Debts & Decisions

by Firefox

Nora was sitting in the office, carefully entering the takings into the ledger before placing the money in the safe. The door opened and Alice appeared around it, still dressed in her ‘working’ clothes, a somewhat garish red dress and a white lace shawl, but smiling and carrying a cup of coffee for Nora.

"Who’s the man?" she asked with a wicked grin.

"What man?"

"Come on Nora! The man upstairs! We ain’t hardly seen Madam since he got here. Who is he? All the girls are talkin’ – one of Clara’s clients says he’s a famous gunslinger – that true?" Her eyes were wide with curiosity.

Nora picked up the cup and leaned back slightly in her chair. "Clara should know better than to listen to pillow talk, and you should know better than to pry into Madam’s business… and don’t say ‘ain’t’" Nora chided her gently, but she was smiling.

"Come on Nora! Please?" Alice wheedled.

Nora sighed. "He’s an old friend. A friend who helped us once."

Helped? Nora thought. Helped is an understatement. He and the others saved us from Hell and gave us a second chance. Please God you never have to go through that, Alice.

She looked at the young girl opposite her. Alice was a little older than Nora had been when she had gone with Wickes, completely fooled by his promises of riches and a life of adventure and excitement. Tricked into a life of destitution, abuse and violence that had almost killed her – would have killed her if a lanky cowboy called Buck with a heart the size of Texas hadn’t picked her battered and bleeding body up from the dirt that morning and handed her to a black clad man on a horse, who had held her like she was a real person who deserved a little respect. Who had drawn a gun to protect her from that animal Wickes. Who had taken her to Nathan, the gentle, calm-voiced healer to mend her wounds. Who had defended her and the other girls, not only against Wickes, but against the prejudice and ignorance of some of the townsfolk. Who had put his own life on the line, along with six other brave men, to end their nightmare once and for all. The kind of help that earns someone’s undying gratitude.

"He means an awful lot to me, and to Madam…"

Alice’s eyes sparkled. "Was she… did she… fall for him?" She may have been young, but she wasn’t stupid.

Nora’s eyes flashed. "Don’ be ridiculous!" Sometimes Alice reminded Nora painfully of Emily. Mouth driven by a four-horse team and no driver on board the stage. "You’d do well to mind your own business," she said tersely. "And talking of business Alice, Joseph’ll be back in a couple of a days and he’ll have some men with him. They’ll be stayin’ here as Madam’s guests, so anythin’ they want’ll be on the house… Madam’ll pay for anythin’ they want…you understand me?"

Alice’s jaw dropped a little, but she nodded. "Who are they?" she asked, the slight tilt of her head making her look even more like Emily.

"The other six."

"The other six what?"

"The other six that, with the man upstairs, make up the Seven." Nora responded with a knowing smile.

+ + + + + + +

It was late. To be strictly accurate, it was actually very early the next morning. The last of the Dove’s Palace guests were either asleep upstairs with the ladies of their choice, or had wandered out into the night. Robert, Lydia’s barman, bouncer and loyal devotee, was cleaning up the bar. Alexander, the piano player, resident card dealer and all-round handyman was sweeping the floor. Lydia, as was her custom, ‘did the rounds’, checking all was in order. She was proud of what she had made here. This was a clean, fair establishment, where gentlemen could eat, drink, play cards, be entertained by the girls, and relax. Oh, it was a notorious place – some of the townsfolk would happily have burned it down – but even more of them used its facilities – the sheriff, several of his deputies and most of the town fathers for starters. She had earned a reputation of fairness and honesty. She would tolerate no abuse of her girls, no drunkenness, no cheating. She made no secret of who or what she was or of what her establishment had to offer. The stares and pointing fingers were still there of course, but these days she also received a fair number of tipped hats, and a gratifying amount of grudging respect from most of the population. For someone who had tolerated vicious tongues and spiteful glances for most of her life, it was a satisfying feeling.

Her last port of call was, as always, the nursery. Inevitably, there were numerous children – all loved and nurtured by their strange, extended family of ‘mothers’ and guarded ferociously by Lydia. Wickes’s ‘mother cat’ could become a tigress where the children were concerned. Several cots and small beds were arranged in the large, brightly decorated room, toys scattered on the floor, an oil lamp burning on the mantle over the fireplace. She stopped by each bed, checking each sleeping, angelic face. The girls took turns on nursery watch, and Maisie was sewing a patchwork comforter in the rocking chair by the window. She smiled at Lydia, indicating that all was in order. Bending down to plant a soft kiss on the curls of a sleeping little girl, Lydia smiled back and carefully retreated back into the corridor. She made her way to a spare room for the night, as her own bed still had the slumbering form of Chris Larabee occupying it. There was a time when they might have been together but… she smiled again. That was all a long time ago.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee was smiling. Not an inconsiderable achievement when his body still protested at every movement and his face still looked like it had lost an argument with a stampede. Knowing that keeping him immobile in bed for any more than the four days he had already been there would be impossible, and following a protracted but successful debate with Doctor Lawrence, Lydia had arranged for Robert and Alexander to help him down to the bar, where he was now seated in a comfortable armchair, a large whiskey on the table before him and a smoking cheroot in his uninjured hand.

The cause of his amusement was Cotton, the little boy whom everyone treated like the family pet. Lydia let all the children have the run of the place until they opened for business later in the day – it was their home after all. Cotton had been entertaining the taciturn gunslinger with a card trick. Only one, but then he only knew one. His dark, sparkling eyes, jet-coloured hair and huge smile were more infectious than measles and Chris couldn’t help smiling at him. Chris had also promised the little boy that he would ask Ezra to teach him at least one new trick, and the prospect of that was causing Cotton to repeatedly run to the window and look for the arrival of this promised magician, despite Chris trying to explain that he had no idea if the others would be arriving any time soon.

Lydia walked in and Chris’s smile widened. Today she was wearing a dress of purple silk, luxurious and elegant, with a black velvet band around her neck and heavy silver earrings. She looked beautiful. For some unaccountable reason he felt proud of her.

"How’re you feelin’?" she asked.

"Better… and thanks for the shirt." He nodded down at the new black shirt he was wearing under the white bandage sling that supported his injured arm. His clothes had been returned to him that morning, laundered and ironed, his boots cleaned, and with a new black shirt.

"Your other one had a hole in it," she smiled. "To be accurate, two holes, one in the back and one in the front – to match your shoulder. I don’t get much time for sewing these days, so I figured a new one was probably in order…and I was right. You look very smart."

"So do you."

She looked away, hurriedly. "Cotton – you’re gonna wear that carpet out you keep running backwards and forwards to that window – they’ll be here when they get here, not before!" Her attempt at distraction did not work on Chris.

"Thank you Lydia," he said slowly, his green eyes meeting hers head on.

"For what?"

"Robert told me exactly what happened – what you did. I’m a stranger here, no-one else would’ve protected me. Thank you."

She shrugged. "You’d have done… hell you already did, the same – and more – for me."

He shook his head. "I don’t keep score Lydia. You don’t owe me anything."

Her eyes flashed. "Oh yes I do. More’n you’ll ever realise. And I do keep score Chris."

He smiled to himself. Always the same. Always rebellious. Temper matching that hair. He remembered her standing in the street in Four Corners, hitching up her dusty skirt to take some money out of her red silk stockings to pay him for his protection and facing down Mary Travis at the same time. They had made quite a picture – the blonde newspaper editor in her respectable black satin town dress and the working girl in tattered, garish garments that were little better than rags. Mary’s cool blue eyes had regarded Lydia with ill-disguised contempt, but Lydia had been completely unfazed. The two women had faced each other in the middle of the street and Chris had found himself feeling more uneasy than when he faced drunken gunmen. From those very shaky beginnings a reluctant respect had gradually emerged between them, much to Chris’s relief. No wonder Lydia had turned herself from a destitute working girl into a businesswoman even Maude Standish would think twice about taking on. This was one formidable woman.

Nora appeared at that moment, carrying a chubby baby and surrounded by a gaggle of chattering children. "Sorry," she offered with an apologetic smile. "Cotton’s been telling them ‘bout his new friend who knows a magician!"

Chris watched the children with undisguised pleasure. They were an assortment of sizes, shapes and colours, but somehow he knew that they were as loved and nurtured in their unusual ‘family’ as any child could be, even those in more conventional surroundings.

Cotton suddenly careered in the door, almost tripping over himself in excitement. "Joseph! Joseph’s comin’! And there’s men with him! They’re HERE!!" He spun around and ran off back towards the front door, still clutching his precious cards, pursued by a crowd of his disciples.

"Sorry Ezra." Chris said quietly, still grinning.

+ + + + + + +

Lydia walked out on to the street to stand alongside Nora and watched the approach of the riders. They looked tired and dusty; poor Joseph looked exhausted, but the time that had passed since she had seen them seemed to evaporate before her eyes.

Inevitably, it was Buck who spoke first. "Well I’ll be darned! If you two ladies ain’t a sight for sore eyes and weary hearts!" His smile was exactly as Nora remembered it. He climbed down from the big grey horse and swept his hat from his dark hair, giving them both an exaggerated bow. Nora laughed and shifted the baby on to her hip. "Hello little fella," Buck cooed at the grinning infant, then lifted Nora’s free hand and kissed the back of it with relish. "Miss Nora, you look prettier’n a field full o’spring flowers." He turned his attention to Lydia.

"Ma’am," he bowed again, the courteous gesture belied by the sparkling eyes. "It’s real good to see you again."

Cotton was tugging at Lydia’s skirt, almost bursting with impatience. "Which one?" He hissed up at her. "Which one?"

"Which one what, young fella?" Buck asked, crouching down beside the excited little boy.

Cotton’s dark eyes regarded Buck with wonderment. "Which one of you is the magician?" He asked in almost a whisper.

Ezra was attempting to brush several days’ worth of accumulated dirt from his trousers by flicking at it with his hat. Buck pointed to the gambler. "The one in the fancy red jacket." He winked broadly at the little boy.

Cotton’s mouth opened and he stared in total awe at Ezra. "Are…are you him? The magician?"

Ezra responded with a gold-toothed grin. "Whilst I may be undeserving of such a designation, I suspect that I am, indeed, the object of it."

Cotton grasped the southerner’s hand and almost dragged him towards the door. A highly amused Ezra allowed himself to be towed along.

"Ma’am." Vin touched his hat brim to Lydia, and she nodded in response.

"Mr. Tanner." She remembered how shy he had seemed, his gentle voice and strangely disquieting blue eyes. She also remembered his deadly accuracy with a gun and the look of pure loathing in those same eyes when he had faced Wickes. Not the kind of man Lydia had been used to, never seen around Wickes Town, she had been rather wary of the reserved young tracker, but he had proven his courage and reliability to her, and his loyalty to Chris was unquestionable. So different from the philandering, flattering Buck, the reticent but compelling Chris, he was still rather a mystery to her.

"Miss Nora, it’s very good to see you lookin’ so well!" Nathan’s broad grin sent a wave of warmth through Nora. She remembered his kindness, his calm words and gentle hands. She took his hand and held it firmly.

"I’m fine Mr Jackson – and it’s very good to see you too."

"Ladies," Josiah removed his hat and smiled at them both. Just about the strangest preacher that Lydia had ever laid eyes on, her initial guardedness around the tall, imposing figure had been dispelled by his actions. She had seen him take on two of Wickes’ goons with a calmness that was almost terrifying, then turn and smile at her as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a man of the cloth to protect fallen women.

Last, but by no means least, Lydia found herself staring into a pair of sparkling eyes that always made her smile.

"Hello JD."

"Ma’am." He removed his hat, smiling broadly at her and Nora. "I…I.. err.. I don’t suppose that Miss…."

Lydia shook her head. "I’m sorry JD, I’m afraid Emily went to San Francisco…" The disappointment in his face was almost palpable. Lydia made a mental note to try and keep some distance between the young man and Alice, for all their sakes.

"Come on, all of you… you must all be tired, hungry and in need of a long hot bath… and this time Nora and I can offer you a more civilised welcome!" Lydia shepherded the group inside, a strange feeling fluttering in her chest. It took several seconds before she recognised it as happiness.

+ + + + + + +

Lydia’s large kitchen had never looked like this. Nine people sat around the huge scrubbed-wood table, the sounds of cutlery scraping on china, conversation and muted laughter mixing with the delicious aroma of cooking. It was a scene approaching domesticity – most unusual for this place. Chris watched his friends with quiet pleasure. Josiah leaned back in his chair, letting out a long sigh and smiling widely. "Ma’am, that was absolutely delicious," he stated, patting his stomach with contentment.

"Ain’t that the truth!" JD added, swallowing the last forkful of his third plate of stew with relish. Lydia smiled. Lord, but the boy could eat!

Nathan was chattering over his shoulder with Cleo, Lydia’s indispensable and skilled cook, who had watched her huge pot of beef and vegetable stew vanish before her eyes with great delight. She was used to strange men around the place, a few were even allowed into her kitchen, but she had never seen anything like this. These seven men – who obviously meant so much to Madam and to Nora – had something about them that was as strange as it was undeniable. A strength, a commitment, a bond that was so tangible it was almost visible. And the man in black, who Madam had been so carefully nursing, he was their leader. Cleo laughed and shook her head as JD turned around to look up at her with those puppy-dog eyes of his. Dipping the large ladle into the pot, she managed to find one last helping for the young man and ladled the tasty concoction on to his plate. He grinned at her. "Thank you Ma’am."

"A most enjoyable repast," Ezra said, carefully wiping his mouth with a napkin. "Madam, you seem to operate a very fine establishment – I salute you." He raised his glass of wine to Lydia, his green eyes dancing with merriment. She nodded in response, delighted that she had been able to repay, in some small way, the debt she owed these men. Her staff had been run off their feet over the last few hours, filling baths with hot water, brushing and pressing trail-soiled clothing, all at her insistence that these men were to be given whatever they wanted, whenever they asked for it.

They had all seemed very relieved that Chris appeared to be recovering steadily and Nathan had been very impressed and more than a little thankful to know his work had been made so much easier by the Watsonville doctor.

Even Vin seemed relaxed, lounging back in his chair chatting amiably to Nora, his face lightened by that lop-sided grin of his.

Only Buck seemed quieter than his usual ebullient self. Several times Chris had caught his oldest friend’s eye across the table with a questioning glance, but Buck had simply averted his gaze. He had made a couple of half-hearted attempts at flattering Nora, but the affable gunslinger did not seem as gregarious as normal.

After the meal, the seven dispersed to the bar or the lounge – Ezra inevitably heading for the card tables, Josiah opting to help Cleo with the cleaning up, Nathan shepherding Chris like an over-attentive sheepdog, and JD staring around with his eyes almost on stalks as Lydia’s ‘girls’ began to appear for their evening’s work. Not that JD hadn’t seen much worse in Wickes Town. At least here Lydia didn’t allow them to parade around in corsets and lacy shawls. They all wore dresses – fairly revealing dresses in some cases, but enough to keep at least a semblance of decency.

Buck wandered through to the bar, watching two of the girls affectionately teasing JD. Chris was standing at one end of the long wooden bar top, a fresh glass of whiskey held in his one good hand, deep in conversation with Robert behind the bar.

From the moment he had walked through the door, it was as if Buck had stepped back in time. Dove’s Palace was so much like the brothel he himself had grown up in, the memories were almost painful. His mother had worked for a woman very much like Lydia – strong, independent, no-nonsense, but fair. Buck sat down heavily in one of the red velvet chairs.

He remembered being Cotton’s age, running errands for the girls the same way Cotton did now, oblivious of the stares and whispers of the townswomen, but aware that some of them pulled their own children out of his path as if he were contagious. He remembered strange men occasionally giving him treats or coins as they passed him in the hallways, arm-in-arm with his mother or one of the other girls.

He remembered sitting around a table, very much like the one in Lydia’s kitchen, listening to the girls’ chatter, hearing their laughter. As a little boy, he had only been aware of the softness of being surrounded by so many females, the gentleness of different women hugging him when he fell down, holding his hand or running their fingers through his hair, the soothing voices reading bedtime stories or singing songs whose words now eluded him but whose melodies were still there in his heart.

As he had grown, awareness of the malicious whispers had grown also, understanding of the words they said so softly – but with such venom. His rage and fear at the words he had heard had been eradicated by his mother and the other girls. They made him believe that he and their other children were special, luckier than those who lived with their real fathers and mothers. And he had believed them. In many ways he still did. Buck saw no disadvantage to his upbringing. His mother had raised him to treat all women with respect and taught him that doing so would buy him respect and kindness in return. She had been right. Women had been a lifelong pleasure to him – one he hoped he would never tire of. Kind words and a genuine smile had earned him more than money over the years, and he was a richer man for it.

"Mr Wilmington?" Nora’s voice intruded on his reminiscence and instinctively he smiled at her. "Are you okay Mr Wilmington?"

"Yes Ma’am… I was jus’ thinkin’…"

"Can I get you a drink?"

"No thanks Nora. I guess I’m bushed from the ride and all that great food… I think I’ll turn in." He looked around. "Where’s Miss Lydia? I’d like to say goodnight to her…"

Nora lifted her eyes towards the ceiling. "She’ll be upstairs, Mr Wilmington. Probably in the nursery."

Chris watched his oldest friend leave the bar and head for the staircase, amazingly alone. Typical Buck. The only time he could literally have any woman in the place with no effort and he chooses to be alone. Chris shook his head. Even now, after all this time, Buck could still surprise him.

Buck opened the door of the top floor room quietly. Lydia did not hear him enter. She was seated in the rocking chair, talking quietly to a little girl with strawberry blonde curls who lay contentedly in her arms, smiling up at her. Buck froze, taking in the scene. The child suddenly turned her head towards him, fixing a huge pair of beautiful, sleepy green eyes on his face. Lydia almost jumped as she realised Buck was standing there, then a very strange expression crossed her face. It took Buck a few moments to read the emotion properly. Guilt. Fear. For just a tick of time Lydia’s face was the same as Buck remembered it in Wickes Town. Guarded. Afraid. Haunted.

"You’re her mama." It was not a question.

Lydia nodded slowly. Buck’s heart lurched in his chest. Suddenly he understood. He took a deep, slow breath. "You gonna tell him?"

"Tell who what?" Something else had crept into Lydia’s eyes. A tinge of defiance flashed in their soft blue. The mother cat was unsheathing her claws.

Buck took a couple of steps towards them, his eyes holding Lydia’s, and he knelt beside the chair. His voice was very quiet, very gentle. "Are you gonna tell Chris he has a daughter?"

The guilt vanished. Lydia looked down at the little girl, whose eyes were now drooping closed as she fell asleep. When she looked back at Buck, her eyes were shimmering with tears. "I can’t… I I… can’t…" Buck said nothing. He waited for Lydia to compose herself. "Besides… I don’ know… for certain," she whispered slowly.

Buck almost smiled. He nodded down at the sleeping child. "With those green eyes? How many folks d’ya know who got eyes that colour?"

"What good would it do?" Her voice was a strained whisper. She searched Buck’s face with her eyes, trying to find the words.

"I’m a workin’ girl, Buck. Okay, I gotta fancy place, I make a lotta money and now I can wear nice clothes, but that’s just window dressing. I know what I am. An’ I ain’t ashamed of it!" The defiance flared in her expression, but she saw no judgement in Buck’s eyes.

She took a breath. "When he first came to Wickes Town he was jus’ another man – jus’ another customer. Then, when I saw him in Four Corners, respectable, respected – everyone in that town looks up to him. He has somethin’ there… something worthwhile. Somethin’ to build on, to be proud of. An’ then when I saw him with Mrs Travis… they’re so right for one another. Together, they could build a good life, make each other happy."

A brief smile flashed across her features. "Hell Buck, he loves her, he just don’t know it yet… I saw the look in his eyes when he knew Wickes had taken her… I saw his face when he helped her out of that tent… no man ever looked at me that way…"

She paused, trying to formulate the words. Buck did not interrupt.

"When I realised I was carryin’ a child, we were here, in Watsonville. I knew it had t’be from Wickes Town, but I can’t be certain who… I really can’t. All I knew was that this baby was a gift and I was gonna guard it with my life. I love her more than life itself. I would do anything to protect her and I’ll do everythin’ I can to bring her up with love and kindness. She’ll not want for anything as long as I live. I couldn’t burden Chris with a child that may not be his. I don’ want him to resent me – or worse, resent her. He doesn’t love me, he could never love me. He should have the woman he’s supposed to have… Mary Travis. The life he’s earned – valued by the townspeople in a place where he’s happy and settled. I couldn’t give him any of that. He deserves better than pointing fingers and cruel insinuations…"

With a deep sigh, she rose from the chair and carried the sleeping child to its bed, carefully covering the small body with a blanket. She stood up and turned back to face Buck. He had risen from his knees, but still remained silent.

Her eyes held his steadily. "It’s best for all of us this way. Here, in my world, I know what I’m doin’ - I can cope. I can teach her how to be a good person and to avoid the mistakes I made… but if Chris and I were forced together… hell, I can’t be a wife, I wouldn’t know where to start… and he would hate being shackled to someone like me. We’re different animals Buck, cats and dogs don’t make partners…"

She walked up to Buck, looking up into his face with something like desperation in her eyes. "I’ll bring her up right. She’ll have everythin’ she needs without anyone bein’ hurt to get it… I know he’s your friend Buck, an’ I know how much he means to you, but I’m askin’ you, please think about it before you decide to say anythin’ to him…"

Buck smiled, shook his head gently, and took Lydia into his arms, holding her close to him, enfolding her in a warm, comforting hug. She relaxed against him, the fight gone out of her.

"I ain’t gonna say nuthin’." He eased the slight figure away from him, his broad hands still holding her shoulders and looked into her face. "You’re a good mother Lydia, you have a strong spirit and a kind heart, and that little girl will grow up jus’ fine." He smiled at her. "Besides, my mama raised me not to interfere in other folk’s business… specially when they know what they’re doin’…"

She smiled back. "Wise woman, your mother…"

For just a second, his dark blue eyes clouded. "Yep… wise workin’ woman." Then the smile returned and the cloud vanished.

Her eyes widened for a moment, then a broad smile lit up her face. "I always knew there was something about you, Buck Wilmington – now I know what it is!"

He winked at her. "You can rest easy Lydia. Tomorrow we’ll take that ornery ol’ dog downstairs back home, and you can concentrate on bein’ a good mother and a makin’ a fortune to buy that little gal everythin’ she could ever need."

She hugged him, and planted a soft kiss on his cheek. "If she turns out with half the heart you have Buck, she’ll make me very proud…"

Buck held his arm out for Lydia, who slipped her hand through the crook of his elbow. Suddenly, he felt very happy indeed. His memories had returned to their proper place – the past, and his heart felt light. "Now then, I sure could use some good company and a glass of beer!"

Lydia bowed her head to him as he escorted her from the room. "Well sir, you’re in the right place for both!"

+ + + + + + +

With the contrariness of late summer, the next morning dawned warm and fine. Lydia and Nora stood side-by-side on the boardwalk, surrounded by the strange ‘family’ that made up the occupants of the Dove’s Palace, watching their guests preparing to leave.

Ezra hugged Cotton, who was now the proud owner of no less than three card tricks and a new pack of cards. "Remember my young friend, it’s not the trick that counts…."

"…It’s the performance!" The little boy chanted in response.

Ezra ruffled the dark hair and swung up into the saddle, grinning broadly.

JD and Nathan were hovering either side of Chris, who had insisted on mounting his horse unaided. Nathan was watching their leader’s face carefully, but apart from a quick wince as he settled into the saddle, his strapped arm and fading bruises, the gunslinger appeared his normal self. Doc Lawrence had given Nathan some fresh supplies for the journey and Chris had the feeling he was going to be closely guarded all the way home.

Josiah, who stood between Lydia and Nora, placed a large hand on each of their shoulders. "The Lord bless you both…" he winked at the two women.

"Thank you Mr Sanchez," Nora smiled at him. The preacher mounted his horse and looked up at the building. It seemed strangely just that these two now had something solid, something permanent, to show for their hard lives and previous pain.

"The Lord sure does work in mysterious ways," he said softly.

JD fidgeted from foot to foot in front of Lydia. "Ma’am… It was real nice seein’ you again… I jus’ wondered… if you ever do see Miss Emily…"

Lydia reached out and hugged him warmly, then planted a gentle kiss on his cheek. "I’ll be sure and tell her," she whispered in his ear. JD beamed.

Vin tipped his hat to the two women. "Good to see ya again… y’all take care now." Nora smiled at him and, to her amazement, the young tracker blushed. Nora lowered her eyes.

Buck appeared from the interior of the building, laughing broadly. "Bye now Miss Clara," he called over his shoulder. "Next time I’m in town an’ we’re all cuddled up together, I’ll tell you another story ‘bout that famous gunslinger…"

Lydia shook her head, raising her eyebrows, but her expression softened as the tall man stood in front of her. She looked into those indigo eyes of his and saw only honesty and warmth. He would never betray her trust, she knew that with total certainty.

Vin caught the look that flashed between them and marvelled at Buck’s unfailing ability with women. Perhaps there was something to that ‘animal magnetism’ thing after all…

Buck hugged Nora, then raised Lydia’s hand to his lips and kissed it, her eyes meeting his with a swift nod. "Thank you Buck," she said, and both of them knew they weren’t talking about the kiss. The rangy gunslinger mounted his horse and positioned his hat firmly on his dark hair.

Chris leaned forward in the saddle reaching his uninjured arm down to Lydia. "Thank you Lydia… for everything. Whatever debt you felt you owed has surely been repaid."

She grasped his arm. "My decision to help you had nothing to do with debt, just the same as yours to help Nora and I in Wickes Town didn’t…"

Her hand squeezed his arm, just once before she withdrew. "You’re a good man Chris Larabee, but don’t go gettin’ yourself shot outside my front door again for a while please – I’m not sure I could cope with you seven on a regular basis!"

Chris nodded to the others, Joseph, Robert and one or two of the girls who had brought the children out to wave goodbye to their guests. Alice was holding a little girl in her arms. The child had strawberry blonde curls and beautiful green eyes, and, as Chris looked at her, she smiled happily. Unable to resist it, Chris smiled broadly back, and for just a moment, two extraordinary pairs of green eyes met in a moment of pure joy.

With a final wave, Chris and the others tipped their hats to the two women and turned their horses down the street.

"Jus’ goes to show…" JD said thoughtfully, "Who woulda thought them two ladies from Wickes Town would’ve ended up with a place like that?"

"Helpin’ deservin’ folks out is the right way to behave JD," Josiah said sagely, "jus’ like the Bible story of the Good Samaritan."

"What d’you think Buck? D’ya think this is a case of one good turn deserves another?"

Buck had a rather faraway look in his eyes. "More a case of debts and decisions kid," he replied softly.

~ The End ~

Feedback to: