Vin Tanner left the foothills and reined Peso toward town, a small smile on his tanned face. He had just spent the better part of the day visiting with Lucy Garth. Because of the long trip, Vin usually ended up sleeping in the barn or on the floor in front of her fireplace, but he'd discovered a short cut which cut nearly two hours off the long ride. Now he'd be able to make more day visits when time and responsibilities allowed.
It had been several weeks since he had made the ride out to her place and as always, the time they spent together had passed too quickly. Still, he savored each moment and held it close to his heart as he headed back to Four Corners and the duties which awaited him there.
Peso's easy gait lulled him, and he relaxed, letting the animal choose his own way. The wily gelding, knowing he was homeward bound, was anxious to run and Vin had to rein him down to a ground eating lope.
If he timed it just right, he could catch up with Ezra who would be making the afternoon rounds, and ride the rest of the way in with him.
The tracker's azure eyed gaze swept the surrounding country side. He never tired of the beauty of Nature and saw something new each time he looked. Such untamed beauty fueled the poet in him, and he began preparing a verse in his mind. Perhaps Mrs. Travis would want to use it in the Clarion….
The thoughts of beauty and wild splendor faded as he spied a half dozen vultures circling. He reined back, slowing Peso. The carrion birds were always a sure sign of trouble. Their presence indicated something was dead or dying, and he heeled the gelding in their direction.
The birds wheeled above him as he approached the dark mound lying on the sun baked ground. A fleeting pang of sorrow raced thought him. The horse's left fore leg was shattered, the white of the bone visible through the torn skin.
He stopped Peso, sighing. Some poor wild pony he figured. Then as he urged Peso on around the animal, his eyes widened. A crude rawhide leather bridle encircled the animal's head and as Peso danced under him, he saw the pool of blood. Someone had cut the Indian pony's throat, rather than let it suffer.
Vin gave a slight nod to himself. Someone had cared enough to put the horse out of its misery and he knew first hand, it was not an easy thing to do.
He glanced at the ground, quickly spotting the moccasin tracks. The rider had dispatched the animal and then ran….
He frowned, looking around. No one ran in this heat…Not without a damn good reason! Urging Peso along the person's line of travel, his frown deepened as he saw the tracks crossed by the shod prints of three horses.
Standing in his stirrups, he stretched to search the distance in the direction of a small corpse of stunted trees next to a watering hole a few miles off. Touching heels to Peso, he headed that direction, loosening his mare's leg as he did.
Tanner approached cautiously, Peso's actions telling him at least one of the horses who's prints he'd been following was still nearby. Drawing closer to the trees, he saw all three horses standing near the water, their saddles empty.
Assuming the relaxed posture of a passing traveler, he rode closer, reining Peso to a halt a short distance from the ground hitched horses. Hearing laughter and insulting comments, he raked his gaze over the three men in dusty trail garb.
They formed a semi circle around the rider of the Indian pony who was pressed up against a huge boulder using the stone to keep them from coming at his back. Tanner's gaze widened, anger surging through him at the sight of the long hair and obvious feminine shape.
One of the three saw him, and stormed in his direction. "Hey, you… get the hell outta here!" he yelled. "Ya got no business here, so hit the trail if ya wanna keep breathin'."
"Need ta water my horse," Feigning indifference, he motioned toward the stagnant pond.
"Ya can just wait 'till we get done here," the man growled, sizing him up.
Vin jerked his chin in the direction of the Indian girl the other two still had cornered. "What's she done?"
"Ain't nothin' ta ya!" the man growled. Spitting into the dirt he suddenly grinned when Vin made no move to interfere. "Ya wanna hang 'round though, ya can have yer way with what's left of the half breed whore after Tate there gets done with her!"
Vin's eyes narrowed slightly and he focused back on the girl. She had a large bone handled knife in her hand and she was keeping the two at bay, but a long ragged wound down her arm was dripping blood, forming a puddle at her feet and she looked like she was ready to drop.
The tracker sighed, and looked off in the distance. With a sad shake of his head, he drew the mare's leg and aimed it at the fellow. "Tell yer friends to back off."
The man snorted. "Ya want first chance at her, ya take it up with Tate and tell him yer own self!" he snarled.
Motioning the man back towards his friends, Tanner aimed at the one named Tate, a carefully placed bullet burrowing into the dirt at the man's feet, getting everyone's attention. He swung the sawed off rifle back to the first man as the man's hand dropped to his weapon. Keeping them covered, Vin focused on the leader, "Ya wanna live, I suggest ya mount up and ride outta here… now."
Tate laughed. "Hell, boy, it's three against one. What the hell kinda idiot are ya?"
Vin smiled coldly, cocking the gun and drawing a bead on the man. "The kind who'll make it two ta one when I down ya." he warned.
There was no give in the tracker's blue eyes. Nothing to hint that he would back off even an inch. There was no doubt he would pull the trigger without a seconds hesitation.
Tate licked at suddenly dry lips and swore. "Damn, fuckin' breed squaw ain't worth it!" Raising his hands well away from his guns, he moved to his horse and mounted up, his friends following his lead. In the saddle, he reined back to stare at Tanner. "I'll remember ya, ya mettlin' sonuvabitch…" he warned, then cruelly spurred his horse and raced away, the other two following in his wake.
Making certain they continued to ride, waiting until they were well out of range, Vin uncocked the gun and slid it back in its leather. Swinging down from Peso, he dropped the reins and cautiously moved towards the girl not wanting to frighten her further.
She had leaned back against the boulder behind her and he could tell it was the only thing keeping her on her feet, but at his approach, she straightened, raising the knife in a trembling hand to ward him off.
Vin shook his head as he hunkered down several yards from her. "Don't need that. They're gone, My name's Vin," he offered softly, his sharp gaze raking over her, taking in the wounded arm and the bruising along her cheekbone. She looked young, her tangled long dark hair coming loose from the thick braid that hung down her back, her leather leggings and cotton top dirty, blood stained and torn.
He motioned the way he had ridden in. "That was a good thing ya done fer yer pony."
Her dark eyes shimmered brightly and a look of pain fleeted across her face. The hand holding the knife dropped slightly, her reaction letting him know she understood his tone if not his words.
Vin nodded. "They done that ta him, didn't they?"
She hesitated, then nodded once. At least she understood him.
"I'm sorry," he apologized for the men's actions. He knew a good pony was valuable to the natives. He had lived with them long enough to learn their ways and he softly added, "Yer pony died ta save ya… that's a good thing, too. Ya honored him fer his sacrifice and didn't let him suffer none."
The knife wavered, lowering another inch as she frowned, bewilderment on her face that this strange man with blue eyes understood her loss.
He seemed to read her mind. "I lived with The People fer a while when I was younger… Best time a my life," he honestly admitted. "I miss the Ways."
"You a white man now?"
He smiled slightly. She didn't realize what a complicated question she'd asked. Once a person had accepted the ways of The People, they were never really the same. Like the half breed the men claimed her to be, Tanner walked with one foot in each world.
Vin shrugged. "Some times."
She gave him a tiny smile before lowering the knife, seeing something in his face which drew out her trust. "You're not like them?" she motioned with her good arm after the three riders.
"I sure hope not," he admitted with a sigh. He pushed to his feet and saw the fear return to her dark eyes, her fingers tightening around the handle of the knife.
"Look, yer gonna bleed to death iffen ya don't do somethin' about yer arm." He turned and moved back to Peso, pulling the saddlebags free and snagging his canteen from around the saddle horn. Digging in one side of the bags, he withdrew the small bundle of medical supplies Nathan insisted they all carry on the trail.
Crossing back to where she stood, still braced against the boulder, he offered the supplies and his canteen. "Here…."
She took the proffered objects warily, her dark eyes never leaving his face. With a frown, she sidled down the boulder and sank down on a smaller rock, her gaze remaining on the sharpshooter, alert for any sign he intended to harm her. After taking several long swallows from the canteen, she one handedly tried to unwrap the bundle and dropped it to the ground.
"Here, let me help ya…" Vin stepped the short distance, and gathering the supplies, he turned to her. "Let me look at yer arm…."
Tanner waited patiently as the young woman decided on the best course of action. She remained alert and the Texan had no doubt she would defend herself if she felt threatened. She hesitated, then held it out, flinching, forcing herself to remain still when he touched her.
"Ya wanna tell me how this happened?" He made conversation as he gently cleaned the blood from the wound.
"When my pony went down…" she swallowed hard against the pain, and looked away. Vin gently cleansed the ragged wound and bandaged it. The girl didn't make a sound as her face washed out despite his soothing touch. He finally sat back on his heels.
"That's as good as I can do. Ya need a doctor ta look at that. Needs stitches."
She pushed to her feet and looked down at him. "Thank you…" Picking up her knife, she started walking away, her steps weaving slightly.
"Damn!" Vin swore under his breath as he quickly bundled the supplies and grabbed the canteen.
"Hey…" he called out to the girl. "Hey, yer in no shape ta…"
She had turned at his first hail and as he moved towards her, she swayed and dropped to her knees. He scrambled the short distance and caught her, keeping her from crumbling completely into the dirt as she stared at him with glassy pain glazed eyes.
Shaking his head, he picked her up and carried her back to Peso. She was as light as a feather, and he balanced her on the bow as he hastily lashed the saddlebags in place. Then climbing in the saddle, he settled her in front of him, and reined Peso for home.
He could see she was returned safely home after Nathan tended her wounds. In the meantime, maybe he could get a good meal into her as well.
Ezra half dozed in the saddle, Chaucer's gait like an old familiar rocking chair beneath him. In less than a half mile he'd have finished his rounds and would head back to town. His thoughts were on the card game sure to be awaiting him upon his return. The Friday night crowd was always flush and being the end of the month, ranch hands had been paid and would head to town looking for a good time. A man could never have enough money and the gambler was looking forward to adding to his weekly take.
Chaucer suddenly nickered loudly, then began snorting, prancing in irritation. Ezra straightened, palming his Derringer, unsure what had attracted the animal's attention. The tiny hidden gun would give him an advantage in confronting attackers and he could draw almost as fast with his left hand as his right.
Then, in the late afternoon shadows he saw the form of a dead animal. A horse or cow from the size and shape, he realized. Had a wild animal brought down the poor creature? Ignoring the carrions who feasted on the carcass, he reined the gelding back, checking the area but seeing nothing of interest, and no sign of danger hidden among the brush and boulders.
Replacing the derringer in its holder Ezra turned Chaucer back towards Four Corners reining the animal to a halt, his hand dropping to the weapon resting on his hip when he heard a far off shout. He turned in the saddle to look about.
There, off in the distance a short ways he saw a horseman, and immediately recognized the long haired man who sat in the saddle. Looping a leg around the saddle horn, he waited for the tracker to approach.
His green eyes widened as he saw the tracker wasn't alone. Hiding his worry, he flashed a dimpled grin as the sharpshooter reined up beside him.
"Huntin' again, Mister Tanner? You do manage to find the most interesting treasures in this wasteland but what will Miss Lucy say?" he teased, his astute gaze racing over the injured woman who rode in front of his friend.
Vin frowned, and heeled Peso into a slow walk away from the dead animal, nodding toward the carcass. "Some low lifes run her pony ta ground. She managed ta outrun 'em on foot for a couple a more miles...Was gonna…. " he grimaced, "ya know… 'till I convinced 'em otherwise."
Standish's eyes sparkled at the flush of embarrassment highlighting the tracker's cheeks, understanding all to well what the woman's attackers had in mind. He was aware how persuasive the tracker could be, especially when he was staring down the sights of his mare's leg. And especially so when a lady's honor was to be defended. He motioned to the bandages. "She hurt badly?"
"Needs stitchin'. Nathan's better at that than me."
The young woman in question stirred and opened her eyes. Seeing Ezra, the dark orbs widened, seeming to fill her tiny face when she pressed against Vin, as if to escape this new stranger, her hand immediately seeking the knife in its sheath.
Ezra saw the look and his own eyes widened, then softened, trying to allay the fear his presence evoked on the girl's face. "Please, Mister Tanner, inform the young lady I mean her no more harm than you do, sir."
She straightened slightly, and looked up at Vin who smiled, "This is my friend Ezra.. .He ain't gonna hurt ya none."
"He speaks …funny," she whispered, and Vin hid his smile at the look of consternation on Standish's face.
"That he does. But he's a good enough fella…" he reassured her as she straightened to stare Ezra in the face.
Under her fierce scrutiny Ezra blinked, and his heart lurched at the intense perusal she was giving him. He had never seen such dark eyes before and the wind blown tangle of her long hair gave her the singular appearance of some wild untamed creature. The dark gaze finally softened and she gave a tiny nod as if to herself and Ezra felt a sense of relief flood over him, although he wasn't sure exactly why.
He found his voice. "I-I-I.." he actually stuttered, "I-I ….perhaps, we should ride to Miss Garth's farmstead. While it is a further distance than town, it would in most likely be safer for the young lady. Even if her attackers aren't waiting along the trail in ambush or passing time in our small village, feelings at the moment are running a bit heated."
Tanner understood perfectly what Ezra was saying. The army had hunted down a small band of renegades accused of burning several homesteads and while it was nowhere near Four Corners, the news had caused a ripple of fear throughout the territory.
"Your new friend could rest there under your and Miss Lucy's protection until Nathan arrives …" he trailed off lamely.
Vin reined up, looking at the sky. It was true Four Corners was closer, but following his newly discovered trail, they could reach Lucy's homestead by nightfall
"Ya wanna ride on to town and fetch Nate fer me?" Vin questioned.
Ezra hid his frown and nodded. "We shall be at Miss Lucy's shortly after first light." He touched his hat. "Rest easy, Miss…"
She stared at him somberly.
"Kne'ka.." The young stated softly, realizing what the fancy talking man was waiting for. "My name is Kne'ka."
Vin stifled a grin as Ezra smiled, repeating and corrupting the Indian name with his southerner drawl. "Nica… That's a beautiful name."
"Watch your back." With a polite tip of his hat, wondering why he suddenly felt bereft as though he were leaving something very special and beyond compare behind, Standish touched his heels to Chaucer, riding towards Four Corners......
Keeping the horse at a slow steady pace, alert for trouble and wanting to make the ride as comfortable as possible for his injured companion, it was well after dark when Vin approached Lucy's cabin. Singing out, he saw her open the door, holding a lantern high with one hand, her Greener in the other.
"Vin?" Worry filled her voice, fearing the reason for his return.
"Yeah, it's me, Luc."
"Vin?! Is something wrong?" She blurted, setting the weapon aside and rushing onto the porch at his answering call.
He slipped to the ground, and holding the young woman in his arms, he hurried to the cabin. "This little lady ran inta trouble on the way to town. Figured it was closer bringin' her here…." His expression clearly said he'd explain the lie later. He didn't want to frighten her daughter if Mattie was within hearing. "Ez went ta town to get Nate, but won't be here till mornin'…"
"Bring her in and put her in my bed…" Lucy lit the way and grabbing the gun, followed Vin inside, closing the door behind them.
The semi-conscious woman half clung to Vin as the sharpshooter lowered her to Lucy's bed, whimpering softly in protest when he started to step away. Whispering reassuringly, he moved from the bedside giving Lucy an apologetic look as replacing the weapon, she hurried about gathering things they might need to tend the woman's injuries.
"What happened to her, Vin?" She questioned softly, gently wiping the woman's face with a damp cloth as he put water on to heat.
"White men chased her, killed her pony. They's ready to hurt her when I rode up…" he trailed off. "Ez reckoned it might be best ta bring her here 'stead a town, way some folks are feelin' lately."
Lucy was well aware of how some white men saw and treated Indian women. She could easily guess at Vin's response to the men. She shook her head. "Poor girl. Good thing you came along."
"Reckon so," he admitted, moving across the room to pour himself a cup of coffee. She shook her head as he raised the pot in silent question. He looked around. "Mattie asleep?"
She nodded. "Yes. I'm afraid you wore her out with all that playing today. She was exhausted…." Lucy smiled. "She loves when you come here."
He gave her a lop sided grin. "Me, too.... As much as I love her, I don't come just ta play hide and seek...Come here cause her mama's got a beautiful smile that brightens up my day." Gulping the coffee, he gave her a wink and slipped outside to unsaddle Peso and turn him into the corral.
Lucy stood eyeing the young Indian woman and sighed. She was glad to have Vin back under her roof for even a few hours. She just wished it wasn't at someone else's expense.
It was going to be a long night.
It was long after daybreak when Vin heard the approaching horses and looking out saw Ezra and Nathan. Wishing he'd been able to convince the young woman to go sleep with her daughter or at least use his bedroll, Tanner lightly shook Lucy's shoulder, "They're here," he explained and moved outside to tend their weary horses.
Lucy stirred from the hard chair and stretched before moving to put on a fresh pot of coffee. She straightened her hair and brushed the wrinkles from her clothes, looking up with a smile as the two men entered. "Morning, Ezra, Nathan…"
"Mornin' Miss Lucy." Nathan moved to the bed, focusing on his patient. "How'd she do last night?"
"She slept, but it was fitful. She was murmuring all night, tossing. She has a fever. We managed to get some tea in her though… Don't think she's had much to eat in a while…."
Thankful Mattie hadn't risen yet, Lucy poured the water she'd kept heated into a large bowl, setting it on the table beside the bed and busied herself preparing breakfast.
Forgoing his usual politeness, Ezra absently took the offered cup of coffee without thanking her, his eyes glued to the unconscious young woman being examined by Nathan.
With a nod of thanks, Nathan took a large swallow of the hot brew before setting his cup beside the bowl and digging in his medical bag, withdrawing the needed items, hoping to complete his task before the woman awakened.
The gambler cringed when the girl groaned as the needle pierced her skin, something telling him she wouldn't have made a sound if she'd been fully conscious and in control. "Can't ya give her something for the pain, Mister Jackson?"
"Vin said she took a fall when her horse went down. Her eyes look okay, but I don't wanna take a chance on her havin' any kind a head injury." The would be doctor explained, concentrating on his work.
Ezra, watching the healer with wide eyes, whispered, "Lord, Mister Jackson, can't you tell you are hurting her?"
Nathan tossed him a cross look. "Ya wanna do this stitch'in, Ezra? If ya ain't got the stomach for it then shut up and get outta here," he ordered bluntly.
Ezra clamped his mouth shut, biting down on his lip as the healer continued.
The young woman's head thrashed on the pillow as quiet whimpers escaped her lips.
The southerner finally moved, not for the door, but to the other side of the bed. His complexion washed out, he knelt and grasped the young woman's hand tenderly in his. "It's okay," he whispered soothingly, "Mister Jackson's a healer…a shaman... He's going to help ya.. .It's okay…." He repeated and to Nathan's surprise, the young woman's movements ceased.
Vin entered, surprised to discover the gambler, rather than Lucy offering comfort to Nathan's patient. Pouring himself a cup of coffee, Tanner gave a slight questioning nod toward the cardsharp, receiving a shrug in return. Lucy was as puzzled by Ezra's reaction as the tracker.
Thinking about it, Vin could understand Ezra's reaction. For all his blustering and hard ass act, Ezra had a soft heart. Tanner didn't think he'd ever forget the look of sorrow on the gambler's face as he knelt in the dirt beside the murdered young woman he didn't even know. The tracker knew watching Nathan use his medical skills on their friends was hard enough, but it was pure hell when the patient was a child or a woman
The woman remained quiet and Nathan quickly finished, finally tying off the thread and cutting it. Dousing the jagged wound with a powder of crushed herbs, he bandaged it and set back, rubbing a kink from his lower back. "That's as good as I can do. 'Fraid I can't do nothin' ta prevent her havin' a scar." he admitted guiltily.
"Better a scar than losin' her arm. 'Sides, The People consider scars as trophies…." Vin pointed out. "Sorta like a badge of honor provin' their bravery."
'Then you, my love, must be one of the bravest men on earth,' Lucy thought, thinking of the various scars the sharpshooter sported on his lean muscled body.
"Is she going to be all right, Mister Jackson?" Ezra interrupted, a strange expression on his face as he continued to stare at the young woman.
"She fights off the fever and don't get infection, she should be fine." Nathan suddenly started, realizing who he was talking to, and his eyes flared wide in surprise. He exchanged looks with Vin, but as Lucy had earlier, the tracker simply shrugged. "She shouldn't be moved… Miss Lucy, hope ya don't mind a house guest... least for a few days."
Lucy shook her head. "It'll be no problem."
"Well, I'll leave these medicines with you. I need to be getting' back to town. Missus Bellows is due any day and I promised I'd be there if possible." He quickly packed his things and moved for the door. "She gets infection, you send for me, ya hear? I'll be back in a couple days."
Lucy nodded and grabbing his hat, Vin moved for the door. "Guess we'd best be headed back 'fore Chris comes gunnin' fer us."
"I'll pack ya up some breakfast," the rancher volunteered
Tanner paused in the doorway, "Ya comin', Ezra?"
The southerner had pushed to his feet but still stood beside the bed. "I-I… Chaucer needs to rest…"
"Reckon Luc'll trust ya with her saddle mare," Vin pointed out, and Lucy nodded.
They watched bewildered as the smooth talking southerner suddenly seemed to find himself at a loss of words.
The gambler searched for a reasonable excuse to remain at the Garth homestead. He considered and discarded the idea of suggesting the women might need protection from the men responsible for Nica's injuries. It was highly unlikely, if they were still searching for her, they would find her here and the mere suggestion of that thought would only cause Tanner unnecessary worry.
"I-I-I-…. Someone should be here if Nathan is needed again," he finished lamely, ashamed he couldn't seem to think of a more reasonable explanation for remaining behind.
"Might be a good idea at that." The sharpshooter nodded. He'd stay himself, but the railroad payroll was due and Chris would want the sharpshooter in his usual place on the roof during the transfer to the bank. And he knew it might ease the young woman's fears having someone she recognized there when she finally woke up.
"Hell, Ez, I'll tell Chris what's goin' on and let him know you'll be along directly…" He moved out the door, Lucy following, carrying the bacon and biscuits she'd quickly wrapped up for the men.
They paused on the porch, and Vin jerked his chin towards the interior. "What the hell's got inta ol' Ez?"
"I think ol' Ez is smitten…" She responded with a soft laugh.
"No!...Ezra?...Nah…" Vin denied. In all the time the seven men had been together in Four Corners, other than Janine, the little seamstress his mother had hired to teach him a lesson in keeping sharp, the Texan had only seen the southerner take to one woman and that had been the little Chinese girl. He frowned slightly, looking back around the door. There was a vague similarity between the two women….
"Stranger things have happened, Vin Tanner!" Lucy declared.
He bent to brush his lips against hers, "And I'm glad they did!" he admitted with a lopsided grin. Backing away, he snugged his hat into place on his long hair. "Ya keep Ez in line and I'll be back in a couple a days. Sooner if I can. If ya need Nathan, send Ezra…."
She nodded, reaching up to brush a strand of hair out of his eyes. "You be careful…"
He gave her a wink and vaulted the railing to go saddle Peso.
Lucy moved quietly about, finishing preparing breakfast. Dishing up a plate, she admonished Ezra to eat every bite and taking the milking bucket, she hurried to the barn, hoping to get that chore finished before Mattie awoke.
She hadn't been gone five minutes when, calling out for her mother, Mattie wandered into the living area, sleepily rubbing her eyes. Her curiosity over the woman lying in her mother's bed was rapidly pushed aside as she focused on the gambler.
"Ezra!" She squealed happily, wrapping her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly as he swung her up into his arms. "I'm so glad ya come visit me and Momma! Vin was here yesterday."
"I know, sweetie. He told me the two of you had a real good time." The gambler smiled, seating her at the small table and proceeding to prepare her a small helping of bacon and scrambled eggs from the skillet on the stove.
"Who's that?" The child's attention turned once more to the occupant of the bed.
"That's a young lady who had a small accident and your mother very kindly offered her hospitality while she recovers." Ezra kept his voice soft. "She isn't feeling very well so we need to be especially quiet so she can rest."
"Is she an Indian? I never seen a real Indian before." Mattie whispered, hopping down from the chair and stepping closer to the bed. "She's perty, ain't she? Not as perty as Mama, though."
"No one's as pretty as your mama," Ezra smiled, leading the child back to the table.
As he sipped at his coffee, his gaze constantly returned to the injured woman, absently listening to Mattie's quiet chatter.
Nica seemed to flutter in and out of consciousness, Lucy and Ezra urging her to drink some water or tea each time she stirred.
After breakfast, Ezra unhesitantly pitched in to help Lucy with her daily chores. Rolling up his sleeves, he worked filling the wood box and hauling in water as she began preparing a stew for dinner, saying the broth would help build Nica's strength.
While Mattie fed the chickens, he tended Chaucer and Lucy's saddle mare, feeding and grooming both animals before turning them into the corral.
Lucy had opened the window shutters and braced the door open, allowing the little breeze that stirred to cool the house as she worked around inside.
Hearing Mattie's soft murmurs and seeing her and the gambler make several trips past the door, the young woman gave a quick look at her patient before stepping outside to see what the two were up to, surprised to find them carrying buckets from the well to water the garden.
Finishing, Ezra returned to the front porch and accepted the coffee she offered, settling himself in a chair, one eye and ear cocked towards the injured woman within. He entertained Mattie with magic and card tricks, but every little bit, he rose to his feet, wandering inside to check on Nica before returning back to his post on the porch.
The three of them shared a quiet supper, and Ezra softly apologized for imposing, but Lucy waved aside his contrition, saying she always welcomed company and how much both Mattie and herself enjoyed seeing him.
The gambler ducked his head, embarrassed at her kind words giving Lucy the impression he hadn't been welcome in too many homes in the past.
As night fell, Lucy moved to tuck Mattie in bed, after the young girl hugged and kissed the gambler goodnight. Crossing to refill his coffee cup, he froze at the words coming through the slightly ajar bedroom door.
Mattie was saying her nightly prayers and a lump rose in his throat as he heard the softly uttered words, "… and God bless Vin, and God bless Unca Ezra…." He looked down at the coffee cup trembling in his hand, rapidly blinking away the moisture from his eyes. Half stumbling, he moved out onto the porch, letting the cool night breeze fan his cheeks, stunned to the very core someone thought he was worthy of being blessed….
He stood, looking out at the darkness and listening to the plaintive lonely call of some night bird in the distance, wondering what the child saw in him to evoke her heavenly plea on his behalf…. Obviously, the child was too young to realize what a black hearted bastard he really was. He snorted with self deprecation. At least his skills were still sharp enough to con a child.
The gambler didn't turn around at Lucy's soft summons. He stood, his head down, toying with his coffee cup as she came up beside him and leaned on the porch railing.
"Mattie's finally asleep. I'm afraid you and Vin are spoiling her rotten. I'll have a devil of a time with her when you leave," she admitted with a soft laugh.
He couldn't help himself, and the words tumbled out as if of their own volition. "Does – does she always pray for me?" He whispered.
Lucy nodded. "Of course she does, Ezra. Why do you even have to ask? She thinks the world of you."
"She shouldn't," he stated softly.
"She just shouldn't!" he repeated, a little harsher than he intended. "She doesn't know me…. What I am…."
"Don't sell my daughter short, Mister Standish. She knows exactly who and what you are….That's why she loves you."
Ezra shook his head. "She's just a child….."
"A very bright child as you, yourself, have pointed out. You not only helped save her life, but you've brought happiness into the drab world where she existed. " She hesitated, and then softly added, "And her mother would say the same thing."
Ezra brought his head up, his green eyed gaze locking on her face, looking for some sort of deception or lie, but saw only truth and honesty staring back at him.
"I hope someday someone can do the same for you, Ezra… " Turning back, Lucy moved inside, leaving the gambler alone on the porch with his thoughts.
Troubled that the young woman hadn't yet fully regained consciousness hoping it was caused by weariness as much as the injury, she checked Nica, releasing a worried sigh at the heat of fever in the flushed cheeks.
She knew it was to be expected, but it did not bode well. The young woman was restive, beginning to thrash about in delirium.
Filling a pan with cold water from the bucket, she wet a cloth and settled in the chair by the bed, constantly wiping the cool rag over the young woman's face and arms, hoping to lower or at least contain the rising fever.
At some point, Ezra returned inside and took the chair on the other side of the bed, quietly watching and frequently changing the warming water.
As night slowly drifted toward morning with no change, seeing the dark circles of exhaustion under Lucy's gray eyes, Ezra realized the young woman probably hadn't done more than doze in the last thirty-six hours. Taking the opportunity to check on Mattie, he removed the extra pillow from her bed and quietly spread his bedroll on the floor in front of the fireplace.
Taking the cloth from Lucy's hand, he gently pulled the young woman to her feet, steering her toward the fireplace. "You need rest, Miss Lucy," he murmured as she protested, "I'll tend her."
Lucy hesitated. "What if…?"
"I'll awaken you if need be," he assured her, with a small smile. "You can't help her if you make yourself sick and I would never forgive myself."
With a sigh and nod, Lucy laid down on the blankets. "Thanks, Ez…. Call me in an hour…." Her words trailed off, as she was sleep the minute her head hit the pillow.
Ezra pulled a blanket over her shoulders to ward off the chill on the floor then, filling his cup from the still hot coffee pot on the back of the stove, he moved to settled back down in the chair Lucy had vacated.
Taking a quick gulp, he set the cup aside and wringing out the cloth, tenderly continued to wipe Nica's fever flushed face.
His expression softened. With the dirt streaks and blood wiped away, he couldn't help but notice what a tiny elfin face she had. Staring at her, the thought crossed his mind she was actually one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen.
Despite what everyone thought, Standish had never been bothered by bigotry so it never crossed his mind she was not the same nationality as he. All he saw was a lovely woman who had been wounded by brutal men who had no regard what so ever for women… He knew those men should thank their lucky stars they had encountered Vin first. Ezra wouldn't have been so kind as to merely let them ride away.
Nica stirred, drawing his attention back to her. She murmured something unintelligible and her head thrashed on the pillow, her long dark hair working lose from the braid and fanning about her, stealing his breath at the singular wild appearance she presented.
He gently stroked the cloth across her forehead and realized she was trembling, the fever turning to chills.
Lucy awoke and blinked several times before realizing where she was. She pushed up on her elbows and looked around. Her searching gaze settled and widened at what she saw.
Ezra was asleep in her bed; his back braced against the headboard, Nica was resting easier than she had been earlier, her cheek laying against his chest, the quilt snugged about her shoulders.
Lucy shook her head, aware of the cause for the gambler's seemingly close contact with the young woman. She knew most of the townsfolk would have been appalled and thought the worst of the man's actions, but none of them, other than his six friends and their small circle of acquaintances, truly knew the gambler.
Lucy was aware the southerner put on a great show of being a selfish heartless bastard who cared for nothing and no one other than gambling and money. But she knew it was all a lie. She hadn't needed Tanner to tell her the con man simply presented to the world exactly what they expected to see, but she'd listened enthralled by the sharpshooter's husky voice as he talked about his friends.
A good judge of character she had known minutes after meeting him, the gambler held a heart as big as Vin's, but unlike the Texan, the southerner wouldn't admit it or more likely just didn't know it yet. No matter what he said, running himself down, and feeling unworthy, what she was now looking at totally and completely revealed it all to be a lie. This caring concerned man was the true Ezra…
Nica suddenly coughed, stirring in the gambler's arms, but didn't fully awaken. However, Ezra did and in the dim light of the kerosene lamp, its wick turned down low, Lucy watched the southerner gently ease her into a more comfortable position, whispering soft reassurances as he once again snugged the quilt about her shoulders.
Sensing comfort, Nica snuggled against his shoulder, and quieted as he continued to talk softly, stroking her hair back from her face, quietly lulling her back into a healing restful sleep., Resting a hand momentarily against her cheek, satisfied she was truly asleep, and the fever had passed, he leaned his head back and closed his own eyes.
Lucy quietly laid back down, feeling a pang of guilt she had spied on the selfless gambler's actions. Turning on her side, knowing Nica was in good hands; her expression was thoughtful as she finally drifted off to sleep herself.
The aroma of fresh coffee and fried bacon filled the air and with a contented sigh, Lucy snuggled deeper into the soft mattress. With a quick gasp, she sat up, blinking in confusion. She'd fallen asleep on Ezra's bedroll in front of the fireplace so what was she doing in Mattie's bed and where was her daughter?
Afraid Mattie might awaken Ezra and Nica, she slipped from the bed. Stopping in the doorway that separated the two room cabin, Lucy pressed her lips together suppressing the giggle that wanted to emerge at the sight before her.
One of her dish clothes tucked in his waist band, Ezra stood at her stove. The sleeves of his shirt were carefully rolled above his elbows and a dusting of flour seemed to coat everything from his arms and shirt front to the table top and floor.
With a studious expression, he was forming dough into biscuits, carefully placing them in the already heated Dutch oven sitting on the stove top.
He suddenly looked up, his expression a cross between guilt and embarrassment at finding her watching him. "Miss Lucy, I-I...I can explain." He stuttered his cheeks reddening as he looked at the small mess.
She slouched against the doorframe, biting her lip to keep from smiling. "Please do…"
"Miss Lucy, you've graciously offered your home and hospitality, not only to Miss Nica, but to myself as well. I realize you've hardly slept since our arrival and I regret my presence has caused extra work for you, so I thought to do my part and surprise you by fixing breakfast."
Pouring her a cup of coffee, he quickly brushed the spots of flour from the closest chair, holding it until she sat. "Fear not, I will clean this up directly. I'm usually not this messy, but I dropped the flour tin when Miss Mattie startled me. Contrary to what anyone may believe, I am a passable cook. One must be in this country and in my profession. Between you and me, there are times when… my presence in town was undesirable, so by necessity, I've spent nearly as much time on the trail as Mister Tanner. I make a passable biscuit and red eyed gravy…"
Lucy's eyes twinkled. "I never could -- make red eye, I mean. By all means, please continue… I will happily surrender my kitchen."
Realizing he must have moved her to the bedroom after Mattie awoke, she didn't ask how she'd wound up in her daughter's bed, appreciating the gesture. The young woman changed the subject, looking around. "Speaking of Mattie, where is my youngun'?"
"I do believe she is working up an appetite by helping with morning chores. We wanted to let you sleep."
"I appreciate it." Not wanting to belittle the thought or their efforts, she motioned with her cup towards the bed. "How is Nica doing?" She involuntarily called the young woman by Standish's corrupted version of her Indian name, making no mention of what she had seen in the night.
"Her fever broke and she suffered a small bout of chills, but she has slept soundly since. I believe the danger is passed. Of course, that is for Mister Jackson to say as he is the healer."
Lucy had moved to the bedside and lay her hand against the woman's forehead, aware the woman rolled her head away from the touch. She nodded in agreement. "The fever's gone. I imagine she'll be up and on her way in a day or two."
Ezra turned back, forming several more rounds from the dough, his voice thoughtful. "Unfortunately, she will be better off if her people aren't near Four Corners. The way Guy Royal has everyone riled up about that Indian attack west of here, some of the town folks would probably attempt to lynch her on the spot."
Lucy snorted. "Guy Royal don't got enough sense ta pour piss outta a boot iffen the directions were 'rite on the sole."
She'd heard enough about the man from Vin and Nettie to take an immediate dislike to the rancher and had had that opinion confirmed when Royal had approached her at the July Fourth celebration.
A deep blush reddened her cheeks as Ezra burst into laughter, thinking how much the comment sounded like Vin.
"I'd have to agree with your assessment of the man, Miss Lucy, but the sad fact is brains or no, folks do listen to him."
"Just makes your job harder….and Vin's." Lucy murmured.
Ezra greased the tops of the biscuits and placed the Dutch oven in the stove. Wiping the flour from his hands, he hesitated a long moment then turned to look at Lucy. "May I be presumptuous and ask you a personal question, Miss Lucy?"
Lucy set aside her coffee cup. "Of course you can, Ezra."
He toyed with the dish rag in his hands, carefully pulling at one frayed thread, before turning and concentrating on efficiently cleaning up the mess caused by the biscuit dough, effectively avoiding her eyes. "How did you…. When did you…." He swallowed then blurted, "How did you know … you and Mister Tanner, I mean…"
Lucy smiled, intuitively knowing what he was finding so hard to ask. "I guess we just knew… I can't explain it in so many words, Ezra. I don't know. It just happened...I can't speak for Vin but...I think I knew the first time I looked into those blue eyes a his....He was layin' in that bed there, so hurt and weak.... Tried to tell myself it was just cause he needed someone and I was alone... Course when he grinned at me, I was done for." She shrugged slightly. "Maybe it's what folks always call love at first sight."
"Then," he looked at her hopefully, "you believe in such a thing?"
"I believe in Vin Tanner, if that's what you mean," she admitted, after a moment of serious thought, then added, "I know this sounds silly, but it's almost like we were meant to be together, some how, some way."
"Destiny." The southerner commented. "Mister Sanchez says something like that about the seven of us... That we're seven men, but with only one destiny."
"I can't explain it, but I honestly believe there's a reason some folks meet. When I worked for that family in the city..." His confused look told her Ezra had no idea she'd lived anywhere other than this homestead. "I came back here after my ma died... Anyway, they had a book there about the ancient Greeks. They believed everyone was created with two heads, and four legs and arms. It said that they made one of the Gods angry and he split everybody into two people and so now a person spends all their lives lookin' for their other half... From the beginnin', I've always thought of Vin as my other half." She shook her head, laughing softly, "Just ignore me, Ezra. Guess maybe you were right and I haven't had enough sleep."
Giving another shake of her head, she snatched a slice of bacon from the platter on the table and moved into the small bedroom to change clothes and freshen up.
Lucy stopped in the doorway, giving the gambler an encouraging smile. "You've always trusted your head Ezra. It's time to trust your heart. If it's right, you'll know it."
Ezra's biscuits and gravy were done to perfection when Lucy re-emerged from the bedroom.
"I'm finished, Ezra," Mattie announced, staggering through the door, attempting not to spill the contents of the milk pail. Dressed in overalls, her feet bare, she dashed into her mother's arms as soon as Standish relieved her of the small bucket, giving her mother a good morning kiss. "Mornin', Momma! I done milked the cow and feeded the chickens and gathered the eggs so you don't have ta do nothin'." She turned to the gambler. "I put Chaucer in the corral, Ezra. I gived him a carrot and told him you'd come see him soon."
"Why thank you, Miss Mattie, that was very thoughtful."
"My goodness! You two have put in a full day's work while I was lazin' in bed." Lucy automatically tightened the ribbons Ezra had used to fix Mattie's hair in pigtails.
"Yer not lazy, just tired. Ain't that right Unca Ezra?" The child looked to him for confirmation, repeating what they had talked about earlier.
"Unca Ezra said ya been workin' real hard to make Nica get better just like ya did for Vin." The child glanced at the bed in the corner, keeping her voice low. "Is she gonna be okay now, Momma? Is she, Unca Ezra? Huh, is she?"
"I'm no doctor, but I would agree with your mother's assessment that she's going to be back on her feet in no time at all," Ezra assured the child.
"You think she will wake up today?" Mattie quizzed, stepping to the side of the bed and staring intently at the Indian.
"Perhaps. Now, come and have breakfast." Lucy motioned towards the food Ezra had dished up. "Ezra fixed the biscuits and wants us to try his southern gravy."
Mattie settled in her chair, her expression dubious. "Unca Ezra... can you cook?"
He settled in the chair beside her. "Yes, little darlin', I can cook."
She looked at him skeptically. "Who taught you?"
"Why I learned from the finest chefs in all of Europe." He teased, ladling gravy over his biscuits before adding truthfully, "Actually, I taught myself," he responded.
Mattie dug into her serving and forked it into her mouth, prepared to make a face but her eyes widened in pleased surprised. "This is good!" she spoke around the mouthful.
"Mattie! Mind your manners!"
"Please, Miss Lucy, that's the nicest compliment I've ever received…"
The child's observation was echoed by her mother and mindful of the woman sleeping on the other side of the room, they ate in silence.
Commenting on the fine breakfast and agreeing to teach Ezra how to make the stew she'd prepared for dinner the previous night in exchange for his teaching her to make the gravy, Lucy cleared the table as Mattie hurried outside to play.
Lucy refilled Ezra's cup as he sat at the table.
"I'll fetch in more water as soon as I finish…" he trailed off and Lucy turned to look at him. He was staring at the bed and as she turned to look herself, she saw Nica's eyes were open, watching them intently.
"Well, good mornin'," she offered with a smile, wiping her hands on her dish cloth as she moved to the bedside. "It's good to see you awake. My name's Lucy. How are you feeling?"
Nica stared at her, then nodded silently.
"You up to a little breakfast? There's some of Ezra's biscuits left and I can heat some of the stew broth for you. Ezra makes a damn good gravy, but I don't think you should eat too much at first."
They waited silently as the young woman, her expression leery, her good hand resting near the sheathed knife they'd left on her belt, hoping it would make her feel better, studied them, deciding if they were to be trusted.
Nica finally nodded and while, Lucy fished two biscuits from the oven and placed them on a plate, putting some broth on to heat before crossing to hand them to the young woman, Ezra gently helped the injured woman sit up, placing pillows at her back.
"I've got tea Nathan left for you… it's medicinal… healing." Lucy turned to begin brewing the drink, only to discover Ezra was already measuring out the medicinal herbs.
Nica nibbled at the bread, her eyes watching the two move about the small space.
"Here," Lucy set the cup on the nightstand. "If it isn't sweet enough, I have a bit of honey…"
Nica took a swallow, then quickly finished the cup, struggling not to make a face at the bitter healing brew.
Her dark eyed gaze never wavered, watching as Ezra filled a glass of water from the bucket and uncertain which the woman would prefer, Lucy refilled the cup with coffee and dipped the broth into a bowl.
"You are..." The woman's brow furrowed as her mind searched for the name, replaying in her mind the events which had brought her here...wherever here was. "Ezra. You speak funny."
"So I've been told." The gambler grinned. "Ezra P. Standish at your service, ma'am."
"You belong to each other?" Seeing their confusion as Lucy set the tray with the cup and bowl across her lap, she looked from Lucy to the southerner and back again. "You are his woman?"
Lucy laughed at the red flush of stunned embarrassment which flooded Ezra's cheeks. "No, Ezra is just a very dear friend." The blush deepened, his eyes widening in surprise at her statement.
"Oh…." She continued nibbling on the biscuit as Ezra, still blushing furiously, grabbed the water bucket and hurried out the door. She watched him leave then turned to Lucy. "I have caused him embarrassment…"
"That's a first. Ol' Ez don't embarrass easily." The young rancher smiled, pouring the heated water into the dishpan. "It was a natural question. And I don't think it was just you who embarrassed him. He's still getting used to the idea of having friends."
Nica frowned. "Why do you call him old?"
Lucy shrugged, her own frown turning into a slight smile as she thought of the sharpshooter. "Vin calls him that and I just fell into the habit myself."
"The man who found you." Lucy clarified.
"The one with eyes the color of the summer sky."
"They are friends… Vin and ol' Ez." Nica nodded to herself, remembering the way her rescuer had introduced the man on the chestnut horse, assuring her he would cause her no harm.
Lucy nodded. "Friends. Probably more like brothers even if Ezra doesn't admit it...or realize it. They work together in Four Corners."
Reaching for the coffee, Nica settled back and fell silent, her expression thoughtful as she picked at the food, watching Lucy work about the kitchen.
Convincing her it would only be while she repaired and washed her dirty torn shirt and leggings, Nica had finally changed into the blouse and pair of old pants the rancher wore when working around the small homestead. She reluctantly accepted Lucy's help in washing up, letting the rancher brush and braid her hair before falling back to sleep after the small breakfast.
Lucy was stunned when she stepped from the bedroom, her arms full of bed linens to find Nica stubbornly making her way on shaky legs to the open door. The woman had been resting peacefully when Lucy entered the bedroom to gather the laundry.
"I don't think you should be out of bed just yet." Lucy protested.
Giving the young rancher a fierce look which plainly said she was her own person and would do as she wished and go where she wanted, Nica continued her slow shuffle across the room.
Rather than fight her on the matter, understanding the woman's need for fresh air, and the feel of the sun on her face, Lucy let her go, staying close if the young woman needed her.
Nica cleared the front door and dropped into the empty chair on the porch. She did not want to admit it, even to herself, but the activity had taken a lot out of her. She refused to show any weakness and instead, forced a tiny grin as Mattie ran up on the porch, carrying her half grown kitten.
Lucy, knowing her daughter would entertain the young woman and call her if needed, returned to the household chores.
"Hi I'm Mattie and this is Tracker. That's what Vin does." The little girl greeted their houseguest. "I'm so glad you're awake. Lucy's my momma. She said ya was gonna get all better. Do you feel better now?"
Nica nodded somberly admiring the tabby. Taking a deep breath, of the clear air, she surveyed the surrounding countryside, wondering how far she was from home. Her eyes stopped momentarily on the man crossing from the old barn to the corral.
Absently stroking the soft fur of the kitten now curled in her lap, the woman's attention returned to the small child as Mattie giggled when the cat began to purr contentedly. "She likes you, too!"
Nica frowned in consternation. "'Too'?"
Mattie leaned up on the chair arm, whispering as if what she was about to impart was a great secret. "Unca Ezra likes you."
The Indian girl's frown deepened as her dark eyed gaze darted in the direction of the corral where Ezra was watering the horses.
"How did ya hurt yerself?"
"My horse fell." Not wanting to subject the child to the horrors which she had faced before the arrival of Vin Tanner, Nica kept the answer simple.
"I never saw a real Indian afore. Can you shoot a bow and arrow?"
"What kinda necklace is that?" The child pointed to the small pouch hanging by a rawhide cord around Nica's neck.
The little girl frowned in contemplation. "Does it taste yucky like Nathan's tea? Nathan carries all his stuff in a bag, too, but it's lots bigger than that'un. Are ya a healer like him?"
"It is powerful spirit medicine." She smiled at the little girl. "Protects me."
"Vin and Unca Ezra will protect ya. Just like they do me and momma," the little girl stated confidently. "They're real brave."
Mattie, with childlike delight, took it upon herself to inform their guest of her family and friends. "Unca Ezra—he's not really my uncle, but Momma said I could call him that if I wanted to, so I do---he's a lawman. Vin is, too. They keep the bad people outta Four Corners. That's where they live with Chris, and Buck, and 'Siah, Nathan and JD. Missus Travis—she's sweet on Mister Chris—she lives there too with Billy. He's okay for a boy."
As she stopped to take a breath, Nica whispered, "Law man?"
"That means they watch over the town so the bad people can't hurt anybody." Mattie nodded vigorously. "Unca Ezra's a gambler, too. Lots of folks don't like him coz of that, but he knows magic and all kinds of card tricks. He met Momma when he brought me back home…" At Nica's puzzled look, she patiently added, "Some bad men tried to kill Vin, only me and Momma founded him down by the creek. He was hurt real bad. Momma helped him get all better, but the bad men came back and took him and me and was gonna take us to Texas. That's a long ways from here and I was scared I weren't never gonna see momma again. But Unca Ezra and Mister Chris and them found us first."
She lowered her voice. "Momma and Vin felled in love. I ain't 'posed to know that, but Miss Nettie—she's a neighbor lady—sorta... She lives a lot closer to Four Corners than us but, we stay at her house sometimes... she says you can tell it just by lookin' at 'em. Did you see it?" she questioned bluntly.
Nica shook her head.
Holding the glass of lemonade, she'd been about to deliver, Lucy hesitated on the other side of the open door, unabashedly eavesdropping as her daughter continued.
"Do Indian people get married like white people do?"
"Not the same, but we marry," the woman stated.
"JD and Casey are gonna get married someday and I hope momma and Vin get married, too, cause they love each other. Then Vin would be my papa for real 'steada just pretend. I wish Unca Ezra could find someone to love him like that, too. He's a nice man, 'though folks in town say he's no good coz he's a gambler and they say he cheats at cards, but that's only cause he's so good and wins a lot." She stood up in defense of her friend. The little girl released a soft sigh. "See, he's all by himself, 'cept for us 'cause his momma—her name's Maude and no one likes her much—she never has time for him 'ceptin' when she wants him to do something for her or when she needs money. So he's all alone by himself… " She sighed again. "Unca Ezra needs to fall in love so he can be happy like Momma and Vin."
Lucy's breath caught in her throat. Evidently Mattie was more observant and paid more attention to what was said around her than anyone thought, including the southerner.
"Do you think he might forget 'bout me and momma if he gets married and has a baby of his own?" the child questioned, the overwhelming fear of losing her friend shining in her eyes.
"He will not forget." Nica gave her a smile of reassurance. "Marriage makes a family stronger."
Mattie stopped prattling and stared up in the Indian girl's face. "You're perty. Are you married?"
Nica started, and then shook her head.
"Do you think Unca Ezra's handsome?" Mattie questioned innocently.
Lucy, still unobserved by the door, waited with bated breath, wanting to hear the young woman's answer.
Nica focused on the man struggling with the awkward water barrels by the corral fence. She shrugged slightly. "Beauty comes from –here..." she touched Mattie's chest above her heart.
"Unca Ezra's got a big heart! He just don't let most folks know it... Least that's what Miz Nettie says. But he does things without tellin' folks…. He taught Emma –she's a friend in town—to read, and he gave back all the money he won from Mister Watson, and ordered shingles for 'Siah's church roof, but that's a secret though 'cause we ain't 'sposed ta know…. And he helped Momma keep this place. Don't that make him nice inside?"
Lucy's breath caught. 'Oh yes! Mattie definitely heard much more than was intended for her ears.'
Nica nodded, conceding it might as her dark eyes again wandered to the man the child was describing.
"Mattie, could you please come and get some lemonade for Nica." Lucy called, moving back and setting the glass on the table, hoping to give the woman a momentary respite from her daughter's enthusiasm.
"Momma makes good lemonade." The little girl's voice dropped to a whisper again. "I'll try and talk her outta some raisin cookies, too. There Vin's favorite kind... Mine, too."
The young woman's gaze returned to the man caring for the horses. His white shirt hung on the fence post, the undershirt defining his muscled physique.
The child had described the two men as warriors, yet Nica remembered the green eyed man nursing her in the night. She remembered opening her eyes, watching for a brief moment as, tying the bows in the little girl's hair, he'd sent the child scurrying outside and returned to preparing the morning meal.
She frowned in puzzlement. Warriors didn't do squaw's work.
Yet, she'd felt safe, sleeping in his arms, somehow certain she could trust him to keep her from harm.
He must have felt her eyes on him for he suddenly paused and looked up, catching her gaze with his intense green one. Ol' Ezra smiled slightly and she gave him a short nod, watching as he returned to his chores.
Squealing when the kitten jumped from Nica's lap, Mattie, shoved the glass and small plate holding several cookies, into the young woman's hands and raced after the cat, leaving Nica alone on the porch with her thoughts.
Lucy moved about her daily chores, keeping one eye on the young woman seated on her porch and one on the southerner. Knowing Lucy planned to do laundry, the gambler had built her outside fire, filled the wash tub with water and strung her line for drying.
Lucy hadn't failed to notice that while Mattie spent the day visiting with her mother's patient, Ezra seemed to manage to keep the porch in sight, but avoided the house altogether, quietly slipping in and out for coffee during the few minutes Nica dozed.
Feeling safer than she had in weeks, Nica finally surrendered to her weariness and allowed herself to fall asleep in the afternoon warmth. The sun was balanced on the western horizon when she awoke to the sounds of muted conversation coming through the open door.
Slowly and stiffly pushing to her feet, she draped the light blanket someone had placed over her, around her shoulders and stepped silently into the doorway.
"Don't ya think she's perty, Unca Ezra?" The little girl was questioning the man as he filled her glass with lemonade.
"Just as lovely as you are, my dear." He rested a hand affectionately on Mattie's hair before taking his own seat, thanking Lucy for the plate she passed him.
"And she's real smart, too," the little girl gushed. "She told me how..."
The words trailed off as seeing the object of their discussion, Ezra leaped from the chair and hurried across the room. Not wanting to frighten her, he hesitated a moment before gently taking her good arm, escorting her to the empty chair at the table. "I'm sorry. I hope we didn't wake you unduly."
She shook her head, unsure of what his words meant, leery as he held out the chair, waiting patiently for her to sit down.
Lucy had already moved to the stove, dishing up her supper and filling a cup of coffee set the food before the young woman.
"Eat," she ordered, not unkindly. "You need to get your strength built back up. We probably should have woke ya up, but figured ya could use the sleep as well as the food."
Nica eyed the stew and slice of fresh bread, the aroma causing her mouth to water and the hunger pains to become more evident. Watching Mattie, she awkwardly picked up the spoon and began eating quickly, her eyes darting back and forth as if she expected Lucy to grab the plate from her.
Ezra's eyes widened at the woman's unmannerly display, and Mattie stared at her, Standish and Lucy both wondering when the young woman had last eaten a decent meal.
Seeing their looks, a slight flush heating her cheeks, Nica lowered the spoon and stared back, even as she continued to chew.
Mattie reached over, placing her thick slice of buttered bread beside the woman's plate. "You can have mine, too, if you want," she offered.
Lucy's heart swelled at the child's gracious gesture. She had worried living out on the small homestead and growing up away from civilization as Mattie had, the child would lack manners and common sense, but nothing was further from the truth. Her daughter was constantly bowling her over with her wisdom and insight.
Nica eyed the child, and with a grateful nod, carefully accepted the offered bread, rubbing her fingers over the creamy butter. She frowned looking at the child and Mattie nodded as she raised her fingers to her lips and tasted the topping. A look of surprise came to her face and she smiled. A beautiful wide smile which made her dark eyes dance with pleasure.
It was a smile which stole Ezra's breath away as he watched her experiencing joy at something he himself took for granted each and every morning. How many times had he unthinkingly smeared butter on his biscuits without a second thought? When was the last time he had actually thought about how much he enjoyed the taste?
Nica polished off the bread and looking at Mattie, asked, "More?"
But Ezra had already sliced off several pieces and slathered them in butter as he had often seen Vin do. He did, however; draw the line on licking the butter off the knife as the Texan was wont to do.
Lucy quietly watched the interactions of her companions and hid her own smile. She was flabbergasted and a bit intrigued by Ezra's seeming attraction to the young woman. Of course, why shouldn't he be attracted to her? Despite the dark bruise gracing her cheekbone, Nica was indeed a beautiful woman with a gentle manner as displayed in her interactions with Mattie that afternoon.
Perhaps, she reasoned, it was just the novelty of the young woman's back ground. Certainly, it could be no more than that…. Or could it?
The rancher knew Ezra was basically alone. Oh he had his six friends, and their inner circle of Mary, Billy, Nettie, Casey, she and Mattie, but when it came right down to it, fundamentally the gambler was alone. He was the odd man out, the only one of the six who really hadn't a true partner. Chris had Vin, JD had Buck, Josiah had Nathan…
With their similar interests they had been drawn into close friendships, but the gambler had no one.
Vin was his closest friend – his only true friend, she suspected – but even there, Ezra was second to Chris. Tanner went out of his way to make the gambler welcome and pull him into the group, defending the con man against doubts and accusations, but there was a connection between Vin and Larabee that often excluded everyone else...including Lucy herself.
She knew Vin was thrilled she had extended her love of him to include his friend, but Lucy also knew that wasn't enough. Ezra needed more…. He deserved more.
He deserved the same happiness the other men had found….with Mary, Casey, Rain and Molly.
Vin had told her he thought Ezra had found that special happiness when the southerner had fallen for the little dressmaker Janine. The Texan said he had never seen the gambler so happy and full of life…. But it had been short lived when it turned out it was simply some cruel senseless plot of Maude's to teach her son a lesson.
After that fiasco, Ezra had withdrawn, staying clear of women, other than those who were connected to his friends. Not that Lucy could blame him for in his own self protective way, he was merely keeping himself from having his fragile heart broken again.
Now seeing the look on the southerner's face, she had to smile. It was so plain a blind man could see it written all over the gambler. Ol' Ez was indeed smitten.
Lucy's own smile grew as she thought of Maude Standish. That witch would have a hissy fit when she found out her son was attracted to an Indian woman! She didn't think Nica's heritage would bother Ezra's mother as much as the fact the object of her son's affection didn't have a penny to her name.
Her smile widened even further. Maude be hanged! She had gone out of her way to destroy Ezra's happiness with Janine, but by damn, she'd not get the opportunity to destroy this new found happiness which was written so transparently across his handsome face. If the southerner wanted a chance to pursue this new found friendship, than no one was going to prevent it. Not the citizens of Four Corners. Not his friends and certainly not his mother.
If necessary, Lucy would see to that personally.
Expecting his friends, Ezra stepped from the barn the following morning at the sound of approaching horses. His expression hardened at the sight of three strange riders reining their mounts to a halt beside the corral.
A quick glance at the house revealed the open doorway empty and he was glad Lucy had convinced Nica to lay back down after breakfast. They knew mistrust and uncertainty had kept the girl from truly relaxing while she sat on the porch the previous day. The dark circles and slight flush to her cheeks were clear indications although she had done nothing of physical strain she hadn't really rested either.
He knew Lucy had sense enough to keep the girl hidden from prying eyes and could picture her standing on the other side of the door with her loaded Greener in hand.
He himself had left his weapons in the cabin with his saddlebags, seeing no need to wear them in Lucy or Mattie's home.
The con man fleetingly considered moving back inside the barn to retrieve his rifle from its saddle boot, but hesitated, wanted to keep the men in sight. And he didn't want to cause suspicion if they were merely passing through.
Rolling down his sleeves and buttoning the cuffs, the southerner, still clutching the hay fork, certain it be of little use against bullets, but might come in handy, moved towards the men. "May I help you gentlemen?"
The lead rider eyed him up and down, "Need ta water our horses."
Ezra hesitated, not liking the men's look, but he could think of no reason not to permit the animals' access. Water was often scarce in this part of the country and was rarely refused without good cause. He nodded shortly.
Walking the horses to the trough the southerner had just so recently filled, the men's roving gaze moved over the barn, corrals and other outbuildings before coming to rest on the cabin. "Nice place ya got here," one remarked.
"Thanks," Ezra retorted curtly.
As the weary gaunt horses drank their fill, the man who appeared to be the leader, hooked his leg around his saddle horn and rolled a smoke. "Ain't seen no strangers here 'bouts have ya?" he pried.
Ezra shook his head. "Can't say I have."
"Long haired fella and a gal…… Ya sure? We followed tracks this a'way." The man stared pointedly at the southerner. "Looked like he was bee lining right this a'way."
Ezra shrugged. "Fella stopped by, lookin' for a doctor yesterday, but rode on to Four Corners."
The man licked the paper, turning it over in his fingers to seal in the tobacco. He lazily struck a match and lit the cigarette, inhaling deeply before returning his attention to the gambler. "Seems he were closer to that town where he were… Backtracked ta come here 'stead." His eyes flickered dangerously.
Ezra knew he had to be careful of his words, and formed them with caution. "Same fella rode through here day before and the doctor was here checkin' on my wife. Reckon he figured he'd catch him if the doctor was still here with her. What'd he do?"
The man ignored his question to ask one of his own. "What's ailin' her?"
Ezra started. "Pardon?"
"What's ailin' your woman?"
Damn, he should have thought of something else, instead of dragging the women into it. "Awww, she's ---"
All three men as well as the southerner turned at the summons and Ezra's eyes nearly popped out of his head. There stood Lucy in the doorway, looking very ………pregnant?
"Honey, I need some water. Oh, hello, I didn't realize we had company," she called out.
"Just passin' through, ma'am."
Lucy nodded, one hand resting on her stomach, the other rubbing the small of her back. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but the water barrel is too low for me to use since Doctor Jackson said I wasn't to bend over and I need ta finish givin' our daughter her bath
At that moment, Mattie gave out a plaintive wail. "Mama!"
Steeling his expression and breathing a soft sigh at the tracker's ingenious woman, Ezra moved to the well and filled the bucket. The gambler stopped to look up at the lead rider. "Ya didn't say what that fella did. Should I be worried 'bout my family if he comes back this way?"
"He's got somethin' that belongs ta us and we want it back."
"Good luck. I'm sorry I couldn't be of more help. You will excuse me…"
The men, tipping their hats to Lucy, rode from the yard and Ezra carried the bucket to the porch, lowering it to the planks as he stared up at Lucy. Her eyes were sparkling and as the men vanished over the hill, she tugged the pillow from under her apron.
Nica was standing back in the shadows of the room, watching the interaction between the two with undisguised interest.
Unable to help himself, Ezra burst out laughing. "Miss Lucy, you are a gem!"
"I saw them ride up and heard them asking about Vin and Nica. Figured ya needed a good excuse for the doc ta be out this far." She laughed, tossing him the feather filled fabric. "Congratulations, Mister Standish, you're the proud papa of a bouncing baby... pillow."
"Whatcha gonna name it, Unca Ezra?" Mattie giggled, peeking from behind her mother's skirt.
The question brought a burst of laughter from both her mother and Nica as Lucy gathered the bucket and returned inside leaving the speechless gambler staring after her.
The hours seemed to both drag and fly by as Ezra found odds and ends of work to keep him busy or merely sat in the hayloft, thinking about the young woman resting on the porch of Lucy's homestead.
Abidingly honest with himself, he couldn't deny he was avoiding the small house. He was candid enough with himself to acknowledge he was avoiding Nica and attempting to deal, in his own fashion, with the sudden upheaval of emotions the young woman had churned up inside him.
The sun had finally started its western descent, the smell of the dinner Lucy was preparing wafting on the breeze as Ezra made his way from the barn. Having washed up, Ezra crossed the small porch, giving Nica a tiny nod and smile as he started through the door.
"Which way is Four Corners?" Nica's soft voice gave him pause.
He backed up several steps to look down at the young woman. "Excuse me?"
"You are from Four Corners. Which way?"
Ezra pointed in the general direction of the dusty little town.
"I must go," she uttered quietly.
Ezra felt as if someone had doused him with a bucket of ice cold well water. In his head he had known she would not be staying here… but he had not wanted to believe she would be taking her leave so soon. He cleared his throat, "You should perhaps wait until Nathan…the healer…can check your injuries…." Any excuse to keep her here... just one more day.
"I must go," she repeated firmly, her dark eyes flashing.
"Where will you go?"
"Chanu's people are near… I go there."
The gambler nodded. The chief of the small tribe was a good friend of Vin and Josiah's and although Nathan often visited the little village with them, Ezra had only been there once. Perhaps that omission on his part was about to change.
"Then," he questioned softly, "they are your tribe?…Your people?"
She didn't deem to answer, looking away with a small frown as if not understanding the question.
Wondering if she had fully thought out her departure, he quietly questioned, "How did you intend to get there?"
She gave him a look which plainly said the question was a complete waste of breath. "My legs were not injured."
"You intend to walk!" The gambler couldn't keep the astonishment out of his voice at the ludicrous notion. But he changed tactics when the girl stiffened in apparent anger. "It isn't safe for you to go," he began, stuttering to a stop when she turned to pin him with her large dark eyes.
"If I stay, it will not be safe for them."
Ezra knew she was referring to Lucy and Mattie. He waved a hand in the direction of Four Corners. "The town folk are upset because of an Indian attack west of here…."
"I had nothing to do with it!" she protested stubbornly.
"I'm certain of that." Ezra smiled at the determined set of her chin. Sobering, he leaned against the porch rail, searching for a way to change her mind. He wanted to convince her they would find a way to keep everyone safe, if only she would stay. But he sobered as he quietly added, "You are an Indian. Unfortunately, that is all most of the good citizens would see. They distrust and hate those they don't understand."
"Like you?" she questioned.
He stared at her, his green eyes wide. "Pardon?"
"You… are apart… alone….. Mat-ty said they distrust you."
It wasn't a question and it was his turn to look away. How many times had he felt the outsider, the outcast…? Not just here in Four Corners, but most everyplace he had ever been. He was aways the one distrusted…..
"If you are set on going, I'll see you safely to the village…" But even as he was making the offer, he couldn't help but wonder who would protect his heart from her? Of course, that was a moot question. It was hers to do with as she wished since she'd held it from the first moment he'd laid eyes on her. "I'm sure Lucy will loan you her mare and if not...then Chaucer is quite capable of carrying the two of us."
Chaucer was saddled, the reins tied to the porch rail. Mattie was inviting Nica to come visit a lot, offering her a kitten from the next litter if she wanted and Lucy was preparing a pack for the travelers when Vin Tanner rode into the yard, astride a spotted pony, a long legged foal running by her side. He was leading Peso.
At Ezra's look of surprise, he slid to the ground and thrust the reins into the gambler's hand with a wide smile, "Ya owe Yosemite fer her…."
The southerner blanched, nearly dropping the leathers. He had been thinking the previous evening about the pinto mare in the corral behind the stables and how she would perfect for the young lady. Was he that transparent or was the young Texan able to read more than just Chris Larabee's mind?
"She handles real well. Hadn't planned on ridin' her, but Peso picked up a stone 'bout a mile back." He glanced from Ezra's saddled mount to where Nica was quietly accepting Lucy and Mattie's goodbye hugs, and thanking them for their help. A frown crossed his handsome face."Ya goin' somewheres, Pard?"
"Miss Nica, has decided she wishes to go back to her people." Ezra stated. He didn't inform the sharpshooter of the previous day's unwanted visitors. He saw no reason to cause the tracker unwarranted worry and he knew Lucy would tell him after their departure. "I've agreed to escort her to Chanu's village."
Vin shook his head. "Don't know if that's such a good idea."
"Neither do I, my friend, but unfortunately it's not our decision to make." As Nica approached, Ezra, smiling like a little boy offering to share his candy, held out the mare's reins.
Hiding her surprise behind a stoic expression, Nica gave a silent nod of thanks to him and Vin. With the natural grace of someone who rode often and well, she sprang onto the mare's bare back, gathering the reins.
Ezra, lashing the pack behind the cantle, thanked Lucy and kissed Mattie goodbye before mounting up.
As he adjusted his reins, Vin walked out and laid a hand on his stirrup, giving him pause. "You be careful, Pard. Royal's got everybody spooked up and seein' danger where there ain't none. If ya could wait till tomorra, Peso'll be okay and I'll go with ya."
"Thank you for the kind offer, but I promised Miss Nica we'd leave today. We'll be fine, Mister Tanner. I intend to bypass the town, go down along the dry wash…. It's only a few miles further to the village."
Tanner nodded. He had been about to suggest that very route himself. He nodded to Nica, touching his hat brim, "Miss Kne'ka…" He turned back to Ezra, "Ya be careful…."
Ezra smiled as he urged Chaucer from the yard. "I always am, Mister Tanner." He waved an informal salute to Mattie and Lucy as he jogged from the yard, Nica's mare beside him, the foal running at Chaucer's heels.
Lucy tucked her arm about Vin's waist as they stood side by side watching the two ride away. "Will they be okay?"
Vin bent to kiss the top of her head. "Don't worry, Ol' Ez is gonna be just fine…"
He hoped he sounded more convincing then he felt. Concerned for their friends' physical welfare, he knew Lucy was also referring to the con man's emotional state.
It was plain to see the southerner had fallen for the Indian woman and fallen hard. Returning Nica to her people would most likely mean the gambler never see her again. Visiting the nomadic village wouldn't be the same for Ezra as Vin visiting Lucy.
Vin knew The People were strict with their women. Females did most of the work, raised the children and often fought beside the men to protect the tribe, some were even considered warriors, but they were also fiercely protected and watched over. As an outsider, and a white man, it was highly unlikely Ezra would never be allowed to court Nica.
As they rode along, Ezra attempted to make conversation, but it was difficult as Nica rode a distance from him, and seldom looked his way, lost in a world of her own thoughts. He frowned, tired of watching the leggy foal jump and dodge through the brush.
"Your family will be happy to see you," he remarked, as he reined Chaucer up beside the mare.
Nica shook her head but did not answer.
He frowned. "Why not?"
She gave a slight shrug. "My mother was not a favorite among our chief's many wives."
His frown deepened. "Why not?" he repeated, then realized how childish he sounded with the repetitive question.
"She was --- apart --- like you."
The gambler's emerald eyes widened, his heart skipping a beat. "How do you mean?"
"You are different than the others. Apart---alone… as she was."
He reined Chaucer to a halt, reaching for the mare's reins to draw her to a stop as well. "Then why are you going to the tribe? If they don't want you..?"
The words froze in his throat. How many times had he himself been left places he hadn't been wanted when his mother no longer desired him under foot?
She ducked her head, her loose hair hiding her face as she softly whispered the quiet admission, "I have no place else to go…"
How could she explain to this man with grass green eyes she had avoided looking at him or talking to him as they traveled, wanting desperately to prevent the pain she would feel when they reached the village.
If she did not study his handsome face, or listen to his soothing voice, the loss would not be so severe and he would never know he took her heart with him when he returned to his world.
Moving Chaucer closer, he reached out, touching her arm, finally, gently taking her chin and drawing her gaze to his own when she refused to look at him. He was shocked to see shame and fear in her enormous eyes. "Then come with me," he found himself saying. "I'll protect you…" His voice was earnest.
Her shoulders straightened as she moved away from his touch. "That would make me your squaw… In your bed…." Her voice was bitter as she added, "I will not sell myself or be sold to any man!"
He adamantly shook his head. As much as this woman stirred him, yes, he longed to find her in his bed. The thought of waking each morning with her in his arms, of seeing her when he returned from patrol, of knowing, or at least hoping, she returned his feelings, warmed his heart to its very center, but he would never ever force himself on any unwilling woman.
"I assure you, Miss Nica, I have never forced any woman to my bed, and I never would, even if she is the most beautiful and fascinating creature I've ever laid eyes on…"
She blinked in surprise as the meaning of his words sank in. "Lu-cy said there is much trouble in town over my kind…"
"Ignorant people have ignorant ways."
Nica didn't know what that meant, but staring into the gambler's beautiful eyes, she discovered all she needed to know. She saw the inherent goodness his friends had discovered. She saw the tenderness, the sincerity, the kind heart and the honor.
Were the townspeople so blind they couldn't see what was so plain even to a child as small as Mattie?
This man with eyes as green as new summer grass would protect her… And that part of her which had struggled so hard, so long, and so alone, was warmed. With a small smile and a nod, she reined her horse after his as he headed for town, placing her trust, her heart and her life in his hands.
Word spread like wildfire through dry brush as they enter the outskirts of town, a small group of men having gathered in the middle of the street, other citizens watching from the boardwalk.
It wasn't exactly a lynch mob--Larabee would never allow vigilante justice--but it was definitely a vocal throng which confronted the southerner and his companion as they rode up Main Street.
Smiling reassurances at Nica as she urged the mare closer to Chaucer, Ezra slowly urged the gelding forward, shouldering aside the men who attempted to block their passage.
One of the men grabbed his reins and pulled Chaucer to a halt, causing the gelding to bare his teeth and viciously snap at the man who quickly decided the wise thing to do was release his hold and get the hell out of reach.
"Damn gambler! We don't want her kind here!" Some one yelled out.
"Run 'em both outta town!" another added.
"Nothing but damn trash…" someone else called out.
Ezra ignored the deeply cutting remarks, and seeing the fearful look on Nica's face, he smiled slightly, "Ignorant people…" he murmured for her ears only.
She attempted to return his smile with a tremulous one of her own, even as she was reaching to clutch the medicine bag suspended about her neck. Seeing the look on Ol' Ez's face, she gave her total trust over to the man who promised he would protect her…. but a little help from her Gods wouldn't hurt.
"Take that damn heathen squaw back where ya found her!" someone yelled from the gathering crowd.
"Murderin' Injun!" another yelled. Nica kicked out, knocking the man into the dirt as he attempted to pull her from the horse.
Ezra spun Chaucer, putting the animal between the man and Nica's mare. He hadn't drawn his gun—these were his fellow townsmen – and he did not want violence…. But if it came right down to it, he palmed his derringer, just in case.
The catcalls and jeering trailed off to low mutters as several men walked down the street, pausing in front of Ezra.
"All of ya get on about your business!" Larabee's hazel eyes flashed fire as he shifted the rifle in his hand, glaring at the growing crowd. As the men backed away without dispersing completely, he turned to the con man. "Ezra, what the hell are you doing?" he demanded, his voice low but harsher than he intended.
When the shootist had seen the crowd gathering, he'd expected trouble, but hadn't expected one of his fellow peacekeepers to be the cause. Of course he should have known. Ezra always seemed to be at the center of conflicts.
"Who's the pretty lady, Ez?" Buck questioned, his dark eyes smiling as he looked at the young lady who half cowered behind Ezra, but still met his gaze steadily.
"Glad to see you aren't blinded by color, Mister Wilmington. Nica, this charming fellow is Buck Wilmington. You'll have an opportunity to meet the others later."
"Nice to meet ya, ma'am." Buck tipped his hat politely.
"As for your question, Mister Larabee, I am returning home with a friend. If you will excuse us…" Ezra touched his heels to Chaucer only to rein the horse to a halt once more when Larabee lay a hand on his leg.
"Don't do this, Ezra!" he hissed. "I understand your reasons, but this ain't the time. You're just invitin' trouble…"
The gambler flashed him a smile. "I am doing nothing of the sort, sir. I am simply returning home with Miss Nica. I do not believe there is a town ordinance prohibiting such action unless it was passed in my brief absence. If that is indeed the case, then I'm sorry to say I must tender my resignation."
"Damn southern jackass!" Larabee growled, stepping back. "Don't say I didn't warn you!"
"I shall consider myself duly warned, Mister Larabee. And I do thank you for your concern on her behalf." He knew Larabee truly was concerned for Nica's welfare, fearing for her safety if the mob got out of hand. At least, like his other friends, Chris wasn't a man who judged a person by the color of their skin.
Reining the gelding, he looked at Nica and smiled as he urged the horse towards the stable, the spotted mare and her rider following, the foal running to the side, nickering loudly.
Reaching the huge livery, Ezra swung down from the saddle and moving to the mare's side, reached up to lift Nica down from the animal's back. Settling her on her feet, he gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze as he turned to face the crowd which had followed them up the street.
Larabee, Buck, Josiah and JD trailed at the back of the throng, ready to jump to his assistance if he needed any help, Nathan hurrying from the clinic to join them.
One of the men, Haas, if Ezra remembered correctly, moved close and shoved the gambler back against his horse. Ezra felt the comfort of the derringer in his hand, but did not raise it.
"Her kind don't belong here!" He yelled in the gambler's face. "She ain't like us….. she's different… ain't nothing but a damn savage."
Ezra's expression grew thoughtful as he stared at the man, certain his friends would back his play. "Like us…. Do you mean like you?...American?" he pressed.
"You, sir, are no more American than Duff there. He's Irish, you're German… We're all different. This young lady is the only one here who can honestly lay claim to the fact her ancestors are truly American, having been born in this country. I'm sure the English feel the same towards Duff as you do about Miss Nica. Yet we let the two of you stay…"
"Ain't the same! Her people's killin' folks…"
"And yours have not? The Hessians fought the British at Valley Forge, sir! For shame! That's no reason!"
"She's a damn Indian and has no right amongst decent white folk!" The loud voice drew all attention to Guy Royal as that man pushed through the crowd. "Ought to run the both of you outta this town…"
Ezra's smile was cold, "You can try," he warned.
He didn't have to look to know the other regulators had stepped closer. Other than defending an innocent, if there was one sure way to get Larabee on a person's side it was to have Guy Royal as an opponent.
"Hell, ya think I'm worried, just cause ya got them six other body guardin' law men to protect your lazy ass…Havin' them lookin' after ya just means these folks are easy pickin's for your cheatin' and thievin'." he stated coldly.
"I neither cheat nor steal and I can assure you if I did, I'd face their wrath just as you did, sir, when you were burning out the settlers to take their land…. You are no better than I am, sir. In fact, I dare say you're worse. I openly admit my profession as a con man and gambler, but have never paid to have others killed for their land. Nor have I deliberately stirred up hatred against an innocent who has caused no one harm."
Royal's face went livid and he struggled for words as the gambler's statement reminded everyone in ear shot he wasn't sinless.
"I suppose ya expect us ta just sit quietly by and let her and her friends take our hair for trophies?" he jeered.
Standish made a great show of studying the rancher's scalp. "I don't think you need to worry about that. Even if the young lady was of a mind to collect scalps, I doubt she would consider yours worth the trouble."
Buck snickered, Josiah chuckled outright and Chris began to think the silver tongued southerner just might defuse the situation peacefully after all as laughter rippled through the crowd and many of the bystanders visibly relaxed.
As the arrogant rancher sputtered with indignation another voice spoke up. "That Injun whore's mine."
Ezra saw Nica shrink back and heard her fearful gasp as a burly man, flanked by two others, pushed to the fore. Standish immediately recognized the men who had stopped at Lucy's, making a mental note to suggest Larabee send someone to help the sharpshooter protect the homestead against possible retaliation.
The man looked around, puffing out his chest as he declared, "Bought that red bitch from some Injun brave in the hills. Gave him my pack horse and two jugs of whiskey for her. She's mine."
The cardsharp felt Nica clutch his arm and looked down into her wide frightened eyes, noting her other hand rested on the sheathed knife.
"There's nothing to fear, little one," he soothed her, patting her trembling hand with his. He turned back to face the man. "Miss Nica isn't going anywhere, and most certainly not with the likes of you."
"Bitch is mine!" the man swaggered forward several steps, attempting to grab her arm.
Faster than the eye could see, Ezra's derringer was aimed at the interloper's left eye, forcibly pressing against his cheek.
Standish followed as the man fell back several steps, trying to move away from the tiny weapon. "She's mine ta do with as I please… Bought her fair and square.. .Was just about ta enjoy myself when she grabbed my knife. Near cut my throat before she ran off…. She's mine!"
"Mister Lincoln freed the slaves, sir, and no one is permitted to own another," the southerner pointed out, his inner voice adding silently, 'except by bonds of love.'
"She's just a damn squaw!" The man bellowed, before suddenly smiling, giving the gambler a small wink. "Hell, mister, I ain't selfish. Was gonna share with my friends. Reckon there's enough for you, too."
Larabee grit his teeth, certain the remark would cause the gambler to pull the trigger, but was somewhat pleased to see several of the townspeople turn away in disgust.
"Reckon ya must be perty hard up," the man continued with a chuckle, "Reckon no white woman would look twice at a piece a garbage like you."
The rolling clicks of five gun hammers being eared back silenced the entire crowd.
The law men had been willing to let Ezra handle the situation, defending the woman, stepping in only if needed, but no one insulted their friend in their presence.
Larabee moved up, pushing Ezra's gun hand away from the man as he stopped in front of the loud mouthed man. "Suppose you and yer two friends get the hell outta town while you're still able."
The man's mouth worked, but no words came out. He knew Chris Larabee's reputation as did his two companions who had already started slinking back through the crowd, well aware three of the four other law men were following them.
"And don't come back! Ya ain't welcome here." Larabee warned as the man, his hands as far from his guns as possible, moved hurriedly down the street to his horse, everyone else slowly following, their attention drawn from Ezra and Nica to Larabee and the stranger.
As he swung up in the saddle Tate spun his horse to yell, "Y'all better keep yer guns handy. She tried ta kill us!"
"Every woman has a right to do whatever's necessary to defend herself against attackers." Ezra stated, his calm facade disguising his own anger and hatred for these men who would have destroyed the beautiful woman at his side if not for Tanner's intervention.
"I was just gonna take what I paid for same as I would any a the whores over at the saloon or that fancy house at the edge a town." The man sneered.
Josiah laid a huge restraining hand on Buck's shoulder as the big hearted gunslinger visibly reacted to the insult.
Tate grinned nastily. "Ain't nobody says it was an attack but her."
"I say ya tried ta attack her." Another voice rang out with a distinct Texas drawl. "Saw it myself. She's just protectin' herself from the likes a ya and that ain't against no law…."
The man spun to see who had the audacity to openly contradict him.
Ezra was as surprised as the stranger to see the long haired tracker sitting on Lucy's saddle mare at the back of the crowd, his rifle resting casually across the saddle horn.
The stranger's eyes narrowed, anger surging through him, his hand moving as of its own accord toward the gun on his hip. He'd promised the meddling sonuvabitch retribution for his earlier interference, but had lost his trail in the hills and now here the bastard sat, once again taking the side of that Injun bitch.
"That's not a smart move," the southerner drawled softly. "Not if ya wanna live because if you touch that gun, I promise you'll be dead before you can clear leather."
"Glad ta see ya made it back, Pard." Chris called from up the street.
Vin grinned. "Aww, hell, didn't wanna miss the fireworks."
Tate's common sense barely took control as Larabee pushed through the mob and crossed to stand by the lean sharpshooter, resting a hand on the man's stirrup.
Seeing the look in Larabee's eyes and the disappearing tails of his companion's horses as they rounded the bend in the street, Tate realized this wasn't the time or place to take his revenge. With a muffled curse, he wrenched on the reins and spurred his horse after his fleeing friends.
Realizing to keep pushing was asking for more trouble than he was willing to face at the moment, Guy Royal slipped away while everyone's attention was riveted on the interaction between the regulators and the stranger.
"Ezra's right!" Larabee announced, raking the bystanders with a cold glare. "She's got as much right ta live here if she wants as the rest a ya and if anybody wants ta try and stop her, you'll answer ta me."
Buck, Josiah, JD and Nathan moved to stand beside Larabee and Tanner, their actions pronouncing their unvoiced intentions to fully back the dark clad gunslinger's declaration.
Wilmington exchanged a quick nod with the ex-bounty hunter, two sets of blue eyes twinkling with approval as Nica inched closer to Ezra.
Earlier, the usual teasing comments had been made when Tanner and Jackson talked of the con man's reaction to the healer's Indian patient, but it was nothing more than good natured ribbing. In truth, after Janine, they had all harbored the fear the deeply wounded southerner would never again trust anyone with his heart.
It didn’t matter to any of them who it was the cardsharp chose to love as long as that love was returned and their friend was treated with the respect he deserved. But Chris was right. With all the up roar over the Indian activities in the area, Ezra couldn't have picked a worst time to give his heart away to the native girl.
However, the womanizer was all too well aware a person had no control whatsoever over when or with whom they fell in love.
As Buck’s gaze lingered on his friends beside him, his chest swelled with pride, knowing without a doubt, they would unconditionally accept into their unusual family the young woman who had so obviously captured the gambler's fragile heart.
Not wanting to face the wrath of Larabee and his fellow peacekeepers, the crowd dispersed, leaving the lawmen and Nica standing on the street, watching until the man who claimed to own her was out of sight.
Vin swung down, and gathering the reins to the gelding and mare, he led them towards the stables.
Ezra threw him a grateful look as he turned to Nica, taking her arm and gently steering her in the direction of Nathan’s clinic, calling over his shoulder, “Mister Jackson, perhaps you should check out the young lady’s arm…” He hadn't failed to notice she was favoring the injured limb, especially after nearly being pulled from the horse.
The healer hurried after the two and with a shake of his head, Larabee and the others headed back up the street, vocally urging those townsfolk still lingering to move along.
As Nathan gathered the supplies to check Nica's arm and change the bandage, Ezra stepped out on the balcony. Giving the young woman a reassuring smile when she attempted to follow him, he led her back to a chair at the small table.
"It's alright, my dear. I assure you Mister Jackson is a friend of Vin's and mine. You have my word he won't intentionally harm you in any way." He stooped in front of her, keeping his voice soft and soothing as he stroked the back of her hand. "You wouldn't remember, but Nathan is the healer who first tended your injury. He just wants to be certain it's healing properly."
"Miss Nica, yer gonna need ta take off that shirt so's I can work. Ya can wrap this around yerself. Just need ta have yer arm free." Nathan handed her a bed sheet and discreetly turned his back.
Ezra held the sheet like a curtain as she removed the shirt, quickly averting his eyes when she pulled the linen from his hands to wrap it about her slender body.
"I'll be just on the other side of the door. If ya need me, just call out." Ezra smiled trying not to react to the small spots of blood on the woman’s bandage
She settled back, her gaze leery as the healer, not wanting to frighten her any more than necessary, explaining everything he did, cut away the bandage and checked the healing knife wound.
Outside the door, gripping the balcony rail, the southerner took several deep breaths, still alert for trouble, but letting the tension of the last few moments drain away.
While he had denied that very fact aloud, he knew Chris was correct in saying he was inviting trouble by bringing Nica here. Unfortunately, he hadn't had time to come up with another solution.
Ezra turned as the long haired man bounded up the steps two at a time.
“She okay?” the Texan rasped, stopping short of the doorway.
Ezra nodded. “I think so. I felt Nathan should ascertain her wound was healing as it should.” He eyed the young tracker and his voice lowered. “You knew, didn’t you?”
Vin looked away and chewed his lower lip before giving a short nod. “I’d heard talk last time I’s at the village. Didn’t know who she was, other than Chanu’s brother’s daughter. Rode out there yesterday. Tantu – he was supposed to bring her to the village and wed her – came back without her. Had hisself a nice pony and whiskey. Didn’t take a blind man ta figure out what happened. Said she ran off with some white men….. Chanu didn’t believe him, and had braves out lookin’ fer her…. “
“What will he do now? Does she have to go back?” Ezra found himself holding his breath as he awaited the younger man’s reply.
"Her choice." Vin shook his head. “Could only tell Chanu what I saw, not what happened before I got there. Don't make him no never mind... she's his kin and one a his favorites but..."
"But what Mister Tanner?" The southerner pressed, uncertain he wanted to hear the rest.
The sharpshooter took a deep breath, meeting the gambler's worried eyes. "Way The People see it, she's tainted now….Been with white men, whether by choice or not. She goes back, she’ll live on the outskirts of the village and take what they give her…and it won’t be much. Only way she could prove she's still... untouched... would be on her weddin' night and none a the men worth havin' would wed her... The People don't see things same as us. They accept a man for who he is... They judge him by his actions... His bravery and such... White man or Indian don't make no difference, but their women---”
"But Chanu's her family," the cardsharp protested.
"He's also the chief. He can't show weakness or favoritism... Not right now. His people need a strong leader...'specially with all this trouble that’s brewin’." He looked at the gambler soberly, “Ya done right bringin’ her here, Ez. Townsfolk might resent her, but as long as she got somebody in her corner…'specially somebody who cares 'bout what happens ta her, won’t be near half as bad as the village.”
Ezra raked a hand through his hair before slamming his hat back into place, clearly flustered. “But .. where’s she gonna go here? Won’t look right if she stays in my room….” He’d already gone through that mistake once with Li Pong.
He knew, even more than the young Chinese girl, Nica needed to learn to fit in. She had a hard row to hoe and he refused to put any more obstacles in her path. It was bad enough her heritage was a cause of scorn, but the very fact she was in any way associated with him –a gambler and con man -- would be another strike against her. Staying in his room, even if it was well known he was elsewhere, would only add fuel to the fires of rumor and innuendo. He couldn't and wouldn't ruin any chance she had at making a life for herself here.
And if he was going to be perfectly honest with himself, Ezra wasn't certain he would be able to resist temptation if, out of gratitude or a sense of obligation, Nica offered herself to him.
“Doubt if she’d stay there anyway.” Vin pointed out. “It ain’t much, but she’s welcome ta use my wagon….” At the gambler’s incredulous look, he added, “I got the room at the boardin' house. It's empty most a the time anyway. We can move the wagon ta the end a the alley at the corner a the saloon. She’d be near enough ya could hear her call iffen she needed ya. That mare's a good horse. It would alert her if anyone was around, and it’ll give her a sense of being out like she’s use ta…” He gave a lop sided grin, “Course if ya wanted to unroll yer bedroll under it, I wouldn’t say nothin’…”
Ezra chewed his lip. The tracker was a generous man, making the offer when he rarely allowed anyone access to his ‘home’ on wheels. It was a thought. At least it would do until they could come up with something more appropriate. “Thank you, Mister Tanner. I will give it serious thought.”
"This is a nice town... most a the time... with good people." The ex-bounty hunter slouched against the balcony rail. "It might take a while, but they'll learn to accept her... Hell, Ez, if they can learn ta accept the seven a us they can learn ta accept anybody. And what better place ta start a new life than a town full a misfits?"
Nathan called for him, and returning the Texan's grin, Ezra moved inside, leaving the tracker standing on the balcony.
The sun had gone down and the street fires were lit, lending their golden light to the empty streets.
Nica sat in silence beside Ezra on the back tailgate of Vin’s battered old wagon, staring at the myriad of stars which filled the night sky. A slight smile quirked the corners of her mouth, at the distant howl of a wolf.
“What pleases you, Nica?” he questioned softly.
She turned to look at him, her dark eyes luminous in the firelight. “Ol’ Ez…”
He started, unsure of what she was saying as she looked down and toyed with the frayed edge of the sling Nathan had insisted she wear to support her injured arm.
“Why did you defend me?” she questioned softly.
Ezra ran a hand through his hair and shrugged slightly. For once in his life, he found himself at a loss for words and chose to answer the question with one of his own. "Why not?"
“That man...Tate... was right….. He bought me from one who was supposed to honor and love me….” Her voice dropped to a low whisper. “He said because of my blood, I was nothing more than a white man’s whore…”
Ezra frowned, “I don’t understand. Vin said your father….”
Her chin lifted slightly, “My father was war chief to the southern tribes, but I was like you, Ol’ Ez…. Cast out, pushed aside…. Forgotten….” Hurt echoed in her soft voice and Ezra longed to gather her in his arms and take all the pain from her heart. But he held back, unsure, afraid of offending or frightening her.
“Chanu, he treated me well. He never made me feel I was different. He looked at my mother with love. When the tribes came together for councils, he always made me welcome. He spoke to me with kindness and taught me the ways of the warrior to protect myself...But...I longed for someone who would understand me….. Accept me for who I am…. But that man in the street was wrong. I seized his knife, not to kill him, but to kill myself….I would have killed them rather than surrender to what they wanted, but then I would have used it on myself."
"Why?" Ezra was stunned by the confession. "Why would you consider such a thing."
"To end my shame and my life. Your Vin rescued me…He kept me from taking their lives. but he would not have stopped me from taking my own...If not for you."
Shocked, Ezra continued to stare at her in the flickering light of the street fires. How could one so beautiful have such dark thoughts? But her words struck a chord, reminding him of his own dark days and bouts with loneliness, before he had found this town and the men he now worked with. Perhaps, this place, these people could be her salvation as it had been his own….
She reached up, and fumbling, opened the medicine bag she wore about her neck. Searching it in the darkness, she withdrew something and pressed into his hand. “I give you this…”
Ezra swallowed hard, suddenly finding it hard to breath. He knew the concept of the medicine pouch. Vin had once told him its contents symbolized the wearer, often holding something sacred to the owner. Once sealed it was rarely opened and only the creator and wearer knew what it held.
She laid a slender finger against his lips, silencing him.
He looked down, the firelight winking on the object when he opened his fingers. He stared at it in confusion. It was a small silver edged cameo. For a fleeting moment he wondered what it was about him and women’s jewelry.
She reached out, and turned it over. He squinted, barely making out the engraved words etched on the back. To S.J.McC. on her 15th Love Mom & Dad
As his eyes came up to meet hers, she whispered, “Can you read it to me?”
Puzzled he read the words, watching her expression and seeing a look of satisfaction coming to her lovely face as she gave a little nod when he finished.
It dawned on him she had apparently carried the object around and cherished it enough for it to be amongst her revered things, but had never known what it said.
She sighed in a contented fashion and leaned against him.
Unable to resist, he tucked his arm about her shoulders and drew her closer, resting her head against his shoulder. He turned the cameo over in his fingers. “Where did you get it, little one?”
She turned to look up into his face, her eyes shining brightly as she whispered, “It was my mother’s….”
It dawned on him perhaps that was why Tan-tu was so willing to trade her for so little. Because her mother was white…
"Chanu once told me to listen well for the Great Spirit whispered in her ear." His embrace tightened as she softly added, “As she died, she told me she saw a man with grass green eyes who would take my hand and walk beside me…. I wanted to.... but I did not believe her…. Until now….” She burrowed deeper against his shoulder, wrapping her good arm about his waist.
The southerner's fingers tightened around the cameo and he blinked back tears. How was it the fates had deemed him worthy of such a precious gift?
His heart swelled with hope that, if not now, she would eventually return the feelings which overwhelmed him, carrying him along on a tide of optimism for the future.. his future…. And hers.
The southerner wasn't sure where this relationship was headed, but he realized he was more then willing to see it through to the end...
Nica looked at the gambler, uncertain and confused as Ezra slowly untangled himself from her grasp and stood. Reaching out he gently lifted her from the gate to stand beside him.
Offering his hand, he smiled down on her, his grass green eyes shining in the firelight as he whispered, “Walk with me, Miss Nica… Walk with me…..”
“…once, as the night was leaving
into us our dreams were weaving.
Once, all dreams were worth keeping.
I was with you.
Once, when our hearts were singing,
I was with you…”
lyrics by Roma Ryan