Becca shook with exhaustion. The few drops of laudanum that Nathan had risked giving her had dulled her pain enough that her body started to relax for the first time in weeks. Even the discomfort of having the inflamed wounds on her back cleaned and bandaged had been bearable under the drug's influence. As she realized that she really was safe, she started to drift toward sleep.
Nathan finished putting away his supplies and gave Ezra a nudge toward the door. "That's all we can do for now. Don't know about you but I could use a drink." When the southerner hesitated, he added hastily, "Mrs. Travis will be here until we get back. You can sit with her later, if you want." Reluctantly the gambler moved toward the door.
"Mr. Standish?" A soft, sleepy voice caught their attention.
Ezra returned to the bed and knelt beside it. "You will be fine, Becca. I assure you that you are in quite capable hands with Mrs. Travis. I shall return shortly, if you still wish my company."
"Yes, please." She was so tired, and she tried unsuccessfully to stifle a yarn.
Ezra smiled and gave her hand a light squeeze before he rose to his feet and quietly followed the healer out of the room.
+ + + + + + +
Buck and J.D. pushed their way through the bat wing doors of the saloon and paused a moment to let their eyes adjust to the dim light. Buck was the first to see their friends at a table in the back corner. Nathan sat hunched over the table with his head propped up with one hand. An empty glass sat on the table in front of him. Ezra was staring into his glass, as if he thought it would magically refill itself, if he stared at it long enough. It did, when the man in black picked up the partially empty bottle of red-eye and refilled all the glasses, including his own.
"Where you two been?" Chris asked as the two new arrivals joined them at the table.
J.D. shifted uncomfortably and looked away from their leader. He really did not want to tell him what had happened. Why couldn't he just grow up and take things like a man?
Buck spoke up for them both. "We were just gettin' some air." The ladies man glanced over at J.D. and saw the relief on the younger man's face. He thought it might be a good idea to change the subject before someone else noticed the kid's embarrassment. "How 'bout sharin' some of that with us?"
By the time Buck and J.D. were ready for a second round, the last of the seven had joined them. Chris wanted to tie into Vin for taking off like he did, but Josiah's warning look told him that this was not the time. Later! The tracker has some serious explaining to do.
"Anyone got any ideas?" Chris asked the rest of the group.
"Ideas 'bout what?" Buck was completely baffled.
"The girl, what else? What're we going to do with her when she leaves the clinic?" Chris had been mulling that question around in his mind, but he had not come to any clear conclusion. "She's going to need some place to go."
"Maybe she could stay with Mary," J.D. offered.
"Nothing has to be decided tonight," the healer jumped in. "She's going to be laid up for a while."
"She sure did latch onto you, Ezra," Buck teased the sullen man across the table from him.
Josiah chuckled, and a mischievous smile curled his lips. "What do you expect? Ezra's a chivalrous man after all."
"He's what?" J.D. had no idea what the older man was talking about.
Now several of the lawmen were starting to grin. "He's her knight in shining armor." Josiah almost managed to keep a straight face, but Buck was caught totally off guard. He sputtered and choked as he struggled to swallow and laugh at the same time. Finally, the laugh won out. He let out a loud whoop and ended up spraying his mouthful of whiskey half way across the table. J.D. thumped him on the back as he fought to catch his breath.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Sanchez, but I can assure you that I am not." Ezra's green eyes flashed at the man who was now laughing in earnest. "I fail to understand her attachment to my person, or what you find to be so entertaining considering the circumstances."
"Ezra, for someone so smart, sometimes you can be so dumb. It's all to do with chivalry." Josiah was still grinning, but he had the laughter under control. "You do know what chivalry is, don't you?"
"Most certainly I am aware of the meaning of the word, but I fail to see how it pertains to me." The smaller man's irritation was evident in the firm set of his jaw.
"The way Becca probably sees it, you risked yourself to save her," Josiah explained.
Buck grinned broadly as he gave the gambler a brotherly jab in the arm. "Ya gotta face it, Ezra. Yer turnin' in to one of the good guys! Like it or not."
"Mr. Wilmington, I feel that you are reading too much into the young lady's attentions." The southerner's expression was unreadable, even by the other lawmen. However, he was secretly pleased at this unexpected turn of events.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra tapped lightly on the clinic door. Mary opened it slightly and looked to see who was there before she opened it wide enough to allow the gambler to enter. "Come in, Ezra. Becca's resting but she isn't asleep. I think she's been waiting for you." Mary smiled warmly at the gambler. "I'll just go and get Billy settled at the Potter's for the night, and I'll be back to sit with her tonight." Mary started for the door, but Ezra's words stopped her.
"I assure you, Mrs. Travis, that your offer is greatly appreciated; however, it won't be necessary for you to return tonight. I will remain here with Becca." His tone left little room for argument, but Mary objected anyway.
"Don't you think it would be better for a woman to sit with her?" she asked, implying how improper it would be for him to spend the night alone in the room with the young lady.
"Under other circumstances, I would quite readily agree, but I think she will be safer with a man with her on this night." He stressed the word safer in hopes that Mary would pick up on what he preferred not to say in front of Becca. He was afraid that her father would come back looking for her. He had killed one man to retain possession of her. He would not hesitate to kill again.
Mary caught his hidden meaning and nodded slightly to indicate that she knew what he meant. "I understand. Maybe you're right. I'll be getting back to Billy, but if you need me, just send for me."
"Thank you, Mary." The gambler responded softly as he closed the door.
"Do ya think he'll be back?" A quiet voice came from behind him.
Ezra was somewhat surprised at Becca's insight into his exchange with Mary Travis. "I feel that very little can escape your attention," he said with a hint of amusement.
"Not much, but I'd been thinkin' about the same thing." It was evident that the thought made her uneasy.
"You would be the one who would be in the best position to answer your own question. Do you think he will return?" Ezra was acutely interested in the answer to that question.
"I couldn't say fer sure. I never saw him back down before. Everyone we knew was too scared of him, so he isn't used to someone facin' him down." She really had no idea how he would react; whether he was scared enough to stay away, or mad enough to come back.
"Then we shall have to wait and see what he chooses to do. Rest assured that we will not allow him to take you, unless you wish to accompany him." Ezra was reasonably sure that would not be the case.
Becca felt a shudder pass through her at the thought, and she winced as the movement sent pain shooting through her injured back. "I would rather die than be back with him." There was no doubt that she meant exactly that.
They both turned toward the door when they heard footsteps on the stairs. The healer popped in to check on his patient before turning in for the night. "I thought I would see if you needed something else for your pain, before I turn in. How is your back feelin', Becca?" He leaned over her and felt her forehead for signs of fever.
"It's startin' to hurt again. I can stand it though." She had managed to handle a lot worse with nothing for the pain. It was not something she enjoyed doing, but she did not want to be a burden on anyone.
"There is no need for you to 'stand it' when there is something that will help ease the pain. I don't want to use any more laudanum unless you really need it, but I have herbs that will help." He set about making one of his herbal teas that he was well know for pushing on people, whether they wanted them or not. When the mixture was ready, he helped her sit up so she could drink the contents of the cup. "This has something for the pain and something that will help you sleep."
Becca grimaced at the bitter taste of the tea, but she drank all of the brew. "Uh, Mr. Jackson, I don't mean to sound like I'm complainin', but if you put a little honey in that it would go down a lot easier."
Nathan's mouth dropped open, and he stared into the empty cup. A broad grin lit up his face, and he half laughed in reply. "I bet it would at that."
"My dear lady, I do believe you may have just endeared yourself to the entire population of Four Corners. Sometimes Mr. Jackson's brews are less welcome than what they are meant to cure." Ezra's green eyes lit up with merriment.
"I think after that remark, I'll call it a night. If ya need anything, just call me. I'll be in the next room." He grinned as he headed off for his own bed and much anticipated sleep.
"You should attempt to sleep too," Ezra instructed his young companion.
"I'm tired, but I can't sleep just yet. Will you talk to me for a while?" Becca loved hearing his voice with its pleasing southern accent.
"As you wish. Why don't you tell me more about yourself?" Ezra inquired.
"What would you like to know?" She had no idea where to start. She had never had anyone ask her about herself before.
"What brought you to Four Corners?"
"That goes back to when Will was shot," Becca responded. "After Pa shot Will, people started wonderin' how much of what he said was true. I kept tellin' anyone that would listen what had really happened, but Pa told his own story. They said they believed him, but people started talkin' about it behind his back. He decided it was time to move to another town where nobody knew him. I think he knew that people had found out just how mean he really was." Her eyes clouded at the unwelcome memories.
"You needn't speak of it if you would prefer not to, Becca." Ezra was sorry to see the sparkle leave those enchanting blue eyes.
"It's all right. I've never had anyone I could tell before. It might be easier to tell, if you ask me questions. I don't know where to begin." She really wanted to tell someone about the things her father had done to her.
"Umm .well, uh if that is what you prefer. Let's begin with, how old were you when your mother died?" Ezra was very uncomfortable asking personal questions of the young woman, but she clearly wanted to talk.
"Mama died when I was eight. She fell and hit her head on a rock, least ways that what Pa said. I don't think so though. I can remember hearin' her cryin' in the night lots of times." Becca's memories were still vivid even though they had taken place eight years ago. "After she died Pa started hittin' me more. Before, Mama would try to stop him from hurtin' me too much."
Ezra felt the sorrow flowing from the young woman as she remembered the mother she had so obviously loved. "Mama would try to keep him from hittin' me with his fists, or other things, but she couldn't keep him from spanking me. After she was gone he started hittin' with his fists or anything that he had in his hands."
"What kind of things did he hit you with?" The gambler was not sure that he really wanted to know, but he would listen if it helped Becca.
"All kinds of things; sticks, boards, leather straps. It didn't matter what it was. If he had it in his hand he would hit me with it." She squeezed her eyes shut as she remembered the blows as they struck her body. "One time he threw scalding water on me. My clothes kept me from gettin' burnt too bad."
Ezra shuddered to think that what he was hearing had been done to this sweet young lady. "Didn't you try to tell anyone what was happening?"
"I tried a few times, but I got it worse the next time. I found out it was best to keep my mouth shut. You learn how to cope with things."
"Why did he strap you this last time? He had to be especially angry to inflict such damage." The southerner had seen some bad lashings, but this was among the worst.
"He was real mad when he did that. I had tried to run away again. I guess I brought part of it on myself though." Her voice was sounding groggy as the herbs started to ease her pain and relax her body.
"Becca, nothing you could have done could have justified a beating of this magnitude," Ezra said incredulously.
"Well, runnin' away made him mad, but it was what I did when he caught me that made him the maddest," she said as she stifled a yawn.
"What did you do?" The gambler could not help but be curious about what this wisp of a girl could have done to make a grown man that irate.
Becca yawned again and said as her eyes drifted shut, "I spit in his face." A hint of a smile curled the corners of her mouth as sleep claimed her.
Ezra had to admit, for all that she had been through, she still had spunk.
+ + + + + + +
The gambler sat looking down at the sleeping girl. She was so small and frail, but at the same time, she possessed such strength. She was a survivor, and he understood what being a survivor entailed. His mother had instilled that instinct in him, and he would have done anything necessary to survive in this world. Would have, but he was changing, and he found that he liked the changes. His mother would have been disappointed in him for not thinking about himself first. He could not help but smile as he imagined his mother's reaction to his behavior today.
The bruises made it hard to tell whether Becca was plain or pretty, but he thought it was the latter. Her features were delicately formed, and the skin that was not turning a ghastly shade of purple was as pale as the moon. Waist-length ebony hair had been loosely braided and pulled forward to lie across her chest. Each strand looked like pure silk. Her eyes were closed in sleep, but Ezra would never forget their soft blue depths as they pleaded with him to stay. A man could drown in eyes like those.
'Get hold of yourself, Ezra. She's not much more than a child,' he silently chided himself. 'What can you be thinking? You're not thinking, that's the problem.' With effort, Ezra pulled his attention away from the girl in the bed. He turned the lamp down low, but he did not turn it all the way out, in case Becca woke in the night. There was a pallet made of blankets on the floor near the wall, and the gambler stretched out on them to rest. He had not realized that he was sleepy until he was abruptly awakened by the sound of a scream.
At first, he was not sure where he was, and then he saw Becca thrashing around in the narrow bed. Another scream had the gambler crawling to the side of the bed to try to quiet the wounded young woman. He knelt beside the bed and gently stroked the sleeping girl's hair. "Becca, it is only a dream." Ezra's voice was soft as he tried to ease her from the nightmare's grasp. "Ssshh! You are all right. He cannot harm you any more." Slowly the young woman stopped struggling, and she became calmer. At last, she slept peacefully again. The southerner did not notice the healer standing in the door, nor did he notice when Nathan eased the door closed and returned to his own interrupted sleep.
+ + + + + + +
"Mornin' Ezra," Buck said around a mouthful of biscuit, as the gambler joined his companions at the table. "How'd you get away from the little woman?" he teased.
Ezra was not biting this time. It had been a long night, and he was tired. "I took the opportunity to break the night's fast while Mrs. Travis assisted Becca with her morning ablutions. I trust that meets with your approval, Mr. Wilmington."
Chris took one look at the dark circles under the gambler's eyes, and at his unkempt appearance, before he shot his friends a warning look. "Looks like you had a rough night."
"Rough barely seems adequate to describe the events of this past night." Ezra collapsed into a chair. His usually fastidious appearance was sadly neglected this morning. He had been in these same clothes since yesterday morning. They were dirty, wrinkled, and smelled faintly of sweat. He had not shaved, and the stubble on his face itched. Slowly, he ran his fingers through his uncombed hair as he slumped even farther down in the chair.
A cup of strong black coffee appeared on the table in front of the exhausted man. He glanced up to see Inez give him a sympathetic smile, before she headed for the kitchen to get him something to eat. Ezra nodded his thanks and inhaled the aroma of the black brew before gingerly sipping the hot beverage. Coffee had never tasted so good.
"Nathan said Becca should be able to leave the clinic in a few days. We're just talking about what we're going to do with her then," Chris informed his friend. "J.D. suggested Mary's, and Vin suggested the widow Waylan's."
"I think we should ask Mary. She'd be really good to Becca, and that girl doesn't need any more troubles." Nathan expressed his opinion.
"Yeah, but Mary's got Billy to think about, and the widow Waylan is alone." Vin was not going to give up on his suggestion without any argument at all. "She could use the company and a little help around her place."
"It isn't going to make much difference where she stays," Josiah broke into the conversation. "People are still going to make things rough on her. You know how they like to talk."
"Gentlemen, I am quite sure that your intentions are good where Miss Layton is concerned; however, you needn't concern yourselves further." The gambler had their attention. "The most obvious solution to the current dilemma is for me to marry her."
Complete silence descended around the table as six jaws dropped open in astonishment. "Marry her?" J.D. was the first to recover.
"You lost yer mind?" Vin was still stunned.
"I know we were all teasing you about being chivalrous, but isn't this carrying things a bit far?" Josiah stared at Ezra in disbelief.
"I have given the matter considerable thought through the night, and I assure you, it is the best alternative." There was no doubt that the southerner was completely serious about this.
"But marriage?" Buck sputtered.
"Gentlemen, I am not proposing a permanent arrangement. My intention is to provide Becca with a home until after the birth of the child. When the child is old enough to travel the union will be dissolved. After which, I will relocate her to another town as a young widow with a child," the gambler explained.
Josiah's interest in Ezra's solution was apparent. "It could work. She's comfortable with him. And, no one would dare talk bad about her, least ways not to her face, if she was married to one of us." Josiah eyed him appraisingly. His opinion of the gambler had just raised several notches.
"What makes you think that she'd agree to something like that?" Chris was surprised by Ezra's suggestion.
"She will agree I assure you, Mr. Larabee."
"Just what makes you so sure of yerself?" the tracker asked.
"Because Miss Layton and I have already discussed my proposition, and she has already accepted." Ezra could not keep himself from smiling at the stunned looks on his friends' faces.
+ + + + + + +
Becca sat staring out the window of her second floor room. She had been married two weeks and most of that time had been spent sitting here just as she was now. She took walks, and went out to have her meals, sometimes alone and sometimes with her husband. But, day after day, it was the same thing. She had nothing to do, and she was bored. Becca did not feel right about asking Ezra for money to buy things, so she did not ask. It would have been a little easier if she had something to keep her hands busy. The baby would need clothes and blankets. Maybe she would try to ask him for some knitting things next time he was in a really good mood.
There was a light knock at the door that connected her rented room with Ezra's. "Come in," Becca said listlessly.
The gambler knew that his wife was not happy being cooped up in this small room. He intended to do something about that. "I thought that perhaps you would consider joining me for lunch today." He looked at her hopefully.
"I would love to. I'll be ready in a minute." She quickly checked her appearance and straightened her hair.
Ezra seemed to be in a surprisingly good mood during lunch. Becca contemplated asking him about the knitting things, but she decided that she did not want to chance spoiling the wonderful time she was having. It could wait a little longer. So far, her husband had proved to be a kind man. However, memories of her father's violent reactions the few times she had asked him for money were still painfully vivid.
"Now that we have appeased our appetites, would you join me for a stroll through town? There is something that I would like to show you." The southerner let a little of his excitement show. He really was quite pleased with himself.
A few minutes later Ezra led Becca to the door of a quaint little house near the edge of town. She was surprised when he just opened the door without knocking, but she was really startled when her husband scooped her up into his arms and carried her through the door. It was not until she saw the crates that had been loaded with all of their things from the rented rooms that she realized what was happening. She turned to look into the gambler's laughing green eyes, and she smiled happily as she hugged him tightly. "Ezra, it's wonderful!"
Ezra gently stood her back on her feet and could not help grinning foolishly as he watched her rush from room to room, exploring her new home. It was not lavish, but it was decent sized house. There were two bedrooms, a sitting room and a kitchen. The rooms were large and airy, and the furniture had been included with the rent. It was apparent that Becca was very excited. "I had hoped that you would be pleased."
"I am very pleased!" she said happily
The gambler handed her a small purse and gave her a shy smile. "It is clear that it does need a woman's touch." Ezra was not accustomed to being overly generous, but he wanted to make her time here as pleasant as possible. He was glad that he had had some good nights with the cards this past week.
Becca looked in the purse. There was twenty-five dollars inside. She had never seen that much money, all at once, in her whole life. She stared at her husband open-mouthed.
+ + + + + + +
Becca sat drumming her fingers on the kitchen table. They had been in their new house for three weeks, and he had yet to come to a meal on time. It was as if he did not know what the proper meal times were supposed to be. Her Pa had taught her that, and if she ever put a meal on the table late, she felt the results of it for days. Her back ached at the memory. Didn't he know that breakfast was supposed to be at six o'clock? As far as that went, he did not know about lunch and supper either. The man could be so exasperating. She drummed her slim fingers faster. He seldom got up before ten o'clock. By the time he got ready to face the day it was almost time for lunch, and he hadn't even had his breakfast yet. The drumming stopped. "Fine," Becca muttered to herself. "If he can't eat it when I make it, he doesn't need it." She picked up the plate of ruined food and dumped it out the back door.
Ezra walked into the kitchen to see his wife washing the breakfast dishes. He glanced around and looked for the plate that she always had set aside for him for when he got up. It was nowhere to be seen. "Becca, might I inquire about my breakfast?"
"It was ruined, so I threw it out," she said flatly.
"I see. Then I shall acquire my meal elsewhere," he said coolly and headed for the saloon.
Becca smiled at his departure. Now he would know that if he wanted his meals he should be on time. She set about straightening the kitchen in a much happier mood.
+ + + + + + +
Rebecca Standish stormed down the street carrying a plate of cold stew. She ignored the quizzical looks she was receiving from the people she passed on her way to the saloon. The small woman shouldered her way through the bat wing doors and stopped to scan the room. Ezra sat at a table off to the left side, playing cards with four men she did not know. Becca strode to her husband's side and waited until he noticed her standing there. Without saying a word, she held the plate of stew over Ezra's lap, dumped it, and slammed the plate down on the table. Angrily, she marched back toward the doors, without looking back.
Ezra sat with a stunned expression on his handsome face. Slowly, he looked down at the mess in his lap. At last, he found his voice as anger rose to replace the surprise. "Becca!" He surged to his feet and took off after his wife. "What is the meaning of this outrageous behavior?" he fumed as he dropped bits of stew with each step he took.
"You didn't come home for your supper, so I brought it to you," she growled back at him.
Ezra finally caught up to her. He took hold of her arm and pulled her to a stop. She spun around and the look on her face caused the gambler to step back a half step. He had not realized that she could get that angry. "What are you talking about?" he asked in a strained voice.
"Supper is supposed to be at six o'clock," she blurted out as she tried not to yell at him.
"I beg your pardon?" Ezra was completely confused.
"Pa taught me that meals are supposed to be at the same time everyday, and supper is supposed to be at six o'clock." Her anger was ebbing, but she was now dangerously close to tears.
The southerner was starting to make some sense out of what was going on. "So does this explain my tossed out breakfast this morning as well?" Becca nodded slightly as the tears slide silently down her cheeks.
Ezra's anger cooled and he led his wife to a chair on the walk in front of the saloon. "Becca, I think we need to talk." The gambler felt suddenly protective of the small woman seated beside him. "What your Father taught you might have been right for his home, but that doesn't mean that it is right for ours. All people do not partake of their meals at the same times each day." He saw her lower her head in embarrassment as she realized that she had over reacted. "Don't concern yourself. I am not angry with you. You were only doing what your father had taught you to do. Just promise me one thing," he said as he looked at her expectantly.
"What's that?" she asked sheepishly.
"Next time my behavior is in conflict with what your father taught you, talk to me about it before you throw my supper in my lap." He wrinkled his nose at the goopy mess down the front of one of his best suits. Then he could not resist scraping off a glob of thick gravy and flicking it at the front of her dress. For a moment Becca was shocked, but then she started to laugh and Ezra quickly joined her. Neither one noticed the stares of those who passed by, as they watched the couple tossing bits of vegetables at each other and laughing like a couple of kids.
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