her to lurch forward and kicked his gelding urging him to follow.
Their mounts were past exhaustion, their coats lathered with sweat, and foam dripped from their open mouths, when suddenly they pulled up short. There was no place left to run. The ground suddenly dropped away into a steep canyon. Ezra sagged in his saddle well aware that the grass fire still trailed not far behind them. He growled abruptly in frustration as they stood looking down into a sanctuary that they could not reach.
Mary looked both directions, tears streaming down her soot-smudged face. "There has to be a way down! There has to be."
The dismay in her voice shook Ezra out of his daze, and he turned to check the progress of the fire. It was closer to the canyon rim to the left than to the right. Green eyes locked with blue as he eased his horse past her. "We'll find one," he stated firmly.
They had ridden a good half mile before they found what they were looking for, a place where the walls weren't as steep, where the horses could make it down to the canyon floor. Chaucer shied at first when Ezra urged him toward the steep slope, but a sudden gust of hot smoke laden wind from behind him changed his mind, and Mary's mare followed not far behind.
Loose rocks slid under the horses' hooves and caused the nervous animals to scramble to keep their footing. The incline was so sheer at times they were almost sliding on their haunches for short distances until the slope leveled enough to allow them to regain their footing. The descent into the chasm seemed endless, despite seeing the canyon floor grow steadily closer. Near the bottom, the grade finally allowed their mounts to proceed more normally, much to the relief of both horses and riders.
Ezra reined the gelding around so he could look back up the way they had come. He couldn't believe they had actually made it down with both horses still on their feet and uninjured. The slope to the top looked impossibly vertical from this perspective. Smoke billowed over the rim of the canyon high above them. Very little vegetation clung to the rock walls, effectively creating a natural fire break - provided no glowing embers stayed hot long enough to fall to the sparse grass on the valley floor. He doubted that could happen, but he wasn't taking any bets on that one. The odds had been stacked against them since that first shift in the wind.
The pair urged the animals to move on just a little farther, putting some distance between them and the fire that still raged at the top of the bluff. Rosie stumbled in her exhaustion, nearly pitching Mary from the saddle. She slid off the animal's back and stood stroking its heaving sides. "Ezra, they just can't go any farther."
The gambler slid to the ground beside her and nodded tiredly. "I agree, but we need to attempt to locate water. We'll walk them." He took the reins and tugged firmly. Chaucer reluctantly followed, exhaustion evident in each step. Ezra patted the bridge of the gelding's nose and spoke soothingly to him. "You were magnificent, but we must go just a little farther." He gave another tug on the reins. "When we get back home, I am going to find you the biggest carrots in all of Four Corners. A Sultan's mount could wish for no better." He coaxed the big animal forward slowly. "And, after you have been brushed until your coat glistens in the sun, I will buy you all the oats you can eat." The gelding's ears perked up at the mention of oats and Ezra chuckled. "Yes, I know you. You would walk to the ends of the earth for a bucket of oats."
"And what do we get if we keep moving?" Mary asked with a hint of a smile as she urged her exhausted mare forward, one weary step at a time.
Ezra reached over to give the other horse a gentle pat on the neck. "This fine lady will receive all the rewards that my gallant steed has in store for him."
The weary blonde stroked Rosie's nose. "Did you hear that? Ezra just promised you carrots and oats too. You don't want Chaucer to have them all to himself do you?" The mare let out a half-hearted snort, as if to say, 'I really couldn't care less.' Mary chuckled. "Keep that up and Ezra might change his mind."
"Never!" the gambler promised.
"Well, what about me? Do I get anything if I keep moving?"
"What would you like as your reward, my dear?" Ezra glanced at her with one eyebrow raised in question.
"A whole pitcher of lemonade and a nice long soak in a cool bath, then a big steak dinner," she answered with a wistful sigh.
"Ahhhh... a woman after my own heart," he said with a grin. "Except make mine a bottle of fine scotch whiskey."
They continued on in silence, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other until they noticed the horses' ears twitching at some sound their human companions couldn't hear. Rosie perked up slightly and quit protesting when Mary urged her to keep moving. A few more minutes put them close enough that they could hear it too. Water! The sound was faint, but it was there.
"Do you hear that?" Mary asked softly, like she was afraid that if she said it too loudly the sound would disappear.
"Indeed I do!" Ezra felt slightly more energized from the prospect of finally being able to stop before humans and beasts all dropped in their tracks.
Under normal conditions it would be a sizable river, but the current drought had shrunk its size considerably. What would have been churning rapids were now not much more than large ripples as water flowed over various rocks and ledges in the riverbed. Ezra saw that the water flowed much smoother slightly upstream, so he turned their little troop in that direction. Once away from the swifter current they both led their horses to the water's edge to drink. Ezra handed Mary Chaucer's reins to hold while he retrieved and filled their canteens. They wanted to gulp down their fill of the cool water, but they had to keep reminding themselves not to drink too much too fast or to let the horses do so either.
They pulled the animals away from the water and moved a little farther upstream. It was hard to tell from where they were, but it looked like they could find some minimal amount of shelter under a rock outcropping not too far away. The mare kept trying to get back to the water, but she needed to wait a little while before drinking more.
"I believe this is the best we can hope for in the way of shelter," the gambler said as he checked out the indentation under the overhanging rocks. "It should at least offer us some shade tomorrow."
"Tomorrow? Aren't we going home tomorrow?" Mary asked.
"No. The horses need a day to recover before we can expect more from them, and quite frankly, I require some recovery time as well."
The blonde quickly became concerned by the tone in his voice and ran her eyes over him from head to toe. She gasped at what she saw for the first time. The gambler had managed to keep his left side turned away from her until now. The sleeves of his jacket and his shirt had been burned through, exposing the red scorched flesh underneath. "Why didn't you tell me you were hurt? Sit down... where else are you hurt? Can you get your jacket and shirt off? Do you need me to help you?" She rattled off questions without even giving him time to respond.
When he could finally get a word in he chuckled softly. "To answer your questions, because we didn't dare stop, a few minor burns, no I can't, and yes I do."
Mary wasted no time in getting his buttons undone and helping him slip his uninjured arm from the sleeves, but removing the shirt and jacket from the burned arm required more care. Ezra hissed in pain as the fabric rubbed across the tender skin beneath it. The seared patch on his upper arm covered most of the area between the shoulder and the elbow in a strip about five inches wide. "I don't see any blisters yet," Mary announced. She grabbed what was left of his shirt and went to soak it in the cool water of the river. When she got back to him she folded the dripping shirt into a manageable size and pressed it to the abused flesh.
"Hold still! I know it hurts, but this will help pull some of the fire out." She clasped his forearm to keep him from yanking away from her.
He gritted his teeth against the pain that shot through him at the touch of the cold water to his damaged arm. Gradually, as the wet cloth warmed, he was able to relax enough to speak. He let out a long shuddering breath and said, "I apologize for my outburst."
"Shhhh... you don't have to apologize. Say whatever you need to if it helps." She removed the hot cloth and dipped it into the cold water again to repeat the process. This time the shock to his body wasn't as severe, and he managed to stay still while she applied the cold compress several more times.
"Hold this," Mary told him after pressing the cool cloth back to his arm. "I think I saw something that will help. Do you have a pocket knife?"
Ezra fumbled with his injured arm, but finally managed to get his hand in his pants' pocket to get the knife. "What, may I ask, do you propose to do?"
"I am pretty sure I saw some aloe plants. I remember Nathan saying they are good for burns. I'll be right back." She left before he could make a move to stop her.
Ezra succumbed to fatigue and let himself slump back against the rocks for a few moments. He looked at the tattered remains of the shirt he held against his arm and sighed. His haberdashery expenses had grown considerably since he became associated with his fellow peacekeepers. Reluctantly, he laid the wet cloth aside and forced himself to his feet. The horses still needed tending before he could allow himself to rest.
He took care of Rosie first. The poor mare was literally asleep on her feet, one back leg cocked, and her head drooping low. He removed the saddle and saddlebags and set them near their shelter, before he looked her over for injuries. Surprisingly, after that headlong dash through a rain of fire, the burn on her flank seemed to be the only significant burn. She had several smaller singed areas in her hair, but most didn't reach the skin underneath. The bad one covered an area about the size of his hand. All the hair had been scorched off and the skin was vividly red where it was exposed. Several small blisters were already starting to form. As much as his own arm hurt, he was sure this one on Rosie's flank had to be extremely painful. Hopefully, Mary would bring back enough of that plant to treat the mare's wounds too.
The gambler followed the same routine with Chaucer and was relieved to find only a few small burn marks where some small hot embers had landed on the gelding's coat. Several had burned through to the skin, but they were small in comparison to that one of Rosie's; most were no larger than a silver dollar. Fortunately, none had caused the hair to burst into flames, but they had scorched their way through to sear the flesh.
They were rapidly losing light as night approached. Ezra hoped that Mary made it back soon because finding her way in the dark might be impossible. He had just located a patch of grass that still had a little green to it near where the edge of the river should have been. He tethered the horses to a short shrub, making sure they had enough slack that they could reach as much of the grass as possible. When it was daylight tomorrow they could find them some better forage; at least he hoped they could.
"Ezra?" Mary called to him. "I found the aloe." She held up the armload of long flat leaves.
"Is there enough for them too?" He nodded toward the horses.
"More than enough, I'm sure, but if we need more I know where to find it." She joined him next to the mare and winced at the sight of the deep burn on her haunch. She laid the plants on a boulder nearby, and quickly slit a few of the stalks open and scraped out the juicy pulp. Nathan had said the juice was good for a minor burn, but the pulp would make a good poultice for the more serious ones. There was no way to bandage the animal's injury, but she could at least cover the area with the aloe and maybe give the mare a little relief. With one hand she patted and soothed the horse while she gently applied the sticky substance to the wound. She moved around Rosie and Chaucer dabbing the healing balm on each burn she found. Satisfied that she could do no more for them, Mary turned her attention to Ezra.
"Your turn," she said matter-of-factly. While she waited for him to settle himself, half sitting on the boulder where she had deposited the aloe stalks, she rinsed her hands in the river and set about slitting open some more of the flat tapered leaves. A frown creased her brow as she studied the situation, trying to figure the best way to treat the burn. Any kind of bandage would soak up the aloe and make a poultice useless. Finally, she decided to press the fleshy insides against his arm and bind them there. The skin of the leaves would keep them from being dried out by the bandage.
Ezra cringed when he heard his shirt suffering even more damage at Mary's hands. She ripped the good sleeve from the garment and split it open to make a wide strip to wrap his arm in. She ripped a couple strips off one end to use to tie the makeshift bandage in place. "I fear I have been quite remiss. I have not even asked you if you suffered any injury."
"I'm alright. I got a few little burns, but nothing compared to what you did." She pressed the aloe leaves to his arm causing him to hiss in pain. "I'm sorry!"
Ezra reached up and laid a hand over hers and looked up to catch her gaze. He let his eyes speak to her to offer her what reassurance he could, and to give her his trust. After a moment he gave her a slight nod to signal that he was ready for her to finish.
"Uhhh... I'll need you to hold part of these in place while I get the rest," she told him, and placed his hand where she wanted it. Once she had the area covered with the split leaves, she wrapped it securely with the shirtsleeve and tied it in place with the strips. "I'm sure Nathan could have done a much better job, but I think it should hold."
"My dear, you did an admirable job under these less than ideal conditions." He stood and patted the rock where he had just been sitting. "Now, it is your turn. Where are these burns of yours?" A few minutes later he had dabbed each one with the aloe juice, and had allowed her to tend the few other small spots on him.
The pair was beyond exhaustion. Just as they lost the last of the daylight, Mary foraged through the saddlebags and found them both a day old biscuit and grabbed the bedrolls. It wasn't much, but at that moment they both craved rest more than food. They stretched out on their blankets and forced down the dry bread, but the last of the crumbs had barely fallen when they both gave in to sleep.
Ezra woke to the sounds of a struggle and couldn't remember where he was at first. Mary thrashed, and talked in her sleep as the nightmare held her captive, forcing her to relive their narrow escape. He sat up and moved closer, grimacing when he moved the burned arm, but he noticed that it wasn't as painful as it had been earlier. He shook her gently to avoid startling her and knew she was awake when he heard her soft whimpers. "It's alright, you're safe now," he soothed.
It took him by surprise when he suddenly found Mary sitting on his lap with her arms wrapped around his neck. She buried her face against his neck and made no attempt to stop the flood of tears that dropped on his bare skin. Her whole body trembled from the horror she had faced in her dreams. Ezra wrapped his arms snugly around her and placed a light kiss against her cheek. "Shhhhh... it was only a dream," he said as he rocked her like a frightened child.
"I thought we were going to die," she said softly, the fear and hopelessness still evident in her voice. "I can't remember ever being that scared before." Her breath caught in her throat as she tried to hold back a sob.
"Nor can I," he confessed.
They sat and held each other, drawing comfort from the simple act of touching. Ezra felt the first light kiss Mary pressed to his neck and shivered slightly at the sensation. Another kiss followed, this one a bit bolder. He sighed and turned to her just as she lifted her head from his shoulder in search of his lips.
The dream had been terrifying. It had been so real that she could feel the heat and smell the smoke as powerfully as she had only a few hours earlier. The crackle of the flames and the crash of burning limbs as they fell all around her overwhelmed her, and she knew without a doubt that she was going to be burned alive.
Mary woke to find Ezra shaking her gently. She whimpered from the relief of finding that it was a dream, that they weren't still trapped in that inferno. His quiet reassurances were soothing, but they weren't enough to calm her and stop her from shaking so hard that she thought surely he must hear her teeth chatter. She honestly didn't know how she ended up on his lap with his arms wrapped protectively around her, but she needed that contact. She needed to feel him warm and breathing, pressed snugly against her.
An undeniable need took hold of her, and she found herself kissing his neck. He shivered when she flicked at the skin with the tip of her tongue. Emboldened by his reaction, she lifted her head just as he turned. Their lips met. There was no gentle teasing, only a hunger born of the need to celebrate the fact that they were both still alive. Mary pressed her lips to his with a force that took them both by surprise. One hand cupped the base of his skull, the fingers tangling themselves into his hair. The other slipped around his ribs and then slid down to his hip before working its way back between them to cup the swelling bulge she felt against her thigh.
Ezra moaned at the touch and devoured her mouth with his, plunging his tongue deep into its warm, moist depths when her lips parted. She captured it and sucked it deeper into her mouth, allowing her own tongue to caress the bottom and sides of his before rolling over the top and pressing forward to do some exploring of her own.
She felt him fumbling with the buttons of her shirt, but the normally nimble fingers were clumsy and he growled in frustration. Reluctantly, she drew back enough to open the shirt and pull it and her camisole over her head and toss it aside. Mary gasped when one hand roughly cupped her breast and firmly kneaded the soft flesh. She groaned loudly and pressed up into his hand, whimpering when the nipple was pinched and rolled between his thumb and forefinger. The intense sensations surged through her going straight to the core of her womanhood, making her wet as her arousal grew.
Ezra dipped his head to her breast and sucked the hard bud into his mouth. He toyed with the already sensitive peak, rolling his tongue around it, and nipping at it with his teeth. The position they were in was awkward and made it impossible to give the same attention to her other breast. He released her and pushed her away. "Stand up," he urged her to her feet. Once free to move, he worked frantically at his belt and the buttons of his fly.
He saw Mary's riding skirt and pantaloons drop to the ground beside him. "Let me help!" She pushed his hands away and quickly unbuttoned the last two buttons, then leaned forward to claim his mouth in a fiery kiss before hooking her thumbs into the waistband of his pants. "Lift up." Ezra's arms shook from the exertion of holding his weight, but he used what little strength the day had left him to raise up enough for her to slide both garments off together. She pulled his boots off and tugged the trousers and socks off to leave him naked.
Her body was bathed in moonlight when she moved to his feet to remove his boots. He moaned when the sight of her made him painfully hard, and his swollen member twitched where it rested against his belly.
Ezra sat leaning back against the rock, barely registering its roughness against his back. He watched as Mary moved to straddle him and lowered herself to her knees. In a quick move he grabbed her and leaned her forward enough that he could capture the second nipple with his lips and then his teeth. His free hand ran up her thigh and detoured into the nest of tight curls when it reached the top. One finger slipped in to tease the throbbing nub.
A growl rolled up from deep within her as he stroked her. Her head lolled back and her breath caught in ragged gasps. He could feel her juices flowing signaling that she was ready for him.
Mary raised her head to look at him when he pulled his hand away. She reached down to hold him in position and lowered herself down onto him, sheathing him fully inside her in one swift stroke. Ezra cried out when felt her impale herself on his rigid shaft. Neither moved as he gave her time to adjust to having him in her, but their need would not be denied for long.
She leaned forward slightly to brace her hands against the rock on each side and slightly above him. His hands slid up her legs to grasp her hips. "Ohhhhh... move... please!" he begged her, his voice husky with passion.
Her eyes locked with his in the near dark as she slowly raised her hips and brought them down again. His fingers dug into her flesh as he gripped her, urging her to find the rhythm. He watched her face, memorizing each change he saw, as her need grew more and more urgent. She rocked in an ever-increasing tempo, taking him to the hilt as he rose to meet her on each down stroke.
Ezra knew he couldn't last much longer. He slipped one hand back between them, allowing her own movements to rub his fingers against that one sensitive spot that he knew would bring her over the edge with him. She cried out from the intensity of her orgasm. The sudden tightening of her muscles gripping him caused him to explode within her. He clutched at her hips and held her steady while he lifted his hips to thrust deep a few more times, milking him dry.
Mary's legs could no longer hold her up and she sagged against his chest. She still straddled his hips and held his softening shaft inside, reluctant to give up the feeling of having him there. Ezra reached out for one of their blankets and spread it out over them, so their sweat covered bodies wouldn't chill in the cool night air. He captured her lips in a long, tender kiss and wrapped his arms around her, content to let her stay there for as long as she wanted.
Hot was the first thing that entered Ezra's thoughts when he gradually woke the next morning. Why was he hot, and why did he have this weight on his chest? He heard Mary sigh softly in her sleep and it all came back to him making him smile smugly at the memory. It was hard to believe that this was the same awkward woman from the cave, and he was still astonished that she had asked him to instruct her in the art of physical love.
Mary still sat straddling his hips and lying against his chest just as she had been when they went to sleep. The only real change was that during their sleep he had become flaccid and slipped from inside her. It had felt so incredible to drift off to sleep with her still encasing him. He felt a slight stirring in his groin from the memory and forced his mind back to here and now before his body could betray him further.
The first thing was to get rid of that hot blanket. He tugged it off and laid it next to them. It was full daylight, but it couldn't be very late from the length of the shadows he could see outside their shelter. Already it was getting horribly hot and sweat trickled down his chest to disappear into the space between her breasts where she rested against him. He nuzzled against her hair and slipped his arms up around her to slowly stroke her back.
She stirred and raised her head groggily to look at him, a satisfied smile on her lips and no hint of regret in her pale blue eyes. "Good morning."
"It is indeed a good morning," he responded and bent his head to give her a light kiss. "I find it quite pleasant to awaken with a beautiful woman in my arms, and you are quite beautiful." He let his hands wander over her bare back as he spoke. "And, if that beautiful woman also happens to be naked and sitting on my lap, it is an extraordinary way to begin a day."
"Well, I have to admit that this is the first time I ever woke up sitting on a naked man's lap." She blushed despite teasing him in return.
"As much as I am loath to move from this position, I find I must ask you to let me up."
"I don't think I can," she admitted, and rushed to explain when he looked at her with raised brows and a hint of alarm in his eyes. "It's just that I have been sitting in this position so long my whole body aches and my feet are asleep."
"My dear, if your feet are asleep, imagine the condition of my legs. If I don't get the blood moving again and get them functional very soon, I will be in a most embarrassing situation, because I desperately need to relieve myself."
"So do I!" she admitted as she tried to move one leg to lift it over him but couldn't manage it. "I think I am going to need some help."
Ezra slid a hand under her knee and helped her roll off of him into an awkward sprawl. "I apologize for such ungentlemanly assistance, but as they say 'desperate times, desperate measures.'" He grimaced as the blood worked its way back into his deprived limbs, sending sharp pains shooting through the muscles, and that tickling sensation like a million ants crawling over his skin. Before he had complete feeling back, he was dragging himself to his feet and hobbling ungracefully from under the outcropping they used for shelter. Normally, he would put some distance between them before giving in to the call of nature, but there was no waiting any longer. He was barely able to clear the little natural alcove, let alone make it around to the side out of sight, when he just had to go.
Mary had been trying to get to her own feet, so she could do the same, and was surprised to stand up just as Ezra gave up trying to be discreet. Even though she had been married for several years, she had never seen her husband relieve himself. There were just some things they had kept completely private, but she didn't have time to dwell on it because the sound of splattering water had her walking almost cross-legged to get behind the rocks. When she had tended to her own needs, she peeked back around and saw him waiting for her to return. He hadn't made any move to get dressed; he just stood with his back toward her, looking out at the river.
When he heard her behind him, he turned to face her and his cheeks colored slightly when he caught her eyes. "I apologize. That was terribly crass of me... but I just couldn't..."
"It's okay." She blushed and then looked at him with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. "If I had the right parts, I would have been doing the same thing."
"My dear, if you had those parts we most certainly would not have shared the intimacies that we have." He laughed openly at the shocked expression on her face at his implication.
"You are incorrigible." She smiled at him and shook her head in disbelief. Her eyes landed on his bandaged arm and she grew serious. "Before you dress, let me check your arm. How does it feel?"
"It still hurts considerably, but it isn't as unbearable as it was at first." He watched her untie the strips holding it in place and unwrap the cloth binding. The aloe had definitely helped ease the burning and the pain. When Mary pulled the squashed leaves off of his arm the skin looked darker and somewhat leathery instead of the angry red it had been yesterday.
"It looks better," she commented. "I'll put a fresh poultice on it."
"Not yet. I find that I really do need to become better acquainted with that river. The scent of eau de sweat and smoke might be alluring to some, but I find it is becoming a tad overwhelming. Care to join me?" He let his eyes drift over her still naked form, somewhat surprised that she hadn't covered herself.
She placed one fist firmly against one bare hip and glared at him. "I do believe I should be offended. First you compare me to your horse and now you are implying that I stink!"
Ezra burst out laughing and smiled showing off his gold tooth and his dimples. "On the contrary, I am not implying anything. I am saying quite bluntly that WE stink."
Mary couldn't contain the smile that was trying to break loose, and she ended up laughing right along with him. "I don't know about you but I don't want to put on the clothes from the saddlebag either. They are going to smell of smoke too. As hot as it is out here, I think I can rinse out our extra clothes and they'll dry in no time."
"So, do you propose we stay au natural while we wait for them to dry?" He quirked an eyebrow at her and gave her a lopsided grin.
"We could just wrap up in the blankets until they dry."
"They reek of smoke even more than our clothing does. They didn't have even the limited protection of the saddlebags."
Mary ducked back into their small den and drug out the blankets and their spare clothes. She sniffed at them and wrinkled her nose. "I am going to spread these on the rocks to air out." She indicated the blankets she had over one arm. "And these, are getting rinsed out. I might not be able to get all the smell out of them without soap, but I'll settle for whatever improvement I can get."
Ezra took the blankets from her and flipped them open over the boulders nearby, and then turned to her with a wink. "Last one in has to do the cooking."
"Hey! No fair! You're halfway there already!" She chased after him as fast as she dared with her bare feet on pointy rocks.
The gambler waded into the water several seconds before she did. "What took you so long?" he asked, when she joined him.
"I repeat what I said earlier. You are incorrigible!" She tossed his clothes to him. "Just for that you can rinse out your own things."
They made their way out into the deepest water, but it still reached only to mid thigh. It didn't take long to wash some of the sweat and smoke smell out of the garments, and Mary relented and took them all to spread them out to dry.
Ezra was kneeling in the pool splashing water up over his chest and shoulders when he felt slender fingers gripping his shoulder while her other hand gently rubbed at his back, washing the stale odor of sweat from his skin. At the sound of her gasp he glanced back over his shoulder to see her staring at his back. "Is something amiss?" he asked hesitantly.
"Your back is covered with scratches." They weren't deep but they were all across his back.
"From the rocks, undoubtedly."
"Why didn't you say something? We could have put something behind you."
"My dear, a few scratches are a small price to pay for the joy of making love to you." He felt her tracing the path of one of the scratches lightly with the tip of her finger.
She moved around in front of him and rested her hands against his chest. For one of the few times since he had known her, Mary seemed to be at a loss for words. All she could do was look into his eyes, her own wide with surprise, and her mouth slightly agape.
Ezra reached out and pulled her to him; his mouth claimed hers, and she melted into his arms.
Mary walked back into the water after laying their clothes out to dry and moved toward Ezra where he was kneeling in the water with his back to her, splashing water over his face and shoulders. She glanced down at herself and colored slightly. There had never been a time when she would have even considered walking around naked in front of a man; she hadn't even done that in front of her husband, even in the privacy of their bedroom. When they had made love he sometimes took her gown off of her, but usually he just pulled it up out of the way. Even when it was removed she always pulled it back on before going to sleep.
Now, here she was, not only walking around naked in front of Ezra, but she wasn't ashamed to be doing it. Despite the fact that she knew she still blushed at times around him, she found she liked the feeling it gave her when his eyes traveled over her and she could see in his eyes that he liked what he saw. Just a look from those incredible green eyes would send all these new sensations flooding through her, most of them headed straight for the very core of her womanhood. All these new feelings and experiences emboldened her in a way she never would have thought possible.
Careful to avoid his burned arm, Mary rubbed her hands over his shoulders to help him wash. The skin on his back felt rougher than she knew it should, and she looked to see why. His back was covered with small scratches and abrasions and when she pointed them out to him, he was totally unconcerned about the damage caused by the rough rock wall. "My dear, a few scratches are a small price to pay for the joy of making love to you." Had he actually just said that?
She moved in front of him and studied his face for any hint of deception or teasing. What she saw was sincerity and it made her breath catch in her throat. She rested her hands on his chest, enjoying the feel of the smooth hairless skin and the firm muscles beneath it. When he pulled her into his arms, she went willingly. His kiss shot straight through her to gather in a nest of butterflies in her stomach, before surging on downward to her nether regions. Coherent thought fled under the onslaught of physical sensations, and she gave herself over to them completely.
Their hands roamed freely seeking those special spots they had discovered they both had, those places where even a light touch would leave them gasping and wanting more. Ezra nuzzled at her neck, sending shivers through her body with each flick of his tongue against the sensitive skin. Mary caressed his hips with feather-light touches that caused an instant reaction in the rapidly hardening shaft pressed against her thigh.
She felt his hands urging her legs around him and she complied without hesitation. His arms wrapped more firmly around her, and she gripped his waist more tightly with her legs when she felt him move to stand up. Her position put her breasts within easy reach of his mouth, and she knew she had to be dreaming because nothing real could ever feel as incredible as it did when his mouth claimed one hard nipple.
Suddenly, he released the tight bud and began walking, but instead of heading toward the edge of the water and out to their den, he moved with the current of the water heading downstream. It wasn't until she felt him bending over that she realized he was laying her down; but where? The contact of the smooth wet stone was a shock to her sun-warmed skin for a few moments, but then the contrast between the chill at her back and the heat pressed to her front was almost intoxicating.
The rock had been smoothed by the water tumbling over it, making it feel almost silky. The top of the flat rock was submerged barely a couple inches below the surface, just enough to keep it from soaking up the heat of the sun. What had once been hidden beneath the churning water of the river, now became her bed.
Ezra stood in the thigh deep water, drinking in the sight before him. Mary felt his eyes on her and teased him by running her hands over her own body, pausing to rub light circles over both breasts, bringing both nipples to full attention. She felt her hands pulled away just an instant before a warm, moist mouth took the place of one and his hand claimed the other. He suckled at the breast, teasing the nipple with his tongue and teeth until she moaned and arched her back, pressing her breast to his mouth.
Ezra carried her to the rock he had seen a short distance away and set her on its edge after he made a point of checking to see if he was right, that it had been washed smooth from a lifetime of being worn away by the moving water. It was smooth to the touch and he didn't hesitate to lay her back against its cool hard surface. The water that flowed over it was barely two inches deep, but it kept it cool.
He was amazed at the trust she placed in him as she lay there exposed on the rock, her hair fanning out in the water around her head like a golden halo in the sun. Her skin was as pale as alabaster, making her look so fragile that he was sure she would shatter like a soap bubble if he dared to touch her.
She reached for him, drawing him over her and pulling his head down for a hungry kiss. He pressed his lips against hers, forcing hers to open to admit his probing tongue. Twin moans filled the air around them. Determinedly, he pulled away from her mouth and worked his way down her body, stopping at each spot that made her gasp or squirm beneath the attention of his lips and tongue. When he reached his ultimate goal and delved into that nest of curls, she arched up and opened herself wider to him. He groaned deep in his throat when she pressed herself more firmly to his mouth. His tongue and lips alternately teased and sucked at that hypersensitive nub of flesh nestled there. He felt her start to tremble and stopped, so he could move back up to cover her body with his.
The gambler kissed her neck and nibbled at her earlobe. "Please what?" he asked her huskily. "Tell me what you want, Mary."
"I need you now, Ezra, please!" she begged.
"I am here for your bidding." He moved lower to reclaim one breast and nip at the nipple with his teeth. One hand found its way down to tease her and keep her on edge. He suckled a little harder at the taut peak, before letting go for a moment. "Tell me."
With a growl she grabbed him and pulled him back up over her. "Damn it, Ezra! Fuck me now!"
Ezra's eyebrows shot up to his hairline in surprise, even as a wide grin claimed his lips. "Your wish is my command." In a quick move, he positioned himself and buried his shaft up to the hilt into her welcoming warmth. That action alone pushed her over the edge and left him gritting his teeth and gasping for breath as he rode out her orgasm, intent on not letting himself go yet.
He waited until he was sure of his own control before he let himself begin to move, starting very slowly and gradually picking up the pace. Putting his hands on the rock at each side of her, he pushed himself up so he could see her. Her eyes were nearly closed, the lashes fluttering each time he touched just the right spot inside her. Her lips parted slightly and an occasional whimper escaped them as her need grew stronger. As their sense of urgency took control, he continued to watch her, enjoying seeing her caught up in the throes of passion for the first time in the light of day. He wanted to remember it all; her touch, her kisses, her expressions, the way it felt to bury himself inside her, the gentle bouncing of her breasts each time they rocked together, and the cool splash of the water against his balls each time her hips slapped back against the rock after rising to meet him for each thrust.
"Oh, please!" she begged, her voice barely audible.
Ezra knew what she wanted and pumped faster, plunging in to the hilt on each down-stroke. She writhed on the rocks below him, desperate for release. He looked down between them to the point where their bodies joined. He moaned when he caught a glimpse of himself thrusting into her; it was a sight he had longed to see. He groaned as he felt the familiar tightening that signaled he was close. As he watched, Mary slipped her hand down her belly to slip one finger in to touch that small button of flesh. A couple of strokes was all it took. She screamed as she bucked beneath him. The power of her orgasm had him crying out from his own, and he continued to pump frantically several more times as he emptied himself into her.
His arms shook so violently that he couldn't stop himself from collapsing on top of her. They stayed like that until their breathing steadied enough that they could speak. Ezra's head rested on her shoulder while he waited for his legs to turn from the gelatinous mass they had become, back into something that would support his weight. He breathed against her neck, and moved that tiny bit closer needed to nuzzle at the tender skin there where her neck and shoulder met. "Oh, what you do to me," he said with a sigh.
"I kind of thought you were doing things to me," she teased.
"Ah... but isn't it best when both are equal?" He raised himself on shaky arms to look down into her face. "You never cease to amaze me."
She ran her hands up over his shoulders. "I would bet that you would get tired of me soon."
Green eyes caught and held her blue ones. "If I could make love to you every hour of every day for the rest of my life, I would never be able to get my fill of you." He kissed her lightly when he saw her cheeks color from his compliment; then his demeanor became less serious. "Now, considering that neither of us has any soap with us, I must find another way to handle this situation." He smiled when he saw the question in her eyes. "What shall we do about this sudden inclination of yours toward vulgarities? The usual punishment is having one's mouth washed out with soap. I do suppose I shall have to find another way to manage that task."
When she opened her mouth to respond, he pressed his lips to hers and urged her mouth open wider. He probed deeply with his tongue, not wanting to miss even a tiny spot inside her mouth. The kiss was slow and sensuous, until the need to breathe forced them apart.
"Ummmm... if that was my punishment, I think I am going to take up swearing," Mary said with satisfied smile.
Their undergarments were dry when they got out of the water, but the heavier items weren't. They dressed in the thin garments and took the horses to drink, then walked them to limber up abused muscles. Mary treated their burns with the aloe pulp and was pleased to see that Rosie's large one was doing well. Once the animals had been settled in a new patch of grass, they could turn their attention back to their own needs. Ezra's arm had a new aloe poultice applied, and they ate sparingly from their meager supplies. Much of the day was spent sleeping or talking quietly, giving their bodies time to recover from their narrow escape.
They spent the night in each other's arms, loving then sleeping, only to wake up to love again. Ezra pushed away the thoughts that this would all change when they got back to town, and allowed himself to enjoy this time with her.
The gambler awoke to find Mary curled up against his side with her head on his shoulder and her arm across his chest. He loved waking up this way. He loved her, but she had made it clear that she didn't love him in that way, so he kept the true depth of his feelings to himself. There was no way he wanted to risk losing the closeness and trust that had developed between them by pressuring for more than she could give him. He resigned himself to accepting these rare interludes as all there would ever be between them. Selfishly, he thought that if there happened to be another baby come from one of the liaisons, she might again agree to marry him.
Ezra didn't want this time to end, but they needed to get started toward home. He just hoped he could figure out where to find home. There had been no way to keep track of direction as they made that headlong dash to save their lives. Oh, he knew how to tell which direction he was headed, and as long as he had a reasonable idea of where he was he could find a town, but this needed more than just knowing how to tell north from south. If they had veered too far one way or another they could miss the town entirely. The best they could hope for was to find a road and follow it to whatever town it led to, so they could get their bearings.
They had been headed south toward Four Corners, and the fire had driven them in a general easterly direction. He had a feeling that they had been pushed back north a bit too, but he had no way to tell. There was no way they could ride back over the burned land, because they had no idea how far the devastation extended. The horses would need what meager grass they could find and there would be none in that charred landscape. Southwest seemed to be the best direction to start out. They could follow the canyon for some distance to the south, giving them the benefit of water and some forage for the animals.
That decision made, he couldn't put off waking Mary any longer, at least not and be able to justify it to her. She sighed and snuggled closer when he shook her gently by the shoulder. "Mary, time to get up," he said softly so he wouldn't startle her.
She stretched and then forced her eyes open while stifling a yawn. "Do we have to?"
"You are a woman after my own heart," he said with a soft chuckle. "But, we must start moving toward home. If we had more supplies, we could take more time without much concern."
"Alright, I'm awake," she said unenthusiastically.
They drug themselves out of their blankets and took care of their morning needs. A quick rinse in the river did wonders toward waking them up more. They opened and shared a can of cold beans, glad now that they had taken Vin's advice about always carrying some extra provisions, just in case game was scarce. It was more than scarce right now; it wasn't there at all. Unfortunately, this long delay was depleting their supplies very quickly, even with them cutting back on rations.
Ezra secured both sets of saddlebags on Chaucer's back. Rosie's burn was right at the edge of where the bag would sit, and it would be very painful if that heavy leather rubbed the damaged flesh. The horses seemed ready to be underway. There were still occasionally whiffs of smoke from beyond the rim of the canyon, most likely from the heavily wooded areas where the dense growth still smoldered. A few stray plumes of smoke could still be seen, although there were a lot less than there had been the day before. Even that small trace of smoke, after the ordeal they had been through, had the horses more than a little skittish.
"Do you know where we are?" Mary asked.
"Honestly, no I don't. I have a general idea, but I am in an area that is unfamiliar to me." He looked at her hopefully. "Do you have any idea?"
She shook her head. "Not really. I remember Vin mentioning a canyon off to the east, but I don't know if it is this one or any real details about it."
"We were still north by nearly a day's ride, and if Vin said there was a canyon to the east it surely must be this one, just considering the size of it alone. If we go south through the canyon for most of the day, we might be able to get beyond the burned out areas up there." He nodded toward the canyon rim. "Once we can get back up there and head back west, we should find some familiar landmarks."
They rode on through most of the day, stopping to water the horses and let them rest and to share another can of beans. It was mid afternoon when Mary commented, "I haven't seen any signs of smoke for quite a while. Do you think we might be past it?"
"I had noticed that also, and I have been looking for a way to get the horses out of here. It won't be easy for them to climb to the rim, everything is just so steep." He continued to scan the canyon walls as they rode.
They had ridden another couple of miles when he saw a possible way out. It was a steep switchback trail that looked to be an animal trail of some sort. It had apparently been worn there from years, probably even decades of use, by animals that were most likely heading for the river. Ezra pointed the trail out to Mary. "That looks steep, but it might be our only chance for a long while. Do you think Rosie can handle it?"
"I don't think she can with me riding, but if I lead her she should be able to. Is it my imagination or is the canyon getting shallower?"
"It is," he agreed. "Leading them would undoubtedly be the best course of action. Let's see if we can get up out of here." They took a few minutes and let the horses drink before heading toward the animal trail.
They both dismounted and led the horses up the first part of the trail. It wasn't overly steep and they managed it quite well, but the next section was another story. It was rough going for them all, with each slipping on loose rock on the steep slope at least once before they reached the next level. The climb was long and grueling for man and animal alike. They had to stop at the top long enough to catch their breath before they could head out again.
They had gotten past the last of the burned out grass and woodlands, and now they could head west in the hopes that they would encounter some familiar territory.
After about three hours of steady riding, they still had not found anything either of them recognized. "I think we should be looking for a place to camp for the night," Ezra announced.
"Can we give it one more hour?" Mary asked. "I would feel better to know that we aren't totally lost, if that is possible. Maybe just a little farther and we'll find something, please?"
"A little farther then." It would be getting late to make camp but through this entire ordeal she had not asked for special favors, so he had no intentions of denying her this one.
They rode silently as the sun began to slip down in the west. Ezra chuckled softly, earning himself a quizzical look from Mary. "I was just suddenly reminded of the ending to some of those dime novels our young Mr. Dunne is so fond of reading. The part where the hero and his lady ride off into the sunset together." He grinned, showing a flash of gold, and two deep dimples.
"Oh, and how do you know how those end? I thought they were beneath your standards for reading material." She laughed and looked at him in question.
"My dear, there are times that one of those... literary disasters is preferable to absolute boredom."
"Ezra! Over there is that...?"
He looked to where she was pointing and let out whoop. "Indeed it is, and might I say that the Wells' farm has never looked so good. What do you say, do we go there and beg for hospitality for the night, or do you wish to travel on to town?"
"We are so close to home," she looked at him with pleading eyes.
"I, too, long for the comfort of my feather bed; we'll ride on, but it could be getting quite dark by the time we reach town."
"I don't care if it is dark. We can take it slow if it gets hard to see. We are just so close I don't want to stop now."
The streets were dark when the pair rode in, and the fires were lit that would show the way for those moving around the town. The moment they reached the outskirts of town their energy left them. They were home and now they could rest.
Vin was the first to see the pair and walked out into the street to catch them. "Ya had us all gettin' worried. We thought ya would be back by yesterday."
"We could have, but we ran into a little trouble," Ezra offered.
"What kind of trouble?" Chris stepped out of the shadows and into the firelight.
"Mr. Larabee, we are both exhausted beyond words. Could you allow us to tend to our horses and provide you with the details after a good night's rest? I assure you that it is nothing that will be a threat to our municipality during the next several hours."
Chris nodded, seeing in their posture and their faces just how tired they really were. "Sure, but I do want a report tomorrow first thing. If there is trouble of any kind out there, we need to know about it."
"Understood," Ezra responded.
"I can take care of yer horses for you if ya want," JD offered. "You both look like yer about ready to fall over."
"Mr. Dunne, you are truly a good man. I would be very grateful, and I am sure Mrs. Travis would be too, if you took care of them for us." He dismounted and reached up to help Mary down.
JD led the horses to the livery and put them in their stalls before getting them a measure of oats and a pitchfork full of hay for each. Vin joined him and stood leaning on the open stall door while the kid was removing the saddle and tack from the mare. "Looks like Rosie got into somethin' that got her hurt," the sharpshooter pointed out.
"Yeah! It almost looks like a burn, but how could she get a burn that bad?"
"Don't know, but reckon we'll find out in the mornin'. Ya want some help with them?"
After Ezra filled Chris and the others in on the details of the fire, Nathan insisted on checking his burned arm. "It's healin' real nice. Good thing Mrs. Travis remembered about the aloe. How's it feel?"
"It is still a little tender, but much less so than I would have expected." He glanced at the large leathery looking patch of skin and wrinkled his nose in distaste. "I do hope it will not remain like this."
"It won't. That burned skin will peel off when the new skin is ready," Nathan informed him.
"That is a relief," the gambler said with a sigh. "Now, if we are finished, I have obligations elsewhere."
"I think we can leave it unwrapped now. Just keep an eye on it," the healer instructed.
"I assure you, Mr. Jackson, I will seek your skills if they are needed." Ezra nodded his thanks with a touch to the brim of his hat and ducked out the door before he could be stopped.
He made his way quickly down the boardwalk and headed straight for the Clarion office. When he opened the door, Mary looked up and smiled.
"You look well rested," she observed.
"So do you," he responded, "and might I add that you are looking quite lovely today; however, I suggest that you change into something old."
"Why would I want to do that?"
"We both have promises to keep that will undoubtedly result in getting dirty." He watched her as she tried to remember what promises he could be referring to. "I will wait while you change."
"I'll just be a few minutes," she said, obviously puzzled by Ezra's request.
She rejoined him after several minutes, dressed in some of her oldest clothes. "Now are you going to tell me what is going on?"
"No, my dear, I will show you." He led her out of the office and to the livery, where he handed her a bucket and various items used for horse grooming. "If you will accompany me, please," he said after handing her Rosie's lead.
"Ezra, what's going on?" she asked.
"We made promises to these noble steeds to reward them for their role in saving our lives, and those are promises we will both honor. We wouldn't be here now, if not for them."
Mary gave Rosie a pat on the neck. "We certainly do owe them our lives. Alright, you promised them carrots and oats, and I understand the grooming tools, but why the buckets?"
"We are going to wash them. We can shed our clothing to rid ourselves of the scent of smoke. They can't. It is with them wherever they go until it wears off on its own. They don't deserve that constant reminder of something so terrifying." He tied Chaucer's lead to a post and went to fill his bucket from the nearby pump. "I suggest we work together, it will make it easier."
He moved toward the mare, but Mary stopped him. "I'll help with Chaucer first," she insisted.
Ezra produced a couple bars of soap from his pockets and the two set about bathing the usually cantankerous animal. Today, however, he was thoroughly enjoying all the attention. "You are a fickle beast," the gambler teased the gelding. "You have to show off your good manners for the ladies."
They had drawn the attention of the remaining peacekeepers, who now stood back watching. The men laughed when Chaucer flipped his wet tail and slapped Ezra right in the face.
"Hey, Ezra! Reckon he didn't like bein' called fickle," Buck taunted.
"Gotta say this is the first time I ever saw anyone give a horse a bath," Nathan added.
"I've seen it," JD said. "Used to have to do it to the horses the ladies rode when I worked in the stables. They didn't want to ride them all dirty and smelly."
"Horses are so afraid of fire. I think it makes sense to wash the smell off of 'em." Vin voiced his approval.
By now they had finished with Chaucer, and he stood drying in the sun. Rosie leaned into them as they scrubbed, nearly knocking Mary over in her enthusiasm. "If I had known you would like this so much, I would have done it before," she told the mare.
"We may have created a pair of monsters out of these two. After this they will be expecting a bath after every excursion." Ezra gave the broad rump a pat and went to fill the bucket so they could rinse the soap off the large animal. On his way back, a sudden mischievous glint appeared in those expressive green eyes of his. He started pouring the water over the animal's haunches, but before the bucket was empty he struck. "Mrs. Travis." He waited for her to turn to him. "I do believe you missed a spot," he accused just before he gave the remaining water a toss, soaking the pretty blonde from head to waist.
Mary stared at him open-mouthed, while their audience edged back a little farther from the two. Most of them had been on the receiving end of her wrath in the past, and they just knew Ezra was a dead man.
The gambler didn't have time to even try to run. Once the shock wore off, his victim snatched up the bucket of dirty water she had been dousing the brush in to wet and rinse it. Ezra didn't have a chance. It hit him full force, right in the chest.
"I do believe, madam, that you just declared war." A few steps and a few pumps to the pump handle had his bucket half filled again.
Mary squealed when the cold water hit her as she tried to slip around Ezra to get to the pump. Before they knew it, they were both soaked from head to toe, and they stood leaning against Rosie's wet, soapy side in fits of laughter.
Six other peacekeepers could only watch in amazement as two of the most image-conscious people that they knew ended up looking like drowned rats... dirty drowned rats.
Ezra went back into the saloon after a quick bath and a change of clothes. He retrieved some items he had requested earlier and headed back out the door. When he reached Mary's back door, he knocked very lightly and then threw the latch so he could duck quickly inside. The sound of Mary's startled gasp stopped him in his tracks, and he grinned when he turned to see her soaking in her bathtub. He had thought he would find her there. The first time he had visited, he had seen the tub pushed under a wide shelf in the pantry, and he was sure she pulled it out into the kitchen when it was needed.
"I apologize for the intrusion. I only wanted to drop something off for you." He pulled two chairs over next to the tub and used one for a table to hold the large pitcher of fresh lemonade he had asked Inez to make. Next to it he sat two glasses, one large and one small. "I do recall that there were three things you wished for when we returned to town, a long soak in a cool bath, a whole pitcher of lemonade, and a large steak dinner." He took a seat on the second chair as he spoke. "I see you have settled in for your soak, I have brought your lemonade, and if you'll be my guest this evening, I would like nothing better than to provide you with the large steak dinner that was your third wish."
Mary eyed the lemonade and started to reach for it to pour a glass, but Ezra beat her to it and handed her the filled glass. She took a tentative sip and closed her eyes as she sighed in contentment. "I would love to go to dinner with you," she replied, then looked at him quizzically. "What about you? I seem to remember you had the same wishes."
"I have already bathed, although I didn't take time to soak. The dinner wish will be fulfilled tonight, and I did not wish for the lemonade." He winked at her and reached into his pocket to pull out a small bottle of fine scotch whiskey. After filling the smaller glass, he raised his in a toast. "To life! And to the special friends who share it."
She lifted her glass and clinked it to his. "To life! And to receiving a second chance to live it."
They drank and then set the glasses aside. Ezra grinned, showing off his dimples and raised his eyebrows in question. "What say you, fair lady? Need some help washing your back?"
|Second Chances Index||On to: Someone To Watch Over Me|
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