Lane (by Taffey)

Summary:
Category:  The Quick and the Dead
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  17,500


Cort had just settled down to his dinner when he heard the gunshots. He sprang up from his chair and hurried outside in the direction of the saloon. Cort ran along the plank walk, staying close to the buildings.

Wyatt came from the direction of the jail and stopped behind Cort. “What’s all the ruckus about?” he asked.

“Don’t know. Sounds like more than two guns.” They both got to Sully’s Bar and, standing on opposite sides of the entrance, peeked over the swinging doors. Everyone was either on the wood floor or hiding under the tables. There were two men at the foot of the stairs shooting upstairs. Cort and Wyatt could hear the bordello girls upstairs screaming.

Cort burst in, guns drawn. “Hold your fire!”

“Drop your guns!” Wyatt demanded, approaching them.

Cort moved quickly towards the side of the staircase. “Throw your gun downstairs!” he yelled up. Virgil Earp entered the saloon and helped Wyatt handcuff the two men. Then Wyatt tiptoed over to the foot of the stairs. “I said throw your guns down!” Cort repeated. Wyatt swore the timbre of his voice shook the wooden railings.

“Come up and get them!” the armed man yelled down. “And if you do, I’m gonna shot me a whore! I have one of them now!” Cort could hear the gunman and his hostage walking over the thin floor above him. If he were alone, shooting him would have been easy. The boot and high heel sounds came around to the head of the stairs. “We’re coming down now. And then I’m leaving. Maybe I’ll let her go—maybe I’ll take her with me and have some fun.” Cort’s stomach turned. He and Wyatt fanned off to one side. Virgil moved the handcuffed men outside and handed them over to one of the other Deputies. A large man slowly proceeded down the staircase holding Jewel French in front of him. Good, Cort thought, seeing Jewel. Maybe he could salvage this situation after all. Cort stepped up closer so that both the man and Jewel could see him.

“Evening, Jewel,” Cort drawled softly. She felt better immediately. Jewel had full trust in Cort’s ability handle this situation; he had helped her once before.

“Don’t be talking to her!” the man growled, trying to sound threatening.

Cort, one Schofield 45 still drawn, ignored him. “Jewel, remember Tommy Blake?” How could she forget? He did this very thing to her three months ago. “Remember how we handled him?” In spite of her predicament, she smiled.

“Everything under control?” Wyatt asked, more amused than anything.

“Drop your gun!” The man roared, his confidence shaken because nobody was taking him seriously.

“When I count to three, you know what to do?” Cort asked Jewel. She nodded.

Virgil was thoroughly enjoying the show, and taking out a thin cigar, lit it up.

“Get out of my way!” the gunman said, pushing Jewel forward.

“Give it up,” Cort said quietly. “This isn’t worth your life.”

“No!”

Cort made eye contact with Jewel and nodded slightly. “One….Two….” Wyatt’s gun was still drawn, but not aimed. He had complete confidence in his young deputy. Cort always neatly finished what he started—and this would be no exception. He, too, remembered Tommy Blake…… “Three!” Immediately Jewel went ‘dead weight’ and fell to the ground. It surprised her captor and he shifted his gun to aim at Wyatt. But Cort’s bullet slammed into the man’s head, sending him reeling backwards.

Cort helped Jewel up. “Are you all right, Miss French?”

“Why, yes,” she declared bravely. “I’m alive, ain’t I?” She gallantly brushed the saloon dust off her faded green dress. “Don’t know how I get myself into these messes.”

“It’s part of the job, I guess,” Cort suggested. Where he was sympathetic and respectful of the bordello girls, he made no secret of the fact that he hated the establishment being in town. And it was only one of four in Tombstone.

Before Jewel could thank him, Cort had exited the bar and was heading back to his dinner. Lane Macklin, the restaurant’s owner, was releasing the curtain ties. The white ruffled curtains covered the windows, letting people know she was closing up. Cort had no idea it was that late. He was disappointed, as Lane had fixed fried chicken that night. Cort rarely took note of what he ate, but Miss Macklin sure knew how to cook. He shrugged his broad shoulders as he passed the restaurant and headed for the jailhouse. It was just as well. No sense in getting too attached to her cooking. Chances were, she’d either leave town within a few months, like a lot of people did, or she’d get married and close the restaurant. Cort was betting on the latter. Once or twice, he allowed himself to watch her. Even in his cynical, jaded mind, he knew she was a beautiful woman.

Lane Macklin was 31, stood tall and proud, and was neat as a pin. She had a way of wearing the simplest garment and making you believe it was a catalogue original. She had long, healthy auburn hair that she usually wore in a bun or braid. Cort had heard talk that she was a widow. He knew of some in town, including Wyatt’s brother, James, who had tried courting her. But it was common knowledge that she hated drink and firearms and was very particular about her suitors.

As Cort passed the eatery, he heard the front door open. “Deputy?” He turned around to see Lane standing in the doorway; the gas lamps behind her transformed her slender body into a haunting silhouette. “You can come and finish your dinner.” Cort studied her for a moment. He knew he should just keep going. There was nothing there for him; there was probably no one anywhere for him, given his life. “I warmed your plate.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said, entering the door. Cort was a full 6’3”, but at 5’9”, Lane was almost able to look him in the eye.

Cort’s holster carried two guns and he knew how to use them well. Although certainly not a heavy drinker, she knew he liked his whiskey. She personally felt there were other ways to calm ones nerves. Still, Lane didn’t dislike Cort; she remained wary of him. There was definitely something about him—something she could find desirable if she allowed herself the chance. But there was also something dangerous about Cortland Wells. She tried not to notice him. Even though he was a lawman and a necessary part of every town, and even though he was respectful and polite to women, she believed he was “trouble”. Lane had enough of her own baggage and had no desire to take on anyone else’s. Then why did she let him back in the restaurant? And why reheat his food? It wasn’t like her to cater to anyone.

Cort removed his black suede hat and put in on the table. Lane couldn’t help notice that every thing he did was graceful.

“Thank you for your attention, ma’am,” he said softly. “You didn’t have to.”

“I wanted to be sure you’d pay your bill.” Lane didn’t intend to say that; she knew the Deputy was beyond reproach. He raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.

Lane knew why she had been so rude. A part of her was attracted to Cort, and she didn’t like it. She mistrusted men as it was, but there were some stable, responsible ones out there. If she had to marry, it would be to someone who would have a good-paying job and take care of her.

Cort ate quietly as she continued untying the curtains. “Uh, ma’am?” Lane turned and found herself looking into the most beautiful blue-green eyes she had ever seen. She was momentarily transfixed by their intensity. “You may not want to let them all down—not with me still here.” Lane looked at him blankly. “People might talk,” he said. Goodness, his voice resonated, she thought.

“Yes, you’re right.”

“Not that you have anything to worry about,” he added, returning to his meal. When Cort was done, he left the money on the table, and headed for the door. “Good evening, ma’am,” he said simply.

“Good evening.” Lane felt guilty as she picked up his money. It hadn’t been fair of her to intimate that Cort wouldn’t pay his bill. She tried to tuck the nagging feeling away. She watched Cort walk towards the jailhouse. There was something lonely and sad about the dark figure. No, she thought, it was only her imagination—and she wasn’t going to humor it.

When Cort entered the jailhouse, James was playing solitaire. “Howdy, Cort. You on duty tonight?” Cort nodded as he poured a cup of lukewarm coffee grounds. “That stuff is from this morning.” Cort grimaced at the first mouthful and dumped it in the sink in back. James knew Cort’s moods pretty well; he wasn’t going to be good company tonight. “I heard there was some excitement at the saloon.”

“Just some drunks fighting over one of the girls.” There was a pause. “Has anyone made the rounds yet?”

“No.”

“I’ll go,” Cort volunteered. Had it been a nice spring evening, James might have argued. But, seeing as it was a rainy, damp April night, he was more than happy to let someone else attend to business.

Cort crossed the street, checking the merchant’s doors to be sure they were locked. He felt strangely alone. Normally, it was a sentiment he ignored. But Lane Macklin had a way of stirring up long buried emotions. Even though she was politely hostile to him, he felt comfortable in her presence. She possessed a no-nonsense honesty he admired.

Cort approached her restaurant; the door was locked. He wondered why she was so unhappy with men. Was she unresponsive to him because of what another man had done? Cort laughed to himself. With his sterling reputation, was it any surprise she’d shun him? It was common knowledge that he used to be an outlaw. He carried two guns and used them on a regular basis. His salary was meager and his personality flaws bountiful. No, he shook his head sadly; he could ruin his chances with any woman all on his own.

“Good evening, Deputy.”

Cort whirled around. “Miss Macklin. Are you still here?”

“I just finished closing up. Would you mind escorting me home?”

“No. Let me tell James.” The jailhouse was next to Lane’s. He poked his head in and let the older Earp know that he’d be bringing Miss Macklin home. James grinned and told him to take his time. Cort frowned. Why did people associate “escorting” with romance rather than duty? Between the full moon and the gas lamps, nothing improper could have happened—even if they wanted it to.

They began the walk in silence. Cort, who normally took big strides, had to consciously shorten his step so Lane could keep up. He stole a glance over at her; she was a very attractive woman—and a very independent one. Cort knew he was appearing rude, but didn’t know what to talk about that would interest Lane. Her dark blue skirt hung about in inch from the walkway. He felt sorry for women and the restrictive clothing society forced on them. He wondered if women were envious of men in that regard.

“Do women—.”

“I’m not—.” They looked at each other; both had decided to break the silence at the same time. Lane looked amused. “I guess we had the same idea. What were you going to say?’ she asked.

“I was just wondering if women ever wished they could dress like men.” The question sounded foolish now that he heard it.

Lane glanced sideways at him. “Well….yes, sometimes I guess women do.” The question took her by surprise. “Men’s clothing is not as hard to clean. I imagine pants are more comfortable.”

“I guess men have it easier in that area.”

His remark hit a chord with Lane. “Men have it easier in a lot of areas,” she said dryly.

Cort caught the change of tone and, whereas normally he would have dropped the subject, he was in the mood for some intelligent conversation. He had always felt her to be a “thinking woman”.

“How do you mean that? Do you feel their work is easier than cleaning and taking care of children?”

Lane was not used to a man asking for her opinion. Her first reaction was a defensive one. But, looking at Cort’s face, she could tell he was genuinely interested in what she had to say.

“My experiences with men haven’t been the best,” she began. “I’m not saying some men don’t have hard or dangerous jobs. But many don’t.”

“Like a bartender or banker?”

“Yes. Or any number of jobs where men get paid well and then go home to a wife that’s worked all day. They don’t help or, worse, they—they–.” She wanted to tell him about men who beat their wives or spent hours in bars drinking. She wanted to be cross and take it out on Cort. But she was a lady, which meant she kept her feelings and frustrations to herself. And that was not in line with how she wanted to feel. She wanted to be more aggressive, more vocal. That part of her was at odds with the part of her that, with little difficulty, could fall for Cort in a big way. If she let her guard down, Lane knew there were many things about Cort she could find attractive.

The inner conflict distracted her and she wasn’t paying attention to where she was walking. The next thing she knew, her foot slipped on a wet piece of slate. Just as the scream escaped her lips, Cort reached over and, effortlessly, righted her with one arm. Lane was glad it was dark and nobody could see the shade of purple her face had taken.

“Are you okay?” Cort asked, his hand still supporting her back.

“Yes,” she said sharply. Cort immediately removed his hand.

Cort and Lane were halfway to the little house she rented. He tried to keep close to her in case she fell, but maintain a distance she’d be comfortable with. Lane saw him put additional space between them and felt guilty about her attitude.

“You don’t like me very much, do you?” he asked softly.

Oh, dear, Lane thought. Did she really want to get into this now? “It’s not you personally. I detest guns and drink and other not-so-nice habits most men possess. I have my reasons, which are my business.” Cort was looking at his feet as they walked. She knew she had bruised his feelings. “I guess I’m not very tactful when it comes to dealing with people who do the things I mistrust. I don’t mean to be so judgmental.” Even as she uttered those words, her practical side groaned. She hadn’t intended on apologizing for how she felt.

But those eyes. Those blue-green eyes could bore holes through your head one moment, and look hurt and defenseless the next.

Cort didn’t say anymore. Whatever possessed him to act as though he cared? She didn’t like him, and he didn’t care. Cort set his chin and looked straight ahead.

Before they knew it, Lane was walking up the sidewalk to her home and Cort was back at the jailhouse. She hadn’t thanked him and he hadn’t said “good night”.

James didn’t say anything when Cort walked in. There wasn’t any point, as Cort kept most things to himself. Cort sat at one of the desks and opened a book. James could see his mind wasn’t on reading. Something had happened between him and Lane, and it looked as though Cort was mulling it over. It was a strange match—the two seemingly apathetic people with no desire to include others in their lives. James chuckled to himself. Maybe it was a perfect match.

“Did Miss Macklin get home all right?” Cort nodded absent-mindedly. “Is it slippery on the walk?” Another nod. “Is there a full moon?” Yet another nod. “Did you kiss her goodnight?” More nodding.

Cort’s face filled with alarm as he realized what James just asked him. “Huh?” The older man snickered. “What did you ask me?”

“Never mind. It’s not important. What happened?”

Cort blinked. “Happened?”

“With you and Miss Macklin.”

“Nothing.” Cort returned to staring at the book’s pages. He felt annoyed with both James and Lane. But he had no idea why. He wanted everyone to leave him alone. Since Lane Macklin came into his life, things weren’t always “black and white” as they had once been.

“You like her?” James asked, intruding on his concentration again. Cort heard him, but said nothing. James smiled and decided to stop the interrogation—for now, anyway.

*****

The next day was Wednesday and just as cold and damp as the last four. Lane opened her restaurant early in order to get a head start cooking for the noon meals. She had really wanted to stay in bed this morning and try and catch up on the sleep she missed last night. She retired early enough; but, once she got into the warm bed, she couldn’t close her eyes. Her brain was racing with the earlier events of that evening.

Lane Macklin was born in North Dakota, the fourth of six children. She and her brothers alternated between competing for their father’s love to fearing his periods of drinking. Charles Macklin wasn’t an easy man to know or love.

It was hardest on Lane because the bulk of the cleaning and cooking fell on her shoulders. She swore she wouldn’t make the same mistake her mother had. But, when Frank Bailey came along, she was only 18 and not wise about men who were just as mean, but more clever about disguising it. She married Frank and endured five years of tyranny before he died of pneumonia.

The next eight years of her life were spent avoiding and mistrusting men. Lane possessed various talents, which she used to gain employment—dressmaking, cooking, cleaning, and teaching.

Eventually she came to Tombstone, set up her restaurant, and began a few guarded friendships. There were times when she thought about having a husband. Lane realized she had been too naïve and married Frank blindly. In the years following that disaster, she had swung to the other harsh and bitter extreme. But now, she was at the age many referred to as spinsterhood. The fact that gossipy old hens were looking at her situation as “too late” to get married further irked her. Who was anyone to say whether she might still catch a man’s eye or not?

Lane envisioned what she now wanted in a man, and began slowly and secretly to look for a prospective mate. Her requirements boiled down to an older, relatively wealthy man, probably a banker or doctor. Someone respectable, with a good head on his shoulders. Someone who’d not be abusive. Love didn’t need to enter the equation. She had recently set her sights on Joseph Laughlin, the vice president of one of Tombstone’s banks, and they had begun a casual courting.

Then, five months ago, Cort rode into Tombstone. He sat tall in the saddle, black duster open, blue eyes alert to everything around him. Her heart leaped in her chest at the sight of him. The next day, he was sporting a Deputy Marshal’s badge and, for the first time, she saw the Schofields he would become known for. Lane had watched others like him ride in and out of this, and other towns. The only word that came to her mind was “trouble”. The part of her that felt an attraction to the tall loner would have to be stifled. Cort didn’t pay her much mind. He rarely came into the restaurant—unless she was serving fried chicken. As much as she hated to admit it, she found some satisfaction knowing he liked her chicken. The other thing working against Cort was the swirl of gossip that surrounded him. Lane knew most gossip was just that. But, even if a small particle of what people said was true, Cort had quite a past. No, she thought, let some other woman deal with it.

But, here she was, replete with all her resolutions and reasons—frying chicken for the afternoon meal. Lane sighed deeply. It was as though she were on a brakeless buggy heading downhill. She had minimal control over what thoughts entered her head—she could only try to fight the pull towards Cort.

*****

Cort had experienced just as bewildering a night, complete with no sleep. He hadn’t expected it to matter what Lane Macklin thought of him. He knew how she felt about liquor and violence; she had never made it a secret. But this was the first time he heard it from her personally. Still, she had asked him to walk her home. She could have asked anyone to accompany her. Why him? He found the conflict confusing.

His life hadn’t been any bed of roses. He, like Lane, had learned to be mistrusting and cynical. Cort didn’t view many people as potential friends and allies, but as manipulators and deceivers. He knew his past would automatically put a barrier between himself and most people he encountered—especially women. So, he never paid much attention to them.

This is what surprised him about Lane. As much as he ignored her, part of him wanted to seek her out. And that was the part of him that went to her restaurant to eat. It was confusing having these two parts of his soul fighting about this woman. Cort knew he was setting himself for a fall; she’d have no more to do with him than a pile of manure on a hot June day.

By dinnertime, Cort, still at the jailhouse, considered going to Lane’s for a meal. It took strong will power to avoid the place. He didn’t understand why. Lane Macklin certainly wasn’t the only woman in town. He hated to admit it, but there was something fascinating about how her auburn hair shone in the sun. And those red lips…. Cort shook the image from his head. There were other restaurants in town.

In the meantime, Lane, much to her consternation, kept looking at the door every time it opened. She prayed Cort wouldn’t show up—then became angry because he didn’t. This was hopeless, she thought, throwing a pan into the sink.

Melody Simpson, her best friend, looked up, frowning. She was putting the finishing touches on a chocolate cake.

“Lane, what’s been bothering you?”

Lane made an impatient swipe with her hand. “Nothing.”

“Don’t tell me ‘nothing’. You’ve not been yourself for a while now. Your mood is getting darn right foul.” Melody stood in front of her with hands on hips. “Come on, Lane, what’s wrong.”

Lane told her about Cort and how he kept coming to her restaurant. She felt he was interested in her and she wasn’t having any of it. Melody listened sympathetically. She, too, had been in a bad marriage and preferred to be single for now.

“Lane, I can understand your hesitation in view of what you’ve been through. What exactly about Cort do you object to?”

“What wouldn’t I object to? He wears two guns and thinks nothing of killing with them. He spends enough time in the bars. His past is less than savory.” She paused and looked down at her hands. “I vowed to never get involved with a poor man and his past. I just don’t want to get myself in any situation I’ll regret.” Lane began rubbing her temple; she was getting a headache. “I’m not trying to say that I’m better than him, or more deserving of a decent relationship.”

“I know that,” Melody assured her. “You have every right to be cautious.”

Lane heard the hesitation in her voice. “But?”

“But, maybe you aren’t giving him a fair chance.”

Lane tensed up. She didn’t want her best friend taking a man’s side. “What do you mean?”

“Hear me out. I know you’ve been hurt by men who drank. And I understand your reluctance to get involved with someone who earns wages below yours—.”

“His salary has nothing to do with it,” Lane said defensively.

“But it does,” Melody said gently. “You’ve turned down other men whose income was less than substantial. Who is courting you now?”

“Mr. Laughlin,” Lane said quietly. Was Mel right? Had she become so shallow? Joseph Laughlin was the vice president of the Tombstone Bank. Why did she allow him to court her? Lane had to admit that the money did have something to do with it. She liked the way it felt to be waited on, to have someone bring her flowers or be taken to dinner. “Okay, I like the security his money brings.”

“And, believe me, I understand. I don’t think anything is wrong with that.”

“Mel, his salary is not the main thing I object to; it’s his job.”

Melody looked puzzled. “He enforces the law.”

“By killing,” Lane said harshly.

“If it becomes necessary. What is it you really have against Cort?”

“I told you.”

“No, you haven’t.” Melody looked at her friend closely. Lane sighed. There was no fooling Mel. And, if she wanted her opinion, she would have to be honest.

“All right. All right,” Lane said, raising her hands in surrender. She walked several feet away from Melody. “There’s a small part of me that finds….him…finds him attractive. Satisfied?”

Melody grinned. “Who wouldn’t?” she asked. Lane eyed her suspiciously. “Lane, he’s gorgeous!”

The last thing Lane wanted was to feel a twinge of jealousy; but it was there. “If he’s so desirable, why aren’t you running after him?” Of course, it was a silly question. Proper women didn’t chase a man.

“He doesn’t even look my way,” Melody sighed. “Or, believe me, I’d follow him all over town. Its you he stares at.”

That revelation should have scared Lane. Instead, it excited her. “All he likes is my fried chicken.”

Melody giggled. “Oh, you did notice that he’s here whenever you cook chicken?”

Suddenly the conversation was annoying her. “Forget it, Mel. I’m not giving in to the small part of me that’s foolish.”

“It’s not foolish to feel attracted to a handsome gentleman,” Melody protested.

Lane whirled around. “If you want him, you can have him. I’m through talking about it.” With that, she was out in the restaurant pouring coffee for some of the customers.

*****

Virgil Earp and his brother, Morgan, were in the jailhouse. “So, you think there’s something to Lane Macklin asking Cort to walk her home?” asked Virgil.

“Yep,” Morgan answered.

“She’s a strange one, for sure,” Virgil noted. “Seems he’d do better with any of the other women in town.”

“Virgil, a proper woman isn’t generally drawn to ex-outlaws who become penniless lawmen. We were fortunate to get ourselves good women.”

“’Course we weren’t outlaws,” Virgil mused. “It’s got to be hard. Although, Cort never seems to be interested in anyone—including Miss Macklin. Is this something recent?”

“Yep. And I think he’s fighting his feelings.”

“Well,” Virgil smiled, “we’ll have to be sure we coax this impending relationship along.” Both brothers laughed heartily.

*****

A week went by with no interaction between Cort and Lane. Both went out of their way to avoid the other; neither mentioned the other to anyone. After the week passed, they relaxed and went about their normal schedule, oblivious to the fact that the other one even existed.

As there were several bordellos in Tombstone, it was inevitable that one or more of the “girls” would be on the street during the day. Most of the women in town either looked the other way, or viewed them with disdain. Lane had mixed feelings about them. She usually pretended she didn’t’ see the floozies, as they were referred to by proper womenfolk. She didn’t have a mean heart and didn’t wish to look down on them.

This particular day, Lane was leaving Thompson’s Dry Goods with some supplies she needed. As she was crossing the street, she heard some loud voices in the direction of Sully’s bar. Lane turned her nose up and walked faster to her restaurant. The next second, a large man burst from the swinging doors dragging one of the girls. Lane stopped in the middle of the street. Many of the bordello women were middle aged and relatively homely. But this girl was very young—and frightened.

“But I only did what you asked,” the girl protested, holding her cheek. “Why did you hit me?”

“Shut up!” he said, yanking at her arm. She tripped on her skirt and would have fallen if he hadn’t jerked her to her feet.

“You’re hurting me!” she said, trying not to cry. But Lane saw the fear in her eyes.

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” he growled. He turned to walk towards the alley between the saloon and the stable.

“Where are you taking me?” she choked.

“Out back. I’m gonna show you how a real whore does it.”

“No,” the girl barely whispered.

“Don’t argue!” he bellowed, raising his hand and slapping her across the face. Lane dropped her bag in shock. The girl’s nose was bleeding, but her fear was stronger than the pain. She tried to fight him. He hit her again, harder. Lane, knowing exactly what that felt like, turned and ran to the jailhouse. She could hear the girl scream once as the big man pulled her along. Most of the people ignored the whole business.

Lane burst into the Marshal’s office. Cort was coming out from the back room. He noticed her flushed appearance. “What’s—?”

“He’s going to kill her!” Lane sobbed, her own memories of abuse getting the upper hand.

Cort was out the door before she could explain. Hearing the screams, he headed in the direction of the saloon. The young girl, having escaped, ran out of the alley crying and collided with Cort. He righted her and, taking one look at her face, straightened up. “Go inside,” he said to her. Lane, who had followed Cort outside, forgot her fear and approached the saloon girl.

“Come with me,” Lane said gently. She watched Cort; he wasn’t moving towards the alley. Lane felt anger inside. “Aren’t you going to do anything?” she demanded. “Are you going to let him get away with it?” Granted the abuser was larger than Cort and floozies weren’t usually defended.

Cort turned sharply and faced Lane. His eyes were very angry and dark. At first she thought he was going to strike her and she instinctively backed off. Cort’s jaw was clenched tightly and the veins along his neck were bulging. “Get out of the street and let me do my job.”

Lane turned to bring the battered girl to the doctor’s office. At that moment, the man came storming out of the alley, bellowing at the top of his lungs. He stopped when he saw Cort. “That little slut bit me!”

“If you don’t get out of town now, I’m going to do a whole lot worse.”

Lane slowly backed away; her companion ran up the street crying. Her attacker saw her.

“That whore! When I get my hands on her!” The man turned as though he was going to chase after her, but something about Cort’s presence stopped him.

Cort, who was about six feet from the man, spread his legs slightly and pushed the side of his black duster over the back of his holster. “You aren’t going to put your hands on anyone.” His voice was even and firm. The man was taken aback. Cort was over six feet and appeared to be solid. Still, he would be no match for the stranger in hand combat. And Cort had no intention of letting this man get anywhere near him. Lane now realized what Cort had been waiting for.

The man also understood and laughed. “You may be the law here, but if you’re challenging me to a gunfight, and I kill you, I won’t be punished.”

“I’m not challenging you,” Cort replied evenly. “I asked you to leave town; and now I’m enforcing it. And, just to clarify things, killing a lawman is a hanging offense in this town—don’t matter a lick who started it.”

“You think you can boss Jude Evans around?”

“That’s what this badge says.”

Jude’s hand began fondling his gun. “I ain’t never been beat,” he said slowly, a wicked grin covering his face.

“The way I see it, ‘never’ is one of those words begging to be challenged.” Cort’s cool confidence further infuriated Jude.

“Ready anytime you are, lawman. It’s a shame there’s all this fuss over a common whore.” He looked very amused. Suddenly, Jude Evans threw his head back and began laughing. It scared Lane, who had moved on to the sidewalk slowly. She never would forget the man’s face twisted in evil merriment, because seconds later, when he brought it up to face Cort, there was a bullet between his eyes. She later realized that while everyone was concentrating on his laugh, he drew his gun. Cort wasn’t fooled. The laugh was frozen on his face as he fell forward in the dirt.

Cort turned around, walked past Lane, and returned to the jail. Virgil and James were on the street along with the undertaker.

“Are you alright?” The voice startled Lane.

“Yes—yes, thank you,” she replied to Virgil.

“And the object of this scuffle?”

Lane looked around, but didn’t see her. “I think she went to the doctor.”

“And will return to the bordello, no doubt. Thank you.” Virgil joined his brother.

Lane traced her steps and found her bag of supplies where she had let it fall. Her hands were trembling. Too many disturbing memories had been dredged up. She felt badly about raising her voice to Cort. He had known exactly what he was doing. She shook the thoughts from her head. She didn’t have time to worry about Cort’s feelings. She had a restaurant to run and she dashed back to tend to it.

*****

That evening, Lane put fried chicken on the menu. She had avoided cooking it, thinking it would attract Cort. Tonight she felt differently. After all, he had saved that young girl’s life.

She had done a lot of thinking since the incident. There was something pathetic, even tragic about the saloon girl. Lane hadn’t been much older when she married Frank Bailey. What caused this girl to choose such a life? Where were her parents? Probably dead, she thought.

“It must have frightened you,” Melody remarked.

“Do you think bordello girls get much of an education?”

“Probably not. I suppose that’s one of the reasons they do what they do.” Lane had a pensive look the rest of the evening.

Virgil made certain to tell Cort he saw chicken on the blackboard Lane used to list her menu. Cort pretended he didn’t hear him. His salivary glands did, however. He was not ready to admit that he was bothered by Lane’s disapproval, and was determined to face her and show that he didn’t care what she thought of him. The fact that he picked a day when chicken was on the menu to “show her” was merely a coincidence.

At 4:00, he left the jailhouse to get his dinner. Virgil and James snickered; Cort ignored them. He entered the restaurant and took a seat in the back by the kitchen.

Lane saw Cort from the window in the kitchen door and suddenly was anxious about waiting on him. She looked over at Melody, who was cutting some salad greens. “Mel, would you wait on him?”

“Who?”

“Cort.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want to,” Lane said nervously.

Melody knew Lane had to face this eventually. “I’m busy with the salad. You wait on him.”

“I just don’t want to go out there. You can do it.” Lane felt a little annoyed. Why wouldn’t Melody cooperate?

“Lane, he’s a customer. Take care of him.” Unknowingly, their voices were getting louder.

“Mel, I don’t want to wait on him.”

“Go!” Mel insisted.

When Lane looked out the kitchen door window again, Cort wasn’t there. Immediately, Lane felt guilty. Did he hear them arguing? “We don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

“He left?” Lane nodded. “Shame on us.”

Lane wasn’t about to feel any shame over a man and his feelings. She snorted disdainfully.

“Lane, it’s not like you to be so rude.”

Lane hated being talked to like she was a child. But Melody was right. “All the alarms go off in my head when I see him,” she said quietly. “I know what he is.”

“No,” Melody interrupted. “You know what he was—or what people say he was.”

“The fact is he was an outlaw. He makes a living violently.”

“Lane, he isn’t abusive.”

“You don’t know that, Mel. Everyone thought Frank was a saint. They can fool you.”

“Okay, you’re right. But you have to start trusting someone before you find yourself shriveled up and alone.”

“Aw, thanks,” Lane said dryly.

“Nobody says you have to marry the man. I don’t know how long Frank courted you—.”

“Two weeks.”

“That’s not much time to get to know a man,” Melody noted quietly. “What I’m trying to say is that if you decided to let Cort see you, there would be no hurry. You’d have plenty of time to make sure he was what you wanted.”

Lane sighed. Melody was a good friend; but she didn’t totally understand her situation. One thing she did know. There had been no call for her bad manners. After all, Cort wasn’t pursuing her; he wasn’t bothering her. She needed to make it right. “I’m going to bring dinner to the jailhouse,” she announced. She frowned when Melody’s face lit up. “Don’t get your hopes up. I’m only trying to make amends for my impolite behavior towards a paying customer.”

Ten minutes later, she was at the jail. Lane took a deep breath, straightened a wrinkle from her skirt, pushed some hair from her face, and walked in.

Cort looked up, surprised. “Is something wrong?” he asked, standing.

“Yes, I’m afraid it took me forever to come out of the kitchen to serve you.” Not entirely the truth, but not entirely a lie either. “When I came out, you were gone.”

“I figured you were closing early,” he said with a half-truth of his own.

“I was thinking of it,” Lane said—an outright lie.

Cort looked at her. She was a very handsome woman with her dark auburn hair and large blue eyes. As with most women, she usually wore her hair on her head. He wondered how long it was. Did it feel soft? Cort promptly dismissed those thoughts. A familiar aroma filled the jailhouse. Cort recognized it immediately.

“I had extra chicken; I assumed that’s what you came for?” Lane asked. Her restaurant did a good business. Sometimes people commented on her cooking. But nobody liked one particular dish so much that they returned whenever it was served—except Cort. She received more satisfaction from Cort’s silent appearance when chicken was served then from someone’s comments on a particular meal.

Cort was clearly surprised. “Uh—yes. Thank you; but you didn’t have to go through all that trouble.”

“It was no trouble,” Lane assured him. She put the covered dish on the desk. Cort paid her.

“Thank you,” he said, suddenly feeling the urge to devour food.

“I’ll leave you to your meal,” she said, smiling. Lane wondered what possessed her to smile so nicely. It just happened.

Cort, however, wasn’t noticing anyone’s facial gestures. As soon as the door closed, Cort sat down and faced his dinner. He took the red checked towel from around the large blue plate. His senses were assaulted by the individual and combined odors of fried chicken, creamy mashed potatoes, bold turnips, and fresh bread. Cort just sat for a few moments taking in the wonderful aroma. When he actually looked in the dish, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Normally a dinner included two pieces of chicken. Lane had given him four pieces—all legs, his favorite. Within minutes, he was furiously heaping forkfuls of food in his mouth, certain he was in heaven.

While he was washing the dishes, Cort pondered over what had just transpired. He knew Lane didn’t care for him. He knew she didn’t want to serve him when he was at the restaurant earlier. Yet, after ignoring his presence, she brought him dinner. It didn’t make any sense. He was certain she didn’t have a twin sister…. What where the bizarre personality changes all about? Cort shrugged. It never did him any good to try and analyze things. He got a meal—which he paid for, and that was all there was to it. Tomorrow he’d return the plate and utensils. If she still wanted to talk to him that would be fine. But he wasn’t counting on it.

*****

When Lane returned to the restaurant, she felt better inside. But the bitter, pessimistic side of her wondered what about this man weakened her resolve. Was it his blue-green eyes that said so much? Was the way he ran his large hands through his thick hair thatdisarming? And what of that mop of chestnut waves? Was that what set her spine tingling? It was all nonsense she told herself. Mere physical features. It’s true that Joseph Laughlin was 52 and had long since lost any good looks he may have had. But he possessed money and that meant security. He could give her the quaint home with the picket fence she had always wanted. He would see to it that she had nice clothes. He was a man of respectability and honor in town. Besides, Joseph traveled abroad quite a bit; she would enjoy seeing new sights.

On the other hand, for $20 a month, Cort got to watch his back all day, and spent his nights in a back room over the jail. Cort appeared to wash and wear the same clothes; how could he supply her with new ones? Cort’s travel plans spanned the space from the jailhouse to the saloon. As for respectability…

Lane stamped her foot. “Oh-h-h!” she said out loud. What was she doing? Comparing two men who were so diametrically opposed, they probably would never been seen in each other’s company. Yet, one was attractive materially, the other physically. Only one could win.

“What’s the matter?” Melody said. “Was Cort in the jailhouse?”

“Yes.”

“Was he surprised?” she asked smiling.

“Yes. I guess he was.” Lane looked up as someone came into the restaurant.

“What did he say?”

Lane didn’t want to get into it. “I’ve got customers.” Melody laughed. Lane was bull-headed for sure. But, she had a feeling that, if Lane saw Cort enough times, her resolve would wear down. Melody was determined to see what she could do to help this process along.

*****

The next day Melody set out to the jailhouse to corner the man who never missed anything. “Wyatt, what’s going on with Cort and Lane?” she asked, sitting in a chair across from him.

Wyatt laughed. He liked Melody a lot. She was an intelligent and good-hearted person. But he knew once she put her mind to “matching” two people, their fate was sealed. He pushed his chair back and stretched his legs. “Am I to take it then, that these two have become the unfortunate victims in your current matchmaking scheme?”

Melody smiled sweetly. “Never mind the chit-chat; does he like her?”

“I’m not sure he likes anyone,” Wyatt teased. “You know he’s not very talkative.”

Melody kicked his foot under the desk. “Stop playing, Wyatt!”

“Okay. I’m not sure. I do think he’s noticed her. Virgil teases him about her and Cort gets just irritated enough to make me believe some interest is there. Why?”

Melody leaned forward and lowered her voice. She had a plan for Sunday morning service. She and her family would come with Lane. There were seven seats in each row. She’d have her parents take the first two seats in the last row and then Lane and her, followed by her three brothers.

Wyatt’s eyes were twinkling mischievously. “You have this all worked out, don’t you?”

“Shush and listen. I’m going to have James and Amy sit in the row ahead of us….”

“And they’re just naturally gravitate there?”

“No, silly. I’ll tell Amy why they’re sitting in that row.”

Wyatt laughed again. “Let me guess. Then Cort, Virgil, Rachel, Grace and I come in and sit in the seats next to them and Lane has to—.”

“Look at Cort the whole sermon,” Melody finished triumphantly. “But you have to come late so Cort won’t see what’s going on.”

Wyatt snorted. “Cort doesn’t miss much. All right, I’m sold on the idea. I’ll find a way to bring everyone late.”

“Good. Thank you,” Melody said as she got up to leave.

Wyatt shook his head. Melody was some woman. He couldn’t imagine the man who’d mess up his chance with her.

*****

It was Saturday and Tombstone was bustling. Lane’s restaurant was very busy. She always had to hire extra help for Fridays and Saturdays.

Lane was dashing between the kitchen and the customers. She was so busy she didn’t see Cort come in and sit down at his usual table. Morgan Earp had some business in the next town, but before he left, he tried to talk Cort into asking Lane to one of the dances…or a buggy ride. Morgan didn’t believe she’d actually refuse him; neither did Wyatt. They were certain she’d go out of politeness.

In the few days since Lane had brought him dinner at the jail, Cort had occasion to see her around town. She didn’t appear to be offended by his presence as she had been before. Lane actually smiled at him once.

Now he was sitting down ready to order whatever was on the menu and ask her to go for a ride with him. What could she protest about? They were adults and they would be in public view. All Cort’s well-founded doubts had been swept away and replaced with a rocky sort of hope.

He saw her walk his way. Lane looked beautiful in a dark green dress with a light green apron. It was a good color for her. He couldn’t imagine anyone’s waist being that small. Her auburn hair was in a single braid twisted around the back of her head.

“Yes, Deputy, what can I get you?”

“Ah, the stew, please.”

Lane noticed his Adams apple twitching nervously. His shirt was partly open and her eyes were drawn to his collarbone. She tried to pull her eyes away from that spot and found herself looking into his deep blue eyes.

“Coffee?” she asked.

“Yes. Uh, I was wondering—.”

“Yes?”

“Maybe tomorrow afternoon I could—that is if it’s alright with you–.”

“Yes?”

“Could I—uh, take you for a buggy ride?”

“No.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Did you say ‘no’?” Cort asked in disbelief. Even though he would normally never have asked her, for some reason, Morgan and the others convinced him she’d go.

“Yes, I said ‘no’.”

“Is that ‘no’, I can’t take you for a ride?”

“That’s ‘no’ I don’t think so.” His request took her by surprise. The tug-of-war began again. Part of her had no intention of going anywhere with him. The growing other part honestly wanted to go.

Cort was getting frustrated. He vowed to give Morgan a pounding when he got back to town. “I don’t bite,” he said indignantly.

“I don’t care.”

“You don’t care if I bite?”

“I don’t care one way or the other. I’m not getting in a buggy with you.”

“I bathe,” Cort said, trying to find some other reason she’d refuse him other than he was an undesirable, poor, ex-outlaw of a gunfighter.

Lane stamped her foot. “I–don’t–care. That’s not the point.”

“What is the point?”

Lane leaned over the table. “I don’t take buggy rides with gun-toting, drinking paupers.” She said it quietly; nobody heard her—except Cort. He inhaled deeply, got up and walked out.

*****

As soon as Lane saw Cort’s broad shouldered back walking out, she blushed. Her heart was appalled at her rude behavior. But her head was angry with Cort. What did he think he was doing? She had already made it perfectly clear how she felt about guns and drinking. Did he feel he could just ignore her wishes? Lane hurried to the kitchen and went out the back door. Once outside, tears began to form in her blue eyes. She couldn’t seem to stop them. These two sides of her soul had been at odds since she set eyes on Cort.

She took out her hankie and blew her nose. The fight was getting harder. Was Mel right? Was it really as simple as letting things take their course? Was it possible to be happy with someone like Cort? She began pacing back and forth, thinking. Lane knew she had to make some decisions. She couldn’t go on like this.

But even if she did change her mind about Cort, she had already been so ill mannered, he’d probably never speak to her again. For some reason, that thought brought more tears. Lane blew her nose again. All this nonsense would have to wait. She had a restaurant. She sniffed and, taking one last dab at her eyes, went back inside.

*****

Cort wasn’t on duty that evening. He went to Sully’s and ordered a beer and a shot of whiskey and retired to a back table. He laughed shortly; here he was engaging in the very behavior Lane Macklin found so disdainful. He spent the next half hour berating himself for being so stupid. He had gotten along this far without anyone. He made up his mind that, from now on, that’s how it was going to be. Cort got up and went back to his room.

*****

Sunday morning was cloudy and gray. The Earps attended church at 8:00 every Sunday and Cort always accompanied them. He didn’t go out of any religious obligation, but because it seemed the thing to do in this town. The short time he had spent as a preacher years ago was a practice in trying to remove guilt from his soul. As a preacher, he hadn’t accomplished anything, he reasoned. And he hadn’t found the comfort he needed. But, in Tombstone, the law went to service—so he did, too.

For some reason, Wyatt was late picking everyone up, and they didn’t get to the church until the minister had already begun his talk. Cort knew he’d be daydreaming through it, as with all the other long-winded sermons. Fortunately, when he got inside, there were available seats in the next to the last row, so Cort slid in next to Amy and James.

Melody, who was, as planned, sitting behind the Earps, tried to see Lane’s reaction once a tall Cort sat in front of her. At first, Lane, who was listening to the sermon, frowned. She hated when her view of the minister was obstructed; staring at him was one of the few things that kept her awake. When she realized who was in her way, she felt even more annoyed. Then she recalled her behavior yesterday, and blushed. All the conflict returned to her.

But what could she do? She couldn’t ask him to move; she didn’t want to talk to him. If she looked downward, she’d appear to be sleeping. If she looked to the side it would seem as though she were bored. So, in the end, Lane had no choice but to look straight ahead at Cort’s strong back and broad shoulders. Meanwhile, Cort’s concentration was on the wall over the speaker’s head. He was remembering his humiliation last night. Despite it all, he felt he deserved the dressing down. His head slowly turned from left to right, allowing him to see most of the people in the building. Lane wasn’t anywhere. Cort shrugged; maybe he’d see her in town later.

Lane was staring at the back of Cort’s head. Cort was watching a piece of the ceiling that was falling down, and Wyatt and Melody were happy, knowing their plot had come off without a hitch. Everyone else was in a comatose state of boredom or actually listening intently to the sermon.

So, when Jed Farmer burst into the church yelling, everyone, including the relaxed, calm Wyatt, jumped.

“Hey! Wyatt! They’re in Sully’s! They’re looking for you all!”

Instantly, Cort and the Earps were on their feet. They could hear people screaming outside.

“Jed, calm down,” Wyatt drawled. Poor Jed’s face was purple, and, despite the cold temperature, he was sweating.

“What’s going on?” James asked.

“There’s a bunch of them—.”

“How many?” Virgil piped in.

“Ten—fifteen. They said they was here to shoot up the Earps.”

“Wyatt!” Grace’s face was ashen.

“Easy, honey. Nobody’s shooting up nobody. Sorry, Padre, we have us a problem,” Wyatt apologized. He stood up on one of the benches. Cort was looking out the door. All he saw were a number of horses—eighteen. “I need Deputies; Virgil, you do the legal thing. I need the usual marksmen—Brad, Toby, Billy, you know who you are. If you need rifles, fortunately we’re next to the jail. I want you men to climb onto the roofs on this side of town only. I don’t want any of you making yourselves targets.” Cort saw Grace’s tears, Amy’s pale face, and Rachel’s nervousness. He looked out the door again. There was no one waiting for him in that room. He decided to see how close he could get to the saloon. Maybe he could access the situation before any shots were fired. Customers and bordello girls were running from the bar in all directions.

What Cort never saw was Lane sitting in back of him. Nobody saw her rise as he exited the church—her face almost as ashen as Amy’s. Suddenly, all reason vanished; all the doubts about Cort were gone. Her heart felt as winter granite in her bosom.

“Joseph, Daniel, Seymour, Paul Thompson, I want you to come with my brother and me.” Wyatt turned around. “Cort—.” But Cort wasn’t there. He frowned, realizing he must have gone ahead. When he saw Lane standing and staring at the door, he had no doubt. “Okay, gentlemen, let’s get this over with.”

Virgil and the volunteers walked next door to the Marshal’s office to get sworn in and pick up rifles.

“Wyatt?” It was Thornton Mann, one of the farmers outside town. “There are plenty of us in here with guns.”

Wyatt smiled. “I appreciate your offer, but you must stay here and protect your families should it become necessary. We are paid to take this risk.” Before he left, he stole a glance at Grace, who smiled bravely. “I’ll be right back,” he assured her.

“And I shall be here waiting.”

Wyatt saw Cort outside Sully’s and ran to catch up with him. “What do you think you’re doing, friend?” he whispered to Cort.

“Checking things out. The saloon is clear. I don’t see a soul,” Cort whispered back. Clay Griffin, one of the Deputies, joined them. The counter was straight ahead, the staircase to the right of the counter and the stage to the right of the stairs.

“That means they’re either upstairs, behind the stage or behind the counter.”

“How do you want to handle this?” Clay asked.

Wyatt stepped to the side of the Sully’s. Looking across the street, he saw some of the men walking over the roof of Lane’s restaurant and heading towards the post office. Virgil and two other men crossed the street.

“Wyatt, want us to get on the saloon roof? We can go in through a window.” Wyatt nodded and slapped Virgil on the shoulder.

Patrick Sullivan made his way to Wyatt. “Ain’t nothing but booze and mirrors in there if you want to burn them out.”

“Thanks, Sully, bit it’s too windy. We’d have enough on our hands dodging bullets.”

Too bad, Cort thought. Burning the building around them would work just fine for him.

“Try talking to them. I’m sure they’ll listen to reason.” It was Morgan.

“Where’d you come from? Back already?” Wyatt looked at his brother closely. “And what’s with the stupid advice?” In spite of the situation, everyone had to smile.

“Got back early,” Morgan said, tightening his belt. “And just in time, from what I see.”

“Maybe talking is a good idea,” Cort suggested. Everyone just looked at him as though he’d lost his mind. “It might get them to open fire in your direction.” Wyatt’s expression was one part confusion, three parts disbelief. Then he understood.

“We could then tell where they were hiding out and how many were there.” Wyatt stood by the saloon’s swinging doors. “All right, gentlemen, this is the Marshal. I want you to throw down your guns and come out.” A volley of gunfire followed—most of it from the counter.

Cort was getting itchy. “There’s only one way to flush them out.”

“Yep,” Wyatt conceded. Immediately, several men pulled their guns out and stood ready to storm the place. “We’ll do this in shifts. My brothers and I will go in first. While we’re drawing fire, you carefully pick them off as they show their ugly faces.” Cort looked at Wyatt, frowning. “You stay here,” he instructed.

Cort snorted disdainfully. “I don’t think so.” Wyatt knew Cort was the best shooter he had; still, this was undeniably a dangerous scenario and he was prone to being protective towards the younger man.

“Don’t argue,” Wyatt told him.

Cort drew his Schofields. “Don’t tell me what to do.”

“This isn’t up for discussion,” Wyatt said firmly.

“You’re right,” Cort agreed. And, before anyone knew what was happening, he pushed through the swinging doors, and rolled on the floor, stopping in front of the stage. It drew the attention of some of those behind the counter and they stood up. Wyatt, James and Morgan followed Cort in, guns blazing, and quickly dispensed with those four foolish cowpokes. Instantly the saloon was noisy with gunfire, orders, and the yelping of those wounded.

Joseph, Seymour, and Paul took turns peeking in and taking aim at the hapless heads that kept popping up from the counter. Paul took out his rifle and shot all the glasses that were stacked against the wall. The counter area became a sea of flying glass. The distraction enabled Cort and the Earps to concentrate on the stage. Cort crawled through the curtains; Morgan was right behind him.

Joseph and Seymour ran into the saloon and slid to the foot of the counter. Paul and Daniel were doing their best to keep the gunmen behind the counter down.

Meanwhile, those in the church heard the endless gunfire and fell silent. Some prayed, some held hands, some cried.

Thornton Mann jumped up, and pulled out his gun. “I don’t know about you, but this is my town, too. I’m not going to hide in here. If some of us surround the saloon, none of the varmints will get out to harm anyone here.”

“I’m with you,” George, the stable master said. There were several others who got up and followed Thornton out. They formed a plan to help the Marshal, yet not take unnecessary chances.

Lane was still standing. Her face pale; she wanted to cry. It was no use fighting it anymore; she had feelings for Cort. It was simple. What if something happened to him? She would never be able to right the wrong she had done to him. Cort wasn’t a gun-toting, drinking, pauper. She had to tell him that. Lane saw Rachel, Amy, and Grace sitting side by side, holding hands, praying silently for the men they loved. Lane went over and sat by them.

Virgil and some of the men entered the upstairs bordello through the windows and encountered some resistance. It was quickly handled with only one of the newly deputized men getting nicked in the arm.

There were four gunmen hiding behind the stage curtain. Aside from the light emitted from the back window, it was pretty dark back stage. Morgan yelled and grabbed his shoulder. Cort pumped bullets into the backstage area until two of the gunmen fell dead. He then took Morgan’s bandana and tried to stop the bleeding.

“I’m okay, Cort. Help the others.” Cort quickly checked backstage and didn’t see anyone else. There were two more dead bodies back there. He reloaded Morgan’s guns, handed them to him, and slowly eased himself off the stage. The stairs going up to the next floor were in between the counter and the stage. Cort carefully made his way over to them and crawled up the first four. He knew if he stood up, he would be able to see over the counter. Cort inhaled deeply and jumped to his feet. He began firing behind the counter. As the remaining gunmen turned to return fire, Joseph and Seymour, who were crouched at the far end of the counter, stood and fired from their end. Virgil came down the stairs, shooting as the counter became visible to him.

The whole skirmish took about five minutes but it seemed to last five hours. When it was over there were thirteen dead and wounded gunmen. Morgan, Virgil, Seymour and two other Deputies were wounded. But there were no fatalities in town.

As the shooting ceased, people began to come out from buildings. The Earp wives were among the first to leave the church and slowly walk up the street towards the jail.

One by one, the lawmen left the saloon. Dr. Holmes got there with some men he brought to assess the damage.

As Wyatt helped Morgan out, Grace smiled and breathed a sigh of relief. Her husband was fine.

“Doc, Virgil’s inside with a bum leg.” Wyatt looked over at Rachel and nodded. “He’ll be fine.”

Just then, Virgil came out with Paul and Daniel on either side of him. He grinned sheepishly. “Hi, honey. Got in the way of a bullet.”

Lane was still in front of the church, too afraid Cort wouldn’t come out of the saloon, not certain what to say if she did see him. As she observed people leaving the saloon, the last visage of a “warning” flashed in her head. Cort was an ex-outlaw, was making little money, and made that money toting a gun. He did like his drink now and then. If she pursued him, her dream of quitting work and living in a big house were done for. Was she willing to throw it all away? The money, the respectability, the banker? Lane knew none of that mattered now.

She walked with determination towards the crowd of people milling in and around Sully’s. As Cort emerged from the saloon, their eyes met—and locked. Lane smiled and Cort tilted his head, puzzled. He then looked behind him, certain she must be smiling at someone else. But there was no one behind him. Then Lane noticed something—his right arm. He caught her gaze and looked down. Cort didn’t realize he had been shot. He looked back up at Lane and nodded. She stood there for a minute, relieved; he was okay.

Cort was still confused. Why did Lane Macklin care if he was shot or not. Lane walked over to him, wondering what to say. Should she accept the buggy ride? Apologize for being so unkind the other day? His eyes were intense and blue—although they weren’t focusing on her now. They seemed to be wandering.

“Cort?” She noticed how pale he looked. At that moment, Wyatt, who was on Lane’s right looked his way.

“Cort”

Cort heard them, but wasn’t able to respond. His head was pounding and his right arm was beginning to throb. He slowly reached over with his left hand; he no sooner got the arm raised a few inches when an unbearably sharp pain stabbed his left side. Cort cried out softly.

“Cort, are you all right?” Wyatt asked walking towards him. It took Herculean effort for Cort to look up. He didn’t know what was wrong. Maybe Wyatt could tell him. Cort took a step and immediately teetered. Lane froze in her steps, but Wyatt knew he was going to fall. He hurried forward just as Cort’s legs turned to jelly, and he fell forward into Wyatt’s arms.

“Easy, friend,” Wyatt said softly. James yelled for a doctor and ran to Cort’s side.

Cort’s eyes were half closed. “I-I’m getting c-clumsy,” he barely whispered. Lane emitted a short, frustrated cry. No, she thought, this couldn’t be happening! Dr. Jethro Holmes hurried over. Wyatt and James got Cort’s coat off and immediately saw the problem. The back of his white shirt was soaked in blood. Dr. Holmes ripped it open, revealing a bullet hole. It had taken a strange journey beginning just under his shoulder blade and exiting below his rib cage in front. Some of the men carried Cort to the boarding house. Hattie Lynn, the proprietor, was more than willing to provide beds for the wounded.

Through it all, Lane stood there in shock. She had never seen so much blood come from one person.

“Lane?” It was Amy. “Honey, are you okay?” She felt her chest tighten with emotion and wasn’t sure how to release it. Lane saw his suede hat lying in the street and leaned over to pick it up. She knew where she wanted to be. “Where are they taking him?” Amy put her arm around Lane. “I-I need to be with him.”

“He’s going to Hattie’s. They’ll put him in a room.” They walked to the boarding house together.

*****

Melody joined Lane downstairs in the waiting area. “He’ll be fine,” she said, uncertain if that were true. About half an hour later, Beatrice, the doctor’s wife and nurse, came downstairs.

“Can I see Deputy Wells?” Lane asked.

“Yes, dear, of course. Come with me.” Lane followed Beatrice upstairs to a nearby room. Wyatt was sitting by Cort’s bed.

“Hello, Lane,” Wyatt smiled.

Lane slowly walked over to the bed. “Is he alright?”

“He’ll be fine. Just needs rest.” Wyatt got up. “I’ll be back in a bit.”

Beatrice patted Lane’s shoulder. “I’ll be in one of the other rooms, if you need me or Doc. You can go over and sit; he’ll sleep for now.”

Lane sat down on a chair positioned at the head of the bed. At first, she only looked at his legs wrapped in a brown blanket. Lane fought back tears as she gazed around the room, hoping to find something other than a wounded Cort to concentrate on. In the corner, on the floor, lay his bloodied clothing. That was too upsetting to look at. She closed her eyes and listened to his breathing. It was loud…but steady. Eventually her racing heart stopped pounding. The cool, collected Lane took over and the deep anxiety she felt was replaced with a more rational spirit.

Lane moved the chair closer to the middle of the bed so she could get a better look at Cort. There were dark circles under his eyes and his face was pinched with pain. The middle of his right arm was bandaged and lay on top of the blanket. Cort was propped up on several pillows. Chestnut tendrils of wayward hair lay over his forehead. She reached over and brushed the hair out of his face. She smiled; his hair was as soft as it looked.

The rest of his body was covered with the blanket so she concentrated on his wounded arm. The first thing she noticed was his scarred wrist. She had never seen anything like it before, and shuddered thinking about how it might have happened.

Next, Lane took note of his hand. It wasn’t as though she hadn’t observed his large masculine hands before. She had very neatly dismissed the little chill she felt the first time she saw them. At that time, they were only hands…. Lane mentally traced his right hand from the wrist bone to the long fingers. His hand began twitching nervously and Lane reached for it. It was cold and she held it in both her hands, trying to warm it. Soon the jerking stopped and she tucked his arm under the covering.

Lane got up and found a basin of cold water and a face cloth and wiped the sweat from his face. For one second, his eyes popped open. There was no recognition in them, and he dropped off to sleep again.

After about 30 minutes, Dr. Holmes came to check on Cort. He looked tired. “How is our patient doing?” he asked, smiling.

“He’s sleeping. He did open his eyes for a second.”

“He’s not likely to gain consciousness for a bit yet.”

“How bad is it?” Lane asked quietly.

“Actually, he’s not doing as badly as one might expect. The bullet that entered his back fortunately went all the way through and doesn’t appear to have hit anything along the way. As long as there’s no infection, the worst thing he’ll have to deal with is the blood loss. If we can keep him resting and warm, he’ll survive and be no worse for wear.”

“I’d like to help, if I may.”

“Wonderful. I could use all the help I can get.”

“How is everyone else?”

“Flesh wounds. They’ll be fine.”

“Good.” Lane breathed a sigh of relief for Amy and Rachel.

“Now, I want you to go home, clean up, and take a nap. I’ll need you tonight.” Lane opened her mouth to protest, but the doctor raised his hands. “Don’t argue, Lane. If you want to help him, I need you fully alert and rested.”

“All right. I’ll go home. I am rather exhausted.” When she lay on top of her bed, Lane had no intention of closing her eyes; but, after only five minutes, she was sound asleep.

*****

Later that evening, Lane visited the still sleeping Cort. Amy told her that Cort liked to read, so she brought her copy of Dicken’s “David Copperfield” and proceeded to read to him. After several minutes, Cort moaned loudly. It startled Lane and she pulled her chair closer. His face was flushed with fever.

“Its okay, Cort.” She wiped the sweat from his face and talked softly to him. The coldness of the water permeated his subconscious and he tried to open his eyes. He began pulling at the blanket. She tried to quiet his hands, but they pulled the blanket down from his chin. Well, thought Lane, Frank certainly didn’t look like this! He had been pale and scrawny. Frank was hairy and it always made Lane’s skin crawl when he got near her. Cort’s chest was muscular with a small gathering of chestnut hair in the middle. She pulled the blanket back under his chin, an uncontrollable grin spreading across her face.

*****

Cort remained the same for the next few days. He slept, took water when it was offered, and opened his eyes once in awhile. If he recognized anyone around him, he never indicated it. But the high fever didn’t return and his wounds remained infection free.

Lane stayed close by his side, reading, holding his hand, and talking to him. In the space of a few days, she had memorized every part of his face, the strength of his chin, the directness of his nose, the tilt of his brow, and the beautiful mouth she hoped some day would claim hers.

On the fourth day, they tried to get some chicken broth down him. It was slow going, but with Wyatt spooning and Lane catching what escaped, they eventually got half a bowl into him. He slumbered fitfully the rest of the night.

The next day, when Lane came to visit, Dr. Holmes told her Cort had been awake for a few minutes. Her heart skipped a beat at the news. When she went into his room, his eyes were closed. The lids were puffy and there were dark circles under them. But his breathing was regular and strong. Lane wasn’t sure whether she should sit or leave and come back later. In her indecisive state, her shoe banged one of the chair legs. The noise startled Cort and his eyes flew open.

“Sorry,” Lane said softly. “I was going to leave so I wouldn’t wake you.”

Cort’s blue eyes struggled through the cloud of fever to recognize the speaker. “Miss Macklin?”

“I think you can call me ‘Lane’ now.”

Cort frowned. “What are you doing here?”

She lowered her head, not sure of how exactly to answer that question. “I guess I had a change of heart.”

“Why?” His voice was hoarse and tired.

“How about some water?” Lane got up, hoping he’d drop the subject. She poured a fresh glass and brought it over to him. Cort reached with his right hand and moaned as he remembered this was his injured arm. “Here, let me help you.” After drinking half a glass, he fell asleep.

The next day he was more alert. Lane was happy to see him looking better.

“Yesterday you asked me why I had a change of heart about us.” Lane clasped her hands over her knees and became thoughtful. For the first time she found herself totally honest about her father and her late husband, Frank. She told Cort everything. Cort couldn’t believe Frank had been a lawman. But, then, law enforcement could just as easily attract the bad element.

“I’m sorry,” was all he could manage. His eyes were drooping.

“I had no right blaming you for what Frank did.” But Cort was asleep. Lane smiled. She felt good having the whole thing out in the open. It was like a burden had been lifted from her soul. And, now she had no mixed feelings about Cort. Lane Macklin knew what she wanted—and he was lying in bed snoring softly. A peace settled over her. Lane picked up “David Copperfield” and began reading.

*****

Ten days after the shoot-out, Cort was completely out of danger. Lane wasn’t there that morning, and Cort found himself wondering if he had done something wrong. He knew she had been there other mornings…

When 11:00 rolled around, and Lane still hadn’t made an appearance, Cort imagined she was having second thoughts. He couldn’t blame her. Soon his stomach felt ill. The more time went by, the more nervous and depressed he became. Cort shrugged and went to sleep. When Beatrice came around with his lunch, he pretended he was sleeping.

A few hours later, Cort woke up; Lane wasn’t there. Wyatt was.

“How are you feeling, friend?”

“Okay,” Cort sighed, not feeling well at all.

“Dr. Holmes said you didn’t eat lunch.”

“Wasn’t hungry.” And, truthfully, he hadn’t been.

“You’ve eaten lunch every day for a while.” Cort looked at his hands. “There’s one thing different today.”

Cort stuck his chin out. “What’s different?”

“A certain restaurant owner hasn’t been here yet.”

“She was here out of concern. She doesn’t have to be concerned anymore.” Cort tried to sound convincing.

“Nice try,” Wyatt said. “She wasn’t here out of a casual concern.”

Cort turned away from Wyatt and looked out the window near his bed. “Do you honestly believe a woman like Lane Macklin would involve herself with me?”

“Maybe something deeper is going on. This is probably new to her also. There’s no reason to believe it has to do with you.” Cort didn’t feel like thinking about it anymore. Best to just move on.

“When can I go back to work?”

“Work?” Wyatt frowned. “You’re not going to see yourself out of this bed for some time yet—lots less at work.”

It wasn’t what Cort wanted to hear; however, it was what he expected. Admittedly, he didn’t feel like doing anything but lying in bed. They both looked up, hearing the hall floor creak. It was an apologetic Lane.

“Well, hello,” Wyatt boomed, rising off the chair. “I was just heading back to work. Now Cort won’t be alone.”

Cort almost opened his mouth to protest, but thought better of it. Let Lane believe he missed her. This was no time for pride. She came into the room and sat on the chair by his bed. Cort wasn’t sure if he should smile, look away, talk….

“You’re probably wondering where I’ve been.”

“Uh, no. You’ve spent enough of your time here as it is.” Cort looked at his hands, ashamed of the scarred wrists, but not knowing how to nonchalantly hide them. Then he blushed, realizing Lane must have already seen them. Cort glanced up at her. Lane looked extra beautiful for some reason. Her face….it seemed relaxed, younger. “Well, I’m doing fine, so you, uh, don’t have to, ah….” But Cort didn’t really want to encourage her to leave. He looked away from her wondering why she didn’t say something.

“I can understand why you’re confused. I guess I led you to believe one thing yesterday—.”

“No. You confided something to me. But that didn’t mean, well, it didn’t imply anything other than—.”

“Cort, there was no misunderstanding the message I was giving you. I’ve been unkind on several occasions—unjustly, I might add. I’ve stayed here with you because I want to. It was hard coming face to face with how I really felt about you. Honestly, Cort, I was attracted to you the first time I saw you. It was due to the circumstances I explained yesterday that I’ve been so unfriendly.”

Cort looked out the window. He couldn’t believe his ears. Was she saying that there was a chance for them? He inhaled sharply. “You can say anything you want to, Miss Macklin, the fact is, you’re a respectable woman and I’m—.”

“A man.”

“Well, yes, but not a —.”

“Bad person.”

“Ah, maybe, but I’m certainly not in your—.”

“Restaurant? No, you aren’t. But you will hurry up and heal so you can come for a meal?”

Cort wasn’t feeling the best and things weren’t sinking in like they should. “Huh?” he said, blinking. Had she just taken over his conversation? “What I’m trying to say is that no matter how guilty you might feel, I am just a gunfighter.” Confident that he finally had control of what was being said, he continued. “I’m certainly not someone you’d—.”

“Want to do without?”

“Stop that!” he protested weakly.

“Cort, I have no reservations about you.”

Cort just looked at her; she looked so pretty sitting there with her yellow rose print blouse and green skirt. He wanted to be selfish and never tell her about his past. “Miss Macklin—.”

“Lane. My name is Lane.”

“I know what—. I’ve done things—.”

“Like what?”

“I’ve, well, I’ve killed people.”

“I’m aware of that.”

Cort sighed. “Not just recently. Wherever I go, I cause death.”

“You are a lawman; it’s part of your job.”

Before I was a lawman, I was—.”

“An outlaw. I know all of this. It’s your past and hardly of any concern now.”

Cort cocked his head. What was he going to do? She just wouldn’t let him explain. He yawned and rubbed his eyes sleepily.

“Cort, I want you to reconsider what I told you yesterday about my bad experiences with men. You aren’t like those men; you have good qualities.”

“G-good qualities?”

“You would never hit me, would you?”

“H-hit you? I’ve never hit a woman.”

“Or a child? An animal? I know you wouldn’t.” There was a moment of silence. “I wasn’t here this morning because I had to sit down and think everything out one more time. I had to be absolutely certain that I was ready to give up my single status and I had to know in my heart that you were the one I wanted to be with.”

“And—and it took you all morning?” Cort asked dismally.

Lane smiled. “No, I had to work in the restaurant for a bit.”

Cort frowned. “So, how long did it take you to reach a decision?”

“Five minutes.”

“F-five…minutes?” he asked incredulously. Lane could see how tired Cort was and pulled the blanket up under his chin. Cort closed his eyes, a smile playing on his lips. “What took you so long?” he asked.

Lane laughed and swatted his hair. “Fresh!” Cort’s eyes were shut tight before a minute passed.

Three hours later, he woke up to Lane’s smiling face. She was sitting by his bed doing some sort of needlecraft. Cort yawned; he felt better than he had in awhile. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“Embroidery.”

“Let’s see.” She showed him the white pillowcase decorated with blue birds and yellow daisies. “Very nice. It’s a good thing women like doing that sort of thing.”

“Why?”

“Men don’t have the patience.”

True, Lane thought.

Cort watched her for a moment. “Do I remember correctly? Just before I fell asleep, did you propose to me?”

Lane pursed her lips and blushed slightly. “Yes, I was a bit forward, wasn’t I? I was assuming you felt the same way—.”

“You know I do,” Cort interrupted. He smiled—something he was not used to doing. It was a tired, boyish, teasing sort of smile. “I just want you to understand that there’s a lot of my life that I need to talk to you about eventually.” He looked down at his hands. “Are you sure you want to get in the middle of it all? It does come up now and then.” His beautiful eyes were earnest and hopeful as they looked into hers.

“Yes,” Lane said firmly. “I’m more than ready. And, when you feel better, we’ll take that buggy ride.”

“No.”

Lane looked up startled. “No?”

“No.”

“Is that ‘no’ you don’t want to go for a buggy ride?”

“No.”

‘No?” she asked, definitely surprised. Then she saw it—a tiny sparkle in his eyes. “O-h-h, you! What a tease you are.” Cort never knew that about himself.

“Just returning the favor, ma’am,” Cort drawled, tipping an imaginary hat.

Lane extended one graceful hand. Cort easily embraced and engulfed it in one of his. Both just sat where they were, enjoying the lack of tension that now existed between them.

“When can I get out of this bed?” Cort asked, breaking the spell.

“Not for awhile, I’m afraid. You may feel better sitting here, but your body’s been through a lot. In a few days Dr. Holmes says you can try walking. Maybe you’ll be able to sit on the porch for awhile.”

“Whose porch?”

“Mine,” Lane said coyly.

Cort raised in eyebrow. “Is that proper?”

“It is if I say so. Besides, you’ll be in full view of anybody who wants to look.” Lane could see him fidgeting under the blanket. She laid her hand over his arm. “Relax.”

Cort gazed at her from under the longest lashes she had ever seen. “You really shouldn’t have anything to do with me, you know.”

“Shush. I’m a big girl.”

“I don’t make much money, you know.”

“Cort, I don’t care about the money. I have a job.” A thought occurred to her. “Do you mind if I work after we’re married?”

“No, of course not. Why would I?”

“Many men think their wife should be chained to the kitchen stove.” It was obviously a sore subject with her.

“I can understand a man wanting to take care of his wife. But if it’s something she likes doing, and….”

“I do love running the restaurant. Although I honestly envisioned my life as a lady of leisure not too long ago.”

“Really?”

Lane nodded. “I thought I wanted to live in a big house and do nothing but travel and wear nice clothes.”

“Doesn’t sound much like you.”

Lane smiled. “I worked hard to get the place on its feet; why would I want to leave it now? Besides, what would I do home all day?” Cort shrugged. He had no suggestions; he never had a real home.

“I think you should do what you want to do.”

“There’s something we haven’t discussed. Children.”

Cort blushed. “Oh, well, I guess I never thought about—about children.”

“I have,” she said quietly. “You know I was married before.”

“Do you have children?”

“No.”

She was trying to tell him something, but what? “Did he not, uh, bother with you?”

“Rarely. I hated him near me.”

Cort could understand that; some men were just disgusting. He always wondered how the bordello girls did it. “I’m sorry. Are you concerned about something?”

Lane cleared her throat nervously. “I’m not certain I can still have children.”

“Oh.” Cort understood now. “Well, I’m not certain I would do them any good even if you could have them.” Cort yawned.

Lane looked relieved. “You need your sleep. We can talk again later.” Lane pulled the blanket up close and Cort smiled.

“Lane?”

“Yes?”

“I can’t promise a lot of things. But I can promise that I’ll do my best to make you happy.”

“That’s all any woman can ask for.”

*****

A week later, Dr. Holmes allowed Cort to take a short walk. It was hard at first, as he got dizzy just getting out of bed.

Soon after that, he was allowed small walks outside—as long as someone was with him. Usually, one of the lawmen or Lane did the honors. One day, Lane showed up with a buggy.

“Let’s go for a ride,” Lane suggested, helping him on.

Cort frowned. “Is that wise?”

“Everyone knows by now that you’re sweet on me.”

Cort raised his eyebrows suspiciously. “So, that’s how it is.”

“Of course. You know you’ve had your eyes on me for some time,” she purred.

“What about you?” Cort asked.

“Well, I was cautious at first—.”

“Cautious? Is that what they call ‘snooty’ nowadays?” Lane tried to suppress a smile.

“Snooty? I’ve never acted snooty.”

Cort’s deep blue-green eyes were twinkling. “Well, ma’am what would you call it? Uppity?” A chuckle escaped from Lane.

“All right, Deputy! You win; I apologize.”

“And you promise you won’t treat me that way again?”

“Yes. I promise. And just to show you how sincere I am I have lemonade waiting on my porch.”

“Lemonade?” Cort asked hopefully. He hadn’t indulged in many years. “Your porch?” He was about to protest the impropriety of such a plan, but had second thoughts. Lane was a grown woman and perfectly capable of making sound decisions. Besides, he thought a little guiltily, he wanted to sit on her porch. He wanted to be near her, and drink her lemonade, and listen to her voice….

“Yes—lemonade on my porch.”

The trip took about three minutes. Lane helped him onto the large white porch and he sat in one of the rocking chairs. Such a simple thing, yet it brought him so much peace suddenly.

Cort sat with his eyes closed for a minute or two; he still got tired easily. Normally, he wouldn’t close his eyes anywhere in daylight—not in public certainly. But something about being on her porch, in her presence, made things seem safe. Lane went in the house and returned with two glasses of lemonade. Cort’s eyes were shut tight. She smiled and went back inside, this time bringing a blanket. She quietly put it on his lap and sat in the nearby rocker, watching him sleep peacefully, his long lashes lying on his cheeks.

After about ten minutes, he jerked awake, not sure of where he was. When his eyes lit on Lane, he blushed, realizing he had dozed off. “Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” she smiled.

Cort saw the lemonade and took a large drink. “Thanks, “ he said, breathlessly. “It’s very good. I didn’t realize how thirsty I was.”

She got up and went back inside. This time she brought out two plates. She set one on the short table near Cort. He could smell apple pie before the dish was set down. Lane baked the best apple pie he had ever tasted—which was why he ended all his meals at the restaurant with a slice. Cort couldn’t imagine that he could find as much pleasure anywhere else. “Thank you,” he said appreciatively. “You shouldn’t wait on me like this.”

“Don’t you enjoy it?”

“Uh, it’s a little embarrassing. That is, I’m not used to it.”

Lane laughed. She had never known a man who didn’t demand codling of some kind.

He picked up his large slice of pie and ate every bit of it. “That’s wonderful pie.” Cort smiled, realizing she might be baking for him one day.

“What’s your favorite pie?” she asked.

“Uh—.” It was a simple question. Truth was, he didn’t know. “I’m not sure.”

“Did you steal pies when you were young?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Most little boys do.”

Cort tried to remember so far back…. “I guess I enjoyed all the pies I stole,” he said.

“Did you ever get caught?”

“No. But, looking back at it, I think some of those women left one pie in the window just for us kids that didn’t have much.” They sat in silence for a few moments.

When Lane looked up, he was fast asleep, his head lying to one side. Lane pulled the covering up and let him nap. It was nice just to sit there and feel the sun’s warm rays and smell the fresh air.

The next sound Lane heard was a voice calling her. Much to Lane’s surprise, she had joined Cort in a nap.

“I see you two have put each other to sleep,” Wyatt beamed. Lane laughed and looked over to the snoring Deputy on her porch.

“I guess we need to get him back,” Lane said, getting up. Wyatt got on the porch and gently shook Cort.

“Come on, Cort, time to get back to Hattie’s.”

Cort awoke with a snort and a sneeze and smiled shyly. “Did it again. Sorry.” His calm blue eyes were sleepy. Lane and Wyatt helped him to the buggy and back to the boarding house.

*****

A week later Cort was on his feet and walking around for longer periods of time. He tried talking Morgan and Wyatt into letting him return to work; but they’d have none of it. The doctor wanted him to wait at least two more weeks before he returned to the jailhouse.

Cort spent a lot of time reading, as both Wyatt and Lane had extensive book collections. One thing Cort learned was how to relax and enjoy himself for a change. He had to admit that sitting on a porch with a good book not only enriched his mind, but also brought him inner peace.

Some days Lane would leave the restaurant in Melody’s capable hands and go home early. She’d bring food to her place and invite another couple over so she could entertain Cort without creating any unsavory gossip.

Eventually, Cort felt well enough to take Lane out proper. As he sat in his room over the jailhouse, he mulled over several things that had to change if she was going to take him seriously.

Lane would want a home of her own. The one she rented was nice, but most women wanted a fresh start once they got married. Finding a piece of land and building a house wasn’t too difficult.

Cort needed to try and curb his alcohol intake. The amazing thing was that since his injuries and subsequent association with Lane, he hadn’t felt the “need” for whiskey as often. It was a mystery to him as to why this was, but he breathed a sigh of relief when he realized it.

As a matter of fact, the last time he dined at her house, Lane, who was trying to make concessions of her own, set a bottle of whiskey on her table; Cort ignored it in favor of a tall glass of well water. This made Lane extraordinarily happy inside.

Cort slipped his boots on and went to the small mirror over the dresser. He never looked at himself in the eye. He would check his hair, his teeth, or his face while shaving… He was always afraid of looking at himself directly in the eye…. afraid of what he’d find peering back at him.

But tonight he took a deep breath and faced his reflection squarely. If he wanted to improve, he had to make an accurate assessment of what he was.

Lane had already told him she liked his hair, so he didn’t spend much time there—besides, he knew it was clean. His nose wasn’t offensive. It was straight and average size. His mouth, if taken apart from the rest of his face, could be mistaken for a women’s–his lips were bow-shaped and had a healthy pinkish color. Cort had unloving parents, but they had given him good teeth. They were mostly straight, extremely hardy and, due to the fact he never took up tobacco chewing, fairly white. Cort turned his face from side to side, making sure he had shaved completely. His jaw and cleft chin were strong and determined.

He started to turn away from the mirror. But he knew the examination wasn’t over. Cort faced the glass once more, this time fixing his attention on his chameleon-like eyes. As he gazed into them, he wasn’t as scared as he thought he’d be. All the years of self-depreciating insecurity seemed to vanish. He searched his soul to find the hatred he had always felt for the things he had done. The guilt and shame he had known most of his life were lifted. For the first time in his life, he felt light-hearted. And he knew it had everything to do with Lane. Exiting his room, Cort proceeded to the stables with a slight bounce in his step.

*****

Lane heard the buggy pull up to the sidewalk. She couldn’t believe how young and excited she felt. She would not be a spinster after all. Lane had no doubt that eventually Cort would ask for her hand. While making a last minute check in the mirror, she smiled and whispered to her reflection. Good evening, I’m Mrs. Cortland Wells.” Then she curtsied. “Lane Wells,” she giggled. A rap on the door sent her running from her room. She stopped once she reached the hall, trying to calm her racing heart. “Just a minute,” she called out, slowly walking to the foyer.

She opened the door and they both stood there staring at each other. Cort looked dashing in his black corduroy jacket and pants, a white shirt and black vest. There was no conflict in her soul this time. Every fiber of her being wanted to be with Cort. Melody had been correct—he was gorgeous.

Cort’s mouth dropped open at the sight of Lane. Her dark blue dress had a fancy lace collar and cuffs and a light blue velvet belt that tied in a bow. She looked stunning. He helped her on with her cloak and walked her to the buggy. Cort finally found his voice. “Y-you smell nice.”

It was the first time a man had shown any appreciation for her efforts. “Thank you, Cort.”

He had never taken any notice of his name before; it was just a label. But when Lane said it, he felt special, as though his name meant something.

The buggy ride was short; they were going to Wyatt and Grace’s for dinner. Cort knew the other brothers would be there. And he knew he’d be facing a major ribbing when he got back to work. But he didn’t care one bit.

Dinner went smoothly and conversation flowed easily. Cort had no idea what he was eating; all his attention was focused on the woman sitting across from him. The Earps had married intelligent women and Lane fit in nicely. Cort was proud of her knowledge and ability to hobnob so effortlessly. One thing he always admired about Wyatt and his brothers was that they treated their women with respect; they never discouraged them from educating themselves and always conversed with them as their equals. Cort hoped Lane would always feel as comfortable with him. As usual, Cort didn’t have much to say. He was comfortable just being there.

After dinner, the women cleaned up and the men drank brandy and, with the exception of Cort, smoked thin cigars.

Lane did her part cleaning, but her mind was on Cort and the day when she’d be doing this for him.

“Lane?” Hearing Amy’s voice, she snapped out of her reverie. The three wives were staring at her grinning. Lane blushed furiously. How dare some handsome Deputy gallop into her structured, efficient life and sweep her off her feet! Now she checked her hair in every mirror, wore jewelry each day, and took care to dab a little perfume behind her ear. “You caught me,” she laughed. These women she had liked and respected, but now they felt like the sisters she never had.

“Honey, there’s nothing wrong with mooning over a man,” Grace said.

“We do it all the time,” Rachel admitted shyly.

“Yes,” Amy agreed. “We moon over our men.” They all laughed.

“That’s nice,” Lane sighed. She had to admit the Earps were good men. “Engaging in thoughts of a man never appealed to me.”

“Until now,” Rachel added, a knowing sparkle in her eyes.

Lane laughed. “Yes, until now.” There was a bit of silence. She looked at the three women in front of her. They had been married for various lengths of time, yet they all had managed to keep their individuality, and relative independence. She silently cursed her father, Frank, and others who had painted such a negative and abusive picture of men.

Around 7:00, everyone left Wyatt and Grace’s and began returning to their respective homes in town. Cort helped Lane on with her wrap and into the buggy. It was a warm, clear night and Cort made sure the horse walked very slowly.

“Did you enjoy yourself?” Lane asked, putting her arm through his.

“Yes, surprisingly.” He sighed. “Normally I’m not one for gatherings.”

Lane smiled. “I didn’t figure you as the sociable type.”

“That’s an understatement.”

“The Earps are a nice family.”

“Yes, they are. I never thought about it, but I suppose I’ve grown to trust them in the short time I’ve been here.”

“I haven’t exactly been a trusting person since Frank’s death. I have a few friends; but most of the women in town I only know superficially.”

“And now we have to learn to trust each other,” Cort noted.

Lane tugged at his arm playfully. “I’m ready.” They looked up at the stars and felt a calming content neither had ever known.

“You were good enough to reveal your past to me the other day. I want you to know that I’ll do my best to reciprocate,” Cort told her.

“It’s not necessary.”

“Yes; it is.” The horse passed Lane’s home; neither noticed. Since nobody was telling him where to go, he decided to continue on to his home—the stables. “Can I ask you something?” ventured Cort.

“Of course.”

Cort inhaled. “I just wanted to know what happened?” He cleared his throat. “Uh, one minute you were definitely upset with my existence; the next, you were at my bedside. What did I do to bring about this change?” Lane leaned her head on his arm and smiled. “I’d hate to think I have to get shot once a year in order to maintain a relationship.”

She pinched his arm. “O-h-h-h! You’re a brat!”

Cort found himself smiling again. He did it so infrequently it almost hurt his face. He couldn’t imagine why he hadn’t smiled much up to that point; it was a pleasant feeling.

“In the beginning, it wasn’t you I was angry with,” explained Lane. “The two most important men in my life—my father and husband—left a bad impression. What was I to think, but that most men were that way?”

“I can understand that. My occupation and questionable past didn’t work in my favor. I guess I’m not sure what happened to make me ‘acceptable’.”

“As I said, at first, it wasn’t you personally I objected to. Truth be known, I was quite impressed when I saw you ride in.”

“You were?” Cort asked in disbelief.

“Yes. Then a part of me began to find you attractive and my practical side took over. Then I was angry with you. Every time I saw you, it tore at my resolve. I wanted to forget everything and just run away with you.” Cort looked at her with wide eyes. “It made me so mad that I couldn’t just brush you off.” Lane laughed. “After you got shot, all reason left me.”

“Has it returned yet?”

“No. And I don’t want it to.” Lane adored Cort and never wanted to hurt him again.

Cort looked down at his hands. “I don’t either. How can I be sure you’ll always feel this way?”

She looked up at him slyly and he immediately read her mind. “Can we do that?” he asked.

“I think so. We’re two adults.”

Cort suddenly looked up. “Do you see where we are?”

Lane laughed heartily. “It seems our chaperon is wiser than we are. He’s taken us to his house.”

Cort hesitated for a moment. But Lane looked so beautiful and Cort was so afraid the spell would be broken if he didn’t act. So, with slow deliberation, he leaned over and kissed her gently on the cheek.

“Co-o-r-t!”

“Okay. I was just getting my bearings.” He certainly knew how to kiss a woman. What was making this so difficult? He was worried that it was all a dream, and kissing her the way he wanted to would make it go away. He inhaled deeply, closed his eyes, and planted a light kiss on her eager lips. When Cort opened his eyes, Lane was still there; it wasn’t a dream. So, he kissed her again—with a little more passion. Lane returned the kiss, and threw her arms around his long neck. A tear ran down his cheek and fell in her hair. He had no idea where it came from; this certainly had never happened before. It seemed as though when Lane touched him, something inside that had been hard began to melt. Cort inhaled deeply, choking on the emotion rising to his throat. He embraced her for what seemed like minutes, trying to gain control over his voice. Suddenly he realized that the front of his shirt was wet. He peered down at Lane; tears were running down her face. “Are-are you okay?”

She nodded. “I’m just so gosh-darned happy.”

“Happier than a squirrel in a peanut shop?”

Lane laughed. “Yes.”

“Happier than a pig in mud?”

“Yes.”

“Happier than me?”

Lane narrowed her wet eyes. “Probably not,” she reckoned. She had a feeling his life had been worse than hers. “I suppose one of us is about as happy as the other.” She sighed. “Kiss me again.”

“You ask too much,” he said in mock humility. There was nothing mock or humble about his kiss. It was full and real. Lane thought she would pass out from the exhilaration. She put her head on his chest and fingered the buttons on his shirt. She could hear his hear beating almost as rapidly as her own.

Cort looked down at her hair neatly piled on her head. It was held in place with a hand-painted blue comb. He reached up and ever so gently pulled on the comb. Cort made a small sound of delight as a cascade of auburn tumbled over her shoulders.

Lane looked up into his eyes and saw the joy he felt. “I love you.” The words came so easily to her now. She had never really loved anyone; now she realized what love was and couldn’t believe she had been ready to trade it for material security.

“You do?” Cort asked in awe. Nobody had ever loved him. “What does it feel like?”

“Tingly and anxious and heart pounding and breathless and–and deliriously wonderful.”

“Then I love you, too.”

Eventually, they made their way back to Lane’s house. When Cort and Lane kissed good night, they knew that, even though it wouldn’t always be easy, they would be together forever. It had taken them their whole life thus far, but they had finally found the greatest treasure—love.

***The End***

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