by Jenn

Authors Note: This story is told from the POV of Lara, a girl who works in the saloon helping Inez with the cooking / serving. Thnks to Lacey and Tammy for their encouragement and ideas. Ususal disclaimers apply.

Chapter 1
It's a slow night and there aren't many customers. The Seven are all here. That in itself is not strange, though one of them is often on patrol or doing some thing else. Not that they all sit together. Ezra's at his card table so I don't need to worry about him. He doesn't drink much when he plays. JD's playing tonight too, but he's not a big drinker. Buck is at the bar with Erica. I hear Nathan and Josiah discussing something about Indian culture when I take them their drinks, that means they'll be talking all night. I notice Vin and Chris at the back table keeping an eye on things. They aren't talking, but that's normal. Chris nods his thanks when I set down his usual bottle of Whiskey and two glasses. Now I know they are taken care of I check on the other costumers. Two cowhands are coming in the door. Both are big and look to have chips on their shoulders. They aren't any of our regular cowhands from around here. They're covered with dust so I'm thinking they've been on the trail. That isn't going to help matters. Suddenly I'm very glad the Seven are here. These two are trouble.

"GIRL!" One of them yells, looking at me. I hate it when I'm right. "Two beers!"

I get the bottles and take them to the table. Once I set them down I quickly leave. So far so good. But I have the feeling it won't last, and it doesn't. Next time I walk by the "friend" grabs my wrist.

"How about another beer and some company?"

I try to pull my hand away but he won't let me. "I have to go to the bar to get your beer," I reason with him. No luck.

"One of the others girls can bring the beer. Sit down."

I try to pull away again but he grips my wrist tighter. I can already tell I'm going to have a bruise. He pulls me toward him so I forget being nice to customers. "LET ME GO!" By now we've attracted attention. From the gaming table comes the sound of three hammers being cocked. The Remington Ezra keeps up his sleeve and JD's prized ivory handled Colts.

"Gentlemen, and I use the term loosely, I do believe the Lady asked to be released, and Gentlemen should always do as a Lady requests." Ezra's southern drawl is unmistakable.

"Besides, if you don't you get to spend the night in Jail."

The guy holding me must be getting nervous with three guns pointed at him 'cause he tightens his grip on my wrist even more, but I still feel better. These two idiots still don't realize the odds. Josiah must have seen the pain on my face or the tightness of the grip.

"If you break her wrist, I'll break yours."

Nathan is the next to comment. "I don't know if I'd be able to fix that wrist. Might have to amputate the hand." He's holding one of his knives as he says this, so he's taken seriously.

I feel the pressure on my wrist lesson and try to move away but he quickly yanks me back and around HARD. There's an intense burning pain in my shoulder, then I feel the barrel of the gun at my head.

"We're leaving now. Try to follow us, I shoot her."

It's silent in the saloon by now so every ones hears the deathly quiet voice. "Vin, can you get him with out hittin' the girl?"

"Stupid question, Chris," Vin notes, his gun is already aimed.

I fly forward into the nearby table when he pushes me as hard and fast as he can to try and distract the Seven. I end up doubled over in pain as I hear the two cowhands running out the door. I see JD and Buck head after them but Chris voice stops them.

"Let 'em go... for now." The last two words promise an unhappy future for the men in question.

"I'll track 'em easy enough in the morning, when we got some light." Vin voice is full of quiet confidence. He's not boasting, just stating a fact.

Nathan kneels down next to me. "Are you alright? Where does it hurt?"

I try to focus on him but the pain suddenly seems worse. "My wrist and shoulder. My side where I hit the table." It hurts to speak, to breathe.

He gently checks me over, then announces, "Let's get you to my clinic. Your wrist isn't broken, but it's bruised pretty badly. I think he tore some of the muscles in your shoulder. You got two maybe three cracked ribs. Can you stand?"

"Don't worry about it. I'll carry ya." This from Buck as he leans down to carefully lifts me in his arms, making sure not to hurt me worse. Nathan and Josiah are right behind us. As we leave I hear Chris saying some thing about the show being over.

Chapter 2

Buck sets me on the bed as carefully as if I was made of glass then moves out of the way. Nathan orders them to leave while he takes care of bandaging me. "OK we'll go make sure everything is quieted down in the saloon," agrees Josiah.

"We'll come back and see how ya are tomorrow, darlin'," promises Buck as they head out the door.

Nathan is gathering up some things and puts them on the table nearby. Mostly it's bandages, but there's a bottle of medicine. He pours some in a cup of water then hands it to me. "Here, this will help the pain and let you sleep."

He is very gentle as he wraps my ribs, shoulder and wrist. When that's done he helps me lie down on the bed since I can't support myself well with one arm. Once I'm comfortable he starts putting his stuff away. I'm not tired yet and figure I'll ask the question that's been on my mind. "Most doctors don't like helping women like me. How come you don't seem to mind?"

He turns and looks at me before answering. "I'm not a doctor. You been in town long 'nuff to know that."

No way I'm letting him off that easy. "You didn't answer my question. How come you help women like me?"

"You mean a woman who's been hurt by a person who thinks she's worth less than he is 'cause of what she does? Isn't much different from someone who was hurt by a person who thinks they're worth less because of the color of their skin. Unlike those idiots I know you serve food and work in the kitchen rather than serving men and working on your back."

"Guess I hadn't thought about it like that. Most don't think there is a difference. Just that I work in a Saloon. Thank you." I'm not sure what else to say till I see his knives and I have another question. "How did you learn knife play? If ya don't mind me askin'?"

He sits in the chair near the bed then answers. "It was just after the war ended. We weren't gettin' any new patients so things were slowing down. Mostly it was guys who were hurt bad so it'd be a while 'fore they could go home. One of them was Bill. His legs were busted up, but his upper body was fine and he could sit in a chair. He know how to knife fight and how to throw knives. I arranged for him to have time and a place to practice his knife throwing and in return he taught me how. The Doctors didn't mind since it helped keep him happy and occupied. Also helped keep his reflexes and upper body muscles good while his legs healed. Did that for weeks. He was a good teacher, very patient. Then once his legs got better and he could stand he taught me how to fight with a knife. I'd already learned fencing and that made it easier. These knives I carry were his. He gave 'em to as a gift before he went home, to thank me for helping him."

"That's a nice story. Do you know what happened to him after he went home?"

"No, I came out here not to much later. Why don't you try and get some rest? We can talk more tomorrow if Buck or JD don't come talk your ears off. But don't worry, if they do I'll stitch 'em back on." We both laugh. It hurts my ribs, but it's worth it. " Right now your body needs some sleep to help heal. I'll be in the next room if you need anything. Here's some more medicine for the pain if you need it later." Nathan finishes his instruction as he sets a glass down on the table. Then he turns down the lamp and goes to his room.

Chapter 3

I don't know how late it is. The medicine is making me groggy so I'm drifting in and out of sleep. I'm to nervous to sleep very deeply. I know the two guys were riding away, but they could come back and I'm alone now. I think I hear some one on the steps, but with the medicine I'm not sure. I hope it's Nathan checking on me. When I hear the door open I have to know. "Who's there?"

"It's Chris. Relax, everything's fine, go to sleep."

It's not that I don't trust him, but. . ."Why are you here if everything's fine?"

"Just to be sure those two don't come back and try anything."

"Do you think they will?"

"No, but I'd rather be careful and I'm not tired so I'll stand watch. You need to sleep."

"I was to nervous, to scared. What's your excuse?"

"To much alcohol."

I can't help smiling at that backwards reasoning. "Try something believab;e."

"To much coffee."

"You weren't drinking coffee. Try again."


"Want to talk about it?" Silence is my only answer. "For someone known for not sayin' much, you have a talent for making yourself understood." I see a flash of white teeth in the dim light as he smiles. His smile is something every woman in town would like to see more of. I just wish I could see it, and his stunning green eyes, better but it's dark in the room so I give up.

"If I have a talent for making myself understood why don't you understand that your safe and need to sleep? I'm not going anywhere. I'll protect you. . .Lara." His voice breaks as he says the name.

I'm not sure what to make of that. It sounds so unlike the Chris Larabee who can use his voice as a weapon that I give in. "Night." As I lay there drifting off something clicks in my mind. I remember a story I heard. Chris' family had died in a fire. He and Buck had gone to Mexico. He hadn't been there to protect them. That's why he's here now. Standing watch for me, and for the town. He hadn't been able to protect his family, but he could protect us. They never found who did it from what I remember. But tomorrow he will go out to find who hurt me and bring them in. It's the same thing, he can't find justice for himself but he can for me. I decide that's what his nightmares must be about. The fire, losing his wife and son. Probably why he spends so much time with the little Travis boy. 'Cause he can't be with his own son.

I doze off but the medicine must be doing something to me. It feels like I'm drifting somewhere between being awake and sleeping, not really either. I feel like something is coming but I can't see it so I don't know where to go, afraid I might run closer to it. Then I hear a voice. It's familiar but I can't place it. I can't make out the words but the tone is reassuring, soft but confident. I try to move towards it but there's no sense of a direction. Next comes the feeling that someone is gently brushing the hair out of my face. I hadn't even realized it had fallen forward when I was looking around. Like the voice the touch is gentle but sure. Some of the fear goes away. I'm not alone, I can sense that and it helps. Finally a few of the words are clear. The voice is telling me to drink. That doesn't make sense since there's nothing around to drink. I feel something cool flood my mouth and swallow out of reflex. Water, with something else in it. Just like the voice, the taste is familiar but I can't place it. Then it hits me, it tastes like the medicine Nathan had given me earlier. He put some more by the bed but how... I lose the train of thought as I fall asleep.

Chapter 4

Next time I wake up it's to the sound of heavy footfalls coming up the steps. Chris is still in the chair near me. He seems to recognize the step of the person on the way up so I relax as he stands up. He opens the door and greets Buck who walks in with a trey of food. He sets it down on the table then looks at me. "Inez asked me to bring this over for you two, and Nathan. Eat up."

"How'd you know I'd be here Buck?"

Buck gives one of his trademark smiles. "'Cause I know you. Now shut up and eat so we can leave."

"Wanted to talk to ya 'bout that. I think you should stay here with Nathan."

"Why?" Buck "asks" in a tone not many would dare use with the infamous Chris Larabee.

"Someone has to watch the town. And I don't want to leave Nathan here by himself in case the two of 'em come back once we leave."

"OK. But why me? JD could stay, he's the sheriff, or Ezra would love to stay in town instead of going for a ride in the desert."

"We need JD with us to arrest 'em. Ezra's staying with you and Nate. I want superior numbers in both groups. Buck, I know you want to come, and I know why. But it's why ya can't. I want 'em brought in alive. You can "talk" to them in the jail when we get back. Don't argue with me right now. I'm tired and still have a long day ahead." His tone of voice, and the promise of "talking" to them later, seems to convince Buck.

"All right, Chris. I'll stay, but remember to save a piece of them for me."

"You know I will, Pard." With this Chris grabs a biscuit from the trey and leaves. Buck must see my concern for that on my face.

"Don't worry, Vin will make sure he has some food. Let's eat ours, huh?" With that he sits down and arranges the food onto the three plates. As he's finishing Nathan comes in the room.

"Here's some breakfast Nate."

Nathan takes the plate Buck hands him then moves to set it down. "I'll check on my patient first."

"I'm fine, just hungry. Can we eat first?" I reach for the second plate to prove my words. I am hungry.

"OK, food first." He sits and starts on his breakfast. Things are quiet for a while with our mouths full. Inez is a good cook and the food delicious. Finally we finish and put the empty plates back on the trey.

"Now we're fed lets see how you're doing Miss Lara. Did the medicine I left last night help?"

I look over to the table and notice the cup is empty. I don't remember drinking it. Then it comes back to me. The dream, the liquid that tasted like the medicine. But I'm not sure how it was possible. It's on the side of my hurt shoulder and wrist so I couldn't have picked it up to drink it. The rest of the pieces from the night before fall into place. The voice I'd heard was Chris. He'd given me the medicine. He'd brushed the hair off my face from my tossing and turning. He'd been there. That's why I hadn't felt alone. He'd. . .

"Lara? You feeling OK?"

Nathans question drags me back to the present. I smile at him. "Yeah, it helped. I feel better this morning. Sore, but better."

" The bandages look good still. We can wait till tonight to rewrap them. Do you need more medicine?"

"Not right now, thanks."

"Well then, I'll take this back to Inez. I need to see Mrs. Potter about the things she was gettin' for me. You mind staying with Lara, Buck?"

"No offense Nate, but that's a dumb question. When did I EVER mind spending time with a beautiful woman?"

Nathan grins at the good natured insult. "I see your point." He goes to leave.

"Don't hurry back." Buck calls after him before turning to me. "So, what should we do till our chaperone returns?" He teasingly bounces his eyebrows up and down at me.

"You never quit, do you?"

"Not if I can help it." He settles more comfortably in his chair. "Don't guess you'd let me help wrap those ribs tonight?" He sounds so hopeful as he says this. But I know it's an act, Buck really is a gentleman. Of course, that doesn't mean he wouldn't take me up on the offer if I said yes.

"You, Mr. Wilmington, are impossible." I can't help chuckling as I say this. But Buck suddenly looks very serious, almost sad.

"You sound like Sara. She always said that."

I haven't seen Buck with anyone named Sara so I figure she's a lady from his past; but something makes me ask, "Who's Sara?"

"Chris' wife."

The last piece of the puzzle, the one I didn't know was missing, falls into place. Sara...Lara, the names are pretty close, it makes me wonder. "Did he ever her that he wouldn't go anywhere, that he'd protect her?"

Buck looks at me, considering, before he answers. "Yeah, not long before. . .our last trip. How did you know?"

"Last night Chris said that to me. His voice, well, it was different, when he said my name. Like he was thinking of another name. Rememberin' saying it to another person."

"Oh, well it's still hard for him. He loved her very much."

"So did you, right?"

"I loved her as a sister. She and Chris were made for each other. But lets change the subject. Last time I talked to a woman about Chris' past I ended up with a razor at my throat."

I can't resist asking, "How did that happen?"

"Well, I'd been talking to Mrs Travis, 'bout Chris. He found out and when I was getting a shave decided to play barber. Told me his past wasn't a topic for discussion. He had the razor at my throat to make sure I knew he was serious."

"Weren't you scared?"

"No, like I said, he just wanted to make sure I knew he was serious. He wouldn't slit my throat on purpose and he doesn't make mistakes. At least, not with blades or guns."

I just shake my head at that, amazed. "Can I ask you something, Mr Wilmimgton?"

"Not if you're gonna call me Mr Wilmington. I told ya weeks ago to call me Buck"

I smile at his teasing. "OK, Buck. What were you two talking about earlier? When he said you couldn't come and that you knew why."

Buck is quiet for a minute, then answers. "Well, I have a bit of a temper. Scum who hurt women tend to sent it off. Chris wanted to be sure those two were brought in alive, thought I might not be so picky about that. He was right."

"Inez told me about how you helped her when the Don came hunting her. She'd never tell you this but she was very impressed. That story is what made me curious about today."

He continues to tell me light hearted stories of the guys and the town for a while. He gets me to tell stories about my life as well. I'd always thought his success with women was because of his amazing good looks. Now I know it's more than that. He makes the woman he's with feel like she is important, that what she feels and thinks matters. What woman can resist that?

Nathan comes back and I need some of his medicine. I enjoyed laughing with Buck, but it made my ribs hurt. The medicine makes me tired and they leave me to get some sleep.

Chapter 5

This time I wake up to the sound of horses riding past the window. Buck is already at the window seeing what's going on. Somehow I'm not surprised to see him back in here. From the light coming in the window I guess it's early evening. After they've ridden by he turns to me. "The boys are back. They got the . . .prisoners."

"That's good to hear." We see Nathan standing at the door. "You go on Buck, I'll stay with Lara."

Buck nods and heads to the door. "Thanks Nate."

"How are you feeling?"

"Better, the sleep helped."

"Good. Let's get those bandages wrapped again while the others are busy."

He's very gentle as he unwraps the bandages checks the injuries then wraps me up again. The whole time he talks to me, distracts me. "Here's some medicine." I drink it gratefully since I'm still hurting. My wrist isn't so bad anymore but the shoulder and ribs are. We hear someone coming up the stairs so Nathan goes to answer the door.

"So how's your patient doing, Nate?"

"Just fine Josiah, she's doing just fine."

"Chris wants you over at the jail. Buck is "greeting" our new guests."

Nathan shakes his head slightly as he picks up his bag to leave. Josiah sits down by me.

"What's going to happen to those two men?"

"First, Buck's going to teach them some manners. Then Nathan will patch them up. That's when the "real" torture will begin as JD keeps them up all night telling bad jokes and stories, followed by Ezra lecturing them on their faults, in words they won't understand, except as insults. When Chris has gotten some rest and takes his turn at them he won't say a word, but they'll be begging to be hung just to stop him glaring at them. Next I'll read them some words from the Bible, to make sure they know all about where they'll end up if they don't change their ways. While Vin's sitting watch he'll tell 'em some of the other towns they could live in, for health reasons. He'll be checking his rifle over as he says this, with the barrels pointed in their direction, so they won't misunderstand. Finally, once our Sherif lets them out they will move on to one of those towns and we won't see them again." He says all this with a straight face and matter-of-fact tone of voice. I can't help grinning. Before I can say anything back JD comes in the door.

"I brought you some food." He sets down the trey.

"Thought you'd be at the jail," comments Josiah.

JD scowls. " I was, Buck said he didn't want me around while he "talked to" the prisoners. Like I don't know that he's going to talk with his fists. I wish he'd quite treating me like a kid."

"JD, he's looking out for you, but not as a kid. As sherif you'd have to try and stop him from hurtin' them. You wouldn't. That could get you in trouble with the Judge. Maybe even fired." Josiah looks kindly at JD during this explanation.

JD looks thoughtful for a minute. "You're right. Thanks. Enjoy the food."

"Why don't you stay and eat with us," I offer.

"Thanks but I'm need to check with Ezra on what's happened while we were gone. Hope you're feeling better, Miss." With that he ducks out the door.

Josiah chuckles, a low rumbling laughter. "JD's still a bit shy 'round ladies. Let's eat."

That's when I notice there's a problem. Breakfast had been biscuits and fruit and such. Easy enough to eat with one hand. This meal was a different matter. Before I can say anything Josiah is cutting the food into small pieces and generally making sure it's set so that I can eat the meal one handed. Once that's done he gives me the plate and makes his own. I'm amazed at the thoughtfulness. We enjoy the meal without saying much. I'm not sure what it is about him, but just his presence is comforting. After we're done I get the courage to ask the favor I've been wanting to for awhile.

"I know this isn't the Church, but will you hear my confession, Preacher?" He looks surprised at the request.

"I'm not a preacher anymore. But I'm still good at listening if you want to talk, and I can keep a secret." His says this with a gentle smile.

"I ran away from home. I know we're supposed to honor our father and mother, but I couldn't do what my father wanted me to. Women are supposed to get married and have kids, but I ran instead. Does that make me a bad person?"

He's quiet for a few minutes before he answers, thinking. "I guess that might depend on why you ran away and what your father wanted you to do. Children are told to honor their father and mother, but the parents need to be worthy of that honor. Last I checked the Lord gave women free will same as he did men. So why should men say what women are supposed to do? Will you tell me what happened?"

"Back home there's a man, Jenkins. He's very rich, very powerful, at LEAST twice my age. He was interested in me. I couldn't stand him. When I refused him, he went to my Pa and offered a lot of money if I married him. He's already buried two wives, I didn't want to see if the third time would be the charm. His second wife was a good friend of mine. It was NOT a happy marriage. Even while she was alive he would . . . look at me. She saw it and made me promise not to let what happened to her happen to me. I promised, and kept my word."

"Keeping your word is important. You ran to protect yourself, if the Lord, and the law, forgive killing in self defense, running away to protect yourself won't be a problem. I'd say that by trying to sell you your father gave up all rights to you. If you'd like we can talk to Judge Travis and make it official."

"Thank you for the offer, but there's no need now. I turned 18 on my way here. That's why Jenkins was in a hurry, he wanted it done before I was legally an adult and could choose for myself."

"You didn't tell Buck or Nathan?"

I'm not sure what he's getting at but I answer. "No. Why?"

"Well, you can figure Nathan's feelings on one person selling another. As for Buck, if he found out a father was selling his daughter, he'd likely hunt him down and kill 'em."

I see his point. "I hadn't thought about that. We'd better keep this to ourselves."

He grins over at me. "It'll be our secret."

"What about your family? What you were saying earlier, you sounded like you were talking from experience." He looks at me closely, obviously wondering if he can trust me. " I can keep a secret to." I assure him.

"I was speaking from experience. My father was a preacher. Fire and Brimstone. Shakespeare wrote that a Ceasers wife must be above reproach. My father thought that also applied to a ministers children and enforced it with his fists. It drove me to paths I shouldn't have taken and my sister to insanity. I wish she had run away as you did instead of staying and being a dutiful daughter."

His voice is so soft and filled with pain and regret that it breaks my heart. I know it's not enough but all I can tell him is, "I'm sorry." For his pain, and for making him relive it. I try to think of something that might help. "Will you tell me about her. Before. . ."

He does and the time passes quickly. Inez comes to check on me and get the empty food trey. Then Nathan returns from the jail.

"I trust you're doing better than my other two patients."

"Do tell, Brother Nathan," Josiah requests.

"They're alive, but in a great deal of pain." He gets a sly grin. "And I only have enough laudanum for Lara, so they'll have to suffer."

Josiah replies in a mockingly sympathetic voice, "Isn't that a shame. Those poor boys."

After Nathan checks me over again and leaves some medicine Josiah tells him to get some sleep. I ask him to read to me and he's so kind that he does. His voice is very a low rumble that I find very soothing so I soon fall asleep.

Chapter 6

I wake up to find Vin sitting by the window looking out. Soon as I move he turns to look at me. Vin is even more quiet than Chris, if that's possible, maybe it's a tie. . . I also noticed he has the ability to fade into the background. Not that keeps the women from seeing his good looks. . .My thoughts are interrupted when he speaks.

"Morning." He smiles kindly as he says it. "Sent Josiah to get some rest before he stops by the jail to give the prisoners some "instruction from the Old Testament" he called it. I call it putting the fear of God, and guns, into 'em."

I notice him look out he window again. "Is it as nice a day as it looks from here?"

"Yeah, it's beautiful morning. Mrs. Travis is on her way."

A couple minutes later we hear her light step on the stairs.

"Good morning, Vin. Lara."

"Mrs. Travis. Need any help with that stuff?"

"No thank you. It's just some fresh clothes and such for Lara. If you could give us a minute."

Vin's out the door in a second. We look at each other and laugh. After she helps me change she lets Vin back in.

"I have to get back to Billy, but I'll come check on you later. I'm sorry I can't stay longer," she apologizes before hurrying out.

I notice Vin is looking out the window again and get an idea. "You know Nathan better than I do. Think he'd let me go outside?"

"He got called to the Smith's. One of the boys got sick last night. That means he'll be gone for awhile and what he doesn't know won't hurt us. If you're sure you feel up to it?"

"I feel OK, just stir crazy by now."

"I know the feeling, let's go."

He stays close as we go down the stairs. Each steps jars my ribs so it's painful, but I make it down on my own. Once on the porch I sink into the chair. They aren't the most comfortable, but after walking it's a relief to sit. The sun is just come up and people are starting to show themselves outside. I can't keep from looking down towards the jail. Of course, I should have known Vins' sharp eyes would catch that.

His soft drawl breaks the morning quiet. "Don't worry, you're safe from them. They can't get out and even if they did I have my gun with me. The jail's close enough I'd have 'em soon as they walked out the door. To do that they'd have to get passed Josiah and that ain't gonna happen."

"I thought you said he was getting some sleep?"

"I saw him go ta the jail right before you woke up."

"You don't miss anything do you?" I'm half joking, half serious asking this.

"Can't afford to." Is his matter of fact reply.

"Don't 'spose you'd explain that?" I ask even though I know the answer.

"Don't 'spose I would." He smiles at me as he says it to take the sting out. "I've seen you out riding, you're good. Where'd you learn?"

I decide to go along with his change of subject. Mostly 'cause I don't have much choice. "My best friend growing up had some horses, her dad taught both of us. Megan and I were so close it was like I was part of their family. When her dad died a few years ago her mom gave me the horse you see me riding, said he'd want me to have it."

"Just be careful out there riding alone," he advises.

"You go out alone for days at a time," I remind him.

"That's different and you know it. I been doin' it for years and have a gun with me. Also got some places I can hole up if I need to. Not to mention a damn mother hen for a big brother."

He sounds so irritated as he says the last part that I can't keep from smiling. "Don't forget your nurse maid doctor. I've seen how he gets when one of you guys is hurt." As I finish I start laughing softly at the whole thing, soon he is as well. It's a nice sound, one I'd like to hear more often.

"I do have a gun, also thanks to Megans dad. I haven't practiced for a while and am not a great shot, but I have it and take it with me when I ride."

"Once your healed up I'll work with ya," he offers. "Gun doesn't help if you can't use it. I can show you some ways to judge distance and aim better." He looks at me to see my reaction.

"I'd appreciate that. Thank you. How long do you think it'll be before I can start?" I hope it'll be soon. I would feel better with some real teaching and practice.

"Till Nathan says. 'Least a few weeks, ya don't want to hurt yourself worse."

We sit quietly for a while watching the town start the day. By mid morning it's getting hot. With some help from Vin I get back up to my room. Going up stair is worse than coming down them I discover. The pain is worth it to have been outside for a few hours. Nathan had left some medicine and the pain is soon not as bad.

Chapter 7

About noon JD and a trey of food appear in the door. "Hey Vin, Miss Lara. Chris needs to see you at the Saloon Vin. I'll stay with Miss Lara."

With a quiet thanks to JD and good bye to me Vin heads to the saloon. The food JD brought quickly disappears, I'm hungry and he has the appetite of a growing boy. After we're done eating he seems a bit distracted so I ask him what's on his mind.

"Well, I asked Chris to let me bring your lunch and stand watch so I could talk to you, but now I'm not sure how to start."

"The beginning is usually a good place."

He grins a little sheepishly. "I guess it is." He thinks for a while before continuing, "It began at the 4th of July party the town had last week. Casey got upset because I wouldn't spend the day with her. I told her that as sherif I had a job to do. I need to keep an eye on things. She said that if the job was more important to me than she was she didn't want to see me any more. She hasn't talked to me since then. I'm not sure what to do. Except maybe quit as sherif. It might be for the best anyway."

"Why do you say that? How would you quitting be for the best?"

"It's not like I'm doing a great job anyway. Besides, the Seven would still be here. I wouldn't quit that, just being sherif."

I try to reassure him. "What do you mean your not doing a great job? You're doing fine."

"Yeah, right. I can't even protect you ladies. I'm sorry I let them hurt you." He looks so sad and sincere as he says this. And so young, he can't be much older than me, I hadn't thought about that before. He really does have a lot of responsibility for being so young.

"JD, you didn't let them do anything. You stopped them."

"No, WE stopped them. If the others hadn't been there. . ."

Now I'm curious so I ask. "What would you have done? Shot them?"

"Them, or you."

" At that range you could have easily done it without hitting me."

"Maybe," he concedes. "But if I hadn't hit you it could have been another innocent."

"Another innocent? What are you talking about?"

"Before you came there was a bank robbery. During the shooting one of my bullets hit a lady. She died. I killed an innocent woman, and let you get hurt right in front of me. What kind of sherif does that make me?"

"A human one," I answer. "One who makes mistakes. One who can't control everything all the time. I heard about Annie. It was an accident. They happen. It could have been one of the robbers bullets just as easy as yours. What happened to me wasn't your fault. If you want to blame someone blame the guy who hurt me, maybe his friend as well. I do."

We're silent for a long time. Both lost in our own thoughts.

"So, I don't quit as sherif. How do I get Casey to talk to me? You're a girl, that's why I wanted to talk to you. You know how women think, and I haven't got a clue. I don't know what to do to show Casey she IS important to me."

Now he seems to be feeling better about being sherif I answer his question on Casey. "Let me guess, she said something about their being six other men who could keep an eye on things?" He nods a yes, so I continue. "She probably thought you were using your job as sherif as an excuse not to spend time with her. That one of the other guys could have done it but you wanted to avoid her, so you took the job."

"That's not true though. I did want to spend time with her. But they aren't the sherif, I am. It wouldn't be fair to make them do my job."

"I know that. Now we have to figure out how you can convince Casey."

We start going back and forth on ideas of how he can make things up to Casey and get her to talk to him. Neither of us pay attention to the time till it starts to get dark and Inez brings some food.

Chapter 8

"Mister Dunne, I do believe you are monopolizing Miss Lara."

We both turn at the sound of Ezras amused southern draw, caught completely off guard. We'd been so caught up in talking that we hadn't heard him come upstairs. JD recovers before I do. "Hey, Ezra. What are you talking about? Mon-opo-lizing? I'm just talking to her."

"Mr. Larabee wanted me to remind you that it's your turn at the jail this evening. I will have the pleasure of staying and keeping this young lady company."

Picking up the trey JD goes to the door. "I'll take this back to Inez on my way. Maybe the prisoners would like to hear more of my jokes. They didn't seem to get some of them last night, I'll give 'em another try."

"Excellent idea JD." Ezras voice is approving but also amused as he says this.

JD smiles at him. "Thanks Ezra." Then he looks at me. "Thank you, I . . . well, thanks." He looks almost embarrassed and quickly disappears down the steps.

Ezra seats himself in the chair before speaking. "So, my dear girl, what shall we do to entertain ourselves? Reading, conversation, a card game?"

"I don't have any money here for a game of cards." As I say this I realize, I don't have money for anything. And being here I'm not earning any, and won't be able to till I heal enough to work again.

Ezras concerned voice breaks my reverie. "What's wrong? You've gone pale. Are you in pain? Should I send for Nathan?"

"I'm OK. Just broke, financially and physically. I don't have much saved and now I can't work." I watch Ezras concerned look turn into a blank poker face almost as if it were a mask he was putting on. I can tell he's thinking but he's more than good enough at hiding his thoughts to keep me from seeing what they are. "I'm sorry, you don't need to hear about my problems."

"Nothing to be sorry for. Try not to worry. Right now you need to heal. Things will work out as far as money. I have an idea that may help, but for the moment nothing can be done."

"What's your idea?"

"It would be best if I explain it to you later, when I . . . have the details worked out."

I know he isn't going to tell me any more till he's ready to so I take his advice and try not to worry. He shows me some card tricks to distract me.

"Looks like you're doing well," comments Nathan as he sets his bag down.

"I do feel better. How is the Smith boy?"

"He's going to be fine."

Ezra stands and walks to Nathan. "I need to speak with Chris but it shouldn't take long."

"What's goin' on Ezra?"

"I'll explain when I return." He's gone before Nathan can say anything else.

" I better check your injuries while he's gone." He is gentle as he does it and seems pleased with what he sees. "You should be able to go back to your own room tomorrow. I'll give you a sling to hold your arm till your shoulder finishes healing. We need to keep your ribs wrapped for a while longer, but you can come see me every day or two for that."

Ezra walks in with a smirk on his face and hands me a small bag. "I talked to Mr. Larabee and our young sherif. It seems there is a monetary fine for assault and for being an accomplice to assault. It was decided that since you were the one hurt you should get the money. Five dollars each. It's not a lot, but perhaps it will help." He turns to Nathan. "If you are done here they need you at the jail. The prisoners need some of their bandages changed."

Nathan starts gathering things before commenting. "Funny, I never heard of that fine before."

Ezras poker face is quickly in place. It's almost like he's embarrassed at being caught doing something nice for someone. "Yes, well, as sherif, Mr. Dunn can . . ."

Nathan smiles at him. "It's a good idea, Ezra. I better get over there."

The only thing I can think to say is, "Thank you."

"You're welcome. You certainly deserve it. I brought todays copy of the Clarion would you like to hear what's been going on in town?"

I nod and be gins reading the stories. His comments are clever and make the stories entertaining. Before long Nathan returns and sees me yawn. He's sends Ezra away so I can get some sleep. Through the open window I hear Ezra greet Buck who's patrolling the town. Knowing he's out keeping watch I fell safe enough to fall deeply asleep.

Chapter 9
1 Month Later

As I'm about to walk by the window of the saloon I hear voices and stop to listen. Ezras southern drawl is easy to pick out. "What exactly are you saying Mr. Dunne?"

"I'm saying, I've never seen you play so badly."

"The boy has a point, Ez." That's gotta be Buck. Then I hear Josiah. "I'd have to agree with the boy. A girl who's never played much poker winning $20 from you in one game doesn't seem likely."

When Ezra speaks again I hear a hard edge to his voice. "Are you accusing me of cheating?"

I realize they're talking about me and the poker game Ezra sweet talked me into the day before. Chris' quiet voice draws my attention back to the conversation. "No one's accusing you of cheating Ezra. We all know ya only do that if the other player cheats first. Why don't you just admit you felt bad for the girl and wanted ta help her? Losing money to her in a card game was a smart way to give her some money without it attractin' much attention or givin' her a chance to say no."

I back away before they can see me. I'd thought it was strange when I was winning so often yesterday but Ezra claimed it was beginners luck. I should have known better. I feel so embarrassed that I go visit Mary and Billy to hide for awhile. Since it's supposed to be my first night back at work I can't stay long.

When I walk into the saloon I get a feeling that I remember mom calling De Ja Vu. Like I'd done this before. The guys are almost exactly where they were a month ago when I got hurt. It's early enough that the saloon is quiet as it had been that night. I have to force myself not to look around for the two cowhands. The always observant Vin noticed me come in and nods to me with a smile. Chris lifts his glass slightly in my direction.

It doesn't take long for Nathan to catch my attention. "I know I said you could work, but take it easy. You're still not completely healed. Come see me tomorrow." I promise I will and continue on. Up at the bar Buck teases me. "Now Darlin' you know men can't resist a damsel in distress. The sight of you here working when you should be resting is going to break our hearts. Even Ezra's, and it's made of gold." We share a look of understanding. He could have meant Ezra only loved money, but we both know he meant Ezra had a heart of gold. Somehow Buck knows I found out about the "game". I see that in his clear blue eyes but don't have time to figure out how he knows. It's starting to get busy.

JD comes over and tells me he patched things up with Casey. He looks so happy and relieved that I find myself smiling as well. When I take Ezra his drink I see my chance to thank him. "Here's your brandy Mr. Standish. It's on the house, as a thank you for the game and the beginners luck." Another customer comes up so I leave before he has a chance to say anything. I can feel Josiah keeping an eye on me which is very comforting. By the end of the night I'm sore, but glad to have life back to normal.


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