At the whispered words, Mary Travis turned from watching the children to look at Gloria Potter. She caught the slight grimace and worried gaze. Shifting, she found that her friend had been staring at the black-clad, scowling figure of town protector Chris Larabee. The other women who had gathered to talk for a few moments also turned to see what had captured both women's attention.
Nettie Wells raised a brow.
"That certainly doesn't look good," said the older woman.
"Wonder what's wrong?" asked her niece Casey.
"He certainly appears to be on the shoot, as it were," murmured Mary.
A newcomer to town, Elizabeth O'Connell stood with them. Newly arrived from New York, she was the niece of Henry Conklin, a local townsman. She had been enjoying the friendly conversation, but she became confused over the change in topic. Looking at the man who held their attention, she could see how he might be a frightening person. Why would he be such a major topic of concern?
"I'm sorry," she said, looking between the women before her. "I don't understand."
Mary turned to her with an understanding smile.
"I'm so sorry, Elizabeth," she said. "Mister Larabee is one of the town protectors. He and his men are the reason our town is one of the safest in the territory. While he does have a tendency to be one of the…darker personalities, that level of frowning is reserved for certain situations."
"Humph," snorted Nettie. "With that scowl, either Guy Royal is coming to town or…"
"Tontos los hombres idiotas," interrupted a grumbling, feminine voice.
She stopped as a dark haired woman came stalking up to the general store. Her dark eyes flashing with indignation, she mounted the steps and then stopped, blinking in surprise at the gathering of women. A slight flush came over her copper cheeks.
"Lo siento, senoras. My apologies," she said, nodding to the women. "I was not watching where I was going."
All of them, excepting Elizabeth, smiled at her. Elizabeth merely nodded, staring at the unknown woman.
"Don't bother being sorry, Inez," said Nettie. "Which of the boys stirred you up this time?"
With a toss of her hair, and a roll of her eyes, Inez gave a shrug. She glanced back over her shoulder to Chris.
"Senor Larabee, he is worried about Senior Standish and Senor Tanner. They are late, and he is bothered over it. Buck thinks he is being funny, trying to distract him. All he does is make him madder. Idiota!"
"Ezra and Vin? Yep, that'd do it," said Casey.
"Wonder what they got themselves into this time?" asked Gloria.
Nettie and Mary exchanged glances; whatever it was, it has better be worth it, or Chris was sure to be seriously unhappy. With a glance at her companions, Mary caught Elizabeth's confused look. She gave a small laugh.
"Again, I am so sorry," she said, giving the young woman a direct look. "Here we are nattering on, and you have no idea who we are talking about. I suppose we should explain so you know who the men are. As I mentioned, they are the town protectors. Chris is the leader, and while he can be quite intimidating, he does an excellent job at keeping his men in line. Part of that means he tends to worry about them when they are out of sight for any length of time. Unfortunately, when he gets worried or upset, he has a penchant for showing such concern by getting angry."
"Still," Casey said, nodding, "he's more careful around the town folks than some might be. He almost never loses his temper with any of us."
"Doesn't mind losing it in front of us though," corrected Nettie as she grinned. "Sometimes the show is a wonderful thing to watch."
"Chris is a gunslinger, a well-known, if not infamous gunslinger," Mary explained. "His reputation certainly helps keep some of the bad element out of town, but you would be surprised at how many young idiots want to make a name for themselves. He is a natural leader, if a bit uncouth at times. The other men would probably follow him to the gates of Hell, knowing he'd move Heaven and Earth to bring them back safely."
"He would, too," confirmed Nettie. "With Vin somewhere nearby providing cover."
"Who's Vin?" questioned Elizabeth, with a tilt of her blond head.
"Vin Tanner," said the older woman, a fond smile on her face. "He's a young, Texan scalawag with a love of home-cookin'. "
"'Specially Aunt Nettie's," grinned Casey.
"Or Inez's," Gloria reminded them.
Inez smiled as Mary gave a small laugh.
"Vin is Chris' second-in-command. He's another natural leader, though he chooses to follow Chris," explained Mary. "He was a bounty hunter, and has lived some time with the Indians. However, he is also extremely courteous."
"Si," agreed Inez. "And if he ever tells you to do something, you do it…without question. His instincts…they are the best of the seven."
"On the other hand," said Gloria, a large smile breaking across her face, "if Buck Wilmington tells you something, you should usually take it with a grain of salt."
Inez groaned, burying her face in her hands. The other women chuckled.
"That rascal," laughed Nettie. "He'll flirt with any female that crosses his path. I'm givin' you a warnin' here, Miss Elizabeth. Don't let him turn your head."
Casey snorted but remained silent. Mary just rolled her eyes.
"Buck Wilmington is a charming rogue," explained Gloria. "He has a great appreciation for women, and they tend to fall all over themselves to attract him. Sparking seems to be his favorite pastime, but he's not looking for any kind of commitment. I doubt he'll ever tie himself down to one woman."
"Still," broke in Casey. "Buck can be serious, especially if someone threatens one of the others or a woman in his presence."
"That's true," agreed Inez. "He is exasperating…muy desesperante…but he is loyal. If you are his friend, he will do anything for you. He would do the same for a woman or a child."
"He can be a very dangerous enemy, but most of the time he is the fastest with a joke or a smile. One of his most endearing traits is his protective streak. When you get the change, watch him with JD," said Mary.
Casey's eyes went a little vague, and the other women gave her knowing grins. Elizabeth's lips twitched as she took in the scene. Apparently they had reached Casey's favorite among the seven.
"Oh, yes," nodded Inez. "El Niño…he is the youngest of them, and the others still try to protect him."
"JD came out here some three years ago from Boston," offered Mary. "His mother passed away and he came west. Buck took him under his wing, but all of them have taught him, watching over him and trying to help him finish growing up. He was so innocent when he arrived."
"Wet behind the ears, that boy was," pronounced Nettie. "You could have told him almost anything and he'd have believed you. I'm not sure how a single mother managed to keep that boy so sheltered. He's got more curiosity than a cat, and an inclination towards tryin' to satisfy it."
"He's not that bad," protested Casey.
"Not anymore," demurred Gloria. "He has been learning from the others. However, when he first came to town? He was as cocky a young man as you were ever likely to meet! Still, he has done quite a bit of growing up. The others have done quite well though; he's grown up without getting…hard, like some men do."
"That's true," agreed Mary. "He's kept a sense of optimism, thank heavens. I'm not sure how the men would be if they didn't have someone like him with them."
"Josiah says he reminds them of what they should be," explained Casey. "He says JD sees the world as a good, and that he keeps them trying to make it that way."
"I'm bettin' the man used more words than that," Nettie quipped.
"Well, yeah," agreed Casey. "But I don't remember everything he said.
"Who could?" Inez asked, chuckling. Elizabeth had to smile, even though she had no idea what was so funny. Inez had an infectious laugh, and it drew people into responding.
"You met Josiah when you first came to town," reminded Mary. "He's the man who helped you out of the stagecoach."
"Oh," exclaimed Elizabeth. "I remember him! He was quite a charming gentleman."
"Yes," Gloria nodded. "He certainly can be. Usually you will find him working on the church if he is not fulfilling his peacekeeping duties."
"Just don't ask him a question that might in anyway be related to the meaning of life," admonished Nettie.
"Without question," Mary agreed. "You might find yourself standing there for hours if you can't find a polite way to leave."
"Just tell him to hush up," snorted Nettie.
"Not all of us can do that, Aunt Nettie," Casey complained.
"Look," Elizabeth said, nodding up the street once more.
The women turned to look as a dark-skinned man dressed in simple attire joined Chris in front of the saloon. Elizabeth watched with wonder as the man sat leaned against the wall of the saloon and began talking. Although the blond gunslinger did not turn around, he tilted his head towards the other man, obviously listening even as his eyes remained glued to the edge of town.
"That's Nathan Jackson," stated Gloria. "He's the town healer."
"Do you mean doctor?" Elizabeth asked, confused.
The women all snorted or laughed. Inez rolled her eyes and raised her hands in a shrug.
"We all call him the town doctor," she explained. "But he will argue about it the whole time."
"And argue and argue," sighed Nettie. "Man does more than any doctor I've met in all my years of livin' but swears he's no doctor. Most of the fools that come through town know how to give a body laudanum, but only a little about fixin' the body. Nate Jackson delivers babies, digs out bullets, and stitches up cuts…as well as givin' a good dose of medication now and again."
"Nathan was a slave," Casey noted rather bluntly. "In the War, he ended up with the Union army and learned some stuff. He never got official schooling, but JD says he knows more than some of the doctors he met back in Boston."
"I know there are a lot of good doctors out there," said Nettie. "There are a good bunch of men who want to make people better. However, for some reason there also seem to be a lot of scoundrels out there doing shoddy work. If I had to choose between Nate's healin' and some man with a fancy degree but no sense, I'd drag myself up that clinic every time."
Casey giggled. When everyone looked at her in bemusement, she shrugged.
"Sorry," she said. "It's just that usually when Aunt Nettie's talkin' about 'fancy', she's talkin' about Ezra."
Most of the women laughed while Nettie rolled her eyes but smiled.
"Fancy man, himself," she clucked. "Ezra Standish: gambler, con man, and all around lay-about some days, that's what he is."
"Though always a gentleman," insisted Gloria.
"True, true," Nettie agreed. "Even I have to admit the man has a silver tongue. Talk you into buying your own mule and think you got the bargain."
"So, he can't be trusted?" Elizabeth puzzled.
"Oh, no," denied Mary, shaking her head. "Ezra can certainly be trusted, just…"
She stopped, looking around at the others, all of whom were shaking their heads.
"Senor Standish," Inez explained, "is a difficult hombre to understand. He is an absolute gentleman, and if he likes you, he will do just about anything for you. He stepped in front of a bullet for Mrs. Travis here just last year, and he has been injured several times while working with the others. He only agreed to stay for thirty days, but has remained all this time. However, he does like to…play, I think? I think that is the word for it. He is a gambler, and he has a love of money. Still, he is a very good man."
"Yes," nodded Nettie. "I may poke at that man all the day long, but I'd trust him with everything except my money…and that includes both mine and Casey's life and well-being."
"Exactly," Mary sighed. "He has been nothing but good for this town. More importantly, the children adore him. He would risk anything to protect or save a child. As a mother, that is the bottom line for me."
"Maybe just as important," Gloria input, "is the way the other six trust him. They insult each other constantly, but each and every one of them has defended him with and without proof of his innocence. Even Chris, the least trusting of the lot, stands up for him."
"Just two days ago," mention Inez. "Some folks spending the night before leaving for California were in the saloon. They sat down to play cards with him. The usuals, they watched the game to see how long the newcomers could play. Senor Standish, he played his normal game, and so of course, he wins most of the hands. One of them jumped up, accusing him of cheating. All six of the others shifted around, but Senor Standish kept shuffling the cards and denied it. The stranger kept getting more and more upset and finally pulled a gun."
Elizabeth gasped, but the others just shook their heads. Casey snorted.
"Was he alive to get on the stage this mornin'?" she asked. Elizabeth gaped at her, but Inez smiled.
"Si, he got on the stage. When he pulled the gun, he went to aim at Senor Standish. He froze when he heard several guns being cocked. This man, he looked around and grew very pale when he found himself staring at seven guns."
"Did Mr. Standish have a gun then?" asked Elizabeth.
"No, no, Senor Standish did not draw, even though he always has two guns. El Nino, JD, carries two pistols. So, the stranger is staring at seven guns, and Senor Larabee steps forward. He tells the man that he'd best count the game a loss and move on. This man is loco! He tried to argue with Senor Larabee, and gets that glare."
The local women laughed. They knew that glare!
"Anyway, when this man gets the glare, he goes all white. Finally, he puts the gun away, but insists that he was cheated. Senor Larabee looks at the table, and then back at him and says, 'Ezra doesn't cheat. He doesn't have to. Now, take your loss and go.' The stranger looks around the room, and realizes that he is getting no support at all. So, he walks out of the saloon, grumbling and mumbling under his breath. Senor Larabee follows the man to his room and the others decided to keep an eye on the rest of the game. When Senor Standish calls it a night and goes to his room, Senor Larabee makes sure the stranger is not going to bother him."
"And he got on the stage this morning?" asked Gloria.
"Si, with six hombres watching to be sure!"
Again, the women all laughed, including Elizabeth this time. It certainly sounded like the town had a wonderful but lively kind of a lifestyle. These women felt completely at home in it, and it was easy to see that they trusted their protectors without reservation.
"Look!" exclaimed Casey.
At the end of the street, two riders moseyed into town. Although both of them were covered in trail dust, they appeared in good spirits, laughing and smiling as they carried on a lively conversation. Neither of them paid attention to the raised eyebrows and knowing smirks the town folk were giving them. Indeed, several of the town's citizens began to place themselves where they could see the homecoming of the two men.
Over at the saloon, Chris stood up straight, pulling away from the wall. As he stepped out, the two men noticed him and began to give a smiling greeting. Both of them faltered slightly at his scowl. They exchanged glances and reined to a stop. The women watched as the men on horseback exchanged a speaking glance. As their leader walked closer, glare deepening, the fancy dressed Ezra tossed him a salute as buck-skinned clad Vin smiled. Just as Chris took a deep breath, both riders spun their horses around and bolted for the opposite end of town.
As Chris' face flushed red with irritation, the women exchanged a long glance. Laughter began to bubble up, and all of them tried desperately to suppress it. The gunslinger-turned-peacemaker threw his hands in the air and strode back into the saloon, kicking at the dirt as he went. As soon as he passed the swinging doors, all six women gave up any sense of control and just let the laughter spill out.
"I told you," Gloria sputtered. "Uh oh!"