DISCLAIMER: I think that everyone knows that I dont own any of the characters which appear in the CBS TV series "The Magnificent Seven" and I make no claim to. This piece of fiction is written purely for personal enjoyment and I will receive absolutely no monetary remuneration. In short, any litigation would be pointless so I respectfully request that no one instigates any.
Main Character(s): Ezra, Inez, Seven, OFC
Universe: Old West
He was aware of Inez watching him from the bar as she cleaned the last few glasses. They were the last people left in the saloon and the look in her eyes, when hed glanced up a few minutes before, had left him in no doubt that she intended to have a serious conversation with him as soon as she was finished. He wasnt going to avoid it but he wasnt looking forward to it either, so he kept his eyes focussed on the game of solitaire spread out on the table in front of him. That, at least, was going well. He had already revealed two aces, spades and diamonds, and he regarded the cards with a small musing smile. As a professional gambler, he had to admit to a degree of superstition and he wondered if he had dealt out his fate in the cards before him.
Hed often thought of Life as a hand dealt out by God or Fate. He reckoned they probably stacked the deck but knew that he could play his cards with more natural cunning and acquired expertise than the average soul. So how had he come by the hand that he held now? He thought about the events of the last few days, and those of the last few weeks and hell those of the last few years. Could he have played his cards differently? Better? Could the casualties, the recriminations and the whole tragic business have been averted?
Still, even if nothing else could be said for him, he was willing to accept the consequences of his actions. The loss of the trust of friends. The loss of the friends themselves. Deaths that would probably haunt his dreams for the rest of his life.
He heard footsteps and looked up to see Inez approaching from the bar, none of the determination in her eyes diminished. "Ezra..." she said in a tone uncannily like his mothers despite her Mexican accent.
He sighed. He knew what in particular she wished to discuss which was his new relationship with the girl now asleep in his room. He wasnt backing down but Inez was too good a friend for him to ignore what she had to say. "Yes?" he answered and gazed up at her, prepared to face the music.
* * * * *
Two months earlier, Ezra Standish had stood at the entrance of the saloon, rested his arm on the door and looked out at the town of Four Corners. A town which could now be justifiably described as "thriving", a significant change from when he had arrived there nearly three years ago. The transformation was more palpable than visible, to him at least. True, there were more shops opening, a new school, the church restored, a town hall now under construction, railway tracks completed and (after nearly three years of "almost there") the first trains would be coming past in a matter of weeks, but more than all that, the town felt more secure.
It all made Ezra feel somewhat like a proud uncle as he surveyed the town and its citizens going about their business on a September afternoon. Oh, he knew he wasnt solely responsible (and he knew that it had taken significant coercion for him to agree to participate in this law-keeping venture in the first place) but he felt that his contribution had been significant. However, even after three years, one part of his mind still refused to accept that he had finally found a place where he felt he belonged and it was certainly something he would never voice aloud, even under extreme duress. Nonetheless, even while he mocked the ridiculous sentimentality of it all, he decided to indulge his avuncular notions and pay a visit to Josiahs orphanage.
There was one obligatory detour along the way. When he entered Mrs Potters general store, she was deep in conversation with Mary Travis.
"So theyve finally set a date, have they, Mary?"
Mrs Travis nodded, "Last Saturday in October."
"Rather short engagement, but I spose they were long enough courtin", Gloria Potter looked over to Ezra with a welcoming smile, "Afternoon, Mr Standish. I spose youll be there in your best suit."
Ezra smiled in return, "Afternoon, Mrs Potter, Mrs Travis. If we are discussin the impendin nuptials of Mr Dunne and Miss Wells, then yes, I expect to be attendin, suitably attired."
"Glad to hear it. What can I do for you today?"
He indicated one of the candy jars on the counter in front of her. "Ill have a dozen pieces of this confectionery, if youd be so kind."
Mary Travis was smiling too. "A sweet tooth, Mr Standish?"
He was well aware that everyone present knew the true destination of his purchase and accepted the mild gibe good naturedly. "I believe that I am notorious for it." His grin widened and he paid for the candy then tipped his hat to them both as he left.
He continued on his way to the small orphanage Josiah Sanchez had started nearly five months before. The first four children from two families had lost their parents in a tornado which devastated their farms, and the last two had lost their widowed mother to a fever three months ago. Ezra expected that Josiah was ready for a new project to throw his considerable energy and compassion into, now that the church had been restored. He had created the orphanage in a small house behind the church and, perhaps with a little help from his friends, created a secure and nurturing environment for the orphans.
Ezra was a little disconcerted to see Nathan Jacksons horse tied up outside the orphanage. He had not been aware that Nathan had returned from the Seminole village, some distance out of town. He hoped that the healer had not been summoned by Josiah to deal with an emergency among the children. The town now had a fully, conventionally qualified medical practitioner but Josiah and many others in the town still had more faith in Nathan. Dr Elliott didnt mind. He was middle-aged man who had left a busy city practice for a less demanding life in a rural area, only to find that being the only doctor in a country town was even busier. After an early and reasonably mild altercation, he had realized that Nathans help was a valuable asset and recompensed the amateur with advice, teaching and any medical equipment he could spare. He had even been surprised to find himself learning a lot from Nathan.
Ezra was drawn from his reverie (surprised at how contemplative his mood had become) by the arrival of the tall black man that he too had underestimated (not to mention insulted) on first acquaintance.
"Good afternoon, Mr Jackson. Has there been a mishap?"
Nathan looked up, as he exited through the front entrance of the orphanage, and smiled, "Hi, Ezra. No, everythins fine. Jus thought Id drop in on Josiah and the kids. Heard the news about JD an Miss Casey an thought Id come to town and wish em well."
"Have you seen them yet?"
"No, I was on my way to JDs office now."
"Inez and I wondered if they might not appreciate a small soiree in their honour, at the saloon."
Nathan shook his head slightly, still grinning, as he began untying his horse, "Did Inez call it a soiree?"
Ezra shrugged, "Perhaps not."
"Ill mention it to JD. No, wait. Maybe itd be better as a surprise."
Ezra nodded, "Maybe so."
Nathan mounted up, "Count me in. Be seein ya later."
Ezra nodded again and the healer was gone.
As he entered the orphanage, the gambler called out to Josiah. However, instead of the burly preacher, he found himself immediately accosted by the six children. "Greetings, my friends." The youngest, aged two, held out his arms to be picked up and Ezra obliged him. "Do any of you have any idea where Mr Sanchez might be?"
"Puttin away his whiskey, Mr Ezra," the eldest reported, "Mr Nathan was just here, conversin with him."
Ezra couldnt suppress a small chuckle, "I know. I conversed a little with him myself, as he departed."
"Still corruptin the innocent, Ezra?"
He glanced around to see Josiah encompassing them all, including Ezra, with his tolerant paternal gaze.
"Expandin their vocabulary is corruptin them?", Ezras tone and facial expression were all injured innocence. It wasnt very often that he had the luxury of holding the moral high ground and he savoured every opportunity.
"Not so long as it expands in the right directions but I suspect that your pockets are full of temptation to gluttony."
His expression became ruefully sheepish, "Am I becomin predictable?"
"Only to those who know you well."
Josiah spent the next hour watching Ezra entertaining the children (not to mention the gambler entertaining himself), alternately dazzling them with sleight of hand tricks and challenging them to earn the pieces of candy which he appeared to pluck from behind ears and out of thin air. The distribution of candy was drawn out over the hour and spread evenly among those present. It was all done with a certain roguish charm which seemed to characterize most things that Ezra did and there were protests all round when dusk came and he made his farewells and headed back to the saloon.
As he entered, he saw that Buck Wilmington had arrived just before him and was greeting Inez with a fond, almost fraternal kiss on the cheek. Ezra knew that they had previously had a liaison and when it had ended, they remained warm friends. Buck still flirted with her, he wouldnt be Buck if he didnt, and she now rebuffed and side-stepped him with the same dignity and humour she had learned to use on the more amorous saloon patrons. Although it had to be said, that those who failed to respond to dignity and humour still tended to leave with a few bruises.
Nathan and Vin were also there at the bar with them and the small group turned as one to greet him.
"Howdy Ezra! Howre the kids?" Vin Tanner wore the same amused, knowing smile that everyone seemed to adopt when they referred to his orphanage visits. Ezra was vaguely bemused that they still found it so entertaining.
"As replete as ever with juvenile charm. And yourselves?"
"Good," Buck answered for the group, "Weve bin talkin with Inez about that party for JD an Casey. Vin was over at Miss Netties place today an she says that she an Casey are gonna be in town on Friday evenin."
Ezra grinned, "That sounds fortuitous. Im sure that between us, we can conspire to have JD present at the same time. Inez?"
She nodded, "Friday evening, it is."
They all turned at the sound of a young female voice with a very slight Mexican accent, "Excuse me, please."
She was probably a little younger than JD, twenty years old at most, slim and pretty, with an olive complexion, large brown eyes and long dark hair which was tied at the nape of her neck and hung over her right shoulder. She wore simple and extremely dusty dress and was obviously quite weary but there was still a noticeable alertness in her wide dark eyes.
Buck smiled kindly, "What can we do for you, senorita?"
"Im looking for whoevers responsible for hiring," she instinctively looked at Ezra as the most likely candidate. She wasnt the first to make the mistake and Ezra again felt the small sense of pride at the knowledge that he looked the part, coupled with the mild regret that it wasnt the case.
The saloon had had numerous proprietors, and almost as many names, in the time he had lived in Four Corners but Inez had managed it throughout several changes in ownership and many of the locals struggled to remember what it was like without her behind the bar. Ezra himself had hired her as a barmaid when he had briefly owned the saloon, more than two years previously, before he been driven to near bankruptcy and bought out by his indomitable mother. It was Maude Standish who had made Inez manager. She was so proficient at it, that each time it had been sold the new proprietors had asked her to stay, including the most recent buyers, Solana Holdings, a business firm based in San Francisco who had also purchased the hotels in Four Corners and the not too distant town of Eagle Bend.
It was Buck who corrected her, "Thatd be Miss Inez here. Shes the manager."
Inez smiled apologetically, "Were not really looking at the moment."
The girl visibly increased her determination, "Id work very hard, do whatevers necessary and all Im asking is something to eat and a place to stay."
Ezra regarded her speculatively, "You dont want to sound too desperate, my dear. It tempts people into exploitin you."
She suddenly grinned in a way that immediately struck them all as extremely JD-like, "Id do that for a while until you realized how valuable I was and offered me a pay rise."
Ezra laughed and looked back at Inez, "Id hire her."
Inez was more cautious. She frowned warningly at Ezra and asked the girl, "Any previous experience?"
"Yes, in San Francisco."
"Whyd you leave there?"
The girl looked apprehensive, then reluctantly offered, "There was a customer who wanted something that wasnt on the menu. A fight started. It wouldnt happen again."
Inez softened, "No, it wouldnt. I wouldnt allow it. Whats your name?"
"Well, Teresa, Ill give you a chance. A room, two meals a day and a dollar a week."
Teresas face lit up, "Thank you!"
Ezra broke in again, still grinning, "Well, I say you should step around here now to demonstrate your bar-keepin skills and give Inez the evenin off."
Inez gave him a look of fond exasperation, "I thought I was the manager here."
"So you are, my dear, and the art of management is delegation."
Buck also liked the idea, "Cmon Inez, have a few drinks with us."
Teresa hesitated, "Ive a small wagon parked out front, would you mind if I drove it around the back of your place first."
Buck was curious, "You didnt come into town on the stagecoach?"
"No, but the stagecoach driver let me drive with him the last few miles. That little pony and wagon is all I have, would you mind if I put them round back?"
They were all somewhat surprised at her owning more than the clothes she stood up in. And as for a young woman driving from town to town on her own, that was insane bordering on suicidal. Inez shook her head, "I dont mind at all. I might ask you to run some errands in it from time to time."
"No one but me drives it!" She startled them with her sudden vehemence.
"Of course, if thats how you feel."
The moment quickly passed and she was all exuberance again, "Thanks!"
"Ill lend a hand, if ylike," Vin offered and accompanied her out when she nodded.
Chris Larabee walked in as they left, "Who was that with Vin?"
Nathan grinned, "Teresa Velasquez, Miz Inezs new barmaid."
"Yes," Inez looked pointedly at Buck and Ezra, "Thank you, senors!"
Chris gave them his patented narrowed-eyed glance, "You two have somethin to do with it?"
He was rewarded with two matching looks of complete innocence.
Inez sighed, "Well, if Im taking the evening off..." She reached under the bar and handed a bottle to Nathan, "You can all take a seat at that table over there. Ill come over when Teresa gets back." But she collared Ezra as he moved off. "If I regret this, so will you."
She shouldve known better than to expect any degree of repentance, "I dont see why. She seems an interestin young woman."
"Oh, yes. Interesting. Mr Lao down at the Chinese laundry once told me that they have an old curse that says something like May you live in interesting times."
"Relax, Inez. Enjoy your evenin off!"
She snorted but her irritation was rapidly fading, "Amigo, you are going to have a very unprofitable evening."
"What makes you say that?"
"You are in far too good a mood. Your mind is not on the job."
He shrugged, "Ive had an enjoyable day. Perhaps I shall take the evenin off as well. Sometimes pleasant conversation and the company of good friends is all the profit needed."
"You can stop trying to sweet talk me."
Vin and Teresa returned. The latter appeared to have removed most of the dust from her dress and, as she confidently stepped up behind bar, the rest of them comfortably sat down for cards and drinking at a nearby table. They were soon joined by Josiah and JD and the young sheriff received another round of at least partially inebriated congratulations. As Inez had predicted, Ezra had a thoroughly unprofitable evening from a monetary perspective but, immersed as he was in camaraderie with the best seven friends he had in the world, he really didnt care at all. Yes, a thoroughly enjoyable end to a thoroughly enjoyable day. But at the time, he didnt realize how significant it was. And as to what would follow, well, "interesting times" didnt even begin to do it justice.
It seemed to take Teresa very little time to adjust to life at the Four Corners saloon. Her claim to have previously done similar work elsewhere was obviously true and if the saloons finances had not been so tight at the time, Inez might have even agreed to her suggested pay rise.
In fact, Inez felt like she had acquired a younger sister and Ezra seemed to have taken to the girl in a similar fashion. Before long, Teresa was exchanging quips and affectionate gibes with both of them, seemingly as comfortably as they did with each other. She was slower to say much about her past and Inez did not want pressure her about it. After all, she had been similarly reticent about her own background when she had first arrived in town.
It was two days after Teresas arrival that they learned any details and it was to Ezra that she first said anything. That wasnt particularly surprising. He could be a very easy person to talk to when he wanted to be, the trait came in very handy in his line of work.
As usual, they were the last people left in the saloon. They were, after all, the people who lived there. It had been very profitable night all round which was fortunate because there would be no profit made on the following night, due to JD and Caseys party.
There was a lot of clearing up to do and with familiar mild frustration, Inez looked over to where Ezra sat placidly shuffling his cards and watching the two women work.
"I dont suppose there is any chance of you helping Teresa clean the glasses."
"Do I have an incentive?"
"How about I forget about half the drinks I put on your tab this evening?"
He grinned, "That sounds equitable." And with that, he put away his deck of cards and levered himself out of his chair, unaware of Inez and Teresa exchanging knowing tolerant smiles.
They both knew that his help was better than no help at all but it had to be said that Teresa usually cleaned at least two glasses for each one cleaned by him. One reason for the inefficiency was that he would far rather talk than work and it took him less than ten seconds to strike up a conversation.
"So, Miss Velasquez, your name and lovely complexion reflect a Hispanic ancestry but, I must say, you speak very good English and with very little accent."
"I left Mexico when I was about twelve years old. You pick up things over time."
"So why did you leave?"
She paused in her work and regarded him steadily, "Do you really want to know?"
He nodded seriously, "I would not have asked otherwise."
Teresa took a deep breath and carefully inspected the glass she was cleaning before she began to speak again.
"As I said, I was about twelve. One day, what seemed like an army of banditos came to the village where my family lived. They burned it to the ground. My father, mother, brothers and sister were all killed. Nearly everyone was. I managed to hide and when it was all over, there was virtually nothing left. I took what I could find and went. Then I survived for about a year by stealing food and sleeping in doorways."
She looked up at them, trying to appear calm but obviously anxious about their reactions.
"And then?" Ezra prompted gently.
"Well, I didnt realize it at the time, but I was gradually moving north. I managed to clean myself up a bit and get some work cleaning for a family called Harradine in Texas. That lasted about three years before I had to leave."
"They were God-fearin folk!" Teresa almost spat the words out, "They didnt approve of me. But this time Id saved a little. I managed to get work here and there, drifted to San Francisco. Then drifted back to where I am now." She ended with a hopeful smile directed at them both.
They had both been listening with rapt attention. Even Inez had given up even the pretence of work. Realizing that Teresa needed some kind of encouragement, Ezra cleared his throat and offered, "Well as a fellow drifter, I can say that this town is a reasonable place to lodge for a while."
Teresa became slightly less tense. Lack of condemnation was all that she had hoped for. "How long have you been here?"
"About three years, and I might stay a while longer."
"I might hang around for a while too."
Inez grinned, "Glad to hear it. Ive already got used to having you around to help. Well really need you tomorrow night for the engagement party."
"And youll get to meet some of the citizens of our town who usually dont deign to enter this establishment," said Ezra, "Many wont be willin to miss the sheriffs engagement. After all, in a few years, they might want to cultivate their influence with him."
Inez laughed, "Cynic!"
But Ezra only nodded his head sagely, "We shall see."
* * * * * *
True to Ezras prediction, the keystones of Four Corners society were present at the Dunne-Wells engagement party. Some had good reason. The local newspaper editor, Mary Travis, was a long-standing friend to the young couple and indeed to JDs six fellow hired law-keepers: Chris, Vin, Buck, Josiah, Nathan and Ezra.
In fact, over the past three years she had developed an even closer friendship with Chris Larabee. About as close as a woman could get to a man who hadnt quite finished mourning for his wife and child, really.
All of Chris associates fully endorsed the budding relationship, believing that the man needed to be brought back from his brooding solitude. Especially Buck, as his oldest friend and the only one who had actually known Sarah and Adam Larabee, he had long felt it to be his responsibility to ensure that Chris really lived his life again, rather than just drifting through it.
Despite his famous easy going nature, Buck had a definite tendency to feel the need to look after others. And along with Chris, the main beneficiary of his protectiveness was JD. And Buck felt that he needed to allude to this in the speech which he had volunteered to make.
"Well, a few years ago, I met a young man who had arrived here more or less straight from Boston and seemed to be headed more or less straight to a graveyard."
JD closed his eyes. He had expected this to be painful but it looked like it would turn out even worse than he had thought.
"Now, Im not sayin that he didnt have some very fine qualities. He could ride and he could shoot."
"And he could fly," Ezra interjected.
"And he could swim," six voices chorused in unison.
Some of the townsfolk looked confused at this little in joke, referring to the time when JD had first met his fellow law-keepers. JD groaned theatrically but couldnt fully suppress a smile. Casey patted his arm consolingly but she too was grinning.
"He then went on to nearly get himself killed," Buck continued, "and if that wasnt bad enough he soon stood up and volunteered to be sheriff. Well, like I told him then, I didnt wanna have to come up with somethin nice to say at his funeral."
"So far, you havent come up with much for my engagement party," JD got in what retaliation he could.
"Im just warmin up," Buck retorted. "Now, where was I? Oh yeah, despite everythin I managed to keep him alive though all this."
"An the rest of us managed to keep you alive," put in Nathan.
Beside him, Josiah glanced upwards to seek strength from the Lord. This could easily degenerate into a free for all. He heard Ezra pipe up again. Oh great! Right on cue!
"And by which we put the entire feminine population in daily peril!"
"Hey!" Buck protested, "There aint a woman here whod say I was perilous."
"Thats just cause they wouldnt wanna admit how they knew!" This was from Vin, who usually spoke little, but when he did it often packed a punch.
"Lord, deliver us!" Josiah muttered under his breath.
Luckily Chris (apparently acting as the Lords instrument) stepped in to put an end to it. "Boys, if we could spare the reputation of the ladies an maybe get back to toastin JD an Casey."
"Was that toastin or roastin?" asked JD, hoping to stall things.
But Buck seized the opportunity to get back on track. "So, Sheriff JD Dunne. What woman would wanna take on a problem like that? Luckily, in this town there was a fair lady with that kinda courage. Miss Casey Wells perhaps got off to a bad start with JD by challengin him to a horserace."
Casey blushed and looked apprehensive, but Buck was too much of a gentleman to torture her any further.
"However, it took just one look at the lady in one of her lovely frocks for the boy to completely lose his head. Wouldnt admit it at first, of course. An its taken im years to work up the courage to ask er to marry im. But now he has and she was crazy enough to say yes. So I ask everyone here to drink to a long and happy life together for JD Dunne an Miss Casey Wells."
His request was granted. When the toast was drunk, JD said in a dangerous tone, "Thankyou, Buck!" Then he grinned, "An thanks everyone. An most of all, thankyou Casey for bein crazy enough to say yes." He took something out of his pocket, "Heres somethin Id like you thave." He placed the ring on her to a chorus of cheers and sighs which then increased in volume as he kissed her.
Basking in the glow of a job well done, Buck wandered over to where Nathan and Josiah stood. "So Nathan, how long before you an Rain follow the young folks fine example."
"Geez, Buck! Youre worse than a maiden aunt. One weddin not even under way yet, an yer already plannin another."
"Well, you and Rain have been courtin even longer than JD and Casey." Josiah pointed out.
"Yeah, Weve bin on tenterhooks for years watchin the two of you!" Buck added.
Cornered, Nathan desperately tried to deflect the attention, "What about Chris an Mary?"
"Hell, Nathan! Its taken em three years to just hold hands in public."
The three of them looked over at the couple in question who were doing just that. No more, no less. Nathan searched for another potential target and spotted Inez and Ezra, both leaning back against the bar and apparently chatting amiably.
"What about them two?"
Buck laughed, "I dont think so! Inez is too smart tfall for Ezra."
Nathan snorted, "I dunno, Buck. We thought she was too smart tfall for you!"
Josiah looked over at the pair and seemed to give the idea serious consideration.
Unaware that they were themselves the subject of speculation, Inez and Ezra were theorizing about a third party.
"You know, as much as I like her," Inez was saying, "there are still some things that worry me about Teresa."
Ezra nodded, "Like the fact that she wont eat her meals with us? Takes them up to her room instead? For a while, I wondered if she might think her table manners were so bad theyd offend us."
"Yes, its such an odd thing to be secretive about. And have you noticed how she kept quietly leaving the party this evening."
"Almost subtly enough that you probably wouldnt notice unless you were watchin."
"Which we both were."
"So it would seem."
"So what do you think it all means?"
He assumed an aspect of deep contemplation, "I think it means that Teresa has a secret."
Inez laughed, "Thats what I like about talking to you, amigo. You tell me things I could never have worked out by myself."
He shrugged, "When all else fails, state the obvious."
"Alright then, Buck, Josiah and Nathan are watching us."
"Indeed, they are. I have a theory." Inez looked at him questioningly and he smiled slightly before suggesting, "Kiss me in the manner you used to kiss Buck in public, when the two of you were together."
"You reckon thats what theyre thinking?"
He just looked at her. A shrug would have given the ruse away to the spectators. She gave him a conspiratorial smile.
"Alright, but dont get any ideas about what might happen in private."
"I wouldnt dare."
The kiss was light, affectionate and rather chaste but nonetheless conveyed the desired effect. Nathan raised his eyebrows, wondering if he might not have unintentionally stumbled onto something. Josiah looked contemplative and Buck was quite simply speechless.
Another was observing them from just inside the saloon door. They really seemed like a nice couple, thought Teresa, and they didnt seem the judgmental type (at least not yet). Maybe she should trust them more.
When the festivities ended, Ezra again found himself drafted into the clean up. This was starting to become a frequent occurrence, he reflected.
He was pondering on ways to halt the trend as he carried some plates back to the back room of the saloon where Inez carried out her food preparation. Some cookies she had baked to be served with coffee, still sat on a tray next to the oven. They hadnt managed to get around to coffee. Ezra had thought it unlikely these delicacies would be necessary from the start but, as he regarded them now, he was quite tempted.
Hed put down the plates he was carrying and was removing a cookie from the tray, when he heard a faint creak from the door leading outside. He looked around but could see no movement. Nonetheless, he was sure that he had heard it. He waited quietly and surely enough, the door was edged open.
He couldnt get a clear view from where he was standing. All the movement was at a level not even waist-high. So, it was a child. He cleared his throat softly and heard a rapidly scurrying exit.
Following outside, he looked around, giving his eyes time to adjust to the darkness. Of course, the youthful intruder could have disappeared into the street. But playing a hunch, he strode over to Teresas tiny covered wagon and spoke quietly but clearly.
"Would you like to come out now?"
He was rewarded with a scarcely audible sound, as the child startled in their hiding place.
"I promise I wont hurt you. You must be hungry. Is that why you were lookin in the kitchen?"
He turned as the back door of the saloon opened again. Teresa stood in the open doorway, her face unreadable. Then she slowly and deliberately approached the wagon.
"Angelica," she called, softly.
The four-year-old waif that appeared was very like a miniature version of Teresa but dressed in an outfit worthy of Chris Larabee. Ezra guessed that the black tunic and trousers were intended to render her less visible at night. She looked uncertainly from Teresa to Ezra and back again but said nothing.
Ezra crouched down to the girls level and smiled gently at her, "Hello. As I said, you must be hungry." With a minor flourish, he produced from behind her ear and presented to her the cookie which he had stolen from the baking tray in the kitchen.
Timidly, the child took it from his hand but before she could place it in her mouth, Teresa spoke again.
"What do you say, Angelica?"
Teresa sighed, "English, Angelica."
"Thank you, sir"
Ezras smile broadened, "Youre more than welcome, Miss Angelica."
Angelica once again tried to take a bite from the cookie but Teresa hadnt quite finished.
"And I thought I told you never to accept anything from strangers."
Angelica again froze guiltily with the cookie halfway to her mouth, then she rallied, "But hes a friend of yours, isnt he?" And with that she took a bite before anything else could stop her.
Ezra had been desperately trying not to laugh during the exchange which, despite the maternal criticisms, was obviously amiable. He looked expectantly at Teresa to perform the introductions.
"Angelica, this is Mr Ezra Standish. Mr Standish, this is my daughter, Angelica." As she spoke, her tone became, noticeably apprehensive.
Ezra tried for his most soothing, reassuring voice, "Well, I dont think Miss Angelica has to stay out here any longer. And Inez, the two of you and myself need to have a discussion."
Teresa reached out for her daughter who had already devoured the cookie and now leapt into her arms.
Ezra gestured for them to proceed him into the saloon. "Dont worry, my dear. Everythin will be alright."
Teresa threw him a look of pure skepticism, but nevertheless carried her daughter inside.
* * *
"Inez, I think we should procure a larger room for Teresa," was Ezras preamble as he led the way into the virtually empty saloon.
Inez looked up from cleaning down the bartop and her eyes widened although she did not speak.
"May I present to you, Miss Angelica Velasquez." Both Ezra and Inez smiled when the four-year-old extended her right hand to be shaken. Inez shook it gently but firmly and the child responded in kind but when Ezra placed light kiss on the back of Angelicas hand, she tilted her head slightly and regarded him with curious surprise.
"Why didnt you tell us, Teresa?" Inez asked gently, although she already suspected the answer.
"Ive learned not to let people know."
"Winters approachin," The words could have been a reproach but Ezras voice was also without condemnation, "You werent goin to let her keep sleepin out in your wagon, were you?"
"I dont know," Teresa shrugged, suddenly looking like a weary child herself, "Ive been making plans more or less day by day."
"Well now, I think we need to make some long term plans."
"Such as?" Teresas apprehension was audible. This was probably about the time she was usually told that people didnt want any of her kind around.
"Well as I said, a larger room for the two of you to share and while you work, perhaps Angelica could spend some time at the orphanage and play with the other children there. She has been cooped up on her own for days."
Teresa looked somewhat startled and Inez smiled kindly at her expression, "Did you think we would turn you out onto the streets?"
"It wouldnt be the first time," Teresa replied steadily, "The Harradine family threw me out when they found out I was going to have a child and many employers have asked me to leave as soon as they knew."
"Was that what happened in San Francisco?"
Teresa hesitated then shook her head, "Not exactly." She took a deep breath before continuing, "I will do anything to keep my daughter fed and warm." She gazed at them defiantly. "Anything, you understand? In that way, I have no pride. But I wont let anything be done to her. Do you see what I mean?"
Her audience both nodded, shocked and slightly sickened by the implication that anyone could intend such harm to a child.
Inez walked over to Teresa and put a hand on her shoulder. "Nothing like that will ever happen here."
Ezra placed his hand on her other shoulder, "Anyone who intended harm to either of you would have to fight their way past both Inez and myself first."
Inez gazed at her seriously, "Will you trust us?"
Teresa nodded, muted by emotion.
Angelica beamed. She hadnt been able to understand the darker aspects of the conversation but she correctly deduced the outcome and so the still hungry child decided to test the generosity on offer, "Could I have another cookie, please?"