Always The Lady

by ReaperWriter

Ezra sat at his usual table, but had refused every game offered to him. He had told Clayton to have the kitchen keep Lili’s food warm while Mary saw to her. Mindlessly, he worked the deck of cards through his hands, shuffling endlessly. He couldn’t focus enough to play solitaire. His mind kept reverting to the gunfight early that afternoon.

He turned at the sound of Lili’s voice, asking for a sidearm. He felt his stomach clench as he saw the red stain spreading on her shirt. He had seen it too many time, both in those opposing him and in his own friends. He saw her aiming over his and Josiah’s heads, firing into the alley they were all blind of. And the image of her, after the street had gone quiet, when the gun had slipped and she had crumpled....

“Senor Standish?” Inez’s voice broke through his musings. He looked up to see the saloon manager, holding out a snifter of brandy. “You looked like you needed it Senor. On the house.” She smiled softly.

“Thank you, Inez. Once again, you are the very angel of mercy in a time of trial,” Ezra said, sipping the drink. The woman smiled again and headed back to the bar. Slowly, Ezra forced himself to calm down. She was alive. Lili was alive and that was all that mattered. Except Ezra Standish’s demons enjoyed playing with him too damn much for that. Sure, she is alive, Ezra, no thanks to you. Somehow his demons always sounded like his mother. He wondered if there was a reason for that. But, she’ll still leave soon, and then where shall you be?

Ezra sighed, and threw back the rest of the brandy. His expression firmly in place, he began shuffling the cards again, hoping the soft sound would drown out the voices in his head.

+ + + + + + +

Mary had to cut the blood soaked camisole off Lili’s body, to avoid injuring her arm more. Lili sighed as it was tossed to the floor. She had really liked that camisole. She pulled her gun out of her skirt pocket and set it on the table, still in reach. Mary sighed, and wondered what would cause a woman to believe she needed that kind of protection all the time. “How long have you hunted bounty?” she asked, using a rag with warm water to wipe the blood off Lili’s shoulder, careful to avoid the freshly cauterized wound.

“Almost four years now,” Lili replied. “After I left New Orleans, I thought to work as a singer to get west, but I met my mentor, Tom Corbair, and the partnership went from there until he passed on a little over a year later. By then, I was good at this job, so I kept on it. It’s given me a substantial bit of savings, so when I do decide to settle, I’ll have something to start with.”

“What did you do before, when you knew Ezra?” Mary inquired.

“Back home, I was a teacher at a small dame school,” Lili said. “After my village was...after I left home, I ended up working as a singer on river boats, then in the clubs of New Orleans. That’s where I met Ezra.”

“Why did you leave home?” Mary asked, then regretted it, seeing pain flash over the expression in the younger woman’s eyes. “I’m sorry, it’s none of my business.”

“No, it’s alright,” Lili replied. “I just haven’t talked about it to anyone since Ezra and I knew each other. The year the war ended, my fiancé Shadrach came home. I was 17 that year, and life was finally returning to normal. We were to marry in late June, and then come west. He was a lawyer, Shadrach was. We planned to settle someplace wild and live the adventure. Then, two weeks before the wedding, the first person fell sick. Cholera hit fast and hard. Everyone died, my whole family. Shadrach passed on the day we were to wed. All told, over fifty people died. There was hardly anyone left. Five, maybe six of us. We had to burn everything. Then we went our own ways.”

“My God,” Mary said. She worked silently, when something struck her. “You were a teacher?”

“Board certified in Massachusetts. I taught for three years, before Shadrach and I were set to marry,” Lili said, as Mary helped her into a new camisole. “Why do you ask?”

“We have no school here, but we do have children in town, who need to be taught,” Mary said.

“That’s sweet, Mrs. Travis, but no self respecting parent would want me teaching here,” Lili said. “I won’t lie to you. Shadrach and I were intimate with each other before marriage. And I have had lovers in the years since then. Plus, who wants a former showgirl and bounty hunter teaching their children?”

“You could start by calling me Mary,” Mary said. “Actually, the fact you can shoot might be an attraction. The biggest reason we don’t have a school here is because no one is brave enough to take the posting. I would be willing to let you teach my son.”

“I don’t know,” Lili said. “I would have to think about it.”

“My father-in-law is the district circuit judge, and he has been trying to start a school here for some time,” Mary said. “We could use the church for a school during the week, Josiah wouldn’t mind. Please consider it, Miss MacKenna.”

“Well, if I do decide to stay, I believe you could call me Lili,” she said quietly. “But, this isn’t a yes. Not yet, anyways.”

Mary smiled to herself. She had seen the look on the gambler’s face when Ezra had been taking care of an unconscious Lili. It wasn’t often Mary Travis got to play matchmaker anymore, and she was excited at the prospect. She suspected this project might just take her a while. “Alrigth, Lili. Why don’t we get you dressed and see about getting some food for you?”

“That’s the best thing I’ve heard all day,” Lili said.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan walked into the saloon, carrying a small canvas bag full of his teas and some linen to use for fresh bandages if Lili needed them. He was surprised to see Ezra sitting at a table alone, flipping through his pack of cards. Walking over to him, he took a seat. “You okay, Ezra?”

“I wasn’t the one who was shot, Mr. Jackson,” Ezra replied quietly.

“Not all wounds are physical, Ez,” Nathan shot back. “What happened out there was none of your fault. Why aren’t you up there?”

“Mary Travis has most graciously agreed to tend to Lili’s need to get cleaned up and reattired. I felt, as a gentleman, I should effect my removal from the premises,”

Nathan sat back, taking in this side of Ezra. It wasn’t the first time he had seen it, when the cocky southerner would let his guard down, proving there was a conscience buried deep in the conman. Somehow, the healer suspected that this display on Ezra’s part was more than his usual anger at a woman being injured. The desperation Ezra had shown was comparative to that he had seen when one of their own little band was hurt. What did the woman upstairs mean to the southerner?

Mary was coming down the stairs. “Gentlemen,” she said.

“How is Lili doing?” Nathan asked.

“She’s in pain, but bearing it well,” Mary responded. “I think with some food and rest she should be fine.” She turned her attention to Ezra. “She’s asking for you.”

Ezra nodded and hurried towards the stairs, with Nathan following. He stopped at the desk and asked Clayton to send up Lili’s meal and a kettle of hot water for tea, before turning back to Mary. “You know what is between those two?” Nathan asked.

“Nothing concrete Mr. Jackson, but I have my suspicions. Tell Lili I’ll come by and check on her later,” Mary responded. Nathan nodded, and watched as Mrs. Travis left. Sighing, the tired healer headed upstairs.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra knocked on Lili’s door, but hearing nothing, opened it and walked in. She wasn’t in the sitting room, so he cautiously made his way to the bedroom door. “Lili, it’s me,” he said, hoping she wouldn’t accidentally shoot him. Walking into the adjoined room, he found her sitting in the rocking chair, starring out the window. The derringer sat in front of her, on the window sill. “Are you well, Lili Grace? Shall I hurry Nathan along?”

Lili looked up. She had known it was Ezra when he knocked, and continued to gaze out the window. This was the kind of town she and Shadrach had talked about going to, a place still wild and in need of settling. And now she was here, and she was distinctly aware that Shadrach wasn’t. She had a tintype of him, in her trunk, taken in his uniform during the war. Would Shadrach understand what she was feeling now? Would he accept that she had fallen in love with Ezra Standish? “I’m fine, Ezra. Just tired,” she replied. She didn’t want to turn around and look into those green eyes. He and Shadrach were so different. Her dead lover had deep brown eyes, almost black, and thick black hair. Ezra’s green eyes were light and sparkling, his brown hair carrying a distinctly reddish brown tint. Where Ezra was medium height and on the thin side, Shadrach had been tall, nearly a foot over her five and a half foot frame, and solidly built.

Ezra sat down on the edge of the bed, just behind her. “Lili Grace, I know we have not had the pleasure of each other’s acquaintance all these years, but there was once a period when you felt confident confiding in me. You will always have my complete confidentiality on any matter, if you wished to confide in me,” he said. He thought he saw her shoulders shake just a little bit.

“Do you remember,” she said quietly, “what I told you I did before my fiancé came home from the war?”

“You were a teacher,” Ezra said. “And from your love of knowledge, I would hazard to say you were excellent at it.”

“Mary Travis wants me to stay on here and start a school,” Lili said quietly.

Ezra felt as if someone had just given his heart wings. Staying. She might be staying. “It sounds like an outstanding suggestion, Lili. Much safer work, I am sure.”

“Ezra, who wants me teaching their children? I am not exactly some matronly, nunlike spinster. I rode into town, dressed like a man, a bounty hunter and ex-show girl,” Lili said. “They might sooner ask one of the local soiled doves.”

“Lili,” Ezra replied, “if there is one thing I have learned in my tenure here, it is that the local populace is excellent at overcoming stereotypes and preconceived notions. When I first arrived, I was simply a no account gambler... a con they wanted to run out of town. But because Chris took a chance on me, because Mrs. Travis took a chance on me, the town gambled as well.”

“I’m not a man Ezra,” Lili said. “Men can be forgiven almost anything, but heaven forbid a lady should buck society, or she is outcast. I knew that when I made the choice, Ezra.”

“So that means you can’t attempt to build a normal life for yourself? God, Lili, we all have our demons, but if we give into them, they will surely effect our downfall,” he replied, standing and walking until he could face her and look her in the eye. “I am not proud of who I was when I came here Lili. Between believing you had deserted me, and taking another browbeating from mother, I refused to care anymore, about what any person cared to presume about me. But then, lady luck dealt me the six men you met today. I ran out on them Lili. Our first mission, I left.”

She looked up at him, realizing that his eyes were unguarded. The depth of regret and loyalty there shocked her. “Why are you telling me this, Ezra?”

“Do you know what Mr. Larabee said to me? ‘Don’t ever run out on me again,’” Ezra said. “And suddenly, I had a second chance, and I was scarred of that. I almost left, if Judge Travis had not...arranged for me to remain here, and see what that chance could be. I was free to leave after thirty days, Lili. It’s been three years.” He reached out and took her hand. “I miss our friendship, Lili. It can get a second chance here too, if you’ll stay. Please, stay.”

Lili felt the tears sting her eyes. I hope you understand, Shadrach. I love this man. “I...I’ll stay for a while,” she said. “But, this doesn’t mean I’m here forever. If the teaching position doesn’t work, if I don’t like it here, I am going to leave.”

“All I ask is that you give the town a chance,” Ezra said. I know I am not worthy of you, but give me a chance. He reached out and pulled her to her feet and into his arms. He hugged her the way a friend hugs a friend, or a brother his sister. He had no other rights. Slowly, Lili let the pain of the wound, the fear of seeing Ezra pinned down in a gun fight, her anger at Maude’s cruel betrayal of her son, and her shock at seeing someone she thought she had lost as surely as she had lost Shadrach and her brother go, as she sobbed quietly into Ezra’s shoulder, while the sun set quietly to the west.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan had entered the sitting room quietly, and had heard the end of the exchange between the gambler and the bounty huntress. He would never know for sure when Ezra had gone from being someone he tolerated to someone he liked to someone he cared for as a brother. He had watched the man’s fear for this woman, and he had recognized the look in his eyes. It was the same look he had seen in Chris’s eyes when he thought Mary was hurt or in danger. The look of a love denied until it might be too late. He wondered briefly how Lili felt about the man.

He knocked on the door frame to the sitting room to get their attention. Ezra quietly said, “In the bedroom, Nathan.” He set down the tea herbs and extra linen on the table and walked over to the bedroom. Ezra stood next to the window, holding Lili as she cried.

“Are you alright, Lili?” Nathan asked, circling around next to them. He reached a hand out, checking her for fever. Her head was cool.

“She will be, Nathan,” Ezra said. The healer was surprised Ezra had called him by his first name. “I think she just needs to rest for a while.”

Nathan nodded. “I’ll go wait for them to bring up her dinner and the water for the tea,” he said, slipping back into the sitting room. After another twenty minutes, Lili and Ezra joined him. Her food had come, along with a small table. Ezra had helped Lili get comfortable on the chaise lounge, and set the table next to her. Inez had the kitchen send up some good stew, with corn bread and some pie. Ezra pulled up a chair and quietly fed Lili, who looked too tired to really protest. He also had her sip the tea Nathan had made. The healer found it oddly ironic how their roles were reversed in this case. Ezra tended the patient, while he played solitaire. Soon, however, it became apparent that Lili was fighting to stay awake. “Lili, I think it’s time you went to bed.”

Ezra nodded. He leaned over and picked her up, carrying her carefully to her bed. Lili was glad now that Mary had talked her into wearing her night gown rather than a new outfit. She was too tired to change again, but she didn’t want to be quite alone. Not yet. “Ezra?” she said, after he had settled her on the bed. Nathan had quickly taken the remnants of her dinner and the now cool kettle and left.

“Mmm?” Ezra replied, fluffing her pillow for her and covering her with a blanket.

“Stay a while and read to me?” she asked. “Only til I’m sleeping.”

Ezra was dumbfounded. His mind flashed back, to their spring days in the parks of New Orleans, reading from the books they found in the shops of the quarter. He nodded slowly and walked to the bedside table, where a thin leather bound book rested. Picking it up, he recognized the small gilt title. The Poems of John Donne. He had purchased this for Lili on her birthday, after she told him of the copy she had to leave to burn when her village was destroyed. The copy her brother had given her. He opened to a passage, finding one he knew well. “Air and Angels”.

TWICE or thrice had I loved thee,
Before I knew thy face or name ;
So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame
Angels affect us oft, and worshipp'd be.
Still when, to where thou wert, I came,
Some lovely glorious nothing did I see.
But since my soul, whose child love is,
Takes limbs of flesh, and else could nothing do,
More subtle than the parent is
Love must not be, but take a body too ;
And therefore what thou wert, and who,
I bid Love ask, and now
That it assume thy body, I allow,
And fix itself in thy lip, eye, and brow.
Whilst thus to ballast love I thought,
And so more steadily to have gone,
With wares which would sink admiration,
I saw I had love's pinnace overfraught ;
Thy every hair for love to work upon
Is much too much ; some fitter must be sought ;
For, nor in nothing, nor in things
Extreme, and scattering bright, can love inhere ;
Then as an angel face and wings
Of air, not pure as it, yet pure doth wear,
So thy love may be my love's sphere ;
Just such disparity
As is 'twixt air's and angels' purity,
'Twixt women's love, and men's, will ever be.

Looking up, he saw Lili at peace, her face beautiful in sleep. A very angel, as such I do not deserve. Quietly, he turned the page and continued to read silently to himself. Stars were out and a beautiful moon was up over Four Corners when the book slipped down into Ezra’s lap as he himself drifted into an easy sleep.

+ + + + + + +

Four days later, Vin Tanner returned to Four Corners. Chris had noticed him gone that first night, and had been worried sick. When he saw him riding in on Peso, looking a little worse for wear, he wanted nothing more than to kick Vin’s ass up one side of town and down another. But he figured the first thing he needed to do was find out where the young man had been.

“Cowboy, you’ve got some explaining to do,” he said, as he met Vin outside the livery. “Where the hell did you ride off to, Tanner, we’ve been worried sick?”

Vin didn’t say anything. Instead, he reached into a saddle bag and pulled out two guns. He turned and dropped them in the hay at Chris’s feet.

Chris picked one up and looked at the handle. To P, love Ma. He reached for the other. To T, love Ma. “Hell, Tanner, you didn’t.”

Vin laughed. “I wish. They tried to steal horses off Old Man Croucher’s place. He shot both of them, about three hours before I caught up.” Vin paused. “I’m sorry, Chris. It’s my fault Lili got hurt. She wouldn’t have been here but for me, and neither would they.”

“Vin, you haven’t been here,” Chris said. “Lili’s doing fine. More than that, if Ezra gets any more pleasant, I may have to shoot him. Blessings come in strange packages, pard.”

+ + + + + + +

Judge Travis stepped off the morning stage and was quickly met by Josiah. “Mr. Sanchez.”

“We have a little...conundrum, your honor,” Josiah said, picking up the judge’s bag as they headed for the hotel.

“What sort of conundrum?” Orin said, looking tired. He had just finished one trial, when he got the wire from Mary, telling him he needed to come to Four Corners to try the gunmen of Pete and Travis Morton for attempted murder. He had caught a stage first thing in the morning and had ridden for almost two days straight to get here.

“Well, sir, one of the principal witnesses only wants two of the men charged. The third is a boy, got picked up by one of the men who didn’t survive the fight. The kid didn’t fire a shot, and if the man who picked him up hadn’t threatened to kill him, I doubt he’d be here,” Josiah said. “Miss MacKenna and JD both feel for the kid.”

Judge Travis sighed and rubbed his temple with one hand. “Will the boy testify against the other two men?”

“Said he would,” Josiah said. “I’ve talked to the boy, sir. He’s a good kid that made a bad choice. He ain’t killed no one, and I’d kinda hate to see him end up on a bad path.”

“If he’ll testify, I won’t charge him,” the judge said. “Now tell me about this Miss MacKenna.”

Josiah smiled as he launched into the story of the past four days.

+ + + + + + +

Lili stood quietly next to the fabric selection in the general store. She needed to make up a new camisole to replace the one that had been destroyed, as well as a new blouse for the riding suit. Now she stood, quietly judging the qualities of cotton for the one, thick twill for blouse. They had the twill in just the right shade, but she really wanted the camisole to be a cream colored cotton. Vaguely she wondered if she could dye it.

Sitting in a chair out front, Ezra shuffled a pack of cards through his hands. He had not left Lili for more than a few hours in the past four days, and he wondered if she was feeling a little smothered. He hoped not, because he felt as though he had been given back heaven. He chuckled to himself, imagining what Josiah would say if he knew the ex-con man had begun thinking in biblical metaphors.

As he sat idly thinking, he almost didn’t see the preacher come up on him. “Hello, Brother Ezra,” Josiah said.

“Mr. Sanchez, what can I do for you on this splendid day?” Ezra asked.

“Judge is here,” Josiah said. “He’d like to talk to Lili.”

Ezra was worried suddenly. If Judge Travis didn’t hire Lili to teach, then she would be leaving in a while. Unless you speak up. Ezra shook his head a little at that thought. Lili loved her dead fiancé, she had never shown any sign of feeling more for him than friendship. Except that pendant. “I shall bring Lili over to the restaurant, if the judge would care to join us for a noon time repast.”

“Sounds good. I know he wants to wash up a bit, and I bet he’s hungry. I’ll ask Mary to join us. We’ll meet ya there in half an hour, alright?” Josiah answer. Ezra felt himself nod, but his mind was somewhere else entirely. How to make Lili stay if she didn’t get to teach.

Josiah looked at the pokerface Standish had entrenched, but he could sense the man’s fear, and Josiah asked God for a favor, something he usually saved for when one of them was injured. Lord, find a way to keep her here. She’s too damn good for him to let her leave.

Ezra watched Josiah walk away, then stood and walked into the dimly lit interior. Lili had made her selections and was chatting with Mrs. Potter as if it was the most natural thing in the world. They were laughing about some story the widow told about her children’s antics. Ezra walked up as Mrs. Potter wrapped up her order, smiling the whole time. Lili paid her bill, and smiled herself. “Hello, Ezra.”

“Lili, I’ll take these for you,” he said, picking up her packages. “Mrs. Potter, you look lovely today.”

“Thank you, Mr. Standish. Lili, you’re order should be in a few days. I’ll wire Eagle Bend this afternoon and see if my cousin can send it from her store,” Mrs. Potter said.

“Thank you kindly, Mrs. Potter,” Lili said. She took the arm Ezra offered, still needing a little help getting around. Her wounds had not become infected, and she had rested, but she still became tired after any amount of exertion. The two of them left the store, heading back to the hotel.

“Lili, the judge arrived this morning. We are to meet him, Mary, and Josiah for lunch in half an hour,” Ezra said. “Are you up to it? I could make your excuses if you are tired.”

“No,” Lili said. “I’m fine. Lets take these things to my room. I need to retrieve something from my trunk anyways.”

+ + + + + + +

Billy Travis had clung to his mother’s hand until he caught sight of a familiar older figure. “Grandpa!!” he cried, running up and throwing his arms around the judge.

“Hello Billy,” Orin said, hugging his grandson. The boy looked more like his late father everyday, and it caused the judge’s chest to constrict to think on his son. “Mary,” he added, taking in the sight of his daughter-in-law. He wondered if Mary had finally noticed the way his head gunman looked at her. He knew Stephen would want her to be happy, and he knew Chris could make her happy, just as she could make the dark clad fighter happy. If only the two stubborn fools would see it.

Josiah looked up to see Lili, dressed in a clean white blouse and green walking skirt, leaning on Ezra’s arm for support as they made their way over from her hotel. Her dark hair was swept up into a simple bun, but the beautiful highlights, sparkling bronze and gold in the deep brown, played in the sunlight. Her color had improved as her body replaced the blood she had lost, and her cheeks, always a light olive, carried what he had so often heard referred to as the roses of youth. He remembered her telling Ezra she had been an old maid for a while now. Not in this lifetime, Lili.

“Your honor, it is always a pleasure to see you again,” Ezra said. Judge Travis cocked an eyebrow at him.

“I don’t believe you would have said that back at Laramie, Mr. Standish, but I appreciate the sentiment,” he said, turning his attention to the lady next to the gambler. “You must be Miss MacKenna.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, your honor,” Lili responded. Her stomach was in knots, but she didn’t know why. If she didn’t end up staying here to teach, she would just keep heading west. But somehow, in the four days that had past, something had changed. She had gotten to know the people here. She had sat in Mary Travis’s office, helping her set type for her press and trading stories about Ezra and his friends, as well as stories of their youths and courtships. She had discussed medical advances with Nathan. She had discussed the finer differences between the Catholic and Episcopalian faiths with Josiah, and questioned him on foreign faiths he had heard of. She had told JD stories Billy had told her when she was young, of knights and princes, doing battle for the greater good. They hadn’t been all that different from JD’s dimestore novels. She had listened to some of Buck’s wilder exploits, which made JD blush, but she had only laughed, and she had sat with the tiger, Chris Larabee. This man who’s world now rested on these six men, but especially with Vin Tanner. Lili had not gotten to know the tracker better, as he had disappeared. Lili suspected he was hunting, as she herself had hunted. She and Chris hadn’t talked much, as much as they sat in a mutual silence, both taking each other’s measure. Others in the town had come by to meet her. She had laughed so hard it hurt, talking to Inez. She felt a kinship to her, Mary Travis, and Mrs. Potter. They were all women holding their own in a man’s world, and surviving in the face of insurmountable odds. She enjoyed the children in town, little Billy and the Potter children. She had already been teaching them in her own little way, telling them stories when they came to see her as she sat on the porch of the hotel in the late afternoons, resting. Yosemite had even stopped by, telling her how much Berowne missed her, and how good the horse had been during his shoeing.

She had broken the cardinal rule she had set out for herself upon leaving her burnt out village: don’t get attached. She had done it before, once with Ezra, who ended up leaving, and once with Tom, who was a second father to her, and he had died. And now she was doing it again. She cared about staying in this town, and that just might be a bad thing.

“Let’s go in to lunch, Orin, so Lili can sit and rest,” Mary said, taking Billy by the hand. Ezra led Lili inside and got her settled at the table, taking the seat to her right. Mary sat down on her left, with Orin on her other side. Billy sat on the other side of his grandpa, and Josiah took the last seat, between Billy and Ezra. Mrs. Tyler, the owner’s wife came and took their order, brought them tea and lemonade, and then headed back towards the kitchen.

“Miss MacKenna, I appreciate you’re deciding not to pursue Mr. Tanner after hearing his story, and for your assistance in the gun play with those...mercenaries,” Judge Travis said, taking a sip of his ice tea.

“He’s innocent, sir. I don’t believe in hauling innocent men into jail,” Lili said. “On another matter, there’s a young man named Tim who is in jail. I believe he is innocent and should be released.”

“He was this morning,” the judge replied. Lili looked up in surprise. “Mr. Sanchez made me aware of the situation this morning. He will remain in town until he testifies against the remaining members of the gang, and then he is free to go.”

“Thank you, sir,” Lili replied, pausing to take a sip of lemonade.

“Orin, I think Lili might be able to solve another problem for us as well,” Mary said, calmly leveling her best battle face at her father-in-law. She felt Orin would see things her way, but she knew he would probably make her work for it anyways. “As you know, we don’t have a town school. We have the facilities, but no teacher has agreed to take the assignment, due to the dangerous nature of the town, despite our recent protective measures.”

“Yes,” Orin Travis said. “But, what does this have to do with Miss MacKenna?”

“Miss MacKenna carries a board certification to teach school from the state of Massachusetts, as well as having three years experience at a dame school,” Mary responded. “She can handle a weapon and is unafraid of the job and the town. God forbid anyone ever attack the school, she could provide a line of defense for the children, until the men can get there.”

“She could set up in the church, it would be easy enough to make some desk attachments to the pews and a black board,” Josiah added.

“Miss MacKenna,” the Judge said. “Do you have proof of your certification?”

Lili nodded and withdrew a sheathe of papers from her small handbag. She handed over her licenses. The judge looked them over.

“Miss MacKenna, I understand you have also worked as a show girl,” the Judge said, quirking an eyebrow.

“I was a singer in high class supper clubs and river boats, sir. I never wore anything more revealing than a conservative ball gown, and sing was all I ever did,” Lili replied.

“I take it you would like to stay on here, then,” Judge Travis replied.

“Your honor, before I lost my fiancé and family in the epidemic, Shadrach and I were speaking of coming west, and settling somewhere like this,” Lili said. “I made the journey to honor him and to prove myself. I love to teach and I love children. In the time I’ve been here, I have made the acquaintance of many fine people. I believe it would be a fine place to settle and start fresh.”

“Orin,” Mary said. “I would feel entirely comfortable with Lili teaching Billy and Gloria Potter feels the same about her teaching her children. Please, Orin. I know you want Billy to attend school as much as I do. A school will be a sign that we are something more concrete than a cow town.”

“Miss MacKenna, you are not the traditional teacher candidate,” Judge Travis said. Lili felt her stomach add another knot to it’s rope. Ezra felt his heart drop. “However,” he continued, “our little burg tends to be highly untraditional. How about if we give it a try for the fall term. I’ll set up an account with he bank so you may order the basic supplies, and I’ll see if we can get someone to help put together something for desks for the church.”

Lili’s eyes shone with unshed tears of joy. “Thank you, sir,” Lili said softly. “I swear you shant regret it.”

Ezra felt as though he had just been granted a bank account with ten thousand dollars in it. She’s going to stay. She’s really going to stay.

+ + + + + + +

Lili was tired after lunch and had let Ezra escort her back to her room for a nap. Ezra hurried back down stairs and found Chris, Vin, Nathan, and Buck sitting at a table. JD was over at the jail and had probably heard the news from the judge, who had gone to see if the two men in the jail wanted to plead guilty.

“Gentlemen, this round is on me,” he said, sitting down.

“What’s the catch, Ez?” Buck asked.

“Purely a celebration, gentlemen,” Ezra replied. “Our esteemed judge has just hired Lili to start a hallowed place of learning here in town.”

“Huh?” Vin said.

“Lili’s going to stay and teach here,” Nathan supplied.

“That’s great news, Ez!” Buck said smiling. Inez brought over a round of drinks.

“A school will be good,” Chris said. Not much more than that, but he was pleased that Ezra looked so happy, and anything that made his brothers happy made Chris Larabee happy.

+ + + + + + +

Lili stood at the window of her room. Soon, she would need to wire her bank to forward her funds here. She would need to find somewhere more permanent to live. She would need to sew some new clothes and see to the ordering of things for the school. But tonight, as she watched the sun set, she did the only thing she could think to do. She asked those who mattered to her for their blessing. Shadrach, I hope you can forgive me for going on alone. I hope you’ll be proud of me. Billy, you always said your sister had the strength to do anything. I hope your right. Tom, I’m giving up the hunt for now at least. I need to settle down for a while and see what that brings me. She watched the sky color, and wondered what the next day you bring. Lord, help me make this work. She watched as Ezra walked from the saloon to the jail to give JD a break. Help me make this home.


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