Little Buck

by Angie

Buck piled some more of the damp wood onto the fire and tossed on a handful of leaves to make a darker smoke rise into the clearing sky. Mrs. Wilson had finally stopped shivering and mumbling to herself, she now sat staring into the fire. RJ, with a child’s nervous energy, gathered wood and rattled constantly, filling the silence with the sound of his own voice.

Staring at the swollen river, Wilmington found himself wondering if he would ever find Vin. The young tracker had wormed his way into the hearts of all of them. Tanner’s childlike innocence that came forth was a stark contrast to the hardships he had endured growing up without his family.

Lifting his eyes to the sky, Buck watched as an eagle caught the air currents and floated above the water. ‘Oh, to be able to rise above it all and see from the sky!’ The eagle dove suddenly, snatching a fish from the water and winging back into the sky. The image caused such a deep ache in his chest that Wilmington had to look away.

Vin stumbled as the ground in front of him seemed to cant suddenly. Missy looked up with concern in her eyes at the tall man. They had been walking toward the column of smoke for a while now and she was getting tired. When her new friend landed roughly on his hands and knees, she caught his face in her hands and studied his face.

“You got a fever, Mr. Vin. My momma says when you got a fever, you got to rest and eat soup and stay warm. Will we find my momma soon, Mr. Vin?”

Staring hard at the cherubic face in front of him, Tanner nodded. The pounding in his head was easing up and he sat back on his heels for a moment as his eyes searched the sky for the column of smoke he had been following. His head felt stuffy and his ears seemed plugged. Pushing up from the rocks, he took the little hand and started out again.

Ezra snuck into his room, not wanting to talk to anyone at the moment. His deeply emotional display troubled him, not as badly as it would have a year ago, but it did leave him feeling decidedly uneasy. He sat in his rocking chair and contemplated the idea that had bloomed in his mind and ran his hand inside his pocket to touch the object he knew was lying there.

Josiah pulled out a chair and sat with the rest of the group. A glass was set before him and a generous portion of amber liquid poured into it. As his large hand wrapped around the drink, he sighed.

“How is he?” Chris’s voice was low as he spoke.

“Pretty torn up. I would not have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself.”

“Musta been pretty serious to put him into shock like that.” Nathan glanced up at the gambler’s door. “I’ll go check on him after a while, see if I can get him to eat something.”

The roll of thunder announced the storm before it hit the town. Suddenly, the sky split and a cold rain poured down. People sought shelter and the saloon was immediately filled with people avoiding the cold, driving rain. JD shuddered slightly as a particularly loud clap of thunder shattered the still air. The lightning that followed exploded loudly and all four regulators came to their feet as one.

Mrs. Potter ran into the saloon. “The boarding house is on fire!”

A sudden rush of bodies moved out onto the boardwalk and looked toward the sputtering flames. It wasn’t even the fire so much as it was the way the roof of the building had exploded under the power of the lightning strike. Boards littered the street in mute evidence of the fury of Mother Nature.

Everyone moved toward the boarding house as people came racing out of the building, some clutching belongings, others simply running in terror. Another roll of thunder drove people to seek cover before the bright flash of lightning slammed into the tree in the cemetery at the edge of the town.

Nathan grabbed Chris and shouted. “There may be people hurt or trapped in there! We need to get in there to check.”

Larabee nodded but held the healer back as he noticed several people with injuries coming toward them. “We’ll check the boarding house. You tend to the injured!” Seeing Ezra push thru the crowd to his side, Chris nodded. “JD, you go with Nathan! Josiah, Ezra and I will send people to the saloon. You can set up your clinic in there.”

After seeing everyone nod in agreement, the men split up. JD began to gather the injured and lead them into the saloon while Nathan dashed up to the clinic to gather his supplies. The others ran down the boardwalk and pushed into the lobby of the boarding house.

Molly panicked as she tried to push the heavy timber away from her side. She could hear Jules screaming from the other side of the room but she couldn’t see him and she was trapped! The next roll of thunder and flash of lightening ripped a scream from her throat.

The three men raced up the stairs and began opening the doors of every room, looking for people or bodies. As the rain snuffed out the fire, the smoky smell grew stronger as the men reached the far corner of the building. They could see where the roof had exploded as the rain was pouring in thru the opening.

Josiah encountered a locked door and threw his shoulder against it to get inside. The room was empty but as he stood staring out the hole where the window had been, he heard a child cry. Turning back to the hall, he saw that Ezra had also heard the cry. The gambler opened the door and froze in horror at the sight that lay before him.

The room lay directly beneath the lightning strike. The front wall of the room had blown out and the roof timbers had crashed down. A large section of the roof angled into the floor and the water was pouring down into the room. The bed was completely untouched and on it sat Jules, screaming in terror. Josiah moved past Ezra into the room and gathered the child into his arms.

Another flash of lightning illuminated the room and drew another scream from the woman trapped in the rubble. Ezra scrambled toward the front of the room and saw a pale hand snaking up from beneath the collapsed roof. He grasped the hand and screamed over his shoulder.

“Mr. Larabee! Your assistance is required! Urgently!”

Yosemite and another man entered the room and began to make their way to where the gambler knelt holding the hand of the woman trapped beneath the timber. Chris ran in behind them and began pulling any loose boards he could reach out of the way. A shriek of pain stopped the men from pulling on the timber.

Molly gasped as the heavy wooden beam pressed harder onto her ribs. Tightening her grasp on the hand that held hers, she struggled to draw a deeper breath. Something above her shifted and the rainwater began to pour across her face and chest. Flailing her feet in her panic, she kicked something and a board toppled onto her legs.

Buck watched the sun go down with a heavy heart. He was torn between the need to keep searching for Vin and the desire to maintain the column of smoke that would bring the trapper to him. He had dried the bedrolls and put them out for Mrs. Wilson and RJ. The boy had finally tired himself out and was sleeping soundly next to his mother.

Staring up at the darkening sky, Wilmington found himself praying for his friend.

Vin sat against the tree, shaking with fever. Missy curled up against his chest and was sleeping soundly. He had walked as far as he could before he became too dizzy to go on. It had taken all of his strength to cut the evergreen fronds he was using to shelter them. As the little nest warmed, he cuddled the girl a little closer.

Buck fought to stay awake. He kept the fire built up all night hoping that Vin would see it in the dark. The woman had eaten and fell asleep on the blanket she had been given. RJ had followed the mustached man all evening. It appeared that his presence comforted the boy.

Yosemite heaved the timber upward as Chris attempted to prop up the roof section. Molly was still choking and struggling against the water running across her face. Ezra had taken off his jacket and was attempting to prevent the water from reaching her face. Each flash of lightning drew another scream from the trapped woman.

Josiah returned to the room and tried to help with the extrication. Between the two big men, they lifted the beam that was pressing on Molly’s ribs. Chris and Ezra pulled the terrified woman from the pile of rubble. They carried her over to the saloon where Nathan was busy treating the others injured in the storm.

Easing Molly onto the pallet on the floor, Ezra knelt at her side. She was still hysterically fighting when a small blur slammed into her ribs and she collapsed into the gambler’s arms sobbing and clutching her small son. He caressed the back of Jules head as he nuzzled into his mother’s neck.

“Mama! Mama!”

Josiah returned with a blanket to cover the soaked and shivering woman. In a few moments, Nathan came and knelt at her side.

“Miss Stanhope? I would like to check you for injuries, Ma’am.”

Gentle hands eased the child out of her arms and she looked up to see Ezra cuddling the boy against his shoulder. Her hands reached for him only to be firmly returned to her sides.

“I’ll tend to the child while Mr. Jackson sees to your injuries. We will be just over here.”

Josiah quickly replaced Ezra at her side with a mug of hot tea. While Nathan pulled her into a sitting position, the older man pressed the mug into her hands. She sipped the hot brew while the dark hands ran down her back, checking for injury.

“How about your ribs? They said you were pinned under the ceiling timbers.”

Molly shook her head at the questions. Her eyes never left her child as Ezra stood rocking Jules in his arms as the child lay watching him with drowsy eyes. The tenderness on the southerner’s face was enough, she lay back and allowed Nathan to treat her injuries.

The rustle of motion thru the bushes caused Buck to waken. He glanced around the camp and noticed that the woman and child were still sleeping. The fire had burned down and he moved to stir it up. Adding more wood, he picked up the coffee pot and walked to the river to get water. After starting the coffee, he piled more leaves on the fire to create a column of smoke. RJ awoke and walked around the fire rubbing his eyes as he climbed into Buck’s lap.

“Hungry, little guy? As soon as the fire gets burning good, I’ll start breakfast.”

He was unbearably warm when he awoke. The little girl lay on his outstretched legs sleeping. The evergreen fronds had kept in the warmth for the child, she appeared quite comfortable. Vin glanced up and saw the column of smoke again beckoning for him to move. Nudging Missy gently, he wakened her. The child looked around in surprise before rubbing her eyes.

“Are we going to find my momma today, Mr. Vin? I bet she’s worried about me by now. I hope I don’t get into trouble for being gone for so long. Are you feeling any better?”

“I’ll be okay. Let’s get moving, Buck’s got a fire going and I’ll bet he has breakfast cooking. I don’t know about you but I’m hungry.”

“Me too, Mr. Vin.”

They walked toward the column of smoke. Vin was becoming dizzy as his temperature rose. His steps became uncoordinated and he sank to his knees again. Missy stopped and patted his shoulder.

“Mr. Vin? You’re awfully warm. You lay down and I’ll go get my momma. She’ll come and fix you right up.”

Thru the haze in his mind, Vin heard the girl tell him that she was going before he collapsed onto his stomach.

Molly reluctantly allowed Ezra to put her in his room above the saloon for the time being. She was decidedly torn about the feelings she was having for the flashy dressed man. She remembered him from Klinestown. She remembered his touch. He had been so gentle with her the time that they had spent together. Her father had nearly killed him.

Watching the woman as she slept, Ezra rocked the child in his arms. Nathan had assured him that Molly was not harmed in the hotel collapse. She was bruised but there were no broken bones. Her main concern was for Jules, as long as the baby was all right, she would be fine. He laid the sleeping child next to his mother and slipped out of the room.

Two pairs of eyes watched as the gambler came down the stairs. Josiah was concerned for Ezra’s emotional well-being and Nathan was concerned for the drenching that he had taken while trying to rescue the woman. When Ezra reached the bottom of the stairs he caught their gazes and smiled.

The little girl tipped her face skyward as she watched the column of smoke. She followed the watercourse as she walked, careful of the rocks she felt beneath her feet. Every so often she would look back to see if she could still see Mr. Vin. When she rounded the bend in the river and could no longer see the tan clad friend, she began to worry.

Missy Wilson fancied herself a brave little girl. Her brother had shown her many things that would have frightened other girls her age. While she walked, she remembered the time the two of them had followed Sam and Kitty when they were sparkin’. The amorous young couple had slipped away from the Church social and headed for a nearby barn. RJ had dared her to follow them and see what they were doing. When their momma had found them a little while later, Sam and Kitty were up in the hayloft playing together. Her momma never did explain why the young lovers faces had been so red. She kept thinking to herself as she walked toward the smoke.

Mrs. Wilson started keening her grief the moment she opened her eyes. She clung to RJ until the boy begged to be released. The three of them ate sparingly of the food Buck had made while they waited for someone to show up.

“Why are you just sitting there? Shouldn’t we go looking for them? My Missy, she’s just a baby! You have to go looking for her!”

“Mrs. Wilson, if we go running around looking for them, we could pass them right by and not even know it. If Vin found her, he will follow the smoke and bring her to us. We just need to wait a while longer.”

The small form on the bed next to her whimpered and Molly reached out to soothe her son. Jules rolled over and tossed his small arm across the bed as he settled back to sleep. The events of the afternoon had left the toddler exhausted. She looked around the room she lay in. Ezra had insisted that she use his room to recover since hers was destroyed in the lightening strike. Biting her lip against the groan of pain that threatened to escape, she rolled carefully off of the bed and stood. The storm had ended and the sky was showing off pink and gold streaks as the sun dipped toward the horizon.

A soft knock at the door caused her to turn quickly.

“Come in.”

“Miss Stanhope? I just wanted to check and see how you were feeling?”

“I’m a little sore, Mr. Jackson, but that’s to be expected. Otherwise, I’m fine.”

A broad smile split the dark face and Nathan nodded.

“All right then, I’ll just leave you alone.”

“Wait, please! Would you mind terribly keeping an eye on Jules for a few minutes? I would like to speak to Ezra if he’s still around.”

“Sure, Ma’am, Ezra’s just downstairs. I’d be glad to sit with the boy.”

He stood out easily amid the drab browns and plaids of the rest of the saloon patrons. Before he left his room, he had taken a change of clothes from the closet. His plum colored jacket conformed to his frame and the scarlet ascot provided just the right accent. Ezra didn’t turn as she moved up behind him, he was engrossed in a game of cards.

She let her hand creep out to rest lightly on his shoulder and she felt the momentary slip in his tightly controlled demeanor. As her hand tightened, he looked up at her.

“M-Molly, Miss Stanhope, you startled me!”

Josiah and Chris exchanged glances. It was not like Ezra to be surprised by anyone in the saloon, especially when they came up behind him. The two men watched as the gambler stared up at the woman.

“I just wondered if you would mind accompanying me to supper? I really feel like I owe you an explanation for things.”

“Oh, no. You don’t owe me anything. But I would be delighted to share supper with you. Will we be dining alone or will your son be joining us?”

“If I could find someone to keep him for a few hours we could just talk.”

“I’ll bet Mary wouldn’t mind keeping an eye on the little guy for you, Miss Stanhope. I’d be glad to take him down there for you. Her little boy, Billy, just loves to have someone to play with.”

“Thank you, Mr. Larabee. I appreciate that. I’ll just go and get Jules and his things and be right back.”

After the woman was out of earshot, Chris amended softly.

“If the two of you happen to need more than a couple of hours, I’m sure Mary could keep the boy overnight.” The hazel eyes of the leader made no accusation as they watched Ezra.

“Thank you, Mr. Larabee. I appreciate the offer, however, given her previous reaction to the offer of my company, I don’t imagine this will be anything more than old acquaintances being renewed. Miss Stanhope clearly has someone else in her mind.”

Just then, Molly arrived at the bottom of the stairs with Jules in her arms. The child smiled sweetly and reached for Ezra as soon as they came close. The gambler extended his hands to the boy and gathered him to his chest. The tiny hands immediately reached for the small, jeweled pin in the ascot.

Josiah hesitantly reached for the child and caught the tender look in Ezra’s eyes as he smiled into the boy’s face. He found himself thinking that the gambler would make a good father some day. Jules giggled at the gray haired man before extending his arms to him. Ezra reluctantly released the child and watched as he settled onto Josiah’s shoulder. Molly handed over the bag with his clothes and a few toys that had been rescued from the boarding house.

It was a very hungry little girl who stumbled into the camp just before noon. Mrs. Wilson looked at the child as if she were an apparition before screaming her name and rushing to gather her to her chest. Buck immediately backtracked the child looking for Vin. Not finding him, he returned to camp and pried the child from her mother’s arms.

“Where is Vin? Did he find you?”

“Mr. Vin is sick. He has a bad fever and he laid down on the path back a ways. I couldn’t get him up so I came looking for you. He said to go to the smoke and I would find my momma.”

“Can you show me where?”

As soon as the tow headed moppet nodded, Buck grabbed her and set her in the saddle. He pointed at Mrs. Wilson and RJ.

“You two stay right here! Don’t go near that horse, he’ll hurt ya!”

He immediately swung up behind the child and headed into the brush. Missy pointed to the path she had taken along the river. It took almost an hour for them to find Vin. Buck slid from the saddle and ran to the fallen man’s side.

“Vin, come on, son, open your eyes!” He tapped the side of Tanner’s face, frowning at the fever he felt. The pale blue eyes fluttered and opened once before closing again. Buck looked around, he didn’t see any other way to get Vin back to his camp. Setting Missy on the ground, he propelled the unconscious tracker onto the gray gelding. Swinging up behind him, he reached down for the child.

“Come on, sweetheart, you’ll have to ride behind me this time, okay?”

The child nodded and he swung her up behind him. She immediately scooted until her thighs were tight against the lip of the saddle and gripped Buck’s gun belt. When he was sure that she wouldn’t fall off, he started for the camp. As Vin’s slack body settled against his chest, Buck worried at the heat he felt radiating off of his friend.

They shared a pleasant meal at the restaurant. Molly regaled Ezra with some of her son’s funnier exploits on the stage. The warm glow from her eyes spoke volumes about the love she felt for her child. She asked Ezra what had happened to him since she had seen him last.

“Well, I thought about you, a lot. Then, about a year ago I arrived here. I spent a few days gamblin’ and trying to raise enough money to make it to the next town. Suddenly, I found myself in the company of six very disparate souls in defense of a village of Seminole Indians. A short time later, I was offered a pardon for a minor crime in another town in exchange for staying on here to defend the town. And here is where I have been ever since.”

“I would never have imagined you as a lawman. Especially after what my daddy did to you. God, I thought you were going to die on me the first couple of nights.”

His hand automatically moved across the table to cover hers as the memories flooded back. Her other hand came out to cover his and she smiled slightly. A look of shame walked across her eyes as she looked into his.

“You have no cause to be ashamed. You were in no way responsible for your father’s attack upon my person. If it had not been for your tender ministrations, I might well have died.”

As the two of them sat lost in memory they fell silent.

Buck lowered Missy to the ground and began calling instructions to Mrs. Wilson.

“Move that bedroll closer to the fire. Take the canteens and fill them with cold water and bring them back up here. RJ, I’ll need more wood for the fire. Do you think you and Missy can handle that?”

The boy nodded immediately and grabbed his sister and headed toward the dead tree he had found earlier. The two of them broke off the biggest pieces that they could manage and hauled them back to the camp.

Lowering Vin to the bedroll, Buck covered him with the other set of blankets. He searched his saddlebag for the herbs that Nathan insisted that they all carry in case of emergency. They all knew how to make the vile tasting tea that would ease pain and lower fever. Orpha filled the coffee pot with fresh water and set it to heat near the fire. She poured water on the section of cloth she had in her hand. Seeing the questioning look on the mustached face, she shrugged her shoulders.

“A gentleman won’t care if a lady isn’t wearing a full slip under her skirt, right?”

Buck only smiled at the woman as he continued examining Vin. The Texan was wheezing badly. Lowering his ear to Tanner’s chest, Buck frowned at the rattling he heard. The sound could only mean one thing, pneumonia.

“Could just be water in his lungs from the river. We need to get him coughing, to break it up so he can get it out of his lungs.” The woman offered.

“You got any ideas?”

The woman nodded and headed into the brush. Buck wet the cloth and continued to wipe the sweat from Vin’s face and chest. Missy came and knelt at his side and brushed his hair tenderly away from his face.

After supper, Ezra and Molly walked down the boardwalk and past the church house. They stopped near the cemetery to watch the sun go down. When the woman turned to face him, the southerner suddenly found himself talking.

“Molly, I thought about you a great deal after I left Klinestown and I wanted to come back for you. Did you never marry? What happened to the boy’s father? There is so much I want to ask you.”

“No, I never married. Jules’ father never knew about him. I thought about you a lot, too. You up and disappeared and I never heard from you again.”

As they stood facing each other, she turned her face up to his. Their arms slipped around each other and they embraced. A tender, passionate kiss passed between them. His eyes locked onto hers for a moment before she looked away. With a deep sigh, Molly pressed her cheek against his shoulder. They stood together for several minutes wrapped in the warmth of their embrace before she pulled away.

“I should get back and collect Jules.”

“Mrs. Travis will keep him overnight. If you’re interested, I would be most pleased to share your company.”

By sundown, the fever had broken and Vin was resting easier. Mrs. Wilson had worked up a poultice that she put on the Texan’s chest. It penetrated with a deep heat that loosened the mucus that was building in his lungs. Buck pulled the weakened man onto his side whenever he began to cough so he could spit out the globs of yellow phlegm. Between the two of them, they managed to get a full cup of broth into Tanner and they plied him with water every few minutes. RJ and Missy curled up together on one of the saddle blankets and slept thru the night.

As the first rays of sunlight sparkled on the river, Buck heard movement inside the cocoon of blankets wrapped around the tracker. He reached out and snuck his hand inside the covers and felt the temperature of the hidden body. A soft drawl drifted out from the blanketed form.

“Do that again and you’ll have to marry me.”

“How you feelin’ this fine morning, Vin?”

“Better. Yesterday, it felt like you were sitting on my chest. Now, it just feels like JD’s sitting on me. I take it little Missy found ya?”

“And took me straight to you. Probably saved your life, son.”

As the morning light shone in the window, Molly snuggled up against the warm body next to her. A soft southern drawn murmured in her ear as he pulled her back into his chest. She let herself bask in the warmth for a few minutes longer before turning to face him.

“I have to go and get Jules. I’ve never been away from him this long.”

“He’s in good hands, I assure you. Lie back down here and let me snuggle up with you.”

Molly leaned back over and snuggled against him for a moment before pulling away.

“Really, Ezra, I have to go get Jules. You go back to sleep, I’ll see you later.”

After she slipped out of the room, he rolled over into the warm spot on the bed that she had just left. The scent of her clung to the pillow and he nuzzled into it for a moment before deciding that he would not be able to go back to sleep. He shaved and dressed before heading in search of breakfast.

Chris nudged Josiah and looked toward the stairs. JD and Nathan followed the direction of their friend’s stares to see Ezra tugging on the sleeves of his emerald green coat as he came down the stairs. He looked across the room and tossed a puzzled look at the men watching him. He turned and surveyed the area behind him before turning back to face them.

“Have I done something to warrant all of this attention all of a sudden?” He asked as he crossed to the low dais where they sat.

“Just never saw you up so early unless you had patrol is all, Brother Ezra. To what do we owe this early venture out of your ‘abode’?”

“I was awakened and unable to return to my slumber so I thought I would see how the other half lives for a change. Senorita Recillos, might I have my usual repast at this table over here?”

“Right away, Senor Standish.” The mirth was only barely veiled in her voice.

Riding double with Mrs. Wilson, Vin carefully forded the river on Peso. Buck waited until they were safely on the other side before he crossed with the children. They made a minor detour to drop the woman and children in the nearest town. They took a room in the hotel for the night.

As the two men sat enjoying a drink in the cantina, Vin struck up a conversation about the little girl, Missy.

“She sure was a cute little thing. She cupped my face and told me that her momma would make me rest and eat soup for my fever. She held my hand and let me lead her until I got to feeling poorly and then she kinda took over and led me.”

“You should have seen her brother RJ. The kid couldn’t do enough to help me. He gathered firewood and leaves. He kept his ma calm until she fell asleep. He talked to me for hours before he finally fell asleep.”

“They’re good kids.”

“They sure are.”

“You ever think about kids, Buck?”

“You mean apart from when Lucy told me she was carrying my baby?”

“I forgot about that. You sure looked pretty upset about the whole thing.”

“After I thought about it, though, I had these visions of a little girl of my own.” He laughed and shuddered slightly. “She was even named Eudora.”

Ezra didn’t press Molly that day. He stopped to see her over lunch to let her know that he had night patrol and she could use his room again if she wanted. He caught a nap in Vin’s room that afternoon.

As he rode his patrol that night, Ezra thought about Molly. Having her around brought back all the feelings of warmth and protectiveness that he thought he had buried when he rode away from her that night so long ago. He wanted to ask her to stay with him if she had no place else to go. He really thought he could be happy with her and a ready-made family.

When he arrived back that next morning after his patrol he saw Molly leaving the saloon with Jules. He smiled and tipped his hat to her. The child laughed and ran to the edge of the boardwalk and held his hands up to the gambler. Ezra raised a questioning eyebrow to Molly before turning Chaucer and taking up the toddler. Settling the boy on the saddle in front of him, he rode the length of the street and back to the saloon before handing him back to his mother.

After a hearty breakfast, Vin and Buck headed for Four Corners. They had sent a wire ahead the night before to let Chris know that they were all right. It was nearly noon before they arrived in town. JD rushed out of the jail to greet them.

The first thing they noticed was the boarding house. There was already a crew working on rebuilding the roof and fixing up the damage. Josiah was sitting astride the roof joists, nailing on new boards to mount the shingles onto. He called down and waived the hammer in his hand.

“What happened to the boarding house?” Buck asked as he slid out of the saddle.

“Storm came thru here two days ago. Lightning strike took out the roof and nearly burned down the whole place. If it hadn’t been for the pouring rain, we would have lost everything.”

“Wow! Did any of our rooms get hit?” Vin asked as he tied his horse to the hitching post and stepped onto the boardwalk.

“Nah, just a couple of rooms where the roof exploded. There was some water damage but not close to our rooms. Ezra used your room yesterday before he went on patrol.”

“My room? What for? Something wrong with his room at the saloon?”

“No, he loaned his room to the woman whose room was destroyed. That reminds me, she’s looking for you, Buck.”

“A woman looking for me? Is she pretty?” The ladies man scanned the boardwalk for a new face while smoothing his hands over his shirt.

“Very pretty. I can’t wait until you see her.” JD smiled knowingly before doffing his hat and heading toward the saloon.

“Wait, JD! What’s that supposed to mean? Come back here and tell me what you know about this woman! JD!” Buck hurried after the retreating back of the young man.

The cards cascaded thru Ezra’s fingers and Jules laughed and clapped his little hands.

“More! More!” His little voice drew smiles from even the hardest saloon patrons.

“All right, my good little man. I will show you again and then you must begin to do it for yourself. Now, watch carefully, Jules, it’s all in the wrists.” The southerner said with a flourish as he demonstrated the shuffle again. Molly smiled and shook her head as she looked on.

JD entered the saloon and headed for the bar with Buck hot on his heels, still calling after him to stop and explain himself. He glanced over to the table where Ezra sat and then back to the kid. His head snapped around so quickly that he stumbled into the bar, knocking the wind from his lungs. He stared, open mouthed at the young woman seated next to the gambler. She came to her feet and ran across the floor to launch herself into his arms.

“Molly? What are you doing here? Look at you! All grown up!”

“Buck! You’re looking as handsome as ever! How have you been?”

As the ladies man draped his arm around her, he turned her back toward the table where she had been sitting. He looked at the child sitting happily in the gambler’s lap and then back to the young woman at his side. She drew him back to the table.

“There’s someone I wanted you to meet. This is my son, Jules.” She took the boy from Ezra and handed him to the mustached man.

The rest of the group had slipped into the saloon to see the meeting between Buck and Molly. Josiah and Nathan stood near the wall. Vin and JD stood at the bar. Chris stood just inside of the batwing doors. Somehow, the expression on Buck’s face wasn’t quite what any of them imagined. The warm, loving smile was the kind normally seen regarding every other child, not the smile that questioned if the child was his or not.

“He’s a cutie! Where’s his father?”

Ezra felt as if he was choking while he waited for the answer. His hands tightened on the cards to hide the nervous trembling. Every one of the men was straining their ears to hear the answer to Buck’s question. A sad look crossed the woman’s face.

“He was killed. He joined the Rangers and was killed by a renegade Mexican band just after I found out about Jules. You might remember him, his name was Calvin.”

“Calvin Stanhope? I didn’t even know the two of you had even met. I wonder why he never told me about you?”

“He didn’t know, Buck. I never got to tell him. The two of you passed thru so quickly that we were only together a couple of nights. I took his name when Jules was born. I wanted to make a new start with my son.”

“Well I’ll be! He sure is a cute little guy. How long can you stay and where are you headed? You’ve obviously met my other friends. Ezra, I see you’ve met Molly. I passed thru her town a few years ago. Her father was the sheriff in Klinestown.”

The gambler only nodded as relief poured thru him. Buck wasn’t the father! He made up his mind to talk to Molly at the earliest opportunity. He mentally tuned out the rest of the conversation as Buck introduced Vin and explained how he knew her.

A voice intruded upon his thoughts. “Ezra? Did you hear me? I said, you can use my room again if you need to, Nathan wants me at the clinic tonight.”

“The clinic? Whatever for? You aren’t injured are you?” The panic in Ezra’s voice caused Vin to place a hand on the gambler’s arm.

“You didn’t hear me. I fell into the river and got a lung full of water. I might have a touch of pneumonia so Nathan wants me in the clinic overnight. You can use my room again if you need it. JD said you were letting Molly and the baby use your room.”

“Thank you, Mr. Tanner. I appreciate that. I hadn’t really given any thought to my sleeping accommodations now that you and Mr. Wilmington are returned from your little adventure. I trust you shared no other damage during your time away?”

“Nah, I’m fine. Just a little tired but Nathan says that will pass.”

Later that evening, after everyone else had gone, Ezra slipped up the stairs and knocked on the door to his room. Molly called for him to come in. Opening the door, he stepped inside to see her rocking her son. He sat on the edge of his bed and watched her.

“He’s beautiful.”

“Thank you. Did you want to talk to me or are you just here to get your clothes?”

“I wanted to talk to you about something. I was just curious about your plans for the future. Where are you headed from here?”

“I’m not sure really. I’ve just been traveling around with Jules. I wanted to make my way to San Francisco eventually to let Calvin’s parents see the baby. He’s their only grandchild and they have been providing me with funds to live on while I figure out what to do with my life. Beyond that, I haven’t thought that far ahead.”

“I was just wondering because I wanted to ask you something.” Ezra’s heart was pounding furiously in his chest as he tried to get the words out. His eyes focused on his hands and he laced his fingers together tightly to cover the shaking.

“What is it? Ezra? Are you all right?” She stopped rocking and leaned toward him.

“I’m fine. I just wanted to know if you would consider staying here in Four Corners? I would like an opportunity to get better reacquainted with you.”

“What are you trying to ask me?”

He moved to his knees at her side. “I’m asking you to marry me.”

Her eyes widened as she looked into his. Her mouth opened and closed a couple of times before she was able to make coherent sounds.

“Ezra, I, I don’t know what to say. I’m flattered, really I am. You’ve been so good to me these past few days. I can see you’re really attached to Jules and you’re really good with him. But I’m not ready to settle down. As long as the Stanhope’s are willing to help me out financially, I just don’t want to settle down. You were so sweet to me the other night, I had almost forgotten how truly good and gentle you were.”

Her words were gentle but they cut thru him like knives. She had let him down gently and he didn’t have any hard feelings but it hurt. He had really begun to think of settling down and having a family. Her next words were almost as if she was reading his mind.

“You really should find someone and settle down and raise a whole flock of children. You would make such a wonderful father. I would almost envy the woman who lands you. She would be getting such an awesome man.”

Her hand caressed his face as she leaned toward him. Jules moved in her lap and she leaned back quickly. Ezra lifted the boy from her and placed him in the cradle that had been brought from the boarding house. When he turned back, she was right there.

Sliding her palm across his chest, she pushed his jacket off of his shoulders. She hung it over the foot of the bed before drawing him to the bed with her. After removing his boots, she pushed him back and lowered herself on top on him. He resisted only briefly before giving in to her advances.

Molly and Jules moved back to the boarding house the next day. They spent the remainder of their visit in Four Corners socializing and building memories. When the day finally came for her to leave, all of the peacekeepers showed up to see her off. While Buck and JD were saying their goodbyes to Jules, Molly pulled Ezra aside.

“I will never forget you, Ezra. You are a very special person. I meant what I said before, find someone and settle down. You deserve to be happy. Take care of yourself.”

In an unusual display of emotion, the southerner gathered Molly into his arms and pressed a passionate kiss on her lips. The length of time they spent examining each other orally was enough for a significant number of the townsfolk to take notice. When he released her, he quickly masked the pain he was feeling.

“If you ever decide to take me up on my offer you know where to find me.”