Fallen Angel

by LT

Part 1 - 2 | Part 3 - 5 | Part 6 - 7
Part 8 - Epilogue


On a sunny Sunday at the end of May, all seven regulators, six women, and two children made their way slowly to the Seminole village where the seven had first fought as a team. Today was a joyous occasion and everyone was in a festive mood. JD drove one of the carriages, Buck the other as the little caravan made its way across the warm desert. The carriages plus two pack mules were loaded with drink, food, and presents for the ex-slave and his bride to be. Today was Nathan’s wedding day.

As they came in view of the village where Rain had grown up, the chatter that had been on going since they all left town diminished. Most of the seven hadn’t been back to the village since the fight with Anderson and his displaced rebel soldiers. Almost in reverence, they stopped and pictured the village as it had been that day. The bombed out buildings, the dead and dying men, the smell of gun powder, and the sounds of gunfire as they fought not only to save themselves but all the innocent women and children.

JD felt a hot tear slide down his cheek as the memory of Buck pushing him aside and taking the saber blow in his place overwhelmed him. He could still see Buck laying on the dirt, a deep gash in his chest, his shirt turning red with blood. He still couldn’t believe that the big man who was to become his best friend would do that for him after only four days.

Chris rode up to the front carriage and placed a hand on his wife’s shoulder. This was where it had all began. This was where the Seven had been forged in the heat of battle. Chris could see them all, firing at anything that charged at them. Ezra firing the cannon from atop the cliff, Vin beside him as they began the habit of watching each other’s backs. He pictured Buck taking the charge of the mad Colonel and Josiah, covering his old friend’s body with his own. He saw the boy, clinging to Buck’s hat as Nathan and Vin carried Buck to the only building still intact. He pictured Nathan, with Rain at his side even then, tending the wounded no matter what side they had fought on. Finally, he turned to his wife and smiled, a small sad smile.

Ezra sat astride his chestnut gelding, the picture slightly different for him. He turned his head and gazed at his six friends. Those who seek battle. Buck, Vin, Josiah, and Chris all fell into that category. Nathan and JD were the ones who when confronted will battle to save loved ones. Now days, Ezra liked to count himself in that category too. He was not back then, he had ridden away when the battle began. But something about those six men, even then, had already wormed its way into his soul and it had never let go. The six along with all these women were his family now. He glanced at Inez and smiled at the baby she cradled in her arms. His godson. He sighed and followed the others as they rode into the village.

Rain led the children as they ran out to greet the procession as it made it’s way into the heart of the village. Nathan was off his horse in an instant, pulling his beloved Rain into his embrace. Today was their wedding day and Rain looked spectacular. She wore a new white leather dress with small white wildflowers sprinkled in her long dark hair. Her smile was radiant as she gazed up at her husband to be.

"You are beautiful, Sweetheart. I must be the luckiest man alive." Nathan smiled down at her. His heart was full of love for the incredible woman in his arms.

"Come with me." Rain pulled his arm and led him to one of the huts towards the back of the village.

Chris was handing Mary down from the carriage as Tastanahi approached. The two men shook hands and then Chris turned to his pregnant wife.

"Tastanahi, may I present my wife, Mary. Mary, this is the chief of this village, Tastanahi. It is good to see you again, my friend."

"You also. It is a pleasure to see you under such happy skies for once. You have prospered in the past years." The old man looked just the same as he had when he walked through the batwing doors of the saloon almost four years ago.

"Yes, I have. We all have. Your village has grown, Tastanahi."

"We have taken in several new members. If you have a few moments, I would like to introduce you to one of them. I don’t want to spoil the day but she is in need of help."

"Of course." Chris turned to his wife. "Mary, I’ll be just a few minutes."

"Alright, I want to go see if Rain needs any help anyway."

Chris smiled at his wife and then called to the long haired tracker, "Vin, join us."

The tracker fell in beside his best friend and the three men made their way to a small hut on the outer edge of the village. They entered and found four women inside. Three of them quickly made their way out. The fourth sat on a bed of furs. She had dark hair pulled back in a braid and she wore the traditional garb of the Seminoles. When she looked up at the men standing before her though, they could tell that she was not Indian.

"Ibis, stand and greet my friends." The woman rose, her head bent in supplication. Tastanahi put his finger under her chin and raised her face to him. "Ibis, this is Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner. They are going to help you, child. They are not to be feared. Do you understand?"

The woman nodded. She turned and looked at the two white men. A sigh escaped her and then she smiled.

Vin gulped. He had never seen anyone so beautiful in his life. Her head came to his chin and her hair was a shiny dark brown, not black as he had originally thought. She had warm dark blue eyes that shown with hope.

Chris smiled at the young woman. "What can we do for you, Ibis?"

The petite woman hesitated until Tastanahi smiled at her. "I have no one and Father thought I should go to the white man’s village and learn the ways of the white people. I have lived my whole life, first with the Sioux, and then with Rufus, my husband, who is a trapper. I would like to meet others. Father says I should be with my own kind but …" She stopped. Her head dropped to her chest. "I only know what my tribe and Rufus have taught me."

Vin looked quickly at his best friend and then moved slightly ahead of Chris. The leader of the Seven took Tastanahi by the arm. Both men left the hut, leaving Vin to deal with the frightened woman.

"Ibis, I grew up with the Cheyenne and did not know the ways of the white man. Now, I have six brothers and a town that depend on me." He smiled warmly at the striking young woman. "We will help you all we can. I promise. Why don’t we go meet my friends and their wives. You know Rain, don’t you?"

The young woman nodded her head.

"She’s marryin’ one of my friends today. Why don’t we go out and join ‘em, okay?" He held out his hand and slowly the woman placed her hand in his.

Ezra watched as Angelina made her way to the outside of the gathering of friends. She seemed so sad and forgotten. He made his way to her side and, without touching her, he smiled. Hesitantly, she turned her head to look up at him. She retuned his smile.

"Ah, Angelina, what I wouldn’t give to see that smile a permanent part of your face. You are so beautiful when you smile, Senorita." He motioned for her to move towards the carriages. "Would you like to assist me in unloading the food?"

She smiled at him again and he gave her a small load to carry. When he had an armful, she followed him to where the women were setting out the food. The sound of a baby crying made Angelina turn her head. She saw her brother-in-law trying to comfort his son and talk to old acquaintances at the same time. She quickly left Ezra and made her way to Buck’s side. She tapped him on the arm and when he looked down at her, she held out her arms. Smiling, he handed her the fussy baby. She nodded and Buck kissed the top of her head.

Angelina turned to find a place to sit and found Ezra beside her. He motioned with his hand a large boulder away from the racket of the feast preparations. He sat beside her but was careful not to touch her.

The young Mexican woman rocked the baby until he was cooing once again. Ezra watched in fascination at the patient way she handled Johnny.

"He loves you, Angelina. He knows you are gentle and loving, as do I. I wish you would trust me the way he does you."

Angelina hesitantly turned her head to look at the handsome con man. She saw the hint of promise in the emerald eyes. Since the first time she had danced with Ezra at her sister’s wedding, she had been drawn to him. The man with the fancy clothes was one of her sister’s best friends, she knew Inez trusted him implicitly. She longed to be able to trust a man, to love a man as Inez loved Buck.

Ezra smiled at the beauty beside him, feeling the hatching of hope. His gold incisor twinkled in the sunlight. He reached out and with one finger, touched the dark curl that fell in front of Angelina’s ear. Just before she turned her face back to the baby, Ezra saw the small smile light up her face.

"What is the woman’s story, Tastanahi? How did she come to live with you?" Chris asked. Buck and Josiah had joined the two leaders near the central campfire.

"One of the women was out foraging and came upon her. She was near death. Someone had beaten her and she had been on her own for several days. We brought her here and she is well but she should be with her own kind. Can you help her?" The old man took a long draw on his pipe and waited for the gunslinger to respond.

"Has she told you anything about who beat her or where she came from?" Chris wanted a few more answers before offering his services to the wily old chief again.

"She was with her husband and his son. I can only guess that it was he who beat her. She says he is a fur trapper but we are a long ways from where a good trapper would find enough animals to make his time worth anything."

"Could be he was runnin’ from somethin’ or somebody," Buck offered seriously.

"Could be. Did she mention a name?" Chris knew they would be taking the woman with them. If she needed protecting, Buck would make sure she had all the protection she needed.

"No. She hesitates talking about the man. Evidently she was raised by Sioux. It would not be prudent to return her to them. She needs to learn the white man’s way."

"All right, Tastanahi. We will take her back to Four Corners with us." Chris saw the other two men nod with approval.

Out of the corner of his eye, Chris saw Casey Welles running towards them. He turned to see her more clearly and saw a worried expression on her young face.

"Buck, Inez needs you. She’s real pale and not feelin’ well at all." The diminutive brunette stated quickly.

In an instant, the lanky lawman was on his feet, heading to the hut he had seen the women disappear into. He made his way inside and saw Mary and Amanda squatting beside his wife, who was lying on a bed of furs.

"Mex, what’s wrong?" He immediately took her hand and anxiously looked into her eyes. She and Johnny were his life and he would die to protect them.

"I just got a little dizzy, mi amor, nothing else. It’s hot in here. I’m fine, really." She tried to assure him that she was alright.

He turned to get answers from the doctor. Amanda smiled at him and nodded. "She will be fine, Buck, but the next seven months might be a little trying on her."

"Seven months! What are you talkin’ about, Amanda? Is she gonna be okay or not?" Worry was written all over his face.

"It looks to me, Buck, like you’re going to be a father again. So, get used to helping your wife out around the house." Amanda was smiling and so was Mary. Buck turned his attention back to his wife and she smiled at him too.

"Another baby?"

"Yes, mi amor. You have done it again. This one is due shortly after the new year."

"Oh, Inez, I don’t know what to say. It’s terrific, Sweetheart." He leaned forward and kissed his wife. The other women quietly left the couple alone.

The wedding ceremony was beautiful in its simplicity. Nathan and Rain couldn’t stop smiling and their hands seemed to be permanently clasped. The festive atmosphere put everyone is a good mood and the laughing and dancing went on well into the night.

Ezra searched the gathering for Angelina. He spotted Chris, his arm draped protectively over Mary’s shoulders even though there was no one to cause her harm. He spotted JD and Casey, their lips finding each other in a loving moment. His eyes fell on Buck and his family. Buck was cradling his son with one arm, the other wrapped around his beloved wife. Josiah and Amanda were laughing, feeding one another from one plate of food. The gambler spotted Vin, sitting slightly apart from the others, his gaze flitting from one to another of the genial crowd. As Ezra watched him, however, he did notice that the tracker’s eyes seemed to be watching the young white woman as she laughed and danced with all the others. Ezra smiled to himself.

Finally, the Southerner’s eyes found the target of his affections. The Mexican woman was standing near her sister, her eyes on the group of dancers, her hips swaying to the music. Ezra made his way to her side and instantly took her hand, pulling her into the gyrating bodies.

Angelina was stunned when she was pulled towards the dancers but, when she realized who the offender was, her anger subsided and she willingly followed. The dance was an individual affair but as Angelina gazed up at Ezra, it seemed there were none but the two of them, matching their movements to one another.

When the music stopped, Ezra and Angelina found themselves on the outer edge of the swirling crowd. He held out his hand and hesitantly, the woman put her hand in his. He smiled and she returned the smile shyly. He led the beautiful young woman to the rocks nearby and they sat in the moonlight, still holding hands.

"Angel, what happened to you to cause such pain? I can see that you want to live, that you want to fill your life with all the wonder this world has to offer. That you want love and caring so much, you ache inside because of it. My darling, could you ever trust me the way I know you want to? I promise you, I will never harm you in any way. Sweet Angel, I think I have lost my heart to you. Le corizon perdido enti, my darling Angel."

She turned her face to his when he spoke the Spanish words to her heart, her eyes wide with wonder. He touched her flushed cheek and then lowered his head and softly touched his lips to hers. For a second she treasured the kiss but then reality struck and she pushed the man away. She jumped to her feet and disappeared into the crowd. Ezra sat there, knowing he had rushed the delicate dispirited woman. His heart broke for the shattered porcelain soul and he vowed he would never panic her again.


A month had passed and Ibis had started to settle into the rhythm of Four Corners. Mary had taken her under her wing, carefully changing her from savage Indian to peaceful villager. The young woman had no knowledge of her life prior to being raised by her tribe and thus, she didn’t know any other name but Ibis. Mary had asked if she would feel more comfortable with a common name such as Catherine or Margaret but the young woman remained steadfast, her name was Ibis and that was the end of it.

The blonde did get the young woman to forgo the tanned leather dress for gingham. A simple gown suited her best and Mary saw no need for the pretty brunette to strive for the fashion of the day as she herself did. Although, at nearly nine months pregnant, even Mary found simple gingham with an empire waist the most suitable.

Mary and Inez had shown the young woman the way to wash and comb her hair. She now wore it straight down her back, pulled back from her face with silver combs provided by Vin Tanner, himself. Once cleaned up and feeling secure in the protective arms of the Seven, they all found her to be one of the brightest and most eager individuals any of them had known. She smiled all the time now and when a certain tracker was around, she glowed.

Vin had fallen hard for the young woman. He was spending more time at the Clarion office than he was at the saloon. Ibis had taken over the printing press from Mary, who had a hard time leaning over to place the individual letters in the press. Actually, Vin was doing a lot of the inking work, saying that Ibis didn’t need to soil her clothing since she only had three dresses to her name. The young woman would sit and gaze adoringly at the young man with the long brown hair while he worked. Sometimes she would laugh at something he did or said and the sound of her laughter filled Vin’s heart. All of the others could see that the two young people with common backgrounds were falling in love and they rejoiced at the happiness that the two had found.

At the same time, they didn’t see how close Ezra and Angelina were becoming. Only Inez knew and she was keeping it to herself at the request of her dear friend. Often, Ezra would stop by the ranch on his way back from his patrol of the outlying areas. He and Angelina would sit on the front porch, quietly enjoying each others company. Most of the time, it was just the two of them, Buck and Inez being in town. Ezra told Angelina everything about himself. The Southerner spun tales of the South, of the war, of his mother’s cons, and finally, his own cons. He loved to see Angelina smile and he longed to hear her laugh, her voice, which he was sure would come back to her given enough time and security. He was always amazed at how she could settle the baby with just her touch. He, himself, was fond of holding the infant, playing with him, astonished at the new things he could do every other day. Ezra and Angelina often took John on walks, wandering the cool woods or the fields of wild flowers. Ezra held John in one arm and Angelina’s hand with the other during these walks but he had never tried to kiss her again. Instinctively, he knew she wasn’t ready.

Buck had finally surrendered to his wife’s desire to go back to work and Inez had gone back to the saloon, content to work in the kitchen, preparing lunch and dinner. She had agreed with Buck that she would spend her evenings at home with her husband and son. John was being lovingly taken care of by Angelina and Inez seemed very happy with her restricted duties at the saloon. Although he didn’t admit it to her, Buck was at peace, having his wife in town where he could dote on her. He had found serenity with the beautiful Mexican and he wanted her around him, or at least where he knew she was safe. She was just beginning to show her second pregnancy and Buck often found himself entering the kitchen of the saloon, just to slip in behind his wife, his hands wrapping themselves around her to lightly touch the slight swelling in her abdomen. He would kiss her neck, whisper "I love you", and then quietly go back out into the smoky bar, content with the world. Life was good and the Wilmingtons were in love.

Chris was glad that Ibis was doing all of the physical labor in the newspaper office. His wife was a stubborn woman, more so than he had ever known, although Buck would disagree with him, stating that Inez could go toe to toe with the gorgeous blonde. As Mary’s time grew near, Chris became apprehensive, worried that he wasn’t ready for fatherhood again. Could he give his whole heart and soul to another child, knowing that at any moment that tiny life could be snuffed out? He had astonished himself by falling in love and remarrying. Was it possible that the baby that Mary carried could fill the gaping hole that Adam’s death had left in his heart, the way his beloved Mary had? Every night he would lay by his wife’s side, feeling the kicks and punches that the baby inside her delivered. He wanted a son, not to replace Adam, but a boy that would carry on his name. Although a daughter that looked like Mary would be just as good.

The seven lawmen, who had fought so hard and long to protect a dusty dying town, had all found a home and the last of them were now finding love. Times couldn’t be better in Four Corners.

The two men rode into town, their buckskin clothing covered with trail dust, their beards long and scraggly, slouch hats pulled low over their faces. They dismounted at the livery and, after tending to their horses, made their way to the saloon. They sat at a table, quiet, not bothering anyone. Dottie, the new bartender, took their lunch order and brought them a bottle of red eye and two glasses. She barely took notice of their features, she had seen so many mountain men in her life time. From their odor, she assumed they were trappers. It crossed her mind that they were a ways from the best trapping grounds but other than that, she paid them little attention. They ate heartily and drank down the whiskey with relish. They spent the afternoon drinking beer, talking quietly, staying to themselves.

As the afternoon wore on, all of the Seven found their way into the saloon, greeting friends on their way to their table. Chris was the first to arrive, coming in from the harsh summer sun. He was quickly followed by Josiah, who was hot and tired from having to fix another leak in his church’s roof. Nathan came next. He had just gotten back to town after helping with a difficult birth. Amanda Sanchez was on one of her circuit rides and Nathan had to step in and assist a young woman with her first child. Buck and JD entered, laughing and joking with one another, having just finished their afternoon circuit. Vin arrived, a grin and ink on his face. He sat beside Chris as was his custom. Last, came Ezra. None of them were really sure where he had been and they didn’t ask. It wasn’t important. Buck slipped away for a few minutes, eager to see his wife. JD was going on and on about the delicious supper Casey had made for him the night before. Ezra sat, running his ever present deck of cards through his finger. Chris and Vin had their hats pulled low, their smiles of contentment were all that could be seen. All in all, it was a typical day in Four Corners.

Rufus Wiggins slowly got up from his chair. Every town he and his son passed through, he would search for the Indian girl he had married and taken off the hands of the Sioux. He didn’t love her but she was his and he was not one who gave anything away without a fight. She served her purpose, had fed and clothed him and his son, had quietly kept him serviced, hadn’t been a bother. Sure, he had to discipline her every once in a while but he had to do that with his son, Cyrus, as well. It was part of his makeup. He had never been a happy man, he rarely found time to enjoy anything. He worked hard for all he had. He didn’t have time for the disagreeable tendencies of others. He knew what he wanted, knew what was his, and that was what drove him to find the girl. She belonged to him.

"Cyrus, mind yourself. I’ll be back shortly and I don’t want to find you in the middle of somethin’ tonight. Ya got me, boy?"

Cyrus winced at his father’s words. He hated his life. He wanted fun and women in his life. The life of a mountain man had neither. When they found themselves in town, Cyrus had a tendency to get drunk and cause trouble. Hell, wasn’t that what towns and saloons were for? Every time he got drunk and acted up, though, his father would discipline him, beating him for causing a scene. He didn’t care anymore. The old man would discipline him for something else if it wasn’t getting drunk. He might as well have fun tonight. They would move on come sunup.

Cyrus watched as a group of men gathered around a table in the middle of the room, laughing, pulling out money to gamble. The fancy dresser from the back table joined them and the five of them began to play poker. Cyrus loved to play cards almost as much as he loved liquor and women. He dug in his pocket for the wad of bills he had. He and his father had just sold a load of furs in Eagle Bend and he was itching to make more. He stood and sauntered over to the poker game.

"Mind if I join in?" He held out the wad of money to show them he was flush.

The fancy dressed man looked him over appraisingly. It had been awhile since he had seen such an easy mark with money to burn. "Sit yourself down, my good man. The game is Texas hold ‘em, dollar a round. Haven’t seen you around before?"

"My pa and me just arrived this afternoon. Made a good trade in the last town. You boys don’t mind if I have a bottle brought over, do ya?" Cyrus rubbed his hands together, eager to make some money.

"Not at all, Sir, not at all." Ezra could already see himself depositing the boy’s roll of money in his bank account.

As the evening rolled by, Ezra had to admit that the filthy young man was a better poker player than he had originally thought but he wasn’t a match for him. Slowly but surely, Ezra pulled the pots in. Two of the other men playing had already left. The foul-smelling trapper was deep into his second bottle and getting frustrated. Most of his money was already in Ezra’s pile.

Cyrus picked up the hand dealt to him and smiled. He spread the hand and beheld a full house. "Well, Ezra, I’m going to force your hand this time." He pushed his remaining money in to the center of the table.

Standish could read Cyrus like a book by now and he quickly folded. "It seems lady fortune has finally graced you with a winning hand. Would you like to test her loyalty, my friend? How about one more hand for the entire amount of legal tender that currently resides in front of you?" Ezra smiled, his gold incisor twinkling at the mountain man.


Ezra sighed. ‘Heathens!’ he thought to himself. Smiling again, he said, "How about one more hand for the amount in front of you?"

Cyrus swayed a little in his seat. The whiskey was getting to him. He looked at the small pile of money in front of him. ‘Pa will skin me alive if I lose all of this money. But, if I win the next hand, Pa won’t know I was even playin’ cards.’ He looked at the fancy dressed gambler across the table from him. "All right."

Ezra shuffled the deck and dealt out the cards. He had no need to ‘fix the deck’, he was confidant that his skill would prevail. He studied his hand. A pair of queens winked back at him. He looked across at the inebriated youth, who called for two cards. He pitched the top two cards to Cyrus.

"I’ll take three." He placed the three cards in front of himself and then picked them up. Another queen joined his duo. He laid them down for the trapper to see.

Fear caused Cyrus to jump to his feet. Even inebriated, he knew his father would whip him within an inch of his life. Perhaps it was better to face the fancy gambler. He stood, swayed slightly, and then yelled, "You thievin’ bastard!" He pulled his gun but, by the time he had cleared leather, not only Ezra’s derringer, but four other revolvers were pointed squarely at his chest.

From behind came an icy exclamation. "I wouldn’t even think it, boy."

Cyrus turned dizzily and came face to face with the deadly gunfighter. The eyes pierced right through him and with a whimper, he took his hand away from his gun. "Don’t shoot, Mister."

"Get out of here and sober up." The command sent Cyrus fleeing from the saloon. Chris holstered his gun as did the others. He shook his head at the gambler. "One of these days, Standish."

Ezra nodded and pulled in his winnings. The young trapper was relegated to a back corner of his mind.

Rufus Wiggins stood in the shadows and watched the two women as they crossed the street and entered the dry goods store. His face was set in stone, his emotions buried long ago. She looked different but it was her, he was sure of it. ‘Paradin’ around like she belongs,’ he sneered to himself. ‘I’ll teach her to run off on me.’ He took a few steps towards her but quickly retreated to the shadows when a man in a buckskin jacket approached the blonde and the brunette. He had seen the man earlier in the saloon with a whole table full of cronies. Maybe it was better to wait and watch.

"Evenin’ ladies. What brings you out tonight?" Vin barely looked at Mary. He smiled shyly at Ibis.

Shaking her head slightly, Mary answered, "Gloria is down with a cold. We thought we’d take her and her children a bit of supper. Have you seen Chris?"

His eyes never left the petite brunette as he replied, "Yeah, saloon."

"Ibis, I can see you’re busy. I’ll deliver this to Gloria and see you back home. Good evening, Vin."

Rufus was still in the dark recesses of the alleyway when he saw his son rush out of the saloon. His anger flared. Only thing that would send the boy fleeing from a saloon was trouble that he couldn’t get out of any other way. ‘Can’t stay out of trouble fer one minute, can ya, ya stupid oaf.’ He moved quietly but quickly toward the livery where Cyrus was headed.

The next morning, Rufus found a chair outside of the saloon. His hat was pulled low down on his face to hide his features but he could see the whole main street of the dusty town. He stayed put for several hours, observing the activities of Four Corners.

Eventually, his time was rewarded. Without moving, he watched as Ibis came out of the newspaper office and began sweeping the boardwalk. He watched her greet a couple in a buckboard who then disappeared into the saloon. He saw her sit down with a short young woman, laughing at something the girl said. The man from the previous night was the next to visit with his wife. Rufus could tell the two were close even from this distance. He saw a man with his guns hung low come out of the office and leave with the long haired man. He watched as the two men meet up with two others, one an older man and the other a darkie. As they walked like peacocks down the middle of the street they were met by a young dark haired boy on a chestnut horse. Rufus got up and followed the foursome inside the saloon. He found a back table and continued his observation.

He scrutinized the seven men who gathered, eating dinner, laughing with each other. The gambler was among them, the one that his son had confessed losing to. The old trapper knew he was going to have to come up with an out of the way place to approach the gambler and he was going to have to get leverage on the man or his plan world never work. There was no way in hell that he was going to take on all seven of these men. Time was on his side though, time and patience.


Sitting on the bank of the small creek that ran through the woods on the Wilmington homestead, they wiggled their toes in the cool water. As they splashed the water at each other, Ezra began to laugh. He hadn’t felt this carefree and light hearted in his entire life. The laugh bubbled down to his stomach and through to his soul. He was deeply, totally, in love with the Mexican woman who sat by his side. Without thinking of the consequences, he jumped lightly off the bank into the shallow stream. He turned to his Angel and grabbing her around the waist, he lifted her up and began to spin around in the water. Her feet spun out into the air and she felt as if she was flying.

Suddenly Ezra stopped. A sound so sweet and pure had sprung from the woman’s mouth and shocked the gambler to his toes. Angelina had laughed out loud! He lowered the brunette beauty into the water and looked down into her eyes. The smile that spread across her face melted his heart and he leaned forward to kiss the smiling lips. Soft as a feather upon her lips, Ezra’s mouth felt warm and sweet to her. Tenderly, she reached up her right hand and touched his face as she pressed her lips closer to his.

Gradually, Ezra pulled away. His eyes searched the fragile young woman’s. What he saw in her eyes sent shivers of love through him. "I don’t want to ever see fear in your eyes, my precious Angel. I love you and want to hold you like this forever. Could I kiss you again, Darling?"

The young woman let a long breath escape as though she had been holding it for years. She smiled shyly and nodded her head. The two sets of lips met and this time, the kiss was deep and passionate. Ezra’s hands moved up her back and pressed her closer to himself. He touched her lips with a gentle tongue, tasting the honey of her mouth. She didn’t break the kiss and he explored a little further. His hands found themselves wandering over her back, getting acquainted with the feel of her body. Her hand went to the back of his neck and she naively pulled his head tighter to hers. Acknowledging the signal, Ezra plunged his tongue deeper into the delightful mouth of the woman he loved. She willingly opened her mouth and let in the hot intruder. Their tongues mingled in passion, their arms holding on to one another as they had never before.

Ezra felt his body responding to the feel of his love so close and he reluctantly broke away from her. He waited for her to open her eyes again and he saw the smoky passion in them. One more time, he lowered his mouth to hers but this time he kept it light.

Still holding her close, he whispered, "Did someone hurt you before, my Angel? Did a man force his body onto you?"

Her eyes glowed bright with fear, a fear born of a long ago terror and she withdrew from him slightly. But, she didn’t run! She stayed locked in his embrace. Slowly, with tears spilling down her face, she nodded. He pulled her against his chest and felt her tears dampen his shirt.

When her sobs subsided, Ezra kissed the top of Angelina’s head. "You have nothing to fear from me, Angel. That other man was abhorrent. He was a vile human being. You did nothing wrong, Angelina, do you hear me? You are not to blame for what he did to you! Most men are not at all like that. Most are good and kind. You had the unfortunate luck to become this loathsome felon’s victim. But you are stronger than that, Angel. You can overcome what he did to you. Inez, Buck and I will help you, I swear this to you. We will see you through."

She pulled away from him, her red rimmed eyes seeking affirmation from the man she wanted more than anything to trust. She saw love and compassion for her in his eyes. She sighed and wiped the tears from her face. No, she was not ready to forget what that vile man had done to her. Thus, she could not trust anyone except her sister. She turned away from the gambler and started slowly towards the home she shared with her family. Ezra followed, a few steps behind.

As they reached the yard, Buck came out on the porch followed by Inez and the baby. Even from a distance, Inez could tell her sister had been crying. She handed John to her husband and held out her arms. Angelina ran into them and the two sisters went inside, leaving Buck to deal with Ezra.

The tall rogue tipped his head and glared at the gambler. "What the hell happened, Standish? What did you do?"

"I did nothing to her, Buck. She simply told me what had happened to her years ago." Ezra reached the house and slumped slightly against the rail of the stairs.

"She TOLD you what happened? Or did she not like what you tried to do and you just guessed?" Buck now stood directly in front of his friend. He thought of Ezra as a brother but Angelina was ‘real’ family and he didn’t want anyone hurting her. Buck was well aware of Ezra’s feelings for the wounded young woman but that didn’t give him the right to make her cry.

Ezra sighed and stood straight, meeting Buck eye to eye. "I would never harm that woman! She is far too precious to me, Mr. Wilmington. We were having a lovely time down by the creek. I kissed her and she kissed me back. I made the faux pas of asking her about her past. I asked her …"

"If she had been raped?" Buck finished the sentence.

Ezra stared at his friend skeptically. "How did you know? Does Inez know?"

"I doubt it. I seen that look that Angelina has in her eyes before. A lot of the young girls that came to the bordello had that same look. My ma was still alive when Edith, a pretty little thing with the soul gone from her eyes, came to work there. One day, I asked my ma why she was so sad all the time. Ma told me that she had been abused by some man, probably her father or uncle or some other relative. I never forgot that look. I never asked Angel what had happened to her but I knew. I’ll take care of her Ez, don’t worry."

Ezra quickly replied, "No, Buck, I will take care of her. I love her. I want her to be my wife one of these days when she can get past the abuse. I promise you, I will go slow with her. I will not hurt her as she has already been hurt."

Buck was uncertain, not of Ezra’s love but his ability to handle the situation. "Ez, I hope it all works out for the two of ya but it ain’t easy for a woman to get over a rape. Somethin’ shuts down in ‘em and it ain’t like a walk in the park to get ‘em over it. Let me talk to her first and then, well, she’s all yours and Inez’s. That wife of mine is gonna fuss like a mother hen over that girl when she finds out the truth. And I got ta tell ya, Ez, it ain’t what Angel needs. It’s gonna be up to her to stand tall and look it in the eye if she’s ever gonna be able to put it behind her. Some never get over it, Ez. We gotta be patient, not on her like a fly on shit, ya know. It’ll take all three of us ta bring her out the other side."

Ezra was once again startled by Buck’s compassion and understanding. He had known about Buck’s mother, of course, from talking to Maggie DuBois, the madam of the brothel that the Wilmingtons had lived in. But the depth of the empathy Buck had obtained for these women at such a young age sometimes was astounding to the gambler and the rest of the Seven.

"All right, Buck. I’ll leave and let you talk to her, but I will not stay gone too long. Please inform Angelina that I will see her tomorrow. I will also see you on the morrow." With that, the con man walked to where his horse was tied and, after mounting and tipping his hat to Wilmington, he turned his horse and headed back to town.

Buck headed into the house and into the kitchen where Inez was fixing a cup of tea for her younger sister. Buck shook his head. Why did women always think that tea could make everything better? He made his way to Angelina’s side and bent to kiss her on the top of her head. She turned swollen, red rimmed eyes to her brother-in-law and tried to smile at him. He smiled a warm genuine smile back at her and then he made his way to his wife’s side.

"Mex, I think John needs his diaper changed. Why don’t you go take care of him and I’ll take care of your sister for awhile." He saw her hesitate. "Go on, Sweetheart. It’s okay."

Inez looked deep into her husband’s eyes and saw not only gentleness but a deep understanding there. She nodded and left the room. She trusted Buck implicitly.

The dark haired man pulled a chair around and sat in front of the miserable young woman. He took her small delicate hands in his large calloused ones and took a deep breath.

"Angelina, there is something about me that I doubt your sister shared with you. I grew up in a bordello, a cat house. Do you understand what I’m talkin’ about?"

Her eyes widened, telling him she understood exactly what he meant.

He lowered his head and continued. "My mother was a saint to me but to other men, she was a piece of meat, to be used and thrown away. All the ladies there were treated like that. None of those men thought of them as real people. The women were there to be bought and used. It was a terrible existence for my ma and her friends but back then, I didn’t know no better. To me, they were all aunts and cousins, ladies who treated me like I was a little prince, especially Maggie. You met her at our wedding, remember." He hesitated until he saw the slight nod. "A lot of the girls who came to work there were castoffs, Angel, girls who had been abused or neglected by their families. Many of them had been raped, like my Ma had been." His voice was soft and husky with emotion.

Angelina tilted her head in question. She understood his every word but she didn’t know where he was going with the conversation.

"Sweetheart, I saw the hurt that men can do to women, not just physical but emotional. I know that the abuse a woman endures can destroy them if they let it. But, Sweetheart, I also know the Rosillos women are tough, strong minded women. You have it inside you to get through this. I know you do."

He gently touched her cheek and she smiled at him although tears had sprung fresh from her eyes. "Ezra told me that he asked you about your abuse by some hombre. I told him I was already aware of it."

She was startled by his admission and she jerked back, away from the man who could see into her soul, her private hell that she had lived with for well over five years now. When she closed her eyes, she could still see the neighbor boy, his hands tearing her clothes, his lips brutal upon hers. He had pushed her down and had his way with her, her screams of terror going unheeded by anyone else until finally, she gave up the fight and simply endured. She had lain in that field for hours after he left her, great sobs shaking her body. When she could finally arise, her shame and guilt were so overpowering, she refused to acknowledge the pain in her body. She crept home and quickly changed clothes. She washed every part of her skin, scrubbing until her flesh glowed pink but she could still feel his hands, his breath hot against her skin. When her mother and sister returned home from work that evening and asked her how her day had gone, she stared nervously at them and then opened her mouth. But nothing came out. From that day to now, she had never uttered another word.

Buck could see the young woman’s discomfort, the fear that had blossomed that day when some man had ripped away her innocence. He sighed and moved to kneel in front of her. "Angelina, you did nothing wrong. He was a monster that took away your innocence, your self worth. He turned something that is so good and incredibly satisfying into something to be feared. Believe me, darlin’, the physical contact between a man and a woman can be a true pleasure, especially when you do it with the one you love. Why, when your sister puts her arms around me and holds me close, it’s like fallin’ into heaven for me." His eyes closed for a moment and a look of pure pleasure crossed his face as he pictured his extraordinary wife in his arms. He sighed and grinned as he adjusted his gaze back onto the sweet senorita in front of him. "I bet when Ezra holds you, you get a spark, don’t ya?"

Angelina took a small gulp and then nodded slightly. She did like it when the handsome, soft-spoken man took her gently in his arms. It was nothing like the other time, nothing at all like it.

Buck chuckled. "That suave Southerner sure has it bad for you. He wants to marry you, did you know that?"

Angelina’s forehead wrinkled in disbelief. She shook her head. She had never thought about spending her life with Ezra. How could she when her fears and self doubt filled every fiber of her being. Marriage? A home? Maybe even children? Her mind spun with the idea. She put a hand on Buck’s arm, her face showing her puzzlement.

"He loves you so much Angelina. He’s willing to wait for you, willing to go as slow as you want to go but he’s determined to make you his wife. If it’s not something you might want, than you have to let him know. That boy can be more stubborn than a bear with a honeycomb. He’ll do anything it takes to win you over."

The beautiful senorita sat a little taller, her head bowed in delighted embarrassment. When she finally looked at her brother- in –law again, there was a definite glow to her eyes that had not been there before.

Buck beamed himself. Deep down, he knew that with the love of Inez, Ezra and himself, she would soon rise above the hurt and she would find herself in a place her heart could not have imagined three months ago. The fallen angel would soon fly again.

"Whatever you need, you come to ol’ Buck if Inez or Ezra can’t fix it, okay? I love you, Angelina, we all do. We just want your happiness. Now, go wash your face and help Mex get supper on the table, okay?"

The young Mexican woman leaned forward and kissed Buck gently on the cheek. She nodded and ran from the room with a much lighter heart.


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