The Unknown Form

by Gill Armitage

Friday Evening, November 27th

B J sat quietly; her gaze drifting from the young family that sat opposite her to the fast moving country outside. Her mind was going over the information she had received that morning, Rawlins was in Eagle Bend and that was where she was going now to kill him if necessary.

She had arrived in town early that morning, after stabling Dudley she had gone to the hotel ordered a hot bath and had relaxed in it for upwards of an hour. She had needed the heat to relax the bruising to her body. The ride had been punishing and although the injuries she had received were healing they were still sore. She was relieved that the ride had not opened up the stitches where the surgeon and Nathan had operated.

After the bath she had dressed again in her male clothes and had gone over to the Clarion newspaper office. She explained the situation to Mary, leaving out her plans for the near future. Mary had agreed to help her get all the necessary clothing.

An hour later the two women stood back and looked in the full-length mirror that had been brought to the room admiring the figure that looked back at them from the glass. B J had to admit that she had never felt so beautiful, they had even managed this minor miracle without the use of a steel corset. She thanked the older woman profusely, hugged her and watched her leave the room.

When the door closed B J turned and removed her guns from the dresser drawer, she fitted the small colt to a hidden holster secured around her left thigh. She took a small pair of scissors and carefully slit one of the seams in her skirt folds. It was done so that she could reach into the hole and grab the pistol if necessary. She placed her Colt 45 Peacemaker into the ladies valise along with extra ammunition and the knife that usually rested in her saddle. Then she put a pair of pants and a shirt in and on top placed a few ladies items, make-up, handkerchiefs, perfume and the like.

She stood back and once again admired the results of her efforts in the mirror; she did indeed look beautiful and elegant. Her long blonde curly hair was pulled up and arranged around her face. She placed a ladies hat on top and secured it with a long pin. She then took the long but delicate fitted overcoat and put it on. She checked again to make sure that the alteration she had made to the skirt was not visible. Taking hold of the valise and a frilled parasol she left the hotel by the back door not wanting to attract attention from the desk clerk who would not recognise her in the get up. She made her way to the front and stepped up onto the boardwalk.

She was almost knocked down by a man that had been looking at the very stage she was going to take. He turned and apologised and she nearly lost it as she recognised Chris Larabee. She nodded her head to him and forced herself to continue walking. He hadn't recognised her, but then again why should he. She looked completely different.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Vin pushed the horses harder as they neared the town of Eagle Bend, they had decided earlier that they would get fresh mounts at the town for the journey back so had quickened the pace. Chris hoped that they would arrive before the stage so that they could stop B J from making a mistake. Both men felt the need to protect the woman not just because she was female but because she meant so much to Ezra.

They rode into town at dusk and settled the horses at the livery. Vin made a deal with the hostler and came out to tell Chris that they had two good quality animals for the ride back. He also told him that he had hired a buggy for B J, as she would not be able to ride in the clothes she was wearing.
They walked together up the street both men keeping there eyes moving checking for trouble; it was a natural state for them to stay alert. Chris stopped and spoke to an old man sitting on a chair outside the general store.

"Stage come in yet?"

"Naw not yet, should be anytime now though."

"Thanks." They continued up the street and stopped outside the saloon. Vin sat down on a chair and Chris leaned up against the post. They didn't have to wait long for the stage, about thirty minutes later it came barrelling into town stopping with a cloud of dust and snorting wheezing horses. They watched as the passengers got down, the young family were from Four Corners, the man worked at the bank and they lived in one of the few town houses that had recently been built behind the Gem hotel. They were visiting his sister and her husband for the week.

Chris stood up straight as B J was helped down from the stage; the driver handed down her bag and then pointed toward the General Store. He kicked Vin.

"Come on, she's headed to the store." They kept back and followed her until she disappeared inside the building. They took up positions each side of the door and waited. Ten minutes later she came out and found a hand on each arm.

"Need any help ma'am?" Before she could allow shock to set in they whisked her away from the main street and moved her down a poorly lit alley.

"What the hell are you two doing here?"

"We might ask you the same question, what's the big idea running out like that?"

"I have business to attend to and I don't need you two getting in my way." She was angry now, how dare they try to interfere? This man was after her and Ezra not them. Chris continued to push for answers while Vin stood watching the entrance to the alley ready to warn them if anyone took an interest in them.

"What makes you think you can handle this situation?" his voice mellowed slightly and he added. "Your still recovering from the last time he tried to kill you, dammit lady ya can't do it all alone."

"Ok, so what have you got in mind to do? How do you plan on flushing him out? You gonna go in guns blazing and just hope to God he hasn't got another twenty men stashed around him. He hasn't exactly come up short as far as manpower goes, or hadn't you noticed?"

She had a point; they didn't have a plan. Hell his only intention had been to bring B J back, get her out of harms way. Vin looked over and shrugged his shoulders. He didn't have a plan either. He gave her a sheepish look and took his hands away from her arms. He winced when he saw her rub them; he hadn't realised how tightly he had held her.

"Alright, so we don't have a plan." He hesitated and pulled his eyes away from her hard angry stare. "What… uhm… what did you have in mind?"

"I may dress like a man most of the time and act like one as well, but believe me Mr Larabee I KNOW when to play the lady and I KNOW how." Damn she hated getting angry. Anger usually made her do things before she thought them through and it usually led to trouble. She took a moment to calm her voice. Taking a breath she put the sweetest smile she could muster on her face and continued in a honeyed female laden voice.

"Sometimes a girl just has to resort to being a weak and feeble woman in order to get what she wants. Either way…" her voice filled with bitter, angry resentment. "I GET WHAT I WANT!"

Chris stepped back at all the emotion in her voice; he was beginning to realise what Ezra saw in this woman. Here was someone who could beat him at his own game, a woman that could show him it was all right to have emotions. She was every bit as stubborn and as strong as Standish. It had taken him a long time to realise that there was more to the gambler than any of them had seen.

Her plan was to appeal to the Gentleman in the Southerner. Whether they were a rogue or a gambler, a cheat a liar or just down right evil all Southern Gentlemen bowed to the wishes of a lady in distress. They all turned on the charm where a woman was concerned. B J knew that this was true of most men regardless of their geographical origins and she laughed to herself knowing that most men didn't even know it themselves.

"I intend to approach Mr Rawlins with a woeful tale of being accosted in the street and having my money and a family heirloom stolen. By the time I'm finished he'll be eating out of my hands."

"I don't know, sounds a bit risky. What if he recognises you, we might not be able to get you out of there." Chris was concerned; he hated putting B J in harms way. If anything should happen to her he would not be able to forgive himself. There was Ezra to consider as well, after what he had seen of the man lately he did not want to reveal any more startling hidden talents.

"I can take care of myself Chris." She grabbed his hand and placed it on her left thigh. "Feel that? I'm not exactly going in unarmed."

"What the…!" At first he was shocked and embarrassed, but then his fingers felt the outline of a gun. It was strapped to her thigh under the numerous folds of her skirt.

"I'm not sure about this…" his concern was mounting. "Listen…"

"NO, you listen to me Chris, I've lived the past five years like this, on my own, relying on my wits, my charms. As a man or a woman I know what I'm doing." She reached up her hand and placed it gently on his cheek. "Just this once Chris, let someone else take the reins, trust me I can do this." She left her hand where it was until the gunslinger reluctantly, resignedly nodded his head.

"Thank you."


Jethro Rawlins contemplated the cards in his hand, he knew it would win the pot, or at least it would when he added the two aces that he had up his sleeve. He had no qualms about cheating; it had been his way of life for the past 52 years. His bank balance in New Orleans was healthy and if he never gambled or cheated again he could live out the rest of his life on what was in there. But he wanted more, he wanted what was not his and at this moment in time it was the few dollars these hapless lowlifes in front of him had.

He looked up to see a finely dressed lady enter the saloon. What was a woman of such obvious quality doing in this place, he took in the slightly dishevelled hair, the crooked hat and was angry to see a small rent in the bodice of the burgundy dress. His blood began to boil when he saw the small cuts to the side of her face. He pushed his chair up and walked forward.

"Please… somebody… I need some…help!" Chris and Vin were behind the batwing doors and peered into the darkened room. They looked at each other in surprise at the sweet southern belle accent coming from B J. She certainly could act. They turned back in time to see her gently crumple and collapse to the floor. She had timed it to the exact moment so that Rawlins was close enough to catch her.

"Somebody give me a whisky" he turned and glared at the closest man to him. "YOU, a whisky NOW!" he barked out the order and turned back to the distressed lady in his arms. Moments later he took the proffered drink and plied it gently to her lips. She took a sip and opened her eyes.

"Oh my, what happened?" she said feigning weakness and disorientation.

"Now take it easy Miss, you feinted. Do you think you can stand?" she nodded and was slowly raised first to a sitting position and then to her feet.

"It's so stuffy in here, the smoke…" she coughed and placed a laced handkerchief over her mouth. "Would you mind if we…?" she indicated the door.

"But of course my dear, this is not exactly the kind of establishment a lady should frequent, come let us sit outside in the air." He turned to a gunhand stood next to him, "Bring me some water, and be quick about it." Once outside she looked around her but saw no sign of Chris or Vin, he settled her down on a chair and then sat next to her on her right. She was pleased he had sat there, her left hand reached in under her skirt and felt the comforting presence of the colt strapped to her leg. She glanced up at him and caught sight of Chris peering round the edge of the building.

"May I enquire as to why such a genteel lady as yourself entered such an abhorrent place as a saloon?

"May I ask your name please sir, I would like to know the name of the man that has rescued me from such dire circumstances?"

"Of course my dear, Jethro Malachi Rawlins at your service. May I ask your name if that is permitted." She smiled at him, ever the gentleman, these men were all alike, flash a smile, wave a skirt in front of them and they were all yours.

"Oh how remise of me, my apologies sir, Miss Chamberlain, Eleanor Chamberlain of the Charleston, South Carolina Chamberlain's. My Father is the Governor perhaps you know of him?" she had not picked the name at random, she knew Governor Daniel H Chamberlain or at least her Father had. They had had business on many occasions over the years. His name would hopefully add a little weight to her story.

"But of course my dear every gentleman of the South knows of Mr Chamberlain his election to office was most… unique. Now how may I be of service?"

"I just arrived on the stage when this large disgraceful man accosted me and took my valise, it had all my money and a family heirloom that … oh my Father is going to be most displeased with me. It was quite valuable… oh my." She slumped slightly in the chair making out that she would feint again.

"Here my dear drink this, it is only water this time."

"Why thank you again Mr Rawlins, you are indeed a gentleman. Would you perhaps assist me to the Sheriff's office so that I may report the theft."

"No need my dear, I will ensure the article and your money is returned, I have men here in my employ and would be happy to help such a fine lady."

"I am most grateful, and I am sure my Father would thank you personally." She emphasised the word knowing that the greed in the man would be stirred up. The possibility of a close acquaintance with the Governor of South Carolina was something he would not be able to pass up.

"Would you see me to my hotel I have a room booked at the Presidential."

"It would be my pleasure." He stood and offered his arm. She took it and stood up on shaky legs, ensuring that he held her more tightly than he would have. They moved along the boardwalk and as she stepped down to pass the alley she collapsed pulling him off balance, at that moment she pulled the Colt from her skirt and pushed it in his ribs.

"Now if you would be so kind as to step this way." He looked at her in astonishment as the barrel of the gun pushed into him. Chris and Vin appeared from the shadows with guns raised.

"I believe you have an appointment in Four Corners Mr Rawlins, you're under arrest for the attempted murder of two lawmen and a certain young lady. I believe you have already met." He indicated to B J. She curtsied and turned to the stunned southerner.

"Miss Bettina Jane Roslin, at your service." The last was said with a sneer.

"You'll never get away with this, I have men all over town. You won't get out of here alive." She could here the panic in his voice; his men were all hired hands and only did what they did for money. There was no loyalty involved with these men.

"I reckon we'll take our chances mister." Vin came up behind Rawlins and pushed him forward with the barrel of the Mares Leg. "Let's go, we got horses and a buggy out back. Move it."

"You ride in the buggy with Rawlins B J, ya can't exactly ride with those clothes on." Chris smiled at her; she had done a good job better than he could have done. He was proud of her and very relieved that she was ok.

"I am not riding next to that low life cretin. Did you bring my bag?"

"Yeah, it's in the buggy, Why?"

"Just give me a minute while I change. You don't think I'm gonna ride all night in these clothes do you? You have any idea how uncomfortable this lot is?" He laughed as she walked away.

"Go with her Vin, make sure she's ok. I've got our friend here."

An hour later they were on the trail back to Four Corners. B J had bought a horse from the livery and was riding next to Chris. Vin was riding next to the buggy with Rawlins inside. They had left his hands free to hold the reins but had tied his ankles together and then fastened them to the buggy. There was no way he was going anywhere without them.

Chris looked over at B J, she had changed into a pair of fitted grey pants and wore a loose ruffled white shirt, it looked to be one of Ezra's which didn't surprise him at all. She had loosened her hair and it now lay across her shoulders. The moonlight caught the blonde curls and turned them to silver. He sighed and turned away. If she wasn't already Ezra's territory he would certainly make a play for her himself. Damn she was one hell of a woman.

They made camp about three hours out and headed out at first light. They set a steady pace and arrived back in Four Corners by late afternoon.

Sunday, November 29th

Ezra had been awake most of the night. He had woken slowly taking in the sounds and smells around him. He ached all over and knew that he had been in the bed for at least a few days. His back always gave him trouble if he stayed in bed too long. Ten hours was usually his maximum and then he would be up and moving around. The way his back ached now he had been in this uncomfortable bed for a lot more than ten hours.

He had not been idle during that sleepless night, at first he could not recall the reason for his bed-ridden state. He had laid there for what felt like aeons trying to recall why he was there. When he had shifted his position to get more comfortable he had felt the sharp pain in his side. Moving the covers he had investigated and had found a bandage covering his lower body. Ok, he had been shot again, when the hell had that happened? He couldn't recall the exact moment when he had been shot but he did start to remember little things. Feeling tired, watching as the Doc and Nathan had worked on JD; he would have to ask later how the boy was doing. It had looked serious from what he could remember. He remembered somebody shouting at him and being forced to drink one of Nathan's disgusting concoctions.

He pushed himself carefully and painfully into a sitting position. B J had been her sitting with him, she had... damn... the woman was going to get herself killed. It all came flooding back to him as he remembered her words. She was going to make him pay, she was going to kill him.

He looked around him listening for any noise. No one else was up yet; the dawn was only just lighting up the sky. He gingerly pushed himself out of the bed and sat on the edge, head hanging, forcing back the feelings of nausea and dizziness that accosted him. He glanced over and noticed his boots near the bed. By the time he had his pants and boots on he was sweating profusely and his side was sending sharp stabbing pains through his body.

He removed the support bandage and sling from his right arm and was pleased to see that although his shoulder still hurt he was able to flex his fingers without much discomfort. He carefully slipped his shirt and vest on and after a few minutes of searching found his poor battered jacket. It would need some serious mending when all this was over. The side effects of being a lawman caused a lot of wear and tear on his wardrobe, he would have to bring the matter of recompense up with the Judge at the earliest opportunity.

He strapped on the left handed gun belt realising that he was not yet up to par with his right and then methodically checked and re loaded the gun. He felt a little naked carrying only the one weapon but had not been able to find anymore in the room. Ezra stared at the white sling that lay on the bed as if it was a contraption of torture, he hated slings and even more he hated the fact that he would have to wear it. His shoulder and right arm were now throbbing from all the exertion; the sling would at least relieve some of the pressure.

He sat on the end of the bed looking at his reflection in the washstand mirror. He knew deep down that he was being foolish, he was in no condition to go looking for trouble. The pale exhausted face looked back at him, he recalled a moment some time ago when he had sat like this looking at his face, telling himself that he was doing the only thing he could. This time he was not running. He was going to save a life, her life, the woman he had come to love deeply. He stood up, grabbed his hat from the dresser and quietly slipped out of the house.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah was sat near the corral watching the sky and listening to the nocturnal animal sounds. He loved this time of day in much the same way as Vin did. He always felt closer to God on quiet cool mornings.

He looked down to see Ezra walking across the yard to the barn. He was fully dressed and packing a gun. He stood and moved quietly to follow him. Where the hell did the fool think he was going? He watched from the entrance as Ezra awkwardly lifted his saddle, he fumbled and nearly dropped it cursing at the pain it caused his shoulder and side. Resting for a moment he again lifted it and managed to place it on Chaucer's back. Josiah noticed the gambler rest his head on the saddle and quickly moved forward to grab the southerner as his knees gave way.

"Where the hell do ya think you're going?" he said angrily, although his words were couched in concern.

"I need to find B J, she's gone to face Rawlins, I cannot let her do this alone." He pushed himself from the big man's grip and continued to fasten the cinch around the horse's stomach.

"Ezra, she ain't alone. Chris and Vin went after her, now come on back to the house you're in no condition to be up, let alone riding." He stepped back feeling a sense of déjà vu. The business end of a Remington Army revolver was pointing at him. This was the second time that Ezra had faced him down with a gun, when was he gonna learn not to push this man too far.

"Stay out of my way Mr Sanchez, I intend to find her." He backed away from the horse and gestured with the gun. "Put the bridle on and then get out." Josiah moved to the horse's head and did as he was asked keeping an eye on the trembling man before him. When he had finished he opened his hands wide and backed away.

"Alright Ezra you win, just calm down, I ain't gonna rush ya. You go ahead and do what you must." He backed off a few more steps and watched as the young man holstered the weapon and reached for the saddle horn. He lifted his left leg to put it in the stirrup and a wash of fresh pain coursed through his already battered body. He sagged and would have fallen but Josiah had anticipated his actions and was under him gently lowering him to the ground.

"I have to go to her, please you have to help me Mr Sanchez, Josiah please." The big man was shocked by the pleading desperation of the pain filled voice. He looked into the dull green eyes and nodded his head.

"Ok Ezra, I'll help ya, but ya can't go like this you're in too much pain." Josiah lifted his head and looked back to the house thinking for a moment. "You just wait right here, I'll be back in a minute." With that he lay the southerner down and ran back to the house. Ezra lay there hoping he wouldn't bring Nathan back with him, he would never get away if he did. A few minutes later Josiah returned with two canteens. He opened one and pressed it to the gambler's lips.

"Here drink this, it's some of Nathan's willow bark tea, it'll help with the pain." It was still warm and Ezra drank greedily, it was pulled away before he had his fill but was grateful as the pain was starting to recede. What Josiah hadn't told Ezra was that he had mixed a small amount of laudanum in with the tea. He knew the gambler could not stomach the stuff usually but hoped that mixing it would lessen the bad reaction. The medication would work faster than the tea and right now he needed to take the edge off his pain.

"Ok come on let's get you on that horse." Ezra tried to help but was practically lifted into the saddle by the giant preacher. He turned and was surprised to find Josiah saddling his own animal. "Ya didn't think I was gonna let ya go alone in your condition did ya?"

"I… appreciate the sentiment but…" he stopped and looked into the kind soft face of the man that had always stuck by him. "Thank you, your company would be most… welcome."

Josiah mounted and the two men moved out slowly from the barn. The sun was just peeking over the horizon and a cool wind began to pick up the leaves and brush. Dust swirled about as Josiah reached a steadying hand out to the stubborn gambler next to him. He shook his head wondering how much trouble he would get in from Nathan. He could handle Chris but Nathan Jackson was like a mother bear watching over her cubs. A man could get seriously mauled if he got in the way.

Tuesday, December 1st

The bed was soft, the pillows comfortable he felt warm and safe. He knew he would have to get up soon to start his patrol but at that moment his world was under those smooth clean sheets. He had had one of the worst nightmares he could recall, parts of it had been so real. He wished that some of it had not been a dream. The last part had been most uncomfortable; he had been riding with Josiah and was in a great deal of pain. The drink that the preacher had been giving him only took the edge off. The midday sun had been hot for the time of year and had drained all the remaining energy from the injured gambler.

But it was all a dream; the memory was fading as the pull of a new day brought him closer to waking. He could hear voices and concentrating to listen he picked out the familiar sound of an irritable gunslinger.

"May I ask what you are doing in my room Mr Larabee? I believe it is not quite time for my patrol." He opened his eyes finally and looked around him. He was shocked to see not only Chris but Josiah, Vin and… B J. He was still dreaming, he must be. She had been in his dreams. His head sagged back into the feather pillow as the reality sank in. It hadn't been a dream, none of it.

But if it hadn't been a dream then how had he ended up in his own bed, in his own room above the saloon in Four Corners?

"Hey! Good to have ya back pard." Vin's Texas drawl pulled him completely to the present. He opened his eyes and took in the concerned looks of the men and woman around him. B J came up to his side and with Vin's help lifted him to a sitting position. She put a glass of water to his lips and he drank until it was gone. At that moment he realised how weak he felt, his stomach felt queasy and he recognised the familiar feelings of having been sick on numerous occasions.

"Has someone been feeding me laudanum?" Josiah was the first to turn away. He grimaced and turned back to face Ezra.

"Yeah I'm sorry about that Ez, but ya needed it. Ain't no way you'd ah made it ta town without it."

"First off the name is EZRA, not EZ, and second I believe I have repeatedly stated that that foul substance does not like me." He looked at the faces around him and for the life of him could not understand why they were all smiling. "This is in no way humorous, what part of 'IT MAKES ME SICK' do you people not understand?" He stared at them in utter shock as Vin and Josiah burst out laughing.

"It's good ta have ya back Ezra." Chris patted him on the leg, smiled at B J and then left the room.

"Brother Ezra?" Josiah stood next to him with a glass of water. "Make sure you drink this, it's just water honest, we're all glad you're back with the living. Now get some rest. Vin let's go."

"Sure Josiah, I'll come back later, see how you are. OK?"

"Most certainly, I for one am not going anywhere." He pushed down into the feather bed. "It feels as though I have been without my 'comforts' for decades." Vin laughed and left the room. Ezra closed his eyes and relaxed. He opened them suddenly realising that he was not yet alone.

"Hi there." She said, with a smile spreading across her face. "How are you doing. Truthfully." How come this woman could always read his mind? She had come to know him all too well over the last few weeks. There was no way he was going to play poker with her anymore. Not if he wanted to win.

"Truthfully!! Well there's a concept I rarely…"

"Don't give me that, and just say it plain, no sugar coating, it's me remember."

"Ok, I ache all over, feel like I could sleep for a weak and at the moment I am very confused."

"Why confused?" she didn't understand. She didn't know that his thoughts were still jumbled, that the last thing he could remember was leaving Nettie's place with Josiah and that at the moment he was convinced that it had all been a dream.

"I was at the homestead, I think, and then Josiah came with me to town. But, it all seems so distant as if it's not real. How long have I been here?"

"It's all real Ezra, it did happen. The two of you turned up just after dark Sunday night."

"Yes but what day is today?" he was still confused.

"Oh yeah, sorry its Tuesday, Tuesday morning to be precise, 10.15 I think."

"Thank you, now I believe I will arise and dress, I am in need of sustenance and would just about commit murder at this point for a good long drink, and seeing as Mr Jackson is not here I intend to indulge." He moved the sheets back and stopped, realising that he was only wearing his nightshirt. "I ere, think I can manage on my own..."

"Of course, sorry. I'll be right outside, if ya need any help just shout. OK?"

"OK!" A smile crossed his lips at the memory those few words brought back. B J didn't leave straight away; instead she started to put clothes on the bed ready for Ezra to put on.

After a few minutes she left and Ezra visibly relaxed back onto the bed. He felt more drained than he was willing to admit even to B J. He stood carefully and looked at the clothes she had laid out for him. The dark green jacket with black lapels, pale green striped shirt, black pants and vest and a black cravat. Truth be told they were probably the only parts of his wardrobe that did not require cleaning or repair.

By the time he had put the shirt, pants and boots on he was exhausted, his shoulder and side were once again competing with each other for his attention. He decided to forgo the rest of his attire. He buckled on the gun belt and replaced the sling, snarling at it, wishing he did not have to wear it. He approached the door hesitantly, wondering if B J had actually waited. He opened it and stepped into the corridor and was instantly relieved to see her leaning against the wall looking at him with what could only be classed as a cheeky school girl grin on her face.

"Took ya long enough." She looked him up and down. "I thought a gentleman never went anywhere with out being properly attired." She continued to grin. He could tell she was teasing him and decided to politely ignore her.

"Yes, well this gentleman knows when he is beaten and at this moment in time all I require is food and a drink." He started to walk past her and was surprised when she moved to block his path. What happened next was unexpected yet was no way unpleasant.

Before he could back away she grabbed his shirtfront and kissed him. She pulled away embarrassed at letting the impulse take over. Ezra pulled her back to him and leaned into her strong supple body. He looked at her for a second waiting to see if there was any sign of refusal. He found nothing but acceptance and longing in her eyes. His mouth gently brushed her soft warm lips and the moment stretched into eternity as both their bodies responded to the deepening kiss. B J's hand reached behind Ezra's head and pulled him closer, his hand found the small of her back and held her in position. Her mind switched off as she let the sensations in her body take over; she had been waiting for this from the moment she had laid eyes on this man.

She was yanked back into reality as Ezra pulled away from her. He stood looking into her eyes, he knew without a doubt that he would take this all the way if he let himself, she was more woman than he had ever known. His body ached for him to continue but his sense of propriety had pushed to the surface and was now telling him that what they were doing, what they wanted to do was wrong.

"I… I apologise. We mustn't do this my dear. I… can't let this happen… we have to consider your reputation." With that he pulled away from her entirely and disappeared down the corridor. She stood in shock; her body tingling as the sensations she had experienced began to dissipate. She knew he was right and no doubt if they had let there urges take over then they would have regretted it. She braced herself against the wall and slowly slid down to sit on the floor.

Wednesday, December 2nd

Chris and Vin sat outside the jail enjoying the peace and quiet. The late morning sun did nothing to heat up the day as a cold biting wind swept through the town.

"Reckon were gonna have an early winter." Vin had seen his share of bad winters and knew the signs. "I guess we'll have to make some extra rounds, make sure the new homesteads are ready."

"Ya reckon we'll have to bring anyone in this winter like we did last year?" Chris remembered having to go out and bring three young families into town. They had not prepared for winter soon enough and if left would probably have starved or frozen to death. Both men had seen it happen in other places. If a family did not prepare enough ground for wheat then they wouldn't have enough to harvest in the fall to get their stock through winter. Animals needed to be bred to produce offspring so that the family could eat, wood needed to be chopped and stacked in great quantities before snow fell. Many families new to the hardships of the frontier had no idea how to prepare for winter; too many never made it.

Vin glanced over at the black clad gunslinger. "Might have to go and check on B J's ranch, seeing as they got in late in the season. May need to help em out with forage for the horses."

"Yeah, I think I'll go and find B J have a word with her." Chris stood up to leave. "You gonna be ok here for a while?" There hadn't been any sign of Rawlins men but they weren't taking any chances.

"Should be, bring back some coffee when you're done." Vin watched as his friend crossed the street heading for the saloon. He stood and stretched his back feeling for the knot that formed whenever he sat for too long. The wind started to pick up so he decided to go inside next to the stove.

An hour later the door to the jail opened slowly, Vin pulled the sawn off shotgun from it's holster and rested it on his leg ready for trouble but he relaxed as Ezra walked in. The Texan noticed the drawn tired features and the way he held his body. He could see he was still in some pain. What surprised him most was that the gambler had no coat on and was visibly shivering.

"What the hell you doin' out without a jacket? Ya can tell Nate ain't here, you'd a never made it outta bed. Get over here by the stove and get warm." Vin tried to steer the southerner to the chair he had placed in front of the stove but Ezra pulled away and stood in front of the steel bars that cordoned off the cells.

He stared at the man sat on the bunk trying to figure out where he had seen him before. The man who had been paid to kill him had said New Orleans. He recalled the numerous con's he had been running when he had been in that fair city. He had arrived there several years after the war ready to put behind him the brutality and suffering he had witnessed first hand. He found a city struggling to come to terms with the effects of the conflict and the prosperity it had lost due to the 'hostilities'. People were all too ready to try new ideas and take risks financially in order to gain in the short run. New Orleans, the most prosperous city of the South was now falling back into the mud due to the loss of its cotton and sugar trade.

Rawlins lifted his head and looked into the eyes of the man who had conned him all those years previously. The memory flooded back to Ezra like a tidal wave and he was surprised when a hand steadied his back. Vin Tanner threw a rough blanket over his cold shoulders and Ezra looked down to see the trackers hand resting on his left arm. He had not realised that his own hand was clenched around the handle of his gun. Had he really been so close to using it? He looked up into the pale blue eyes belonging to the Texan.

"My thanks Mr Tanner, I had not anticipated the cold wind."

"Why'd ya come over here Ezra? You set on killin' him or just lookin' at him?

"I merely wished to find out for myself who this gentleman was and why I had attracted so much of his attention." Vin eyed the Remington slung on the gamblers left hip, he wasn't so sure it was a good idea to let him near the prisoner.

"Come on, let's get you sat near the stove before ya catch your death."

He had just settled the gambler into the chair when the door opened and Chris walked in carrying a pot of coffee. He looked over at the huddled shivering form of the southerner and then shot a questioning look to Vin.

"What ya doin' out a bed Ezra, and what the hell are you doin' over here?"

"He wanted to get a look at Rawlins." He filled a mug with the hot black coffee and handed it to the shivering southerner. Ezra took the mug and held it awkwardly in both hands warming his cold fingers.

"Well you've seen him so let's get you back to that warm soft bed of yours, I am not gonna be the one to explain to Nathan if you get pneumonia." Chris took the coffee mug away from Ezra and gently pulled up on his left arm. He was surprised there was no resistance, usually the Gambler would complain at being told what to do. The gunslinger grabbed for the smaller mans waist as his legs began to fold under him.

"Whoa there, you all right? Ya think ya can make it to the saloon or do ya want to rest up on one of the cots in here for a while?

"I would rather go back to my own bed if you don't mind. I apologise for this unseemly show of weakness I had thought that I had recovered sufficiently…" he was cut off from saying anymore as Chris reached for his left arm and placed it round his shoulder, his other hand held firmly to his waist. He leaned in and took most of the gambler's weight, and began to steer him to the door.

"To hell with that Ezra, you're sick and injured and ya damn near lost half your blood no more than a week ago. No one expects ya to be back up to fightin' form just yet. No one 'cept you that is." Vin secured the blanket tightly around Ezra's shoulders and then opened the door.

Ezra glanced over at the tanned dark features of the gunslinger and was surprised at the concern that showed on his face. He would never have expected this kind of treatment from a man who usually found fault in almost everything he did. He recalled the conversation they had had at Nettie's place a little over a week ago when Chris had asked him if he was happy. He realised quite suddenly that the gunslinger's attitude towards him had changed almost from that point. Actually, thinking on it harder he realised that the relationship between the two of them had been easier for a lot longer than that.

Friday, December 4th

The last two days had been quiet, no gunfights, no drunks, and no disgruntled customers. Chris was sat on the edge of the boardwalk outside the saloon wrapped in his winter coat, with a cup of coffee in one hand and a book in the other. It had been a while since he had picked up that particular book. It was Robinson Crusoe by Charles Dickens. He had bought it over 3 month ago on a visit to Denver and had managed to read the first 3 chapters.

It was turning colder by the day but he still preferred to sit outside and read. The saloon became hot and stuffy after a while and daylight was still better to read in than lamplight.

He looked up to see B J and her brother Major Roslin walking down the other side of the street. It was good to see the two talking to each other. They had a lot of catching up to do. The Major and most of his men had returned from Nettie's homestead on Wednesday evening, he had left two of his men to escort Nathan, Buck and JD back the next morning.

He had reported to Chris that Jackson and Wilmington would start out early on the Thursday morning, bringing the injured sheriff back in the wagon. JD had improved immensely since the shootout at the homestead but still needed a lot of care. Nathan and the army surgeon had decided that he would be better off in town where the black healer could get to all his remedies.

Normally the journey from Nettie's would only take a few hours but it was late afternoon before the wagon rolled into town and pulled up outside the livery. Chris had sent Josiah out to meet up with them, concerned that they may have run into trouble. He had been glad to see them all arrive safely if a little tired from the slow journey. Nathan had insisted on regular stops, JD was still very ill from the bullet wound and considering it had nearly killed him no one had complained about the slow progress to town.

JD was now settled at Nathan's clinic and with the steady stream of visitors was unlikely to get bored. Vin had commented earlier on how popular the young sheriff was especially with the women. This had of course put a crimp in Buck's style as he had thought he was the centre of attention for most of the unattached females in town.

The batwing doors to the saloon opened and Ezra stepped out into the noon day sun. Chris noticed he was wearing his favourite outfit, dark blue pinstripe pants, white ruffled shirt and burgundy cravat, red brocade vest and red jacket with black lapels. The only thing that marred the otherwise pristinely turned out gambler was the white sling that almost seemed part of Ezra's wardrobe these days.

He knew from the lay of the coat that the southerner was wearing his shoulder holster. He was still unable to wear the derringer rig with his arm out of commission although the small gun was probably in a pocket somewhere on his person. He still wore Josiah's left hip holster around his slim waist. Chris looked at the gun and then up to the gambler and wondered exactly how fast this man was. He had seen him draw on several occasions over the last few weeks and had been surprised at the speed. How fast was he really?

Ezra tipped his hat at the gunslinger and walked off in the direction of the church. Chris could see he was on a mission and had no intentions of stopping him. It was about time he had a good long talk with the ex preacher. He watched as Ezra hesitated at the steps to the small church and was ready to get up and make sure he went in. He waited and a few seconds later the gambler took off his low crowned black hat and walked through the door.

Ezra stood inside the entrance to the church wondering yet again why he had felt the need to be here. He could just as well go back to the saloon, play a few hands of poker and nurse a bottle of his best whisky until the small hours of the morning. Why was today different from all the rest? What was it that stopped him from pushing his doubts and fears back into the small locked box he kept in his heart? He knew what it was and was afraid to admit it, he had fallen in love with B J, a woman so different from any other woman he had ever known. This woman was so sure of who she was and what she wanted and was not afraid to go against convention to get it.

His Mother had always taught him to take care of number one, to beware of people who wanted to be friends, to take from others before it was taken from you. She had interfered so many times in his life where women were concerned, pushing that small seed of doubt to the fore where it grew to the mightiest tree. He had learned very early in life to hide his feelings, to only show people what they needed to see.

He was confused and lost, that was why he had found himself on the steps to this small run down church, why he had turned to the only man who seemed to want to listen. That morning he had woken early and had been drawn to a book on Japanese culture that he had acquired years ago. He had opened it at a marked page and had read the highlighted passage. Back then the words had meant nothing to him but now more than ever they were a guiding light, a light that was getting so bright it was hard to see where he was going.


When he had been without friends he had been a man of little or no character. Now that he had a wealth of friends the meaning of the words overwhelmed him. He only hoped that he could live up to those qualities he had found in his friends.

He shook his head as the doubts began to surface. "I don't even belong here." He said out loud and turned to leave.

"Where do you belong Ezra, if not here?" Josiah's deep resonant voice boomed out at him from the depths of the church. He turned back to see the preacher move out of the shadows and approach him.

"I… I apologise; it was not my intention to disturb you. I shall take my leave."

"Stay right where you are young man, you're not disturbing me and the Lord and I wish to hear what is on your mind." His large hand reached up behind his back and gently moved him to sit at one of the pews.

Ezra began to spill out all the doubts and bad feelings he had ever felt, it was like the flood gates had been opened and now there was no way to hold back the torrents. He spoke of all the things his Mother had taught him the relatives and friends of the family that had put him through hell in his formative years. The hurt and the anger built up in him and threatened to break him in two. Yet he did not cry, his voice was filled with emotion yet no tears fell from his eyes.

He felt the preacher's large hand resting on his shoulder and looked up into his understanding eyes.

"Someday Ezra, you will have to forgive your Mother and all those who have wronged you." Ezra Standish slowly shook his head and turned his gaze elsewhere. It always seemed to come back to that didn't it. Forgiveness.

"I don't think it's in me to forgive Josiah or to forget, but I do thank them." Now it was the older mans turn to be confused.

"What do you mean thank them, thank them for what?" Forgiving a sin was one thing but what did he mean by saying he thanked them?

Ezra lifted his head and looked the preacher in the eye. "I thank them for making me a stronger person, for making it possible for me to face up to the injustices in this world. For teaching me to rely on myself. I have learnt too many times that dropping my barriers allows people to hurt me." He stood and paced the aisle of the small church then turned and faced Josiah and with a deadly earnest in his voice that sent shivers up the large mans spine he continued.

"I promised myself that I would not allow that to happen again, that I would not let any of you hurt me again." He stopped directly in front of Josiah. "You and the others think you know me, you have no idea. You see what I want you to see, you find out what I want you to find out."

His knees suddenly gave way and he found himself in a heap on the floor with the preacher next to him. "And yet, for all my words, my promises I find I am in need of a friend right now. This is a path I cannot take on my own, I don't know which way to turn Josiah and it scares me."

Josiah's heart nearly broke at the words coming out of the gambler's mouth. He held back the words he had wanted to say and instead said the one thing that Ezra Standish needed at that moment. "How can I help you Brother Standish?"

"If I allow myself to love her will it end with me being like Mr Larabee? I don't know if I could take that kind of pain. My Mother would say walk away now, the pain will disappear in time, I will forget her, yet I find myself wanting to chance that pain. Why?"

"Some people go through life Ezra by hiding away from all chance of pain, they make sure that they never fall in love, they never make friends in case they lose them. Yes they go through life and can honestly say they have never been pushed aside, never been abandoned by a lover. But they have never felt passion or had the true warmth of friendship around them, they have never felt a part of something that was bigger than them."

Ezra was mesmerised by every word the preacher said, he felt like a weight had been lifted from him and knew without a doubt what he wanted to do. He reached forward and placed a hand around Josiah's neck and hugged him unashamedly.

"Thank you, my friend, truly I thank you. I know what to do." He looked heavenward and whispered thank you once more. He retrieved his hat and with a new spring in his step and an energy that had been lacking since before he had been shot he walked out of the church with his head held high and headed for the saloon.

He didn't see Josiah come to the door after he had left and didn't hear him whisper quietly into the wind.

"You're welcome…Son."

Saturday, December 5th, Early Morning

Shouting in the street woke Ezra, he checked his pocket watch and growled at the ungodly hour, surely not even the birds were up at this time. He turned to bury his head in the soft pillow and jolted upright at the sound of gunfire. That was unmistakably Chris's Peacemaker. Hell of a name for a gun that made so much noise. He pushed himself from the warm bed and stood next to the window with his gun already in his left hand.

The scene in the street below him looked almost chaotic. One man was obviously dead, sprawled on the boardwalk outside the jailhouse. From his position he could see another moving steadily from the direction of the bank. Had some fool tried to rob the bank? Had they not realised it was protected by seven lawmen. Well six at this moment with JD out of action. He turned and carefully aimed at the gunman moving up the street. His bullet lifted the man and dropped him dead, he ducked as two rounds hit the window frame next to his face. OK so there were more of them.

Ezra turned into the room and pulled his boots and pants on; he hastily threw a shirt on as well and took the extra few seconds to push it into his pants. He buckled on the gun belt, re-loaded his weapon and left the room. As he hurried down to the front of the saloon he tucked his right hand into the top of his belt. He had forgotten the sling and although the movement aggravated his shoulder he was not going to take the time to return for it, not when his friends were in danger.

He unlocked the door and pulled it open, slowly checking his line of sight. It was then that he noticed a body lying just inside the door to the jail. It was Vin. He couldn't make out any blood from that distance he could easily miss it but worse of all he couldn't tell if he was alive or not. He looked to his right as another spate of gunfire erupted and noticed B J and her brother concentrating on the alley down by Diggers place. How come so many people were up this early, there ought to be a law against it and where the hell had all these gunmen come from?

He went back into the saloon and headed for the back door, he came out and skirted behind the building, peering up the alley he saw two gunmen hidden behind barrels. Within seconds they were no longer a threat, he moved swiftly to Main Street and looked to his left and saw Buck holding his own against two men up near the livery. Nathan was firing from the balcony of his clinic helping to keep Buck covered. Ezra scanned the street searching for Chris and Josiah and then saw the black clad gunslinger in the alley by Potters store. He was obviously trying to get to Vin. Ezra lay down covering fire and shouted to Chris to move.

Chris heard Ezra's voice from across the street; he looked over and saw him waving his gun to get moving. When the gambler opened fire again he broke cover and skirted along the front of the general store, he pushed back the door to the jail and grabbed Vin's outstretched arm, pulling him into better cover. He slammed the door behind him just as two bullets thudded into the wood.

Bending over the unconscious tracker, Chris checked quickly for any holes. Finding none he moved up and after a small search found a large lump on the back of his head. The skin was split and blood had mingled with the long hair. Chris grabbed the water pitcher from the side and using his bandanna cleaned the blood away from the wound. Vin stirred and moaned and was instantly alert. He sat up with a jerk and would have ended up flat on his back again if not for the strong supporting arms of his friend.

"What happened?" he asked, holding his spinning head in his hands. "Where's Rawlins?" Chris turned to see the door to the cells wide open, no sign of their prisoner.

"Looks like his men finally broke him out, you OK?" The wound had stopped bleeding but Chris was concerned as he saw the uneven pupils in the pain filled unfocussed eyes.

"Yeah, I will be. Where's my gun?" he looked around him and spotted the Mares Leg on the desk. He stood up gingerly grabbing the gunslinger's arm for support as a wave of dizziness swept through him. "How many men has he got out there? Sounds like a whole army." The sounds of gunfire continued in the street.

Chris knew that Vin had a concussion but he also knew he wouldn't stop him from helping his friends. "Come on, let's even the odds a little, think ya can manage on your own?

"Yeah sure, as long as I got something to grab a hold of, I'll be fine."

Ezra kept an eye on the jailhouse and a sense of immense relief came over him when he saw the door open slowly. Chris and a rather wobbly Vin crouched in the entrance and the black clad gunslinger looked over and nodded at him. That was his signal to lay down cover so they could head down the street toward the remaining hostile gunfire. Ezra shifted his aim and also his tactics, he knew one of the men against them was hiding behind a water trough in front of the bank. He aimed his Remington at the large glass window, prayed silently that it would not bring him bad luck and fired three quick rounds.

The broken glass showered the man making him duck, he turned back to the fight after a moment but all he saw was the bone handle of Chris' gun as it smashed into his cheekbone. Chris stood over the unconscious gunman and kicked his gun away; he glanced over to see Rawlins himself coming out of the alley by the undertakers.

He turned his gun to the man that had caused so much trouble over the last few months and was ready to fire on him when a shout stayed his hand. Ezra stood up from his cover in front of the saloon and walked out into the empty quiet street. The gunfire had ceased and the only movement was from the gambler as he walked.

Chris looked over to Rawlins and saw him rise from his crouched position but remain hidden by the edge of the building. He had seen this too many times before, looking back up to Ezra he knew what was coming; usually he was the one lining up for a shoot out. Vin moved up beside him and sat heavily on the boardwalk. His head was spinning and before he could stop himself he threw up in the street. He felt the gunslinger place a hand on his back and turned unfocussed red rimmed eyes to his friend.

"Chris we can't let this happen, Ezra's in no condition to be callin' anyone out."

"You aiming to stop him? I don't think he'd appreciate that some how. Besides he's the one needs to deal with this, and from the looks of you you're in worse shape than he is."

Chris saw Ezra mentally shift gears from the Southern Gent to a deadly gunfighter. At that moment he realised how he had underestimated this man, how he and the rest of the team had taken the gambler for the man he had projected. This man was the finest actor he had ever seen and he knew every role inside out. < I'm glad you're on our side Ezra P Standish >

"Mr Jethro Rawlins, I do believe the time has come for our talk." Shouted Ezra. He stepped to the right getting a better line of sight on the position where Rawlins was hiding. "Or are you now a spineless coward as well as a poor loser. Either way sir I will effect a dissolution to this now."

B J quietly moved along the boardwalk and settled in next to Chris and Vin, her eyes never left the man standing alone in the street. She thought how calm he looked, how his manner showed how totally in control he was. < Damn he looked good in that shirt > she pulled her thoughts back to the tense situation unfolding before her.

"I sir am no coward, and I will have you know I have been triumphant on numerous occasions on the field of honour. You will withdraw your accusation or I shall have satisfaction." Rawlins pushed himself out from the cover of the alley and strode into the middle of the street.

"I have no doubt Sir that your triumphs were as disreputable and fraudulent as your dealings were in New Orleans when I first made your acquaintance." Chris and Vin listened in total confusion to the exchange of words. Neither of them fully understood what was being said, it was hard enough at the best of times understanding Ezra when he came out with $10 words now there were two Southern Gents and the ante had risen to $20 a word.

Rawlins stepped forward and at that moment lifted the gun in his right hand and fired. Ezra's body never moved but his left hand flashed to the holster and came up with a speed that astounded Chris Larabee. The expression on the gambler's face never changed as Rawlins collapsed to the ground with a look of utter surprise now set on his features. He had died knowing that this fresh-faced Southern boy had beaten him again.

After what felt like an eternity of silence Ezra turned slightly to face Chris and the others. His brain registered the sharp crack of a rifle a split second before fireworks exploded in his head. He never felt the ground underneath him as he fell and didn't hear the volley of guns discharge towards an upper window at the Gem Hotel.

Almost as soon as Ezra hit the dirt Nathan and Josiah were running from the clinic and the Church. The healer pushed Chris away from the wounded gambler and examined the ugly wound that ran across the left side of his head.

"I need something to stop this bleeding, quick." Josiah stood and ran into the saloon, he returned seconds later with a hand full of tablecloths. Nathan rolled one up and placed it against the bleeding wound. "Hold this tight Josiah." The big man placed his hand on the cloth and pushed while Nathan wrapped Ezra's head. During all this the gambler never stirred and but for the steady rise and fall of his chest he appeared dead.

"Let's get him to the clinic so I can take a look." Josiah moved to pick up the smaller man but was stopped as Chris snaked his hands under the limp form and easily pulled him into his arms. He stood and moved with as much speed as possible to the stairs leading to Nathan's clinic. He placed the unconscious man on the bed and fell to the floor next to him, unable to stand.

"Is he gonna be all right Nathan?" It was more a begging plea than a question. The gunslinger had never felt so helpless in all his life. One minute he had been stood there, pride pushing out his chest at the way Ezra had handled himself against Rawlins and the next he had been firing on a hidden shooter that had just possibly killed the man. If Ezra had not turned to face them in that split second then he would now be dead.


"I don't know, it's a deep wound and with all this blood I can't tell if there's a fracture." He looked around him at the sea of faces and stopped at the Preacher. "Josiah you stay, the rest of ya get out, I can't work with all you in here. Buck take some bandages and a bottle of whisky and clean up Vin's head and then get him to lie down, I'll see him later."

"I'm fine Nate, just a bump." Vin hated the idea of having good whisky poured over his head. Yeah the alcohol would sure clean the wound but he would end up on the ceiling from the pain. He had been hoping that the black man had not noticed his condition.

"Yeah sure ya are Vin, you usually go around bumping in to things and throwin' up for no reason don't you? The room emptied out, leaving Nathan and Josiah working over the unconscious gambler. In the corner of the room JD watched in silence as the two men worked. He felt totally helpless lying there as the two fought for over an hour to stop the bleeding.

For a moment JD feared the worst as Nathan slid to the floor exhausted, but was relieved to see the steady rise and fall of the chest. He closed his eyes and prayed that Ezra would pull through.

Monday, December 7th, B J's Birthday

The morning sun pushed it's way through the flimsy curtain that covered the window in the clinic. The shadows pushed back and the new day saw Bettina Jane Roslin sitting once more next to the man she loved. He had not moved for the last two days and apart from a fever that had lasted for only a few hours he now lay with no outward signs of ever waking up. Josiah and Nathan had managed to get water and thin broth into him as he slept but he was totally unaware of anything around him.

She checked the time and realised that it was morning, Larabee would be along soon to take over the watch. She leaned forward and began to talk. She took him through all her plans for the ranch, the things she wanted to do together. For some reason she started to talk through the clothes he habitually wore, starting with the fine cotton shirts, and the colourful vests. She detailed every item and then questioned him on the need for such fastidiousness. She then described the clothes she had worn when she had gone to Eagle Bend and knew he would have fallen at her feet at how different she had looked.

The door to the clinic opened and Chris Larabee walked in, she could see by the red rimmed eyes and the flush on his cheeks that he had not slept much and that he had kept a bottle company again.

"How's he doin'?" he asked as he settled his wiry frame into the chair B J had just left.

"No change, I was hoping he might wake up today, bein' as it's my birthday." She smiled and chuckled to herself. "I was just telling him about the clothes I wore at Eagle Bend, I reckon he'd have had a shock seeing me in that get up."

"I know I got a shock, but I must admit it was one of the most pleasant shocks I've had for a long time." She smiled and turned to leave. "Don't forget that lawyer of yours wants to see ya later, said to make it around noon at the restaurant. Seems he's bought the whole place out for 2 hours wants us all to be there. He's even paying for a meal."

"Would be nice if we could all be there." She sighed and looked at the sleeping face.

"Yeah I know what ya mean."

Noon came around quickly and B J found herself stood outside the restaurant. She was nervous about going in, what had her father placed in his will? Would she still be able to control the estate? She looked up as Buck and J D walked up to her, she was pleased to see the young sheriff on his feet. It had been touch and go for a while but the last few days he had improved dramatically. He was still pale and weakened easily but with Buck around him all the time he was well looked after if a little smothered.

"Come on ma'am let's get you inside. Why that's a pretty blouse you have on, I don't recall seein' it before?"

"Thank you Buck, it was a present from Mary Travis, she said it was about time I had some female clothes. I must admit it is pretty, and goes quite well with my tanned leather pants don't ya think." Buck eyed the shapely legs and gulped. He had never thought that a pair of buckskin pants would look so good. Hell Vin wore them all the time and they never made his legs look like that. He took his hat off and ushered B J and his young friend into the door. He shook his head, let out a big sigh and wafted the hat in front of his face. Man if only… he thought. Ezra was one hell of a lucky man.

B J looked around her recognising all the faces, Nettie and Casey had arrived and were sat at one of the tables, and Mary Travis was sat talking to Chris Larabee. Buck and JD found a seat next to Vin Tanner who was nursing a mug of hot herbal tea. The look on his face showed that he did not like the contents very much but the effects of his concussion still caused him trouble so Nathan had prescribed willow bark with peppermint oil to help with the pain and the nausea. He looked up at the black healer and scowled, he was sure a shot of whisky would do the same job and taste a whole lot better than this.

B J walked over to Nathan surprised that he had left the clinic. "Who's sat with Ezra Mr Jackson?" She turned as her brother walked in and placed his arm around her shoulder.

"That army surgeon Dr Coleman said he would sit with him for awhile and Josiah's on his way down now." As if on cue the large ex preacher walked into the restaurant and pulled a chair up next to Chris.

Simmons walked in from the back of the restaurant carrying a large brown folder. He placed it on an empty table and looked up taking in all the faces he had requested to be there.

"I assume Mr Standish is not able to be with us." He said in his precise New York accent. "I take it you are all aware of the significance of this gathering?" he looked around him with a questioning glare almost daring anyone to speak.

"Good, then I shall begin. Miss Roslin, I have here the last will and testament of your father the late Mr James Roslin. Due to the uhm unique nature of some of those present I shall not read word for word as I am sure most of you will not fully comprehend the legal language. Suffice to say that the entire estate goes to Miss Bettina Jane Roslin with an allowance of $100 per month to go to Major James Edward Roslin for the entire time he remains in the U S Army. After such time his allowance will be decided by Miss Roslin." He took a breath and sipped from a glass of water.

None of this had been a surprise to Bettina and she was happy about the clause taking care of her brother. "How much is the estate valued at Mr Simmons." She had a rough idea but was not prepared for the figure the lawyer came out with.

"In actual liquid currency you have a little over $250,000 in a secured trust fund that is now in your complete control. The value of horses, real estate and sundries can of course not be valued unless it is sold but the latest figures which were taken from last years property values puts the three ranches and all its contents including the horses at just under $400,000. To put it bluntly Miss Roslin you are now one of the wealthiest clients I have ever had the pleasure of dealing with."

B J was stunned; she backed up to a chair and sat down heavily. Chris put a glass of whisky in front of her and she drank it down without even tasting it. Everyone in the room sat in silent awe, they had figured due to all the trouble that she was due to inherit a fortune but had never imagined it to be so much.

"There is one final stipulation in the will that Mr Roslin Senior insisted on." He paused, reluctant to reveal this last point.

"Go ahead Mr Simmons, what is it?" Major Roslin moved closer to his sister, he knew what that detail was and needed to be next to her, unsure as to what her reaction would be.

"Mr Roslin stated that if you were not married by the time you were 26 then the bulk of the estate would revert back to the Trustees until a male blood relative was found. You would be left with a more than adequate allowance of $300 per month." The colour drained from B J's face as she realised what her father had done. He had trusted her with the estate but wanted his only daughter married in order to produce an heir to the family fortune.

Nettie Wells stood up and moved to stand next to the lawyer.

"Well I guess with that all over and done with we can get down to eating. Casey go call Inez, I believe she has offered to cook for us all today." She strode over to B J and took a hand.

"Come on missy lets get some food into you, you can think about all this later at the saloon, I guess no one will mind if I tell ya that were plannin' a little shindig for ya."

"Thank you Nettie, I apologise for my behaviour, I am just a little shocked that is all. Please excuse me I need to speak to Mr Sanchez for a moment." She walked over to the preacher and after a moment the two walked outside.

"Mr Sanchez I need to ask you a very big favour."

"Anything Miss Roslin, you only need to ask."

"I need you to speak to the others and make sure that no one tells Ezra about the will, I don't want him to know at least not yet."

"Why don't you want him to know? You can trust him, he does love you and although he has been free with other peoples money in the past it is all in the past."

"I know he loves me Mr Sanchez and I do trust him but this amount of money can put a strain on any relationship. I want him to make his decision free of that pressure. Do you understand?" She wasn't sure if she was making any sense.

"I do understand my dear, you want him to choose you and not the money. Don't worry I'll speak to the others and have no fear he'll do the right thing." They turned to go back into the restaurant. The food smell was making her hungry, she was glad she had spoken to Josiah.

"Now all we need is for Ezra to wake up."

Thursday, December 12th

She watched quietly as Nathan examined Ezra. He had woken up the day before with a large headache to find a sea of concerned but happy faces all around him. They had filled him in on everything that had happened including the things he had missed like B J's birthday party. Buck had great pleasure in spilling the beans about how B J had worn women's clothes and had all the men falling over themselves to get what ever she wanted. Vin regaled him with the fantastic cake that Nettie had baked for the occasion; he apologised that none of it was left. Nathan told him of all the whisky they had drunk and how even JD had won a few hands of poker.

B J looked over at the black healer as his expert fingers traced the healed bullet wound in his shoulder, his hand moved to press gently on the almost healed collarbone. He then prodded and poked around the bullet wound to his scalp, it was healing nicely and no longer needed a bandage. Ezra had removed his shirt to allow Nathan to check him over. Her gaze dropped to take in the muscled arms, the biceps rippled under the tanned smooth skin. She took stock of the well-formed pectoral muscles running across his chest. B J flinched each time he did when Nathan's fingers found a tender spot.

"Well I guess you'll live, I'm gonna let ya go back to ya own room but you check back with me tomorrow I want to make sure that head wound is clean." Nathan turned and saw B J looking at him; he realised that he was in the way and mumbled as he left the room.

She stood and walked over to him reaching for the white ruffled shirt that had fallen to the floor. He slipped his hand round her waist and pulled her gently towards him, her heart jumped a few beats at the nearness of his naked skin next to her. Dropping the shirt she laced her hand into his curly brown locks revelling in the feel of the silky hair as it slipped through her long fingers.

She felt his breath through her thin shirt as he buried his face into her shoulder. After a few moments he lifted his head, his emerald green eyes bored into her and she felt like she was drowning.

"Will you marry me?" He said it so quietly that she almost missed it. She pulled away from his grasp, looked at him and walked slowly to the door. She turned and looked back at him and gave him the biggest smile he had ever seen. She opened the door and walked out.

He looked at the empty space before him, mouth open in shock that she had left without answering. The doorknob turned and B J walked back into the room, she stood before him with a look on her face that made Ezra P Standish, gambler, con man and peacekeeper sit up straight. He smiled as his heart swelled nearly to bursting. She raised an eyebrow, smiled and winked at him.