The Gambler
and the

by NJ

Part One
The early morning sun was just coming up above the horizon. Ezra strolled across the street and took a seat on the boardwalk in front of the saloon, He was exhausted. He has just finished the midnight watch at the jail. Josiah stepped through the bat wings of the saloon carrying two cups of coffee.
Handing a cup to the weary Gambler, he ask, "Quiet night at the jail, Ezra?"

"Somewhat, my friend," answered Ezra with a yawn, "Except for the harmonious snoring of a couple intoxicated trouble makers that Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner persuaded to check into our barred establishment."

The men fell silent for a minute. Then they both turned their gaze to the rising sun. It was now casting a golden hue on the hills surrounding the town. In the distance they noticed a rider leaving.

"That would be the dress maker." Josiah said.

"Where do you conjecture the newest inhabitant of our fair municipality is going at this ungodly hour of the morning?" asked Ezra, sipping his coffee.

"Don't know, but she's been ridin out every morning since she's been here and returns in about an hour or so."

"Why hadn't you disclosed this morsel of information before now?"

Josiah looked down at the Gambler and said with a grin, "You didn't ask."

Mary was coming across the street toward the two men. Over hearing their conversation she offered, "Francesca rides out to Willow Creek every morning. By the old washed out bridge. She likes the solitude, she told me. Helps her concentrate on her clothing sketches."

"Well," said Ezra with a smile and a tip of his hat to Mary, "Mystery solved. And how are the plans of our most recent proprietor proceeding?"

"Read for yourself, Mr. Standish" said Mary, handing Ezra a newspaper. "She has placed an advertisement for a grand opening tomorrow, in today's paper."

Ezra takes the paper form Mary, finding the advertisement, he reads out loud. "Grand Opening of the Sliver Needle, Tuesday June 5th. Tailor-made clothing, for men, women and children. All Customers will be satisfied. Proprietor: Francesca Ilardo. Well now, I could use a few new shirts myself, think I will pay a visit to the Silver Needle in the near future."

Josiah asked with a twinkle in his eye, "New shirts? Is that all you'll be going there for?" Both the men are grinning now. Mary blushed and hurried on her way to deliver more papers. Ezra, wanting to change the subject for now, invited Josiah to join him for breakfast. Then he planned to take a long nap to be sharp for the big card game later that night.

Part Two

The Grand opening proved to be a success. Francesca had several orders already to keep her busy long into next week. The sun was fading and she was thinking of calling it a day, when from the back room she heard the jingle of the bell above the shop door. Wearily she whispered to herself, "Another customer perhaps. This will be the last for the day."

Francesca stepped into the storefront to find Ezra Standish there, with his usual charming smile. Seeing it again reminded her of the day she arrived in Four Corners. His was the first face she saw as she stepped from the stage. He was leaning against a roof post in front of the saloon. She smiled at him and with a tip of his hat, he smiled back. At that moment a shudder went through her, something she had not felt in quite a long time.

"Good afternoon charming lady," Ezra said, removing his hat and bowing slightly. "By the procession of town's people I saw pass through your doors today am I correct to assume you had a fruitful grand opening?"

"Good afternoon Mr. Standish." She said in almost a whisper. "Yes, I did." Francesca was afraid to say anymore than necessary for fear he would hear the quiver in her voice. She couldn't help it, hearing his voice and gazing into his green eyes made her tremble inside.

"Well, if it would not be a difficulty on your part, may I add to your profitability? Since coming to this town, I have not offered myself the luxury of a new shirt. I have in mind to order three, and a vest."

"No difficulty at all Mr. Standish"

"Please" he interrupted her, "call me Ezra"

"All right Ezra, and you may call me Francesca. If you will follow me, here I have swatches of material you can choose from. Do you have a particular design in mind for the shirts and vest? I have some here already or I can sketch something for you." Francesca was relieved; it appeared her trembling had stopped for the moment.

"These colors here and those two designs will do rather nicely."

"Good choice. Now all I need are measurements and a date you can come in for the first fitting." Realizing what she had just said, she began to tremble again. She would have to be closer to Ezra than she has ever been before. She measured his arm for the sleeve length and prayed he was not able to sense the slight quaking in her fingers. When it was time to measure his chest, Francesca knew she would not be able to face him, so she stood behind him and quickly took the measurement.

Ezra felt the warmth of her breath on the back off his neck; it sent a shiver through him. Francesca couldn't help but briefly breathe in the scent of the tantalizing man that stood before her. She felt her cheeks flush and she was sure the Gambler noticed. Embarrassed now, she barely raised her head while speaking to him.

"I'll just fill out this order form, and this is the amount of your down payment. Would next Tuesday at one in the afternoon be alright for the fitting?"

"Yes, Ma'am, that will be agreeable." Ezra answered. He noticed the flush of her cheeks and smiled to himself, being sure that the close proximity they just shared was the cause. He wondered how her cheeks would feel to his touch.

"Now Mr. Stan……um, Ezra, if you will just sign here, this will take care of our business today."

Francesca wasn't sure if it was her imagination, but as the Gambler took the pen from her hand, his hand seemed to linger on hers a little more than necessary. Was that a tremble she felt in his fingers? Ezra signed his name and handed the pen back to her. He touched the brim of his hat, bowed slightly again and smiled.

"I must make my departure now; it was a profound pleasure doing business with you, good day, sweet Francesca, until we meet again."

"Good day, Ezra" was all she could manage.

As Ezra left the Silver Needle, closing the door behind him, Francesca let out a huge sigh and placed her hands on the table before her to steady herself. "How am I going to get through the fitting," she whispered to herself, "he will have to remove his shirt for that."

Part Three

Francesca tired to keep herself busy all morning to keep her mind from wandering to her one o'clock fitting with Ezra, but it wasn't working. All she could think about was touching him again, remembering how he smelled when she was measuring his chest, intoxicating. Would he feel in her touch that she was falling in love with him? The love she felt for him was growing. It was getting harder to keep it hidden. She was afraid that one day it would escape. Bursting like a dam under the pressure of deep rushing water. But she knew she had to hold it back.

Yes, Mary was right telling others about Francesca's morning trips to the creek. That she did enjoy the solitude. But it wasn't so much for the chance to sketch without interruption. Out there Francesca knew no one would see the tears, hear her cries, as she let her heart ache openly for the man she was falling in love with, the man she knew would never REALLY be hers.

Blame it on the man Ezra Standish had become. His upbringing, under the tutorage of a con artist mother, who's attention he only had when she needed him to fleece yet another mark. The life he chose, or more adequately, the life fate had thrust upon him, a Gambler; con man; a defender of the weak and oppressed. Always just on the edge of moving on to another town, he was afraid to commit. Francesca knew she could never lay on him the heavy burden of her love. But then, she too was afraid of commitment. She loved a man once with her whole heart, body, mind and soul, and he was torn from her. She thought she would never love again; she couldn't let herself know that kind of pain again. Even now, thinking about it brought her to tears………..

Would she ever be able to tell the others of the feud between her village and the neighboring village? How it escalated to such violence that it took from her everything she ever knew. Her Father and 5 brothers, her home and the man she was just beginning her life with. Francesca never knew her mother as she died giving her life.

For the first time since leaving Sicily, Francesca let her mind go back to the day in Palermo that started out being the happiest day of her life, her wedding. The fighting between the villages had been silent for a few weeks. She and Alasondro felt it was the perfect time to celebrate their love for each other with a marriage celebration. Her father was overjoyed when they came to him with the news. After losing his parents at an early age, Alasondro was taken in by her family. The old man had hoped that one day Alasondro and his daughter would marry.

The women of the village began to make preparations for the wedding feast. Francesca designed and made her own wedding gown and Alasondro's suit, using the skills the women of the village had taught her over the years. Finally the day arrived, she was so happy and Alasondro looked handsome standing there waiting for her father to bring her to him. The ceremony and wedding feast were like a dream until the unthinkable happened, turning the happiest day of her life into a nightmare……………

Their village was surrounded. Shots rang out, one striking Alasondro, killing him instantly. Francesca screamed and threw herself on his body, her brothers ran to her side. Realizing Alasondro was dead and through her protests, they lifted Francesca and carried her to cover. Some of the other women were there and it took all of them to hold Francesca, to keep her from running back to her husband.

All she could do now was watch in horror as before her eyes her father and brothers were also murdered and the village burned to the ground. In the confusion the women were able to escape up into the hills where they hid out until night fall. Deep into the night, she returned to the village and found the bodies of her murdered family. She sat on the ground by them and wept until dawn.

Exhausted and not able to cry another tear, Francesca went to her home. Most of it had burned but she did find a few of her personal belongings and some clothing that had been spared. It wasn't until then that she noticed she was still wearing her wedding gown, stained with her now dead husband's blood. Francesca changed and packed a small bag. She had to leave; there was nothing left here for her. She could not even bury the men she loved so much. There was no one left to help her. Those who were not killed had not returned to the burned out village, to the death that lay all around her. She covered her father, brothers and Alasondro with blankets, blew them a kiss and walked away. Wanting to put as much distance as she could between her and this tragedy, she walked until she arrived at the coast. Finding a ship sailing to America and having just enough to pay her passage. Francesca boarded the ship and never looked back………until today. It is still such a painful memory. But she came to realize that, the pain she has carried around for the past 2 years was no match for the ache she now had for Ezra's love………..

Part Four

These feelings she had for Ezra confused her. He was nothing like Alasondro. How was it that she even fell in love with him? Maybe what drew her to Ezra is the obvious difference between the two men. Falling in love with Ezra would distract her from the memory of her beloved Alasondro. But did she dare allow herself to love that deeply again.

Could she, for now, settle for the stolen glances, shared smiles? Could she be grateful for any time that she could be near him; even if she could only touch him while fitting him for a shirt? Sitting with Ezra and the others at the restaurant, or engaging in conversation to pass the time at Mrs. Potter store? Her heart would sink every time he rode out of town with the other six into battle, and rejoice upon his return.
Just then there was a tap on the window that brought her out of her shadowy thoughts. It was Buck and JD making rounds. They both tipped their hats and smiled. Discreetly wiping the tears from her cheek she smiled back. They had become good friends. Francesca had even found it easy to confide in Buck about her feelings for Ezra. Buck was a comfort, understanding, like a brother. Buck hadn't missed the tears on her cheek; he would ask her about them later. The two went on their way and Francesca returned to her thoughts.

She had come to know all of them as family. Mary, Casey and Inez' were the sisters she never had. And Billy, he was loved by everyone. Never saw a boy who had so many adults looking out for him. Chris had become a father figure for him. The other 6 like uncles. He had so many "aunts" fussing over him; you could see he was embarrassed at times. Francesca smiled. He is a good boy she thought. The other 5 were like brothers to her, replacing the 5 brothers that were so violently taken from her. Judge Travis became a father figure to her, lessening somewhat her sadness of losing her own father, she missed him so. She felt honored to have been accepted into this family at Four Corners………

Part Five

The bell jingled above the shop door announcing Ezra's arrival. Snapping her out of deep thoughts once again, she apologized to Ezra for not being ready for his fitting. She would be back in just a minute and asked him to wait in the fitting room. Escaping to the back to retrieve his shirts and vest, she had a moment to compose herself. Francesca leaned against the wall, took a deep breath, let it out and joined him.

Ezra tried on the vest and with just a few tucks here and there and it would be finished. Francesca was relieved and proud of herself, they were fitting the third and last shirt and she was able to keep her composure. As she was gently helping him remove the shirt because of the pins, Francesca touched the back of his neck; it was more of a caress.

It seemed like an eternity that her hand remained there, but it was only a few seconds. Long enough though for Ezra to turn around, her hands fell lightly on his chest. She could feel the blood rushing to her cheeks as they grew warm. Unknown to her the sadness she was remembering earlier was lingering in her eyes. Ezra took her hands in his and looked deep into her eyes. He spoke softly "Dear Lady, such sadness I see in your eyes? Where does this come from?" Then he put his hands on her shoulders and drew her in close to him, and they kissed. "Francesca, I....."

Gently touching her hand to his lips ", it's all mio amore, I know"

Ezra took her hand and kissed the tips of her fingers, still looking into her eyes. He saw tears begin to form. She pulled away from him and gathered up his shirts. "I will have these ready for you in two days. You can pay me for them then."

Francesca, almost running now, returned to the back room, hiding her face, not wanting Ezra to see her tears. She heard the bell jingle above the door, signaling that Ezra had left and she could breathe again. She buried her face in his shirts and cried…………….

Ezra stepped out into the afternoon sun and hesitated by the shop door. WHAT did she know, he thought? That he had fallen in love with her? That at this moment what he was feeling terrified him? "Damn," he whispered under his breath, "how could I have let this happen?" Ezra had never experienced such intense and passionate feelings. It was quite unsettling for the Gambler, he needed a drink.
Ezra stepped off the boardwalk and crossed over the street to the saloon. Buck and JD were sitting outside.

"Afternoon Ezra," Buck said.

Distracted by what had just happened between him and Francesca, Ezra never heard Buck and quickly entered the saloon. Buck glanced across the street and saw Francesca watching from the shop door. He knew now why his friend hadn't acknowledged his greeting. Something had happened between Ezra and Francesca. She looked like she could use a big brother just about now. Buck excused himself to JD and headed for her shop………….

(Later that Night)

A light could be seen burning from the dress shop. It was late and Francesca was in the back room working. She was grateful for the company she had. Francesca hired Casey and Inez' to help her with some big orders that had come in. The girls proved to be good seamstresses. They each worked on a dress while Francesca finished Ezra's vest.

She was also grateful for Buck's visit earlier that afternoon. Francesca told him everything about her past and what she was feeling now for Ezra. He didn't say much, didn't have to. It was just enough that he was there to listen, hold her while she cried. Buck has a calming way about him. She smiled.

Casey saw the smile form on Francesca's face and spoke up, "Who you thinkin about or need I ask." She and Inez' giggled

Inez' chimed in, "bet I know."

"You would lose that bet, Inez'. It's not who you think." said Francesca But............then……… her thoughts did go to the man they were teasing her about, and to what they had shared that afternoon.

Part Six

Buck entered the saloon and found Ezra still sitting in the same place he had been sitting since he left the Silver Needle. There was a bottle of whiskey sitting on the table, but hardly touched. Looks like he has been doing more thinking than drinking, a man needs a clear head for that Buck thought. "Eve-nin Ez," Buck said.

Not looking up from the table as he played solitaire Ezra drawled. "Good evening sir. To what do I owe the pleasure of your company this late night?"

"You look like you could use someone to talk to?"

"Talk to? What could possibly be of interest to you of the daily life of this Gambler?"

"Maybe…..what happened between you and Francesca today"

That was enough to stop Ezra from playing cards and look up from the table. "And just what do you think you know about that?"

"Francesca confided in me today about your meetin."

With a twinge of disgust in his voice, Ezra answered, "Knowing you Buck, that's probably not all that happened between the two of you."

"Ho'd on there pard. You don't know what you're talkin bout. She and I are just friends, more like brother and sister. That woman loves you and she is willing to live her life without you if need be so's to not put any burden on you. Son, I don't think you have any idea the depth and beauty of soul that woman has and what she is willing to sacrifice for your happiness. A love like that only comes around once in a man's life and I think you are too damn scared to reach out and grab a hold of it."

For once, the Gambler was at a loss for words. He couldn't even look at Buck, just rested his hands on the table and stared at the cards. Buck stood up, shook his head at Ezra and left the saloon. Chris was sitting on the boardwalk and over heard the words between Buck and Ezra.

"Buck you're slippin, playing match maker now? You're lettin yourself get too tangled up in the lives of others."

"And you're not, "Buck shot back, "how bout Mary and Billy?"

The soft spoken gunfighter replied, "Nuff said …we're gettin soft Buck."

Just then Vin came out of the saloon and sat down on the other side of Chris.

"Don't know bout soft," Vin added, "maybe just proves we're still human."

The three men sat there in silence...Ezra walked out, oblivious to his three friends sitting off to his right. He stepped of the boardwalk and headed in the direction of the Sliver Needle.

Francesca and the girls were laughing now reminiscing about some of the antics between Buck and JD. Those two certainly have a way of entertaining the town. The bell above the shop door jingled, the ladies looked at each other, first out of fear cause of the lateness of the evening, then out of curiosity. They all three cautiously moved to the front of the shop to find Ezra standing there. He and Francesca locked eyes. Casey and Inez' glanced back and forth to Ezra from Francesca, smiled at each other and quietly excused themselves.

When they left the shop; Ezra turned and locked the door. Without a word, he took Francesca into his arms and kissed her. Neither of them knew what tomorrow would bring, nor did either one care. Tonight was theirs and if tonight was all they had, for now, that was enough for the both of them.

Chris, Buck and Vin were still sitting on the boardwalk across the street, watching the drama unfold. They watched as Ezra entered the shop, as Casey and Inez' made a quick exit, giggling. They watched as the light burning from the shop went out.

Buck said, "Now….. That's my boy."

Chris and Vin grinned and tipped their hats in the direction of the Silver Needle.


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