Disclaimer: All Magnificent Seven characters are copyright of Trilogy, MGM, and Mirisch. Iím not making any money from the use of copywritten characters.

Notes: This story is definitely A/U, and no attempt should be made to fit it into the canon.

Itís the result of an e-mail I posted to the BrigaDears list, which decided to turn into a fanfic.

As I Promised
by Rose Taylor

She watched as he rode into town, thinking to herself 'My Lord, what a handsome man. Such green eyes, at least the one that isn't swollen shut. Well-dressed, too, but not moneyed, he doesn't hold himself right. A down-on-his-luck gambler? Maybe needing money? Could he help me? Would he?'

Ezra rode into town, feeling tired, guilty, a little sick at heart, and the pain from his bruised face. Names were running through his head -- Chris and Mary -- Buck and Inez. "I and my bruises" he murmured, wincing at the pain in his jaw. Nathan had said it wasn't broken, only dislocated, he'd put it back into place. But he'd wanted Ezra to stay, to rest a day or two. "I fear that would be manifestly imprudent." he had told the healer. "I have gotten the distinct and painfully obvious impression that my presence is no longer welcomed in this municipality." "Huh! Now I know your jaw ain't broken," Nathan replied, "you're still throwing five-dollar words around!" Dear Lord, he was going to miss them!

He stabled his horse, removing tack and saddle himself, and groomed the animal, checking its legs for any signs of injury, and its hooves for stones or loose shoes. He didn't want to have his horse pull up lame or throw a shoe in the desert, far from any help he couldn't provide. He paid for food and lodging for the night, intending to move on in the morning. Taking his bags, he proceeded to the hotel, took a room, and moved on to the bathhouse, emerging an hour later clean-shaven and immaculate, ready for a meal, some libations and an eveningís entertainment at the poker table. But he still had an empty feeling in his heart.

She saw him emerge from the bathhouse, looking (to her mind, at least) like the lead in the plays she'd seen in Chicago and St. Louis, a hero who'd swept his leading lady off her feet. "If only," she'd said to herself, "if only he could act as well as that, my problems would be solved!" Gathering her skirts (and her courage), she stepped into his path.

He almost knocked her down. He hadn't seen her at all, so lost in thoughts of his recently lost friends, and how he'd thrown away a chance for a place to belong.

"Forgive me, dear lady, I was distracted by my self-absorption. Are you all right? I was just going to the restaurant, would you care to join me for dinner?" Ezra knew he was babbling (Mother would kill me for this, his mind whispered), but he couldn't stop. She was so beautiful, strawberry blonde hair braided in a coronal (he wondered how long it was), azure eyes and lush lips in an angel's face, full-figured body not more than five feet tall. "My name is Ezra Standish, what's yours?"

"Fionnuala O'Meara, and I'd like very much to have dinner with you, I was hoping we could talk." There. First part complete.

After a plain but filling meal, over coffee and dessert, she spoke. "I have a business proposition for you. How would you like to make $100 for a few days work?" "What sort of employment?" he replied. "I want you to marry me." she told him.

He couldn't have been more shocked if she'd pulled a gun and shot him! "I beg your pardon -- did you just say 'marry you'? I find it difficult to believe a young woman of your charms has ANY problem finding a husband!" "So does my stepmother -- she tracks me down wherever I go, and when she finds me, she always shows up with someone she considers a 'suitable husband'!" she sighed. "It's so embarrassing! When I saw you today, I hoped you might be willing to marry me for a few days so I could get rid of her! You wouldn't have to.........do anything, strictly business, just marry me, there's an ordained minister in town, I have the dress I'll buy you a suit we can do it tomorrowPLEASE!!"

He considered it. "What time tomorrow, and where? I have suitable clothing." "Oh, thank you! You won't regret it, I promise!" She grabbed his neck, intending to kiss him, but he turned away. The kiss landed on his cheek. He paid for the meal, over her protests ("I have more than enough money"), and they walked back to the hotel. "Ezra," she said, "did I embarrass you earlier, when I tried to kiss you?" "No," he replied, "it's just........the last few times I kissed someone, I received either a slap or a punch or both." He rubbed his jaw, it still hurt. "I'm just not in the mood to kiss anyone right now." "But, tomorrow?" "Don't worry, I won't disappoint you."

The wedding was quick -- a few words spoken by the minister, an exchange of "I do"s, murmured vows, and rings, witnessed by people he'd never met and would probably never see again, then came the moment. "I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride" 'Easy for you to say' he thought.

He lifted her veil, pushing it back over her head. Taking her head in his hands, he lifted her chin slightly, tilting her head to the proper angle. Taking a deep breath and swallowing his nervousness, he lowered his lips to hers. Covering her slightly parted lips with his own, he gently kissed her, brushing her lips lightly with his tongue before entering her mouth, just barely grazing her tongue. She responded by capturing his tongue with her lips, entwining it with her own. Encouraged, he deepened the kiss, pressing harder with his lips, suckling her lips and tongue, suddenly wanting.........

He ended the kiss abruptly, recalling it was "just business". It was only for a few days. And $100. "Now what?" he asked as they left, married at least in name. "We have to go to a town called Four Corners. That's where I'm supposed to meet my stepmother and the latest 'suitable husband'. It's also where the circuit judge is going to be next week -- he can annul our marriage. I think his name's Travis. Have you ever been to Four Corners, or met Judge Travis?" "Yes, to both questions." he replied.   Buck and JD were sitting in front of the jail when the carriage came through town.

"Hey," said Buck, "isn't that EZRA driving that thing?" "Don't know, Buck," JD replied, "but that sure looks like his horse behind it." "It's stopping in front of the hotel. You stay here, JD, while I go check into this." Buck got up and moved towards the new arrivals.

Ezra pulled the carriage to a stop in front of the hotel. "Don't get out -- I'll help you down. Just stay put." Jumping down from carriage, he went around the back, ducking under his horse's head and patting the animal in passing. Reaching the front of the carriage, he assisted his bride of two days down to the boardwalk, lightly brushing her lips with own as she regained her footing. "Why don't you get a room while I gather up our luggage?" he told her.

Fionnuala entered the hotel, crossed the lobby to the front desk, and made her request. "May I have a two-room suite? Do you have any available?" "We have several, ma'am," the clerk replied. "What name should I put down?" "Mr. and Mrs. Ezra Standish." she responded. "Mr. and MRS. Ezra Standish??" he sputtered. "That IS what I said. Where do I sign in?" She reached for the pen, only to have the now flustered clerk snatch it away. "I think you should wait for your husband......ma'am." The pause was an implied insult. One which wasn't missed by any of the people in the lobby.

Buck sauntered over to where Ezra was unloading several pieces of luggage, including a large trunk. "Need any help with that pretty lady's bags?" he asked, hoping to impress the lady. He should have been warned when Ezra flashed a too-friendly smile at him. "Could you get that trunk, while I take care of the rest? I truly appreciate it, and so will she, I'm sure." Ezra replied. Buck reached down and picked up the trunk. Whew! It was heavy! They walked (or staggered) into the hotel lobby, and immediately noticed the tense atmosphere.

"Is there a problem?" Ezra inquired. "Mr. Standish, sir, uh, this young woman, uh, claims to be, uh, your wife." the clerk stammered uncertainly. Though he lacked Chris Larabee's reputation, Mr. Standish WAS one of the town's peacekeepers, and known to be an excellent shot. "She's your wife?" Buck asked, glaring at Ezra as he dropped the heavy trunk. "Oh, please be careful, there are some very fragile things in there." she looked up at Buck with pleading azure eyes. "Sorry, ma'am," Buck murmured contritely. The desk clerk cleared his throat, "Mr. Standish?" he prompted. "It's all right, my good man, she IS my wife. Darling, did you get us a room?" He put an arm around her waist, kissing her lightly on the cheek. "I tried, Ezra dear, but the desk clerk suggested I wait for you." She snuggled under his arm. "Here's the register, and the pen, and the key to your suite," the clerk said, desperately trying to make up for his earlier mistake. As Ezra signed the register, Fionnuala whispered, "It's two rooms, is that all right?" "Just fine, my dear." he replied.

"She's your WIFE?" Buck hissed as the couple gathered their bags. "Why do you find that so improbable, Mr. Wilmington? And would you mind giving me a hand with this trunk? I thought you wanted to impress the lady." Ezra wasn't about to let up on Buck, although he did grab one of the trunk's handles, and together they carried it up to the suite. Together -- Ezra was beginning to appreciate the concept, and after introducing his wife to Buck, he drew the other man aside. "Is our fearless leader very upset at my abrupt departure?" he asked. "Well, he wasn't exactly dancin' in the streets, but he wasn't really surprised, either. Yeah, he's pretty upset. And not just 'cause ya left." Buck gave him a look. "Didn't break my heart to see ya go, neither. Didn't expect ya back -- or married. Ya musta latched onta the first female ya saw. Don't tell me we scared ya THAT badly!!" The conversation was interrupted before Ezra could reply by a knock on the door.

Ezra opened the door -- and suppressed a shiver. Standing in the doorway, looking like the Angel of Death himself, was Chris Larabee. And he wasn't happy. "Heard you were back. Why?" "My wife is meeting relatives here -- " Ezra began, only to be interrupted. "Your WIFE?" Chris snarled. "You were gone less than a week!" "Ezra, who's at the door? Why don't you invite him in, and let him sit down?" Fionnuala entered from the other room, looking at the tall, intimidating stranger in the doorway. "Fionnuala O"Meara Standish, may I present Chris Larabee" Ezra said as the dark-clad gunslinger entered the room. "Mr. Larabee is one of the local peacekeepers. As I was, until we had a falling out." Noticing the tension in the room, and hoping to lessen it, she said, "A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Larabee. Would you know when the next stagecoach is due? My stepmother should be on it." "Tomorrow, about noon." Chris touched the brim of his hat, said "Ma'am" to her before shooting her husband a "We'll discuss this later" look, and walked out the still-open door. "I'd best be going as well, I left JD at the jail, you know how trouble finds that boy. Ma'am" Buck left, and Ezra closed the door behind him.

"He doesn't seem at all happy to see you. Am I going to be a widow before my stepmother even shows up?" she asked.   She sat in the rolling stagecoach, passing the time by shuffling a deck of cards. "It helps my rheumatism" she had told her fellow passengers. Looking over at them, she wondered why they were going to Four Corners. They looked quite prosperous -- she wondered which of her many schemes she should try pulling on them. It wasn't going to be easy, though -- she could tell by watching them the woman was in charge -- and well in charge. 'Does that so-called man ask her permission to go to the outhouse?' she thought.

She figured he must be something like a pet. He was certainly handsome enough, tall, well-built, with golden curls, innocent blue eyes, perfectly kissable lips...she blinked. 'Mustn't get distracted, Maude, you'll start losing your edge' she told herself. Why, he was nearly as good-looking as Ezra! Though she'd never tell her son how handsome he was (she never cared to state the obvious, and the boy had to look in the mirror to shave), she wasn't blind to the looks women gave his back. And sometimes his front.

The woman was pretty, too -- or would have been, if it hadn't been for the hard, greedy gleam in her eyes. She was the same size as Maude, but with black, wavy hair, dark brown eyes, and an olive complexion. Maude thought she must have mixed blood, but it was impossible to tell if she was Spanish or colored or something else entirely.

Chris left the hotel, and crossed the street to the saloon. He entered, going immediately to his usual table, where Vin and Nathan were sitting with a bottle and glasses. Inez saw him enter, and brought another bottle and glass to the table. "Saw him come in," said Vin. He didn't have to say who. "Who's the lady?" "He claims she's his wife -- says they're meeting relatives coming in on the stage." Chris said, pouring himself a shot and downing it with his usual dispatch. "HIS WHAT??" three voices chorused as he downed another shot. "He hasn't been gone a week! What's he up to?" Nathan grumbled. "Looked like from that rig they came in on, she ain't exactly hurtin' for money." Vin noted. He looked at Inez for her reaction to Ezra's change of marital status. She stood there, not moving, staring into empty space. "Inez, are you all right?" Vin asked. "Fine, Senor Tanner, just fine," she replied, "I must check something in the back." Just then JD came bursting in the door, "Mary just got a telegram! It's about Judge Travis!"

Ezra looked at Fionnuala, trying to figure out what to say. He decided on the truth. Telling the truth when in trouble -- another new concept. His mother would be appalled. He took her hands in his, and drew her down on a divan. "Nuala, I'm sorry -- I should have told you there might be problems with my former associates. I should have told you why I left Four Corners," and then he did, explaining how Mary's "I'll show YOU" had gotten completely out of hand, leading to the bruises that hadn't yet faded from his face. She listened to the whole thing without interrupting, only commenting afterwards, "Do you mind if I punch her in the nose?" He laughed out loud, thinking, 'She's such a joy to be with! I'll miss her when she's gone.' That was enough to sober him, and he told her, "That would be most imprudent, as Mary is Judge Travis' daughter-in-law, as well as the editor of the local paper, and close to my ex-compatriots." He kissed her hands, and left to find out how soon the judge would be arriving in town.

"What about the judge?" Chris said, pausing in his drinking to give JD his full attention. "Telegram says his horse spooked and fell over a cliff. He'll live, but he's busted up some, he'll be laid up and unable to travel for at least a month, maybe two." "Oh, great! Just wonderful!" Buck quipped, having followed JD into the saloon. "What do we tell the bad guys? Knock it off for a couple months, 'cause we don't have a judge to try you?" "Take it easy, Buck," Chris cautioned, "we'll think of something. JD, have you contacted Jericho Prison? Could they hold prisoners for us temporarily if we have too many for the jail?" Since getting a new Warden, the place was no longer the hellhole it was when Chris had been there. Still, it made the guys uncomfortable to think about the place. "It's gonna be difficult if we have to transfer prisoners," Vin said, knowing he was the only one who could get away with what he was going to say next. What had to be said, because everybody had felt the loss of one of their own. "We're gonna need as many guns as we can get. We're gonna need Ezra." "NO!" exploded Chris, "the SOB's lucky I didn't kill him already! Besides, he might have other plans. He's a married man, now." "Is that really the reason? Or is it something else, something you don't want to talk about, or maybe even THINK about?" Vin prodded. "Seems to me it can't hurt to ask Ezra."

"Ask me what?" inquired the topic of recent conversation, entering the saloon. He hadn't found JD at the jail, so he'd decided to brave the lions in their den. "Vin wants to ask you to rejoin the group, at least until Judge Travis gets back on his feet." JD said, helpfully. "The judge is ill?" Ezra asked. "He's injured, he'll be laid up for a month, maybe two." Nathan replied. "We could use your help if we need to transfer prisoners." Vin added. "The bad guys ain't takin' a two-month holiday." from Buck. Ezra looked at the one man present who hadn't spoken, trying with all his skill to read him, wanting desperately to see -- what? Forgiveness? Acceptance? Some sign he would be taken back into the fold? Larabee's face might as well have been carved in granite -- or ice. There was no sign of anything, not even in his eyes. "I'll let the judge decide -- That is, if you're in." "I'm in," Ezra replied, softly releasing the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. He joined the others at the table, buying a bottle of whiskey, answering the questions about his new bride as best he could, and enjoying the comradery, however fragile and tenuous it was.

He left early, pleading he must return to his wife (all too true, but not for the reasons they supposed), and made his way back to the hotel. Entering the suite, he called, "Nuala, are you there?" "I'm here, Ezra, what is it?" she replied. "Forgive me for taking so long, have you eaten yet?" "Yes, when you didn't come back, I went down to the restaurant and had dinner." "Good, because I have both good and bad news to tell you. I've overcome one obstacle, temporarily at least, but only because another has been set in our path. I have been reinstated to the ranks of my former colleagues, but only due to the incapacitation of the local incarnation of jurisprudence. I'm afraid Judge Travis won't be here for a month, possibly two." "Oh, then I suppose you'll want more money. How does $1000 sound?" His jaw dropped. He'd never made that kind of money in his life!   ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Ezra and Nuala woke the next morning (she in the bedroom, he on the divan in the sitting room), performed their morning ablutions (separately), broke their fasts in the hotel's restaurant, and now, as noon (and the stage, hopefully) approached, they waited nervously, each wrapped in his or her own thoughts.

Nuala: 'I hope this works. I hope Ezra and I can convince her we're truly married -- and very much in love. Did we cover everything during our rehearsals on the way here? She's certain to find out how short a time we apparently knew each other before we married, though Ezra says he told his friends he'd been secretly courting me for months. Will she believe that? Can we keep up this sham for two months until the judge gets here? Maybe Ezra will stop after they leave. He looked so shocked last night when I offered him the extra money. He's been so wonderful so far, so patient, he even coached me on what to say, how to sound convincing, speak clearly, hold your head up, be confident. I hope I can keep up my facade, for both our sakes'

Ezra: 'A thousand dollars! Good Lord! She said it so casually, like she's used to seeing that kind of money. She can't have earned it so young -- it must be her family's. Is that what her stepmother is up to? Trying to get or keep control of the family fortune? If she does, what happens to Nuala? I have to find out, and fast. I've missed this kind of challenge! It's been quite a while since I've pulled a con this good!' He smiled at the thought. 'But I doubt Nuala is aware what she did by marrying me. She's such an angelic creature, so beautiful, such a good listener, she's so smart, a real quick study, she picked up on what I was trying to teach her instantly. This shouldn't be a problem, for either of us.'

Just then, they heard the sound of hooves, the creak of metal, harness, and wood, and shortly the stagecoach pulled to a stop. Waiting until the dust settled, the couple approached, to see if the expected party had indeed arrived. They were not disappointed. "Hello, Mama Delores, how was your trip?" she greeted a woman less than a decade her elder. "Tiring, child." was the reply, as she was assisted from the stage by a handsome young man, who also paused to assist the next passenger. "Hello, Mother," Ezra said stiffly as he saw who it was. "Your visit is most timely, as I have some news of import to impart." Maude raised an inquiring eyebrow, but made no comment, waiting to hear more.

Nuala tapped Ezra on the sleeve to get his attention. Turning in her direction, he heard her say, "Mama Delores, may I present Ezra Standish, my husband. Ezra, this is my stepmother, Delores de la Jesus O'Meara." "A pleasure to meet such a beautiful, devoted creature," Ezra stated, taking one of the woman's hands and kissing it lightly, unaware of the expression on his mother's face. He felt a tap on his other sleeve. "Ezra, dear, is THAT the important news you had to impart?" Maude looked vaguely ill, as if uncertain how to take the news. "It is indeed," Ezra said, smiling hugely as he noticed his mother's features.

"So you've gotten married," Delores commented as Ezra released her hand to speak to his mother. "Or so you would have me think. He's quite handsome, and well-mannered. Charming, and quick with a complement. It wouldn't surprise me if this wasn't the first time he'd been *married*. This is Charles Erikson. Perhaps after spending some time with him, you'll rethink your *marriage*." She gave her stepdaughter as insincere smile. After introducing Charles to Ezra, and Josiah (who'd arrived after hearing Maude was in town) to Nuala, Delores, and Charles, everyone started toward the hotel, with the men dividing the luggage between them.

"So that's the lady I've been hearing about," Josiah whispered to Ezra as they walked a little behind the others. "It'd be a shame if she was to get hurt by somebody who didn't care about her." "It would indeed, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra replied, "it would indeed." ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ "Why hasn't she LEFT yet? It's been 2 weeks! Can't she take a hint?" Nuala leaned against Ezra, exhausted from the strain of keeping up a pretense that was never meant to last more than a few days. "I don't think I can take much more. At least you have your work to distract you. She's right there every time I step out of our rooms, and HE'S always with her!" She started to sob, and Ezra tightened his hold on her, stroking her hair, and planting a kiss on the top of her head. "I'm s-sorry," she sobbed, "I should stronger than this." She knew she shouldn't be weeping in his arms -- especially now. She was drawn to this man, who had listened to her dreams without laughing, and put up with her howls of frustration. She had begun to think of their life together, and not just as temporary situation to fend off her stepmother. She wanted more. Could she be falling in love with this handsome, caring near-stranger? Did he -- could he -- feel the same way? She didn't dare to even hope.

"Why don't you lie down and rest a bit, and I'll go down to the restaurant and see what I can bring back for us. Or maybe the saloon, and see what Inez has fixed up." Ezra needed to get out of the room before he did something they might both regret -- or not. It was only by an act of willpower that he kept his rebellious body from revealing his true feelings for the beauty in his arms. He kept telling himself she'd never be able to love him, that it was "strictly business", think of the money and tell your anatomy to behave itself. Most of the time it worked. But sometimes she'd do or say something that would cut through every barricade he'd put up, and touch him in that place he'd vowed none would reach -- his heart. He marveled at how well she was handling their current difficulty. He was used to playing a role for weeks on end -- hadn't he made a living at it? But she'd never had to pretend, day in and day out, to live a lie.

He decided to skip the restaurant, and headed strait to the saloon. He needed a drink, and Nuala enjoyed Inez's cooking -- much to her surprise. "Mama Delores' cooking always made me ill" she had told him. He was thankful at times like that for his 'poker' face. He saw Mary Travis, and turned from his path. "Good afternoon, Mrs. Travis, have you heard anymore from the judge? How is his recuperation coming?" "He writes that he's making progress, but the doctor says it will be another month at least until he can travel." She'd apologized the day after Ezra's return, and kept a proper distance since. Seeing her with Chris, he was glad to be out of the middle of THAT relationship, and back to being part of the Seven. Tipping his hat, he resumed his progress saloonward, noticing a tall, elderly man getting off the stage. Others had noticed the man as well.

"Madre de Dios!" hissed Delores. "How did he learn of her marriage? I must find a way to stop him, or at least distract him until Charles can win her away from that gambler!" She had heard from the townsfolk what Ezra and his mother were, and had scrupulously avoided them both, much to the apparent distress of the elder Standish. She had to act -- and quickly. Catching him by the sleeve, she whispered, "Buenos tardes, Senor Aldridge." "And a good afternoon to you as well, Mrs. O'Meara," he replied, "Could you direct me to the jail? I need to find a man named Chris Larabee."

As Ezra entered the saloon, he noticed Chris motion at him with his head. Moving to join his friends, he asked, "Problem?" "Maybe," Chris answered, "appears to be a gang attacking travelers, usually families travelling alone, single riders, or small groups, not more than three. Worst part is there's seven of 'em." "Wonder where they got the idea?" chimed in Vin. "It's said imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, brothers, " Josiah said, "but I wish their sincerity extended to obeying the law." "Amen to that," Nathan replied, "Ezra, how's your wife? I ran into her yesterday with her stepmother, and she didn't look well, all tired and pale, and acted real nervous like." "Hey, Ezra," Buck teased, "you been lettin' 'er get any sleep nights?" Ezra glared his iciest look. "That, Mr. Wilmington, is NONE of your business."

Before another word could be said, JD entered, followed by the man Ezra had seen earlier. "Hey, Chris this gentleman's looking for you, says he's got a letter from the territorial governor." "Chris Larabee? I'm Milton Aldridge. The governor has asked me to fill in for Judge Travis till he can get back on his feet. This letter authorizes me to conduct trials, pass sentences, and perform whatever other duties may be required." He handed the letter to Chris.

While the others crowded around, asking questions and trying to read the letter, Ezra slipped over to the bar. "Might I procure a libation, and what are you serving tonight?" "An old family recipe. You eating here, or should I wrap it up?" Inez asked. "Wrap up two, but pour me a whiskey first. And leave the bottle." Ezra drank the shot, and poured another. "Are you going to drink that all by yourself?" Maude inquired. She'd been playing poker and watching events, as always. "No, mother, I had planned to share it. Would you care for some?" he offered. "Don't mind if I do" she poured herself a shot, and sipped at its contents. "Ezra, honey, I'd like a favor" "I'm not helping you con anyone, we've been over this before." "All I want is for you to ask your pretty young bride to host a little dinner party." "How little, mother?" "Six people." "Since I can guess who five of them are, who's escorting you?" "I believe that honor is mine," Josiah said, taking Maude's hand and kissing it. "Most certainly, Mr. Sanchez, I'm delighted to have you," Maude purred, smiling. "Your meals, Senor Standish. Enjoy." Inez tallied his bill. "Thank you, Inez," Ezra paid for the meals and whiskey, leaving the bottle with Maude and Josiah, saying he needed to talk to Nuala before inviting anyone to dinner. Speaking of which, he'd better get theirs to the hotel before it got cold.

Unfortunately, he was stopped before he could leave by Judge Aldridge. "I hear you're recently married, Mr. Standish, congratulations." "Thank you, sir. You're not concerned as to my job performance, are you? I can assure you, sir --" Ezra's words were cut off by a raised hand. "Not at all, I'm sure you're doing fine. It's just that I think I know your wife -- the former Fionnuala O'Meara, I believe?" At Ezra's nod, he continued. "Ah, I thought so! I've been the family's lawyer for most of my career. May I drop by your rooms later, after dinner? Say, in two hours?" Ezra could only nod, dumbfounded by recent events. He hurried to the hotel, thankful no one else stopped him with any more news.

Nuala woke when she heard him come in. "Ezra, you look awful, what is it?" she asked, looking at his face. "This," he held up the plates, hoping to distract her, "is dinner, courtesy of Inez. An old family recipe, I'm told." He put the plates on the table. She wasn't going to be distracted, however. "Not dinner, the look on your face -- what happened?" He told her, "Milton Aldridge is in town." "Uncle Milty's here?" she beamed. "Uncle Milty?" he repeated. "He's not really my uncle -- just an old friend of the family. My father's lawyer. What's he doing here?" "Filling in for Judge Travis. He's dropping by in two hours" "WHAT?? Why didn't you say so sooner?" She scurried about the room, tidying up. He smiled at her efforts, and gathered her into his arms. "Dinner first -- I'm already being accused of not allowing you to sleep," he remembered Buck's teasing, "I don't want Uncle Milty thinking I'm starving you to death." "I'll eat every morsel," she giggled, "Are you going to call him Uncle Milty to his face?" "Not if I want to keep my job," he chuckled.

Judge Aldridge left the restaurant, considering what he'd heard about Ezra Standish. Conflicting stories whirled across his mind. Was Standish a hero? Was he a con artist and gambler, as Delores had accused? She had wanted him to wait before revealing anything to Ezra. He hadn't said he would or wouldn't. In fact, he was so lost in thought he never heard the shadowy figure step up behind him, and deliver a crushing blow to the back of his head.   ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Vin and Buck were headed to the saloon when they heard a soft moan. Following the sound, they found Judge Aldridge lying face-down in an alley, the back of his head darkened with blood. "Get Nathan," Vin told Buck, seeing the judge was still alive. As Buck ran off, Vin tried to see if he could find any tracks or signs of who might have done the deed, without success. He'd have to try again in the morning.

Buck and Nathan hurried to the alley. After a short examination, Nathan looked up at his friends, Chris and JD having been drawn by the commotion. "I'm gonna haveta get him up to my room to work on him, and I'll need some help. Buck, grab his legs, I've got his shoulders. Careful now!" As the two of them carried the judge away, Vin turned to Chris. "Looks like it's gettin' unhealthy to be a judge in this town." Chris just gave him a look that spoke volumes, and turned to JD, "Get Ezra, tell him what's happened, and have him meet us at Nathan's." JD sprinted toward the hotel.

Ezra, meanwhile, was having his own problems. Such as trying to remember how to breathe. He had absolutely no idea how she had done it. She had transformed herself into such a vision of loveliness it broke his heart, knowing as he did he could never hold her. Her perfume filled his nostrils, conjuring dreams he knew were the wildest flights of fancy. He knew in that moment his heart was lost forever, and she would carry it away when she left. He smiled, complimented her dress, and made small talk, all the while aching inside as his heart ripped itself into smaller and smaller shreds. He joked as his despair grew, longing -- needing -- to tell this impossibly wonderful person how he really felt, to take her in his arms and hold her tightly, to cover her face and neck with kisses, to drink her essence from her soft, warm lips, to take her...............

A knock on the door halted conversation, and he rose from his chair to answer it, expecting their guest, Judge Aldridge. He was mildly surprised to find JD Dunne when he opened the door. "Sorry to bother you, Ezra, ma'am, but somebody's attacked the judge, and Chris wants you over at Nathan's right away," he rattled out quickly, wanting to get back himself. "Attacked the judge?" Nuala asked, paling at the thought of losing a man who was close to her as a second father. "Where is he? I have to go to him!" She snatched up a shawl against the night's chill. "Take me to him, please!!" "Now, Nuala, if you wait here, I'll -- " Ezra started, but she put her foot down. "I'm going!" And without another word, she swept past both of them and down the hallway. JD and Ezra exchanged glances, and ran to catch up after locking the door behind them.

The landing outside Nathan's room was crowded with peacekeepers when the trio arrived. "Any news?" Ezra inquired, noticing Chris' gaze shoot past him to Nuala, who glared back, refusing for once to be intimidated by the gunslinger. "Not yet." was the reply. All seven were now gathered in vigil, awaiting word on the judge's fate. The door opened, and Nathan stepped out, closing the door on Josiah's murmured praying. "I done all I can think of, now it's up to him. Skull's fractured, so I don't know when, or even if, he'll wake up. Or be himself when he does." "May I sit with him?" Nuala pleaded, "he's an old friend of the family, like a second father." "All right, Mrs. Standish, but don't wear yourself out frettin'" Nathan conceded. She slipped past, and quietly entered the room.

She nodded to Josiah, who had finished praying and was sitting quietly watching the man on the bed. Moving closer, she sat near the bed, close enough to take one callused old hand in her own. 'Please don't die' she thought, 'I'm lonely enough already, and I desperately need to talk to you!' She needed advice about her husband, who wasn't, quite. She'd used the excuse of company to make herself beautiful for him, hoping to see something that would give her some kind of sign of how he felt. She knew where her own heart lay -- at his feet. She feared he would walk over it heedlessly. She wanted to make what was false real, to be held in his arms, safe and cherished, to put her head against his chest and hear his heart beating, to feel again his lips covering hers, to be his wife, fully, and not just in name................

A tear fell on joined hands, and another. "Don't fret, he's a strong man, he'll be just fine," a deep voice advised. She'd forgotten Josiah was in the room. "How do you know the judge?" "He's an old family friend. He was supposed to visit us this evening, after dinner," she replied, and had a sudden thought. Josiah was the group's spiritual advisor, being the nearest thing to clergy the town boasted. Meeting his eyes, she whispered, "Can I tell you something, in confidence?" "I still hold the Seal of the Confessional sacred" he softly told her. She poured out her heart, telling him about her stepmother, how she had left home after being pressured to marry, about the plan she had hit upon to get the woman to stop hounding her, hiring Ezra for a sham marriage and falling in love with him. "You're not truly married?" Josiah had asked. "We went through the ceremony, but we've never........actually.......done anything." she told him, "We were -- I mean are -- going to have it annulled as soon as she gives up and leaves town. She should have left already!!" Josiah didn't know what to tell her. It was just like Ezra to marry for money, especially if the marriage was a short one. He couldn't advise her till he found out how Ezra felt. God help the gambler if what Josiah suspected was true, because he'd descend on the unfortunate soul like the wrath of God.

There was a knock on the door, and Nathan came in. "Excuse me, ma'am, but I need to check my patient, and your husband wants you" 'If only that were true.' she thought, but she got up, making way for the healer, and left. "Are you ready to go home?" Ezra asked. She nodded, wishing it truly were their home they were going to, to be together. He let her in their suite, telling her he had to go back because Chris wanted to go over a few more things, and not to wait up for him. She undressed, slipped into a nightgown, unpinned and brushed out her hair before braiding it loosely and tying it with a ribbon, and got into bed, turning down the bedside lamp before settling in and trying to sleep.

When Ezra returned to the group, Chris told him Judge Aldridge was awake, and wanted to see him. Steeling himself for the worst, he knocked on the door. Hearing a reply from inside, he entered. "Come here, young man. I wish to speak to you." Ezra sat near the bed, and the judge continued, "I want to tell you something, now, while I can, because shortly before I was attacked tonight, someone was urging me very strongly NOT to tell you. Ezra, your wife may have mentioned having money. Truth is, she doesn't know how much. Her father and I planned it that way. His will specified that I would manage the estate until she married, with an option to continue if her husband so desired. The assets are worth $500,000, with an annual income around $50,000. What do you say?" Ezra was glad he was sitting down. "I - I'll - I'll n-need to th-th-think about it," he stammered, barely able to get the words out. He was rich?? "Please excuse me," he mumbled, and left without waiting for a reply. He needed air. Stopping on the landing, he grasped the railing tightly, drawing in as much air as his lungs would hold, and almost immediately releasing it again. Several times. He didn't hear Josiah behind him until the other man spoke. "How does it feel to be rich?" Ezra couldn't answer -- he didn't feel rich, he felt as though his whole world had been snatched away by a great, uncaring hand. He hadn't felt this lost and alone since the first time his mother had left him with relatives. "I need to get back to Nuala," he gasped, stumbling down the stairs and making his way, half-blind, to the hotel.

Nuala woke when the bedroom door opened. "Ezra?" she called. Why would he come in, especially without knocking first? Then she saw the shape of the person in the room -- a shape too tall to be her husband!   ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ He crossed quickly to the bed, covering her mouth before she could scream. Pinning her down with his weight, he exchanged his hand for his mouth, brutally crushing her lips. While one hand held her wrists, the other roamed over her body, pausing to violently squeeze her breasts before reaching her neckline. With a single sharp motion, he ripped the gown away, exposing the delicate white flesh to his hungry assault. "You should have been mine," he hissed in her ear, using her braid as a gag, "and when I'm through with you, no other man will ever want you again. After he sees what I've done, your pretty boy gambler will cast you aside like a worn-out shirt. I'll be waiting for you to come crawling to me for help. I'll have you, to do with as I please every night, and I'll have your daddy's fortune as well." He stopped talking, using his mouth on her body, biting his way down her neck and shoulders, viscously trying to draw blood, or at least leave deep bruises. When he reached her breasts, he took each nipple in his teeth and bit down as hard he could, hoping to bite them off. Failing that, he covered them in teeth marks, wanting his rival to know he'd been there. Moving lower, he bit his way across her ribs and belly, taking his time, enjoying her muffled screams and futile struggles, reveling in the pain he was inflicting, feeling his penis starting to throb, rock hard in his trousers. Not yet, he told himself, there's more I can do to her before I rape her. Pushing her legs apart with his own, he reached up to fondle her genitalia, parting her outer and inner lips, finding her clitoris and pinching it savagely, using his nails, as though he wanted to excise the offending bit of flesh, and whispering, "Oohh, you're gonna be a good ride," when she bucked her hips, trying to end the agony.

Ezra climbed the stairs to the suite, feeling as though he'd just been pummeled with a 2x4. He muttered, "I'm rich, I'm in love, and I'm married to a beautiful, intelligent woman. Why then am I so utterly miserable?" He would have laughed out loud, had he not feared he would burst into tears, or lose already fragile grip on his emotions. He felt drunk, though he knew he'd only had a few shots hours ago, before dinner.

Nuala had been terrified at the thought of being raped, but Charles' viciousness had been a revelation. Mama Delores had wanted her to marry THIS sadistic fiend?? She ached all over, but her breasts and now her crotch were screaming with pain. As he continued to pinch her most sensitive spot, her violent movements paid off, dislodging her gag. Her scream was a howl of agony and triumph. "SHUT UP, Goddamn stupid fucking bitch!!," he snarled, releasing her clit and beginning to punch her face and ribs, swearing the whole time.

Her scream ripped through his musing like a bolt of lightning, searing away any thought but one: GET TO HER, NOW! He charged down the hallway, hitting the door at full speed, bursting the wood from the lock, not even noticing in his headlong rush the open window, only the open door to the bedroom, and the scene within. Nuala lay naked and bleeding on the bed, as Charles Erikson continued to pound on her. A crimson haze obscured Ezra's vision, and his mind went blank with rage. Charles was so busy punching her he never noticed the man charging him with nothing sane in his eyes.

Ezra pulled Charles off his wife, punching him twice in the gut and several more times in the face. He drove the larger man into the outer room, raining blows in an unceasing torrent, throwing him into walls and over furniture, breaking some of the smaller items. Arms grabbed him, but he shook them off, wrapping his hands around his opponent's neck, intending to choke the life out of him. Voices filtered into his ears, unheard. "Josiah, you got him?" "Damn, Buck, get his arm!" "I'm trying to, Vin!" "Chris, you got the other one?" "All together now, pull!"

The next thing he knew, Josiah was shaking him, and calling his name. What had happened? He tried to remember, and -- "Good Lord, Nuala! How is she? WHERE is she?"

When Ezra had pulled off her attacker, Nuala had wrapped the coverlet from the bed around herself, and curled herself into the smallest ball she could, weeping with terror and pain. Someone touched her, and she cried out for her husband. He rushed in and to her side, taking her blanket-wrapped, hysterical form on his lap and attempting to comfort and calm her enough to discover the source of her distress, fearing the worst and praying it wasn't so. "Shh, shh, shh, I'm here, I'm here, don't be afraid, it's all right, I'm right here," he crooned to her. She sobbed into his shoulder, clutching at his lapel with one hand, giving him a brief glimpse at her breasts. Ezra was thankful the coverlet was thick -- the sight of her naked breasts, even damaged as they were, had given him a raging hard-on. "She won't let me look at her," Nathan explained, "and I need to know how badly she's hurt." He gave Ezra an uncomfortable look. "Maybe you'd better wait in the other room." "NOOO!" she howled, "Ezra, no, stay, please, hold me." Pleading like a small child.

Ezra promised to stay, and, shutting the door, Nathan examined her, while Ezra continued to hold her in his lap. "Let's see here. Bloody nose, but not broken, split lip, black eye. Does your head hurt anywhere beside your face?" The question had earned Nathan a smile. He asked Nuala to lower the coverlet, so he could see her torso. "It's all right, darlin', he won't hurt you," Ezra encouraged. Slipping the coverlet off her shoulders, she let it slide down to her waist, trying to cover her breasts with her arms. Seeing her naked to the waist nearly caused Ezra to completely lose his composure, and seeing the damage had stirred the still-smoldering embers of his earlier rage. Nathan carefully ran his hands over her ribcage, avoiding her breasts. "I'll want to bandage those ribs, some of them might be cracked. Hold her breasts up out of my way." As the healer turned to get the bandages, Ezra breathed an apology in his wife's ear, and putting an arm across her chest, lifted her badly bitten breasts so Nathan could wrap her torso. He then helped the healer treat the worst of the bitemarks, washing her breasts, and gently applying cream to ease the pain. Nathan then tried to go lower. Nuala stiffened. "We're gonna haveta know if he............" he gave the couple a distressed look, "raped you." Ezra had been dreading this moment -- and not solely because it would reveal the sham of their union. "He didn't get the chance -- Ezra came in and stopped him." Nuala said. "Are you sure?" Nathan asked. "I think I'd know." she replied.   Nathan closed the door behind him. Chris and Josiah were still in the outer room, getting in the way of the hotel staff trying to clean up the blood and broken furniture. "Well?" said Chris. "She says not." he replied. "Thank God for that," breathed Josiah, who now knew the answer to his quandary. He'd seen it on Ezra's face when he'd asked about Nuala. The wrath of God needn't descend. Unless Ezra did something extremely stupid.

Chris told Nathan his other patient had been hauled off to jail, and none too gently. He'd had to order Buck and Vin to carry him down the stairs, instead of throwing him out the window and letting him roll off the hotel's awning. Nathan went over to the jail to see what he could do about the damage Ezra had inflicted in his crazed state. He still couldn't believe it had taken Chris, Buck, Josiah, and Vin to pull the smaller man off Charles Erikson. "He still breathing?" he asked, as Vin unlocked the door to the cell. "Unfortunately," was Vin's reply. Charles was no longer handsome -- and might never be again. His nose, cheekbones, and jaw were broken, the latter in 3 places. His face was one big bruise, his neck bore the marks of Ezra's fingers, including 4 parallel scratches on each side where he'd been pulled off, his collarbone was broken, along with most of his ribs, and he was probably bleeding internally, as well. Nathan patched him up as best he could, hoping he'd live to be tried.

Nuala had nearly gone to sleep on Ezra's lap, when there came a knock on the door. He gently laid her down, and went to answer it, discovering a maid with a pot of tea and clean bedding. Gathering up his wife, he sat in one of the rooms chairs while the bed was remade, thanking the maid when she finished, and assuring her that he didn't blame the management for what happened and wouldn't be leaving anytime soon. Nuala donned a fresh nightgown with Ezra's help, noticing he looked away as much as possible. "Ezra," she said, "you've already seen me. You even touched me, when Nathan was bandaging my ribs" "I hadn't meant to, either one." he whispered, sounding almost as if he were in pain.   She took his hands, pulling him toward the bed. "Stay with me, just hold me, I don't want to sleep alone." She pressed herself against him, and he no longer had the coverlet to protect him, or the willpower to stop his penis from hardening in response. She pulled him down to sit on the bed, and took his face in hers. Before he could stop her, she had pressed her lips to his, touching them with her tongue, teasing them to open. She reached up and undid his tie, then started to unbutton his shirt and vest, pushing the clothing out of the way. Moaning aloud and cursing to himself for his weakness, he returned the kiss with all the thwarted passion he'd bottled up, pulling her into his embrace, feeling her nipples through the thin fabric of her gown against his bare skin, nibbling, licking, suckling, kissing her face, her neck, her ears, untying her gown to kiss her breasts, gently swirling his tongue around her nipples, lost in the moment, heedless of the consequences, needing to be inside her with an ache that screamed throughout his body and soul. He pulled her down beside him on the bed, face to face, lying on their sides, continuing to fondle her breasts, and moving on to caress her back and bottom, sliding his hands under her gown, feeling the velvety softness of her skin, needing more, aching to make love to her, mindful of what she'd been through. And just as quickly sat bolt upright, remembering what she HAD been through, and how very vulnerable she was right now.

'WHAT am I DOING??' he thought. He dared not make love to her in this state, she could end up hating him for taking advantage of her. "Ezra?" she murmured, reaching out for him. "Let me get you some of Nathan's tea," he answered, jumping up and quickly crossing the room to the table where the pot had been left. He turned his back to her, rebuttoning his shirt, hoping she wouldn't notice how he was shaking. He poured the tea, thankful they'd brought two cups. She'd adjusted and retied her nightgown, slipping under the covers while his back had been turned. "Here, drink this, it's what Nathan had sent up." She sipped the tea without saying a word, and when it was finished, quickly curled up under the covers, and went to sleep.   Ezra finished his own tea, and walked out into the outer room. He was surprised to find it occupied. Josiah sat on the divan where Ezra had hoped to sleep, as he had every night since his return. "Comfortable?" the gambler inquired. "How is she," was the reply, "and how are you?" "She's asleep, and I'm miserable." He barked a laugh. "Here I am, with all I ever wanted! Or so it appears! Do you know about appearances, Josiah? How easily they can be made to hide the truth? I know. I've been hiding the truth since I returned! My marriage is a sham, I've been sleeping on that divan every night!" He sat down, and put his head in his hands. Josiah touched his arm, and Ezra looked up, pain and despair naked in his eyes. "I love her, Josiah, and there's no way in hell I can ever tell her." "No way in hell, perhaps, but there might be a way here." Josiah said with a smile. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ She was so happy. Ezra had admitted his love for her, and asked her to forget about the annulment. They had spent a perfect day together, riding out of town to have a picnic lunch, cuddling together on a blanket, talking about their future, the house they would buy, the children they'd have. On the way back, he'd told her there was a surprise waiting in the bedroom of their suite. She dashed into the bedroom, eager to see what waited, and suddenly pulled up short. Charles stood next to the bed. As she turned to Ezra for help, she heard him say, "Don't you like your surprise?" and turning to Charles, as he closed the door, leaving the two together, "She's all yours. Enjoy....."

Nuala woke shrieking and flailing at empty air. "Take it easy, it's a dream, it's only a dream." Arms gently encircled her, pulling her against a well-muscled chest, a hand reaching up to place her head on his shoulder. She shook off the hand, looking up into worried green eyes. "He's not here? You didn't leave me?" she softly said. "If you're speaking of your assailant, I have it on good authority he's currently residing in the local jail. As for myself, I haven't quitted our suite since last night's abrupt entrance after hearing your scream, and most certainly would not even consider leaving you with that brutish miscreant." Ezra stated.

He looked a far cry from his usual dapper self, hair mussed, collar undone, tie, vest, and jacket missing. His remaining clothes looked as if he'd slept in them, his eyes were bloodshot, his knuckles were cut up, and he needed a shave. "I can go sit in the outer room if you want to freshen up." she offered. "No need. I can go to the bathhouse, as soon as one of the others shows up. Nathan told you to stay in bed, and I for one agree wholeheartedly." "Nathan said that?" she looked confused, "I don't remember much after.....after......" her eyes unfocused, and he spoke to draw her back , away from the horror he suspected she wasn't to face yet. "Don't worry about it right now, just rest and get your strength back, you've been through a very bad experience. The best thing for you is some more sleep, like the doctor ordered." "No! Not sleep!" she turned panic-stricken eyes upon him, "I don't want anymore nightmares!" He gently rocked her, murmuring soft word of reassurance to quiet her pleas for him not leave her.

After getting her settled, Ezra considered looking out in the hallway for someone to send to the jail. Halfway to the replaced outer door he heard a knock. Wondering which of his friends had come to spell him, since he'd told Josiah last night he didn't want to leave her alone, he opened the door, and got a shock. Standing in the hallway was Maude, with a covered tray in her hands. "You look awful," she drawled, looking him up and down, "and how is your lovely bride this morning? I brought you both some breakfast." She entered the room and set the tray on the table. "When did you find out?" he asked. "I don't even get a *Good Morning* from my own son?" "Good morning" he intoned flatly, "when?" "That nice young man JD told me. He was worried since you're rich now, you'll won't be working with the others anymore." He removed the cover from the tray, asking, "You didn't make this yourself, by any chance?" Receiving a negative reply, he relaxed. His mother's previous attempts at cooking had been total disasters. "Mother, could you watch over Nuala whilst I attempt to repair my appearance? I shouldn't be gone long, and I don't want her to be alone after last night." "Of course, Ezra darling, I would be delighted. Have I told you how very, very proud I am of you?" she purred. Grabbing some things, and warning his mother not to try any cons, he started out the door. And ran straight into Mrs. O'Meara, who was also carrying a breakfast tray. Catching the tray so it didn't overset, he invited her in and apologized, and leaving the two of them together.

An hour later, Ezra exited the bathhouse, his usual immaculate self. Even his eyes were less bloodshot. He decided to stop by the jail, to check on the prisoner and possibly find out how Judges Aldridge and Travis were doing. JD was guarding the prisoner, who had yet to awaken from the beating he had received. He inquired about the judges, and if there had been any more attacks on travelers. JD told him he hadn't heard anything more about Judge Travis, Judge Aldridge was recovering quickly, according to Nathan, and Chris had sent Buck and Vin out to track the gang after hearing this morning of the latest attack. "Ezra," he said, giving the older man a sad look, "are you leaving, now you're rich?"

"You can hardly expect a man of his social standing to risk himself for the less affluent," intoned the banker, Carstairs, "I saw you walk in here, and thought I'd inquire about your wife. How's she faring after the unfortunate circumstances of last night? If there's anything I can do to help, anything at all, please don't hesitate to ask." "I'll keep that in mind" Ezra assured him. After the banker had departed, he turned back to JD. "Wonderful," he sighed, "Do you know he tried to get Chris to run me out of town when he first arrived? He claimed I was a bad influence on our impressionable youth. Now look at him -- practically throwing himself at my feet! How many people did you TELL, JD?" "I didn't tell him, Ezra, I swear! I only told a few others. I told Mary Travis when I was asking about the judge." he stammered, looking like a trapped animal. He hadn't meant to make Ezra angry. The older man noticed this, and sighed again. "It's all right, JD, I'm not upset with you. Everyone would have eventually found out, anyway. I wonder how many times I'll be stopped before I reach my room by opportunistic well-wishers?"

The number was 8, all of them the town's well-to-do, who had previously avoided him as if he were a leper. By the time he reached the suite, he was thoroughly disgusted with them, feeling almost as though he needed another bath to remove the cloying stench of their hypocrisy. As he approached the door, he heard feminine voices raised in argument, and Josiah's deeper tones, trying to restore order. Entering without bothering to knock, he asked, "What's going on here? I leave you here to watch over my wife, and you end up screeching at each other like banshees!" He glared at both women, and they both started on HIM, pleading their respective cases. Silencing them with a movment of his arms, he stated, "Never mind. Since no else is bothering, I'm going to check on Nuala." and passed through to the bedroom, locking the door behind him. 'Peace at last, I hope!' he thought. But it wasn't to be.

Nuala was curled up on the bed, sobbing into a pillow. "What is it, my dear?" he softly inquired, sitting on the bed, and stroking her hair. "Don't touch me," she snapped, "you only want my money! Even your mother says so!" "But that was the arrangement, you proposed it yourself." he gently replied. "Not the $1000, the money from my father's estate," she sobbed, " how could I have been so stupid? Mama Delores said she was going to talk to Uncle Milty, to get an annulment, and your mother said it wouldn't matter, the estate was yours the moment we were pronounced man and wife, and she couldn't expect you to give up something that was legally yours. Then they started yelling at each other, and Josiah came in and dragged them into the other room." She looked at him. "Is it true? My father's estate is legally yours because we're married? You could throw me out on the street, keep my money, and I couldn't do anything about it?"

Ezra looked at her bruised, tear-streaked, and all too vulnerable face. 'What do I tell her?' his panicked mind wailed. He couldn't think of a single thing to say. Part of him wanted to tell her how much he loved her, but feared she would simply dismiss the words as a con, as his mother had told her. Part of him wanted to tell her he would hold to the original agreement, and not even take the additional money, but his heart shattered at the idea of giving her up. He made his decision, and put on his best poker face. "I don't want your money -- or anything else of yours." he told her, getting up and striding to the door. Unlocking it, he pulled it open, calling to Josiah, "Stay with her. I need to talk to the judge." Josiah came in, and Ezra stepped into the front room. "What about us?" the two women asked. "Get out, and don't come back. If I catch you in this suite again, I might forget you're members of the soi-distant *fairer* gender." He gave them his iciest glare to back it up, and pushed them out the door, locking it behind him, and went to see the judge.

He never made it. Chris caught him in the hotel lobby. "We gotta ride. Vin's found where the gang's hiding out, Buck's watching them to make sure if they move, we'll know where. I need to find Josiah." "He's sitting with Nuala," Ezra replied, "but I can ask Mary if she'll do it." "What about your mother?" "Don't ask -- long story." He darted out the door, and almost ran down the woman he was seeking. "I need a favor, can you watch Nuala while we ride? Thank you," and was past, running to the livery before she could refuse. "I guess his mother's busy with something else." she mused, going up to the suite. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Ezra rode in the rear as they approached the hideout. They had all ridden out of town, leaving their prisoner in the charge of the blacksmith, a short, dark-haired, ill-tempered man, whom they had made promise not to kill him. As they rode, each man with his own thoughts, Josiah had pulled alongside him. "You get a chance to talk to the judge?" he asked. "No," Ezra replied, "Chris caught me in the lobby." "You might want to reconsider whatever you were going to say." the ex-priest advised, "don't do something you might regret to your dying day." "I already have, and feel the obligation to correct my error." he shot back. "You told me you loved her," Josiah replied mildly. "I was mistaken," Ezra whispered, urging his horse forward to end the conversation. Josiah let him go.

They pulled up when they got to Buck's horse, dismounting and leaving their mounts. Chris asked Ezra if he wanted to stay with the horses, thinking to keep the newly-married member of the group in a safer position. Ezra stared him down. "That isn't necessary, Mr. Larabee, and furthermore, isn't appreciated." He recalled the earlier remarks by the banker, and the hypocrisy of the townsfolk. "I'll take my usual position." he insisted. Leaving Nathan with the horses instead, in case anyone was shot, they spread out and prepared to close in. Seeing everyone in place, and having gotten a sign from Buck no one had left, Chris called down for the outlaws to surrender.

His request was met with a hail of lead, which was promptly answered in kind. Both sides had plenty of cover, and it was only a matter of who could outlast whom when it came to supplies, particularly water. Chris signaled Vin, who laid down covering fire till the other man could join him. "You think they got water down there?" he asked. "Hard to tell. Maybe." Vin answered, "There's water in that little draw we passed 'bout half a mile back, they may have been using that." "So we sit and wait," said Chris, "hopin' they don't have water and get desperate."

Ezra spent the time thinking about Fionnuala, what he could have said, what he could have done, and the conversation earlier with Josiah. He replayed the scene over and over in his mind, trying to think of how he could have made things right, and if there was any way he could fix things up when he got back. He was so lost in thought he almost missed hearing the slight sound behind him. He turned, saw, aimed, and fired in a single smooth motion, but not quickly enough to prevent the bullets from entering his body. The shot did, however, alert the others that something was amiss, and prevented any other casualties during the capture/killings of the gang, all of whom were accounted for at the end.

He felt the bullets hit him in the chest, belly, and thigh, but continued to fire, hoping the others would turn in time to protect themselves, and taking out as many as he could. He hoped their mistake in not checking the hillside thoroughly wouldn't prove fatal for anyone else. He wondered if his mother would be proud of him for this. He smiled through the pain, amused at how well this solved all his problems. His last conscious thought was that his wife would make a lovely widow, and that she would be safe from her stepmother for at least a year.

Chris swore when he saw Ezra was hit, and even more when he saw how the gang had almost slipped past them. The cave was so small as to escape detection, and only Ezra's fortunate, or unfortunate as the case may be, choice of cover had allowed anyone to see or hear them emerging. As it was, only the slight noise made by the last one out had alerted him to the gang's imminent escape. He'd shot at least 2 before passing out, but they'd hit him 3 or 4 times, it looked like. "How bad?" he asked Nathan. "Bad," was the reply, "Josiah, I'm gonna need some help here, and if you got any extra prayers, you better say 'em now."

While Nathan and Josiah tried to staunch Ezra's bleeding, Vin, Buck, and JD checked the gang's hideout and located the corral where they kept their horses. There were almost 2 dozen, some matching descriptions of horses stolen during attacks. Saddling enough for the surviving gang members, they then made a litter slung between 2 horses for Ezra, but Nathan shook his head. "He ain't strong enough to make it back to town, even in that. You take the prisoners back, and I'll stay here and tend to him till he's better." "Then I'm staying, too" Vin volunteered, "you're gonna need help tending to him."

The others took the 3 survivors back to town, and placed them in cells, putting 1 in with their other prisoner, who had awakened while they were gone. Chris looked at Josiah. "Wife or mother?" he asked. "Think I'll take the wife," Josiah responded. They left the jail, going to the hotel, where Chris discovered Maude had left. He decided to try the saloon. Josiah went directly to Ezra's suite, where he found Mary, still watching over Nuala, who was asleep. Not wishing to wake her, he told Mary what had happened. "The poor thing," she sighed, "do you want me to stay?" He shook his head no, and thanked her for her help. She told him if he needed anything, to stop by the Clarion, and left.

Nuala woke shortly thereafter. "You're back? Where's Ezra?" she asked, before remembering the last time she'd seen him, and what he'd said. "I've got some bad news," Josiah said, "Ezra's been shot -- It's bad, but he's not dead. We had to leave him behind, but Nathan and Vin are with him, they won't let him die if they can help it." She thought for a moment, then replied, "Would you mind stepping into the other room? I have to dress." Seeing his expression, she snapped, "You didn't think I'd just stay here in bed while my husband needs me, did you? I'm going out there."   ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Ezra floated in not-quite-existence, enjoying the cessation of pain. 'So this is death.' he thought, wondering how he could think without a brain, or a body, for that matter. 'It's not what I expected. Of course, I never really gave the matter much thought.' There seemed to be something off in one direction, though he wasn't sure "direction" could apply to a place that didn't quite exist. He turned (how and what, he didn't know) toward the disturbance(?), seeing (perceiving? How can I perceive without senses?) a glow in the distance (another term that shouldn't apply). He moved toward it, still uncertain what or how he was moving, or even if "moving" had any meaning in this place.

Nathan put his hand on Ezra's forehead, checking for fever. He'd had to search for the second bullet he'd pulled out of the gambler's chest, and he was worried about the belly wound -- those tended to get infected most often, usually if the intestines were pierced. If that had happened, Ezra would probably die, and nothing the healer could do would stop it. But for now, he was showing no signs of infection. Or any sign of waking in the near future. Nathan sighed, hoping he could figure out how to get food, or at least liquids, into an unconscious patient without the proper equipment. Maybe Vin knew how the Indians did it. He needed to get liquids into the man, to replace the blood he'd lost, preferably the beef broth that even now was simmering on the stove. For all it's isolation, the house the gang had used for a hideout was well-furnished, boasting a cast-iron cooking stove, complete with a reservoir for heating water in the rear, with it's own removable tub. Nathan wondered how large a family had originally lived in this place, and if their graves, if any, would ever be found.

Josiah was pacing the outer room of the hotel suite, rehearsing arguments to keep Nuala from rushing off to Ezra's side. He certainly didn't expect the ambush that came knocking on the door. Maude brushed past him on the way to the bedroom, just as Nuala came out. "Forgive the intrusion, my dear, but I need to borrow your carriage to retrieve my son." Maude said. "I was just going out to where he is. Would you come with me?" Nuala paused, uncertain. "Is it all right to call you Mama Standish?" Maude nodded, caught speechless. When was the last time she'd been called Mama? Ezra'd stopped calling her that when he turned 16, saying he'd outgrown such childishness. He'd always been formally polite ever since, calling her "Mother" or whatever alias she was using at the time. Josiah broke into her reverie, stating, "Ladies, ladies -- it's late afternoon now, it would be dark before you even got halfway there. I promise I will personally escort you to where he is, if you will only wait until morning." The two women exchanged glances, and some unspoken form of communication, before agreeing to Josiah's request.

Ezra slipped down the tunnel toward the light, a sense of happiness, of forgiveness, washing over him. He was certain there had been some sort of mistake, he should have gone the other way. Then he sensed The Presence, and understood. He was going to be Judged first. He winced at first under the scrutiny, and then realized he was to be his own judge, viewing his life with an unbiased, uncritical eye. There was a lot to be ashamed of, but there were good things he'd done, too, and not all of them came after joining the Seven. Small things he'd forgotten, that had changed the lives of the people he'd touched, and not always for the worse. He sensed others near him, and looking around, he saw friends and relatives he knew were dead, and realized they were the source of the feelings he'd had earlier.

Vin entered the kitchen, noting the broth on the stove. 'Damn, Nathan,' he thought, 'couldn't you put something besides jerky in that pot?' He was looking around for something to add when the healer came in. "That supposed to be dinner?" he asked. "No, that's for Ezra, if I can find a way to get it down him." was the reply, "You happen to know one?" "He's not awake yet?" from Vin. "No, and he needs fluids to replace the blood he's lost. I don't have the equipment here to force feed him," was the reply, "and was just wondering if your Indian friends had any way to feed a comatose patient?" "They don't believe in feeding the sick, they think it strengthens the bad spirits." He looked Nathan in the eye. "He's gonna die, isn't he?" "Not if I can help it." Nathan vowed.

Josiah was shaken awake at dawn. "It's morning," said Nuala, "time to keep your promise." She and Maude barely allowed him time to wash the sleep out of his eyes and a bit of breakfast before dragging his half-awake body to the livery. "Wait," he bellowed, gaining a modicum of control, "I need to tell someone where we're going." Taking advantage of their momentary startlement, he went to the jail, knowing there was someone there watching the prisoners. He got one h*ll of a shock seeing Judge Aldridge sitting behind the desk. "Aren't you supposed to be in bed?" he inquired. "You're short-handed," was the reply, "and I thought I'd take a turn and let your friends get a little extra rest. You're taking Nuala and her mother-in-law out there, aren't you?" "They're intent on going, and I promised to take them this morning," he said, "I never planned on leaving quite this early, though." "Does she love him that much?" the judge asked. "I couldn't say," Josiah replied.

Ezra saw his time with Fionnuala, and cringed inside. He now knew how much she loved him, and how much he'd hurt her with the last words he'd said to her. As he faced The Presence, he sensed (it filled his whole being) a Question. {[DO YOU LOVE HER?]} "With all my heart and soul," he replied. {[THEN GO AND BE WITH HER.]} He felt himself falling..................

Vin was shocked to see the carriage pull up. "I couldn't keep them away," Josiah told him, "they insisted on coming." The ladies popped down from the carriage and ran into the house, Nuala leading the way. Nathan sidestepped and pointed to the room where Ezra lay, knowing better than to stand between loved ones. As Fionnuala sat beside him on the bed, her tears falling on him, begging God to send him back, he opened his eyes. "I love you," he whispered, "with all my heart and soul. Please never leave me." "I won't, I won't, I won't," she sobbed, thankful that he was alive, and might stay that way. "I love you, don't leave me, please. I want you, I need you, I can't live without you."

Ezra took a long time to recover from his wounds, enough time to discover who had originally owned the house he had awakened in, and determine there were no surviving family members to claim the property. Ezra and Nuala eventually claimed it by squatter's rights, having lived in it the required amount of time, some of it the time Ezra spent recovering from his wounds, and some it waiting for the birth of their first child, a boy they named Josiah Milton, after the two men that had had such an impact on their lives. Ezra continued to be a peacemaker in Four Corners, and when the people decided they wanted a mayor twenty years later, Ezra Standish was the obvious choice, supported by the editorials of Chris and Mary Larabee's Chronicle.

Chief of Police JD Dunne looked over at his boss, Mayor Ezra Standish, and at the children (and a few grandchildren) that the Seven had produced over the years. They'd all eventually followed Ezra's lead and married, JD and Casey barely beating Chris and Mary to the altar, followed shortly by Nathan and Rain. Buck(!) and Inez married a few months later, and (he always called it a miracle) Josiah and Maude followed a year afterward. It seemed Vin would never settle down, but a raven-haired beauty stole his heart, and he married six months after Josiah. Together they'd produced almost 50 children, and a half dozen grandchildren and still counting. "Did you have any idea what you were starting back then?" JD asked. "H*ll, JD, I didn't even know my own mind then, let alone what I was starting." Ezra said, thinking of the strange dream he'd had when he'd been wounded twenty-three years earlier. The year after his second child was born, he started spending time with Milton Aldridge (whom he could never quite bring himself to call Uncle Milty), learning to manage the estate left to his wife, and by the time Aldridge died, he was making most of the decisions, and the transition from Aldridge to Standish went through almost without notice. He'd never regretted the vows he'd made never intending to keep, learning that sometimes Fate (or God) will hold you to promises. "I just loved, honored, and cherished, as I promised."

FINIS


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