Pride And Prejudice
by Luna Dey
Fifth story in the Second Chances series
Author's Note: Thank you to LaraMee for the title collage. I love it!
Back to: Someone To Watch Over Me
"Ummmm... my dear, you are spoiling me," Ezra moaned again as her fingers slid over his back, kneading at the tight muscles.
Mary leaned forward over his back from where she sat straddling his thighs and whispered close to his ear, "You might think you are being spoiled, but I'll have you know I expect you to return the favor. After all, I'm the one who has been working the press all day."
"I will repay the kindness with interest," he promised. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he stretched his back and closed his eyes in contentment.
"Don't expect me to forget you said that," she warned. She sat back up to continue rubbing his back and shoulders. Long, slender fingers worked over the sinewy muscles and paused to knead at a particularly tense area until he was completely relaxed. A sly smile curved her lips when she noticed the goose-bumps that sprang up when she trailed one fingertip lightly up his back, starting at his waist and ending at the nape of his neck.
"I would not expect you to forget." His voice took on a sultry tone and he quivered with anticipation when he felt her fingers retrace their path. Shallow gasps mixed with a soft moan punctuated the silence of the room. "You should be considering how you would like to collect the debt." His breath caught when a sudden shiver ran through him, making it all too apparent that Mary's caresses were sending clear messages to more private parts of his body. He caught her hand when it once again reached his shoulder and pulled it forward far enough to delicately kiss each fingertip. "As much as I would love to have you continue all night, I think it is time we switched places."
"You'll get no argument from me," she said and carefully shifted to lift one leg over him so he could move. The mattress dipped from her full weight resting on one knee, throwing her off balance.
Ezra rolled over and grabbed her before she could topple over, only to pull her across his lap and claim her lips with his. When he leaned away, he looked at her intently. "What time did you say the stage is due in tomorrow?"
"Around three o'clock," she replied breathlessly.
Green eyes sparkled with mischief and he smiled knowingly. "Then there is no reason for us to have to go to sleep too early." He bent his head to nuzzle and nibble at the side of her throat and smiled against her skin when he felt a slight shudder course through her. A light flick of his tongue against her pulse spot had her arching her neck to bare more of it for his attentions.
"No, I just need to be sure... ummm... that feels nice." Mary's fingers found their own way into his thick chestnut locks and entwined themselves through the short tresses.
Strong hands leaned her back far enough to allow him to kiss his way down her throat, and on down to take one rosy nipple in his mouth. He felt her shiver at the contact and drew her closer when she arched her back and pressed her breast more firmly to his eager lips. He treated himself to one more swirl of his tongue around the taut nub, and then he let go. "Lie down here and let me take care of you." He patted the bed next to where he sat holding her in his lap, invitation written in his vivid green eyes.
She slid off his lap, reluctant to leave his embrace, but she had to leave the circle of his arms in order to collect her backrub. Ezra straddled her thighs like she had his and set to work massaging her knotted muscles. "My dear, it seems that your knots have knots," he observed.
"You are such a sweet talker," she teased. A soft sigh slipped out followed by a sudden flinch. "Ohhhhh... that hurts!"
Ezra eased up somewhat on the tense muscle he had been stroking deeply with his thumbs. "I did not intend to hurt you. Should I stop?"
"No, don't stop." She glanced at him over her shoulder and smiled. "It hurts a little at first but then when it finally relaxes it feels so good." She inhaled slowly and let out a deep, satisfied moan for emphasis when she stretched experimentally.
Ezra resumed working on her tense shoulders, but not without a stern warning. "Be sure that you tell me if I cause you that much discomfort again," he admonished. "I want this to be enjoyable for you, not to cause you pain."
"I promise, but I think that was the worst spot, so it probably won't happen again. Ummmm... now that is wonderful," she said as he firmly rubbed the full length of her back with his palms and then began to work them in slow ever-growing circles that eventually wrapped over her ribs. "I'll give you all night to stop that."
Judge Travis leaned forward and patted the big black gelding on the neck when the animal snorted unhappily. Both man and horse hated traveling at night. The light of the half moon helped a little, but they had to stay on the road instead of taking the shorter route cross-country. "I know you're tired, but it won't be much longer." He pulled out his watch and twisted to try to see it in the dim moonlight, but he couldn't make it out.
He stuffed the watch back in his pocket and let his mind drift back to the letter he had received the day before. His stomach clinched, giving him a queasy feeling when he thought of what was in it. How was he going to handle this if it turned out to be true? The pressure in his chest grew, the closer he got to Four Corners, and try as he might, he just couldn't swallow the lump in his throat.
An overwhelming need to know what was really going on had caused him to leave a day early and try to squeeze one and a half days' normal travel into one very long day. It hadn't quite been daylight when Evie saw him off that morning. The Judge looked up to study the position of the moon. It was already up when it had grown dark and now it was near its zenith. Grudgingly, he had to admit that it looked like it was going to be approaching midnight when he reached the town.
Justice snorted again and tossed his head, pulling his rider's attention back to the present. "We'll be there soon and you can have a nice long rest." He rubbed the big animal's neck fondly. "We could have been there by now if we had been lucky enough to have a full moon tonight."
Ezra bent over Mary and smiled at the shiver that coursed through her when his warm breath teased her bare skin. His lips rained soft kisses up her back, letting them trail up over her shoulders to her neck. She sighed and shifted restlessly under him. "Are you attempting to thwart my attentions, my dear?" he asked huskily.
"No. I was trying to turn over so I can enjoy your attentions even more." Her voice took on a sultry tone as she wiggled suggestively against him, aware of the effect the movement had on him.
The gambler chuckled when Mary groaned in frustration as he continued to sit on her legs, effectively pinning her. He pushed himself up to rest his weight on his hands where he pressed them against the mattress beside her ribs, enjoying the feel of his swollen shaft lying nestled in the cleft between her cheeks. Ezra pulled back slightly and then leaned forward again, causing his rigid manhood to slide along that little valley. "Just what kind of attention would you prefer?" he asked, as he continued to tease her with his engorged shaft.
"You know what I want," she murmured, enjoying the sensations he was creating.
"Do I?" he asked.
Still unable to turn over, Mary reached back and wrapped her fingers around him before he had a chance to pull out of reach. "Yes, you do."
Ezra gasped and chuckled at her reaction then lifted enough of his weight off her legs to let her turn over beneath him. Before she had completely settled on her back, he bent to claim her lips with his and was rewarded when she wrapped her arms around his neck to pull him closer to deepen the kiss. When she finally let him up for air, he grinned at her, showing off his dimples. "I do believe I am beginning to remember. Perhaps I could do with a little more reminding."
"You could, could you?" She caught him off guard and pushed him off of her. Moving quickly, she managed to swing one leg over his until she was once again straddling him, only this time he was on his back. Mary placed one hand firmly in the middle of his chest to hold him down. She knew if he really wanted up there was no way she could stop him, but she also knew that he liked for her to take the lead part of the time. His swollen manhood rested against his belly tempting her with the glistening drops forming at its tip. The temptation proved to be too much for her.
Ezra groaned loudly when he felt her slim fingers wrap around him again and stroke his shaft a couple of times before she let her thumb slip over the flared head to tease at the slit in the tip. No sooner had she spread out the dewy drops that gathered there than she found they were replaced with more. Her fingers continued to coax more thick fluid from him until she had him slick with his own essence, and he twitched in her hand as he fought to keep control. "Mary!" he gasped. "Oh, good Lord, I need you."
She smiled, pleased that she could create such a need in him. Never had she felt this much control over a man, and she found she enjoyed it. "What do you need, Ezra? This?" She leaned forward to tease at one dusky nipple with the tip of her tongue.
"Ummmm... yes," he admitted breathlessly.
"And this?" Her tongue traced its way upward to the curve of his shoulder and neck then moved to tease at his pulse point. He shivered beneath her and she felt his engorged manhood quiver against her belly where it was trapped between them.
"What about this?" She lifted herself up over him and positioned him at her entrance with her free hand, while she balanced herself with the other hand that was still planted firmly on his chest.
Ezra watched her through eyes darkened with passion. He held his breath hoping she would continue. When she began to ease down, impaling herself on his shaft, he moaned and reached up to hold her by her hips urging her to take him deeper. "Ohhhh... yes," he groaned.
Mary sighed when she felt him fill her, reveling in the feeling of completeness being with him created. "Is that what you need?" she asked, her voice made husky by her own arousal.
"What I need, my dear, is for you to move before I lose my mind." Ezra emphasized his need by pressing up against her. He urged her upward with only a little guidance from his hands, knowing that she knew what to do since she had done it before.
She allowed herself to slide back down to take him in again, before pulling up until only the flared head remained inside. Everything else was forgotten as they established a rhythm, which grew in tempo and in urgency with each stroke. Mary could tell by his ragged breathing, and the involuntary sounds he made that he was close, much closer than she was. She slipped one hand down between them to rub that small sensitive bud that was nestled within the folds of her womanhood, trusting him to keep her balanced as he guided her. Her own breath came in short gasps as she brought herself closer to the edge, only to topple over it when she felt his seed pour out deep within her. They both cried out when the first shuddering spasms of their shared release swept over them.
Ezra wrapped her in his arms when she collapsed limply against his chest. Both lay gasping for breath as their sated bodies quivered in the aftermath of their lovemaking. It took several minutes before he found the strength to reach out for the sheet and flip it over them to ward off the chill as their sweat-drenched skin dried in the cool night air.
As much as she loved the feel of him still inside her after they made love, Mary rolled off of him. His breathing hadn't settled back to normal as quickly as it usually did, and she didn't want to add any more strain by continuing to lie on him. She curled up against his side and rested her head on his shoulder, letting one hand rest on his chest in a position that was intimately familiar to both of them.
Ezra absently stroked her hair and sighed in contentment. "As much as I will miss making love to you after I leave here tomorrow, I think I will miss feeling you in my arms the most of all," he confided.
She glanced up into those vivid green eyes and saw the love deep within them. So many comments had made her think that he really did have feelings for her. He had never come right out and told her that he loved her, but then she hadn't been able to tell him how she felt either, at least not when he was awake. "I'll miss being in your arms," she admitted.
They snuggled closer and let sleep claim them, glad for this night together before they were forced apart by the Judge's visit tomorrow.
The sound of the bedroom door being thrown open startled them both from sleep. "Orin!" Mary grabbed the sheet to pull it farther up to cover them and stared wide-eyed at the man standing just inside the door. "What are you doing here?"
The judge stood staring at the couple in the bed, his face growing redder by the second. Shocked speechless by the sight, his jaw clenched and he shook his head in disbelief.
Ezra hugged Mary closer in an effort to keep them both calm. "Judge Travis..." he began, hesitantly.
"Don't say a word!" His voice rumbled through the room. "You have the audacity to lie there with my daughter-in-law and..." He clamped his teeth together and paused in an attempt to control what he was saying. After a deep shuddering breath he tried again. "Get out of this house." Though his voice was deceptively quiet, it carried a tone of foreboding that made Ezra and Mary shrink from his words.
"Orin!" You can't come in here and order people around!" Mary exclaimed.
Travis turned his attention to her. "Don't say another word! My grandson gives me the right to see that he is raised properly." He turned back to the gambler and repeated. "Get out of this house."
Ezra tensed but refused to move. "I think not, Sir. I have no intention of leaving Mary to face your ire on her own."
She didn't want to face that anger alone either, but she knew her former father-in-law well enough to know that he would calm down faster if the gambler left. "Ezra... go... I'll be all right."
"You really want me to leave you?" Hurt clouded his expression as he waited for her reply.
"No, of course I don't, but it would be best if you do. I'll talk to you in the morning." She tried to sound reassuring.
"I don't like this," he insisted.
"I'll be all right." She was still shaking and she was sure he probably noticed it. Reluctantly, her arms loosened their hold on him.
The look in her eyes sent out mixed signals. On one hand they seemed to beg him to stay, but on the other hand they begged him to go. "How can you ask me to do this?" he asked.
"Because I know you trust me enough to believe me when I say that it is the best thing to do."
"You are sure?" he asked.
"I will go, but because you asked me, not because I was ordered to leave," Ezra said. He pulled the sheet aside and sat up, making no effort to hide his nakedness. There was no way he would let Mary or the judge think he was in any way ashamed of being there with her. He took care to dress fully, not leaving out anything. When he sat back on the edge of the bed to slip his feet into his boots, he turned to her. "I'll pick up the rest of my things tomorrow," he said, as he brushed a stray strand of hair out of her face and bent to give her a lingering kiss.
"Meet me for breakfast?" she asked as she took his hand.
"I would love to." He gave her fingers a light squeeze and then let go. He got slowly to his feet and faced the judge. "I am leaving the premises at Mary's request; however, if any harm befalls her, I will not hesitate to come for you." The threat was evident in his deceptively calm voice.
"You dare to make threats to a Federal Judge?" Travis growled.
"Only if that Federal Judge acts in such a manner as to warrant such a threat." He locked eyes with Travis and refused to let the older man see how intimidated he really felt by his presence. With a curt nod, he left the room.
The judge listened to his footsteps recede down the stairs and through the house. At the sound of the back door closing he turned his attention back to Mary. He stood glaring at the young woman in the bed. "I thought better of you than this," he spat out at her. "How could you lower yourself to this kind of behavior, especially with someone like him?"
"What do you mean, 'someone like him'?" Mary asked defiantly.
"He's a con man! He can't be trusted and he is using you. I thought you were intelligent enough to see through him, but obviously, the desires of the flesh have clouded your good judgment." Travis paced the room, his steps sounding ominously loud in the still of the night.
"He was good enough to see that Billy and I reached you safely," Mary reminded him. "He saved my life on the way back, too, not to mention that he kept me safe when those men were out to blackmail you," she added in Ezra's defense.
"There was something in it for him or he wouldn't have done those things," the judge insisted.
"Orin, he isn't the same man that he used to be when he first came here. He's changed, and I thought you were starting to realize that after the way you acted toward him recently." Mary tried to reason with him, but she felt at a real disadvantage lying there naked in her bed with him pacing around her like a caged bear.
She glanced down and saw her dress lying in a heap next to the bed and reached down to grab it. Careful to keep the sheet pulled up, she worked the dress over her head and buttoned it quickly. Once she was clothed and out of the bed she felt less threatened.
"I treated him like a guest, nothing more."
"You treated him like an equal," Mary snapped. "Not that it really matters what you think of him. It's my life, Orin. I loved Steven, but he's gone. Nothing we can do will bring him back, and I can't spend the rest of my life grieving."
"I don't expect you to, but I do expect you to set a proper example for my grandson, not behave like some cheap saloon girl!" He stopped pacing right in front of her. "I'll not allow it! You might not care about your reputation, but I do care about how it affects my grandson," he seethed.
"Orin, you don't control me," she tried to keep her tone steady, but she didn't succeed very well. Tears threatened to spill down her cheeks and she struggled to keep them at bay. His words hurt her deeply, but she did not want to give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry.
"Don't take that tone with me," he warned.
Mary's mouth gaped open and she looked at him in disbelief. "I am not a child to be scolded like this in my own home," she huffed.
"Then stop acting like one!" he shouted.
"I am not the one throwing a temper tantrum," she snapped back, "you are."
He heaved a heavy sigh, squeezed his eyes shut, and clenched his teeth to stop the words that he wanted to say. Finally, he spoke. "We are getting nowhere like this. I have ridden since before dawn, and I am going to get some sleep. I'll talk to you in the morning." With that he turned and strode out of the room. Ordinarily, he would have stayed in Billy's room, but this time he needed to put some distance between Mary and himself. He made his way out and across to the hotel. He was exhausted, but he doubted that he could get the image of his daughter-in-law in bed with Ezra Standish out of his mind so he could sleep.
Mary finally gave up trying to sleep and got up. She took extra care in getting dressed and fixing her hair. She didn't want the Judge to find any other reason to fault her today, and any slip in her appearance would simply be more fodder for his comments about how low she had sunk. It was still too early to meet Ezra for breakfast, so she settled for making a pot of coffee, grateful for its stimulant effect, as she stifled a yawn.
Her sleep-deprived mind tried to grasp onto just what had happened there last night. She had so many unanswered questions, but top on the list was, why had the judge arrived early and why had he pushed himself to make the trip in one day? It was like he had been trying to catch her at something, and he had succeeded. She wasn't ashamed about the Judge finding out that she was involved with Ezra, but it had been embarrassing to actually be caught in bed with him by Billy's grandfather. Mary knew that it was all going to come out into the open soon anyway. All she had really been trying to do was give them both time to figure out their feelings. Orin had a reputation of being a fair man, but this was a totally new situation, and it was hard telling how he was going to handle it.
After three cups of coffee, she couldn't wait any longer and made her way over to the saloon. If she knew Ezra, he probably wasn't sleeping either. It was still early enough that the only one in the barroom was Inez, and she smiled warmly at her new friend and confidant.
"I would say, buenos dias, but it does not look like it is so good. Is everything all right?" Inez asked.
Mary shook her head sadly. "No," she sighed. "The judge came into town late last night." She saw her friend's eyes grow wide and nodded. "He came straight to the house and... well..."
"Señor Ezra was still there?"
"Yes, and it didn't go over well with Orin, to say the least." It felt good to have someone she felt she could trust to talk to. She couldn't remember the last time she had had the comfort of a close female friend.
"I can imagine." Inez patted Mary's hand and smiled encouragingly. "Everything will be all right. He might be angry now, but he will understand."
"I hope you're right, but you weren't there last night to hear the things he said to me after Ezra left."
"Señor Ezra left you there to face this alone?" The pretty Mexican woman was shocked to hear that.
"He didn't want to, but I insisted. I knew Orin would never start to calm down as long as he was there," Mary answered.
"Ah, I see."
"Do you know if he is awake yet?" she asked.
"I doubt that he ever went to sleep," Inez said, confirming Mary's own suspicions. "He most likely was too worried about you. Why don't you go up and get him, and I'll fix you both something to eat?"
"Thank you. We shouldn't be long," the blonde responded then went upstairs and made her way quickly to the gambler's door.
He opened the door immediately at the sound of the light knock. "Mary! Are you all right?" he asked as he gathered her into his arms. For the first time he didn't worry about who might see them when he hugged her to him.
"I'm fine," she answered and tipped her face up to his for a kiss.
"How bad was it?" Ezra searched her face for any sign of what she might have gone through. "Did he hurt you?"
"He didn't hurt me, but he was awful," she admitted. "I never would have thought Orin would say some of the things he did to me." The tears she had managed to hold back the night before filled her eyes and spilled down her cheeks when she blinked.
"I am truly sorry. You would not be forced to endure this if it were not for your association with me," he said.
"Don't say that." She pressed her fingers against his lips to stop him from saying more. "You're not to blame for any of this."
"Mary, I'm not the kind of man..."
"No. Don't even finish that. You want to know what kind of man you are?" She saw a flicker of fear in his eyes when she asked the question. "Well, I'm going to tell you whether you want to hear it or not. Ezra, you are a better man than most men could ever dream of being. No, don't hang your head. Look at me." She paused until he looked back up at her. "I know in the past you did some things that you regret now, and that is just one way that I know you have changed. The old Ezra wouldn't have had those regrets would he?" When he shook his head in reply she continued, "Would the old Ezra have put his life on the line for the people in this town, or for anyone for that matter? Did you have anyone that you could say was a true friend?"
"No," he admitted.
"Look at how far you have come. You have the friendship and respect of the men you work with. These men trust you with their lives and that kind of trust is hard-earned. I've seen you risk yourself for each one of them at some point, and you've risked your life for me more than once. You have more honor in you than any three good men combined, but you just can't see it in yourself, and you keep hiding behind that image you created for yourself. Don't sell yourself short, Ezra. The people of this town accept you just as you are. They have grown to respect and trust you, just the same as Nathan and the others have. They all need you. I need you."
"You can't really mean that." He looked at her in total disbelief.
"I mean every word of it and more. Orin might be hard to handle right now, but he'll just have to get over it. It's my life not his, and I am the only one who can make decisions on how I plan to live it. I know you have worked very hard at keeping everything quiet to protect my reputation, but you don't have to. I am not ashamed of anything we have done, and I don't care who finds out." Mary watched him as he struggled with accepting her words.
Finally he looked her in the eyes and smiled nervously. "Does that mean that I have your permission to court you openly now?"
Mary nodded and blushed slightly from the warmth his simple request sent rushing through her. "I would like that very much."
"Well then, my dear. Care to officially step out with me, and join me in breaking our fast?" His emerald eyes regained their sparkle as he held his arm out for her to escort her down to breakfast.
Inez had been watching for them and when she saw them heading to the stairs she ducked back into the kitchen for their plates. She had kept them warm for them when they hadn't made it back down sooner.
Ezra had just taken his own seat after helping Mary with her chair, when plates heaped with eggs, bacon, and biscuits were set in front of them. "I did not think I could possibly feel inclined to want anything to eat after the night of worry I just had, but I suddenly find myself famished."
"Did I hear someone say he is famished?" Josiah said, as he joined them. "Mind if I join you two?"
"By all means, please." Ezra motioned to one of the empty chairs.
"So, what was this I overheard about a night of worry?" the preacher asked.
The gambler glanced at Mary for some clue of how she wanted him to respond. She simply shrugged, letting him know it was up to him, and then added softly, "They will all find out anyway."
"Judge Travis arrived in town very late last night," he told the older man. "For some reason he felt compelled to come straight to Mary's even at that late hour."
"You both all right?" Nathan asked as he joined them at the table. "Sorry, wasn't tryin' to eavesdrop, but I couldn't help hearin'. I can only imagine how the Judge reacted, and what my mind comes up with isn't good."
"We're fine, and it wasn't good." Mary looked down at her hands for a moment before she pulled herself together and continued, "I never dreamed that he would come in before tomorrow since he was bringing Billy, and the last thing I expected was for him to show up around midnight."
Nathan's eyebrows shot up in alarm and he turned to look at Ezra, the unspoken question hanging between them. All of the peacekeepers knew that he had still been staying with Mary even though he was well enough to be on his own again.
The gambler blushed, turning nearly as red as his coat, and cleared his throat in embarrassment. "Not to fear, Mr. Jackson. His timing was a bit off."
"What happened?" Josiah asked.
"I was evicted from the premises."
"The Judge threw you out?" Nathan asked.
"No, he tried, but Mary threw me out," he replied and reached out to take hold of Mary's hand and give it a slight squeeze. "I wanted to stay but she insisted it would be better if I left." He sighed heavily, and felt his chest tighten when he thought about having to leave her there alone with the judge.
"She was probably right," the preacher commented. "Did it help?" he asked Mary.
"I don't know, maybe in some ways, but not in others." She paused a moment and considered her answer. "I don't think anything would have helped much."
"Maybe he'll be more reasonable after gettin' some sleep," the healer suggested.
"I hope so."
"One thing is for certain," Ezra informed them. "I will not leave her to face him alone again."
Judge Travis checked his watch as he left the restaurant and decided it was late enough to go back to talk to Mary. Maybe they would be able to talk more civilly after they had stayed clear of each other for a few hours. He couldn't say it would be better because they had had some sleep, because he didn't sleep a wink after that scene with Mary and Ezra.
He let himself in the front door of the Clarion office and went straight back through the door to the living area. There was no sign of her in the kitchen so he braced himself and went up to her room, figuring he would find her there asleep after such a late night. She wasn't there either.
Travis clenched his teeth and bit back the curse that threatened to escape his lips. The woman had no shame; even after being caught the night before, she still headed straight for the gambler this morning. There was no doubt in his mind that that was where he would find her.
His boots thumped on the wooden steps as he stormed down the stairs. The bell on the front door jangled wildly when he yanked the door open and slammed it back shut behind him.
Inez watched from the bar as the Judge stormed through the batwing doors and stopped in his tracks when he saw that there was more than just Ezra sitting with Mary. She headed him off before he could reach the table. "Señor would you like breakfast?"
Travis turned a cold gaze on the pretty barkeeper, and she shivered slightly under his scrutiny. "Coffee," he said flatly.
"Si, un minuto por favor." She made a quick retreat to the kitchen for the coffee and got back to the main room just as the judge stopped next to the one occupied table and stood glaring at Mary and Ezra.
The gambler looked steadily back at him, expression tightly controlled as he nodded toward an empty chair on the opposite side of the table. "Care to join us?" he asked, hoping the older man would refuse.
Orin moved to the chair and sat down without saying a word. He nodded curtly to Inez, acknowledging and clearly dismissing her with that one simple action. The mug was left untouched for the moment as he focused his attention on Mary. "We have some things to discuss in private."
"No, Sir, you don't," Ezra interceded.
"I was not asking your permission," the judge shot back at him.
"Orin," Mary said more calmly than she felt. "Anything you have to say, you can say in front of them."
"I don't believe that you mean that." Travis eyed her closely before he continued, "Then again, all things considered, I suppose you could have become that brazen."
Ezra made a move to stand and confront the judge, but Mary's hand on his arm stayed the action. He looked at her questioningly. "My dear, you surely don't expect me to sit here and let him talk about you in such a manner?"
"They are only words, Ezra. And, words can't hurt me." She gave his arm a light squeeze and slid her hand down to wrap her fingers around his, grateful for the reassuring contact.
"There you are wrong. Sharp words from a sharp tongue can cut deeper than any physical wound." He knew this from firsthand experience, and he didn't feel that Mary deserved to go through any of it.
"Only if you let them," she responded. It was hard to keep the quiver from her voice when she spoke, but she wouldn't give her father-in-law the satisfaction of seeing how much he had truly upset her.
"Judge, you know we all respect you and think you are one of the most fair-minded men we have ever met," Josiah spoke up to take some of the attention away from Mary for a moment. "I would like to believe that I am going to be able to keep thinking that."
"Josiah, I know you mean well, but this is none of your concern," Travis warned.
"If something affects one of us, it affects us all. That makes it my concern," the preacher pressed the point.
"Mr. Sanchez, thank you for your show of support, but for now perhaps we should give the judge the opportunity to say what he came to say," Ezra said. The look in his eyes expressed his gratitude when he caught the big man's gaze and held it a moment, before he looked at Travis and raised one eyebrow in question.
The judge shook his head in displeasure. "I tried to spare you some humiliation, but since you don't seem to worry about your reputation, neither will I." He leaned forward as he spoke. "I was prepared to forget this whole incident, if you came to your senses, but I don't think that is going to happen. Apparently you have lacked considerable discretion." He glanced at Josiah and Nathan as he spoke. "The stage is due in around three. You have until then to consider what I am about to say." He paused to be sure he had her attention. "I will not have my grandson raised by a wanton woman."
Mary lurched forward in her chair and stared at him wide-eyed. "Are you threatening me?"
"Take it how you will," the judge said as he rose and headed out the door.
"What do ya think he means by that?" Nathan asked.
Ezra hugged Mary close to help still her shaking. "We'll work this out. You are Billy's mother and one of the best mothers I have encountered."
"You got that right," Nathan agreed. "Ya think he might be plannin' on tryin' to take Billy?" When the others nodded, his jaw clenched and a determined glint filled his dark eyes. "Ain't no way we'll let that happen. He's got no right to go threatenin' ya like that."
"He is a federal judge, Mr. Jackson. For all intents and purposes, he is the law here, but I concur." He pulled back enough to look into a pair of frightened blue eyes. "Judge or not, I will not let him take your son."
Mary watched anxiously as the stage rumbled to a stop in front of where they waited. Ezra waited with her, and she could see the other men all positioned nearby. She knew that fact wasn't lost on the judge either. He stood several feet away, but she noticed him glancing around looking for each of the seven.
"Mama," Billy called and waved to her from the window of the stage.
"Billy!" She grabbed him and hugged him close as soon as his feet hit the ground. "How are you, sweetheart?"
"I'm all right, but you're squishing me," he told her with an exaggerated groan.
"Let me look at you." She held him back at arms' length and looked him over. "I do believe you have grown these past few weeks." Mary looked past her son to see his grandmother step down from the stage. "Evie, it's good to see you."
"It's good to see you too. You look so much better than you did when you brought Billy to us. You're feeling better now?" The elder Mrs. Travis hugged her daughter-in-law and glanced over her shoulder at her husband, who stood separate from everyone else.
"I am much better now. You look great! I have missed getting to see you as often as I used to." Mary really loved Evie Travis. She knew it was fairly unusual for a daughter-in-law to get along so well with her mother-in-law, but they had been among those exceptions.
"We'll just have to make sure it isn't as long between visits next time. Now, dear, I really do need to freshen up a bit from that long ride."
When his wife started to take Mary's arm and turn toward the Clarion office, he stopped them. "Evie, we are staying at the hotel this time. Come with me." The judge watched her look from Mary to him and back again as she tried to piece things together to figure out just what was going on. "Evie..." he said again, as he picked up her bag.
"I'm coming, Orin." She turned back to the young blonde for just a moment. "We'll talk later."
When the two started toward the hotel, they could still hear some of what was happening behind them. Evie glanced back over her shoulder when she heard Billy's excited shout. "Ezra! Lookit what I got." He pulled something from his pocket and grinned up at the gambler.
"And what pray tell do you have to show me?" Ezra squatted down to bring himself closer to eye level with the boy.
"It's a buckeye," he explained, handing it to the con man. "Grandpa says they come from back East and that they're s'pposed to be good luck.
"I am quite impressed. Has your good fortune increased since you came into possession of this miraculous item?" He grinned at the kid, flashing his gold tooth in the process.
The gambler chuckled and smiled affectionately at the boy. "Have you been having good luck?" He rephrased the question for his young friend.
"Uh huh. Look! I found a penny." He dug in his pocket until he found his treasure to show Ezra. "Is that enough to get a candy stick?"
"I do believe it is, but you should ask your mother before purchasing sweets."
Billy looked up at his mother, eyes bright and full of delight. "Can I, Mama? Please?"
"May I," she corrected, "and yes, you may. But, I want you to come straight home afterward."
Evie laughed softly and glanced at her husband. "He really does like Ezra. He was as excited to get home to see him as he was to see his mother." She stopped talking when she saw the dark expression cloud the judge's features. "What's wrong? I can't remember you ever acting like this around Mary and Billy."
Travis pursed his lips and considered her question a moment. "I think this is something for us to discuss in private. We'll talk when we get to our room."
They continued on in silence until they had made their way up the stairs and were behind the closed door of the hotel room. "All right, we're here. Now, I want to know what's going on."
The judge hesitated, then reached into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out the letter he had received two days earlier. He handed it to his wife and watched her when she moved closer to the light coming in the window so she could see to read.
She frowned as she read the unsigned note. "Who sent this to you?" she asked when she had finished.
"I don't know who it was," he admitted.
"Well, you don't honestly believe this do you? It has to be someone who has some reason to want to ruin her reputation." When her husband didn't respond, she pressed harder. "Orin, you aren't taking this seriously are you?"
He sighed heavily and turned to face his wife. "I'm taking it very seriously."
"I know you don't want to believe it," he interrupted. "And, as much as I hate to say it, it's true."
"What? No... I don't believe that based on something someone sent in a letter," she said defensively.
"I walked in on them," he said flatly.
Evie's mouth dropped open in shock. "When?"
"Last night. That's why I wanted to get here first. I had to find out if there was any truth to this." He plucked the letter from his wife's hand and shook it in her face causing her to step back from him. "I'll not have my grandson raised in that house. Even after I caught them, she still headed straight for him this morning."
"Just what are you planning to do?" she asked, alarmed at his attitude. "Orin, don't do something you'll regret later."
"I had hoped to talk some sense into her before this got too far out of hand, but it is already too late for that. Even if she gave her word that she would stop this wanton behavior, I couldn't be sure she would keep her word once we were gone again." He paced the room as he spoke and finally stopped at the window. "Billy has to come back home with us. I will not leave him to be raised in such immoral conditions."
Evie stared at him, struck momentarily speechless, before coming to her daughter-in-law's defense. "You can't take him away from Mary. She's his mother!"
"I can, and I will. Mother or not, she is not fit to raise our grandson."
"Have you talked to them, or have you just jumped to conclusions?" she asked hotly. "Just what did you walk in on?"
Judge Travis stared at his wife in surprise. She never raised her voice to him. "I walked in on them in bed together," he blurted out. "There is only one conclusion to get from that."
"Did you talk to them?"
"Of course I talked to them! He threatened me, and she told me it was none of my business," he huffed. "Well, it is my business. It affects Billy, and that makes it my business."
Evie stepped closer and laid a gentle hand on his arm. "Orin, if you calm down and really think about this you'll probably feel differently."
"I will not, and I can't believe you would condone such behavior." He looked at her like she had suddenly sprouted a second head.
"I am not saying that I condone it, but we both know Mary. She would never do anything to hurt Billy in any way." She looked at him imploringly.
"I won't have that man involved with raising my grandson." He was nearly shouting now. "He is nothing more than a gambler and a con man. There is something in this for him or he wouldn't be interested in her. He has corrupted her and she has no remorse for her actions whatsoever."
"Ah, I think I see the problem now," Evie said as she nodded thoughtfully.
"Well, it's about time you saw that I'm right."
"I didn't say that I thought you were right. I said I see the problem." The puzzled expression on her husband's face prompted her to go on. "You're prejudiced."
"I most certainly am not! How dare you accuse me of something like that," he growled.
"It isn't really about the fact that Mary is involved with someone, it's about who she chose to get involved with. You can't see beyond his past and you are letting that color your good judgment," she insisted.
"Evie, he's a con man. He's only out for himself!"
"Why can't you give Mary credit for knowing what she's doing? Have you even considered that maybe she knows more about him than you do? People do change. If he hadn't changed do you think he would still be here?"
"You don't know him. He will never really change. He might make people think he has, if it suits some purpose for himself, but deep down he'll always be a con man," Travis insisted.
"Orin, you have always looked at all sides of a situation. Don't change that now. Promise me that you'll find out more about this before you do anything," she reasoned.
Travis sighed again and reluctantly nodded. "All right; for you, I'll check things out, but nothing is likely to change my mind."
"But, if something does change your mind, you'll drop this idea of taking Billy away from her." It was not said as a question. It was one of the few times Evie Travis had stood up to her husband.
"Mary, I cannot in good conscience allow you to risk your position with Billy over me," the gambler insisted again. "You don't deserve this, and it is happening due to your association with me."
"Ezra, I am not listening," Mary informed him. "What is happening now is as much, or more, my own fault, and I get the feeling that even if I told Orin that I wouldn't see you again that it wouldn't be enough."
"Then I should leave. If I am not here, he would have no reason to try to take Billy away from you." The thought of losing her was almost unbearable, but the thought of seeing her lose her son because of him was even worse.
"No! You can't do that," she stepped closer and rested her hands lightly on his chest. "Ezra, I can't lose you either."
The gambler hugged her tightly to him. Eyes closed, he turned his face into her hair and inhaled the faint hint of lavender that lingered there. She used that scent in her hair because she knew how much he liked it, and it made him smile to think that she would do that to please him. "Mary, the last thing I want is to lose you. After I lost Julia, I thought I could never love anyone again. I could not imagine being able to give my heart that completely to another, but I have." He felt her pull back slightly and their eyes locked when their gazes met, neither of them being able to look away. "I love you. I loved you even before the time in the cave. But, you deserve better than me."
"There is no one better than you," she said sincerely, as she slipped her hands up behind his neck to pull him down to her. Just before their lips met she paused. "I love you too."
Ezra wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly as he lightly brushed his lips over hers, before claiming her mouth completely. When the kiss ended they stood holding each other, foreheads touching as they caught their breath. "I have wanted to hear those words for so long," he admitted. "I was afraid, if I told you, that I might end up pushing you away."
"That isn't going to happen." She kissed him lightly in emphasis. "I didn't think I could ever love anyone again either, but I do. I really do. Please, don't even think about leaving."
"I won't leave you," he promised her. "Whatever happens, we'll face it together."
Evie Travis stood in the small kitchen, listening to the couple in the sitting room. She knew there had to be more to this than the lewdness depicted in that horrible letter. Orin might have caught them together, but they were together because of love, not just for the physical pleasures. She hated to intrude on them, but now more than ever, she needed to talk to Mary. Quietly, she stepped back out the back door and eased it shut. After a minute she knocked lightly.
She hoped that she had time to say what she needed to say and still get back to the hotel room before Orin did. He had left her there to rest, and she had slipped out when she was sure he was gone. When she had stepped through the kitchen door and had heard a male voice she had a moment of panic, until she recognized the voice as Ezra's, not her husband's.
When the younger woman opened the door, she smiled warmly at her and pushed her way inside. "Forgive me, dear, but I didn't want Orin to see me coming in here. I wanted to talk to you without him around. Is Ezra here?"
"No, he isn't." She hesitated when the bells jingled on the front door. "He just left."
"Oh, I would have liked to talk to him too, but maybe I can catch him a little later. Right now, you are the one I really need to talk to," Evie explained.
Orin Travis checked his watch and sighed heavily. Evie had never raised her voice to him before, and he could not recall even one time when he had raised his to her either. Oh, he had ranted about other things from outside their marriage. Every man had to blow off some steam, but it had never been aimed at her before. It would still be a little over an hour before they would go down to the restaurant for supper, so now was as good a time as any to go start asking some questions.
He paused on the boardwalk just outside the hotel door and considered where to go, or more importantly, who he should talk to first. The obvious choice would be to look for Nathan or Josiah, since they both knew about the situation with Mary and Ezra. His first thought was to go to his right down the boardwalk in the general direction of the church and hope that he would catch up to one of the two men fairly quickly.
Two doors down he passed in front of the jail and noticed the door was propped open. Peeking in, he saw Nathan reading from one of his precious medical books. "Nathan, I could use a word with you."
"Sure, Judge Travis. What can I do for ya?" He closed the book and pushed it aside as he watched the judge close the door and then take a seat.
"I think you know what I want to talk about."
"Yeah, I figure I probably do. Listen Judge, I know ya don't much care for Ezra. Didn't like him much at first either. Seemed like he was always lookin' fer some way to con someone," the healer commented.
"Seemed like? You make it sound like you don't think that now." Travis was somewhat taken aback by the information.
"No, I don't, least ways not completely." The healer weighed his words carefully as he spoke, knowing all too well that one wrong comment could be disastrous for the gambler. "I ain't sayin' he never looks fer what he can get out of things, but now most of the time he ain't lookin' at just what's in it fer him. That ain't no little thing fer a man raised like Ezra was."
"I have to say that I am surprised that he seems to have the wool pulled over your eyes too. I thought you would be one I could count on to stay objective," the judge grumbled.
"Judge, ain't no one here doubted that man more'n I did. I've treated him worse than any man I have ever known, and I ain't proud of it either." Nathan was unable to look the older man in the eyes. He had always told himself that he would never treat someone else the way he had been treated, but he had been wrong about himself, just like he had been wrong about Ezra. "I let my own prejudices take over, but it was his bein' southern that turned me against him the most. I couldn't get past that, so I kept finding more and more to find fault in."
"Nathan, he's a con man. They never change. I've been a judge long enough to see so many of his kind that I can recognize them a mile away." Travis pushed himself up from the chair and turned to leave. When he got to the door he looked back and shook his head. "I just can't believe that he got to you too."
The black man sat and looked at the closed door in stunned silence. He respected Judge Travis, and there was no way he could possibly repay him for letting him have those last weeks with his father. But now he found that the one man he thought had truly risen above petty prejudice was harboring some of his own.
"Ezra, yer gonna have a rough time with him," he said to the empty room. "I wouldn't want to be in yer shoes right now, not for no amount of money in the world."
Travis decided not to go on searching for Josiah, at least not right then. He still wanted to talk to him, but he had promised Evie an early supper after her long trip. Instead, he walked slowly down the boardwalk and ducked into the General Mercantile. He had no idea what he was looking for or even why he had come in, and he stood looking around at the stocked shelves.
"Can I help you?" Gloria Potter asked. "Oh, Judge Travis! I didn't recognize you from the back. What can I get for you?"
"I'm not really sure," he confessed. "May I see this please?" he asked as he pointed to a small bottle inside the display case. He carefully removed the stopper and waved it under his nose. The scent was light but completely compelling, and he knew Evie would love it.
"That is one of my favorites," Gloria told him. "I have to confess, sometimes I have to sneak in a little sniff of some of them."
"I can see why. Your secret is safe with me," he said conspiratorially. "How much for this?" he asked.
"I hate to even tell you the price of that. It seems so outrageously extravagant, but it isn't easy to get something of that quality here." When he didn't hesitate after that information, she told him. "It's two dollars... but it's from France," she added quickly to try to justify the cost."
The Judge looked at the small bottle and thought of how much Evie would love the perfume. "I'll take it." After handing her two silver dollars, he put the stopper in the bottle just far enough to pick up a drop of the amber liquid. Before Gloria realized what he was going to do he had caught her hand and turned it over to bare her wrist. One quick motion spread the drop over the pulse point, and he had to smile when she gasped in surprise. Gloria was a very kind woman, and since her husband was killed, he doubted that she could allow herself some of those simple pleasures most women liked. "Thank you, Mrs. Potter. Do you think you could wrap that in some way for me?"
"Of course," she said, and quickly wrapped the bottle and handed it back to him. "If you would tell Evie that I would love to see her while you two are here, I would appreciate it."
"I'll be sure and do that," he promised as he glanced back at her on his way to the door and caught her sniffing her wrist and smiling.
Once outside he turned and headed back up the boardwalk toward the hotel. By the time he woke his wife, and she freshened up, it would be time for them to go to supper.
Evie was right where he had left her earlier, stretched out on the bed. It didn't look like she had even moved in her sleep, which he took as evidence that she was really exhausted from the long trip. He bent and kissed her lightly, and she shifted a little in her sleep. Encouraged by that minor success, he kissed her with a little more insistence, but he wasn't quite prepared for her reaction. She turned away from him.
"I would really rather you didn't do that," she told him in a low voice.
"What?" He gently turned her face back toward him. "You don't mean that. Evie, you've never turned away from me."
"I am still upset with you, Orin."
"Why? Because I want to protect our grandson?"
"No." She exhaled slowly and paused a moment before saying what was on her mind. "Because for the first time since we've been married you refused to get all the facts before you condemned someone. That isn't the same Orin Travis that I have loved for all these years."
"I know what I am doing, and I know him. I know who and what he is," he said in self-defense.
"You know who and what he was. There's a big difference," she insisted.
"I don't think it is a good idea to discuss this now. It's time to go for supper, and I don't want us to be arguing during our meal," he said as he coaxed her off the bed.
"Don't worry, Orin. I won't embarrass you out in public," she informed him. "I have always known you are a proud man, and everything has to be the picture of propriety. Heaven forbid that anyone were to find out that we are having a difference of opinion."
"Do you think this is wise?" Ezra asked for the third time.
"I refuse to let him make me feel like a prisoner in my own home," Mary insisted. "Besides, I don't want him thinking I am ashamed of being seen with you. You know how he would take that. He would think that I am ashamed of being with you, and that couldn't be farther from the truth."
The gambler looked at her and his features took on a serious expression. "Mary, would you have agreed to allow our relationship to become public knowledge if the judge's arrival had not given you a push in that direction?"
She moved closer and slipped her hands up behind his neck, as she looked him straight in the eyes. "Ezra, I am not ashamed of anything that has happened between us. That isn't what held me back before. I wasn't sure just what I was feeling at first, and then after what we said in the cave about the fire not being there, I was even more confused. That fire was there for me, and it scared me to feel something that strongly again. But then when you said it wasn't there for you I didn't want to try to force you into something more than you wanted."
The sincerity in her eyes moved him almost to tears. He hugged her tightly, afraid to speak until he could swallow the lump in his throat. "We really should agree on one thing," he finally managed to say.
Mary hugged him close and asked, "What would that be?"
"We won't keep things from each other in the future," he said. "We have lost so much time being afraid to express ourselves freely."
"I agree completely."
"All right, my dear, would you do me the honor of joining me for supper tonight, with Master Billy?" He offered her his arm and smiled, showing off his dimples.
Mary looped her hand through his arm and smiled brightly. "It would be my pleasure, Mr. Standish." They headed through the sitting room and paused at the bottom of the stairs to call Billy down to join them.
The young boy bounded down the stairs and stopped in front of the adults. "Are we gonna go eat now?" he asked impatiently. "I'm starvin'."
"Yes, we are going now. Would you like to lead the way?" Ezra suggested.
"Yeah! Come on. Let's go!" he said enthusiastically.
Mary laughed lightly at her son's antics as he hurried out the door and stopped on the boardwalk to wait for them. When they joined him he reached up to take his mother's free hand. She noticed how he leaned around to look at the two of them walking arm in arm.
"Why are you walkin' like that?"
"Walking like what?" she asked.
"Holdin' onto Ezra," he explained, and looked questioningly at her. "Are you sick again?" His eyes grew wide when he remembered how she had needed help to get around after she had been hurt.
"No, honey. I'm not sick. This is how a man and a woman walk together when they are courting," she explained.
"Courting?" Now he was really confused.
Mary looked at Ezra for help. She wasn't sure how to explain the concept of courting to a seven-year-old.
"Uh... well... um... don't you think this would be better coming from you?" he asked her.
"No. I think you can explain it far better than I can," she insisted.
"Yes, well... Billy..." Ezra cleared his throat and swallowed. "Perhaps this is something that would be better discussed after supper in the privacy of your home."
"Excuse me?" the gambler asked, clearly puzzled by the kid's reaction.
"Grown-ups always say stuff like that, then they never tell ya."
"Billy! That is no way to talk to Ezra," Mary warned.
"I'm sorry," the boy said to the adults.
Standish stopped walking and moved around to squat down at eye level with the youngster. "You have my word that we will talk about this in more detail. I remember being told similar things as a child and then they were never mentioned again. I know how much I hated that, and I will not do that to you."
"Promise?" Billy asked
"Promise," Ezra agreed and offered his hand to shake on it.
The boy stared at the gambler's outstretched hand for a moment and then broke into a huge grin. His pa had always told him that if you give your word and then shake on it, you have to keep your promise. He held out his smaller hand, to have it engulfed in Standish's larger one. "Can we go now?"
"Yes. I, for one, am famished," Ezra said as he resumed his place at Mary's side.
Her eyes twinkled with mischief when she glanced at him. "Coward."
The gambler blushed slightly and gave her a quick wink. "Yes... well... sometimes it proves beneficial to buy a little thinking time."
"Mama, can I have fried chicken?" Billy asked.
"Since Ezra is treating us to supper, you really should ask him."
Billy looked around his mother and asked, "Can I?"
"You, young sir, may have whatever meal you desire as long as it meets with your mother's approval," he told the youngster as they entered the door to the town's only restaurant.
The trio took a seat at a table near the window and Ezra checked the handwritten menu. "It seems you are in luck; fried chicken is on the bill of fare." The three ordered their meals and sat talking while they waited.
Without any warning, Billy jumped up and dashed across the room. "Grandma!" He stopped next to the table where his grandparents sat finishing their meal and waited for Evie to reach out to him for a hug.
The elder Mrs. Travis smiled and wrapped her arms around her grandson. "What are you doing here, sweetie? You aren't having dinner at home?"
Billy shook his head and grinned. "Nope, Ezra is takin' us to supper, and I get to have fried chicken."
"Honestly, I think you are going to turn into a big ole' fried chicken leg, the way you like to eat them. So, what's the occasion?" she asked him.
"Is there a special reason for you having supper out?" she wanted to know.
"Oh, I think it's because Mama and Ezra are courtin', but I don't know what that means, but that's okay 'cause Ezra's gonna tell me all about it when we get home," Billy rattled on excitedly.
Evie glanced up and caught the look on her husband's face. "Oh, I see, then you better go eat your supper. It was just set on the table." She gave his small shoulders another hug and shooed him on his way.
"Orin, don't you cause a scene," she warned.
"I have no intention of creating a public display, but he is doing this deliberately to goad me into something," he seethed. "Courting! We'll see about that. It appears that she has made her choice then." He shook his head in agitation.
"Now, dear, you promised you would get all the facts before you did anything," Evie reminded him.
"I have been, and somehow Standish has even managed to sway Nathan to his side. Nathan! There was enough tension between those two to string a bow with and now..." the judge threw up his hands in disbelief. "That's it! I have to get out of here. I can't sit here and watch this."
The judge pushed away from the table and went to help his wife with her chair. He ushered her out of the restaurant, without a backward glance toward the three by the window.
Mary looked up from her meal in time to catch Evie's eye, and they exchanged a knowing look. She knew that her mother-in-law would do all she could to help settle the situation with Orin, but she didn't delude herself into thinking that there wasn't still a big problem ahead of her.
The remainder of the meal was uneventful, and they soon found themselves back out on the boardwalk heading back toward the Clarion. It would not be much longer before the fires would need to be set to light up the walkways. The air had a slight chill to it and Ezra pulled off his jacket to wrap it around Mary's shoulders as they walked. When they reached the door he held it open for Billy and her to go in first.
"I am going to go put on some coffee. You are staying for a while, aren't you?" Mary asked.
"Indeed I am. There is the little matter of a promise I made earlier this evening," he reminded her.
"Well then you two can have your talk while I fix the coffee and get us some dessert. I have some pie that Inez sent over earlier." She left her two 'men' to themselves and went to the kitchen.
"Billy, why don't we have a seat on the settee?"
The young boy climbed up on the small couch beside him and gave the gambler his undivided attention. "You didn't ferget," he said in amazement.
"No, I didn't forget. I gave you my word. So, let's see if I can find a way to explain what courting is. It isn't really that easy to explain to someone as young as you are," Ezra explained. "But, I will do my best.
"Billy, you know that I really like your mother, don't you?" he began.
The youngster nodded. "Sure, and Mama likes you too," he said seriously.
"Good, well courting is when a man and a woman more than like each other. It is when they want their relationship to move forward." He could tell by the look in those trusting blue eyes that that had made no sense whatsoever.
"All right, let's try this another way. Do you have a really good friend?" At the boy's nod he continued, "When you first met this person, you weren't friends, were you?"
"No, I didn't know him yet," Billy replied.
"But, after you knew him a while you became friends, right?" Ezra asked.
Billy nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah, we're best friends."
"Well this is something like that. Only it is for grown-ups. When a man and a woman meet, they don't always like each other right at first, but then they get to be friends, and then best friends. Courting for a man and woman is the next thing after best friends. It is when they decide that they want to get to know each other a lot better, so they know if they want to stay together." The gambler had no idea if he was making any sense at all.
The boy looked at him intently for a minute and then asked, "You mean you are trying to figure out if you want to marry my Mama?"
"Well... uh... yes... that is pretty much what it is all about. You already knew about this?" Ezra asked.
"Yeah, I remember when Tommy Carter and Sally were always together and hangin' onto each other and kissin' and stuff. They ended up gettin' married. You and Mama been actin' the same way," he announced.
"Oh we have, have we? If you knew this, then why am I explaining this to you?" the gambler wanted to know.
"I just didn't know that was courting. I heard Buck say Tommy and Sally were sparkin' so I thought that was what you and Mama were doin'," he explained.
Mary stood out of sight just inside the kitchen door and pressed a hand to her mouth to keep from giggling at Ezra's discomfort. Leave it to her son to catch the gambler off guard. But, she had to admit that she had no idea Billy knew that much about adult relationships.
"Yes... well... Mr. Wilmington should take a little more care about what he says around young ears."
"You have another question?" The gambler sighed in resignation when he saw the little tow-headed boy nod vigorously. "And, what pray tell would that be?"
"Will ya show me some tricks?" Billy asked innocently.
"I would be delighted to dazzle you with some sleight of hand." Ezra smiled and winked at his young companion. "I will need your assistance with some of it. Do you think you are up to the task?"
"Sure!" The youngster crawled to his knees on the couch facing Standish, excitement dancing in his pale blue eyes.
He has his mother's eyes. Pale as the sky on a misty morn, the gambler thought as he watched Billy practically bouncing with anticipation. Ezra pulled out his deck of playing cards and started to shuffle them. "Prepare to be amazed."
Judge Travis escorted his wife back to the hotel and then decided to do a little more investigating into this sudden change in Mary's behavior. He hadn't seen Josiah since that morning, but he was sure he saw Chris heading into the jail a little earlier. When he stepped inside he was glad to see that Chris was alone.
"Judge, something I can do for you?" Larabee asked.
"Actually, yes there is. Mind if we talk a bit?" the older man said.
The man in black shook his head and motioned to the empty chair across from him. "What's on your mind?"
"You mean you haven't already decided what I want to talk about before I open my mouth?" The judge sounded slightly sarcastic even to his own ears.
"I have a pretty good idea, but I believe in letting people speak for themselves," he explained to Travis.
"I appreciate that. What I need to find out is what is going on with Mary. It is like she has lost all ability to reason out the consequences of her behavior."
"Sorry, but I don't really think I am the best one to be asking about Mary," Chris hedged. "But I can tell you that she knows the consequences of what she does better than anyone else I know, and at this point I am lucky she even speaks to me after what happened."
"I know what happened, and that you are the one that hit her, but it was an accident. You wouldn't do something like that to her deliberately. I always had high hopes that more would come of things between you and Mary." The judge pointed out. "I know that given a little time, she'll see that she made the wrong choice with Ezra."
"How can you even suggest that she would see me with anything but contempt, if you know what happened here?" Larabee growled. "You don't know me well enough to know if I would have been right for Mary or not."
"I know you are a good, decent man, despite a little recent tarnish on your reputation. She feels something for you. Just give her a little time for her to get over what happened," Travis suggested. "Don't give up on her now."
"There is no way she is going to forgive me. Don't you think I have tried to get her forgiveness?" Chris yelled at the judge. "You don't just go causing a woman to lose a child and expect her to just forget about it."
"It is my fault that her baby is dead. She can barely stand to be in the same room with me now. And I am the one you think would make a good match for her?" Larabee shook his head in exasperation. "You're wrong! Ezra's ten times the man that I am."
Most of the outburst went right on past Travis, because he had caught onto one word before it sailed on by. "Child? What do you mean 'lose a child'?"
"Oh hell!" Chris got up; he just couldn't sit still any longer. He paced the room for a minute like a caged animal before he finally made himself sit back down and face the judge. "You said you knew what happened! Son-of-a-bitch, I should have known that you wouldn't be pushing her toward me if you knew it all." The gunman laid his head in his hands and shook his head. "Damn..."
"What are you talking about?" Orin snapped.
"No, I've already said way too much. I've hurt her way too much already to hurt her more now." Larabee swallowed hard and sighed heavily. "Don't ask me to say any more," he said in a strained voice.
"You don't throw out a statement like that and then expect me to drop it. If I have to go and ask her myself, I will find out what is going on," Travis threatened.
Chris slumped in the chair in resignation. The last thing he wanted was for the judge to go tear into Mary again. "She lost a baby when I hit her," he said weakly.
"I knew she was hurt because you hit her, but not that she lost a baby. Whose? Ezra's?" The judge was furious but he tried to keep control of his temper. "It isn't bad enough that he is corrupting her in other ways but... the only thing keeping me from killing that man right now is my duty to uphold the law."
"Don't react like that. That moment of satisfaction isn't worth the hell I am going through every hour of every day. I wouldn't want to see that happen to you," Chris explained. "I felt the same way, and that is how this all happened. Just seemed to me that the only explanation was that he had to have forced himself on her, that she couldn't possibly have fallen for him. My blind rage is what nearly killed Mary, and it did kill the baby she was carrying. I don't want to see anyone else suffer like that."
"This whole situation just keeps getting worse. I should never have let her convince me to allow her to stay and keep the Clarion going. Well, she made her choices, but I sure as hell can make sure that Billy isn't influenced by her." Travis pushed himself up from the chair and left, leaving a stunned Chris Larabee behind, wondering what the judge had meant by that last comment.
Orin Travis paced their room in the hotel while Evie sat in the room's only chair. She sat by the window rocking slightly while she waited for the outburst that she knew was coming.
"The nerve of those two. Flaunting themselves like that in public. They were just rubbing it in my face," he fumed.
"Now, Orin, they were doing no such thing. They were simply trying to enjoy having supper together, which is a perfectly normal thing for a couple to do. You are really overreacting to this." Evie chose her words carefully, but she still wanted to get her point across.
"Overreacting! Mary is no longer a fit example for our grandson. I'll not have it, Evie. She isn't going to corrupt that boy with her immoral ways. You don't know the half of it," he exclaimed.
"Oh? And just what would the other half be?"
"I hate to even tell you this."
"Well, if you won't tell me then I guess I should go ask some questions of my own." She looked at him defiantly.
"You'll do no such thing," Travis huffed.
"I will if you make it necessary for me to!" Evie shot back at him.
The judge took a deep breath and decided he didn't have any real choice but to tell her. "She was pregnant when Chris accidentally hit her. She was carrying that con man's child!" he snapped, unable to keep his voice down.
"Oh, dear God!" Evie's hand flew to her mouth and she gasped in shock.
"There! You see! Even you can't get past that, can you?"
Evie looked at her husband like she didn't know him. "Of course I can. It had to be horrible for Mary to go through that alone. Oh, that poor girl."
"That poor girl? Can you hear yourself? How much of this kind of behavior will it take for you to say that's enough?"
"She made a mistake. She's human, and we all make mistakes. Even you," Evie pointed out protectively. "You have no room to go pointing fingers at her, Orin Travis!"
"What's that supposed to mean?" he countered.
"It means that I know you are no saint yourself. There are things from your past that you thought I didn't know about, but I do. According to the good book, Jesus said, 'He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.' No one could do it then, so how can you now?"
The judge stared at his wife, stunned into silence. He had no idea what she meant by something from his past. "What are you talking about?" he asked, his tone much more subdued.
"I know about Abigail," she answered flatly.
"Don't try to act like you don't know what I'm talking about. The ignorant act doesn't suit you."
Orin hung his head and took a deep breath. "How did you find out?"
Evie looked him straight in the eyes when she answered. "I knew before we got married, but my mother convinced me that it was just a natural thing for a man to sow a few wild oats. She said it wasn't something I should let on that I knew about, because it wasn't my concern. I never did quite figure out how the fact that the man I was marrying had fathered a child with another woman wasn't any concern of mine, but I took my mother's word as the voice of experience."
"You've known all these years and you never said anything?" He couldn't believe that she had kept quiet all that time.
"I never said my mother's advice was always right," she admitted. "The point is, you had a baby with this other woman when you were engaged to me. You have no right to judge Mary for her behavior now. You are threatening to take her child from her for something you are guilty of yourself."
"It's different for a man..."
"Oh, don't give me that excuse. The only difference is it is easy to see when a woman stumbles because the evidence is right there in front of you. It takes two to make a baby, and you were just as wrong as Abigail was, maybe more so because she was so young." Evie sighed and turned sad brown eyes toward her husband. "You can't condemn Mary and Ezra for doing the same thing you did. They are both old enough to know what they are doing. The big difference was that they weren't running from the responsibility; but you did."
"How do you know Ezra wasn't running from it?" Travis demanded.
"Because he's still here, and he's still with her despite all you have done to try to drive him away. He truly loves her Orin, and she loves him."
Josiah heard the telltale creak of the main door and left his bedroom to go into the main room of the church to see who had come in. Judge Travis stood looking at the row of lighted candles, his hat in his hands and his head slightly bowed.
"Judge Travis, what brings you to the Lord's house at this hour?"
"The need for a little peace of mind, Josiah. I have too much on my mind to try to sleep," Travis explained.
"You need to talk about it?" the preacher asked softly. "Sometimes it is easier to sleep with a clear conscience."
"What makes you think my conscience is bothering me?" the judge asked defensively.
"When you're sitting in the judgment seat, don't you get a feel for who's tellin' the truth and who isn't?"
"I suppose I do sometimes," Orin admitted.
"Sometimes it is easy to see when someone has a troubled conscience, and I think yours is very troubled right now. You know anything you say to me won't be repeated," Josiah informed him.
"I know, Josiah." The judge took a seat in the front pew and waited for Sanchez to join him. The preacher turned sideways on the hard bench so he could look at Travis while he talked. "You're right. I do have something bothering me. Something I have kept locked away for a very long time. Evie and I have been having a difference of opinion since she got here today. I know you are aware of what is going on with Mary and Ezra and how I have felt about that situation."
"Yes, you made your position very clear this morning," the preacher reminded him.
"Well, Evie reminded me that my own past isn't so perfect either. I had no idea that she knew anything about it until she tossed it in my face tonight." He took on a pained expression as he remembered the incident. "We married very young. She was fifteen when I asked for her hand but her parents made her wait until she turned seventeen. I was twenty by then. During those two years, I made a very big mistake. I... well... without going into all the details, I got involved with someone. It was just one time, but it was enough to get her pregnant. My future was already planned and I didn't know what to do about it. Suddenly, Abigail just disappeared. Turned out my father had paid someone to take her away and marry her and raise the baby as his. I had no idea that Evie knew about it."
"That makes it a little hard to justify the way you are acting toward Mary and Ezra, doesn't it?" Josiah asked.
"Yes, it does. Josiah, I know I have been raving about her immoral behavior, but it is really more about who she chose. How could she possibly fall for a con man? I always thought that would be something she would protest against very strongly. I've seen enough of them to know his type doesn't change. I am so afraid he will end up teaching Billy to follow in his footsteps, and Billy is the last part of Steven that Evie and I still have." His eyes misted over and he struggled not to blink.
"Judge, Ezra has changed. He still has a way to go, but he is no more the same man that he was when he first came here than I am Robert E. Lee."
"How can you be so sure that it isn't just another con?"
"What profit would there be in it for him? Mary isn't rich. The Clarion supports itself and Mary, but it isn't making her large sums of money. There is no big social coup to be made. Mary is respected but she isn't an heiress or connected to someone in high places. Besides that, I have gotten to know him." The preacher settled in for a long talk and he knew this was one time his audience would want to hear what he had to say.
"The way you are protecting the two of them, I gather that you are aware of the full extent of her injury," Orin commented.
"Yes, I know about all of it. I want you to know the kind of man Ezra has turned into. He has been there for her every minute from the time they first found out until now. They had been planning on getting married before she was hurt, and he would have still gone through with it, but she said no. I think she was afraid he would end up feeling trapped. I have watched things blossom between them for all this time, and I can tell you honestly that they really do love each other."
Travis tried not to wake Evie as he slipped into bed, but he should have known she wouldn't be asleep. He hadn't intended to be gone as long as he had, but time had passed quickly as he sat and talked to the preacher.
"Where have you been?" his wife asked as she turned over to face him.
"Talking to Josiah," he answered softly.
"You probably should have talked to him first instead of the others."
"You're right about that. Evie, I am sorry I have been such an ass. I've made so many mistakes it would take the rest of the night to name them all. But, the biggest ones were keeping that secret from you and not trusting Mary's judgment."
"Why did you keep that secret?" she wanted to know.
"I was ashamed. We weren't married yet, but we were promised to each other, and I was unfaithful to that promise. And it really bothered me that I had let my father sweep my mistake under the rug," he confessed. "He paid someone to take her away and marry her."
"What would you have done if he hadn't?"
"I don't know. I honestly don't know. It wouldn't have involved marrying her, that much I feel sure of. Maybe I would have made arrangements for her to go away and have the baby and then find it a good home. What happened was a one-time thing; just two young people who got carried away and let their bodies rule over their brains for a short time. At that age, I just wasn't seeing the full picture. But, I know I would have done anything in my power to keep you. I never loved anyone but you." He wrapped an arm around his wife when he felt her curl up against his side, relieved to feel that closeness again.
"So, what did you decide about Billy?" she asked a little apprehensively.
"I still want to talk to Ezra before I make my final decision." Orin felt Evie tense up beside him. "Talk, Evie, just talk. There are things I need to settle completely in my mind before I can feel comfortable leaving Billy here."
"You'll really listen? You won't just assume he is out to con you? Just promise you'll give him a fair chance," she pressed.
"I promise I will."
"Thank you." She kissed him good night, settled her head on his shoulder, and tossed her arm over his chest. Finally, they would both be able to sleep, and hopefully tomorrow would be a better day.
Ezra cracked one eye open against the early morning light. He was never awake this early, so why was he now? Then he heard it again, a knock on the door. He wrapped himself in a blanket and moved quickly to the door, thinking it might be Mary, but he received quite a shock when he found Orin Travis standing there.
"Judge Travis, what brings you to my door at this hour?" he asked cautiously.
"I would like to have a few words with you, if I may," the judge replied.
"Of course," Standish opened the door wider and let the older man in. "I apologize for the state of the room. I was still asleep."
"I thought you might be, so I felt sure I would be able to catch you here alone." Travis crossed the room to take a seat in the rocking chair near the window, while Ezra sat on the edge of the bed. "Ezra, I need to ask you some questions. Will you answer me honestly?"
"Will you believe me if I say yes?" the gambler asked in return.
"Yes, I will."
The gambler stared at him openmouthed. "Then yes, I will answer you honestly," he finally managed to say.
"Do you love her?"
"More than life," Ezra answered sincerely.
The judge saw only truth in that pair of unwavering green eyes, and he nodded in acknowledgement. "I believe you do." He paused and gathered his thoughts. "I love her too. She and Billy are our last connection to our son," he admitted.
"I know you love her, and I know you want what is best for her and for her to be happy." The gambler swallowed hard and drew a deep breath. Talking about such personal matters was going to take a lot of getting used to.
"Yes I do, and apparently her idea of what fills those needs isn't the same as mine." Travis half smiled. "You've made some good friends here. These men wouldn't hold up for you if they weren't sure of you, and neither would Mary."
"I don't deserve any of them, but I am very grateful to have them," Ezra said.
"I need to know something. What about Billy? I..."
"Sir, if you are afraid that I will try to persuade him to follow in my footsteps, you needn't fear. The life I have led is not one I would press anyone into, especially someone I love. Maude gave me no choice, but I have a choice now."
"Are you saying you won't pursue your con man's trade any longer?" Orin asked hopefully.
"I haven't done a con in a long time," Ezra admitted. "But, my gambler's trade is all I know."
Travis smiled knowingly. "I can live with that; from what Josiah told me, you don't even cheat now unless it is in the other person's favor."
The gambler blushed hotly. "Josiah sometimes says too much."
"In this case, that is a good thing."
"There is this nagging feeling that I have that there is something more to your change of heart than just some good words from my associates," Ezra observed.
"That was what finally got me to understand things, but there was something else that forced me to stop and listen. Someone pointed out some of my own past mistakes and made me realize that I could be making another really big one now."
"Are you still thinking of trying to take Billy from Mary? I love her and I don't want to lose her, but I won't be the reason for her losing her son," the gambler turned sad, pleading eyes toward the judge.
"If I had any last doubts about you, knowing that you would give her up to keep them together just settled them. No, I won't try to take Billy. He belongs with his mother, and I hear that he is very fond of you," Orin commented.
"As I am of him."
"Why don't you get dressed, and let's see if we can find Mary. Maybe she has some coffee on and we can all sit and talk," the judge suggested.
Evie whispered in Mary's ear as she hugged her goodbye. "I told you to leave him to me."
"Thank you. I don't know how you did it, but I am so grateful," the younger woman whispered back.
The two women released each other and Billy eased in between them to tell his grandparents goodbye. "I love you, Grandma," he told her and hugged her, squeezing her hard.
"Ugh... what a hug," the elder Mrs. Travis teased him. "That one will have to last me until next time we can visit."
"What about me?" the judge asked. "Don't I get a goodbye too?"
"Yes," the youngster said as he launched himself at his grandfather to give him his own bear hug.
"You be good for your mother, promise?"
"I promise. Do ya have t' go?"
"Yes, we do but we'll see you again soon," Evie spoke up as she elbowed her husband.
"Well... hopefully we will," the judge said. "Evie and I were talking and we would like to invite you to come for Christmas." He saw the shadow of disappointment that passed over the gambler's features and hurried on. "That includes you too, Ezra. We both think it would be a good chance for us all to spend some time together."
Both Ezra and Mary were stunned momentarily speechless. "Orin, we would love to. Wouldn't we, Ezra?" Mary could not have smiled much wider as she turned to wait for the gambler's reply.
"Indeed we would. Thank you both." He held out his hand to the judge who took it firmly in his own.
"Good, we'll see you all then. Come on, Evie. The stage driver is getting impatient." Travis helped his wife into the coach and checked one last time to be sure that his horse was securely tethered to the back. The older couple waved as the stage pulled away, and Evie blew a kiss to Billy when he chased after the coach shouting his last goodbyes.
Mary turned to Ezra and grinned. "I honestly think you could charm the devil, Mr. Standish."
The gambler laughed and gathered her into his arms. "I thought I just had."
|Second Chances Index||On to: I'll Be Home For Christmas|
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