Under Cover Of Darkness
by Luna Dey
Author's Note: I am not going to make a note about the story itself. I don't want to give too much away. I do want to thank my wonderful beta, Alex, who smoothed out the rough edges for me.
The last of the gang high-tailed it out of town as the seven peacekeepers eased from their places of concealment to congregate in the street around the wounded gunman. Chris Larabee squatted down beside the man as Nathan quickly checked his gunshot wound. The black healer looked up at the blond and shook his head. There was nothing he could do.
Larabee looked into the fear and pain-filled eyes of the young gunman. "Why were you here?" he asked as calmly as he could manage considering the adrenaline that still coursed through his veins.
Josiah took a place on the other side of their young foe. "Son, are those men who left you here worth risking your soul for?" The preacher saw the confusion in the young man's eyes.
"Kid, you're gut shot. Now, I know you've been around long enough to know what that means." Chris watched the realization dawn in the fallen man's eyes and then he continued. "They left you. They didn't know if you were dead or alive, but they left you anyway."
"Son, there isn't anything we can do for you in this world, but you still have a chance to try to save your soul from burning in hell." The preacher saw that his words had their intended effect. "Why don't you tell us who you are and why you came here?"
The dying man licked dry lips and in a strangled voice he gasped, "Judge Travis..." He struggled to breathe and his eyes fluttered shut from the effort it had taken to speak.
"What about Judge Travis?" Josiah urged him to continue.
The tear-filled brown eyes opened and with his last breath he managed two more words. "Kidnap... Blackmail." The sound of the last of his breath leaving his body signaled his passing as his vacant eyes stared heavenward.
Fear sparked in Larabee's eyes when he pieced together the meaning of the dead man's last words. He surged to his feet and raced toward the Clarion's office. Chris was nearly there when Mary rushed out the door on her way to find out about the shooting for the paper, and she nearly collided with him in his headlong dash in her direction. He stopped abruptly in front of her and grabbed her by both arms. If the gesture hadn't conveyed his sense of urgency, the tone of his voice would. "Where's Billy?"
"He's visiting his grandparents." The young blonde woman instantly became alarmed. "Why? What's wrong?"
"You sure he's there? He got there safe?" Chris unconsciously squeezed Mary's arms as he spoke.
"Yes, I got a telegram saying he's there. Chris, What's going on?"
By now the other peacekeepers had gathered around. Larabee glanced around and decided it would be wise to get Mary out of the open, and he steered her back into the newspaper office, followed closely by the other six men. Once inside, he released his hold on her. "Someone is out to get to the judge," Chris informed her. He held up a hand to signal for her to let him finish. "That man out there," he nodded to where the undertaker was removing the body from the streets, "mentioned Judge Travis. His last words were 'kidnap' and 'blackmail'." He paused a moment while the words sank in for the woman in front of him. "The only ones here that could be used against the judge are Billy and you."
"Billy! I have to get to him." Mary became frantic when the man in black stopped her from rushing out the door. "Let go of me! I have to get to my son!"
"Mary! Stop it!" Chris held on tight and gave her a slight shake to stop her hysterics. When she was quiet and stood staring at him, Larabee spoke again. "If they were after Billy, they don't know he isn't here, or they wouldn't have tried today. Billy is safer with the judge, and if you go, you could lead them straight to him and risk yourself in the process."
Tears filled her eyes, and Mary slumped against him in defeat. Chris put one arm around her protectively and looked over to his men. "J.D. I need you to go send a telegram to the judge and tell him what's going on. Buck, you and Josiah go have a look around town and see if you see anyone who might be with those gunmen." He watched the three of them scatter to follow his instructions and then turned back to those who remained. "We need to come up with a plan to keep Mary safe."
Under cover of darkness two black-clad figures led their sleepy horses from the town. They were careful to avoid using the roads, and the pair walked until they were well away from the town before they mounted the reluctant animals and headed for the distant woodland. The horses picked their way slowly through the trees, creeping through patches of shadows as black as midnight. The slow pace was torture for the travelers. Instinct told them to get undercover as quickly as possible, but good sense told them stealth was more important than speed.
After four endless hours, the leader stopped and the two dismounted. Cautiously, they led the weary horses toward a patch of black on the side of the hill and continued forward allowing the yawning darkness to swallow them. A small flicker of light flared to life when a match was struck. The duo squinted to give their eyes time to adjust to the sudden light where there had been none only a moment before.
"Wait here." The words were whispered, but in the confines of the cave they sounded loud to the two who hadn't spoken in hours.
The match light flared out and the sound of feet cautiously shuffling away farther into the pitch black of the stony tunnel was the only sound for endless minutes. At last another match flared, followed by the larger glow of a small pitch-soaked torch. The sputtering torch was wedged into a crack in the stone wall and the man moved back to the front of the cave.
"There is a small dead-end passage just up ahead where we can leave the horses." He took back the reins of his horse and led the way in. As they picked their way back, they reclaimed the torch. The flickering light cast eerie shadows on the walls, but the light was welcomed for its relief from the darkness that had enveloped them since they left the livery hours before.
The cave passage curved to the left and then split into two. By the torchlight it was possible to see that the one to the right wasn't much more than a room-like extension off the main tunnel, but there was more than enough room for the two horses. They would even have room to move around. Considering that they had no idea how long they would have to stay here, the welfare of the animals was almost as high on their list of priorities as their own needs. The horses were settled in and they strung a rope across the opening as a boundary marker, so they wouldn't have to hobble the horses.
The pair carried saddlebags loaded with supplies, bedrolls, and canteens of water into the main passage, slightly in front of the room where the horses were already dozing. Setting up their camp between the animals and the opening of the cave served a dual purpose. If the horses did push past the rope they would be there as a second obstacle to overcome on their path to the outside. Also, the air moved back into the cave and they wouldn't be upwind of the odors created by two large animals in a confined space.
"What can I do to help?"
"If you would hold this, I'll get us a fire started." A few minutes later, a small fire crackled. "I need to go gather some more firewood before it gets light out. I won't go far, but whatever you do, don't go outside."
A small hand grasped at the sleeve of the black coat in an effort to stop him from leaving. "Ezra, wouldn't it be quicker if we both gathered wood? It will be daylight soon."
"Precisely why you must stay undercover. I will not take any unnecessary risks. We need only enough to supply us until it is dark again, and then I will make another foray out to procure a more adequate supply." He kept his tone level and confident even though he didn't really feel so sure of himself. He knew he would be able to keep himself hidden and safe for an indefinite time, but Mary was so strong-willed it was going to be very difficult to get her to stay concealed. "If you insist on assisting, it would be beneficial if you would carry some back from the front of the cavern."
"Of course; I want to help in any way I can." She paused and looked down at her clasped hands, which Ezra noticed for the first time were visibly shaking. "I am used to doing for myself, and..." she faltered.
"You are not used to being out of control of your own life," the gambler supplied.
Mary nodded and shifted uncomfortably. For the first time that he could remember, Ezra saw the fragile side of Mary Travis, the side she kept so carefully hidden behind the façade of the confident newspaper editor. He reached out and folded one hand over her two smaller ones and gave her fingers a gentle squeeze. She looked up at him and saw him smiling reassuringly. "Thank you, Ezra."
The southerner tipped his hat and nodded gallantly and squeezed her fingers once again, before he turned to go out for the needed firewood. Outside, he tried to keep to the shadows as he gathered deadfall from the surrounding area. It was made more difficult because he had to take care not to stir up the ground litter too much, so he wouldn't give away the fact that they were nearby. It took several trips to gather enough to keep a small fire burning through the day. The cave would be cold and damp, and they would need what little heat it would provide. He knew they couldn't allow the fire to get too big, or the scent of the wood smoke, if it found an opening to escape the cave, could be their downfall. He made every trip count. Each load was piled as high as he could carry it, and he deposited it far enough inside the cave to ensure that Mary would not have to come too close to the mouth of the cave. Each time he returned with another load, the previous load had vanished back into the depths of the earth.
The sky was just starting to show a hint of gray when he carried in the last load for the night. He met Mary at the drop-off point. "This is all there is for tonight. We are rapidly losing the cover of darkness."
"So that's it then. Now we just wait?"
"As soon as I set up some sort of warning system, I suggest that we both get some sleep. There will be a lot to do during the hours of darkness, and we will both need to be alert." Ezra dropped the armload of wood on the stack and picked up his saddlebag and headed back up the tunnel. A few minutes later he returned with a smug look on his face. "I do believe it is now safe for us to attempt some sleep."
Mary unrolled her bedroll and looked for a place that was free of loose rocks to spread out the bottom blanket. She eyed the hard cavern floor and thought that there was no way she would be able to sleep on that. Sleeping on the ground was one thing, but stone was another. She used her saddlebag as a pillow and settled under the second blanket of the bedroll.
'Cold' was the first thing that entered her mind as she drifted up from sleep. Mary shivered under the wool blanket and realized the small fire had gone nearly out. Quickly, she scrambled from under the meager cover and added a few small twigs to the fire to get it going again. Once it caught well, she added several bigger pieces. Just as she started to add another somewhat larger piece, a gentle hand stopped her.
"That is enough for now, Mrs. Travis," Ezra instructed.
"But, it is so cold in here. I thought we could use a little more heat."
Ezra sighed. "Mrs. Travis, it is important that you do not second guess me. We do not want to chance alerting anyone who may be looking to our presence here."
"Oh, I didn't realize..." She started to explain and then decided against it and went back to her blankets. She sat with her knees drawn up against her and the blanket wrapped snugly around her.
Ezra saw a shiver run through the pretty blonde woman who sat near the weak fire. Without a second thought, he got up and wrapped his blanket around her along with her own and then sat down beside her.
"Ezra, I can't take your blanket," she protested.
"Indeed you can." At the first sign of protest he insisted, "I will be fine." He sat there beside her in silence, just staring at the flickering of the small yellow flames. Mentally, he cursed himself for not thinking to add extra bedrolls to the supplies. Even very dry caves were always cold and he knew this one was not completely dry. Farther back in there was an underground stream, and in the deeper areas the walls were wet with condensation and the ceilings dripped with water that leaked through the cracks in the stones overhead. That stream was part of the reason that he had chosen this place to hide Mary. They might have to ration food supplies if their stay was too long, but no matter what happened they would have more than enough fresh water.
"Why are you doing this for me?" Mary asked suddenly.
"Why? I don't understand. Why wouldn't I?"
"I haven't always been very supportive of you in town. I wouldn't have blamed you if you had said no when Chris asked you to hide me."
Ezra snorted, and started to respond, but stopped himself.
"What were you going to say?"
"It is unimportant. Let's just suffice it to say that I would have been doing a great disservice to the town had I refused." The gambler would not meet her eyes because he wasn't sure that he would not give away what he was really thinking.
"Please tell me... I would like to know."
Ezra sighed and shook his head. "I do not think this would be a wise course of action." He chanced a glance at the pretty blonde and decided she had a right to know just what was on his mind. After all, she had never completely trusted him, but now she was trusting her life to him. "I am doing this for a number of reasons; the obvious ones being removing a possible source for the coercion of Judge Travis and protecting a young boy's mother. However, I am also doing this so that perhaps you will finally stop looking at me like I am a cad every time you lay eyes on me." With that said, Ezra moved back to his remaining blanket and rolled up in it with his back to her.
Mary curled up on her pallet, wrapped cozily in her blanket and his, and felt a sadness settle over her. She had hurt the man she now looked to for her safety, but yet here he was. Yes, there were times when he had fallen back into his old ways, but he always had come through when it really mattered. She had misjudged him, and now she wondered just how many others she had done the same thing to, and how many others had suffered for her mistakes because of her influence in the town. She finally slept again, this time dreaming dreams in which she saw faces. Faces that taunted her, but remained just shadowed enough that she couldn't make out who they were. She woke for the second time, shaking, but this time not from the cold. In her heart she knew these were the faces of all those she had misjudged throughout her life, and the sheer number of them unsettled her.
Across the fire, Ezra saw Mary show signs of waking, and noticed her shivering despite both blankets. "I have built up the fire as much as I dare. Perhaps you would be more comfortable a bit closer."
She didn't say anything, but scooted closer to the warmth of the flames. A warm coffee cup was pressed into her chilled fingers and she wrapped them around it gratefully. "Thank you."
"I am afraid that breakfast will have to consist of some day-old biscuits and jerky. Once we are more adequately established here, I will endeavor to provide a more suitable repast." He handed her a large biscuit and the pouch of jerky.
"This is fine, Ezra. Maybe the cooking is one thing that I can help with." She looked at him hopefully. It would drive her nuts to be here indefinitely and not have anything to do to pass the time.
"My dear lady, I accept your offer, for I am well aware of the woeful inadequacy of my culinary skills."
Mary grew suddenly quiet and squirmed a bit where she sat on a low rock. She blushed at the thought of having to ask Ezra just what they were supposed to do about those necessary calls of nature, while they were confined to the cave. Just as though he had read her mind, the gambler spoke up. "At the risk of seeming indelicate, I have taken the liberty of preparing a..." He ducked his head slightly and blushed, and then looked back up at his charge. "...a privy pit just a bit farther back in the cave. I located an area where there was dirt floor instead of stone."
With a sign of relief, Mary set aside her breakfast for the moment and stood to head back into the cave. "Will I need to take the torch?"
"It would be wise. It would be most unfortunate if you were to injure yourself on loose rocks or if you were to fall. I give you my word that I will remain here."
"Ezra, I might have doubted many things about you in the past, but one thing I never doubted is that you are in all ways a gentleman." She picked up the torch and re-lit it from the fire. A stunned southern gambler watched her walk away into the depths of the passage.
The next five days and nights settled into a routine for the two. There was no way they could have carried enough supplies for themselves and for two horses, so the animals had to be taken outside to be able to forage for something to eat. There was a very nice clearing about 400 yards from the cave. It was nearly knee deep in a heavy carpet of grass. The horses balked at being dragged outside to eat at a time when they thought they should be sleeping, but their empty bellies overcame their drowsiness when they discovered the sweet grass. Ezra slipped the animals out under cover of darkness and while they ate their fill he gathered wood and bundled it into their blankets to form makeshift packs that he slung over the horses' backs.
Mary tended to the cooking chore and had proven to be quite a good camp cook. On the fifth night Ezra finally felt comfortable in asking her about this newly discovered talent. "How is it that you happen to be so proficient in the art of camp cuisine?" he asked her after their meal.
"Truthfully, my husband taught me. I used to go out camping with him, and he insisted that I learn. He always told me that I might need to know it in order to survive someday." Sadness clouded her light blue eyes as she remembered her loss. There wasn't a day that went by when she didn't still miss him, that she didn't still love him. She smiled weakly. "I guess he was right. He usually was." She swallowed the lump in her throat and moved to change the subject. "How much longer do you think we will need to stay here?"
"Mr. Larabee and I have established a way to pass a message so that I am apprised of when it is sufficiently safe to accompany you back into town. There is a point on the normal morning rounds that is about a half-hour from here. Mr. Tanner will leave a message there on the seventh night. If there has been no resolution at that time, he will leave a message and additional supplies every seventh night thereafter. Mr. Tanner can cover considerable more territory during the daylight hours than we were able to accomplish in the dark. In all honesty, we are approximately two hours’ normal ride from the town. It will appear that he is simply going about his normal routine." He hoped that she wasn't too upset at the prospect of a couple more days without word from town.
"I could handle this waiting if it were just me to worry about, but I can't handle not knowing if Billy is alright." A lone tear escaped to roll down her cheek, and she didn't bother to wipe it away.
Ezra watched and wondered if his own mother had ever felt anything even remotely like what Mary was now feeling in regard to her son; probably not. But, it was a nice dream to have that perhaps somewhere in the distant past his mother had cared for him that deeply. He slid over next to her and tentatively put an arm around her shoulder to try to comfort her. That simple action was her undoing. Ezra heard the first sob and it broke his heart. He hugged her close, felt her lay her head on his shoulder, and felt the tears soak through his shirt. Absently, he stroked her hair as he rocked her gently, while she succumbed to the stress of the past several days.
Sleep eluded him that day. Seeing such a strong woman as Mary so distraught had unnerved him somewhat. There had been times in the past when he would have liked to have seen her taken down a peg or two. He didn't want to see her harmed, but it would have been good to see that smug, holier-than-thou attitude adjusted a little. Now that he had his wish, he wished he could recant it. It was not something he wanted to ever be witness to again.
He watched her as she slept on the other side of the small fire. The worry was clearly visible in her face, even in sleep. A shiver ran through him, and he realized that he was probably going to end up sick if he didn't get warm. It wasn't a thought that he liked to consider. It had been foggy out during the night when he had taken the horses out and gathered wood. The fog had seeped into his clothing making it cling to him with dampness. The chilly, moist air of the cave had not allowed his clothes to dry completely and now he just could not stop shivering. Ezra decided he would have to break his own rule and build up the fire enough to dry out. He said a silent prayer to whatever deity might be listening that no one would be near enough to smell the smoke should it find its way out of the cave.
Mary opened her eyes and blinked at the brightness. "Ezra? Is something wrong?" Then she saw him shudder and knew that he was cold, very cold. "Ezra?"
"It is alright. I got a bit damp from the night air. I need to get dry is all."
"No, that isn't all. You are freezing." She got up and brought the blankets over to him. "Take off your jacket."
"I beg your pardon."
"Take off your jacket and wrap these around you." She tried to look determined and she must have succeeded because he shrugged out of the damp garment and allowed her to drape the blankets around his quivering body.
He almost sighed with relief as he felt the wool blankets, still warm from her body heat, settle over him. He watched as Mary took his jacket and used a couple long sticks wedged between some rocks to hang it near the heat of the fire to dry. "Mrs. Travis, I cannot in all good conscience deprive you of the warmth of these blankets." He started to pull them off to return them to her.
"Ezra Standish, you keep those around you." She pulled his hands away from the edges of the blankets and wrapped them snugly around him again. She busied herself turning his jacket first one way and then another to dry it thoroughly. "Are any of your other clothes wet?" she asked. When he shook his head no, she wasn't satisfied with the answer. "I doubt that you would admit it if they were. Let me see." She reached inside the blankets and felt the fabric of his shirt and then bent to check his pants legs. They were dry. Most likely his body heat had dried them but the jacket was too heavy to dry that way.
Once Ezra got over the initial shock of Mary inspecting his clothes, he chuckled softly. "Satisfied, Mother?" he teased. He was rewarded with a smile, not one of those forced ones, but the kind that reached all the way to her eyes. The only thing that ruined the moment was seeing her wrap her arms around herself, a sure indication that the chill was getting to her too. "Mrs. Travis, if it would not be too forward of me, I might suggest that you sit here with me and we can share the blankets for a time."
Mary hesitated a moment and then felt another shiver run through her. When Ezra raised up the side of the blankets she quickly sat down beside him, and he wrapped his arm around her along with the blankets. The warmth was heavenly. As she warmed, she relaxed and without realizing it, she leaned against him and fell asleep. Fatigue was rapidly taking its toll on the gambler too, since the chills had finally subsided. The extra body heat of the woman snuggled beside him warmed him completely for the first time in days. He had just enough presence of mind to lean back against the stone wall of the cave and wrap the blankets more securely around them both before he let sleep claim him.
Ezra wasn't sure how it had happened, but during the night they had managed to slip down off of the stone slab they had used for a seat, and they now lay in front of it curled together in the warm folds of the blankets. They both lay on their sides spoon fashion, and Mary's back fit perfectly against him. He had one arm draped over her and her head rested on his other arm using it as a pillow. His face was so close to her neck that each time he breathed he stirred the golden strands, causing them to tickle his lips when they fluttered back as he inhaled. The gambler contemplated whether he should move from this compromising position, but decided that not only would it wake Mary if he tried, it would deprive him of this much longed for chance to hold her. For now, he snuggled closer and drifted back to sleep, lulled by the rhythmic sound of her breathing.
Mary sighed softly as her mind started to push away the shadows of sleep. The first thing her mind registered was that she was warmer than she had been in days. The second thing was the feel of a body pressed closely to hers and the weight of an arm wrapped around her. She opened her eyes to darkness, darkness so complete that at first she thought she had gone blind, but then she remembered she was in a cave and the fire must have died out. So, the person she was snuggled up with had to be Ezra. She thought back and remembered letting him wrap them both in the blankets. After that, she didn't even remember falling asleep. It felt good to be lying wrapped in someone's arms again. She missed her husband in all ways, but she really missed the feel of waking up with him holding her and how that made her feel both loved and protected. This wasn't her husband who held her now, but for a few minutes she could close her eyes and remember.
She was lost in her memories when she felt Ezra stir behind her. His arm hugged her more tightly, and he nuzzled against her neck and sighed a deep, contented sigh. She stayed as still as she could, not wanting to wake him, or to lose the warmth of his touch.
Ezra woke for the second time and snuggled closer to the woman in his arms. He knew he should arise and build up the fire, but he wanted just another minute to dream that Mary was awake and that she wanted him to hold her like this. But, he knew those thoughts would get him nowhere, except into an embarrassing situation if his body betrayed him over such thoughts. Mary shifted slightly and pressed more firmly against him, causing him to stir to life, almost as if his body had been waiting for him to think those thoughts before it acted on its own.
Mary felt his reaction to her movement and knew that this quiet time was at an end. Softly, in case he wasn't truly awake, she whispered, "Ezra? Are you awake?"
"Yes, it does appear that I am. Although, I could not prove that by what has greeted my eyes upon awakening." The gambler still had his head resting against her neck and shoulder so he spoke softly. "I fear I must apologize for my actions during my repose. I meant no offense. I am quite sure I was merely seeking warmth for both of us."
"It's alright, Ezra. It feels good to be warm for a change." Mary tried to sound casual about waking up in his arms, and she was suddenly very glad for the darkness that hid her blush.
"I agree wholeheartedly; however, I fear that I must extricate myself from this cocoon of warmth and tend to the fire. Judging by the empty state of my stomach, it must be past sunset by now." Despite his words he still made no move to leave the snug nest they had made.
"You are probably right," Mary agreed. "But, I have a more urgent reason to get up, and I am going to need a torch so I can see." Reluctantly, she slid out of the covers and rolled to her knees to get up. She heard Ezra groan softly at the prospect of moving.
"You must give me a moment while I find one of the torches." The gambler felt along the wall for the item and finally found it wedged into a crack in the rock. "I suggest you close your eyes, or at least look away. Even the match-light will be painful to the eyes." In a few moments he had the torch burning and two rumpled, sleepy people stood squinting and blinking to accustom their eyes to the sudden brightness. Ezra lit a second torch from the one he had burning and handed one to Mary who wasted no time in heading farther back into the cave.
Ezra busied himself rebuilding the fire while he waited for Mary to return. Once she was back, he took his leave for a quick trip to relieve himself. When he returned he found her putting the water on for coffee and for oatmeal. He was still surprised at times to see how well she coped with roughing it like this, but he was very glad that he didn't have to deal with an hysterical female. The gambler cautiously made his way to the mouth of the cave to check to see if it was dark yet. It very nearly was. Once breakfast was over, they could tend to the daily necessities. He had allowed Mary to accompany him out a couple times at night. As long as she was wearing the men's clothes she had worn during and since their flight from town, and she wore her hair up under her hat, no one would see her as a woman in the dark. There was no doubt in his mind that she had to have some relief from the imposed confinement of their hideaway.
Mary looked up at him when he came back to the fire. "Is it dark yet?"
"It is very nearly dark enough. Things are very still out there tonight. I am thinking perhaps we should wait a tad longer before we venture out." Something had him a little nervous and he couldn't quite put his finger on it. The woods were usually alive with bird and insect sounds, but it was oddly quiet when he checked.
"Do you think someone might be out there?" she asked more calmly than she felt.
"Perhaps, but more likely it is a wolf or another predator that has the animals spooked. It is most likely nothing for us to worry about. With our scents all over the cave, it is unlikely that it would venture inside." Ezra tried to sound confident and reassuring, but in truth he wasn't at all sure that was true. "However, in that event, I would not wish to leave you unattended with the horses while I go for firewood." He surveyed the stockpile of wood that they had. "I think that perhaps you should stay in tonight, to be on the safe side."
"Ezra, you don't need to think that I am staying in here and not have any idea of what is going on out there. I would rather take my chances in the open with you," she said firmly.
"Mrs. Travis... "
"No, Ezra. I won't stay here alone. What if something happens to you? I would have no way to know it, or to prepare for being found. If you won't consider yourself, then consider me in this."
"Then we stay together. After the horses have eaten, we'll get as much wood as we can on the way back here, but we limit our time outside tonight as much as possible." His tone let her know there would be no argument allowed on this decision.
"Agreed," Mary said. "Now have something to eat." She handed him his share of the oatmeal and a cup of strong coffee. The two ate in silence but their minds were racing from one thought to another.
Ezra's hand brushed against Mary's when he handed the empty dish back to her. He heard a slight catch to her breath and didn't know how to interpret it. He decided they really needed to talk about 'last night'. "Mrs. Travis, I believe perhaps we should discuss our situation here," he said somewhat hesitantly.
The pretty blonde had a hard time meeting his eyes when she spoke. "I suppose we should."
"I must apologize for my appalling behavior last night. It was very improper of me to take advantage of the situation like I did. I must admit that it was very pleasant to wake up with a beautiful woman in my arms, but I should never have touched you in such a familiar manner without your consent." Ezra was clearly embarrassed by his actions.
"Ezra, it really is okay. I was just as much to blame as you were. Honestly, it was nice to wake up in someone's arms again. It has been a very long time, and neither of us did anything wrong. We just wanted to be warm." She was trying to convince herself of that as much as she was trying to convince Ezra.
"Indeed it was good to wake up and not be stiff from the cold," the gambler commented.
"Yes, it was, and I had most of the blankets, so I can only imagine how cold you have been those past several nights. I am sorry to be putting you through all of this." Her pale blue eyes showed a softness that he didn't remember seeing before, and it caught him unaware. His pulse picked up as he looked into those pools of blue and realized that she was letting him see the vulnerable side of herself that she kept hidden so well in town.
"My Dear; Mrs. Travis, I should be thanking you for coming to my assistance last night. I most surely would have caught a chill if you had not been so generous." Ezra let his voice convey the sincerity of his words, and he was rewarded to see the pretty blonde shift slightly in embarrassment at the indirect reminder of just how she had assisted him.
"Well then, I guess we should just leave it at that; we helped each other. Thank you, Ezra, and you're welcome." Mary felt somewhat uneasy with the discussion. It wasn't that she was ashamed or upset by waking up wrapped up in the blankets and in Ezra's arms, but that she was out of her element. She just didn't know how she was supposed to react in this situation, so it was best to just let it drop.
The gambler nodded his understanding and changed the subject. "Tomorrow night it will be time for me to go check for a message from Mr. Larabee. Perhaps we will find ourselves en route back to Four Corners the following day."
"I hope so. I need to know that Billy is okay." Mary wrapped her arms around herself and rocked slightly where she sat at the thought of her only child being in possible danger.
"I feel certain that Mr. Larabee will be aware of your need for such information. If we cannot return at this time, I would be willing to bet that he will supply you with news of your son." He smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring manner.
"You would bet? How much are you willing to bet?" Mary smiled in return, letting a hint of amusement reach her eyes.
"I'll wager this ten dollar gold piece." The gambler held up the coin and grinned, showing his gold tooth in the flickering firelight. "What are you willing to put up if you lose?"
"Uh... I really don't have much here with me to bet with," she said as she looked around for something she could wager. She didn't usually gamble but she needed something to make things a little more interesting. Time seemed to be creeping along since they were forced to stay confined to the cave except for a few short hours during the darkest hours. "What would you suggest?"
"It need not be something that is paid at this moment. Perhaps something like a real home-cooked meal when we return to civilization. Unless you can think of something else you would prefer." Ezra secretly hoped she would consider this idea. It would be very nice to sit down at her table for dinner, and for one evening to be able to think he was just like anyone else, and that his company was actually desired.
"That doesn't seem quite fair against a ten dollar gold piece," she pointed out.
"It would depend on what value I happen to place on your offering, and I would consider it an equitable wager."
"Alright, it's a bet!" Mary held out her hand to shake on it. The formalities taken care of, she sighed and looked toward the front of the cave. "How much longer do you think we need to wait before we can take the horses out?"
"I shall endeavor to discover that right now if you will give me a couple minutes to do so." He rose and quickly made his way to the front of the cavern, and after listening and watching for a short time, he made his way back to where Mary waited. "I believe it is safe now, but we stay together tonight, and we must be doubly cautious."
Two black-clad figures paused just inside the cave entrance and watched and listened before they ventured out into the night, each with a horse in tow. They walked close to the large animals and patted them to keep them calm as they picked their way through the darkness toward the clearing. Ezra stopped them at the edge of the open area and once again listened intently before he moved the horses a short distance into the grass. There was a full moon out, and the clearing was too well lit from the moonlight to move farther out - out of the protective cover of the shadows. He hobbled the horses and had Mary stay with them while they ate. He moved a very short distance away to start stacking some firewood in an effort to save a little time after the horses had been allowed to eat.
Mary stood between the two happily munching equines and softly stroked their necks as they tore off the tender green blades down deep under the taller more sturdy stalks that had gone to seed. After several minutes she eased back toward the tree line, where she could lean back against a tree trunk and keep an eye on the animals.
She let her eyes drift shut for a few moments as she listened to the variety of sounds the night had to offer. Without warning, a hand clamped firmly over her mouth and she was pulled around to the backside of the tree, where a male body pressed her tightly against the rough bark of the trunk. There was no hope of struggling or yelling for help. She was held too tightly by the greater strength of her assailant; her heart pounded wildly with fear.
He felt her fear as he pressed into her, but he didn't dare let go yet. "Mary, ssshhhh..." Ezra felt her relax somewhat when she realized it was he pinning her to the tree. He had his mouth so close to her ear that she could feel the movement of his lips as he whispered. "We are not alone. Stay perfectly still."
Mary stared wide-eyed at her protector, and watched as he concentrated on the faint sounds he had heard. Finally, she heard it too. There was definitely something moving through the trees but it was impossible for her to tell what it was, yet. The sound grew closer and there was the unmistakable resonance of barely audible male voices. "Why not stop here?" Whiney voice said.
"I told ya, we need to put some distance between us and that town fer a day or two. One of them lawmen recognized me. I'm sure of it," Grumble voice explained.
"Seems like a waste ridin' all this way and then just havin' to ride back again," Whiney added.
"Well it's better'n gettin' locked up fer gettin' caught. Now shut up; we'll stop when I say so," Grumble insisted.
Ezra leaned even more heavily against Mary and tipped his head so his hat would shadow their faces. Silently, they both prayed that the men would not see the horses and that the horses stayed quiet. The gambler was in a position to see what was happening, and he watched as the two men rode across the other end of the clearing, headed away from their cave. He could feel Mary trembling and wanted to calm her, but he knew he didn't dare move until he was certain they were well out of hearing range. Gradually their voices faded away to nothing, but he continued to hold her still. By the light of the moon he could see the question in her eyes. Once again he pressed his lips close to her ear and softly whispered, "Sound travels at night. We must wait." He felt her nod her understanding and finally released his hand from over her mouth. "Keep still." He cautiously moved enough to slip one arm behind her shoulders to help settle her fear. She leaned her head against his shoulder, but it took several minutes for the shaking to subside. "I am loath to attempt to move the horses just yet," he said very softly. "We can attempt to tread lightly, but they don't understand the necessity for stealth."
Mary sighed in relief. He had gone back to his more formal speech, so she knew he was starting to relax, and now she could too. The two stood there for what seemed to be a lifetime, listening to the soft sound of the horses breathing and chewing on the grass.
"Do you think it is safe yet?" Mary murmured softly.
"I think it would be wise to get you back inside... shhhh do not argue. This was a very close call. I'll come back out for wood, but I will not risk your safety again on this night." With that he put one hand on her back to guide her through the darkness and back to the cave. For the moment, he left the horses to continue munching happily, totally oblivious to the drama that had been taking place around them.
"Ezra, I... I don't think you should take time to gather wood tonight. We still have some inside."
"True, but it won't last until I can get more tomorrow night. We will have to use considerably more caution now that we know those men are in the area. It is possible that they are not the men we are avoiding, but whoever they are, they had to be talking about the lawmen in Four Corners, and that does not bode well."
"But what if they come back while you are still out there?"
"Rest assured, dear lady, that I will take no unnecessary risks. I will bring what I can in one trip with the horses. I will not venture out a second time this night. We will have to use the wood sparingly until I can obtain more." He turned her to face back into the cave and then paused. He stood behind her and leaned close. "Mary, I really need your help this time. I cannot take care of our needs and keep watch on you tonight. Please, stay in here."
"Alright, but you have to promise you won't stay very long." She didn't want to wait here alone, but she knew he was right. She would be putting them both at risk if she insisted on going along.
"I give you my word."
Mary sighed deeply in resignation and walked back toward their campsite inside the stone tunnel. She knew she would not be able to relax until he was safely back inside again.
She busied herself straightening up their meager campsite and taking stock of what supplies they still had. Supplies were getting low even with them using extra care on the rations. It would help if they could get some game, but hunting was out of the question. Since they had to be this cautious, a gunshot would be too risky.
Time seemed to creep by, and after she had done all she could in their camp, she started pacing the inside of the cave. 'Everything is okay, you know it is. It just takes time is all.' But, no matter how much she tried to justify to herself that things would be fine, the worry and uncertainty remained.
She had no sure way of telling time, but she was reasonably sure it had been at least two hours since Ezra had gone back outside. The waiting was driving her half crazy, and she finally eased herself back toward the mouth of the cave in hopes that she could at least hear if he was near. Time dragged on and the night sounds that had been so soothing and hypnotic as she stood against the tree and watched the horses now took on new meanings in her mind. The crunch of a leaf became a footstep; the sound of a night bird set her heart to pounding. She nearly called out in relief when she heard him returning with the horses, but she managed to keep from shouting out to him.
Ezra looked at the woman who stood waiting for him just inside the cave opening. "Why?"
"I got nervous, and decided to wait here."
"Very well, then if you would take your horse and go on ahead of me, we'll unload them in the back." He watched her retreating form and thought that perhaps she did care a little about his welfare. Her posture when he first saw her upon returning had held more than a case of nerves, it also held worry and anxiety. And, she had seemed genuinely glad to see him. He had seen those reactions before, but never in someone who might be feeling those things for him. It had to be that he was just reading too much into the situation, and maybe there were some of his unspoken wishes tossed in there too.
The two worked together unloading the overflowing bundles of firewood and getting the horses settled for the day. Mary busied herself fixing their supper, while Ezra picked the bits of bark and splinters out of the blankets he had used to bundle the wood. The meal passed quietly, both diners replayed the events of the night in their minds, and both hoped fervently that the men they saw pass in the night were not the ones they were hiding from.
"We will undoubtedly need to let the fire go out while we sleep in an effort to save fuel," Ezra stated.
Mary was just getting settled under the blankets and she looked across at the gambler. "If that is the case then it will be colder than usual in here."
"Ezra, I can't let you give up one of your blankets to me if it is going to be colder." She held up a hand to stop him from speaking. "We shared the blankets last night." She paused and felt her face warm from the blush that crept into her cheeks. "We both slept warmer than we had since we got here. There is no reason we can't share them again." She turned back the edge of the top blankets to show him that she did mean what she was suggesting.
"Mrs. Travis, your offer is very generous, but are you sure?"
"I am sure. Ezra, I am asking you to share blankets and body heat and that's it. In a similar situation would you hesitate to share a blanket with Chris or one of the others, if it would keep you from freezing during the night?"
"No, I would not, and I have not refused. However, they were not lovely ladies who I had been requested to protect." Ezra paused and considered her suggestion for a few moments, and then took his remaining blanket and added it to those covering the pretty blonde and eased in under them with her. The pallet of grass that they had fixed under her blanket on the second night cushioned and insulated them from the cold, hard stone. In a matter of minutes their combined body heat began to warm the chill from their bones. "Mary?"
"I want you to take this." Ezra pressed the small gun into Mary's hands. "It will take me at least two hours to get there and back. It could be longer because of the extra stealth I will need to show once I get out into the open."
"You might need this." She tried to hand the derringer back to him. "As long as I stay inside everything should be fine."
"I am not as concerned with you being found by the gunmen, as I am with you being found by hunters of the four-legged variety."
"I thought you said they wouldn't come in here if they could smell us here."
Ezra paused and then decided to be completely honest with her. "Usually they won't venture in where humans are, but an old or injured predator will sometimes take the easy way of getting its prey. When I checked earlier to ascertain if it was dark enough to embark on this trek, I saw wolf tracks near the front of the cave. They had made their way several feet inside." He busied himself finding her a long, heavy branch that he quickly stripped the smaller branches off, creating a very intimidating club. "If the derringer does not deter them, strike them with this as hard as you can. A wise wolf will decide to back off." He tried to sound confident, but he wasn't really. What if this wolf would not back off, or if it was a pack and not just one?
After seeing that Mary had as much protection as he could give her, he led Chaucer outside and mounted up. He didn't like the idea of leaving her here alone for that long, with him so much farther away than usual, but there was no way he could dare to take her along. He could end up delivering her right to the kidnappers. "Mrs. Travis...."
"I know you don't want to consider this possibility; however, I have prepared directions for you to find your way home, should the need arise. They are in your saddlebag. If I do not return by dawn, something has gone wrong."
"I would rather take my chances going with you than sit here not knowing," Mary told him.
"That may be, but I can travel faster and quieter alone. Never fear, I do plan to return." He tipped his hat, and then settled more comfortably in his saddle. With one last glance at her, he said. "Stay inside."
Reaching the contact site would be so simple if it was daylight, and he didn't have to move at such a slow pace. The farther he got from the cave the more uneasy he became. 'Get your mind back on what you are doing!' he admonished himself.
Finally, he could see the outline of the old abandoned homestead in the weak moonlight. He tethered Chaucer to a low branch and slipped in the rest of the way on foot. After checking the run down buildings for any sign of life and finding none, he relaxed slightly.
The door to the old barn creaked softly as he opened it just enough to slip inside. There was no light inside and he had to rely on groping with his hands to find what he was looking for. Vin had said there was a large wooden box to the right of the door. His hand contacted something solid; it took him only a moment to determine that it was the box. Carefully, he slid his hands around the lid far enough to lift it and prop it against the wall. Now, for just a moment, he had to risk striking a match to see.
Ezra sighed audibly when he looked into the box. Vin had been true to his word and had been there that day. He reached in and took out the saddlebags full of supplies. Mary would be so disappointed to find out that they couldn't go back yet.
After Ezra left, Mary tried to find something to occupy her time. She checked her saddlebag for the directions he had left and read through them several times to commit them to memory. If she had to leave without her packs for some reason, she would be hard pressed to find her way back otherwise.
She paced, sat a while, and then paced some more, before she finally had to check the entrance to the cave or go crazy. 'The club!' she reminded herself, and retraced her steps to pick it up. As she neared the entrance, something didn't seem right, but she couldn't see anything unusual. There was no chance now that she would be able to go back to the fire, not with her nerves on edge like they were. She seated herself on a low boulder slightly back from the entrance and waited.
Mary didn't realize she had dozed until the sounds outside the cave startled her awake. Something was definitely out there. Shouldering the club like a ball bat she eased herself closer to the entrance. Her heart had taken up residence in her throat, where she was sure it would choke her. Sweat beaded her forehead and the palms of her hands as she readied herself for whatever she was about to encounter. Leaves crunched and rustled outside and she cried out when the form was suddenly silhouetted in the opening. Mary sagged heavily against the cave wall, clutching her chest as she tried to still her breathing. 'A deer... it was just a deer,' she kept telling herself, but she couldn't stop the violent shaking.
She had turned away from the entrance and was trying to convince herself to go back to the fire when she heard the noise. This time she knew it wasn’t a deer. The steps were deliberately cautious. Mary willed herself to wait until she could hear the steps close behind her, and she prayed that the darkness she was in hid her completely. She gripped her club with both hands and with a burst of power she didn't know she had, she swung it around at her stalker.
Ezra sensed the movement before he saw it and threw his hands up to deflect the blow. In the same movement he grabbed the rough club and pulled it out of Mary's hands, pulling her to him in the process. "Mary! Stop it! It's me." She stopped struggling when she heard the familiar voice and sagged against him. "Ssshhhhh... it's okay. It's okay. What happened?" He hugged her to his chest, stroking her hair as he soothed her.
"I thought I heard something. It was just a deer but then I heard footsteps..." She was shaking again as she told what happened. "Oh!" She pulled away and began to feel his hands and arms in the dark. "Did I hurt you?"
"Nothing more than a bruise, I assure you. I have no doubt that after such a fright, the last thing you want to do is venture out, but we need to gather more wood, and see that the horses are fed. Are you up to it?" He hated to have to take her out after that scare, but he honestly didn't think she would consider waiting here alone again.
"Yes." As she went with him to gather the blankets and her horse, she asked, "What did you find out? Can we go back?"
Ezra shook his head, wishing he didn't have to disappoint her. "No, we can't go back yet." He held out the saddlebags that he had picked back up after he dropped them to fend off her club. "They left supplies. If we were going back, it would just be a message."
"Is there anything about Billy? Please, tell me there is some news about Billy!" She grabbed for the bags but Ezra held her off.
"Mrs. Travis, I know how much you want to check now, but we have little time to care for the horses and gather the wood...."
"Please, Ezra. It won't take long to look."
The pleading he saw in her eyes was his undoing. "Alright, a few minutes."
She practically dove on the saddlebags and began digging through them. After a minute she pulled the sheet of paper out and sat next to the fire trying to see the writing. Suddenly, there was more light and she glanced up to see that Ezra had lit one of the torches, and she smiled her gratitude.
"Would you care to verbalize the contents to me as you read it? It would be a more efficient use of this time."
"Of course." She went back to the letter, which was very short and to the point.
We haven't caught them yet, but we have information we think is going to lead us to them. Sorry, but you'll have to stay there a little longer. Tell Mary that Billy is fine. He is still with the Judge and will be staying there until these men are caught. Watch your back.
Ezra watched the emotions play over Mary's face and he was glad he had let her take this time to read the message. After a short pause to let her consider the news, he grinned.
Mary looked puzzled when she saw the huge smile. "What?"
"Mrs. Travis, I do believe you owe me a home-cooked dinner."
"Yes. I guess I do, and I don't mind losing that bet one bit. He's okay. Thank God, he's okay. As long as I know he's safe, I can stay here as long as it takes."
"Really? Well then might I suggest that we apply ourselves to taking care of..."
Before he could finish she jumped to her feet and started toward the front of the cave. She glanced back at him and smiled. "Well, are you coming?"
They developed a routine over the next several days. They each had chores that they were responsible for, and they did them without fail or complaint. Ezra continued to be surprised by how capable Mary had turned out to be under such rough conditions.
He watched her now as she picked the bark out of the blankets after they used them to bring in wood. He settled the animals back into their makeshift stall, and when he came back to the fire he could smell the scent of the simple meal she had ready. When she saw Ezra return, she finished the last blanket and laid it aside with the others before dishing up his food.
"Thank you! It smells good." He found his mouth watering in anticipation of the first bite. He was undeniably hungry, but he also knew that the food would be good. They ate in a comfortable silence and Ezra helped her clean up their utensils.
"Tonight is the night, isn't it?" she asked as they prepared to go to sleep.
"Yes. Will you be alright waiting here again this time?" He was very concerned about leaving her alone while he went for their weekly message after her reaction last time.
"I'll be fine. We have been here long enough now for me to be a lot more comfortable than I was then. I am afraid to hope that we can go home after tomorrow," she confessed.
Ezra waited for her to take her place on the pallet they had made to sleep on and then took his place beside her before he responded. "I understand. It is better not to hope and then have your hopes dashed if the news is not what you prefer. Then on the other hand, if the news is good, you can be overjoyed."
After a couple minutes of silence, Mary turned on her side to face him in the dim light of the fire. "Ezra? May I ask you something?"
"Have you ever been in love? I mean seriously in love."
There was a long pause before he decided how to answer. "Yes, I have." The sadness in his voice was apparent even to his own ears.
"What happened?" Mary knew he was a very private person, but these close quarters with him made her feel a real need to know more about him.
"Mary... There are some things I have not told anyone here. My romantic encounters have no bearing on my ability to perform my duties."
Mary laid her hand lightly on his shoulder causing him to turn to look at her. "I won't tell anyone. I give you my word. It's just that sometimes it helps to talk about things, and I... I know I could use someone to talk to."
Ezra turned over to face her. He was surprised to see the openness in her expression. He slid his hand up to gently cover hers that still rested on the blanket between them. "You may always feel free to talk to me about anything, Mary."
She hesitated a moment and sighed heavily when she saw the sincerity in those incredible green eyes, eyes that were now only inches from her own and that looked at her with a mixture of concern and tenderness. "I miss him," she said in a whisper. Ezra squeezed her fingers slightly but didn't speak. He wanted her to say what she needed to, uninterrupted.
"Ezra, I didn't even get to say good-bye to him. It all happened while I was out. Some days, it's so hard to keep going, but I have to for Billy." Her voice cracked slightly with the emotion that was welling up inside. "Sometimes I wake up in the night and I feel like he is there with me, but then I turn over and I am still alone." She drew a deep shuddering breath. "I had started to get beyond it, but these past days I have awakened and you were there... all that loneliness came flooding back."
With a touch so gentle it was barely there, Ezra caressed her cheek. "Mary, if my being here this close is causing you difficulties, perhaps I should..."
"No, it isn't that," she said hastily. "I... liked feeling..." She faltered for a moment. "You will think..."
"Don't concern yourself with what I might think. Please just tell me what it is you want to say." He allowed his hand to linger against her face to cradle her cheek.
She leaned into his touch and sighed when he lightly traced his thumb over her lower lip. "I have liked waking up in someone's arms again." Blue eyes watched green eyes for a reaction, and Ezra was sure she was holding her breath while she waited for him to respond.
In one smooth motion, Ezra drew her to him and cradled her in his arms. "So have I," he murmured softly. Mary snuggled closer, and let her head rest on his shoulder. Neither spoke for several minutes, but simply enjoyed the feel of being close to each other.
"She was my wife. I haven't spoken of her since I lost her." He fought to keep his voice from betraying the grief he still felt after four years.
"What happened?" Mary asked softly and reached up a trembling finger to wipe away a tear that had managed to escape and trickle from the corner of his eye.
"I loved her with all my heart. Mother had set up a con that involved the two of us getting married and then when her dowry was signed to me, the marriage would be annulled on some trumped up accusations. We hadn't counted on me falling in love with her, and I refused to follow through."
"Your mother was furious, wasn't she?"
"Well you know the saying, 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned'? Well it goes double for a con-woman," he said with an attempt at a laugh.
"Tell me about her, please."
"Her name was Julia." His voice took on a dreamlike tone. "She had the most beautiful hair. It was so dark it was almost black, and it glistened in the sun like it was sprinkled with jewels, and her skin was as fair as fine porcelain. I remember her eyes most of all. They were eyes that you could fall into and lose yourself forever." He paused, a slight smile curling the corners of his mouth. "She was as sweet as my mother is poisonous."
"She sounds delightful."
"Is that the ring you wear?"
Ezra nodded and glanced at the gold band on his right hand. "I couldn't bear to leave it off after she died."
"How did she die?" Mary whispered, for fear that if she spoke too loud he would stop talking.
"The doctor said that she had some kind of growth inside. It took months and I watched her wither away right in front of me. The end was..." He choked on the words and couldn’t bring himself to say anymore about her, the pain was just too much. "I know that loneliness too."
Mary slipped her arms around him and hugged him closer. "I guess we are a lot more alike than we ever thought," she commented. "I am so tired of the loneliness."
"So am I," he said whispered next to her ear. The feel of her breath, warm and moist against his neck caused an unexpected shiver of desire to race through his body. "Mary?" He felt his heart pound faster when she pulled back enough to look at him. The look in her eyes was his undoing. It was as if he could see deep into her soul when he looked into those pale blue orbs, and what he saw was an echo of the same need he felt. It wasn't love, but a sharing more intimate than mere friendship.
Their lips met in a feather-light kiss that left a tingle behind that begged for something more. When she didn't protest, he pressed his lips to hers with more confidence, moaning softly deep in his throat when he felt her respond. It took all of his control to keep from crushing her mouth with his, but he did allow his need to take the kiss deeper. He played his lips over hers and gently nipped at her bottom lip with his teeth. The sound that rose from her was more of a soft growl than a moan and it encouraged him to press for more. Again their lips met, and Ezra trailed the tip of his tongue over the lip he had just nibbled. Her lips parted at the touch and they moaned in unison as his tongue slipped inside to explore the warm depths of her mouth. Gentleness was forgotten when he felt Mary press more firmly into his kiss, and he let his desire take control. The kiss took on a life of its own, leading the two participants in the direction it wanted them to go. He felt slim fingers slide up his neck to entwine themselves into his hair. When the need for air was impossible to ignore they pulled away slightly, both panting for breath. He gasped in surprise when he felt Mary's lips against his neck as she placed teasing kisses from his ear down to his collar.
Mary thought her heart would break as she listened to Ezra's story. She had no doubt that he was telling her the truth, there was just too much pain in his voice and eyes for it not to be. Losing her husband so suddenly had been the most devastating thing in her life, but to watch someone you love with all your heart wither away a little more everyday had to be almost unbearable.
When he turned to her there was such a profound sadness and loneliness in his eyes, and she knew that same loneliness was mirrored in her own. When he spoke her name she found herself mesmerized by his lips and felt drawn to them. The first touch of his lips to hers was so light and hesitant, almost as if he were asking permission. She gave it to him when she returned the kiss and offered more.
Mary could feel the heat radiating from the man in her arms, as the kiss became more intense. Deep in the back of her mind she knew she shouldn't be allowing this to happen, but she needed this. She needed to feel the touch of a man again, to feel the buildup of desire, and to feel its ultimate completion. It had been so long. When their lips parted, she followed her instincts. Starting just below his ear, she placed tender wet kisses down his neck, allowing her tongue to flick out and tease at the soft, warm skin. His arousal pressed against her thigh, and she shifted slightly putting more pressure against the sensitive area.
Ezra groaned loudly when he felt her shift against him. With a force of will that he was surprised he had, he pulled back and searched her eyes for any hint of regret for their actions. "Mary... we should stop this now, or I fear I won't be able to stop later should you wish it."
She looked at him through eyes clouded with desire and leaned in to whisper into his ear as she wrapped her arms tighter around him. "Please, don't stop."
Her breath caressed his ear as she spoke, sending a surge of heat straight to his groin. He couldn't stop the moan that escaped when he felt her tease his ear with the tip of her tongue. In one fluid motion he rolled over onto his back, carrying her with him against his chest. She let her legs slip open to straddle his hips, while the weight of her body pressed his against the thin pallet, and her mouth found the pulse in the hollow at the base of his throat. Ezra gasped at the sensations her soft lips and warm, wet tongue sent coursing through him. For the first time he allowed his hands to explore the woman he was holding, and he reveled in the feel of her supple body beneath the heavy fabric of the men's clothes she wore.
He was sure Mary must be able feel his heart pounding against her chest where they were pressed so firmly together. He resisted the urge to help when she slipped a hand up to unbutton the top few buttons of his shirt. The corners of her mouth curved into a smile that had him wondering just what she was thinking. Of course, he had noticed Mary before; he had even had a few sexual fantasies. But, he never really believed there would ever be a time when he would be lying with her, feeling her trailing kisses over his face and neck, and anticipating the moment he could take her.
Ezra slid his hands down her back and on farther to massage her bottom through the tight denim of her pants. She sighed against his chest as she continued her explorations, and the vibration left his skin tingling in the wake of her touch. He couldn't stand it; he had to touch her. His hands shook slightly as he tugged the tail of her shirt out of the back waistband of the jeans. It was barely free of its confines, when he slid his hands under it to feel soft, warm flesh against his hands as he rubbed lazy circles over her back. Her lips sought his and both mouths opened in mutual invitation; their tongues teased at each other until Ezra managed to capture hers and sucked it gently into his mouth.
Ezra could feel her heart racing at the touch of his hands against her bare skin. He forced himself to release her mouth, and he pushed her up into a sitting position. "Let me see you," he said, and he slid his hands up her thighs to wrap them around her hips.
Mary tugged the front of her shirt out of her jeans and started with the top button, taking her time as she slipped each one through the hole. Little by little, more of her pale flesh was exposed to the man who lay beneath her. When the last button was opened, the shirt gaped wide enough to give him a glimpse of the treasures that waited within. She started to reach up to slip the shirt open, but he stopped her with a hand over hers.
His smooth hands slid over her shoulders and pushed the fabric down to slide off of her arms and pool across his lap behind her. "Breathtaking, absolutely breathtaking." Ezra slid his hands up over her ribs and stopped short of his ultimate goal. Instead, he slipped warm fingers around her to pull her down over him, and he raised up slightly in order to reach her throat. The kisses were light and teasing as they worked their way down and paused at the curve of her neck and shoulder. She shivered under his touch, but it wasn't from the cold. His lips left a trail of heat in their wake, heat that burst into flames of desire when his mouth closed over her right nipple.
She cried out at the contact with this sensitive bud and arched her back to give him easier access. Her breath caught in her throat when she felt his fingers gently knead at the second soft mound, his thumb and forefinger teasing the nipple to a hardness equal to its twin. Ezra suckled tenderly at the taut nub. Her moans of pleasure and the weight of her pressing down against his groin had him rock hard and needing relief, but he forced himself to take it slowly. He was determined to make this a perfect memory for them both, and to be sure Mary had no reason to regret the gift she was giving him.
Reluctantly, he released her nipple, only to lavish the same attention on the second one, while his deft fingers worked at the belt at her waist. With little effort he had it unfastened and the buttons of the jeans open. He let his hands slip into the back of the tight pants to caress her cheeks while his mouth paid homage to her breast.
Mary lost herself in the sensations he created with his lips and hands. She needed him. She felt the loss of his lips at her breast. "Oh, Ezra!" Her eyes locked with his and they both knew that they couldn't wait much longer.
With one arm still around her, he sat up enough to try to shrug his free arm out of his shirt. Mary was quick to help him out of the one obstacle that kept them from feeling flesh on flesh. Her fingers shook as she tried to unbutton his pants, and he finally had to take over and open the last couple buttons himself. He sighed deeply as some of the pressure eased over his straining erection.
It was obvious to Ezra that there was no way he could get either of them out of their pants while they were in this position. Without words, he urged her to stand, and he shifted to his knees in front of her. The smooth, flat expanse of her belly was barely a few inches from his face, and it seemed to beg to be kissed. He nuzzled his face into the soft flesh, kissing and licking his way closer to her belly button. She shivered when she felt his tongue delve into the shallow cleft and laced her fingers through his hair. Ezra hooked his thumbs over the waistband of her jeans and slid them and her undergarments down together to pool around her feet. Before she could bend to pull them off, he reached down and lifted one foot, while she balanced herself against him to pull her foot free of the pants, and then he repeated his actions for the other foot. For the first time, he saw her as only one man had seen her before.
Even with the buttons of his pants open, the fabric pressed painfully against his swollen member. He eased the confining clothing down off his narrow hips, and with a little maneuvering he managed to slip them off without standing up. He glanced up to see Mary looking at him by the dim glow of the dying fire. The desire he saw in her eyes matched that in his own as he ran his hands up and down her shapely legs. With one hand he nudged her legs apart, and cupped his hand over the soft nest of blonde curls. A soft moan greeted him when he began to rub his hand over the fleshy mound and allowed his middle finger to slip inside the warm, moist folds.
Ezra found the small bud he sought and very gently brushed over it. He felt Mary buck against his hand at that light touch and twist her fingers through his hair. He tipped his head back and his eyes trailed up her body beyond the twin mounds of her breasts. He could see her head thrown back as she gasped and let herself go to the sensations he was creating. Again he rubbed over that sensitive nub and found himself supporting her as her legs threatened to buckle under her. With one arm wrapped around her hips to hold her up, he caressed her womanhood allowing his fingers to slip inside. Moisture flowed over him, releasing the unmistakable scent of her arousal. Ezra inhaled deeply and moaned as his erection twitched in response.
"Ezra... Ohhhh!" She managed a shaky whisper as his hand continued to caress and arouse her. Her whole body trembled from his intimate touch, and she cried out softly each time he stroked her.
He was rapidly being consumed by his own need for release, but still he held back. Slowly, he withdrew his hand, hearing her groan at the loss of contact. It was awkward but he managed to shift so he could kiss her inner thighs. He kissed, licked and nibbled his way higher until he could kiss the nest of soft curls between her thighs. With a little urging from him, she opened herself as far as she could and remain standing. Ezra couldn't get the angle he wanted, but he still managed to gently tease her with the tip of his tongue and reveled in the sounds of arousal she could not begin to control.
He needed more but he couldn't reach her like this. Reluctantly, he pulled away and moved so he could lie back, while urging her to her knees over him. She leaned forward enough that she could brace her hands against the stone wall. She hesitated only a moment until she apparently realized what he wanted and lowered herself until his mouth was on her again.
The sound of her calling out his name was nearly his undoing, but 'not yet... not yet,' he told himself. He wrapped one hand around her thigh to pull her down closer as he used the other hand to open her to his questing mouth. Ezra groaned in satisfaction when he finally closed his lips over that pulsing button, sucking gently and teasing it with light flicks of his tongue. Mary's hips bucked at the contact, and she writhed above him as his tongue delved deep to lap up the tangy juices that flowed freely from her. He could feel her trembling and hear her shuddering gasps as she responded; all reactions that fueled his own need.
At the first touch of his mouth on her nipple Mary groaned. She couldn't have stopped the sound if her life had depended on it. His tongue teased and aroused, but it was the gentle nip of his teeth that sent the fire racing down low into her belly. She could feel herself getting wetter as her arousal built more with each scrape of his teeth against her sensitive nipple.
Mary felt his hand slip over her mound and the intrusion into the folds of her womanhood. Her last bit of coherent thought was the memory that only one other had known her this intimately, but she couldn't bring herself to be ashamed of her reactions to this man. It had been so long, too long, and she needed desperately to feel desired again. She needed to let go and let herself be a woman. She gasped when she felt that first touch to her most sensitive spot and she lost herself in the exquisite sensations that flooded her body. Head thrown back, gasping through slightly parted lips, her eyelids closed slightly as she rode each wave of passion his fingers created.
Mary thought she would go mad with frustration when he pulled his hand away, but his lips felt so good on her flesh as he kissed his way upward. The light flick of the tip of his tongue against her rocked her with sensations more intense than even his expert fingers could, and she craved more.
A moment of shock held her back when he urged her down onto her knees over him. Her mind reeled from the onslaught of physical sensations, but it took only a moment for her to decide she would do anything he wanted as long as the growing ache of her own need was satisfied in the process. When he pulled her down farther, allowing his mouth to claim her fully, nothing short of being struck dead could have kept her quiet. This was new to her, but instead of feeling wanton, she soared to new heights as he loved her with his mouth.
Ezra ran his hands up her legs as she straddled him and slipped them around her to knead the soft flesh of her bottom. His own arousal had him dripping in anticipation of finally burying himself deep within her and feeling her warmth envelop him. The very thought had his manhood twitching with unfulfilled need. Under other circumstances, he would have enjoyed bringing her to her own climax with only the attention of his mouth, so he could drink the juices that flowed from her, but these weren't those circumstances. With great effort he pulled his mouth away, and spoke in a voice thick with desire. "Mary... I need you." When it seemed she was too lost to have heard him, he tried again in a more urgent tone. "Mary! I need you now!"
He saw her look down at him with passion-glazed eyes, and as he locked eyes with hers he gently pressed her to move back. She inched her way back to where she straddled his hips, never breaking eye contact, as she seemed to try to read in their depths what he wanted her to do. Ezra saw the conflict in her eyes. Uncertainty and inexperience warred with a physical passion so strong that she could never deny it. His hands shook as he reached up to caress her face and draw her down tight to his chest. An anguished moan escaped him when their mouths met, their tongues dancing together, as he still breathed in the scent of her.
Her voice was barely a whisper when she pulled away from the kiss. "Ezra... please... please," she begged. Ezra's heart swelled as he held her to him. This was Mary, and she was giving herself to him.
In a quick move, he turned them over with him on top as his mouth claimed hers again before following up with light kisses to her face and neck. There was no need to nudge her legs apart since she had already been straddling his hips when he turned them. Ezra noticed Mary watching him as he positioned himself to enter her. He didn't know if he could stop now if she asked him to, but he had to give her one last chance to change her mind. With one hand he tipped her head up so she was looking him in the eyes. "Are you sure?" he asked huskily.
He was surprised when Mary answered with action rather than words. She locked her legs around him and drew him swiftly into her, wringing a guttural groan from him at the sudden sensation of being buried inside her. She was so ready for him, and that combined with his own juices that glistened on the head of his engorged shaft, let him slip in easily. Her sigh of pleasure was all the encouragement he needed.
Sounds of their lovemaking echoed back off the stone walls of the cave. Hearing their own passions reflected back to them was a bit strange at first, but soon the echo only served to fuel their loving. She met him halfway on every thrust, drawing him deeply inside. He struggled to hold out, to wait for her, as the very movements that drew him into her threatened to take him over the edge. Each time she met him as he entered her, she tightened around him, applying a pressure that was both torture and ecstasy at the same time.
Ezra watched her as their bodies took over the rhythm, a rhythm as old as mankind itself. She was beautiful. The sight of her as she gave herself to the passion would be burned into his mind for an eternity. Pale, smooth skin glistened with a light sheen of sweat as they moved ever closer to completion. Her full breasts bobbed slightly each time she rocked her body up to meet him, and her breath caught in short, ragged gasps. But as enticing as that all was, once he settled his gaze on her face, that was all he could see. She arched her back and her head lolled back as she got closer. Even in the dim light of the fire he could see the flush to her checks, and the pink tip of her tongue as it flicked out to moisten dry lips. He moaned as he watched the tip of that tongue trail sensuously from one side of her mouth to the other. The things he could imagine her doing with that tongue sent a shiver through him that only added to the heat that raced through his groin. She was so close her eyes were rolled back beneath half-closed lids that quivered slightly as he felt her begin to shake uncontrollably just before she cried out. His own cry joined hers when she clenched tightly around him sending him over the edge along with her at the moment of her release. He thrust a few more times riding out the waves of his orgasm and easing them both back to earth.
Their mingled cries still echoed through the cave when Ezra slumped over her, and it took every last shred of his strength to keep from collapsing on her. He tried to withdraw so he could move to her side, but she locked her legs even more firmly around his narrow hips. "Mary, I don't want to crush you." His voice trembled as he spoke.
"You won't," she whispered.
"I don't think I can support myself much..." His words were cut off as Mary wrapped her arms around him and pulled him down until he rested fully on top of her. "Mary, I am too h..." Her lips closing on his finally stopping his protests, and she held him tightly.
"No you are not," she told him when the kiss ended. "Ezra, I just want... I don't want to lose this so fast."
Ezra kissed her lightly before responding. "Neither do I." He stayed there, softening within her, for the few minutes it took her to drift into sleep. When her hold on him eased, he gently turned them both so she lay stretched out on top of him. He managed to spread the top blankets over them without waking her up and then drifted off to sleep with a contented smile on his lips.
The first things Ezra noticed when he woke up were the feel of skin on skin, and the warmth of the soft body curled up in his arms. He smiled as the memories came flooding back, and he drew her closer in the darkness. What he wouldn't give to be able to see her now as he had seen her only hours ago. She had been so beautiful in the flickering firelight as she lost herself in their lovemaking.
'Stop it!' he gave himself a mental shake. 'You'll get nowhere thinking those thoughts.' He tensed slightly as he felt Mary shift against him, but she didn't wake up. 'Ezra, what have you done to yourself? This shouldn’t have happened.' He turned his head to rest his cheek against the top of her head. 'Shouldn't have happened... but it did.'
Thoughts and questions tumbled around in his mind faster than he could find answers. He had no regrets, but would she? What if Chris found out? He had been trusted to keep her safe, not to take advantage of her during a moment of vulnerability. But, whose vulnerability, his or hers? Both... they had both needed this comfort they found in each other. What now? What is she going to expect when she wakes up?
Mary shifted slightly and noticed a dull ache in her thighs. She was puzzled at first and then the feel of the warm bare skin of the body lying with her brought it all back in vivid detail. She could feel the heat of the blush that she knew colored her cheeks and was grateful for the darkness so he couldn't see her embarrassment.
Questions slipped over each other in a constant turmoil, as she feigned sleep to buy some time to collect her thoughts. What have I done? How could I have let this happen? What if Chris finds out, or someone else in town? But, it was so good not to feel alone. A slight smile touched her lips as she remembered. He had been so good... so very good. But, what now? What is he going to expect when he wakes up?
Even though she didn't want to move, she couldn't lie there any longer. Her legs were trying to cramp, and if she didn't move, they surely would. She shifted again to where she could stretch out her legs, groaning softly as the overtaxed muscles hurt from the forced motion.
Ezra loosened his hold on her when he felt her move. This time there was no doubt that she was awake, and he couldn't put off facing whatever Mary had in store for him. He couldn't help but wonder what was on her mind at this moment; but then again, he might not want to know. "Mary?" He broke the silence between them. "Are you alright?"
"Yes," she said after a moment. "I'm fine," and then was silent again.
His heart sank at the silence. "I am sorry..." he started, but stopped when she started to speak.
"Ezra, we need to talk about this." Her mouth went suddenly dry.
"I agree. Ladies first." His voice faltered, betraying his nervousness.
Mary took a long, deep breath and faced him, even though they couldn't see anything in this total darkness. Her head still rested on his shoulder, and his arm still hugged her loosely to him. He wasn't sure what he had expected her to say, but it wasn't what he heard. "I don't know what you're thinking right now, but don't be sorry... I'm not." He relaxed when he heard her confession. "Ezra... about this... I don't know what you expect now, but I... I..."
"You don't love me," he finished for her.
"No, I don't. Not in that way."
"Nor do I, you." The last of the tension drained away with those words. "Mary, I didn't intend for things to get so far out of hand." His fingers drifted idly up her side and back down, but he stopped immediately when he realized what he was doing.
"Ezra," she turned her head to kiss him on the shoulder. "I have no regrets. What happened was just as much my doing as it was yours. We were two lonely people who reached out to each other and chased that loneliness away for a few hours."
"I do care for you, Mary. But, it just isn't there... that fire that burns deep inside when you are with the one you love."
"I have given you such a hard time from the day you came to town." She chuckled softly, and couldn't resist one last chance to touch him. She spread her hand out on his belly and slowly moved it upward to pass over his chest before coming to rest on his opposite shoulder, leaving her with her arm draped across him. "If anyone had told me that I would find myself here, like this, I would have called them a liar. It is strange how things turn out sometimes. Ezra, that fire... it isn't there for me either, but I am not sorry."
He tightened his arm around her again and kissed the top of her head where it still rested on his shoulder. "No regrets." It was a statement not a question, acknowledging that they understood each other. "When we get back to town... how...?"
"Just act like nothing happened, I guess," Mary answered.
"Don't you think that will be just a tad difficult under the circumstances?"
"I suppose it will be, but it would be natural for us to end up on more friendly terms after two weeks together." She laughed, "that or be ready to kill each other. It is possible for us to just be friends, you know."
"Indeed it is, and I consider it a privilege to be your friend." He planted one last kiss on her forehead as he moved to get up. "As much as I would like to stay right here, like this indefinitely, I think it would be wise to check and see if it is dark outside. I don't want to be too late getting started."
"Owww!" he hissed when he stubbed his bare toe on a rather large rock. He fumbled slightly when he tried to light the torch that he had made sure was nearby when they went to bed. "Watch your eyes," he warned. The light of the match flared up in the darkness, hurting their eyes as they tried to let them adjust. Then the torch sputtered and blazed into life.
When Ezra turned back to look for his clothes, Mary was watching him. "I hope that I meet with your approval," he teased.
She blushed and looked away self-consciously, carefully keeping the blankets pulled up to cover herself. He noticed a smile curl the corners of her mouth, just before she nodded in response.
"Well, I am relieved to know that." He found his clothes in a pile at the side of the pallet, but before he started to dress he dropped to his knees beside her and cupped her face between his hands. "Now, I want you to listen to me... you are a very beautiful woman... an absolutely amazing woman. Any man would be lucky to have you as his wife. I hope you find the right man, the man who can bring back the fire in you." One last time he pressed his lips to hers, sealing a bond between them. A bond of friendship between two people who understood each other like few others ever would.
Once again, Mary got restless and ended up pacing near the entrance to the cave. Ezra had gotten a late start. They both had been startled to see it was fully dark when they woke up, and they had no idea how long it had been that way. The night sounds were beginning to give way to those of early morning when she finally heard him coming back. "Thank heaven! It is starting to sound like it is almost dawn," she stammered and tried to cover up her rattled nerves by rubbing Chaucer's neck as they made their way back into the cave.
"You are quite correct in that assessment; however, we no longer have to fear the light of day." The firelight glinted off of his gold tooth when he broke into a huge grin.
Mary was momentarily stunned as she let the meaning of the words soak in. "YES!" she launched herself at Ezra and threw her arms around his neck. "We're going home?!"
"We are going home. How fast do you think we can break camp?"
"We'll still be waiting for the sun to come up when we're ready to go." Mary felt almost lightheaded from the news. But, she refused to give into that fuzzy feeling, because she was going home to her son.
While Ezra got both horses ready, she gathered their remaining supplies and rolled the bedrolls. She had just finished packing their saddlebags as he led the horses out for the last time. She looked around to make sure she had everything or that everything was where it should be. It hadn't occurred to her until now, but now she wondered how it was that there were torches here, and how Ezra knew there would be. That would be a good question for the long ride home.
About three hours after dawn, two black-clad figures rode into town, drawing the stares of all those they passed. Ezra felt the eyes on them and put on his best poker face. He had no doubt that there would be rumors. There always were in these small towns, and he hoped that Mary was up to handling them. A glance at her gave him his answer. She sat straight in her saddle, her expression giving nothing away, until...
"Billy!" Mary was running when her feet hit the ground as she raced to her son. She dropped to her knees in front of him and hugged him tightly to her chest. At last she let go and held him out at arm's length. "Are you okay?" Seeing no obvious injury, she hugged him tightly again, silent tears leaving their marks as they rolled down her cheeks.
A familiar voice broke the spell. "Might be a good idea to move out of the middle of the street," he teased. Chris Larabee held out a hand to help her to her feet. "Billy, why don't you take your mother home. Mary, I'll be there to fill you in on things shortly."
The gunslinger watched the boy lead his mother home, before he turned to where Ezra had stopped nearby. He took the reins of Mary's horse to lead it on to the stable, but paused to look back up at the gambler. "Ezra... Thank you."
If Chris had been looking closely enough, he would have seen the hint of a smile that touched the corners of Ezra's mouth. "It was my pleasure, Mr. Larabee."
|Second Chances Index||On to: By The Light Of Day|
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