DISCLAIMER: The following is an original work of fan fiction based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended. No profit is being made - enjoy!!
Eleanor Tremayne, Ezquire
'Two o'clock and all is well!' Ezra thought to himself, resisting the urge to shout the words at the top of his lungs. Mister Larabee and the others would probably not appreciate the humorous spirit in which the ancient watch cry would be offered, and the gambler had every intention of doing what was necessary to keep his fellow 'lawmen' happy for the next twenty-eight days.
'Twenty-seven,' he corrected himself with some satisfaction. It was, after all, past midnight.
A sound from the alley behind the farrier's caught his ears and he flattened himself into the shadows, creeping around the side of the clapboard building to investigate it, his Remington in his hand.
"Jemmy!" squeaked a woman's voice.
'Good Lord!' Ezra mentally squeaked back, glad that the darkness hid his blush from the half-naked, fully entwined couple.
"It's one a them new sheriffs!" she identified.
"Madam," Standish said, tipping his hat to her. "Is this gentleman... accosting you?"
"Not very damn well," she sighed.
"Well, if'n you'd stop movin' --!" the cowboy with her protested.
"I'm s'posed t'move, you dumb ox!" she scolded, smacking him on the shoulder with a fist. "Ain't I, mister?" she demanded of Ezra.
"It's -- really not mah place to say," the gambler hedged, backing away.
"If'n you move, I cain't --" Jemmy began to explain.
"Sir!" Ezra protested. "Please...! Y'all -- aren't supposed to be back heah..." the gambler found himself at a loss for words. "Look, son, just rent a room."
"Ain't got the money," the cowboy said mournfully.
"I do," the woman announced.
"Cain't let a woman pay!" Jemmy countered stubbornly.
"I can't let you --" Ezra's hand and gun waved as he struggled to find a nice way to make his point. "A gentleman always places a lady's comfort above his pride -- not to mention the statutory complications your poverty presents."
"Huh?" Jemmy said.
"It's illegal to.... It's just -- illegal."
"No it ain't!" the woman snapped. "Me and Jemmy's gettin' married come harvest."
"Yes sir," Jemmy confirmed stoutly. "June here is my intended."
"Yes, well, sir, an alley is an inappropriate place for your intentions. So, either rent a room, or I'm throwin' you both in jail -- in separate cells."
That threat got through to Jemmy. Ezra barely had time to avert his eyes before June and Jemmy were pulling apart and stuffing themselves back into their clothes.
"Thanks, mister!" June caroled gaily, waving back at Ezra as she and Jemmy ran toward the hotel, hand in hand.
"Good Lord!" Ezra repeated aloud, holstering his Remington before helping himself to a swig from his flask. Lord knew he was no prude; indeed, the word libertine had been applied to him on more than one occasion with considerable justification, but this.... And behind the smithy, no less!
"Good Lord," he said again, shaking his head as he moved on down the street in the direction of the mercantile. Twenty-seven more days before his pardon lost its conditional status.... He should have gotten the judge to take a whole week off the thirty days of what the old rapscallion termed 'service to the community' for the capture of Lucas James instead of just a single day. If this first 'routine patrol' was indicative of how he'd spend the next month, he might have been better off enduring the black mark on his record and serving out the remaining days of his misdemeanor sentence in jail, enjoying the ignorant but generally chaste company of young Mister Dunne.
Straightening his shoulders, Ezra moved on, past the Clarion and the establishment that had the nerve to call itself a restaurant. Why, the cook couldn't make decent milk gravy, let alone a proper sauce! If you ordered a steak, you had a choice between raw and charcoal, and what the man did to eggs --! He'd shoot him, if he'd thought that there was a possibility that the culinary Caligula had left a single taste bud undecimated in any prospective juror.
'Twenty-seven days,' he reminded himself. Twenty-seven days, and then he was off to San Francisco and real money. He'd get enough scratch together in the penny-ante games the saloon provided him to have a real stake, large enough for a real game. Maybe open himself an establishment on the waterfront, where he could watch the ships sail in from the tropics and forget all about the Atlantic coast.
"Twenty-seven days," he sighed aloud, heading toward the general store. One thing was for certain, the sooner he got out of the withering desert air and away from the suicidal knights errant fate had conspired to shackle him with, the better. Otherwise, if he didn't starve first, he just might go mad.
As he passed the livery, he frowned up at the second story clinic. He certainly didn't equate poverty with nobility of purpose and had long ago decided that the only crisis he would be concerned with was one that directly affected the quality of his life. He intended to get a full complement of sleep, unlike Mister Jackson who allowed himself to be rousted out of bed at any hour for the slightest provocation, and all for the dubious reward of a dusty chicken or two.
The gambler's fingers twitched in an atavistic signal that something was amiss in his environment. He listened intently, until he heard the faintest sound that didn't naturally belong in the night, guiding his gaze to the darkened windows of the mercantile.
He turned his eyes toward it, sharpening his gaze on the windows of the general store. There was movement in the darkness of its interior at a time when all law-abiding, hardworking people should have long been asleep. Ezra's jaw clenched as he pulled his Remington from its holster, approaching the store from the back way. If Lucas James's uncle had come to make an example out of the Potter family, he was in for as rude an awakening as he had planned for the dead shopkeeper's family.
Gloria Potter couldn't sleep. She hadn't slept much since her husband had been murdered, and what little slumber afforded her by her raging emotions hadn't been restful. She had thought that once Lucas James had been brought to justice and it was all over, she would be able to sleep peacefully through the night.
She had been dreadfully wrong. If anything, it had gotten worse since the hanging. Without Lucas James to focus on, she was left to see her own loss with a piercing clarity. She saw Marcus in the faces of her children, in his chair, at her table, in the stunned, old woman she saw staring back at her from her mirror.
What was she going to do now? She was no businessman, but the mercantile was all she had that could provide for her children. It was her only means of income and it was the only home her children could remember. If she sold it, there was no place to go back to, no one waiting to take them in.
The store wouldn't bring enough money to keep them for more than a year or perhaps two, certainly not enough to send Josh to school or give Amelia a respectable marriage portion. As for her, she could go back to work... but there was no call for her skills in this rough frontier town. She might be able to make a living in a city, but the only future for her children in a city lay in the factories or in service and she and Marcus had promised them so much more than that.
She held her head between her hands, sternly ordering herself not to cry. Crying wouldn't solve anything and would only make her aching head hurt more. She had to think of something, had to have something to tell her children in the morning that would help ease that frightened, lost look in their eyes.
Sniffing back her tears, she rubbed her prickly eyes and decided to try and make sense of her husband's ledgers one more time. She had a stupid, hopeful notion that if she could just manage to concentrate on their notations and figures, she would understand them. So far, it had been an impossible task. Just when she thought she might have made sense of something, the idea that she would never again be touched by the hands that had written so firmly and clearly on the ruled lines would strangle the breath in her throat and make her mind tumble.
It wasn't too many hours until morning, she judged. She'd look at the ledgers in the kitchen while she stoked the stove. A good breakfast could do wonders, she told herself, if not for her then for Josh and Amelia.
Sighing, she gathered the books from her husband's desk and rose, heading for the haven of the kitchen. She had always retired to her stove when she'd needed to make sense of the world. She could order her thoughts as she baked her breads and seasoned her soups, find some balance and some perspective no matter how hard her life was. When her mother had died, when she'd lost the baby after Josh, she'd used her kitchen to put her feet back on the ground. Properly seasoned cast-iron didn't care how much you cried on it.
Shutting the door behind her so as not to wake her children's troubled sleep, she put the ledgers down on the plank table Marcus had built for her when she still cooked over a pit outside the store. He'd built the kitchen for her around that big, solid table, surprising her with a wood-burning cook stove on their first anniversary. He'd said there was enough dust in the desert for her to scrub off the walls without adding coal to the mix.
Turning toward the stove and its banked embers, a soft 'tap!' on the window caught her breath in her throat. 'Tap!' it sounded again, a little louder this time. Heart hammering against her ribs, she stepped to the side of the window, pulling aside its cheerful calico curtain to peek outside.
She jumped as she saw a man's face, covering her mouth to help stop her scream as her brain recognized it as belonging to one of the seven men who had ridden out after the man who had murdered her husband. It was the southerner, the one who held himself a step away from everything and everyone with that mocking, laughing look in his green eyes.
She couldn't see his eyes in the shadow from his hat brim, but she could see the frown on his face and the tense set to his shoulders beneath that superbly tailored red jacket. There was no hint of superior amusement in him as he pointed to her kitchen door.
She hesitated a moment, then went swiftly to the door, opening it to the cold night air and a dangerous stranger.
"Mrs. Potter," he greeted her in a whisper, tipping his hat to her before gliding into the kitchen. "Pardon my intrusion, madam, but I believe someone is in your store."
"I think --" she began, dropping her voice as he held a finger to his lips, "I think you saw me, Mister...?"
"Standish," he supplied. "And it wasn't you."
He moved past her, quiet as a cat in his soft leather boots, taking her hand and tucking her in behind him with his left hand so he would know where she was.
Swallowing hard, she crept after him, her fingers twisting in her skirt and tightening on his hand. She felt his answering squeeze and it steadied the fear trembling her body. 'Oh, dear God, let this not be happening...' she prayed, wanting nothing more than to scream and keep on screaming while she flew up the narrow stairway to grab her children and hold them safe against whatever danger lurked in the darkness surrounding her. 'And please, God, don't let me have allowed the devil in...'
A floorboard creaked under her foot and she froze, panic clawing up her throat as a dry sob that she desperately bit back. She felt Standish pull her in closer to him, shielding her with the width of his body as they both heard the sound of the hammer being cocked on a pistol somewhere to their left.
Nothing happened for the longest time, and then the world exploded, triggered by the muffled 'thump!' of a foot stubbing itself against the leg of the yardage table. A familiar yelp made her scream, "Amelia!" just as the shuttered lantern her daughter had held clanked to the floor, spilling light across the room and shadows across the ceiling and the walls. Joshua stood to her left, trying to point his father's pistol at the hired gun who had his big Remington trained right between her son's terrified eyes.
Standish let go of her hand as the lantern died. She couldn't see anything, and all she could hear was Joshua crying and Amelia screaming while she waited for the gunshot that would kill her youngest child.
"Good Lord!" she heard Standish bark instead. Amelia managed to find her in the darkness, burrowing into her while she tried to remember how to breathe.
"The lantern, if you please, ladies!" Standish ordered.
Somehow, she managed to find it on the floor despite Amelia's clutch hampering her movements. She put it on the yardage table, shoving fabric aside. A box of lucifers was pressed into her hand and it took her three shaking tries before the lantern was lit and raised swaying in her grip.
Standish's gun was already back in its holster, and he held her son's shoulder in one hand while the other held Josh's small wrists together, forcing the muzzle of Marcus's pistol toward the floor.
Joshua stared up at his captor, crying so hard with fear that his thin little body shook. She took a step toward him, raising a hand out to Standish. 'Please,' she wanted to beg him, 'please, don't hurt my baby...' but she couldn't make her voice work.
Standish smiled, letting go of Joshua's wrists and taking the pistol from his hands before he dropped down on one knee in front of the boy, making them very close to a height.
"Well done, Mister Potter," he said, man to man, tightening his grip on her son's shoulder until his fingers turned white.
"I-I heard s-s-somethin'..." Joshua stuttered.
"I believe you heard your mother in the kitchen," Standish explained. "I expect she was gettin' the oven ready to make you an' your sister a pie. D'you like pies, son?"
Josh blinked at him, his sobs becoming great hiccuping gulps of air. He managed to nod in answer to this imposing stranger's most unexpected question.
"So do I," Standish confided. "Have you evah had a pecan pie made with the best molasses?"
Josh shook his head 'no' and Standish's face fell.
"Pity." Leaning forward conspiratorially, Standish whispered, "I think your mother may be feelin' a trifle faint. Why don't you go help her and your sister into the kitchen?"
More than a little assisted by the guiding hand on his shoulder, Josh made it to her side. Wordlessly, Standish handed her Marcus's gun butt first and she hurried her children into the warmth and light of her kitchen.
Fifteen minutes later, Standish joined them. She knew by the relaxed way he carried himself that all was as it should be in her house. Well, at least as much as it should be as it could be.
"Are you cold, Darlin'?" he asked her shivering daughter, with a quick, genuine smile she hadn't thought a man like him could produce. Hiding her bare feet under the ruffle of her flannel nightdress, Amelia nodded up at the strange, sweet-smelling man towering over her.
"Heah," Standish said, and suddenly that sharp red coat was being wrapped around her daughter's thin shoulders. "And we'll just put you a little closer to the fire," he told Amelia. Scooping her up in his arms he set her down on the other end of the table's bench and a few feet closer to her mother, who was busy warming two cans'-worth of sweet, condensed milk on the stove while the kettle simmered into a boil.
"Bettah?" he asked.
Amelia nodded again, her eyes huge as she took in every detail of the waistcoat and its stitching. It was quite the latest cut, her mother noted, remembering seeing an illustration very like it in her last issue of Godey's. Though the model in the magazine hadn't been wearing a pistol on his hip, in a shoulder harness, or strapped on a carriage to his arm. The thought that the contraption that held Standish's derringer must leave awful wrinkles in the silk of his gartered sleeve flitted through her mind like a dizzy butterfly.
Standish caught her gaze as he picked up Marcus's pistol from the shelf where she'd put it, high out of a child's reach. Practiced fingers opened the cylinder, sliding the bullets it held into his palm. He handed them to her and she put them in her apron's pocket while he replaced the gun in its new place.
"I think you would be bettah served by a smaller caliber weapon," he said, taking the sting out of his action as he sat down at the table across from Josh.
"Somethin' a little less... upsettin' to the ladies in your household. Of course, you'd have to learn t'shoot all over again."
"Well, yes -- but that's somethin' to be discussed with your mother in the mornin'."
"It is morning," Amelia unexpectedly piped up, her fingers clutching the blue trim that matched the pinstripe on Standish's dark trousers.
"It is?" the southerner blinked, tilting his head as he considered it. "I suppose it is," he smiled.
"Are y-you a g-gunslinger?" Josh asked, looking from gun to gun to gun.
"I have some small facility with a handgun, but no, sir, I'm not a shootist."
"W-what are y-you?"
"I am -- a gentleman adventurer."
"Why?" Amelia demanded.
"Amy!" she scolded her unusually bold daughter as she thinned the heated milk with an equal part of the almost boiling water.
"It suits me," Standish drawled, leaning toward Amelia and stretching out a hand to tug at one of the braids trailing from beneath her mobcap. "Just as that very fetchin' bonnet suits you."
"It's not a bonnet," Amelia informed him, with the authority of One Who Knows.
"I stand corrected," Standish grinned, and Gloria Potter suddenly realized that the elegant tiger sitting at her kitchen table was purring as he played with her kittens.
"Mr. C-conklin says you're a no good, s-s-swindling gambler," Josh blurted out.
"Joshua!" Mrs. Potter gasped, fumbling the sugar nippers badly in the cone of white sugar she kept reserved for special occasions.
"Mistah Conklin says quite a few unpleasant things," Standish replied with a slow smile that pulled back one side of his upper lip to reveal a gold-capped canine.
"I don't like Mr. Conklin!" Amelia announced, thrusting out a stubborn chin.
"Neither do I, Darlin'," Standish agreed, casting a wary eye on where the girl's mother stirred the sugar into the milk and water not quite bubbling on the slow side of the stovetop.
Mrs. Potter sighed. "I don't like him either," she admitted. "I never have." At Standish's raised eyebrows, she explained, "I don't think you can be a good Christian and a hypocrite, Mr. Standish."
"My P-pa p-played p-poker," Josh offered shyly. "He s-s-said it was a s-s-sciens-s-se."
"As did my own dear mother," Standish smiled. "Though I might hesitate to play with you, young man!"
Joshua's eyes grew wide and round as Standish reached across the table and plucked a Jack of Hearts from the cuff of his nightshirt's over-long sleeve.
"Or your sister, for that mattah," the southerner added, his other hand snaking out to pull a Queen of Hearts from underneath her cap.
Mrs. Potter put her back to the table as she grated several tablespoons of cocoa into the sweet slurry she'd made. It wouldn't do for the children to see her cry when they were laughing for the first time since their father's death.
In the few minutes it took her to finish brewing the cocoa and pour it into her tall and slender Spode chocolate pot, they were laughing and arguing against Standish's outrageous accusations as he pulled more cards, pennies, handkerchiefs, buttons and all manner of astonishing objects from her children's noses and ears and sleeves.
'Marcus would have liked you,' she thought at the charming young man feigning astonishment at finding his pocket watch lurking in her astonished daughter's hair.
Then the laughter stopped in a scraping of benches and the patter of bare feet as, at a nod from Standish, Amelia and Joshua scampered to lay the table. He himself rose and took the tray with the chocolate pot and platter of macaroons, orange drop-cakes, and nutmeg-sugar teacakes away from her.
Mrs. Potter watched with bemusement as her children, under the direction of a gentleman adventurer, laid tea. Oh, Marcus would have loved this....
"Madam," Standish said, bowing her to a seat. She chuckled, never having had a bench held for her before. It was an impressive feat that he managed to pull off twice, for having seated mother he seated daughter across from her, signaling Josh to sit to his mother's right.
She nodded to Amelia, letting the child pour the steaming chocolate into her best china cups. It was a solemn little affair, Joshua keeping his gaze glued to Standish so he would be sure to do everything properly.
"Ladies," Standish toasted, waiting for them to take a sip before sampling his own cocoa. The look of bliss that crossed his face suddenly made him look not too much older than Amelia, and Mrs. Potter watched in satisfaction as he bit into a drop-cake, his eyes closing for a moment in rapture.
"More pastries, Mister Standish?" she inquired sweetly.
"Oh, no," he replied, eyeing the platter with predatory wistfulness. "I couldn't..."
"Oh, please?" she asked. "You'd be doing me a favor... I would hate for them to spoil."
"We -- wouldn't want that," he agreed, presenting his plate with alacrity. "And if you do insist..."
"I do," she said firmly, piling the cookies high.
Half an hour later, Mrs. Potter stroked her daughter's head through its cap as she slept with it pillowed on her mother's lap, wrapped tightly in Mr. Standish's velvet coat. Josh slept against her shoulder, her arm around him keeping him steady.
"I'm no accountant," she finished explaining to Standish as he used his fingertips to pick up sweet crumbs from the platter. "I can't make head or tails of the books."
"Well," he sighed, looking regretfully at the clean platter, "it's not somethin' you should be worryin' about at this time of night. I'm sure Mrs. Travis will have some useful ideas tomorrow."
She caught herself yawning, barely able to cover her mouth in time. Unlike most people, he didn't yawn after she did, rising instead to come across to her side of the table to gently shake Joshua awake.
"Time t'take your mother up to her bed, son," Standish coached, patting the sleepy boy between his shoulders. Amelia he simply picked up as if it were the most normal thing in the world for him to do.
'You've done that before,' Mrs. Potter realized as she guided her sleepwalking son past Standish and up the stairs to the children's room. As she watched him tuck Amelia under her covers while still wearing the red jacket she refused to let go of, Gloria was sure of it. Brushing off the bottoms of Amy's bare feet before he tucked them under the blanket was a dead give-away of his experience with putting sleeping children to bed.
Once her daughter was in bed and she'd kissed her goodnight, it was her son's turn. Again, he brushed off the soles of Josh's bare feet and tucked the blanket in just so. She noticed that he left the brand new deck of cards he'd miraculously found in Josh's nose held tightly in her son's fist.
'Better cards than Marcus's gun,' she acknowledged, shuddering at what had very nearly happened that night.
In the hall outside her children's bedroom, Standish told her, "I'll see myself out."
"Thank you," she said, risking a touch on his sleeve. "For everything."
He grinned, his eyes dancing at a joke she didn't understand. "It's what they pay me foah, madam."
'Good Lord,' Ezra thought to himself as he stretched and yawned, filching the very last of the cocoa from the pot before leaving the warm kitchen. He didn't think Mrs. Potter would mind and it wouldn't be any good come breakfast.
'What an evening! Or morning,' he corrected himself in deference to young Miss Potter as he picked his hat up from the far end of the table. He frowned as he saw that it had lain on top of a stack of ledgers -- the legacy of the late Mr. Potter, a man who had more to regret than most at his passing.
'Leave it alone, Ezra,' he instructed himself firmly as his fingers tapped atop the stack of leather-bound volumes. 'The last thing you need is t'be hip deep in any more widows and orphans.'
His shift was over, anyway. Time to pass the torch to Mister Tanner and sleep away most of the rest of his twenty-seventh day of captivity. Yes, there was no point in getting involved since he wasn't going to be here very much longer anyway. Mrs. Potter was a sensible woman and Mrs. Travis a resourceful one -- they would manage to find a solution to the Potter family difficulties quite well on their own recognizance. If they didn't -- well, it was not his concern. It was life, the consequences of rolling the dice upon this mortal coil, and like any game of roulette, the odds were considerably against the player.
The tapping fingers suddenly changed their course, flipping open the cover. Perhaps it wouldn't hurt to just take a peek....
'EZRA!' he scolded himself as he put his hat back down on the table and pulled up a bench. 'The grievin' widow might not appreciate a no-good, swindlin' gambler lookin' at her books. You've been run out of town for far less.'
'Hell,' he countered himself as he turned the page, 'I've been run outta town for wearin' a clean shirt... And anyway, I'll just take a quick look... Who knows? There might be somethin' in here that's relevant to Mister Potter's murder that could help you protect the town against Lucas and the other ranchers...'
Ezra imagined his mother spinning in the early grave she would surely go to if she could see him at this moment.
'This job might have some perks after all,' he mused, turning another page.
Try as she might, Gloria Potter couldn't sleep. It was too close to morning for her to allow herself to drift off, the custom of a lifetime of rising before the dawn overriding her weariness.
Sighing, she decided to get up and do something to occupy her spinning thoughts. Brushing and braiding her hair, she sighed at her reflection in her vanity mirror. She was tired enough to look ill.
After washing and drying her face and hands, she chose a clean apron from her wardrobe. Her aching eyes gave her an excuse to put off looking at the ledgers until later. She would make pies instead, she decided.
He startled when she called his name, right hand going to the silver pistol in his shoulder holster. His derringer carriage lay on the table, next to her husband's open ledgers.
"Mrs. Potter," he said, wary and apologetic at the same time as he rose in acknowledgement of her presence. In fact, his expression bore a remarkable resemblance to the one Joshua had worn when he'd come home covered from head to toe in mud after last winter's big storm. "I was, uh..."
"How bad is it?" she demanded, hearing her blood thrum in her ears as her breath quickened.
"I -- beg your pardon?" he blinked.
"The accounts.... How bad is it?"
He blinked again, eyelids fluttering for a moment as he rearranged whatever it was he had been thinking about saying.
"Uh.... Well. The accounts.... A -- preliminary look indicates something of a fiscal stalemate."
"It's all right, Mr. Standish. I can handle it."
He laughed to himself, looking down at his gun rig as he shook his head.
"Your late husband was a very generous man to his friends, Mrs. Potter, but he wasn't a fool. You could end up owning half this town -- you already do on paper."
"I do?" she asked faintly, suddenly unable to focus properly. She felt a strong hand take her elbow, supporting her as it guided her to the closest bench.
"Yes, ma'am, you do," Standish answered, his voice gentle as he steadied her.
"Oh, my..." she gasped, her voice wobbling. She took deep breath after deep breath, but it was to no avail: she burst out crying anyway. Pulling her apron up from her lap, she buried her face in its length and tried to hide her sobs in it.
She heard the rattle of china being taken from the cupboard and the clink of the big iron kettle as it was lifted from its slow burner. A more solid 'clunk' told her that the honey crock had been opened, and then she heard her porcelain cup chime against its saucer as it was set on the table in front of her.
"There, there..." Standish soothed with a quick pat on her arm. "It's all right, ma'am.... C'mon now, dry those eyes before you wake the children. They mustn't see you cryin', now."
Much like her son had hours earlier, Mrs. Potter's sobs turned into gasps for air. He was right -- the children mustn't catch her crying.
"That's bettah," he approved as she wiped her streaming eyes with the hem of the apron. "Heah...."
She couldn't help but admire the fine lawn handkerchief he pressed into her hand. Lovely rolled hems and a white on white monogram of a spade in the left corner. She thanked heaven that he used a French eau de toilette and not her husband's sturdy Bay Rum.
Sniffling, she gave him a watery smile and wiped her eyes and dabbed at her nose. "I'm sorry," she managed to say.
"Now, you've nothin' to be sorry for, ma'am. You've got the right."
"There's work to be done," she said, squaring her shoulders resolutely.
"Drink your cold tea first," he instructed.
Mrs. Potter frowned, as the toddy in her cup was neither cold nor tea, but she obediently sipped the blend of whiskey, honey, and hot water.
"Oh, my. That's scotch...."
"Not always easy to find in these wild environs, but well worth the effort in my opinion."
"So, I'm not destitute?"
"Far from it -- on paper. The credit accounts are in good order, your husband never let things get too out of hand."
"He used to say reasonable compassion made a good businessman...."
"He wasn't from the south by any chance?"
"Probably why you aren't broke...." Reaching down the table, he pushed his derringer aside and dragged the ledgers to him. " Y'see, your store is runnin' a delicate balancin' act between barter and specie payment. The trouble is, your creditors will be demandin' specie, while your debtors will be wantin' -- and in many cases be most able to -- pay with barter. So, while the business is good, the bank account is weak. With some careful management and callin' in some of the markers from the more prosperous businessmen in the town, I do believe you can weather the difficulties of the... change in management."
'Change in management,' she repeated to herself. God, what bare terms....
"You must be careful," he told her earnestly, tapping the ledgers. "This is a very vulnerable time for you and your little family. Once news spreads of your loss, people will try to take advantage of you. They'll try to exploit your confusion, try to "help in your time of need", only they'll be helpin' themselves to your assets instead. Be very careful about trustin' anyone, even an old friend, let alone a stranger...."
She nodded, taking another sip of the hot toddy.
"No matter how kind or helpful that stranger appears to be."
"I think I could recognize someone like that, Mr. Standish."
He shook his head again. "These... con artists are very adept at lullin' your fears and presentin' themselves in an indispensable light. You could very easily be left with nothin'."
"You're right," she said slowly. "I'm not seeing things clearly at all...." Impulsively, she reached across the table to lightly touch his hand before she picked up her cup for another sip. "I'm so grateful for all of your help, especially with Joshua....
"Are you all right?" she asked as she saw his shoulders slump.
"I'm tired," he replied, and she could see the truth of it in his suddenly sad eyes. "Which leads me to presume upon our brief acquaintance and suggest you return to your bed for some well deserved rest, Mrs. Potter."
"It won't do any good," she sighed. "I've never been able to sleep while the sun's out."
"An unfortunate habit endemic in the hardworking and respectable population," he smiled. "I have found I much prefer my dinner for breakfast."
'Breakfast!' she thought, seizing on her familiar hiding place. "I'll make some coffee," she told him, rising.
"No!" he said, rising with her and half reaching out to restrain her. "I didn't mean -- please, don't put yourself out on my account."
"Surely you'll stay for breakfast?" she asked, gesturing vaguely at the ledgers. "It's the least I can do for all your help."
"It -- really isn't necessary," he hedged, looking longingly at the stove. "I mean, the restaurant does provide us with meals free of charge...."
"It's no trouble at all to fry some bacon and poach some eggs." 'And there's that sourdough loaf I made yesterday... Add a Hollandaise sauce to it, and it'll be a halfway decent meal,' she silently added.
"I don't want to put you to any trouble..." he said, his expression taking on the air of a thirsty man at a well.
"I insist!" she said firmly.
"Well, if you insist... who am I to refuse a lady?" he acquiesced gratefully, sitting back down at the table to open the ledgers again.
"Besides, that way I can iron your jacket before you leave."
"That won't be necessary," he said quickly, his reluctance quite real this time. "Truly."
She smiled. "Mr. Standish, before I met Marcus, I was in service as a lady's maid -- until I got a job as a first hand in a tailor's shop. I know how to iron velvet."
"Tailor's shop?" he repeated, a gleam coming into his green eyes as he reconsidered the stylish cut and superb workmanship of the black dress she wore, one she had made for mourning the death of Stephen Travis. He grinned at her, tapping the ledger with his index finger as his tongue danced along his lower lip.
"Mrs. Potter, it occurs to me that we might be able to make a little barter ourselves...."
Mary Travis tucked the clean calico fabric covering her basket from the swirling dust on Main Street around the rose-scented soap and books she was bringing to Gloria Potter. Taking a basket of food to Gloria when she was in a crisis would have been like bringing coals to Newcastle.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Travis," Amelia Potter called out as Mary shut the door to the general store behind her, making the bell that hung from its frame ring merrily. The girl stood at the yardage table, re-folding disarranged bolts and stacking them neatly.
"Afternoon, Amy," Mary answered with a nod, looking toward the curtained doorway that separated the stair landing, small office, and kitchen from the storefront. While Marcus and Gloria often let Amy watch the front by herself, the ringing bell assured that she was never left alone with a customer.
Her welcoming smile turned into a gaping stare as Ezra Standish drew back the curtain to survey the shop. He was in his waistcoat, his shirtsleeves rolled neatly up to the elbow and he was wiping soapsuds off his hands with a dishtowel. He wore one of Gloria's aprons tied neatly around his waist, the right side of its hem tucked under his holster. His expression as he regarded her was one of wary aplomb.
"I --" Mary began. "Uh.... Is Mrs. Potter available?" she asked, looking from Standish to Amelia.
"Mother's upstairs sleeping," Amelia told her, settling a bolt of green broadcloth into its place with a pat. "She was very tired after we had breakfast."
A most interesting 'we', Mary reflected as she observed the conspiratorial look that passed between Amelia and Standish.
"I'll just leave this in the kitchen, then," Mary said, indicating the basket, determined not to leave until she knew if there was a wolf loose amongst the Potter flock. Standish stepped back to let her pass and from the corner of her eye Mary caught the wink he threw to Amelia.
The kitchen was a further revelation. Josh was vigorously sweeping the floor as she entered it. He, too, was wearing an apron, a garment she knew he would have scorned a week ago. Judging from the stacks of plates, bowls and cups of Gloria's best china, breakfast had been spectacular even by his mother's generous standards. Apple pies cooled on trivets under a screen of cheesecloth on the big kitchen table and she took a deep, appreciative sniff of their delicious aroma.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Travis," Joshua cheerfully greeted her, despite his red eyes and chapped cheeks that spoke of a great many tears very recently shed.
"Hello, Josh," she said, setting the basket down by the pies.
"Mama's sleeping," he informed her, setting aside the broom to offer her a seat on the bench as if it were the finest Chippendale chair. Mary didn't miss the quick look Josh shot at Standish, or the raise of his chin when he got a subtle nod of approval from the imposing gambler. If she hadn't known better, Mary would have thought that the Potter's oldest boy had returned home... but from where? University, perhaps? Most likely, even though 'convicted felon' and 'where do I sign?' was the extent of the conversation she'd had with him. Home from the war? Quite probably, given the urbane southerner's unlikely presence in a struggling cow town that the railroad had passed by. Home from jail? Definitely.
"Thanks just the same," she told the youngest Potter, taking a clean dishtowel from its peg by the stove, "but I'd rather help."
A glint of good-humored appreciation for the skill with which she had anchored herself into the situation sparkled for a moment in the southerner's green eyes before disappearing behind a mask of pleasant imperturbability.
"I think the store would benefit from your Herculean labors, Mister Potter," Standish suggested.
"W-what?" Josh blinked.
"Go sweep the store, son."
Mary squared her shoulders. She'd been trying to think of a way to get Josh out of the kitchen so she could interrogate Standish about his unexpected presence in the bosom of the bereaved family, and here he had done it for her. Which meant that she'd lost the moral high ground before she'd even opened her mouth.
"Well, Mrs. Travis?" he challenged politely, with a disarming smile that made her think immediately of Billy. He was, she realized, making it easy for her to protect the Potters from the snake they'd allowed into their midst.
Mary smiled, remembering the advice Orrin had given her about dealing with Standish.
"He's a gentleman, Mary," the judge had said. "No matter how hard he tries to convince ya otherwise. Remember that, let him know that's what ya expect from him, and you'll get it. Expect him to be a scoundrel, and he'll oblige ya."
"I'll dry," she told Standish, heading toward the rinse pan. She had the satisfaction of seeing that pleasant mask crack in consternation for a moment at her acceptance of him, as he had to rapidly revise his strategy for dealing with her.
Mary shook her head at the stacks of dishes and pots and pans. The cast iron had already been scoured with its brush and put back on the stove to keep its season. It looked like Gloria had used every pot, dish, and pan she owned over the last day.
"It's best to keep busy," she remembered aloud.
"Yes," he agreed softly, amending it with a hasty, "Or so I've heard," when she looked sharply at him.
'For a gambler, you lie very badly, Mr. Standish,' she thought at him.
"I'm glad Gloria's getting some rest," she said aloud, starting in on the plates already in the hot rinse water.
"She's earned it," was all Standish said, starting in on his side of the chore with an efficient and practiced technique.
"It's very good of you to watch the store for her," Mary said, with her best wide-eyed innocent expression. It was the one that had always made Stephen chase her through the house with the most satisfactory results. Billy, for instance. "It's really not in your job description."
Standish frowned at her, then looked down into the dishpan. "I like pie," he confessed, the slightest edge of defeat in the words.
Mary felt her objectivity crumble in favor of a growing bias toward the dapper rogue up to his elbows in dirty dishwater.
"You've come to the right place, then," Mary grinned. "Every year, we sell box lunches at the Fourth of July picnic. Mrs. Potter always goes to the highest bidder."
"I can well imagine.... Such a reward might even induce me to celebrate that holiday."
'Oh, yes,' she thought, 'beyond a doubt home from the war. And looking to offend my Yankee sensibilities.'
"Well, I celebrate George Washington's birthday," she countered, taking hold of the plate he held out to her.
"Touché," he acknowledged, letting her have the plate.
She was almost disappointed with his propriety. A gentleman after all -- wrapped around a little boy with a weakness for pies.
"Of course, I won't be here come July so it's a moot point," he added firmly. Mary wondered whom he was trying to convince.
"You're very good with the children," she told him.
"They're sweet babies," he replied with a melancholy smile that surprised her. "Very brave. It's astonishin' how fearless children can be."
"I have a son," she confided, stacking the dry plate on the sideboard. "Billy. He'll be five in February. I hope things have settled down in town enough to have him back with me by then."
"Where is he now?"
"With his grandparents."
"He must miss you terribly," he said, refusing to meet her gaze.
"He does," she sighed. "But I can't imagine he misses me more terribly than I miss him. Sometimes I wonder if what I'm trying to do is worth being away from him, if he'll ever be able to forgive me for not being with him."
"Oh, I think he will," Standish said. "Especially if you let him know how much you love him."
"I try," she said. "I write to him every day."
"You do?" he asked, a hunger lurking in the question that prompted her to dry her hands and reach into her inside apron pocket. She pulled out the folded square of rough paper, opening it carefully.
"He writes back," she said proudly, displaying the picture her son had drawn of the house he lived in. "I think maybe Grandpa helped him with the words, though."
"Don't be so sure..." he smiled, drying his own hands to take the picture from her to smile at its details. "My -- I have known more than one child who had their letters at a very young age. They tell me I was somewhat precocious myself, to the aggravation of the family pets who did not care to be drilled in Latin conjugation."
Mary had to laugh, imagining her little Billy solemnly intoning "Amo, Amas, Amat..." at his Grandmother's bewildered Yorkshire Terrier.
"He is quite the artist.... It looks like a lovely room."
"My home is here. So is Billy's."
"I wish you luck, Mrs. Travis," he said, hiding a yawn behind his hand.
"We'll need it," she admitted. "Are you tired, Mr. Standish?"
"It was an -- interestin' night."
"Have you slept at all?"
"I was wonderin'..." he said, changing the subject as if he hadn't heard her question. "I have somethin' to ask you which, well.... It is a somewhat delicate question."
"Delicate?" she repeated, taking Billy's picture back from him and putting it away in her pocket.
"I require your -- discretion and confidentiality in the mattah."
"That depends entirely on what the matter is," she told him as they returned to cleaning the dishes, intrigued and alarmed in equal measure by the turn their conversation had taken.
"What is your opinion of Mr. Conklin?"
Mary rinsed and dried a cup and a saucer before answering. "Relying on your discretion, Mr. Standish, I'll tell you that I don't like Derek Conklin. In my opinion, he is a bounder -- and a cad." Her lips thinned with an anger that might have been mistaken for primness in a less intelligent man. "He was -- very inappropriate after Stephen died."
"Ah see," Standish drawled, and Mary felt her throat tighten as the change in his expression reminded her forcefully that this pie-loving little boy and gallant gentleman was also a stone-cold killer. "Thank you, Mrs. Travis. I assure you what you've said will remain between the two of us."
"Why do you ask? Has he been -- bothering -- Gloria?"
"It's my belief that he intends to," Standish said. "He was here earlier, but young Mister Potter sent him away as his mother was indisposed."
'I'll bet he did,' Mary thought. 'With a little help from you.'
"He'll be back in time for dinner," Mary predicted. "He's always been a terrible mooch, and the whole town knows Gloria cooks when she's upset."
"What does she do when she's happy?"
He grinned with a flash of gold. "I'll remember that," he promised.
Much to her surprise, Mary found herself spending the rest of the day at the Potter's. Once the kitchen had been cleaned and straightened, she found herself lending a hand with taking inventory in the store that Standish closed shortly after she arrived. It was hard work, but she hadn't laughed so much since Stephen had died. It was the ruckus from happy, shrieking children that woke an embarrassed Gloria to join them at their labor, until she decided it was time to go prepare dinner for her 'employees'.
Mary traded glances with Standish, who had somehow become Ezra while she was still Mrs. Travis, and Gloria was still Mrs. Potter, and Josh was Mr. Potter. Amy had managed to soften his reserve far enough that he now addressed her as "Miss Amelia", instead of the more formally correct "Miss Potter". Once the open windows with their rare and precious wire mesh screens allowed the smell of dinner to hit the air outside the house, Mr. Conklin's arrival would be imminent.
Handing Ezra her checklist and pencil, Mary went into the kitchen to warn Gloria.
"I'm not surprised," Mrs. Potter sighed, barely kneading her biscuit dough as the smell of roast beef wafted through the kitchen. "I remember what a dog he was to you when Stephen died."
"You don't have to face him alone," Mary reminded her.
"No, I don't," Gloria smiled. "And neither do you."
"I didn't mean it like that," Mrs. Potter apologized.
"Neither does he," Mary said.
"I know. It's rather nice not to have to worry about it, isn't it?"
"I wonder who she was?"
"They were," Gloria corrected, patting out the biscuit dough into a round for cutting.
"He's been a papa before," Mary agreed. "And I don't think he's looking to be one again."
"Did you see the wedding ring?"
Mary nodded. "Hard to miss when you're doing the dishes together."
"Oh, dear. He was domesticated."
A knock on the back door cut their conversation off.
"Mrs. Potter?" Derek Conklin's voice called.
At a nod from Gloria, Mary slipped out of the kitchen to stand behind the curtain. Ezra, Amy, and Josh joined her to eavesdrop.
"Mr. Conklin," they heard Mrs. Potter say in a tone that should have given him frostbite. "This is a surprise." Clearly, it was not a welcome one.
"I can understand that you're upset with me..."
"I was only doing what I thought was best for you and the children -- what Marcus would have wanted."
"You just keep believing that, Mr. Conklin. I'm sure it'll help you sleep at night."
Ezra and Mary exchanged smirks.
"Gloria..." Mary and Ezra stiffened at the familiarity. "Marcus was my best friend... I feel responsible to him to take care of his family."
"Please, don't trouble yourself, Mr. Conklin. My family is capable of taking care of itself."
"That's pride talking, Gloria. I understand that. But you've got a responsibility to your children to face facts -- you can't run the store by yourself. You'll be bankrupt in a week -- your children will be homeless and starving. Marry me -- I'll take care of you, and Josh and Amy. It's what Marcus would have wanted."
Amelia and Joshua pressed close to Mary and each other, looking up at Ezra's outraged expression. Mary nodded to him, her arms around the unhappy Potter children.
'Sic 'im!' she ordered silently.
"Good evenin', Mr. Conklin," Standish said, by way of announcing his arrival in the kitchen.
"What're you doing here?" Mary heard Conklin ask, cherishing the astonishment in his voice.
"Mr. Standish is my business agent," Mrs. Potter replied with tremendous satisfaction.
"And as such, I feel it is my responsibility to deal with you, Mr. Conklin. My dear Mrs. Potter, I do believe Miss Amelia could use your assistance sortin' the notions."
"Good evening, Mr. Conklin," Gloria said, sweeping from the kitchen as grandly as any of her blue-blood employers had ever made an exit. Once safely behind the concealing curtain, she huddled with Mary and her children to listen to their tiger roar.
"Business agent?" Conklin sneered. "Is that what you're calling yourself?"
"As regards Mrs. Potter and her small emporium, yes. So, you won't be surprised when I tell you that I am callin' in your loan."
"Gloria would never --"
"Mrs. Potter to you, sir," Standish corrected. Mr. Conklin made a strangled sound, one that you could imagine a man making if his tie was being used to compress his stiff collar against his neck. "And she already has. Y'see, she has a business to run and a family to take care of. She has no time to nursemaid bad debts. Accordingly, you will have the amount owed and its accrued interest here, tomorrow, in specie, by noon."
"And if I don't?"
"I will go to the bank, foreclose on your mortgage for your home, your land, and your livery. You will have nothin', sir."
"But -- but... I don't have that kind of money!"
"Then I suggest you sell your assets while you still own them. Whatever is left over from repayin' Mrs. Potter can be put toward startin' a new life -- elsewhere."
"I can't do that by noon tomorrow!"
"I'll give you forty-eight hours to put your affairs in order if you decide to take the path of reason and sell your stake in this town."
"But --" Mr. Conklin made another choking sound.
"Y'see, Mister Conklin, we don't want your kind here. Y'all bring nothin' but trouble. And speakin' of trouble...."
A sharp crunching noise like someone stepping on a crisp head of lettuce was followed by a shriek of pain from Derek Conklin.
"Bmy bnose!" he cried. "Y'd broke bmy bnose!"
The cry ended in another strangled gasp.
"How dare you attempt to prostitute a lady's grief to your own advantage? How dare you try to frighten her with threats to her children in order to relieve yourself of a debt of honor?" Standish demanded, his angry voice rolling like cannon fire. "You may consider me a no good, swindlin' gambler, suh, but I will not tolerate you insultin' a woman in my presence. If I see you so much as on the same side of the street as Mrs. Potter -- or Mrs. Travis -- or Miss Amelia, I'll horsewhip ya. Is that clear, suh?"
"Uuuurrrrkkkk," replied Mr. Conklin.
"I said, is that clear?"
"Yessss..." Conklin manage to croak.
A moment later, they heard Conklin yelp again, the sound of it quickly muffled by the slamming of the kitchen door.
As one, the eavesdroppers scattered to far points of the store, becoming very busy with the stock. Sidling closer to Mary with a careful eye on the proximity of her little pitcher's ears, Gloria whispered to her friend, "Is it wrong to have enjoyed that so much?"
"No," Mary whispered back, smothering her giggle.
After a minute, the curtain parted and Standish stepped into the store.
"Mr. Conklin had to leave," he said, his expression giving Mary's innocent look a run for its money.
"Oh," said Gloria. "It's just as well. I don't think there's room for him at my table."
The sun was setting as Ezra woke, rising from slumber much more slowly and lazily than he could remember doing in close to fifteen years. His mind drifted pleasantly, trying to place what felt so different....
His gun. It wasn't in his hand....
Ezra came awake instantly. His gun wasn't in his hand because it was in its holster. It was in his holster, because he wasn't supposed to have fallen asleep in Mrs. Potter's parlor with the fire low in the stove and a handmade quilt thrown over him after stuffing himself shamefully at an early supper. He could hear Mrs. Travis and Mrs. Potter in the kitchen below him, laughing the way that mothers did when their children had been put to bed.
An urge he couldn't resist brought him to his feet and crept him down the hall to look into the children's room. They were both fast asleep, Amelia with her old rag doll and Josh with his new deck of cards, and he couldn't help going in and straightening their blankets. He watched them sleep until he was able to force himself down the stairs. The bell on the front door made it impossible for him to sneak out that way, but perhaps he could plead the call of duty for making his escape, even though it was his night off.
An empty cup and saucer was waiting for him at the kitchen table, sitting across from Mrs. Travis and Mrs. Potter. A jug of coffee and a pitcher of milk kept warm in a pan of water on the slow side of the kitchen stove, and there was a fork, napkin, and plate set for him on the table across from the ladies, waiting patiently for a slice of apple pie.
His cleaned and pressed jacket hung from a hanger on the peg next to his brushed hat, under the high shelf by the back door where he'd put his Colt Richards conversion in its shoulder holster and his derringer rig earlier in the day.
"Good morning, Mr. Standish," Mrs. Potter said with a smile. She got up to fix him the coffee while Mrs. Travis set about cutting the pie.
'Good Lord,' Ezra sighed to himself, sagging a little as he lost the fight to make his excuses and get back to the saloon where he belonged and sat down at the big kitchen table.
'What are you people doin' t'me?'
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