Mary Travis looked at the books for The Clarion News and sighed. She was losing money... even faster than usual. At this rate she would have to cut the paper from a daily to a bi-weekly and hope she could sell enough to make that profitable.
She glanced up as the bell on the door tinkled to announce the arrival of a visitor and saw Ezra Standish step inside.
"Good morning, Mrs. Travis." He said cheerfully. Then his eyes took in her glum expression and he asked, "Whatever is the matter, my dear?"
"I'm afraid that you didn't make a very good investment when you decided to buy into the paper, Ezra. I seem to be losing customers."
"Indeed? Well then we shall just have to do something to get them back." He grinned that mischievous grin of his and a sparkle lit his green eyes. "You know," he said thoughtfully, "I have been thinking of trying my hand at writing. I was telling that Mister Steele, who wrote the book about us, some of the stories from my years as a con man and he seemed to think that I might have some talent in that direction."
She leaned back in her chair, "Well, the way things are going I'd be willing to try just about anything... and you are an investor."
"Well, the story that I have in mind would be rather scandalous...."
Her eyebrows went up, "Scandalous?"
"Indeed. In fact, perhaps we ought to include a warning that the story is unsuitable for young readers." His grin spread.
She stared at him, intrigued. She had heard some of his stories and they had always been interesting to say the least but she had always suspected that he edited them for whatever audience he was telling it to.
She picked up a pencil. "Give me the basic outline."
He laughed out loud at whatever memory he was thinking of and began to talk.
Josiah Sanchez, Nathan Jackson, Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were sitting around the seven's regular table in the saloon having breakfast. Vin and Chris were preparing to relieve Buck and JD at the jail. Josiah and Nathan were getting ready to ride out to the Seminole village.
Josiah was reading the morning paper. Suddenly he laughed.
Nathan looked up, "What's so funny?"
"It looks like Brother Standish has decided to take an active hand in increasing the value of his investment."
"Ezra? Hell, he ain't gonna do no work." Nathan declared.
"Maybe... Brother... may be but it does appear that he is going to be writing a column for the paper."
Amid demands to know what he was talking about, Josiah folded the paper so that he had the bottom half of the front page facing him and began to read. "Coming soon: A never before published work of fiction in serialized form. Starting this Monday week The Clarion News will proudly present the novel: Scandalous: The Story of a Con by Anonymous."
"If it's by anonymous how do you know it's Ezra?" JD demanded.
"Just listen to the rest of this." Josiah said patiently and continued to read from the paper. "Please be advised that this story is not for the young or easily shocked. It will appear as an inserted page to the paper. Summary of story: In the summer of eighteen sixty-eight, a conwoman and her son invade Galveston society. This story is a work of fiction, with more than a grain of truth in it. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, as well as the guilty. Where lies the line between truth and illusion? That is for you to decide, dear reader."
"Sure sounds like Ezra." Buck laughed.
"...and he tells a hell of a story." Vin grinned at the memory of some of the tales Ezra had woven to pass the time when they were on the trail. More than a few of them had been scandalous. "Reckon it just might get folks to buying the paper."
"I ain't reading no story about some con that him and that ma of his ran!" Nathan put in self-righteously.
"Now Brother Nathan..."Josiah chided, "You know that Ezra's not as bad as he tries to appear... and you've certainly listened to enough of his stories!" He grinned wolfishly at the healer, recalling more than one time when Ezra had had Nathan hanging on his every word right along with the rest of them.
As the healer looked flustered, Chris put in, "Ezra does know how to tell a story." He thought of all the times that the conman had livened up a dull afternoon with some tales so wild that he'd wondered if there was *any* truth in them.
For the next week and a half until the Monday in question rolled around, Ezra found himself besieged by his friends and acquaintances alike wanting to know if he was the author and what the story was about.
The Monday that the first installment appeared, Mary printed up almost twice as many papers as usual. Ezra had instructed her to do so saying that he would cover the cost of the print run himself, if they did not sell.
She need not have worried. After the daily countdown that Ezra had had her put in each paper, leading up to the first installment, everyone in town was waiting with bated breath to see it.
Monday morning, The Standish Tavern
Five of the seven were sitting around their table in the saloon waiting when Josiah walked in grinning, carrying the paper.
He sat down, laid the paper at his elbow on the table and signaled Inez to bring him his usual breakfast.
"Well!?" JD demanded, "Is it in there? What's it about? Huh?" He was practically bouncing.
Ezra had adamantly refused to tell them if he was the author or if he knew anything about the story. Gleefully telling everyone who asked that they would just have to read it and decide for themselves who they thought wrote it.
"Come on Josiah! Read it to us!" Pleaded Vin, more than a little afraid that his reading skills wouldn't be up to deciphering what he assumed to be Ezra's words.
"Now, Brothers... one should not start something like this on an empty stomach. I'll read it... after I've had my breakfast."
JD reached for the paper but Josiah swept it off the table and tucked it under his leg in the chair. "This is *my* paper," he laughed, "If you can't wait until after breakfast, go get your own!"
JD slumped in his chair. He'd lost all his money to Ezra the night before in a poker game. He couldn't buy his own.
Finally Josiah was finished eating, after having deliberately drawn it out just to tease JD. He picked up the paper and opened it to the center page and began to read.
"Scandalous: The Story of a Con by Anonymous. Please do not read this if you are under eighteen or easily shocked...."
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It was the spring of eighteen sixty-eight and the South lay in ruins, crushed under the heel of the North.
But New Orleans was still New Orleans. A city of lights and laughter. A city of darkness and despair. Yankee carpetbaggers rubbed shoulders in its streets with southern aristocracy, both feeding off the carcass of the war ravaged land. All of them ignoring the hundreds of newly freed slaves and dozens of their former masters, who lay starving in the streets, side by side.
For a man who lived by his wits it was a sea of opportunity and I was in my element. Mother had fled two months before, caught out in the web she'd woven to snare a wealthy mark. I had had nothing to do with that particular fiasco and had elected to remain behind when she had left, as I was doing extremely well at the gaming tables.
I was visiting with my Great Aunt Yvonne, staying in her home. She was a lovely woman of Creole ancestry. At sixty, her raven hair was still as black as ever and her eyes still as clear and bright as stars. It was there that Mother's letter reached me.
Short and directly to the point as always. It simply said.
Come at once. I require your assistance. I am at the Seaside Hotel in Galveston, Texas.
I knew, of course, that what she required my assistance with was a con... but she was my mother and I am a dutiful son. So, I packed my bags, saddled my horse, Gamble, and headed for Galveston.
Had I known what she had in mind, I would have boarded a ship for the Orient.
To Be Continued.
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Josiah threw back his head and laughed. The rest of the center insert was taken up completely with advertising, including a prominent ad for the Standish Tavern.
"It can't stop there!" JD howled.
Buck and the others simply whooped at his dismay.
"That's the whole idea!" Chris explained. "People will buy tomorrow's paper to see what happens."
"...and they'll tell their friends about it and they'll buy tomorrow's paper to see what happens!" Buck grinned.
"...and the paper will make more money." Vin said.
"...and that's good for Mary." Josiah added.
"...and Ezra," Nathan put in, "don't forget he's an investor now."
By the time that Ezra got up just before noon the town was buzzing with gossip about the story and he couldn't take two steps outside the tavern without someone approaching him to plead with him to tell them if he was the author and to ask what happened next.
Tuesday morning, The Standish Tavern
JD bounded in clutching a copy of The Clarion News. He waved it at the other four men sitting at the table and crowed, "I got my own today!" Before throwing himself into one of the empty chairs.
Josiah had not arrived yet with his copy of the paper and JD tore open the one that he had and grabbed the insert ignoring the rest of the paper. He began to read, soon snorting and laughing as he did so.
"Hell, JD, don't keep it to yerself, boy!" Buck complained as JD chuckled as he silently read the story.
JD looked up and gave them an innocent look. "Thought ya'll were waiting for Josiah."
Just then Josiah came in and sat down. He had his paper in his hand.
"Reckon since he's here he can read it to us." Vin put in although he was really as eager to hear more of the story as JD. He knew that JD would read too fast and he would miss more of it than if Josiah read it.
Josiah smiled at them and signaled Inez to bring him some coffee but told her that he'd wait for breakfast until after he read the installment.
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I rode into Galveston, Texas on the morning of June seventeenth, eighteen sixty-eight. Unlike the fair city of New Orleans with its cobblestone streets, Galveston had no paved thoroughfares. I gave my horse his head and Gamble picked his way carefully through the ocean of mud. Lifting his hooves high and making certain of his footing before shifting his weight to the newly planted foot.
The hurricane season was well underway and the island that the city of Galveston lay on had obviously already taken a beating. While a few huge stone buildings stood high and proud most of the town was made of sagging clapboard buildings, weather-beaten with busted windows and hanging signs giving silent testament to a recent blow.
I found the Seaside Hotel precisely where I thought it would be, sitting despondently near the beach, boards nailed over recently broken windows, the sign hanging crookedly by one hook over the entrance.
I drew Gamble to a stop at the hitching post and stepped down, sinking almost to my ankles in the muck. I sighed as I picked my way to the porch being as careful of my footing as Gamble had been of his. Stepping up onto the stoop I spotted a boot scraper and being a gentleman stopped long enough to clean some of the muck off my boots before entering the establishment.
As soon as I crossed the threshold I realized that I needn't have wasted my time. The threadbare carpet in the lobby was buried beneath a quarter inch of mud and muck, squishing horribly under my feet. The smell of salt water and fish was stronger within than without. The unfortunate hostel had no doubt already been underwater at some point and I would not have been the least bit surprised to have seen some poor floundering fish, flipping and flopping about the floor.
I made my way to the registration desk or what passed for one. Unvarnished, scarred and pitted from years of use without any corresponding care, it looked as rickety as the stairs, which a dozen steps to the right lead upward to the second floor. A half dozen or so chairs, all of which looked to have seen better days were scattered around the lobby.
A bored looking clerk who might have been sixteen sat on a high stool behind it reading a dime novel. He glanced up at me and I could see him judge and dismiss me with that single glance.
"We ain't got no rooms," he drawled and went back to the book he had been pursuing.
I knew what he thought he saw. At twenty-one I looked no more than seventeen... eighteen, if one were being charitable. I was used to being underestimated and actively encouraged it. In my profession one did not want people to consider one dangerous. He saw a young dandy in a sea green coat, just a harmless kid much like himself only with more money and I wasn't about to dissuade him of the notion.
He hadn't noticed the Colt Richards Conversion in its shoulder holster hidden beneath my finely tailored jacket nor the derringer in its quick release rig strapped to my forearm. He certainly had no idea that both had already claimed the lives of men who had underestimated me.
I gave him a disdainful look that clearly said, I wouldn't be caught dead staying in this pitiable excuse for a hotel and said, "I merely wish to inquire as to the room number of Mrs. Miriam Simmons."
He didn't even look up as he said, "Two oh seven... but she ain't in."
"Then I suppose I'll simply have to wait," I said and turned away heading towards one of the dilapidated chairs that graced the lobby. When I was sure his attention was firmly back on his dime novel I slipped swiftly and silently up the rickety stairs to the second floor. It only took me a moment to locate Mother's room... and a few seconds more to pick the lock. I had a natural talent for opening locks, which Mother had ardently encouraged me to practice.
I pushed open the door and stepped inside, closing and locking it behind me automatically before the contents of the room registered. As soon as they did, I swore fervently and turned to yank open the door, forgetting in my haste to escape the fate that Mother had planned for me, that I had locked it. It took me a moment to get it unlocked again and jerk it open.
Only to come face to face with Mother as she reached to unlock the door.
"Eric! Darling!" She cried and threw her arms around me, stepping forward as she did so and backing me into the room. She quickly released me and turned to close and lock the door.
'Damn!' I swore to myself, "trapped like a rat on a sinking ship!'
TO BE CONTINUED
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"What da ya'll think is in that room?" Nathan asked.
"What ever it is Ez sure didn't like it!" Buck whooped.
"We still don't know for sure that it's Ezra writing this." JD protested.
"Who else would it be kid? Just listen to the words he uses!" Buck gloated. "It's gotta be Ezra!"
When Ezra came down stairs at noon he was greeted by Buck's demanding to know what happened next. The big gunfighter was absolutely sure that Ezra was writing the saga even though no one had been able to spot him doing any writing.
Buck and JD were waiting on the sidewalk in front of the Clarion for their copy of the paper when Mary opened the door. They weren't the only ones.
Grabbing their copies, the two took off for the saloon, making sure that they got good seats. Only moments later Josiah came in to find the two already whooping over the next installment.
Chris looked up at him and said, "Better wait for Nathan to start reading it out loud."
"I'll go get him," Vin said jumping up and heading for the door, impatient to hear the next part.
Just as he reached the door Nathan came through it. Vin grabbed his arm. "Come on, Nate. We're waitin' fer ya so Josiah can read ta us."
Nathan shook his head but let the tracker lead him to a seat.
As he sat down Vin eagerly turned to Josiah. "Well, ya gonna read it?" He demanded.
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"M-mother," I stammered.
"It's so good to see you, dear." Miriam Simmons, also known as Miriam Sinclair, gushed at her only child. She moved past him and went to sit on the edge of the bed, "Aren't the dresses lovely, darhling."
"Yes, Mother." I couldn't deny that. The dresses were exquisite. "However, I just don't think they are quite *me*... if you know what I mean." I backed towards the door and escape.
Mother quickly got to her feet and walked over to me, slipping her arm through mine and led me over to one of the mannequins, one which had a beautiful white velvet and satin dancing dress on it. The hoop skirt stood out in a perfect circle.
I swallowed hard.
"I thought that this would be perfect for your introduction to Galveston society."
"Mother. I simply do not see how you think that I could ever wear such a... a... *revealing* dress." Granted I had dressed as a girl once before but I'd only been twelve and the dress had effectively covered me completely. This dress however... this dress was absolutely scandalous! It was cut to the top of the breasts in front and almost to the waist in back. Good Lord!
"It'll be fine darhling! We have two weeks before the Independence Day Celebration begins and the Grand Ball is several days after that."
"Motheeeeerrrrr!" I growled, "I really fail to see how you expect me to... to... develop a... a bosom in two weeks." I stammered.
"Oh you don't have to worry about that, dear. The corset will do that."
"C-corset?" This was getting worse by the moment.
"Yes, dear." She smiled brightly at me.
I was doomed.
My gaze wondered around the room as I sought some escape. Well at least she had good taste. My gaze fell on a red velvet dancing dress, much like the white one except for the color. Exquisite. I loved velvet and red was my favorite color.
I was definitely doomed... utterly, completely doomed.
I sat staring at my reflection in the mirror with a scowl. I really should have run.
A bald-headed woman scowled back at me. The corset had been bad enough. The dress was worse. Then she had shaved my head. *Shaved* my head!
She was currently dabbing spirit gum on my now bald scalp. A moment later she began to carefully fit a long blonde wig onto my head.
When she was done I looked in the mirror again and shuddered. I looked entirely too much like Mother in that wig.
Mother, however, looked quite pleased with the results. I had no idea that the torture she had planned for me had only just begun.
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"Well, hell now we know why Ez didn't need any help getting dressed for Wickestown!" Buck whooped.
"She *shaved* his head!" JD asked in disbelief.
Nathan just shook his head. He never thought about what a con artist might have to go through to pull off a con. Just the thought of a man being coerced into shaving his head and dressing up like a woman to pull off a con was daunting. He knew that, even if he'd ever had the physical appearance to have been able to pull off such a stunt, he'd have been too ashamed to try.
Wearing a corset and a wig glued to his head besides the indignity of wearing a dress.... Nope, he'd never have had the nerve. He looked down at his glass then took a swallow from it. Which meant that, if this was Ezra... and if he had done this... then he had a lotta nerve... a lotta courage. Not something he'd ever really given Ezra credit for.
Josiah looked over at him. "You're awful quiet, Brother Nathan. Something on your mind?"
Nathan turned the glass around in his hand a long moment. "Just thinkin'." He didn't say anymore for a moment.
Josiah and the others waited patiently for him to go on. "Musta took some nerve... ya know. Ta make like a woman... for however long it musta took. Don't seem like this con they're running's gonna be over quick like Ezra goin' out ta Wickestown was. Seems like he's gonna have ta fool folks fer quite a while. Cain't have been easy." His voice was thoughtful.
Chris raised an eyebrow then nodded in acknowledgement. "Can't have been." He agreed, starting to hope that Nathan might finally be beginning to see why he'd wanted Ezra with them at the Indian village. Conning people took nerve. It took intelligence and a willingness to do what ever had to be done to get he job done.
Josiah gave a small nod. Nathan had always been stand offish with Ezra, not approving of his profession or his attitude. Perhaps now he'd start to see that while what Ezra did wasn't really admirable... it also wasn't always easy. That it could be a lot of work.
Wednesday afternoon brought a telegraph for Mary. It was from the paper in Willow Creek asking if they might copy the serial in their weekly paper, printing all five parts in their Saturday edition for a small consideration to the author of course.
After a quick consultation with Ezra, Mary agreed. Ezra had simply laughed at the news and told her to accept the consideration, instructing her to have them send it directly to her at the Clarion as he wished to remain anonymous and the paper could use the small influx of money.
When Mary opened her door that morning she found six peacekeepers standing waiting for their papers along with a good half of the town.
She couldn't help grinning. She, like Ezra, was dodging the question of who Anonymous was but she wasn't about to tell. The paper's circulation was definitely much improved and she found herself wondering if he had any other stories that could be serialized in the paper.
Although the others all had their own copies of the paper this time, they still followed Josiah into the saloon and sat down to eagerly await his reading it to them.
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After this morning I am quite sure that should I ever be captured and tortured by wild Indians I shall have no difficulty surviving. Mother could give them lessons.
The morning did not start all that badly. She insisted that I take a hot bath. That was quite acceptable. I love a good long soak in a tub of hot water. When she laid a hot towel over my face I assumed she was merely softening up my beard for shaving. I should have known better.
When she removed the towel I was dozing slightly in the deliciously hot water. I noted idly that she was stirring something in a bowl but paid little attention until she reached over and smeared the concoction on my upper lip. It smelled of honey and was somewhat warm. I recalled that she had mentioned putting some kind of cream on my face to smooth the skin. I assumed that this was the cream and closed my eyes back again, still not overly concerned. I drifted lazily in the water, wondering vaguely why she was pressing a strip of cloth into the cream but since nothing else happened for a moment I continued to doze as whatever it was hardened slightly on my upper lip.
I came fully awake in an instant when she gave the strip of cloth a quick jerk and ripped it and the hardened cream off my face taking all the hair on my upper lip with it. I suspect Great Aunt Yvonne may have heard me yell all the way to New Orleans.
She then informed me that *this* was how she intended to remove all my facial hair.
That led to in a slight difference of opinion that resulted in the bathtub being turned over in the floor and a thoroughly undignified wrestling match taking place between myself and my Mother. I was at a disadvantage, being nude and as I did not want to do serious damage to her.
Mother, however, was utterly determined and had no qualms about using every man's greatest vulnerability against me. Suffice it to say that she won. I suffered through the agony and affront of having not only my facial hair but all body hair above the waist, removed with the honey and beeswax mixture.
Fortunately she allowed a brief respite after that harrowing experience and permitted me to rest for an hour with a soothing mask made of cucumber, almond oil and honey smeared on all the areas that she had stripped of hair. That was not unpleasant.
Soon, however, she was ready to continue the torture. She apparently had decided that I needed to remove at least one layer of skin. To accomplish this she mixed up a scrub made by grinding the dried peels of oranges and lemons with oatmeal. After adding enough warm water to make a paste she proceeded to smear it over the same area that she had stripped of hair and began rubbing it in. It felt like she was giving me a bath with sand.
She had ordered a second bath, having had the hotel clerk clean up the mess from the first one. I was allowed to rinse the concoction off in that.
This was once more followed with the cucumber mask then that was followed with a chamomile and rosemary rinse. Both were quite pleasant and I was truly surprised at the change in my skin. After only the one treatment it was noticeably smoother.
Once she was satisfied with my appearance she began lessons in how to walk, talk and conduct oneself as a lady.
Within a week's time I had become accustomed to the daily rituals of bathing, using the scrub and the masks. I could walk across a level floor or even up and down the staircase with a book sitting level on my head without dropping it. I had learned the language of the fan, (Yes, every single thing a girl does with her fan *means* something!), I had learned to keep my voice soft and use both my voice and my eyes to flirt... shyly of course as befitted a fragile flower of the south.
A week and a day after I arrived at the Seaside Hotel, Mother deemed me ready to be introduced to the mark. She indulged in one final round of torture, once more using the wax and honey treatment to remove any hairs that might have grown back in the week's time. Fortunately there weren't too many and they came out much easier this time.
After that we packed our bags, tied my horse behind the stage and moved east to the next town over, where Miriam and Elizabeth Simmons stayed over night. They then vanished into thin air as on the following morning, Mrs. Miriam Sinclair and her lovely daughter, Elizabeth Marie, boarded the stage for Galveston where Mrs. Sinclair had already established herself at the Imperial Hotel.
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Buck had flinched visibly, putting a hand over his mustache during the description of the waxing. Now he shuddered as Josiah finished reading. "Jesus! Remind me never to let Maude get her hands on me!"
"Reckon it's a good thing that Ezra ain't got a heavy beard." Nathan put in, "But that chamomile stuff she used on him after; that was good. Chamomile's a right soothing herb. It woulda took a lot of the sting out."
"Still you have to wonder... what kinda con were they running that would be worth all of that." Chris said. His tone and failure to use the Sinclair name gave indication that he had come around to the notion that this was definitely Maude and Ezra that they were reading about.
Vin yawned, then pushed back his chair and rose, stretching. He looked over at Chris, "Reckon I'll go catch a nap. Was just stayin' up ta hear what happened."
Chris nodded. Vin had had the night patrol. He'd only arrived back in town just before they'd gathered to hear Josiah read the story.
Vin strolled out the front door of the saloon and turned into the alley beside it heading towards his wagon, which was parked near the rear of the saloon. Grinning, he looked around to make sure that no one was near then ducked past the wagon and into the back entrance to the saloon. He turned up the back stairs and silently made his way to the second floor.
Pulling a key from his pocket he opened the door of one of the rooms, and slipped inside, locking the door behind him.
He moved carefully to the bed, not wanting to trip over any thing. Taking off his gunbelt he hung the mare's leg on the bedpost. Then sitting on the edge he removed his boots and set them quietly on the floor, trying not to wake his companion.
Turning to lie down on the bed he saw sleepy green eyes blinking up at him. He smiled.
"About time you got here," the slow southern drawl was heavy with sleep.
"Had ta hear the latest part of the story before I turned in."
A soft snort greeted that, "You know the story. You were there!"
"Ain't the same as hearing it told... and I didn't know ever thing." He lay back on the bed getting comfortable then lifting an arm to gather his lover up against him.
Ezra happily scooted closer and lay his head on Vin's shoulder.
"Ya never told me about the wax." Vin went on. "Never told me that she was so rough on ya."
Ezra sighed. "She did what she had to do to make the con work." He snuggled closer then asked, "How runs the speculation?"
"Buck's still sure it's you. JD looks shocked. Chris is wondering what kinda con ya'll are pullin' to make it worth ever thing she's done ta ya and Nathan... he's startin' ta look real thoughtful. Reckon maybe he's startin' ta get the idea that pullin' off a con ain't as easy as it seems."
"He's doing the readin'. Hard ta tell what he's thinkin'."
Ezra chuckled softly, "Well, tomorrow they will have something *new* to speculate about. Get some sleep. You're going to need it."
"Ya'll get me up fore you go down?" Vin asked.
"Don't I always?" Ezra asked, sleepily.
Vin smiled down at him as his lover drifted back to sleep. This was in many ways his favorite part of the day, just lying abed with Ezra as they drifted off to sleep together... not that they got to sleep together like this very often.
When he'd first seen the gambler in the saloon at Four Corners he hadn't recognized him. Not that that was surprising, it had been ten years since they had parted company and he'd never actually seen Ezra looking his normal self. At first he'd been Elizabeth... and later he'd been banged up pretty badly not to mention still being virtually bald from the head shaving.
He ran his fingers through Ezra's hair and smiled at the soft sigh of pleasure that the action drew from the gambler.
As he drifted off to sleep he couldn't help wondering how different his life would have been if he'd never let Ezra slip away all those years ago.
After Thursday's installment of the story, everyone was eager to find out what the con was and they figured they should be getting some answers in that day's installment.
The peacekeepers gathered around their usual table as Josiah began to read.
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It was mid-June when I rode down off the high plains, my horse, Blackie, under me, my Sharps carbine cradled in my arms.
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"Hey!" JD yelped. "Who's this guy?"
"I suppose he's a new character, JD." Josiah explained patiently.
"B-but what happened to Eric... uh... Elizabeth and her ma?"
"Suppose we're gonna haveta wait ta hear more 'bout them." Vin put in sipping his coffee to hide his grin. This was his part of the story. Granted he hadn't actually written it, instead telling it to Ezra who had asked questions till he got it fleshed out to suit him... and Vin hadn't actually heard the final version yet.
"More characters fill out a story, JD." Chris pointed out.
"But I wanted to know what *they* were gonna do!" JD continued to protest.
"Reckon ya'll haveta wait till Monday... or later to find out." Nathan said.
"Can I get on with this now?" Josiah asked.
"Oh... uh... sure Josiah." JD said but he was still pouting a bit as he sat back in his chair and reached for his glass of milk.
Josiah cleared his throat and returned to his reading.
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It was mid-June when I rode down off the high plains, my horse, Blackie, under me, my Sharps carbine cradled in my arms. At nineteen I'd done my share of hard living. I lost my folks when I was too young to have any clear recollection of them, survived in orphanages and foster homes that were at best neglectful and at worst abusive. I'd been adopted into one Indian tribe and held captive by another. I'd fought in the war then come home to hunt buffalo and then men.
Now... I was towing three bounties behind me. One was slung over his saddle, dead. Of the other two, one was very much alive, the other more dead than. I wasn't a man fond of cities but the three outlaws that I led behind me were worth twenty-five hundred dollars, all told, and the only place west of the Mississippi and south of the Red River to collect that kind of bounty was the port city of Galveston, Texas.
I led them through the rutted streets till I was in front of the sheriff's office then swung down and dragged the liveliest of the three outlaws off his horse and hauled him across the porch and into the jail.
The deputy behind the desk wasn't any older than me and green as grass to boot.
I favored him with a smile that did nothing to put him at ease and said, "This here's Ben Maudlin. He's got a thousand dollars on his head. I'm Victor Tremayne and I'm here to collect."
The deputy jumped to his feet and stammered, "Ya'll haveta see the sheriff. I can't pass out bounties."
"Then ya better go an' fetch the man, 'cause I got me two more outside and 'tween'em, they're worth twenty-five hundred dollars." I gave him my best Indian glare and added, "And I want my money."
He scampered out like I'd set his tail on fire, leaving me holding Maudlin. I shook my head as I fished the keys off the desk where he'd left them and unlocked one of the cells, shoving Maudlin in. By the time the deputy arrived back with the sheriff, the other one had joined Maudlin and I was sitting behind the sheriff's desk twirling the keys on one finger.
The sheriff was a big man. Taller than my almost six feet by at least four inches and near to being too broad to fit through the jail house door without turning sideways. Weren't no fat on him though. He's just plain big, a quiet man, though, level headed and steady. He gave the deputy a searing look when he saw me sitting there with the keys in hand.
He held out his hand and introduced himself. "I'm Sheriff Sandler. Henry here say you're Victor Tremayne."
"I am." I stood up and dropped the keys on the desk before reaching to shake the hand he held out. I gestured towards the cell. "Got Ben Maudlin, Jesse Fontaine and the one on the saddle outside is Randall Swenney."
He nodded and went over to dig the posters out of the file cabinet in the corner. He matched them up with the prisoners as he said, "I heard of ya, Tremayne. Don't usually bring'em in dead... do ya?"
I answered the question he didn't ask, which was why was Swenney tied over the saddle. "He didn't give me a choice. Made it me or him. I rathered it ta be him."
He gave a nod. Swenney was wanted dead or alive so it didn't much matter that he was dead, just saved the sheriff the trouble of locking him up and the town the trouble of hanging him.
After the sheriff matched up the posters he wrote me out a voucher to take over to the bank, where I'd get my money. I'd seen that the undertaker's was between the sheriff's office and the bank so I offered to drop Swenney's body off on the way by.
Sandler nodded and said thanks. I touched my hat to the kid deputy and headed out.
As I stepped back outta the bank, the bulk of my money safely tucked away in a money belt under my buckskin shirt, a few hundred dollars tucked in the front pocket of my pants, I looked down the street and saw a big white building. It was four stories high, painted white as snow, fancy gingerbread trim dripping off the eves. A big sign hanging across the posts that stood sentry to either side of the driveway, read: Imperial Hotel. It looked right fancy. I'd never been one for fancy, then again, I'd never had the money for it... till now. I studied on it a minute then headed off down the street towards the Imperial Hotel. Didn't reckon a little luxury would kill me.
The desk clerk was dressed better than I was. He sort of sniffed when I told him I wanted a room but he settled right down when I pulled one of the century notes that I'd got at the bank out and held it out to him. He pushed the register over and I made my mark.
He sniffed again when he saw that then asked me my name.
I told him, "Victor Tremayne."
He nodded and wrote it down beside the mark. "You'll be in room two eleven. It's on the second floor last door at the end of the hall on the right by the back stairs." He smiled, "It's a corner room."
I gave him a nod back and asked, "There a livery around here?"
"We have a private stable for guests to use. It's right out the front door and to your right. You can't miss it. Livery fees can be included in your hotel bill."
I thanked him then dropped the room key in my pocket and headed out to tend Blackie before I went up.
A stable hand came to take Blackie's reins but I waved him off. Blackie can be damn picky about who handles him. I picked out a stall with empties on both sides. Blackie's not much friendlier with other horses than he is with people. I like it like that. Makes it hard for somebody to steal him if he won't have anything to do with them and means he ain't likely to take off and follow another horse if he don't like them.
After I feed and water him, I brush him down good. He likes that. I like doing it. It relaxes me.
I finally make it up to the room and when I see it I can't hardly believe that I'm staying in a place like this. It's got carpet on the floor. Some kinda fancy crystal thing hanging from the ceiling, I reckon it's one of those chandeliers I've heard tell of. The bed's bigger than any I've ever seen... and soft to boot. Reckon it's a feather bed. I don't know if I can even sleep in it, after being used to the hard ground. There's a rope hanging down beside the door with a sign on it. I can't help but wonder what it is so I give it a pull. I don't see or hear anything happen so I give it another pull then shrug and move off to finish looking the place over.
A few minutes later there's a polite knock on the door and I go to open it. There's a bellhop standing there.
"You rang, sir?" He says.
I raise an eyebrow at him, "I did?" It's a question.
He grins and asks, "First time in a fancy hotel, mister?"
"Yeah." I admit.
"I could show ya the ropes."
I give him a nod and hold the door while he steps inside. "What's your name, kid?"
"Mike. I'm the hop for this floor."
He grins when he sees that I don't have a clue what a hop is. "Bellhop." He explains. He points to the rope I had pulled. "You ring the bell. I hop to see what you want."
I chuckle and he grins at me. "I'm Victor Tremayne." I tell him, "So, show me the ropes, Mike."
He points to a door over to one side of the room. "That's your bath room."
He nods, "We got running water. Hot and cold. Course they shut the boiler off at ten at night and don't fire it back up till five so ya won't get hot water between then." He led me into the bathroom and made sure I knew how to get the water going. "... and if a whole lot of people take baths at one time the hot water can run out but that don't happen too often."
There's a privy in there too. I ain't never seen one like it before. It's got a seat with water in that you sit on then there's a tank on top with a chain you pull and the water and the other stuff washes down a drain.
He pointed out a few other things, told me to just leave my dirty laundry beside the door and the maid would get it then he said that he had to go and held out his hand. It took me a minute to realize that I was expected to give him money, then I handed him a silver dollar.
His grin split his whole face apart as he said, "Mister Tremayne. You want anything you just ask for me!"
I reckon I done made me a friend. I turn back towards the bathroom deciding to take me a bath.
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Josiah grins when he folds the paper back up and looks over at me. "This Victor Tremayne sounds a bit like you, Brother Vin."
"Yeah!" JD tosses in. Then his eyes going wide like and he adds, "Ya wrote that poem for the contest Mrs. Travis held... are you writing this?"
"Nope." Vin answered honestly, "I ain't wrote a word of that." [And that's the truth I didn't. I told it to Ez and he wrote it. Like how he handled it though. It does sound like me.]
The others accepted that, knowing that Vin wouldn't lie to them.
Chris raised a brow.
Vin gave him a nod before rising to head out on patrol. "Reckon I'll swing by the Hamlin's place. See if I can pick up the tracks of that cougar that's been prowling around out there."
"How about I ride along?" Chris asked.
"Up ta you."
The two men headed out, leaving the others to their speculation on the story.
They rode in silence until they were outside of town.
Chris glanced over at Vin. "Followed ya to the wagon yesterday. Was gonna ask you if you wanted to go fishing later."
Vin looked over at him but said nothing.
"Seen ya go up to Ezra's room."
"Something I oughta know?"
That finally got him an answer. "Ain't none'a yer business."
"I ain't got a problem with it... long as it don't interfere with the job."
Silence fell again. After awhile Chris asked, "You met him in Galveston?"
Vin didn't answer for a long time then finally he nodded. "Didn't know right off it was a him. Elizabeth Marie Sinclair was a real beauty."
"You recognize him that first day here?"
"Nope. After Wickestown." He smiled as his memory drifted back to the day they had rescued Mary Travis from Wickestown.
[They rode back into Four Corners with Ezra driving the buggy, still in the purple dress. He pulled up in front of The Clarion and stepped down easily, turning back to help Mary down, before climbing back up and taking the buggy on to return it to the livery.
Chris stayed behind, escorting Mary into the Clarion's office. The others rode on to the livery, Buck and Vin trailing behind the buggy.
As Ezra secured the reins and stepped down from the buggy again, unassisted and headed towards the saloon, Buck shook his head and commented, "Ole Ez, sure don't seem to have no problem getting' round in that dress."
Vin raised an eyebrow at him.
"Acts plumb experienced at it, if ya know what I mean." Buck grinned.
Vin turned to watch Ezra as the conman walked up the steps to the saloon. Buck was right. Ezra reached down and hitched up his skirt to step up on the stoop, as naturally as any woman that Vin had ever seem. In fact, thinking back, Vin realized that Ezra hadn't tripped or stumbled once during the entire time he'd been wearing the dress. Granted Ezra was graceful... that had been why the idea had occurred to Vin... that and the memory of another handsome young man that had made a very convincing young woman. Convincing enough that it had taken an assault on her that had exposed her Adam's apple for him to realize the mistake he had made.
[Lizabeth/Eric.] The name echoed in his mind. Eric... Ezra... he knew that Ezra had used the name Eric in some of his cons. Could it be...?
He handed Peso's reins to one of the stable hands and headed for the saloon. He didn't pause as he headed up the stairs to Ezra's room. He tapped on the door.
The door opened and Ezra, still wearing the dress, looked up at him with clear green eyes.
Elizabeth/Eric had had green eyes. He swallowed hard not sure how to ask what he wanted to ask. "I... I... ya need any help getting' outta that?"
Ezra cocked his head to one side, a small smile quirked up one side of his mouth. One eyebrow lifted.
Both gestures were suddenly very familiar to Vin as memories of another conman in another dress rushed back.
Ezra turned away and stepped back into the room.
Vin followed closing the door behind him.
Ezra reached up and pulled the wig off tossing it towards the dresser. Tilting his head forward to arch his neck he reached back and unfastened the top button at the high neck of the dress.
"Well," he said softly, "one thing that I have never understood is why woman wear clothing with the buttons on the back. If you would be so kind..." He let it trail off into a question.
Vin stepped up behind him and began to unfasten the buttons. His fingers trembled slightly. Finally he had it undone below the waist and stepped back.
Ezra turned to face him a smile playing across his lips as he slowly slid the dress off his shoulders, down his arms and let it fall into a puddle around his feet. He tilted his head looking up at Vin again, with sultry eyes. One hand reached up, caressing himself just above the black lace trim of the satin corset.
Vin's mouth went dry. "E-Ezra?" then his eyes met the conman's and he asked finally, "E-Eric?"
Ezra's smile widened, his dimples deepening with it. "I was wondering how long it would take you to recognize me." He stepped forwards, and lay a hand on Vin's chest.
"I... I'm sorry... I didn't... I... shoulda... known ya."
Ezra just chuckled. "My dear Mister Tanner, I hardly expected you to. It has been ten years and I was dressed as a woman most of the time... and afterwards I was bald. You never actually saw me looking like myself... until now. I do hope you aren't disappointed."
Vin grinned then, "No. Ain't disappointed at all." He reached out to pull the smaller man into his arms bending to kiss him passionately.
When they had to come up for air, Ezra was breathing heavily. "Perhaps we should lock the door." He panted. "I do not wish to be interrupted... assuming you wish to renew our previous relationship."
Vin nodded. "Yeah. I want ta."
As Ezra pulled away to lock the door, Vin took off his mare's leg and hung it on the bedpost.]
Chris' voice brought him back to the present. "You been together since Wickestown?"
"Yeah. Don't get to be together as much as we'd like but yeah."
"I wondered why he stayed after the thirty days." Chris' tone made it a rhetorical question. He obviously was just finally checking off the answer to a question that had bothered him for some time.
It also told Vin that Chris was reviewing his and Ezra's performance on the job for the time since they had become lovers. When nothing else was said, he supposed they must have passed muster.
Since Mrs. Travis did not print a Sunday edition of the paper everyone knew that Saturday's installment would have to do them until Monday.
Ezra had had the last patrol that morning so he joined the others at breakfast where they were waiting for Josiah to read the daily installment to them.
Chris noted that Vin took the seat beside Ezra and was helping himself to food from Ezra's plate. He'd seen the tracker do it before, of course, but it had never held the significance then that it did now. He tried to remember when Vin had started doing that and couldn't. He did realize that he had never seen the tracker do it to any of the others.
Ezra's only response to the tracker's filching was to roll his eyes and give a long-suffering shake of his head.
Josiah joined them, paper in hand and Chris turned his attention to the big preacher's reading.
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By Friday I'd been at the Imperial Hotel for three days and was starting to hate the place. It was too swanky and too crowded with stuck up people that looked down their fine aristocratic noses at a buckskin clad bounty hunter. I was in the stable brushing Blackie down, thinking on heading out when I head the stagecoach coming in and the stable boys lit out to change out the team and tend the horses.
I strolled out behind them. The daily arrival of the stagecoach was the most interesting thing that happened around the hotel. Right off I noted a beautiful bay stallion tied behind the coach. At least sixteen hands high and spirited he pranced in place as the coach came to a stop.
A couple of men stepped down from the stage. They looked to be the usual carpetbaggers. The last turned back and helped a fine looking blonde woman down. A moment later a younger woman with the same blonde hair hopped out, not waiting to be helped down. The older woman said something to her that I couldn't hear but the tone was scolding.
The girl laughed and headed for the back of the coach where the horse was tied. She had on a dark green traveling dress.
One of the stable hands had already untied the horse from the back of the coach and when the spirited animal pranced towards the side of the coach and the people there the man gave a rough yank on his bridle. The horse pulled back and reared a bit. The stable hand used the free end of the reins to slap the horse across the withers just as the young woman stepped out where she could see them.
With an angry shout she charged over to the stable hand and aimed a kick at the back of his knee, causing it to collapse under him. Before he could catch himself she had grabbed the horse's reins and aimed another kick at the man's other knee.
He landed in an undignified heap on the ground. I couldn't help but laugh. The man had no business working with horses. He didn't know anything about how to handle them.
I couldn't hear most of the conversation but I clearly heard her yell, "The hell you weren't!"
"Elizabeth Marie Sinclair!" The older blonde woman strode over. "Watch your mouth young lady!" She admonished the girl, grabbing her arm.
I couldn't hear the rest of what she said.
"I'll take him mah self!" The girl snapped as she jerked free and backed the horse away from the stable hand.
"Elizabeth!" The older woman's voice was strident.
The stable hand had scrambled to his feet and was reaching for the reins again.
Her jaw jutting out stubbornly, the girl dropped the reins and stepped in to meet him, giving him a shove that landed him back on the ground. "I said, I'll tend him... and if ah evah see you neah him again I'll... I'll *sue* you! Mah daddy's a lawyer!"
With that she spun around with her head high and grabbing a handful of mane, swung up astride the horse, quickly turning him and riding towards the stables.
I turned and went back to Blackie, chuckling softly to myself. [Reckon I might stay a while yet. Seems things could get a bit livelier with that little spitfire around.]
I glanced up as she came into the stables, but kept my head down, watching her from under my hat brim.
She came right over to the stall next to Blackie's, looking it over.
"Elizabeth!" the older woman had followed her into the stable and snapped at her now. "You can not tend your own horse! A lady simply does not..."
"Screw what a lady does! He's mine and Ah will not let that imbecilic, half-witted, miscreant lay a hand on him!"
[Damn! What a temper!] I almost laughed out loud.
"Young lady you are not thirteen any more! You are sixteen and about to be introduced to polite society..."
"Stuff polite society! If it means I can't see to it that Gamble is taken care of I don't want to be introduced to society!"
I'd second that. [Stuff it in a burlap sack and toss it in the river!] I noted that she'd called the horse Gamble... interesting name.
"This is not about you! Now you will do as you are told!" Her mother grabbed her arm again and Elizabeth jerked away again.
"It's never about me!" Elizabeth snapped right back.
There was a ring of truth to that statement that tugged at my heart. I found myself stepping forward without really meaning to.
"Ma'am?" The single word silenced them both as they turned to see who had spoken.
I stepped out where they could see me. "Ah could see to him, if ya want... ma'am." Reaching up I took my hat off letting them see my face better. I swallowed hard, suddenly self-conscious and reached up to brush my hair back from my face.
I knew I must look a sight. At least I was clean. Still, dressed in buckskins and moccasins I reckoned I looked like a wild man to two fine ladies like them.
"Ah'd take real good care of him." I said, "Blackie here'll tell ya that." I gestured towards my horse.
Blackie had turned in the stall to face the aisle and now obligingly bobbed its head up and down in agreement before snuffling at my hair.
The older woman looked doubtful but the girl dropped Gamble's reins and stepped over to stretch out a hand to my horse, "Hello, Blackie," she crooned. "Does he treat you right big fella?"
Blackie snuffled over the hand that was held out to him then bobbed his head up and down again.
"Good!" She smiled up at me and I felt my heart leap as clear green eyes met mine. Then her face went serious again, "How much should I pay you?"
I shook my head, "Nothin'. Favor for a friend." Setting my hat on my head, I tipped it to them before reaching for Gamble's bridle. Holding out a hand to let the horse get my scent, I spoke quietly to it.
The horse responded to the gentle touch and the quiet voice. With one last glance at the girl, he followed me into the stall.
"Now will you come along?" The older woman demanded.
With a sigh the girl nodded and started to follow her mother out of the stables then suddenly she whirled around and strode back to the stall where I was tending her horse.
I looked up as she reappeared.
She smiled at me, "I almost forgot. We haven't been introduced. I'm Elizabeth Sinclair."
I couldn't help but grin, "Ah know, reckon everybody does. Elizabeth Marie Sinclair. Yer ma's got quite a pair of lungs."
She laughed, a soft, sweet sound. "Well, Mother *was* an actress in her youth... and an actress must learn to project to the back of the theatah so that she can be heard by all in attendance." She looked back towards her mother. "I really must go, mister...?" She let it trail off into a question one elegant eyebrow quirking upward.
"Tremayne, Vic Tremayne." I held out one rough hand and she lay her smaller, soft one in it, letting me hold it for a moment longer than was entirely proper.
She ducked her head, suddenly shy but she wore a pleased smiled. "I... I really must go. Mother is waiting." She pulled her hand from mine with what felt to me like reluctance.
I watched as she walked away.
Yep, things were definitely looking up.
I turned back to the horse, "Now what's a purty little thin' like that doing with a big ole boy like you?" I asked quietly.
I was in Blackie's stall, brushing him again, talking quietly to him, my back to Gamble's stall. The bay had its head leaning over the stall wall, nuzzling me whenever I got in range, paying particular attention to my coat pockets. I kept pushing his head away but the bay was obviously hunting something... most likely treats.
Her soft laugh caught me by surprise and brought my head up suddenly, my heart pounding. I don't get caught off guard too often. It ain't healthy in my line of work.
She slipped into Gamble's stall and patted him gently as he began to nuzzle at her, whiffing softly.
"All right, all right," she laughed. "Here." She held out her hand to the big horse, a lump of sugar in it.
She turned towards me, smiling, as she said, "Ah brought him some sugah." She paused then added coyly, "He likes sugah."
[Damn! She's flirting with me!] Suddenly shy I stammered, "Ah reckon... uh... ever body does."
I looked at her through lowered lashes. She was wearing a simple dress that skimmed along the lean lines of her body, covering her completely, with a high collar and long sleeves. It was a medium green, possibly silk, shimmering slightly in the lamplight. Her golden hair was piled high in an intricate hairdo. Green eyes smiled at me. I could feel the heat rising in me. It'd been a long time since I'd had been alone with a woman... and I hadn't ever been this close to a woman like her.
She moved to the open end of the stall and I followed, feeling drawn along. She was beautiful.
She smiled up at me then ducked her head, "That's what he was hunting in your pockets." She paused then went on, "Daddy used ta carry sugah cubes in his pockets for the horses."
There was a note in the voice that didn't ring completely true, but I didn't call her on it.
"Mother... never liked it. Said that he was spoiling them."
I nodded. That I could believe.
She moved closer... and I moved away, circling towards Gamble's stall, as I babbled nervously, "Ah already tended him. Brushed him and all. He's a real fine animal. Must be sixteen hands. Awful big for a little thing like you..."
"Ah'm not so little." She pouted slightly and moved closer again, a slight smile on her lips, green eyes shyly lowered.
My mouth went dry and all my blood rushed south. She was too close and too beautiful. I had to get outta there before I did something that'd have her ma after me with a shotgun.
"Ah... ah... bettah... go." I stumbled backwards then turned and practically ran from the stables.
Her soft laughter floated after me.
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"Oh, God!" JD gasped, "Victor wants Elizabeth but... but..."
"But Elizabeth is really Eric!" Buck crowed, "Reckon we know now why it's called: Scandalous!"
"Ya'll reckon that Victor's gonna find out that Elizabeth is really Eric?" Nathan asked.
"I don't know," Chris said, "but I reckon Monday's paper'll be a sellout. With folks wanting to know the answer to that question."
"Perhaps I should suggest to Mrs. Travis that it might be advisable to print some extra copies of the paper Monday. We wouldn't want anyone to fail to get their copy." Ezra grinned widely.
Josiah looked down at the table a long moment then he said quietly, "Brother Ezra?"
Ezra looked up at him and smiled, "Yes, Mister Sanchez?"
"You are aware that just about everybody seems to think that the Eric in this story is you..."
"Yes," Ezra tilted his head and gave Josiah an innocent look.
"Doesn't it bother you that... I mean Eric/Elizabeth is flirting with Victor. Two men...."
"Perhaps the question should be: Does the thought of two men together bother you Mister Sanchez?" The conman asked.
"It would depend. This... with Eric/Elizabeth... Eric's fooling Victor... that ain't right."
"So you're saying that, if Victor knew Elizabeth was actually Eric, then it would be all right with you?" Ezra raised a brow at the preacher.
"I've always interpreted the passage in the bible that speaks of this to mean that the rape of one man by another is wrong... not the love of one man for another."
Vin spoke up then. "Indian's don't have no problem with two men being together. Story says that Victor spent a good bit of his life with the Indians. Might not matter to him that Elizabeth is really Eric."
"True." Josiah said. He glanced over at Nathan as if to ask his opinion.
Nathan looked down at the table. "In the slave quarters. Unmarried man only had a woman when the massa said he could. Boys learnt about sex from each other. Nobody thought nothin' about it. Was just the way it was. Reckon if two men want each other I ain't got a problem with it."
Ezra smiled and gave the black healer a nod. He'd been fairly sure of that response, knowing how it was on a plantation. He turned to JD raising a brow, "What about you, Mister Dunne? How do you feel on the subject?"
He silently took a count of who was accepting and who was not as he waited for an answer. Vin had told him about his conversation with Chris so, Chris was for acceptance, Nathan also. Josiah was less so but leaning towards it. That left Buck and JD.
JD looked flustered, and shot Buck a pleading glance.
Ezra smiled. He'd expected that and it would get Buck's opinion out in the open.
Buck grinned. "It ain't for me but I got no problem with it. To each his own, I always say."
Vin bumped Ezra's leg under the table and Ezra smiled at the silent message.
[Buck's on our side.]
Ezra returned the bump in acknowledgement.
"Well, uh..." JD stammered.
Ezra grinned, "Come, Mister Dunne, it's not as if we're asking if *you* would be interested in another man. We all know where you affections lie. It is the fair Miss Wells that occupies your thoughts. Let me ask this, what if you were to discover that two of your friends, men that you know and respect, men you know to be capable and competent, strong and resourceful, good with a gun... what it you discovered that these two men were lovers. Would you have a problem with that?"
Lovers. The word hung in the air. Suddenly the feeling that this was more than just a hypothetical question descended on the group around the table.
"L-lovers?" JD stammered, caught by the word. "N-not just... uh...uh... sex?"
"No, Mister Dunne. Not just sex." Ezra's voice was soft, calm and patient. His eyes were locked on JD, as if the answer were very important.
"This... this ain't just a question is it? You... you..." JD continued to stammer.
Buck reached over and laid a hand on his arm, "Easy, Kid."
There was a stirring at the table, a subtle shifting in the atmosphere. Chris sat a little straighter and leaned just a bit towards Vin. Josiah frowned and sat up, shifting just a bit towards Nathan who simply stared down at the table.
Then Vin sat up straight in his chair, turning slightly towards Ezra, his right hand dropping to his mare's leg as he reached to lay his left hand over Ezra's left hand, leaving Ezra's right hand free in case the gambler needed to spring his derringer.
Nathan looked up then and nodded, settling back in his chair. He'd suspected for a while that Ezra preferred men. He'd never seen the gambler with a woman other than Li Pong and while he had suspected the worst at the time he'd come to realize that to Ezra, she was just a child and the gambler would never harm a child. He'd never thought about Vin, but doing so now he realized that except for Charlotte Richmond he'd never seen Vin with a woman.
Buck's eyes went to Chris. The way he sat, his calm demeanor. "You knew." He said quietly.
Chris' nod was his answer.
Buck sat back with a smile and lifted his cup to the tracker and the gambler.
Vin's nod and Ezra's smile thanked him for his acceptance.
Josiah was still tense then a single word echoed through his mind. [Lovers.] He looked at the two men, seeing the trepidation in Ezra's eyes as he looked back at Josiah. Finally he asked, his voice a soft rumble, "Are you happy?"
The smile that lit Ezra's face as he turned to share a look with Vin answered that question, even before the single, softly spoken word could, "Very."
Finally all eyes went back to JD. He sat a moment looking around at his friends. It seemed the world had changed in a second, shifting into a surreal and unfamiliar place. [His friends.]
Everything he had ever been taught said that it was wrong for two men to be together like that. Only now it was Vin and Ezra, who were... lovers and the rest... they were accepting it. Granted Josiah had been a bit reluctant. Ezra said they were happy... and they sure looked happy.
"I... uh... I don't know what to say. I..."
"JD," Vin's quiet voice, stopped his stammering. "We ain't changed. Not really. Ya just didn't know 'bout this till now."
Seeing the confusion still in JD's eyes, Ezra gave Vin's hand a squeeze and spoke up again. "Mister Dunne? This is not something that happened this morning. Mister Tanner and I have been together for quite some time now. The only difference is that you were not aware of it before... and now you are."
"Why?" JD asked.
Ezra's eyebrows rose. "Why, what, Mister Dunne? Why do I love him? I can no more explain my feelings for him than you can explain your feelings for Miss Wells. Love is not explainable. It simply is."
"No... I mean... why tell us?"
"Why take the risk of us not accepting it?" Josiah clarified.
"Tired'a hidin'..." Vin answered for them both. "...an' figured the town's settled down enough now that iffn ya'll didn't want us 'round no more, we'd just head on out."
"Head out...?" JD could hear the panic in his voice. Bad as learning that Vin and Ezra were... what they were... the idea of the seven breaking up was worse. "No! Ya can't. I mean... I mean... ya can't break up the seven? Ya wouldn't... would you?"
"Don't wanna... but I ain't givin' Ez up."
"And I am not giving you up, either Mister Tanner. Not again." The last was so softly spoken that it was barely audible. Ezra had turned to look at Vin as he spoke.
It was love that shone in his eyes that swept away any lingering doubts that JD and the others had.
"Then we'll just have to make sure you don't have to do either. We're seven. We stay seven." JD declared firmly.
Josiah looked down at the paper beside his breakfast plate, the story that had sparked this discussion and it's revelation. "This story. You did write it, didn't you?" He looked at Ezra.
The conman shrugged, "Yes."
"You wrote it to spark this discussion?" Josiah asked, noting that this morning, the morning that the installment revealing that Victor had feelings for the disguised Eric was the first and only one that Ezra had shared the meal and the reading with them.
"No... but when you gentlemen began discussing it, we simply decided it was too good of a chance to pass up."
"What about the rest of the town?" Josiah asked. "A lot of people are convinced that you are Eric. They're starting to talk about how much Victor resembles Vin..."
"Mister Sanchez, people tend to believe what they want to believe. The story is just a story and it isn't finished by any means. Speculation will run wild for a time no doubt. Then it will die down. While Mister Tanner and I appreciate being able to be a little more relaxed in the presence of our friends, we certainly aren't planning to make our relationship known to the world at large. We have been discrete. We shall continue to be so."
He gave them a dimpled smile and rose releasing Vin's hand. "Now, I have had a long night, gentlemen and I believe that I shall retire." He smiled at Vin then moved towards the stairs.
Vin remained seated. Five pairs of eyes turned to him as Ezra disappeared up the stairs. "Discretion." He said calmly, nodding to the batwing doors where other patrons were just beginning to filter in.
Josiah had preached on tolerance to a full house at Sunday service, the passage about he who is without sin casting the first stone. He silently promised himself that he'd do the 'judge not least you be judged' sermon the next Sunday. Hopefully the story in the Clarion would be finished by then and speculation that Eric Simmons was Ezra Standish would die down.
Mary had made a point of sitting with Chris and the others. All six of the peace-keepers had been at church, all sitting in the front row, an unusual occurrence. Just getting Ezra up in time for morning services was a minor miracle.
Mrs. Potter and her children had sat directly behind them along side Nettie Wells. Casey sat on the front row with JD. Yosemite had sat in the second row as well. Inez had joined them along with Sam, the bartender from the saloon.
It was basically a show of support for the seven.
Monday's paper was once again a sell out in spite of Ezra's having had Mary print almost a double run.
Even Ezra was up to hear the installment read.
Josiah looked over at him and asked, "Would you like to read this morning, Brother Ezra?"
"No. I would prefer not to. This installment introduces... shall we say the villain of the piece and I really don't even like to think about him."
Josiah nodded and began to read, as the others gave Ezra curious looks, wondering about the villain and what he might have done.
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The suite that Mother had at the Imperial Hotel had two bedrooms as well as a sitting room and bathroom. I had to admit that I was impressed that this dreary little town would boast a hotel with hot and cold running water. At the Seaside Hotel we'd had to have the water carried up in buckets.
After an hour in the suite to unpack and freshen up, Mother set out to introduce me to the players in our game.
Across the hall from us in a single room was a couple that Mother introduced as the Markhams, mostly likely not their real names since she had hired them to play a part in our masquerade. The woman was a large motherly type, the man, even larger and florid, a perfect match for her.
The mark was named Edmund DuPree. The weak link that we would utilize to persuade him to part with a large amount of cash was his eldest son and heir, William. I met them for the first time over lunch.
We entered the dining room and were escorted to a table immediately. As we settled down with our menus, I looked up to see a tall well-built, middle-aged man approaching the table.
Slightly behind him trailed a much younger man, taller than the first man and broader. He was about six feet four, possibly even five, inches tall and no doubt weighed well over two hundred pounds. He had oily black hair and brown eyes set in a fleshy face. Even if Mother hadn't described him perfectly I would have I known instinctively that this was the target.
"Mrs. Sinclair, how nice to see that you made it back in time for the Independence Day celebration." The older man greeted Mother warmly, reaching out to take her hand and bending over to kiss it.
"So very good to be back, Mister DuPree." Mother returned with a smile.
He turned to me and smiled. "This must be the lovely daughter that I have heard so much about."
Mister DuPree, senior was quite a handsome man and well mannered. He reached out to take my hand and I ducked my head shyly.
"Elizabeth." Mother said in a warning voice.
I raised my head and gave him a wan smile and allowed him to kiss my hand.
He smiled at me and then motioned the younger man forward. Looking at Mother he said, "You already know my son, William." Turning to me he said, "Miss Sinclair, this is my son, William DuPree. William, Miss Elizabeth Sinclair."
William stepped forwards and I reluctantly allowed him to take my hand and kiss it as his father had done with my mother's. He attempted to hold it longer than was proper and I frowned at him as I withdrew it.
Mister DuPree turned back to Mother, "Might we join you?"
I half-hoped that Mother would decline, but of course, she did not. By the time lunch was over my opinion of Mister William DuPree was set in stone. Not only did the man look like a pig, he also acted like one. Mother still had not really told me anything about the game we were running but I had my suspicions. Meeting William DuPree only increased them. I was starting to get a very bad feeling about this.
Back in our rooms after lunch I turned to Mother immediately. "I think it's time you told me exactly what we are doing here... starting with why you are pretending to be Uncle John's wife and I am using cousin Lizabeth's name."
Mother gave me a long look then sighed, She hated to reveal more than absolutely necessary to anyone, even her partner in crime.
I simply stared her down until she realized that if she didn't start talking I would be walking, and she would be on her on with no way to complete the game.
Finally she said, "It's a long story."
I seated myself on the divan. "I have nothing but time."
Mother took a seat opposite and began her story. "When I left New Orleans, I went to Atlanta to visit your Uncle John."
Uncle John is a widower who lives near Atlanta with his daughter, Elizabeth Marie, whom I am now impersonating. He owns quite a large estate, which was quite profitable before the war, now, however, he must actually practice law in order to simply keep the taxes paid, leaving nothing much for them to live on or to maintain the estate. The main house had been burned in Sherman's march to the sea. Uncle John and Elizabeth currently live in what was the foreman's house.
"About a year ago, Mister Edmund DuPree was in Atlanta on business. He retained John to represent him and they became quite good friends."
I could see that happening. Uncle John is quite open and friendly despite his profession and from the little I saw of him at lunch, Edmund DuPree did not seem like a bad sort.
"They've corresponded for the last year or so and John happened to mention that Elizabeth Marie was turning sixteen and that he was interested in making a good marriage for her. DuPree responded, with an invitation for her to come out here during her school break to meet his son, William. It was agreed that she would. Then Andrew McClain... you remember him, don't you?"
I nodded an affirmative. Andrew was a dear friend of Uncle John's. Close enough that both Lizabeth and I called him Uncle Andrew.
"Well, he was out here visiting with some relatives and heard some disturbing things about young William DuPree. When he returned home and heard that Lizabeth was going to visit this summer he told John what he'd heard."
"...And Uncle John being the over-protective father he is wanted you to precede Lizabeth out here and find out all you could."
"So what did you find out?"
"William DuPree is a cad... a filthy beast... who habitually forces himself on the female servants and hotel help. Unfortunately his father doesn't seem to know anything about what he's doing so I assume that William is paying the girls off, or frightening them so badly that they don't dare to make an issue of it."
I saw what she was up to now. "So, we get him to attack me in front of witnesses, including his father. Thereby releasing Lizabeth from any obligation that DuPree might hope to hold her to. At the same time, hopefully, ending his reign of terror against the serving girls, and incidentally getting DuPree senior to pay us off not to press charges."
"Exactly." She smiled triumphantly.
Oh great. Everything would hinge on my ability to make this arrogant prick assault me... in front of witnesses... including his father. I would have to hold him off without doing much damage to him and make certain that he did enough damage to me for his father to pay us off... but not so much damage that I couldn't walk away. Great.
I was going to need help and Mother wasn't it. The man had obviously held his temper in check around decent girls before, taking out his aggression on the servants... but if I could make him jealous....
My mind went back to the plainsman. He was very handsome and obviously interested although shy about it. He'd be perfect. It would make William DuPree crazy to think that 'his girl', a girl who had been brought all the way out here just to meet him would prefer a poor, buckskin wearing bounty hunter to the wealthy suitor that her family had chosen for her.
I smiled at Mother. "William may need a little extra push... perhaps someone to be jealous of...."
No one ever said that Mother was dumb. "The plainsman?"
I nodded. "I believe I shall see if I can accidentally run into him when I check on Gamble tonight."
Accidentally running into the plainsman that evening wasn't difficult. A little mild flirting had him stammering like a schoolboy. I found it quite charming. Too bad I'm not really a girl.
I made a point to slip out the next morning, to check on Gamble and flirt a bit more.
He turned when he heard me slip into the stables... and shied away a bit.
I ducked my head then smiled shyly at him as Gamble greeted me with a wicker and a butt of his head.
Mister Tremayne kept his head down for a long moment then said nervously, "Ah'm taking good care of him. Ya don't have ta worry."
"Ah'm not worried. I just... I shall not be able to check on him again today. He gets fidgety when he's left alone too long... I was just hoping that you might spend some extra time with him... perhaps take him for a run... he likes to run..."
Vic looked up. "Whatcha gonna be doing taday?"
"I shall be preparing for the dance tonight." I tried to keep the resignation out of my voice but didn't quite succeed.
"Ya don't wanna go to the dance?" He asked in a puzzled voice, going back to brushing his horse.
"Ah'd rather go riding." I gave him a mischievous grin. "Mother won't be up for at least a couple of hours...." I quirked a brow at him. "Of course if she ever found out that I went riding alone...." I waited, knowing that he could hear the suggestion in my voice, silently pleading. [Offer to ride with me.]
He looked up then, amusement shining in the blue eyes. "Well, don't reckon Ah should let ya get in trouble. How about I ride with ya?"
The smile that crossed my face was bright and genuine as I turned back and quickly began to saddle Gamble.
A few moments later I was swinging in the saddle and urging Gamble out of the stable. I turned his head towards the beach and leaned over the saddle horn urging him into a gallop.
Vic cursed softly as he saw that I had gotten into the saddle first. Hurriedly finishing up he leaped onto Blackie's back and raced after me in the pale light of the coming dawn.
I glanced back over my shoulder at the sound of hoof beats coming up behind me and urged Gamble on even faster. For a long few minutes there was nothing except the exhilaration of flying over the ground on the back of the big bay horse. The only sounds were the pound of hoofs on the hard packed beach sand and my laughter floating back on the dawn air.
Vic swore as he raced behind me.
Gamble was the faster horse. Blackie would not catch him.
The quiet roar of the waves curling into the beach was like music playing in the background.
After a bit I drew up and waited for him.
As he drew along side he looked admiringly at Gamble. "Damned horse runs like the wind." He said, then blushed and looked abashed at having cursed in front of me.
"He was bred to race." I explained then looking over at him, I pulled Gamble to a stop and slid from the saddle, giving him an inviting look.
He stepped down from Blackie's back and moved to walk beside me.
After several moments of silence he ventured, "If ya don't want ta go to the dance tonight... why are ya?"
I remained silent for several moments longer, thinking what to say then finally said with a sigh, "Mother." [Best to stick with the official story, the one that Mother came up with.]
I looked up at him seriously and went on. "We lost evah thing in the war... except the family estate... but without money that is worthless. An advantageous marriage for me... would... solve many problems. Mother has her eye on William DuPree as an opportune match. We have the lineage... an old and venerable name... he has the money." Not the truth, not even the truth of the con... but close enough.
I looked away watching the rising sun. "The dance tonight is being given by Edmund DuPree, William's father. He has deemed it to be time for his son to marry and he wishes him to choose an appropriate bride. The dance is for the express purpose of introducing his heir to the acceptable members of the female population, so that the young man may indicate his preference."
Looking down pensively, I added. "I should consider mahself lucky to have garnered an invitation. Mother went to a great deal of trouble to insure it."
"Sounds kinda mercenary."
I gave him a bitter smile. "It is *very* mercenary, Mistah Tremayne."
I turned to look up at him trying to read him, not an easy thing to do with this man. "But I have little choice in the mattah. If I do not find a wealthy husband... and find him soon... the bank will take the only home Ah have ever known. A home which has been in our family for near a hundred years." I let my mind wander back to grandfather's plantation, lying in ruins when I returned from the war. The sadness in my voice was genuine.
Vic reached out and gently smoothed back the hair from my face, "I'm sorry," he said softly.
"As am I." I whispered. Warring emotions played through me. For some reason I truly hated lying to this man, using him. I couldn't help but think of what might have been, had we met under different circumstances. This man would make a good friend and should he ever found out that I was conning him, a terrible enemy.
I raised my head defiantly, and smiled at him, "I'd best get back. I should be snugly tucked in bed when Mother awakens. She'll be furious if she learns that I sneaked out."
Vic nodded and swung up into Blackie's saddle.
I stood a moment longer watching the sunrise then swung into the saddle and turned Gamble back towards the hotel.
It was nearly noon when Mother arose and strode into my room to begin the preparations for the dance.
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"We still don't know anything much about William DuPree." JD said thoughtfully.
"Except that Eric's worried about being able to handle him." Josiah said.
"Hell, Ez can handle himself in a fight!" Buck declared.
"Now." Chris reminded him. "This was ten years ago." He gave Ezra an evaluating look, "Man can learn a lot in ten years."
Ezra nodded then added with a sigh. "The dress was a hindrance too." He smiled, "Trust me when I say, you do not ever want to get into a fight wearing a ball gown... especially not one with a hoop skirt."
Vin grinned and reached over, letting his hand stroke down Ezra's back, "But you did look good in it."
To everyone's amusement Ezra blushed.
Chris raised an eyebrow when Ezra appeared and joined them at the table for the reading that morning. It was unusual for him to be up when he hadn't had the night patrol.
Vin's smile when he saw Ezra there when he came in from patrol answered at least part of the question of why Ezra was up that early.
Soon the others joined them and they ordered their breakfasts before Josiah began to read.
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I knew that Lizabeth, as I thought of her, would be going to the dance tonight in the hotel ballroom. I knew that I shouldn't even think about her, that I didn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of ever getting anywhere with her but... I just had to see her... see how she looked all fancied up even more than usual.
So when the folks started to gather for the ball I was standing at the end of the bar closest to the lobby so that I could see out and maybe get a glimpse of her when she came down that wide sweeping staircase.
I weren't ready for what I saw. God in heaven! She was beautiful. I saw her ma coming down the stairs and stepped out into the lobby so I could see better. I wasn't the only one that did. Ever eye in the place was on her.
She was dressed in white. Velvet and satin. Her shoulders were bare and her long neck encircled by a high jeweled collar that looked like diamonds with long dangles hanging from it. The longest dangle lay just above her cleavage, a shining red stone that looked like a teardrop of blood. Her golden hair was piled high on her head with a spray of red and white roses tucked into it.
I couldn't take my eyes off her. She looked like an angel, floating down from heaven. I swear she never took a step but somehow she was at the foot of the stairs. She glanced up. Her eyes met mine and her face lit up. She smiled at me. At me. Nobody else. I was lost. In that second I knew that I'd walk through fire for her.
Then she looked back towards her mother and her smile faded as she turned and walked into the ballroom.
I knew that I couldn't go in there. It was a private party. You had to have an invite... but the verandah was public. I slipped out of the lobby and onto the verandah, watching through the long glass French doors hoping to get another look at her.
It was quite awhile later that I saw her step out on the verandah with a man I could only assume was William DuPree. I felt anger boiling up in me. I recognized the man as one that I'd interrupted, making advances to some of the female hotel staff, more than once since I'd been here. How her ma could even think about letting her marry such a pig was beyond me.
She stopped before a bench and arranging her skirts sat down with a small sigh, looking up at the man with her with a smile.
He sat down beside her and moved to put an arm around her.
I considered shooting him.
She shied away and captured his roving hand holding it between her two smaller ones. She turned the hand palm up, gently tracing a line on it with one finger.
I couldn't hear what they were saying but when he reached over and tilted her chin up to look into her eyes I decided to get closer. If he got any fresher he'd be pushing up daisies.
"That cannot be seen in one's palm, sir." I heard her say as he released her chin, "I can however tell you how many children you shall have." She ran her finger along the edge of his palm just below his little finger then said, "Three children. Two boys and a girl. In that order."
"Really?" He asked in an amused voice, "What else do you see?"
She moved his palm nearer the light of the window that they sat by and traced a different line, a small frown creased her forehead. "This is your fortune line. It is deep and firm indicating good fortune... great wealth... but there is a break. A clear, sharp break that would seem to mean the loss of everything yet it picks back up again even wider and deeper than before."
He laughed, "Well! As long as I die old and rich!"
"That does seem assured. Your life line is quite long." The voice was noncommittal but he didn't seem to notice.
I decided that it was time he realized she wasn't alone, that she had help, if it was needed.
I moved closer and spoke. "Evenin' Miss Sinclair."
They both looked up as I took a seat on the banister that went around the verandah.
"Good evening, Mister Tremayne." Lizabeth said pleasantly but she turned away from me.
I tipped my hat to her then turned to stare out at the night sky, pretending to ignore them but making it plain I wasn't going anywhere.
She tried to pretend she was annoyed but I saw the pleased little smile that she ducked her head to keep DuPree from seeing.
DuPree rose abruptly, "I do believe the music has stopped, Miss Sinclair." He said suddenly formal. "I should return you to the ballroom so that your next partner may find you."
"Of course, Mister DuPree." She replied with equal formality as she rose. She glanced back at me and smiled, as he led her back inside.
I couldn't keep the answering grin off my face. I hung around on the verandah until the dance broke up. DuPree brought her back out on to it several times but I made sure to be nearby whenever he did.
I couldn't believe it when she slipped out onto the verandah by herself as everyone was leaving.
She came right up to me, smiling and reached out to take the whiskey glass I was holding, declaring firmly, "I need that more than you do."
She took it and tossed it back in a single swallow. Her eyes suddenly widened as she swallowed it. "Jesus! Rotgut!" She coughed.
I couldn't help but laugh at her expression. "Want another?" I offered helpfully.
She laughed then. "No thank you, kind sir," she curtsied prettily. "Ah do believe Mother has some brandy in the room. I really should retire before that ill-mannered lout finds me and insists on escorting me."
"Would you like me ta... es-escort ya?" I stumbled over the word.
She smiled at him then said softly, "I would love for you to. However, I would not wish to subject you to what Mother will say if she should be there when we arrive. I shall be quite all right alone. Thank you... and goodnight, Mister Tremayne."
I sat there on the banister staring after her for a long time. Lord! She was something.
I was up before dawn and out at the stables. If I was honest with myself I would have to admit that I was hoping she'd come out to see about Gamble.
I didn't hear her as she approached the stable. For a city girl, she sure can move quiet like.
I heard the sound of someone getting slapped then a man's voice snarling, "Bitch!"
I ran towards the sound, down the long aisle of the stable to the end nearest the hotel. The end where the tack room and office were at, the end she had come in from the day before.
They were just outside the door of the tack room.
The stable hand that had mistreated Gamble had her by the throat choking her. Blood welled from four long scratches on one side of his face where she had clawed him.
One of her hands was up at his trying to pull them loose. She had managed to get a hand around one of his fingers and was bending it back.
I heard it break.
He screamed and slammed her back against the door of the tack room.
As he drew back his fist to punch her, I tackled him.
We went round and round for a bit then the head stable hand came running in with a couple of others and pulled us apart.
The stable manager stood between us, his eyes hard. "What's going on here?" He demanded.
"That son of a bitch attacked Miss Sinclair!" I snarled jerking loose from the men holding me and going to her.
She was leaning against the tack room door, her head down and her hands at her throat where he had been choking her. She shook her head when I tried to pull them loose, her eyes desperate.
"Please..." The word was a hoarse whisper. "Please no one can know..."
I didn't understand right off then she let me move her hands and I stared at her throat... no, not her throat... his throat. The Adam's apple wasn't prominent but it was there. The desperation in her/his eyes was eloquent... and it was that desperation that decided me.
I slid out of my buckskin jacket and slung it around her shoulders, letting her clutch it at her throat to hide the damage done as well as the tell-tale Adam's apple.
She leaned into me and I helped her up. She clung to me as we turned back to the others.
"Miss Sinclair?" The stable manager reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder but she shied away, clutching at me. "Can you tell me what happened?"
I tucked her close under one arm as she clutched at the coat keeping it tight around her neck.
She waved one hand at the stable hand, then said in a hoarse whisper, "I... I was going to check on my horse... and he... he... attacked me." She broke off with a sob and turned back to bury her face against me.
I glared defiantly at the stable manager. My voice was low and deadly. "I'm taking Miss Sinclair up to her room." I cut the look to the stable hand. "He better not be here when I get back. I ever see him near her again... I'll kill him."
The stable manager gave a nod. "He won't be here." Turning to the man he said. "You're fired. Get your things and get out. You've been nothing but trouble since you got here."
As I led Lizabeth towards the back stairs of the hotel I heard him instructing the other stable hands to make sure that the man left and to report to him immediately if he ever returned.
As I walked her/him towards the hotel, my thoughts and feelings were in a tangle. He still felt like a woman, tucked under my arm, leaning into me, nothing visible but the top of his golden hair. He smelled like a woman too, some delicate floral scent that I couldn't quite identify, perfume, I supposed.
When we reached the enclosed staircase that led up to the second floor and were out of sight of prying eyes, he straightened, moving away from me and lifting his skirts, he moved gracefully up the stairs ahead of me. He stopped on the second floor landing and turned back to face me as I joined him there.
His voice was still hoarse as he said, "I suppose I owe you an explanation."
I regarded him with a smile, "I'd appreciate it."
"Your room then." When I raised a brow at him he added, "Mother won't be happy that you know."
My room was right there and I opened the door and let him in.
He made himself at home, I watched him as he moved around the room, helping himself to a glass of water, then sitting down on the sofa. He moved with an unconscious grace, perfectly at ease in the dress and his feminine persona. I was reminded of my time among the Comanche. The Indians held a man who could dress and live as a woman in high regard. Such men were said to have powerful medicine.
I sat down across from him and waited for him to explain. After a moment without him saying anything I said, "So, she really is your ma?"
He looked up, amusement flared in his eyes and he grinned, "Yes... unfortunately."
He laughed then, rising and sweeping his hand in a gesture to indicate his clothing. "This *was* her idea!"
He paced back and forth a moment and I found my eyes following him. Damn it even knowing he was a man, even with the torn dress exposing his Adam's apple, I had trouble seeing through the illusion. He walked like a woman, talked and gestured like a woman. Even as hoarse as his voice was from being choked, it was still somehow feminine.
I closed my eyes and tried to make myself see a man pacing back and forth in my room. It didn't work. Instead all I could see was a vision in white... floating down the stairs... whirling across the dance floor... walking with that son of a bitching DuPree fella.
My eyes popped open. Jealously and anger filled me. "She can't believe that you can actually *marry* that... that...." I couldn't think of words vile enough for him.
"That pig DuPree." He supplied helpfully. "No. The purpose of the con is to expose Mister DuPree junior for the animal he is and incidentally to persuade Mister DuPree senior to part with a large sum of money in exchange for not filing charges."
He paused to regard me seriously, "I owe you an apology. I... was using you. I had hoped to speed up the process...."
"How were you planning to expose him?"
"That's the easy part... according to Mother... but she isn't the one that's going to have to fight him off, if all goes well."
The last thing I heard was 'fight him off'. Everything else disappeared in a blur of rage. "Fight him off?!" I was on my feet and had him by the arms, "What the hell do you mean fight him off. He's twice your size! He'll kill you!"
He looked up at me, as if I had suddenly grown two heads. "Mister Tremayne, please calm down... it's all part of the plan."
"Fuck the plan! I don't like it!" I gave him a shake.
He stared at me with wide green eyes, an expression of utter disbelief on his face.
I realized that I must have sounded like a maniac but I couldn't help it. The thought of DuPree manhandling her/him was just more than I could stand.
"M-mister Tremayne," s/he began tentatively, "you are aware, are you not, that I am male..."
"Yeah... I'm aware..." and it didn't make a bit of difference. I released his arms, wrapped one arm around his waist and let the other cup the back of his head. Then, I kissed him.
For an instant he froze in my arms, then his lips parted and he was kissing me back with a furor that made my head spin.
We were both breathing heavily when we finally broke apart. He stared up at me and I couldn't tear my eyes away from his. I don't know how long we stood there like that. Then finally he pulled away, his hands fluttered to his throat, tugging nervously at the torn dress.
Reluctantly, I let him move away.
His voice was shaky when he said, "Well... well... that... was... was..." He sank back down on the sofa, trailing off. He couldn't keep his hands still and I could sense the panic rising in him. I knew then, that he'd never been kissed by a man before.
I knelt in front of him, careful not to touch him, not wanting to upset him anymore than he already was.
He looked at me with frightened eyes. "It's the dress... that's all... the con..."
"No," I said it quietly. "It's you. The clothes don't matter. It's you I like..."
He shook his head, denial written in his eyes. "No... no... it can't be... we're... we're both..."
"Men... and it can be." I bowed my head and sighed. "I spent near half my life with the Indians. They don't have a problem with two men being together. They say that the spirit, the soul don't have a gender so they ain't upset when two people of the same sex find feelings for each other. And ya do feel something for me. Ya have from the start."
He jumped to his feet and moved away from me. "No... no. I was just using you. That's all that was..."
I stood up and shook my head slightly. "All right. Have it your way. Don't make no difference. I ain't gonna let DuPree hurt ya. So ya can tell me what ya need me to do... or I can just stay close and maybe mess things up cause I don't know what's going on."
He turned away and I could see him calming himself. He took a deep breath and wiped his hands on the front of his dress. When he looked back up at me he seemed much more in control.
"Very well. I was intending to use you to make Mister DuPree jealous. A man of his background would find it totally unacceptable for a young woman whom he considers to be his intended to be attracted to a man such as yourself... to someone that he considers beneath him... and me."
I could see that. DuPree would be furious, if I showed an interest in Elizabeth and if she seemed to return my interest, that would make him crazy. "Okay, what do you want me to do?"
"Stay close. Make it plain that you don't like him... and that you do like me. Invite me to go riding... with a chaperone of course."
"Court you... all proper like and public... so you can't be accused of any im--impro--"
"Impropriety." He supplied with a smile. "Exactly. Give Mister DuPree a rival... a rival that I appear to favor... despite the plans of our families." He turned to the door, "I'd best be getting back to the suite."
I stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Yer gonna have a bruise." I said, touching his face where the stable hand had hit him. "How are you gonna explain that."
"I'll tell the truth. The stable hand attacked me and you came to the rescue. It will lend credence to my infatuation with you."
"And piss DuPree off. I've been interfering with his manhandling the serving girls ever since I got here."
"Excellent." He said then his eyes dropped away from mine and he stood there a moment worry clear on his face.
"Don't worry. I won't expose you... and I won't push myself on you. I reckon ya got enough to worry about without wondering if I'm gonna be all over ya. I'll court ya real proper... Miss Lizabeth."
He looked up at me then and smiled a sad little smile, "You, Mister Tremayne, are a true gentleman."
I just shook my head and opened the door for him, checking the hall to make sure it was clear before signaling him to come on out. I made sure he got to his suite unseen then went back into my room and closed the door. I had a lot to think about.
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"Wow!" JD gasped, turning to Vin. "So, you knew that he was a guy..." He broke off then, his eyes going wide, he asked, "You still kissed him."
"Yeah... reckon I was already in love. Ain't quite sure how I let him get away from me..."
"Perhaps it was for the best." Ezra put in, smiling at Vin, "I wasn't ready to accept what I felt for you then. It took a lot of lonely years to make me realize how rare and precious real love is... and that it is something to be treasured no matter who you find it with."
"Glad ya did." Vin reached out to caress Ezra's cheek and the gambler leaned into the touch, his eyes closing as a soft sigh escaped him.
The love that flowed between then was palatable.
JD couldn't help but stare, his mind considering Ezra's words. [Love is rare and precious. Too rare and too precious to let a little thing like them both being male to interfere with it.] For the first time since he'd learned that two of his friends were lovers, he felt as if he were beginning to understand.
Buck pushed back his chair and stood up. "Come on, Kid. Time for us to get over to the jail."
Nathan stood as well. "Reckon I need to go check on Mrs. Lankton. That baby's due most anytime now."
Josiah stood up as well. "Church needs some work." He patted Ezra on the back and smiled at Vin, as he headed out.
Chris took a sip from his coffee. "Reckon you oughta get some rest, Vin." He paused before adding, "Ezra, you got midnight patrol. Wouldn't hurt you to take a nap." He let them see the quiet understanding in his eyes.
Vin tipped his hat and headed for the front door.
Ezra went up the stairs to his room.
Chris grinned behind his coffee cup knowing full well that Vin was headed for the back stairs and would be at Ezra's door by the time the gambler got it unlocked.
After a bit he went to sit out on the saloon porch, watching the street and listening to the gossip about the story.
Long before Vin and Ezra were back up he had begun making a circuit of the town, stopping and talking to people along the way. When asked his opinion of the story in the paper he just shrugged and reminded the person that it *was* just a story.
He stopped off at the church to see Josiah.
The big preacher came and sat on the church steps with him.
"Think there's gonna be trouble about this?" Chris asked Josiah.
"Could be. I've been seeing quite a few folks come in to talk... and what they're talking about is that story. Asking what I think about two men being together *that way*.
"What have you been telling them?"
"That while the law says it's illegal, that the bible is not really clear on it. The passage that they refer to has been translated many times and it may not say now what it originally said. Asked'em, which they thought was the worse sin, killing somebody... or loving somebody. Most didn't answer. Reckon maybe I gave them something to think about."
"Hope so. I kinda like this little town... would hate to ride out."
Josiah gave him a long look then nodded, "Amen, brother, amen."
"Ezra's real special to me. They turn on him... I stand with him."
"Glad to hear it, Preacher." Chris lay a hand on the big man's shoulder and used it to lever himself up.
He walked back to his chair in front of the saloon. He knew that Buck would follow if he left... and JD would most likely go where Buck went. Josiah had plainly said that he'd stand by Ezra. That only left Nathan. Would the black healer ride out with them, if it came to that, or remain behind? He studied on it, rolling his cheroot between his teeth. Hell, Nathan would ride with them. He'd accepted Vin and Ezra pretty easily... and it had been Vin and Chris that saved him from being lynched. Besides he'd figure that they'd need him as good they all were at finding trouble.
He leaned his chair back on its back legs and rested his booted feet on the porch rail. Whatever came of this, the seven would remain seven. He couldn't quite hide the smile that the thought brought.
By now it was standard procedure for the seven to gather at the saloon for the reading of the story's installment. Today, however, only Ezra actually bought a paper, stopping at the Clarion on his way in from patrol and bringing it over to the saloon and handing it off to Josiah to read.
Josiah looked up at him, "So, how is the paper's circulation doing?"
"It seems to have leveled off somewhat. However it is slightly above the highest point that it had achieved before the advent of our little tale." He grinned. "It may drop again when the story is finished, however it will hopefully remain at a level great enough to keep Mrs. Travis in business. Several of the businesses that have been placing their advertisements on the insert page have commented on an increase in business that bodes well for the paper. Advertising is the main income for such an endeavor."
Vin looked over at Josiah, "Wanna get started, I got patrol."
Josiah looked at him a moment then asked, "I'd think that you know what happened."
"I do but... being there an' hearing it told... ain't the same. 'Sides, Ez wrote this... I know how I saw it but I wanna know how he saw it."
Josiah nodded considering that and picking up the paper, opened it to the story and began it read.
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WARNING: THIS SECTION OF THE STORY CONTAINS SHOCKING MATERIAL. PLEASE DO NOT READ IF YOU ARE EASILY SHOCKED.
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Josiah blinked and broke off reading to raise a brow at Ezra.
"It is part of the story." He replied mildly. "If you would rather not read it you may of course leave as can anyone who does not wish to hear it."
After a moment, Chris said. "If you don't mind reading it Josiah, go on. I want to hear it."
Buck raised his cup to Josiah, "Count me in."
When no one moved to leave the table, Josiah gave a nod and returned to his reading.
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It had been Sunday morning that the stable hand attacked me. I awoke Mother on my return to the room and explained what had happened to her. She was not happy that Mister Tremayne was aware of my true gender nor that he had been informed of the con. However she is a realist and knew that what has been done can not be undone.
She decided that the best course of action would be for me to stay in the room most of the day. Meanwhile she would play the outraged mother, making certain that everyone knew that her sweet, innocent daughter had been subjected to a terrible ordeal and was too distraught to leave her room.
Naturally, Misters DuPree, senior and junior made a point of calling to see how I was fairing.
By some happy coincidence, Mister Tremayne made an appearance while they were in attendance.
I was ensconced on the sofa in the sitting room, lying back with a pillow under my head and my feet up, attempting to keep enough control not to murder Mister William DuPree out of hand when the knock came on the outer door.
Mother rose with a frown, "Who ever could that be?"
She strode out and opened the door.
Mister Tremayne stood outside with his hat in his hand. "Ma'am." He said politely, "I's just passing by and thought that I'd see if Miss Lizabeth was feelin' any better."
Mother didn't smile at him, "She is as well as can be expected, sir."
I rose up enough to see the doorway, "Is that Mister Tremayne, Mother? Do invite him in."
Both misters DuPree looked rather annoyed at that, which pleased me no end.
Mother knowing a good ploy when she saw one, sighed and stepped back, albeit with apparent reluctance.
"Very well. Do come in Mister Tremayne. However I must insist that it be only for a moment. Dear Elizabeth needs her rest." She stressed my name, drawing attention to the fact that he had used a diminutive form of it.
I waited until he came into the room and approached the sofa where I lay. As he smiled shyly at me and nodded his head in acknowledgement of the introductions to the other two gentlemen, I swung my feet off the sofa and patted the now, clear space.
"Do sit here, Mister Tremayne." I smiled up at him with a besotted expression on my face.
"He can sit here, dear." Mother snapped indicating a chair quite some distance away.
I gave her a pout, "Mother don't be rude. I insist that he sit here... after all if it had not been for Mister Tremayne's timely rescue, who knows what terrible things that awful man might have done to me." I attempted to convey the idea that I had feared a 'fate worse than death'.
Both misters DuPree got the idea.
Mother frowned quite convincingly but made no more comment when Mister Tremayne sat on the edge of the sofa, perching like a wild thing about to take flight. If he was acting, he should have been on stage... or in the game. I moved closer.
He ducked his head shyly and asked, "Are ya gonna be all right, Miss Lizabeth?" He had just the right amount of concern and shy adoration in his voice. The man was a natural con artist.
I batted my eyes at him, and laid a hand on his arm. When he raised his eyes to look at me, I smiled up at him, "Thanks to you, sir. I've only a few bruises to show for what could have been a truly appalling incident. I am ever so grateful." I simpered up at him.
He played it to the hilt. A slow smile spread across his face. "Just glad I could help." He gazed besottedly at me, "Fine lady like ya shouldn't oughta ever have ta face ah... ah animal like that fella. I'm real sorry that I didn't get there sooner."
We gazed into each other's eyes for a moment. I could see humor sparking in the backs of his eyes and hoped that someone would intervene before he lost it and laughed out loud at the silliness of what we were playing at. Fortunately Mister DuPree senior did.
Rising from his seat, Edmund DuPree came to stand near the sofa, "I want to thank you, Mister Tremayne for coming to the aid of Miss Sinclair. We are quite fond of her. Perhaps I could give you a small token of our appreciation. How about I pay for your noon repast in the hotel dining room?"
Mister Tremayne stood up his back straightening proudly, "Don't need no tokens." He said firmly. "Can buy my own meals and Miss Lizabeth is a friend... wouldn't never let nothing happen ta her." He favored William DuPree with a look that clearly said, 'I know what you are... and I got my eye on you.'
Then he turned back to me, "But iffn you'd like to say thanks," he said to me, "maybe ya'd go on a picnic with me sometime... yer ma'd be invited too, of course."
"I'd love that Mister Tremayne." I said quickly before Mother or either of the men could object.
"Would tomorrow be too soon?" He asked earnestly.
"Not at all," I said. "Afternoon would be best. Mother is not an early riser."
"Good. 'Round one a'clock?"
"Perfect." I smiled at him.
He grinned back at me like there wasn't another soul in the room and said, "Reckon I better be goin'. I'll see ta all the arrangement for the picnic." Then to my utter amazement he reached for my hand, bent to place a light kiss on its back and mumbling his goodbyes to everyone else, fled.
I took a quick inventory to see how the scene had played to our audience and was pleased to note that while Mister DuPree senior was merely quite obviously displeased, William was seething. Mother looked contrite. I knew however that she had to be secretly pleased. The scene couldn't have played out better for our needs if she had written the script for it herself.
Victor Tremayne was a natural con artist. If he'd had someone like Mother to train him he would have been a master. Then again, I wouldn't wish Mother on my worst enemy... and Mister Tremayne was definitely not my worst enemy.
Mother refused to allow me to go the livery alone to check on Gamble, either that night or the next morning. So, I did not see Mister Tremayne again until he came to escort me to the picnic. He had a buggy brought round for Mother and I.
He rode his horse, Blackie, along side the buggy and took us to a lovely spot on the beach, well above the water line but with an incredible view. He helped Mother and I both down from the carriage, treating me with all the diffidence a gentleman shows a lady, as naturally as if he hadn't a clue that I was in fact male. It was an impressive performance. Even Mother had an admiring gleam in her eye as she watched him.
He led us down to the spot he had chosen, beneath a large tree, and spread the picnic blanket out. He placed the basket on it and laid out the food, a veritable feast, obviously prepared with great care by the hotel staff.
I can't recall ever enjoying an afternoon more. We sat on the blanket and talked. Mother prattled on endlessly about Atlanta and Charleston, while Mister Tremayne and I traded looks and silently laughed. Then Mister Tremayne told tales of his years on the high plains. For an uneducated man he could paint pictures with words better than any one I've ever met. I could almost see the towering mountains shining in the distance, wreathed with clouds and the wide prairies with the tall grasses blowing or colorful wildflowers spread out as far as the eye could see.
After we ate, he asked me to walk along the beach with him, as any young man might ask of a young lady to do, and we strolled while Mother kept a watchful eye on us from her seat on the blanket. I could not help but wonder what she thought when he reached for my hand and I let him hold it while we strolled. Beyond Mother's hearing and with no one else nearby, we talked of many things, most of which no young lady should be aware of, including the war. He had been a sharpshooter. I had been an artilleryman and had risen to the rank of Captain via field promotions. He seemed a bit surprised that I had joined up at all, considering what Mother had raised me to be, but did not seemed surprised that I had made officer's rank.
All in all it was a most pleasant afternoon. Unfortunately all good things must come to an end. As the sun began to drop low in the sky we gathered up the remains of the picnic and returned to the hotel.
The first person I saw, upon our return was Mister William DuPree. He was quite pushy insisting that Mother and I join him and his father for supper in the hotel dining room.
I really wasn't hungry. I had eaten more at the picnic than I had been allowed to eat at one meal in the two weeks since this charade had begun. I have always been able to lose weight easily. A fact that Mother took advantage of when she decided upon this masquerade. I had lost a good ten pounds in the ten days between arriving in Galveston and arriving at the Imperial Hotel. The tightly laced corset that Mother insisted that I wear every waking moment made me look even slimmer than I was.
The pattern repeated over the next few days.
Victor Tremayne make it clear to William DuPree that he was most definitely interested in Miss Elizabeth Sinclair, courting me very properly. His courtship was very public, meals in the hotel dining room, walks on the beach, long talks on the verandah, always with Mother's disapproving presence near to hand. Never once did he allow anyone to see us alone together.
William DuPree countered by buying me expensive gifts, always ordering the most expensive items on the menu when we dined, renting a carriage, rather than a buggy when he took me out and generally flouting his wealth.
Mother acted duly impressed.
I acted unimpressed.
Victor scoffed at a man that had to buy the affections of a woman with fancy doodads.
Finally it was the third of July and if things continued as they were, everything would come to a head at the Independence Day Ball the following night.
I sat at the dinner table, in the hotel dining room that evening, beside William DuPree and prayed for relief. [If I have to sit here next to this filthy beast one more minute I'm going to shoot him!]
I could see Victor, sitting at a nearby table. He always seemed to manage to get one near us, much to William's dismay and anger.
Mother looked over at me, "Elizabeth, dear, don't pick at your food." Her voice was gently chiding as if she wanted me to eat instead of being the one who had ordered me to maintain my slim appearance by barely eating enough to stay alive.
"I'm not hungry, Mother. May I be excused?"
"No dear. We'll all be through soon."
Edmund DuPree spoke up, "Let the child go, Maude." He smiled indulgently at me. "William can escort her to your suite."
[Like hell!] I smiled wanly at the older man. "That is quite all right, Mister DuPree. If Mother wishes me to stay, I'm sure I can manage."
"Nonsense! You young people go on. No reason for you to suffer through a long evening with us old fogies!"
[Fuck! Fine, then... but don't blame me, if I shoot him!] I smiled as graciously as I could manage, and allowed William to hold my chair for me as I rose.
I took his arm amid the murmured good nights and allowed him to escort me up the stairs to the suite.
At the door I pulled loose from him, ignoring his attempt to hold on to me. If there had not been other couples in the hallway as well as several of the hotel employees I was sure I would not have been allowed to pull free... at least not without a fight.
Taking out the room key I unlocked the door but turned back to him before pushing it open. "Goodnight, William." I said it loudly enough for the other people in the hallway to hear. "Thank you for seeing me to my room."
"Aren't you going to invite me in?" He moved closer.
"I'm afraid I can't do that. We have no chaperone." Again I made sure to be heard by the others nearby.
"You might as well. I've told Father that I'm marrying you. Tonight or our wedding night makes no difference. You are mine."
I glared at him, "You are very presumptuous, sir! You've yet to propose marriage! And I am not at all certain that I would accept, if you were to!" Wrenching open the door I stepped through, slamming it in his face and quickly locking it behind me.
Leaning back against the locked door I tried to regulate my shuddering breaths. My heart was pounding.
[Thank god, I've got my derringer! And thank you Lord that I am not really a woman!]
I forced myself away from the door and began to pace nervously.
"How could anyone even consider marrying that bloody animal?! I pity the poor woman his overbearing, money grubbing father snares for him! God knows no woman in her right mind would marry him not even for his money!"
I looked down at my shaking hands. "Dear Lord! If this is what women must put up with, it's a wonder any of them ever marry! If this were not the exact reaction we were hoping for, I'd certainly not stand for being treated so by anyone!"
Still trembling slightly I made my way into my bedroom, closing and locking the door behind me. I felt better... safer with two locked doors between myself and William DuPree.
When I had calmed down enough, I rang the bell for the floor servant. When the man came, I ordered a bath, relieved to see that DuPree wasn't hanging around in the hall.
I felt dirty from having to let William DuPree touch me and I needed to feel clean.
I planned to meet Vic in the stables to discuss the plans for snaring DuPree after tomorrow night's dance. I needed to be certain that he would be close at hand. I simply didn't feel secure enough in Mother's plan to trust her 'witnesses' to arrive in time should I get in trouble with DuPree. He outweighed me by at least fifty pounds and I would be hampered by the ball gown.
I dressed carefully in a pale green silk blouse, with a sweetheart neckline. A dark green velvet choker with a large cameo centered in the front to hide my throat. A dark green, corduroy skirt, the same color as the choker. A matching dark green jacket over that. Simple flat slippers on my feet and I was ready to go.
I checked the hall through a crack in the door before slipping out and down the hall to the back stairs. A careful check to make sure no one was around then a silent trip down the stairs. Another check then across the yard and in through the back of the stables.
I was late but Vic had waited.
He was idly brushing Blackie's already gleaming coat when I slipped into the stall beside him.
"Hello," I said softly.
He turned to me, a smile spreading slowly across his face. "Hello, yerself." He drawled. "Was startin' ta think ya might not come."
"I had an unpleasant encounter with Mister DuPree."
"He givin' ya trouble?"
"Nothing I can't handle..." I sighed, "He makes me feel dirty, just by looking at me... and when he actually touches me...." I couldn't help but shudder.
Vic stepped close and slipped his arms around me.
I found myself leaning into those strong arms. He made me feel so safe. So much the opposite of what I felt when William DuPree touched me. After a long moment I drew back and looked up at him. "We need to talk about tomorrow night."
He nodded and then motioned towards the ladder to the hayloft. "Think you can make it up there?"
I grinned at him and moved quickly across the barn, climbing the ladder quite agilely considering the dress I was wearing.
He followed me up and we sat down on a couple of bales of hay, facing each other.
He didn't say anything for a few moments, just sat there looking at me in the light filtering in through the open loft door. The moon would be full the next night and was already quite bright.
I decided that I had better say something, "If all goes well," I began, "William DuPree will escort me back to the suite tomorrow night. Mother will hang back talking to his father, then invite him up to continue the discussion. Between the time that William and I reach the suite and Mother and his father reach the suite I shall attempt to provoke an attack. He is primed and ready to explode. It should not take much more to light the fuse."
Vic nodded and tilted his head to one side as he asked, "Something in particular that you want me to do?"
I grinned at him, "Just ask me to dance Mister Tremayne, just ask me to dance near to the end of the evening. Then take me out to the verandah and into the courtyard. I have steadfastly refused to allow Mister DuPree to lure me out there. When he sees us dancing in the courtyard..."
"The fuse will be lit... and since it's close to the end of the dance, when he escorts ya to yer room, he'll be ready to explode..."
"I'll refuse to allow him to come in... spurn him yet again..."
"He'll go off like a stick of dynamite. I been worried he'd explode early..."
"I know how to manipulate people, Mister Tremayne. I was raised to it.'
"Yer better'n that."
I ducked my head and gave it a small shake. I am what I am... a conman and a grifter.
A moment later he was kneeling in front of me, his hands reaching to take mine. He looked up into my downcast face. "You are better'n that. It don't matter what she's told ya. You can be an' do anything ya want. Remember what ya told me about the war. You made Captain. Field promotions. Yer not just what she's taught ya. You're smart and tough and strong and you can be anything you want." He rose and pulled me to my feet.
I stood looking up at him.
He was so sincere. So sure that he was right. One of his hands came up and cupped my face, "Eric. I love you."
The words echoed in my mind, unreal and yet more real than anything else about this whole situation. When he bent and kissed me I couldn't find the will to resist. I had spent my whole life being told that no one would ever love me... starving to hear the words he spoke. How could I resist?
My eyes drifted shut and I have no memory of how we ended up lying in the hay. I felt his arm tighten around me as he kissed me hungrily, his other hand pulling up my skirt and petticoats and sliding beneath it. As his hand stroked up my leg to cup my buttocks and pull me close against him, my last coherent thought was: [Mother is going to kill me.]
The events of that night will remain forever a jumble in my mind. Moonlight. The sweet smell of fresh hay. The sweeter sound of words that I had never hoped to hear anyone whisper to me. Hands that touched where I had never been touched, teaching me of pleasures that I had never dreamed existed. A passion hotter than the sun that awoke me as I lay sated and exhausted in his arms.
Followed by the terror that gripped me when I came back to my senses. Blinking awake I pushed him away, sitting up trying desperately to return myself to some semblance of decency.
He awoke the instant that I moved, "Eric..." his voice was soft and loving as he reached out a hand to me.
I flinched away and he drew back.
"I have to go. I have to get back to the suite... Mother is going to kill me." I clambered to my feet, pulling and tugging at my disarrayed clothes.
"Eric!" This time his voice was sharp.
When I looked at him, he said more quietly, "Let me help... you're too upset to do a good job of makin' yerself presentable."
I knew that he was right. My hands were shaking so that I couldn't manage the buttons on my blouse. I nodded numbly and allowed him to button up and straighten out my clothes.
He picked straw from my hair and smoothed it as best he could. He was quite careful and very thorough.
I had to force myself to stand straight, every touch made me want to lean against him, fall into his arms.
After a few minutes he stepped back. "I'll go down. Check and make sure it's clear. Don't come down till I tell ya."
He disappeared down the ladder and I sat down on the nearest bale of hay, my legs no longer able to hold me.
It was several minutes later that Mister Tremayne reappeared and helped me down the ladder. I am sure I would have fallen without his aid. I felt uncoordinated and disjointed.
Somehow we made it across the yard to the back door of the hotel and up to the suite, without attracting anyone's attention.
He dug my key out of my bag and opened the door. Fortunately it was much too early for Mother or any of the other guests to be awake. He guided me across to the door of my bedroom and in. I sank down on the first surface that presented itself and found myself staring at my reflection in the mirror of my dressing table.
The woman staring back at me was incredibly pale, her eyes unnaturally wide and the pupils some what dilated. Her breathing shallow and rapid. Her lips were kiss-swollen and her hair disarrayed.
I recognized the symptoms of shock. I felt totally unconnected to the image in the mirror. It wasn't me. I felt invisible, unreal as if somehow Eric Sinclair had ceased to exist. I suppose that what I was feeling was something akin to what a woman must feel when she has surrendered her virtue to a man only to realize too late that he will never marry her. Disconnected. Detached from everything.
Victor's voice finally penetrated the fog that seemed to surround me. "Eric... Eric?"
I looked up at him.
"Are you going to be all right?"
I had no idea, but years of Mother's training gave me words to say, "Of course, Mister Tremayne. I am fine."
He did not look convinced but after a moment he nodded, "Okay. I better go." He hesitated then added, "I'll be there for ya tonight. Don't you worry about that."
I nodded and he reluctantly left.
I turned back and stared at the mirror again. My hands worried with the hairbrush on the dressing table. How I was going to get through this day? My mind couldn't seem to hold on to a single thought. I could barely stand up alone. Scarcely walk. How would I ever be able to deal with William DuPree?
Numbly I forced myself to get to my feet and undress. I cleaned myself up, trying not to think about how I came to be in such a state then climbed into bed and slept until Mother came to wake me to get ready for the ball.
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There was silence at the table when Josiah folded the paper and looked up. "I am amazed that Mrs. Travis allowed this to see print." He said thoughtfully. "It is beyond scandalous... it's..."
"Shocking?" Ezra's voice was amused. "I believe that is the word Mrs. Travis used to voice her doubts about printing it."
"How did you get her to print it?" Chris asked softly.
"I had her pull one of the stories from the Denver Chronicle... from last summer when the Indians were raiding and read the descriptions of the torture visited upon the women that were slaughtered. Then I simply asked which she found more shocking. It was her decision to print. You did note that there was a warning at the beginning that this section contained shocking material."
Vin reached out a hand to lay it on Ezra's arm. When Ezra turned to look at him he said, "I'm sorry. I shouldn'ta done what I did that night. Never realized how much it upset you."
"But if you had not, I might have never learned of my true nature. I never had any sexual or emotional interest in women, Vin. Never. It did not start with you... and you certainly did not force yourself upon me. I wanted it as much as you did... I simply was not ready to accept that I wanted it, not at that point in time. It took years of trying to find a woman that could make me feel the way you made me feel that night for me to finally realize that *no* woman *could* ever give me what I needed. I'm not sorry it happened. Not now."
"When DuPree... exploded he hurt you pretty bad. If you hadn't been so upset maybe..."
"Water under the bridge, Vin. Over and done with. We can't change the past. I survived. We're together now. What happened ten years ago no longer matters."
"I keep thinkin', if I hadn't let you push me away back then. If I hadn't left... maybe..."
"Vin Tanner," Ezra said in a firm voice, "You listen to me. There is one thing that Mother taught me that I am glad I know... and it is this. The past is only memory. The future is only a dream. Every single person on the face of this earth must live in the present. You can remember the past but you can not change it. You can hope and plan for the future but you can not see it. You can only do the best you can here and now. We all live our lives one day at a time. No one has any guarantee of a tomorrow. No one. The only bearing that what, happened between us ten years ago has on the present is that it was one more step on the road that brought us here. We are here, now, and we are together. The decisions we made ten years ago helped to bring us here. It is too late to change them now. The decisions we make today will determine where we are tomorrow. I would rather we did not waste today feeling guilty about a yesterday that can't be changed, when we can be using today to make happy memories for tomorrow."
Vin stared at his lover's earnest face for a long moment then he smiled, "You know, Ez. I actually followed that... and you're right." He leaned closer and said something that the others couldn't hear but which made Ezra blush.
Ezra gave him a chiding look and said, "You are incorrigible, Mister Tanner."
"Is that the same as lovable?" Vin asked innocently.
"In this instance... perhaps. However, I am in need of some rest and you have the patrol... so your little suggestion shall have to wait until later." He rose giving a nod to the others at the table, "If you will excuse us gentlemen..."
He moved to the stairs.
Vin sighed and headed for the door, calling back over his shoulder. "I'll be a mite late coming back in, since I'm getting a late start. Shouldn't be long past one though."
Ezra nodded and disappeared up the stairs as Vin vanished out the batwing doors.
After several minutes of silence Josiah said, "I wouldn't have thought Maude could come up with something like that. It is a very basic truth. We do all live in today... whether we think we do or not. Incredible."
Chris Larabee stared down at the glass of whiskey he was holding. He had spent three years, living in a bottle... and it hadn't changed a thing. His wife and son were still dead. Their killer still walked free. Ella Gaines... he wouldn't find her in the bottom of a bottle... and it was up to him where he went from here. [We all live our lives one day at a time. No one has any guarantee of a tomorrow. No one. The decisions we make today determine where we will be tomorrow. We can be using today to make happy memories for tomorrow.] How in hell had a conman and a gambler gotten so damned smart.
Buck just grinned and took another sip of his whiskey. He had always had an instinctive understanding of the philosophy that Ezra had just voiced. It was at the heart of his personality. He lived every day to the fullest because he knew that tomorrow never actually comes... that when it gets here it's another today.
Nathan stared down at the table. [No one has any guarantee of a tomorrow. No one.] He swallowed hard. [What would I do today, if I knew that I'd die tomorrow? I'd tell Raine how much I love her. Maybe I oughta go ahead on and ask her to marry me. There ain't no guarantee that I'll get to do it, if I keep putting it off.]
Josiah took a sip of his whiskey. [Maybe there's more to Maude Standish than meets the eye... reckon maybe I'll try to have a little talk with her next time she drops by.]
JD looked around the table everyone seemed lost in thought. He wasn't certain that he had understood what Ezra had meant. Maybe he'd talk to Josiah about it... later. The preacher seemed to get it. Maybe he could explain it to him.
Again Ezra came from the midnight to dawn patrol and brought the paper to the breakfast table with him. Vin was eating and waiting for the story to be read before he rode out on patrol. The actual hours of the patrol shifts had changed subtly. Midnight to dawn had slipped back to two in the morning until eight. The "dawn patrol" now fell nearer to eight-thirty to two thirty. The other shifts sliding slightly as well.
No one mentioned it but they knew that it was happening.
Josiah accepted the paper without comment and immediately opened it. As soon as everyone was at the table he began to read.
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For once I was grateful for Mother's single-mindedness. She awoke me shortly after noon, had my bath prepared and began the long drawn out process of getting me ready for the ball.
I let myself be swept along on her determination and found that following the routine of preparations calmed me and gave me something to focus on. By the time that she was ready to dress me I was actually capable of functioning without her having to direct my every move.
I resolutely pushed the events of the previous night out of my mind and forced myself to concentrate on the task at hand. I sent a silent plea to any deity that might be listening for the strength to finish this and made myself a silent promise that when it was done I would go somewhere and quietly have a complete and total nervous breakdown. I had earned it.
The red velvet gown with matching red rouge turned me from the innocent angel of the first dance to a sultry siren. The deep red was in sharp contrast to my alabaster skin making the daringly low cut dress seem even more so. The longest dangle that hung from the rhinestone collar fell directly in the center of my breastbone pointing like an arrow at my cleavage. William DuPree would be lusting after me from the moment he saw me. I was glad that Victor had promised to keep a close watch on me and on DuPree.
I was not at all certain of my ability to fight him off. I double-checked the derringer in my evening bag, very much afraid that I would need it. Finally it was time to go. I put on my game face, plastering a pleasant smile across it and followed Mother out and down the hall to the stairs.
I paused at the top of the stairs, waiting until people began to look up before I began my descent. Showtime.
I moved with grace and confidence, down the stairs, a decided sway to my hips, gone was the shy woman-child. In her place a fiery temptress.
My eyes went to the entrance of the bar, hoping to see Victor there. Wanting to be reassured by his presence but the plainsman wasn't there.
William DuPree met me at the foot of the stairs, taking my arm and guiding me towards the ballroom, as the crowd parted before them. We made our entrance and I took a place near the refreshments table. While William went off to get us some punch, I surveyed the crowd.
Finally I saw the plainsman standing near one pair of the French doors that opened out onto the verandah. He was dressed in what had to be his best buckskins, shaved and with his long hair neatly combed and pulled back and secured at the base of his neck. I could not keep my face from brightening at the sight. He was here and he had promised to keep me safe. As much as what had happened the night before had upset me... I still felt a sense of security in his presence.
He stepped away from the doors and made his way to me, arriving just before William returned.
"Hey, Purty Lady. Reckon ah could have a dance tonight?"
Before William could say anything I answered, ignoring his return. "Certainly, Mister Tremayne. I shall meet you here, shall we say the next to the last dance. I must of course reserve the last dance for Mister DuPree as he is my escort."
"That's fine. Be 'bout twelve thirty won't it?'
He nodded to me and moved off. As he moved away, William caught my arm. "I don't want you dancing with anyone else tonight!"
"Mister DuPree, we are neither engaged nor married. Until such time as we are, I will dance with whom ever I wish!"
"No one else will dance with you."
"Really," I smiled sweetly at him, "Then I shall simply have to give Mister Tremayne more than one dance." I jerked my arm out of his hand and moved away to sit in a nearby chair.
When the music started he turned to me, "Come on, let's dance."
I gave a little huff and snapped my fan open fanning myself, "I do not wish to dance at this time. I shall sit this one out."
It was two dances later before I agreed to dance with him and then because I knew that if he blew-up on the dance floor it would ruin Mother's plans.
We continued to dance every dance until after the fireworks display began. Then seeing Victor near the refreshments table where I had told him that I would meet him, I pulled loose from William and made my way over there.
"Shall we dance, Mister Tremayne?" I asked softly.
"Of course, Miss Sinclair." Vic grinned at me and held out his arms.
William caught my arm. "You come straight back here when the dance is over. The next dance is mine."
"I believe that I shall sit out the next couple of dances." I snapped.
"Elizabeth!" William snapped.
Vic stepped forward, his stance threatening, "You her husband?"
"No he is not!" I answered loudly. "We aren't even engaged!"
"Then who the lady dances with ain't none a'yer business, mister."
William started forwards then stopped, there was a dangerous look in Victor's eyes.
Vic turned his back on William, dismissing him and led me way. He didn't stop at the dance floor though. He led me out on the verandah before turning to me.
"I ain't no great dancer, figured it'd be better to dance out here. Not so many people to bump into." He said, loud enough for the other couples nearby to hear.
I laughed softly, "You'll do just fine." Then smiling up at him I added, "The courtyard would be even better."
He smiled at me and led me off the verandah and into the courtyard.
As he took me in his arms to start the dance he whispered, "DuPree is watching."
I smiled lovingly up at him and moved closer, "Hold me as close as you can. Make him jealous."
Victor seemed delighted to do so. I felt as light as a feather as he led me through the steps of the waltz. He had said that he could dance when we had talked about the plan but I had not expected him to be so light on his feet, so smooth and sure. I soon gave myself up to the dance, caught in the music and the moonlight that bathed the courtyard in its ethereal glow. I gazed up at him, captured by the soft light in his eyes as he looked down at me and I knew that I was lost... utterly lost. All it would take was a word, a touch, a kiss and I would surrender to him again as I had in the hayloft. Fortunately, he had more control than I. When the music stopped he only stood for a moment still holding me in his arms then stepped away and taking my hand, guided me back towards the ballroom.
William reclaimed me at the door into the ballroom, giving Victor a hate-filled look as he took my arm and led me out on the floor for the final dance. His grip was tight, bruisingly so. As soon as the music faded, he started pulling me towards the door. I balked and insisted on speaking to Mother before we left I needed to be sure that she knew we were going and not to tarry too long but to make sure that Edmund DuPree was on the scene quickly. I did not think, that there would be much time once we reached the suite before our witnesses would be needed.
I was correct.
William practically dragged me up the stairs. I looked back to see Mother hanging behind, talking to Edmund DuPree. We had reached the suite before she started up the stairs.
I unlocked the door and pushed it open, knowing that this was it. Turning to William I said, "Good night, William. I had a lovely time. I'll see you in the morning."
He stepped closer and leaned in to kiss me.
I turned my head and his lips missed mine, landing on my cheek.
That was all it took.
With a snarl he grabbed my arm and shoved me through the door coming after me.
I caught myself and turned, slapping him, hard, across the face.
He exploded, backhanding me, knocking me sprawling on the sitting room floor.
I managed to catch myself enough to land with the hoop skirt spread out around me rather than flung up over my head.
As I struggled to my feet he grabbed me by the bodice of my dress and tore it open, revealing the white lace top of my corset.
I screamed, hoping that Mother was not far behind.
William balled his hand and punched me in the face. I felt a tooth come out and went down hard, falling against a table. It tilted and fell the edge coming down on my arm. I felt the bone give pain flaring through it. I screamed again, fighting against unconsciousness and praying for someone to come.
William landed atop me and I knew that I was running out of time. If William kept this up, I would soon be unable to continue fighting him off and when he 'had his way with me' it would become apparent that I was not a woman and all would be lost.
I struggled desperately, bucking and twisting under him. I couldn't dislodge him. I couldn't get my hand on the derringer in my evening bag. The world was graying out. A rushing noise filled my ears. I was losing the fight, pain and nausea overwhelming me as surely as DuPree's greater strength.
Then suddenly DuPree was gone, ripped off me by a raging Victor Tremayne. Victor's face was savage as he hurled DuPree across the room and went after him, murder in his eyes.
I heard Mother's shocked cry of, "Elizabeth!"
Then she was there, wrapping her arms around me. I leaned into her, cradling my left arm with my right arm, tears streamed down my face. I coughed, gagging as blood spilled from my mouth. I could feel the lost tooth in the back of my mouth, gagging me. I coughed again and managed to spit it out.
"Elizabeth! Oh, my God! What did that... that... animal do to you, baby!"
I couldn't answer. I was too hurt and shocked. All I wanted in the world was to be held and comforted and for once in my life Mother was there to give that comfort even if I did know that it was all a show for DuPree.
She tilted my head to see where the blood was coming from and realized that William had knocked one of my teeth out.
I buried my face against Mother's shoulder still sobbing. She allowed it, ignoring the blood that was soaking her dress. It would only insure us more money.
I could hear Victor still cursing William and Edmund DuPree trying to pull him off his son. A moment later, Victor was knelling beside Mother and I, his hand reaching out to stroke my hair.
Edmund DuPree gave his battered son a shake. Surveyed the room, looking for a way to do damage control. "You damned fool! Everything is ruined because you couldn't wait a few weeks until the wedding!"
Mother looked up at one of the hotel staff, "Go get the sheriff!" She snapped.
"No! Wait!" Edmund DuPree ordered. Then turning to Maude he said, "Can't we work something out... They are going to be married in just a few weeks...."
"Like hell!" Victor looked up, murderous rage again filling his face. "That miserable son of a bitch ain't never getting near her again. I'll kill him first."
"Mama, please!" I raised my head enough to wail. "I won't marry that... that monster! Please, Mama!" I trembled, pressing one hand to my mouth, which was still bleeding. I would soon have a black eye and my lips were busted as well.
"Of course not, dear." Mother pull me back down, drawing herself up to look defiantly at Edmund DuPree. "If I had known what kind of animal that..." she threw the cringing William a withering glance,"...was I would never have considered a match between you!"
Turning back to the man she'd ordered to get the sheriff she snapped. "I told you to get the sheriff!"
The man turned and left.
DuPree turned to look at us huddled on the floor, seeing the blood and my obviously broken arm. He turned to another of the hotel staff. "Get a doctor up here!"
Then he stepped closer to us, directing his words to Mother, "Mrs. Sinclair, please. There is no need for the sheriff. I'm sure we can come to some arrangement. What would it take to get you not to press charges."
He was no fool. He knew that once the sheriff saw my torn and bloody clothes and heard the story from the witnesses, William would go to prison. It wasn't like the other times when William had forced himself on servants or poor girls with no options. We were a prominent family. John Sinclair was an attorney of note in the Atlanta area and a friend.
"You think that you can buy us off? John will have your son's hide for this!"
"Perhaps he'd reconsider for twenty thousand dollars."
Mother glared at him. "Certainly not!"
Mother clutched me to her, murmuring as she stroked my hair. After a moment she looked up, her face set, "A hundred thousand."
"That is far too much!" DuPree snapped sparing his son a look as the doctor came into the room. He licked his lips. "Fifty thousand. Not a penny more."
Mother had made a life, running cons and playing cards. She knew when a mark had reached his limit. She ducked her head, planting a small kiss on the top of my hair. After a moment she looked up and nodded. It was actually more than she had hoped to get.
"...And you'll be gone before morning." DuPree added.
"You will provide transport to the first stage stop to the east." Mother said.
"The doctor will see to Elizabeth... and you will pay him."
Again DuPree nodded.
Mother eased me into Victor's arms and stood. "Mister Tremayne, please take Elizabeth to her room. The doctor can attend her there."
She moved to open the door to my bedroom as Victor lifted me in his arms and carried me towards it. She held the door for us then turned back to DuPree, "...and Mister DuPree... have the money here before the sheriff arrives."
DuPree nodded to one of his men, who had come into the suite.
The man left and DuPree turned to Maude. "It'll be here in five minutes."
I don't recall a great deal of what happened after that. The doctor came and gave me a shot... morphine, I suppose, and everything faded away. My last clear memory is of Victor sitting beside me on the edge of the bed, a worried expression on his face, one of his hands gripping my uninjured hand and the other idly caressing my hair.
I have no memory of our departure from the Imperial Hotel.
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Josiah lowered the paper and regarded Ezra. "Is that how you ended up with the gold tooth?"
"Fifty thousand dollars is a lotta money." Nathan said giving Ezra a belligerent look.
"I suppose... but I never saw a penny of it."
"What happened to it?" Chris asked.
It was Vin that answered. "Maude. She took it and ever dime Ez had besides."
"The story will be completed in tomorrow's edition." Ezra said quietly. "I'm sure you gentlemen can wait until then for all the sordid details." He rose and said his good nights, heading up to bed as Vin headed out on patrol.
The others sat in silence for a long moment. Finally Nathan said, "That don't seem right... after all he went through... his ma just took ever thing?" his voice held a doubtful note.
"Reckon we'll find out what happened tomorrow." Chris said. "At least it's about over."
The news that the next installment would be the last had spread quickly through the town although no one, except the seven, was certain where the information had come from. Mrs. Travis however had confirmed it.
Naturally everyone bought copies of Friday's paper.
Josiah was one of the first to settle in at the saloon. The others joined them shortly. Vin was restless, checking the clock as Ezra was running a bit late.
It was almost eight-thirty before he arrived, looking tired. He gave Vin a smile, seeing his lover's worried look. "Chaucer threw a shoe. Yosemite is taking care of him but I had to walk the last half mile in."
Vin nodded then, a small sigh of relief escaping. "Was a mite worried. Seeing as how ya find trouble so easy."
"No easier than you, my friend." Ezra responded. Then nodding to the others he added, "I apologize if my tardiness has kept you from the story."
"That's all right, Brother Ezra," Josiah intoned, "It just did not seem right to start without you."
He picked up the paper, which was already open to the insert and began to read.
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It seemed like a dream. I can't remember ever being happier. Fireworks exploded in the air over the courtyard. The light of the full moon gave the scene a surreal beauty and I had Eric in my arms.
He had never looked more lovely. The hair of the golden wig was piled high on his head, adorned with a spray of red and white roses. His lips were the color of ripe cherries, a perfect match for the red velvet ball gown he wore. His lips curved in slight smile as he looked up at me, his green eyes shining.
He was light as a thistle on the wind in my arms and I found myself dancing far more easily than I ever had before. He seemed to fit perfectly with me. I felt as if the music were moving us along, carrying us through the steps of the dance with no effort or conscious thought on our part.
His hand, resting on my arm felt warm even through the buckskin shirt I wore. My hand on his waist drew him nearer until he was pressed against me, the hoop in his skirt pushed against him in the front and way out behind him. I gazed into his eyes for a long moment then his head dropped to lie against my chest, his hand sliding up my arm to rest on my shoulder as my arm tightened around his waist.
We danced like that until the music stopped and several steps more before we realized that the music was gone. I stepped back, the spell broken, and looked down at him. He looked dazed so I took charge and guided him back to the doorway of the ballroom where DuPree met us.
The look he gave me was filled with hatred and I felt a chill go through me. I feared for Eric's safety and resolved to stay as close as I could the rest of the evening.
DuPree led him out on the floor for the final dance. I watched with concern. He seemed to be holding Eric very tightly, not improperly close but I could see the pained look on Eric's face as DuPree's hand closed over his. As soon as the music faded, he started pulling Eric towards the door. Eric balked and managed to speak to his mother before they left then DuPree practically dragged him from the room.
I was trapped behind a press of people and couldn't get to the door leading into the lobby. As they vanished through it I turned and made my way out the French doors and onto the verandah. Knowing that the lobby would be crowded I went around to the back. It wasn't as crowded this way but there were still more people than I was used to. Many of the people who had attended the ball had come from the town and surrounding areas. Their carriages and horses were parked in the back of the hotel and there were many people trying to get to them.
I swore silently as I pushed my way through them finally reaching the back stairs. I raced up them, praying I wasn't too late. As I reached the second floor I saw Mrs. Sinclair and the older DuPree coming up the inside staircase. Then I heard Eric scream... a cry of fear and pain that tore at my soul.
I broke into a run as I saw Eric's mother's head come up. She gathered up her skirts and ran towards the door to their suite DuPree hard on her heels. The suite was closer to the inside stairs than the back stairs and we reached the door at the same time.
I pushed in ahead of Mrs. Sinclair and Edmund DuPree. The sight that greeted me made my blood boil.
William DuPree had Eric pinned to the floor. Eric's left arm lay useless beside him, obviously broken as he struggled against the larger man. His face was battered and there was blood coming from his mouth.
With strength born of rage, I grabbed William DuPree by the back of his arm and a handful of his fancy suit and yanked him off Eric, hurling him across the room. Blind with anger I went after him, plummeting him, landing blow after blow, intent on beating the bloody animal to death. I had never wanted to kill someone so badly in my entire life.
It took Edmund DuPree and four other men who had heard the screams and come to investigate to pull me off him. Finally forced away from him, I turned to Eric.
My heart nearly stopped. Besides the broken arm that he was cradling with the other one as his mother cradled him in her arms he was drenched in blood. It poured from his mouth and down his chin, dripping on the exposed corset. I knelt beside him and his mother, reaching out to stroke his hair, trying to give him some comfort. His lips were busted, one side of his face already beginning to swell from the blow that William had landed. He coughed and spit and I saw that he had lost a tooth.
I could hear the elder DuPree talking behind me but wasn't paying attention to the words then Mrs. Sinclair looked up at someone and snapped, "Go get the sheriff!"
"No! Wait!" Edmund DuPree sounded panicked. He began babbling, "Can't we work something out... They are going to be married in just a few weeks...."
"Like hell!" I looked up at the man, letting the rage I felt show on my face "That miserable son of a bitch ain't never getting near her again. I'll kill him first." I snarled and I meant every word of it.
"Mama, please!" Eric raised his head. "I won't marry that... that monster! Please, Mama!" He trembled, pressing one hand to his mouth, which was still bleeding. As badly hurt as he was, the pain leaving his face white and drawn he still played his role.
I remembered again the regard that the Indians held for a man that could dress and live as a woman. Man's flesh. Woman's spirit. Warrior's heart. Eric had them all.
"Of course not, dear." Mrs. Sinclair pulled Eric back down, drawing herself up to look defiantly at Edmund DuPree, she said. "If I had known what kind of animal that..." she threw the cringing William a withering glance,"...was I would never have considered a match between you!"
Turning back to the man she'd ordered to get the sheriff she snapped. "I told you to get the sheriff!"
The man turned and left.
DuPree turned to look at us huddled on the floor, seeing the blood and Eric's obviously broken arm. He turned to another of the hotel staff. "Get a doctor up here!"
Then he stepped closer to us, directing his words to Eric's mother, trying not to look at Eric/Elizabeth. "Mrs. Sinclair, please. There is no need for the sheriff. I'm sure we can come to some arrangement. What would it take to get you not to press charges."
The man wasn't a fool. He knew that once Sheriff Sandler saw 'Miss Sinclair's' torn and bloody clothes and heard the story from the witnesses, William would go to prison. It wasn't like the other times when William had forced himself on servants or poor girls with no options. I ignored them talking, concentrating on Eric. I pulled a handkerchief out of my pocket and pressed it to his mouth. He slipped past his lips and pressed it into the socket for the missing tooth. I was taking more and more of his weight, gathering him closer as his mother and Edmund DuPree negotiated the price DuPree would pay for William's assault on him.
Finally Mrs. Sinclair eased Eric completely into my arms and stood. "Mister Tremayne, please take Elizabeth to her room. The doctor can attend her there."
She moved to open the door to Eric's bedroom as I lifted him in my arms and carried him towards it. She held the door for us then turned back to DuPree, "...and Mister DuPree... have the money here before the sheriff arrives."
I carried him to the bed and lay him on it.
He was barely conscious, moaning softly.
I lifted the skirt of the red velvet dress and tugged the undergarment that had the broken hoop in it off him then smoothed the dress back down. I pulled the folded quilt up from the foot of the bed to cover him to the shoulders,
I sat down on the edge of the bed beside him, taking his right hand in mine. I reached out to smooth back the hair from his face, checking to make sure the wig was secure.
He blinked up at me, his eyes filled with pain and confusion. It wasn't long before the doctor came bustling in, Mrs. Sinclair behind him. She only stayed a minute then DuPree senior came in and handed her a satchel. She left then, telling the doctor to work as quickly as possible.
The doctor came Eric a shot of morphine and asked me to help him set her arm. I held the upper arm, while he straightened the lower one then I helped him splint and bind it.
With the worst injury taken care off, he cleaned the blood off her as best he could.
Holding her mouth open he shook his head. "She'll have to see a dentist about that tooth, if she wants a replacement she should get a it put in before the gum heals. It'll heal around gold... or silver but sometimes the silver will make a body real sick."
I nodded and he stood up. Taking some small paper wrapped items from his bag he laid them on the bedside table. "Powder in the white papers is for pain. Black papers are for tea to reduce the fever she's bound to get. Just dump it in a cup, pour boiled water over it and let them steep for about ten minutes. Then give it to her. You can add honey to make it taste better if she won't drink it."
He looked at my worried face and laid a shoulder on my arm. "She'll be fine, son." He said softly. "Just a matter of time."
He moved away, closing up his bag and said, "It'll take six to eight weeks for that arm to mend. She'll be in a lot of pain at least the first two or three. I left you enough of the pain medicine for two weeks. She should be feeling better by the time it runs out."
I heard Sheriff Sandler's voice in the outer room. I wanted to go talk to him but I didn't want to leave the doctor alone with Eric.
I waited while he closed up his bag then walked with him to the door.
Sheriff Sandler was standing right outside arguing with DuPree. He saw me and turned to me. "You know what's going on here Tremayne?"
"Yep. That'n over there assaulted Miss Sinclair. I pulled him off..." I grinned at him, "got in a few good licks before they got me off him."
"That explains his condition. How's the lady?"
"Banged up pretty bad. He broke her arm. Knocked a tooth out. Tore her dress near ta off. She's asleep. Doc knocked her out to set the arm. Don't reckon she'll wake up before sometime tomorrow."
"I see." He gave me a curious look, "Anybody gonna press charges?"
"Reckon not." I nodded to the elder DuPree, "He give her ma a heap of money. They're leavin' soon as they get packed. Takin' Lizabeth home. I thought I'd ride along with'm a ways... make sure they get where they're goin' all right."
Sandler nodded, "Then I might as well go on back to the office."
"Hang on a minute," I said.
He looked at me and I motioned him to come into the bedroom. When he did I walked over to the bed and pulled the blanket, down enough that he could see the ripped dress for just a few seconds before I pulled it back up.
"I know ya can't arrest him, if nobody'll press charges but I'd appreciate it if ya'd interview the witnesses, take their statements... put on the record that it happened and keep and eye on the DuPree boy. I know for a fact this ain't the first girl he's attacked. Pulled him offa one of the serving girls twice since I been here. He coulda killed Miss Sinclair if I hadn't a'been close enough ta stop him."
Sandler stood looking down at the still figure on the bed for a long moment, taking in the splinted arm, the swollen jaw, the eye that was already beginning to darken and the blood that hadn't been entirely washed off. "There's been trouble with that boy ever since he's been here. I'll get the statements." He looked up at me. 'You gonna make one?"
"I'll be back soon as I make sure they get away from here safe."
He nodded then looked back at her a minute. "She your girl?"
"I wish." I said softly. "Reckon I'm good enough ta come runnin' to the rescue but her ma won't never see me as husband material."
"Might not matter... long as she does."
I shook my head sadly, "Don't seem likely."
He nodded again. "I'll see ya in a couple of days?"
He left then to talk to the other witnesses and make sure that DuPree knew this was going on record an he'd be keeping an eye on the boy.
I turned back to Eric, sitting back down on the edge of the bed beside him, picking up his hand and holding it.
A few minutes later Mrs. Sinclair came in. She came over to stand beside the bed and look at Eric. With a sigh, she said, "We have to get his clothes changed. Get him ready to go." She looked up at me. "I'll need your help."
I stood up, "Yes, ma'am."
She went and locked the door then moved to the closet. "Get that off him, down to the underwear. You might as well cut it off. It'll be easier and the dress is ruined anyway." She looked through the closet and pulled out a traveling suit, skirt, blouse and jacket.
I cut the dress off Eric, stripping him down to the frilly underwear. "Can I take the corset off?"
"No. we'll never get him in this without it."
I lifted him up off the bed and she pulled the ruined ball gown out from under him and threw it on the floor. I put him back on the bed but held his torso up while she slipped the blouse on his arms doing the splinted on first, being as careful as possible. The sleeve was loose enough to fit over the splint but the cuff wouldn't fasten. She slipped it on the other arm and smoothed it down his back. I laid him back down and she buttoned the blouse and smoothed the front down. Like all of the clothes he wore as Elizabeth the collar rose high on his neck, concealing his Adam's apple.
When she was satisfied with the blouse, she brought the skirt over. Fortunately it buttoned all the way down the front. She unbuttoned it about half way and had me lift his torso again as she had decided it would be easier to put it over his head. I tucked his splinted arm against his chest out of the way and she slipped the skirt down to his waist then fastened the waistband button.
I lay him back and lifted his hips and legs while she smoothed the skirt down then buttoned it.
She stood back and nodded, "We'll have to wait until he wakes up to clean him up any better. Take him and lay him on the couch. I need to get the servants in here to pack this room up."
I obeyed, figuring that as long as I did what she said there wouldn't be any problem with my hanging around. I took the quilt from the bed with us to wrap her in and lay her on the sofa in the setting room.
I saw that Mike, the bellhop I had met on my first day was in the setting room helping out. As I sat down on the edge of the sofa beside Eric I motioned him over. "Mike, do somethin' for me."
"Sure Mister Tremayne."
I pulled a couple of silver dollars out of my pocket. "Run down to the livery and tell Andrew... you know him don't you?"
"Good. You tell him that I want Blackie and Gamble saddled and ready to go just as fast as he can get it done. Bring them around back to where that DuPree fella's coach is supposed to pick us up and tie them to the back of it... but I want them saddled... understand?
"One a'these is for Andy, the other'n's yours. When you get back from the livery stop at my room and bring my things to me here. They're mostly packed but check the bathroom... I mighta left my razor and shaving stuff there. Stop by the desk and tell the clerk ta figure up what I owe and ta bring the bill up to me here and I'll pay him. Got all that?"
He nodded, said, "Got it," and took off.
An hour later we were on the way east from Galveston. I had toted Eric down to the coach, then mounted up and rode along side the coach.
Mrs. Sinclair checked her and Eric into the only hotel in the small town where they'd wait for the stage east. I got a room next to Eric's but didn't use it. I settled in a chair beside his bed and waited for him to wake up.
It was passed noon the next day before he opened his eyes. He stirred a bit and mumbled in his sleep before blinking them open and looking groggily in my direction, "Mother?" He mumbled.
"Naw. Just me." I said. I got him some water and propped him up to drink it.
He didn't ask any more about his ma and I hated to tell him but I figured he needed to know. So, I told him. "Yer ma's gone."
He didn't even look surprised. "She leave anything... besides me?" He asked tiredly.
"Trunk a'clothes... mostly dresses."
"My saddle bags.... Blanket?"
"In the livery."
"She been there?"
"No that I know of... why."
"Should be some money... sewed in the corner of my saddle blanket."
"I'll check on it for ya."
He nodded and drifted off to sleep again.
I went down to the livery and got his saddlebags and his saddle blanket. I couldn't tell if there was anything sewed in it but it didn't look like it had been messed with.
The next time he awoke it was dark and he seemed more alert. He grimaced in pain when I helped him sit up and I asked if he wanted some of the pain medicine. He turned it down.
"I would like some food... preferably soup. My mouth is too sore to chew anything."
I offered to see what I could find.
As I was leaving he called after me. "Have someone bring me up a tub for a bath."
"You sure yer up to that?"
He scowled at me, "I want a bath, Mister Tremayne and I want it now! See to it!"
Somebody was definitely grumpy... but then pain'll do that to you. I know how much a broke arm hurts so I just nodded and headed on out.
I had to help him bathe and that really got him pissed off.
"What ya wanna put on?" I asked when he finally got out of the tub and let me help him dry off.
"A nightshirt." He snapped. "There should be some in the trunk."
I fetched one. It was obviously a ladies', all frilly and fancy. I reckon I must have given it a funny look 'cause he said, "It would be best if I remain Elizabeth until I get to New Orleans. It would look suspicious if she just vanished in thin air. I can return to being Eric when I get to Great Aunt Yvonne's."
I helped him back into the bed and sat down in the chair beside it, "Ya want me to stay with ya till you get there?"
He gave me a look like he's never seen anybody like me before then said very carefully, "That is not necessary, Mister---"
I cut him off before he could finish the 'Mister Tremayne'. I was getting really sick of him calling me mister. Damn few people ever had and I wasn't used to it. "My name is Vic! Dammit! Why can't you ever just call me by my name?"
"To call someone mister is a sign of respect."
"The hell it is! It's just a way ta keep folks away. You don't need to keep me away, Eric. I ain't gonna hurt you... and I didn't ask if it was necessary for me to go to New Orleans with you. I asked do you *want* me to?"
"I... I..." he stopped giving me a confused look, "What I want has never mattered."
"It matters to me."
He stared at me for the longest time, his face expressionless. Then he took a deep breath. For just a second he looked like somebody getting ready to jump off a cliff without any idea what was waiting below.
Finally he said. "If you would be so kind, I would appreciate it greatly if you would remain with me until I arrive at my destination in New Orleans. I apologize for my foul mood earlier. Your aid and assistance thus far have been a great help. You deserve better than to be sworn at and berated for trying to help. I am sorry."
I smiled at him, "Apology accepted... and I'll be staying till you get ta your aunt's"
"Great aunt's." He corrected quietly.
I checked him for fever and made him some of the tea for it and made him take a dose of the pain medicine.
I waited until he had gone to sleep then curled up on the floor and slept till just before dawn.
We left for New Orleans the next morning.
I'd never seen anything like it. The streets were paved with bricks. There were more people than I had ever seen in one place in my life. He rented a coach to take us to his aunt's. I rode alongside, leading Gamble.
His aunt's house took my breath away. It was set back off the street, behind a high wrought iron and brick fence. A garden with well-laid out flowerbeds, trees and shrubs lay between the fence and the house. He had the couch driver pull in to the driveway next to a guardhouse.
A colored man in bright burgundy livery stepped out of the guardhouse and asked, "Who ya'll be and what do ya'll want?"
Eric/Elizabeth stuck his head out the door. "It's me, Barley. Eric."
When the colored man did a double take he added, "Don't ask. Just let us in. I really want to get out of this getup."
The colored man chuckled, "Yes, sir, Master Eric. I reckon ya do at that."
He opened the gates and let the coach through. The next several minutes were taken up with servants scrambling to help unload his luggage and take it in the house. I dismounted and a stable hand came to lead both horses away. I started to follow but Eric called.
"Vic! Please come with me." He waited for me by the door.
I opened it for him and we stepped into a wide hallway. The floor was stone, white with gray lines through it. I think it's what they call marble. The same stone went up the wall to about waist high then a light colored wood took over and went up to the high ceiling. A chandelier hung in the center of the hallway. Lamps were fastened to the walls at intervals along it. A long rug ran the length of the hall and spread almost to the walls on either side. It was a dark red with a fancy design in it.
He led the way past several doors until the hall opened into a huge room. A piano took up one side of the room at least I figured it was a piano. I'd never seen one shaped up like that. Only the keyboard looked familiar. The piano itself was a funny shape and the lid was lifted up and propped open. A sofa and chairs was arranged nearby, I suppose they were there for folks to sit on while someone played the piano and they listened.
Eric crossed the room without a second glance as I gawked. He started up the stairs on the other side of the room, calling out, "Vonnie? Aunt Vonnie, where are you?"
A voice answered from somewhere upstairs and hurried to catch up with him. As a tall black haired woman came out into the upper hallway. "Eric?"
He snatched off the wig, and grinned at her, "Here, Vonnie."
At the look she gave him, he laughed, "Mother. I'll explain it all later. Right now I need a bath and a change of clothes." He gave her a one armed hug then waved me over, "Aunt Yvonne, may I present, Mister Victor Tremayne. He has been a great help to me these last two weeks. Victor, my great aunt Yvonne."
I gave her my best smile and took her hand for a moment.
She smiled at me and said, Any friend of Eric's is welcome here."
Then she turned back to him, "I'll send Randolph up to prepare your bath. You may put Mister Tremayne in the room next to yours."
I tagged after him as he headed on down the hall, trying not to rubberneck too much. The place looked to be nearly as big as the Imperial Hotel. I learned later that it only had two floors and the attic.
I stayed two weeks. It wasn't that I didn't want to be with Eric or that his aunt wasn't nice but I just couldn't live in the city. Two weeks was longer than I'd ever spent in any town in my entire life. I was going nuts. The city was never quiet, even in this area where there weren't any businesses just folks' homes.
I tried several times to talk to him... about us... about the what had happened in the livery that night but he made it clear that he wanted to forget that, pretend it never happened.
He still liked me. I had no doubts about that. We spent most all our time together. He showed me the sights, took me out to drink and gamble and whet riding with me but he wouldn't talk to me at all about that night or my feelings for him.
I was in the stable, saddling Blackie, getting ready to go when he came in.
His arm was still in a sling, would be for several more weeks. He walked over and patted Blackie on the neck. After a moment he said, "Riding out?"
I stopped packing my stuff on Blackie a moment and turned to look at him. There was a sadness in his eyes and I knew that he didn't want me to go. "I weren't made for the city. Can't live here."
"I know that." He said it softly with no anger in his voice. A moment later he sighed and added, "I am not made for the wilds. Galveston was the furthest west I have ever been. Except for during the war, I've never even camped out."
"You'd do all right, I reckon."
He shook his head. His shoulders were slumped. Then he straightened, smiled that mischievous smile of his and reached out and pulled me to him. He kissed me soundly then stepped back. "Goodbye, Mister Tremayne. Perhaps we'll meet again. In another time... another place."
The kiss had taken my breath away. It took me a long minute to find the strength and enough air to say, "'bye, Eric."
I led Blackie out and Eric walked along side me to the gate. Just before I swung into the saddle I turned back to him. I wanted him to have something to remember me by. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the gift I'd made him. I'd never been so nervous. I held it out to him. "I... made this... for you... as a remembrance."
He looked down at it a long moment then he said, "It's beautiful..." he ran his fingers along the watch fob I had made him, "You wove it from your hair, didn't you?"
He smiled up at me. "Thank you, Victor. I will treasure it."
We stood there an awkward moment longer then I swung into the saddle and rode away. I told myself I wasn't going to look back... but I did, just before I turned the corner. I couldn't stop myself. I had to have one last look.
He was still standing by the gate, watching me ride away.
EPS EPS EPS EPS EPS EPS EPS EPS EPS EPS EPS EPS EPS EPS EPS
Josiah laid the paper on the table and looked across at Ezra and Vin. They sat close together, not touching but close enough to, definitely in each other's space.
"Jeeze," JD said softly, "That's a sad way for it to end."
Ezra grinned. "But it didn't really end, Mister Dunne. Only that chapter, so to speak."
JD nodded thoughtfully, "So, when did you come west?"
Ezra regarded them for a long moment then turned to look at Vin. It was the expression on Vin's face that made him decide to answer. His lover obviously wanted to know as well.
"I stayed at Great Aunt Yvonne's... and yes that was her name... for another six months. Until my arm was healed and my hair grew back to a decent length. You are always saying, Josiah, that we are seven men with one destiny. Had I not met Vin in Galveston, I would most likely still be in New Orleans. I had a comfortable life there. Yvonne would have let me live with her indefinitely. I was making a good living at the tables. My only reason for leaving was that I knew Vin would not come back. While the odds against my finding him in the vastness of the wilderness were not good. It was the only chance I had of finding him."
Suddenly Nathan looked up, "Wait a minute. That'd mean you came west in sixty-nine... ya'd been out here better'n seven years when we met up!"
Ezra laughed at the look on Nathan's face, "Why, Mister Jackson, do you mean to say that you thought I was a tenderfoot, when we met?"
"Well... uh... yeah." Nathan stammered.
"Excellent. That was what you were supposed to think. That's what I wanted the cowboys to think."
"You were conning them."
"Of course... after all, they thought they were cheating me." He smirked at Nathan. "It was their game. I had watched them pull the same con on another passenger off the stage the afternoon before."
"You beat them at their own game." Josiah said with a grin.
"Exactly. It's always more fun when the mark thinks he's the one doing the cheating."
"Tell me something, Ez." Buck said, "How much of the story is true?"
"That would be telling Mister Wilmington. How much do you think is true?"
"I don't know." He looked at Ezra a long moment. "I know you done okay at Wickestown... but to play a woman all the time for weeks.... I don't know..."
"It don't seem hardly possible." Nathan said.
Ezra looked at Vin then leaned over and whispered something to him.
Vin sat back a grin splitting his face, "You kept that?"
Ezra nodded a mischievous grin on his face. "Well gentlemen, I guess I'll just have to prove it." He was out of his chair and up the stairs before anyone could say anything.
Vin jumped up and followed him.
A few moments later they came back down the stairs, Ezra carrying something clutched to his chest, Vin trying to get it away from him. Both were laughing.
They stopped beside the table grinning broadly.
The others could see now that what Ezra was holding was a large oval picture frame.
He and Vin traded looks then Ezra sat the picture on the edge of the table, facing the other five men.
A young couple gazed out at them from the sienna-tinted picture. The man was easily recognizable as a much younger Vin Tanner. He looked much the same then as now. His hair was long and he wore a beaded buckskin shirt. He stood behind the woman.
The woman... wasn't so easily recognized. She had light colored hair, probably blonde and wore a white dress, cut very low and off the shoulders. A jeweled collar with long dangles was around her neck. She had a spray of white and dark roses in her hair.
Then Josiah looked up at Ezra, who was wearing a little smirky smile then back down at the picture... and the little smirky smile the woman wore. "Damn!"
When Buck shot him a questioning look, he said. "The smile, Brother Buck, the smile. It's the same."
The others smiled and nodded agreement. The beautiful young woman was Ezra.
Vin suddenly grabbed the picture. Ezra spun quickly and grabbed it back. They tugged back and forth for a moment.
"It's mine!" Vin said stubbornly.
Ezra grinned at him and stopped pulling at the picture although he didn't release it. "It's ours, okay?"
"'kay." Vin smiled at Ezra and held the picture out where he could look at it, running a hand over the surface, "reckon it's safer in your room."
Ezra took the picture then said softly but firmly, "Our room."