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!!
There is a specialized vocabulary which accompanies this piece and will help you with the Greek references and quotes.
Eleanor Tremayne, Ezquire
"What the hell is that?" Buck Wilmington asked no one in particular.
"Cavalry," Vin Tanner replied.
"Ain't like no cavalry I've ever seen."
"Nor has anyone since Penthesileia fell in the arms of brave Achilleus, I wagah," Ezra Standish yawned, joining the two men on the porch of the saloon. "With the possible exception of those Romans who fell to Boadicea's outrage."
Buck and Vin exchanged glances and decided not to ask.
"Amazons," Ezra sighed, taking a swig of breakfast from his flask.
"I thought they were a myth." Chris Larabee joined the three men, settling his black duster better on his shoulders. He nodded to Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson as they came out of the church, taking up station on the other side of the street and a few hundred yards down from the saloon.
"Those pistoleros are real enough," Vin replied, counting four to six of the powerful guns on each rider. "Eastern tack."
"English," Standish corrected. "They have a Sandhurst seat, and those horses are Trakehners, much admired in Europe as cavalry mounts."
"I make eighteen," Larabee counted. "Vin?"
"Looks like that's all - at least for now," the Texan answered, scrutinizing the horizon. "I'll look closer as soon as we're settled here."
"Here comes J.D.," Buck announced, and the men on both sides of the street set themselves for action.
The young sheriff of Four Corners made a good show of striding out to meet the troop that rode two abreast down Main Street. The pearl handles of his Colt Lightnings glinting in the late afternoon sunlight caught the leader's attention, and she spoke to the man riding beside her. He held up a hand and the troop halted with worrisome precision as J.D. reached the head of the lead horse.
"Ma'am," J.D. said respectfully, tipping his hat like he'd been practicing in front of the mirror. "I'm Sheriff Dunne. Welcome to Four Corners."
The woman dropped her reins, dismounting with a weariness that spoke volumes. "Thank you, Sheriff," she acknowledged, towering over the young man as she extended a gloved hand. J.D. took it with a professionalism that made them all proud.
"May I ask what brings you to our fair city, ma'am?"
"My commissary is lacking essential supplies, my people and my horses need rest." J.D.'s glance at her holsters prompted her to add, "We can, of course, pay for what we need."
J.D. chewed the inside of his mouth, eyes raking the sixteen women and two men who had appeared to complicate his already complicated day. "How long you reckon on staying?"
"Two days, perhaps three, if the horses should warrant it." She smiled at J.D. "There's no reason for us to hurry, Sheriff."
J.D. took a deep breath and nodded. "I'll show you to the livery stable."
"Mr. Gunner! See to the horses, if you please!" she called over her shoulder, touching the gold braided brim of her blue hat to J.D.
"Aye-aye, Captain," the man who had stopped the troop answered, snapping a sharp salute with his left hand, his right being occupied with his reins. She returned it absently, heading toward the hotel.
J.D. checked with Chris and Buck to see if he'd handled the situation correctly. Reassured by four nearly imperceptible nods, he told the waiting soldiers, "Right this way."
"That's all she said," J.D. explained a few hours later, sitting around Ezra's table in the saloon with his six compatriots. "Just long enough for the horses to rest and get fresh supplies."
"Nothin' on their trail to indicate anything more than a few footsore horses," Vin added, gratefully accepting the beer the ever-observant Inez handed him.
"I telegraphed the towns they could have come through - no mention of any trouble," J.D. said, looking to Chris.
"We wait - and watch," Larabee decided.
"I'll volunteer for the first shift," Buck grinned, remembering the line outside the bathhouse.
"Ambitious to scale great heights, Mr. Wilmington?" Standish asked, his voice epic with innocence.
"Well now, Ezra, I'd say that's all relative, wouldn't you?"
"Under normal circumstances, perhaps, sir - but these Valkyries who have landed among us appear to defy normal circumstance."
"Big or small, a woman's a woman the world round."
"Here we go again," J.D. sighed, rolling his eyes.
"Looks like you'll have a chance to put your theory to the test, Brother Buck," Josiah grinned, looking toward the saloon door. Three of the riders came through the door in a triangle formation, sweeping the darkened interior of the saloon with a practiced eye.
Freshly bathed and changed into clean uniforms, hats in their hands and hair down their backs, their six-foot plus frames were a lovely arrangement of line and curve and they were clearly looking for someone to help them while away the time they'd have to spend in Four Corners. Sanchez glanced out the window toward the street, thinking about their sisters in arms. Taking a deep breath, he reminded himself that he truly believed the good Lord never sent a man any burden he couldn't handle.
The women's eyes adjusted fast and they took a step toward the table. Ezra stood first, his action nudging the others into remembering their manners. "Ladies," he bowed.
"Gentlemen," said the blonde who'd taken the center point and thus the role of spokeswoman for the group.
"Would you ladies care for a drink?" Buck asked, moving to block the gambler from their view.
"Yes, please," the spokeswoman replied, taking one of Buck's arms. Her closest compatriot claimed the other and they drew him toward the bar, leaving the shortest of the three to smile hopefully down at Vin.
"May I buy you a drink, M'sieur?" she asked in the most fetching French accent it had ever been Ezra's pleasure to hear.
"Yes, ma'am," Vin agreed, sliding his untasted beer in Larabee's direction as he offered her his arm. Her smile deepened, flashing into dimples.
"Put it away, Lieutenant."
Everyone in the saloon jumped as the captain walked through the door, still covered in the dirt of the trail. Standish turned the jump into another bow before resuming his seat and hiding behind his cards, content to watch how the others handled the situation.
The handsomest man Inez had ever seen followed the captain. Broad at the shoulder, narrow at the hip, he wore his black hair long and his uniform tight. "Ay, Dios mio," she sighed to herself.
"Mais, mon Capitaine -" the woman on Vin's arm protested in vain.
"I said belay that, Lieutenant." The captain's voice brooked no argument and the lieutenant reluctantly stepped away from the Texan. The captain's gaze turned to the two other women, who slowly released their hold on a disappointed Buck and came to attention.
"Rest is the Order of the Day," the captain reminded them. "Back to barracks, all of you."
"Aye-aye, sir," a chagrined chorus answered as the obligatory salutes were exchanged and the three women marched off to the hotel.
"Dr. Jackson?" the captain asked, ignoring the muttering outside the saloon.
"I'm not a doctor, ma'am, but I do the best I can," Nathan replied.
"As do we all, Mr. Jackson." Much to Nathan's astonishment, she reached out and shook his hand. "This is Dr. MacKai, our surgeon. If you could help him find what he needs for his office, you would have my gratitude as well as appropriate compensation."
"My pleasure," Jackson smiled, surprised once again at finding MacKai's hand extended to take his.
Nodding her thanks to Jackson, she acknowledged the rest of them with a terse, "Gentlemen", exchanged salutes with MacKai and left the saloon.
Larabee watched the doors swing. "Good officer," he said.
"Yes, sir," answered MacKai.
"Gunner!" the captain called, tossing her hat onto the bed of the presidential suite.
"Captain?" he answered, opening a door that issued forth jasmine-scented steam.
"Gunny..." she sighed.
"Compliments of the establishment, Captain."
"Ah-huh." She sighed, sitting in a plush velvet chair and letting her exec pull her boots off. "Thank you. How are the horses?"
"Coming along nicely. Crew's a little restless, though - they've had a long haul to get here. They were looking forward to some relaxation."
"I know. I also know what sailors 'relaxing' on leave can do to a small town."
"Have you taken a good look at this town, Captain? Not a lot of damage you'd be allowed to do."
Closing her eyes, she sighed. "All right, Gunny. Conditional leave - no fraternizing, and I want a Middle Watch curfew."
"Aye-aye, sir." Gunner snapped his salute, heading for the door to post the new orders.
"Make it clear I don't want any trouble, Commander."
Gunner turned back, pursing his lips as he met her gaze.
"Spit it out," she ordered.
"Maybe some trouble is exactly what you need, Captain."
She sighed a laugh. "Touché.... However, I doubt I can find trouble to suit me in this godsforsaken country."
"We'll be home soon," Gunner told her. "Plenty of trouble there."
"New orders," Buck announced, joining the other peacekeepers in J.D.'s office. "They can have a drink - just not with us."
"Why not 'us'?" Chris asked, his suspicion aroused.
"I mean 'us', us," Buck explained, moving his hands to take in the room and the town beyond. "No fraternizing." The big man looked as disappointed as J.D. did relieved.
"I think I take that personally," Ezra decided. "Fraternization is essential to a man in my line of work."
"I don't want any trouble with these... people," Chris reminded him. "Whoever they are, whatever they are, they're well armed - and they know how to take orders."
"I must admit," Ezra said slowly, stroking his thumb across his chin as he gazed out J.D.'s window, "My curiosity is piqued..."
"Ezra..." Larabee warned as the Southerner picked up his hat and headed into the street. Wordlessly, the other six followed the gambler, standing with him as he watched the captain walk from the hotel to the saloon.
"My, my, my," Ezra thought to himself. "She does clean up well."
"I guess just because a woman can ride like a man doesn't mean she has to walk like one," J.D. said as the captain disappeared behind the batwing doors. The words came out slowly, like a great revelation.
"I think," Standish drawled, "that I would like to get to know our fair Hippolyta bettah."
Larabee frowned, debating with himself. The reality of the situation was more familiar than it looked on the surface. Even friendly soldiers on leave could be hell on a place like Four Corners - if they were on leave, and if they were friendly.
"Don't do anything stupid," he finally said.
"I shall treat her as an officer and a gentleman, Mr. Larabee," Ezra promised, before stepping out into the street to follow the captain into his den.
The gunfighter watched him go, squinting into the dark interior of the saloon as he considered the possible outcomes of the gambler's quest. His frown deepened in contemplation, and the men around him shifted into readiness.
"I gotta see this," Larabee decided with a grin, long legs carrying him across the street.
The captain waved her people back to their seats as she entered the saloon. The Mexican woman behind the bar watched her with sharp, intelligent eyes and the piano player pounded on its keys with a gusto unmatched by his competence. Gritting her teeth, she approached the enthusiastic musician, his sleeves stylishly gartered. She held up a silver dollar, and he grinned at her.
"What's your pleasure, ma'am?"
"Silence," she answered, dropping the coin and forcing him to catch it. "Just long enough for me to finish my drink."
The piano player shrugged - he'd had this request before. "Yes, ma'am."
Walking to the bar, the captain wondered if she should have just gone to bed. Laying her hat on the bar, she tugged off her gloves and tossed them into it. Putting another dollar down on the gleaming counter, she told Inez, "Your best malt whiskey, please."
Inez pulled a bottle from under the bar, uncorking it and pouring out a liberal shot.
The captain sniffed the drink. "This is bourbon," she pointed out.
"It's the best we have," Inez told her.
"Unfortunately true," a man's voice chuckled sympathetically to her left, its precise ease of diction marking its owner as a gentleman of Virginia. She turned toward the speaker and found herself the object of a green-eyed gaze so sharp it cut straight to her backbone. His finely featured face showed no sign of the sun and every sign of a recent shave, its firm chin framed in a button down collar and impeccable cravat. A well-tailored silk waistcoat and jacket of green velvet molded the hard body beneath them into elegance. She inhaled deeply, letting the scent of bathed male and Number 4711 chase the raw smell of the corn liquor away.
He stretched a manicured hand out to the clean shot glasses stacked rim-down on the bar in front of him, picking up two. Framed in the fine pleats of a white ruffled cuff, his long, strong fingers wove the glasses through themselves with a sureness that sent fireflies skating through her stomach. He set them upright on the bar between them with a 'clink'. Producing a flask of hammered silver, he smiled at her with clean, white teeth and a spark of gold.
"It has always been my philosophy," he told her, unscrewing the flask's lid and pouring them each a generous measure, "that life is too short to drink bad whiskey."
The aroma of aged scotch blended itself around the smell of him in her nostrils and she discovered she was smiling. Here was her kind of trouble, indeed. Accepting the glass he offered, she lifted it to him.
"You're a scholar and a gentleman, sir."
"My pleasure, ma'am." Their glasses clinked and she smiled as she recognized the sublime taste of Glen Morangie.
"I am in your debt, Mister...?" she said at last.
"Standish," he answered, pouring her a second drink, well aware that the congregated amazons he kept in the corner of his vision were tracking his every twitch. He awarded them points for at least trying to do it subtly. "It is my understandin' you and your weary band will be staying in our little municipality for several days."
"Until our horses are rested, yes."
"May I encourage you to take advantage of what our town has to offer in the way of relaxation for your... men? Indeed, the hospitality of Four Corners is famous throughout the Territory."
The captain bit firmly down on her tongue, remembering her own orders.
"Don't he mean 'infamous'?" Vin muttered to Chris as the two men walked into the saloon side by side. Chris just grinned, leading the way to Ezra's table. He knew the gambler was cursing them all for making his life difficult as they settled in, taking up all his working room.
Behind the bar, Inez relaxed. So that's what Señor Standish was after; permission to fleece the newly arrived sheep. A rustle of interest was going through the strange soldaderas, and Inez smiled as she realized they were making bets as to how far Señor Standish would get with their jefe. She saw the relatively little French woman catch Vin Tanner's gaze, flash a dimple and raise an eyebrow.
The Texan took cover behind his beer for a moment, bringing his left hand under his coat. It reappeared a moment later, a silver dollar held edgewise between his index and third finger.
The French soldadera looked to the other five men, and Señor Larabee nodded to her once, answering for all of them. The peacekeepers of Four Corners were backing their own. Inez wondered if Standish appreciated the vote of confidence, well aware he could see every move made behind him reflected in the mirrors he had hung so carefully throughout the saloon.
The sound of a man laughing outside distracted her, and she looked toward the door hopefully. She was rewarded a few moments later when the soldaderas' doctor strode into the saloon. By his side walked another man, long and lean, with laughing brown eyes and short fair hair.
'Ay-ay-ay...' Inez thought to herself. 'It never rains but it pours.'
The brown-eyed man stuttered his step, looking from his captain to Señor Standish and then back to his companion. "Tally ho," she heard him mutter to the grinning surgeon as they settled into a table close to the bar. Inez decided they looked like they could use a beer.
"I don't think we'll be in town long enough to take advantage of the library," the captain told Standish as soon as she could trust herself, her tone politely regretful.
"Pity," Ezra said, shaking his head and ignoring Buck's snicker. "In light of the transient nature of your visit, perhaps the less... intellectual... distractions of this establishment would be more appropriate. I am certain a... regimental discount... could be arranged with the proprietor."
'Ah-ha,' the captain thought, the light dawning. "And the proprietor is...?"
"My own sainted mother." The hardness of his lovely eyes belied the chagrined amusement in his voice.
"Not that I don't appreciate your family's generosity, but an officer is responsible for the well-being of their men." She looked pointedly at the bottle of bourbon.
"I concede the point," Ezra agreed, forbearing to mention that the other amazons in the saloon didn't seem to mind the corn whiskey in the least. "But our beer is superb - and the house is honest."
"I have no doubt of that," the captain assured him, jerking her libido back into line as his tongue danced along the bottom of his smiling mouth. Catching the image of her grinning commander in one of the well-placed mirrors, she decided discretion was the better part of valor. Abandoning her scotch on the bar, she headed for the piano.
"But, there are other considerations..." she countered lamely, her own orders being the only ones she could think of, no matter how hard she tried.
Standish picked up her half-full shot glass and brought it to her, leaning on the corner of the battered old upright. She avoided his gaze by turning the pages of the equally battered sheet music on its stand.
"You must forgive our Charles. His heart is always in the right place, even if his fingers aren't."
'Fingers,' she thought, making the mistake of looking at the hand holding her drink out to her. In spite of herself, she followed the velvet line of his arm up to his face. The light from the evening sun came through the windows to mingle with the soft illumination of the oil lamps, running red sparks through his well-cut hair.
Desperately back-pedaling from the steep angle of her inclinations, she turned away from the piano, looking to her men to put some steel back into her spine. She found fifteen pairs of surly, tired eyes regarding her with justifiable chagrin.
Gunner leaned back in his chair, folding his arms in a gesture that said, 'You should listen to me, sir.' Her surgeon made no comment, merely looked over at the six curious cowboys watching Standish with fraternal glee. They looked like men who could handle themselves - or anything else that came their way, she realized.
'The mark of a good captain,' she reminded herself, taking a seat on the piano's bench and lifting the cover off its keys, 'is to adapt her strategy to the course of the battle, and devil take her orders.'
"It isn't his playing so much as his repertoire," she smiled at Standish. "You see, my mother taught me to play in a classical style. It is my fondest memory of our time together."
"Now there is a coincidence," he laughed, and this time she could see it dancing in his eyes.
Gunner choked on his beer as the opening notes of Eine Kliene Nacht Musik plucked themselves into being. MacKai whacked him firmly on the back a couple of times, frowning at him for an explanation.
"View halloo," the ADC answered in a coughing whisper.
"One of my favorites," Ezra stalled, aware that things had taken a turn he couldn't quite read. He wasn't the only one - the amazons had abandoned their attempts at subtle observation in favor of outright staring. His compatriots didn't own a subtle bone between them and continued their gawking as they'd begun it. "But I cannot imagine that the shallowness of today's popular music could pose any real threat to such Atalantas."
"They're from Atlanta?" J.D. whispered to Buck, earning a 'shut up!' kick to his shin.
"Ow," J.D. hissed, his eyes watering with pain.
"I would not have your town our Hypsipile," the captain reminded Standish, watching the corners of his mouth twitch as he followed that allegory home. Behind her, she heard someone ask, "What'd she say?", followed by a second, muffled 'Ow' and "Shush!". Standish managed to not quite smile.
"I do not believe that a friendly game of chance would court a Lemnian doom. As I said, the house is an honorable one," he said.
"You're probably right," she said slowly. "Unfortunately, it is against regulations to gamble..."
A silent sigh of unwanted victory sagged the shoulders of the amazons and a not so silent sigh of defeat shook the heads of the six peacekeepers.
"...for money," she finished, preparing to lay alongside and engage.
Ezra weighed the meaning of her words in the pin-drop silence that followed them. "I'm sure we could come to an arrangement that would meet the letter of your orders, while allowin' Dame Fortune her tithe," he offered.
"We'll cut for it," she agreed. "If you draw the high card, we'll accommodate the wagers to the regs."
"And if I draw the low card?"
"You have dinner with me?" she invited, softly.
Standish was certain he was the only person breathing in the saloon as he decided whether to fold or play. 'When in doubt, raise - and call,' he reminded himself.
"Madam - are you tryin' to induce me to lose?" he asked.
MacKai lifted his mug to touch Gunner's as Mozart gave way to the chorus of 'Greensleeves'.
Ezra's blush was visible even in the dim light of the saloon. Watching the Southerner duck his head in sudden, shy delight, Chris leaned in Josiah's direction.
"Okay, Preacher," Larabee murmured, "I'm converted."
For the first time in years, Ezra Standish couldn't find the words to take advantage of the situation. It had been so long since he'd had a handkerchief properly dropped in front of him that all he could do was stare down at the woman who had so elegantly asked him to pursue her. She looked away from him, down at the keys, taking the ancient melody into Schubert's Variations - playing for time, he realized.
'Say something, you idiot!' he yelled at himself, well aware that he had already let the silence stand far too long. She was perilously close to being publicly embarrassed - and he was perilously close to being a damned fool.
She turned her head away from the piano, looking him straight in the eye. "Forgive me, Mr. Standish," she said, her voice and expression perfectly neutral. "I appear to have misunderstood your question. No offence was meant."
Heart sinking, Ezra realized he was off the hook. Faced with such unwelcome freedom, his floundering brain kicked itself into working properly.
"Honi soit qui mal y pense," he apologized, feeling the rim of his ears grow even warmer. She blinked up at him, a delighted smile spreading across her face. "It would be an honor to dine with you," he continued. "Win, lose, or draw."
"Nice save," MacKai told Gunner, sotto voce.
"Lovely save," the commander agreed.
It was the captain's turn to blush, and she did it very prettily as she busied herself with the piano's keys. Sure fingers suddenly stumbled, and she frowned in concentration as she replayed the section, repeating the mistake.
Ezra couldn't have heard the invitation in the jangled notes more clearly if she had been a bugler blowing 'Charge!'. Setting the shot glass down on top of the piano, he crossed behind the bench to sit on her left, letting his right wrist and cuff brush the edge of her hand as he hit the correct keys.
"Oh, of course," she purred, letting her fingers graze the back of his hand as she repeated the sequence and carried the Variations forward. They began to play together, Ezra relaxing as he felt the hook slide home and catch.
Half an hour later, they were still at the piano and the natives were getting restless.
"What the hell is he waitin' for?" Buck groused, appreciating the sympathetic nods of agreement he was getting from the amazons' tables.
"I don't think he's waitin'," Vin observed, shifting his crossed legs a little in his unforgiving chair. His tracker's eyes had seen every subtle touching of hands, of thigh pressing against thigh, of breath grazing the back of a neck bent to study ivory keys. No, Vin didn't think Ezra was waiting at all.
"That's how they do it in the Big House," Nathan told Buck, shaking his head half in condemnation and half in admiration. There were times he just wanted to strangle Ezra Standish for reminding him of the other side of that coin.
"Huh," Buck grunted, unimpressed. "No wonder them Rebs were such mean fighters."
Chris Larabee began to laugh. "Oh, Lord, Buck..." he gasped. "I can't wait 'til you get married!"
Buck laughed along with the rest of them, kicking J.D.'s question into silence under the table. It had been a long time since he'd heard Chris Larabee make a joke about the future, and Buck wasn't about to let either his or J.D.'s ignorance of what the hell was so funny spoil it.
At the piano, Ezra glanced at his companion for permission to move forward. He was tired of having such an attentive - and obtuse - audience.
The captain's reluctance to stop trading musical compliments and scandalous promises was overcome by the knowledge that every passing minute brought her horses closer to being able to resume their journey. She finished the right hand part of the current mutual invitation with a flourish, putting her hands in her lap.
Ezra picked up the flourish where she left off, improvising while he considered the woman sitting beside him. An old memory stirred, moving his fingers with it. It was a simple tune, centuries old, easily played and easily sung by the soldiers who had carried it with them to a New World.
Inez watched recognition of the tune stir through the room. Outside looking in once again at a strange culture, she frowned in frustration at her ignorance of its impact on the seven men who ate her food every day and the soldaderas they were smiling at so wistfully.
Ezra leaned in close, keeping his voice low but pitching the notes true. "Your waist is too slender, your fingers are too small, your cheeks are too rosy to face the cannonball..."
Buck looked to Chris, remembering the freezing nights they'd heard that song floating across the battle lines - remembering the times they had answered it like Ezra's amazon was answering him now.
"...I'll pull back my hair, men's clothes I'll put on, I'll pass for your comrade as we march along, I'll pass for your comrade and none will ever guess. Won't you let me go with you...?"
Inez sighed as she heard Ezra softly sing, "Yes, my love, yes." She sighed again as she saw the two handsome male strangers look deeply into one another's eyes and clasp hands behind the table, their white knuckled embrace hidden from everyone but her.
'God,' Inez decided, 'hates me.'
Ezra brought the song to a finish, turning to the captain.
"It's a lovely sunset," she suggested, her gaze never wavering from his face.
"My favorite time of mornin'," he told her, grin glinting in the twilight. They rose together, she picking up her hat and gloves from the bar while he adjusted the hang of his jacket as he waited for her to return and take his arm.
"Gentlemen," Ezra nodded to his six compatriots as he picked up his own hat off his table.
"Ezra," Vin answered for the others, finding himself admiring the cut of the gambler's coat for the first time since they'd met.
Buck let them make it to the door before bellowing, "Ezra!"
"What about the bet?!"
"It'll keep, sir."
J.D. had the pure pleasure of kicking Buck in his shin to hobble him from going through the table at Ezra.
"Mr. Gunner," the captain said, bringing her commander up to attention.
"Please see that tonight's mess is laid in Mr. Standish's quarters."
"And Mr. Gunner?"
"No drunken fraternizing. You have the con, Commander."
"I have the con, sir!"
All eyes turned to Gunner, the silence in the saloon broken only by the creaking swing of the doors as Ezra and his prize made good their escape.
"Standard liberty rotation," Gunner ordered crisply. "First watch with me."
With a speed and efficiency that Larabee could only admire, a third of the congregated amazons followed Gunner and the surgeon out of the saloon. The rest, including Vin's bon-bon and Buck's original duo circled around the table, bottles in their hands.
"You boys dance?" their previous spokeswoman asked.
"Only with my woman," Nathan replied, standing. Several of the amazons looked hopefully in the direction of Inez. Four male minds pulled up from where their thoughts were taking them with an audible screech.
"So, I guess I'd better get home and do that," Jackson hastily added. "With her. Alone."
And then he was gone, moving like a scalded cat.
"Why'd he leave?" J.D. asked.
"Maybe he's shy," a voice behind Dunne suggested. It belonged to a brunette that made Buck's mouth water.
"You shy, honey?" the redhead beside her asked.
"I - got work to do," J.D. decided hastily, not wanting to give the already riled Casey any further cause to yell at him. "I'm the sheriff - I'm on duty! Gotta go! See ya, boys!" he called, legging it out the door even faster than had Nathan.
"Was it something we said?" the brunette chuckled.
"Don't worry, Darlin'," Buck assured her, stepping into the breach. "The rest of us dance."
The setting sun was putting on the crimson display that went a long way to making the unrelenting dust of Four Corners forgivable. J.D. smiled as he finished making sure the Clarion office was locked up tight, wondering if getting Charlie to teach him how to play the piano might help him with Casey. Shaking his head with a glance back at the saloon, he continued with his check of Main Street.
"Oh, deah," Ezra clucked from the cover and vantage of the saloon roof. "I do believe Mr. Dunne has allowed himself to be out-flanked."
The captain lifted her head off his shoulder and sat up on his lap, frowning down at where two of her lieutenants were making their way into the jail. Oblivious to the danger, the young sheriff was heading straight into an ambush.
"Oops," she agreed, her eyes involuntarily closing as Standish lifted her hand to brush its back against his cheek before kissing each finger in turn.
It wasn't a soft or little hand, but its skin was smooth, its nails buffed to a soft shine. A lovely hand, Ezra decided, turning its palm up to discover that it smelt of jasmine and clean leather.
"Should we... ahhh... do something?" she asked breathlessly. The tip of his tongue traced a suggestion across her palm and she put her head back down on his shoulder. "To assist... your sheriff?" she clarified dreamily.
Ezra hesitated, considering J.D. and his past experiences with amorous amazons. "Do they bite?"
"Only when requested so to do."
"Hell no," Ezra answered, getting back to working up an appetite for dinner.
J.D. had his gun drawn before his hat hit his desk. Or, rather, before it bounced off the soles of the dress boots of the brunette who had propositioned him in the saloon. She was sitting in his chair, a bottle of whiskey in front of her and an invitation in her smile.
"Howdy, Sheriff," she purred, lighting the wick of the desk's oil lamp and replacing its chimney.
J.D.'s answer was cut off by the click of the door closing behind him. He quickly put his back to the cell, keeping the door and the desk in his view. The redhead from the saloon was leaning against the door she'd shut, long legs crossed provocatively as she balanced a hand on a cocked hip.
"We've never met a real sheriff before," she grinned.
J.D. snatched the keys to the cell from the desk, flinging himself into it and locking the door in front of him.
The two women blinked at him.
"A simple 'no, thanks,' would have sufficed," the brunette muttered, taking a sip of the whiskey.
"What're you doin' here?" J.D. demanded, deciding not to holster his Colt.
"We came to ask when you got off duty," the redhead explained, picking up J.D.'s hat as she crossed the room to sit on the edge of the desk. "And to see if, maybe, you were shy."
Dunne shook his head. "I'm not buyin' it, ladies."
"We're not selling it," the brunette snapped.
J.D. turned beet red. "I - I didn't mean it like that -"
A scrape and rattle at the door interrupted his attempt to pull his boot out of his mouth.
"J.D.?" Casey's curious voice called as the door swung open. "J.D.!!" it reproached as her gaze fell upon the two curious women regarding her from the sheriff's desk - and the hat resting in the redhead's lap.
"Casey! Wait!" Dunne cried, crashing off the firmly locked cell doors.
Groaning, J.D. holstered his gun and sank onto the cell cot, holding his hanging head with two hands.
"Sorry, honey," he heard the brunette say. "We could explain...?"
J.D. shook his head in abject misery.
"She your wife?" the redhead asked.
"She's - she's - aw, hell, I don't know what she is."
"Sweet on you," the brunette observed.
"You think so?" J.D. asked eagerly, looking up. "Well, we're friends - I really like her... but..."
"You have no idea what to do next?"
"It's different with girls," J.D. tried to explain. "I mean, Casey's not like - well, she's..."
"The kind you marry," the redhead sighed.
"I ain't ready to get married - I can't take care of a family yet. I can't - what if I got shot and died, and left her..."
"In trouble?" the brunette filled in.
"I won't hurt Casey," J.D. said flatly. "I'd rather lose her."
"Lucky bitch," the brunette murmured, earning a smack from her companion.
"Ow," the wounded amazon complained, looking up at her frowning associate.
"Oh, no," J.D. heard her say. "No - no - oh, hell no!" She sounded a lot like Ezra when Vin and Chris had been talking him into wearing a dress the gambler had decided they'd bought from a color-blind Louisiana whore. And, like Ezra, she gave up quickly to the inevitable with a long-suffering sigh. She rose from the chair, pulling a thin stiletto from her boot as she walked to the cell door.
"A maternal instinct," she complained, as she began to pick its lock, "is a definite liability."
Ezra held open the saloon door, allowing the captain to go into the noisy, crowded room ahead of him.
"Ezra!" Buck bellowed in greeting as he two-stepped past, enjoying dancing with a partner that he could steal a kiss from without getting a crick in his neck.
Standish tipped his hat as he removed it, shaking his head in mock sorrow as he surveyed the dance hall that had once been a saloon. "Such depredation," he sighed, tucking his Hippolyta's hand firmly against his side to lead her through the laughing, stomping throng and up the stairs to his room.
Glancing into the mirror over the piano, Charles saw the couple framed in the open top of the saloon doors, the light from the night watch fires behind them. Grinning, he changed his tune, and for once in his chequered career, Charlie got it right.
"What the hell?" Buck demanded, as the beat of the music changed into a Viennese waltz.
"Holy shit," his partner replied, craning her neck to see over her shoulder. Buck turned them so they could both see what she was looking at.
"Well, I'll be damned..." he said, as Ezra swept his amazon out onto the dance floor. The gambler should have looked ridiculous - a little man, a large woman, he wearing velvet and ruffles, she wearing riding boots and uniform. It should have been the funniest damn thing Buck Wilmington had ever seen - but it wasn't.
Tanner and his bon-bon stopped next to Wilmington, the tracker mesmerized by the couple whirling effortlessly over the dirty, uneven floorboards of the saloon. A shiver goose-bumped down Tanner's back as Ezra glided by him again, the gold buttons on his jacket sleeve gleaming. Once, not long after the war, Vin had gone to New Orleans on business. The thing he remembered about the trip was a long avenue of live oaks that marched two by two for nearly a mile, beginning in the middle of nothing and ending at the tumbled ruins of a house bigger than any Tanner had thought possible. He still carried the gold button he'd found amongst the burnt stone and brick, a token of acknowledgement to the ghosts he had felt haunting the shade thrown by those trees.
Josiah and Chris joined Buck and Vin, Larabee's giggling partner smacking Vin's bon-bon on the arm. "C'est magnifique!" she said.
"Mais ce n'est pas la guerre," the lieutenant agreed.
When the waltz came to its inevitable end, Standish and the captain were standing at the foot of the stairs. There was silence in the room except for Charlie's tactful plonking as everyone watched Ezra follow the captain up the stairs. The quiet held past the muffled, distant sound of a door closing above them... held until Chris Larabee could no longer contain his admiration.
"Little bastard," he grinned.
"I love it when the Old Man lets her hair down," Gunner laughed, leading the way to the livery.
"Especially when it leaves the presidential suite for us," MacKai agreed.
"Duty before pleasure," Gunner ordered, fending off the hand trying to pinch his ass.
"How about a bucolic warm up?"
"Forget it, mate! I don't fancy a thistle up my -"
"Shh!" MacKai held up a hand to emphasize the command for silence. After a moment, Gunner heard it, too: someone was in the stable, crying their heart out.
They found her in the tack room, a young girl of perhaps 16. She jumped when she realized they were standing over her, scrambling backward across the floor to get away from them. The wall of the tack room halted her progress, and the panic in her eyes when she realized they were blocking the door made MacKai drop to his haunches beside her and Gunner lean against the wall to leave a clear path for her escape.
"Are you all right?" the surgeon asked, his voice kind.
The girl nodded, wiping her streaming nose with the cuff of her shirt. Wincing, Gunner handed her a handkerchief. "Try this," he suggested. "I think you'll find it a more appropriate solution to your current difficulties."
The girl took it from him, an unexpected chuckle interrupting the gasps she was using to strangle her sobs.
"You... you sound just like... Ezra," she tried to explain at Gunner's raised eyebrow. Wiping her eyes and her face with a few sniffles, she added, "You smell like him, too."
Both of Gunner's eyebrows shot up, much to MacKai's amusement.
"Ezra always smells nice," she clarified helpfully. "He uses perfume."
"Eau de toilette," Gunner corrected sternly. "Cologne, if you must."
"So, little one," MacKai said, dropping down to sit on his knees and heels, "is it Ezra who's broken your heart?"
The girl blinked. "Ezra?"
"Obviously not," Gunner sighed, sitting down on the floor and getting as comfortable as the circumstances allowed. He had a feeling the feather bed in the presidential suite was much farther in his future than he'd hoped.
"My heart ain't broken," she said defiantly, chin thrust out with charming stubbornness.
"Badly dented, then?" MacKai suggested.
She said nothing, but hid suddenly wet eyes behind Gunner's handkerchief.
MacKai patted her gently on the shoulder, pushing the girl straight into a full-out crying fit.
"Now, now, there, there," the surgeon chanted, pat-patting the girl's back in its rhythm. It wasn't long before she was cradled against his shoulder, body shaking with all the misery of young love.
"Would it help," Gunner offered, "if I beat him up for you?"
The waterworks stopped with a gulp and the girl turned to Gunner with real fear in her eyes. MacKai kept a protective arm around her shoulders as the commander clarified with a grin, "Just a little?"
"Please, don't..." she whispered, brutally twisting the square of linen in her hands. "Oh, please don't hurt J.D.!"
"Are you sure? I mean, he must have done something pretty bad to upset you this much...?"
The girl dropped her gaze to the floor, shame and embarrassment flooding her face. Gunner and MacKai shared a glance of paternal suspicion.
"Did J.D.... Did he - take advantage of your affection?" MacKai asked gently.
"No-oo!" was the anguished answer, and the girl dissolved into tears once again.
"But you wish he would," Gunner translated, nodding in sympathetic understanding.
"I - I don't know... I just want him to.... Couldn't he just kiss me?" she cried.
"Maybe that's why he hasn't tried," MacKai suggested. "Maybe he's afraid he couldn't just kiss you."
The girl sniffed in indignation. "It doesn't stop him with other girls - like the ones he's with now."
Gunner suppressed a groan. Trouble loomed ahead of him like an iceberg in the North Atlantic. "They wouldn't be any of ours, would they?"
"He's got two of them with him in the jail -- what's he gonna do with two girls?!" she demanded.
"I think I'd better find out," Gunner sighed, dusting himself off as he climbed to his feet.
The activity in the town seemed to be focused on the raucous saloon, all else being quiet in the cool breeze of the night. Gunner returned the salutes from his own sentries as he headed toward the jail, acknowledging Nathan Jackson's nod from where he sat sentinel on the balcony of his clinic.
The commander slipped behind the jail, led to spy through the barred cell windows by a shocked cry of, "Dear God!". Peering into the brightly-lit office, he saw the teen-aged sheriff who had been so brilliant with the ship's horses sitting at a desk.
'So that's J.D.,' he thought to himself, frowning as he identified his Second and Fourth Lieutenants standing on either side of the young man. Each had a hand on his shoulder and was pressing him down into the chair from which he was struggling valiantly to rise, an expression of sheer terror on his unshaven face.
"Do you, or do you not, want to do right by your young woman?" his Second Lieutenant demanded with a toss of her red hair.
"Oh, merciful Lord!" J.D. wailed, his knuckles white around the pencil he was clutching.
His Fourth Lieutenant tapped the commonplace book open in front of J.D. with an index finger and a deep purpose. "It's spelt V-A-G..."
Gunner made it out of earshot before he laughed himself breathless.
When he arrived back at the tack room, the girl's face had been washed and the hay was missing from her hair.
"Well?" MacKai asked. "What is J.D. doing with two... girls?"
"He's talking to them," Gunner answered, tapping the girl on the end of her nose. "About you, Petal."
"Me?" she squeaked. "Are you sure?"
"See, Casey? Good news," MacKai encouraged their protégé. Gunner decided it was a good name for the child.
"What were they talking about?" she enquired.
"Ahmm - courtship."
"D'you think he might be planning on kissing me?"
'If he survives the indoctrination,' Gunner mused. Aloud, he said, "You could always kiss him, you know."
"That's bein' forward."
"What's wrong with being forward? Unless he tells you he doesn't want a kiss from you, it's always your prerogative to offer one," MacKai told her.
"Girls ain't s'posed to. We're supposed to wait until we have a husband before we do anything - interestin'."
"What an entrancing prospect," Gunner muttered, utterly appalled.
"It's not fair," Casey told him, the surreality of the moment fanning a boldness that made her blush. "I mean, it's my body, I oughta have some say over it."
"You're damned right it's your body - married or not, when you say 'no', it means 'no'," MacKai said.
"I got the 'no' part down. What if I want to say yes?"
"Then you need to make sure you're using the most effective contraception available to you."
Gunner made a strangled sound, pulling his hat down to hide his face.
"Well," MacKai said. "Well.... Perhaps you should ask your mother."
"My Ma died when I was little. My Aunt Nettie raised me."
"Deep subject," Gunner said through his hat.
"Very deep," MacKai agreed. 'And getting deeper by the second....' "Have you asked your aunt about... this?"
"She explained it all real clear - what happens when a man and a woman get together and 'bout how easy it is to wind up in a family way. She says it's best to wait until I'm married, and if needful, save the last bullet for myself before then."
"Extreme, but effective," MacKai blinked, stunned.
"Doesn't leave much room for kissin'," she sighed dejectedly.
"No, it wouldn't."
"I don't suppose you could - explain it to me?" she requested hopefully.
"No!" Gunner yelped, dropping his hat. "No, he couldn't!"
"Now, Pash -"
"Could you excuse us for a moment, Miss?" Gunner asked Casey, hauling MacKai out of the tack room by the scruff of his uniform tunic.
"Are you insane?" the commander hissed, hiding from Casey behind a stack of hay bales.
"We've got to help her. I mean, if she was our daughter, you'd want someone to explain things to her, wouldn't you?"
"I would kill the bastard that tried! That's what Daddies do - they misconstrue helpful notions like this - and in case you haven't noticed, this town has lots of Daddies, all very well armed."
"I have to do this," MacKai stated. "I took an oath. Ignorance of contraception, the dangers of conception - they're among the most significant health hazards to the women of this epoch, not the least because of the psychological bondage and fear generated by that ignorance. I can't leave her like this -not after she's asked for my help. Now, you don't have to be here, but I have to do this."
Gunner watched MacKai walk away from him, back toward the tack room and the love-stricken Casey. The thought of his own daughters tightened his throat, and he mentally kissed the feather bed goodbye. 'What the hell,' he decided, reminding himself, 'you've been hung for less.'
"Wait up," he called, jogging to meet the grinning surgeon.
The captain cleared her throat, embarrassed. Standish shook himself out of his shock, shutting his open mouth with a click. She watched as he made a slow, 360° turn, taking in the missing dividing walls that had once separated his quarters from two other sleeping rooms. Velvet drapes and elegant privacy screens had divided the large rectangle into bath, parlor, dining room, and boudoir.
Walking like a man in a dream, he entered his brand new dining room to survey the cold supper laid out for two on the regimental silver, crystal, and linen. Picking up a caviar-laden buttered toast point, Ezra closed his eyes the better to savor the salty, crunching morsel. Opening them again, he reached for the champagne bottle waiting patiently in its silver ewer.
"My, uh, men seem to have... exceeded... the letter of their orders," she half apologized, snuggling up behind him and sliding her arms around his chest.
"Indeed they have," he agreed, the 'pop' of the champagne cork and rush of foam drowning his gasp as she licked his earlobe wet and then blew it dry. "But I shall forgive them on the grounds of their superb taste."
"Good," she murmured, tickling the inside of his ear with her breath. "You pour the wine while I change for dinner."
She left him with a kiss on the nape of his neck between collar and hairline that trembled its way down his body to shake his knees. Licking dry lips, he watched her disappear behind the privacy screen beside which hung a dress that screamed 'Paris!' in every silken stitch. After a few moments, he saw a river of hair toss itself up over the screen, hitting the ceiling before cascading back down into concealment. Ezra could picture it tumbling over smooth, white shoulders and took a deep, grinning breath.
'For the blessings we are about to receive,' he prayed to any gods who cared to listen as he poured the champagne into the waiting glasses, 'I am truly grateful.'
Inez sighed as she wiped down the gleaming bar. It was close to two in the morning, and the soldaderas' shift was changing. Contented women were strolling into the bar, stretching lazily as they briefed their 'replacements' on who was where, doing what, to whom. Inez hummed loudly to herself, trying to drown out the frank discussion. These women had the luxury of being able to ride out of town in the morning, but she had to face the men they were discussing on a daily basis. It wouldn't do to laugh every time she tried to serve them a beer.
A puff of dust floating gently onto the pristine bar attracted her attention. Frowning, she wiped the thin film of dirt and wood particles away. A moment later, another puff descended to cloud the polished surface and she raised her eyes to the ceiling.
The chandelier was swinging gently from its moorings. Frowning, she came out from behind the bar to stare up at it, her hands on her hips. The chandelier jumped as the ceiling boards creaked - floorboards creaked, she suddenly realized. The swinging lamp was anchored below Señor Standish's room, and something occurring on the upper floor of the saloon was making it dance an increasingly wild jig.
The laughter and conversation among the amazons faded quickly and they came to stand by Inez in silence, craning their necks to watch the ceiling bounce and the chandelier lurch. Breathing fell into pace with the thumping, creaking rhythm and faces burned crimson at the distant sounds of pleasure that drove the chandelier into sputtering darkness. Faster went the floorboards and louder sounded the mingled voices, Inez raising a hand to cover her mouth at the things she heard Señor Standish demand. The amazons surrounding her stood with opened mouths, impressed by their captain's explicit permissions.
The reflexes of the soldaderas saved Inez as the chandelier finally gave up and crashed to its destruction at her feet. A second crash echoing from the room above followed on its heels, in a shriek of metal and splintering boards. The ceiling boards continued to shudder and jump - and then suddenly, they stopped, lying as still as death above the heads of the worried women in the saloon.
A long, low whistle was the only comment for some moments as Inez and the amazons collected themselves and the dust settled.
"I need a drink," Charlie announced, appearing from under the piano and stumbling for the bar.
"Buena idea," Inez nodded, fanning herself with her apron. The amazons who were off shift had a better one and disappeared like frost in the sun. Those left joined Inez at the bar, accepting a round of bourbon on the house from the bemused piano player.
The amazon closest to Inez raised her gaze to the broken chain that swung in an ever-decreasing arc above them. Lifting her glass to the accomplishment, she toasted, "A willing foe and sea room."
"Qualquiera," Inez agreed, downing her shot. Just once, she wished she had sins of commission for which to beg divine forgiveness at Sunday mass. The woman who'd made the toast looked down Inez's cleavage and smiled invitingly.
'Wrong sins,' Inez sighed to herself. Now even the devil was letting her down.
Ezra came instantly awake, adrenaline kicking into high gear as he realized he didn't have a gun in his hand. A moment later, he recognized what it was holding and his heart really began to race.
He heard a 'clink' - the same sound that had taken him from his lover's pillow. It took a scrambling moment to dig out the back-up weapon he had stashed under the bed from the ruin they slept in, but he had it at last and was on his feet to investigate when a hand caught his arm and stopped him.
"Breakfast," she explained, letting him go to fall back onto the mattress, the impact of the landing sending a few downy feathers sailing into the air. The continuing sounds agreed with her assessment, and Ezra relaxed the cock on the .38's hammer. He tossed the pistol into the remains of his down pillow where it lay on the floor within his easy reach.
"Lovely idea," he growled, deciding to start with her throat.
Gunner stopped a few steps into the saloon, a worried look creasing his tired features as he assessed the damage to the ceiling and the chandelier.
"Ahh," he told Inez as he approached the weary woman leaning on the bar, "we'll pay for that."
"Señor Standish broke it," Inez replied. "Let him pay for it."
"He had help," a grinning soldadera proudly chuckled. "Sir."
"Can I get a drink?" Gunner asked. "It's been a hell of a night."
"Of course, Señor." Smiling with grim satisfaction, Inez liberated a bottle of very expensive scotch from the gambler's strongbox and set it in front of the handsome stranger with a decisive thump.
Gunner's eyes widened as he picked up the bottle, touching the label with reverent fingers. "You're an angel," he decided.
"God might not think so."
"That depends entirely on which God you're talking to," he countered, his smile twinkling in his lovely eyes.
'A cruel and jealous one,' Inez thought at him, handing him a clean glass as MacKai walked through the door.
"The brush," Gunner explained to the surgeon, as he pointed at the casualty listing in the middle of the floor. "Everything set?"
MacKai nodded. "I had a few words with Mr. Jackson about his apothecary, and how he could improve its pharmacopoeia. He was - gratifyingly interested."
"So, now can we get some sleep?"
"Been to the hotel lately?"
Gunner groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. "No rest for the wicked," he grinned at Inez.
"Or anyone else," she said tartly. "I sleep in the saloon."
Gunner reached out and snagged two more glasses, opening the bottle and pouring for three.
"How much do we owe you?" MacKai asked, reaching for payment.
"The bottle's on the house," Inez answered, with a glance at the chandelier.
Gunner and MacKai laughed, lifting their glasses to her. She clinked hers against theirs, drinking the shot of whiskey like a man.
"Can we buy you a more substantial breakfast, Señora?" MacKai asked.
"It seems the least we can do," Gunner added.
"Señorita," she corrected, sighing again. "And there is no one else to watch the bar."
Gunner looked over to the table where his men lounged.
"I'm on it, sir," an amazon answered cheerfully, unwrapping herself from a chair and taking up station behind the bar.
Inez hesitated. "Wouldn't you rather be - alone?"
"After breakfast," MacKai smiled.
Inez looked back to the two gentlemen, blinking at the compliment they had just given her.
"I would be pleased to join you for breakfast," Inez decided, untying her apron before hopping up on the bar and letting the two men lift her down. Each held out an arm for her, Gunner making sure he collected the bottle of scotch as well.
"Mornin'," Casey caroled out to Inez as she entered the saloon. Her gaze fell on the trio and she grinned, the unholy light of knowledgeable speculation gleaming in her eyes. "Anybody seen J.D.?"
Three heads shook in mute denial, and Casey left the saloon with one last, amused look at Inez.
"Did I miss something?" Inez asked, curious to know why Gunner was hiding his bright pink face against her shoulder and why MacKai was laughing at him.
For perhaps the first time in his adult life, the sight of the early morning sun pouring through his windows made Ezra Standish smile. He stretched lazily, making a barely in-time grab for the towel tucked around his waist. He secured it more firmly, hiding the lover's bites tattooing his hips.
The gentle chime of a bone china teacup being placed on its saucer turned him toward the lovely woman wearing his blue satin dressing gown. The remains of a strapping breakfast littered the table; the cooling bath in a tub that was very nearly big enough for two wafted scented humidity into the dryness of the air. He wasn't sure when the tea table had been laid, but he damn well recognized Sèvres porcelain when he saw it.
He didn't question it, as he hadn't questioned any of the extraordinary manifestations since that handkerchief had fluttered to rest at his feet. It would have been the grossest sacrilege: miracles, as Mr. Sanchez would no doubt agree, were best enjoyed from the perspective of blind faith.
She handed him his tea with a proprietary air that boosted his ego considerably. They sipped in wordless harmony, the sweet sharpness of bergamot and Darjeeling perfectly suiting their mood. She made her way to the rocking chair, sitting on the hair he'd just brushed free of its tangles. He followed her, content to stand and admire her graceful way with a dish of Bohea.
"May I?" she requested, her fingers an inch away from the fold that held the towel in place.
"If you like."
The towel dropped around his feet and he felt himself blush down to his ankles as she memorized his body like it was a work of art. He summed up all his brutally earned sangfroid and flexed into a deliberate contrapposto as he finished his cup.
"Praxiteles must have dreamt of such beauty," she complimented.
"I assure you, dreamin' is as close as the gentleman would have got, Darlin'."
"C'mere," she said, wrinkling her nose at him.
He reached for her empty cup and its plate, and she waited until he had set it aside, along with his own, before stretching her arms up to him. He settled between her knees with a happy grunt, raising his face to her as she stroked his hair. Kissing his eyes closed, she laid a carpet of soft, soft little kisses over his cheeks, nose, lips, and ears.
Slipping his hands inside the robe that Mr. Wilmington would have correctly identified as "whizzin' on the fence post", Ezra made room to lay his cheek against her heart as she continued to pet him like a cherished cat.
'After the allegro,' he reminded himself blissfully, 'comes the andante.'
"Chris! Ya gotta breathe, Chris!"
"No, I don't!" The muffled denial clawed its way up through a pile of knees, thighs, elbows and etceteras.
"Yeah, you do!"
"God damn it, Buck! Can't you just let me die happy for once?"
"Sorry, Pard! Nate says we've got trouble."
"Trouble?" Chris repeated, echoed by the two women on the bed. The one Chris had inadvertently knocked to the floor when Buck had grabbed him sat up quickly.
"Any of our people?" she asked.
"Now that kinda trouble I can handle, Darlin'," Buck winked at her. "Nope, the hands at the Bar S just spent their pay on booze in Eagle Bend and are headin' this way."
"Why're they comin' here?" Chris demanded, shaking his head to clear the sparks floating in front of his eyes as he felt a pair of trousers thrust into his hands.
"Seems the sheriff in Eagle Bend told 'em we were out chasin' rustlers, so this might be a good time to pay Four Corners a visit."
Chris's growl promised exquisite retribution as the trousers were removed from his hands. "Sorry, baby doll, those are mine," a female voice apologized. "Hey! Who's got the cowboy's pants?"
"Remind me to kill that son of a bitch the next time we're in Eagle Bend," Larabee ordered the howling Buck. "How long have we got?"
"About twenty minutes, give or take, accordin' to what the telegram from Eagle Bend said. Nathan and J.D. are makin' sure the watch fires are lit, and Josiah's recoverin' rapidly. Vin.... Well, hell, that boy's been lettin' the regiment down."
"Ours or theirs?" Chris wanted to know, helping his pillow friends to stuff his long legs and all the rest of him into his black jeans. His gunbelt was next and he smiled down at the shameless beauty kneeling in front of him, buttoning up his fly and fastening his buckles, and decided he should gut-shoot the bastard sheriff of Eagle Bend.
"Not quite sure.... The boy was actually sleepin' - because 'Vivienne' was on watch." Wilmington couldn't quite keep the disgust at the wasted opportunities out of his voice.
Chris's smile became a grin. Yep, Vin was definitely gonna hear about letting the side down; Buck could tell from the evil glint in Larabee's eyes. This whole party just kept getting better and better.
"Want your boots, Cowboy?"
Chris decided to wait until they'd wrestled his boots on his feet before kicking Buck in the shin.
"Oh, hell, he's probably worked his way up to holdin' her hand by now." This time, Buck didn't even try to hide his disgust.
"Let's go get him. Ladies," Larabee acknowledged, tipping the hat they'd just shoved on his head to them.
"Where do you want us, Cowboy?"
Chris reined in his honest answer. "Spread out and get your men to garrison the hotel. I'll be back."
"Hoo-rah!" the woman on her knees grunted with flattering enthusiasm, leaping to her feet and leading her compatriots out to rendezvous with the other off-duty amazons gathering for orders in the lobby.
Buck had taken two steps out the door before he realized Larabee wasn't right behind him. Backtracking, he found the gunslinger standing where he'd been left.
"I can't move my legs, Buck."
Grinning, Buck grabbed Larabee's arm and hauled him along. "C'mon, Stud. Trouble's waitin'."
They caught up with Vin in the saloon, staring down at a busted chandelier lying in tangled chaos on the floor.
"Woo," Buck whistled. "What'd we miss?"
A blush swept up Tanner's face, but he couldn't resist saying, "Looks like Ezra's been redecoratin'."
It took Buck and Chris a few moments to construct the three-dimensional picture of the saloon that Vin could see like he could breathe, and another to correctly interpret the lurid demise of the chandelier.
"Let's go get him," Chris ordered, sweeping Vin up along the way and pushing the reluctant tracker in front of him up the stairs and down the hall to Ezra's room. Buck pounded on the door, stepping to the side as Chris kicked it open and shoved Vin through first. Buck crowded in behind, fairly confident that if Ezra was sleeping with a gun tonight, he'd either fire high like he always did, or that Vin and Chris would stop the bullet before it got to him.
"Gentlemen," Ezra acknowledged, popping the cartridges out of his shotgun before tossing it across the room to be caught by his paramour. He wore boots and trousers, his suspenders hanging down over his gunbelt.
They didn't answer, staring with open mouths not so much at the missing walls as the mattress bleeding feathers across a bent and twisted bed frame and an over-turned rocking chair.
Vin, cursed with a natural talent for observation that he'd honed into a razor sharp skill, found those abilities betraying him as his mind took in the minute details of the destruction and painted a picture of debauchery that sent his modesty reeling. The incriminating evidence was everywhere he tried not to look, from the pair of silk scarves Ezra used for his fancy wide ties trailing from the twisted bars of the bed frame, damp, desperate fist prints crumpled into their softness, to a pair of ladies' drawers dangling from the top of the wardrobe. Their presence was to be expected, but the human teeth marks that told his trained eye exactly how they had been chewed apart took Vin into territory he'd never remotely considered before.
The Texan made a feeble attempt to back out of the room through the unyielding Larabee. The gunslinger shot a look of satisfaction at Buck to see if he had noticed Vin put two and two together to make sixty-nine.
Wilmington hadn't - he was too busy staring at Ezra's amazon, back-lighted by an oil lamp as she loaded the rifle from the bandoleer slung across her chest. It was all she wore over a billowing nightgown of sheer blue silk that left nothing to his imagination but somehow managed to provoke it mightily just the same.
"You ready?" Chris asked Ezra, letting Buck push Vin even further into the room.
"In a moment, Mr. Larabee." The gambler's voice was hoarse, and Chris laughed in silent sympathy as Ezra turned to the amazon.
"My lady?" he asked.
She caught her breath, a smile lighting her up inside and out. Somehow, she managed to find one of her gloves amid the debris, handing the strangling Vin the rifle as she strode past him.
Ignoring the transfixed Buck, Ezra strode to meet her, taking the glove in one hand and using his other to raise the back of hers to his mouth for a hard, pressing kiss. It wasn't enough for him, and Vin suddenly found himself being attacked by flying hair and draping silk as Ezra swept his Hippolyta into a back-bending promise of his gallant return.
Vin found himself unable to think of anything to do other than raise the rifle up over his head so as not to accidentally touch anyone or anything as Ezra used the tracker to keep his balance the way a tired horse uses a hitching post to take its weight. The Texan realized he was losing his balance at the same time Buck stepped to the rescue, putting his arm around Vin's shoulders and plucking the clinging strands of hair off his jacket. Upon reflection, Vin decided that he would rather have fallen down, instead of being trapped between Ezra trying to swap windpipes with his woman and Buck's avid interest in their proceedings.
"Ezra..." Chris prompted after a minute or so of enjoying himself watching Vin trying not to squirm. "We got riders comin'."
A second before Larabee had to repeat himself Ezra brought the kiss to an end, tucking the glove into the front of his belt. His amazon touched his cheek tenderly, tugged the rifle from Vin's paralyzed fingers, and was out the door, heading for the back stairs and the roof. It was, Chris decided, among the more memorable exits he had ever seen.
Ezra was the first man to move, throwing his arms akimbo and shaking his whole body like a wet dog. He was past Chris in one sprinting stride, and in another two was on the landing, leaping onto the banister. Punctuating his wild slide with a blood-curdling Rebel yell, he was through the swinging doors before his heels hit the ground.
"Damn," Buck breathed, his ears still ringing.
"No wonder them Rebs were such mean fighters," Chris agreed.
Buck put a little extra into the punch that sent the last of the Bar S boys spinning into the dust. The amazons who had gathered to watch the brawl and cheer their champions on greeted his effort with whistling applause.
'A man could get used to this,' he thought, hearing Chris give the all clear. As was their custom, the seven gathered together in front of the saloon after the fight. Spirits were high, especially Ezra's, who, for once, hadn't sacrificed any habiliment to the cause.
"Nice breather," Buck chuckled. J.D. rolled his eyes and glanced uneasily at the throng of amazons trotting toward them. Ezra laughed, slapping him on the back.
"Like Nike upon the outstretched hand of Athena..." Josiah breathed, staring over their heads up to the roof of the saloon. They followed his gaze, and found the captain standing with the crescent moon behind her, one foot forward and rifle in hand as the wind lifted her hair and gown into wings.
"Makes a man remember why he calls himself a Pagan," the preacher sighed.
"Amen," Ezra agreed solemnly.
Watching her walk down the stairs, Vin discovered that Ezra didn't walk graceful at all.
The captain's heart picked up its beat as she looked down into Standish's upturned face, the wild disarray of his Brutus locks glowing like embers in the light of the watch fires.
"I was with Hercules and Cadmus once," she challenged him, her voice carrying with quarterdeck ease. "When in a wood of Crete they bay'd the bear with hounds of Sparta; never did I hear such gallant chiding... I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder."
It took Standish a moment to follow her reference, and the quality of his laughter when he did made Vin frown and look at Josiah for the translation of the joke. Sanchez shrugged.
"This palpable-gross play hath well beguiled the heavy gait of night," Ezra matched her quote, lifting her down from the bottom stair and setting her on the saloon's porch. "Sweet friend, to bed!"
"Carry on!" the captain ordered her applauding crew and the hooting peacekeepers, her abdomen snug against Standish's shoulder as he carried her through the batwing doors.
Reassured by the familiar howls of their guardian wolf pack, the decent folk of Four Corners rolled over and went back to sleep.
J.D. stepped back from locking the cell door, taking off his hat and mopping his brow. The boys from the Bar S would be in a world of hurt in the morning, but they'd asked for what they'd received.
Sinking into his chair behind the desk, J.D. picked up the innocent looking commonplace book, his mind still staggered from the information he'd recorded in it. He was going to have to find a good hiding place for it, because if Buck ever got his hands on it, he'd get skinned for sure.
He barely heard the soft knock on the door over the groans and heavy breathing.
"J.D.?" he heard Casey call as she entered his office. "You did real good tonight," she complimented, as he nervously stood up to greet her. Indeed, she'd never seen the Seven work with greater enthusiasm. She suspected their appreciative audience might have had a little to do with it. She might be inexperienced, but she certainly wasn't stupid.
"How long before you get off shift?"
"Uhm..." he hedged, not quite sure how to tell her he'd last seen his relief being carried bodily toward the bathhouse by three women and a couple of bottles of whiskey. His awe of Chris Larabee had gone up a notch at the sight.
"We'll cover it, Sheriff," he heard his red-haired teacher announce, as she and her compatriot followed Casey into the office.
"Commander Gunner's orders - this is a watch station now, sir," the brunette told him.
"It's an awful pretty night, J.D.," Casey cajoled.
"I guess it'll be all right," he grudged, locking the commonplace book in the desk drawer. "Uh, wanna go for a walk, Casey?"
"Love to," she grinned, bouncing a little.
Watching them go with a grateful sigh for their misspent youth, the two amazons settled down to wait for the morning and the end of their watch.
"At least the First Watch will have to deal with the mop and bucket duty," the Fourth Lieutenant sighed.
"We'll find our reward in heaven," the Second Lieutenant consoled.
It actually arrived sooner than that, just after they'd been relieved. As they stepped out into the street, a broad-shouldered, handsome cowboy, his hat held respectfully in his hand, greeted them.
"Mornin', ladies. Name's Buck Wilmington. Sheriff Dunne sent me to see to your breakfast."
Rosy-cheek'd Dawn bit her way through the veil of night as fifteen weary women and MacKai stood beside horses spoiling from a week in the stables. Gunner surveyed the sorry sight with a smile and let them walk their eager mounts into formation. He drew the ship's company up in front of the saloon, where six men waited for the seventh to join them, very grateful that the gunslinger mystique included slouching against railings and sprawling in chairs.
On the stroke of six a.m., the captain's immaculate fox opened the batwing doors of the saloon. He used his back to hold it open as he helped her across the threshold with tender solicitousness. She was, Gunner realized with delight, limping.
The six men on the porch managed to put some starch into their sag, confirmed in their belief that while they had been out-manned, they had not been outgunned.
"Saddle up!" Gunner ordered, swinging rather gingerly into his own seat.
Ezra walked the captain to her hobbying mount, giving her a leg up. The horse tried to dance, but she held it in check. They shared a long, last look, their good-byes already said in private. With a crispness that whispered of old custom, he saluted her. She returned it with a wink, then turned her attention to the task at hand.
"Move them out, Mr. Gunner. With some spirit, if you please." She set the example, kicking her horse into a canter.
Led by Chris, the six peacekeepers straggled off the porch to stand by the gambler to watch sixteen lovely derrières post out of town. When all that was left to see was a cloud of dust in the distance, Ezra squinted into the glory of the morning sun.
"Goodnight, gentlemen," he yawned, leading the way to the saloon at a leisurely pace.
"Who won the bet, Ezra?" Buck asked.
"What bet?" the gambler replied.
"Was she?" Chris wanted to know.
"I don't follow," Ezra frowned.
"An officer and a gentleman?"
Ezra's smile fought its way into existence despite his poker face's best efforts. "On occasion, Mr. Larabee."
Five male minds decided not to Go There.
"Damn it, Buck! What'd I do?!"
"That's what I'd like to know, Kid!"
Ezra didn't wait with the others to make sure J.D. made it to safety before entering the saloon. Josiah waved a vague farewell, weaving toward the church he hadn't seen the inside of for quite a while. Nathan traded an amused look with Chris before jogging after Sanchez to make sure he made it where he was going.
Chris and Vin found Ezra asleep on the bar, a bottle of whiskey under his neck for a pillow and his hat over his face.
"Think he'd thank me if I shot him right now?" Chris asked.
"Probably," Vin answered. "You gonna?"
"Nah. Too much fun watchin' him suffer."
"Sometimes you worry me, Pard."
"You can't go to sleep," the tracker said, as Ezra began to snore.
"Oh, yes, I can," Larabee assured him.
"Mary's stagecoach is gonna be arrivin' this mornin'. I think it'd hurt her and Billy's feelings if you weren't there to meet it." The tracker left the saloon for the comfort of his lonely bed while Chris Larabee's swearing was still rattling the rafters of the saloon.
'All in all,' Vin reflected as he hid a yawn behind his hand, 'this last week hasn't been a bad way to earn seven dollars.'
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