Main Character: Chris, Ezra, OFC
Warnings: Kind ‘a smarmy. This is one of the first pieces I wrote in the fandom.
Webmaster Note: This fic previously appeared in a fanzine and was also posted online. It was added to blackraptor in May 2012.
Chris Larabee was always aware of when there was a stage scheduled to arrive in the little town he and his cohorts looked after and, as long as he was in town, he made his presence known when the coach arrived. However he had rarely seemed more intent – even impatient – for its arrival as he was that morning. He had been pacing up and down the boardwalk for over an hour. Finally, unable to take the suspense any longer, Buck Wilmington and Ezra Standish confronted the man in black.
“Chris, you got itchin’ powder in your drawers or somethin’?” Buck quipped.
Pausing in mid-stride, Larabee looked at the big man in confusion. “What?”
“What our colorful Mr. Wilmington is attempting,” Ezra interrupted, “is to ascertain the reason for your.... obvious agitation this afternoon.”
Chris simply shook his head and glared at the two men, then resumed his walk.
Wilmington and Standish looked at one another and shrugged. Taking their lives in their own hands, they hurried after their leader and quickly flanked him. Larabee picked up his pace, but the others matched it. After a second bid to lose the other men, he stopped, raising his hands in an angry gesture of defeat. “All right! Jesus, can’t a man have any privacy around here?”
“I fear not,” Ezra replied, his green eyes twinkling with mischief.
Glaring once again at the young gambler, the gunman said, “I've got company coming in on the stage. That enough for you two old ladies?”
“Who’s comin'?” Wilmington asked curiously.
Larabee wasn’t surprised at the question. He didn’t really expect to be able to send Buck away with a single, simple answer. Still, it irritated him to be pressed on anything to do with his personal life. “You writing for the Clarion now?”
“Could be,” his dark blue eyes leaping with humor, Buck said, “looks to me like maybe it’s someone you don’t want us knowin’ about.” Leaning an arm on Standish’s shoulder he finished, “Sound like that to you Ezra?”
“Indeed Mr. Wilmington. I would deduce from our laconic companion’s actions that he may be in anticipation of meeting –“
”A woman!” The big gunman howled with glee. An icy look from his friend stopped the laughter as quickly as it began.
“It’s Cody, Buck.” Chris said shortly.
His smile returned, even broader this time. “Cody! She’s comin’ for a visit? Well, howdy! Be good to see the girl!”
“Don’t reckon she’s a girl anymore,” Chris said. “Haven’t seen her since Adam was a baby.”
Thinking it over, Buck agreed. “You’re right! Lordy, she’d be what now, 18-19 years old?”
“She turned twenty a month ago.”
“Twenty!? My gawd, reckon it has been a while since we seen her.”
“Yeah,” trusting that he had finally satisfied the others curiosity, Chris Larabee turned and strode quickly away.
“Might I inquire as to who this ‘Cody’ is?” Ezra asked, feeling left out.
“Huh? Oh, yeah, sorry Ezra. Cody, she is... was... is Sarah’s cousin. Cordelia Connolly Shaffer. Her mama and Hank were brother and sister. Cody lost her ma about a month before Adam was born. She came out and stayed with Chris and Sarah for... shoot, darn near a year. Kept Sarah company, helped with the baby. She was this scrawny little tomboy... always taggin’ after Chris... thought the sun rose and set in the man. Think she’d have stayed forever, but her pa took sick and she had to go back home.”
“Given the occurrences of some three and a half years ago, I would say that it was providence that took her away from the Larabee homestead,” Ezra said softly.
His face taking on a pained expression, Buck could only nod in reply. Then his attention was drawn from his memories as the sound of a team and coach came to the two men. They watched as the dust settled, revealing the afternoon stage. Focused on renewing his acquaintance with the young tomboy her had just been reminiscing about, Wilmington started across the street. A hand on his arm stopped him. Turning, he saw Standish looking at him.
“Buck, I would suggest that you postpone your reunion with the young woman.” As he spoke, the gambler was nodding toward the stage. Chris Larabee was taking long strides across the dirt street, making a beeline for the stage.
“Yeah,” Buck’s voice became soft, “reckon you’re right.”
Chris Larabee saw nothing but the stagecoach as he crossed the street. His eyes were glued to the door, as he waited for his young visitor to appear. He wondered if he would even recognize her now. It had been over eight years since he had seen her. His little shadow, Sarah called her. They had teased back and forth about her infatuation with her older cousin’s husband. His wife had been less bothered by it than he had. It felt strange to have this girl dogging his every step; though truth be told, he also found it very flattering.
The gunman’s thoughts were interrupted by a voice, calling “Chris! Chris Larabee!” He watched as a pretty young woman disembarked from the stage. She was petite, thick auburn curls falling down her back. Clear, laughing blue eyes met his, and a broad smile lit her face. He had never realized how much she looked like Sarah...
“Chris!” She fairly launched herself from the coach door and into his arms. He grabbed her and swung her around, both of them laughing.
“Cody! Good God girl, you’ve changed!”
“For the better I hope,” She said coyly as he lowered her to the ground. She barely reached his chin, and tilted her head back to look up at him. “You’re still the most handsome man I’ve ever laid eyes on.”
“And you’re a blamed liar,” Chris teased as he felt the blush burning from his collar upward. “You, on the other hand, have grown into one very pretty woman.”
“You always did know how to turn my head,” it was her turn to blush now.
“Let’s get your bag and I’ll take you over to the hotel. How long are you staying?” Chris reached up to the stage driver as he spoke, retrieving a satchel.
“I can only stay a week, I’m afraid,” She said wistfully. “I have to be in San Francisco by the end of the month to begin my teaching job.
“A teacher?” He gave her a questioning look. “Never dreamed of you as being a teacher.”
“I never did, either,” she replied. “But it doesn’t seem that there’s a lot of call for female bronc busters or gunslingers these days. Teaching seemed like a good alternative.” She winked up at him.
Laughing heartily, the gunman gave her his arm and escorted her toward the hotel.
Across the street, the other two men continued to watch with interest. Buck Wilmington was amazed at the transformation the young woman had gone through. He watched with a bemused expression on his face as his oldest friend escorted the lovely young woman down the street.
Next to him, Ezra Standish was – for once – speechless. For, as the young woman had leapt into Chris Larabee’s arms, she had also leapt into the gambler’s heart. Ezra Standish found himself immediately and madly in love.
The conman suddenly realized that the other man had been speaking to him. For how long, or what he had said, Standish had no idea. “I’m sorry...what?” He was still distracted, his attention on the young woman who was even now disappearing into the hotel on Larabee’s arm.
Suddenly Buck was standing right in front of him. “Think you can tear your eyeballs away from them... or I reckon I ought to say her... long enough to answer me?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Wilmington, you were saying?”
Heaving an exaggerated sigh, the gunman said, “For the tenth time, I asked if you wanna go get some lunch?”
“Oh... yes, that would be fine...” He agreed, still watching after the young woman who had long since disappeared inside the building.
Finally, totally exasperated, Buck gasped the man’s arm and dragged him along toward the restaurant. On his part, the conman barely noticed that he was even moving.
The evening had worn on slowly. Ezra found himself unable to keep his mind on the poker game he was running, to the extent of continuing to lose hands after the point at which he typically began to win. He found himself watching the door, even though his inner voice told him time and again that he was a fool. Why would the fair young woman he had seen that afternoon ever deign to walk into a saloon? Perhaps if Chris were in attendance she might venture into the den of inequity on his arm. However, their leader and Vin Tanner had gone out on patrol earlier that evening.
But then, suddenly, he felt his heart stop and his breathing accelerate. The world disappeared; the poker game forgotten. The gambler found himself doing something he had never done before; he folded a winning hand. “If you gentlemen will excuse me...” He gathered up his money and stood up. Cody Shaffer had entered the hall.
She looked around the room as she stood by the door. Seeming to decide that it was safe, she moved farther inside; walking directly to the battered old piano that stood in the corner. Softly she picked across the keys, than sat down before it. Seconds later, the soft strains of Chopin wafted through the dingy hall.
Stopping at the end of the bar, Standish sighed contentedly as he allowed the music to flow over and through him. He signaled the bartender for a whiskey, and sipped it while he enjoyed the impromptu performance. A few rowdy and derogatory comments from one of the tables interrupted his concentration. A single angry glare silenced them. Turning his attention back toward the piano, he smiled. Chris Larabee had little on the Southern gentleman in the arena of non-verbal communication.
As the piece ended, Cody immediately began a second... and a third. And, finally, Ezra knew that he had to speak to her. On legs suddenly weak, he managed to cross the room to lean casually... he hoped... against the piano. He smiled as she turned a brilliant smile in his direction.
“I wondered whether or not you were going to come over,” she extended a hand, “Cordelia Shaffer... but please, call me Cody.”
Taking the slender hand in his, Ezra brushed his lips gently across the back. “Forgive me, dear lady. I was convinced that an angel had descended into this cesspool, and could not fathom why anyone so lovely would have cause to step into this dank place. And then I was so... overcome... by your equally beautiful playing... I could not bring myself to interrupt. My name is Ezra... Standish. Please, call me Ezra... I am yours to command.”
“I was restless after the journey, and find that playing for awhile helps me to relax. And, I would have known you anywhere, Ezra,” she said coyly. “You’re one of the gentlemen who work with Chris. Am I right?”
“Yes, Miss Cody, I am,” his dimples nearly consumed his face as he grinned broadly.
“I had heard that there was a handsome and articulate Southern gentleman amongst the group of gunslingers and ruffians that my cousin works with.” She smiled and waved a hand over the keys. “What is your pleasure, sir? Perhaps you would like...” she began to play.
Within a few notes, Standish was chuckling, then he applauded softly. “Eine Klein Nichtmusik...yes my dear, I would greatly enjoy ‘a Little Night Music’. And I am certain that Mozart would fairly swoon to hear it played so wonderfully.”
“Yeah, well me an’ m’ friends wanna hear some good ol’ American music,” a member of the bar’s rougher trade growled from behind them.
Turning nonchalantly, Ezra leveled a chilly look at the disruptive man. “Sir, if you please – “
A delicate hand rested on his arm, and Cody said, “I believe the gentleman was addressing me, Ezra.” Standing, she gathered her skirts in one hand and, using Standish’s arm for leverage, stepped up onto the piano stool. Now at eye-level with the loud mouth, she locked her gaze on him. Without raising her voice above a whisper, she said, “Sir, you are an ignorant bore, devoid of any redeeming qualities that I am able to ascertain. The foul stench of your breath is surpassed only by the rancid odor of your body. Now, if you return to your seat, and if you’re a good boy, I will favor you with an arrangement or two that you may feasibility recognize with the assistance of your fellow miscreants.” That said, she extended her hand to the gambler once more and allowed him to lift her down from the stool. Acting as if the loud mouth no longer existed, she returned to playing.
Ezra spared the man another cool glance until, finally, the man turned away. The incentive of seeing a flash of the gambler’s hide-out derringer helped to make up his mind that his taste in music was not worth risking death.
“Has he left?” Cody whispered.
“Yes, my dear,” Standish replied with a gold-edged smile, “I believe that he has decided upon a strategic retreat and has returned to sit with his cronies.”
“Good,” she said with a distinct tremble in her voice. “Perhaps I won’t faint after all.”
Ezra laughed heartily as she rolled her eyes heavenward. “My dear Cody, I hope you understand exactly how much this means... I have never met anyone who could bluff so wonderfully in my life.”
She smiled and nodded toward the men. “I suppose that I should make good on my promise.” With that she began playing, quite elaborately, ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ and followed it with a variety of patriotic tunes. Only when the men had ceased to pay attention did she return to the more graceful and melodic pieces that she favored.
After some time, Ezra chanced to glance at his pocket watch. “Good heavens!” He exclaimed.
Looking up, but not stopping the music, Cody asked, “What is it?”
“It is nearly 4:00 am.”
“Really?” She was genuinely shocked.” I should really get some sleep then. Chris promised to take me to breakfast and then riding. I’ll barely have time to close my eyes at this rate!”
“Please allow me to escort you to your room then, my dear,” Standish extended his hand to her.
Taking it, Cody rose gracefully and, slipping her arm through his, allowed the gambler to see her from the saloon to her hotel room.
An insistent rapping on her hotel room door pulled Cody from the dark comfort of sleep a scant few hours later. Pulling her dressing gown around her she stumbled to the door and inched it open. Chris Larabee stood in the hallway, a small smile on his face as he took in her tangled hair and half-opened eyes.
“Don’t reckon you’re ready to go riding quite yet,” he chuckled. “Do you want to put this off ‘til tomorrow?”
“No! I’m sorry Chris, you know me. I never sleep well after a long trip. Just give me a little time to pull myself together, okay?”
“All right then. I’ll wait for you in the lobby.” Touching the brim of his black hat, he retraced his steps.
Closing the door, Cody leaned against it with a tired sigh. It was going to be a long day...
Half an hour later, the young woman hurried down the stairs toward the gunfighter. Dressed in a dun colored riding skirt and jacket with a lavender shirt beneath, she looked every inch the horsewoman. Chris stared appreciatively, taking in everything from her neatly pinned back hair under a crisply blocked dun-colored Stetson, to the brown riding boots she wore, he realized that he was waiting for a woman – not the little tag-along girl who’d been part of his family life so long ago. As she reached the bottom step, he put out his arm. Slipping her own through his, Cody reached up and gave him a peck on the cheek.
“You look really nice, Cody,” Chris said with more awe in his voice than he intended.
With a coy giggle, she replied, “Thank you kind sir. And may I say that you’re as dashing as ever.” He was wearing his customary black, with the gray shirt. Although she said nothing, it had not escaped the young woman’s notice that her cousin’s widower no longer wore the light colors he had when she had lived with them. She could not recall seeing him in black before. It made her sad that he still mourned Sarah and Adam so deeply.
“Well, shall we go have some breakfast?”
“Absolutely. I’m starving!”
He led her from the hotel lobby down the street toward the restaurant. As they passed the saloon, he saw Vin and Josiah inside eating at one of the tables. Nodding as they passed, he continued toward the restaurant.
“We’re not joining your friends?”
“Not this morning,” he replied with a smile. “I'd like to have you to myself today if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind at all,” she said, the little girl excitement spilling over. “There was a time, you know, that I would have fainted dead away to think that you wanted to spend some time with me.”
He blushed as he thought back on her childhood adoration. “Yeah, you were pretty attentive back then.”
“Attentive! I was annoying. I’m amazed you didn’t just drown me in the creek!”
Chris laughed. “Can’t say that the thought didn’t cross my mind a few times. But only a few.”
Squeezing his arm, she laughed along with him.
After breakfast, Chris took Cody to the livery. He had stabled Pony there, along with a pinto he had brought in from his shack. The horse was just spirited enough to give the young woman a good ride, but he had nearly gentled it to the point of being able to sell it. Cody Shaffer looked at the horse and fell immediately in love with it. “Oh Chris! What a beauty! Is he yours?”
“For the time being. I rounded up a few head a while back, thought I’d sell them off when they’re broke.”
“Oh, he’ll bring in a pretty penny, that’s for certain!” She rubbed the broad muzzle, smiling when the horse whinnied in response. Grasping the saddle-horn, she swung up into the saddle. “Well, c’mon old man, let’s go for a ride!”
Making a face at the young woman, Larabee mounted Pony and the two of them rode from the livery at an easy pace.
Above the saloon, Ezra Standish was sitting in his rocking chair, staring out the window. He had not been able to sleep at all; his mind consumed with Miss Cordelia Shaffer. He saw her riding from the stable with Chris Larabee. Toying with the idea of ‘accidentally’ meeting them somewhere on the trail, he finally decided against it. She was Chris’ company; his relative. The gambler respected that; he would bide his time. However, later, when Chris was once again on patrol, he would find a way to spend another evening in the beautiful young woman’s company.
“It’s beautiful out here,” Cody said as they rode through the countryside. “No wonder you stay out here.”
“Not certain it’s got much to do with the scenery, just sort of happened.”
“Are you happy?” She asked point blank.
He didn’t answer at first, staring into the distance. Finally he said, “Don’t know that I’ve been what you’d call happy in three years.”
She nodded, but then said, “You know that Sarah wouldn’t want that.”
Reining in her horse she continued, “You don’t believe me.” It wasn’t a question.
He pulled Pony to a stop, but didn’t turn. “Believing has nothing to do with it, Cody. I can’t help feeling the way I do.”
Drawing abreast of him, she said, “You’re right, you can’t. But you know as well as I do that my cousin wouldn’t want you to live the rest of your life dressed in black, mourning her.”
“Cody,” he said firmly, “Drop it.”
She opened her mouth to say more, closed it again with an audible sigh, but couldn’t quite admit defeat. “I only have a few more days here, and I don’t want to spend them with you angry at me. But someday, Chris Larabee, you’ll admit that I’m right.”
Not answering, he spurred his black forward. Shaking her head, Cody followed.
A short time later, the riders reached Chris’ ‘little shack in the hills’ as Buck liked to call it.
“This is where you live?”
“Yeah. Not quite what I had... before... but it suits my needs.”
“Actually I was thinking the same thing. It’s rough and spare, but it has its own charm.” She winked at him.
Chuckling, the gunman dismounted and helped the young woman from her horse. Leaving the horses tied at the corral, he showed her around his small plot of land and introduced her to the rest of his stock. He followed the tour with lunch before they started back toward town. It was then that the young woman found the courage to speak her mind about another subject.
“Tell me about Mr. Standish.”
“Ezra?” He frowned. “Why do you want to know about Ezra?”
“Well... I met him yesterday evening, after you left. He seems very nice.. .more sophisticated then... well...”
“Then the yahoos he rides with?”
“I suppose,” she said, only slightly embarrassed.
“He does put on airs,” Chris admitted. “Likes to throw around five dollar words, never can be a hundred percent certain he’s telling you the truth... a conman to the core.”
Turning a downhearted face his way, she said, “It doesn’t sound like you’re very fond of him.”
Hearing the pain in the woman’s voice, he knew for certain why she was asking. Reining in his horse, she stopped hers as well. “Cody, I reckon you know how much you mean to me. I’ve looked on you as a little sister for quite a while. Ezra Standish has proven himself good in a fight, and I can finally trust him in a lot of ways... more than I would have thought at one time. But he’s got a side to him... conman, gambler, even mercenary at times. Now, if you get involved with him –“
”Chris, I am an adult and a fair judge of character I think. I don’t need your permission to, as you say, ‘get involved’ with Mr. Standish... or any other man for that matter.” She coaxed her mount to a gallop, leaving Larabee in the dust.
“Shit,” he grumbled as he hurried to catch up with her. Overtaking the young woman a short time later, he reached out and grasped the pinto’s halter, pulling both animals to a stop. “Damn, you’re just as stubborn as you ever were. You didn’t let me finish. Ezra’s got a side to him that’s not to be trusted. If you get involved with him, you need to be aware of that. But, I’ve never known him to be anything but a gentleman around a woman. I don’t have a say in who you see, Cody. That’s what I wanted to say.”
Cody dropped her gaze. “I’m sorry Chris. I guess I expected you to start acting like my father. He didn’t approve of a single young man that came calling... he threatened to shoot them, chased them away, it didn’t matter who they were or what they wanted.”
“He was trying to protect his little girl. Your Uncle Hank did the same thing when I courted Sarah.”
“And look how that turned out,” she replied softly. “I guess I wasn’t as strong as Sarah, or I never found anyone like you, but I just kept letting him run them off until they finally stopped coming around.”
“I just don’t want you to get hurt, alright?” Chris replied.
She smiled. “I appreciate that and I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have expected you to act like my father.”
“Well, I ain’t Whit Shaffer, but reckon I am your unofficial big brother. If Ezra does hurt you, I will fill his britches full of buckshot,” Chris gave her a wicked grin that softened as he continued, “But as long as he treats you right I’ll stay out of it.”
With a giggle she said, “Reckon that’s fair.”
By the time they returned to town, they found that Mary and Inez had been busy. The two women had organized a party in honor of Cody’s visit. The saloon had been scrubbed, the tables covered with muslin and pushed to the sides to open up the center of the big room. By dinner time the saloon was bustling with activity; women heaping the tables with food, several men tuning up banjos, fiddles and guitars in one corner.
Vin and Nathan volunteered to patrol, giving the other men the opportunity to enjoy the festivities. The five scattered to get ready. Chris left his cousin at the hotel, then went to get cleaned up himself. Coming to call on her a short time later, he stood in awe at the bottom of the stairs, watching the vision that glided down to meet him.
Her dress was simple but elegant, made of satin the color of the morning sky. Her hair ribbon was the same color, and white slippers adorned her feet. She had pulled her hair back from her face with the ribbons, allowing it to cascade down her back in auburn ringlets. She wore a single strand of white beads and short white lace gloves graced her delicate hands.
With a low whistle of appreciation Larabee said, “Maybe I ought to go get my shotgun after all... reckon I’m gonna have to chase a few fellas off tonight.”
With a coy smile she said, “My, my, if I didn’t know better I’d think you wanted to keep me to yourself, Mr. Larabee.”
Offering her his arm, he replied, “It’s tempting, but we’d better get to the party. Mary and Inez would skin me alive if I kept you away.”
Entering the saloon a few minutes later, Chris scanned the gathering crowd out of long habit. Buck and J.D. were already there. While J.D. stood talking to Casey Wells, Buck was circling a small group of young women.
“Looks like Buck hasn’t changed much at all,” Cody grinned.
“Don’t reckon he ever will,” Chris agreed.
“Our boisterous brother is the eternal romantic,” Josiah’s deep voice came from behind them.
“He’s eternally something,” the gunfighter said, “I'm not certain how much it’s got to do with romance, though.”
Cody enjoyed the banter, although she was scanning the room for one particular figure.
“He won’t be here yet,” Chris whispered in her ear. “He’ll make an entrance when he does get here, you can be certain.”
Smiling up at her cousin, she took his arm, “Well then, I’ll ask you to be my escort, kind sir, until that entrance is made.”
Chris led her into the fray and introduced her to the curious townsfolk. Nearly an hour passed while Cody concentrated on remembering names and faces, tried several of the dishes the women had brought in, and danced with some of the young men in attendance.
The man in black watched from where he leaned against the wall, talking to Mary Travis. As a familiar figure sauntered down the stairs, he excused himself and moved to intercept Cody as she spun by in the sweaty and timid embrace of one of the young men who had been vying for her attention all evening. Tapping the young man on the shoulder, he watched his face lose its color as he saw who was cutting in on the dance. Nodding nervously and backing quickly away, he left the two alone.
“Sorry to interrupt.”
“I’m not. He spent more time dancing on my toes than on the floor,” she sighed.
“Reckon someone just made his entrance, and is probably a lot better dancer.”
Looking around with an eager smile, Cody spotted Ezra. The handsome young man was leaning on the banister, affecting a pose of nonchalance. He was decked out in his deep purple jacket and gold brocade vest. His shirt was so white it fairly glowed, as did his highly polished boots. His customary red tie was replaced by an elegant black silk one set off by a gold tie tack. He looked her way and offered up a dimpled smile. He gave a furtive glance toward Chris.
The gunman looked down at the woman beside him. “Ain’t certain he’s gonna move from that spot unless we give him a reason to.” With that he escorted Cody to the stairs.
“Good evening Mr. Larabee, Miss Shaffer,” the gambler said with only the barest hint of nervousness in his voice.
“Ezra,” Chris said evenly. Fighting the temptation to let the Southerner sweat for a while longer he continued, “My cousin’s tired of getting her feet tromped on by one yahoo or another. Thought maybe you could give her a break.”
His gold tooth glittering as he grinned broadly in both relief and anticipation, the gambler said, “I would be delighted to sir.” Turning to Cody he extended his arm. As she slipped her through his, Ezra continued, “Miss Shaffer, allow me to endeavor to show you the hospitality befitting so elegant a lady.”
“Why thank you kind sir,” she smiled in return. Cody allowed him to lead her out onto the makeshift dance floor.
Chris moved back to his spot on the wall, watching as they glided around the room to the music. After several fast songs they stopped to have some refreshments. Leaving her for a brief moment, Standish went to the group of musicians and spoke briefly with them. As he returned to his dance partner’s side, the first notes of a waltz filled the air.
“Miss Shaffer,” Ezra said formally with a deep bow, “may I have the pleasure of this dance?”
Curtsying, Cody replied, “I would be honored, Mr. Standish.”
Even Larabee had to admit that the young conman moved with astounding grace and elegance, leading his dance partner through the intricate steps of the dance. The few couples that had ventured onto the floor quickly left again, joining the groups of people standing at the fringes, watching.
For their part, neither Ezra nor Cody noticed that they were suddenly the focus of the party. As the song ended, Standish once again bowed to his dance partner, and Cody replied with another curtsy. As applause broke out they both suddenly became aware of their audience.
Her hands flying to her face which was quickly growing red, Cody said “Oh my goodness!”
Ever the showman, Ezra bowed to the crowd, reveling in the attention. Leading the woman off the dance floor, he headed for two empty chairs. Seating her, he went for more punch. Returning, he handed her a glass and took his seat. “Well Miss Shaffer, I believe that you have made quite an impression.”
Chris, watching from the shadows, felt of mixture of pride of jealousy. He told himself that they were brotherly feelings, but a corner of his mind tugged at that thought, questioning his rationale. With a frustrated grumble he tore his attention away from Ezra and Cody, watching the mingling crowds. ‘If only she didn’t look so much like Sarah’, he thought to himself.
“I always did think he was light on his feet,” Mary said with a bright smile, interrupting his thoughts.
Turning to her, Chris returned the smile. “It was pretty impressive. Never thought of him as a dancer though.”
“How about you, Mr. Larabee?”
“Me?” He stared down at her, shaking his head. “Two left feet I’m afraid.”
The young widow looked somewhat disappointed, but covered it quickly.
Across the room, Cody blushed as Ezra caught her staring at him.... again. She couldn’t seem to help herself though. He was one of the most handsome and fascinating men she had ever met. Not to mention charming. Witty. Urbane. Suave...
“Miss Shaffer, are you alright?”
With a start she realized that the object of her attention had been speaking to her. “I’m sorry, did you say something? My mind must have wandered. Please, though, call me Cody. Miss Shaffer is far too formal for friends.”
All dimples and gold tooth, the conman said, “I asked if you would like to get some fresh air? Provided Mr. Larabee approves.”
Sparing a glance at the man in black, she said, “The approval isn’t his to give, but I’ll let him know where I’m going.” Moving through the crowd to where Chris stood, she spoke to him. Ezra stood watching, expecting the leader of their little band to send a glare his way. Instead, Chris looked at him evenly, turned toward the young woman with a smile, and turned back toward Mary Travis. Ezra found himself letting out the breath he hadn’t realized that he had been holding. Then he caught it again as Cody turned, smiled, and beckoned him to join her. Taking his arm, the young woman said, “Are you alright? You look a bit pale.”
“I’m fine my dear,” he said lightly, “just amazed that I wasn’t struck down by lightening.”
Realizing that he had been truly worried that her cousin would do something to him, she gave his arm a squeeze and said, “I discovered this afternoon that my dear cousin’s widower is not my father, Ezra. We talked and, as long as I don’t play cards with you, he’ll stay out of my business.” She laughed and hugged his arm tightly.
“Miss Cody, you are an amazing woman,” Standish whispered. Stopping in the shadows of one of the buildings, he continued. “I have never met anyone like you before. I dare say I shall never meet your like again. I hope that you do not find me too bold, but I find myself irresistibly drawn to a rather brash act.” With that he bent down and kissed her fully on the lips. It was a gently kiss, but she could feel the warmth and desire in it. She pressed herself against him and they wrapped their arms around one another.
The sounds of footsteps on the boardwalk ended their embrace. As they each took a step back, Cody was glad that they were in the shadows, as she could feel the blush flowing over her neck and face. The steps drew nearer, and stopped.
“Evenin’ Ezra....Miz Shaffer,” Tanner’s Texas drawl greeted them. “Sure a nice evenin' fer a stroll.”
“Mr. Tanner, as usual your timing is impeccable,” Ezra aid in a tone of frustration.
“Good evening, Mr. Tanner,” Cody said warmly. “It is beautiful out. I’m sorry that you weren’t able to join us at the party.”
“Well, parties ain’t exactly my idea of a good time ma’am... too many folks around.”
“Yes, I know that feeling exactly,” Standish said pointedly.
“Well, y’all enjoy your walk... ma’am,” he tipped his hat and continued down the boardwalk. As the footsteps retreated, they heard a soft chuckle.
“That man is more of a scoundrel than people give him credit for,” the gambler said.
Laughing, Cody simply reached out and drew him to her. “Yes, well, he’s gone now and, if I may be so bold, I’d like to take up where we left off.”
“Why Cody Shaffer, I do believe there is more than a hint of scoundrel in you –“ his words were cut off as she kissed him.
Much of the town slept late the next morning, the party continuing late into the night. When Chris came to call on his cousin, he was surprised to find her dressed and ready. He could tell at first glance that the reason had much to do with the evening before. She seemed extremely happy. He realized with mixed feelings that she was falling in love with Ezra Standish. Chris wasn’t certain how he felt about this. He trusted Standish to be a gentleman and knew that the man would not take advantage of the young woman. At the same time, they were from two very different worlds. While Cody had been sheltered and protected... maybe even over-protected... Ezra had prowled the gambling halls throughout the East and had been shuffled from pillar to post thanks to Maude’s lifestyle. He wasn’t certain that they could survive more than a temporary dalliance, and he didn’t want to see the girl hurt.
They went to breakfast with the other men. Vin and Nathan joined them before going off to get some sleep. J.D. and Buck were filling up before taking their shift at watching over the little town. They were all somewhat taken aback when Ezra joined them at the table. He rarely rose this early.
“Ezra, you feelin’ okay?” Josiah asked in feigned innocence. “Never knew you to be up and goin’ this early without complaining to high heaven.”
“I’m fine, I assure you Mr. Sanchez,” the younger man said evenly. He turned to Cody and said, “I trust you slept well Miss Cody?”
“I slept very well, thank you sir,” she said with a modest smile.
With the possible exception of J.D. Dunne no one at the table missed the furtive glances and air of desire that passed between the two young people all during breakfast. The small talk washed over them as both Cody and Ezra seemed somewhere else. About the time the meal was over the telegraph operator came into the room, looked around, and hurried over.
“Mr. Larabee, this came for you just now, from the Judge.” Handing over the slip of paper, the man deftly caught the coin Chris tossed to him and hurried back out the door.
Reading through the message, the gunman’s mood darkened. Looking up, he caught Vin’s eye. “Reckon you can sleep in the saddle, pard?”
“Done it b’fore. What’s the matter?”
“Got a little job... bringing Kelsey and Mitch Masters back from Landon. Turning to his old friend and then to J.D., he said, “You boys interested in a ride?”
“Reckon,” Buck said noncommittally.
“I’ll go get Yosemite started saddling the horses,” J.D. said with a nod as he left for the livery.
Turning to Standish, Chris said, “Can I trust you to look after Cody while I’m gone?”
A broad grin lighting up his handsome face, Ezra said, “I would be honored, Mr. Larabee.”
Chris ventured a look at Josiah. The big man replied with a wink; he would keep an eye on the young lovebirds.
Finally turning toward his cousin, the gunman said, “I’m sorry Cody, duty calls. We’ll be gone a couple of days at least, but I’ll make certain I’m back before you leave.”
“I understand Chris. I’ll be fine, but you be careful, alright?”
Smiling warmly, he rose, kissed her on top of the head and, with Buck and Vin trailing him, left to get ready for the trip.
“Well Ezra, I trust you’ll be more than able to show Miss Cody a pleasant time while she’s in your care,” Josiah said with a smile. “Miss, if he isn’t a gentleman at any time, you let me know and I’ll remedy the situation.” Stretching to his full six foot plus height, he nodded and nudged the healer, who had dozed off in his chair. The two men left the room, Nathan shuffling blearily behind Josiah.
Turning toward Cody, Ezra said, “I am completely at your disposal my dear. What is your heart’s desire.”
With a wicked grin she said boldly, “I fear that my heart’s desire could very well get us both into trouble should my cousin ever find out. However, I would enjoy a nice leisurely stroll.”
Somewhat taken aback at her statement, the conman found himself blushing, but recovered. Standing, he extended a hand and helped her to her feet. “Then that, my dear, is what we shall do.”
The day passed all too quickly for them both. Ezra found himself wishing he could stop time so that their day together would not end. They took a long walk in the mid-morning light, then returned to the restaurant and procured a picnic lunch. Renting a horse and buggy, they rode out to the nearby pond. Sitting near the water on a blanket, they dined on cold fried chicken and talked about heir lives. Standish found himself telling her more things about his life than he had ever told anyone before. What surprised him even more was that it felt right; he felt comfortable and secure in baring his soul to her.
Cody, too, found herself talking of things she had long held secret. She looked across the blanket into those vibrant green eyes, and found someone that she could trust with her innermost secrets. And she did.
They returned to town at dusk, the buggy moving slowly along the dusty street. Dropping Cody off at the hotel with the promise to return to call on her for dinner, Ezra left tot take the buggy back. The stage had arrived just before they had, and he saw at least two easy marks disembark. He was fascinated with the revelation that they held little interest for him compared with spending the evening in Cody Shaffer’s company. “Mother would be appalled,” he said quietly to himself.
They spent dinner with Josiah, Nathan and Mary Tanner. While Mary engaged Cody in a conversation that focused on children and teaching, Ezra tried to concentrate on what Josiah and Nathan were talking about. He found himself anxious to finish eating so that he could spirit the young auburn-haired lass away. As soon as the conversations died down he caught her eye.
She smiled at him and whispered, “I’d certainly appreciate a walk, Mr. Standish.”
“I believe that I can accommodate your desires Miss Shaffer.”
The other three members of the party read the signals and began making ready to leave. Seizing the opportunity, Standish said his good evenings and lead the young woman out the door. Behind them the trio looked at one another with broad smiles. Their resident conman had never seemed happier.
Cody stretched and yawned, reveling in the comfort of the feather-bed. Squinting her eyes open she saw the sunlight was peaking into the room. Curling up around one of the pillows, she thought back on the night before. They had strolled around the little town, stopping to chat from time to time with townspeople out enjoying the evening as well. After a turn around the town she coaxed him into escorting her to the saloon. There she had spent the rest of the evening fascinating the Southerner with her expertise at the piano. Business was slow, and they weren’t besieged by patriotic drunks, allowing them to enjoy the more refined melodies they both preferred.
Wrapping up their evening only when the bartender made it clear that he wished to leave, Ezra reluctantly walked her back to her hotel room. Leaning against the wall next to her door, he said softly, “I suppose I should say good-night.”
“I suppose,” she agreed with a sigh.
“It is getting quite late.”
“It is quite improper for us to be out together unchaperoned.”
He smiled, putting his hand beneath her chin and lifting her face to meet his gaze. Kissing her gently he said, “I will come to call on you in the morning fair lady.”
Stroking the back of her hand down his face, she said, “I’ll be awaiting your return, sir.”
Treating her to a final dimpled smile, he pushed away from the wall, saw her into the room, and hurried away to his own room.
Undressing slowly in the dark, Cody could think of little but Ezra Standish. They were somewhat melancholy thoughts, tainted as they were with the knowledge that anything she found with the young man could only be short-lived. She would be leaving on the stage for her position in San Francisco all too soon. Deciding that she would not allow the brevity of the situation put a damper on what was happening, she would not allow herself to think beyond the week’s end. She had fallen asleep curled beneath the down comforter and dreamed of green eyes, dimples, and a soft Southern drawl.
Ezra came to call on her at mid-morning, taking Cody to the restaurant for brunch. Afterward they went horseback riding, spending the afternoon away from town. They returned to share dinner with Josiah and Mary, while Nathan was away on a call.
Later they took another evening stroll, enjoyed one another’s company with an intensity that frightened the young woman. She was feeling the pressure of time slipping away and something told her that Ezra was feeling the same pressure. Taking it upon herself, she brought up the subject. “You know I’ll be leaving the day after tomorrow, first thing in the morning.”
“Cody, I would prefer not to dwell on that possibility.”
“Not possibility, my dear Ezra. It will happen. You see, when my Father became ill, and later died, it took every cent our family had to pay his medical bills. We lost our home and most of our belongings. The best way I knew to support myself was by becoming a teacher, but that took money. Then providence came in the form of a little mining community outside San Francisco. They financed my education under the stipulation that I agree to spend two years there, teaching their children.”
“Perhaps if I procured the funds to buy your contract –“
”No!” She said adamantly. “I don’t want what I feel for you to become tainted with a sense of obligation.”
He pressed her back against the building, looking deeply into her eyes. “Then consider it a dowry.”
Her eyes widened, than closed as a single tear rolled down her cheek. “Please Ezra... don’t make this more difficult than it already is.”
“I know that you feel something for me my dear, just as I for you. The thought of losing you... even if only for two years... is more than I can bear.” His voice became rough with emotion. “I love you Cordelia Shaffer. I love you very much.”
“Ezra, please. I do love you... more than I eve thought possible... but I can’t begin a life with you like this. I made a contract with those people, I can’t back out on them. And taking your money to ‘buy my freedom’ is not an acceptable alternative.”
He dropped his head, his shoulder sagging, and turned away. Cody reached out, touching him gently, but he shrugged her off. “My love...” she whispered. “I hope you come to understand. I do love you... very much. And if this is meant to be, two years will not change it... or our feelings. I am sorry Ezra...” She released a single, pain-filled sob, and then hurried back down the walk toward the hotel.
“Cody!” Standish called after her.
She did not leave her room the next day, and the gambler did not call on her. Inez came to check on her, reporting that the Southerner had been playing poker since the night before. Cody claimed a headache and remained in her room with the shades drawn. Begrudgingly she accepted a bowl of soup that the saloon manager brought up, but otherwise stayed in bed.
Chris and the others arrived just after nightfall. Finding the gambler sitting at the gaming table where he had been for nearly 24 hours in an increasingly foul mood, Larabee went to Cody’s room. Knocking softly in case she was sleeping, he said “Cody? It’s Chris.”
A few seconds later she opened the door. Taking one look at the red, swollen eyes and her disheveled appearance, he said “What happened?”
“I fell in love,” she whispered as she collapsed into his arms, sobbing.
The next morning broke with heavy gray clouds and the threat of rain. ‘How fitting,’ Cody thought as she stepped onto the boardwalk with Chris. He had spent most of the night in her room, consoling the young woman and doing his best to mend her broken heart. Now he stood beside her, carrying her bag while she was dressed for travel. Mary Travis came to say goodbye as did Buck and the others. One figure was conspicuously absent, and the young woman found her heart pounding harder at the thought of not getting the chance to say good-bye.
“Now, I want you to send a wire when you get there,” Chris ordered in his best big brother tone. “Let me know that you got there safe.”
“Yes sir,” she said, plastering on a smile.
“Remember, too, you’re coming back to visit whenever you can,” Mary spoke up.
She nodded, wondering what would happen if she were to come back. She wasn’t certain she could ever set foot in the little town again.
“Yeah, and San Francisco ain’t all that far,” Buck chimed in. “Reckon we can come visit you, too.”
“I’d like that,” she said, giving the big man a hug. She hugged her other well-wishers then, coming last to Chris. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she looked into his hazel eyes. “Thank you for being there, cousin. I’m going to miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too, Cody Shaffer, but we’ll be seeing each other again.”
Nodding, she released her hold and started to turn toward the stage. The sound of running caused them all to turn. Ezra Standish was pounding up the boardwalk toward them. With a broad smile, Chris kissed the young woman on the cheek and ushered the others away.
Slowing as he reached the stage coach, Ezra walked hesitantly the last few feet. He looked tired; unshaven and dull-eyes. “I... uh... wasn’t certain you would wish to see me,” he said softly.
“Of course I wanted to see you!” She cried, rushing to meet him. They embraced, Ezra stroking her long auburn tresses.
“I cannot profess being happy with your decision to leave, but I understand it I think. And while two years is intolerably long, it is not forever. I will be waiting for you my dear Cody.”
Tears streaming down her face, she could only nod in agreement. Finally finding her voice, she whispered, “I’ll be back, my love. I promise.” Not caring who saw them, she kissed him passionately. Forcing herself to pull away, she said, “I do love you Ezra Standish.”
“And I love you as well, Cordelia Shaffer.”
Smiling through her tears, she turned and entered the stage. Pausing long enough to give him one final look, and waving to Chris and the others, she disappeared into the coach just as it started off.
“I do love you Cody, and I will be waiting,” he whispered once more. A firm hand on his should pulled his attention away from the departing stage coach to find Chris Larabee standing next to him.
“Buy you some breakfast Ezra?”
With a wan smile, Standish said, “Thank you, I’d like that.” Finding himself surrounded by his six friends, Ezra walked with them toward the saloon. His heart had left on the stage, however.
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