by Luna Dey
Author's Note: This is the continuation of the story started in Under Cover Of Darkness, By The Light Of Day, Heat Lightning, Someone To Watch Over Me, Pride And Prejudice, and I'll Be Home For Christmas. This one is a bit like the energizer bunny. It just keeps going and going and going, so hope you are settled in for a long read. <wink> There are references back to the earlier stories, therefore it would probably be beneficial to read them first, but each can stand on its own. I know there are a lot of people who don't like Mary, but I have been told by some of them that the earlier stories make them not want to kill her. <BG> At the end of the second story I had seemed to have set it up to be the end; however, I had so many ask me to keep the series going that I just couldn't refuse. So, the series continues to grow with this one making the seventh. I want to thank my wonderful beta, Alex, who smoothed out the rough edges for me. You're the best, lady! Also, thank you to LaraMee for the title collage. I love it!
Disclaimer: I do not own them. They are the property of MGM, Mirisch, and Trilogy Entertainment; however, if they ever come up for sale, I will be in the front row at the auction.
Feedback: Feedback is welcome and greatly appreciated, but no flames please.
Back to: I'll Be Home For Christmas
Ezra stared in disbelief as his mother walked toward him. "What are you doing here?" he asked, his tone suspicious.
"Is that any way to greet your mother after she came all this way to see you?" Her eyes snapped with disapproval when she spoke. "Then I get here and find you gone, and these men..." she paused to glare at the remaining peacekeepers, "would not tell me where you were."
"Now, Maude, you're making it sound like some big conspiracy," Josiah chided, as he picked up the last of the bags he was taking over to Mary's. "We all told you he would be back after the first of the year."
"It was a conspiracy," she insisted. "You were all doing your utmost to keep me away from my darling boy."
Ezra sighed and glanced apologetically at his friends. "Mother, my associates were simply ensuring that my holiday plans were not disrupted."
"Disrupted!" She jumped on the word and shot him a withering look. "Is that how you see a visit from your own mother? A disruption?"
"Mother, you know that isn't what I meant," Ezra said calmly in an effort to cajole her. "Had you informed me of your intention to visit, I could have let you know that I planned to be away, and we could have arranged your arrival to coincide with my return."
"Are you saying I must make an appointment to visit my son?" Maude huffed determined not to allow herself to be placated this time.
"Of course not, Mother," Ezra said as he leaned in close to give her a kiss on the cheek. "I am merely reminding you that there may be times when I might be otherwise occupied, and to avoid being left waiting alone, you might want to be sure I am in residence before making the trip."
"Well, I was hardly alone," Maude admitted with the trace of a smile. "Your friends made sure I didn't get bored."
"Oh, Mother, please tell me you didn't tell more anecdotes about my youth." Ezra shuddered at the thought, well aware that without him there to at least attempt to keep her embellishments to a minimum, her stories would have gotten totally out of hand if she found that she had an interested audience.
Maude cocked her head and smiled. "Perhaps a few, but if you had seen fit to be here..." she started.
"Mother," Ezra interrupted. "Why are you here?"
"I wanted to surprise you and spend Christmas with you," she answered, sounding truly sincere. Her voice wavered slightly and she glanced down, breaking eye contact.
Maude was an accomplished con-woman, and she could look a man straight in the eyes and tell him any manner of lies that would suit her purpose. Her one tell was that when she was really telling the truth, especially about something personal, she could not maintain eye contact. Not many people ever got close enough to her to learn that one weakness, but Ezra knew it. He suspected there was more to this visit than she was ready to let him know. "Why this year?" He watched her shift slightly and realized she was a little uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was taking in front of his friends, but he was not willing to let her off the hook easily. "Holidays were never all that important to you before."
The gambler's annoyance shifted toward concern when his mother glanced up at him and then quickly looked away again. This was very unlike her. She was always so self-assured, and what he saw now was hesitation and uncertainty. "Mother, are you all right?"
"Yes!" she answered quickly, almost too quickly. She regrouped and tried again. "I missed you. Is it wrong for a mother to miss her son?"
"No, it isn't wrong." Ezra gave his mother a heartfelt hug, squeezing her tightly to him for a long moment. "How long will you be able to grace our fair municipality with your presence?"
"I don't have anything planned for the immediate future." She evaded a direct reply to his question.
"Then perhaps you would like to join me while I unpack," he suggested. "We can do a little catching up."
"Yes, and I would like to start with, why were you traveling with Mary Travis and her son?" Maude's voice trailed back to the other men as she followed Ezra across the street.
Ezra rolled his eyes and glanced back helplessly to see Chris and Buck grinning at him. He squared his shoulders and quickly turned his attention back to Maude, who hadn't missed a beat in her rapid-fire questions and comments.
"You think we shoulda ran a little interference there, since he just got back?" Buck asked.
"Nah. We kept her from tracking him down while he was gone; she's all his now." Chris half-grinned at the thought. "So, how do you think she'll take to the news that her darling boy is courting the town's most upstanding woman?"
"She'll probably try to find out what his angle is?" Buck suggested. "But, I sure wouldn't want to be in her shoes if she comes right out and asks him."
"Neither would I, Buck." Chris shook his head and shuddered at the thought. "Neither would I."
Maude sat in the rocking chair in Ezra's room and watched her son hanging up his jackets that he had just unpacked. "You might think you slipped one past me, but you didn't."
"I have no idea what you are referring to, Mother." The gambler carefully smoothed out a wrinkle on his favorite red jacket before putting it in the closet.
"You think I forgot that you didn't answer my question."
"Which question might that be?" Ezra knew exactly which question she meant, but he had held out hope that she really had been led away from that topic.
"You know very well which question. I taught you that trick of evading a response until the other person forgets the question was never answered." Her voice held a hint of censure for his attempt to use her own tactics against her.
Ezra sighed and his cheeks colored slightly. There was no avoiding giving her an answer, and he really didn't know why he had tried to keep the truth from her. He certainly wasn't ashamed of his relationship with Mary. On second thought, he knew exactly why he had tried to keep it from her. He knew she would find a way to interfere, and he didn't want to risk losing Mary to his mother's meddling.
"Mother, my personal business is just that... personal," he began. When he saw Maude start to speak, he held up a hand for her to stop. "Please, let me finish. I haven't said anything to you about what is going on in my personal life because I didn't want you doing anything to ruin things for me. I know you, and you can't stand the thought that someone might make me realize that there is a better life than drifting around, running one con after another, and praying that I can stay one step ahead of those I have swindled or the law. I'm tired of it, Mother. I want a life... a real life; one where I can settle down and have a home and a family."
"You can't be serious! You really think you can give up our way of life? Gambling is in your blood, just as much as it is in mine. Do you honestly think people will ever really accept you as anything other than a gambler and a conman?" Maude stared at her son, momentarily shocked by his admission.
"They already have, but you just won't let yourself see it. They know I still gamble and I always will, but they know I have changed. Everyone else could see it in me even before I could see it myself."
"And does they include Mary Travis?" Maude asked.
"Do you honestly think she is going to look the other way when you head for the gaming tables?" The sarcasm in her voice was thinly veiled as she probed deeper. "Is she going to allow her reputation to be sullied by a personal association with you? She has a young son to consider, after all."
"No, I don't think she will look the other way." He watched smugly as his mother's expression began to change to one of triumph. "I know she will. And as for her reputation, she doesn't see it as sullied by any association with me, nor is she concerned about my association with Billy."
It was his turn to smile when he saw Maude's triumphant expression turn into one of disbelief. "This is precisely why I hadn't told you anything about my relationship with Mary. I knew this is how you would react to it, and for once in my life, I don't intend to let you ruin my chance to be happy."
"You really mean that, don't you?" The con-woman studied her son's face for any hint of duplicity. "Things have gone that far that you would turn your back on your mother for her?"
"Mother, I don't want to have to choose between a life with Mary and being close to you, but if I have to, I'll choose Mary. You can either accept that and be happy for me, or we'll have to part ways for good." It broke Ezra's heart to think of never seeing Maude again. She was not a good mother by any standards, but she was his mother and he still loved her. "How will it be? It's your choice. Will you accept me on my terms now, or have me out of your life completely? Think about it; I don't expect a decision right this minute because I'm going to go check on Mary and let her know that you're in town. If you decide to accept me as I am now and intend to behave accordingly, then I would like it if you would join us for supper at the restaurant around six o'clock. If you aren't there, then I'll also take that as your answer."
"Ezra, please. I need to talk to you." Her words did not stop him from leaving, and Maude stared after him as he stepped out the door and closed it behind him. She drew in a deep shuddering breath and hung her head in disappointment, mentally kicking herself for letting her mouth run away with her again.
'How can I always know just what to say to everyone else, but not to my own son?' Suddenly aware that she was standing in the middle of Ezra's room staring at a closed door, she tossed on her coat, squared her shoulders, and raised her chin before leaving the room. Maude was aware of six pair of eyes watching her as she descended the stairs and crossed the room, but instead of stopping at the peacekeepers' table she went straight through and out onto the boardwalk. Once outside she paused a moment and glanced toward the Clarion office just in time to see her son step inside.
Maude's mind was busy struggling with the unexpected knowledge of Ezra's relationship with Mary and with his reaction to herself. Lost in thought, she did not hear Josiah step up behind her, and she jumped when he lightly rested a hand on her arm.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you," he said softly. "Are you all right?"
"Of course I am. Why wouldn't I be?" the con-woman said tensely. "After all, I have only been kept in the dark about my son's whereabouts, and about his interest in a woman who is obviously out of his social circle," she glared at the big man. "Some forewarning might have kept me from making the mess of things that I just did."
Josiah was taken aback by Maude's admission. She was not one to air personal problems in public, at least not the more intimate ones. "Maude, it wasn't that we didn't want you to know about Ezra and Mary. It was just that when we realized that you didn't already know, we thought that it wasn't our place to tell you... it was his. We figured he must have had a reason that he hadn't told you yet." He watched as the usually-stoic woman's eyes began to glisten with unshed tears. "Why don't you come on over to the church with me where we can talk more privately?" The preacher held out an arm to escort her away from prying eyes, wanting to save her the embarrassment of being seen crying in public.
They walked in silence, moving quickly down the boardwalk and then across the street to the church. Josiah opened the door for her and let her enter first. He led her back into his room where it was warmer, and once inside out of the cold, he helped her take off her coat, and hooked it on a peg in the wall beside his. While she warmed her hands by the potbellied stove, he poured them both a cup of coffee from the pot he had made earlier and left to stay warm on an iron rack sitting on top of the stove. After handing her one of the cups, he motioned for her to take the only chair in the room, and he sat on the edge of his narrow bed.
"Need to talk about it?" he finally asked after they had both taken a couple sips from the hot brew. When she didn't speak he continued, "I can understand your being upset with us for not telling you everything, but try to understand our side. We've worked hard to earn Ezra's trust. I think in some ways it was even harder for him to learn that he could trust us than it was for us to trust him. He's so used to never having anyone to count on but himself that it was hard for him to become part of a team. None of us was going to jeopardize that fragile bond."
Maude swallowed hard and took a slow, deep breath. "He has me," she said, looking down at the cup cradled in her hands where they rested on her lap.
"Of course he does," Maude said as her head snapped up. "How could you ask such a thing?"
"Before you go getting all bent out of shape, I want you to know that I am not trying to criticize you," Josiah explained. "But, from what I have seen in the past you seem to be more motherly when you need Ezra for something. The rest of the time you keep yourself pretty scarce."
"My son feels that way too, doesn't he?" She wrapped her fingers more tightly around her cup to still their shaking as she took a sip of the bitter liquid. "Josiah, you know that I am a businesswoman," Maude explained. "It just isn't possible for me to stay in one place too long." Her eyes locked with the preacher's, willing him to look away first so she could believe that he had not really meant what he had just said, but his gaze never wavered.
"Your son loves you. Nothing is likely to ever change that, but I have noticed a sadness in his eyes sometimes when you visit, when he doesn't think anyone will notice." The preacher leaned forward, making certain that he had Maude's full attention. "For all his strength and independence, there are times when he still needs to feel that his mother loves him, too."
Josiah's soft-spoken way was almost hypnotic, and Maude felt herself falling under his spell. "No, he doesn't love me, he tolerates me. I worked so hard to make sure he would never be dependent on anyone, and I did too good of a job." Her voice quivered slightly, giving away how close she was to losing the battle with her tears. "I didn't realize that in the process of making him into a copy of myself that I would be driving him away from me." Her head drooped and she looked intently at the toes of Josiah's boots. "I've lost him, haven't I?"
"I can't answer that question; only Ezra can." He lightly cupped his large hands around hers where they still gripped the warm cup. "Maude, why don't you tell me what happened? Maybe things aren't really as bad as they seem at the moment."
"How serious is this thing between Ezra and Mary Travis?" the con-woman asked. "Is Ezra reading more into it than he should be?"
"It isn't really my place to decide how serious it is. I'm not one of the two involved, but from being on the fringe of things, I am more aware of their feelings than someone who isn't a part of our group would be. I would say it is very serious, and it is very unlikely that Ezra is overreacting in any way," Josiah paused, brow creased in concentration, as he considered just how much he should tell Maude. "My best advice would be for you to keep an open mind and just watch the two of them together. Anyone with two eyes can plainly see that they love each other."
"People fall in and out of love all the time." She waved a hand in dismissal of the idea. "But that doesn't mean that they'll give up their reputation and position for someone like Ezra."
"Someone like Ezra!" Josiah reddened and his blue eyes grew dark and menacing. Maude cringed and tried to pull away from him, but he only grasped her hands more securely and refused to let her go. "Is that what you said to him? That Mary wouldn't accept someone like him?"
"You don't know how cruel people can be to someone in our line," Maude shot back at him as she tugged her hands free, and sloshed coffee onto her dress in the process. "No one of any position ever really wants to make a lasting relationship with our kind."
"And I suppose you know this because you can see the future?"
"It never works out. I've tried, and it always ends in disaster," the blonde insisted. "He's a novelty to her, and when people start gossiping and making remarks to her about her association with him, she'll drop him."
"That goes to show how little you know about your son and the man he has become. Maude, they have already faced the worst that could be thrown at them on more than one occasion, and they have still stuck by each other. If they haven't been pulled apart by now, I can't imagine anything that would come between them." Josiah studied the blonde's face as he spoke, looking for any sign that he was reaching her.
"I've thought that myself in the past, but it always ends up the same." The sadness in her eyes said even more than her words. "You really think that I wouldn't have liked to have been able to live a different kind of life? I've tried to give up this life and my past always comes back to haunt me, and it will do the same to Ezra."
"There is one big difference," Josiah began.
"And what would that be?"
"He has friends."
"Ezra!" Mary rushed down the steps and tossed her arms around his neck when she heard him call out to her from the bottom of the stairs. "I was starting to worry that there was something really wrong." She drew him down to her for a kiss before going on. "What did Chris want?"
"To tell me that my mother is in town." He hugged her closer and nuzzled against her neck before placing a soft kiss against her throat. "I'm sorry you were worried. Just as he started to tell me, Mother made an appearance and I found myself allaying her curiosity while I unpacked from our sojourn."
Mary drew back to study the gambler's face, but his mask was firmly in place, making it nearly impossible to read him. The fact that the mask was necessary told her that the talk with his mother had not gone well. "Oh, dear. I take it that that means you told her about us?"
"Yes, but she had already started to suspect something when she saw that we both came in on the same stage."
"How did she react?" She stepped back out of his arms and took his hand to lead him to the kitchen.
"Not as well as I had hoped," Ezra admitted as he accepted the cup of coffee Mary poured for him and then took a seat across from her at the table. "I wouldn't have been surprised if she had thought I had found some angle to work toward some personal gain from our relationship. That would have been more to keeping with her past behavior where my motives were concerned. I didn't expect her to be as critical as she was, but I should have known she would be; she's never been anything but critical of me."
Ezra shushed her before she could go any farther. "You have no reason to be sorry, my dear. So, I don't ever want to hear you say that, not where she is concerned."
"But, she's your mother..."
"Yes, she is, biologically. But she was my mother by her actions only when I served a useful purpose for her." A slight tremor in his voice gave away the pain that statement caused him. "She can't come waltzing in here now and expect me to accept her as the concerned mother."
"Did she say why she's here?" Mary placed a slender hand over his and gave it a light squeeze. "She must have some reason to suddenly show up with no warning."
"She claims to have come to surprise me for Christmas." Ezra gave a soft snort of derision. "It never mattered to her before. I can't imagine why she would expect me to believe that all of a sudden spending the holiday with me was a priority to her."
"I can see why you would feel that way, but promise me that you'll at least hear what she has to say. Maybe there is some compelling reason that she felt like she had to see you this year." Her eyes took on a look of real concern as she spoke. "Ezra, don't shut the door on her without finding out the truth behind her visit."
"How can you take her side, when she was anything but supportive of your involvement with me? She's so sure that you'll drop me like a hot rock if there is any gossip that might 'sully' your reputation," the gambler blurted out.
"Darling..." Mary made eye contact and graced him with the half-smile one used when one was humoring the other person. "Could it be that you are reacting so vehemently because you have thought the same thing on several occasions during our relationship?"
"I know you wouldn't do that," Ezra retorted.
"You do now, but you didn't believe that in the beginning." She held up a finger to silence him when he started to protest. "Stop and think about it. You know I'm speaking the truth, and if you really think about it then you'll see that her words rang too close to home. That's what has you so upset, isn't it?"
Ezra opened his mouth to argue the point, but closed it again without saying anything. She had a point. Maybe he was angry with Maude because she was echoing his own first reactions to his relationship with Mary. It had taken him considerable time to realize that nothing was going to come between them. But, after Mary refused to back down from the Judge when he rode into town demanding that she break it off with him or lose her son, there had been no doubt left that she loved him deeply.
The gambler sighed and looked up with a resigned expression on his face. "Perhaps you are right." With a wry smile he lifted her hand to his lips and pressed a soft kiss to her palm. "So, how did you become so smart?"
"It comes with being a mother myself." She smiled warmly and leaned forward to kiss him on the check. "Are you going to give her a chance?"
"I'll do it for you, my dear," he promised.
"No, you need to do it for you. Some day you'll look back on this and wonder how it might have turned out if you don't at least try to make peace with her."
"All right, but I am not sure if I'll get the opportunity. I gave her an ultimatum of sorts before I came here. If she doesn't meet us for dinner, I don't know if I can go crawling to her seeking her approval," Ezra admitted.
"I don't think you'll need to worry about that. I doubt she came all this way only to leave again with things in turmoil," Mary observed. "She'll be there; I feel certain of it."
"I wish I could feel as confident," the gambler added and then paused to take a deep breath. "We will find out at six o'clock."
"Allow me, my dear." Ezra let his fingertips lightly caress Mary's arms as he helped her slip out of her coat. He carefully hung it on one of the coat hooks in the foyer before shrugging out of his own and hanging it next to hers.
Ezra glanced down when he felt her hand rest on his forearm after she hooked her arm through his. His chest swelled with emotion every time Mary made a public gesture of her relationship with him. It was never anything blatantly overt, but simple gestures that made it very clear, to anyone who happened to see them, that she was with him. The gambler reached across with his free hand to softly cover hers and to give her fingers a light affectionate squeeze, as he paused outside the door to the dining room and tried to settle his nerves.
"Everything is going to be all right." Mary tried to sound reassuring, but in truth, she did not know Maude well enough to be able to predict what she would do in response to Ezra's ultimatum. She only knew how she would react in Maude's place, and it was well known that Maude was anything but the doting mother type. She could only hope that Ezra was not going to be facing another disappointment.
"Of course it will, my dear." Standish took a deep breath and settled his expression into one of blissful contentment, before opening the inner door and stepping into the busy restaurant.
A wave of warm air, awash with the tantalizing aroma of fresh bread, roasted meat, and a hint of apples and cinnamon swept over them. Ezra's mouth watered in anticipation of warm apple pie for dessert, and for a moment his anxiety was forgotten.
They paused and glanced around the room looking for an empty table. "There's one over in the corner." Mary pointed to a table against the front wall on the opposite side of the room.
Ezra started to lead the way, but stopped short after taking only a few steps. He stood looking straight into his mother's eyes where she sat at a table in front of the window.
When neither of them made a move, Mary stepped a little closer to the table and smiled warmly at Maude. "May we join you?"
The con-woman pulled her attention away from her son and focused on the young woman in front of her. "Of course, dear. I would love the company."
Ezra quickly recovered from his shock and pulled out a chair for Mary. "Thank you, Mother."
"Where's Billy?" I thought he would be with you." Maude graced them with a slight smile and raised brows.
"He's spending the night at the Potters'," Ezra explained. "He's been away from his friends for a few weeks and begged to spend the night."
"I think he was anxious to show off his Christmas gifts." Mary shot a glance and a sly smile at the gambler. "He's so excited about one of his gifts from Ezra, he's been showing it to everyone."
"It must be some gift," Maude observed.
"To hear Billy tell about it, it was the bestest Christmas present ever." The young blonde chuckled when she noticed a slight blush creep into the gambler's cheeks. When he remained silent, she continued. "Ezra got Billy a pocketknife."
"A knife!" Maude stared wide-eyed at her son. "Darling, that child is much too young to be handling a knife."
"Mother, he's old enough as long as he learns how to properly use and care for it, and I have suggested a very knowledgeable instructor. Mr. Larabee has agreed to teach Billy the finer points of wielding a blade." When he felt Mary's hand slip over the top of his, where he had it resting on the table between them, he turned his hand over and laced his fingers through hers.
Maude glanced around the room, looking for any reaction from the other diners. Most continued on with their meals and conversations, oblivious to anything else beyond their own tables. Some sat watching the various activities going on in the room with boredom, or curiosity, or in some cases outright nosiness. But, of the few that made eye contact with her, or who sat casually watching their table, only one gave the impression of disapproval. An older woman sat alone at a table against the inner wall of the room. Maude could not place a name to the face, but she remembered seeing her around town when she visited the last time. There was no way anyone would forget that sallow, haggard visage, with its hawk-like nose. As the con-woman studied her, the old woman realized she was being watched and quickly looked away.
Other than that one woman, Maude could see no sign that anyone was the least bit offended or upset by Ezra being there with Mary. In fact, when Ezra had walked in with Mary on his arm, there had been polite nods and smiles of greeting from those who reacted at all. And now, with them sitting there holding hands, love written all over their faces and in their eyes and their smiles, no one even batted an eye. Well, no one other than that one old crone by the wall.
Her mind rolled all this new information around and decided that Josiah was right, at least for now. But time would tell whether their relationship would stand any serious trials. After seeing the two of them so happy together, Maude decided that she would not be one of the obstacles that they had to overcome. Her son deserved a chance at the happiness that she never had, and as much as she hated to admit it, she wasn't getting any younger. It was a hard life they led, and if Ezra had a chance to get out of it and live a normal life she would be happy for him. However, she could not help being sad at the thought of never working side by side with him again. They had been a perfect team.
"Mother, did you hear me?"
"What? Oh, no I didn't. What did you say?" Maude pulled herself out of her reverie and turned her attention back to her son.
"I said that Mr. Larabee was very agreeable to the idea of teaching Billy to wield a knife, and I have the utmost confidence in his ability to impress upon Billy the need for safety." Ezra watched his mother closely while he repeated his comment. "Is there something on your mind that you would like to tell me about? It isn't like you to be so distracted."
"No, dear. I was just thinking about something Josiah said to me earlier. I'm sure that Mr. Larabee will be very careful with Billy. I just can't help but remember your first time handling a pocketknife," she added.
"Oh? You didn't tell me about this," Mary teased Ezra. She turned back to Maude leaning forward with her arm resting on the table in anticipation of a good story.
"He was so determined to have a knife, even though I had refused to allow it, that he slipped a dollar out of my bag and bought one behind my back." She smiled at Ezra's obvious embarrassment at being the topic of discussion. "Then he told me he was going to go practice the memory game I taught him."
"What kind of memory game?" Mary was thoroughly enjoying the prospect of hearing about her beau as a boy, and she leaned even farther to get a little closer to Maude, so she would be sure not to miss a word of it.
"It was played with cards. He would turn all the cards face down and start turning them over two at a time. Each time he got a pair they were pulled out. If they didn't match he had to turn them back over and try to match them on another turn."
"The whole deck at one time?" Mary looked at Ezra in disbelief.
"Yes, and when I mastered pairs I moved up to four of a kind," the gambler stated matter-of-factly.
"How old were you?"
Ezra shrugged and thought about it for a moment. "I was doing half a deck when I was four, a whole deck when I was five and..."
"And by the time he turned seven he could do four of a kind without ever forgetting a card," Maude said beaming with pride, and then sighed heavily. "He'd just turned six when he bought that knife. I didn't think it was out of the ordinary for him to go off alone to practice. He did that quite often because he said he could think better when it was quiet. I kept telling him it wouldn't do him much good if he couldn't concentrate in a noisy room."
"Even at such a tender age, I was aware of that, Mother. I practiced as much amid various distractions as I did alone." He glanced over at Mary and winked. "You see, I spent the quiet times creating my memory tricks to help me remember, and then I practiced them in some rather unorthodox locations."
"Oh, really? Like where?" the pretty young blonde asked, allowing her keen interest to go undisguised.
"On the floor under the table where my dear mother played the real game; on the boardwalk or wherever I could find a rowdy group of kids or adults." He stopped and shrugged again. "Anywhere that would prove to be a distraction to someone less disciplined."
"I never knew where I'd find him," Maude admitted. "He nearly scared me out of ten years of my life when I found him sitting on the ground directly under a hornets' nest. But I knew he could concentrate through anything when I saw him turning over pair after pair, with at least two dozen hornets crawling all over him."
Their waitress chose that moment to stop at the table and take their orders, and after they settled in again with their drinks, Mary just sat and looked at Ezra for a long moment.
Her silent scrutiny had him on the verge of fidgeting in his seat, and he sipped at his coffee to cover the slight unease.
When it became apparent that the gambler was not going to comment on his reckless behavior, Mary spoke up. "Didn't you have any idea how dangerous that was? I've heard of people dying from getting stung."
"I knew," he confessed. "I'd seen it happen once. Someone I knew was stung by a honeybee and died. But, I'd also seen people get stung multiple times with no worse effect than welts at the site of the stings."
"Why?" the young blonde studied him, her brows furrowed in thought. Just when she thought she was starting to figure out what motivated the man, something new left her wondering again. He was an enigma, and she was sure that was part of what attracted her to him. "What would possess you to take a chance like that?"
"Despite being so young, I knew that a mistake on my part during one of our endeavors could prove to be our undoing," he explained. "That knowledge was a great incentive to strive for perfection."
"You see, dear," Maude interceded, "in our profession we can't risk letting our guard down for even a moment. Concentration, focus, and the ability to be completely unflappable in any situation were what always gave us the upper hand. No matter what you felt inside, the outside had to be perfectly controlled."
"Even what appeared to be an intense emotional display had to be staged and controlled. It didn't take me long to learn that the only time I got real emotion from my mother was privately after I had performed flawlessly," Ezra explained.
Josiah had been right, there was a sadness that clouded her son's eyes when he spoke of their past. How she could have missed it all this time? She knew he had resented being left with distant relatives sometimes when he was young, but she had always thought he knew how much she loved him. It was just that their lifestyle made certain demands on them that were sometimes disagreeable, but that were still essential. Survival had often meant making hard choices and feelings had to come second to necessity.
"Ezra, I've always been proud of you. Sometimes it might not have seemed like it, but at the time, giving you the skills to survive was more important to me. I needed to know that if anything happened to me that you could make it on your own." She reached across the table and laid her hand over his, where it still rested on the table holding onto Mary's. "I don't really expect you to believe this, but it wasn't all for me. I wanted you safe and able to provide for yourself."
"If you had wanted me safe, I would think you would have found a way out of this line of work and made a real home for us," Ezra accused. "But, I think you like it too much to give it up."
"Ezra, you've been around enough to see that there aren't that many choices for women. Your father had painted such a glamorous picture of how life would be if I joined him and learned the trade, and there was no going back after I ran away with him. My parents disowned me." Maude was careful to keep her voice down. The last thing she wanted was for everyone to overhear the personal details of her life. The thought had crossed her mind that she could stop this and continue it later somewhere more private, but now that she had started telling him some of the things she had kept secret, she was afraid if she stopped she would not be able to start again.
"Your father made it all sound so exciting, but what he didn't tell me was how dangerous it could be. By the time I realized what I had gotten myself into it was too late to turn back. You were on the way, I had no home to go back to, and I knew if I left your father that I didn't have any way of supporting us." Ezra sat staring at the table halfway between them, and she could sense her son's discomfort at the personal turn the conversation had taken. She gave his hand a gentle squeeze, causing him to look up at her. "There still aren't a lot of choices for single women, but there were even less then. A proper woman might be a teacher. A widow might be accepted in the business world if she maintained her husband's business," Maude said with a quick glance toward Mary before facing Ezra again. "But a woman with a less than acceptable reputation had little choice; she could work in a saloon or she could sell her body. I couldn't bring myself to do either, so I stayed with him."
"You were about six months old when he died, and I found myself facing those same choices again." She paused for a sip of coffee. After a deep breath to steady her nerves she continued, "I chose to work in a saloon, and when a gambler who was passing through discovered my talent with cards, he made me a business proposition. He would help me hone my skills if I would help him lure men into the game. It was a much better living for you and me than serving beer and flirting with drunks had been."
"You never told me any of this before." Ezra's voice broke betraying the emotion he held in check. "I didn't know you had ever worked as a saloon girl. Why didn't you tell me?"
"By the time you were old enough to understand, I was living a different kind of life, and I didn't think it mattered. No matter what, I was determined not to go back to living hand-to-mouth and worrying that things would get so bad that I would have to take that last step down to selling myself," Maude confessed.
"You've never acted like you looked down on those women..." Ezra began.
"I don't," Maude interrupted. "Because I know how close I came to reaching the bottom. I know that most of the women aren't there by choice; they are there to survive, just like I was. The only difference is that I found a way out. It wasn't the most perfect solution, but it was the best chance I had."
Ezra looked thoughtful for a moment. "There were times that I seem to recall seeing you slip one of the ladies some money. I thought I must have been mistaken. I could never understand how you could be so hardnosed, how you could take a man's last dollar and send him home without a dime to his name, and then you would turn around and give part of it away. I couldn't even get a penny from you to buy a candy stick without earning it." Ezra looked at his mother with confusion and hurt warring for dominance in his expression.
"Darling, I was ensuring that you knew that nothing was ever free. There is always a price. The women I helped had already learned that lesson the hard way, and they struggled every day to get through the day with food to eat and to avoid another beating. I'd been lucky enough to have a fairly kind employer, but he still made it clear that if I didn't keep the customers happy and earn more than just my keep for him by working in the saloon that I would have to increase my contribution to his profit in other ways. He gave us a room to stay in and food, plus I got a small wage. It was enough that I didn't have to resort to those other ways, but not enough for me to be able to save enough to get us out." Maude paused and took another sip of her coffee and to gather her thoughts.
"As we traveled, there were times that I saw one of the girls had been beaten so badly that I don't know how she lived through it. Those were the ones I would help. I'd slip them a stage ticket and enough money to get them away before they ended up dead." Maude's cheeks flushed with embarrassment from admitting what she saw as her biggest weakness to her son.
"It sounds like Ezra gets his compassionate side from you too, not only his talent as a gambler." Mary found she was seeing Maude in a whole new light, and she was pretty sure from the expression on Ezra's face that he was too. "He's risked himself several times for me, and JD told me about how he paid for that Chinese girl to go back to her family." When she saw the gambler's stunned expression she turned to address him instead of his mother. "I know you think no one knew about that, but JD and Buck saw you. I think that's when they both really knew how much you had changed."
The conversation was interrupted by the arrival of their meal, and no one spoke as they buttered rolls and took the first few bites. They were all hungry, and for a couple of minutes their empty stomachs took control.
After several bites of roast beef and half of a roll, Mary broke the silence. "You never did finish telling what happened when Ezra bought that pocketknife."
"I did get a little sidetracked, didn't I?" The older woman smiled and dove back into the story, glad to have the subject back onto something less personal. "He said he was going to our room to practice his memory game, but instead, he had the knife out playing with it. He'd been carving on a piece of wood he'd slipped into the room in his pocket. When he heard me coming he hid the knife behind his back and tried to close the blade so he could get it into his pocket without me seeing it. When the blade snapped closed it caught his fingers. He never let on that he was hurt, but just as I started to leave I saw blood dripping on the floor behind him. He'd cut three fingers, but fortunately not badly enough to do permanent damage."
"If you'd let me have one when I asked, I wouldn't have been sneaking around," Ezra accused.
"That's why you wanted Billy to have one? So he wouldn't go sneaking around and maybe get hurt like you did?" Mary asked. "Now it makes sense to me."
"I was aware that you probably wouldn't approve, but I know how determined a young boy can be," Ezra explained.
The three chatted through the meal as if nothing had happened between Ezra and Maude earlier in the day, but there was still an underlying tension that could be felt between them. Mary could sense it, but she was glad that they were each making an effort to give the other a chance.
Ezra sat back and groaned softly causing Mary to burst out in giggles. "My dear, it isn't nice to laugh at someone who is in pain," he chided, but added a wink to make sure she knew he was teasing her.
"Well, I didn't force you to eat so much." Mary shook her head as she laughed softly at the gambler's grimace of discomfort. "You are such a sucker for apple pie. You know if you keep eating like this you'll get fat," she teased and grinned at the look of horror on Ezra's face.
"Don't even jest about such an occurrence." He rubbed a hand over his stomach and looked at the young blonde in concern. "You don't think I'm getting fat, do you?"
"No, I don't," Mary reassured him. "But even if you did, I'd still love you just the same."
"As I would you, my dear. I suppose there are much worse things than growing old and fat together." He gave Mary's hand a squeeze, wishing they were alone in her kitchen so he could express just how much he meant that by stealing a kiss.
Mary smiled and searched Ezra's face for a clue to whether he was teasing or if he really meant that last remark. He had told her frequently that he loved her, but this was the first time he had made any comment about growing old together. She couldn't help the racing of her heart at the thought that maybe he was seriously thinking about settling down.
"As good as this meal was, it doesn't compare to Mary's cooking," Ezra informed his mother. "Especially her apple pies."
"You always did love pie, and good food, but you had to be blessed with a mother who is a horrible cook," Maude admitted. "If you're finished, I think we should go. It looks like they might be needing our table."
"I think you're right," Mary agreed. She looked intently at the gambler and with a straight face managed to ask, "Can you get up on your own, or do you need me to help you?"
Ezra chuckled and pushed his chair back to get up. "I do believe I can still manage under my own power." Once on his feet he helped Mary with her chair and extended a hand to her as she stood up, before moving around the table to do the same for his mother.
Ever the gentleman, Ezra helped both women with their coats and made sure he walked on the side next to the street as he escorted them down the boardwalk. Mary walked in the middle with her hand looped through the bend of the gambler's arm.
"Ezra usually comes over for a cup of coffee after supper. Would you like to join us?" Mary asked.
"Thank you, dear, but it has been a tiring day. I think I will read for a bit and turn in early. May I take you up on the offer another time?" Maude asked. She was torn between wanting to see how Ezra and Mary were together when they weren't out in public, and not wanting to crowd her son too much, too soon. On top of that, she really was tired. She couldn't remember when she had ever considered going to bed so early.
"Mother, are you sure you're all right? This isn't like you at all," the gambler leaned forward to look around Mary so he could see his mother. It was full dark out, but he could see her in the light that poured forth from the window of the telegraph office as they passed by it.
"I'm fine. Just tired is all. So you two run along and have your coffee; I'm going straight up to my room." She tilted her cheek toward her son for a kiss and then focused on Mary. "Thank you for sharing dinner with me, dear. Maybe we can have a chance to get to know each other better while I'm here."
"I would really like that. Please, feel free to stop in any time," Mary offered.
"Mother, would you like me to see you up to your door?"
"Nonsense, my darling boy. I've been seeing myself to my room for most of my life. You two go on and I'll see you in the morning." Before either could press any further, Maude opened the door and stepped inside the hotel.
The young couple resumed their walk toward the Clarion building, neither speaking until after Mary had opened the door and they were both inside. "You're worried, aren't you?"
Ezra frowned slightly and then nodded. "I can't remember her ever going to bed early before, unless she was ill, and then that was only two or three times. She is one of those who very seldom gets sick, but when she does she really gets in a bad way."
Mary hung their coats up and led him into the kitchen for the promised cup of coffee. "It could be that it was such an emotional day for her that it just made her feel drained. I've felt like that before."
"Lots of times. When Billy has been really sick. When Stephen was killed. I had a lot of those days then. After I lost...." She paused and swallowed the lump in her throat before she could continue. "After I lost the baby," she finished. "There are a lot of things that can cause a woman to feel emotionally worn out."
Ezra stepped around the table to where Mary stood next to the stove and gathered her in his arms. When she rested her head on his shoulder he stroked her hair softly and kissed her on the forehead. "Darling, I hope I am never the cause of you experiencing days like that."
Ezra moved quietly through the shadows until he reached the back door of the Clarion. He released the latch without a sound and slipped quickly inside. It was dark, but he could find his way around this house blindfolded if he needed to. The third step from the top squeaked under his weight as he went up the stairs to Mary's room.
"I was beginning to think you weren't going to make it tonight." Mary sat up in bed to accept a kiss. "I've missed you. Getting only one stolen night in the last month was unbearable."
Ezra chuckled and then lowered his mouth to hers again, toying at her lips with his teeth and tongue until she moaned in pleasure and opened her mouth to invite him in. The kiss left them both gasping for breath and wanting more.
"I get the distinct impression that you do thoroughly enjoy our private time together," the gambler teased.
"No more than you do," Mary countered, and then wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him down with her on the bed.
"And there is no doubt whatsoever that I do enjoy our trysts. There is but one problem," he said with a scowl.
The pretty blonde pulled back as much as she could considering that she was lying down and frowned up at him. "What kind of a problem?"
"They never seem to occur often enough." The gambler grinned and closed the distance between them to steal another kiss.
Mary moaned softly when he teased her lips open with his tongue to gain access to the intoxicating depths of her mouth. She wrapped her arms tighter around him to pull him down on top of her.
The kiss continued, with the two of them becoming one tangle of limbs all trying to find a way to get closer to the person they encircled, but their clothing kept getting in the way. Unable to be patient any longer, Ezra traced one hand down her side, over her hip and curled his fingers into the thin cloth of her nightgown and began to inch it up her thighs. When he finally reached the hem, he slipped his hand up under the thin barrier and eased his hand up higher, caressing her soft skin along the way.
That was all the encouragement that Mary needed, and she moved one arm from around his back, so she could slip it between them to work on the buttons of his vest and shirt. She had enough practice that she was no longer slow and awkward, and in moments she had both garments open revealing the smooth, hot skin of his chest.
"Darlin'," Ezra began, but his breath caught in his throat when Mary's hand reached his nipple and rolled it between her thumb and forefinger. He shivered when he felt her lips on his throat and the tip of her tongue darting out to tease the sensitive skin there, while she continued to toy with the hardened bud between her fingers.
"Hummmm?" she purred, and continued to lavish his throat and ear with hot, wet kisses.
"Darlin'," he tried again. "I intended to take this slowly tonight, but if you continue like this, I fear I will not be able to restrain myself much longer."
"Who asked you to restrain yourself?" Mary murmured and pulled her lips from his throat to search for his mouth. When she found it she took control, teasing his bottom lip as he had hers earlier and delving her tongue into his eager mouth.
All of Ezra's best intentions were undone with that kiss. When it ended he raised up on his knees straddling her. In one swift move the gambler pulled off his jacket and tossed it haphazardly over the footboard of the bed. The shirt and vest both followed but Ezra seemed oblivious when they ended up in a heap at the foot of the bed. Before he could reach to unfasten his pants, he felt small delicate fingers working the buttons open, pausing to rub the bulge that strained to get free.
"Good Lord," the gambler hissed and drew in a deep shuddering breath. "If you don't hurry, I may end up just ripping the buttons loose." He groaned loudly, the sound coming from deep in his chest when he felt her hand cup him and squeeze gently through the confining fabric.
"I would like to see that tomorrow when you try to get back to your room with your pants flapping open," Mary giggled and rubbed her hand a bit more firmly against him.
Ezra growled and snatched her hand away as he swung one leg over her so he could climb off the bed. He saw the startled look in her eyes when he pulled away and saw it replaced with a look of hunger; only she wasn't hungry for food. She was hungry for him and that knowledge fueled an even greater sense of urgency in him. Quickly he toed out of his boots and dropped his pants and underwear releasing his swollen manhood. When he stepped out of the clothes, he tugged off his socks along with them. It took him only a moment to place one knee on the bed next to her and swing the other leg back over her to straddle her again.
Mary watched him, lost in the sight of him, muscled and naked and ready to take her. She could not suppress a shiver of anticipation when she felt his hands slide up under her gown and lift her hips enough to tug the thin cloth from under her. Then continuing the motion he tugged her upright while he pulled the gown upward to reveal supple breasts, their nipples already aroused and hard. She raised her arms for him to free her from the interfering garment. She wanted to feel their bare flesh together, flushed from their desire, hot from their need, and sweaty from their shared passion.
As desperate as Ezra was to bury himself deep inside her, he forced himself to hold back. The last thing he ever wanted to do was to hurt her by moving too quickly and taking her before she was ready for him. A slight shift in position allowed him to lie down beside her instead of directly on top. When she tugged at him, urging him to move back over her, he shook his head and smiled. Another shift and he was at eye level with her breasts, which heaved with each rapid breath she drew in as she anticipated his next move. A moan rose unbidden from deep in her throat when she felt his lips close over one sensitive nipple, drawing it into his mouth.
Mary twisted her fingers into the gambler's hair as one shiver after another raced through her when Ezra alternately suckled on her breast and nipped at the taut nipple with his teeth. She'd lost track of his hands when she became swept up in other sensations, but was suddenly very aware of them again when she felt one finger slip into her moist folds to tease the sensitive bud it discovered there. Mary could not have stopped her body from responding even if she had wanted to. At the first touch her hips rocked, increasing the pressure between his hand and her womanhood.
Ezra continued to torment her with his questing mouth and fingers, bringing her close to the brink and then letting her ease back down before arousing her again. Each time he eased off, the beautiful blonde groaned in frustration and tried futilely to pull him over on top of her. At last he tested her by slipping one finger inside. Mary let out a sigh and pressed herself more fully onto the probing finger.
The gambler raised up and moved over her, using his knee to urge her legs apart while he continued his gentle massage with his fingers. When Mary opened herself for him, Ezra removed his hand and placed the head of his manhood against her, pressing down until he felt the head slip inside. He paused a moment to allow her to adjust to him, but before he could ease farther inside, Mary raised her hips to impale herself on his throbbing shaft.
It was impossible to tell which one of them let out the low, throaty moan that filled the room, or if it was truly only one of them. Both wore the same expressions of satisfaction at finally being joined in the flesh, mixed with a deeper urgency. The joining was sweet, but it was far from being all that they needed. Both practically vibrated from the raw passion that they held in check.
Ezra claimed Mary's swollen lips with his for another kiss that had them each working to maintain dominance over the other. While their mouths were busy the familiar ache they both felt from their joining overwhelmed them. When Ezra felt Mary's legs tighten around his waist he began to move, slowly at first, withdrawing only an inch or two before pushing back in.
"Ezra..." Mary began.
Her soft green eyes had darkened as her passion swelled within her; it was a sight Ezra knew he would never grow tired of, not if he lived to be ninety. "Yes, darlin'?" The gambler spoke in what sounded suspiciously like a croak to his own ears as he struggled to keep the pace slow and easy for the moment. "Oh, God!"
Mary felt the shudder rush through Ezra as he fought to hold back. "Don't..." She found herself quickly wrapping her arms around his shoulders to keep him from pulling away from her when he heard that one word. Wide-eyed, she shook her head hoping he would understand, but the look in his eyes said otherwise. "Don't... stop."
Relief washed over the gambler's face and he smiled, revealing his dimples, when he felt Mary squirming beneath him. He lengthened his strokes and felt the clenching of her muscles around his engorged shaft. In an effort to take even more of him inside, she lifted her hips to meet him on each downward thrust. Ezra's eyes locked with hers as the fire was kindled within them both. Words were no longer necessary. He could see what she felt in her eyes and could sense what she wanted and needed by the response of her body to his.
He increased the pace even more and pressed fully into her warm depths with each thrust, but tonight it still seemed that she needed more. A slight pause was all he needed to reposition them both, unlocking her legs from around his waist and guiding them up over his shoulders. This time when he leaned back down over her the new position raised her hips more. That difference in the angle of his stroke made all the difference. It allowed him to put more pressure toward the front, against that hypersensitive area that he knew should be there, but he had yet to find. When Mary gasped and her eyes grew wide in surprise, he knew he had found the right spot.
Now that he knew where he needed Mary to feel him the most as he slipped in and out of her inviting warmth, he eased back again and instead of leaning down over her this time he placed his hands on the back of her thighs just above the knees and pushed her legs back toward her own shoulders, bringing her hips up farther yet. With the next stroke he felt Mary's body spasm when his shaft slipped over that special spot again.
"Oh, my God, Ezra!" Mary writhed beneath him, but whether it was to get away from the intensity of this new sensation, or to get closer to it, she had no idea. Her body had developed a mind of its own and was reacting on a purely instinctual level.
Ezra was focused on two things, Mary's total abandon as she gave herself over to the consuming fire within her, and the supreme effort it was taking to hold back his own release until she had reached hers. When she began to shake uncontrollably, Ezra let himself go, plunging into her over and over raking forcefully against her special spot both directions, in and out. The moan that filled his ears became one continuous sound as he thrust faster and harder, watching his lover's head roll from side to side and her eyelids quiver as she neared her peak.
His muscles strained as he forced them to maintain their position despite the fatigue that plagued them. They were both so close. Ezra drew a deep shuddering breath and summoned the last of his energy for a final push to get them both to that moment of sweet ecstasy. He picked up the tempo. Within a few strokes Mary cried out and her eyes rolled back, as her pelvic muscles convulsed, clutching frantically around his swollen manhood. Ezra surrendered, allowing her grasping muscles to pull him over the brink and his cry joined hers as it echoed within the room. He managed a few quick strokes while his seed was milked from him as the force of Mary's orgasm continued to surge through her, his slightest movement sending wave after wave rippling through her body.
Ezra barely managed to let go of Mary's legs before he collapsed on top of her, totally spent from their lovemaking. As the haze began to clear from his mind, he seriously doubted that he would ever be able to move again. With a visible effort the gambler managed to lift his head enough to look at Mary's face, and he saw her struggling to open her eyes. "Darlin', are you all right?"
She nodded. At least she thought she nodded, but she wasn't sure if she really had or if it was just wishful thinking on her part. Finally, deciding speech would probably take less effort than actually moving, she tried to reply. "Ummm humm."
The gambler's brows furrowed in thought as he tried to decipher that sound. "Was that a yes?"
"Darlin', if that means yes, blink once."
Mary's eyelids quivered and then finally opened and closed once.
"Good." Ezra tried to pull his hands into place to push himself off of his lover, but found he was still too weak. "I'm sorry, I can't move yet," he confessed.
"Don't want you to move," the sated blonde drawled.
The gambler managed a chuckle and a soft kiss. "I don't want to move either, but I have to." He mustered the small amount of energy that had found its way back into his body and managed to roll off of her, pulling her over with him to cradle her against his side, her hand and arm resting on his chest. Within moments they were both lost in sleep.
Ezra woke first and noticed that it was still full dark outside. He could not reach his coat to find his watch, but he had a feeling that it was probably about three in the morning. This time of year it did not start getting daylight until around eight o'clock. He was not too concerned about oversleeping and having to find a way out of Mary's house without being seen. He had had to do that before. What did concern him was Billy coming home before they woke up and finding him in bed with Mary. The gambler could not help but smile ruefully to himself at the thought. He knew it was inevitable that it would happen someday, and he should come up with some kind of plausible explanation before it did, just in case.
"What are you smiling about?"
The gambler jumped slightly at the unexpected sound and hugged Mary tighter to him. "Nothing in particular, and everything in general," he answered. "I thought you were asleep."
"I was, but I seem to have developed a sense of when you're awake." She let out a jaw-cracking yawn and snuggled closer to Ezra. "What do you mean, 'everything in general'?"
"I don't really know how to explain it other than that I am happy. I can't really remember a time when I felt like this, but it's more than just happy. It's a lot of feelings that I'm not used to." He frowned as he searched for just the right words.
Mary pulled away enough to prop herself up on one elbow and look back down at Ezra. "What kind of feelings?"
"Where do I start?" He thought a moment before he started. "Happiness, contentment, satisfaction, belonging, friendship, joy; sometimes even sadness and confusion, and a lot more, but one thing is certain, there is always love." Ezra watched Mary smile and reached up to caress the side of her face. He could not suppress the slight shiver that passed through him when she turned her head to place a soft kiss on his palm.
"Everyone feels all those things sometimes. I know I do."
Ezra slipped one hand up behind her neck to pull her down close enough for a kiss, and then gathered her snugly against his side where she could rest her head on his shoulder. With one finger he tipped her chin up so he could see her face. "Mary... Darlin'... I love you."
"I love you, too." She paused a moment and then decided to finish what she had set out to say. Ezra could always tell when she was holding something back from him. "I loved Steven very much, but it wasn't the same as what we have. It was a steady kind of love that you just grow into, but this..." Mary stopped and searched for the right words. "...this is more. It's an overwhelming kind of love that just grabs hold of your heart and makes it hard to breathe at times."
"Hard to breathe, hard to think, hard to focus on things you need to do." Ezra sighed wistfully and then continued the description Mary had started. "And when we're apart it makes it hard to eat or sleep... my chest aches with this horrible empty feeling because you're not there."
"Yes, mine too," Mary agreed. "But when we're back together that emptiness fills up so fast that you feel like you could just burst because you know there won't be room inside to hold it all."
The two lovers snuggled in silence for several long moments, enjoying all the sensations of simply being together; the familiar ways they touched, the sound of their breathing, the rhythmic thump of each other's hearts, their unique scents.
"Mary, we can't keep doing this."
"We can't keep stealing a night here and there. We can't keep waiting for nights when Billy wants to stay with friends, or grabbing a quick few minutes when we can find a chance to be alone and we think we won't get caught."
"Ezra, you aren't going back to believing..."
He silenced her by placing one finger lightly across her lips. "No, it isn't that. We've been fairly reckless in our actions." When she opened her mouth to try to speak he silenced her again. "I'm not talking about reckless in the sense that someone might see us or catch us together. I'm talking about our behavior in private."
"I'm not sure I know what you mean."
Ezra forced himself to relax before he tried to explain. "Darlin', we made a mistake once before. If things hadn't happened like they did, you would be almost ready to have our baby." He hated seeing the haunted look that passed over her eyes, but he made himself push on. "We should have been taking some precautions to be sure that didn't happen again."
"You wouldn't want a child with me?" Mary's voice was barely audible, almost as if she was afraid if he heard the question, she would not want to hear the answer.
"Oh, Darlin', I would want a dozen children with you, but not under circumstances like that. I'm honestly amazed that it hasn't happened again," Ezra confessed.
"Nathan said it would take some time for my body to recover."
"I know he did, but that's all the more reason that we should start acting like responsible adults instead of love-struck teenagers."
Mary tried to swallow the lump in her throat when Ezra eased away from her enough to sit up and reach for his coat. He fished around in his pocket until he found his watch, and twisted it around in his hand until he could read it by the faint light from the lamp that had been turned down very low, before he dropped it back into the pocket. The coat ended up tossed back over the footboard and Ezra curled back up beside her this time lying on his side to face her.
"My dear, sweet Mary," the gambler said soothingly. "I love you more than I have ever loved anyone in my life. Sweetheart, I would willingly give my life for you, if it meant you would be safe even if it were for only one more day." Ezra swallowed nervously. "I'm afraid I am bungling this terribly. I had this nice little speech all planned and now I can't remember a word of it." He chuckled softly at himself. "Mary, what I am trying to do is ask you to marry me."
"Marry you?" Mary was momentarily stunned. "The way you were talking I thought you were trying to find a way not to spend so much time with me." She shook her head in disbelief.
"No, Darlin'. I don't want to spend less time with you. I want to spend more, and I want us to be able to stop sneaking around. I want us to be able to walk in that front door together at night and not be afraid of the gossips. I want us to have a home and make babies together..."
It was Mary's turn to silence his rambling by placing her fingers over his lips. "Ezra, I want those things too," she responded, sincerity evident in her voice and the unguarded expression in her eyes. "Yes, I'll marry you."
"Yes? You really mean that?"
The gambler graced her with a dimpled grin and then held out his hand to her with his fingers closed around something in the palm. He raised a brow at Mary's puzzled expression and nodded toward the closed hand.
He did not resist her when she pried his fingers open. Mary was not quite sure what to make of what she saw nestled there in the palm of his hand. "It's a ring, but it isn't a wedding ring." She looked at him with one eyebrow raised in question, and then looked back at the unusual gold ring the gambler held out to her.
"No, it's what they call a Claddagh ring. It's a type of betrothal or promise ring," Ezra explained.
"Where on earth did you find something like this? I've never seen anything quite like it." She studied the unique design, two hands holding a heart and topped with a crown.
"Have you ever seen something that you simply had to have?" When his lover nodded, he smiled and his eyes twinkled with mischief. "Ah, then you know how obsessed you can become with wanting something, even though it might have no real purpose at the time?"
A deep blush crept into Mary's cheeks and she nodded again. "I remember doing that when I saw a cradle that I just knew was the only one for my babies. I hadn't even gotten married yet, but I hounded my father until he bought it." She chuckled softly at the memory. "I had an awful time convincing him that I hadn't scandalized the family by getting myself in a family way, but I finally got him to understand that I wanted it for my hope chest."
"What ever happened to it?"
"It is stored with some of Billy's baby things."
"Then we will have to bring it back out when we have our children," Ezra assured her.
"This ring," the gambler nodded back to the object that started the discussion, "was one of those things for me. I saw it in a shop in Atlanta and I was intrigued by it. I tried to resist it, but I kept going back to see if it was still there. Finally, I gave up and asked the storekeeper about it, and when he told me the legend of the Claddagh ring, I had to have it. Something kept telling me that the time would come someday when I would find someone to give it to, despite the grief I still felt over losing Julia. Part of me kept saying I should get rid of it, that there would never be someone else for me, but the part that made me buy it in the first place just wouldn't let it go. For almost three years, I've kept it, and now I know why. Because it was meant for you." He reached out and gently wiped a tear from Mary's cheek. "I didn't mean to make you cry," he soothed.
"These are good tears," she insisted. "That is the sweetest thing anyone has ever said to me." The pretty blonde wiped another stray tear and then changed the subject. "So, what is the legend of the ring?"
"Legend has it that in county Claddagh in Ireland, a small fishing boat was seized by pirates and the crewmen were taken as slaves," Ezra began. "One of the crew had been planning to marry the love of his life. His bride-to-be was inconsolable, but she never gave up hoping that she would see him again, and she refused to consider anyone else for marriage. Her betrothed was put to work as a goldsmith. Through the years he never stopped loving the woman who was left behind and he made her a ring, with a heart for love, a crown for loyalty, and two hands for friendship. Eventually he managed to escape. When he got home he discovered that she had never married and that their love was as strong as ever. He gave her the ring he'd made for her and they were married shortly after."
Mary had been mesmerized by the soft lilt of his voice as Ezra told the story, and now looked at the ring in a new light. What had at first seemed a bit odd now took on a whole new meaning. "Oh, Ezra. That's a beautiful story."
"It seemed to be a perfect symbol for us," the gambler continued in soft tones. "We were friends first, then we became lovers, and now it is my promise to always be loyal to you."
"And, by wearing it, it will be my promise to be loyal to you. We've already been through some rough times together. Most likely there will be more in the future, but I expect that most of our days will be filled with happiness," Mary remarked. "When we do hit those times when things get a little rocky, we'll come through it stronger than ever, as long as we're together."
"Of that, I have no doubt," Ezra agreed. "Now tell me which way you'll be wearing the ring? There is significance to how it is worn. On the right hand, with the heart facing out, your heart is still searching; with the heart facing in, there are possibilities; and on the left hand with the heart facing in, your heart is promised forever."
Mary smiled coyly. "Do you really need to ask which way? On the left, of course. My heart has been yours since that last night in the cave," she confessed.
"I wanted to ask you on New Year's Eve. I had this notion that it would be a perfect start to the new year, just knowing that we were finally going to be together, but I could never get enough time alone with you to ask you." Ezra nodded toward her left hand. "May I?"
Mary didn't quite trust herself to talk at the moment. She knew if she tried she would probably burst into tears as all the emotions that had been tumbling around inside threatened to spill out, so she simply held her hand out to him and nodded.
Ezra slipped the ring onto her finger, with it turned so the heart faced inward toward her body and her own heart, and he was relieved to see that it fit perfectly. It would have been difficult to find a jeweler who could resize it if it hadn't, but he would have found one no matter how far he had to ride. "I love you, darlin'. Today, tomorrow and always."
The battle against the tears was lost, and Mary gave in and let them flow freely down her cheeks as she threw her arms around Ezra. "I love you too. Nothing can ever change that." She hugged him tightly and poured her love out to him in their first kiss as a betrothed couple. With a sigh of absolute contentment, they both settled back down to snuggle in each other's arms. They were too excited to think of going back to sleep so they talked about their future until the first hint of the coming morning forced Ezra to slip out into the gray light of predawn to seek out his own room and his own empty bed. He drifted off to sleep with a smile on his face, still able to feel Mary wrapped snugly in his arms and smell the scent of her that still clung to his skin, invading his senses and with luck his dreams.
Ezra jerked awake when he heard his door open and automatically reached for the gun belt he had hung over the corner of the headboard. Just as his hand closed over the gun grip, he caught a glimpse of the skirt of a dress as the interloper stepped into the doorway.
"Mother!" the gambler snapped. "What are you doing here?"
Maude jumped slightly at the sharp tone in her son's voice, and her eyes were drawn to his hand where it still rested on the gun. "Oh! You startled me."
"I startled you? You are the one sneaking into my room unannounced," he accused. "Have you forgotten how to knock?"
"No, of course not. It's just that you're my son... You're right. Just because you're my son that doesn't mean I should go barging into your room." Maude actually managed to look a bit sheepish. "I didn't see you downstairs," she explained, "and it was so late that I thought something might be wrong."
"Late?" Ezra reached for his watch that he'd left on the bedside stand. "Mother, it is barely 9:00."
Maude plucked the watch from his fingers and held it up to her ear to see if it was still running. The steady ticking caused her to frown and look back at the face, as if she half expected the time to have changed in those few moments. "I thought it was later than that." She shifted from foot to foot and avoided making eye contact with her son. "I've been up for quite a while. I guess I should have checked a clock before I came up here." She turned on her heel and took a step toward the door.
"Mother." Ezra watched her stop, but she did not turn back around to face him. "What do you mean you've been up for quite a while? You are never up before 11:00 unless you're working a con and you have to be. Come to think of it, you went to your room very early last night, too."
"I was tired, that's all. I suppose since I went to sleep earlier than usual, that it would be natural for me to wake up earlier, too." Maude shrugged slightly and turned back to face the bed.
"Are you sure you're all right?" Ezra studied his mother's face and for the first time he noticed the dark circles under her eyes. She really did look tired.
"I'm fine," she insisted. "You don't need to keep asking me that," she added a bit testily.
Ezra was not entirely convinced, but he decided to let it go for the moment. "Why did you come up here, Mother?"
"I wanted to see how your evening went with Mary," Maude confessed. "Since I didn't see you after you walked her home, I thought... well," she hesitated again. "She really is a nice woman. Not like I remembered her at all."
Ezra scooted over a little and patted the edge of his bed indicating that he wanted his mother to sit down. Once she was settled, the gambler propped himself up on one elbow and studied the older woman's features. She seemed genuinely sincere in her interest, but he had misread her intentions before, so he still did not fully trust her motives. "She is a very nice woman. Sometimes she might seem a little hard to people, but that is simply because she has had to try to support herself and her son alone. She's been trying to make it in a man's world, so she had to toughen up. You should know how that is."
"Yes, I know all too well how that is." Maude paused, looking down at her hands that she kept folded in her lap. "I'm sorry. The way I acted yesterday was inexcusable. I know you won't believe me when I say this, but I couldn't bear the thought that you might get hurt."
"Why the sudden concern about me? It isn't like you."
"I started realizing how much we had drifted apart. We used to be so close when you were little." She attempted a feeble smile, but the look on her son's face made it disappear as quickly as it appeared. "At least I thought we were close. I didn't realize how much you resented me until yesterday."
Ezra reached out and covered her hands with one of his own, causing her to finally look up into his eyes. "Mother, I never understood why you did some of the things you did. I'm starting to realize that there are a lot of things that I didn't know about that affected the way you were with me. I wish you would remember that I am a grown man now, and that I can handle whatever secrets you've kept hidden from me."
Maude nodded and looked away again. "I know you can, and I'll tell you, but not now. I can't tell any more right now," she admitted. "It was hard enough to tell you and Mary as much as I did yesterday. Give me a little time?"
"Take whatever time you need, but please, before you leave this time, tell me the rest of it." Ezra hoped his voice did not really sound as much like a little boy pleading with his mother as it did to his own ears.
"I will," Maude agreed and then quickly changed the subject. "So, what about last night?"
"I saw Mary home as I usually do when we've been out." The gambler half-smiled at the disappointed look on his mother's face. "What? Do you expect me to kiss and tell?" Ezra teased. "You taught me to be more of a gentleman than that."
"Apparently I must have neglected to teach you that it is all right to tell your mother," Maude countered, relieved at the lighter turn in the conversation.
"All right, Mother. I'll tell you a secret, but you have to promise that you won't tell anyone. You won't even bring it up to Mary," Ezra pressed. "If you break your promise on this one, I'll never trust you with a secret again." The sincere tone of his voice left no doubt that he was serious about the warning.
Maude perked up at the prospect of hearing a secret. Her smile and the twinkle that crept into her eyes seemed to bring her features back to life for the moment. "I promise. Now tell me, dear. What is this big secret?"
"I asked Mary to marry me, and she said yes." Ezra nearly laughed at the stunned expression on his mother's face.
"You're getting married?" Her mouth dropped open and she struggled to find the right words. She was not sure what kind of secret she had been expecting, but it was not the one she had just heard. "But why are you keeping that a secret?"
"We want a chance to tell Billy and the Travises first. Then we'll announce it to everyone else." Ezra waited, trying to judge Maude's true reaction to his news. She always had been one of the few that he had a hard time reading.
"Dear, you didn't rush into asking her because of the way I acted yesterday did you?" She wanted her son to be happy, but she did not want him doing something foolish just to get back at her.
"No, it wasn't because of what you said. I had planned to ask her on New Year's Eve but we couldn't get any time alone. So, I decided to wait until we got home and I could find the right time." The gambler shifted around in the bed so he could sit up against the headboard, to avoid getting a stiff neck from twisting to look up at his mother. "I have a little more sense than to take such an important step in my life, simply to rebel against you."
"I'm glad to hear that." Maude relaxed and smiled her first genuine smile since she walked in the door. "Sometimes it seems that rebelling against me clouds your good judgment." She paused and looked at him thoughtfully. "Or do you actually think everything out carefully, before you rebel?"
Ezra chuckled and shook his head in disbelief. "I'm your son. What do you think?" When there was no response from Maude he smiled and gave her a mischievous wink. "You taught me to never do anything without considering every possible outcome. I couldn't ignore that training even if I tried."
"You're sure you've considered everything this time?"
"There is no way that we can begin to imagine every possible route our lives can take, but we have talked about the most likely outcomes." The gambler leaned forward and looked her straight in the eyes. "Mother, we love each other. We both know that there will be some obstacles to overcome, but we are both willing to work through them. Spending our lives apart is a worse thought than any difficulties we might face together."
The last niggling doubts that Maude had were laid to rest. Her son was in love, head over heels in love, but he had not let his heart rule his head.
Ezra was taken aback when his mother suddenly wrapped her arms around him and hugged him fiercely to her chest. This hug was different than the ones she had given him in the past. There was a feeling of desperation to it that had never been there before.
"My darling boy," she spoke softly as she ran her fingers through his sleep-tousled hair. "I really am very happy for you." Her voice quivered slightly and she had to swallow hard before she could go on. "I love you so much."
The gambler's shields were shattered by his mother's words. He had wanted to hear her say that to him for as long as he could remember. She had said the words before, but this was the first time he could tell she really meant them, that they were not part of an act. He suddenly found himself hugging her back, clinging to her like a lost child who had been reunited with his mother. "I love you, too."
They sat there, not speaking, neither willing to be the first one to break the hug. Ezra could sense that his mother was crying. He could tell by her breathing and the slight hiccup when she tried to take a deep breath.
"I've really made a mess of things," Maude said when she was able to speak again, but she still held him close. "I wanted to make you strong, but I hurt you instead." She drew in a deep cleansing breath and continued with a little more self-control. "I should have made sure that you knew how much I loved you, but all my experience with showing my feelings to anyone had ended up making things so much worse for us. So, I shut down that part of me, even from you. I'm so sorry."
Ezra heard the words but could barely believe his ears. He tightened his hold on his mother and struggled to keep from crying. It was like a huge weight had been lifted off of him. "I'm sorry too. I know I didn't make things any easier for you."
"Darling, none of it was ever your fault." She finally drew back enough to catch her son's eye. "It wasn't you that caused any of this. It was me, but now maybe we can get a chance to make things right."
"I'd like that," Ezra admitted, and on impulse kissed his mother on the cheek. "I'd like my children to know their grandmother."
"Children? Mary isn't...?"
"No, she isn't. But we both want children. I love Billy like he was my own, but we want children of our own too." The gambler blushed at admitting the full depth of his feelings for Mary's son to someone other than Mary. "You'll be the only real grandparent that they'll have. I'm sure the Travises will treat them like their grandchildren since they'll be Billy's brothers and sisters, but you would be their own flesh and blood."
"Grandchildren... I hadn't even thought of that." Maude still looked at herself as young, but that one word drove home the point that she was indeed getting older. "Sometimes I forget that you aren't a child anymore. And now here you are talking about children of your own." Surprisingly the thought of being a grandmother left her with a warm feeling inside, one that she had never experienced before, but she found that she liked it. "There's nothing I would love more than to hold one of your children in my arms."
After another heartfelt hug, Ezra sighed and released his hold on his mother. "Ummm... I don't want to break this up. There is this feeling that if we stop talking before everything has been said that we need to say to each other that we'll never finish, but I need to get up."
"That's all right, Dear. I don't mind waiting for you to get dressed."
"Mother... ummm... you don't quite understand," Ezra reddened and he glanced away before he continued. "I sleep naked."
Maude's jaw dropped and she stared wide-eyed at his bare chest. Two of her past husbands had liked to sleep shirtless, but of all of them, none had chose to sleep completely naked. The fact that her son slept naked shocked her, and it seemed so reckless of him. What would happen if someone came in gunning for him, or if he had to get out of the room quickly? She suddenly realized that she must be gaping at him like a girl catching her first glimpse of a man's bare flesh, and she tried to make light of it. "Well, it isn't as if I haven't seen you naked before."
"Mother, you haven't seen me naked since I was four. I know this because that is when I started bathing and dressing myself without your supervision, and I am quite sure I have changed considerably since that time." It amused Ezra to see his mother get embarrassed and even rendered momentarily speechless by his revelations.
"Yes, well then... I guess I should wait downstairs and give you some privacy." She kissed him on the cheek and then rose quickly and left the room.
The gambler nearly laughed out loud at his mother's hasty retreat. He had not thought it was possible to embarrass her. She'd seen and experienced so much in her life that he figured she could take just about anything in stride. There was not much chance for him to reflect on this new side he had discovered to his mother, because that rather urgent call of nature that had made it necessary to cut their talk short would not be ignored any longer. He rolled out of bed and wasted no time in pulling the chamber pot from under the bed.
Mary woke and felt for Ezra. When she didn't feel him there next to her she opened her eyes and sighed sadly. It would be so nice to wake up and find him there by her side, when it was actually daylight outside, instead of time for him to slip out in the night. The weight of the ring on her hand brought her thoughts back to the hours she did get to spend with him. She smiled when she held up her hand to admire the ring. "Ezra Standish, you are such a romantic," she said to the empty room. After a long languid stretch to ease the soreness in her muscles, Mary flipped back the covers and got up to face the day.
She washed in the basin on the washstand in her room. The cold water dispelled the last of the morning grogginess and cleared her head. After breakfast she would write a letter to Orin and Evie, telling them about her engagement and inviting them to the wedding. As much as they both wanted to get married right away, Ezra had understood when she said that she did not want to have to ask Evie to travel in the winter. They both wanted the Judge and his wife to be there, and if it meant waiting a few months, then that was what they would do. Mary had readily agreed to April 24th after Ezra had pointed out that it was the one-year anniversary of that last night they spent in the cave. The night they had first made love.
Mary hummed softly to herself as she cooked breakfast and prepared a cup of tea. She was famished and while the bacon cooked she picked up the tea and raised the cup to her lips, but she stopped short. She looked down at the cup and tried to decide what to do. "No!" She said resolutely and stalked to the back door to dump the tea out on the ground. Feeling much better, Mary poured herself a cup of coffee from the pot she had put on for Ezra. She knew he would be over when he woke up, because they had planned to tell Billy together of their plans to get married.
It was nearly 11:00 when Ezra came into the office of the Clarion and Mary greeted him with a kiss. "Hello, sleepyhead," she teased
"Et tu, Mary?" The gambler sighed in resignation. "You are the second one today to accuse me of sleeping later than usual." He kept a straight face for a few more moments and then grinned showing off his dimples.
The pretty blonde could not keep from laughing. She loved it when he smiled like that, and it always had a way of making her almost giddy. "The second one? You mean someone else has had your attention before me this morning?" She pretended to pout.
"Not by any choice of mine," Ezra confessed. "My mother popped into my room unannounced accusing me of sleeping much later than usual. It was strange, though. It was barely nine o'clock. She never gets up that early. Then she said that she had been up for quite some time."
"Maybe she just couldn't sleep last night," Mary suggested.
"No, it is something more than that, I think. She went to bed unusually early, too. I can't shake the feeling that something is wrong, but she keeps saying that she's fine."
"Maybe you should suggest that she talk to Nathan." The concern on Ezra's face was beginning to make her uneasy too.
"She wouldn't do it. She has an aversion to doctors of any kind."
"Well, she must trust Nathan. She hired him to work for her when she bought the hotel." The words had barely left her mouth when she clamped it shut and said a silent prayer that bringing up past transgressions would not undo any progress made in getting the gambler and his mother to reconcile their differences. When Ezra did not react to the mention of Maude's treachery, she thought it was safe to continue. "Besides, Nathan isn't a doctor, he's a self-taught healer."
"That distinction wouldn't matter to her. I don't know why she distrusts doctors so much, but even those rare times when she was really sick when I was growing up, she wouldn't let a doctor near her." Ezra shook himself out of his reverie and focused his attention on his bride-to-be. "I'm sorry, darling. I didn't mean to dwell on that. There isn't anything I can do to change how she feels or make her get checked out, so there is no sense obsessing over it. Is Billy home yet?"
"Yes, I just made him a snack. Everyone at the Potters' was up early and the boys have been playing hard all morning," Mary explained. "He came in to warm up and started whining he was hungry, so I fixed him some bread and honey. I was hoping the three of us could have lunch together, and I didn't know how late you would be."
"Do you want to tell him now, or wait until after lunch?" Ezra asked a bit anxiously. He was almost as nervous about telling Billy that he was going to marry his mother, as he had been when he asked Mary.
"I think now is as good a time as any." She led the gambler back to the kitchen and poured him a cup of coffee. "Would you like some bread and honey, too? I'm going to fix a piece for me."
"Yes, that sounds good, since I did not venture to eat this morning." He accepted the cup and the plate with a couple thick slices of bread spread liberally with sweet golden honey.
"Good morning, Billy." The gambler reached out and tousled the boy's hair playfully. "Did you have fun at the Potters'?"
"Yeah... an' Tobey liked my new knife. He started beggin' his momma to buy him one." The boy's excitement was contagious and both adults grinned as he rattled on. "Mrs. Potter said he 'abslutely could NOT have one', 'cause he would probly just end up cuttin' his fingers off."
Ezra glanced guiltily at Mary and cringed slightly at the look she was giving him. He had created a problem that he had not anticipated with the gift of the knife. "Perhaps I should talk to young Tobey about the responsibility involved with handling a knife. He is a tad younger than you, isn't he?"
Billy pondered that question a moment and then decided Ezra was asking how old his friend was and nodded. "He's seven."
"Ah, then there is a world of difference there. You are so much older that it is only natural that you would be able to handle that responsibility."
"Would ya tell Tobey that, so he doesn't keep beggin' his momma for one?" Billy asked, his face a mask of seriousness.
It was all Mary could do to keep from smiling at her two men as they discussed how to solve the Tobey situation. Ezra never treated Billy like a kid except during those times when Billy obviously wanted a father figure. The gambler had a way of getting her young son to see things for himself rather that just telling him the way things had to be.
"I would be happy to talk to your young friend. Perhaps we can go do that later this afternoon." Ezra glanced back toward Mary and was relieved to see her nod her approval of how he had handled the problem.
Mary picked up the dirty dishes and put them on the sideboard. When she returned to her seat she leaned forward, crossing her arms in front of her on the table.
"Can I go back out an' play with Tobey?" Billy asked as he started to get up from his seat.
"In a few minutes, if it is all right with your mother," Ezra answered first. "There is something we would like to talk to you about before you go back outside."
The boy scooted back up onto the chair with a grim look on his face. Usually when his mother sat him down and said she needed to talk to him, it was because he was in trouble for something. His mind worked, trying to figure out what he could have done wrong this time.
"Billy, do you remember several months ago when I asked your permission to court your mother?" Ezra began and then took a deep breath to steady his nerves.
"Uh huh," the child nodded, relieved that he was not in trouble this time.
"Well, something else has come up that we want to hear your feelings on." The gambler actually fidgeted in his seat under the unwavering gaze of the eight-year-old. "How would you feel if your mother and I got married?" There, it was out. He thought he was nervous trying to ask that question, but now he found he was even more nervous waiting for Billy's reaction.
"Really? That'd mean you'd be my pa, wouldn't it?" Mary's son looked at Ezra with a look of longing.
"Yes, I suppose it would. But, Billy, I don't want you to think that I want to take the place of your own father in your heart. Do you think you could make room for me in there next to him?"
"Uh huh. I gots lots of room."
Ezra was caught off-guard when Billy jumped from the chair and practically launched himself onto his lap. When he felt the small arms wrap around his neck he hugged the small boy to him. "Does this mean I can marry your mother?"
"Yup! Do I get to call you pa?" Billy was now standing on his knees on Ezra's lap so he could watch the gambler's face as they talked.
"I would like that, if your mother doesn't object."
Mary's heart melted when her son's eyes met hers. "Sure you can. I think your daddy would be very happy to see that you have someone you want to be your pa, since he can't be here to take care of you himself."
"Yea!" Billy nearly shouted, but then looked at his mother, feeling a bit guilty. He was young but he knew how much his mother missed his real daddy. "Is it bad that I love Ezra, Momma?"
"No honey, it isn't bad at all. I'm glad you love Ezra, because I do too. So how about a hug for me too?" She held her son snugly against her for a long hug and then kissed him on the forehead.
"Can I go out and play now?"
Mary laughed. Children had a way of making things simple. Say what needs to be said and then go play. "Yes, but stay where we can find you. I'm not sure what we will be doing for lunch." Her voice got louder as she called after the fast moving child.
"I think that went quite well," Ezra said. He was feeling quite smug about the whole thing. It had been silly to be nervous over how Billy would react to their news.
"Yes it did, but we better get out there and tell the others before Billy blurts it out to the whole town." She held out her hand to the gambler and urged him to his feet.
"Surely you don't think he could spread the news that quickly."
"You've not seen how fast that child can travel."
They were both still laughing when they stepped out onto the boardwalk just in time to see a very excited Billy talking to Buck. "I do believe I see what you mean," Ezra agreed, just as Buck looked over in their direction.
The ladies' man jogged across the street to intercept them and slapped Ezra on the shoulder amiably. "Ezra, you old dog. I knew the two of you were gettin' mighty sweet on each other, but married. Whoowee! Now that's news worth celebratin'." He held out a hand to the gambler to shake his hand. "Congratulations!"
Buck turned to Mary and grinned. "May I be the first to kiss the bride?" When he saw Mary duck her head and smile shyly he took that as a yes, and pulled her into his arms, lifting her up and spinning around once before stopping to place a chaste kiss on her lips. He hugged her and then stepped back, but left his hands on her shoulders while he spoke. "Mary, I hope you two will have a real good life together. You both deserve a chance to be happy."
"Thank you, Buck." Mary kissed him lightly on the cheek. "I know we'll be very happy."
Wilmington finally let go of her shoulders and turned back to Ezra. "It's about time you popped the question. But, you be sure and treat her right, or you'll have me to answer to."
The gambler grinned at the good-natured teasing. The wink Buck had given him along with his warning meant that he was not entirely serious, but Ezra had no doubt that if he hurt Mary in any way, Buck would make good on the threat. All of the guys loved Mary. He should never need to worry about her safety with six surrogate brothers to watch over her. "I assure you, Mr. Wilmington, that I have no intentions of causing her any reason for grievance."
Buck's whoop of delight had attracted the attention of the remaining members of their group, who had spilled out onto the boardwalk in front of the saloon to watch the show that was taking place in the street.
"Shall we go make the rest of our announcements before Master Billy beats us to everyone?" Ezra held out his arm for Mary to hold while they crossed the street. "Would you like me to ask Inez to pack us a basket for a picnic lunch?"
"A picnic? Ezra it's freezing out here."
"I know of no rule that says a picnic must take place outside. I thought Billy and Tobey might think it was fun to spread a blanket on the floor in the sitting room and have an indoor picnic." Ezra cocked one brow in question. "What do you think?"
"I'm sure they would have a lot of fun." She added with a grin, "I think it would be fun, too. Are you going to use that time to have that talk with Tobey?"
"I think the sooner the better in this case." He pushed the door open to allow Mary to step into the saloon ahead of him and they were quickly followed by five very confused men and one big man who was still grinning from ear to ear.
When they were all seated around their usual table, Vin sat looking from one to the other of the three and back again. "So ya gonna tell us what all that was about or are we supposed to guess?"
Mary and Ezra exchanged a look and the gambler nodded to her to go ahead and make the announcement. She suddenly felt very conspicuous sitting there, one lone female among all those men. When Inez walked up to the table to satisfy her own curiosity, Mary felt a little less intimidated, and made the announcement short and to the point. "We're getting married," she held up her hand to show off the ring Ezra had given her.
Inez squealed and rushed over to give Mary a hug. "I am so happy for you. Come to the kitchen with me so we can talk, just us girls." She stepped back to let the pretty blonde get up out of the chair. "Let me see the ring. I thought the ring came after the wedding?"
"This is a special kind of ring. Ezra says it is a kind of promise ring," Mary explained as they walked together toward the kitchen.
Josiah laughed at the lost expression on the gambler's face. "Get used to it, son. One of the things that will get women to gather together to gossip and giggle is news of a wedding. The whole matter is pretty much out of your hands now that the women have their heads together."
"When did this all happen?" Chris asked.
"I asked her after dinner last night," he hedged slightly. It was not really a lie, since the wee hours of the morning would have been long after dinner the night before.
"Ya asked her last night and we're just now findin' out about it?" Nathan pressed for information. "We all saw ya when ya got back from seein' her home last night and ya didn't let nothin' slip."
"We had decided not to tell anyone else until we had a chance to talk to Billy, and Mary got a letter off to the Judge and Evie," Ezra explained. "She got the letter sent out on the morning stage, and we talked to Billy just before coming over here."
"That is one excited kid," Buck commented with a wide grin. "He came runnin' up to me sayin' 'Guess what! Ezra's gonna be my new pa!'"
"Ezra? A father? Now there's a scary thought," Vin teased.
"When is the happy day?" Josiah asked and secretly wondered if they would ask him to do the ceremony. He would love to be the one to marry them, but considering Mary's closeness to Judge Travis he would understand if she asked the judge instead.
"We have set the date for April 24th."
Ezra glanced up when he heard the door open and saw his mother crossing the room to join them. He nodded to the seat Mary had vacated a few minutes before. "Have a seat, Mother."
"What is this about April 24th?" she asked.
"That is the date Mary and I picked for the wedding."
"Oh. But why so far away? Are you waiting for warmer weather?" Maude asked, thinking it probably had something to do with traveling in cold weather.
"That is exactly it. Mary and I just got back from a stage trip in this kind of weather, and I would rather be on a horse. At least you are using your muscles when you ride and that helps you stay warm. It got unbelievably cold on the stage, especially if it got windy. We don't want the Travises going through that to get here." Ezra explained. At the sight of his mother's raised brows he decided he might as well fill in the rest. "We could have planned it a little sooner than that, but the 24th has some special significance to us."
"Significance? What kind of significance?" Buck bobbed his eyebrow suggestively and leaned forward over the table waiting for an answer.
"Mr. Wilmington, that is a personal matter and it is of no concern to you," the gambler insisted.
"My son is right. Their reasons are their own concern," Maude said in support of her boy.
"Come to think of it, you weren't a bit surprised by this talk of a wedding date," Chris observed. "You already knew about this, didn't you?"
"I just found out a couple of hours ago," she confessed to the men, then aimed her next comment to her son. "Where's Mary?"
"Inez drug her off to the kitchen for some girl talk," Buck offered. "I would like to be a little mouse and hear that conversation," he said behind those expressive brows of his.
"On that note, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I think I'll go join the ladies." Maude did not give them any chance to object as she quickly moved toward the kitchen door.
Ezra stayed to help Mary put Billy to bed. It gave him such a warm feeling that the child wanted him to come up and say goodnight. The gambler liked the new role he found himself in, and settled onto the sofa next to Mary with a contented sigh.
"What was that for?" Mary asked as she leaned against his shoulder and felt his arm wrap around her.
"I was simply thinking that in all of my life I can't remember another day when I was as happy as I've been today. From the wee hours of the morning all the way through to now, it has been a perfect day. Even our indoor picnic was perfect." He drew her closer to him and nuzzled his face against her hair. "I can hardly wait until we can live together as man and wife."
"Husband and wife," Mary corrected him.
"Husband and wife. You said man and wife," she repeated.
"All the wedding vows I have ever witnessed say 'man'," he insisted. "Why does it make a difference?"
"Man and wife makes it sound like the man isn't committed as much to the marriage, but husband puts us on more of an equal level," the young blonde explained. "We've discussed keeping things equal between us. You know I don't want to stop running the paper, and I know you don't want to give up gambling completely. If we are going to be equal in other ways, shouldn't we be equal in the vows too?"
"If you put it like that, absolutely. I don't want you to feel that I am trying to take away all of your independence or push you into a subservient role. It was your strength and determination that first caught my eye." The gambler gently rubbed his hand up and down her arm while he talked "You have never ceased to amaze me with your will to survive in a man's world. You are one of the most courageous women I have ever known."
"I don't know about that. I know what people call me behind my back, and courageous isn't it." She tipped her head back and when he looked down at her she took the chance to claim a kiss.
"I reserve the right to see you in my own way," the gambler insisted between kisses. "And I find that I will need to ask you to draw on that courage of yours much sooner that I would have liked."
Mary drew back from him enough to see his face. "What do you mean?"
"I got some rather distressing news after I left you this afternoon. Chris got a wire from Judge Travis saying he needed four of us to transport some prisoners from Tucson to Yuma prison. I've been chosen to be one of the four." Ezra really did not want to leave so soon after getting home with Mary. They had been engaged less than a day and already they would be forced to be apart from each other. Not only that, there was the fact that his mother was in town. In the past he would have welcomed any excuse to get away from her for a while, but this time he wanted to spend time with her, too.
"Oh, Ezra. Why does it have to be you? Can't one of the others go in your place this time?" Mary turned enough to be able to wrap her arms around the gambler as she snuggled back up against him, tucked back under his arm.
"I'm afraid not. When Chris got the message, he tried to find a way to fix it for me to stay behind, but with them being gone so long it just wouldn't work out. I was surprised that he considered it at all. He's never been agreeable to leaving me behind when he can find a way to make me miserable by forcing me to go on some excursion or another." He kissed the top of Mary's head and hugged her even tighter. "Josiah is still a very strong man for his age, but we've all noticed that the cold affects him more than he will admit. JD is the only true lawman in town, the only one with a badge, and he shouldn't be away from town that long. Not unless there is no alternative. He's young, and it took a long time for the town to trust him, but they do now. And Nathan is the only healer for over a day's ride. Mrs. Bailey is near to having her baby, and Mr. Hurley is still recovering from the accident he had. Nathan is needed here. So that leaves Chris, Vin, Buck and me to transport the prisoners."
"Why couldn't JD go and you stay? I know him; he'd love being in on that job." Mary knew that Chris' reasons were good ones, but she could not stand the thought of Ezra leaving so soon, so she refused to give up without a struggle.
"Darlin', the townspeople will tolerate me being in a position of authority as long as Chris or one of the others is here too, but they don't completely trust me to have their best interest at heart yet. Having Nathan and Josiah here with me would work for a few days at most, but then people would start to feel insecure, especially when Nathan has to leave town to go out and help with Mrs. Bailey's baby. That would leave only two of us to watch over the town. It's hard to explain, but I've seen things like this before. People who are normally very rational suddenly start reading things into the situation that just aren't there. They would begin to feel like they weren't important enough for Chris to care about their protection if he left them in the care of an old man, a darkie, and a conman for an extended time." Ezra cringed at the sound of his own words, and he knew how bad they must sound to Mary. "People don't look at Josiah as old or Nathan as an ex-slave under normal circumstances, but this wouldn't be normal."
"But everyone likes Josiah and Nathan, and they are starting to like you, too," she countered.
"There is a big difference between liking someone and trusting them to keep you safe. They all know that Josiah and Nathan would do all they could to protect the town, but they don't know that about me. When the town is left in their hands for such a long time, the people need more assurance than they would get from the two of them and me." He placed a finger under Mary's chin and tilted her head back so he could see her.
"I know you're right, but I hate thinking that some of the people don't trust you enough to watch over the town while the others are gone. They don't have any trouble trusting you to help the others, though," Mary grumbled but gave in grudgingly.
"Give them time. It has taken a long time to gain as much trust as I have. It's funny, but I didn't even realize how much I wanted it until recently." The gambler slipped his hand up to cover Mary's hand that rested on his chest. His fingers closed over hers and guided it to his lips where he brushed a light kiss over the palm. "Even I know that I have to earn that kind of trust, that I can't just expect people to give it to me no questions asked."
"You will be careful, won't you?" Mary asked. "You'll be sure to dress warm, and you won't be gone any longer than you absolutely have to?"
"Darlin', nothing could get me to stay away from you a day longer than I have to."
"When do you have to leave?"
"Tomorrow at first light."
"So soon?" Mary asked. "How long do you think you'll be gone?"
"In warm weather we could make the trip quicker, but this time of year the cold and bad weather will add several days to the trip." Ezra was busy calculating the time in his head, and he was not happy with the numbers he was coming up with. "We could usually make the trip there and back in eight to ten days depending on the condition of the road and weather, but I am thinking the traveling time is going to be at least two weeks, probably closer to three."
"I don't want you to go, but I know you have to. Just promise you'll come back in one piece with no holes shot in you, no broken bones, and conscious." Mary's attempt to make it seem like she was teasing him failed dismally. The look of loss that already clouded her eyes said more than the tone of her voice.
"My dear, I give you my word that I will make every effort to return to you in the best condition possible." Ezra smiled down at her and winked playfully. "But now, here is the part where I need to ask you to be brave."
"What? That wasn't it?"
Ezra shook his head and his expression became a mask of seriousness. "I'm going to have to leave you here at the mercy of my mother."
Mary stared at him for several moments before she started laughing. "Oh, is that all? I'm sure I can hold my own with your mother."
"Time will tell, my dear. Time will tell."
Ezra led a rather disgruntled Chaucer out of the livery and joined the rest of the men in front of the jail. The gambler patted the horse on the shoulder and then ran a gloved hand down the length of the animal's neck. "I know how you feel," Ezra said soothingly. "I don't like these early mornings either, especially when they are this damned cold."
"Who you talkin' to, Ezra?" Vin grinned over his horse's back and winked.
"If you must know, Mr. Tanner. I was speaking to my horse. Unlike some of you ruffians, I believe our four legged friends do understand us, and considering Chaucer's nature, I prefer that he is aware that this was not my idea." The gambler gave the big animal another affectionate pat and then started double-checking the saddle cinches and other rigging.
"So, Ezra, did that cantankerous beast of yers ever answer ya back?" Buck chimed in.
"In a manner of speaking, I suppose he has," Standish answered. His face was perfectly composed as he added, "he raised his tail and dropped a pile while you were telling about your conquests last night. I would say that that was his way of saying that it was a bunch of horse shit."
"Ha, Buck, I been tellin' you that all along. There ain't no way one man can do all that you say you do." JD laughed heartily and reached out to pat the horse on the nose. To everyone's amazement, Chaucer actually allowed the familiarity and refrained from nipping at the young man's hand.
Chris stepped up into his saddle and looked down at the rest of the men. "Josiah, you sure you and JD can handle things when Nathan gets called away? You know how rough it can get when you get a bunch of drunk cowboys who are getting stir crazy from being shut up from the cold."
"We'll manage fine. Despite the weather, things have been pretty quiet," Josiah insisted.
"Yeah, that's what bothers me. It has been too quiet. I don't like leaving the town this shorthanded." The man in black scanned the deserted streets, squinting his eyes to try to peer into the shadows.
"We'll be all right," JD added. "Besides, it ain't like Nathan will be gone all that long."
"Probably not more'n a couple days, if there aren't any problems," Nathan added. "Oscar is supposed to come after me just as soon as they're sure her pains are fer real and not likely to stop on their own. It's not much more than an hour's ride, so if Josiah and JD need me back here, someone should be able to come and get me pretty quick."
Chris pursed his lips in thought and finally nodded his agreement. This was the best they could hope for under these circumstances. "The rest of you ready?" He let his gaze travel from one to the other of his men as he tried to judge how close they were to mounting up.
"Ready when you are, pard," Vin said and pulled himself up on his gelding's back next to Chris.
"Time's a wastin'," Buck said with a grin and a wiggle of his brows. "The sooner we get started the sooner we get to Tucson and those pretty senoritas." The big man pulled his collar up around his neck to block off some of the wind that had suddenly kicked up and stepped up into the saddle.
"Ezra, time to go," Chris prodded when the gambler fidgeted with the saddle cinch for about the fourth time.
The gambler did not speak, just nodded sadly and put his left foot up in the stirrup.
"Ezra!" Mary rushed out the door of the Clarion office and hurried across the street.
The gambler dropped his foot back to the ground and barely had time to turn around before Mary was there in front of him. He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her tightly to his chest. "Darlin', you shouldn't be out here without a coat."
"I didn't want to take the time. I was afraid I'd miss you." She leaned her head against Ezra's shoulder for a moment and then let out a heavy sigh. "You'll be careful?"
"He won't have to be," Vin piped up from his place on the other side of their leader. "We'll be careful for him. Don't worry, we won't go lettin' anything happen to him."
"I'll hold you to that, Vin Tanner," Mary said and smiled over at the tracker. "I want him back safe and in one piece."
"Mary, we have to go. You should get inside out of the cold." Ezra started to loosen his hold on her but Mary had other plans. She quickly wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him down for a kiss.
Ezra had desperately wanted to kiss her goodbye, but he had no idea who else besides their group might be watching. When his lips touched Mary's the rest of the world ceased to exist, if only for those few moments. He tightened his hold on her again and allowed his lips to explore hers. When her lips parted he accepted the invitation eagerly. Reluctantly, they ended the kiss, and Ezra turned his head so that his lips almost brushed his lover's ear to whisper, "I love you, Darlin'."
"I love you too," Mary whispered in return, and pulled back enough to look up into his face. "I refuse to say goodbye."
The gambler smiled and kissed her lightly on the cheek. "I'll be back as soon as I possibly can be."
Mary let go of him and stepped back far enough to give him room to climb into the saddle. She laid a hand gently on his leg and looked up into his eyes. "I'll be waiting."
"Let's ride." Chris nudged his horse in the ribs and turned its head away from the hitching rail and out toward the street. The others followed his lead, riding away without looking back, all except for Ezra.
After they had gone past several shops, the gambler twisted in the saddle to look back for Mary. She still stood exactly where he had left her, her arms wrapped around herself to ward off some of the chill that her gown and robe could not hold at bay. When she saw him turn around, she raised one hand to wave goodbye. Ezra raised one hand in response, then tipped his hat and rode on out of town.
Mary stood rooted to the spot watching the men as they rode away, refusing to move until they were completely out of sight, despite Josiah's insistence that she get inside and get warm. When she could no longer see Ezra, she gave a sad sigh and walked back to her home, feeling so very alone.
Maude stood watching from the window of her hotel room. She had wanted to go down to see her son off, but she thought she would be pushing her luck a little too much. He was starting to accept that she really had come there for a visit, and she did not want to undo the progress they had made in reconciling their differences.
When Mary stood watching Ezra leave, Maude's heart went out to her. She was too far away to see her face, but she could tell by her posture that the younger woman was not taking this well at all. Maybe this would be a good time to pay her son's fiancée a visit, so they could get to know each other a little better without anyone else around.
Maude felt certain that Mary would not be going back to bed. So, she hurried around her room gathering her clothes and got dressed. Her hair could wait. She left it down around her shoulders, but grabbed up her hair pins and dropped her silver-handled brush into her bag, just in case she could get it pinned up before venturing back out into the streets when she came back from Mary's.
It did not take her too long to reach the Clarion office, and she tried the door. It was unlocked. The bell jingled when the door opened, and again when it jarred closed. Maude paused for a moment and listened for any sound that Mary was on her way from the back. When she heard nothing, she stepped to the door that divided the living quarters from the business area and knocked gently.
Mary heard the faint knock and hurried to wipe the tears from her eyes before she got up from the kitchen table to see who was there. The last person she had expected to see was Maude Standish standing in her office. "Maude? May I help you?"
"Actually, dear. I thought maybe I could help you. Do you mind if I come in? That is if you hadn't gone back to bed after seeing Ezra on his way?" The older woman noticed the red-rimmed eyes that looked back at her and knew that Mary had been crying.
"No, I couldn't go back to bed," the younger woman admitted. "There is no way I would have gone back to sleep. Come on in and I'll fix us some coffee."
"Thank you, dear." The con-woman followed Mary through the sitting room and on into the kitchen. It was the first time she had been into the living quarters, and she could not help but glance around to see what the place was like. Everything was well kept and remarkably clean for a dusty, backwater town. The one thing she hated about these smaller towns was the dust. It seemed to find its way into everything, and it was a never-ending battle trying to keep it at bay.
"Have you had breakfast?" Mary asked as she pumped water into the pot and added the ground coffee. Once it was on the stove, she turned back to her visitor. "I need to fix something for Billy and me, so I would be glad to fix something for you too, if you haven't already eaten."
"No, I haven't, but I don't want to put you to any trouble. It was presumptuous of me to visit this early, but when I saw how sad you looked after Ezra left, I thought you could use some company." Maude heard herself, but had a hard time believing that she was actually meaning every word of what she was saying. It was strange how much a person could change in just a few months. Six months ago, she would not have been here wanting to console the woman who would be keeping her son from ever rejoining her at their trade.
"It isn't any trouble. You're right," Mary added. "I could use the company. I've had to watch him ride away before, but it was never this hard before."
"A person's outlook on things changes when you find you are both going to be sharing the same future." Maude smiled and mentally made a decision that it was time to really talk to her soon-to-be daughter-in-law.
"When I met Ezra's father, I was so smitten by his charm, his manners, and his incredible good looks. He just swooped in and swept me off my feet." Her expression took on a wistful expression as she reached far back into her memory. "My parents tried to warn me that he was no good. They did everything they could think of to keep us apart, but all that did was just make me want to be with him even more."
"Is Ezra anything like his father?" The younger woman took a seat across the table and listened intently.
"In some ways he is. He got his looks and that auburn hair from his father. He even has the same innate charm, but the similarities end there. I told you that his father died when he was six months old, but I didn't tell you how he died." Maude paused and collected her nerve before plunging on ahead. "Mind you, this isn't something that I want spread around, and I trust you to keep it to yourself." When she saw the young woman nod in agreement, she went on. "He got caught at one of his cons. I told him it wasn't going to work, that someone was going to get hurt, but he wouldn't listen. It ended up with one of the men that he had cheated, going crazy and coming after him. Ethan ended up killing the man and he was hung for murder."
"Oh my! Does Ezra know this?"
"Not yet. It is one of the things that I need to tell him while I have the chance. Ethan shot the man in self-defense, but they convicted him because he had conned the man and destroyed his life. They decided that a crazy man couldn't be held accountable for his own actions, but that Ethan knew exactly what he was doing." Maude swallowed hard and looked at her hands in her lap. She had them clasped together so tightly that her knuckles had gone white. "I loved him. Of all of my husbands, he was the only one I really loved."
"That's why you still use his name?" Mary asked.
"Yes. Ethan Patrick Standish." Maude smiled as a new happier memory surfaced. "When Ezra was born, he wanted to name him after himself, but I told him I didn't want him called Junior. So, we picked the same first initial, and they shared a middle name."
"Ezra Patrick Standish?" The young blonde tried out the name and smiled. "I never knew what his middle name was. Every time I ask, he has a silly answer. I remember once he said it was Persuasive."
"He knew it was his father's middle name. I think he avoids using it because it reminds him that he never had the chance to get to know him," Maude explained.
"He missed not having a father. I'm sure of that, and I think that is why he wants to be a father for Billy."
"That is part of it, but the rest of it is that he knows how bad stepfathers can be. He had four of them and there wasn't a decent one in the bunch." Maude decided it was time for a change of subject. She wanted to befriend Mary, but there were things that she had to tell her son first, before she told anyone else.
"Have the two of you given any thought to where you'll live? Are you planning to stay here?" Maude asked.
"We haven't talked a lot about it, but we plan on staying here, at least at first." Mary blushed slightly and smiled. "But, if we find out we need more room, we'll either have to add on to this place or build a place our family can grow into."
The young blonde studied the older woman across from her and noticed the dark rings around her eyes, and the paleness of her skin. "Maude, may I ask you something?"
When Maude nodded her consent, Mary pressed on. "Is there something wrong? You look a little pale, and Ezra said you've had trouble sleeping." She could not help but notice the look of sadness that clouded the blue eyes that looked back at her.
"I'm fine. I've just been getting so tired lately, but when I go to bed, I wake up after a few hours and can't go back to sleep," the con-woman admitted. "There have been times in the past where I had trouble sleeping, but it has always passed after a time."
"For some reason I feel like you aren't telling everything," Mary accused. "You aren't going to tell me any more about it, are you?"
"There really isn't anything to tell."
"Just promise one thing," Mary insisted. "If you need help, send for me or go see Nathan. Ezra's worried about you, and honestly, I'm starting to get worried too."
Reluctantly Maude nodded. "I promise."
The next couple of hours passed quickly as the two women became better acquainted. Mary fixed breakfast for the three of them and practically had to push Billy out to play. He was fascinated with the woman who would soon be his second grandmother. Maude smiled to herself, as she climbed the stairs to her room. It had been a good morning, one that she would not forget any time soon.
Once inside the room, she turned the key in the lock and dropped her bag on the table. She never had gotten her hair pinned up, but she didn't care. Carefully, she hung up her coat and climbed out of her dress before curling up in bed. She was tired. She was tired of being tired, but she had come to accept it over the last several months. Naps had become a necessity, not an indulgence, but with no one around to notice her absence for a while, she allowed herself to drift off to sleep.
"I never saw a town that looked so good," Buck said, through chattering teeth. "I need to find me a nice warm body to warm me up again."
"Since when have you ever needed an excuse to find a warm body?" Chris asked.
"Got that right," Vin added. "Bucklin's gotta one track mind."
"Ain't never found nothing else worth thinkin' about," the ladies' man joined in the good-natured ribbing that was aimed at him.
"Surely you jest, Mr. Wilmington. As much as I agree that the allure of someone of the feminine persuasion is worthy of occupying one's mind, there are other things in life that are important." The gambler glanced over at the tracker and winked.
"Oh, now come on, Ezra. You can't be too serious about that. After all, you've got Mary, and you can't say that she ain't the main thing on your mind," Buck set out to defend himself.
"I didn't say Mary wasn't topmost on my list of priorities. What I was attempting to point out is that there are other concerns in life as well; earning a living, raising a family, the safety of yourself and those you love. Don't you ever consider those things?" Ezra dropped the attempt to goad the ladies' man. Now, he found himself truly curious about what went on in the older man's head.
"Sure, I think about those things. I just ain't ready to give up my freedom and settle down to raise a family. Some day, but not yet. There are too many pretty senoritas out there waiting for ol' Buck." The big man grinned and waggled his eyebrows suggestively.
The talk stopped when they stopped in front of the Tucson jail. The four men dismounted and tied their horses to the railing out front. Chris led the way inside, and they all sighed in pleasure at the warmth that greeted them when they opened the door. All but Chris moved over close to the potbelly stove and pulled their gloves off to warm their hands. Vin was careful to keep his back to the sheriff on the offhand chance that he might have a good memory for wanted posters.
The man in black stopped in front of the desk and nodded to the man seated behind it. "Sheriff Brody?" When the older man nodded, Chris held out his hand to him. "Chris Larabee. We're here to take your prisoners to Yuma."
"Judge Travis said you'd be comin'," Brody said as they shook hands. "I'll be very glad t' see these two outta this town."
"They been givin' you trouble?" Buck asked.
"Nah, they can't while they're in here, but some of their kin sure can. I haven't had a peaceful minute since the Judge sentenced 'em t' prison." The old sheriff sighed and shook his head. "Seems like the world's full of mighty foolish folks. Those two were sentenced t' ten years. But if their brother an' uncle have their way, they'll all end up gettin' hung."
"What makes you say that?" Buck asked as he left the warmth surrounding the stove and moved to stand next to Chris. The ex-lawman in him was sending out serious warning signals.
"Those two idjiots got the fool notion that Joe and Carl ain't gonna make it to Yuma. They keep sayin' no kin of theirs is ever gonna set foot in a prison." He looked up intently at the two large men standing in front of him. "They already tried t' set fire t' the jail. An' I found signs that they tried t' pull the bars outta the winda. Now I have t' have guards outside t' make sure nobody gets near that winda again. It ain't been easy findin' fellas willin' t' help out either. Nobody wants t' get killed tryin' t' keep these two locked up."
"Wonderful," Ezra grumbled. "So not only do we have the elements to endure, but we will most likely have to clash with a pair of reprobates to keep our charges incarcerated. Can this situation get any better?"
"Huh?" Brody's brow wrinkled as he squinted and tried to make sense of the gambler's rambling.
Chris just shook his head and offered a translation. "We have bad weather to deal with and now we'll probably have to fight to keep those two locked up."
"Well, why didn't he jist say so? Ain't no call fer all them fancy words." Brody frowned at Ezra, and made a point of turning back to deal directly with Chris and Buck.
"Ah, don't mind Ezra," Wilmington soothed. "He's like that with everybody. It's got to where we wonder if he's sick if he isn't spoutin' off a bunch of five dollar words."
Larabee decided it was time to turn the subject in another direction. "You think you and your men can keep them shut up for one more night? We really should get a good night's sleep before we start out in the morning."
"Got that right. It's gonna be a few days before we get another chance. Once we take them from you, at least two of us will need to be awake with them all the time, even if we lock them up in different jails at night along the way." Buck looked at Chris to see if he agreed.
"We won't rely on someone else to guard them while we sleep," Larabee agreed. "Especially now that we know there will be someone intending to try to break them out."
"Mighty glad t' hear that," the sheriff said. "Gotta say that I'm glad it ain't me that's gotta take 'em that far. You boys go git yerselves somethin' to eat an' git some sleep. We'll make out all right fer one more night."
"All right," Chris agree. "If you need us, send one of your men. I wouldn't be surprised if the others try to get to them tonight, since they know they will be moved out tomorrow."
"Perhaps," Ezra interjected. "But, if they have even a modicum of intelligence, they will wait until we are well away from any town. It would be considerably easier to emancipate them from a prisoner wagon, guarded by only four men, than to affect the same results from a fortified jail cell in the middle of a busy town."
"Ezra's gotta point," Buck agreed. "Back in my time, I found out the hard way that the most dangerous time is when you're movin' prisoners from one place to another. Don't matter if it's from the jail to the courtroom, or takin' 'em to prison, or just walkin' 'em to the gallows. If there was gonna be trouble it would be then. Hell, we've all had to deal with that since we went to work for the judge."
"Well, Grady an' Vern might be idjiots but they ain't stupid," Brody offered. "I figure they probly already thoughta that. I'll put extra men on watch tonight, jist to be on the safe side. Never know, they mighta figured that we would expect 'em to wait 'til yer out in the middle'a nowheres, an' we won't be watchin' too close tonight."
"That is a very astute observation," the gambler commented. He decided that this sheriff might sound like a hayseed, but in truth he was pretty sharp. When the old sheriff looked at him in bewilderment, Ezra tried again. "Good point."
"Ah, well, I ain't lived this long by bein' stupid neither." Brody got up and walked over to the door. "Down there," he said and pointed down the street. "That's the Nuggett Saloon. Ya can git something t' eat there. Our only other eatin' place is closed right now. Mr. Tucker died not long ago, an' his widow hasn't reopened it yet. They got rooms there too, but it's quieter at the hotel. That's back this way." He turned and pointed in the opposite direction. "See the mercantile? It's jist past there."
"What about the livery?" Vin asked from his position behind Buck.
"Oh, fergot about that. It's on past the Nuggett close t' the edge'a town."
"Thank you, Sheriff," Chris said and offered his hand again. "We appreciate the help." Larabee signaled to his men to follow him, and they all stepped back out into the cold.
"Good Lord," Ezra grumbled. "I swear it is even colder than it was when we got here."
"Just feels like it, 'cause we just came outta a warm place," Vin explained.
"Just feels like it, or it actually is colder, don't mean squat when your balls are freezin' off," Buck complained. "Let's get the horses bedded down and get something to eat. I don't know which to bitch about first, the cold or my empty stomach."
The four men climbed onto their horses and turned them up the street toward the livery. It was so unusually cold that few of the town's people had ventured outside, and the streets were fairly deserted. Chris shifted uneasily in his saddle and the hair on the back of his neck stood at attention. He had the unnerving feeling that they were being watched. A sideways glance at the tracker, told him that Vin had sensed it too.
Thankfully, it was not very far to the livery and the quartet made it without any trouble. The owner took their payment in advance and got them their measures of grain and hay for the horses. The men took extra care with their mounts that night. They brushed them down, checked their hooves for stones, and made sure they had their blankets spread out over their backs. Their lives could depend on the animals in the coming days, and they all knew it.
The meal at the Nuggett had been hot and filling. It was not haute cuisine as Ezra had pointed out, but it definitely served its purpose. The four sat around afterward and enjoyed a few drinks, reveling in the warmth the fiery liquid sent through them. But the evening came to an end earlier than usual for all of them, when their bodies began to respond to the warmth in the room after being so cold all day. The warmer they got, the sleepier they got. Even Ezra was ready to call it a night and left with the others for the hotel.
"You're actually gonna stay at the hotel?" Vin asked. "I thought you always stayed at the saloons."
"I do, Mr. Tanner. That is when I am there to ply my trade. However, tonight I could use a quieter place to sleep."
The bell on the door jingled when they entered summoning a clerk from a room behind the counter. "Can I help you gents?"
"We need rooms," Chris stated, like that should have been obvious to the man.
"Four." Chris looked at Buck and rolled his eyes.
"I only got two left. This cold snap has more people stoppin' early 'stead of tryin' to make it to the next town," the clerk explained.
"Two? Only two?" Ezra groaned. "Perhaps I should go on back to the saloon."
"Won't do no good," the clerk commented. "It fills up quicker'n I do here 'cause it's cheaper."
"Fine. We'll take the two rooms. How much?" Chris asked.
"Two dollars each."
Larabee handed him the money from the funds the Judge had allotted them for their expenses and held his hand out for the keys.
Once at the top of the stairs they all stood outside the first room. "So who's bunkin' with who?" Buck asked.
"We could toss a coin," Ezra suggested.
"I'm too tired to mess with that," Chris growled. "Ezra, you're with me." He tossed the second key to Buck and motioned for the gambler to follow him. Ezra did not try to protest; he simply followed the black clad man into the room and dropped his saddlebag against the wall next to where Chris had already dropped his.
Neither spoke as they stripped out of their coats and boots. Both took off their outer clothes and left on their long underwear and socks. The bed was cold when they first crawled in it, and turned to sleep back to back.
The gambler lay there for a few minutes until he could stop shivering after their combined body heat finally warmed the bed enough for them to start to get comfortable. He could tell by Chris' breathing that he had not gone to sleep yet either. "Is there a particular reason you selected me?" he asked.
Larabee sighed and seriously considered his answer first. "I guess for Mary," he answered.
"I don't understand."
"I've seen how you two are together. It reminds me of how Sarah and I were, and I remember how she used to worry when I had to be gone. She used to always tell Buck to bring me back safe. I'm just trying to do the same thing for Mary, since you didn't have a best friend for her to entrust you to. Even though Vin promised we'd watch your back, it isn't the same as having someone as close as Buck was to Sarah and me to count on."
"I see," Ezra said and then paused. "I suppose I should say thank you for taking on that role, even though I don't see that it was necessary."
"You might not think it is necessary, but everyone needs someone to watch his back. I know I can depend on Buck and Vin to do that for me. They both know they can count on each other and me, and whether you believe it or not, we've all learned that we can count on you too. It's time you realized that you can depend on us."
Ezra was struck momentarily speechless. He had never expected to hear something like that from Chris Larabee. After a moment, he managed to find his voice again. "Thank you, Chris."
"You're welcome. Now shut up and go to sleep," Larabee growled.
"You fellas watch yer backs," Brody said as he put the lock on the door to the prison wagon. "I wouldn't put nothin' past those skunks they call kin."
"We'll be careful," Buck assured the older man. "Sounds like the Corby clan are all a pretty bad lot?"
"Yup. Vern an' Grady bein' the worst of 'em all. They jist managed t' not git caught is all. I think they're feelin' a mite guilty about these two gettin' caught, 'cause we all know that they was all involved in the hold up, but no one could prove it." The sheriff pulled on the lock to be sure it was closed securely and then walked to the front of the wagon and handed the key to Chris.
"They all need to count their blessings that the bank clerk didn't die, or they'd be headed to the gallows instead of Yuma," Larabee pointed out.
"Sure enough, but they ain't lookin' at it like that, so ya jist don't let yer guard down, not fer a minute." Brody stepped back to allow room for Chris to climb up into the driver's seat. "Y'all stop by on yer way back through an' I'll spring fer a beer."
"Is that your subtle way of ensuring that we survive this arduous journey intact, and that our charges are once again safely incarcerated?" The gambler allowed a trace of a smile to appear at the thinly veiled accusation. The old man did not have much confidence that they would get the prisoners to Yuma, and he wondered if the sheriff knew something that he was not telling them.
The older lawman, frowned a moment and then ventured a reply. "Yup. If I understood ya right that is. I'd like t' know if they're still locked up, or if I need t' go lookin' fer them again."
"You'll see us on the way back," Buck promised. "Let's get movin' before we waste too much daylight."
"And while it ain't rainin'," Vin agreed, looking up at the overcast sky. This time of year it could be deadly to be caught out with wet clothes. Their oilcloth slickers would help some, but if it rained too hard even those would not help enough.
Chris released the brake and flipped the reins, "Giddup!" The wagon creaked as it started to roll and they headed out of town, with Larabee's horse tied to the back of the wagon.
"How much trouble do you think these miscreants' kinsmen will be?" Ezra asked Vin, once they were well out of town.
"Hard t' say. But from the sound of it, they're mighty determined to keep these two out of Yuma." The tracker turned to glance back behind them for any telltale signs that they were being followed. The rainy weather that had been hitting this area recently would hinder that though. Wet ground does not allow for a dust trail. He knew he would have to double back on their trail when they were a little farther out of town and see if he could pick up signs of pursuit.
"I don't think it's a matter of if they'll try, but when they will," Buck added as he rode up next to them. "I'm glad that we're gonna be stoppin' in towns for the nights, even though it means it will take us longer to get there. Leaves less chance of them bein' able to sneak up on us in the dark."
"You know me," Vin began. "I'd rather take my chances out in the open, but this time, I think yer right."
"Of course, you'll never hear me object to sleeping in a bed instead of sleeping on the ground, freezing to death," Ezra agreed.
"We won't be sleeping in hotels or saloons," Chris broke in. "All of us are staying at the jails that we keep the Corby brothers in. If there are any cots, we'll take turns with them, otherwise we use our bedrolls on the floor." Larabee's tone left no room for argument.
"At least we will be in out of the elements," Ezra commented, glad that he would at least be warm and dry.
Nathan woke with a start when he heard someone pounding on his door. He sat up and quickly pulled on his pants over his long underwear, and hurried to the door. When he opened it he could see that it was just starting to get light outside, but it was still too early for most folks to be up and about. "Mr. Bailey? Come in, I just need to grab a few things."
"Nadine started hurtin' in the middle of the night, but it was too dark to ride in for you then. Had to wait on the moon to come out." Harry Bailey shuffled from foot to foot and fiddled with the brim of his hat. "Good thing there wasn't any clouds tonight like there was the last couple of nights, or I would have had to wait until daylight."
"Were her pains gettin' very close together when ya left?" the healer asked as he tossed a few things in the bag he carried his supplies in, and pulled on the rest of his clothes.
"Depends on what you mean by close," Harry remarked.
"Think of something that'd take about the same amount of time as there was between the pains," Nathan suggested. When Harry just looked at him blankly, he tried another approach. "It takes about an hour to get here if yer hurryin'. How many pains do ya think she mighta had while ya rode in here?"
"I don't know. Maybe six or seven, but that's hard to say." Harry was getting even more agitated as he waited for Nathan to pull on his boots and coat.
"Will ya go over to the Clarion an' ask Mrs. Travis to keep a watch over Mr. Hurley while I'm gone? I'll get my horse an' meet ya in front of the livery." Jackson did not wait for a response; instead he hurried down the stairs and into the livery to saddle his horse.
Bailey ran to the Clarion and knocked solidly on the door. He paused and then pounded again and again. It seemed like an eternity before the door opened partially and Mary Travis peeked out. "Mrs. Travis, I'm sorry to wake ya, ma'am, but Nathan sent me to ask ya to watch over Mr. Hurley while he comes out to help Nadine."
"Of course I will," Mary answered quickly, suddenly very wide-awake. "Tell, Nathan that I'll go straight over as soon as I get dressed."
"Thank you, ma'am." Harry started to turn to go, but stopped when Mary spoke again.
"Give Nadine my best wishes, and tell her I'll ride out to see her soon." The pretty blonde liked Harry's young wife. This was going to be their first child and Mary new that Nadine was very nervous, and so, apparently, was Harry. "She'll be just fine, Harry. She's in good hands with Nathan." Mary reached out to touch his arm and was rewarded with a feeble attempt at a smile.
Bailey did not trust himself to say much else, but he acknowledged her with a nod, and then managed to promise to pass on Mary's message before he rushed toward the livery.
It did not take long for Mary to get dressed. She stopped by Billy's room before going back downstairs. "Billy," she said as she shook him gently. "Billy, wake up."
The boy groaned and forced open sleepy eyes. "Mama?"
"Are you awake enough to listen to me?" The newspaper woman knew her son all too well. If she did not make him talk to her a little so she could be sure he was hearing her, he would never remember that she had talked to him at all.
"Uh huh?" Billy yawned and batted his eyes in an attempt to keep them open. "Do I gotta get up now?"
"No, you don't have to get up, but I have to go over to Nathan's clinic to take care of Mr. Hurley. When you wake up, you come straight over there and I'll get us all some breakfast from Inez." She watched her son smile at the thought of one of Inez's breakfasts. He was a boy who loved to eat, and he liked Inez's cooking. "Did you hear me?"
"Uh huh." The boy stretched and yawned again.
"All right, you go back to sleep, and I'll see you for breakfast." Mary kissed him on the forehead and went downstairs. It took her a moment to get her coat and hat, and then she hurried out the door to go take care of Nathan's patient.
Mary hugged her son and kissed him on the cheek. "Good morning, sleepyhead. Are you hungry?"
"Uh huh, I'm starvin'."
"You're always starving." She tousled the boy's hair and grinned at him affectionately. "Why don't you keep Mr. Hurley company while I go get all of us some breakfast?"
Mary left her son sitting and talking to the patient about his busted leg. It really was not all that late. She just liked teasing her son when she got the chance. The inside of the saloon was still fairly dark, but she knew Inez would be up and would have coffee and food started for the early risers.
"Good morning." Inez came out of the kitchen and greeted her customer.
"Good morning. Can I get breakfast for three, please?" Mary watched the young Mexican woman's brows raise in question. "For Billy and me, and I am taking care of Mr. Hurley while Nathan is out of town."
"Mrs. Bailey is having her baby then?"
"Yes. Poor Harry is a nervous wreck," Mary chuckled. "I don't blame him though. First babies always seem to take so long to get here, and he was out there all alone with her when the pains hit. It probably scared him half to death."
"I hope all goes well for them." Inez was genuinely happy for the young couple. "Would you like to come to the back with me while I get your breakfast?"
The two women talked while Inez cooked. Mary's stomach rumbled and her mouth watered but it was not in anticipation of food, at least not in a good way. She swallowed hard, only to have her mouth continue to water.
"Are you all right?" Inez asked for the second time.
Mary nodded and swallowed again. "Yes. I'm fine. There's just something about the smell of the bacon that isn't setting well with me this morning."
"I'm sure it is okay." The young Mexican woman picked up the slab of bacon she had been slicing and sniffed it cautiously, and then took a deeper breath. "It is fine. It isn't spoiled. Do you want to see for yourself?" She held out the meat offering to let Mary check the quality of it herself.
Mary grimaced and shook her head. "No. I'll take your word for it."
"You're sure? I can fix you something else if you want." Inez looked at her quizzically.
'No need for that. I love bacon with breakfast. I've just been kind of unsettled since Ezra left. They've only been gone a couple of days, but I can't seem to shake the feeling that something's wrong." Mary hugged her arms around herself and tried to suppress the light shiver that ran through her.
"They will all come home safe and sound. You'll see." Inez tried to reassure her.
"I know they will. It's silly of me to worry so much, but it seems like every time you turn around one of them is getting hurt." Mary sighed, and looked her friend straight in the eyes. "I don't know if I could handle losing someone else I love."
Inez laid down the fork she was using to turn the bacon, and turned her full attention to her visitor. "There will be none of that kind of talk," she chastised. "Ezra has been through some tough times, and he is still living. He isn't about to do something stupid to get himself killed when he has you and Billy to come home to." She hugged the pretty blonde and was relieved to feel some of the tension leave her.
"Thanks," Mary said with an embarrassed smile. "I needed to hear that."
"That's what friends are for, to talk some sense into you when you need it." Inez released her hold and smiled at Mary. "Now, let's get these plates filled before it isn't fit to eat."
Once the plates were ready and on a cloth-covered tray, Mary thanked her and hurried back to the clinic in an effort to keep the food from getting too cold on the way.
"What in God's name was that?" Josiah rumbled when a loud crash came from outside.
"Don't know, but guess we should go find out." JD was already getting up from his chair.
The two men stepped out onto the boardwalk and surveyed the street in both directions. It was getting very near to full dark, but there was still a trace of light to see by. The man who lit the fires that would light the streets should have been out already, but no fires burned yet, allowing them the concealment the dark could give them. Both men nearly jumped out of their skins when the shot rang out and ended up crouching low to make themselves less visible in the shadows. They had seen the bright flash of the blasts and realized why it had sounded so much louder than usual.
A cowboy struggled to keep his nervous horse under control after the last volley from the twin double-barreled shotguns. He held one in each hand and squeezed off both barrels of both guns at the same time. The resulting sound left their ears ringing. The echo of the shots still rolled through the town as the man let out a wild whoop. "Yeeha!" He wobbled slightly when the horse shifted under him. "Where's the whores? Got me a itch that needs scratchin'." He spun the horse around and peered into the shadows watching for any signs of life. "Come on out. I got good money t'pay." By now he had managed to reload the guns and raised them to shoot again. "Wouldn't want none of ya perty little honeys gettin' yerselves hurt now." He blasted all four barrels again and his horse reared its front legs a couple feet off the ground before easing back to fidget in place as the rider roughly jerked on the reins. The sharp bit was yanked savagely into the horse's tender mouth.
"How do you reckon we should go about gettin' those guns away from him?" JD asked.
"Next time he stops to reload, we can approach him then," Josiah suggested. "In the state he's in, he'd probably shoot us otherwise."
"Yea, I was thinkin' he's drunk too," JD agreed, but then moaned when he saw three other riders heading toward the man on the horse, all equally as drunk and equally as loud and obnoxious.
"Looks like the odds just changed, son." Josiah strained to see in the rapidly fading light, but he still could not be sure that these four were all, or if more would step out of hiding if JD and he broke cover.
"You think you can slip down the street and come at them from the other side?" Josiah asked, his tone barely audible to the younger man even though they stood shoulder to shoulder. "You're smaller and quicker on your feet than I am; you'd stand less chance of being seen."
"Yeah, it'll take me a few minutes to get over there," the young sheriff whispered back. "Where'll you be?"
"I'm gonna create a diversion," the older man explained. "You slip on over away from the saloon, and when I get their attention, you make your move to the other side."
JD nodded in response, not thinking about the fact that Josiah might not be able to see the gesture in the dark. Silently he inched his way down the boardwalk, staying close to the wall in the darkest part of the shadows. When he got to the end of the walk he watched the four men in the street and when he saw all four men looking away at the same instant, he slipped around the corner and into the space between the buildings. Once out of sight, he hurried to the back of the buildings and ran the length of several shops before moving back toward the street. When he reached it, he looked back up the street toward the milling riders, watching for Josiah's diversion.
Josiah had not wasted the time he had to wait for JD to get in place. The big man moved in the opposite direction down the boardwalk and slipped quietly into the narrow passage on the opposite side of the saloon. It took him only a couple minutes to make it around to the back and into the saloon through the back door. He strode purposefully through the large room, snatching a half empty bottle from one of the tables, and stopped just inside the doors. The full doors were closed this time of year to ward off the cold outside. The batwing doors had been latched open and now laid flat against the wall an either side. When Josiah thought enough time had passed, he took a deep breath and let his posture slump as he lurched through the door and onto the boardwalk.
The saloon door flew open and crashed against the outside wall, when the big man staggered outside. The four men in the street were suddenly silent and whirled their horses around facing Josiah.
The ex-priest stumbled a few steps and then sagged against one of the posts supporting the roof. When he tipped back the bottle to take a drink, he heard the men begin to laugh and could not help a little smile to himself.
"Hey, old man. How's about sharin' some of that?" one of the newer arrivals called out to him.
"Ain't 'nough t'share," Josiah slurred his words and took another drink, making it look like he had taken a large gulp instead of a tiny sip.
"That ain't very neighborly," another called out. "Maybe we should jist take it."
Josiah acted like he was thinking about that last comment. "Nah..ya can have it. Too drunk t' fight ya fer it." He had caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye, and took his cue to move. He stepped down onto the top step and staggered off balance. Finally, deciding that he could not maneuver the steps without falling flat on his face in the street, the big man plopped down on the step and scooted forward until his feet could touch the ground. His antics had the men laughing at him, so he exaggerated his movements even more. The whole process of trying to stand back up took a couple of minutes as he first tried to push himself straight up into a standing position. When that failed he tried several other approaches before finally twisting around to land beside the steps on his knees where he could reach the post he had been leaning on earlier, and he used that to pull himself up.
"Come on, old man. We ain't got all night. I got me some whorin' to do," the first rider taunted.
Josiah staggered out into the street until he stood facing the four men on horseback. "Don't reckon you fellas'd let me have just one more lil' drink?" he said as he held up the bottle for them to see.
"Don't reckon we will. Hand it over!" The man with the shotguns spurred his horse forward a couple of steps.
"If that's the way you want it," Josiah spoke up, surprisingly clear for someone who had been slurring his words so badly a moment before.
"Drop the guns, and put your hands up," JD called from the shadows behind them.
In that moment of indecision when the four riders tried to figure out who was back there and if the threat was real, Josiah pulled his gun and had it trained on the men. "I'd do as the sheriff says. He doesn't take kindly to cowpokes coming in here and shooting up his town."
The men looked nervously from one to another, suddenly feeling much more sober than they had a few minutes before. Not sure of how many men had the drop on them, they let common sense rule them instead of the whiskey, and they dropped the guns.
"That was right smart of you boys," Josiah commented. "Now, down off the horses. I think you all need to sleep it off in the jail."
JD stepped out of the shadows and urged the men forward toward the jail. Once inside, he locked the four men into two cells and tossed the keys on the desk.
"You ain't nothin' but a kid," one of the men jeered at him from behind the bars.
"Yeah? But I'm out here and you're not," JD tossed back at them. "Can you keep an eye on them while I go gather up all those guns?" JD asked Josiah.
"Sure." The big man settled into the chair behind the desk.
"Thanks." The younger man went back out into the night and quickly gathered up all the discarded weapons. The horses still stood right where their riders had left them. It did not take long for him to dump the guns at the jail with Josiah and head back out to see to the horses. He gathered up all their reins and led them slowly toward the livery.
"Tiny!" JD called out when he did not see the blacksmith when he stepped inside the large building.
The big hulk of a man came out of his sleeping room, grumbling under his breath about people showing up at this time of the night. "JD," he said with a slight nod. "What do ya need?"
"Can you put these horses up for the night? I got their owners in jail and can't just let them wander around the streets of town," the young sheriff explained.
"Yup, I got room toward the back." He motioned toward four empty stalls near the back wall of the barn. "Need some help beddin' 'em down?"
"I sure could use an extra pair of hands," John Dunne accepted the offer. "Think you could take two and I do the same?"
It took some time, getting the animals fed and bedded down for the night.
"Ain't got no use fer a man that would treat his horse like this." Tiny shook his head and tossed the offending piece of equipment over a peg on the wall of the stall. "Man that'd use a bit like that oughta have t' wear it hisself."
JD looked at it in disgust. "Any man worth a hilla beans around horses oughta know they'll respond better to gentleness than meanness." He patted the horse's neck and ran a hand over its shoulder. The large animal whickered softly and turned its head to look at the young man; to JD it seemed to be saying thank you. A little closer inspection of the horse's mouth showed that it had not suffered any permanent damage this time, but its mouth was bound to be sore.
"A man that'd mistreat his horse, would jist as likely mistreat his woman too." Tiny poured some feed out for the animal and stopped to rub its nose on his way out to go to the next stall. "Yer a good boy," he said to the horse when it nudged at his hand wanting more attention. "Ya don't deserve to belong to a bastard like that." He gave it one final rub and moved on to the next horse.
The two men took extra care with the four horses, and were both relieved to see that only the one had resorted to using a sharp bit and sharp spurs too. When they were all tended to, JD headed back to the jail. He walked slowly in the cold night air, hoping his anger would cool off before he got there. He'd worked in stables back east, and he had learned to despise any man who deliberately hurt a horse.
Josiah looked up when the young sheriff opened the door. "Everything all right?" he asked, when the look on JD's face said very clearly that all was not well.
"Yeah." JD's voice lacked conviction when he spoke. He heaved a heavy sigh and looked the preacher in the eyes. "One of 'em was using a sharp bit and spurs."
"Let me guess, the whoremonger?" Josiah had taken an instant disliking to the man. He thought tomorrow morning might be a good time to give him a sermon that he would not soon forget.
"Yeah, that's the one." JD confirmed the older man's suspicions. "Why don't you go on back to the saloon. I'll keep an eye on things here."
"Sounds good to me. You know where to find me if you need me." Josiah left with his mind already working up just the right sermon, with just the right amount of hellfire and brimstone to scare the beejeezus out of any sane man.
Ezra pulled the oilcloth slicker tighter around his neck to keep the icy rain from slipping down under his collar. They had managed to avoid the rain for the first four days, despite the heavy cloud cover. However, it seemed like some higher power was determined to make up for lost chances by hitting them with a deluge today. It hit when they were about three hours out of the last town, so there was no turning back. The plan had been to go on through to the second town before stopping for the night, but that plan was quickly revised. A couple more hours would get them to Cactus Flats and shelter. They would continue on in the morning. The gambler moaned at the thought of two more hours. He felt certain that they would all be soaked to the bone by the time they reached town.
"Whoa! Whoa there!" Chris called out to the team of horses when one of the pair shied sideways, forcing the other to follow suit. The team pranced in place for a few moments and then finally settled down, but the nervous twitch of their ears and wide eyes said they were anything but calm. "Buck! Can you check..."
"Already on it," the ladies' man called back to him before he could finish the question. He urged his horse around the wagon and scanned the area trying to see what could have spooked the horses. "Damned if I can see anything wrong," he called back. "Vin, you see anything?"
"No, but somethin's not right. They've not been skittish this whole time, so somethin's made 'em antsy." The tracker slid off of his horse and bent low to check for any signs that might not have been washed away by the rain yet. He had almost given up when he noticed something under some sagebrush just off the track of the road.
"Think I found somethin'," Tanner called to the others. He moved slowly toward the brush and what was looking suspiciously like fur underneath it. When he leaned down to lift some of the branches out of the way a low growl caught his ear, but nothing moved that he could see. Mustering up his resolve, he carefully lifted the concealing foliage out of the way and found himself looking straight into the eyes of a large wolf. Again the growl rumbled forth, but the animal made no attempt to lunge for him. It continued to lie there panting heavily. Finally, Vin could see why. It had been shot, shot to wound not to kill. When it had become too weak to fight, someone had drug it here. He could barely make out some deep, water filled heel marks near the bush where they had been partially sheltered from the rain.
"What is it?" Chris said from just behind the tracker.
"Wolf," Vin answered and glanced back at Larabee, sending a silent signal to his friend.
"Yup, and we fell right into it," Vin spoke softly and nodded his agreement with Chris' take on the situation.
"Gentlemen, are we to stand here all day, getting wetter and wetter, while you look at a dead animal?" Ezra grumbled, but stopped short when he saw the wolf was still breathing. "Good Lord." He noticed the heel marks just as a shot rang out from behind a rock outcropping about twenty yards off the road. All four men froze for a moment while they tried to find where their attackers were hiding.
"Drop yer guns if'n ya want t' live," a gravelly voice spoke up, giving the peacekeepers a better idea of the location of their opponent.
"Can't do that," Chris called back. "We've got a job to do and don't intend to let you stop us."
"Mister, ya gotta be the dumbest son-of-a-bitch I ever seen," Grady Corby taunted. "We got ya dead t' rights, and ya ain't takin' our kin t' no prison."
Vin and Chris exchanged glances, both aware that they did not stand much chance if they could not get the men out in the open. "He ain't the one in charge," Vin tossed back at them. "I can't say that I'm willin' to die to keep those two locked up."
"Tanner!" Larabee roared in anger. "You swore to bring these two in. I'll play hell lettin' you turn them loose."
"That old sheriff ain't payin' me enough to risk my neck," Vin shouted back, and chanced a quick glance out of the corner of his eye to where the Corbys hid behind a large rock formation. He turned to face that direction and shouted at the men. "He's got the keys."
"You sorry son-of-a-bitch!" Chris shot back at his friend, fixing him with a hard glare.
"None of ya move." The uncle of the two prisoners slowly edged out from behind his place of concealment, and stepped cautiously toward the four men. The younger man moved out behind him and walked toward them staying several paces behind his uncle.
"Tanner, you're gonna pay for this!" Larabee fumed.
"Maybe, but I'll be alive." Vin sneered back at him.
"Give me the keys." Grady held out a hand to Chris. "Come on, give 'em to me!"
The gunman in him took control, and he started to reach slowly into his pocket. When Chris saw that both men were concentrating on watching him reach for the keys, he changed his course of action. The gun cleared leather in one smooth motion. When the sound of gunfire faded, two men lay wounded and bleeding.
Chris took a deep breath and let it out, relieved that it had been fairly simple to stop these two. "Vin, get their guns." He allowed himself a quick glance toward the tracker. His momentary lapse in vigilance would prove to be a big mistake.
Vern Corby took the chance to grab for his gun, aiming at the man closest to him. He might not be able to get them all, but he'd sure as hell take one of them with him when he died.
The sudden movement pulled Larabee's attention back in time to see the gun pointed squarely at Ezra's chest. "Ezra!" Chris threw himself at the gambler just as the shot rang out, followed immediately by three or four more.
Mary woke and frowned at the slightly queasy feeling she had. For the last couple of days the smell of food had turned her stomach, and she had thought that she must be coming down with something. Now, she had a pretty good idea what that something really was. She thought back to the morning a few days ago when she had dumped the tea out the back door and knew instantly that it could not have been then. Nathan had shown her what to use to make the tea after Vin taught him what he had learned from the old Indian woman. The same tea that saved her life when she lost the first baby, could keep her from getting pregnant again if it was made much stronger, and if she drank it regularly. But, could it hurt her or the baby if she drank it while pregnant? Her eyes grew round with alarm at the thought.
"Oh, no. This can't be happening again. I drank the tea. I can't be pregnant," she said to herself as she tried to convince herself that she must be overreacting and that nothing was wrong at all. Her head spun for a few moments when she first sat up on the edge of the bed, and her stomach threatened to rebel. For now, she was saved the indignity of ending up on her knees retching into the chamber pot.
When she felt it was safe to get up and move around she started pacing around the room, unable to sit still and think. "I drank the tea," she repeated to herself. Mary wracked her brain trying to think of when this could have happened. "Christmas was too soon," she muttered to herself. "Thanksgiving. It had to have been around Thanksgiving."
She had not noticed that her monthly had not come when it should have. She had been a little irregular since losing the first baby. Nathan tried to reassure her that her body would get back to normal in time, but while it recovered she should not get pregnant again.
"Well, it looks like we might be having a wedding sooner than we planned." She sighed heavily and sat back on the bed. Her mind was in turmoil; a jumble of thoughts all vied for a place in her conscious. 'How was Ezra going to react?' 'What would he say?' 'Was the baby all right?'
She needed to talk to Nathan, but he was still out at the Baileys'. It would have been tough, but she could have swallowed her pride and even talked to Vin, since he was the one that taught Nathan about the tea. Maybe he would know if it might hurt anything if she had been drinking it while she was pregnant. But, he was gone with Ezra and the others. Her questions would have to wait.
Resigned to the fact that she could do nothing about any of this at this point, she set about starting her day. Billy would have to deal with oatmeal for breakfast today. Her stomach was cooperating at the moment, but the smell of grease could change all that in a heartbeat.
Maude lay in her bed looking at the wall. She had been awake several times in the night and she was tired, but going back to sleep now was out of the question. Her stomach felt like it was tied in knots, and nothing relieved the pain enough for her to relax enough to go back to sleep. Nothing short of laudanum or a lot of alcohol.
The more she tried to relax, the more she hurt. She pulled her knees up farther and curled herself up into a tight ball. None of the usual things were helping any today. Finally, Maude gave up, and crawled from the bed long enough to retrieve a small bottle from her bag and take a sip of the opiate it contained. She fought the need to resort to taking the laudanum. The last thing she wanted was to add to her problems by becoming dependent on it.
One of her worst memories was seeing someone who had suddenly been deprived of the painkiller. By the second day he had gone almost mad from the sickness and pain of withdrawal. It had been even worse because that someone had been her only son. He had been shot just under his bottom rib by a jealous suitor back when he was first trying to win Julia's attention. Little did the man know that his act of jealousy would end up pushing the two of them closer together, and as soon as Ezra had recovered enough Julia and he had gotten married.
Ezra had come to depend on the drug, certain that he could not get by without it. Each time he tried to stop, the pain came back with a vengeance. It had taken Julia and her both to hold him down at times, when they finally forced him to give it up. Maude thought back to the dark-haired beauty that her son had married a few years before and regretted that she had not made more of an effort to accept her. It had been very difficult for Julia to ask Maude to help her get Ezra off the laudanum, but she would have done anything necessary, because she loved him with all her heart.
They waited until he was sleeping off the effects of the opiate and had Julia's father help them move him to another bedroom, one that they had thoroughly inspected, and they knew had no hidden bottles. The two women had locked themselves in the room with Ezra and waited. Food was carried up to them on trays, as was anything else they needed so they would not need to leave the room.
The first day was not too bad. The worst that they had to deal with was Ezra's anger, but by midday on day two things turned very ugly. When he was not physically fighting them in an attempt to escape the room, he was lying there curled up in pain, sweating, and shaking, until it seemed that he would rattle his own bones loose. It did not take long for the sickness to follow. There had been times that they both feared that he would strangle; the retching was so severe, and at times he would nearly pass out from not being able to breathe.
Those had been three of the worst days of her life, watching her son fight that battle. She would have thought that they would have been the worst days of Ezra's life too, but when it became his turn to watch Julia fight the pain of the tumor that grew deep inside her belly, it was clear that she had been wrong. Ezra stayed by his wife's side through all of the torment, and at the end Maude had watched the life drain out of her son's eyes as the life drained out of Julia's body.
Now, the con-woman was afraid, more afraid than she had ever been in her life. She had seen Julia's suffering, and had watched the toll it had taken on her son. The thought of Ezra having to go through that all again broke Maude's heart, and she did not intend to let that happen. She had no control over any future but her own, and she was determined that her baby boy would not have to watch her suffer as he had Julia.
Maude sighed as the drug took effect, and the pain began to ease. She had wanted to see her son, to let him know how much she loved him, and hopefully heal some past hurts. Her plan had been to visit for a couple of weeks and then leave. When she was gone, someone would find the letter in her bag that was addressed to Ezra along with the note asking that it be mailed to her son.
Now, with the news of her son's impending marriage, and his prolonged absence, her plans had changed. She would hold out until she felt that she could no longer hide her condition, and then she would leave. Maude prayed that she would be able to wait long enough to see Ezra married. The visit had started off rocky, when she was caught off-guard with the news of his relationship with Mary, but this time, she intended to embrace his choice of a wife and welcome her into the family with open arms.
Maude drifted back to sleep when the pain finally let go of her. She slept and dreamed of holding her first grandchild, one who had his father's green eyes and dimples. The dream seemed so real that she could almost feel the warm bundle in her arms, and hear the soft coos he made when Ezra bent over them to tickle his tiny toes. In her dreams Maude was truly happy, and in her sleep she smiled.
Buck stood frozen in place for a few seconds while his mind took in the scene around him. Grady Corby stared sightlessly at the gray sky above him, unblinking as the rain splattered on his flaccid features. A few yards away Vern moaned and stretched out a hand toward the pistol that had landed several feet out of reach when he fell.
Vin moved first and retrieved the gun from the ground and stuck it in his belt out of reach of the critically wounded man. Pain-glazed eyes, full of hate, followed his every move. The tracker bent over the younger of the two attackers and shook his head sadly. "Didn't have t' be like this." He watched as the fallen man's breathing grew rapid and shallow as he fought to hold onto the last thread of life.
Vern licked dry lips and tried to swallow without much success. He clenched his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut as the temporary numbness eased and the first pain ripped through his gut. Dark blue eyes seemed to bore holes in the tracker when the dying man finally managed to open his eyes again. A violent shiver ran through him; suddenly he felt very cold. Summoning the last drop of energy left in him, Vern spat dryly at Vin, unable to muster up enough spit to drown a gnat.
"Go to h..." The last sound came out as a rush of air, expelled between a pair of cold lifeless lips.
Certain that the tracker was not in danger of attack, Buck tore his gaze away from him and turned to speak to Chris and Ezra. "Chris!" He hurried to the fallen men. His voice broke as the realization that something was seriously wrong hit him full force. "Ezra!" Heedless of the mud and pooling water, Buck knelt beside his two friends.
The gambler groaned and struggled to open his eyes. Each breath took considerable effort as he fought to pull air into his starved lungs. Awareness of his surroundings crept into his mind and body, and he realized that what he had first thought had to be a horse sitting on his chest, was actually Chris Larabee. Suddenly, Ezra was fully alert and staring at the man who lay sprawled over him. His green eyes were glued to the ribs of the man that had just knocked him out of the way of the gunman's bullet, willing them to expand as his lungs filled with air.
"Chris!" There was no reaction when Buck called out to him again and laid one large hand against the side of their leader's throat searching for any sign of a heartbeat.
Vin's ashen face suddenly appeared in front of Buck, blocking his view of his oldest friend. Tanner could see the fear in Ezra's eyes. "You all right, Ezra?" When he saw the gambler nod, he got hold of Chris' shoulder to roll him over. "Chris...come on, pard."
Buck nodded and let out a sigh of relief. "He's alive." As Vin moved to unbutton Chris' shirt to expose the ugly holes in the pale flesh, Wilmington rested one hand on Larabee's forehead and gently used his thumb to pull up one eyelid. The eye reacted slightly to the light. "How bad is it?" he asked the tracker.
"Can't say fer sure yet. Looks like it went in here." Tanner indicated the hole just below his ribcage on his side. "And came out here." The jagged exit wound was near where the side actually turned into the chest, low beneath the ribs.
"At least it isn't still inside." Buck looked at the oozing hole in dismay. "I'll see what I can find for a bandage."
"Allow me." Ezra spoke up and rolled to his knees in the mud before trying to stand up. Dizziness washed over him for a moment after having the wind knocked out of him when Chris landed on him. It took only a shrill whistle to bring Chaucer to him where he could dig into his saddlebags for something he could tear up for bandages. He considered each item as he searched for something suitable, but was not sure what would work the best.
"Sometime today, Ezra," Buck growled.
Ezra stopped searching and pulled out one of his clean white shirts and hurried back to where his companions waited. The sound of ripping fabric didn't even make him flinch like it usually would at the thought of one of his best shirts being destroyed. All he could do was stare as Vin and Buck worked on Chris' wound.
"What's goin' on out there?" Carl shouted from the confines of the enclosed prison wagon. "Grady? Vern, get us outta here."
Buck lunged to his feet and stormed around to the back of the wagon. "They can't help you!" he bellowed at the man straining to see out of the one tiny window in the door. "They're dead." A look of pure malice transformed his usually pleasant features, and his voice took on a threatening quality that caused Carl to recoil in fear. "You sorry sack of horse shit! You better start prayin' that Chris don't die or you'll never make it to Yuma alive."
All the color drained from the face in the window. "Ya can't do that. Yer a lawman."
"You ever seen any star pinned to my shirt?" Buck's eyes turned almost black with rage. "You got killed tryin' to escape. We didn't have any choice." He drew back and punched at Carl's face, but missed when the man jerked back from the window.
"Yer plum loco." Joe's voice echoed from the depths of the wagon.
"And don't you forget it," Buck warned. "'Cause 'til we turn you over to the warden, yer life is mine."
A few long strides brought him back to kneel beside his friend. "Chris, come on, buddy. You gotta open yer eyes." He patted Chris' cheek in an attempt to rouse him.
"Probly best that he don't wake up 'til we get him moved," Vin pointed out.
"Yer probably right about that. You ready?"
"Yeah, I've done all I can," the tracker got to his feet and finally looked at the gambler. "You all right, Ezra?"
Standish nodded but remained silent. The cold rain splattered on his face and plastered his hair to his scalp, before running down under his collar to soak his shirt, but he did not notice the cold.
"Then help us get Chris in the wagon."
Ezra's steps faltered slightly when he bent to help Vin lift Chris. The two of them managed to hand the wounded man up to Buck, who had climbed to the seat of the wagon. The gambler shook his head to clear the last bit of wooziness from being winded when the sudden weight of the unconscious gunman landed on his chest
"Ya all right, Ezra?" The tracker had noticed the slight stumble.
"I assure you, I'm fine. Just got the wind knocked out of me is all." Ezra stood and watched as Buck worked to settle Chris on the seat of the wagon. "How bad is it, really?" He nodded toward the unmoving form of their leader. His mind reeled with the realization that this man had put his life on the line for him.
"Can't really say. Nathan might could tell, but least ways it went clear through. He needs a doctor in a bad way." Vin watched as Buck arranged Chris' oilcloth slicker to keep as much rain off the wounded man as possible. The extended roof that covered the seat would help considerably, but it would not keep all the rain off.
"Vin, would you tie my horse to the back? I'll drive the wagon." Buck turned to settle down where he could pull Chris' legs across his lap.
"Mr. Wilmington, may I ask if you would allow me to drive the wagon?" Pleading green eyes caught and held the ladies' man's dark gaze.
"Ezra, I don't know if that'd be..." His voice trailed off when he saw the look on the younger man's face. He had seen that look before, and here it was again. The gambler was blaming himself. "All right. I'll get your horse, if that devil on hooves will let me near him."
"Buck," Ezra stopped him by placing a hand on his arm. "Thank you."
"Ezra," Buck sighed and looked the smaller man straight in the eyes. "This wasn't your fault. He'd have done the same thing for any of us."
The gambler could not trust himself to speak at the moment and simply nodded. He felt the reassuring pat on the shoulder that Buck gave him before turning away to round up the horses. After clambering up onto the seat and shifting Chris' legs so they rested across his lap, he allowed himself a few moments to reflect on what had happened in the last half-hour. He was jerked out of his reverie by the sound of a gunshot and looked up to see Vin standing near the bush that had concealed the wounded wolf, pistol in hand.
"All right, let's move out," Buck called from the back of the wagon.
"You two go ahead and I'll catch up," Vin told them. "I need to check out the area and find their horses. We can use 'em to haul those two into town." The tracker pointed to the two bodies. He did not wait for an acknowledgement, but mounted his own horse and headed off in the direction he felt sure the two dead men had come from. If he were sure they were unsaddled and could get away on their own, he would not bother. They would be happy to be free, but in good conscience, he could not leave them to the mercy of wild animals and the elements, if they could not fend for themselves. So, he could take care of two things at once; check on the horses and scout the area for any other signs of trouble.
"Okay, Ezra. Let's get goin'." Buck knew that there was more behind Vin's motives for finding the horses than just to use them as pack animals. He understood Tanner's reluctance to leave the animals on their own out there, but he also hoped that they would not encounter any trouble before he caught back up to them.
"Giddup," the gambler called out as he flicked the reins. The wagon creaked into motion. They had been a good two hours from the next town when the ambush occurred, and that was moving at a quicker pace than they could keep now. At this pace, and with the road becoming more of a mire of mud with each passing minute, the trip would take twice that long, at least.
Chris groaned as his body was rocked violently when the wagon wheel dropped into a hole that was hidden by water that covered a large patch of the road. The sudden movement sent pain lacing through his side and forced him out of the dark place he had been resting in.
Ezra's voice sounded strange; it sounded like it was miles away. Chris tried to will himself back into the darkness, the place where pain was not welcome.
That got the gunman's attention. The gambler hardly ever used his first name. Another groan rose unbidden when he took a deeper breath to try to speak. He struggled to open his eyes but succeeded in opening them only a slit before they drooped shut again.
"Buck!" Ezra called out to the man who rode ahead of the wagon. When the ladies' man reined in and allowed the wagon to overtake him, Ezra waited until they were side by side to speak again. "I do believe he's trying to come around."
"Stop the wagon," Buck insisted, and rode around to the other side to check on his friend.
At first there did not seem to be any improvement, but he could tell that Chris' breathing had changed, and then came the sound of a soft moan. "Chris, come on, you old dog. It's time you woke up and quit shirking your duty."
"Buck..." Larabee's voice was not much above a whisper. "Eat shit."
Wilmington grinned from ear to ear and laughed. "Now is that any way to talk to your oldest friend? Hell, the only friend you got who'd stick around this long?"
"Yup. You're just like a dog," Chris said through teeth clenched in pain. "Kick him and he still comes back for more."
"Yeah, I reckon I am at that." Buck winked at Ezra whose expression of relief mirrored his own. "How you holdin' up?"
"Been better." Chris licked dry lips and tried to swallow. "Thirsty."
Buck opened his canteen and lifted his friend's head enough to allow him a swallow to wet his mouth. "You just hang in there. We'll have you to town as quick as we can."
All the wounded gunman could manage was a slight nod before he drifted back into the darkness.
"I see you found them," Buck shouted at Vin when he saw him ride up leading the Corbys' horses.
"Yeah. Good that I did, too. They were tied so tight they would have had a hard time gettin' free. No signs of anyone else out there that I could see. But with all this rain, I can't be sure." The tracker handed the reins of the dead men's horses to Buck to lead for a while and took time to grab a drink from his canteen. "He any better?" He indicated the prone form on the seat of the wagon.
"He came around for a few minutes, but then drifted off again." Buck looked sadly toward his wounded friend and sighed. "We need to get him to town fast, but we can't go any faster with the wagon. There's deep holes in places that we can't see for the water. Last thing we need is to break an axle."
"Ya think he can hold out long enough?"
"I think so," Buck replied, "but I don't know. Ezra says he seems to be breathin' better, not all shallow and gasping like it was to start with."
"That's usually a perty good sign." Vin took a moment to ride over closer to check on Chris before urging his horse ahead of the others. "I'll try t' check the road ahead of ya. Might not find all the holes but could find some of 'em for ya."
Vin reined in at the side of the stream and studied its rolling water. There had never been a bridge there since the water was usually shallow enough to ford easily. He did not have any idea how much deeper than usual the water was, but it was obvious that it was moving a lot faster. "Wait here." He held up a hand to signal for the others to stop.
Cautiously he urged Peso into the swift water. The horse fidgeted, uneasy about moving into the fast current, but he did as his rider wanted him to. In the middle of the stream the water was halfway between the horse's knees and his belly and then it started to get shallower again as he moved out of the water on the other side.
"Ya can make it, but take it easy." The tracker waved the others forward.
"You are certain the wagon can get through?" Ezra called out.
"Nothin's certain, 'cept that ya won't get through if ya wait too much longer." Vin could see the hesitation in the gambler even from that distance, and he nudged his horse, urging him back into the muddy water. Once he was close enough he grabbed the bridle of the horse closest to him and tugged.
Ezra steeled himself for the crossing and said a quick prayer that the tracker was right. He flicked the reins. "Giddup!"
The wagon lurched forward and Vin pulled harder, urging the horses to move a little quicker. They were a little more than halfway through when the wagon suddenly rocked violently sideways, threatening to topple over in the roiling water. For long moments it stood precariously on two wheels before it finally settled back down flat. However, no amount of effort could get the wagon moving again.
Buck quickly tied off the horses he had been leading and rode back into the current to untie the two animals that had been tied to the back of the wagon. Once they were secure he joined Vin back in the stream, as he tried to figure out what was keeping the wagon from moving.
"Maybe it's in a hole," Buck offered.
"Don't think so." Vin nodded toward the wagon. "It's settin' too level. One corner'd be lower if it was in a hole. No, somethin's holdin' it." He handed Peso's reins to Buck and slipped off his back into the fast moving water. Clinging to the harnesses of the horses, he worked his way around to the upstream side of the wagon, where the water would press him into the wagon instead of sweeping him away. He felt around the front wheel, but it was clear. Cautiously he repeated this at the back wheel. Still nothing there. Whatever it was it was on the downstream side. Sighing heavily he worked his way around the back of the wagon.
"Git us outta here," Carl bellowed out of the small window in the door when he heard Tanner outside. "Ya can't leave us in here t' drown if this turns over." When he got no response to his plea he pressed his face into the tiny opening and yelled again. "Ya hear me? Ya can't leave us trapped in here."
"Mister, you'd better be mighty glad yer in there and not out here." Tanner glared at the man and continued to inch his way around the wagon. His footing was precarious on the slippery rocks and the press of the water against his legs threatened to sweep his feet out from under him. He was not too worried about the prospect of drowning, since it was not too deep yet, but he didn't relish the idea of an all over soaking in this cold weather. His legs were already going numb from the cold. The dampness from all the rain was chilling too much for his liking. "'Cause if ya were out here, then that'd mean I'd have to kill ya."
Carl paled and backed away from the window. "Yer just as loco as the other one."
"No, I'm not." Vin's expression was deadly serious. "I'm worse."
Finally, he managed to get around to the other side and started feeling around with his foot. It hit something hard and a little investigation told him it was piece of a tree limb. He kicked at it with his foot but he couldn't get enough leverage to knock it loose. There was no other recourse left to him. He reached down into the churning water to grab at the nub of a branch and jerked with all his strength. At first it didn't budge, but then came loose suddenly, sending Vin sprawling backward into the icy water.
"Vin!" Buck watched from the bank as the tracker was suddenly immersed in water. He leapt off his horse and was almost at the water's edge when Vin surfaced and struggled to his feet several yards downstream. The water level was slowly rising and the current threatened to take him down again, but he managed to inch his way out of the deeper water where he could get out on his own without the need for Buck taking a drenching too.
"Get the wagon out of there!" Tanner called when he had reached shallower water. "The water's comin' up.!"
Buck stopped in his tracks and reversed course to go help Ezra. He swung quickly into the saddle and kicked his horse, urging it back into the water where he could reach one of the team's harnesses. "Come on! Yah!" He pulled the frantic animal as the gambler slapped the reins against their backs and shouted.
"Giddup!" Ezra struggled to stay calm as the water rose steadily higher. A few more inches and it would be pressing against the side of the wagon and would undoubtedly end up pushing it over. "Giddup! Move!"
Finally their combined efforts paid off. The horses lunged forward, and the wagon jolted into motion. Once everyone was safely on the bank of the stream, they all took time to breathe.
"I must say that is an experience I hope to never have again," Ezra grumbled. He kept his hands against his legs to still their shaking and hide the tremors from the others. One of his biggest fears was drowning. That was something he had never told anyone, but after a childhood accident, fast moving water always scared him.
"Me either," Vin added through chattering teeth.
"Mr. Tanner, we must find a way to get you dry and warm." Ezra could see the blue tinge to the tracker's lips and see the shivers that shook his thin frame.
"Fat chance of that out here," Vin pointed out. "In case ya haven't notice, there's water every where. Let's get movin'. We should make it t' town in another hour or so."
Ezra opened his mouth to speak but snapped it shut again when Buck shook his head no. "Let it go. He's right. There's no way to get dry out here. The best thing is to get to town as soon as we can, for him and for Chris."
Standish watched Buck ride slightly ahead and then snapped the reins urging the team into motion. The wagon jerked, causing its injured passenger to moan when the sudden movement sent more pain shooting through his side.
"Chris," the gambler said as he passed all the reins to his left hand so he could use the other hand to check on Larabee. "It shouldn't be much longer now. Vin says perhaps only an hour more to reach town."
Chris Larabee forced open heavy, gritty eyelids and blinked at the light. "Could use a drink."
"Give me a moment to secure the reins, and I'll get my canteen." Standish wrapped the reins around the brake handle of the moving wagon so he would not lose them while he tended to the wounded man. But, when he started to take the stopper out of the canteen he could see Chris shaking his head no.
"A drink," Larabee insisted.
"I see." The gambler understood what his passenger wanted and reached into his inside pocket for the silver flask he kept stashed there. "I believe I will be able to oblige." Cautiously, he stood and leaned over the stricken man. Ezra lifted Chris' head with one hand while he held the bottle to his lips with the other. At first he allowed only a small swallow until he could be sure Larabee would not choke on it, and then he allowed him a few larger gulps, knowing the alcohol would help dull the pain.
Chris laid his head back again, panting heavily from the exertion. When he caught his breath he reached out weakly and patted the hand Ezra still had resting on his shoulder. "Thanks."
"If you need more, you need only ask." The gambler gave the gunman's shoulder a gentle squeeze before maneuvering around to get back into his seat. It took a couple of minutes to get situated again, with Larabee's legs lying on his lap and the reins all back in hand.
There was so much going on in Ezra's mind that he was afraid to try to speak to Chris about any of it now. It just was not the time to get the wounded man all worked up, or to have him expend his meager energy talking to him. Standish decided talk could wait until their leader had received some medical care and had gotten some rest. But, as soon as the blond was stronger, there were questions that needed answers. Ezra hung his head, deep in thought, guilt eating away at him.
Chris watched from beneath lowered lids, and he could read the gambler's face like a book. The very fact that Ezra was letting this much emotion play on his features was an indication of just how deeply the gambler felt, and even wounded and weakened as he was, Larabee could tell it was guilt the younger man felt.
"Ezra." Chris' voice wasn't far above a whisper.
Standish jerked his head up, startled by hearing his name. He thought Chris had already drifted back to sleep. "Yes, Mr. Larabee?"
"I like Chris better." He sighed and mustered his energy. "You weren't to blame."
"That would be a matter of perspective wouldn't it? By my account you would not be lying there in such a condition if you had not been protecting me." Ezra swallowed hard and looked away from the penetrating green eyes.
"Not your fault..." Larabee's voice trailed off as he let the darkness reclaim him again.
"You the sheriff?" Buck looked at the older man behind the desk, sizing him up.
"Yup, who wants to know?" Jake McCann looked up at the big man who stood towering over him.
"Buck Wilmington. We're transporting prisoners to Yuma for Judge Travis, and we need to lock 'em in your jail for a spell, while we tend to our injured. This town gotta doctor?" He glanced quickly around the small room, thinking if this was all there was to the jail, it could not be much of a town either.
"No doctor, but ya can use the cell. Closest doctor is over at Sandy Creek. That's 'bout a three hour ride on a good day." McCann hauled his ample body out of the chair and dug the key to the cell door out of the desk drawer. "How many ya haulin'?"
"Two." Buck gave the older man a moment to grab his coat and then followed him out the door.
"Sheriff says there isn't a doc in town. One of us will need to ride to Sandy Creek t' see if we can get the doctor there." Wilmington pulled his gun as they headed toward the back of the wagon. "Ezra, come help us get these two locked up then we can tend to Chris properly."
Standish eased himself out from under Chris' legs and tied off the reins. He moved quickly to the back with his own gun drawn. Vin joined them with his scattergun.
"Must be some tough hombres." Jake looked curiously at the locked wagon door. "Who're the dead men?" He nodded to the bodies slung over the backs of two of the horses.
"Not tough enough, but not takin' any chances with them. Already had these two try to bust 'em out. They," he nodded to the bodies, "were some of their kin."
When he was sure everyone was in place, he stepped forward to unlock the door. "Come on outta there, real easy."
The two Corby brothers stepped out of the back of the wagon, their feet and hands in shackles. Almost immediately their eyes were drawn to the bodies and their eyes grew wide and enraged. "Ya bastards! Ya didn't have to kill 'em." Carl snarled and then spat at Buck.
"Corby, yer about two seconds from feelin' my fist in your face," Buck warned.
When Wilmington waved his gun at him, Carl decided it was not the best time to antagonize the man, and wisely shut his yap. He trudged sullenly into the small jail just ahead of his brother and flinched slightly when the door clanged shut and the key turned in the door.
"Vin, keep an eye on them while Ezra and I see to Chris." Buck turned to the sheriff next. "You have any extra blankets or can you get some?"
"Sure, but wouldn't ya rather take him over to one of the rooms at the saloon? It's a sight more comfortable than in here." McCann went to a storage chest and pulled out a couple blankets.
"Might be, but we bunk at the jail when we're hauling prisoners." Buck accepted the blankets and folded one double before laying it on the floor near the stove. He signaled to Ezra and the two went out after Chris.
"You take his legs," Wilmington instructed and got hold of Larabee's shoulders. As gently as possible, he pulled his old friend out of the wagon, pausing for Ezra to secure a hold on their leader's legs, and the two of them carried Chris to the blanket inside.
Larabee groaned when he was laid on the floor, but he did not awaken fully. Buck knelt and quickly checked Chris' wounds and was glad to see that they had not started bleeding hard again. They oozed in a couple spots but so far the scabbing that had begun to form stayed intact.
Vin watched the proceedings with concern. "I'll head out for Sandy Creek." The thought of thee more hours shivering in wet clothes was not high on his list of things he wanted to do today, but Chris was too close of a friend for him to let his own discomfort matter.
"Like hell you will." Buck looked the tracker straight in the eye. "Yer frozen to the bone. I'll go. I just need five minutes to pull on some drier clothes since the rain has stopped, and to swallow some coffee."
Vin edged nearer and leaned in close to speak to Wilmington in low tones. "I'd really rather go. What if he recognizes me?"
"I'll see if I can get Ezra to keep the sheriff distracted, but you have to rest and warm up. We don't have time for you to go gettin' sick on top of Chris gettin' shot. Once he's settled, you and me will have to take the Corbys the rest of the way on our own." Buck paused a moment to take another swallow of the coffee Ezra had handed him.
"I caught just a portion of what you were saying," Standish offered. "I will do my utmost to make sure Mr. Tanner is not recognized while you procure the doctor, but might I ask what I will be doing while you two go to Yuma?"
"Someone's gotta tend t' Chris, and the logical one is you." Buck had to smile when Ezra's eyebrow climbed toward his hairline at hearing the ladies' man use a word like logical. "Vin and I are more accustomed to hard travel." He held up his hand to stop the gambler's protest. "I'm not saying you can't handle it. I'm sure you can. But you're just the best one for what needs to be done here."
Standish nodded and turned back to the stove to get himself a cup of coffee. It was not that he wanted the coffee so much, although it would help to warm him some, it was to keep them from seeing the disappointment on his face. He knew someone should stay with Chris, but he felt that the only reason he was the logical one to stay was so he would not be the cause of someone else getting hurt.
Now dry, and much warmer, wearing a borrowed coat and carrying a borrowed slicker, Buck Wilmington mounted his horse again. "You two keep a close watch on things until I get back. It will be full dark by the time I get there. I might not be able to convince the doc to come out until it gets daylight, but I sure aim to try."
"Don't worry. Everyone will still be here and breathin' when ya get back," Vin promised.
"Gonna hold you to that." Buck started to turn his horse toward the street, but paused and nodded to Ezra who had just walked up behind Tanner. "I'm countin' on you both." He turned the horse's head away from the hitching rail, nudged the large animal in the ribs, and headed out of town without looking back.
"Everythin' go all right while I was gone?" The healer pulled out a chair and flopped into it.
"Nothing we couldn't handle." Josiah winked at JD and they both chuckled.
"Reckon that means somethin' happened. Ya gonna tell me about it, or make me guess?" Jackson sighed and slumped a bit in his seat. He rubbed at his eyes, yawning widely. "Don't think I have enough of my wits right now to do much guessin' though."
"When did you get back? Everything go all right? We were starting to think there must have been some trouble." The preacher eyed the black man with concern. He signaled to Inez to bring them all some coffee. "Mrs. Bailey and the baby all right?"
"Yeah." Nathan accepted the steaming cup from Inez and inhaled the strong aroma. "Ummmm... I really need this." He smiled up at the pretty barkeep before taking a cautious sip. "First babies are so unpredictable. By the time we got there, her pains had stopped. Turned out to be a false alarm, but I could tell she was ready. Thought it would be best to just wait it out."
"For six days?" JD asked.
"Took about three days before her pains started again, but then took all one day and half of the next before that baby got here." Nathan chuckled softly. "Once she got goin' though, things moved along right quick. The second one just took a few minutes."
"The second one?" The young sheriff cocked an eyebrow and studied the healer as he let that bit of information sink in. Suddenly his eyes grew wide and a huge grin threatened to split his face from ear to ear. "Twins!"
"Yup, twins." Nathan smiled at the younger man's enthusiasm. "A boy and a girl."
"Oh, how exciting!" Inez beamed happily at the good news. "Do you think she would accept a baby gift from me?"
"Why wouldn't she?" Dunn never could see the more realistic side of things. He always seemed to see things through the eyes of innocence.
"Son, there are all kinds of people in this world, and many of them hold some type of prejudice or another. The Baileys accepted Nathan's help in bringing the babies into this world, so Inez being Mexican probably wouldn't matter to them. But, none of us know them well enough yet to know how they would feel about Inez running a saloon. To some people any woman who works in a saloon is less than desirable to have as a friend." Josiah sighed heavily and looked apologetically at the young Mexican woman.
"I don't get it? Why would anyone not want to have Inez for a friend? She's one of the nicest people in town."
"JD, what Josiah was trying to say is that most people see all saloon women as whores." Inez watched as her words sank in and the young man's look of confusion was replaced with one of shock and then anger.
"Well, that just ain't right!" Dunn was totally indignant at the mere thought that anyone would look at Inez that way. "Anyone around here needs help, and you're one of the first ones to pitch in..." He stopped talking when he felt a slender hand on his shoulder.
"Thank you." The dark-skinned beauty bent and placed a chaste kiss on the young man's cheek. "It means a lot to me that you and your amigos do not see me in that way. But, other people can't help the way they feel. It is all right. I am used to it."
She turned back to the healer and cocked one brow in question. "Do you think she would accept something from me?"
"I think she would," Nathan responded after a moment's thought. "I reckon if they can accept a black ex-slave as a midwife, they're open-minded enough to be acceptin' of a Mexican barmaid."
Her smile brought a sparkle to her deep brown eyes. "Thank you. I will go visit as soon as I can. I can take them a couple baby blankets I made."
"You made baby blankets?" Nathan eyed her and could not help letting his gaze travel over her trim figure.
"Not for me!" She flipped at the healer's shoulder with a wet bar towel. "I like to knit before I go to bed; it soothes me so I sleep better. So, I make baby things. You never know when you might need a gift for a friend."
"Somehow I just can't see you sittin' and knittin'." The sheriff squinted at the woman and the shook his head in frustration. "I can't even get my mind to imagine it." At the somewhat hurt expression on Inez's face, he hurried on. "I don't mean that in a bad way. It's just that you're always so busy; just don't seem like you could ever find time. Seems like you would be fallin' into bed after workin' all day."
"Sometimes I do, but other times I knit for a little while before trying to sleep." She winked at the young man before turning to head back to the bar to serve another customer.
"If the babies got here two or three days ago, why'd it take so long to get back?" Josiah returned them to the original topic.
"I figured after havin' two babies, she might need some extra care for a bit. Wanted to be sure she didn't get 'childbed fever'. Sometimes it happens and this was the first time I helped bring twins," Nathan explained. "Now, you gonna tell me what happened while I was gone?"
JD dove into the recitation of his exploits with Josiah with both feet. By the time the tale was over all three were laughing heartily.
"I'd have paid good money t' see that performance." Nathan slapped Josiah on the shoulder and grinned. "Seems like I missed some fun."
"Just doing our job." The preacher chuckled. "As they say, it's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it."
"Yeah, mighty tough, drinking whiskey, and staggering around like a drunk," Nathan teased.
"It isn't as easy as you think to be convincing about it," Josiah insisted.
"Nah, reckon it ain't at that." The healer yawned again, so wide that the two men with him thought surely his jaw would get stuck like that.
"You should go get some sleep." Sanchez leaned a little closer so his voice would not carry too far from their table. "We all know that you think you're indestructible, but even you need to rest in order to function well."
"I'm goin'. Was goin' t' have a bath first, but I'd probably fall asleep an' drown in the tub." Nathan yawned again and stood to leave. "If ya need me, ya know where I am." With that he walked away and headed to his room over the livery.
"You think he's all right?" JD's eyes had not left the retreating form of their colleague as he left the room, a bit unsteady on his feet.
"Nothing wrong that several hours' sleep won't cure." Josiah patted the young man's arm and then stood up. "He's had a busy week. Think I'll go take a turn around town." Sanchez was out the door in a few long strides, leaving JD to finish his breakfast on his own.
Inez took a chance to go visit Mary while business was slow at midmorning. She had hired a new bartender and she wanted a chance to leave him on his own to see how he handled things. That way she was close at hand if he needed her, but not standing there watching his every move. Once she was sure he could do the job unsupervised, there might be a chance to visit Mrs. Bailey and see the new babies.
Mary was nowhere to be seen when Inez opened the door to the Clarion and stepped inside. She had not seen her out about town so far that morning either. Inez rapped on the door that joined the living quarters and the office and waited. No answer. She frowned and knocked again. This time she could hear footsteps coming down the stairs, moving at a slow halting pace. After several long moments the doorknob rattled and turned, and Inez got a glimpse of her friend's pale face through the small opening in the door.
"Mary? Are you all right?" The pretty Mexican was instantly alarmed by Mary Travis' actions.
"Yes." The blonde nodded, but the shakiness of her voice said otherwise.
"No, I think you are not." Inez pushed against the door to open it a little farther so she could see Mary better. "What is wrong?" She laid the back of her hand against Mary's pale, clammy cheek and was startled to find it very cool to the touch. Fever would not have been much of a surprise, but this was. Something was obviously very wrong.
Mary gave up her pretense and allowed herself to sag down to sit on the steps. Her legs were too wobbly to hold her up any longer, and the ache in her stomach was not as noticeable when she sat or lay down. "I don't know. Maybe I am coming down with something. I sent Billy over to stay with Gloria just in case." She reached up with shaky fingers to push some stray strands of hair out of her face.
"Have you eaten anything today?"
"No. I didn't feel like trying to stand there to cook. I gave Billy some biscuits and honey, but that's all I could manage." She looked up sadly at Inez. "Billy didn't complain, but I feel like such a lousy mother, sending him off with nothing but bread for breakfast."
"Gloria will see that he is well fed. You needn't worry about that. I'll stop by and make sure she knows, if that will ease your mind a little."
"Thank you." Mary attempted a smile, but fell short of her goal.
"Come on, let's get you something to eat and some tea. Do you think you can keep something down?" Inez took hold of Mary's arm to steady her as they walked the short distance to the kitchen.
"Maybe. I don't know. I think I can handle some tea." She flopped into the chair without a modicum of grace and leaned forward enough to rest her head in her hands.
It took several minutes to get the water warm enough for tea, but once it was done Inez added a generous measure of honey to it, and sliced Mary a piece of the homemade bread she had wrapped on the counter. She warmed it on the stove to soften it enough to make it easier to eat and then spread it with honey before handing it to her friend.
"You need to try to eat something. My mother used to make me bread and honey when I was sick. Maybe it will be all right for you, too." The Mexican barmaid took Mary's hand and placed the warm bread onto her open palm.
Travis eyed the bread dubiously for a few moments, but the sight and smell did not set her stomach to rolling, so she took a small nibble. Satisfied that it was going to stay down, she tried another larger bite. Bread had never tasted as good as it did right at that moment.
Inez fixed herself a cup of tea and helped herself to a slice of the sweet bread. It was still one of her favorite foods because it always reminded her of her mother. "Would you be able to eat some more?"
"No, not yet. I need to be sure that is going to stay put first." Mary sipped at the cooling tea, feeling slightly revived after getting even that small amount of food down. Suddenly, she frowned and looked Inez straight in the eyes. "Why are you here? Have you gotten word from Ezra?"
"No, nothing like that. And besides, he would contact you, not me. I thought it was time to leave Jacob on his own at the saloon for a little while, and I wanted to tell you the news if you hadn't already heard it." Inez smiled and waited for Mary's response. She did not have to wait long.
"News? What news?" Her journalist's curiosity overpowered her body's desire to go lie down.
"Mrs. Bailey had twins. A boy and a girl!"
"Is everyone doing all right?? Mary's eyes brightened for a few moments at the exciting news.
"From what Senor Nathan said they are. He was so tired that he went straight to bed." Inez grinned, enjoying the chance to spread a little harmless gossip. "He would never admit it, but he is just as proud as the papa. It was his first time to bring twins into the world, and he was practically giddy." She shrugged slightly and grinned before adding, "as giddy as he could be, seeing that he could not stop yawning."
Mary laughed along with her visitor, but the shaking the laughter produced in her stomach did not help how she felt. The ache came back with a vengeance and quickly graduated into full-blown pain. She pressed her hand to her abdomen and took a deep breath and held it for several long moments, hoping the discomfort would subside again.
"You are in pain?" Dark brown eyes clouded with concern as she watched Mary Travis nod without speaking. It was as if she were afraid to try to speak, afraid her voice would betray just how badly she really was feeling. "I should go get Senor Nathan. This is not right for you to be this way."
"No, don't." He voice wavered as she spoke, but she managed to get Inez's attention and stop her from getting up. "You said he was exhausted. I'll be all right."
"Mary, you are being stubborn, just like Senor Ezra." The Mexican woman admonished her, much like a parent scolding a child. "You know that Senor Nathan would be the first to be angry that you did not send for him."
"Inez, I know I can trust you. Right?"
"Of course." Inez caught Mary's eyes and held her gaze. "I have never betrayed any confidence you have placed in me. What's wrong?"
"I think I might be pregnant again." She waited, trying to gauge the effect her admission had, by watching the changing expressions on her visitor's face.
"I see. Does Senor Ezra know?"
"Not yet. He had already left when I first started feeling sick in the mornings." Mary hung her head, embarrassed at finding herself in such a sticky situation again. "We were planning to wait until April for the wedding, but I guess now we will have to have it a lot sooner." She grimaced when her stomach cramped and could not control a small gasp at the unexpected clenching of her muscles, muscles that were already sore from several rounds with the morning sickness earlier.
"I have not had a baby, but I have been around enough to know that you should not be feeling this kind of pain." Inez stood and held out a hand to help Mary out of her chair. "No more argument. I am going to see you get back to bed, and then I am going to get Senor Nathan."
She opened her mouth to protest but clamped it shut again when she felt another cramp starting. Inez was right; this was not normal. Reluctantly, she allowed herself to be tugged out of the chair, and instantly her legs started to shake, causing her to lean heavily against the barmaid.
It took several minutes to negotiate the steps up to the bedroom and to get Mary settled in bed as comfortably as possible. Clutching a feather pillow against her stomach was a little bit soothing, probably from the warmth it held to her body.
"Do not move from there until I return. Promise me..." Inez waited until she saw Mary nod, and then she rushed out to get Nathan.
At that moment she envied Buck his long legs that could take the steps two at a time, but she made quick time, getting up the stairs to bang on the door of the clinic. Inez bounced in place as she waited impatiently for a response from inside. After several seconds she knocked again, more insistently. The door opened just as she raised her hand to pound on it for a third time, and Nathan ducked backward to avoid being hit.
"Inez?" He shook his head trying to clear the sleep from his brain so he could concentrate on the person at his door. His eyes batted rapidly as he tried to get them to focus. When he finally could see clearly enough to see the worry on the young beauty's face, he found himself suddenly wide awake. "What wrong?"
"Mary is not well. Please, Senor Nathan, she needs you." Her eyes begged even more loudly than her words. "I am sorry to wake you, but I do not think this can wait."
"Come in. I need t' get some supplies." He stood back and let the young woman slip in past him and then quickly closed the door. "What seems t' be wrong with her?"
"I promised not to tell, but since you already know about what happened before, I am sure she will not be angry if I tell you." Inez wrung her hands nervously as she watched Nathan gather the things he thought he would need. "She thinks she is with child, but something is wrong. She's very ill and can barely stand up on her own. And..." Inez blushed and glanced away.
"And what?" Nathan asked. "I need t' know, so I know what I might need t' help her."
"When I helped her back to bed, there was blood on the back of her gown." Inez took hold of Nathan's arm and tried to tug him toward the door. "Please hurry!"
The healer grabbed a few additional items and added them to his bag, before dashing out the door. Once down the steps he quickly passed Inez and ran on ahead of her toward the Clarion building. He did not even pause to knock when he got inside and came to the door to the private quarters. Jackson bounded up the steps taking them two at a time and did not slow down until he was standing at the side of Mary Travis' bed.
It felt like his heart dropped straight to his heels when he saw Mary on her side, curled around the pillow she clutched to her stomach. Her back was to him, but from where he stood looking down at her, he could see she was crying.
"Mary," the healer spoke softly to avoid startling her. "Tell me what's happenin'." He glanced up for a moment when Inez came in the door, but instantly refocused on his patient. When he did not get an answer, he pressed on. "I gotta know what yer feelin', and what's goin' on or I can't help ya."
"Something's wrong...my stomach is cramping," she managed to get out between sobs.
"Let me check ya over. Might not be anything bad wrong, but I can't say fer sure 'til I can check." When Nathan flipped the cover off of her and gently took her shoulders to help her turn over onto her back he saw the large red stain on the back of her gown. "Just try an' relax."
"Inez, could ya grab some towels and a basin of warm water?"
"Si. I'll be right back." Rocillos hurried from the room and came back with an armload of towels, before going back for the water.
"Let's put one of these under ya." The healer made a thick pad of a couple of folded towels and helped Mary raise up far enough for him to slip it beneath her.
"Why do I need that?" There was fear in her eyes as she asked the question.
"There is no easy way to tell ya this. Yer bleedin' pretty heavy. " He patted her arm sympathetically.
"No, I can't be! I know I can't...I'm pregnant." Mary saw the sad look in the healer's eyes and shrank away from his touch.
"Could be, but from the look of things if ya are, there is a more than good chance that yer losin' the baby." He had managed to take her delicate hand in his larger, work-roughened one and then laid his other hand over the top of hers.
"No!" Mary Travis shook her head in denial and pulled farther away from the black man. "No..." She pulled her hand from his and stared at him like he had suddenly sprouted a second head.
"Ya gotta let me check you over," Nathan insisted.
"NO!" The blonde shoved his hands away when he reached for her.
"Mary, don't make me have to get Inez to come and hold onto your hands," Jackson warned and reached for her again.
"Don't touch me!" She scooted a little farther out of his grasp, but then stopped struggling when her stomach cramped violently.
Nathan did not say anything to Inez when she came back; he merely nodded toward the blonde's hands. He waited until Rocillos went to the opposite side and leaned across the bed to grab at Mary's flailing hands.
"I'm sorry, but you must let Senor Nathan try to help you." Inez tightened her grip when her friend almost pulled free.
Relieved of having to ward off a physical attack, the healer gently probed his patient's belly, and then steeled himself to check her more thoroughly.
"No!" Mary continued to sob as she tried to speak. "Don't hurt my baby..."
Ezra woke instantly when he felt someone shake him, and he jerked upright in the chair to find himself looking into Vin's blue eyes. "Mr. Tanner, I must apologize for allowing myself to drift off to sleep." He quickly glanced at the locked jail cell and breathed a sigh of relief to see that their prisoners were still safely incarcerated.
"'S all right, Ezra. I shoulda woke up sooner to spell ya. Reckon gettin' so wet an' cold really took it outta me. No harm done." Vin squeezed the gambler's shoulder to reassure him that everything was truly all right.
Standish suddenly remembered why they had stopped at this particular town and jumped up, nearly knocking the chair over in the process. "Mr. Larabee?" Ezra groaned when he realized that by dozing off he had also left their wounded leader unattended to.
"He's hangin' in there. Don't go beratin' yerself for fallin' asleep." Tanner gave him a stern look, knowing how the gambler's mind worked when he thought he had let them down. "Hell, Ezra, once ya got thawed out, it was normal for yer body to need t' sleep."
"But, I was the one who was supposed to be guarding the prisoners and keeping watch over Chris. I didn't hold up to the responsibilities that were given to me." Ezra was miserable at the realization that he had once again failed in the performance of his duties.
"And I was the one who said I would relieve ya in four or five hours, but I didn't wake up."
"If I had remained alert as I should have, I would have been able to ensure that you did wake up at the specified time."
"Would you two shut up!" Chris' voice was weak but he managed to make himself heard. "The two of you could wake up the dead."
Standish was at Larabee's side in only a few strides and knelt next to him. "I must say that it is a rare occurrence that I can say that I am glad to hear your admonitions." He fussed over the injured man, checking his bandages and feeling his forehead for any signs of fever. "Could you manage to drink some water?"
"Yeah, my mouth's so dry my tongue keeps sticking to the roof of my mouth." He tried to lick his lips to moisten them but it did no good.
"Here you go, pard." Vin fetched a cup of cool water and held it for Chris while Ezra helped Larabee to sit up far enough to drink.
"Enough." Beads of perspiration had popped out on Chris Larabee's face from the exertion and pain of sitting up. His breathing was ragged, coming in shallow gasps while he recovered from the ordeal. Finally, his breathing smoothed out again, and his brow furrowed in thought as he tried to figure out what wasn't right about this whole mess. When he realized what it was, he looked from one to the other of the men who stood hovering over him. "Where's Buck?
"Bucklin's fine. He went to the next town to get a doctor for ya. Reckon the doc didn't want to try to travel in the dark, but they should be here soon." Tanner picked up the cloth they had lying nearby, poured some cool water over it from his canteen and lightly wiped his friend's face with the cool rag.
"The Corbys?" Chris tried unsuccessfully to remember all the events that led up to him getting shot.
"The two we were hauling are locked up over there in the cell." Tanner nodded toward the opposite side of the room. "The two that tried to bust 'em out are over at the undertaker's."
Larabee gave a slight nod, indicating that he heard and understood what he had been told. "Think they have any other kin that'll be trying to get them out?"
"I think Sheriff Brody would have given us additional warnings if he knew of anyone else who might attempt to emancipate our prisoners." Ezra felt that although that old sheriff wasn't too book-smart, he was life-smart. He had learned from experience and he kept all the skills he had developed well-honed. The old man had been right when he said that he had not lived so long by being stupid.
Tanner and the gambler both instantly had their guns in their hands and pointed at the door when they heard the knob rattle and the door started to open slowly. Once it was open far enough, someone started to back in through the door. The man looped one foot behind the door and used it to push the door closed, then turned and stopped abruptly at the sight of two guns pointed at his chest.
Ezra was the first to recognized Sheriff McCann. His turned up coat collar and the hat pulled down as far as he could get it over his ears had made it hard to see his features at first. "Sheriff. I fear that we did not realize that it was you. I hope that you realize that we are understandably cautious."
"Sorry, fellas. I should'a thought it through a bit better and knocked before just shovin' the door open, what with ya guardin' prisoners an' all." He took the few steps to the desk and sat down the heavy tray he was carrying. "I brought breakfast fer ya and fer them too." He glanced toward the two men in the cell, who were now awake and standing staring at them through the bars.
"'Bout time. We ain't had nothin' t' eat since noon yesterday." Carl glared at them, but shut up when Joe jabbed him in the ribs with his elbow. "What the hell ya go an' do that fer?" he hissed at this brother under his breath.
"I believe your brother is telling you that it is not wise to antagonize the jailer before you have been given your morning sustenance." Standish quirked a brow at Joe and then turned his attention back to Carl, who now stood sullen and silent.
McCann uncovered the tray and studied the plates trying to figure the best way to get them to the prisoners. He scratched his head and reached into the drawer to get the keys.
"Sheriff, it would not be wise to open the door at this time," Ezra advised him.
"How else am I gonna get the food to 'em?"
"Reckon, ya haven't had that many here that ya needed to keep yer guard up with all the time." Vin spoke softly and tried to appear busy so that he could keep from looking McCann square on. The sheriff might not be too quick on the uptake, but he might have a good memory for wanted posters.
"Nah, can't say that I have." The sheriff shook his head almost sadly. 'Til now, I suppose the worst I've had here was a couple cattle rustlers. Ain't anythin' really worth stealin'. Stoney Ridge don't have a bank or much of anything else. There's a saloon an' a general store. We got a blacksmith, an' he tends to a small mill wheel too. That's about it. Don't usually get nobody here 'cept a drunk every now an' then. This here's the most excitement this town's ever had."
"Then it is time that you were educated as to proper precautions to take with prisoners of this caliber." The gambler put his best diplomatic skills to use. "For one, you never unlock the cell door without at least one man with a gun to back you up. Second, you never give them anything they can use as a weapon against you." He paused and let his words sink in a little. "Allow me to show you how you prepare this type of meal."
The gambler neatly sliced open two large fluffy biscuits and scooped up the fried eggs and placed them on one half of each biscuit, then he laid the bacon strips across the tops of the eggs and replaced the top half of the biscuit. After tying each one into one of the small cloths that had been used to cover the plates, he moved over to the cell.
"If you would both reach out, you may have your breakfast." Ezra waited until both had reached one hand through the bars before cautiously handing each of them one of the food filled bundles.
The two prisoners grabbed the offering and eased it back through the bars. They sat on the edge of one of the cots and untied the knot to get to the food. Neither said a word as they attacked the biscuit sandwiches like a couple of wolves at a fresh kill.
Standish picked up one of the remaining plates and handed it to Vin who was maintaining his vigil over Chris. "You think he's up to eating anything?"
"Not likely, but if there was any broth to be found, he might be able to drink some of it when he wakes up again." Tanner attacked his own food with almost as much enthusiasm as the two cellmates.
"I can ask Bonnie if she can fix somethin' up," McCann offered and quickly ducked back out into the cold. He was not gone long before he came back in rubbing his gloved hands against the chill.
Ezra looked up from his breakfast and waited for McCann to take off his coat and hat and hang them on the peg in the wall. "What did you find out?"
"Bonnie'll fix some broth and bring it over when it's done. She said she'd send over a basket of biscuits and butter too, in case any of ya are still hungry." Jake poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot he kept on the heating stove and joined Ezra at the desk.
"Hey! Don't we get any coffee?" Joe called out to them.
"When I have finished my own repast, I'll see to your coffee, but only if you both refrain from any type of disturbance while I eat." Ezra scooped up another bite of his eggs.
"I was wonderin' 'bout somethin'. Why did ya' make those two reach out t' get the food? Couldn't ya have just handed it in t' them?" Jake had been watching how these men handled the prisoners, and realized that they had experience that he lacked. "I figure if I got the chance t' learn a few things while yer here, I'd be pretty dumb not t' learn as much as I can."
"A very wise decision." Ezra popped the last bite of biscuit into his mouth and grimaced as he washed it down with a big gulp of the bitter brew. He never thought he would have welcomed a pot of Vin's overly strong coffee, but this made Vin's seem watered down in comparison. "If you reach through the bars, a prisoner can grab your arm and pull you against the bars, where he can get a stranglehold on you or grab your gun, as my associate can attest to."
McCann's mouth dropped open, and he looked at the gambler in awe. "I never woulda thought of that." He studied the longhaired man who still fussed over his wounded comrade. "Ya really had someone do that to ya?"
Vin turned his head just enough to catch Ezra's eye and glared at him with such reproach the he would have made Chris proud. He bit his tongue to keep from saying what he really wanted to say to the gambler and nodded. "Yeah. Made the mistake of thinkin' that just 'cause I knew the guy that he wouldn't try nothin'. He dang near killed me; he coulda if he'd really wanted to, but he just wanted to get away an' try to get to the man that killed his wife."
"You mean t' say that the killer was runnin' free an' this fella was locked up? Seems a bit backward t' me."
"Indeed it was, only we didn't know the full story at the time," Ezra pointed out, taking the focus back off of Vin, as he mentally berated himself for putting the tracker on the spot like he had. "The girl's father had said she had been kidnapped by one of the local Indians. We later found her dead, and the natural conclusion was that her kidnapper had been her killer. As it turned out, the two had secretly gotten married and the father had killed his own daughter in a fit of rage."
"Damn! You fellas do get a lot more excitement in them bigger towns." Jake was impressed with the lawmen who had been forced to stop in his town. "How'd y'all figure it out?"
Ezra was saved the need to continue the story when the door opened and Buck Wilmington stepped in just ahead of a middle-aged man carrying a doctor's bag. He had never been so glad to see the boisterous, boastful, ladies' man before.
"How's he doin'?" Buck asked as he closed the door.
"Still with us, and in considerable discomfort," Ezra offered.
"This here's Doc Carmichael. We couldn't start out until almost light this mornin'. He was off deliverin' a baby. Seems like everywhere ya look some lady is in a family way all of a sudden." Wilmington pulled off his coat and gloves and headed to the stove for a cup of coffee. He poured one for himself and one for the doctor.
They all watched and waited as Doc Carmichael knelt and took off Chris' bandages and checked the wounds. He checked his patient for any signs of fever or infection, wearing a poker face to rival Ezra's. Once he was finished he sat back on his heels. "Whoever took care of his wounds did a good job. I don't see any infection yet. There seems to be only a slight fever, but that's common after a severe injury of any kind."
"So you sayin' he's gonna be all right?" Buck's voice carried a hint of relief and a lot of hopefulness.
"I don't want to say definitely yes, yet. It is still early on and there is always a chance that an infection could still set in, but he's gotten through almost twenty-four hours without any complications, so I would say the chances are good that he should do fine. I want to keep him still and watch him for a couple of days before I say with any degree of certainty though." Carmichael opened his bag and started pulling out supplies. "This larger wound, where the bullet came out needs stitches. The one toward the back is closing up. It's a long way from healed, but I think it is best to leave it alone unless it opens back up."
"Doc?" Chris opened his eyes.
"Yes, Mr. Larabee?
"Reckon I could have a drink before you go jabbing me with that needle?" Chris was no stranger to pain, but like anyone else, he would rather avoid it if at all possible, or at least dull it some.
"If you would like, I can give you some ether. Then you won't feel it at all." The doctor started to reach back in the bag but paused a moment when Chris spoke up again.
"Don't want it. It makes me sick." Larabee tried to reach out to stop the doctor from rummaging through the bag, but he could not reach quite far enough.
"Mr. Larabee, this is going to be very painful, especially with the wound being a day old. I think you should reconsider." The doctor continued to pull bottles out of the bag and check the labels.
"No. The pain I can take, but can't take puking my guts up." Chris began to struggle to sit up. He would rather go without the stitches than to ever have ether used on him again.
Doc put one hand on his patient's shoulder and pushed him down on the pallet. "Very well. Does anyone have some whiskey?"
"I got a bottle tucked away." McCann got up and retrieved the bottle from the desk drawer.
"Thank you." Carmichael accepted the bottle and helped Chris to sit up far enough to take several swallows of its contents. He waited a couple of minutes and gave his patient more, aware that on an empty stomach the alcohol would kick in fairly quickly. After several more swallows, he began to see the telltale signs that the whiskey was doing its job. "I think that's enough." He settled the wounded man back onto the pallet on the floor and looked around.
"What can I do to help? Is there somethin' ya need?" Tanner glanced around but had no idea what the doctor was looking for.
"Yes. I need a basin of warm water and some soap to wash my hands, and then some fresh hot water to clean the wound."
"Shoulda thought of that. Nathan is big on washin' his hands and boilin' bandages an' all." He put aside his concern that McCann might recognize him and turned to the sheriff. "Where's the closest pump?"
"There's a bucket beside the door there, and the pump is out back. I don't have a washbasin here. I'll have t' see if Bonnie will let us use one." Once again McCann tossed on his coat and headed across the street to the Saloon.
By the time Vin was back with the water, Jake was back with the basin. The tracker poured a little of the water into the container and set it on the heating stove to warm. While it was heating, he located some unused coffee cups and filled them to heat also.
The washing up done, and some fresh steaming water in the basin beside him, the doctor set to work stitching the wound. In places he had to reopen it where it had scabbed over, so he could get to the intact skin beside it so the stitches would hold. Through it all, Chris groaned occasionally, but made no move to resist.
Doc Carmichael washed the area around the new stitches and then poured a small amount of the whiskey on a clean bit of cloth. He pressed it to the wound and left if for a couple minutes before removing it and deftly applying fresh bandages. "Now, all we can do is wait and see."
Nathan hung his head as he washed his hands and dried them. There had been absolutely nothing he could do to keep Mary from losing the baby. The despondent look on her face nearly broke his heart. She had been through enough already and now losing a second baby in less than a year would undoubtedly take more than a physical toll on her.
It had taken Inez and him both to finally get her to submit to an examination, and by that time it was already too late. Within a few minutes she had expelled the small mass of tissue that would have developed into the baby, and the afterbirth. He could just make out the beginnings of some of the features of the fetus although it was very small.
Mary had quit struggling when she felt the mass pass from her body, instinctively knowing what had just happened. She lay there staring at the ceiling and had not uttered a sound since. Her apathy worried Nathan, and he sighed heavily as he turned back to the bed where Inez had helped Mary into a clean gown and removed the soiled towels. After placing some fresh padding under her, Inez pulled the covers up, then sat down on the bed and took Mary Travis' hand.
"I am very sorry. Please, don't blame yourself. There was nothing you could do to stop this." Inez waited but got no reply and no indication that her words had been heard, other than seeing a single tear roll down the side of Mary's face and drip into her ear.
Jackson pulled a chair up beside the bed and picked up a wet cloth he had been using to wipe Mary's face, folded it, and laid it across her forehead. "Inez is right. Ya couldn't have stopped it. This one just wasn't meant to be." There was still no reaction; she barely even blinked her eyes. "I know this surely must be one of the hardest things a woman has t' get through, but ya are a strong woman, an' I know ya can do it. Maybe it's best that it happened this early, b'fore ya got a chance to get as attached to it."
"Senor Jackson, you don't know much about women if you can think that is the case." Inez' eyes narrowed and turned dark with disapproval. "Even if a woman does not know she is in a family way yet, she is already attached. Her body knows even if her mind does not." She gave Mary's hand a light squeeze. "I will stay with her. Maybe you should go and try to get more sleep."
"I don't like leavin' her like this."
"I promise to come and get you if she needs you."
"All right. I'll be back later this afternoon," the healer acquiesced.
Jackson gathered his supplies and then stopped by the bed again. "Mary, I know ya don't feel like talkin' right now, but I'm here anytime ya need me." He glanced at Inez when there was still no comment from Mary. He gently patted her on the shoulder and passed on one last parting remark. "Don't forget, ya still got Billy, an' he needs his momma."
After the healer left the room Rocillos bowed her head and said a silent prayer for her closest friend. She had known of some women who never completely recovered from the emotional pain of losing a child, and now Mary had lost two.
"Leave me alone."
At first Inez was not quite sure that Mary Travis had actually spoken, or if she had just wanted her to speak and had imagined it. When Mary tried to pull her hand away from her, she knew then that it had not just been wishful thinking.
"I am afraid that I cannot do that. Senor Ezra would never forgive me if I left you alone, and I could not forgive myself." The barmaid leaned over enough to be sure she was in Mary's line of sight. "You may try to get rid of me all you wish, but you will not succeed." After a slight pause to let her words sink in, she began again. "Talk to me. I know you are devastated, but it is not healthy for you to keep it all bottled up inside. I think that right now you need a shoulder to lean on, and mine is here."
Inez let go of Mary's hand long enough to move to the opposite side of the bed where there was more room, and then she stretched out on her side facing the blonde. She watched as Mary's chin began to quiver and the struggle to keep a firm control over herself was lost. When the tears began, Inez was there to hold her while she cried. There were no silent tears this time. The sobs welled up from the deepest part of her soul as the pain of her loss overwhelmed her and she clung to Rocillos as if the Mexican woman were her only lifeline to keep her anchored in the world of the sane.
"Brother Nathan, I get the feeling that you are keeping something from us." Josiah studied the grim expression on the healer's face. "Need to tell someone about it?"
"It ain't really my place to say anything." Jackson sighed and gulped down another large swallow of his beer.
"Might not be, but whatever it is it's eating at you. You know I can keep a confidence." The ex-priest was becoming very worried. Between Nathan's foul mood, Mary's complete absence, and Inez being away from the saloon so much over the last three days, he knew something serious was going on, and he did not like being out of the loop. "Would you rather go over to the church or to the clinic to talk?"
Jackson considered the idea for a moment and finally nodded. "Yeah, let's go over t' the clinic. I think I'm in over my head on this one."
The two walked in silence until they were behind closed doors. Josiah waited, giving Nathan a chance to compose his thoughts and to open up when he was ready. He pulled a chair over next to the one Nathan kept by the table he used as a desk, and sat there quietly.
"Ya gotta keep this to yerself," the healer began. "I know yer good at that, but I just want t' make sure ya know this is not fer anyone else's ears."
"I understand. Nathan, you know I am no longer a part of the church I was ordained in, but I still hold to some of the oaths I took. Confidentiality was vital and I still see it that way. I can't say I would never break it, but it would have to be something drastic, a life or death situation, to get me to and only then if there was no other way." Josiah had learned long ago, not to make an absolute promise in that regard. He never knew what could happen that would force him to have to break that promise.
"I know...It's Mary. She's lost another baby." Just saying the words seemed to lift a huge weight off his shoulders. At least now Nathan did not have to carry that burden alone. "She won't even speak to me when I go t' check on her. I have t' get all my information from Inez. Hell, Josiah, she won't even look at me. It's like she blames me fer it, but there wasn't anything I could do t' stop it."
"I'm sure you did all you could, and Mary knows that too. She's hurting right now. I can't imagine how hard this must have hit her. It took her quite awhile to recover from losing the first one, both physically and emotionally." Josiah took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'm not even sure she was completely over that one yet, if any woman ever does fully recover emotionally."
"This really worries me, Josiah. I've never seen Mary like this, not even after that last time. There's something goin' on in that head of hers, an' she won't talk to no one about it. Not even Inez." Jackson ran his fingers through his hair as he fidgeted in his seat. He felt so helpless in the face of the emotional wreck Mary Travis had become. "Suppose I could talk ya into payin' her a visit?"
"I'll go now." The preacher resisted the urge to tell Nathan that he should have told him much sooner, before Mary became so despondent. The longer she stayed like that the harder it would probably be to bring her back out of it. He grabbed his coat and headed toward the door. "Don't worry, I'll do whatever it takes to help things get on the mend."
"Thanks. I appreciate it." Jackson watched the big man duck out the door and listened to his footsteps as he took the stairs down to the street below. He was not really a praying man, but he said a few silent words on Mary's behalf.
Josiah ambled toward the Clarion office, not wanting to draw any unnecessary attention to himself. The last thing Mary needed was for anyone in town to start asking questions or spreading rumors. He did not pause when he got to the door; he casually opened the door and stepped inside, just as he had countless other times before.
Once inside, his demeanor changed from that of nonchalance to determination as he strode the few step across the room to knock purposefully on the door to the living quarters. In a matter of seconds he could hear quick footsteps coming down the stairs.
Inez cracked the door open before the preacher had a chance to knock again. "Senor Josiah?"
"Inez." Sanchez nodded in greeting. "I need to see Mary."
"Senor, she is very ill. It would not be wise..."
"I know what is really wrong. I understand you wanting to protect her, but if you don't open the door and let me in, I'll have to push my way in, and I would rather not have to do that." The grave expression on his face must have been enough to convince the woman on the other side of the door that he would not take no for an answer because she stepped back enough to allow him inside.
"Please, Senor, she has been through a rough time. She does not need more upset right now." Inez hoped the big man would show some compassion for her friend. He was usually very understanding, but under these circumstances it was hard to tell what his reaction was going to be when he saw Mary.
"I only intend to try to help her through this." Sanchez smiled at the young Mexican woman. "She's very lucky to have you for a friend."
"Thank you, but I fear that is not true. I have not been able to do much to help her, except be sure she is not alone." Inez stared at the floor between them; certain that the preacher would realize that she had done nothing to really help Mary Travis.
"Inez." Josiah reached out and put one finger under her chin to tip her face up so she had to look at him. "Being here with her is the most important thing anyone could do for her right now. She needs to know that she is not alone. You have done that for her, and a lot more, I'm sure."
"I was just about to bring her something for lunch. I'll bring you both something. You may go on up." Rocillos tried to hide the embarrassment his kind words caused and headed toward the kitchen, leaving Josiah to see himself up to Mary's room.
At the top of the stairs he stopped to knock lightly on the half-opened door before he stuck his head in and called out softly. "Mary? Can I come in?"
Travis rolled over with her back to the door, hoping the preacher would go away. But when she heard her name a second time, she knew that was not likely to happen. "Yes."
The sadness and loss were so thick in the room they were almost a physical presence. They overwhelmed him as he stood looking at the woman curled up in a ball in the bed, her arms wrapped protectively around herself. Josiah turned the chair around so that he could sit beside the bed, facing toward the head of it, so he could see Mary's face. "Mary, I know what has happened, and I want you to know how sorry I am that you've had to go through this again."
The blonde shrugged one shoulder and buried her face in the pillow, unable to stop the flood of tears that erupted again at the sincerity she heard in his deep voice.
"Nathan is very worried about you," he continued. "I know you're hurting, but so is he. He feels like he has let you down, that you blame him."
"I don't know who to blame." The voice was muffled by the down pillow, and it was punctuated with sobs between nearly every word.
"Mary, no one's to blame. You know Nathan would never do anything to hurt you. Who else do you think might be responsible?" Josiah wanted to reach out and comfort her, but he did not want to cause her to retreat back inside herself.
"Me." She twisted the covers in her hands and sobbed all the louder.
"You?" Josiah was stunned. He had not expected that answer. "How do you figure that?"
Mary suddenly turned over to glare at him. "Why don't you leave me alone?" She lashed out at the preacher. "You couldn't possibly understand what I'm going through... Just leave me alone!"
"Mary! You mustn't speak to Senor Josiah like that." Inez sat the tray she had brought up on the bedside table and admonished the young blonde. "He is here to try to help you."
"It's all right; she's right. I can't possibly know what she is feeling." He had spared only a quick glance at Inez before returning his full attention back to Mary Travis. "I can't say that I know how you feel, or even that I can imagine how you feel because I can never experience what you have. I have known some great losses in my life, but no man can every fully appreciate the magnitude of the grief a woman must feel at the loss of a child."
Sanchez turned back to Rocillos for a moment. "Let me stay with her for a while. I'll help her with her lunch, and you can take a little break, maybe check in over at the saloon for a little bit." He hoped Inez would realize that it was not an idle offer.
"Thank you." Inez accepted the preacher's help with little hesitation. "I could use a chance to take a bath and change clothes."
"Take as long as you need." He listened to the footsteps receding down the stairs and watched Mary's expression turn sullen. Her body language was shouting that she wanted him to leave.
Josiah gathered his resolve and confronted the woman in the bed. "You can scream at me; rant, rave, threaten, or hit me if that is what you feel you need to do, but I am not leaving until Inez comes back."
The anger had drained out of her, leaving her eyes emotionless, and her shoulders drooping. "Josiah, I know you mean well, but you just can't help me with this." She tried to reason with him, but even that appeared to have no effect on him.
"Maybe not, but you never know. Maybe I can." Mary's wary look set off bells for the preacher. "Why are you afraid to let me try?"
"I'm not afraid."
"Well then, you shouldn't mind sitting and talking with me for a while." Josiah leaned forward and looked her straight in the eyes. "Let's start with why you think you might be the reason for this happening."
Maude watched Inez hurry into the saloon and changed course to follow her. She stopped for a moment just inside the door, to allow her eyes to adjust to the dim light, and saw the young barkeep leaning on the bar talking to Jacob.
"Miss Rocillos," Maude began. "Might I have a word with you, please?"
"Yes, of course, Senora Standish." Inez turned back to her bartender for a moment. "We'll finish our discussion later, Jacob." Before joining the older woman at a table she took a slight detour. "I'll bring us both a cup of coffee," she called back over her shoulder as she disappeared through the kitchen door.
She returned carrying a tray with the promised coffee and two large slices of apple pie that had been too tempting to pass up. "How may I help you?" Inez took a seat next to the con-woman and waited to find out what she could possibly want to talk to her about.
"I simply wondered if you had seen Mary? I haven't seen her in three or four days. This town is hardly large enough for me to miss her in the crowd." Maude sampled the pie and smiled; apple was her favorite and this was truly a perfect pie.
"She is a little under the weather at the moment." Rocillos hedged on the truth, knowing that Maude would jump on the slightest hint of a lie from her. She busied herself with her coffee in an effort to avoid making eye contact.
Something was definitely wrong. The signals the younger woman sent out could not have been clearer if they had been painted in big red letters across the front of the building. Maude considered her options on how to approach Inez and decided to play along with what the younger woman said for the time being to see how things played out.
"Oh, dear! I hope she isn't too ill?" Maude Standish watched the veil of sadness fall over the young woman's pretty features.
"She will be well soon. She just needs to stay in bed a few days, is all."
"A few days? You surely must be downplaying the seriousness of her illness. Mary hardly seems the type to lie around in bed when she has work to do and her son to tend to." The con-woman wanted to satisfy her curiosity without seeming to pry, but she had dealt with Inez before, and the Mexican woman could be very strong-willed when she set her mind to it.
Rocillos carefully weighed each word in her mind before saying it. Maude's sharp mind could quickly pick her story apart. "She was very ill the first couple of days, but now she is...how did Senor Nathan put it?...mending. He said resting for a few days after an illness can help to keep it from returning." Inez inwardly flinched at that explanation, aware that it sounded lame even to her own ears. "As you said, she has Billy, and when Senor Nathan insisted that a little more rest now could save a lot longer..." She stopped when she noticed Maude sitting and shaking her head skeptically.
"Dear, you are usually a much better liar than that."
Inez's eyes went wide in surprise and her jaw dropped, leaving her speechless. She sat gaping like someone had just given her a swift punch in the belly.
"Don't go getting all indignant on me. I simply mean that when you are trying to protect someone you usually think up much better excuses. Now, why don't you try telling me the truth?" Maude sat back and crossed her hands over her chest as she waited for a reply. She watched various expressions and emotions travel over the younger woman's face, but did not press for more yet.
"Senora Standish, it is not my place to tell you what is happening with Mary. I respect her privacy, and I would not lose her trust to spread gossip." Inez unconsciously mirrored Maude's pose and added a good attempt at a glare along with her words.
"Then perhaps I should pay her a visit and ask her myself. After all, she's almost my daughter-in-law, and if she isn't well or if there is a problem, I would hope she would know that she could confide in me." She made a move to get up, but stopped when Inez spoke up again.
"It is up to you if you wish to visit Mary, but not now. Senor Sanchez is with her and he needs to talk to her privately. Perhaps you could visit later; it might help to brighten her day." Inez seriously doubted that a visit from Maude would do much for Mary's outlook on things right now, but it was worth a shot. Nothing else had worked so far.
"All right. Tonight after supper, or I could come and sit with her at suppertime and allow you a chance to take your meal uninterrupted." Maude waited for the barkeep to chew on that idea for a few moments, wondering what the final reaction would be.
"It is no trouble for me to take my meal with Senora Travis. Afterward is fine." Inez knew she had been trapped in a corner. If she protested too much there would be no throwing the con-woman off-track, but if she did not make an effort to keep Maude away she knew Mary would be upset.
"I'll see you then," Maude said.
"Surely you do not intend to take these two reprobates on to Yuma on your own?" Ezra watched Buck and Vin preparing the wagon for their prisoners. "We could keep them incarcerated here for a few more days until Mr. Larabee is on the mend. Then I could assist you with their transport."
"Ezra, we've been through this a dozen times already. We are already going to be later than we said we would be. They will be lookin' for us tomorrow, and we need a good three days to get there, with havin' to stop early so we can make use of a proper jail cell."
"We could ask Dr. Carmichael to wire Yuma for us when he gets back to Sandy Creek." The gambler did not like the idea of them going on ahead, and he did not relish the idea of being left to take care of Chris, either. Standish felt a bit guilty about that, but he had no idea what to say to the gunman who had put his own life on the line for him. The thought of five or six days alone with Larabee had the conman's nerves rattled, and he was one who prided himself on being able to take any situation in stride.
"Yes, we could, but they most likely won't put any store into what it says. Anyone could send a message sayin' we were runnin' late, but it could really be someone who'd busted the Corbys out. A message like that could be just a decoy to keep anyone from realizin' they were free, until they had a good head start." Buck slapped the gambler's shoulder amiably and leaned a little closer so his voice would not carry. "He isn't gonna eat you alive. Chris wouldn't have taken that bullet for ya, if he hadn't thought ya were worth it."
Ezra hung his head avoiding meeting Wilmington's gaze. "He could be dead because of me."
"He could be dead because of those idiots that ambushed us, not because of you." Buck got a firm grim on Ezra's shoulders so he could not turn away from him. "Look at me." Wilmington waited until the gambler finally looked up so he could see his eyes. "When are you gonna get it through that thick skull of yers that yer one of us now, and we protect each other? That goes for you, too. You've shown us all before that you would risk yerself for us and for the town. We know we can trust you. You just have t' learn that you can trust us, too."
"How can you say you trust me? I ran out on you all and nearly got you all killed because of it. How do you know that I won't do it again when I can't be sure of that, myself?" There, it was out in the open. They all knew of his past transgression, and Chris had made sure that he would never be able to forget it, but it was the first time he had admitted openly that he was afraid that he would let them all down again.
"Ezra, no man can be sure of how he's gonna react to somethin' that hasn't happened yet." The sincerity in Buck's dark blue eyes had the gambler's defenses down. "Just because your past instincts caused you to make the choice to run, don't mean it will happen again. Remember, you also chose to come back. If ya hadn't, all of the rest of us would be dead. Maybe some higher power made you run, so you'd be free to come back and save all the rest of us."
"Now you are beginning to sound like Josiah." Standish tried to take the focus off of himself.
"Reckon ya hang around someone long enough they start to rub off on ya." Wilmington finally eased his grip on the smaller man. "Now, ya gonna help us get ready to go, or are ya gonna stand around arguing about it all day?"
"Lead on, Mr. Wilmington. What disgusting, vile, and reprehensible chore do you need me to perform?"
"Well, since ya put it that way, we could use someone t' clean out the privy pot. I'd really hate to have t' ride downwind of that wagon after that's been setting there gettin' ripe for the last couple of days." Buck grinned at the look on the conman's face, and ducked back inside to pack up some more of their supplies.
"I had to ask." Ezra berated himself for leaving an opening that got him that nauseating assignment. He stalled for a minute, but he could not come up with a plausible excuse why he could not do the assigned task, and finally resigned himself to his fate and opened the door to the wagon.
The smell hit him as soon as he opened the door, and he fully expected to see the contents of the pot all over the back of the wagon after the shaking up things had taken on the last leg of the journey here. Fortunately, that fear was not realized. The built in wooden box that housed the large porcelain vessel was made so that it would not allow the pot to tip over unless the whole wagon turned over. The lid of the box doubled as a seat. Ezra steeled himself and opened the box to discover that the lid used to cover the oversized porcelain vessel when not in use had slipped partway off, which explained the especially pungent smell. He quickly slid the lid back in place and carried the offensive object at arm's length toward the outhouse in back of the jail.
Ezra watched the wagon pull away with Buck at the reins and Vin riding alongside. Buck's horse trudged along behind, not at all enthusiastic about having to plod along at the wagon's slow pace. The gambler watched until they were out of sight before turning back to the jail.
The door creaked on its hinges as he pushed it open, setting his teeth on edge with the offensive sound. A quick glance toward the pallet on the floor told him that Chris had already drifted back to sleep after saying his own goodbyes to the other men. Now that they had no prisoners to guard, Ezra decided it was time to see about securing better sleeping quarters.
Sheriff McCann sat behind the desk. He sighed and leaned the chair back on two legs as he propped his feet on the desk. Already a bored expression had pasted itself on his face, and he glanced up hopefully at the gambler when he came in. "Mighty quiet in here already."
"Indeed it is," Standish agreed. "It will undoubtedly get even quieter very soon. Could you watch over Mr. Larabee while I see about procuring a couple of rooms?"
"Yer leaving here?" Jake looked as disappointed as he sounded.
"Yes. Now that the prisoners are gone, we really need to get Chris somewhere more comfortable so he can rest better. This is nice and warm but it isn't very comfortable sleeping on the floor." The dejected look in the sheriff's eyes had Ezra feeling sorry for him. The past few days had given the man a taste of more excitement than he usually saw in several months and suddenly all of it was being taken from him at one time. "After I see to our rooms, I'll be sure to spend some time with you. Maybe I can impart some of my own experience to you."
McCann scratched his head and his brow wrinkled in concentration as he tried to figure out just what the younger man meant. Finally, he just gave up and looked up at Ezra, hoping that he would explain himself.
"Maybe you would like to hear some more stories of our exploits as lawmen," he suggested.
"Ya got that right. I sure would like to get a chance to learn some more from ya while yer here. Don't know if anything's ever gonna happen around here that I might need the learnin' but ya just never know." Jake grinned at the realization that he was not just going to be forgotten now that his usefulness was over. If yer lookin' fer rooms the most likely place is over at Miss Bonnie's. We only got one boarding house and it only has four rooms to rent out. They're usually full."
"I was under the impression that this town saw little traffic." The gambler's interest was suddenly piqued.
"It don't get much, but since that little boardin' house is the only respectable place to stay, it don't stay empty much. Most end up stayin' over at Miss Bonnie's. She's got 'bout ten rooms upstairs at the saloon." Jake's face lit up slightly each time he mentioned Bonnie's name.
"I trust that the rooms are quite agreeable at the saloon, and admittedly that is my usual choice for a place to stay when I am in need of lodging, but I need to do what is best for Chris. Do you know if this boarding house has any rooms open at all right now?" Ezra weighed the benefits of sleeping in a bed in a noisy, drafty saloon against sleeping in a quiet, warm boardinghouse and there was no denying the outcome.
"Not rightfully sure, but Mrs. Dunlap is the one to see."
"And where might I find Mrs. Dunlap and this boardinghouse?" The gambler pulled his coat closed again and buttoned it firmly against the wind.
"Just past the general store. Ya can't miss it. She's even got a sign out front." McCann grinned at that tidbit of information, like he was remembering some inside joke that Standish was not privy to.
"If you can stay with Chris for a few minutes, I'll be back momentarily." Ezra hurried out the door and tugged the door closed behind him to keep the cold draft off of Chris.
He had no trouble locating the boardinghouse. Mrs. Dunlap opened the door almost before the sound of the knock dissipated. "Mrs. Dunlap? Sheriff McCann said there might be a possibility of finding rooms in your establishment."
"How many rooms you need?" she asked, as she studied the dapper man at her door.
"Two if you have them, but we can manage with one."
"I got one right now, but might have another open in a few days. It's a dollar a night, and another dollar a day each if ya want yer meals here too." Often the price was too much for people who passed through this town. It was not a fancy hotel by any stretch of the imagination, but she prided herself in keeping it clean and serving good, plentiful food.
"My associate and I would welcome the opportunity to occupy the vacancy you have, and we would appreciate the meals as well." Ezra paused, not wanting to offend the woman, but he still needed to ask. "Is the room kept warm? Under usual circumstances it would not matter so much, but my associate has been badly wounded and should not catch a chill."
"Oh, yer that law fella Jake's been fussin' about." Mrs. Dunlap smiled tight-lipped and suddenly sounded almost flustered. "You ain't gonna be bringin' no trouble here to my house are ya?"
"I assure you, dear lady, it is not our intention to do so. Would you mind if I see the room, please?" Standish turned on his southern charm and could see that it had the desired effect on the older woman.
"Sure, come on in." Once the door was closed securely behind him she turned to introduce herself. "I'm Edith Dunlap."
"Ezra Standish, ma'am." He followed the woman up the steps to the first room at the head of the stairs. It faced the main street, which made Ezra feel a bit more comfortable. That way he could keep an eye out for trouble, and watch for Buck and Vin to return. The room was anything but warm when they stepped inside. He looked at the woman and raised one brow in question.
"Room's been empty a couple of days. I don't keep the stove goin' when it ain't bein' used. If ya say ya want the room, I'll get the stove lit to start warmin' it up." She stepped aside and let him look around the room. "I can get ya some extra blankets too."
"We'll take it," Standish announced after a quick check of the room. There was a small room-sized potbellied stove and a basket of wood for fuel, a double sized bed, and a chest to keep their clothes in. "I'll throw in an extra two bits a day if you can see to it that there is plenty of wood so that we can keep the room sufficiently warm for my associate."
"I can see to that. I'll get it goin' now, and when ya bring yer friend over, I'll bring in my bedwarmer to warm the bed some fer him before he gets in t' bed." She set about adding some kindling to the stove and striking a match to it from the tin on the chest nearby. Once it caught fire, she started to gradually add larger bits of wood until she could add a few larger pieces. When she closed the grated door on the front of the stove Ezra could already feel the heat starting to spread through the room.
"It might be awhile before we get back. I'll need to get Dr. Carmichael to assist me in moving Mr. Larabee."
"I'll make sure the fire stays lit until ya get back." Edith followed Ezra out into the small hallway. "I'll take in some extra blankets and some water fer the pitcher. How long you two likely to be stayin?"
"At least five nights, maybe more depending on how long it takes Mr. Larabee to recover enough to travel. "Of course, we'll pay up front for those five nights and meals for five days. If my calculations are correct that would be fifteen dollars plus the extra I offered for the extra wood. Seventeen-fifty?"
"I ain't real good with figures unless I can write 'em down. But that sounds 'bout right."
"I'll write it all down for you if you would like," Ezra offered.
"That'd be right nice of ya." Mrs. Dunlap handed him a slip of paper that she used to figure the bills for her lodgers and watched as he detailed each expense, including the extra fuel for the stove. When he finished she held out her hand for the money and wrote next to the total figure paid. Any additional expenses would be added on below the first bill.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to make arrangements to move Mr. Larabee." He bowed his head slightly in farewell as he donned his hat and gloves before stepping back out into the cold.
"We absolutely are not moving him unless you get someone to help with a wagon. I don't care if it is only a few buildings away. He just isn't strong enough to walk that far even with help." Dr. Carmichael crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Ezra. "I don't intend to see him having any setbacks just to get him to a real bed."
"Nor do I wish to cause him any harm, but you surely must agree that he will rest better in a proper bed, where he can be comfortable." The gambler dug in his heels and refused to be swayed from his plan to relocate the wounded gunman.
"I am not disputing that; I'm telling you he can't walk that far yet." The doctor blocked Ezra from getting to Chris and refused to budge, even though the gambler made no attempt to push past him.
"Doctor, you know that we do not possess a wagon at the moment. I know Mr. Larabee, and I am sure he can manage that short walk if we both assist him." The gambler was getting very agitated at the unyielding physician.
"I ain't got a wagon of my own, but I could probly could get one from the blacksmith long enough to haul him down to old Miss Dunlap's," Jake offered. He's got a little flat wagon that he hires out once in a while."
"That would be fine," Carmichael answered before Ezra could even get his mouth open. He watched McCann hurry out the door before turning back to Standish. "That room going to be plenty warm? That is one thing that was good about him being here; he isn't likely to get a chill."
"The room has its own heating stove, and I have already paid for extra wood so I can keep it comfortably warm at all times." Ezra was annoyed at having his judgment questioned, but he knew the doctor had only Chris' best interest at heart, just like Nathan did when he tried to keep the rest of them safe and whole.
"All right. Once we get him moved I'll stay around until after lunch and if he hasn't developed any complications from the move, I'll head on home. I'd like to make it before dark, but I won't go if there is a sign of any problems." The doctor busied himself gathering his supplies from where he had just finished changing Chris' bandages.
About half an hour later Jake McCann walked back into the jail to find Ezra and the Doctor playing blackjack at the desk. "Who's winnin'?"
Carmichael rolled his eyes and sighed. "Who do you think?"
"Must not be you, or you'd just say ya are." Jake grinned at the older man and then drew his attention back to the gambler. "How much did ya take 'im for?"
"Now, Sheriff, one rule of gambling is you never gloat about your winnings at the gaming table. It is considered to be 'bad form'." Standish dealt another card to the Doctor when he rapped the table signaling he wanted another card. He considered his own hand and decided to stay with what he had.
"Another card, Doctor?"
"Very well. I have..." Ezra paused as he flipped the cards over for all to see. "...twenty; a king and a ten."
"You must be the luckiest man this side of the Mississippi." The doctor grumbled and tossed in his hand. "You got back just in the nick of time." He glanced up at McCann with a wry smile. "Much longer and I would have even lost my shirt."
"I don't consider it luck, but I agree about the timing." He grinned at Jake flashing a glint of gold from his gold tooth. "I would have hated to take the good Doctor's last dollar, before he had to ride home, especially since he has taken such good care of Chris."
Ezra pocketed the deck of cards and joined the Doctor on his way out the door to check out the wagon Jake had borrowed. He turned up his nose at the decrepit, dirty condition of the cart. "Let us hope that it remains in one piece. One bump and it's liable to disintegrate."
Carmichael shook the wobbly frame and cringed when he noticed the wheels were a bit rickety too. "It just needs to make it about half the length of this street. We'll need to take it really slow, for the cart and the patient's sakes." He spread out a blanket in the bed of the small wagon to keep some of the dirt at bay.
The sound of the door had roused Chris from a fitful sleep, and Ezra could feel the green eyes fixed on him as soon as they stepped back in the door. He did not pause, but walked straight to the gunman's side.
"Where've you been?" Larabee's voice was still soft, which said as much about his condition as the doctor's observations. He was weaker than he would ever admit, and taking a deep breath to speak louder was bound to be painful enough that the experience was not one he wanted to endure unnecessarily.
"We have procured a cart of sorts so we can move you to the boarding house now that the prisoners have been removed. Are you ready to try moving?" The gambler squatted down beside the pallet to talk to Chris.
"Yeah. You suppose we could make a stop at an outhouse on the way? It's hard pissing in a bucket when you're flat on your back." Larabee shoved the covers off and started to sit up on his own only to find a hand on his chest holding him down.
"I can appreciate your desire to hurry, but you need your boots on and it'll be easier getting them on you before you get up." He had barely gotten the words out of his mouth when he caught sight of the doctor lifting one of Chris' feet to slide the boot in place. It took only a couple minutes to get him ready.
"If you'll take hold from the other side," Carmichael instructed as they both got hold of the wounded man and helped him sit up. Both scrambled to keep him from toppling over backward again from the sudden wave of dizziness that hit him when he found himself completely upright for the first time in two days "Easy, you need to do this a little at a time and allow yourself time to adjust to not being flat out."
After a minute the world stopped spinning out of control and Larabee nodded that he was ready to try again. The doctor leaned down to slip one arm under Chris' and wrapped it around his back and waited for Ezra to do the same. "Be ready, he's going to be pretty unsteady when we first get him to his feet." The two men lifted together and managed to stand the gunman on his feet between them, allowing him a chance to get his balance.
"Let's go," Chris urged. He hated feeling so weak and dependent on others. After all his injuries and gunshots one would think that he would be used to dealing with the aftermath, but it never stopped making him feel like he was not a whole man. He knew he would continue to feel like that until he could manage to handle at least his basic needs on his own.
"All right, first stop one of the town's finest outhouses, and then on to a feather bed and rest." Standish tried to hold up as much of Chris' body weight as he could so the gunman would not have to overexert himself.
"Don't care if it's the finest in town, just as long as it's got a door to close and a hole to piss in." Larabee grumbled under his breath between small gasps when his side pulled sending streaks of pain racing through his torso.
The move had really taken a toll on Chris, and he sank into a straight-backed chair long enough for Ezra to pull his boots off. Mrs. Dunlap was busy running the bedwarmer over the mattress between the sheets. The long-handled, closed pan held hot coals from the fire, and she had to be careful not to let it rest too long in one place or she could scorch the sheets.
"Now that we have you in a proper room, do you think you could rest better if we get you out of your outside clothes?" The gambler set the boots aside and then helped Larabee with his coat.
"Yeah, I would." He started to unbutton his shirt but found his hands so shaky that he did not protest when Ezra brushed his hands out of the way and finished the job for him.
Once the shirt was off the doctor took his place on the opposite side and together they half carried Chris to the bed. They paused just long enough for the gambler to loosen Larabee's jeans and push them down far enough for Chris to sit on the bed. Carmichael let Standish steady their patient, while he tugged the jeans the rest of the way off, then he picked up Chris' feet and helped turn him around so he could lie down.
Mrs. Dunlap picked up the discarded clothes and folded them before laying them on top of the chest in the room. "I'll go see to some hot broth for ya." She looked at Chris, her eyes full of sadness at seeing his weakness and discomfort. "It's gonna be a couple hours 'til lunch, but if any of ya want some, I got some left over biscuits an' some homemade blackberry jam."
"My dear lady, you truly are an angel of mercy." Ezra smiled, oozing charm from every pore. "Mr. Larabee ate very little this morning, and I would be most grateful for something more to break the night's fast. My own breakfast was a bit meager, as well."
"I'll fetch up enough for all of ya then." She brushed past the gambler and softly closed the door behind her on her way out.
"While she's out of the room, I'd like to check your bandages and make sure you didn't pull anything open during the move." Doctor Carmichael retrieved his bag and opened the front of Chris' long-johns to get to the bandages. "Did you happen to bring a fresh pair of these?" He lifted the edge of the garment to indicate what he referred to.
"Yeah, in my saddle bags." Chris looked around to see if his bags were in the room. He frowned when he did not see them.
"I put them in the closet." Ezra pulled out the bags and dug through them looking for the fresh undergarment. Once he found them he laid them on the foot of the bed.
"Help me get him changed before Mrs. Dunlap comes back." The doctor indicated that he needed Standish to help Chris sit up while he worked the bloody, bullet-damaged long-johns off the gunman's shoulders. It took them a few minutes to get Larabee into the fresh garment and settled back into the bed.
"You'll need to take care of his wound after I leave," the doctor pointed out. "I'll leave you some supplies. Let me show you what you need to do for him while I check the bandages."
By the time Edith Dunlap had returned with a tray full of coffee, biscuits and jam, and Chris' broth, they had fresh bandages in place, and the patient was decently covered and resting against a pile of pillows while he waited for a small dose of laudanum to take effect. He would not take enough of it to put him to sleep. Old habits died hard and he just could not stand the thought of being incapacitated by a drug. He chuckled softly to himself at that thought. Getting knocked out by a drug was bad but yet he didn't worry about being off kilter by getting drunk. Even to himself it did not make good sense.
Ezra sat on the edge of the bed and handed the cup of broth to Chris. "Can you handle this on your own?"
"Yeah, thanks." Larabee held the cup with shaky hands, but he was determined to drink its contents without help.
Doctor Carmichael busied himself putting butter and jam on some biscuits. He handed a small plate to Ezra and set one on Chris' lap, before gathering his own and taking a seat in the one chair in the room. "Try to eat that. You'll not get your strength back if you don't start eating more."
"I know." The gunman heaved a heavy sigh and then winced as the pain it caused shot through his injured side. "Damn! I've been shot before, but it's never put me down like this." He gasped for breath as another searing pain pierced through him.
"From the location of the other scars, I'd say that this one hit in a more vital place. You're lucky that it didn't hit anything vital, but it ripped through you deep enough that it's going to take you quite awhile to heal." The doctor polished off the biscuit he'd been eating and rose to get another one. "One thing's for sure, Mrs. Dunlap's a pretty good cook. Anyone that can make good biscuits can usually cook most anything. You start eating better and stay put in that bed for a few more days and you'll start regaining your strength."
"How long do you propose we wait until he can travel?" The gambler accepted the half-empty cup that Chris held out to him and placed it on a bedside table, before holding the plate up indicating that Larabee had to take the biscuit.
"That wound is deep. You don't want it tearing loose inside after it starts healing." The physician thought about it for several moments before attempting an answer. "If you've got a sturdy wagon that he can lay down in, you can probably start back in a week. But, if he's intending to ride back, I don't want him even considering it for at least two weeks, and that's only if you stop frequently to rest and stop early for the nights."
"Doc, you aren't serious?" Chris looked at him in dismay.
"I'm very serious, and I think I am being very liberal with my estimates. Most people I would tell they couldn't even be moved by wagon for at least ten days and three weeks on horseback." The older man looked Larabee straight in the eyes. "I figure you for the kind of man who wouldn't wait that long, so why waste my breath on it."
"Ah...this is very true; however, you approached it wrong." Ezra turned far enough so Chris could not see and winked at the doctor. "Mr. Larabee is the kind of man that you have to double your estimated time of incapacitation in order to keep him abed for the required amount of time."
"And you don't give Nathan just as much trouble about staying in bed?" Chris glared at the gambler causing the younger man to grin back at him. "What?"
"You can glare, so now I feel more assured of your full recovery." Standish chuckled at the frown on the gunman's face. "Now, sir. Are you going to eat that biscuit, or will it be necessary for me to feed it to you?"
"Ezra, eat shit!"
"Why would I want to do that, when there is still half a plate of Mrs. Dunlap's superb biscuits?"
Chris just shook his head and took a small bite out of the biscuit, finding it light, soft and delicious. He had not realized just how hungry he was until that first bite. The food they had offered him before was all right, but it did nothing to stimulate the appetite. Once the first half was gone, he wasted no time in snatching up the second piece.
"Would you like another?" the doctor asked from his seat.
"Yeah, but not right now." Chris struggled to keep his eyes open. He suddenly felt like his arms were made of stone, and he found himself very tired.
"Get some rest. There will be more when you wake up." He smiled when he saw that his words had fallen on deaf ears. His patient had already slipped off to sleep, his morning's exertions having finally caught up with him. He motioned for Ezra to step out of the room with him.
"So far everything looks good. But, I think I'll wait until morning before I leave, just to be sure that he doesn't develop any fever."
"Thank you. I appreciate everything you've done." Ezra held out his hand to the doctor. "And I want to assure you, that he won't travel before he's supposed to, even if I have to tie him down to keep him here."
"You know, I think you'd do it, too." Carmichael laughed and clapped the gambler on the shoulder. "Now, if you'll excuse me. Jake said I could come back there and use one of the cots in the cell to grab a little sleep. I'm afraid I didn't sleep much last night. My old bones aren't used to sleeping on hard floors anymore. I'll be back later tonight to check on him, but you know where I'll be if you need me."
"I apologize for your discomfort last night. If you had said something, we could have put one of the prisoners on the floor and appropriated the cot for you." Ezra felt terrible that he had not considered that option the previous night. At the time though, all he was concerned with was that Chris was going to be all right. His sense of guilt over the gunman's condition had begun to consume him and clouded his thinking.
"Don't fret over it. I'm just getting soft is all; been leading too comfortable a life lately." With those words he slipped into his coat and headed down the stairs.
When the doctor was gone, Ezra slipped quietly back into the room and helped himself to another biscuit. He caught himself yawning a short time later as he sat keeping watch over his friend, and once jerked awake when he felt like he was toppling off of the chair.
"This is crazy," he muttered under his breath as he shook his head to try to wake up. A quick glance at Chris told him the gunman was deeply asleep, so he grabbed one of the extra blankets Edith had left and rolled up in it on the floor. He had barely laid his head down when he fell asleep.
Edith Dunlap knocked softly on the door to the room Chris and Ezra shared and waited for someone to answer the door. When she heard no sound coming from inside she grew concerned and knocked again slightly harder. She was still greeted with silence, so she tried the door, easing it open just enough to call out softly to the gambler.
"Mr. Standish?" She frowned when he did not answer. He had not seemed like the type to leave his injured friend alone, at least not for very long. She was fairly sure that she had not heard him come down the stairs after the doctor had left.
The door creaked slightly when she opened it a little farther and stuck her head inside. Chris Larabee lay right where he had when she saw him last, a couple of hours ago. Edith was glad that he looked more comfortable and appeared to be resting better there. At first glance she missed seeing Ezra in the room and thought that maybe he had stepped out for a few minutes, but just as she started to back out of the room she saw the corner of a blanket on the floor on the far side of the bed.
Mrs. Dunlap smiled to herself when she stepped around the foot of the bed to see Ezra, deeply asleep, on the floor. Lunch could wait a while for those two. They were both so exhausted that she knew the sleep would do them both more good than being awakened to eat.
She eased back out of the room and returned with another blanket. Even though the room was being kept warm, the floors could still get a little chilly. With practiced ease she flipped the blanket open and let it settle over the young man on the floor and then paused to add another log to the fire before going back downstairs to serve her other guests.
Ezra enjoyed a leisurely stretch before he suddenly remembered that he had a patient to tend to. As the last of the fog leftover from his nap lifted, he sat up to check on Chris. The gunman still slept deeply, but even from his vantage point, the gambler could tell that Larabee was breathing easier than he had been before. He almost wished there was someone he could gloat to that he had been right to insist on moving Chris to a proper bed, where he would not have his sleep disturbed by other external discomforts. The pain he endured from the gunshot wound was enough to keep even the hardest man from sleeping well.
Standish rose from the floor and immediately started to fold the blanket he had wrapped himself in. At first he was startled to find a second blanket, but then he realized that Mrs. Dunlap must have come to check on them. He would have to remember to do something special for her before they left town. The room was still reasonably warm, so he thought no more than a couple of hours could have passed, but when his stomach growled in protest of its empty state, he tugged his watch out of his pocket. It was after five o'clock. They had been sleeping for almost seven hours.
Despite the long nap, Ezra still felt worn out. He had not realized just how stressed he had been while guarding the prisoners and tending to Chris at the jail. Now, here in this room, he could let his guard down and relax. It was somewhat unnerving to think that Mrs. Dunlap could come into the room, cover him with an extra blanket and add fuel to the stove without waking him up. Usually he was a very light sleeper. He certainly hoped that Chris had not woken up needing him and that he had slept through that also.
Chris was still oblivious to anything around him, so Ezra slipped out of the room and walked quickly downstairs. It took only a few moments to locate Edith in the kitchen where she was working on the evening meal.
"Well, look who's decided t' wake up." Mrs. Dunlap paused in stirring the stew in the pot and grinned at the gambler. "I checked on ya to see about bringin' ya some lunch, but ya both were sleepin' so good, I thought it best t' just let ya rest."
"I am much obliged for your thoughtfulness; however, I do apologize for adding any extra burden on you." Ezra smiled at her, flashing his gold tooth, and displaying his dimples. He was pleased to see that the smile still had its usual effect as Mrs. Dunlap blushed like a schoolgirl.
"It wasn't any trouble." She motioned toward a chair. "You like to sit an' have some coffee while I finish up cookin'?"
"I would be most grateful, thank you." He seated himself and accepted the cup she brought to him. He almost moaned in pleasure when the energizing brew slipped down his throat, and he quickly followed up with another swallow. "I can't stay away long. Mr. Larabee was still sleeping, but I don't know for how much longer."
"Well, just finish yer cup an' when supper's ready I'll bring it up to ya. I saved some chicken an' dumplin's from lunch an' I've got stew cooking fer supper. Which would ya like?" Edith moved to the oven to check on the loaves of fresh bread she had baking.
"The chicken and dumplings sound especially nice. I know Mr. Larabee is partial to them also, that is if there is enough for both of us. If not, I enjoy a good stew just as well." Ezra really hoped she had enough of the dumplings. He had not had those for a very long time, but he would forgo them for Chris. He was sure the lighter chicken would set better on the wounded man's stomach that the richer stew.
"I've got plenty fer two." Edith had decided that the bread needed just a little longer to bake and the stew was doing fine just simmering on its own for a bit. She poured herself half a cup of coffee and joined Ezra at the small table she used to prepare the meals. "I figured you two could wake up at anytime, starving half t' death, an' as impatient as a pair of winter woke grizzlies."
"My dear lady, I find it difficult to imagine that I could ever be impatient with you." The gambler's stomach rumbled causing him to duck his head in embarrassment. "However, I can't say that my stomach is as disciplined."
"Poor boy," Edith teased. "I could find ya a bite to tide ya over."
"That won't be necessary. I am quite sure I can survive until mealtime, and it will serve my rude stomach right to have to wait a little longer." He winked conspiratorially at the older woman, causing her to giggle. "I loathe to rush away again, but I really should go check on Mr. Larabee."
"Ya go right ahead." Mrs. Dunlap patted the back of his hand where it rested on the table between them. "I'll bring yer supper up just as soon as the bread's outta the oven. Ain't nothin' better than fresh, hot bread. Now ya scoot on outta here."
Standish stood, smiling warmly, and gave her a slight bow before turning to leave the kitchen. "I will be waiting with considerable anticipation. If your bread is as good as your biscuits, then I will feel certain that I have died and gone to heaven, where I get to indulge in the food of the angels."
Before she could say anything to contradict his assessment, Ezra went through the door and disappeared down the hall. He was beginning to understand Buck just a little better, in his insistence on flirting with any woman he met. Edith Dunlap looked to be past forty years old; she was already a widow; and she found she had to find a way to support herself. It did not leave her much time to be noticed by anyone else. A little harmless flirting had seemed to brighten her day, and he was glad he could provide her with a few little memories to make her feel as special as she clearly was.
Ezra froze for an instant when he opened the door to the bedroom, but quickly recovered and rushed inside. "Mr. Larabee, what do you think you're doing?" The gambler reached Chris and placed a hand on his shoulder to keep him from getting up. "You are not supposed to try to get up on your own yet."
The gunman glared at Ezra and was pleased to see the smaller man flinch slightly. At least he had not totally lost his touch; he could still set a man back on his heels with a look. "Where the hell were you? I laid here for as long as I could, but I have to piss."
His green eyes reflected the guilt he felt at the realization that his friend had needed his help, and he had not been there to give it. "My apologies. You were still sleeping and I merely went to inform Mrs. Dunlap that we would be in need of sustenance soon, since I discovered that we both slept through the midday meal." Ezra explained his absence as he retrieved the chamber pot from under the bed and handed it to Chris.
Larabee wasted no time with talk as he quickly made use of the porcelain vessel, which was anything but easy to do lying down, and handed it back to Ezra to cover and put back under the edge of the bed until it could be emptied. He ran his fingers through his hair with shaky fingers and took a deep breath before trying to speak again. "Sorry. I should have known you wouldn't have gone too far."
"You had no way of knowing just how long I intended to be gone. You have no need to apologize to me. On the contrary, I should be making amends to you." Standish straightened the covers and then laid a hand on Chris' forehead to see if he felt feverish. He was pleased to find that the older man's skin was warm to the touch, but not hot.
"How long was I asleep?" Larabee tried to crane his neck around to see out the window, but he could not quite twist far enough.
"It is still light out, but not by much. I fear that after you dropped off, I did too. You slept a little over seven hours. I woke up not quite half an hour before you did." He fussed a little more with the covers and then retrieved the chair so he could sit by the bed.
"Reckon we were both pretty wrung out." Chris winced slightly at a twinge of pain. It hurt but it was not as bad as it had been any other time that he had moved around too much.
"I hope you don't mind, but I took it upon myself to choose your evening meal. Mrs. Dunlap was making stew for supper, but she had saved us some chicken and dumplings from lunch. "I told her how much you love a good plate of stew."
"Stew! You told her I'd rather have stew than dumplings?" Chris was stunned. "When have you ever known me to turn down chicken and..." The gunman saw the sparkle in the gambler's eyes and the hint of a smile that he could not quite contain and knew he had been duped. "Ezra, you are a sack of horse shit."
Standish burst out laughing at the look on his friend's face, despite the disparaging remarks aimed at his person. "Mr. Larabee, you are just so utterly predictable."
They were spared any further sparring by the sound of a knock on the door. Ezra frowned at the sound and wondered why it sounded so odd. A few strides got him to the door, and he opened it several inches just as Edith Dunlap pulled her foot back to rap her toe against the door again. He yanked the door open and reached out to grab the near side of the large tray to help the older woman steady it. She had wobbled off balance after being startled by his sudden appearance, combined with the equally sudden disappearance of the solid wooden door her toe was aimed at.
"Oh, my goodness! I thought fer sure that tray was a goner." She allowed Standish to take the heavy tray from her hands and then followed him into the room. "I see our patient finally got his eyes pried open." Before Chris could come up with a retort, she smiled at him and felt his forehead and neck. "Ya look liked ya feel a bit better than ya did when ya got here."
"And he is bound to feel even better after a good meal." Ezra brought a shallow bowl to him that was full of bits of chicken and large drop dumplings. He sat the plate on the gunman's lap before spreading one of the cloth napkins over Larabee's chest and handing him a fork. "Would you like some assistance?"
"I'm shot, Ezra; I'm not a baby," Chris grumbled.
"If you remember, I've been similarly incapacitated myself in the past, and I know that I felt as weak as a newborn for some time after the injury."
"Well, that was you, not me." Larabee worked at cutting a bite-sized piece off of one of the dumplings. When he finally succeeded and speared the clump of dough, he smiled and stuffed it into his mouth.
"Mrs. Dunlap, these are some of the best dumplin's I've ever had." The gunman barely swallowed before praising the cook.
"That's just yer hunger talkin', but I thank ya for the compliment." She edged closer to the bed and looked at him intently. "I know ya can do it yerself, but why don't ya let me cut those up for ya, then you can concentrate on eatin' 'em?"
Chris considered the difficulty he had in catching the rolling dumpling and holding it still enough to carve a piece out of it, and relented, with a nod of his head. He relinquished the fork and waited as she cut the dumplings into manageable sized pieces.
"There ya go. That should make it a bit easier fer ya. Ain't no sense in ya wasting what little energy ya have tryin' to catch the food, when ya really need t' be eatin' it." Edith Dunlap smiled, dimpling her slightly pudgy cheeks. She stayed right at the bedside while she made sure that Chris could manage feeding himself, and once satisfied that he could, she turned back to Ezra.
"You gentlemen need anything else?" She was happy to see the gambler making such quick work of his dinner, too. While she had been taking care of Larabee, Ezra had wolfed down almost half of his own meal. "From the looks of it, I think maybe I should bring up the rest of the dumplin's. I've still got a bit more stayin' warm on the stove."
Ezra started to speak to tell her that it wouldn't be necessary, but he had his mouth stuffed full of the delectable dough balls. Before he could swallow so he could say anything, Edith had already left the room. He had to admit that he had been hungry enough to chew shoe leather, and he would not refuse a second helping, since she had already gone to the trouble of going after more.
It seemed like she had barely left when she came back carrying a small cooking pot, being careful to keep a heavy towel between her hand and the hot handle. "Here ya go." Mrs. Dunlap spread out a cloth on the table and sat the pot on top of it. Her furniture was not fancy, but she took pride in keeping it as nice as possible. "I just brought all that was left, so you boys just finish 'em up. I'll come back fer the dishes later. Right now I need to go check the stew and get it on the table for the other folks."
"Thank you, ma'am." Ezra had swallowed quickly so he could speak before the woman could get out the door again. "You've been most gracious."
Edith smiled again as she opened the door, and then turned back for just a few moments. "Either of you two need me, I'll be downstairs." With that, she stepped into the hall and pulled the door shut behind her.
"She is a fine woman." Chris stabbed a bit of chicken and ate it before continuing. "Seems like someone would have snatched her up by now."
"Maybe she likes her independence. She's made her own way since losing her husband. I would imagine it would be difficult giving up that freedom." The gambler grew serious as his mind wandered back to Mary. She had done the same thing since Steven died, and now she was prepared to give that up for him. It was a sobering thought, and he made a conscious decision to be certain that she knew that he did not intend to interfere in her business or expect her to give up all of the independence she had grown used to. They would both have concessions to make in their transition into married life, but neither of them should have to change completely for the other. Mary had made it clear that she would not ask Ezra to completely give up the lifestyle he had known for most of his life, even though she did not fully agree with his choice of gambling as a career. He just hoped that he had made it equally as clear that he did not expect her to give up anything about her life as a newspaper editor and reporter. She loved what she was doing, and she felt that she was providing a valuable service to the community, and she was.
"Thinking about Mary?"
Larabee had been watching him after he had fallen silent, and the question startled him. Ezra ducked his head, at being discovered, in an attempt to hide the slight blush and the impish smile that tugged at his mouth. "Have I grown that transparent?"
"Only to someone who's been married before." Chris almost chuckled at the look of relief on the gambler's face. "Don't worry, not everyone has figured out how to read you like a book."
"I should hope not. It would certainly curtail my prospects of providing for my family."
"You will do fine."
Ezra noticed that each time the gunman took a bite, the fork took longer to travel from his plate to his mouth. He had taken to lifting his head to try to meet the food partway there, rather than trying to lift his arm far enough to bring the food to him. That last bite seemed to have taken the remainder of his strength. Chris let his hand drop to his side as his head flopped back to the pillows piled behind him and his eyes drooped closed.
Setting his own plate aside, Ezra rose from the chair and went to sit on the edge of the bed. Larabee's eyes flew open when he felt the bed shift under the gambler's weight, and felt the man lean across him enough to retrieve the fork from his limp fingers. Without saying a word, Standish picked up the plate and speared a piece of a dumpling and held it out to Chris. He held it there for several seconds while the gunman made no move to take the offered food. "Are you going to eat this, or let your pride leave you hungry?"
Chris opened his mouth and let Ezra guide the fork to his lips. After chewing and swallowing he looked dejectedly at the gambler. Having to rely on someone else for help with even the most basic of needs did not sit well with him.
"Chris..." Ezra chose to use the man's given name to ensure that he had his full attention. "There are times in every man's life when he finds himself in need of some assistance. So, I empty a chamber pot for you, or I help you eat or change clothes. I seem to recall a time in the not-too-distant past where you did a lot more than that for me. You found me, near death, and in an awful mess out in those woods. You cleaned me up and got help for me. I would be dead now if you and Mary hadn't come looking for me. Do you think it was easy for me to have either of you forced to tend to me in that manner? It wasn't, I assure you. It was humiliating, but it was something I had to allow because I could not do it for myself. And now, here you are, in the position you are because you protected me. Let me help you, and know that I am more than glad to do it." Ezra was used to speechmaking; he did it quite often. But he was not used to pouring out his feelings and admitting his own weaknesses to someone else. The significance of that was not lost on the gunman.
"This isn't your fault. I know you think it is, but it isn't." Chris knew that no matter how much he tried to convince the conman of that, he would never completely succeed.
"How do you figure that? The gun was aimed at me. It should have been me..."
"Ezra, I told you back in Tucson that you aren't alone anymore. I would have done the same for Vin, or Buck or any of the others. You're one of us, and you have people to watch your back for you now." He was fading out toward the last as his energy reserves hit bottom, but he had to make sure that the gambler understood. "You would have done the same for any of us. Don't even try to say you wouldn't, because I've seen you risk yourself for us and for others, too." He saw the younger man hang his head, embarrassed by the certainty in Larabee's voice. "Besides, Mary would have killed me if I'd let her become a widow again before she even got to have the wedding."
That last statement brought a smile to Ezra's face and lightened the seriousness of the conversation. "Ah, so now the truth comes out. It was an act of self-preservation."
"I'd rather take a bullet than what she'd have put me through."
Ezra laughed at the truthfulness in that statement, having been on the receiving end of Mary's ire in the past. "And as bad as that might have been, it is nothing compared to what you are going to get from me if you don't finish every bite of this."
Chris frowned at the fork that was once again hovering near his mouth, but opened it to accept the bite. But before the gambler could stuff in another dumpling, he grumbled, "You really can be a pain in the ass."
"Why, thank you, Mr. Larabee. I like you too. Now eat!"
The gunman sighed and opened his mouth.
Ezra walked downstairs with the doctor when he stopped in to check on Chris later that evening. He wanted a chance to talk without the gunman overhearing. "How is he doing, really? It seems like it is taking him longer than usual to start getting his strength back."
"Mr. Standish, I'm not going to mince words with you." Dr. Carmichael shrugged into his coat as she spoke. "He's lucky to be alive. There are so many vital organs that the bullet could have hit, but somehow it missed them. He lost a lot of blood and it is going to take time for him to recover from that. One thing to be thankful for though is that losing that much blood might have been what has kept him from getting an infection. It has a way of flushing out the wound, and wounds that bleed heavily don't go septic as often, as long as they are kept clean."
"I appreciate all you've done for him, and thank you for staying on another day." Ezra held his hand out to the older man. "It is a relief for us both to know that we had you here to see him through the worst of it."
"I didn't do much really. You fellas had taken very good care of him before I got here. Someone's taught you a thing or two about taking care of wounds like this." The doctor returned the handshake, and with his free hand he gave the gambler a light pat on the shoulder. "He's lucky to have such good friends. I'll stop by in the morning before I leave town. As long as something doesn't go wrong tonight, and I don't expect it to, I can feel it is safe to leave him in your care."
"Thank you. I'd like to go ahead and settle accounts with you tonight. How much do we owe you for dropping everything to ride to our assistance?" Ezra dug into his pocket to get money to pay the good doctor for his time and supplies, and then watched from the door as Carmichael headed back toward the jail and some more sleep.
By the time he got back to the room, Larabee appeared to have already fallen asleep. Ezra was surprised that he was still tired, too, and had gotten out the blankets to make up his pallet on the floor when he got that prickling feeling that made him feel like he was being watched. He turned to see Chris staring at him. "Is there something that I can do for you before retiring for the night?"
"No. I was just trying to figure out what you're doing. Why are you sleeping on the floor?" He shifted in the bed to relieve the dull ache that was starting in his back from lying around so long.
"I did not wish to disturb your rest or risk bumping you and maybe causing you more pain." The gambler went back to work unfolding the first blanket.
"You're not going to hurt me. Hell, you don't hardly twitch a muscle during the night."
The gambler finished spreading the blankets and then went to add some more wood to the heating stove before taking off his jacket and unhooking his derringer rigging. When he turned back he locked eyes with Chris and saw the determined look in the older man's eyes. "I fear that is not always the case. I do occasionally have very restless nights."
"You're just making excuses."
Standish hesitated a few moments before he turned down the lamp and gave in. "Very well. Apparently you aren't going to accept that I would be fine on the floor."
"Ezra, just get your butt into bed."
He could not bring himself to continue to argue with an injured man, at least not over that situation. The conman toed off his boots and stripped off his trousers and shirt before climbing into bed. The feather mattress felt like a little bit of heaven after so many nights of sleeping on the floors of the various jails where they had stopped to house their prisoners for the night. He felt Larabee stop shifting around after looking for a position that caused as little pain as possible.
"For what? Sharing the bed?" The gunman scowled in the near darkness.
"No. For saving my life...again." Ezra's voice was not much above a whisper, but in the silence, broken only by the sound of the fire crackling in the stove, it sounded too loud and too chagrined. "Mary would have been devastated."
"It wasn't just for Mary; it was for me, too." Larabee struggled to pull his thoughts together so he could try to make sense. "I didn't want to see Mary and Billy hurt if something happened to you, but I didn't want to lose a friend either."
"A friend?" The gambler could barely believe what he was hearing, and he turned over to face the other man. "I thought you only tolerated me, at best."
"I suppose I did at first. It's just so hard for me to trust people."
"And I lost your trust right from the start," Ezra finished for him.
"Yeah, but since then you've earned it back and then some." Larabee paused, suddenly embarrassed and wishing he had never started telling this, but he gathered his resolve and plunged on. "I should have let you know that before now, and I should never have reacted like I did when I first found out about you and Mary. I should have known you would never force yourself on a woman...I just thought...no, I didn't think. That was the problem."
"You had feelings for her."
"That doesn't excuse what I did." Guilt caused the words to catch in Larabee's throat, as he forced himself to say things that had been left unsaid for way too long. "You've been thinking that I don't trust you...but it's me who keeps wondering how you and Mary could ever trust me again."
"Do you still love her?" Ezra was almost afraid to hear the answer, but deep down he knew he had to know.
"No." Chris glanced over at the gambler. "I don't think I ever really loved her. I just thought I did when I realized that I couldn't ever have her. Then it took awhile for my pride to let me admit to myself that she was much better off with you than she ever would have been with me." He paused and sought out eye contact with the younger man in the dim light. "I do care a lot about her, but as a friend."
Ezra felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off him. He had overheard one conversation between Chris and Mary, when they both talked of being no more than friends, but the specter of Chris' words that one day in the saloon when he had asked him, 'Did you love her?', still haunted him. The scene continued to replay in his mind, as he responded, 'I still do,' and he still saw the sadness in the gunman's eyes as he admitted to Ezra, 'That makes two of us.'
"Thank you, for telling me that. You have no idea how much that eases my mind." Since Larabee was doing some confessing, it only seemed right that he did too. "I hadn't been able to completely shake the feeling that I had somehow stolen her from you."
"No, you didn't. My pride thought you had for a while, but then my brain finally told my pride to butt out." Chris chuckled and then hissed when the quivering the laughter caused caused a pain to shoot through his side. "Damn!"
"Do you need some of your laudanum?"
"No. I don't like taking that stuff. Besides, I won't feel anything if I'm asleep." Larabee shifted a little more, and pulled one of the extra pillows from under his head so he could lie flatter. "So, we need to shut up and get to sleep."
"Of course, you're right. I've often wondered how it is that we don't seem to feel pain in our sleep, or at least not nearly as much. It seems like it would just keep..."
"Oh! Good night, Chris."
"Sun! Glorious sun!"
"What?" Vin looked at Wilmington like he'd never seen him before.
"The sun." The ladies' man pointed skyward and grinned. "Do you realize this is the first day that hasn't been all gray? You bein' the type who likes to go out an rough it like ya do, I'd think that sunshine after all these days would be gettin' yer attention too."
"Yeah. I'm enjoyin' it too, but just never thought about gettin' all excited over somethin' that we have no control over. Sun's gonna shine when it can and not before, no matter how much we want it to."
"I just don't get it." Buck squinted at the younger man. "Ya look like Vin, but ya don't talk like him."
"Buck, yer not makin' any sense." The tracker shook his head like he was trying to shake some understanding into his bewildered mind.
"I don't see how ya can write poetry, and not see the beauty and wonder of seein' the sun kissin' the earth after all those days of rain and clouds." Wilmington's expression became more wistful as he stared out over the landscape. There had not been a sign of a cloud all day and it had visibly lifted his spirits to have the sun to take the chill out of his bones, despite the crispness of the day.
Tanner grinned and followed Buck's gaze and was rewarded with the sight of a hawk circling lazily, looking for prey. "Sounds t' me that ya got a bit of a poet in ya, too."
"Nah, not me. The closest I get to poetry is memorizing a few lines to woo the ladies." He glanced at the tracker and winked. "Those pretty little fillies love to hear some of those sweet words."
"Maybe, but talkin' of the sun kissin' the earth sounds like poetry t' me." Vin knew it wasn't the best idea to push his point too much, so he changed the subject. "I'm gettin' hungry. This looks like a good place to stop to rest the horses an' grab a bite."
"Thought you'd never suggest it. I could do with somethin' to fill the hollow spot too." He pulled on the reins to stop the team pulling the wagon, and then looped them around the break handle.
Tanner had already climbed down from Peso's back and stood scanning the distance, slowly circling to see all the way around them. "If anyone was t' try anything, we'd be sure to see them comin'." Only after he had satisfied himself that they were not likely to be ambushed, did he loosen the cinch on the saddle to make his horse a little more comfortable during their break.
He reached up and accepted the basket Wilmington held out to him. They had had several biscuit and bacon sandwiches made up, in the hopes that the time they saved on having to stop to prepare a quick meal would make up for not having hot food on a cold day. He rummaged through the contents and pulled out two of the sandwiches for each of the prisoners and walked to the back of the wagon.
"'Bout time." Joe held a hand out through the tiny window to accept his food. He was somewhat surprised when Vin handed him two of the sandwiches, and then gave Carl two also. "Two? Ya gettin' generous, or fattenin' us up fer the kill?"
"If ya don't want 'em both then hand 'em on back. We won't let 'em go to waste." Tanner grinned sardonically when Joe stepped back out of reach and clutched the food against him. "Thought that's how ya might see it." He did not try to starve the prisoners, but he did not overindulge them either. "Just so ya know, we might not be stoppin' fer the night, so that might be all there is until we get to Yuma, if we go straight through. Didn't think one would hold ya that long."
"Thanks." Carl's manners had improved after seeing his uncle and brother had been killed and there was no one left out there to try to get them out. He'd become resigned to his fate. They had both been so surly and combative in the beginning that the tracker wondered if it was all a ruse to try to get them to let their guard down.
"Get 'em fed?" Buck had climbed down from the wagon with their canteens and pointed to a large flat boulder a few feet off the road. "Let's sit there."
"Yeah, they're taken care of, 'cept for given them a drink before we start out again." He dug into the basket to get his two sandwiches and handed it to the ladies' man. Both men sat on the edge of the sun-warmed rock and ate in a companionable silence.
"What do you think?" Vin asked after they had both washed down the meal with several swallows of water.
"Well, we made good time this far. Better than I expected." Buck swiped his hand over his mouth and rubbed his chin, and then squinted up at the sun. "We got about another two hours to Fallen Rock, then probably another five to six hours from there to Yuma."
"Six hour would put us gettin' there around eight tonight. It'd be full dark by then."
"Yeah, but it wouldn't have been dark all that long. I say if things keep going this well the rest of the way to Fallen Rock, then we keep going." Wilmington was anxious to get back to Stoney Ridge to check on Chris. He had hated leaving him behind, but they had to get the prisoners to Yuma and if they could make it tonight, they would be running only one day late instead of two.
"All right," Vin agreed. "But we need to pick up the pace a little if possible. I don't want us travelin' in the dark any longer than we have to. Last thing we need is to break an axle or somethin' when we're this close."
"Then let's get moving. Give them a drink and let's quit wastin' daylight." Buck took the basket and their canteens back to the wagon, while Tanner took the extra one back to the prisoners to give them some water.
In just a matter of minutes they were once again heading west toward Yuma, the wagon rattling over the uneven road. The horses seemed to pick up on the sense of urgency in the air, or maybe they somehow knew that if they moved a little faster that tonight would be the end of their journey, and they picked up their pace with very little urging from Wilmington.
"Too bad we don't have a full moon out tonight." Buck squinted at the road ahead of him, barely able to make out where the road should be.
"Yeah, but at least it's not that much farther." The tracker worked his way along the road in front of the wagon, trying to spot any obstacles or large ruts in the road that might prove harmful to the wheels or axle. "A quarter moon is better than none at all." He gazed ahead of them, peering through the dark, hoping to catch the first glimpse of light from the town.
"Never thought, but we could have brought a lantern. You would have been able to check the road faster that way." Buck was annoyed with himself for not considering that idea, but the plan had been to stop each night before dark instead of pushing on until after sunset. It just had not made any sense to him to stop at two o'clock in the afternoon, when another six hours or so would get them to Yuma.
"Well, Bucklin, you know what they say about hindsight."
"Is it wishful thinkin' or do I see a speck of light ahead?" The ladies' man leaned forward and studied the spot intently. "I think it is."
"Yep, looks like we're gonna get there in one piece after all." Vin was as anxious to get the trip over with and get back to check on Chris as Buck was, but he did not relax his vigilance when it came to scouting the road. It would be stupid to get this close to their goal and have problems because he got careless.
Not until they had actually reached the first houses did they breathe a sigh of relief and begin to feel the tension drain from their over-strained shoulders. Both had been there before, and they knew exactly where they were going, so they did not even pause on the way through town. About a quarter mile outside the town limits stood Yuma prison.
"State yer business," a gruff, no-nonsense voice called out to the from the guard shanty.
"Prisoner transport," Buck called back and waited where he was for the guard to check him out.
"Kinda late fer bringin' in prisoners." The guard sounded less than convinced that their business there was legitimate.
"We're here from Tucson, bringing in the Corby brothers for Judge Travis." Buck tried not to sound impatient, but he was not sure if he had succeeded.
"What's yer name?"
"You were supposed to be here yesterday." The guard eased out of the darkness next to the small shack and peered up toward Buck.
"Yeah, I know. One of our partners got shot. We were stuck at Stoney Ridge for a couple of days. That's why we pushed on tonight, to make up some time." Wilmington kept his hands where the guard could see them and carefully got down from the wagon. "I got the paperwork right here." He motioned toward his inside coat pocket, and waited quietly while the guard patted the area around the pocket and then nodded that he could reach for the papers. Once he handed them to the guard, Buck waited while he looked them over.
"Everything looks all right, but I need to check these a little closer in the light." He moved over to the pool of light that spilled out of the window and examined the documents. "This says Chris Larabee is supposed to be the one in charge."
"Chris is the one who got shot. Vern and Grady Corby tried to bust these two out about a half a day's ride from Stoney Ridge. We had to leave him there, with our fourth to look after him." Buck was getting more than a little tired of this, but he knew the guard was just doing his job.
"Wait here." The guard went over to the gate and talked to another man who had come out of a similar shack on the other side, and that man sprinted across the compound with the papers in hand.
It was only a couple of minutes before the runner came back followed at a slower pace by the prison warden. "Buck? Is that really you?"
"It's me. Who's that?"
"John? Why you old dog, when did you get set up here?" Buck grinned and moved closer to the fence to get a little better look at his old acquaintance.
"Oh, it's been about six months now. Lon, unlock the gate and let these fellas in. Hell, Buck and me go way back." The warden stepped back for the guard to unlock the padlock on the gate, but he did not swing it open until Wilmington was at the reins again and had the wagon pulled up close. "Open it," Sanders instructed and watched his men scurry to comply.
The wagon rattled over the rough ground and once inside it came to a stop. John Sanders waited for his old friend to climb down again before holding out a hand to him and giving him a friendly slap on the arm. "How long's it been?"
Buck thought back, trying to remember the last time he and John had ridden together. "Close t' six years now. Last time was when you helped me chase down the Willowby gang."
"God almighty! That makes me feel old. That was one of the last times I went out on the chase like that. Damn, sometimes I miss those days." As they talked they walked toward the back of the wagon where three guards now stood, armed and ready. "Let's get these two moved and then you and your friend can come on over to my office. You're lucky I was still here this late. I usually try to get out of here before seven. Margaret usually has supper waiting about that time, and you know me...you can call me anything you want, but don't call me late for supper." He accepted the key from Buck and opened the lock.
It took a few minutes for the formalities to be completed. They had to check in the prisoners, turn over the wagon, and reclaim their own horses before joining the warden in the office. The two old friends chatted amiably as they led the way, with Vin following close behind.
"Chet, I need you to send someone over to my house with a note for Margaret. You have someone you can spare for a bit?" Sanders phrased it as a question, but the guard seemed to know it was and order, not a request.
"I'll take it myself. Do ya need me to wait fer an answer?" Chet appeared to be about Vin's age, and his eagerness indicated that he intended to be noticed by his superiors.
"Yes. And no dawdling along the way." The warden hastily scribbled out a short note and handed it to the young guard. As soon as the man had stepped out and closed the door behind him, Sanders turned his attention back to Buck. "So, now that the work's done, how about introducing me to your friend."
"This here's Vin. He works with us back in Four Corners." Wilmington turned back toward the tracker and caught the very slight relaxation of the tension in the younger man's body. He just hoped that John would not press him for a last name. "Vin, this is John Sanders. He used to be sheriff of Eagle Creek back when I was sheriff of Stockton. Guess you could say we were neighbors of sorts. We used to back each other up when either of us had to gather up a posse. Those were the days, right, John?" The ladies' man turned back to the warden and grinned. "Of course, back in those days ya weren't an old married man. I heard you'd gone and got yerself hitched."
"Yeah, I did. Just about a year after that trip out after the Willowby bunch. That's when I had to hang up my spurs and take something more settled and less dangerous. Margaret just couldn't handle me out tearing around the country gettin' shot at." As he spoke, he went to a cupboard and pulled out three glasses and a bottle of whiskey. "Bet you two could use a drink after that ride in here. That was more'n a little crazy tryin' to come on in after dark. But then you always were a bit crazy."
Buck accepted the glass and laughed. "Hell, we both were back then."
Sanders filled another glass and passed it to Vin. "How'd you end up hookin' up with the likes of him?" He nodded toward the ladies' man.
"Just happened t' be in the right place at the right time, I reckon." Tanner was trying to stay as inconspicuous as possible. It always unnerved him to be around so many lawmen, and he had already sidestepped several town sheriffs on the way here. He really did not want to finally reach their destination, only to be discovered as a wanted man by the prison warden.
"Ah, I think I sense a story behind that remark." Sanders waited, expecting Vin to pick up on the hint.
"Ain't much to tell, John. Several of us got hired by the chief of the Seminole village near Four Corners to protect the village from a bunch of renegade Confederates that just refused to admit that the war was over. When the fightin' was over, we all just sort of stuck together when the judge offered us steady work watchin' over the town."
"There's gotta be more to it than that." Sander drooped visibly, looking dejected and somewhat deflated by being left wondering. "You know, I gotta live through the stories everyone else tells now, don't you?"
Buck slapped his old friend on the shoulder and nodded. "I'll tell ya all about it, but right now, we need to find us a hotel and some grub. We're tired and hungry."
"I know you are, and here I am fishing for stories of your adventures. If you can hang in there until Chet gets back, we'll see to it that you get a good dinner and a place to stay." John's brows arched asking the silent question. "I just sent Chet to check and see if Margaret can manage dinner for company tonight. If she can't, I'll treat you both to dinner at the saloon. The dining room at the hotel is already closed for the night."
"Don't go puttin' yerself out on our account. We don't want to go keepin' ya from yer family, or causin' extra work for the missus."
"It's all right. Margaret has never turned down a guest, but I always try to be considerate and ask. When we were first married, I made the mistake of just assuming she could manage having extra people for a meal. She could, but she let me know right quick that enough food doesn't magically appear in the pot to feed extra people if she only planned on two." A sheepish grin spread across his face and he winked at Buck. "And we all know that if the missus isn't happy, no one's happy."
A little tapping on the door caught there attention. Sanders opened it, to find Chet had already made it back from town. "Good Lord, Son. Did you race that horse there in the dark?"
"No, Sir. He's just so used to that road that he could probably run it in his sleep by now." The young man handed a folded piece of paper to the warden and waited to see if there were any other instructions.
"That'll be all, Chet. Thank you." He closed the door and turned toward the lamp so he could read his wife's message.
"Just as I thought, she'd love to have you both come to dinner." Sanders looked at Buck and smiled broadly. "I've told her about some of our escapades, and I think she wants to see for herself what kind of man I used to get into trouble with."
"Trouble?" Vin looked between the two men and ended up studying Buck with a knowing look in his eyes. "Sounds like there's more than one story to be told tonight."
"Yeah, well some of 'em can't be told in mixed company, so you'll just have to wait for the ride home to hear those." Buck laughed and bobbed his brows suggestively.
"That's enough talk for now. We better go get you two fed." Sanders led the way out the door and was pleased to see that Chet had taken it upon himself to make sure that the warden's horse was ready and waiting with Buck's and Vin's mounts.
"I"m all fer that." Wilmington's stomach growled right on cue, causing them all to laugh. "Lead on, we're right behind ya."
"That was mighty good." Buck patted his full stomach and smiled at the woman who sat across from him. "I'm stuffed."
Margaret Sanders' eyes crinkled slightly at the corners when her smile reached her eyes. "Too stuffed for apple cobbler?"
"You do know the way to a man's heart," Wilmington teased back. "Now that's one thing that I'd find room for even it I gotta get up and jump up and down to tamp down the rest to make room."
"That I'd like t' see." Margaret laughed as she pushed back from the table and went to the large wooden pie safe on the other side of the room. She returned with the cobbler and a large serving spoon. "Hold out your plate."
Buck did as he was told and was rewarded with a large piece of the freshly baked dessert. He could not wait to try a bite, and he moaned in pleasure when he discovered that it was still slightly warm.
"I'm glad I finally got to meet you in person. John's told me a lot about you, so it is nice to have a face to go with the stories." Mrs. Sanders took her place at the table after serving everyone, taking care not to bump her belly when she scooted her chair in. She rested one hand on the full round mound as she talked. "So, you're the one he used to get into trouble with."
"I reckon we found ourselves our share of trouble, but it was all my fault. John had to be drug into it kickin' and screamin' all the way." Buck did his best to keep his old friend from looking bad in his wife's eyes.
Margaret paused a moment, fork halfway to her mouth, before she burst out laughing. She finally had to give up and lay the fork down and dab at her eyes with the corner of her apron. "Mr. Wilmington, I don't believe that for a minute. I know my husband, and he could find his share of trouble all by himself. But you are a good friend for trying to take the blame."
"Did you know my husband back then too?" Margaret suddenly shifted her attention to the tracker.
Vin was startled to have the attention directed his way. He'd counted himself lucky that the old friends had been too busy reminiscing to include him in much of the conversation. "No, ma'am, but it sounds like there was never a dull moment."
"I wouldn't say that exactly, but we sure had our share of adventures." The humor touched the warden's bright blue eyes as another memory surfaced and they all recognized the warning signs of another tale.
"Gentlemen, if you'll excuse me. I think I'll get started on the dishes." Margaret rose and started gathering the plates that were already empty. "Take your time with the cobbler, and feel free to help yourselves to more."
Vin finished the last couple of bites of his dessert and got up to follow her to the sink. "Let me help you with that, ma'am." He took the folded cloths from her and picked up the large kettle of steaming water from the stove and poured half of it in each of the two small wash tubs she had set out.
"Thank you, but I can manage this. I don't want to interfere with your chance to visit with John." She pumped some cold water into the empty kettle but before she could lift it, Vin picked it up and sat it back on the stove.
"Honestly, I wasn't there with them either, so I'm just as lost in the retellin' as you are." The tracker looked at her, hoping for an excuse to get away from the table.
"All right then. I'll wash, you dry." Margaret handed him a drying cloth and then set about getting things ready. She shaved a little soap from the bar into the hot water and swished it around with a spoon until it started to dissolve, before she added some cold water to it and the rinse water to cool it enough that she could put her hands in it.
The two worked together in silence while they both half-listened to the two old friends talking about the good old days. Sometimes they would share a smile or one of them would roll their eyes at some outlandish claim one of the two men made.
The evening was all too short, having started so late. Despite the late hour they seemed reluctant to call it a night. It was Vin who finally spoke up when he saw their hostess try to hide a yawn. "Buck, we gotta head out early in the mornin'. We should be goin' and findin' a room for the night."
Wilmington pulled out his pocket watch and checked the time. "I didn't realize it was getting so late." He stood up and stretched. "We need to be lettin' you two get some sleep." He held out his hand to his old friend. "John, it's been good seein' ya again, and very nice to meet you." Buck bowed slightly in Margaret's direction. "John's a mighty lucky man."
"John?" Margaret quirked one brow and turned to stare at her husband.
The warden slapped his forehead with his palm and grimaced. "I forgot. I guess I just got too caught up in talkin' about old times."
"Forgot what?" Wilmington look from husband to wife and back again.
"To tell you that yer welcome to stay here tonight. We've got a spare room, if the two of you don't mind sharing." Sanders looked a bit contrite over forgetting to extend the invitation to his long time friend.
"We wouldn't want to put ya out none," Vin offered, before Buck could jump on the invitation. "We gotta hit the road real early."
"Nonsense! You don't need to start out that early. You'll still make it to Connersville the first night if you leave after breakfast. Even if you started out at first light that's as far as you could get the first day; it'd be way after dark before you could reach the next town, and this isn't the time of year to be caught out at night if you can avoid it." The firm set of John's jaw added to his determined expression.
"We need to get back to check on Chris," Buck explained.
"It is going to take two days either way. The most it is going to add is two or three hours." Sanders tried again and saw his guests' resolve start to weaken.
"It does make sense." Buck looked to the tracker for some indication of what he wanted to do.
Vin nodded and gave in. "Reckon it does."
"Well then, that's settled." Margaret smiled and walked away from them. "Let me show you to your room."
Josiah tossed the cards on the table and groaned. "Maude, you could have a little mercy on a poor old man."
"Mr. Sanchez, you are certainly not old." The lady gambler leaned a little closer and batted her eyes coyly.
"Save it for someone it works on." The ex-preacher shook his head and sighed. "I know you too well to fall into that trap."
"What trap might that be?"
"The one where you flirt with me and get me to lose my last dollar." Josiah chuckled at the hurt expression Maude affected. "Maude, I'm not stupid."
"I never suggested that you are." She backpeddled to try another tactic. "On the contrary, I think you are a very intelligent man."
The sudden flush of her cheeks almost had him convinced that she was sincere, but then he decided against trusting her completely, yet. But, he did wonder how she had managed to blush on cue.
Maude felt the heat in her cheeks and the sudden clamminess of her skin and she knew it would not be long before pain and nausea would follow. She'd been through it enough over the last several months to recognize the signs. She causally gathered the cards from the table and dropped them into her handbag.
"If you'll excuse me, gentlemen. I suddenly feel the need to retire for the night." Before her companions could object she pushed back from the table and started for the door, pulling her coat on as she walked.
"Wow. You musta really hurt her feelings." JD stared at the door Maude had just gone out.
"It's not like her to be that thin-skinned." Sanchez considered what he said and still did not see that he had said anything that would offend the con-woman that much. "She's not been acting like herself the whole time she's been here."
"I wouldn't know," JD admitted. "I never could understand how she could act the way like she does. I just gave up on trying to figure her out."
"I think I'll go check on her and see if she's all right." Josiah grabbed his coat and went out into the night.
In her room, Maude hung up her coat and then sat on the edge of the bed. Pain had already begun to grip her insides and she pressed her hand against her abdomen, willing it to stop. After a few moments she turned around to lie on the bed as the pain continued to grow.
Her mind wandered to her son. She wanted to see him married and happy, but it seemed like she was having these attacks more and more often. April seemed so far away, and she did not know if she could keep her condition secret much longer. The last thing she wanted to do was burden him with an ailing mother, not when his life was finally looking up. It just was not fair to make him have to care for her and watch her body fail her like he had with Julia. No, she would leave and miss being at his wedding before she would allow that, but she did want to see him again before she left.
Maude was so deep in thought that she did not hear the soft tapping on her door, and she jumped when the knocking suddenly grew more insistent.
"Maude, I know you're in there. I can see the light under the door." Josiah was quietly becoming very concerned by her lack of response.
The con-woman groaned and resigned herself to moving. Once on her feet she took a few moments to compose her face and then went to open the door. "Mr. Sanchez, I must protest this need of yours to follow me and invade my privacy."
"I'm sorry, Maude. I wanted to make sure you are all right." The ex-preacher stood at her door, hat in hand.
The sincerity in his voice caused a twinge of guilt to wash over her and she dropped her eyes to avoid his. "I'm sorry, Josiah. I shouldn't have snapped at you."
He could see in the lamplight that Maude's face was even more flushed than before and the pinched look around her eyes and tightness of her jaw alarmed him. "Something's wrong. Do you need me to get Nathan?"
"No!" She stopped herself from blurting out anything else and recovered her composure. "I'm all right. I just ate something that didn't agree with me." She lied and hoped the ex-preacher would not press her to see the town's healer.
"You're sure that's all it is?" Sanchez watched her for any signs that she was not being truthful.
"I'm sure. I simply need to lie down and let my stomach settle."
"If you're certain. I'll leave you to rest, as long as you promise to send for Nathan if you start feeling worse." Josiah did not quite believe her, but he could not force her to seek help.
"I give you my word." Maude was annoyed with his persistence, but at the same time she was touched by his concern. She stepped forward to give him a peck on the cheek.
"What was that for?" Josiah was startled by the unexpected kiss.
"For caring enough to check on me, but right now I would really like to lie down." She stood with her hand on the door ready to push it closed.
"I'll see you in the morning." The ex-preacher had been making it a habit to watch for her to go to breakfast and then join her. "Just don't forget your promise."
"I won't forget. Good night." She watched as he walked away from her door before she closed it behind him. This time she took time to change into her nightgown before going back to bed. The painkiller she carried in her bag was very tempting, but she was determined to do without it for as long as she could. If she could just get to sleep, she would not feel the pain.
Maude curled up in bed and tried to think of other things besides the ache in her belly. She frowned when she thought back to her visit with Mary. The younger woman had assured her that she was fine; that she'd just caught a bug that had made her really sick for a few days, and now Nathan was insisting that she rest and recover her strength. Maude didn't buy that story for a minute. She knew when someone was covering something up, after all she was a master of deception herself, but she could not quite figure out what her son's pretty young fiancée was hiding. Maude finally drifted off to sleep, as she considered ways to get to the bottom of what was really going on.
JD watched Josiah as he walked back to their table. "Everything all right?"
"She insists that she just has an upset stomach, that she ate something that didn't sit well." He frowned and tried to remember what the con-woman had eaten that night. They had all had dinner at the saloon, and he was sure that she had had the same meal that he did.
"Mrs. Standish is ill?" Inez overheard Josiah's comment and spun around to face him, instantly concerned. "Something I cooked made her ill?"
"No, I don't think it had anything to do with your cooking." The ex-preacher tried to sound reassuring. "She ate the same thing I did, didn't she?"
"Si. You all had the same stew, all cooked in the same pot." Inez sat in one of the empty chairs and searched Josiah's face for any signs that he was not feeling well. "You are well, yes?"
"Yes, I'm fine." Sanchez looked at the young man sitting next to him and raised one brow in question.
"I'm feeling fine, too." The young sheriff shrugged. "I don't see how it coulda been the stew if we aren't sick."
"Inez, don't go frettin' over it too much. Maude's been acting odd since she got here this time." Josiah patted the young woman's hand and smiled. "It's probably just a case of sour stomach. It happens to me more often than it used to. There's just something about getting older that affects the digestion."
"That could be," Rocillos agreed. "But, you will let me know if you find out there is something more wrong?"
"I am worried that she isn't well." Inez rushed on ahead before they could try again to convince her that she had nothing to do with the older woman's malaise. "Does she look like she has grown thinner to you? And, her eyes look...." The young Mexican struggled to find the right word to describe what she had noticed. "Tight...no that isn't right."
"Drawn?" Josiah suggested.
"Si. I think that is the word."
"Looks like she has a headache t' me," JD commented. "My mother had that look when her head hurt."
"Si!..That is it! She looks like she is in pain." Inez turned to the preacher, clearly alarmed. "She should see Senor Nathan."
"I've suggested that to her already, and she refuses." Josiah heaved a sighed and slumped in his chair. "All we can do is wait and see what happens. We can't hogtie her and drag her over to see Nathan."
"No, but maybe Senor Ezra can when he returns." The barkeep nodded as she made her decision. "I will tell him that he needs to see to his mother."
The young woman's reaction to this news of Maude's queasy stomach was starting to cause Josiah's own concern to intensify. Inez did not rattle easily, and she was clearly disturbed by the con-woman's unusual behavior. The more he thought about it, the more he realized she was right. Maude was thinner than she had been when she was last in town. Her face was more gaunt, her cheekbones were more pronounced, and her skin looked more pale than ever. The only hint of color was when she blushed, and now he was beginning to wonder if she was actually blushing or if something else was causing the sudden flush of color to her face. Well, maybe he could not force Maude to visit the healer, but nothing said he could not ask Nathan to keep an eye on Ezra's mother whenever he was around her. One way or another, he would get some answers.
"You plannin' t' sleep all day?" Vin tossed the ladies' man's clothes onto the bed and shook the older man by the shoulder.
Buck growled and pulled the pillow over his head, but then bolted upright when he felt the covers over his feet suddenly pulled away. "I'm gonna kill that kid!" He yanked his feet out of the tracker's reach.
"Why? 'Cause he told us the quickest way t' wake you up is t' tickle yer feet?" Tanner laughed at the involuntary shiver that shook Buck's lean body. "I still wanna know what you two were doin' that he figured that out."
"I'm awake, so don't go pushin' yer luck." Wilmington sighed and swung his feet out of bed. It had been such a nice dream, but now it was gone. It had felt so good to sleep in a bed again after so many nights on hard floors, that he had slept soundly and dreamed the most vivid dreams he could ever remember.
Tanner grinned and leaned against the wall while he waited for Buck to get dressed. "Mrs. Sanders has breakfast 'bout ready."
"Now that's something worth wakin' up for." Wilmington sat back on the edge of the bed and pulled his boots on.
By the time he had tended to his morning needs, Margaret was getting the plates stacked by the stove so they were ready to fill. "Anything I can do to help?"
"Would you pour the coffee?"
Buck looked around for the cups and when he could not find them, he started opening cupboard doors. "Can you point me toward the cups?"
"The next door." Margaret pointed with the spoon she had been using to dip up the beef and potato hash she had made from the previous night's leftovers.
He was pouring the last cup when the sound of the front door caught his attention, and he looked up to see John Sanders coming in. "I'd wondered where you'd gotten off to already this morning."
"Went down to the livery to arrange for your horses to be made ready for you. I know you are anxious to get going, so I told Tobey to have them ready in about an hour." He hung his coat on one of the pegs by the door and went to help Margaret carry the heaping plates to the table.
Buck and Vin both attacked the food like they were half-starved. The large mound of hash was delicious. The eggs and warm bread and butter had both men wiping up the last traces from their plates with the last bites of the bread.
"I swear, if you were my wife, I'd be fat as a cow, 'cause I wouldn't have enough sense to stop eatin'." Buck rubbed his stomach and stifled a belch. When he leaned back in the chair, a flash of motion behind Margaret's chair caught his eye, and he leaned sideways enough to see around his hostess. "Well, now. Who's this pretty little lady?"
"This is Alice." The young mother turned enough to wrap an arm around the child and draw her close. "Mornin', sleepyhead. You ready for breakfast?"
The little girl shook her head and rubbed her balled up fist against her eyes. She leaned against her mother with her eyes drooping shut as she fought to keep them open.
"Alice. That's a pretty name." Buck smiled at the shy little girl and then looked at the toy she had clutched under her arm. "Is that your dolly?"
The child clung tighter to her precious doll, but finally nodded yes.
"She sure is pretty. Can I see her?" The ladies' man was careful not to make any sudden moves or reach out for the timid child.
"It's all right, honey," Margaret reassured her daughter. "He's an old friend of your daddy's."
Alice eyed the stranger warily, but she was fascinated by the full mustache that moved when he talked. Cautiously, she held the doll out for Buck to see.
"Can you bring her over here so I can see her better?" Wilmington waited patiently while the two-year-old made up her mind and finally left the protection of her mother's arms and moved closer to him. Slowly he reached out to take the doll from her outstretched hand.
"You know what? She has yellow hair, just like you do." He smiled as the girl moved still a little closer. "Does she have a name?"
Alice looked up at him wide-eyed and shook her head.
"Well then we should figure out a good name for her. Hummm..." Buck crunched up his face as he pretended to think hard on the idea. "What things are yellow that she could be named after? How about corn? Corn is all nice and golden yellow." He was rewarded with a giggle and a quick shake of her head. "Egg yolk?" She giggled even harder and leaned against his leg. "I know! Squash!"
"No!" Alice laughed at the man who made silly faces, and did not even notice when he lifted her onto his lap.
"No? I thought sure you'd like that one." He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger as he puzzled on it some more. "Yellow...what's yellow? Yellow, just like sunshine." He held the doll where they could both look at her. "How about Sunny?"
The tot's eyes lit up and she nodded vigorously as she took the doll and hugged it tightly. Suddenly she realized she was within reach of the moustache that had captured her attention and she reached up to give it a tug.
Buck yelped and made faces, then rubbed his moustache against the palm of her hand, causing her to squeal with delight. It soon turned into a game with the ladies' man, and he tickled her forehead, cheeks, hands and neck with the bushy lip hair.
"I've never seen her take to anyone like that." Margaret was amazed by the non-stop giggles and squeals coming from her daughter, and by Buck's natural way with children.
"Never seen a female of any age that Buck couldn't charm." Vin had been sitting grinning at the antics of the big tough ex-sheriff who had turned into mush at the sight of this pint-sized lady.
Wilmington did not hesitate a bit when the little girl suddenly wiggled off his lap and tugged on his hand to get him to follow her. She led him to her room and to a small wooden box by her bed. "What do we have here?" He sat on the floor beside Alice and peered into the box.
"Kitty," The child reached out to pet the sleeping bundle of fur. The gray and black striped cat opened one eye and then promptly closed it again.
"Looks like a sleepy kitty to me." He gently scratched the back of the furry head and the cat twisted itself around so Buck could scratch just the right spot. When he stopped, the cat stretched and yawned then sat blinking at him as if wondering if that short scratch had been worth waking up for.
Alice picked the animal up and hugged it in her arms before turning around to sit on Buck's lap. The ladies' man steadied the child with one hand while he sat Indian style on the floor. The cat ended up with its hind quarters sitting on Buck's leg and its front half clutched rather precariously in the arms of the two-year-old. He was surprised to see how calm the cat was at such awkward handling.
"What's your kitty's name?" He stroked the soft fur and smiled when the feline began to purr.
"Kitty Cat. Daddy gived her to me."
"Hello there, Kitty Cat." Buck made a show of shaking one of the cat's front paws as he introduced himself and then scratched it between its ears, causing it to squint its eyes in bliss. "Does she like to play with you?" Wilmington hoped so, because the child's hold on the cat was slipping, and now she was hugging it just behind the front legs, which were sticking straight up as it crept ever closer to sliding right out of her arms.
"Uh huh." She handed the young feline to her new friend and jumped up in search of something. When she got back she had a piece of ribbon that she dangled in front of Kitty Cat.
Predictably, the cat launched itself at the ribbon and the game was on. Buck and Alice laughed at the acrobatics performed by the tabby while they took turns pulling and jiggling the ribbon. The sound of their laughter had drawn an audience and the other three adults stood watching from the doorway as Alice very deftly wrapped one ex-lawman around her little finger.
An hour later, Buck and Vin said their goodbyes and both promised to visit again. Alice clung to the ladies' man with tear-filled eyes when her father tried to take her back. It had taken a promise to send her something special to get her to let go.
Wilmington rode in silence and Tanner waited, knowing his friend would speak when he was ready. He had seen Buck around kids before, but he had never seen him as smitten as he had been by that shy little girl.
"Never woulda thought of John as bein' the settlin' kind." Buck finally broke the silence.
"S'pose there comes a time in just about every man's life when he wants to just put down roots and start a family." Tanner glanced at his riding companion and took notice of the sadness he saw in the older man's eyes.
"Reckon so." Buck agreed and fell silent again, as he thought about what it would be like to have a little girl of his own. The image that popped into his mind was of a little tawny skinned beauty, with raven colored hair and soulful brown eyes that lit up when she saw her daddy.
"Where's Chris?" Vin looked at the rumpled bed and then around the empty room.
"How would I know? I was with you." Wilmington walked farther into the room and relaxed slightly when he saw all of Ezra's and Chris' belongings were still there.
"Don't reckon he took a turn for the worse do ya?" Tanner's voice had more than a slight edge of concern.
Buck looked at the younger man intently, wondering again about the strong bond that had formed so quickly between his oldest friend and the young tracker. He'd never seen Chris accept someone as readily as he had Vin. "Don't go jumpin' to conclusions. Could be just as likely that he's getting a lot better, too. You know Chris. He can't stand being bedfast."
"Yeah. Don't know which one gives Nathan the hardest time, Chris or Ezra." Vin chuckled at the thought, but he still prowled nervously around the room. "S'pose we should go lookin' for 'em?"
"No. I think it would be better to wait for them here. I doubt that they've gone too far." Buck made himself at home and stretched out on the bed to wait. After a few minutes of watching his young friend pacing like a caged animal, his patience started to wear a little thin. "Would you sit down before you wear a groove in the floor? Yer makin' me nervous just watchin' you."
"Don't watch, then," Vin quipped back at him.
"I could still hear you clomping back and forth. Don't know which is worse, seein' or hearin'."
"I don't clomp!" The tracker shot back at him.
"Well, Mr. Tanner, that would be a matter of opinion."
Both men turned toward the door to see their two missing companions standing in the open door. Chris leaned heavily against Ezra, his face drained of color from the exertion of being up and about.
"What I could hear as Mr. Larabee and I ascended the stairs sounded suspiciously like clomping," the gambler teased, knowing it would get a rise out of his friend.
"Ezra, yer just full'a..."
"I don't mean to break up this happy reunion, but if we can get Buck's ass out of my bed..." Chris Larabee's voice shook as he spoke. When he tried to take a step he faltered and ended up leaning most of his weight against the smaller man who staggered under the extra burden.
"I told you this was a bad idea," Ezra scolded. "You wouldn't listen to me. You just had to go to the outhouse." Vin grabbed Chris from the other side to help support him as he walked, and Standish gladly accepted the help.
Buck jumped up and moved out of the way so they could get Chris back into bed. "I was gonna ask how yer doin', but I can see that myself. Yer bossin' everybody around again, so I reckon you'll live."
"Missed you too, Buck." Larabee sighed heavily when he lay back on the bed. When the ladies' man clasped his hand, he squeezed back, letting that simple act convey the truth behind the words.
"Good to see ya up movin' around, Pard. Ya had us all worried there for a while." Wilmington sat on the edge of the bed and wiped off the perspiration that had beaded up on Chris' forehead. He dropped the wet cloth back into the basin on the bedside table where he had gotten it. "When we left, you were as weak as a newborn kitten, but looks like you could take on one that's about t' be weaned now."
"Our fearless leader can't get it through his thick head that he shouldn't be overexerting himself this soon." Standish stood glaring at their wounded friend with his arms crossed over his chest and a stern expression. "He seems to think that he is invincible."
"That'd be Chris," Vin agreed. "Can't even think how many times I've heard Nathan say he thought he'd have t' tie him to the bed t' keep him down long enough t' heal."
"Mr. Tanner, Mr. Jackson could well say the same about any of us." Ezra pulled Larabee's boots off and set them over out of the way. "It is amazing how selective our memories become when we discuss someone else's shortcomings, while forgetting our own faults."
"Speak for yerself." Buck affected an indignant pose. "I don't have any faults t' forget. Just ask the ladies; they all think ol' Buck is perfect as is."
"I don't believe it." Chris stared at Wilmington in wonder.
"Don't believe what?" The ladies' man eyed his old friend suspiciously. He knew Chris too well to think that he had gotten by with that comment unchallenged.
"I didn't know they could pile shit that high." Larabee nodded toward Buck's six foot four frame.
"Hello?" Mrs. Dunlap called out to them from the partially open door.
"Come in." Ezra met the boardinghouse owner just inside the door. "May I be of some assistance?"
"Oh, no, dear. I just heard yer friends come in an' I thought they'd like t' know that the room across the way is open now. I kept it empty when the Baxters left a couple days ago. I figured it wouldn't be long 'til these two showed back up."
"Mrs. Dunlap, you are indeed an angel." The gambler fussed over the matronly innkeeper and was satisfied to see Edith blush and duck her head like a young maiden with her first beau. It did his heart good to see the spark in her eyes that the extra attention he paid to her created. She was a dear, lonely woman in a town that offered little in the way of distraction from the doldrums of everyday life. "I'll settle accounts with you after we get everyone settled, if that is agreeable with you."
"It is." She looked at the two newest arrivals with a critical eye. "Dinner will be ready at six o'clock. If yer late, yer takin' yer chances. I only hold back fer the sick an' their tenders." Edith nodded at the wounded man in the bed and smiled at Ezra. "Those who are fit, got no excuse for bein' late." She started to leave, but stopped and turned back to the new arrivals. "There's a bathhouse just down the street if ya wanna clean up."
Ezra shuffled the cards and placed the deck on the table in front of him. "Well, Gentlemen, I trust that you are up for another friendly game."
"Nothin' doin'!" The surly cowhand pocketed what little was left of his money and pushed back from the table. "I ain't never seen luck like yers." He settled his hat on his head before he left the saloon, muttering under his breath about 'Just too damned lucky fer his own good.'
"I'm out too." The owner of the Mercantile in town was a man who knew when to cut his losses and leave the table. "I'm gonna have enough hell t' pay with the missus. I done lost too much as it is." He pushed his chair back, but paused long enough to drain the last couple of swallows from his glass of beer before following the other man's example and heading out the door.
The gambler sighed; his green eyes focused on the abandoned deck of cards. He was bored and the prospects of things perking up any were slim. Finally, he gave up and dealt the cards out for a game of solitaire.
"Looks like you scared everyone off," Buck teased as he settled into one of the recently vacated chairs. He tossed his hat on the table and leaned closer to the conman, resting his elbows on the table in the process.
"I don't believe fear had anything to do with it." Ezra huffed slightly and then smiled, creating deep dimples. A glint of mischief surfaced in his brilliant green eyes. "It was my superior abilities that persevered in this particular instance."
"Hell, Ezra, you and me both know that you could beat anyone this town has to offer in yer sleep." Wilmington winked at the younger man and laughed when he saw him trying to think of a snappy comeback.
The two men had spent quite a lot of time at the town's saloon since Buck and Vin had made it back to town. Most of the time was spent quietly contemplating their situation. The Doctor had said that Chris could ride as soon as he managed to walk from one end of the town to the other and back without stopping, provided his wound was not causing him too much pain. He had also made Ezra promise to make sure they stopped if Chris started showing signs that traveling was getting to be too much for him.
"Need another?" Miss Bonnie pointed to the empty beer glass Buck held in his hand after draining its contents.
"Sure, Darlin', that and maybe some of that stew that's been smellin' so good and makin' my belly growl." He winked at the blonde saloonkeeper and made a point of caressing her hand as he handed her the empty glass. "With cookin' like yers, I'm surprised some lucky fella hasn't carried you off with him and set you up like a queen."
"And if he did that he wouldn't be gettin' my cookin' anymore since queens have people t' cook for them." Bonnie's laughter was infectious when Buck's jaw dropped at being bested at his typical word play.
"Ah, well then, he'd just have t' discover all yer other hidden talents," the ladies' man responded after recovering his tongue.
"Talents that you'll never discover," she shot back at him, but her smile took the sting out of her words.
"Too bad. You'll be missin' out on the chance of a lifetime." Buck bobbed his brows suggestively and smiled his most disarming smile, the one that women just could not resist.
But, resist it she did as she gently tugged her hand away from his hand that still held her own, and caressed the back of it with his thumb. "Then I suppose it's for the best."
"How could it be for the best?" Wilmington frowned slightly as he tried to puzzle out what she could possibly mean.
"I wouldn't want to experience such pleasure and then have to settle for one of these clods around here." She winked back at him and then hurried off to refill his beer and get the stew he requested for his lunch.
Buck grinned and watched Bonnie as she retreated across the room. He would not really call her pretty, but she was not hard on the eyes either. He figured her to be somewhere in her mid-thirties, and her self-assurance reminded him of Inez.
"I would tread with caution where Miss Bonnie is concerned," Ezra warned, when he saw the look of longing in his friend's eyes. He had seen that look before and it usually ended up with another conquest for Buck.
"Hummm? What?" Wilmington pulled his attention back from his thoughts of Inez when he realized he was being spoken to. "Sorry, guess my mind kinda wandered a bit."
"Yes, that was quite obvious." Ezra's voice held a hint of censure. "I suggest that your mind should not be wandering in that particular direction. She has a paramour even if they haven't admitted it yet, even to themselves."
"What? How would you know who she's interested in?" The thought of Inez accepting someone else's attention upset Buck. For several long moments he felt the heavy hand of loss tighten around his heart, before he realized that Ezra could not possibly have known his thoughts had turned to a feisty Mexican barmaid, who seemed to be so far away at the moment.
"Mr. Wilmington, you've not been in residence in this burg for as many days as I have; therefore, you have not had the opportunity to observe the locals. You've not seen the longing in the sheriff's eyes when he looks at her, nor have you witnessed the looks she sends in his direction when she thinks no one is watching." Standish had always made it his policy to avoid interfering in the private lives of others, but he had grown to like the two people in question, and he did not want to see either of them hurt. It was funny how falling in love made a person see things so differently. He knew how he would feel if someone tried to step in and seduce Mary, and he could not simply sit by and watch Buck work his charm on Bonnie.
"Oh." Buck dropped his gaze momentarily, relieved that the gambler had not seen through his outburst to the truth of the matter. "I didn't realize they were an item."
"Not necessarily an item, yet. But, there is definitely something sparking between them." Ezra's unwavering green eyes locked on the ladies' man. Wilmington did not usually back down this easily, and he was not about to let him off without saying the rest of what he felt needed to be said. "Buck, we will be leaving here in a few days, but she has to live in this town after we're gone. Don't risk ruining things for them, just for another notch on your bedpost."
"It means that much to you?" Buck watched the conman's expression and saw the sincerity in the younger man's eyes. He tried to remember any time when Ezra had tried to stop him from making the acquaintance of one of the fairer sex, and he really could not think of any, at least not any that the conman had sincerely wanted stopped. There had been times when the gambler had interfered, but in the spirit of competition or in good-natured fun. This was different.
"All right. But ya can't expect me to act cold toward her. I'll give ya my word, that I won't do more than a little sweet talk." He considered the situation a few moments and then smiled slyly.
"Mr. Wilmington, should that smile concern me?" Ezra suddenly grew wary.
"Nope, but if what you say's true, then maybe if Jake sees someone else notice her, it might give him a little nudge." Buck waited and when the gambler grinned back at him he knew they were both thinking the same thing.
"Buck, I had no idea you had such a devious streak in you," Ezra said with a mix of surprise and admiration.
"Hell, devious is my middle name."
"Oh, no you don't!" Buck stopped Chris from trying to lift the heavy saddle. "Ain't no way I'm lettin' you undo the healin' you've done by tearing something open lifting this thing. I want to go home." He grabbed up the saddle and tossed it on the horse's back, sidestepping to avoid the animal's hooves when it pranced a bit at the sudden weight on its back. He made quick work of cinching up the straps while Chris got the bridle in place.
Once Larabee's horse was ready, Wilmington set about getting his own mount ready for the road. He spun around, nearly losing his balance in the process, when he heard Ezra shout.
"No!" Standish hurried to Chris' side when he saw the man in black start to step up to put his foot in the stirrup. "Please, allow me to assist you."
"Would you all quit playing nursemaid?" Larabee snapped.
This was going to get them nowhere. Chris was too hardheaded and proud to give in to common sense. Vin signaled to Ezra to back off and was glad to see when the conman caught his meaning. "Easy there, Cowboy." He did not even flinch when he caught the full force of the Larabee glare. "No one's tryin' t' make ya feel like ya need a nursemaid. It's just that we've laid around here for a week waitin' on ya t' get strong enough to ride, an' hell, we don't want t' have to spend another week here if ya do something t' hurt yerself."
Chris' anger waned almost as quickly as it had flared up, and he looked from one face to the next and realized how selfish he was acting. If he let his pride land him back in bed, he would not blame any of them if they left his sorry ass right there and headed on home without him. He nodded to Vin and the tracker immediately moved next to the horse and laced his fingers to give Chris a boost up.
When he felt the gunman's foot settle in his hands, Vin pushed upward, lifting much of Chris' body weight as the older man pulled himself up by grabbing hold of the saddle horn. He made one final check and was satisfied that the saddle was secure and that everything else was in place before he mounted his own horse and nodded to the others that they were ready to move out.
"I'd still like to know how the hell he does that," Buck muttered to Ezra before they followed the other two out of the livery.
"I'm sure we will never know." The gambler watched the two men who rode slightly ahead of them. He smiled and gestured for Wilmington's attention then pointed over toward the jail where Miss Bonnie was just going in the door. "Do you recall any prisoners in residence when we stopped in to take our leave of the sheriff?"
"I don't believe I do," Buck said with a smug grin. "Reckon I've found a new calling in matchmaking."
"You're going to rub this in all the way back to Four Corners, aren't you?" Ezra affected a heavy sigh, and tried not to look equally as smug.
"I swear I thought Sheriff Brody was goin' t' bust a gut or something when he came barrelin' out of the jail. He looked like he'd seen a ghost or somethin'." Buck was still laughing about Brody's reaction to seeing them come riding into town the day before. He had obviously given them all up for dead.
"Yeah, well at least he kept his word about those drinks he promised," Chris added. The first couple of days on the road had been hard on him, but his strength had gradually come back and he was doing much better. Of course, the change could have just as easily been from the fact that today they would reach home.
Ezra kept scanning the distance, hoping for a glimpse of the town. They were so close that he wanted to urge Chaucer into a gallop and race for home, so he could sweep Mary up into his arms and kiss her right there in front of God, the town and his mother, and to hell with what anyone thought about it.
Vin had noticed the look of longing in the gambler's eyes, and he sensed the level of self control Ezra was maintaining to keep from bolting away from them and rushing home to Mary. "Won't be much longer."
"I know, but it seems like an eternity."
The tracker saw the sudden light in the conman's eyes and knew that he had finally caught sight of the town in the distance. "Doesn't take much of an eternity to ride from here to there." He indicated the distant town with a tilt of his head.
"In reality, no, but it feels like it does." Standish usually was not at a loss for words, but he still struggled with putting his own personal feelings out there for everyone to see. He had spent too many years learning to keep all his feelings under such tight control, and now it was so difficult to let go and open up. "The best way I can describe it is that it feels like you've become mired in mud, and the faster you try to go the more stuck you get. You keep fighting to get there, but you don't seem to be moving, and all you want in the world at that moment is to reach home."
The four rode on in silence, each intent on watching the town grow as they got closer. The flat washed-out blob of gray and white began to break apart into individual buildings separated by a wide street. Wagons, horses and people became recognizable when they got a little closer, and finally they could make out the sounds of wagons rattling over the rough dirt road, then the sound of horses plodding along on the hard packed earth and an occasional voice greeted them as they reached the outskirts of town.
They had barely passed the first of the buildings when Nathan came rushing down the steps from the clinic and met them in front of the livery. Instinctively he went straight to Chris' side.
"What the hell you been doing, watching from your window?" Chris accused the healer. He realized how harsh he sounded so he tried a crooked smile to make it seem more like he had been teasing the young black man. In truth, he was exhausted. He'd been trying to act like he was feeling better than he really was, because he did not want to slow their return home any more than he already had. Chris had not been asleep when Dr. Carmichael made Ezra promise to stop if he showed signs that the ride was taking a toll on him, and as much as he would have liked to have taken a day to rest on the way back, he would not do that to his friends.
"I was just about to give in and let JD and Josiah come lookin' for ya." Nathan took in the pale complexion and drawn features of the man in front of him and knew that he had been badly injured while they were gone, which explained why they were so late in returning. "Sheriff Brody sent a wire a week ago, askin' if you'd come on home without stoppin' there on the way. We sent word back that you weren't here, then didn't hear anything back from him."
"We wouldn't have skipped stopping in Tucson," Buck explained. "Brody had promised us all a round of drinks if we managed t' get the Corbys delivered."
"From the looks of things, I'd say ya almost didn't. Help me get him upstairs. I want to check him over." Jackson waited for Vin to take position on the other side of Chris.
"Don't need the extra help," Larabee insisted. "I can make it fine on my own."
"Thought we'd settled this stubborn streak of yers back in Stoney Ridge." Vin crossed his arms over his chest and cast an accusing look at his friend.
"We're home now..."
"Just 'cause we're home, don't mean that ya don't need a little help. You weren't foolin' none of us by tryin' to act like you weren't hurtin' like hell and weren't so tired that you could barely sit in the saddle." The tracker dropped his arms to his side and approached the man in black. "Now, are ya goin' t' let Nathan and me help ya, or do we need to knock ya out and carry ya?"
Larabee saw the determined set of Vin's jaw and knew that he was not going to win this one. He was just too tired to fight when Vin reached out to get hold of his arm to help steady him on the way up the steep steps.
"Ezra, ya might want to come on up too, since yer the one that talked to the doctor." Tanner could tell Nathan most of what happened, but he had little idea of what had happened those few days Ezra and Chris had been alone in Stoney Ridge.
"Of course." Standish followed them up the steps glancing back often, looking to see if he could catch sight of Mary, hoping to see her rushing to meet him, but there was no sign of her. His heart sank at the prospect of waiting even longer to see her, but he was needed upstairs and Chris' wellbeing had to come first.
The last week since the wire from Sheriff Brody had been unbearable, but this new worry had at least gotten Mary out of bed. She had been going about her daily routine and seeing to Billy's needs, but her heart was not into any of it. She had made a decision and when Ezra got back she would follow through on it, and this delay was not going to change anything.
Now, she watched from a distance as the four men rode into town. Her knees threatened to buckle under her as relief washed over her when she saw that Ezra was back safely. She had to physically take hold of the frame of the doorway she had ducked into to keep from running down the street and throwing herself into his arms.
When she saw Nathan and Vin help Chris up the stairs, she said a silent prayer of thanks that it hadn't been Ezra, and immediately she felt guilty for feeling relieved that any of the others had gotten hurt instead of Ezra. Her heart broke when she saw him looking back as he followed the others up the steps, and she was certain that he had been looking for her.
Once he was out of sight behind the closed door of the clinic, Mary quickly made her way back to the Clarion office where she headed straight upstairs to her room. There, away from prying eyes, she let the tears flow that had been threatening to spill over. The strength of her resolve had weakened for a short time but once the tears had run their course she pulled herself together, and wiped her face with a wet cloth and then held it against the back of her neck, letting the chill of it calm her even more.
By the time she heard the bell jingle on the front door, she had steeled herself and was ready for what was going to take place. She headed for the stairs and had just reached the bottom as Ezra came through the door adjoining the office and her living area.
"Mary!" The gambler rushed to her and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close, before claiming her lips with his own. In his excitement to see her, it took a few moments for it to register in his mind that she was not responding to him, and he pulled back from her enough to search her face for any hint at what was wrong. "Darlin', What is it? Why..." He stopped talking when she stepped back out of his arms.
"I'm sorry. I'm glad you're back safe, and I know this is a lousy time to break this to you, but I can't let you go on without being honest with you." Mary paused and took a deep breath to steady her nerves.
"Dearest, what's happened?" He reached out to her, but it only caused her to step farther away from him, so he let his hands drop to his sides.
"Ezra, I'm sorry." She slid the ring off of her finger and held it out to him. "I can't marry you."
Automatically, he held out his hand when she reached out to give him the ring. He stood staring at the gleam of the gold, in shock from what he had just heard her say. It took several long moments before he could look up into her eyes, but he could not see her clearly through a haze of unshed tears. "Why?"
"Please don't ask. Let's just leave it at 'it just wouldn't have worked.'"
"I can't just leave it at that!" Desperation rushed in and took over, leaving him helpless to regain control over all the emotions that boiled through him, rolling over and over each other, mixing and then separating again into heartbreak, anger, confusion and more. Each battled to be the dominant one, the one that Ezra finally unleashed. "There has to be a reason. You don't just suddenly decide it isn't going to work. Talk to me! Mary...I love you."
"Ezra, I care a lot about you, but it isn't enough." Her own resolve was starting to weaken again. "Please... go, before this gets harder than it already is."
"Mary, don't do this!" He could hear the pleading in his own voice and he continued to beg. "Please! Talk to me! Don't just walk away..." He found himself calling out after her as she started back up the stairs, and he followed her. She closed the bedroom door just as he got to the top and he found himself standing outside pressing his forehead and palms against the solid wood. "Mary, come out, please. We can talk this out. You love me too, I know you do. Please!" He tried to choke back the tears, but a strangled sob managed to break free.
Mary leaned against the door on the inside, listening to the pleading coming from the hall. She had to bite her knuckles to keep from calling out to him, and when she heard him sob it was all she could do to keep from throwing the door open and begging him to forgive her, but she held her ground.
It seemed like hours before Ezra finally turned away from the door, and she heard his footsteps on the stairs. When she heard the bell on the door as he left, she raced across the room to watch from her window. She held it together until he stopped in the middle of the street and turned to look back at her window. The pain she saw in his face was more than she could bear, and she flung herself on her bed and buried her face in her pillow to muffle her cries. She wanted him, but she could not be the reason that he would never see a child of his own born. She loved him too much to saddle him with a fruitless marriage.
"Buck?" Vin waved a hand in front of the older man's face to get his attention.
"Huh? What?" Wilmington drew a deep breath and shook his head, trying to pull his attention back to the man he had been talking to. "Reckon I got a bit distracted."
"A bit?" Tanner laughed at the chagrined expression on his friend's face. "What're ya thinkin' on so hard?" Knowing Buck like he did, he figured it was one of his latest conquests.
"Just ponderin' on what I can get to send to Alice. I promised her somethin' special." His brow furrowed in thought, and he shook his head in bewilderment. "I don't know what kind of things a little lady like that might want."
Beside them, Inez was busy clearing a table of dirty glasses, and she took her time wiping up the spilled beer. Her curiosity was piqued when she heard him mention someone named Alice. She did not remember him talking about anyone by that name before they went to Yuma. She must be someone he was involved with while he was away. Usually, Buck just forgot about the women he romanced when he was away from town. He might talk about them a little, but that was it. This Alice must have really meant something to him, if he was talking about sending her gifts.
"Well, did ya see anything in her room that might give ya a clue?" Out of the corner of his eye, Vin noticed Inez pause in washing down the table when he asked Buck that question. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but somehow he did not think so. "Or were ya too busy with Alice t' notice?"
Inwardly, the tracker smiled. He had not imagined it. Inez was definitely listening to them, and by the look on her face and the agitated way she was scrubbing the table, he got the impression that she was put out by hearing about Buck's 'dalliance'. If she only knew that Alice was only two years old. Maybe there was more between Buck and her than she would admit, even to herself.
When he turned his focus back to Buck, the older man's attention had wandered again, but this time he was watching the pretty barmaid. Tanner waited to see how long it took his friend to remember he was supposed to be having a conversation with someone. He was used to the ladies' man getting sidetracked by a pretty face, but he had not been getting as distracted by Inez as much lately. Her constant rebuffs of his attention had finally started getting through to him that she really was not interested in him in that way. In truth, Inez had actually spurned everyone's advances, not just Wilmington's. Now, Vin was suspecting that all those refusals had not been completely sincere, because even when she was refusing him, she still paid more attention to Buck.
There was something in those dark blue eyes that was different, Vin decided. It was not the lustful look that was usually there when he watched a woman; it was softer and filled with longing. Tanner allowed his eyes to drift from one to the other without moving his head, so he could observe both people without making it obvious that he was watching them.
At last, Wilmington remembered that Vin had said something to him. "Uhh... Sorry. Guess my mind drifted again. What was it ya said?"
"Just asked if you saw anything in Alice's room that might help ya figure out what t' send her."
Inez grabbed up the used glass, raising quite a clatter in the process, and stalked across the room. She flung the wet towel on the bar and shoved her way through the door to the kitchen.
Buck watched the display with raised brows. "Wonder what's got under her skin?"
'You.' Vin thought and had to hide his grin behind his hand as he pretended to think about the question. "I wouldn't know. Maybe she's just had a bad day." 'Yup, those two just need a little nudge in the right direction,'
Wilmington glanced back at the longhaired tracker and shrugged. "Maybe. I didn't really look around her room. I don't want t' send her a doll, 'cause the one she has is special to her. What kind'a things do you get a little girl? I'm used to thinkin' about the big girls," he added with a self-satisfied grin and a bob of his brows.
"I don't know, but most girls seem to like little pretties, like hair ribbons and stuff," Vin offered his limited advice. "Wasn't she using a ribbon to play with that cat?"
"Yeah, she was. That's a good idea. I could send some different colored hair ribbons and send some extra for kitty cat. Alice would like that, and they'd be easy to send, too." Buck pushed back from the table and stretched when he stood up. He had been sitting too long and had stiffened up a bit, a realization that served to remind him that he was not getting any younger. "Want t' come with me to check them out?"
"Nah, think I'll have another beer. Can't say hair ribbons are all that fascinatin' t' me." Tanner bowed out gracefully, so he could stay behind and hopefully do a little nudging.
Inez came back out of the kitchen just as Buck was going out the front door, and Vin held up his empty glass to signal that he needed another beer. She retrieved his glass and returned with his refill and a wet towel. As she made a fuss over cleaning up the table where Buck had been sitting she glanced at Vin. "Looks like you got left all on your own."
"Seems so. You know Buck, when he's got a female on his mind, nothin' else matters," Vin nudged.
"Ah, yes. Senor Wilmington does have a one track mind." Her eyes darkened and she frowned. After a moment she sat down and smiled at the tracker. "I was wondering about Senor Chris. Is he doing better now?"
"He's doin' fine. Nathan wants him to stay at the clinic a couple days, just to be sure after that long ride home. He had some mighty fine doctorin' and Ezra took good care of him while we went on t' Yuma." Tanner wondered how long it would take her to reach the subject she really wanted to know about. "Thought we might lose him there for a bit though."
"How horrible! I am glad that he is doing all right now. Is it true that he stepped in to keep Senor Ezra from being shot?" Inez was genuinely interested, but there were other things she wanted to know, too; she just did not want to be too obvious about it.
"Yup, he did. Think it really surprised Ezra."
"I am sure it did, after all the bad blood that has passed between them." She paused and fiddled with the towel she had laid on the table in front of her. "Did you and Senor Buck have any trouble taking the men to Yuma? It must have been more difficult with just the two of you."
'Now we're gettin' to it,' Vin thought. "It wasn't too bad, but we were glad t' get there. Didn't think I was goin' t' get him back on the road though."
"Why? Wasn't he anxious to get back?" Inez prodded.
"Yeah, he wanted t' check on Chris, but you know him, his head was turned by a pretty face."
"Oh. Was she really pretty?" Her eyes grew suddenly sad, and her shoulders drooped.
"I doubt anyone could have resisted Miss Alice, not with that golden hair and a face like an angel. You know, one of those little angels you see in pictures sometimes. Don't remember what you call 'em though." Vin thought about it a minute and then shrugged.
"A cherub?" Inez suggested.
"That's it! I don't remember a time when I saw Buck smitten so fast." Vin kept dropping little tidbits to see if Inez would take the bait. If he had to describe the expression on her face at the moment, he would definitely call it a pout. "She had him wrapped around her little finger and follwin' her around straight off."
"How nice for Senor Buck." Her tone had grown cool as the conversation progressed, and now she sounded positively dejected.
The tracker decided it was time to come clean. "Yup, he sure did fall for that little girl."
Inez' brows shot up and her mouth dropped open. "Little girl?"
"Uh huh. She's 'bout two years old." When he saw the puzzled expression on the barmaid's face he went on with his story. "Oh, I forgot to mention that the warden was an old friend of Buck's. Alice is his daughter. John and his wife invited us t' stay the night there since we got in t' the prison so late. The next mornin' Buck saw Alice, and it was love at first sight."
"Buck and a two-year-old? I did not know Senor Buck liked children so much." Inez considered that new bit of information.
"He likes 'em well enough. He's always been good with 'em when I've been around, but not like he was with Alice." He was deliberately drawing the story out to keep Inez interested. "Ya would've laughed if you'd seen 'em. She'd get hold of his finger and lead him wherever she wanted him t' go. He sat on the floor with her on his lap for a long time playin' with her kitty."
"I would like to have seen that." The pretty Mexican barkeep's face lit up when she smiled, as she visualized the big man sitting with a pint-sized little girl on his lap.
"She didn't want Buck t' leave. He had t' promise to send her somethin' special t' get her to let go so he could give her back to her dad." Vin felt that Inez had taken the bait and the hook, now all he could do was let her run with it.
"What is he planning to send to her?"
"Shoot, we don't know much about stuff fer a girl that little. I said she might like some hair ribbons." The tracker felt pretty smug that his plan seemed to be working. "He went over to the general store to check 'em out."
"A man isn't going to know what a girl that little wants." She got to her feet and headed for the door talking as she went. "It is Jacob's day off. Can you watch the bar for me?"
"Sure. Got nothing better t' do." Vin watched her toss on a heavy shawl and grinned when he saw her almost run past the window.
Buck looked up from the pile of ribbons when he heard the door open. He smiled at Inez and then went back to trying to figure out just what ribbons to get. There were quite a few colors, some were lacy, other really expensive ones had little bits of embroidery on them, and there was a variety of fabrics used. He really did not have a clue which to get. He was just about to call Mrs. Potter over to help him when he realized someone was standing right next to him.
"Do you have any idea what you are doing?" Inez asked.
Buck chuckled and shook his head. "Not a clue."
"She has gold hair, Si?"
"Yes. How did you...?" He stopped mid-sentence and grinned. "Never mind. It was Vin, right?"
"Si. What color eyes?" Inez was starting to sort out the ribbons for what might be acceptable and what definitely was not.
"This would look nice." She held up a pretty blue length of ribbon. "And so would this," she added a long piece of red.
"Does the color really make that big of a difference?" Buck watched with interest as she continued to search.
"Of course it does. You want something that doesn't blend in with her hair," she explained. "Yellow would not be a good idea, nor would white or gold. The blue will make her eyes look even more blue, and red always looks good with blonde hair."
They talked over each choice and finally ended up with pink, red, blue in two different shades, and green. "Does it matter what color I get the cat?"
Inez stared at him dumfounded. "You are buying ribbon for a cat too?"
"Just some pieces for Alice to use to play with the cat. She has an old piece she jiggles around for the cat to chase." Buck looked at the pretty young Mexican like that should have been pretty obvious.
"No. Any color will do. I would say get what is cheapest." She scrounged through the supply and pulled out three that were plain and cheap. "How many do you want?"
"Those will do fine." He took the items to the counter and paid Mrs. Potter for them. "How should I going to fix them to send them off to her?"
"Come back to the saloon and I will help you." Inez smiled up at him and decided she liked this side of Buck Wilmington.
The ladies' man held the door open for her and they walked side by side back to the saloon. "Thanks."
"You are welcome." Unconsciously, she reached up and rested her hand in the bend of his arm. "I could not let you send that child something hideous."
"You had that much faith in me, huh?" Buck liked the feel of walking with Inez on his arm, and he wished the walk back was longer.
Vin looked up when he heard them come in the door and was pleased to hear them laughing, and to see the broad smiles on both of their faces as Buck helped her with her shawl. He was a little surprised when neither of them spoke to him as they went straight to the bar.
"I'll get what we need," Inez offered and ducked into the kitchen long enough to retrieve a piece of brown paper and a ball of twine.
Tanner stepped up beside Buck and leaned his elbows on the bar. "Hey, stud," he teased.
"Vin, I don't know what you said or did, but I'm grateful to ya for it." Wilmington hung his head for a moment and collected his thoughts. "I'd given up on any chance that she might come around."
"Just be sure that if she comes around that you treat her right," Vin warned his friend. "She doesn't deserve the love 'em and leave 'em routine."
"I know, and I never intended it like that with her, but she just couldn't see it." He grinned at his friend and gave him a pat on the arm. "I don't know if anything will come of this, but at least now I have a chance to get her to see the man I can be with her."
"Then don't waste it by messin' things up," the tracker advised. "She's not the kind t' give ya another chance."
Maude shivered as she crossed the street. Josiah had promised to meet her for breakfast, and he had not shown up. Josiah had never stood her up before, and she did not intend to let him start making a habit of it. It was very embarrassing to sit there waiting for someone with everyone staring, and probably laughing to themselves when it became obvious that her breakfast companion was not simply late, but was not coming at all.
She opened the door to the church and stepped inside out of the wind. The main room was not much warmer than outside, since Josiah fired up the stove only when there was a service to perform. The one warm place in the building was his room, and the con-woman headed straight for it.
Even though the door was slightly ajar, she raised her hand to knock. The sound of voices caught her attention and she stopped, her hand still raised, before connecting with the wood. She had distinctly heard Mary's name mentioned, and after the way she had hurt her son, Maude had no qualms about eavesdropping.
"I still think she oughta tell him the truth," Nathan insisted. "It just ain't right her keepin' him in the dark like that."
"Well, brother, on one hand I'd have to agree with you, but it's Mary's decision. We can't make it for her, and we both have to respect her privacy." Josiah's voice carried through the crack in the door and sounded as clear as if he was standing right beside her.
"You sayin' that if you was in Ezra's shoes that you wouldn't want t' know? After the way it hit him last time, ya know it is somethin' he cares deeply about," Jackson added.
"That's just it. He was devastated the first time; you should know that better than any of us. You were the one there when he insisted he had to see it before we could bury it. He completely fell apart after that." The preacher tried to reason with Nathan, but he knew how stubborn the younger man could be when he thought someone was wrong. "I think she's trying to spare him that again."
"That might be, but that don't change the fact that it was just as much his as hers. I'd want to know no matter how much it hurt."
"So would I," Josiah agreed. "But she doesn't want him marrying her out of pity or out of obligation."
"She tell you that?"
"Not in those exact words, but I feel sure that's it." Josiah would not be swayed from his opinion. "No matter what she says, she still loves him."
"I'll give ya that," Jackson admitted reluctantly. "When I went t' check on her earlier, she was laid up in bed again and had sent Billy t' Mrs. Potter's. She's lower'n a snake's belly in a wagon rut."
"She'd been crying when I went to see her, but she wouldn't talk to me."
"What are we gonna do 'bout Ezra?" the healer asked, clearly worried about the southerner. "He ain't been sober for four days and it don't look like he's gonna be again fer a long time."
"All we can do is be there for him when he needs us, and hope we can help him through all this." Josiah's voice sounded so sad that the con-woman wanted to go in and hug him, and thank him for caring so much about her son.
The sound of footsteps inside the room startled Maude and made her realize just how incriminating it would look if one of them opened the door and found her standing there. She wanted to hear more of what they had to say, but she did not want to risk getting caught. Quietly, she retraced her steps and let herself out.
Once outside she hurried back to the hotel and headed straight up to her room. What had Josiah meant when he said Ezra insisted on seeing it before it was buried? Something had upset him so badly that he had been devastated. Maude racked her brain trying to think of any time when she could say that her son had been that distraught over anything, and only two times came to mind; when Julia died, and now, when Mary broke off their engagement.
"See it before it was buried?" She muttered to herself as she paced the width of the room. "Something to do with Mary." Maude continued to pace but nothing was making any sense. It seemed that the more she tried to figure it out the farther out of reach the answer was.
Maude gave up and flopped in the rocking chair by the window. She tried to clear her mind so she could start over again. The rhythmic motion of the chair was soothing, and she allowed her eyes to drift shut while she steered her thoughts away from the puzzle at hand. The technique had worked in the past, maybe it would again.
After several minutes, the con-woman allowed her mind to venture back to the conversation she had overheard. If she took it one thing at a time, maybe it would come to her. "Something to do with Mary, but it isn't the first time." Her thoughts kept jumping from one snippet of conversation to another, but it always kept ending up on 'see it before it was buried.'
Suddenly, Maude stopped rocking and sat bolt upright in the chair. It was so obvious now that she had it. Mary's sudden illness while Ezra had been away, and the nagging feeling that she had at the time that there was more to it than anyone was telling added credence to her conclusion. If she was right, Mary Travis would have some explaining to do.
The bite of the wind went unnoticed as Maude hurried up the boardwalk to the Clarion office. This time she had no intention of being dismissed like she had before when she had called to check on Mary when she had heard she was ill. It was going to be a touchy situation and she knew she would have to handle things carefully.
The bell jingled when she opened the door but no one was in the office. She got no answer when she knocked on the adjoining door, so she opened it partially and called out to Mary. Nathan had said she was in bed when he was here; not to be deterred, Maude stepped on inside and headed straight for the stairs.
She stood outside the open door for a moment and watched Mary who was lying there with her back to the door. Finally, she knocked gently on the doorframe to let the younger woman know she was there. "Mary, I'd like to talk to you."
"No. I don't feel like talking to anyone." Mary Travis did not make a move to turn to face her visitor, or to make any other acknowledgment of her presence.
"Well, dear, this time I'm not giving you a choice." Maude entered the room and pushed the door closed behind her. There were things they needed to talk about that she preferred would never leave this room. She did not want to chance someone overhearing what she had to say the way she had overheard Nathan and Josiah earlier.
"Maude, please go away." The young blonde hugged a pillow tighter to her chest and buried her face in it to avoid looking at the older woman.
"Not this time." The con-woman sat on the edge of the bed, but did not try to get Mary to turn over and face her. "Mary, I know what happened, and I think I know why you haven't told my son. But despite that, you need to tell him."
"You don't know."
"I'm fairly sure I do. You lost a baby, didn't you?" Maude watched Mary closely and saw her jerk slightly when she heard the question, a telltale sign that she had hit it dead on.
"Who told you that?"
"No one. I overheard some things, and then I pieced together the rest of it. This isn't the first time is it?" She waited until she had almost given up on getting a response. Finally, Mary shook her head no. "I thought not." Maude rested a hand on Mary's arm and gave it a gentle squeeze. "I know it feels like it right now, but you aren't the only woman to have ever lost a baby."
Grief and hopelessness radiated so strongly from Mary that it was almost a physical barrier around her. She turned even farther away but it did not dissuade the con-woman. She had faced tougher challenges than getting one distraught woman to talk.
"Why do people keep saying they know how I feel? It didn't happen to you, it happened to me, and you can't possibly know how I feel." Mary Travis' harsh tone would have put most people off of the idea of pressing her for anything more.
"I can't know precisely how you feel, but I do know how I felt," Maude confessed. "I am sure that our situations were a little different." The older woman gathered her thoughts and then pushed on before she could back out or Mary could react. "Turn over so I can talk to you." After several attempts, Maude finally set her foot down. "Either you turn over so I don't have to talk to the back of your head, or I'll come around to the other side so you'll end up facing me anyway."
A couple minutes passed before Mary grudgingly turned to face Ezra's mother, but she still refused to make eye contact.
"That's a start at least." Maude brushed some loose strands of hair out of Mary's face and let her fingers stroke her cheek for a moment before she pulled her hand away. "Surely you don't think that Ezra would turn away from you because you lost a child?"
"I know he wouldn't."
"Then why are you doing this to him? I know there are times a woman would want to keep something like that a secret, but not from a man who loves her as much as Ezra loves you." The con-woman could justify just about anything but that.
"Maude, please don't tell him!" For the first time since the older woman entered the room there was some sign of life left in Mary. "Please, he just can't know this!"
"Explain to me why I shouldn't." Maude Standish seriously doubted that anything the younger woman could say would get her to agree that Ezra should be left in the dark about all that had happened. "Ezra's my son, and right now he is so devastated by losing you that he's hiding behind the bottle. He's been drinking himself into a stupor every night, then waking up and starting all over the next morning. He's a mess in every sense of the word. So make me understand why you would do this to him, because I don't believe for a minute that you don't love him."
Mary fiddled with a loose thread on the quilt, and stared at her fingers to avoid looking at Maude. "He wants children, and I can't give them to him."
"Dear, that doesn't change how he feels about you. He wouldn't call off the wedding over that." Maude knew her son well enough to say that with conviction.
"He'd marry me out of a sense of honor, or because he felt a duty to, because he had already asked me to." She sniffed as she tried to keep the tears at bay. "He deserves a woman who can give him the babies he wants and needs."
"I see, but don't you think he has the right to be involved in a decision that is going to affect the rest of his life?" When she didn't get a response she tried another approach. "Give Ezra credit for being able to know his own heart."
Maude braced herself for what she felt she needed to say. "I have some things I'm going to tell you, and I want you to promise that you won't tell anyone, not even Ezra."
Despite her own emotional turmoil Mary was intrigued. She could not imagine what Maude would be that adamant about keeping mum. "All right."
"Good. I said I know how you feel, and I do know from personal experience. Hadn't you ever wondered how it was that Ezra was an only child after I had been married five times?"
"Yes, I have, and so had Ezra."
"Ezra's father was the only one I had ever really loved, but my second husband didn't start out bad. We had been married just a few months when I discovered I was pregnant. I thought that the prospect of being a father would smooth out some of his rough edges, but it did just the opposite. He became very abusive. I found out too late that he never wanted to be saddled down with children, but I wanted it. The more he railed against it, the more important it became to me to have that baby. One night in a drunken rage, he knocked me down and kicked me in the stomach. I lost the baby, and it probably took me a year to get over it." Maude reconsidered that and shook her head and heaved a heavy sigh. "You don't ever completely get over it, but with time it gets easier to bear."
Wide-eyed, Mary hung on every word. Here was someone who really did know how she felt, and she needed that connection with someone. "Did you get hurt inside like I did, and that's why there were never any others?"
"You're going to have to tell me what happened the first time," Maude prompted her. "I only figured out that it had happened more than once but I don't know the details."
Over the next few minutes Mary told her about that night in the cave, about how lonely they both were and how it had clouded their better judgment. She told her how Ezra had done the honorable thing and asked her to marry him, and how Chris had reacted when he figured out that she was pregnant, not knowing that they were planning to get married. The whole story came tumbling out, and she felt a real sense of relief at having someone to talk to about it who had gone through the same thing.
"Nathan said I was hurt pretty badly inside, and there was no way to know for sure if I could ever have any more children. He said that I should try not to for a while to allow time to heal completely. I did what I could to be sure there wasn't another mishap, but..." She hung her head and blushed hotly. "I messed up and ended up pregnant, but I lost it, almost before I had time to realize I was expecting again."
"I don't think I had any serious damage," Maude explained. "Not that time anyway. I managed to get away from him pretty quickly after that, but my third husband turned out to be horrible right from the time the preacher pronounced us married. When I discovered a year or so later that I was pregnant again, I couldn't even consider the idea of giving that man a child, no matter how much I wanted another one." The con-woman looked Mary straight in the eyes and confided her deepest secret to her. "Don't ever tell Ezra about this, but I found a doctor who would help me get rid of it. I wanted that child so much, but I had no prospect of getting away from him, and even if I had, he would have found me if he learned there was a baby."
"Maude...I'm so sorry." Mary reached out and took the older woman's hand. "That had to be horrible."
"It was. Emotionally, I've never been quite the same since then." Maude looked away from Mary, feeling very vulnerable by revealing so much deeply personal information. "That doctor was such a quack that he nearly killed me. He caused so much damage that I nearly bled to death, and then there was a severe infection that almost finished me off. I was delirious with fever and pain. After that I was never able to get pregnant again."
"That's why you refuse to go to a doctor for as long as you can? Ezra mentioned that you hate to see a doctor."
The con-woman nodded. "Yes, an experience like that can put a real fear into you. Mary, I kept my pregnancy a secret because Ezra's stepfather was a cruel man, but Ezra isn't like that."
"I can't saddle Ezra with a wife who can't give him children. I just can't."
"Even if you still won't go through with the wedding, he needs to know. He loves you, and he deserves to know what you based your decision on." Maude sat up a little straighter and looked straight into Mary's eyes. "If you don't tell him, I will."
"Don't do that, please!" Mary begged.
"I'll give you until the end of the week to tell him yourself, or I'll tell him. It would be better if it came from you though. If you really think about it, I'm sure you'll realize that it is the right thing to do." The con-woman had no intention of changing her mind on this one. She could not stand to see her son so brokenhearted.
"You really would, wouldn't you?"
"Yes, I would," Maude agreed.
"All right, I'll think about it." Mary did not want Ezra to find out from someone else, so she was pretty sure that she would end up finding a way to tell Ezra about the second baby. She just had no idea how yet.
Mary tossed and turned, willing sleep to take her, but it eluded her. It seemed to be siding with Maude and insisting that she come to terms with Ezra and tell him the truth. She had thought it would be easier for him if he thought it was just her own change of heart. The loss of the first child had hurt him terribly, and the last thing she wanted was to see him go through that again. However, Maude was right. He had the right to know.
Once she decided she would see him first thing in the morning, sleep finally accepted her into its realm. Her dreams were vivid but disjointed. Bits and pieces of past events flashed through her mind and she woke with her heart aching from those memories of what she was giving up.
She decided not to bother with breakfast or even coffee. Billy had spent the night at the Potters' so she had no need to dawdle now that her mind was made up. If she put it off any longer she might change her mind again.
Mary tossed a shawl around her shoulders and stepped out into the cold. She shivered when the icy wind whipped right through the open weave of the wrap. For a moment she considered going back for her coat, but if she turned around now and went back inside, she knew she would not come out again. Steeling herself against the bitter wind, Mary hurried down the boardwalk and then across the street to the saloon.
It was mid-morning and most likely Ezra was still asleep. From what Maude and the others had told her, if he was losing himself in the bottle every day, then first thing when he woke up was the most likely time to catch him sober.
Inez looked up when she heard the door open and watched Mary as she crossed the room. "Is there something I can do for you?" She was torn between her two friends, and it hurt to see them both in so much anguish.
"Is Ezra still upstairs?" Mary Travis kept her voice low so the couple of early patrons would not be able to hear her.
"Si." Inez watched her intently, wondering where this was going.
"Will you give me the spare key, please?" The blonde leaned on the bar to steady her shaking knees.
"Mary, do you think that is wise? Hasn't he been hurt enough?" The barkeep hesitated. The gambler would be furious if she let Mary have the key, but if there was even a slim chance that it could lead to them working things out she wanted to see them happy.
"Yes, but I have to tell him the truth. Please?" She chewed her bottom lip and stared at the top of the bar, afraid to see the reproach in the young Mexican's eyes.
Inez reached under the bar and got the spare key out of the box she kept there and laid it in front of Mary. "He should have been told before now," she scolded her friend.
"I know." She picked up the key and glanced up at Inez. "Thank you."
It took considerable effort to avoid looking at the ranch hands who watched her walk up the stairs. She was self-conscious enough, but knowing they watched her every move made her even more so. It was a relief when she reached the relative privacy of the hallway outside the sleeping rooms.
After a couple of deep breaths, Mary raised her hand and knocked lightly on the door. When there was no answer she tried a little harder.
"GO AWAY!" The tone of the gambler's voice hit her like a slap in the face.
"Ezra, it's Mary. I need to talk to you." She waited but there was no response. Not to be deterred, Mary put the key to use and unlocked the door, and cautiously pushed it open. Ezra was trying to sit up in bed and reach for his gun at the same time. Fortunately the effects of yesterday's alcohol still had him a little uncoordinated.
"Ezra." Mary spoke his name again and felt her heart break all over again when she saw the despair in his eyes when he finally looked at her. "I need to talk to you. I know you don't want to hear anything I have to say right now, but this is important." She moved farther into the room and closed the door behind her.
Ezra tossed the covers aside, unconcerned about his nakedness, and went to get the pants he had thrown against the wall when he took them off the night before. After he pulled them on, he turned back to face Mary. "What makes you think I want to talk now? It wasn't important enough to talk to me about it the other night when you were ripping my heart out and handing it back to me," he snapped at her. For a fleeting moment he regretted the venom in his words, but then his own misery gripped him again, and he found he could not feel sorry for the hurt his words had obviously inflicted.
"Yes it was, but I couldn't bring myself to tell you." Her legs shook and threatened to buckle under her. Mary had to sit down, and the closest place was on the foot of Ezra's bed.
"Aren't you worried that closing the door might further sully your reputation?" The gambler's words delivered another blow.
"It was never about my reputation, and you know that," she snapped back. "Something happened while you were gone, and it is the real reason I can't marry you. I wanted to spare you as much hurt as I could, and adding this to me breaking off our engagement seemed even more cruel."
The strain in her voice caught Ezra's attention, and he really looked at her for the first time since she entered his room. She had not been handling their separation well either. The dark circles under her eyes and the haunted look that clouded them caught him off-guard. His fingers shook as he nervously combed them through his sleep-tousled hair. "More cruel? I find that hard to believe."
"I thought it would be." Now that he seemed to be calming down a little, she patted the mattress hoping that he would sit down so they could be more at eye level. When he sat he made sure to avoid touching her in any way. "Ezra...I.." She stared at her hands in her lap as she struggled to find the right words.
"Well? You what?" Standish's patience was quickly wearing thin, and the pounding inside his head was not helping matters.
"Right after you left...I realized that I might be...." She faltered again and chewed her lip as she tried to continue.
"Just say it!" he growled. When he saw her flinch at his tone, he sighed and tried to rein in his frustration. "Just tell me, Mary."
"I thought I might be pregnant." Her voice was barely above a whisper.
"Pregnant?" Ezra's mind reeled as it tried to grasp what she was saying through the haze of a hangover from hell. "Surely you weren't concerned that I wouldn't do right by you if you were."
"No. I had no doubts about that." She swallowed and plunged on ahead while she still had the nerve. "It turned out that I was pregnant."
The momentary surge of joy plummeted away just as quickly when her real meaning hit him. "Was?"
"Was. I lost it!" The words came tumbling out now that she had opened up. "Ezra, don't you see? I might never be able to carry a baby for you. I love you so much that I can't do that to you." She started to weep and buried her face in her hands, unable to look at the man she loved.
"That's why you won't marry me?" All the anger from the last few days drained away in that instant when he saw her nod her head yes. He felt numb, and then the full impact of what he had just heard hit him and lifted his spirit. She still loved him.
"Mary, don't cry, darlin'." Ezra said as he pulled her hands away from her face and tipped her head up so she had to look at him. "Mary, I love you. There is no one else and never will be anyone else for me. I would love to have children with you, but we don't have to have babies to make our life together complete." The gambler gathered her in his arms and held her close. "Don't you see? I want you and Billy in my life, and I couldn't love him any more if he was my own flesh and blood." He leaned away from her far enough to look her in the eyes without letting go. "Mary, he's a part of you; as far as I'm concerned he's my son, just as much as if he had been born mine. We already have our family."
He held her, gently rubbing her back, when she laid her head on his shoulder and cried. "Everything is all right," he whispered. "You shouldn't have had to go through all of that alone."
"I'm so sorry. Can you ever forgive me?" Mary sniffed loudly and hiccupped as she tried to stop crying.
"Darlin', I already have." After placing a soft kiss on top of her head and hugging her even tighter, the gambler felt some of the tension leave her and she leaned more fully against him. "But, don't ever keep something like that from me again."
"I promise I won't." She clung to him, afraid to let go.
As much as Ezra wanted to shower her with kisses, he held himself back. There was more they needed to settle, and this was the time to do it. "Mary, one thing I thought we had built between us was trust, and there can't be trust without complete honesty," he said as he gently stroked her hair. "I know that I'm not always above reproach in my chosen profession, but that isn't between us. We have to be sure of each other, even if we can't be sure of anyone else around us."
Mary nodded in agreement, knowing that Ezra would be able to feel the gesture against his shoulder. "I won't let it happen again."
"Good. Now, will you take the ring back?" The conman held his breath as he waited for her answer.
"I think you need to hear the rest of it before you ask that." She finally relinquished her hold on him, and sat back allowing him to hold her hand to keep from breaking all physical contact with him.
Ezra Standish closed his eyes and drew in a deep slow breath and braced himself for whatever was coming next. "There's more?"
"Remember when Nathan found out we were...well...you know." The blush that flared in her cheeks said as much as her words did. "He told us both that it wouldn't be wise for me to get in a family way again too soon."
"He took me aside after he talked to both of us, and gave me a pretty stern lecture." The hint of a smile curled her lips when she remembered how flustered Nathan had been. "He felt like it could be very dangerous for me if that were to happen again too soon, so he showed me how to make a tea that was supposed to help me to not get pregnant. There was no guarantee it would work, but Vin had told him that the Indians said it was fairly effective."
"Mr. Tanner is privy to our personal relations as well?" It went against his sensibilities to have so many people knowing about his intimacies with Mary. He had always been a very private person, and now it seemed that everyone knew what went on in his bedroom.
"No more that anyone else, other than Josiah and Nathan. Vin was the one who showed Nathan how to make the tea that kept me from bleeding to death when I lost....when I lost the first baby." It still hurt to mention anything relating to that incident, but the loss of the child was by far the hardest to accept. "He taught Nathan some other remedies and this tea was one of them. He said it could help keep women from getting pregnant, or if it was brewed very strong and taken more often it could cause the loss of an unwanted child."
Ezra's eyes grew wide and the by way he looked at her, with that hint of accusation in his eyes, she felt certain that he was wondering if she'd deliberately set out to lose the baby. She rushed ahead before that thought had time to take root too strongly. "I didn't do that, but I did drink it like I should to try to avoid another mishap. Now I can't help but wonder if that played a part in me losing this baby." Mary held his hand between hers and looked him straight in the eyes, seeing the uncertainty that lurked in their green depths. "I asked Nathan not to tell you that part. I didn't want you worrying over something that was out of your control, and I felt that once I'd had time to recover completely that I wouldn't have any trouble having another baby. If this hadn't happened, I would have gone ahead with our plans without a second thought, but when I lost this one, all I could think of was that you deserved a woman who could give you the family I know you want."
"You should have trusted me enough to tell me what Mr. Jackson had said. I wouldn't have taken the chance of risking your life to satisfy my own desires." The conman felt half sick at the thought that he could have lost Mary and the baby, all because he could not control himself where she was concerned.
"They were my desires too, Ezra. I needed to be with you just as much as you needed me." Green eyes locked with green and they both knew that what she said was true. What had taken place between them was by mutual consent, and it had not always been him that had initiated it.
"If I had known, there were other things we could have done to avoid such an occurrence."
"But I didn't want to give up any part of what we had," she insisted. "I honestly thought drinking the tea would be all that I needed. We'd gone for months with nothing happening, so I figured it was working, and I guess it was, until I ran out around Thanksgiving and it was almost two weeks before I could get any more. Nathan had to get it from the Seminole village."
Ezra Standish shook his head and sighed in frustration. "Mary, if you hadn't kept all this secret, we could have kept this from happening. It doesn't have to be only your responsibility."
"I know that now. I guess I was still just a little embarrassed discussing it, even with you." A huge weight had been lifted when she finally confessed to all the secrets she had kept, but the relief was short lived, and it was followed by fear. "What if..." She shivered visibly as the thought crossed her mind. "What if I did something that caused me to lose the baby? What if it was the tea? I started drinking it again as soon as I got more. Maybe drinking it while I was pregnant caused it."
"Darlin', there was no way you could have known that soon that you were with child. It wasn't your fault. But I think we need to go have a talk with Nathan and see what else he can tell us about it." Ezra cupped her face in his hands and drew her near enough to kiss. He had intended to keep it in check, but it had been so long since he had felt her in his arms and felt her respond to his touch. Their need to breathe finally forced them apart, and they both sat gasping for air.
Before he could be tempted to do more, the gambler stood up and went to his closet for fresh clothes. When he came back out, he smiled when he saw Mary had laid out his shaving supplies. He made quick work of his morning ablutions, and when he slipped his jacket on he felt in the pocket and smiled.
Mary's eyes lit up when she saw what he had held out in his hand. The gold ring was even more beautiful than it had been before. Perhaps because she had come so close to losing it and the man that came with it. "Are you sure?" She looked at him anxiously.
"Absolutely! Without you, I have no life worth living." Ezra took her hand and gently kissed the back of it, before turning it over and trailing kisses across her palm. "I love you. Say you'll marry me."
They both nearly toppled over when Mary threw her arms around his neck and pulled him to her for another heated kiss. "Yes, I'll marry you," she said breathlessly when their lips parted.
Ezra slipped the ring back on her finger and then kissed it where it touched her skin. "Perhaps we should let everyone know the wedding is back on." He winked at her and then bowed slightly and gestured to the door, noticing that suddenly his hangover was much improved. "After you, my dear."
All heads turned when they walked down the stairs together. Word had apparently gotten out that she had gone to see him, and all the remaining members of their band of peacekeepers had gathered at their usual table, trying unsuccessfully to look nonchalant about it. The two ranch hands were nowhere to be seen, but Inez watched from behind the bar, searching the couple's faces for any clue as to what had happened upstairs. When they were almost to the table where the others waited, Mary glanced back toward Inez and held her hand up behind Ezra's back for the barkeep to catch a glimpse of the ring that was back on her finger.
The shrill squeal that split the silence caught everyone off guard and everyone's attention was yanked in her direction. Inez turned bright red and quickly ducked behind the bar in pretext of gathering some glasses off the lower shelf.
They stood and faced the men seated around the table, both feeling a little apprehensive. After everything they had all been through these last few days in dealing with the two despondent lovers, neither would have been surprised if the men were less than thrilled by their announcement.
"Well?" Buck grew impatient and tried to prod the gambler into saying something.
"Well, what?" Standish hedged for a moment while he collected his thoughts. He wanted to be able to defend their decision if the need arose, and he still was not thinking as fast on his feet as usual.
"Did you two patch things up or not?" Wilmington came straight to the point.
Ezra grinned, flashing his dimples, as he lifted Mary's hand to show them that she once again wore his ring. "We did."
"Well all right! I knew you two would come to yer senses." The ladies' man jumped up and rounded the table to give Mary a hug and to congratulate them both. When he started to shake the gambler's hand, he changed his mind and pulled him into a rib-cracking bear hug, complete with plenty of back slapping. "Ah, hell, Ezra. A handshake just doesn't say enough this time."
"No it doesn't." Chris stepped in and caught the gambler in a brotherly hug, one that was not quite as bone crushing, but then the gunman was still on the mend from his gunshot wound. Ezra had no doubt that he could have cracked a few ribs too, if he'd been in peak form. "Congratulations." He hugged Mary after he let Ezra go and gave her a chaste kiss on the cheek. "I'm glad to see you two worked things out."
The next few minutes were a flurry of well wishes, back slaps, hugs, and kisses as each man took his turn congratulating the couple. When things finally started to settle down, Ezra pulled the spare key out of his pocket and crossed the room to give it to Inez. "Can I trust you to keep this safe?"
"Si, Senor Ezra." The pretty Mexican hung her head; she had known that he would not be happy that she had let that key out of her possession.
"Inez." The gambler paused until she raised her eyes to look at him. "Thank you." He leaned over the bar and kissed her lightly on the cheek. "We could not ask for a better friend."
Standish rejoined the others and wrapped an arm around Mary where she stood waiting for him. "I don't want to put a damper on this celebration but, Mr. Jackson, we need to speak to you privately, if you would, please."
Nathan glanced from one to the other and could not tell if they were angry with him or what they could possibly want. "Sure, ya want t' go over to the clinic?" He gulped the last of his coffee and stood.
"This might take awhile. Come with us and I'll make us all some coffee." Mary did not wait for a reply, she simply took for granted that the healer would follow them.
After a few steps, Ezra stopped and turned back for a moment. "Mr. Tanner, if you would join us, please."
"Me?" The tracker was taken completely by surprise and was instantly a little apprehensive.
"You are the only Mr. Tanner here," the gambler pointed out.
"Uh... sure, Ezra." Vin cast a look in Chris' direction hoping their leader would intervene, but no help was forthcoming. With a backward glance as he crossed the room, he followed Nathan out the door.
Once in the kitchen Ezra helped Mary start the fire in the stove and while they waited for it to heat enough to make coffee, they all sat down at the table. Nathan and Vin both looked apprehensive.
"Gentlemen, we didn't ask you here to subject you to the Inquisition. We need information and the two of you are the ones who have it." Ezra slipped his hand over Mary's where she had it resting on the table. "We need to know everything you can tell us about this tea you gave to Mary. Could it have had anything to do with Mary losing the baby?"
"What tea?" Vin brows furrowed in thought as he tried to remember any instance when he had been involved with giving Mary tea. "You mean the tea we gave her to stop her bleeding back when Chris..." He stopped in mid-sentence and took another approach. "Back early in the summer? That couldn't have caused it; it had already happened."
"I don't think he means then, Vin," Nathan commented.
"No, I don't. Could drinking that tea while she was pregnant the second time have anything to do with her losing the baby?" Ezra noticed the look of surprise on Vin's face.
"I don't think so. Not if she didn't fix it too strong or drink it more often than she should." The healer shifted uncomfortably, suddenly feeling like he was about to take the blame for that miscarriage.
"I fixed it just the way you showed me, and I drank one cup every morning like you said to do," Mary said in her defense. "But remember that time I ran out of it for a couple weeks?" She continued when she saw the healer nod. "The closest I can figure is it must have been then, and then I went back to drinking the tea when you got more for me."
"You talkin' about that tea I told you about that can help keep a woman from gettin' in a family way?" The light was coming on as the tracker started piecing things together.
"Yes, Mr. Tanner. I'm aware that you were just as much in the dark as to what was happening back here while we were gone as I was, but I wanted you here to tell us what you can about this tea, since you were the one who instructed Mr. Jackson in its preparation and use." Standish waited for Mary to rejoin them, when she got up to put the pot on for coffee. "Don't take this the wrong way. We aren't blaming either of you for what happened. We just want to know as much as we can so hopefully it won't happen again."
"I can't rightly say, since I don't know what happened." Vin looked from one to the other hoping someone would see fit to enlighten him.
"I don't know all the details either, yet, so we can find out together." Ezra looked at Nathan and waited for him to speak up.
"Inez came after me a few days after y'all rode out. She'd gone t' see Mary, and found her dealin' with stomach cramps, and she all of a sudden started bleedin'. She was losin' a baby, an' there was nothin' I could do to stop it." Nathan fell silent a moment and watched Ezra's reaction before he continued. "I don't know if the tea could have had anything to do with it or not. I don't think so, though."
"No, it wouldn't have caused that," Vin added. The old Indian woman who taught me about it said it would only help, unless it was steeped until it was very strong and drank several times a day. She said they used it for all kinds of women's ailments, and there was something about it that could keep a woman from gettin' that way if she was drinkin' it before, but if she was drinkin' it after it could make things go easier. Seemed strange to me that the same thing could work two different ways, but it did. I saw her give it to the younger women, and it never hurt them."
"That is what I had hoped to hear, Mr. Tanner." The gambler turned and looked intently into Mary's eyes. "Now will you stop blaming yourself? You did nothing to jeopardize our child."
"Thank you, Vin. I really needed to hear that," Mary confessed.
"Listen, I don't mean to be the dark cloud here, but since she's told ya about this, I feel like ya should know the rest." Nathan decided he had kept Mary's secrets long enough, and that since they affected Ezra too, he should know everything. "There's a chance Mary might have been hurt even worse than we thought that first time."
"If you are planning to tell me there is a chance she can never have another child, I already know that." Ezra squeezed the hand he'd been holding and was pleased to feel her return the gesture. "But, thank you for offering to tell me."
The four continued to talk over coffee, and eventually over lunch as well. By the time Nathan and Vin left in the mid-afternoon, Mary and Ezra were much more at peace with what had happened. Now they felt like they could move on and start putting all the pain and loss behind them.
"I really should go," Ezra said for about the sixth time.
"Do you have to?" Mary wrapped her arms around him, as they cuddled on the settee in the small parlor.
"You know I do. If I stay any longer, it will be hard for me to leave at all tonight. I am not taking any chances that we might lose our grasp on reason and end up upstairs in your bed." The gambler hugged her close and kissed her on top of the head.
Mary lifted her head from his shoulder and sighed. "I guess I'm afraid you'll change your mind if you have time to go and think about it."
"No. That will not happen. Not in this lifetime." He stood and took her hands to pull her to her feet. He wrapped his arms around her for one last kiss before he went back to his room.
"You'll be here in the morning for breakfast?"
"With bells on," he said as he stepped out the front door of the Clarion office. "Good night, Darlin'."
"Good night." Mary watched him go before she closed the door and headed upstairs to bed.
Ezra felt deliriously happy as he walked back toward the saloon. He glanced at his pocket watch by the light of one of the fires used to light the street; just a little after eleven. He was sure his mother would still be awake, and he wanted to thank her for her part in getting him back together with Mary. Mary had told him of Maude's visit, but she had kept her word and had not divulged all of what her future mother-in-law had told her.
He detoured into the hotel since it was on his way back to the saloon, deciding to check there for his mother first. When he reached her door he could see the faint glow of the oil lamp under her door. He knocked softly, so as not to wake anyone in nearby rooms. He tried a little harder the second time. "Mother? Are you there?"
There was no response, but he was sure she had to be there. She never went off and left the lamps burning, unless she was only going to be a few minutes. He tried the knob and was surprised to find it unlocked. That really was not like his mother to be careless like that, whether she was in the room or not.
"Mother?" The gambler eased into the room and immediately caught sight of his mother curled up in a ball of pain on the bed. Her face was ghastly white, and she was soaking wet with sweat. She lay with her knees drawn up as tightly as she could against her belly, and wrapped her arms around them to hold them in place.
Ezra rushed to the bedside and dropped to his knees next to the bed. "Mother! What is it? What's wrong?" Gently he swept some loose strands of hair out of her face, afraid that she was not coherent enough to respond to him.
Finally, she opened her eyes and looked at him through a haze of pain. With a shaky hand she reached out to stroke his face. "My darling boy...I didn't want you to see me like this."
"What is it? Are you ill? Did someone hurt you?" He was starting to become frantic when he realized just how badly his mother was hurting, when he heard her moan.
"Nothing we have any control of," she dropped her hand back to the bed and hissed when another sharp pain laced through her stomach. "No one hurt me."
"I'm going to get Nathan," he announced. "And I don't care how much you protest, you aren't talking me out of it." He did not give her a chance to argue, he ran out of the room and down the stair. It was a close call with the front door at the hotel when he nearly ran his hand through the glass, after missing the door frame in his haste to push it open.
The gambler entered the saloon at a run hoping Nathan would be there and he would not have to go all the way to the clinic to find him. He quickly searched the room, taking in all the faces and not registering any but Nathan's.
The healer jumped to his feet when he saw the panic in Ezra's eyes. He was already putting on his coat and starting toward the southerner before the gambler had a chance to speak. "Is something wrong with Mary?"
"My mother," Standish managed to say. "Something is seriously wrong."
The two men rushed through the street and bounded up the steps two at a time on the way up to Maude's room. Not far behind them, Josiah hurried and said a silent prayer that the con-woman would be all right.
Vin stayed behind to keep an eye on Chris. Nathan had relented and let the gunman come out to eat his dinner, and they had all been sitting and talking since then. A few minutes later and they would have been back at Nathan's, since the healer had told them for the second time that he was making him go back to bed soon.
Buck saw the flurry of activity and managed to get the tracker's attention from where he sat at the next table having a late snack with Inez. "What's up?" he called out to Tanner.
"Maude's sick. Nathan's goin' t' check on her."
"Think we should go too?" Wilmington asked, concerned about how distressed Ezra had been. The gambler did not rattle that easily.
"If they need us for anything, someone will send for us. Knowing Maude, she would not appreciate everyone piling in on her if she isn't feeling well." Chris was worried too, but he tried not to let it show. He had seen Ezra go through all sorts of bad experiences, but the look in his eyes tonight was one he had never seen there before.
Ezra did not even pause when he got to Maude's door. He shoved it open and they both burst into the room to find her clutching her stomach and losing her battle against tears.
Nathan went straight to her and sat on the edge of the bed so he could talk to her without her having him towering over her. "Maude." He took her hand and looked her in the eyes. What he saw there had him worried. Besides the pain, he saw fear. He had never known Maude to be afraid of anything. "Tell me where yer hurtin'."
"My stomach," she hissed through clinched teeth. "Can you give me something for the pain?" She grimaced as another cramp gripped her and panted for breath until it eased enough that she could talk. "I'm out of laudanum."
"How long have ya been dealin' with this?" Finding out Maude had been relying on laudanum to control the pain had Nathan even more worried. "Have ya seen a doctor?"
"No. Don't like doctors."
"I kind'a figured that, considerin' the way you've been actin' anytime anyone suggested you should come an' see me. I ain't a doctor, Maude, but I'm the closest there is here." He squeezed her hand to try and offer some reassurance. "I'll do what I can to help ya, if ya will let me."
Maude did not hesitate this time to accept his help. "Please."
"I'm gonna have t' ask you some questions, some of 'em might get really personal, but I need ya t' give me an honest answer. Understand?" He waited until she nodded in agreement. "How long has this been goin' on?"
"Several months. It just keeps getting worse." A tear rolled down the side of her face further dampening her pillow.
Ezra sat on the opposite side of her, his head hanging in despair. "Why didn't you tell me, Mother?"
Maude fought through the gripping pain and managed to turn enough to reach for his hand. "I didn't want you to have to go through all of this again."
Nathan interrupted their exchange. "I know yer hurtin' real bad, but I need ya t' turn over on yer back, so I can examine you." Ezra helped him get her turned over and then gripped her hand again. "Maude, I need to feel yer stomach, and I can tell more if I don't have t' feel through several layers of clothes. I'm just gonna reach under yer dress, but I promise that I'll keep ya covered."
"I don't care if you have to strip me naked, if you can just make it stop hurting," Maude groaned. When she felt Nathan pressing on her tender abdomen, she gasped and clung to her son's hand.
"You should have told me." Ezra used his handkerchief to wipe the sweat from her face. "I stayed by Julia's side, and I'm not leaving yours either."
Nathan glanced up at the gambler, but continued to press on Maude's stomach, feeling for any lumps that might give him a clue about what was happening with her. "Who's Julia?"
"My first wife," Ezra explained, while keeping his eyes locked on his mother. "She died from a tumor in her womb."
The grief that passed over the gambler's face spoke volumes. He had obviously loved this woman, and had stuck by her through a horrible death. Now he was worried that he was facing the same thing with his mother. Nathan's heart went out to the man, and he hoped it was not something that seriously wrong with Maude.
He had poked and prodded all around her midsection, and then covered the whole area again, just to be sure he had not missed anything. All the books he had read said that he would probably be able to feel a hard lump if she had a tumor big enough to do this to her, but he had not felt anything that seemed like it was not normal. "Maude, how old are you?"
The healer nodded. "Tell me, have ya still been havin' yer monthly?"
"Mr. Jackson, that isn't something I discuss," she was mortified that he would mention something like that, especially in front of her son.
"Ya said you'd be honest with me," he reminded her.
Finally, Maude nodded. "Yes, I have." She blushed and looked away from her son, too embarrassed to look him in the eyes.
"Have they changed any? Lastin' longer, more or less bleedin' than usual?" He tried to sound as matter-of-fact as possible, like real doctors he had seen talking to their patients, hoping it would put her more at ease.
"Longer, and more," she admitted.
"Ya been havin' spells where ya get so hot ya can't hardly stand it?"
Maude looked at him in surprise. "Yes. How would you know that?"
"I bet ya been wakin' up in the night all sweaty too," he added.
The con-woman nodded and looked nervously at her son, before facing the healer again. "What is it? Am I dying?"
"No, yer not dying. Ya can check with a real doctor next time ya can see one t' be sure, but it sounds t' me like yer goin' through the change of life." He was reasonably confident in his diagnosis. She had all the symptoms he'd read about, and she was the right age.
"The change of life?" She had no idea what he was talking about. "I don't understand."
"How can ya be such a woman of the world an' not know about the change?" The puzzled expression on her face seemed genuine.
"I vaguely remember hearing some women I once knew whispering about an acquaintance going through the change. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I didn't want to sound stupid by asking." Maude had relaxed slightly when she heard Nathan say she was not dying, but she was still apprehensive about whatever this change was that she was supposed to be going through.
"Weren't there any women in yer life that ever explained those woman kind of things t' ya?"
"No. I learned about things when they happened to me." She looked up at Nathan and explained how her life had been. "In my line of work, you don't tend to make any lasting friendships."
Jackson patted her on the hand. "What's happenin' t' ya is normal. It's just a part of gettin' older. From what I've read about it, it hits women at different ages, but usually when they are forty-five or older," he explained. "Ya have all the signs of it, but it doesn't affect all women the same. Some don't have many symptoms at all, and some like you are hit hard by it. Not all women have this kind of pain, but some do."
"How long before she's better?" Ezra asked, relieved that it was not something life threatening.
"Can last a few months or even a few years. Depends on the woman." He directed his comments back to Maude. "All this is is yer body, leavin' yer child bearin' years. Yer monthlies will stop, and after that most of the other problems will go away."
"I have to live with this pain for years?" Maude clutched at her stomach willing the pain to stop.
"I can tell ya some things t' do to help, so maybe ya won't need the laudanum. That's stuff ya really don't want t' take if ya don't have to." He noticed Ezra's face drain of color as he turned avoided looking at them, and decided there must be a story behind that too. "The books say that heat can ease up the cramps. I have an idea that might help."
He got up and crossed the room to the heating stove and sat the bedwarmer on top of it and then looked around for a towel. After a few minutes he returned and folded the towel into a heavy pad before laying it across her stomach. He then sat the bedwarmer on top of it, making sure to steady it by keeping hold of the long handle. "This is kind of awkward, but it will do fer now. Once we get ya a little more comfortable, I'll figure out somethin' that will work better that ya can manage on yer own."
When the heat began to penetrate the heavy cloth, Maude felt the muscle spasms begin to ease up. After several minutes she drifted off to sleep, exhausted from battling the pain.
"If ya will hold this, I'll go see what I can dig up that she can use easier. Just feel under the cloth every couple minutes to be sure it isn't gettin' too hot. If ya think it is, take this away fer a few minutes then put it back." Nathan waited until Ezra took his place before relinquishing his grip on the handle and preparing to leave.
"Mr. Jackson," Ezra reached out with his free hand to grasp the healer's arm. When Nathan turned back to face him he continued. "Thank you."
Nathan patted the southerner's hand and smiled at him. "That's what I'm here for."
Josiah had been waiting in the hall, and he accosted Nathan as soon as he came out the door. "How is she?"
"She'll be fine," Nathan assured him.
"Thank the Lord." Josiah said a silent prayer of thanks, as he fell into step next to Jackson. "Can I go in and see her?"
"Not just now. She's asleep."
Josiah was disappointed that he could not go in and check on her, but he did not want to disturb her. "What's wrong with her, Nathan?"
"Josiah, there's some things that's personal to a woman, and I don't think she'd like me talkin' about it with anyone." When he saw the crestfallen look on the older man's face he relented. "All right. I'll tell ya, but ya can't let her know that I did."
"Of course," Sanchez agreed. "Is it bad?"
"She's just goin' through the change."
"Ah, I see." He thought about it for a moment. "Didn't she have any idea what it was?"
"Not a clue. You got any ideas what we could used to heat up to warm her belly? Somethin' that'll hold heat a while?"
The preacher grinned and nodded. "I know just the thing. I have a flat stone that I got from a Mexican woman. She used it to cook on. It isn't one of the big ones they used, so I don't think it will be too heavy."
"Let's go check it out."
Mary was waiting for Ezra when he stepped into the Clarion office. She had been awake for a couple of hours, and she had gotten Billy up and dressed. Her son must have asked her a dozen times how much longer it would be before Ezra got there.
After giving his betrothed a kiss and tousling the boy's hair, the gambler opened the door and waited on them to step outside. "Well, she's all packed."
"Are you sorry to see her go?" Mary had been pleased to see the relationship between Ezra and Maude evolving into the kind of relationship the gambler had always wanted with his mother.
"Yes, I am. I never thought the day would come when I honestly wished she would stay." Standish grinned sheepishly and glanced at Mary. "Are you sorry to see her go?"
"Yes, but she said she would be back for the wedding, and that's not that far away." She had really grown fond of Ezra's mother, and the confidences they had shared seemed to create a common bond between the two women.
The fright that the gambler had the week before, when he thought Maude was dying had had a similar effect on the two of them. He had been forced to confront his feelings for his mother in a way he had never had to before. "Only ten weeks." He laid his hand over hers where it rested in the crook of his arm. "I'm still all for just doing it now, before you change your mind again," Ezra teased.
"We can't get married without the Judge and Evie here too." Mary Travis realized too late that she had been baited by her intended. "Oh, you!" She feigned irritation at him.
"Good morning!" Maude greeted them as soon as they stepped through the door of the restaurant "How are you this morning?" she asked Billy as she gave him a hug.
"Billy!" Mary blushed at her son's comment. Here they were having a last meal with the woman who was soon to be his grandmother, and all he could think of was food.
"It's all right, dear. He's a growing boy." She grinned at the child and led him to a table near the window. "Let's see what we can get to fill you up. What do you want for breakfast?"
"Can I have flapjacks, mama?" Billy loved the griddle cakes but he was not allowed to have them very often, because his mother did not think he needed all that sweet syrup at breakfast. He looked at his mother and she nodded her approval. "I want flapjacks with lots of syrup," he told Maude.
The short time they had before the stage left was up almost before they knew it. They had talked about the wedding, and the future, and Ezra had asked her again if she would change her mind and stay, but to no avail.
"My darlin' boy, I have things I simply must take care of, but I will be back for the wedding. I would not miss it for the world." She had already said her farewells to Josiah and the others, and all she had left to do was to say good-bye to Ezra. Maude Standish and her son hugged, and neither of them wanted to let go of the other. When they heard the stage driver call for the last time, they finally released each other and Ezra kissed her on the cheek. "Please, hurry back."
"I will, darlin', I promise." She managed to get a last quick hug in for Mary and Billy before taking Ezra's hand for him to help her up into the stage. Just before the stage began to move Maude leaned her head out the window. "I love you," she said as she reached out for her son's hand.
Ezra managed to grasp her fingers for just a moment before they were pulled away from him when the stage lurched into motion. "I love you, too." The smile on his mother's face as she waved good-bye warmed his heart, and he waved back as he watched the stage until it was out of sight.
"She'll be back," Mary reminded him.
"I know, but I miss her already," he said, and realized that he really meant it.
Mary hugged him and then gathered her son up to take him home. She would see Ezra later at lunch.
After Mary left, and the other members of their group began to disperse, Nathan lagged behind to walk with Ezra. "There's somethin' I've been wantin' t' ask ya."
"What would that be, Mr. Jackson?"
"Will ya tell me about Julia?" Nathan asked.
At last, Ezra felt some of the grief he had carried for so long was gone, and thinking about Julia was not as painful as it had been. Now, for the first time other than when he had told Mary about her, he felt like he was ready to talk about that chapter in his past, and he found himself following Nathan back to the clinic. "Yes, I will, but it is a long story. How long do you have?"
"As long as it takes."
(until the wedding)
|Second Chances Index|
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